Steve floats in an isolation chamber. The water is kept at ninety-eight degrees, so he is unaware of its presence. It contains dissolved salts to make him more buoyant, so that floating is effortless, and he can allow every muscle to relax as he hangs suspended in solution. It is perfectly dark, and there is no sound. Steve is alone with his thoughts. He thinks of the 90s soap opera Twin Peaks, which is ruining his sex life. With all the episodes available online, he’s been watching it with his girlfriend and the show’s dark overtones consistently ruin the mood. The Twin Peaks theme song has become the soundtrack to Steve’s sexual frustration.
Leaving this annoyance behind, he relaxes more, and his thoughts sink deeper. He imagines his great-grandfather, who lived in a small town in Lebanon. When a French priest diverted the town’s water, Steve’s great-grandfather killed the priest and the townspeople quickly raised money to help him escape to America. Steve’s last name would be the same as his great-grandfather’s had it not been changed to hide the fugitive man’s identity. This secret was passed down to him by his father.
Steve’s mouth is above the waterline, and his ears are below it. He likes the way his voice sounds, coming through his chest to his submerged ears. He quotes e.e. cummings out loud in the privacy of the float chamber. “A watersmooth silver stallion! and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat!” Then silence again. Steve experiences the dark weightlessness of his mother’s womb. He feels the vastness of space between stars.
Steve is inside a boutique in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle that sells therapeutic floating sessions in special chambers. It’s billed as a way to escape the urban hustle and bustle, a way to practice mindfulness and presence. Fremont was once an artsy, low-rent neighborhood; now it’s an über-gentrified district of sleek storefronts, with restaurants that serve “small-batch artisan whiskey” during “brunch.”
The ground where the boutique sells silence was once covered in towering coastal trees, mostly Douglas fir and western red-cedars. There are many trees around the world variously called “cedar,” the trait they all share being their fragrant wood, which leads people to call them cedars regardless of their botanical taxonomy. The scientific name for western red-cedar, native to the West Coast of North America, is Thuja plicata. The cedar of Steve’s great-grandfather was Cedrus libani, the Cedar of Lebanon. Cedars in the Cedrus genus are known as “true cedars,” and Cedrus atlantica, Atlas Cedar, is commonly planted in Seattle as a street tree.
Steve’s memories emerge from their hiding places, changing shape and finding each other in the dark. His consciousness blinks off the information overload of the world outside, the computers and hard drives, satellites and cell phone towers. He wonders, what if less information actually means higher engagement with life itself? Is a dolphin, shooting through silvery orbs of schooling fish, living in a lower information world simply because it can’t download? What is the bandwidth of a blue whale?
Steve works doing “eco-friendly” landscaping in the greater Seattle area, mostly at higher-end homes and apartment complexes. He tries to use hand tools and electric-powered equipment instead of smoky two-stroke engines. He listens to the usual suite of stories on NPR each morning in the work truck: chaos in the Middle East, political corruption here or there, an environmental disaster someone is trying to stop from ever happening again. Steve’s mind dutifully records all this information, the names of political leaders and rebel movements etched into his head daily, along with facts about this or that rare species that is fascinating and unique but probably doesn’t stand a chance. After he parks the truck and he puts in his headphones to rake or mow, he usually listens to podcasts. Podcasts that “expose the truth” about fluoride or the banks or whatever it may be, stuff that most people would call “conspiracy theories.” For Steve, it’s intuitive to think that there might be real answers in this ocean of information, and they’re just being hidden by the government or the media.
One morning NPR’s “Morning Edition” ran a story they called “A Florida Gulf Coast Mystery.” Until the spring of 2015, Seahorse Key, an island in the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Refuge a few miles from the town of Cedar Key, was home to the largest nesting bird colony on Florida’s Gulf coast. There were around 20,000 nests belonging to cormorants, egrets, herons, pelicans, ibis, and roseate spoonbills. Every available sand oak and mangrove thicket was filled with birds and nests. Last spring, all of the birds abandoned their nests full of eggs and left the island. No one knows why.
Steve closed the truck windows and turned up the volume when he heard host David Green say “Seahorse Key.” The University of Florida operates a small marine biology laboratory on one end of the island where Steve took an internship in college. On each high tide, morning and night, he walked the beach and counted horseshoe crabs as they came ashore to spawn in large numbers. He sampled their DNA by twisting off a back leg from each crab and putting it in a test tube, and he marked where the females left little green eggs in cone-shaped deposits in the wet sand.
An adult horseshoe crab is like a Roomba robotic vacuum, roaming the mudflats and sucking up weeds and worms. They are an ancient life form, one that has remained remarkably consistent since the Cambrian Era 450 million years ago. The four base chemicals in DNA describe everything from cedars to stingrays, and horseshoe crab DNA has endured for half a billion years. Now, they are threatened. They are quartered and used to bait traps for edible crabs. They are also harvested for their gelatinous blue blood, which is used by the medical industry. When a hip replacement or other medical implant is sterilized, there are dead bacterial bits left behind that can be toxic and harmful. Immune agents in horseshoe crab blood seek out and neutralize these toxins, making the device safe to implant.
Horseshoe crabs are important for hip replacements, but they are also important for a little red shorebird that completes the longest migration of any animal on the planet. The red knot flies from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, a distance of 9,000 miles. This incredible journey is fueled by horseshoe crab eggs. Red knots stop at beaches along the east coast of North America and feed on the little green eggs female horseshoe crabs have reliably left in the sand. The DNA of the red knot has been shaped by the enduring tenure of horseshoe crab DNA, and without the crabs these birds may become extinct. It’s hard for Steve to think about extinction. He imagines a library burning, or a computer alert: “Warning: one item will be deleted. Are you sure?”
Each week Steve took a small boat to the island from Cedar Key, a ramshackle town named for the tree the locals call cedar, Juniperus virginiana, more accurately a juniper. Cedar Key was once the location of a pencil factory, the cedar wood preferred for making pencils because they smelled good when they were sharpened. Now the town is a few biker bars where a country road meets the Gulf, laid low in the Suwannee River delta.
The Suwannee starts in southeastern Georgia in the Okefenokee swamp, then winds through limestone formations in North Florida before pushing into the Gulf of Mexico in a mucky splatter. More sparsely populated then the rest of Florida, few artificial lights mop the Milky Way as it spills over the islands and mudflats off Cedar Key. In this darkness, phosphorescent algae in the water illuminate the movements of small fish, which betrays their presence and makes them easy prey for bigger fish. Dolphins leave glowing green streaks in the water as they chase mullet through the soupy shallows. Predatory worms in the muck trace circles around their holes like protractors, searching for small animals to seize with pinching mouthparts.
Steve’s home on the island was a bunk in the old lighthouse that was decommissioned long ago. When he descended the stairs in the early mornings, there would often be a snake curled up in his path in a shining black coil, like a scaled nautilus. The vast number of birds that historically nested on Seahorse Key dropped fish through the canopy of the trees which they were unable to retrieve. The food raining down from above fed a large population of venomous water moccasins, also called cottonmouths, Agkistrodon piscivorus, in the spiny vegetation below. These snakes are stout, girthy and tiger-striped, with the diamond head of a pit viper. Will the snakes persist if the birds don’t return? Steve makes an effort to save them in his memories in case they don’t make it. It was not an island he lived on, it was Snake Planet.
Steve passed the time between tides crouched in his mosquito net in the lighthouse reading, careful not to accidentally create an opening that would leave him vulnerable to the swarms. Stories by Harry Crews were his favorites. Crews was an author born into extreme poverty on a tenant farm not far from where the Suwannee River gets its start in southern Georgia in 1935. As a child he contracted polio, which left him with a disfigured leg, and then he fell into a vat for scalding hogs, which nearly killed him. He grew up in a world of hookworm and rickets, and then fought in the Korean War and became a light-heavyweight boxing champ in the Marines, with a record of 33-2. He got married and divorced, and he lost a son. He wrecked some motorcycles, wrote some novels, taught creative writing, and got cut from his pubes to his nipples in a knife fight at a fish camp. Four years later, in 2012, he died due to complications from neuropathy.
When he wasn’t on the island counting crabs, Steve was at punk rock shows in Gainesville, a college town about an hour away where Crews taught writing for decades, sliding around on the beer soaked floors, flailing his arms to the music, and trying not to fall onto broken glass. There was a brash kid in his early twenties with a tattoo of a skull on his arm who came to every show without fail. Steve hated his guts, as the guy with the tattoo was prone to punching him whenever their paths crossed. Underneath the skull was written “How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?”
Later, Steve learned that this kid had died, tragically young. He needed to know how it happened, but when he searched the name online all that came up was a picture of the tattoo. He looked up the quote, which is from the poem “Buffalo Bill’s/Defunct” by e.e. cummings. He found out that the tattoo was an exact copy of one on the arm of Harry Crews. The kid must have been a fellow Crews fan, and Steve wished he had talked about those books with him. Maybe they both loved those stories of rough, backwoods Florida with its down and out pool halls and beer joints.
Seattle, where Steve lives now, is a hub of the high-information world. It’s the headquarters of Amazon, Microsoft, and a company that has found a way to sell consistently terrible coffee nearly everywhere. It’s also a place where giant western red-cedars once recorded the size of salmon runs in rings of fragrant wood, the nitrogen of marine origin from the salmon important for the giant coastal forest trees in nutrient-poor soils. The global connections that have fueled Seattle’s transformation are sophisticated, complex, and fragile. Steve never stops trying to crack the codes and analyze the patterns. Sometimes people do a double-take when they pass by as he lays sod or digs trench for an irrigation line. They wonder, did they really hear the guy laying sod talking about quantum physics or Eastern philosophy? If they listen in, they find out that people are not always what they seem, and that Steve’s mind is always on the big questions, even while his hands are pulling weeds.
Some of the equipment and computers most crucial to our understanding of these big questions are those which allow Stephen Hawking’s thoughts to be known outside of his own head. ALS has left Hawking incapable of movement or speech. Without computers, software, and sophisticated sensors, any new theories about the universe and the nature of reality he formulates would be trapped within the walls of his skull, and humanity would be without one of its greatest thinkers. One of the most remarkable problems Hawking’s mind is still tackling regards what is known as the black hole information paradox.
The problem starts with the fact that empty space is not exactly empty. In reality, particles and antiparticles arise spontaneously in the vacuum of space, but then promptly annihilate each other, giving the illusion of nothingness. In normal empty space, all the particles and antiparticles annihilate, but on the edge of a black hole, things start to get a bit fuzzy.
The event horizon is the edge of a black hole, the boundary at which everything and anything is drawn in by the black hole’s gravity and nothing, including light, can escape. When particles and antiparticles appear out of nothing near the event horizon, sometimes one but not the other will cross the horizon and fall into the black hole. If enough antiparticles fall in, they might actually make the black hole lose mass, and Hawking speculated that black holes might even “evaporate,” growing progressively less massive until they disappear.
This raises the problem called the black hole information paradox. If something falls down a black hole, all we know about it is its mass. For example, if Will Shakespeare fell down a black hole, the only information preserved about him would be how much he weighed. If the black hole then “evaporates,” not even that information is preserved. In recent years, physicists have devised a scenario by which information is preserved on the event horizon of the black hole as a hologram. This has led them to question whether our whole universe might actually exist on what we think of as the edges. All the information it takes to describe everything we observe might be stored in a hologram-like dimension at the very edges of the universe.
Floating in briny bliss, Steve wonders what it would mean to know that our world might be stored on a hologram, or on a computer chip? To know that what makes us human can be written in ones and zeroes, or spelled out in amino acids? The days of our information economy may be numbered, and the days of the cedars will eventually return. One day, we may see the stars as only what they appear to be: beautiful and countless, inspiring the mystical and the spiritual. Looking out from Seahorse Key, there are stars in the sky and stars in the water, with phosphorescent life twinkling in the dark. The big stars eat the little ones, little libraries burning. All is forgotten, swallowed whole.