We think of creation as something that happened. Something that took place a long time ago and we’re not really sure what happened. Big bang, big thoughts. Six days of work and then it’s Miller time. But creation is ongoing and we participate in it. One of the really neat things that Tyson Yunkaporta notes in his book Sand Talk is that “there is no valid way to separate the natural from the synthetic (p151).”  He’s talking about cell phones and he makes a good point. Everything we call synthetic is made from something that came out of the earth. It’s reconfigured and processed but so is the leather I use to make moccasins. Our languages evolve to incorporate these new things just like they evolved before to incorporate other ideas. Creation is an ongoing process.

Yunkaporta is a member of the Apalech clan, an Indigenous tribal group in what is currently northern Queensland, Australia. In the creation story that he shares in his book, before creation space was solid and it sat upon the earth a heavy thing that crushed everything that tried to come into existence. My friend Vicki who is Maori told us a similar story, that the sky needed to be pushed up and into where it is now so that life could come into being. This ancient story about space having weight reveals, to Yunkaporta anyway, that his ancestors had an understanding of dark matter. And that made me think about Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s book The Disordered Cosmos because she is a physicist who studies particles and the cosmos and she also writes about dark matter. And one of the things that she wrote about is the expanding universe. The weight of space is still being pushed away from us. The Apalech and the Maori understood that too.

The way that western science, and indeed western knowledge, is organized and collated is the result of some very particular historic events. Europeans went out in a rush of violence and conquest and in addition to gold and tomatoes they brought back knowledge and they fit that knowledge into their own systems, disconnecting it from the places where it had emerged and the people who had developed it. Prescod-Weinstein also note that their understanding of how things worked had to be consistent with justifying their “abominable behaviour (p100).”  So when universities talk about diversity they are generally talking about the untapped resources of that people represent, not other ways of knowing or understanding the world. Yunkaporta talks about diversity differently, he talks about maintaining individual difference as a way of counteracting the narcissism that so easily overtakes us. The narcissism that Prescod-Weinstein describes in the Enlightenment era thinkers who laid the foundations for the way that we develop and maintain knowledge systems today.

She uses the example of Euclidian geometry to describe these foundations. In small spaces Euclidean geometry works beautifully and the rules keep everything contained in predictable shapes. But we live on a sphere beneath a curved sky and if your GPS relied on Euclidean geometry, you’d get nowhere fast. We are told that, like linear time, these angles lines are intuitive but they aren’t. Not all societies developed linear time and straight lines, which doesn’t mean they don’t know how to use them they just know better than to rely on them exclusively while living on a sphere that spins and orbits within a solar system and a galaxy that are in constant motion. Even Facebook understands cyclical time, it is constantly reminding me what I was angry about the last time the planet rushed past this part of the solar system. I read that bit about Euclidean geometry in her book and thought about the ways that early colonists and settlers mapped squares onto Indian territory, turning our lands into farms and pinning everyone down so they couldn’t move. Yunkaporta notes that when they tried that in the Bible God smashed the tower of Babel and sent everyone traveling again because societies that live in relationship with the land instead of their egos tend to be more mobile.

To return to dark matter. Prescod-Weinstein, whose field of research is dark matter, writes that it isn’t dark and it might not even be real. It’s a theoretical explanation for why some parts of the universe act the way that they do. In trying to figure out why stars and galaxies act the way they do there appeared to be something missing from their observations, something they couldn’t see and so back in 1906 Henri Poincaré coined the phrase matière obscure, dark matter, and the name stuck.  She would rather it be called invisible or transparent matter, because as a society our associations with the dark are not exactly stellar. Darkness, whether we’re talking about an abundance of melanin or an absence of light, is suspect. People don’t like it in their suburban neighbourhoods and they don’t like it in space.

That speaks to the problem with how knowledge is collected and maintained, with how gatekeeping works to include some and exclude others from the places where thinking happens. The valuing of some relationships and the devaluing of others. Because it isn’t that knowledge development lacks relationship, it’s that it only values certain kinds of relationship that can be quantified in certain kinds of ways.  Yunkaporta wrote his book by walking song-lines and yarning and carving things and it appears to have taken a long time. His citations are hardly APA format, something I’m sadly familiar with as I work through my own book, and his style reminded me of the vast unknowing of particle physics and the cosmos.  All those scientists with their different theories yarning along the songlines that connect quarks and galaxies and somehow in that space between them finding answers, or maybe just asking different questions.

That is why it matters who is there. It matters who we seek out when we are curious about something.  It matters what night sky they look at and where they are looking at it from and it matters what barriers they experience to viewing it at all. Europeans have written Greek stories on top of the constellations, just like they mapped Euclidean squares onto a curved land, but we all had our own ways of understanding our relationship to the stars just as we have our own ways of understanding our relationships with each other. We exist in the spaces between: the space between earth and the sky that would crush us and the spaces between us as people.

Dark matters

Creation is an ongoing process