Estado: impecable (tapa dura).
Cormac McCarthy’s Apocalypse
The acclaimed author’s dark vision – and the scientists who inspire him.
The world’s most unlikely genius club meets in a sprawling adobe retreat amid the piñon scrub and juniper trees in the hills above Santa Fe. The lean physicist in baggy shorts and sandals sitting at a long table designed the first wearable computer, which he used to beat roulette in Vegas. The older scientist across from him, with curly white hair and the turquoise jeweled bolo tie, won a Nobel for discovering the quark. The attractive blond neuroscientist nibbling enchiladas nearby studies the modulation patterns of pigtailed macaques. Down the hall, a gangly Brit scrawls equations in squeaky orange magic marker on a windowpane. Even the fat tabby cat meowing for scraps has scientific cred; Dr. Zen, they call him, Director of Feline Affairs. This is the Santa Fe Institute, a sort of Justice League of renegade geeks, where teams of scientists from disparate fields study the Big Questions: Why financial markets crash. How terrorist cells form. Why viruses spread. How life ends. On any given day, you might pass Al Gore or David Foster Wallace at the éclair tray in the kitchen. After Google’s honchos spent a few days wandering the Institute’s sunlit halls, they were so impressed by its unique mix of brains and natural beauty that they aspired to turn their company into the “SFI of Silicon Valley.”
But among this rarefied gathering of leading intellects, none is more respected than the spry old cowboy dipping his tortillas in beans at the lunch table. Dressed in a crisp blue shirt and jeans, he sits comfortably with his weathered boots crossed and listens intently as a theoretical biologist who has flown in from Berlin discusses something called evolutionary economics – the relationship between animal behavior and marketlike forces. This is quintessential Santa Fe stuff, examining one phenomenon (biology) in the light and lexicon of another (economics).
The discussion soon turns to the topic of suicide. As a slide of a West African tribe flickers on the biologist’s computer screen, the researchers dig into the idea that suicide attempts can be evaluated as a kind of expression of market forces – a threat to remove oneself as a source of benefits to others. The neuroscientist in the corner raises her hand and poses a question to the group: “Does anyone know another animal besides humans who commit suicide?”
Brains churn. Air conditioning whirs. For once, though, the scientists are stumped.
Then the cowboy chimes in, as he often does, with the answer.
“Dolphins,” he says softly. “Dolphins do.”
The only thing more unlikely than despairing dolphins is the bearer of the news: Cormac McCarthy, the most celebrated recluse in American literature since J.D. Salinger. Before he emerged to speak to Oprah earlier this year, the seventy-four-year-old author had granted only a handful of interviews in his fourdecade career. He lives so far off the beaten path, he drives a flatbed truck. His self-imposed exile goes beyond the scraps of popular legend – sleeping in cars, bathing in lakes, too poor for toothpaste. He has never voted (“poets shouldn’t vote”), doesn’t read fiction (“it seems like an odd thing to do”), and forsakes book signings, e-mail and cell phones. For years, little was known about him beyond the breadth and power of his work. His violent Western No Country for Old Men has been made into one of the year’s most acclaimed films, and his post-apocalyptic novel The Road won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Few living authors are as admired by their peers: When the New York Times recently asked more than 100 prominent writers, critics and editors to identify “the single best work of American fiction published in the last twentyfive years,” one of the authors whose work was cited most was McCarthy.
“Cormac is viewed as a recluse because he doesn’t do the literature game,” says Doug Erwin, head of SFI’s science steering committee. “But he’s not reclusive here – he’s just one of the guys.” Two decades ago, McCarthy showed up at the Institute and essentially never left. “Cormac rode up on a mule one day,” jokes a friend, “and the mule died.” He even moved from his home in El Paso, Texas, just to be nearby. Now, after dropping off his nineyear-old son at school in the morning, McCarthy rumbles up the winding drive to SFI, where he serves as a research fellow. He checks his mail. Pours a coffee. Then he spends the rest of the day falling into long conversations with the scientists and thinkers who pass by.
For McCarthy, the scientific life of the Institute plays a fundamental role in his life as a writer, sparking his imagination with “what if” scenarios while grounding his fiction in a greater reality. “It helps you to think,” he says of his interplay with SFI’s intellectual “outlaws,” as he affectionately calls them. “You have to go back to Elizabethan England or Periclean Athens to find this kind of extraordinary work being done.” His immersion in science has left him with an admittedly pessimistic worldview; he sees human life on the planet as temporary, and he’s sensitized to the degree at which we are acceleratingthis fate through violence and neglect. McCarthy likes the scientists at the Institute for a simple reason: The stuff they explore, like his writing, cuts to the bone.
“If it doesn’t concern life and death,” he says, “it’s not interesting.”
LONG BEFORE HIS MULE croaked here, McCarthy moved among thinkers. He speaks reverently of his paternal grandfather, John Francis, for whom he named his youngest son. In contemporary terms, his grandfather was a start-up entrepreneur, a handy machinist, who, like McCarthy, “was very interested in how things work.” He was also an early feminist who bucked the trends by putting all his daughters – as well as his sons – through college. One of McCarthy’s aunts became a biologist, another a classical-language professor. His dad, Charles, was a successful lawyer who graduated at the top of his class at Yale.
After growing up in Knoxville, McCarthy followed the family tradition and attended college, at the University of Tennessee. “I went to school because I didn’t want to work,” he tells me with a laugh one morning over a plate of huevos rancheros. We’re at his favorite breakfast joint, a beautifully tiled restaurant in a hotel near the square in Santa Fe. This is one of his few haunts outside of the Institute, which is just a few miles up the road. “If I was in school,” he says, “I could get a monthly check through the GI Bill.”
But one subject immediately struck a nerve: science. “When I was a kid, I was very interested in the natural world,” he says. “To this day, during casual conversations, little-known facts about the natural world will just crop up.” On a dime, McCarthy can slip into a thirtyminute treatise on some arcane biological phenomenon. “Voles leave trails where they go, like markings,” he’ll say out of the blue. “They’re mostly composed of urine, but there are other substances as well. One absorbs ultraviolet light, which is invisible to us. But guess who can see it? The raptors flying overhead can see it. They have ultraviolet vision! That’s just very interesting. You think about these birds – they’re not looking for voles, they’re looking for ultraviolet trails through the weeds.”
In college, McCarthy studied physics and engineering – passions that remain just as strong today. “It’s interesting to know how the world works,” he says. “People ask me, ‘Why are you interested in physics?’ But why would you not be? To me, the most curious thing of all is incuriosity. I just don’t get it.” There was just one problem with his course of study. “I was good at it, but I wasn’t that good,” he says. “I didn’t want to do anything unless I could be the best at it. That’s my own personal extravagant ego.”
But McCarthy was really good at writing. He discovered his talent after a college professor asked him to repunctuate a collection of eighteenth-century essays for inclusion in a textbook. McCarthy was hooked, and began to write and read with vigor. While he reserves high praise for a few contemporary narratives (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a classic of our time”), his list of great novels stops at four: Ulysses, The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury and his favorite, Moby-Dick- Like his own work, they explore themes of life and death with both philosophical and artful precision. McCarthy takes pains to distill a scene to its rawest and most powerful details – whether it’s someone cleaning a wound or scalping a head – and chuck anything that gets in the way, including punctuation. When he talks of writers he admires, like Shakespeare, there’s one quality he says they share in common: soul. “You can’t write good poetry unless you have a soul to express,” he says. And he holds the highest regard for those who express “the soul of the culture,” as he puts it. “They know everyone thinks these things are important,” he says, “and that’s why they’re talking about them.”
IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG FOR McCarthy to find the important things he wanted to explore. The roots of his apocalyptic themes date back to his childhood in Tennessee. “You grow up in the South, you’re going to see violence,” he says. “And violence is pretty ugly.”
McCarthy seems almost to collect the violent stories he hears, like the tale of a friend who sold tie-downs used to secure mobile homes in the face of tornadoes. One day, a colleague of the salesman urged him to call on an attractive customer. “So he knocked on the mobile-home door,” McCarthy says, “and this pretty good-looking woman came to the door and said, ‘Just come in.’ No questions at all, just openly flirtatious. But it was such a strong come-on and she was so weird, he said, ‘No, there’s something wrong here, I’m going to take a pass on this.’ “
Three months later, the guy picked up the newspaper and saw the woman’s picture on the front page. “This woman and her boyfriend had been arrested,” McCarthy says. “They had killed her husband with an ax.”
After dropping out of college to work at an auto shop and write, McCarthy gained attention for the dark Appalachian soul he so deftly expressed. A necrophiliac collects corpses in caves in Child of God. A brother impregnates his sister in Outer Dar\, only to leave the baby for dead in the woods. It was McCarthy’s ability to depict horrific realities with heart and exactitude that both attracted and repelled.
Not surprisingly, given their subject matter, his early novels didn’t sell. Over the years, McCarthy married, had his first son, divorced, traveled, lived in Ibiza, married again. Through it all, he felt life provided for him when he most needed it. In college, an arts foundation rewarded his first works with a grant. A promotional packet of toothpaste arrived in the mail the morning he had run out. One time, he had just eaten the last scraps of food in his freezer when the doorbell rang. It was a courier. “I thought he was there to arrest me,” McCarthy jokes. Instead, the guy handed him an envelope with a check for $20,000 – a gift from a private patron of the arts.
After writing what he considers his most autobiographical novel, Suttree – a darkly comic story that follows a downand-out guy on a houseboat in Tennes see who drifts, drinks and deals with picaresque scoundrels, like a kid who gets arrested for fucking a watermelon in a farmer’s patch – McCarthy left Appalachia behind and turned to what he considers the great subject of our time: the American West. “It’s a story that everyone in the world knows,” he says. “You can go to Mongolia and they know about cowboys and Indians – but no one had taken it seriously and as a subject for literary effort.” So he packed his bags for Texas and hit the road.
For four years, McCarthy explored the Southwest and Mexico, studying the culture and history of the region. The period between the Mexican War and the great westward migration of the mid-nineteenth century was, he says, “a turning point of American history.” He transformed his research into Blood Meridian, his apocalyptic Western of Indian scalpers. Harold Bloom, the literary critic, hailed the novel as one of the greatest of the twentieth century.
But in writing this brutal epic of the past, McCarthy kept one foot firmly planted in a doomsday future: ours. “If I wrote about violence in an exaggerated way, it was looking at a future that I imagined would be a lot more violent,” he says. “And it is. Can you remember twenty years ago having beheadings on TV? I can’t.”
IT’S THE SIXTH ANNIVERSARY or September 11th, and scientists from the Santa Fe Institute are contemplating the end of the world. The occasion is a three-day conference on climate change. This evening, no one in the standing-room crowd of locals crammed into the auditorium recognizes McCarthy as he hunkers into his seat down front. When I remark on how many people are interested in tonight’s topic, McCarthy replies, “Of course it’s relevant – we’re all going to die.”
Indeed, the findings are grim. For ninety minutes, Harvard geochemist Daniel Schräg stands at the podium and paints a Bruckheimer-esque picture of planetary destruction. Nuclear winters. Mass extinction. Volcanic hell. “Imagine if a third of the Earth erupted,” Schräg says, as a fiery orange swirl envelops a globe on the screen behind him.
It was a gathering like this that first drew McCarthy to the Institute. It began in 1981, when he was among the first in the arts and sciences to receive a so-called genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Flown to Chicago for a dinner with the other recipients, McCarthy found himself avoiding his fellow writers. “The artsy crowd was all dressed and drugged and ready to party,” he recalls. “I just started hanging out with scientists because they were more interesting.”
Chief among them: Murray GellMann, winner of the Nobel Prize for his work in particle physics and thendirector of the MacArthur Foundation. The unlikely duo became fast friends, and their meeting would radically alter the course of McCarthy’s life. “I was interested in ecology, psychology, archaeology, linguistics,” Gell-Mann recalls. A group of scientists he knew at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, home of the Manhattan Project after World War II, were also eager for a more interdisciplinary approach. Led by George Cowan, head of research at Los Alamos, they created the Santa Fe Institute in 1984.
With Cowan as president and GellMann as chair of the board, SFI took over an old convent in the heart of Santa Fe, filled it with renaissance thinkers and began forging an emerging science called complexity. It’s the study of the complex systems behind our lives – from climate patterns to human societies – and how they evolve and adapt. By uncovering these systems and the agents that propel them, Gell-Mann and his colleagues reasoned, we can better understand the dynamics of life itself.
SFI became a mecca for wayward scientists. They simulated stock markets and bird flocks on computers by day, and discussed the connections over blue-corn enchiladas late into the night. The Institute’s researchers were pursuing artificial life and computer auctions a decade before the mainstream world ventured online. Not everyone was a fan. “People would say, ‘I don’t know about this big mush that you’re trying to create,’ ” Gell-Mann recalls.
While he was writing his first best seller, All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy made regular trips from El Paso to the Institute. Part of the appeal, beyond the excitement of the science, is the anonymity. Since he does most of his writing at home and doesn’t always keep a formal office at the Institute, he can easily go unnoticed. “A lot of people here have no idea who I am,” McCarthy says. Those who do aren’t sure what to make of the sight. “People who know my work walk in and they’re kind of confused as to why I’m there,” he says, “but that’s OK. They soon get over that.”
Years after McCarthy first arrived at the Institute, his meals at SFI remain a highlight of his day. “You sit down to lunch and you just don’t know who’s going to be there,” he says. “People drift in from all over the world- Nobel-winning chemists and biologists – and they’re sitting next to you at lunch. They’re just very generous. You ask them something and they’ll just stop what they’re doing and sit down and tell you all about it. And that’s rather remarkable.”
McCarthy frequently proofreads scientific papers and books by SFI’s extended family. Harvard physicist Lisa Randall was surprised when she heard through a friend at the Institute that McCarthy was interested in reading a draft of her book Warped Passages, a heady treatise that explores the hidden dimensions of the universe. “I got the manuscript back in the mail, and it was marked up on every page,” Randall says. “He read everything. He essentially copy-edited it, getting rid of some of my semicolons, which he really didn’t like.”
For McCarthy, the scientific interplay has forced him to improve his own work. “Science is very rigorous,” he says. “When you hang out with scientists and see how they think, you can’t do so without developing a respect for it. And part of what you respect is their rigor. When you say something, it needs to be right. You can’t just speculate idly about things.”
That sense of rigor is apparent in the increasingly taut work McCarthy has produced since moving to Santa Fe, from No Country for Old Men through his recent play, The Sunset Limited. “Writing is rewriting,” he says. “Someone said easy writing makes for hard reading.” But he’s still not one to map out a novel before he begins. “I just sit down and write whatever is interesting. If you’re writing mystery stories or something, you might want to have an outline, because it all has to have a logic and fall into place and have a beginning, a middle and an end. But if you’re writing a novel, the best things just sort of come out of the blue. It’s a subconscious process. You don’t really know what you’re doing most of the time.”
So you start with a character or a scene?
“You start with anything,” he says. “Faulkner used to say the way he started The Sound and the Fury was with this single image of a girl in a tree looking through a single window at her grandmother’s funeral, and the other girl looking at her muddy drawers from where they’d been playing. It was just that image, which was probably just some image from his childhood. You think about that image,” he laughs. “Does The Sound and the Fury inevitably spring from that image? Well I don’t think so.”
ONE DAY A FEW YEARS AGO, after checking his mail and pouring his coffee, McCarthy gingerly made his way down the hall at the Institute. He passed the equation-scrawled windowpane, down the steps where Dr. Zen was curled in the corner, past the long, red sofa where a grad student lay sprawled, and into the corner office of his friend Doug Erwin. Then he started asking about the apocalypse. In particular, he wanted to know about extinction-the Cretaceous-Tertiary meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Erwin is the guy to ask. A Smithsonian paleobiologist with a boyish fop of brown hair, Erwin is an expert on the subject: He wrote a book titled Extinction. He and McCarthy share a wry and fatalistic view of our time here on Earth. “The planet is going to do just fine without us,” Erwin says. “We’re an encephalized ape that won’t last long.”
Erwin told McCarthy about the likely aftermath of the deadly meteorite: the magnitude of the desolation, the collapse of ecosystems, the fallout of debris and gases. Then, one day last year, Erwin sat down to read a galley of The Road, which depicts the harrowing, post-apocalyptic journey of a father and son. Erwin smiled – so this is what McCarthy was up to, he figured.
He let his friend off the hook for the novel’s intentional inaccuracies. “Instead of having gray skies that look like Beijing, it would actually be blue skies, like this,” Erwin tells me one afternoon, as he motions outside his window to the hills rolling down toward Santa Fe. “There would also be a lot more ferns. But because of what he was trying to achieve, he had to take some artistic license. That book was about his son.”
Nine years ago, after marrying for the third time, McCarthy became a father again. Soon after, in 2001, he was visiting Tennessee when the attacks of 9/
11 unfolded. Being a septuagenarian dad in the modern age is sobering. “When you’re young and single, you hang out in bars and don’t think about what’s going to happen,” McCarthy says. “But in the next fifty years when you have kids, you start thinking of their life and the world they have to live in. And that’s a sobering thought these days. I’m not one of those conspiracy guys, but the world is in a very unstable situation. If you were to take thoughtful people on, say, January ist, 1900, and tell them what the twentieth century was going to look like, they’d say, Are you shitting me?’ “
McCarthy began to wonder about the future facing his boy. “I think about John all the time and what the world’s going to be like,” he says. “It’s going to be a very troubled place.” One night, during a trip to Texas with John, McCarthy imagined such a place. While his son slept, McCarthy gazed out the window of his room and pictured flames on the hill. He later decided to write a novel about it; The Road is dedicated to his son. While McCarthy suggests that the ashcovered world in the novel is the result of a meteor hit, his money is on humans destroying each other before an environmental catastrophe sets in. “We’re going to do ourselves in first,” he says.
In part, he blames an increasingly violent society. “If kids are unstable, they may very well be cranked up by the violence they see, and might do things that they wouldn’t have done or would have taken them longer to get around to,” McCarthy says. “But the real culprit is violence against children. A lot of children don’t grow up well. They’re being starved and sexually molested. We know how to make serial killers. You just take a Type A kid who’s fairly bright and just beat the crap out of him day after day. That’s how it’s done.”
While The Road paints a picture of life after the end, his previous novel, No Country for Old Men, suggests how the final days begin. In a particularly memorable scene, a graying sheriff in the book declares, “It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight.” Like the characters in his novels, whether it’s the young cowboys of the Border Trilogy or the charming rogues of Suttree, McCarthy tries to live by a code of civility. He shows up when he says he’ll show up. He inquires about sick parents. After a meal at SFI, he’s the first to clear a visitor’s plate. When a friend refused to see a doctor, McCarthy swore to call every day and bug him until he got the care he needed. After ten days of calls, the friend gave in.
At the same time, however, McCarthy seems resigned to the fact that bad manners and violence are here to stay. “There are a lot of people out there – a lot who grew up in the Sixties and are still flower children – who imagine you can just get people to stop being violent,” he says. “They pretend that the world they live in is that world, but it’s not. The world’s not like the world they want to live in, and probably never will be.”
It’s SEPTEMBER 13TH, THE LAST day of the Santa Fe Institute’s climate-change conference, and McCarthy takes a seat near the front. It has been a dark week: 9/11 memorials. Deadly earthquakes in Indonesia. A gang of West Virginians caught after raping and beating a young black woman all -week in a trailer. President Bush on TV, talking about an extended stay in Iraq. It’s times like these when McCarthy imagines packing up and hitting the road for good. “If the family situation was different, I could see taking John and going to New Zealand,” he says. “It’s a civilized place and far from the evil shit going down.”
Taking the stage, SFI president Geoffrey West suggests that there are two roads of thought we can choose to follow. The first is that we can believe in our power to heal the Earth before it’s too late. He tells the audience that America needs to create a sort of reverse Manhattan Project – call it the Santa Fe Project – that would bring together a consortium of top minds to engineer solutions to the escalating crises of sustainability and survival.
Then again, he adds, there is another path. We can choose to believe that “we’re a blip on the landscape, and that the vision of another SFI fellow, Cormac McCarthy, is where we’re headed.”
At the mention of McCarthy’s name, there’s a rumbling in the crowd as retirees crane over to find Oprah’s bookclub man. Making his way back to his seat, West whispers sheepishly to McCarthy, “You’re never going to forgive me, are you?” McCarthy good-naturedly pats West on the shoulder and assures him that it’s all right.
In fact, as McCarthy told me earlier in the day, he has been thinking about his own finale, too. “Eventually you start to realize that you aren’t going to be around for very long,” he says. For the past few years, his sense of mortality has inspired him to work on as many as five novels at a time. No Country for Old Men just happened to be the one he finished first. Switching back and forth between narratives, he says, isn’t a problem. All he has to do is work a bit on one book, take a walk, and then switch gears into something else. He’s also entertaining what he may do should he run out of steam.
“If I get too old to write novels, I may just keep a journal for a year or two and just sort of make notes on books that I read and stuff like that,” he says. But all this talk about the end of the world has made him appreciate more than ever what he has. “There is for a man two things in life that are very important, head and shoulders above everything else,” he says. “Find work you like, and find someone to live with you like. Very few people get both.”
On this evening, as the Institute’s lecture ends and the lights come up on the crowd, McCarthy says goodbye to his friends and heads out into the darkness. It’s getting late. Tomorrow’s a weekday. He wants to wake up early and drive his boy to school.
Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction
Richard B. Woodward
” You know about Mojave rattlesnakes?” Cormac McCarthy asks. The question has come up over lunch in Mesilla, N.M., because the hermitic author, who may be the best unknown novelist in America, wants to steer conversation away from himself, and he seems to think that a story about a recent trip he took near the Texas-Mexico border will offer some camouflage. A writer who renders the brutal actions of men in excruciating detail, seldom applying the anesthetic of psychology, McCarthy would much rather orate than confide. And he is the sort of silver-tongued raconteur who relishes peculiar sidetracks; he leans over his plate and fairly croons the particulars in his soft Tennessee accent.
“Mojave rattlesnakes have a neurotoxic poison, almost like a cobra’s,” he explains, giving a natural-history lesson on the animal’s two color phases and its map of distribution in the West. He had come upon the creature while traveling along an empty road in his 1978 Ford pickup near Big Bend National Park. McCarthy doesn’t write about places he hasn’t visited, and he has made dozens of similar scouting forays to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and across the Rio Grande into Chihuahua, Sonora and Coahuila. The vast blankness of the Southwest desert served as a metaphor for the nihilistic violence in his last novel, “Blood Meridian,” published in 1985. And this unpopulated, scuffed-up terrain again dominates the background in “All the Pretty Horses,” which will appear next month from Knopf.
“It’s very interesting to see an animal out in the wild that can kill you graveyard dead,” he says with a smile. “The only thing I had seen that answered that description was a grizzly bear in Alaska. And that’s an odd feeling, because there’s no fence, and you know that after he gets tired of chasing marmots he’s going to move in some other direction, which could be yours.”
Keeping a respectful distance from the rattlesnake, poking it with a stick, he coaxed it into the grass and drove off. Two park rangers he met later that day seemed reluctant to discuss lethal vipers among the backpackers. But another, clearly McCarthy’s kind of man, put the matter in perspective. “We don’t know how dangerous they are,” he said. “We’ve never had anyone bitten. We just assume you wouldn’t survive.”
Finished off with one of his twinkly-eyed laughs, this mealtime anecdote has a more jocular tone than McCarthy’s venomous fiction, but the same elements are there. The tense encounter in a forbidding landscape, the dark humor in the face of facts, the good chance of a painful quietus. Each of his five previous novels has been marked by intense natural observation, a kind of morbid realism. His characters are often outcasts — destitute or criminals, or both. Homeless or squatting in hovels without electricity, they scrape by in the backwoods of East Tennessee or on horseback in the dry, vacant spaces of the desert. Death, which announces itself often, reaches down from the open sky, abruptly, with a slashed throat or a bullet in the face. The abyss opens up at any misstep.
McCarthy appreciates wildness — in animals, landscapes and people — and although he is a well-born, well-spoken, well-read man of 58 years, he has spent most of his adult life outside the ring of the campfire. It would be hard to think of a major American writer who has participated less in literary life. He has never taught or written journalism, given readings, blurbed a book, granted an interview. None of his novels have sold more than 5,000 copies in hardcover. For most of his career, he did not even have an agent.
But among a small fraternity of writers and academics, McCarthy has a standing second to none, far out of proportion to his name recognition or sales. A cult figure with a reputation as a writer’s writer, especially in the South and in England, McCarthy has sometimes been compared with Joyce and Faulkner. Saul Bellow, who sat on the committee that in 1981 awarded him a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, exclaims over his “absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences.” Says the historian and novelist Shelby Foote: “McCarthy is the one writer younger than myself who has excited me. I told the MacArthur people that he would be honoring them as much as they were honoring him.”
A man’s novelist whose apocalyptic vision rarely focuses on women, McCarthy doesn’t write about sex, love or domestic issues. “All the Pretty Horses,” an adventure story about a Texas boy who rides off to Mexico with his buddy, is unusually sweet-tempered for him — like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer on horseback. The earnest nature of the young characters and the lean, swift story, reminiscent of early Hemingway, should bring McCarthy a wider audience at the same time it secures his masculine mystique.
But whatever it has lacked in thematic range, McCarthy’s prose restores the terror and grandeur of the physical world with a biblical gravity that can shatter a reader. A page from any of his books — minimally punctuated, without quotation marks, avoiding apostrophes, colons or semicolons — has a stylized spareness that magnifies the force and precision of his words. Unimaginable cruelty and the simplest things, the sound of a tap on a door, exist side by side, as in this typical passage from “Blood Meridian” on the unmourned death of a pack animal:
“The following evening as they rode up onto the western rim they lost one of the mules. It went skittering off down the canyon wall with the contents of the panniers exploding soundlessly in the hot dry air and it fell through sunlight and through shade, turning in that lonely void until it fell from sight into a sink of cold blue space that absolved it forever of memory in the mind of any living thing that was.”
Rightful heir to the Southern Gothic tradition, McCarthy is a radical conservative who still believes that the novel can, in his words, “encompass all the various disciplines and interests of humanity.” And with his recent forays into the history of the United States and Mexico, he has cut a solitary path into the violent heart of the Old West. There isn’t anyone remotely like him in contemporary American literature. A COMPACT UNIT, SHY OF 6 feet even in cowboy boots, McCarthy walks with a bounce, like someone who is also a good dancer. Clean-cut and handsome as he grays, he has a Celtic’s blue-green eyes set deep into a high-domed forehead. “He gives an impression of strength and vitality and poetry,” says Bellow, who describes him as “crammed into his own person.”
For such an obstinate loner, McCarthy is an engaging figure, a world-class talker, funny, opinionated, quick to laugh. Unlike his illiterate characters, who tend to be terse and crude, he speaks with an amused, ironic manner. His involved syntax has a relaxed elegance, as if he had easy control over the direction and agreement of his thoughts. Once he had agreed to an interview — after long negotiations with his agent in New York, Amanda Urban of International Creative Management, who promised he wouldn’t have to do another for many years — he seemed happy to entertain company for a few days.
Since 1976 he has lived mainly in El Paso, which sprawls along the concrete-lined Rio Grande, across the border from Juarez, Mexico. A gregarious recluse, McCarthy has lots of friends who know that he likes to be left alone. A few years ago The El Paso Herald-Post held a dinner in his honor. He politely warned them that he wouldn’t attend, and didn’t. The plaque now hangs in the office of his lawyer.
For many years he had no walls to hang anything on. When he heard the news about his MacArthur, he was living in a motel in Knoxville, Tenn. Such accommodations have been his home so routinely that he has learned to travel with a high-watt light bulb in a lens case to assure better illumination for reading and writing. In 1982 he bought a tiny, whitewashed stone cottage behind a shopping center in El Paso. But he wouldn’t take me inside. Renovation, which began a few years ago, has stopped for lack of funds. “It’s barely habitable,” he says. He cuts his own hair, eats his meals off a hot plate or in cafeterias and does his wash at the Laundromat.
McCarthy estimates that he owns about 7,000 books, nearly all of them in storage lockers. “He has more intellectual interests than anyone I’ve ever met,” says the director Richard Pearce, who tracked down McCarthy in 1974 and remains one of his few “artistic” friends. Pearce asked him to write the screenplay for “The Gardener’s Son,” a television drama about the murder of a South Carolina mill owner in the 1870’s by a disturbed boy with a wooden leg. In typical McCarthy style, the amputation of the boy’s leg and his slow execution by hanging are the moments from the show that linger in the mind.
McCarthy has never shown interest in a steady job, a trait that seems to have annoyed both his ex-wives. “We lived in total poverty,” says the second, Annie DeLisle, now a restaurateur in Florida. For nearly eight years they lived in a dairy barn outside Knoxville. “We were bathing in the lake,” she says with some nostalgia. “Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week.”
McCarthy would rather talk about rattlesnakes, molecular computers, country music, Wittgenstein — anything — than himself or his books. “Of all the subjects I’m interested in, it would be extremely difficult to find one I wasn’t,” he growls. “Writing is way, way down at the bottom of the list.”
His hostility to the literary world seems both genuine (“teaching writing is a hustle”) and a tactic to screen out distractions. At the MacArthur reunions he spends his time with scientists, like the physicist Murray Gell-Mann and the whale biologist Roger Payne, rather than other writers. One of the few he acknowledges having known at all was the novelist and ecological crusader Edward Abbey. Shortly before Abbey’s death in 1989, they discussed a covert operation to reintroduce the wolf to southern Arizona.
McCarthy’s silence about himself has spawned a host of legends about his background and whereabouts. Esquire magazine recently printed a list of rumors, including one that had him living under an oil derrick. For many years the sum of hard-core information about his early life could be found in an author’s note to his first novel, “The Orchard Keeper,” published in 1965. It stated that he was born in Rhode Island in 1933; grew up outside Knoxville; attended parochial schools; entered the University of Tennessee, which he dropped out of; joined the Air Force in 1953 for four years; returned to the university, which he dropped out of again, and began to write novels in 1959. Add the publication dates of his books and awards, the marriages and divorces, a son born in 1962 and the move to the Southwest in 1974, and the relevant facts of his biography are complete.
The oldest son of an eminent lawyer, formerly with the Tennessee Valley Authority, McCarthy is Charles Jr., with five brothers and sisters. Cormac, the Gaelic equivalent of Charles, was an old family nickname bestowed on his father by Irish aunts.
It seems to have been a comfortable upbringing that bears no resemblance to the wretched lives of his characters. The large white house of his youth had acreage and woods nearby, and was staffed with maids. “We were considered rich because all the people around us were living in one- or two-room shacks,” he says. What went on in these shacks, and in Knoxville’s nether world, seems to have fueled his imagination more than anything that happened inside his own family. Only his novel “Suttree,” which has a paralyzing father-son conflict, seems strongly autobiographical.
“I was not what they had in mind,” McCarthy says of childhood discord with his parents. “I felt early on I wasn’t going to be a respectable citizen. I hated school from the day I set foot in it.” Pressed to explain his sense of alienation, he has an odd moment of heated reflection. “I remember in grammar school the teacher asked if anyone had any hobbies. I was the only one with any hobbies, and I had every hobby there was. There was no hobby I didn’t have, name anything, no matter how esoteric, I had found it and dabbled in it. I could have given everyone a hobby and still had 40 or 50 to take home.” WRITING AND READING seem to be the only interests that the teen-age McCarthy never considered. Not until he was about 23, during his second quarrel with schooling, did he discover literature. To kill the tedium of the Air Force, which sent him to Alaska, he began reading in the barracks. “I read a lot of books very quickly,” he says, vague about his self-administered syllabus.
McCarthy’s style owes much to Faulkner’s — in its recondite vocabulary, punctuation, portentous rhetoric, use of dialect and concrete sense of the world — a debt McCarthy doesn’t dispute. “The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” he says. “The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” His list of those whom he calls the “good writers” — Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner — precludes anyone who doesn’t “deal with issues of life and death.” Proust and Henry James don’t make the cut. “I don’t understand them,” he says. “To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.”
“The Orchard Keeper,” however Faulknerian in its themes, characters, language and structure, is no pastiche. The story of a boy and two old men who weave in and out of his young life, it has a gnarliness and a gloom all its own. Set in the hill country of Tennessee, the allusive narrative memorializes, without a trace of sentimentality, a vanishing way of life in the woods. An affection for coon hounds binds the fate of the characters, who wander unaware of any kinship. The boy never learns that a decomposing body he sees in a leafy pit may be his father.
McCarthy began the book in college and finished it in Chicago, where he worked part time in an auto-parts warehouse. “I never had any doubts about my abilities,” he says. “I knew I could write. I just had to figure out how to eat while doing this.” In 1961 he married Lee Holleman, whom he had met at college; they had a son, Cullen (now an architecture student at Princeton), and quickly divorced, the yet-unpublished writer taking off for Asheville, N.C., and New Orleans. Asked if he had ever paid alimony, McCarthy snorts. “With what?” He recalls his expulsion from a $40-a-month room in the French Quarter for nonpayment of rent.
After three years of writing, he packed off the manuscript to Random House — “it was the only publisher I had heard of.” Eventually it reached the desk of the legendary Albert Erskine, who had been Faulkner’s last editor as well as the sponsor for “Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry and “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. Erskine recognized McCarthy as a writer of the same caliber and, in the sort of relationship that scarcely exists anymore in American publishing, edited him for the next 20 years. “There is a father-son feeling,” says Erskine, despite the fact, as he sheepishly admits, that “we never sold any of his books.”
For years McCarthy seems to have subsisted on awards money he earned for “The Orchard Keeper” — including grants from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the William Faulkner Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Some of these funds went toward a trip to Europe in 1967, where he met DeLisle, an English pop singer, who became his second wife. They settled for many months on the island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean, where he wrote “Outer Dark,” published in 1968, a twisted Nativity story about a girl’s search for her baby, the product of incest with her brother. At the end of their independent wanderings through the rural South the brother witnesses, in one of McCarthy’s most appalling scenes, the death of his child at the hands of three mysterious killers around a campfire: “Holme saw the blade wink in the light like a long cat’s eye slant and malevolent and a dark smile erupted on the child’s throat and went all broken down the front of it. The child made no sound. It hung there with its one eye glazing over like a wet stone and the black blood pumping down its naked belly.”
“Child of God,” published in 1973 after he and DeLisle returned to Tennessee, tested new extremes. The main character, Lester Ballard — a mass murderer and necrophiliac — lives with his victims in a series of underground caves. He is based on newspaper reports of such a figure in Sevier County, Tenn. Somehow, McCarthy finds compassion for and humor in Ballard, while never asking the reader to forgive his crimes. No social or psychological theory is offered that might explain him away.
In a long review of the book in The New Yorker, Robert Coles called McCarthy a “novelist of religious feeling,” comparing him with the Greek dramatists and medieval moralists. And in a prescient observation he noted the novelist’s “stubborn refusal to bend his writing to the literary and intellectual demands of our era,” calling him a writer “whose fate is to be relatively unknown and often misinterpreted.”
“MOST OF MY FRIENDS FROM those days are dead,” McCarthy says. We are sitting in a bar in Juarez, discussing “Suttree,” his longest, funniest book, a celebration of the crazies and ne’er-do-wells he knew in Knoxville’s dirty bars and poolrooms. McCarthy doesn’t drink anymore — he quit 16 years ago in El Paso, with one of his young girlfriends — and “Suttree” reads like a farewell to that life. “The friends I do have are simply those who quit drinking,” he says. “If there is an occupational hazard to writing, it’s drinking.”
Written over about 20 years and published in 1979, “Suttree” has a sensitive and mature protagonist, unlike any other in McCarthy’s work, who ekes out a living on a houseboat, fishing in the polluted city river, in defiance of his stern, successful father. A literary conceit — part Stephen Daedalus, part Prince Hal — he is also McCarthy, the willful outcast. Many of the brawlers and drunkards in the book are his former real-life companions. “I was always attracted to people who enjoyed a perilous life style,” he says. Residents of the city are said to compete to find themselves in the text, which has displaced “A Death in the Family” by James Agee as Knoxville’s novel.
McCarthy began “Blood Meridian” after he had moved to the Southwest, without DeLisle. “He always thought he would write the great American western,” says a still-smarting DeLisle, who typed “Suttree” for him — “twice, all 800 pages.” Against all odds, they remain friends. If “Suttree” strives to be “Ulysses,” “Blood Meridian” has distinct echoes of “Moby-Dick,” McCarthy’s favorite book. A mad hairless giant named Judge Holden makes florid speeches not unlike Captain Ahab’s. Based on historical events in the Southwest in 1849-50 (McCarthy learned Spanish to research it), the book follows the life of a mythic character called “the kid” as he rides around with John Glanton, who was the leader of a ferocious gang of scalp hunters. The collision between the inflated prose of the 19th-century novel and nasty reality gives “Blood Meridian” its strange, hellish character. It may be the bloodiest book since “The Iliad.”
“I’ve always been interested in the Southwest,” McCarthy says blandly. “There isn’t a place in the world you can go where they don’t know about cowboys and Indians and the myth of the West.”
More profoundly, the book explores the nature of evil and the allure of violence. Page after page, it presents the regular, and often senseless, slaughter that went on among white, Hispanic and Indian groups. There are no heroes in this vision of the American frontier.
“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” McCarthy says philosophically. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”
This tooth-and-claw view of reality would seem not to accept the largesse of philanthropies. Then again, McCarthy is no typical reactionary. Like Flannery O’Conner, he sides with the misfits and anachronisms of modern life against “progress.” His play, “The Stonemason,” written a few years ago and scheduled to be performed this fall at the Arena Stage in Washington, is based on a Southern black family he worked with for many months. The breakdown of the family in the play mirrors the recent disappearance of stoneworking as a craft.
“Stacking up stone is the oldest trade there is,” he says, sipping a Coke. “Not even prostitution can come close to its antiquity. It’s older than anything, older than fire. And in the last 50 years, with hydraulic cement, it’s vanishing. I find that rather interesting.”
BY COMPARISON WITH the sonority and carnage of “Blood Meridian,” the world of “All the Pretty Horses” is less risky — repressed but sane. The main character, a teen-ager named John Grady Cole, leaves his home in West Texas in 1949 after the death of his grandfather and during his parents’ divorce, convincing his friend Lacey Rawlins they should ride off to Mexico.
Dialogue rather than description predominates, and the comical exchanges between the young men have a bleak music, as though their words had been whittled down by the wind off the desert:
They rode. You ever get ill at ease? said Rawlins. About what? I dont know. About anything. Just ill at ease. Sometimes. If you’re someplace you aint supposed to be I guess you’d be ill at ease. Should be anyways. Well suppose you were ill at ease and didnt know why. Would that mean that you might be someplace you wasn’t supposed to be and didnt know it? What the hell’s wrong with you? I dont know. Nothin. I believe I’ll sing. He did.
A linear tale of boyish episodes — they meet vaqueros, are joined by a hapless companion, break horses on a hacienda and are thrown in jail — the book has a sustained innocence and a lucidity new in McCarthy’s work. There is even a budding love story.
“You haven’t come to the end yet,” says McCarthy, when asked about the low body count. “This may be nothing but a snare and a delusion to draw you in, thinking that all will be well.”
The book is, in fact, the first volume of a trilogy; the third part has existed for more than 10 years as a screenplay. He and Richard Pearce have come close to making the film — Sean Penn was interested — but producers always became skittish about the plot, which has as its central relationship John Grady Cole’s love for a teen-age Mexican prostitute.
Knopf is revving up the publicity engines for a campaign that they hope will bring McCarthy his overdue recognition. Vintage will reissue “Suttree” and “Blood Meridian” next month, and the rest of his work shortly thereafter. McCarthy, however, won’t be making the book-signing circuit. During my visit he was at work in the mornings on Volume 2 of the trilogy, which will require another extended trip through Mexico.
“The great thing about Cormac is that he’s in no rush,” Pearce says. “He is absolutely at peace with his own rhythms and has complete confidence in his own powers.”
In a pool hall one afternoon, a loud and youthful establishment in one of El Paso’s ubiquitous malls, McCarthy ignores the video games and rock-and-roll and patiently runs out the table. A skillful player, he was a member of a team at this place, an incongruous setting for a man of his conservative demeanor. But more than one of his friends describes McCarthy as a “chameleon, able to adjust easily to any surroundings and company because he seems so secure in what he will and will not do.”
“Everything’s interesting,” McCarthy says. “I don’t think I’ve been bored in 50 years. I’ve forgotten what it was like.”
He bangs away in his stone house or in motels on an Olivetti manual. “It’s a messy business,” he says about his novel-building. “You wind up with shoe boxes of scrap paper.” He likes computers. “But not to write on.” That’s about all he will discuss about his process of writing. Who types his final drafts now he doesn’t say.
Having saved enough money to leave El Paso, McCarthy may take off again soon, probably for several years in Spain. His son, with whom he has lately re-established a strong bond, is to be married there this year. “Three moves is as good as a fire,” he says in praise of homelessness.
The psychic cost of such an independent life, to himself and others, is tough to gauge. Aware that gifted American writers don’t have to endure the kind of neglect and hardship that have been his, McCarthy has chosen to be hardheaded about the terms of his success. As he commemorates what is passing from memory — the lore, people and language of a pre-modern age — he seems immensely proud to be the kind of writer who has almost ceased to exist.
Science and art often seem to develop in separate silos, but many thinkers are inspired by both. Novelist Cormac McCarthy, filmmaker Werner Herzog and physicist Lawrence Krauss discuss science as inspiration for art and Herzog’s new film on the earliest known cave paintings.
IRA FLATOW, host:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow.
Albert Einstein once wrote: The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. So the unknown, the mysterious, is where art and science meet.
What do art and science have in common there? This hour we’re going to explore that mysterious connection between art and science and how that relates to human origins. Our guests include a novelist, a filmmaker and a physicist, and we’ll be talking with them this hour about their work.
What does physics have to do with fiction or film? What does art have to tell us about science, human origins and destiny? If you’d like to ask a question, our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Or go to our Facebook page, facebook/scifri, and get in on the discussions and question there.
Let me introduce my guests. Werner Herzog is a film director, producer and screenwriter. He is the director of over 50 films, including “Grizzly Man” and “The White Diamond,” just to name a couple. His film “Encounters at the End of World,” about scientists in Antarctica, was nominated for an Oscar. His latest film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” premieres this month. Thank you for joining us today, Werner.
Mr. WERNER HERZOG (Filmmaker): Thank you for having us.
FLATOW: You’re welcome. Cormac McCarthy is a novelist and playwright. His books include “The Road,” “No Country for Old Men,” “All the Pretty Horses,” “Blood Meridian” and many, many more, and several of those books have been adapted into award-winning films. McCarthy’s also the recipient of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Thank you for being with us today.
Mr. CORMAC McCARTHY (Novelist): Pleased to be here.
FLATOW: You’re welcome. Lawrence Krauss is a physicist and foundation professor and director of the Arizona State University Origin Project. The ASU Science and Culture Festival is taking place this weekend in Tempe, exploring the same theme of science, the arts and culture. His latest book is “Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science.” And they’re all joining us from KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Lawrence, welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Professor LAWRENCE KRAUSS (Arizona State University): It’s always good to be back, Ira.
FLATOW: You were one of the catalysts for this meeting, for the meeting that’s going on in Arizona. Where do you see the connection between science and art?
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, to me it’s kind of obvious. They ask the same questions. Science addresses – really what it does at its best is force us to reassess our place in the cosmos. Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
And those are the very same questions that you get in art, literature, music. Every time you read a wonderful book or see a wonderful film, you come out of it with a different perspective of yourself, and too often, it seems to me, we forget that cultural aspect of science, and that’s the reason we’re celebrating it here.
And they come together in some sense in the notion of origins. Origins really is one place where, it seems to me, those two worlds connect the closest, because we all wonder about our origins in different ways.
And it’s the forefront of science in almost every field and yet, of course, it’s really what we’re asking ourselves when we think about literature and art.
FLATOW: Werner, you always seem to have that kind of connection in the book -in the films that you make. Certainly you get into the science, and then you get into a larger question about humanity in there, don’t you?
Mr. HERZOG: Well, in some of the films, yes, but it doesn’t really apply to everything I do. When you look at the feature films, of course, they’re of a different nature. But a good example of what you’re alluding to is the film I made in Antarctica, “Encounters at the End of the World,” and of course the most recent film in the cave in Southern France, where you really can observe the origins of the modern human soul, so to speak.
Art, figurative representation, apparently first traces of religion, there was music nearby – well, 400 kilometers away. Ivory flutes were found and just phenomenal things that did not occur to Neanderthal man, who roamed the landscape at the same time, 32,000 years ago. So there are profound questions and, of course, profound mysteries remaining.
FLATOW: Cormac McCarthy, most people may not know this, but I understand you are very interested in science also. Tell us about your relationship, for example, with the Santa Fe Institute.
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, I met Murray Gell-Mann about 25 years ago, and I’d been interested in science at that time, particularly physics, and after meeting Murray and a number of other physicists, I became more interested, and I was invited to come to the Santa Fe Institute, where I’ve been for – oh, I don’t know, about a dozen years. But my connection with him was even before that, because I lived in El Paso, and my brother and I used to come to various meetings and presentations at the institute.
And I think it kind of helps you to stay honest. You’re talking about things which are factual and things about which there is agreement. It’s kind of hard to agreement about the arts at the – some of the awards programs really have a hard time getting any sort of consensus about who should get it, these awards in literature or the visual arts.
There’s not – it’s not easy to do. But if you’re talking about a theory in physics, guess what? It’s either true or it’s not. And you will go to an experiment and to experimental people and tell them what you’re looking for, and if they find it, then it’s there, and if they don’t, it’s not. And that’s -I kind of like that.
FLATOW: Lawrence, do you have a reaction to that?
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, yeah. I think it’s fascinating to hear that because I think it’s really important. One of the – you know, we – all of what we’re talking about is human imagination, in a way. And in fact, to bring Feynman up, I guess, he said science is imagination in a straightjacket.
And I think – and we have to recognize that we, as humans, I guess, want to and love to imagine not only the world the way it is but the world as it might be. And many of us want the – hope that there are worlds that are better.
And that’s great. I think that’s really important. But there are two aspects to it. One is we have to accept that the world we live in is what it is. And if people would just recognize that the world is the way it is whether we like it or not, I think it would change a lot the way people behave.
But at the same time, I think we should – we need to recognize also that sometimes the actual universe is more fascinating than even our imagination, and it can spur – it can spur our imagination not just as scientists, but I also, I suspect, as – for artists. And that’s why I think it’s another good reason to sort of keep up with some of the fantastic things that are happening in the world.
Because I think if all three of us were locked in a room without any access to information about how the world behaved, that none of our work would be as -hopefully, well, I suspect as creative or interesting as it might be.
FLATOW: Do you think when you bring scientists and artists and writers together, they actually inspire each other, give each other ideas?
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, these two gentlemen have inspired me for many years in many different ways. So there’s no doubt about it. I can say I’m inspired. They can speak for themselves.
Mr. HERZOG: Well, for me, for example, a film like “Fitzcarraldo,” where I moved a huge ship over a mountain in the Amazon jungle, actually started out in Brittany, at the coast of – the northwestern coast of France, where you have (unintelligible) Neolithic, huge slabs of stone erected. But there are thousands of them in parallel rows.
And I was sitting there and I tried to figure out how would I do it as a Neolithic person, without the modern machinery, and of course I came up with a method, which in essence is how I moved the ship over the mountains.
And it made me very angry because a pseudo-scientist had postulated that these stones were so heavy that only ancient astronauts from different planets could have done it. And I thought: This is so completely and utterly idiotic. It just itched me, and I wanted to find out. And it led to a way, how to move a ship over a mountain.
FLATOW: And you, as a filmmaker, by making a documentary or showing how this could actually be done without the need for aliens, can influence a large public that might not listen to scientists speak about it, because your -through film.
Prof. KRAUSS: Yeah, I just jump in. I think that’s the point. I think the public is intimidated by science, but they love great books and great film. And to the extent that those can in some sense lead people to think about those questions in a realistic way, that’s great.
FLATOW: Cormac, when you hang around scientists, do they make you optimistic or pessimistic?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, some of my friends would probably tell you that making me pessimistic would be a difficult chore indeed. But I’m – I don’t know. I’m not – I’m pessimistic about a lot of things, but as Lawrence has quoted me as saying, there’s no reason to be miserable about it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KRAUSS: It’s one of my favorite quotes.
Mr. McCARTHY: I don’t know. The other thing we talked about a few minutes ago was how bad we are at prognostications. So the fact that I take a pretty dreary view of the future is cheering because I think, you know, the chances are that I’m wrong.
FLATOW: Well, certainly reading “The Road,” one hopes so, that you’re wrong about that future scenario.
Mr. HERZOG: I think Cormac is not wrong, because it’s quite evident that human beings, as a species, will vanish and fairly quickly. When I say quickly, maybe in two or three thousand years, maybe 30,000 years, maybe 300,000, but not much more, because we are much more vulnerable than other species, despite a certain amount of intelligence.
It doesn’t make me nervous that fairly soon we’ll have a planet which doesn’t contain human beings.
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, you know, it’s interesting you say that, because I flip back and forth as a scientist between – you know, I think there are days when -I don’t know whether I’ve ever imagined a future quite as bleak as “The Road,” but maybe.
But – you know, because I think, you know, humanity as an ensemble hasn’t demonstrated a lot of intelligence about behaving in a way that globally impacts on the planet in a healthy way.
But at the same time, I agree with Werner, but I’m not so sure we’ll vanish because we’ve destroyed ourselves. We may vanish…
Mr. HERZOG: No, for other reasons. I’m not speaking of self-destruction, which could happen, of course, but that many events thinkable out there which would instantly wipe us out.
Prof. KRAUSS: Oh, absolutely. That’s likely to happen. That will inevitably happen anyway. But I think there might be a rosier future. Just let me throw one thing in which I think is rosy.
FLATOW: Lawrence, let me let you hold that because we have to go to a break, and a rosy future would be a good way to start the next segment.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: So stay with us. We’re talking about the future with Werner Herzog, Lawrence Krauss and Cormac McCarthy. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. You may never see these three together in a room again. So here’s your opportunity to talk with them. We’ll get back. You can, as I say, tweet us, @scifri. I’m Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You’re listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow.
We’re talking this hour about science, art and human origins with my guests: Werner Herzog, director of many films. His latest film is “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Cormac McCarthy, novelist and playwright – his latest novel, “The Road,” won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Lawrence Krauss, foundation professor and director of the ASU Origins Project.
Our number, 1-800-989-8255. And when I rudely interrupted Lawrence, as I do many times, even in real life over a beer…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KRAUSS: Martini.
FLATOW: He was telling about his vision of a rosier future than the one in “The Road.”
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, yeah, I’m not sure it’s the rosy future that some people would think about. But, you know, I’ve talked about the fact that, you know, we imagine we are the pinnacle of evolution, but I doubt that’s the case.
And in fact, I think it’s quite clear to me in the long run that I think computers will one day be – if we persist as a species to develop them – will one day become self-aware and conscious, and it’ll be obvious to me that they’re much, much – they’ll probably be much superior to us, and biology will have to, in some way, adapt to them.
And you know, movies always show the computers as being bad, but I don’t know why that would be the case. If they’re self-aware, I doubt they’ll be any worse than we are.
And my friend, Frank Wilchek(ph), asks – well, he wants to know if they do physics the same way. So I think, you know, we may disappear as a species just because we become irrelevant, as well as being destroyed. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. That’s just – that may be the future.
And I think, you know, I think where I really would agree with what – certainly what Werner said, in some sense, is that we shouldn’t be – and with Cormac – we shouldn’t be depressed if we disappear. We should be thrilled that we’re here right now.
I see no purpose in the universe, from science, and that doesn’t depress me. That just means we should make the most of our brief moment in the sun.
FLATOW: We have a question here from a listener who called in asking about both of you, and he’s wondering where some of your ideas come from, and he gave us this little phone clip.
KIRON(ph): Hello, this is Kiron in Galway. And my question is to both Cormac McCarthy and Werner Herzog. And both of you have created works of art in which the universe is depicted as harsh, unforgiving and indifferent to human concerns. To what extent is such a vision shaped by scientific ideas? And does complexity science offer us a different view of our place in the universe?
FLATOW: There you go. Cormac, what is complexity science?
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, we talked about that coming over. I don’t think you can ask any 10 people in science what complexity is and get a consistent view. I’m not going to go into it. The Santa Fe Institute basically deals with complexity in different disciplines. And there is a common thread to it, but it’s kind of hard to come up with something that would satisfy everybody.
As far as being – as far as painting the world as grim, I don’t know. If you look at classical literature, the core of literature is the idea of tragedy, and that’s – you know, you don’t really learn much from the good things that happen to you.
But tragedy is at the core of human experience, and it’s what we have to deal with. That’s what makes life difficult, and that’s what we know about. It’s what we want to know how to deal with. It’s unavoidable. There’s nothing you can do to forestall it. So how do you deal with it? And all classical literature has to do with things that happen to people they really rather hadn’t.
FLATOW: Werner, let’s talk about your latest film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”
Mr. HERZOG: Well, I’d like to answer the question.
FLATOW: Oh sure.
Mr. HERZOG: Part of the question first because there was an interesting aspect in it at the end. Our place in the universe, well, it is here. And that’s the place we have and nothing else. Everything else is unfriendly. We cannot flee from our planet, I mean go to any other planet in the solar system. It’s just not inviting.
And the next planet from there, the next star out there, is only four and a half light-years away, but with the fastest speed, we can never reach so far. It would take 110,000 years just to go there, hundreds and hundreds of generations. They wouldnt even know where they were going.
There would be incest and madness and murder and whatever en route. So it’s not pleasant to move. And Lawrence, I hope you agree. We cannot dissolve into particles of light, like in “Star Trek”…
Prof. KRAUSS: Absolutely.
Mr. HERZOG: …and beam ourselves somewhere.
Prof. KRAUSS: I wish we could. Every time I’m in an airport terminal, I wish I could.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HERZOG: This is our place, this is our place, and we’d better take care of it. And sometimes, of course, you can be disgruntled. In a way, for example, I’ve worked in the jungle, and after real hardship I came to the conclusion: Yes, I love the jungle, however against my better judgment. But…
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Well, your new film shows the triumph of the human experience.
Mr. HERZOG: It does, yes, because yes, because you have to imagine that only 73, 74 thousand years ago a gigantic volcanic explosion took place in Sumatra, which almost wiped out the entire human race. That was the so-called bottleneck, still disputed among scientists.
But the population, the number of human beings shrank to under 10,000, maybe only 2,000, started to recover, and then, of course, there was the Ice Age, you have to imagine 35,000 years ago. So almost all of Europe was covered by ice, the Alp mountains under 3,000 meters, which means 9,000 feet, of ice.
Further north, ice had bound so much water that you could walk as a hunter from Paris to London dry – because the level of the ocean was 100 meters lower. So you could walk across the British Islands.
And a completely, utterly different world, and yet this world, which was filled with wooly rhinos, mammoths, lions in southern France, all of a sudden shows us this is where we came from, where our spirit, our nature, modern humans all began.
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, you know, I want to jump in because there’s an – we’re going to have a panel before Werner’s film with Curtis Marion(ph), here at ASU, who’s actually one of the people who studied that bottleneck and is leading a program to try and understand the origin of modern humans.
And what does it mean to be modern? And we actually had a meeting about that. And it’s not even clear – it’s not even clear what makes modern humans unique. And trying to – and getting this direct window on humans 30,000 years ago is just fascinating.
I saw the movie, and it – I had no idea of the level of cultural development at that time. It’s just amazing.
Mr. HERZOG: Neanderthals were not cultured. They were not modern. And they apparently perished. It’s pretty much established that we have a small percentage of our genes. Maybe three percent, still disputed, might be Neanderthal.
Maybe the Neanderthal men went out to snatch away Homo sapiens, women, and have fornication, and we got some genes. And they were hunted down by superior hunters.
Prof. KRAUSS: I’ve often wondered, though. Do you think it’s – if it’s true, and I still don’t know if we know whether Neanderthals had culture, because I think there’s some burial sites where Neanderthals do have some flowers in a burial site, but if they do…
Mr. HERZOG: Well, it could have been pollen findings. It could have been anything.
Prof. KRAUSS: It could’ve been. But the question is – I wonder whether – I’ve often wondered whether it was positive for us that we seem to have culture or negative? Would we have been – you know, we seem to have survived, but is that an accident, or…
Mr. HERZOG: No, I would like to be in the existence of culture – and technology, by the way. I’m not against technology. And it’s mindboggling how 35,000 years ago ivory flute was made. It was actually carved out of the tusk of a mammoth, as thin as a pencil, then spliced in half with a flint stone, then hollowed out and glued back together. And, of course, you have the finger holes. And the finger holes are so precisely placed that you have pentatonic tonality, as today.
Prof. KRAUSS: Wow.
FLATOW: Cormac, did you want to jump in there, say something?
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, the interesting thing about the caves to me is the longevity of this school of art. The oldest the oldest we know of, by no means are we to therefore say that the Chauvet caves are the oldest there are -they’re just the oldest we’ve seen.
But going back 32,000 years, and then you come all the way up through the Magdalenian Period to 11,000 years ago, this is 20,000 years. And the paintings are – they’re the same. The perspectives that they use, the style that they use, the things that they use to show, for instance, that a leg of an animal is narrow in the fore view than the rear view is disconnected it from the body, all of these things persevered.
And if you look at the – if you look at the cave paintings at Chauvet, they’re really just the same: the same school of thought, the same school of art, the same type of work. That’s astonishing that you could have a school of art unchanged for 20,000 years. I’ve never heard anybody’s view about that. I would be interested to know what the people who’ve studied this, what they think about that. Obviously, there’s a culture here. Artifacts come from cultures. You have to have the culture first and, obviously, there is a very strong, a very rich culture that endured for thousands and thousands of years, and nobody seems to know anything about it. I think that’s astonishing.
Then you see – when you get to the earliest so-called cities, communities like Caltalhoyuk, the first thing you see are paintings of bulls on the walls. They’re not as good, were already in a state of decline, but that’s amazing. That’s just amazing.
Prof. KRAUSS: One of the things that amaze me – and I don’t know if Werner wants to comment either – I – that’s surprised me – I was picking on that – was in this particular cave there’s evidence that the art was added to over 5,000-year period, right? And that’s just amazing to me, think back 5,000 years from now, what has persisted over that amount of time.
Mr. WERNER: Yeah. Well, it’s even was stunning because through radiocarbon dating, we can be fairly precise in dating, for example, a charcoal painting.
Mr. WERNER: And you have a case where a painter depicted a reindeer, somebody completed the picture, and it’s established 5,000 years later. This is completely mindboggling.
Mr. McCARTHY: The other thing…
Mr. WERNER: The absence of notion of time.
Mr. McCARTHY: The other thing that people don’t seemed to talk about is – you know, you didn’t just suddenly go into a cave and start painting bulls. You had to learn how to do it somewhere. So obviously, there was a school of painting and this was probably done in the open air and people were trained to be painters. And – by the time they were allowed to go into the caves and actually make a painting on a wall in the cave, guess what, they were pretty good painters. And no one has found any traces of inept work.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WERNER: Yeah. (Unintelligible). I have been puzzled by one thing that’s in Altamira in Northern Spain, in the Pyrenees, the wonderful bison. And there’s one crouching bison, which is very significant in the tablet. A clay tablet was found with basically – I mean, a small – let’s say, five inches across in diameter – and it has exactly the same figuration – configuration of legs and crouching. So my question to the scientists was, could it be that there was some sort of a basic pattern and a traveling artist would move from place to place, because in other caves this type of bison crouching was found as well? Of course, it’s – we don’t have an answer.
Prof. KRAUSS: He’d had to travel a long way.
Mr. WERNER: It would be too (unintelligible). Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: We’re talking about science in the arts and the culture this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Werner Herzog, Cormac McCarthy and Lawrence Krauss. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.
It’s interesting, these caves at Chauvet, it was – it’s a fascinating documentary, Werner. It’s just terrific. I didn’t get to see it in 3D, but I understand there’s a 3D version of it.
Mr. WERNER: Well, it’s imperative to see it in 3D.
FLATOW: Yeah. I’m…
Mr. WERNER: It was shot in 3D and should be seen in 3D if possible.
FLATOW: Yeah. But you talked about the cave drawing technique in there. And one of the fascinating illustrations in the cave is the attempt by the artist to show the animals moving – in movement.
Mr. WERNER: Yes. There’s a galloping bison depicted with eight legs. Then, there’s a rhino, a wooly rhino, and you see eight phases of movement forward, almost like a proto-animation film. In a way, it’s kind of really stunning to see that.
Mr. McCARTHY: Another thing that is unusual is how the species depicted change over time. The Chauvet caves are unusual and they do show predators, particularly lions. By the time we get to Lascaux and the caves where the paintings were done 15,000 years ago, there are almost no predators. There’s a – there are a couple of bears. I think there’s a wolf somewhere.
Prof. KRAUSS: Horses more than anything.
Mr. McCARTHY: The horses constitute about 30 percent of the depictions. But the – according to the middens, the principal food item was reindeer, and they are almost nonexistent as paintings. So I had no idea what any of that any of that means, but I’m happy to no one else does either.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, you know, that’s right. I mean, I think it’s the sense I got from – what you just mentioned, is that these are fascinating questions. There are questions we may know – never know the answer to. But, you know, it’s just – it fuels our speculation to wonder, what were their forgotten dreams as Werner’s titled his film…
Mr. WERNER: Yeah. When you speak about forgotten dreams, you know, there’s one stunning piece unearthed, a rock pendant. The only partial human depiction, the lower part of a female body, naked, the pubic area visible, and the bison somehow embracing the female. And 32,000 years later, you have Picasso drawing paintings and doing prints of the Minotaur and the female.
Mr. McCARTHY: You know what Picasso said when he came up out of Lascaux after the war?
Mr. WERNER: Yes.
Mr. McCARTHY: He said, we’ve learned nothing. I think, well…
Mr. WERNER: Exactly. I remember that…
Prof. KRAUSS: I was taken when I looked at the images in your film at how modern they were in that sense, and how they reminded me of Picasso.
Mr. McCARTHY: Yes.
Prof. KRAUSS: At the same time, you know, I actually began one of my books with another piece of art in a cave, in a German cave, that figurine…
Mr. HERZOG: Yes.
Prof. KRAUSS: …that’s even older, I think.
Mr. HERZOG: The
. The Venus of Willendorf. Yeah.
Prof. KRAUSS: And – yeah. With the head of a lion and the body of a man. That’s the one I’m thinking of.
Mr. McCARTHY: That’s different. That’s different.
Mr. HERZOG: I know that it’s a different one. It’s not Venus. It’s actually a male, apparently a male, a lion head in the human body.
Prof. KRAUSS: And I wonder what – why did they produce that? And it seemed to me that, at some point, it’s – one of the possibilities is that it’s a person saying, look, there are lions and there are people here. So maybe somewhere else – maybe somewhere over the rainbow, somewhere – is a place where there are lion people. And to me that’s the kind of speculation that fuels science…
Prof. KRAUSS: …which is to ask, what are the possibilities?
Mr. McCARTHY: Some of the paintings overlap between animals and other figures.
FLATOW: Well, I have to jump – gentlemen, I have to jump in here because we have to take a break. But we’ll get back to this, talking with Werner Herzog, especially about his latest film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” That’s what the images we’re talking about there. Also with us is Cormac McCarthy and Lawrence Krauss.
Our number: 1-800-989-8255. And you can tweet us: @scifri. We’ll be back with the discussion after this break. Don’t go away.
I’m Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You’re listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow.
We’re talking this hour about science, art and culture and the origins of it with my guests. Cormac McCarthy, novelist and playwright. His latest book is “The Road.” He’s won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and foundation professor and director of the Arizona State University Origins Project. And also Werner Herzog, who is a film director, producer and screenwriter. And we’ve been focusing in on his latest film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which premieres this month.
And a synopsis of it, Werner, how would you – for people who are just tuning in, what would you say the film is?
Mr. HERZOG: Well, it is looking into a deep abyss of time with a camera, going into the cave probably nobody will ever be allowed again because they – I think they will shut it down like Lascaux, the most famous so far because too many human beings in there left mold. The exhalation, the breath of humans, left a mold on the walls that cannot be controlled easily. So it’s just a penetration into an abyss…
Mr. McCARTHY: You could visit them with naval rebreathers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: And where is this – where are they located, the caves?
Mr. HERZOG: It’s one cave with two branches. It is in the south of France, not very far from the Rhone River in the gorge of the Ardeche River. You have to check it out on a map…
Mr. HERZOG: …but it’s Southern France.
FLATOW: And they believe, from watching your film, that – they believe there may be more of these caves that are…
Mr. HERZOG: Well, we can speculate. Maybe, hopefully. It would be great. I don’t know.
FLATOW: I want to play a little clip from your film. This clip is – describes the reaction of one of the scientists talking about his experience in this magnificent cave.
(Soundbite of movie, “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams”)
Mr. JULIAN MONAY (Archaeologist): It was the first time I entered to film a cave. It’s a chance to get in during five days, and it was so powerful. Then every night, I was dreaming of lions, and every day was the same shock for me. It was an emotional shock. I mean, I’m a scientist, but a human too. And after five days, I decided not to go back in the cave because I needed time just to relax and take time to…
Unidentified Man: To absorb it?
Mr. MONAY: …to absorb it. Yeah.
FLATOW: Wow. Werner, who was that scientist?
Mr. HERZOG: Well, a younger generation archaeologist who was very fascinating because he started his career as a circus man. And I immediately asked him, a lion tamer? No. He was a juggler in a unicycle. But very, very fascinating people there. And what is so fascinating that it looks as if an entire world was articulated and almost invented because the animals, they look realistic and yet they looked like an invention, something – a figment of our own fantasies.
And the same thing – and I would like to shift a little bit to Cormac’s work because he invents entire landscapes. He invents horses in a way we have never seen – heard them being described. By dint of declaration, Cormac McCarthy creates a whole landscape that has been unknown to all of us, even though it seems to exist like, let’s say, Faulkner and others invented and described the Deep South; someone like Joseph Conrad describes the Congo and the jungle and the mysteries.
And so all of us suddenly have literature here, which is not unprecedented because we have something of the caliber of your writing. We see it, for example, in the last two pages of “Moby Dick,” Melville. We see it in the best of Faulkner. We see it in the best of my great favorite writer of the 20th century who wrote, for example, “Typhoon,” “The Nigger of the Narcissus.”
Mr. McCARTHY: Conrad.
Mr. HERZOG: Of course, Joseph Conrad, whose language, originally, wasn’t even English, such a great stylist. And for decades, we have not seen literature and prose and style that you are writing, period.
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, you’re very complimentary. I don’t know. I was thinking this morning about, I have to reread Faulkner’s story, “Spotted Horses,” because it occurs to me that what is so engaging about that tale is just the sheer exuberance and exaggeration of it. I mean, these mad, wild horses that have gotten loose from the barn and are running across the countryside and one crosses a bridge and it meets a wagon coming the other way. And I think he describes it as scrambling along the single tree like a squirrel. Well now, that’s not really quite possible, but it’s just very fetching.
Spotted horses, these were horses from the Southwest. I don’t know how far back spotted horses go. I know that one of the famous depictions in the caves is at Pech Merle. There are two spotted horses and their – some of the spots are gray and some are red, but they’re just extraordinary. And the strange thing about them, as you think about the hands-on experience of making these paintings, those dots, the spots on the horses were made with fingertips.
FLATOW: Yeah. Yes.
Mr. McCARTHY: You can see the whirls of the fingers in the paint. I don’t know what that’s about. That’s – it’s just very interesting.
Prof. KRAUSS: You know, as you try and speculate on this, the imaginary world that you create – the real world that you documented…
Mr. HERZOG: But it is related to a real world, but there’s a force of declaration.
Prof. KRAUSS: But I can…
Mr. HERZOG: A dent of declaration. All of the sudden, it comes into existence as a piece of language.
Prof. KRAUSS: But there is a similarity, and I really related to what that scientist was saying. In some sense, you know, he was – when one – what you don’t realize is, sometimes, when you try and confront the real world, as a scientist, it’s terrifying because it forces you to throw away a lot of things you believe. And sometimes, you have to go away from it. And I think – that’s what I mean. I think the convergence of science and art in the sense that if -that what that science was saying is confronted with the reality of those caves (unintelligible). It was difficult for him to deal with.
And I – and even as a theoretical physicist, sometimes just alone at night, confronted with the possibility that the real universe might actually correspond to something you’re thinking about is terrifying. And I think there’s…
Mr. HERZOG: And, of course, it is, because it’s not friendly just be – imagined to be being sucked into a black hole or even landing on the sun, which looks so benign and beautiful, and there’s hundreds of thousands of atomic explosions boiling every second.
Prof. KRAUSS: And in some ways, we have to realize that, yet, once again, we have to confront our own, in some sense, an unfriendly universe potentially, but also our own insignificance in a cosmic sense, and what significance we make of ourselves. To me, part of it is our ability to – this amazing gift we have to appreciate the universe and imagine it not just as it is but as it might be in order to understand ourselves better. That’s why I find this connection.
Mr. HERZOG: But Cormac gives the universe, and the universe that he describes, in this case, the border area between Texas and Mexico. And I’d like just to read one passage because – from “All the Pretty Horses.” I can’t help it because it’s so beautiful.
Prof. KRAUSS: Good idea.
Mr. HERZOG: And the leading character, John Grady, at the end witnesses the funeral of his – of an old Mexican lady who raised the family. He stood hat in hand over the unmarked Earth, this woman who had worked for his family 50 years. She had cared for his mother as a baby, and she had worked for his family long before his mother was born.
And she had known and cared for the wild Grady boys who were his mother’s (unintelligible) and who had all died so long ago. And he stood holding his hat. And he called her his abuela, and he said goodbye to her in Spanish, and then turned and put his hat and turned his wet face to the wind. And for a moment, he held out his hands as if to steady himself, as if to bless the ground there or, perhaps, as if to slow the world that was rushing away and seemed to care nothing for the old and the young, or rich or poor, or dark or pale, or he or she, nothing for their struggles, nothing for their names, nothing for the living or the dead.
In four days riding, he crossed the Pecos at Iraan, Texas, and rode up to the river breaks, where the pumpjacks in the Yates Field ranged against the skyline rows and dipped like mechanical birds, like great primitive birds welded up out of iron by hearsay, by hearsay – listen to that – by hearsay in a land, perhaps, where such birds once had been.
It’s just totally amazing. And then shortly – later, the desert he rode was red and red the dust he raised, the small dust that powered the legs of the horse he rode, the horse he led. In the evening, the wind came up and reddened all the sky before him. There were a few cattle in that country because it was barren country indeed. Yet he came at evening upon a solitary bull rolling in the dust against the blood-red sunset, like an animal in sacrificial torment.
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, I have to say…
Mr. HERZOG: So…
Prof. KRAUSS: I have to say…
FLATOW: I think we’ve set a landmark here. Werner Herzog reading Corman(ph) McCarthy Cormac McCarthy.
Prof. KRAUSS: I just want to say that was the purpose of my event, was to bring Werner to read Cormac. It’s amazing.
Mr. HERZOG: It cannot get any better and, for decades, we have not had this language in American literature.
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, thank you. You’re very kind. I think we should pick on Lawrence, not just because it’s his book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, let me…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McCARTHY: And I have to say, it’s just very, very good. It’s – what you -it’s supposedly a biography of Richard Feynman, but it’s not that at all. It’s a story of Feynman’s science, particularly QED. It picks up at the beginning in high school and takes you through not so much Feynman as what he did, and it’s just very, very well done.
FLATOW: Cormac, have you ever – being there at the Santa Fe Institute, do you ever, with your great facility with the English language, find yourself turning some of those research papers into better ones before they’re published?
Mr. McCARTHY: Oh, I do. I fight with them all the time. I say you have to you have to give rid of these exclamation points and these semicolons. I won’t speak to you until you do.
Prof. KRAUSS: I have to say that’s Cormac – we have spoken in phone about my book and he said, I’ve got it and I – there are some suggestions I want to make for the next edition, but you have to get rid of all your exclamation marks.
Mr. HERZOG: But Cormac…
FLATOW: Let me just, let me just jump in and…
Mr. HERZOG: …I think from either side we go – we should go straight at Lawrence’s jugular because…
Prof. KRAUSS: Oh, great.
Mr. HERZOG: …because only two days ago, a day ago, there was reports of a mysterious finding, possibly even a new form of force in the universe and we just want to know what do you think about it.
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, can you describe it?
FLATOW: Lawrence, Lawrence, let me just jump in here and remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I’m Ira Flatow with Lawrence Krauss, Cormac McCarthy and Werner Herzog.
Lawrence, do you want to fill us in on that?
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, it’s a fascinating, a tantalizing bump seen at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory – a statistical bump…
Mr. HERZOG: Statistical bump. Yes.
Prof. KRAUSS: …and I suspect – and if it’s true, it means much of what we think about the fundamental force of nature is wrong, which is probably not true, and we were just talking about that before.
It’s exciting, but we have to realize that we have to wait and see, and most of our ideas are wrong. And so the most exciting thing would be if this bump that shouldn’t be there is there because it means most of our ideas are wrong. And if you’re a theoretical physicist, that’s exactly what you want to be the case because it means there’s a lot more out there to discover.
Mr. HERZOG: I hope they are wrong. I hope they are wrong because I feel comfortable with the explanation of forces (unintelligible)
FLATOW: What bump? Give us an idea, Lawrence, what do you mean by a bump that’s there?
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, what the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory does in the Tevatron, which was, until the Large Hadron Collider, the most energetic accelerator in the world, is bangs together protons and antiprotons together, smashes them together and sees what comes out, measuring the energy of the particles in a different – and their charges.
And if a particle is created that lives for a little while and then decays, what you’ll see is a lot of particles coming out, but all with the energy associated with the mass of the particle that decays. So if you’re looking to discover new particles, you look at the energy of the particles coming out, and you see if they all happen to lie a very small region. That means there’s probably some intermediate particle that was created that lives for a while and then decays.
And that’s, statistically, what they’ve seen at a tantalizing level. The Large Hadron Collider, of course, will explore it and it’s…
FLATOW: And it doesn’t fit theory anywhere?
Prof. KRAUSS: It doesn’t fit theory anywhere. And, in fact, the interesting thing is, as Werner said, he want – he hopes it’s wrong because I kind of feel like him in the jungle because I want it to be wrong even though I know it’s probably not good for me.
(Soundbite of Laughter)
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, what they’re looking for, principally, at the Large Hadron Collider, I think, is the Higgs boson. And if they don’t find that, there’s going to have to be a lot of revision done because that so-called Higgs mechanism is what’s responsible for supplying the masses to the particles in the standard model. And if they don’t find some way to get these masses into the particles, they’re going to have to do a lot of re-writing with physics for the last 40 years.
Prof. KRAUSS: Absolutely. And, unfortunately, you know, it’s sad for me because let’s say they don’t – we don’t find that Large Hadron Collider, that in some sense would be the most interesting finding…
Mr. McCARTHY: It would be interesting indeed.
Prof. KRAUSS: But the trouble is, to get the government to fund another accelerator, if we say, we did this and we found nothing, isn’t that exciting? It might be a hard sell.
Mr. HERZOG: But it’s a great mystery and there’s – and with certain things that have been established so far, it’s easy to settle in. And we hope they are wrong, and the statistical little hiccup doesn’t mean too much. For example, in pure mathematics, Riemann’s hypothesis about distribution of prime numbers, let’s hope he is right because otherwise every single theory in mathematics would collapse.
FLATOW: Gentlemen, we’ve ran out of time. Can we invite you back next time same place?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KRAUSS: I’d love it.
FLATOW: Same station. Okay…
Mr. McCARTHY: We’ll talk.
FLATOW: We’ll, talk. Thank you all. Werner Herzog is a film director, producer and screenwriter. He has directed over 50 films, you know, “Grizzly Man,” and “Encounters at the End of the World.” His latest film is “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” It’s in 3D. It opens April 29th nationwide. If you want to see these wonderful cave drawings and the history and the challenges and the dreams, it’s a terrific film.
Cormac McCarthy, what can I say about him, he’s a novelist and a playwright. His books include “The Road,” “No Country for Old Men,” “All the Pretty Horses.” And McCarthy is also the recipient of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. And now it sounds like he knows more about science than we thought he did. He’s letting us know about that.
Laurence Krauss is a physicist foundation professor and director of the ASU Origins Project. His latest book is “Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science.” He is also head of the science and culture festival that’s taking place all weekend at Arizona State University. You can drop in if there are any tickets left, and that’s in Tempe.
Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. We’ll meet you back here a year from now.
Mr. McCARTHY: Thank you, Ira.
Mr. HERZOG: Thank you.
Prof. KRAUSS: Thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: You’re welcome.
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