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By Karen Zarker, 17 May 2009
20 questions for author Christopher Potter
“Christopher Potter is not a scientist,” writes PopMatters’ Michael Patrick Brady, “but rather a skilled writer with a sincere interest in the search for the secrets of the universe.
“His book, ‘You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe’ (HarperCollins, March 2009) is a layman’s compelling journey that succeeds in mapping out the complicated evolution of science and its quest for knowledge. Potter is not afraid to challenge his readers by taking them to the boundaries of meaning. He asks them to accept two seemingly contradictory notions: that humanity is not the center of the universe, and that the universe relies on humanity for meaning. This compelling book is replete with information that is simultaneously exciting and frightening.”
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Almost any movie at 35,000 feet brings me close to tears. Anecdotally – meaning I asked a few friends – this would seem to be a common response to watching movies in planes. I wonder if this experience has been widely reported, and whether the phenomenon has been scientifically studied.
The last movie I watched earth-bound and that brought tears to my eyes – I can’t say any movie has actually made me cry, in the sense of producing streams of tears – was “Anvil,” a film about the Canadian heavy metal band. I have no interest in heavy metal and my expectations were set close to zero, but “Anvil” turns out to be an extremely touching film about a certain sort of innocent and sentimental male friendship, and confounds stereotypes.
2. The fictional character most like you?
How well does anyone know him- or herself? I often think that the question ‘How are you?’ is the hardest question to answer truthfully (not that the interrogator usually expects an answer more than one word long).
We are so many things all at once. We can be happy and sad at the same time, and a million emotions in between. Happy about this, sad about that, angry about something else: many states all existing simultaneously and which together create how we might feel at any one moment.
One of the characters in fiction I most sympathize with is Emma in Jane Austen’s novel of that name. Her inability to resist the witty response rather than the kind but boring one makes her innately human. Goodness can look like dullness, and wittiness seems to make us vital. Ultimately, Emma comes to understand that her ability to function as a social creature sometimes compromises her functioning as a moral creature.
3. The greatest album, ever?
I love the singing voice, particularly the female singing voice. I grew up listening only to classical music but have broadened my taste as I have grown older.
Now my search for the most moving voices takes me to music of all types: whether it is a female choir from The Hebrides singing psalms, field recordings of the blues, or some highly trained opera singer. I adore Martha Wainwright (and her brother Rufus, and her mother and aunt: the McGarrigle sisters, Kate and Anna).
My favorite classically-trained voice of all time belonged to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I was lucky enough to have seen her on stage a few times, and will never forget her in Handel’s oratorio “Theodora,” staged at Glyndebourne by Peter Sellars.
The greatest album of all time: I’d choose Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Handel’s opera “Ariodante,” particularly the aria ‘Scherza Infida’ (though Janet Baker runs her a close second).
4. “Star Trek” or “Star Wars”?
It’s neither. But I am, like many millions of returning viewers, a fan of “Doctor Who,” the world’s longest running science-fiction TV series. I saw the very first episodes, when I was a few years old, almost 50 years ago, now.
For many years the series languished and then went off the air altogether. Its revivification from 2005 has been one of the great success stories of the BBC of recent times (and mostly down to its now departing series editor Russell T Davies).
At a deeper psychological level, I think the series is the huge success that it is because it restores Britain to its former position of colonial dominance. The Doctor may be an alien but he has a British accent, and so on a weekly basis, somebody very British-seeming gets to save not just the world but the universe. And in modest British style the Doctor (and last surviving Time Lord) travels through time and space in a spaceship disguised as a blue telephone box, the kind that at one time was a familiar sight on the streets of England and were used by the police to summon help in emergencies.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Music is what feeds my brain, or is it that it feeds my mind? A few years ago I had a breakdown and was made to realize (by some deeper part of my self) that there is little distinction to be made between mind and body; or, rather, they are inextricably entwined. At that time I could be reduced to panic as likely by some food I ate, as by some dark thought. But music sustained me; and, I believe, helped me to re-find myself.
I did wonder during the darkest hours of the breakdown whether I would ever be myself again. I didn’t know what I had become, and yet I knew I wasn’t as I had been before. It was the music of Henri Dutilleux that helped me the most. I became mesmerized by its intricacy and the luminescence of his sound world.
When I think of the power of music I am also reminded of the scene in Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady,” where Isabel Archer first comes across Madame Merle, whom she sees from behind playing Schubert on the piano. Sinister Madame Merle (we discover at some point that her first name is Serena) turns to Isabel and says, ‘I’m afraid there are moments in life when even Schubert has nothing to say to us …’ It would be a very dark day when music has nothing to say to me.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I almost gave up the playing the piano. I took it up at age 11 because Joanna Moore – my best friend at school (though I doubt whether she considered me her best friend) – played the piano, and basically I would have jumped off a cliff if Joanna Moore had told me that she intended to.
I almost gave up playing when I was about 15 but stuck at it. Now, it gives me such pleasure and, I’m really proud of the fact that I can play with reasonable proficiency.
7. You want to be remembered for …?
I’d loved to be remembered as the author of some brilliant novel. There is little evidence to suggest that this will happen, but it remains an ambition. I thought it was a secret ambition, but so much for that …
One of my favorite novelists is Penelope Fitzgerald and she didn’t write her first novel until she was in her 50s, so there’s hope. I’m always on the look-out for late starters.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
I don’t know why, but I’ve not ever been a big reader of biography. However, having said that, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could fail to be inspired by Einstein. I know hardly anything about his actual life, but I love what he wrote and said about life, about the condition of being human, about God, and about his work.
His rejection of positivism feels particularly modern, particularly when today we see writers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins taking what appears to be a strong (and it has to be said rather old-fashioned) positivist stance.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Masterpieces enrich our lives, but if any of them bore my signature I would have to be so entirely ‘other’ than who I actually am that the question becomes meaningless.
I started to list some masterpieces: Schubert’s last piano sonata, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” Beethoven’s 7th, Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker,” Velasquez’s “Las Meninas,” but I quickly got bored. Somehow to list them is to reduce them.
In any case, masterpieces aren’t necessarily what I want on a daily basis, anyway. Life without Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin,” for example, would be intolerable. But would I put it on a list of the greatest masterpieces? I’d rather not make the list.
10. Your hidden talents …?
I’m still hoping to develop some. I’d love to be able to swim, to dance and to sing. I decided to learn some poems by heart. I thought I needed to have something to keep me occupied if I ever find myself in prison, or kidnapped. I suppose I should also be ready to surprise someone at a dinner party if they happen to get stuck on, say, the second line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
If someone tries to undermine you, or says something nasty, just know that he or she is talking about him- or herself. It works. It allows one to feel compassion rather than anger. Or if not that, then it allows one to feel smug, which is almost as good.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
I bought my 1906 upright Bechstein piano for less than 700. I did, however, spend 4,000 having it re-strung. But during the process it was discovered that the piano’s decorative panels had been reversed, so that the immaculate and unfaded marquetry was on the inside and invisible. I had them turned back around of course. It was like finding buried treasure.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or …?
Now if you’d said Lanvin I might have wondered. Armani has no appeal to me. I like well-made clothes, otherwise I live in jeans, sometimes Levis, but I prefer Rogan.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Assuming it’s someone I don’t already know, I’d go for Johnny Depp. I’d see any film he was starring in, which I can’t say of any other actor. He appears to be an eccentric, and I like eccentrics. And of course he’s a wonderful actor, though that interests me less.
Otherwise, I’d rather be assured of good conversation and take a friend.
By the way, if I get a pick of Ritz’s, it has to be the Ritz in Madrid – the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I’m not sure that human beings are suited to travel in time or space. Even small hops to the moon seem to have traumatized a significant proportion of the small number who made the journey.
I’m happy ambling into the future in the usual fashion.
Einstein tells us that if we accelerate close to the speed of light we can jump as far as we like into the future of any place to which we then return. A twin left behind might have died and left behind many generations of descendants. Or perhaps civilizations might have fallen and the knowledge of how to travel close to the speed of light been lost. The returning traveler would then appear as a god from the Heavens.
There are deep mysteries in science. In a material or particle description of Nature everything is ultimately reducible to energy. The universe is a patch of energy that expanded and evolved. But what is energy? We know how energy changes from one form into other forms, but we have no idea what energy is at bottom. And when it comes to time we have even less idea what we’re talking about.
Hawking wrote “A Brief History of Time,” but really that book was a brief history of quantum physics. What science knows about time could be written on the back of the proverbial postage stamp.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Not Prozac, that’s for sure. Tried it. Had very bad experience. A spa vacation sounds ideal, but I’ve never done it. For some years I practiced Ashtanga yoga, the most physically demanding exercise I’ve ever taken. But it is also mentally demanding and for me proved to be too challenging. This powerful practice is popular with competitive Westerners, but it is as well to remember that it was devised to turn teenage boys into warriors and may not be ideal for 40 year-old office-bound executives (as I then was).
These days it’s Pilates for me. I particularly love its precision. It too can be demanding physically and mentally, but it unfolds in a way that gives you time to process and absorb whatever comes up.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or …?
For a few years I became very sensitive to all kinds of food and drink: coffee, tea, chocolate, alcohol, or anything that quickly turns to sugar in the body. So for a while I had no way of satisfying my cravings, or any way of escaping myself.
I’m back on chocolate and moderate amounts of alcohol. And though I love both, I’m not sure if I’d say that they are essential to life. Rather the opposite: essential as the means to escape (my) life from time to time.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
I commute between London and New York. My favorite headline on a billboard was one I saw in London for the Evening Standard. It read, “Manhattan: London’s newest suburb.”
I’d be tempted to move between other major cities except for my inability to speak any other languages. Rome is another city I particularly love. For some reason I’m not overly keen on Paris. New Yorkers love Paris and I’ve often wondered why. Perhaps it’s the result of some bond forged between France and America during and after their respective revolutions.
As I get older I need to spend more and more time by the sea. I’m about to spend the summer on the Cape, as that has become a luxurious habit of the last few years.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Show us what you believe in. Show us who you are. Be yourself. It’s working for Obama.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I’m intrigued by how nasty the whole ‘there is/isn’t a God’ debate has gotten. As a true skeptic – of materialism (science isn’t everything) as much as of religion – I’m trying to become better informed about the arguments on either side and why, indeed, there are even sides.
Science happened in the West because of monotheism so it’s intriguing to me that some scientists would want to deny their own origins. Also it’s hard not to notice that fundamentalists on both sides come out looking the same. It may be something I will also write about.
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