World War II on the Eastern Front. Ice storms rage around Nazi troops as they press through a forest outside Leningrad. Nestled within this scene of bitter cold and the mounting tension of combat, Lake Ladoga waits still, pure and remarkably unfrozen in spite of temperatures that dip below freezing. Battle erupts, soldiers clash, and the forest bursts into a wildfire. Soviet horses escape their stable, leap through the flames and dive into Lake Ladoga.
The next day, Italian war correspondent Curzio Malaparte walks out onto Lake Ladoga and finds himself surrounded by macabre ice sculptures of dead horses in their final gesture as the lake instantly froze around them. Finnish soldiers play on the horses like toys until the ice cracks in April, and the final moments of the horses of Lake Ladoga disappear below the surface.
Curzio Malaparte wrote about the horses of Lake Ladoga in his autobiographical novel Kaputt. Decades later, Malaparte’s story was taken up by astrophysicist Hubert Reeves as an example of a “phase shift” in physics. Normally when water reaches the point of freezing, the molecules turn in on themselves and crystalize. Sometimes when water is very still and pure there is nothing for the crystal to attach to, and the water remains liquid. There is tension in this state though, because the cold is pressing all around, and any disturbance will create an instant shift from liquid to ice. In the case of Lake Ladoga, it was the horses that allowed this shift to happen. Hubert Reeves used the horses of Lake Ladoga as a cosmic analogy of the early state of the Universe when pure energy shifted to matter. In the case of the Universe, it was the Higg’s Boson that allowed this shift to happen.
American filmmaker Walter Murch spends his spare time consuming science books but while on location in France, he found himself out of reading material. He wandered down to the local bookshop where he picked up the French book on cosmology by Hubert Reeves with the Lake Ladoga anecdote by Curzio Malaparte. Murch became so fascinated by Malaparte’s story that he translated his work into English. Murch published The Bird That Swallowed its Cage: The Selected Writings of Curzio Malaparte. Murch also went on to make a documentary on the search for the Higg’s Boson where Malaparte’s horses of Lake Ladoga was used again to illustrate the phase shift from pure energy to matter.
It seems to me that the story of Malaparte and Murch is its own little universal shift. An Italian anecdote on the ravages of war waits to be used in a French book on cosmology. A French book on cosmology waits to be read by an American filmmaker. Walter Murch is inspired to translate the nonscientific work of an Italian writer by a French work of science. Walter Murch goes on to make a documentary on the search for the Higg’s Boson, one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 21st Century. There is the universe of the Universe, and then there is the universe of Nature, and then there are the universes of our own little, individual lives.
And like Lake Lagoda I have waited pure and still and tense with the potential for change.
What becomes of you when someone else happens along and dips their finger in your lake? A sudden shift from energy to matter…an idea turned to a story or a song or a work of art or a class you always wanted to take but never had the guts….
Ekpyrosis, a word of ancient Greek origin. Defined as “conversion into fire.” The destruction that will convert the cosmos to re-creation. And from this ancient Greek word was named the ecpyrotic model of the Universe, the theory that the Universe did not start out as a singularity, but as a collision of two three dimensional worlds.
And here is where my musings will completely destroy the hard work of physics.
In my imagination, we are all our own little worlds. Connected by a string, we are spread like a necklace through the darkness. Every now and then “someone” or “something” shakes the string. We collide unexpectedly (though perhaps fatefully) with another world, another person. A whole new universe is created from the collision of two bodies. We could call it ekpyrotic friendship, this shift that allows it to happen.
My physics may be faulty, but my intentions are true. The best things in life are born from the fire of ekpyrotic friendship. Thank the Universe for them.
…or I would be a lake pure and still but without a story to tell.