I don't mean to be flippant about reality or transformative
passage, either one. Those who read E-Bits know
these two are favorite topics for discussion. But I mention John
Wheeler for a reason, and that reason is his inspiring legacy.
Anyone unfamiliar with John Wheeler's name will surely know the
terms he coined. The most recognizable one is black
hole. Science fiction aficionados, astronomers, and
aspiring future astronauts spend endless hours contemplating the
possibility of traveling to the furthest outposts in space via, worm
holes. Here's a short video clip on black holes from the Chandra
X-Ray Center in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is managed by NASA's Marshall
Space Flight Center and the Smithsonian Astrophysical
John Wheeler had many phases to his career. He was a professor
of physics at Princeton, collaborated with Albert Einstein and
Neils Bohr, worked on general relativity, particle physics,
nuclear fission, and unified field theory, and was a member of
the team of physicists who worked on the Manhattan
Project and Project
Matterhorn. He won the coveted Enrico Fermi Award and was
doctoral advisor to 1965 Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman.
Wheeler constantly and enthusiastically embraced transitional
phases in his work, evidenced by new beginnings in the last
third of his life when he accepted a post as professor emeritus
at the University of Texas in Austin, where he established the
Center for Theoretical Physics. After a decade in Texas, he
returned to Princeton for his last 20 years. He was no fool, but
I heard him say with my own ears, "I am willing to go anywhere,
do anything, talk to anybody, and make a fool of myself to
answer this question: how is the world put together?" There was
a man with a fire in his belly.
So what does all this have to do with The
Digital Journalist's raison d'ętre, visual journalism?
Everything, I think. But I'll get to that shortly. Take a look
at this video collection of quotes from one of Professor
Wheeler's more thoughtful and thought-provoking colleagues. We
don't know who put this together, but the quotes are set to
Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 5 in G Major. Click to take a
journey through the thoughts of Albert Einstein.
Generally speaking, serious scientists, artists and journalists
have one fundamental thing in common—they search passionately
and relentlessly for the truth, whatever it may be and whatever
the consequences. Scientists are searching for truth outside of
themselves while artists attempt to make manifest their inner
search for truth. Journalists, on the other hand, are recording
and dissecting the search itself, trying to determine what is
real, what is true, and what the sides of the issues are. The
more dedicated searchers and researchers, like John Wheeler, are
willing to go through a lot to get at the truth of whatever is
the matter. This is why we have scientists willing to go to
extremes to discover the natural laws of the universe, artists
who are willing to give up security and sometimes more to
express themselves, and journalists who risk their lives to
report news from war zones or to uncover the awful truth
wherever it is found. Truth may be hard to determine and
conclusions may be arguable, but all evidence supports the fact
that the search for it lights a fire in the belly, and may
define the very essence of what it is to be human. Here is a
startling depiction of a few contemporary realities, put
together by a visual artist in a quantitative and aesthetically
fascinating way. Click on the image and scroll through artist
Chris Jordan's site to find out what he reveals in this and
other amazing creations.
Now, a little more on how the search for scientific truth
relates to the search for truth in art and journalism. I hope
you've read about Tim
Robbins' keynote addressat the National Association of
Broadcasters' 2008 convention in Las Vegas. If you haven't,
you'll find it in our "NAB 2008 Report." It seems the mainstream
media has drifted near some sort of supermassive media black
hole, a place from which it is becoming increasingly difficult
for truth to escape, much less circulate. Actor/activist
Robbins' keynote address to an estimated 15,000 broadcasters was
humorous, but it packed an excoriating punch to the heart of the
elephant sitting in the same room.
Robbins admonished the press for closing its eyes to corruption,
for over-reporting schlock and celebrity gossip, and for
under-reporting, even ignoring essential news. He said we are at
an abyss, reeling from betrayal, and turning toward a cynicism
that broadcasters have helped create but still have the power to
reverse. He encouraged them to imagine a world of broadcasting
that informs rather than confuses, inspires rather than divides,
and promotes strength and unity rather than hatred and distrust.
With what sounded to me like a wink, he said there could be
money to be made in appealing to our better selves, adding a bit
dryly and with a hint of sarcasm, "wouldn't that be great?" By
the end of the speech those following this story were recalling
Howard Beale's Mad as Hell speech in the 1976 film "Network," a
fantasy that has somehow inched dangerously close to reality.
Watch it again here.
The fictional journalist Howard Beale, the real but departed
scientist John Wheeler, and the contemporary actor Tim Robbins
all have something in common—a willingness to go anywhere, do
anything, talk to anybody, and make fools of themselves in order
to find an answer to pressing problems. I'm glad Howard Beale
doesn't really exist but that the film and its message are
imminently viewable. It is sad to say goodbye to John Wheeler,
his beautiful mind, and his search for scientific truth, but 96
is a longer life than most, so we were lucky to have him as long
as we did.
Finally, I know I'm not alone in appreciating Tim Robbins'
inspirational speech to broadcasters and by proxy the rest of
the media, who in fact and literally may hold the fate of the
world in the palm of their collective hand. There is a lot to be
done, so I'm hoping for fire in a lot of bellies. I haven't
mentioned cyberspace but I sense a mass migration going on. More
on that later.