Twitch

by Tina Makeret / 23 January, 2010
2009 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing

Like most people, as a child I would ask my father where I came from. Discussions of human sexuality were strenuously avoided, but there remained complex and puzzling questions about our presence in the universe. I have a distinct memory of being taken outside one night to look up at the full and startling moon. It was the late seventies, and I was four years old. What I saw in the moon was one of the warrior gorillas from Planet of the Apes. I carried this as a true memory right into adulthood, though it is obvious now that this could not have been what I saw. I am not sure what I was meant to discover that night as I looked up at the luminous sphere cloaked in the cool dark. But I see now that my imaginative world of TV shows and plastic gorillas out of cereal boxes must have been just as real to me as what was 'out there'.

The internal world: the external world. How do we know our place in the universe? The answer that comes to me immediately these days is whakapapa. It doesn't sound very scientific - genealogy. But in the Maori world view, it takes you right back to the beginning of time. Right back, in fact, to before the Big Bang.

There are some people who can trace their whakapapa back to Maui. I am not one of those people. I don't claim to be any expert in these matters, but the little I do know is enough to paint a startling picture of creation - a picture that is surprisingly in tune with conventional western ideas about how the universe began.

One story says Maui was a demigod. His grandmothers were goddesses of a sort, and one of them was the first fully human being to exist - Hinetitama, the dawn maiden, who later became Hinenuitepo, the great mother of the night. Hinetitama was born of Hineahuone, the earth-formed maid, and Tane, the god of forests who became the progenitor of many living things. So, Hinetitama was created by a combination of the earthly and the celestial. Tane himself came from the marriage of Papatuanuku, the earth mother, and Ranginui, the sky father. If you can trace your whakapapa back to Maui, you can connect yourself to the gods. Ranginui is the heavens - so you have found your connection to the Universe the way we think about it these days, up there, in the sky.

Perhaps you choose not to believe Maui was part god. Some of us don't really know. Perhaps he was a great and illustrious explorer, whose exploits were so extreme and world-changing that he is remembered all throughout the Pacific. It is not outside of the realms of possibility that Maui was a real man so revered by his descendants that they have maintained the woven strand that links them to him for centuries, remembering him in legend and genealogy. Allow for the possibility. But what of the idea his grandparents and great-grandparents really were the initiators of the human race, and if you go further back, the order of our universe as we know it? That is a story, and what is important about it is not that we believe it is true, but that we understand what it stands for.

The interesting thing is, even writers of science (okay, writers of popular books about science, I can't claim to have read any work by actual astrophysicists ...) describe creation in evolutionary terms that sound almost genealogical. Note here how our cosmological beginnings are described as a birth: "The true picture of the Big Bang is one in which space, matter and, crucially, time were born. Space did not appear out of 'nothingness'; before the moment of creation there was no 'nothingness'."1 Bill Bryson's description of the 'singularity' - in which "every last mote and particle of matter between here and the edge of creation" is squeezed into an infinitesimally compact spot that preceded the Big Bang is similar: "outside the ­singularity there is no where. When the universe begins to expand, it won't be spreading out to fill a larger emptiness. The only space that exists is the space it creates as it goes."2 If we look at one of the many Maori versions of creation (there are tribal variations, but they all conceive of the universe in terms of whakapapa), we find extraordinary similarities to scientific ideas of what preceded and followed the Big Bang:

Te Korekore - a double negative, the Absolute Nothingness.

Te Korekore Te Rawea - the Absolute Nothingness which could Not be Wrapped up.

Te Korekore Te Whiwhia - the Absolute Nothingness which could Not be Bound.

Te Korekore Te Tamaua - the Absolute Nothingness which could Not be Fastened.

Te Kowhao - the Abyss.

Te Pa - the Night.3

In this Ngapuhi account, Io-Matua-Kore - Io the Parentless who was Always Existent without beginning or end - lived eternally in Te Korekore. Io is sometimes thought of as the Creator, though Io might be characterised more accurately as something like a divine animating spark that begets life. Among the Williams' Dictionary4 definitions of the word Io, we find 'sinew, muscle, nerve' first, and 'twitch' later. I may be stretching things, but it might even be possible to describe Io as a 'singularity'.

Maori Marsden describes the meaning of Te Korekore as ­follows:

... not simply 'non-being', or annihilating nothingness, though it includes this meaning, but it went beyond this. By means of a thorough-going negativity, the negation itself turns into the most positive activity. It is the negation of negation. Te Korekore is the infinite realm of the formless and undifferentiated. It is the realm not so much of 'non-being' but rather of 'potential being'. It is the realm of Primal and Latent energy from which the stuff of the Universe proceeds and from which all things evolve.5

As Michael P Shirres further explains: "This was the space-time framework, the space (void and abyss) -time (the nights) continuum, in which the cosmic process could begin to operate."6 Which leads us to wonder how a people considered 'stone-age' had this level of understanding of what lay behind the observable phenomena of the night sky and the physical world.

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson does an impressive job of describing the Big Bang - more a sudden expansion than explosion - in such a way that it becomes accessible, and almost imaginable:

In a single blinding pulse, a moment of glory much too swift and expansive for any form of words, the singularity assumes heavenly dimensions, space beyond conception. In the first lively second ... is produced gravity and other forces that govern physics. In less than a minute the universe is a million billion miles across and growing fast ... In three minutes, 98 percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too.7

Again, if we look at various Maori traditions, we find many similarities:

Te Kore, The Nothingness,

Te Po, The Night,

Te Rapunga, The Seeking,

Whaia, Following,

Te Kukune, The Conception,

Te Pupuke, The Swelling,

Te Hihiri, The Elemental and Pure Energy,

Te Mahara, The Subconscious,

Te Hinengaro, The Deep Mind,

Te Manako, The Desire,

Te Wananga, The Wisdom,

Te Ahua, The Form,

Te Atamai, The Shape,

Te Whiwhia, The Possessing,

Rawea, The Being Bound,

Hopu Tu, The Possessing Power,

Hau Ora, The Breath of Life,

Atea. Space.8

The language used above to describe the most ancient genea­logies of creation emphasises expansion - seeking, following, conception, swelling, the development of pure elemental energy or power out of which all physical things will spring, much in the same way that Bryson and other writers describe the Big Bang as a massively creative moment. Finally, form, shape, power and life come into being, resulting in Space and "all the matter there is or will ever be".

The eons of time that followed the burst of creative expansion we call the Big Bang are described by Maori in terms of night, and these descriptions reveal a poetic temperament determined to explore and reveal the different qualities of the "300,000 years following the cataclysmic period of inflation".9 Here we encounter Te Pa te kitea / the unseen night, Te Pa te whaia / the unpossessed night, Te Pa te wheau / ­

the fleeting night, Te Pa tangotango / the night of utter darkness, Te Pa te whawha / the untouched and untouchable night.10 The twitch of Io in the realm of Te Kore has created the conditions that make the development of the Universe possible. These different Maori traditions leave us ­a legacy of descriptive language with which to come to terms with more esoteric ­scientific ­

theories:

The Universe became a less violent place. As the temperature dropped, so the protons and neutrons began to slow down; however, radiation and matter were still linked ... the biggest difference ... is that in those very early times [the Universe] was completely opaque ...

However, when the Universe had cooled to a mere 30,000 degrees, around 300,000 years after the Big Bang, a sudden change took place ... The first neutral atoms were formed ... A large expanse of space between each newly formed atom therefore opened up, and photons were suddenly free to travel for great distances. In other words, matter and radiation were ­separated, and 300,000 years after the Big Bang the Universe became transparent.11

The picture is completed hence:

Te Po namunamu ki taiao The night of seeking passage into the world,

Te Po tahuri atu The night of restless turning,

Te Po tahuri mai ki taiao The night of turning towards the revealed world,

Ki te Whai ao To the Glimmer of Dawn

Ki Te Ao Marama To the Bright Light of Day12

Those neutral little atoms creating space for transparency - that's the letting of light into the Universe, making way for Te Ao Marama, literally 'The World of Light' (marama can also mean transparency and illumination). In the Christian tradition, this is the moment God said, 'Let there be light.'

Most New Zealanders know a little about the story of Ranginui and Papatuanuku, tightly embracing at the beginning of time, bringing forth children who were gods in their own right, but were miserable in the clammy dark between their parent's bodies. Many are familiar with the story of how the children of Rangi and Papa debated and quarrelled, arguing whether to kill, or separate, or leave their parents alone. In the end it was decided that separation was the most humane option for all involved, and there followed a number of stories around how this was achieved. Eventually Rangi was established in the heavens, with Papa lying below him, her face turned away in her sorrow, no longer clasped in her husband's embrace, but bathed in his tears. And, as I described earlier, eventually the descendants of Rangi and Papa produced Maui and his generation of people, who in turn produced te iwi Maori.

What would the scientific account make of this? Bryson has a tendency to get to the heart of things quickly and succinctly:

About 4.6 billion years ago, a great swirl of gas and dust some 15 billion miles across accumulated in space where we are now and began to aggregate. Virtually all of it - 99.9 percent of the mass of the solar system - went to make the Sun. Out of the floating material that was left over, two microscopic grains floated close enough together to be joined by electrostatic forces. This was the moment of conception for our planet ... In just 200 million years, possibly less, the Earth was essentially formed, though still molten and subject to constant bombardment ...

For the next 500 million years the young Earth continued to be pelted relentlessly by comets, meteorites, and other galactic debris, which brought water to fill the oceans and the com­ponents necessary for the successful formation of life. It was a singularly hostile environment and yet somehow life got going. Some tiny bag of chemicals twitched and became animate. We were on our way.13

For a long time, it seems, the Sky was a lot closer to the Earth than it is now. He touched her passionately, sending her way the elements that would shape her and allow her to bring forth life. They were locked together in a tumultuous embrace that brought about the right conditions for life to exist. But, in the beginning, those conditions were hostile, tempest­uous, and not easy to live in. It was not until the Sky and the Earth separated that the atmosphere calmed and strengthened and cooled, and light became a constant and reliable presence.

I have a tendency to revere my ancestors, all of them, the Maori, Pakeha, Moriori. Still, it astonishes me that the visions of creation from my tupuna could have been so accurate. Perhaps this is because it took conventional Western science up until at least the latter half of the 20th century to figure most of this out, and we like to believe that Western-style science is the most advanced of all. So how did the old people do it? Of course, I can only guess. I see the advantages in being 'stone-age' - that in the evenings, you only had the night sky to look at, and stories to tell. That over generations, stories built upon older stories, certain people with particularly clear vision saw patterns in the night sky, or noticed movements, a distant star going supernova perhaps, or the blinking out of light from a long dead sun. It is possible they looked inward as often as out, travelling the complex pathways of the mind and spirit, touching ancient wisdoms about our ­origins only dreams can offer. And, in the darkness with only natural light from the Milky Way to see by, they began to understand what lay behind the stars, what went before them, the place of potential, Te Korekore, with Io twitching into life.

My favourite part of the space science books you can get out of the library these days is the Hubble Space ­telescope pictures most of them have. How can you not be floored by the Pillars of Creation? Google it, you'll see what I mean, "these pillars of interstellar gas and dust are a chrysalis for new stars ... Several of the newly formed stars can be seen emerging at the tips of spine-like features."14 The names of space phenomena are funky, but don't prepare you for the astounding display of colour and light suffusing space dust and gas you'll witness if you go in search of the Orion, Dumbell, Helix, Flame, Horsehead, Eight-burst, Little Ghost, Spirograph, Twin Jet, Blinking Eye, Elephant's Trunk, Cone, Ant, Cat's Eye, Red Spider, Lagoon, Rotten Egg, Eskimo, Cat's Paw, Swan or Boomerang Nebulae.

And then there's the spiral galaxies which:

... owe their elaborate anatomy to an ephemeral light show that traces the progress of a density wave churning through their discs. The crest of the wave is illuminated by a surf of massive, short-lived stars sculpted from the interstellar medium by the shock of its passage, as well as by existing stars bunching together as they slide over its peak.15

There are whirlpool galaxies, ones we have only seen side-on or at an angle so that they look like ethereal flying Frisbees, and one that is apparently spinning backwards. Some of the galaxies cluster in groups or pairs and some have tails like mice. The cosmos is full of dazzling spectacles we can only wonder at. ­Paradoxically, it is in this mystery that I also find my place in the Universe. It is here I find comfort - for all we think we do know, there is infinitely more we don't. I may not be genealogically related to the Universe, but it's just as likely that I am. It's not that we believe the stories, but that we understand what they tell us. What they say is that we are connected to all of creation, and science doesn't deny that:

Whatever prompted life to begin, it happened just once. That is the most extraordinary fact in biology, perhaps the most extraordinary fact we know. Everything that has ever lived, plant or animal, dates its beginnings from the same primordial twitch. At some point in the unimaginably distant past some little bag of chemicals fidgeted to life. It absorbed some nutrients, gently pulsed, had a brief existence ... But this ancestral packet did something additional and extraordinary: it cleaved itself and produced an heir. A tiny bundle of genetic material passed from one living entity to another, and has never stopped moving since.16

That's whakapapa.

Google. Hubble. It may not be necessary to use technology to view a picture of a spiral galaxy or the wonders of creation in space. Next time you are at a museum, or if you are able to visit a marae, find a wharenui, pataka, or waka taua. If the structure is a house, look to the lintel above the doorway. If it is a canoe, look to the prow or stern. You will see figures carved there, and spirals carved between them. The double spirals may be carved in such a way that there are gaps pierced between the lines of the ­spirals, allowing light to filter through. This is the takarangi. What you see depicted in the carving before you is Te Kore, Te Po, Te Ao Marama - a spiral universe of potential being, darkness and light in a swirling, dynamic dance, the Earth and Sky separated yet linked. It is a good enough way to view the world. Either that, or take the kids outside during the full moon, so that you can all look up in the cool dark at the mystery of the heavens, and ask them what they see.

Latest

Bill Ralston: We care for Grace Millane – we should care for the others too
100435 2018-12-15 00:00:00Z Crime

Bill Ralston: We care for Grace Millane – we shoul…

by Bill Ralston

The death of young tourist Grace Millane touches us all and is a call to action.

Read more
There are some striking similarities between Trump and Bill Clinton
100425 2018-12-15 00:00:00Z World

There are some striking similarities between Trump…

by Paul Thomas

Donald Trump may be a stark contrast to past Republican presidents but he bears comparison to a Democrat who survived impeachment.

Read more
Handmade gifts to treasure by New Zealand's talented craftspeople
100475 2018-12-15 00:00:00Z Style

Handmade gifts to treasure by New Zealand's talent…

by Kate Richards

These six makers share their love for the handmade.

Read more
Wellington's Lime e-scooter launch a sign of NZ's transport evolution
100488 2018-12-14 15:12:37Z Tech

Wellington's Lime e-scooter launch a sign of NZ's …

by Peter Griffin

Despite an initial flurry of ACC injury claims, transport sharing schemes look set to become part of the fabric of urban transport.

Read more
Win an Oscar Wilde prize pack, including books and double passes
100464 2018-12-14 10:08:08Z Win

Win an Oscar Wilde prize pack, including books and…

by The Listener

Enter and be in to win The Selfish Giant, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Happy Prince and Other Stories, and a double pass to The Happy Prince.

Read more
Trends in 2018: What Kiwis searched for this year
100457 2018-12-14 09:38:50Z Life in NZ

Trends in 2018: What Kiwis searched for this year

by RNZ

Here's what piqued our interest this year.

Read more
The curious connection between these new celebrity biographies
100448 2018-12-14 09:13:59Z Books

The curious connection between these new celebrity…

by Russell Baillie

Our reviewer wades into a flood of celebrity biographies and memoirs and finds they’re all connected in some way.

Read more
Hop to it: The best Kiwi beers for summer
99461 2018-12-14 00:00:00Z Dining

Hop to it: The best Kiwi beers for summer

by Michael Donaldson

Here's what to crack open on a hot day, from our very own Kiwi brewers.

Read more