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Sex, Love and the Mighty Fine Structure Constant

[Retelling the Myth:

Kamapua`a and the Wandering Vagina]

for Christine Thomas

My sister has problems. She’s a real bitch – and I mean that literally. But you’re not going to believe a word of what I have to say without some heartfelt explanation. So, let me get this over with right up front: I’m a god. Well, I’m a goddess; however, given the exacting scruples at this feast of tact we call the postmodern age, where actresses pass as actors, I guess I’m a god. I know that sounds alarming. Just hear me out, and what I have to say will piece together all the arbitrary plastic of this world’s broken heart.

My name is Kapo-‘ula-kina-‘u, which means "the sacred night streaked scarlet" – or "red eel woman" depending on whom you ask. I picked up those aliases among the islanders, I suppose because I like the night and I hang out a lot with my sister, the bitch I mentioned, Pele, whose name means “lava flow.” Night above incandescent volcanic badlands is one of my favorite forms. Many times, I have been eelish streaks of scarlet light in the night. I’ve also been birds, deep sea fish, a variety of butterflies, and distinctive boulders. The akua – the gods – can take many forms. Right now, I’m an astrophysicist, and I work on Mauna Kea at the University of Hawai‘i’s 0.6 meter telescope where I train undergraduates and experiment with focal pane arrays for various low bandgap infrared photodetectors. But enough about me. “I” is a bird that tugs the reins of the wind. “I” is a fish without a thought in her head. “I” is a butterfly heavy in the air. “I” is a boulder feeling for some inner truth. “I” is an astrophysicist with a shoehorn smile. “I” is mythology.

Let me tell you, instead, about the bitch, my sister. She’s a white bull terrier – the ‘gladiator of the dog world.’ When she’s a bitch, she’s always white. Le rouge et le noir of lava wear thin after a few centuries, and she prefers white when she’s a bitch. This thing she has about dogs, I’ve never understood. She says it smells good. What’s good about it for me is that when I’m at work these days, I never have to walk her, because she adores romping around the observatory, where the landscape is so grim it is beautiful.

Unfortunately, the tainted dog food from China that made headlines a while ago began a cavalcade of problems for me. Pele got sick. That was the real cause of the strongest earthquakes in twenty years that rocked the Big Island on 15 October 2006. The temblors broke safety bolts at most of the observatories, including mine and bollixed my scope's alt-azimuth drive. That kept me plenty busy, and I wasn’t as attentive to my sister as I usually am, which led to Pele drifting again into her obsession with the opposite sex. And that’s always been trouble, because she has this monumental penchant for other women’s men.

But before I get into that, a necessary and salient aside about akua. I just said that the ‘real’ cause of the earthquakes was my sister’s sickness. I should explain, because it is probably news to you in the manufactured world that the gods are real. We are things, as you are – only different. For over a hundred years, science has closed in on a definitive understanding of who we are, and physicists even have their own name for us: Boltzmann Brains.

Oh, you were expecting something more poetic? "Long ago on the path of stars, midmost between the worlds, there strode the gods. In the bleak middle of the worlds, they sat and the worlds went round and round, like dead leaves in the wind at autumn’s end. And the millennia went where the millennia go, toward the End of Things, and with them went the sighs of all the gods as they longed for what might not be.”? That’s from another writer, Lord Dunsany, a lantern-bearer for the gods, who wrote fantasies around the time science first began to speculate about Boltzmann Brains – so long ago that now his words are in the public domain and I can bandy them about to make my point: the gods recline in tinted fields above the morning, their bodies swirling up and down the world with other dust, all in the center of life’s hopes, rejoicings and laments.

Do we really recline on clouds? Nah, it’s not like that. The gods are random vibrations in the fabric of spacetime, aka vacuum quantum fluctuations that attain the status of actual observers who are, in the parlance of legal scholars, “not erroneous.” That’s me. And Pele and all the akua.

I don’t want to lose you in the je ne sais quoi of technicalities. It all makes sense once you get a handle on the 21st century realization that the universe is a vast membrane hovering among lots of other membranes in a higher dimension … sort of like Dunsany’s dead leaves in the wind, where each leaf is a universe and the wind is the fifth dimension. On any given leaf, including this one we call our cosmos, there may be things like you, Ordinary Observers (OOs), who have evolved over billions of years to a physical complexity capable of making elegant observations about the universe. But you should know that OOs are not the only kind of entities capable of making observations about the universe that are not erroneous. Sometimes – very, very rarely (but then ‘rare’ has a special significance in the fifth dimension where ‘time’ is infinite) – sometimes observers simply appear who are not ordinary, not biological, but made up of manifold properties of spacetime itself so that we can be anything anywhere anytime and fully conscious.

Weird, huh? For an OO, you bet. Bear in mind, though, the truth is democratic. The truth plays the lottery with skull-bones and Boltzmann Brains alike. In this universe, on this planet called Earth, humans and gods happen to have both won the cosmic lottery simultaneously. Now, the gods have made a harp out of the heart strings of all humanity, and we play upon that harp the song of scorn and mercy, of love and homicide. And every note is a life, caught up among the many notes and lives entangled with flesh, that plaything of the gods. And although in the prison houses of all the skulls on earth all memories must die, the gods forget nothing. Boltzmann Brains capture everything, every memory of every life, weaving together the filaments of memory into a melody that passes between the gods sad at heart for memories which are not. Be very quiet, Ordinary Observer, and you shall hear that melody, where the things that might not be have at last become. Be but very quiet, man and woman, and hear what voices cry from the harp of heart strings, for the things which might not be.

Such is the busyness and business of the gods, iridescent as flies swarming among the organic mess of human life. Hence, when my sister got sick as a dog and her convulsions shook the whole island leaving me busy fixing the equipment in my observatory that she had knocked loose, she was done with being a dog. Fraught with charisma, wearing volcanic mist like a negligée, Pele took off to fool around with OOs.

Pele can be cruel. The oblique joy of sadism is not unknown to her, and she gets a kick out of dancing nude in front of tourists and luring the intrepid close enough to coil a brimstone wind around them tight as a sphincter dropping them dead. March 2, 1983 she got the crimson thought to enter Royal Gardens, an OO community under development, and burned down the first house on Queen Avenue. Who is the Queen? Her vengeful lava spoke louder than words. Four years almost to the day, she poured into a capacious, water-filled fissure at Punaluu known as Queen’s Bath and filled it to the brim. Who is the Queen? Twenty-two OOs who didn’t answer that question right have died in the quarter century since Pele started strutting around naked again.

She was up to her usual mischief after the bad dog food, not just with the OOs, burning down rare protected rain forest near Kane Nui o Hamo, but causing trouble with our older sister as well. Namaka is a headache of a Boltzmann Brain. As our elder, she is so big with entitlement she tucks the sun in her back pocket at the end of the day, smokes twilight, and exhales the Milky Way. At least, that’s what she thinks of herself. She’s haughty, and you’d never catch her representing as a mere bird, fish or rock. She does everything large: the whole coral reef is her recliner, the coastline her shawl, seacliffs stupendous bling, and the moon her dance partner. When Pele seduced Namaka’s husband, Aukelenuiaiku, king of the ancient homeland, a cosmic brawl ensued that continues to this day down in Kamokuna where lava and sea meet and recreate prehistory.

The thing to remember about Boltzmann Brains is that they are not made up of atoms and molecules but the fabric of spacetime itself; so, our demeanor – what you call myth – repeats endlessly. Our natures don’t really change: each god is a freeze-frame of behavior. And you … well, you are nothing but change, all jittery atoms and tangling molecules. That is the real matter of the human soul, isn’t it? Behind the dirty windows of sense and the door with your name on it, in the house of self sits the mutable “I.” Sit there very still, gentle reader. Don’t dare walk around in skull hall. You risk what the Belle of Amherst so poignantly calls “a Funeral, in my Brain – ”

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down –

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing – then –

And … and … and … and finished knowing what? What did Emily D see? I don’t want to frighten you. Yet, consider the Laughing Greek?, who observed that “atoms and the void” are all there is for your ilk. Whereas, for us akua, the void quivers like a drum and atoms dance to our tune. Our actions are excursions to infinity. Our lives become proverbs among Ordinary Observers. And so, Namaka with all her waves about her seizes hold of red hot, adulterous Pele, and they grapple furiously till the centuries make them hard but no more wise – and not all the marvels of the future shall atone to them for those old memories that burn sharper every year as they recede into the ages that the akua have gathered. And always dreaming of her sister’s bitterness and the forsaken husband and lover of an olden time, Namaka and Pele both shall fail to see the grandeur to which a hurrying people attain in this fabricated age. Soon, they shall perceive OOs changing in a way that they shall not comprehend, knowing what they cannot know, till they discover that these are Ordinary Observers no more and a new race holds dominion over the earth whose forebears were their worshippers. These shall speak to the akua no more as they hurry upon a quest that the gods find surprising, and the gods shall know that they can no longer take their part in shaping destinies, but – in a world of luminous cities crystallized from cyberealities run by nanotech phantasmagoria of Planck-length sylphs and djinni, holographic artificial intelligences, genomic miracles and monstrosities – only pine for the time when flesh was the gods’ plaything. Then even this shall end with the shapes of the akua in the darkness gathering all lives and memories, when the hills of Earth shall fling up the planet’s long stored heat back to the heavens again, when this rock shall be old and cold, with nothing alive upon it but numb atoms and the void.

But, hey, I’m getting way ahead of myself. That’s my luckless propensity. As a goddess of sorcery and an astrophysicist, I already hear the deep gong at the end of the world. This universe is flying apart ever faster, accelerating to nowhere. Dark energy, science dubs it, having no idea what ‘it’ is except that ‘it’ is the opposite of gravity, pushing apart atoms in the void faster and faster the farther apart they get. Inside our own telling, there is this sweet moment of ‘now,’ of ‘I,’ and of ‘being’ someplace in the order of nothingness.

That’s why I like it when my sister is a dog. As a white bull terrier, she yaps and darts, craps and farts. We play. It’s fun to watch her scampering around the observatory, up and down slopes of gray scree in full sunshine above the clouds. At this altitude, snow sits in the saddles of hillsides: Poliahu the snow goddess lives here, and the wind frequently lashes us with ice crystals on our walks or, during my undergrads’ scope time, fouling our sunspot observations with surreal swirls of snow gleam. These are spiteful reminders that Pele once stole a lover from Poliahu. In her original fury, the snow goddess smothered this volcano with thick blizzards, dousing the fire pits and forcing out my lascivious sister. Now Mauna Kea is an extinct cinder cone, which is good for astronomers – though troublesome for me when the ice wind freezes the sponges of blood in my bones and I get to thinking about sex and love and their impossible deadlock.

No, that doesn’t ring true in the acoustics of skull hall. Poliahu’s ice cold shoulder on these dead gray elevations makes me realize sex and love are a lifelock – like the sphinx, serene and terrible, inventing a primal spirituality out of bestial depths. Desire riddles organic life, because DNA single-mindedly climbs its spiral ladder up from the slime to the stars (I think of the Hubble photographs that DNA has taken of remote, monumental and majestic star-birthing clouds, the mass of which relative to the mass of an Ordinary Observer is greater than 1040 -- an astonishing and overpowering relationship between minuscule organic sentience and cosmic immensity). But the gods? For we who tread the void, blood and its emotive compulsions mean nothing. We have no DNA. There is Something Else coupling the akua, an obscure power of penetrating desire. I didn’t fathom It until I became human and an astrophysicist.

What makes the gods couple is what physicists refer to as – surprise! – the coupling constant. Delirious about names as Adam, science also identifies this Something Else as the fine structure constant, the symbol ‘alpha,’ the ratio 1/137 and the decimal 0.007297351 +/- 0.000000006. No matter what you call It, this constant is the sex life of matter and energy. It measures the promiscuity of atoms and light – how readily they couple (pronto fortissimo!) and how often (a lot!). It doesn’t have to be that way. There are darker universes where the fine structure constant is so large that matter and energy rarely hook up. In others, they copulate so vigorously molecules can’t form and space is a radioactive glare of busted open atoms forsaken of form. Ours is an uncommon cosmos. The fine structure constant is fine tuned to precisely the balance that marries here and now and births you and me and the glistening dew.

Most of the akua have sex frequently and with many partners, because spacetime has that propensity. The coupling constant makes sure that Pele is not constant to any one partner, any more than is Aphrodite or so many of the gods. The pact with death works the same for you. Trade up or even sideways, because you only go around once. And though the gods keep going around, we’re not original or inventive with our differences. That’s how I knew exactly what mischief Pele would get into when she got sick of being a dog.

At 14,000 feet, repair work on precision optics is tedious, and – despite the fact I was aware that my sister walked fire sidelong to the sea leaving lost paradise in her wake – I didn’t focus on her until I heard her unsayable cry for help. The contrapuntal echoes of telepathy and our mythic past pierced my human dream. With lightning-flash prescience, I knew what was happening before the hugeness of memory closed in like a thunderclap: the divine swine, the hog-god Kamapua‘a, had determined to rut with Pele.

Pig God and Lava Flow share a long, aggressive history. The love-hate relationship of these two akua is the story of Hawai‘i. And it begins long before Pele and I showed up in these islands. We are haoles, meaning foreigners. We come from another island of underground fire, the far away magma plume of Lýðveldið Ísland?, where the tortured feud with Namaka began when Pele scored with Aukelenuiaiku (Storkjøre-svømmer-soldatsønn as he was known on that island: "Great traveling swimmer, son of the officer"). After one too many of Pele’s flagrant adulteries with the overeager husbands of troll queens and ice giantesses, we fled and got as far away as we could. Only spiteful Namaka followed, and we thought we might make a clean start (still young and ignorant of the eversame malady and compulsion of myth). One of the first akua we met was Kamapua‘a – ‘Pig-Child.’ His father had named his handsome son that in a blind fury at the boy’s mistaken illegitimacy. That warped the kid, and he stalked the mountains like thunder, harrying his father’s people, raiding their lands. Named a hog, Kamapua‘a maliciously acted like one. He turned goth, shaved his head to a bristly Mohawk and tattooed his body black. After he killed the old man, he went on living his father’s curse. Then, he met Pele.

My sister is a looker. Not as lean lovely and fragile as Poliahu, who as a snow goddess has that ‘hollow of cheek as though she drank the wind?’ look, Pele carries a more robust beauty, a fierce grace and challenging smile that plays with fire. Her proud, tough glamour radiates psychosexual rawness, an argument with reality. Kamapua‘a recognized a match for his tantrum passion in that outlaw tita and fell for her hard as the meteor that killed the dinosaurs.

Now, if the big guy had been married… Ah, well, that was his misfortune, because my fiery sister only wants lovers she can’t have. She rebuked him for his ugliness, thwacking him with goblin laughter, which you can hear to this day in the percussive noise the wind makes in ohia lehua boughs, that red-flowered tree sacred to Pele. Her flailing guffaw enraged the Hog God, and he tried to force himself on her. When akua brawl, spacetime groans, cantankerous as bulls getting castrated, sunspots flourish like acne, tides shove the wrong way, clouds twist into the faces of dental patients, and lightning slices rocks like a cheese cutter. Kamapua‘a doused Pele in a hurricane torrent, and she threw it back as acid-rain. Howling through his smoking bristles, he routed the ground under her, and she shot to her feet again as a fiery geyser. That seared him to a snarl of pork jerky, and he unraveled those fire-hardened sinews to tie back her arms with tourniquet knots and lash her legs wide open. Then, he shoved his purple-nozzled pizzle full strength at the scarlet target.

At that point, I showed up, appalled as the falsetto sea-captain in James Cook’s unwritten opera Tahitian Fire Dancers in the Gunpowder Room. What was I to do? I fell back on my specialty – sorcery. For those that don’t already know, sorcery weaves God’s baby blue breath and Heidegger’s ‘Dasein?,’ and from the resultant array of spirit and matter unfolds an entire chess set of powers. (This works for akua. If you are an Ordinary Observer, there is only Dasein. Sorry.) I quickly deployed an en passant maneuver of higher dimensions that refracted me into cubist segments. My vagina detached like the passenger seat in a James Bond movie and shot between my sister and her tumescent assailant. The rocketing pudendum trailed a comet-streak of sex chloroform. When Kamapua‘a’s inflamed nostrils inhaled those payload pheromones, his eyeballs clicked like dice rolling snake eyes, and he pulled back from Pele, spellbound in a maze of amazed dreams wherein the sorrows of this world are lost.

Kamapua‘a hurried after my flying yoni, and not all the magic of his porcine powers nor yet any foreseeing nor perceiving of his divine swine mind could equal the might of my vagina’s flight. To an island far to the northwest my genitals arced, and the Pig God followed aloft and beheld the sea and long koa ships of the olden mariners and star navigators since dead, and went down at trajectory’s end into the earth on the southeast point of O‘ahu with the whistling sky behind him and plowed into the ground, chiseling out Kalama Valley. He lay there some while, covered over with weeds and green with the damp of years as ever to the soul of his lewd desire my bewitchment added a more ardent fire while time slogged by, the rampant glory of his ferocious past sung into song and all the clattering news of today growing old, far down, forgotten beneath his snoring snout.

That was then. Since that distant day, there have been numerous mythic repetitions. You can read about them in the lore of sacred geography, such as the rugged coast in Puna called Lua-o-Pele, where the struggle I just described ripped up the earth. There, my sister’s hallowed lehua trees flourish all the way to the water’s edge at this place alone in all the islands.

Visit Koko Crater, the terrestrial imprint left by the impact of my genitals, known in former times as Kohelepelepe, ‘the inner lips of the vagina.’ There’s a botanical garden there now, and you can conduct a gynecological tour of the flora adorning a goddess’ vulva.

While on Maui, notice the cleft between Wailua and Wailua-iki and the steep trail still traversed by letter carriers to the valley. Kamapua‘a tore open that gap taking a tumble during a similar assault. If you look carefully, you’ll find my vaginal impression in the adjacent cliff.

At another Maui cliff, Pua‘aho‘oku‘i, you can examine stone formations created when Kamapua‘a lost his whiskers chasing Pele at Huluhulu-nui (‘Many Bristles’) before he slammed her into the ground on the hillside called Kaiwi-o-Pele (‘The Bones of Pele’).

But this time, it’s different. I’m in human guise. I could change out of my mortal semblance, of course, but my dissertation took forever – and I like being an astrophysicist. This is the wildest sorcery I’ve worked in ages. The light we take in with telescopes cuts loose our shadows, and even Ordinary Observers can forget briefly their failed freedom and see how beauty cooperates with truth. So, what am I to do? I leave a grad assistant to reprogram the scope’s guide drive and head south in the school’s landrover. A couple hours later, shortly after noon, I’m at the former site of Kaimu, a small town that Pele smothered beneath fifty feet of lava in 1990. On that black cinderland, green feathers plume the cracked lava: these young coconut sprouts planted by residents reclaim the land and defy the sublime otherness of the barren, uncanny terrain.

I cross the burned tract toward the sea, the fresh-minted and secluded black sand beach in New Kaimu Bay. Here, Namaka and Pele clashed. Plates of rock jut out at the sea’s edge, ribbed like gigantic butterfly wings, marking the jumping off point where fire and water took to the air striding through steam along the road that leads across the world.

Behind me, beyond acres of primordial rock, rises Kilauea Volcano where my sister thrashes, convulsing 200 small earthquakes in one weekend alone. This tantrum is what brought me here. But where is Kamapua‘a? Wearing my human form, sitting here so quietly in skull hall, I have trouble seeing the akua as anything but the familiar spirits of rock, wind, sea… There is nothing to know behind these eyes other than flying spume and salty aerosol, this din of crashing waves, this powerful argument of sea and land under a still blue space where all that the gods have left for us is the holiness of sunset. That’s hours away. The brilliance of noon reveals desolate rock and the ocean’s horizon carrying a toy-size cargo ship bound for O‘ahu with building supplies for the construction boom there. Ah! There is Kamapua‘a! He’s a big, fat freighter! In my brain of an Ordinary Observer, the gods are like passengers snoozing in the backseat who would be astonished to wake and gawk around at the world as people see it.

Look! My sorcery from mythic times is still working: the divine swine follows his lust to O‘ahu. His pig heart glides across the dazzling face of the waters. He will dig up the islands with his greedy snout as he has always done in story. He will root for the root of his carnal desires, burrowing with his snoot and his backhoes, tearing up the earth to wrench out hope from the dim future, building one crowded residential development after another. And when he wakes, he will have nothing. He will have lost the beauty he tried to take by force.

And Pele? My sister has problems. But telling you this helps. I had to become human to really grasp the complex and consummate interdependence of life in all life’s surprising mutabilities. From Ordinary Observers to Boltzmann Brains, we are transparent to Eros, the coupling constant – the depth of love. What a wonder to find this truth in words, to make something like beauty from truth, and know that what I’ve written here is not disembodied like my sorcery, or simply hungering for a body like the Hog God’s insatiable lechery, but present through pages of text as you. My sister has problems, and among the fading and forgetting, the ever dying and the musing sorrow, I have you.

Writing is the most wondrous sorcery I’ve ever known. And I must tell Pele about it. But for now she’s sulking. She wants to tear the white clouds out of the sky. She shakes the earth and seriously considers kicking a whole mountainside into the sea with a cancerous shriek, shoving a colossal tsunami over the Pig God’s heaps of houses. She stamps and fumes. And if she could, she would char the whole earth black.

She was so much happier as a dog.

1Time and the Gods, Lord Dunsany, (John W. Luce & Co.), 1905

2 Democritus, circa 460 – 370 B.C.E., pre-Socratic philosopher who postulated that matter is composed of assorted indivisible units, which he called atoma (sing. atomon), that comprise all sensations: "By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color: but in reality atoms and the void." The Flemish master Hendrick ter Brugghen, in 1628, painted his masterpiece “Democritus Laughing.”

3 Iceland

4 W. B. Yeats, describing his lover Maud Gonne in “Among School Children”

5 German: Da — there/here; Sein — being = Dasein = existence

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