Art by Paine Proffitt

SOMETIME IN THE LATE 1960s, IN THE BLUE-COLLAR suburb of the Midwestern city where I grew up, there circulated a photograph that was said to be of Jesus Christ. Crumpled and dirty by the time I got my hands on it, the picture showed the shadowy suggestion of a long-haired man in flowing robes, hands outspread, a faint form hovering where the light streamed through a break in the clouds. When I recalled this snapshot to other people as an adult, I learned it was not the only one in print: In those days of big NASA ambitions, similar images made the rounds in other parts of the country. Looking back, it's easy to understand why. The heavens were being charted, not just for the physicist and the astronomer, but for any average middle-class family with a television set. As Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module onto the moon's surface, he squashed every last lingering medieval notion of a heaven “up there.” Christ was being squeezed from the sky; the fuzzy photograph was a last-ditch effort to keep him aloft.

I was reminded of this photograph again while reading Margaret Wertheim's The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet, a book that, despite its clumsy and misleading title, tells with lyrical clarity the story of how Western culture lost its soul to science. In eight chapters, each concerning a type of space, from celestial to cyber, Wertheim chronicles the collapse of our dualistic perception of physical and spiritual realms — Descartes' res extensa and res cognitas — into a single, purely physicalist perception of reality as the physics of Newton, Kepler and Einstein stepped in to explain the world.

Wertheim, the author of an earlier book on mathematics and spirituality, Pythagoras' Trousers, is a student of physics herself, as well as an expert on Renaissance art. But she is no mere materialist; throughout her book runs a palpable religious longing. “By going down this profoundly physicalist path, Western humanity has also lost something of immeasurable importance,” she contends. “The very homogenization of space that is at the heart of modern cosmology's success is also responsible for the banishment from our world picture of any kind of spiritual space.” It is not without regret that she documents that loss.

With The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri as a starting point, Wertheim conducts a tour through the entangled histories of art and science and the influence each discipline exerted on religious thought. To medieval man, whose physical world remained largely mysterious, it made perfect sense to imagine a Heaven above and a Hell below, as well as a mountain of Purgatory in the South Seas and nine rings of Hell descending into the center of Earth. “In the Christian medieval scheme, God was the organizing principle of space,” Wertheim writes. “His presence gave the universe an intrinsic direction, up, while sin created an intrinsic pull down.” Mortals lived on earth; angels inhabited their own bejeweled realm. In Giotto's magical portrayal of the Last Judgment on the ceiling of the Arena Chapel in Padua, “An angel rolls back the image like so much wallpaper,” Wertheim observes, “revealing a glimpse of the 'true' reality beyond — the pearly gates themselves.”

Dante's hierarchical layout was not to last, and it was only a century later that a Spanish Jew by the name of Hasdai Crescas replaced the Aristotelian matter-filled universe with an infinite void, and in roughly 100 more years Galileo Galilei would plot that void according to a three-dimensional Euclidean paradigm. Still, God and his angels were slow to relocate. Even as Johannes Kepler calculated the orbits of planets around the sun, God was still very much a part of the equation. Sir Isaac Newton, in the 17th century, was a man so devoutly religious he nearly left Cambridge lest he compromise the integrity of his own heretical Christian beliefs; 50 years earlier, René Descartes had maintained that an angel visited him with the knowledge that in mathematics lay the secret to the universe. Science, however, got the best of them; neither man could preserve a place for a soul in their reified cosmologies. “To put this in its starkest terms,” Wertheim writes, “in the infinite Euclidian void of Newtonian cosmology there was literally no place for anything like a 'soul' or 'spirit' to be.”

Wertheim is careful to point out that the crisis of spirit engendered by science is a peculiarly Western phenomenon; Eastern religious thought never split the spirit from the body and earth in the first place. But void space and infinite space are tough concepts to reconcile with Christian theology; science couldn't help debunking the gospel, and art was its co-conspirator. Culling from a breathtaking volume of thought from the academic to the vulgar, Wertheim shows how art reflected and sometimes even inspired revolutions in scientific thinking; how, in particular, the roving “virtual eye” perspectives employed by artists such as Andrea Mantegna in the mid-15th century laid the groundwork for Galileo to dispense with Aristotle's physics. “In effect, these Renaissance images set the mind free in a physical void,” she writes, “allowing people to 'feel' for themselves this hitherto abhorrent concept.” In the early 20th century, as the universe according to Einstein began to unfold as a four-dimensional membrane pocked with celestial spheres, perspective painting once again relaxed: Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, says Wertheim, is an expressly fourth-dimensional work.

THE DISCOVERY OF A FOURTH, AND LATER A FIFTH, sixth and seventh dimension (at last count, higher physics claimed to know of 11) has done nothing to alleviate the theological drought of the 20th century, nor has the understanding that the universe has an architecture and a form. In fact, by exposing space as an egalitarian place of comparable galaxies expanding outward into nothingness, modern physics has exacerbated the problem. “With no place more special than any other,” Wertheim laments, “there is no place ultimately to aim for — no goal, no destination, no end.”

And so it is that, on the eve of the millennium, we turn to another space, cyberspace, in search of redemption. Or, at least, Wertheim suggests that we do. Unfortunately, after some 200 pages of startling lessons in art and physics, The Pearly Gates suddenly becomes confused and unoriginal. In her last three chapters, “Cyberspace,” “Cyber Soul-Space” and “Cyber-Utopia,” Wertheim, like so many well-meaning philosophers of the Internet Age, wants to determine the relative goodness of the big computer network, and in doing so she makes the mistake of cordoning it off, like Giotto's realm of angels or Dante's Hell, as something separate and sovereign, removed from life itself. “There is every potential, if we are not careful, for cyberspace to be less like Heaven and more like Hell,” she warns. What she misses, as do utopians and dystopians alike, is that cyberspace incorporates both. From supportive communities to sexual harassment, what arises on the Internet is merely a heightened extension of what arises in the world. None of this is new.

But stubbornly spiritual Wertheim has wiser thoughts to offer on the matter of the immortality-seeking Extropians, who plan to download their brains into robots that can house them in perpetuity. “We are back in the realm of medieval Christian dualism,” she writes, a claim that has frightening implications, given that all that's required to achieve eternal life is a viable machine. “Like the ancient Pythagoreans, today's mind-download champions see the 'essence' of man as something that is numerically reducible,” Wertheim complains; “like the Pythagorean soul their 'cyber-soul' is ultimately mathematical.” But in the same way that Raphael's Disputa, however exquisite, represents only a fraction of the truth, so are math and science only maps of reality: “Love, hate, fear, jealousy, delight and rage — none of these can be accounted for by hyperspace equations,” Wertheim insists. To an extent, then, we remain mysterious creatures, in magical physical form. If there is still room for God anywhere, it may be within our very human selves.

THE PEARLY GATES OF CYBERSPACE: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet

By MARGARET WERTHEIM | W.W. Norton & Company | 336 pages | $25 hardcover

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