I can’t help but admire the remarkable concision and precision in Sven Birkerts’ essay “Telescope” in TriQuarterly. I can’t help but admire that the essay, and essayist, cover so much ground in a paltry 630 words. I can’t help but admire the way in which Birkerts captures the movement of the human mind, or at least the humanist mind, so carefully and exactly on the page. I love this small piece of nonfiction prose in much the same way that I love a brilliant short film. It is all about the movement.
Birkerts begins with the possibility that Italian researchers have uncovered proof that neutrinos – those miniscule particles that only physicists can see – travel even faster than light at times, upsetting nothing less than the scientific applecart that is Einstein's special theory of relativity. He then, deftly, references string theory and parallel universe theory, via a colleague “who actually can think about these things in intelligent ways.” Birkerts momentarily threatens to swamp our mind with super science then lets us down easy through his own essayistic persona; he too is boggled, grasping these enormous concepts for only a fleeting instant before they become too huge to grasp.
So Birkerts moves on to the directly observable, “metal filings on a sheet of paper,” “baking soda added to vinegar,” radio kits, and chemistry sets. The quotidian trumps the unfathomable. We are kids again, when science was as simple as an apple dropping from a tree.
And then the turn. Birkerts once had a microscope. Once startled at “a sudden eyeful of the honeybee’s shockingly hairy leg.”But he didn’t like the squinting. “That magnitude of inspection,” he writes, “did not compel me—which should have told me I was a humanist.” He wanted a different view, not a view of micro-phenomena, but of “people who did not know they were being observed.”
In the end, Birkerts brief meditation on science and observation becomes an essay about essaying, about his own use of the essay as a vehicle for understanding human nature, and about the “glimmer of how the one thing related to the other.”
Like Montaigne before him, Birkerts sees drama in the movement of a curious mind. Suspense, even. His essay is itself a telescope; “with a few gratifyingly decisive moves,” his essay pulls “section from section, snap snap, elongating, until” the essayist has created “a device worthy of old-time sea captains” and of a certain crotchety 16th century French noblemen who invented the form.