The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Nix
Before the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses, before even the Titans appeared, there was Chaos. Shapeless and formless, the raw stuff of existence, it was the very first thing to be. Chaos gave birth to many deities, one of whom was the goddess Nyx, the embodiment of Night. She lived in her palace on the far side of the ocean, at the edge of the cosmos. From her, in turn, sprang Death and Sleep and Dreams—and the Fates, those thread-making sisters who spun and measured and cut the length of every human life, marking its end.
Nyx resided, it was said, in the shadows. She could be seen only in glimpses, from the corner of the eye. You know how, when the night is very dark and nothing is visible when viewed straight on, you have to glance at things sidelong to see them at all.
As a child, I had a phobia of the ocean. Not of water, nor of drowning, nor of any creature in particular. Sharks didn’t especially faze me. Yet walking out into the surf on vacations in Hawaii, I would freeze in terror once my feet could no longer reach the sand. The fear arose because I could neither see my feet nor feel what lay beneath them. They had journeyed to a murky new place where they were vulnerable in their ignorance, and in my ignorance of them.
It is cold at the bottom of the ocean, and largely barren. Once you get beyond the depths to which sunlight can penetrate, photosynthesis is no longer possible. Most of the creatures in the dark zones are hunters or scavengers, living off the remains of what thrives far above. They dine on the scraps of creatures of the upper regions—remnants, uneaten by predators, that fall slowly through the water. Settling gently through the depths, these bits of flesh and organic matter constitute what is called marine snow. It drifts down past the big-eyed predators and transparent invertebrates until stopped by solid ground, which may be miles below. There it feeds millions of crabs and urchins and fish of bizarre shapes and features on the vast seafloor. I have seen footage of an army of hagfish, resembling headless eels, skeletonizing a whale carcass before abandoning it to the boneworms.
“Ixnay,” declared Robin Williams’s Genie in Aladdin, “on the wishing for more wishes.” Nix, in pig Latin. Meaning: no way, not a chance. To nix something is to end it, to cancel it, to condemn it to oblivion. “I can’t bring people back from the dead,” the Genie also announced, nixing the act of un-nixing. I bring this up because one month before Robin Williams killed himself, my brother did the same. Like Williams, Tom suffered from a mental illness that had debilitated him for years. Unlike Williams, Tom was poor and solitary and beloved by only a few. Beloved, especially, by me.
I can’t tell you what my brother’s death meant, but I can tell you that in those first stunned days and weeks after he died, I saw things. That first night, when the news kept me awake and delirious until dawn, I saw my room engulfed by a wave of black ink, which furled across my field of view as if through water, until there was nothing to see but its turbulent inky flow. Weeks later, beset by the fact of Tom’s end, so bafflingly absolute, I felt as if the wave of ink had hardened into something even more ominous. I told a friend that death now seemed to me like a black wall through which only some could pass. I pictured myself reaching for the wall, straining to peer through it, hurling myself against it. It was horrible in its intransigence. The void was so profound and so present that I knew, for the sake of my sanity, that I had to find a way to imagine something into it.
Tom was not sunken or buried but cremated—rendered molecular and hurled into the atmosphere, leaving only a box of ash to stand in for the body that had once been his. I didn’t object to my father’s choice to cremate, but once it happened I panicked. The death itself wasn’t even real yet, and then suddenly Tom’s whole body was gone too. I kept picturing various parts of him, marveling that they could just blink out of existence. Saying to myself, Tom’s nose no longer exists. Tom’s teeth no longer exist. Tom’s knuckles no longer exist. His very bones, immolated. My mind—my intelligence, my sense of self—felt so very feeble in the face of this thoroughly basic, obvious thing.
I don’t believe in God, nor in any universal creator or divine force, nor in an afterlife or anything resembling one. I am an atheist to the core. But I am not a nihilist; I believe that existence is real enough and that meaning is real too. I simply don’t think meaning presupposes or preorders existence, but rather continually emerges within it, and so remains forever contingent. Maybe this is why I ask myself constantly, endlessly, what things mean. Certainly it is why I’m never satisfied with the answers I find.
How does one engage with nothingness? For months after Tom died I didn’t know where to look for him. For a while it was soothing to consider that most of his atoms were floating in the air and that I might breathe him in. That fall, when the nights were just becoming cool at my home in Tucson, I took to wandering out onto the back patio after dark to find myself lying flat on the still-warm bricks, staring upward. The sky was black and vast and clear, largely unaffected by streetlights, with few clouds. Gazing into it calmed me. It resembled a void and yet it was not a void. Things were out there. Between the stars I could envision black holes and distant galaxies and dark matter. The cosmos expanding, and time itself expanding with it.
Someday, when all the stars burn out, the universe will go dark.
Some of the moons orbiting Pluto are so small that until recently we did not know they were there. One of these, first discovered in 2005, is named after Nyx, the goddess, but was given the alternate spelling of her name: Nix. We knew Nix as no more than a speck until 2015, when it was photographed by the New Horizons space probe during its flyby of Pluto. Even then, most of the images of the tiny, oblong moon were so low-resolution that Nix appeared as little more than a pixelated blob. Obscure, indistinct, in the shadow of the god of the underworld.
What are we looking for when we look for life on other planets? I thought, had always thought, that we were looking for places similar to Earth. The presence of liquid water with access to sunlight and mineral nutrients—a surface ocean touching rock. No other body in our solar system fits these criteria. They are either blazing hot or frigid. Distant Pluto’s terrain runs with liquid nitrogen over a crust of dry ice. On the haze-shrouded surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, what flows and evaporates and rains down to shape its bleak geography is not water but methane. Ice completely covers Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus, but not liquid water. Both are entirely frozen over—skating-rink spheres.
All of the planets in our solar system, with the exception of Earth, are named after Greco-Roman deities. Their moons bear the names of lesser mythological figures. Beautiful Europa was a woman abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. Enceladus, which swims amid Saturn’s outer ring, was a Giant whose mother, Gaia, desired that he rule over the sea.
Europa has intrigued NASA scientists since 1979, when the Voyager 2 space probe passed by the small moon on its way past Jupiter. Subsequent Europa flybys in 1996 and 1998, during orbits of Jupiter made by the Galileo mission, rendered images clear enough to see that its smooth, frozen surface was extensively scarred by cracks and ridges resembling those on Antarctic ice floes. This suggested that plates of ice were grinding against one another in concert with Jupiter’s shifting gravitational pull—that tectonic ice plates were being moved about, in other words, by tides. The data revealed also that Europa possessed a magnetic field. This, too, strongly indicated that beneath Europa’s surface ice, which is some sixty miles thick, there is water, liquid water—a massive hidden ocean.
My childhood phobia, my sense of an overwhelming lack of knowledge—perhaps I was on to something. Only about five percent of this planet’s watery depths have been explored. Visits to the deep sea are so rare that half of today’s journeys encounter animals—not just microbes but multicellular organisms—previously unknown to science. All a scientific expedition has to do is go down there and look around, and they’re likely to find creatures never seen before by human eyes.
I have often seen my brother in places where he is not. In the eyes or the cheekbones of actors or models, in the shock of hair on a stranger on the street. I have noticed these resemblances ever since Tom first fell ill a dozen years ago, and I see them still even though he is gone. They happen, always, by way of a kind of visual cocktail effect in which the likeness leaps out from the corner of my eye to steal my attention before I even really know it is happening. He is there, and I turn, and this last part is just the mop-up in which I register why I thought I saw him.
I remember a young man I once knew who fascinated and attracted me. I spent time with him only briefly one summer, and as fall set in I thought of him constantly. After taking a road trip across four states, I drew a series of pictures of him in the landscape through which I had passed. And the thing is, once I had made those drawings I didn’t wonder about him anymore. Maybe the looking for him was the real point, or maybe my curiosity simply burned itself out. But it was also as if my act of looking had actually placed him there.
I suspect that absence is only ever complete in a literal sense, as received fact. What we make of it, and make with it, and make it into—all of which are real enough—have a way of undoing it. Absence becomes a presence, not nothing but something, almost material, a field of stuff. I don’t know.
The English word nix derives from the German nichts, meaning “nothing.” The same word, by a different derivation, is also found in Germanic folklore. A nix, those legends hold, is a water sprite—a shape-shifter at home in that wilderness under the waves, dangerous and gifted in disguise.
All life on Earth, I learned in my youth, stems fundamentally from the energy of the sun. Photosynthetic microbes and plants harness sunlight to produce fuel, converting its energy into living matter that other organisms feed off, as they are fed off by others, who are eaten by yet others, and so on across intricate food webs. Without sunlight providing energy to drive the whole system, I was taught, there would be no life at all.
But this isn’t true.
At a little over three thousand feet down, the ocean becomes as black as interstellar space. Here begins the midnight zone, the region into which no sunlight penetrates at all. In 1977, the geologist Robert Ballard piloted a submersible deep into the near-freezing gloom of the Galápagos Rift. Eight thousand feet down, on the ocean floor, he found a series of vents spewing magma-heated water from beneath the Earth’s crust. Some of these hydrothermal vents sent black plumes several stories up into the sea. They consisted of hot brine that, due to the extreme pressure at that depth, did not turn to steam even at temperatures reaching 650 degrees Fahrenheit. The superheated water was loaded, too, with dissolved barium and calcium and hydrogen sulfide, substances considered toxic at high concentrations.
Yet crustaceans and mollusks abounded on the tall, crusty mineral chimneys that grew up around the vents, as did hundreds of tubeworms, whose blood-red, gill-like appendages filtered the water. These animals’ capacity to survive in such extremes was astounding. But even more so, the entire community was living utterly independently of the sun. Its species didn’t rely on sunlight, nor marine snow, nor anything at all from above. The ecosystem’s existence hinged not on harnessing the sun’s energy but instead on the energy released by chemical reactions between minerals dissolved in the hot vent water. This was done through a process called chemosynthesis, performed by bacteria residing within the feathery bodies of the tubeworms—a process comparable to photosynthesis, but without light. Those vents, in short, redefined life as we know it.
Discern the nixes at play.
When, in 2004, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn and began exploring its rings, scientists learned that Enceladus’s icy surface is striped across its southern polar region with a network of fissures much like those on Europa. As Europa does, Enceladus appears to hold beneath its ice a sizeable ocean warmed by gravitational energy. Another flyby revealed that its fissures are coated with colored compounds, and its southern pole is home to a series of enormous jets that shoot sprays of particles hundreds of miles into space. In 2015, after years of data analysis, NASA announced that the particles the moon’s geysers blast into Saturn’s orbit contain an icy dust of salts and minerals and simple organic compounds like propane and benzene—nutrient-laden frozen seawater. This means that, unlike anywhere else in this solar system aside from Earth, we know Enceladus to possess all the conditions, both physical and chemical, that are needed for life as we understand it.
What is under the ice of Enceladus? I can imagine anything into that deep. On some days, I see microbial colonies growing in tall columns on the edge of a continental shelf. Or I envision faintly glowing jelly-bodied creatures, thousands of them linked to form nets. Sometimes I even conjure complex beings—an aqueous civilization—before my imagination collapses under the sheer number of forms life might take.
Consider the oldest known animal on Earth, a deep-sea black coral perched on the flank of an underwater mountain near Hawaii. About a thousand feet down, in what is often called the twilight zone, it lives off marine snow. Radiocarbon dating has shown it to be over four thousand years old.
There are five hundred or so hydrothermal vents that pepper the Earth’s deep-ocean ridges. It is possible that Enceladus’s seafloors possess vents not unlike ours, with chemosynthetic life forms that function much as ours do. It is possible that Enceladus’s life-supporting conditions have been present long enough for life to have evolved there much as it did here—that a “second genesis” has taken place. It is possible, even, that Earth was long ago colonized by microbes that originated on Enceladus and were hurled into space by its geysers. Or vice versa. Many species of bacteria could survive, dormant, in space for years while a rock or a meteor carried it from our planet to the rings of Saturn. It is hard to know where to stop with this.
My sister used to accuse me of intellectualizing mental illness when I spoke of our brother’s brain, his schizophrenia, in scientific terms. I didn’t think I was doing that, but I never knew how to explain what I felt—that science could be a way of loving something more deeply.
I should tell you too that in 1984, a second type of chemosynthetic ecosystem was discovered on Earth and it, too, lay at the bottom of the sea. Occurring at seafloor seeps—fields of cold sulfurous brine or liquid hydrocarbons that spill from between the continental plates and pool on the ocean floor—these toxic terrains, looking so much like terrestrial marshlands but more closely resembling spilled paint thinner, rely on chemosynthetic bacterial mats that harness the fluids’ potential energy and provide a primary food source for sprawling colonies of worms and mussels and clams. And I’ll tell you that in the months after I learned this, with my head full of facts and memories, I jotted down these words: I want life to be everywhere.
Meaning occurs in the spaces between things, doesn’t it? From here to Nix it is nearly four billion miles.
I am thinking of metamorphoses, and ancient Greek myths of transformation. Zeus becoming a bull, Daphne turned into a tree, Orion remade as a constellation. When Tom died, I told my mother that it was possible to send off his ashes to a company that would form them, through heat and pressure, into a diamond. “Carbon to carbon,” she said ruefully.
In Europa Report, a quiet 2013 sci-fi thriller, a team of astronauts travels for more than a year through black space to reach Europa, to explore the possibility that there is life there. The crew lands among the disordered ridges of the Conamara Chaos, a region in which the ice sheet is suspected of containing subsurface lakes. As, one by one, each crewmember vanishes and the mission collapses, it becomes clear that there is something deadly in the water under the ice. In the final scene, with the landing pod sinking, knowing this is the end, the solitary pilot decides to die within view of the wall-mounted camera so that it can capture what is coming to kill her. Her last act is to open the airlock and let the water in. As a giant, tentacled, bioluminescent body spirals up toward her through the flooding hatch, she sees the creature. And it is glorious. Her footage transmits to Earth. Then she is gone.
I am thinking that the truth of my brother’s nonexistence, like all great truths, is most difficult to see when I peer straight at it. Both the absence of Tom and the flashes of him that remain are clearest when I view them sidelong—when twilight gives way to full darkness, after the day’s facts have been perused and analyzed and set aside, and I go out alone onto the patio to lie beneath the sky and feel the night engulf me. There, with the bricks at my back, I catch glimpses. About being and nonbeing, existence and absence, cosmos and void. There it is—there he is—at the edges of my vision, shadowy and still, as strong and delicate as life itself.
Image Credits: Feature image: “Remnant of Supernova,” © Smithsonian; Image 1: “Pink Galaxies” © Smithsonian; Image 2: “A Cosmic Magnifying Glass” © NASA.