I’m a huge fan of the Japanese anime series Fullmetal Alchemist, a bizarre, multi-faceted mix of screwball comedy, heartfelt pathos, and gut-wrenching tragedy — not to mention rich metaphorical textures. It’s the story of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, who lead an idyllic existence, despite their alchemist/father’s prolonged absence because of an ongoing war. Then their mother unexpectedly dies. Devastated by their loss, with no word from their father and no idea of where he might be, the two brothers take matters into their own hands. They attempt an alchemical resurrection spell — the greatest taboo in their fictional world — to raise her from the dead. They pay an enormous price for their folly: Edward loses an arm and a leg, while Alphonse loses his entire body; his soul only remains because Edward managed to attach it to a suit of armor. The story arc of the series follows the brothers as they roam the countryside, searching for a mythical Philosopher’s Stone with the power to undo the damage and restore their physical bodies.
The series touches on so many universal human themes, but for me the most poignant is the fact that the brothers’ lives are destroyed in a single shattering event over which they have no control: the death of their beloved mother. I’ve been ruminating on this notion of world-shattering of late because this month marks the 100th anniversary of the great earthquake of 1906 that essentially leveled the city of San Francisco, which had the misfortune of being located right at the quake’s epicenter. The shocks were felt from southern Oregon down to just south of Los Angeles, and as far inland as central Nevada, but most of the structural damage and the death — perhaps as many as 3000 lives lost — occurred in the Bay Area. The carefully constructed worlds of tens of thousands of people were literally shattered in just under a minute.
Like the Brothers Elric, until that fateful morning, San Francisco basked in the glow of its successful transition from tiny frontier town to a thriving, culturally diverse metropolis. The city benefited greatly from the California Gold Rush, as miners flocked there in search of (ahem) “entertainment,” and to stock up on basic supplies before returning to their prospecting. A few lucky ones struck it rich and opted to settle there permanently. The population exploded, so much so that by the 1850s, the earlier rough-and-tumble atmosphere was limited to certain lower-income areas. Elsewhere, theaters, shops and restaurants flourished, earning San Francisco the moniker, “the Paris of the West.”
In 1906, big-name stars like the actress Sarah Bernhard and famed tenor Enrico Caruso performed regularly in the city’s theaters. A local restaurant called Coppa’s was the preferred hangout for a new breed of young Bohemians: intellectuals, artists, and writers like Frank Norris and Jack London. A recent NPR tribute to the thriving arts scene of that time revealed a fascinating historical tidbit: one of the (apparently depressed) regulars at Coppa’s had scrawled a warning on the wall: “Something terrible is going to happen.”
On April 18th, something terrible did happen: the city was rocked by violent tremors in the wee hours of the morning. Emma Burke, the wife of a prominent attorney, recalled in a memoir (part of a fascinating online collection of documents at the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco),”The floor moved like short choppy waves of the sea, criss-crossed by a tide as mighty as themselves. The ceiling responded to all the angles of the floor…. How a building could stand such motion and keep its frame intact is still a mystery to me.” Not all buildings remained intact; roofs caved in, and chimneys collapsed. People ran into the streets, fearing to remain in their unstable homes, and thousands camped out in Golden Gate Park. Making the best of a bad situation, some people adorned their crude tents and shelters with handmade signs: “Excelsior Hotel,” “The Ritz,” or “The Little St. Francis.” The Mechanics’ Pavilion became a makeshift hospital, with some 200 patients lying on rows of mattresses on the floor, awaiting transport to Harbor Emergency Hospital.
Despite the devastation, the city might yet have survived, structurally, were it not for the fires that broke out. In Fullmetal Alchemist, the Elric brothers make their situation worse by attempting a taboo resurrection, ignorant of the price that would be exacted. Similarly, some quake survivors attempted to start morning fires, not realizing the danger of their ruined chimneys. Worse, the quake had destroyed the water mains, making it difficult to douse the flames. The fires raged out of control for days; the firefighters had to resort to dynamiting entire blocks in advance of the flames, hoping to create a breach over which the fires couldn’t leap. It wasn’t the most effective method, and by the time the fires were quenched, most people had lost everything, and very few structures remained standing. Many accounts of those who survived speak of the flames burning so brightly that night seemed almost like day. Portrait photographer Arnold Genthe recalled in his own memoir, “All along the skyline, as afar as the eye could see, clouds of smoke and flames were bursting forth.”
We owe a great historical debt to Genthe, who provided a photographic record of the events for posterity. Within a few hours, he had snagged a small 3A Kodak Special camera from a local dealer whose shop had been seriously damaged by the quake, stuffed as many rolls of film into his pockets as he could manage, and spent the entire day photographing various scenes of the disaster, blissfully unaware that the fires would soon destroy all his material possessions.
Among Genthe’s more amusing anecdotes is his recollection of bumping into Caruso — who had performed in Carmen the night before at the Mission Opera House — outside the Francis Drake Hotel, one of the few structures that had not been severely damaged by the quake. The proprietors were generously handing out free coffee, bread and butter to the assembled refugees. The great tenor had been forced to abandon his luxury suite clad only in his pajamas, with a fur coat thrown over for warmth. He was smoking agitatedly and muttering to himself, “‘Ell of a place! ‘Ell of a place! I never come back here!” (Genthe wryly observes, “And he never did.”)
Caruso’s loyal valet eventually secured a horse and cart to transport his master out of the disaster area. Others soon followed suit in a mass exodus to escape the flames; thousands streamed toward the ferries waiting to take them across the bay to safety. They fled on foot, carrying whatever salvaged belongings they could manage, or transporting them on various makeshift vehicles: baby carriages, toy wagons, boxes mounted on wheels, trunks placed on roller skates. Genthe recalled seeing two men pushing a sofa on casters, their possessions piled on top of the furniture. He claimed to never forget “the rumbling noise of the trunks drawn along the sidewalks, a sound to which the detonations of the blasting furnished a fitting contrapuntal accompaniment.”
For all the tragic plot points in Fullmetal Alchemist, as much as the Elric brothers continue to suffer, there are still moments of humor, sweetness, and evidence of the elasticity of the human spirit. The residents of San Francisco were no exception. “I never saw one person crying,” Emma Burke recalled. Indeed, the disaster seemed to bring out the best in people, with rich and poor standing on line at relief stations to receive daily rations, and people sharing the few resources they had with those around them, regardless of race or class. Anyone with a car used their vehicle to transport the wounded and dead to hospitals and morgues, respectively. Emma Burke recalled one chauffeur who “ran his auto for 48 hours without rest,” and George Blumer, a local doctor, ran himself ragged for more than week tending to the sick and wounded all over town. There was also a distinct lack of self pity; most people seemed resigned to their plight, accepting the hand Nature had unexpectedly dealt them. Nobody ever said the world was perfect.
That’s not just an aphorism; current scientific thought bears it out. The universe isn’t perfect, although some string theorists believe in the concept of “supersymmetry”: a very brief period of time in which our cosmos was a perfectly symmetrical ten-dimensional universe, with all four fundamental forces unified at unimaginably high energies. But that universe was also highly unstable and cracked in two, sending an immense shock wave reverberating through the fabric of space-time. There may be two separate space-times: the one we know and love, with three dimensions of space and one dimension of time, and another with six dimensions, too small to be detected even with our most cutting-edge instruments. And as our four-dimensional universe expanded and cooled, the four fundamental forces split off one by one, starting with gravity. Everything we see around us today is a mere shard of that original ten-dimensional perfection. Supersymmetry is broken.
Physicists aren’t sure why it happened, but they suspect it might be due to the incredible tension and high energy required to maintain a supersymmetric state. And on a less cosmic scale, symmetry breaking appears to be a crucial component in many basic physical processes, including simple phase transitions: for instance, the critical temperature/pressure point where water turns into ice. It seems that some kind of symmetry breaking is woven into every aspect of our existence.
Paradoxically, shattered symmetries may have made our material world possible. In the earliest days of our universe, there were constant high-energy collisions between particles and antiparticles (matter and antimatter). Because they had opposite charges, they would annihilate each other and produce a burst of radiation. There should have been equal numbers of each — except there wasn’t. At some point, matter gained the upper hand. All the great, beautiful, awe-inspiring structures we see in our universe today are the remnants of those early collisions — the few surviving particles of matter.
The same is true of time. Theoretically, time should flow in both directions. But on our macroscopic level, time runs in one direction: forward. Drop a glass so that it shatters on the floor, and that glass won’t magically reassemble. What’s done cannot be undone. We can’t freeze a perfect moment, but the very impermanence of that perfection is what makes it meaningful.
For all the devastation it wreaks, shattered symmetry also gives the opportunity for rebuilding. Merely a month after the San Francisco earthquake, Sarah Bernhardt performed Phaedre, free of charge, for more than 5000 survivors at the Hearst Greek Theater at the University of California, Berkeley. Other performers followed suit (except for the traumatized Caruso), and within four years, many of the theaters had been rebuilt. In 1910, opera star Louisa Tetrazzini gave a free concert downtown to celebrate the city’s revival. The disaster also laid the foundation for modern seismology, specifically the elastic rebound theory developed by H.F. Reid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. He attributed the cause of earthquakes to sliding tectonic plates located around fault lines; before then, scientists thought that fault lines were caused by quakes.
One of the Major Arcana cards in the traditional tarot deck is the Tower, depicting sudden, violent devastation that causes the once-impressive edifice to crumble, its symmetry utterly destroyed as it is reduced to rubble. It wouldn’t be described as an especially fortuitous card. But out of the Tower’s rubble comes an opportunity to rebuild everything from scratch, just like the violent environment of our baby universe eventually produced breathtaking celestial beauty. Change is built into the very mechanisms of the cosmos. Like the early supersymmetric universe, perfection is a static and unnatural state that cannot — and probably should not — be maintained. Observes Edward’s mentor, Roy Mustang (a.k.a. the Flame Alchemist), “There is no such thing as perfection. The world itself is imperfect. That’s what makes it so beautiful.”