Why Fish Don’t Exist // Lulu Miller.

I first heard of Lulu Miller on RadioLab years ago, back when podcasts were part of my daily regimen in Chicago. On my 30-45 minute drives to libraries and students’ houses for tutoring, I would pop the next RadioLab episode about some newfound mushroom, undiscovered murder stories, unimaginable futuristic technologies, the lightness and heaviness of passion and love. Miller came as guest reporter a few times before producing her own NPR branch: Invisibilia, a show about the hidden yet powerful forces that shape human behavior. One episode led to the next until I finish the first season in a week. “Wow,” I thought, “she’s a really good storyteller.”

Then I moved to California, stopped commuting, and stopped listening to podcasts.

Nearly six years later, I come across this strange title with a golden stenciled-fish at Kyobo (Korean version of Barnes and Noble). “Lulu Miller…” like some light coating on the tongue, her name sounds so familiar.

I thumb through the book and read this line:

Chaos will get them.

It’s not if, it’s when. Chaos is the only sure thing in this world.

What an opener. I’m completely hooked.

Chaos and the Great Temptation

Chaos. Entropy. Order. Second law of thermodynamics.

These are vogue words. Every sci-fi fan and their moms know or have heard of these.

“Heat moves from hot to cold, from excited to cool.”
“Disorder or entropy in the universe increases over time.”
“Everything moves from low to high entropy, from highly ordered to highly chaotic. There’s no stopping it.”

Or, according to Statistical Physics for Babies, chaos or high entropy is statistically more likely to happen. It is far more likely that your room and closet will be messy over time than organized—that is until someone (like yourself) empties “that chair” stacked high with clothes and hangs them.

That someone in Lulu Miller’s book is David Starr Jordan: groundbreaking ichthyologist (fish taxonomist, or someone who gives fish fancy latin names), world explorer, prolific author, first president of Stanford University, and so much more.

The gall Jordan had against chaos was admirable, even attractive. Two chaotic events almost eviscerated his life’s work—once by a freak-lightning strike and another by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Decades of exploring and studying, thousands of unique fish meticulously labeled and carefully preserved burned to a crisp or shattered—many forever lost, never to be known again. Jordan knelt before the ashes and rubble and stuck his middle finger to Chaos. He grabbed his needle and stitched the fish’s bestowed name—a slice of order—onto the scales. In utter defiance to chaos, to randomness and disorder, he relentlessly claims order.

At her lowest, Miller found Jordan a shining example of persistence and grit. She wanted—needed—to get to the bottom of his undying fire and dedication to purpose and passion. When the Great Temptation, the gun or pill, crept up—like it does for so many of us—she dug into Jordan’s life. Alone, lost, heartbroken, and depressed, Jordan became her North Star that would guide her next years. In her quest to uncover the man, she discovers unsavory truths about him and herself. Her biography of Jordan mashes with her autobiography.

Just like her podcasts, the writing is gripping. I finished in a day of commuting between tutoring.

“You Matter.”

The Great Temptation is so real. Statistically, I’m not sure how many have had thought about it. But for those who have taken the Great Temptation seriously, all reality melts into it. Nothing matters. Numbness—the bodily equivalent to mental nothingness—slowly paralyzes the body and things slow down. Life’s neat categories starts to dissolve: time becomes an ocean, where morning, day, night becomes one unidentifiable wave after another; space around you becomes suffocating or infinitely distant; food tastes like sand and feels like gravel; one’s own body becomes foreign and one’s mind a menace. The Great Temptation offers an escape—not a solution—from nothingness, from chaos and disorder.

Lulu Miller’s greatest service in the book is not the biography of David Starr Jordan (who becomes a foil to her own life), but her serious acceptance of the chaotic, scientific perspective and honesty of the existential dread thereof. Her journey begins when her seven-year-old self asks her hard, scientific dad the meaning of life. He responds coldly without skipping a beat: Nothing; there is no meaning to life. He drops this bomb on his daughter’s lap while enjoying an intimate father-daughter moment watching birds. Your life, my life, your mom’s and sisters’, your friends’ and every stranger who have lived and will live do not matter. Chaos will not only kill them but it will also erase any memory of them. So, don’t look for meaning. Probably not the best thing a parent to tell their young child. Untimely or not, she accepts chaos and entropy as eternal king and queen of the universe—they will have their way.

It’s one thing to know nothing matters and that everything will eventually unwind into chaos; it’s another to feel it deep inside your bones. In fact, the dread of nothingness is what solidifies true knowledge that nothing matters. The dread becomes a sickness that plagues your thought and imagination. Everything in your purview is clouded with destruction: ecological and environmental doom, economic collapse, nuclear fear, nationalism and totalitarianism, A.I. superiority, a maniac with a gun. There is no order, only chaos. In response, some live only for themselves, pleasure, or short-term gains. Others, like David Starr Jordan, are driven by some heavenly purpose to bring silvers of order. Many move on because they have mouths to feed and bills to pay. Few are privileged or punished to sit and deal with the existential dread. Lulu Miller is one of the few who bravely braced the challenge.

Nothing matters, her dad once said and that chaos continually repeats. But you do, not because you are orderly or perfect. Not because I can neatly fit you in a box or categorize the world that makes divine or logical sense. No, you matter because you mean something—are meaningful—to someone. And to feel that is the most powerful antidote to the dread of nothingness and the Great Temptation.

The greatest defiance to chaos is not order or grit or blind perseverance. It’s the small gestures of belonging, homeliness, and communal affection. It’s passion for something bigger and smaller than you. Even though it is statistically more likely (or unstoppable) that the universe will be scattered in a disorderly and chaotic manner, only our ability to embrace and behold one another is and will be what delays such powerful inevitability. And that matters.

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