Richard Lubbock

“The moment I was born, I knew that William James was right. The world of the new-born baby is indeed, ‘All one great blooming, buzzing confusion.’ I was alarmed and baffled by the tumult that raged around and inside me. Intuition told me, ‘Here’s something that matters greatly.’ Had I possessed language, I would have demanded, ‘What the devil’s going on here?’ That’s the prime philosophical question, and I’ve been trying out different answers ever since.”

The words are quoted from my old Idler magazine, back in 1989. The man who wrote them, at the head of a long article about Alfred North Whitehead, was our “chief cosmological correspondent,” Richard Lubbock (1928–2015). When he died, Tuesday night, I was sent like most survivors on a little journey, backwards through time. I knew him only for his last thirty years, much of it spent arguing about beginnings and endings, sometimes of magazine articles, but usually of the universe. He was an endearingly cranky polymath, a broadly read and studied amateur of the sciences (in the best sense), freely invading almost every province.

When he first walked into my living room, near the beginning of that publishing enterprise, he came on the recommendation of a journalist friend, who didn’t know what to do with him. Richard had made his way as a hack, but owing to eccentricities of mind, and peculiarities of subject matter, he was no longer welcome anywhere else. The late Doug Marshall sent him over, I think. He loved Richard, and thought the Idler might be the perfect home for him; for as Doug knew, the whole point of the magazine was to publish writers who were excluded from other Canadian media, whether for an excess of talent or because they had something interesting to say. (This sepulchral quietude of mind and spirit has since been restored.)

Richard had all the qualifications to be our chief cosmological correspondent, and literary adviser in natural philosophy. He had been copywriter at Young & Rubicam in London, Fleet Street photographer, producer for the British version of Candid Camera, book reviewer in obscure journals, columnist in other short-lived periodicals, and once in Canada, writer and broadcaster for everything from the CBC to the Grope & Flail — however briefly. He came self-described as “extinct volcano, patchwork theologian, soi-disant luftmensch.” At the national magazine of luftmenschen he would fit right in.

To the view of a man then young (moi) he was old, wizened, small, goateed, indefatigably impish, and disturbingly curious about everything. Worse than curious: for one would tell him something, and if he liked it, he would immediately cross-examine in an exceedingly thorough and distressingly sceptical way. From some ancient famous Jewish scientific family (his father, Isaac, was quite literally a rocket scientist), he had also something of an aristocratic air, of the kind that survives generations of punishment. Truly, I loved him at first sight.

He went on to decorate our pages with beautifully rambling and droll essays — he’d been touched by the prose-writing angel — most of them on cosmological themes, but never self-consciously confined to the requirements of any “beat.” His first piece was entitled, “The Last Days of Darwin”; his best-known perhaps, “A Universe of One’s Own”; but the one open before me just now is “The Smithereen Foundation,” in which he takes on an economic question: How can we utterly destroy wealth? It demonstrates that there is nothing we can do to destroy it that won’t benefit someone in a material way, and expresses his curmudgeonly frustration with this.

His fascination with Whitehead was enduring, for Richard had a mind that worked like Whitehead’s, but in some parallel, more whimsical world. He had the Whiteheadian genuine respect for everything that is ordering, regardless of source or angle, starting from an essentially aesthetic position; as well as the Whiteheadian aloofness. Or in Richard’s own rendition, “If you listen carefully, you will hear, hidden beneath the screeches, squawks, and thwacks of the cosmos, the melodies and counterpoint of breathtaking music. Conscientious philosophers should try to experience that underlying beauty, to understand it, and to add to it.”

Among many secret passions, beneath a disinterested exterior, he was a devoted student of the anthropic cosmological principle — the works in physics of Frank J. Tipler and friends — and shamelessly enthusiastic about Tipler’s “Omega point” (which is offered as a plausible mechanism for the resurrection of the dead). But this he approached as pure science, and could be enthralled without the slightest temptation to give it a religious twist. In recent years, cross-examining him in a nursing home, I could find no diminution of his curiosity about “where it all leads” — but still no hurry to reach a conclusion.

In a similar way, he was a life-long bachelor, of the old-fashioned, heterosexual kind. This wasn’t any sort of plan or intention, as he explained around his eighty-fifth birthday: “I just haven’t met the right woman yet.” He thought Whitehead had, however — for the woman would have had to endure a man who, though outwardly serene on most occasions, would fall into frightening moods, “in which he addressed injurious objurgations to himself,” or remained pin-drop silent for days. (Mrs Whitehead would cure this by e.g. hurling herself on a sofa and feigning a heart attack.)

To the end, Richard was working on some bootstrap system, that would enable the universe to create itself, yet not exclude God. Over tea one day in his final earthly home of Christie Gardens he was delighted by the notion that God’s “method of creation” might consist of letting only those things happen, that were both self-consistent and exquisitely entertaining in and of themselves — each of the “multiverses” a new kind of self-winding toy. Yet at other times, he had despised the grimness of any such mechanical model, and condemned Edmond Halley for correctly predicting the return of his comet, thereby imposing physical machinery that could predict the future and retrodict the past. He also condemned Einstein for believing in it, and praised quantum theory for getting us out of the jam.

Verily, he had written in the Idler a wonderful attack on the “Occam’s Razor Gang,” metaphysical nominalism, and “all those ontological beggars” that hung out at Cambridge when he was a lad; and all his life he had longed to do things that would scandalize and upset them. Certainly he was theist enough to mock the pomposities of all the “new atheists”; but it would be going considerably beyond the evidence to claim him for the Catholic Church. (Aheu! there were moments in his last years when I thought he might get there.)

It was typical of Richard that, given at most six months to live, about three years ago, he paid no heed, and retaliated against his doctors by becoming a little more cheerful. Too, that he left his body “such as it is” to science. He told me he was doing this a few years ago, I think just to annoy me — “in instalments,” he added, with reference to an amputated leg.

Gentle reader: please say an Ave for my dear, dear friend.