Black Holes, Bureaucratic Holes, and Why We Should Keep Digging 

Black Holes, Bureaucratic Holes, and Why We Should Keep Digging 
  • 2023-24

A prisoner digs a tunnel as part of an attempt to escape from jail. Each day he burrows further.  A fellow prisoner asks where he puts all the soil from the tunnel. The man replies in a whisper that, of course, he has dug another hole to put the soil in.

In Alexandre Dumas’s novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, the protagonist is sent to prison and spends years digging a secret tunnel only to find, cruelly, that he falls into another cell directly below his own.

As human beings – unless we are speaking of Gruyère or focaccia – we tend not to like holes. Generally speaking, we experience a horror vacui.

We don’t like gaps or blank spaces. If there is an empty area on a map, we want to complete it. If there is a silence, we want to break it. We feel a need to fill nothing with something, anything.

Doctors spend their lives healing physical holes in patients, and mending mental holes created by a stroke or the onset of dementia.

Accountants make a living from patching over financial holes. As educators, teachers have a duty to fill the gaps in student knowledge and understanding.

In short, as a species, it seems part of our mission to eradicate blanks or gaps. We have a fear amounting sometimes to a terror of holes.

[Honourable exceptions to this rule include: the emptying out of the spirit encouraged by Buddhism; the pleasure derived from the blank white space surrounding a painting or poem; the Japanese practice of wabi sabi...]

Interestingly, the word lacuna meaning a blank space or absence, derives from the Latin word ‘lacus’ meaning ‘lake’ – a hole filled with water. At night from an airplane, you can identify a lake or river in a city from the gap of darkness it creates amid the lights. 

When Galileo identified with his telescope the existence of holes or craters on the moon, the church was affronted by the idea that the religious vision of a complete and perfect celestial heaven might be corrupted.

The notion that the planets were formed of irregular lumps of rock and clouds of gas was anathema to the Christian concept of a flawless firmament created by God. The Inquisition punished Galileo for this heresy.

On a grander galactic level, there exist black holes - huge entities of space-time that swallow light and spaghettify everything that comes close to the ‘event horizon’. At the centre of each black hole lies a ‘singularity’, a point so infinitely dense, nothing can escape it.

It has been claimed that the diminishing faith in any God or Supreme Being directing the universe has left Western societies with a sense of secular emptiness and the legacy of a ‘God-shaped hole’ in our heads.

black holes in the universe

When the French philosopher Blaise Pascal contemplated a universe without God, he experienced a feeling of dread at the vacuum left at the centre: ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me. We shall die alone.’

This God-shaped hole is open to the appeal of fanaticism, religious fundamentalism, and vulnerable to the seductions of ideologies that seem to promise meaning and purpose in life.

More prosaically, and much lower on the cosmological scale, there remains the ordinary need to fill holes in the road so that vehicles are not damaged as they drive over the surface.

Sinkholes can appear suddenly, and have become a feature of modern urban life where streets were constructed over fragile foundations or empty pits. 

Sink holes in land

This topic is of particular interest to me at present as we prepare for the new building. You will know that the Comune has asked the school to remediate the soil as it contains traces of contamination.

In order to remove the soil, it is obviously necessary to dig a hole, which can then be filled with uncontaminated soil. The Comune granted a clear order for the school to perform this work.

The soil on the new site is covered by a thin layer of concrete. In order to remove the soil, there is an equally obvious requirement first to take away the concrete layer on top of it.

However, while one department of the Comune insists that we remove the soil, another department insists with administrative strictness that we should not remove the layer of concrete on top because, technically, this would constitute an act of ‘demolition’ that requires separate formal permission. 

While we were waiting for this permission, the Constitutional Court during the summer ruled that it was shifting responsibility for Reclamation Works from the local Comune to the central Regione – in this case, Lombardia.

The Regione, it seems, has neither the time, staff, nor detailed knowledge necessary to process the large number of applications for reclamation work, and has sought to delegate the power back to the local Comune! - leaving us effectively in limbo.

The resulting delay is immensely frustrating. It seems an example of emptying one hole only to fill another.

Indeed, there seem to be several holes here. A hole in communication between the departments of the Comune. A rabbit hole in constitutional logic verging on an absurdity worthy of Lewis Carroll, and the literal hole we hope to dig before re-filling it with fresh soil.

The experience has left a widening hole inside my head.

The usual advice when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. But the lesson here is instructive about how bureaucratic black holes can suddenly appear and seem unfathomable.

The episode has at least furnished me with material to fill a blank in the Newsletter with this blog.

It also supplies me with enough imaginative space to conjure the image of that prisoner in The Count of Monte Cristo, each day extending the hole beneath his cell in the hope that one day in the not-too-distant-future, he may eventually escape.  

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal and CEO

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