An uplifting news item, poem, thought or quotation each day. Archive of past entries
1 August 2004

We may sense that there is something missing in our lives, but frequently we misidentify what it is that would truly fulfill us. 

No matter.

Whatever you long for, go after it with a passion. But keep your eyes open along the way. Learn from your experience, reform your goals, and set off once again with redoubled conviction.

- Josh Mitteldorf

31 July 2004

Tribute to Francis Crick

There are many French and German words that are related to English words. Even in Russian and in Hindu, there are simple, common words with cognates in German, French and English. Just a few thousand years ago we were one tribe, and spoke one language.

There is a language which our DNA uses to speak to our cell chemistry. It is called the genetic code. My DNA speaks the same language as does yours and the same as a frog or a mushroom or an amoeba. This is because we are cousins, you and I and the frog and the mushroom and the amoeba, all descended in just a few billion years from our common great grandmother, the first cell to evolve on earth.

After discovering the structure of DNA in 1953, Crick went on to elucidate its function.  DNA is coded in a language of 4 letters: A, C ,T and G.  DNA "words" have 3 letters, like AAT and CTG. Each 3-letter word is translated by ribosomes into a unique piece from which enzymes and other proteins are strung together.  These proteins, in turn, are in charge of the body's chemistry.  The genetic code is the arbitrary correspondence between each 3-letter word from DNA and a corresponding amino acid from which proteins are built.  

In the most widely-divergent animal and plant species, all ribosomes use (almost) the same code.

30 July 2004

A fugue is a construction of musical mathematics. A good fugue is also profoundly beautiful. Start with two melodies, each a satisfying whole, that sound good together. Then weave them together in different keys and varying the time lag, with 3, 4 or even 5 voices sounding at once. In each moment, the voices must form a pleasing harmony. The voices must each make sense on their own, and the harmonic progression created by the successive chords must also be sensible and appealing. Finally, the entire fugue must develop over its length in a way that is satisfying musically and emotionally, proceeding to a climax of intensity, then unwinding into a harmonic resolution, all the while sounding like the inevitable unfolding of a mathematical proof.

For 300 years, composers have labored to create fugues, and to include them in larger pieces at the moment when the music is most serious and compelling. Every fugue that is written is a tribute to the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, who invented the form. Some area of Bachís brain must have functioned as a musical computer, because he was able to compose fugues effortlessly. There are reliable stories that he could improvise a full 3-voice fugue while on stage. With little work he could generate 4-voice fugues, and occasionally a tour-de-force: a 5-voice fugue. No composer since Bach has trafficked in 5-voice fugues.

If you donít know the story, read about King Frederickís challenge, and the Musical Offering which Bach wrote in response.  Then listen to the music.  (Free and instant version here is a synthesized performance; search for the word "offering".)

Bachís letter dedicating the Offering to King Frederick is, depending on your reading, either fawning and obsequious, or a piece of flaming impertinence.

29 July 2004

In 1965, Ray Davis had an idea for viewing the furnace at the center of the sun, where all the energy of the solar system is generated by a continuous hydrogen bomb. The reactions there produce many kinds of particles, including neutrinos which pass through everything, untouched, because they so rarely interact with other matter.

For a telescope, he used a tank of cleaning fluid the size of a swimming pool, tucked away in an abandoned gold mine in South Dakota. He calculated that out of 1023 neutrinos passing through each day, just one of them would strike a chlorine atom, turning it to radioactive argon. If he waited a month, he could harvest about 30 argon atoms from the tank, and count them using their particular radioactive signature.

As it turned out, he saw only about 1/3 as many solar neutrinos as he expected. Many theorists insisted there must be some problem with his experiment. But those who were trusting and attentive enough to take his result seriously predicted that there are 3 kinds of neutrinos, though the chlorine in the tank could "see" only one, and other experiments eventually demonstrated they were right.

Neutrinos are passing through us all the time in great numbers. Much of the universe is composed of these particles, and this week thereís a theory that connects neutrinos to the observed acceleration in the expansion of the universe. 

28 July 2004

"We give thanks for unknown blessings already on the way."

- American Indian ritual chant


27 July 2004

Existential philosophy is an elaborate rationalization, the apotheosis of our depression. The reality is that depression doesn't have an intellectual leg to stand on.

Closer to the truth is the philosophy of Robert Louis Stevenson
"The world is so full of a number of things
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings."

  - A Child's Garden of Verses

26 July 2004

"You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience."

   - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin