30 July 2006

Happiness and Joy

Happiness derives from satisfaction and appreciation of ourselves, our actions and our relationships to others.  It is a state that comprehends transient moods, successes and disappointments.

Joy exists in the moment.   It has no past and no future.  It is, as Schiller tells us, schöne Götterfunken – a lovely spark from heaven.

It would seem that a life of happiness should be a supportive habitat for experiences of joy, but it is not necessarily so.   Joy is a capricious visitor who may avoid any of us for months on end.  Joy is a resilient bird, and will make visits to a life of despair or dissolution, or unaccountable tragedy.  

We can shape our lives with wisdom in a way that supports our happiness and promotes the wellbeing of those we love.   In the long run, we have substantial control over our choice of friends and partners, the rhythms of our daily schedules, and the goals that we pursue.

In the moment, we can invite joy into our lives, and welcome her whenever she pays a call.

~ Josh Mitteldorf

29 July 2006

People who are not scientists imagine that Science has discovered a great deal about the world, and that the great armies of researchers world-wide are largely employed in filling in details, and asking esoteric questions that you need a PhD just to ask. This impression is only partly true.  It is true that the great majority of scientists focus on mundane details, using new tools to measure known quantities ever more precisely, and filling in mechanisms whose broad effects are already understood.  It is not true that scientific understanding of foundational ideas in biology, physics and astronomy are stable and unlikely to change in the future.

Astronomy, in particular, is built on long chains of inference, because the subject of study consists of events long ago and far away, and because we cannot design experiments, but can only observe what nature offers.  This week, a new surprise emerged that challenges some fundamental assumptions.

Too bad we can’t see x-rays, because the night sky is thousands of times brighter in x-rays than it is in the light we see.  Where do the x-rays come from?  The prevailing theory for about the last forty years (as long as astronomers have been able to ask such questions) is that x-rays come from matter falling into black holes that live at the centers of galaxies.  This is an appealing idea because it kills two birds with one stone.  The second mystery that this hypothesis resolves is that there appears to be too much gravity gluing galaxies together, and the gravitational mass of galaxies seems to be concentrated at the center.  

Performing a systematic search for x-rays from galactic black holes turns out to be an expensive experiment.  The first problem is that x-rays don't make it through the earth’s atmosphere, so you have to use telescopes that are launched into orbit.  The second problem is that you can’t use a lens to focus x-rays, so it is tricky to figure out exactly from what direction they are coming.

But this week’s surprise comes from the first systematic search for x-rays from black holes, and the result is negative.  The expected x-rays from the centers of galaxies are largely missing.  This isn’t what anyone expected.  We don’t even have a competing theory, either about the x-rays or about why galaxies are so center-heavy.  The field is wide open.

28 July 2006


EARTH, sweet Earth, sweet landscape, with leavés throng 
And louchéd low grass, heaven that dost appeal 
To, with no tongue to plead, no heart to feel; 
That canst but only be, but dost that long— 

Thou canst but be, but that thou well dost; strong 
Thy plea with him who dealt, nay does now deal, 
Thy lovely dale down thus and thus bids reel 
Thy river, and o’er gives all to rack or wrong. 

And what is Earth’s eye, tongue, or heart else, where 
Else, but in dear and dogged man?—Ah, the heir 
To his own selfbent so bound, so tied to his turn, 
To thriftless reave both our rich round world bare 
And none reck of world after, this bids wear 
Earth brows of such care, care and dear concern. 

~ Gerard Manley Hopkins, born this day in 1844

27 July 2006

If a language is ‘redundant’, then it is possible to encode a second meaning within a message that already contains a first.   Spies send messages that are hidden within jpg pictures, and don’t affect the way the pictures appear to the eye.

This week, it is reported that evolution has found this same trick, and used it with DNA.   DNA is already broken into 3-letter words, each of which selects an amino acid in a sequence that makes a particular protein.  This is ‘the’ genetic code.  Its language is redundant in the sense that there are 64 possible 3-letter words, but only 20 amino acids to choose from (plus two codons that signal ‘start’ and ‘stop’).

The newly-discovered, hidden code tells the protein how to wind around molecular ‘spools’ that keep the long DNA strands from tangling.  But rather than dedicate some of the extra, unused codons for this purpose, evolution in her wisdom has chosen to let messages have double meanings, so that segments of DNA are simultaneously encoding amino acids and also signaling the placement of a spool.

NY Times Science article

Hidden message: what is the hidden meaning in this French phrase?

Pas de lieux Rhône que nous.


26 July 2006

“We learn from experience that men never learn anything from experience.”

“The frontier between hell and heaven is only the difference between two ways of looking at things.”

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

George Bernard Shaw, fecund playwright, novelist and philosopher, left us great works of wit and insight, made and later acknowledged deep errors of political judgment.  

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

GBS is 150 years old today.

“I, as a socialist, have had to preach, as much as anyone, the enormous power of the environment. We can change it; we must change it; there is absolutely no other sense in life than the task of changing it. What is the use of writing plays, what is the use of writing anything, if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods.”

25 July 2006

“The best thing to give to your enemy is forgiveness; to an opponent, tolerance; to a friend, your heart; to your child, a good example; to a father, deference; to your mother, conduct that will make her proud of you; to yourself, respect; to all men, charity.”

~ Arthur James Balfour, born this day in 1848, British Prime Minister from 1902-1905, was both scholar and statesmen, author of The Defence of Philosophic Doubt and Theism and Humanism the Balfour Declaration, offering a homeland to the Jewish diaspora.

24 July 2006

“I confess I do not believe in time.  I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.  And the highest enjoyment of timelessness – in a landscape selected at random – is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants.  This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain.  It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love.  A sense of oneness with sun and stone.  A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern – to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”

Vladimir NabokovSpeak, Memory