Allegro giocoso

Only at the close of a composition filled with complex emotion, in turn forlorn, triumphant, mystified, does Brahms explode in exuberance.

Listen to the Finale of Brahms’s piano trio in C op 87, performed by the Moscow Trio

1 July 2009

Wikipedia entry for Satori

Satori (悟り?) (Chinese: 悟; pinyin: wù; Korean 오) is a Japanese Buddhist term for enlightenment. The word literally means “understanding”. Satori translates into a flash of sudden awareness, or individual Enlightenment, and while Satori is from the zen buddhist tradition, Enlightenment can be simultaneously considered “the first step” or embarkation towards the “yonder shore”, but simultaneously, arrival there as well thereby being similar to Christopher Dewdney’s “Secular Grail” philosophy, that to “know” one instant of eternity, is to know all of eternity. Hence, growth in mindfulness that actions produced in the here and now have eternal manifestations are similar to Newtonian physics and the idea that every action has an equal (and opposite) reaction is essential in manifesting the eternal (while oneself is bound in the temporal world). Satori is as well an intuitive experience and can be considered similar to awakening one day with an additional pair of arms, and only later learning how to use them.

It is worthwhile to consider that regardless of whatever word is used to describe enlightenment, it refers to a primal experience with different words to describe the experience simply “red herrings” to lead would-be avatars away from the path where the path is one and not to be distinguished or separated from the one making the journey. Modern day physicists would equate enlightenment, satori, nirvana or cosmic consciousness as “the big bang” with most observers unaware that the light from stars is not to be distinguished from their own consciousness having the same origin.

Satori is sometimes loosely used interchangeably with Kensho, but Kensho refers to the first perception of the Buddha-Nature or True-Nature, sometimes referred to as “awakening”. Distinct from kensho, which is not a permanent state of enlightenment but a clear glimpse of the true nature of existence, satori is used to refer to a “deep” or lasting state of enlightenment. It is therefore customary to use the word satori, rather than kensho, when referring to the enlightened states of the Buddha and the Patriarchs with Bodhisatvas who recognized “all things are Buddha things” and thereby, any separation between self and the universe is an illusion. According to D. T. Suzuki, “Satori is the raison d’être of Zen, without which Zen is no Zen. Therefore every contrivance, disciplinary and doctrinal, is directed towards satori.”[1]

2 July 2009

Kafka on the self in relationship
with comments

“The relationship to one’s fellow man is the relationship of prayer, the relationship to oneself is the relationship of striving; it is from prayer that one draws strength for one’s striving.”

What is he saying here? That he seeks salvation in his interactions with others? That he comes to them as a supplicant, as a child kneeling at bedtime to ask forgiveness and deliverance? But when he is alone, no one to judge him, then he works to be worthy of his own regard.

...or perhaps he is saying simply that he has no God, that the closest thing he has to worship is the mirror of another human soul.  But he cannot work when he is with others, hence his writing reflects his loneliness.

“I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy.”

Compare this to...

“How can one take delight in the world unless one flees to it for refuge?”

...and you see that Kafka tortured himself when alone, and with others found assurance that he was OK.

“How pathetically scanty is my self-knowledge compared with, say, my knowledge of my room. There is no such thing as observation of the inner world, as there is of the outer world.”

“Association with human beings lures one into self-observation.”

But isn’t it the wrong kind of self-observation, more like self-consciousness? Is that a better translation?

“We all have wings, but they have not been of any avail to us and if we could tear them off, we would do so.”

Today is the birthday of Franz Kafka, (1883-1924) 

3 July 2009

Independence Day

“Each nation feels superior to other nations. That breeds patriotism – and wars.”
Dale Carnegie

“Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.”
Bertrand Russell
“Patriotism is the religion of hell”
James Branch Cavell

“The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one’s country deep enough to call her to a higher plane.”
George McGovern

“This is the creed of July 4: No matter what it costs us, no matter how it scares us, no matter how foolish it seems to a cynical world, America should stand up for human rights.”
Chris Satullo

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
This is my song O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.
– from a hymn on the Sibelius chorale from Finlandia, words by Lloyd Stone  

4 July 2009

Fault tolerance

I used to live across the street from a cardiologist.  Glen left the house each morning at six, and usually didn’t return until mid-evening.  Often he would perform three open-heart procedures in a day.

I asked him how he could stand the constant pressure, knowing that a momentary lapse of attention or a fumble of his scalpel could kill someone. 

That’s not at all the way it is, he corrected me.  On the contrary, almost all of his work was routine, he said, and he adhered religiously to procedures that were designed to be maximally fault-tolerant.

If there’s room for a heart surgeon to make mistakes, how much more so for you and me.  Our routines and habits keep us safe and productive, even when we’re distracted, obsessed, and in pain.

Human institutions have also evolved to be forgiving.  Most of the time, grocery shelves remain stocked, cars don’t crash, and sewers don’t overflow despite prominent quirks in our personalities and lapses in our individual performance.   

Fault tolerant social structures begin to explain why the world seems to demand so little of us — so little creativity and understanding, not even very much competence.  And part of this institutional resilience is a resistance to change that helps explain the frustration we encounter whenever we seek to implement our good ideas.

Efficient we’re not.  But we can be competent most of the time — amazingly so, considering the emotional turmoil that seethes always beneath the surface.  And who knows but it is from that turbulent sea that arise the flashes of brilliance that are our guiding lights.

— Josh Mutteldorf

5 July 2009

Stem cells

An egg cell is capable of growing into a whole new animal. A somatic cell (skin or muscle or nerve or bone, etc) does its job as long as it can, then dies without reproducing. A stem cell is something in between. Its job in the body is to reproduce, creating more of the kinds of cells that are needed. We have stem cells beneath our skin that are constantly replacing skin cells, and stem cells in our marrow that are constantly replacing blood cells.


When a salamander loses a leg, it can grow a new one. The muscle and bone and nerve cells near the point of the injury revert from being somatic cells to being stem cells. They are not fully pluripotent stem cells (capable of differentiating into any cell type) but are stem cells for the particular kind of tissue from which they come.

To determine how cells give rise to a regrown limb, scientists [in the lab of Elly Tanaka at the Inst for Regenerative Medicine in Dresden] first inserted a snippet of DNA into the genome of a salamander called an axolotl, which caused it to produce a glowing green protein. From the eggs of these glowing salamanders, they then removed the cells that would eventually develop into legs. Next they removed the future leg-cells of a normal salamander embryo, and implanted in their place the cells that would produce glowing legs. When the normal salamanders with glowing transplants developed, they had fluorescent limbs. (And presumably when the glowing salamanders with normal transplants developed, they glowed all over except the legs.) Finally, the researchers amputated their salamanders’ legs, which then regrew. Cells in the new legs also contained the fluorescent protein and glowed under a microscope so the scientists could watch blastemas form and legs regrow in cell-by-cell detail. Contrary to expectation, skin cells that joined the blastema later divided into skin cells. Muscle became muscle. Cartilage became cartilage. Only cells from just beneath the skin could become more than one cell type []. 

The results “really shift the focus” of regenerative research, [regeneration biologist Andras Simon] said. Instead of trying to generate multipotent or pluripotent cells, “one should try to understand how these cells get the appropriate signals to make a new limb in terms of organizing the different tissue types” [The Scientist]. 

Original article in Nature describing this work

Grow your own stem cells

If you’d like to learn the salamander’s trick, you’re not alone. Stem cell scientists are working furiously to learn how to turn your somatic cells back into the stem cells from whence they came. Just this last April, an article in Nature announced a breakthrough. Snippets of DNA were set free in such a way that they would find a cell nucleus and insert themselves into a chromosome. Just four such snippets were able to transform a normal cell into a stem cell. (Safely, without use of retroviruses, which has been our only way of introducing new DNA into an old cell.)

Story in Brian Ranes’s Science Loaf

6 July 2009

Guinness records as a spiritual practice

Sri Chinmoy teaches that we must reach beyond our limits to develop ourselves.  Attempting the impossible is a way to challenge our belief systems and develop a faith that transcends rationality.

Ashrita Furman has taken this as license to compete for Guinness records.  He currently holds 99, including ‘most deep knee bends on a bongo board’, ‘fastest mile on stilts’ and, of course, ‘most simultaneous Guinness records held by an individual’.

‘I must begin my life once again, by dreaming the impossible.’
— Sri Chinmoy

7 July 2009

Love the earth and sun and the animals,
 despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks,
stand up for the stupid and crazy,
devote your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants, argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people,
take off your hat to nothing known or unknown,
or to any man or number of men,
go freely with powerful uneducated persons,
and with the young, and with the mothers or families,
re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book,
and dismiss whatever insults your own soul;
and your very flesh shall be a great poem.

Walt Whitman (from Preface to the 1865 edition of Leaves of Grass)

Ah, but it isn’t always easy to know one’s own soul, to separate our authentic selves from the culture in which we have been steeped.

8 July 2009

Knowledge wants to be free

Open journals —  YouTube  —  BitTorrent  —  WikipediaBlogging journalists

As technology has made a new abundance of knowledge possible, politicians, lawyers, corporations and university administrations have become more and more determined to preserve its scarcity.

So will we cling to scarcity just so that we can keep capitalism? Or will capitalism have to evolve into some new kind of digital economics?

... here’s a challenge to the governments of countries that want to lead the way, whether rich or poor: sit down with Google (or one of its competitors), authors and publishers, and work out a deal that offers a complete, licensed digital library free to your citizens. It would cost taxpayers something, but less than they currently spend on buying scarce books and supporting large paper collections. It would be great news for publishers and authors, who would receive most of the funds and would no longer need to fear piracy.

It’s time to recognise that when we build institutions to promote the abundance of knowledge, everybody wins. When it comes to knowledge, you can never have too much of a good thing.

Peter Eckersley, writing in New Scientist
   (though much of New Scientist’s Internet content is limited to paid subscribers, the Editors have seen fit to make this one freely available.)

9 July 2009

Avoiding self-delusion and intellectual arrogance

“There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them.”
— George Orwell

“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” 
Saul Bellow, born this day in 1915

“I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.”
— Socrates

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
— (attributed to Darwin)

10 July 2009

‘We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.’

— Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), mystic nun, poet, composer and dramatist

Her music may impress us as more haunting than shocking, but in her time it was both.  Hildegard expanded the range of a liturgical idiom that was tamer in order to express the ecstatic revelation that was her gift.

Listen to the Rex noster promptus est, composed 900 years ago by Hildegard.

11 July 2009

You don’t have to give up wanting things to be different from what they are.  You only have to give up wanting to stop wanting.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Or if you’re really tenacious, perhaps you’ll just
give up wanting to stop wanting to stop wanting.

12 July 2009


Island where all becomes clear.  
Solid ground beneath your feet.  
The only roads are those that offer access.  

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.  
The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here
with branches disentangled since time immemorial.  

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.  
The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista: the Valley of Obviously.  
If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.  

Echoes stir unsummoned and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.  
On the right a cave where Meaning lies.  
On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.  
Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.  

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.  

As if all you can do here is leave and plunge,
never to return, into the depths.  

Into unfathomable life.  

~ Wislawa Szymborska

13 July 2009

Daniel and Phillip Berrigan

were Catholic priests turned anti-war activists in the 1960s.  They burned draft records, poured blood on General Electric’s nuclear weapons files, and attacked guided missiles with a hammer from a hardware store.

Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house.  We could not, so help us God, do otherwise...We say; killing is disorder, life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize.  For the sake o f that order, we risk our liberty our good name.  The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense.

Sentenced to prison for his protests, ‘Daniel Berrigan disappeared.  While the FBI searched for him, he showed up at an Easter festival at Cornell University, where he had been teaching.  With dozens of FBI men looking for him in the crowd, he suddenly appeared on stage.  When the lights went out, he hid inside a giant figure of the Bread and Puppet Theatre which was on stage, was carried out to a truck, and escaped to a nearby farmhouse.  He stayed underground for four months, writing poems, issuing statements, giving secret interviews, appearing suddenly in a Philadelphia church to give a sermon and then disappearing again, baffling the FBI, until an informer’s interception of a letter disclosed his whereabouts and he was captured and imprisoned....

“We had all known we were going to jail, so we had our toothbrushes.”’

— Quotes are from a People’s History of the Twentieth Century, by Howard Zinn

Happy Bastille Day

14 July 2009

Stephen Hawking on cultural evolution and the future of humankind

‘At first, evolution proceeded by natural selection, from random mutations. This Darwinian phase, lasted about three and a half billion years, and produced us, beings who developed language, to exchange information.’ But what distinguishes us from our cave man ancestors is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years, and particularly, Hawking points out, over the last three hundred. ‘I think it is legitimate to take a broader view, and include externally transmitted information, as well as DNA, in the evolution of the human race,’ Hawking said.

In the last ten thousand years the human species has  been in what Hawking calls, ‘an external transmission phase,’ where the internal record of information, handed down to succeeding generations in DNA, has not changed significantly. ‘But the external record, in books, and other long lasting forms of storage,’ Hawking says, ‘has grown enormously. Some people would use the term, evolution, only for the internally transmitted genetic material, and would object to it being applied to information handed down externally. But I think that is too narrow a view. We are more than just our genes.’

...we are now entering a new phase, of what Hawking calls ‘self designed evolution,’ in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA...If the human race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, we will probably reach out to the stars and colonize other planets. But this will be done, Hawking believes, with intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, which could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

— from a Summary discussion by Casey Kazan
Text of Hawking Lecture (2005):  Life in the Universe

(Who better to talk about mechanical & electronic extensions of human biology than Stephen Hawking?)

15 July 2009


‘Acquaint yourself with your own ignorance.’

Isaac Watts, born this day in 1674, was a British minister who left us hundreds of hymns that are about daily experience more than abstract worship.  He also wrote a logic text used in universities for a hundred years.


16 July 2009

Taking turns

The version of Darwin’s evolution that has pervaded popular culture is about ruthless competition. It’s no accident that this interpretation is so consonant with ‘social Darwinism’, and the interests of the wealthy in making sure that working people realize that the only reason they’re not among the wealthy is that they haven’t worked hard enough. Written over the entrance to Auschwitz was the motto, ‘Arbeit macht frei’ – ‘Work will set you free’.

But the tale that natural history has to tell is one of unbridled competition giving way over billions of years to wider and wider cooperation. Some of the great evolutionary transitions – e.g. multicellularity, sex, eusociality – have occurred when mechanisms could be established to suppress competition at a lower level so individuals could work together in wider groups.

You and I are able to function as individuals rather than bags of feuding cells because the cells in our bodies have agreed that we all have the same DNA, and we’re going to divide our tasks and pool our resources to get behind our gonads, so they can get our DNA into the next generation.

Sex is an obligatory prerequisite to reproduction in most multicellular species, further ‘spreading the wealth’ and assuring that genes are shared around so no individual can dominate a group’s genetic legacy.

Groups of humans evolved tight communal cooperation so that they could make war more effectively against competing tribes. After many rounds of escalating warfare, it became clear that the tribe that did the best was the one that learned the art of deterring war while avoiding the temptation to conquer others – to stand aside and let the other tribes kill one another.

Andrew Colman and Lindsay Browning (U. Leicester Psychology Dept) describe how it is that so many species have evolved practices of ‘taking turns’ fairly, despite the obvious advantage of cheating. 

David Sloan Wilson traces the ascent of humankind over other primates not to tools or opposable thumbs or larger brains but to democracy.

William Eric Davis documents the high correlation between of prosperity with peace, equality and democratic institutions in the modern world.

17 July 2009

Only in deep silence may we hear the voice of the soul

If you want proof of your own divinity listen in to your own Overself, for that proof is within you.  Take a little time out of your leisure to shut out the tumultuous distractions of the world and enter into a short seclusion; then listen with patience and attention to the reports of your own mind...Repeat this practice every day, and one day that proof will suddenly visit your solitude.  With it will come a glorious freedom when the burdens of man-made theologies or man-made skepticisms will go out from you.  Learn to touch your Overself—and you will never again be drawn into those futile circles where men raise the dust of theological argument or make the nosie of intellectual debate....Some people call this meditation.

Paul Brunton, from The Secret Path

18 July 2009


When we parse the world in terms of good and evil, it helps us galvanize our resources and our will to do what needs to be done in times of danger. But we should be aware that this is a framework that has been overused and abused, sometimes consciously for nefarious ends.

We know one side of the story so much better than the other. It is easy to delude ourselves into thinking we are wholly in the right and another has wronged us.

Far worse is when a leader creates or exaggerates a threat, invoking an enemy to secure and extend his own power. Wars take places when leaders on both sides of a conflict convince their subjects that people on the opposite side must be destroyed.

Whenever we find ourselves opposing an enemy, it is a useful mental exercise to imagine ourselves in the enemy’s place, to remember times when we have behaved in a way that might be comparable to what he is doing, and to empathize with what he might be feeling.

Forgiveness and tolerance are fundamental virtues not because there is anything inherently valuable about condoning evil, but because they compensate for our innate propensity to perceive ourselves as victims, and thereby make possible peace and social harmony.

— Josh Mitteldorf

19 July 2009


Shot in the dark

Set against the consuming blackness of space, the earth is a beguiling blue-green ball. Barely two dozen people have ever experienced the emotion of seeing our planet from the moon and beyond, yet the fragile beauty of the pictures they sent back home is engraved in the minds of a generation. Nothing compares. Petty human squabbles over borders and oil and creed vanish in the knowledge that this living marble surrounded by infinite emptiness is our shared home, and more, a home we share with, and owe to, the most wonderful inventions of life. Life itself transformed our planet from the battered and fiery rock that once orbited a young star to the living beacon that is our world seen from space.

— Nick Lane, from Life Ascending

20 July 2009

Time and again

Immer wieder gleichwohl wir die Landschaft der Liebe und des kleinen Kirchhofs dort, mit seinen sorrowing Namen und den erschreckend leisen Abgrund kennen, in den die anderen fallen: immer wieder gehen die zwei von uns heraus zusammen unter die alten Bume, liegen unten immer wieder unter den Blumen, von Angesicht zu Angesicht mit dem Himmel.

Rainer Maria Rilke 

Time and again, however well we know the landscape of love,
and the little church-yard with lamenting names,
and the frightfully silent ravine wherein all the others
end: time and again we go out two together,
under the old trees, lie down again and again
between the flowers, face to face with the sky.

— translated by J. B. Leishman

21 July 2009


The reverse Krebs cycle and the origin of life

The Krebs cycle is the core of life’s chemistry. What it accomplishes is to ‘burn’ hydrocarbons (creating water and carbon dioxide) but capturing the energy as electrochemistry instead of releasing it as heat the way a flame does.

The Krebs cycle is common to all life on earth, so it may be a clue to how life got its start. For many years after the elucidation of DNA by Watson and Crick, theories for the origin of life focused on DNA and the problem of reproduction. But there are newer theories that say, maybe the energy metabolism came first and replication latched on later.

The reverse Krebs cycle is a sequence of chemical reactions that are used by some bacteria to produce carbon compounds from carbon dioxide and water. In this process it can be seen as an alternative to the far more common photosynthesis production of organic molecules. It’s natural to think of the reverse Krebs cycle as a candidate for the original way to produce biomolecules, because it is know that photosynthesis evolved only hundreds of millions of years after life was established.

Another interesting clue is that some of the steps can be catalyzed by minerals. The picture that emerges is that life started at thermal vents under the ocean, where minerals and heat spew up from the earth’s mantle, and provide the energy and the catalysts that drive the Krebs cycle in reverse.

Research article by Scot T Martin
Wikipedia entry
I learned this story from the first chapter of Nick Lane’s book, Life Ascending, available on-line from Google Books

We think about life that can survive without oxygen or sunlight in 300o saltwater at 1000 atmospheres, and we say, ‘Wow! what extremophiles.’  But in a mind-expanding twist, it may turn out that that is the environment where life got its start, and to adapt to low temperatures and corrosive oxygen required hundreds of millions of years of evolution.  We are the extremophiles.

22 July 2009

Tower built of minerals
near a volcanic vent
deep under the Atlantic

Posterity: patience and perspective

 We relate so differently to time on different scales. Focus group studies say that when people are waiting for an elevator, anxiety begins to rise after 10 seconds. But if I’m meeting a new friend for lunch the day after tomorrow, I have no trouble looking forward to that with delighted anticipation. I’m already anxious about flying to England in six weeks. Planning for next year or next decade can seem pretty abstract.

Time in history books feels far removed. Medieval bishops were willing to organize efforts to build a stone cathedral with funds and workers as they became available. The effort would continue for 100-200 years before the edifice was completed, and during that time construction would be interrupted for decades at a time for wars, famines, or bubonic plague. We are accustomed to kingdoms and dynasties having a shelf-life of hundreds of years.

But evolutionary time is completely abstract. Learning that it took 5 million years for mammals to get a leg up on reptiles or 2 billion years for bacteria to develop a cell nucleus seems a matter of mathematics more than experience. I like to imagine comprehending astronomical time as human experience.

The longest-range goal with which I commonly occupy myself is the eradication of war. I think it’s conceivable it could be accomplished in 50 years; but what does it matter, really, if it should require 1,000 years?

It would be hard enough to contemplate the long-term future just because the time scale is so far beyond our human experience; but the accelerating pace of change makes the future so much the more unimaginable. Within the brief span of my life, I have witnessed changes that took me utterly by surprise: the fall of communism; the interconnection of global communication; the spectre of fascism within my own country.

Needs for food, clothing, and shelter will be easily satisfied for all of us, and granted as a universal birthright. Human lifespans will expand 10- or 100-fold. Human consciousness will be expanded, as computers become prosthetics attached seamlessly to our brains. Telepathy will be first recognized, then understood then embraced and enhanced by science. The idea of ‘one human community’ will be not a metaphor or distant dream but a manifest reality when our thoughts are shared so broadly and so intimately. We will take conscious charge of the evolutionary future of humanity, substituting engineering (both electronic and genetic) for natural selection.

My best guess is that this will take a few hundred years. Try as I might, I can’t see beyond this. The birth and death of stars, the large-scale manipulation of galactic dynamics by conscious beings (our posterity!) for ambitious and benevolent ends – all this seems to live in  a Platonic realm, remote from my experience. 


23 July 2009

Rivers are people, too/strong>

The American system of jurisprudence includes the legal fiction that corporations are persons with many of the constitutional rights that you and I enjoy.  There is a growing movement to endow forests, rivers, and species with similar rights.

Why shouldn’t a species have standing in court to sue a corporation which threatens her life? Shapleigh, ME is one of about a dozen US municipalities to have passed measures declaring that nature itself has rights under the law.  Says Patricia Siemen, director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence. “Someone needs to be able to represent the forests.”

The idea that corporations should have rights under the 14th Amendment goes back to the 1886 case of Southern Pacific Railroad vs Santa Clara County.  It has been established law for over a century.

The idea that nature should have rights goes back to Christopher Stone, law professor at the U of Southern California, writing in 1972.  It is still controversial.

Boston Globe article

24 July 2009

A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness

The tall camels of the spirit
Steer for their deserts, passing the last groves loud
With the sawmill shrill of the locust, to the whole honey of the arid
Sun. They are slow, proud,

And move with a stilted stride
To the land of sheer horizon, hunting Traherne’s
Sensible emptiness*, there where the brain’s lantern-slide
Revels in vast returns.

O connoisseurs of thirst,
Beasts of my soul who long to learn to drink
Of pure mirage, those prosperous islands are accurst
That shimmer on the brink

Of absense; auras, lustres,
And all shinings need to be shaped and borne.
Think of those painted saints, capped by the early masters
With bright, jauntily-worn

Aureate plates, or even
Merry-go-round rings. Turn, O turn
From the fine sleights of the sand, from the long empty oven
Where flames in flamings burn

Back to the trees arrayed
In bursts of glare, to the halo-dialing run
Of the country creeks, and the hills’ bracken tiaras made
Gold in the sunken sun,

Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate.

— Richard Wilbur

*‘You are as prone to love as the sun is to shine; it being the most natural and delightful employment of the soul of Man: without which you are dark and miserable... Life without objects is sensible emptiness, and that is a greater misery than death or nothing.’ 
— Thomas Traherne  (1636-1674)

25 July 2009

Mary McAndrew

Was die mode streng geteilt

Embarrassment is the curtain that separates us from full relationship.  Without embarrassment, we would be babes in our mothers’ arms, radically free of self-consciousness.

Without embarrassment, we would be offending each other constantly, arousing resentments, and utterly unable to tolerate one another.

Social conventions have grown up for the purpose of insulating us from thoughts, actions and judgments that might give offense.  Social conventions homogenize our behaviors, and set limits to the honesty with which we can present ourselves in everyday life.

Speaking and acting outside social norms feels terrifying because we risk ostracism and isolation.  And, paradoxically, leaving our social roles behind is precisely what we must do in order to enter into intimate relationship.

If I remain comfortably within my defined social role, I’ll never offend you, but I’ll also never find out if you love the more idiosyncratic person behind the curtain.

If I step outside convention, you may find me disarmingly lovable, or you may turn away, shocked and offended.

Intimacy is frightfully embarrassing.

Consolation:  My worst fear about myself, the thing that I feel I must dissemble at all costs, is a demon from my personal hell; it is specific to my own childhood, my distress, my idiosyncratic fears, and it is unlikely  to affect you the way it affects me.  This is the grace that makes love possible.

— Josh Mitteldorf

26 July 2009

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.

Basho (1644-1694)

227 July 2009

Flower Power & Star Trek

Lawrence Krauss is his usual entertaining self when he discusses Star Trek (13 June, p 22), but seems to have missed what for me was its most obvious sub-message.

TThe society Gene Roddenberry created was based upon communal cooperation and a one-world government, in which money played absolutely no part.

The needs of each individual were met as required, and everyone gave to the maximum of their abilities, without the slightest whiff of incentive bonuses. Indeed, money was only occasionally replicated to allow interaction with primitive communities. The only characters who still used cash and credit trading were decidedly unsavoury individuals, like the Ferengi.

That this stable and purely socialist utopia, envisaged only 300 years hence, should be predicted by a Hollywood-based institution and accepted unquestioningly by millions of fans worldwide is remarkable./p>

— letter to New Scientist by Bryn Glover

28 July 2009

Deuterium mystery

One in every ten thousand atoms of hydrogen is ‘heavy hydrogen’.  Instead of just a proton in its nucleus, deuterium has a proton and neutron glued together* — a ‘deuteron’.

In terms of chemistry, deuterium is almost identical to hydrogen.  (Living things can tell the difference, however because chemical reactions with deuterium are a bit slower.  Ordinary water made from pure deuterium is poisonous.)

But in terms of nuclear chemistry, the deuteron is very different from the proton.  Protons are pretty stable, and it takes a lot of energy to either break one in pieces or make one stick to something else.  But deuterons are much more reactive, and will stick to either a proton or another deuteron.

(Hydrogen bombs and all the schemes for ‘fusion power’ rely on deuterium rather than hydrogen.  It is a great deal much easier to get deuterium to fuse than hydrogen.)

The deuterium mystery: why is there so much of it?  And one atom in every 10,000 really is a lot.  The universe is made overwhelmingly of hydrogen and helium, with just traces of everything else.  For example, after hydrogen and helium, the next most abundant nucleus is deuterium, and after that is carbon.  Carbon 12 is an extremely stable nucleus, and deuterium is very unstable, yet there is 5 times as much deuterium as carbon in the sun.  (In the universe at large, we think carbon is yet more rare compared to deuterium.)

All the chemical elements are thought to come from just three hot places:  One is the First Three Minutes when the entire universe was a great, hot nuclear reactor.  Second is the center of the sun and other stars, where hydrogen is fused into helium. Third is explosions of supernovae, where things get much hotter yet and a star explodes.

When you crunch the numbers, all these places should be consuming deuterium faster than it is created.  Deuterium is just that fragile.  If it’s hot enough to make deuterium, it’s hot enough to continue burning deuterium into helium.

So next time you ponder the great mysteries of the universe, let your sense of cosmic wonder dwell for a moment on this one: Why is there so much deuterium in the world —more than any nucleus other than hydrogen and helium?

* held together with ‘gluons’. The name of this particle is a joke bequeathed to us by Richard Feynman.

29 July 2009

Did you bring your iBook?

What makes us more creative at times and less creative at others? One answer is psychological distance.  According to the construal level theory (CLT) of psychological distance, anything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves falls into the “psychologically distant” category. It’s also possible to induce a state of “psychological distance” simply by changing the way we think about a particular problem, such as attempting to take another person’s perspective, or by thinking of the question as if it were unreal and unlikely. In this new paper, by Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University at Bloomington, scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity. 

Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman writing in this month’s Scientific American

30 July 2009

A stirring of underlight

There is the Open Secret Society of the Poets. These are they who feel that the universe is one mighty harmony of beauty and joy; and who are continually listening to the rhythms and cadences of the eternal music whose orchestra comprises all things from the shells to the stars; all beings from the worm to man, all sounds from the voice of the little bird to the voice of the great ocean; and who are able partially to reproduce these rhythms and cadences in the language of men. In all these imitative songs of theirs is a latent undertone, in which the whole infinite harmony of the whole lies furled; and the fine ears catch this undertone, and convey it to the soul, wherein the furled music unfurls to its primordial infinity, expanding with rapturous pulses and agitating with awful thunders this soul which has been skull-bound, so that it is dissolved and borne away beyond consciousness, and becomes as a living wave in a shoreless ocean.

If, however these their poems be read silently in books, instead of being heard chanted by the human voice, then for the eye which has vision an underlight stirs, and quickens among the letters which grow translucent and throb with light; and this mysterious splendour entering by the eyes into the soul fills it with spheric illumination, and like the mysterious music swells to infinity, consuming with quick fire all the bonds and dungeon-walls of the soul, dazing it out of consciousness and dissolving it in a shoreless ocean of light.

Thomas Traherne, Benedictine mystic (1636-1674)

31 July 2009

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design