Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Here is a recent APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day). The title on the APOD site is "Globules in the Running Chicken Nebula."
Something about the incongruity of the prosaic "Why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road?" title and the awesomeness of the image rendered me speechless. Talk about bringing heaven down to earth!
The Running Chicken Nebula takes its name from its perceived shape (although I don't see it). The nebula spans dozens of light-years in the Milky Way Galaxy, about 6000 light-years from the Solar System. The dark globules floating at the center of the image might be other star systems in the making.
Language is not adequate to describe the universe visible to our telescopes. Awesome? These days a selfie is "awesome." Mind-blowing? Last weekend's movie was "mind-blowing."
No, really. You can search the dictionary and not find sufficiently capacious language to describe what we see. Which means we cannot fully intellectually grasp what we are looking at.
Make the image of the Running Chicken Nebula as large as you can. Fill your screen with it. Then, unless you are a Dante Alighieri, be silent.
Monday, March 10, 2014
In a NTYBR review of the diaries of famed diplomat George Kennan, I read this quoted extract from December 1927:
I cannot help but regret that I did not live 50 or 100 years sooner. Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them…too many friends to have any real friendships, too many books to know any of them well, and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception, gone before we have time to consider them.If life seemed that hyper 87 years ago, what would poor George make of life today? How many Twitter followers would he have? How many Facebook friends? How many books on his Kindle?
I dare say if George Kennan had lived 50 or 100 years earlier –- or 200, or 400 -– he would have found cause for the same complaint. There are those who go rushing into the future like ducks to water, and those who instinctively cling to an idealized past. Kennan was clearly in the latter category. So, I suppose, am I.
No Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram. I don't scorn these things, I just don't see the point. Every week I get a message from Facebook saying that 60 or 70 folks want to be friends, mostly names I don't recognize. I appreciate the interest, but what I'm looking forward to right now is a walk alone on the beach. I have made myself a nest on the blogosphere, and I am instructed and gratified by those who visit, but the main reason for being here is the selfish opportunity to leisurely consider "those kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off [my] field of perception," such as a provocative paragraph in a NYTBR review. Coffee, a quiet chair, my MacBook Air –- solitude and silence.
Oh, I scoot about, as you know, among three beautiful places, but when I get there I hunker down, like the naturalist John Burroughs, and wait (as Burroughs said) for the turning seasons to bring everything by my door. I hope I'm not as cranky as Kennan, but I'm not rushing into the future, either.
Sunday, March 09, 2014
Saturday, March 08, 2014
"I am sensual in order to be spiritual," writes Mary Oliver, in her little book of miscellany, Winter Hours. I was thinking about her remark the other evening as we watched a huge tangerine moon rise above the silver sea. It was one of those moments so perfect in its confluence of attributes that nothing needed to be said, a moment when even a writer recognizes that the most articulate expression is silence. The moon bubbled up out of Exuma Sound and all the phantoms and false gods fell away. "Praise this world to the Angel," says the poet Rilke. "Do not tell him the untellable...Show him some simple thing, refashioned by age after age, till it lives in our hands and eyes as a part of ourselves. Tell him things. He'll stand more astonished."
(This post originally appeared in February 2007.)
Thursday, March 06, 2014
Which is best for a beach bonfire? Full moon? Or moonless night?
There's something magical about moonlight on the sea. Something that invites a swim. And romance.
But then –- there's the myriad of stars and the Milky Way you can see on a moonless night. "What's that?" a neighbor asks, pointing to the Pleiades, shining with a special brightness.
"How many stars do you see?" I ask. They are called 'the Seven Sisters.""
"Six." "And I tell the story of the missing Pleiad, snatched away by one of the seven brothers of Ursa Major.
"There are actually more than a thousand stars in the cluster, only six of which are bright enough to be reliably seen with the naked eye. The most I have seen without optical aid is nine, when my eyes were younger and sharper, under a sky of exceptional darkness and clarity.
"Where is the missing Pleiad now?" "Just rising." I show her the Big Dipper standing on its handle in the northeast, with brother Mizar and little kidnapee Alcor.
What I can't show her is the dust cloud that is passing through he Pleiades, being pushed into wisps and streamers by the pressure of starlight.
(I won't be here tomorrow. Electrical work on house. Internet down.)
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
I first read Martin Buber's I and Thou in the Scribner's Library paperback edition of Ronald Gregor Smith's 1937 translation, which I still own. It came out, I believe, about the time I graduated from university, deep in the throes of a religious search. The book had a profound effect on me at the time, with its straight-forward emphasis on mutuality of relationships and definition of God as "eternal Thou." It was a refreshing change from the hopelessly legalistic R.C. theology of my youth.
The book maintained a nostalgic hold on me into adulthood; I referred to it at length in the last chapter my Skeptics and True Believers.
A few weeks ago I came across a newer translation of I and Thou in our tiny island library and nostalgia got the best of me. The 1970 translation is by Walter Kaufmann, and I hadn't come across it before. I took it home and had a look.
The most striking departure is Kaufmann's decision to translate Buber's Ich und Du as "I and You." Thou is archaic, says Kaufmann, and you is closer to the German du. Only the title of the Kaufmann edition is unchanged.
The funny thing is, reading Buber with "I and You" is an altogether different experience. It was something of the biblical "Thou" with its hint of transcendence that lifted -– or seemed to lift –- the book above the level of grandfatherly advice. There was also an Amish simplicity about the word, a horse-and-buggy theology to replace the clunking, Rube-Goldbergish mechanical omnibus of Catholic dogma.
Reading the new edition made me wonder what attracted me in the first place. There is less there than met the young man's eye: Treat the other as you would have the other treat you, as a person worthy of love. But then, maybe that's enough.
And God? The eternal You? Doesn't quite work, does it?
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
This is one of those uncommon months with two new Moons—on March 1 and March 30. There were two in January also, and none in February.
This is of no more than idle interest, unless like me here on the island, with these wonderful horizons, one is a dedicated seeker of very young and very old Moons. I have recruited my friend Dwight into the hobby. As the Moon approached the Sun on the morning of February 26, he thrilled to the exquisite conjunction of Venus and the lunar crescent. "Just inches apart," he said.
This past Sunday, the Moon was 34 hours old, as thin as an eyelash, as thin as the paring of a nail. We watched, atwitter.
What's the point?
There is no point.
That's the point.
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Monday, March 03, 2014
Sunday, March 02, 2014
Saturday, March 01, 2014
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.Poor Gerard Manley Hopkins. Caught agonizingly between God's immanence and God's transcendence. From the time he was a child he was drawn to the natural world: plants, animals, hills, dales, streams, slants of light, the forms of frost, starry nights, comets, stones, bells, the aurora borealis, human faces. He was attuned to these things with a special sensitivity. It was almost as if he could see into them, to what he called their inscape, "the deepest freshness deep down things," a grandeur inherent in materiality that he perceived as divine.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge & shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast & with ah! bright wings.
But Hopkins could not rid himself of the notion that by attending to the material world of particular things he was being drawn away from the spiritual and universal. The Jesuits, to whom he gave his short life, believed the senses were the enemy of sanctity, that beauty was the Devil's share. The young men at the Jesuit novitiate -- eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, at the peak of their sexual and sensual awakening -- were kept occupied every waking hour of the day lest their idle senses become an occasion of sin. They were even given "modesty powder" for their bath to make the water opaque; God forbid that they might be aroused to lascivious thoughts by the sight of their own genitals. Hopkins seems to have borne such training gracefully, and it must be said the Jesuit regimen was not at odds with his own ascetic inclinations. He often practiced what his religious superiors called "custody of the eyes," forcing himself to walk though the world with his vision fixed at his feet.
It is all terribly Roman Catholic, this perplexed attraction and revulsion to materiality -- heaven knows I was there myself as a young man. Hopkins seems to have resolved the conflict only in his late sonnets, such as God's Grandeur. It was an almost pantheistic formula he contrived, and it was looked upon with suspicion by the Jesuits. But as we read the poems we sense a man who has looked deeply into himself and caught there a sense of something both material and spiritual, not as opposites, but as complementary manifestations of the same "bright wings."
Friday, February 28, 2014
When we arrived here in mid-December, the sun rose over the cairn on Stocking Island, about as far to the south as it ever gets. Morning by morning, it has been creeping north along the horizon, not fast enough to be obvious day by day, but easily noticeable week by week as the smaller cays slip under its rolling wheel.
In three weeks it will rise due east, the first day of spring, and time to return to New England.
Return to what? Snow? Cold? All winter we have been reading on the internet about the brutal weather in the north, and counting our blessings. All right, I'm willing to put shoes on, but boots and wooly socks? Please, say it won't be so.
Meanwhile, our family climatologist has arrived for a week, to explain why global warming can drive that pesky polar vortex down across North America. Seems counterintuitive, but I trust her explanation. Here's another just-announced accolade to go with the Wollaston.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
The first three stanzas of a poem of Charles Simic called "The Invisible":
It was always here.I've spent a lifetime a-tuning myself to the invisible, trying as best I can to stay aware to the unseen, the thing that hides behind the costume of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. Not the unseen gods that the Athenians imagined looking down from Olympus or the cornices of their temples, but the unseen thing that Thales and Democritus sensed behind the visible, that Plato guessed at in his Timaeus.
Its vast terrors concealed
By this costume party
Of flowers and birds
And children playing in the garden.
Only the leaves tell the truth.
They rustle darkly,
Then fall silent as if listening
To a dragonfly
Who may know a lot more of the invisible,
Or why else would its wings be
So translucent in the light,
So swift to take flight,
One barely notices
It's been here and gone.
The rustling leaves, the dragonfly –- I want to be aware of what's below the surface, the unceasing turmoil of the proteins, the dervish dance of the DNA, and deeper, the resonances and entanglements of the subatomic particles, an eternal cosmological music fixed in the foundations of the world.
Yesterday, as we set on the beach, the osprey and its mate swooped and dived above our heads, their wings, it seemed, as broad as my outstretched arms. I wanted to see into the chambers of their hearts, the blood coursing through their veins, the neurons firing in brains exquisitely contrived for snatching silver fish from the surf.
The invisible hawk.
To be aware, but not so aware as to be overwhelmed. Not so aware that I forget the silver surf, and the fish, and the children playing in the sand.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
After yesterday's post, one might reasonably ask: If Martin Gardner believes in a personal God and the afterlife, with admittedly no evidence, because it makes him feel good, by what right does he scorn people who without evidence believe in astrology or homeopathy, say, for the same reason?
In Gardner's defense, the situations are not the same.
Astrology and homeopathy both presuppose observable effects in the world of phenomena. Supposedly, people's personal characteristics are manifestly determined by their birth signs, and homeopathic solutions sensibly alleviate afflictions. These are correlations that can be observed and tested, even aside from their theoretical improbability (even absurdity). Suffice it to say that every blind test of astrology and homeopathy has shown no statistically reliable correlations.
If Martin Gardner believed his personal God acted in the world, by answering prayers, say, or performing miracles, then his belief would indeed be equivalent to that of the astrologers and homeopaths. Double-blind tests of the efficacy of petitionary prayer have shown no positive correlations, and I know of no unambiguous or non-anecdotal evidence of miracles.
Gardner's faith is not even like belief in Russell's teapot, which does or does not exist in the world of searchable phenomena. As far as I can tell on the evidence of his autobiography, which includes discussion of such things, Gardner makes no claim that his God acts in the world in any perceivably miraculous way, nor does he believe the membrane between death and the afterlife is other than one-way permeable."
That is to say, he believes in things for which evidence has not been adduced in favor, and cannot be adduced against.
I'd say, "What's the point?" But since there is nothing we can logically argue over, to each his own. Martin, if you're in Heaven, send back a few new mathematical games. We'll recognize your inimitable touch.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Reading Martin Gardner's autobiography is like spending a pleasant afternoon in the company of a 95-year-old man with sharp memories and a twinkle in his eye. Oh wait, that's what it is.
Gardner comes across as a straight-arrow sort of guy who likes his poetry rhymed and his art realistic. I get the impression that he liked keeping busy and sniffed at pretention and idle chit-chat. Certainly, with 25 years of the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American and dozens of books, he must have kept his squeaky-clean nose to the grindstone.
And good for the rest of us. I derived so much pleasure from his Mathematical Games columns that just reading about how they happened makes me want to go back and read them all again. Alas, at some point in my crowded life I tossed the collected magazines. Let's hope the college library doesn't do the same.
I enjoyed Gardner's reminiscences of his time at the University of Chicago during the reign of Hutchins and Adler, and his doggerel verse:
Hutchins and AdlerI had my own take on Hutchins and Adler here.
Had careers of great promise
Before both were shot down
By the books of St. Thomas.
Gardner, of course, was a great debunker of pseudoscience of every sort, most famously, perhaps, in his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, the spirit of which inspired many a Globe column. In Hocus-Pocus, he quotes Carl Sagan approvingly: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Then he ends the book with of sturdy confession of faith in a personal God and the afterlife. One can almost hear the collective sigh of his many skeptical friends.
Give this to Gardner: He concedes all the best arguments to the skeptics, and admits that he has no proofs for his beliefs. He believes for emotional reasons, he says; it makes him feel good. I'll give him that. His life and work certainly made me feel good.
(More on this tomorrow.)