Friday, January 01, 2010

Intimations of immortality

And so it is with great pleasure I open Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar for this new year 2010, one of the indispensable tools of the sky-watcher. You have met Guy here before. A polymath and a good "guy"," who happens to have a genius for the graphical presentation of information. He also adorns the cover of his annual calendar with an original color painting, this year recording his visit to the Mayan "Temple of the Inscriptions" in Palenque, Mexico.

In 1949, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier discovered a hidden rubble-filled passage that led to a chamber deep inside the pyramid, containing the sarcophagus of the king Pakal, who ruled the Mayan empire from 615 to 683. There his bones still rested, with his funerary goods. Where, pray, is his soul, his immortal self? Erich von Daniken famously interpreted a carving on the sarcophagus slab as a spaceship blasting off to other worlds (Chariots of the Gods). Does Pakal now royally reside on some distant planet in his robe of gaudy feathers, waited on by dozens of nubile maidens, as surely he must have dreamed? Or did his soul go out like a snuffed candle when his body expired?

Certainly, I am in the small minority of humans who have no expectation of life after death. Why? Because in the face of all we have learned about the physical embodiment of self, and the utter lack of evidence for life beyond the grave, it seems like so much wishful thinking to expect to live forever. Personal immortality is perhaps the most warmly affirmed and persistent meme that infects the human race.

The other evening, with the grandchildren, and after a sufficient indulgence of wine, we had the annual "Goofy Contest," to see who could effect that goofiest costume or activity. It will be immortality enough for me if twenty or thirty years from now one of the grown-up grandkids says, "Remember the time Grandpa dressed up as a ..."

More on Guy's calendar tomorrow.