The Geometry of Meteor Showers


Whenever a meteor shower is coming up, the news gives details on how to find the constellation in which the “radiant” can be found. Don’t bother trying to find the constellation. Too much work. Here is all you really need to do:

On the night of the shower, go outside around 2am. Look eastward, toward where the sun has been rising, and halfway up the sky, along the path the sun takes. That's the center ('the radiant'). Further away from this point the meteor trails will be longer.

That’s it. The rest of this post is just my rambling about the geometry (or astrometry as it were) that makes this all work. You won’t need it. If you come out sooner, around midnight, the radiant will be close to the horizon, and as it gets closer to sunrise the radiant will be almost overhead.

The Radiant

If you study the pattern of meteors in the picture above, it looks like we are flying through a bunch of stars very quickly, and that the center point where all those stars appear to be streaking from is simply the direction that we are flying.

It turns out that is exactly what you are seeing. The center point (in the upper left quadrant of the picture) is called the Radiant of the meteor shower, and it is the current direction in which the earth is moving, as it travels along its orbit around the Sun.

The Picture

Here is a (simplified) picture describing the general situation. To keep things simple, I’ve put the little guy (who’s supposed to be us) right on the earth’s equator, around 3am his time. We are looking down at the earth from above the North Pole, and the earth is rotating counter-clockwise on its axis. Meanwhile, the earth is travelling around the sun at 18.6 miles a second, going from right to left in the picture.



The comet dust in the picture was left behind by a comet years before, and now is for the most part not moving much. The earth however is plowing through the dust trail at 18.6 miles/second, and so the relative motion of the dust to the observer is likewise 18.6 miles a second, or about 30km/s.

That speed, by the way, adds a lot of energy to the situation. Many of the comet dust particles are small, some just grains of sand. But if we take a quarter-inch piece of iron, with a mass of one gram say, and compute its kinetic energy when the earth hits it, we get

$$E = \frac{1}{2}mv^2 =\frac{1}{2}(1gm)(30km/s)^2 = 450,000  Joules$$

Now a Joule is the amount of Energy to drive a one Watt light bulb for a second, which is about how long a meteor flare takes. So the light that our quarter inch piece of iron is putting out during that second is close to a half a megawatt of power. Impressive.

Another Picture Closer In

So here is a much closer picture. We’ve now rotated the picture so that the little guy is on “horizontal” ground, and we only see a small slightly curved part of the earth. The atmosphere is a very thin shell not more than 70 miles above the earth (1 percent of the earth’s diameter), and the shaded part is what the little guy can see from where he’s standing. It is a flat lens shaped piece of atmosphere, and the comet dust is coming in at about a 45 degree angle, about to slam into that circular lens. I’ve drawn a cylinder around all of the dust that will hit the part of the sky that the guy can see.


Now if you look at the cylinder of comet dust coming at you from the little guy’s perspective, the rays of dust look like this:


Which looks just like the photo of the Geminid meteor shower. So, the reason that showers look like rays flying away from the Radiant is simply a matter of perspective, and the Radiant itself is just the direction that we are are flying, along earth’s orbit.

A Bigger Picture, Further Out

Just to tie everything together, here is a diagram showing the geometry of a typical meteor shower, arising from a regularly reappearing comet such as Halley’s comet:



In the case of Halley’s comet, the diagram shows how the orbit of the comet may intersect the Earth’s orbit in two places. In the current picture, the Earth is passing through one of the intersections, and is going in the direction of the constellation Orion (bottom left). This is the Orionid meteor shower, which this year (2016) will be visible from October 2 to November 7. The other intersection occurs when the Earth is heading in the direction of Aquarius, which happens around May 5-6, during the Eta Aquarid’s meteor shower. Not all comets have orbits which intersect Earth’s orbit twice, but Halley’s does.

Valid Religion


This monastery was just down the street from us when we lived in Long Beach ten years ago. It has a beautiful view of the ocean and we’d often pass it while out for a walk along the beach. To the left you can see a white shrine in which the Virgin Mary is standing. It is a very pretty installation though we sometimes would call it “Virgin Mary on the Half-shell.” About half the time we’d pass by, there would be someone there, praying to the virgin, or lighting candles or incense.

The monastery used to be a convent owned by the Catholic Church, but was long ago sold to a Vietnamese Buddhist sect, and they have converted the building into a monastery for their monks. Every so often you would see one of the monks leave the building in their saffron robes, but for the most part they keep to themselves and maintain a quiet life of contemplation.

virgin_maryNow here’s the thing: not only did the monks not tear down the Virgin Mary shrine, but they actively keep it intact, tending to the plants around it, the benches were people come to pray, and bring fresh flowers. I have never asked the monks about why they do this, or if it was a condition of the sale, but they never seem to mind. The Buddhist tradition maintains a very ecumenical respect for the beliefs of others, and maintains that there are many paths to enlightenment.

In my personal system of philosophy, I have a name for religions of this type: VALID.

I have to explain what I mean by this. With the possible exception of mathematics, I doubt that any statements of a philosophical nature will or ever can be determined to be TRUE. Thus, it is in my opinion foolish for any religion to declare itself True, as it is the height of arrogance, and proclaims that all of the other fifty thousand religions in the world are False. So, what I mean by a VALID religion is one in which the religion makes an admission of the following things:

  1. Fallibility, that this religion may have made some mistakes
  2. That absolute Truth is unknowable by man,
  3. That other religions may have important and valid points, and be a legitimate source of hope and inspiration in the lives of its believers, and rightfully so,

A VALID religion is therefore one in which it recognizes other religions as potentially equally valid, and there is no Law of Excluded Middle (as with True/False) that gets in the way.

Any religion which declares itself to be the sole possessor of this elusive thing called The Truth, is by my definition INVALID. Alas, this includes almost all religions of the world, including many brands of atheism.

This monastery is, then, to me a triple-shrine. First, to the Virgin Mary herself, secondly to the buddhist monks that respect people’s belief in her, and third to the possibility that a religion could if it so chooses become VALID — a thing which seems to me to be the only hope for peace among humans who choose to believe in the wildest of fairy tales. And to date, this monastery represents the only example to my knowledge of a valid religion.

Rainbow, Part II: Yellow Is An Idea


This is part II of my discussion of color which began with Part I, “The Infinite Piano”. In the first part I explained that the colors of the rainbow are single “notes” on an infinite piano whose keys are pure “tones” of light, and the “sheet music” for a more complex color such as PINK can be written as a 3-note chord composition in RED, GREEN, and BLUE. This composition can be written out over the color piano keyboard with three vertical bars, each indicating the loudness or softness of each of the three keys we need to play, using ranges from 0 to 255, like this:


We can further shorten this musical notation by saying (Red,Green,Blue) = (255, 192, 203). Now you may think that I just made up those particular numbers, but in fact if you check with Wikipedia, the internet standard for color on computer displays has exactly these three values for the color pink. They chose the range 0 to 255 because it is easy to express using 8 bits — which makes computers happy.

We live in the computer age, and this (R,G,B) system is now used to define all the colors that you can see on a computer monitor. So, it sounds like color is three dimensional, and you can represent any color in nature (or at least in a photo of nature) using just three colors. But is this true ?

Anyone who has tried to match paint colors may doubt this. Each paint manufacturer has their own system of specifying colors, and complex formulas of mixing their “component” pigments into Salmon, Chestnut, or other copyrighted name and color. There are many systems of defining color, such as Munsell and CIE-Lab, which are 3-dimensional, like this:

By SharkD - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

3D Munsell color space (Wikipedia – credit)

These systems are oriented toward luminance-based applications such as TV’s and computer monitors that emit their own light. There are also CMYK (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-BlackKey) and Pantone™ systems, which are effectively 4 dimensional dimensional and used mostly in pigment-based applications such as printing and paint. But Pantone also had a six-dimensional version called Hexachrome, which add Orange and Green to form a CMYKOG space (now discontinued), and there is also a CcMmYK system used in six-color inkjet printers. These latter are called “subtractive” systems, because the pigments effectively absorb colors from white light to give you their indicated color.

So clearly something must be going on. Why do we even think color is three dimensional, when there are so many color systems using more than three. What’s up?

The Yellow That Isn’t There

Let’s take a closer look at this Wikipedia computer color thing. If you look up Yellow in wikipedia, you’ll see that standard Yellow is defined in color coordinates by (R,G,B) = (255, 255, 0). But if we plot that “musical chord” out on our piano we get this:


Now this is crazy, because there is clearly a “yellow” key halfway between green and red, and we aren’t hitting that key at all. Instead we are leaning with a strong 255 “forte” on both RED and GREEN. Indeed, in the same Wikipedia entry for Yellow, it indicates that the “spectral” coordinates of Yellow is 570–590 nanometers. This is the wavelength of the light which is colored yellow in the rainbow spectrum.

To understand what is going on requires an understanding of human beings more than the color spectrum, and how we evolved. Modern humans perceive color with the use of three kinds of cells in the retina of our eyes, called cones. These cones come in three types, each of which respond only to specific “chords” in the color spectrum. The three chords look something like this (approximately):

cone_spectrum_2What this says is that we have in our eyes three kinds of cells (not counting rods which detect brightness), which respond to “color chords” that are centered (roughly) around the blue, green and red keys. There is no cell that responds just to “yellow” chords, and so the way that we “see” the yellow color is that our brains get strong positive signals from both the Green and the Red cones.

One of the interesting consequences is that it is possible to make a person “see” yellow even if there is no yellow in the light at all. All you have to do is to take a pure green and red light (such as from two distinct lasers), and shine them on the same spot on the wall:


Our retinas will report to the brain that where they intersect it is getting a strong green and red signal, and the brain will interpret that as yellow — even though a light spectrometer pointed at the wall will report that there is no yellow there at all. It is a color optical illusion !

Here is the take-away from all this: the color YELLOW is an IDEA, as are all other colors. It is something unique that our brain thinks — a state of mind — in response to what the outside world is doing. In the case above, the YELLOW our brain “sees” is entirely in our own heads. Now most of the time, in nature, there really is a yellow frequency light wave “out there”, and we know from the yellow in the rainbow that this frequency of light actually exists. You can create a pure yellow by simply dropping salt into a flame (sodium ions radiate at that color). But the idea of yellow must be distinguished from the light that usually triggers it.

And so, YELLOW as a specific color of light must be understood as a separate dimension from RED, GREEN, and BLUE. So how many dimensions does color really have? We will explore this further in the next post, “Shadows of The Infinite.”

The Colors of the Rainbow, Part I: The Infinite Piano


The phrase “All the colors of the rainbow” is often used to refer to every imaginable color that you can see. What is interesting is that almost the exact opposite is true: With the exception of the rainbow itself, you almost never see the colors of the rainbow in nature, and indeed almost all of the colors that you do see are NOT in the rainbow.

Look closely at the rainbow spectrum above. Try to find Pink. Or Brown. Or Teal. Or Chartreuse, Mauve, Vermillion, etc etc… You won’t and you can’t. So what’s going on?

Think of it this way: picture the rainbow spectrum above stretched out over the keys of a piano. But not just any piano will do, and 88 keys are nowhere near enough. You will need a piano where the keys are infinitely thin, and there are an infinite number of keys, so the keyboard looks like this:


So the idea is, each color in the rainbow is just a single (very thin) key, a single note on the piano, and as you run your finger along the piano, playing a glissando, you are really just playing just one note at a time. But in our world, the colors that we see are each a chord, made up of many of these keys played together. You will need a lot of fingers, and a hand-reach far beyond that of even Rachmaninov, covering the entire piano for some colors.

And it has to be a real piano, not just a harpsichord where strings a plucked. Remember, the reason a piano is called a piano is that you can play each note soft or loud (piano e forte = soft and loud), depending on how hard you hit the key or step on a pedal. So, in the real world, if you see a green leaf, for example, most likely what is being “played” is a very strong solid GREEN fortissimo note, with millions of close “greenish” unison notes nearby but more pianissimo, kind of like this:


Just to explore this piano metaphor a bit further, we should note that light is a wave just like sound, and has specific frequencies and wavelengths. But one difference is that we can hear a very wide range of frequencies of sound, across roughly ten octaves. Since the speed of sound and light are so different, let’s put it in terms of wavelengths. Each octave is half the wavelength of the previous one, and so for sound the range of wavelengths goes from 17 meters (low pitch 20 Hertz) to 1.7 cm (20,000 Hertz). The standard piano covers about seven of those musical octaves. By comparison, the wavelengths of light we can see go from deep red, about 700 nanometers (billionths of a meter), to deep violet, about 400 nanometers. In other words, the color/light piano usable to humans is just short of covering a single octave of light. Not much opportunity for harmonizing, although some shades of violet could be a perfect fifth above deep red.

(I should apologize for one mistake in my piano picture: to make the analogy exact, the RED should be at the left, as it is a deep low-frequency bass, while violet should be at the right, a high-frequency treble. So let’s call this a left-handed piano get on with life.)

So where are all of our more familiar colors located? Some of them are fairly complicated chords. For example, you might play a RED note loudly, a GREEN note softer, and a BLUE note just a bit more strongly … and if you did, the name of that chord is — guess what? —  PINK.

The “sheet music” for this single 3-note chord composition could be written out over the keyboard with three vertical bars, each indicating the loudness or softness of each of the three keys we need to play, like this:pink

We could even assign numbers to each of these loudness values, say, from 0 being absolute quiet (ie, don’t touch the key), to 255 being the LOUDEST you can hit the key. In the case of “PINK”, it would look something like this:


We could even shorten this musical notation by saying (R,G,B) = (255, 192, 203). Now you may think that I just made up those particular numbers, but in fact if you check with Wikipedia, the internet standard for color on computer displays has exactly these three values for the color pink.

So, the take-away from this first part of my blog is that the universe of color is much larger than the single keys on the rainbow piano. You’ve got to play chords. But even then it gets complicated, and more interesting, which we’ll see in part two, “Yellow is An Idea“.



Remembering Paul Sidney


At various times from fourth grade through eighth, Paul Sidney was my best friend and worst enemy. I have now lived for fifty seven years, and Paul retains a special place of honor, being the only person on the planet that I have ever punched in the nose (or wanted to).

That was in the sixth grade, at Steven Millard Elementary school. I can’t even remember exactly what it was about, though Paul did have a biting wit and what we would now call a “snarky” attitude. Very likely it was a sarcastic comment he made at the time about a crush I had on Diane, a girl I first met in square dancing class in fourth grade. Now that I think of it this was Paul’s great talent, being one of the few people in whom I felt I could confide my deepest feelings, and who later would use those secrets to torment me in artful and insidious ways.

It has taken four years for the news to reach me that Paul had died, June 12, 2011. He was 53.

I had always thought that I would be hearing about Paul, over the years. He was a very good writer in Junior high school, and we had something of a rivalry in creative writing. He could have been a writer, or an actor, graphic artist, or any number of things. I googled his name every so often, looking for books published, lectures given, organizations he had founded, Tony-award winning musicals starring Nathan Lane written by him. Nothing. Somehow he had just fallen off of the map.

The obituary was just a note, no detail, no evidence of a memorial with thousands of friends and admirers, remembering him, telling stories, laughing, crying, people who were touched by him.

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came

After eighth grade, I and most of my classmates went to Irvington High School. Paul did not. For reasons we never learned, he went to Moreau, a Catholic High School in Hayward. I only saw Paul twice after that. Once was at the Fremont Main Library by Lake Elizabeth, and he was studying at a table, probably for a class. We said hi. The only other time was a few years later, my senior year, when I saw that he was appearing in a Halloween stage production of “Dracula”. He played Beddoes, the assistant.

That seemed appropriate. Paul always had a sense of the macabre. I remember hanging out with him, reading his creepy comic books, graphic novel versions of Edgar Allen Poe, “The Telltale Heart,” complete with gruesome beating hearts.

For some reason Paul always reminded me of Lucy van Pelt, from Peanuts. Smart beyond their years, a bit crabby, a fussbudget, but with an acerbic wit, a sabre that he could unsheathe at the drop of a malapropism. Something feminine or feline as well. Even this seventh grade photo (above) has him sporting a faux leopard-skin vest. Oscar Wilde.

Reading back on this piece, it almost sounds like our relationship was romantic, a love-hate thing, doesn’t it? I don’t know, I was a kid, and pretty much clueless. All I knew was that he was a very smart guy, and one of the few who challenged me in the world of ideas, and words. Perhaps I did love him.

Paul and his sister Kay, 2000

Paul and his sister Kay, 2000

I contacted Paul’s sister Kay, and wrote a letter (on paper, with pen), asking about Paul, and what happened. I wish I could say that I was surprised, but was not. Things did not go well for Paul. His parents divorced, and in High School Paul began to exhibit the first signs of Schizophrenia, a disease with which he struggled the rest of his life. His family tried to help him, but it is in the nature of the disease that having any sort of life as I would have wished for him is virtually impossible. He ultimately died from the effects of COPD, a congestive lung disease exacerbated by a lifetime of smoking.

As I once wrote, a small mouse in Connecticut once taught me that the greatest gift that you can give someone, is to remember them. Each life, no matter how small, touches someone. Their life matters. They had a life, they had a story.

This one is for you, Paul.

A Thousand Cranes

origami crane

I will be giving lessons on how to fold these cranes at the Future Faire in Virgin on June 20. Feel free to come down and join us, or fold your own crane at home (directions below) and send them to me, at the address in the instructions. Read on for the story…

Our little town of Virgin has been through some divisive troubles lately, and there are some hard feelings going around. At heart though, I believe that everybody in this town cares about Virgin, whether they are sons of pioneers or newcomers from out of state, or upstream refugees from bustling metropolitan Springdale. I am sure they all have only the greatest hopes for it to become the town of their dreams.

When I was in fourth grade our teacher, Mister Haney, taught us about Japan, and the arts of calligraphy and origami. There is an ancient legend, he told us, that if you fold a thousand origami cranes (Senbazuru) you will get your wish and prosperity will be yours for a thousand years.

I am announcing the “Thousand Cranes for Virgin” Project. I am asking for anybody that cares about our town to take a few minutes and some origami paper, learn how to fold a classic origami crane, and send them to me. I hope that within one year, we will have over a thousand cranes, which we can string together and keep in our new Community Center (the old restored church), as a sign of our common love for this town, and to ensure its happiness and prosperity for a thousand years.

Here’s how to fold an origami crane, and where to send it:


The Ancestor’s Tale



If you are not in the mood for my idle chatter to follow, here is the bottom line: I love this book. Whether you buy into evolution or not, everyone should read “The Ancestor’s Tale” because it is a marvelous bit of writing which will challenge you to think and rethink the surprising realities and consequences of your own position. Even if you completely buy into evolution, this book dares you to accept its disturbing implications, as unnerving as they may be. And that is always a good thing.

But First, a Story

In the Gene Kelly movie “Singing in the Rain”, Don Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (played by Jean Hagen) are silent-era movie stars about to make their break into the “talkies” with a musical. The only catch is, Lina can’t sing and has an awful accent. So they invent the idea of “dubbing,” and have Kathy Selden (played by Debbie Reynolds) to do Lina’s parts while Lina is lip-syncing. So, in the movie, what you see is Kathy talking and singing in a beautiful deep voice behind the stage, while Lina is mouthing in front of the camera.


Now here’s the lesser-known fact: in reality, Debbie Reynolds did not sing in any of those parts — she has a midwestern twang. So they needed to find somebody who could do the voice-overs for Debbie Reynolds doing voice-overs for Jean Hagen’s character.

And here’s the best part: you know who they used to do the talking voice overs for Debbie Reynolds doing voice-overs for Jean Hagen?

Jean Hagen. Turns out that the awful Bronx accent Lina Lamont has is a fake accent, and that actually Jean Hagen has a great voice.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

The Writer’s Tale

No matter how wild and interesting a story a writer may concoct, it seems, Reality has a way to come up with something far more strange than the writer could ever invent. Indeed, if you were to take an insanely crazy true story and try to sell it as fiction, you would have trouble: it would be too weird to be believable. Nobody would buy it.

Irony: although men of great faith are held in high esteem when they hold fast to their beliefs, in spite of all opposing forces (including the hard evidence of scientific experiment), in fact this is one of easiest things for humans to do. In fact, all evidence appears to indicate that when confronted with incontrovertible evidence that negates a strongly-held belief, most people’s response to this is to double-down and hold even stronger to their now-disproven positions.

The scientist, in contrast, has if anything a more difficult and heroic task: and that is to be willing at a moment’s notice to discard their most cherished theories, beliefs, ideas and standards, if it is shown by the findings of experiment, peer-review, and the evidence before their own eyes, that their precious stories — however “reasonable” sounding in their ears — do not describe the real world around them and cannot be used as a guide to how the world works, and they must now embrace their opponent’s creed — the one that they had branded heresy.

The history of science is one of a never-ending series of discoveries which suggest stories that are not only stranger than anyone every imagined, they have become stranger than anyone ever could have imagined. Quantum mechanics. Relativity. Big Bangs. Black Holes. Continental Drift. And among the strangest of tales is Evolution — this latter being a story that is even more difficult to accept because of what is says about ourselves, what we are and how we think about ourselves.

The year 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of the release of Oxford professor Richard Dawkin’s magnum opus “The Ancestor’s Tale,” and it has since its publication joined my short list of books to which I have found myself returning again and again. Whether you “buy” the story of Evolution or not, this book will challenge you, all the way down to the core of your most firmly held beliefs.


Dawkin’s idea for the book is based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which pilgrims on their way to Canterbury each tell their own stories. But now, you are the pilgrim, and your trail is your family tree, which you must follow back in time. And as you travel further and further back, you will begin to meet up with friend and neighbors, at the crossroads where you find that you both have common ancestors.

And part of the motivation for using Chaucer’s book is the remarkable calculation that implies that for any two people now living on the planet, their personal paths of pilgrimage will meet at or sooner than the 1400’s — the time during which the Canterbury Tales was written.

The name that Dawkins gives to a “common ancestor” is Concestor, and the Rendezvous or crossroads is for Concestor Zero — which is his name for a single common ancestor of All Human Kind alive today. In other words, on your personal family tree, Concestor 0 is the first ancestor you find who is also in the family tree of every single human being alive on earth today.  The fact that there is such a person in your tree is in itself one of the first remarkable facts that you are challenged with. And yet, Dawkins presents a clever proof, using only math and logic, and unarmed with the story of Adam and Eve, to argue that at least one such couple must exist in your tree that unites all of humanity. And this is what makes this book great, is that Dawkins doesn’t just claim things, he proves them. To see the proof, you will just have to read the book.



A Thousand Clowns

A Thousand Clowns

I would like to submit for your approval this little tribute to my all-time favorite movie, A Thousand Clowns, starring Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, and Barry Gordon (with Oscar-winning performance by Martin Balsam). This movie is an example of what distinguishes Humor from broad comedy — which is that a truly humorous piece will of course make you laugh, but with a small but essential tear in your eye, and your laughter slightly choked by the realization of some deep human truth that snuck up on you in the course of the story.

2013-09-26-AThousandClownsA Thousand Clowns is the story of Murray Burns (Jason Robards), a former kid-show comedy writer, and his 12-year old nephew Nick, a brilliant little guy whom Murray loves, but who may be taken away by the welfare board because they are concerned about the “unwholesome” environment he has provided for “the child”. Murray has been rebelling against the world for some time, but will soon have to choose between being true to his non-conformist soul, and going back to the rat race to keep his nephew Nick. I have always liked Nick, perhaps because he reminded me of my best friend when I was a little kid, a creative fellow whose name was Robbie Meyberg.

In a pivotal scene in the movie, Murray explains to his brother Arnie (Martin Balsam), why he quit the nine-to-five rat race, in a soliloquy that remains to this day my personal anthem:

I’ve gotta know what day it is. I gotta know what’s the name of the game and what the rules are without anyone else telling me. You gotta own your own days and name ’em, each one of ’em, every one of ’em, or else the years go right by and none of them belong to you. And that ain’t just for weekends, kiddo.

There is not much more I can tell you. All I can suggest is that you see the old 1965 black-and-white movie.

I have always been haunted by the opening song, titled “A Thousand Clowns”. It was sung by Herb Gardner’s then-wife Rita Gardner (fantastic singer, from the original cast of The Fantasticks), with lyrics by Judy Holliday.  Only the first stanza ever made it into the final movie, and with the slight change of the lyric to “If I can make you laugh” added a poignant yearning that wasn’t in the original words, but fitting to the mood of the film. It was only this past week that I learned that Judy Holliday passed away before the film was released, so those ten seconds of music turned out to be her last words heard by the world.

Now that’s what I call Humor. Here is Holliday’s complete song, along with the clip at the beginning of the movie where Rita Gardner sings. I dare you not to cry.

A Thousand Clowns Lyrics by Judy Holliday

A thousand clowns I’ll bring you
Just toIf I can make you laugh
A blue baboon
And a red raccoon
A lavender giraffe

A thousand stars I’ll string you
To weave into a crown
And pale perfume
From a rose’s bloom
And a peacock-feather coat

A thousand songs I’ll sing you
To help you with your dreams
Of rainbow’s ends
And loving friends
And sparkling silver streams

A thousand years I’ll love you
Our love will never die
And when a thousand years from now
They’re looking at the sky

They’ll see two stars together
As close as they could be
One star will be you my love
The other will be me


In the beginning, the universe was void and null, consisting of the empty set denoted Ø — whose slash line meant “not even zero”.

To count the things in itself, the universe removed the slash and the number 0 was born.

The universe now contained 0 and so to count it, 1 was born. The ancients called this number α (alpha) or in English A. It goes by many names. Others called it One God. But it was simply One.

The universe now contained {0,1} and so to count them 2 was born, which was called β (beta) or  in English B. Others called it Man or Two-Man, for Man was born in two, male and female, always trying to merge and become One. Still others call it 2-B (or not 2-B).

The universe now contained {0,1,2} and so to count them 3 was born, also called Γ (gamma) which would be G, but in English is C. Sometimes 3 is called Trinity, for there is often a three-ness about the world.

Man saw that in counting from β to Γ there would then have to be a 4, and so on forever. This was called BeGatting, and soon the universe was filled with numbers that added and then fruitfully multiplied.

Now 3, which is to say G/C, came to be known as Georg Cantor, who like Man saw how counting was going to continue forever. And so to save the universe from having to count forever, GC discovered a new number called \scriptstyle {\aleph_0} (aleph-null), which would count all of them at once. Some called this infinity, but it is really just aleph, another number.

Once all the number have been counted, GC noted you can add a final number at the end of the infinite list, called ω or omega.  And so on.

And then, at some point in the past, nobody knows when, there was a Great Confusion. For Alpha in Greek was the same letter as Aleph in Hebrew, and so Alpha, the One God, was sometimes also called Aleph. And since both Aleph and Omega were infinite numbers, the confusion was compounded and One God was sometimes called the Alpha and sometimes the Omega, and sometimes was known in later ages as both the Alpha and the Omega.

Now just as “Science” has the same root as “scissors” and means to sort and distinguish, the word “confusion” means “to fuse together”, and is synonymous with “re-ligion”, which means “to join together”.

And thus it was that Religion was born, which was the con-fusion between the lowly and simple One (alpha) born at the beginning of time, and the complicated  infinite (omega) that emerged over time.

And from this confusion we call Religion, the history of the world unfolded, such as it is.


How To Go Faster Than Light

Bottom Line

For those with limited attention spans: yes, in this universe, with a powerful enough rocket you really can go anywhere in the universe as quickly as you like, in your own lifetime, without resorting to any medical tricks like suspended animation. Einstein’s theory of relativity won’t stop you from getting there, the same day even. The hard part is just getting enough energy — and working out the math.

Speed Limits


One big downer — if you can call it that — most people take away from Einstein’s theory of special relativity is that nothing can go faster than light. We are a species that likes to explore, after all, and the idea that there is a depressingly slow speed limit imposed on us by nature makes it very difficult to journey through the galaxy.

Science fiction often addresses this either by inventing a device to “warp” space-time (Star Trek), or by adding a few extra dimensions to the universe and bypassing normal space by jumping into hyperspace (Star War).

A lot of this comes, I think, from a confusion about how the universe actually works, as described by Einstein’s theory of relativity. (Note: given the recent creationist attempt to color the word “theory” as meaning something tentative, I prefer to use Richard Dawkin’s coined word “theorum” — similar to theorem — as indicating a theory that is so well established by overwhelming evidence that it might as well be an undebatable mathematical theorem).

The Confusion

Here is the deal: while it is true that to people watching from earth a spacecraft can never be observed to go faster than light, that doesn’t mean that the passengers on the spacecraft have the same experience. In fact, what Einstein’s theory would say is that as far as the passengers can tell, it seems like they can go as fast as they like. Due to the relativistic “warp” of space-time as you approach the speed of light \(c\), the passengers experience time much more slowly and their “effective” speed as they travel through space appears to be much greater than light.

Let’s do the numbers.

Some Terminology

In the “Star Trek” series they used the “warp \(N\)” terminology to refer to “effective” speeds that were \(N\) times the speed of light \(c\), so that “Warp Two” for example was twice the speed of light or \(2c\). In that series they had a special “warp drive” that bent space-time around so that they would go faster, but the actual fact is that in our everyday world just the mere act of going faster by any means actually warps space-time.

The Warp Equation

I plan on using the trekkie terminology (and standard relativity) to state and prove the following interesting fact:

The Warp Equation
If you have a payload with mass \(m_{payload}\), and a means of converting matter into kinetic energy with 100% efficiency, then the mass \(m_{fuel}\) of fuel needed for you to travel at an effective speed of Warp \(\omega\) where \(\omega > 0\) is given by$$ m_{fuel} = {\omega}^2 m_{payload} $$


So for example, in order to travel at Warp 2, a person of mass 80 kilograms would require 320 kilograms of (say) a proton-antiproton fuel in order to travel at that effective speed. That is roughly equivalent to 6,400 Megatons of TNT. Coincidentally, that is almost exactly the combined explosive power of all nuclear weapons now on our planet. That is a hell of a lot of energy, but the point to be made is that is within the bounds of our current technology.

The fact that you have to square the warp factor to get the amount of energy to go that speed makes perfect sense. Even in classical Newtonian physics, the energy related to going at velocity \(v\) is given by

$$E = \frac{1}{2}mv^2$$

so doubling the velocity \(v\) on the right hand side multiplies the energy by four. The fact that the energy happens to be equivalent to four times your payload’s mass comes from Einstein.

The way in which we’ll prove this is to first calculate how much matter is needed to attain an observed velocity v, and then figure out what the relationship is between the observed velocity, and what effective velocity the passenger actually experiences. Note: I have no doubt that there is probably an easier way to derive this formula. But this is the one I came up with and it isn’t all that complicated.

Conversion of Matter to Kinetic Energy

Let’s start with Einstein’s equation:


What we are going to do is to use this equation, together with the law of conservation of energy, to compute how much matter it takes to accelerate a payload \(m\) to (observed) velocity \(v_{o}\). Now as the observed velocity \(v_o\) approaches the speed of light, the relativistic mass of the payload becomes:

$$m_{relative} = \frac{m_{payload}}{\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}}$$

Now Einstein’s equation for energy represents both the energy of the mass at rest, together with the (kinetic) energy of the mass in motion. And so, if this mass was put into motion by the conversion (at rest) of a certain mass \(m_{fuel}\), where

$$m_{fuel} = \alpha m_{payload},   where  \alpha > 0$$

Then since energy is conserved we can relate the conversion of the mass \(m_{fuel}\) into motion \(v_o\) by:

$$ (m_{payload}+m_{fuel})c^2 = E_{rest} = E_{moving} =\frac{m_{payload}}{\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}} c^2$$

so dividing both sides by \(m_{payload}c^2\)

$$ 1 + \alpha = \frac{1}{\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}}$$

squaring both sides and solving for \(v_o\) we get the following rule:

Matter to Velocity Conversion
For a payload of mass \(m\) and a ratio \(\alpha > 0\), if fuel \(m_{fuel}=\alpha m\) is converted to kinetic energy, the observed velocity \(v_o\) of the body will be$$v_o = (\sqrt{\frac{\alpha}{1+\alpha}})c$$


This jibes with what Einstein said about observed velocities, as the right hand side will never be greater than the speed of light \(c\). As the ratio \(\alpha \rightarrow \infty\), the velocity goes to \(c\), so we can get as close to \(c\) as we like — but no further.

Velocity – Observed and Effective

So now we come to the idea of “effective” velocity. The weirdness of relativity comes from the fact that as the observed  velocity \(v\) of ship approaches the speed of light, the passenger’s own time-scale is compressed by what’s called the Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction, according to the formula

$$t_{effective} = t_{observed}\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}$$

(From this point on we will just write \(t_e\) and \(t_o\) for \(t_{effective}\) and \( t_{observed}\) respectively) Then given a fixed distance \(\Delta x_o\) as measured by the observers on earth, the effective velocity as experienced by the passengers when traversing that segment of space over their time \(\Delta t_e\)  is:

$$v_e = \frac{\Delta x_o}{\Delta t_e} = \frac{\Delta x_o}{\Delta t_o\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}}$$

which in turn simplifies to this formula for converting observed to effective velocity:

Observed to Effective Velocity
$$ v_e = \frac{v_{o}}{\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}}$$


The important thing to note about this concept of “effective” velocity is that we are computing the ratio of observed change in our distance with our own experienced change in time. Suppose for example that over centuries the earth residents went out and placed “mile markers” along your path to your destination. Then once you got up to warp speed, not only would your sense of time be compressed, but distances that you measure out with your tape measure would also be compressed by the same Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction. Consequently, if you were going at Warp 2, for example, your sense of time elapsed going from one mile marker to the next would be cut in half, but also (this is the point) the distance between those two fixed mile markers as the earth-people laid them out would also appear to you to be half. So if you were instead to calculate your velocity by dividing your measured distance by your time, you would never get a value at or greater than c.

All Together Now

So if we start with fuel \(\alpha m\) which we use to accelerate our mass \(m\) to the observed velocity \(v_o\), we can use the two formulas we just derived to express the effective velocity \(v_e\) as a function of \(\alpha\). We can rewrite the “Matter to Velocity” formula as

$$ (\frac{v_o}{c})^2 = \frac{\alpha}{1+\alpha}$$

So our effective velocity formula simplifies the bottom of the fraction to

$$v_e = v_{o}\sqrt{1+\alpha}$$

and then substituting the formula again for  \(v_o\) we see that our fuel mass \(\alpha m\) gives us an effective velocity of:

$$v_e = c\sqrt{\alpha}$$

Thus if we have defined velocity “Warp \(\omega\)” to be \(\omega  c\), then we can write

$$\omega = v_e / c = \sqrt{\alpha}$$

So that to attain an effective velocity of Warp \(\omega\) we must use a fuel-payload ratio of \(\alpha = \omega^2\), ie

$$m_{fuel} = \omega^2 m_{payload} $$

which is exactly the “Warp Equation” we were to prove. QED

Let’s Do the Time-Warp Again

It should be pointed out that of course to the observers on earth, even though you are going at an effective speed of Warp \(\omega\) you will never appear to be going faster than \(c\) and so it will take you a long time to get where you are going. You, however, will not experience that, and so you will effectively be travelling through time much faster than your friends at home. How much faster? According to our formula above relating \(t_e\) to \(t_o\), and expressing that in terms of the warp factor \(\omega\), we can show that the time-warp you experience will be:

$$t_e = \frac{t_o}{\sqrt{1+\omega^2}}$$

And so, in our example, the 80kg person travelling at Warp 2 will feel like they’ve reached their destination in \( 1/ \sqrt{5} \) of the earth time, ie getting them there in about 0.44 of the time observed on earth, and exactly twice the time it would take light to appear to get there.

So, not only can you go as fast as you like, you can also travel as far in the future as you like. For example, to travel 1000 years into the future, just get in a spaceship armed with 1000 times your own mass in matter-antimatter fuel, and then travel at Warp 1000 for one year. When you reach your destination, one year will have passed for you, and 1000 years (plus a little bit) will have passed on earth.

Of course, then you’ll have to get back to earth, so good luck with that.

The Buckaroo Banzai Principle

The Buckaroo Banzai Principle

No matter where you go — there you are.
— Buckaroo Banzai

The point of this exercise is that if you really understand what Einstein said, the idea should be that there is no absolute frame of reference. What this means is that even if you are travelling at 99.999 % the speed of light relative to the earth, as far as you know everything still looks and feels like Newton’s physics, where F = ma and you can always accelerate faster and faster. And not only that, but if you are heading for a specific location, the faster you go, the faster you will get there.

No Free Lunches

Now having said that, there are some consequences that the universe may unleash should you decide to try to go Warp 100. This is because even though the physics of your spaceship will be the same even at this insane speed, you are also surrounded by the gases in your local galaxy, as well as all of the light from stars that are visible to you. And even though from the earth much of this light is nice, low-energy visible spectrum, and even though that light will still be reaching you at the speed of light, it’s relative energy is radically different when you are plowing through that light at Warp 100. In fact, what you will be observing is a massive Doppler-shifting into the deep blue/ultraviolet of all light coming at you in the direction you are headed (and conversely, red-shifted looking back towards earth). Some of this light may be equivalent to the powerful cosmic rays that hit the earth, and which were generated by massive explosions or quasars just after the Big Bang. The energy in these photons may be enough to kill you all by themselves, especially at Warp 100. You may need a very large and thick radiation shield, along with all the extra energy to carry that shield along with you and your ship.

And so as we already should have known, there are no free lunches. At least it is nice to know that a faster-than-light lunch is available, should one choose to pay the price.

A Great Mystery: Taking Genesis Seriously

The Debate

ice_core I have some great qualms about the recent debate between “Science Guy” Bill Nye and Ken Ham regarding Young Earth Creationism versus Old Earth Evolution/Science. Unlike most of my secular colleagues, however, I don’t feel that the mistake Bill Nye made was in giving further publicity and exposure to Ken Ham and his Answers In Genesis website and movement. Nye did make a strategic mistake, but that wasn’t it.

Indeed, I am providing the link to Ken Ham’s website because — even though I consider his movement to be more a dangerous cult than a religion — I find the site to be a very interesting and infuriating but challenging collection of ideas. I would even go so far as to suggest that a very good way to teach the scientific approach regarding evolution and theories about the age of the universe would be to point students to articles on this website, and ask students to write papers about whether they understand the arguments made, and if they see any flaws or fallacies in them, or if they can provide evidence which refutes claims made, in some cases even pointing out when they got something right. In particular, in one of the “Answers in Genesis” articles they point to this article in Smithsonian Magazine where scientists have found pliable non-fossilized flesh inside dinosaur bones, which — it is argued — challenges the scientific dogma that all dinosaur fossils should be completely mineralized after 60 million years. Guess what? real unfossilized dinosaur!

The Error

In my opinion, the mistake that Bill Nye made was that deep down he does not take the bible seriously, and does not respect the ideas presented by Ken Ham and his associates as absolutely sincere. I cannot prove this, but while Bill Nye did express sympathies for the religious yearning to understand where we came from, and why, it also seemed like he was too dismissive of his opponents viewpoint as self-evidently false.

The reason I feel the debate was flawed was that in a real debate, there is some degree of acknowledgement by each side that the other side may have a point, but that they were going to argue their side for all its worth. And what I didn’t see on either side was an honest respect for the other’s stories, traditions and world view.

To Bill Nye, I would like to say: there have been very smart and intelligent people who take the bible seriously, if not literally. No less a person than Sir Isaac Newton, the father of classical physics and co-inventor of Calculus, investigated the timelines of the bibilical stories, and came up with an age of 6000 years from Day One, closely matching those of Bishop Ussher and others. You really needed to read the bible a lot more than you did, and talk about it with some respect, rather than spend so much debate time with million-year old Antarctic ice cores. — as interesting as that is. People are simply not going to listen to you if they feel you don’t respect them.

To Ken Ham, I would like to say: it is a remarkable bit of work you have been doing, and I take it as a sincere effort to take the word of God (as contrasted by you with the word of man) as the literal truth, and to make sense of the world around you based on the only compass and guide you permit yourself. However, I believe that if anything you are not taking Genesis serious enough, and are glossing over some words that are clear, unambiguous, and right there in front of your face. If you wish to honor your God, and take as a premise that the bible as handed to you has been transcribed and translated without error, then you must go back and read Genesis from page one, verse one, and look at every word.

Every. Single. Word.

Answers In Genesis

Let us begin, shall we? I am using the standard King James version for the moment. In good rabbinical tradition, I will also be adding running commentary and alternative translations when needed.

Genesis, Chapter 1.

1: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Comment: Okay so far. This sets the origin, the Zero point of the earth and the universe that surrounds it.

2: And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Comment: Pretty clear, we are still at the Zero point, there is the universe, and the formless earth, which includes water, but it is DARK. There is also now the first mention of movement, which means that the clock of time itself may have begun.

3: And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Comment: This event is a big deal, as we now know how light ties into the deep structure of the universe. Whether Time had started or not before this, it is definitely running now, as without it light cannot travel. It is not clear here whether photons were created at this point, or, simply that the Sun and the stars were created, from which previously-created photons now came to the earth and lit it up. One way or another, we can assume that the Sun now exists, and is illuminating the Earth.

4: And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Comment: From what we now understand about astronomy, the division of the light from the dark is the shadow cast by the earth, the shadow now moving because the earth is rotating. So, God has started the earth rotating. It can be safely said that much has happened so far. Note also that it is only at this point that a specific speed has been set for the earth to rotate.

5: And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Comment: Okay, now we are naming things. Naming things is a big deal in the bible, and it is important to get the names right. A “Day” is when it is light, and “Night” is when it is dark. And Day and Night only have meaning at the moment when there is light, and the light is divided from darkness.

The most important thing we have to look at is this second sentence, as it defines what is the First Day. But “evening” and “morning” are not defined clearly here. In the evening it is dark, but does the darkness in Verse One before there was light count as part of the first evening? The King James version is not clear. In the Christian Standard Bible the verse reads:

5: God called the light “day,” and He called the darkness “night.” Evening came, and then morning: the first day.

In the Hebrew Torah, the same verse of Genesis (Bereishit) reads:

5: And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, one day.

This is worded slightly different again. The words “it was” are inserted between “and” and “evening”.

The key thing here is the special way the word “and” is used. In the first four verses, there seems to be an implicit “then” in there, as if to say “and then”. In the Christian Standard bible the “then” is explicit. It does not seem to be simultaneous “and”, as in “I like peaches and cream”. First the heavens and earth were created, and *then* the spirit of God moved across the waters, which took some time. God said let there be light, and *then* there was light. And *then* God saw the light, etc.

In the Judaic tradition the rabbinical commentaries by Rashi suggest that the language in which Genesis was written when handed down to Moses did not imply a specific order or sequence of events. But if we are to take the literal view of fundamentalists that the words are both exact and logically consistent, then we have to conclude that the “and” implies an ordering, that day one comes and (then) day two and so on.

One thing that is unambiguous regardless is that a complete day begins and ends with morning; in other words, that the boundary between days is defined by sunrise (the first light), not sunset (the first dark).

The Great Mystery

Let us summarize what we know so far. From the text, the sequence of events goes like this:

  1. Heaven and Earth Created
  2. Spirit of God moves across the waters
  3. Light Created
  4. The Earth begins to Rotate (separating light and dark)
  5. Day and Night named
    1. Evening Came
    2. (then) Morning Came

So, if a full day begins with sunrise (first light), then it would appear that Day One starts with first light at verse 3, then the earth begins to rotate, evening comes and then morning. End of Day One.

That being the case, what about the time spent in verse one and two? That appears to be a Day Zero that is unaccounted for. Already we see motion as God moves across the waters in verse two, so the clock of time has already begun to tick. How much time passed in Verse One through Verse Three, that was not included in Day One?  Was it another Day? A week? Four Billion Years? No answer is given in the bible to help.

This may seem like a small quibble, but if we start with the premise that we place absolute faith in the exact, literal word of God, as written (and translated), then we have to also believe that the story of Genesis is exact and precise in its accounting of days and time, as written. And so, if the age of the earth is at question, and faith depends upon the infallibility of the word in the book, we need to answer the question, what and how long is Day One?

Elsewhere in the commentaries of the Torah, it is pointed out that unlike the other six days which are called “Second day”, “Third day” and so on, the first day in the original Hebrew is called “One day”, not “First day”. The commentaries also point out that this was because Heaven (not the heavens) in which angels reside wasn’t created until the second day, so “One Day” was the day in which God was by Himself (or themselves if you go with the trinity).

So the first day is special. Let us be charitable then and make the special exception that “One Day” is unlike all other days, consists of an evening (undivided darkness), a day (light), a division between the two (earth spinning at 24 hours / rotation), followed by an extra bonus evening, then morning. One Day.

In that case, which I suspect is the One Day Ken Ham would propose, is indeed very special and unlike any other day. In particular, since the earth does not begin spinning until verse three, there is a span of time of darkness followed by undivided light, whose duration is not measured by the spinning of the earth. The earth during this time is void, formless and also motionless. So, once again, how much time by human measure do these first three verses take up?

We have no word of God on this, only words of Man. And the wisest of men would say on issues for which the Bible has given no exact and explicit answer, that this is “a great mystery”.

And so, the best that the “Answers in Genesis” can tell us about the current age of the earth is that it is:

“6000 years, plus a Great Mystery”.

— an answer to which I believe even Bill Nye would agree.












New Year’s Koan

Koan: a paradoxical question or story, used (in Zen Buddhism) as an aide to meditation and as a means to lead one to enlightenment.

The main problem with New Year’s resolutions and the reason they fail, I think, is that they are in the form of commandments. Humans are contrary by nature and any dictate — even one they have given to themselves — is doomed. The thing that motivates people is curiosity, and so in that spirit I offer up the following questions, upon which the reader (including myself) may ponder, and should any insight be gained, I am hopeful that it will lead one to a more fulfilling or meaningful life in the future. As with most Koan, I have no answer to these questions, and have no expectation for you to answer them — just to think about them.

New Year’s Koan for Atheists

Koan A1: The atheist Christopher Hitchens once said “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” Suppose a close and lifelong friend tells you one day “I have been in love with you for years.” This comes as a complete (though pleasant) surprise to you. Should you dismiss this assertion without proof? Alternatively, do you demand proof or accept the statement on its face? Does Hitchens’ principle not apply in this case? If so why?

Koan A2: There is to date no scientific evidence that Free Will exists. Does it make a difference to you in how you experience the world by assuming that you do or do not have Free Will? In other words, do you live your life “as if” Free Will has been shown to exist and that you possess it? Would it make a difference if you learned that Free Will does not exist but is some kind of illusion? Why?

Koan A3: The atheist Chris Arnade is a former physicist who worked for Wall Street before working with and photographing homeless addicts in South Bronx. He observed that in these squalid homeless places, often empty shells of buildings, bibles were always found and that this bible was all these hopeless people had to carry them through the next day or hour. Suppose your otherwise healthy spouse or child told you they’ve given up and wanted to kill themselves, and by their attitude and mood you are convinced they are sincere and would carry out their threat. As an atheist, what could you tell them that would give them some hope or reason to carry on with their lives ?

New Year’s Koan for Judeo-Christians

Koan B1: In Exodus 32:14, God changes his mind about punishing Moses’s people who had become corrupt, after Moses reminds God about the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Let us leave aside the puzzle of how an omniscient god could change his mind. Do you have enough faith to talk back to God himself as Moses did, if you believe He has made a terrible mistake? If you were to talk back, what would you say?

Koan B2: If the Judeo-Christian belief is correct, then among those nonbelievers who have not been saved from damnation are Socrates, Buddha, Gandhi, Richard Feynman, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russel, Isaac Asimov, Albert Camus, Bela Bartok, David Hume, Bertolt Brecht, Heraclitus, Anton Chekov, Billy Joel, Joseph Conrad, Sergei Prokofiev, Eric Hofer, Camille Saint-Saens, George Santayana, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Dirac, Sigmund Freud, and Alfred Nobel … to name a few. On the other hand, the Emperor Theodosius, who executed children for playing with pagan dolls, and Charlemagne, who beheaded 4500 Saxons that refused to convert, were Christian and therefore saved. There is no question, this is simply something to ponder.

Koan B3: Do you believe that you have a soul, the essence of your spiritual self, and that it is eternal? If so, are the things you are doing in your life really preparing you for an infinite amount of time in which to spend your days? Remember, a billion years is a blink of an eye in the face of infinity. What will you do? And how will you keep from becoming bored beyond all measure? Knowing yourself, do you expect that a day will come in a quadrillion years in which you long for an end to endless wakefulness, in other words to Die? If so, how do you distinguish this place from what most would call Hell ? If you had a choice, would you prefer that your soul was only finite in time, say a thousand or million years ? Three score years and ten ?

New Year’s Koan For Everybody

Koan E1: If the race of man is to advance, either through evolution or divine intervention, in what way could man as a species be improved? Having answered that, is there any way in which you can begin to manifest any of that change in your own life ?

Happy New Year.

Our house, December 2013.

Grow Up!

I love a good novel, and the thing that makes a novel good is that it pulls you in, and is so well written that you are willing to suspend disbelief and swim in that world until the last page. And when it is over you wish there were more, because the story was so good.

I don’t buy most of the world’s religions these days because their stories aren’t believable, and I find myself putting down the book on page one. And after all, what is “faith” but another word for the willful suspension of disbelief ?

The world languishes from the lack of a religion for adults, who have had rich and varied life experience, a fully developed cerebral cortex and capacity for reason, complex emotion, and powers of direct observation of phenomena. A religion that has matured to the point that it admits that it does not have all the answers and is as flawed as we are, subject to revision pending new insights and findings as they come along. A story written by an unreliable narrator, who admits as much in the telling of the tale, but you don’t care because the story rings true.

The reason I don’t buy the stories told by the major religions of the world is that they sound like they were written by very small children, to whom their parents are perfect, omniscient, and will always take care of them to their dying days. What I don’t see in any of these stories is the humility of an adult, who has learned that their parents were flawed creatures at best, just like themselves, who didn’t know all the answers but tried their best, and at least has some hope that even if their own lives were screwed up, maybe the children of their creation will learn and do something good with this mangled beautiful mess of a world.

If for the moment, I buy the part of the usual story that we are created in the image of the universe’s creator, I would have to conclude that the creator was a fairly good mathematician and an artist, but like myself also mortal, and painfully limited in foresight about the consequences of one’s work, but hopeful that something good might come of all this after they are gone.

The first steps into adulthood begin when you realize that your parents are gone, and it is time for you to pick up the baton and do something yourself, with the realization that everyone else is in the same boat, and to have compassion for their own struggle with existence. If there ever was a creator, I am sure that they are long gone, but I’d like to say thanks for the good work, we will take it from here — as Ayn Rand would say — In the Name of the Best Within Us.

That is what I would call a religion for adults.

The world, with its undetermined future, is a vast blank canvas, and if there is any meaning in all of this, it reveals itself when you create something on that canvas that is beautiful.

Time to grow up.

There is No Such Word as Have

I had a “revelation” of sorts in recent years, which in retrospect many religions would (rightly)claim they thought of first: which is that much needless suffering and misery comes from the use of the meaningless yet toxic word “Have”. The word “Have” is a story, and almost pure fiction, as about the only thing you can truly be said to have is this moment in time, and the choice presented to you in that moment. All else in this saha world is like water, which slips through your fingers no matter how tightly you grasp.

To put things in perspective, wherever you see the word “Have” replace it with “Take Care Of” (or similar active verb), and the issue will become clear. Here is a short list of examples:

1. You do not Have a baby.  The reality is, for the next 18 years you will be Raising an Adult Human Being. You are required to study for years and get a license to be a psychiatrist or teacher or financial planner (skills needed for this task), and yet all you require to be presented with a high-maintenance creature such as a baby is puberty and a poor sense of future consequences.

2. You do not Have a million dollars (when you win the lottery). The reality is, you need to Take Care of Money for it to grow (or even stay the same). The sad thing is, most people do not know what Money is and how it works. If you stuff it in a mattress, inflation will make its magical power vanish. If you buy things with it, and those things do nothing useful, then they will break down and you will again have nothing. If you suddenly are given a million dollars, what you would need to Do is to study finance and accounting, and try to find investments (ie, business verntures people Do) that are productive and profitable.

3. (My recent example) You do not Have a house. The reality is, There are weeds to pull, Adobe bricks to repair, air filters to replace, pool water pH chemistry to maintain, mortgages to pay, and so on. If you do not Do these things and Take Care Of the House, it will break down, burn down, be condemned, and one way or another, it will go away. If you don’t think you would enjoy Taking Care of a House, then don’t buy it.

4. (This one really pisses me off) You do not Have a puppy. You are entrusted with what will soon be a much larger and  highly energetic border collie mix, a herder breed, who by her nature needs to be walked several times a day, given her shots, kept active and busy or she will eat and destroy your plants, shoes, blankets etc, and needs to be trained not to herd your other pets and kids. You need to be aware of all of this before you give your kids the cute little puppy, so that later you don’t renege on your promise and one day in frustration drive the dog out to a lonely stretch of highway in the southwest Utah desert, and abandon it on the road to be killed by cars or coyotes. If you do such a thing you also abandon your right to be called a Human(e) being. Only if the animal is very lucky, will she find a home occupied by people who take responsibility for the creatures entrusted to them, because they know there is no such word as Have.

5. You do not have Have a Life. You are Living.

Other examples are left as an exercise to the reader.

We Are All Story Tellers

It has taken me some time to formulate how I think about things now. This is part one of a series, in which I describe what I call The Framework. Why should you care? Because it may save the world some day. Or Not. But first, a story:

Once upon a time

Once upon a time, when I was twelve, I rebelled against my church-going parents Republican upbringing and declared myself an atheist and a socialist. Then I read Atlas Shrugged and became a radical free market libertarian atheist who believed man was a rational animal and that there existed an observer-independent objective reality. Then for fifteen years I was a practising Buddhist and my whole world view began to change again, ideas swirling in the air like autumn leaves. Then I joined a writers group and learned that writing is a blood sport, not for the faint of heart. Now I find myself somewhere to the left of center, in a place between a democrat (small d) and a socialist (small s), and spiritually somewhere between agnostic and atheist, yet with a generally Buddhist sensibility informed by scientific discipline, and a relaxed ecumenical acceptance of other’s religious beliefs, to the extent that they accept my own beliefs as equally valid and requiring no conversion. This acceptance extends not only to people whose views differ radically from my own, but even to my earlier selves, with understanding and compassion rather than repudiation. I am at peace, and life is a grand adventure, the world though sometimes dark is a beautiful and interesting place, ready to be explored.

The Conundrum

Well now, that was a good story. It had a definite beginning, middle and end, a few pretty metaphors mixed in for color, and all the strings were tied up with a bow so everyone can leave the theatre satisfied as the credits roll. But is it True with a capital T? I don’t know, but it makes a good story, and most of the bits really happened — as if that mattered.

It has not escaped my notice that most people have not arrived at the level of serenity reached by the hero of the story. Indeed, the tone of discourse throughout the world appears to be quite the opposite, and a day does not pass that some war or other atrocity does not occur, rooted in the firm belief held by one or more people that they are the sole owners of an elusive entity called The Truth, and that stern, even fatal, measures must be taken as the world in their view will never be made Right until everybody else in the world is Just Like Them. Like most other drugs, the idea of The Truth can be highly addictive, and is highly seductive.

Once upon a time, I was myself a subscriber to this mindset, and believed that the world will only be made right when we all become scientific socialists, join communes like Walden Two, grow vegetables and marijuana in geodesic domes and practice free love. And then, once upon a time I believed the world would only be made right when we all accepted Reason as our only absolute, capitalism as the only valid economic system, we all wore black turtle-necks with gold dollar signs on chains around our neck, and strove to be John Galts and Dagny Taggarts and agreed with everything Ayn Rand ever wrote. And then, once upon a time, I believed that the Lotus Sutra was the highest teaching of the Buddha, and that the world would only be made right when we all understand the principle of esho funi, and shiki-shin funi, and how all suffering derives from the illusion that absolute happiness can derive some something outside of oneself.

Three radically different perspectives have come and gone, passing through a single person. What is the common thread? The answer, I realised later, only began to emerge in my years with Cathy Colman’s writer’s group.

The Framework

The title of this piece says it all, and is the essence of what I call The Framework. To be clear, permit me to put an actual Frame around the statement to make it signify that this is the core of how I now view and understand the whole world which has such people in it:

We Are All Story Tellers

This should be put on large signs and placed over every church, synagogue and mosque, every classroom, every scientific laboratory, every research institute, every house, every government building, and on the lapel of every human being on and off the planet, so that every time we encounter such a sign, we need to repeat this, to ourselves and everyone within hearing, to remind ourselves that everything that comes out of a human beings mouth in the form of words is a Story, and nothing more.

Because that is who we are, and it is our nature, our species’ primary tool of survival, and our destiny. We make up stories, and we tell them to each other. The good stories we remember, and repeat them to others, adding a bit here and their to make it a better story or to fit the taste of the audience, or to clear up discrepancies in the narrative. Sometimes the stories just entertain, sometimes they give hope, sometimes they help build suspension bridges. Just a few minutes from our house, the red sandstone canyons are covered with native american petroglyphs carved thousands of years ago. Though their exact meaning may be lost, the story remains: Once upon a time, they still say, there was a man, a woman, and — perhaps — a snake.

We are all story tellers. That is my story, and I’m sticking with it.

The Day Santa Wept

[My mother’s article, reprinted from The Argus]

The Day Santa Wept

By Lucille Mieher

It was early December, 1957, and I was climbing the steps to the second floor of the sprawling brick building. Looking down at my my bright red costume, I thought how fitting for a woman 8 1/2 months pregnant to play Santa Claus. No stuffing needed. A naturally round “jolly old elf.”

Stopping at a landing to catch my breath and adjust my wide black belt, my thoughts went back to September when this had its beginning. The young women’s club I had just joined had several pet projects, one of which was entertaining a ward at our local state mental hospital. Kentucky was having its typical Indian summer, I was suffering from the heat, and quite frankly secretly dreading this philanthropic chore.

“Let’s forgo the Bingo games today,” said the activities director, “and take the patients for a walk on the grounds. It’s cooler out there.”

As we gathered the people together, I noticed one young woman sitting on the floor, her back to the wall, her arms holding her knees tight against her chest, her head bowed.

“What about her? I inquired.

“Oh, that’s Evelyn,” the patients volunteered in unison. “She never does anything. Leave her alone.”

Ignoring their advice, I went over and touched her shoulder.


Slowly she raised her head and I saw that she was probably my age or a few years older. Her eyes were expressionless until she spotted my maternity top and the obvious condition beneath it.

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you.” It was more a statement than a question.

“Yes, I am, and we’re all going for a walk out under the trees. Come with us.” I held out my hand to her.

We went for a walk

She hesitated, then put her hand in mine and slowly rose from her crouched position.

As we walked, she began to talk, mostly about children. She asked questions: “When is your baby due? Is this your first? Do you want a bory or a girl?”

I said, “The baby is due in late December, I already have a three-year-old boy,l and I’m kind of hoping for another boy.”

Then it was my turn to do the quizzing, “Do you have children?”

She became pensive for a moment, and then, in almost a whisper, said, “Yes, I ahve two beautiful little girls, only a year apart in age. I’m not sure how long it’s been since I saw them. I do remember waving to them as they boarded the school bus. We live in the country.” Evelyn and I continued to walk and talk.

After the outing and a cool drink of lemonade, our club returned our charges to their ward. As I waved good-bye to my new friend, she called out, “Good luck. I hope you have another boy.”

Back as Santa

Now here I was back again, but this time eager, rather than apprehensive. I practiced my “Ho Ho Ho” one more time, and entered the ward.

As I handed out presents and candy canes to the patients, I kept scanning the faces in search of the one most familiar to me.

“Where’s Evelyn?” I asked the nurse who was plaing Santa’s helper.
“She’s not here.”

“Oh, no.” I was almost afraid to ask the next questino. “What happened to her?”

Seeing my distraught face, the nurse continued, “Don’t worry, it’s good. In Septermber — I guess it was soon after your group was here — she began to respond to treatment. She asked to see her husband and children. They visited her, and she was allowed to spend Thanksgiving Day at home with them. That went so well, and she showed so much improvement, the doctors granted here what we call a ‘furlough’ to spend the month of Deember with her family. With luck, she may never have to come back here.”

Needless to say, Santa stood there crying in his beard. Tears of joy.

Two weeks later, my son was born.

Book Review: Dreams From My Father

 Dreams from My Father

by Barack Obama

The woman who inspected my bag at the security gate of the Playboy Jazz Festival noticed the copy of Dreams from My Father that I had packed along with the wine and cheese. “Have you read it?” I asked. “No,” she said, “I’m a Republican.”

If I had asked whether she had ever heard Dave Brubeck in concert, I thought, would she have said, “No, I’m Episcopalian?” I took my bag and went inside, sad, puzzled and troubled by ill omens of things to come. I thought of Danny Glover’s character in the movie Grand Canyon in one scene where he said, “Oh, man, things ain’t supposed to be this way.”

Something has gone terribly wrong lately in the way people talk to other people, and by “other people” I mean people who do not happen to come from the same tiny enclave, church, cable channel, blog, twitter-feed or political clan. I don’t know why. It does not seem to be limited to the right or left, the religious or secular. There is a visceral, almost toxic reaction people seem to now have about “Others” that shuts down all discussion, all willingness to see the world through others’ eyes or even acknowledge that others may have legitimate reasons for thinking the way they do.

This is my second review of the Barack Obama book, Dreams from My Father. The first one I threw away. Which is sad, because I thought it was a very interesting study of Obama’s story in light of Joseph Campbell’s universal Hero-myth, comparing Obama’s spiritual search for his father with the myths of Orpheus, Gilgamesh, King Arthur, and yes, even Star Wars and Harry Potter.

All very interesting, yet none of it, I’m afraid, convincing to a security guard at the Hollywood Bowl to whom the face on the cover is in itself a conversation stopper. She doesn’t know what the book is about, and she doesn’t want to know. I’ve tried to think of what I could have said to this person that would have made her even consider the possibility of opening up a copy of the book and reading a paragraph or two. I could have tried saying something like this:

“Politics aside, this is a great book. Not only may you be surprised by what you learn about the author and his story, but you might learn something about yourself as well. And who knows? Wonder of wonders, you may actually find that you are enjoying the process of reading a well-written and engaging book by a talented author.”

. . . . which would all be true, but even then I doubt that she would be convinced. One look at his face on the cover and there is simply nothing to discuss.

And so we arrive at a major theme of Obama’s book: How can people from different worlds and different tribes ever learn to communicate with each other? Unless we learn how to do that there is no hope.

Dreams from My Father was based on work originally commissioned in 1991 by book publishers seeking to capitalize on the notoriety of a young Obama, fresh out of law school, and the first black editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. He had intended the book to be a systematic analysis and discussion of race relations in America, but as he confesses in the introduction, “When I actually sat down and began to write, though, I found my mind pulled toward rockier shores.”

Rocky shores indeed. As the son of Barack Senior, a black African man and Stanley Ann, a white mid-western woman, Obama’s very DNA is of two worlds conventionally considered mutually exclusive and antagonistic. Whether it was with his black friends’ refrain “that’s just how white folks will do you” or when his white grandmother was scared by a panhandler – not because he was big, but because he was black – the same theme emerges: people with whom he identified talked with fear about scary people from a foreign world called them, and Obama realized that in both cases he was them. In Dreams from My Father, after learning of his grandmother’s fear, he wrote:

The earth shook under my feet, ready to crack open at any moment. I stopped, trying to steady myself, and knew for the first time that I was utterly alone.

Indeed, the book is prefaced with a biblical epigraph from I Chronicles 29:15: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.” While the significance of the passage in referencing fathers is clear, the key I believe lies in the word sojourner, a stranger, passing through a place not his home.

The author has a talent for writing clean simple prose and allowing emotions to emerge in concrete external things. As the story opens, Obama has just received a long-distance phone call from a stranger who says that she is his Aunt Jane in Nairobi, Kenya with news that his long-absent father was killed in a car accident. He describes the moment like this:

That was all. The line cut off, and I sat down on the couch, smelling eggs burn in the kitchen, staring at cracks in the plaster, trying to measure my loss.

I love this passage. In one sentence the writer has marshaled all five senses into an elegant haiku about a single moment, the un-measurable despair dripping from the plaster cracks. The book is filled with such word-craft, making one eager to press on through the narrative for further rewards.

Though he initially planned to travel to Africa to attend the funeral, Obama decided at last not to go. In spite of this, the tragic event of his father’s death sets in motion the idea of a journey within Obama, a need to come to terms with the stories told about his father, and the stories he told himself, and a quest to find and reclaim his own identity and find a place called Home

In part one, Origins, he traces his childhood first in Indonesia and then Hawaii, growing up with his white mother and grandparents, attending college and ending with his memory of a brief and only visit from his father. He determines that he must somehow find him. In part two, Chicago, he embarks on an idealistic project working as a community organizer in the south side of Chicago. Things do not go well at first and the presence of machine politicians with agendas gums up the works. He eventually begins to have small victories, and in the process meets many people who later become significant in his life such as the controversial and outspoken Reverend Wright who coined the phrase “The Audacity of Hope.” In the third and final part, Kenya he travels to Africa and meets the Obama side of his extended family. He learns the long story of the Obama clan and the battles fought between his father and authoritarian grandfather.  culminating in a profound and gut-wrenching epiphany by the author at the stone-covered grave of the father he never knew.

The people who populate his story are complex and three dimensional human beings. You care about them even if they sometimes annoy you. Obama does not let you off the hook with easy stereotypes such as the “Caring Mother” or the “Corrupt Chicago Mayor.” People have reasons for what they do and often have doubts. Even in his self-portrayal, Obama relates his inner thought processes and dialectic struggles, and admits that he does not know all the answers — in a way that makes me understand now why he can sometimes be infuriating to both sides of the political spectrum. For Obama, as for all of us, the answers are never simple and sometimes our opponents really do have valid points.

It is not a spoiler to tell you that in the end Obama returns from his vision-quest and the transformation at his father’s grave with newly found wisdom. If our security guard at the jazz festival could read only one passage from this book that is the distillation of the contents, I could do no better than recommend to her (and you) the concluding words Barack Obama addresses to his father regarding the great and dangerous powers of the modern world and its only hope:

…That this power could be absorbed only alongside a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasn’t new, that wasn’t black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead – a faith in other people.

The Big Picture

Gigi and I live in the high desert of southwest Utah, along the banks of the Virgin River and surrounded by red sandstone mesas whose foundations were set down during the Triassic era, about 230 million years ago. The dinosaurs were just starting to appear on the scene at that time, but they proved to be one of the most successful species known, and dominated the earth for over 160 million years, and were only brought down after the earth collided with a huge meteor or comet that had it been only slightly larger would have destroyed the entire planet for good.

Humans in their current form have only been on the scene for a mere 200 thousand years. If we can somehow manage to keep from killing ourselves off for another equally short period of time, and then repeat that unbelievable feat again four more times, we will have succeeded in surviving one half of one percent of the time that tiny-brained dinosaurs managed to survive.

And yet, here we are for the moment at least, the dominant species on the planet. So, what is the big picture?

In the short term (tens of millions of years), the earth should expect to see another dinosaur-killer sized meteor collide with the earth. This is a regular occurrence on those time scales. The last time this happened, 65 million years ago, most large terrestrial animals were killed off, and only a few tiny shrew-like mammals survived (who later evolved into humans). If we remain bound to this one planet, we are therefore doomed, along with cows, pigs, lions and just about anything larger than a gerbil. Assuming that we as a species want to continue on for a while, we will have to start making permanent homes off-planet, but close enough that after a big meteor hit the folks off-planet can eventually come back and try to clean things up a bit. Mars is about the only planet nearby that we could make habitable and which we can reach in a year or two. So that is the short term goal.

Longer-term, alas, the sun and our entire solar system is doomed. The sun, a second generation yellow dwarf star, was born just under five billion years ago and is now middle aged. However, long before it goes into its red-giant phase five billion years from now, in less than a billion years the sun will have become so much hotter that no liquid water will exist on earth, and life will become unsustainable. We have already begun looking around for nearby star systems which may host earth-like planets within the galactic habitable zone and far away from our aging sun. Assuming we have already learned how to terraform planets like Mars, that won’t be the issue. The problem is in very long range transportation, building a craft that can get us to far away systems, and keep alive colonies of people and other creatures for the many generations that it would take to get there.

In the very long range, the entire galaxy is under assault. The Andromeda galaxy is heading straight for us and will collide in about two billion years, ripping the entire spiral structure of our habitable zone apart. I have no idea how to deal with this problem, but a billion years is certainly enough time to think about it.

One way or another, these are really interesting problems, and the process of finding the answers is a very exciting one. And not only do we need the best and brightest minds to be thinking about these things and exploring all other branches of science, but we also need artists, composers, philosophers, writers, actors, doctors, businessmen and all other branches of human endeavor to throw themselves into their craft, whose ultimate product is the creation of meaningfulness out of chaos, of clarity out of confusion, of joy out of misery, health out of sickness.

To do that requires a passionate dedication to life on this planet, to science, to understanding, to dialog, to open mindedness and what Richard Feynman called “the Joy of Finding Things Out”.

And so, in regards to thoughts about September 11, 2001: what an incredibly stupid and pointless question about stupid and pointless acts spawned by stupid and pointless people stuck in the twelfth century, and our stupid and pointless response to those acts. Do you want to know how we should answer such people? Just yesterday (Sept. 8), in Promontory, Utah — A full-scale test of the world’s largest solid rocket motor, which was originally envisioned to power a new NASA rocket, went off without a hitch in Utah’s high desert.

We who choose to think are on our way to the stars. Let those who wish us all to bow our heads mindlessly, live by faith and folktales and worship ghosts in the mud can go to whatever hell their archaic mythology describes.

Holiday Message

Funny how people make their gods so small that they will fit neatly inside their tiny little 6000 year-old worlds and even smaller horizons and petty prejudices. Once upon a time long ago I believed in an infinite judeo-christian god, until I discovered mathematics and learned how to count to infinity (aleph-null, the smallest infinity of all), and how to enumerate the stars in the sky. Light traveling a trillion miles a year takes over a hundred thousand years just to cross the diameter of our little galaxy, one of a hundred billion such known galaxies. Likewise, our galaxy consists of half a trillion stars, of which our tiny solar system is only one on a far end of a minor spiral arm, governed by laws we have only recently found the mathematics to describe. Odd that such a vast system of immense complexity and exquisite mathematical perfection would be created by a divine entity of such little intelligence and pathetically low self-esteem that it requires weekly services of ego-boosting and thanks and praise, conducted by nanoscopic creatures on an imperceptibly small portion of its creation. When will people learn that the master creator of all things can take care of herself just fine, thank you very much, so why don’t you all get on with your own lives and take better care of each other on this beautiful little azure planet and stop killing each other in the creator’s name (upon which you cannot and never will agree)?

You would think by now we would have learned to be humble, but with each passing year we further confuse knowledge with wisdom, and show ourselves to be ever more unwise, trapped in ever more clever mazes of our own unwise devising. Only when confronted by a mirror into our own souls, can the truth be seen of our own foolishness — as was the case with mathematicians in the 1930’s, when they discovered proof that they will never have all the answers. Undecidability theorems as they were called, were developed by Kurt Gödel and were rigorous mathematical proofs that no matter how smart and complex a mathematical theory was, you could always find a question which could not be answered by that theory. Radical as it may seem, even if you were allowed to spend all eternity writing postulates and axioms to cover all possible subjects and cases, at the end of time your infinitely-refined system will still have gaps, and there will still be some questions that it does not answer (in fact, an infinite number of them!)

Humility — the awareness of our limitations as finite beings — is apparently the most difficult of all virtues to keep. Even physicists, the close-cousins to mathematicians, have not learned the lessons taught by Gödel, and still cling to arrogant hope that they are soon going to find a mathematical “theory of everything” — a hope which we mathematicians now know is hubris, doomed to failure. All religions proclaim their own infallibility and the heresy of all others, all countries claim to be the envy of the world, all football teams inspire their fans to maniacal chauvinistic loyalty, all parents know what’s best for their children, all people everywhere fail to ask themselves the simplest of questions: what if I’m wrong? Robespierre never asked this question, as he sent hundreds of innocent Frenchmen to the gallows, in the name of the revolution’s infallible truth. Truth, and man’s toxic addiction to the idea of Truth and the dangerous illusion that absolute Truth is knowable to man and is possessed by some prophet or president or economic theory, is the subtle poison that is killing humanity day by day, by robbing it of its heart, of its humility, of its humor, of its — humanity.

Kindly repeat after me, leaders and teachers and parents and preachers of the world, if you wish your people to truly live a healthy and happy life. What if I’m wrong, what if I’m wrong, what oh what if I’m wrong?

This Floating World

mandalaWe had heard that Tibetan Buddhist monks were up in Springdale this past week, and were constructing a traditional Tibetan mandala sand painting. On Saturday November 20 we drove up to watch the monks put their finishing touches on the elaborate and delicate mandala. The purpose of this ceremony is to emphasize the transient nature of life and all phenomena. The mandala that the monks constructed here in Springdale was a representation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who embodies Buddhist principle of Compassion, and is also regarded as the patron deity of Tibet. This picture (above) is the best photo I was able to take of their final work, and it still does not capture the lush color and beauty of the painting that sat on the table before us.

monk.jpgWhen we arrived at the Canyon Community Center the monks were in the final stages of the project, under the watchful gaze of a photo of the Dalai Lama in a small altar on the stage. The large hall was filled with the sound of monks chanting and throat-singing as they concentrated on the task of dropping individual grains of sand onto the painting. The instrument that they used to do this was a thin hollow metal tube called a chak-pur, which had a sort of washboard edge that the monks would scrape rapidly with a stick.

This produced an intriguing almost musical sound, though its main purpose was to cause the sand to flow out of the end of the tube and onto the painting. In this recording you can hear the chanting of the monks and the scraping of the sticks on the washboard surface of the tubes; I like that the incidental sounds of children talking is mixed in, with the rumble of conversation. The esoteric and the divine, integrated seamlessly with everyday life. There is no difference between the two, they seemed to say, and it did not matter who you were — even the fundamentalist Mormon women, in their robin’s egg blue prairie dresses, came to watch and admire the work of these Buddhist monks.

After the monks had completed the mandala, they allowed the public to observe the painting for one hour before they destroyed it with a brush, gathering all the colored sand into a dull gray pile. Half of the sand was placed into small plastic bags for those observers who wanted them, and the rest was poured into the Virgin river. We took a small bag of the sand home with us.

Though from a distance the blended sand appears gray, on close inspection you can still see the individual colors of each grain that went into the painting. By my estimate the average grains are a few thousandths of an inch in diameter, and so the number of grains in the entire painting must have been somewhere around a hundred billion, or roughly the same as the number of stars in the galaxy. It would take a very long time to try to sort these grains back out into the original colors and reconstruct a similar painting, and of course you shouldn’t try.

It has now been five months to the day since my mother passed away. One week she was lying in a hospital bed, alive and joking with us all, full of life and colorful personality, and the next Monday all that was left was a small three by five by eight inch box of ashes. The box seemed so light in my hand; how is it possible that this gray dust was once Lucille? I do not know. All I know is, the simple knowledge that a sand painting would only exist in its current form for one hour on a wooden table in Springdale Utah on November 20 made me appreciate each moment that it existed, and made me poignantly aware of the amazing thing of beauty that it was and to appreciate what joy it brought to people in its tiny span of existence in this wild floating world we call home.

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