Note: This blog post about COVID-19 Info has been updated to a formal page here. It will be updated as needed. Thanks!
With the prospect of lengthy election-related noise in front of us, Gigi and I decided to take a week-long vacation from the world and head down to Sedona, Arizona, far from technology, news, internet, phone, or other channels by which the world would tell us more than we want to know.
Our first leg of the trip would be a drive down to Phoenix Arizona to visit my younger brother John and his wife Sheri for the weekend. On Sunday we plan on heading north to Sedona for the rest of the trip.
Friday, October 30, 2020
We drove down the 89A along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and from there straight down the 17 into Phoenix and John and Sheri’s house. They gave us a tour of their house; they had moved back to Arizona from Sacramento, where John had been working for a while.
Saturday, October 31, 2020
Sunny, shorts weather
Desert Botanical Garden
In the morning we visited the Desert Botanical Garden, whose exhibits were accented by large colorful plastic animals.
Later that day we took bikes over to the “canal” and stopped at the O.H.S.O “Barking Bar” Brewery which served good beer, nachos, breakfast burritos and other fare. Also Mimosas. The bikes in the background have fans in the wheels. Camelback Mountain in the distance.
This was a dog-friendly venue and many dogs hung out with their masters and had lively conversations.
After brunch we rode further down the canal to Arizona Falls, a dam whose design was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, and includes poetry about water and life.
Halloween and Fossils
That evening was Halloween, and we sat out front and ate chili while we handed out candy to the neighborhood kids. I noticed that John had framed a set of fossils, including the trilobite that our grandfather Norvis (“Nick”) Edwards had found during a road construction job, and sent to us.
Sunday, November 1, 2020
Corn Maze (“Maize Maze”)
John and Sheri joined us on our way out of Phoenix at Tolmachoff Farms, to explore a Corn Maze. The maze folks gave us a blank map of the maze, which we could fill out with patches of the maze map that we may run across along the way. As a mathematician, my brief glance at the overview map told me that we could “solve” the maze using the simple “right hand rule” (run your right hand along the wall and follow it where ever it goes). We spotted several of the patches (and some riddles) on our path to the exit, but did not find all the patches. So instead of going out the exit I followed the right hand back into the maze, which took us to other segments that (mostly) recovered the other patches. Fun!
Postscript to Maze: After returning home, I suddenly noticed that the shape of the maze was a pickup truck. I pointed this out to Gigi, who replied that she and Sheri noticed that it was a truck all along and were even commenting on being along the “fender” etc but (me being obsessed with solving the maze) had never noticed this obvious fact.
Arrival at Briar Patch Inn
Sunny, cool but pleasant
After leaving Phoenix we drove up to Sedona and checked in at the Briar Patch Inn bed and breakfast. We had reserved their “Heron” cabin, which had a secluded patio and was next to Oak Creek. We were married at the Briar Patch back in 2002, and when visiting we usually stay in the Casa Piedra cabin, but it was booked. The weather was pleasant, sunny but cool. By this time I had put my phone on Airplane mode, and there are no phones or TV’s in the cabins. The world outside was going away.
The Briar Patch Inn has a dozen or so small rustic cabins scattered about the tree-lined grounds, some large enough for whole families with full kitchens, others just enough for one person with few needs but privacy.
The grounds surround a grass-lined lawn where two sheep graze. When we first came to the Briar Patch, their names were Woolly and Bully. They have since moved to greener pastures, and we are now hosted by two sheep named Rosie and Posie.
The swimming hole is at a place where the creek slows down, bounded on each side by small cascades. It is a bit too cold now to swim in, but is very pretty and peaceful.
We settled in for the night and lit a fire in the fireplace, with a large stack of books to read in cozy settings.
Monday, November 2, 2020
We drove out to “Montezuma’s Castle” and “Montezuma’s Well”, both ancient anasazi settlements notable for having nothing to do with Montezuma (who lived centuries later and never came through here). We reconnected to the world just long enough to get word about our cat Desert Kitty and our dog Blue. Kitty had been feeling bad when we left, not eating, but we got good news that he (whom our cat-sitter renamed “D-Cat”) was eating again. At least now I would sleep better.
Tuesday, November 3, 2020
Cloudy, thunder and lightning. Rain.
Election Day in the US. We are offline.
We were heading to a train ride through red rock and ancient native ruins. We bought “first class” tickets, which gave us a nice train car with a champagne toast at the beginning, along with snacks. I understand that the $800 deal would give one a caboose and no other people. Tempting; I would prefer no exposure to other people, bringing with them news, virii and political notions — or, god forbid, baseball caps.
Our car is the “Sycamore”, though its original name could still be seen on the end exit. We are seated on the “engineer’s left,” which is a double-seater facing another pair of seats (unoccupied for COVID). After looking at the map it was clear that we would have preferred the right-side of the train, which were pairs of singles with a view out to the river gorge and fall colors. Fortunately, we had the option of getting up (with masks) and going to the open-air car where one can look out and over views, and take pictures.
Scene: One of the host/guides came into our car and she was encouraging everyone to get out and take in the view of the open car. Gigi had already done so, but a woman across the aisle from us had not, and started crying inconsolably. The host noticed the woman and came over to find out what was the matter. The woman was older, gray-haired, and sat alone. She explained through the tears that she and her husband had planned to go on this trip for years now, and that just before they began the trip he died unexpectedly. The woman had decided to go on the trip by herself anyway, and now here she was seeing all these beautiful sights, but without her partner to share them.
Along the way, the loudspeakers were playing songs with train themes. For the record, among the songs that we were able to identify included:
- (Doin’) The Locomotion (Little Eva / Carole King and Gerry Goffin)
- Peace Train — Cat Stevens
- City of New Orleans — Arlo Guthrie
- Petticoat Junction theme — Curt Massey / Paul Henning
- Midnight Train to Georgia — Gladys Knight & the Pips
- Last Train to Clarksville – Monkees
- Blue Train – Johnny Cash
- Gotta know when to Hold ’em – Kenny Rogers
- Homeward Bound – SImon & Garfunkle
- (Join the) Love Train – The O’Jays
- Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore – Harry Nilsson
- Canadian Railroad Trilogy – Gordon Lightfoot
Wednesday, November 4, 2020
Gigi’s phone is now off, and mine is on Airplane mode, turned on only for the flashlight and clock. Light and Time, in other words.
The agenda for the day: stroll the grounds of the Briar Patch, sit on the wooden swing by the creek, build another stack of logs in the fireplace, read a few chapters of a John LeCarre novel (Russia House), make plans to begin assembling at least the foundation of a Lego block model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Robie House”.
3pm: We have finished the foundation of the little house and are declaring victory for the day.
New people have arrived at the Briar Patch; we can hear them talking. We closed our door, lest they carry with them news of the outside world, for good or bad.
Home cooked dinner: Grilled curry chicken, squash and grilled onions with rice. A Negroni digestiv cocktail. Played recorded music by Lyra, who often plays here.
Thursday, November 5, 2020
Drove down to look at Arcosanti, a project by Paolo Soleri, visionary architect who lived from 1919 to 2013. Long time. “Arcology” was his name for a merging of Architecture and Ecology, and began the Arcosanti development based on his ideas.
The Journey Home
Friday, November 6, 2020
A quick trip down to the V-bar-V Ranch, to view some ancient petroglyphs, then hit the road for home. Blue Dog and D-Cat were pleased to see us. Good to be home. Wonder what has been happening in the world. The cat doesn’t seem to care. Neither do I, all I’m thinking of is the afternoon sky in Sedona.
Note: I hope to update this piece when I catch Uranus at the turning point, August 2018. As of right now we are in thunderstorms, so it may take a while.
Okay Let’s Cut to the Chase
Here is an animated GIF of two astrophotographs I took of the planet Uranus from my house in Virgin, Utah. The first one was taken on October 24, 2017 around 2:00 am, the next on November 19,2017 at 10pm (click on the image for full-size animated versions). See if you can spot Uranus. In the course of that month it has moved a bit, near the center of the image, so you should be able to see a blue-green dot jumping back and forth.
In addition to the dated labels, I have put in some graphics showing the constellation Pisces, as well as a chart, showing where computer models say Uranus should be in that part of the sky, for various dates between 2016 and 2020. I had to pull all of these other things in, just to convince myself that I really caught the planet, and not just a random earth satellite or other transient object.
It has taken me quite a bit of work to get to this final product, of which I am quite proud, and happy that it came out so cleanly, riding exactly along those predicted lines. In August of 2018 (now) I hope to capture that endpoint of maximum extent. The rest of this blog piece is the retelling of the story of this image, along with the occasional digressions into the geometry of the whole thing.
About the Planet Uranus
Here is a picture of the planet Uranus, taken by the Voyager II spacecraft in 1986.
By the time I came to work at the NASA Jet Propulsion labs in ’87 the Voyager II probe had already passed by Uranus and was approaching Neptune, so I never got a chance to see these “live” images coming in. It’s not much to look at, and is best described as a large ice ball (unlike Saturn or Jupiter which are mostly gaseous). Even with a really good earthbound 8″ telescope, you’re not going to see much more than a fuzzy dot.
Though it had been seen before (even in ancient times), the object was not identified as a planet until it was observed and reported by William Herschel in 1781, who thought it might be a comet. However, after reporting it to the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne (who figures prominently in the quest to measure Longitude), Maskelyne concluded that it was probably a planet.
Other than its name (being the only one in the solar system based on the original Greek gods, and not the later Latin names of the Roman gods), Uranus is notable for having its rotational axis nearly horizontal to the orbital plane, so that for half the Uranian year (about 45 earth years) the “north” pole is in perpetual day, and the other half the year is perpetual night.
Uranus in Opposition
What started all this for me was the announcement last month that the planet Uranus was in what they call “opposition“, meaning that it was on the opposite side of the celestial sphere (as seen from Earth) as the Sun. From the Sun’s perspective, this means that the Earth and Uranus are on the same side of the Sun, and typically on closest approach to each other:
The news in social media suggested that it would be so close that “it could be seen with the naked eye.” That sounded like hogwash to me, as there have been a lot of viral bogus memes around about being able to see things like the rings of Saturn and such.
Having now tracked down the planet, I can attest that — technically — it would be possible for a young person with excellent sharp eyesight to see the planet Uranus without binoculars … if they knew exactly where to look, and gazed at it out of the corner of their eye, and in a place (like where I live) with extremely dark skies and no cities nearby, but only on a cool clear night. But otherwise, forget about it.
Anyway, with the announcement of the opposition of Uranus in October I decided that this was a good opportunity to do some amateur astronomy and try to capture Uranus with some very low-tech equipment, which is a Nikon D-5000 camera mounted on a crude “Barn Door” equatorial mount. Using this mount, I can take long-exposures of up to 15 or 20 minutes, without smearing of the stars due to earth’s rotation.
The Barn Door mount is a clever contraption which anybody can build with $20 of parts from Ace Hardware or Walmart. The idea is simple, you just have two boards attached with a hinge, one board fixed to a tripod. You line up the hinge with Polaris (the north start), and mount the camera to the board that moves.
But before setting up my rig, I first had to track down the current position of the planet, which was said to be somewhere inside the constellation Pisces (the fish). Credit here must be given to Martin J Powell’s website NakedEyePlanets.com, which has this great chart of the path of Uranus:
Navigating the Stars
For anyone interested in astronomy, one way to begin is to learn how to find your way around the sky visible to the naked eye, without aid of telescopes and such. To do this, you need to learn some old-school tricks, in the form of stories. For example, to find Polaris, you first find the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and follow the line traced by two of the stars in the “pan” of the dipper.
Rant: With the latest GPS-enabled telescopes, it is far too easy to track down stars, planets and other bodies. These days, all you need to do is type in the name of the object (e.g. Uranus), and the telescope’s computer will use its GPS to determine where the telescope itself is located, as well as the current date/time, and then guide the telescope to the place in the sky where the object may be found. Or you can use one of the “Planets” apps on smart phones, which you can hold up in the sky and see what you are looking at.
On my Sunday training runs for the Zion Half Marathon, I usually go for a run up Utah SR 9, heading towards Zion from the town of Virgin. A few miles up, I pass by this gravestone just off the highway, the only remaining thing of the ghost town called Duncan’s retreat.
I have never seen anybody stop here. Most people are tourists going 70 along this lonely stretch of highway, hell bent for Springdale lodging, and if they were looking anywhere it would be the other way, towards the Virgin River. A rock quarry lies just behind it, and nothing that would draw your attention to it.
The history book has this to say about the long-gone town:
A man named Chapman Duncan settled here in 1861. Shortly after several other families moved here also. In 1862 the Virgin river flooded and destroyed most the town. A lot of the people moved away but new settlers came. By January of 1863 about 70 people lived here. In 1863 a post office was built, a school was built in 1864 along with a meeting house. In 1866 floods took its toll on this town also and over the next few years high water from the Virgin river destroyed the fields and killed the town. By 1891 the town was deserted. All that remains of the town today is a grave of a lady named Nancy Ferguson Ott who died here in town in 1863. Her grave is located on the north side of highway 9. (Submitted by Bob Bezzant.)
My understanding from other locals is that Duncan used to live in our town of Virgin (now population 600), but “retreated” to this place far from Virgin to get away from the bustling metropolis.
When Nancy Ferguson Ott died, Duncan’s Retreat had 70 citizens, a post office, families, friends. It was a town, and they thought it would stick around long enough for there to be a cemetery with more than just Nancy, but Nature and circumstance had other ideas.
Now she is utterly alone, on a lonely stretch of anonymous highway, with no one around, no town, no post office, no friends no family.
I stopped to look at the grave marker. There are fresh flowers, stuffed animals, cards. They are replaced regularly by somebody somewhere. I do not know who.
I take some comfort in this, and I hope you do too. No matter who you are, or how alone you may feel in this world, Nancy Ferguson Ott is here, on State Route 9, miles from anywhere and anyone, to deliver this message to you: No one dies alone. You will be Loved, You will be Remembered.
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:
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.
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?
We 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.
When 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.
When some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door recently and asked about my own faith, I told them that I was a “secular buddhist” — which is to say I considered myself a non-theistic person guided by a scientific preference for direct evidence over dogma, and in grey areas of emotional and spiritual life and issues of teleology am informed by a more or less buddhist sensibility that rejects the split between this floating world and some Platonic ideal.
So, the perennial question arises: how does a purely secular person who does not embrace the colorful stories of an infinite, personal God and of an eternal, indestructable soul find Hope or Meaning in this one, small finite life amidst a cold impersonal universe ?
Consider this entry (and its title) to be my own offering to you all, in the spirit of the holidays. It’s a bit long winded and technical in parts, but if you can just suspend disbelief for the moment, I promise that by the end you will, at least, have a glimpse into another way of Looking at Things, that if not as bright and shiny as the stained glass of a church, is still a very good story in its own right, and at least makes the adventure of life seem a good and worthwhile thing, while simultaneously taking the hard and painful edge off of the prospect of inevitable Death. Not only that, but unlike most inspiring stories it may actually turn out to be true.
But First, a Little Astronomy
Here is a picture of the constellation Orion that I took a month ago, while standing outside our house on a cold and freezing midnight, watching the Geminid meteor shower (click to enlarge the photo). I put the camera on a tripod and set it for a 30 second exposure, cranking down the aperture so the stars wouldn’t be such large blobs. There is still a little bit of smearing in the picture due to the rotation of the earth.
There are many stars and nebulae inside this constellation, but the brightest and most noticeable ones consist of the four stars forming the outer corners of Orion, along with the three in the middle forming the “belt”. The orange star in the upper left corner, for example is the red-giant called Betelgeuese, which is approximately 640 light-years from earth. Diagonally opposite, in the lower right corner, is the blue supergiant Rigel, roughly 770 light years away. The other stars in the constellation range in distance from just 26 light years up to 32,000 light years away.
The Orion (Crab) nebula is difficult to discern in this picture, and I would need to go for a very long exposure (with telescope star-tracking mount) to bring it out clearly. It is one of the three “stars” that form a vertical “sword” beneath the belt. Parenthetically, two days after this picture was taken we watched a movie called “The Fountain” with Hugh Jackman, in which Orion and its Crab Nebula were featured prominently. An interesting movie, which reminded me a bit of “Pan’s Labyrinth” — but I digress.
A Simple Question
Before I go on, I would like to pose a question about your own beliefs: do you believe that those stars and nebulas in the Orion constellation actually exist, in the same way that the upholstered chair you are sitting in exists, and with the same, near-absolute, level of certainty? You don’t have to tell me your answer, just hold on to that thought for a moment.
What We Now Know
You might have noticed that when I listed out the stars in the constellation that I used the traditional unit of “light-year” to indicate how far away those stars were. It seems a bit strange, I’m sure, to have a time-flavored word like “year” involved in a unit of distance, but that is really an essential clue to the modern view of the universe. A light-year is simply the distance that light travels in the vacuum of space in a single year, roughly six trillion miles. It makes really big distances a lot easier to work with. There are twelve light-months in a light-year, for example, and sixty light-minutes in a light-hour. Our own sun is just eight light-minutes from Earth, which sounds a lot less daunting than 93 million miles.
Alas, like a parent with a child nearing puberty, the time has now come for us to sit down and have a mature, frank discussion about Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. There is simply no way around it. Take a deep breath. The childhood days with all those stories you were told to make things simple have now passed. To get along in the world of adults, where Newton’s and Aristotle’s and Plato’s model of the world are quaint toys to be put away, you must unlearn some things you thought to be “True”, and try to accept what has been learned about the Way the World Works. Nobody wanted it to be this way, not even the scientists, not even Einstein, but the results of hundreds of thousands of experiments rejected all other possibilities, and with great humility the scientists had to let go of the old stories that they once held dear, and begin to think differently.
Here is the old story that they once held dear:
|The world is all the stuff in space that you see around you, and time is something different, a thing that passes as the stuff moves around in space. The world moves through time.|
Here is the new story, as told by Einstein:
|Time is made out of the same stuff as space, and the two seemlingly different things are part of a single whole continuum we call the Cosmos.|
Like most children who have heard dark rumors about the adult world and what they do behind closed doors, you may have heard things about something called “space-time”. Almost certainly the rumors you have heard have come out mangled, half-truths, with the wrong picture. Most likely, the idea you have gotten is that “space-time” is something where you take the three dimensions of space in which our world exists, and then tack on a time-axis to make it four-dimensional. That is actually the old view, the one that Newton and Lagrange and all the others have always used. Here, for example, is a space-time diagram of the (blue) earth orbiting around the sun over the course of a year.
The new view is that what “space-time” means is there is really only a single substance (what should we call it? Spice?), and if you grab a glob of it near you, you can if you like draw some lines in it and call them “time” and “space”, but those lines are completely arbitrary, and the direction you travel through the “spice” are completely up to you. Space and Time are interchangeable, and the “exchange rate”, expressed as a ratio of space-per-time, just happens to be c, also known as the speed of light.
In this new view, there are many words which we have always used, which need to be modified or understood differently. Even the rules of grammar and syntax need to be changed.
For example, as I write this, there is a classical guitar in its case, leaning against the wall of my office, about ten feet from my desk. That is the old way of looking at things. Light travels about a foot in a nanosecond (a billionth of a second), and so the distance between me and my guitar can also be said to be about ten nanoseconds. In both cases I am measuring the same “spice”, using different units. The guitar that I am looking at is actually the one that existed ten nanoseconds ago. There is no difference between separation in space, and separation in time, because they are the same stuff.
As a parenthetical note, there is one old word that anticipated the modern view and which really should be revived: the word “Whence”. It refers to a location, but has the word “when” in it, merging the two ideas of space and time into one.
The thing that sparked the whole Special Relativity thing was the discovery that the speed of light is constant, as it passes through space time. What is not so well known is that this does not just apply to light, but that (according to relativity) every single thing, every single particle of any type in the universe passes through space-time at a fixed, constant speed, which is — surprise! — the speed of light. This speed never changes, ever; the only thing you can control is the direction, which can be more through time or more through space. Even if you are just sitting in your chair, not moving, in space-time you are traveling in an almost 100% “time-like” direction at the speed of light. If you then get in a spaceship and fly off, your motion will now be moving a lot faster through space and, since your speed through space-time is constant, it means you are traveling through time a bit slower. That’s why scientists say that folks who come back from space are a tiny bit younger than they would have been if they had never left. The clocks that they carry with them also appear to verify this.
So, what does all this have to do with life, death, meaning and immortality?
The Past Exists
If you may recall, I had asked you all if you would agree that the stars in the Orion nebula actually exist. The stars that we are talking about are far away, and I had noted that they ranged in distance from 26 light years to over 32 thousand light years away. From the new view of the world, a light year (in distance) is equal to a year (in time), since they both measure the same stuff. So, the star you are looking at that is 26 light years away is the light from that star that left 26 years ago. And the star that is 32 thousand light years away is also 32 thousand years in the past. And yet, you agreed with me that these particular stars exist.
This is true, because the one, difficult to believe, thing that appears to be correct is: The Past Exists.
Let’s be very clear about this: in every sense in which you customarily say something right in front of you exists, the things and events which we think of here and now as being in the Past, actually still exist, as real and as tangible parts of the Cosmos as the classical guitar that rests against the wall of my office, waiting to be played.
This is not an idle speculation, and it has real consequences. Let’s go back to the Orion constellation for a moment. There is a minor star in that constellation called “13 Orionis”, which is 92 light-years away. Let us suppose that you are still having a hard time buying the new idea that the past exists, but that you will grant me the likelihood that the star 13 Orionis has not gone anywhere in the last 92 years and so the same star is still out there, now, as we speak in “the present time”, where you agree that things-that-exist actually live. Suppose that around that star, right now, are orbiting some very powerful telescopes, which can not only see the Earth, but can pick out the people wandering around on it (this is technologically possible with big enough scopes). The light from Earth that they are receiving now left our planet 92 years ago, in 1917.
Why did I choose this particular star? 1917 was the year that my grandparents, Lennye and Norvis (Nick), were graduating from highschool in Kentucky, already dating each other and trading letters. Anyone who is now manning the scopes around 13 Orionis and who decides to focus in on western Kentucky will soon be treated to the view of Lennye and Nick, laughing in the snow. Nick has already fallen to the ground and Lennye is about to pummel him with a snowball. They have their whole lives ahead of them, and the America that they know is young, the idea of World War does not exist yet. And they are alive and happy, now, as seen by those watching from the telescopes orbiting the star called 13 Orionis.
The Past Exists. Now. In this world we call the Cosmos.
Unless you are four years old, the idea that some of your friends now live a thousand miles away probably does not bother you. Nor should it. Sure, you do not have the ability to be both here and a thousand miles away, but as an adult you are able to sleep well, knowing that your friends are still alive and kicking, in their own homes a thousand miles away. If you push this a bit, it should also not bother you if they were instead a billion miles away, or even six trillion miles — which is to say, a light year — which is to say, a year in time. If a friend passed away a year ago, then, it should not bother you too much. If what we know now is true, your friends are still alive and kicking, in a part of space time that is a measurable distance away: twelve trillion miles, which is to say two light years. So, just as it does not bother you that your own life only spans five or six feet vertically and a foot or so horizontally, it should not bother you that your home in space time is roughly half a quadrillion miles in the long direction. That is the size of your home, and it’s where you live.
So Now What?
So what does this mean? What should a person who comes to accept this idea do with it. What should one do?
Here is my own suggestion, humbly submitted: it means that this life, this span of space-time in which we live our days, is a finite canvas on which we are free to paint whatever kind of experience we choose. The canvas, though finite and bounded in both space and time, is eternally part of the fabric of the Cosmos, and will at any moment once more become visible to someone, somewhere, somewhen, who chooses to look in that particular direction at that particular moment. So what it means is, you have only a small canvas on which to paint, so make it good, and to the best of your ability, make it beautiful.
Or, failing that, at least make it entertaining, and throw a few really good snowballs at someone that you like for good measure.
I wrote this piece a few months ago but only now have gotten around to posting it. December has arrived and the little frogs mentioned below are now gone with the advent of snow and 40-degree temperatures. I will keep you all updated as soon as they return, which should be some time in the Spring…
The first day that we arrived in Utah the owner of our rental house introduced us to several “pets” that had adopted the place, in the form of several greenish-gray frogs that snooze in the shade of the front windows during the blazing afternoon. I sent a picture of them to Mom, who thought they looked “spooky”, mostly due to the military gray. It’s not their fault; the frogs (which I think are desert forms of spring peepers) seem to be able to change their color to match the background, and as they are mostly nighttime creatures, they spend most of the day sleeping, and doing everything they can to look like shiny river rocks.
In the morning the air was clear, dry and (slightly) cool 70’s. The house had not been inhabited for some time, and I suspect that the local children had gotten used to the idea of exploring the grounds around the place in the morning, riding skateboards on the front porch and so on. In my college days we called the kids that would poke around campus “Urchins”. This happened enough in the first few days of our arrival that I made a point to open the door when they passed through and say hi. I didn’t really mind their wandering around, but worried that they would turn on the gas barbeque in the back without lighting it. I also didn’t want them bothering the frogs, who must be very tired after hopping and chirping around the yard all night and the last thing they need is to be pestered by some eight year old boys, eager to conduct scientific experiments.
The boys do seem to have a scientific bent around here. I was on my way to our mailbox down the street when a boy who could not have been more than 7 called over to me from across the street. He was holding aloft a large rock, as if it was a tropy. “Look at this piece of petrified wood I found!” he announced. “Found it on the ridge over there. Must be over three pounds!”. I congratulated him on his find and he wandered on down the street, I assume, to alert the media.
By noontime it has cranked up to 100 plus, and though still dry it is blazing and not even mad dogs or Englishmen (let alone urchins) would make an appearance in this noonday sun to join the armored beetles, praying mantis and various lizards, doing pushups on the rocks in the back yard. Around 5 pm I would venture out to the mailboxes down the street to check the mail. It is very peaceful.
The town next to La Verkin is called “Hurricane”. This is pronounced “Hurrahcun”, and rhymes with GW Bush’s “Amurahcun”. I have long held the theory that locals mispronounce their town’s name so that they can easily spot outsiders. In any case, Hurricane lives up to its name, and in the afternoons the winds kick up something fierce, sometimes getting up to 60 mph, which is indeed Hurrahcun force. This is followed soon after by the occasional thunderstorm. I realized soon that my investment in barbeque grill covers was sadly lacking, as it only took a fews days of the afternoon sirrocco to reduce my vinyl cover to shreds. I’ve ordered a much more substantial cloth-lined and reinforced cover since then.
We are definitely no longer in Connecticut — or California for that matter. From the Slice-o-Life Department: while walking through the Home Depot the other day, I spotted a couple of fundamentalist Mormon women. They are pretty easy to spot, with their signature light-blue or white floor-length prairie dresses (right out of the 1800’s), and swept-back hairstyles (a few FLDS kids heading back to their truck are shown at right). The wives sharing the same husbands usually have matching outfits, to distinguish themselves from those having different husbands. To be fair, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether some of them are co-wives or daughters; this may be by design.,, In any case there were two of them in matching dresses, walking along the herb plants of the garden section of the Home Depot. Over the past month I have begun to accept this as a common sight, and no longer do a double-take when I encounter them in the next aisle of the grocery store. In this case, however, what was notable was the younger of the two wives: she was pushing their cart, and in her ears she was wearing a pair of ear-buds, listening to music on her iPod.
Welcome to the twenty-first century.
“Real poetry,” said the Haiku poet Basho, “is to lead a beautiful life. To live poetry is better than to write it.”