Spread of Fear

Airways crackle with dissent
as voices strive for listening ears
tweets, postings spread dissent
propelled by shares and likes
as insomniac fingers tap out
fears truth is lost while hate
rises and people draw the curtains
blocking out the world, curling
into the duvet of the past.

They do not see the children
lost in water they have never sailed,;
nor the beggar standing at the gate or
the boy who missed the love of life
because his skin did not match white.

Yet look at your neighbour over the fence
he’s just like you there’s no difference,
no matter what way he prays or ties his belt
he craves peace, family, friendship, food
a place of peace to thrive and be your friend.

No golden tower or boundary line
matters to the ordinary mind.
Those cackling voices clamouring for attention
only breed fear hand hate as stern faces seek
power at any price but when the guns fall silent

peace will come again when we realize
that gold holds nothing power wanes
and beneath the skins of race and faith
we all want family, friendship, a hand

to hold upon the road of life

© Carolyn O’Connell

What I Can Say

She asked me to her office, said
It’s an emergency.

The heels or the sneakers,
she asked. Nothing
in this wide world could make me wear
heels anywhere, certainly
not in a car for five
hours, stuffed like a pimento in an olive
between two administrators spearing me
for details to stir into their martinis.

The sneakers.
Of course, I said, confused
by her footwear anxiety. She paused,
But, which is more…
professional?

I stopped. Stared at
friend, colleague, mentor, go-to-person
who is leader, innovator, math coach
and only woman of color
in our building and knew this wasn’t
about the shoes.

What could this skin
of mine say back? What
shoes could offset her bold
blackness in this whitewashed world?

I can’t offer what shoes to wear
any more than I can moralize
about what clothing
Black mothers should let
their young sons wear out of houses
to keep them alive, can’t tell my black
professor neighbor not to fear dropping
his daughter’s class pet off in the backyard
of a friend’s house while they are not home,
can’t tell him it’s silly to worry about
some neighbor calling the police,

can’t tell the black anesthesiologist to just
be calm when stopped for the broken
headlight. Can’t say, It’s just
a routine stop. Can’t tell the public
relations director with natural hair
to simply ignore being followed
at the drug store while shopping
for cough medicine for her son.
Can’t advise the Latino cable guy
how to handle each door slammed
in his face as he comes to repair their connection
to Game of Thrones or Walking Dead.
Can’t correct him when he says he doesn’t need
a TV show to feel as though he is walking
dead, every single day.

I can’t tell my friend what shoes to wear.
I can’t tell her she won’t be deemed unprofessional
no matter what’s on her feet, despite
being towering strength and brilliance.

I can’t tell any one of these black lives who matter
much of anything.
I can only tell my whiteness
listen.

© Terri Muuss

Purim Fibonacci

Purim—

that carnivalesque

masquerade Persian New Year

Carved wood mask
Nacius Joseph (b. 1939)
Haitian Sculptor

of the Jewish Calendar rests

in the arms of Mardi Gras, an
upside down play of masked and
unmasked images dancing

at the party while Purimpshpiel
stages a drama: unfolding
parody, satire, commentary—
the whole Megillah. And
who puts on an Esther mask

on the way to the
Beverly Hills Purim Ball, but Hadassah
herself, on her annual pilgrimage
to the festivities of inversions.
Nu, who do you think inspired
the Rabbis to write in the Gemara
that Jews should get so wasted
that they cannot distinguish

between “Blessed” Haman and

“Cursed” Mordechai, if not Vashti?

Vashti, who released herself
from the lustful gaze

of her husband’s court,
now wears the mask of that
same Ahashuerus who banished

his Queen to her freedom.
The Tel Aviv Opera Purim Ball
rejoices in the refractions
of self and story—politics
of the beauty contest

Wood mask
Artist unknown

for the virgin, check or mate.
Revelers cheer an Uncle arrogantly
dressed in mourner’s cloth
who entered her in competition,
then stripped her of her mask
to save their people,
while letting his people massacre
others—another masquerade.

And in Tel Aviv and Beverly Hills,

the masked dancers

drink up the casts
and no longer recall

the difference
between good and good,
mask and masque—

so many layers
of truths, peeled
one after another,
as the frenzied forgetting
tears off masks over masks,

Shekhina
oil painting
Licka Kerenskaya
Russia-Israel painter
Used with permission ©Licka Kerenskaya

layered like ancient rubble
under old cities and their tels,
like history and politics,
like geology and religion,
until what lies beneath
and beneath again
barely glimmers
in the eyes

of the masquerade.

And Hadassah laughs,

dancing freely with Vashti,
two lovers at last

hidden and unhidden
at Tel Aviv and Beverly Hills
Balls—globes of pleasure

circling the world
in three complete lines
forming seventy-two
masks, each one
a part of the whole.

Michael Dickel


Exegesis
Anonymous commentator
Digital art from photographs
©2017 Michael Dickel

The poet dons the mask of commentator, but the poem always wears at least one mask in the presence of the poet, so beware. And, if the poem reveals (a) different mask(s) to you, dear reader, please explore. The poet does not trust that any poem reveals all of its masks at any one time, especially to the poet.

The Jewish holiday of Purim celebrates the tale told in the Book of Esther, a story that, remarkably, does not once mention G-d. Set in Persia, which rules over the Jews at the time, The Scroll of Esther (or Megillah) layers many levels of deceit and masquerade, and the tale turns on itself in many ways.

Book of Esther

The King of Persia, Ahashuerus, banishes his Queen, Vashti, when she refuses to dance in front of his guests. Mordechai urges his niece to enter the beauty contest held to replace the queen, but to hide that she is Jewish (and probably not eligible to be queen of Persia). So she uses her non-Jewish name, Esther, instead of her Jewish name, Hadassah, wins, and becomes Queen Esther.

Meanwhile, Haman, the viceroy to the King, hates Jews and especially Mordechai, who refused to bow before Haman, and who is in the story honored for revealing (through now Queen Esther) a plot against the king. Haman has to lead him through the streets on a horse, Mordechai dressed as a king, Haman’s own idea of how to be honored—which he is asked to tell the king at a party, perhaps a masque (Haman thinks it’s for himself that the King wants to know how to honor a person).

Haman, whose orders are like the King’s own (another mask), plots the hanging of Mordechai and the genocide of the Jews. While the rest of the city celebrates an occasion of state (the defeat of Jerusalem), Mordechai dresses in mourning because of Haman’s plot against his people. However, this is an act of treason during the celebration. He thus shames Esther into unmasking herself to Ahashuerus, who reverses Haman’s murderous order when he learns his wife is a Jew.

Purim mask

Jews celebrate Purim as a day of deliverance from death (and genocide). However, the rescinding of the order came too late to the walled cities, which had to fight to defend themselves (under dispensation of the king). So, the celebration of Purim as a holiday is one day later for the cities that were walled cities at the time of the story (including Jerusalem and Tiberias—this is called Shoshan Purim).

The scroll ends with the recounting of Haman’s hanging and the killing of his kin, the death tolls from the battles at the walled cities, an unmasking, perhaps, of another form of genocide—in the name of defense.

The Poem

The date of the holiday itself loosely coincides with Carnival (Mardi Gras) and the Persian New Year. Jews celebrate with Purimshpiel (Yiddish for Purim stories, usually in the form of plays—traditionally, parodies and satires on current events using the story of Esther) and by donning costumes and masks, holding parties (balls), and getting drunk. Yes, the Gemara says that Jews should get drunk enough that they no longer know the difference between Haman and Mordechai, respectively, the male villain and hero of the story of Esther. Perhaps it is to make up for Eden and the whole Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil thing. This poem could be read as a sort of Purimshpiel variation.

Donning masks
Digital art from photographs
©2017 Michael Dickel

The donning of masks allows us to hide who we are, but masks also reveal who we are, or an aspect of who we are that is usually hidden. Carnivalesque masquerade allows us to try on aspects of ourselves or display those energies that we normally repress or hide (perhaps in a closet somewhere, with the costume). Drunkenness allows forgetting, but also disinhibition and release. Perhaps we learn of the capacity of good and evil within ourselves, as well as about those other parts of ourselves that would otherwise be “masked” by everyday existence.

So, the poem has Hadassah, the Jewish girl, wearing the mask of her alter ego from the story, Queen Esther. Yet perhaps this is an aspect of her all along? Perhaps we all have hidden “royal” qualities? Esther replaced Vashti, who was banished by King Ahashuerus for refusing to dance (naked) before him and the court. And Queen Vashti, in the poem, wears the mask of the king. He banished her from the court, but to where? Did she stand up for her own self-respect by refusing to succumb to what, centuries later, a feminist film critic would identify as scopophilia, or the male gaze? Was her banishment a freedom? How does gender play through this story, that seems to focus on men, but relies on a woman at its center, perhaps two women, if we look more closely at Vashti?

The poem suggests in its own center that masks unveil as we peel them, but also there is the hint that they reveal at each layer (like the layers of rubble beneath old cities that mound into tels, which hint at the history of the eras of the city; and like the layers of both geology and religion, which are ancient with something hot and molten at the core, like our own psychological being). This move to the psychological enters the mystical, with the masked women, who appear to be King Ahashuerus and Queen Esther now that they wear their masks, dancing together (yet at separate balls, one in Beverly Hills, its own masquerade and center of Hollywood glitz and glamor, and the other in Tel Aviv, the “new city” of Eretz Israel). This is like the Malkhut and Shekhina, or Shabbat (King, or male aspect of G-d) and Bride ( Queen, or feminine aspect of G-d).

Arithmetic

And then comes the poem’s mysterious end, which references Exodus 14:19-21 the three lines of Torah that, with 72 letters each, Kabbalists believe can be permuted into the 72 Names of G-d. The poem suggests that these Names are both masked and masks (that hide or reveal?)—their hiddenness echoes the hiddenness of G-d in the text of Esther, and the ineffability of divinity in all of its guises.

Purim mask

The stanzas follow a sequence of line numbers each, counting the first line (which wears the mask of the title). The pattern goes (before the title, think of 0): 0 lines (an extra line break marked with … before the sections that follow after the first one), 1 line, 1 line, 2 lines, 3 lines, 5 lines, 8 lines. This pattern repeats three times (for a total of 60 lines), then goes 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, for a total of 72 lines, like that number of Hidden Names.

The sequence of numbers used (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8) is the first part of an infinite series, known as the Fibonacci sequence, that has many interesting relationships in math and nature, including the pattern of sunflower seeds in their flower, unfurling fern heads, and, significant to Jewish mystical allusions, the branching of trees.

The Hebrew word for life, chai, has the numerical value of 18. Twice chai, or double life, is 36. Double that, and…72. That the number of lines in the poem equals 72 probably doesn’t mean much more than that our lives are not singular, but layered.


Explore more
The author in costume
Purim 2017
Photo ©2017 Aviva Dekel

Wrestling with Esther: Purim Spiels, Gender, and Political Dissidence by Emily Nepon — a modern Midrash that informs this poem.

Purim and the Masks We Wear by Ari Kahn — a commentary that, while coming from a very different perspective, has some interesting background from traditional Midrash.


This is a lightly edited version of :

Dickel, M. (2013). Drash Meets Mosh: Purim: A Fibonacci Sequence? (Column). Drash Pit . February. Online. Original url: drashpit.com/Main/Drash_Meet_Mosh.htm (no longer active). Archived.

How Can It Be

People say pick one path and stick with it
and that since mistakes are bound to happen,
just make do. The grasses talk among
themselves: you’ll never get anywhere
following that line of thought. They know
it’s all the same whether you live or die,
that the right path will find you,
your shining life, and speak like a hand
gathering gravel: choose yourself first,
give up owning the future, there isn’t
anyplace far enough you can stray.

© Ann Emerson estate, poem and photograph

Ann was one of the founding members of this site.

Once Upon a Sea Green Day

We flew along the freeway yesterday under
a cold coastal expanse of cerulean ceiling.

It reminded me of you and how we dusted
the vaults of our minds to rid them of fear
and the old lexicons of grief and guilt, the
whalebone girdles of unfounded faith and
common conventions, saccharine and sticky.
I thought of that one sea-green day we spent

under just such a sky in a land far away and
how we changed your name then, reframed
your story to tell of hope and not despair.
You sketched flowers blossoming in the dust
of a spring that promised but never delivered.
Now we don’t speak of men but of cats with

their custom of keeping heart and claws intact.
We tell ourselves stories in rhythms that resound
in deep sleep. Soon now the ancient calls to
feral festivals will still and the time’s arrived when
our only play is in the margins, fate hanging
from our skeletons like Spanish moss on old oak.

It pleases me that life’s passage spins into poemed reliquary and
a memory of the pink peau de soie I wore to your prom that June.

© Jamie Dedes

Two Excerpts from “Poems, Parables and Prayers”

c photo Beth Beck, included with her permssion. Excerpt from Phillip T. Stevens “Poems, Parables and Prayers for the 3rd Millennium” Beck captured the image using pinhole photography.

In the spaces at the nucleus, the spaces at the center —
where matter gives way to mystery,
and laws dance neck to neck with enigma,
where particles reverse charge, protons decay,
and electrons skip, split or fuse
in those empty spaces confined to atoms
and still as wide as the universe,
I wonder if we’ll ever sense a sculptor
shaping gray matter, fusing atoms,
sparking fuel for thought.
Does God jump start my consciousness?
Did he spark a synapse in my right brain to
evoke images, icons and prayer?
Did he fashion the dendrites in my left brain so
I can craft the concepts in this poem?

Do you ever dream of God dancing at the
center of the universe, staff raised, knees high,
shouting, leaping, whirling in a dervish,
drawing the dust of galaxies to himself until
the particles collapse inward upon themselves,
blossoming from star dust to star,
glowing inside with the heat of his breath,
spinning in a dervish of its own,
spinning outward to the spiral arm of a galaxy
where we spiral as well, spinning at
millions of miles an hour, never resting,
dancing God’s dervish every minute of every day
all the while feeling grounded,
still and silent on the surface of this planet,
all the while looking back to God,
dancing at the center of the universe and
waiting for us to dance with him?

When we look inward, contemplate who we are,
do we simply see electrons leaping randomly from
synapse to synapse, or do we see the sculptor as well —
fusing the connections, allowing an image to emerge?
When we look to the stars at night
do we simply see stars flying away from a
center filled with nothingness,
spinning out of control toward nowhere?
Or do we see the dervish in the chaos,
feel ourselves drawn to God’s dance at the
center of his universe as we are drawn
by gravity to the surface of this earth?


Who can fathom the void between electrons?
Who can chart their paths, clock their spin?
Who can bond hydrogen with oxygen to
unleash the waters of life?
We spend billions on super computers and
superconducting super colliders to
deconstruct electrons, but the
electrons themselves elude us.
We use charts and graphs and
metaphors because we’ll never see them
dance from one energy state to the next.
Unable to see the whole,
we dissect the elements as though
enlightenment requires a knife.
Unable to see the canvas they compose,
we fail to grasp the space between atoms,
spaces as solid and impenetrable
as the mind of the God.
God is like the electron.
We can see where he’s been,
see where he’s going,
but we cannot focus on him,
can’t reduce him to an image that
the scientist, poet and believer
can all point to and say,
“Yes, that’s the one. By Jove, that’s God.”
So we speculate on his image,
paint a face in our imaginations and
choose to believe that face is God.
Then we demand that others see God
in the images we create even though
our images have no more substance
than the void between electrons.

© poems, Phillip T. Stephens

These poems were originally published in Phillip T. Stephens. Poems, Parables and Prayers for the 3rd Millennium (Austin, TX: Plain View Press, 2001). 

and the word was

and the word was


Terri Muus


1            light shimmering

between curtains, mother’s
salt, my
two-year-old
tongue.

2            a single
note and the symphony—
swell of treble
into bronze,
wings,

the lost sun-streaked
hour, staccato-punched
sky by five.

3            smoke and no
name, smeared
pencil on graphed
paper, mouth strung
with gray pearls, bulging pockets—

secrets, dry
taste of letter-less envelope
on “sweet sixteen.”

4            unzipped carbon
nanotubes, the union
of atoms,
the space after
exhale, light

particles and waves
in ordered
chaos of the universe
by thirty-one.

5            Now—

GOD,
you are
ocean-side waves beating
tilde of sand,

gold tenderness.

© Terri Muuss
originally published in “The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion”

Landscape with rice

It is a pig poor village of elders
and children, forgotten by Tokyo,
its earners gone elsewhere.
But the schoolchildren began it,
a fun project of planting two tone
patterns of rice to learn the old
skills of working the paddy field.
The village committee cogitated.

Diversify … tourism … their superiors
had instructed; they had debts, ailing
rice fields, time and nothing to lose.
Meticulously they planned, staked,
mirrored their sacred mountain in rice –
the whole village came out. The idea grew.
More intricate patterns, more seasonal
helpers, computer generated designs.

And now thousands upon
thousands of rice plants
push their leaves skywards
through spring into summer
to sway gently in swathes of
rich burgundy, vibrant yellow-white
and all the shades of green through
‘hint of’ to emerald to deep ivy.

A Sengoku warrior gallops hectares
with panache, cartoon characters
exaggerate themselves, even
Napoleon and the Mona Lisa get
a look in; and always the snow-capped
mountain which has played god to
the village since time began, since
the first planting of life-giving rice.

The visitors come in their thousands;
their cars block the highways, they squeeze
through narrow streets, climb observation
towers to exclaim in wonder, spend little
and leave. The harvesters pull up two
thousand years of belonging in handfuls
from the soil. Inakadate will not let go.
More planning begins; the mountain looks on.

© Patricia Leighton

Brain Tools

Science, the scientific method, and related modes of logic and thought are wondrous tools. Like any tool, they are beneficial when applied wisely, and they are detrimental when applied unwisely.  The ‘If’ and ‘When’ and ‘How’ and the results of their applications to culture, religion and politics are so varied and storied and possibly ambiguous that I decided not to write an essay for my submission this time. There is just too much to discuss. So, although I am the least of all the poets here, I put my thoughts into a poem.


Ages of Thought,
whether Dark or Enlightened,
attempt to encompass the world.
Is it magic and mystical,
hypothetical, physical?
Can our rigorous study
render clear from the muddy?
Will our critical thinking
keep the spaceship from sinking?
Systematic inventions,
clever social intentions —
are they matters of preference,
coercion or deference?
Does “control and predict”
do us good, or constrict?
Can brain work help to consecrate
Humility and celebrate
such Human traits
as Wonder? Appreciation?
Morality? Cooperation?
When bullet points kill conversation,
and no one takes your word,
Do you trust experience, experiment,
story or definition —
And whose?

The Road Leads Away and Back

The road leads away and back again
for the tiniest of babies now living
but for the creation of incubators

the path could be a distant memory
for those stricken with lifeless legs
albeit for the miracle of polio vaccine

memories might be a thing of life’s past
due to serious illness or head injury
life possible due to life support equipment

born with loss of limbs or due to accident
immobility the darkness of every dawn
mobile once again with prosthetics

every breath painfully labored and slow
lungs damaged by disease or by choices
the miracle of oxygen lines extending life

the nucleus of human life suddenly stops
a heart unable to support another moment
an artificial valve ignites beating again

for all of these reasons and many more
the list too extensive and long to write
the road leads away and back again

© Renee Espriu

Butterfly Effect

Chaos on a shoe string


Alit, photo digital art, ©2013 Michael Dickel
Alit, photo digital art, ©2013 Michael Dickel

This piece is part of a series of experimental writing I worked on in 2013. This hybrid-flash has a relationship to surrealism, automatism, Robert Bly‘s leaping poetry, and chaos theory. If you want to explore some of my tangential associations, hover your mouse cursor over the links in this post and see what pops up—follow the links if you wish to engage in a hyper-text non-linear reading. Don’t forget to come back! Such a reading might be determined by initial conditions, and thus fit chaos theory very nicely…


 

Surrealism: Below the Snow, digital photo / art montage ©2013 Michael Dickel
Surrealism: Below the Snow, digital photo / art montage ©2013 Michael Dickel

 

Butterfly on a shoe—a constant bliss, elated and surreal, some automatic writing made from fresh warm milkdreams of rain. The desert sunset signifies peace to the gopher writing its manifesto far from the Saskatchewan railroad’s violence. A nasty sherbet left a taste of forgotten hypocrisy like a flashbulb memory in his mouth, burnt like boiled-over soup on the stove top. The moon mirrors his face, its shadow-craters another dimension.

Greed spills blood through the nun’s hands, nuclear waste pouring out her fingers. What bread will she eat, this stench of death in her nose? Lady Macbeth knew blood and hands and death. The ocean breeze ruffles her hair like forest leaves, while the sea’s salt walks the dog like sweet coffee travels through the night, Mercury retrograde, with nomadic drivers hustling the highway for spare change at the pool table.

The tulip knows cold winds, playing Scrabble®, drinking mint tea under the snow, waiting for the cardinal’s lonely, red, winter vigil to leap up into spring. The spirit needs rest. Karma suffers bouts of cold and sweat; hot, dull space drips its indigo cello-blue into Luce Iragaray’s recursive folding of flesh away from the center, touching and brushing together moments of possibility.

The cat in the sky sits on the green roof, thinks, “time to go.”

—Michael Dickel

Chaos Water Digital art ©2013 Michael Dickel

Michael Dickel’s most recent book, The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden, which collects series of experimental writing and some more “conventional” narrative, all flash fiction, that I’ve written over the last few years. 

This originally appeared on Michael Dickel’s blog in 2013.


 

The Return of Primordial Night

Nyx, Greek Goddess of the Night

the ghosts of our parents search vainly 
for wildflowers near the beach at Big Sur

they were deaf to the threat in thunder,
but we were struck by lightning,
heaved in the rain and waves and
the overflow from the melting ice

the computers went down
their screens black as the wicked water,
in whirling chaos they morphed into drums

every fetus turned in the womb,
the men went to the mountain tops
and the women sheltered in caves

the souls of saints and sinners
were run through a cosmic wash cycle
after the spin dry, a new wisdom

but the shades of our parents remain,
they’re waiting for us at Big Sur,
waiting by the Santa Lucia Mountains

© Jamie Dedes

Shills Like Elephants

Two more stouts down here, honey? Thanks, love. So this is how it works, youngster. The pols will argue over when life begins, at conception or at birth. What the hell, the subject of their alleged debate could just as easily be Creationism versus Evolution. It’s the same churned-up, wormy loam that’s sustained the political phonies for more than a century. It’s what they hoe when tangentially preaching to the party-affiliated converted. We scribes would sit back and take notes, mainly gauging relative volume, totals of Biblical citations versus Scientific references and numbers of finger points. Though many now use their thumbs as pointers since the birth of Darwinian political exemplar Bill Clinton’s index finger-stabbing, definition-of-IS-is, white-lie, bad-optics hair-splitting during his own multi-hyphened product-of-a-sexual-encounter Dance of the Seven Berets. Oh, and we collected, crunched and consumed salty quotes like pretzels in our after hours bars. We were paid to fill open column inches or air-minutes between advertisements, with the implicit promise our bosses made to the advertisers of bringing X-number eyeballs to their come-ons for pharmaceuticals, automobiles or insurance. Judging which side is right or wrong rose above our pay grade, best left to the former reporters who soared or crawled over the broken egos of their colleagues to editorial or columnist positions either by hard work or something just shy of befriending (maybe just the journalistic equivalent of caddying for) publishers. Though some made it by outliving them. We ink-stained wretches are a cyclical lot who learned to somewhat compartmentalize our feelings as best we could without losing our edge, becoming totally numb. See, it’s not so much who’s right and who’s wrong on a specific argument as it is who those aforementioned editors and publishers choose to make right. We’d rather leave it out there in some artful, judgement-free, make-your-own-sundae bit of prose, like Hemingway did in Hills Like White Elephants. Hell, not once did he ever mention the word “abortion.” No one’s ever going to actually “win” these debates, combining science, culture, politics and religion in a danse macabre where Defeat/Death inevitably collects the dramatis personae and Victory/Life is merely Intermission, one last chance to pick up some Sno-Caps, Raisinets and nuclear containment vessel-sized containers of Coke and popcorn before the house lights go down for the final act.

I was asked if I could contribute a piece for the this edition of The BeZINE related to Science in Culture, Religion and Politics. I can’t cop to any of those subjects truly being in my wheelhouse. Nevertheless, I sat down and imagined a one-sided conversation by someone who looks a lot like me and has seen and chronicled the bloody confluence of those subjects–a retired news reporter. My career on that side of the news business was not so long as the friends I made during my reporter years, but I readily admit it quickly grew a husk around me and opened a vein of acid-tinged cynicism and indifference that I fight to this day. I took no stand about these subjects (well, maybe politics) in this piece, but thought it might be interesting to dive back into the deep end of my primordial news ooze to see if it still makes me smell of sulphur. It does.

Hearts, Minds and Souls

moon-2092807

I have been pondering the theme of this month’s issue of The BeZine for some time without a resolution in my mind as to how I can possibly limit a written piece to less than a thousand words to cover it. I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot come close truly to doing it justice, if for no other reason than that it just about spans the entirety of human existence on this Earth as well as its place in the universe.

So what of the impact of science on culture, politics and religion? From the earliest beginnings of its roots in thinking by philosophers, whose intellectual machinations observed and interpreted the nature of things, it could now be argued that, from those beginnings come the roots of its downfall; our self destruction.

Our culture is driven by a desire for control of our lives, which in turn is determined and limited by our own genetic make up, our chemistry if you like, and the environment in which we evolved as individuals and as communities.

Religion is perhaps the result of a desire, for most of us in recognition of our mortality, to make sense of the chaos that results as every individual interprets their circumstances differently and therefore to give collective structure to it all. Politics originally seeks to formalise and legislate, to provide equity and security across the divisions between individuals, communities and religious belief systems and ultimately democracy, but politics has always conspired to fail us, because of self interest; because of our deeply ingrained, genetic survival instinct.

The science that attempts to explain and underpin it all ultimately fails us. Whilst it has achieved the most remarkable things, taken us to the moon, cured diseases, built bridges and enabled us to communicate with the world, it has, like most other aspects of our lives, been overcome by that cornerstone of culture, that of commerce and commercial interest. Politics and religion have, maybe, tried to limit its influence, but self interest, desire for survival and greed for consumption of ‘things’, is winning the day. It has captured minds, hearts and souls and enveloped our day to day approach to living and life itself and is causing us to lose touch with our place in the universe. Unless we can conceive of ways to halt this fairground ride as it hurtles out of control, it strikes me that the relevance and usefulness of science in our culture will be lost, because we will be lost.

Poet and friend, Kona Macphee wrote a short piece around six years ago in her enlightened blog, ‘That Elusive Clarity‘, which described a conversation with her daughter entitled “A Brief Blonde Sun” …

My daughter and I recently went to see “Tangled”, Disney’s take on the Rapunzel fairytale, in which Rapunzel’s evil, ancient captor perpetually restores her own youth via the power of Rapunzel’s magic hair.
“Would she stay young forever?” my daughter asked.
“I don’t know. I guess so. It’s magic hair.”
“But it couldn’t work forever!”
“Why not?”
“What about when the sun explodes?”

With all that we try to achieve, shouldn’t we remind ourselves not only of what the future holds for our children but also that, regardless of how much we feel in control of our lives now … we’re not! Regardless of our continuing dreams that science will explain it all in the end … it won’t!

Such dreams are simply a kind of vanity, subsidised by hugely expensive quests to conquer space, fly to Mars, send satellites beyond our solar system, which is only one of billions inside our galaxy, the ‘Milky Way’, which, in turn, is only one of billions in the universe; to escape reality; to deny our mortality. Come on! Wake up! Smell the coffee!

Humanity may be the only current voice by which the known universe can understand itself, but ultimately I find it impossible to believe, right now, that we should be spending our money, expending the intellect and energies of our greatest minds in solving anything other than the many issues we have here, on our own gentle, amazing, beautiful but yielding Mother Earth.

© 2017 John Anstie

Image from Pixaboy (https://pixabay.com) with licence to use by Creative Commons CC0.

Myths of Eden and Science

During the 1980s scientists thought fractals might solve the problem of the one and the many. Each element of a system represents the entire system. Chaos theory, a close correlate, suggested that a leaf falling onto the waters of a rushing river merges into the dynamic system of rushing water.

The river takes the leaf in a new direction, but the leaf affects the turbulence of the surface which, ultimately, changes the river’s direction.

Chaos theory, whose influence on popular culture peaked with the movie Jurassic Park, offered a rich and dynamic explanation of the natural world. Its power never lay in the ability to explain nature so much as its mythic narrative, with strange attractors and insect-like imagery.

Illustration 1: The Buddhabrot illustrates the many fractal images generated to illustrate Chaos Theory toward the close of the 20th Century. The rotated reproduction of the mathematically generated image reveals the Mandelbrot bug and resembles the Buddha, central character of many Eastern myths.Deeply iterated Buddhabrot. Public Domain Illustration by Evercat

The myth of myths

I speak of mythic narrative with no sense of irony.  Scientific literature frequently denotes the reality of observation and the fallacy of myths, perpetuating an entirely new mythology:

Early man created myths to explain causes, but their wild imagery and outlandish narratives crumbled under the rise of the scientific method.

Current thinking stands myths and every day realty in opposition, which is why we equate them with lies. To the contrary, early humans never intended myths to mirror mundane reality. Myths addressed questions that plague the tribe’s social dynamic. They taught members how to interact with the natural world.

Scientific explanations ignore moral or spiritual questions, which allows them to assert their findings are objective (and therefore true). Assuming the myths of science to be literally true, however, is as dangerous as embracing the literal truth of religious creation myths. Aboriginal myths of the dreamtime were far more concerned with the relationship between people and their environment than explaining the facts of nature. The Genesis story was never about how the word came into being, but why, after the creator brought order from chaos, chaos and disorder managed to return. In short, the creation story poses an answer to the problem of evil.

Revolution drives the history of science. Theories that satisfactorily explain the universe in one century die from ridicule in the next. Nor should we doubt that scientists in the twenty-second century will find today’s scientific myths any less laughable than we find those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

As an object exercise, let’s rewrite three popular myths to see if they continue to offer enlightenment.

New Myth: The Departure from Eden

Contrary to popular belief, Genesis names the tree in the garden, “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” In Genesis’ telling, to eat from the tree would remove Adam and Eve from a state of innocence, and make them culpable for their decisions. From the moment they transgressed, childhood ended and they entered adulthood—responsible and liable for the harm they did.

In our reimagining, the Tree of Knowledge beats at Eden’s heart, inseparable and indispensable. The tree’s roots take nourishment from Eden’s soil and its falling fruit and seed decompose to restore nutrients.

The tree grew where its seeds took root; God knew better than to uproot it. The new lesson? God didn’t warn the couple to refrain from the tree in order to tempt them. God delivered a warning they’d never fully comprehend until they chose to ignore him.

Illustration 2: Why do we assume God was concerned about Adam and Eve’s welfare when he ordered them away from the Tree of Knowledge? Public Domain photograph of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve (public domain illustration)

Once humans gained knowledge they destroy Paradise, as they would go on to do with their communities and planet. God drove them from the garden to save it.


New Myth: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and original sin.

In our new myth, we can no more separate the capacity for sin from the knowledge of good and evil than we can separate our ability to live from the air we breathe.

When Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit of knowledge, they chose a new life—one ruled by laws and statues rather than by free will and discernment. What was neither good nor evil before, suddenly became one or the other and a number of those (only) now evil fruits grew in the garden. Complicating matters, many of the garden’s fruits could be good or evil depending on the circumstances. Adam and Eve make the distinction between them only by referring to the law.

In short, God removed them from the garden to protect them from unintentionally transgressing.

Do these two new myths contradict each other? Not necessarily, but myths can present the tribe with paradox. Only when we grapple with the paradox, do we become truly enlightened. Science avoids paradox. When confronted by them, scientists seek new theories to make the paradoxes (anomalies) disappear.

Illustration 3: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.( The “Tree of knowledge” monument, Barcaldine, Queensland. Photograph by Mark Marathon under CC BY-2.0 license)

The myth of rational science:

The pursuit of science gave rise to a myth of a different order: The universe is, ultimately, knowable and explainable. Scientists will account for every aspect of the universe, given enough time.

Scientists who choose to reduce the universe to rational (i.e., mathematical) behavior relay this myth as a fundamental truth. They can’t imagine the universe to be otherwise, defining objective reality in terms of negation, relying on a theory called falsifiability:

To be scientific a statement must have conditions under which it can be empirically disproved.
There can be no empirical disproof to metaphorical statements. Metaphoric statements (and, by extension, allegory, myth and religion) are scientifically meaningless.

The myth of science promoted an arrogance within the scientific community. It permitted them to pursue their research without concern for the consequences to their tribes, opposing tribes or the surrounding environment. In short, like Adam and Eve in their state of innocence, scientists bear no responsibility or liability for air pollution, genetic mutations, the destruction of entire species with pesticides and other environmental contaminants, the release of toxic gasses into human communities, land irredeemable for thousands of years due to radiation, not to mention the possibility of wholesale nuclear holocaust.
Science, they argue, is “pure,” and its lethal applications should never discourage scientists from pushing the envelope of knowledge. Since many of us fail to see the hubris, not to mention mythic underpinnings of their quest, we allow them to continue their enterprise unhindered.

Ironically, falsification blows back against scientific theory as well. Consider the theory of evolution: What possible conditions would disprove the phrase “nature selects?” Or that selection “nudges” and “guides” species? Or that genes are “selfish” and selected strands of DNA are “junk?”
Under what conditions can we disprove the proposition: “There is no God”?

Scientists fall back on the argument that these are dead metaphors, and not to be taken as literal expressions of the theory. At this point we enter a loop: Falsification excludes metaphors as “true” statements.

Illustration 4: Ironically the Big Bang Theory was originally seen as proof of God’s existence.(Illustration by Takashi Hososhima under CC BY 2.0 Generic license

The inability to imagine a mysterious and irrational universe is no more more rational than the mysterious and irrational universe scientists reject.

In short, the fundamental premise of science is a myth — an attempt to give meaning to the things we experience, but not necessarily true. I’d go a step further, believers who embrace the myth of science experience the same irrational fear of the unexplainable that people who pursue mysteries of the occult and religion experience regarding the rational and explainable.

Postscript

Even as I make these observations, I should remind readers that only the ignorant and the willfully ignorant would deny the fundamentally sound observations of science and the benefits scientific research provides. When I experience a headache, I reach for Tylenol before I reach for my Bible. Only when we embrace an attitude of examination and self-reflection, when we allow our minds to understand why the skeptics doubt us, can we claim our faith in religion or science is real. We might also find solace in both.

© Phillip T. Stephens
Image licensing as above

Still Phoning ET

When I was perhaps 9 or 10 years old, I encountered someplace a few creepy little verses of poetry that, because of the “creepiness coefficient,” I hesitate to call a “nursery rhyme”. (Of course, many nursery rhymes and kids’ fables, in their original form, would make Quentin Tarantino look like Jane Austen.) The lines rather creep me out even today when I read or recite them:

Yesterday upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today;
I wish, I wish he’d go away!

At least in the popular imagination, this little doggerel could also describe the public’s fascination with the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). By any rational estimate, the lack of evidence in favor of the existence of intelligence outside of planet Earth, combined with the stern application of Ockham’s Razor, would entail the most conservative conclusion: we simply do not know whether there is intelligence besides ourselves in the Galaxy. The physicist Enrico Fermi condensed this issue into a three-word question: Where is everybody? I propose that the reason the “little man” – green or otherwise – won’t go away, despite almost no evidence of his existence, is because Western culture, having largely ceased to believe in a god “out there,” converts its frustrated nostalgia for faith into a yearning for god-like intelligences “out there” to replace the gods we have discarded. Having alienated ourselves from belief in a god, we henceforth are more predisposed to believe in aliens.

Enrico Fermi

The usual statistical argument for the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the Milky Way Galaxy actually cuts both ways. You know the drill, of course, even if you have only watched a couple of episodes of Cosmos. In round numbers, the Milky Way is a disc 100 thousand light-years (ly) in diameter and 1,000 ly thick: a volume of about 7.8 trillion cubic ly (50,000 ly squared x pi x 1,000 ly) The Galaxy comprises, at a low-ball estimate, 100 billion stars. So each star occupies a space of about 78 cubic ly (7.8 trillion / 100 billion = 78 cubic light-years per star), which means the average distance between stars is 5.3 ly (78 cubic ly = 4/3 x pi x radius cubed … solve for radius ~ 2.65 ly … then the same distance to the next star centered on its ~ 2.65-ly-radius sphere … etc. … so total star-to-star distance= 2 x 2.65 ~ 5.3 ly from the center of a given 2.65-ly sphere to the center of an immediately adjacent neighboring sphere) … which tallies nicely with the sun being about 4 ly from its nearest neighbors, the dual Alpha / Proxima Centauri system.  In other words, we live in a pretty average galactic neighborhood. But this is for all stars. I have read estimates of between 8 billion and 60 billion stars with planets capable of supporting any form of  life. I repeat: those estimates are for any form of life from bacteria to Beethoven, from viruses to Vivaldi, from mildew to Mozart.

So let’s pick a number in the middle of that range – say, 34 billion stars – and re-run those numbers. That yields a space of 230 cubic ly per star, so that the average separation of stars with planets capable of supporting any form of  life is 7.6 ly. As for intelligent life … given that we only have a “sample size” of 1 to work with, that’s anyone’s guess. Let’s suppose that, of those 34 billion stars capable of supporting any form of life, that 1/1000 of 1 percent, a proportion of .00001, are capable of eventually evolving an intelligent species. In that case, there would be only – “only” on the scale of the galaxy — 340,000 stars with planets capable of harboring intelligent life, each one occupying a space of 23 million cubic ly and an average separation of about 350 ly. But these are stars that have planets capable of supporting intelligent life, not that actually do support intelligent life.  Let’s take another wild guess and say that 1/10 of 1 percent of those 340,000 stars have planets that actually support intelligent life, i.e., 340 stars with planets having life of some level or other of intelligence.  That means each of those 340 stars occupies a volume of space comprising 23 billion cubic ly. This means that the average distance between worlds actually hosting intelligent life is 3,500 ly. This is still pretty close on a galactic scale:  on the basis of those (admittedly and shamelessly seat-of-the-pants) estimates, intelligent species would be separated by distances of only roughly 1/30 the diameter of the Galaxy. Even under fairly pessimistic assumptions about the abundance of stars capable of supporting intelligent life, the conclusion is that, in terms of sheer distance and using the Milky Way galaxy as our yardstick, such civilizations need not be terribly distant from each other, on average.

Consequently, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility that, at some point during the 4 billion years required to evolve intelligence on Earth, (at least) one of those 340 intelligent species would have either discovered a way to modify the local spacetime metric so as to travel faster than light in the non-local reference frame — think some form of Star Trek-ian “warp drive” here — or, failing that, would have built “generation ships” that would leave their home planet and that would be piloted and navigated by successive crews (supplemented, no doubt, by hyper-sophisticated AIs, like the “Ships of the Law” in Greg Bear’s The Forge of God and Anvil of Stars) comprising the original occupants’ remote descendants. All that pertains to physically visiting other stars and star systems.

But if we relax that requirement and content ourselves with communicating instead using coded plain-vanilla electromagnetic signals, then some form of travel, physical or “virtual”, begins to seem not only possible but inevitable, given the time-frames involved.  Human beings are capable of “virtual travel” now, and have been since about the middle of the last century. But I said earlier the statistical argument “cuts both ways”. That’s because Enrico Fermi’s disarmingly straightforward question intervenes. One more time … Where is everybody?Think of it this way: if alien civilizations are separated by only (again, “only” on the scale of the galaxy), say, a few thousand light-years, then within time scales imposed by the age of the galaxy (around 13 billion years) and the ages of stars therein and the time scales involved in the evolution of star systems and of life, it would be difficult to justify the conclusion that there has not been enough time for non-terrestrial life to evolve to the point of being able to communicate with, however accidentally — or perhaps even physically travel to — other intelligences … in other words, us. (You also have to remember that, in the above calculations, I am assuming that there are “only” 100 billion stars in our galaxy.  While this number is realistic, the literature suggests that 100 billion may well be low.  There may be 2 or 3 times that number of stars in our galaxy, and if so, the mean distance between stars, including stars that host intelligent life, would be significantly less. More stars in the same volume of space would mean that the Milky Way would be more “congested” than I assume.) Consider that in less than a hundred years, humans’ ability to transmit electromagnetic signals has evolved to the point that, to name just one example, the great radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, can send signals that could be detected by intelligences roughly on a par with us – and receive signals from others, even if those signals were sent hundreds of thousands of years ago and were not even aimed at us. (Receiving electromagnetic signals transmitted, say, 250,000 years ago  may seem fanciful. But we routinely receive such electromagnetic signals now, over distances orders of magnitude greater. These signals are usually referred to by the technical term … light.) Who knows? Maybe advanced civilizations are both stupendously rare and tend toward self-destruction after a time, i.e., “after a time” meaning “before the development of a technology permitting interplanetary / interstellar travel and colonization”. One of the coefficients of the classical Drake equation denotes how long a species survives before it self-destructs. (Nobody knows what the “shelf life” of an intelligent species is. Species homo sapiens sapiens has been around for, at most, 150,000 years – not counting earlier “models” that might arguably be termed “human”.  That 150,000 years is less than one-thousandth of one percent of the life of the Milky Way Galaxy:  150,000 / 13 billion = .0000115. We arrived fashionably late to the Party.) The point of all this is not – repeat: not – that there is categorically no other intelligent life in the galaxy, but that the matter is still completely unsettled. The existence of ETI is still very much an open question.

At least, it is an open question as far as the science of SETI is concerned. But belief in extra-terrestrial intelligence in the popular culture has long ago transitioned from SETI to just ETI: the belief that the search part — the “S” in SETI – is pretty much over because … well … of course the last three letters “ETI” exist, because there is extra-terrestrial intelligence “out there”. Doesn’t the above statistical argument prove it? Of course, it does no such thing. And actual scientists – Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Seth Shostak (senior astronomer at the SETI Institute), UCLA galactic astronomer Andrea Ghez, et al. – say as much. In fact, Sagan coined the concise maxim that guides scientific SETI: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. (Sagan made this remark originally in the context of religious SETI:  justifying his skepticism about alleged alien abductions by citing the lack of hard evidence.) Practitioners and devotees of the religion of SETI, as distinct from the science of SETI, would do well to have this maxim tattooed on the inner surface of their eyelids so they see it constantly. But how did SETI end up becoming a de facto incipient religion?

Seth Shostak
Andrea Ghez

The short answer is that there is a cottage industry, especially in the United States, that is determined to systematically misinterpret and misapprehend virtually all major developments in science. (Similar misinterpretations and misapprehensions continue to attend relativity and quantum theory. Ditto evolution. The misinterpretations attending SETI stem from a desire to believe; those attending evolution, from a desire to not believe.  But that is another rant for another time. Don’t get me started … ) SETI is just the latest such. We in the US are especially prone to this tendency because the United States is, by a country light-year, the most religious of any technologically advanced First World country. So the religious subculture of the US, at least certain segments thereof, is always looking for ways to bolster religious faith – some kind of religious faith, virtually any kind of religious faith – against what are often regarded as the insidious corruptions of secularity. (Never mind that, absent “the insidious corruptions of secularity” via the European Enlightenment, it probably would never occur to us to even ask about ETI, and we certainly would not have instruments capable of searching for it. But again, don’t get me started … ) So it is far from accidental that, if we step back and look at religious SETI from a distance, it begins to look suspiciously like conservative evangelical Christianity transposed into the key of Star Trek or Star Wars. To wit …

o The ETIs – “undocumented aliens” in the most radical sense – observe us from a distance … like the Christian God, indeed, any monotheistic god, and do so both with detachment and altruism, or at least with deistic neutrality

o The ETIs are powerful beyond all hope of merely human comprehension … rather like … well … again, just about any monotheistic deity – recalling Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that the technology of any sufficiently advanced civilization would be indistinguishable from magic

o “They” may already walk among us, yet unrecognized as who “They” really are … rather as Christians say Jesus Christ did for roughly 33 years … except to a chosen few … again, rather like Christ is alleged to have done … see virtually any old episode of The X-Files for corroboration. Though he did not claim to be God — quite the contrary — Muhammad (pbuh) allegedly walked among his fellow Arabs initially unrecognized as God’s Final Prophet.  Etc., etc., etc.

o “They” are periodically thought to abduct people in order to work “Their” inscrutable will upon them, and to return them to earth – usually, though not always – to bear testimony of “Their” existence to others not similarly privileged … rather like St. Paul on the Damascus Road or Betty and Barney Hill in upstate NH (who returned to an earthly life), and Elijah in the Hebrew Bible (who did not) – and by the way, let’s not forget the “Rapture”, shall we?

o One of the more unsettling purposes of “Their” experiments on human beings is alleged to be the inter-breeding of ETI-human hybrids … rather like Zeus’s rape of Danae, who gave birth to Perseus as a result, or the Christian equivalent of the Virgin Birth.

o At some unspecified time in the future, “They” will reveal themselves openly and publicly to humanity generally, privileged and unprivileged alike … rather like “the coming of the Son of Man,” which will be as “lightning [that] cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west” (Matthew 24:27, KJV) or the revelation of Shi’a Islam’s Twelfth Imam or the coming of the Person Jews would regard as the genuine Messiah.

o While “They” are generally benevolent, “They” are also capable of indiscriminate violence on an apocalyptic scale … so the movie Independence Day and the book of Revelation – to say nothing of much of the Christian Old Testament — unexpectedly sing from the same sheet of music here

o Some in religious SETI like Erich von Daniken believe that humans, not to put too fine a point on it, are just too dumb to design and build things like the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Great Zimbabwe, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, the Nazca lines, etc., without help from ETIs … they are the Augustinians of religious SETI … (If the ETIs want to claim credit for, say, Stonehenge, they are welcome to do so, as long as they get the blame for Trump Tower. In fact, when I think of Trump himself, I am tempted to reevaluate my skepticism  about the “they-already-walk-among-us” school of religious SETI.)

In the Pensees, Blaise Pascal wrote hauntingly in reference to the immensity of the cosmos: Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me”). He is not alone in that regard. There are many human beings, even among the superficially religious, who either no longer believe in any god, or in a god who is so remote as to be of no personal relevance. Indeed, where are the gods? Many fear that, as J. R. R. Tolkien’s King Theoden of Rohan says in The Two Towers:

They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.

Then there are cranky, cantankerous old  “contrarians” and avocational skeptics like me, who believe that contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, especially one far advanced beyond us, would be potentially catastrophic, if for no other reason than that it might give rise to fundamentalistic religious passion. Hey! What could possibly go wrong with that?

I close by again quoting Arthur C. Clarke Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying. The “little man” may be on the stairs.  Or in the stars.  Or neither.  His presence and his absence are alike equally haunting. But even if he doesn’t exist, we will probably have to invent him.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:
Enrico Fermi … Public domain
Radio telescopes … European Southern Observatory (ESO) …  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
Milky Way galaxy … Nick Risinger … Public domain
Seth Shostak … B. D. Engler …  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
Andrea Ghez … UCLA Newsroom … Public domain
Stonehenge … Diego Delso, delso.photo … License CC-BY-SA

 

A Life

dsc_0030

The weather has turned frigid; this follows last week’s record shattering warmth. It has been an up-and-down sort of winter, which is, increasingly and alarmingly, the norm.

I grew up in a farming community on the plains of the Midwest. We spent a lot of time outside, and learned early to keep an eye on the sky. After all, blizzards, ice storms, and tornadoes were the norm, and each was dangerous as well as exhilarating. By the time I  reached eighth grade I was a devout student of climate science and meteorology.

In spite of my love of science, during my undergraduate studies I was lured into becoming an art major. This was a surprising turn, as I had imagined myself studying ecology. Sadly, both the ecology program at the university was less than engaging. The art department was vibrant, as was the religion department, and I spent my undergraduate years firmly settled in those disciplines. I also took literature, writing, and theatre courses, much to the dismay of the art department faculty who firmly believed visual artists should draw rather than write.

My first turn in graduate school was in visual arts, although I spend a good deal of that year in the microbiology and electronic music labs. While the art faculty could not fathom what I was doing, they proved surprisingly supportive.

After a few years in the work world, I found myself studying cross-cultural approaches to counseling, and deeply engaged in learning from Indigenous teachers from many traditions. Following several years working as a clinician in both inpatient and outpatient settings, I returned to school to study environmental studies. Once again I found myself at the nexus of several disciples, including ecology, anthropology, and psychology. It was a heady and hearty time! I went on to teach art, ecology, anthropology, and psychology, often interwoven, at a small college for over thirty years.

Now we seem to have entered a time of gathering darkness, an era in which the arts, ecology, climate science, and cross-cultural studies are viewed with suspicion, and, too often, outright hostility. Perhaps most distressing is is the realization that Native values, culture, and lands are again under intense attack.  I guess we should hardly be surprised at the hostility shown these realms of knowledge and experience; after all, each is remarkably subversive to any agenda that would produce normative hierarchies and simplify the world, and that gives preference to ideas about cultural and racial superiority.

Lately, I find myself struggling to address the attacks on these systems of knowledge , and ways of living, I treasure. I  imagine things will only get worse before they get better, even as I hold out hope that they will indeed improve. For now, I do my best, although that is not enough to stop the darkness from growing. I try to keep in mind the words of a much beloved teacher, “The world is as it is, do only what you can.” Still, I would that I could do more.

Some Scientific Snippets

I’ve loved science as long as I can remember. When other little girls my age were collecting Barbie dolls, I was helping my brother find and label bugs for his bug collection. My first science fair project in 4th grade was a very simple Skinner Box maze that utilized my two pet mice, Ebony and Ivory. So when I saw that the theme for the BeZine this month was “Science in culture, politics and religion” I was overjoyed at the idea of being able to contribute something about one of my favorite subjects.

To be fair, the theme itself seemed a bit daunting. I mean, that’s a huge amount of stuff to choose from! I was overwhelmed. So, I decided that I would choose something that science has influenced in each of the three categories and share a video for each one.

Image borrowed from Reddit.com

Science plays an important role in most global cultures, but in some places it has proven to be exceptionally innovative. We tend to take scientific advances in the medical field for granted here in the western world, but there are still many places that lack basic medicines, and particularly lack any kind of specialty medicine field. In Brazil, for example, they don’t have a working skin bank and don’t have a lot of resources to treat burn victims. Because of an unmet need, doctors have looked to Science to provide a way to help, by using what they do have available:

Moving on to science in politics, I’m going to use our own culture here in the United States as a prime example. The current administration is full of ties to the fossil fuels industries, climate change deniers and anti-environmentalists. The politics dictate policy and that’s very bad news for Science. With cuts proposed to vital agencies like the E.P.A. and N.O.A.A., the removal of climate change information from the White House website, and the silencing of federal scientists with gag orders, is it any wonder that scientists both here and abroad see this as the opening salvos of a war on Science?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Luckily, as one of my favorite scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “That’s the good thing about science. It’s true, whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.” Now, that doesn’t necessarily translate to power in politics, but don’t despair, because there are still people out there who care enough about science to make sure it doesn’t disappear in a short-sighted, ignorant, political purge. Here are two of my favorite men discussing how it’s more important now than ever to enlighten those who don’t believe in science and what the changing planet is trying to tell us.

While we’re doing some heavy mental lifting, let’s examine science in relation to religion. So many people think that science and religion are polar opposites that have nothing in common. I’ve heard people say that they both rely upon faith, although one is faith in things seen and the other is faith in things unseen – factual, tangible evidence vs. circumstantial and communal/personal/anecdotal evidence. There are so many arguments for each side…that I would like to challenge you to stop. Just stop. Put aside what you know or think you know about science and religion, and for just a few minutes, consider a completely different viewpoint. What if…why not have BOTH? Wild, right? Crazy, I know.

I invite you to open your mind and watch the following TedX Talk. It’s only about 18 minutes long. That’s really not long in the big scheme of things. As for me, I believe it’s entirely possible to have both science and religion (although I personally regard it as more of a spirituality than ‘organized religion’). The point is that they don’t have to conflict, it doesn’t have to be an either/or stalemate. There is another way.

In closing, I’d just like to say thanks for reading and I hope that I’ve given you a few things to consider. 🙂 And last but not least,

Image from Tumblr- Inspire

 

That Was Then,This Is Now

When traveling in Italy, we took the kids to the Florence Museum of Science, now the Museo Galileo.  It housed a collection of early scientific instruments, old maps, and, of course, the history of Galileo Galilei.

Galileo was the genius who invented, among other things, the forerunner of the thermometer and an improved military compass.  He discovered The Galilean Moons of Jupiter.  His theory, known as The Galilean Invariance, provided a jumping off point for two other scientific geniuses, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, to form their revolutionary theories regarding motion and relativity.  Galileo is regarded as the father of observational astronomy, the father of modern physics, the father of the scientific method, and he even made it onto the list of the top ten people in history who changed the world.  But he’s probably best known for proving the Copernican theory of heliocentricity, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than the other way around.

And that was his inconvenient truth.

The highlight of the Museo Galileo–at least for our kids–was the mummified finger of Galileo, resting in a fancy glass jar like a holy relic.  I suppose it’s appropriate for the revered patron saint of science.  Galileo was a pious Catholic and a martyr.  Ironically, it was the Church that made a martyr of him for Science.

In 1633, Galileo was summoned to Rome and brought to trial by the Roman Inquisition on the charge of heresy.  His crime was contradicting the Bible, which states that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

When the Inquisition threatened to extract a confession through torture, Galileo recanted, was found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment.  His sentence was commuted, and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. He continued to write, although the Church slapped a gag order on him, banned his books and censored his writings for another 200 years, when even the Pope could no longer hold back the tide of scientific advancement.  When Galileo died in 1642, they weren’t even going to allow him a burial in consecrated ground.  It was thirty years before they inscribed his name on his burial place.  But in 1737, ninety-five years after his death, they brought his body out of the bad boy crypt and reburied him in a fancy marble tomb in St. Croce in Florence, across from Michelangelo’s tomb, because it was believed that Michelangelo’s spirit leapt into Galileo’s body between the former’s death and the latter’s birth.  Then, in 1992, Pope John Paul II did sort of apologize for wrongfully persecuting Galileo.

The wealthy have always had a place at the table, between religion and science, as patrons, enthusiasts, or opponents, but now Big Business sits at its head.  Big Business has bought and paid for a president that doesn’t believe in anything but the Almighty Dollar.  The Republicans sold their souls to secure their power, dropping any pretense of morality or family values, and they bought their majority by pandering to the far right, that thirty percent of America that interprets the bible as literally they might an instruction manual to the dashboard of a new car.  Science has suffered for it on both counts.

Texas is producing textbooks that not only disclaim evolution and pitch Creationism as its own brand of science, but it has cut out any reference to Climate Change.  Even the conservative Fordham Institute calls it a “politicized distortion of history.”  Texas is spoon-feeding its children claims that Moses was a Founding Father of America. There’s a lot of money to be made in the textbook business, and the privatization of schools, not to mention the prisons.  If politics and religion, power and money are twisted into a huge tangled knot, Big Business still knows which strings to pull to get what it wants.

Civil Rights, equality, justice, education, and immigration are hot topics, but Climate Change is the new subject of denial by the Powers That Be.  A few years ago I’d have said the advancement of earth science was moving at a glacial pace, but that’s not so apt an analogy any more, because glaciers are melting at an alarming rate.  98 percent of the global scientific community now recognize climate change as real and caused by human activity, but the Republican party is in complete denial.  They stick their fingers in their ears and sing loudly to avoid hearing what they know is true.  Again, it’s all about money.  Environmental protection means restrictions, restrictions mean less profit for Big Business, and Big Business gives politicians huge payoffs to deny Climate Change.  This has been an ongoing struggle for more than fifty years. The damage might already be irreversible.  A rapidly warming Arctic could loose a methane climate bomb resulting in widespread extinction in as little as nine years.

 You may be sure that history will judge them, just as it has judged the perpetrators of the Galileo affair.

But there is one huge difference in this particular power struggle.  It took 200 years for the popular tide to become too strong to resist, at which time the Church bowed to reality and accepted Galileo’s proof of a heliocentric Earth.  But in the case of Climate Change, we don’t have 200 years.  We don’t have ten years.  We can’t wait for the next Newton or Einstein to show up, and we don’t need them to.  Our climate scientists have already done the math, and it might already be too late.  But late is better than never.

And that is our inconvenient truth.

Copyright 2016 Naomi Baltuck. Photos of Galileo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Unreality

How far can poets go, then,
down into ‘icle physics?
To discover parts of subatomic mass,
so small it is beyond minute
and, in just a second, what happens is
really unbelievable, beyond imagination.
Protons collide with protons
and create a random mess
of particles, so mini and invisible,
that they cannot find them all!
There’s one they really had to find:
and in ten years, they found top quark.
So small he was that he could not be seen
or heard or measured, but they did…
They did, the clever buggers, they did!

I can see and hear and feel him
stirring in his grave; Albert is excited
at the very thought of contemplating
the distinct possibility that space-time,
(that is the space-time he invented)
could actually be outside the universe
or is that what he meant by relativity?
Is it perhaps, therefore inside itself?
Who will win the race to tell?
We know they’ll find a smaller particle
[they say they know of one already] that’s
smaller than top quark, so small it cannot be,
it couldn’t even exist, until another brain
turned it round and called it by
a human name; Higgs-Boson is…

Well, he is like a wanted criminal
only, so romantic, all the greatest
physicists and philosophers of the world
want a piece of him, or her.
They have a huge accelerator,
deep under mountains, under ground,
where no harm can come to us.
They justify the billions by saying
that the quest is so enjoyable;
so much a part of human instinct
to enquire about the boundaries,
[if they exist at all] of our perception..
..of reality, by physics and philosophy.
The journey’s worth the cost, they say,
but all the poets, they know so much more.
They know the nature of the universe
may be measured in very ‘icle parts,
so small, so infinitesimally small,
but we suspect they are beyond
description using epithets. Oh no,
they’re under the spell of mathematics!
No earthly words suffice, not there.
Even the ancient Greeks didn’t know this;
their Alpha has been squared, and will
Omega cubed and integration, calculus
return the answer they all crave?
Or will the search for ultimate smallness,
through fuzziness, get us to the end?
Is the start to finish of an expanding universe,
rather like a journey round the Circle line?

So we could arrive back at the point
where it all started; where we all began:
four dimensional Space-time Relativity.
The structure of the universe, a hologram?
Could we be a product of our imagination?
To recapitulate, then, we are in search
for something that is so damned small,
that we can’t see it, hear it, measure it
in any human way at all!
And yet, theoretical physicists say
that one day soon, they will exclaim
Eureka! We have found Higgs-Boson!
But if they can’t describe it mathematically,
the beginning and the ending of everything
is the poetical imagining of unreality.

© 2011 John Anstie

The Speed of Light

Faster than the speed of light


In which the poet imagines that time twists around after scientists appear to have accelerated a particle faster than light (but alas, it was a loose wire that resulted in inaccurate measurements, the particle did not exceed light speed.)


Geneva (Reuters) An international team of scientists said on Thursday they had recorded sub-atomic particles traveling faster than light—a finding that could overturn one of Einstein’s long-accepted fundamental laws of the universe. —“Particles found to break speed of light,” Robert Evans, 22 September 2011.

A particle apparently arrived slices
of a millisecond earlier than expected.
Faster than light, it knocked on the door
relatively early on a Saturday night.

The hosts had not readied the party
or sent the invitations yet, as time compressed
events into a singularity—understanding
slipped away and arrived before it left.

The single green parrot flew above the road,
its raucous call cheering the sight of the race
with time and space as a lone soldier stood guard
over the abandoned barracks of this particular dream.

A sub-atomic speeding ticket noted the date and time
of all events but perhaps its clock shifted with condensation,
a dewy drop of time dripping down the broken windshield
while the galactic waltz shifted on its axis at something

much less than the beating butterfly wing.
The whole of history would stop if we observed Shabbat
or made peace or sang a simple harmonic note,
a hidden breath of a name written by the smallest bit

of nothing as it raced to beat itself to the drummer’s distant
dance. It’s another observation point, this faster-than-light
speed, a stretching and tightening of time and space
that allows the smallest slice of a millisecond rest

before the melody continues.

—Michael Dickel

Falling-bike-WEB


Originally appeared in:
Diogen pro kultura magazin / pro culture magazine. Dec. 25, 2012. Online. And in my book Midwest / Mid-East (2012).

Also posted on Michael Dickel’s blog.