Columbus isn’t Manhattan, but if you keep your eyes and ears open, there are some amazing opportunities in the Capital City. On Saturday the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra performed a free outdoor concert on the grounds of the Franklin Park Conservatory. So, so beautiful.

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I’m still in the very early learning stages in my exploration of classical music, so I can’t speak much to what they performed or how well they did it. All I know is I thought it was lovely.

The concert was all Mozart. First a piece called a Divertimento which the conductor explained was designed to be heard in exactly such an outdoor, relaxed, beautiful environment. It was beautiful and set the mood for a wonderful evening.

Next were several selections from The Magic Flute. A baritone and a soprano took turns singing in German. I’m trying to like opera, I really am. Still a ways to go.

The last section of the concert required no effort to love. Mozart’s symphony number 41, called the Jupiter Symphony, sent me to another place. The music soared, danced, flitted about, and came crashing back down in a powerful fourth movement that left me breathless.

There’s so much more to learn, but already I’m recognizing the four-part structure of many symphonies as described by Robert Greenberg in his book How to Listen to Great Music. According to Greenberg, the first movement of a symphony is the most complex, both in structure and emotional expression. The Jupiter Symphony blasts off in an abrupt start, then crescendos and decresendos for over ten thrilling minutes.

The second movement, according to Greenberg, is a break from the rigor of the first; a kinder, gentler movement. In the Jupiter, the second movement starts with a delicate and beautiful violin (I think it’s violin) solo, then the other instruments join in with music that is understated and peaceful. It feels like we’ve arrived in a very different place and are treading about this new landscape with great care.

The third movement Greenberg calls a “stylized dance.” In the Jupiter Symphony, the second movement ends as quietly as it starts, in a lovely whisper, and then the third movement crescendos into what does feel very much like a dance – jaunty and rhythmic. It does wake you up again after the drowsy elegance of the second part.

And then comes the fourth movement, what Greenberg says is usually “fast and playful” leaving us “with a smile on our faces and a bounce in our steps.” Absolutely. Mozart takes us on a journey in the fourth movement, starting low and soft. Soon we are swept up, strings and winds pushing us higher and higher with runs of accelerating notes ranging here, there, everywhere, and then suddenly it all falls off to a handful of voices that hold the melody for just a moment until we’re back to extraordinary crescendos, higher, faster, more powerful, running us toward a final blast of multiple voices all coming together and ultimately resolving in three powerful ending notes that hang in the air for seconds. Finally, we all realize the magic of what we’ve just heard and erupt in cheers. Not a bad way to spend a summer evening.

That’s what it felt like to me, though as I’ve said I’ve so much yet to learn. So very exciting.

It was at the beginning of the first movement that I became aware of Jupiter itself, peeking out from behind some trees in the southern skies. The third-brightest object in the sky, after the Moon and Venus, it’s a little hard to miss. And there it was, checking out the concert right along with us. A bright and beautiful Jupiter overlooking the playing of the Jupiter symphony! My worlds collide.

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Jupiter is of course the largest planet in our Solar System, and it’s not even close. Jupiter, in fact, has two and a half times the mass of all the other planets combined. The Solar System is mostly the Sun, Jupiter, and then a bunch of little stuff.

We currently know of 79 moons in orbit around Jupiter (not counting its rocky ring), and the largest of those moons, known as Ganymede (Rosalind’s adopted name in As You Like It, there – three worlds!) is itself larger than Mercury (and of course far larger than the dwarf planet Pluto). Jupiter is a serious world!

If Jupiter had gathered about 75 times more mass than it did, the enormous gravitational pressures engendered would have initiated nuclear fusion in its core, and our Solar System would now have two stars. As it is, Jupiter still produces more heat than it receives from the Sun, and the enormous gravational tides Jupiter generates on its moons Io and Europa (and perhaps others) transfer enough energy to those worlds to cause exotic geology – sulfur volcanoes on Io and a liquid water ocean on Europa, buried under a shell of ice.

While the moons get plenty of attention these days, Jupiter remains the star (ok, not quite a star – see what I did there?) of the show. Lacking a solid surface (until you get very, very far into the planet, where an incredibly dense solid core may be lurking), the planet is gaseous for its outer 30 miles or so until pressures turn that gas into a thick gas-liquid slurry. The pressures become so enormous that the hydrogen turns metallic, each atom’s single electron flowing freely in a sea that makes the core electrically conductive. Temperatures grow higher and higher as you descend into the heart of the planet, topping off at perhaps 55 thousand degrees Fahrenheit.

In between the cloud tops and the blistering hot core, some crazy chemistry and physics create a special brand of rain, composed not of water droplets but of sky diamonds. It starts with methane, the simplest hydrocarbon in which a single carbon atom is surrounded by four hydrogens. Next, Jupiter’s real thunderbolts (not those of the god cast from high Olympus), generated by the evaporation and condensation of water, strip the carbon of its hydrogen and create clumps of carbon soot. The soot, now heavier than its surrounding atmosphere, begins to fall toward the core. Next, pressure takes over, squeezing the soot first into graphite and then into the most compact form of carbon, diamonds. Diamonds falling from the sky. All we need is Lucy and we’re set.

But wait, that’s music from a different era entirely. Roll over Beethoven – er, I mean, Mozart.

In case you’re thinking about a trip to Jupiter to scoop up some of this diamond rain, don’t bother. The diamonds don’t last long before they’re destroyed by the immense heat of the planet’s core. Oh, well, easy come. But if you do take the trip, be sure to bring along the Jupiter Symphony to keep you company. It’ll make the 12-year flight time go by a lot faster.

 

 

 

 

 

I love Manhattan Island. I’ve only been once, but from that all-too-brief first visit, I know that Manhattan and I share something special. First, you can get a hot dog on practically every corner. How can you not like that? The subway system is amazingly easy to use, even for a first-timer like me. Then there’s Central Park. The American Museum of Natural History and the Rose Center. The Met. The Statue of Liberty, best seen from the (absolutely free) Staten Island Ferry. Broadway. The Empire State Building. Washington Square. The iconic and graceful Brooklyn Bridge. Yankee Stadium, of course. The Library. Shakespeare in the Park. And on and on.

Were you to wash up on the shore of Manhattan, there would be no mistaking the presence of intelligent life. The signs are everywhere. The entire island, even the green spaces, clearly show the signs of a technological civilization.

Manahattan Island is a vision, I believe, of our potential future. I have no idea if there are other intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. I rather believe (and, if I’m honest, hope) there are none. It’s because I’m an optimist.

Huh? As David Deutsch points out in The Beginning of Infinity, there are exactly two types of transformations of matter: those prohibited by the laws of physics and those that are possible, given the right knowledge, resources, and energy. Once we humans reached the intellectual capability to realize this truth, the only thing stopping us from achieving the second type of transformation was a lack of knowing how. Someday, if a transformation is possible, we will know how.

We are still relative newcomers to the technology game. The galaxy is very old. If there are other technological civilizations here, they’d almost certainly be far ahead of us. Why? If they were a million years behind us, they wouldn’t have technology at all. If they were a million years (or even more) ahead, then surely their technology would be making transformation we can only dream of now (even though we know, by Deutsch’s criterion, they must be possible).

Transforming Manhattan Island took ten thousand years, give or take, from the time we first started building cities to today. What might we be able to do in a million, ten million, a hundred million years? My feeling is that we could transform the entire galaxy into a metaphorical version of Manhattan. We could so transform the galaxy, in fact, that like Manhattan the signs would be unmistakable.

That this transformation has not yet happened is a data point. Why has the galaxy not been so transformed? Either there’s no one out there, or for whatever reason the civilizations beyond the Earth have so far failed to make those transformations. Why? Maybe they just didn’t want to. But every one? Not one civilization wanted to leave its mark? That seems like special pleading. Maybe they went extinct, wiped out by an asteroid impact, environmental disaster, or war. Again, could such a fate befall every one of them?

I prefer to take the optimistic view. It seems to me more likely that the filter is much earlier – perhaps multicellular life is a one-time fluke, or perhaps intelligence almost never goes beyond Neanderthals (whose technology remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years).

If so, then our brand of expansive, ever-changing technology may be unique in the galaxy. Perhaps we’re the only species that has ever recognized this basic truth about transformations. If so, the galaxy could someday be ours. I sure hope there are hot dogs.

I just finished Henry IV, Part One. It is part of what is called the second Henriad, a series of four plays William Shakespeare wrote in the late 1500s, just after Romeo and Juliet and just before Hamlet. Henry IV, Part One begins the three plays that many call, “The Education of a King,” that king being Prince Hal, who would become Henry the Fifth in the final installment.

Of the four (and they all are great), Henry IV, Part One is, I think, the greatest, because it is the play most about this education. If it weren’t for the fact that Shakespeare wrote about five more plays that I think are even greater, I’d say this play is the greatest thing I’d ever read. Read them all, but if you read only one, make it this one.

The whole point of great literature is to get us to think about life, and as I read this time I thought about my own education. I’m no king, and certainly would never pretend or want to be one. I am a teacher, and Henry IV, Part One got me thinking about one of the greatest regrets of my life. I never thanked those teachers who helped me become so.

For many, it seems, I’m too late. I’ve tried to reach out, but so many of my former teachers have passed. Others I can’t find anywhere. So this post is part regret, part lamentation, and maybe a fleeting hope that I’ll reach someone for whom it will be meaningful. At any rate, maybe it will get you thinking about how you came to be, as well.

First, there’s Mr. Bossart. My English teacher for two years, he introduced me to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book that has become my touchstone. Mr. Bossart showed me that literature isn’t just something you do in school. It’s something that becomes a part of you, that changes you in a way that can be difficult to describe. Mr. Bossart taught me that if you can sum up what a book is about in just a few words, well, it’s not a very good book. Great literature, like great art and profound science, are bottomless. Like Juliet, their bounty is as boundless as the sea. Mr. Bossart taught me not just to read, but to read deeply, to let the literature get into my very bones and change me. I thank him.

Next is Mr. Snider. My math teacher for advanced math and calculus, Mr. Snider showed me that problems can be solved, not just to completion, but with elegance and grace. Math, I learned, is not so much a matter of knowing, but of trying. He showed me that the process of discovery is messy, but from that messiness can emerge profound truths, as beautiful as any painting or symphony. I thank him for helping me go beyond the right answer and into the heart of the mystery. Thank you, Mr. Snider.

Mrs. Morgan was my English teacher for three years. When I handed in a story with an incomplete sentence, she marked it. When I complained that the fragment was there for emphasis, she told me that when I became a published author, I could use as many fragments as I wanted, but until then I had to use proper English. Well, I’m a published author now. So there.

That sounds negative, but Mrs. Morgan was a wonderful English teacher. She introduced me to Shakespeare – though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Sometimes a teacher plants seeds that only grow much later. Mrs. Morgan stretched my horizons, she pushed me to be better, to think better, to do better. I never thanked her, so I’m thanking her now.

Mr. Rogers, what can I say about Mr. Rogers? He taught me more than just history. He taught me how to be a good person. A World War II veteran who despised war, a patriot who saw the mistakes our country had made, a brilliant scholar who practiced down-to-earth common sense and pragmatic idealism, Mr. Rogers was quite simply one of the greatest human beings, let alone one of the greatest teachers, I ever knew.  When I drifted into Libertarianism, Mr. Rogers let me explore until I ran into the heartlessness of it. When I went through a Marxist period, Mr. Rogers sent me to a free enterprise seminar, and when I railed against the speakers there, he asked me if I’d actually listened to them. Mr. Rogers showed me that every point has a counterpoint, and that the only way to understand a topic is to surround it. Like a Shakespeare play, history is a grand spectacle of so many different people, all of whom think they’re right. Mr. Rogers helped me to see that, and I’m thankful.

Mrs. Huston taught me algebra and geometry during my most difficult years. I was a smart aleck kid, always looking for holes in the math. Mrs. Huston was patient with me, letting me explore but always bringing me back in when I got too far off track. For the past three years, teaching algebra in high school, I have used examples and techniques I learned from Mrs. Huston almost daily. She started me on my journey, and I thank her.

Mr. Crumley was my band director. He didn’t just teach me about music. He taught me about leadership. He taught me about hard (hard!) work. He taught me that when you think you’ve got it, practice it one more time, and then one more time after that. And then again. He taught me that it’s not rain, it’s just Hilliard dew. He taught me that winning isn’t about trophies. Winning is about leaving absolutely everything you have, every ounce of effort, sweat, and love on that field. I thank him.

Mr. Koontz was my physics teacher. Of all the people on this list, he was the most responsible for me becoming a teacher – not just a classroom teacher, but a teacher, one who wants to understand, and who wants to help others understand, too. Mr. Koontz taught me that the best answer to almost every science question is, “it depends.” In his class I learned that a good physicist can simplify a problem to its barest necessities, but that a better physicist understands how those bare necessities might mislead you. He taught me to remember that what I’ve created is only a model, and every model has a breaking point. All answers in science are at least a little bit wrong. The trick, I learned from Mr. Koontz, is to understand just how wrong you are. From him I caught the physics bug, and I’ve never lost it. For that I thank him.

And then there is Mr. Johnson. My current events and government teacher, Mr. Johnson knew how to ask questions that got right to the heart of the matter – then, when you thought you had a grasp, he’d ask another question that would turn the situation around completely. I always thought I drove him crazy, because I was still trying to figure out just who I was. Then, on the night of high school graduation, Mr. Johnson took me aside and told me how much he respected me as a thinker and a person. I was so embarrassed I barely knew what to say. I probably mumbled out something utterly inadequate and hurried back in line. This is one of my greatest regrets. Why didn’t I tell him, in turn, how much he had meant to me? Why didn’t I explain how his classes had taught me to think, and that if I had shown any proficiency it was because he’d shown me the way? I’ll always be sorry that I didn’t do better, and I’ll always wish I could relive that night, if only to right that wrong. Mr. Johnson, I’ll do it now. Thank you for teaching me. I’ll take your words with me always.

There were others, of course, including wonderful professors at Ohio State and professional mentors at COSI, Roto, and at my new home, ACPA. But this entry is too long already, and for those folks, I hope I did a little better in expressing how much they helped me grow and learn. For all my teachers, from Kindergarten on, I humbly thank you, and I’m sorry I wasn’t more grateful at the time. I couldn’t pay you back, but I promise to pay it forward. What more could a teacher ask?

I’ve been wrong about Donald Trump before. 

When he was nominated as the Republican candidate for president, I thought he’d lose the general election. I thought the American people would see through this unprincipled snake oil salesman peddling division and fear.

When he was investigated for contacts with Russia, I thought he was just a dupe, a convenient bozo whom the Russians could use to forward their agenda of returning the international community to a pre-World War One mercantilism, where every country looked out for itself and where quaint ideas like human rights, international cooperation, and the worth of all individuals were safely stored in the dustbin of history.

When he displayed abject cruelty and shocking racism at the border, toward refugees, and in the aftermath of the Charlottesville murder, I thought he was just too dumb to understand how decent human beings would view his words and actions.

Now I see that I was wrong.

With his latest racist attacks on four American public servants, I understand that Donald Trump is actually a smart and successful, if deeply misguided and disgusting, propagandist.

Consider the Marlboro Man. For a very long time, everyone knew that cigarettes were killing people. The tobacco companies knew it, yet they were committed to selling their poisonous product. So what did they do? They created the Marlboro Man, a renegade living his own way on the outskirts of society. No one was going to tell the Marlboro Man what to do. If he wanted to smoke cigarettes, he’d smoke cigarettes, no matter what people said about their health effects. It was a brilliant, if deeply misguided and disgusting approach.

The result was millions of Americans who, in order to signal their rugged individualism, started smoking the same cigarettes as all the other rugged individualists. They were duped by the tobacco companies into handing over their money for poison. And many paid the ultimate price (including, famously, the Marlboro Man himself).

Donald Trump has completed a similar calculus. He didn’t attack four American public servants because he believes the hate-filled words he spewed. Rather, he attacked because he knew this attack wouldn’t cost him anything. On the contrary, it would serve to further distract his followers from the clear fact that Donald Trump has no ideas, no experience, no ability, and no business serving as president.

Now, why won’t the attack cost Donald Trump anything? That’s a deeper and more disturbing question, and I won’t be able to answer it here. This, perhaps, is a start. If you believe the rhetoric and divisiveness emanating from this president is the way leaders in our country should behave, then you’ve been duped just as surely as millions were duped by the Marlboro Man. You’ve been fooled into giving away your decency.

A buffoon might well make political blunders that cost him supporters and lead to his eventual defeat. Donald Trump, I see now, is no buffoon. He is a calculating, manipulative master of propaganda. And just as surely as the Marlboro Man, the divisive rhetoric Donald Trump is selling us is poison. How long before we see it?

Sometimes people wonder why I have such contempt for the current occupant of the White House. I’m accused of suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome, told that I’m just a sore loser, that I need to respect the office even if I don’t like the officeholder.

It has been said that if you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything. I stand for the values of the Enlightenment and the tradition it engendered, of Liberal Western Democracy. This includes free markets, personal liberty, equality before the law, multinational peace and cooperation, and the essential dignity and humanity of all people. We can quibble back and forth about universal health care, access to education, and a host of other issues, but as an American I expect that everyone across the political spectrum will hold as their core values these Enlightenment-based tenets of Liberal Western Democracy.

In a recent interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that western-style liberalism is obsolete. No surprise that a mob boss dictator who kills journalists, represses dissent, and ignores the rule of law would hold such an opinion. But our own president, when asked about Putin’s comments, didn’t even know what Putin was talking about.

President Trump answered by saying that Los Angeles and San Francisco are “sad to look at” because they’re “run by liberal people,” hopelessly confusing both the idea of “the West” (it doesn’t mean California) and “liberalism” (it doesn’t mean politicians on the left of the US political spectrum). OK, fine, we can have another good chuckle at his ignorance.

But this chortling utterly misses the point. The President’s ignorance is a problem, yes, but the underlying issue is that our President doesn’t care about his ignorance.

The United States emerged from World War Two as the leader of Western Liberal Democracy. By necessity (because the rest of the West was devastated by the war) we championed those values and helped the world see their worth. Ever since then, democracy has been spreading. We’ve stood strong against dehumanizing Totalitarian Communism. We’ve championed the rise of science and reason. We’ve helped the world lift itself out of abject poverty (In 1800, over 80% of the world lived in extreme poverty; today, with far more people in the world, only 10% do). We’ve led the world into a time of unprecedented peace (the rate of battle deaths worldwide since 1945 is in steep decline, and great powers no longer fight one another). And we’ve helped build an international community that respects the rule of law and the value of human life.

I want a president who not only knows these facts, but who champions them. I want a president who doesn’t tacitly agree with the claims of dictators, but who counters them with the rock-ribbed conviction, based on clear evidence, that our way of life is better than theirs, that (to quote Steven Pinker) “life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”

So when someone asks me “Why do you hate Trump so much, why don’t you just give him a chance?” I’ll remember this latest and ever-so-amusing gaffe as the symbol of a man who not only doesn’t know who we are, but more importantly doesn’t care to know. In a country of over 300 million people, we can do better.

Yesterday (July 4) was Aphelion Day, the day when the Earth is farthest from the Sun. That means for the next six months or so, we’ll be falling toward the nearest star.

Oh. Well. Hmmm . . . wait, if we’re so far from the Sun, you ask, why is it so derned hot?

Ah, my boreal-centric friends, it is only summer in the northern hemisphere. My Australian friends (ok, friend) know that the southern half of the globe is plunged into deepest winter. Heck, it’s 55 degrees in Sydney today. They might need a sweater.

More to the point, seasons are caused not by Earth’s distance from the Sun, but by the tilt of the axis. Think of a toy top. When not spinning, the top, well, topples over. But give it a spin, and it stably points (for a short while) in one direction. The Earth is similar (though a lot more stable). Currently our axis points very near a star called Polaris in the north and at, well, nothing in particular in the south. As we career around the Sun, that axis tilt is essentially steady, so that in the northern summer we get more direct sunlight – meaning that even as we are at our greatest distance from the Sun, we get its most direct rays.

The great news, though, is that our distance is directly related to our speed. Right now, when we’re nearly as far away from the Sun as we ever get, our planet is moving at its slowest, like a thrown ball at the top of its arc. The result is that in the north we get a few extra summer days. In fact, the northern summer is about 94 days long, while our winter, when the planet is whipping by in its closest solar approach, lasts only about 89 days.

One last thing: diagrams you might see of this whole story are quite misleading. While the overall difference in distance might seem large, around 4 million miles, in fact it’s only a few percent of our overall average distance of 93 million miles. So any diagram of our planet’s orbit that shows it as an egg is greatly overstating the case.In fact, the shape of our planet’s orbit is almost indistinguishable from a circle.

Happy falling toward the Sun day, everyone!

I just got back from a bike ride. I could have died.

The bike ride was beautiful, a sunny day in late June, very possibly the best time of the year. It was early, so only morning people were out. They were friendly, waving to me as I waved back. At the end of the ride, I parked near Clover pond and watched fish and birds and muskrats go about their business. It was one of my very best days.

As I rode, I listened to a new set of lectures on Shakespeare. This one, in particular, was on Shakespeare’s second-best play, The Tragedy of Hamlet.

As it often does, Hamlet got me thinking about atheism and optimism, and reflecting on my own view of the world. Many people, I have observed, avoid atheism because they find it pessimistic and depressing. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Let’s start with the bike ride. I could’ve died. I could have been hit by a car, or slipped off the path into a pond and drowned. I could have been struck with a sudden heart attack or stroke. I could have been hit by a meteorite (from which, alas, my second-hand helmet would offer little protection). As an atheist, I see all these as unlikely but non-zero possibilities. None of these deaths would have cosmic significance and, beyond the sadness of my family and friends, would have little lasting impact. I don’t think I’m under some divine protection. So far, I’ve just been lucky. And if I died, I’d be dead and that’s it.

Pretty depressing, right?

It might be, if you take as your starting point a cosmic purpose with an unlimited afterlife. If you believe that all your dead loves and relatives will be waiting for you on the other side, mine might seem a bleak view. But I never saw it that way.

Long life has its attractions, but not in the way religion has described it. What was there to do in such a life? What was there to discover, when the universe was just a set-up, a morality maze to see if you could get the big reward and avoid the big punishment? And then there’s the afterlife itself, just strumming your harp every day, waiting for more people to die – no passions, no striving, no change? I wanted to live, to be, to do, to learn!

I remember my Sunday School teacher telling us she’d see us next time – unless Jesus came back. For her, that was a promise of something better; to me, it was a threat. If Jesus came back, everything would end. It would be like dying, with all the saved going straight to heaven and everyone else, well, don’t ask. How was that different from just killing everyone? I wanted to see things – I knew, for instance, that in 1979 the Voyager spacecraft would reach Jupiter. I wanted to see what they found there. If the world ended before that, I’d be cheated of the chance.

There was a picture behind the pulpit in that church – a picture of the rapture. It showed driverless cars crashing into trees and ponds, airplanes falling from the sky, and general mayhem on the ground. Overhead, Jesus gathered all the souls, people dressed in white, rising up to meet him from their suddenly-abandoned Earthly lives. It was terrifying to me, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

I have no idea if God exists or not – I rather suspect there is no such being, but the utter lack of evidence is consistent with either interpretation: a God who wants us to fall for the trap of atheism; or a universe in which God is absent. If the former, is that a being worthy of worship?

I take a different view. Even if God did exist, I would oppose that being’s wishes. Why? Because my life is my own. If I’m wrong, if God really is watching, and this really is a morality maze, well, my life is still my own. If I’m right, then I am an optimist. I find the good in the world –  good that wasn’t there until I found it, in many cases until I and other humans made it.

Here’s what I mean. If you start from the standpoint that there is no meaning, that our lives are an accident of physics and the inexorable pull of natural selection, then we create our own meaning, our own significance. We are the creators. As my hero Carl Sagan said, “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.”

I find the world fascinating, beautiful, intricate, and precious. But if the world ever falls short of my expectations, whenever it is stupid, or ugly, or just dull, I’m not disappointed. It’s the default. It’s the void. It’s the darkness that of course exists before the light. In the beginning, we divided the light from the darkness. And that’s our job every day.

Which brings us back to Hamlet, Shakespeare’s second-best play. Hamlet the play is so wonderful because of Hamlet the character. He asks the big questions. He’s terrified by them, and by the answers he might find, but he asks them anyway. What is death? Why should I live? Who am I, and while I’m at it who are you? Hamlet, as I and many others have said before me, is like a real person dropped into a silly revenge tragedy, and the whole play is us seeing Hamlet the person come to grips with his role in Hamlet the play.

And then, he fails. He falls short. He stops asking questions. Instead of raging against the dying of the light, Hamlet tells Horatio,

“We defy augury. There’s special providence in the fall of a sparrow . . . The readiness is all . . . Let be.”

NO! Nonononononono! I want to reach into the pages, grab Hamlet by the doublet, and shake his whiny little head. You don’t give up. You never give up. You never “let be.”

Which takes us directly to one of my favorite scenes in Shakespeare’s best play, King Lear. Gloucester has been blinded by the horrible Cornwall. He has given himself over to fate, much as Hamlet did at the end of his play. Gloucester’s son Edgar, disguised as a mad beggar, leads Gloucester to Dover, where Cordelia’s army is trying to save her father Lear from her awful sisters Goneril and Regan.

During the battle, Edgar leaves Gloucester in a place of safety, then returns for him when all is lost, when Lear and Cordelia are captured, when it seems there is nothing left to fight for.

Gloucester: No further, sir; a man may rot even here.

Edgar: What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all. Come on.

“Ripeness is all”. Not much different from Hamlet’s “readiness is all.” And yet, andyetandyetandyet all the difference in the world. We don’t surrender. We don’t rot. We keep fighting. We endure. Yes, the world may be cruel and stupid and ugly, but we don’t ever, ever, ever give up. Because the only chance this old world has at beauty, at forgiveness, at transcendence is us. We are our only hope for a hero.

In my favorite scene in King Lear, Cordelia and Lear are reunited on the battlefield, just before both are captured and meet their end. It is the most beautiful scene I’ve ever read, and it brings tears to my eyes each time I reach it. This is what we can create. This is what humans are capable of. This is beauty, and it makes all the ugliness worth it. Cordelia is a hero, and death can’t take that away from her.

From now on, if anyone asks me how I can stand to be an atheist, what is there worth getting up for, why is life worth living, I will say to them, “because Cordelia forgave her father.”

And because I get to take another bike ride in a few days.

 

 

I am a child of Apollo. I was born in early 1968, and was a year and a half old when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon. I don’t remember that mission, of course, but I do remember watching later ones – launch, landing, and recovery back on Earth. I remember Alan Shepard’s golf shot in 1971, and I remember the launch of the final Apollo Moon mission in 1972.

The Moon landings took up a good deal of my imagination. An old desk in our basement became my space capsule as I practiced liftoff with that great new tool, counting backwards from 10. For some reason I decided my winter coat, complete with fur-lined hood, looked something like a spacesuit, so I wore it outdoors in the heat of summer, much to the amusement of the neighbors. I practiced my Moon walk, long before Michael Jackson, making what to me were giant leaps in the imagined low gravity of the Moon. And I built spacecraft – out of legos, Lincoln logs, even the paper tube and plastic piston of orange push-ups, my favorite ice cream.

I remember when Al Worden, the Command Module pilot for Apollo 15, visited Mr. Rogers on his television program. I thought, how sad that he went all the way to the Moon and didn’t get to land there, instead staying in orbit so his two fellow astronauts could explore the Moon and return safely home. I was impressed that someone could do that for his friends.

In the fall of 1973 I started Kindergarten. I don’t remember a lot – other than being entirely in love with my teacher, Miss Candy Peek. Sadly, she left in the second half of the year to get married (even more sadly, not to me!)

But one thing I do remember is a book – an amazing book that told the story of the Moon landing in beautiful pictures. I remember looking through this book again and again, mesmerized by the story the artwork told. A launch aboard an enormous rocket as onlookers cheered. A complex maneuver in the depths of space, with the Earth and Moon two round balls against the star-spangled blackness. The Moon getting larger and larger, and then two tiny astronauts exploring this alien terrain in their spacesuits, seeming so small, so brave, while their companion circled overhead, waiting for their return. Finally a liftoff, a reuniting, parachutes, and a splashdown back on Earth. I savored each page, my imagination running wild. What a world I’d been born into. Anything seemed possible. Science, I knew, would be my passion.

I haven’t seen that book since, though I’ve searched for it many a many a time. Being only 5, I had foolishly forgotten to record the title, author, or ISBN number (did they have ISBN numbers back then?) Since then, every time I’d visited the children’s section of a bookstore or a library, I’d “casually” searched for the book. No dice. Probably lost to the vagaries of history.

Then, just yesterday, someone posted on Twitter images of a book published in 1969. The book was Journey to the Moon (originally Hier Apollo) and the author was German artist Erich Fuchs. Suddenly, memories of 1973 came rushing back to me, my 5-year-old self sitting on the floor at Kindergarten, sunshine streaming through the windows at my back, the precious book in my lap. The pages rustled as I flipped them through, one by one, savoring the story the pictures told, my tiny fingers touching each illustration, my imagination on fire. This is the book! At last!

journey to the moon

one of the amazing images from Journey to the Moon

I quickly found a version on Amazon (used, for about 10 bucks!) and placed my order. The book should arrive next week and I’ll be five years old again, dreaming of a journey into the sky. Maybe I’ll even break out my winter coat and take a Moon walk in the back yard. This time, I’m sure, the neighbors won’t think anything of it.

Life is pretty grand . . .

I’m watching “Light Falls” on PBS, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 1919 successful test of General Relativity. Physicist Brian Greene just gave me a beautiful insight, one I’d never heard or considered before.
 
Greene says, “Objects fall because they do not want to age.”
 
OK, a bit of background. Einstein’s equations revealed a shocking idea. First, space and time are curved by mass. Near massive objects, time slows down. Second, what we think of as the “force” of gravity is really this curvature. Objects falling toward massive objects are in fact following this curvature. But why? Greene’s insight gives directionality to the curve.
 
In the same way that a light beam passing through a prism will bend to minimize the time elapsed on its path (known as Fermat’s Principle), an object in curved spacetime will move to the place where time passes most slowly.
 
Greene has long been among my favorite of science popularizers. He uses his writing (or, in this case, his video) not just to tell a story, or give a history, or report on a finding, but to teach. More than once, his insights have helped me see the deepest mysteries of physics in new and revealing ways.
 
The next time you drop a cup, or watch a space capsule return to Earth, or see water swirling gracefully down the drain, think about this insight. Objects fall because they do not want to age. Brilliant!

Well, I did it again. I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the, I have no idea, maybe 11th time. This journey down the Mississippi was spurred on by a book I picked up at the library on a recent Saturday, Huck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy.

Levy’s thesis is that Twain’s book is not mainly about race, but rather about childhood and our view of it. I agree with that, and always have, so no controversy there. Race is a prop in Huck Finn, a prop that is there mostly, I think, to reveal Huck’s character.

By far my biggest disagreement with Levy’s book is this sentence, from pages 183-184.

The consensus of the twentieth century made one simple mistake about Huck Finn, but it echoed: they believed that it made a difference when Huck said he’d go to hell to free Jim.

Levy is as wrong as it is possible to be here.

We live in a racist society. African Americans are still discriminated against in myriad ways. Public schools are still largely segregated – if not by law, then by geography and “white flight”. Our political system over-values rural voters and undervalues urban votes. Incarceration rates and punitive laws are still heavily tilted against blacks, and our legal system rewards those who can afford to pay for the best lawyers.

To conclude, though, that no progress has been made is to conflate feet with miles. Once upon a time, lynchings were commonplace, and advertised (often gleefully) in newspapers even before the event occurred. Redlining, the practice of excluding black buyers from purchasing homes in particular neighborhoods, was not only rampant, but part of established law. And of course Jim Crow laws made the separation of the races, in everything from marriage to voting rights to public drinking fountains, the law of the land in many parts of the country.

Progress is slow. It’s hard. It’s won one mind at a time. And it is devilishly difficult to see up close.

Huck Finn doesn’t stop being a racist because he loves Jim. But he does recognize that Jim is a man. More than that, Huck recognizes that it is possible to make a choice, a moral, correct, and life-changing choice to reject the conventional wisdom of society.

The fact that Huck’s choice speaks to racism is incidental. Huck Finn is not a book about race. It is a book about choices. When you’re right, and everybody disagrees with you, you’re still right. It’s this personal victory against tyranny that makes Huck Finn still matter today. It does make a difference. It might be the only thing that ever does.

 

 

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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