You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2014.
Jacob Bronowski died when I was just six years old, soon after completing his 13-part series The Ascent of Man. I remember as a child seeing this series as VHS tapes on the library shelves. As this was in the days before VCRs became commonplace, I never took these tapes off the shelf. I didn’t know what I was missing.
Bronowski was an extraordinary human being. A mathematician, a poet, a biologist, a chess champion, and most of all an artist in words. I just finished his very short book, Science and Human Values.
Bronowski begins in Nagasaki, shortly after the destruction of that city by the plutonium bomb that finally convinced Japan to surrender and so end World War II. Bronowski asks if science has become a monster poised to break all our necks. He then proceeds to show how science, like art, reflects the fundamental problem of being human; that is, the struggle between individual and society, and the search for balance, a place where society functions as a collection of individuals.
The most moving parts for me reflect on my experiences as a teacher and a learner. Bronowski describes the act of creation, so similar in both science and art, where the artist and the scientist each discover a connection never before seen.
“The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations – more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness.” – Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values
This explosion doesn’t end with the creator, however. The true beauty of art and of science is that the discovery is experienced again and again, as each individual encounters it. When I look at Michelangelo’s David, when I read of Einstein’s General Relativity, when I watch a performance of Macbeth, I experience the explosive joy of discovery first felt by the artist, the scientist, the writer. And when I, as a teacher, gently guide a learner toward these things, I experience again some of the joy of my own re-discovery. We each of us construct these things for ourselves, created anew within each individual – and, if we’re faithful to the true value of teaching, maybe even improved upon.
And this is the value that Bronowski so elegantly expresses in his book. We humans, individual beings forever separated from our fellows, are able to connect with one another through the common act, the human joy, of discovery, of creation, of progress.
There are only a few people I wish I could have known in my life. Jacob Bronowski is one of them.
Though he is gone, we can know him, at least a little. The Ascent of Man, that series I never watched as a child, is now readily available without even getting out of your chair. Here’s one excerpt about art and science. Enjoy.
I wrote a while ago about Darmok, one of my favorite Star Trek episodes (second only, I think, to the finale, “All Good Things”, though “The Inner Light” and “I, Borg” are awfully close). I’m writing about Darmok again for two reasons. One, in this week’s Cosmos Neil de Grasse Tyson told the story of Gilgamesh. That made me want to watch Darmok again. And two, there’s something I almost wrote last time, but didn’t quite make it there.
I know many people hate this episode. I know they say the premise is ridiculous. But here is where I think the critics are missing something crucial.
We are the Children of Tama. We understand the world through metaphor. This is precisely what Piaget says about how we learn. We build on our prior knowledge and experience to come up with new understanding.
When a child learns the concept of “dog”, a new structure is built in her brain. When, next, the child sees a cat, she may say “dog”, trying to make a connection to what she already knows. A cat is a dog. Metaphor! Later, the child expands her understanding to see that cat is a new category, something like dog, but different, as well. Metaphors are beautiful because of course they are only almost true.
This will sound crazy, but what if the aliens depicted in this episode actually don’t communicate through metaphor? What if it’s us? What if our brains are so different from theirs that the universal translator simply gives us everything in a form it thinks we might understand? Everything for us is so tied to metaphor – “The Tamarians are aliens, the metal contraption they ride in is a spaceship, the person in charge is their captain.” All of these are models we build in our minds to help us understand a never-before-experienced situation. Also, all are metaphors.
I mentioned the last time I wrote about Darmok my favorite scene, in which the Tamarian captain Dathon pidgins his own language to help Picard understand, and to communicate back to him. Now I have a close second. Near the end, as the new Tamarian captain receives Dathon’s log from Picard, he says “Picard and Dathon at El-Adril”.
He’s just created a new metaphor! We’ve just witnessed the language grow. Note that this metaphor does not have the same meaning as “Darmok and Jilad at Tenagra.” Dathon died. This story has a new meaning – sacrifice for a noble cause.
So that blows my theory about we being the Children of Tama, right? No. Who is watching the show? Not the Tamarians. We are. Why? For the same reason we watch any program, or read any book, or listen to any song. Stories change us. We grow by adding metaphors. Over the course of this extraordinary episode, Dathon and Picard have taught us something: about life; about communication; about understanding, about sacrifice. Picard and Dathon at El-Adril. And we will never be the same.
This year my family and I are visiting Sanibel Island on the Gulf Coast of Florida. As usual on these ocean pilgrimages, I plan on taking my daily early-morning walk on the beach to see what I will see.
Our trip is still a few weeks away, and will fall in the heart of sea turtle nesting season. Already, there are thousands of baby turtles safe and snug in the sands of Sanibel. Will this be another near-record year for loggerheads in Florida? Check out this website to watch the daily egg count tick ever upward.
In other ocean news, I’ve joined an online reading of Moby Dick.
I’m looking forward to perhaps gaining some insight into why this book is still haunting me nearly two years after I read it the first time.
After reading the foretold finale of Moby-Dick, I was a bit sour on my favorite Shakespeare play. It seemed that the failure of Ahab made me re-examine Macbeth and find him wanting, too. Considering that by the end of the play Macbeth is a homicidal maniac, that takes some doing.
Here’s the thing: when I first read and saw MacBeth, I thought I saw a glimmer of hope in the ending, when Macbeth says, “I will not yield . . .” To me it was Macbeth declaring his “I”ness, his individuality in the face of the betrayal by the witches.
Similar to Ahab, no? When Ahab defies the fire god and declares his own independence, I felt a similar thrill. Then Ahab fails miserably in his newfound “I”ness, following Macbeth’s path of misreading all the prophesies and finally throwing himself at Moby Dick, knowing the outcome is fated. It made me see Macbeth’s final act in a similar, fatalistic way. And suddenly I didn’t like Macbeth nearly as much.
Then came Sir Patrick, Captain Jean-Luc Picard to you and me. He, of course, never wanted to be defined as captain of the Enterprise. On the contrary, I believe it was he who defined the role, who took the program from “wagon train in space” and into a world of philosophy, ethics, and deep, deep humanity.
Well, recently Sir Patrick played the Scottish king.
I watched him on the PBS online channel. The performance was brilliant, exciting, deeply human. I watched for the ending, for the “I will not yield” line to see if Sir Patrick could rescue it from the despair of Moby-Dick.
Did he ever. Just watch.
Did you catch it? Did you see what he did? Yes, there was the misunderstood prophesy. Yes, there was the “I will not yield” line. But it was secondary. Instead, the crucial line was “enough.”
Stewart’s Macbeth did what I imagined Macbeth to have done when I first read the play. But this time he really did it. Probably not what Shakespeare intended. Probably completely against the canon. But brilliant.
This Macbeth triumphs. Not by winning. Not even by trying to the last. That’s Ahab’s style, blindly following fate where it inevitably leads. No. This Macbeth takes control of his own destiny. He is about to kill Macduff, to continue the madness. Then he sees the witches. All is clear. This is all a game they want him to play, for their amusement, for their body count, whatever. But Macbeth ends it. He says “enough.”
This is the ending Ahab wanted. This is the ending Huck Finn wanted. Both missed it. Sir Patrick found it. We are the masters of our own destiny. We decide. We choose.
Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in Saratoga, NY with his wife and two children, wakes up one morning in 1841 to find himself in chains, locked in a dank cellar. A man beats him bloody until Solomon renounces his freedom. For the next 134 tense minutes, we follow Solomon’s journey through the cotton and sugarcane plantations of Louisiana, witnessing the horrors that arise when human beings are property.
I found myself at the edge of my seat, unable to even look away from the screen. Rarely has a movie affected me so deeply. I was reminded forcefully of a television adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank I saw as a young boy. In both cases I was struck at the injustice of having your life ripped away, of having no recourse, no chance of escape.
One of the striking features of the movie was the beauty of the landscape. Bucolic fields, warm, sunny days, lovely mornings, grand mansions, hoop skirts and horses. But just under the surface of all that beauty were the whip, the noose, the rapist, the torturer, the injustice, the illogic, the unfathomable despair. This is a movie that grabs you and will not let go.
Afterwards I read reviews and comments. At first I felt anger, incredulity, and deep sadness at the defensiveness and knee-jerk claims of reverse racism. I’m over it now. The whole point of a free society, after all, is that everyone has a voice. People are different, and those differences will naturally be reflected in our reactions to art. If we really believe in freedom, we have to believe that all reactions to such things must be legitimate. Even the really dumb ones.
OK, I’m a middle aged white guy, not Jewish, not black, not any minority class to speak of unless you count atheist. And I don’t. Could I understand this movie? Of course I could. That’s the point of art. It changes you. We all build understanding in our own way; we follow our own path. Some paths lead nowhere – that’s the danger and the joy of freedom. Other paths lead to a deeper, better (but still imperfect) place. You can’t know until you take the journey – for the journey itself is how you know.
When my family and I went to Chicago a couple of months ago, I was struck by a sculpture at the Chicago Art Institute. I took a picture, then forgot about it until just now, as I was thinking about 12 Years a Slave. Here’s the sculpture.
It’s called The Freedman by John Quincy Adams Ward. What you have to understand about The Freedman is that you are first drawn to the face, the strong arms and shoulders, the chest. This is a person, beautiful and strong, an actor in the universe. He could be Achilles, or David, or Galileo. Then, and only then, your eye is drawn down to the left wrist to reveal the chain.
The thought that anyone ever had the right to own this person as property is immediately absurd. The evils of slavery emanate from this absurdity. The sculptor communicated this to me in a way I could understand, intensely and viscerally, like a wave washing over my entire being. Just as the makers of 12 Years a Slave communicated with me. These works of art moved me, shook me, helped me (no, forced me) to build new paths. What more could you want?
I recently finished a book called Melville’s Quarrel with God. The author, Lawrance Thompson, makes the argument that Melville was even more anti-religious than I’d intimated in my own review of Moby-Dick, that Melville’s whole point in writing his “wicked book” was to explore a world with a malevolent, bullying god in charge.
Thompson makes a strong argument, but I think it falls down when we see how Melville’s hero Ahab ultimately fails as a person once he rejects God. I agree with Thompson when he says Melville quarreled with God throughout the book. What Thompson doesn’t quite touch, where both he and Melville swing at nothing but air, is this: once God is rejected, then what?
I also recently finished, once again, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, just because I wanted to. And I found myself forced to consider this same question with Mark Twain’s (and my own) hero Huck. Huck rejects God just as surely as Ahab does, when he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” And now I see that Huck fails, too, just as surely as Ahab fails.
Huck’s failure comes from his primary character trait: he will not rise above. As a result, Huck goes along with all of Tom Sawyer’s ridiculous and dangerous plans. This makes me reconsider the Boggs-Sherburn incident earlier in the book, where Sherburn expresses his belief that people are cowards. Is Huck, despite his resolution on the raft, also a coward? Is that what Twain was getting at with his “Tom Sawyer” chapters?
When I wrote about the book a while ago, I was undecided on whether or not those final chapters, the ones taking place on the Phelps’ farm, were just Mark Twain giving in to the temptation to be funny, or were instead something deeper. Now that I see these chapters as an intentional failure, much like Ahab’s intentional failure, I think I like them even less. Are these failures necessary? Is it necessary for every hero to fail, just as Hamlet, Macbeth, Achilles, and all the rest fail? In this case Twain inserts a pat ending on Huck’s failure, showing that it was all OK in the end, a deus ex machina provided by Sawyer himself. I think here Twain is expressing his ultimate pessimism about humanity. While rejecting God, I think Twain is rejecting man, too. After all, as Twain knew all too well (though Melville either would not or could not face this ultimate horror), man created God in his own image. If God is a bully, it is only because man needed one.
That’s too depressing for me. Next I’ll write about a much more positive book, The Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark. Tegmark has some wild ideas, but also much in common with David Deutsch. Now I’m beginning a new book, Infinitesimal by Amir Alexander. Too early to tell, but it seems to be about a time when man refused to fail. I’ll let you know.
A pendulum swings back and forth.
Gravity keeps the wire taut. An electromagnet near the pivot at the ceiling gives just the right push, just the right pull, to keep the pendulum swinging. Below the pendulum, the Earth turns.
But wait. Isn’t the pendulum attached to the Earth? Surely the ceiling, connected to the walls, connected to the floor, connected to the ground, all turn with the Earth. You and I turn with the Earth. What makes the pendulum so special?
Let’s try an experiment. A ball is connected to a string. You are the Earth, and the ball and string are your pendulum. Swing the pendulum gently back and forth. Now turn in a circle. You’ll see the pendulum staying in the same plane, swinging back and forth, back and forth despite your rotation.
So it is on the rotating Earth. The pendulum holds its plane as the Earth turns below.
This would be true if we lived on either of our planet’s poles. But the weather is not so good.
Now hold the pendulum horizontally, as if your belt were our planet’s Equator. This time as you turn, you see the pendulum turning with you. Of course, you can’t swing the pendulum this way, but you can see in your minds eye that were it to swing above the equator, it would turn with the Earth.
At my latitude of 40 degrees North, the pendulum acts like two pendulums, each independent of the other. One portion acts as if it is on the North pole, ignoring the Earth’s rotation. The other part behaves as if it is at the equator, tugged along by the Earth’s daily spin.
All this is well-understood, and mathematical models make these descriptions rigorous and exact. We can predict within fractions of seconds just how long a pendulum at any latitude will swing before seeming to return to its starting point on the constantly-spinning Earth.
But the deeper question remains. Why? Why should the pendulum preserve its original plane? The question actually has a more general form: Why should constant-speed straight-line motion be no different than standing still, but motion in any kind of curve, arc, or acceleration be detectable by things like pendulum precession?
The answer is deep and surprising. The universe has a memory. It remembers the path of everything, not through three-dimensional space, but through four-dimensional space-time. The pendulum at the north pole continues to keep its plane because it remembers its former self. Even in a universe in which nothing existed except the pendulum and the gravitational field which keeps it taut, the pendulum would hold the plane established by its own past. Three-dimensional motion through space is relative. Four-dimensional motion through space-time is absolute. What a strange world we find ourselves in.
I’m reading a book called Melville’s Quarrel with God. The author talks about how the Old Testament Book of Job influenced Melville as he wrote Moby-Dick. I realized I’ve never read the Book of Job, so I corrected that.
Wow, what a messed up story. In case you never read it, here’s the synopsis.
God is chatting one day with Satan (really, I’m not making this up!), and says, How about that Job? He’s so great, my most faithful servant.
Satan says, well, yeah, you made him rich, why shouldn’t he be faithful? I bet if you took away all his stuff, he’d sing a different tune.
God thinks about it and says, OK, Satan, go do your thing. But, um, you can’t actually hurt Job, OK?
Sure thing, God, Satan says. You can almost see him rubbing his hooves together, thinking, this is gonna be fun!
So Satan doesn’t just take Job’s stuff. He also kills all Job’s servants (quite a lesson Job will learn from that, huh?) and his 10 children, too. Over and over a messenger comes up to Job with a story of woe, saying, “I alone survived.”
So what does Job do with all this news? He becomes even more faithful.
Satan, his ego bruised, says, it wasn’t a fair test, because I wasn’t allowed to actually hurt him.
God thinks some more and says, OK, Satan, go ahead and hurt Job. Just don’t kill him, K?
(If you think I’m making this up, go read it yourself. It’s all there).
So now Satan covers Job in boils, makes him feel generally awful, and finally Job just wants to die.
Job’s friends come around and say, wow, Job, you must’ve really screwed up to get God this mad at you.
Job says, no, I didn’t do a thing. I don’t understand why all this is happening.
They argue a while, and finally Job is frustrated and asks flat out why God has allowed all this to happen.
Now God himself comes down to talk to (i.e. shout at) Job. Instead of answering the question, though, God just says I’m big and bad and covered in hair, so shut your pie hole, little man, ‘relse.
Job realizes he’s licked, so he just says, oh great one, and all that jazz.
God is so moved by this demonstration of spinelessness that he gives Job back all the stuff he lost – doubles it, in fact – and Job ends up with 10 new kids and lives a long, happy life the end.
What the frack to make of all this? Just skimming around I’ve found a lot of deep thought on what this mess of a story can mean, but to me it’s pretty straightforward, just as the Abraham story is straightforward, the Jonah story is straightforward, and all the rest. At least Job is a little more honest.
These stories all have at their heart the sentiment that you don’t question. Don’t try to figure it out, little puny human, you’re too pathetic to understand. Just do as God says. As the fairy godmother says in the most horrid line in all of broadway, “Don’t question, just obey.”
The other stories add “and you’ll be rewarded.” At least Job is honest enough to say you might not get rewarded. Well, not until the very end, anyhow.
Through it all God reminds me of none other than Trelane, the pseudo-Q from the original Star Trek series.
Humans are just playthings to Trelane and to God, to be flitted with and then destroyed at will. In the Star Trek episode, and certainly in many of the following Next Generation episodes with Q himself, it is quite clear that might does not make right. Too bad Job wasn’t more like Jean-Luc Picard. But such is not a sentiment you’ll find in the OT. Just like Abraham, just like Jonah, Job submits, and that’s just the way God likes it. The message couldn’t be clearer. You’d better submit, too. ‘relse.