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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.

 

 

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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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