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Leonard Nimoy passed away Friday, which led me to revisit some Star Trek The Original Series (TOS) over the weekend.

There’s no doubt the influence Mr. Spock had on my childhood. By far my favorite TOS character even then, Spock was a role model for a nerdy little kid who often felt as much an alien as the pointy-eared First Officer of the Enterprise. Emotions are a funny thing when you’re a kid – much of your young life is a struggle to control your anger, your fear, your frustration, and of course usually you fail. In Spock we were presented a man – a hero – who struggled with his own emotions again and again, and who found a way to succeed.

On top of that, he was the Science Officer! How cool could you get? One got the feeling that Spock knew everything, and only ever held back so as to make Kirk and the rest feel that they weren’t doing so badly.

spock

Having watched a few episodes over the weekend, I can only say – wow, TOS was really, really bad. The dialogue was wooden, the over-the-top dramatic music was matched only by William Shatner’s over-the-top phrasing and bravado, the same jokes were played out again and again and again . . . usually at Spock’s expense. Never, not even in its best moments, did TOS come anywhere near the best of TNG: Darmok; The Inner Light; I, Borg; All Good Things; The Measure of a Man; Chain of Command – and on and on.

By the way, looking at the list of TNG’s best and one thing is obvious. TNG was Jean-Luc Picard. While TOS explored humanity through the half-human Spock and the ridiculous Kirk, and TNG tried casting Data in the Spock role (and Riker in the Kirk role), I think it bacame quite obvious around Season Three that TNG was Patrick Stewart’s series. He made it special with his skill, his energy, his humanity. Through Stewart’s portrayal of Picard, TNG became something I think no one would have predicted – a true exploration of what it means to live a meaningful human life.

OK, this was supposed to be a tribute to Leonard Nimoy and his Mr. Spock. Instead it’s become a celebration of Picard. But maybe that’s fitting. So many people compare and contrast Picard with Kirk that it’s become an internet trope. It occurs to me, though, that it’s the wrong comparison. Spock, with his desire for logic, his love of peace and diplomacy, his boundless curiosity, was the true ancestor of Picard, who shared all those qualities and more. Picard, unlike Spock, wasn’t frightened of his emotions, but he was always in control of them. Picard, unlike Spock, didn’t run from his humanity. Instead, he embraced it, found ways to make it work for him. Picard took what Spock had begun and raised it to new, unexpected heights.

So goodbye, Mr. Spock. Thanks for making it possible for us to know Jean-Luc Picard, your true heir.

picard spock

 

Father: “Now you can explain to your class how prime factorization works.”

Daughter: “No, they already got it. I’m the only one who didn’t understand.”

Father: “I don’t believe that for a second.”

Daughter: “I believe it for a million seconds.”

Father: “Really? How long is a million seconds?”

Daughter: “I don’t know.”

Father: “Let’s find out.”

Daughter: (looking at calculator) “How do you even write a million?”

Father: “One, zero zero zero, zero zero zero. Now how many seconds in a minute?”

Daughter: “Sixty.”

Father: “So divide a million by sixty. Now how many minutes in an hour?”

Daughter: “Sixty again. Now what?”

Father: “How many hours in a day?”

Daughter: “Twenty-four.”

Father: “So divide by twenty-four. What did you get.”

Daughter: “Woah. Eleven point five seven.”

Father: “So eleven and a half days.”

Daughter: “Wow, it seems like it’d be so much more than that. What about a billion? How do you write that?”

Father: “One, zero zero zero, zero zero zero, zero zero zero. So divide that by 60. 60, and 24, just like before.”

Daughter: “Woah.”

Father: “Wait, we’re not done yet. How many days in a year?”

Daughter: “Um . . . 365?”

Father: “Right, so divide that number by 365. What did you get?

Daughter: “Thirty-one?”

Father: “Thirty-one what?”

Daughter: “Days? No, years!”

Father: “Right!”

Daughter: “Wow. A billion seconds is 31 years, but a million seconds is only 11 days! Mind – pssssh – blown!”

Is there anything better than watching a child get excited about an idea?

Now that I no longer work at COSI, I suppose there’s nothing stopping me making this story public.

For as long as I can remember, the wearing and displaying of crucifixes has bothered me. Whatever your feelings about the historicity of religions, make no mistake: crucifixion was real, as was a horrible method of not just killing someone but delivering a tortuous, humiliating public death (and is the origin of our word excruciating).

I always wondered what people would think if some group began wearing electric chairs or guillotines as ornament.

In the mid-90’s, in perhaps my second year as the first floor volunteer coordinator at COSI, I convinced the powers-that-be that we needed an area-specific award for volunteers who had gone above and beyond the call of duty. I suggested calling it the Hypatia award, explaining only that Hypatia had been a female scientist who had given her life to science. The PCness of an award named for a woman was irresistible, and the Hypatia Award was born.

Of course, those of you who know the story of Hypatia know what i left out.

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos had an enormous influence on me, and I always remembered his story of Hypatia:

 

Whether the details of Hypatia’s story are historically accurate, and there is controversy about that, it is certainly a lovely story, and Sagan told it with a passion and intensity that burned into my 12-year-old brain.

A decade and a half later, I still remembered the story. I was allowed to select the symbol for the Hypatia Award, and I of course chose a seashell, the symbol of Hypatia’s martyrdom at the hands of Saint Cyril’s murderous mob.

seashell

The funny thing was, the Hypatia Award became wildly popular with COSI volunteers. They prized it, and worked hard to impress me and the rest of the team in order to earn it. The recipients wore their seashells proudly on their hour ribbons. Eventually, the other areas at COSI adopted similar awards for their volunteers.

It always gave me great pleasure (yes, I admit it) to see volunteers, some of them homeschoolers from rather fundamentalist religious backgrounds, proudly sporting this symbol of Hypatia’s martyrdom. Of course I generally kept this part of the story to myself. Until now.

I know, I know, I’m a terrible person, tricking people into wearing a pagan crucifix. I feel bad about it every day.

tee hee

I’d like to tell you about what you might call a mystical experience.

Tonight I was driving on the freeway to get Chinese takeout for dinner. I was in a philosophical sort of mood, so instead of listening to an audiobook, as I usually to, I was talking to myself. The topic was the following: Is it a logical truism that the supernatural cannot exist?

(Like ya do)

The argument, which isn’t crucial for the story, briefly is this. If something exists, it is real. Therefore it has properties (at least the property of existence) that can be characterized. This makes it part of the natural world, and therefore not supernatural. Maybe I’ll write more about this later, but back to the story.

These thoughts got me thinking about God. It seemed to me that the way to think about God was not in the abstract, but inductively, in a practical way. In the same way we can know there is no technological civilization on Venus, we can equally know that there are many gods that do not exist. The sorts of gods, for instance, that suddenly appear before us and say, “I’m God. Worship me.”

Unless, I thought to myself, I’m so blinded by my unbelief that such gods are all around and I just don’t notice them.

The moment I had this thought, my car went over a bump on the freeway. Suddenly my radio turned on all by itself.

What was on the radio?

 

Are you ready for this, all you unbelievers? It was . . .

 

donatos

 

a Donato’s commercial!

Mine eyes hath been openéd.

All hail pepperoni and cheese!

 

OK. Maybe it was a near-misstical experience.

Oh, oh. Didya see what I did there?

On my recent flight to Florida I took a break from reading Moby-Dick and switched to my favorite Hemingway book, The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe it was because I was on my way to the warm, sunny Gulf of Mexico, but after Melville’s overblown descriptions of the deep, dark sea and the deep, dark creatures that dwell within it, Hemingway’s terse yet elegant description of the waters of the Gulf stream were a joy, flowing through my mind like those very waters I approached. I read non-stop during the flight and finished the book (ok, it’s pretty short) just before we landed.

I think there’s a lot to be learned in comparing these two books – not an accident, I think, as Hemingway wrote to a publisher that Melville was one author he was still trying to beat. Did he? Hmmm . . .

Santiago is the eponymous Old Man (I’ve always wanted to use the word eponymous), an aging fisherman who has struck a run of bad luck – 84 days without a fish. His luck has been so bad that he’s lost his helper and his student, a boy named Manolin. Manolin’s father insists the boy join another boat, and so he does so, though he still takes care of the old man each morning and each evening. Once the boats sail, there is nothing Manolin can do to help the old man. For over a month Santiago has gone out alone, with only his oars, his sail, his meager fishing gear – and a lifetime of experience.

Today, a lovely day on a lovely warm ocean in the month of September (“The month when the great fish come – anyone can be a fisherman in May”), Santiago’s luck changes. He hooks a great fish – not just any fish, but the largest marlin the old man has ever seen. If only he had the boy, Santiago could bring this great fish in and change everything. But Santiago doesn’t have the boy. He has only himself.

old man and the sea

Santiago is a romantic:

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

But he’s also a realist:

“He is a great fish and I must convince him, he thought. I must never let him learn his strength nor what he could do if he made his run. If I were him I would put in everything now and go until something broke. But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able.”

To me this passage carries all the weight and all the difference between The Old Man and the Sea, which I love, and Moby-Dick, which still haunts me. Santiago does what he does out of love of life, love of the sea and his part in it, love of the act of living. He realizes that the fish is neither good nor evil – the fish merely is. The fish’s strength comes with no malice, no evil intelligence, no conspiracy with the fates. The fish simply is. Nature simply is. Nature is indifferent to our suffering – and in the end, that in some sense makes nature even scarier, and makes our struggle that much sweeter. We bring meaning into this world. We depend on ourselves, our will, our intelligence, our ability to think through our pain, to overcome our adversity, to remain resolute in the face of defeat. We willingly take on the struggle that the indifferent universe poses. We choose.

By contrast, Ahab wants vengeance – vengeance on an animal that was only trying to defend itself. I’m still torn on the issue of how Melville characterizes Moby Dick. I believe, I think this is true, that Moby Dick is made a monster in the secondhand tales and hearsay, but in the actual flesh (remember we don’t meet the whale in person until the final three chapters of this long and complex book), Moby Dick seems like an animal – clever, yes, but hardly malicious, and graceful, like Santiago’s fish – until finally (out of, I believe, desperation to end the persecution) Moby Dick crushes himself against the Pequod, both sinking the boat and almost certainly killing himself.

If this is really Melville’s opinion of the whale, then Ahab is sadly deranged, and in an interesting way the mirror opposite of Santiago. Ahab sees evil intent where only indifference lies. Ahab, who comes so close to self-realization, self-actualization, self-choice, falls back on the ideas of fate and destiny, God and prophesy, and we as mere pawns in a game whose outcome is already decided. Melville refuses to choose. I simply can’t come to grips with this failure. It haunts me.

Santiago seems at first glance to fail nearly as completely as Ahab. Yes, Santiago does finally kill his fish (hope I didn’t give anything away there), but then the fish is devoured by sharks on the way back home. Santiago ends his journey with nothing but a skeleton, a boatful of ruined gear, and an old and devastated body. But Santiago has won. The boy, Manolin, upon spotting the great skeleton, upon seeing Santiago’s wrecked boat, upon finding the old man exhausted and starved, makes a choice. He will stay with the old man. He will fish with the old man. The old man will teach Manolin all he knows: about fishing; about life; about the struggle against indifferent nature, the struggle to know and test and experience our own selves. And what more could any of us ask for?

Santiago, a great fan of “the baseball” asks Manolin to “think of the great DiMaggio”. I say, think of the great Santiago.

sanibel 2014

 

The first thing I learned about the beach on Sanibel Island is you don’t really get it to yourself at 6 in the morning. Lots of crazy beachcombers just like me are already up, wandering the beach before sunrise.

I quickly found a set of turtle tracks, and noticed a little orange flag already in place. I suspect this was a false crawl, as it didn’t go far up the beach and there was no sign of digging at the turnaround point. But who put the flag there?

Nearby I found my first turtle nest of the season, nest 33. I called the phone number on the nest to report the nearby tracks, and spoke with a nice lady named Cari who told me how volunteers mark the tracks, then later other volunteers come out to investigate each set of tracks and rope off those that lead to turtle nests. She thanked me for the call and I moved on.

 

love shells

 

One of the amazing things about Sanibel is that there are literally shells everywhere – so many that you really can’t avoid walking on some. Unlike some beaches, which squeak as you walk on them, Sanibel crunches. As you can see, the literary arts are alive and well on Sanibel (no, I didn’t write either of those shell messages – I just found them and liked them).

As I moved east toward the lighthouse, I approached one of the many wooden boardwalks that carry pedestrians safely over the delicate dunes. Something on the boardwalk had caught my attention. No, it can’t be. Yes! It was a Florida box turtle.

florida box turtle on bridge

 

box turtle closer

She didn’t have red eyes, so most likely she was a female. She was trying (probably because of my frightening presence) to get off this exposed bridge and back into the dune vegetation, but her shell was too big to get between the bridge logs. After watching for a while I lifted her up and put her back at the edge of the dune. She took off in a moment and soon was hidden in the vegetation. Who says turtles are slow?

tutle taking off

 

I saw another Florida box turtle later on, also heading for the dunes. Two in one morning; I wonder if they’re really that common?

Sunrise was spectacular. That’s Ft. Myers Beach off to the right. Is there any sight more optimistic than sunrise over the ocean?

 

sunrise day one better

 

 

After sunrise, as I was lying on the sand watching that second Florida box turtle, I saw a woman with a backpack, picking up trash. (Why would anyone go to a place like Sanibel and then leave trash on the beach?)

Sticking out of the backpack were a handful of flags just like the one marking the sea turtle tracks. I asked her about them; she told me that, yes, she was one of the volunteers marking sea turtle tracks. We talked about sea turtles and the island. I told her I would love some day to do exactly what she was doing, and she said, “Well, then, you will!” I hope she’s right.

On the way back I found what I think was a nudibranch, or sea hare, in the seaweed on the beach. I put it back into the surf, but it washed up again. Finally I took my sandals off and waded out a bit before returning it to the water. I hope it’s OK.

sea hare

 

 

Right near the nudibranch, and my turnaround point for the morning, was a roped-off nesting area for snowy plovers.

 

snowy plover

 

 

I didn’t see any plovers themselves in the nesting area, but here’s a picture of one of them.

 

plover

 

On the way back I saw lots of blackbirds gathered around something on the beach. Turns out it was a foot-long shark, dead on the sand. No need to show a picture of that; it was pretty gruesome. More attractive was this white ibis using its elegant curved beak to seek out the plentiful mole crabs.

 

ibis

 

As I approached our beach access, thinking my first walk was over, I got quite a surprise. There was another of the little flags. There were turtle tracks right outside our building. When I’d started it was too dark and I didn’t have my flashlight on, so I missed the closest set of tracks, right along my walk. A sea turtle had crawled up the beach – I could even see the tracks from our room.

 

false crawl by condo

Later I met the SCCF volunteers who mark the nests. Unfortunately, this one turned out to be a false crawl. The mother turtle got all the way up the beach, but then turned around without laying her eggs. Maybe something spooked her, or maybe she just wasn’t ready yet. Despite this false crawl, though, nesting season is in full swing. The volunteers told me they had dozens of tracks still to check and several nests already identified just from Saturday night. So maybe out there in the Gulf right now is a female turtle. maybe that same female turtle, who could build a nest right on our beach this evening.

I’ll let you know tomorrow.

 

OK, the final Cosmos has come and gone.

I’ll admit it; when Sagan read the Pale Blue Dot piece I teared up. It was beautiful, and I understand why they did it.

If I’d been on the writing team, though, I would have added this:

This image, our tiny, fragile world trapped in a sunbeam, came from a machine no larger than a closet, rocketed away from Earth over a decade before, from a distance of six billion kilometers – or over four hundred thousand earth diameters. One day, a group of conscious bits of matter on that Pale Blue Dot caused some electrons to wiggle back and forth in a particular pattern. Those wiggling electrons made a set of radio signals that bounced off a parabolic dish, shaped and formed and directed in just the right way to cause those radio signals to blast through space until they encountered that closet-sized machine, itself traveling far faster than a bullet from a gun, over five and a half hours later.

Those signals caused the machine to slowly and deliberately turn its carefully-designed camera precisely back toward the Pale Blue Dot, in just the right way to capture the image without blinding itself in the glare of the nearby Sun. After snapping the picture, the machine produced its own electron wiggles, bounced its own radio signals back toward the dot. Another five and a half hours passed and the signal, a planetary self-portrait, arrived back at the Pale Blue Dot, where those same conscious bits of matter processed it, printed it, and stared in wonder.

No other species on that Pale Blue Dot could have taken this picture. No member of this species could have done it alone. Through long, hard experience, through inspired guesses and hard-nosed skepticism, through lofty dreams and gritty reality, human beings learned to take pictures of themselves, even from six billion miles away. That’s pretty cool.

bluedot

 

 

A few days ago I wrote about Ophelia, the tragic heroine of Hamlet. Tonight the ladies and I returned to Schiller to catch the entire play, rather than just the first half. It was wonderful.

I watched Ophelia closely, particularly in the second half of the play that we’d missed in the previous performance due to the stage malfunction. Throughout Ophelia’s madness, a thought occurred to me.

What if Ophelia is pregnant?

I couldn’t shake this idea, though I had no real evidence for it. A little research showed that I was far from the first to make this guess. There are many allusions to pregnancy, particularly unwanted pregnancy, in the play. I’ll mention two scenes here.

In the cruel scene in which Hamlet destroys Ophelia while both Polonius and Claudius listen, he tells her to “Get thee to a nunnery!” Maybe Hamlet really means a brothel, the common interpretation. But what if he really is referring to a place for unwed women to go when they’ve become pregnant? More cruelly, though, Hamlet complains that “it were better that my mother had not borne me.” A rotten thing to say to the woman you’ve just knocked up – but then, Hamlet’s pretty rotten here. Then there’s this line:

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough;

God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another:

I first read this as being all about makeup and looking pretty. But could “another” face mean the face of a newborn? Certainly a trick men can’t pull off.

you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God’s creatures,

Again, I’d interpreted this as youth and exuberance as an enticement to men, but could it also be an allusion to young motherhood, full of baby talk and nicknames for the child?

Not the strongest of evidence, I admit. At the least, though, this reading makes me think about Hamlet wanting to avoid fatherhood along with all the other adult things he wants to avoid. He sees, now, growth and life as “rank”, overgrown, festering, and death as preferable to all of it, if only he did not have bad dreams (dreams of Hell for killing himself).

More telling, I think, are Ophelia’s handing out of flowers. The flowers are not random; they’re incredibly significant. In particular, Ophelia gives to the queen and to herself a flower called rue. Rue means what you think it might mean from the name: regret. But it also has another meaning. Rue is a contraceptive; also it causes abortions.

Ophelia gives some to the queen. Imagine what would happen if the queen gave birth to a son by Claudius. Who would be the next in line for the throne, Hamlet or the new baby? Had he a son by Gertrude, Claudius would have great reason to have Hamlet killed. Ophelia, to the very end here, is trying to protect the man she loves.

But Ophelia also keeps some rue for herself. She tells the queen to “wear your rue with a difference.” (as a contraceptive). For Ophelia, perhaps the rue has a different purpose.

ophelia flowers

Did Ophelia drown herself to avoid giving birth to a child the world would not accept? A child the evil Claudius would fear and despise? A child Hamlet himself has (knowingly or unknowingly) already rejected with his words? I don’t think Shakespeare makes it clear that this is the case – and he certainly could have in the text. Maybe it was just too shocking. However, there’s enough here about conception, about pregnancy, about childbirth, to elicit some thought, and build yet another layer into an amazingly deep and complex play.

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.

darmok-and-jalad-at-tanagra

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.

Ready?

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”.

Darmok Story

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.

darmok-knife

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.

http://www.seaturtle.org/nestdb/?view_beach=337.

In other ocean news, I’ve joined an online reading of Moby Dick.

http://roofbeamreader.com/2014/05/18/moby-dick-a-whale-of-a-read-along-sign-up-post/

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.

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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