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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’m often reminded of the importance of teaching gently – usually when I’m on the receiving end of less-than-gentle teaching myself. It makes me want to explain (gently, of course) why such teaching is so destructive, and to redouble my own efforts to teach gently myself.

I remember myself in far too much less-than-gentle teaching. Science teachers are trained from the crib to hate and detest that most evil of memes, the misconception. I’ve been just as evangelical as anyone else at times. But I see the world differently now. Misconceptions are models of the world, and all our models are imperfect. We are always at the beginning of infinity.

Think about what that means! It means that every time we teach, of necessity we teach misconceptions. They are unavoidable, because all our knowledge is filled with them. Every time we teach, we are helping our learners to create castles of the mind, structures that never before existed, structures that are as unique and individual as each of our learners. This act of creation, imperfect and messy, is to be celebrated.

And sure, much of learning involves un-learning our misconceptions (and replacing them with better misconceptions). This is as true for the Kindergartner as it is for the practicing physicist.

Science teaching (and maybe all teaching, I’ll have to give that one some more thought) is all about metaphor. We link the unknown to the known, we build on existing (imperfect) knowledge. Too often, I think, the fear of misconception prevents the exploration of metaphor. Too often, metaphors are loaded down with caveats and equivocations. If all teachers would embrace the fact that no matter what they teach they are teaching misconceptions, and if we imbued our learners with this knowledge, and a deep skepticism as well, think of how far we might go.

Embrace misconception! It is the path to even better misconception.

A recent discussion about young Earth creationism has got me thinking about my view of the world.

Young Earth creationism (YEC) is such an easy target that is is tempting to be misled, and I realize that I have often fallen into the trap I’ll shortly describe.

YEC proponents claim that the Earth and in fact all the universe is something like six to ten thousand years old, that humans and animals appeared in pretty much their modern form at the beginning of time, that most extinctions occurred and geological formations like the Grand Canyon appeared due to a single worldwide flood, and so on, and that God was responsible for it all. The first part of this argument is so bad that it’s easy to get stuck there, and never get to the second part of the argument, which is in fact infinitely worse. This is the trap.

We can demonstrate that the universe is much older than a few thousand years. We can show that humans and animals have evolved. We can present evidence for the slow formation of landforms. But these demonstrations have no effect on YECs. Why? Because that’s not what YEC is truly all about. Instead, and this is the key point we miss, YEC is actually all about the second statement “God did it.” That’s a statement we can’t refute – which ironically is precisely what makes it such a spectacularly bad explanation.

Old-Earth creationists, intelligent designers, and so on, are far more clever than YECs, and we can see in their arguments the crux (no pun intended) of the issue. They might say, “Fine, we accept all that science and history and geography demonstrate. The universe is 13 some billion years old and began with a Big Bang. But God still did it.” Even though this argument matches (by definition) all the findings of science, it is still a bad explanation.

Let’s set up an imaginary scenario in which YEC or some other similar claim is not such fish-in-a-barrel easy pickings in order to explore why. Suppose an upcoming mission to the Moon discovers, inscribed in the original Hebrew, a replica of the Ten Commandments.


You can imagine the mixture of celebration, consternation, “I-told-you-so” finger wagging, and so on that would ensue. Would this discovery prove the existence of the supernatural entity called God?

Many would be convinced. If I’m honest to my convictions, I have to say that such a discovery would not, in fact could not, convince me. For even with evidence like this, the idea that “God did it” is still a spectacularly bad explanation. If I accept the idea that life (not just science) is all about finding good explanations, then even with the inscribed tablets from the Moon I would have to reject the “God did it” argument as a bad explanation.

What would I say instead? First eliminate the obvious. Is it a hoax? Is this a modern Shroud of Turin, created by Earthlings with an agenda? If we can eliminate that by, perhaps, obtaining an accurate date, demonstrating that this material originated on the Moon itself, showing that the letters were carved in a way inconsistent with a hoax, and so on, then we move on.

Could it be that the tablets arose via natural processes? This is an exceedingly bad explanation. However, it is still better than the idea that a supernatural entity acted in our universe, for the simple reason that the tablets themselves must contain far less unexplained order than the entity that supposedly carved them. Even so, I’d be quite unsatisfied with such an explanation.

No, my conclusion, I believe, would be something like this: the stories of the Old Testament have more truth than I’d supposed. Perhaps there were original tablets, maybe even a person named Moses who received them, and perhaps he even thought he’d received them from God. But such a God, acting in our universe, must be part of our universe, must be, perhaps, a creature like the “Q” of Star Trek, an immensely powerful, knowledgeable, yet still evolved being of our universe, a being that still obeyed and obeys the laws of physics.While we have no evidence for such a race (other than these imaginary tablets, of course), this is still a far better explanation than the supernatural notion that “God did it.” Faced with magic, we must try to discover how the magic works.

What was the point of this imaginary exercise? Just this: the fact that YEC is demonstrably wrong is beside the point. Even if, through some utterly unlikely chain of events, modern science were to discover that the YECs were right all along, that the Earth really is only a few thousand years old and so on, such a discovery in no way validates the much worse claim that a supernatural entity known as God is responsible for our existence. Supernatural explanations are always bad explanations. This is why “debating” YECs (or old Earth creationists, or intelligent design advocates) is pointless.

This argument might feel uncomfortable. It seems like dogma, this out-of-hand denial of the supernatural. Isn’t this the equivalent of a religious claim, an unproved (and unprovable) belief that the universe makes sense? Consider the alternative (which is very much the “world” we live in, and by world I mean society). She claims “God did it”. He claims “The Flying Spaghetti Monster did it”. Another claims Allah, Vishnu, the Raven, the Great Turtle, and so on. Supernatural claims are infinitely variable because they are definitionally untestable. The only path forward we’ve ever found, the only way we’ve ever made any progress, is by assuming that the world makes sense.

Arthur Clarke famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Bull, I say! If you believe in reason, you will analyze the “magic”, find out how it works, and change your view of the world to accommodate the new information. But you won’t give up on reason. If we decide that “magic” is both real and unexplainable, we’ve lost.

As I’ve written before, I hate fiction.

Lord of the Flies is a book  by William Golding. I read it in high school, and found it both intriguing and terrifying. But now I’ve read Pinker, and I’ve read Deutsch, and that has changed everything.

I just finished Lord of the Flies again. It isn’t hard to sum up the message of the book. “What evil lies in the heart of men (er, um, boys)?” The first time I read the book the message resonated with me. I was deeply interested in the question of evil. Are we basically good, but trapped in a society that drives us to evil acts? Or are we basically evil, with the veneer of society (barely) keeping us from one another’s throats?

It was clear to me then. I was of the former persuasion; this book was of the latter. It was a challenge to me, and I remember convincing myself (rather unconvincingly) that the boys who turned to savagery had been trained by the society in which they were raised. After all, I said to myself, they are only on this island because they themselves were escaping war. War was pounded into their good little hearts from the beginning. How could they have become anything other than what they were? Society made them evil.

Golding, I believe, had just the opposite opinion, and would respond by saying that we had created that society, we had created that war. Even after all the years of bloodshed, we still hadn’t learned our lesson. Here we were, bombing and killing even now as we try to teach our children better.

What a pair of simple souls. Now I know better. The choice  is a false one. All evil results from a lack of knowledge. And there was plenty of missing knowledge on that island.

This is not a condemnation of the boys. They were faced with the task of creating a new society. That the society they finally formed was an immoral, irrational, awful mess is no surprise. Almost every society in the history of humankind has been an immoral, irrational, awful mess.

These boys, however, came from the West. They tried to emulate what they’d learned of the grownup world. Ralph found the conch, the symbol of civilization, lawful rule, and reasoned discussion. The boys tried to create knowledge. They used Piggy’s glasses to create fire. They made smoke to send a signal to the outside world. They tried to encourage creative thought and rational criticism. And they almost succeeded.

In the end, they failed. The beast became their god. The conch was destroyed, along with Piggy, the voice of reason on the island. Anti-rational memes are powerful things, and humans are imperfect, prone to error, bound to make mistakes. The biggest mistake of all, the one that proved literally fatal, was the suppression of criticism, the use of violence rather than discussion, the slavish devotion to ritual and superstition instead of creative thought and critical analysis.


But why the beast? Why the failure? What is it about humans that makes us so bad at government? This is what Golding was trying to get at, and where in the end I think he failed, falling back on the evil in men’s hearts business. I don’t know any better than Golding did, but I do know this. It’s easy to be wrong, and hard to be right. All our knowledge is fallible. The West, the Enlightenment, civilization, are far from perfect. But they’re our only hope.

My hope comes from a human trait that Golding little explored, but that I believe is deep and ingrained. When you have a sore in your mouth, you have to touch it with your tongue, even though you know it will hurt. When you hear a bump in the night, you have to go see what it is, even though you may be frightened. When God told Eve not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, what did she do? Crunch!

The beast was only a dead parachutist. Golding made one enormous error in having only Simon ever try to find this out. We all wanted to know. That’s why Golding told us. The boys would have wanted to know, too. They would have gone. They would have investigated, despite their fear. They would have poked the beast with a stick, ran, slunk back, poked again. Finally, they would have learned the truth.

That same trait, of course, led to the “atom bomb” war that Golding was so convinced was our destiny. The keys to heaven and hell are identical. But we cannot ignore them.

If the beast is in us, as Simon tells learns via the terrifying pig’s head, then our only chance is to go face the beast, journey to the mountain, stare the creature down with the only tools we have, our rational selves.

Note: This is a blog entry I did for COSI. I’m fond of it, so I’m reproducing it here.

It seems like just yesterday. In 1980, astronomer Carl Sagan presented Cosmos, his PBS series about the joy and beauty of scientific discovery. More than anything else (yes, I have to admit, even more than my childhood visits to COSI), Cosmos awakened in me a love and a passion for science that has never dimmed.

In one of my favorite scenes, Sagan visits his old sixth grade classroom in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. Sagan talks to the students there (who, coincidentally, were just my age at the time) about what a special time this was, the first time that humans had begun to explore the universe. In particular, Sagan talks about the beginning of our search for planets beyond the solar system.

sagan bensonhurst
When Cosmos aired, no one knew if even a single planet existed outside our Sun’s little family. Could we be the only planetary system in the galaxy, or even the universe? Or were planets common, with many other stars sporting their own planetary systems? Might any other planets even support life? No one knew.

But Sagan knew that scientists would one day find out. He said to those students – and to me, “By the time you are as old as I am now (Sagan was 45 at the time – coincidentally, just my age today), we should know for all the nearest stars whether they have planets . . . That will happen in your lifetime, and it will be the first time in the history of the world that anybody found out, really, if there are planets around other stars.”

Carl Sagan died in 1996, a time when we were just uncovering the first tantalizing hints of extra-solar planets. But Sagan’s prediction was right on the money. Today, we know of hundreds of other planets. Most of them (because they’re the easiest to find) are gas giants like Jupiter and larger, with no solid surface. And most of these are in tight orbits around their star, with soaring temperatures and little if any chance for our kind of life.
But this week NASA announced the discovery of three planets nearly the size of Earth, in orbits nearly like our planet’s orbit. It’s the closest we’ve come yet to finding another Earth in the heavens.

kepler 62

How did we find these worlds?

… the ways by which men arrive at knowledge of the celestial things are hardly less wonderful than the nature of these things themselves
— Johannes Kepler

OK, if you can get past the sexism in the quote above, you’ll recognize one of the great truths about science, a truth that Sagan celebrated again and again in Cosmos. Yes, what we discover is wonderful, but at least as wonderful are the methods by which we tiny humans, armed with nothing but cleverness, imagination, and the tools we create, learn about our world.

The Kepler telescope (named after the same Johannes Kepler quoted above) is one of those amazing human-created tools. In orbit around the Earth, Kepler stares at one particular patch of sky without pause. Hold your hand out at arm’s length. This is just about the size of the sky Kepler is watching. Within that patch, Kepler keeps track of the light from 100,000 stars, all at the same time.

When one of those stars gets dimmer, by even a fraction of a percent, Kepler records the event. The dimming might be caused by a spot on the star or some other local phenomenon. Or it might be caused by a planet passing between Kepler and the star. If, sometime later, Kepler sees the same kind of dimming again, the odds that Kepler has found a planet grow greater. After three or even four such cycles, Kepler’s scientists know they’ve spotted a planet.

This kind of science requires incredible patience. If a planet is in an Earth-like orbit, it will take around one Earth year to go around its star, so we’ll see the dimming of its star only once every few hundred days. Kepler needs to remember each dimming event and then, a hundred days, or two hundred, or five hundred days later, catch that same event again, all the while watching and recording 100,000 other stars in the same way. It’s a task a human could never accomplish alone. But with our amazing ability to mold and shape the raw materials of the world into useful tools, we can make visible that which had remained hidden since the cosmos was born.

These planets are for you, Carl. I wish you could’ve been around to see them.

As much as I thrilled to the technology Melville described in Moby-Dick, I particularly enjoyed laughing at Melville’s bad science. Some of his errors are wholly understandable; Melville lived in a pre-Darwinian world in which biology remained a great mystery. But some of his mistakes reflect what will seem a ridiculous statement, yet one I believe I can defend. Melville, I argue, lacked imagination.

Let’s begin with Darwin. Charles Darwin was born in 1809 and sailed around the world aboard the HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836. While this voyage helped Darwin formulate his ideas on the evolution of life, these ideas didn’t solidify until the early 1840s, and were not published until 1856, five full years after the publication of Moby-Dick.

This pre- vs post-Darwin worldview is most obvious when Melville tries to classify whales in his chapter on cetology. The first mistake occurs before Melville has even begun his classification scheme. For Melville, “a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.” (p 198). He then goes on to classify whales by size as their most important and diagnostic characteristic.

Here’s the thing: in a pre-Darwinian world, there’s no particular sense in which we could say that Melville was wrong, either about whales as fish or about their familial relationships. Without Darwin’s insight of common descent, classification is nothing more than sorting. There are many, many ways to sort everyday objects – by color, by utility, by composition, and so on. Not until Darwin showed that all animals evolved from a common ancestor could there be exactly one correct way to classify them. That one way is to follow the concept of adaptive radiation. The history of life is an ever-branching tree, with each branch a species. Pre-Darwin, anyone might make an argument for or against whales as fish or as mammals. Post-Darwin, there is only one correct answer. Whales are mammals, because their ancestors were mammals.*

*Ironically, modern cladistics, which follows logically from Darwin’s insight, shows us that whales (as well as elephants, eagles, rattlesnakes, and we) actually are fish, because deep, deep in our history, we all have fish ancestors. But this is not the sense in which Melville claims whales as fish.

There’s a revealing episode later in the book in which Melville comments on the very human-like hand bones found in every whale’s fins. Melville is commenting on how strange it is that whales’ bodies so poorly match their skeletons. He says this tendency, “is also curiously displayed in the side fin, the bones of which almost exactly answer to the bones of the human hand, minus only the thumb.” (p 383) What I find curious is that it never occurred to Melville to ask why the one sort of creature in the ocean with both warm blood and lungs also happened to mimic the mammalian hand under its finny flesh.

A humpback whale skeleton – note the tiny hip bone remnant, and the finger bones embedded in the fins.

As mentioned, all this is perhaps excusable; after all, Darwin’s insight was genius. It took a Darwin to show us exactly what whales (and all other animals) were. But I think there’s a deeper issue in much of Melville’s scientific philosophy. He seems trapped in worldview from an earlier time, a time when nothing much ever changed.

For instance, when discussing cetacean art (art of whales, not art by whales!) Melville makes the following bizarre statement: “(A)ny way you look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.”(p. 383) In other words, we’ll never have a good rendering of the whale in life.

A 0.20 second Google image search makes a liar of Melville “about 565,000,000” times. Not fair, you might say. How could Melville ever have predicted the way in which image technology would explode? Yet this is exactly my point. From the moment our ancestors created painted images of the beasts they hunted upon dark and rough cave walls, people have worked to create images of their world. This desire for accurate pictures has never changed, though our technological skill has certainly increased. I take it as a failure of imagination that Melville, steeped as he was in the ingenious technology used to kill whales, could not envision that technology might someday allow us to render those same whales, not into oil, but into faithful images.

More seriously, in chapter 105, Melville asks the question, “Will He (the whale) Perish?”

(W)hether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff. (p. 673)

Melville’s answer is no, we humans will never make the slightest dent in the worldwide whale population. His reasoning, once again, reveals a lack of imagination from this teller of tales. Melville argues that a single whaling ship, on a four-year cruise, is happy to kill and render perhaps forty whales. Such a small number could not possibly affect the whale’s population. He also argues that the ocean is vast, and if whales are chased away from one particular portion of the ocean, they can always relocate to another. Finally, Melville argues that as a last resort whales can always find refuge under the ice, where no human hunter can ever go.

We know, of course, that Melville’s argument fell sloppy dead on all three counts with the coming of more and better technology. Exploding harpoons, more efficient factory ships, and, of course, fossil-fuel engines that could outrun, outmaneuver, and outlast any whale anywhere in the world changed the equation dramatically.

In a related argument, Melville described the blue whale (he called it the sulphur-bottomed whale) quite briefly, merely stating that “he is never chased; he would run away with rope-walks of line.”(p 204) This to me reveals all, for when whaling began the same might have been said of the sperm whale. No one knew how to hunt it. Then people learned how. Why wouldn’t further learning, further ideas, further technology, reveal a method for hunting this largest of all creatures? Of course, that is exactly what happened, as the technology of World War II, once used to kill people, was soon after turned upon the blue whale, resulting in that magnificent animal’s near-extinction in a matter of decades.

All this makes me think of both David Deutsch’s book, in which he makes a statement so simple and yet deeply profound – we cannot know what we have not yet discovered – and Steven Pinker’s, in which he describes how people have changed over time. In particular, Pinker makes the argument that we today are better at reasoning than were people in the past. I was reminded of this forcefully when I read Melville’s argument that whales are fish. After describing the reasons forwarded by Linnaeus for putting whales into the mammalian class, Melville dismisses these arguments by submitting “all this to my friends . . . both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley (one of the narrator’s friends) profanely hinted they were humbug.” Now there’s an airtight argument for you!

This is so like Pinker’s discussion of the Flynn Effect in IQ testing, reflecting our growing ability to reason. From page 776 of that book:

Consider a typical question from the Similarities section of an IQ test: “What do dogs and rabbits have in common?” The answer, obvious to us, is that they are both mammals. But an American in 1900 would have been just as likely to say, “You use dogs to hunt rabbits.” The difference, Flynn notes, is that today we spontaneously classify the world with the categories of science, but not so long ago the “correct” answer would seem abstruse and irrelevant. “’Who cares that they are both mammals?’” Flynn imagines the test-taker asking in 1900. “That is the least important thing about them from his point of view. What is important is orientation in space and time, what things are useful, and what things are under one’s control.” (p 776)

Pinker goes on to describe how this change Flynn discovered makes a real difference in our lives:

Flynn suggests that over the course of the 20th century, scientific reasoning infiltrated from the schoolhouse and other institutions into everyday thinking. More people worked in offices and the professions, where they manipulated symbols rather than crops, animals, and machines. People had more time for leisure, and they spent it in reading, playing combinatorial games, and keeping up with the world. (p 778)

All this may seem pretty academic. Big deal that Melville got the science wrong – he was writing over 150 years ago! I think, though, that Melville’s failure is telling. Understanding the world through science, particularly since the Enlightenment, has always led to greater control and influence over that world. As we will see, for Melville such control, even such understanding, is illusory. This illusion of reason speaks to the moral struggles that form the heart of the book. It is those moral struggles to which I turn next.

Sometimes I worry that I’ve given a blog entry a title that someone else has used before. This time I think I’m safe.

I saw Black Swan over the weekend and loved it. For me this movie was about losing yourself in your art, and in that way finding that experience of being alive, what Joseph Campbell called “following your bliss.” I think this movie is metaphor. I could argue that all the horrible things Nina the ballerina does or experiences in this film are in her imagination, and I actually think a strong case can be made for it. But I don’t have to, because real or not the events are all just metaphor. The film is about art, and Nina’s discovery of the artist within her. The rest is incidental (yes, even THAT scene!)

Most reviews I’ve read describe the movie as a descent into madness, but they miss the point. Creating art is like madness, but that doesn’t make it madness itself. Art is by its nature the creation of something that wasn’t there before, and is therefore unreal. What you see in your mind, what you imagine, what you are driven to create doesn’t exist until you create it. So of course that act of creation feels crazy. It’s believing in something that doesn’t exist – yet.

Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about what it feels like to give birth to a poem – how painful, tortuous, maddening, and finally liberating it can be. The creative power! The power to give life to something that never existed until it somehow grew within your own mind, sprang from your own soul. Here’s the poem: 

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through – 

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum – 
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb – 

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here – 

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down – 
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then – 

OK, now you’re convinced. I’m out of my mind. This isn’t a poem about writing poetry, it’s a poem about going crazy. That’s what all the critics and all the web sites say. And THEY’RE ALL WRONG! Notice the hints Emily Dickinson leaves us.

Sense was breaking through – not through the floor, that comes later in the poem. This sense is the sense of what this newest, latest poem is going to be about. Dickinson, who wrote in the metaphor of death, had a muse. That muse was a funeral.

Those same boots of lead, again. Several times in the poem, Dickinson indicates that this experience was not once in a lifetime. It has happened to her, in her, again and again.

All the heavens were a bell and being but an ear. She couldn’t help but listen to her muse, the sound in her head was so loud that it consumed her existence, turning her into a receiver only, just an ear.

Her race is with silence, in other words, with death. It isn’t clear in this poem if Dickinson fears death, but it is quite clear that she fears losing to silence, not creating this new poem before she dies. She sees herself wrecked, solitary, unable to complete this thing that is her child, her creation, before silence finally wins.

So far, maybe you’re not convinced. All these things could just as easily apply to madness. Fair enough. But in the final stanza, Dickinson reveals the true nature of this act of creation.

A plank in reason breaks. The final wall, the final block between her and this future place where the poem lives, complete and perfect. With this plank broken, Dickinson falls freely. Again we see that she’s made this journey before, hitting a “world” (a poem) each time she’s taken the plunge. What an amazing metaphor! Writing poetry, creating anything really, is taking a plunge, believing that you’ll hit a world, not knowing, yet taking the leap. The leap . . .

And then the last line, where Dickinson reveals that now, finished, she has a knowledge she lacked before. As painful as it was, she has followed her bliss, she has hit a world, she has finished knowing.

But she’s not done, and maybe never will be. The word –then– followed by Dickinson’s favorite punctuation, the pregnant, anticipatory dash, sends us back to the top of the poem, where the entire process begins again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This act of creation, this birthing and breathing of life into art, is never pretty. It upsets people. It makes one late for dinner. It soils what we think is proper in ballet, or poetry. Or science. Yes, you knew I had to get there eventually.

Niels Bohr was an artist, as much as he was a scientist. Just like Nina in Black Swan, just like Emily Dickinson with her world plunging, Niels Bohr fought and struggled and convulsed in agonized spasms of pure beauty – and out popped the Bohr model of the atom.


It’s 1911. One of my all-time heroes, Ernest Rutherford, that living bowling ball of enthusiasm and intuition, has just discovered something that cannot be. Rutherford has found that the atom consists of an incredibly dense central nucleus surrounded by bits of orbiting electronic fluff, a little like a miniature solar system. But that is, according to all the science Rutherford or anyone else knows, impossible. Electrons have an electric charge, and whenever objects with an electric charge accelerate, they must radiate away energy. If electrons in an atom did that, all atoms in the universe would collapse to nothing in a tiny fraction of a second.

A tall, shy, and brilliant student of Rutherford’s named Niels Bohr determines to find out why the universe still exists. He plays with an impossible idea. Maybe the electrons don’t fall. No reason, they just don’t. Or rather, they fall, all right, but only an exact, specific amount, and never beyond their lowest energy level. There they stay, never to cease. Why? Mystery . . .

But Bohr’s model, illogical, ugly (and yet so, so beautiful), without any reason behind it, worked. A plank in reason broke (not Max Planck, though I’m sure he wasn’t pleased) and Bohr plunged into a new world. And it worked. When Bohr compared his model to the spectral lines produced by hydrogen, the model worked.

What does that mean, worked? Here’s the picture. A Bohr hydrogen atom has a single electron in orbit. Let’s suppose this atom is energized, perhaps heated, jostled, it doesn’t matter. That means the single electron is orbiting higher than its lowest possible orbit, and that makes the electron unstable. Then, suddenly, the electron falls (a plank in reason breaks?) and out flies a photon. The electron reaches its ground state orbit and stops falling.

Here’s the amazing thing, the thing that Rutherford himself pointed out.

“How,” Rutherford wrote to Bohr, “does an electron decide what frequency it is going to vibrate at when it passes from one stationary state to another? It seems to me that you have to assume that the electron knows beforehand where it is going to stop.”

Indeed. Bohr’s answer, that the transition itself is fundamental, not capable of simpler explanation, was so disturbing that many physicists detested it. Paul Ehrenfest, another physicist and one of Bohr’s closest companions, said, “Bohr’s work . . . has driven me to despair. If this is the way to reach the goal, I must give up doing physics.”

But Bohr had shown the way to the goal. Yes, it is true that the Bohr model was soon eclipsed by better models. But this doesn’t change one bit the amazing accomplishment of this artist doing science. Bohr created something that wasn’t there before, an atom in which electrons behaved like nothing else ever conceived. Bohr hit a world, and finished knowing – then –

Just like Black Swan, just like Dickinson’s funeral in her brain, Bohr’s atom was metaphor. It was creation itself, that act that makes us uniquely human. We are pattern-makers, story tellers. We are the creators. Whether a poem that lasts as long as there are readers, a dance that lasts only moments on the stage, or a model of the atom that holds sway until a better model replaces it, all these creations are metaphor.*

*What’s a metaphor? It’s for cows to eat in!

Stars are helium factories. Older stars use helium as raw material to make other elements like carbon. And yet the vast majority of helium in the universe today wasn’t made in stars. Instead, it had an even more amazing, even more violent origin.

It’s hard to believe that all those stars in all those galaxies, producing vast quantities of helium every second of their existence, haven’t made a difference in the overall abundance of elements in the universe. And yet it’s true. In the beginning, the ordinary matter* of the universe was around 74% hydrogen, 26% helium, and traces of lithium. Today, the ordinary matter is made of 73% hydrogen, 25% helium, and around 2% everything else. This, by the way, is by mass. Remember that since helium is around 4 times more massive than hydrogen, there must be a lot more hydrogen atoms than helium atoms, both today and in the past.

*the dirty little secret (which isn’t really a secret anymore) in all of this is that “ordinary matter” is only a tiny smattering of all the universe has to offer. But that idea, one of the greatest discoveries of our own generation, will have to wait for another time on this blog. Sigh.

So what about the past? Can we say anything about where all this hydrogen and helium came from? Oh, yes we can. Of all the amazing stories this universe has to offer us, this one is among my favorites. We all like to hear about the day we were born. And that’s what this story is all about. But I’m going to start it in a strange place – inside a radio telescope, where two future Nobel prize winners are busy scraping away pigeon poop.

Yes. Pigeon poop. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were scientists with Bell Labs. In 1964, they were trying to find the source of static in their fancy new satellite communication antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey. It seemed to be always there, day and night, no matter where they turned the antenna. They couldn’t get rid of this annoying static hum. What could be causing it? Finally they decided it might be due to the local pigeons roosting in the horn of their antenna and doing, well, what pigeons do. Maybe the white clumps of nastiness were the problem. So Wilson and Penzias set about removing them, as well as the pigeons (don’t worry, they used a very humane trap):

But it was all for naught. The static just wouldn’t go away. It hadn’t been caused by pigeon poop, after all.

Amazingly, in nearby Princeton, astrophysicist Robert Dicke and some of his colleagues had been working on a strange idea. The sky, they thought, might contain a fossil. Not a dinosaur, but something much bigger. A fossil of an event called the Big Bang. Dicke and his team thought they might be able to find that fossil as background radiation in the sky. When Penzias and Wilson let Dicke know of their non-pigeon-caused troubles, Dicke knew that they had been scooped. The fossil had been found. Wilson and Penzias had discovered not pigeon poop, but the birth of the universe.

OK, here’s the whole story. Edwin Hubble and his colleague Milton Humason found in the 1920s that the whole universe is rushing away from itself. They did this by looking at faraway galaxies and discovering that the bar code lines in the spectra (that same bar code used to discover helium in the Sun! Isn’t it amazing how it’s all connected?). They found that the lines in the bar code were all shifted toward the red, in the same way that the toot of a train is shifted toward longer frequency as it rushes away from you.

Well if the universe today is expanding, then in the past things must have been much closer together. And when things are closer together, they get hotter (remember the bicycle pump analogy from before – squeeze air and it gets hotter). So in the past, when things were very, very close, they would have been very, very hot. Today, with the universe so spread out, that hot past would still exist as a very, very cold fossil that should appear in all directions all the time. And no amount of pigeon poop scraping can ever get rid of it. Just by looking at the sky with the right kind of poop-free equipment, Wilson and Penzias had discovered the birth of us all.

This event, which I prefer to call the Fireball, is not what most people think it is. It wasn’t an explosion, because there was nothing to explode into. It didn’t make a great big noise, or even (really) a flash, since there was nothing to flash into. It simply was. And (here’s the most amazing thing) it didn’t happen far away. It happened right here. And here. And here. In every point of space you can think of. The Fireball happened right where you are at this very moment.

So what, exactly happened? That’s the big question. You and I are extremely ordered entities. That’s why everything (bacteria, tigers, and the IRS, oh my) wants to eat us. They want our order. But where did that order come from? It came from the Fireball. In an event called inflation, a tiny patch of the universe suddenly grew to enormous size. The potential disorder of this event was gigantic, and yet, because it happened so incredibly fast, the order present in this tiny lump was preserved. Ever since then, we’ve been rolling downhill, toward more disorder, which is why eggs break but never unbreak, why pigeons turn ordered food into disordered poop, and why, in the end, everyone must die.

But think of all we can do in the meantime! We are a way to temporarily recapture a little bit of the magic of those first moments of the fireball. Every bit of energy you will ever use in your life was set into motion in those first moments of the universe. Let’s visit those first moments and find out just what happened.

In the beginning, the fireball was so hot that no matter could exist. Everything was energy. But then, as inflation spread the universe out, matter began to condense out. At first it was just quarks and electrons, the bare constituents of all ordinary stuff. Then the quarks found one another in threes (there’s that number again!) and formed protons (hydrogen) and neutrons. Just as happens today in the Sun, some of those protons slammed into one another, resulting in our friend helium. A tiny bit of an even heavier element called lithium also formed in these collisions. But nothing else. The fireball was spreading out too quickly for that.

That’s a good thing, because as we’ve seen it’s the hydrogen, left over from the first moments of the fireball, that really holds the key to our universe. If we taste good, hydrogen tastes delicious. It’s got so much potential for releasing energy that it, in time, lit up the universe, changing itself into helium and giving us gorgeous sunsets, beautiful starry nights, and a glorious sunrise to follow.

The helium, on the other hand, around a quarter of what we started with, is almost all still there, floating about in space or packed into stars. As we’ve seen, some of that helium turned into carbon, which became you and me. Not only are we all starstuff; we are, each one of us, children of the Fireball.

I’ve been researching brain imaging technologies for a project I’m working on. It is incredible stuff. SQUIDs, superconductive quantum interference devices, can detect the tiniest of electrical currents in the brain. MEG (magnetoencephalography) uses an array of SQUIDs to observe how these electric currents change over time. PET scans and MRI scans reveal thoughts as they happen. We can actually see into a person’s brain and watch her think. It’s amazing, and it drove home an idea that of course had to be true all along.

Everything is real.

What I mean is this: if a person says she’s heard the voice of God, or thinks an angel has visited him, or just has a “feeling” about one or another fact about the nature of the world, then that voice, that vision, that feeling are all real things. We can map them in the brain. We can see what started the thought, where it came from, even. If you hear a voice, maybe there was no sound to vibrate your eardrum, but that doesn’t make the voice any less real in your brain. A real event happened in there. Thoughts are real things.

That doesn’t mean the origin of the thought is supernatural. Just the opposite, in fact. Everything is real. Did that thought come from some outside signal? If so, we have a chance of detecting it. Did it come from another part of the brain? We have a chance of detecting that, too. Suppose these voices are beamed to us from the second planet circling Epsilon Erandi (I’m not saying they are, but just suppose). Now that we can see the brain in action, we have a chance of figuring that out. If supernatural claims have any basis in reality, at some point the stimulus stops being supernatural and becomes a real thing happening inside someone’s brain. If every effect has a cause, even inside a brain, then the whole notion of supernatural starts to lose its mystery. Maybe, like the brain was for so long, it’s just something we don’t (yet) understand.

I’m not sure I buy Davies’ argument from the previous post. There’s lots of potential big steps that might have taken less time than anticipated. Why the origin of life? Why not the origin of eukaryotic cells, multicellular animals, life on land, big brains? Why did those things all take a long time? The most straightforward answer is that those things are hard. If life’s origin is hard, too, then why didn’t it take at least a while to start here?

Even so, I agree with Davies (and Ward and Brownlee), about complex life, and intelligent life. I think it is very rare, so rare that we might be the only one.

I’m persuaded by Fermi’s Paradox: “where are they?” We’re talking here about intelligent life that, at least in some cases, must be many millions, even billions, of years old. If they were there, I believe we’d know it. Maybe not every intelligence would make their presence known, but it only takes one. It’s an old, old universe, and we just got here. Where is everybody else?

We can imagine a universe in which extraterrestrial intelligent life is obvious. We’d look up in the sky, and we’d know. Clearly we don’t live in that kind of universe. There are two potential reasons. One, they’re not there. Two, they’re there, but no one’s doing anything we’d recognize across the light years. Not one? In millions, even billions, of years? Really?

You can, of course, think of lots of scenarios explaining why we seem to be alone even if we’re not. But they are all special pleading. The most straightforward explanation for us seeming to be alone is that we are.

Some people might find this depressing, and I admit, I’d love for us to discover other intelligences. Just a single discovery could change everything tomorrow. I hope it happens. Assuming it doesn’t, though, I’m not so sad about the alternative. If we really are alone, then we have a huge universe that is ours and ours alone. We are the eyes and ears of that universe. Let’s see what we can learn.

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.
August 2020
A blog by Stephen Whitt

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