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Category: Science

Happy New Year!

“Opening Words” for Ethical Society Platform
 December 31, 20171

Today is New Year’s Eve. Many will be going to parties where there will be much merriment, singing, countdowns, kissing (and more). Restraints are lifted; noisemakers, hats, costumes, games and drinking to excess mark this joyous occasion. It is an affirmation of life, but just below the frantic fun lies the thorn of mortality:

We have made it through another year”!!

Will we make it through the next”??

New Year’s Eve parties are part of a larger calendar of life. New Year’s is a national holiday that formally marks a change in time; banks, schools, government and businesses are closed, our calendar scrolls to the next year, marked by a new number, as we are synchronized to a communal rhythm regulating our individual lives. New Year’s marks an end, and a beginning, in the seasonal round of time. A time of pause to consider the passage of time, reflect on our lives and our place in the larger cosmic arc.

New Years is the oldest of human holidays, dating back to Egypt and Babylon, and the most universally celebrated world-wide. It is a celebration often associated with celestial events: winter solstice, moon and sun cycles, seasonal changes. Cosmological myths and stories of our human origins and fate are entwined with this celestial ordering of our lives. Our contemporary celebration of January 1st is a legacy of the Roman calendar and cosmology; January named after Janus, a two-faced god, simultaneously looking backward and forward in time. While New Year’s has recently become secularized, it has long associations with both pagan and Christian celebrations.

It is most appropriate, then, that today Dr. Claude Bernard will discuss the scientific understanding of the cosmos and its role in our human origins. This is our Ethical Society origin “story”, and is why we have a prominent display of evolution in our gathering space downstairs. I use the word “story” metaphorically, as this story is derived from fact not fantasy.

I know many find this “story” unappealing cold, rational, and without appreciation of the transcendental mystery that pervades our lives. And this is mostly an accurate assessment of the scientific method. It is purposely impersonal, which is required to arrive at facts that are universal and not dependent on the perspective of any one observer. Understanding must be derived from a reasoned integration of the facts that anchor explanation in the material world. The understanding that results from this method, however, while not transcendental, is certainly not lacking in wonderment.

Our presence here today is bestowed by miraculous conception. We are stardust, composed of elements forged in cataclysmic cosmic conflagrations of unimaginable scope and power, hurling seeds of new forms, new worlds, into the void, across vast distances of space and time. The earth and all life found here, past and present, are the progeny of these seeds. And the dust that is us, configured into breathing, beating life for a cosmic eye-blink, derives its origins from the happenstance of millions of years of cumulative couplings, reaching back to the first wriggling’s of life on this planetary outpost.2

Almost as miraculous, we speak here today of these origins. Dust giving voice to its own beginnings; the cosmos, through our most frail, ephemeral being, bearing witness to itself. The facts, methods and rational inquiry of science yields an origin “story”, rooted in the material world, more astonishing than any conjured through transcendental metaphysics. In Goethe’s words:

“The highest religious act is the shudder of awe before the visible universe”.

May you experience a shudder of awe at the wonderment of our cosmic origins.

Happy New Year!

Time Travel

Time Machine

The dream of time machines, in their many forms, have usually aimed to take us back or forward in time—to slide along the trajectory of human existence, either to visit a long past event or leap to the future. We want to spy how it was, or how it will be, for us and our fellows. Our most urgent concerns are, naturally, with ourselves and this desire animates our quest to unbind the fetters of time. In this quest, we move along a “horizontal” temporal axis, maintaining our experience within a constant human “temporal envelop”.

Our “temporal envelop” is dictated by our biology; life span, adaptive functioning and evolutionary niche. Our beating heart, breathing lungs, marching steps, habitual movements, and suite of neural and perceptual-motor reflexes are metronomes that establish our time signature.

What would await us if we traveled along the vertical axis? If we to spin the dial to the shortest intervals possible, then to the longest?

Shorter Intervals

Consider if we were to nudge the time dial to a slightly quicker ‘time zone’ within a different biological metronome: hummingbirds.  The life span of hummingbirds  is a short 3-5 years, but much intense life is packed into this brief time. The heart of hummingbirds’ pulse at 1000 beats per minute, wings snap at 50 beats per second, lungs breathing 250 times a minute, flying up-down-backward-forward-hovering all in an eye blink, yet migrating for 1000 mile journeys and, at night, entering a hibernating torpor.1   The contrapuntal rhythms of hummingbird heart, wings and voice, the staccato, stabbing movements of flight and fight, and the allegro molto pace and multimeasure rests makes for incomprehensibly complex jazz riffs.

 

Things get weirder still if we were to spin the dial toward the smallest time intervals. Events in this briefest of temporal neighborhoods occur in the domain of subatomic particles that inhabit near infinitesimal space and throb to very different beats than living organisms. The swarm of subatomic particles, governed by quantum mechanics, has been called a ‘particle zoo’  and the shortest enduring fundamental particle is the Z boson, which exists for a duration of about 10-25 seconds.2 A cloud chamber is one of the first methods used to capture the presence of subatomic particles, which leave vapor trails that allow for observing their fleetingly brief interactions 3.

Perhaps the most bizarre members of this ‘zoo’ are virtual particles, whose liminal existence is both substantive and unmeasurable. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle sets a time-energy/mass limit, or barrier, beyond which we cannot detect the particles themselves. But we know they exist by their effects on particles that endure on the detectable side of the barrier. The Uncertainty Principle, then, both establishes the lower limit of measurable time and also reveals that time, in the quantum zone, is tethered to mass/energy.

Longer Intervals

On the other hand, what if we nudge the time dial to a slightly longer interval, one attuned to a very different biological metronome: trees? Trees, whose upturned arms passionately reach toward the sky and whose roots tenaciously grasp the earth. Who have memory, send alarms to friends, offer aid to neighbors in crisis, nurse the young, nourish the aged and fallen, tell time, create and capture water, create and enrich their home/soil, wave welcome to birds, plants and critters of all kinds—all this we overlook, if not disbelieve, because our temporal beat allows us to see only a snapshot of the life and time of these living, breathing creatures 4.

The Big Bang occurred about 13.7 billion years or 1017 seconds ago,5which marks the age of the universe and the longest time interval on our time dial. When we spin the dial toward this limit we lose our moorings. Time, itself, is revealed to be not a simple slide along a single dimension but a thread in a space-time fabric.  Incomprehensibly large cosmic distances are measured in light years; the time it would take for light to travel from one point to another. So, the starlight we see convey the happenings that occurred long ago. This measurement of space via time hints at a more fundamental entanglement of the two. Time’s messages travel at a finite speed; the speed of light. Cosmic simultaneity does not exist—it is not the same time everywhere. This realization leads to a host of head-spinning conclusions: The basic coordinates for mapping events must be space-time coordinates. Clocks tic at different speeds and lengths and distances shrink or expand—depending on the frame of reference. And, the space-time fabric itself is curved, twisted and, in some places, torn, where time-events fall into bottomless black holes. The contours of this fabric are determined by the mass of the matter in its vicinity; more mass, more distortions, and holes where stars have collapsed. Much of what seems bedrock-stable in our narrow time zone is an anomaly from a cosmic time perspective; Alice-in-Wonderland is the cosmic norm.

Time began with the Big Bang. Was there a ‘before’?  The ‘before’ might well have been nothing, the void.  However, the void— space with no energy, charge or matter— is not empty. It is pregnant with possibility; a churning, bubbling, boiling stew of virtual particles that flicker in-and-out of existence, ever so briefly. It is surmised that the Big Bang was a cataclysmic leap from possibility-to-actuality in this frothing quantum foam.  Furthermore, our universe, and its Big Bang, may, perhaps, be a small region of a larger cosmos that has existed prior to this event. Our universe may be but a local time zone amidst an infinite space-time landscape.

Quick Decaying Particles

A being who exists near the largest cosmic space-time interval may likely have a similar perspective toward us as we have toward  subatomic particles— our little, obscure, ephemeral neighborhood of space-time would be its particle zoo. Consciousness, which influences the actions of these tiny, scurrying, quick decaying particles—us— would be a kind of virtual particle in this physics, and our architecture, art, texts, broadcasts and space probes would be our vapor trails. The vertical traverse of time rockets us through  dizzying loops, wrinkles, twists, spins, tumbles and holes. It does not offer visions of our human past or future. Rather, spinning this dial rips us from our comfortable temporal-spatial moorings, offering a wild ride through time itself and a kaleidoscopic glimpse of our place within the roiling cosmic order.

 

 

“Why Me?!”

“The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

This famous line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar wisely advises that we are not doomed by the heavens, but by ourselves. I would like to add a corollary—that how we regard the stars can doom or liberate us; that our lives are deeply affected by our cosmology.

Consider: “Why me?!”

This is an oft spoken lament when fate delivers a mishap, a crisis, a tragic blow. The emphasis of the query is on ‘ME’. Of all the people in the world, why have I been singled out for this misfortune? What have I done to warrant such unfair treatment?!” The misfortune is experienced as a deeply personal violation of the natural order, of how things are supposed to unfold. We presume an implicit causal structure in this lament; that the universe is fair, that cosmic justice privileges us, and that we have been dealt a dirty deal.

How we understand the cosmic order gives rise to our experience of “Why me?”.

I would like to briefly explore the cosmic order as it applies to me; that is, myself as a unique, conscious being, present and alive at this moment. I begin with the basic causal question: What are the origins of ‘me’? How did I get here? Biologically, I am the product of my father’s sperm and my mother’s egg. But what are the circumstances of ‘me’; of my unique presence? This is a matter of probability. Of the millions of my father’s sperm, the singular one that impregnated my mother’s singular egg is ‘me’. One in millions—that is the probability, or improbability, of ‘me’. But while this is the improbability of the biological event, it does not encompass the circumstances that gave rise to it. What if my father had been too tired or my mother too busy? What if a phone call or an emergency had interceded? Another untold million contingencies of intention, motivation, happenstance and caprice now magnify the biological improbability exponentially.

But this is only the first order improbability. What about my father’s parents? And my mother’s? And their parents. And then, again, their parent’s parents— and so forth. Indeed, this generational regress eventually traces the lineage of the human race. And, further back still, as the genome of our human ancestors emerges from earlier primates, and these, in turn, harken to earlier unions of more distant life forms. Each coupling, and the circumstances surrounding it, stacking more orders of improbability on improbability, receding into the mists of the first primordial awakenings of life.

This, however, is not the end of the causal thread. Life emerged only because of a host of remarkable planetary developments— the appearance of water and of oxygen among the most notable. And these, in turn, are descendants of big-bang cosmic events that created this precious globe and its sweet-spot orbit around our life-giving star. My being here, now, is a point on a singular trace among the near infinite number of possible trajectories that could have spun out after the big bang.

From cosmic beginnings to the formation of our planetary outpost, from water to life, from slime mold to ape, and from my father’s sperm to my mother’s egg, one single moment askew in this house-of-cards tower of improbability stretching to the stars… then—no ‘me’.

The singularity that is me also embodies the entire arc of creation: In my star-dust body, animated by the elixirs of water and oxygen, my heart throbs and my breath heaves to the rhythms conferred to me by my evolutionary heritage.

This cosmic order brings me to my knees in gratitude— and in astonishment, I ask:

“Why me?!”

 

 

 

Statues in the Park

Billy Collins 1

 

 

I thought of you today
when I stopped before an equestrian statue
in the middle of a public square,

you who had once instructed me
in the code of these noble poses.

A horse rearing up with two legs raised,
you told me, meant the rider died in battle.

if only one leg was lifted,
the man had elsewhere succumbed to his wounds;

and if four legs were touching the ground,
as they were in this case—

bronze hoofs affixed to a stone base—
it meant the man on the horse,

this one staring intently
over the closed movie theatre across the street,
had died of a cause other than war.

In the shadow of the statue,
I wondered about the others
who had simply walked through life
without a horse, a saddle, or a sword—

pedestrians who could no longer
place one foot in front of the other.

I pictured statues of the sickly
recumbent on their cold stone beds,
the suicides toeing the marble edge,

statues of accident victims covering their eyes,
the murdered covering their wounds,
the drowned silently treading the air.

And there was I,
up on a rosy-grey block of granite
near a cluster of shade trees in the local park
my name and dates pressed into a plaque,

down on my knees, eyes lifted,
praying to the passing clouds,
forever begging for just one more day.

 

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