Tuesday, February 25, 2014

 

Carl Sagan's Legacy

Carl Sagan's groundbreaking PBS series "Cosmos" introduced millions of people to the wonders and mysteries of the universe. Sagan often spoke of "great demotions," meaning that humanity has been forced to accept that the Earth is not the center of the solar system, that our solar system is not the center of the galaxy and that our galaxy is not the center of the universe. Sagan began "Cosmos" by telling the viewers, "The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."

Joel Achenbach's Smithsonian article Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable describes Sagan's influence as a science popularizer and explores his core beliefs, "including the sense that there is an order and logic to the universe, that it is fundamentally a benign place, congenial to life and even intelligent life. His cosmos was primed for self-awareness. He sensed that humanity was on the cusp of making a cosmic connection with advanced civilizations (and no doubt that a certain Brooklyn native would be in on the conversation!). In effect, he believed he was fortunate enough to live in a special moment."

Sagan did not think that evidence supported the notion that UFOs are spacecraft piloted by intelligent extraterrestrial beings but, like Fox Mulder from "The X-Files," it could be said that Sagan wanted to believe. Shortly before Sagan passed away, he told Achenbach, "I'd rather there be extraterrestrial life discovered in my lifetime than not. I'd hate to die and never know."

While Sagan spoke about "great demotions," David Grinspoon--son of Sagan's best friend Lester Grinspoon--promotes a concept called "Anthropocene," meaning that "human beings are changing the Earth so rapidly and dramatically that our presence is becoming part of the geological record. And we can't pretend it's not happening. We have to learn to manage this place. Grinspoon made an analogy: It's as though we've just awoken to the fact that we're at the wheel of a speeding bus on an unfamiliar road. And we realize we don't know how to drive."

Achenbach concludes that Sagan would not be disturbed by Grinspoon's ideas:

Would Sagan have been able to square his great demotions with this new Anthropocene concept? Of course. The universe isn’t about us. The Earth is but a grain of sand. But upon this humble rock we will make our stand. It’s a task that will require science and reason--but also courage and far-sightedness. So it is that Grinspoon says of his old "Uncle Carl": "Lord knows we need him now."

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

 

Camus and Monod Wrestled With "The Problem of Meaning"

"Everybody's looking 4 for the ladder...everybody wants to know how the story started and how it will end."--Prince, "The Ladder"

"The principle of art is to pause, not bypass. The principle of true art is not to portray, but to evoke. This requires a moment of pause--a contract with yourself through the object you look at or the page you read. In that moment of pause, I think life expands. And really the purpose of art--for me, of fiction--is to alert, to indicate to stop, to say: Make certain that when you rush through you will not miss the moment which you might have had, or might still have. That is the moment of finding something which you have not known about yourself, or your environment, about others, and about life."--Jerzy Kosinski, 1977 interview by Lisa Grunwald

Sean Carroll's new book Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize tells the intertwined life stories of Jacques Monod (who won the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine) and Albert Camus (who won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature). Many so-called French intellectuals collaborated with France's Nazi occupiers during World War II but Camus and Monod participated in the Resistance Movement, though they did not meet each other face to face until 1948.

Steven Shapin's September 21-22, 2013 Wall Street Journal review of Carroll's book (titled "A Collaboration Across Two Cultures") explains that both men sought "the secrets of life":

For Camus, the secrets were about the conditions of finding meaning and value in an absurd, meaningless world; for Monod, modern science was the practice that eroded traditional notions of meaning and value and that searched for the objective mechanisms used by life to reproduce itself and to perform all its functions, including the functions associated with thought and feeling. At a fundamental level, all the phenomena of life were coded by DNA and expressed in proteins, but molecules have no meaning.

In his book Chance and Necessity, Monod declared that even though science can provide many answers and solutions, "we now realize...that the problem of meaning is the one to which no scientific answer ever could be provided." Monod's outlook greatly influenced the thinking and writing of novelist Jerzy Kosinski; Kosinski, a skilled photographer, visited the terminally ill Monod shortly before the scientist's death and--with Monod's approval--produced pictures of the Nobel laureate's final hours. Kosinski also wrote an essay for Esquire about Monod's ideas, his life and his death.

Chance and Necessity concluded with these stark words: "The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose." If you are a religious believer then you reject Monod's statement because you believe that the universe exists not because of chance but because of God's will. However, regardless of your religious and/or philosophical outlook, it is quite humbling, awe inspiring and even frightening to consider the reality that Earth is just a tiny, pale blue dot (to borrow Carl Sagan's phrase) in an incomprehensibly vast and mysterious universe; any power or energy that humanity generates on Earth is minuscule compared to the vast powers and energies pulsating through the cosmos.

Chance and Necessity has two epigraphs; one is a brief Democritus quote ("Everything existing in the Universe is the fruit of chance and of necessity"), while the other consists of two paragraphs from Camus' book The Myth of Sisyphus. Shapin's final sentences summarize Monod's larger message:

Face the facts; have courage; accept that the only meaning available is the meaning you produce for yourself. Life is the struggle to make the meaning that nature no longer has. The scientist created nature-without-meaning; the philosopher pronounced on how to live in it.

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Monday, January 7, 2013

 

"Earth Maze" Depicts "Unknown Potentialities Within Self and Nature"

After I played in the Second Annual Michigan Chess Festival, my friend Erika Klotz took a picture of me standing next to Derek Wernher's "Earth Maze" sculpture. I assumed that the inscription on the plaque next to the statue would be legible in the photo but later realized that this was not the case. However, after doing some research I found the complete text:

"EARTH MAZE"

The sculpture incorporates the circle or sphere as the symbol of unity of self as well as union between man and nature. The interior or maze portion of the sculpture is a network of interconnecting passages and spaces representative of unknown potentialities within self and nature. The opposing of smooth and rough surfaces, spherical and angular forms in the piece, are different ways of blending contradicting elements to express wholeness. "Earth Maze," which is eight feet in diameter and weighs over two tons, was created by Derek Wernher of Metamora, Michigan for the Northfield Hilton Inn.

Here is the photo of me standing in front of "Earth Maze":


Erika also took a closeup shot of the interior details of "Earth Maze":


I spent the rest of that day touring Troy, Michigan with Erika, a fun conclusion to my birthday weekend trip--a trip that represented a milestone in my ongoing efforts to change my Perspective about life.

The evocative phrase "unknown potentialities within self and nature" can be interpreted and perceived in many ways. It reminds me of, among other things, the main title sequence for the Incredible Hulk TV show:




The voice-over describes Dr. David Banner's quest to tap into "the hidden strengths that all humans have."  While the show emphasized physical strength, the greatest strength that all humans have is the strength of the human spirit--the capacity to know right from wrong, good from evil and then act on this knowledge even at the risk of suffering personal harm. After Dr. Banner's scientific experiment went awry, his physiology became permanently transformed and whenever he became "angry or outraged" he acquired the necessary physical strength to confront whatever evil or torments afflicted him. The capability to "hulk out" and wreak havoc against wrongdoers is an alluring fantasy but the show wisely depicted the downside as well: Dr. Banner had no memory of or control over his "hulk outs" and he was extremely concerned that he would harm innocent people (even though the show's viewers realized that the Incredible Hulk, though apparently simple-minded, possessed Dr. Banner's inherent goodness and gentleness). Dr. Banner futilely sought to cure himself and/or to remove himself from any situation that might cause him to "hulk out." A child might look at the Incredible Hulk and merely see someone who uses great physical strength to control his surroundings but Dr. Banner perceived the Incredible Hulk as an entity that lacked self-control, the most important kind of control; a passage in the Bhagavad Gita--quoted at the beginning of Jerzy Kosinski's National Book Award winning novel Steps--states, "For the uncontrolled there is no wisdom, nor for the uncontrolled is there the power of concentration; and for him without concentration there is no peace. And for the unpeaceful, how can there be happiness?" The control in question has nothing to do with manipulating others through the application of force (physical, verbal or otherwise) but rather controlling oneself--one's thoughts, emotions and actions. Dr. Banner lacked peace and happiness because he could not find a way to control the "raging spirit that dwells within him," a very apt metaphor for human existence on both the individual and societal levels because "raging spirit" can be observed in both mundane circumstances (a road rager's extended middle finger) and extreme circumstances (mass murder).

Dr. Banner's quest was poignantly captured by the haunting "Lonely Man Theme," played during the closing credits of each episode of the Incredible Hulk:



Bill Bixby, the actor who portrayed Dr. Banner, died of cancer a couple months before his 60th birthday. In his final interview, he displayed both the strong will and gentle spirit that he had in common with Dr. Banner, declaring that some people cease battling as soon as they hear the dreaded "C word" but that his attitude was, "You come and get me and you drag me away. But I'm not going to contribute to my own death." Bixby concluded with these touching words: "Be good to yourselves, because if you're good to yourself, then you'll be kind to everybody else. I'd sure like to see that before I die."




Being good to ourselves as a prelude to being kind to everybody else is an excellent way to express the "unity of self as well as union between man and nature" that Wernher depicted in "Earth Maze." In the concluding episode of Cosmos (titled "Who Speaks for Earth?"), Carl Sagan declares, "The civilization now in jeopardy is all humanity. As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and sky. In our tenure of this planet, we have accumulated dangerous, evolutionary baggage--propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders, all of which puts our survival in some doubt. We have also acquired compassion for others, love for our children, a desire to learn from history and experience, and a great, soaring passionate intelligence--the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity."

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