It’s not the beginning of the week or month and it’s not around Thanksgiving, but still, I’m beginning 28 days of gratitude today. Sometimes we act or think if we only had a little bit more…THEN we’d be happy. Let’s see what I’ve already got. Feel free to chime in.
Gratitude Day 1: The Metaphysical Nature of the Universe
It’s the first day and I’m going to start big!
I’m so grateful for the astonishing metaphysical nature of the Universe.
Maybe that sounds a bit wacky, but one thing physics has taught me is that our world didn’t have be this way.
The fundamental relationship between all the basic forces is balanced just so perfectly to make the creation of atoms and molecules and the chemistry we know and suns that can last billions of years, and many more things, like the appearance of sentient life, possible.
Most of the Universes that a scientist might conjure up in a computer simulation would be featureless voids.
I’ve often wondered what people who believe in an afterlife think heaven is like. Honestly, I can’t imagine anything better, richer, or more interesting than this.
Deep thought: When you really think about it, it’s not obvious that there has to be a Universe at all. Why is there even something as opposed to nothing?
Here’s a cool video about the Universe by my favorite science blogger, Veritasium:
Gratitude Day 2: The Benevolence of Our Local Area of the Galaxy.
I’m grateful for the benevolent nature of our local area of the galaxy and the structure of our solar system.
It’s a bit surprising to be left relatively undisturbed for four and a half billion years while intelligent life evolves.
We are about two thirds of the way out from the center of the Milky Way galaxy on the Orion spiral arm with the closest star (Proxima Centauri) about four light years away. That’s a pretty long way. At the center of the galaxy there is a lot more going on that would perturb a solar system in four billion years. Some of these things are numerous bolides that could collide with the planet, star systems that disrupt the gravitational arrangement of the solar system, and intense radiation from neutron stars and the accretion disk rotating around the monstrous black hole at the center of the galaxy.
Within our solar system, we orbit a sun which is relatively steady in terms of the energy it gives off. There are “variable” stars out there which would wreak havoc on the appearance of life, but not our star. Also, the orbits of the planets in our solar system are stable. We don’t just feel gravity from the sun, but also the other planets. Jupiter (the most massive planet) has protected us by attracting asteroids, yet it’s far enough away that it hasn’t pulled the earth in towards the sun or flung us out into space.
The earth is also a perfect distance from the sun, known as the “Goldilocks Zone”. This is the distance around a star where the solar intensity is just right for the existence of all three phases of water: gas, liquid and ice. Places outside this zone would need to have developed life in a very different way than we know it.
Here is an interesting quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
And here is a video from Minute Physics by Henry Reich which discusses the evolution of revolving bodies.
Gratitude Day 3:Today I’m grateful for the richness of the earth.
The earth has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to ecosystems, and life is so diverse and robust that it fills nearly every niche. The ability to fly has evolved separately at least three times (for example, bats (mammals), birds and insects). The ability to see light has evolved separately much more than that. You have more bacteria in your gut than you have cells in the rest of your whole body, and you’d be sick without them. There are even bacteria that only live in the follicles of your eye lashes.
Here I list just a few of the essential factors in earth being so hospitable for life:
Plate tectonics. The drift of the continents is responsible for the carbon cycle. Life on earth is mostly carbon based, and once it is taken up in the body of some plant or animal some of that carbon is just sequestered at the bottom of the oceans or buried in earth after the plant or animal dies. But through plate tectonics, this carbon – granted, 100 million to 200 million years later – is reintroduced in gaseous form, from volcanic activity, to the atmosphere and is once again available to life.
The Magnetic field. The magnetic field around the earth is produced by charged and moving molten material in the earth’s core. This field protects the earth from various sources of radiation in space, but notably the solar wind (electrons and protons streaming toward the earth from the sun which get sucked into the magnetic poles). So, instead of being harmful to life, the solar wind is pulled toward the poles where it creates the beautiful northern (and southern) lights upon colliding with the earth’s atmosphere..
The Ozone Layer. Ultraviolet light from the sun produces ozone (O3) when it collides with the oxygen (02) in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere). This absorption of a large part of the UV rays from the sun protects our skin. But also, it helps to create the weather as we know it. The reaction of O2 + UV light —> ozone + heat warms the stratosphere and keeps a lid on what we think of as “weather”. Without this lid at about seven miles high, it’s hard to say just exactly what weather would look like on earth, but it would definitely be different to what we know now.
The Size of the Earth. The earth is just about the right size for creating a gravitational field that is friendly to life as we know it. It is strong enough to hold our atmosphere in, yet not so strong as to make terrestrial life too heavy. Mars had an atmosphere once, but because it is smaller than the earth, its gravity is only 38% what we experience here. Over the millennia, energetic molecules in Mar’s atmosphere have been able to reach escape velocity. Also, since Mars has no gravitational field, the solar wind has also blasted away some of Mars’ atmosphere.
Finally, we have an incredibly rich variety of elements on earth, created at some point in the past by the energy of a supernova. All of the elements up to Uranium (92 on the periodic table) are found naturally on earth except for technetium (43) and promethium (61). This makes possible all the astonishing chemistry we see here on earth and in our bodies
Gratitude Day 4: Artist Friends
Today I’m grateful for all my artist friends.
Having established my gratitude for the natural world, I now would like to express my appreciation for some of my friends that give it meaning. (I’m mortified if I left anyone out)
Norbert Garab, I’m putting you first because your art resonates so deeply with my own sense of wonder. You always have something important to say.
Olivia Obrecht, You make magic with a Sharpie. Your murals are bold and balanced…but mostly I’m grateful for the turtle who sits permanently on my right calf.
Cheri Grinnell Arciniega, Thank you for giving others the courage to express themselves on canvas and giving your daughter Ashley Lieber the support to pursue her own very unique art. Ashley, your work with moss and other forest miscellany captures what I see out my airplane window. I love that!
Francisco Hueyatl León, Your work with Flor de Fango is beautiful and whimsical and expresses your Mexican heritage so well.
Crys Klier-Hoffman, I love your canvases but, honestly, I love your poetry even more. It’s a natural gift from a deep soul.
Roz Dimon You are a pioneer, working with computers long before any of thought we’d ever have one. I’m so happy to know you’ve made a whole lifetime of art.
Beth Hull, Your works are motivated by love and joy and the older you get it just seems to be getting better all the time.
Axel Moeller, Your art is edgy and fearless and motivated by a dimension of humanity few people are comfortable acknowledging.
Heather Higham and Jacqueline Frank, While too many people habituate themselves to seeing negativity, your photography shows that you are clearly oriented to finding the beautiful. And then you find a unique perspective to view it. I really appreciate both of you. Heather’s website: snaphappygalphotography.com
Aaron Barker, Your art is whimsical and childlike and I especially love your doll creatures. I’m glad there are people like you in the world.
Jeremiah DiGiovanni, Thank you for your painstaking (for me, at least) work on my own skin. Everyone loves a tattoo artist who is a little bit OCD.
Jonathan Hardesty, I’m amazed with how you turn paint into ultra realistic art and it’s fantastic how you share your skill so openly online so that other’s could also learn your techniques.
Ray Villafane, Though I don’t personally know you Ray, I always love seeing the incredible things you do with a pile of sand or a pumpkin. You are ambitious and wildly imaginative and you must possess a sense of three-dimensional space that most of us lack. I encourage anyone to google your name!
Amanda Boughton, Your work is ethereal and otherworldly and I wish you the best at whatever you are doing now!
Anthony D’Amore, My most recent and youngest artist friend, never give up on your dream of making art your career! I’m excited to help you in that direction by commissioning my own work. I’m really excited about that!
Shown is a work by Norbert Garab. I love the dimensionality of this painting. The dog seems to be aware we are looking at them but the boy is not.
Gratitude Day 5: My Time in History
Today I’m grateful for the time in history that I was born.
It’s a little hard for us to imagine, but for the most of the time that humans have walked the earth, a person saw very little change. The society they were born into was pretty much the society in which they died. Mostly, life was brutish and short.
We take progress for granted sometimes I think.
I’m grateful that I was alive the day man first walked on the moon.
That there is Novocaine when I need to fix my teeth and I don’t have to worry about them falling out.
That I can directly pass my stories and experience to more than one generation.
That I have a magic box that fits in my pocket that contains all knowledge known to man (don’t ever tell me you are bored!) and that I can use to see and speak to someone else on the other side of the planet. And on a more personal note, that this magic box can show real-time weather radar!
That I never had to die in a war for my freedom (Thank You (!) to the boys who had to row up to the beaches in Normandy).
That there are antibiotics to cure an infection and vaccines for diseases that used to wipe out people by the millions.
That I’m not confined to my little village but can range over the entire earth in a giant mechanical bird.
I wonder what times will be like for humans in the future. Many people have imagined horrible dystopian future societies. But maybe we will save ourselves and our planet and see progress not just in technology, but in our humanity too.
This photo is Neil Armstrong on the moon, July, 1969
Gratitude Day 6: Forgiveness
Today I’m grateful for forgiveness.
We are all trying to find our way and we make mistakes.
I need to let go of all the wrongs that may have been done to me, petty and grand, and move forward as a free man so I can be the architect of the richest life I can have in the time that remains for me.
I’m grateful for those that have forgiven me as well when I wasn’t quite enough and failed to do the right thing.
I’ve learned something from everyone.
The photo was taken in the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Gratitude Day 7: My Job
I’m so grateful for my job as a flight attendant!
My job has the world’s greatest job perk. Free travel, wow. My grandparents wanted to go to Europe but they never made it.
Being a flight attendant is consciousness expanding. My friends are all over the world. I hear a multitude of different viewpoints on almost every issue. I see that I’m not the center of the Universe and neither is my culture or country or species or even my planet.
I’ve learned to be flexible and surrender to my circumstances when my circumstances called for it. I don’t always end up where I thought I’d be going.Or maybe there are other ways to get from A to B. Or maybe I should just give up on B and go for C!
Because of the flexibility of my job I was able to go back to school and study atmospheric science. I went to school during the week and worked to Japan on the weekends. Crazy.
And my job has been stable too. I’m in my 32nd year and I’ve never had to face unemployment my entire adult life. Nor worry about health care. Or dental care. Or retirement.
And last but not least, my “office” has the most amazing view ever. At various times in my life I’ve looked down upon the Grand Canyon, the Amazon, Greenland, Siberia, Afghanistan, and my own house.
The attached photo is my best airline friend Trudy in front of Buckingham Palace on a layover in London.
Thank you American Airlines.
Gratitude Day 8: Pathfinders
Today I’m grateful for my friends who are pathfinders. You provide a role model for making the most out of this one life.
Here are JUST a FEW of the notable pathfinders I call my friends.
Gustav Andersson. You are the radical pathfinder. Most people remain in a well-paying job refusing to admit their unhappiness and lack of meaning. Not you! You looked deep inside, devised a plan, rid yourself of unneeded stuff, and took to the road as The Modern Nomad (themodernnomad.com). It’s been such a pleasure watching you explore the world in a more profound way than is possible when on vacation. You are living proof that we all have more choices than we’ll admit to ourselves.
Denise David. I know of no one who knew more clearly what they wanted out of life. You marked a path and never took your eye off the ball. You’ve shown me the importance of clear and firm boundaries; you have never allowed someone else’s negativity take root in your life. Today you have a beautiful family (such awesome children!), a beyond gorgeous home, a fulfilling career and you are surrounded by love.
Aaron Kahn. Often, being a pathfinder means sometimes living one’s life outside of our comfort zone. You have followed your passion for the performing arts and spiritual wholeness to expand your world far beyond what any average person would do. This meant abandoning creature comforts and emotional security to immerse yourself in a life of self-expression and meaning. Since I’ve known you, you have lived whole lifetimes in Paris and Hong Kong and now Lithuania (there were Israel and India chapters before that). You’ve performed in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, with the Sacred Harp Singers of Cork and you have even sung a song for my Mother. You are a role model for pursuing one’s dreams.
Fabian Kostro, although you are not a Facebook denizen, you are an explorer of the world and you challenged me to push my boundaries. I climbed a volcano because of you. I’ve hopped along the sands of the Sahara and slept in a cabin on the Arctic Ocean. I stopped worrying about planning out my travels too perfectly and just trust in the world a little more.
Lisa Barry. I think you are my oldest (long time) friend. I recall the surprise I felt when I first heard your voice on the radio. But I’m not thinking here about your successful public career. I’m thinking about your singular and intentional dedication to love. Thank you for taking that voice to the airwaves and to my own Facebook. This is a path more people need to be on! Big love to you, Lisa.
Chava Bahle. You have made it your life’s work to promote dialogue between people of different faiths. You get up every morning with the intention of bringing people together. In this time when people are breaking up into tribes and living in their own digital echo chambers, you provide a voice to remind us of our common humanity. I have so much gratitude for people like you in the world.
This photo is taken at the top of Viarica volcano in Chile. From left, me, the actual pathfinder (and now my friend) Sebastian Drago who guided us, and Fabian Kostro who convinced me to do it.
Gratitude Day 9: Being American
Today I’m grateful for being an American.
Yes, I am primarily a member of the human species on planet Earth which we all share and I don’t think I’m better because I’m American, but I do think I’m lucky. There are quite a few reasons why, but here are two:
We are truly a melting pot nation! People from all cultures in the world have pulled up their roots to come to the United States and together we are the recipients of the greatest cultural diversity in history. Our diversity is one of the reasons we are such an innovative nation; we are used to thinking outside the box because we can look at our neighbors and see how they are solving the same problems in a different way. Also, watching our neighbors celebrate life passages and their spirituality differently frees our minds.
Furthermore, we are literally a nation of fifty “separate yet United” States. Is the culture in Vermont not your style? How about Alabama? Or Hawaii? Much of the governance in the United States is left to the states and this gives us a unique opportunity to solve social problems by experimentation. Perhaps Massachusetts finds a new way to teach math or Oregon a way to stop opioid addiction which other states could emulate. (I made these examples up).
The Rule of Law
A country of laws makes a free market possible. If you and I make a contract we know that the courts will uphold it. Standards are agreed upon and enforced. You can’t pay your way out of a speeding ticket and you can’t pay someone at City Hall to award a contract to your company. Corruption stunts an economy by throttling competition, as many third world countries clearly show. As a citizen I think it’s my role to be vigilant that the rule of law is not lost and I take that seriously. While it may seem that recent events have challenged the rule of law in the United States, I do believe that our democratic institutions are holding up.
Gratitude Day 10: Animals in my Life
Today I’m grateful for animals that make a direct impact on my life.
This group includes my pets, especially the dogs that have taught me about unconditional love, trust, and living in the moment. Then there’s chickens I hatched in a homemade incubator that showed me how life sprouts from the tiniest spot (when I held the egg over a lamp I could see the embryos grow day by day). The cats that moved with incredible grace.
But I’m also grateful to the animals that I eat or that make the milk and cheese I consume. To all those animals I give you my respect and I pledge to continue to expand my consciousness to make sure you are taken care of in the proper way.
In the photo below is a picture of me (on the left kissing the puppy, my brother Russell, my sister Paula, and Holly the momma dog. This litter of puppies is one of my best childhood memories.
Gratitude Day 11: Music
Today I’m grateful for music.
It’s pretty mysterious how rhythmic notes of varying frequency can stir our emotions, but music has enriched my life immeasurably. Music can inspire us to be more courageous, comfort us when we are hurting, and help us clarify the things we want to say to others.
It’s hard to imagine, but just less than 130 years ago if you heard music, someone was playing it right in front of you. Or you were playing it yourself. Today not so many people learn to play musical instruments (that’s probably a bad thing) because our access to music is so unlimited. We can hear music from native cultures to the classical music of previous centuries to modern pop. Mixed with poetry it enhances the emotional experience even more. When I was a college student overseas in Spain I had no access to music at all except when I happened to be near a radio in a public park. When I’d hear it I’d stop and listen intently as if I was suffering from “musical thirst”. I’m really grateful that I can have music of my choice whenever I want!
When I was a kid, I played a song over and over again by Bach (Sinfonia to Cantata No.29) and performed by Walter Carlos (now Wendy Carlos) on this amazing new instrument called a “Moog synthesizer.” It drove my family crazy. I still love the song and wanted to put a link here but all I can find is a “tribute” to Wendy Carlos and the song. It’s not nearly as good but here it is for the record:
Gratitude Day 12: “Sacred” Places
Today I’m grateful for places I go to recharge, where I feel safe, and that just make me feel all is right with the world. Do you have places like that? Please share, especially with photos.
Madison Beach, Seattle.
I recall sitting on the hill under a tree at Madison beach late on an August afternoon sometime in the nineties. The swimmers were slowly trickling out, but the boats were still going strong on Lake Washington. In the distance, Mt. Rainier was perched surreally on the horizon, lit by the slowly lowering sun. This is a place were everyone is accepted and live peacefully together..gay or straight, families or singletons, even elderly people under their umbrella to protect themselves from the sun. It represents in my mind the progressive Seattle culture that I love so much. Madison beach days were some of the happiest days during a happy time of my life. I still enjoy going there even on a chilly, rainy winter day.
South Manitou Island, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan
The Manitou Islands sit about ten miles off the coast from the Traverse City area and are part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. It’s not super easy to get there as there is just one small ferry that heads out and back during the summer. It’s a place that is separated from civilization in my mind and where I can leave all the craziness of my busy life behind and just be one with nature. One night I slept on North Manitou (22 sq. mi in area) when I was just one of sixteen people there. I laid on my back as the sun set and watched the planes fly overhead. I knew that this was the general approach that planes from Europe took as they headed for landing in Chicago. I knew very well what kind of prelanding chaos was going on up on the planes and I wondered if any of them were looking down on the beach at me and my peaceful bliss (no they weren’t).
Gratitude Day #13: Those Who Came Before Me
Today I’m grateful to who came before me and who gave me something I can’t repay in return.
My list below is heavy on the sciences because of my personal passions and things I think about, but they certainly have had an impact on all our lives.
What would your list look like?
Democritus. What is a rock made of? What is my body made of? The Greeks were the first to think deeply about this. Democritus was the first to say stuff was really small bits called “atoms”.
Aristotle. He formalized what we today would call “critical thinking” with his rules for logic and deductive reasoning.
Also know as Alhacen, he was born in 945 AD in Basra (in present day Iraq) during the Arab Golden Age and the European Dark Ages. He pioneered experimentation and the scientific method long before Renaissance scientists, and in his work studying light, tried to prove his hypotheses false rather than true.
Francis Bacon. Bacon brought the scientific method to Renaissance England, emphasizing observation in addition to Aristotle’s rational thought, and for that, he is often called the father of empiricism. He thought a skeptical methodology could keep a scientist from misleading himself.
Galileo. When others were searching for truth in ancient writings Galileo went and actually measured it. Do heavy things fall faster? Let’s see! Is it moving faster at ten feet down or twenty feet down? And have you ever wondered why if you toss a ball in a moving car it doesn’t go flying backward to hit the back windshield? That’s because from the ball’s point of view it’s only moving up and down. It’s the earth that’s moving forward, not the car. That’s Galilean Relativity and it explains a lot.
Isaac Newton. Newton didn’t “discover gravity” but he did realize that the same force that pulled an apple to the ground is the same thing that kept the moon in orbit. Then he took a few giant leaps forward and quantized it in equations. Newtons equations were just about all the physics of motion we needed to get to the moon.
John Locke. Locke articulated the rights of man and the seat of man’s identity in his consciousness. This was the philosophical foundation of our own Constitution. He was also an important promoter of the separation of Church and State.
Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps the most important of our Founding Fathers, he took Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and made their ideas real.
Simon Laplace. Do we have free will or is everything in the Universe preordained? An astonishing mathematician, LaPlace thought that if a “Demon” had all information about the world, with all the right equations, he could predict the future. Granted, this was long before quantum mechanics showed that on small scales all was probability. Personally, I believe in free will.
Michael Faraday. Faraday was the father of modern experimentation. Experimentation is a special skill which many theorists lack. Though he lacked mathematical skills, he went into the laboratory and discovered such strange and unintuitive things as a “magnetic field”.
Charles Darwin. How did we get here? Darwin’s ideas about evolution through natural selection came after years of meditative observation of nature. He was so patient in formulating his thoughts that he almost didn’t get to take credit.
Ludwig Boltzmann. Boltzmann is personally my favorite scientist because I can see his brain worked like mine. How easy is it to mix cream in your coffee? Easy, right? How hard is it to UNmix the cream in your coffee? Well, well. The Universe only gets more mixed up as time goes on (it’s probably the reason we have a sense of time passing at all!). The question is, how did the Universe start with the cream and coffee separated in the first place? Any theologians out there?
Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla. The fierce competition between these two inventors is why you have electrical outlets in your home and machines that can use the energy.
Einstein. Space and Time can stretch and bend. Light comes in “packets”. Matter and energy are exchangeable. At the end of the 19th Century some physicists though we knew all there was to know about the Universe. After Einstien….well, we have more mystery than ever to this day.
Martin Luther King. Leadership in the service of equality and justice. After King we learned that liberation frees more than the oppressed group; it frees everyone.
Rosa Park.s If you ever ask yourself how can one little person like me affect change in the world think of Rosa Parks.
The picture is a nineteenth century painting of Michael Faraday.
Gratitude Day #14: Reading
Today I’m grateful for the written word.
I honestly don’t know what I would do without reading. With my own particular lifestyle with an airline, I have lots of downtime and through reading I never feel like I’m waiting for the next thing I have to do. I can learn about nearly anything I can dream up or go anywhere real or imaginary.
I switch back and forth from fiction to non fiction. My nonfiction choices tend toward something science related more often than not. As for fiction, my favorite stories make me feel like I’ve lived an entire life outside my own or have lived in a world I will never, or could never see, but that seems completely real while the book is on my lap.
Below are some of my favorites. Feel free to share your own!!! I’m always looking for a good book.
Favorite Author: David Mitchell
Check out CLOUD ATLAS and 1000 AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET. Cloud Atlas is an astonishing feat of imagination with six connected stories, each in a different written form, and organized in a very creative in a way.
Pulitzer Prize Winners:
THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tart. This is a great example of feeling like you lived another life by the end. Often painful, it explores loneliness, who can we trust in this life, and who in this world cares about me?
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. This is the story of a blind girl living in Paris during WWII and a German boy who is enthralled by radio (we can’t see radio waves but they are just a different frequency of light). Trust me, just go to Amazon and get this book.
Book I’ve read three times:
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME by Mark Haddon. Told from the point of view of an autistic teenager, you’ll explore a consciousness quite unlike your own. Like many other great works of literature, the protagonist in this book goes on a harrowing journey; Homer’s mythical journey across the Mediterranean has nothing on this boy’s journey into London.
The Creation of other worlds:
Well I guess HARRY POTTER and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are famous for this for good reason, but here are two more.
The Silo Trilogy (WOOL, SHIFT, and DUST) by Hugh Howey. This exciting story takes place entirely in a silo, 150 stories under the ground. The slow pace with which it starts out serves the depth of the story later on, so if you wonder if this story is going anywhere…heck ya!
SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is the David Mitchell of science fiction. I never knew science fiction could be this great until I read this book, honestly. I was gripped watching humanity try to save it’s legacy as the moon breaks up and begins to rain down upon the earth. But when you finish the first part of the book, you turn the page and there it is: 5000 years later. Now the truly fascinating part starts. If you always wanted to try science fiction, start here!
I read lots of science but I recommend no one higher than Sean Carroll (who is leading theoretical physicist). Stephen Hawking and Neil DeGrasse Tyson don’t even come close. Carroll is completely lucid and profoundly deep. If you’ve ever wondered about the metaphysical nature of the Universe, here is where I’m sure the questions will be addressed!
By Sean Carroll:
THE PARTICLE AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE: You’ll understand particle physics! (Seriously!)
FROM ETERNITY TO HERE: you’ll understand relativity and realize that your intuitive understanding of “time” is all wrong.
THE BIG PICTURE: You’ll see way beyond your current idea of reality and you’ll be astonished!
THE SONG OF THE DODO by David Quammen This is the non-fiction story of how plants and animals ended up where they are (biogeography) and how they become extinct, told through the adventures of the author.
COLLAPSE by Jared Diamond. This book is so packed it will make you feel like you just earned a four year degree in anthropology and environmental biology. Along with GUNS, GERMS and STEEL (Pulitzer Prize) and THE WORLD UNTIL YESTERDAY, this is a trilogy that’s an astonishing testament to this man’s life’s work.
EAST OF EDEN by John Steinbeck
UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe
FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley
BLACK BOY by Richard Wright
Overrated Classic: ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE
Author I don’t care for: Ernest Hemingway
Again, Please share your favorites!
The photo below is of Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. This two year old book is so awesome it’s already inspired several blogs and its own wikipedia page.
Gratitude Day 16: My mind
Today I’m grateful for my mind.
By this, I’m not speaking about my ego or my sentience, as astonishing as it is that I feel a “self” that is part of this awesome world.
I’m talking about the part of my mind that wants to expand beyond my ego. To wonder what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes, or what it’s like to be a dog or a bird even. This is my curious self that asks how the Universe started and what it’s made of and what makes the past different from the future.
I recall the numerous times, as a child and as an adult, I watched in excitement as black storm clouds filled the horizon. When I was a kid I sought out books about tornadoes and then later I pursued atmospheric physics with more rigor.
Unfortunately, sometimes this part of our mind gets squashed as we mature into a word with “adult” responsibilities. But surely, nearly everyone is drawn by something that stirs their imagination? It’s OK to appreciate that mind! It’s what gives our life meaning.
The photo attached is of me receiving my first barometer as a teenager.
Gratitude Day 17: My Education
Today I’m grateful for my education.
I have some reluctance about communicating this for fear it will sound like a “humble brag,” but no gratitude list from me would be complete without expressing my gratitude for my education. Looking back on my life, my educational opportunities have been an embarrassment of riches, especially for a geek like me without extraordinary financial resources.
For my undergraduate degree in liberal arts, I went to Kalamazoo College in Michigan. It was private and costly, but by speaking up to the admission counselors I discovered I could afford it. This college was known for its foreign study program which was not so common at the time. I lived (with a Spanish family) and studied in Madrid for six months and my Spanish speaking skills were perhaps one of the reasons I was hired at American Airlines.
Years later, while living in Seattle (my work base then) I went back to school to study atmospheric science. This was my passion from a young age, and I’m not sure why I didn’t pursue this field the first time around. In an amazing coincidence, the atmospheric science program at the University of Washington in Seattle was one of the best in the world. Some of my teachers were the authors of the most widely used textbooks on the subject. Because I was a Washington State resident at the time, the instate tuition was pretty reasonable. But financially, the truly amazing thing happened when I continued on to pursue my Masters there. As is often the case in the sciences, my grad school tuition was covered by grants to the school and I even received a salary! Today I hear of kids completing their college educations with truly massive loans which never burdened me. Really, so grateful.
Below is a photo of the Global Energy Balance taken from ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCE: An Introductory Survey by Wallace and Hobbs. Hobbs was one of the best professors I ever had (RIP).
Gratitude Day 18: Kindred Spirits
Today I’m thankful for kindred spirits.
Kindred spirits are people who experience the world in some way similar to you. They make you feel psychologically visible and less alone. I’m guessing that if you are reading this now there is a good chance that you are a kindred spirit of mine, and I really appreciate your presence in my life. What specific outlook do we share, and then, how have our differences helped us grow?
I can’t possibly do justice to all the kindred spirits in my life if I tried to single them out here, and surely, someone would feel rightfully left out. Instead I will name the one kindred spirit that has clearly made the greatest impact on my life.
I’m specifically grateful for my friend Bob Whitehead.
I met you in the fourth grade, at a time of loss in my family life. My young mind was already twisting itself about trying to understand the metaphysical nature of the world and few adults seemed concerned about these same things. My New Nana (my Dad’s Mom) had died suddenly the year before and she was the only person I had known at the time that took metaphysical things seriously. I’m not sure you were quite as anxious about these questions as I was, but you recognized, and shared, these same thoughts. I felt significantly less alone and that has never wavered in the fifty years since.
I’ve rarely laughed so hard as with you, with mirrored levels of psychological, philosophical and political irony. And when I wasn’t laughing out loud I was laughing hard on the inside. We find humor in the same place.
You stood up for me when I was bullied, and when people gave you grief for being my friend, you still stood by my side. You told them that they didn’t know me like you did.
You were the first person I felt safe to tell I was gay. You reacted as I thought you would, in your larger than life way, and by the next day you had accepted this new reality with the unconditional love I’ve always felt.
I felt your shock and grief at the accidental death of your sister and I watched in awe as you took that tragedy and used it for your transformational growth over the next decade. You became more empathetic, more spiritual, more open, and not one bit more cynical or angry. I hope I helped in some way.
Over the past year you have been astonishingly generous to me as I’ve broken away from a difficult situation. You opened up your home, seemingly without hesitation, and I know I will look back on this time of my life with fondness and gratitude. Anywhere I ever go, my home is your home.
I wish everyone could have a kindred spirit friend like you are to me.
This photo is taken in the Olympic National Park in Washington State sometime in the 1990s.
Gratitude Day #19: Family
Today I’m grateful for my family.
Yesterday was about kindred spirits, today is about kin.
As the saying goes, we choose our friends, we don’t choose our family. And this gives us unique opportunity to learn how to live in a world that’s not necessarily going to operate just like you. Everyone’s family is a little dysfunctional; we struggle to communicate and figure out what not to say and what to say and how to say it. We find these same challenges out into the larger world, at work, in the community, and across cultures.
Choosing to become parents and having a family is an enormous leap of faith. One never knows for sure what one is going to get when deciding to have a child. I’m deeply grateful to both my parents for taking that leap. They were young and pretty naive…my father had not been well cared for up until the age of two and my mother’s home was emotionally barren….yet they did the very best they knew how and never wavered in their commitment and dedication.
When my siblings and I were children my father got up every day and went to work, which I took for granted at the time, and if there was ever a time when it was a struggle to provide for us, we never knew. He was a very benevolent presence in our home and a kind of stabilizing force as well if things got a bit crazy. My Dad drove the whole family out to California when I was six, sent us back out when I was ten, and helped us buy a lake home in northern Michigan when I was a teen where we drove up every weekend. I have beautiful memories of that time, boating on the lake in the summer and going on long snowmobile expeditions in the winter.
My Mother tried so hard to create a better family life than she had known as a child. But what I’m most grateful for is that she always gave me her attention. She was curious, like me, though in completely different things, and as adults we remained close. Through her I learned a lot about boundaries, which from my perspective now, I see as one of the major themes of my life.
My sister and I were not particularly close as children because we were oriented to the world very differently. But she has been so open and generous over the past year as I’ve lived somewhat nomadically, and through her I see hope. To me she represents someone who we have to reach a little farther to connect with. In a family. we are more likely to make this effort and it’s worth it. Probably we should all do that a little more in the world at large.
I know you all have your own stories of the joys and struggles of family life and the things you’ve learned from them. I know this because as I flight attendant I’ve heard hundreds of crazy stories. Believe me, someone else has struggled through the same issues as you.
The photo below is from someone’s birthday party (I’m wracking my brain to figure whose) about 1966 (?) From top left is my Aunt Verda and my New Nana. From lower left is my Mom, me, my sister in the high chair, my Dad and my brother. My Papa is probably taking the photo.
Gratitude Day #20: Food
Today I’m grateful for Food!
Yes, this is the subject of grace before a meal, the object shared across millions of Instagram photos, and it keeps us alive.
I’m grateful for all the farmers who get up early every morning, the backbreaking work of millions of people who harvest it, the ranchers and dairy farmers, and the fishermen. I’m grateful to inspectors, the packagers, truckers, chefs, restaurant workers and people who work in the grocery stores. It’s a logistical miracle. Somehow I can go the store in the middle of a northern Michigan winter and ,voila, fresh strawberries, arugula and salmon. Can we really overestimate how much we take all this for granted?
My gratitude doesn’t end there.
Back in the Sixties there was a revolution in already prepared food. This was food that was preprocessed in such a way that June Cleaver and your Mom no longer needed to spend hours in the kitchen. TV dinners (yay!), Pop Tarts, Instant Breakfasts, Mac and Cheese from a box, Wonder Bread, Hostess Cakes, ad nauseam. This was marvelous for women who were having crises of personal identity and who were then freed up a bit to pursue other endeavors, but it was a disaster for the nation’s health.
It really didn’t take too long, historically speaking, to see the error of our ways.
By the Nineties I was living in Seattle where I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a counter-revolution back to real food. Over that decade I discovered that there were actually about twenty five types of lettuce, vegetables were really pretty easy to make fresh, and you could choose to eat plants not sprayed with pesticides or drink milk from cows not injected with hormones. The trans fats of margarine were actually worse than real butter, but good fats were essential to our biochemistry. Simple sugars were shown to be a slow killer and this part was bad news for me.
There was an explosion of experimental diets. Raw food. Paleo diets (eating like our genetically close ancestors made some sense!). Gluten free, Mediterrean, Probiotics, and diets to detox and cleanse.
We are now in a glorious era of food choice and it has reclaimed the intention of eating healthy instead of conveniently.
In the midst of this craziness I found my personal food guru by the name of Michael Pollan and I’m really grateful for him. He wrote a modern food “bible” called “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in which he gives the natural history of four types of food methodologies: fast food (you’ll never eat it again), mass produced organic food, local farming, and in the end he goes out and hunts and gathers his own meal. Michael Pollen is not some wacko crusader. His thoughts are based on a long career in botany and the food industry. In a later, shorter book (“In Defense of Food”) he wipes away the mountains of confusing and contradictory advice about diet with this brilliant statement:
“Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much”
Yeah that’s seven words.
By “Eat Food” he suggests that you not eat something that your great great grandmother wouldn’t recognized as food. It’s meant to guide us away from processed food really. Make it fresh yourself.
By “Mostly Plants” he means exactly that. You don’t need to be a total vegetarian because we are indeed omnivores, just eat “mostly” plants.
By “Not too much.” LOL, we all understand this. Take it easy. Find something else you love and that gives you fulfillment. Have a lovely meal and then go for a postprandial stroll.
My gratitude to everyone involved in the entire food culture, beginning to end, and those leading the way into a more healthy future.
Perhaps you didn’t know this, but there is a place in Norway, WAY WAY north deep in the Arctic Circle on an island call Spitzbergen, where the seeds of 4.5 MILLION species of plants (mostly crops) are stored in a temperature controlled vault under the ground. In case some shocking cataclysm happens to the planet, all may not necessarily be lost. Check it out HERE.
Gratitude Day #21: Infrastructure
Today I’m grateful for Infrastructure.
There are some parts of my life that seem a bit magical.
I flush the toilet and clean water magically reappears. I throw garbage in a big can and a truck comes by and takes it someplace where I think (and hope!) I will never see it again. It just goes away.
The water from the kitchen tap seems endless and OK to drink without fear of getting cholera.
Someplace, I’m also not sure where, energy is created and sent to my home on a wire which is available for my use to do such clever and important things as keeping my food cold and/or cooking it, and energizing a screen that gives me eyes on the entire world.
Networks of roads and bridges and tunnels are open to me all times of the day to go nearly anywhere I want, including over and under bodies of water.
Global airports provide landing spots for planes to fly across the world. Without them I wouldn’t just not have my current livelihood, but other cultures would be just figments of my imagination. Oh yeah, and I’d never eat Chilean grapes in the winter time.
Some infrastructure that we already take a bit for granted has just been created recently. I’m thinking of the Internet, a system of machines that can connect me to all information known to man or have a face to face chat with a loved one thousands of miles away.
When was small, my Aunt Verda told me stories of her childhood growing up in the upper peninsula of Michigan in the city of Calumet at the turn of the twentieth century. Her parents were Swedish immigrants to a place where the average annual snowfall was over seventeen feet. She described getting dressed for traipsing through the snow to use the outhouse, or waiting in line to take a bath after her copper mining father who had the privilege of using the water first. She told me how thrilled she was one Christmas to receive the gift of a single orange. And of course, without cars, they never ventured far.
Below is a photo of myself (eyes closed! haha) with my friend Fabian at the Mackinaw Bridge which connects the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. It was opened the year I was born.
Gratitude Day #22: The Internet
Today I’m grateful for the Internet.
When I was in elementary school, say in the second grade, I recall a movie our class watched which showed how life might exist in the future. When the Dad in the household got up in the morning he went to a large panel on the wall and touched it. Up came a large map with the day’s weather displayed. He could orient the map in various ways, and one way showed the radar and expected areas of precipitation. Now somehow, being a weather geek reaches very far down into my being because even at that young age I was gaga for weather, especially exciting weather. And here was a future where a person, a normal person, not particularly rich, could have access to weather radar in their home.
OH, IF ONLY I COULD LIVE UNTIL THAT DAY!!
And I have.
Strangely, though this futuristic movie showed a way better way of getting the weather forecast, futurologists somehow missed the Internet. The future was supposed to be all about flying cars and space colonization.Today it seems so obvious. How could it have been missed?
Even in the Nineties it crept up on us unawares. My friend Oscar showed me a primitive way one could have a conversation with someone else who also had a computer and I remember scoffing, naw, that won’t ever be the kind of thing for me. The most memorable moment I have of this exploding lifestyle changing technology came one day when I was ironing my shirt for work. All of a sudden, unprompted from me, my computer shouted out “You’ve got mail!” Huh?! Me?! Is someone trying to talk to me? This is what it must have been like when my great grandmother first heard the telephone ring.
Today, if you have access to the internet, there is utterly no reason to be bored. All knowledge known in the history of the world is at your fingertips. Learn a foreign language. See all the art hanging in museums around the world. Compare a bazillion sports statistics. Get a precise map of all the solar eclipses will happening in the Twentyfifth Century. Find expert medical advice and experiences. There’s are videos showing you precisely how to rebuild the engine in your car, create lighting for your indoor orchid garden, install a new toilet or build a mini hovercraft. And after all that, a yogi will teach you how to calm your mind, It would seem like an unadulterated blessing has befallen mankind.
But alas, not entirely so.
I’m thinking of something Harry Truman said when he himself dropped the bomb on Hiroshima (paraphrasing): It seems that our technology has surpassed our humanity.
Excuse me momentarily while I wax philosophical, or even theological. Whether there is a God that intended it to be so or not, I look at life as a kind of moral school that’s designed to expand our consciousness. Just when we’ve learned one lesson, along comes another. Every technology from the past challenged us more and more as we played out our individual lives on a larger stage in a smaller global village.
Sometimes when I’m sitting around in an airport I look up from perusing Instagram on my smartphone and see that everyone else’s head is looking down at their device also, oblivious to their neighbors. They must poke their head up periodically like me, because most of you have also noticed that maybe we aren’t paying enough attention to what’s happening around us.
The bigger problem here, in my mind, is an addiction to the dopamine (or whatever neurotransmitter) jolt we get every time the candy lines up, we hear of another Presidential antic, or we’ve managed to score a few extra points by running over the lady with the stroller. According to unreliable sources around ten percent of internet traffic is porn, much of it in the Dark Web where all kinds of crazy happens (like drug deals made with virtual currency). I’m no prude for sure, but probably freakishly explicit internet porn is not an auspicious way for a young person to learn about their own sexuality. It’s just hard for real life to compare.
Then there is the internet’s potential for expanding consciousness across cultures, religions and all walks of life. So far we aren’t doing that too well. Positive feedback loops of outrageous political injustice and specious rumor has us bouncing around inside the echo chamber of our own set opinions. Politicians hone in on those dopamine receptors. We unfriend someone and never speak to them again. This was the opposite of what was supposed to happen!
But I think we will survive this new challenge!
There will come a day when we reach a tipping point, probably after more painful lessons, and we wake up, mature a bit, and use the Internet as an adjunct to our real three-dimensional life and not a substitute for it.
And then God, or maybe Aliens, will send us some new technology and we’ll have more things to learn.
Back to my gratitude. The Internet has done one gigantic thing for me that I cannot deny. My human family has expanded immeasurably. I’m able to establish and tend to my friendships as was never even remotely possible before. I have reignited childhood friendships, made friends across continents, organized incredible trips with friends and shared my gratitudes too.
When you get to feeling like the Internet has absorbed too much of your attention and energy, I have a really good suggestion!!! Click on THIS link!
Gratitude Day #23: Travel
Today I’m grateful for travel.
I previously mentioned my amazing job perk of free travel and how grateful I was for that. But I need to express this more fully.
When you are young and you make a road map for your life, you sometimes don’t know just how far afield you could end up. I suspected that I might have a good education because I loved to learn, but I had no idea how much I would travel. I didn’t have a lot of confidence that I’d ever make much money – I’ve never been enthralled by the business world much – and I figured that world traveling would be beyond my means. History proved this assumption wrong on many counts, not the least being that travel doesn’t have to be as expensive as you might think. Feel free to ask me for personal advice about this.
My traveling life began in earnest when I went to live with a family in Madrid for two quarters of foreign study in 1979. How much this changed my perspective can’t be underestimated. The family consisted of a middle-aged woman and her two twin teenage daughters and a cousin also living in the apartment while he was a medical student. Ana Amann was a conservative woman who ran a very tight ship. I was allowed three minutes in the shower, no lights in the daytime, and I absolutely was never ever allowed in the kitchen. No one spoke a word of English. There was an old phone on the wall, the kind where you speak into a megaphone like thing on the box and hold a speaker to your ear. I had no music and just barely enough money to get by. I felt isolated and homesick like I had somehow appeared in another space and time; an experience that probably couldn’t be recreated today because of the internet. I remember looking at a globe in their library and seeing that, indeed, Spain and Michigan were on the same planet. It seemed strange to think I’d ever return to my known world. In retrospect, I have the fondest memory of that time because of how much it cracked open my mind, especially the uncomfortable moments. As a flight attendant, now completely used to bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, I had the opportunity to go back to the place I lived, now occupied by a business. I walked the old route to my school. Everything was the same except for me.
Here is a smattering of some of my most cherished travel moments randomly ordered.
Picture #1: Here I am in the den of my Spanish family. From left, an aunt, Almudena (a sister), myself, and my mother Ana Amann. And of course the dogs.
Picture #2: Watching the sunrise over Rio DeJaneiro. Thanks to the can do spirit of my friend Michael José Morf, I got up at 3am and we headed to the edge of a favela (a slum) where we used our iPhone lights to climb to the top of a mountain looking east over the city. We were nearly alone to witness this awesome sight too. One of my most impressionable experiences ever.
Picture #3: Iceland, a trip I’d recommend to anyone not completely adverse to nature. This is the view of a fjord on the Arctic Ocean out the window of a cabin we rented. it’s 2:30am and the sun is low but not down. Best night time bathroom break ever.
Picture #4: I’m in Hawaii where I’m telling my friend Fabian to please take the picture because the lava is broiling my leg. No, the guide was not supposed to take us out that far, but seeing as Fabian was a geologist, he thought he could get away with it. We promised not to tell.
Picture #5: Fox Glacier, New Zealand. This was my first trip with Fabian. It was epic and mind blowing and changed my paradigm of what it means to travel. The man on the right is Glenn Leervad-Bjørn. We picked him up hitchhiking and we are still friends today.
Picture #6: At the edge of Viarica volcano in Chile. It took about eight hours to climb to the top.(Another of many volcanic experiences with Fabian). Not shown: the sulfur dioxide gas.
Picture #7: Hagen Ganem and Fabian playing in a waterfall in Costa Rica. It’s always a good time to get wet in a waterfall.
Picture #8: Tramping through a Malaysian jungle with Fabian and Philippe Coste. That’s my iPhone in my pocket that I forgot was there when I jumped in the river.
My last picture, which alas I can’t find at the moment, is a photo of a slum in India I passed on the way to the Tah Mahal. It was 107F and humid and many of the people lived in roasting tin roof shacks. Coming home from trips like that made me realize I live in the lap of luxury. Every American should have this experience.
Gratitude Day #24: Being Abnormal
Today I’m grateful for being abnormal.
Normality is highly overrated. Why is it better to be just like everyone else?
For example, being a wee bit on the Asperger spectrum has been good for me. It’s challenged me to consciously understand boundaries and social interactions instead of just relying on instincts. As a kid I remember reading books on transactional analysis and what a revelation that was. Why is it that it’s expected to talk to your neighbor for ten minutes if you see them taking out the trash after they’ve been away for a few months, but if you do the same thing again the very next day it’s somehow strange and inappropriate? Why does a Japanese person feel like their space is invaded if you stand less than three feet away while conversing, but when a Brazilian stands one foot away from you, then you are the one who feels the need to back off? “Stroking,” personal space, games people play…these are examples of things I felt compelled to learn explicitly rather than just relying on my intuition, all because I started out a bit challenged this way. (Most of my friends know I still do a few things a bit awkwardly like the abrupt way I say goodbye.)
It’s estimated that between 5 and 10 percent of people are gay, so that is also a way I could be considered abnormal, and there are so many ways that has enriched my experience of life. I’ve known what it’s like to be marginalized, or in some cases hated, for something about myself that I did not choose, and this has given me greater empathy for other people who are also not treated equally. Also, I came out in a mostly bygone era of self-righteous hostility to homosexuality and this clarified the stakes of living or not living an authentic life. I was about to say that without being gay I’d be just another white, middle aged, privileged American male…but I imagine that most everyone has something or other that they are “in the closet” about.
There is one area that I’m just a bit abnormal that I wish I wasn’t, and this is being a science geek – or just a geek in general. But that’s because I just wish there were more science geeks in the world!! No worries, however, I’ve found my share! (Maybe you’re one.)
I know we are social creatures and we like to form tribes of like-minded people. We are taught to fear the ways of the people in the next valley. But there is only so far into the physical universe and the universe of being that an individual’s consciousness can grow. Our collective consciousness is greater for including all the far flung and downright freaky people in the world with different points of view. We disproportionately owe advancements of all kinds to unusual people with unusual thoughts who were thinking outside the box.
In what ways are you abnormal and how does that affect your outlook on the world and how other people experience you? Would you ever want to really give that up?
Gratitude Day #25: Humor!
Today I’m grateful for anything that makes me laugh, on the inside or out.
Strangely, it’s hard to describe why something is funny. Often it’s when some truth is told that is a bit taboo to say out loud or so deep that we’ve never made the effort to put it into words. As humans we long for some kind of connection with each other, some visibility, and when we speak some deep or dark truth it’s like “Yes! I think the same!” and we laugh. In fact, laughter is like happiness that can’t contain itself; like a zap of electricity between two minds.
There are two things that can make me feel exalted and joyful – music and humor – and both of those things are a bit awkward to analyze. But we know it when we hear it or see it.
I’d like to share a few of my favorite sources of humor, and I really encourage you to share your’s as well. This is the kind of thing we should share more often on the internet.
I’m a huge fan of the ONION.COM I love the way it’s dry and intellectual and how it pokes fun at how ridiculous we humans can be. After 9/11 no one dared to crack a joke because what had happened was just too horrible. But The Onion was one of the first to find a way back to humor with just the right balance: “Nineteen Hijackers Surprised to Find Themselves in Hell”.
The cartoon XKCD.COM is another personal favorite. It’s a bit geeky in a science and math way, and usually super ironic too.
And then there is PHDCOMICS.COM That’s also geeky fun!
I keep a list of some of my favorite videos on my computer which I sometimes watch to put myself in the right frame of mind before I fall asleep. (And I’d like to plug my favorite list making app here – Evernote – which has grown to indispensable proportions to me) Here are some:
Margaret Cho https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpqjErGfJ9c
Speaking with Authority https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCNIBV87wV4
SNL math: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdoTxtExOfY
Of course the list goes on…but please share something specific that makes you laugh in the comments!
Gratitude Day #26: All Life
Today I’m grateful for all life in the Universe.
As I near the end of my four weeks of gratitude I’m heading back to the largest stage, the Universe.
Imagine a Universe with no life; inanimate objects abound but nothing to take notice. It seems ghastly and pointless. Thankfully, we know for a fact that life is not just possible, but given the right circumstances, it thrives beyond imagination.
Before animals could take root upon the earth on a large scale, there first had to be plants that captured the energy of the sun. All the energy you are using now to stay alive originally came from the nuclear fusion happening inside the sun, transferred to you via plants. Those same plants are responsible for all the oxygen we breathe and then use to burn this energy. Maybe you didn’t know this, but there was very little oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere before photosynthesis. So, shout out to the plants.
Plants aren’t sentient, however, meaning they don’t have a consciousness which is aware of it’s surroundings and no sense that “I am”. Sentience was one giant leap forward in the complexity of life. The emergence of the ego rendered meaning unto the Universe. There was something new and original inside the mind of a sentient animal.
It’s interesting to ponder at what point in the hierarchy of complex animal life sentience emerges. It certainly did not happen overnight. Is a worm sentient? A fish? A muskrat? We all know our dogs and cats are sentient and have an ego – they’ll be quite sure to let us know if there is something they want! For us humans, our egos are also aware of a past and a future, and we strategize to get what we want. When that happened, emergent consciousness took another step forward into what we call “morality.”
Considering that our dog has no sophisticated understanding of past and future (they are really good at “now” however) like we do, I wonder in what ways we might look oblivious to a creature with higher sentience than us? Are there even other higher dimensions of sentience? How about for a God?
Back down on our own planet (just one of billions of planets around billions of stars in a galaxy that’s one of perhaps a trillion), life has exploded into every niche imaginable. Microbes thrive in the scalding and sulfuric acid laden environments surrounding volcanic vents on the ocean floor; others have been found one mile beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. I have little doubt that humans will head out into space colonies within tens of thousands of years probably after we’ve tweaked our own genomes. Who will become the next moral leaders of planet Earth? Elephants perhaps? Dolphins? Some animal with dexterity, like an octopus?
I highly, as in super highly, recommend this attached video of a boy about to eat his octopus gnocchi. It will give you hope.
Gratitude Day #27: Mysteries
Today I’m grateful for living in a mysterious Universe.
At the end of the Nineteenth Century there were plenty of people who believed that we had reached the End Of Science. This was long after Newton’s equations of motion and shortly after Jame Clerk Maxwell laid out the equations that described electromagnetic fields. It seemed like there was little left to explain.
Then in 1905, in what is often called Albert Einstein’s annus mirabilis, he disrupted the scientific paradigms that had been built on the space and time scales that humans live on, with his special theory of relativity which said, succinctly put, that the speed of light was the same for all observers. And then, in that same year, wrote a paper on the photoelectric effect that showed that light was composed of particles, or little quantized packets, we now call photons and this was the beginning of quantum mechanics. This giant leap out into the largest cosmic scales and the into the smallest scales completely changed the scientific understanding of our world. It was what philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift” and there are probably more mysteries of the Universe now than there were a hundred plus years ago. That’s good news for anyone in touch with their sense of wonder.
Here are some of my favorite mysteries:
The Low Entropy at the Big Bang (better called the “Everywhere Expand”)
Imagine that you have a cup of black coffee with a layer of cream sitting on top. How hard is it to mix it up? Easy, right? Ok, now do the reverse. Try to separate them back into the pure coffee and cream again. Oh, that’s much harder. That’s because the amount of disorder in the Universe, something called entropy, always increases, never decreases. This is related to another intuitive concept that you probably didn’t know you already knew: heat always flows from warm to cool, never from cool to warm. Imagine being in your home, and your bedroom suddenly starts getting hot and the kitchen gets cold, while the average temperature remains the same, for no apparent reason. This wouldn’t happen randomly. The only way to make heat flow from cool to warm is by doing work with a machine, like in a refrigerator. But in that case, while the entropy inside the fridge is going down, the entropy in the larger system, including the room where the refrigerator is located, goes up. Work can be done as entropy increases. Here’s the point: if entropy (disorder) can only increase, how did it ever get low at the beginning of the Universe? What very special thing happened to “separate the coffee from the cream” so to speak? And will the Universe eventually be in a completely disordered state where absolutely nothing can happen?
What is Dark Matter?
Every physical thing that we know in this world, from your brain, to your laptop, to the air you breathe and the sun and the moon and the stars that shine in the sky at night are all composed of three things: electrons, up quarks, and down quarks (different combinations of up quarks and down quarks make protons and neutrons). Our sense organs can detect the presence of this matter because it interacts with electromagnetic fields in this “normal” world. Shockingly, there is another type of matter entirely, not made from electrons and quarks, that does not interact with electromagnetic fields at all but does have the same interaction with gravitational fields. And the thing is…our normal matter constitutes only about five percent of all the matter of the Universe! We know this by observations of the effect of gravitational fields on the cosmic scale. Even more fascinating is that this dark matter is clumped together, right along with normal matter, under our very noses. What is this stuff?!
Where are the Aliens?
There is a famous quote, attributed to Isaac Asimov, possibly apocryphal, which goes something like this: “Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both possibilities are terrifying.” Considering our past human history, for example when the Europeans came to North American for the first time and met the less technologically advanced Native Americans, I would be super worried about what would happen if aliens arrived at our planet first. But how much more terrifying, in a strangely awe inspiring way, it would be if we were the only intelligent life in an imponderably vast Universe.
I don’t believe we are, or were, or will be, alone. But if the opportunities for alien life to arise are so great, one can’t help but ask…Where are they? This was the question that Frank Drake asked in 1960 when he posited his eponymous Drake equation:
N = Rs x Fp x Ne x Fl x Fi x Fc x L.
N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy capable of communicating with us
Rs is the average rate of star formation
Fp is the fraction of formed stars that have planets
Ne is average number of planets that could potentially support life
Fl is the fraction of those planets that actually do develop life
Fi is the fraction of those planets where intelligent life has developed
Fc is the fraction of those planets that then developed communications
L is the length of time over which these civilizations send out signals
It turns out that even in a Universe where life is prolific, finding aliens could be tricky. The distances between the Earth and other stars in our galaxy is beyond our easy imagination. Then perhaps simple (single cell?) life is common but “intelligent” life is not. We have only been issuing forth communications on the electromagnetic spectrum for a very short time; will we continue to do this or will we soon wipe ourselves off the planet? Maybe we just missed alien signals or they will just miss us?
In any event, we probably should pause and consider the ramifications, before we let everyone know we are here. I would say at least until our humanity has caught up with our technology.
There are so many more mysteries!!! What are some of the most compelling to you?
Here is a classic poem by Robert Frost:
Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Gratitude Day #28 The Future
Gratitude Day #28 The Future
Today is the last day of my somewhat arbitrarily chosen four weeks of gratitude project, and today I’m grateful for all the things I’ll do, see, learn, wonder about, new friends I’ll make, and old friends I’ll spend time with in the time that’s left for me on earth.
Of course, not all the things in my future will be nice. As we all know, there’s plenty of ugliness, willful ignorance, frustration and loss, just as there is beauty, curiosity, success and new things to explore and learn. This is part of the reason why I think it’s important to pay attention to the beautiful things you are grateful for in life – by choosing what we pay attention to we create our own experience of the world. It’s a lot easier to expand your consciousness when you have a good attitude. It’s the also only way to find happiness too! Perhaps ironically, I’m concluding with a photo of myself at aged two and a half. I had my whole life in front of me!