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 25126583741_d7db3f6905_o(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.tumblr_oksulxckbn1rswg6uo1_500

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:

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 as11-40-5903-2weather 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.
 102_0246I’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 neverCraigTrudy 003 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 ( 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 IMG_6085_1challenged 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.slides0054
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 afternoonIMG_1427 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 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, MichiganIMG_1162
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.
Ibn al-Haytham.
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. BoltzmannExperimentation 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. Seveneves_Book_CoverI 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

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. Copy (2) of slides0018When 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.IMG_3538-3
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.007_07
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. FabianUP06 061Without 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.
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.022_22
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.IMG_7062 copy
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.Iceland 885
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.A1
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.IMG_1918
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.105_0521
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.)summer03 010
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
Speaking with Authority
SNL math:
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. 010_10It’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!

Little Known Wonders of Brazil

This is me greeting the sunrise atop  Pedra dos Dois Irmaos looking east toward Pao de Azucar.  Corcovado to the left. 6am

This is me greeting the sunrise atop Pedra dos Dois Irmaos looking east toward Pao de Azucar. Corcovado to the left. 6am

The inspiration for this trip to Brazil began a number of years ago when I saw a photo of a most extraordinary place: miles and miles of deep white dunes pocked by crystal blue lagoons shining in the tropical sun. Upon investigation I found out this was Lencois Maranhenses, a place this rather well travelled and geographically knowledgeable person had never heard of. It lay on the Atlantic Coast of Brazil about two hundred miles south of the mouth of the Amazon, and  I vowed that I would get there one day. It didn’t look easy but I would make it something of a pilgrimage.BrazilMap

Brazil, it seems, has more wonders inside it’s borders than most Americans, at least, know. On this trip I went to Iguazu Falls  which lies on the Iguazu River in southwestern Brazil on the border with Argentina and just upstream from Paraguay. I met my friend French friend Constant and his girlfriend Paola and we spent two very full days hiking and boating and standing with our mouths open in amazement. The Itaipu Dam, easily a modern man made wonder is nearby on the Parana River, and until the recent construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China, was the largest man made structure in the world. After Iguazu I went to Rio for five days, a city full of it’s own wonders, to visit my friend Michael from Germany. You are probably more familiar with the beauty of this place, or at least I suspect you will be after the Summer Olympics there in 2016. Finally, I took the pilgrimage trip to Lencois Maranhenses by myself and it was indeed not easy to get to. Two flights to the small coastal town of Sao Luis, a night in a fleabag hotel where I almost killed myself on an untempered glass shower door which shattered at my feet, and then a rockin’ four hour bus trip to the actual park entrance.

I left more wonderful things for a future trip: the Amazon of course, the Pantanal, and the futuristic capital of Brasilia designed from scratch right out of the jungle.

Iguazu Falls – Facts and Figures and OMG

Ranking waterfalls is a subjective affair. Are you looking for the highest? The widest? The greatest flow volume? Maybe something aesthetic about the setting? Here are some fact and figures.

Angel Falls at 3212 ft. is pretty clearly the tallest waterfall in the world, but it’s flow is not great, and sometimes the water does not even make it to the bottom before evaporating. Judged by height Iguazu Falls at 269 ft. is not even in the top 1000 waterfalls in the world.

Since very few rivers have a stable flow volume because rainfall and glacier melt usually vary quite a bit throughout the year, ranking rivers this way is challenging (Niagra Falls, which empties four of the Great Lakes into Lake Ontario is exceptionally stable). Khone Falls on the Mekong River in Laos is by any reasonable measure the widest, however, at 35,376 feet  (6.7 miles/10.78 km) during the monsoon season. For comparison, Iguazu is the fifth widest at 8,800 ft. (1.67 miles/2.68 kms), Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River is eleventh widest at 5,600 ft. (1.06 miles/1.7 kms) and Niagra Falls is thirteenth widest at 3,950 feet (.75 miles/1.2 kms).

Ranking waterfalls by volume is especially subjective. Besides varying because of climatic conditions, many large flow waterfalls have been harnessed for hydroelectric purposes. Then there is the question of whether to include rivers like the Inga waterfall on the Congo River which is really a series of cascades over a nine mile stretch. Nevertheless, Iguazu Falls clearly lies in the top ten just behind Niagra Falls. When I was there I was lucky enough to see the falls at a rather high level after recent rains.

Then, of course, there is the setting, the most subjective measure possible. According to the folks at World Waterfall Database ( this is where Iguazu Falls sails to the top. To quote them: “This is what Niagara Falls should have been – pristine, protected and allowed to flow unabated with the full wrath of its river. This is nature at its most primal, most incredible and most spectacular. There was no question in our minds, Iguazú Falls is the best waterfall on the planet and there’s really nothing else that needs to be said.” The Iguazu River flows right out of the jungle over cliffs that twist and turn for one and two thirds miles, speckled with trees and rocks and small islands. The mists is so great that when the sun is shining there are rainbows all around. I hope my photos do it justice!

Rio De Janeiro


The basic layout of Rio de Janeiro. Corcovado is the mountain in the center with the Christ statue. Pao de Azucar with it’s cable cars is to the right (east) abutting Guanabara Bay. The twin mountains (Dos Irmaos) where I watched the sunrise is to the left (west) above Leblon.

You may be surprised to find out that the Harbor of Rio De Janeiro, on Guanabara Bay, has been deemed to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world [along with the Aurora Borealis, the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, Mount Everest, Paricutin (a Mexican volcano), and Victoria Falls (Iguazu robbed!)]. This was determined by an organization called, what else?, Seven Natural Wonders. Just who that organization is you can read about by clicking here.

This really isn’t a stretch, because Rio de Janeiro lies in what has to be the most singularly gorgeous and unusual physical setting of any city in the world. Guanabara Bay is transversed by the Serra do Mar mountain range which runs at varying elevations for 1500 miles along the east coast of South America. Giant pillars of granite poke up through the ground to great heights around the city from where one can see some of the world’s great beaches and most colorful slums. It’s an atonishing sight. I managed to get to the top of three of them.

The largest of these granite pillars (within the city) is called Corcovado at 2300 feet (700 m) above the horizon. One can take a taxi here up through the Santa Marta favela (slum) where Michael Jackson filmed his music video “They Don’t Care About Us”. At the top is the statue of Christ the Redeemer (Christo Redentor) which is packed with tourists on days when it’s not enshrouded in fog. If you have a picture of Rio de Janeiro in your head, it is probably an image of this statue of Christ looking down on Rio. It is indeed an impressive statue with an impressive view, even more so I’m sure if you happen to be Christian. For these reasons alone, going to Corcovado is somewhat obligatory for the tourist.

The second most common pillar scaled by tourists is Pao de Azucar (SugarLoaf), mostly accessible by cable car. I braved the crowds on a beautiful evening to get pictures of the city at sunset. Highly recommended! Really a breathtaking sight, just try not to imagine the hundreds of people just outside the camera frame.

A far less touristy thing to do, apparently, is to watch the sunRISE from the pillars of Dos Irmaos. For this, I got up in the middle of the night to meet my friend Michael and his girlfriend Sarah at their apartment at 4am. We hailed a taxi to the Vidigal favela where we wound our way up to where a very non official trail began, accessible between two nondescript houses. We used our iPhones as flashlights in the dark for the hour climb and when we got to the top we found ourselves alone at the top, the lights of Rio at our feet just before the sun came up. It was almost humbling to be alone here and a bit mind boggling that no one else in this city of millions thought to come up here this night to witness this beautiful scene.  I’m really grateful to Michael and Sarah for suggesting this unorthodox hike.

Wherever one goes in Rio, the favelas are all around. These poor neighborhoods where most of the labor force of Rio lives were until recently mostly governed by local “authorities” outside of the official city government. The word favela is sometimes translated as “slum” into English, but this is a bit inaccurate as these neighborhoods do not have the squalor or hopelessness of a “slum” in the shadow of an American city, for example. Granted, they are poor, but they are also colorful bastions of resourcefulness and neighborliness. For the most part I felt safe there. I would definitely recommend going on a tour of a favela when you are in Rio. I thought it might be unseemly for a “wealthy American” to be touring other’s “misfortune,” but this turned out to be a misconception. For good reason, the people there had no reason to be ashamed and they were not. Part of our tour fee when to help out a school there.

Lencois Maranhenses

So, getting to Lencois Maranhenses did turn out to be something of a pilgrimage. I set out by myself from Rio, and two flights later I landed in the small coastal town of Sao Luis, about 200 miles south of the Amazon. For me, this place was a way station where I planned to sleep for the night before I set out on a four hour bus trip to the park entrance the next day. What I had expected would be an uneventful overnight, however, became more exciting when I turned off the water in the shower of my one star motel, and the glass door shattered into a million pieces around me, three shards of which found their way into my wrist and thumb. Time to think fast! Luckily I did not injure my feet or my entire trip to Lencois Maranhenses, my motivation for going to Brazil in the first place, would have been for nought. Thank God for copious amounts of iodine. I was not deterred!

Lancois Maranhenses did not disappoint my expectations. Surely, the only reason most people have not heard of this place is because it is rather difficult to get to and not near many other sites for tourists. Not since Iceland have I fell so much like I was walking across the surface of some alien planet. The park is comprised of 580 square miles of rolling sand dunes composed of the most beautiful white sand. Although it looks like a desert to most people’s eyes, it actually receives up to 75 inches of torrential rain during the wet season from January to May. This water does not drain down due to an impenetrable layer of bedrock, and instead fills up the depressions between the dune peaks with spectacular lagoons. One needs a guide to visit this protected area, but it is possible to swim in the lagoons and most people I saw there did (not those worried about keeping bacteria out of wounds on their hands). For the nature photographer, this place is a dream. For a more complete understanding of the physics of how these dunes form and change, a great resource is here.

Getting home from this remote place while nursing an injury required what I think of as a travel meditation mindset. You can’t think too much of how much you have to do, or when you’ll sleep, or how much farther or longer you have to go. Just stay in the moment appreciating the beauty around you and your task at hand. Soon enough you are back in your own bed.

Just click on the photos to make them larger.




Zeno and the Extent of Space and Time

Among the many ancient Greeks noted for enjoying mind games was a certain Zeno of Elea. He liked to conjure up apparently self contradictory ideas called paradoxes, and one of his most famous runs something along the lines of this: Suppose you’d like walk to the door of a room. In your first step you travel half way to the door. In your next step you travel half way again (which is one fourth of the original distance). You keep this up, moving only half way with each step… and so, even if you keep moving forever, eeking your way forward by ever tinier bits, you can never actually make it to the door. Zeno believed this because he believed space was a continuum which could be forever divided. The paradoxes associated with this conundrum has been tackled by great philosophers from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell and by mathematicians using such techniques as calculus and “convergent infinite series.” But don’t worry, I’m not going to invoke mathematics here. What interests me about this paradox is not if I will ever get to the door, but rather – just how small is it possible to go?! At first it is easy to consider one half of the distance. But what about after a trillion trillion years of going half way every single second? Just how far would such an infinitesimal distance be? Can you even imagine such a thing going on forever? It would be a voyage to inner space.

But now try going in the opposite direction, “out” this time, instead of “in”, first to the door, then twice as far as the door, and twice as far again with each step. I’m guessing you may have considered this before, maybe when you were a kid and didn’t have a mortgage or rent to think about. In no time you’d be as far as the moon, then across the solar system, leaping out of our Milky Way galaxy on your way to the edge of the known Universe…until…? What happens when you get to the edge of the Universe? Can the Universe even have an edge? What would be on the other side? There must always be farther to go! Right?! Space must just go on forever and ever and ever.

And for that matter, the same goes for time too.  When was ten minutes before the creation of the Universe in the Big Bang 14.5 billion years ago? And then just keep going back infinitely. How about longer than a trillion trillion years after tomorrow? How can time possibly be bounded? It’s unfathomable. And somewhat terrifying. Honestly, the only thing that seems real to me is right now.

Magnitudes and the Scale of the Universe

As we try to fathom the scale of the Universe from the depths of inner space to the mind boggling extent of outer space, it’s helpful if we take bigger leaps than Zeno’s one half step. A common device used by mathematicians and scientists in cases where they have to conceptualize, and measure, some vast quantity is to divide and multiply by tens rather than two. This gets us moving more quickly and it is also intelligible due to our familiarity with the base ten numeral system that we use. So, modifying Zeno’s instructions, our first step will bring us 1/10 the original distance from the door, the next will take us 1/100 the distance, followed by 1/1000, etc… Proceeding outward, we would first be 10 times the distance, followed by 100 times and so on. Mathmematically this would look something like this: […10^-3, 10^-2, 10^1, 1, 10^1, 10^2, 10^3…]. To the scientist, steps that move by tens are called “magnitudes” and measuring this way helps in more situations than distance. When measuring the strength of an earthquake, for example, geophysicists use the Richter Scale which measures the quake’s force in magnitudes, so that a six on the Richter Scale has actually ten times the force released in a quake that measures five. Astronomers use a similar scale in measure the brightness of stars so that a star of magnitude two is ten times dimmer thant a star of magnitude one (the direction may be opposite from what you’d expect).

Since we determined above, using Zeno’s example, that the smallest and the largest scales of space are unfathomable, we shouldn’t start measuring at the extremes, but rather on the scale of, say, our own bodies. The meter is the most common measure of space in the world today, a distance most people have a grasp of, and so we can start there. Two magnitudes below the meter is the centimeter, 1/100 of a meter, or about the width of your fingernail. Three magnitudes higher than the meter is the kilometer, about how far a fit person can walk in ten mintues. Luckily for us, some enterprising and imaginative people at IBM have created a video to help us envision what it like to travel by leaps of ten from the width fo a proton (1/10^-16 meters) atom to about “the limit of our vision” (10^24 meters), a distance of forty magnitudes. This worthwhile nine minute video can be accessed on vimeo by pressing here. And if you’d like a bit more control, you can play with this brilliant widget which takes you all the way down to the Planck length (see below) at negative forty magnitudes out to the edge of the know universe at positive 27 magnitudes; if you do this fast you really get the sense of what it means to travel to inner and outer space.

The Digital versus Analog Universe

By the end of the nineteenth century most phenomenon which could be observed in the world around us appeared to be explained by what we now call classical physics. This included Newton’s laws of motion, Maxwell’s laws of electricity and magnitism and Kelvin’s laws of thermodyamics. It was common at the time to believe that we had in fact reached the end of science. There were a few “minor” questions which still needed to be answered if one thought very big, like at the speed of light, or very small like at the cause of radiation or the structure of the atom, but surely, the extremes would just be an extention of the natural laws we already knew.

Then, in the twentieth century, came the scientific revolutions of quantum mechanics, the physics of the most wee, and relativity, the physics of the most immense, which revolutionized our understanding of space and time. Thank you Mr. Einstein.

Let’s examine just how our understanding of space and time have changed. The reason that Zeno’s Paradox is appealing is because it is natural to assume his premise that space is a continuum and not constructed from discrete bits at any level. In modern lingo we call this the difference between an analog (continuum) world and a digital (discrete) world. In case you aren’t familiar with this difference, it’s germane to our modern world of gadgetry. Let’s, consider the clock. The only clocks our great grandmothers knew where the kind where the hands moved gradually across the face. This was an analog device that required a small bit of judgement as to when the time changed from three minutes after twelve to four minutes after twelve.  This is how the world appears to us and how it appeared to Zeno; between any point from here to there was a point in between. We gracefully move across the stage of life. Today, however, we have created digital devices (often with the aid of quantum mechanics) that deal with the world in discrete lumps. (Scientists call these lumps “quanta.”) When you go to bed at night your modern digital clock may say that it is either 12:03am or 12:04am but not something in between. And well, it turns out that much to our surprise, the entire universe, is digital. Everything comes in lumps. Time, space, energy, mass, everything.

With this in mind, let’s turn our attention back toward Zeno and his paradox concerning space. It was Max Planck, one of the

Max Planck, discoverer of the smallest possible length.

Max Planck, discoverer of the smallest possible length.

founders of quantum mechanics, who discovered, using tricky mathematics and such things as the speed of light and the strength of gravity, that there actually is a kind of “smallest amount of space”. Today this is called the “Planck length” in his honor and it is indeed unimaginably small:

.0000000000000000000000000000000000016 meters   or  1.6 x 10^(-35) meters

If it means anything more to you, perhaps after clicking on the widget link above, that would be about one ten millionth of a trilltionth of a trillionth of the width of a hydrogen atom. It’s WAY down there! But I said “kind of the smallest amount of space” above because it isn’t even very clear what space means at that point. We certainly can’t do any experiments at that scale. What we can say is something like this. Imagine a ruler the size of the Planck length. Call one end A and the other end B. It is possible to be at A or B at any one time but not somewhere in between. And if we were able to look at something “being” at A or B it is just as likely to be at one as the other. To answer Zeno, once you have finally arrived at two Planck lengths from the door to the room, you can go one more Planck length…but no more! You have arrived. Zeno has been answered.

The Scale our Brains Live On; The Human Sense of Reality

The smooth analog way that the world looks to us and the classical physics we use to explain this world is something that is comfortable to us. Our brains evolved to understand the world at this scale we live on, and no other, for this is the only kind of understanding that would be useful to our ancient troglodyte ancestors. Allow me to expand on this idea. At the shortest end of our experience of time is something that we might consider to be “now.” It might include something like how long it takes the neurons in our brain to assimilate the image of a tiger on our retina, form the concept of “tiger,” recognize the danger, and then send signals down to our muscles to “run”! At the most optimistic, let’s say this takes 1/100 of a second. And while that seemingly instantaneous moment is long enough for light to travel almost 1,863 miles, it is the shortest span of time that we can sense. Shorter than “now” is indistinct. Our sense of time also begins to blur on the long end of the time scale. We might comfortably think we can experience the time between the planting of a tree and its harvest years later or how our pollution might effect the lives of our grandchildren, but millions of years of time are really only understood academically, not experiencially.

So now this is the really interesting thing. It turns out that the way the world works on really small scales and really large scales don’t just look foreign to our human minds, but impossible. Things happen on these scales that we cannot begin to wrap our minds around.

On the scale that we live on, concepts such as “cause and effect” and the three dimensional extent of space are easily grasped by our minds. If I want to shoot an arrow at some target I sense how I need to shoot it with this specific force and in this specific direction. Maybe I’ll catch some tasty deer for dinner. Sending a man to the moon is complicated, but it is also not unintelligible, because it required mostly classical physics. On very small scales, however, say the size of an atom and smaller, classical physics is of no use at all. In the model of the atom that most of us may have learned in school, electrons “orbit” about the nucleus. This model and vocabulary conjures up notions that the atom is something like the earth and the moon or any solar system with orbiting planets. But the electrons and nucleus of an atom are nothing like that. The position of the moon around the earth can be predicted thousands of years in advance by just knowing the postion and speed of the moon around the earth right now. But if you want to find the position of an electron around an atomic nucleus you can either determine its position or its speed, but not both. This makes it impossible to determine where an electron will be for certain in the future. No, it’s more than that. An electron has no deterministic position in the future. The best it has are odds that it could be found here or there and odds that it is moving at such and such a speed. They exist in a zone of probability. This is pretty disturbing to our concept of cause and effect! We rely on cause and effect to escape the jaws of a tiger. Only a world of cause and effect makes sense to our human minds.

Large scales also mess with our sense of time and space. I have a sense that time marches on like a metronome, tick-tock, passing along out there in the world, outside my mind. Distance too seems immutable. Speed, however, seems like it is not a constant thing and that nothing could stop you from going faster and faster. But it’s just the opposite! It turns out that time and space can be stretched or compressed depending on relative speed or the presence of strong gravitational field, while the Universe has a speed limit which is precisely the speed of light. If you were to take off on a space ship at close to the speed of light and then return, you will have aged less than me; perhaps significantly depending on how far you went and how close to the speed of light you approached. This is readily calculated using a mathematical formula called the Lorentz transform and has been verified perfectly using atomic clocks aboard the space station (not even remotely approaching the speed of light of course). The same is also true in the presence of a strong gravitational field; time literally slows and space contracts. Furthermore, our sense of simultaneous events is also affected by speed and distance. Can you imagine what a loved one is doing right now on the other side of planet or in their home across the city? (both are nearby) How about on a planet a billion light years away and receding from us rapidly? To someone on that planet, “now” would be sometime in our past and we are living in their future. On large scales our concept of “simultaneous” fails as well.

So, which is it? Does quantum mechanics and relativity describe the way our Universe works or does the classical physics of Newton? The answer is that neither of them actually contradict classical physics, they simply add to the spectrum of things we can now measure. What happens is that the probability of events on the quantum scale collapses to deterministic events according the law of large numbers. If you flip a coin just once, the odds that you’ll get one heads is exactly one half. But it you flip it one billion times the odds of getting just head heads are exceedingly rare. It could happen, theoretically, but then it could also happen that you walk right through the wall if given enough time, like trillions of years. Barring these exceedingly rare events, for us up here on our relatively large world, Newton works just fine.

What truly excites “Craig’s sense of wonder” is the discovery that my mind is limited. imagesI simply don’t have the mental hardware to understand the world of the tiny or large. Stuff that looks miraculous to me is really happening and I don’t get it. I can’t fathom it, can’t really picture it, and no human can, not even Einstein could. It’s not possible to grasp something that we have no mental apparatus for, just like your dog can’t tell you if he’d like to be buried or cremated and you can’t smell you lover’s lover’s apartment on their coat like a dog. Imagine a being that evolved on the quantum scale that found it perfect normal that it was never quite certain what would happen, or a vastly huge being across a galaxy that could feel how much slower time passes near the black hole in the center of its body. Alright, alright! Perhaps it’s time to settle back to my reality before I venture too far into science fiction. How about ending with a visit to the writing of that master observer, Henry David Thoreau? From Zeno to Thoreau. That I can do.

Henry David Thoreau and the Battle of the Ants

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau went to live in the woods near Walden pond in Massachusetts. One of his aims was to expand his consciousness and become a better observer of nature. One fall day he happened to look at what was happening about two magnitudes below his usual world, which you now know is about the size of your fingernail. What he found was remarkable, for just below his peaceable world he witnessed a very vicious war.


The Battle of the Ants

Henry David Thoreau

One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a vellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted

Henry David Thoreau's shack on Walden Pond. Two magnitudes beneath this idyllic scene a fierce battle raged.

Henry David Thoreau’s shack on Walden Pond. Two magnitudes beneath this idyllic scene a fierce battle raged.

against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my woodyard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely. I watched a couple that were fast locked in each other’s embraces, in a little sunny valley amid the chips, now at noonday prepared th fight till the sun went down, or life went out. The smaller red champion had fastened himself like a vise to his adversary’s front, and through all the tumblings on that field never for an instant ceased to gnaw at one of his feelers near the root, having already caused the other to go by the board; while the stronger black one dashed him from side to side, and, as I saw on looking nearer, had already divested him of several of his members. They fought with more pertinacity than bulldogs. Neither manifested the least disposition to retreat. It was evident that their battle cry was “Conquer or die.” In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had dispatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs; whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it. Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus. He saw this unequal combat from afar,–for the blacks were nearly twice the size of the red,–he drew near with rapid pace till he stood on his guard within half an inch of the combatants; when, watching his opportunity, he sprang upon the black warrior, and commenced his operations near the root of his right fore leg, leaving the foe to select among his own members; and so there were three united for life, as if a new kind of attraction had been invented which put all other locks and cements to shame. I should not have wondered by this time to find that they had their respective musical bands stationed on some eminent chip, and playing their national airs the while, to excite the slow and cheer the dying combatant. I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference. And certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment’s comparison with this, whether for the numbers engaged in it, or for the patriotism and heroism displayed. For numbers and for carnage it was an Austerlitz or Dresden. Concord fight! Two killed on the patriot’s side, and Luther Blanchard wounded! Why here every ant was a Buttrick,–“Fire, for God’s sake fire!”–and thousands shared the fate of Davis and Hosmer. There was not one hireling there. I have no doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as much as our ancestors, and not to avoid a three-penny tax on their tea; and the results of this battle will be as important and memorable to those whom it concerns as those of the battle of Bunker Hill, at least.

I took up the chip on which the three I have particularly described were struggliing, carried it into my house, and placed it under a tumbler on my window-sill, in order to see the issue. holding a microscope to the first-mentioned red ant, I saw that, though he was assicuously gnawing at the near fore leg of his enemy, havng severed his remaining feeler, his own breast was all torn away, exposing what vitals he had there to the jaws of the black warrior, whose breastplate was apparently too thick for him to pierce; and the dark carbuncles of the sufferer’s eyes shone with ferocity such as war only could excite. They struggled half an hour longer under the tumbler, and when I looked again the black soldier had severed the heads of his foes from their bodies, and the still living heads were hanging on either side of him like ghastly trophies at his saddle-bow, still apparently as firmly fastened as ever, and he was endeavoring with feeble struggles, being without feelers and with only the remnant of a leg, and I know not how many other wounds, to divest himself of them; which at length, after half an hour more, he accomplished. I raised the glass, and he went off over the window-sill in that crippled state. Whether he finally survived that combat, and spent the remainder of his days in some Hotel des Invalides, I do now know; but I thought that his industry would not be worth much thereafter. I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage of a human battle before my door.


What do you suppose aliens would think if they were to travel across vast distances of space and time only to observe us humans at war?



Let’s All Become Flight Attendants and Complain!

(It’s satire folks!)

images-7Hear ye! Hear ye! After many years of relying on dinosaur flight attendants, it seems the airlines are once again adding new hires into this most exclusive of clubs. Are you good with people? If so, then pick up the phone and see if you can get an interview with a computerized screener robot who can determine if you have the verbal skills necessary for this socially demanding job. You have to start somewhere and talking to a hard drive is a good first cut. If you are lucky enough to be selected,  then after just six short weeks in an indoctrination center, a place with so many cameras that Aldous Huxley and Edward Snowden would be impressed, you’ll head out to the city of the airline’s choice. You won’t make much money, but all the fun codependant roommates you’ll have (four to a bedroom!) will surely make up for it.  You’ve heard about all the perks, right? They’re all true to be sure, but what few people seem to mention are all the diverse ways that you’ll have to practice whining, moaning, griping, and grumbling. You know, that thing that humans just love to do during their short life on this planet. So everyone! Let’s all become flight attendants and complain!!!

What a glamorous life, right? Lunch in Chicago and dinner in Rome. Boyfriend in San Francisco on Tuesday and boyfriend in Madrid on Wednesday. Meet movie stars out of Los Angeles, take tango lessons in Buenos Aires, attend a tea ceremony in Tokyo, climb the Great Wall in Beijing and sail up the Loire Valley in France.  Well, after you work for many many years a really cool gag is to grab a plastic bag, go through the cabin collecting trash, and when you get to the back of the plane look at your coworkers, open the trash, smile conspiratorially, and say “Thirty years on this job and I’m still looking for the glamour!” LOL! That’s SO funny! Then upon disembarking in Paris, instead of going all the way through French immigration and customs, wonder aloud how they expect you to descend the two flights of stairs, with your six bags, all the way down to the bus waiting just for you and your crew mates on the tarmac. It’s an accident waiting to happen! Even after an hour and a half drive to the hotel in traffic, the rooms will probably still not be ready immediately, so groan a bit and walk all the way up the avenue to get a warm chocolate croissant from the boulangerie. What a pain. If only you worked in a cubicle you could just mosey on down the hall to the metal snack cart by the elevators and get a danish wrapped in cellophane. There is always one crew member on every trip who decides to become ambitious, get a quick nap and head for the Louvre or to the Eiffel Tower for a picnic. Good for them! Let’s not us do that though! Let’s slam our doors and not reappear until it’s time to go back to work the next morning. Maybe there’s some glamour on CNN International. Hey, there might even be news from Paris!

There’s nothing like the sight of fresh foreign language speaking college students coming aboard to join us in the flight attendant profession. Oh! They are so naive in their idealism! So earnest and hopeful. Aren’t they just adorable? Don’t ya just want to squeeze them? Well, let’s not delay in disabusing them of their starry eyed notions of meeting fabulous people across the whole wide world. We need to break them in and there’s no better time than the boarding process. “Look at that woman with the huge bag. She better not ask me to help her!” “Keep an eye on that guy. He wanted an upgrade. He’ll probably try to sneak into Business Class.” “OMG, someone around row 25 really smells!” “Hey, who put their bag in with the emergency equipment?!” Be sure to teach your fledgling the most important goal of the boarding process: finding the one person who is going to spoil your whole flight and reconfirm your belief that all humans are idiots. Then march to the back of the plane and proclaim to the flight attendants hiding out in the galley – “FYI! I can tell you right now that 17D is a real ass! I already told him that we don’t have extra pillows and blankets so don’t anyone get him one!” If your new hire starts chatting with an enthusiastic French high school class or a college student whose is working with Somali refugees in Kenya, remind them that you once liked people too.  If you say it with enough condecension it practically counts as much as a complaint.

Although you will rarely have a boss watching you for your entire work life, don’t forget that a passenger could write a letter to the company and that’s pretty intimidating. Maybe they will say you had a bad tone in your voice or something and then your “supervisor” will call you in to ask “what do you know about this?” After you introduce yourself, think fast on your feet and say your don’t remember the incident. Wow, that was a close call! So nerve wracking how the company intimidates you. And if dealing with the passengers is difficult, dealing with your fellow flight attendants is downright impossible. You might manage to make it through an entire trip with Doris the Drama Queen or Max the Misanthrope or Olly the Obsessive Compulsive but you’ll only have to work with them all over again in, like, six months or a year. If only you worked with them every day you might have the chance to work things through and figure out how everyone else could be doing their job better. Oh, and did I forget Gertie the Gossip? Flight attendants may indeed confirm the stereotype of being socially intelligent, but my goodness, how they will talk behind your back and spread gossip! Go to the front of the plane and tell Blanche how you think Daphne must have put on ten pounds, and then head to the back of the plane and tell Daphne how you heard that Blanche’s boyfriend is sleeping with another flight attendant (no names!). It’s just disgraceful!! Why, why do we all have to be so callous with one another I just don’t know.  You know, Scarlet told everyone that she thinks Amber’s husband must be gay (can you believe it?!) and now Ann told me that Amber refuses to fly with Scarlet, let alone talk to her, and I can’t say I blame her. To top it off, I know for a fact that Scarlet is addicted to Valium. Just watch, right before her break she has to bring her purse into the bathroom, and if you pay attention, afterward you can see that she acts a little weird. It get’s boring on the plane for so many hours so make sure you cause some gratuitous melodrama to pass the time away. Then run up to the lead flight attendant, just as if they were your kindergarten teacher and try to get them to side with you. That’s what they are paid a wee bit extra for!

Make sure you and your fellow flight attendants spend at least five minutes griping about how the reading lights and audio aren’t working at 27C and 33H. “They expect us to use passenger names in the premium cabins, but they can’t be bothered to fix the electronics in the coach seats!” Then, promptly forget to write up the problem in the log book. Hey, If you are lucky, maybe you’ll get this plane again tomorrow! And maybe your flight will even cancel and you can stay home and attend your neighborhood block party instead of getting paid. I’m sure your neighbors will confirm how unfair it all is.

And speaking of parties, it’s amazing how flight attendants are always the center of attention. Everyone loves to hear stories of how idiotic people can be, especially when you get them all together in a narrow tube for hours. Did someone really ask you what language they speak in England? Did someone really try to open the bathroom by pulling out the ashtray on the door? (One brave soul might admit that they did that!) Or we can talk about all the times we nearly died. The thing is though, the average person doesn’t realize how hard it is being a flight attendant!! No, we aren’t just flight attendants! We are paramedics, firemen, diplomats, psychologists, travel agents, mechanics. concierge, waiters, air marshalls, sanitation engineers, and on and on…uuggggh! It’s exhausting. Then after work we have to somehow fight our constant jetlag by sleeping in the middle of the day. If this is at a layover hotel we might be lucky enough to be awoken on the day the “Fire Drill Practice” is scheduled, or listen to the pleasant droning of the elevated train or highway which can only be heard on our side of the building. If we try to sleep at home its usually not better either. That dang roofer is up there pounding the new shingles in…what the hell!…doesn’t he know that it’s twenty below zero and the wind is howling at forty miles an hour? D’oh! He should call in sick! That’s what I do. And in the summer I like to contemplate what a doofus the lawn mower man is to be cutting the grass while I try to sleep. The roar of the engine can clearly be heard over the constant din of your central air conditioner. For God’s sake doesn’t he know it is nearly one hundred degrees outside? Well, I’m not getting up to get him him a glass of water with ice. Not after I’ve been doing that all night on the plane. He can drink from the hose!

Instead of doing “walk throughs” in the cabin every fifteen minutes to make sure everyone is OK, or to meet someone new (you’ve got to be kidding), or that there are no nefarious security issues, one amusing way to spend endless hours on the jumpseat is to focus on how evil the airline management is. Their sole purpose in life is to the suck the marrow out of your bones and leave nothing but a soulless shell of a human being. They are just so greeeeeedy! They have no moral compass like those titans of commerce in, say, banking, or food processing, or oil and gas production who work tirelessly trying to make a better life for their employees, the general public and their shareholders. If you are lucky, your company might go bankrupt and the evil management will get their comeuppance and receive only a $10 million dollar golden parachute instead $20 million dollars. Let’s hope they starve! For awhile you’ll have a vestige of hope that the new management will actually treat their employees like they are human beings. But No! Seems they are all the same! LOL! What were we thinking?!  Oh well, that’s all right. It feels so good to be full of that old familiar sense of self righteousness. What if we ever had something nice to say about someone in management? Cut out my tongue! Well, no worries…that’s impossible!

Haven’t you all heard endless pining from people you meet about how great it must be to get flight benefits? We just walk on a plane whenever we want to go anywhere we want! Well, LOL, I don’t think so! I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do on my vacation is to see another airport! Good God! After we have finagled our way to stretching  our vacation into three and a half weeks (that’s not going to last), let’s drive to visit our dysfunctional half sister Freda (what a bitch), Willard (womanizer) and their three uncontrollable spoiled brats for vacation. We can complain the whole time we are there, plus rant about it for weeks after we return to work. It’s just impossible to non-rev these days anyway. With all the upgrades there is no way of knowing if you’ll get first class and there is no way I’m going anywhere in coach. Puuleeassse.

Now everyone knows that being a flight attendant is not a “real” job, so of course, don’t make plans on doing this for more than five years before you find your true life’s calling. Right around the time that you hear yourself telling your colleagues just how much you can’t stand this job and how you’ve grown to hate people, take advantage of the work time flexibility to try something like nursing, real estate, or teaching. You may find that at the hospital when someone rings their call bell they don’t just want a diet coke – it seems their bed pan is leaking, they just threw up on them self or they need more pain relief from the aching cancer in their bones. Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation? A daily occurrence if you are doing a shift on the cardiac floor. You’ll be so good at this because you already had so much experience using automatic electronic defibrillators on passengers with heart attacks (too many to count). And doesn’t selling homes sounds exciting? More fun with entitled people who have totally unrealistic expectations about what life owes them. As  a flight attendant you may have 44 days on reserve every year, but as a realtor you can sit around staring at the phone and waiting for it to ring 365 days/year. That’s about an 8x increase! Then surely, just as most folks are free to go house hunting after work, you can drop your dinner plans to drive across town during rush hour to show a home to people “just looking.” If teaching is your career diversion of choice you may notice how every spare minute outside the classroom is spent making lesson plans and correcting papers or exams. This is a bit like your flight attendant job where you are always thinking up more efficient ways to serve drinks or going back over the location of emergency equipment in your head while waiting in traffic. Oh dear. After just a short time testing out these other career choices, you will surely be back to the airline, tail between your legs because, you see, no one ever really quits. It may take some effort to get your complaining skills back up to speed. But surely, it won’t be long before you will take it all for granted once again.

When the inevitable time comes to retire, you may find the airline offers you a payment of, say, $40,000 to “separate.”  How do they expect you to retire off that??!! I’m telling you, it’s just one more slap in the face as you walk out the door! Well, at least you are free!! And if you get lucky you may even have ten more years to start living your life. Who knows how you’ll do that, but I can guess one thing…you won’t be getting on another airplane!

What opportunities to practice the art of complaining exists in your profession?

Loop Around the Alps

To view a larger version of the pictures, click once on a photo in the gallery at the bottom of the post.

It had been two and a half years since Fabian and I had taken a car trip and we were ready to hit the road again. This time we headed for mountains of the non-volcanic sort and set out to make our way through the Alps, eastward toward Budapest, down to Croatia and back through Slovenia to Milan where we started. I was keen on seeing more of eastern Europe since previously I’d only been to Prague. I won’t bore you with daily details. Instead I will choose a few germane topics to help the sundry traveler. The well captioned photos also speak to my particular experience. For reference, here is a map of our trip: LoopAroundtheAlps_0001

Alternative Accomodations

In my Southwest Loop post I discussed the option of couchsurfing: staying in a stranger’s home for free. On this trip I experimented with another option: Airbnb. With Arbnb you still stay in another person’s home, but in this case you pay something (usually less than a hotel) and receive a little more in return such as more privacy or a clean bed instead of a couch. I arrived in Milan a day earlier than Fabian in order to get a good sleep before we met up and embarked toward the mountains. Incredibly, just as my first couchsurfing experience was incredible with Mikhael, my first Airbnb experience was stellar with Sandy. She actually picked me up at the airport, took me to her apartment (where she was not staying at that moment) and gave me the keys. An hour after my arrival I was standing alone in a stranger’s apartment in Italy. Then, after I napped, she came and took me to have a snack and meet a friend, only to be followed later by inviting me to an outdoor

Sandy, my first Airbnb hostess in the middle.

Sandy, my first Airbnb hostess in the middle.

dancing/garden party with more friends. That night I had another solid sleep. All that for half the price of a sterile hotel! Thank you Sandy, ambassador for Airbnb! You might think I’m crazy to just hop in a stranger’s car at the airport. Or especially that Sandy was crazy for bringing me, a strange man (both unfamiliar and odd) home. There are safety checks with this system, but nothing beats your good ole intuition. I found an excellent link that explains these alternative accomodation styles here.

Renting Cars in Europe

On this trip Fabian and I ran into a few issues regarding car rental in Europe. Americans should note that most Europeans that I have spoken to are of the opinion that American car insurance (even what comes with your credit card usage) either does not work in Europe or is incredibly difficult to file a claim with. So the rather inexpensive daily rate is only a teaser. Next, be careful of where you can or can’t drive the car!! Fabian realized too late after he rented the car that Hungary and Croatia were not included in his insurance package. Because of this we took the train to Budapest from Vienna, as I was quietly insistent that we follow our original plan. To get to Croatia we had to rent another car for a day out of Slovenia. Also, when they offer to give you a nicer car, do the math. Fabian was happy to get upgrade to a BMW but the small daily charge of $10 does add up a bit. I think he was happy driving the BMW though ! – especially through the 28 switchbacks up and down the mountains in Triglav National Park in Slovenia.

Bathing in Hungary.

I think I have reached a surfeit of caving for one life…but I don’t think I could ever have enough hot natural baths! Bring on the spa! While doing my research for the trip I discovered that the borders of Hungary seem to encompass quite a fine piece of real estate for natural hot springs and Budapest has been called the “City of Baths.” This spa tradition in Hungary was accelerated by the Ottoman occupation from the early 16th century to the late 17th century, and while few of the original Ottoman bath structures remain, the concept of the Turkish bath lives on. Fabian and I chose to visit the Szchenyi Baths in the City Park downtown. This is the largest bath complex in all of Europe with a variety of indoor and outdoor pools and all kept at different temperatures. I think my photos capture some of the Old World charm of the tiling and pillars and painted ceilings.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

UNESCO World heritage sites are a constellation of cultural or natural places around the world that have some  historical or physical significance and are protected from demolition or further development. According to wikipedia there are 981 such sites as of 2013 – 759 of them cultural, 193 natural and 29 of them being mixed properties. For a full list check here (what site lies near you?). Plitvice Lakes in Croatia is just such a site and one that I happened to discover through the website “Amazing Places in the World” (check that out too!). I saw some stunning photos from this Croatian park and made a note of determination in my mind to go there. These lakes completely lived up to their hype too. I almost felt like they couldn’t be real; like I was was at Disney World or some such contrived place. Instead of planning your vacation around what hotels you happen to have booked, I suggest you might organize your vacation around sites you’d like to see or experiences you’d like to have. Do your research with regard to this idea and don’t worry so much about accomodations. Booked hotel rooms can also limit your spontaneity should something awesome come by and smack you upside the head. This will make your time much more memorable.

Slovenia. Who knew?

Coat of arms of Slovenia, with a stylized depiction of Triglav

Coat of arms of Slovenia, with a stylized depiction of Triglav

Slovenia, a country I fear a majority of Americans don’t know exists, proved to be a stunning surprise. The eastern Alps extend far into this country and they are much less developed here. Small family farms dot the mountainside. And it feels timeless; you might be living one hundred years ago under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, thirty years ago in the former Yugoslavia, or now as part of the European Union.  Triglav National Park, on the border with Italy, is not all that far from traditional places in the Alps and is well worth the trip!

Heat Transfer

images-6Although you may not realize it consciously, much of your daily effort is in how to take heat from “here” and move it “there.” Your body certainly does this on it’s own, for keeping your internal temperature at precisely 98.6F is quite an orchestration of our warm blooded physiology; any small deviation from this temperature makes a bazillion vital biochemical reactions impossible. Outside of our human endeavor, the indifferent hand of nature acts to move the heat created in the nuclear oven of the sun from “there” to the earth, “here.” One false move any step of the way and we are  goners. The truly extraordinary thing is that heat energy, wherever it is created, inherently wants to dissipate, not concentrate, as it moves from one place to another. This is the law of entropy, one of the fundamental laws of physics; even as you may gather energy in one place, like in the logs in front of your fireplace on a cold winter evening (here), on a larger scale, more heat is randomly dissipated into the wider world (there). It’s an uphill battle. But the transfer of heat, and hence, how we might harness it, is Unknown-3rather simple. There are just three ways: radiation, conduction and convection (or advection). In understanding these three methods of heat transfer you will not just make what was a subconscious event, conscious. You will gain more control over your environment. Let’s look at each of these three.


With only the most minor exceptions, all the energy that is exchanged between the earth and the rest of the Universe is through electromagnetic radiation, a concept, along with blackbodies, which I described in my essay on Fire. Only radiation can travel across the vacuum of space moving energy from one spot to another and at 186,000 miles/second (~300,000 km/sec). Without the energy from the sun, the surface of the earth would be at nearly Absolute Zero (-459.67°F). As it is, with the sun, the earth has an average surface temperature of 61°F (16°C), and why is that? Why doesn’t the earth just keep heating up as it receives more radiative energy from the sun? When something is coming into a pot, but the pot is not filling up, then you know that that something is also leaving in some way. And indeed, that is happening here. The earth is a blackbody – an object that can receive and emit radiation at all wavelengths but that emits most radiation at a wavelength determined by the object’s temperature. The sun, at 10,000°F, sends to earth radiation which is centered on the visible range. The earth, much cooler, reemits this energy back out into space in the lower energy/longer wavelength infrared range. The temperature on earth where the incoming radiation matches the outgoing radition happens to be at 61°F. Should the sun heat up, so would the earth, until it settled at a higher equillibrium temperature and was emitting slightly higher energy/shorter wavelength radiation. You can guess I will be revisiting this idea of an equillibrium temperature when I write a post on Climate Change!

Let’s look more closely at how radiation from the sun is absorbed as it encounters the earth, and exactly where and how this radiative energy is turned into heat energy, raising the temperature. When radiation is absorbed at the atomic level, it can make electrons jump into higher energy orbitals around the nucleus. Radiation that can do this tends to be in higher energy visible to ultraviolet to X-ray end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radiation can also be absorbed, however, by increasing a molecule’s kinetic energy. “Kinetic” refers to movement, and so when the kinetic energy of a molecule rises it is moving more. It can do this in one of two ways: it can rotate on its axis faster or it can vibrate more (what I have previously referred to as “jiggling”). Causing a molecule to vibrate faster usually occurs at the lower energy levels associated with infrared radiation. Rotational changes are associated with microwave radiation. In any event, this increase in kinetic energy is associated with a higher temperature, and it is the way that radiation from the sun heats the earth. Exactly where in the earth/atmosphere system the various wavelengths of radiation are absorbed is a topic for a full discussion which I’ll address in a post on the “Greenhouse Effect.” Suffice it to say for now, that radiation from the sun passes nearly unseen through the earth’s atmosphere (if it isn’t absorbed or reflected by a cloud, which is liquid) and it is either absorbed at the ground or reflected back into space.

After the earth’s surface is warmed, the infrared radiation it gives off can be absorbed by such asymmetric molecules in the atmosphere as CO2 (carbon dioxide), H2O (water), CH4 (methane) and O3 (ozone), making them vibrate or rotate more, thus increasing their temperature. On a much smaller scale, heat lamps use infrared radiation to heat up the air in a room.

Convection and Advection

The second way to move heat energy around is much slower and less mysterious. Move this hot thing from one place and physically put it in another place. Take warm air from your furnace and blow it into your bedroom. Although all movement of this type is sometimes subsumed under the name convection, convection really refers to vertical air movement, while the horizontal movement of air (wind) is called advection. Convection can occur when advecting air meets a mountain and is forced upward. More often, however, the vertical mixing of air occurs when the temperature of an air “parcel” (imagine an invisible balloon) increases and it expands making it lighter; cooler, heavier air pushes in around it and the bubble of warmer air is again forced to rise.

The heat content of a bubble of air is composed of two types. The sensible heat is the heat that you can feel on your skin and which we regard as temperature. As we have seen, this is associated with the kinetic or vibrational energy found with jiggling molecules. A more subtle form of heat found in the atmosphere is latent heat. In our atmosphere, this is derived from the phase of the water content and would be zero in perfectly dry air. As liquid water leaps from the liquid to vapor state it needs an extra “kick” of energy called the latent heat of vaporization. It gets this from the sensible heat in the atmosphere, so that when water is evaporating into the air, the air tends

Latent heat. Energy "hiding" in the respective phases of water.

Latent heat. Energy “hiding” in the respective phases of water.

to chill. The total energy hasn’t changed; some if it has just been “hidden” as latent heat. As water vapor is condensed into a liquid on the other hand, it gives off this same kick, the latent heat of vaporization in reverse, and it deposits it in the sensible heat of the air. As raindrops form inside a cloud, the surrounding air warms. As the sweat on your skin evaporates it absorbs this latent heat from your body. If the air is too humid for the sweat to evaporate efficiently then it can’t help you cool down. This is why dry desert heat feels less oppressive.

The reason for bringing up latent heat is not trivial. As the wind blows from the tropics, I think it is rather intuitive how sensible heat is moved. However, it is also bringing a great deal of latent heat energy hidden in the water vapor. This becomes manifest as sensible heat when the water vapor releases it as it condenses out as rain. Latent heat, moving around with the atmosphere’s water molecules, is a vitally important factor in understanding the global heat distribution.


Conduction operates on the smallest, molecular, scale. Recall when I have explained how molecules vibrate more rigorously as they receive heat energy and their temperature increases. This kinetic energy can be transferred from molecule to molecule when they collide. If you take a metal spoon and place one end on the coil of a hot electric stove, the heat absorbed by the spoon at the surface of the stove will move molecule by molecule to the other end where your finger is holding it. You will feel this heat as the molecules in your own skin start to vibrate faster. Ouch. Now suppose the far end of the spoon is resting on a piece of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide, which is at least -109.3°F) instead. Soon your finger will start to feel cold as the temperature gradually falls across the length of the spoon. It would appear that “cold” is moving toward your hand this time, but that is not the case. In fact, heat energy only flows from hot things to cold things, never in reverse. This is best understood, again, by the transfer of kinetic energy. This time the heat is flowing in the opposite direction. Vibrating molecules in the spoon hit the more sedately vibrating molecules in the dry ice, transfer some of their kinetic energy to the ice, and slow down. Again this happens all the way to the end of the spoon you are holding. Here, the molecules in your finger transfer vibrational energy to the spoon and you can feel the temperature drop. In both cases the energy flowed from the higher kinetic energy to lesser kinetic energy.

Heat transfer by conduction is something that we feel often in our daily life. When we are cold and jump into a hot shower. When we are hot and jump into a cold shower. When we hop into bed at night and tense momentarily as our warm body hits the cold sheets. In the atmosphere, however, most heat transfer by conduction dominates in only two places. One of these occurs at about 100 km above the earth’s surface where the atmosphere is extremely thin, and the description is too esoteric for this essay. The other occurs precisely at the earth’s surface. Air flowing less than a centimeter from the ground tends to come to a halt due to friction. When this happens it allows vibrational heat energy to be transferred just like I described above with the spoon. Some materials are better conductors of heat energy than others. If you touch a hot pan you will obviously get burned quickly. But have you ever touched a piece of aluminum foil just out of the oven? No problem! The aluminum molecules in the foil can dance very fast, but they have a difficult time moving the molecules in your finger faster, at least compared to other materials we routinely cook with.

I’ll give a couple of examples to make a clear image. On a spring day, usually when air is being advected from the South, the warmth from the air is absorbed into the snow surface. As the ice reaches 32°F, it melts. The air cools as some of the heat energy it is carrying goes both toward increasing the water temperature and providing the latent heat of freezing to melt the ice. During the summer, the radiation from the sun is absorbed at the ground where it warms the hot tarmac of a parking lot, for example. The surface soon becomes very hot, this time warming the air that comes into contact with it.

Putting It All Together

Test question!

A bird is sitting on a branch in a tree about fifteen feet above the ground on a cool dark night just before dawn. As morning arrives and it gradually gets lighter, the bird, hidden under the leaves, begins to notice that the air around it has started to warm.  Describe the processes which are responsible for warming the air around the bird.

Give it a try!


1. Energy leaves the hot surface of the sun in the form of electromagnetic radiation and travels for approximately eight minutes across the vacuum of space until it reaches the earth. Upon entering the earth’s atmosphere, most of this energy passes directly to the surface where it is absorbed (the blue part of the energy is scattered, which explains why the sky is blue).

2. As the very surface (only molecules deep!) absorbs this radiation, the molecules start to jiggle and the temperature goes up. This difference is sensible to the touch.

3. The vibrating molecules on the surface bump against the air molecules, sharing this heat energy, and they start to jiggle as well.

4. Now the layer of air touching the ground grows warm and expands making it less dense. Less dense bubbles of air leave the ground and convect up into the tree. The bird is warmer.

Water in the Atmosphere

Is this cloud composed of water vapor or liquid water? What's your guess?

Is this cloud composed of water vapor or liquid water? What’s your guess?

Although I previously wrote on the topic of “Water,” here I would like to narrow my focus to specifically on “Water in the Atmosphere.” I am doing this for three reasons. First, it provides a great example from our immediate surroundings where one can explain basic scientific principles in a simple manner to non-scientists. Second, the topic affects us all on a daily basis whether we’ve ever thought about it or not. How can I dry the clothes faster? Why do I sweat? How can I defog the windshield? And where does rain come from anyway? Third, an understanding of the concepts presented here provides a foundation for future posts I’d like to write on hurricanes, the greenhouse effect and global climate change.

Water and Air Together

It is possible that you have heard the concept that “warm air holds more water than cold air.” This is a somewhat misleading and mysterious statement which will become more clear once we actually see what happens when water and air come together. So, we will start by imagining a simple scenario: a closed jar, half filled with water and with perfectly dry air above it at room temperature and sea level pressure (the weight of all the air above you as you stand next to the ocean). I touched on the concept of temperature in my essay on “Fire“, but here I will explain it more carefully. All atoms and molecules around us are jiggling more quickly or more sluggishly depending on how much kinetic energy they each have.  We do not feel these individual molecules though of course. What we experience as temperature, whether we measure it through a thermometer or our fingertips, is an average of the jiggling of the molecules. In the diagram below we can compare curves of how many molecules are jiggling at each kinetic energy level at two different temperatures.

This is a graph showing the distribution of molecular kinetic energy level at two different temperatures. The left (vertical) axis should read "numbers of molecules". Emin is the energy level required for a molecule to jump from the liquid to vapor state. Obviously more molecules have this greater kinetic energy  on the higher temperature curve..

This is a graph showing the distribution of molecular kinetic energy level at two different temperatures. The left (vertical) axis should read “numbers of molecules”. Emin is the energy level required for a molecule to jump from the liquid to vapor state. Obviously more molecules have this greater kinetic energy on the higher temperature curve..

If we warmed the water and air, the whole curve shifts to the right and if we cooled it this curve shifts to the left, as indicated.

[As an aside, if you read my essay on “Water“, you will recall that water is a special molecule with a negatively charged side and positively charged side. The negative side of one water molecule is attracted to the positive side of another water molecule in what is called a hydrogen bond. This kind of bond is so important that it would be worth reviewing in that post.]

Let’s begin and see what starts to happen. The most energetic of the molecules in the water have enough energy to break the hydrogen bonds to their neighbors and “jump” up into the air. These are the molecules indicated in the shaded area to the right of the Emin in the above diagram. Since the air is starting out dry, all the movement of the water will be in one direction: from the liquid water below into the air above. It’s evaporating. Once in the air, however, these “new” water vapor molecules will start colliding with air molecules and with each other, and in so doing will gain or lose some of their kinetic energy. Those that lose energy in these collisions may no longer have enough energy to resist the attraction of the negative or positive charge in the water below and may rejoin the liquid water and form hydrogen bonds again. They will be condensing. This exchange happens for awhile, and as it proceeds, the number of water vapor molecules moving back into the liquid water starts to increase because there are simply more of them. Soon, the number of water molecule moving from the liquid up into the air is equal to those moving from the air back to the liquid. The air is saturated. To us, it appears that evaporation stops, though it is really just a new balance in the movement of water between states. The evaporation rate is equal to the condensation rate. If we were to warm the jar with our water and air, there would be more liquid molecules able to jump up in the air and fewer vapor molecules reconnecting with the water. Instead of saying that the air is “holding more water,” it is more enlightening to realize that a new equilibrium is being established with more molecules in vapor form.

At the lower temperature on the left, equillibrium between evaporation and saturation is established with fewer water vapor molecules in the air than than at a higher temperature, shown on the right.

At the lower temperature on the left, equilibrium between evaporation and saturation is established with fewer water vapor molecules in the air than at a higher temperature, shown on the right.

Inside the closed jar, with the pressure steady and the temperature stable (unless we decided to change it), the air eventually became saturated. But in the real world this balance of water molecules going from liquid to vapor and vapor to liquid cannot be established so easily. There may not be a swamp or pond or lake or ocean below the air to act as a water source. The temperature of the water or “parcel” of air may change. We take the top off the jar, drier air blows in and, once again, more water molecules will be jumping up into the new, drier, air.

Ways to Measure the Amount of Water in the Air

So, how does one define how much water is in the air? What ways will be most useful?

Relative Humidity

“Relative Humidity” is the term we are most used to hearing on the weather report, so let’s start there. The amount of water vapor in the air compared to the air itself is not all that great, especially when you compare how differently very humid air feels compared to dry air. It is usually somewhere between 2 and 6 grams of water to one kilogram of air (~4 gm water/1000 gm air). It the warm tropics this number can approach 20 gms of water to one kilogram of air. This measurement is called the mixing ratio.  In our ideal example with the jar, we saw that the air became saturated and that the point at which this happened depended only on the temperature and the need for a water source nearby. The ratio of the mass of water vapor at saturation to the mass of the air is the saturation mixing ratio (duh!). In the real world, the actual mixing ratio might be well below the saturation mixing ratio.  As I noted above, there might not be a good water source nearby and our air parcel might be blowing all around over land or up in the sky. In fact, the air even over the ocean is rarely at its saturation point. Relative humidity is an attempt to describe how close to the saturation point the air is at. The way this is done is by determining the ratio of the the mass of water in the actual air to the mass it would potentially have at saturation (x 100 to give a percentage).

Relative Humidity = (actual mass of water in a parcel of air/potential mass of water in the air) x (100)

You can imagine that if the relative humidity is low, the potential evaporation rate is high. This is useful in telling us how quickly our clothes will dry or whether our sweat will evaporate.

Dew Point

Dew point is another useful measure of water in the atmosphere. Instead of telling us how close to saturation the air is at a particular temperature, it tells us the temperature at which the air would become saturated if you didn’t change the amount of water vapor in the air.

Dew Point: The temperature at which the condensation and evaporation rate of water vapor are equal and the air is saturated.

Remember the condensation rate increases relative the the evaporation rate as the temperature cools. If I tell you the dewpoint is 50 degrees, I am saying that, given the amount of water in the air, dew will start to form on the grass at 50 degrees. If the temperature does not fall below 50° F, no dew will form. You can see that dew point is an indication of how much water is in the air, but not how much evaporation exceeds saturation.  The actual air temperature is usually above the dew point. If the dew point were higher than the actual temperature, the condensation would exceed evaporation, the water vapor would exit the air and form a cloud or form drops on some other surface. Since this is the only real measure we have of the actual amount of water in the air, it is very useful to predict how much rain could potentially fall. An air mass with a dew point of 65°F contains fair more water vapor than an air mass at 45°F.  This is something you can now understand when floods are predicted and you see that, indeed, the dew point is high.

How to Make a Raindrop.

There is one thing I failed to mention in the first part of this post which I must now bring to light. I said that the water in the jar will become saturated when the number of water molecules moving from the water to the air is equal to the number moving from the air to the water. But, this is saturation with respect to a flat surface of water. The temperature at which evaporation and condensation rates are the same are different with respect to a curved surface of water!

Huh? Where would one ever encounter a curved surface of water, why would it matter, and would it matter much? Well, I obviously already gave it away in the title to this section. CurvedvsFlatsurface_0002A raindrop is where you would find such a curved surface of water, and to understand how raindrops begin to be formed in the first place, this difference is important. We are going to go back to our old friend, the hydrogen bond, and for this I have drawn a visual aid shown above. In this diagram I have drawn both a flat surface of water (jar, lake, ocean) and a curved surface of water (a raindrop) with two water vapor molecules jiggling over them. This time, however, I have drawn imaginary links (in red) between the charged halves of these molecules to the charged halves of the molecules in the liquid water. These are the electromagnetic forces trying to draw the water vapor back to the surface to reform a hydrogen bond. With the raindrop notice that the liquid water surface curves away from our water vapor molecule, and hence, the forces wanting to pull it into the raindrop are farther away. The strength this electromagnetic force decreases with distance (by the square of the distance to be exact). So, the smaller the water droplet, the harder it is for it to pull in more vapor and grow. This means that the dew point with respect to a curved surface of water is lower than with respect to a flat surface. In fact, as the volume of the droplet shrinks to near nothing, it’s ability to gather more water vapor molecules also shrinks to almost nothing. Even when the air is far below the dew point with respect to a flat surface of water, water will not condense into the raindrop, but will stay as vapor. In this state of affairs, we say the air is supersaturated.

So how does a water droplet get started? This takes something called a condensation nuclei which is nothing more than a fancy name for a dust mote. Almost anything can serve as such a dust mote: soot from a chimney or forest fire, dead phytoplankton from the ocean, clay from a dust storm, sulfates from volcanic activity, perhaps even Whoville. The condensation nuclei acts as a proxy for a flatter surface. This is especially true if this nuclei has a bit of a charge itself and water molecules find themselves attracted to it. As the tiny drop grows larger around this nuclei, it’s surface becomes flatter with respect to the water vapor molecules and condensation happens more easily (the extremely low dew point with respect to a curved surface approaches the more environmentally likely dewpoint of the flat surface).

In the air this usually happens when air cools. For reasons you can’t be expected to know from this post, rising air cools. And soon as this cooling, rising air reaches its dew point temperature, fewer water vapor molecules have the necessary kinetic energy to remain as vapor and will condense onto the nearest surface of water. This is how a raindrop is formed. You may have noticed how condensation forms on the outside of your cold drink on a hot humid summer day. The surface temperature of the glass is far below the dewpoint temperature of the air. Shake some of the drops on the glass off onto your face. You just made it rain.

Clearing the Fog off your Windshield

So let’s see if you can use what you learned here to help you in a real life scenario. You live in Seattle and it is a rainy January evening and the temperature is 45F (6C). You have the windshield wipers on but that’s not helping much because the windows are fogging up from the inside. So, you turn on the  heat and aim it toward the windows and circulate the air just within the car to try and dry the windows off (surely, the air in the car is drier that the soggy air outside!). But strangely, that just makes it worse!

What’s going on?

Now you are wiping the windows with your hand to be able to see outside. You stop at your friend’s house to pick them up and a strange thing happens. When you open the door and they get in, a cold damp gust of wind blows in and the windows clear a bit. You open the window a crack. Now you are going to experiment like a scientist. What if you change the source of the heated air blowing on the windows to outside air instead of recirculating the warmer inside air? All this is working wonders. But it’s all very counter intuitive. Blowing cold damp air at the window clears them up? If you want to keep thinking through this problem, don’t read below.

What you have done is to confuse relative humidity with dew point. It seems drier in the car because the relative humidity is lower, while outside the car the relative humidity is nearly 100% and there are even foggy patches. Outside the car the air is nearly saturated with water vapor, inside the car it is not. On the outside, the evaporation rate equals the condensation rate, but on the inside the evaporation rate is greater than the condensation rate. Indeed, judging by relative humidity, the windows should clear up with the windows closed.  But at 45F, the air outside has a much lower dewpoint. Since it is foggy out you can see you are nearly there at 45F. Much of the water vapor in the outside air is already condensed out. Inside the warmer car the dewpoint is higher, perhaps 65F. There are many more water vapor molecules in a given volume of air on the inside compared to the outside. The mixing ratio is higher.

So, why does the relative humidity matter less than the dew point? Because the glass on the windows is much cooler than the other surfaces on the inside of the car. It is chilled from outside. The water vapor molecules do not condense on the seats or on your hair. They condense on an object less that the 65F dew point.  Bring in some of that lower dew point air in from outside!

Why Do We Sweat?

In my essay on Water I explained that breaking a hydrogen bond, and going from liquid to vapor requires an extra bit of heat energy called the heat of vaporization. This heat energy is sucked away from the molecules in the surrounding environment, which tends to cool the environment. If this evaporation is water on your skin, your skin will cool. Recall that evaporation will happen faster when the relative humidity is low. In a desert, with very dry air, your sweat will evaporate rapidly, helping to cool you off. In a tropical setting with high relative humidity and a low evaporation rate, your sweat just sits there doing nothing. It can’t cool you if it can’t evaporate. This is why 95F in the desert feels much less oppressive than 95F on a muggy day. This same heat of vaporization is released back into the environment during condensation. This can be significant where condensation is occurring quickly like inside a thunderstorm. Stay tuned.

Last Bit of Trivia

At the beginning of this post I posed a question under the photograph of a cloud: Is the cloud composed of water vapor or liquid water? I hope you will now guess correctly that the cloud composed of tiny drops of floating liquid water. Water vapor is completely invisible to the human eye. But there was another plausible guess. What about floating ice? There is an easy what to tell if a cloud is composed of floating drops of liquid water or floating specks of ice. Clouds composed of liquid water droplets tend to have clear boundaries. The drops evaporate rather quickly in the unsaturated air outside the cloud. But ice, with very much less kinetic energy, does not evaporate so easily. They tend to live longer outside the cloud and they give the cloud a “wispy” look.

Can you see which part of this thunderstorm is composed of liquid water drops and which is composed of ice?

Can you see which part of this thunderstorm is composed of liquid water drops and which is composed of ice?

Old West Loop

Science and Religion

The subject of “Science and Religion” is images-3obviously monumental. They are arguably the two greatest influences on western civilization, and a full discussion of this topic could take volumes. What I really intend to do here is something smaller in scope: to discuss the differences in how religion and science pursue knowledge. This encompasses a branch of philosophy called epistemology – what is knowable and how do we know it? But if I put “epistemology” in the title, I think, perhaps, that no one would read this. So, please don’t stop!

From our modern day perspective, both religion and science have a body of knowledge about the world, things that are believed to be true, and both of them have their own method of acquiring this truth. Is this knowledge and are these methods necessarily in conflict? This was certainly not always the case, for it has just been in the last few hundred years that study of divine causation and natural philosophy have begun to dissociate.  Now that the methods of modern science have been well honed, and it’s discoveries are often found to be in apparent conflict with traditional religious knowledge, what is the contemporary nature of this difference? Can the two be reconciled? Why  does the scientist fight with the theologian, often inside the same mind? The idea that science and religion are inherently inimical, is sometimes referred to as the warfare model of the science vs. religion debate, and it is historically a rather modern concept. In response, some have advanced the “separate realms” opinion that some knowledge of the world is best left to religious methods and some are best left to science. In this second thesis, any conflicts that arise are merely “border transgressions” between the two realms and should be resolved by putting each question back in it’s proper place.

As I said, in this essay, I will choose to deal with the methods that science and religion both employ in acquiring knowledge, rather than any specific knowledge each claims. For example, “how do we determine the age of the universe?,” rather than “what is the age of the universe?”

How Modern Science Acquires Knowledge of the World

With science, we first receive information through our five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – which I’ll refer to as sensory perceptions or observations. An immediate or firsthand observation is what is often called “empirical evidence.” Many philosophers (they would be “empiricists”) think that all beliefs must be founded solely on this information; they discourage the notion of innate ideas and prefer a posteriori (after the fact) knowledge to a priori (before the fact) knowledge.  On the contrary, purely “rationalist” philosophers distrust empirical evidence, often because they distrust our senses, and prefer knowledge that is gained only through logical thought. Nearly all scientists since the beginning of the scientific revolution, however, incorporate both empirical knowledge and the tools of rational logic and language. They use both in a process that is now known as the scientific method. The scientific method involves a few simple steps.

The Scientific Method

Question. All scientific knowledge starts with empirical observations about something in the world and a human sense of wonder. Why is fire hot and why does it flicker? What makes water turn to a solid? Why does the moon stay up in the sky? Why are some peas smooth and some wrinkled?

We all perform experiments. Even babies.

We all perform experiments. Even babies.

Hypothesis. Once we have a question we’d like to pursue, we gather all previous knowledge about the topic (the first scientists had little of this!) and we construct a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a guess as to why something happens. It explains the behavior of something you see in the world and it predicts that if I do this thing I think that thing will result. Certain things can make a hypothesis more, or less, impressive. For example, we would hope that we could not explain the result as something purely coincidental. But this much is vital: it must be falsifiable! It must be possible to prove yourself wrong. If it is not, then it is not possible to test it, which is the next step.

Experiment. Then we construct an experiment to test this hypothesis. A good experiment is as simple as possible so that other factors outside the hypothesis itself are minimized and whose effect on the result can be estimated. For example, using fewer instruments ensures that broken and miscalibrated instruments will lead to errors. Also, the result must be clear and easy to interpret. It won’t help if you already know beforehand that it is going to be difficult to analyze the results. Importantly for this particular essay, note that the results of the experiment are perceived through your five senses.

Analysis. The tools of rational logic and language are used subtly throughout the scientific process, but especially when analyzing the results. It is important that we know what is a valid conclusion and what is not, lest we commit a logical fallacy. Our analysis of the experiment will reveal that one of three things has happened. The result may contradict the hypothesis, whereupon you are back to square one. The result may be completely unexpected, which is interesting, and you are also back to square one. Or, the result may confirm your hypothesis. If that happens it is important not to get too big a head yet. Importantly, other people must be able to repeat your experiment. An experiment that can’t be replicated is worthless. Also, it is a good idea to test the hypothesis from another angle to see if the results are robust. Sometimes the results might necessarily vary slightly each time the experiment is repeated, as would be the case with particle physics, and a statistical approach is necessary to verify or falsify the hypothesis.

After a hypothesis is tested through different experiments many times, all verifiable, and with consistent results, it becomes theory. A theory is more than a fact. A theory is an explanation of how facts came to be. One example of such a well tested theory is the theory of evolution. Darwin’s original hypothesis was logically and internally consistent, but that was not enough. It had to be proven true in nature. Experiments from geology, paleontology, atmospheric science, chemistry (carbon dating), zoology, environmental biology, developmental biology, and now, very importantly, molecular biology, all yield consistent results. To be tested from so many angles without contradiction is a best case scenario for a theory.

It seems that religion is something that resulted from evolution. It's complicated.

It seems that religion is something that resulted from evolution. It’s complicated.

Well  tested theories are something we start to hang our hat on. They are ideas we have about how the natural world works. We  act as if this idea, the original hypothesis, were true, and then, using rational logic, construct new hypotheses.  This can seemingly carry us far from our original sensory, empirical, experience. We originally saw light with our eyes. We carried out experiments on light, for example, to test increasingly more complex hypotheses about it until we came up with a theory of electromagnetic radiation. Each experiment along the way had to somehow yield results that could be experienced through our senses even as the phenomenon we were studying lay beyond our senses. Eventually we began to have such a thorough understanding of microwaves (long wavelength light that we cannot see), that we could develop technology that uses them.  We believe what we have learned about microwaves because we have been able to make machines using them that when they heat our food we feel the warmth on our tongue and when they transmit signals through our cell phones we can hear the sound in our ear.

In summary, here are the really important points regarding how science acquires knowledge of the natural world:

  1. All information is received directly or indirectly through our five senses before applying the rules of logic.
  2. All hypotheses must be falsifiable.
  3. Anyone can repeat an experiment and expect the same result. All experiments have to be reproducible. The entire process can be clearly communicated to another human being starting at (1).
  4. From simple theories. more complex ones are derived. Technology proceeds.

How Religion Acquires Knowledge of the World

A discussion of how religion acquires knowledge is more difficult than science, because religious experience is so varied. In some cases this knowledge is acquired by scripture and the church hierarchy and in others it is acquired by revelation. Let me explain.

Some religions are established, like the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions that have had so much influence over western civilization. These religions each have their own political structure, religious practices, scriptures, and theology (a methodological discourse on the nature of God, God’s actions and relationship to  the Universe).  Ancient scripture within these organized religions is sometimes taken to be the most legitimate primary source of  knowledge, and theology by church leaders, is the proper means of extending this knowledge. This  method of acquiring knowledge of the world is sometimes referred to as faith. But faith, when so narrowly defined as this simple acceptance of scripture and church leaders, is the mere “suspension of disbelief .”  And suspension of disbelief, by definition, is not an epistemological method of gaining knowledge about anything. It is simply intellectual laziness. For this reason, I do not consider scripture/church leader centric “faith” to be germane to the purpose of this essay.

More interestingly, and more broadly across all varieties of religious experience, faith is considered to be revelation, epiphany, or the grace of direct knowledge of God’s existence and force in the Universe which bypasses the five senses and is perceived directly by the consciousness. It is a kind of sixth sense. To a Christian this might be a “born again” experience and to a Buddhist it might be an “enlightenment” experience. It might be felt in prayer. Some claim to walk with this “sixth sense” always alive in their mind, while others feel nothing.

It is important to stress here that revelation is the only direct means of experiencing God. There is no direct knowledge of God that is discernible by our five senses. God cannot be seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. You might hypothesize that the thoughts in your brain or the propagation of light or the initial creation came from God. But if you want to prove the existence of God through science, the hypothesis must be testable and verifiable. But no one, so far at least, has been able to conduct an experiment whose results could only be explained by the presence of God even indirectly, and which could then be replicated by someone else.

So, now we come to a crucial point: this means of acquiring knowledge of “God” is an entirely personal affair. Many of you may have read my “Welcome” page to this blog and are aware of my fondness for the term “Nullius En Verba”. This was the Seventeenth Century motto of the Royal Society of London (one of the first and greatest scientific organizations)  and it abjures a person to think for them self. Do the experiment yourself. Observe the world for yourself. Do not uncritically take on another person’s ideas or experience as your own. Unfortunately, a revelation cannot be transferred from one person to another. There is no way to convince another person to have the same revelation that you have had. They might be excited into an religious ecstasy, God may choose to bestow upon them the grace of sudden knowledge of the divine, but there is no telling whether this experience is the same as yours. This is the fundamental difference between knowledge obtained through the five senses and confirmed via the scientific method and knowledge gained by faith. Religious knowledge is not transferable in any philosophically rigorous way.

Does this show that religion, using faith, cannot yield knowledge of the Universe?  No it does not! It simply shows nothing outside of the person who was “graced”. For the person who has had a moving religious epiphany the experience may prove quite convincing. They may suddenly see the evidence of their five senses through quite a different prism. Suppose I have a friend named Nikolai who is a passionate atheist and who believes that the scientific method is the only method of finding out something new about the world. You are hiking through the mountains with him when he unfortunately steps into a beehive and is attacked. He is allergic to bees. He quickly goes into anaphylactic shock and his heart stops. But you, being quite logical and prepared, pull out your epinephrine filled syringe and AED (automated external defibrillator) and manage to get his heart started once again. Upon opening his eyes, what a story Nikolai has to tell! He saw a bright light through a tunnel which he was compelled to follow. He was surrounded by the incorporeal spirits of his loved ones that have passed. He knows and understands everything. And above near-death-experience-1
all, he feels a more profound love than was ever imaginable to him before. After making sure he has fully recovered, you suggest that maybe what he experienced was an artifact of what happens to a brain when deprived of oxygen. “No, no NO! That was NOT what happened to me. I saw something real. There is, in fact, something beyond this world. There is a God! I saw Him!”  And from that day on, Nikolai no longer fears death and he believes in God. Well, what do you make of this situation? Nikolai was not mentally unstable. He was a natural skeptic, yet he changed his mind in a matter of minutes. Do you just accept Nikolai’s experience as the truth even though you have a nagging doubt about oxygen and the brain? Certainly what happened was impressive.

The question of what to make of another person’s unverifiable revelation strikes at the heart of what it means to believe in something. The topic of “Belief, Doubt and Uncertainty” is easily large enough for a post of it’s own, or a whole book. Put simply, however, for things that lie beyond the evidence of the five senses, outside the hand of  experiment and the scientific method, we must choose to believe, or not, to a matter of degree, forever held in a kind of intellectual limbo or until we have our own epiphany. For such supernatural things, only when we need to take action based on this belief is it necessary to take a position (knowing you could be wrong) and that doesn’t happen very often. We may believe in an afterlife a bit more after our harrowing hike with good friend skeptical Nikolai, but Nikolai’s words cannot convey his experience.

In summary, here are the really important points regarding how religion acquires knowledge of the world:

  1. Belief in something because it is written down somewhere, or because someone told you, is not a valid epistemological reason for believing anything.
  2. Belief in something through revelation, outside the five senses, is personal and cannot be conveyed by mere words.
  3. Supernatural “beliefs” can be considered more or less “plausible,” as in agnosticism. Natural beliefs about the world accessible to our senses can be investigated and found to be correct or incorrect.

So, Should Science and Religion be at War or Not?

The reason I have focused on the two different ways science and religion acquire knowledge is because I think this holds the key to finding peace between these elements in our society that seem to be at war with each other. Where the five senses rule, the scientific method is preferred. If you need to get the ice off your windshield, determine how not to get a sunburn, discover new drugs, calculate when the next high tide will come, figure out why you can’t sleep, or what plants grows best in your garden soil, the scientific method is the only route to getting the answer. You make hypotheses, experiment, and cooperate with your neighbor. And it isn’t helpful to pray for a revelation to solve these practical problems of this world we are all now living in. On the other hand, if you are wondering about the meaning of your life…who can tell you what to think? For some, revelation might indeed be helpful and all they can do is relate their story. Others may find your story interesting, or not. So, if there is a “separate realms” concept of where science and religion should each rule, it comes down to how you acquire knowledge and how you share it. This is why I have focused on their different epistemologies.

Nikolai has the best answer. He respects your reticence to “believe” as he now does. He was in your shoes. You respect his enthusiasm for a “higher” world. In this world, you will share a common approach, science. In the privacy of his own mind he knows that you are loved beyond imagination. In the privacy of your mind you wonder if Nikolai suffered oxygen deprivation. You continue to buy season tickets to the football game, or ballet, together.

One of two bumper stickers on the back of my car.

One of two bumper stickers on the back of my car.

Belize and Guatemala