Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Always a Parent

For three years, my Mom and sister were estranged: my sister wouldn't speak to our Mom. My Mom more or less reconciled herself to this fact after awhile, but confessed to me once 
"You know, you can't stop being a parent.  You always worry about your kids, always want to protect them.  Especially when you can't."

Once, while we were living in Saudi Arabia, we received a letter from our son, Jared, who was serving as a missionary in the Slovak Republic at the time. In it, he described symptoms of tetanus including rictus and lock-jaw. Oh, I know it wasn't tetanus, because he's alive today, but it must have been pretty bad, whatever it was.

But here's the point: the letter was dated two weeks earlier. As I read it, I knew that my son was either alive or dead - and I had no way of knowing. There was nothing I could do except re-read his words and stare at the wall. Unless you're a parent, you can't understand how truly helpless you can sometimes feel about your kids.  A major lesson in the Book of Life is how to deal with not being able to control your life.

I've learned that my Mom's observation was bang on. As my kids grow older, become their own people, marry, and have children of their own, it actually gets harder: the traps are so much deadlier now, and I can do so much less to protect them:
- The I deserve this toy trap
- The I'm young-and-immortal trap
- The I'll save for retirement later trap
- The I must work furiously to get ahead trap
- The I'm smart enough to figure this out myself trap
You may notice that these all start with an "I".  Been guilty of all but one myself.

 All I can do is place my kids in the hands of my God, and work on exercising faith.  


My Mom also said some other things that have proven to be very wise - even prophetic:

1. "Oh, it's just a case of poor potty-training."  This was said to me when I was exploding with anger over what someone had done to me. It gave me pause: if you can see where someone's behavior may have come from, it's easier to deal with. It's easier to forgive: 

"My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened.

Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin."
2. "Someday, somewhere, I hope you have thirteen 13-year-olds, all at the same time!"  I don't recall what I had done that made her so angry with me at the time, but it certainly must have been when I was thirteen years old. Years later I was in Sterling, Virginia, teaching a Sunday School class of 13-year-olds. One of the young women dared a young man with whom she was always skirmishing to "Oh, go jump out the window."  Scott looked at her, then took a running leap and jumped through the sharp-edged aluminum frame of one of those pull-out-at-an-angle building windows. He slithered through the 20-cm opening, ran off across the lawn, jumped the fence, and ran into the back door of his house. I looked at the window frame and saw a piece of fabric and some blood there. I turned back and for some reason counted: 
...there were thirteen 13-year-olds left.

Monday, May 30, 2011


Wolfgang Goethe spent 25 years perfecting his two-part play Faust, completing it in 1832, the year he died.  It is considered one of the greatest works of all German literature, and is truly mesmerizing.  It is a very complex play - too complex to even outline here - but at its core is a man seeking ever greater knowledge, and who makes a bargain with the Devil to get it.  In return for granting everything he wants and seeks, Faust must sign over his soul. The story has a bittersweet ending, and unselfish love is a key element. Faust did not seek power through this knowledge, but instead he wanted access to transcendent knowledge unavailable to science and the wisdom of his age.  He was bored: felt trapped, limited.

Over the years, many have interpreted the bargain as one that a lot of people make: to take great risks to live an exciting life - to potentially sacrifice everything to avoid being bored.  In our modern culture this is part of what is now called the Faustian Bargain, an idea that predates Goethe and is widespread in western culture, found in many fairy tales with a typical slant: a warning lesson.

I recently wondered if I had made a Faustian Bargain: In a document I filled out recently I had to list all the countries that I had spent any significant time in, and that list came to 33.  All the continents save Antarctica.  WooHOO - what great adventures! Yes... but what great cost in permanent physical consequences.

There’s an old saying that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.  You could condense all the conservation laws of physics in these words; nothing comes without a cost.  Nothing.

I sometimes look at life’s passages as a wave-train passing through space.  If the wave has a large amplitude there are great highs (thrills) - but corresponding great lows (penalties). The deep Amazonas forest is an enthralling place - but I nearly died a number of times there.  In Jerusalem I visited the Garden Tomb - and stayed awake all night in 32 C weather in the White Sisters Convent, hiding under a wool blanket to avoid the mosquitos screeing in my ears. I had a room with a view of the flood-lit walls of the Old City - but no glass.  In Kamchatka, a visit to a suddenly activating Mutnovskiy volcano involved two close calls, and required a 22-hour prostate-busting ride in a Russian troop-carrier.  Another 22-hour “field trip” in western Mauritania traded the volcano for a very close call with a sand cobra.  I’ve climbed Mount Roraima at the junction of Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela - and nearly froze in what for all the world was a sleet storm on the Moon. I camped overnight inside Mount St Helens’ crater - and lost a toenail and permanently damaged my right knee.  The list goes on and on: every great adventure is tinged with a price I seemed to always have to pay.

There's a larger lesson here.  I’m not sure I would trade any of these experiences away in retrospect, but I also think: if I knew ahead of time what the long-range price would be, would I still board that plane?

Isn’t that what life is about, however?  We make choices and there is always a price affixed to each one... but we may not see that price and we may not want to see that price.  A good friend wanted to know if the guy proposing marriage was The One, but was afraid of the answer she would get - so she just married him.  She's divorced now, living with a mentally-challenged son in Colorado.  My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather each made a choice that left their wives alone and their children fatherless.  They each ended their long lives very sad and lonely.  

I cringe when I see someone make a family-changing decision like a marriage or a divorce or to have an affaire - and commonly they deliberately choose not to consider the long-term consequences. We don’t need to seek out adventure - it generally seeks us out anyway.

The measure of wisdom is to always weigh the downrange consequences before we board that plane.  Weigh that Faustian Bargain carefully before you sign with your blood... because the consequences always last longer than the reward up front, just like that last car-loan.

Also keep in mind that wisdom correlates rather poorly with IQ and education, so don't trust your emotions but ask the wiser people around you.  You know who they are.  Then listen.  


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Predicting Disaster

The old joke goes like this: What do tornados and divorce have in common?  
Answer: Someone’s gonna lose a trailer.

Harold Camping made millions preaching that the world would end on May 21, 2012.  In his own words, May 21st was one of the worst days of his life.  I suppose it would have been a better day if everyone died?  He claimed to preach from the Bible, but apparently somehow overlooked Matthew 24:36.

Here are some disasters can you can definitely predict:
- a volcanic eruption
- a divorce (for the selfish and unfaithful)

Here are some disasters that you cannot predict:
- mega-earthquakes
- when the world will end

In between these extremes there are some that you can “sort of” predict with varying reach-out-into-the-future time-frames:
- a tornado - by a few minutes to an hour
- the price of oil - up to weeks ahead
- if you buy Lotto tickets there will be one less car during your life that you will replace.

Conservative estimates of money spent world-wide to study earthquakes is in the $50 Billion range - but with no success.  The top earthquake scientists I have talked with, friends of mine, tell me that well, no, we can’t actually predict earthquakes.  You can forecast the statistical likelihood of one, but this makes the assumption that the earthquake-generation process is somehow linked to past events, which is a pretty shaky proposition - because then we should be able to predict them in the first place.    

Some things are random - or at least we cannot find a discernable pattern to them.  Roulette comes to mind.  However, your ultimate success at Roulette is NOT random: You. Will. Lose.  Some apparently random events may simply have causal factors still unrecognized or obscured.  This hope has driven some brilliant people I know to gamble their entire professional careers on earthquake research, and they have all seen little for it.  So far.

When something doesn't make sense, you can either invoke magic - or conclude that you are missing information.  There is at least one reason, one causative variable, for EVERYTHING that happens.

The reliability and safety of your online credit-card purchases depends on being able to generate a random number.  Really: it has to be something that someone else cannot duplicate and therefor use to predict the encryption key.

But here’s the fun part: generating a truly random number is impossible.  Mathematicians and computer scientists have spent decades trying to do this - but hardware that can generate a number by a certain process can be duplicated.  Mathematicians have gotten really, really good at generating pseudo-random numbers: numbers that sure seem to be random... but the fact is that the NSA was able to eavesdrop on conversations in Islamabad that were supposedly encrypted on and after May 1, 2011.  Massive computing power in Fort Meade wins again.  No, the Pakistani leadership really didn’t know that Osama bin Laden was watching porn in their back yard, though in retrospect it sure seems like the best place to hide, doesn’t it?

The take-away here is that nothing just happens.  The Big Bang didn’t just happen.  SOMETHING causes EVERYTHING

And Someone knows all the rules governing them.  


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bad Philosophy

Endowed Latter-Day Saints are familiar with the expression “philosophies of men”, in a context that means “bad”.  From the time of Plato and Aristotle, philosophy was the human species’ attempt to understand the world around us, absent all but the most primitive forms of scientific experimentation and testing.  The history of philosophy during the past millennium, however, reads more like a cycle of Young Turk creating a position opposite to the reigning Elder of that day... then being undercut by the succeeding generation of philosophers intent on being the Next New Thing.  In the meantime, experimental science gathered itself into a real head of steam that really began to explode in the 19th Century.

All philosophy is not all bad, however.  In part this is because there are a lot if different kinds of philosophy:
- Logic (probably best described as the study of the most effective way to think...)
- Epistemology (reason vs. revelation - the nature and limits of human knowledge)
- Ethics (moral principles - rules of conduct)
- Political Philosophy (democracy is a mess, but consider the alternatives...)
- Philosophy of Language (why did you say that... that particular way)
- Philosophy of Science (how does one actually do rigorous science)

You will note that I deliberately leave out things like Existentialism, meta-philosophy, Nihilism, fruit-cakes...

It could be argued that science owes its modern success to philosophy: that ideas evolving from Kant to Hegel to Popper about reality and hypothesis and falsifiability gave modern science a guiding framework to work within.

I have just pulled from my pocket a Droid - which I can use to call my daughter in Australia, waste time with Mahjong, lose consistently at chess, compose and upload a blog, read and even write books (including parts of two that I have recently published*), play Lady Gaga and Ramin Djawadi, locate myself using GPS satellites, take photos and make movies, read bar-codes to find the best price for something, keep my calendar... the list goes on and on.  Given a source of power to recharge the device, I could easily keep myself busy all day.  I might be cross-eyed and have a headache, but I would always be entertained.  This Droid is better, functionally, than a desktop computer I had three years ago.  That desktop computer was functionally light years ahead of my first personal computer, and that one was light-years ahead of the IBM 1620 that I first learned to program in Fortran as a kid... which was housed in a facility the size of my house.

My Droid is a metaphor for the accelerating advance of science and technology; in some ways these have superceded philosophy.  This rapid and accelerating advance can also fool otherwise smart people: some scientists are so imbued with it that they have made the unjustifiable assumption that science has supplanted religion as well.  This particular self-anointing conceit would appear to be fairly common if you listen to the loudest voices... among scientists in good health.  It is also circular logic, and ignorant of the history of science.

With time, the boundaries of science, religion, and philosophy seem to have blurred, but a careless acceptance that this is OK or normal would be a big mistake.  Philosophy can speculate about the truly Big Questions, such as:
Why did the universe begin?
Where did I come from?
Why am I here?
What will happen to me?
...but it can never answer them: it operates without the irritating constraint of data.  At the same time, science cannot answer those questions either - because it cannot access data to either, cosmic background radiation notwithstanding.

Stephen Jay Gould argued that science and religion are different (non-overlapping) “magisteria” - e.g., independent domains that seek to answer different questions by totally different means.

I consider this an unevolved answer.  Like philosophers of old, if you don’t have data you are not constrained in what you may propose, but neither am I constrained to buy your loony suggestion.  I see growing evidence instead that ultimately all truth (as opposed to the philosophical conceit du jour) goes back to just one thing: the Source of Everything.  If the universe began with a Bang 13.4 billion years ago, then something preceded it.  We didn't just happen.

We can glimpse the Glory through science, but we can’t attain it through science.


* Two books I recently wrote or co-authored:

2 Worlds, The Real Venezuela: Living on the Edge of the Jungle and the Rise of Hugo Chavez 

(with Louise Wynn; that's our daughter Valerie on the cover with a pet monkey)

Fulcrum - Gray World (a Sci-Fi book written under the pseudonym of Jason Wyatt)


Friday, May 27, 2011


Several decades ago I was in Jordan to supervise a $2.5 million airborne geophysical survey.  While there I was invited to an embassy dinner in Amman, where I encountered my first Catholic priest in quite a long time.  His name was William J. Fulco, S.J., a Jesuit who by his own admission was an agnostic.  He was a scholar and professor at Berkeley in archeology - specialty ancient coinage.  We hit it off - we had Berkeley and archeology and the same irreverent sense of humor in common, and he had a pungently-expressed dislike of the Israelis who occupied the West Bank at the time (they returned the dislike with frosting).  After awhile Father Fulco and I got onto religious topics, and the first time I saw him get serious was when he told me that as a Mormon, I was an Arian, and therefore my baptism didn’t count in an era where the Catholic church was beginning to accept protestant churches’ baptisms.

This didn’t really throw a damper on our conversation - I was less than uninterested in Catholic baptism.  Because there were no communication links between Jordan and Israel at the time - they were technically at war - I couldn't easily get there, nor make reservations ahead of time.  Fr. Fulco gave me abundant advice on how to get to Jerusalem (“take the absolute bare minimum - no more than a briefcase”, and "be prepared for the closest feely search of your life."), and how to negotiate a room for several nights in the White Sisters Convent in Jerusalem after I got there.  He told me to beg and grovel and insist on talking with the Mother Superior, who he said always caved in because she had such a kind heart.  This gave me my one opportunity to spend several days in and around Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and the Garden Tomb.  The price I paid was $5/night - and being chewed to pieces by mosquitoes all night long as I looked from my bed through a windowless opening in my wall on the flood-light-lit walls of the Old City.

In 325 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine convened a gathering of Christian bishops.  There were altogether too many different beliefs in the Godhead at the time - primarily over the nature of Christ - and therefore furious arguments, and Constantine demanded a consensus.  What the Emperor wants, the Emperor gets.  He didn’t particularly care what that consensus was, as he was largely uninformed about Christianity, even though he had made it the faith of the Empire.

The argument went on for over two months, mainly between Arius, and St. Alexander, two bishops of Alexandria.  You can guess who won.

Arius claimed that the Son of God was a creation, made from nothing, that he was the first “thing” that God had created before time began; and that everything else was subsequently created through the Son. Arius also held that Christ was capable of His own free will of right and wrong, could make mistakes, and was a finite being.

Alexander held that God the Father and Christ were co-equal, and had always existed together, and that Christ could not err.  Despite getting to fisticuffs (Nicholas of Myra, later canonized as a saint, at one point slapped Arius in the face) a compromise was reached. Constantine then stepped in and forced upon the rest of the church the dogma now known as the Nicaean Creed.  This included a declaration that the Father and the Son are of the same substance and are co-eternal, basing the declaration in the claim that this was a formulation of traditional Christian belief handed down from the Apostles.

Arius and a few devoted followers were excommunicated, exiled to Illyria, and their books were burned.  Anyone found possessing books somehow missed and not burned were to be executed.

I reassured Father Fulco that no, I was NOT part of “The Arian Heresy” as I had been taught that it was called in Catholic school as a child.

Can you distinguish what is taught by the Nicaean Creed and subsequent convocations, from what you believe?  Catholic dogma, and subsequent break-offs, have evolved over time. You may wish to explore these evolutionary changes: they are interesting, to say the least. Even more interesting: to learn about the people and the politics behind those various changes.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pascal's Wager

During the Enlightenment, when agnosticism and atheism were fashionable among the intellectuals of the time, Voltaire and other contemporaries noted that the brilliant mathematician Blaise Pascal was an observant Catholic.

When asked, Pascal observed that there were just two possibilities:

1. God exists.
2. God doesn’t exist.

As a precursor to the philosophy of pragmatism, Pascal contended that it was better to be a faithful Catholic than an agnostic or atheist.  He explained that in the case that God exists and you do what is expected of Him - you win.  In the case that God does not exist, and you attend your services, you gain social benefits by a support system that exists in virtually all religions.  Like insurance, it buys you peace of mind.  In either case you win.  This was the first formal use of decision theory.

As Pascal put it: If reason cannot be trusted, it is a better wager to believe in God than not.

Of course there are some glaring holes in this logic, including:

- what if God exists and realizes that you are only making a decision-tree bet on Him?
- what if God exists, but he’s the Mormon God?  Then you are doing everything all wrong by belonging to any other religion.  (Interchange your preferred God here, as long as it isn’t a secular value system like power or money, in which case you lose all bets.)

Well, then - how does one know?

There are really two answers here:
1. “By their fruit ye shall know them” - who seem to be happiest, to have the best-raised children who contribute to society, who live longest (you’ll need to do a statistical average here)?
2.  If you’re a Mormon and believe in it, then an accumulation of continuing personal revelation that consistently pans out brings with time a growing conviction, and an abiding inner peace.  A coincidence can be explained as a coincidence - maybe even two or three.  But not 2,648 coincidences in a row.

It also helps to keep a list of these things (e.g., a personal journal).  The decision-tree I used that ultimately brought our Family to Venezuela for a three-year tour, with all the branches (any one of which could have derailed the move) makes one very interesting list.  It was like flipping a coin 15 times - and it always came up heads.  The pay-off - what was gained - is rippling through several generations already, both here and in Venezuela.  The fact that I survived at least 36 near-death experiences counts for something also.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011


At the end of World War I, or “The Great War” as survivors called it, the combined military high commands were more than casually aware of the huge loss of life, of the huge inefficiency in how the war had been prosecuted.  Efficiency at KILLING people had dramatically increased due to technology, but winning battles and winning the war had been an unmitigated disaster for both the Allies and the Axis.  Both were losers, and the war was ultimately won by an injection, three years after it began (and two years after it had stalemated) of a million plus American infantry.

An Army Captain, B.H. Liddell-Hart, had survived a German gassing after just 7 weeks in the British light infantry on the Western Front, and during recovery had ample opportunity to think about these things.  Following the war he undertook an extensive analysis of ALL wars fought in recorded human history, focusing on those that had good records.  He was looking for some general rules - he wanted to know why Belisarius and Napoleon, for instance, were almost always victorious - even when leading smaller forces against larger.

Liddell-Hart arrived at several fundamental rules for how to win a war.  These included:

“In strategy the longest way round is often the shortest way there; a direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, whereas an indirect approach loosens the defender's hold by upsetting his balance.”  Also:

“The profoundest truth of war is that the issue of battle is usually decided in the minds of the opposing commanders, not in the bodies of their men.”

Simply put: a defensive position gives you a huge advantage over an attacker; a direct attack is highly inefficient.  Unbalancing your enemy gives you an additional powerful advantage.

Liddell-Hart was certainly aware that the battle of Gettysburg was not won by the Union Army, but rather lost by Lee because he ignored his most senior commander, Longstreet, who literally begged him to draw the Union forces into Confederate defensive positions.  Instead, full of pride in the spunkiness of his southern “boys”, Lee ordered Pickett to march across a full mile of open ground against entrenched forces, backed by artillery throwing canister after canister of grape-shot.  Pickett’s Division was obliterated, which set the momentum for Lee’s eventual defeat.  That defeat came after a group of Maine volunteers displayed unusual courage and insisted on maintaining their position - the end of the Union line - against an overwhelming force at Little Round Top.

I raise these details to draw attention to how we can deal with the inevitable conflicts we will encounter in our lives.  No matter how meek or conflict-avoidant we may be, we will always, always, have to deal with attacks on ourselves or our loved ones.  These attacks can be physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, or a combination.  Moroni raised a battle-flag that essentially gives us exactly where to draw the line: “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.” I consider that an important template.

Aikido and Jujitsu teach not how to start a fight, but how to end a fight.  They both teach the advantage of a defensive approach in dealing with conflict - avoidance where possible, but never attack.  “Kuzushi” is a Japanese term for unbalancing an opponent - this was understood by Sun Tsu and Japanese generals for millennia before Liddell-Hart came on the scene.  I teach my own students to avoid conflict - even surrender a wallet if threatened - before “releasing the safety” on the weapon that is their training.  An important point - besides knowing what to fight for - is to have courage, and be willing to accept pain to put a stop to a bully.

There are several take-aways here: 
- Being a defender is always better than being an aggressor.
- Always maintain a clear understanding of what it important - really important.  Your life, your family, people you feel responsible for, your faith, your freedom definitely count.  Liberating another country from a feudal belief system or a murderous dictator, stopping a communist take-over, do NOT count.
- If you cannot avoid conflict, then unbalance your enemy: verbally, physically, psychologically, and fight defensively - with courage and faith.

As the Arab Spring has amply proven (and continues to prove): if a people are willing to live under a dictator for the stability it provides, that’s their choice.  If they decide that the cost/benefit is not worth it, they will rebel.  But fundamentally, it must be their choice.

We over-ride someone else's agency at our own peril.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Long View

Longview, Washington, is a small city on the road from our home to Seattle.  It's also on the route we take to Astoria on the Oregon coast.  It's not a particularly beautiful place but it's interesting... and a promise of something better to come.

A long view is also the difference between an atheist and a believer, between a self-absorbed person and a happy person.

Example: someone has a bad migraine.  Two reactions will come forth:
1. Why is this happening to ME?  Why doesn't someone DO something about it?!?
2. Had these before, will have them again.  I always get over them.  What can I do right now?

Another example:  Someone loses a child to premature death.  There are also two possible reactions:
1. Grief.  Hopelessness, sense of permanent loss.
2. Grief, sense of loss, tempered with an understanding that there will (a) be a future reunion, and (b) both parents and child will appreciate each other that much more because of the separation in between.

In both examples, you can view life in two ways:
1. A series of accidental genetic mutations, starting from an unexplained origin, created me.  I have no idea why.  I will die soon, I will cease to think and exist - and soon be forgotten.  I may try to create a false immortality by writing snarky, savagely-critical books about others, and justifying my repulsive behavior to others by calling myself "the lovable contrarian" - but everyone knows it's false.  
2. We have existed for billions of years in a limited form.  We have an opportunity to grow and become something greater during a tiny window of time while we live on this planet - and we accept the challenge.  We find that we can actually earn something towards the next estate while we are here.  We die and are finally free of the testing, which hasn't been gentle.  We realize even before this that it is NOT the end, but that we will continue living in a better state than before, a state proportional to what we have done for others in life.

The first is the deliberately self-absorbed, self-limited view.  The second is the long view.

Life is a lot easier in Longview.


Monday, May 23, 2011

German Food

"The problem with German food is that, no matter how much you eat, an hour later you're hungry for power."

--Quoted in Cathcart and Klein, "Plato and the Platypus" - subtitled "Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes."

19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed a philosophical framework that was the polar opposite of the Golden Rule.  He famously proclaimed the death of God, and considered Christian morality out of date, an "unnatural ethic."  He felt that the Ubermensch, the exceptional individual, was above Christian herd morality and deserves to express his natural strength and superiority freely over the herd.  A good case can be made that this is a fundamental root of German militarism and 20,000,000 human deaths in the 20th Century.  And Sauerkraut.  Nietzsche presaged such sociopaths as Ayn Rand and Newt Gingrich, something a friend of mine calls "an attitude searching for a philosophy to justify itself."

Grotesque manifestations of this self-centered pathology have been popping up in the news lately: Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwartzenegger.  Notice where this philosophy has led them: from being the presumptive next President of France, DSK will probably spend at least 15 years in a 6' x 8' cell, where his bathroom habits will be closely scrutinized to ensure that he doesn't commit suicide.  Something far worse is now engulfing the former Governator of California.  The media may note that his future as an actor is in tatters and that well more than half his personal wealth will no longer exist after the divorce attorneys field-dress this turkey.   However the real, long-term grief is this: he's lost his loving family, probably permanently.  He's lost any future happiness or sense of peace, barring long years of repentance, humility, and restitution.  He will have a sad and lonely twilight to his life.  Reminds me of the Psalm-writer.

A fundamental characteristic of this social pathology is that individuals who fall into its cess-pit all seem to believe that the rules apply to everyone but them.  The historical record proves that they are always, without exception, wrong.

By the way, Nietzsche is dead.  And he STILL has too many useless consonants.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Rhodium Rule

A Sadist is Just a Masochist who Follows the Golden Rule

When I was a teenager, my sister gave me a rhodium-plated bracelet.  For those unfamiliar with rhodium, it is a member of the platinum-group elements (PGE's among geologists), and is very rare.  It's only found in ultramafic ("black rock") complexes, generally along with platinum.  It's bright - brighter then silver or even platinum to the eye.

The Golden Rule is something found in every religious tradition that I could check.  A few examples:

1. HINDU:  Do not to others what you do not wish done to yourself.  This is the whole Dharma.  --The Mahabharata

2. BUDDHISM:  Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. -- Tibetan Dhammapada

3. CONFUCIUS:  Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.  --The Analects

4. JUDAISM:  What is hateful to you, do not unto your neighbor.  That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. --Talmud

5. ISLAM:  No one of you is a believer until you desire for another that which you desire for yourself.  --"The Sunnah", from the Hadith

6. BRONX:  Whack da other guy like you wanna be whacked, ya know?  --Guido

From pure pragmatism, this makes utter sense whether you are a believer or an atheist (or a proselyting atheist).  Some of you may remember John Bolton, nominated by George W. Bush to be United States ambassador to the United Nations?  Roundly rejected by the Senate, he was sneaked in on a Recess Appointment - an obscure loophole in the Constitution (Article II, Section 2, Clause 3).  During the Senate hearings, Bolton was described as a "kiss up, kick down" type of guy.  He was famously rude and contemptuous to subordinates.  He didn't last in the United Nations long, and is currently doing bit-work for a suspiciously long list of conservative think tanks (that's called "wall-papering", by the way).

In my life experience, I've encountered several otherwise extremely intelligent individuals who thought the Way to the Top was linear: claw your way to the summit, sneer and spit upon those lesser than you.  The End Justifies the Means.  What's good for M&M Enterprises is good for America.  You get the gist.  Virtually all these people (two were women) had PhD's, but probably all fit into a small minority of the human population talked about in several recent books: sociopaths and psychopaths*.  Robert Hare says that testing has shown that in the general population, about 1% are psychopaths; that in the American prison population that percentage is 25% or higher.  A distinguishing characteristic of these people is lack of empathy; people describe these individuals as having cold, empty eyes, like a Great White Shark.  They could be your neighbor.  They are not always men.

Psychopaths are the ones who will kill you (like the grinning thing that nearly killed Congresswoman Gabriele Giffords).  Sociopaths are somewhat more common, but also somewhat less obvious: they are the ones who don't care about anyone except themselves.  These guys often appear quite sociable - as long as it serves their purpose.  They are usually held in check by three things.  One is laws; you've probably noticed that laws exist not to control the 99% of the human population like you and me.  A second check, surprisingly, is narcissism: sociopaths actually worry about what other people think about them.  A Jamaican who led a murder gang in his home country came across in an interview in prison as a very friendly person... he expressed repeatedly that he wanted the interviewer to like him.  When asked why, he said "I want everyone to like me... then I can get them to do whatever I want."  Hare also said (I don't know where he got these numbers) that the percentage of sociopaths among big company CEO's was higher than the population as a whole.

Bolton - and every single sociopath who has tried to hurt me or members of my family - ended up "glass ceilinged."  Eased or forced out.  This happened because their empathy deficit also includes a logic blind spot.  The old expression "what goes around, comes around" has a basis behind it.  As each of these individuals cratered and left the US Geological Survey, I would feel bad for them.  Their families (such as they might still have) were uprooted.  I felt worse for them.

Did I cause this career crash to happen to them?  The answer, of course, is no.  I learned after their departure in each case that a third check had happened.  An accumulation of people with a bad taste in their mouths had been growing and growing.  They all remembered, whether they themselves were hurt or they saw someone else hurt by these individuals.  I was always surprised to hear the ferocious vehemence in their voices - in otherwise gentle and happy people.  They were all very aware of what the sociopath had done to others, and when they finally had any say in the matter, they would be sure that the sociopath had no future.  After awhile, enough quietly angry people had accumulated in every one of these cases to keep the door to further advancement shut, or to even force the person out.  In one case, an entire science team had stormed up to the USGS Director's Office and demanded the removal of their team chief.  Things like this really draw attention from senior managers.

Here's what I've learned over time: No one claws their way very far.  Even CEO's who have made it to the top by dint of brains and vicious cunning don't last very long.  Management studies have tried to analyze why these people flame out so spectacularly, and generally it's attributed to a low EQ - Emotional Quotient.  The Federal Executive Institute (I'm an alumni) is very blunt about this in their month-long management-boot-camp-on-steroids for Federal managers.  Lack of collaboration, lack of empathy for subordinates, and your future is absolutely guaranteed to be limited.  It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when you will go down in a massive organizational train-wreck.  As a consistent rule, sociopathic individuals have a very rocky family life (if at all), and being estranged from their own children is more the norm than the exception.

"Work hard, work smart, but work kind" is my life motto, learned at the knees of my paternal grandmother, Anne Josephine Schneider Wynn.  I call this the Rhodium Rule.

* A couple of interesting books to read:
The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout

Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert D. Hare.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to Deal With a Corpse in 35 C Weather

How DO you deal with a corpse when it's sweltering?

At one point while I was living and working in the Venezuelan Jungle, this issue became relevant to me.  The short answer, used by our poorer ancestors, was to bury Dad.  Quickly.  Modern Hasidic Law and the Sharia still mandate “deposit” within 24 hours maximum.  For our somewhat wealthier ancestors, the answer was to use deodorant on Dad - and then bury him.  For our really wealthy ancestors, it was to use deodorant, can the internal organs, paint what’s left with pitch, let Dad dry out, and build a huge mausoleum around him... maybe even a pyramid.

The preferred deodorant du jour from well before 600 BC until the Middle Ages is golden brown in color. It’s still used in Catholic and Orthodox funerals in fragrant-smoke-distribution devices called censurs.   It is found as sap leaking out of the slashed trunk-bark of an unassuming bush found mainly in Oman.  I have a sack of it in the drawer right here next to me: it’s called Frankincense.  A tiny nugget of it with some raisins will do wonders for a huge bowl of basmati rice.

A careful reading of 1 Ne:1 through 1 Ne:17 comes across to a modern archeologist or geographer as a startlingly accurate description of the Frankincense Trail - the biggest trade route of antiquity, predating the Asiatic Silk Road.  Anthropologists have even recently found a small tribe on the northwestern Yemeni coast whose name is, using the standard three consonants for an Arabic word:  نءم : N-H-M.  This could be pronounced ‘naheem” “nuhom”, “niham” - or Nahom.  The land a tribe occupies is traditionally named after that tribe (America –> Americans).  Think: make a left turn at Nahom.

Cities along the Frankincense trade route from Jerusalem to the Nile Valley, and from Jerusalem to the southern Arabian Peninsula were largely Jewish cities.  With one exception, that tidbit was figured out only in the past century.  When Mohamed first arrived in Madinah (where I spent time managing a volcano-seismic monitoring network) around 632 AD, he encountered two warring Jewish tribes, and set himself up as a judge and dispassionate arbiter of their conflicts.  It worked - and 1.3 billion people today speak his language as a result.  The trading lingua franca of 600 BC in the region, however, was Egyptian - the language of the Nile River Valley that was the geographic center of the huge trading network in spices.  Egyptian by that time had evolved its written form from clumsy and tedious hieroglyphs to a phonetic shorthand called Demotic.  That’s a long way of pointing you at 1Ne 1:2.

The Frankincense Trail was actually a series of sub-parallel routes mainly predicated on where the oases were.  One chain followed the uplifted scarp left over when the Red Sea originally split apart the Arabian-Nubian continental craton 35-30 million years ago.  These cliffs rise to nearly 2,000 meters (7,000 feet) and trap passing clouds.  As the air rises, it cools and drops out its moisture, which collects in a line of springs at the base of the scarp, a line hundreds of kilometers long running parallel to the Red Sea.  One of those springs is the famous Zamzam Well of Makkah.  A devout Moslem wishes to be buried in a shroud dipped in Zamzam water, lying on his right side, with his face towards Makkah.  Another chain of springs runs close to the coast where the groundwater finally reaches the sea.  The city of Jeddah, where we lived as a family for four years, has several of those springs.  The humidity, heat, and salt in the air from the proximal Red Sea were murder on our car - and for that matter on any iron or steel, including steel bows that became available to wealthier traders around 600 - 700 BC.  Think Shazer (1 Ne 16: 13-14).

In the Yemen part of the route, you had a choice: one choice was to pay a tax that helped sustain the great Sabaean Kingdom (think Queen of Saba or Sheba).  The alternative was to take a sharp eastward turn at a place called Nahom and risk crossing the desert... where for over 5,000 years bandit tribes have survived by preying upon caravans.  If you took the cheap route, you sure didn’t want to light any fires to give your location away - even if you could find enough firewood in the edge of the incredibly desolate Empty Quarter to burn in the first place.  You had to eat raw or sun-dried goat meat.  You could still nurse your babies, however (1 Ne 17:2).

There are lots and lots more, but this is getting too long already.  By the way, who do you suppose could make their way through such a dangerous trail, and could communicate with the people controlling the towns around the oases in the trading language of the day?  How about a family of Jewish traders?


Friday, May 20, 2011

Volcanoes You Couldn't Possibly Know About

In the interest of brevity - and the fact that I don’t have time to write a 10-page document - I would offer just the following brief outline:

A careful reading of 3 Ne:8 comes across to a professional volcanologist as an accurate description of a cataclysmic volcano-tectonic event on a major subduction zone.  There are literally hundreds of dangerous stratocone volcanoes along the western margins of Central America.  Cities like Managua, Nicaragua, have been destroyed and/or buried, then rebuilt repeatedly during historic times.  These volcanoes are intimately associated with huge subduction earthquakes - think of the Tohoku earthquake that devastated northeastern Japan in March. Think of Mount Fuji and the restive Kurile Islands volcanoes lying just above huge continent-over-oceanic-crust subduction faults marking the Ring of Fire.  Interestingly, none of these features exists within 3,000 kilometers of western New York State, nor were they known to Americans in 1827.

The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was classified as a VEI 5 event - that’s for Volcano Explosivity Index.  This index scale is approximately logarithmic: a VEI 4 is about 10 times smaller than a VEI 5 event, and a VEI 6 is about 10 times greater than MSH 1980.  3 Ne 8 describes something between a VEI 6 and a VEI 7.  For “vapor of darkness” use “volcanic ash”, and everything falls precisely into place.

I wrote a paper and submitted it to the now-defunct Sunstone Magazine in 1980, but it was turned back with a comment that it was “too spiritual”, and to submit it to a magazine that would deal with that sort of stuff.  Years later, a geology professor at BYU published a paper on volcanic eruptions and 3 NE 8, and asked me for the copy of my draft so he could reference it.

Joseph Smith grew up in Vermont and New York state.  Western New York is covered with glacial moraines - huge gravel and boulder piles shoved down from their origin in Canada by the glaciers that retreated about 16,000 years ago.  Joseph never saw a volcano, nor felt an earthquake, in his short life.  A primitive form of the field of Volcanology existed at the time, mainly in Italy around Etna and Stromboli volcanoes, and Tectonics as a field would not develop until more than a century later.

Pretty prescient for a 3rd Grader.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What a 3rd Grade Education Can Get You

Perhaps you’ve noticed a trend in previous blogs: a certain impatience with people with a high EdQ/low EQ (that’s a physics equation for Clueless Arrogant PhD’s), and a fascination with what a 25-yr-old living 180 years ago could tell us about modern cosmology and the world we live in.

Hugh Nibley published a book in the 1960's called “Since Cumorah” - about things that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known about, that nevertheless appear in the Book of Mormon and have seen verification since that time in formal scholarship.  These include things like Chiasmus, and the name of “Sam” - a name ridiculed in the 19th Century, but which the Nag Hammadi documents found in the 20th Century in the Nile Valley have shown to have been common among the traders of 600 BC.  The BofM is full of semitic cultural artifacts, including those unusual phrase constructions.  I tried to get Dr. Nibley to autograph my personal copy, and he remonstrated that the book was embarrassing to him - that by the time it was actually published, there were many new and more exciting things that he wished he could have included.  He still autographed the book, however.

I have some personal experience that I could add to the huge and still-growing Since Cumorah List.  I have personally traveled along 60% of the Lehite Trail in the Arabian Peninsula, and I helped prepare for and then monitor the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens.  If you thought previous blogs were too long, then articles about these topics would be humongous.

In the next few days, I will be providing some very abbreviated outlines of some of these.  As an aside, I would note that Joseph Smith dictated the content of the Book of Mormon in about 60 days.  At the time he had approximately 3.5 years of formal elementary school education.

It’s remarkable to me what you can do with a 3rd Grade Education.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

11 Commandments

The old story has it that Moses went up to the top of Mt. Sinai and came back with 27 commandments written on five large stone slabs.

“Holy goat snot, Moses,” said Aaron, “I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count that high!  You gotta take those back and ask for something else!”

“No way, brother.  You’re not getting ME to haul those things back up there, no siree, “ said Moses.

"Well, leave 'em here, then, and just go ask for the Readers Digest version," said Aaron.

After a lot of arguing, Moses found himself on the losing side of an ever-widening argument. Reluctantly, and with a lot of grumbling, he trudged back up the mountain.  The Children of Israel watched while black clouds swirled around the summit, and there was periodic lightning and thunder.

Finally someone yelled “Hey Look!  It’s Moses!”  Sure enough, Moses appeared, with his face covered with soot and his beard singed.

“Children of Israel, “ called out Moses.  “I have some good news and some bad news.  The good news is that now there are only Ten Commandments.”

“The bad news is that this set includes adultery.”

During a weak moment last night I sat still through several minutes of the so-called “History Channel” (aka the “Thin Content Channel” or the “Fill-In-50-Minutes-With-Fluff Channel”) on TV.  I heard a passing reference to the fact that Moses brought over 600 commandments to the Children of Israel.  I’m sure someone was counting every second verse in Deuteronomy and Leviticus (“Don’t seeth a calf in its mother’s milk...”, “Scrape that stuff off your sandals before you walk onto the carpet in my tent...”, etc.).  OK, I made that one up.

Nevertheless, it bears thinking about: how many commandments are there, and how many must you absolutely, positively, definitely obey?  Ummm, I think the intent was all of them.

Most Latter-Day Saints understand that there is an Eleventh Commandment.  More?!??  I thought we all settled on TEN!  (I'll challenge you to find the specific references.)

Most of you can also probably quote the last words of someone (See the “On Considering Death...” blog entry earlier).  Some of you may even be old enough to remember hearing about a great man named J. Rueben Clark.  (I’m always suspicious of initials for a first name... it usually implies that someone is a Junior and the Mom got tired of having two people respond when she yelled one name.  However, it also implies that someone’s parents in a giddy moment inflicted them with “Johnny” or “Jumpy” or “Juicy” or “Jeffrey”...).  Oops.  Now you understand why the title of this blog is so short.

However, J. Rueben was a highly educated man, a famous judge I think, an attorney in the U.S. Department of State, and even Under Secretary of State at one point (that would be Executive Level III these days...).  He also served as US Ambassador to Mexico, and was a counselor to President David O. McKay.

J. Rueben’s last words were “I hope I can endure to the end.”

I’ve remembered that expression for decades, and pondered its significance.  In a way, this may be a more difficult commandment than the other Ten combined, because it’s a measure of not only your enduring power - but how far you’ve gotten as a person in life.  Except for a small percentage of cases, death is neither slow nor painless.  Why do you suppose that might be?  If you gave a set of keys for a tricked-out 2011 Honda Accord to a 3-yr-old child, the child may play with them for a few moments, and then drop them as something else caught her attention.  If you gave that set of keys to an 18-yr-old who had walked to school and back for the previous four years, I’m pretty sure that they would be valued far more.  It's human nature.  We all tend to take our health for granted, for instance - until we have recovered from something really terrible.  Then health means something considerably more to us.  It’s more valuable.

My personal journals are ‘way too full of entries starting with “I nearly died again today...”  This was especially true while living and working in the Venezuela jungle.  Most of these were sudden - a near-crash of a helicopter, and close encounter with a Bushmaster, things like that.  Whew!  Well, that was close. Maybe I should be more adamant about refusing that loony as my helicopter pilot in the future...  Probably shouldn't mention this to Louise....

However, twice I nearly died in the Venezuelan jungle - but both times very slowly.  Shigella takes awhile to come on to you, but you can get to a point where you are literally bleeding from both ends and the physical agony is terrible.  It can soon take every bit of your attention.  I got to a point one night where I became convinced that I was going to die.  Hours later I arrived at another point where I actually feared that I would NOT die - that the agony I was undergoing would just go on and on and on.  Dimly I worried about what would happen to Louise and my kids, and how my compadres would deal with my body when a helicopter wouldn't be able to get in for three or four more days.  I recovered of course - you are reading proof of that right now - but Louise later told my Mom over the phone when I got back that “...he looked thin, gray, and filthy...” I lost about 14 lbs in 8 days, but I don’t recommend it as a weight-loss miracle diet.

However, I’ve appreciated and savored every evening of my life since that time.  I’ve never feared death since then, either, though I sometimes do worry about being a poor example to my children when it's my turn.

Death, as I’ve said, is rarely painless, and it is never, never, dignified.  If it weren’t this way, we would never really be able to truly appreciate what awaits us.

I've got those keys now.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sgr-A* and Kolob

I can’t be the first one who has noticed this.

You’ll need patience with the following, as it really constitutes a short course in galactic Black Hole physics. ( It's not hard to understand - just loooong.  I need Louise to edit these things...)

From Abraham, Chapter 3:
1 And I, Abraham, had the Urim and Thummim, which the Lord my God had given unto me, in Ur of the Chaldees;
 2 And I saw the stars, that they were very great, and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it;
 3 And the Lord said unto me: These are the governing ones; and the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me, for I am the Lord thy God: I have set this one to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.

For decades, astrophysicists have believed that most if not all galaxies must have Black Holes in their centers.  There is just too much “stuff” floating around ‘way too close to other “stuff” for it not to all merge due to gravity and orbit-decay.  They already knew about white dwarfs and neutron stars - that bigger and bigger original stars gave way to more and more dense “final states”. You can actually “see” one neutron star by its rapidly oscillating magnetic field.  It’s like a radar beam sweeping over you as the neutron star spins 1000 times a second.  The signal is coherent, which means that the neutron star must be smaller than the distance light can cross in that amount of time.  Calculations show that a teaspoon of neutron star "stuff" would weight tons on Earth - that is, if you could transport and then weigh it.

Hmmm.  What happens if you throw in a lot more “stuff” - what would you get?  Must be something denser (see the Newton paragraph below) - and it will be a real glutton for all the smaller stars and gas and dust whizzing around it.  Because of tidal and magnetic drag on the highly conductive material, orbits will decay.  Annnnnd... I.... Gotcha!

For almost as much time, astronomers have diligently sought proof of a Black Hole at the center of OUR galaxy.  They chose it because it’s closer than other galaxies, so should be easier to image.  However, on the face of it this would seem to be a daunting task, as a Black Hole, by definition, radiates nothing - no mass, no light, no signal can escape its Event Horizon.  Remember from a previous blog that Black Holes are really dark gray and fuzzy.  However, there ARE some indirect ways that we might “see” one.

One way to “see” a Black Hole indirectly is to map stars close to the galactic core.  “Our” Black Hole actually has a name these days: Sagittarius A*, pronounced “Sagittarius A-Star” or just abbreviated Sgr A*.  It lies in a corner of a bright region in the center of the Sagittarius Constellation, in the center of our Milky Way.  This bright spot was designated “Sagittarius A” as the first bright apparent star classified in that constellation centuries ago when astronomers first looked at it.  To them, Sagittarius A looked like any other star, but they were using telescopes crummier than the ones you give your kids these days.  (That worthless Tasco ‘scope?  Galileo would have drooled over it.)  As bigger and better telescopes became available, it turned out Sagittarius A was a whole lot more than a single star.

Some basic orbital physics: Thanks to Newton, we know that the gravitational force between two masses goes as a constant (the “G” mentioned in an earlier blog) times one mass times the other mass divided by the square of the distance between the geometric centers of the two masses.  Whew, that’s a mouthful.  Perhaps you can understand why physicists really prefer to say things in “equation” instead of in English.  A quick translation (I didn’t use translate.google.com to do this) gives: F12 = G * M1 * M2/r * r.  In shorthand this becomes F=GMm/r^2.  This is important, because a star named “S2" close to the center of Sagittarius A has been tracked since 1992 (despite what Wikipedia says).  In the vernacular, that sucker is bookin’: it orbits in an ellipse about 5 by 10 light-days across in about 15 years.  Days and years here make it seem trivial until you remember the speed of light is 300,000 kilometers per second.  This star is moving so fast that it makes the huge nearby stars look like icebergs with a dolphin zipping around nearby.  But think of a dolphin moving at the speed of sound.  S2 orbits around something that can’t be directly seen - but because of that equation the unseen mass can be measured, and it’s huge: about four million Suns’ worth of “stuff”.

Some basic electromagnetic physics: If matter is being drawn into the monster, it will be accelerating because of that 1/r-squared part of the equation: the shorter the distance, the stronger the pull on it, and the faster it goes.  It’s probably a seething plasma as it falls in, because the calculated forces are truly humongous (try dividing anything by a distance squared that approaches zero - it’s like magma expanding and accelerating up a volcano’s throat).  Such a seething cauldron of matter will radiate: electrons accelerating in a magnetic field give off electromagnetic energy at wavelengths proportional to the radius of curvature of their ever-tighter spiral motion inward.  The Event Horizon of a Black Hole in a busy galactic center, in fact, should be shrieking at all wavelengths.  The closer to the Event Horizon, the stronger the pull and the higher the energy - and the higher the frequencies, all the way up into hard gamma radiation.  You need a number followed by lots of zeros to describe the energies involved.  It’s hard to see the screaming-edge source because of all the stars, gas, dust, and junk in between Sgr-A* and Earth - and it’s also a long ways away to “look” (about 26,000 light years) to see anything.

But astronomers are a persistent lot, and eventually they figured out that certain longer wavelengths can get past all that crap and be picked up by Earth-based radio-telescopes.  (They settled on a rather atypical radio wavelength of 1.3 millimeters - not that far from what your cell-phone uses.  They chose this wavelength for several reasons, including because it's not a cell-phone frequency.)  If you can get a rich billionaire (think the “other” Microsoft billionaire) to pay for it, you can get a big enough array of radio-telescope dishes, spaced far enough apart on the Earth, to get a pretty darn good radial resolution.  The shrieking edges of Sgr A* can more or less be made out this way.  It’s diameter is no greater than 44 million kilometers - probably less.  This is about one-half the size of Mercury’s orbit around our Sun.  Now, fit four million Suns into that... and then step back, or scream as you are gobbled up.

In 2004, astronomers were astounded to find evidence of a much smaller (1,300 Solar masses) invisible object orbiting the 4-million-Sun-mass Sgr-A* - a sort of mini-Black Hole.  It resides in the center of a cluster of seven massive stars, which orbit it.  Astronomers have also identified a number of additional giant stars that circle around in the near vicinity of Sgr-A* (the “lumbering icebergs”).

Now read verses 2 and 3 again.  Do you notice what I noticed?

Monday, May 16, 2011


An old joke among mathematicians goes like this: “One plus one equals three... for very large values of one.”  Anyone who survived (and still remembers) calculus will find this hilarious. Well, at least slightly funny.

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States essentially gives me the right to say that 1 + 1 = 3.  But saying that doesn’t make it true.  In fact, a mathematical framework built on that fundamental premise will not safely land a lunar module on the Moon.

For different but related reasons, worshiping a golden calf (or making Darwinian natural selection, or financial derivatives, or political power your personal god) will not lead to personal happiness.  Believe what you want, but if your belief is not based on fundamental truth, it will get you nowhere.  It certainly won’t buy you happiness, that $20 million yacht derived from your dishonestly-earned bonuses and compensation notwithstanding.  I’m reminded of a Gary Larson cartoon.  At the end of a funeral reception, a grand piano, a refrigerator, a telivision, and a set of golf clubs all fly out the front door of the deceased man’s house, and zoom up into the clouds, while his wife wails “Aaaugh!  It’s George - he’s taking it with him!

Arthur Bassett wrote an article in the 1977 Ensign (“Now Abideth These Three”) that had these words:

One of the facets of the Lord’s way of teaching that has continued to fascinate me is his ability to interlace simplicity and profundity. His gospel offers a mental challenge to the most profound scholar and yet has attraction even to a small child. Its doctrines range as wide as the entire human experience, yet all truth can be circumscribed within the bounds of a few simple, central principles. (Emphasis mine)

Don Lind, the Mormon Astronaut, earned a PhD in high-energy physics from the University of California, Berkeley (my alma mater).   After retirement from NASA, he also served as a member of the Portland, OR, Temple Presidency from 1995-1998.  Don once gave a lecture at the University of Arizona that I attended.  During his talk he made several statements that have stuck with me ever since (one of which I paraphrase here, as I can’t find the published talk after seven family moves among three different countries):

This is the only religion I can adhere to and not have to believe one thing on Sunday and another thing the other six days of the week.  His point was this: there is no incompatibility between my faith and my science.  They are not mutually exclusive.  Implicit in this is also his clear understanding of the 8th Article of Faith.

Near the end of the Endowment Ceremony a statement is made that I cannot repeat outside the walls of a Mormon Temple.  It bears a striking resemblance to what Bassett wrote 34 years ago, but is more complete.

MY point is this: Science and Religion are different means for reaching the same end - All Truth - and they are definitely converging.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cosmology and Hymns

I'm a professional scientist, and as such I slowly and rather tediously gather and analyze data, and home in on a number of different kinds of truth:

  • Where is the water located within Mount St Helens, and what is the source of its extreme conductivity?
  • How does water saturation figure in why did Mount St Helen’s north face fail so dramatically in 1980 - and failed so far back into the south wall of the stratocone volcano?  
  • How can a surface effect physics principle called induced polarization be used to map placer heavy mineral deposits beneath the sea floor?  
  • Where is the water beneath the San Pedro Basin of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, and how does extracting that water affect the San Pedro River and the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area - one of four major North American migratory bird fly-ways?
  • How much undiscovered potash lies within economic limits (three kilometer depths) beneath Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan?  
  • How did a 10-meter-diameter asteroid create a stratospheric mushroom cloud, and what were the mechanics that formed "Insta-Rock" from sand dunes in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia?

I’m also a Mormon.  The LDS Doctrine that I buy into is contained in many different sources, both ancient and modern, including the Standard Works, Statements of the First Presidency, General Conference talks, and Hymns.  At least two very interesting concepts are found ONLY in the LDS Church Hymn Book.

A case in point: (Two stanzas extracted from Hymn #284):

1. If you could hie to Kolob
In the twinkling of an eye,
And then continue onward
With that same speed to fly,
Do you think that you could ever,
Through all eternity,
Find out the generation
Where Gods began to be?

2. Or see the grand beginning,
Where space did not extend?
Or view the last creation,
Where Gods and matter end?
Methinks the Spirit whispers,
"No man has found 'pure space,'
Nor seen the outside curtains,
Where nothing has a place."

William Wine Phelps penned this hymn nearly two centuries ago.  The first time I sang it, I liked the music but the words didn't make a lot of sense.  Later I earned advanced degrees in physics and geoscience, an asteroid was named after me, and a childhood interest in stars and galaxies gave way to an abiding interest in astrophysics and cosmology.  I avidly read everything I can find on the subject in Nature, Discovery, and other science journals.  The field just fascinates me.

While physics has stagnated in many respects over the past 30 years, there have been huge advances in biology and cosmology.  That is NOT cosmetology, by the way, though there have undoubtedly been advances there also.  My skin couldn't prove that, however.

Recent advances in cosmology have included an improved understanding of the Big Bang - how matter and energy expanded (in incomprehensible violence where the laws of physics didn't work like they do today) from a single point in empty space.  Some other advances include additional understandings and implications of the speed of light, quantum entanglement (which appears to prove that information can be transmitted faster than the speed of light), and an awareness of something called vacuum energy - that there is an underlying energy field in what might appear to be empty space.  This vacuum energy is manifested by pairs of particles and anti-particles (e.g., electrons and positrons) just “popping up” out of nothing, and shooting off in opposing directions.  There is an interesting side implication of this observation: if the sudden appearance of paired particles occurs next to the Event Horizon of a Black Hole (the 'point of no return' for light and anything else that falls in), one particle will fall into the black hole and one will not.  This means, among other things, that Black Holes without additional matter drawn in will fade with time (although extremely slowly), and that information that passes the Event Horizon may NOT, in fact, be lost.  Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, two of the greatest theoretical physicists alive, had a long-standing bet on this (Penrose won the case of beer).

I rediscovered W.W. Phelps’ hymn a few years ago and was stunned.  I read it several times to make sure I understood the implications.  Phelps died in 1872, and during his lifetime he did NOT have access to Nature, Discovery, or the Phys. Rev. Letters - but he did have another source of information: direct personal revelation.  This is a doctrine that most people on the planet instinctively understand and believe in (an aspect of it is called “mothers intuition”), but it is NOT preached by any other religion that I'm aware of.  In fact, it draws the vociferous ire of a number of fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims.

This hymn, for me, is yet another tangible and reassuring piece of evidence that all truth comes from a single source.  Phelps was interested in something, thought and prayed about it, and quietly penned words to a hymn with content that cosmologists and astrophysicists finally figured out with several billion dollars’ worth of instrumentation - a century and a half later.