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    Sunday
    Apr302017

    Conversations About the End of Time and The National Gallery of Art – Part 1: Time Scales and the Year 2000 - Stephen Jay Gould

    What follows is a kind of dual journal entry that features excerpts from the book Conversations About the End of Time and photographs of paintings on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.  The non-fiction book format is discussion-based, and consists of interviews with four renowned scientists, theologians, philosophers, and writers: Stephen Jay Gould, Jean-Claude Carriere, Jean Delumeau, and Umberto Eco.   I’ve only transcribed a fraction of the material available in the book, which is as enlightening and timely read in a day-in-age of naysayers and pessimists who seem adamant to adopt Malthusian perspectives about the future of humanity and are resigned to the prospect that humans are doomed so we may as well commit collective suicide to put ourselves out of our common misery and facilitate the healing of the planet.  This book offers glimmers of hope, although not necessarily for us.  This first part, titled Time Scales and the Year 2000, features excerpts from an interview with biologist-paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941 – 2002), who taught at Harvard and worked at the American Museum of Natural History.  (To see Part 2 of this series, which features excerpts from an interview between the editors of the aforementioned book and French thelogian Jean Delumeau, click here.)

     

    Do you think humanity has reached an advanced state in its evolution? 

    That’s a question we can’t answer.  We have no idea what we are capable of on the basis of our genetic make-up.  After all, we haven’t been around very long, the human race is very young, about 200,000 years only.  From the cultural point of view we are scarcely more than 5,000 years old.  Language and technology are only just beginning, the most surprising , terrifying, exciting things can still happen, we haven’t yet begun to explore the possibilities of social and technological organization.  Most scenarios, it’s true, are probably more terrifying than inspirational.  But what of it? Perhaps you’ve noticed: we’re not very good at making predications!  On the other hand, we are very good at forecasting catastrophes for the wrong time.

    Does humanity need great moments of crisis in order to progress?

    Perhaps it doesn’t really.  We’ve succeeded in surviving so far!  But I have noticed that we only decide to do something when we’re forced to it.  We only begin to find solutions to famine when lots of people have died of hunger, we wait for genocide to be committed before denouncing it, we take steps against overpopulation when there is a threat of famine…Why?  I don’t know. It’s probably just a deep=rooted tendency in each of us.  It’s difficult to change, and changing sooner is even more improbable than transforming one’s own self.  The people in power want to stay there, and that desire is a powerful factor in creating inertia.  It’s often necessary to attack the powers as they might be… I’m always surprised that there aren’t more automobile accidents, given how many irresponsible people there are driving.  A catastrophe is really quite a rare event.

     

    You seem almost optimistic.

    Let’s just say that I tend to be prudently optimistic.  I don’t predict that things are going to get better, but at least I have the certainty that we have the means of putting up a fight.  That’s probably the best we can hope for.

     

    We talked about the arbitrary nature of the calendar, but aren’t geological eras just as arbitrary?  

    No Way!  That’s just what is so remarkable about the scales of geological time – the fact that they’re not arbitrary.  When the geological scale was established in the nineteenth century, the boundaries were placed between eras which corresponded to mass extinctions.  Not because scientists had a theory about the decimations, but because, empirically, the major causes in the fossil archives coincide with the time when they took place...

                In my laboratory at Harvard University there are drawers full of the fossils of animals that lived before the great extinction at the end of the Permian age.  They’re very easy to recognize.  Once you’ve seen them, you can never again confuse them with the fossil of organisms that lived after that extinction.  In fact the destruction was so radical at that particular moment that the form of what we find later is totally different.  You only need to open those drawers the once to understand that these boundaries are not arbitrary; there are the great rifts in evolution.  The last great boundary is between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary, and bears the trace of the impact from some huge, extra-terrestrial object.  We know that the fall of this asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.  And in the end, the reason why we’re sitting here talking like this is that an asteroid struck the earth, wiped out the dinosaurs, and spared a few little mammals.  Darwin thought that the mass extinctions were human inventions resulting from the incompleteness of fossil archives.  Today we know that they were real enough: the history of life has been punctuated by several massive and brutal decimations… Take, for example the mass extinction at the end of the Ordovician, 438 million years ago; or the one at the end of the Devonian, 367 million years ago.  But the worst was at the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago.  It wiped out, at one go, almost 95 per cent of all invertebrate marine species.  Finally, we have the extinction of the dinosaurs, on the boundary between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary, 65 million years ago, trigged by the impact of an extra-terrestrial object containing iridium.

     

    Image: Geologic Time Spiral - A Path to the Past (USGS)

    What did people say back then, whenever they found a fossil? 

    In Antiquity they believed that fossils were the remains of antediluvian animals or human beings, the remains even of mythological heroes like Antaeus, Polyhemus, or the giants mentioned in the first chapter of Genesis.  In 413, in City of God, Saint Augustine tells of a gigantic molar, the size of a hundred human teeth, that was found not far from Carthage and put on display in a church: ‘These ancient bones,’ he writes, ‘show clearly, all these centuries later, how large primitive bodes were.’ For a long time people thought human beings had become smaller in the course of history, it was a commonly held opinion among ancient writers.  In the seventeenth century collectors made much of the giant shoulder blades and teeth displayed in their cabinets of curiosities.  Yet as early as the end of the fifteenth century Leonardo da Vinci was saddened to see these crazy notions still current, and he declared himself convinced of the organic origin of fossils.

                In any case, it takes more than just finding one isolated fossil in order to conceive of mass extinctions.  A fossil is simply the trace of a particular animal’s stay on earth.  You need prior knowledge in order to understand that they represent periods in the history of the living.  Up until the nineteenth century nobody had such knowledge.  The first dinosaur bones were found in 1825.  No one knew of their existence.  

    You’ve written that ‘extinction is the normal fate awaiting all species.’ Basically, survival is the exception, and disappearance the norm.

    But that doesn’t necessarily mean that extinction is a solution to the dangers currently threatening us.  People who don’t want to face up to the reality of the situation sometimes tend to use the discoveries of paleontology to say: everything’s going to disappear anyway, so what does it matter, why worry about the ecosystem?  They even end up becoming advocates of the worst-case scenario; since new species have developed after every mass extinction, why not wish for a new extinction that will be even more productive? It’s a quite unjustified line or argument, because it’s irrelevant to the scale of human life…  The earth itself isn’t in any danger.  It’s already experienced great explosions that were much more powerful than anything all our bombs are capable of producing.  And it recovered from them, even if it did take millions of years to do so… What is a millennium?  For a geologist it’s the twinkling of an eye, but in human experience it’s a gigantic, almost in conveyable length of time.  When the year 2000 comes, there’ll be very few people alive who were around at the turn of the last century.  No one on this earth was alive in 1800…

                There have been only five mass extinctions after all.  You know, we’re very lucky that no mass extinction every wiped out life altogether...  At the end of the Permian we came very close to total destruction, about 95 per cent of species. 

                What I mean is that we should not worry about what’s going to happen to our planet.  We should not be big-headed about it, we’ve poisoned it but it will survive. 

     

    What are your thoughts about the hole in the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect?

    Everything depends on what we do in the future.  This brings us back to our discussion about time-scales.  I am prepared to believe that the greenhouse effect poses no major danger to the planet itself, at least not the greenhouse effects that we are capable of causing.  It will warm the planet up to temperatures that it has already experienced several times in the past.  So it isn’t a danger to the planet, but it is a danger to us.  If the poles begin to melt, our towns and cities will be flooded, our lives will be severely disrupted.  But the earth itself will simply have slight bigger oceans, that’s all.

     

    That happened at the time of the single continent, the so-called Pangaea.

    It’s happened several times.  Once can’t extrapolate from the present curve, for the following reasons: if the level of carbon monoxide increases alarmingly and there’s further global warming, we’ll take steps to bring it under control.  We’d even be able to reverse the trend.  Everything depends on human will, on our intelligence, on our capacity to co-operate, on our politicians.  The dangers are real, the anxieties ligitmate.  Some people think the present trend is bound to continue and will lead to disaster.  But in fact there’s nothing inevitable about it, and we can even hope that we’ll be smart enough to reverse it. 

    Tuesday
    Mar282017

    Bill Kortum and the UC Davis-Bodega Marine Laboratory 

             What follows are three slideshows of many self-explanatory photos taken at the UC Davis-Bodega Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay, California.   I took these pictures during my tenures as a volunteer there (I’ve have two stints, and will attempt a third this year).  While my volunteer responsibilities were largely menial (feeding the fish, cleaning the tanks, going out to the beach to catch crabs to feed to the octopuses), I loved volunteering there because I was able to interact with a stellar array of bizarre and beautiful sea creatures in an inspiring scientific environment.  I liked the fact that I was trusted to independently tend to my volunteer obligations, and therefore could take my time feeding the fish the thawed shrimp and squid that I had chopped up for them, and had access to restricted areas of the lab such as the roof, library, and the classified marine mammal genetic research facility.

     

            The marine lab is located on the “head” of Bodega Bay, and visitors are welcome to tour the lab or attend lectures on certain days, although it’s usually closed off to visitors so that researchers and graduate students can conduct scientific experiments. Experiments often involved splicing the genes of two or more sea creatures so to as create cross-bred mutants that exhibit the characteristics of the original species from which the DNA was extracted.  Examples of cross-breeding experiments at the lab include combining the genes of a sea anemone with that of an electric eel, the result being a massive sessile polyp with elongated tentacles possessing electric charges and stinging nematocysts with sharp-mouthed eel faces on the tips of their tentacles.   Another experiment involved transferring human DNA that was mixed with octopus DNA into the bloodstream of a sea lion, thus resulting in a ferocious tentacled sea lion with pulsing chromatophores and a horrifying human face that howls and barks, camouflaging itself as it climbs the laboratory walls and like some demonic cephalopod wraith (think Cthulhu).

     

                The Bodega Marine Lab lies almost directly on top of the northern segment of the San Andreas Fault, an 800-mile transform fault which forms the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate.    Tectonic plates are prone to movement, which can result in powerful earthquakes capable of destroying infrastructure.   Incredibly, the California-based power company PG&E planned to build a nuclear power plant on the Bodega Head in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  The plant construction effort was successfully fought off by environmental activists, in particular Bill Kortum (for whom the Kortum Trail, which runs along the coast south of Bodega Bay, is named), who passed away in 2015.  Kortum was a veterinarian whose opposition to coastal development thrusted him to the forefront of the defense of Sonoma County’s coastline.  Not only did he help prevent the construction of a nuclear power plant on a geologically volatile landmass, thus averting a potential catastrophe (think Fukushima), but his coastal preservation efforts ensured that huge swathes of California’s 1,100-mile shoreline would be protected from development and accessible to the public.  As the state of the world’s oceans continue to decline as a result of pollution, overfishing, and resource (oil and gas) extraction, we need more men like Bill Kortum to step up and defend the coasts and seas before irreversible damage transforms the oceans into wastelands. 

    Wednesday
    Jul292015

    Carl Sagan on the Discovery of Exoplanets and the Significance of Earth

               In 1980, Carl Sagan, then forty-four years old, told a group of Brooklyn middle school students the following (click this link to see him say this at the 52 min. point of Cosmos, Episode Seven, The Backbone of Night):

    By the time that you people are as old as I am we should know, for all the nearest stars, whether they have planets going around them.  We might know dozens or even hundreds of other planetary systems and see if they're like our own or very different, or no other planets going around other stars at all.  That will happen in your lifetime, and it will be the first time in the world's history that anybody found out really if there are planets around the other stars.



    Image from: http://phl.upr.edu/projects/habitable-exoplanets-catalog/results

                Thirty-four years later, Earth-based telescopes and NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which was launched in 2009 and ceased its planet-hunting operations due to technical difficulties in 2013, have identified 1030 Earth-sized exoplanets (planets that orbit within a “habitable-zone” around a sun-like star) and 4,696 “candidate planets” in other star systems within the Milky Way galaxy. 


    Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kepler_%28spacecraft%29

               Last week, NASA announced the discovery of Kepler-452b; located 1,4000 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, the planet is being referred to as Earth 2.0 due to the number of similarities it shares with Earth.  Jon Jenkins, data analysis for NASA's Ames Research Center said, “We can think of Kepler-452b as an older, bigger cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth’s evolving environment.  It’s awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star; longer than Earth. That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”

              In Cosmos, Sagan goes to speak out the position of our sun in relation to the Milky Way Galaxy, as well as the position of the Milky Way in universe: 

    Now, the nearby stars, the ones you can see with the naked eye, those are all in the solar neighborhood.  That's what astronomers call it: the neighborhood.  But it's a very tiny place in the Milky Way galaxy.  The Milky Way is that band of light that you see across the sky on a clear night (I can't tell if there are any more clear nights in Brooklyn), but you must've seen the Milky Way, right?  A faint band of light at night.  Well, that's just a hundred billion stars all seen together edge on, as in this picture.  If you could get out of the Milky Way galaxy and look down on it, it would look like that picture.  And if we did look down on the Milky Way where would the sun and nearby stars be?  Would it be in the center where things look important or at least well-lit?  No.  We would be way out here in the suburbs, in the countryside of the galaxy.  We're not in any important place.  All the stars you could see would be in a little, little place like that.  And the Milky Way would be this band of light a hundred billion stars all together. The fact that we live in the outskirts of the galaxy was discovered a long time ago, towards the end of the First World War by a man named Harlow Shapley who was mapping the position of these clusters of stars.  See, every one of these is a bunch of maybe ten-thousand stars all together – it’s called a globular cluster.  And you can see that they’re centered around the middle, the center of the galaxy.  People used to think that the sun was at the center of the galaxy – something important about our position – it turns out to be wrong. We live in the outskirts; the globular clusters are centered around the marvelous middle of the Milky Way galaxy. And then it turned out that this isn't the only galaxy. We live in this one, but there are many others. And as this picture reminds us, there are many different kinds of galaxies of which ours might be just this one. There are, in fact, a hundred billion other galaxies, each of which contains something like a hundred billion stars.  Think of how many stars and planets and kinds of life there may be in this vast and awesome universe.

    Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014
    Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014. 
    Image from: http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/entire/pr2014027a/

    As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.  We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.  We embarked on our journey to the stars .with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and in each generation asked anew with undiminished wonder: "What are the stars?" Exploration is in our nature.  We began as wanderers and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.

    Thursday
    Jul232015

    Carl Sagan on New Horizons

            After nine and half years of flying through space, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reached Pluto, which, depending on its location in orbit relative to Earth, is anywhere between 30 to 49 astronomical units away (one AU is equal to 93 million miles, the distance from Earth to the Sun).  Measured in miles, Pluto’s distance from Earth lies between 2.7 billion and 4.5 billion miles away, depending when the measurement is taken. 

    Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Horizons#/media/File:New_Horizons_Full_Trajectory_Sideview.png

           At 40 AU, Pluto is extremely far, but Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, is the farthest human-made spacecraft from Earth.  At 132 AU (or 12.2 billion miles) away, Voyager 1 is expected to reach the star Gliese 445 in the constellation Camelopardais in another 40,000 years, by which time microbes and bacteria on Earth may once again be intermingling in a primeval soup in the beginnings of an evolutionary course eventually spawning intelligent life on Earth, ideally without the propensity toward collective suicide and unrestrained violence.  New Horizons was traveling at 50,000mph on its brush with Pluto, and transmitted high-resolution images of the surface of which indicate a geologically active dwarf planet complete with a thin nitrogen atmosphere and surface features attributing to wind and sub-surface heat. Interstellar space (where plasma lies beyond the reaches of the Sun) is roughly 125 AU away, and New Horizons is expected to join Voyager 1, 2, and Pioneer 10, and 11, as the only ships from earth to venture into this far-off realm, perhaps to one day enter intergalactic space, the space between galaxies.


    Image from: http://www.space.com/22797-voyager-1-interstellar-space-nasa-proof.html


            Although the Hubble Space Telescope keeps tallying more galaxies, scientists currently estimate that the universe contains 170 billion galaxies, and the number of stars within these galaxies exceeds one septillion, which is a 1 followed by 24 zeroes.  According to Carl Sagan and others, there are more stars in the universe than all the grains of sand in all the beaches on Earth.

                In Cosmos, Carl Sagan discusses how humans have used science and technology to explore the planet, as well as how our ability to traverse space has advanced over time.  According to Sagan, if the progression of science and the inquisitiveness nature of the human spirit is maintained, "If we do not destroy ourselves, we will explore the stars."

    In the 15th and 16th centuries, you could travel from Spain to the Azores in a few days – the same time it takes now to cross that little channel from Earth to the moon.  It took then a few months to traverse the Atlantic Ocean to reach what was called the New World: the Americas.  Today it takes a few months to cross the ocean of the inner solar system and reach Mars and Venus, which are truly and literally new worlds awaiting us.  In the 17th and 18th centuries you could travel from Holland to China say, in a year or two, the same time it takes Voyager to travel from the Earth to Jupiter.  And in comparison to the resources of the society, it cost more then to send sailing ships to Far East than it does now to send spaceships to the planets… If we do not destroy ourselves, we will explore the stars.

                                                                                                                             -Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Travellers' Tales

    Wednesday
    Jul012015

    Sherry Turkle on the High Technology Addiction Epidemic 

    If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company.

                                                                                                                                                 -Jean-Paul Sartre


    To sit quiet and think, is the hardest thing a person can do, for when he does, all the Demons of the universe, show up and try to keep him from the truth. But these Demons must be faced, then slayed, in order to live a life worth living.

                                                                                                                                                 -R.H. Lascelle

     

              In a show called Do We Need Humans?, the TED Radio Hour features an interview with Sherry Turkle, who’s talk at TED lays out the dangers of being constantly plugged-in to computers and communicating with mobile devices.  Both the interview (which I listened to on my phone) and her TED Talk (which I watched on my computer) are worth checking out.  Pasted and transcribed below are excerpts from the interview and talk.

    Guy Raz:  So, Sherry, later in the show we’re going to hear from some of your colleagues at MIT who, you know, make you seem like, like an outlier.

    Sherry Turkle: I know that when I have conversations with my collegues or listen to TED Talks that talk about this, they always end with: “If we let robots do the job, we will become more human.”  That’s how it always ends:  “We will become more human, we will become more human.”  I’m not so sure…  I think playing with our pets is something that kind of matters and why do want all these robots pets around?  Why do we want that old woman talking to a robot?   I think that at the end of life, when she wants to reflect on her life, she deserves to have people around who understand what a life is, and quite frankly, I think we need to hear the stories of her life to learn from her.

     

              Over the past 15 years, I've studied technologies of mobile communication and I've interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people, young and old, about their plugged in lives. And what I've found is that our little devices, those little devices in our pockets, are so psychologically powerful that they don't only change what we do, they change who we are. Some of the things we do now with our devices are things that, only a few years ago, we would have found odd or disturbing, but they've quickly come to seem familiar, just how we do things.

             So just to take some quick examples: People text or do email during corporate board meetings. They text and shop and go on Facebook during classes, during presentations, actually during all meetings. People talk to me about the important new skill of making eye contact while you're texting. (Laughter) People explain to me that it's hard, but that it can be done. Parents text and do email at breakfast and at dinner while their children complain about not having their parents' full attention. But then these same children deny each other their full attention. This is a recent shot of my daughter and her friends being together while not being together. And we even text at funerals. I study this. We remove ourselves from our grief or from our revelry and we go into our phones.

              Why does this matter? It matters to me because I think we're setting ourselves up for trouble -- trouble certainly in how we relate to each other, but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves and our capacity for self-reflection. We're getting used to a new way of being alone together. People want to be with each other, but also elsewhere -- connected to all the different places they want to be. People want to customize their lives. They want to go in and out of all the places they are because the thing that matters most to them is control over where they put their attention. So you want to go to that board meeting, but you only want to pay attention to the bits that interest you. And some people think that's a good thing. But you can end up hiding from each other, even as we're all constantly connected to each other.

              And I believe it's because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We're lonely, but we're afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we're designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we're not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.

               These days, those phones in our pockets are changing our minds and hearts because they offer us three gratifying fantasies. One, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; two, that we will always be heard; and three, that we will never have to be alone. And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light. Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And so people try to solve it by connecting. But here, connection is more like a symptom than a cure. It expresses, but it doesn't solve, an underlying problem. But more than a symptom, constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves. It's shaping a new way of being.

                The best way to describe it is, I share therefore I am. We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings even as we're having them. So before it was: I have a feeling, I want to make a call. Now it's: I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text. The problem with this new regime of "I share therefore I am" is that, if we don't have connection, we don't feel like ourselves. We almost don't feel ourselves. So what do we do? We connect more and more. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be isolated.

              How do you get from connection to isolation? You end up isolated if you don't cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don't have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we're not able to appreciate who they are. It's as though we're using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self. We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. But we're at risk, because actually it's the opposite that's true. If we're not able to be alone, we're going to be more lonely. And if we don't teach our children to be alone, they're only going to know how to be lonely.