Go Hypatia!

New York, March 8 & 9, 2014.  Twas a treat to watch today a marathon showing on NatGeo of my favorite childhood TV series – PBS’ “Cosmos” with the timeless Carl Sagan. As well, beyond excited to see this series getting a 2014 reboot to be telecast tonight at 9:00 pm EST hosted by the great Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Episode 13 from the original series. Timeless words of wisdom indeed. Watch it to see the reference to Hypatia – a woman way ahead of her time. Truly inspiring and one of my personal heroines.

This final episode of the series is one of Sagan’s best – beautiful words on philosophy, life, love, evolution, our place in the Universe, the push for peace, the futility of war – and a special appearance 10 years since this was first broadcast. Please take the time to watch it if you haven’t – it is a gift your brain and heart will thank you for.

When we are kids growing up, we often have a favorite teacher – either a mentor, a speaker or a guru – a person we unabashedly look up to. I did adore a couple of my female teachers, in my all-girls strict French Catholic Convent school – but Sundays were the day I looked forward to the most. For that was the day my favorite teacher of all time, my self-appointed guru, the one whose words and wisdom captivated me from a young age, and who – in my opinion, was not just a great man, but a genuinely good man – would speak to me through the television screen – his soulful Ashkenazi eyes beseeching his viewers to think rationally, learn voraciously, and explore with uncompromising curiosity. If I can look back in time and say who the most influential self-chosen teacher had been for me – it was, and still is – this incredible, humble, extraordinarily intelligent astronomer and Cornell University professor – Dr. “Cosmos” Carl Sagan.

*

Below, one of Carl’s last interviews before his death in 1996.

How true he was about the impending spread of pseudoscience….as near-extinct diseases  like measles, mumps, whooping cough have resurfaced in the first world in the past few years due to the mass-hysteria caused by attention-whore idiots like Jenny McCarthy (aided by “The Secret” and Tolle-worshiping pseudoscience queen Oprah) and the anti-vaccine brigade, the new stint of hordes of women who are quite lucky and wealthy to suddenly falsely demonize and leave great caring husbands in a quest to “eat, pray, love,” the rise of many more dangerous male writers who promote veiled and jargon-laden hogwash in the name of “intelligent design,” and many more stupid self-centered platitudes and strange movements that have sprouted up.  

As Harvard professor Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness  (who I’ve met a few times and he’s a genuinely good person) had once mentioned – the stance of  denial of both climate change and Evolution is to extreme-right wingers what anti-vaccine and anti-GMO and pro-pseudoscience has become to extreme-left wingers. In both cases, hysteria without evidence; paranoia without facts. This is the 2010s and it is easy to see that Sagan had (as always) been correct even back in the ’90s, and was way ahead of the curve in predicting how, despite scientific evidence and facts, both fundamentalist religiosity and pseudoscience would continue to spread in dangerous doses.

*

Related Posts:

Billions of stars, billions of sports fans

Carl Sagan, always

*

Advertisements

Carl Sagan. Always….

Essential viewing…..For those times, when the inexplicable injustices of the world grip you (such as several recent miscarriages of justice in Florida’s legal system), for those tumultuous political/social times when a form of hateful discord grips people of different communities, colors and religions – and you understand the futility of such group-think, for the times you need answers or just peace or closure – helpless at your inability to reconcile with justified anger at certain man-made systems, for the times you wonder about your “place” in the world, for the times you need to get out of the abyss of excessive navel-gazing myopic views and understand the fallacies of our anthropocentric world; and for the times when the sheer scale of the Universe and imagining its immensity becomes akin to a spiritual experience……… For the times when perspectives of a wise and ethical astrophysicist, ecologist, anthropologist or scientist-philosopher, and based on proven facts, makes much more sense than any subjective opinions blindly followed……..For the times when knowledge sets one free, while ignorance merely buries.

carl-saganI feel very lucky to have been exposed to the work, shows and writings of Carl Sagan at an early age. What an incredibly wise man he was! Wish there were more objective scientist-philosophers like him. Wish he hadn’t passed away so soon.  When I met the “father” of landscape ecology research Richard T. T. Forman at Harvard in 2008, I gushed like a teenager. But wish I could have met Sagan, at least once, before he died. He was also one of those few great men, whose private conduct had integrity and ethics, and did not differ from his public image – a disparity oftentimes sadly seen in many creative or public figures who may seem very alluring from the outside, but have hypocrisies within. Carl Sagan even transcended that – by all accounts he was good, wise, humble and ethical, both publicly and privately. Yes, he truly was a great man.

Here are two well-made videos by a fan, with Sagan’s narration. There are many more videos of him out there, of course, and his must-have series “Cosmos” which is a testimony to the good that great and intelligent television shows can do, as opposed to the murk it more often churns out.

On my blogroll section is a link to “Carl Sagan quotes.” And a chapter from his last book can be found here: * Billions of stars * Billions of sports fans

Wishing you wisdom………and billions of warm wishes from the ravenous July heat of New York City.

Junipers in June – 1

JUNIPERS IN JUNE – 1 

Starry Starry Nights 

June is my birthday month. So I get to indulge myself in my favourite treats on this blog – and that includes a hobby since childhood – Stargazing.

(A) Starry Nights for Astronomy buffs (like me)

The following time-lapse video is a breathtaking labour of love by its makers – using the camera-work of Colin Legg. These sidereal motion shots of the Milky Way were taken over the Australian Outback with Fisheye and Flat lenses in late 2010, and was Grant Wakefield’s entry for the Bradford International Film Festival 2011. According to his Vimeo page, the name “Walu Ngalindi” is “from the Aboriginal Yolngu langauge meaning ‘Sun Woman – Moon man’.” The HD version of the video is worth watching, albeit a slower load. Unless you have a super high-speed internet connection, it is perhaps better to let the videos load first and then view them. In full screen of course – that goes without saying, and preferably with the lights turned off.

The second video is the trailer of an absolutely stunning piece of work by 2010 Astronomy Photographer of the Year – Tom Lowe, shot on Canon and Red MX cameras. You can order a DVD of his new film on his webiste : http://timescapes.org/  This film was shot in the American Southwest with astounding shots of both the earth and the skies. The two galaxies in the clip are the Andromeda and our Milky Way. Astronomy buffs have long known of  Tom Lowe’s work, though many people will probably be more exposed to his name after the release of the astronomy shots in the Cannes Palme d’Or winning movie “The Tree of Life” directed by Terence Malick. Prepare to be literally raptured by the insurmountable beauty of our planet and universe, of life and luminosity, the mundane and the extraordinary – captured in the following audio-visual poetry by the exceptional talent of the cameramen who made ‘Timescapes’. (Turn up the speakers for those ravishing drum beats!)

.

*

(B) Starry nights for romantics who love Van Gogh

Not satisfied with the existing versions they had on youtube, I made a quick video of Don Mclean’s dreamy yet very darkly deep song – his ode inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night and other works and the painter’s turmoiled eccentric life – placed here solely for its lovely lyrics and melody – ici  (don’t forget to full-screen it):


You can see a close-up of the original painting of The Starry Night I took at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) here :  Thinking in Pictures  (I have used it in the above video.)

*

Related posts:

1. “I told you so,” Einstein would have said.

2. Billions of Stars * Billions of sports fans

3. Jazz Trek

4. Random Acts of Planet Earth : Chopin for EROS

5. “Hello World!”

6. 6 -9

Time . Lapses . Limits

TIME . LAPSES . LIMITS 

A beautiful film made by Ville de Quebec film maker Dominic Boudreault showing a time-lapse montage of the cityscapes of Montreal, New York, Toronto, Chicago and Quebec City contrasted at the end with the stars of the night skies outside the city limits. It took him a year to make this. Please full screen it.…and enjoy its beauty of architecture and urbanscapes, ships and starry nights. Set to Hans Zimmer’s score Time from the unforgettable movie of dreams, architecture, travel and love Inception.

*

I am very happy that the film features a project I worked on which won quite a few awards and has become a favorite postcard pic and a city landmark – the installation, urban design and lighting of the historic Fontaine de Tourny that was placed on the entry grounds of the Parliament building of Quebec City. It was a gift from Bordeaux, France, for Quebec’s 400th anniversary, and I’d worked on the conceptual and construction planning as well as lighting design of it with the firm I was with at the time. A few conceptual sketches and the final product below. Of course, I have not included the construction drawings, which are prosaic, technical ones but which hold the chassis of a project.

Due to budget restrictions, the original seating and artistic fence proposals made were not implemented and currently a very basic structure surrounds the fountain.

The sculptor who’d made it – only 3 copies of the fountain exist in the world : Mathurine Moreau

*

Sidetracked Alert : Since Conan Doyle’s b’day is round the corner – an ode to Holmes from last year https://gipsygeek.wordpress.com/2010/05/22/elementary-dr-doyle/

*

“I told you so,” Einstein would’ve said.

NASA probe confirms Einstein’s prediction

If you wish to know more about this, do go here directly on the NASA site : http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/may/HQ_11-134_Gravity_Probe_B.html

Or here on the National Geographic site which explains it with lesser technical jargon but nicer graphics:  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/05/110505-einstein-theories-confirmed-gravity-probe-nasa-space-science/    

For the layman version, CBC reports:

According to Einstein’s theories of relativity, the mass of Earth dimples space-time like a heavy person sitting in the middle of a trampoline.(NASA)

A NASA probe circling the Earth has found evidence that confirms two key predictions based on Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The results from the Gravity Probe B mission show that the Earth’s mass does warp space and time, which are interlinked, NASA announced Wednesday.

They also confirm that the Earth does drag space-time with it as it rotates, as predicted.

“Imagine the Earth as if it were immersed in honey. As the planet rotates, the honey around it would swirl, and it’s the same with space and time,” Francis Everitt, the Stanford University physicist who led the mission, said in a statement.

The results are published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Space-time and relativity

“German-American physicist Albert Einstein’s theories of special relativity and general relativity say that space and time are woven together into four-dimensional “space-time.” The mass of Earth dimples this “fabric” like a heavy person sitting in the middle of a trampoline. Gravity results from the tendency of other masses to follow the curve of space-time and roll into the dimple. The theories predict that as the Earth spins, it should twist the dimple — an effect that should be measurable using precise gyroscopes.

Gravity Probe B was designed to test the predictions by taking measurements from four ultra-precise gyroscopes. Those instruments contain rotors that NASA bills as the “most perfect spheres ever made by humans,” allowing them to spin indefinitely without drifting from the alignment of their rotation.

The gyroscopes were aboard a spacecraft circling the Earth in a polar orbit — that is, it travelled perpendicular to the Earth’s rotation, passing over both poles during each orbit.

The experiment was set up so the gyroscopes’ axes of rotation should always point in the same direction — toward the “guide” star IM Pegasi — provided the Earth’s gravity did not affect space and time.

However, the researchers detected tiny, measurable changes in the direction of the gyroscopes’ spins, confirming that the Earth’s gravity does:

  • Warp space and time around it, which is called the geodetic effect.
  • Pull space and time with it as it rotates, an effect called frame dragging.”

*

Somewhere in the late 1980s a little girl was obsessively reading through her dad’s old Life Nature Library encyclopedia collection and a particular book she loved the most: “The Universe”. There on page 178 and 179 was the picture of a famous white-haired scientist and a chapter next to it with fascinating self-explanatory diagrams and a write-up: “Is the Cosmos Curved? And if so, how curved?” The essence of Einstein’s theory was that the presence of matter distorts space and makes it curve. The concept  of space curvature stemmed from many-dimensional, non-straight-line geometry created abstractly though equations. Just as a surface can curve in ordinary three-dimensional space, so in non-Euclidian geometry a three-dimensional space can itself curve in four-dimensional space. It is difficult to visualize such a curved space because man is not four-dimensional, but from a purely logical perspective it is a clear possibility. The chapter went on to elaborate much more of course about General Relativity.

Well, it’s wonderful to find out that NASA proves that he was right, after all. What had fascinated this girl years ago in a big book were in fact words of proven wisdom.

So, a perfect occasion to place Tim Minchin’s hilarious animated poem, Storm. (Not for everyone, alas – watch at your own risk but don’t complain about getting ‘offended’. Only for those with a good sense of humour.) I love it though. Absolutely. This video is so true on so many different levels in our PC-world. And though yoga of course has unmistakable absolute proven physical benefits, as well as turmeric and curcumum used in Ayurveda, as has been proven through scientific research and tests for prostate cancer, (and mind you, the video doesn’t talk of those), the apt take on homeopathy and other pseudo-science and psychic mumbo-jumbo that the video takes the masks away from is spot-on. A f****ng brilliant piece of work, as Minchin would say.  Feel free to quell any Storm-types (and idiotic Secret-types or nagging EatPrayLove-types) around to down their vociferous ignorance-laced-with-remarkable-certainty lines with this lovely clarity of reality, logic and facts . Enjoy:

(to turn off the captions, simply click on the ‘cc’ button on the youtube task bar.)

*

An excerpt from the National Geographic article:

Doing What Einstein Thought 

To conduct these tests, Gravity Probe B used a device called a star tracker to keep one end pointed at a single star, IM Pegasi, while in a polar orbit 400 miles (644 kilometers) above Earth.

If we lived in a universe that behaved as envisioned by Isaac Newton—in which the geodetic effect and frame dragging don’t occur—then the gyroscopes would stay aligned with the star forever.

In Einstein’s universe, however, the direction of the spin axis of Gravity Probe B’s gyroscopes should gradually change due to the mass and rotation of Earth.

“Imagine the Earth is immersed in honey, and you can imagine the honey would be dragged around and [an object in the honey] would also be dragged around,” Everitt said. “That’s what happens in the gyroscope.”

Sifting through the data, the team found evidence of an angular change in the gyroscopes’ orientation of about 6,600 milliarcseconds over the course of a year.

A milliarcsecond, Everitt explained, “is the width of a human hair seen at the distance of 10 miles [16 kilometers]. It really is a rather small angle, and this is the accuracy which Gravity Probe B had to achieve.”

The change is so small, in fact, that Einstein didn’t think measuring it was even possible.

In his 1953 book The Meaning of Relativity, Einstein wrote that frame-dragging effects “are actually present according to our theory, although their magnitude is so small that confirmation of them by laboratory experiments is not to be thought of.”

But now, “thanks to NASA,” Everitt said, “we’ve done more than think about them. We’ve actually measured them.”

Gravity Findings to Unravel Distant Mysteries?

Although the results are only now being released, the Gravity Probe B satellite has completed its work, and it was decommissioned in December 2010.

Funded since 1963, Gravity Probe B is one of the longest running projects in NASA history. Scientists had the idea for the experiment before the required technology—such as the star tracker and gyroscopes—even existed…….

For the rest, click here.

*

Related posts:

https://gipsygeek.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/nasa-landsat-images/

https://gipsygeek.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/billions-and-billions-carl-sagan/

https://gipsygeek.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/nasa-landsat-chopin-rubinstein/

* Billions of stars * Billions of sports fans

“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” – Carl Sagan

* BILLIONS OF STARS * BILLIONS OF SPORTS FANS *

(or) What is it with men and balls-on-fire?

Spain wins the FIFA World Cup 2010 Final against the Netherlands, 1-0

Another FIFA World Cup ends. Fans and nations go wild. Spain emerges victorious. Advertising companies know that they’ll have to wait 4 years again before this showcase reaches billions across the planet at one go. The winning players will remember this match as the highlight of their careers. And somehow nothing seems to foster the patriotic pride of nations more intensely than international sporting events – be it the Olympics or this World Cup Soccer or even more slower tournaments like cricket. (Heck – in Spain at the moment even the separatist Basques and the autonomy-pushing Catalonians have suddenly all come together to celebrate a ‘united Spanish’ victory, forgetting their differences and debt problems. A soccer win has brought in an unprecedented unity not seen for centuries!)

 Why?

A very good reason for this. And a highly logical one too. (A reason – which perhaps if many women knew more, would stop nagging their husbands when they get engrossed in watching games on tv.) Shall we say that in some ways this ingrained sense of competition and ‘winning’ in men is what propagated the human species through centuries? I was always fascinated as a kid why my dad (an avid tennis and football player in his youth) would get so involved in sports-watching. Or why I myself had a competitive streak when it came to doing gymnastics and playing chess or later mountain climbing or got so intense while watching tennis matches and auto-racing. Or why many people in general went so crazy rooting for their teams, almost in some animalistic ecstasy? As though they were vicariously living through the victories of their sports stars? So I searched for answers and the best one I found was on reading a certain chapter in a certain book back in the ‘90s. So as the World Cup frenzy ends, I’ve decided to place here the entire chapter from that great book I’d read around a decade back by one of my favourite scientists – astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan.

(Note:For those wishing to directly read the chapter “Monday Night Hunters”, scroll down to the seconds half of the post.)

SAGAN’S SAGA

 I started reading the books of Carl Sagan when I first saw his Cosmos series. In many ways, Sagan was not only the astrophysicist who popularized astronomy for many, he was one of the most ahead-of-his-times rationalists whom even Richard Dawkins has thanked for the unapologetic outspokenness of his ideas. Since I’m going to restrict this post to a chapter from his last book – ‘Billions and Billions – Thoughts on life and death at the brink of the millennium’ – the one he wrote shortly before his death – here’s more on the brilliant Sagan:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan

And here is a collection of his top 10 quotes (as per my own choice):

  1. It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas … If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you … On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones. “The Burden of Skepticism” (1987)
  2. The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key. – Wonder and Skepticism”, Skeptical Enquirer Volume 19, Issue 1, (January-February 1995)
  3. I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. In the Valley of the Shadow” PARADE magazine (10 March 1996)
  4. Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved Interview with Charlie Rose, 1996
  5. A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism. – Contact
  6. In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” (Pale Blue Dot, 1994)
  7. For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
  8.  I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us-then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir. – Chapter 2, “Science and Hope” The Demon-Haunted World.
  9. Humans — who enslave, castrate, experiment on, and fillet other animals — have had an understandable penchant for pretending animals do not feel pain. A sharp distinction between humans and ‘animals’ is essential if we are to bend them to our will, make them work for us, wear them, eat them — without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret. It is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeelingly toward other animals, to contend that only humans can suffer. The behavior of other animals renders such pretensions specious. They are just too much like us.“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1992) (co-written with Dr. Ann Druyan)
  10. Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.

I particularly liked Billions & Billions because it covered a wide range of topics and was written with an incredible level of philosophical wisdom and deep understanding of the connections of different aspects and systems of the world we live in – touching topics from anthropology, medicine, physics, environmental ethics, evolution, space exploration, consumerism, war, government policies and politics, human fallacies and achievements and much more. It was the work of a brilliant mind expressing as much as he could before his hour drew close, which is why the book was marked with an optimistic poignancy due to the finality of his own life that the author was well aware of.

In Sagan’s work I have found ideas that have resonated well with the way I’d often wonder since childhood how the pieces “fit” in this world or the parts inter-connected in the whole. Personally, I think, or at least for me – those who seek truth based on evidence, rational thinking, and while developing their own empathy and kindness, question societal “givens” to seek answers analytically – are those who seem to often far better understand the value of, or search to find the balance between logic and love, prose and poetry, pragmatism and enchantment. We can then get lost in lands of unbridled imagination all we want when we have that grounding of objective reality already as a tether, a strong rock-solid foundation – because we know then that no matter how far we travel through metaphorical myths and journeys to find our own inner hero’s (and heroine’s) trials and tales – we know the way back, or better, come back “home” with a greater understanding of our inner worlds that have in the first place led us on a quest to solve the systems that govern our external world. And what’s more, we can use the tools of Reality to shape the dreams of our imagination without living in some shadowland of never-ending pessimism about reality or conversely only in some land of unfulfilled fleeting fantasy or magical, irrational thinking.

It is the pragmatists and inventors who are probably best equipped to luxuriate in optimism about their future because they know to build and operate the tools that can make their reveries real. Or at best be realistic of the problems they might face in the future and be prepared through contingency planning and make smoother tidings. Which is why I particularly liked this quote of Sagan and couldn’t agree more : “It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”

I love that quote of Carl Sagan and would go even further wondering how the visual perception of colour itself is dependent on our retinas and how the same shades vary between species or even between colour blind people and that our very colour perception is based on the visual spectrum while infra-red and ultra-violet spectrums also exist. What can be more romantic than in-depth knowledge, both about scientific systems and about those whom you love? Doesn’t real unconditional love embrace and accept all the “spectrums” – both seen and unseen – about the person you love?

Among my friends, I have many who are musicians (mostly classical, jazz and indie rock) and I find it hilarious how composers/musicians can often be perceived as “very romantic” by an audience yet all the serious professional ones I know are utter pragmatists about the mechanics and acoustics and math and hard work that go into the making of good music and their poeticism of imagination is balanced by their pragmatism of the science needed to produce pleasurable tunes/songs. The true translation of deep emotion into music and the illusion of its ‘romantic’ effortlessness is rather a product of true technical mastery. When mastery becomes second nature, my musician friends say they can ride waves of indescribable emotion and a “one-ness” with their music with free abandon.

And I’ve noticed the same quality in good architects too – the seemingly “effortless” evoking of a transcendental experience through space and light in an edifice is a result of technical design mastery. The illusion is a result of intelligent design with an understanding of spatial psychology, knowledge of materials and structures; of imagination made real. Another example is when good gymnasts or ballet dancers or even sportsmen “float” and dance through the air when every act is in truth a manifestation of mastered controlled springing muscle. 

I think true “romanticism” that many rational/realistic people deeply, torridly experience is quite different and in many ways far richer and deeper than the cliched version of kitschy hyperventilating ‘romance’ or the ‘image of romance’ that marketing execs would like to impose to appeal to the masses. I love looking at the full moon – but I also know that the fact that many craters such as Albategnius and Copernicus exist on its surface (and that at 13, I’d memorized the maps of the moon’s topography and read voraciously about the moon’s origin and the Apollo missions and therefore know exactly what I’m staring at in the sky,) makes it all the more “romantic.” (I’ve learnt through the years though, by trial and error to not talk of the crater of Copernicus if I’m given a compliment on a moonlit night. I found that most people use the moon as a ‘romance prop’ and blink at me weirdly if I talk of its topography. Moonlit nights, I’ve been told, are supposed to launch loony female hormones, not lunar lessons. ‘Moon leadeth to moon’ it seems is what boys are taught from high school. Not very Copernicun….but now I understand why the boy who had a long but unrequited crush on me in my late teens, and was a bit different than most, had built a large telescope to impress me. Years later he’d tell me he was demonstrating his affection towards me by doing so. We both suffered from semi-aspie naivete and moonlit dates had been taken literally as moon-watching through a lens.)

When you look out for instance at the magnificent display of the northern lights, or the tail of a comet – how can one not wonder how that phenomenon occurs scientifically? And a craving to know the answers in no way removes its “magic”. Even magic tricks after all are based on sleights of hand and chemistry. Even the imagination of a painter’s mind can be translated into reality only through the oils and colours of chemicals and the woven cloth of a canvas. Truth IS reality – objective and undeniable. And Reality is always the canvas, the foundation on which our imagination can create wildly. In fact a lot of the mess in the world of humans has happened due to those who babble and fight irrationally to reverse this basic law of nature or try to base reality on wishy-washy “wishes”. (In that respect I often feel animals are far greater realists than humans.)

Back to Sagan. When you see people display emotions in victories or losses, or behave in unbridled ways in joys or sorrows, how can one not wonder what connections in the neurons of the brains, or the secretions of hormones, enzymes and release of serotonin, adrenalin, endorphins in their bodies cause the reactions that their faces and voices display? What great forces of muscle and passions for winning drive the athletes? This curiosity to solve puzzles is so important to me, I’m sure it is important to you….in fact I find it more puzzling why there are people who prefer to not know or worse, ignore the facts or truth and yet wish to use the products of those who think and invent, and then attribute those inventions to ‘miracles’ rather than acknowledge and thank those ingenious minds.

There is some unfathomable beauty in truth (or the quest for truth) that surpasses all the muddy rhetoric of those who choose confusion over clarity, delusion over depth, fallacies over facts. Knowledge releases shackles, truth frees and in no way does knowing how things work lessen their wonder; rather I think solving mysteries is what deepens our wonder of how intricately the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, mathematics and evolution and much, much more that go beyond labels have combined to create mind-blowing works of universal art be it up in heavenly displays of gas and fire, or in earthly passions that manifest in modes of the human emotion of winning- so joyous and heart-warming in its displays that a poetic phrase such as “celebrating the human spirit” was coined.

Or the reasons why the earthly species of men are so fascinated by those who kick, chase, aim and score with their balls: (ahem, i.e. the SPORTS ball.)

Germany beats Uruguay 3-2 for third place at the FIFA 2010, but in a far more exciting and objective match than the Dutch-Spanish final.

MONDAY-NIGHT HUNTERS

(Chapter 3 from Sagan’s book Billions & Billions)

“The hunting instinct has [a] … remote origin in the evolution of the race. The hunting and the fighting instinct combine in many manifestations. … It is just because human bloodthirstiness is such a primitive part of us that it is so hard to eradicate, especially where a fight or a hunt is promised as part of the fun. WILLIAM JAMES Psychology, XXIV (1890)

We can’t help ourselves. On Sunday afternoons and Monday nights in the fall of each year, we abandon everything to watch small moving images of 22 men—running into one another, falling down, picking themselves up, and kicking an elongated object made from the skin of an animal. Every now and then, both the players and the sedentary spectators are moved to rapture or despair by the progress of the play. All over America, people (almost exclusively men), transfixed before glass screens, cheer or mutter in unison. Put this way, it sounds stupid. But once you get the hang of it, it’s hard to resist, and I speak from experience.

Athletes run, jump, hit, slide, throw, kick, tackle—and there’s a thrill in seeing humans do it so well. They wrestle each other to the ground. They’re keen on grabbing or clubbing or kicking a fast-moving brown or white thing. In some games, they try to herd the thing toward what’s called a “goal”; in other games, the players run away and then return “home.” Teamwork is almost everything, and we admire how the parts fit together to make a jubilant whole.

But these are not the skills by which most of us earn our daily bread. Why should we feel compelled to watch people run or hit? Why is this need transcultural? (Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mayans, and Aztecs also played ball. Polo is Tibetan.) There are sports stars who make 50 times the annual salary of the President; some who are themselves, after retirement, elected to high office. They are national heroes. Why, exactly? There is something here transcending the diversity of political, social, and economic systems. Something ancient is calling.

Most major sports are associated with a nation or a city, and they carry with them elements of patriotism and civic pride. Our team represents us—where we live, our people—against those other guys from some different place, populated by unfamiliar, maybe hostile people. (True, most of “our” players are not really from here. They’re mercenaries and with clear conscience regularly defect from opposing cities for suitable emolument: A Pittsburgh Pirate is reformed into a California Angel; a San Diego Padre is raised to a St. Louis Cardinal; a Golden State Warrior is crowned a Sacramento King. Occasionally, a whole team picks up and migrates to another city.)

Competitive sports are symbolic conflicts, thinly disguised. This is hardly a new insight. The Cherokees called their ancient form of lacrosse “the little brother of war.” Or here is Max Raf-ferty, former California Superintendent of Public Instruction, who, after denouncing critics of college football as “kooks, crumbums, commies, hairy loudmouthed beatniKs,” goes on to state, “Football players . . . possess a clear, bright, fighting spirit which is America itself.” (That’s worth mulling over.) An often-quoted sentiment of the late professional football coach Vince Lombardi is that the only thing that counts is winning. Former Washington Redskins’ coach George Alien put it this way: “Losing is like death.”

Indeed, we talk of winning and losing a war as naturally as we do of winning and losing a game. In a televised U.S. Army recruitment ad, we see the aftermath of an armored warfare exercise in which one tank destroys another; in the tag line, the victorious tank commander says, “When we win, the whole team wins—not one person.” The connection between sports and combat is made quite clear. Sports fans (the word is short for “fanatics”) have been known to commit assault and battery, and sometimes murder, when taunted about a losing team; or when prevented from cheering on a winning team; or when they feel an injustice has been committed by the referees.

The British Prime Minister was obliged in 1985 to denounce the rowdy, drunken behavior of British soccer fans who attacked an Italian contingent for having the effrontery to root for their own team. Dozens were killed when the stands collapsed. In 1969, after three hard-fought soccer games, Salvadoran tanks crossed the Honduran border, and Salvadoran bombers attacked Honduran ports and military bases. In this “Soccer War,” the casualties numbered in the thousands. Afghan tribesmen played polo with the severed heads of former adversaries. And 600 years ago, in what is now Mexico City, there was a ball court where gorgeously attired nobles watched uniformed teams compete. The captain of the losing team was beheaded, and the skulls of earlier losing captains were displayed on racks—an inducement possibly even more compelling than winning one for the Gipper.

Suppose you’re idly flipping the dial on your television set, and you come upon some competition in which you have no particular emotional investment—say, off-season volleyball between Myanmar and Thailand. How do you decide which team to root for? But wait a minute: Why root for either? Why not just enjoy the game? Most of us have trouble with this detached posture. We want to take part in the contest, to feel ourselves a member of a team. The feeling simply sweeps us away, and there we are rooting, “Go, Myanmar!” Initially, our loyalties may oscillate, first urging on one team and then the other. Sometimes we root for the underdog. Other times, shamefully, we even switch our allegiance from loser to winner as the outcome becomes clear. (When there is a succession of losing seasons, fan loyalties tend to drift elsewhere,) What we are looking for is victory without effort. We want to be swept up into something like a small, safe, successful war.

In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, then a guard for the Denver Nuggets, was suspended by the National Basketball Association. Why? Because Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the compulsory playing of the National Anthem. The American flag represented to him a “symbol of oppression” offensive to his Muslim beliefs. Most other players, while not sharing Abdul-Rauf’s beliefs, supported his right to express them. Harvey Araton, a distinguished sports writer for the New York Times, was puzzled. Playing the anthem at a sporting event “is, let’s face it, a tradition that is absolutely idiotic in today’s world,” he explains, “as opposed to when it began, before baseball games during World War II. Nobody goes to a sporting event to make an expression of patriotism.” On the contrary, I would argue that a kind of patriotism and nationalism is very • much what sporting events are about.* (* The crisis was resolved when Mr. Abdul-Rauf agreed to stand during the anthem, but pray instead of sing)

The earliest known organized athletic events date back 3,500 years to preclassical Greece. During the original Olympic Games, an armistice put all wars among Greek city-states on hold. The games were more important than the wars. The men performed nude: No women spectators were allowed. By the eighth century B.C., the Olympic Games consisted of running (lots of running), jumping, throwing things (including javelins), and wrestling (sometimes to the death). While none of these events was a team sport, they are clearly central to modern team sports.

They were also central to low-technology hunting. Hunting is traditionally considered a sport, as long as you don’t eat what you catch—a proviso much easier for the rich to comply with than the poor. From the earliest pharaohs, hunting has been associated with military aristocracies. Oscar Wilde’s aphorism about English fox hunting, “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable,” makes a similar dual point. The forerunners of football, soccer, hockey, and kindred sports were disdainfully called “rabble games,” recognized as substitutes for hunting— because young men who worked for a living were barred from the hunt.

The weapons of the earliest wars must have been hunting implements. Team sports are not just stylized echoes of ancient wars. They also satisfy an almost-forgotten craving for the hunt.

Since our passions for sports run so deep and are so broadly distributed, they are likely to be hardwired into us—not in our brains but in our genes. The 10,000 years since the invention of agriculture is not nearly enough time for such predispositions to have evolved away and disappeared. If we want to understand them, we must go much further back.

 The human species is hundreds of thousands of years old (the human family several millions of years old). We have led a sedentary existence—based on farming and domestication of animals—for only the last 3 percent of that period, during which is all our recorded history. In the first 97 percent of our tenure on Earth, almost everything that is characteristically human came into being. So a little arithmetic about our history suggests we can learn something about those times from the few surviving hunter-gatherer communities uncorrupted by civilization.

We wander. With our little ones and all our belongings on our backs, we wander—following the game, seeking the water holes. We set up camp for a time, then move on. In providing food for the group, the men mainly hunt, the women mainly gather. Meat and potatoes. A typical itinerant band, mainly an extended family of relatives and in-laws, numbers a few dozen; although annually many hundreds of us, with the same language and culture, gather—for religious ceremonies, to trade, to arrange marriages, to tell stories. There are many stories about the hunt. I’m focusing here on the hunters, who are men. But the women have significant social, economic, and cultural power. They gather the essential staples—nuts, fruits, tubers, roots—as well as medicinal herbs, hunt small animals, and provide strategic intelligence on large animal movements. Men do some gathering as well, and considerable “housework” (even though there are no houses). But hunting—only for food, never for sport—is the lifelong occupation of every able-bodied male.

Preadolescent boys stalk birds and small mammals with bows and arrows. By adulthood they have become experts in weapons procurement; in stalking, killing, and butchering the prey; and in carrying the cuts of meat back to camp. The first successful kill of a large mammal marks a young man’s coming of age. In his initiation, ceremonial incisions are made on his chest or arms and an herb is rubbed into 1he cuts so that, when healed, a patterned tattoo results. It’s like campaign ribbons—one look at his chest, and you know something of his combat experience.

From a jumble of hoofprints, we can accurately tell how many animals passed; the species, sexes, and ages; whether any are lame; how long ago they passed; how far away they are. Some young animals can be caught by open-field tackles; others with slingshots or boomerangs, or just by throwing rocks accurately and hard. Animals that have not yet learned to fear men can be approached boldly and clubbed to death. At greater distances, for warier prey, we hurl spears or shoot poisoned arrows. Sometimes we’re lucky and, by a skillful rush, drive a herd of animals into an ambush or off a cliff.

Teamwork among the hunters is essential. If we are not to frighten the quarry, we must communicate by sign language. For the same reason, we need to have our emotions under control; both fear and exultation are dangerous. We are ambivalent about the prey. We respect the animals, recognize our kinship, identify with them. But if we reflect too closely on their intelligence or devotion to their young, if we feel pity for them, if we too deeply recognize them as relatives, our dedication to the hunt will slacken; we will bring home less food, and again our band may be endangered. We are obliged to put an emotional distance between us and them.

So contemplate this: For millions of years, our male ancestors are scampering about, throwing rocks at pigeons, running after baby antelopes and wrestling them to the ground, forming a single line of shouting, running hunters and trying to terrify a herd of startled warthogs upwind. Imagine that their lives depend on hunting skills and teamwork. Much of their culture is woven on the loom of the hunt. Good hunters are also good warriors. Then, after a long while—a few thousand centuries, say—a natural predisposition for both hunting and teamwork will inhabit many newborn boys. Why? Because incompetent or unenthusiastic hunters leave fewer offspring. I don’t think how to chip a spearpoint out of stone or how to feather an arrow is in our genes. That’s taught or figured out. But a zest for the chase—I bet that is hardwired. Natural selection helped mold our ancestors into superb hunters.

The clearest evidence of the success of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is the simple fact that it extended to six continents and lasted millions of years (to say nothing of the hunting proclivities of nonhuman primates). Those big numbers speak profoundly. After 10,000 generations in which the killing of animals was our hedge against starvation, those inclinations must still be in us. We hunger to put them to use, even vicariously. Team sports provide one way.

Some part of our beings longs to join a small band of brothers on a daring and intrepid quest. We can even see this in role-playing and computer games popular with prepubescent and adolescent boys. The traditional manly virtues—taciturnity, resourcefulness, modesty, accuracy, consistency, deep knowledge of animals, teamwork, love of the outdoors—were all adaptive behavior in hunter-gatherer times. We still admire these traits, although we’ve almost forgotten why.

Besides sports, there are few outlets available. In our adolescent males, we can still recognize the young hunter, the aspirant warrior—leaping across apartment rooftops; riding, helmetless, on a motorcycle; making trouble for the winning team at a postgame celebration. In the absence of a steadying hand, those old instincts may go a little askew (although our murder rate is about the same as among the surviving hunter-gatherers). We try to ensure that any residual zest for killing does not spill over onto humans. We don’t always succeed.

I think of how powerful those hunting instincts are, and I worry. I worry that Monday-night football is insufficient outlet for the modern hunter, decked out in his overalls or jeans or three-piece suit. I think of that ancient legacy about not expressing our feelings, about keeping an emotional distance from those we kill, and it takes some of the fun out of the game.

Hunter-gatherers generally posed no danger to themselves: because their economies tended to be healthy (many had more free time than we do); because, as nomads, they had few possessions, almost no theft, and little envy; because greed and arrogance were considered not only social evils but also pretty close to mental illnesses; because women had real political power and tended to be a stabilizing and mitigating influence before the boys started going for their poisoned arrows; and because, when serious crimes were committed—murder, say—the band collectively rendered judgment and punishment. Many hunter-gatherers organized egalitarian democracies. They had no chiefs. There was no political or corporate hierarchy to dream of climbing. There was no one to revolt against.

So, if we’re stranded a few hundred centuries from when we long to be—if (through no fault of our own) we find ourselves, in an age of environmental pollution, social hierarchy, economic inequality, nuclear weapons, and declining prospects, with Pleistocene emotions but without Pleistocene social safeguards—perhaps we can be excused for a little Monday-night football.

TEAMS AND TOTEMS

 Teams associated with cities have names: the Seibu Lions, the Detroit Tigers, the Chicago Bears. Lions and tigers and bears . . . eagles and seahawks. . . flames and suns. Allowing for the difference in environment and culture, hunter-gatherer groups worldwide have similar names— sometimes called totems.

A typical list of totems, mainly from the era before European contact, was recorded by the anthropologist Richard Lee in his many years among the IKung “Bushmen” of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana (see below at far right). The Short Feet, I think, are cousins to the Red Sox and White Sox, the Fighters to the Raiders, the Wildcats to the Bengals, the Cutters to the Clippers. Of course there are differences—due to technological differences and, perhaps, to varying endowments of candor, self-knowledge, and sense of humor. It’s hard to imagine an American sports team named the Diarrheas (“Gimme a ‘D’ . . .”). Or—my personal favorite, a group of men with no self-esteem problems—the Big Talkers. And one in which the players are called the Owners would probably cause some consternation in the front office.”

*  *  *

Sports Beauties & Beasts. The chapter above does make sense, doesn’t it? 

A revisit to Jungle Queens & Tribal Warriors with clan cloths and war paints. Above: A FIFA German soccer fan, a Brazilian soccer fan, American football fans, South African FIFA fans, a SuperBowl Team Cardinal fan, a Canadian ice hockey fan. (click for enlarged view.)

Dunking dreams for teams and fans. Jordan’s superhuman jumps.

..

Jazz Trek

Crowds at an outdoor event of the Montreal Jazz Festival

This year I shall miss the Montreal Jazz Festival (June 25 to July 6, 2010). It will probably be the first time in 10 years that I’ll miss it….so a couple of links for nostalgia’s sake….

http://www.montrealjazzfest.com/video-fijm-2009-en.aspx a link to the festival’s website and a GREAT 5 minute video showing the ambiance of the event (a must-see little film. Whatever you do don’t click on the link ;-) or else you’ll wish you were there – the Festival that B.B. King, Pat Metheny and others call the best in the world.)

And an absolutely amazing jazz version of the theme from Star Trek by John Stetch. Jazz & Star Trek….that’s a sublime gypsy-geek-Heaven of sorts. Well, this isn’t Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert– probably my all time favourite improv-jazz piano album, and it’s no Thelonius either, but just an absolutely ingenious and playfully improvised version  from a storyline that has always been dear to my heart – definitely a tune where no jazz-piano-man has boldly gone before…..until now:

Here’s more on the incredibly talented Mr. John Stetch:

http://www.johnstetch.com

Tonight the moon is full. Glass of Blue Sapphire in my hand and Blue Monk on the speakers…………here’s to more Stetch and Monk and Corea and Jarrett and Evans to fill the airwaves. And for the heck of it, to add to the pleasure  of music and madness – a photo of the Orion Nebula.

Good night, jazz and other good music lovers! See you perhaps some day at the Montreal International Jazz Festival! or on board the Starship Enterprise……


*  *  *

The Orion Nebula (click twice for the best close-up view)

This photo shows a colour composite mosaic image of the central part of the Orion Nebula, based on 81 images obtained with the infrared multi-mode ISAAC instrument on the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory. The famous Trapezium stars are seen near the centre and the photo also shows the associated cluster of about 1,000 stars, approximately one million years old. Credit: ESO/M.McCaughrean et al. (AIP)


*