ASTROPHYSICS FOR ALL

I’ll be the first to admit my overwhelming shortcomings when it comes to science.  They are nearly as vast as the universe itself.  How vast is the universe, you ask?  I can actually give an answer to that question, having just finished Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.

I actually try not to be in a hurry, but the science popularizer’s little tome was just right for me.  I think it’s important to know just where we fit in the universe.  We used to think that everything revolved around us, that the earth was the logical focal point of the Heavens.  Kind of a come-down to discover that that was not even close to the truth.  (Yet, one of our best basketball players hews to the insane notion that our planet is flat!  No, not LeBron.)

For my money, Tyson is at his best when he writes about “cosmic perspective.”  He eschews putting down spiritual belief and its supposed incompatibility with science.  “The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge,” he writes.  “But it’s more than about what you know.  It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.”

He suggests that cosmic perspective is humble and spiritual (but not religious).  “The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another.”  He says that, while the Earth is merely a mote, “it’s a precious mote and, for the moment, it’s the only home we have.”

Tyson urges us to find the beauty in the remarkable images we have of planets, moons, stars and nebulae and to seize the opportunity to “transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and a mate.”  And he reminds us, sternly, that there is no air in space, so that flags will not wave there—“an indication that perhaps flag-waving and space exploration do not mix.”

His elucidation on dark matter and dark energy is fascinating:  how scientists could not explain certain effects of gravity without the pair, deducing their existence long before being able to prove their existence.  Yet more fascinating is the almost certain notion that there is a lot more out there yet to be deduced, yet to be proven.  The more you learn, the more you realize how much there is yet to know and understand.  Think of it like an hourglass: once you get to where you have closed off all the knowledge there is to know, the possibilities open up again almost endlessly.  Come on, that is awesome.

How interesting is it to learn that a heavy metal, like iridium, is so dense that two cubic feet of it weighs as much as a Buick?!  Or that our constant reevaluation of the size of Pluto (smaller than the six largest moons in our solar system) has reduced it from planet to asteroid?

Also learned that—and this makes perfect sense, when you think about it—“the one and only shape that has the smallest surface area for an enclosed volume is a perfect sphere.”  Explains why so many things in our universe are orbs.  Which makes our Milky Way galaxy all the more interesting:  It’s flatter than the flattest of crepes.  Or the density of a pulsar, which he compares to “stuffing about a hundred million elephants into a Chapstick casing.”  Pretty compact.  And to know that we can measure something down to a trillionth of anything, well, that’s pretty amazing to learn.

But most vital, to me, is learning and understanding our place in the universe.  Our galaxy alone has more than a hundred billion stars.  The known universe has about a hundred billion galaxies.  Out there, somewhere, there may be forty billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone.  Chew on that little mote of cosmic perspective for a minute (or a lifetime).  In all of that, what does Tyson want to leave us with?  Way too many of us have neither food nor shelter.  That’s real perspective.                                   ©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

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ATHEISM (AND ITS KIN)

It has always baffled me that religious folk feel so threatened by those of us who question belief systems for ourselves.  I am neither calling your manhood (or womanhood) into question nor am I suggesting that your brain has gone all mushy.  I am just pursuing my own path toward some small sense of enlightenment and wisdom.  I have no intention of forcing my belief system upon you, either by arms or by argument (though I confess, I do love the argumentative process and am always willing to engage).

A recent study documented the extent of anti-atheist bias in the modern world.  For example, people everywhere make the unvalidated assumption that serial killers are more likely to be atheists than not, this despite the ample evidence of faith-based wars and genocides from the dawning of recorded history.  The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Rwanda, Ireland.  How many examples are enough?  Too much of religion is about accumulated wealth and power; too little is about essential spirituality.  (I have a hard time with Catholicism, but Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air emphasizing the spiritual over the narrowly, stultifyingly religious.)

The study, conducted by the journal Nature Human Behavior, surveyed more than three thousand people in more than a dozen countries (some secular, some deeply religious).  The most troubling finding, for me, was that people continue to assume that some form of religion is the only hedge against immorality, that morality has no innate basis in human beings.

Yet Richard Sosis, professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut, contends that the study is a good first step in understanding the bias against non-believers:  “They’ve got a method that can be used to see how this bias plays out not just in judging a sociopath, but for many more mundane moral violations.”

Let me suggest that morality and “goodness” are part and parcel of “human.”  If you watch our closest ancestors, the great apes and chimpanzees, you will see ample evidence of these critters caring for one another, even in the direst circumstances.  I firmly believe that there is an underlying goodness that is built-in to the human condition and that—barring cultural and religious division—we would quite naturally hug and coddle even the most different among us as our own.

There is wisdom enough in the good book of the Christians, not the least of which is “Judge not lest ye be judged.”  Pithy and to the point.  Put your judgments back in their holsters and extend the hand of friendship and unity, even to those of us who question the deity you pray to.  We pray too, you know.  It’s just that our prayers are probably a little less focused and a bit more inclusive than yours might be.  Nothing worth fighting over.  Really.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD SERIES

The Little League World Series finishes up on ESPN and ABC this weekend in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  If you’ve watched any or all of the preceding week’s worth of baseball, you know just how compelling a spectator sport it is.  The kids play with a youthful abandon, leaving every bit of their ability and effort on the fields.

Having been hooked on the kids’ version of baseball for years, this iteration of the event has been a joyful mix of success and failure.  Which is sport, in a nutshell.

In this case, it is baseball in two-thirds scale.  The bases are 60 feet apart (instead of 90), the mound is just 46 feet from home plate (instead of 60 feet, six inches).  Thus, when a Little League pitcher hurls the ball plateward at 77 mph, it is the equivalent of 100 mph (in terms of a batter’s reaction time) from a Major League mound.

The joy of the Little League World Series is watching the kids connect with each other, across the lines of language and culture (lines that adults might have a hard time with).  They spend time with each other in the swimming pool and at the ping pong tables in the kids-only “Grove,” and you see the kids consulting Google “translate” to communicate more clearly with one another.  And, of course, they all speak baseball.  A common language all unto to itself.  A special joy is to see kids on a losing team on the sidelines, some of them in tears, only to be dancing with the chipmunk mascot, “Dugout,” or laughing and giggling with their opponents moments and minutes later.  It’s just a game, after all, and these kids know it best.

Two of the top teams this year are Japan, a perennial favorite, and the Texas team from Lufkin.  My college roomie—the good doctor Brian Carlin—lives in Lufkin (a bit north of Houston), and Giants’ first baseman Brandon Belt hails from the next town over, Nacogdoches.  The Japanese, following in the footsteps of Ichiro Suzuki, are well-schooled in the fundamentals of the game, always hitting the cutoff man, executing the sacrifice bunt to perfection.  The “Thundering Thirteen” from Lufkin have a trio of very strong players in Collin Ross, Christian Mumphery and Hunter Ditsworth, each of whom pitches well and hits the ball with authority.  (North Carolina will have to be dealt with, too.  Two no hitters—one a perfect game—and Matthew Matthijs striking out twelve in just over four innings!  The team from Mexico is also a treat to watch.)

It will be interesting to see how this year’s series plays out and which players blast their way into the spotlight.  Who can forget the emergence of the young lady Mo’ne Davis three years ago?  The then-twelve year old pitched, played shortstop and hit the ball with all the élan of a grizzled, veteran professional.  She was on the broadcast the other day.  Entering her junior year of high school, she still plays baseball.  And basketball.  And soccer.  And softball.  As she noted three years ago, basketball is still her favorite sport.  She wants to attend U. Conn and play for Gino Auriemma.  The young lady is as smart as she is talented.

It is always intriguing to note that, during the eleven days of the Little League World Series, the games are constantly on screen . . . in Major League Baseball locker rooms.  In fact, last Sunday the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates showed up in South Williamsport to watch the kids play, and then engage each other in a regulation game that evening (ending with an emotional, respectful postgame handshake line, like the kids do after each game).  Some of the big leaguers were seen getting autographs . . . from the kids!

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

THE PRESIDENTIAL SIDE STEP

It’s a new dance craze—with craze definitely being the operative word—that is sweeping the nation, indeed, the world.  It’s called the “Presidential Side Step,” and it is a dance of evasion and irresponsibility.  It is that political dance where the President says and does one thing . . . and the rest of our governmental and public institutions do quite the opposite.

There was a hoary old joke back in the mid-sixties.  Went like this:  We learned from Roosevelt that the Presidency can be a life-time job, from Truman that anyone can be President, from Eisenhower that we don’t really need a President, and from Kennedy (this was at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis) that it can be dangerous to have a President.  (A later addendum was that, from Carter, we learned that a man can be too smart to be President.)

Well, the last seven months seem like a lifetime, the President is truly “anyone,” and it certainly seems the most dangerous of times.  But what if it’s the third part of the original joke that’s really in play here?  What if we don’t really need a President?

We pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement . . . and individuals and corporations and governors are stepping up to the fill the Presidential slack.  He tried to kill the Affordable Care Act . . . and companies and states are stepping in to fill the vacuum left by vacuous leadership in the White House.  Non-Executive leaders are working the diplomatic channels to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

A guiding quote on leadership surfaced again last week in the wake of the scurrilous non-fact about killing Muslim dissidents with pig-blood-tainted bullets in the Philippines nearly a century ago.  This from General John Pershing:  “A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops.”

The “best of troops,” those corporate leaders who had signed on to help guide the President, have abandoned our ship of state.  They have executed the Presidential Side Step, returning to private practice where they can, once again, provide effective leadership.  Perhaps this will become the most useful dance step in our history.  All together now:  A one, and a two, and a . . .

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

SOMETHING TO RUB UP AGAINST

It is an invariable law of Nature that we need something to rub up against to create something new, something interesting, something challenging.  I was reminded of that the other day whilst reading a seeming throwaway line in a John McPhee book.  He was talking about a paragraph added to the film “The Third Man.”  Neither in Graham Greene’s book nor in the written script, the following paragraph was added extemporaneously, as an ad lib, by Orson Welles.  It appears just after the famous Ferris wheel scene, back on the ground.  Welles, as Harry Lime, is the acerbic speaker:

“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed—but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo de Vinci, and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce?  The cuckoo clock.”

Cynical?  Certainly.  True?  Just as surely.  Because creativity and advancement always come when push and shove are introduced to the mix.  You have to have something to rub up against.  It’s what I refer to as the “dynamic tension” that sparks and fuels the creative animus.  If there’s no pushback, if there’s no resistance, then what is there to measure forward progress?  Anyone can throw a football downfield to a sprinting receiver . . . if there’s no cornerback to challenge the toss.  It has no significance without a defensive, push-back presence.

That’s where happiness transmogrifies into the deeper sense of fulfillment.  Fulfillment is where something simple becomes existential.  It is the essence of what theologian Paul Tillich meant when he said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”

We’ve all heard the hoary story of the school janitor who vowed to become the best janitor ever and, in so doing, heightened mere mundane to craft.  His dedication, his discipline, his fastidiousness, his willingness to get down-and-dirty raised the routine of “job” to something worthy of respect and admiration.

It’s right there in black-and-white in the old Melanie song (“The Nickel Song”):  “They’re only putting in a nickel and they want a dollar song.  They’re only putting in a little to get rid of a lot that’s wrong.”

Happiness, in the end, is short term.  Like a candy bar, it fills a small hole, but not the whole hole.  Fulfillment, on the other hand, is something so deep, so lasting a satisfaction, that it can last a lifetime and, if broadly and widely inculcated with joy and earnestness . . . perhaps well beyond our own meagre lives.  The noted woodworker Peter Korn, writing in Why We Make Things, says, “. . . creative work is an experiment through which the worker seeks new ways to envision human potential, using himself as the laboratory.”

When we have something to rub up against—be it our own previous achievement, someone else’s, or simply the void—we might make something that has never existed before.  How wonderful a legacy might that be?  Just as I write to find out who I am and what it is that I truly believe, so too do others rub up against the world to find some new way of thinking, some new way of being.  It is within the crucible of creation that we discover our true dimensions, our real depths.  Creativity, you see, is the expansion of awareness and being, where we draw order and understanding out of chaos.  Meaning and usefulness.  Kinda cool, huh?  Oh, yeah.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

IN THE SHADOWS

I think I’ve got it now.  The President says what he wants to say . . . and the government goes on without him, as if what he said has no credibility and everyone knows it.

It is as if we are living in a monarchy.  He is the “face” of government.  Or the “hair” of government.  He only hears the “bully” part of Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit, and plays out his favorite meme:  My dick is bigger than your dick.  It is insecurity writ LARGE.   Meantime, in the shadows, government flunkies are quietly carrying out the actual workings of government.

Thus, despite the fact that our State Department is being gutted, there are folks out there doing the diplomatic on our behalf, work, one hopes, that will sidetrack the nuclear war that our Big Dick and their Big Dick delight in fantasizing.  Would it be better if we had more statesmen and stateswomen out there laying oil on troubled waters?  Of course it would.  But you can only play the cards you are dealt.

In the meantime, activism is the word of the day.  Communicate with your reps; that’s the way government works.  Have your say, LOUDLY.  Information is the currency of the day.  Accurate information.  Do not settle for an angry horde trying to poke the hornet’s nest.  They do not represent us.  As Roger Simon pointed out in the Wall Street Journal the other day, at their peak in the 1920s the KKK, with four million members, represented nearly four percent of our citizens.  Today, 100,000 white supremacists (at the most generous of estimates) represent a mere 0.0003 percent of Americans.  Do the math.  That’s pathetic.  (That would mean that in my city of 160,000 there would be . . . 49 neo-Nazis in residence.  I think we can deal with less than fifty guys with bad haircuts.  Okay, gals, too.)

Having a leader as ego-centric as ours and North Korea’s is as outmoded as living in an earth-centric universe.  The science is all against the model.  It flies in the face of fact.  Oh, right.  That’s our guy.  That’s their guy.  Facts do not fly in their universes.

Meantime, let’s hope that the folks in the shadows, the real government operatives, are doing their jobs artfully and well.  I’d sleep better at night knowing that.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

WHERE TO GO

This was the D.H. Lawrence paraphrase (from author Rachel Cusk) that caught my eye the other day:  “Some people have a lot father to go from where they begin to get where they want to be—a long way up the mountain, and that is how it has been for me.  I don’t feel I am getting older; I feel I am getting closer.”

Delicious, eh?  It is, on the one hand, a reminder of the quandary of whether to focus on the journey or the goal.  It is also, of course, a push to ask of ourselves the most basic of questions.  Who are we?  Why are we here?  What do we hope to achieve?  What are the core values that are to determine the nature and course of our quest?

For me, most basic guide is the word truth.  If we are not authentic at the outset (or, at least, at some point along the trail), everything else falls to the wayside, useless and impotent.  There is no worse feeling than standing along our chosen path not knowing where we’ve been and where we are headed.  That is frustration compounded by misery.

When self-evaluating, I always begin by looking for a balance of opposites.  It is a yin-yang approach.  What grounds me is to know that I am neither the center of the universe nor a single grain of sand on an endless beach.  What gets me going, actually, is using each of those in dynamic tension to get the ball rolling.  If we have the ego of the first to kick-start things, and the humility of the latter to keep that ego in check just a little . . . well, that’s when things get interesting.  That’s when we have the motivation to employ a balls-to-the-wall enthusiasm, moderated by some sense of balance and equilibrium.

So the trick, moving forward, is to live this day as if it were your last, and, to live it as if it were merely the first of another twenty or thirty years.  Again with the balancing act.

The point of this balancing act is that each extreme is, standing alone, a bit of a caricature.  It is incomplete.  It is exposed in its extreme.  But, as such, it is useful as a sort of end-point anchor.  A point of departure, as it were.  You don’t want to be stuck there, because it is so outrageous as to be virtually useless.  But you do want its existence to mark one end of life’s pendulum swing.  It’s there to define the outré, the non-useful-by-itself boundary.

As we move forward, it is essential to dig into each individual moment as if it were the only existence we were to ever have.  As the French novelist Milan Kundera reminded, “There would be nothing more obvious, more tangible, than the present moment.  And yet it eludes us completely.  All the sadness of life lies in that fact.”

So, to avoid that sadness, I am going to go forward trying to find the equity and the equilibrium between the “one day (this moment)” and the “decades to come,” all the while trying to adhere to author Emil Zola’s hearty, enabling and ennobling dicta, “I am here to live out loud.”  So, yes, I’m going to try and live all that I’ve got left with enthusiasm, with noise and with all the confidence I can muster.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle