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Posts Tagged ‘science’

22 AUGUST, 2012

Ray Bradbury’s Unpublished Poems and His Meditation on Science vs. Religion

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“It is a small thing, this dear gift of life handed us mysteriously out of immensity.”

On Monday, we took a trip back to the day before NASA’s Mariner 9 mission reached Mars in 1971, when Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury — whom we lost just a few short months ago — joined New York Times science editor Walter Sullivan in a remarkably prescient conversation about Mars and future of space exploration, later released as Mars and the Mind of Man (public library). Among the day’s many gems were three unpublished poems by Ray Bradbury, which he shared with the audience, alongside a poignant meditation on science vs. religion — a subject we have far from put to rest since:

In the last few years, I have found myself returning again and again to the problem of science and theology. This problem has thrust itself into the center of a series of poems I have written. I have for some time now thought that the conflict between religion and science was a false one, based, more often than not, on semantics. For when all is said and done, we each share the mystery. We live with the miraculous and try to interpret it with our data correctors or our faith healers. In the end, survival is the name of the game.

One upon a time we created religions which promise us futures when we knew there were no possible ones. Death stared us in the face, forever and ever.

Now, suddenly, the Space Age gives us a chance to exist for a billion or two billion years, to go out an dbuild a heaven instead of promising one to ourselves, with archangelic hosts, saints waiting at Gates, and God pontifical on his Throne.

This second* poem of mine is titled ‘Old Ahab’s Friend and Friend to Noah Speaks His Piece.’ It is written from the viewpoint of the whale speaking to future men, telling them they must build a whale and live inside it and go out into space in it and travel through time to survive forever. Here is the conclusion of the poem:

I am the Ark of Lie. You be the same!

Build you a fiery whale all white.

Give it my name.

Ship with Leviathan for forty years

Until an isle in Space looms up to match your dreams,

And land you there triumphant with your flesh

Which works in yeasts, makes wild ferment,

Survives and feeds

On metal schemes.

Step forth and husband soil as yet untitled,

Blood it with your wives, sow it with seeds,

Crop-harvest it with sons and maiden daughters,

And all that was begat once long ago in Earth’s strange waters

Do recall.

The White Whale was the ancient Ark.

You be the New.

Forty days, forty years, forty-hundred years,

Give it no mind;

You see. The Universe is blind.

You touch. The Abyss does not feel.

You hear. The Void is dear.

Your wife is pomegranate. The stars are lifeless and bereft.

You smell the Wind of Being.

On windless worlds the nostrils of old Time are stuffed

With dust and worse than dust.

Settle it with your lust, shape it with your seeing,

Rain it with your sperming seed,

Water it with your passion,

Show it your need.

Soon or late,

Your mad example may imitate.

And gone and flown and landed there is White Whale craft,

Remember Moby here, this dream, this time which does suspire,

This kindling of your tiny apehood’s fire.

I kept you well. I languish and I die.

My bones will timber out fresh dreams,

My words will leap like fish in new trout streams

Gone up the hill of Universe to spawn.

Swim o’er to stars now, spawning man,

And couple rock, and break forth flocks of children on the plains

On nameless planets which will now have names;

Those names are ours to give or take.

We out of Nothing make a destiny,

With one name over all

Which is this Whale’s, all White.

I you begat.

Speak then of Moby Dick,

Tremendous Moby, friend of Noah.

Go Go now.

Ten trillion miles away,

Ten light-years off,

See from your whale-shaped craft;

That glorious planet!

Call it Ararat.

(The poetic picture of the phoenix-whale Bradbury paints is reminiscent of the beautiful Whale Fall cut-paper animated short for Radiolab.)

* Bradbury shared another poem, which remains his best-known, earlier in the discussion:

IF ONLY WE HAD TALLER BEEN

O, Thomas, will a Race one day stand really tall
Across the Void, across the Universe and all?
And, measure out with rocket fire,
At last put Adam’s finger forth
As on the Sistine Ceiling,
And God’s great hand come down the other way
To measure Man and find him Good,
And Gift him with Forever’s Day?
I work for that.
Short man. Large dream. I send my rockets forth
between my ears,
Hoping an inch of Will is worth a pound of years.
Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal Mall:
We’ve reached Alpha Centauri!
We’re tall, O God, we’re tall!

Lastly, in the “Afterthoughts” section of the book, in which the panelists revisit the subject a year after the Mars mission, Bradbury shares one final poem, touching once again on the subject of the mysterious:

THAT IS OUR EDEN’S SPRING, ONCE PROMISED

What I to apeman
And what then he to me?
I an apeman one day soon will seem to be
To those who, after us, look back from Mars
And they, in turn, mere beasts will seem
To those who reach the stars;
So apemen all, in cave, in frail tract-house,
On Moon, Red Planet, or some other place;
Yet similar dream, same heart, same soul,
Same blood, same face,
Rare beastmen all who move to save and place their pyres
From cavern mouth to world to interstellar fires.
We are the all, the universe, the one,
As such our fragile destiny is only now begun.
Our dreams then, are they grand or mad, depraved?
Do we say yes to Kazantzakis whose wild soul said:
God cries out to be saved?
Well then, we go to save Him, that seems sure,
With flesh and bone not strong, and heart not pure,
All maze and paradox our blood,
More lost than found,
We go to marry stranger flesh on some far burial ground
Where yet we will survive and, laughing, look on back
To where we started on a blind and frightful track
But made it through, and for no reason
Save it must be made, to rest us under trees
On planets in such galaxies as toss and lean
A most peculiar shade,
And sleep awhile, for some few million years,
To rise again, fresh washed in vernal rain
That is our Eden’s spring once promised,
Now repromised, to bring Lazarus
And our abiding legions forth,
Stoke new lamps with ancient funeral loam
To light cold abyss hearths for astronauts to hie them home
On highways vast and long and broad,
Thus saving what? Who’ll say salvation’s sum?
Why, thee and me, and they and them, and us and we…

And God.

He concludes with this exquisite meditation on mankind’s timeless quest for immortality. (Which leads one to wonder whether today’s singularity set is any different from history’s religious cults, grasping at promised lands underpinned by little more than the very human and very vulnerable fear of mortality, of ceasing to exist and refusing to believe in nonexistence.)

The universe is full of matter and force. Yet in all that force, amongst all the bulks and gravities, the rains of cosmic light, the bombardments of energy — how little spirit, how small the decimal points of intelligence.

Dumb, sometimes — yes. Awful, quite often. Dreadful apish brutes on occasion following occasion. That’s how we things that represent intelligence seem to ourselves, and quote often truly are.

And yet I would not see our candle blown out in the wind. It is a small thing, this dear gift of life handed us mysteriously out of immensity. I would not have that gift expire. Crossing the wilderness, centuries ago, men carried in covered cows’ horns the coals of the previous nights’ fires to start new fires on the nights ahead. Thus we carry ourselves in the universal wilderness and blow upon the coals and kindle new lives and move on yet once more.

[…]

Why, sweet Jesus, what’s the use of looking at Mars through a telescope, sitting on panels, writing books, if it isn’t to guarantee, not just the survival of mankind, but mankind surviving forever! Good God in heaven, we were born to live, and live in mystery, which crowds all about and would smother us if we let it.

[…]

Some of you will immediately say we go to pollute Mars. You are the people who see a partially filled glass as half empty.
I see the glass as half full.
I say we go to save Mars from itself.
And do ourselves favors, meanwhile.

Paradoxically stated: what is not polluted is elevated. I live inside the last word.

Hear Bradbury read in this short excerpt from the panel:

More than three decades later, Bradbury revisited the subject of space exploration in this rare 2003 audio interview.

Complement with Bradbury on doing what you love — some of the best life-advice you’ll ever receive.

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21 AUGUST, 2012

What Actually Happens While You Sleep and How It Affects Your Every Waking Moment

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“We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive.”

The Ancient Greeks believed that one fell asleep when the brain filled with blood and awakened once it drained back out. Nineteenth-century philosophers contended that sleep happened when the brain was emptied of ambitions and stimulating thoughts. “If sleep doesn’t serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made,” biologist Allan Rechtschaffen once remarked. Even today, sleep remains one of the most poorly understood human biological functions, despite some recent strides in understanding the “social jetlag” of our internal clocks and the relationship between dreaming and depression. In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library), journalist David K. Randall — who stumbled upon the idea after crashing violently into a wall while sleepwalking — explores “the largest overlooked part of your life and how it affects you even if you don’t have a sleep problem.” From gender differences to how come some people snore and others don’t to why we dream, he dives deep into this mysterious third of human existence to illuminate what happens when night falls and how it impacts every aspect of our days.

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. My neurologist wasn’t kidding when he said there was a lot that we don’t know about sleep, starting with the most obvious question of all — why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

But before we get too anthropocentrically arrogant in our assumptions, it turns out the quantitative requirement of sleep isn’t correlated with how high up the evolutionary chain an organism is:

Lions and gerbils sleep about thirteen hours a day. Tigers and squirrels nod off for about fifteen hours. At the other end of the spectrum, elephants typically sleep three and a half hours at a time, which seems lavish compared to the hour and a half of shut-eye that the average giraffe gets each night.

[…]

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

What, then, happens as we doze off, exactly? Like all science, our understanding of sleep seems to be a constant “revision in progress”:

Despite taking up so much of life, sleep is one of the youngest fields of science. Until the middle of the twentieth century, scientists thought that sleep was an unchanging condition during which time the brain was quiet. The discovery of rapid eye movements in the 1950s upended that. Researchers then realized that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last drop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this stage of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

(Recall the role of REM sleep in regulating negative emotions.)

Randall’s most urgent point, however, echoes what we’ve already heard from German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, who studies internal time — in our blind lust for the “luxuries” of modern life, with all its 24-hour news cycles, artificial lighting on demand, and expectations of round-the-clock telecommunications availability, we’ve thrown ourselves into a kind of circadian schizophrenia:

We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive. Even the worst dorm-room mattress in America is luxurious compared to sleeping arrangements that were common not long ago. During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives. Families up to the time of the Industrial Revolution engaged in the nightly ritual of checking for rats and mites burrowing in the one shared bedroom. Modernity brought about a drastic improvement in living standards, but with it came electric lights, television, and other kinds of entertainment that have thrown our sleep patterns into chaos.

Work has morphed into a twenty-four-hour fact of life, bringing its own set of standards and expectations when it comes to sleep … Sleep is ingrained in our cultural ethos as something that can be put off, dosed with coffee, or ignored. And yet maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is now thought of as one of the best forms of preventative medicine.

Reflecting on his findings, Randall marvels:

As I spent more time investigating the science of sleep, I began to understand that these strange hours of the night underpin nearly every moment of our lives.

Indeed, Dreamland goes on to explore how sleep — its mechanisms, its absence, its cultural norms — affects everyone from police officers and truck drivers to artists and entrepreneurs, permeating everything from our decision-making to our emotional intelligence.

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20 AUGUST, 2012

Mars and the Mind of Man: Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke in Cosmic Conversation, 1971

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“It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality.”

On November 12, 1971, the day before NASA’s Mariner 9 mission reached Mars and became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, Caltech Planetary Science professor Bruce Murray summoned a formidable panel of thinkers to discuss the implications of the historic event. Murray himself was to join the great (Carl Sagan and science fiction icons Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke in a conversation moderated by New York Times science editor Walter Sullivan, who had been assigned to cover Mariner 9′s arrival for the newspaper. What unfolded — easily history’s only redeeming manifestation of the panel format — was a fascinating quilt of perspectives not only on the Mariner 9 mission itself, or even just Mars, but on the relationship between mankind and the cosmos, the importance of space exploration, and the future of our civilization. Two years later, the record of this epic conversation was released in Mars and the Mind of Man (public library), alongside early images of Mars taken by Mariner 9 and a selection of “afterthoughts” by the panelists, looking back on the historic achievement.

Arthur C. Clarke — who, in a 1945 article entitled “Extraterrestrial Relays” had proposed communications satellites long before they became an active government project and who had previously predicted the techno-future in general and even the iPad in particular with astounding accuracy — offers a prediction regarding Mars that is, ultimately, inaccurate but wrapped around it is an insightful and timely meditation on the larger subject at stake:

We are now in a very interesting historic moment with regard to Mars. I’m not going to make any definite predictions because it would be very foolish to go out on a limb, but whatever happens, whatever discoveries are made in the next few days or weeks or months, the frontier of our knowledge is moving inevitably outward.

It has already embraced the Moon. We still have a great deal to learn about the Moon and there will be many surprises even there, I’m sure. But the frontier is moving on and our viewpoint is changing with it. We’re discovering, and this is a big surprise, that the Moon, and I believe Mars, and parts of Mercury, and especially space itself, are essentially benign environments — to our technology, not necessarily to organic life. Certainly benign as compared to the Antarctic or the oceanic abyss, where we have already been. This is an idea which the public still hasn’t got yet, but it’s a fact.

I think the biological frontier may very well move past Mars out to Jupiter, which I think is where the action is. Carl, you’ve gone on the record as saying that Jupiter may be a more hospitable home for life than any other place, including Earth itself. It would be very exciting if this turns out to be true.

I will end by making one prediction. Whether or not there is life on Mars now, there will be by the end of this century.

Following Clarke is Carl Sagan, who does what he does best in discussing the issue of how rigorous we need to be in sterilizing spacecraft that makes contact with other planets — taking a scientific particularity, linking it to the universally human, then circling back to the science having engendered a whole new understanding of its context:

We can be emotionally predisposed as pessimists as well as optimists. Actuarial procedures provide a guide to situations of this sort. How careful you have to be in a given situation and how much premium you have to pay is not only a question of how likely the event in question is but also how important the event is. Suppose, for example, we’re concerned about carrying terrestrial microorganisms to Mars, depositing them there, and having them survive and multiply so that the next generation of space vehicles finds the next generation of microbes. How do we then distinguish Earth’s life from Mars life?

He follows that with one of the most eloquent portions of the entire conversation — an insistence on the value of embracing ignorance, learning to live with ambiguity, and choosing the unknown over answers that might be wrong, alongside a call for balancing skepticism with openness — something he’d articulate formally more than a decade later:

Is it possible that there is life on Mars, Martians? Now, just as there have clearly been excesses in the direction of prematurely concluding that there is life on Mars … there have also been excesses in the other direction, in prematurely concluding there isn’t life on Mars. We have a certain intolerance for ambiguity, saying, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts, just give me an answer.’ Well, I think that’s where we are on the question of life on Mars. There is, as far as I can tell, no more reason to conclude that Mars is lifeless than there is to conclude that it is inhabited. There is water, there is carbon dioxide, there is sunlight — these are the prerequisites even for parochial forms of green plant photosynthesis.

He echoes the same sentiment a few minutes later, in an insight that applies to the Mariner 9 mission as much as it applies to all of life:

I think the proper attitude is to keep an open mind and see what the observations uncover.

But by far the most beautiful meditation comes from Ray Bradbury, who transposes his passionate advocacy of writing with joy and excitement onto space exploration as well:

I think it’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality. There’s hardly a scientist or an astronaut I’ve met who wasn’t beholden to some romantic before him who led him to doing something in life.

I think it’s so important to be excited about life. In order to get the facts we have to be excited to go out and get them, and there’s only one way to do that — through romance. We need this thing which makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten and say, ‘I want to go out and devour the world, I want to do these things.’ The only way you start like that is with this kind of thing we are talking about today. We may reject it later, we may give it up, but we move on to other romances then. We find, we push the edge of science forward, and I think we romance on beyond that into the universe ever beyond. We’re talking not about Alpha Centauri. We’re talking of light-years. We have sitting here on the stage a person who has made the film* with the greatest metaphor for the coming billion years. That film is going to romance generations to come and will excite the people to do the work so that we can live forever. That’s what it’s all about. So we start with the small romances that turn out to be of no use. We put these tools aside to get another romantic tool. We want to love life, to be excited by the challenge, to life at the top of our enthusiasm. The process enables us to gather more information. Darwin was the kind of romantic who could stand in the middle of a meadow like a statue for eight hours on end and let the bees buzz in and out of his ear. A fantastic statue standing there in the middle of nature, and all the foxes wandering by and wondering what the hell he was doing there, and they sort of looked at each other and examined the wisdom in each other’s eyes. But this is a romantic man — when you think of any scientist in history, he was a romancer of reality.

Arthur C. Clarke follows up with a crucial point about science and whimsy — something Richard Feynman would articulate in uncannily similar phrasing exactly a decade later in his famous words from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out:

There are some not-very-bright and/or badly educated people who complain, with apparent sincerity, that scientific research destroys the wonders and magic of nature. One can imagine the indignant reaction of such poets as Tennyson or Shelley to this nonsense, and surely it is better to know the truth than to dabble in delusions, however charming they may be. Almost invariably, the truth turns out to be far more strange and wonderful than the wildest fantasy. The great J. B. S. Haldane put it very well when he said: ‘The universe is not only queerer than we imagine — it is queerer than we can imagine.’

Reflecting upon the unprecedented amount of imaging data that Mariner 9 promised to provide, Sagan captures the strange tension of exploration and ignorance, all the timelier as NASA’s Curiosity has pushed us to make sense of a new precipice of knowledge today:

Now we have moved from a data-poor, theory-rich situation to one that is data-rich, theory-poor.

In the “Afterthoughts” section, Sagan makes a case Neil deGrasse Tyson has passionately echoed four decades later:

[Space exploration] is in financial trouble. Yet by many standards, such missions are inexpensive. Mariner Jupiter/Saturn costs about the same as the American aircraft shot down in Vietnam in the week in which I am writing these words (Christmas 1972). The Viking mission itself costs about a fortnight of the Vietnam war.

I find these comparisons particularly poignant: life versus death, hope versus fear. Space exploration and the highly mechanized destruction of people use similar technology and manufacturers, and similar human qualities of organization and daring. Can we not make the transition from automated aerospace killing to automated aerospace exploration of the solar system in which we live?

Alas, we’re making the transition to “automated” space exploration, but we haven’t made — nor do we seem to intend to make anytime soon — the transition away from automated aerospace killing. (Sagan would no doubt have been appalled by this infographic portrait of human priorities as well.)

Mars and the Mind of Man is a cultural treasure — though long out of print, you might be able to score a used copy with some digging around, or look for it at your local library.

* Arthur C. Clarke had co-written the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was inspired by Clarke’s 1948 short story “The Sentinel.”

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