Birthing Stars

Fusion.  The recent breakthrough with fusion announced so close to Christmas hardly seems a coincidence to me.  I have to admit to having been interested in fusion since high school.  One of my school term papers was on what was then called a “magnetic bottle”—a theoretical device capable of containing a fusion reaction.  The hydrogen bomb, of course, had already demonstrated that fusion was possible.  Controlling it was, at the time, the difficulty.  Now, I’m no scientist.  I’ve read quite a bit of lay science over the years and even worked on a project about the relationship of science to religion.  Still, you can’t follow everything.  I’d lost contact with fusion until the announcement this week that scientists have finally demonstrated that it’s possible to get more energy out of a controlled fusion reaction than it takes to get the reaction started.

In case you know even less about science than I do, fusion is what powers stars.  Unlike fission, it’s a “clean” nuclear reaction and one, as far as we can tell, that has made life possible on this planet.  Star power.  We’ve known for many decades that this could be the solution to humanity’s energy needs.  Of course, big petroleum has tried to slow such research down—there are personal fortunes to be lost and what is life without a fortune?  Now, with technology far beyond my comprehension, a fusion reaction was born that showed promise that we’re on the right track.

Photo credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

Since it’s been rather gloomy around here this December, the thought of more sunshine cheers me.  Living in the Lehigh Valley, of course, my thoughts turn toward the Bethlehem star.  It’s such a crucial element to the Christmas story that we’d hardly know what to do without it.  Stars are our guides through the dark.  Winter nights are often clear and are opportunities to see the nighttime stars, even as we light up our artificial ones here below.  Light encourages light.  In a laboratory somewhere scientists are busy making stars.  I have to believe it’s satisfying work.  Perhaps the kind of job you’re eager to get back to the day after Christmas.  Although fusion would be used for power in general, one of the functions would surely be the giving of light.  As we move toward next week’s solstice and light our Yule logs, encouraging light to return, women and men in white smocks are designing and using complex equipment to help it on its way.


Earliest Sunset

Welcome to the day of the earliest sunset of the year.  “But how can that be?”you may ask, “since the winter solstice is many days away?” I’m no wizard when it comes to numbers or math, but I do know tomorrow’s sunset will be a minute later than today’s.  It’s the other end of the day, however, that continues to increase darkness.  Sunrise will continue to creep later and later until on January 16 it will be at its latest.  Mornings will then become longer, very, very slowly.  Combined, the shortest day will be on the 21st, almost two weeks from now.  Then sunlight will begin its slow crawl back to majority.  And so the seasons eternally negotiate on a planet that sometimes seems to spin too fast.

Those awake early, sensitive to sunrise, need to wait a bit longer than those wanting longer evenings.  There’s no taking without reciprocity here.  For those in the northern half of the northern hemisphere, winter has begun its settling in process.  Morning frost on the rooftops augurs the coming of snow.  The almost preternatural stillness of a cloudy late afternoon anticipates what’s to come.  Those of all religions, or of none at all, alike await a glimmer of lengthening days in this season of long nights.  It pays to become comfortable with the darkness in the meantime.  Dark need not equate to evil.  It invites rest and renewal.  Perhaps our culture that valorizes action and movements blurred with speed might learn from the hours of diminished light.

Walking into an early morning room with a light switch on a far wall is an act of faith.  If done before any artificial lights are engaged, it’s always surprising how much light crowds in on the dark.  The luminescent clock.  The power strip on button.  The ever-watchful router.  Darkness is seldom absolute, as much as the tenebrous circumstances might suggest such extremes.  Light and darkness need each other to find any kind of definition at all.  Starting tomorrow, there will be incrementally longer moments of day stretching out into night.  Mornings will grow more reluctant to release their light for another month or so.  In the midst of this we snuggle down into the darkness and learn from it.  Learn to slow down.  Learn to listen instead of always looking.  Learn to breathe slowly and accept that the darkness can comfort.  The solstice is coming, in good time.  Until it arrives, be in the twilight of the moment and trust it.


Unidentified

Some places are quite ordinary.  Once you get to know the people, however, you begin to find some oddities.  That’s all normal.  Other places, however, are strange for one reason or another.  One such region is the Hudson Valley in New York.  With all the UFO news the past couple of years, I grew curious about the sightings in the Hudson Valley from about 1983 to 1986.  This was a period when hundreds of sightings were reported of an object flying low and slow, and even hovering, over several locations throughout the region.  They were investigated by J. Allen Hynek and Philip J. Imbrogno, and written up with the help of Bob Pratt.  Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings was published by a mainstream house (Ballantine, a division of Random House).  Not exactly belles lettres, the book is pretty bare bones.  It contains some interesting information, however.

Hynek, who worked for years with Project Bluebook and who was a bona fide scientist, was ailing as the book was written.  Indeed, he died before this book was published.  His name is the big draw, however, since he was a respected authority in the field.  Some questions have been raised about Imbrogno’s accounts of himself, but that shouldn’t take away from the data collected on the Hudson Valley phenomenon.  In short: in a period of mostly two years (1983 and 1984) several “flaps” of reports came in regarding an object that was described in similar terms by hundreds of people, many of them well-educated professionals.  The authorities trotted out mundane explanations that don’t fit the evidence, although even noted skeptics stated that the sightings were unexplainable.  Part of the weird Hudson Valley.

But not just there.  In 1997 a large number of people in Phoenix reported a similar object over Arizona.  This one made national news and even led to stunts by uncomfortable politicians.  We’ve become such an arrogant species that we’re reluctant to admit there are things we just can’t understand, it seems.  Or that there might not possibly be anyone smarter than us anywhere in this vast—indeed, infinite—universe.  I don’t pretend to know what people were seeing in the Hudson Valley, or in Phoenix, but I also don’t pretend that ruling out logical possibilities will give an answer.  I tend to think that when large numbers of people see something that’s unexplained, it’s an insult to our collective intelligence to make up something and refuse to consider the options.  The solution, to me, seems to be to read.  Widely.  Even if it only raises more questions.


Eclipsed

Shooting the moon.  It’s such a simple thing.  Or it should be.  I don’t go out of my way to see lunar eclipses, but I had a front row seat to yesterday’s [I forgot to post this yesterday and nobody apparently noticed…].  I could see the full moon out my office window, and I’m already well awake and into my personal work before 5:00 a.m.  When it was time I went into the chilly morning air and tried to shoot the moon with my phone.  It’s pitiful to watch technology struggle.  The poor camera is programmed to average the incoming light and although the moon was the only source of light in the frame, it kept blurring it up, thinking, in its Artificial Intelligence way, “this guy is freezing his fingers off to take a blurred image of the semi-darkness.  Yes, that’s what he’s trying to do.”  

Frustrated, I went back inside for our digital camera.  It wasn’t charged up and it would take quite some time to do so.  Back outside I tried snapping photos as the phone tried to decide what I wanted.  Yes, it focused the moon beautifully, for a half second, then decided for the fuzzy look.  I had to try to shoot before it had its say.  Now this wouldn’t have been a problem if my old Pentax K-1000 had some 400 ASI film in it.  But it doesn’t, alas.  And so I had to settle for what passes for AI appreciation of the beauty of the moon.

Artificial Intelligence can’t understand the concept of beauty, partially because it differs between individuals.  Many of us think the moon lovely, that beacon of hope in an ichor sky.  But why?  How do we explain this in zeros and ones?  Do we trust programmers’ sense of beauty?  Will it define everyone else’s?  No, I don’t want the ambient light averaged out.  The fact that my phone camera zoomed in to sharp focus before ultimately deciding against it shows that it wasn’t a mechanical incapability.  Sure, there may be instructions for photographing in the dark, but they’re not obvious standing out here and my freezing fingers can’t quite manipulate the screen with the nimbleness of the well warmed.  There were definite benefits to having manual control over the photographic process.  Of course, now that closet full of prints and slides awaits that mythic some day when I’ll have time to digitize them all.  Why do I get the feeling that the moon isn’t the only thing being eclipsed?


First Images

I awoke to an image from the James Webb Space Telescope.  Looking at the universe at it was 4.6 billion years ago is a humble and terrifying experience.  Our universe is so incredibly vast and we are tiny.  As we on this planet bicker and kill and destroy, out there something truly wondrous looms.  Those tiny pinpricks of galaxies.  Our own galaxy so massive that we can’t comprehend it.  Our own midsize star large enough to hold more than a million earths.  Our own planet big enough that no human being can see it all in a lifetime.  What in the world are we fighting for?  This image is just a patch of sky about the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.  How many grains of sand would it take to fill the visible sky?

Many people argue that such things are a waste of money.  Yes, there are very real, human-created problems right here on earth.  The siren call of space, however, has the potential to save us.  If we look into that immense universe just out there and realize that we are part of something larger than ourselves, we can stop fighting and hating and electioneering.  Keep looking up instead.  Costs, after all, are relative.  Our entire economic system is arbitrary.  We decide what’s valuable and what’s not.  We make rules that allow individual human beings to control the lives of countless others based on nothing more than agreed-upon principles.  Food could be freely distributed.  Medicine could be given to the sick.  What’s required is perspective.  If looking at the universe doesn’t provide perspective, what can?

I often wonder about life in those distant galaxies.  Given the sheer numbers it’s practically impossible that life evolved only here.  We’re told that teleological thinking is wishful and naive, but looking at the way life behaves I have to wonder if that’s true.  Life may be seeking goals.  If it is, than intelligence may be among them.  We’ve got billions of years and billions of lightyears to work with.  And when I look at the headlines I find those of the James Webb Space Telescope to be the most hopeful of all.  Galaxies are all about possibilities.  Stars being born where the outcomes may be better than one gender assuming it’s better than another.  Or that the “right to bear arms” means  stockpiling assault rifles to kill others in a fit of pique.  No, this money’s not wasted if only people might listen and pay attention to the stars.


Many Moons

Once you get beyond the very basic level, astronomy quickly become all about numbers.  It’s both fascinating and a shame.  Fascinating because scientists have been able to send probes millions of miles away, calculating, for example, where the multiple moons of Jupiter and Saturn will be so that they can fly by for an interplanetary peek.  The shame is that many people star-struck by the concepts can’t pursue it as a career.  That’s where books like David A. Rothery’s Moons: A Very Short Introduction come in.  I’ve read a number of books on the moon, but I’ve fallen behind on what we’ve learned about the moons of the outer planets.  This short treatment covers them in just enough detail.  I certainly learned a lot by reading it.

Rothery points out that apart from Earth, in our solar system the likeliest candidates for life are actually some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  Heated by tidal action and volcanism, and having under-surface oceans, conditions may be right for such worlds to spawn life.  Even if microbial, finding life elsewhere would confirm what this dreamer has supposed all along—we’re not alone in the universe.  As Rothery also notes, there are far more moons than planets in our solar system, so that may also apply to other systems as well.  Exoplanets have been discovered for decades now.  If other suns have planets and those planets have moons, who knows what might be out there?  And all this has been happening for billions of years, whether or not we notice it.

For me, it’s concepts such as these that make astronomy so fascinating.  Also, as the book points out, there are all kinds of oddities in our own astronomical back yard.  Asteroids that have their own moons.  Moons that have unusual geological (or lunar) features that haven’t been explained.  Moons that have been torn apart by their host planet.  Moons that have been captured in orbit when passing by.  Probes have been landed on moons other than our own, and the ethics of doing so (since we might transmit microbes unintentionally) are topics of discussion.  There’s a lot crammed into this brief study.  I also can’t help but wonder what amazing things the next generation will discover.  Our knowledge of this universe, impressive as it is, doesn’t even break the crust of ice moons out there, where there is nitrogen ice and methane ice.  Parameters beyond imagination.  It may all come down to numbers in the end, but moons are so much more than that.


Paper Chase

Maybe you’ve done it too.  Kissed the posterior of technology.  Up until three years ago I didn’t pay bills online.  I waited for a bill, wrote a check, stamped an envelope, stuck it in the slot and forgot about it.  Then I started getting overdue notices.  My payments were failing to reach their recipients.  I switched to online payment—it seemed like the only option.  That has worked fine for two years but then something else started to happen: my email notices failed to show up.  I started to get overdue notices again.  I went to websites and enrolled in auto-pay for all my regular bills.  Then the emails began showing up stating accounts were overdue.  The actual websites said the bills had been paid.  There seems to be no pleasing the technological beast.

You see, I’m a simple man of pen and paper.  I don’t read ebooks unless I have to.  I don’t trust most of what I find on the internet.  Mine is the mindset of a working Post Office (or at least Pony Express), paper payment for which you receive a copy back.  Some solidity.  Live Science ran a teaser headline that the next solar storm could lead to an “internet apocalypse.”  All records wiped out.  With no shoebox full of receipts, how are you going to prove you’ve got the money you say you do?  (That could be a boon to braggarts such as Trump, but the rest of us will be waiting timidly for a letter from our banks.)  Technology seems to be chasing an invisible goal.  Doing it because we can without thinking of the consequences.  Shooting rockets into space with no certified astronauts on board—what could possibly go wrong?

Tech isn’t bad, of course.  It has preserved many of our jobs through a pandemic.  It makes it easy for forgetful guys like me to be able to find information quickly.  But functioning is only as good as the coding behind it, and it feels terribly vulnerable to me.  Coronal mass ejections, apart from sounding slightly dirty, are rare according to the story by Brandon Specktor, but they tend to happen every century or so.  A century ago a working landline telephone was a luxury.  The computer as we know it hadn’t been invented.  We were about to plunge into the madness of a second world war in which tech would be used to kill on a massive scale.  Now I guess we await the apocalypse.  The safe money says to have plenty of paper on hand.


Used or New?

A recent post on a used book got me to thinking.  Back when I was acting like a trained researcher my reading was very specialized and focused.  Even so, my personal reading was eclectic.  I think that’s the result of having been raised poor.  With no bookstore in our town, and no Amazon (or Bookshop.org), book purchasing was catch as catch can.  Since my fortunes haven’t dramatically increased in life (long story), my purchasing habits have remained pretty much the same.  I’ll buy used books or movies if I can.  Since these are about the only things I buy, they loom large in my mind.  And the thing about buying used is that it’s often opportunistic.  I can pretend it’s intentional and say I’m trying to be well-rounded, but the fact is I try to save money where I can.

This really struck me as I was reading something written by a film maker.  Now, I’ve penned two books about horror films, and I tend to watch them quite a lot.  What struck me about what I was reading was just how many films the writer knew.  Academics can be that way—knowing everything about a subject.  When researching my first book, A Reassessment of Asherah, I read everything I could find in pre-internet days about the goddess.  That is a thoroughly researched book.  When you’re a graduate student your job is to become as familiar as possible with your subject, no matter the language of the research (within reason).  As just an editor my movies and my books are a matter of what I find in my eclectic life.

I often imagine what my life would be like if I could’ve remained a professor.  In those days I read fewer full books—research is often a matter of reading only the parts relevant to your project—and certainly less fiction.  I was never a well-paid academic, teaching at a small school that considered on-campus housing a large part of the compensation package.  I didn’t buy many books then, either.  Some of the most important ones were, you guessed it, used.  I wonder if I would’ve ever have shifted my interest back to horror.  During those days I didn’t need horror (it was a gothic campus and I was beginning family life).  Since then I’ve become an even more eclectic person.  My fascination with geology began then and still comes back when the stars are just right.  And even they, I suspect, might be remnants of even older, used stars.

Photo credit: NASA

All Day Long

The summer solstice is always a bittersweet day.  The longest day of the year.  From now on the days will begin, almost imperceptibly at first, to get shorter.  The wheel begins its six-month roll toward the cold, dark days of winter.  Although the year whiplashes through these extremes in the temperate zones, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  The changes are slow right now.  In fact, the celebration of Midsummer doesn’t usually come until about the 24th.  These long, languorous days can be like that.  

I’ve been studying holidays for well over a decade by now.  Some have origins that are obvious, such as the solstices and equinoxes.  Although ancient peoples were quite capable of observing and marking these days, it seems their perceptions of the seasons were somewhat different than ours.  Midsummer, to us, is the official beginning of summer.  We all know, however, that we’ve had days that’ve felt like summer already.  They start to come, often in May.  “Meteorological summer” is actually June through August while “astronomical summer” begins today.  Our calendars are a matter of convention.  Not only that, but the motivation to mark special days began as a religious impulse.  Otherwise we’d have no particular reason to tell one day from another.

But think of the ancients again.  People were generally illiterate, and although the elites could mark and know the actual solstice, Midsummer marks what the weather feels like on the ground.  Seasons, in antiquity, were understood by what was happening on the ground.  For example, in Ireland February 1, the festival of Imbolc, was considered the start of spring.  Ewes were lambing and that was a sure sign winter was beginning to end.  With such and outlook, folk wisdom reckoned that summer began on May Day, or Beltane.  In such a perspective, the longest day marks midsummer.  Yes, the heat and humidity have really yet to set in, but the climate in Ireland and the British Isles is tempered by the Gulf Stream and doesn’t reach, say, Midwestern extremes.

Those of us raised in scientific worldviews have been taught from youth that summer begins today.  People haven’t always seen it that way.  Not everyone experiences the extremes of weather that temperate regions of the United States do.    In the northern hemisphere—for the global south experiences its shortest day of the year today—the days get no longer than this.  Wheels by their very nature spin.  Our round planet now gives us shorter days until the other extreme is reached.


Lessons from Mars

It’s a parable.  This week, on a planet weeks away, earthlings achieved heavier than air flight.  Considering that we flew for the first time on our own planet only 118 years ago (within feasible limits of a very successful human lifetime), the achievement is remarkable.  What I found most fascinating about the live stream provided by NASA, however, was the human element in the control room.  Not only did all the engineers look young enough to have been my children, I was cheered almost to tears to see several women among them.  We’ve come a long way.  And I don’t mean just to get to Mars.  There’s a lot of work yet to be done on the planet on which we evolved, but it does me good to see scientists recognizing the contributions women make to progress.

While many cultures worldwide still consider women the property of men, that scene showed that with women in leadership roles we can achieve remarkable things.  Only with the priorities of diversifying the workplace could we realize a dream that began long before Kitty Hawk.  People of all genders and all ethnicities have much to offer our growing sense of accomplishment.  Mars is millions of miles away.  Perseverance and Ingenuity are being controlled across this godlike distance by a group of humans that consists not just of angry white men who want to rule this world.  Although the palpable  excitement in the room was for what was happening far away, my spirits were buoyed by what was happening here.

Our biology defines us, but it becomes a sin when it confines us.  We are capable of more.  We’ve flown on another planet, and yet we still need to learn that on this planet all people deserve fair and equitable treatment.  It boggles my mind that on that reddish speck I can see on a clear night, a speck so small that my pinkie held at arm’s length can obliterate it, we have landed a car-sized rover and a helicopter.  The math involved staggers this old mind, but the imagination inspires it.  We come to moments like these when women and men of various backgrounds come together and dream.  Double-masked and socially distant, young people have shown us a world far beyond what angry white men could even imagine.  Watching the video of a helicopter taking off, hovering, and landing on another planet, looking at the people in the room, I realize there is a parable here.


Whose Holiday?

I write a lot about holidays.  One of the reasons is that even long before capitalism, societies took breaks right in the middle of things.  One of the major seasons of celebration was the vernal equinox.  Easter is tied to Passover, of course, but since nobody knows the year of Jesus’ crucifixion the actual date can’t be determined.  Passover is a moveable feast and since the lunar calendar is essential in setting Passover’s date, Easter is calculated as being the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  There has been talk of the three major branches of Christianity—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—agreeing on a set date for Easter but even if that happened there would be splinter groups who liked it the old way and the confusion would only grow.

Since astronomical observation has grown so mathematical, the date of Easter can be calculated far into the future.  We know just when the vernal equinox will occur, and we know when the full moon will come around.  All that’s needed is some calendars and a whole lot of patience (and maybe a calculator).  Despite society’s obvious preference for Christmas, Easter has its own array of attendant holidays for some Christians.  (Not all Christians celebrate Easter.)  For instance, for some today is Maundy Thursday.  Tomorrow most will recognize as Good Friday.  Nobody’s quite sure what to call Saturday, and many Christians will begin to celebrate Easter at midnight even before Sunday wakes up.  Easter does last more than a single day, in some traditions, but it’s not quite as developed as the twelve days of Christmas.

Lately I’ve been considering that how these holy days are sacred for some and secular for others.  One of the realizations that globalization has wrought is that not everybody shares the same concepts of how universal events—such as the vernal equinox—should be commemorated.  Although on the equator every day’s not quite an equinox due to the earth’s tilt, it isn’t as dramatic as the changes that occur in temperate zones.  Christianity was custom-built for European holidays, which is what it tends to keep.  The history of the holidays is more complex than it might seem at first.  Add to that widespread disagreement around the world as to both religion and to when certain events should be calculated and you’ll need more than a slide-rule to figure it out.  So as we begin the Catholic and Protestant Easter season (Orthodox Easter is about a month away yet), it may be helpful to remind ourselves that what day it is might just be a matter of perspective.

Stiftung Gertrud Schnürle 1975, Fritz von Uhde, The Last Supper, via Wikimedia Commons


Keep at It

Photo credit: ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps it’s an indication of just how sick the United States has been for four years—waking up each day wondering what new crisis Trump would have put us into—that I heard nothing about our next Mars visit.  I’m normally quite interested in space exploration.  I seriously considered astronomy for a career, until I found out it’s mostly math.  In any case, I’ve watched our planetary explorations quite closely.  Yesterday, until just about five minutes before the landing of Perseverance on the surface of the Red Planet (earth is supposedly the Blue Planet), I knew nothing of the mission.  When my family alerted me to NASA’s live feed of the event I tuned in for those five minutes to watch as we safely landed our fifth such probe on our neighboring world.

It’s funny how a self-absorbed person can take a whole nation down with himself.  It was a relief to look outside for a while, and to wonder.  I remember when the rovers Curiosity and Spirit landed.  The advance of technology was evident in yesterday’s deployment.  No more bubble-wrap was necessary.  The landing system was incredibly elegant, and if there are any Martians I’m sure there were several UFO reports yesterday afternoon.  As the NASA interpretive explainer told what was going on, I wondered just how life might be on the Blue Planet if we were able to put all our tech to work for peace and the betterment of all.  Instead I find a Congress only too willing to acquit a traitor so we can continue the hate.

Emotion is a funny and unpredictable thing.  Although I knew nothing of Perseverance until five minutes before touchdown, I was immediately drawn into the feeling of the moment.  My eyes weren’t exactly dry as I watched the cheers of jubilation from those masked engineers in the control room.  This had been the culmination of years of hard work, and yes, math.  They were able to calculate fall rates and counter-forces, landing spots and trajectories.  And all of this from about 140 million miles away.  Perseverance was launched back in June—you can’t get there overnight—when we were still reeling down here from the overt evil of white supremacists.  Stoked by a man who would be king.  Leader of the Red States.  Would-be ruler of the Red Planet.  How I wish our technology could help us on our own planet.  Any probes landed here from elsewhere must, I suspect, not believe their mechanical eyes.


Many Moons

Scientists, often with their base matrix bound up with the local religion, are frequently interested in  myth.  And sometimes religion too.  This is no surprise.  Many of us go into religious studies because of its influence on our lives and scientists, who measure and analyze material realities, must be curious when their results challenge some religious or mythic assumptions.  So it is that Ernest Naylor addresses mythic beliefs about the moon’s influence on animals and what scientific findings on the same show.  Although this book wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be, Moonstruck: How Lunar Cycles Affect Life does address the subtitle assertion quite directly.  Naylor, a marine zoologist, knows about tides—caused by the moon—and their effects on marine organisms.  That connection is the main focus of the book, with occasional forays onto dry land.

What caught my attention right away was that when discussing myth and religious ideas, Naylor describes two stories as biblical: the woodcutter banished for gathering on the Sabbath and Judas’ banishment.  Both of these, he seems to believe, have the Bible banishing the criminals to the moon.  That was news to me.  There may well be folklore with such associations, but a simple opening of the covers of the Good Book would dispel this particular “myth.”  Neither the sabbath wood-gatherer nor Judas were banished to the moon after their deaths.  The former presumably went to Sheol and the latter presumably to Hell.  For me this illustrates yet again how many ideas professional people outside the guild suppose to be “biblical.”  The Bible says very little about the moon.  One New Testament demoniac is described as “moonstruck,” but beyond that the occasional references are mainly just to the moon qua moon.

The Bible’s a big book.  Everyone in western society knows it’s an important book but few read it.  Even fewer deeply engage with it to understand its original context and message.  We hear stuff and we’re told it’s in there, and we believe it.  I first noticed this in high school.  Classmates would tell me “the Bible says…” (you can fill in the blank with just about anything, this isn’t a quiz).  Almost always they were wrong.  By that point I’d read the Good Book many times cover-to-cover.  I owned concordances and knew when foreign matter was introduced.  The thing about the Bible is that it’s fairly simple to look it up.  Moonstruck focuses on marine animals and tells interesting connections to the moon.  It has a chapter on humans and the moon, finding little direct biological influence.  It’s an informative book, just don’t use it to verify what’s in the Bible.


Truly Exceptional?

Exceptionalism seems to be in the air these days.  Most recently it’s become a plank in the Republican platform—America is God’s own chosen nation (despite what the Bible actually says).  It’s also been a trait of nearly all human endeavors.  Human exceptionalism, that is.  The idea, whether admitted or not, is based on the Bible.  Even those bespectacled scientists who make no time for religion insist that humans are different from other animals.  Why?  The Bible tells them so.  Evolution certainly doesn’t.  And so we go about thinking how superior we are to other lifeforms.  And not only that, but to other humans in other geographical locations.  It seems Homo sapiens sapiens could use an ego check every now and again.

Not only does our sense of superiority go downward over the animals, it also reaches to the very boundaries of this infinite but expanding universe.  We are alone, scientists declare.  The only intelligent life in a universe far beyond the ability of the human brain to comprehend.  There can’t be any alien visitations with (laughably) superior beings crawling out of their flying saucers.  No, we were the best that evolution could do.  And we elected Donald Trump to be our president four years ago.  What’s that about an ego check?  Especially since we’ve learned that there is water on the moon.  Almost certainly there was once liquid water on Mars.  There may even be traces of life in the atmosphere of Venus (although the earthly jury is still out on that one).  Only humans can make that declaration.

Photo credit: NASA

I have to wonder at this arrogance that comes along with consciousness.  Do we believe we’re the best simply because we learned to apply the laws of rationality to our gray matter?  Back when I was a seminarian the word “pantheism” was rather like a swear.  To suggest a universal connectivity (literally) was an offense against the deity portrayed in the Bible.  (I would hope that a God that big would encourage us to understand the implications of a universe so large.)  We humans have our good points, of course.  I love people and their foibles.  Were we not so dangerous we might even look cute in the cosmic eyes above, as well as the inferior eyes of our pets.  Exceptionalism, it seems to me, ought to be the dirty word.  It seems far more human and humane to throw the gates open wide and consider the possibilities.  I love people, but if we’re the best there is, the universe is in serious trouble.


The Halloween

Halloween seems especially portentous this year.  Some of us thrive in this introduction to what was a major set of Christian holidays that encompassed many pagan traditions.  The lynchpin was All Saints Day (All Hallows), which in good Christian fashion upheld its favorite sons (and a few daughters) to remind the rest of us what a sorry lot of humanity we are.  Followed by the more democratic All Souls Day where the vestments went from white to black, it was preceded by Halloween.  Through mostly Celtic additions from Samhain, the first of the three days became decidedly spooky and came to be a commercial holiday.  There’s more to it than that, of course, but we all know Halloween.

This year a number of other phenomena are converging on today.  Not only is it a full moon, but a famed blue moon—the second full moon this month.  It feel like something could happen.  And if that weren’t exciting enough the powers that be have decided to end Daylight Saving Time tonight (well, technically tomorrow morning).  And Tuesday is the most importation election day in the history of our nation, when we decide whether to retain democracy or become a monarchy.  Seems like a strange confluence of phenomena.  Meanwhile, outdoors a pandemic rages and some locations have had early snowfalls.  The last of what had been Hurricane Zeta blew through here yesterday.  Who needs Halloween to be scared?

For some years I’ve been contemplating the spirituality of Halloween.  We live in a death-denying culture while knowing full well we all die.  Halloween has become a holiday when we can think about it openly.  Pretend we’re someone/something we’re not.  Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we might learn something from it.  It has become a boon for horror films, but they’ve been successfully spread through the rest of the year as well.  There’s plenty to be frightened of in July and January too.  Still, there’s something about Halloween.  Some of my earliest memories are of this particular holiday.  Poor as we were, we always had costumes for the day.  I remember sitting on the school bus, wearing a mask, thinking that nobody knew who I was, and I could really be the hero or villain that my costume suggested that year.  Now we wear masks all the time and we’re frightened every day.  Halloween is coming along with a blue moon this year.  There must be some significance to that.