Secret Life of Clouds

As April showers linger into May, I am reminded of April’s issue of Discover magazine. I picked up a copy on my way to Santa Barbara, and although much of it is beyond me, the article about microbes causing rain seems apt on days like today. Although I move in small circles, I hear many people commenting on how weird the weather has been this year. Mornings cold enough as to require a winter jacket, and evenings where a light sweater is almost too much. And the rain. Now, I realize that weather is always a decidedly local phenomenon, but apart from the rare reader in Antarctica or the Atacama Desert, we all know rain. In the biblical world the rain, as with so many inexplicable things before the birth of science, was in the provenance of providence. God sent the rain as a kind of blessing to a parched land. Thunder and hail, however, we sure signs of his displeasure. Discover suggests that maybe the answer lies in some being that is tiny rather than astronomically large.

The question that has frequently eluded answer among meteorologists is why some rain clouds rain while others don’t. No one really knows what the trigger might be—thus cloud seeding has often been a hit-or-miss proposition. Douglas Fox explores the possibility that, in his words, “The Clouds Are Alive.” Scientists can now measure the microbial life that survives in the sub-frigid temperatures high in the atmosphere above us. Amazingly we continue to discover that where we once thought conditions were too hostile, life manages to thrive. When I was a child scientific orthodoxy declared deep ocean trenches near volcanic vents far too acidic for anything to survive. Now we look at the clouds and see life. Not exactly the angels some theologians expected to find hovering above, but life nonetheless. And if the microbes are there, they might survive on a world as chilly as Mars (which, I hear, is even chillier than our apartment in winter).

One of the favorite gaps for the famous God-of-the, is the weather. As a symbol of what is beyond human control, indeed, the largest perceptible environment in inner space, the sky remains aloof from our tampering. Even so we’ve found ways to pollute our firmament. And now we’re discovering we’re not alone up there. The idea that the clouds are full of microbes sounds more like a Stephen King plot than an intelligent design. Actually, it is good old evolution in action. Life is surprising in its ubiquity. We’d once convinced ourselves that it was rare and could only thrive in environments similar to ours. Now we know that even on a terrestrial scale of survival, we are wimps. Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining. Little did they suspect that the light might be shining off of microscopic life.

The life from above

Too Tired or Not too Tired?

An article in the current Discover magazine ponders invisibility. Sight is actually the perception of certain wavelengths of light, and by bending particular wavelengths around an object it can be rendered invisible. There’s nothing really new there, as anyone who’s heard of the Philadelphia Experiment knows. The next step of the quest, however, is to determine if, by sending parallel light rays at manipulated speeds, an event might be rendered invisible. Event in this sense of the word currently denotes an event on a cyclotronic scale, an incredibly miniscule and inconceivably brief occurrence. Since humans are endlessly inventive, the corollary is naturally what might transpire from there as larger events are targeted and rendered clandestine. Could an historic event be lived out in (or engineered into) complete obscurity? It sounds like science fiction, but these questions are being asked in the workaday world in which we live.

Messing with history is related to fooling about with time. Twice every year we attempt to manipulate the standard determined by our sun and human convention to set clocks forward or back to maximize daylight at certain hours. We are rendering times invisible. Every year when I groggily adjust to the new time scale, I grumble about how wasteful it really is. Being one of those people who wakes up before the alarm clock goes off (I had never even heard the alarm on my current clock), twice this week I have found myself startled awake by the foreign beeping next to my head. In disbelief I stare at the 4 a.m. displayed in placid blue digits floating in the dark. Well, changing three time zones the day before setting clocks ahead probably didn’t help, but I wonder why we don’t just leave time alone.

Waiting for the bus in the dark, a silent kind of joy begins to grow as daylight creeps into those murky morning hours. Then we fool about with time and plunge those on the verge of daylight back into the darkness. Just that one hour leaves a nation yawning uncontrollably for a couple of weeks until our bodies adjust to the new schedule. Why can’t we leave time alone? People are never satisfied with time as it is, but since we can’t seem to stop it, perhaps we can render select portions of it invisible. The potential for abuse seems awfully large to me. Let’s put it to a vote. If we are going to make one historical event disappear, I suggest we do it twice annually. And those events would be the insane toying with time by setting our clocks ahead and back. Excuse me, but I feel another yawn coming on.

Ouch!

Now in a dentist office near you!

Sitting in the dentist’s office may not be the best place to be reading about pain. Nevertheless, as I was anticipating my fillings (worn enamel at this stage, not cavities) I picked up the June edition of Discover magazine and noticed a story on the brain. Since pain and brain rhyme, I took it as a kind of omen. I actually subscribed to Discover for many years as a teenager, but with the vicissitudes of the job market as an adult, and the perpetual lack of storage space in apartments, I have let my magazine subscriptions lapse. The article, which I did not have time to finish, suggested that neurologists are on the cusp of being able to pin down whence chronic pain is experienced in the brain. If a chemical inhibitor can be found for this specific region it will be like turning off a light switch. There will be no more pain (rather like John’s vision of the New Jerusalem).

As I was called back to the dentist’s chair to the accompaniment of the whine of a dental drill, I reflected on the loss of pain. Being the sensitive sort, and probably more empathetic to others than may be healthy, I never wish pain on anyone. Life is difficult as it is, and even those who wish me harm do not deserve suffering. Nevertheless, I wonder if we could thrive in a world without pain. This is all the more relevant with the growing whispers among the AI community that brains can be simulated by computers. If they are programmed not to experience pain (as seems only sensible) then what becomes of humanity when pain is abolished? Some of us identify with the pains of mental agony even if the physical does not directly impinge on our lives. It is what makes us human. When I see another person in pain, my immediate reaction is to want to help. Being a religionist, however, my options are often limited in this regard.

After a very painful termination a few years ago, I had to give in to anti-depressants for a while. The very idea depressed me. My life, including its full array of mental anguish, defined who I was. Take that away, and what was left? Funny thing was, those in the church who initiated this particular pain showed no empathy whatsoever in the face of it. I weaned myself of the medication after a few years and occasionally the pain returns—particularly acutely when yet another religious employer let me go—but it is part, a very deep part, of the human experience. Could we thrive in a world without adversity? We are often at our best when we are helping each other. That to me seems to be what true religion is all about.

FIRST Things First

Being a religion specialist in a crowd of engineers is a surreal experience. Indeed, the clash of worldviews could hardly be more apparent, shy of crossing the border into Iran. I support the efforts of FIRST Robotics because they encourage children to excel in science, math, and engineering. My own childhood, however, was dominated by an overbearing religion that forever scarred me with a fear of Hell that I still can’t quite shake. Somewhere out there behind the stars there must be a horrid place engineered for the eternal torment for sinners like me, for the Bible tells me so. Speaking of stars, the live feed to kick off the FIRST Robotics Competition is sponsored by NASA. Yesterday was the international kickoff for this year’s competition, and as president of my daughter’s robotics team, I naturally sat among the well-paid engineers and professionals as we watched Dean Kamen unveil this year’s assignment.

The kind of guy who stands alone at parties

The FIRST kickoff video is available online for those who missed the event. The organization grants millions of dollars in scholarships to deserving students, funding college careers for the future of humanity. As I watched the live feed yesterday, a profound angst settled on me. Successful guys my age working for companies flush with money described how the latest medical and humanitarian breakthroughs were being made in the sciences. I have a part-time job with no medical coverage, and know, somewhere deep inside, that if something goes seriously wrong I will be permitted to go the way of all flesh, without benefit of these great technologies. And without the benefit of spiritual reward. A lost child of the cosmos. A life spent in the pursuit of truth, yet ending up with empty hands at the end of the day.

The eye in the sky is watching you

As a child I was a charter subscriber to Discover magazine. One of my earliest career ambitions was to be a scientist. One of my favorite classes in high school was physics. I was, however, haunted by the knowledge that the clergy had divined Hell behind all of this; only those who sought the keys to the kingdom would be spared. In college I majored in religion and took classes in astronomy, still flirting with my first crush. Now, an unemployed religion professor, I watch as day by day my specialization become more and more obsolete. No matter how far our telescopes peer into the universe, they just don’t spy God in an unguarded moment, captured by candid camera. Those with the money say truth lies in the progress of science, others in the unethical life of corporate America. The future lies anywhere but here in the world of religion. As I tell my students: be very careful in choosing a career. The best of intentions will lead to the worst of anxieties unless the way of the universe is truly comprehended.