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.

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.

Sunrise Sunset

The earliest sunrise doesn’t take place on the longest day.  Things like this are what kept me out of a career in astronomy.  No, the earliest morning occurs about a week before the summer solstice.  It keeps staying light later in the evening, but the darkness creeps back in the a.m.  I know this because I awake before sunrise and I jog at first light in the summer.  For a couple of weeks now I’ve been having to start my jog later and later as I wait for the sun to catch up.  The latest sunset is about a week after the solstice.  Now matter how you count it, the days are getting shorter now.  Another lesson I’ve learned from my early morning jogs is that it’s chilliest just before sunrise.  The temperature keeps dropping from what it is around 3:00 a.m., meaning that it’s coolest just before the sun comes up.  Life lessons from the jogging trail.

I took astronomy both in high school and college.  Always fascinated by space I guess I was optimistic that perhaps the mathematics would’ve dropped out of it somewhere between diploma and baccalaureate.  My mind is more of the humanities type, dealing with approximations and analogies.  The concepts I get, but I can’t swim in formulas.  One of the main sources of perplexities was just what I’ve been describing about the earliest dawn and latest evening.  Shouldn’t they be the same day?  And how is it that the longest day is neither the earliest sunrise nor latest sunset?  Math may explain that, but I can’t.  There’s a wonder in it all.

Jogs before work (for I start that early as well) are possible only a few months of the year at this latitude.  They will give way to lunchtime breaks soon enough and yet summer has only just started.  The days will seem longer although in fact they are getting shorter.  You see what I mean about approximations and analogies?  I still occasionally read books about astronomy, and when NASA (or some privately funded venture) makes announcements about what’s going on in the heavens I pay attention.  Yes, I would liked to have gone into astronomy, but life has a way of steering you down certain paths.  Besides, there’s a certain wonder in retaining the mystery of how the longest day occurs three times in the course of two weeks, depending on your definition.  

Hallowed be thy Kane

Watching the alien burst from Kane’s distended abdomen as he appeared to have eaten too much seemed somehow appropriate on Thanksgiving. I’m well aware that my taste in movies does not always match expectations and few bother to comment on my idiosyncratic observations. Nevertheless, it had been years since I’d watched Alien and on this particular holiday it felt like synchronicity. I’ve seen the film a few times before, but this is the first time since starting this blog. Not surprisingly, some biblical allusions popped out at me as I watched the crew of the Nostromo struggle with alien life. And I’d just read of NASA’s “exciting discovery” on Mars, a discovery whose official announcement for which, like Christmas, we’ll have to wait until December. Learning that the gut-busting alien was modeled on Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon (a contemporary one) only sweetened the analogy.

Character names hide aspects of personality and intention. Sometimes the writers may not even be aware of all the shades of gray. The alien’s first victim is Kane. On paper he seems an ordinary citizen, but on the screen the euphony with the first human child, Cain, is obvious. As Parker is lamenting how large the alien has grown in just a short time, science officer Ash whispers, “Kane’s son.” Or is it Cain’s son? Cain, the infamous ancestor of the sinful Grendel and any number of other villains of literature and cinema. Cain is, significantly, the first child born in Genesis, himself the genesis of sin in the world since his murder of his brother is the first act that the Bible declares a “sin.” The alien, born worlds away, conforms to biblical expectations.

Since Ash is actually an android and has no real feelings, he admits the alien to the ship and protects it until he is destroyed by his shipmates. He represents unfeeling science amid the horror of human bodies being invaded and rent apart. When accused of admiring the alien, the resurrected (!) science officer states, “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Is he not really describing science itself? Religion is running rampant on the Nostromo. As Ripley sets the detonation charges and finds her escape blocked, she races back to the console and cancels the self-destruct order which the HAL-like Mother ignores. In a secular prayer Ripley calls out to Mother who, like any deity, does not answer all human pleas. And even as she escapes the detonating ship, Ripley will find that Cain’s son is still lurking in the corner of the emergency shuttle, for the science can never truly escape from Genesis.

Send in the Robots

The FIRST Robotics kickoff is an event that is difficult to describe for those who’ve never attended. First, it must be noted that FIRST Robotics is sometimes described as “the varsity sport for the brain.” While engineering students with a penchant for athletics are not unheard of, the majority of robotics team students are not cut from the same cloth as the athlete. The FIRST kickoff, the first Saturday in January, is the opportunity for these kids to be told it is cool to be smart and that application of brain power is not the liability that many of the electorate seem to think it is. At this event the competition for the year is unveiled, and the kids (with some adult help) have six weeks to design and build and program a robot to do some very complex tasks. It is a season of sleep deprivation, programmed Saturdays, and the celebration of learning. Before NASA shows the game animation—the competition for the year—celebrities and other people in the public eye endorse the program. It is a time for praising the benefits of science.

Yesterday’s kickoff, however, was marred by the appearance of one of the guest celebrities. When George W. Bush was announced as a supporter of the program, a sense of disbelief fell over the room. This man who advocated for creationism in the classroom, who fought to stop research in cutting edge disease control, who began a war as a personal vendetta, was showing his dully beneficent face on the big screen telling the kids what a great program it was. A chance, as he said, to use your “God-given talents.” He ended his brief—and obviously scripted—sound-byte with his characteristic “God bless you.” I could not stomach the hypocrisy. I’ve blogged about religion and the science of robotics before, but to have a president who did nothing to strengthen the cause of higher education and fought science with eight years at his idle hands was just too much. If I was Dean Kamen, I would have insisted that that clip be left on the cutting room floor.

The former W represented religion in its guise as the enemy of science. It should be clear to my readers that I do not believe science has all the answers, but I also believe it is wrong for religion to stand in the way of knowledge. Science is something that we shouldn’t give lip-service without backing it up with programs and funding. That one minute of disingenuous, religion-riddled speech trumped all the other endorsements, including the sensible one by Bill Clinton who emphasized the need to work together even with those who are your opponents. This was a point W obviously missed. There comes a time when some public figures, like overused cattle, should be put out to pasture. There are some cowboys that should just stay on the ranch. I understand that presidential endorsements are important to FIRST, but in this case integrity should not be compromised. Especially when most of the teenagers watching the kickoff possess far greater potential than a mere politician elected on religious sentiment and dubious counting.

Does this face inspire science?

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.

Yarihk Finally Gets a Drink


Gnu moon

Yarihk once again makes the news as NASA announced yesterday that they have discovered a substantial amount of water on the moon. I’m still reeling as if I’d joined Yarikh at the Marzeah. Although the local paper only deemed it page 2-worthy, this is a paradigm-shifting discovery! The arid, airless, lifeless, dead rock daily racing around our world has suddenly blossomed with new potential. Water on the moon? It seems as unlikely as satisfactory jobs for all graduate students.

Students are generally surprised to learn that in the Ancient Near East the moon was often considered superior to the sun. Given our knowledge of astronomy and physics it is difficult to look behind the curtain to see that it is not self-evident that the moon reflects sunshine without the subsequent development of a scientific outlook. For ancients the moon provided the gentler light that illuminated night — when you really need some light anyway — and was responsible for generating dew, a necessary source of water in regions where summer rains are unheard of. The benevolent moon waxes and wanes, forming a perfect circle and, by degrees, the crescent shape of the horns of divinity, and finally disappearing completely to start the cycle all over.

At Ugarit Yarikh is a thirsty character in text 114. He marries a foxy Hurrian goddess in the myth of Nikkal, a princess much above his station, then he easily fades into the background from the dearth of textual sources. Some have suggested a lunar connection for El as well, the very head of the gods. If El was lunar, perhaps Yahweh also drove the moon. Whoever is in charge, however, thought to pack water for the journey and as we further explore our nearest astronomical companion we will discover that Yarikh is just as interesting as the denizens of Ugarit had suggested.

Robots vs. Ancient Deities


Yesterday I found myself at my first ever robotics competition. As a scholar more familiar with the offering recipes for long extinct mythological deities than with the practical application of computer technology, I felt a little out of my league. I had gone to support the local high school robotics team, and, well, robots and Halloween seemed a natural combination.

The first thing that stood out was the large NASA van parked in front of the school. Fidgeting over finding a job at the moment, I realized that the money is far more forthcoming for practical enterprises than reading ancient history. It is, literally, for rocket science. So I was crammed into high school gym bleachers with other aging parents, surrounded by kids smarter than I’ll ever hope to be, watching robots compete in exercises too complex for the average Republican. There was rock music blaring and yes, nerdy people dressed like science fiction movie/television characters. I was really feeling lost when I spied the character below.


I had no idea that Dr. Jim of the Thinking Shop had relatives in the robotics field! As I saw the bearded Norseman approaching me, I was strangely reassured that there might be a place for me here after all. Religion and NASA do share an interest in celestial realms, and if my generation has been capable of producing kids this smart, there may be hope for the future yet.

Leggo my Ego!

Last week on my way to an interview, as I was merging onto the interstate, a state trooper in the center lane let out a whoop on his siren and broadcast on his speaker, “the left lane is for passing — got that?” Naturally I assumed the broadcast was directed toward me; I was in the right lane and the trooper was moving considerably slower than the posted limit. Should I pass him on the right or slow down? Now I was apparently joining a highway drama already in progress (status quo for New Jersey) and after a few intense heart-thumping minutes I realized that the cynical lawman was likely addressing a slower driver in the left lane. All of this is to introduce the problematic mindset of egocentrism.

The human brain, we are informed, is the most complex thing in the universe. It is also our gateway to all experience, knowledge, revelation, insight, and inspiration. We are limited in all our ventures by the tangible limits of our biological brains. Everything we associate with religion is mediated and filtered by our brains. As my friend and seminary professor K. Marvin Bruce likes to say, “consciousness is as much a curse as a blessing.” Our brains can be traps as well as explosive openings into new worlds. Everything begins and ends with the humble ego.

I was recently reminded of this while looking at the latest round of Hubble Space Telescope images released from NASA. We consciously know the universe is incomprehensibly large, the number of stars way beyond human imagination. And yet, on this smallish planet racing around a medium-sized sun somewhere in the outer banks of the universe, people have always thought the gods were concerned with them. The earliest cultures believed that humans were created in the service of the gods. We live, we wonder, we die. As long as the gods are pleased, the world continues much as it always has. In their eyes the stars that far outnumber the human population were gods. Their universe was more divine than profane. Yet even in our galaxy-filled universe, our brains can’t help but believe that somehow we’re in the very middle of it all.

Where's Wiggins? Not even on the map!

Where's Wiggins? Not even on the map!