Sunday, September 9, 2012

Change Is the Only Constant

Alan Lightman is a novelist, essayist, and physicist, with a PhD in theoretical physics from Harvard University. He writes:
Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself toward a condition of maximum disorder.
I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?
Over its 4.5-billion-year history, our own planet has gone through continuous upheavals and change. The primitive earth had no oxygen in its atmosphere. Huge landmasses splintered and glided about on deep tectonic plates. Then plants and photosynthesis leaked oxygen into the atmosphere. At certain periods, the changing gases in the air caused the planet to cool; ice covered the earth; entire oceans may have frozen. Today, the earth continues to change. Something like 10 billion tons of carbon are cycled through plants and the atmosphere every few years—first absorbed by plants from the air in the form of carbon dioxide, then converted into sugars by photosynthesis, then released again into soil or air when the plant dies or is eaten. Wait around 100 million years or so, and carbon atoms are recycled through rocks, soil, and oceans, as well as plants.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Mortality - Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Buckley on the new book Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
“For me,” he writes in “Mortality,” “to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one.” In support of this, he adduces several staves of William Cory’s translation of the poem by Callimachus about his beloved friend Heraclitus:
They told me, Heraclitus; they told me you were dead. They brought me bitter news to hear, and bitter tears to shed. I wept when I remembered how often you and I Had tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky.
He was a man of abundant gifts, Christopher: erudition, wit, argument, prose style, to say nothing of a titanium constitution that, until it betrayed him in the end, allowed him to write word-perfect essays while the rest of us were groaning from epic hangovers and reaching for the ibuprofen. But his greatest gift of all may have been the gift of friendship. At his memorial service in New York City, 31 people, virtually all of them boldface names, rose to speak in his memory. One selection was from the introduction Christopher wrote for the paperback reissue of “Hitch-22” while gravely ill:
“Another element of my memoir — the stupendous importance of love, friendship and solidarity — has been made immensely more vivid to me by recent experience. I can’t hope to convey the full effect of the embraces and avowals, but I can perhaps offer a crumb of counsel. If there is anybody known to you who might benefit from a letter or a visit, do not on any account postpone the writing or the making of it. The difference made will almost certainly be more than you have calculated.”
One of the “fragmentary jottings” in the last chapter of “Mortality” is a brush stroke on Philip Larkin’s chilling death poem, “Aubade”: “Larkin good on fear in ‘Aubade,’ with implied reproof to Hume and Lucretius for their stoicism. Fair enough in one way: atheists ought not to be offering consolation either.” For a fuller version of that terminal pensée, turn to his essay on Larkin in his collection “Arguably”: “Without that synthesis of gloom and angst we could never have had his ‘Aubade,’ a waking meditation on extinction that unstrenuously contrives a tense, brilliant counterpoise between the stoic philosophy of Lucretius and David Hume, and his own frank terror of oblivion.”

Friday, September 7, 2012

Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight, The tide is full, the moon lies fair Upon the straits; on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. Come to the window, sweet is the night air! Only, from the long line of spray Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, At their return, up the high strand, Begin, and cease, and then again begin, With tremulous cadence slow, and bring The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago Heard it on the Agean, and it brought Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow Of human misery; we Find also in the sound a thought, Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.
DOVER BEACH By Matthew Arnold 1867

Cheetah Robot runs 28.3 mph; a bit faster than Usain Bolt