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BOOK REVIEW: The Accidental Universe

October 11, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In The Accidental Universe; The World You Thought You Knew, Alan Lightman separates out seven different types of universe. He dedicates each chapter to way of interpreting the universe including things like: accidental, temporary, spiritual and symmetrical. Lightman straddles both the sciences and the humanities, and this book is a sort of creative non-fiction. He explores complex science topics and elaborates his points with examples from both disciplines.

In these chapters, he explores what it means to be a part of a universe, our universe. He understands the complexity of visualizing such a diverse and unknowable thing, while also realizing that whether or not we visualize the greatness, we are a part of it. He asks how one might see a self interacting with and participating in the universe. In the chapter titled “The Gargantuan Universe,” Lightman explores the literal size of the universe. As is his style, he begins with an anecdote of sailing a small boat out to sea with nothing in sight. This image draws us into a recognizable experience. From there, he explores the very vast dimensions of the universe. He notes that while Isaac Newton was not the first scientist to attempt to quantify the heavens, he was the first with any measurable accuracy. Lightman writes:


“(Only someone as accomplished as Newton could have been the first to perform such a calculation and have it go almost unnoticed among his other achievements.) If one assumes that the stars are similar objects to our sun, equal in intrinsic luminosity, Newton asked, how far away would our sun have to be in order to appear as faint as nearby stars? Writing his computation in a spidery script, with a quill dipped in the ink of oak galls, Newton correctly concluded that the nearest stars are about one hundred thousand times the distance from Earth to the sun, or roughly ten trillion miles away. Newton’s calculation is contained in a short section of his Principia, titled simply ‘On the Distance of the Stars.’

“Newton’s estimate of the distance to nearby stars was larger than any distance imagined before in human history. Even today, nothing in our experience allows us to relate to it. The fastest most of us has traveled is about five hundred miles per hour, the speed of a jet airplane. If we set out for the nearest star beyond our solar system at that speed, it would take about five million years to reach our destination. If we traveled in the fastest rocket ship ever manufactured on Earth, the trip would take one hundred thousand years, at least a thousand human life spans.”

I like the way his text moves between ancient texts, lived experience, and data. He writes in an inviting and conversational tone which is easy to follow. But more importantly, he draws upon excellent resources, such as Newton.

Perhaps my favorite chapter of his book is called “The Symmetrical Universe.” This fascinating section wonders at nature’s ability for perfect symmetry. Why are planets round and why do we appreciate their size and shape? In another example, he moves into a discussion of the bee’s hive. He writes:


“Each cell of a honeycomb is a nearly perfect hexagon, a space with six identical and equally spaced walls. Isn’t that surprising? Wouldn’t it be more plausible to find cells of all kinds of shapes and sizes, fitted together in a haphazard manner? It is a mathematical truth that there are only three geometrical figures with equal sides that can fit together on a flat surface without leaving gaps: equilateral triangles, squares, and hexagons. Any gaps between cells would be wasted space. Gaps would defeat the principle of economy. Now you might ask why the sides of a cell in a beehive need to be equal in length. It is possible that each cell could have a random shape and unequal sides and the next cell then be custom made to fit into that cell, without gaps. And so on, one cell after another, each one fit to the one before it. But this method of constructing a honeycomb would require that the worker bees work sequentially, one at a time, first making one cell, then fitting the next cell to that, and so on. This procedure would be a waste of time for the bees. Each insect would have to wait in line for the guy in front to finish his cell. If you’ve ever seen bees building a beehive...they don’t wait for one another. They work simultaneously. So the bees need to have a game plan in advance, knowing that all the cells will fit together automatically. Only equilateral triangles, squares and hexagons will do.


“But why hexagons? Here unfolds another fascinating story. More than two thousand years ago, in 36 BC, the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro conjectured that the hexagonal grid is the unique geometrical shape that divides a surface into equal cells with the smallest total perimeter. And the smallest total perimeter, or smallest total length of sides, means the smallest amount of wax needed by the bees to construct their honeycomb. For every ounce of wax, a bee must consume about eight ounces of honey. That’s a lot of work, requiring thousands of visits to thousands of flowers and much flapping of wings. The hexagon minimizes the effort and expense of energy. But Varro had made only a conjecture. Astoundingly, Varro’s conjecture, known by mathematicians as the Honeycomb Conjecture, was proven only recently, in 1999, by the American mathematician Thomas Hales. The bees knew it was true all along.”

This passage highlights my favorite things about this text: he unfolds a variety of outside sources and allusions in order to illuminate a natural principle. It is almost like watching a flower open, where each petal adds a new source or dimension to the original image.

Even more interesting than the perfection of nature or its desire for symmetry, is man’s interaction with nature. Lightman links symmetry to the idea of beauty, but then wonders why man often makes asymmetrical art. He concludes:


“In the end, it is easier to explain why bees construct honeycombs shaped like perfect hexagons than why human beings place identical towers on the sides of the Taj Mahal…. The first is a result of economy and mathematics, the second of psychology and aesthetics.”


The book ends with a chapter titled “The Disembodied Universe.” In it, Lightman expresses remorse for the increasing role that technology plays in the human life. Lightman envisions the future human as part android, or at the very least, inseparable from technology. I believe that, while he is grateful for advances in health and data, etc. as a result of technology, he struggles with this plugged-in human because they are oblivious to nature around them. Up to this point, humans have learned the most by observing nature and clearly we have more to learn. His book is a kind of ode to science in which he also addresses faith, but more broadly, he wonders about this approaching line of human and technology.

The Accidental Universe walks through ways of seeing the universe that are both instructive and beautiful. Time spent pondering this great vast place in which we live can only deepen our humanity.

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An Ancient Southwestern Town

June 14, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Ancient history can be a difficult subject for students because it is inherently foreign to them. Not only is there a language difference, but it is genuinely difficult to envision life removed from today’s technologies. When speaking of ancient cities, most people think of ancient Greece or Rome, but today I want to focus on an ancient city of the southwestern United States.

Chaco Canyon, located in northwestern New Mexico, is a great example of an early city. Archaeologists continue to find information which explains this rare and incredible site to us. Getting there today is not so easy, but in the past, Chaco was the center of a large pueblo system that covered up to 60,000 miles. According to the Chaco Culture Complete Guide by Gian Mercurio and Maxymillian L. Peschel (Chaco Complete Guide),

“There are 400 miles of documented roads that connected Great Houses in the canyon with perhaps 150 large pueblos in all four directions. Eight roads lead out of the canyon…. The Great North Road is mainly aligned to true (celestial) north. Many road segments are aligned to the rising of stars or constellations. In some places there are two parallel pairs of roads, each thirty feet wide and the pairs separated by 50 feet, for no apparent reason…. Outliers, or great houses outside Chaco, are defined by a cluster of small unit pueblos around large public buildings and great kivas. Many are associated with roadways….Through these outliers there is line-of-sight communication between Chaco and Mesa Verde.”

A great kiva on the floor of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

A great kiva on the floor of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Archeologists have identified various construction styles by which they have labeled the phases of Chaco. Archaeologists use dendrochronology (using tree rings to date the construction) as well as noting the level of sophistication in building techniques in order to date the various structures. According to the Chaco Complete Guide, Chaco began as a sparsely populated area. In the beginning (ca. BC 9300) it was used as a hunting ground for mammoth and giant bison. Archaeologists use the term Paleo-Indians for this time up until about 5500 BC in which the pueblo peoples enter the Archaic period. As the hunting grounds changed, so did the peoples who used Chaco. They began to leave small camps filled with stone tools. The Chaco Complete Guide adds that, “Around 3000 BC, the size of camps increased, postholes are found, and the atlatl (spear thrower) came into use, as did cooking in large subsurface ovens. But the people still moved with the seasons.” As the community grew, they began to use caves, they developed basketry and grew maize. Between 800 and 400 BC, they cultivated squash.

From 400-700 AD, many changes began to take place. The bow and arrow was introduced as well as pottery. Beans became a staple diet and most importantly, pit houses allowed for full time residences. During this time, the community began to perfect the pit house model by digging down into the earth one or two feet to allow for better temperature regulation. They also added a center hole at the top of the structure for ventilation. Pit houses then became kivas, as the community built surface houses. These structures contain many levels, often with the lowest and darkest levels reserved for storage which might contain pottery, turquoise, food, baskets, etc.

The remnants of Kin Kletso, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The remnants of Kin Kletso, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Chaco stands apart from other plateau pueblos in that during the massive constructions, it became a town. With large plazas, many kivas, and long apartment-style buildings, Chaco was able to support a large population. Those who lived here spoke many languages, but shared customs, traits and religious views. They also traveled between the various pueblos of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. They traded with tribes from Latin and South America. They exchanged ideas which is demonstrated in the various types of construction styles, pottery styles and clothing. Unfortunately, weather finally forced the peoples to relocate. According to the Chaco Complete Guide, “A fifty year drought began in the mid-1100s. If people continued to live in the canyon there is little evidence of it.”

While they may have had to move to new fields and build new homes, however, many people continued to visit and rely upon the spiritual practices found at Chaco Canyon, which are still practiced today. The Hopi, which would have been one of the peoples present in Chaco’s heyday, incorporated a sipapu, or hole in the center of their floor to represent the “emerging hole.” In this tradition, it is said that “Grandmother Spider and two grandsons, the Hero Twins, led the animals and the people out of the dark land. They climbed a pine tree, moving up to a dimly lit world. Grandmother Spider led them on. As they climbed, it got lighter. At last they emerged from a hole in the floor of a canyon. They stepped out into brightness on the surface of the earth.”* At Chaco, too, they felt that “every tribe came into this world from their own ‘emerging place.’ They were each to migrate from place to place, learning what they needed, until it was time to return to their own center place. Chaco Canyon, for all of its magnificence, was just another stop in their migrations.” (Chaco Complete Guide)

Weather ranges greatly at Chaco. While mostly dry, it can quickly become a flood zone. Winds and breezes blow most days, and when they don’t, the air turns hot. At an elevation of over 6,000 feet, the Chacoans found a climate ideally suited to their needs and built one of the southwest’s first true towns. I wonder what they would be able to tell us about trade and immigration, about community and harvests. How long did they wait out the drought before moving on? How did they identify future communities? Was it difficult to leave the grand, bustling city for a quieter, less-trafficked and distant pueblo?

With over 4,000 archaeological sites, Chaco Canyon makes for an excellent research project, vacation destination, or picnic area. Also, each fall, the National Parks celebrate International Archaeology Day. Check back on their website in the upcoming months to find a celebration near you!

And finally, for teachers who need an archaeology-based lesson plan (for mid to high school), the park service has some resources. Here is one potential lesson plan.

* From The Hopis: A First Americans Book by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, 1995.

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Dante's Position

November 10, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

In an attempt to better understand how we orient ourselves in life, I turn to Dante.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante begins nearly every canto by determining his location. This works twofold as it locates the reader as well as the narrator. The reader first meets Dante in a dark wood where he is surprised by a scary and threatening creature. Afraid, he stands and explains, “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard it is to tell what that wood was, wild, rugged, harsh.... I cannot rightly say how I entered it, I was so full of sleep at the moment I left the true way”. From the very beginning, the reader understands that this is not the average journey through rugged mountains, but something more existential, something personal and revelatory. This journey which promises to take Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven is a spiritual journey. In other words, Dante's internal path was lost and this is his attempt to find his better self.

I can absolutely see how, politically speaking, he had lost his way. Born in Florence in 1265, Dante participated in and witnessed the devastating results of political and religious factions that tore apart his community, family, friends and city. The Guelph faction supported the Pope, whereas the Ghibelline faction supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Guelph families tended to be aristocratic or wealthy, whereas the wealth of the Ghibelline party was focused in agriculture. Therefore, Dante was born into a great deal of political strife that ripped apart the seams of Florence, and medieval Italy. In this growing divide, he witnessed all manner of sin, even from those leaders who were sworn to pursue truth. Dante turned his growing disillusionment with politics and religion into The Divine Comedy in which he lambastes all sinners. Many of the people he places in hell are of high religious orders. He spares no one on this journey – himself included.

How does one locate the self within society? How do we find direction that comforts and guides us? Dante clearly relied upon the church – but the moral depravity of some church figures made him question his own leaders. It is in this state of mind that he enters the dark forest. Lucky for Dante, his idol Virgil comes to rescue him. Virgil has been sent, of course by Beatrice. First of all, I love the idea of the reverse fairy tale – Beatrice saves Dante and not the reverse. And second, I love that they physically lead him to Heaven through the use of dialogue and his own two feet. Though he regards Virgil and Beatrice in a highly idealized state, they do, for the most part, make him earn the light.

Of course, this virtual tour of heaven and hell comes with constant reminders about navigation. Dante orients himself by using: stars, terrain, height and depth, light and dark, and of course, Virgil and Beatrice. Location is of great importance to everyone in the work. Dante introduces each figure by understanding what region and family they are from. This technique, of course, would have resonated with his readers. There is a mathematical precision to his work which relies upon place, date, astrology, religion and symbolism.

Sight is of extreme importance in this orientation. Dante seeks approval before approaching shades (in the "Inferno" and "Purgatorio") and lights (those in "Paradiso"). Both Virgil and Beatrice make eye contact as a way of acceptance or rejection. The juxtaposition of eye contact is made stronger in the Inferno, in which people are often backwards, upside down or sumberged in some pit. In "Paradiso", Dante always looks to Beatrice for approval and receives it from her glowing eyes. She smiles often, unlike those in the painful regions below. As he reaches the highest realms of Paradise, joy also heightens, reflected in the constant orientation towards light. We see how this light acts as a compass in the following few examples:

“And now the life of that holy light had turned again to the Sun which fills it, as to that Good which is sufficient to all things. Ah, souls deceived and creatures impious, who from such Good turn away your hearts, directing your brows to vanity!

“And lo! Another of those splendors made toward me and by brightening outwardly was signifying its wish to please me. Beatrice's eyes, fixed on me as before, made me assured of dear assent to my desire.” (Par., Canto IX)

“[F]rom the heart of one of the new lights there came a voice which made me seem as the needle to the star in turning me to where it was” (Par., Canto XII)

“Let him imagine, who would rightly grasp what I now beheld (and, while I speak, let him hold the image firm as a rock), fifteen stars which in different regions vivify the heaven with such great brightness that it overcomes every thickness of the air; let him imagine that Wain for which the bosom of our heaven suffices night and day so that with the turning of the pole it does not disappear; let him imagine the mouth of that Horn which begins at the end of the axle on which the first wheel revolves – all to have made of themselves two signs in the heavens like that which the daughter of Minos made when she felt the chill of death; and one to have its rays within the other, and both to revolve in such manner that one should go first and the other after; and he will have as it were a shadow of the true constellation, and of the double dance, which was circling round the point where I was; for it is as far beyond our experience as the motion of the heaven that outspeeds all the rest is beyond the motion of the Chiana.” (Par., Canto XIII)

This last passage is particularly difficult for the modern reader unfamiliar with astronomy, mythology or medieval Italy. The notes supply the fact that Wain = Big Dipper, the Horn = the last two stars of the hornlike Little Dipper (Ursa Minor); the daughter of Minos was Ariadne whose crown was turned into a constellation; and finally, Chiana is a river in Tuscany.

In this short paragraph alone, we have a number of orientations that may challenge us. I wonder if these navigation points would have challenged Dante's contemporaries, or only those of us so far removed from the middle ages? In other words, is this work meant to challenge everyone, to unsettle and unseat us, make us uncomfortable with our own knowledge? Regardless of our astrological awareness, I think his point is that, even in connecting with the light, even after visiting with Virgil and Beatrice, forward movement requires a lot of self-evaluation. While it is easy to use GPS in day to day navigation, Dante reminds us how fruitful it can be to focus on points of importance. Our moral compass may depend upon the ways in which we search.

In The Divine Comedy, we are left with the shadow of Dante, much like the shadow of the Argo: “A single moment makes from me greater oblivion than five and twenty centuries have wrought upon the enterprise that made Neptune wonder at the shadow of the Argo. Thus my mind, all rapt, was gazing, fixed, motionless, and intent, ever enkindled by its gazing. In that Light one becomes such that it is impossible he should ever consent to turn himself from it for other sight; for the good, which is the object of the will, is all gathered in it, and outside of it that is defective which is perfect there” (Par., Canto XXXIII).

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Planets, Planets, Planets

October 13, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The vastness of heavens stretches my imagination... Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” - Richard Feynman

In 1609, Johannes Kepler published a few surprising details. First, he said, “the orbits of the planets are ellipses with the sun at one focus.” Then he added, “the time it takes a planet to travel from one position in its orbit to another is proportional to the area swept out by a planet in that time.” This comes almost 70 years after Copernicus corrected Aristotle's view of the heavens. Aristotle's versions were so widely accepted that Copernicus's assertion that placed the sun in the center of the universe upset many people. Kepler, too, shocked with his description of elliptical orbits around the sun. It was not until Newton arrived on the scene that these theories were put to scientific tests. In fact, Newton explained a lot about the celestial beings in his laws of motion. While Newton used calculus to support his scientific findings, he realized that he had to explain the motions in terms that other scientists in his day might understand. Therefore, he proved the motions of the planets using plane geometry. (“Just for fun”, Richard Feynman proved the same in his “lost lecture”, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcD-5UfY1g0 )

Aristotle believed in natural final forms. In his book Meteorology, he explains his hierarchical system which includes: fire, air, water, earth. What may sound trivial to us is incredibly complicated, however. Aristotle observed a great number of events – some of them celestial – and attempted to explain them or their origins within his working framework. Yet even Aristotle understood that his categorization was incomplete. He admits the limits of scientific language in explaining his theories. He argues for a more scientific understanding of the processes on earth. He writes, “Some say that what is called air, when it is in motion and flows, is wind, and that this same air when it condenses again becomes cloud and water, implying that nature of wind and water is the same. So they define wind as a motion of the air. Hence some, wishing to say a clever thing, assert that all the winds are one wind, because the air that moves is in fact all of it one and the same; they maintain that the winds appear to differ owing to the region from which the air may happen to flow on each occasion, but really do not differ at all. This is just like thinking that all rivers are one and the same river, and the ordinary unscientific view is better than a scientific theory like this. If all rivers flow from one source, and the same is true in the case of the winds, there might be some truth in this theory; but if it is no more true in the one case than in the other, this ingenious idea is plainly false. What requires investigation is this: the nature of wind and how it originates, its efficient cause and whence they derive their source; whether one ought to think of the wind as issuing from a sort of vessel and flowing until the vessel is empty, as if let out of a wineskin, or, as painters represent the winds, as drawing their source from themselves.” Science often requires metaphor, and Aristotle certainly used this linguistic device. Drawing upon the idea of vessels being filled or emptied or the idea of a wineskin helps others understand his theory. It also helps to explain when there is no language for explanation. At times he writes of “stuff” or ambiguous “forms” and explains that we must use this terminology because it is what we have to use.

Creating a language for something new requires thought and metaphor. Proper nouns often rely upon metaphor or story. This is especially true of celestial beings. When Uranus was discovered in 1781, there was no standard of naming. It wasn't until 1850 that Uranus was officially accepted and a process for naming celestial beings was established. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded in 1919, now controls all names. Assuming that all planets within our solar system have been identified, they deal mostly with moons, surface features, asteroids, and comets.

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been recognized in the heavens throughout history. The next three planets were identified as technology advanced. First Uranus in 1781, then Neptune in 1846 and, if you want to include it, Pluto in 1930. Early cultures identified the movement of the planets with the movement of mythological beings. For this reason, Romans named Venus after the goddess of love, who would surely be epitomized by the brightest and most beautiful celestial being. Mars, of course, the god of War, takes on a reddish appearance, and Mercury whose orbit is so short, moves swiftly on winged feet. Merriam-Webster tells us that Earth, ironically, comes from the Indo-European base 'er,'which produced the Germanic noun 'ertho,' and ultimately German 'erde,' Dutch 'aarde,' Scandinavian 'jord,' and English 'earth.' Related forms include Greek 'eraze,' meaning 'on the ground,' and Welsh 'erw,' meaning 'a piece of land.' Jupiter, the largest and most massive of the planets was named Zeus by the Greeks and Jupiter by the Romans. This name depends entirely upon size because he was the most important deity in both pantheons. Saturn (Cronos in Greek) was the father of Zeus/Jupiter. Since it is visible by the naked eye, Saturn has a variety of names from other cultures as well. (Find a wonderful list of names gathered from many cultures here: http://nineplanets.org/days.html ). Uranus was first seen in 1781 as noted above, named for the father of Cronos/Saturn. Neptune followed in 1846 and is named for the Roman god of the sea. Pluto is named after the Roman god of the underworld. The name especially fits this body because Pluto can make himself invisible at will, as does Pluto in its orbit.

As science continues to push to exoplanets and quantum physics, language will continue to evolve. As technology jumps from email to iPhones to cloud computing, we continue to see metaphors emerge and converge, proving that language must evolve simultaneously with culture.

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