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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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Comedy Hour

October 4, 2019

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

In a 2014 interview with David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld says that he was inspired to create Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to play with a new format, something that could be viewed on a phone. This occurred to him at a time when recent changes to technology have really disbanded old-school structures in media. No longer must a sitcom, for example, be 22 minutes long with breaks for commercials. Rather, on-demand and streaming devices leave the show length up to writers, directors, and artists. Seinfeld says, “The show happening at the time that it did, and the internet and being able to watch things streaming, a few years ago, I never could have done it. The fact that I could make the shows any length I wanted - that gave me the freedom to do it.” While Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is not a sitcom, but rather an interview, Seinfeld completely upends stereotypes. Camera angles move, cars drive the scenes, and interviews are chopped from three hours down to fifteen minutes.

During this same interview, Seinfeld relates the story of the show’s development. He explains that most of the tech-gurus steered him away from longer formats. They claimed that five minutes was a social-media breaking point and that the majority of people would not watch programs longer than five minutes. Seinfeld disregarded this advice in order to include all of the elements that he wanted to address. The show has no consistent length, but generally runs twelve to eighteen minutes. These edited interviews move between cars and coffeeshops. Seinfeld believes that since the show has no plot or narrative, the action must be artificially introduced. He says, “I think part of what makes the show watchable is that it’s moving. There’s an energy. When you have no narrative drive, you’re not telling a story, no one’s waiting to see what happens - we know they’re gonna get coffee, that’s the only story - you need a kinetic energy. So it’s like, take a talk show and make it move and make it outside and then maybe you could sit through the eleven or twelve minutes that it takes.” This is done via the car as well as moving into different locations. The show usually begins with a focus feature of the car for the episode, picked to match the comedian. Then, Seinfeld includes a phone-call invitation to coffee. After Seinfeld picks up his guest, the conversation is taped and then edited. They may choose scenes from the car, while walking, and while ordering and eating.

One of the most important aspects of comedy, for me at least, is the way that it resonates with so many people at one time. While anyone can be funny within the confines of their family or friends, it is much more difficult to craft a joke that grabs the diversity of a crowd. When discussing his previous television hit show Seinfeld, he explains the amount of years and experience that it takes to get to the point where jokes can be universal. Of course, a joke can capitalize on contemporary rhetoric, but it mostly has to do with rhythm, pacing, grammar, brevity, and timing. In short, it has to do with language.

During his 2017 Netflix stand-up routine Jerry Before Seinfeld, Seinfeld stands on a city street among a series of notes written on yellow legal pads. These notes are actually jokes that he spent years writing and perfecting. He begins with an idea, sketches it on paper, and crosses out bits that may not (or did not) work. Later, in a Wall Street Journal article, he explains why a joke about cereal is funny with Nietzsche’s name included, but in the end, he cut out the part about Nietzsche because it wasn’t universal enough. "You're always trying to trim everything down to absolute rock, solid rock," says Seinfeld. "I will sit there for 15 minutes to make it one syllable shorter." Seinfeld labors over the rhythm of the words, their sound, the delivery and their brevity. Furthermore, in the Letterman interview Seinfeld compares a stand-up routine to a machine built. While the act has been carefully crafted and structured, it often appeals more when it sounds off-the-cuff.

The elements of movement, of unknown length, comedic focus, attention to craft, and diverse personalities all remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. (I am guessing that you didn’t see that coming.) In truth, Chaucer knew all of those pointers and learned them the way that Seinfeld did – by trial and error. Chaucer read poetry in a small, private salon for much of his life in London, but rarely read in public. We consider him one of the first English poets, but truthfully, he combined so many elements that I hate to pin him to a single genre. He lived at a time in England when language was a mix of Latin, English, and French. Chaucer collected tropes and rhetoric from all three of these cultures in a way that was unique and universally appealing. In The Canterbury Tales, he often repeats a joke throughout an entire narrative. For example, in “The Miller’s Tale” (one of the more humorous in the collection), Chaucer alludes to a variety of flowers when describing Alisoun. An awareness of this seemingly small detail sets up the ironic ending when, instead of smelling like flowers, Alisoun offers her backside and a nasty smelling toot to Absolon’s kiss. A key to Chaucer’s success with The Canterbury Tales is his effectual buildup of symbols which overemphasizes the ironic or humorous – the same is true of stand-up. In other words, Chaucer was playing with these ideas of stand-up comedy way back in the 1380s and 90s. As Seinfeld explained, it also took Chaucer most of his life to compile these jokes and organize them into the very appealing Canterbury Tales.

While I traditionally study language and literature, I have become increasingly interested in humor. Luckily for me, humor can now be formally studied through the Ideas for Inquiry at Harrison Middleton University. Scroll through the list of Ideas on our website for a sampling of what we offer!


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A Core's Strength

September 27, 2019

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

If you have been to a personal trainer or regularly attend the gym, you understand the importance of the core. All of our limbs extend from a core whose strength allows us to be upright, graceful, and strong. In other words, core fitness is essential for the body’s freedom of movement. While there has always been a focus on core strength, equipment for the core has drastically increased in recent years. Things such as the bosu ball, TRX bands, medicine balls and the large exercise ball have been added to our existing planks, pushups, and situps. Many of these intend to create a destabilizing effect, which, in turn, makes the core work harder to attain balance.

I know what this term means in relation to the human body, but I also hear it when discussing a core curriculum or core beliefs. I believe that “core curriculum” encompasses a number of vital texts necessary for cultural dialogue. Core texts are meant to be the internal structure around which you deepen your knowledge of a subject, such as religion or love or justice. Many schools begin by selecting a standard, core curriculum. Some of these texts may come and go as they age, though the majority will remain. I began to wonder if these two usages of core have the same meaning. Am I conflating two different things? I realize that the question, are abdominal muscles in any way related to a core curriculum, is a bit absurd. But, are they?

Merriam-Webster includes three separate definitions for core. First, “a central and often foundational part usually distinct from the enveloping part by a difference in nature.” Under this definition they include such things as fruit cores, computer parts, and elevator shafts. The second definition reads, “a basic, essential, or enduring part (as of an individual, a class, or an entity).” Third is the standalone (meaning that it has no bulleted or additional parts to the definition): “a part (such as a thin cylinder of material) removed from the interior of a mass especially to determine composition.” It is important that the first definition introduces a difference in nature – in that the two substances naturally exist together, but are essentially different somehow, like the apple and its core.

Furthermore, while core’s etymology is unknown, it is thought to have arrived during Middle English, perhaps borrowed from French. If it means the center, then the gym terminology makes sense. All limbs extend from a center, so it only makes sense to concentrate on the center for balance and strength. Furthermore, without a strong core, the human body also loses balance. This idea reiterates how I feel about core texts. They are vital. They increase stability and movement. They make minds nimble, intelligent, directed.

These various definitions helped me to further investigate the complexity of this term. Which definition of “core” do we mean when we say our “core beliefs” or “core texts”? Can it be that we are speaking about two different kinds of text? To me, it seems that core texts are the basic, enduring ones which speak about issues central to our knowledge base. A core text is essential, but so is an apple core. Yet the core text is supposedly of the same material as the rest of texts, just more important, whereas an apple core is different in kind from the apple’s skin and flesh. Furthermore, it seems ironic that, in the apple, the core is inedible and generally thrown away. On the other hand, it contains seeds, which are vital to the fruit’s existence, and so they are obviously not always thrown away, but also create seedlings. When distinguishing a core text, however, I often find that there are texts that speak more urgently or directly about issues that matter. Yet, I also find utility and interest in nearly everything. So, I am back to the question of, in what sense do we use the term core texts? With an apple, the answer is simple, bite into it until you reach a difference in texture. Perhaps the same is true of texts; that our responsibility is to sample enough to know the difference ourselves.

Columbia College coined the term “core curriculum” in 1919. Their website explains : “The Core Curriculum is the set of common courses required of all undergraduates and considered the necessary general education for students, irrespective of their choice in major. The communal learning - with all students encountering the same texts and issues at the same time - and the critical dialogue experienced in small seminars are the distinctive features of the Core. Begun in the early part of the 20th century, the Core Curriculum is one of the founding experiments in liberal higher education in the United States and it remains vibrant as it enters its tenth decade. Not only academically rigorous but also personally transformative for students, the Core seminar thrives on oral debate of the most difficult questions about human experience. What does it mean, and what has it meant to be an individual? What does it mean, and what has it meant to be part of a community? How is human experience relayed and how is meaning made in music and art? What do we think is, and what have we thought to be worth knowing? By what rules should we be governed? The habits of mind developed in the Core cultivate a critical and creative intellectual capacity that students employ long after college, in the pursuit and the fulfillment of meaningful lives.” This, then, explains how core texts begin the dialogue about what it means to be human. They endeavor to find and/or illuminate the center of humanity, which extends in many different ways on many different limbs.

Of course, Harrison Middleton University also functions on discussion-based learning, centered around the human experience. The website states , “We at Harrison Middleton University believe that the study of the humanities is both timeless and timely because it focuses on the central questions of human existence, lasting debates that bear directly on the problems we face today. And in a time when information of all kinds is increasingly fragmented, the study of ancient and modern classics provides a rich source of fundamental knowledge and unifying ideas.” While there is a core, much is left to the student’s discretion. The student’s personal path toward entering into this dialogue is of great importance at Harrison Middleton University.

It does matter which voices we teach and hear and listen to. It does matter what we include in our definition of core texts. Very often it can be nearly impossible to decide upon core texts for a broad group of people. And yet, we must, at the very least, discuss what composes our core. I do believe that conversation about what fits into this elite category is as vital as its existence. Culturally speaking, we must maintain foundational points of reference, even if we disagree on what or why. This dialogue gets at the heart of culture and society in a healthy way, very similar to the way that the core of the human body does. In the gym, we have toys which exercise our core. Personally, I like the destabilizing effects of a bosu, and I like it in my texts as well. I think we have as many different core texts as we do toys in the gym because it is good to remember that our minds require just as much exercise.

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Words from a Stoic

September 20, 2019

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

This post is dedicated to Michael Francis Troy (October 3, 1940-August 3, 2019).

The important role that teachers play in students’ lives is well documented. As children move through school, teachers’ responsibilities include instruction, comfort, and guidance to young students. I can name a number of teachers who greatly influenced my thoughts and ideas and I am grateful for them all. However, as students age, they spend less and less time with teachers. While elementary school places a student with a single teacher for a full day, middle school, high school, and university move the student toward one-hour classes. This evolution is meant to make the student more responsible and independent. Also at this time, children often increase participation in extracurricular hobbies, whether it be sports, music, volunteer opportunities, or group activities. Oftentimes, the child will spend a great deal of time in these extracurricular activities, which means that they will interact with a coach or leader with higher frequency than with a typical teacher. These people bear such an incredible responsibility during the students’ very formative years, often filling the role of mentor and/or counselor.

As a student and athlete, I often identified with a stoic-like mentality, probably due to my own mentor. For this reason, I have chosen quotes from Epictetus as a way to celebrate and underscore the importance of those extra-special mentors in our lives, many of whom are volunteers. A society grows great because of leaders who give back to the community in these very meaningful, but often dismissed, roles. Thanks to all the mentors, coaches, music instructors, group leaders, volunteers, and counselors who inspire our youth!

All quotes are from Epictetus’ Discourses, Book III, (translated by George Long).


~ “Adorn your will, take away bad opinions.”

~ “The only contest into which he enters is that about things which are within the power of his will; how then will he not be invincible?”

~ “Do not desire many things, and you will have what you want.”

~ “Examine a little at last, look around, stir yourself up, that you may know who you are.”

~ “God says, ‘Give me proof that you have duly practiced athletics, that you have eaten what you ought, that you have been exercised….’ Then do you show yourself weak when the time for action comes? Now is the time for the fever. Let it be borne well. Now is the time for thirst, bear it well; now is the time for hunger, bear it well. Is it not in your power? Who shall hinder you? The physician will hinder you from drinking; but he cannot prevent you from bearing thirst well: and he will hinder you from eating; but he cannot prevent you from bearing hunger well.”

~ “Practice sometimes a way of living like a person out of health that you may at some time live like a man in health.”

~ “[I]t is impossible that a man can keep company with one who is covered with soot without being partaker of the soot himself.”

~ “[F]ix your opinions and exercise yourselves in them.”

~ “Correct the child, improve him. In this way even when we are grown up we are like children. For he who is unmusical is a child in music; he who is without letters is a child in learning; he who is untaught, is a child in life.”


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