Astronomy Imaging

June 9, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon for today's post.

In the Syntopicon (Astronomy and Cosmology chapter), Mortimer Adler notes that “Man has used astronomy to measure not only the passage of time or the course of a voyage, but also his position in the world, his power of knowing, his relation to God. When man first turns from himself and his immediate earthly surroundings to the larger universe of which he is a part, the object which presses on his vision is the overhanging firmament with its luminous bodies, moving with great basic regularity and, upon closer observation, with certain perplexing irregularities. Always abiding and always changing, the firmament, which provides man with the visible boundary of his universe, also becomes for him a basic, in fact, an inescapable, object of contemplation.” While this quote attempts to encapsulate stars' effect on the human imagination, it is still rather difficult to ascertain what exactly we feel when we gaze up at the heavens.

Astronomers are now able to gather data from such distances as boggle the mind. And at each turn, more questions arise. We wonder about human existence, about our fragility or stability, about life itself, and also about the supernatural. Somehow the vastness of space, the clarity of stars, and the unknowable processes of galaxies grab our imagination in a powerful way. This does not necessarily lead to questions of deities, but rather to our place among the vast and complex unknowns. For example, Lucretius invites contemplation of the heavens to inspire freedom from all constraints (such as religion). Ironically, for Lucretius, seeking vast unknowns can simultaneously turn our vision inward into a realm of peace.

However, in Plato, Timaeus says “Had we never seen the stars, and the sun, and the heaven, none of the words which we have spoken about the universe would ever have been uttered.” For Timaeus, then, humans seek definitions. Words define our borders, which in turn, also allows us to approach the supernatural.

Imagining the non-existence of space is impossible for me. It would be as if the earth had no water. I am not sure if the stars exist solely to spark our imagination, or if they are meant to serve some higher purpose. All I know is that time spent looking at the heavens is never wasted.

Over the next few weeks, this blog will host a variety of astronomical images. All of the images and information come from Richard Johnson, amateur astronomer. We are indebted to Richard for compiling these wonderful images to further spark our imagination. A few textual citations from ancient astronomers will be sprinkled throughout. We hope you enjoy.

Andromeda Galaxy (M 31). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).

Andromeda Galaxy (M 31). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).


- The Andromeda Galaxy (M 31) is the nearest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy being only 2.5 million light years (mly) from Earth. This nearby galaxy is a huge aggregation of stars, gas, and dust which allows us to study all the features of our own galaxy that we cannot observe because we are inside it. Although Andromeda is the largest galaxy of the local group, it may not be the most massive. Recent findings suggest that the Milky Way Galaxy contains more dark matter, implying that it is much denser than M 31. Observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2006 revealed that M 31 contains one trillion stars, several times the number of our galaxy (estimated at 300 to 400 billion). The Andromeda Galaxy is approaching the Milky Way, and the two are expected to collide in about 2.5 billion years. A likely outcome of the collision is that the galaxies will merge to form a giant elliptical galaxy - a common event in large galaxy groups. The rate of star formation in the Milky Way is much higher than the Andromeda Galaxy. The rate of supernovae development in the Milky Way is also double that of the Andromeda Galaxy. This suggests that M 31 experienced a great star formation phase, but is now in a relative state of quiescence, whereas the Milky Way is experiencing more active star formation.


Pinwheel Galaxy (M 101). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson)

Pinwheel Galaxy (M 101). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson)

- M 101 Pinwheel Galaxy (NGC 5457) is a very large, relatively nearby, face-on spiral galaxy. M 101 is located in the constellation Ursa Major, at a distance of about 27 million light years from Earth as determined from the Hubble Space Telescope observations. M 101 is a large galaxy with a diameter of 170,000 ly, comparable in size to the Milky Way Galaxy. The galaxy is remarkably asymmetric due to the tidal forces from interactions with its companion galaxies, with its core considerably displaced from the center of its disk. Another remarkable property of this galaxy is its large number of star-forming H II regions. H II regions are enormous clouds of high density molecular hydrogen gas, ionized by large numbers of hot, bright, young stars forming within them.


Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).

Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).

- The Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51, NGC 5194) is one of the most conspicuous and best-known spiral galaxies in the sky. M 51 is located in the constellation Canes Venatici about 28 million light years (mly) from earth (distance estimates ranging from 15 and 35 mly). M 51 is interacting with its much smaller neighbor, NGC 5195. Visually, the two systems appear to be actually connected. However photographs of the system reveal that they are not connected as the dark dust lanes of the large spiral curve in front of the companion. It is thought that a black hole surrounded by a ring of dust exists at the heart of the spiral. The Whirlpool Galaxy reaches high altitudes throughout the northern hemisphere making it an accessible observing target from the early hours in the winter through the end of the spring season.

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National Poetry Month

April 28, 2017

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

Did you know that Poetry is listed as one of the Great Ideas in the Syntopicon? If you didn't you are not alone. However, the importance of this inclusion is often overlooked. Since it is National Poetry Month, now is the best time to better understand why poetry might be considered one of the “great ideas”. For me, poetry is an easy sell. It's like a puzzle that the reader can assemble and reassemble at will. It may continue to be a puzzle, and maybe the final piece remains missing or blurred. I do understand how annoying it can be when we do not understand something. Yet, I continue to be drawn into poems because of the universality of the emotions and ideas given through a unique voice, experience and vision.

Mortimer Adler links the poetic conversation back to Aristotle and Socrates. In the Syntopicon, Adler suggests that authors like Kant and Plato judge poetry by its contribution to knowledge. Poetry, without a doubt, creates connections that can lead to knowledge. Furthermore, Adler suggests that poets have an obligation to speak or find a truth. Poetry brings this about not through fact alone, but by imaginative associations. For Bacon, poetry leads the imagination of the reader through the imagination of the author. This is important because it is precisely this technique that defines the great ideas themselves. All of this learning, education and fact-finding is founded upon the idea that great ideas have traveled and changed throughout history, by a variety of peoples and cultures. These great writers transcribed their thoughts, experiences, facts and data into conversations. Poems, then, are simply structured rooms of play that allow one to learn, grow or understand through someone else's eyes and experience.

The following examples give just a taste of some poetic voices that we discuss.


“So, on you move/ Over the seas and mountains, over streams/ Whose ways are fierce, over the greening leas,/ Over the leafy tenements of birds,/ So moving that in all the ardor burns/ For generation and their kind's increase,/ Since you alone control the way things are./ Since without you no thing has ever come/ Into the radiant boundaries of light,/ Since without you nothing is ever glad,/ And nothing ever lovable, I need,/ I need you with me, goddess, in the poem/ I try to write here, on the Way Things Are.” - Lucretius, The Way Things Are


"I and my company were old and slow/ When at the narrow passage we arrived/ Where Hercules his landmarks set as signals,/ That man no farther onward should adventure./ On the right hand behind me left I Seville/ And on the other already had left Ceuta./ 'O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand/ Perils,' I said, 'have come unto the West,/ To this so inconsiderable vigil/ Which is remaining of your senses still/ Be ye unwilling to deny the knowledge, following the sun, of the unpeopled world./ Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;/ Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,/ But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.'" - Dante Alighieri, "The Inferno"


“Our terrors and our darknesses of mind/ Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine's rays,/ Not by those shining arrows of the light,/ But by insight into nature, and a scheme/ Of systematic contemplation. So/ Our starting-point shall be this principle:/ Nothing at all is ever born from nothing/ By the god's will.” - Lucretius, The Way Things Are


“What are the stars? There is the sun, the sun!/ And the most patient brilliance of the moon!/ And stars by the thousands!/ Point me out the way/ To any one particular beauteous star,/ And I will flit into it with my lyre,/ And make its silvery splendour pant with bliss./ I have heard the cloudy thunder: Where is power?/ Whose hand, whose essence, what divinity/ Makes this alarum in the elements,/ While I here idle listen on the shores/ In fearless yet in aching ignorance?/ O tell me, lonely Goddess, by thy harp,/ That waileth every morn and eventide,/ Tell me why thus I rave, about these groves!/ Mute thou remainest – Mute! Yet I can read/ A wonderous lesson in they silent face:/ Knowledge enormous makes a God of me./ Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions,/ Majesties, sovran voices, agonies,/ Creations and destroyings, all at once/ Pour into the wide hollows of my brain,/ And deify me, as if some blithe wine/ Or bright elixir peerless I had drunk,/ And so become immortal.” - John Keats, “Hyperion”


“Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs;/ Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes/ Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,/ Let's choose executors and talk of wills: And yet not so, for what can we bequeath/ Save our deposed bodies to the ground?/ Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke's,/ And nothing can we call our own but death/ And that small model of the barren earth/ Which serves as pste and cover to our bones./ For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings:/ How some have been deposed; some slain in war;/ Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;/ Some poison'd by their wives; some sleeping kill'd;/ All murder'd: for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,/ Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,/ Allowing him a breath, a little scene,/ To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks,/ Infusing him with self and vain conceit,/ As if this flesh which walls about our life/ Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus/ Comes at last and with a little pin/ Bores through this castle wall, and farewell king!” - Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of King Richard II”


“And no rock/ If there were rock/ And also water/ And water/ A spring/ A pool among the rock/ If there were the sound of water only/ Not the cicada/ And dry grass singing/ But sound of water over a rock/ Where the hermit thrush sings in the pine trees/ Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop/ But there is no water.” - T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”


“Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing/ countless little pellucid jellies/ in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains./ The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged./ The waves are running in verses this fine morning./ Please come flying.” - Elizabeth Bishop, “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”


“proud flesh,/ as all flesh/ is proud of its wounds, wears them/ as honors given out after battle,/ small triumphs pinned to the chest - / And when two people have loved each other/ see how it is like a/ scar between their bodies,/ stronger, darker, and proud;/ how the black cord makes them a single fabric/ that nothing can tear or mend.” - Jane Hirshfield, “For What Binds Us”

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Honor in Richard II

December 9, 2016

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

Last week was the first of four scheduled discussions of Harrison Middleton University's film course on The Hollow Crown series. Ben Whishaw portrays Richard II in Shakespeare's play by the same name. In it, Bolingbroke (Henry IV) steals the throne from Richard II. Shakespeare grants beautifully sad speeches of longing to Richard as he falls from grace. Whishaw delivers these lines with excellence. As the play progresses, the viewer comes to understand Richard's fragility and gentle nature. The movie reinforces his character while brilliantly adhering to the text. It also delivers a host of excellent actors, rich landscapes, costumes and settings.

More than all of these excellent traits, however, the viewer sees the development of Richard's complex character. The struggle for honor begins from the very first scene when Richard's path undeniably intertwines with Bolingbroke's (the future Henry IV). As soon as Richard banishes Bolingbroke, their honors are joined. It seems clear that from this point forward neither can be totally honorable, but also that they must gain honor only at the other's expense. Cleary, Richard does not understand the meaning of honor at the beginning of the play. When Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason, Richard does not fully grasp the severity of the situation. Further, when Bolinbroke and Mowbray agree to settle the dispute via joust, King Richard intervenes at the last possible moment. In other words, in their moment of glory (or death), Richard has stolen their ability to attain honor. It is unclear from the play and the movie, why exactly he stops the fight. When he speaks to them in his private tent, Richard decides that banishment is the best course of action. Richard's behavior thus far is highly irregular for a king. It is not until the third act, after Bolingbroke returns with an army, that Richard begins to understand the frailty of his position.

It is true that Richard was unconventional, and by all accounts, not a very good king. He was a bit amoral, proven by the fact that he wished for Gaunt's death (his own uncle), in order to take his money and land without a fight. Furthermore, he drained all of England's funds without replenishing the source of money. At the very least, people were dismayed at his leadership, but until Bolingbroke returned with an army, Richard was the unquestioned, divinely appointed king. One could say that Richard's lack of honor was his undoing.

Ironically, then, Bolingbroke's intense desire to maintain his reputation and honor, causes destruction of another kind. It is nearly the inverse of Richard's lack of care regarding reputation. For one, reputation has been maintained via integrity and struggle. For the other, divine rights have always granted him position, title, money and prestige. Richard did not struggle and therefore, does not understand the cost of its loss. And yet, with his fall, Richard fully grasps what he could not previously understand. In that fall, then, Richard attains a kind of honor only possible through a struggle of this kind.

In beginning to comprehend his loss, Richard claims that the grasp for honor reaches through a hollow crown and cycles endlessly. Richard says,

“For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings:/ How some have been deposed; some slain in war;/ Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; / Some poison'd by their wives; some sleeping kill'd;/ All murder'd: for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits/ Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,/ Allowing him a breath, a little scene,/ To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks,/ Infusing him with self and vain conceit,/ As if this flesh which walls about our life/ Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus/ Comes at the last and with a little pin/ Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”

A little too late, Richard realizes power's fragility and his own mortality. Richard mistakenly assumed that honor was his without the need to grasp at it. Death sits atop this crown, no matter who wears it. As he fully comprehends the weakness of his situation, he understands the shame that he is to bear and in bearing it, gains a bit of honor.

In a later scene, Richard is forced to publicly crown Bolingbroke. Here, the viewer sees Bolingbroke's hand grasp the metallic crown in the same way that it grasps a sword or lance. He fights and in fighting gains reputation and prestige. This honor is different from Richard's, yet bound up in the same name, in the same hollow circle, adorned and empty, death lurking. King Henry IV comes to find that he cannot trust others and that fighting now defines him. In handing the crown to Bolingbroke, Richard says,

“Here, cousin, seize the crown;/ Here cousin;/ On this side my hand, and on that side yours/ Now is this golden crown like a deep well/ That owes two buckets, filling one another,/ The emptier ever dancing in the air,/ The other down, unseen, and full of water:/ That bucket down and full of tears am I,/ Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.”

This image of a bucket balancing in the air can be filled by anyone, as Richard now knows. Bolingbroke believes that honorable leadership will grant him peace and stability. He does not envision the damage that he has caused by unnaturally usurping the throne and, moreover, by causing such a rift within his own bloodline. And yet, if Bolingbroke had not tried to reclaim his lands and possessions, he would be bound by dishonor and poverty. All this because Richard did not see the repercussions of an argument of treason, and because he could not stomach the fight between two kinsmen.

These two characters, these two opposites, beautifully demonstrate honor's fluid nature. To be human is to err. Shakespeare uncovers an important truth in the comparison of Bolingbroke and Richard: that our fortunes are bound inexorably with one another's. Bolingbroke's path is set in motion by an unthinking Richard. And Richard gains honor only in his fall at the hands of Bolingbroke.

You will not regret dedicating some study to these plays. If you have the time, please join us for our next discussion of Henry IV, Part 1, on January 12, 2017. Email for more information.

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After the Adirondacks

“But to what purpose/ Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves/ I do not know.” - T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”


October 7, 2016

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

Recently, I was blessed with the opportunity to attend Philosophy Camp in the Adirondacks of New York. St. John's College in Santa Fe and SUNY-ESF campuses combined forces to offer this fantastic experience. I will continue to dwell on some of the points discussed during this exceptional conference, but in the meantime, here are a few reflections based upon the time among vibrant trees and colorful conversation.

I wanted to attend this conference with the idea of listening first and speaking second. I am not sure if I achieved my goal because, of course, I did participate. But in separating from our daily lives and heading into the forest, I think we each desired a moment of peace and perhaps even a moment of clarity. I am curious about the ways in which so many of us are able to disconnect and also reconnect (or even connect at all). One of the questions that the group struggled with was a way to understand, visualize and discuss time. It is something so inherent in our being, yet we rarely take note of the language we use regarding time or how it structures our internal lives. Is there a way to comprehend the metaphor of time in some sort of container? Is there a way to capture the connections we forge through dialogue? Is there a way to enter each other's past in a way that enriches our future?

In the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot greatly abstracts time to explain how past moments filter into present times and even overwhelm the present scenery. So, in looking at a garden, he layers past memories over the roses. The roses themselves, then, transform, becoming both childhood and flower. Sound and emotions filter into the scene, which literally carries past and future into the present. He calls this the “still point of the turning world”. It is almost as if the emotionally heavy moments weigh more than others, even than the present. These become our focal points through which we see dimensions of other times. Therefore, we communicate through universals, ideas which exist both inside and outside of time. In other words, universal and timelessness must participate in some communicable chronology. Perhaps they offer a language of sorts, or more likely, they offer perspective of a thing that perpetually changes perspective. A thing such as time.

If time perpetually changes, and our understanding of time perpetually changes, then so does our experience. This is of vital importance because humans resort to metaphor in order to articulate our own specific perspective. Just as Eliot intentionally reshapes the past throughout these four poems, the reader finds common points of access and is then able to interpret some of his memories through the reader's own. However, gaining these access points still does not allow the reader to experience time in the way that Eliot writes it. In fact, an infinite amount of access points would not enable the reader to experience life as Eliot has. In other words, the points of access are functional, but not direct. Therefore, ten readers of Eliot's poems come away with ten different perceptions of time. These poems focus on language's inability for clarity. However, they also focus on the miracle that language allows intersections at all. There is a beauty in the idea that we must all participate in metaphor to create connections. In pictorial representations of language, images such as rose bowls and gardens carry more weight than a point to point transfer would. Language is not exact. It is representational. What then, enables language to transfer from one point to another?

These points would interact on a variety of grids, but no common ground. The grids themselves act as fields or frames that offer points of intersection – mutually experienced realities. Euclid says that a point is that which has no part. After reading Chomei's Hojoki, the Bhagavad-Gita and Eliot's Four Quartets, I think that we are all points on a field. The individual self equals one point. The field is our current circumstance. Our circumstance affects and influences all action. Our actions create a narrative by allowing us to move through, past, around, next to, adjacent, inside and outside of the space also inhabited by others. The points where we intersect make all the difference. They distill time in a way that is unique to both the present and memory. From these still points, we construct our world.

T. S. Eliot says that these points allow for a dance and he emphasizes that “there is only the dance”. There is only the dance – the face to face rhythm of beauty and grace, the face to face approach of two unlike points, the face to face twirl that allows an intimacy, a connection. There is only the dance – the fact that we can connect and communicate with grace and emotion, with passion and eloquence, with hesitation and honesty, with experience (our own) and experience (all). There is only the dance and when we complete this dance, we have reached an end. For me, dance is the container of time. The ebb and flow of rhythm, time kept as a movement, is the metaphor: it is the movement in which we all participate. Hopefully the completion of every path (even incomplete paths) results in an elevated dignity that the world can at least see, if not fully access. Presence almost becomes clarified through absence – through the interaction on the field and layers of memory, emotion and present circumstance.

And so there we were, all of us among the mountains, lakes and trees of the Adirondacks. All of us on one field. All of us dancing.

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