Archive for the ‘space/time’ Category

Josh B., where are you when I really need you?

January 17, 2008

Buster and I are back. We had a grand adventure, as promised.

Buster is my little truck. I’ve never named a car before, but I’ve never had one wink at me in the dealer parking lot before either. It felt like he deserved a name.

Buster is the first car I ever bought all by myself (I mean without the help of a male person of some sort or other). I got a good price without assistance, and after somewhat over 100,000 miles, I think I got a pretty good little truck, too.

For the last 10 days, I’ve been a “residency assistant” at my old MFA in writing program. One of the blessings of being retired (and there are many) is that you have a lot of freedom in arranging your schedule. So when the call went out for program graduates who could come for the 10-day residency and do assorted stuff, I raised my hand.

My responsibilities were nebulous, mostly introducing writers at their readings and doing a little airport ferry duty. Buster becomes important in this part, because the airport runs were all on Sunday and Monday. You may recall that we had a little snow and ice those days.

Buster performed like a champion snow car (frankly much to my surprise), slipping occasionally but getting us safely from here to there past spinouts, head-on collisions and rolled-over semis. I never even had to chain up, which hurt my feelings not at all. The Monday morning trip to the airport over Hwy 30 took nearly 4 hours. The return trip, when things were thawed, was just over 2 hours.

In exchange for these light duties, I got to attend 10 days of lectures and readings by world-class writers, drink a LOT of Keoki coffee (just what my bronchitis needed, I’m pleased to report), and eat fresh seafood for a week or so in Seaside. I’ve OD’d on Dungeness crab and razor clams. The paying folks spend about $2,000 for this experience. I got it for free.

Long days of readings and writing craft discussions were topped off with evenings of sincere discussion of the curvature of space/time, Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems,” games of Catch Phrase, and other really important matters.

So I’m back. One of the things I found in Seaside was my Mario hat. I was sure it would improve my power star accumulating ability by leaps and bounds. But the truth of the matter is, even with my magic hat, Major Burrows is still kicking my butt. And I thought we had mole problems on the golf course. . .

So, Josh–what do I do about this guy? Several times I’ve had him running down the trail holding his rear in pain. Then he turns around and offs me, and I seem helpless to prevent it. Any suggestions?

The forest damage from the December storms around Seaside and Astoria is mind-boggling. Picture a hillside of a couple of hundred acres with a half-mature forest on it, thousands and thousands of trees 20-25 years old at a rough guess. All but about 50 of the trees are simply blown over, lying flat on the ground. The “survivors” are all broken off about halfway up. There’s not a single tree intact. It was like a massive explosion or meteor strike or something. It was one of the saddest things I’ve seen in a long time.

I’ll write more tomorrow, but after all that fun and frolic, I’m really bushed tonight “and so to bed.”

Josh, I’m counting on you to tell me how to finish off Major Burrows before I throw the Wii controller through Ralph’s TV set.

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Goodbye to 2007, reflections, and a few interesting discoveries

January 1, 2008

And I wish I could say I’m going to miss this year, but the truth of the matter is, it’s been a mixed bag, so I don’t know if I will or not. But at least it’s been interesting. . .

Yesterday I heard of a Scottish custom for celebrating the changing of the calendar that I really like. At midnight you open the front door to let the new year in, then rush to the back door and open it to let the old year out. Beats the heck out of getting smashed and throwing up all over yourself and everyone close. . .

But I couldn’t help but wonder: What if you reversed the order and let the old year out before you let the new one in? Would it stop time for the moment? (I’m not usually this weird but I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on physics, and the lecturer has me thinking about the non-absolute characteristic of time. So that speculation isn’t as far fetched as it seems.)

There’s an article in the current issue of Archaeology magazine about the henge builders (think Stonehenge). One of the things we discovered this year was that we have our very own henge on this place, although it’s made of trees, not stones.

One of our serious landmarks is a very large (over 200′ tall according to my astrolabe) pair of Douglas fir trees. They escaped the logging that was done in the early 1960s (just before Ben bought the place) because they functioned as the tailholt for the tower cable (an anchor that holds the lower end of the cable in place). A piece of the cable still sticks out from where they have grown together over the years. They’re very very lovely, but that’s not the most remarkable thing about them.

The most remarkable thing about this pair of trees is that on the winter solstice, the sun sets right between them. It’s a beautiful thing to see and a good thing to know (especially if calendars should disappear one of these days, not a totally unthinkable event in these interesting times).

It’s very cold since the rain stopped, but that has its advantages, too. I started the kitchen stove first thing this morning because it puts out heat so much faster than the living room stove. So by breakfast time I had a hot oven, and we were able to feast on skillet-baked cornbread, bacon, scrambled eggs, and fresh, sweet orange wedges, the kind you only seem to be able to get in the winter.

One of this year’s real plusses is that I’ve had the time to become very good friends with my wood cookstove. I haven’t attempted a cake yet (mostly because none of us particularly likes cake), but I’ve run just about everything else through it. I’m getting very spoiled.

I discovered a piece of cookware I don’t have (Ben says that’s impossible). I don’t have an apfelskiver pan. I think that’s a very good thing. They look like a great deal of trouble to bake, and I suspect that other apple things taste as good or better. So I’m not looking for one.

And of course, I discovered White Lily flour. I’m still making discoveries about how to use it, when to mix it with other flours to get the desired result (for example, scones made with pure White Lily flour are too cakey for my taste, but if I add a little hard wheat flour (about 3 parts WL to 2 parts hard wheat) the texture is perfect.

And speaking of scones, you may remember that one of my goals was to find the perfect scone recipe. I hit it second time out, so now I’m messing with various additions for flavor. I used to think that apricot scones topped with apricot or peach jam were the best, but that was before I added some crystalized ginger to my plain scone dough.

The local co-op has a million varieties of organic crystalized or candied dried fruits, so I’m not through experimenting. But it’s hard to imagine anything better than that ginger. . .

One recent discovery is wonderful. Living off the grid as we do, I’ve become somewhat of an expert in flashlights. We’ve tried a number of LED mini-maglites with varying amounts of success. The problem with most of them is that a) they cost about $20, and b) they may be very bright up close but they don’t project. But I stumbled onto this weird little mini-mag (brand Performance Tool, made in China, of course, in a variety of bright metallic colors and basic black, but since I rarely chew on my flashlights, I doubt that there’s a problem here). It’s about 4 inches long, fits nicely in pocket, purse, or glovebox, uses 3 AAA batteries (don’t know the life expectancy yet, but with the LED lamps I’m expecting wonderful things), and projects its brightness about 25 yards (or roughly as far as you can shoot accurately with a pistol, even a good one). I liked it so much I bought a bunch of them ($3.50 each at Bi-Mart) and have scattered them around in useful places. I even have one by the stove for an oven light. And since I ended up for some strange reason (tied, I’m sure to a battery-buying binge I went on when I moved out here) with a surplus of AAA batteries, I think I’m getting a double hit here.

I think I’ve finally identified my mystery birds, and it’s so dumb that I really feel stupid. But I think the birds with the beautiful song are sparrows, house or song, I’m not totally sure. But if that’s the case, I can’t believe we’ve never had them around until this year. But they can come sing to me any time.

And of course I’ve discovered Super Mario Galaxy. I’m sure it will take me the rest of the winter to finish it. Most days I play only during the evenings when the generator is running and during the times I’m not busy getting dinner together or the leftovers put away. I’m trying to average one star a day, but some days I don’t play at all, so then I have to try to make up for it. The stars are getting harder and harder.

I think I’m basically too impatient to be a very good Wii player. My favorite approach is to run full tilt at whatever is my target. But sometimes my speed is better than my accuracy. This often leads to a less than satisfactory result. Come to think of it, there are a number of things that I approach exactly the same way, sometimes with exactly the same result. Hm-m-m-m-m-m. . .

Here’s what I’m hoping for in 2008:

  • Peace
  • More good weather than rain
  • Peace
  • A satisfactory resolution to my brother’s troubles
  • Peace
  • Lots of visits with friends
  • Peace
  • Some good writing
  • Peace
  • One belly laugh (or more) every day
  • Peace

You get the idea. . .

Now once again I have lumped so many topics together I’ll probably get another note from that guy who complained before, which is OK. At least I knew he read the whole thing. . .But I’m going to sign off. I’ve got to go write a poem about Appalachia, and I’m not sure where to start.

The best to all of you in 2008. Stay in touch.

UFOs, unexplained events, and the laugh of the day

June 8, 2007

This just hit my mailbox, and I must confess that I can’t resist posting it, even knowing the FBI is probably already monitoring this blog:

“Many will recall that, on July 8, 1947, witnesses claimed an unidentified object, with five aliens aboard, crashed onto a sheep and cattle ranch just outside Roswell, New Mexico.

” This is a well-known incident which many say has long been covered up by the United States Air Force and the federal government.

“However, what you may NOT know, is that in the month of March 1948, exactly nine months later, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Condoleezza Rice, and Dan Quayle were all born.

See what happens when aliens breed with ranch animals? This information may clear up a lot of questions.”

Actually, if I had just known that these people were in all likelihood all Pisces, it would have explained a lot. . .

Great mysteries: Dark matter, dark energy, and gravity

March 13, 2007

This Sunday’s (3/11/07) NY Times Magazine has a really interesting piece titled “Out There.” It’s a sort of a recap of the current state-of-the-state of cosmologic research. You may remember I recently posted my wild hypothesis that perhaps dark matter is really what we call “consciousness,” or “the soul,” or one of those other terms that we give to things that are demonstrable but impossible (at least at this point) to understand.

I’m going to attempt to provide a synopsis of some of the key points of the article. But it’s only fair to provide the standard warning label:

DANGER: I AM GOING TO TAKE MORE LIBERTIES WITH THE SCIENCE OF THIS THING THAN YOU MAY BE COMFORTABLE WITH. AFTER ALL, I AM A POET/PHILOSOPHER, NOT A COSMOLOGIST. IF AT ANY TIME YOUR COMFORT LEVEL IS EXCEEDED, STOP READING IMMEDIATELY AND GO GET A GLASS OF SOMETHING COLD, YOUR CHOICE.

Here are some of the current beliefs. Since I think it’s impossible to “know” any of this (and I think the number of reversals over the history of natural science bears my thinking out), I am going to lump “facts” and theories together.

Only about 4% of the mass of the known universe is the type of matter we are made of, our planets and stars are made of, and with which we are familiar.

About 22% of the total mass is something currently called “dark matter.”

The remaining 74% is classified as “dark energy.” This isn’t necessarily energy as we think about it but an “energy-like” substance, whatever that means.

The term “dark” in this usage has nothing to do with color or brightness. It refers to the fact that these substances, whatever they are, are nonbaryonic. They do not interact with electricity or magnetism (as far as we can tell), or with photons or electrons, and thus we are unable to “see” them. But they make up 96% of the known universe.

To paraphrase one scientist, we and all of things we know anything about are merely a bit of pollution in the universe. Most of the universe is not only something about which we know nothing but something that we can’t even be sure we know how to know anything about. Time for a cold drink yet?

Then there’s gravity. Gravity is a commonly accepted phenomenon. If you let go of that cold drink, it will fall “down” and spill. But nobody really knows why. What gravity really is remains a huge mystery, despite the fact that it has been an acknowledged phenomenon for several centuries.

The theory of gravity says that the elements of the universe should be drawing closer together based on the attraction of one mass for another. But in fact, just the opposite is happening. Enter dark energy.

Dark energy is a sort of anti-gravity force that pushes things apart. In fact, the universe appears to be expanding, which would indicate that dark energy is stronger than gravity. But no one really understands what either force is.

The universe is made up of many, many galaxies. These galaxies are spinning at a very high rate of speed which should cause the stars and their ancillary satellites to fly off farther from the core based on another principle of physics, the principle of centrifugal force.

 But that’s not happening either. Current speculation says that galaxies hold together because of dark matter. Science has detected “clouds” of dark matter around various galaxies. But once again, no one knows what dark matter is.

Einstein is best known for his “theory of general relativity.” But let’s not forget that he spent the last 30 years of his life attempting to reconcile his theory with the emerging field of quantum theory, without success. Maybe we’re just not meant to know these things. And maybe it’s best that way. It leaves room for poetry alongside science.

I love cosmology, and I struggle with my limited little brain to understand as much as I can. But I think I still prefer poetry.

Now my head hurts from all of this thinking, and I’m going to head off to bed.

What if it’s really the soul that’s holding the universe together?

March 10, 2007

I guess I’ve been reading a lot of weird stuff lately, because my mind seems to be off in Never-Never Land tonight. I’ve long been fascinated by dark energy and dark matter, mostly because no one seems to have a clue what either is.

Dark energy is largely regarded as a sort of anti-gravity stuff, the force that pushes the universe apart as gravity is pulling things together. Dark matter is one of those things that exist (we think) but science doesn’t have a clue about.

It’s the mysteries that keep things worth exploring.

But today I had this sudden thought: What if dark energy is that “glob” my father was speculating about? If this makes no sense to you, go read my previous post.

Dark energy and dark matter together comprise more than 75% of the mass in the universe (at least based on current scientific speculation), and we have no real understanding of what either is. But maybe all that unidentified material (now showing up in radio images) is really the life-force/soul/what-makes-everything-important stuff.

Scientific hypotheses have been formed from far lesser speculations. Remember Copernicus, who asked: What if the Earth really revolves around the sun instead of the other way around? He got laughed out of town for a long time.

I’m prepared to be laughed out of town, but I think maybe we’re looking in the right place (the only universe we have) and getting the wrong answers. Could it be we’re asking the wrong questions?

One of the remaining great mysteries

February 10, 2007

I am interrupting my weekly reading of The New Yorker to bring you a bulletin. There’s a great profile in this week’s (2/12) issue of two scientist/philosophers, a married couple–Pat and Paul Churchland, professors at UCSD. It’s a really interesting piece that calls out many of the issues associated with one of the great remaining mysteries: what constitutes consciousness?

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I disagree with many of their firmly held beliefs. They are monists; I am firmly in the dualist camp. I don’t deny that many of the elements of what we call “mind” are firmly grounded in the chemistry and biology of the brain. But I’m holding out for something else, something that’s not “physical” as we know it (more about that in a minute), something that for want of a better term I’ll call the “soul.”

My belief is firmly rooted in experience as well. I’ve had at least one out-of-body experience, and on several occasions found myself sharply aware that something in “me” was really not attached to my body. (And, no, I’ve never been diagnosed with any kind of “mental illness” and have somehow managed to function for a remarkable number of decades.)

The Churchlands also don’t believe that non-human animals have language. I have seen much evidence out here in the middle of nowhere that they do. I think it’s easier to see here because I can be more closely attentive. There are fewer distractions. If you’re looking at animals, you’re looking at animals, and that’s it. There have also been quite a number of scientific studies devoted to this topic, and I believe most of them have demonstrated some degree of language in even what we would consider “the lower animals.” (And how humanly arrogant is that?)

George Lakoff did his best to reduce all human thought to biology, but he never managed to convince me. I enjoyed his books, found his work on metaphor (More Than Cool Reason) immensely useful as a poet, but think he really was all wet in  Philosophy in the Flesh.

One of the things that caught my eye in this profile was Paul Churchland’s reference to a book I have loved since I was very young, Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky. Most of my generation is at least minimally familiar with Heinlein because of Stranger in a Strange Land. This was a sort of rallying-cry book in the 1960s.

But Orphans is a totally different animal, a reflection of how little we know and how impossible it is to know it all. I rank it right up there with John Wynham’s novella “Rebirth” for an understanding of the great mysteries and the ability of humans to resist ideas that challenge their current knowledge.

There are other great mysteries, of course, besides consciousness. I keep returning to the questions of dark energy and dark matter. With all of our “vast” knowledge, how can we not identify and understand the composition of more than 75% of the mass and a huge portion of the energy in our universe?

Perhaps lame thought for the morning: What if dark matter is really consciousness afloat in the universe, some sort of mass/energy that infuses biologically living beings and returns to the universe after the biological death? What do you think?

The loneliness of the SETI researcher

January 22, 2007

If you’ve read Carl Sagan’s novel Contact or seen the semi-lame movie of the same name, you’re already familiar with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research. You know that scientists have, for decades, been sending assorted complicated scientific information, mostly mathematical formulas, into space via powerful radio transmitters and monitoring for replies by powerful radio telescopes.

This approach makes sense based on what we know today. One of the few things that appears to be solid in our knowledge of the universe is its reliance of mathematics for its underpinnings. I suppose transmitting complicated mathematics into space is one way of alerting ETs that we are advanced enough to understand these principles.

Of course there was also Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with its outstanding performance by Richard Dreyfuss. The information broadcast into the skies in Spielberg’s classic was a set of musical tones. But these were, in fact (if my memory serves me), merely a representation of a mathematical relationship.

But go back to Contact. Imagine the loneliness of the SETI researcher, sitting in a remote lab, monitoring all of the noise that comes in from the universe (and there is MUCH–the “silence of the spheres” is a misconception).

Blogging strikes me a little like that.

I sit here in my remote location throwing out words and ideas into what I’m assuming must be an intelligent universe. I’m looking for something in return. Oh, I get blog stats, but they seem a little lame (based on the number of folks who say “Oh, yes, I’ve been reading your blog for months” in other forms of communication.

I’m looking for the sort of feedback that says, “Hey, I got your message and I [like it] [hate it] [violently disagree].” (Insert one). It’s very hard to have any sort of meaningful discussion when the listener is mute. . .;^}

Now it occurs to me that many of my friends don’t blog themselves and may have no clue how to insert a comment. When you pop open the blog, you’ll typically see everything I’ve written for the current month divided into sections by the post “titles.” At this point you can either click on the title or click on the “Comments” (or “No Comments”) link at the bottom. Either one will open the specific post and place a little form at the bottom that allows you to post a comment. Be sure you hit “Submit comment” when you’re done.

If there is intelligent life out there (and I’m very sure there is), please talk to me. I appreciate those of you who have. Now where are the rest of you, you “lurkers”?