Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish brown) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (pink), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH
The deadly coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world in early 2020 brings to mind a wonderfully astute passage from the start of Bill Bryson’s entertaining romp through science: “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”
“To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed since the dawn of time, most—99.99 percent—are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.”
And so we do. The planet creates and the planet destroys and one outcome is as good as the other, apparently. It is a maker, breaker planet. If our planet had feelings, which it decidedly doesn’t (sorry Gaia fans), Earth could best be described as ambivalent toward life.
To be in love with the idea of what America could be, and to know what it is and has been, is to suffer.
That pain suffuses a musical work I only recently stumbled across, “The Transformations Suite,” by composer Samora Pinderhughes.
Elbert “Big Man” Howard was an unfamiliar name, at least to me, until I learned of him in his obituary in the New York Times. Howard, who just died at age 80, was a founder of the Black Panther Party, a driving force behind its community programs, like free health clinics and prisoner re-entry efforts.
Illustrating the New York Times obit was an intriguing photo. It captured Howard in 1970, with his perfectly shaped ‘fro, holding a microphone as he speaks to a crowd in some unidentified location. Meanwhile, standing a small distance from Howard, was a young white man wearing, of all things, a necklace featuring a large swastika pendant.
(This post about a racial incident I experienced a few years back was originally published in August 2014 on my blog that was deleted, in toto, by my previous web hosting company. Moral of the story: pay attention to those emails from your web hosting company. They might contain a bill you need to pay to keep your website from being "disappeared."
Fortunately I kept a copy of the 2014 post. It got a lot of attention then from my Facebook friends four years ago. I'm republishing it in part because one of the friends I was with that evening is now besieged by an aggressive cancer. This is my way of remembering a foul experience that, we had no way of knowing then, we would now recall as the good old days.)
Curiosity can be a weapon.
During a recent trip to the New Hampshire ocean-side town of Hampton Beach with two childhood friends, we experienced a moment that revealed the ugly side of curiosity. The old Dave Chappelle Show could have done a skit about the encounter, calling it “When Curiosity Goes Wrong,” a sister concept to its bitingly clever “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”
From my first hearing until now of "Dido's Lament," composer Henry Purcell's aria from "Dido and Aeneas," the song has struck me, as it has so many, for its simple beauty and universal plea of the dying to those left behind: Remember me when I am gone.
Dido, the Queen of Carthage, who dies from that ancient staple of melodrama, a broken heart after being abandoned by Aeneas, the Trojan prince, not only asks her court to remember her but to forget the misfortune at the end of her life's end.
Space is the ultimate getaway. Whenever the world is too much with me in the form of bad news either near or remote, I draw an odd sort of comfort from musing about stars and recalling that the Universe really could care less about us.
A million dyspeptic tweets on Twitter are as meaningful to the Universe as a million grains of moon dust. War, elections, hurricanes, police shootings. The Universe is unmoved by what moves us Earthlings.
It’s easy to be blasé about us humans having a machine on Mars, the Curiosity rover, that is exploring the planet and sending back copious data. More than five years after it landed on Mars, it is still functioning (and tweeting!), though it’s apparently been having problems of late with its drill.
But just because most of us have forgotten, if we ever even knew, that our Mars rover is still rolling about collecting scientific data to enlarge our understanding of the planet, that doesn’t make the fact of the Curiosity rover’s continued existence any less remarkable. (Curiosity is actually one of two rovers we have on Mars still communicating with us. The other, Opportunity, has been on Mars for 13 years.)
So much of popular entertainment is mindless, which probably explains why it’s both popular and entertaining.
Rap, the newest form of popular entertainment, has more often than not played to the lowest common denominator of human concerns. But as Lin-Manuel Miranda so famously proved with “Hamilton,” it need not be that way.
True, there have long been "conscious rappers" who have used their music to protest police violence, war, political leadership or social conditions. But few and far between are the rappers who promote challenging ideas of science and rationality in their work, and do so with a lyrical complexity that rivals good literature.
How do you show the planets and distances of our Solar System to scale if you use a marble to depict our Earth in your scale model? It helps to find a desert.
In what had to be one of the most ambitious efforts ever to portray the relative sizes of the planets and their orbits around the Sun, several buddies took to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. With the Sun represented by what looks like a very large white beach ball, the men place each planet in its respective orbit, marking out a diameter of 3.5 miles from the their Sun to Neptune.
The YouTube video of their effort has gotten more than 3.5 million well deserved views. What an inventive way to demonstrate the unfathomable vastness of our Solar System and, by extrapolation, the Universe beyond, as well as just how puny our place in the Cosmos really is.
On May 20, 2017 I had the rare privilege, for me at least, of giving an important speech to an audience of critical thinkers, that is, young people less than 24 hours away from officially becoming graduates of my alma mater, Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.
I was deeply moved to be asked to be the baccalaureate ceremony speaker. So much emotion, so many memories. I've been a part of the Dickinson family for a very long time.
The speech made me ask myself: what would I want to hear from a speaker on the weekend in which I crossed from college undergraduate to graduate? The answer came fairly readily: you can never wrong with a message of hope. Read on for a transcript.