The meaning of life

Your mother didn’t make you. Who did?

Your mother gave you a warm room and plenty of food. Who made you?

It’s a tricky question. To speak of making implies two things: the thing being made and the one who makes it. Birds make nests. Bees make hives. Carpenters make houses. But mothers don’t make babies. Mothers shelter the construction of babies. You had to make yourself.

small-foot

From a single cell, you self-assembled, growing exactly as a sprout grows in a greenhouse. One cell became two, two became four, each cell dividing in its turn. The cells grew in precise patterns, ultimately forming bones, sinew, blood, you. Of course, to say you made yourself is not by itself a satisfying answer; you have no idea how you managed it, being very young at the time. So how did the lonely cell you once were become the ten trillion cell colony you are now? The puzzle of biological self-assembly can be reduced to that equally puzzling first step: how does one cell become two? How does a tiny particle suspended in saltwater thrive and beget?

We can think of what happens in our bodies in terms of organs working together: hearts pump, kidneys filter, livers do this and that. It’s easy to picture these organs as sentient entities, businessmen on the phone, talking and coordinating their diverse efforts. But when you get down to the level of the molecules that make up one cell, it becomes harder to keep up this anthropomorphic pretense. Who’s talking and who’s listening? Does a molecule have plans? And if it doesn’t, if there is no planning sentient entity directing the show, then what is?

There are two great mysteries to life: how it began and how it keeps going. The first of these is likely to puzzle us for some time to come, since it happened in the remote past and left few traces. Like an alchemical recipe for gold that requires gold as an ingredient, life as we know it requires life as a starting point. Every living cell we can observe came from some pre-existing cell. But the other great mystery, how life keeps going, how one cell becomes two, is open to our inspection. The broad outlines are already known. To return to the original question: who made you? A bubbling stew of macromolecules built you from the inside out. It’s still unsatisfying as answers go, but we’re learning more with every passing day. A full accounting of the machinery of life is nearer than you might suspect.

The central riddle of cellular construction is the fact that there is no external carpenter to do the work. It must proceed spontaneously, one energetically favorable reaction at a time, according to the laws of chemistry, given whatever supplies happen to be at hand. This is something like saying there are blueprints that can spontaneously turn into houses. How can this be? Molecules bouncing into each other at random sounds like a recipe for chaos. Amid the chaos, there must be hidden order. Some entity is playing the role of carpenter, inspecting the plan and joining the beams. And yet this tiny carpenter must be, after all, simply a molecule (or collection of molecules), not an impish homunculus with a mind of its own. Thus we are picturing something that acts as the bridge between the plans for what is to be built and the building itself, a link between word and flesh. This something is called protein synthesis.

Biochemistry is famously complex, and every statement you can make about it is in some sense a simplification. But the incontestable central engine of life is the general purpose construction process called protein synthesis, wherein the plans packed away in the great libraries of our genes (DNA) are turned into the working molecules (proteins) of the cell. DNA is transformed through a variety of steps into an intermediate message, an order slip for a particular protein, and this order slip (called messenger RNA, or more briefly, mRNA) acts as a template or blueprint for a protein which is then transcribed. Proteins are the worker molecules. Most of a cell’s motion and structure is moderated and directed by proteins. More briefly: protein synthesis made you. But how does it work?

Protein synthesis can be thought of as a translation from the language of DNA to the language of proteins. The messenger RNA order slip that gets sent from the DNA is a message written with an alphabet of four chemical letters called nucleotides. This message is then translated into a protein sequence built entirely from an alphabet of twenty chemical letters called amino acids. So the sequence in mRNA

Adenine-Uracil-Guanine-Adenine-Guanine-Adenine-Guanine-Cytosine-Uracil

becomes the protein sequence

Methionine-Arginine-Alanine

after the protein synthesis apparatus has done its work. This sequence might be, for example, one small part of the protein keratin in your fingernails. A shorthand way of writing this using standard abbreviations looks like this.

translation1

But there is a big difference between these two languages. The one on the left is arbitrary, whereas the one on the right is structural. One is word and the other is flesh. This is not a translation in the sense of going from English to Japanese. It’s a translation from a blueprint to a building. The language of proteins is structural in the sense that the words are themselves the bricks, beams, wheels, and motors of the cell. It’s as if the word for brick on the RNA side is matched up with the brick itself on the protein side.

translation2

The RNA side is arbitrary because there’s nothing special about the literal word “brick.” What’s special is that it designates the right thing. The word “dog” is no more magically appropriate than its French equivalent “chien,” and as long as they both refer to the same real-world canine, everything is fine. On the other hand if you change the spelling of the protein, the result might no longer function. Instead of a brick, you might be left with a sponge.

But the really interesting thing is the arrow that connects the word “brick” with the actual brick. What exactly is this arrow representing? Semantically, the arrow says that “brick” means brick. Semantics is typically a vague business at best, but this boils down to crystal clear chemistry. This arrow is representing some entity, our little carpenter friend, that can see the word for brick and then grab an actual brick and put it in the right place. The arrow has an eye on one side and a hand on the other.

translation3

What should we call the arrow? The arrow is the thing that maps the message in the word to the real world consequence. The arrow is the translator. The arrow is translation.

Normally when we think of an eye moderating the behavior of a hand, there is a brain in between. But we’ve already seen that at the cellular level there are only molecules. There must be a molecule that, through a straightforward energetically favorable process, accurately translates arbitrary messages into specific and useful consequences. That is, a carpenter molecule must exist. It is the physical bridge from thought to deed, which is to say, this carpenter molecule is the chemical incarnation of “meaning.” And not just any meaning. This molecule is the meaning of life. This molecule (actually a family of them) does exist: it’s called transfer ribonucleic acid (tRNA for short). It has a tiny eye on one side that can read the mRNA order slip and a tiny hand on the other that grabs and positions an amino acid. With its eye it reads the plan. With its hand it builds the world. This little carpenter (or rather an uncountable swarm of them) made you and every living thing on Earth. Here it is.

1yfg-trna

During the Middle Ages and early Renaissance there was much interest in what was called the original language, sometimes called the Adamic language, since presumably it was the language from the time of Adam and Eve until the great confusion of Babel. This original language was considered a historical fact and it was, so the reasoning went, capable of expressing only truth. Whoever learned it would have great power, because the word for something would be identical with that thing’s true nature. To manipulate the name would be to manipulate that which was named. At the same time, perfect harmony would exist between all who conversed in this language. The defining feature of this Adamic language is the perfect relationship between the named object and the object itself. Though no human language has been found with these magical properties, there is a strong mythological imperative to believe in such a thing: at some deep level we know there must somewhere be a special relationship between symbol and reality. Otherwise, how do symbol systems get started? Otherwise, how could we exist?

No one ever taught you the meaning of this particular sentence, yet your brain decodes it without trouble. Somewhere in your brain there must be a link between the symbols that make up this message and the physical consequences that result. “Meaning” is precisely this map from message to consequence. We are familiar with computers interpreting programs, and with people interpreting language, but both of these exist only because life does. Without the language that life is built on, without the synthesis of proteins and the spinning of words into flesh, we would not be here. Messages encoded in our genes constitute the first language. It is not unreasonable to say that “meaning” had no meaning until something existed to interpret it, until a system to process language existed. Before that the universe was just one damn thing after another, sound and fury signifying nothing. Life was the bringer of meaning, and so our creation mythologies are bound up with meaning and creation. As the Gospel of John says: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

thoth-triptych

Egyptian mythology gives us a more explicit example. Thoth was the ibis-headed scribe god who invented writing and later gave it to man. Thoth was identified with the ibis because the bird’s curved bill is suggestive of the reed pens that the scribes used. According to a later Egyptian myth, Thoth was also the Creator god. It is instructive that the word-giver should also be the life-giver:

From chaos, Thoth self-created and, existing in chaos, spoke, and his words became covered. Thus began creation. Each word became the thing it signified.

This is the mystical styling of an “Adamic language,” but it is also a reasonable description of the origins of protein synthesis, which is to say it is a reasonable description of the origin of life. This first language self-created and, existing in chaos, spoke. Thus began creation. Each chemical word became the thing it signified, beginning then and continuing to this present moment. Transfer RNA is the pen of Thoth. It is the arrow of meaning, bringing forth the living from the nonliving, busily and daily making the living world around us and within us.

Stagecraft and War

I. SPECTACLE

As brutal stagecraft, the attack on the World Trade Center was perfection. You could almost split the moment right down the middle: nauseating mind-numbing horror on the one side and pornographic mesmerizing spectacle on the other (so that’s what it looks like when you fly a plane into a building…). It was perfectly calculated to arrest and disarm us. I am convinced that its only shortcoming as a spectacle will prove to be its very perfection: you only get one shot like that and now we are awake as never before. There will be more battles, lost and won, over many years. But you only get one Pearl Harbor. You only get one blind national sucker-punch smashing in from the void.

When your enemy stabs at your heart, he does you at least one favor: you will not mistake his intent in the future. No warning, no conditions, no demands. He has shown himself to be committed to your destruction. It frees you to get about the unambiguous business of eliminating him. Whoever they are, they might have worked away at the edges of the empire steadily for ten years or more. What is an embassy here or a guardpost there to the vast, fat American public? But they chose to shoot a poisoned bolt straight at the heart of the empire. You only get one like that.

II. ARE THEY RIGHT?

I don’t know about you, but I have been feeling very cranky and unsettled these days as I try to think about this attack. It’s hard to shake the sense of some breached dike, some unstoppable black tide boiling across our borders with suffocating speed. I think one source, perhaps the most important source, of the deep-seated anxiety about the attack is an unspoken fear that they might be right, these crazy terrorists: maybe our fat tottering country has lost its way and deserves to be punished. We are weak and decadent. We have lost our faith while Islam’s warriors keep theirs burning fiercely. This is the spirit in which Jerry Falwell invokes God the Chastiser. Maybe it’s time, the nagging thought goes, for the godless to be swept away by jihad, burned away by sacred fires of purifying destruction. Globalization is bad, our corporate exports are insulting and poisonous, and American foreign policy is rotten to the core. We deserve this righteous hatred that boils into murderous rage as surely as if we manufactured it ourselves. We are powerless to stop the surging tide.

Hold this thought in your head. Shine some light on it. When you really inspect it, it falls to pieces. They are not right. We are powerful. They cannot “win.” But you must inspect this thought and see it fall to pieces. Otherwise you will be crippled in your ability to fight the man who wants to kill you, because he experiences no doubt whatever on this score.

III. ULTIMATE REASONS

Why, then, the hate? We must understand that there are proximate reasons for hate and ultimate reasons. The proximate reasons are always plentiful enough. Troops in Saudi Arabia. The endless Iraqi embargo. Despair in Gaza. Many of these proximate reasons are understandably galling, due mostly to the swaggering arrogance of our wealth and ignorance. But they fall far far short of the sustained hatred required to plow a jet into skyscraper. To suggest that they justify such a deed is irresponsible in the extreme.

What is the ultimate cause that motivates teams of well-organized suicide bombers? The United States is the colossus of global capitalism. The ultimate problem is simply this: we believe in the commerce of ideas, people, and capital, and they do not. Stronger than that: it defines us and it disgusts them. Many unfortunate policies of our government deserve reconsideration. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that rearranging the proximate causes of hate will have the least impact on the ultimate causes. Reworking our relationship with Israel will never make the Taliban love us. Picture an imaginary conversation with the Mullah Mohammad Omar in which you say, “Tell me, what do we Americans have to do for you in order to get back to our blissful pre-attack lives?”

If we cannot change the ultimate causes of hate, how can we prevail? Well-targeted violence and equally well-targeted persuasion. We can reduce the number of people who feel that bitter hatred so deeply that they will act. We can engage as many Islamic states as possible in the constructive global economy. Not so easy — many years, very expensive. No other way.

IV. SALVATION

These terrorists have shown themselves adept at a terrible kind of stagecraft. Now we must show ourselves adept at war. Even as we carry the fight to them, we must make them understand that the loss of these buildings is not a crippling blow. Ten world trade centers destroyed would not humble us. Not twenty, not thirty. We harness the might that rises from the unshackled motion of capital, people and ideas, above all ideas. This is wealth; it might be the very definition of wealth. That this country is founded on these principles makes it my pleasure and privilege to live here. There is no American tribe but that which derives from this. No single ethnicity or religion forms America’s backbone; rather it is an iron commitment to these ideals. In one sense this is less satisfying than an old-fashioned blood or tribal bond. To the simple-minded it appears to be a case of Mammon before God. It is unholy, this commitment to the civil before the sacred, and this is why we are hated. But our unsentimental commitment to this world rather than the next gives us an impure, driving, unstoppable energy. I cannot name the endless diversity of America’s crazy-quilted citizenry, but I know its very mongrel mix is my salvation.

Brother Blue’s Secret

Brother Blue says, "My father used to tell stories to God, tears pouring down his face."

Brother Blue is a storyteller of some fame, a jazz-riffing peacock of a performer, a first class wordconjuror and a fine harmonica player. Brother Blue is a slight man, not a young man. When he performs he is topped by a sky-blue beret, and the palms of his hands reveal painted blue butterflies. I have seen him perform several times, and to tell you the truth, it took me a while to warm up to him. His style is wide-ranging and changes abruptly, movement verging on dance, voice verging on song, a kind of spoken jazz. Nevertheless, by the time I saw him talk at the Media Lab, I was a fan.

Brother Blue is a black man whose family suffered cruelly from racism; he speaks with a clear voice from a deep place. I had seen him tell stories, usually at the Bookcellar in Cambridge, but I had never heard him talk about the subject of storytelling itself. That was what I came to hear. Storytelling is in fashion these days, and Blue had been invited to talk to the clever technologists of the Media Lab, the idea being that this might lead to insights about computer interfaces. What was I then? I suppose I was a clever technologist hoping that this might lead to insights about computer interfaces. That’s how I came to be in the audience the day Brother Blue told his secret.

Okay, stop. Just what is storytelling, really? A long time ago in a land far far away? That’s not what I’m talking about. What I want to know is this: what is it that a storyteller does? Yarnspinner, troubadour, raconteur, bard… whatever the label, the storyteller can only move you inasmuch as he can talk about you. The storyteller can only move you inasmuch as he can tickle forth a resonance in your middlemost middle. A good one can drive you like a truck.

Words alone, sidewinding soundwaves entering ears, have no power to move flesh to move mountains. The magic part of storytelling is in the storyhearing, in the fact that that which is told becomes real. The word becomes flesh. The Word becomes Flesh, and the heretics and mountains tremble. Storytelling depends on that exquisite sound-to-meat transducer called sympathy. Perception is reality. I hear and understand. I listen and obey. Mohammed could run circles around the mountain when it came to storytelling, and as a result the mountain ran circles around Mohammed. Stories matter.

Brother Blue says, "Religion is this: somebody told a story and they bought it." To which he added, "we need a new story."

The goal of the storyteller is to get invited across your threshold and into your middlemost middle. There are many strategies for getting across the threshold, since the listener can always try to bar the door. He can tap dance across it or to storm it with passionate fireworks. The best approach is to remember Brother Blue’s secret. It never fails.

I think Brother Blue felt a little uncomfortable talking to a crowd of MIT heavies. He got his doctorate from Harvard in the 40s doing research on the therapeutic value of storytelling for prisoners. He was ahead of his time, and to hear him describe it, I believe he preferred the company of prisoners to that of skeptical unwelcoming Harvard professors. He can talk the academic talk, but he is quick to deflate it with a smile and a joke. This was an academic audience, and he seemed a little torn between simply performing and talking about it in theoretical terms. In the end, he told us a story, a quirky little story about an opening flower in which he involved various members of the audience. It would sound corny if I were to relate it here, but believe me, he made it work, leaving the crowd of MIT heavies wide-eyed and smiling.

At the very end, there was time for some questions, and he finally opened up. He was asked what is it that makes a story work. I don’t think he intended to tell his secret in such simple words, because when he did he seemed uncharacteristically awkward and small. It’s not that he was trying to hide the secret, but I got the distinct feeling he preferred to live it rather than say it.

Brother Blue said, "There’s a question that everybody’s asking: Do you love me?"

This is the one that went right through me. This is Brother Blue’s secret. Everything he said had the ring of truth, but this was truth itself. Everywhere you go, for the rest of your life, remember there’s a question that everybody’s asking. That’s why audiences listen in open-mouthed wonder and that’s why they applaud. Tear down the scenery, throw away the costumes, burn the Media Lab to the ground, but remember this and you cannot fail. There is no new paradigm! There is no new millennium. This is it. This is it. This is it: do you love me?

Silent upturned faces, like flowers, wait. Brother Blue begins, "Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?"

Up Top: Adventures in the Grand Canyon

Deep in the Grand Canyon (and if you’re right on the Colorado River that seems like the only way to describe it) on the second day of our grand adventure, Claire, our longbeard sage and veteran river guide used an expression new to me: Up Top. When you live on the east coast, California is found Out West. If you’re in California, then everything from Kansas to the Atlantic is Back East. The words are mildly pejorative, as in: “It sounds crazy, I know, but that’s how they do it Out West” or “I was stuck for two hours with these three uptight bankers from Back East.” And it was easy enough to see that Claire used the words Up Top in more or less the same way. Someone asked Claire about the real world, and he quickly replied, with his good-natured growl, that this IS the real world. It’s Up Top where everything is messed up. But when you’re down here, it all makes sense. Claire estimated, when pressed, that he had made some three hundred trips through the Canyon, so if anybody is qualified to make a statement like that, he is. After a few days of dropping steadily into this huge cleft in the earth, of watching the world and the heavens climb away from you, I can attest that Up Top seems immeasurably distant. That’s when you really feel like you’re Down Here. Down Here is close to the earth, next to the river, and far away from absolutely everything else.

Day Zero

We were due to meet with the rafting crew at McCarren International Airport in Las Vegas at 2 PM. We were both hungry and extraordinarily grumpy. Here is a simple observation about McCarren International Airport: there is no fast food to be found. Don’t look for it, don’t expect it, and certainly don’t plan on it. Hungry, tired of carrying enormous heavy packs, and afraid of missing our connection to the Grand Canyon, we stomped around looking for something to eat. Eventually, we cornered and trapped two greasy sandwiches in a bar, after which we stumbled quickly downstairs to the appointed rendezvous point. There we saw a motley crew of people sitting on the floor. “Are these our people?” I thought. I puzzled over the fact that these people were either going to remain utter strangers or become my well-known and perhaps well-regarded fellow-travelers. I puzzle often over such things. Still, we needed to make sure we were at the right place so as not to miss our flight, so I asked: are you on the Moki Mac trip? To my surprise, all of them were. A lot of people, maybe twenty. I was mildly disappointed; you’d get much closer to ten people in six days than twenty people, but there you go. I immediately did my best to form snap judgments about everyone on the trip. What fun, I thought, to look back from a more informed future and see how good I am at snap judgments. Never overlook the chance to calibrate, I figure. (It turned out that I am damn bad at making snap judgments, but that’s another story)

The cheerful woman who organized us, we came to discover, was not in fact from our rafting company, but rather from Aluminum Foil Airlines, the company that was going to fly us out to Marble Canyon and the start of our trip. And no, oh no, we’re not flying from McCarren International Airport. We’re going to get in vans and drive to the Boulder City Podunk Airport before we get in the little tinfoil airplanes that will transport us. Outside, it is hot. Hot like opening an oven, peeking inside, admiring the scenery, hopping inside and closing the door behind you. Hot. The vans we are to take have no air conditioning. Once we are on the highway, we learn they have a number of other ailments as well. At 45 MPH straining to get over the pass on the way to Boulder City, the woman driving the other van calls out to ours: “Stay behind me! The van is acting up, and I don’t want to get stranded!” “These vans, it’s a wonder they don’t fall apart,” our driver remarks to no one in particular, shaking his head. We have just discovered that he is also going to be our pilot. Heh-heh, I joke with the driver of our van, it’s a good thing they take better care of the airplanes, huh? “Oh they take great care of the airplanes,” he says, without missing a beat. Heh-heh.

The flight is long, and though the scenery is fantastic, many of us are spending more time thinking about our uncertainly digesting lunches. And so it goes for a good two hours: loud, hot, close, and depending on your temperament, extremely nauseating. At the same time, I can’t help but think: what a great way to start an adventure vacation. This is the part of the voyage where we distance ourselves from what came before. Drone groan drone groan says the engine. We cross over the Kaibab Plateau at a surprisingly low altitude, low enough to make me pick up my feet to keep from scraping the trees, and once over the top, we follow the contour of the terrain straight down to Marble Canyon. Though our altitude above ground changes very little, I watch the altimeter spin around at a truly amazing rate

Day One

We’re up just in time for our free breakfast at the Sweaty Pillow Motor Lodge in Marble Canyon, and then we take a quick van ride down to Lee’s Ferry. Sorting out who’ll go on which boat is a surprisingly haphazard affair, and before long we’re drifting down river with riverguide Bill. “How is your head?” I ask him, having seen him absolutely smash it into part of the trailer on the van while retrieving luggage. “It hurts,” says Bill. He’s been living in Phoenix trying to get a nursing degree. This is the only river run he’ll do all season. Hmmm, I think to myself, is this the man I want to trust with my life? One trip all year, a big disorienting welt on his head, and (according to him, at least) out of shape? The twin spans of the Navajo bridge drift over us. Bill is definitely knowledgeable. If you ask, he’ll keep the information coming: this is the Kaibab formation, visible throughout the entire trip. Here is the Coconino limestone. There, if you look close, is the beginning of the Hermit Shale. He takes us through our first good sized rapid, Badger Creek Rapid, with great comfort and easy unmistakable skill. Bill is a good guy; he looks awkward as a stork, slightly goggle-eyed. He is quiet, but good-hearted, and he rows like a master. “How is your head, Bill?” I ask, with genuine sympathy. “It hurts,” he says.

Day Four

I had hoped we would get to be close friends with some of the people on the trip, but everyone seemed content with going to sleep early in general. But tonight at our Carbon Creek camp Beth, a print buyer from Atlanta, offered some after-dinner solace to WJ in the form of a little Jack Daniels. WJ was in need of solace because she had received a nasty bite on her ankle from a red ant; in fact, this is the only kind of bite they are capable of delivering. When I saw that bourbon was forthcoming, I found I was in need of solace too, so we all trooped back down to the riverside with Fresca, liquor, water, and a great big bucket for WJ to soak her ailing ankle in. It was here in the dark by the streaming river that Beth revealed, as she smoked a cigarette, the shocking secret of her vacation: it was financed by stolen goods. As a senior at Auburn, she and a sorority sister had discovered an old dusty marble bust in a disused room, and as part of a zany college prank they took it back to her room. Since then she had carried with her it for years from place to place, not through any great love of its style and form, but simply because well, there it was. Only in the last year had the idea crept into her mind that it might actually be worth something, and you can imagine her surprise and delight at having it appraised to be worth exactly one all-expenses paid trip to the Grand Canyon. Beth is no fool: she inquired in June and here she was on the river with us in early August. Are you troubled by guilt? we wanted to know. Well, yes, she admits: if her sorority sister ever finds out she’ll claim half the loot.

Day Five

Highlights: evening thunderstorm, the inner gorge, huge rapids, the Vishnu Schist (which sounds to me like the Indian equivalent of Montezuma’s Revenge, but what do I know). Toward the end of the afternoon we pull off just above Clear Creek for a day hike. This will just be a short hike, but the climb out of the gorge is steep and stony, and by now everyone is used to the fact that short hikes are actually quite long, so a number of people hang back with a riverguide named Whaler. Whaler never goes on hikes; instead he sits in his raft under an enormous umbrella and rolls the cigarettes which he smokes one after another. Whaler once told us he has a little cat that will give you a high-five. He said it with such evident glee that we had no choice but to believe him.

The walk is beautiful though, and a thunderstorm that threatens to soak us never does. The granite and schist are fantastically weird compared to the sandstone and limestone we’ve shared the last four days with, and it’s very satisfying to hike over it and hold onto it. We end up in a little grotto with warm water jetting into something like an enormous jacuzzi. On the way back, I hike next to Catherine and we talk for some time. Where did you first learn to run rapids? I ask. Right here, she says. And the amazing truth of the matter is: this is her first season on the river, and the very first time she ever went down the Colorado, she was paddling a baggage boat. She moved to Flag, which you’re allowed to call Flagstaff if you’re sufficiently cool, and she began pestering river runners relentlessly. And the final part of the secret is this: she works for free, presumably through the generosity of her father. River running is not the most profitable business, and none of the guides will get rich from it, so the temptation to let a neophyte drive the baggage boat on no pay must be great. So if you’ve got time and desire, you can jump in on the ground floor and go.

Day Seven

Back in Las Vegas, we can only conclude that Claire was right about the locus of the Real World. Las Vegas is Up Top, Over the Top, and Beyond Bizarre. It is the least real place I have ever witnessed, and it’s particularly jarring to see it after six days on the river. The ancient, forgiving Colorado pays Las Vegas’ rent. It gives her water to drink, it spins the turbines that electrify her neon. But I don’t think the river minds too much. The river that carved the canyon can afford to wait a century or two for this insane city to dry up and blow away. We had a fun in Las Vegas, but it’s the canyon we remember.

Taking the cake

December is a dangerous month

My birthday is in December. If your birthday is too, you may already be shaking your head sadly, thinking of me, your brother, whose birthday like yours is yearly tainted by its proximity to the most destructive holiday on the calendar. Indeed, Santa’s pitiless steel-shod boots can already be heard crunching the frozen earth as they come stomping our way, his chuckle a dry-throated rattle. Every holiday has a certain negative effect on nearby birthdays, but who can dispute that Christmas, both figuratively and literally, takes the cake?

If your birthday is not in December, you may be thinking “Quit your bitching,” or perhaps “You poor sad loser.” But listen to this: you may not know that even among us Sagittarians, there is an enormous difference between celebrating on, say, the 11th and the 20th. Do we share a bonding camaraderie? Hardly. My day of days is the 16th, so to me the 11th hardly counts. Hah! The 11th? That’s like in August as far as I’m concerned. I used to lay awake at night and dream about being born on December 11th. If your birthday is on the 11th, then don’t come crying to me, because I’m not having any of it.

atomblst

It so happens that a Very Good Friend of mine (and contributor to the Star Chamber), Damiana, was born on the 20th. When she whines about how close HER birthday is to the 25th, naturally my reaction is “You poor sad loser.” I snicker quietly to myself and think about how much closer I am to the Fourth of July. Why it makes me want to buy sparklers and squirt guns for my birthday party. Nevertheless, it was Damiana who brought to my attention a particularly penetrating analysis of the true effect of Christmas on birthdays.

Based on this analysis, here is an illustration of part of the December calendar with some tabular annotations regarding the traumatic effects of Christmas on nearby birthdays. For this research, we have borrowed from some studies previously considered unrelated to this topic.

nuclear-december.gif

A. Vaporization Point

100% Gift Occlusion

Everything is vaporized by the Christmas blast.

B. Total Destruction

90% Gift Occlusion

All birthday party activities above ground are destroyed. The “Happy Birthday Song,” if attempted, is completely inaudible. Third-degree Duraflame ™ burns have been reported among would-be celebrants.

C. Severe Blast Damage

50% Gift Occlusion

Birthday party survivors report buffeting and bruising. Though gifts are reported at this distance, they are generally simply subtracted from projected Christmas presents for a zero net change from the non-birthday baseline. This is known as X-mas radiation.

D. Heat and Wind Damage

15% Gift Occlusion

At this distance, little or no sympathy is reported among bystanders. The diminished Christmas winds can still extinguish the candles on a cake. Party hats secured with a rubber strap, though likely to remain on throughout the celebration, look quite silly (that is, sillier than usual).

Notice the plume of destruction falls mostly to the left of Christmas. This is an example of a counter-flowing temporal wind, or anticipatory time eddy. Most events, particularly unexpected events like earthquakes and hurricanes, experience a prevailing temporal wind and so influence later events more heavily than earlier ones. This is the more typical down-calendar causative flow. But nothing on the entire calendar, not even tax day on April 15th, is more anticipated than Christmas, hence the reversal of the normal temporal forces. Don’t you just know some jackass on the 26th will say: “Only 364 more shopping days till next Christmas!”

All this raises the rather interesting question of when the BEST POSSIBLE time is to have a birthday. Simple holiday avoidance would likely put it in the middle of August, the only month of the year completely devoid of national holidays. But August, alas, is often battered by family vacations, and Pandora (another Very Good Friend of Paracelsus) reports that family vacation birthdays can be angst-ridden occasions in their own right. Just try lighting birthday candles in a canoe in the pouring rain three hundred miles from home.

Do you have good birthday timing? Let us know. Bad birthday timing? Even better; send us a message. In the meantime, be kind to the Sagittarians in your midst. More than most, they are victimized the most vicious cultural vortex our society offers. Duck and cover, hop in a fallout shelter, put a candle in a cupcake and wish them well. And as long as you’re out of harm’s way, you might consider staying down there until the new year. It’s a dangerous time to be outside.

The Resurgence of Alchemy

Three observations:

  1. We should care about alchemy
  2. Alchemists were not buffoons
  3. The wisdom of the alchemist applies to us


Around the year 1350, a poor Parisian scrivener named Nicholas Flamel spent two florins on a strange but beautiful brass-bound book filled with curious diagrams. Extensive study revealed it to be an alchemical treatise on the art of making gold.

He spent most of his life trying to decipher the contents, and finally on April 25th, 1382 at around five in the afternoon, he succeeded in turning half a pound of mercury into pure gold. Armed with this secret knowledge, he achieved spectacular wealth. Happily enough, he spent his money charitably, building fourteen hospitals, three chapels, and seven churches.

Alchemy is about making gold. Take something inexpensive and easy to come by, like mercury or lead, and by means of obscure knowledge, transmute it into gold. You can see why people would want to do this, but now we know that it’s an absurd task.

We know today that uranium 235 decays (through an improbable number of intervening isotopes like actinium 227 and radon 219) into lead. But unless you are a physicist, you will probably just nod your head and say, sure, okay, despite the fact that you have no direct observable reason to believe such a thing. Radioactive decay is transmutation in the most straightforward alchemical sense. So consider that, given the state of fourteenth century science, it was perfectly reasonable for fools and philosophers, for peasants and kings to believe that iron could be turned into gold. Provided, of course, you had mastered the arcane art of alchemy. But mastering the art was not easy; it was messy, time-consuming, and extremely expensive. Why would anyone do it? Why does anyone bother in any age to study the mysterious and the arcane? Three short answers come to mind.

  • wealth (economic motivation)
  • knowledge (scientific motivation)
  • enlightenment (spiritual motivation)

We can learn from the alchemist who was motivated by each of these desires. First consider the practitioner who is only interested in filthy lucre.

It goes without saying that anybody who could spin lead into gold would be fabulously wealthy and powerful. But there are some interesting implications regarding this kind of hot intellectual property. Alchemy was an accepted fact of life for the great majority of people; most not only believed that the transmutation of base metals into gold was possible, but that people were successfully doing it. If you could find a successful alchemist and steal his formula, you would gain the key to the same riches. Sound familiar? The value of such alchemical secrets was not lost on your average serf in the street, and many suspected alchemists were beaten to death by angry mobs who demanded to know the recipe for gold. On top of this, most rulers were naturally suspicious of alchemists and jealous of their knowledge, and so they tended to proscribe the practice of alchemy altogether or only allow certain scholars to practice it on behalf of the court. As in any age, the innovator was often punished for his efforts.

Our dubious little story about Monsieur Flamel notwithstanding, most practical alchemists had a rough time of it. The best were tireless and meticulous, yet succeeded only in exhausting their fortune and their health (there were no fume hoods in the fourteenth century). Nobody could reliably manage the transmutation trick. Why did they keep at it? They must have been terribly disappointed with the results, yet since they were the first people to rigorously perform feats of laboratory chemistry, their practical knowledge was prodigious, all failures at gold manufacture to the contrary. The first true chemists in the 18th century acknowledge their debt to the groundwork laid by alchemists. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) compared alchemists to a father, who on his deathbed told his lazy sons of a sum of money hidden underground in his garden. After his death they began digging in hopes of finding the treasure. They didn’t find any, because in truth there was none to be found, yet they enriched themselves with a large crop that their inadvertant plowing made possible.

Regarding our most recent scientific advances, much is made of how well eastern religions, in particular Buddhism, harmonize what sophisticated physics and chemistry tell us about the universe. Alchemy, from the western tradition, can serve much the same role, just as it helped launch our scientific tradition in the Renaissance. Alchemy is about making gold, and Buddhism is about finding jewels. The famous “Om” mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the Lotus-Bearing Buddha, goes “Om mani padme hum,” or “Hail the jewel in the lotus.” Ultimately, the jewel and the gold are the same thing: enlightenment. As a science, alchemy largely failed. As a springboard for the western scientific tradition, it succeeded wildly.

Much as astrology is now associated only with the frothiest part of a rich tradition, so too we find that alchemy is now identified only with the thoroughly debunked notion of turning lead into gold. If we persist in viewing it only as a lapsed proto-chemistry, we are wiping out a vast store of accumulated wisdom with implications far beyond metallurgy. What we call alchemy today is only the discredited part of a much richer, more compelling tradition that is fundamentally about putting man into harmony with a living, interconnected universe.

A wonderfully eloquent conclusion on this topic is supplied by the renowned Dutch chemist Boerhaave (1668-1738), who on being asked his opinion of alchemy replied:


“I should answer, that the wise Socrates, after reading a most abstruse book of Heraclitus, being ask’d what he thought of it, replied, that where he understood it, he found it excellent, and believ’d it to be so in those other parts he could not comprehend. So wherever I understand the alchemists, I find them describe the truth in the most simple and naked terms, without deceiving us, or being deceived themselves. When therefore I come to places, where I do not comprehend the meaning; why should I charge them with falsehood, who have shown themselves so much better skill’d in the art than myself? I therefore rather lay the blame on my own ignorance than on their vanity.

Thus much I have long ago had a mind to say, concerning the knowledge of the true alchemists in physics; lest such skilful artists should be condemn’d by incompetent judges…. Credulity is hurtful, so is incredulity: the business therefore of a wise man is to try all things, hold fast what is approv’d, never limit the power of God, nor assign bounds to nature.”

The Persistence of Astrology

Divination, that intuitive art that uncovers and foretells, comes in a multitude of forms, from reading tea leaves and Tarot cards to inspecting the entrails of sacrificial animals (popular in ancient Rome, though perhaps not with the RSPCA). Of the many widely-practiced modern forms of divination, only one has such a powerful hold on the popular imagination that the front page of almost any newspaper directs us instantly to its prognostications: astrology. Many people who drive by Madame Zoso’s Palm-Reading Salon with a smirk wouldn’t miss a day without Jeane Dixon’s syndicated horoscopes.

What accounts for the persistent appeal of astrology, particularly in this scientific age? I believe it’s because, of all forms of divination, astrology seems to have the most reasonable claim on what it predicts. After all, the sun and the moon are more likely to know the damn deal than a bunch of soggy tea leaves. The astrological premise is really quite straightforward: events in the sky influence matters on earth. In other words, if you understand the planets and the stars, you’ll go a long way toward understanding what happens here on the ground. This is sometimes called the Doctrine of Universal Sympathy: As above, so below.

Stop for a moment and consider what a reasonable premise this is. The positions of the stars DO influence matters on earth. They are the very clocks of our most basic natural cycles: day, month, year. The powers of the ancient astrologers must have seemed magical indeed: predicting the flooding of the Nile in Egypt and the awe-inspiring eclipses of the sun and moon. No wonder that astrologers were consulted about auspicious times for battle. Even Eisenhower consulted the stars before his monumental decision about D-Day: only three days of the lunar month matched the required conditions of earth, moon and sun, since they needed moonlight for the channel crossing and flow tide just before dawn. This example sounds perfectly reasonable today, but years ago it would have been squarely in the realm of astrology.

One of the most pivotal moments in the history of science is Isaac Newton’s realization that the gravitational forces that the earth exerts on a falling apple are qualitatively the same gravitational forces that act on the orbiting moon. This is precisly the Doctrine of Universal Sympathy written into the book of Science. The forces that act here act also in the void of space. As above, so below. At some point, astronomy became the name for the truly measurable, testable pieces of astrology, while by default, the term astrology came to be indentified with intuitive prediction of things that can’t be easily tested.

If you were to consult the almanacs of the astrologers, you would find that I am a Saggitarius, which is to say that I was born when the sun was shining from that part of the sky where Saggitarius lives. But in fact, the sun was in Scorpio when I was born. Why? Because the solar system has changed since the first Greek astrologers put their charts in place, but the astrological charts haven’t. Astrologers used to work very hard to make their predictions of the paths of the planets and stars accurate, and inasmuch as they succeeded they were giving rise to a new science called astronomy. But once the split occurred between astronomy and astrology, the genuine ability to predict the locations of planets in the sky lost its importance to astrologers. Astrology came unglued from the heavens and has now reached the point where it has very little to do with where the planets actually were on such-and-such a date.

This is too bad, because the symbols and the history of astrology are so fascinating and beautiful. Astrology may be said to be the parent of all science, in that it begot astronomy, the first science. As astronomy was maturing, it was astrology that paid the rent. Astronomers received their courtly appointments for casting horoscopes, not for reckoning orbits. The illustrious Johannes Kepler published astrological prophesying almanacs, not because he believed in them but because he knew they would sell.

I am sympathetic to the aims of any system of divination. Everyone yearns to know what happens next, but as a system of divination, astrology is really no better and no worse than a dozen other techniques. But look at what astrology spun off along the way! Would that we could say the same thing about Tarot cards. Smug science must not forget its debt to astrology. As with alchemy and chemistry, a mystical tradition prefigured a rational, measured science.

The newspaper horoscopes may have come unhinged from the heavens that inspired them, but I continue to be mesmerized by the phenomenal forces and magical aspects of the sky. This is precisely why I find it so reassuring to return and sit at the historical divide between astrology and astronomy, where magic and rationality go hand in hand. It’s surprisingly close, and it’s a fine place to sit and stare in wonder at the stars.