When Galaxies Go Bad

Trying to find something amusing on TV while I crochet away the afternoon, I stumbled on a real gem of a "science" show on what we like to call the "Not If But When" channel. It wrapped up with some of the silliest anthropomorphizing I'd heard in a long time. The parts in quotations were spoken by people purporting to be real-live astronomers:
Galaxies are home to stars, solar systems, stars, planets, and moons. Everything that's important happens in galaxies. Galaxies are the lifeblood of the universe. "We arose because we live in a galaxy. Everything we can see and everything that matters to us happens within galaxies."

But the truth is, galaxies are delicate structures, held together by dark matter [previously identified as the stuff that must be there because it accounts for the tendency of galaxies to stay together when otherwise we'd expect them to fling apart]. Now, scientists have found another force at work in the universe. It's called "dark energy." Dark energy has the opposite effect of dark matter. Instead of binding galaxies together, it pushes them apart. "The dark energy, which we've only discovered in the last decade, which is the dominant stuff in the universe, is far more mysterious. We don't have the slightest idea why it's there." "What it's made from, we don't really know. We know it's there, but we don't really know what it is or what it's doing." "Dark energy is really weird. It's as if space has little springs in it, which are causing things to repel each other, and push them apart."

Far in the future, scientists think that dark energy will win the cosmic battle with dark matter, and that victory will start to drive galaxies apart. "Dark energy's going to kill galaxies off; it's going to do that by causing all the galaxies to recede further and further away from us until they're invisible, until they're moving away from us faster than the speed of light, so the rest of the universe will literally disappear before our very eyes. Not today, not tomorrow, but in perhaps a trillion years, the rest of the universe will have disappeared." Galaxies will become lonely outposts.

But that's not going to happen for a very long time. For now, the universe is thriving, and galaxies are creating the right conditions for life to exist. "Without galaxies, I wouldn't be here, you wouldn't be here, perhaps life itself wouldn't be here." "We're lucky. Life has only evolved on Earth because our tiny solar system was born in the right part of the galaxy. If we were any closer to the center, well, we wouldn't be here." "At the center of the galaxy, life can be extremely violent, and in fact, if our solar system were closer to the center of our galaxy, it would be so radioactive that we couldn't exist at all."

Too far away from the center would be just as bad. Out there, there aren't as many stars. We might not exist at all. "So in some sense, we are in the 'Goldilocks' zone of the galaxy: not too close, not too far, just right." . . .

More and more scientific research is focusing on galaxies. They hold the key to how the universe works. "We should be amazed to live at this time: here, in a random universe, on a random planet, on the outskirts of a random galaxy, where we can ask questions and understand things from the beginning of the universe to the end. We should celebrate our brief moment in the sun."

Galaxies are born. They evolve, they collide, and they die. Galaxies are the superstars of the scientific world, and even the scientists who study them have their favorites . . . . "My favorite galaxy is the Milky Way galaxy. It's my true home."

We're lucky that the Milky Way provides the right conditions for us to live. Our destiny is linked to our galaxy, and to all galaxies. They made us, they shape us, and our future is in their hands.
We were discussing recently the appropriate use of poetry in science writing. We also have been discussing the abiding human need to construct fables of meaning, but I prefer my fables more coherent than this. The producers of the show (and most of the "scientists" they were interviewing) needed to put down that doobie. If we had been somewhere else, we wouldn't be here. But as it is, no matter where we go, there we are. And I can feel my skeleton.

Full Metal Jousting

Thought you all might find it interesting to know that the History Channel has a show about modernized jousting. I watched an episode last night and was impressed by the seriousness and skill demonstrated. The men were cute too.

Anytime something of the past can be preserved like this, it's a good thing.

Haidt's Surveys

Dr. Jonathan Haidt has a new book out, which Cassandra has recommended to me highly -- I have not had time as yet! -- and which is beginning to make ripples in the community.  You may have seen the Hot Air piece on how conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives; or the New York magazine piece with the amusing illustrations that was featured on the always-interesting Arts & Letters Daily.

Dr. Haidt has updated his online quizzes, which you may enjoy taking for fun or edification; or just to help see the point he's trying to make.  I was pleased to score perfectly on the scientific knowledge quiz, for example; it's not hard, and I expect all of you will do likewise.  Both liberals and conservatives average over six out of seven total points.

The point he is making that gets the most attention comes from his "Sacredness Survey," where he's pushing the argument that conservatives and liberals share three value systems (fairness, avoidance of harm, and purity), but that conservatives have two more (authority and in-group loyalty).

I learn from this survey that Haidt's model ranks me as considering all but one of these values considerably more sacred than is normal for either liberals or conservatives; the exception is authority, for which I apparently have almost no respect whatsoever.

That helps me to understand Dr. Haidt's point, but it shows me that he doesn't quite understand my way of thinking about things.  I have a great deal of respect for legitimate authority; but I run it in with in-group loyalty. That is to say, my view of legitimate authority is that it arises from a mutual and reciprocal bond of loyalty.  Lacking such a bond, there is no legitimate authority.  This is because authority must be earned and deserved.

You'll find the surveys interesting, and perhaps illuminating.  I also have it on good authority that Cassandra will be writing about this book soon, so you'll get a head start on your homework!

Speaking of cognitive dissonance

My sister, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, had a coffee cup made for her husband, bearing a slogan she admires: "Never talk to your government without a lawyer." Her husband is a lawyer, as of course am I. She had just finished mentioning to me that I'd have a chance to meet a friend of hers at my niece's upcoming wedding, and that I would like her: she's a lawyer, but the "good kind." (No trace of irony or self-awareness.) She also seems blissfully unaware of the irony of her mug, given her otherwise unbounded enthusiasm for looking to government for solutions to everything. I might have observed that I wasn't looking forward to having to bring my lawyer to my medical appointments in decades to come.

But I don't see any reason to turn every single conversation with my sister into a pitched political battle, so I contented myself with repeating to her one of my favorite old jokes:
I come from a mixed household: my mother was Catholic, my father Jewish. So I went to confession, but I brought a lawyer. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
-- I believe you know Mr. Cohen."

Housemoms: the new "bling"

"Luxury" is a word that contains a slew of moral assumptions. The usual definition involves something that goes beyond necessity and pertains to sumptuous living. It shouldn't surprise us that people living in different circumstances would vary sharply in their estimates of what was necessary and what was luxurious: to a man with a bus pass, a Honda Civic seems almost as luxurious as a Rolls Royce.

A definition of luxury becomes even more fraught with unconscious moral assumptions when the term is applied to activities that at one time were considered duties. You hear people talk, for instance, as though the prohibition against theft were a luxury that only the rich can afford, because they are not truly hungry. A more thoughtful way to apprpoach that issue would be to say that a rich man's honesty has not been tested by hunger, with a cautionary note that a rich man should be slow to assume that he would do a better job than his neighbor of avoiding theft if he ever were equally hungry. By defining a virtue as a luxury, however, someone who wants to remove the stigma from violation of a duty can score an indirect moral point in his own favor, or at least disarm his critics in advance -- as if everyone in less desperate straits than oneself were at least unpleasantly complacent, if not outright greedy.

I am referring, obviously, to the President's recent statement that he and his wife did not have the "luxury" of letting her stay home with the kids. This statement is remarkably full of loaded assumptions. To begin with, it's hard not to laugh at the idea that a family with hundreds of thousands of dollars of income "can't afford" to forgo a second paycheck. But even if you buy that notion, calling a stay-at-home mom a "luxury" is essentially to make a judgment that the big house and the cable TV are basic necessities, while personally raising their children constitutes the frill.

The President presumably considers himself something of a feminist, without ever thinking about it very hard. Being a man of his culture, however, he naturally assumes that the man works and then, if there's still not enough money, the woman works too, which just shows you that he's not nutty enough to expect even a very liberal electorate to swallow too many transformative social experiments all at once. But a real feminist wouldn't justify her decision to earn a living by saying her husband couldn't afford to support her. She might suggest that, if it were clear that at least one parent ought to stay home with young children, then some careful thought should be given to which parent it should be. She might also take the position that it's no one's business but hers and her husband's how they arrange to share the adult duties in their household.

In the meantime, luxury strikes me as a word connoting envy. Ann Romney, understandably, is the target of a lot of envy, who is being asked to justify her good fortune and is being rather casually reviled for it.

Update: Over at her place, Cassandra has summed up nicely part of what I was trying to say. Ann Romney takes heat for staying at home. Sarah Palin takes heat for failing to do so.
The one constant in all of this agonizing over a woman's proper role has been that if the woman happens to be a liberal, there is no wrong answer. But if she's conservative, there is no right answer. . . . [S]ome folks on the right are just as deeply confusicated about all this pesky talk of women having dangerous choices as their progressive brethren in Christ.
There's always someone out there ready to explain to us females how our choices aren't quite up to snuff, on one side of the political aisle or the other, and how we need to let someone else circumscribe them for us, lest we stray into danger or make unfair inroads into someone else's turf. As far as I'm concerned, if adults can establish households in which the bills get paid one way or another without reliance on violence, fraud, or handouts, and any kids under their roof are free from abusive neglect, everyone else can butt out.

What of the Grand Jury?

We've only talked about the Martin/Zimmerman case once before here at the Hall, but the one time we did we seemed to agree that the facts suggested a grand jury.  Instead, Florida has decided to proceed with charges without the trouble of empanelling such a jury.  I would like to put the question of the grand jury to our resident lawyers.  I realize that Florida law doesn't require one in non-capital cases, and apparently this prosecutor generally doesn't use them except in capital cases.

Still, this seems like a case in which a grand jury would have been especially appropriate.  The grand jury dates to Henry II's reforms, and its guarantee was demanded of King John in Magna Carta.  It is a panel whose special purpose is to ensure that a jury of peers agrees that charges are appropriate, which seems especially to be proper in cases where there is tremendous political pressure on the government to find a way to bring charges against someone.

Thus the Fifth Amendment says:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury....
...except in certain cases pertaining to actual military service.  Florida is standing on the fact that this is not a capital case, but it surely meets the standard of a charge of an "infamous crime."  The level of publicity, and attending political pressures, seem to make this exactly the kind of case in which a grand jury would be most appropriate.

I'm sure there is a legal tradition of interpreting "infamous crime" of which I am unaware; but I'd like to ask you for the benefit of your education and experience in these matters.

Sic Transit Santorum

We are unfortunate even as he is fortunate.  He learned that he didn't want the power so much as he wanted the things he had looked for power to protect.  That is great wisdom:  but how strange to find it in a candidate for the presidency.  

Daddy Was A Godfearing Man, Whose Father Shot the Chief of Police

I meant to post this at Easter, but forgot for one reason and another.  It ties many things together we have spoken of lately.

The story is familiar; my great-great grandfather is supposed to have killed a sheriff and several deputies in the factional guerrilla fighting that came after the Civil War.  I have no reason to doubt the story; in fact, I have the musket, whose lock is the right age, and whose stock was hand-cut.

Flowers and Fire

Since Tex is showing us a lot of flowers lately, perhaps you'd like to see our Easter-blooming roses.

Some of you may find your eyes drawn to the fire that is going on in the background of that photo.  Here's a closeup of that for those of you who prefer fire and iron.

Easter lilies

Lilium longiflorum is a native of the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan. Beginning in the late 1800s, the bulb was cultivated in Bermuda and then shipped to the United States. American production of the Easter lily began when an Oregon soldier named Louis Houghton returned home from World War I with some of the bulbs and shared them with fellow gardeners.

When World War II began and Asian sources of the bulbs were cut off, suddenly imported Easter lilies became scarce and expensive. American lily nursery production began in earnest, and the bulbs were known as “white gold” to growers attempting to make a profit. By 1945, 1,200 lily growers were in business up and down the west coast. Today the market is dominated by a handful of growers located on the the Oregon-California border in an approximately 12-mile-long strip of land along the Pacific coast, called the "Easter Lily Capital of the World."

I think that explains why they're never more than moderately happy when we plant them here. They probably want it to be in the 60s all the time. They couldn't ask for a nicer day than today, though.

H/t Dave's Garden, which produces a nice email newsletter you can sign up for, free of charge.

Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, alleluia

Our choir director delighted me this morning by choosing this lovely Taizé chant for the Easter service:

Am, E, Am, G
C, G, Am, E
Am, E, Am, G
C, G, Am/E, Am

Louez le Seigneur, tous les peuples!
Fêtez-le tous les pays, Alléluia!
Son amour envers nous s'est montré le plus fort,
Eternelle est sa fidélité, Alléluia!
Dieu monte parmi l'acclamation,
Le Seigneur aux éclats du cor.
Sonnez pour notre Dieu, sonnez,
Sonnez pour notre Roi, sonnez!
Acclamez, acclamez Dieu toute la terre,
Chantez à la gloire de son nom, en disant:
"Toute la terre se prosterne devant toi,
Elle chante pour toi, elle chante pour ton nom."

I heard about the Taizé community and its music only the other day over at Maggie's Farm. Brother Roger, who in 1940 founded this international ecumenical community of monks based in Burgundy, France, was murdered seven years ago at the age of 90, during evening prayers. Though a Protestant, Fr. Roger sought reconciliation with the Catholic Church and was granted some limited license to accept Catholic communion in violation of the usual rule excluding Protestants. He was stabbed to death by a 36-year-old woman.

Here is our Easter Altar, which had been stripped and left bare from Good Friday through the Easter vigil. As is our custom, the children in the congregation "flowered the cross" during the service. We had two baptisms this morning, a rarity in our elderly congregation. The tiny church was overflowing with 200 people.

Lent feels like passing through a tunnel that gets narrower and narrower, until it is with a tangible relief that we restore the "Alleluia" to our service.

And tonight, wine with Easter dinner. Lent is over.


He saw not only Them; he saw Him. This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him. What is blinding, suffocating fire to you, is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man. You would like, if you could, to interpret the patient's prostration in the Presence, his self-abhorrence and utter knowledge of his sins (yes, Wormwood, a clearer knowledge even than yours) on the analogy of your own choking and paralysing sensations when you encounter the deadly air that breathes from the heart of Heaven. But it's all nonsense. Pains he may still have to encounter, but they embrace those pains. They would not barter them for any earthly pleasure. All the delights of sense, or heart, or intellect, with which you could once have tempted him, even the delights of virtue itself, now seem to him in comparison but as the half nauseous attractions of a raddled harlot would seem to a man who hears that his true beloved whom he has loved all his life and whom he had believed to be dead is alive and even now at his door. He is caught up into that world where pain and pleasure take on transfinite values and all our arithmetic is dismayed.
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Truth is Stonger than Lies

Life is stronger than death. Good is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Truth is stronger than lies.
The darkness that poses a real threat to mankind, after all, is the fact that he can see and investigate tangible material things, but cannot see where the world is going or whence it comes, where our own life is going, what is good and what is evil.
That does, indeed, seem to be the challenge of the era. Notice, though, that 'something can come from nothing' only if we dramatically change the meaning of the word "nothing."  "Nothing" now means something, something like 'the potential for the creation of a universe.'  And that, as it happens, is nothing other than the orthodox position:  the universe came from that which had the potential to create it.

What kind of thing is that?  To say that it is "nothing" is merely to give it a new name:  but it is the same thing, whatever name you call it by.