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Monday, October 16, 2017



At 08:42 EST on 17 August 2017 the European LIGO--Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory--near Pisa detected a gravitational wave emanating from the direction (it would turn out) of a constellation called "thGC 4993," which is 130 million light years distant 
from the Earth.

Think about it: 130 million years ago our planet was still 6 million years away from the Chixtulub Impact. (That's the name of the  estimated 6km wide meteor-collision that--in approximately two seconds--eliminated earth's atmosphere, formed the Gulf of Mexico, caused planetary volcanic eruptions, and ended the Jurassic epoch, along with the dominant life-form at the time: dinosaurs.)

In that moment a pair of neutron stars--dense remnants of collapsed stars--which had been circling one another at increasing velocity exploded in a merger called a "kilonova." Astrophysicists knew of kilonovas because our standard theory predicts their existence, but none had ever been detected before last month.

August marked almost exactly the second anniversary of the first gravitational waves ever detected. The existence of these waves also follow from the General Theory of relativity, but the LIGO instruments were only completed and tested in 2015. That September they proved themselves. Thus a new dimension was added to our physics. Until two years ago the only sensory evidence we had of the universe was light: the radiation-spectrum from x-rays through visible light to infrared. The LIGO detectors added a soundtrack, as it were, to our movie.

Since then astronomers and physicists around the world have been working to coordinate the LIGO instruments with light-gathering instruments, both earth-based and in orbit. In August the system worked.

22 milliseconds--twenty-two thousands of a second--after the Virgo detector in Italy registered the gravitational wave generated by the collision of those neutron stars, the U.S. LIGO observatory in Louisiana recorded it; 3 milliseconds later the one in Hanford WA registered the same impulse. So now we had a planetary triangulation of the arrival of a gravitational wave, set off--remember--when most of the animals on earth were dinosaurs.

But where in the universe did that gravitational wave originate?

Answering this question is the next neat part of this new system. Minutes after that 08:42 hit astronomers were alerted to search a few degrees of the sky for a new object. At this level, however, "few degrees" means billions of radiation-sources across millions of light years. The search began with the NASA "Swift" satellite began scanning some 750 points and soon reported massive ultra-violent radiation from the direction of our NGC 4993 galaxy. With this clue--after having to wait until the day-horizon allowed contact with the enormous telescope-installations in Chile--astronomers began searching the accumulated data for a "transient." That is, a new object in the sky.

In the 9th image, Charlie Kilpatrick found it: a new star next to NGC 4933:

When Kilpatrick sent the images above to Ryan Foley, professor of astronomy at UC Santa Cruz, Foley marveled: " the first human to have seen optical photons from a gravitational event."

So there you have it: the first event in "multimessenger astrophysics:" the field that has been created by this conjunction of physical and optical evidence. This advance is just one consequence of the coordination of science and government: "your tax dollars at work" in the finest sense.

Not only does this news dwarf the pettiness and stupidity of current 
American--not to mention world--politics, it illustrates the highest form of human activity: asking questions rather than seeking "answers" to the trivial problems we create around and for ourselves.

Keep this in mind when you vote...

Thursday, June 29, 2017


Alex Honnold summiting El Capitan - June 2017

It must have been the summer of 1974, because I recall this scene taking place in my oldest son Jon’s basement bedroom, in the house we moved into in 1972. We’d just come to the end of bedtime singing or storytelling—a lifelong ritual with each of my children—and were talking in the dark when he said, “Dad, If I died tomorrow, would you feel like you’d wasted your time with me?”

I’ve returned to this anecdote regularly over the years. Because I realized at the time, and attempted to explain, that I could honestly answer him “no” only if I had lived and played with him without expecting any outcome or harboring some hope for reward. I would have to have been living with him and loving him for it’s own sake.

Anything less would result, on my child’s death, in the kind of regret that signals resignation; Kierkegaard is right, I still think, to insist that clinging—albeit secretly—to outcomes, to hope for the fulfillment of expectations, is the polar opposite of what he calls “faith” and that I call “doing something for its own sake.”

I woke thinking over this scene. There are at least two ways we can do things:

  • addressing the task or enterprise before you both with careful attention to its demands and knowledge of the history—of the work of others—that bears on this job,
  • assessing the purpose of your task, placing it in a framework of ideas, calculating its worth, and so on.

But think of the Wright brothers. The problem was powered flight. It turned on a question that had been asked and answered wrongly for millenia. Both brothers, but especially Wilbur, the eldest, knew the history of speculation and experiment with air-resistance, the imitation of birds, and the force of heated air. When they were not working on the repair and maintenance of the immensely popular new “safety bicycle” in their Ohio shop, they were making parts to test, which required inventing test-equipment as well. This achievement alone is comparable to some unknown wood-worker in a Shaker community not far away there in Ohio, but nearly a century earlier, devising tools to cut the threads that made possible the bench-vise.

Wilbur built a “wind tunnel” consisting of a cube about two feet on a side, open on one end and with a tube at the other through which an electric fan—also a recent invention, along with household electricity—could move the air at reasonably high speed. Through an observation port Wilbur inserted blades of wood with non-parallel sides. We now call them “wings” and what he was testing was the lift produced by the air flowing over the longer upper surface.

Wilbur devoted hundreds of hours and pages to calculating the relationship between surface-area and upward force, exhibiting a devotion akin to the years it took Kepler to arrive at the “ellipse” described by the motion of a planet around the sun.

To build prototypes the men had to invent not only the concept of wing “chord” but propellers and even engine blocks. One of their cleverest achievements was the use of a twisted bicycle chain to power the port propeller, to create counter-rotation from a single engine-pulley.

I take this to be exemplary of the way in which all our best work is done: the brothers focused entirely on their project with the same sort of devotion and skill as their contemporaries van Gogh and Cezanne. Not to mention Einstein. All the best and most lasting human work—including our relationships such as parent and child—is done for its own sake, not to bring about some other thing desired.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

1000s of years of guilt...

Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a catholic movie. It's a character-study of Lee (Casey Affleck), who ekes out a living in building maintenance around Quincy Massachusetts, having fled his hometown after drunkenly causing a housefire that killed his three children some ten years earlier. Lee returns to Manchester MA on learning of his older brother's death, to deal with that fact and with his nephew, 16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). His ex Randi (Michelle Williams) still lives there too, now re-married and with another child. Lonergan's theme is the ways in which we are confined by our beliefs. The pivotal scene, in the center of the film, takes place in the police station after the fire. Lee describes his leaving the fireplace without a screen to go out for beer, walking to the convenience store because he's too drunk to drive, and returning to find his home in flames, his wife rescued but his children burned alive. When he's finished the officers explain that it's not a crime to have made such a mistake. "You mean I can just go?" Lee says. But he can't go. He can and does flee, even if only to Boston. But now he has to punish himself, living meagerly, permanently closed and inarticulate, treasuring photos of his dead children, starting bar fights in order to get beaten up by strangers. A Jesus-figure. I mean, damaged as he is, Lee absorbs the grief and rage and blame that's all around him, that constitutes the lives of his family and former friends and suspicious neighbors. Michelle Williams delivers a wrenching performance in a tearful scene, apologizing to Lee for her blame and rejection after the accident. Lee can't hear it. Lucas Hedges' Patrick amazes Lee: the kid is popular, athletic, and enviably attractive. But Patrick is destined to lead a life as just like those of the adults around him: confined to the round of work, ritual celebration, regular reproduction, gossip, resentment, and blame. Everybody feels guilty most of the time. The only times that feel like fun are when you're all drunk...

Thursday, November 10, 2016


Once, when a vicious group of reactionary politicians were elected to govern, a young man watched as they took one of their first official actions: arresting and executing his teacher. The time was 399BCE. The government was that of Athens. The teacher's name was Socrates. The young man's name was Plato. Plato went on to immortalize his teacher, as well as to describe the chief danger of the democracy Athenians had created: that the people could be led by some opportunist to direct their anger at an imaginary enemy, rather than questioning those who claimed to know who to blame. Over the ensuing 2000 years there have been many such encounters with the exploitation of popular resentment: Cicero's execution after his defense of the Roman Senate; Dante's exile in 1302 after the pope's intervention in Florentine politics; Machiavelli's torture during the Medici's destruction of the Republic; Galileo's imprisonment on the order of the Catholic hierarchy; official attacks upon Darwin; the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti and the murder of Emmett Till; Republican appeasement in the 1950s of McCarthy's slanders. And now Trump. Plato stayed in Athens, founded a school, and satirized the pretensions of those who claim to be wise. I'm neither as great a writer as Plato, nor as brave. But I'm staying, too, to do my part in righting this wrong...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Not enough cake...

I made the appointment to get a local surgeon's opinion about the state of my now 10-year-old spinal surgery. So when I went to the office just over a month ago, the alert PA, testing me for baseline abilities, noticed a slight left bicep weakness and some imbalance walking. She guessed "cervical stenosis." "Stenosis" means narrowing of the space in your spinal column in which the cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF) cushions the central nerve-bundle. The surgeon reviewed my x-rays and pronounced my lumbar fusion stable. Then he had the PA order an MRI, which I had a couple of weeks ago.

Last week I read her assessment. I've been worried since. This morning conversation with the surgeon confirmed cervical stenosis revealed by the MRI: long-standing arthritis has reached the point that I have no CSF from C-3 to C-5. [We have seven "cervical"--neck--vertebrae and 12 "thoracic" or main spinal vertebrae.] Worse, the C-5 vertebral-bone has shifted slightly. The prognosis is progressive impairment--balance, neuropathy, etc.--over perhaps a year.

The imminent threat, though, is that movement of less than a millimeter at that arthritis-damaged C-5--say a fall or other injury--could inflict paraplegia or even quadriplegia: partial to complete paralysis. Surgery is risky, of course, but paralysis is worse.

So I'm scheduled for ACDF--anterior cervical discectomy and fusion--in 12 weeks, followed by 12 weeks off the road bike. The procedure involves opening the spinal sheath from the right front of my throat, inserting three disc-replacement "cages" to restore the alignment of the vertebrae, and screwing a pair of flanges to retain the repair as it heals.

I find myself feeling much more vulnerable now. And sad. I won't be riding weekly with club and group members I've been cycling among since moving to Tucson. These have been some of the best years of my cycling life. I'm grateful for the friendships I've made. Not to mention the racing.

And joking. For example: A guy goes to his urologist. "You've got to stop masturbating," the doctor says. "Why," the guy asks. "Because I'm trying to examine you."

Well, I still think it's funny. 

I'll still be cycling, but alone. Supposing I can remain healthy and uninjured--and the surgery is successful--the immediate risk of paralysis will be over and I'll be back on the road next year. Maybe I'll see you out there...

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

What's "conservative?"

A friend asked for my thoughts about a pair of recent opinion pieces by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. The first was "Confession of Liberal Intolerance" (08 May 16) and the latest "The Liberal Blind Spot" (29 May 16). In both Kristof proposes and defends his claim that liberals discriminate against conservatives, both in hiring and in professional judgments. Kristof only mentions university professors and departments to be discriminatory in this way, asserting that faculty refuse to hire "conservatives" and consider being "evangelical" grounds for refusing to consider a candidate. Kristof makes a number of mistakes in his charges and, worse, makes several false assumptions. One example of the latter is the implicit notion that "evangelical" equals "conservative." There have been a lot of the former who have been "radicals." Think of Luther and Kierkegaard. Or Jesus. Kristof also makes the contrary--and equally false--assumption that conservatives are all christians. Think of Hitler and Mussolini.

But, for a moment, consider the question--which Kristof ignores--"what do conservatives want to conserve?" By definition "conserving" has to be about the past. In a moment of unusual candor, William Buckley said, "Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change," and added that he himself aimed to live "obedient to god and subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors." As to the first aim, How do you know you're obeying god? The answer is clearly that you have to choose what to believe. And how do people make this choice? Typically by conforming to what their community or culture holds to be true. So both aims depend upon believing in the "wisdom of ancestors," which comes down to continuing traditional practices.

Now the framers of the U.S. constitution clearly held many traditional values, but their wisdom consisted in ensuring change. The constitution, as you know, imposed or enshrined things like slavery and white male political power. The constitution still functions, however, because it provides rules for changing values. It even provides for adding rules, like the great 14th amendment assuring all citizens "due process of law." So I'm all for conserving that sort of wisdom: the knowledge that the way I've lived is has been governed by a great number limiting or distorting features of which I've been unaware. If you're lucky, some such things may be revealed in one's lifetime, so that I can welcome the disillusionment--which is the same as enlightenment--afforded by, say, Gloria Steinem's campaign in the 1960s to eliminate "Mrs." Steinem's magazine Ms. for decades listed the number of years it took for a publication to substitute "Ms." for "Mrs." in news stories. The New York Times was one of the last! Another example of change exposing error is the late black comedian Godfrey Cambridge's joking that "I believed everything I saw on TV, until I tried to buy a flesh-colored Band-Aid."

So Buckley was wrong. Not merely the best, but the wisest way to be conservative is to embrace change. And Kristof is wrong, too. College faculties are not "liberal" because they have worked to exclude "conservatives." Academics, like others, can be wrong but, like the founders, they devote themselves to studying not only what has been thought and written, but also how the past has given way to change. Unless you can love that process, whether your subject is philosophy or physics, you can't be an intellectual...

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Art and War

Ever heard of Jacques Jaujard? Neither had I, until I saw Alexander Sokurov's Francofonia yesterday here in New York. Jaujard (1895-1967) was appointed Director of French National Museums in 1926. His offices were in the Louvre in Paris. Certain of impending war with Germany, he authorized and supervised the transfer of all the museum's most significant works to chateaux and other sites scattered over the French countryside. During the Nazi occupation (1940-1944) Graf Metternich, the SS head of the Kunstschutz ("Art Protectorate"), cooperated by refusing to have the works returned to Paris (and certainly looted by the likes of Goebbels and Goering). Sokurov tells these stories within a larger meditation on the relationship of art and war. Did you know that the "museum"--as we know it--was invented by Napoleon? He requisitioned and refit the Louvre in the 1790s to house the works and artifacts of all the countries of the Mediterranean conquered and occupied in his campaigns: from Egypt to Central Europe. (England followed his example in the 19th century: see the British Museum.) So, in a certain sense, Sokurov shows that war is the salvation of art. But, he also shows, the violence and destruction of combat and conquest are soon over. Cities and towns are built from the rubble. History is forgotten.  Only the art lasts. Think about it when you watch the news...