Sunday, August 25, 2013

Brian Cox in Brisbane

Went to see Brian Cox at QPAC in Brisbane last Tuesday. Great evening. Cosmology, particle physics, life on the planets, plus a nice bit about Brian Cox himself. He's a natural presenter and his enthusiasm is infectious—unlike the dour Richard Dawkins, who is about as uninspiring as you'll get. (I know, I know: some people just can't get enough of Dawkins. People have the strangest inclinations and predilections...)

To my delight Brian Cox finished the evening with a reading of Carl Sagan's moving commentary on Voyager's famous 'pale blue dot' photo.

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

"The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

"Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

"The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

"It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”

Death of a friend

Friend of mine died yesterday. Never actually met him in person, as happens these days, but he was my friend anyway. Was going to come visit us earlier this year, but then was diagnosed with cancer. A brief bout of hope for remission, but then those hopes were dashed by subsequent investigations.

Today I received an email from his daughter, telling his friends that he had died.

He was what you might call a 'God-fearing man', and I get the impression he was OK with dying; a notion incomprehensible to me, an avowed emortalist—but some people just are OK with it, and I can respect that. I have a sneaking suspicion that even if significant longevity were to become available, many people would continue to adhere to their faith. The consequences for society of this would be interesting to speculate about. (It's cropped up in my books quite a few times, for obvious reasons; especially in the Tethys prequels.)

Still, very few people will ever be truly 'comfortable' with dying, though they may talk themselves into denial of this simple but powerful instinctive reaction to the notion of their personal extinction. My friend wrote a poem that reminds us of this, and maybe also expresses our deep abiding fear of the worst thing that we can possibly imagine to happen to us after we're dead. (Yeah, I know, what can possibly happen to us at that point—right?) Still, ponder this poem, which I would find profoundly touching and revealing, even if it hadn't been my friend who wrote it.

The title says it all: what we most fear is that we are forgotten; that our death will not make a difference to the lives of those that mattered to us; that life will just carry on as if we'd never been. Of course, ultimately that will be the fate of everybody; if only because the universe won't leave us any choice.

Remember Me

I am not here, nor do I sleep
I walk not the ground beneath your feet
I breathe not the air in which you stand
No longer here, no longer man
Tis with these words I now depart
To lessen sorrow within your heart
My spirit soars now in Heaven high
For God has written that man must die
Remember me for good I’ve done
Remember me for battles won
Remember me
Remember me

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Three Most Dangerous Ideas

It's been a long time...

Well, here's something that came to mind and got onto the Want-To-Share list.

A bit of background.

I have this friend. Known him for longer than just abut anybody in Australia. In fact, the only person I've known longer is dead. That kind of puts my buddy, let's call him 'K', into the 'oldest living friend' category. He's almost exactly one year younger than I.

K has worked for all his life like a fiend. Now he's 'retired', a concept I find incomprehensible, as it implies that one's basically waiting for death. Well, I suppose, we all are in some way, whether it comes after the next heartbeat or in a much further-away future. But retirement seems to kind-of make it explicit As a seriously 'do-not-go-gentle' kind of guy, I'm not in that mind-set. In fact, I'd prefer not to go at all.

K has been 'creative' throughout his life. I'm not sure I can relate to the kinds of things he's spent his creativity on (much of it was in the public service, serving politicians), but that's none of my business. To each his own. I respect people's choices; mainly since I would like them to respect mine. Tit for tat.

In retirement, K's creative outlets have lain fallow. He immerses himself in activities, making himself so busy that he hasn't got time to breathe, but I know he's not happy doing what he's doing. (I know, I know: who is 'happy' anyway? And is happiness really a goal to aim for? A topic for another time. Maybe.) In fact, I think it's killing him; that and the smoking, which he's been trying to give up more times than I can count.

But creativity is something you can't keep down. Once you're in the habit of it (and yes, there's something like a 'habit of creativity', which is more addictive than smoking), you can't break it; unless you kill yourself, either physically or spiritually. And so, K nowadays is creative by having ideas. He just can't help it. They keep on coming. Good ideas and less edifying ideas. Most interestingly, ideas about stories that might make it into novels or screenplays. But ideas they are. No follow-through though, because somehow that's not just in him anymore.

I found myself getting angry thinking of all this. Why? Because I look at my friend and I get sad and frustrated and ultimately angry at the waste of it all. The waste of a life, which is slowly fading away, with those ideas just coming our of nowhere, only to become just another idea that'll eventually (as will all human ideas, of course) be dissipate in the endless sea of the ultimately-dying universe, together with everything that the uncounted billions, and maybe eventually even trillions, of human beings were, are and will be. Forgotten, dispersed, become nothingness.

But, damn it, until that happens, how about we shout as loud as we can and even though our defiance may be futile, it is defiance and an affirmation of our being alive.

Back to ideas, which is what this blog was supposed to be all about. Because as I was listenting to K yesterday, it suddenly occurred to me that while ideas may be powerful, some are more so than others; and I wondered what the most powerful ideas might be. And then I realized that maybe 'powerful' is harder to figure out than another category, namely 'dangerous'. In terms of human life in our world, what are the ideas that are most dangerous, in the sense that they carry within them the greatest potential for good and evil alike? The ideas that infuse the Force with power, that stir human beings into action; which, when abused, have the potential to do untold harm; and yet, in their highest expression, represent the very best our humanity has to offer.

And this, after some thought, are my top three; not in order of importance, because I'm not presumptuous enough to think I can make that judgement.

All of these ideas are at their core anti-authoritarian, anti-religious, anti-statist and focused on the individual.

Idea #1 is the concept of 'true love'.

Yeah, I know, this is Princess Bride stuff, but so bite me! It's all profound anarchistic, the notion that the obligations of love for another person (or persons) trump all the rules imposed by societies, states, ideologies, religions and what-have-you. This relates closely to...

Idea #2 is the concept of 'individual freedom' or 'liberty'.

Note that this is the 'negative' version liberty, that is, freedom from something (as opposed to its strange complement, 'positive' liberty, this being the freedom to do something.

Idea #3 is the notion that as individuals and physical beings we should live for as long as we choose, instead of being subjected to the whims of what biology appears to dictate.

This is closely associated with the idea of individual freedom, since it implies freedom from the necessity to die as ordained by evolution or by obstacles put in the way of this by others for whatever reason.

As I said before, I'm not offering a judgment on these ideas or their consequences; just as food for thought.

I know there are considerably more powerful ideas. For example the idea of 'God' in whatever incarnation (all equally daft) is very powerful indeed. It's also dangerous, but in a different way, mainly because it's grown to such monstrous proportions.

The first two ideas I mentioned on the other hand, can never become that way, because they are, in their very nature, inherently incompatible with such a development. In contrast, the last one might, one of these days, grow to significant size. In the process it will inevitably subvert fundamental assumptions about, and views of, ourselves as human beings. Should be interesting...