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Monthly Archives: November 2016

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Why is it Dark at Night?

The nights of 13th and 14th November 2016 were supermoon nights. I’ll resist the temptation to post my supermoon photos, since Facebook and the Internet were flooded with superb photos of the event, and mine were taken with a cell phone camera. But looking up at the beautiful, impressive moon on that light-flooded night, I remembered a question I was asked three decades ago by an uncle of mine, a keen amateur cosmologist.

“Do you know why it gets dark at night?” he asked.
“Because the sun goes down, naturally,” I replied. Absurd question.
“Think again. What about the light from all the stars you see at night? Many of them are brighter and more powerful that a thousand suns. We should be continuously dazzled by their light, and life on earth as we know it should be impossible.”

Image courtesy National Geographic

Image courtesy National Geographic

I didn’t know the answer to the question and, infuriatingly, my uncle refused to give me the answer, leaving me to search for it myself. I first read the answer in a scientific journal, Physics Today, in an article published in 1974 by someone named Edward Harrison. The article was heavy reading, but I ploughed through it, memorising several paragraphs, so that I could finally answer my uncle’s question. But my understanding was not deep enough to retain the answer, and in a few weeks, the answer evaporated from my mind, leaving only faint traces like water stains on a dry rock.

In October this year, an article appeared in the The Telegraph newspaper which showed me that many academically brighter minds than mine were still wrestling with the answer. This article by science journalist Sarah Knapton should be enough to satisfy the curiosity of the average lay reader. And finally my mind is at rest now.

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An Old Word for New Times

Sometimes, we need a new word to describe new trends. But to describe recent events that mirror the rise of demagogues and dictators in the past, an old word will do. Many thanks to my friend, Canadian economist Larry Willmore, for posting the following on his blog “Thought du Jour.”

“kakistocracy”
noun
1829, “government by the worst element of a society,” coined on analogy of its opposite, aristocracy, from Greek kakistos “worst,” superlative of kakos “bad” (which perhaps is related to the general IE word for “defecate;” see caco- ) + -cracy.

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved November 25, 2016 from Dictionary.com website

Closing the Golden Door

Inside the Statue of Liberty, on a bronze plaque, a sonnet was engraved in 1903. A poem by Emma Lazarus, called “The New Colossus.”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Over the century since the plaque was installed, the last five lines of the poem have become an intrinsic part of the US story. No longer. Donald Trump’s message is clear. The masses can huddle elsewhere, taking their yearning with them.

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The Ineffable Sadness of Neutered Cats

The sugar cubes floated in my thickly creamed coffee before slowly dropping out of sight. This was a sequel to views of Klimt at the Upper Belvedere in Vienna, itself a sequel to a memorable week exploring inner landscapes of the soul.20161110_150529

There were two of them. They led happy lives, replete with feline fulfilment. They loved to purr and cuddle in bed with their humans in the night. They ate well. Always had food and drink served to them. They never went hungry. They seemed at peace with themselves and their world. There were vestiges of wildness in them still to remind you that, despite centuries of domestication, they were their own creatures, creatures of the wild; individuals. And yet, there was an edge missing. You could see it in their eyes. It was a mixture of sadness and resignation. I came to recognize this glance in the cats and my heart went out for what I had done to them. Years later, I saw a video of a woman who could communicate with animals including big cats, the world’s apex predators, and interpret them in anthropomorphic terms. This video changed my thinking about domestic pets. Having been sensitized by this new thinking, I began to see all the subtle forms of exclusion that are practised in societies around the world.20161110_150358

Most ancient cultures respected the natural world, seeing humans as an intrinsic part of it. At sometime in our collective past, we began to call ourselves civilized and parted ways intellectually with nature. This paid off for a few centuries, roughly until the end of the twentieth century. Ren√© Descartes famously declared humans to be the thinking species in the sixteenth century. We think, therefore we are (…superior to all other forms of life?).¬†Science and technology have tamed the earth, have subdued nature to such an extent that, like in the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons, we are in danger of cutting off the branch on which we perch. Of course we don’t think of ourselves as prejudiced, but every time we turn away from a conversation with an unfamiliar “other” we practise a form of discrimination just the same. I noticed with a shock of recognition, the ‘sadness of cats’ on the faces of people in the news; in the gaze of a young woman going through the shipwreck of her marriage; in the face of a man devastated by war and conflict; in the catatonic resignation of a child dragged from the rubble of a bombed home. Where does all this violence begin?

It begins with the way we treat all sentient beings, not just our own kind. Gandhi allegedly said, more than a half century ago, the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Anthropologist Michael Thompson, in his 1979 book Rubbish Theory, explores the rise and fall in value of objects, depending on scarcity or abundance. He uses bakelite ashtrays as an example in the book. This early synthetic product of the 1930s was sold cheap, and now have become collectors items. Following from Rubbish Theory we should infer that, since animals in the wild have become a scarce commodity, we should value them highly. Conversely, with world population close to seven and a half billion, human life is cheap. Perhaps this is what we are seeing in international politics these days. But here is the paradox of human existence. If we subscribe solely to economic logic, we deny our humanity and diminish ourselves, sowing the seeds for our own ultimate destruction.

Rulers, kings and presidents come and go, but the earth will survive. However, humankind will not survive, if we continue to pursue only economic growth and ignore the unmistakeable signals that the planet continually sends us. Many of our leaders ignore it. It’s time to change those leaders. And here is another paradox of politics. We can change these leaders only if we change ourselves first.

For more by this author, see the links to other work on his Amazon page, or the Google Play Store