Friday, January 25, 2008

We Living Clumps of Ash

Some of my skeptical blogging friends might be interested in Krista Tippet's recent interview with theoretical physicist Janna Levin on Speaking of Faith. Listening to it in the dark at 5:30 a.m. on my way into work really got to me. They tackle several ever-present questions for me: what do we really know about our world? are we really free agents? how far should we go in our pursuit of truth and how do we balance this out with the everyday "constructed" realities of life? And it offers stunning passages from her new novel (when do you get a chance to read a novel by a theoretical physicist?) A mad man dreams of Turing machines.

Here's one of the passages from her book that connected for me:

"I approach a man and a woman on a park bench. His glasses, her handbag, her umbrella. They're as still as stone. They're in front of me and then, within a few strides, I pass the green-painted bench with its concrete feet. I turn to watch them but they are swept along by time, unable to stop, dragged away along with the street and the wind.

I see them everywhere, my two mad treasures. An elegant man in a hat with an able, stocky woman at his side. A solitary black-haired boy with a peculiar stride. I am looking on benches and streets, in logic and code. I am looking in the form of truth stripped to the bone. Truth that lives independently of us, that exists out there in the world. Hard and unsentimental. I am ready to accept truth no matter how alarming it turns out to be. Even if it proves incompleteness and the limits of human reason. Even if it proves we are not free. [I love this bit though even in the loving I recognize that part of my love is not about the mere dedication to truth but also the romantic image of a brave soul pursuing truth.]

They are here in our minds, Turing's luminescent gems, Gödel's Platonic forms. There are no social hierarchies to scale. No racial barriers. Given to us along with our brains. Built into the structure of our thoughts — no bullying into blind faith, no threats of eternal damnation — just honesty, truth, and reason. [Again I'm motivated, motivated to know and focus on this truth: all these hierarchies are constructs which hold no reality to the being-me who is connected to the cosmos.]

I am here in the middle of an unfinished story. I used to believe that one day I would come to some kind of conclusion, some calming resolution, and the restlessness would end. But that will never happen. Even now, I am moving toward a train. My heart is thumping. My lungs are working. There is a man, a woman, a bench, the glasses, the smooth hair, an umbrella. We are all caught in the stream of a complicated legacy — a proof of the limits of human reason, a proof of our boundlessness. A declaration that we were down here on this crowded, lonely planet, a declaration that we mattered, we living clumps of ash, that each of us was once somebody, that we strove for what we could never have, that we could admit as much. That was us — funny and lousy and great all at once." [I'm reminded of a passage from a Dillard's unofficially entitled "Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak" from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: "We little blobs of soft tissue crawling around on this one planet's skin are right, and the whole universe is wrong." Later she dismisses this view, instead deciding that we are indeed freaks. Both authors confirm that I too will always be restless, always peering out there, often aware of the planet's skin, compelled to consider the biggest possible questions I can fit into my puny head.]

If you haven't had a enough yet, check out the "Program Details" for this episode. It's a multimedia retelling of the interview with links to the music used, YouTube videos explaining dark matter, the text of the passages read, and more details about the two scientists from the novel, Godel and Turing. Sometimes, I really love the Internet.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Searching for pens, but finding...

Have you ever noticed that pens seem to migrate to various drawers and baskets, but never to the places where you need them? For instance, I needed a pen to go through the roll on the first day of class this week—incredibly I couldn’t’ find one in my entire office except of course if I’d stolen one from Middlebrow’s desk.

This morning I decided to remedy the lack of pens in my work-a-day world; I went a searching and found pens aplenty. While checking a top drawer in our bedroom, I found a whole set of little things from that have been transferred from top drawer to top drawer in my bedroom for years. It’s stuff that has no real purpose, but I can’t quite throw away.

My MTC teacher badge. I taught missionaries for two years while attending BYU. What should I do with this now I’m not a believing Mormon? Do I want my own kids to stumble on it later on in life? “Dad use to teach missionaries, can you imagine?” If one of my kids gets married in the LDS temple, I will see if it can get me in.

Several knives. I have several knives, many my dad has given me in hopes of supporting hunting and camping and man-stuff. They haven’t gotten much use. Of course if I remember the knives in the throes of some house invasion, I can quickly sneak it out and stab the life out of the invader. There’s even a butterfly knife, a knife I found rummaging around at my grandma in the top drawer of my dad’s old room.

Birthday card from my wife: “I hope this year will be the year for fulfilling your Wasatch dream.” (Wasatch 100 mile race) Well, that didn’t go so well. I can’t even run a 5k now.

Two cases for glasses and one pair of old very round and big glasses which I’ve kept as a backup pair. Not sure these would be much help as things are quite blurry.

Organ donor card from 2000—I think this is marked on my Driver’s license or something. Hope they don’t need to find the card in order to donate my liver or eyes.

Many receipts: one for 6 used VHS movies from Movie Trading co. which is now out of business—that was a real smart purchase; another for $100 dollar Ascent Trekking poles I bought to use in the Wasatch race to cushion the downhill because of my patelar tendonitis—didn’t make it and looked silly as Unhip noted after pacing me, “You might need to work a bit on that downhill.” BUT I did just use the poles last week on a snow hike.

Several floppy disks: Why do I keep these? Well, because there might be something important on them, maybe a college paper I wrote that I’d like to read. Yeah, right. Hell, I don’t even have a floppy disk drive in either of our computers.

A interview tape of a student from 1996: Man, this stuff is depressing me. This was yet another failure—a Master’s thesis which never happened.

A 4x6 card with notes and pages numbers from one of the rare books I read but did not buy. I have no idea which book as I failed to indicate that but at least I know that on p. 35 it discusses “father in tree—death, bees.” WTF???

A connector TV thingy (EAGLE Model TM-1): You know it’s to hook up a TV antennae with. I’m proud that we had rabbit ears until just a few years ago when we had to do cable in order to get high speed Internet. And who knows—see what happened in I AM Legend—I might need it some day.

A Philmont Scout Ranch badge: This is a keeper as it reminds me that under no circumstances should I ever go on a horse trip of any kind, nor attempt to work with alternative youth (or any youth for that matter) in some outdoor adventure.

One Dry Erase Marker which I can actually use

Another Birthday letter (2004) from my wife with yet another “I hope you are able to do Wasatch.” What a fine woman.

Two foreign pieces of paper money I found in a used book. One is dated 1991 so I must have found them while working in the used book store in Provo. The owner was nuts; the job, sifting through a condemned warehouse of books with pigeon shit on them, was absolutely bizarre. The language on the money seems like Russian but I’m not sure; I’m sure though that someday they will make me rich.

Two “My daddy is my favorite pal!” cards from primary. There are several prompts inside that the children complete: I love when my dad… etc. On this one my daughter wrote “Kiss me.” That’s cute. On another prompt, My dad’s favorite thing to do is… my son wrote, “Teach his classes? Tells me to put things away every day.” Ok, that’s disturbing.


Oh yeah, and I did find two pens.