The View From The Left Hemisphere Of The Universe

After the Big Bang came the Great Darkness. In indescribable darkness, matter raced away from itself in all directions, pushing space into being as it did so. Darkly, it spun and coalesced, exploded and merged, exploded again, grew heavier, impossibly; formed stars that lived billions of years, died, and in that dying gave rise to new stars, stars that spun off particles that, trapped in orbit, coalesced into planets. Galaxies, containing billions of stars, expanding, moving away from each other, pushing at the frontiers where What Is Not yielded to What Is. Unfathomably, Improbably. And all in total darkness.

Because no one was there to see it. A spectacle of unimaginable beauty, resplendent with colors beyond our own limitations of red at one end and violet at the other, played out over billions of years, and yet this spectacle was for not. As bland as a painting of a snowflake floating in a glass of milk, or an inkblot on a lump of coal. For, for only a brief period of the many billion year history of the universe has anything been seen, anywhere, and only as the result of a chance occurrence. On our planet, and perhaps others, matter formed itself into something that could sense light, and by gradual modifications these light sensing mechanisms became more sophisticated, up to and including our own wonderful eyes. And these modifications; did they occur so that the beauty of the universe could be beheld and appreciated? No. Every modification, from the simplest eyes to the most complex, merely helped an organism secure food. Or not become food. Or perhaps a combination of the two.

Think about that for a moment. Do a gut check. Does it seem credible? That except for on our planet, and perhaps other planets similar to ours, and only in a relatively brief period of this and similar planets' histories, has the grand spectacle of the universe been even partially visible to itself? And only through the vulgar mechanism of keeping one step ahead of a mouth or a grabbing appendage? That up until the time that these modifications came about, on perhaps this planet exclusively, even though it is made up of light and its very mechanisms are circumscribed by the speed of light, the universe was completely and utterly blind?

Such a scenario lacks poetry, to say the least. That a cosmos could be at once so dazzling and yet completely invisible to itself for such a long time, only to finally become visible through the merest chance on an inconsequential rock - somehow seems decidedly unsatisfying to my poetic nature. There, where my mind is free to wander and extend beyond what is rational and explained, the above scenario seems to me to have it all backwards. Eyes, my poetic mind persuades me, do not make sight possible. On the contrary, it is sight that makes eyes possible! Eyes did not develop because, for some odd reason, in a universe that up until then had been completely blind, there was suddenly some reproductive advantage to sensing light (imagine what an extraordinary moment that must have been, and yet so under-appreciated by its experiencer. Hey, now this is interesting. Munch munch).

Rather, eyes are a (but one, I dare say) manifestation of vision. It was not mindless food-seeking that brought them into being. Vision gave them birth, no less so than a painter's vision gives birth to a masterpiece, and an inventor's vision gives birth to a flying machine. Speaking of "flying machines", in the same vein I posit that birds did not develop wings because there were things to eat up there. Birds rose to fill the sky because the sky, because flight, summoned them.

Viewed through the lens of reason, such notions are risible and wholly passe. Where is the evidence to support such outlandish claims? Where do these bizarre notions of vision and flight come from? Obviously, they don't come from a scientific theory or an experiment, or from an objective, wholly rational observation of naturally occurring phenomena. Rather, they come from an area of human consciousness which science knee-jerkedly meets with cool skepticism, if not outright disgust: intuition, subjective feelings, and our mysterious human quality of looking for meaning in the cosmos.

Yet, how firm is the ground upon which science so confidently, even arrogantly, dismisses such rival attributes of human nature? For someone who is convinced that science is man's greatest achievement, and moreover is our greatest hope for improving our condition in the future, the very question probably sounds preposterous, perhaps even insane. Nevertheless, I will dare to ask: as reason and intuition are both essential aspects of a fully human mind, can one arrogate to itself an exclusive "rightness" from which to dismiss the properties the other might bring toward understanding the universe which we inhabit, and our relationship to it?

Science, as we have come to define it, has a very brief history. For all practical purposes, it begins in ancient Greece, notably with Socrates, and his method of questioning hypotheses. From there we move to Aristotle, who applied the Socratic Method, with his own modifications, to a variety of fields such as ethics, poetry, politics, etc., and most famously, science. The derivation of the word is perhaps related to cutting, or more accurately, separating. The Greeks, with Aristotle first among them, learned about their world by dissecting and examining it, reducing it to its parts, separating what could be determined to that point, and then investigating more fully into those "parts" which remained mysterious. Aristotle applied this method to zoology, anatomy, botany, and pretty much all aspects of the physical world. What he accomplished, with his stellar intellect and unquenchable curiosity, is mind boggling.

Aristotle's discoveries and theories went on to fuel scientific inquiry for centuries. His vast achievements functioned as a template for the Renaissance. The great Arab scientist Alhazen refined the scientific method into its current form roughly a thousand years ago. It came into its fullest expression through the Italian super-genius Galileo in the early seventeenth century. Completing the process, the great inventions, such as the telescope and the microscope, along with the higher mathematics of Newton, arrived on the scene in the century after Galileo's achievements, giving birth to the era that we live in now, the Scientific Age. That's pretty much the extent of it. The entire history of science (as we think of it), subtracting its fallow period in the Dark Ages, is less than two thousand years, roughly one percent of the history of our species. The duration that it has been the dominant way of seeing the world is much shorter, perhaps no more than three hundred years.

Given such a short history, we can only conclude that science, according to science, was not selected for in the human species. One must keep in mind that according to our present understanding of how natural selection works, traits only pass the test of selectivity if they help the extant, hosting organism to survive. Ask any biological scientist, and he or she will hasten to assure you that evolution doesn't know what it is doing. It has no grand plan, no concept of a future, no notion of how newly acquired traits may spread among the entire species; no such scheme. Rather, it plays out one groping, clawing, devouring organism at a time.

Our large, multifaceted brains were selected for, most certainly. The knowledge we needed to explore caves, to use weapons, to hunt, to organize against stronger predators, was provided by those brains. The human resourcefulness and inventiveness that our brains made possible was selected for along the strict and narrow rules of natural selection. But science wasn't. Remember, for only the last three hundred years or so has there been any demonstrable survival advantage to having scientific knowledge, most obviously in terms of decreasing infant mortality, and extending the average human life span by several decades. For the vast preponderance of the history of the species homo sapiens, approximately 200,000 years, the scientific method provided mankind with no survivability value whatsoever, proved by the obvious fact that we survived without it. In purest evolutionary terms, it is nothing more than a "lucky accident", an ancillary feature of our large brains (which developed, remember, solely to help us secure food and avoid becoming food), that didn't even begin to reveal its usefulness until twenty millennia after our brains' development had made it possible! How utterly insignificant the very feature of human consciousness that devised the theory of evolution is, from the perspective of that very theory!

And yet the champions of science hold it up as a paragon against which all other features of human consciousness cannot even hope to compare. Did intuition and and hunches help our species survive before science? Assuredly so. Did poetic and spiritual insights provide strength and succor to our lowly and set-upon species, huddled together in small tribes against a world vastly more threatening than the one we inhabit today? Bet on it. Without them, would we even be here? That I very much doubt. That science, coming along so late in the game, should nevertheless hoist itself to such a lofty and judgmental position seems rather presumptuous to me.

Imagine a basketball team that plays well enough in the regular season to earn a playoff berth. The team advances, all the way to the last few minutes of the championship game. A talented rookie comes off the bench, and makes a few clutch shots. A star is born! But no, because this rookie then kicks everyone else on his team off the court. He's decided they've outlived their usefulness, and that he alone is the only hope the team has of winning the game. Every error his teammates have made throughout the season that he didn't play in proves to him their unworthiness to even be on the same court as him. Their mere presence weakens his chance of bringing home the trophy. Well, I think we can all imagine how that would turn out! And yet that is basically the arrogant stance that science's staunchest champions take. Any talk of hunches, intuition, to say nothing of spirituality and supernatural phenomena, is met with the same level of disdain our imaginary rookie shows to the very teammates whose efforts have made his appearance on the court possible. Religion? They are convinced that it has been nothing other than an unmitigated disaster for mankind.

Science is so convinced of its own superiority that it uses itself, its own methods, to judge the validity of those concepts that arise from other areas of human consciousness. If something can't be tested in its laboratories, and proven according to its rules and methodologies, then it becomes fair game to be scoffed at and labeled woo woo. This strikes me as absurd. Imagine a chocolate lover telling you that chocolate is the only legitimate sweet. You proffer a banana. "What is this ridiculous object? It isn't even dark brown! It fails!" He dismisses it without even tasting it. Dutifully, you come back with a rotten, dark brown banana. The chocolate lover puts it in its mouth and instantly spits it out, disgusted (understandably). The banana lover is in a hopeless situation. Playing by the rules the chocolate lover has set up, is it any wonder that chocolate always wins?

Don't get me wrong; I value and appreciate science. It is scientific triumphalism that I take issue with. What we have today is perhaps less true science than a raging tyranny of the left hemisphere of the brain over the right, and the consequences scream out at us. On the one hand, scientific experiments have improved medicine and lengthened our life spans, and technological advancement has improved the quality of human life. On the other hand, science has damaged the environment to the point where our very survival is threatened. Factory farmed, steroid injected animals harm our health. Acid rain weakens our forests (the very "lungs" of our planet). Oil spills and nuclear disasters point out the price we pay for our brave new technological world. Beyond all that lurks the mother of all environmental threats, catastrophic climate change. That we could have placed ourselves in such a dangerous predicament a mere three centuries into the Scientific Age should clue us that we should be going about things differently.

To me, the Great Lesson of our time is not that the ascension of science over the last few centuries is a harbinger of a new age of enlightenment, if we can just hold on and solve our current existential threats. It is that our survival depends upon striking a balance between the wonderful possibilities that science brings about and the poetic, intuitive, meaning-seeking portion of our consciousness centered in the other hemisphere of our magnificent brains. If that balance cannot be reached, I for one have very little hope that mankind will escape destroying itself. We will,rather, hasten our return to the Great Darkness, clinging to our belief in an unconscious universe that is completely blind to our existence, and never even returned the favor of seeing us.


Rockin' Night at Club Ikeda

Here I am having some fun and singing some songs, last Saturday at Ikeda in Setagaya-ku. Many thanks to Guy, Chico, Nori and the lovely Ayano, et. al. for helping me get my ya yas out!


S'cuse Me While I Kiss The Sky

“That particular sense of sacred rapture men say they experience in contemplating nature- I’ve never received it from nature, only from. Buildings, Skyscrapers. I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline.”
- Ayn Rand

For all the disruption the largest earthquake to hit Japan in 300 years caused, the one thing it didn’t bring to a halt was the erection, to full height, of “Sky Tree“, Tokyo’s replacement for the now-too-short Tokyo Tower broadcasting tower (in the Roppongi district, which has recently been built up with skyscrapers that nearly reach its height, blocking its transmission capabilities). Yes, construction workers were way, WAAAY up there in the sky when the quake hit. I bet they felt it. But that didn’t stop them from going back up, day after aftershock smitten day (some of which felt nearly as frightening as the first – and that’s at ground level!) during the following week, to bring the sleek behemoth up to 634 meters (that’s 2080 feet for those of you who don’t want to bother with the metric system), and bragging rights as the Second Tallest Thing Ever Built by Man. That particular number is significant, as 6,3,4 can be read as Mu-sa-shi, which was the name of the largest castle town in the region before Edo transformed into Tokyo, the nation’s capital, and eventually incorporated its neighboring towns.

Sky Tree probably won’t hold that #2 distinction for very long, however. It only beat out Canton Tower by 34 meters, and taking into account China’s nonstop building boom, it likely won’t be very long before they slap up a tower, or even a building, even taller. #2′s kinda boring anyway, right? What it never even had a chance of becoming was the Tallest Thing Ever Built by Man (or TTEBBM), which, as many know, is The Mother of All Skyscrapers, the “Building of the Century”, the one and only Burj Khalifa (during its planning and building it was known as Burj Dubai), which rises a staggering half-mile into the sky (828m,2717 ft). Now, height is a relative thing. After all, if it were a natural feature of the geography, people would debate whether it should be called “Mt. Khalifa” or just “Burj Hill”. Nevertheless, what makes B.K. so impressive is not just how tall it is, but how much taller it is than the previous holder of the record for world’s tallest building, the supertall (a term used for skyscrapers above 300m) Taipei 101, which rises to a comparatively pip-squeaky 449m (roof height; with its antenna it clears 500m). In other words, the Big B.K. nearlydoubled the height of its rival.

When was the last time that happened? That would be 1889, March 31st, to be exact. That is the inaugural date of The Eiffel Tower, the main attraction of the Paris World’s Fair of the same year. Amazingly, the 324m (1063 ft) architectural/engineering triumph was slated to stand for only twenty years. Yes, what is still today one of the best known (and often imitated; the original Tokyo Tower was designed to be a near match) structures in the world was intended to be only a temporary feature of the Paris cityscape.

The structure that the Eiffel Tower nearly doubled in height to claim the title of TTEBBM from was The Washington Monument (169m, 555 ft). Construction delays (caused by, among others, The Civil War) supplied yet another humbling experience for the Monument. Not only did it barely come up to the kneecaps of its Parisian rival, it finally reached its completion on October 9th, 1888, meaning that it only held TTEBBM bragging rights for just shy of half a year!Sacrebleu! Freedom Fries, anyone?

Interestingly, there are two other cases in modern history of a TTEBBM quickly being bested by a rival before the paint barely had time to dry. The Chrysler Building (319m, 1047 ft) took over the title from the Eiffel Tower (which was less tall at the time; it has since been topped by an antenna), and then handed it to Midtown neighbor, The Empire State Building (443m with antenna, 1454 ft ), a mere year and seven days later. The Chrysler Building can, however, cling to another distinction. This was the first time in recorded history when the height of the structure was due to function, not display. Unlike a monolith or a cathedral spire, there were actual offices going nearly to the top, where people could work, stare out windows, get nosebleeds, etc. This trend has repeated up until the present day, where the TTEBBM has been either an office building or a broadcasting tower.

The Eiffel Tower had stood proudly as TTEBBM for just over forty years. The Empire State Building would do so for almost exactly the same amount of time. But such would not be the fate of the building(s) that surpassed it. The ill-fatedWorld Trade Center ( 526m, 1727 ft with antenna on WTC 1) snagged the title in ’71, and was summarily bested by The Sears Tower (now known asWillis Tower ) in Chicago, less than two years later. The 527 meter (1730 ft, antenna height) new champion retained bragging rights from ’73 until ’98 (until which time all five of the world’s tallest buildings were located in New York and Chicago), when the Asian Building Boom started getting into full swing. Up rose the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (which never really passed the Willis Tower, but got by by on a weird structural technicality – its antennas were actually included in its spires), and then the Taipei 101, which brings us up to date. Nowadays, nearly all of the tallest buildings are in China, many in just two cities, Shanghai and Hong Kong. And then there is the Burj Khalifa, in a class all by itself.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Burj ends up holding its title as long as The Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building did. Oh, I imagine that broadcasting towers may surpass it, but not an actual, inhabitable building, I’m guessing. Certainly not in today’s economic climate. The Burj is, in some respects, a white elephant (even the name change was caused by Dubai needing to borrow money from its neighbors in The UAE) to begin with. Imagine the burden, and folly, of building something even taller!

Inevitably, however, someone will. in 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a building for Chicago, dubbed The Illinois, which would rise to a full mile in the sky, nearly twice the height of The Burj (which bares a striking resemblance to Wright’s drawings of The Illinois). Just as some people have to climb mountains, others, it seems, have to build them.

It is doubtful that any building will ever again hold the title of TTEBBM for more than 4000 years, as did The Great Pyramid of Giza (146m, 480 ft). The Pyramid finally lost the title to the Rouen Cathedral (151m, 495 ft), which was completed in 1880, six hundred and seventy eight years after its cornerstone was laid. The Great Cathedrals of Europe were the architectural wonders that stoked the imaginations of builders everywhere, ultimately leading to the Eiffel Tower, The Chrysler Building, The Burj Khalifa, etc. The Giza Pyramid, however, is certain not to care about the showy upstarts that have one-upped each other, year after year, century after century. It holds its position majestically in the Egyptian desert, timeless, ever mysterious, ever directing our eyes, and spirits, upward.