Qi to the Yin & Yang

Fact and Fiction were swirling and creating waves and patterns inside the old eggshell. Harry Potter – A History of Magic was entertaining in ways I did not quite expect. Regular readers and friends know how much I love the Harry Potter series. The sheer brilliance and richness of the world, and the marvelous ways in which J K Rowling examines our world has been written about in far greater depth and width and by far greater minds than my own. (Leaky Cauldron site for instance)

I know I enjoyed reading  this in The Prisoner of Azkaban

“Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless — discuss” – Holiday homework set to Harry Potter and his classmates in the Prisoner of Azkaban.

“Non-magic people (more commonly known as Muggles) were particularly afraid of magic in medieval times, but not very good at recognizing it. On the rare occasion that they did catch a real witch or wizard, burning had no effect whatsoever. The witch or wizard would perform a basic Flame Freezing Charm and then pretend to shriek with pain while enjoying a gentle, tickling sensation. Indeed, Wendelin the Weird enjoyed being burned so much that she allowed herself to be caught no less than forty-seven times in various disguises.”
—Bathilda Bagshot, A History of Magic

Harry Potter – A History of Magic book was amazing – Firstly, it contained little tidbits of deleted sections, some planning sketches etc. Secondly, it was organized by subject area: Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination, Care of Magical Creatures, & Transfiguration. In each section were glimpses into humankind’s long fascination with magic. It is astounding to see the vast repertoire of knowledge that the author herself had to be able to synthesize all this and to create another world based on anthropological details, myths from various cultures and her own dose of fantastic imagination.

history_magic

The mind was reveling in the fact and admiring the fiction therein. Our cosmic dance of fact and fiction as a species is almost necessary to examine and understand the world around us. We are story tellers, and we are curious to understand and infer. The Qi to the Yin and Yang of understanding the world around us.

The Astronomy section of the book contained a drawing of the Rudolphine Tables, which helped the reader locate the planets amidst the stars. Containing the locations of 1000+ stars, this was probably the most comprehensive study at the time.

Beside the picture of the Rudophine Tables was a note by Alexander Lock, the Curator
“In 1617, Kepler’s mother was suspected of witchcraft, a crime punishable by death. The accused spent over a year in prison but was eventually released when her son intervened. Kepler was an official astronomer to the Holy Roman Emperor – this family intrigue must have been very difficult for him.”

489px-Johannes-kepler-tabulae-rudolphinae-google-arts-culture

I could not help linking this with some of the things I read in Carl Sagan’s Science as a Candle in the Dark, especially a chapter titled the Demon Haunted World, in which he talks about the grotesque practice of witch hunts and how it became an increasingly profit driven model as well.

Pope Innocent VIII (if ever there was a name that was totally out of sorts with the meaning, this must be it). Pope Innocent was singularly responsible for starting and popularizing the witch hunts in the 15th and 16th centuries leading to millions of people losing their lives and millions more living in a state of constant fear.

There are demon-haunted worlds, regions of utter darkness. – The Isa Upanishad (India ca 600 BC).

With a single proclamation in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII “initiated the systematic accusation, torture and execution of countless “witches” all over Europe.

While we know of the barbaric practices, little did I realize how pervasive the evil was – The Demon Haunted World -By  Carl Sagan:
It quickly became an expense account scam. All costs of investigation, trial, and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives down to per diems for the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges the travel expenses of a messenger set to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city, and faggots, tar and hangman’s rope. Then there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch ‘s remaining property, if any, was divided between Church and State.

While I am enormously glad to see that we have evolved past this especially cruel phase of mankind’s history it does make me feel terrible about the state of things in the world today. Conspiracy theories, choosing which version of the truth to believe in etc have been problems for a long time, but now it seems these problems have occupied center stage because the leader of the free world seems to spend enormous amounts of time ingesting and spewing conspiracy theories himself.

Maybe it is time for all of us to equip ourselves with Carl Sagan’s famous Baloney Detection Kits.

But there is hope, we have moved past the atrocities of witch-burning to the point that we are now not only able to have witches and wizards in our stories, but also have a clear distinction between fact and fiction.

The yin and yang are sturdily holding their own, and I hope our qi (understanding) will remain unclouded and clear.

 

💦 🌳 Earth 🌏 Magicians 💥❄️

Magic was in the air. The afternoon sun was shining with an intensity that surprises us every summer. The high temperatures should really not surprise us anymore, but we still scuttle inside in the afternoon sun and wonder how it got to be so hot so soon. Inside the home, we were grateful for the cool atmosphere – the suns rays were filtering in through the large sycamore tree in the backyard, bathing us in Komorebi.

Komorebi (木漏れ日): Sunshine filtering through the trees.

trees_komerabi

Komerabi is beautiful and especially marvelous to experience on a week-end afternoon after a hearty lunch.

I was sprawled out on the sofa beside the son with a heavy book, a light heart, an empty page, and a full stomach. I was reading Harry Potter, A History of Magic. It is an impressive book that has on the cover apart from a magnificent rendition of a Phoenix, the words- The Official Companion to the British Library Exhibition at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library.

Leaving the title aside, it is a comprehensive compilation of some of the magic and folklore in the Harry Potter world. I was happily frisking through the magical journey of our species through the ages stopping to savor the beautiful images in the book, and marveling for the n-th time about the brilliant mind of J K Rowling and her rich repertoire of knowledge that led to the marvelous wizarding world.

Some of the tidbits in the book were truly mind-boggling. Like the plethora of plants the myths have grown from and some superb paintings of the flora through the ages.Reading about the book, A Curious Herbal, for instance, made me realize how lucky we are to be living in this era of human history where high quality renditions of art, photography etc are available for reading and sharing digitally.

A Curious Herbal seems to have been a labor of love by Elizabeth Blackwell. Written between 1737 and 1739, the book had pictures of over 500 plants used “in the practice of physick”. Written, illustrated, hand-graved and hand colored by Elizabeth Blackwell, it was used to free her husband from debtor’s prison. He repaid her by leaving the country and being executed for treason in Sweden.

history_magic

The son was sitting next to me and making cards for the game he was designing. The looks of intense concentration were matched only by the splash of colors – clashing, brilliantly hued, and sparkling. The sound effects were not captured on the document itself, but if it could, it promised to be quite the party.

We sat each wrapped in our own imaginary worlds of thought in companionable silence for a space, when I asked him how his game was coming along. A sneak peak into the document revealed a marvelous world. There were a lot of pictures, points for this and that, and what-not. It looked like the end game would be a fascinating one, if somewhat high on the dishoom-flashoom-bazinga factor. Muons, quarks and photons made their brave show alongside tornado-crushers, wave-ripplers and what-nots in the game cards (a reflection to all that he enjoys reading and watching really.)

“Okay – I’ll tell you!” , he said the magic of Creating bubbling over as he explained his cards to me. After some time, his exuberant tones came to a hush and he said with flair. “This is for Earth Magicians! You have to get 15000 healing points to become an Earth Magician.”

“And how do you get 15000 points”, I asked, for who doesn’t want to be an Earth Magician? What a lovely title to be bestowed with?

As he explained, I scratched the old chin, and stumped him by asking what special powers Earth Magicians have.

The little fellow hemm-ed and umm-ed a fair bit as he thought through his answer. When finally he gave his answer, it went on for about two minutes, and I gathered that he had envisioned earth magicians as having the powers to create something amazing from the ordinary.

“You know? I like it – I should fight trolls and dragons and what-not to become an earth magicians. This time I will choose gardening as a earth magician superpower!”” I said.

He looked puzzled and I said with a serious expression on my face “Well…Gardeners, singers, dancers, writers, artists, aren’t they all Earth Magicians?”

I pointed to our little patch in the garden outside, where I have tried to grow many plants and flowers. Elizabeth Blackwell would have a bit of a challenge drawing a plant of rare repute from my backyard, much as I love it. I’ve even had instances of ordinary flowers which seem to thrive in the wild simply limp along and give it up as a bad job when I set to it.

“See? I try with all the best intentions and little business results. Yet, there are so many talented gardeners among us who use the same potting soil and are able to raise not just trees, but get the flowers to bloom – a new set for every season, in them! If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is!” I said, and he guffawed.

“Well…I suppose that is true!” he said

“Want some more magic powers from Earth magicians? ” I said.

He rolled his eyes, a habit he has picked up from his teenaged sister. I told him I am going for some ice-cream, and he eagerly joined in – if Earth Magicians can make ice-cream, is there a bigger super-power?

 

A Hopeful Future

There is nothing quite as special as walking in nature after a long day or week. Every step seems to take one tiny bit of stress away, and replace them with happy endorphins  dancing to a beat in the body. As the eyes lift their gaze towards the skies, the clouds, trees, and birds seem to join in on one harmonious orchestra together welcoming the soul to relax and rejoice in the moment of being, and participate in the steady march of time. Hummingbirds, bluebirds and the occasional butterflies flit overhead, while the ravens and geese noisily make their way home.

Summer is creeping in, the jacaranda trees are in bloom in the neighborhood, the gingko leaves have come in fully, and though the world around us is in shambles, confused, anxious and worried, Mother Nature seems to have no such problems. She brought on Summer just in time.

The park near where we live has a steady smattering of high school students social distancing as best as they can and taking graduation pictures. In little knots of 2s & 3s, they cluster around giggling and looking hopeful. I stop at a distance admiring the high schoolers celebrating their graduation day with pictures in gowns. The smiles of confident youth look just as marvelous as the summer blooms they stand amidst, and their perfumes amidst the heady scent of the flowers is heaven itself. There is no doubt about it: The summer evenings seem doubly enjoyable and bright because of the young talent making their way out into the world.

These children did not get the graduation party like their seniors did, or their juniors will, but they seem to be coping with grace. A few photographs with their best friends would have to do. I hear loud peals of laughter puncture the evenings as they decide on how to take their pictures. I hope every child in these uncertain times has good friends. The laughter rings in the obvious: everything seems to be manageable with the right set of friends.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

Emily Dickinson

In other news,
Trump Rally Registered Million Attendees but Actual Count 6000!

Thousands of teens registered for Trump’s rally , after his initial Juneteeth rally was moved to Sunday, and then didn’t show up. What’s more? They deleted their tik-toks soon after!

Standing there that evening with the world on pause from the Corona virus, and the city’s curfew just ended due to the Black Lives Matter movement, I felt hope stir again. The angst and idealism of youth was intact. These young adults saw us flounder at a critical moment in their lives, and the exuberance with which they are eager to take the torch makes me hopeful.

“For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.” Kahlil Gibran

Rainbow 🌈 Conscience

A few years ago when the son was in kindergarten, I attended a class room show-and-tell in which their works of art were displayed. Endearing pictures of zebras, horses and assorted flora and fauna painstakingly done, were being showed off brilliantly by the children. When I drew up close to the son’s painting, I paused. There in the corner of his painting were several people with rainbow colored faces. I loved the idea, and asked him why they had rainbow colored faces, to which he said, “Our teacher said to put colored people in our drawings.”

I turned to his teacher, and she nodded smiling, “Yes, I did for diversity, but I didn’t expect this!” My heart warmed at his interpretation.

I loved it! How beautiful and void of prejudice we are as children.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

I started reading Henry Thoreau’s book, Civil Disobedience, last week, and I must say the first chapter itself has me drawn in.  “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

A few sentences later he says again, “It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing however ancient can be trusted without proof.”

Savoring the sentences and thinking of the rainbow colored faces in the son’s drawing made me think. What would it take for us to learn what it is to be human? It seems to me like to understand deeper, we need to rely on Science: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Any phenomenon not readily understood suffers from the same problems. Could there be a better way to gauge our human-ness?

Structurally, we are containers for cells, possess neurons for consciousness, and use language for communication between one another. But this puts us in no different a category than octopus, dogs, elephants, whales or dolphins. Most marvelous creatures on Earth have evolved from the same set of conditions the planet has been subjected to, and are hence remarkably similar in these aspects. In fact, we are limited in so many abilities than our far-more abled canine friends or bird friends when it comes to smell, colors and noise frequencies.

Here is a fun game to be played by all age groups:
The High Frequency Hearing Game

Quoted from The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness asserts that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”, and that “nonhuman animals, including all birds and mammals and many other creatures, including octopuses also possess these neurological substrates.”

Chemically speaking, I suppose we can attribute Oxygen, Nitrogen, Carbon etc as major components of the human body. But this too, is not unique to us on Earth. Many lifeforms use the same structural elements for life.
Composition of the Human Body

600px-201_Elements_of_the_Human_Body.02.svg
Image from WikiLink: OpenStax College / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Culturally, we have ideologies so different, yet so similar. Most religions have stories of a big flood (starting from the epic of Gilgamesh, to the Matsya avatar in Hinduism, to Noah’s Ark), our mythologies have similar creatures (how then could we have dragons in Chinese mythology and Norse mythology?) The fossils found in each region seem to have contributed to the myths (Sankhu / Chakra myths originate from nautilus fossils found in the Himalayas). Is myth-making then the only human identifying factor (I don’t think so, for whales songs have tonal informational bits having the same length of an Iliad or Odyssey – some whale songs have been known to be taught from generation to generation and last over an hour long).

wind-in-the-reef

The differences in skin colors too, are no more than an evolutionary necessity – the UV light in different areas of the earth, and ability of the skin to absorb Vitamin D in areas of high or low sunlight is primarily the factors that determine these.

The Biology of Skin Color (The link between human evolution over time; the ability to adapt to different levels of UV  radiation in the tropics vs the poles; and its correlation with absorption of Vitamin D is explained in this video)

I come back to the question of what does it mean to be human? What is our unifying factor? On this globally unified Earth, can we all just find a way to get rainbow colored skin?

How Kindness Became Our Pleasure – By Maria Popova on Brain Pickings

P.S: The son touchingly drew this drawing again when he saw me writing this post:

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How do we exist?

It had been another long day, and as the clock ticked towards midnight, the body yearned for sleep, but the mind looked longingly at the tsundoku pile, and craved for some quiet moments of solitude. I peeked out of the window, and the moon sailing high through the skies tugged at my heart. There is something so intensely beautiful about catching sight of our  lovely cosmic neighbor sending its mellow moonbeams through the leaves at night.

I looked for a word that captures the phenomenon, but there isn’t one.

There are two words in Japanese that come close (the Japanese language has such amazing words for admiring wondrous nature around us.)

Kawaakari ( 川明かり – a word depicting the evening reflection of light on water, or in some cases can refer to the reflection of the moonlight off flowing water.

img_20200407_195324-effects

Komorebi (木漏れ日): Sunshine filtering through the trees.

trees_komerabi

I had just started reading The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson. In the first chapter, Rachel Carson takes us with her steady voice into a time on Earth before the seas were created. When the planet was still heaving and churning its metallic ores, hot searing waves of liquid settling into a semi-liquid state in its outer cores. She wonders then about the question, how were the oceans formed?
“So if I tell here the story of how the young planet Earth acquired an ocean, it must be a story pieced together from many sources and containing whole chapters the details of which we can only imagine.
For although no man was there to witness this cosmic birth, the stars and moon and the rocks were there, and indeed, had much to do with the fact that there is an ocean.”

Then, she leads us from this fiery place in the cosmos with the sun heaving its solar flares, the earth itself arranging itself into concentric spheres with hot, molten iron at its core, and an intermediate sphere of semiplastic basalt , the outer layers of granite and basalt. And then gently she lures us into the possibility of the moon and the ocean being related to each other.

The next time you stand on a beach at night, watching the moon’s bright path across the water, and conscious of the moon drawn tides, remember that the moon itself may have been born of a great tidal wave of earthly substance, torn off into space.

How can one not be mesmerized by the creation of the moon? Was it truly hewn from the surface of the earth (The moon’s density does match the density of the outer crust). The hypothesis that the moon was hewn away after massive solar tides exerting a pull on semi-molten Earth is based on the theory that the large portion thus hewn away left such a large scar on the surface of the Earth. A scar that would continue to shape Earth and its lifeforms for millions of years afterward: The Pacific Ocean.

Later, as the Earth cooled and clouds formed from the steam rising, the rains started. Pouring onto the hot earth for years – initially almost immediately evaporating into steam, but eventually collecting as water – forming the first oceans.

It is, of course, fascinating that we still do not know for sure how the moon was created. There are several theories – theories of violent impacts, random objects being attracted by gravity, and young earth managing to keep one satellite, while heftier ones like Jupiter acquiring 67 etc. This is a topic still under discussion.

https://www.space.com/19275-moon-formation.html

Nevertheless, the very first chapter had me wowed. I would never be able to look at our closest cosmic neighbor with the same eyes ever again. How often I have stood marveling at the moon? Out on walks, my heart always skips a beat when I catch sight of the beautiful, faithful satellite accompanying Earth as she tears through space. To think that there is a possibility that the very creation of our cosmic neighbor was crucial to our oceans is awe inspiring. I live on the Pacific Coast, and never can I see the bays, the ocean or the moon without reminding me of this book.

The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson

sea_around_us

The skies hold the answers to our most philosophical stirrings. Why do we exist?

The seas, it seems, holds the answers to our most existential stirrings. How do we exist?

Missing Chemistry Lab?!

“How are you managing to do Science experiments during these Covid times?” I asked the daughter as she munched on a cookie while on a diatribe about her latest Chemistry assignment.

“Oh we do it online. You can tip stuff into test tubes with your mouse, and it shows you what happens.” she said with a shrug, and I must tell you, I paled.

Wasn’t the whole fun of Chemistry lab the hissing noises as two unlikely elements reacted? Or the joy of seeing the colors change inside the test tube as you held it up to be seen by the light? The bright copper sulphate blue, the lilac, the pinks and turning neutrally to white letting out fumes? What about the olfactory? The hydrogen sulphide that sent us gagging towards the windows with the rotten egg smells. (The fact that we made it straight to lunch after a Chemistry lab with H2and tucked in with an enormous appetite speaks volumes to the marvelous feeling of youth.)

Chem_lab

I said as much to the daughter, and she gave me the pitying look she reserves for me when she senses that I miss my school days. “It’s just Chem Lab, it will be fine! Don’t worry!”

“Should I just forget about those eggs I bought a while back, so you can experience the rotten egg smells to your heart’s content?!” I asked solicitous.

She roared with laughter at this and said, “Your cooking is Chemistry enough Mother!”

It was in part conversations like this that peppered my read of Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten, A Chemical Boyhood.

uncle_tungsten

His journey with the Sciences and his joyous epiphanies as he realized the neat order of things, and his poetic joy  as he traversed the Periodic table, gave me a new appreciation for the Periodic table too. In his words,

“Chemical exploration, chemical discovery , was all the more romantic for its dangers. I felt a certain boyish glee in playing with these dangerous substances, and I was struck in my reading, of the range of accidents that had befallen the pioneers. Few naturalists had been devoured by wild animals or stung to death by noxious plants or insects; few physicists had lost their eyesight gazing at the heavens , or broken a leg on an inclined plane; but many chemists had lost their eyes, limbs and even their lives, usually through producing inadvertent toxins or explosions.”

Chemistry, is tucked so far away in my consciousness, that I reveled in the beauty of it all almost anew. Glimpses of my committed Chemistry teachers in my youth came to me. I remember the feeling where their passion for the subject came through as they explained how the electrons revolved around the nucleus, the atomic weights, the inert gases and all the rest of it. I can vaguely begin to recognize how it must’ve felt to wax eloquent about the structural wonders in the world around us, to a bunch of mildly interested, if not completely indifferent, teenagers.

If ever there was a profession that was steeped in delayed gratification, teaching must be it. Why does it takes us decades to realize the stalwarts who did their best by us?! I tried putting all of this into words as I discussed the book with the daughter, and she said, “Yeah age makes you kooky I suppose. Must find the chemical reactions for that!” She laughed at her own wit while I  scowled. Slowly, she donned a far-off look, and said, “You know? Chem is just fine if he doesn’t keep having us go back and write out our mistakes for him so we show him why we made the mistake! Really! He is a grumpy old man and he is only twenty!”

I guffawed out loud at this – I must remember to ask about this Chemistry teacher of hers a few decades from now.

What Does It Mean to be Human?

I  struggle to write about the past week of events for two reasons.

(1)  I have not read enough of Black History in my adopted country to know the depth and breadth of the problem. (A shortcoming, I hope to rectify to the  best of my ability in the coming months.) All I  know is that the Black Lives Matter movement is long overdue. 

(2) The other is that the blatant nature of the cold killing of George Floyd flabbergasted me. How could a man sent sprawling to the ground with his hands handcuffed  behind him be such a threat, that a policeman felt he needed to put his knee on his neck in addition to everything else? How could he not let up when he felt the man go limp under his knee? How could .. why did he…could he not have instead…a million questions that will remain unanswered. The killing is a chilling realization of the moment when our humanity deserted us collectively.

We Belong on Earth  is a strong theme in my blog as regular readers know. 

Do not hate in the plural is another strong theme on my blog. 

The Black Lives Matter movement very strongly aligns to both these causes.

As I  mutely witnessed the events and absorbed the weight of the movement, my heart stirred and yearned for only one  thing: that the civil rights movement is long overdue is an understatement; what I wanted more than anything else is for the awareness to be translated  into action. 

So, what does it mean to be  human? 

If a person, racist or not, is  in need of a blood transfusion or an organ transplant, do they, even for a moment, think about the race of the donor? I don’t think so.

I thought the Corona virus reminded us of what it means to be human. In spite of borders, and diatribes about immigrations, and the numerous ways in which  we find ways to divide ourselves, the virus proved to us without a doubt that we are human and are therefore susceptible.

In the words of Seneca: 

Dum inter homines sumus, colamus humanitatem

“As long as we are human, let us be humane.”

Additional Reading:

What does it mean  to be human?

The Biology of Skin Color (The link between human evolution over time; the ability to adapt to different levels of UV  radiation in the tropics vs the poles; and its correlation with absorption of Vitamin D is explained in this video)

Maria Popova in her Brain Pickings blog had written a sentence on a meditation of the human condition, and I had jotted it down, for it was such a powerful sentence. I quote:

“At a time when the need to celebrate both our shared humanity and our meaningful differences is all the more painfully evident, the question of what makes us human becomes not one of philosophy alone but also of politics, justice, identity, and every fiber of existence that lies between.”