A Special Post to Celebrate Syzygy

“You’d better make it a special post!”, said the son. He is the one who is ardently fanning me in on, and keeping tabs on whether I am writing enough these days. His natural state of calculating kicks in, and he says “So, if you write another post in the next 36 hours then…”, and I have to remind him that it is not like that. One does not have to follow a punishing rigorous schedule for a hobby. That I will write and when I do, it feels joyous and good. Not laborious and like finishing up an arduous task for the sake of doing so.

There must have been a natural syzygy (aligning of the stars) when I started my blog seventeen years ago. The time it takes for a wizard to come of age in the magical world. I must say, the blog has given me an excellent magical education. I may not have graduated from Hogwarts in this time, but I certainly have learnt a thing or two on the magic of persistence, the seer of light in a dark universe, or any number of things.

Herbology: My specimens may still not be thriving, but as a chronicler of the natural world, I think Professor Sprout would gladly have me in her graduating class.

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more,” 

Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

Read: A Celebration of 🌎

The Joy of the Natural World

Astronomy: Professors Carl Sagan and his many many friends have been amazing companions in the starship of the night. Comets, moon cycles and changing constellations not withstanding, there have also been the amazing journeys through space on light ships designed and envisioned by Johannes Kepler.

Ancient Runes: Professor Vector has opened thine eyes to many wonders of the Mathematical world and how they help us find a structure to our days. A way to find the incontrovertible truth if you will.

Changing Mathematics from a computational discipline into a beautiful, abstract philosophy.

Pythagoras of Samos (580-500 BCE) who continued the philosophy of: 

Transfiguration: How else does a serious minded member of the software engineering firms of the world transform into a magic seeking writer who will arduously work out a sentence structure sometimes tens of times to get that laugh?

Potions: Professor Snape, Dr Oliver Sacks, Paul Nurse, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Ed Yong, and so many more professors have taken me under their wing and spent many enjoyable hours explaining the joy behind reactions.

Care of Magical Creatures: Hagrid, Gerald Durrell, Sy Montgomery and numerous other writers of the natural world have introduced and opened my experiences to the world of creatures around us. Snail tales, pelican and duck friends, and so many instances of the world around us.

Writing & reading have sustained and enthralled me every step of the way, and it has proved to me how remarkable life’s moments are – even in a seemingly unremarkable life such as mine.

Like Sy Montgomery says in her book, How to be a good creature: 

Thurber taught me this: “You never know even when life looks hopeless, what might happen next. It could be something wonderful is right around the corner.”

Sy Montgomery – How to be a good creature

It usually is in the form of a new book, or a new idea that magically transforms an ordinary day into an extraordinary one. The power of fleeting thoughts that can take flame, grow and sustain in a wholly positive way, weaving magical moments and learnings. What can be better than that?

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R R Martin in A Dance with Dragons

Here is to more years of fruitful occupation, magical meanderings and posts that entertain and hopefully enlighten. This is my 1000th post.

Thank you, my readers, for being with me on this magical journey. Of course, the blog owes its very existence To My Family & Other Animals – who are frequent and oft quoted celebrities on this blog.

What is Life?

Even as stock markets plunged, and corporate kingdoms were made and unmade, it was heartening to read about the grander scale of Life. When I read Paul Nurse’s essays, after a day in which we spent our days more than usually examining choices, news, reactions etc, I must say it makes all the difference in perspective.

For instance, when one lives in the pulsating center of changing corporate fortunes, one cannot but help muse over the seemingly innocuous line by Paul Nurse:

“Over the long term, the most successful species will be those that can maintain the right balance between constancy and change.”

Paul Nurse – What is Life?

There is a certain philosophical musing to it all.

When one is fighting a cold in the head, it does help to think of Louis Pasteur looking at all the different chemical reactions in the microorganisms he was studying and saying:

Chemical reactions are an expression of the life of the cell.’

Louis Pasteur

It would be better if the expression happened without the head cold. But there it was – the cold was proving the expression of life. 

Or reading about Vitalism – the one thing that has fascinated philosophers for ages. For Vitalism comes down to one thing: What is Life? 

“Living organisms stand out because they are things of action; they behave with purpose, reacting to their surroundings and reproducing themselves.”

Paul Nurse

In 5 essays, Paul Nurse’s book on Life is a light read. It is just the sort of book that is easy for a non biologist to understand. It was also a good book to accompany the rather heavy going The Emperor of all Maladies – by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

A week-end spent reading till mid-day in bed can’t be a bad one can it? It would have been nicer to read about lighter subjects but such as it was, I was determined to finish reading a book that had been with me for weeks now. And if it took falling ill to tide one over a book like that, so be it.

 Starting with the times of the earliest recorded instance of Cancer, the book walks through humanity’s struggle and Science’s understanding of the disease.

I am clamoring for a light read after this one though.

The Human Experience

“You could be listening to anything at all, and this is what you choose to listen to?” , said the daughter.

I chuckled. We were driving through the Great Plains of the Mid-West between Wisconsin and Illinois. Snow flakes were flurrying lazily across the windshield, which was amusing to watch, since I could feel the car shuddering with the winds sweeping the plains. The great windmills on either side of the freeway were moving and converting the wind energy, while the snowflakes seemed to be dancing lazily and flitting across the plains. To see the flakes against the depth of the vast plain fields was mesmerizing enough, but to have Dr Indre Viskontas’s lecture accompany the scenes outside made for a new appreciation. 

I was listening to the excellent Great Courses lectures by Dr Indre Viskontas. In her energetic voice as she talks about how we hear and see, the world becomes magical again. 

Listening to Dr Indre Viskontas speak about the faculties of seeing and hearing, makes those of us given these two abilities more appreciative of all that goes on beneath the skin to make these happen. 

12 Essential Scientific Concepts

How we perceive light, hear the frequencies of sound that are audible to us, make for our human experience. The frequencies heard and seen by each creature on Earth itself is different. From the magical birds who sense the Earth’s magnetic field for their migration journeys to the fish who are able to navigate by the position of the stars from deep under the ocean, we each have our own unique way of living. Of Life. 

In Dr Oliver Sack’s book, Musicophilia, he says:

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia

Dr Indre Viskontas is also an Opera performer, and her joyous voice brings out the polymathic abilities she possesses. Truly, as she regales cognitive neuroscience and how our brains understand better, I am reminded of some wonderful musings with our dance teacher at school. In between rigorous bouts of dance practice, she insisted that her students were all bright, athletic, and doing so much better than we would have without dance. And, in the energy of youth urging us towards our better selves, we wanted to believe her. Could that have been a belief that spurred us on? We would not know – for good teachers, coaches and mentors all excel in that subtle balance of belief, discipline, and inspiration.

But maybe the musicality and the dance do make for better neurological experiences. As Dr Viskontas says in the lecture above, 

Art and science are after the same thing. The goal is to understand the human experience. Science does it by extracting general principles about the world, and art uses individual experience to highlight what is universal.”

Dr Indre Viskontas

Why is it that we are moved by a piece of music to visualize a god vs demon war on stage, or the haunting love-lorn calls to one another? Because music, like whales can attest, can evoke worlds in our imagination. 

“Music can also evoke worlds very different from the personal, remembered worlds of events, people, places we have known.”

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

And so, I wanted to say to the daughter, “When I could be listening to anything at all, I chose to listen to the lectures trying to understand the human experience in a vast, barren landscape, made unbearably beautiful by the beauty of the symmetrical snowflakes, and the gushing of the winds against the car. “

What I did instead was laugh, and let her call me weird. ‘Weird’ I am beginning to understand is one of the best compliments that a teenaged child can give you.

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