Annus Confusionis

His voice  quivered with excitement as he read the page out to us. 

Never mind that it was early in the morning, and he did not yet know that the  morning tea was working its way slowly through the cells waking them up. The cells were hitting snooze like the body they reside in usually does with the alarm clock. Yes, things  were getting off to a slow start in the old body. The son, in sharp contradistinction, woke up like a light bulb switched on to full power with the opening of the eyelids. He shone brightly, and his vocal chords took on the  timbre of the morning bugle as he trumpeted the queer finding on Time. 

“Can you imagine a year with 445 days?”

“uhhhhnnnhhhuuujn” 

To this legible response, he prattled on reading aloud to us from his Encyclopedia of Queer Facts.

“Yeah! It was in the year 46 B C, King  Julius Ceaser corrected the lunar  calendar.  This year became known as the annus confusionis or the year of confusion, since the year  had 445 days! Imagine how our  school must have felt!” he said looking up from the thrilling page. 

Time has always excited him – what  it is, how do we measure it, why does it always flow forward and never backwards? 

Time

I poked my cells up into waking up – it seemed the decent things to do in the presence of such excitement.  

“Exciting huh?! Would they have increased the number of school holidays  (a 5 month summer vacation) or the number of school days?”

It must have been enthralling.  Only, school as we know it today was not in session then – schooling as we know it today only came into existence about   200 years ago to equip people with the ability to sit in one place and learn to get used to it.

So they probably continued with their statue making and war-ring even though the seasons were completely out of whack with what was happening around them. What did they name the months? It must  have been an exciting time to be on the committee determining such things! I wish I could go back in time and be a fly on the  wall for those meetings, instead of the ones I  usually go to. 

“Isn’t it amazing the  kinds of things human beings  have figured out?” I said, “And, then we used this knowledge to build on it, and build some more. I suppose it will only truly get boring when we  have nothing to keep us curious. Thinker & Tinkers!”

This was probably the conversation that inspired me to read about Nicholas Copernicus.

I have often marveled at how Thinking Mankind figured out our place in the Cosmos, the fact that Earth  is round, rotates on its axis, and so much more. After all, there were no spacecraft beaming pictures back to us then. The irony was not lost on me, that had we not figured out these things, the spacecraft could not have been built at  all. How  would we  know escape velocities and  thermodynamic thrusts and gravitational pulls in the first place?

This year is a leap year, and a reminder that we can figure out when we need years  of confusion, and when we need to just  look upon  the years of confusion benignly  to  stir ourselves towards better things. Like Jane Goodall said:

“Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”  – Jane Goodall

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Books:

Cosmic Nature of Living

We have several friends who are whiz-kids behind the lens, and rise before larks to photograph that first ray of sunlight through the crevice of the rock and so on. We are grateful to their creative labors, for the pictures show the artist behind the lens, and one needs only look at them to get an instant nature spa. We, on the other hand, forget to take cameras, or if we do, leave them behind in the car before getting out. Plans for sunrises are often derailed by the low trick the sun plays on us by beaming on us and waking us up with his rays before we beat him to it.

So, it is no doubt that armed with nothing but our cellphones, we had no method of capturing the brilliance of the Milky Way galaxy.

star_trails
Star Trails of the Milky Way Galaxy

Every time we have the luxury of traveling out of our urban areas swathed in artificial light, we try to step out at night to indulge in star gazing. The winter skies over Zion national park did not disappoint. The wisps of cloud that had floated in during the sunset to show us a more resplendent sunset had flitted away obligingly so that we may take in the iridescent brilliance of the Milky Way galaxy unobstructed.

A friend most kindly took a picture of the husband gazing up at the skies that had me yearning to see the sky like that.

milky_way_shree

Photographers will tell you something about shutter speed, and exposures and frames per second: Lark that always has me looking like a glazed doughnut at t+2 of the discourse. Therefore, I produce slightly alarming results that has physicists going back over their calculations to see how the focal length with the curvature and the light ray divided by exposure rate gave rise to the image that I seem to have obtained. (Just a moment: f/1.4 should blur that background, how did it blur the subject?)

I meander as usual. The point is: I thought we required post processing and superior photographic techniques like make-up on a set to be able to see that night sky. However that night at Zion national park, we had no need to resort to these advanced techniques to see the nebulous cloud of the Milky Way. The skies split open, and the stars poured their celestial brilliance upon us. If this was the show our ancestors enjoyed every night, it is no wonder that we have such wonderful myths and shapes in the ‘ever changing panorama of the skies’ (James Woodforde Parson).

As we looked up, we could not help wondering how the desert beauty in the canyons was so different from the beauty of the seaside and yet so unlike the snowy mountain plains. If this many vagaries of nature could exist on one planet, the mind boggles on what exists in the vast cosmos out there. We rarely stop to think of the skies in any color than the ones we are blessed with. It takes children to imagine that. I remember the childrens’ essays in first grade where they were asked to imagine another world, and their skies looked nothing like ours. They opened our minds to the possibility of having rust colored night skies, with swirling colorful gusts of wind and rainbow colored days. When asked to imagine extra terrestrial life, we are so limited by our imaginations that we seldom look beyond the slightly changed human form.

Yet on this very planet, we know that octopuses have a level of consciousness radically different from our own.

For a long time, we thought that being conscious was something unique to human-beings, then Jane Goodall paved the way for several scientists to study animals and not fear being accused of anthropomorphizing their subjects. Finally, in the 1970’s, Jennifer Mather’s work was acknowledged.  Quoted from The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

Once overlooked or dismissed outright, Jennifer’s work now is respected and cited by cognitive neuroscientists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists so that the 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.”

Days filled with the daily business of living truly and fully demand our attentions so that we often forget the vibrant universe in which we float. The night view from our planet, ‘ a tiny mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam’ as Carl Sagan so elegantly put it, is the best cure for arrogance there exists. Instead of taking our place among the harmonious orchestra of the universe, if all our dictators are fighting over, is a small patch in this tiny speck on a remote planet, we must feel sorry indeed for ourselves.

Cybotic Leaders or Alien Invasions?

I am reading a book called Mind, Life and The Universe: Conversations With Great Scientists Of Our Time. It is a compilation of interviews with scientists. It is fascinating reading. Holding one book letting one know so many areas in which one knows nothing is nothing but humbling.

One interview is with Jane Goodall. She says that what struck her as horrifying while studying chimpanzees was the fact that they could identify with a clan and go on to attack, maim or kill fellow chimpanzees belonging to a different clan. Similar to what human beings do to each other. Somewhere along the evolutionary cycle, our genes seem to have mutated thus – to identify race and religion and any number of extra associations and look down upon others.

Carl Sagan, in his book, The Cosmic Connection, writes about how if an alien civilization were observing us now, they would think that what we value most is violence. For that is what is available as entertainment and that is what being streamed into our homes everyday, and what our children engage in, in the form of video games.

(https://nourishncherish.wordpress.com/2015/10/09/the-wind-in-the-reefs/)

Last week, we did not need aliens to observe and see what is taught to us. A twitter bot, Tay, written by humans was let loose in the internet to learn and respond like a real user (The future is not far when a good cybot becomes the President of a country). Within 24 hours, we had turned Tay into a racist, misogynist, abuse-spewing user. Who can blame Tay for learning to be a racist jerk in one day? If that is what we are teaching twitter bots, could it be what we are teaching our children in a slower, sturdier manner?

I quote from article below:
http://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/30/tay-microsofts-ai-program-is-back-online.html

“Unfortunately, in the first 24 hours of coming online, a coordinated attack by a subset of people exploited a vulnerability in Tay,” Lee explained. “As a result, Tay tweeted wildly inappropriate and reprehensible words and images.”

How do we teach an algorithm empathy? As Jane Goodall said, “Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”

https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/30/jane-goodall-empathy/

I remember a P.G. Wodehouse book, Right Ho Jeeves, in which Jeeves (that all-knowing butler who saves his young, idiotic, but thoroughly good-natured master, Bertie Wooster many times over) says, that the best way to unite warring factions is to introduce a common enemy.

chimp

It looks like an alien invasion might save us from ourselves. If those aliens are only 0.1% percent more evolved than us, we can be their chimps.