The Wonder Formula

Someone told me once that we lose the joy and wonder in things as we knew more and more about how things work. If we knew the conditions were right for a rainbow to form, or the planets will shine in the evening skies brighter than usual, we seem to expect them, and then lost the magic of it all.

I have pondered on that often – could adding a pleasurable anticipation make up for the lost serendipity? As we watch the bleak skies of the winter, we can wait and feel the weight of the buds in the spring snowflake 🌱 plants, or watch the tulips bulbs shoot up from the Earth admiring their sense of timing, can’t we?.

While, waiting for the rains to subside, we can nurse a secret longing for a rainbow – I know I do.

Aside from all else, what isn’t lovely about a World that has rainbows? Maybe on other planets, with different atmospheric makeups than our own, rainbows themselves manifest differently or not at all, but it is comforting to know the colors of the rainbow and their perfect arc will be this way on this Earth as long as the suns rays can diffract the light in the moisture laden droplets.

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One day during the Winter holidays, I got to sit in a beach. It being the rainy season, there weren’t as many people around. There were a few beach lovers, so we curled up our beach towels and all set to greet the noisy seagulls. There I sat watching the Atlantic ocean with my umbrella open, sitting on a Mickey Mouse towel with a book in hand.

It was a few minutes afterward that we discerned the rainbow forming in the sky. How marvelous and wondrous an experience to watch the rainbow go from a faint smearing of smudged colors as though making up its mind whether to come out in all its glory or not; and then watch a colorful, bright rainbow full of the conviction of Being play on the horizon. The son came running across from where he was playing, flush with excitement pointing at the rainbow -🌈 “I knew it will come now.”

Sometimes, I wonder why we cannot be like children. Even though, they know the hows and whys behind things, they still retain Shoshin: the Zen concept of wonder as in a beginner’s mind. I smiled and patted him to sit next to me and take in the rainbow 🌈 with me.

After a while, he went back to playing in the ocean waves with his sister. I sat there, nourishing my musings with whimsy. I remembered some drawings of the daughter when she was much younger. Dolphins leapt out of the seas, with a rainbow arc-ed beautifully around them. Of course, children imagine the best possible things together – there isn’t any dearth or rationing in their imaginary worlds, is there?

Because when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worth while.” as Anne of Green Gables would say.

The dolphins may get to see rainbows, but the fish do not. But maybe their world is marvelous enough with a thousand prickling and tricks of light that the water medium presents to them.

Musing in a world of rainbows is nothing short of magical even if I do know the concept of light refracting and producing the colors of a rainbow. My heart still lifts.

I had been traveling during the past few weeks. One such time on my sojourns, I left my home amidst brown hills. The summer sun had toasted the hillsides, and I yearned for a little respite to the eyes. In the two weeks that I was out, the rains had lashed the area liberally, and when I came back, the hillsides had turned a marvelous green. The rolling hills lifted their misty veils every morning, and I felt my heart pound with the magic of it all. Yes, I knew the rains make the grass grow, but the transformation is still a miracle that my heart waits for every year.

When I watch the dew drops glisten on the spring snowflakes,
When I watch the rainbow makes up its mind and throw itself like a garland across the skies
When I watch the eight-legged marvels creations catch in the sunset
When I watch the waves lap and play with the sandpipers

I feel hope stir in the spirits
I feel decisive and conviction in Being
I feel solitude’s gift can be tangible and needs to be nurtured for its fragile state
I feel engaged with the planet and all its gifts

I recently read a book bySasha Sagan, that is full of the joy of being. Titled: For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World, the book immediately caught my attention and I savored its many truths and facts about our rituals and festivals – the meaning behind life’s celebrations.

“My parents taught me that the provable, tangible, verifiable things were sacred, that sometimes the most astonishing ideas are clearly profound, but when they get labeled as “facts”, we lose sight of their beauty. It doesn’t have to be this way. Science is the source of so much insight worthy of ecstatic celebration.” – Sasha Sagan

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I was also reminded of Richard Feynman’s meditations on 🌺 flowers.

Ode to a Flower – By Richard Feynman.

There is beauty in knowledge, and wonder in anticipation. We just need a formula linking the two now.

Philosophers & Tinkerers

I picked up the book Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin partly because I was intrigued by the poetic title, and partly because I like reading about our dear Cosmos, and its many mysteries. The skies have given me endless joy, peace and continue to do so, even though light pollution in our suburban areas mean that we cannot see the stars, planets and stars as clearly.

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Excuse me for a while, while I meander to a black hole of my own for a moment: I was appalled to note that a Russian startup intends to sell advertisements that can only be visible in the night sky. Are our products so important that we have to dwarf the shows the Cosmos puts up every night to sell toothpaste and whatever gawd-awful thing we contrive in our numerous factories? (I have a post clamoring and rattling in the brain waiting to get out on the number of contraptions that folks felt I must have, or I myself felt I must have, and now occupy valuable shelf-space in the home somewhere.)

Climbing out of the black hole then, the cosmos has given me endless joy and I indulge in dipping into its mysteries every now and then. What surprised me about detecting gravitational waves is the immensity of human endeavors. Theorizing and coming up with the supporting Mathematics to validate the concept is in itself a phenomenal achievement, but conceptualizing an experiment of such magnitude as to detect a stirring as faint as gravitational waves emanating when two black holes collide millions of light years away is astonishing.

As Janna Levin says, it is a project to fulfill a fool’s ambition.

“An idea sparked in the 1960s, a thought experiment, an amusing haiku, is now a thing of metal and glass.”
― Janna Levin, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

The LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory ) is astronomical in scope and dimensions. Janna Levin’s book takes us into the human dramas and the corridors of Caltech and MIT where much of this played out. While I did feel the flow and structure of the book could have been more crisp, and less about the human politics that plague undertakings such as these, it was nevertheless interesting.

As I read, I was amused at how humans unfailingly bring drama into our existence. At the altar of Science, many have sacrificed their egos, had their egos bruised, and have propelled or obstructed the flow of Science, but like a river it flows on and hopefully propels our understanding forward, not always cognizant of the applications of Science (One of my favorite sayings of Ursula K Le Guin:

When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow).

After the monumental setbacks and roadblocks along the way, it is a satisfying end to the book that the experiment finally paid off. Twice, it detected Gravitational waves as they passed through the Earth from the collision of two massive black holes millions of light years away.

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(Image tweeted by @LIGO)

We do not yet know how this will change our understanding of the Universe, and its applications, but we can be rest assured that both are underway. We have come a long way from the Sun God riding the sky every morning on his chariot, though I am reading a fascinating book on this very myth at the moment.

Human-beings are philosophers and tinkerers at the very core, are we not?

Also read: Cranes of Hope (Essay of the Value of Science by Richard Feynman with A Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr).

The Cranes of Hope

Late one night, I read Sadako’s Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. The book is based on the true story of a little girl called Sadako who contracts Leukemia ten years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My heart attached itself to the lively, petite, friendly, active Sadako. Her energy is infectious and it leaps out of the pages and wants to make you skip too as you navigate the stairs and walk to school.

Sadako was two years old when the atom bomb was dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ten years later, her body is wracked with the unmistakable signs of Leukemia, a disease her family knows as the ‘Atom-Bomb’ disease. Her friend gives her hope and says when she makes a thousand paper cranes, she will become better. Sadako’s older brother offers to hand the paper cranes for her and pretty soon, the soaring cranes of every hue and size adorn her hospital room.

Wiki Link: Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

According to the book, she is on her 644th crane when she dies, but her brother says she really made 1400 paper cranes and some of her paper cranes are still available for viewing as a message for Peace. It is a poignant story, and just writing the summary brought back the details of a lively spirit forever taken from the world, and I was shaken.

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The nuclear threat is ever there. Read: Butter Battle Book by Dr Seuss. Mindless tweets on the subject by dictators leave me in an uneasy state of mind: We have on Earth right now the power to annihilate all lifeforms and spread widespread suffering. How many Sadako’s does humanity have to lose before we embrace all encompassing peace? Isn’t One Sadako too many?

Compellingly told, it is a light book with a heavy message. Oh! How heartless is warfare and why oh why did humanity have to develop nuclear weapons? I said aloud – a loud lament with silence as an answer.

In a mutinous mood, I stormed into the concluding essay on the Value of Science in Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Others Think? book. What possible excuse had he for his work on the Nuclear bomb. (The essay doesn’t directly allude to his work on the atom bomb, but on the general value of Science.)

Much as I wanted to storm and rage, I found myself reading the whole essay. He started the essay with something he had heard from a monk in a Buddhist monastery once:

To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.

It is a valuable essay and well worth reading. It reminded me of the beautiful saying by Ursula Le Guin in the Earthsea books,

“To light a candle is to cast a shadow…”

 

The value of science is similar – while it is hugely important for understanding our universe, solving medical problems etc, there is also the troubling underbelly of Science using the same understanding with mal-intent or certainly unintended intent. (Problem with the Like button?)

Troubling? Yes.

But did you know, said a small voice in my brain, paper cranes are a symbol of hope and peace in Japan? We can hope and have faith in our uncommon knack to find solutions even as we create more problems. (The Wizard & The Prophet)

Blooming Time?

A version of this post was published in the Nature Writing magazine: When The Kurinji Blooms

In a small corner tucked away from the hectic panting of the world lives a small ecosystem,  nestled in a range of hills that is fast losing its unique beauty to ‘progress’. It is the place I was lucky enough to call home when I was growing up.

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Primrose jasmines – Image by Wouter Hagens[Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
The thought of flowering lupines takes me to Iceland; lotuses to a temple tank surrounded by trees with the breeze rippling the tank waters; primrose jasmines and Kurinji flowers back to the Nilgiris.

One of the marvels that is highly unique to the Nilgiris is the flowering of the Kurinji.

These flowers only bloom once in 12 years, and when they do, they are a joy to behold. I have only seen them once, and I remember thinking that for all this drama of blooming once in a dozen years, they should be, more grandiose, more robust, a trifle less ephemeral. But that is the thinking of an ignoramus, and I sensed the idiocy of the sentiment even then.

The flowers were beautiful, and the fact that there is a plant that knows the time to bloom when the rest of the world needs alarms and clocks to rise and shine is nothing short of marvelous. We need apps, calendars, schedulers, reminders and alarms to go about our daily business of living, and yet these unassuming flowers go about their act of procreation, maturing and enthralling the world without any such aids. What is more beautiful than that?

The kurinji flowers were in bloom last month, and I lived vicariously through a few friends of mine who live in the beautiful Nilgiris and posted the pictures. Entire hillsides clothed in royal robes of purple, swaying and billowing in rainy wind splattered skies, or waving and tossing their crowns to the blue skies with the scudding clouds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The beauty of a functional model like a flower is a joy to behold. Imagine my joy then, when I opened the book, What Do You Care What Others Think – By Richard Feynman and the very opening of the book spoke straight to my kurinji-flower yearning heart.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Ode to a Flower – By Richard Feynman. This brain pickings article links to the beautiful animated video made by Fraser Davidson based on his ode to a flower.

 

I could not see the Kurinji flowers this time. I know many hillsides that were carpeted with these marvels have now become home to resorts and hotels. So, I wrote to the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers requesting them to try and obtain a sample of this marvel: a tiny piece of magic tucked away for generations to behold. I hope they can.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
– William Blake