Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Splendor of the Solstice

The arrival of winter this year has been spectacular and awesome. Here are just a few of the dozens of photos I've taken in the last couple of days.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rest in Peace, Gideon

After a long day at work yesterday, I logged into my email shortly before 8pm to check messages and learned the shocking news that my friend, Gideon Addington, had died. A prayer service had been hastily scheduled for 8:30 pm on Twitter by the online Urban Abbey community.

Minutes later, I was "at" that service. I was physically and literally at home, of course, but mentally and spiritually I was with my online friends, mourning our mutual loss. It was a powerful experience, equal to any I have had "in real life," or IRL, as it is called nowadays. It helped, as only prayer can, to begin to cope with our loss.

Right now, I have very little in the way of words. I knew Gideon only as an online friend and colleague, but he touched my life deeply and will be terribly missed. Perhaps I will be able to write more later, when I've had time to reflect. My friend Josh has written a beautiful post about all this - please take a moment to read it. If you knew Gideon or want to post a prayer or your thoughts, a site has been set up for that.

Rest in peace, Gideon.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Complexity Simplified One Year Old Today

Hard to believe, but one year ago today I started this blog. I also joined Twitter that same day, and my life truly has not been the same since.

What a great year it has been! I've learned the ins and outs of blogging, gotten to know many like-minded souls who have made their way to Complexity Simplified and, most gratifying of all, found true community both on Twitter and in the blogosphere.

Here's hoping the next year will be even a fraction as good as the first year has been.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Advent 1: Washington National Cathedral and Full Moon

For more Wordless Wednesday posts, click here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

We Are All Connected

Thanks to Bosco Peters and his great blog for drawing my attention to this latest contribution from Carl Sagan and friends. If you liked "A Glorious Dawn," you're going to love this new video. Totally awesome...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gratitude: The Truth of Our Existence

This month's issue of the magazine, "Spirituality and Health," includes an article on gratitude - a perfect topic for Thanksgiving Day, it seems to me. Included in that article is a quote from philosopher Charles Eisenstein that struck me as exceedingly wise. I share it with you today as my Thanksgiving gift to you.

"We are born helpless infants, creatures of pure need with little resource to give, yet we are fed, we are protected, we are clothed and held and soothed, without having done anything to deserve it, without offering anything in exchange. This experience, common to everyone who has made it past childhood, informs our deepest spiritual intuitions. Our default state is gratitude: it is the truth of our existence."
Charles Eisenstein

And now...back to cooking! May your Thanksgiving be blessed with a feeling of gratitude.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Autumn Splendor - Happy Thanksgiving!

For more Wordless Wednesday photos, click here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Christmas Cactus? It's Not Even Thanksgiving Yet!

For more Wordless Wednesday posts, click here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Spectacular Meteor Show Expected

The 2009 Leonid meteor shower is expected to reach peak intensity tomorrow. It should be a fantastic show, since tonight we have a new moon. This means a relatively dark sky early tomorrow morning when the Leonids are at their peak.

Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office predicts 20 - 30 meteors per hour over North America. Skywatchers in Asia will have an even better show, with perhaps 200 - 300 per hour observable.

The Leonid meteor shower occurs when Earth passes through the stream of debris left by Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The International Meteor Organization provides much more information for all you detail-oriented folks. This site provides practical information and tips for amateur meteor watchers like us.

We are expected to pass through the first wisp of the comet debris stream at 4:00 AM EST on Nov. 17. Set your alarm clock!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Self Organizing Flocks

This amazing video of a large flock of starlings making elaborate and intricate patterns in the sky above Denmark has been making the rounds on blogs and news sites lately:

Many of the bloggers pose the question: why do the birds do this? The answer actually lies in the physics of self-organizing systems.

Bird flocking is a well-known example of the self-organization phenomenon. No one bird is in charge, yet the flock as a whole organizes itself into beautiful patterns. Each bird takes note of its neighbor's position and direction of motion and adjusts accordingly, but nobody is the leader. No "head bird" tells the entire flock which way to go, yet they move as a unit.

Other videos of this phenomenon exist and it is sometimes the case that a predator is present. A hawk or other bird of prey could be present here as well, although it would be difficult to see it in such a large crowd of birds.

The predator's presence can explain what is causing the birds to fly around, rather than to sit quietly on the ground or in trees, but it cannot explain the intricate patterns that the starlings exhibit in their attempt to escape the predator. The theory of self-organizing systems is needed to understand the origin of these gorgeous patterns.

I have written about this phenomenon in earlier posts, since it applies to human behavior, too. Traffic and the movements of large crowds of pedestrians can be understood using this approach. It is not just birds who flock - people do, too!

Friday, November 13, 2009

It's Friday the 13th!

What better way to celebrate such an auspicious day than with a fun video? Enjoy!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Complexity Simplified Wins Award!

I just heard from the folks at that Complexified Simplified has been chosen for a "Featured Blogger" award. I am always grateful for readers, but an award is even better!

Please check them out - looks like a new site, but could be promising.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Morning Filled With 400 Billion Suns

Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Remixed but Still Awesome.

Blog Action Day on Climate Change

Today is Blog Action Day, an event in which bloggers from around the world all post about the same topic. This year the topic is climate change and Blog Action Day is happening at a very good time, since I've been wanting to write a post about a media campaign that has hit the airwaves lately.

The campaign is not only very misleading, it seems to be based on the classic mistake of thinking that more of a good thing is always better.

The media campaign in question is called CO2 is Green and, as you can see from a quick glance at this organization's website, they question what they call "myths" about carbon dioxide. There is so much incorrect and misleading information on this organization's website that it is hard to know where to start.

Any grade school student who has paid attention in science class can tell you that plants do, indeed, need carbon dioxide to live. Claiming that more of this substance is "good for the earth" would probably get that student held back a grade, though.

Carbon dioxide is necessary for life. No doubt about it. But too much carbon dioxide will hurt us. CO2 retains heat in the atmosphere, so too much of it in our atmosphere will lead to higher global temperatures.

Although this blog is about complex systems, this particular issue is not really all that complex. The role of carbon dioxide in our eco-sysytem provides a classic example of nonlinearity. Low amounts of carbon dioxide are good, but higher amounts are not. This means that there is an optimal amount of carbon dioxide that makes our world function optimally.

A simple sketch will help explain this simple nonlinear phenomenon:

This is a bell curve, which shows how increasing the amount of something can first lead to an increased effect--until the peak is reached--but adding more of that same substance, once the peak is passed, can lead to a decreased effect.

So, there you go: complex science simplified, although something tells me that the real issue driving these CO2 Is Green folks has nothing whatsoever to do with science

Friday, September 25, 2009

New Images From Hubble

This image of the "Butterfly Nebula" is from the newly-upgraded Hubble telescope. The nebula is created by a dying star, which is located near its center. It is approximately 4000 light years from us and located in the constellation Scorpius. Read more about the newly upgraded Hubble telescope and see more images here.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Lost River Valley

This week I am in the Lost River Valley in Idaho, the location of our family ranch and homestead. This picture shows a view across the grasslands surrounding the slough, a wetlands area which is next to our original homestead located at Whiskey Springs.

At this link, you can see a picture of the cabin in which my grandfather, Ferry Larter, was born. It was originally a stage coach stop, operated by my great-grandfather, Claude Larter, who drove the passenger stage between Mackay and Challis.

I'm visiting the Lost River Valley this week for a very special reason: to celebrate the 98th birthday of my grandmother, Mabelle Larter, who still lives in her own home in Mackay, Idaho. Happy birthday, grandma! It's great to be here with you.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Best Meteor Show Ever

This week's Perseids meteor shower was great fun, if you could see it from your vantage point. I could not (too many clouds) but some good soul had more luck than I and was kind enough to post this short video clip on YouTube so all of us could see it:

I have had several opportunities to see the Perseids meteor shower, since they always occur in late summer when I have often been visiting my relatives in the dark-skied wilds of Idaho. One such viewing stands out vividly in my memory as much because of the events on the ground as those that were occurring in the sky.

On this particular visit, I was traveling with a friend and my two sons, aged 17 and 21 at the time. We were staying with my grandmother in the small town of Mackay the night the Perseids were supposed to hit their peak. To get a good view, we decided to pile in the car and drive 20 minutes up valley to the cemetery.

A cemetery may not seem such a great place to visit in the middle of the night, but it's perfect for star-gazing. This particular cemetery is far out in the country and no artificial lighting exists for miles around it.

Even in August, it was a little chilly that night. After pulling our rented SUV into the gates of the cemetery and parking between the sagebrush, we all piled out on top of the car, some on the hood, some on its roof. Somebody, I'm no longer sure who, decided it would be a good idea to pop an Enya CD into the car stereo system and crank up the volume. We had been listening to this CD for days as we drove from Salt Lake to Yellowstone and, eventually, to Mackay, so we all knew the words--by heart.

Within minutes, we were singing along with Enya--loudly--as the meteor show heated up above us. If anybody had happened to drive by (but nobody did) we might have made an odd sight: four people lounging on the roof of an SUV, singing at the top of our lungs, and shouting, "there's one!" every few minutes.

It may not have been the most spectacular Perseids event in history, but it is by far my favorite.

If you didn't catch this week's meteor shower, there's another happening in November: the Leonids. And there will be a near-new moon, so we might be able to get a good view. Mark your calendars now. I am!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Before and After

Two photos of my garden, one taken in April (top) the other today (July).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

DC Sunset Sorbet
(This photo by my friend, Melanie Otto. See more of her work here!)

Monday, July 6, 2009

How is Finance like a Sand Pile?

Why is it that nobody in the mainstream media seems to know anything about economic theory or the dynamics of financial markets? This morning's Washington Post contained yet another column asking why it is that economists failed to predict last fall's financial crash. The title lays the blame squarely at economist's feet: "Economists out to Lunch."

As if these economists were sitting at the controls of a machine they fully and completely understand. As if something like the crash we experienced could be predicted. As if the financial system had levers to pull or buttons to push that would yield predictable outcomes.

This all seems quite ludicrous to me. Even though I am not an economist, it seems clear that our economic and financial system is a complex system, with all the ramifications that has for predictability--or lack of predictability. It is a system comprised of multiple, nested feedback loops. These types of systems self-organize and display dynamic behavior that is well-understood from complex systems theory.

Not that you would ever know that from reading the newspapers.

One type of self-organized behavior that has been considered by those seeking to describe the dynamics of financial markets is exemplified by a sand pile fed from the top by a stream of sand grains. The dynamics of this sand pile exhibit what is known as self-organized criticality, or SOC.

The grains tumble slowly down the sides of the sand pile, coming to rest at various points along the slope. The pile slowly grows as sand is dribbled onto the top until, suddenly, the system becomes unstable and a small avalanche occurs. A rush of sand tumbles to the bottom, returning the remaining pile to a situation where additional sand can be added--but only for awhile. Small avalanches occur at random intervals and it is never entirely predictable when they will happen.

The sand pile's SOC dynamics exist because this system has an attractor that is simultaneously stable and unstable. This type of attractor is known as a critical point. It is essentially a mountain pass in the hilly terrain that characterizes the dynamic landscape for the system.

This mountain pass is a saddle point: if we stand at the point and look in one direction, the mountain slopes upward. Turn ninety degrees, though, and the mountain slopes down. Another ninety and it slopes up again. Completing the circular spin as we stand at our saddle point, we see the mountain sloping downward again. Sand grains roll down the mountain slopes toward this saddle point but when the resulting sand pile becomes too big, it collapses and rushes away into the surrounding valleys.

SOC has been suggested as the explanation for a variety of phenomena: forest fires, earthquakes, and, yes, financial markets. The common feature in systems that are governed by SOC is that they are driven by a persistent external force. In the case of the sand pile, it is the stream of sand. In the forest fire example, it is thought to be the slow accumulation of dry fuel. In the earthquake example, it is the constant pressure from colliding tectonic plates pushing on a fault line that will, at a random and unpredictable time, slip, causing a quake.

I would love to see a thoughtful discussion of the possible role of SOC in economics and financial systems. Nobelist Paul Krugman's ideas come close, but he seems to shy away from precise scientific language that would make it clear to me that he agrees with the idea that economic systems are complex, self-organizing and, thus, subject to the natural laws for these fascinating types of systems. I will keep looking, but please post links if you know of any relevant work.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Fingerprints of God: A Review

Barbara Bradley Hagerty's recent book, "Fingerprints of God: the Search for the Science of Spirituality" is great and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Hagerty, a religion correspondent for National Public Radio, is a superb journalist who has brought her superior reporting skills to bear on the question, "Is there more than this?"

In this book, she presents evidence gleaned from countless journal articles, interviews and even experiments she participated in herself that address the question of whether there is a God and, if so, does that God leave any measurable traces, or fingerprints, on us when we have a spiritual experience that brings us into contact with that God.

The topics in this book cover a wide range, from neurochemistry to mystical experience, quantum physics to psychedelic drug use, epilepsy to scientific studies of meditation, and all are explored thoroughly and explained well. I especially liked her accounts of mystical experience and its effects on the lives of individuals who had this especially profound type of spiritual experience. Her explanation helped me understand my own life better and I experienced more than a few "Aha!" moments when reading through this section.

One of the more appealing parts of this well-researched survey of scientific studies of spiritual experience, is Hagerty's personal story which she weaves through the book, giving it a narrative thread that personalizes what could have been a dry presentation of facts. She seems to have been wary about doing this and writes, in an early chapter,

"Transforming insights usually come in small moments and pedestrian crises. So it was for me...I needed to cross the river and immerse myself in the unnerving questions about God, and reality, and whether what I instinctively believed was true--or rubbish.

"I was, to be honest, skittish. Skittish about ruining my reputation in a career where few people believe in God and fewer still bother to distinguish spirituality from religious politics. More than that, I was skittish about submitting my faith to scientific tests, exposing it to the possibility that the most profound moments of my life were nothing more than, say, electrical activity in my brain."

Hagerty's main focus in the book is the intersection of the spiritual with the brain as a material object comprised of cells and molecules. She leads us, using an engaging narrative technique, on her search for physical evidence that spiritual experience changes the brain. I found the emphasis on the need to find physical markers of spiritual experience a little excessive, but understandable in light of Hagerty's religious background in Christian Science.

I found it puzzling, at times, though, that she wanted to draw a sharp line between our bodies and our spiritual selves. At one point she even asks, "Can one's thoughts affect one's brain states? Can thoughts affect matter?" without addressing the everyday example of just this: learning. Every time we learn something new, our thoughts affect our brain states. When we study, synapses are formed or strengthened and a real, physical effect is the result of all that studying. Her insistence that only a spiritual explanation would suffice for the influence of the mind on the physical brain was not consistent with the rest of the book.

Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble and I highly recommend this book. Hagerty is a great reporter, an excellent science writer and an intrepid explorer of some of the most intriguing aspects of the universe we find ourselves in.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Who Are Your Scientist Heroes of Faith?

A new Twitter friend asked me a question the other day, somewhat innocently I suppose: "Who are your scientist heroes of faith?" In other words, who are the scientists who have managed to integrate their scientific lives and spiritual lives and, in so doing, inspired me in my own quest to do the same?

I had to think a long time about this question because, alas, there weren't many. Or any, if truth be told (which it always should be).

There are scientists who write about science and either spiritual or religious topics, of course. Examples include John Polkinghorne, David Bohm, Fritjof Capra, Ken Wilbur, Arthur Peacocke and Francis Collins.

However, I find the writings of many of these scientists (with the exception of Peacocke and Collins) to be dull and uninspiring and I can't say that I consider any of them to be one of my "heroes." Peacocke's ideas are more interesting than the others (to me) but none of them have inspired me in the way a true "hero" would.

It isn't that I can't name people who have inspired me. I do have heroes and heroines. Carl Sagan, Lynn Margulis, Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong are just a few who lead my list of heroes and heroines.

You might be surprised to see Carl Sagan, an avowed agnostic, on my list, but he was fearless in his pursuit of basic questions about our place in the universe and his work has inspired millions. Merely hearing the opening bars of the Cosmos theme song can spark something like a religious experience for many of us.

Lynn Margulis, who happened to be Sagan's first wife, was also fearless in her pursuit of a theory of life that became known through her work with collaborator James Lovelock as the Gaia Hypothesis. I have closely followed her work, not only because it is extremely interesting from a scientific point of view, but because of her tenacity in pursuit of the truth, even if it upset accepted scientific hypotheses.

Joseph Campbell is on my list for much the same reason as Sagan, although he taught us that we had only to look inside ourselves to see the same majestic universe Sagan saw through his telescopes. And Karen Armstrong, not a scientist at all, but a person who exemplifies the essence of scholarship as a way to know the divine. I never tire of reading what she writes and have every single one of her books.

Who are your scientist heroes or heroines of faith? How do they inspire and lead? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

My oak-leaf hydrangea starts off with white flowers that gradually turn deep red by fall. Here it is in early summer.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Evelyn Underhill, Mystic

Today is the Anglican Feast Day for Evelyn Underhill. I first learned of Underhill's work when her 1911 classic "Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness" practically fell off a shelf in a bookstore into my hand.

At the time this happened, I associated the word "mysticism" with the occult, but as I was soon to learn from Underhill's book, mine was a commonly-held misconception. As Underhill explains in her classic text, mystical experience occurs when direct and immediate contact is made with the divine.

Those who have such an experience use terms to describe it that are remarkably in accord with descriptions given by other mystics in many places and over vast reaches of time. This universality of mystical experience led Underhill to conclude that there is something in the mystical experience that reveals fundamental truths about the nature of the divine and our relationship to God.

It turned out that Underhill's book came into my possession at just the time I needed to read it. While it was the first book I had ever seen on the topic of mysticism, it was certainly not the last. My bookshelves are now filled with many books on mystical experience and theology and I have become something of an amateur-scholar on the topic.

Even though Evelyn Underhill lived in a foreign land decades before I was born, I feel a closeness to her and a profound sense of gratitude for her work that introduced me to a fascinating topic that has now occupied about twenty years of my own life. So, tonight, on Evelyn's Feast Day, I will light a candle especially for her.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Little Quiet on the Complexity Simplified Front

Okay, it is time to admit to you (as well as to myself) that I am having a hard time blogging lately. I wrote that long post on Monday about Erice, the Mountain of God, fully intending to get back in here and write more about the trip.

And I would love to do that, if only I could find my notes. My office is a shambles, with tall, teetering stacks of books and notebooks and papers covering every horizontal surface. And since I took those notes last October, chances are they are at the bottom of one of these piles - if only I had the energy to begin the excavation.

So, I was starting to despair about ever being able to blog again, when Joanna Young's post 10 Things To Do When You Lose Your Blogging Voice popped into my reader.

All I can say is: thanks be to Joanna Young!

Her post let me know that I was not alone, and that all bloggers go through these ups and downs. That all bloggers sometimes feel like a stranger to their own blogs. And that this inability to show up at my blog just might be a sign that something is rolling around under the surface in my writing life.

As it is. I have, after all, just cut my hours at work to half-time so I can focus on writing a book this summer. No wonder I find it hard to blog right now. No wonder my thoughts seem to be everywhere but on Complexity Simplified.

So, dear Reader, I will be here as much as I can be over the next weeks and months, but when I'm not, you'll know it's because I'm writing.

And that, after all, is the whole point of blogging.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Erice, Mountain of God

Last October, I attended a scientific conference in Erice, a small medieval-era town perched atop a mountain on the western coast of Sicily. On my first walk around Erice I encountered two priests as they hurried along the town's cobble-stone streets. I vividly remember those two priests because they seemed to perfectly personify the place the locals call "Erice, Mountain of God."

The narrow winding streets and crumbling buildings provided an interesting backdrop to our conference on the most modern of topics: how science might inform policy decisions on urgent and pressing issues such as climate change, financial market dynamics, the spread of epidemics, and on and on.

The first priest I encountered as I searched for the lecture hall emerged wearing robes and a large cross from a small Italian car, his robes flapping in the wind, the unmistakable sound of hip-hop music blaring from the radio. The second priest dashed out of a church and pulled a cellphone from somewhere inside his also-flapping robes that he proceeded to talk into in rapid-fire Italian. These two, the hip-hopping priest and his cellphone-connected colleague, seemed to hold within themselves the mix of ancient and modern, sacred and secular that I soon learned permeated all of Erice.

Our meetings were held in the P.A.M. Dirac auditorium located in the completely-refurbished interior of the San Domenico church, shown here. When looking for our meeting room, I walked by the building several times when I first arrived, not believing that this crumbling structure which was so obviously a church could hold an auditorium named after one of the most famous quantum theorists in scientific history.

But it did. And this church was not unusual. Other churches in this tiny pre-medieval town looked their age on the outside, but tucked away in their interiors were lecture halls, computer labs and gathering spaces for the hundreds of scientists who collect in Erice every week to discuss topics ranging from nuclear physics to molecular biology.

My room was in an old convent, with floor-to-ceiling doors that opened onto an interior courtyard. I learned, later, that I had been placed in the Abbess' room, although I am quite sure that my hosts, the Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture, or EMFCSC, had no idea how appropriate this room assignment was! (See sidebar, if you don't know what I'm talking about...)

The EMFCSC are key participants in a major civic project called "Erice: Mountain of God," which seeks to renovate and restore the many churches and monasteries in Erice, some dating to pre-medieval times. For their part, the EMFCSC have built a modern scientific conference facility within the city's ancient churches and convents.

My room was in the San Francesco monastery and housed the Eugene Wigner Institute and the Enrico Fermi lecture hall. Posters on the walls of the three monasteries that contain the EMFCSC summarized its history. Founded in 1963 by a group of scientists concerned about the ethical and moral issues posed by the discovery and use of nuclear energy, the EMFCSC is open about its interest in issues at the boundary of science and faith. The following statement can be found on their

"To conduct Science means to discover the Fundamental Laws of Nature. The applications of great scientific discoveries almost always slip out of the control of Science itself. This is why technological development almost always contradicts the values instilled by Science: love for Creation and respect for life and human dignity. “Science and Faith are both gifts of God”, said John Paul II. No Pope has ever before had the courage to put Science and Faith on pedestals of equivalent dignity, and it is out of this truth that the new role of Science is born."

The documents go on to claim a central role by the Center's president, Antonino Zichichi, in bring the Catholic Church and the Pope to a place where they did an about-face on the case of Galileo Galilei after more than 400 years. Zichichi is a somewhat
controversial figure and it is still not entirely clear what role he actually played in Galileo's rehabilitation by the Church.

Our meeting in Erice was held in early October, 2008 as the financial markets of the world crashed and tumbled all around us. It was both fitting and ironic, as I was soon to find, that this calamity happened at the same time as our conference.

But that part of the story will have to wait for a later time, as this blog post is already getting to be too long. More next week about my visit to Erice, Mountain of God.

Monday, June 1, 2009

God's Fingerprints

I have been reading Barbara Bradley Hagerty's new book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," and enjoying it very much. I hope to write a longer, more complete review when I finish reading, which will be any day now as I can't seem to put the book down.

Hagerty is NPR's religion correspondent and has written a book that interweaves her own amazing story with that of dozens of people she has interviewed, including scientists who study faith and spiritual experiences. She is a wonderfully engaging writer and a good journalist and, so far, I can recommend the book.

More when I finish reading!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Friday, May 15, 2009

Inspired by Space

Between the shuttle mission this week to repair the Hubble telescope and the new Star Trek movie that I just saw, and LOVED, I am totally geeking out on space stuff this week and have nothing more to add.

Here is the famous "Blue Marble" shot from the Apollo 17 mission. Feast your eyes!

Monday, May 11, 2009

To See the Universe Whole

One of the most beautiful poems in the English language is William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence," which begins:
    To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Last week I wrote about Julian of Norwich who would have had no trouble understanding Blake's vision, since she did, in fact, see the World, whole, in a grain of sand. Well, actually, it was a hazelnut, but you understand my point. She sensed, in a deep and direct way, the truth of the nature of creation which Blake wrote about centuries later.

The insight that Blake and Julian shared about the way things really are in this universe of ours was anticipated even earlier in certain Buddhist sutras, or teachings, dating from the 4th or 5th century. This particular teaching is entitled "The truth regarding the source from which Tathagatas arise." The Sanskrit name for the teaching is Tathagatotpatti.

A Tathagata is translated literally as "one who has thus come," and is understood in Mahayana Buddhism as the Buddha Nature, the quality or element in all sentient beings that allows for awakening and becoming a Buddha.

The main idea of this teaching is that everything in the universe contains, in itself, the whole universe. The teaching is done by way of a metaphor involving a scroll upon which words are written that represent the whole universe.

Just as with Julian's insight, we have, again, the concept that the universe is fractal. This insight that the universe is self-similar, every part being a copy of the whole, comes up again and again in mystical experience.

Luis Gomez has provided a translation (in "The Whole Universe as a Sutra," p. 107, Buddhism in Practice, Edited by Donald Lopez, Princeton University Press, 1995) of the Tathagatotpatti that captures the essential idea:

"...It is as if there were a sutra scroll...and on this scroll would be recorded all things without exceptions in this world system of three-thousandfold multi-thousand worlds...This sutra scroll thus containing the world system of three-thousandfold multi-thousand worlds would be contained in a minute particle of dust. And every particle of dust in the universe would in the same way contain a copy of this sutra scroll."

The teaching goes on to describe the appearance of one, a Buddha, who can unlock the secret of this scroll:

"Now, at one time, there would appear in the world a certain person who had clear, penetrating wisdom, and was endowed with a perfectly pure divine eye.

And this person would see the sutra scroll inside every particle of dust, and it would occur to this person, 'How can this vast sutra scroll be present in every particle of dust, yet it does not benefit sentient beings in the least? I should gather all my energy and devise a means to break open a dust particle and let out this sutra scroll, that it may benefit all sentient beings.'

Thereupon this person would find a means to break open a dust particle...this is the way it is with the wisdom and knowledge of the Tathagata."

And that is how it is to "See the World in a Grain of Sand," to see the Universe Whole.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Julian of Norwich

Today is the Anglican Feast Day for St. Julian of Norwich. Julian lived in the 14th century at a time when the bubonic plague was rampant.

Julian saw illness and suffering in a way that many of the church leaders did not. She came to her insights by way of mystical experiences which she recorded in extensive writings.

Her major work was
Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love. Portions of this work are available, along with interesting commentary, in Karen Armstrong's Visions of God: Four Medieval Mystics and their Writings.

Revelations is believed to be the first book written by a woman in the English language. And what a book it was! In this book, Julian describes a dramatic experience which brought her to the brink of death.

Even more surprising, perhaps, is what she learned from this experience: that Creation is fractal.

Well, Julian didn't use the word "fractal," of course, but what she describes is remarkably in accord with the
concept of self-similarity, the property that any part of the system is the same as the whole.

When she was about 30 years old, Julian became deathly ill and it was believed she might die. Her priest was called and Last Rites were administered, after which she fell into a trance and experienced fifteen consecutive visions which she interpreted as "showings" or explanations about the nature of God, Creation, sin, evil and suffering, among other things.

Julian recovered fully from this experience and lived another 40 years, during which time she wrote and taught about what she had seen that night.

She describes God coming to her and showing her how things really are:
"He showed me a tiny thing in the palm of my hand, the size of a hazelnut. I looked at this with the eye of my soul and thought, 'What is this?' And this is the answer that came to me:
It is all that is made."

This small object, the tiny nut, was to Julian an image of the entire created universe. She writes that she was shown this so that she would know that "every single thing owes its existence to the love of God."

Later, she had an even more astounding vision: "I saw God, as it were concentrated in a Point (I mean that I 'saw' it in my mind). In this vision I understood that he is in all things." But the insight went deeper: "I realized that in fact God does everything, however small it is."

This vision of the entire universe as a tiny nut created by God, followed by the realization that God is
in every particle of the universe is a paradox that is easier to understand if we think about it in terms of fractals.

Remember, a fractal is a system in which each part of that system is a copy of the whole. So in a fractal universe, every part of that universe is a copy of the whole. And if every part of the universe contains God, who created the universe, then the whole of the universe is God as well.

These are very heady ideas, but have been discovered over and over by mystics down through the ages. Buddhist sutras and Hindu scriptures have many examples of similar ideas. In later postings I will review some of these.

But today, on Julian's feast day, we celebrate the life of a young woman who had a profound experience of the nature of reality and then devoted the rest of her life to teaching the rest of us all about it.
Hail, Julian!