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!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sounding the Alarm

How many blog posts can one person write about slime mold? I've already written at least two, but here's another - this time, a lesson from this humble little organism about how to respond to pandemics.

The slime mold, more properly known as Dictyostelium discoideum, begins life as a single-celled amoeba. A colony of Dicty (as they are affectionately known in the microbiology community) is quite happy to exist as single cells as long as there is enough food. But when food becomes scarce the colony goes through an amazing sequence of changes culminating in the production of a multi-cellular organism, as shown in the following lifecycle diagram.

When the colony moves from the region encased by the box along the arrow labeled "aggregation," it does so because some of the amoeba have started to send out distress signals.

The lack of food, or "starvation," as it's described in the diagram, converts some of the amoeba into little town-criers who begin to send out chemical signals that let the colony know that the food supply is disappearing.

These chemical signals are actually periodic pulses of a common signaling molecule known as cyclic adenosine monophosphate, or cAMP.

So what does all this have to do with flu epidemics? Some have questioned whether the media and bloggers (not to mention people on twitter) are providing useful information or merely adding to the hype when they publish or broadcast, or merely forward, information. Others have asked if people are over-reacting and questioned whether adding one's voice to the many that are providing information is responsible.

I say, take a look at the slime mold to see what a very resilient social organism does. When the colony is in danger, the first reaction is to sound the alarm. Send out a notice that says to the others, "come this way, form yourselves into an aggregate, and don't ask questions. What we are asking you to do will save your life."

Nothing in the cAMP signal tells those little amoeba what is in store for them. They do not know that the process they are embarking on will turn them into a slug!

They also do not know that this socially-driven process will, in the long run, save them -- in their case, from starvation.

And it is the same with us. We have appointed some among us as messengers. We look to them for information and we listen and read what they provide to us. We make our decisions about where we go and what we do in response to this uncertain situation using this information.

We are very lucky, when you think about it. Imagine what the world was like for those generations that came before us who didn't understand the basis of disease, didn't know what they should be afraid of. During the dark years of the bubonic plague, nobody knew that the danger was in the very air they were breathing.

Now we know, and it is good to have as much information as possible. We are smart people and we can be trusted to make decisions about our health and that of our family if we are given all the information.

So, I say, tell us what you know and don't worry about spreading fear. We have nothing to fear, really, but ignorance.

Friday, May 1, 2009

I'm Taking a Blog Vacation Today...

...because it's my birthday!
Here I am in one of my favorite spots in DC: Dupont Circle.