Ode to a Dreamer of Dreams

Dear Dr. Sacks,

Like the late Carl Sagan, you have a gentle way of magnifying everything into brilliant resolution and reminding us of our place in the universe. I always look forward to reading your books and opinion pieces, as you put which things matter into perspective. Last month, I was quite delighted to read of your love for the physical sciences, also beautifully described in Frank Wilczek’s A Beautiful Question. Beauty can truly be found in any field or context and Wilczek’s coverage of the concept reminds me of that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Pied Beauty,” in which the author pronounces, “Glory be to God for dappled things.” As Adam Frank puts it, “Science — under all its theories, equations, experiments and data — is really trying to teach us to see the sacred in the mundane and the profound in the prosaic.”

Indeed, few experiences prove as humbling as observing the heavens. The night sky brings to mind the opening lines of a personal favorite: “Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Meanwhile, consciousness continues to prove an elusive idea, as you mentioned. Is it a purely biological phenomenon or does it extend into the philosophical and spiritual realms? I think the most beautiful aspect of our universe is the sense of infinite mystery surrounding it; as Anaïs Nin explains it, “The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”

From your stories of patient case studies to your descriptions on the benefits of musical therapy, your words offered comfort and solace amidst adversity and uncertainty. When I was struggling with my own medical challenges (though nothing as serious as your struggles), I found works such as William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” to be particularly uplifting and encouraging, and perhaps you will, too. I think the practice of medicine allows one to grow closer to his fellow brethren and fulfill the insightful words of Countee Cullen: “Your grief and mine/Must intertwine/Like sea and river/Be fused and mingle/Diverse yet single/Forever and forever.” I only hope I will fulfill my role with the same patience, compassion, dignity, and grace that you exemplify in your daily life. As one chapter closes and another begins, I wish you laughter and joy in the company of friends and family, exchanges of love among kindred spirits, courage as you confront your final battles, and peace and contentment in the knowledge that you have touched more lives than you know. From the deepest parts of my being, I thank you. Stay gold, dear Captain, our Captain.

Warm regards,

Nita Jain

Late Night Thoughts on Lewis Thomas

Lately, I’ve been enjoying the works of Lewis Thomas. In The Fragile Species, he shared ideas evocative of the late Carl Sagan:

Never mind our embarrassed indignation when we were first told, last century, that we came from a family of apes and had chimps as near cousins. That was relatively easy to accommodate, having at least the distant look of a set of relatives. But this new connection, already fixed by recent science beyond any hope of disowning the parentage, is something else again. At first encounter, the news must come as a kind of humiliation. Humble origins, indeed.

Similarly, Sagan in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space poeticized:

Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds throughout the Solar System and beyond, will be unified by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that, whatever other life may be, the only humans in all the Universe come from Earth. They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will love it no less for its obscurity and fragility. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings, how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.

Message in a Bottle
Thomas’ appreciation for music was almost as great as his lifelong love affair with science. In an essay from The Lives of a Cell, Thomas offered a suggestion concerning the prospect of interstellar communication: “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.” This wish of his, at least, came to fruition in the form of the Golden Record, the contents of which were chosen by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan and included aboard both Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. The sounds and images on the phonograph records were selected to illustrate the diversity of life and culture on Earth, intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life to decipher. [Interestingly, in a Big Bang Theory episode named “The Communication Deterioration,” Koothrappali is selected to help work on an Earth message design and delivery proposal for NASA’s Discovery missions and asks his friends for advice. Wolowitz stresses the need for a device capable of transmitting information across a wide range of perceptual modalities. Sheldon argues that any intelligent life form would at the very least have the ability to locate the position of objects in space, making the ideal lingua franca haptic, i.e. relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception.] Making sense of the Golden Record’s contents would require extraterrestrial life to possess the senses of sight, sound, and touch.

Image Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One Glorious Symphony

The need to make music, and to listen to it, is universally expressed by human beings. I cannot imagine, even in our most primitive times, the emergence of talented painters to make cave paintings without there having been, near at hand, equally creative people making song. It is, like speech, a dominant aspect of human biology.

The individual parts played by other instrumentalists — crickets or earthworms, for instance — may not have the sound of music by themselves, but we hear them out of context. If we could listen to them all at once, fully orchestrated, in their immense ensemble, we might become aware of the counterpoint, the balance of tones and timbres and harmonics, the sonorities. The recorded songs of the humpback whale, filled with tensions and resolutions, ambiguities and allusions, incomplete, can be listened to as a part of music, like an isolated section of an orchestra. If we had better hearing, and could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic timpani of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of midges hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.

The Lives of a Cell

Reading these words reminded me quite a bit of a song my classmates and I used to perform in elementary school choir called “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir.” The chorus and first verse read:

All God’s critters got a place in the choir
Some sing low, some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
And some just clap their hands, or paws or anything they got now

Listen to the bass, it’s the one on the bottom
Where the bullfrog croaks and the hippopotamus
Moans and groans with a big to-do,
And old cow just goes ‘moo!’

Well the dogs and the cats they take up the middle
The honeybee hums and the cricket fiddles
The donkey brays and the pony neighs
And the old coyote howls

The song was originally written by Bill Staines, an American folk musician and singer-songwriter from New England. Various versions of the song have been performed by groups ranging from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Celtic Thunder.

The Modern-Day Scheherazade


Last night, my parents and I had the privilege of seeing John Adams conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a work of his own composition, Scheherazade.2 (tickets were half off in honor of Mother’s Day weekend). I was especially excited to hear Adams’ re-imagination of the Arabian Nights folktales since I had decided to compare The Thousand and One Nights to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade for my final term paper in comparative literature this past semester. (On a side note, scientists sometimes explain the idea of epigenetic regulation of gene expression using a symphony orchestra as an analogy in which the specific notes of the symphony are akin to the genome, or the DNA sequence, and the finer subtleties of the piece, such as dynamics, tempo, and instrumentation, constitute the epigenome. This analogy, however, invariably begs the question, “Who is the conductor?” to which there is no simple answer. I prefer the computer analogy where the genome constitutes the hardware of the machine, the platform on which everything else takes place, and the epigenome functions as software. Ironically enough, Adams joked that the title Scheherazade.2 sounds like a software update and explained that he intended his piece as an adaptation for the modern-day Scheherazade, a heroine in the fight for gender equality.) The four-movement piece, written for violinist Leila Josefowicz, whom Adams considers “a perfect embodiment of that kind of empowered strength and energy that a modern Scheherazade would possess,” differs quite a bit from its 19th century predecessor in many ways. While both pieces are staged in four movements and feature the character of Scheherazade as the central protagonist (represented by violin motifs), the two works convey different themes and ranges of emotions.

Adams calls his piece a “dramatic symphony,” and dramatic, it was, indeed. The first movement, “Tale of the Wise Young Woman—Pursuit by the True Believers,” introduces Scheherazade in “elegiac lines that keep breaking into skittish flights,” according to New York Times author Anthony Tommasini. Our young heroine begins to sound frantic, hurried, and even manic once the true believers, portrayed as a series of jagged chords, set their sights on her. The second movement consists of a love scene, violent at first but eventually resolving into mutual hope and understanding. In the third movement (my personal favorite), “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards,” our heroine is tried by a court of religious zealots, culminating with Scheherazade being sentenced to death. The section also makes significant use of a cimbalom, better known as a “hammered dulcimer,” played by Chester Englander. This movement reminded me of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at times, specifically the opera section, which references Scaramouche, the fandango, Galileo, Figaro, and Bismillah as rival factions fighting over the narrator’s soul. Music scholar Judith Peraino had once described this sequence as a “comic courtroom trial and a rite of passage… one chorus prosecutes, another defends, while the hero presents himself as meek though wily.” In Adams’ composition, the protagonist continues to calmly respond to the accusations flung against her until she is finally condemned to death, at which point Josefowicz begins playing sul ponticello (bowing right over the bridge), creating a skeletal, scratching sound, evocative of Scheherazade’s anguish.

The final movement, “Escape, Flight, and Sanctuary,” involves more scurrying and agitation until eventually alighting on a more bittersweet note, signifying that Scheherazade has reached a haven in which she is not necessarily content but is at least safe. Gabbie Watts of Atlanta’s NPR station describes the conclusion as a “Shostakovich kind of sunshine.” Herein lies one of the most striking differences between Adams’ and Rimsky-Korsakov’s versions of the story. In the modern retelling, Scheherazade manages to escape her oppressors, but her oppressors essentially remain unchanged in their ideas and ways, while in the original story, Scheherazade successfully transforms the Sultan, who recants his murderous vow, and saves countless lives in the process. Through this lens, the original Scheherazade seems more empowered and self-actualized than her modern-day counterpart. Furthermore, Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition seemed to convey a broader range of emotion from stern acerbity to subdued tenderness and tranquility. In contrast, Adams’ piece always possesses elements of consternation, as Scheherazade constantly faces new threats and adopts the role of a fugitive or refugee. Finally, while Rimsky-Korsakov told a flowing narrative through his composition, Adams’ work consists of a series of more discrete images.

While Scheherazade.2 may not have been my cup of tea (perhaps I am too much of a philistine), I am nonetheless glad that we are still afforded the opportunity to hear new works of classical music to this day. A couple years ago, NPR’s Deceptive Cadence interviewed David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, about the difficulties contemporary composers face in having their works performed. Audiences are not as comfortable with the unknown and often desire a certain degree of assurance that they are listening to music of the highest quality in their limited leisure time. Robertson even described challenges to the introduction of older works not already established in the classical repertoire. He discussed his lack of success in getting the First Symphony by Vasily Kalinnikov, a piece from the 19th century, performed except in instances where he was music director because the overwhelming sentiment was, “Here’s this big unknown symphony by someone whose name sounds like an automatic rifle.” Given the sometimes hostile atmosphere of professional life as a composer, listening to new compositions like those of John Adams inspires hope for future generations of budding composers.

A Wrinkle in Time: Building a Black Hole for Interstellar

Light around a wormhole doesn't behave classically—it doesn't travel in a straight line. Rogers describes a wormhole as "a crystal ball reflecting the universe, a spherical hole in space-time." (Diagram Credit: Kip Thorne, Wired)

Light around a wormhole doesn’t behave classically—it doesn’t travel in a straight line. Rogers describes a wormhole as “a crystal ball reflecting the universe, a spherical hole in space-time.” (Diagram Credit: Kip Thorne, Wired)

Adam Rogers recently wrote a beautiful piece for Wired discussing how astrophysicist Kip Thorne’s equations helped to create a scientifically realistic black hole model. Rogers explains, “Thorne sees truth. Nolan, the consummate image maker, sees beauty.” His words remind me of the closing lines of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Rogers himself concludes, “Most Interstellar viewers will see these images—the wormhole, the black hole, the weird light—and think, ‘Whoa. That’s beautiful.’ Thorne looks at them and thinks, ‘Whoa. That’s true.’ And from a certain perspective, that’s beautiful too.”

Through the Looking Glass of Science

IMG_4942 IMG_4935
“The whole secret of the study of nature lies in learning how to use one’s eyes.”
―George Sand

“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.”
―William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

“If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you, and that understanding empowers you.”
―Neil deGrasse Tyson

1) Science is a tool which indiscriminately allows us to obtain a greater understanding of the laws dictating the phenomena in our world and the universe at large.

The goal of science is to illuminate fundamental truths concerning the workings of the universe. As NPR blogger Adam Frank puts it, “Science — under all its theories, equations, experiments and data — is really trying to teach us to see the sacred in the mundane and the profound in the prosaic.” More than a subject, a discipline, or a field of study, science is a lens through which we can perceive our surroundings. As British biologist Lewis Wolpert expounded, “I would teach the world that science is the best way to understand the world, and that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation. Also, science is value-free, as it explains the world as it is.”

2) Closely attached to the practice of science is the cultivation of skepticism and the need for empirical evidence.

“The skeptic does not mean he who doubts, but he who investigates or researches, as opposed to he who asserts and thinks that he has found.”
―Miguel de Unamuno

“A central lesson of science is that to understand complex issues (or even simple ones), we must try to free our minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, to contradict, and to experiment. Arguments from authority are unacceptable.”
―Carl Sagan

“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
Richard Feynman

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.”
Stuart Firestein

Much of the beauty of science lies in its objectivity. Science advances on a foundation rooted in empirical observation, painstaking data collection, accuracy, and reproducibility. Commitment to the scientific method is not a matter of faith. That being said…

3) Science is nourished not only by reason and observation but also by imagination. Science makes use of that wonderful blend of curiosity, skepticism, and imagination to create and innovate.

I believe in intuition and inspiration…Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”
Albert Einstein, Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorismsp. 97 (1931)

“It is, I admit, mere imagination; but how often is imagination the mother of truth?”
Sherlock HolmesThe Valley of Fear

“In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it…No! Don’t laugh―it’s really true!”
Richard Feynman

“It is important, at the present time, to bear in mind that the human soul has still greater need of the ideal than of the real. It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live.”
―Victor Hugo, “William Shakespeare”

Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist in the department of physiology at Oxford University, writes about the complementarity between knowledge and imagination: “At both group and individual levels, knowledge facilitates community and continuity, while imagination facilitates change. Knowledge binds us to a sometimes-oppressive existence; imagination helps us escape it. However, imagination evolved as a tool for facilitating survival. Imagining, we take a step beyond what we know into the future or into another world. We see alternatives and possibilities; we work out what we need to reach our goals.”

Imagination and creativity often fuel the fires of scientific innovation. In the process, ideas previously considered impossible often become reality.

4) Science only adds to the mystery, wonder, and excitement; it cannot subtract. Sometimes, not having all the answers is part of the fun.

“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. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … 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.”
―Richard Feynman

“The possession of knowledge does not kill
the sense of wonder and mystery.
There is always more mystery.”
―Anaïs Nin

“Music and physics are nourished by the same sort of longing.”
―Einstein’s character, Einstein and Eddington

 When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

 When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
 When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
 When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
       measure them;
 When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
       applause in the lecture-room,
 How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
 Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
 In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
 Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

–Walt Whitman

The poem that Joan Feynman references is actually written by Walt Whitman. Nevertheless, I couldn’t disagree more with its fundamental claim: that science somehow robs nature of all its wonder and beauty. On the contrary, I feel that the science and math behind the laws of nature have a certain elegance of their own. The scientific beautifully complements the aesthetic, and for this reason, I will never be a proponent for the perpetuation of the “two worlds” ideology; science and the arts are two sides of the same coin. Rather than reduce the universe to a bunch of facts and figures, science frees the mind to experience the universe in all its glorious fullness, as it really is.

My Favorite Celestial Display Videos

Two comets visible from the southern hemisphere are caught in this lovely timelapse by Alex Cherney:

Timelapse of some fantastic Northern Lights sequences over Norway:

Beautiful aurora shots set to the Theme from Gladiator:

Filmed over the course of 7 days at Spain’s highest mountain, El Teide, renowned as one of the best places in the world to photograph stars, and set to “Nuvole Bianche,” one of my favorite Ludovico Einaudi songs to play on piano:

Gorgeous time-lapse video of 7 years worth of meteor showers by Thomas O’Brien, which was also featured by The Huffington Post:

Time-lapse work of sky art by photographers Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinovic entitled YIKÁÍSDÁHÁ, which is Navajo for Milky Way or “That Which Awaits the Dawn.” This piece combines remarkable views of the cloud crossing skies over the American west, the Milky Way and the bowl of stars spinning around the North Star.

Compilation of timelapse sequences taken on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii by Sean Goebel:

360-degree time-lapse video by photographer Vincent Brady:

Do you have a favorite video depicting a celestial event? Leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments!

Suspended in a Sunbeam: On Being Awestruck

Lately, I have been discovering many stories on awe-inspiring phenomena and the benefits of experiencing such phenomena. Just a few days ago, The Huffington Post shared a video showcasing the wonders of the universe:

A year ago, performance philosopher Jason Silva created a video discussing psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s thoughts on the biological advantage of  being awestruck:

Jason Silva now hosts a webseries called “Shots of Awe” on Discovery’s TestTube network. Leslie Horn of Gizmodo writes, “The series discusses everything from the universe to technology, society, science, and much more, all in the tone of the boundary-pushing lectures of Alan Watts. If Carl Sagan or Timothy Leary had been born in the YouTube age, their videos might have looked something like this. Silva travels outside of the box where your brain normally resides and causes you to ponder life in a more philosophical sense.”

In his premiere episode, Jason Silva defines awe as “an experience of such perceptual vastness you literally have to reconfigure your mental models of the world to assimilate it,” an explanation provided by a Stanford study published in Psychological Science. Silva argues that human beings have a tendency to quickly become acclimated to routine habits and consequently rarely step outside of their comfort zones in a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. Henry David Thoreau also discusses the dangers of becoming stuck in a rut in Walden: “How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” He goes on to describe his recommended alternative:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, 
to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could 
not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, 
discover that I had not lived.... I wanted to live deep and
suck out all the marrow of life..."

Thoreau’s message is highly evocative of carpe diem, Latin for “seize (or more literally, pluck) the day,” a sentiment also expressed in Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” So how exactly do we elicit wonder in our seemingly banal existences? Arizona State University psychology Dr. Michelle Shiota suggests, “The experience of awe involves feeling very small and insignificant yet also connected to something much greater than the self.” Lee Ann Womack expresses a similar sentiment in her song, “I Hope You Dance” with lyrics such as “I hope you never lose your sense of wonder” and “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.” This idea of humbling awe and experience is perhaps best immortalized in Carl Sagan’s timeless ode to Earth, “Pale Blue Dot.”

Looking for a source of awe and inspiration? While Halley’s Comet won’t be headed our way until 2061, debris from the familiar comet will be visible tonight in the form of the Eta Aquarid meteor showers, which will reach their peak early Tuesday morning, May 6th. The Eta Aquarids produce some of the fastest shooting stars of any annual meteor shower, blazing into our atmosphere at 44 miles per second! Blink, and you’ll miss them. Only the Leonids of November travel faster. The best time to view the meteor shower will be around 4 a.m. your local time. Viewers in the Southern hemisphere will be able to see up to 60 meteors per hour at the showers’ peak while those in the Northern hemisphere can expect to see around 10 meteors per hour at peak. Since the waxing crescent moon will set just after 1 a.m. EST, the skies will be perfectly dark for the showers. If weather proves to be a hindrance, you can catch Slooh’s live coverage of the event beginning at 9 p.m. EST with host astronomer Bob Berman.

Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower

A bright, earthgrazing Eta Aquarid meteor streaks across Perseus on May 6, 2013. Because the radiant is low for northern hemisphere observers, watch for earthgrazers – long, bright meteors that come up from near the horizon and have long-lasting trails. (Credit: Bob King via Universe Today)

If you’re unable to catch the Comet Halley debris this time, don’t worry. Earth will again pass through the Halley dust stream during the Orionid meteor showers in October. Additionally, skywatchers are expected to witness the birth of a brand new meteor shower caused by comet LINEAR on May 23-24! If predictions hold true, 200 to 400 meteors per hour will shoot across the sky in a remarkable celestial display in contention for the strongest showers of the year and maybe even our lives!

If music awes and inspires you, here is a playlist I compiled intended to capture the experience of being awestruck. Stay starry-eyed, my friends!