Category Archives: Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

Exploring science and how it enlightens the humanities

Where we are now.

Could not find a direct source – this is the 24 mile bridge crossing Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana We have a long way to go..

Late last year, a nasty bundle of RNA began to invade the people of Hubei province. It was a swift and deadly invasion and the authorities responded with a resolute desire to contain the outbreak as quickly as possible. This is the lesson of history as each time we are faced with a virulent host we find time and control is of the essence; regardless of where or why the invasion began. The 1918 influenza, Ebola, Swine flu, SARS, MERS, all had different places of origin on our globe, different paths to becoming transmittable between humans. Yet the answer was the same–buy time until researchers can get solid science to deal with the invader. Or, you could just let a lot of people die.

If we are to beat this newest tiny monster, there are some actions we need to take. Actions that are working elsewhere and which we, in all our individualistic, me-me society, need to get a grasp on. First, a few facts. No, the media is not inflating the numbers, if anything the numbers are under reported. We do not have the materials, lab capacity, and healthcare professionals to do the testing required to truly know the scope of the pandemic in the United States. And that was our first mistake. As of now we are aware of seven strains of COVID-19. Four are relatively mild, three are deadly. Effective testing means we must be able to differentiate between the strains, especially when there is reinfection, or reemergence.

Yes, isolation has “flattened the curve” and although there are places in the country (such as New York) where the cases are still rising and health care workers and first responders are at their limits, there is also evidence that we are beginning to bring the infection rate down. That does not mean we can all rush out and do a group hug. If, however, we are to be successful in an attempt to restart life with some amount of success (news flash, things will not be “normal” for a very long time), then we need to find effective ways to accomplish three things: test (as noted above), track, and treat.

Some of the states are already forming coalitions and coops to accomplish goal number one: getting enough supplies, materials, and equipped labs to test every single person and to do so more than once using reliable protocols. Say, on a periodic basis, or after or before a possible vector encounter. Testing is how other countries were able to hop onto outbreaks quickly and effectively. Our country never really bothered to get started, and as of this date the United States is reporting 29% of confirmed cases worldwide, and 22% of the fatalities. COVID-19 hides. Even if you don’t have so much as a sniffle or a slightly elevated fever, you could be carrying the virus and be fully contagious. This is one of the reasons this beast is so difficult to control. You don’t know you are risking others (hoping, here, that you care).

Tracking means that when we know someone is infected, we find out where they’ve been and who may have been exposed. This is a critical step for the same reasons given for testing. You don’t always KNOW you have this virus. Depending on which strain you have and the health profile of the persons you interact with, any number of levels of severity can result from your casual need to, say, visit the beach.

Treatment is an issue that labs around the world are working on. Even if we can’t kill this thing (yet) we may be able to find palliative ways to reduce the impacts of the virus. The earlier such treatments can be started, the better the chance of survival. Such treatments could also reduce residual complications. Survivors are showing evidence of damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys, and liver. These problems can mean a lifetime of health care which may or may not be covered by insurance. Another financial bomb on families already stressed from loss of income and a possible drain on any economic recovery.

These three things can buy us time to develop a safe and effective vaccine. Something that will protect us from this family of viruses. I won’t go into any arguments about vaccines on this blog. I can tell you I grew up in a time when measles could be deadly, when polio could kill on infection or years later, when scarlet fever could damage a heart for life. If we do the right things to give the researchers the time they need, any vaccine developed will be tested for safety, side effects, effectiveness, and dosage. The published target is 18 months. The fastest we have ever developed a vaccine was for the mumps and it took four years. The good thing is that the best labs in the world are collaborating on this effort. Such an effort is historical in scope. No, we can’t all stay on lock down for four years, people would starve, and things would get really ugly. That is why the three points mentioned above are so crucial: test, track, treat.

This means that you should support your local governments in the formation of plans that make sense and protect lives. Some industries (such as folks that work outside and have little contact with others) could restart, offices could further develop remote work models, healthcare can rely more on telehealth and telemedicine. Rather than trying to cram as many bodies in one space as possible, we can learn to spread out, wear masks, wash hands, be aware of fevers and coughs. We need to look seriously at payrates, sick leave, and employee protections. People need the option to go home when they are ill. Things will not “return to normal” in a month. We must find a new way to grow and sustain our economy. For that we need leadership.

This is part one of my COVID-19 outreach. Both are long winded but weeks of watching this catastrophe build has driven me to state, and stand by, a position. Maybe this virus started in a lab, maybe not. The only thing origin gives us now is more knowledge which may speed up a response. Beating up on a Chinese neighbor is not going to stop the pandemic. Wishing the disease on the people you feel responsible (or irresponsible) will not stop the pandemic. What will conquer this tiny foe is cooperation, compassion, mutual support. We can build a new society, one that is healthy and economically sound. But it will take us all. Every one of us.



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Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Personal Journeys

Review ~ Where did it Begin?

Origins, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth by Robert Shapiro, less than $10


Science: knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation. (Merriam Webster)

Seems simple enough. The field of science is something that we know and learn through watching and testing. Predicting things that should happen and then running experiments to see if that is, indeed, what happens. This is why, even though science has its own battles with dogma and conflicting theories, there comes a time when it self-corrects. When the data and the predictability come together and we have what we can call knowledge.

And I love to watch that process. Some of my heroes are physicists, well, maybe a lot of them. People like Michio Kaku, Sean Carrol, Brian Greene, Steven Hawking and so many others that look at the universe as a great big romper room waiting to be discovered. Some evidence hints of faith, some shake their heads with a shrug and a whatever. But they all pursue truth as best they can wherever it leads them. And they don’t get in a twist when questioned. They operate in a field where everything they know may be turned on its head with the next discovery so they research and build and test with whatever tools they have. I have longed for the same kind of dialog in the biological sciences.

One of the reasons I chose this book was because I wanted to know just where we were in the field of evolutionary biology. The book is dated. Copyrighted in 1986 it lacks the progress made for nearly 30 years and that is a lot of time in science. There are many lines of inquiry presented in the book that I would (and probably will) follow up on in order to see what progress we have made. For instance, in 2009 John Sutherland and his team at the University of Manchester were able to synthesize the basic ingredients of RNA. Whether or not the process followed could occur naturally is still, of course, being researched.

The point is that there are as many unsolved issues in the field of evolutionary biology as there are in physics. Maybe more. Who’s to know? The frustrating thing is that questions about this science are often met with derision and comments about myths vs. science. But that isn’t the reason I’m asking.

I liked this book because Shapiro walks through the science of where we have been and where we were as of that time and why some of the things appeared to work and some were, well, just not getting us there. Just to be clear, we do know a great deal about how lifeforms change and modify based on the environment and the needs of everything from climate to culture. We can show how some things evolve and we are deep into research about the story our DNA tells about the past. No, we don’t have all the answers and that’s the point, isn’t it? Science is science when the same, predictable result can be duplicated by someone else with consistency. Self-correcting.

Shapiro steps through the history of our search for that spark that started non-organic chemicals down the path to life. Yes, he discusses the history of conflicts between Creationism and Science on the issue but he does not do it in a manner to disparage faith. He only wants to present what makes science and what is required to test a theory. He was, actually, not all that sold on the ruling paradigm at the time the book was written, leaning more in the direction of a minority opinion on what started the engine. It certainly was interesting reading a text that was looking forward to some of the advances we have made in the past 30 years by visiting Mars with the rovers, as well as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn with our probes.

Is it important that we one day find the scientific roots of our creation? I actually do believe so. Ever since man could think he has sought knowledge about the whys and hows of his existence. He has wondered about his place in the universe from both an egocentric and an insignificant-mite point of view. We are creatures, creations, of reason. Capable of looking out at the place we find ourselves and wondering. There must be a reason, from somewhere or someone, we became so. If you are a believer, in something or someone, most of the ancient scriptures I have seen admonish the faithful to seek knowledge, to learn, to observe the place in which we find ourselves and to grow in wisdom.

Check out Mr. Shapiro. He is not afraid to challenge the science of the day or to ask questions about what we know and why. He may help you put some of those pieces in place.

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Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Current times, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

Reflections ~ Beachcombing & Keeping Upright

It has been months since I made it to the beaches a bare 30 miles from my front door. This weekend I had incentive. One of my “hospice friends,” who has become a very dear post-hospice friend, was visiting. She, her granddaughter, and husband were staying in Westport for a few days and, yes, she would love to see my new home. Hubby was crabbing and on his own adventure. We “girls” had the afternoon to ourselves. What more enticement could I need?

Catching the tail end of lunch, I arrived in time to go see the lighthouse. How a not-quite 3-year-old had managed to get this visit well seated in her mind is hard to say but this is one bright cookie. After spending the day with her and Oma, I quite understand. Everything is a door to learning. Absolutely everything. And once you begin to interpret the strange language of a 3-year-old chatterbox, the responding questions are also quite interesting. Oma never missed a beat to show, to teach, to open doors in a very young mind.

Sadly, we could not climb the 135 steps to the top of the lighthouse. One must be 40 inches tall and over 5 years old. One of our party did not qualify. (Secretly, I would have been better off not knowing about 135 steps until after I got back down). But we still had fun and managed to get our Discover Pass marked up for the vehicle we were driving. Next stop, the beach. While Oma and her granddaughter focused on sand castles, I took a long, long leisurely walk in the surf – no footwear required.

For those of us that did not grow up on the beach, the incoming tide is something you must adjust to. Having the moving water swirl around you, and the sand beneath your feet “dissolve,” can upset your equilibrium a bit until you adjust. I tend to want to list to the right a bit. But, once you have your “surf legs,” letting the tide come and go around you, sharing the heartbeat of the globe, can be one of the most relaxing experiences this world of ours has to offer. I think it is like dancing standing still. And I never dance with my shoes on.

Some of the “smile moments” from my afternoon.

Waves. We have learned so much in the past several centuries about the mathematics of waves. How they come to be, move, change, fade away only to be replaced with other waves, some less complex than others, but never simple.  I think that to understand consciousness, individuality, “me-ness,” we will first need to understand waves wherever they appear and in whatever form they take.




Sometimes surfing requires a helping hand, a veteran, to lead the way. Sometimes you’ve learned enough to test the waves on your own.




Life is an adventure. The greatest and perhaps hardest lesson to learn is to approach it with the joy, wonder, and determination of a child, and the wisdom of age and experience.

Girl on beach



Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Personal Journeys

Reviews ~ How Old is This?

Bones, Rocks and Stars by Chris Turney Available for $12 -25.


As I unpack all those books we’ve had for years I find treasures that I meant to read but, well, never got around to. It’s like Christmas in my house these days. This title is one I probably acquired through a book club. It was purchased to answer a question an avid history nut, such as myself, finds perplexing – how do we know how to date things?

This is no easy question in the world of historical and archeological investigation. It gets even touchier when we talk about the age of the earth, the universe, or the advent of man. For instance, you may hear something like, radiocarbon dating is unreliable. Fine, but why, and when? I felt it was time that I read the science and left the media hype to the tabloids and those with specific agendas. This book opened that door, and in an entertaining way. A lot of science, but an easy read.

Before I address the book itself, I would like to posit a thought. I have friends and followers with varying positions on evolution, creationism, and all the emotional baggage on both sides. I’ve been there, and reading up on the science is part of what gave me some sense of clarity.

For those who are more concerned with scriptural interpretations, I’d like to point out a few things that helped me. There are several chapters in Job where God puts forth on the wonders of the natural world. They are introduced with the question, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” Yes, indeed. The message in these passages burned in my heart was – don’t make assumptions. Look to creation for your answers, there is a reason things work the way they do.

Fast forward to New Testament times and the apostle Paul (whatever his reputation may be) and we find in Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (New American Standard). Again, things evident in nature are meant to tell a story. There are many more similar references.

So, why the mini-sermon? Because if I am to believe that we have some direction, that the ancient holy books of our species have something to say about the place we find ourselves and what we should do about it, then I have to believe that there is value in what is said. My thought is this. If we are admonished to look to nature for the creative power within — if the ancients of many religions tell us to look, to see, to contemplate the marvels before us—then why should we expect something other than truth? Should we expect to find an “appearance of age” to mislead us? Should we find things that are not what they appear to be? Man’s knowledge is not perfect. However, we do have the ability to seek, to find, to follow where the evidence leads. What’s more, I sincerely believe we are commanded to do so.

Thus, we get to the book. How do we date things? Turney leads the reader through a step by step process of what amounts to the history of sorting out just how old things are. Starting with how we date things using calendars, and how we convert ancient historical documents to modern calendars to get a sense of time. He describes the fascinating science of dendrochronology: the use of tree rings to count the years and study climate changes. Comparing these records with journals and legends we can better understand when events occurred and some of the reasons a culture changed or died out.

He carefully explains how we compare the ratios of compounds in samples, check for luminescence, uranium content and even radiocarbon dating. Yes, it is true, radiocarbon dating has it limits. Due to the half-life of the Carbon 14 atom it is only accurate to somewhere near 40,000 years. I also learned that these methods work not because of one test, but because of a series of tests in and around a sample to plot curves in order to reduce the chance of contamination skewing the sample.

The steps taken on specific claims show how the frauds are discovered, and how science corrects itself. He speaks with clarity and provides headline cases and inside adventures to show the reader how the conclusions were constructed. How we learned and how our knowledge is growing.

We live in an incredible universe of unbelievable wonder. Our own history is filled with lessons, information, wisdom that we cannot ignore. If we do not put these events in proper context, we cannot learn, we cannot be all that we are created to be. Check out “the science of when things happened.” I think you will find much to contemplate.

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Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Before Current Era, My Bookshelf ~ Current Era, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

The Wave

It was supposed to be a simple book review. Read the book, jot a few notes, and off we go. Of course the book was 563 pages long, but nobody was going to stick around for the encyclopedic version, after all, they could just buy the book. In addition to the text there were 142 pages of notes and index. How does one make that interesting? Well, something happened on the way to solving The God Problem (by Howard Bloom). But, then, that’s what reading is all about.

Book stores are magical places, at least in my opinion. Browsing through the aisles of a well-stocked bookstore, new or used, small or large, is like shopping for the door into summer (bows to Heinlein). You are surrounded by worlds created by the human mind, fantasy, perceptions of reality, scary, comforting, educational, or just plain fun. It is an antechamber to a whole collection of universes real, and imagined. It is my favorite indoor place.

I rarely approach a trip to a real book store with something specific in mind. Shopping for particular titles is something anyone can do with a computer now days; but to browse, to wander, to explore – that must occur with book in hand. And this was such a book. How can one resist such a title? I surely couldn’t. Knowing that the point of view was going to be a lack of faith, I decided to take the plunge. And I found magic. Magic that made sense to me, whether or not I chose to be a person of faith. This then, is my adventure into a magical place, a place where the cosmos creates, invents, grows, becomes.

Since I was quite young I have had the Second Law of Thermodynamics pounded into my head. This is used to explain that evolution can’t happen because things become less organized through the force of entropy. Therefore there has to be a creating hand. Well, I had a problem with that, not for the reason you might think, but because I didn’t see a common slide “downhill” or to “disorganization.” I saw purpose. I saw renewal, I saw great spirally galaxies, star factories, things that grew and reached for the light.

Oh, but wait, you say, dust to dust, erosion, volcanoes, hurricanes, novae. What do you do with that? I see it become new life, feed new plants, replenish failing minerals, creating the elements required for life itself. Out of catastrophe I saw the potential for greater things. I found a kindred spirit. He led me to the heart of the birth of the cosmos and introduced the simplest rules. He redefined the idea of a wave, and I traveled far, far away.

A wave is not really a “thing.” A wave is something that is made up of the “things” that are present at that point, then it moves on. Always made up of different molecules, different floating bits, but still the wave traveling at whatever speed across vast distances.

I am a wave, a wave made up of the atoms, cells and molecules that make up my body today. Fed by what I eat, mentally fed by what I read and learn, discard or add to my own view of the cosmos around us. I exist as a changing flow of thoughts, atoms, cells, bits and pieces. How easy, to be a wave and allow the cosmos to guide me on the path.

If you want to learn why A does not equal A and why 1 plus 1 may not equal 2 – come play, we’ll be waiting.

God Prob


Filed under My Journey with Job, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

Book Review ~ The Universe of the Mind

The Future the Mind, by Michio Kaku $21.40

the-future-of-the-mind-sidebarI personally could not wait for this book to be released. First of all, Michio Kaku, as a theoretical physicist, is one of my super heroes. Second, the whole subject of mind and consciousness and whatever it is that is going on up there fascinates me.

The book was all I expected and much more. Kaku walks through the physics and the neurology of what we know about the brain, how it works, what makes things go wrong, and what makes things work better than the general population. The book is a thorough layman’s guide to where we are in the study of the brain and all the things it does, or doesn’t, do. And then there is the Appendix!

What about free will? If our actions can be traced to some function or non-function within our mind, then how do we know we really have free will? Is everything really guided by predisposition? In his appendix, Kaku addresses how the new scientific discoveries explore both sides of the issue. Are people really helpless in their choices and the best we can do is rehabilitate or confine them? Is punishment a non-starter?

According to an experiment performed by Dr. Benjamin Libet in 1985, it’s possible that free will is, at the very least, not what we expect. Using EEG scan, Dr. Libet was able to determine that the brain actually makes the decision to do something prior to the conscious choice to do it. In other words, we do not act on a conscious decision, we follow along with what the brain has already decided.

What does stir the process is what we know of quantum mechanics. When the probability of something being there or not becomes a factor, then our lives are not necessarily predestined, or predetermined. There is an element of change and probability in the picture that makes us individual and less predictable.

One of my favorite cuts from Dr. Kaku was in a Through the Wormhole episode on consciousness. He discusses the same concept in the appendix of this book. It begins with Schrodinger’s Wave Function, which won him the Nobel Prize. The math indicated that an electron could be a particle or a wave. But if it is a wave, what was it waving? Sorting this out is how Werner Heisenberg arrived at his uncertainty principle. However, Schrodinger was having none of it; the universe did not operate on probabilities. Schrodinger, wishing he had never come up with his wave function, created a thought experiment involving a cat.

Place a cat in a sealed box, with a container of poison gas. In the box, there is a lump of uranium. The uranium atom is unstable and emits particles that can be detected by a Geiger counter. The counter triggers a hammer, which falls and breaks the glass, releases the gas, which can kill the cat.

According to quantum mechanics, we do not know whether or not the uranium has decayed and started a sequence that will kill the poor kitty. We don’t know until we open the box and observe (take a measure) the state of the cat. This is why we say that until that moment of observation, the cat is neither dead nor alive because a possibility exists for both – until the moment of measurement. Only then does the probability wave collapse into one wave – the observed state. Food for many years of theoretical debate. There were three schools of thought developed in answer to this paradox.

My preferred path was developed in 1967 by Eugene Wigner. He arrived at the conclusion that only a conscious person can make the observation that collapses that wave. However, if the observer and the cat are in the same universe, then who is to say that the observer is dead or alive? Therefore there must be another conscious observer – ad infinitum. Eventually you arrive at some form of “cosmic consciousness,” better known in some circles as God. Or, maybe a living, conscious universe, creating, measuring, keeping kitties healthy.

Wigner’s conclusion was that it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum theory in any consistent way without reference to some form of consciousness. Someone, great or small, had to be the observer for the wave to collapse in some form of existence. This does not mean that consciousness controls reality – it only means that the act of observing (measuring) reduces the probability wave into a single wave of reality.

Some people feel that the study of the mind is somehow sacrilege. I beg to differ. Time and time again in ancient sacred works, including the bible of the Christian world, we are told to observe. To look within the wonders of the universe to see the beginnings of our answers. To seek our truths. The more we know, the more we wonder.

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What sparks the flame of human ingenuity ~ how do we create?

A history lesson, courtesy of James Burke, a British science historian.  War and the art of destruction is, sadly, one of the largest and most effective generators of innovation.  The art of war in Europe had waddled through a number of changes over the centuries and by the time of Napoleon, inventions in armory and developments in strategy had created armies that were quite large.  While solving some problems, size created others. Napoleon was nearly stopped in his plans to conquer Europe before he got started.  In 1800 he was faced with a large and well trained army of Austrians and was close to losing the battle when one of his divisions came galloping over the hill to save the day.  The reason they were not in camp?  They were foraging for food. The French were not able to purchase from the locals because French money was worthless; so they had to find it for themselves.  Also, a lot of time goes into foraging for large armies that are on the move.  Enter the Champagne bottle.


Courtesy Jean-Paul Barbier
Wikimedia Commons

When Napoleon returned to France he set up the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry, which offered prizes for the development of anything that could be commercially exploited.  One of these inventions was the use of Champagne bottles to preserve food.  A nifty little trick invented by Nicolas Appert.  Problem solved.  By the time the idea made it to London, Bryan Donkin and John Hall (1810) developed a way of manufacturing tin cans for the new process. Tin cans went everywhere in war and exploration, but, eventually, the inevitable happened.  A soldier in the Crimean war opened a can to eat a bit of meat only to find it spoiled.  The current canning process included heating the container, but things were a bit foggy on the how hot and how long. In this case the spoilage was blamed on “Bad Air” or swamp air. Off we go on medical explorations of “Bad Air” and its impact on disease.

John Gorrie was a doctor in Florida who dealt with malaria (or yellow fever).  He decided the best way to cure his patients was to clear the room of the hot humid air – the swamp air.  How does one cool air?  There were many starts and stops in this direction.  Refrigeration was actually achieved as early as 1748; however it wasn’t until 1844 when Gorrie, using another American’s design (Jacob Perkins) tried very hard to freeze his patients. Sadly, he was not terribly successful in marketing his invention, nor his cure.

Meanwhile, off to Bavaria where Germans were not permitted (by law) to make beer during the summer months.  This was because the yeast curing on the bottom of the vat would not cure unless near freezing.  What is one to do?  Make bigger cooling machines. By using compressed ammonia, the vats could be cooled sufficiently to brew beer all year long.  You see, as the container expands, the liquid ammonia grabs energy (heat) from the surrounding air/water and cools it.

This led to work on liquid gases and the discovery that when certain gases are released from a secure container, and given spark, they go boom. But where does one find such a container?  In a lunch box.  In 1892 Sir James Dewar came up with the ubiquitous thermos bottle.  This was basically two flasks, one inside of the other sealed together after evacuating most of the air between the layers.  This prevents heat transfer by conduction or convection and preserves, for some period of time, the temperature of the contents.  Now, scientists and inventors could experiment with all sorts of forms of liquid gas.

Back to booms.  The two most effective gases which, when released in their compressed, liquid form, and mixed during the process of evaporation, are hydrogen and oxygen.  Hermann Oberth, a German working for Hitler during World War II, built successfully on the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1903) and Robert Goddard (1882-1945) and created the V-2 rocket that terrorized the Allies and plagued London with the blitz. But the technology did not stop there.

Oberth continued to develop the use of liquid gas, the process which fueled the rockets when the United States began its race to the moon.  It was his technology that sent the Saturn V rockets clawing through the air against the gravity of earth.


Apollo 11 lift off
Courtesy Apollo Archive

From looking for effective ways to feed the armies of the early 1800s to the missiles and moon missions of the 1900s, invention and creativity took one turn after another.  Wandering through blind alleys, using incredible breakthroughs as parlor entertainment, misconceptions and a desire for cold beer, creativity landed in the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969.

Creativity, inspiration, the “buzz” of the times, the unbridled exploration of new ideas and processes, no one man (or woman) creates alone.  We tend to simplify our history and focus on one figure or moment as a watershed; the precise time when something happened.  The more you read the more you begin to realize that the brilliant minds among us are the most adapt at finding patterns in all that went before them and combining that work into the inspiration of the moment. It’s a process I’ll never tire of watching.


Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

My Journey with Job ~ Who then, is my Friend?

Courtesy Commons.  Some rights reserved by

Courtesy Commons. Some rights reserved by

My growing network is quite aware that I am working on a second book.  One that is far closer to the writings my husband encouraged for so many years.  The years, that is, before dementia took him away from me.  He has a Ph.D. in philosophy and a Masters or two in math and science.  He devoted much of his life learning how we think so that he could teach machines how to think.  He is also a half-breed of sorts having been raised by a devout Catholic mother and a committed Jewish father.  Honed by both the Jesuits and the rabbis, his quite brilliant mind led him to a life of wonder at the workings of the universe, both great and small, and in an ongoing debate with a God he loved but constantly challenged.  He was, in many ways, my own private Job.

I don’t say this because he experienced anything like what happens in this passage of scripture.  I say this because he sought answers from the source.  He would look at available information.  He would compare the current wisdom.  When it was all said and done he refused to solidify his own opinion until he had pushed his knowledge as close to the source of the query as he could.  He never stopped looking until the disease robbed him of the ability to think logically.

My own journey with Job started many years ago.  Many of the things that I had become convinced of were discussed way into the night as I came to know my husband and as we shared our mutual wonder.  Debating with such a mind was refreshing, intriguing and challenging.  It meant that simple answers, stock answers, were not going to stand up.  It meant that I had to really explore the whys of my thoughts and construct reasonable arguments to support them.  As time went on he insisted I should write.  Now that he no longer knows I am, I do.

I have begun to introduce some of the thoughts contained in my new book on this blog. There is a glimpse into my thoughts in a blog discussing Dr. Erhman’s book, God’s Problem.  In order to write the book, Why Me? Come Let us Reason with Job, I have returned to research mode.  Do my ideas still stand?  Has life changed my mind, given me different perspectives?  Are the quotes and sources I knew from so many years ago accurate in my memory?  So, I am driven back to basic research.  I am finding that my core beliefs have not changed.  I am spending the time necessary to collect historical, religious and philosophical interpretations.  To learn what I can of the writing of the piece, of what supporting evidence there is for the when or who of the passage.  However, those things that speak to me have not changed.  As I develop the manuscript I will invite my readers to see what those treasured thoughts are and why I think they are so very important.  For the full debate, however, you’ll have to buy the book.  For this week’s contribution I thought I would explore who, then, is my friend?

I believe that this is one of the pillars of the lessons from Job.  We, as the audience, are informed at the very beginning that Job is a blameless man.  He is an upright man that avoids evil and watches over his family faithfully.  It is made clear to us, the observers, that the events that are about to take place are not due to any failure on his part to meet the requirements of a demanding or loving God.  Why then, have we spent millennium trying to sort out the arguments of his friends seeking some answer to his questions?  They want to blame him.  The more he questions his situation, the more adamant they become.  They are certain he is filled with unclean thoughts and intentions because there is no other way for them to find a “cause” for the “effect” they see before them.  This debate takes up a great deal of the poem.  God’s response to this tirade?  “Who is this who darkens counsel, Speaking without knowledge?”  (Job 38:2 from Tanakh, a translation by the Jewish Publication Society).  Job’s friends actually get in a lot of hot water and are commanded to go to him in order to have a sacrifice performed for their forgiveness.

Even after millennium of debate over “the purposes of suffering” the answer still rings in my ears:  “Who darkens my council?”  Obviously, my new book would be rather shallow if it didn’t offer some of the substance of this debate, and it does.  I use writings from Jewish and Christian writers who formed the foundation of our modern thought on the matter as well as more modern interpretations.  I also explore the response to human suffering from other cultures and religious practices.  In what I hope is a conversational tone I lead my reader through the history of what we have thought about the book so that I can better show how I arrived at my conclusions.  Occasionally, I find a glimmer of those thoughts.  Or, something I strongly believe hiding in the midst of things that make me shake my head.  Here is a bit of what I take away from “Job’s friends.”

It doesn’t really matter what Job has done or not done to “deserve” his current circumstances.  That is made abundantly clear in the very first scenes.  But Job’s friends, much like our own, out of fear or even arrogance are certain sure they know the cause.  We live in a world where the vagaries of nature, violence, and general human sorrow keep us asking “Why?”  And, just like Job’s friends, there is always someone (or many) who is absolutely certain that the problem at hand is due to some infraction of some universal law.  While such an individual is so terribly busy coming up with reasons why, they are missing a fundamental point.

Deep in my heart I believe that the lesson of Job’s friends is that the question is not just “Why?”  The questions should also be “what” and “where.”  What is happening and where can I help? In Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus is asked “Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?”  His answer?  Love God and love one another, on these two commandments hang the whole law and the prophets. This is not a new covenant law.  It is a quote of the law found in Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18.   Job’s friends never got beyond the debate.  They never looked at Job as a friend in need.  That was their gravest error and, to me, one of the most important lessons of the whole book.

It is not a thought to take lightly.  In Matthew 25:31-46 a scene is described in a somewhat familiar passage that discusses the separation of the sheep from the goats.  Take note that the test of who is which is not who prayed more, sinned less, or preached more.  It says nothing about how many souls you tried to save from abortion, misguided life styles or the evils of sin, sex and money (or lack thereof).  The defining qualification is this: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me. …in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” (New Jerusalem translation)  It’s not about blame.  It’s about doing what is needed when it is needed.

Some years ago in a previous marriage, my husband, our business partner and I were preparing for a number of guests at our home for the 4th of July weekend.  The three of us were developing a place situated on acreage where people could come away for awhile and rest; a place of reflection.  Our partner was an integral part of our little family, living in his own trailer but spending much of his time with us.  Due to a lifetime of alcohol abuse, his too-young body finally gave out and in the middle of the pre-celebration night he died of a massive coronary arrest.  There was no way to change our plans, in fact they grew more complex because now we had a memorial to plan as well.

The following morning, as I was preparing for the guests that were about to arrive, a very dear friend of mine called.  She communicated her condolences and added the usual, “If there’s anything I can do to help.”   With a sigh I said I felt like we had most things under control, I just had to figure out how to get our house cleaned and his trailer prepared for his daughter’s arrival.  Her response?  “When do you want me there?”

What kind of story would we have if Job’s friends had arrived, stayed with him during the seven days of grieving, and then stood up and said, “Where do we start?”  “Job, can we help your wife bury your children?” “Would you like us to find who is left of your household and secure your property?” “Is there something left in the fields we can have harvested in support of your wife?”  Scripture being what it is we often find a record of what we do, rather than what we should do.  But in the telling of those things we are prone to do, there is a point when we can see what we should do.  Who then is your friend, your neighbor, your brother or sister?  Sometimes it is important how an individual gets into a predicament.  More often than not it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is what we do about it.

I would like to add a few links to organizations that have impressed me.  Reaching out and touching a life can be as simple as a donation online, or a smile on the street.  It doesn’t have to involve money, sometimes it is just a bit of time that’s needed.  Learn to become sensitive to those who are around you and you just might catch that incredible moment when what you have to offer is exactly what a fellow being needs.

WHD2013What is Habitat for Humanity International?

  • A nonprofit, Christian housing ministry that believes that every man, woman and child should have a decent, safe and affordable place to live.
  • We build and repair houses all over the world using volunteer labor and donations.
  • Our partner families purchase these houses through no-profit, no-interest mortgage loans or innovative financing methods.

Heifer International

Heifer currently provides over 30 types of animals to families in need in more than 40 countries, including the U.S.

footer_logoThe Rose International Fund for Children

The primary mission of The Rose International Fund for Children ( is to improve the lives of children in Nepal, particularly those who have a disability.

streetchildren_homeThe Bart D. Ehrman Foundation is a not-for-profit organization whose overarching purpose is to raise money for charities devoted to poverty, hunger, and homelessness. All money collected from membership fees is given over to charities devoted to helping those in need.

And one of my personal favorites:  The Songs of Kiguli project.  This is an effort to publish the works of primary school children in Uganda so that they can fund improvements to the school and build the character necessary to lead their nation into the future.

Vigorous debate is always appreciated; however I will not post flame or outright attacks.


Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Journey with Job, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

Reviews ~ Loving Science through the Eyes of a Theist

Where the Conflict Really Lies  by Alvin Plantinga, available in hard cover for around $25.00

conflictSome time ago I decided that I would make it a goal to “go back to school.”  This time I intend to study in a subject area that I never had time for while I was building a career in accounting and business management.  I intend to study philosophy.  I find the subject of thinking on how we think wonderfully absorbing.  Part of that wonder is how we view the universe and how much we are only now beginning to understand.  Consequently, when I run across someone who seems to think that the word “lobotomy” and the word “theist” are interchangeable; well, I find it odd. Depending on the circumstances I may even consider it amusing.

Recently I was watching the series, Stephen Hawking’s Universe.  There is a segment in one of the episodes where the work of Monsignor George Lemaitre is discussed.  If you do not recognize the name, Monsignor Lemaitre was the first astronomer and physicist to postulate the “primeval atom.”  (Hoyle’s Big Bang).  Another physicist had a similar idea based on Einstein’s relativity equations, but it was Lemaitre that realized what the actual proof of his theory would be.  He was, basically, looking for Hubble’s results.  He was an avid proponent of the theory of an expanding universe and argued long and hard with such luminaries as Einstein against the steady state universe.  He made sure he was present at the Mount Wilson observatory to discuss Hubble’s new findings about the expanding universe while Einstein was there.  The Catholic official now responsible for caring for Lemaitre’s papers and research said something I found much to my own liking.  There are two ways for science and religion to have a conversation.  One is sitting at the table together and attempt to talk, in which case the conversation usually degenerates.  The other is for the religious to simply do good science.

And they have.  There is much ink spilled on the controversy between Galileo and the church.  The church had accepted the views of an ancient Greek as interpretation of scripture.  You may have heard of Ptolemy.  However, Galileo was a devote Catholic and his faith was not shaken by his great discoveries.  Kepler, Newton, Einstein, and many, many others had no issue being theists of one brand or another and still have the drive to know all they could know about the universe in which we live. Many of the men of science that did so much to build the foundations of what we know today were in pursuit of what they saw as the mind of God.  This tradition is still going on.  There will always be those who choose to be willfully blind, whatever their world view may be.  In Plantinga I found a kindred spirit and a thinker that was perfectly comfortable in a universe where arduous scientific investigation can co-exist with a belief in some form of a “Prime Mover.”  Plantinga writes from the world view of a Christian.

Where the Conflict Realty Lies develops Plantinga’s position that there is only superficial conflict between science and religion, but very deep conflict between science and naturalism.  He has no beef with evolution; only unguided evolution.  His philosophical point of view is that it is very difficult to build a case that purely random, natural selection would select for a reasoning, rational mind.  If the whole focus of evolution is survival and the propagation of the species, then what purpose does the development of mathematics, physics, set theory, and other abstract thoughts serve which are so fundamental to advanced sciences today?  Where does Bach and Mozart come in?  What survival instinct do the arts protect and preserve?  Evolution based purely on natural selection is not forward looking, it does not anticipate need; it reacts to current changes and accidents of mutation.  Even using the proven theories of adaptability (a change in a complex organism becomes permanent because it can be adapted to other uses) does not completely explain the human drive to explore, to build, …to think.

Then there is the question of why we should come to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable?  Just because we can train an animal to respond in a certain way given certain cues, what gives the sentient human being that extra push to “seek that which is true?”  What helps us sort through what to believe as true?  I know the scientist will say that it is experience and experiment.  We can duplicate circumstances and we KNOW this to be true.  However, sometimes we find out we didn’t have the whole picture.  And sometimes the only proof is what we can deduce and calculate that appears to successfully predict future outcomes.  I believe without hesitation that stars explode and in the process create the elements of which we are made.  I have not seen it happen.  I do not have a nuclear lab in my basement.  I know this to be true because I have seen the work of others (at least that part I understand) and that interpretation appears to fit what I know of the universe.  It does not impair my belief.  My belief makes my knowledge of these things all that more alive and gives the experience of learning a deeper richness.

Although there is a bit of probability mathematics here and there, Pantinga’s book is written for the serious layperson.  The thinker that wants to understand a bit more about what the argument really is.  It provides a basis for the thought process that accepts those things which have strong scientific support, but still looks further to test and stretch that knowledge.  It is the kind of conversation that allows a person to question points that are unresolved without being accused of refuting the whole field of inquiry.  Perhaps, in the end, Lemaitre’s admirer and curator is right.  The best way to have the conversation is for the theist to do good science.

Plantinga presents a strong case that allows the theist to sit down comfortably with the scientist and to mutually discover the wonders of this amazing universe.

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Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Current times, My Journey with Job, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

Reflections ~ Do You See What I See; Do I see What You See, Is It Really There?

This week I am going to share an epiphany. It didn’t help me completely solve the problem of the moment, but it did give me a clearer picture of what it would mean to be inside my husband’s head. It kept a situation from turning into another cycle of stress and emotional upheaval. I’m not sure how long this euphoric moment will last, but it is an insight worth sharing.

As with all insights, this one did not spring fully formed into my head; it was the result of accumulated information and experience that finally fell into some useful bit of realization. Ever since I have acknowledged my husband’s dementia (about two years now) I have been reading, searching, learning, watching and digging up every piece of relevant information I could find. This, of course, is part of the reason I wrote the book, Who I Am Yesterday. This week I took another step in understanding that incredible organ snuggled in our cranium called the brain.

The adult human brain weighs approximately 3 pounds, only 2% or less of our body weight. It consumes 25% of our intake of oxygen, 70% of the glucose we consume and 25% of any nutrients we consume. It contains some 100 billion neurons and somewhere around 100,000 miles of vessels, capillaries and other transport systems. Those vessels pump 1.5 pints of blood through the brain each minute. All those little neurons are connected through 1 quadrillion connections. Some 83% of the neurons are in the cerebral cortex which consists of 6 layers. The cerebral cortex is all bunched up on the surface of the brain so it will fit inside our craniums. Total surface area would stretch out to something like 16” X 22”. And that’s just the cognitive part.

Neuroscience has discovered much about how the brain operates, and we’ve only, well, scratched the surface. We are, however, learning how memories are formed, and how the brain can “rewrite” its own memory, change relationships between memories, burn some deeper than others, or forget everything all together. Memory, in fact, helps us build our perception of our future.  We are also learning something about what makes some of us geniuses, and what causes the truly brilliant mind to dance so closely to madness; or to fall completely under its spell.

I say all of this because how the brain works utterly fascinates me. Both because, at heart, I am a philosopher and because it shows me much of what my husband has been and what he is now. It gives me a perspective I would not otherwise enjoy. So, what, then, was my epiphany? How my husband “sees.”

Our brains do an incredible job of interpreting the world around us using our five senses. Everything we know, after all, starts with seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling and smelling. Although that input seems seamless to us it really isn’t. In order to save “storage space” and to process things quickly, our brains pick up pieces of what we see and convert that to a whole picture. And, while it seems instantaneous it actually does take a measurable amount of time between sensory input and mental interpretation. It also creates a “story” to inform you what the thing you see/hear/feel/taste/smell means and what you should do about it. There is only one problem with this marvelous creation – our brains lie. Yes really.

There are a number of ways this can happen. Let’s have just a bit of fun looking at ways this happens that you probably already know about but haven’t really thought of in this context. There are two specific areas I really want to address in this blog. One is how we see the plethora of colors, shapes, distances, and movements around us and form some idea of what it all means. The second is that when we “see” something, it is often only relevant when seen in a certain order. In other words, we can’t make sense of something that occurs when our attention is elsewhere or when our comprehension of the order of events is not correct.

Let us start with something simple and familiar, optical illusions. How we interpret pictures or objects is dependent on how our mind interprets the information. Here are two simple examples.

parallel lines

In this simple test you look at the graphic and determine if you see straight or curved lines. Does your brain bend the lines because it is fooled by the diagonals in the background? This is a familiar optical illusion, but effective in illustrating my point. Now, something a bit different.


Stare at the black light bulb for the count of 30 (not much more or the effect will last longer that you care for). When you look away you will see a “negative” of the image, a glowing light bulb.

Here is a different type of illusion, camouflage.   Can you find the owl in these pictures?


You will find these photos and similar challenges on Google here.

Here’s one more “test.” This is one that has been all over the web, Facebook included, so you may be familiar with it already. Problem is, if you know the trick you miss the message. So, here is a video to watch. I’ll wait.

Selective Attention Test

Now you know. When our attention is directed at a specific activity, we can completely miss critical pieces of information. This is one of the reasons why eye witnesses can be so unreliable. What you remember is based on your experience, what is important to you and how important the event is to you. Doesn’t that give “distracted driver” a whole new meaning! The story behind this test can be found here:

Bet you Didn’t Notice the Invisible Gorilla

These quick exercises are meant to show the reader that “seeing” is an interpretive act, even when we firmly believe we are in possession of all our faculties. Now imagine what happens when those faculties start to slip. What happens if we have a difficult time managing our visual input normally, when the brain begins to fail, our memory data banks are corrupted, or time becomes rather “mushy.” That, you see, is the other major element.

When you can no longer keep track of what comes before what or what causes what then what you see can be what your mind remembers from some other time or place. Here is the event that led me down this path this week. In our home we have a large window that looks out over our car port. The roof line allows a clear view of our car. My husband came to me in my office terribly concerned because he saw people in our car. A man and a woman. There was, of course, no one there. After I convinced him that nothing would happen to me, I put a coat on and went outside. I opened all the doors, crawled inside the car, closed the doors and locked them, then went around the car checking the locks. On the second trip I walked around the house while he watched me from the windows. Eventually the incident subsided. As I thought about it I realized that in his mind he could be seeing us. He could have been seeing me behind the wheel and him in the passenger seat just as we are several times a week. He had no way of sorting the sequence in his mind so any bit of motion would trigger his mind to “remember” something in a different way than what I saw to be clearly in error.

This gave me insight and a whole lot more patience than in previous situations that were similar. I suddenly realized that the people he sees and hears (even me in my many, many personas) are real in his brain. We are hardwired to trust that brain, it is supposed to keep us safe. What must it feel like when someone is trying to tell you that what you see and hear does not exist? What abyss yawns before you if you can’t trust your own senses?

This then, was my epiphany. I may not be able to come up with a satisfactory answer as to “where they went,” “why they are there,” or a thousand other questions that come up in our lives together. I will, however, get a lot further along in helping him through those moments if I don’t cast constant doubt on his interpretation of things. He will not change, he cannot understand the problem, and there is no reason to badger him about what he does or does not understand.

I think that there is a similar problem when dealing with schizophrenia. Dr. David Eagleman of the Baylor College of Medicine feels that many mental illnesses have to do with the inability of the brain to properly handle time. In other words, the individual loses the ability to correctly identify cause and effect. I feel that this is true, but that much of the problem also lies in the way the brain interprets input. What gets past our five senses is, to our brains, reality. Whether or not anyone else sees what we see, to us it is very, very real. I have learned that my husband’s innate ability to see patterns, to build mathematical representations of how we think in order to teach computers how to think is now betraying him. He sees patterns where they do not exist and, once they take up residence in his brain, they are real. His reality is teaching me patience with mine.

In the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” there is a scene where Dr. Nash is approached by a gentleman after one of his classes. He turns to one of his students and asks if the man is real. Once existence is established he jokes and indicates that it’s always safer to check. The more I learn about my husband the more I realize that he somehow managed to navigate a world that was constantly shifting and didn’t always have the same elements, occurrences, people or places that existed for those around him. I don’t know if that leaves you incredibly lonely or never at a loss for someone to talk to. I know that understanding something of his world makes mine a whole lot easier to live with.

As you may know, I’ve written a little book about our journey during the first year after his diagnosis of vascular dementia. It contains the story of how I came to acknowledge his condition and how I learned to cope with that and the realization that his world had always been a shade off center reality. I’m told there are many useful bits, a bit of sad, a bit of funny, and a lot of encouragement. Even those who are not presently dealing with dementia in the family or as a caregiver tell me they find things of value within its pages. It’s available on Who I Am Yesterday: A Path to Coping with a Loved One’s Dementia.


Filed under Caregiving Backstage, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Personal Journeys