Friday, December 29

The Stone

A Dutch singer/songwriter once wrote a song called De Steen (The Stone) which strikes me more as a poem.

Ik heb een steen verlegd in een rivier op aarde
I have moved a stone in a river on earth
Het water gaat er anders dan voorheen
The water travels different than before
De stroom van een rivier hou je niet tegen
The current of a river cannot be stopped
Het water vindt er altijd een weg omheen
The water will always find a way around it
Misschien eens gevuld door sneeuw en regen
Perhaps, when filled with snow and rain
neemt de rivier mijn kiezel met zich mee
the river will take my pebble with it
om hem dan glad en rond gesletente laten rusten in de luwte van de zee
to let it rest, polished and rounded, in the lee of the sea

Ik heb een steen verlegd in een rivier op aarde
I have moved a stone in a river on earth
Nu weet ik dat ik nooit zal zijn vergeten
Now I know I will never be forgotten
Ik leverde bewijs van mijn bestaan
I proved my existence
Omdat door het verleggen van die ene steen
Because of moving this single stone
de stroom nooit meer dezelfde weg zal gaan
the current will never take the same way again

Wednesday, December 27

Heatherwick Studio


More wonderful architecture can be found at http://www.heatherwick.com/

Tuesday, December 26

Confessions

I'm sorry to say, but I've done things that I regret this year. I'm not worried about the situations that I regret because I got hurt, because I can't change anything about that anymore. What bothers me are my faults towards other people, wether they have ever been bothered by it or not. I considered offering my apology to at least seven people, but just don't have the guts. I'm sorry. However, I did ask for the forgiveness of one person just now. By email. But I went about it thoroughly - he really deserved my apology - admitting that I have been a tart acting out of pure egoism. Because that's the truth, although I am ashamed of it. I'll try to do better next year.

I am sorry for not always trying to be sociable. I am sorry for disappointing at least one, but probably several people. My heart's just not in it. I am sorry for taking advantage of people who yielded to my wishes. You are too good to me. I am sorry for amplifying someone's pessimism, although she calls it realism. No more sarcasm for you, my friend. I am sorry for not being more nice, chatty, and charming towards one particular person. I'll try to make it up to you, and I hope you'll notice my efforts.

Sunday, December 24

To all the people

I'm not sure what to make of Christmas. It has little to do with the birth of baby Jesus, these days. And it's not about Santa Claus either. Is Christmas about family? Love? World peace? Is it an excuse to party and eat too much? None of these. Christmas is about all of them, or rather, it's what you want it to be. Christmas is no more than a vague but warm feeling that somehow got connected with a day in December. And in many ways, it's a wish for a better world - not just globally, but also on a more personal level. Because we can't help but hope. We can't help but imagine.

So here's to a bit more understanding and joy in the world. Here's to you. Have yourself a merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 21

Flaw

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. - G.K. Chesterton

I believe it is theoretically possible to be interested in anything. The difficulty of generating interest in a particular subject depends on a few things. First of all, I reckon imagination is essential. Amongst other things, I am interested in geology, because what happens inside the Earth fascinates me. But I wouldn't be if I would simply process the facts; I am only interested because I can use these facts to form a mental picture of the situation. Which in turn amazes me because of the beauty and apparent perfection it displays.

I have long thought that the reason of my interest for particular subjects is the fact that these can be understood by using your imagination to draw the bigger picture. But maybe this is true for everyone and every subject - perhaps I am interested because I can personally form a mental picture best in those fields. If I would have been more talented in imagining X than imagining Y, I would be more interested in X. It's not exactly the same as understanding the subject matter - I'd rather describe it as the mechanism you use in order to understand it. Some people process information visually, on a very basic and realistic level, which is like imagining a teapot or a trainstation. Others are able to grasp grammatical systems or mathematical equations. I don't know how, but they must be able to imagine it in some way. To see through the facts and see the bigger picture.

Persuasiveness is a second tool, one you are going to need in more difficult situations. And you'll need a lot of it, because you'll have to persuade yourself. If you can make yourself believe that a subject is truly interesting - Fascinating! Wonderful! - then you are. And to be able to do that, you first have to believe you can persuade yourself... But the difficulty of generating interest in a random subject is especially tied to your initial amount of interest - which I assume mainy depends on your imagination, plus your experiences. Unnecessary to point out, it will be more difficult to become interested in something you detest as opposed to something you just don't care about. Pure willpower and persistence are the keys.

Being able to generate interest because you want to be interested is a very useful ability. It could help you study your least favorite subjects; was your favorite subject at school more fun because it was easy, or easier because it was fun? Another example. If you are able to spot if the person you're talking to is genuinly showing interest, or just trying to make conversation, then other people might be able to tell if you're interested yourself, as well. Last but not least, I reckon a general interest in the world around us is very important for keeping an open mind.

The reason why I am telling you this, is the fact that I am painfully reminded of the fact that generating interest in some subjects is easier said than done. In my case, take maths. There is no doubt in my mind that mathematics is a fascinating science - and I am not being sarcastic. Why would there be mathematicians if maths was uninteresting, right? Let alone mathematical geniuses such as John Forbes Nash; Russel Crowes character in A Beautiful Mind was inspired by this Nobel Prize winner (see picture). I cannot imagine maths to be truly fascinating, but I can understand. Somebody able to grasp the fundamental patterns and the complexity behind it all will surely be swept away in amazement. But I can't. All I manage to find in the dizzying sequences of numbers and variables are rules. Crispy, dry, dead rules that crumble in my fingers at the first tricky problem I try to solve. There's a whole world behind those rules, but I can't see it. I am ashamed to say this, but I find maths dreary, highly unpleasant, and anxiety-inducing. And I am even more ashamed to admit that to this day, I haven't been able to change this attitude. In fact, I'm about to give up.

Monday, December 18

Winter

Today feels like the first day of winter. I haven't seen one flake of snow yet, but there's more to winter than frozen water. Winter is breathing the cold air and being glad you've put your gloves on - the ones that don't cover your fingers entirely, so you can feel the cold of your bike's metal frame. Blue skies and frosted windows. I wonder what's next.

Saturday, December 16

A thought experiment

"We have the answer. It is our existence. The fact that we exist is proof that God is motivated to act in some way. And since only the challenge of self-destruction could interest an omnipotent God, it stands to reason that we . . .”
I interrupted the old man in midsentence and stood straight up from the rocker. It felt as if a pulse of energy ran up my spine, compressing my lungs, electrifying my skin, bringing the hairs on the back of my neck to full alert. I moved closer to the fireplace, unable to absorb its heat. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” My brain was taking on too much knowledge. There was overflow and I needed to shake off the excess.
The old man looked at nothing and said, “We are God’s debris.”

God's Debris is a thought experiment created by Scott Adams. You won't agree with every idea in it - I hope you won't, much of it only sounds convincing - but the purpose of this book is not to persuade the reader. Adams writes that God's Debris 'might be the most compelling vision of reality you will ever read.' Expecting this might be a little to optimistic, but you'll never know if you don't read it. The thought you should try to keep in mind when reading the story is this: Try to figure out what’s wrong with the old man’s explanation of reality. God's Debris can be downloaded here for free. An interesting discussion forum about the theories discussed in the book can be found here.

Friday, December 15

Marvel, part 2

Could it be that this feeling, this brightness, is the very experience that connects all this? Is it our God, wether He is imagined or not? Does it provide an explanation as to why there is such a similarity between the ways in which God is experienced in different faiths, and even in non-theistic religions such as Buddhism? Love, happiness, a touch of divinity (even the ecstasy induced by drug use, after all, man has been using intoxicants to experience God for millennia), is it all in essence the same feeling? I wonder, because based on what I know and what I dare to believe in, this is a feeling caused by chemicals. On August 5 I also wrote that, "for all I know, happiness is a chemical process in my brain. Neurotransmitters released." When we get high on euphoria, we're experiencing the effects of an overwhelming cocktail of dopamine, adrenaline, serotonin, or whatever chemical influences our emotions and perceptions in this way. Drugs can trigger the release of these neurotransmitters when your brain has no reason to do so. But sometimes we're experiencing the feeling without apparent reason, and without being under the influence of intoxicants. If we can learn to master that process, if we can trigger that event by solely using our willpower and make it last forever... I believe that is the ultimate goal of anyone who tries to reach Nirvana, or whatever you'd like to call it.

Having said this, I think it's important to state that I do not believe that this explanation challenges the existence of God or the 'divinity' (both literal and figurative) of happiness and love in any way. I would like to emphasize this, not because I am afraid to go against the grain with religious people, but because I think that the ideas I have expressed will easily be mistaken for such a statement. However, I have only answered the question as to how I believe this experience is generated, and although one could conclude that this explanation removes the need for 'real' divinity, the how-answer remains only part of the solution - the part that science usually tries to answer.

The other part is why things happen the way they do. I have yet to meet the first person who completely rejects the importance of this question and its answer. One might even say it is what makes us human; asking why. If someone you love dies, you might ask yourself why. And a doctor would be able to explain to you which disease or injury caused her death, perhaps even explain all the causes and consequences in great detail. But even if you would know and understand what took place in every cell of her body on the moment she breathed her last, you would not be satisfied. You would only know how she died, and that is not the answer you are looking for.

In the same way, chemicals only explain how, not why. Nevertheless, I would not be disappointed if there is no underylying reason for our euphoria - a possibility we shouldn't disregard either. Why should we be disappointed? Because it would mean that our most treasured and beautiful experiences, the ones that make us feel special and unique, are 'simply' a product of our cells and molecules? Humanity has disliked that idea from the day they considered themselves more than 'just' children of nature. Personally, I don't believe that all miracles have to be heaven sent. Man was created out of dust. Whether it took a day or 3.7 billion years, whether it was God or Nature... What is the difference? Marvel, because we can.

Wednesday, December 13

Marvel, part 1

On this blog, I write about my daily thoughts, the experiences and ideas that seem most valuable to me. Some of these thoughts break the surface time and again. Sometimes I experience a feeling that is beyond description. It is not triggered by anything in specific, but it occurs at times when I feel contented and notice 'the beauty of it all'. On May 6 I wrote;

"And it is there at those moments, when everything seems to be in the right place - when bliss overflows you for no apparent reason. Confounding, but never exuberant. Happiness that doesn’t dazzle you - but instead makes everything clear, in a soothing way. I believe it comes from within. We do not have to wait for something or someone to make us feel fullfilled; it is up to us to experience it."

And on August 5 I wrote:

"(...) the euphoric feeling that takes me by surprise and throws me into ecstasy. It feels like sharing my heart. It feels like making a little space and saying, "you can come live here, with me". For some reason being able to say that - feel that - is the closest thing to heaven. It sounds like I've fallen in love hopelessly, doesn't it? Yes, that's exactly the same feeling. I've fallen in love with the sensation of falling in love. I can even imagine believing in God with all your heart feels like this. Standing on top of a mountain. Listning to a piece of music that strikes you in a great way. Finding your purpose in life. Euphoria in every quantity. Not all the time, of course, but sometimes the sensation just wells up inside of me and overcomes me completely. "

This feeling of happiness is stimulated by the beauty of the landscape, sunlight, warmth, certain music and ideas. It ripples like water when I allow such matters to touch me, when I actively try to incite it. But when it catches me by surprise, it's much stronger. The feeling engulfes me and carries me away, if only for a brief period of time. Seconds of euphoria, unbelievably pure. It feels like falling in love. It feels like a religious experience.

And although this experience is difficult to describe, I seem to recognize it in the words of others. I recognize it when reading about the religious ideas of a certain Plotinus, a major philosopher in the ancient world whose metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Gnostic metaphysicians and mystics. Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent "One", containing no division, multiplicity or distinction. The One can be compared to the Sun, and everything else ripples from its centre like sunlight. Plotinus hypothesized that everyone strives for unification. Instead of recognizing separate legs, arms and a head, we organize these perceptions and recognize a human being. The whole is greater than the sum of parts. But we are all part of something greater, and it is the ultimate unification of everything that Plotinus had in mind when he wrote about the One. We are all part of it, and we all seek it. Plotinus describes the final stage in reaching union with the One, with God (it is said that Plotinus himself had this experience on four separate occasions), as following:

"The soul comes to see both God and himself, himself made radiant and filled with intelligible light, really, grown to be one with that light in its purity, without any heaviness, transfigured to the divinity, really, being god in essence."


I recognized it on August 24, when I argued that the following monologue in the film Contact (Eleanor, played by Jodie Foster, maintains that she has made contact with extraterrestrial life) can be interpreted as a description of a meeting with God.

"I had an experience I can’t prove, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was part of something wonderful, something that changed me forever; a vision of the Universe that tells us undeniable how tiny, and insignificant, and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us we belong to something that is greater than ourselves. That we are not, that none of us are alone. I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if even for one moment, could feel that awe, and humility, and the hope..."

I recognize it - in a soft, barely perceptible form - when trying to grasp concepts so great and all-embracing that I can't help but feel an almost religious awe for them. Like on April 17, trying to get an idea of the vastness of the universe. And on March 22, realizing that we are all stardust. A day earlier, March 21, I wrote:

"Every atom in your body is making an incredible journey through time and space. They've all been part of several stars and millions of other organisms before finally coming together in you - not for long though. A billion of your atoms once belonged to Shakespeare. Another billion to Genghis Khan, Buddha, Alexander the Great, you name them. If they lived a few decades ago, you've inherited millions of their atoms. We're exchanging atoms every second, taking a part from everyone we meet while giving them something back. When I die, I might not live on in Heaven, Walhalla or the Summerlands. But my atoms will find new purpose and new life. In a few centuries, a part of 'me' will be in every living creature and every place on Earth. To me, it's an inspiring and comforting thought. That's what religion should be like, shouldn't it?

Monday, December 11

All I want

All I want for Christmas is Richard Dawkins? I'm sorry to disappoint you, Richard - my second apology already. On my wish list, Unweaving the Rainbow is accompanied by Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, amongst other books. I know it's not a very original choice, but it contains a lot of text (686 pages) about a lot of subjects (nearly everything), so it should be a great way to spend a lot of passtime - although I have no such thing at my disposal at the moment. But anyway. Then there's Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos about space, time and the texture of reality. Since I loved reading my biography of Alexander the Great (alright, I admit, I wás picturing Colin Farrell) I also asked Santa for The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox. An epic history of Greece and Rome, the cover says. Fifth and last on my list is Douglas Adams' complete Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The famous trilogy in five parts. I actually own (and have read) the first two parts. Call it nonsense - it is - but it makes me laugh.

This is not just all I want, for now - it's all I get. Picking your own presents is not that bad, even if you do like surprises.

Friday, December 8

Colour

I'm not sure if I deserve Santa's gifts this year. I always try to be unprejudiced towards others. But a few weeks ago, I have made a very biased statement. I quote; "Richard Dawkins will probably have established a personal record by writing more than fifty words without emphasizing his contempt for religion. Although one can never be sure." It was meant as a joke - hence the exagaration - but I feel I owe mr. Dawkins an apology anyway. Shame on me. The best way of making it up to you, Richard, is of course to buy one of your books. Actually, I've asked Santa Claus to buy it for me. Forgive me for the fact that I have not put The God Delusion on my wish list - it would only prove me right. No, I've asked Santa for Unweaving the Rainbow instead. Shockingly, Amazon.co.uk's synopsis tells me that - on this subject - I couldn't agree more with Dawkins.

"This is a dazzling, passionate polemic against anti-science movements of all kinds. Keats accused Newton of destroying the poetry of the rainbow by explaining the origin of its colours. In this illuminating and provocative book, Richard Dawkins argues that Keats could not have been more mistaken, and shows how an understanding of science enhances our wonder of the world. He argues that mysteries do not lose their poetry because they are solved: the solution is often more beautiful than the puzzle, uncovering even deeper mysteries. Dawkins takes up the most important and compelling topics in modern science, from astronomy and genetics to language and virtual reality, combining them in a landmark statement on the human appetite for wonder."

Science doesn't destroy the miracles in this world, it uncovers them. That's exactly what I've been trying to capture in posts like these. And of all writers, I recognize that thought in work by Richard Dawkins. How I love to be proven wrong. How I need crayons in all colours of the rainbow to chase away the black and white in my mind... where colouring within the lines is strictly forbidden.

Sunday, December 3

Presents

I am probably one of the very few bloggers who will tell her audience what presents she will be giving to her family for Christmas - before she has actually given them. The logical reason for this is the fact that my audience does not encompass any of my family members. Furthermore, I don't have to warn you to keep this a secret, as I am pretty sure none of you know my family. Such freedom is given to me by the Almighty internet... Don't expect any brilliant gift ideas, though. This is what I have bought so far:

  • Two carmine red tealight holders, because it isn't quite like Christmas if you don't give something to light up the room. And they're in my mom's favorite colour.
  • A tealight holder of frosted glass on which the the tealight sheds patterns of light (the patterns are cut out of a metal cup in the holder). Because it looks real pretty, and you can never have to much tealights burning at Christmas.
  • Aerial, the most recent CD by Kate Bush. I cannot stand this music, but I hope the receiver thinks differently.
  • Facial masks, because sometimes you just have to force somebody to relax.
  • A tea box, because it's needed. No gift like a practical gift, right?
  • A rubber oil brush, because I ran out of original ideas. But again, very useful.
  • Two luxurious bars of chocolate. Food and Christmas always go well together.

The idea counts.

Cubbyholes

In Dutch it is called a hokjesgeest, a mind that tries to categorize everything and everyone into little cubbyholes. In essence, I think we perceive the entire outside world through a grid, a sieve to sort out our observations. Our anchestors used categories such as 'edible plants' or 'potential enemies'. And I'm sure other animals do exactly the same thing, for the same reason we all arrange our computer files into folders; to keep our hard disk organized and to allow us to retrieve files efficiently. The folders in our mind also help us recognize additional similarities between the members of one category. This is why animals in the jungle will generally stay away from brightly coloured frogs, since most of them are poisonous. Some harmless frog species have even taken advantage of the situation, evolving bright skin colours to make their hunters believe they are dangerous.

This inevitable system has its advantages, but it also induces a very subjective outlook on reality. And the relations we see between certain characteristics are often imagined. Making a connection based on a few cases, assuming that it applies in all cases, and ignoring all evidence that could prove that idea wrong... That's too easy. So easy that we do it all the time. We connect the dots wrongly, even when we are aware of the fact that we are listening to mere prejudice . Most of the time, these small lies do not cause any harm. But some people lose sight of reality as they get cought up in their own conclusions. They start to make assumptions about large groups of people, categorizing them by skin colour or religion. And we all know where that can lead to.

I believe that tolerance is one of the most important virtues one can possess, and to receive this trait we should at least try to keep an open mind. We will never be able to break down those cubbyholes inside our minds, but by carefully keeping our balance, we might be able to tiptoe atop the walls that divide them.

Image: Route 2 J

Saturday, December 2

Wish upon the Moon

"In thought, the sand seeps through my fingers."

The Planetary Society encourages people around the world to send their names and a message along with SELENE, a Japanese lunar orbiter spacecraft currently in integration. The proposed launch period is sometime between July and August 2007, bringing thirteen science instruments - and thousands of messages - into an orbit around the Moon. I know, it will not immortalize our poor souls... But the symbolism of it! You can submit your name and message here. My message (at the top of this post) Isn't exactly a wish, it's more of a homage. A homage to the greatness of human imagination, which allows us to make such giant leaps. In some ways, we are closer to the Moon than SELENE will ever be.