CategoryLifelong Learning

Here’s where I write about current events, history, science, the humanities, and literature–anything and everything that interests me.

Revolutionary Times

Sometime last year, I came across this quote:

If a man in the fullness of his days, at the end of his life, can pass on the wisdom of his experience to those who grow up after him; if what he has learned in his youth, added to but not discarded in his maturity, still serves him in his old age and is still worth teaching the then young — then his was not an age of revolution, not counting, of course, abortive revolutions. The world into which his children enter is still his world, not because it is entirely unchanged, but because the changes that did occur were gradual and limited enough for him to absorb them into his initial stock and keep abreast of them. If, however, a man in his advancing years has to turn to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wise — then we may term the rate and scope of change that thus overtook him, “revolutionary.”

-Hans Jonas, from Philosophical Essays (1974), p. 46

Talking to some of my friends, I’ve been struck by how different things are. A lot of our generations’ parents haven’t been very smart with their money, a point that a quick Google search “baby boomers and money” seems to confirm is a general trend. Strikingly, “75% of millennials talk money at least once a week.”

To this point, I recently read “Millennials are Screwed” at the Huffington Post. It makes a lot a good case about the challenges my generation is faced with. And truth be told, I need to understand the case. Good advice about what to do has been rarer than I would have liked, and I’m learning a lot the hard way.My conclusion: things have been changing fast. And if I don’t change as fast, I might get left behind.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not pessimistic. But I’m optimistic for two overriding reasons: one, it’s in my nature, as much as part of my temperament as it is attributable to my Mormon faith. And two, I believe I can change with the times. I feel strongly that I can keep ahead of “the rate and scope of change.” And even if things don’t work out entirely, I’ve got–as I alluded to–faith. Things will work out.

But my conclusion is this: things have been changing fast. And one of the greatest assets a person can have is to learn and adapt as fast as the environment in which he lives. It’s as much a principle of natural selection and evolution as it living in the modern era.

“Your pain and your heartbreak”

I just came across this quote from the excellent James Baldwin.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” -James Baldwin

I love this quote. One of the benefits I’ve experienced from reading widely, particularly in history, is learning that (as the Preacher says) there is “nothing new under the sun.” No matter the trial along the wide spectrum of causes for physical and mental and pain–disappointment, loss of a loved one, loneliness, making poor choices, addiction, hunger and thirst, torture, dealing with infertility, being taken advantage of, or having expectations break against the rocks of reality–there is someone who has been there before. And almost always, there are many someone’s, most of them invisible and nameless, but surely and definitely there.

And to be quite honest, knowing that draws me toward a strange feeling of global citizenship–global not just in space, but also in time, drawing me back with a new affection for my ancestors stretching back thousands and thousands of years. Again: mostly nameless and invisible, having left no records behind, but there all the same. It’s strange, I think, but comforting.

Judgment at Ninevah

I’ve been binging some older episodes of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Dan Carlin, together with John Talbot (professor at BYU), Brandon Dell’Orto (my AP US History teacher), Mike Duncan (host of The History of Rome podcast), and Tom Holland (author of some excellent narrative histories), are a collection of people who really infused me with a love of history–each in a specific way. Dan Carlin’s contribution, though, is to simply expose me to great history via extremely entertaining and compelling stories.

Because I’m trying to read through the biblical book of Isaiah right now, I listened to Judgment at Ninevah, a short but fascinating Hardcore History episode on the fall of Assyria (major players in Isaiah and the Hebrew world generally). Ninevah–I’d heard about it from the Bible–something about Nimrod and Jonah. But Dan Carlin emphasizes that Ninevah’s fall is perhaps the biggest event in history you’ve never heard of. A couple of notes from the episode:

  • We have a hard time believing our society could end. Dan Carlin loves the moment in the old “Planet of the Apes” when Charleton Heston’s character, thinking he was on an alien planet, discovers that it’s really this earth. Carlin points out that there’s something difficult about believing that in hundreds of years, people might be digging up our skyscrapers, trying to figure out who we were. But history has a pattern, and it may be hubris to believe that pattern’s ended with us. Everyone else thought this way, too.

“Planet of the Apes”

  • Dan Carlin’s Great Division of History. He divided it into “the very, very old world,” “the very old world,” and “the old world.” (Presumably, there’s a “this world” too.) The very, very old world begins when empires and writing began, and ends with the Fall of Ninevah. It’s the crash that mandates a new version on the computer of history. It’s “the greatest event in history no one knows about,” a “very big deal.”
  • There are two kinds of societies in history. The ones that are always a player on the world stage and endure as a people–think China and Egypt–and the ones that have a glorious moment, and then effectively never play a role again–or are wiped out entirely. For this latter group, think the Mongols, or, Assyria!
  • The Assyrians were around for a long time, a very, very long time. If we assume the modern world began (generously) in the Renaissance, around 500-600 years ago, then bear in mind: Assyria lasted a lot longer than that, 3-5 times longer. They have unbroken records going back to ~2300 years ago!
  • The Assyrians were bad people. They had war reliefs, “unique in human history,” that depict awful things they did. Now, keep in mind, they were the first empire–and they perfected the art of keeping subjugated people’s in check by doing terrible things to rebellious peoples, and then installing reliefs of their punishment in the lobby area of their palaces–something visiting dignities got to see. On the plus side, this kept the place unified, allowing for a lot of civilizational progress. On the down side, they subjugated people’s brutally. (And there’s some evidence they enjoyed it…)
  • Assyria had a lot of neighbors. I drew from Dan Carlin’s description of their neighbors, but also my Phillips’ Historical Atlas (one of my favorite books) to figure this out. Basically, Assyria was situated smack dab in Mesopotamia along the Fertile Crescent. They had Urartu on the north (and nomads, like the Scythians, beyond them), Persians and Medes to their east, Egypt and Judah/Samaria to their west, and Phrygia (and later the Ionian Greeks) in Anatolia, to their northwest. And Assyria had no really great geographical protection.

A map of Mesopotamia, 750-550 BCE

  • Assyria fell into the Empire Traps. Assyria was at the height of its power just before it died. It committed the great sin of all empires: it overextended itself. While its armties were off conquering Egypt, it was left mostly defenseless to a series of allied forces (mainly the Medes and Babylonians) who, along with everyone else, hated the Assyrians for all the awful things they’d done to them. So like a surprising stock market crash, Ninevah fell from greatness–to being abjectly destroyed.  And no one cried.

It was a great episode, and I learned a lot. It ended, nicely for my study in the Hebrew Bible, on the words of Nahum (the biblical prophet): “Woe to the bloody city! it is all full of lies and robbery… it shall come to pass, that all they that look upon thee shall flee from thee, and say, Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?… for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?”

Woe indeed!

Thoughts on the History of Stars

I love Summer. Not only is it the best time for taking walks and early morning bike rides, but it’s also my favorite time for gazing at the sky–something I’ve been doing more lately. Not only are the skies clearer, but the Summer triangle (and the pointer stars in the Big Dipper) make it easy to pinpoint a variety of stars. And, well, I know the night sky in the Summer the best: Leo, Delphinius, Sagittarius, Corona Borealis, Hercules, Cepheus, Cygnus–these are just a few of my friends. Plus, this year Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and and Venus (along with the moon) have all been bright and visible in the sky, tracing the plane of the ecliptic. And on the darker nights, when the moon is hiding and its light is gone, the ecliptic can be seen adjacent to the plane of the Milky Way, the path of billions of galactic stars.

What’s spectacular–obvious, yes, but to me, spectacular–is that these same stars, and these same planets, have been inspiring people for generations. They guided Magellan and Columbus on their navigations across the globe, in search of Asia and the other sides of the world. They guided, too, the Vikings, the Chinese, the Phonecians, the Pacific-Islanders, and countless other generations. The shapes and figures were, in part, codified by Ptolemy, and before him, probably the Babylonians and Sumerians. The individual names of stars often bear Arabic names, a nod to the significant contribution of Islamic and Arab astronomers. Somewhere in this deep past, Father Abraham, too, knew the names of the stars, exchanging knowledge with the Egyptians. And these same stars were seen by our earlier ancestors as they traveled across the earth, probably from Africa, into new worlds and new niches.

For mankind, the stars remain constant. Due to precession, there are slight movements–but for the most part, the patterns have stayed the same. But the sky looked different 50,000 years, and even more different as you travel farther back in time. Since a galactic year is 250 million years, travel back 62 million years ago–just a few million years after the KT asteroid impact the finished off the non-avian dinosaurs–and the sun will have moved a quarter-turn back around the galaxy, as will have other stars, and the sky will look entirely new. Vastly new constellations would be needed to identify stars in this alien sky.

And of course, travel back 4.603 billion years ago, and what would you find? A massive movement in a massive gas cloud, as gravity pulls light gases together until enough pressure builds to cause nuclear fusion. That fusion would light the star Sol, known to us as the sun, and inaugurate the solar system. Elements and gases would begin accreting on a disk-like plane, spinning and forming new planets, all around this new star. The star’s energy and solar winds would contribute to pushing lighter elements out toward the farther reaches of the solar system, a fact that explains the presence of solid planets closer to the sun, and the lighter, more easily “blown away” gases being sent farther out, forming the gas giants.

And travel back farther still, and you would begin to see fewer and fewer stars. You would witness the birth of Deneb, Altair, Betelgeuse, Vega, Sirius, and other stars–popping into the night sky in positions far removed from where they are today. They would look brighter or dimmer, depending on the nature of the star. All of them had beginnings. You would also see stars, long gone today, dying–and before that, living long and nuclear lives, having formed from still older stars. And as you travel back, you would see fewer and fewer elements, until eventually–before the first generation of stars begin to explode in radiant light–the only element present were hydrogen and helium, and before even those first stars, just darkness and simplicity in a universe ripe with potential.

There is more to the story, including the movement of galaxies along gravitational paths that make up the largest structures in the universe. But for the most part, it is the stars that draw my fascination, though galaxies are where most stars are born. The stars, appointed by God “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years” (Genesis 1:14).

And it is this that leads me to wonder still. Did God ordain the precise locations of the stars? Do they inherently have meaning, imbued by an all-wise Creator? Or do we give them meaning by naming and tracing lines in the sky? Or is the answer in the fact that God gave us imagination, and in that sense, he gave them meaning through us?

And did God ordain the precise the precise location of these stars, given for times and seasons? Or did he set the initial conditions, and let things play out–and in that sense, was he surprised? Did he intervene in the movement of matter and gas across time and space, to make a particular pattern? Or did he set the match and light the fuse that sent all of time and space into the world? Science explains the natural laws by which all things move, but it is as much an article of faith to say that a God never intervened in the processes of galactic, biological, and tectonic movement as it is to say that He did. To those who believe, “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (Alma 30:43.) To understand the natural laws, even of evolution and inheritance and mutation and natural selection, does not necessarily preclude the fact that these things, also, can testify of the wisdom of a Creator.

And if he did intervene, how? Does God reach through the quanta, the fabric of the universe? Is he a hidden order found in chaos? Does he reach through some brane, some interdimensional bulk, that some physicists theorize might be out there? Or is it through some process we still can’t begin to comprehend? Do we even have the right questions to begin to understand how God pierces the immanent with the transcendant?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I cherish the questions themselves. And I cherish the night sky, which grants me curiosity–a hint at the nature of reality all around me, a hint that, for me at least, begs interrogation. I’m reminded of the Emerson quote:

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”


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