29 August 2009
The Absolute, Ultimate Contemplation
Above is a link and a photo. The photo is of the “Hubble Deep Field,” and the link is to an animation of the same.
“Hubble” refers to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in low earth orbit for 19 years. It is a reflecting telescope (meaning it has a precisely configured mirror that focuses the images into a “charged coupling device”) and because it is above the atmosphere, the resolution and clarity of the images are superior.
Some astronomers booked time on the Hubble to examine a teeny-tiny area of northern sky where there appeared to be nothing. Time on the Hubble is hard to get because so many astronomers want to use it and the objects it finds are so faint that the exposure times are very long.
The Hubble Deep Field image is of a "field" of thousands of galaxies 13 billion light years away. The animation is of the estimated distance of the galaxies (there’s a way to do that by measuring the Doppler shift of the light) and flies you through them in 3 Dimensions.
The contemplation is the sort of thing that keeps us up at night, or at least keeps some of us up. It is a challenge for mere human minds, certainly a challenge for theologians, the church, and philosophers. The Earth is 4 billion years old. The light from these galaxies started toward us 13 billion years ago. These galaxies each contain 100 billion stars, more than all of the grains of sand on all of the beaches of the Earth.
Traditional religious doctrine says that God created the heavens and the Earth, and sometimes it is expressly stated and always implied that all of this was created JUST FOR US. That’s a logical conclusion for a civilization which has no optical magnification. But as we have been able to observe the farther and farther away (as well as the smaller and smaller), it has become steadily - no, geometrically - more evident that the Universe is more complex and extensive than we ever imagined. Even at the possibly limited level that we now perceive, it may be much more vast even than that.
This creates a conundrum for earthly theologians and philosophers. Do you ignore the other 70 sextillion stars and their probable planets, and the possibility of life on those planets? (No appeal to scientific atheism there, that’s a way of saying that God as Builder had a lot of job sites going at once.) Do you accept the possibility (only a moron would talk authoritatively about numerical probabilities) that God is worshipped elsewhere in familiar or unfamiliar ways? Or is this a thing like me with calculus, darn it, they say this makes sense but I don’t see it, so I’ll do things that I know how to do and trust that somebody understands this.
Look at the video, stare at the picture and see if you can walk away without feeling uneasy. If you can, well, that’s your look out.
Age, Restraint, Yang, Yin
I’ve never been far separated from the fire/rescue service since leaving active field work. (I’m not sure when that date is - either my last emergency call or my last day as an emergency services officer.) In any event, like anything that’s a part of your life, it stays with you and if you’re not careful, you tend to pontificate ad nauseum forever.
Tim is about to take USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) training, after which he will be eligible for the regional USAR team. He and I have had lively conversations on the subject.
USAR involves Bad Things That Happen In Urban Environments, such as building collapses. Thus, the incidents are generally large, affect many victims, and require many unusual technical skills at a very high level. 9/11? Every USAR team in the world was headed for their gear and an airport within an hour.
I never had USAR training, and I know that it has changed from 20 years ago anyway. It involves sophisticated rope/descent/lifting systems, stabilization/support systems, and victim location, all of which requires heavy application of practical engineering and physics. It takes an enormous investment of time to become trained and maintain a high level of training. Well, some people in their 20's have the energy for that. (I almost said “guys.” It’s not exclusively men who do the very heavy rescue work, but mostly. I don’t know if it’s cultural, biological or a body strength thing.)
My concern is the number of live incidents a regional team in West Virginia will have to work. This is a concern, not the expression of superior knowledge. Having a specialized team nearby is a good thing. Having people going into an ultra-dangerous task with anything but the very best chance of getting out is a bad thing. Like so many parts of life, it is a yin/yang, although which is which is always the argument. This is similar to the hazardous materials flap of years ago in Marion County. Someone came to the County Commission with an elaborate plan to equip a hazmat team with a hazmat response truck for the low, low price of $200,000, and requested that the Commission fork it over. The Commission asked me for a recommendation, and after consulting some people more knowledgeable than I by far (but not all of whom agreed), I advised against it. The reason? There are so many industrial chemicals transported (something like 150,000) and so few incidents in the county, fitting firefighters out for an aggressive response created an unacceptable risk of killing rescuers. Again, yin/yang. (Years later, county policy changed somewhat, and now there is a moderate hazmat response capability.)
One lesson for those outside this professional community is that before you see the vehicles pass you with lights and siren, a whole lot of thought, planning and training has happened to make it look easy. It’s not easy. It’s not safe. Every time I see these folks on a call, I say a quick prayer for all aboard. They’re too busy, and they are doing God’s work.
I’m amused about odd things, I suppose. When I am in a courtroom or a church or other “official” public place, I see everyone being very, very quiet even when nothing is going on. (That being said, often I am too damn boistrous in those places, and I gotta cut that out.) When Court is not in session, it’s just a big room. You’re permitted to have a conversation, to tell a joke and to act like a person. Ditto with any other mere place.
At other times, too, people in these places seem to stay very, very quiet when perhaps they think that it might be good to say something or do something positive or encouraging.
Our church has an excellent choir. There aren’t many voices, but the ones there are have good quality and lots of volume. Three or four weeks ago, they outdid themselves with an anthem, something loud, something that everyone was letting it all hang out, singing at full voice, the tenors getting red faced, and they were defining “singing with gusto.” The anthem ended. Silence. Silence. And then, God bless them, some soul in the very back started to applaud and everyone took it up, relieved, because it was now OK to make appropriate noise.
In my relatively limited contacts with predominately black churches, there is a different tradition, a tradition of more open opportunities to praise and communicate. I’m not sure exactly what mechanism is at work. Whatever it is, I suspect it’s healthy.
There is a line from a Gene Wilder movie, Silver Streak, where a black fellow is criticizing a white fellow dancing: “How come you white people always have a tight ass?,” referring to his being clumsy and inhibited.
Makes you wonder. Why do we as a people always have a tight ass?
For as Long as the Grass Grows and the Eagle Flies
In 1985, I was just a beginning apprentice curmudgeon, but showing a sliver of promise. (Dissenting view: A shadow of the horror to come.) That’s the year that some organization in the county hit upon the “memorial brick” as a fundraising project. The idea was, people would pay, I think, $40 to have a special brick engraved with a loved one’s name (or their own name), and that would be part of the sidewalk in front of the courthouse. For $75, a larger concrete thing was available. Judging from the number of bricks, they made a lot of money and a reasonably attractive sidewalk was installed.
I noted at the time that the whole idea was silly, because it is unseemly for living people to prepare memorials to themselves and a vain hope that any memorial will last such that more than one or two generations later, anyone will care. [To illustrate: During Charles Dickens' life, one Wilkie Collins was at least as popular a novelist. Ever heard of him? (Unless you've read the recent novel, Drood, by Dan Simmons, which trades upon his very obsurity.)] That was not a popular notion in 1985 and as a mere apprentice, I knew to shut up and bide my time.
Walking into the courthouse this week, I noted some deterioration of the sidewalk. Many of the bricks are becoming worn. The concrete blocks are getting pretty shabby, as concrete isn’t nearly as weather resistant as brick. And, of course, fifty years from now, whoever decides about streets and sidewalks will have no problem with digging the whole thing up and replacing it with something else.
Which would we rather have - George Washington’s hatchet? Or his nation? Lincoln’s hat? Or his Union? The power of things as memorials is pretty small.