Saturday, May 31, 2008

The God of the Falls

Is God personal or impersonal? You choose ...

Niagara Falls came back to me recently when I read the accounts of Charles Dickens' and Anthony Trollope's visits to it in the past. I was there once myself, and carried away with me a vision that will last for a lifetime.

The most common images of the Falls, which everyone has seen, are those of the white plumes of spray cascading down the the face of it and exploding against the rocks below. But the most powerful impression that has stayed with me was the view from the top.

On the American side you can stand just a few feet from the edge of the river, protected only by a low stone wall, right at the point where it curves over the precipice. The sheer mass of the water, green and clear, makes it seem almost calm as it tips over the brink and disappears into the chaos below.
The sight is compelling, almost hypnotic--you can get lost in it as if watching the flames in a fireplace.

Looking at this, it is impossible not to imagine floating in the water yourself and getting swept over the side. Yet the feeling that came over me as I stared was not one of fear but rather one of peacefulness and awe.

It strikes me that this vision is close to the one I normally have of God--an incredibly powerful rushing torrent of force in which we are carried along like so many twigs and leaves. It is a vision of an "impersonal" God, one whose business is only to flow, without concern for those myriad individuals carried along in the current. We are sustained by the waters of existence, borne up and moved, in a state of perfect magnanimity in which none of us matters any more or less than the least of creatures or the greatest of galaxies.

Yet the personal aspect of God exists as well, within each of us. Our own fates matter greatly to us, and to those who know and love us, as they should. It is left for us each to do our portion of the personal caring, and to make our own individual connections with that great river that supports us. We are the persons who make God "personal."

There are people who really have been caught up in such mighty rivers and carried over similar falls. Some of them have survived to tell the tale. And what some of them say is that in the moment when they knew all was lost, that the river was going over the side and they were going with it, that there was nothing they could do to prevent it -- in that moment they felt a kind of peace and oneness with their surroundings, almost a form of joy.

They had become the river.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Stoltzman & Son Rock in Miami

My ears are ringing, but that's a good thing ...

Way back around 1980 a friend invited me to a concert by Tashi, the ground-breaking contemporary music ensemble. It was, and still is, unorthodox to name such a group as if it were a rock band, so I certainly knew them by name. But at the time the only one of its members I could name was pianist Peter Serkin, and that was mostly because he was the son of the renowned Rudolph Serkin, also a pianist, giving him quite a hard act to follow.

Besides piano the group contained only a violin, a cello, and--oddest of all--a clarinet. This unusual instrumentation should have given them a highly restricted repertoire, but they found and arranged and commissioned plenty of material to play their way into legendary status.

On that long ago evening, the centerpiece was Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, that brooding work unique for being written while the composer was interred in a prison camp during World War II. This was in fact the single piece for which the group was originally formed, and the explanation for their choice of instruments. One of its movements is for solo clarinet, and if I had not noticed him before, the performance was more than enough to send me scanning the program for the name of Richard Stoltzman.

There are a couple of single, long, held notes in this piece that begin inaudibly soft and end as loud as the instrumentalist is capable of playing. In Stoltzman's case, the dynamic range was huge and impressive, and filled the entire space inside Dade County Auditorium until it rang. The notes were like primal screams (a trendy therapy in Tashi's era) of rage and release, framing an incongruously playful birdsong. I left the hall with those notes permanently implanted in my memory, along with the identity of the musician who had uttered them.

Stoltzman went on to forge quite a career for himself, both with Tashi and on his own, as featured soloist with countless orchestras throughout the world. But I next noticed him when I discovered his "crossover" album called Begin Sweet World, in which he followed the example of other classical performers who have moved into the arena of jazz. This album, featuring contemporary arrangements of some classical pieces as well as more improvisatory ones, was such a smash hit that he followed it up with several others--enough for another career--such as Brasil, New York Counterpoint, and Dreams.

Obviously by this time I was a fan. So it was with delight and anticipation that I went to see him perform again last week, this time at the University of Miami's Gusman Concert Hall under the auspices of Sunday Afternoons of Music (sundaymusicals.org). We noted that the elder Stoltzman was to be accompanied by his son, Peter, on piano. But little did we realize what a powerful performer the younger Stoltzman would prove to be--so much so that his father playfully thanked him for "still allowing me to play with him."

The first half of the performance was devoted to classical works. That solo movement from the Messiaen (I finally got to hear it again live) was framed by a Debussy Rhapsodie and a Leonard Bernstein sonata, which we learned was that composer's first serious composition, dating from when he was just twenty. Stoltzman introduced it by saying it owed much to Hindemith, but soon revealed the Bernstein that was to be -- "West Side Story coming soon." Indeed the lyrical features of it did presage what was coming later, and the Stoltzman duo went one better and gave us an additional treat that was not on the program in the form of a suite from West Side Story itself, just so we could compare them side by side, so to speak.

In both the Dubussy and Bernstein the pair played wonderfully well together, absolutely tight on timing and with voices so compatible it was sometimes hard to tell which was playing, even though the instruments are so different from each other.

The second half was all jazz, and it was here that the younger Stoltzman, who had already performed prodigious feats, really showed what he can do. We understood how his father must feel as he works to keep up--though he certainly rose to the occasion.

First came an Ellington medley, then a trio of Thelonious Monk. It was at the end of this set that the clarinet topped it off with a mad riff that ascended WAY up beyond the end of the keys, seeming to pop the musician's head off the top like a cork from a bottle. "Waa!" he exclaimed with a huge grin, and to huge applause.

"That note can't be written!" I said to my wife -- it was too high above the staff.

The concluding set from Porgy and Bess was tame by comparison, but it was nice to be let down easy and to be reminded of how solidly classical Gershwin has become. And the quiet encore of "Amazing Grace" caused peace itself to descend on the room.

The passing of musical genes through generations of a family is a well known phenomenon, as witness the likes of the Strausses, Mozarts, and most notable of all, the multiple sons of J.S. Bach. In our own day we have seen the aforementioned Rudolph Serkin being followed by his son, Peter, and violinist Issac Stern succeeded by his conductor-heir, Michael -- not to mention the Marsalis clan and the talented daughters of Ravi Shankar (which proves it's not a male gene).

Now with Richard and Peter John Stoltzman it appears that a new dynasty has been born.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Knowing When

Could the secret of our survival be something so simple?

Something amazing happened right before my eyes recently. It started normally enough, while I was driving home from work. There's a complicated intersection I have to go through to get onto US-1. Just before I got there my lane was blocked by a man in a large SUV who insisted on parking across it so he could push his way into the left-turn lane, which was totally packed. Frustrated, all I could do was stop and watch my opportunity to make the green light slip away.

I was not alone in my frustration. Another driver in the left-turn lane felt so strongly about the lack of consideration that he opened his door, got out, and began a shouting match with the SUV guy over the roof of his car. SUV guy in turn got out of his car so he could make his own points. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but it was pretty clear from their gestures that SUV guy insisted on his right to a left turn, no matter how inconvenient, while the other driver was not about to let him cut in line.

Perfect, I thought. Now it would take even longer for this guy to get out of the way. And besides that I would probably have to witness a violent crime, wait for the police and TV news crews to take down my report, and lose days of work while testifying in a criminal case. Getting home late would be the least of my worries.

That's when the incredible thing happened. Both drivers had got back into their cars, presumably still fuming. Then suddenly, with no warning or explanation, the SUV guy simply ... backed up. Yes, backed up and started waving people through the intersection, myself included.

What a wonderful and unexpected outcome! I felt as if the sun had just come out. Everything was light and breezy again as I smiled and waved my way along. Now, instead of feeling resentment at the anonymous driver, I felt gratitude and admiration. He had accomplished all this by just letting go of his position and doing the right thing for all concerned, including himself.

An interesting lesson. I found myself thinking about another time this happened, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Kennedy and Khrushchev were going head to head over Cuba with World War III a hair trigger away. But when it came down to it, they both found it was better to give up what they wanted, or at least some of it, and work a compromise. Two generations later, we still owe our survival to their joint act of standing down.

Would that more of us, including our current President, could find it in us to make that small sacrifice of self that produces the greater good. If we want to continue surviving, we will have to learn to do that time and time again.

Maybe we can start in small ways, by knowing when it's time to back up.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Mind-Expanding Universe

The further we look, the bigger it gets ...

In Annie Hall, Woody Allen portrayed himself as a child who stopped doing his homework when he heard that the universe was expanding. "What's the point?" he asked. Then his mother told him it was none of his business, because, "Brooklyn is not expanding!"

Regardless of the relative stability of our local environment here in our hometown Milky Way galaxy, we have every right to be concerned about the size and shape and age of the universe as a whole. After all, its origin is the origin of all of us, and its fate will be ours as well. Who would not want to know the answer to the question, "is the universe infinite, or just very very big?" Or the related one -- "does it have a beginning and an end, or does it last forever?"

Last year I wrote about how the universe has aged during my own lifetime -- meaning, of course, that our knowledge of it has grown, and our estimates of its age have been continually refined in the light of new observations from both astronomers and quantum physicists. Fascinatingly enough, the contributions from those who study the very large and the very small have contributed equally to the latest theories of how the universe began and where it is going. But sometimes it seems as if it keeps getting bigger every time we think we've seen the end of it.

Since the first half of the 20th century it has been known that the universe, however big it is now, is getting bigger. All the galaxies are apparently rushing apart from each other as the space between them stretches like a balloon -- a process that has been going on since the Beginning.

When I was very young, there were two contending theories: the Steady State universe favored by Einstein, in which new matter and energy were continually created to replace those that are lost, and the Big Bang universe, in which everything was created in a single explosion. Since the 1970's, when it was discovered that we could directly observe the background radiation left over from the Big Bang, that theory has been generally accepted. But as scientists have continued to refine the theory and explore its consequences, some serious problems and implications have come up which have cast doubt on it.

In their new book, Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang, Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok have taken time out from their serious work on the subject to write an explanation for laymen of their alternative theory, which they call the Cyclic Model -- actually a new variant of an older idea. (They even have a website at endlessuniverse.net with animations.)

They begin by leading us through the development of the Big Bang model, and showing how it has been added to and modified in an attempt to incorporate the latest, often contradictory, findings. One of the key issues is about expansion, and whether it will end or just keep going forever. It used to be thought that this was just a question of how much matter there was in the universe, and whether the gravitational force of it would be enough to slow the expansion down. In this case we could eventually expect a "Big Crunch" where everything converges into a single point again and creates a new Bang.

I confess this picture always appealed to me. It was so similar to the Vedantic idea of a cosmos that "breathes in and out," and is repeatedly created and destroyed. But measurements showed there was not enough matter to explain why the galaxies were not rushing apart even faster than they are. Then "dark matter" was postulated and proved to exist -- in fact, it was eventually shown that as much as 95% of the matter in the universe is of the "dark" variety: not visible, but deducible by its gravitational effect on the kind we can see. It was concentrations of dark matter that caused the galaxies to form.

For a time it looked like dark matter would keep the universe from flying apart, and would be enough to bring it back together for another round of Bang and expansion. But new measurements have shown that not only is the expansion not slowing down, it is actually accelerating in spite of all the dark matter. So now "dark energy" has been assumed to be present also -- an anti-gravity force that inevitably comes to dominate the universe when it gets dispersed enough, and appears to make expansion continue forever.

There was another hope for a finite universe: the idea that space and time might be curved, as predicted by Einstein's theory. In this model the expansion might continue, but space might be curved like the surface of a sphere, or some more complex shape, so that it would turn back on itself eventually. I picture this like a Big Bang starting at the north pole and expanding all the way to the equator, at which point it would contract to the south pole and create a new Bang there.

But these hopes, too, have been dashed by further observations that have shown that the universe, regardless of the possibility of curvature, is in fact "flat," though no one can explain why. The disturbing result is a universe that achieves a livable condition for only a short time, cosmically speaking, during which stars and planets like ours can exist, but which then continues to spread out and dissipate until all the matter and energy has wasted away to nothing, leaving only an endless and perfect vacuum of non-being.

Even worse, the theory has been found to imply that there may be an infinite number of "pocket" universes lost in an infinite sea of nothingness -- and furthermore, most of them may be lifeless ones in which the balance of natural laws are not conducive to stars and galaxies, or even matter as we know it, let alone anything resembling a human being. Ours could be the only one of its kind, produced by a random fluke, and once it burns out like a dying flame it will be gone forever.

Help! Are we doomed? Is this terminal nothingness all we can look forward to, regardless of how long it takes to get there? Can you see why Woody Allen might give up doing his homework?

The Cyclic Model is a possible salvation from this dismal picture. Though it may not be proved conclusively for some years yet, it apparently resolves many of the mathematical and theoretical problems of the Big Bang model, while completely agreeing with it as far as the current state of things as we can observe them. The difference is that it supposes an endless series of creations and expansions, and offers a mechanism to explain how they work-- and even why space becomes flat. In this view, the universe still ends up nearly void, but that is part of a process that brings it into collision with a parallel universe, a kind of doppelganger with which it is intimately bound, and this collision generates the energy for a new beginning.

I cannot pretend to understand the process that has led them to this conclusion. That would require an ability to do the math--though the authors do a commendable job of presenting it in a way that can be logically followed. But for me it is enough to be able once again to believe in a universe that comes and goes, but continues; one that has been here before, and will be here again.

Don't we all yearn to be immortal? As individuals, we may never be. But as parts of this endless and expanding series of universes, perhaps we already are.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Sum of All Knowledge

We are all born with a thirst for learning. Will we drown in the new sea of plenty, or will we learn how to swim?

I would be the first to admit that I'm not an average person. (Some would say "not normal" is a better description.) I'm cursed with a variety of interests that are all over the map. Why else would it be so hard to categorize this blog? One week it's politics, then religion, then movies, then books, then astronomy, then music, then technology. If anyone asks me what it's about, I have to say, "Well, pretty much everything."

It all goes back to the earliest awakenings of my intellectual curiosity--the time when my mind first got a taste for that forbidden fruit and I started plucking it from every tree I could find. I can't say my experience was typical, but I do think it illustrates something about a universal need we have to learn as we grow, to enhance ourselves to the limits of our abilities--in the words of the US Army slogan, "to be all we can be."

This hunger to know and understand things can be encouraged by a good school, but it can also flower in spite of a bad or indifferent one. I was lucky enough to have several excellent teachers in public school, though the overall institution left much to be desired. For years after I graduated I had dreams about school as a prison. Nevertheless my need to know took precedence, and found its own way if signposts were missing.

The year I turned fifteen and was in my sophomore year, I started a collection of small spiral-bound notebooks in which to record my thoughts on a variety of subjects. These notebooks were strictly extracurricular, and only incidentally overlapped with my classroom studies.

As best I can recall, my official subjects that year were American History, English, Biology, Algebra, Art, and Physical Education. By contrast, the little notebooks were titled Science, Philosophy, Politics, Music, Literature ... and maybe another one or two that have slipped my mind. I can only account for this behavior by saying that I must have felt the need to divide knowledge into categories of my own choosing, rather than those selected for me by the school, and to make room for things that were omitted from the curriculum altogether.

At that age I was beginning to feel that I'd absorbed a lot of facts, and I wanted to start doing something with them, to organize them and try to make sense of it all. My reading extended past the limits of single subjects, so ...

  • I couldn't focus on biology to the exclusion of the rest of science, especially with my imagination being piqued by the great quantity of science fiction I was consuming, and with the country in the midst of the "space race."
  • The course titled "English" was too bogged down in remedial grammar and had not enough room for great books in it. So I supplemented it by submitting writing assignments to another teacher who was receptive to them, and by adopting his classes' challenge to read as many books as possible by an author of our choice (mine was Faulkner).
  • American History--in which the world began in 1776, or at any rate no earlier than 1492, and which emphasized propaganda against Communism--excluded too much of interest, such as ancient Egypt, the Roman empire, Celtic Europe, and the entire Orient.
  • Philosophy being entirely absent from school, along with religion, I had to fend for myself. But this I was quite prepared to do. Unitarian church school had already acquainted me with comparative religion, and I was a staunch fan of Alan Watts' weekly TV program about Zen and other Eastern traditions. The summer after tenth grade I absorbed The Story of Philosophy by the Durants, Will and Ariel, which gave me an overview of everyone from Socrates to the forbidding Germans of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This led me to read a book by Spinoza and to discover the French Existentialists, which led me back to literature again--the wonderful novels of Albert Camus in particular.
And so it went. I suppose the omission of any sort of mathematics from my own categories speaks for itself ... though I did have a fondness for plane geometry, and even learned how to use a slide rule (again, after school). Come to think of it, I picked up typing one summer by working my way through an old textbook that my mom had from when she was in college. And my study of music history--classical, jazz, and folk--was mostly a matter of reading the backs of record albums while I listened to them. (For an account of how I also learned to play music you can refer to this earlier article.)

Looking back, I'm a bit astounded that I actually did all this, especially because I never felt that I had a particular genius for any of these separate areas. In fact, my dad once warned me against becoming a "dilettante" with a smattering of everything and excellence in nothing. But I couldn't help it. Even on the creative side I used to agonize over whether I should devote myself to writing, painting, or music--and if music, should it be classical or folk? and if writing should it be poetry or prose? and maybe drawing or sculpture instead of painting ...

Few of us can be the kind of Renaissance man that Leonardo was, but why should we have to exclude from our lives anything that is of interest? I long ago gave up any idea of becoming a scientist or an engineer, but that doesn't mean I can't keep up with technology and the latest theories of cosmology, especially when the information is now so freely available.

I've described what I was able to do with the resources I had back in high school. With music I was already benefiting from the technology that let me hear much that would have been unavailable in the past when we only had live performances to listen to. Now the Internet has made such a wealth of information available in all areas that it must have an effect on us greater than the advent of the printing press.

MIT, for example, has made much of their course work available online at no charge (see ocw.mit.edu). All you need is the inclination and the willingness to work at it. These obstacles are daunting enough, and will certainly limit the numbers who might otherwise clog up the university's servers. But isn't it reassuring, even inspiring, to know the resources are there when we need them? There are, at last, no limits to what we can know, and no reason to close the door on anything.

The hackneyed phrase at the end of a lecture is, "let's sum up what we've learned." It seems to me that is also a good place to start. My impulse to commit to paper everything I thought I already knew was really a way of finding out what I did not yet know, and where to go from there. It's an impulse that has served me well as I have continued to learn and grow without being necessarily limited by my education, profession, or circumstances. What I'm doing now on this blog is really a new form of the same activity. I'm learning what I know, so I will know what to learn.

Now, I wonder what's next ...