GRB 140419A – “My heart leaps up when I behold” (William Wordsworth)

GRB 140419A - reality circled in blue.

GRB 140419A – reality circled in blue.

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The headline on SMU’s website reads, “Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.”

One of the biggest and hottest explosions in the universe –a rare event known as a gamma-ray burst (GRB) –has been spotted on camera. [The] event . . . occurred shortly after the Big Bang about 12.1 billion years ago (1).

SMU owns the telescope that took the first picture of the explosion, the Rotse-IIIB at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of West Texas.

I want to know about GRB 140419A. How do the astronomers know it “occurred shortly after the Big Bang about 12.1 billion years ago?”

I ask, not as a science-denier. I don’t doubt astronomers know GRB 140419A happened shortly after the Big Bang. I don’t doubt the Big Bang happened. It’s not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of accepting the unfathomable body of research and practice of scientists over the last five hundred years. The correctness of the science does not depend on me

I’m not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but I have some sense. My lack of knowledge does not carry me off into disbelief—the arrogant disbelief of climate-change and evolution, for example. Arrogant because that disbelief assumes either that one knows more than all scientists since Galileo, or that god has given one special insight into the workings of the universe. I’d be terrified of claiming a special understanding directly from god about the physical laws of the universe. Or anything else, for that matter.

But then, I’m neither a Southern Baptist nor a member of the Taliban.

Being in my 70th year with little time left on this planet (and somewhat diminished brain capacity), I can’t make up for the studying I haven’t done. I’ll never know how astronomers know when GRB 140419A happened. “. . . gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe since the Big Bang,” Farley Ferrante, a graduate student in Southern Methodist University’s Department of Physics, who monitored the observations, said. “These bursts release more energy in 10 seconds than our Earth’s sun during its entire expected lifespan of 10 billion years. . .” (1).

I have no idea why many things are the way they are. Why, for example, after decades of selling blueberries in plastic boxes with slots in them so the berries could be washed by running water through the box, has Kroger suddenly begun selling blueberries in solid boxes so they have to be taken out of the box for washing?

Trivial, you say? Well, then back to the cosmic. Since the Big Bang started everything, what caused the Big Bang? What banged? One molecule of something banged? Well, where was it when it banged if there was no there there? What made it bang? Had anything ever banged before? Do scientists think about these things and have answers for them?

Probably, but I don’t know.

Some of the stuff of my reality?

Some of the stuff of my reality?

. . . [In certain patients] . . . psycho-sensory symptoms of epileptogenic nature occur . . . These symptoms, likely closely related to dissociative tendency and experienced traumatic events, normally belong to characteristic manifestations of temporal lobe epilepsy . . . Characteristic symptoms are very similar to certain dissociative symptoms. . . memory gaps, confusion spells, staring spells, episodic irritability . . . (2)

I’ve concluded my temporal lobe epilepsy is a fortunate preview of the impossibility of apprehending the nature of reality. When I was a child and went into dissociative states for which I had no explanation, I concluded that I didn’t really exist and neither did you. I concluded we are all a figment of the imagination of someone or something that we can’t possibly know.

What is real?

Do you know for sure? Is Wall Street real? Are HD “smart” TV’s real? Is the war in Syria real? Are the dresses movie stars wear on the red carpet real? Are the dresses you wear real? Is Ted Cruz any more real now that he has renounced his Canadian citizenship? Is your religion real? Is SMU’s physics department real? Is my computer real?

I know, I’m being sophomoric again. I need to study Nietzsche, or Heidegger, or Kant, or Foucault, or Baudrillard, or Dick Cheney, and I will have plenty of answers to my silly questions. The silly questions I’ve been asking all my life.

The stuff of my life has nothing to do with reality. I’m not saying the cup of morning coffee, the Wi-Fi router, the four or five thumb-drives, the magnifying glass I use to read the writing on most packages of stuff I buy these days, the 1,000 books on the shelves behind me, Groucho the cat sitting beside me—all of that stuff I can see and touch right now—is not “real.”

But at the moment of my death will any of it matter? Will the billions in my bank account matter? Will my latest tattoo matter? Will Eric Cantor matter? Will the surplices and reserve sacrament at my church matter? Will clothes for sale at Traffic LA downtown or Walmart in the suburbs matter? Will the gender of my spouse matter? Will my right to own a gun matter? Will saving the whales matter?

Is there a First Cause? an Unmoved Mover? a God, if you will?

I have no idea what William Wordsworth meant by “natural piety.”

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

However, I know this. The question of “when my life began,” my personal Big Bang or the universal Big Bang, is the same question as “when I shall grow old or let me die.”

Anyone my age or older who isn’t absorbed in thinking about these things is perhaps substituting “stuff” for reality.
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(1) Quoted from: O’Callaghan, Jonathan. “Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.” The London Daily Mail. June 5, 2014.
(2) Bob, Petr, et. al. “Dissociation and Neurobiological Consequences of Traumatic Stress.” Activitas Nervosa Superior 50 (2008): 9-14.

If this be reality, make the most of it

If this be reality, make the most of it

‘. . . Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. . .’

my powers lying wasted

my powers lying wasted

Yet another [well-meaning, I’m sure] friend emailed me to ask if I am ok based on my posting of last night. She was certain I am obsessed with death, and that cannot be healthy.

I have two primary struggles at the moment. The first is the sling which I am sentenced to hold/ rest/ immobilize my left arm until December 20, my next appointment with the surgeon, dr. Steven Thornton [that’s 21 days and 6 hours from this moment].

The other is this wonderful new Lenovo computer a good friend helped me buy a week ago. I will love it when I figure some things out. Like all new laptops these days, it has touch-screen. I don’t have a clue how to use it. Mysteries abound. It has no ‘start’ icon, so I don’t know how to power it up and down.

The first struggle is related to the second, obviously, because I have to type with one hand [typos such as missing upper case letters are the result of that inconvenience, and such niceties happen when msword makes them happen automatically—deal with it].

I purchased Dragon and the computer help desk at smu installed it on the Lenovo. Dragon is a voice recognition program which works wonders for grading papers but which is useless for writing. I can think no faster than I can type, so speaking is not writing. It’s blathering. Besides, what I deal with daily is hypergraphia, not hyperdictia [my invented word for ‘running-off-at-the-mouth’].

So this writing is slowed down to a crawl, and it’s impossible that I’m obsessed with anything, death or anything else, except hunt-and-peck typing. So the following is probably hunt-and-peck thinking.

Not too long ago I was involved in a conversation which, in retrospect, seems more like that of two college sophomores [can you spell ‘sophomoric?’] than two old grumps in their 60s. we were talking about ‘the meaning of life,’ and I was saying that I don’t see much reason to believe in an afterlife. He’s a somewhat devout roman catholic, so his view is a bit different from mine [although, of course, ‘gay’ and ‘roman catholic’ are mutually exclusive, so his logic is a priori suspect].

He quoted [almost correctly] Goethe’s statement that, ‘It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life. In this sense everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.’ It took me awhile to find that the aphorism is attributed to Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann, in Conversations with Goethe, 1852.

I suppose that’s close to the intellectual underpinning of Faust—the only way to be certain to live forever[hence negating the need to imagine one’s ‘nonbeing’] is to sell one’s soul to the devil. Or something. I’m neither philosopher nor literary critic enough to make that kind of pronouncement.

At any rate, my friend said that, because it’s ‘quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing,’ one [that is, I] should stop thinking about death and get on with life, ‘living in the moment.’

Of course, his logic is as fallacious as the logic of essays I read daily by college sophomores.

A thinking being might be able to imagine nonbeing more than to imagine being. I’m willing to admit this may be the [somewhat specialized] thinking of a TLEptic, a child suffering the dissociation of temporal lobe epilepsy, but my great youthful question to myself was, ‘how do I know I exist; how do I know I’m not the figment of someone’s imagination?’ There, Goethe, put that in your pipe and smoke it!

So I’m not obsessed with death. I’m obsessed with life. Not the life of getting and spending and laying waste our powers. I have not become a wordsworthian romantic.

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.     
—–Wordsworth, William, 1770–1850.

But I want to avoid the world too much with me. I get and spend with the best of them. Well, not quite. Alice Walton and I are hardly in a ‘getting’ contest, much less a ‘spending’ contest. I expect her wealth is her attempt to hedge her bets against ‘nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life.’ But if Goethe is right, she shouldn’t worry because the mere fact she chooses not to think about being dead means that she’s immortal. Really?

Rather, she chooses, like all of us, not to think about it. In Rosencrantz’s words, ‘I wouldn’t think about it if I were you, you’ll only get depressed” (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, tom Stoppard).

So I don’t know where I meant to go with this. Only to say I think if you’re 68 years old and aren’t thinking about these things, you’re gonna run up against nonbeing without having been in the most crucial way. If we’re the only animals who know we’re going to die, then pretending not to know it is avoiding—no, denying—the very reality that makes us human.