The Handwriting on Belshazzar’s Wall

'Golden Rectangle,' by 'Greg' (user 'sightrays') on Flickr

[Image: “Golden Rectangle,” by “Greg” (user “sightrays”) on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) The explanation at that page provides much more detail than I can here. The gist, though, is that a “golden spiral” appears to home in on a particular point — where the diagonals of the two rectangles making a golden rectangle intersect — but in fact, never really reaches that point: the spiral is infinite in length.]

Not from whiskey river:

Nature Knows Its Math

the year
into seasons,
the snow then
some more
a bud,
a breeze,
a whispering
the trees,
and here
beneath the
orange poppies

(Joan Graham [source])


[Let us consider] the common idea that mathematics is a dull subject, whereas the testimony of all those who have any dealing with it shows that it is one of the most thrilling and tantalising and enchanting subjects in the world. It is abstract, but so, to all appearance, is theology. Men have hurled themselves on the spears of their enemies rather than admit that the second person of the Trinity was not co-eternal with the first. Men have been burned by inches rather than allow that the charge to Peter was to be a charge to him as an individual rather than to him as a representative of the Apostles. Of such questions as these it is perfectly reasonable for anyone to say that, in his opinion, they are preposterous and fanatical questions. And what men have before now done for the abstractions of theology I have little doubt that they would, if necessary, do for the abstractions of mathematics. If human history and human variety teach us anything at all, it is supremely probable that there are men who would be stabbed in battle or burnt at the stake rather than admit that three angles of a triangle could be together greater than two right angles.

The truth surely is that it is perfectly permissible and perfectly natural to become bored with a subject just as it is perfectly permissible and perfectly natural to be thrown from a horse or to miss a train or to look up the answer to a puzzle at the end of a book. But it is not a triumph if it is anything at all, it is a defeat. We have certainly no right to assume offhand that the fault lies with the horse or with the subject.

(G.K. Chesterton [source])

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The Universes through the Keyhole

[Not just any old astronomical photograph. (Click to enlarge.) See
the note at the foot of this post for more info.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):


Fall, falling, fallen. That’s the way the season
Changes its tense in the long-haired maples
That dot the road; the veiny hand-shaped leaves
Redden on their branches (in a fiery competition
With the final remaining cardinals) and then
Begin to sidle and float through the air, at last
Settling into colorful layers carpeting the ground.
At twilight the light, too, is layered in the trees
In a season of odd, dusky congruences—a scarlet tanager
And the odor of burning leaves, a golden retriever
Loping down the center of a wide street and the sun
Setting behind smoke-filled trees in the distance,
A gap opening up in the treetops and a bruised cloud
Blamelessly filling the space with purples. Everything
Changes and moves in the split second between summer’s
Sprawling past and winter’s hard revision, one moment
Pulling out of the station according to schedule,
Another moment arriving on the next platform. It
Happens almost like clockwork: the leaves drift away
From their branches and gather slowly at our feet,
Sliding over our ankles, and the season begins moving
Around us even as its colorful weather moves us,
Even as it pulls us into its dusty, twilit pockets.
And every year there is a brief, startling moment
When we pause in the middle of a long walk home and
Suddenly feel something invisible and weightless
Touching our shoulders, sweeping down from the air:
It is the autumn wind pressing against our bodies;
It is the changing light of fall falling on us.

(Edward Hirsch [source])


The truth is you already know what it’s like. You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.

But it does have a knob, the door can open. But not in the way you think… The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universes inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul.

(David Foster Wallace [source])

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You Are (Barely) Here

Sometimes when working on the Saturday Propagational Library serial I get a little overwhelmed thinking about the distances and time scales involved. While I try to keep things roughly “factual” — or factual-ish, anyhow — by referring as needed to one online source or another, it can really help to have a graphical tool available to bring it into perspective.

The Number Sleuth site has conveniently provided one such tool, with its “Magnifying the Universe” feature:

(For a more static but a little more easily digestible view, they also offer a plain old enormously long poster-style image.)

This perspective of relative sizes can change your perspective of everything: what’s important, what’s fair, what “change” means, what’s “old” and “young,” what’s worth remembering (and worth forgetting), what it means to age, what’s funny vs. deadly serious…

And I like the implied interrelationship between space and time, especially at the most gigantic scales. Let’s say you’ve got a way to measure the distances from yourself to greatly distant objects — some way which does not (obviously) require you yourself to travel that distance (using an odometer which clicks over every giga-parsec or so). Let’s say you take as a given the (still conventional) notion that nothing can move faster than light. One implication of this is that the universe is not just at least as far across (in radius) as the most distant object you can see; it’s that the universe is also at least that old. So if the most distant visible object in the heavens is a light-year away, the light from that object has taken a whole year to reach your eyes… and the universe is at least that old.

Therefore, if (as seems to be the case) the most distant visible object is around fourteen billion light-years away, then…

We can also infer the presence of objects even farther than we can actually see, from the effects of those yet-farther objects on what we can see. Imagine Aeolus, the God of Intergalactic Breezes, sitting on his throne way the hell out there beyond observable limits. We can’t see him but can guess he’s there, because of the way the most-distant-visible objects dance around every time Aeolus sighs (probably out of loneliness) in this direction.

If your head can stand even more interestingness, consider the theory that the universe is expanding, and indeed accelerating in its rate of expansion. According to this theory, although the speed of light still marks an upper limit, it does so locally, on a more or less “small” scale — implying that the space between objects may expand more rapidly than light speed. Thus, at that fourteen-billion-light-years horizon, things are constantly crossing over the line into invisibility and, ultimately, unknowability.

Consider the similarities between all this and (say) the way in which things, people, and experiences pass from our individual (or collective) memory.

Consider the grand themes of art, literature, and music, from the small and personal to the most sweepingly “universal.”

Consider sharing those themes with Aeolus and, if Aeolus creates art of his own, his sharing his themes with us


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And Counter-Intuition Replied…

[Video: studio version of “I’ve Seen All Good People,” by Yes]

From whiskey river:

Not a few, but everyone, makes art. There is no art beyond the sensibility of the people confronting it: art is an interaction between object and beholder. The idea of a human being forced to concede the superiority of a work of art without in fact being able to participate in judging that quality is a surrealistic idea. In my area, the coyotes are still the best poets.

(William Stafford)


learn to say “I don’t know”
learn to say “I can’t say” “I don’t remember”
learn to say nothing

train your memory to fail
recognize that you have the right to make mistakes
to stay mute

insist that the noise in your ears is due merely
to history’s winds or to the changes in pressure
that make mirages out of daily life

(Urszula Koziol, To a Young Man)


In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: “How you been?”
He grins and looks at me.
“I been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees.”

(Wendell Berry)

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Ready (or Not) for Surprise

[See the note at the foot of this post for information about this video.]

From whiskey river:

I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. There’s a certain humor in realizing that. I can never figure out the kind of tie to put on in the morning. I don’t have any strategy or plan to get through the day. It is literally a problem for me to decide which side of the bed to get out on. These are staggering problems. I remember talking to this Trappist monk in a monastery. He’s been there twelve years. A pretty severe regime. I expressed my admiration for him and he said “Leonard, I’ve been here twelve years and every morning, I have to decide whether I’m going to stay or not.” I knew exactly what he was talking about.

(Leonard Cohen, 1988 interview with Jon Wilde in Blitz [source])


Solitude (I)

I was nearly killed here, one night in February.
My car shivered, and slewed sideways on the ice,
right across into the other lane. The slur of traffic
came at me with their lights.

My name, my girls, my job, all
slipped free and were left behind, smaller and smaller,
further and further away. I was a nobody:
a boy in a playground, suddenly surrounded.

The headlights of the oncoming cars
bore down on me as I wrestled the wheel through a slick
of terror, clear and slippery as egg-white.
The seconds grew and grew — making more room for me —
stretching huge as hospitals.

I almost felt that I could rest
and take a breath
before the crash.

Then something caught: some helpful sand
or a well-timed gust of wind. The car
snapped out of it, swinging back across the road.
A signpost shot up and cracked, with a sharp clang,
spinning away in the darkness.

And it was still. I sat back in my seat-belt
and watched someone tramp through the whirling snow
to see what was left of me.

(Tomas Tranströmer [source])


There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.

(John Green [source])

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Knowing What You’re Looking At

[Image: graffiti artist Bansky visited a subway archway in central London, adding a caption to a wall which just happens to fall within the view of a surveillance camera.]

From whiskey river:

All men, at one time or another, have fallen in love with the veiled Isis whom they call Truth. With most, this has been a passing passion: they have early seen its hopelessness and turned to more practical things. But others remain all their lives the devout lovers of reality: though the manner of their love, the vision which they make to themselves of the beloved object varies enormously. Some see Truth as Dante saw Beatrice: an adorable yet intangible figure, found in this world yet revealing the next. To others she seems rather an evil but an irresistible enchantress: enticing, demanding payment and betraying her lover at the last. Some have seen her in a test tube, and some in a poet’s dream: some before the altar, others in the slime. The extreme pragmatists have even sought her in the kitchen; declaring that she may best be recognized by her utility. Last stage of all, the philosophic skeptic, has comforted an unsuccessful courtship by assuring himself that his mistress is not really there.

(Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism [source])


You’re like a witness. You’re the one who goes to the museum and looks at the paintings. I mean the paintings are there and you’re in the museum too, near and far away at the same time. I’m a painting. Rocamadour is a painting. Etienne is a painting, this room is a painting. You think that you’re in the room but you’re not. You’re looking at the room, you’re not in the room.

(Julio Cortázar [source])

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One, and One, and One…

From whiskey river:


Many times loneliness
is someone else
an absence
then when loneliness is no longer
someone else many times
it is someone else’s dog
that you’re keeping
then when the dog disappears
and the dog’s absence
you are alone at last
and loneliness many times
is yourself
that absence
but at last it may be
that you are your own dog
hungry on the way
the one sound climbing a mountain
higher than time

(W. S. Merwin, from Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment)


I have figured for you the distance between the horns of a dilemma, night and day, and A to Z. I have computed how far is Up, how long it takes to get Away, and what becomes of Gone. I have discovered the length of the sea serpent, the price of priceless, and the square of the hippopotamus. I know where you are when you are at Sixes and Sevens, how much Is you have to have to make an Are, and how many birds you can catch with the salt in the ocean – 187,796,132, if it would interest you.

(James Thurber, Many Moons [source])

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