Did you see in the news that Canadian astronomers have revealed some details about mysterious signals emanating from a distant galaxy. They don’t really know the exact nature and the origin of the radio waves. But don’t they pick up these signals all of time?

Actually, they don’t get these kinds of signals. This has only been reported once before.The 13 FRBs (fast radio bursts) had a very unusual repeating signal. They were all coming the same source about 1.5 billion light years away. Let’s repeat that – 1.5 billion light years away.

These cosmic puzzles were picked up by the CHIME observatory, located in British Columbia. It has four 100-metre-long, semi-cylindrical antennas, which scan the entire northern sky each day. The telescope only went into operation last year and almost immediately detected the radio bursts.

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At least a quarter of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy have a planet with surface conditions very similar to Earth and the chemistry of life as we know it could develop. With tens of billions of stars in the Milky Way, it is quite likely we are not alone.

Are the aliens trying to contact us? Contact? They may already be visiting.

The solidly unscientific The New Yorker asks “Have Aliens Found Us?” in an interview with a Harvard astronomer about a mysterious interstellar object.

This story starts back in October 2017 when astronomers at the University of Hawaii spotted something strange out there in our solar system. They named it ‘Oumuamua which is the Hawaiian word for a scout or messenger. They described it as “a red and extremely elongated asteroid.”

Big deal. I write about asteroids all the time. Ah, but this was the first interstellar object to be detected within our solar system.

The interview was with Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, who was co-author on a paper about ‘Oumuamua’s “peculiar acceleration.” That is, it wasn’t moving like most asteroids.

Loeb suggested that the object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth’s vicinity by an alien civilization.” Whoa.

Headline #2: He later said that we might communicate with the civilization that sent the probe, and “If these beings are peaceful, we could learn a lot from them.”

I’m a bit suspicious of those scientists who detected ‘Oumuamua said that they saw it “too late” in its journey to photograph it.

There is no photo of the object, but based on how it spins and how its brightness changes, it is assumed to look like a cigar. Or a pancake.

It was the deviation from the expected orbit that interested Loeb and some others.  Where is it getting the extra push in acceleration? Maybe it is the light from the sun. That would happen with a solar sail. But that would mean it would have to be less than a millimeter thick in order for that to work. And that would be mean that someone had made it.  A scout from a technological civilization?

Loeb admits that if some other distant civilization sent out ‘Oumuamua, they might not exist any more. We have sent out lots of stuff from the Voyager spacecrafts to episodes of I Love Lucy and by the time those aliens outside our solar system discover our stuff and figure out how to play that Voyager record and why Lucy always wanted to be in Ricky’s shows, we may not exist.

I hope one of us makes contact before it’s all over.


William Least Heat-Moon is best known for the now modern classic Blue Highways, a book I wrote about earlier here.

Since then, I read about another of his journeys that he chronicled in River Horse. This time he starts out from New York Harbor aboard a boat he named Nikawa which means “river horse” in Osage. 

His plan is to reach the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. He has a companion this time, a First Mate he calls Pilotis, as he attempts a 5000 mile water journey. 

This trip would be more miles than any other cross-country river traveler. He follows the path of some other famous inland explorers, such as Henry Hudson and Lewis and Clark. 

In some ways, this voyage is similar to his truck trip around the country. He runs into more real battles with nature (floods, submerged rocks, dangerous weather) but he also meets interesting and helpful people with tales of their own.

The landscapes of Blue Highways become riverscapes as they take the small motorized boat down rivers, lakes and canals from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The book also carries more of an ecological story about our lands and waters.

I still have a few other Heat-Moon books to read. I think my next one will be PrairyErth: A Deep Map. In that book, he sets off on foot. It is a big book (624 pages) and from reviews I have seen, it is quite different from Blue Highways and River Horse

PrairyErth is a term that Heat-Moon found in an old taxonomy to describe prairie soils. In this book, he does not attempt to walk across the country, but instead he picks a specific area of prairie. In the same way that Thoreau “traveled a good deal in Concord” and how Annie Dillard became a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in Virginia, Heat-Moon attempts to explore every bit of the 774 square miles of Chase County, Kansas in the geographical center of our country.

If this big book seems too much to take on right now, consider William Least Heat-Moon’s collection of short-form travel writing. Here, There, Elsewhere has short pieces on trips to Japan, England, Italy, and Mexico and also to Long Island, Oregon and Arizona. He visits and writes about small towns, big cities, the shorelines of our country and places hidden inland.

Today is January 14, 2019, according to the Gregorian calendar that you are likely to use, but in the Julian calendar this is the start of a new year.

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. The Gregorian January 14, 2019 is January 1 in the Julian calendar. So, today is the Julian New Year, also known as the Old New Year or the Orthodox New Year. The Christian Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar.

The Julian calendar was used worldwide for over 16 centuries. Not a bad run.

Another place that you will still see the Julian calendar used is with the dates of astronomical events that occurred before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582.


The date for the introduction of the Julian calendar was October 15, 1582 but, as you might guess, introducing a new calendar to the world could not really happen overnight. England kept the Julian calendar for another two centuries.

It was Pope Gregory who decreed that October 4, 1582 on the Julian calendar would be followed by October 15, 1582. That means that in 1582, there was no October 5 through 14. Strange days.

137When Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he wrote that “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42.”  He was joking, but I wonder if the answer really might be 137.

Take a look at one thing about 137 in mathematics: Using two radii to divide a circle according to the golden ratio yields sectors of approximately 137° (the golden angle) and 222°.

In physics, 137 is the approximate denominator of fine-structure constant. Being a dimensionless physical constant, it is approximately 1/137 and has the same numerical value in all systems of units.

Physicists have postulated for more than a hundred years that 137 might be at the center of a grand unified theory, relating theories of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics and, especially, gravity. It’s the DNA of an atom.

As the inverse of the fine-structure constant, it is related to the probability that an electron will emit or absorb a photon (Feynman’s conjecture).

Some physicists has suggested that if the number that unified the relationship between all these concepts turned out to be 1 or 3 or a multiple of pi, that would make more “sense.” But why 137?

Leon Lederman thought that because the number 137 “shows up naked all over the place,” that means that scientists on any planet in the universe using whatever units they have for charge or speed, and whatever their version of Planck’s constant may be, will all come up with 137, because it is a pure number.

But it shows up frequently outside of math and physics.

In mysticism, the Hebrew word קבלה (Kabbalah) has a Gematria (numerical value) of 137.  It describes the “corresponding loops” which clasped together enjoin the two sections of the Tabernacle’s ceiling. These loops divided the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies – the physical dimension and the spiritual dimension – and at the boundary line of the physical world, the number 137 emerges.

Moses’ Tabernacle, the earthly dwelling place of God, was 13.7 meters long. NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) has taken the best measurement of the age of the Universe to date. and ”scientists now have the best estimate yet on the age of the Universe: 13.7 billion years.”

Some people have therefore connected the science, math and mysticism. 137 refers to electrons and the odds of an electron absorbing a single photon, so in simple Kabbalah language, 137 is about Vessel and Light. It is about the physical body of man (Vessel) and our ability to ignite the Light in the soul.

One of the important physicists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman, wrote about the number 137:

“It has been a mystery ever since it was discovered more than fifty years ago, and all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it. It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the ‘hand of God’ wrote that number, and ‘we don’t know how He pushed his pencil.”

According to the Bible, Abraham died at age 175, but when he was commanded by God to offer his son up as a sacrifice, he was 137. According to the Torah, Moses’ father lived to 137, so did Ishmael and Levi.

Physicist Leon M. Lederman numbered his home near Fermilab 137.  He tried to unite the Ancient Greeks’ earliest scientific observations, Einstein, and the Higgs boson, which is nicknamed the God Particle.

“One hundred thirty-seven is the inverse of something called the fine-structure constant. …The most remarkable thing about this remarkable number is that it is dimension-free. …Werner Heisenberg once proclaimed that all the quandaries of quantum mechanics would shrivel up when 137 was finally explained.” ― Leon M. Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics, died in a hospital room numbered 137, a coincidence that disturbed him.

Physicist Pauli and psychoanalyst Carl Jung were both obsessed with the power of certain numbers, including 137. They were fascinated by the atom’s fine-structure constant and its Kabbalistic significance. They formed an unlikely friendship and began a mystical quest that led them through medieval alchemy, dream interpretation, and the Chinese Book of Changes.

They were two people who believed 137 was at the intersection of modern science with the occult, and that it was a mystical number with a meaning beyond physics.

In 137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession by Arthur I. Miller, it is reported that Pauli once said that if the Lord allowed him to ask anything he wanted, his first question would be “Why 1/137?”

Is there a primal number at the root of the universe
that everything in the world hinges on?


“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

That is how Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki begins. This is a book that I first read in college when I was, like many people my age in that time, exploring paths and philosophies. It may be the best known of all the American Zen books.

It is not a long book and that simple opening line is actually a good summary of what the book is about.

As I got deeper into and more serious about Zen Buddhism, I met people who considered “American Zen” to be a lazy path to true Zen. I was certainly a rather lazy American student of it. I was far less interested in learning about postures and breathing than I was supposed to be. I had a lot of trouble staying focused in zazen meditation sessions. “You have monkey mind,” said the abbot at a monastery I attended. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in a tree.” Yes. That’s also known as Attention Deficit Disorder.

I have returned to the book several times since that first encounter in an attempt to return to beginner’s mind – something that it is not easy to do.

Shoshin is the word in Zen Buddhism that translates to “beginner’s mind.” It means to have an attitude of openness to new things. It is that freshness, and eagerness we usually bring to something early on that interests us.

In a workshop I gave many years ago, I used many non-Buddhist examples, from a child with a new toy, to a person newly in love. Participants also came up with lots of examples, such as when you first begin a new hobby or sport, take up a musical instrument etc. In these situations, you truly have a beginner’s mind. What is much more difficult is to have that approach when you have progressed further – perhaps to the point of being an “expert.”

That attempt to once again be a beginner is why musicians go back to taking lessons. Any “back to basics” approach has a bit of that Zen approach in it. I had an art teacher who told me I should try painting with only one tube of paint. That was an attempt to get me to focus more on other aspects and forget about trying to get “the perfect flesh tone.” Why would a pro athlete or musician go back to doing beginner drills and exercises? Same thing.

I think of how Orson Welles approached his first film as a director, Citizen Kane. He had experience directing actors on stage and in radio plays, but film production was new. He came to it with a beginner’s mind free from preconceptions, even though some might have considered him at an advanced level in other ways. He wanted very deep focus shots with objects in the foreground and background all in focus. He wanted low angles that showed ceilings (something that wasn’t done at that time). He was told that those things just are not the films are made. He asked the kinds of questions that a child might ask. “Why can’t we do that?”

Welles and Toland

Welles and Toland set up below floor level for a low-angle shot

Luckily, Welles’ “teacher” was his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, who must have also had a beginner’s mind and was willing to approach something he was an expert at as if he was a beginner. They added ceilings and did those low angles. They figured out a way to do those long, deep focus shots.

The naturalist, Rachel Carson, wrote something that sounds like Zen.

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”

Lately, I have been thinking more about having that kind of mind in my close relationships. I believe I am relying too much on assumptions. Things do not seem “fresh.” I need to try to consciously to drop some of my assumed views. This is difficult.

The poet, Rilke, wrote:

“For there are moments, when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.”

Jeff Bridges gave a shoutout at the Golden Globe Awards this year to Buckminster Fuller for his observation about trim tabs. Jeff gave a brief description of these tabs. They are small surfaces that are connected to the trailing edge of a larger control surface. You can find them on boats and aircraft. On a large ship, it can be a smaller rudder attached to the larger main rudder.

Buckminster Fuller noticed that it is very difficult for a large ship to turn. Think about how the Titanic seeing an iceberg dead ahead began to turn but couldn’t do it in time. Bucky noticed that the trim tabs could counteract hydro-forces and stabilize the ship by adjusting the angle of the tab relative to the larger surface. These small things could have a big influence on the larger ones and therefore on the ship or plane.

Designer Buckminster Fuller (best known for popularizing the geodesic dome as a structure) saw the trim tab as a metaphor for leadership and personal empowerment. This is the meaning that Bridges referred.

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary—the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.”     (Playboy, February 1972)

Jeff Bridges likes to think that he has tried in his way to be a trim tab. Buckminster Fuller thought of himself as a trim tab and liked that as a nickname.  If you are a trim tab, you may not be famous, rich or powerful, but you can apply pressure to those larger surfaces who are powerful and who do steer the ship of state or any organization or even larger entities such as the environment.

Fuller grave

Gravestone for Buckminster Fuller (Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts)

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