Doomsday 2021

Some late-night thoughts that hopefully won’t color the weekend in shades of gray and black…

I checked in on the Doomsday Clock this week.

The clock was devised by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project. They started the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1945 and the Doomsday Clock came in 1947. They took the idea of doomsday/apocalypse and represented it on the clock as midnight. They would evaluate nuclear threats to humanity and set the clock so that it represented a countdown to midnight. They reset it every year.

I last checked the Doomsday Clock in November 2019 and it was 11:58 pm. Two minutes to Doomsday. 2020 had enough doom and gloom so I never checked.  Today the clock is 20 seconds to midnight. And seconds matter. That’s the same place that it was set in 2020. I suppose that is a glint of optimism – things haven’t gotten worse – though it is not really optimistic.

The Doomsday Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons. In 1947, nuclear war was THE threat to the planet. But climate change and disruptive technologies in other domains have been added to the calculation.

The Bulletin did not ignore the pandemic.

“Humanity continues to suffer as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world. In 2020 alone, this novel disease killed 1.7 million people and sickened at least 70 million more. The pandemic revealed just how unprepared and unwilling countries and the international system are to handle global emergencies properly. In this time of genuine crisis, governments too often abdicated responsibility, ignored scientific advice, did not cooperate or communicate effectively, and consequently failed to protect the health and welfare of their citizens.
As a result, many hundreds of thousands of human beings died needlessly”

The clock is reset in January each year. Things have been better, but never worse. It is the closest to Doomsday it has been in the history of the Doomsday Clock.

Doomsday clock
Image: Janet Loehrke, USA TODAY

 

I think I will take a look again in January 2022. But maybe I will only report back to you if there is some improvement. After all, Paradelle is supposed to be where I escape. But I know that there is no escape from Doomsday.

Autumn Comes But Twice a Year

autumn sunrise

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

I suspect your calendar says autumn will arrive on September 22, but it arrived on the first of September along with some violent weather that arrived in Paradelle.

By the meteorological calendar, the first day of autumn is always  September 1 and the season ends November 30. The meteorological calendar defines the season quite cleanly as spring (March, April, May), summer (June, July, August), autumn (September, October, November) and winter (December, January, February).

Most of us were taught that the seasons change with solstices and equinoxes.  Those are the astronomical seasons that follow the position of Earth in relation to the sun. Meteorological seasons follow the annual temperature cycle and match our Gregorian calendar.

The dates of the Equinox and Solstice aren’t fixed due to the Earth’s elliptical orbit of the Sun. The Earth’s orbit around the Sun is closest (perihelion) in early January. In early July,  it is most distant (aphelion). That always seems odd to people. Closer is not warmer. Farther is not colder.

On the autumn equinox, day and night are of roughly equal length. Nights become increasingly longer than the days – something you are no doubt are already observing. The pattern reverse with the spring equinox.

So, when is it really the start of autumn? For those of us living on the top half of the Earth, I say it is with the autumn equinox when the northern hemisphere begins to tilt away from the Sun. That means less direct sunlight hits us so temperatures cool.

The end of summer in September – and hopefully early October – is one of my favorite times of the year.  In some years and in some places in the north, we may get what has become known as “Indian Summer” – that imaginary season that occurs when temperatures are more summer than autumn from late September to mid-November.

I love it when summer gets a second chance. Sometimes the universe doesn’t play by the rules of meteorology and astronomers.

Caffeine and Consciousness

coffee tea

Like a number of things, coffee, or rather caffeine, seems to be good for you and then bad for you depending on what year we are in.

Currently, caffeine “contributes much more to your health than it takes away.” Says who? Says food, drink and psychedelics writer Michael Pollan.  Caffeine has been shown to improve focus and memory, and even your ability to learn. Did you pull some caffeine-fueled late-night study sessions in college? Did it work?

Caffeine doesn’t help most people sleep. I avoid it after 3 pm but my wife can have an espresso before bedtime and sleep the same.

I don’t know if I’m so much a caffeine fan as I am a coffee and tea fan. I even like herbal teas (no caffeine and technically not tea but tisanes) and decaf drinks. But considering that caffeine keeps me awake at night, I suppose that my morning coffee must do the opposite. I do know that when I tried going decaffeinated I experienced severe headaches for a week. Withdrawal from cold turkey.

I have read a half dozen books by Pollan and written about him before. He is a good, serious and interesting writer. Pollan wrote Caffeine: How coffee and tea created the modern world as an audiobook. It’s not that the Enlightenment occurred because of coffee but “Isaac Newton was a big coffee fan… and Voltaire apparently had 72 cups a day,” writes Pollan.

Ah, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution. Big things that owe something to the coffee house. These places appeared London around 1650.

Coffee houses quickly found their clientele which gathered around interests, like literature, and professions, like writers, poets, philosophers and scientists. There was even one dedicated to selling stocks. Eventually, that one became the London Stock Exchange.

Sober and civil drinking – pub – changed the way people thought and worked. Well, alcohol was safer than most drinking water. But boiling water had benefits then too.

Pollan has also written This Is Your Mind on Plants which is a broader look at how we rely on plants. They give us sustenance, beauty, medicine, fragrance, flavor, fiber. But the book’s focus is on how they change our consciousness. Plants can stimulate or calm. They can temporarily tweak our consciousness or completely alter it.

We don’t think of caffeine as a drug. We don’t consider daily users as addicts. Well, it is legal, socially acceptable and readily available. Pollan wants people to rethink that. Drug or medicine? You can make a drink from the leaves of a tea plant and that’s fine. Make a drink from the seed head of an opium poppy and you break a federal law. In This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan goes deep into three plant drugs – opium, caffeine, and mescaline.

It probably seems odd to you to group caffeine in with opium and mescaline. It seemed odd to me considering those first London coffee houses were almost the opposite of the pubs and opium smokers. And those philosophers like Kant, Voltaire and Kierkegaard weren’t just having a cup with breakfast. They were mainlining their caffeine and it seemed to work.

I’m writing this at 6 pm. No caffeine since 1 pm. I wonder what I would have written after several 16 once dark roasts at 11 am.

Listen to Michael Pollan talk about how he gave up caffeine entirely for three months while working on his audiobook, Caffeine, and he says “I recommend it. I had some great sleeps.” But he also had an unexpected loss of confidence and lack of focus as he went through withdrawal.

Spiraling Nature

pumpkin spirals
Tendrils of pumpkin (Cucurbita) under magnification. From Karl Blossfeldt’s 1928 Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) — Source.

I was weeding around my pumpkin plants this week and marveling at how the tendrils grab hold of almost anything nearby.

But why do they make spirals and not just one loop around the object?

spirals ear

And why do helical seashells resemble spiraling galaxies and the human heart?

spirals ear
From  Pettigrew’s Design in Nature (1908), illustrating the resemblance between spiral shell formations and bony portions of the inner ear — Source.

Sorry, I don’t have the answers. I’m just asking the questions here. I’m not sure I want answers. Some mystery is still desired in this world.

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The Traveler

man and dog

I’m passing along my version of a very short story which you can find online in other versions.

A man and his dog were traveling a road and enjoying the mild winter day when it suddenly occurred to him that he was dead.

He remembered dying. He remembered that the dog had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was taking them.

They came to a fork in the road at the bottom of a hill and he saw that the way to the left led to a tall arch that glowed beautifully in the sunlight. He took that road and when he approached the hilltop arch the road before it appeared to be paved with gold. A magnificent gate in the arch looked like it was made of mother-of-pearl. As he and the dog got closer, he saw a man at a desk to the side of the gate.

“Excuse me, where are we?’ he asked the man at the desk.
‘This is Heaven, sir,” the man answered.
“Would you happen to have some water?’ the man asked.
“Of course, sir. Come in, and you can have some cold spring water.”

The gate began to open.

“The water is also for my friend,” the traveler said, gesturing toward his dog.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t allow animals here.”

The man thought a moment and then turned back down the hill and at the fork took the other road. It was a long walk and the man and dog walked it slowly.

At the top of the hill was a dirt road leading through an open farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed. There was no fence. As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, leaning against a tree and reading a book.

“Excuse me!’ he called to the man. ‘Do you have any water?”
‘Yes, there’s a pump over there. Come in.”
“How about my friend here?'”said the traveler and gestured to the dog.
“There is a bowl by the pump.”

They went through the gate, and next to an old-fashioned hand pump was a bowl. The traveler filled the bowl and took a drink and then set it down for his dog.

He turned to the man by the tree.

“What do you call this place?’ the traveler asked.
“This is Heaven,” he answered.
“That’s strange. The man down the road said that was Heaven.”
“The place with the gold road and pearly gates? That’s Hell.”
“Doesn’t it make you angry that they falsely use your name like that?” asked the traveler.
“No, we’re happy that they screen out the folks who would leave their friends behind.”

The Return of the Dog Days

dog days
Once again, we enter the Dog Days of summer. These 40 days of especially hot and humid weather often have little rainfall, but here in the Paradelle Northeast of the U.S. we have been getting a lot of rain with our 90+ degree days and humidity.

The ancient Greeks believed that Sirius, the “dog star” was rising with the Sun at this time was adding to the Sun’s heat. After all, since Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, they assumed it would be a second Sun and give off heat like our nearest star.

Sirius is called the Dog Star because it’s part of the constellation Canis Major (Greater Dog).  Sirius means sparkling or scorching which is certainly what it seemed like to early astronomers. Sirius is almost twice as bright as Canopus, the next brightest star.

Those ancients also believed that the weather made dogs go mad. The Romans unfortunately tried to appease Sirius by sacrificing a brown dog at the start of the Dog Days.

Ancient Egyptians saw this time of Sirius arriving with the Sun as the beginning of the Nile’s flooding season. It was also their time for New Year celebrations.

“Dog Days” has become in modern times a term for any period of stagnation or inactivity. Wall Street marks this period as a generally slow and sluggish time for the markets (though earnings do create some heat).

star chart
via Etsy