Archive for October, 2010

(fairies love the morning dew)

It’s fall…the leaves are turning, morning mists rising up off the hills, squashes are ripe. Round this time of year somebody always seems to mention cryptically that “the veil between the worlds is thinnest now…”  Fall does seem to be imbued with qualities that can only be described of as mysterious, beguiling and occasionally downright frightful. Look at the fall time holidays: There is the Christian All Souls Day, commemorating the lives of the faithful dead; the Chinese celebrate Qingming Festival, also called Ancestor’s Day; the Buddhist Ghost Day, when the dead visit the living; the Gaelic Samhain Festival, which also has aspects of a festival of the dead.

Now, while I don’t disagree with the cryptic folk who tell me that the veil is thin during this time of year, I’ve never been able to say why that might be. I can feel that it is true. Standing in the quiet street at the end of September watching the sun set, gold with ruby tint against the iron green Doug Firs in the distance, I could almost hear them whispering, I could almost see them swirling in and out of the fast fading rays. (Almost, but not quite. The otherworldly are, at least for me, not a sensible crowd. I have to feel them instead.)

But what is it about the fall that allows the otherworlds such an imminent and palpable connection? Upon completing a walking meditation (with my dog at the park) I began to formulate some answers. Almost all of our rituals and celebrations have their roots deep in the world of the ancients. Many of these activities were developed in order to understand and work with the energies and cycles of the earth, because the lives of those who participated depended on the positive outcome of these cycles. The ancients knew that in the fall, the crops were done. Their usefulness had come to and end and they returned to the earth. Animals retreated underground along with the energy of the plants that sustained them. This was the cycle in which the hand of death reached into the world of the living, touching everything in it. To the ancients, it probably wasn’t hard to see that this hand of death crossing over like a bridge from the world of the dead allowed for the temporary re-entry from that other world.

Fall is a time when cycles end, whether they be crop cycles, life cycles or seasonal cycles. It is the beginning of the end and this is a somber time as well as a time to celebrate what has passed before us.

Whether you experience this time of year as a time to settle down and look within or as a time to honor those who came and went before you or simply as a the end point of another beautifully engineered cycle, it seems really important to recognize and give thanks for all the beauty around us and to honor the sacredness of the great mysteries of life…

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(John Martin-Le Pandemonium)

Lots of people know about Lucifer. Some people picture him with red horns and a pointy tail, sitting on a steamy rock throne in hell. Others picture a white guy lurking on lonely roadsides waiting for a country boy with a fiddle or a guitar to come by for a healthy competition. Then there’s Lucifer as a fallen angel, used to be God’s right-hand-man, but went to the dark side instead.

Rudolf Steiner had a slightly different take on the devil and his purposes. I don’t think I can say this any more succinctly than Bobby Mathurne in his review of Steiner’s book The Influences of Lucifer and Ahriman:

In Christian theology the forces of Christ are set against the forces of the devil who represents in one figure all that is evil, and one is exhorted to abjure all that is of the devil. This might lead one to wonder, “How is the knowledge of good and evil bad? Isn’t that what the devil in the Garden of Eden wanted to share with Adam and Eve?”

Steiner divides the devil into two beings, Lucifer and Ahriman, and shows us how neither is bad per se, each provides gifts to human beings that further our evolution, and that it is us who must learn to balance these gifts in our individual lives. His recommendation for a solution to the problem of the devil is to transcend the tendency towards either Luciferic frenzy or Ahrimanic tedium by creating a spirit-filled synthesis of the two in our lives from now on.

Luciferic Traits, Attributes Ahrimanic Traits, Attributes
frenzy, hyperactivity tedium, boredom
unification, generalization diversity, particularization
one language many languages
gnosis, speaking and thinking statistics, proof, literal Gospel reading
qualitative quantitative
fantasy, illusion, superstition concrete sensory-based, materialism
spirit-permeated cosmology mathematical astronomy
eating & drinking w/o spirituality un-read knowledge stored in libraries
unified vision [United Nations] individual vision [Chauvinism]
flexibility, airy solidification, granite-like
the high flight of Icarus the humility of Francis Bacon
pagan wisdom technological advances

(table taken from Mathurne’s review)

In short, Lucifer embodies passion, overindulgence, expansion, beauty, hedonism, bigger, better and more, more more!! Ahriman, on the other hand embodies coldness, separation, exactitude, control, contraction, compartmentalized, tighter, smaller, and less, less, and less.  Steiner said that Lucifer was incarnated onto the earth (into a human form) during the third millennium before Christ was born (2000 BCE) in the far East of China. Since Christ incarnated in Middle East, Steiner foretold that Ahriman would incarnate onto the earth in the West during the third millennium after Christ’s death (2000 CE).

So who is this philistine fellow who is purportedly presently walking amongst us? The idea of Ahriman originally came from Zoroastrian religious text written in ancient Persia. He he was called Angra Mainyu by Zarathustra, the ancient Iranian prophet who brought Zoroastrianism to the Middle East. Zarathusthra taught that there are two competing forces in the world. The first is Ahura Mazda, the benevolent instrument of “Bounteous Principle,” and the second is the malevolent force of Ahriman/Angra Mainyu, the destructive principle. Steiner modified this character a bit. He chose to turn the duality into a trinity, with Christ in the middle, holding the balance.

Whether or not you choose to believe that Ahriman is born again as Steiner prophesied, there does seem to be a decidedly Ahrimanic force seeping ever stonger into our cultural frame work. Whether you label it “tea party movement” or “defense of marriage act” or “880+ billion dollars spent on the military during the fiscal year of 2010,” there’s an awful lot of cold-hearted, over literally translated compartmentalization going on here. These types of examples gathering speed alongside a huge population of disheartened and apathetic masses who use denial their main method of coping certainly could portend a growing oppositional force in the Western world today.

So what’s to be done to head off the evil spectre of Ahriman? Steiner has some suggestions, which I will summarize in a later posting. Thoughts on this?

(Rudolf Steiner-Representative of Man)

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Aristotle had done ancient and medieval astronomers a considerable service by drawing a line between physics and the mathematical sciences, including astronomy, in a way that could be interpreted to mean that astronomers need not search for Aristotelian “causes” for celestial motions. By Ptolemy’s day, it had become routine to invent devices such as the epicycle and equant that yielded reliable predictions, without any need to explain what might cause the planets to move in the manner prescribed by those devices. In fact, to declare that Ptolemy either did or did not think the planets literally move in the way these mechanisms had them moving would be to misunderstand him. In the absence of any remote chance of conclusive direct evidence one way or the other, there was much to be said for not belaboring that question–maybe for not even realizing the possibility of such a question. A man who worried about whether his mathematical system represented literal reality was an exception. This was not an intellectual situation confined to the ancients. A similar mind-set exists today at the leading edge of theoretical physics. (Kitty Ferguson, Tycho and Kepler)

Ptolemy couldn’t get his geocentric model to work right with his observations of the skies. Why did some planets appear to move backwards sometimes? Why do planets change their speeds? He scratched his head and went to work fudging the equations to make it work, because it simply had to work. There wasn’t any other viable option (nevermind that pesky Aristarchus…crazy sun centered fool!).

But Kepler knew better. Kepler was a Copernican. He knew that the earth was just another planet warlbling her way along some invisible path around the sun. What Kepler meant to figure out was how to work the math that really and truly described what was happening in the sky, not just fudged numbers.

Was Kepler a crazy maniacal bulldog who hated Brahe’s fame/weath/success and ultimately poisoned Brahe with mercury in order to steal his observations? Or was Kepler a mild mannered–if perhaps slightly abrasive–fellow, who waited patiently for old Brahe to decide to hand over the observations, coincidentally dying a few short days later? I’m afraid we shall never know. What we do know is that Kepler obsessed and guessed and checked  and took long walks and stayed up all night and made tables and pictures and wrote chapters and ignored his wife for years and years, whittling away at his theories, before finally solving Ptolemy’s problem of planets that go backward and change speeds. (I won’t try to rehash all that math gnashing for you. If you’re interested, there’s a great math gnash rehash here). I’ll just give you the short skinny:

Kepler ultimately discovered that planets travel in ellipses rather than in circles. They speed up when they are closer to the sun, because of the sun’s gravitational pull. Because the planets don’t travel at the same speeds, some planets may “lap” each other, so to speak, which causes Ptolemy’s problem of planets that appear to be moving backwards.

(NASA SP-4212)

That may sound rather anticlimactic but please rest assured this seemingly simple deduction was perfectly outrageous in the early 1600’s (even Copernicus had his planets traveling in perfect little o’s). Kepler’s discovery reformed all of astronomy, eventually leading to the formation of the laws of planetary motion. These laws, along with Newton’s mathematical theories, gave rise to a new generation of modern astronomy and physics.

From the time Kepler first began working with Tycho’s data at Benatky, he chose to let the tight constraints of mathematical/geometrical logic and precise observations be his primary guides and to give them, for a while, precedence over the [ancient Greek] ideas of symmetry and harmony. Kepler was setting a precedence still followed in science, where symmetry, harmony and logical beauty are not the most important criteria for judging whether a theory is correct. (Kitty Ferguson, Tycho and Kepler)

ps. Kepler really was the Imperial Mathematician for Rudolph II. One of his jobs was to do astrological readings for the Royalty.

pps. His mom was arrested and taken to jail when she was 74 years old, accused of being a witch by some meddling neighbors. Kepler and his lawyer wrote up a 126 page legal brief to try and get her acquitted, but it was his mother’s own verbal defense in the presence of a bailiff and a torturer which ultimately saved her. The neighbors were charged 10 florins (about a dollar and a half) for the false report.

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The last two astronomers I’m going to expound upon have a book written about them entitled Tycho and Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed our Understanding of the Heavens. It’s written by a woman named Kitty Ferguson. (I love that name…Kitty Ferguson…what a terrific marriage of whimsy and pragmatism!) Usually I find historical non-fiction books a bit dry, but this one was rather a good read. I think it might be the first book of it’s type that I read all the way through and mostly in order. Usually I get bored and skip around a lot, which sometimes leads to eventual completion and other times to confusion and abandonment.

Anyway.  Tycho (pronounced like Tee-ko or more accurately Tÿcho, which was a Latinized version of his given name Tyge) Brahe and Johannes Kepler were unlikely candidates for “The Partnership that Forever Changed the Way We View the Heavens.” Here’s a little breakdown of what I’ve learned from Kitty Ferguson (I’ll do Tycho first, he was older):

Tycho Brahe was born in Denmark in 1546, into a family of great wealth. When he was two years old, his aunt and uncle (his father’s brother) kidnapped him from his parent’s castle and took him to their own castle a few hours away. Apparently his parents didn’t mind so very much that he was stolen from them. His father Otte did threaten to murder his brother if Tycho wasn’t returned, but they never made any attempt to retrieve him. This may have had to do with the fact that Otte’s wife Beate gave birth to eleven children and Jørgen and Inger, the aunt and uncle, had none, save young Tycho.

The kidnapping turned out to be a boon for Tycho, because his aunt Inger’s family were scholors, while the Brahe’s were militiamen. Otte felt that there was no need to study Latin, while Inger’s family made certain that Tycho had the best education available at the time. (One of Inger’s closest friends was Princess Anne of Denmark, one of the few recorded female alchemists.) Tycho grew up to be very suave and confident as he mingled with royalty. He understood etiquette and custom to a fine, fine point. His style and flair at kingly court was matched only by his exacting methodology and mathematical genius. Jørgen wanted Tycho to become a lawyer but Tycho wanted only to study the stars, which he did secretly, unbeknownst to the “preceptor” (sort of like a mild spy/nanny) that Jørgen hired to attend University of Copenhagen with fifteen-year-old Tycho.

Eventually Jørgen died and Tycho was able to study the skies out of the closet, so to speak. (He was still hampered by the fact that noblemen were not supposed to lower themselves to such petty careers as scientists, but he was able to find ways to buck that system as he grew older more savvy to the politics of the day.) Shortly after his foster father’s death, Tycho had an argument with a cousin over which man was the better mathematician. The quarrel came to blows and a portion of Tycho’s nose was severed. It took him a full season to heal from the wound, but in this time his lifelong interest in medicinal alchemy was set. Tycho had a two new noses sculpted from metal–one of lightweight copper for everyday use, and another of gold and silver mixed together (fleshtone) for special occasions. He attached the nose to his face with special adhesive salve.

Tycho eventually became the premier astronomer in Europe during a time of great observation and theory making. Tycho rejected Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, although he knew things weren’t so simple as Ptolemy made them out to be. Tycho tried to have his cake and eat it too, coming up with the geo-heliocentric model: the Moon and the Sun revolve around the Earth, everything else revolves around the Sun.

Not surprisingly, it was Tycho’s astronomical observations and the instruments he invented and built to make them (along with his political schmoozing) and not fabulous attempt at a new cosmological theory that made him famous. Tycho built three huge observatories in his life, Uraniborg and Stjerneborg on the island of Hven in Denmark and another outside Prague later in his life. He spent forty years attempting to make the world’s most accurate empirical measurements of the stars, planets, and comets.

Interesting Brahe-ian tidbits:

Wikipedia says that Tycho kept a clairvoyant dwarf and a court jester at his lavish observatory on the Danish island Hven. He also had a beloved tame moose-like animal, which got into the beer hold one evening, became intoxicated and died falling down the stairs of the castle. This marked the beginning of a very sad time in Tycho’s life.

Tycho was incredibly secretive of his observational records, preferring to keep them to himself and a very close assistants, rather than publish them. He was fearful that other would-be astronomers would steal his ideas, which they often ended up doing anyway.

Tycho Brahe published several books (some from his personal printing press at Hven) despite the fact that noblemen weren’t supposed to stoop to such lowly scholarly activities.

Tycho tutored a young, upstart Protestant mathematician named Johannes Kepler who was fleeing a spirituality torn Germany. Tycho was suspicious that Kepler was a spy for many, many months and refused to show Kepler his life’s work of observations until a few days prior to his death.

Tycho died of either a.) a burst bladder brought on by the fact that he wouldn’t get up to urinate during a royal dinner (it wasn’t polite) or b.) he was poisoned with mercury by an unknown murderer.

More on Johannes Kepler next time around…

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Last night I looked at M13, M57, Jupiter and his four Galilean moons, the Swan Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy, and Comet Hartley, all through a majorly big telescope (24 inch Cassegrain) at Pine Mountain Observatory. The inside of the telescope looked like this (although this is actually the inside of the 32 inch experimental scope):

While I really enjoyed seeing all the space phenomena, the Jupiter and the Galilean moons was the real show stealer. It looked a lot like this, only we were able to see four moons:

So, the above image is what one can see with a 24 inch aperture telescope hooked up to a computer with an electric motor tracking device. This telescope magnifies an object more than 200 times. However, the first time that anyone saw Jupiter and these moons, he was looking through a .5 inch aperture telescope that magnified an object 15-20 times. It was wintertime in 1610 and Galileo had had a terrific idea on how to use the newly invented “Dutch perspective glass” (which appears to have mostly been used during the daytime hours).

On January 7th, Galileo made the first observations of Jupiter and the moons that surrounded it. At first he thought the moons were small stars, but as he observed their movement over the next several days, he realized that the “stars” were in orbit around Jupiter. Now to our modern ears this may not seem very shocking, but up until this point in history (and well past it too, unfortunately for Galileo) folks adhered to Aristotelean/Ptolemaic Cosmology, which states that everything orbits around the Earth. Galileo also observed the phases of Venus, which are only possible if Venus is orbiting the sun and not the Earth. Ptolemy’s model was proven untenable and anybody with one of them newfangled perspective scopes could see it. The Church’s most serious bout of scientist theory whack-a-mole had begun.

Galileo went to the Catholic Church to ask permission to write about his discoveries. While the Inquisition did not refuse Galileo’s request, they did require Galileo to adhere to a few key requirements. Galileo was not to “hold or defend” the idea of heliocentrism, he must also give arguments for geocentrism, and he must give forth the views of Pope Urban VII within the text. Galileo agreed to these requirements and his book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was published in 1632.

Unfortunately and unwittingly (he claimed) Galileo chose to name the fictional character who spoke the Pope’s views “Simplicio,” a name which loosely translates into “simpleton” in Italian. The Pope didn’t think that was very funny. The Inquisition called him to Rome to defend his writings. In 1633, he was ordered to stand trial for heresy, of which he was found guilty. He was forced, with threat of death, to recant his belief in heliocentrism and placed on house arrest for the rest of his life (another nine years).

It’s not all a sad ending. During the last nine years of his life, Galileo wrote the book Two New Sciences on the mechanics and motion of objects and the strengths of different materials, which led to his title as the “father of modern physics.” Also, he did live to be 77 years old in an age where the average expectancy was 35. That’s pretty good too.

Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science. His renowned conflict with the Catholic Church was central to his philosophy, for Galileo was one of the first to argue that man could hope to understand how the world works, and, moreover, that we could do this by observing the real world. –Stephen Hawking

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