May 27, 2009

Opening Directly into Starlight

While Margaret Atwood's fictional Republic of Gilead has now come vividly to life in Afghanistan, and some here at home some are arguing that being female is a disqualifying bias for a Supreme Court nominee, the quieter work of pushing awareness forward goes on. 
Last week I went to a lecture given by Dr. Patricia Burchat, an experimental particle physicist and chair of the Stanford Physics Department who also studies antimatter at our local linear accelerator in her spare time. Dr. Burchat works on and thinks about interconnections, and is particularly interested in figuring out the make-up of the fundamental constituents of the universe, a subject about which she says we have "vast ignorance." She explained in her lecture the processes used to determine how much of what is out there is out there -- how much luminous matter, how much dark matter, and how much dark energy -- and the research being done to find out what the what is made of. 
So far, based on how we currently measure, we can surmise that our universe is made up of about one-third visible/knowable stuff and invisible-but-reacts-to-gravity stuff, and 70% invisible, almost immeasurable, pulls-the universe-apart stuff. Also, space itself is like an ever-expanding gem-studded Slinky, and our planet a rhinestone stuck on for the ride. 
On the same day as Dr. Burchat's lecture, IBM officially announced that it has developed a new software (System S) that analyzes disparate data sets concurrently, in a stream, allowing researchers to quickly track the interconnections between things like financial data, current events, and weather patterns...or gas clouds, particle movements, sun spots, and cell phone disruptions.
Contrasting these advances in human understanding of understanding itself with, say, the Taliban's wholesale elimination of education for girls, or the rejection of the idea of evolution, or the push for hetero-only marriage, makes me think about whether we define reality correctly, or whether that is a subject about which we have vast ignorance as well. 
Or perhaps these contrasts just highlight the push-pull of comprehension. It often seems (from my own narrow perception) that what new knowledge can be comprehended by some will be comprehended in the here and now, and ideally be comprehended later by many more, and what old knowledge is comprehended by many now will be questioned by some, and ideally reframed, later. But its always a fight. 
I just don't know why its a fight. I mean, I don't comprehend why the infusion of new knowledge about humanness (like that women can have intellectual heft, that information can be poured into a stream of interconnection and be clearly understood, that educating girls has positive practical impacts, that marriage can be defined as a commitment beyond parenthood) is met with resistance at all. Ever. 
Surely this resistance has a purpose, but what is the overall purpose? Preservation? Some inherent aspect of evolution? Noise making? A time-allowance to express emotions about change? A desire to hold on to one's own inch of turf? A fear of offending a vengeful god? 
I can imagine that all of those forms of resistance are, for those resisting, quite valid. 
But in truth, I do wonder how much all that resistance matters...if after all we really are just denizens of one of the billions of gems in a BeDazzled Slinky universe that is itself being pulled apart by vast amounts of weird, amazing, impossible dark energy.

May 19, 2009

How to Compile an Inventory

I have to admit it is difficult to not throw something at the television when watching old white men, some of whom are professionally celibate, discuss the "issue of abortion." 
I just had a similar reaction watching Vikram Pandit try to be cool, and Jack Welch get flushed and cranky, as they discussed the perilous state of capitalism and their concerns about regulation. They certainly don't want too much regulation over private interests and investment because that would be bad, bad, bad. But by contrast, lots of regulation regarding female reproduction is fine?
I feel the same way when I hear people discuss the issue of school violence, specifically Columbine and Virginia Tech, as if these violent events reflect a broad problem in "today's youth." No, this is not a problem with today's youth. This has been a problem among a subset of boys. Shooting up schools is not a problem among girls, who are fully 50% of the aforementioned youth. But this is never the lede, and the headline is usually gender-free. 
And oddly enough, this is true with the issue of abortion as well. Honestly, I felt that Obama's mention that abortion is a "wrenching choice for a woman" was almost a footnote in his speech at Notre Dame, not the centerpiece it should be. The operative word there being woman, not wrenching. For many women, I am sure the choice is not at all wrenching. But it sure as hell is a choice about a procedure that no one who is without ovaries will have to undertake. 
I have never accepted this false parity between the genders on issues of violence and reproduction, and have never understood this hypocrisy about the regulation of private interests either. I do not see the rationality of the arguments presented by people who claim to be "deeply committed" to the issues. 
Why advertise an epidemic of school violence as a youth issue when it is clearly a gender issue, unless you have no real investment in getting to a solution? Why advertise that the "abortion issue" is something that should be seen through the lens of a church headed by celibate men, unless you wish to keep the "abortion issue" permanently unresolved? Why protest against any government regulation of disastrously unregulated capital markets (or sow the fear of a permanent socialist state when these regulations are tested) unless you have no true interest in regaining any semblance of balance?
Which makes me wonder yet again about what deep commitment to an issue actually is, for others. And to worry that it is often simply a commitment to propelling oneself forward, not to fixing a problem. 
Or perhaps it is simply a commitment to making noise about action, any action at all, because taking action (even action about nothing) is what living is supposedly about. 
I think perhaps writer Umberto Eco provided the perfect description: "I had to set up a committee of logicians, who suspended their own researches for three days. In my statement of the problem they saw something comparable to The Set of Normal Sets. Then they decided that the act of compiling an inventory, as it is an act, is not an object and therefore cannot be inventoried, but they further decided that its output is the catalogue of the inventory and, as this is an object, it can be inventoried. We asked the private firm to bill us not for the act but for its result, a result that we then inventoried. For several days I distracted serious scholars from their specific tasks, but I avoided going to jail."

May 12, 2009

Modes of Association

New research into memory (and the mapping of the brain's management of memory) has led to an astounding result: the development of an experimental drug that, when delivered to a certain area of the brain, could disable the connections between the cells that hold a memory within the brain, and effectively erase that memory and its associations. 
The positive spin on this development is that it makes it possible to think of a future where people are not plagued by addiction, for example, or traumatic stress. Which is a creepily delightful refutation of the mantra that everything happens for a reason...because now the things you didn't really want to happen to you, or didn't really want to witness, can be undone. But what if those memories you'd like to delete provide the underpinnings of your identity or your ethical conscience? That is a whole other sticky issue.
Memory is the field any artist plows through every day, turning earth to reveal the tender and the grotesque. I wouldn't choose to take the drug. Besides, while being alive means being conscious of self, it also means being conscious of (and taking in) how others' memories have shaped them, wounded them, strengthened them. 
About ten years ago, I sat in my friend Mary's living room and had an intense conversation with her house guest -- a woman in her late 60's who told me that her family had been murdered twenty years earlier. She explained that her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild had been at Jonestown and had been killed by Jim Jones. I'd never met anyone who had been so closely connected to that (or any) act of violence, and had no idea I ever would meet someone just sitting near me in a living room in Philadelphia whose adult life was so shaped by that experience.
This woman lived her experience, and I simply heard from her about it -- but my brain has retained the memory of her words, her face, the light in the room, the lumpiness of the couch I was sitting on at the time. The question is, what triggered the retention of that memory for me, the listener? The easy way out is to claim emotional impact, but this was not the first time she had told the story, and this was not a person I had any connection with before (or since) that day. In truth, I think it imprinted because it triggered a question in my mind; time froze there -- the light, the couch, her words -- and I knew she was describing anguish I have never (and hopefully will never) have to suffer about people I love, but I also knew she was talking about a kind of thinking that she could not understand. 
She told me she had never understood her child's commitment to the idea of Jonestown, and she also did not understand why people spoke about the victims there as if they were the agents of their own lives. And what imprinted for me as a memory was precisely that ethical quandary -- I too could not understand how people wind up in situations that demand an exchange of group acceptance for their free will. I think its what triggered my brain to retain the conversation, because considering will, agency, morality, and choice is what my brain has always spent a lot of time doing.
Of course, I'd want to give her the memory-erasing drug, to somehow ease the pain of her horrific loss. 
But I don't know that she'd choose the same. 

May 7, 2009

Parallel Action

The mold of nostalgia seems to have almost entirely covered the edifice of the Republican party at this point. 
It has been noted that this slow suffocation has been occurring as the country is becoming "less white" and "less Christian." 
That kind of pronouncement makes me laugh, based as it is on the Toby-Keith-ish-full-of-fear idea that the country is supposed to be a certain (magically predetermined) percentage white and Christian, in order to maintain its status as America. As if a non-majority white/Christian America is a blighted wasteland, a country with no history, too horrifying a fate to imagine. 
Not to unduly disdain my own tribe but...I think American history has shown that when freaked-out, gun-toting Christian whiteys run the show, it can have pretty frightening consequences. Take Texas Governor Rick Perry. He was just ranting a few weeks ago about his state's sovereign right to secede (because the prevailing values of the nation are not shared by him and his party, and therefore should not be permitted to infect Texas), talk that sounded a lot like that of George Wallace, or even Jefferson Davis. At least now we citizens get to see it all, via the pointedly non-nostalgic interwebs, and can make up our own individual minds about the weight (or weightlessness) of Governor Perry's convictions.
And, at the very same time that Maine and New Hampshire are using the powers of their sovereign state legislatures to enact laws that allow and protect gay marriage, Louisiana and Arkansas are supporting an anti-gay families bulwark, based on the Sarah-Palin-reads-the-bible-endorsed idea that the sole purpose of marriage is to create more people. Even though someone in her family just made another person...outside of marriage. 
Its an interesting moment, and it is fascinating to watch the mold grow, and to see in real time how a lack of imagination about an unmapped future reveals itself as serious mental constraint.