Listening to the Music of the Spheres: Arecibo

December 26, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Posted in Travels | Leave a comment
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When I was growing up, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos awoke my curiosity about the vastness of the universe. Eschewing jargon, it got at the core concepts of astronomy, speculations regarding extra-terrestrial life and the wondrously ungraspable scope of the universe beyond. It brought out the delight and the heady excitement of the possibilities implied by the vastness of space out there. I loved the idea of becoming an astronomer and even did a junior high school research project on radio astronomy, in preparation for my scientific career.

But, as the years went by, I discovered that Sagan’s portrayals were at the level of concept. The real, day-to-day encounters with the wider universe were via a language of complex equations and mathematics–and knowledge was advanced in tiny increments, with only the occasional burst of revelation.

I became drawn, instead, to the speculative worlds of sf/f. It was the human story that most fascinated me. I was intrigued by the things that remain common to all of us, and the things that shape us differently, from society, to society. What are foundational paradigms, and what are culturally-shaped perspectives? The lines between those two divisions fascinated–and continue to fascinate–me. My only return to the wonders of physics was via widely-accessible public lectures, or books like A Brief History of Time, which brought out the wonder of the quantum and the macro-worlds, without resorting to the daunting idioms of scientific jargon.

Still, I retained a fondness for those years of looking up at the night sky and being carried by a giddy yearning to know more–for that vertiginous sense of the vastness, and of our tininess. That sense of being poised on the surface a spinning globe that hurtles through space at extraordinary speeds. I still feel that sense of wonder and delight when I look up at the sky above. And so, when we had the opportunity to go to Puerto Rico, a visit to the Arecibo observatory was an absolute must.

The road to and from the observatory was often unpaved, twisting and turning through dense thickets–too narrow, in many places, to admit more than one car at a time. If you encountered another vehicle, you had to engage in the little ritual of determining who would pull over onto the shoulder and allow the other to pass.

On the way, we ate at a roadside place that served a hearty chicken and plantain stew on rice–our first encounter with plantains and that distinctive bananna flavour in a non-sweet context. It was tasty, though I ended up eating around the chicken (I’m unfortunately finicky about chicken). Then, back on the road in our rental car, bouncing and bumping our way through the daunting landscape as we crossed our fingers against flat tires or car breakdowns. No four-bar coverage in this vicinity. And then, a final turn, and signs, welcoming us to our destination.

The radio telescope is a vast dish, made of mesh, so the rain can fall through. Underneath, shade loving plants thrive. The surface of the bowl, like everything else, is subject to the entropy of the tropical climate–the discolorations of rain, humidity and the small mildews and fungii that propagate in such climates were starting to take their toll. And yet, it was still so impressive–this vast bowl, occupying an entire valley, in the middle of a tangled wilderness. Again, I felt that touch of wonder, that sense of giddy, excited yearning, as the strange, metallic construction conflated, in my mind, with the potential that it represented. This was our receptor for listening to the music of the spheres–our way of reaching out to the wonder of the ineffable vastness of the cosmos, one radio blip at a time.

On the road from Kingston…

December 22, 2009 at 5:34 am | Posted in Technology, World History, World of Ideas | 2 Comments

On our way back from a night’s stay in Kingston, we tried to stop in at a Canadian Penetentiary Museum in town, but alas, it was closed. As we were turning to leave, a red fox streaked by at a fast run.

Later, we stopped in at the Canadian Aviation Museum (or maybe the Canadian Airforce Museum?). I didn’t expect to be engaged, but ended up finding it fascinating. The planes themselves were the most interesting. They had a full-scale replica of an early flying machine. The wings were of stretched silk, the body of wood, with copper strips and rivets holding the separate pieces of luminous, varnished planks together. It had a single “ski”, instead of dual pontoons, for a water takeoff or landing, and the two wings had tiny little wooden pontoons at the very ends. The seats for the two riders were miniscule, and I cannot imagine even a regular-sized adult fitting into either of them, today.

The device, the gears, the rest of it was all lashed together with an exquisitely crisscrossed mass of thin metal cables. It looked beautiful–a strange mix of organic warmth (the wood, the silk) and rigorous, symmetrical structure. It also looked dauntingly fragile–those cables were thin, and I can only imagine the kinds of stresses they would be subjected to in flight. And nothing–no protective metal covering or any other kind of reinforcement to help alleviate that stress. A few, key snaps of cable and it all would come tumbling down.

Somehow, it felt like it had been pulled from a dreamer’s fancy–and, too, it seemed like a testament to the amazing, fragile wondrousness of our ability to imagine, and plan and then bring those imaginings into the world and to give them solid form.

We envisage dreams and nightmares both, and they come when called. This, at least, was a dream, though the nightmares came too–and were hinted at in other parts of the museum (the boys whose planes were shot down–who were immolated in midair, or lived out years in prison camps).

All this (and more), on the road between Toronto and Kingston.

Nested Narratives of Case Law: It’s Stories All the Way Down

December 21, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Posted in the Law | Leave a comment
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Well, it has been some time since I had any kind of opportunity to update this blog. I don’t know that I’ll be any more reliable in that regard, in the weeks and months to come, either. I started law school in September, at U of T. An amazing, wonderful, fascinating and engaging experience. Law school is pretty much all I hoped for and possibly more. I love reading the cases. They are narratives within narratives.

At the most obvious level, we find the story–often tragic–of the facts around the case being heard. Who wronged whom, who breached which contract, and so on. Sometimes the wrongs seem trivial, sometimes they’re a little bit humorous, and other times they are really, really sad. But this is human drama, at its core. This is story–true stories that are about the struggles and sufferings of real people. They’re riveting, and often deeply moving, at that level alone.

The next level of is that of the reasoning of the judge, as he or she tries to puzzle his or her way to justice. Sometimes the judgments read as crisp, clear, dazzling exercises in thought, revelations of insight or explications of method. Other times, they are dark, tortured and reveal another dimension of struggle and conflict, as you see the judge torn between the common law precedents–or the constraints of the statute–and the ruling that would be just in this instance. Sometimes the tension is between the justice of the moment, of the case at hand, and the clear concern that in using the precedents a certain way, and deciding the case a certain way, a new and dangerous precedent could be set, and the law could take a very problematic direction if left unchecked.

And then, there is the way the cases fit together–the way that subsequent judges look at the precedents, they way that they read them, and struggle with them, such that each case piles upon the previous ones as a tottering, precarious structure that doesn’t always fit well together, but somehow all manages to remain upright. It’s a beautiful thing, the way we try to bring order to the chaos of our complex, everyday interactions and the wrongs we do each other.

We try to bring order to it, but also want justice, and the flexibility to administer that, within the constraints of a fair system. As you can imagine, these are all ideas in tension with each other: the challenge of bringing order to chaos, with flexibility and fairness. And that tension shows, in processes that try to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance and are consequently ungainly and slow; in decisions that rub each other the wrong way, as society changes and suddenly past precedents begin to chafe; in decisions that show the conflict involved in trying to figure out how we should be treating each other, and against what standard that should be judged.

The rulings are messy because we’re messy. Any system that’s too restrictive and rules-based would result in more injustice than justice. So instead, common law moves, and bends and shifts this way and that, as it tries to find the just, middle ground. And that messy, tangled mass of rulings that are full of these subtexts of conflict are beautiful. They’re the imperfect reality that is a fuzzy reflection of our dream of justice–our dream of a fair society, governed by the rule of law.

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