Smoke and Mirrors

What’s wrong with this picture? A billion years ago, two Black Holes collided in outer space more than a billion light years away from the Earth. In 1916, Albert Einstein, the greatest physicist of all time, predicted, as a corollary to his general theory of relativity that this collision would cause ripples in “space-time” — his term for the melding of the concepts of space and time – which he termed “Gravitational Waves.” A hundred years later, astronomers from the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claimed to have found evidence corroborating the existence of these black holes and gravitational waves, whose importance stemmed in part by their leveraging off Einstein’s imprimatur.

To ferret out the evidence to support their claim, these teams of scientists relied on a tool known as LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational – Wave Observatory. It consists of two huge sets of vacuum-filled mirrors, each four kilometers long and outfitted with powerful lasers. One set is located in Hanford, Washington, and the other is in Livingston, Louisiana. They were designed to detect gravitational waves by searching for a very faint “chirp” about a second long from the passing of an infinitesimally small gravitational wave, while at the same time filtering out the extensive amount of background noise in the form of interstellar dust, known as Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Since the origin of these waves was so distant from Earth, the astronomers reasoned that the evidence would just be reaching us now. The LIGO mirrors were funded by the National Science Foundation for a cost of around a billion dollars (isn’t it interesting how often that number “a billion” crops up in this narrative?) The website Space.Com reported that the deeper significance of the discovery of gravitational waves is that it is the “smoking gun” of the “Big Bang,” the scientific alternative to the creation myth recounted in the Book of Genesis in the Bible.

Black holes are formed in space by objects whose gravity is so dense that no light is able to escape them. As a result, they are not directly observable, but their existence may be inferred from their effect on other celestial bodies such as stars or planets. These black holes are so massive that they typically measure many multiples times the mass of our sun. In the case of the two black holes in question, the story goes, they were attracted not to any planets or stars, but to each other, and they circled one another many times, at ever increasing speeds until they crashed together to release of an amount of energy comparable to that of many atomic bombs.

All research consists of two components: the development of a reasonable theory to explain the phenomena in question, and the design of empirical tests to see if the observed evidence is consistent with the hypotheses implied by the theory. There are several generally accepted criteria with which to evaluate the validity of any scientific research findings. With regard to the theoretical component, it is important to be aware that the plausibility of the conclusions is not necessarily one of these requirements. Many now well-accepted ideas that comprise our understanding of how the world works began as ideas that were certainly counterintuitive. It is also necessary to bear in mind that empirical results that are not grounded in a theoretical foundation constitute little more than a fishing expedition and are therefore to be rejected. Having said this, however, there is still a world of difference between a counterintuitive theory and a collection of tall tales. Good theory must possess the qualities of logical consistency and reasonableness of assumptions. On both counts the LIGO adventure fails as adequate theory. It simply does not make sense, and it rests on a series of arbitrary and unobservable assumptions.

With regard to the empirical side of things, the LIGO efforts are also sadly lacking. An important concept in scientific research is the principle of replication: Can the researchers perform the same experiment under the same initial conditions at different points in time or on different data samples at the same point in time, and obtain the same result. The LIGO researchers apparently detected a second “chirp” a few months after the first one, and they claim that they expect to discern more of them more frequently in the future (in recognition of the importance of the replication principle), but their actual achievements on this score to date have not been forthcoming.

Perhaps an even more serious deficiency of the LIGO findings is the failure to determine an appropriate standard against which to measure the findings’ level of significance. This requirement is especially crucial in light of the three properties that characterize the nature of the data: they originate long ago, they are far away, and they are very small (less than- one-one thousandth the width of a single proton). Under these circumstances, it is a fortiori true that without such a standard, the researchers could easily misread the data, and either incorrectly conclude that they had detected a gravitational wave which wasn’t really there (a false positive), or they could wrongly infer that there wasn’t a gravitational wave when indeed there was (a false negative). The reason these mistakes could occur is that the researchers are actually sampling from a probability distribution characterized by its mean, or central tendency, and its standard deviation, or degree of variability. Only when the observation is a conservative number of standard deviations from the mean of the distribution can the researchers have confidence that they are measuring a real phenomenon and not just an optical, or in this case an auditory, illusion. With the acknowledged extensive amount of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation present in the data, this oversight reflects an inexcusable inattention to detail.

One of the three lead researchers on the LIGO project boasted, “We did it” after hearing the first chirp and then “We did it again” after the second one. News reporters picked up on this theme and expressed surprise when this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded a team of three Topologists instead of to the LIGO team, almost as though this oversight were a direct denial of Einstein’s genius and an affront to his memory.  Just for the record, though, no one should be questioning Albert Einstein’s place in the pantheon of individuals who have made important contributions to our understanding of the nature of the universe in which we live and our place in it. In his role as a discoverer of truth, it is no surprise that he is revered as significant, in the sense that he is remembered in history for his contributions long after his death by people who did not know him personally. He is best known as the author of his theory of general relativity, of which the material on Gravitational Waves was something of an afterthought. Furthermore, the shoddy work of the LIGO team was unworthy of Einstein’s memory.

Although the theory of general relativity is best known for its famous conclusion that the amount of energy released by a phenomenon can be measured by the product of its mass, or absolute size, and the square of the speed of light, or 186,000 miles per second (E=mc2), this popular shorthand fails to convey the intuition underlying Einstein’s seminal idea. Perhaps, examples from the following two thought experiments will better illustrate what Einstein was after: In the first case, imagine an observer is sitting in a stationary railroad car while the train on the other track is traveling in the opposite direction at high speed. At the moment the other train passes in the opposite direction, the stationary observer cannot distinguish if he has seen the train in which he is seated moving forward or if he has not moved and he only imagines the forward movement because of his vantage point relative to the other train. A similar thought experiment is as follows: Imagine someone is standing in an elevator and suddenly the force of gravity causes the car to drop precipitously. Relative to his stationary position, he cannot tell the difference between what has actually happened and the opposite sensation of accelerating upward in the elevator car.

These counterintuitive ideas were first explored in Einstein’s 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” which, interestingly, formed the foundation for his more limited Theory of Special Relativity. Some of the building blocks of this theory may not seem surprising to people today (e.g., two events, viewed simultaneously by one observer, may not be simultaneous for another observer if the observers are moving relative to each other.) Nevertheless, some of the implications of this theory are not so intuitive: Time dilates, so that moving clocks are measured ticking more slowly than an observer’s stationary clock, and length contracts, so that objects are measured as being shorter in the direction in which they are moving.  These concepts were in stark contradiction to those of classical mechanics such as those espoused by Isaac Newton.

In conclusion, I hope I have made a convincing case for three claims: First, Albert Einstein was unquestionably a genius. Second, relative (no pun intended) to his other work, his thoughts on gravitational waves bordered on the trivial. And third, the LIGO attempts at empirically testing that work are primitive at best. My recommendation is that the LIGO astronomers should return to school for refresher courses in Basic Statistics and Logic 101.

Pavane for a Dead Princess

“Greetings Students. I am Ed Choochoo (Ed like the horse, Choochoo like the train) and I will be teaching this course on classical music with special emphasis this term on the works on Maurice Ravel.” This is how I began the first class at my day job in the continuing education department of Midtown University. I then laid out for those twenty students my qualifications in the form of my credentials, that I had earned a D .t. M. (Doctor of Tasteful Music) degree from a prestigious university and that I had been working here ever since. My style has always been to impart my extensive knowledge to the students through my lectures, supplemented by musical excerpts from my extensive compact disk collection. It is important for the students to understand that all music can be reduced to its analytical structure, and that there is a very respectable school of thought that literally analyzes music in terms of its mathematical patterns. I don’t know to what extent this generalization holds for modern music, which, since it isn’t tasteful, I have no experience with, but I suspect that the same principles would apply there as well.

As I say, I understand my role to be to share my insights with the students and their role to be to listen and to take notes. I therefore found it disturbing when one of them, who identified himself as Paul, appeared to think that the class was some sort of discussion forum, and he interrogated me about some of the facts I had presented concerning particular Ravel melodies. Of course, on matters outside of my area of expertise, such as factual matters on unrelated issues, I am very open-minded about permitting class participation. In particular, one of my pet students is always quick to research any ambiguous issues on his cell phone by accessing Google. I informed Paul that instead of interrupting my lectures to make smart-aleck remarks, he would do well to learn to sit on his hands, keep his mouth shut, and listen, rather than continue to believe that his opinions are more valid than what I have articulated.

And, to his credit, Paul did exactly that. I didn’t hear from him again until almost the end of the term, when he approached me timidly about some noncontroversial point I had made about Ravel’s life.

“Doctor?,” he said before he asked his question.

“You may call me Ed,” I replied magnanimously before dispensing with his question.

“What about the role of subjectivity in music? “ he asked. I must confess, I didn’t understand what he was driving at, so I asked him to clarify his question.

“Well music, like all art forms, is subjective, so that’s why two people can disagree about whether a particular piece of music is any good or not.” I smiled at his naivete.

“Well, those disagreements can always be settled when both parties present their arguments, and it will turn out that one of the two parties is mistaken.”

“But that suggests there are right and wrong answers. Don’t we make a distinction between disciplines like mathematics, where it is not a matter of opinion, so individual views are falsifiable, and the arts where views are subjectively determined”? he countered.

“No, we don’t,” I said, and I reiterated my previous point that our understanding of good music can be improved by an appreciation of the underlying mathematics to which it corresponds.

He left with a puzzled expression on his face, and I didn’t give the matter any more thought. Later, I saw Paul speaking with my pet student, who expressed his appreciation for Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto (the so-called “Rack Two). Paul was explaining that the movie” Brief Encounter” had used the Rack Two as background music when the film listens in on the actress Celia Johnson’s private thoughts, and my pet student seemed quite appreciative of this information.

Ravel was quite a prolific composer, especially during the first half of his career, and he wrote music in almost every genre, including symphonies, string quartets, concertos, and even an opera. Every week I covered a different work and included musical excerpts in addition to my elucidations. My pet student, assisted by Google, would fill in such trivia as the dates of particular pieces, and it was my impression that the entire class appreciated the opportunity to benefit from my expertise. I was therefore shocked when I later discovered Paul and my pet student laughing together in the hallway and singing a song that I recognized as a parody of the1927 Broadway production of “Old Man River,” composed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. They sang:

Old Man Choochoo

That old man Choochoo

He must know something

But he don’t say nothing

He just keeps rolling

He keeps on rolling along.

Well, I wouldn’t expect anything better from Paul, but I was stung by the disloyalty of my pet student and I told him how disappointed I was in him after all I had done for him. He looked pretty sheepish about it, so I decided not to formally punish him, since I’m sure Paul had incited him to stray. Later, I overheard Paul telling him he would really enjoy a composition by someone named Donald Byrd called “Cristo Redentor.” I guess he must have learned his lesson, because when Paul asked him the following week how he had liked it, he laughed and said he had been too busy to listen to it.

In the final class of the term, I played and lectured on Ravel’s only opera. I thought it went pretty well, and I thought the opera itself was pretty interesting and quite representative of the other selections I had covered throughout the term. Paul stayed behind to speak to me after the rest of the class had left, this time approaching me not so timidly, in fact somewhat angrily. He informed me that what I had played was not opera, but “mere drivel,” as he put it, and that true opera, such as the works of Verdi and Puccini, must inspire us by exposing us to great beauty. He then went on to say that the one piece that Ravel had done which was inspiring, but which I had chosen not to include in the course was “ Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte,” which translated from the French, is known as “Pavane For A Dead Princess.” Now, I’ve heard that particular composition, and I never paid it much heed, as I judged it to be overly sentimental, reminding me of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” which, in my opinion, is more appropriately used as the ringtone on one’s cell phone. In contrast, Paul described it as a luxurious, nostalgic and ceremonial dance for orchestra and solo piano, in which the soaring melody evokes feelings of inspirational courage and freedom. He added that if he had known that I had no intention of covering it, he would have never taken my course.

As I listened to him, I began to realize that, while music was clearly important to him, he understood it in very different terms than I did. I also realized that I knew very little about him, so I asked him about his background.

“You and I have actually been in the same racket,” he said, telling me that he had been a professor at the same university where I earned my doctoral degree. Afterwards, Paul had moved to Wall Street, where he had worked first as an economist, and later as the head of new product research in a derivatives trading business. I responded with what I thought was the self-evident observation that those later jobs must have been something of a letdown after having been a professor, but he denied this, telling me that those positions in the private sector were much more challenging than the academic world, where the professional journals were managed by very unimaginative editors. His observation prompted me to ask what field he had been in, and he answered Finance. When I told him my impression that the subject consisted of largely descriptive material, Paul corrected me again by pointing out that Finance was actually a branch of Economics, whose literature was very mathematical.

“Just like Music,” I ventured.

“Not really,” he answered.

That afternoon, I asked Paul where he had acquired his propensity for his strong opinions, and he told me he had always been that way, but he was also taking another course that term on film studies, which was organized very similarly to mine in that it covered a different film each week; and the professor had encouraged class participation. He told me the man’s name and asked how well I knew him, but I had to confess I had never heard of him.

Several weeks passed uneventfully, but then one day I received a registered letter in the mail from the Board of Regents of the university which had granted my doctoral degree, explaining that they had reviewed my course evaluations from Midtown University and they were now instituting recall proceedings against me. The letter listed a twenty- count indictment of the form and content of my teaching style, and it ordered me to show cause why they shouldn’t revoke my doctoral degree on the serious charge of demonstrating bad taste in music. “We don’t want our good name sullied by characters like you,” the letter concluded.

Talk about your worst nightmare coming to pass! I tried to imagine what could have been the source of this miscarriage of justice, and then I remembered that last conversation with Paul. Was he somehow connected with this misfortune? I know he was resentful of me, but how would he have been able to wield such influence with the Board of Directors so as to produce this result? I tried to reconstruct in my mind that final conversation we had. I remember he had been upset that I hadn’t included that silly, overemotional Ravel piece on the syllabus. What was the name of it? Oh yes. “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” He talked about it inspiring courage. Who knows? Maybe I should listen to it.

Here’s the thing, though. If the charges are valid, this isn’t just a criticism of the way I taught a class or two, but an indictment of my whole being. Am I arrogant, self-serving, high-handed, and resistant to constructive criticism from others? If so, this isn’t something I can just “fix” by making a few small changes in the syllabus. Maybe it goes to the heart of how I understand the nature of music and my relationship to it. Do I really have bad taste in music? I remember another verse of that sendup of “Old Man River” that Paul and my pet student were singing that time:

I get weary

And sick of trying

I’m tired of living

And scared of dying

But old man Choochoo

He just keeps rolling along.

I’m fearful I may have a lot of self-reflection and soul-searching to do.   But the thought of all that honest self-criticism just defeats me, even though I know in my heart there’s no avoiding it. So, it seems that whether I feel like it or not, I’m going to need to get on with this unpleasant task. But I’m really just not in the mood to deal with this matter today.

Maybe I’ll revisit it tomorrow.




The Last Living Survivor of the Great Lucca Inchworm Disaster


I don’t mean to impose myself on your time; after all, I am only a lowly inchworm, and I don’t even have a name of my own, like all you human beings do. I assume I must have had a mother and a father, although I don’t have a close, personal relationship with them: I don’t even know who they were or whether they are still alive. I can only picture my father leaning back after an anonymous night of passion with my mother, smoking a cigarette, and saying to her “So, you come here often?” or “Was it good for you, baby?”

Do you know much about us inchworms? No? Well, we’re a pretty hearty species, known principally for our distinctive gait. Despite the name, we’re actually only about a quarter of an inch long, and we tend to swarm, especially around sources of food. When we’re not engaging in swarming activity, though, we find sleeping accommodations almost anywhere, but our favorite place to hang our hats is in your bathrooms, preferably under the rim of your toilet seats. In fact, I myself own one such glass-enclosed condo over in Lucca, Italy.

We’re not fussy about what we’ll eat, like some of you human beings are. Just give us access to some organic garbage in that narrow time slot between when it’s put in the can and when it’s taken out to the curb, and I’ll tell you we’re as happy as a pig in a blanket. In fact the more rancid and odorous it is, the more we like it. Not that we’re picky eaters, mind you, but if I could speak on behalf of the whole inchworm community, I would venture to say that our favorite dish is leftover rotten orange slices. Hey! I see you out there rolling your eyes and turning your noses up at such delicacies, thinking, “I wouldn’t eat such garbage.” And that word “garbage, “ suggesting it’s some lesser form of nutrition – I mean, like what’s up with that? Listen, I’m frankly nauseated by the thought of steak and potatoes, but I don’t tell you what to eat.

Even though we’re a peace-loving organism, we’re persecuted tirelessly by you human beings and since there are more of us than there are of you, I guess that makes us the Persecuted Majority. There are always random, isolated killings of us inchworms every day based solely on our membership in the inchworm species, but that, by itself, isn’t what gets me riled up. Sometimes bad things happen to good inchworms, and we just need to accept that as part of life. What I’ve got a problem with, though, is the lack of accountability. I mean, how many human beings ever stand trial for their murderous deeds? Are their murders even investigated?   Some human beings appear to regard inchworm hunting as a spectator sport.

In the absence of adequate protection by law enforcement authorities, we’re forced to develop self –defense mechanisms of our own. Every adult inchworm is naturally endowed with two such mechanisms. First is the Rope-A-Dope feature, whereby a fellow inchworm, inching along, minding its own business, can respond to any disturbance in its immediate surrounding area by instantly curling up into a ball, going limp, and falling to the floor. The obscure location of its fall can then usually restrict its accessibility from the probing fingers of any meddlesome human being. And second, we can implement supernatural defense by exercising our reincarnation option, trading in our physical beings as earthbound inchworms and coming back as inchworm moths. As each of us is endowed with only one such option, we will usually choose to exercise it only when facing the prospect of our imminent demise, since the transformation option is irreversible. The other relevant aspect of the reincarnation option is that, although we are called inchworm moths, conjuring up an image of graceful flying entities with lofty elegant wing structures, we would more accurately be characterized as inchworm gnats, a prospect much less tantalizing.

Sometime in August, the owners of the apartment that encloses my condo entered into a lease with two American human beings. We inchworms have always had a love-hate relationship with those owners: On the one hand, they enclose orange slices as artwork in our rectangular community center. But then, they expose us to grave danger by leasing out their digs to a long line of possibly psychopathic human beings.

The exact date of the attack is indelibly etched in my memory: On September 2, 2016 – a date that will live in infamy – the inchworm community center was suddenly and deliberately attacked by these two lumbering human beings. While a sizable number of unsuspecting inchworms were lounging around the toilet, they conspired to flush the entire contents of our community center – a cache of orange slices and all those innocent inchworm bystanders in the prime of their lives—down the toilet to perish as collateral damage in that great tomb that knows no sound.

Most of those poor lost souls were playing possum, relaxing and resting their eyes when those cowardly human beings launched their attack, so the inchworms never had a chance to implement either of our defense strategies. Of course, Rope-A-Doping would not have had a chance to be effective in the wake of such a sudden, willful wholesale slaughter; and there wasn’t time to implement the reincarnation option, even if those lost souls didn’t mind being transformed into gnats.

That reminds me: How about you? Do you believe in reincarnation? I know I do, not just because I own that option by virtue of being an inchworm, but I believe in the concept of reincarnation and have faith in its reality. It was the underlying theme of the song called “The Highwayman”, written and performed by the singing group called “The Highwaymen.” This group of four human beings, each a big singing star in his own right, each sang one stanza –a highwayman murderer and thief, a sailor, a dam builder, and a starship flyer – and each recounts the circumstances of his death and asserts that he will come back again. There is also the idea that these four human beings are connected to each other so that although the first one was the highwayman, the fourth one speculates that he may become a highwayman again. He also hypothesizes that he may even be a single drop of rain, which strikes me as less satisfying, because of the ephemeral nature of such an incarnation, unless that single drop is the early warning indicator of an approaching thunderstorm.

In any event, the concept holds out the possibility of engineering a separation of our physical bodies from our immortal souls, usually only the hope of elderly human beings suffering from incurable illnesses (the so-called Geezer community), but we inchworms also have a vested interest in seeing such a solution implemented as well. It should be apparent to everyone that reincarnation is not just wishful thinking. It’s just simple arithmetic: There have been virtually an infinite number of physical bodies living relatively short lifetimes since the beginning of time, but there are only a finite number of souls or personality types. The only logical conclusion is that there must be a significant amount of soul recycling going on. Under these circumstances, our souls would be freed from the constraints of their immediate physical reality and thus be free to relocate invisibly to other locations and other time periods. My only concern arises from the inherent intra-species restrictions imposed on the process. Why couldn’t there be inter-species reincarnation, so that I could come back as a human being and Donald Trump could come back as an inchworm? I intend to lobby the powerful Rules Committee of my legislature, the Diet of Inchworms, to have this rule amended so that this new modification becomes the law of the land.

When that human being duo launched its assault, I was out of town and didn’t witness the actual bloodbath, but reliable eyewitnesses later testified to the cause of the vacant community center. And afterwards, the deadly pair set about hunting down and eliminating the handful of us brave inchworms on whom they had not yet satisfied their blood lust. They augmented that murderous surgical strike which dispatched so many of our companions to inchworm heaven by staking out our usual toilet seat hangouts to lay traps for us. Why, just yesterday, they cornered my close associate, IW, and squished him with a rolled-up magazine, and this morning, I spotted a handcrafted wanted poster with my picture on it. I hear voices and footsteps. I know they’re coming for me next.

“You’ll never take me alive, you dirty human beings!” I cried just before pulling the ripcord on my reincarnation option.

Editor’s note: the corpse of an anonymous inchworm “moth” was discovered in Lucca, Italy on the afternoon of September 6, 2016.


Why I am blogging

I have formalized some of my thoughts on a wide variety of topics here.  Some take the form of essays on issues of current interest, as well as other essays on more general subjects containing a longer “shelf life”.  In addition, I have included two types of fictional pieces.  In one, the direct short story, the narrator and the person of interest are one and the same, so that the reader “listens in” as  the subject tells his or her own story.  In the other, the indirect short story, the reader learns about the main subject by way of the voice of a separate, interested third party.

In preparing this material, I would like to express my gratitude to the following individuals for their perceptive comments and suggested improvements to earlier draft versions:  Susan Hinko, Cathy Hinko, Martin Weinstein, Cheryline Lewis, Robert Hedges, and Frances Kleinman.

I have also written a novel based on my experiences in the world of banking and derivatives, In My Mind’s Eye. It’s available from Amazon here

In my writings, I examine how to leave behind a spiritual and material legacy.  I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

I hope you enjoy my posts, and I look forward to hearing from you.

First blog post

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

What Ails Us: A Brief Ontological Explanation

It is axiomatic that life is precious, and that all living beings are genetically programmed to resist deadly threats to their continued existence. This truism is especially striking when we consider that individuals possess an infinitesimally tiny probability of being born in the first place and an even smaller chance of enjoying a life in which they can thrive, free from danger. In this context, most people tend to view themselves as unique human beings, while their understanding of the motives of others is less immediate.   In ontological terms, each of us filters our perception of others through the lens of our own consciousness.

It is therefore with a certain degree of skepticism that we learn of a recent study reporting that suicide in the United States, whereby Americans take steps to end their own lives voluntarily, occurs more often than we would have guessed. Paula Span, in the August 7 issue of The New York Times, reports that a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that , among Americans of all ages, 12.4 per 100,000 take their own lives each year and that those over the age of 65 kill themselves at a rate 20 per cent higher than that. Moreover, the rate for elderly white men is significantly greater still.

While the reasons vary from depression to illness or shame, it is tempting to search for the deeper, underlying causes among challenges in the external environment. Some of these are long-term in nature, such as living in an inhospitable climate or enduring the sometimes-violent effects of racial, religious, or sexual orientation discrimination. Others   are responses to short-term events, such as an exposure to global or domestic terrorism, or having to vote in a presidential election in which the two candidates are a dishonest, untrustworthy woman and a xenophobic, authoritarian man.

I would like to suggest that this effort is fundamentally misplaced and that rather than searching for an external source of the problem, it is necessary to look internally. I would maintain that this anxiety about life is the natural consequence of a clear-eyed reflection on the essential nature of life on earth. It consists, after all, of an all-too-short lifetime, marked by suffering of one sort or another, culminating in death. This discouraging picture calls the perceptive observer’s attention to the gloomy cloud of imminent non-being hanging over our heads. Not the least important aspect of this condition is that it calls our attention to one of the two big, unanswerable questions we all face. The first is what are the characteristics of the few individuals that history has chosen to remember long after their deaths, in contrast to the vast majority of other people? The anxiety that this question generates stems from the fact that it forces people to confront their own insignificance, which serves only to exacerbate the underlying problem.

The answer to this question, incidentally, surely does not lie in worldly success – the attainment of great wealth or power. Rich people may lead comfortable lives, but most are not remembered after their deaths, with the possible exception of a few inventors, for whom financial success was a pleasant side-effect. And there have been a number of powerful dictators, but we remember them only for their notoriety. In the United States, even most presidents cannot claim recognition (other than a couple whose actions in office also produced a legacy of notoriety).    A small handful had the advantage of being commanders-in-chief during wartime situations. A notable example in the twentieth century was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who overcame polio while leading the country through the challenges of the Great Depression and World War II (and who would turn over in his grave to see the current crop of presidential candidates).

I believe we remember those who have made contributions that history deems inspiring, and a great number of these fall into the two categories of discoverers of truth and creators of beauty. Accordingly, most of these people tend to be either physicists or artists. Albert Einstein is therefore remembered because his general theory of relativity improved our understanding of the inner workings of the universe, while Enrico Caruso is remembered because the powerful emotion conveyed in his operatic voice moved audiences to tears.

What is to be done?

Although it may be common to assume that it is only others who lead ‘’normal” lives and inhabit the physical world, this subjective perspective oversimplifies matters, since ontologically, we all find ourselves “in the same boat”. Accordingly, the first order of business for everyone is to compile an inventory of all the elements in their lives that are most troublesome for them, in order to reflect on what it is that they value in life. This task is not to be taken lightly (after all, when Vladimir Lenin did it in 1917, he got the wrong answer). The purpose of this exercise is to construct a sort of ontological “wish list” of all the things in their lives that people would change if they were permitted to do so.

What might be likely to be near the top of most people’s list of concerns, especially if they belong to an older generation, is based on the observation that the physical body performs less and less effectively over time, due to its vulnerability to diseases like cancer or multiple sclerosis, and, as a result, people tend to think of themselves more and more as mental, rather than physical, beings. Of course, the brain is an organ of the physical body too, and, as it also gradually deteriorates, people may eventually shift their focus, once more, to an even higher self-definition.

An individual’s spirit is the life force that animates his or her body, and a person’s spirit continues to represent that person’s unique inner essence long after the body ceases to function perfectly. Accordingly, if people could be granted any wish they desired, their spirit might be tempted to “give up”, dismiss the fear of “pulling the ripcord” too soon, and just wish to be relieved of the burden of a malfunctioning body. Although this desire is in conflict with the ingrained human tendency to resist its own non-existence, these other influences sometimes intervene, which may offer at least a partial explanation for the alarmingly high suicide rate among the elderly. Unfortunately, such actions represent cases of “throwing the baby out with bathwater”, since the spirit would also be sacrificed in those circumstances. One wonders if there might not be some way around this spiritual conundrum, and if the spiritual descendants of some of those memorable inventors mentioned earlier might not have a role to play in it.

The Record of Technological Progress, or Why Ev’ry Thing’s Up-to-Date In Kansas City

Human history has been marked by the continuous upward movement in life’s “state of the art” in response to perceived deficiencies in the status quo. Examples abound, but a few of them include the printing press, which facilitated the wholesale dissemination of human knowledge; the electric light, which extended the workday beyond just the daylight hours; the telephone, which made communication possible among fixed, non-adjacent locations; the camera, which created images of subjects more accurately than paintings; and automobiles, railroads, and airplanes, which created travel opportunities to locations beyond the immediate local area. Some of these innovations were humorously cataloged by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein in their musical production, Oklahoma, but the common element of them all was the application of technology to perceived needs.

In more recent times, the pace of this innovation has accelerated: the internet gives individuals encyclopedic access to information far beyond their own personal experience and can therefore be seen as a modern version of the printing press, while the I-phone combines features of the telephone, the internet, a typewriter, and the camera, so that users can now communicate with other people from any location through speech or in writing, take photographs or motion pictures, and “look up” information on any subject at the touch of a button. Many observers of these developments have speculated about where it will all lead.

I should point out that the I-phone has its share of critics, who complain that widespread internet access makes people lazy and less able to think for themselves, and that society’s obsession with these devices renders their users self-absorbed and unable to function without them. The experience is not uncommon, while walking down a street, to be bumped into by someone with his or her nose buried in an I-phone, wearing earphones, looking downward, and screaming into the device. While such an encounter   used to signal an assault on one’s person by a fugitive from a mental institution, it now passes for a friendly exchange with a skilled, technological wizard.

The   proliferation of this isolationist technology in American society has coincided simultaneously with a deterioration in the use of the English language.   The transitive verb (i.e., having an object) “to get”, normally meaning “to obtain”, is now universally used as a synonym for “to understand”, while the intransitive verb (i.e., no object) “to grow” is widely misused by politicians promising to “grow the economy”. The ”adjectives” “cool” and “hot”, normally references to temperatures, now are used to mean, respectively, “marvelous” and “good-looking”.   And even though the adjectives “amazing” and “incredible” really have the distinctly different meanings of “remarkable” and “not believable”, they are overused interchangeably to reference anything mildly surprising, thereby rendering their utterers to be empty-headed cliché –mongers.   It   goes without saying that the universal, insincere greeting, “How are you?” is never answered honestly, nor is it expected to be.

The Future Promise of Technological Progress 

Here, we arrive at the point where the discussion shifts from a description of the past to a prediction of the future. Despite the frivolous use to which many of the new devices have been put to date, the main thrust of technology thus far has generally been the improvement of living conditions for people. Accordingly, it is a reasonable conjecture that the logical next step will be to finally address the most important human need, namely achieving freedom from the shackles of our physical bodies, while still preserving the living spirit of each being. There has already been some progress toward this goal in the field of Robotics, where lives have been extended through the use of artificial limbs and organs (including the once-thought-to-be irreplaceable heart). And most recently, there was news of a man paralyzed from a spinal injury, who had some movement restored by the placement of a “chip” in his brain that allowed him to move his limbs just by thinking about them.

It is actually in the brain (where both long-term and short-term memory is stored, but which is vulnerable to damage from debilitating diseases, such as strokes or Alzheimer’s) that this final threshold resides.  If some enterprising scientist were able to cross this last frontier and devise a strategy for accomplishing the necessary self-preserving and self-sustaining properties of the brain (possibly through the application of cryogenics), the final separation of the spirit from the body would be attainable (and, as an incentive, I am confident that a Nobel prize would be in the offing for anyone who could rise to the occasion).

Such an achievement would call attention to the second large, unanswerable question human beings struggle with, namely, is there life after death?   If so, the separated spirits would be able to conquer death, attain immortality, and be free to travel across time and space without the constraint of needing to maintain the life of a physical body. In his 2006 study, Entangled Minds, Dean Radin presents scientific evidence supporting the existence of the psychic phenomena of telepathy, clairvoyance, and telekinesis, which are the essential properties of spirits’ lives when separated from their physical bodies.

Many questions arise from this hypothesis: Would people in the physical world know about the activities of these spirits? Could they contact us? What form would they take? Could we contact them? By definition, nobody knows the answers to these questions, but we can devise reasonable theories.

It is a common supposition that these spirits are represented in each individual’s soul – the spiritual and immortal component of each human being. Although there are undoubtedly many possibilities, it is conceivable that we can have the experience of actively contacting the soul of someone who is no longer physically alive through our memory of that person. And another person’s soul may contact us without our active participation while we sleep, in our dreams. Sometimes the person will look the same as in our memory of them, or sometimes not, but we will recognize their invisible spirit, and they will recognize ours. Accordingly, on both sides, there will be perfect knowledge of past, shared interactions.

Not everyone will be comfortable with the discussion of these issues and may feel that if these ideas ever entered the cultural mainstream, it will be evidence that “the inmates are now running the asylum”. On the other hand, many other people may already subconsciously be having these same thoughts, and if so, it is probably high time that someone made the effort to give them voice.