The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.
You’ve probably seen the petitions going around to end the Daylight Savings Time Hokey Pokey we do every year. I’ve always liked it myself. It shakes me up twice a year, makes me say things to the kids like, “Ooh, remember how dark it was at this time yesterday?” It’s nicely weird.
But it hit me this morning that I’ve got it all wrong. I really ought to hate it.
So now I do.
I’ve always loved things that make me feel like I’m on a planet and hated things that paper over that astonishing fact. Most of the time it’s easy to forget our actual situation, to lapse into the illusion of normalcy Douglas Adams talked about. But sometimes I manage to feel the real deal for a minute.
Years ago, in our house in Minnesota, I could lie in bed at a particular time of night, look out the window at a gable that jutted into the night sky, hold very still, and watch the moon ever so slowly break into view from behind it. I could see the Earth turn.
Thierry Cohen’s spectacular photographic series “Darkened Cities” is a sad reminder of the planetary perspective we’ve lost because of city lights.
(I won’t copy the copyrighted images, but if you haven’t seen them, oh my gourd, GO.)
When I lived in LA, I was properly terrified of earthquakes. But after each decently big one, I always got a little twinge of schadenfreude watching that cocky city grind to a halt for a few hours: Oh riiight, we live in smooshable bodies in breakable buildings built on a jittery crack in the surface of a whirling ball! Scary, but nice in its way.
So here’s the deal with the time change. If we left the clocks alone, we’d feel the shrinking of the day in the fall and the expanding in the spring more than we do. Without those two artificial twitches interrupting the big planetary respiration — without the Wait, wut? of the downshift and upshift — we’d feel the annual breathing of night and day gradually, naturally. Mornings would be too dark for too long in winter, and too light too early in summer, and we’d have to deal with it. In the process, we’d get a better feeling for the shape of the year, and we’d be in a little bit less denial about what we’re sitting on. Maybe.
When I was 10, my dad tried to show me Comet Kohoutek, which was unfortunately a fizzle, at least where we were. But we saw a lot of other cool things over the years, and he taught me to watch the sky.
My daughter Delaney is now 10, and she’s been a skywatcher from the start. I wanted to show her the last transit of Venus for 105 years, which happened yesterday, but it rained pretty much all day. Which reminded us both of something I told her years ago.
Guillaume Le Gentil was part of one of the most unimaginable scientific undertakings ever. Somebody in the 17th century, I can’t even remember who or how, realized that Venus crosses the disc of the Sun twice, eight years apart, then repeats the pair about 105 years later. Then somebody in the 18th century — Ed Halley, I think it was — figured out that viewing the transit from different parts of the globe, and taking accurate measurements of when Venus enters and exits the disc, and comparing the readings, could help us figure out the distance from Earth to the Sun, which could then be used to figure out every other astronomical distance in the solar system. And that the next opportunity to do this would be in June 1761.
May I just say this about myself. If I’d been sitting in the bar with Halley, and I’d heard this, I would have found it very interesting, then gone back into me pint. “If only this weren’t the bleedin’ 18th century,” I might have funk to meself.
Fortunately, better folks than I were there, and they started chanting the Nike slogan, then made plans to dispatch over 100 observers all around the planet, in the 18th century, to figure out how far away the Sun is.
One of the dispatched was a French astronomer named Guillaume le Gentil, who left Paris a year before the transit and headed for a spot on the southeast coast of India called Pondicherry. He was delayed in landing by an extended naval skirmish, part of the Seven Years’ War. Weeks passed, then Transit Day came and went with le Gentil trapped on a rocking ship, unable to take useful measurements.
Instead of returning home, he decided he might as well hang out until the next transit eight years later, on June 4th, 1769. He killed some time mapping Madagascar, then returned to Pondicherry, built himself a little observatory, and bided his time.
June 4th dawned bright and clear, and le Gentil sat with growing excitement in his observatory, waiting for the transit.
Moments before it began, a cloud rolled over the sun. The view remained obscured for the duration of the transit, then cleared nicely when it was too late. Le Gentil nearly lost his mind. Honestly, who wouldn’t.
Then things got worse. He decided to return home, but first got dysentery and had to miss his ship. He got better, then caught another ship, which wrecked off the coast of Réunion. He made it to shore, then eventually caught a Spanish ship home. He arrived in Paris eleven years after he left, only to learn he’d been declared dead and had lost his coveted seat in the French Academy of Sciences. His wife had remarried — although seriously, can you blame her? — and everything he owned had been sold off.
He essentially sued everyone, got his stuff back, got back into the academy, got him a new wife, and did just fine. But he never saw the transit of Venus. And after about 18 hours of clouds and rain, it looked like we wouldn’t either.
But then, then, just as the transit began yesterday at 6pm, I saw a sudden brightness outside. I jumped up from the dinner table, threw together a pinhole camera and ran out to the front yard with Laney in tow. Sure enough, after about five minutes of focusing and refocusing, Laney and I saw that tiny magic dot and screamed.
We walked back inside. My wife was still there, and no one had eaten my tilapia. In the history of transit-watching, that counts as a win.
I had just been interviewed for the satellite radio program “About Our Kids,” a production of Doctor Radio and the NYU Child Study Center, on the topic of Children and Spirituality. Also on the program was the editor of Beliefnet, whom I irritated only once that I could tell. Heh.
“Spirituality” has wildly different meanings to different people. When a Christian friend asked several years ago how we achieved spirituality in our home without religion, I asked if she would first define the term as she understood it.
“Well…spirituality,” she said. “You know—having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and accepting him into your life as Lord and Savior.”
Erp. Yes, doing that without religion would be a neat trick.
So when the interviewer asked me if children need spirituality, I said sure, but offered a more helpful definition—one that doesn’t exclude 91 percent of the people who have ever lived. Spirituality is about being awake. It’s the attempt to transcend the mundane, sleepwalking experience of life we all fall into, to tap into the wonder of being a conscious and grateful thing in the midst of an astonishing universe. It doesn’t require religion. In fact, religion can and often does blunt our awareness by substituting false and frankly inferior wonders for real ones. It’s a fine joke on ourselves that most of what we call spirituality is actually about putting ourselves to sleep.
For maximum clarity, instead of “spiritual but not religious,” those so inclined could say “not religious–just awake.”
I didn’t say all that on the program, of course. That’s just between you, me, and the Internet. But I did offer as an example my children’s fascination with personal improbability — thinking about the billions of things that had to go just so for them to exist — and contrasted it with predestinationism, the idea that God works it all out for us, something most orthodox traditions embrace in one way or another. Personal improbability has transported my kids out of the everyday more than anything else so far.
Evolution is another. Taking a walk in woods over which you have been granted dominion is one kind of spirituality, I guess. But I find walking among squirrels, mosses, and redwoods that are my literal relatives to be a bit more foundation-rattling.
Another world-shaker is mortality itself. This is often presented as a problem for the nonreligious, but in terms of rocking my world, it’s more of a solution. Spirituality is about transforming your perspective, transcending the everyday, right? One of my most profound ongoing “spiritual” influences is the lifelong contemplation of my life’s limits, the fact that it won’t go on forever. That fact grabs me by the collar and lifts me out of traffic more effectively than any religious idea I’ve ever heard. A different spiritual meat, to be sure, but no less powerful.
The aim that the child should grow up to become confidently independent is synonymous with the aim that the child should grow up mentally healthy.
Psychologist John Bowlby (1956)
We’re born with brains wired up for the Paleolithic, not for the world as it is today. We’ve developed better ways of knowing and controlling the world around us, but the fears and behaviors that protected us in that era — fear of difference, hypervigilance, out-group aggression, love of clear categories and authority, magical thinking — are still with us, even though they’ve now become either pointless or dangerous.
I want to help my kids let go of those fears so they can have a better life.
Religious and social conservatism are symptoms of those fears, reactions to the problem of being a Stone Age human. For the half of the planet still living in marginal conditions, that problem is mostly unsolved. For the rest of us — thanks to agriculture, germ theory, separating our drinking water from our poop, the scientific method, and a thousand other advances, we’ve made some serious progress. And that partial solution has made all the difference, freeing us up to live better lives than we once did.
I want my kids to get that very good news.
Education, experience, and parenting take a child from Stone Age newborn to modern adult in about 6,000 days. Or so we hope. In addition to shoe tying, the five-paragraph essay, algebra, good oral hygiene, the age of the universe, the French Revolution, and how to boil an egg, there’s something else we need to help them learn, or better yet, feel — that life is better and you have more control than your factory settings would have you believe.
At a convention five years back, author/filmmaker (and Darwin great-great-grandson) Matthew Chapman was asked why Europe rapidly secularized after the Second World War while the U.S. remained devout. He paused for a moment. “Honestly,” he said, “I think socialized medicine had a lot to do with it.”
Not the answer we were expecting.
For most of the history of our species, he said, we’ve been haunted by an enormous sense of personal insecurity, and for good reason. The threat of death or incapacity was always hanging over us. Religion offered a sense of security, the illusion of control. Once the states of Europe began to relieve some of those basic fears, people began to feel a greater sense of control and security, and the need for traditional religion began to wane.
Whether that’s the whole answer or not, I think he’s on to something here. Traditional religion is driven by human insecurity. I have a good number of friends and relations in the deep and toxic end of the religious pool, and I can’t think of one who truly jumped in unpushed. Some were born into it and raised to believe they couldn’t live without it. Other experienced some kind of life crisis resulting in a terrifying loss of control that pushed those ancient buttons — and they jumped in with both feet.
I feel immense empathy for these people — even as their beliefs make me nauseous.
I also have many friends who genuinely chose religion instead of needing it. And lo and behold, these folks tend to end up in more liberal expressions, doing little harm and a lot of good. They aren’t hostages to their innate fears. In fact, they have a lot more in common with me than with the people hyperventilating and clinging to Jesus in the deep end.
I really don’t care if my kids end up identifying with religion so long as it’s a choice, not a need. And the best way I can ensure that is by using these 6,000 days to give them not just knowledge but also confidence and security.
Turns out we know how to do this. You start with a sensitive, responsive, and consistent home life. Build a strong attachment with parents and other significant adults. Don’t hit or humiliate them or let others do so. Encourage them to challenge authority, including your own. Make them comfortable with difference. Use knowledge to drive out fear. Build a sense of curiosity and wonder that will keep them self-educating for life. Let them know that your love and support are unconditional. Teach and expect responsibility and maturity. Encourage self-reliance. Help them find and develop “flow” activities and lose themselves in them.
These aren’t off the top of my head, you know — they’re straight out of the best child development research, which strongly supports attachment theory and authoritative parenting, about which more later. Bottom line, the best practices for nonreligious parenting are in sync with the best practices for…parenting.
Now isn’t THAT nice.
We may have to contend with a lot of noise in our culture and even our own extended families, but when it comes to raising “confidently independent, mentally healthy” kids, the best current knowledge is on our side. And our additional hope of keeping our kids in charge of their own worldview decisions comes along in the bargain.
Conservative religious parents have to close their eyes and swim hard upstream against this research consensus, following James Dobson et al. back to the Paleolithic. But liberal religious parents, who share most of my parenting goals, have the same advantage I do. They can even claim one of the foremost advocates of attachment theory as their own — William Sears, a sane and sensible Christian parenting author who opposes almost every major parenting position of James Dobson.
I bang on and on about how and why to let our kids intersect with religion. They’re good and important questions. But every one of those questions rests on the much more fundamental question of confidence and security. Build that foundation first, and the rest is icing.
Our family has a longstanding relationship with the speed of light. We take care never to exceed it, for one thing, no matter how tempting. But there’s more than that.
I had all sorts of light-related fascinations when I was a kid — that light had a speed at all, for starters, and that it was so unimaginably fast, yet also finite and measurable. I knew the moon was a light-second away, the sun eight light-minutes, and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, 4.2 light years. I knew the Milky Way, one galaxy of billions, is 100,000 light years side to side.
Light helped me finally grasp the real immensity of the universe and my own infinitesimalitude.
Light is SO much faster than (pfft) sound — almost a million times faster — which is why lightning is already kicking back with a light beer when thunder comes panting up behind.
This stuff gave me endless fodder for discussion on first dates. It also took care of second dates rather neatly.
When it came time to marry, I limited the pool to those with no more than two degrees of separation from the speed of light. Fortunately my college friend Becca attended the same high school as Nobel laureate Albert Michelson, he of the Michelson-Morley experiment, which laid the groundwork for special relativity by showing that light weirdly measures at the same speed even if you are moving rapidly toward or away from the source.
Becca and I were married in a San Francisco Lutheran church with You-Know-What streaming through the windows.
Our kids have picked up the thread. As we drove home from his football practice four years ago, Connor (then 12) asked why time slows down as you go faster. (The previous week we had discussed the very cool Hafele-Keating experiment in which cesium clocks flown around the world differed from identical clocks on the ground by a few nanoseconds. I think I spotted the exact moment during the practice that he was thinking about Hafele-Keating instead of Offensive-Lineman.) I said our velocity through space plus our velocity through time equals the speed of light, so the faster you go through space, the slower you necessarily go through time.
In less than five seconds, he said, “So light doesn’t experience time, then.”
Holy buckets. I’d never thought of it.
Last week, standing in the dark waiting for the school bus, I discovered that I’d never shared with Delaney (9) the insanely cool fact that many of the stars we see probably aren’t there anymore. Some may have blinked out before the dinosaurs went extinct, but the end of the column of photons, even at 186,000 miles a second, still hasn’t reached us. Tomorrow morning we might suddenly see a “new,” bright star in the sky, which is actually a nova that happened millions of years before. That’s what nova literally means — a new star. But it isn’t really being born — it’s dying.
She made all those astonished, comprehending sounds I’ve come to love, and we quickly re-combed her hair as the bus pulled up.
On the heels of last month’s announcement that the speed of light might have been exceeded by neutrinos at CERN, Becca took the opportunity to give her second graders a little insight into how science works. “All these years we thought light was the fastest thing possible,” she said. “Even Albert Einstein said that was true. Now maybe, just maybe, scientists have found that it’s possible for something to go even faster. First they have to test and test again to be sure, and if it is, they’ll say, ‘Wow, we were wrong. We have to change our minds.'”
It’s true that we’re capable of upending our Newtons and Einsteins when the evidence insists, but of course it never happens quite as gladly as we sometimes claim. Individual scientists are just as prone as the rest of us to kick and scream and bite to protect their favorite conclusions, until the collective enterprise of science itself busts them upside the head. The important message for these second graders, though, is that science contains the ability, the means, even the willingness to change its conclusions in light of new evidence, despite whatever preferences individual scientists might have. (The CERN scientists assumed they made an error in measurement, by the way, something that has happened before — and a team in the Netherlands think they’ve found the error.)
All this light conversation brought me back to experiments I conducted around age seven, just inside my front door in St. Louis, Missouri. The edge of the glass on our front storm door was beveled, which formed a little prism, which at a certain time of day threw a tiny, intense rainbow on the floor.
I decided I was going to catch that rainbow. In a shoebox.
In what may be a perfect illustration of the seven-year-old mind, I knew that I would have to move faster than light to do this, but had not received the memo specifically prohibiting such a thing.
I found a shoebox and held it above the rainbow. I slowed my breathing and concentrated…then CLOMP! brought the box down on the rainbow.
Too slow. The damn thing was on top of the box.
I’d do this for a good half hour at a time before giving up — but only for that day. I remember thinking maybe light was a little slower in the winter, which was why it was colder then. So I tried in January. Even then, it was always just a liiiittle faster than I was, and the rainbow appeared on top of the box.
I eventually gave up my dream of catching the rainbow. But these experiments at CERN have given me hope. I just need to find a box made of neutrinos, and I’m back in the game.
It’s been a busy August, including an explosion of activity and good news at Foundation Beyond Belief. I’ll catch you up on that in a three-dot post at some point.
On top of that, the post I was working on is one I should have posted three years ago — a productive way to look at religion. It’s a simple re-framing that has helped break me out of dead-end head-butting and has shaped my own approach to secular parenting. Simple yes, but it can be made otherwise by crappy writing, so I’m taking my time.
There’s just so much science, nature, music, arts, technology, storytelling and assorted good stuff out there that my kids (and maybe your kids) haven’t seen. It’s most likely not stuff that was made for them…But we don’t underestimate kids around here.
It’s Earth Day today. While we’re busily appreciating the natural world, it’s a good day to recognize that we’re a part of it. Even the least green urban corner is part of the natural world, because we human animals built that habitat from things we found lying around on and in this planet.
The current documentary series “Human Planet” (created by the BBC and Discovery Channel) is a spectacular reminder of that. This morning I happened on another one — something so completely engrossing that I put an insane morning on hold for 45 minutes to swim in it, and now to tell you about it.
In 2007, writes Montreal artist Jon Rafman, “Google sent out an army of hybrid electric automobiles, each one bearing nine cameras on a single pole. Armed with a GPS and three laser range scanners, this fleet of cars began an endless quest to photograph every highway and byway in the free world.”
Consistent with the company’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” this enormous project, titled Google Street View, was created for the sole purpose of adding a new feature to Google Maps. Every ten to twenty meters, the nine cameras automatically capture whatever moves through their frame. Computer software stitches the photos together to create panoramic images.
The result is an unimaginably vast collection of snapshots capturing not only those highways and byways, but candid humanity, going on its fascinating, sad, ridiculous and beautiful way, along and upon those roads. That the Google camera snaps with dumb, unconscious regularity and that most of its subjects are unaware of it makes Google Street View a reality show that dwarfs any other on that obscenely misnamed genre of television.
Now here’s the time-sucker: Rafman has created a website gallery with scores of the more surreal, honest, or captivating shots that these little nine-eyed reality-catchers have recorded — a parade of moments:
Of course one of the interesting elements here is random variation (the Google camera snapping away) acted on by decidedly non-random selection (Rafman, and now me, selecting our favorites). Artificial selection, that.
If these fascinate you in any way, you must go to his site to see them properly. I’ve reduced these in size to fit my margins. But learn from my mistake: don’t dare do it until you have some serious time on your hands.
The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be. DOUGLAS ADAMS
Oh I talk a good game about being awake. It’s part of almost every talk and workshop I do. But most of the time, like everybody, I’m fast asleep to our bizarre, fantastic situation.
Example: We all emerged into the world from our mother’s bodies. We don’t think much about that because it’s always been true. My kids think that pulling up a YouTube video on an iPhone in a moving car is nice, but it’s not incredible, since they can’t remember ever not being able to do that.
I’m the same with things that have always been true. Like the whole Mom-As-Portal thing.
There are other things that I haven’t always known, and you’d think I could hang on to the wonder of those at least. Like the fact that the gold in my wedding ring was made in a dying star, or that I’m related to my lawn, and not just by marriage. And that every bit of me has been around since the beginning of time. Not always quite so well-organized, and not always on this planet, but every bit has been somewhere since the Big Bang.
I contain 60,000 miles of blood vessels. I put that number into my head through my eyes about seven years ago and it stuck because I liked it enough to “remember,” whatever that means. When I needed it just now, I found it in my head and made it come out through my fingers. Don’t know how. Yet I make my living doing that all day.
I try to keep my kids (who are half me and half my wife) awake as much as possible. Every time Delaney and I (two pieces of the universe that woke up) step outside to go to the bus stop, there’s something cool in the sky. Like you know, the sky. We talk about it by using our throats and mouths to make the air wiggle, which in turn makes little bones and hairs in our ears wiggle, which our brains understand.
I get this perspective back for three minutes at a time, then lose it for months. I should be paralyzed with wonder all the time. But I forget.
This past weekend I did a couple of events in Grand Rapids, Michigan, hosted by CFI. A great time, and I left feeling groovy. But what was supposed to be a quick transfer at O’Hare turned into a four-hour gate-wait when my flight to Atlanta was cancelled. I was rebooked on a flight to Dulles, which left an hour late, causing me to miss my connection to Atlanta by four minutes. I had to spend a five-hour night in a DC hotel before hopping an early flight home.
The next morning I landed in Atlanta, surly and exhausted, 22 hours after I’d left Grand Rapids. I’d had more than enough of airports and planes.
But as we taxied to the gate, something incredible happened out the window. Not 200 feet away, an absolutely enormous metal tube with wings, filled with people, suddenly jumped into the sky.
I’m not kidding.
You’d think such a thing would make the news. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it happens over 95,000 times a day all over the world. Here it is compressed into a minute. Look carefully:
Once you get started, you can completely lose yourself in slack-jawed astonishment at the world around us. Not to worry — the anesthetic of familiarity will drag you back to the illusion of normal.
As soon as you get back, start planning your next vacation.
After sleeping through a hundred million centuries, we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. RICHARD DAWKINS, “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity,” from Unweaving the Rainbow
In the midst of the hectic usual, two people my family loved died. One, my wife’s 97-year-old grandmother, was expected. The other, my stepfather — though 84 — was not.
The kids have done really well. Deep sadness, especially at bedtime, but also that lovely working-through, that profound engagement.
Great-Grandma Huey was first, and they stared into her casket with the same combination of grief and wonder I felt when my dad died. She’s clearly not there. So where is she?
The girls had been a blur of questions and commentary since her death days before, including a tangent into reincarnation. I think it was Laney who eventually connected that idea to our natural cycle — that every atom in us has been here since the beginning of time, part of planets and suns and animals and plants and people before coming together to make us. That every bit of us returns to the world to fuel the ongoing story is a gorgeous natural symmetry that never ceases to move and even console me, and my kids have long been enamored of it.
The service was personal and emotional in that Southern Baptist way, including the usual fluster of assurances that she was now in the very Presence.
After all that, I was perplexed to hear the minister read from First Thessalonians at the grave:
We believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
For an hour we’d heard about Grandma’s current seat in heaven. Now Paul tells us she will sleep in the ground until the Second Coming, only then rising to meet the Lord.
It’s the single greatest gap between common belief and actual binding scripture, and the minister had put it right out there. I looked around. No one else was listening for content.
I quietly cursed myself for never being able to do otherwise. Once in a while would be nice.
As the crowd dispersed, Delaney suddenly pointed at the casket and whispered, “What is that thing on the outside?”
I’d been wondering too. The coffin was sitting in what looked to be a solid metal outer box. As Laney spoke, the cemetery workers closed the lid (of what I’ve since learned is called a burial liner, a fairly recent innovation used in the U.S. and apparently nowhere else), cranking down hard on four handles, sealing it tight.
Erin looked at the sealed apparatus, appalled. “So much for returning to the earth,” she said. “She’s never gettin’ out of there.”
After all of our talk about the beauty of going back into the system, of being a link in an endless chain, Grandma’s atoms end up bicycling in a cul de sac until the end of time — or until the sun goes nova, I suppose. Until then, the license to dance is revoked. I think it struck us all as just…wrong.
Now all three kids want to be cremated. Laney wants to be scattered from a cliff over the ocean. I’m following other processeswith interest. But one way or another, I want my atoms on a through street.