The Marvelous

   But, shoot, look where Galileo got us: “There is a straight line from the physics of Bacon and Galileo to the atom bomb” (German physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizacker).  Funny thing about science – just like religion – it’s yielded some really bad shit.

  Several interesting books (the exhortatory End of Religion by Sam Hamill and God Is Not Great, How Religion Spoils Everything by Christopher Hitchens) have been published recently about the terrors of religion.  Gotta remember that there is also the continuing tragic paradox of the Enlightenment.  Without the miracles of modern technology, the nuts and crackpots and despots about would be little more than babbling idiots – you know, sans WMD.

  Several years ago author Michael Frayn wrote a play called Copenhagen. It centered on his fictional account of the wartime discussions between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr which may or may not have helped stop a Nazi bomb.  The morality of any atomic research in all of its historical permutations is the larger background issue.

  During a discussion of the play on NPR, a physicist savored the “sweet technological problems” that were and are attendant to nuclear weapon research. He even giggled in so doing.  Later, on the same program, Werner von Braun was quoted: “we were only charged with getting the rockets up in the air…”  

  Here though, is what went through Robert Oppenheimer’s mind while watching the first mushroom cloud at Los Alamos:

       I am become death, the shatterer of worlds;
      Waiting that hour that ripens to their doom. – Bhagavad-Gita     

  Nothing like a slap in the face, eh?

  Frayn ends his play talking about “that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things”. Can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but can Pascal* leave his room without sowing seeds of destruction?

  Perhaps best after first having found a way to be comfortable there.

  Here’s the koan, courtesy of Seamus Heaney:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air. 
                                                                                       
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
                                                                                
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it.  But in vain.
“This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,”
                                                                                               
The abbot said, “unless we help him.” So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvelous as he had known it.

*”All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone”  Blaise Pascal 1623-1662

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2 Responses to “The Marvelous”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Its an interesting thing to think about. It makes me think about how similar science and religion are. Followers of each interest are in search of the same thing essentially (the ultimate truths). I guess our charge in what ever we do is to make responsible decisions. But even the most altruistic and noble decisions can lead to terrible disasters. A quote from the movie Match Point comes to mind –

    “The man who said “I’d rather be lucky than good” saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a tennis match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.”

  2. Budge Says:

    LIfe is a mystery. Can’t be reduced to physics – ie “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. But neither is it a heap of dumb luck, good or bad. I do agree that a sincere effort to make responisible decisons is the only place to start.

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