Friday, September 15, 2017

Mortal Asclepias

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I packed my camera gear up to Mt. Tam this morning to look for narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), a lovely plant whose generic name honors the son of Apollo, god of medicine. I don't remember to look for it every year, but I last photographed it on Mt. Tam in 2011. The only time I ever saw or photographed a monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on this plant that's so important to the life of monarchs, was 2003. There were no milkweed plants in their former haunts this year, not even at Potrero Meadow. I didn't see any jimsonweed either. I imagined a few seeds of both of these interesting and beautiful plants biding their time in the soil until conditions become favorable once again. Maybe next year.

UPDATE (9/26/17): I noticed my first blooming plum tree as I biked home from work today, which reminded me that a guy on the Marin Native Plants group on FB said the milkweed was blooming like crazy in Potrero Meadow back in late July, quite a bit earlier than usual. Shopping for yard plants at Sloat Garden Center last weekend I saw a monarch land on a plant and pointed it out to an employee who told me he'd found two monarch chrysalises just the week before. Yesterday afternoon I saw another monarch flutter by downtown, near Sue Bierman Park. It can't be good for monarchs to show up in fall, only to find the usual haunts of milkweed gone, having already bloomed weeks or months earlier.  

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Saturday, September 2, 2017

Golden Asymmetry

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A hundred years before I was born, Louis Pasteur wrote that the difference on Earth between things that have life and things that don’t is like the difference between a static photograph and a dynamic one:

“Most natural organic products, the essential products of life, are asymmetric and possess such asymmetry that they are not superimposable on their image,” he wrote. “This establishes perhaps the only well-marked line of demarcation that can at present be drawn between the chemistry of dead matter and the chemistry of living matter.”

When you compose an image on your screen or in your viewfinder, you notice that simply moving the center of interest away from the center turns a static (dead) scene into a dynamic (living) one. We think about, or maybe intuit, the “rule of thirds” when making a composition, but a more useful concept might be the “golden ratio” which does not draw a perfect circle, a perfect symmetry that ends where it begins, but a dynamic spiral with endless possibilities. 

As science has learned only recently, the universe itself exists due to an asymmetry between the matter and antimatter that were created together at the beginning of time. In those first moments of creation, matter and antimatter could have annihilated each other, but for some still-unknown reason they didn’t. Instead, about one in a billion particles of matter escaped to become the world we know and love.

Instead of going out in the crazy heat to shoot pictures I've been reading The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. That's where I learned that life itself also depends on asymmetry, or what chemists call chirality. Kean led me to the Louis Pasteur quotation above, which in turn led me to wonder if science has figured out yet how life got started in the first place. Apparently it has not.

“If you think about the physical world, it is not at all obvious why you don’t just make more dead stuff. Why does a planet have the capability to sustain life? Why does life even occur? The dynamics of evolution should be able to address that question. Remarkably, we don’t have an idea even in principle of how to address that question….” – Physicist Nigel Goldenfeld in Quantamagazine.

It’s kind of fascinating to draw a line from a universe where matter got a foothold due to asymmetry, to a planet where life got a foothold due to asymmetry, to a time when human beings would roam the earth and find beauty in asymmetry, in a golden ratio that perhaps reflects an archetype of consciousness that’s as deep as Creation itself.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

Pondering Sanskrit

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As I stare into a clear night sky and ponder mysteries such as the existence of life on other planets, I recall that life almost came to an end on our own planet during the Permian-Triassic extinction around 250 million years ago, long before the more famous dinosaur extinction. Life mysteriously arose on Earth nearly 4 billion years ago, then gaily swam about for the next 3.5 billion years before evolving the ability to come out of the water and onto the land. So it was just about half-way between then and now that life’s experiment on Earth nearly came to an end.

I have a hard enough time acknowledging the ephemerality of my own life, but to realize that all life on the planet almost went belly-up is mind-boggling, not to mention heart-wrenching. We think our presence on Earth is inevitable because we’re here. Our memories are short. Like a gorilla in Rwanda who shares 98 percent of our DNA, we don’t think about millions or billions of years ago. We get into enough trouble worrying about the past and future of our own lives.

What if life’s great experiment had gone belly-up millions of years before human consciousness had ever formed? Before a human thought had ever been born? Before anyone ever needed to be reminded to “be here now” instead of living in a dream? Before quantum packets of starlight ever sparkled into a human eye and kindled an imagination?

Would the universe be void and meaningless without us? Without aliens on other planets who may have been shaped by their own near-miss extinctions? There is no such thing as 16 billion years ago, at least not in this 15-billion-year-old universe. What was the meaning of life before there was even a universe?

Some probability of human beings must have existed in that first spark some 15 billion years ago, the spark of creation itself. The alpha scintilla shaped itself into a sprinkling of gassy stars, some of which eventually burned through their hydrogen and helium and exploded into supernovas whose furnaces furnished the elements of life and scattered them about the universe. Let gravity pick them up. Let scientists put them in order, lightest to heaviest. H-He-Li-Be-B-C-N-O-F-Ne, and so on.

Like any other sentient creatures that may exist in that vast cosmos, we are made of the elements formed in supernovas, shaped into life by the universe itself.

“Tat Tvam Asi,” the Dharma says. “Thou Art That.”

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