Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ocean Etching

Photograph taken at Seapoint Beach, Kittery Maine: December 2010
This photograph and a version of this essay was published in the Concord Monitor 1/16/11

I took this photograph at Seapoint Beach in Kittery Maine recently. It is of a natural etching cut into the sand by ocean water flowing back down the beach after high tide. To me, it looks like a row of plants, some with long, luxurious roots.

Self-similar things can really be fascinating as I discovered many years ago when I first learned to create unbelievable images on my first Apple computer, using fractal-generating software, based on the work of Benoit Mandelbrot.

 “Fractal” is a term used by mathematicians to describe the unique “self-similar” property of certain structures; specifically, a fractal is a geometric shape that retains the same shape regardless of the level of magnification used to view it. [1]

Natural fractal objects include clouds, mountain ranges, lightning bolts, snowflakes, and coastlines.  The Maine coastline would be a good example of the self-similar nature of fractals. Whether you view the Maine coast far above from an airplane or up close walking down the beach, the shape remains the same.  

It defies the imagination, doesn't it?

Mandelbrot’s theory became popular after he published a paper in 1967 entitled How Long is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension.  This paper investigated yet another amazing fractal property: that the measured length of a stretch of coastline (because it is a fractal) depends on the scale of measurement.

Empirical evidence suggests that the smaller the increment of measurement, the longer the measured length becomes. If one were to measure a stretch of coastline with a 12” ruler one would get a longer result than if the same stretch were measured with a yardstick. This is because one would be laying the ruler along a more curvilinear route than that followed by the yardstick.  The smaller the unit of measurement the longer it becomes until, carried to it's extreme, the length of the Maine coastline becomes infinite! [2]

This is exciting stuff, not just about fractals but scientific discoveries in general.

Contrary to conventional thinking, science doesn't necessarily lead to a loss of freedom through expanded abilities to predict and control. Neither does science necessarily lead to a secular life style that is amoral and non-spiritual.

Instead, as I have tried to show in this small essay, science has the ability to make us grow by shaking us up: reminding us that we live in a mind-blowing place of unfathomable mystery. The only constant in this brave new world is that we all are connected.  The human embryo as it develops repeats the history of the evolution of life on earth–ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny–part of Mother Nature’s master plan: whether an image in the sand, a plant with fractal roots, a puppy dog or a human being, we are all the same. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Gaining Entrance to the Elysian Fields

"Epiphany at Dawn" Water Street, Laconia 12/30/10

Before David Foster Wallace started on his illustrious literary career, he was drawn to philosophy for reasons he was unable to articulate at the time. Years later, during an interview with literary critic Larry McCaffery, Wallace was able to explain that during those years when he was a philosophy student he had been "chasing a special sort of buzz," a flash of feeling whose nature he didn't comprehend at first…"What I didn't know then was that…[my] experience was aesthetic in nature, an epiphany in Joyce's original sense."[1]

While not pretending to compare myself to David Foster Wallace in any way, I did have a similar philosophical revelation as a gangling adolescent, growing up isolated in the woods of New Hampshire.  When I was about 14, I joined the Classics Book Club, not being able to resist the offer of receiving two free books.  One of those books was “Five Great Dialogues” by Plato.

The night the books arrived, I started reading my first Socratic dialogue, not expecting much. But I was quickly seduced.  Night after night, I read deep into the night. As with Wallace, “a flash of feeling” would sometimes well up in me, an insight beyond words: a seductive enchantress, whispering in my ear about the indescribable pleasures of a higher realm of transcendental truth and beauty.

But my muse, didn’t speak a language I could understand and was so damn elusive she would not let me touch her or even see her in the flesh, only allowing me to glimpse her suggestive form reflected on my bedroom wall.  I couldn’t help but become frustrated.  And, if that wasn’t enough, she was utterly fickle: leaving without warning and never telling me if or when she was coming back.

She was my first love but I couldn’t stand the drama and ended up ditching her. I went back to dating real girls, driving fast cars, and putting my energy into navigating the stormy emotional waters of high school.  But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t forget my brief fling with my tempestuous mistress of inspiration. By my senior year I knew I needed to take action. I applied to several Ivy League schools, hoping to reacquaint myself with Big Ideas and rekindle that special, passionate feeling, what David Foster Wallace had called “that special sort of buzz.”

I got accepted at Columbia and found that I was able to reconnect to my mistress of inspiration, but it was not an easy process, usually coming about, if it did at all, after staying up all night, chain smoking, reading and writing about great existential issues of life and death.

Magically, if I were lucky, usually as the first grey light of morning filtered through my grimy dorm window, it would happen: Time would stop and the muffled street noises on 116th street would cease; at least for a moment–sometimes for much longer–I was able to escape my agitated, acne-pocked body and confused, overworked mind and merge with something bigger, something sublime.

While such experiences are beyond mere description in words, I believe such transformational epiphanies, although rare, happen to all of us. I don’t think we usually talk about such things out of modesty, not wishing to appear egotistical, messianic, or delusional. At a deeper level–because it is an authentic, out-of-body state beyond our normal experience in a culture that doesn’t honor such things­–we don’t talk about it because it scares us, makes us feel out-of-control or even crazy.

Some people, however, have the ability, either through sheer ego strength or a total disregard for what other people think, to talk openly about these altered states. James Agee was one of those people. The following is the best description of these late night epiphanies I have ever read.

“The light in this room is of a lamp. Its flame in the glass is of the dry, silent, and famished delicateness of the latest lateness of the night, and of such ultimate, such holiness of silence and peace that all on earth and within extremest remembrance seems suspended upon it in perfection as upon reflective water: and I feel that if I can by utter quietness succeed in not disturbing this silence, in not so much as touching this plain of water, I can tell you anything within realm of God, whatsoever it may be, that I wish to tell you, and that what so ever it may be, you will not be able to help  but understand it.”[2]

Part II: How waiting for these epiphanies has lead to a life of intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual procrastination (A work in progress....)

[1] From the article Philosophical Sweep: To understand the fiction of David Foster Wallace, it helps to have a little Wittgenstein. By James Ryerson Posted on Culturebox 12/21/10
[2] Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee & Walker Evans  Houghton  Mifflin Company: Boston originally published in 1941, page 51

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Gift

Merrimack River at Sewell's Falls 12/31/10

An ornament celebrating the New Year shaped over time by splashing river water from the Merrimack freezing on a low-hanging tree branch.