Tag Archives: Life

Nobody Exists on Purpose. Nobody Belongs Anywhere. Everybody’s Going to Die. Come Watch TV.

As exciting as it has been to have new Game of Thrones episodes to watch over the past two Sundays, it pales in comparison to the return of one of the greatest shows ever made. Rick and Morty returns with the long-awaited second episode of the even longer-awaited third season this Sunday on Adult Swim at 11:30pm EST. If you’ve read some of my stuff before then you know I’m a big fan of both, but where George R.R. Martin’s incredibly intricate world and detailed characters are my preferred option for fantasy, mystery, and speculation, Rick and Morty is a show with an unending universe, nay, multiverse of possibilities that always surprises with how delightfully strange, silly, and smart it can be. Among poop jokes and quick quips about random pop culture are some brilliant subtexts that call into question everything we take for granted. I’ve never seen a show so masterfully handle sensitive subjects like religion so succinctly in such a skewering manner as the B-plot of an episode that runs 24 minutes. 24 minutes! You can learn more about what is going on with that particular episode from Jared and the Wisecrack crew:

When it comes down to it though, I love Rick and Morty because it connects with me so well. Rick and Morty just get me, man. This is of course true for many others, and the show has been a major common interest for some of my best friends and I over the last three and a half years.

Rick and Morty has also helped me to sort out my own stance on religious belief. I have always been a spiritual soul (perhaps “soul” isn’t the right word for this, but I like the alliteration). I attribute this to a degree to my years of Catholic education, the latter nine of which were at Jesuit schools. The Jesuits follow the example of the founder of their order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, in seeing God in everything.  Between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere! Yes! Even between the land and the ship. Of course the previous sentence is a line offered up by Yoda to Luke to teach him about the Force, which should indicate where most of my sense of spirituality comes from. I do not identify as a Jedi on my census form; I still mark Roman Catholic when asked about my religious affiliation, but where once I believed in the whole truth of the dogma, then to most of it, then to some of it, and now to almost none of it that is not historical at its core (the Romans did some not so nice things to the people of Jerusalem; there was a dude named Jesus who earned some friends among these downtrodden folks; the Romans perceived him as a threat and encouraged his execution, etc.).

My continued education in science, theology, and philosophy – which remember all occurred at Catholic schools – really cast doubt on what had frequently been presented to me as “the way it is”. The teachers and professors who challenged me to challenge my own beliefs were my Bruce Hornsby. No one person or event brought about my shift from faithful to factual, but all played a critical role in my growth as a person and my understanding of the universe (or perhaps multiverse!).

My favorite scenes in Rick and Morty were some of the final pieces for my personal philosophy regarding life as I know it. The first time I saw the show was midway through the first season and I binged all six episodes that had been released at that point. The sixth and final episode I watched, “Rick Potion #9”, might just be my favorite episode yet. The ending of it is one of the finest wrap-ups I have ever seen in any TV show, and again it was all done in less than a half hour. With the world wrecked by his Cronenberg-like mutants, Rick portals himself and Morty to a universe where the two of them have returned things to normal and promptly died. Rick explains nonchalantly how there are infinite realities and encourages Morty to not worry about it, but it’s all too much for Morty to take and we see his wide eyes gazing around this new, yet familiar world in shock while Mazzy Star’s “Look on Down from the Bridge” perfectly matches the tone on the scene.

I knew I would love this show forever after this. I never expected the wild ending filled with hilarity and high-concept sci-fi, not to mention the use of one of my favorite band’s best songs to wrap it all together. It was love at first sight. What a show, and what an earth-shaking bolt of doubt sent to my core. On the one hand, it’s a cartoon telling fart jokes, but on the other it has got some things to say and they are not always easy to hear. Just two episodes later, in another round of what seemed to be senseless humor for the sake of it, Rick and Morty offered up the best line I have ever heard in my life. That is not hyperbole; Morty’s words to Summer in “Rixty Minutes” are my mantra now. They have become a truth that I live by, and they were part of a B-plot to a primary storyline that consisted of Justin Roiland’s freestyling improvisation that had been animated.

After learning that she was an unintended pregnancy that prompted the marriage of her parents and would not have existed had they not decided against the abortion they were considering, Summer plans to pack up and run away when Morty takes a break from Ballfondlers to give her the dose of reality that I have titled this post after.

My dad was never much of a religious man, but he told me he and his fellow soldiers would offer up their own prays of sorts at times during his tour in Vietnam. He quoted the old adage, “There’s no atheists in a foxhole.” It makes sense that our natural fear of death is easier to accept when you believe there is something waiting for you after your life on Earth ends. We even see ultra-cynic Rick experience this from time to time:

Gotta love those countless Schrodinger’s cats to represent uncertainty.

It’s important to separate belief from fact. This is something that is easier said than done, but it is critical to ensuring that we do not take what is objective and muddle it with what is subjective. Facts can be proven as they have evidence that can be observed and replicated to back them up. Belief is what we choose to accept in the lack of evidence. Some beliefs can be disproved by established facts, i.e. global climate change is human caused and happening; there are hats. Belief in a deity or deities, or belief in an afterlife get tricky because these are not things that able to represented directly by scientific data. We step more within philosophy and the utilization of logic, especially in regards to what has been seen and what is most likely to be less false, but not necessarily more true.

Enjoy the continuing new season of my favorite television show on today, and enjoy your life and share it with others regardless of their beliefs. One of my friends questions the validity of the moon landing and I still speak to him. My oldest friend with whom I have made many great memories graduated from the University of Michigan and I still hang around with him. The point is, we are all different in less important ways yet have so much in common in what really matters. Religious belief can be helpful to help one find peace in the everyday, as well as for healing someone who has endured trauma. As long as religion promotes living in harmony with your fellow man, then it can do tremendous good. Many hospitals are managed by faith organizations, even more schools offer a better education in some areas (mine included), and mission work throughout the world helps to provide both by treating illness and educating populations without proper health care or formal schooling available. As long as faith does not become a banner of hate or blind following, it can help bring humanity closer to itself. Kindness is key, and ideally we can carry on with it without the need of enticement of eternal happiness.

Thanks for reading and watching! Portal back here next week for the quarterly recap in the State of the Season. As always, send any questions, comments, or suggestions to monotrememadness@gmail.com.

Don’t trip along the way,

Alex

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Rowling Along the Reading Rainbow

I never much cared for book learnin’ when I was a wee lad. I still don’t do much reading now, to be honest, but I at least have changed my stubborn, childish tune from “books are stupid and long and hard and I don’t want to read them!” (younger me really set myself up for ridicule from someone with a dirty mind). Today, I have put some literary miles behind me and have dabbled in just about every major genre of fiction, a fair degree of nonfiction, and I write a decent amount on my own (clearly). I owe a great deal of this to a good required reading list throughout high school and an excellent English teacher whose enthusiasm encouraged me to actually read the books I was assigned. Thanks Mr. H! His job would have been considerably tougher though were it not for the fact that I had already approached one book series with gusto where I had previously dismissed others with little regard. When I was in grade school, my mom came home from a weekend trip with some of her friends and I was pretty stoked to have her return; not because I missed her, oh no, but because she had some loot for me! She promised a present and delivered me… a book? What? What am I supposed to do with this? You’ve ruined me, mother. I’ll just go over here and lay face down in shame for the remainder of my life.

Yeah, I was a melodramatic youth, but aren’t we all? But hey, what was I to make of a book with a bespectacled British boy flying on a broom reaching out for a ball with wings? The book in question was of course Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s if you are American where we like alliteration) and today marks the 20th anniversary of its release on June 26, 1997.

Like many young readers of the late ’90s, once I took a look inside the book I was quickly turning pages, engrossed by the magical world within. This is interesting for me now as I never was one for fantasy outside of the realm of space until my teenage years when I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed The Hobbit in my aforementioned English teacher’s freshman class. I was an extremely devoted fan to cinematic space-based fantasy like Star Wars, and was easily more excited about the newest movie in that series that had come out a month prior to the book about the boy wizard. Now it is easy to say that absolutely Harry Potter is superior to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but young, developing in body and mind me was not at the same level I am currently. And for what it’s worth (nothing; it’s worth nothing) I did enjoy reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone more than watching Episode I. What is worthwhile, is that Harry Potter helped me change my stupid stance of protest towards leisure reading. In an historic occasion where the desires of a parent actually occurred after she actively encouraged it, my mom did get her wish of Harry Potter making me excited to read. Truly, all credit should go to another mom, Joanne Rowling, better known by her pen name J.K. Rowling – because unfortunately having your clearly female name displayed on your book can turn people away from it.

Thanks to the contemporary take on a magical world, it was easy for me as a non-fantasy fan to become engrossed in all Harry’s world had to offer, from Privet Drive to Diagon Alley to Hogwarts, I was onboard with the owls, monsters, spells, ghosts, and even a school that you live at. Ugh, it would have seemed like torture for younger me were it not for all the cool shit! Yet therein lies the grandest appeal of Harry and his world to a little boy about the same age as him. Harry was extraordinarily relatable to me as he was just like me, y’know, just without the parents I had. Even though he was a product of it, Harry was as new to the magical world hiding around the corner as I the rest of us were; we discovered everything with him. For me and others my age, we continued to discover the magic, both dark and light, not just within the ensuing series of books and movies but within our own bodies. This time I am intentionally referring to the sexy stuff, or more specifically the hormonal changes that arise throughout our teenage years to biologically drive us to reproduce with the avalanche of side effects that amplify our every emotion. The Harry Potter series will always be near and dear to my heart not just because of its rich fantastic lore, but mostly because of its incredible sympathy for my puberty. I have never read a book or seen a movie – not even the terrific adaptations of these books – that understands the natural growth of young people in mind, body, and society. Nowhere else has the development and deterioration of friendships, families, and world views been better captured.

At the crux of it all is the most difficult or frightening concept for us to tackle: death. Rowling has stated many times that the central theme of the story is dealing with death. Harry is an orphan whose parents are the first to die in the story, and he bears a permanent physical scar from their death that helps to accentuate his emotional scars that help define his character. Voldemort wants to avoid death at all costs to himself and others and hold dominion over it so that he is master of it. Throughout each book more characters meet their mortal end, and the frequency and impact of deaths ramp up as the series gets darker, just as Harry and his friends become impacted by the darkness of the world around them at an age where we begin to recognize how hard life is and how little we know, typically by blindly professing how we can do anything and know everything.

The Harry Potter series remains one of my favorite book series, with each book building more and more upon its world and most importantly it characters. I remember vividly finishing the first and last books of the series as they were similar situations. In both instances, I was up until about 2:30 AM and feeling tired, but nowhere near sleep because I was so close to the end of each text I was too excited and had to finish. I was exhausted after wrapping up Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, not just because of the late hour, but because it marked the end of an era for me and at a critical time in my life. In the summer between my graduation from high school and my preparations to go away to university, I had Deathly Hallows‘ release to offer me the one constant I had for that summer. Everything in my world was changing quickly, but not simply because of the next step within my adolescence, but because of death. Throughout my high school years – when the released books in the series were growing darker – I experienced a number of notable deaths of loved ones. I lost both of my grandmothers my freshman year of high school, three great uncles over the next three, and most devastating of all, my father shortly before my graduation. My dad’s death was still weighing extremely heavily on me when I began reading the all the more fittingly titled Deathly Hallows and the sense of dread I felt while reading it was more real than with anything else I have read. J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter helped me to cope with the hardships of my youth by showing me that even in a fantasy world with a semi-snake psychopath and literal soul-sucking demons the most terrifying part of life is growing up.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions please drop me a line at monotrememadness@gmail.com. If you have not already, I would greatly encourage you to check out the Harry Potter books, and after you cross those off your list go ahead and watch the films too to see one of the best complete casts ever assembled perfectly play their respective characters. R.I.P. Alan Rickman. You will always be my favorite professor at Hogwarts, even if you were a dick most of the time. Time turn your way back here next week for some more fantasy fun.

I Expecto (Patronum) to see you again,

Alex

Hello Should Not Be Goodbye

I normally have Sundays off, but yesterday I had to go into work for the afternoon, and even though I had volunteered to do so and was being paid money I otherwise would not have been, I still found it annoying. This irksome sentiment was further complicated by the bizarre inaugural protocol I was going to have to have to enact perfectly to maintain my comfortable employment – despite my well-appreciated quality of work, my job has become quite toxic lately. How well I performed it did not only have bearing on my career, but that of my friend and coworker assisting me that evening. Not to mention, this weird procedure I was tasked with involved directly calling one of the newly hired higher ups whom I have not had the pleasure of even seeing yet, so I had no flippity-dippity clue what to expect from contacting him on his personal phone except for a southern accent.

In all honesty, things were not too terribly unreasonable, but this combined with the hurricane of changes and moves going on at my workplace was a lot to handle. I had zenned myself to a level of professional calmness during the morning to prepare myself for whatever chaos could erupt later, but this chillness was brought back to a boil when one of my coworkers on duty called to say she got a panicked call from the client whose event I was going in to work. The client was concerned that we might not be coming, which was easy enough to reassure her about, but she had us pegged down for the wrong time and assumed we would be there a couple of hours before we were scheduled! Uh oh.

Fortunately, I called the contact and got the details sorted out, but then I started to worry we may have missed something else, whether with that event or another we may have left off the schedule entirely. Typically, I’m at an Outkast level of cool at work (i.e. ice cold), but yesterday was riling me up. Thus, I hopped in my car and hauled ass to the office. I was almost there when I remembered that due to construction, I could not park in the lot directly next to our department headquarters, but I was in too much of a hurry to park in the main lot since the other designated lot for employees was still closed off for one more day (instead of occasionally clearing away some snow they like to just close it down for three plus months). It was all good though, for another close friend and coworker lives in the adjoining neighborhood and had space in front of his place I could park at. So I set my sights on stealing his go-to out front spot while he was visiting family (classic Chris). As I went down the main road through his neighborhood, I slowed as I approached a stop sign, but not just out of adherence to traffic laws, but because I saw something small moving ever so gently in the road….

My years of birdwatching paid off in that instance, for I was able to spot and identify a teeny-tiny bird laying on the pavement. I initially passed by him on the right as I verified what I was looking at was not just a stick or leaf (trust me, I do not claim to be one, but even the most experienced birdwatchers spend more time than they wish staring at branches, leaves, and general detritus trying to figure out if they are looking at a bird or not). I could see that it was a little bird, and swung back around to block any oncoming traffic while I picked him up out of the roadway.

As I pulled on my thin knit gloves, I could see that the grounded little guy was a golden-crowned kinglet (the bird in the title picture), an adorable bird of the forest and backyard with trees that is a common sight throughout the United States and Canada, especially in the cooler months. The namesake for this bird is obvious at a glance, and I could see this guy’s brilliant gold crown with a touch of red in the center. He seemed to be okay, just a little shell-shocked, so he probably had been hit by a car, or rather the envelope of air around a car which would be more than enough to knock the wind out of such a small animal. I quickly picked him up and moved him under a nearby conifer tree so that he would have some cover from predators, and of course so he’d be away from the road. It was clear to me that he was not going to be flying anytime soon, but he was able to hop around and had a better footing on the pine needles and branches than the pavement he had been sprawled on.

I was still in a hurry to get things sorted at work, so I left the bird there with a renewed sense of purpose, glad of the good deed I had done. I wanted to scream it to the world how I had saved the little kinglet, but that would have been seeking hero worship for a simple action. I’m sure that kinglet thought I was a hero, and that was enough for me.

The rest of my day went smoother than I could have imagined. My colleague and I got to our event early, kicked some ass, and were able to roll out early. I had an extremely nice chat with the new big wig I had to call, and messaged my boss the favorable details. Everybody was happy, so I was happy. As I punched out and made my way back to my car, I considered stopping in at my friend’s house that I was parked outside of to inform him of the crazy start and easy finish to the wacky day I had, and maybe bum a beer off of him. He still wasn’t home though, so I decided to head to my own home.

Suddenly, I thought of the kinglet, and decided I would swing by the tree I left him under to see if he was okay. I parked on the other side from where I found him and moseyed over to the fallen branch I had set him beside. To my excitement, he was nowhere to be found! He must have regained his strength and flown away, off to catch more small insects tomorrow. I did a quick round of the tree just to be certain, all the while careful to make the most delicate of steps in case he still was on the ground nearby. After a minute of searching I decided he was definitely gone and started back to my car.

Upon turning back I froze in my tracks. There he was, leaning on the ground close to where I had set him hours earlier, only he was not moving. I moved in as quietly and slowly as I could and took a closer look. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t, not until I had absolute proof. I pulled my knit gloves back on and gently touched him. He tipped over helplessly. The body had gone stiff; only the legs had any flex. I tried to gently press his chest in and out in a small bird CPR motion, but to no avail. I have experienced death more than I would like, but I fortunately have not had any close friends or family pass away for some time. I was broken up by the loss of plenty of celebrities last year and this year, as recently as Chuck Berry who I wrote about last week. However, this one was different in that it was such a small thing. I had never seen this particular bird before, and I did everything within my power to offer it a chance at life, but it’s wounds were too great. I noticed the slightest abrasion on its head after I found it lifeless. Who could have helped?

I was determined not to leave the bird in such an undignified manner. I have no problem with the circle of life, and welcome the thought of the bird’s body being consumed by predator or detritivore to continue the energy cycle this universe runs on, but I could not permit him to be flopped on his side looking helpless. I scooped up a handful of pine needles and placed him on the bare ground I’d opened up, then replaced the pine needles to cover him up. This tiny burial for an equally tiny bird is still fresh in my mind and I anticipate it will remain so for a while.

I’m sorry if this upset you. It is a departure from my usual subject matter, but this small experience deeply affected me, and when something shakes me to my core as this did I find some peace in sharing my experiences through words. This encounter reminded me of the fragility of nature and how much we are responsible for as the dominant species of this interconnected world.

Thanks for reading. Please send any questions or comments to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to swing back around here next week for a look at the newest class of Rock and Rollers who will be immortalized in Cleveland.

Fly on, my feather friend,

Alex

 

It’s a TRAPPIST-1!

It has been a week of star-studded news. Yes, there was that insane debacle at last night’s Academy Awards that saw the wildest finish to any Oscars presentation when the wrong movie was announced as the Best Picture. Actually, the wrong movie has been announced as Best Picture lots of times, as I discussed a few years ago, but in this case the movie that official won the award was only announced after the award had already been presented to the producers of another movie who were halfway through their acceptance speeches! For a fun and thorough wrap-up of all the action, check out the annual Screen Junkies Grouchies award show.

As bonkers as that was, and as interesting as I am in the goings-on of the film world, I am much more intrigued by what’s happening with another world. Seven, in fact. Moonlight is the least of my concerns when starlight and planetary transits creating shadows that our space telescopes can see are occurring.

For decades, numerous astronomers have been tirelessly searching for other worlds like ours throughout the universe. These exoplanets as they are called when they are outside of our solar system, are the key to further observing what the most common planets are like and how ours stacks up in the grand cosmic scene. Additionally, the search for Earth-like worlds give us a greater look at areas that may have the right pieces to harbor life. This can mean that we may discover the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on one of these worlds, and/or find another world suitable for future human habitation.

Last week, NASA revealed that such a solar system had been found with not one, but seven – yes, seven! – Earth-like planets orbiting around a small star. Three of the seven exoplanets are within the habitable zone for humans, also known as the Goldilocks Zone because its conditions are not too hot or cold, but just right for humans to live within. Most exciting of all though, this star system is but 12 parsecs, or about 39 lightyears away! Now while this is about 250 trillion with a “T” miles away from us, in relation to the massive scope of the universe as we know it, this is extremely close. A lightyear is as its name implies, the unit of distance that it takes light to travel in the span of one year. Light is the fastest moving thing we know in the observable universe, clocking in at around 299,792,458 meters per second, or 671 million with an “M” miles per hour. That’s pretty darn quick, and we couldn’t hope to match it with our current technology, and probably never will manufacture a real-life Millennium Falcon to exceed it, but it is very much within the realm of possibility for a spacecraft that can manage one-fifth (1/5) the speed of light to be made. In fact, such technology is currently being worked on.

Is this the dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Make no mistake, it will take some time for us to reach the recently discovered star, called TRAPPIST-1 after the terrestrial telescope in Chile that first found it in the constellation Aquarius. However, the great potential that this system and the exoplanets within it hold for the future of our species is tremendously exciting. I won’t get to go there in my lifetime, but maybe the great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren I’m not planning on having will start to see humans making their way toward landing on the TRAPPIST exoplanets, perhaps with the chance to colonize them. Much sooner within my lifetime, as in the next few years, we will probably know what the composition of the exoplanets’ atmospheres are made of and whether or not they contain oxygen, a biological marker that heralds the presence of living organisms. It at least seems likely that the exoplanets, which we know are rocky like our world and not gaseous like Jupiter, contain water, the liquid form of which is the necessary component to life, as you may have heard before. Who knows? Perhaps we may even have definitive proof of life outside of Earth unearthed within our remaining spins around the star we know and love best. Hopefully it’s less hostile than what Private Hudson experienced on LV-426. Game over, man! Rest in peace, Bill.

Thanks for reading! If you want to learn much more about the TRAPPIST-1 system than I can tell you then check out the ever reliable NASA webpage for continuing updates, as well as the beautiful and information-filled TRAPPIST-1 site found here. There is a great set of pages that detail everything from what we know of each exoplanet so far, and the timeline of the discovery. Be sure to check out the cute and colorful comic on the “Stories” page that features an astronomer rabbit explaining the find to her panda pal in terms that make it accessible (and fun) for us all. Send any questions or comments my way to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Make your way back here in a little less than one TRAPPIST-1f year (nine days!) for more fun and informative stuff.

To TRAPPIST-1 and Beyond!

Alex

Of Peppered Moths and Pangolins

Fresh off some procrastinating Pangolin Love (Google it, or just pull up Google), I’m ready to roll into today’s topic, and hey, what the hell, let’s throw some pangolins into the mix. They will actually have quite a lot to contribute to the discussion, not to mention they’re cute.

pangolin-slider

Now that we’ve got that adorable armored visage in mind, let’s talk about the birthday boys. Yesterday, February 12th, was the 208th birthday of not one, but two of my favorite historical heroes. One is well-known in my native United States to be Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President whose accolades include abolishing slavery in America, keeping the nation in tact throughout the American Civil War, and getting his face stamped on a coin and a bill in US currency! However, today I’ll be focusing on the other big man born on 2/12/1809: British naturalist Charles Darwin, most renowned for his determination that natural selection is the primary process by which species populations evolve. If you’d like to learn a little trivia about similarities between these two titans of historical importance, than check out this Mental Floss post.

Charles Robert Darwin made a name for himself after his almost five year voyage on the HMS Beagle which helped him collect data and inspiration for his book On the Origin of Species that contained his theory of natural selection. The Beagle was a surveying ship, and Darwin hopped aboard for its second trip, the focus of which was to help get to the lay of the land of the continent of South America. During the journey, Darwin observed and occasionally collected many plant and animal specimens, but nowhere were these so fascinating than on the Galapagos Islands. There, Darwin took meticulous records of the lives and looks of many species, most notably a variety of finches that he noticed the importance the role of their features, especially their beaks, played in their ability to gather food and survive. This led him to formulating the hypothesis that would become the theory of natural selection. With more on that, and what it meant and still means for the overarching theory of evolution, check out what Hank Green and the SciShow/CrashCourse crew have to elaborate on the subject matter:

Thanks to advances in technology, communication, and education, we know now how large a part genetics plays in determining different species from one another. Phenotypes generally help us to narrow down our drawing out of the branching on the evolutionary tree of life, but they are not always reliable. Take a gander at that adorable pangolin again. We know now that there are at least eight species within three genera spread across regions in Africa and Asia thanks a lot due to genetics helping us realize that they were not all part of the same genus. That’s fairly typical, but genetic study has also shown that pangolins are not as closely related to armadillos as we previously thought. Looking at the two it appears that they would be best buddies and probably cut from the same cladographic cloth. But alas! armadillos are within the same order, Xenartha, as anteaters and sloths, but pangolins are Ferans meaning that they share the clade Ferae with, of all animal orders, Carnivora! That’s right, those wholesome rollie-pollie pangolins are closer related to cats, canines, bears, and George Takei OH MY! so much more that they do not at all appear on the surface to be related to. But that’s why it’s so exciting having the tools of genetic researching at our disposal. When added to the fossil record that we are expanding everyday with literally newly uncovered information, the means to catalog the critters that inhabit our wondrous planet are greater than ever. Darwin’s fellows on the Beagle may have set out to survey the coasts and crannies of South America, but the knowledge that he brought back, combined with the advances of today make it easier for us to survey our species and all the others we are connected to through the ages. Now we just have to do our part in preserving them, something that is especially tough concerning the pangolin as it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. Have a heart to help them if you can, be kind to all of the animals around you. Remember, we all the same great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great *10grandparent.

Thanks for reading and watching! I hope your adaptations assist you in returning here next week. In the meantime, direct any comments or questions to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Happy very, very belated birthday Chuck and Abe!

Trust in the facts,

Alex

Consider Again That Dot

Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust. We are all part of the same pieces that exploded into existence as we know it with amazing energy 13.8 billion years ago. From that magnificent beginning of this universe, everything within it has grown and evolved. And that’s even before life on Earth formed. The ideas we study today regarding the Big Bang and what has occurred in the expansion of the cosmos since are relatively new, having come into scientific understanding during only the last century or so, however, the study of the stars and the infinity beyond has existed for millennia. Astronomers have long impacted our knowledge of our world and what exists beyond it, helping to pave the way for other subjects of study. We remember and revere the names and lives of many such people who helped teach us more about our place in the universe. Today, I am writing about a hero of mine and many others who did this in more ways than one, showing us just how small and special we are as a planet and a species.

Tomorrow will mark the 20th anniversary of one of the saddest days in science education history. On December 20, 1996, the world lost a man who saw its incredible beauty and recognized how infinitesimally small we are on it and in the grand scheme of the cosmos: Carl Sagan. Sagan was an inspirational figure whose efforts to educate are still felt strongly, especially in the medium of television that he utilized so perfectly. His studies and insights also continue to be prevalent in his many books, as well as the lessons reiterated by his students who teach us today as he did decades ago.

Carl Sagan was born on November 9, 1954 in Brooklyn, New York to a Russian immigrant father and a native New Yorker mother. He and his sister, Carol, were raised Jewish, but not with a great emphasis on religious practice and teaching placed upon them. His parents not only allowed him to question everything, but encouraged it, something that he stated aligned perfectly with the scientific method and his quest for knowledge.

Sagan was smart from the start, thanks in large part because of his many interests in many subjects, such as astronomy, biology, and chemistry to name a few awesome ones. He frequently read about the wonders of the natural sciences, and visited the world-class museums that New York had (and still has) to learn as much as he could. It paid off for him as he attended college early, studying at the University of Chicago when he was 16. There he encountered some of the preeminent scientists and teachers of the era, including geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller and chemist Harold Urey (remember the latter). Sagan’s dissertation was done under the tutelage of Gerard Kuiper, for whom the Kuiper Belt (where Pluto and two other dwarf planets live) is named. From Chicago, Sagan went on to the University of California at Berkeley in 1959.

Sagan became an assistant professor at Harvard University at 1963 after his peers in academic astronomy were impressed with his work, specifically his Science article regarding Venus’ atmosphere. However, even after years of teaching at the university and working at the nearby Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Sagan was not granted tenured status. In fact, numerous members in the academic community voiced their concerns with Sagan’s wide window of study as opposed to the traditional finer focus on a specific pursuit of study. The strongest voice against him, and the greatest dagger to his tenure hopes, came from a former advisor at the University of Chicago, that’s right, Harold Urey. Urey was a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and had worked on the Manhattan Project, so he had authority in the scientific community. He argued against Sagan becoming a full-time professor, and Harvard listened.

Sagan was understandably disappointed, but where one Ivy League door closes, another gets to say “Suck it, Harvard!” today as a reward for not being overly concerned with the comprehensive interests of its professors at the time. Sagan had actually had an offer from astronomer Thomas Gold and Cornell University to come to teach prior to this decision from Harvard. The outcome of that decision made it easy for him to take his talents to Ithaca. He became an associate professor in 1968, and just two years later a full professor. His educational efforts were not confined to the classroom though, as in addition to continued research in astronomy and other fields, Sagan worked with NASA to prepare the Apollo astronauts for their lunar missions and to develop robotics. Sagan is also the man responsible for the creation and inclusion of information regarding humans and the Earth placed on some deep space probes sent out in the 1970s and 1980s. The first of these is the Pioneer Plaque which was attached to Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 launched in 1972 and 1973 respectively. The plaque depicts a naked human man and woman and an illustration of our solar system and other items used to indicate the origin of the spacecrafts in the event that they are found by intelligent extraterrestrial life. An explanation of the illustrations can be found here.

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The two Voyager probes launched in 1977 contain an updated plaque, called the Voyager Golden Record. Like the Pioneer Plaque, the Golden Record was attached to the spacecraft with information pertaining to humans and the Earth.

Sagan was all about finding other forms of intelligent life and making contact with them. He encouraged search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, projects and co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980 with SETI initiatives in mind. In 1985 he published the novel Contact about making first contact with intelligent alien life. The book was made into a movie of the  same name that was released in 1997, a year after Sagan’s death. The story is representative of many of Sagan’s ideals, especially where the relationship and often duel between scientific fact and religious faith are concerned. Contact provides intelligent insight into the relationship of government and science as well. All of these are themes that exist in other popular science stories like Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life that was recently released as movie called Arrival, which has many similarities to ContactInterstellar does as well, including Kip Thorne’s input regarding wormholes and Matthew McConaughey being all right, all right, all right.

Sagan had other (non-fiction) books and many published papers and reports, but undeniably his greatest impact was through his television program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. With Cosmos, Sagan took his grand encompassing interest in the big picture out of the classroom and into our homes. The show was superbly received and is one of the most watched series ever to air on PBS. Sagan was successful at inspiring everyday people into asking “Why?” and helped to make scientific ventures popular. Two of Sagan’s most notable students at Cornell would go on to have similar success with similar programming on TV. From 1993-1998, Bill Nye was the titular science guy in his show aimed at teaching children the basics of science. Nye was a senior at Cornell when he took Sagan’s underclassman course for easier credits, but he has stated that the class was a critical building point in his life that helped him to realize his potential and shape his life. Neil deGrasse Tyson did not attend Cornell and take Sagan’s class as Nye did, but he was a student of life of Carl Sagan’s and kept close ties to him from his teenage years. Tyson has hosted the StarTalk podcast (and later show) since 2009, and in 2014 he made another Cosmos series called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. In the opening episode, Tyson explains how he first came to know Carl Sagan. Tyson had sent an application to Cornell, and the admissions office had forwarded it to Sagan. Sagan then wrote a letter to Tyson inviting him for a visit. Tyson was impressed to say the least with Sagan’s knowledge, but mostly his character. Of his mentor and friend he said, “I already knew I wanted to become a scientist. But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become.”

Cosmos was good for Sagan as well, as his co-writer, Ann Druyan, would within a year become his wife. Druyan was Sagan’s third wife, but she and he remained happily married until his death. Near the end of his life, Sagan suffered from a myelodysplastic syndrome, a cancer in which the blood cells in bone marrow does not develop properly. It often leads to leukemia. He was able to keep it at bay with bone marrow transplants from his sister, however he developed pneumonia which took his life on December 20, 1996.

Carl Sagan was exceptional at presenting simple and complex information alike in an easy and enjoyable way to the public. Whether or not you are young or old, or as wild about science as Carl was when he was younger or not, then you can learn and love what Sagan has to share in his show and books. He had many famous musings in his beautifully poetic presentations, but the most renowned is his “Pale Blue Dot” speech given at Cornell, in which he ponders on the whole of human existence while observing a picture of Earth taken by Voyager I from about 6 billion kilometers away. This may be the most important speech I have ever heard or read. It summarizes the actions of our species so perfectly and presents us with a spectacularly humbling realization that we are so, so small in this enormous universe. However, this makes us and our planet so incredibly special and grants us the wonderfully privilege to make our world the best it can be. I hope that it moves and inspires you as it does me.

Thanks for reading and watching. If you have any questions, comments, or requests for future topics, then please email me at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Orbit back here next week for some more out of this world fun.

Science shed lights on the unknown,

Alex

Time and Change Will Surely Show How Firm Thy Friendship Ohio

I was not going to write about Ohio State again, but then that game happened and delivered on all the hype and hopefulness to be the game of the year.

What I never anticipated was writing about Ohio State outside of the context of football, a mostly clean, civil competition without any ill-intent beyond what you dish out to your opposition on the scoreboard. However, this Monday, November 28th morning, The Ohio State University became the latest in an all too long string of schools threatened by malicious individuals who seek to harm people. The latest news as I write is that eight people were hurt by an attacker who was eventually shot dead by Columbus police. The motive, if there is any beyond the crude actions, is unclear, and it probably will remain so for some time until the authorities complete their investigation. As for now, we wish those hurt a safe and speedy recovery; those frightened the comfort of safety provided by each other and law enforcement; and those police and other law enforcers gratitude for their swift actions that helped save lives.

And that’s all I’m going to say about it. I’m not a journalist, nor am I seeking a story; I’ve got one, and it’s about a football game, so I’m going to talk about that football game. I’m not going to pretend this attack didn’t happen, or that it’s not scary, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to be caught up in a sensationalist fray trying to jump on something I’m not fully qualified to report on, and I’m sure as hell not going to inadvertently fulfill this attacker’s stupid agenda by talking about his/her atrocious actions. Fuck that person; let’s move back on to life.


If you are any sort of football fan, then you had at least one eye looking in the way of The Game between Ohio State and Michigan this past weekend. Both of mine, and many others were glued to the screen for the entire contest which scored the second-highest football rating for ABC behind only the 2006 #1 vs. #2 Game of the Century I wrote about last week.
Speaking of ABC/ESPN, their staff must have read my first post about this monumental rivalry and its historical roots given their heavy coverage of the Toledo War and the city’s divided fan support. I loved seeing my hometown – which is also the hometown for Ohio State and Michigan head coaches Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh respectively – highlighted, but the greatest sight was of Renee, the matriarch African elephant at the Toledo Zoo showing her Buckeye swag by waving an Ohio State flag and choosing an Ohio State emblazoned pumpkin for her preferred treat. Proof that those pachyderms are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet.

The 113th occurrence of the classic rivalry delivered one of its best games, the first to go into overtime. Double overtime in fact, but for most of the game, it did not appear that any extra time would be necessary. Ohio State underperformed on offense throughout three quarters, and they missed two critical kicks that would have given them much needed points. Fortunately, their defense kept Michigan’s offense from getting much out of their favorable field position. Wolverines quarterback Wilton Speight, whose status was uncertain until shortly before kickoff, played a magnificent game through the first three quarters save for a few key mistakes that turned the ball over three times, two that led to Buckeye scores, including an immediate one on a pick-six for Buckeye safety Malik Hooker (his third of the season!). After hard-fought football, Buckeyes kicker Tyler Durbin finally got the field goal that kept escaping him when it mattered most and sent the game to overtime in the closing seconds. In a system that favors offensive teams, the Buckeyes ramped up their suddenly (and finally) awake offense and needed only two plays to score a touchdown. Michigan took a few more, but Speight again excelled on fourth-and-goal and threw the tying score to a diving Amara Darboh who, much to my chagrin, made a great catch to send the game to a second overtime. The Wolverines got to go first on offense this time and had to settle for a field goal after a stop that will have Wolverines fans screaming until next November. The Team Up North settled for a field goal, allowing the Buckeyes a shot to win with a touchdown. The Bucks had a harder time getting going than in the first overtime, and had a third-and-nine when the speedy, shifty Curtis Samuel made a move that Ted Ginn Jr. undoubtedly shed a tear of joy for.

That set up a fourth-and-one situation that Meyer and quarterback J.T. Barrett had no hesitation deciding what to do with. A shaky kicker aside, the Buckeyes intended to end the game in that second overtime, but first they needed a fresh set of downs. Barrett kept the ball and ran straight ahead, as anyone could have predicted, and he was stopped right at the line. The referees called it first down initially, but took another look just to be sure, and the video showed just what they had seen. With a first down at the 15 yard line and no more gameclock to worry about running out, the Buckeyes could have whittled their way toward the endzone with a few plays, but as he showed on the prior play, Curtis Samuel isn’t about chipping away short yardage runs.

The Game of the Year lived up to the hype, and while it probably will not overtake the 2006 contest for Game of the Century, it will not be far behind it in the remembered lore of this greatest of rivalries.

After the 2006 #1 vs. #2 game, the Ohio Lottery Pick 4 numbers were 4-2-3-9; the score from The Game. This Saturday saw another eerie occurrence, but on a smaller scale. Also at noon on Saturday, my alma mater, John Carroll University, played their second playoff game of this football season and defeated Wesley College from Delaware 20-17 in double overtime by scoring a touchdown after Wesley College scored a field goal. Sound familiar? Well, so should Wesley’s nickname; they’re the Wolverines. Both of my teams won on a touchdown in two overtimes against Wolverines. That’s more eerie than our Lake! Now my Blue Streaks get to take on the other perennial powerhouse program in Division III, Wisconsin-Whitewater, the team that routinely contends with Mount Union for the National Championship. Keep it going JCU!

Thanks for reading and watching. If you have any comments or questions, please send them to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Keep the victims of today’s senseless violence in your hearts, and let your loved ones know you love them. Now to them, and not the football team, I say stay strong and Go Buckeyes!

Love,

Alex