Friday, October 13, 2017

Tycho Brahe & Johannes Kepler. Two shining lights in a sea of ignorance.

Tycho & Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership That Forever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens – Kitty Ferguson (2002)

The knowledge that humanity has built up over our existence is always dependent on the sharing of information and the ability to spread the information as far as possible.  One never knows just who will be the person to grasp that bit of data and head off on a new intellectual adventure.  This is especially true in the sciences, where solitary scientists spent years of their life making very careful observations of the natural world and the heavens around us.  This hard data is the basis of all science.  Only when such rigorous data is obtained are the theories that seek to explain the data able to be verified, or rejected as not conforming to the verified data.  For decades, Tycho Brahe labored as the pre-eminent astronomer of his time, using his knowledge and position to build ever more elaborate and precise astronomical observation instruments.  His data, gathered after countless thousands of man-hours spent between him and his many assistants making nocturnal observations, spoke no truths in and of itself.  It was up to a younger astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler, to utilize this storehouse of astronomical data in his quest for the truth about why and how the planets move through the sky, and bring about a revolution in the human understanding of the Universe.
The two men could not have been more dissimilar.  Tycho Brahe was, while not a royal, a member of a family that had been deeply ingrained in Denmark’s aristocracy, with members serving royal courts, acting as bishops in the church, and running fiefdoms in accordance with the King’s will.  Tycho Brahe grew up and was educated with the intent to have him become one of these servants to the crown, which included not only formal education, but the skills and tact necessary to commiserate with the royal courts of Europe and the egos found within.  He ingratiated himself with the king and was given many opportunities to pursue his intellectual and scientific curiosity, mostly abandoning the family demands that his class demanded.  Johannes Kepler was a more modest man.  He was not raised in the aristocracy, but his family members were well respected members of academia, business, and local religion.  Kepler did not have the connections available to Brahe.  He had to seek out his place in life.  He wanted to study the cosmos, but his family would not support it, hoping he would become one of the new class of professional men, and urging him to become a physician, a job more respectable than University professor at the time.
It is the life stories of these two men, and how they eventually became intertwined for posterity, that is the main thrust of this book.  It details both men’s childhoods, their educations, their attempts at scientific discovery, and their nearly endless troubles with the crown, the churches, and the profound level of ignorance that they found themselves surrounded with.  Tycho Brahe worked for decades, cataloguing a star chart the likes of which had never even been attempted by a human being.  In the later years of his life, and through countless setbacks, he accepted Johannes Kepler as his assistant.  In fact, he had chosen a man whose intellectual abilities rivaled the master’s, and who would guarantee the immortality of Tycho Brahe and his work.  Johannes Kepler used these precise measurements to understand what we now know as the Solar System.  He was the first human to do so, working out his three Laws of Motion, which are the basis for nearly all of modern astronomy. 
Johannes Kepler’s insights allowed him to describe our heavens in a way that had never been understood before.  Tycho Brahe had refuted the Ptolemaic system, which stated that the sun, planets, and stars all rotated around the Earth, which was the center of existence.  Tycho did not, however, postulate a solar system where the planets all rotate around the Sun.  Instead, he created a very complex system to explain the motions of the heavenly bodies.  It was not perfect.  Johannes Kepler, much to Brahe’s consternation. Supported the Copernican model of the solar system, in which the Sun stood in the center and the planets and stars all rotated around the Sun.  Kepler also suspected that the stars were much further away than the planets.  These and other observations were extremely revolutionary, not just for science, but for humanity at large.  Humans had been living under the Ptolemaic system for centuries because it aligned with the teachings of the catholic church.  The Earth was the center of all things, as it should be, since god created earth for humans and humans are his most perfect creation. Everything else is secondary. These types of circular arguments are all that any organized religion has to justify their own bullshit existence.  The church silenced any scientists that sought to understand the true reality of existence, even setting a few of them on fire. 
            Both Brahe and Kepler had to contend with a Europe in the midst of a Counter-Reformation.  The Calvinists and Lutherans that had started the Reformation, were now being attacked on all sides by the Holy Roman Empire and the ridiculous catholic church.  In catholic towns, protestants were banished or killed if they chose not to convert, with their heads hung on pikes for the world to see their “sin.”   In Protestant towns, Catholics were equally persecuted, all for supporting the Pope.  These two men of science, men of reason and enlightenment, and devout Christians both, were plagued on all sides by the stupid, petty, and evil wars that religions create among us to keep us in their debt and our money in their coffers. (It is still the same damn thing).  Not only did Kepler have to contend with religions and their stupidities, but he had such a tragic life.  He lost his first wife and around 9 children to disease over the span of twenty years.  His mother was accused and tried at age 72 for being a witch, by the ignorant Christians in her town.  Thank rationality and human ingenuity that Kepler was able to overcome all this and work on astronomy.
The bravest among us are the ones willing to stand up for their individuality and the ability to think for oneself.  Humanity is filled with countless people and organizations who seek to dampen human intelligence, to keep us stupid and slobbering at their crooked teats.  People like Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe who are strong enough and fortunate enough to hold their own against the tide of shit around them do so for the betterment of all humankind.  Without these two men our world would be a lot different.  The story of their lives and research is invaluable and anyone interested in the history of astronomy, or human thought, should read this book.

(This book can be purchased here: )

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Terence McKenna explores Mind-Expansion and the Human Condition

Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution – Terence McKenna (1992)

            I first read this book when it came out in 1992, around my sophomore year in college.  Much of the insight of this book was lost on me, as I had not yet had time to understand the very far-reaching socio-historical implications of Terence McKenna’s scholarship.  Picking it up again, after 25 years of growth and reading and experience, only served to impress me even more.  This is a highly important book, and should become a foundation for the changes that humanity must make as a whole in order to thrive, and in order to better live in harmony with the life-world that we take for granted.

            One of the most intriguing questions regarding the development of our species is when and how the roaming primates developed a higher level of consciousness from the other primates on Earth.  There are many proposed ideas, most of them based on theology/mythology and not actual grounded empirical knowledge.  Terence McKenna was one of the very first to propose that the naturally occurring hallucinogenic plants and fungi helped expand the minds of the hominids, who would ingest these items in their search for food.  In a sense, he proposes that these hallucinogenic properties created the first “shamans” who then had to figure out a way to explore the rich world that natural plant hallucinogens open up.  He has much evidence for this, and it does help explain the sudden rise of what we call modern humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) around 100,000-250,000 years ago, and their/our amazing ability to process information and solve problems.

            After discussing the origins of the human exploration of mind-altering substances, Terence McKenna goes into a very depressing but integral analysis of the role that substance addiction and use affected our human culture.  After the matriarchal, communal, tribal stages of life, where the shamans (initially female, as they were the ones gathering plants and mushrooms and testing them as food, and then both female and male) would open up their minds with these natural compounds, to better understand the needs of the tribe or the patient.  After several millennia, humanity began to live in larger aggregations, in locations that were fixed, and the access to the natural hallucinogens waned.  In this time, the fermented juices and grains began to be used for intoxication as wine and beers.  This new substance was then used much as the old hallucinogens were.

            Once humans managed to distill alcohol, to get purity and strength, it all went to shit.  The problems we face today of alcoholism, rage, violence, and neglect have been around ever since humans distilled the “spirit” of the wine into a potent and toxic drug.  The next drugs to overtake all of humanity, and to continue helping in the degradation of the tribal units, were caffeine, sugar, and tobacco.  Tea initially carried the caffeine addiction but it was not until the spread of coffee, and of the mass manufacture of refined sugar, that caffeine addiction and abuse became a very real thing, and just as deadly as any other drug out there.  Combine this with tobacco, and you have a large amount of the population living constantly in an “altered consciousness” state.  The high from sugar is just as euphoric and the crash just as brutal, as tobacco or caffeine.  The massive and mind boggling extent of the human slave trade was a direct result of the addiction to sugar and the rum that can be created from it.  The Dutch and the British set up a very neat system.  They would gather up slaves in Africa, sell them in the New World to coffee, sugar, and tobacco plantations, buy vast amounts of rum, sugar, and tobacco, sell it all for a massive profit in the UK and Europe, and then go right back to buying humans and selling them off.  This lasted for HUNDREDS of years.

            Once these substances were in use, the state and the merchants combined forces to create vast networks of distribution for these substances.  The British government controlled the tea trade much like drug cartels do so today.  They then decided to get into the opium trade, purposefully flooding China with opium in an effort to make a nation of subservient addicts.  They almost succeeded.  At every step of the way, these drugs were refined and made even more potent and deadly.  Opium was refined to morphine, and thought to be a cure for opium addiction.  Heroin was refined from morphine, and likewise was supposed to combat morphine addiction.  The power of heroin to destabilize and subsume a population is evident when McKenna describes the purposeful distribution by the CIA of an exceedingly pure heroin brought in from Vietnam and surrounding areas.  It was called China White and was released to only the black neighborhoods, creating generations of junkies, unable to stand up for their rights.  Our government and in fact, most governments, use these drug cartels to their own ends.  Most of them are propped up by our support.  Pathetic.
            Terence McKenna continues on to describe his plan for the elimination of what he calls “the Dominator Culture” that we all live in today.  Instead of human unity, our culture pushes and prizes division.  Instead of legalizing natural substances capable of helping people deal with addictions, trauma, and which open the mind to possibilities unknown, our Dominator Culture sets hallucinogens as CLASS 1 drugs, meaning they have absolutely no medicinal, social, scientific value, which is a flat out lie.  It is solely a means by which to control those who would study these amazing plants and fungi.  However, they easily allow the deadliest and most addictive of drugs to be widely marketed and sold in every corner.  Alcohol, tobacco, and sugar products are what keep people subservient, diseased, and mentally dull.  It suits their interests.  It does not suit our own individual rights.  This is why there was such a crackdown on the hippies.  Their drug taking did not lead to subservience and a drone-like ability to do meaningless 9-5 jobs.  They had to be broken and humiliated.  We must all remain robots.  That is what they want and they are succeeding.

(This book can be read here: )

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Neil deGrasse Tyson brings the Astrophysics to us

Astrophysics for People In a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017)

            The science of Physics, and specifically Astrophysics, has always fascinated me.  I have found that the best way to step outside my own reality tunnel, and to gain what Mr. Tyson labels the “Cosmic Perspective,” is to read and study about the amazing achievements and discoveries that humans from ancient times have made regarding the cosmos we live in.  Our current world-society, with its incessant data-feeds and distractions, impedes people from reflecting on the Universe at large, and the amazingly complex and utterly massive nature of it.  We are all obsessed with our day-to-day grind, our jobs, our families, the news, politics, financial worries, etc.  It is because of this glut of activities and concerns that take up much of the modern human’s life that Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote this great little book.
            One of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s greatest traits is his ability to be a science explainer.  Very few scientists have this ability, and because of this, many non-scientists feel that either science is too complex to be understood by them or that scientists are purposefully being obtuse and intricate so as to not share their knowledge with “normal” people.  That is a real shame, because the basics of all the sciences affect us every single day, and without this knowledge it is too easy to be fooled by charlatans and con-artists seeking to impress you with pseudo-science and psychobabble, which all sound very plausible as long as you do not think critically about them.  Some hard-line nerds may put down Mr. Tyson because his focus is on education and dissemination, just as they used to insult Carl Sagan, that last great astronomer-teacher.  Screw them.  The world needs people who can clearly, and patiently, explain the vast knowledge we have accumulated to those who are interested, but do not have the rigorous and expensive education needed to grasp the mathematical underpinnings of science.  I would rather our best and brightest minds become celebrities than the vapid illiterates that society worships.
            In the first chapters Neil deGrasse Tyson explores the development of astrophysics and humanity’s evolving understanding of the heavens above, deliberately highlighting how new discoveries and technologies forced us to change our perspective, from being self-absorbed and obsessed with our human primacy among the cosmos, to finding out that our planet Earth is not the center of the Universe, to discovering out that our Solar System is just one of countless billions in our Milky Way galaxy, to learning that our immense galaxy is just one among billions that populate the Universe, to understanding that we cannot even see much of the Universe due to its expansion.  It is a breathtaking journey that is all the more amazing because it happened in a blink of cosmic time, the teeny tiny sliver of time that Homo Sapiens Sapiens has been studying the heavens.  Compared to the age of our Earth (around 4.5 billion years) humans have not been around very long at all. Compared to the age of our Universe (around 14.5 billion years) we have barely begun to exist!  It blows my mind to think that we humans have only been able to study the heavens as they are for the past several hundred years.
            Each chapter is divided into the different ways that astrophysics are able to study the cosmos.  Some deal with the visible light available.  Others talk about the discovery of the remnants of the big bang, mapped through microwaves.  One chapter details the development of radio frequency telescopes, capable of exploring parts of the Universe that are invisible in any other manner.  From gamma detectors to cosmic rays, to the particle/antiparticle pairs that are popping in and out of existence throughout all of “empty” space, every major movement and field of study in astrophysics is presented, and the latest data and ideas about these findings are shared with the reader.  This is all in the service of what Mr. Tyson discusses in the last chapter, which is the beauty and joy of the Cosmic Perspective.  Understanding that we truly are one with the cosmos, that we are made of the same material that the Universe is made of, that our world is one of billions, that all life on Earth, and maybe all life in the Universe, is united by the common threads of our existence, and that it is our ability to understand the Universe itself that sets us apart, all are vital for each and every human being to understand.  The divisions that humans create to aggrandize one group and demean and subjugate another are illusions.  They are outright lies.  We are all humans, all conscious, all alive, all looking for our place in the Universe and our place among our human society.  I hope many people read this book and take the Cosmic Perspective to heart.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Horrors of the Soviet GULAG prison-camps and the humanity that survived

A World Apart – Gustav Herling (1951)

            Horror can come in so many ways.  It could be the sudden arrival of an incomprehensible terror.  It could also be the slowly dawning realization that hope is a feeling best left dead.  In many ways, the horrors experienced by Mr. Gustav Herling while serving in a Soviet GULAG hard-labor prison run the full gamut.  For several years, the author, a Polish native who had left for the Soviet Union after Poland had been annexed by the Third Reich, experienced horrors both physical and mental, and in sharing his story he helps us understand the true evil that totalitarian government inflicts upon the entire population.
            Reading Mr. Herling’s account of his time as a prisoner brought back memories of my youth reading Animal Farm and 1984, and of wondering in indignant rage why people tolerated the obviously absurd and illogical pronouncements of the ruling parties.  As a young teen, those books filled me with a deep hate for mindless subservience and for blind allegiance to any political system, especially those of a totalitarian state.  Mr. Herling’s life in this forced-labor camp shared so much of the idiocy and stupidity that the animals on Animal Farm or the citizens in 1984 had to accept or else be destroyed by the state.
            Mr. Herling meets prisoners from all walks of life.  One is a former diva of Soviet theater who was sentenced to ten years hard labor.  Her stated crime was being a traitor to the Soviet State.  What was her actual crime?  She danced for too long with the Japanese ambassador at a gala event in Moscow.  That was it.  Several of the inmates were there merely because they were not Russian.  These were Poles who got stuck in Russia avoiding the Nazi takeover of Poland.  There were people whose jobs pre-revolution were in education and intelligentsia, and of course a totalitarian state cannot abide having anyone else be an authority on anything.  The state must the ultimate authority on anything!  How fucking horrible.  With the Soviet Union officially banning all organized religious activities, priests and nuns were also laced in these ruthless work-to-death camps.  All kinds, even those that believed themselves deeply committed to the Communist Party, found out they were worthless pieces of a machine in which they had no control.
            The life in the camp is terrible, with surreal and illogical precision running everything.  The prisoners were fed according to their crimes, and according to how much they worked daily.  Those that worked heavy labor were lucky to receive a few grams of bread and a thin barley “soup” at the end of the day.  Those that were unfit for heavy labor received solely a thin warm liquid with no meat and no vegetables.  If you were sill or injured you spent some time in an unheated “infirmary” where you received the bare minimum food portion, and minimal medical care.  If you were unable to get better enough to work, they would send you to the Mortuary, where the dying waited to die in relative peace.  Mr. Herling spent time in the Mortuary and describes the twisted sense of calm and rest combined with the foreknowledge of your impending death.  There is no comfort anywhere. The paranoia, the pain, the SMELL of countless rotting, sickly, and dying men and women, awash in their own feces, ever-seeping sores, malnutrition, night-blindness from lack of vitamins, and eventually the complete loss of their conscious ability to think all wash over the narrator, as he slides into this horror himself.  Throughout all this, Mr. Herling manages to share any and all wisdom he gained, most of it bleak, and brutally honest about what a man has to deal with when hope is gone yet life continues interminably.  It is a brutal story, and the fact that we know he managed to survive and publish this a few years later does nothing to diminish the trauma of his and all of the other prisoner’s experiences.
            Prison for actual criminals is bad enough.  When the state sets up prisons for those who do no crime other than political opposition?  Evil.  When the state punishes people pre-emptively, trying to weed out supposed traitors before they even have a chance to act?  Evil.  When the state’s own reasoning is so twisted and flawed and fucking pointless that they have to retroactively invent methods to protect their own lies?  Evil.  Under Stalin, Soviet/Russian history was turned into a pathetic joke, with whole secret government entities erasing people’s entire lives from the historical record, solely to appease the whims of the mustachioed madman controlling everything. Whole families disappeared.  Whole generations of educated people were sent to Siberia to die in labor camps.  This same shit happens in all totalitarian states, and is happening right now in Saudi Arabia (religious rule by an autocratic family of assholes), North Korea (totalitarian rule by a fat man-boy with a tiny pecker and total control of his starving population), etc.  It could happen anywhere.  It could happen in the USA.  The only thing that prevents dictators is the willingness of brave people to stand up to them, to the death.  Never expect a despot to “make sense.”
            During WWII the Germans, the Russians, and the Americans all had forced-relocation camps.  The Germans used theirs to attempt a mass genocide of European Jews, as well as anyone deemed undesirable by the Reich.  This included the homosexuals, religious leaders, Romany, mentally and physically handicapped people, and anyone else deemed as “the Other.”  Russian forced labor camps were barely any better.  Their goal was not to solely exterminate enemies.  It was to suck out as much forced labor as possible with the bare minimum of food and support, thereby killing the state’s enemies while also benefiting the state’s GDP.  In the USA, our forced-relocation camps consisted of thousands and thousands of Japanese-Americans, many of them full citizens of the nation, including children and the elderly.  They were treated as if just because they were of Japanese ancestry, they were a treasonous threat to the nation.  While they were not treated as inhumanely as those in German or Russian camps, the very existence of such places in the supposed “Land of the Free” should be enough to strike terror in the hearts of free-thinking humans anywhere.  Who knows how bad it could have gotten for the Japanese-American prisoners if the war had raged on, or if the Japanese had managed a full on attack of the USA mainland?  Totalitarianism is a slippery slope indeed.  We must be ever-vigilant against it, even if it is an unpopular stance to take.

(This book is available for download as a PDF here: )