Friday, June 15, 2018

My first dive into Russian literature pays off

One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)

      The name Alexander Solzhenitsyn was known to me.  His place among the great writers of Russian literature was something I was taught as a matter of fact.  I knew very little else than that  when I picked up this, the author’s first published work, a novella that details the happenings of an entire day, from waking to sleep, of a man imprisoned in a Soviet-era prison camp.  It was only after finishing this oddly humorous book that I looked up Solzhenitsyn’s life, and learned that, like Ivan Denisovitch, he too spent some years of his life in a Soviet prison camp.  This came after he had served with honor in the Soviet military, rising to the rank of Captain.  His crime?  It was much like all the other stupid and tyrannical “crimes” used by despots to crush their people.  He was claimed to have made seditious statements against Stalin after his private letters were intercepted and read by the Soviet government.  After he was released from the prison camps, he turned to writing and this novella was the only one of his works to be published in his native Russia.  It is a sad shame that the writing that helped him win a Nobel Prize in literature had to be published surreptitiously in the West, and smuggled back into Russia.  Down with tyrants and despots everywhere!  Burn them all down.
      In this book I found a man who had become so accustomed to his life, and it was barely life, inside the prison camps that his every single thought, from waking to sleep, was concerned with his immediate concerns and needs, with no thought given to escape or freedom, and very little thought given to the state of the world outside the prison camp’s fences.  The tone of the novel reminded me of a Russian Vonnegut, the otherwise ordinary characters matter-of-factly resigned to the stupidities and irrationality inherent in the world they inhabit, finding cold comfort in gallows humor, and seeking every single opportunity to stretch the rules, gain a tiny advantage, or finding ten minutes somewhere to try and keep warm.  Nearly every second is spent by Ivan either plotting on how to make his current situation slightly better, or in watchful fear of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, or even looking at the wrong person for fear of retribution from the camp guards. 
      As Ivan tells it, there are very few moments of true rest for the prisoners.  One of them is the first moments of wakefulness after the morning alarm has been rung.  Ivan stated that, in these fleeting minutes, still in bed, eyes still closed, and his body somewhat warm, he was “free.”  There were no obligations for these few minutes, and he tries to make them last as long as possible.  One of the other times he stated he felt free and that his time was his own, and not the state’s, was the ten minutes he was allotted to eat his servings in the mess hall during breakfast and dinner.  The hour before meals was hectic, with lines, pressing, queues, counts and recounts of prisoners, all in an attempt to feed them in an orderly fashion.  That hour of stress was relieved by the ten minutes of quiet, slow eating.  The instant he was done however, the manic thoughts and worries return. Sad but true.
      As Ivan goes through his day, Solzhenitsyn has his narrator describe the nearly-fractal levels of bureaucratic bullshit that permeated every aspect of life in these Russian prison camps.  One small example is the numbers assigned to the inmates, and painted on their hats and shirts, making it easy for the guards to single them out individually from a distance.  There were several older trustys that were permitted to paint and touch up these white numbers on a black field, for a price, and theirs was a tricky art.  They had to make sure the numbers were legible, for illegible numbers would constitute a violation and ten days in the “cage.”  However, the prisoners requested that the numbers be slightly blurred, just enough that guards further than a few meters way would have trouble reading it.  It was a delicate balance, like everything in the prison camp.  This level of insanity suffused everything in the camps.
      Solzhenitsyn does an amazing thing with this novella.  As I read it and progressed through Ivan Denisovich’s day, I became filled with a dread.  Throughout the day Ivan had managed to save himself from bad situations, plan for the day ahead, manage to finagle two bread rations, get a little tobacco, find a piece of broken hacksaw blade, and lead a work crew building masonry.  I waited for the hammer to fall.  I expected tragedy to spring forth and engulf our narrator, for everything seemed to be going as well as it could for him.  This was not to be.  Solzhenitsyn is not after that.  Instead, he shows us a “good” day, but a day not unlike the hundreds that Ivan had before, and the hundreds that were yet to come.  In this way, it really hit me how BIG this novella was.  We humans can conform to nearly every horror, and assume it as our new normal.  We can go to work and see our fellow citizens be killed and mistreated, and we see it as the normal day to day life we lead.  This nightmare, this waking delusion, is what lies at the heart of all tyranny.  In showing us a non-tragic, normal, ordinary day in the life of a normal, ordinary man, Solzhenitsyn shines a harsh light on the true tragedy involved, that hundreds of thousands of normal, ordinary people were tasked with imprisoning and torturing millions of normal, ordinary people, all at the request of a distant, rich, and aloof government.  It is a great book.
(This book can be purchased here: )

(When Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, he was afraid to leave the USSR and go to Stockholm for fear of not being allowed to return.  He sent in a written acceptance speech, which is amazing and well-worth reading.  The speech is found here: )

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

We may in fact owe all of our planet's life to the magnificent Fungi

Fungal Biology in the Origin and Emergence of Life –David Moore (2013)

      One of my life’s passions is that I love mushrooms.  Actually, I love fungi of all types.  I seek them out after spring rains.  I keep my eye on the ground as I walk around the campus where I work.  I also keep careful notes in my head about what mushrooms are delicious and safe to eat.  I photograph almost every mushroom, slime mold, or lichen I find.  The variability is amazing, and many of them are outright beautiful to look at, but I think part of the thrill is that mushrooms are unpredictable.  They do not grow in orderly ways like plants do.  Finding a patch of delicious chanterelle mushrooms is great, but it is no guarantee that they will be there again next week, or month, or even at the same time next year.  Mushrooms are ephemeral in their way.  It is amazing to think that these overlooked organisms may very well have been the very first self-contained life to evolve in our world.  This story is the subject of Fungal Biology, by David Moore.
      Moore is a biologist, having recently retired from working on genetics and mycology.  If any human has the ability to understand the many threads that point to fungi as the initial role-player in the web of life it is Mr. Moore.  His explanations are sensible, even to someone with a limited background in mathematical or genetic knowledge.  The first part of this book details the properties of modern-day fungi, and how their cellular features differentiate fungal life from vegetable life or animal life.  This background is very important to understanding the rest of this book.  I learned quite a great deal just from the first chapter alone.
      In following chapters, David Moore explores the scientific consensus regarding the state of the Earth in the early days.  As he describes it, a habitat must have been created before the processes began which lead to multi-cellular life.  This habitat was a very different place than the green and blue orb we all live on currently.  Not only were there no plants or animals on Earth about 3.7 billion years ago, there were no cells of any type, or even oxygen in the air!  Only with the arrival of single-celled, photosynthetic proto-algae did our world’s atmosphere begin to be oxygenated.  In fact, most of this early oxygen “fixed” itself to the massive quantities of Iron atoms dissolved in the primordial oceans, raining down a silt of iron oxide molecules that created the world-wide layers of iron ore we have been mining for the past 1000+ years.  It was not until the flourishing of single celled plants in the oceans that the atmospheric oxygen actually rose to the super high levels that allowed the massive proliferation of land-plants, and the animals that lived on those plants.  This took well over 2.5 billion years to occur, a magnificently ridiculous expanse of time.  (For comparison, Dinosaurs lived around 100 million years ago, and the genus Homo has been running around the Earth for maybe 600,000 years.  Our whole current civilization is barely older than 10,000 years, a trifle in comparison)
      Before plants and animals came to dominate the Earth it was fungi that ruled.  They ruled for over 2 billion years!  They did not spring wholesale out of the ground though.  David Moore describes through several chapters what he sees as the mechanism by which life arose.  Many scientists have claimed that the first cellular life that we would recognize as such arose in inhospitable places, such as underwater thermal vents, deep caves, or volcanic fissures.  We find very hardy microorganisms in these habitats now, and call them Archaea, but these creatures are actually quite late-comers compared to other fungi, bacteria, and algae.  Moore posits that much of the chemicals for life existed in the vast aerosols that covered much of our atmosphere.  Aerosols are just particles so small that they stay aloft as they are buffeted by the molecules of the atmospheric gases. Each of these tiny aerosol droplets was a laboratory, mixing up pre-living enzymes, amino acids, lipid molecules, etc.  It only takes one of these billions to manage putting together a self-replicating molecule.  These aerosols and organic molecules would have ended up dispersing this material all over the Earth, resulting in a landscape we would never recognize, of rocks and gravels covered in a thin bio-film.  It is the materials in this worldwide bio-film that served as the food source for our OG organism, allowing it to grow, replicate, compete, and evolve.  I can only summarize what is covered in much more proper detail in this book.
      By the time plants arose, so many fungi existed that today 90% of all plant life has some sort of relationship with it.  Many plants are in symbiosis with fungi.  The fungus provides rare minerals to the plant through the connection of roots and mycelium fibers (hyphae), and the plant provides the fungi with simple sugars that it needs to grow.  Some fungi are predators of plants, and work more like parasites.  Still other examples see plants that parasite the fungus, where the plants receive the benefit but provide none for the fungus involved.  As far as animals are concerned, almost no herbivore animals exist that do not have a colony or colonies of primitive fungi/bacteria living in their digestive tract.  The very first herbivores ate tons of fungi unknowingly, and in many cases this became a deep symbiosis.  Without the fungus in a cow’s gut, the cow would not be able to extract nutrition from the cellulose that makes up most of what it eats.  All plant and animal life owe their existence to fungi.
      To this day the kingdom of fungi is overlooked.  Humans place undue value on animals, for we are animals.  We value plants, because so many of them are needed for our survival.  I think we should start to praise and love fungi as well.  We are here because they were here.  They broke the inhospitable Earth for us plants and animals.  Without them nothing in our vast web of life would exist, and our world would be just one giant layer of biofilms, exuding tar and other waste products.  I cannot begin to describe the amount of information provided here by David Moore, but I am very glad I ran across this cool and seminal work.  I hope it brings mycology to the forefront and helps shape the conversation for decades to come.  Now to go outside and look for some more mushrooms!

(This book can be purchased here: )

Friday, May 18, 2018

Lucretius, and the man who saved his work from oblivion, sparked our modern world

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern – Stephen Greenblatt (2011)

            The intellectual progress of humanity is never smooth, and quite often fraught with violence, pride in ignorance, and just plain old bad luck.  Sometimes an artifact from long ago is rediscovered, or translated, and then becomes a touchstone for a whole world of new thoughts and ideas.  This book is about one such re-discovery.  There are few writings from antiquity that have shaped and informed the modern world we all live in quite like the work On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura in its OG Latin form) by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius.  Stephen Greenblatt does an amazing job of uncovering not only the history of Lucretius himself and his seminal work, but also the history and life of the sometime Papal Secretary, and lifelong lover of literature and antiquities, Poggio Bracciolini who through his diligent exploration unearthed a 400 year old handmade copy of Lucretius’ masterpiece and shared it with the world.
            Lucretius did not create the ideas espoused in his poem.  He was a Roman citizen at a time when the Empire was in decline, and many thinkers were looking back to the golden age of Greek thought and ideas to try and gain some sort of insight that would bring back the glory of Rome.  Lucretius was interested in the work of a specific Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who lived and created a school of philosophy nearly 300 years earlier.  This philosophy, known as Epicurianism, is central to the ideas of Lucretius, and forms a base for him to explore the nature of reality, life, and the universe at large.  Democritus’ idea, atomism, that all matter in the universe is reducible to tiny non-reducible parts called atoms, and that because of this all matter is similar across the Universe.  Epicurus started his explorations at the age of 12 when his teachers could not explain to him the meaning of chaos.  He took the atomist idea and ran with it, positing that everything, planets, stars, the Sun, us, etc., were all a part of the natural order of things, and that the same principles that govern life and change on Earth do so in the heavens.  Because of this, he stated that pleasure, derived without hurting anyone or anything else, is the highest goal of life.  Epicurus denied the immortality of the soul, seeing it as just another part of the living organism, which dissipates at the time of death.  There is no afterlife, and yet one should not fear death.  “Death is nothing to us, for that which is dissolved I without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.”
            Consider this, using pure thought and reason, and before any scientific method of empirical experimentation was even conceived of, Lucretius had taken the starting point of Epicurus’ philosophy, and intuited some deep truths that, to modern, post-Enlightenment minds, come off like predictions of the advancements of science in the past 2,000 years.  As listed in this book by Mr. Greenblatt, here are some of the elements of the Lucretian challenge put forth in On the Order of Things, as stated by the author, Peter Greenblatt:

·         Everything is made of invisible particles (There are no non-natural forces or deities creating existence)
·         The elementary particles of matter – “the seeds of things” – are eternal (Neither destruction nor creation have the upper hand.  Everything is in a constant state of change and mutation of form.  The philosopher George Santayana called this idea, “the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon.”)
·         The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size (Lucretius intuited that there is a hidden code of matter, and a specific set of rules by which they combine into the substances of our existence.  He could not have known about molecular chemistry, or genetics, or any other such thing, but his reasoning told him it had to be true.  Amazing!)
·         All particles are in motion in an infinite void (Every high school science student learns this as part of physics.  Einstein understood this as well and it was the basis for his Special Relativity.)
·         The universe has no creator or designer (There is no purpose or end-goal for the existence of the universe, only ceaseless creation and destruction.  This is a very similar concept to that of the endless cycles of time in many Eastern religions)
·         Everything comes into being as a result of a “Swerve” (If particles all moved in one straight line there would be no interactions between them.  Lucretius stated that “at absolutely unpredictable times and places they deflect slightly from their straight course.”  He was thinking of a minimally slight adjustment, enough to cause an infinite variety of combinations.)
·         The “Swerve”: is the source of human free will (if all motion were one pre-determined chain of events, there would be no room for free will, with cause following cause for eternity.)
·         Nature ceaselessly experiments (There is no single moment of creation nor an end to creation)
·         The universe was not created for or about humans (There were forms of life before humans, which no longer exist, and there will be forms of life after humans cease to exist.)
·         Humans are not unique (We are made of the same stuff as all other life and non-life.  We can find many life-forms that share traits we consider human, such as compassion, altruism, regret, and love.  As Lucretius states, a calf recognizes its mother cow just like a baby human recognizes her mother.)
·         Human society began not in a Gold Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival (Lucretius understood that life is harsh, and was especially so to early humans who had no tools, no medicines, no social organization, and no language.)
·         The soul dies (The human soul, or any other living thing’s soul, is as much a part of the body as the eyes, and also dissipates upon death.)
·         There is no afterlife (the afterlife has been a consolation and a torment to many humans.  However, once it is grasped that the soul dies alongside the body, one can grasp that there are no posthumous punishments to worry about, nor any rewards to be expected.  Life on this Earth is all we humans have.)
·         Death is nothing to us (Once the body and soul die, there will be neither pleasure nor pain, longing nor fear.  “You will not care, because you will not exist.”)
·         All organized religions are superstitious delusions (Humans become enslaved to their own dreams.  They experience sequences of misfortune and feel that they are being punished by some deity.  They feel awe and wonder while gazing at the sky above and assign that beauty to some magical being that must have created it, regardless of the natural explanations for such phenomena.
·         Religions are invariably cruel (They promise hope and love but their deep underlying structure is cruelty.  “The quintessential element of religion – and the clearest manifestation of the perversity that lies at its core – is the sacrifice of a child by a parent.”  Lucretius was writing this nearly 60 years before the currently prominent sacrifice myth began.  He was aware of Hebraic myths such as Abraham almost gutting Issac cuz some voice in his head told him to, and would have understood the prominent display of images and statues of a bloody, murdered son.)
·         There are no Angels, Demons, or ghosts (All are entirely unreal and best forgotten.)
·         The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain (Lucretius believed that there is no higher purpose than the facilitation of the pursuit of happiness for oneself and one’s fellow creatures, and this includes all living things.  “All other claims, such as service to the state, glorification of gods or a ruler, and the arduous pursuit of virtue through self-sacrifice, are secondary, misguided, or fraudulent.” as paraphrased by Mr. Greenblatt.)
·         The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion (Lucretius believed the principal enemies of human happiness are inordinate desire and gnawing fear.  Our ability to imagine the infinite, whether infinite pain, infinite sorrow, or infinite joy, keeps us from accepting or enjoying the finite pleasures, rising up from finite sorrows, and controlling the desire for infinite joy.)
·         Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder (For Lucretius, humans engage in many poisonous beliefs that prevent us from enjoying the wonder of the world around us, including the idea of an eternal soul that will be punished or rewarded indefinitely.  This keeps humans from living in the now, and lets them accept the wrongs and horrors of life as just a way-station into the next world.  This is deep poison, and keeps us from doing our best to increase happiness worldwide, and reduce pain worldwide.  It is the source of much of the evil in the world)

          For hundreds of years, Lucretius works were forgotten, until the world changed and people started exploring the old Greek masters again.  Due to the inherent bias in christian researchers, they praised any philosopher whose ideas seemed to correlate to the tenets of christianity while excoriating or outright destroying the works of any philosopher who held what they believed to be “pagan” or non–christian ideas.  Because of this, Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius were consigned to the “pagan” pile, and their ideas and works ridiculed outright as part of Catholic dogma.  Ironically, it took a bibliophile like Poggio Bracciolini to travel to remote monasteries to rediscover these old works.  The masses in the intervening centuries had become dumb as rocks and highly illiterate.  The monk copyists in these secluded monasteries would copy old works, many times purely by eye, as they could not actually read old Greek or Latin.  Poggio’s discovery of On the Nature of Things, and his subsequent dissemination of the work, occurred before the invention of the printing press.  Once that was invented, copies of Lucretius spread far and wide, influencing many of the thinkers, artists, and writers that led what is now called the Renaissance.  These same writers went on to influence the Enlightenment, and through that, the modern world we all share. 
          This book is a great treasure, and should be read by anyone who wishes to understand the underpinnings of our world, and the many ways in which the enemies of free thought and free ideas fight and kill to keep their lies alive in the minds and hearts of the masses.  We currently live in a world where too many factions are seeking to distract humanity back into religious factions of “US” versus “THEM.”  If it is not one religion against another, it is upper classes against the poor ones, citizens against immigrants, or civilized people against uncivilized “animals.”  Every one of these con-artists, and they are ALL con-artists, seeks to force us to see the world in the manner they prescribe, for their own ends.  It is such a joy to find heroes in the past that help me fight the near-endless waves of stupidity and evil that seek to keep humanity under control.  Those who fight ideas do so because they KNOW these ideas shatter their bullshit lies.  Long live the life of the mind.  Lucretius was one bad mo-fo.

(To read On The Nature of Things - Lucretius (translated by William Ellery Leonard) click here:

(To purchase The Swerve - Peter Greenblatt, click here: )