Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for August, 2015

sliderule

A “Caesar Cipher” side rule that substitutes one letter of cipher text for another letter of plain text. Photo credit: ciphermachines.com/pictures/SlideRule/sliderule.jpg

As a pre-teen I became fascinated by ciphers and codes. The idea that one could transmit a secret English language message by means of a simple substitutionary cipher intrigued me. Indeed, the “Caesar cipher,” in which the alphabet is shifted a fixed number of spaces was great fun to play with; for example, a two space shift replaces C for A, D for B, E for C etc. Thus, the plaintext, “YOUR FATHER LOVES YOU,” became in ciphertext, “AQWTH CVJGT NQXGU AQW,” grouping the encrypted letters in clusters of five. The fun came in trying to break the code without the help of a key.

I, like Ralphie Parker of A Christmas Story, was enthralled by the Ovaltine decoder ring. Unlike Ralphie, however, I was not disappointed by the messages I received. The deciphered text did not urge me to “Drink Ovaltine,” a crass exploitative and inane message. As I grew more mature, I realized that coded messages lay hidden everywhere. In letters of written languages are coded sounds and thoughts. I marveled at the alien scripts of other tongues: Greek, Hebrew and, most strange to me, Chinese ideograms such as Tiān 天, the heavens, that sensibly enough is a modification of the symbol for large: Dà 大 , formed by the addition of a bar at the top. This was a visual code that fascinated me then and still intrigues me today. Thus, I had to acknowledge that other systems of communication, so foreign to my experience, were as valid as my own. And I saw coded text everywhere in other ways.

Caesar Cipher decoder ring. Photo credit: ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/310W9ajtasL.jpg

Caesar Cipher decoder ring. Photo credit: ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/310W9ajtasL.jpg

I discovered science early and realized that all around me were puzzles written in code that, with effort and cleverness, we could decypher. My life has led down the path of science to the life of a physicist. Physics is more than a career that I have chosen; it is who I am. I have an innate urge to understand how things work. To my delight, I have found that the universe, large and small, can be decrypted. What a gift to humanity: a comprehensible world! Even as a youth in the swamps of Alabama, I could see and understand the fall of an acorn from an oak or the progress of a ripple on the stream.

Friends and strangers have often asked me with wondering looks how I, as a rational scientist, can be a Christ-follower, a theist. Such queries from others and from myself prompt me to reflection and (typically) to read. Last year, I finally read a work of Blaise Pascal, one of my scientific heroes. La Penseé, “The Thoughts,” are a compilation of this eighteenth century natural philosopher’s metaphysical musings and notes for a treatise he never completed. Among his notes is the fragment in which he speaks of the principal character of the Bible “Dieu est un Dieu caché,” that is, “God is a hidden God,” he remarks. Hidden, like a treasure cached or stored away out of sight, but accessible to the blessed. Following Pascal’s lead, I see that science may decode the cypher of natural phenomenon only to reveal a plaintext in a language unknown to science. Just as the breaking of the infamous Enigma Code used by the Nazis during World War II, required both advanced cryptologic analysis and German language translation, in the same way science may review “facts” about the Kosmos but be inadequate to provide any sense of the meaning hidden therein. Yet, it seems to me that the meaning of it all is of primary importance.

Indeed, many scientist observe the elegant universe with its exquisite laws and intricate workings and see no meaning or purpose in it, at all. I, on the other hand, see the wonders around us and my heart rejoices. Viewed through the lens of the gospel, the night sky speaks to me and my soul sings with the Psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork./Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge./There is no speech, nor are there words whose voice is not heard.” (Psalm 19:1-3)

My heart hurts for those who, like my color blind friends who cannot appreciate the beauty of the sunset, seem to be blind to the riches of God toward us. I suspect that this is what the doctrine of election in Christian theology “looks like” in reality: those who are not graced by God, “just don’t get it.” In response I can only offer three suggestions: (1) the testimony of my life proclaims that all creation recounts the glory of a Creator who loves us and desires fellowship with us, rebellious though we have been; (2) the witness of giants in the faith and culture throughout the ages declares His existence, the evidence of men who like Pascal faced an uncertain future as do we and lived triumphantly; (3) the ultimate Rosetta Stone of the Kosmos: the collections of little books known as the Holy Bible provides a reliable lexicon for an alien tongue exposed in the plaintext of decrypted science.

Thus, in fact, we have a grand and holy decoder ring at our ready disposal to help us make sense of the meaning of it all. A helpful hint to the meaning of the decrypted message? A key to unlocking the true meaning of it all? “God so loved the Kosmos that he gave his only begotten that whosoever believes in him will have everlasting life.”

诸 天 述 说 神 的 荣 耀, All the heavens天recount God’s神dazzling glory. (Psalms 19:1) Photo credit: risalahmujahidin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Space-Wallpapers.jpg

诸 天 述 说 神 的 荣 耀,
All the heavens 天 recount God’s 神 dazzling glory. (Psalms 19:1)
Photo credit: risalahmujahidin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Space-Wallpapers.jpg

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

A Squall lies low over the water. Photo Credit: NOA--   http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/hgx/swa/2013_graphs/squall_line.JPG

A Squall lies low over the water. Photo Credit: NOA–
http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/hgx/swa/2013_graphs/squall_line.JPG

In “LA” it rains. Indeed, it rains hard in Lower Alabama, as they call it, as if there were something lower or more common about the ‘Bama swamps where I began my journey among you. Rain is in the nature of the place.

There, I grew up to be a connoisseur of precipitation. A daily cloud burst rolls in from Mobile Bay when a white cloud that began like the backdrop of a Constable landscape, philanders with the sea, grows steely gray, and gets pregnant. She delivers the bastard with a shout. All speech is suspended during the long, sustained, hissing rant. Then silence!

I see a summer squall quarrel with his wife: punching pewter arms straight down between the trees and pounding the marsh with silver hammers, making her shake as if she were terrified at the sky’s sudden petulance, who is plainly abusing her. When he stomps off, the swamp lies stunned, not breathing, beaten. At last, she opens her sun-eye, and the sky kisses her once more as if to offer an apology, and the black earth, smelling like pipe tobacco, gives back its surfeit of water in a ghostly upward pirouetting sprite. All is forgiven.

At times, the rain kneels down, so fine, little more than a cloud, to kiss your hand. Yet in winter the same mist will bite with a thousand tiny rasp-teeth.

And rain comes like tears.

Mother said, “It always rains when something important happens.” It rained when Ma died. And when my friends’ baby was still born; when all those boys went off to a monsoon-drenched Viet Nam. It rained each time heartache visited a house in my neighborhood.

Irony took no holiday when it rained there. How could it when even my high school was called “Rain?” It has rained tears on my classmates these fifty years; one in six is gone. Put it off to actuarial statistics or not; it is so. It is only a matter of time: ultimately we all will be gone. The rain will surely fall on my house at last, too, I know.

I had to come west before I learned of virga, rain that repents and returns to the cloud, evaporating before it hits the ground. In Lower Alabama, the clouds are more honest than that, even if they seem ever unsympathetic. It rains hard in Alabama, but, then, it rains on everybody.

Virga is rain that evaporaates before it reaches the ground. Here a downpour turns to virga in Australia. Photo Credit: http://www.bom.gov.au/storm_spotters/handbook/images/photo15.jpg

Virga is rain that evaporates before it reaches the earth or sea. Here a downpour turns to virga in Australia. Photo Credit: http://www.bom.gov.au/storm_spotters/handbook/images/photo15.jpg

Read Full Post »

The Toys

Marionettes in Der Speilzeug Museum in Nuremberg, Germany Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978

Marionettes in Der Speilzeug Museum in Nuremberg, Germany.           Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978

Play is the serious work of children, and toys are the tools of that play. I share a persistent affinity for the well conceived play-tool, “Der Spielzeug” as it is known to German children and adults. Such clever and engaging devises of childhood occupation have transcendent appeal, not only for me, but also for all children. Indeed, such toys are known and loved world-wide, their charm universal and their delight easily translated into indigenous glee for the children, die Kindern, les Enfants, los Niños, Watoto, the little ones of a thousand lands. The universality of child’s play suggests its hidden utility in shaping human work.

Impoverished and crippled, assuredly, is the spirit that does not play. There among the tools of play we see character abuilding: Imagination clocks in for work in dress up and in snow forts; Design dresses for the day and a life with crayons and stubby pencil; Discourse struts in a puppet theater; Analysis sits, reflecting on a collection of handsome rocks, curious bones, odd seeds or colorful buttons. We learn first very real empathy and then justice in the malleable make-believe kingdoms of our juvenile creation. The problems of the world—technical and interpersonal—have solutions tried on for first fit like a tailored bespoke suit in the give and take of playmates, there chalked up for alterations later in the diplomacy of adult statecraft and social interaction. In the tussle of a game of ball on the green or the dusty village clearing or a session of paper dolls in the parlor with a sibling or with a gang of friends, a child reaffirms for herself the rules of fair competition and the oxymoronic selfish joy of unselfish teamwork and shared accomplishment. In idle dreaming and cloud gaping are birthed wonder and the liberating possibility of hope.   All this is child’s play, the work of children.

Anything is a toy if we play with it, but the very best toys are they that demand that the child or the child-in-the-man supply the principal and missing ingredient themselves, from within. The best tools are not those with the most lights or LEDs or microprocessors or that clang with the loudest bells or whirr with the most raucous whistles; rather they serve us best that should have had an advisory label attached: “Some Fancy required (Imagination not included).” When I recall the toys of my youth there are few that survive the sieve of years and fading memories. There are yet a few toys that still bring joy to my heart to recall; they are items that never fade since their luster comes from within me, from what they evoke in me.

A Teddy Bear was my frequent companion in the “Birdville” projects on Flamingo Drive. I christened him “Tim” because that seemed his appropriate name. I imagined my pal an intrepid, high wire artist—graceful even if furry—as he scaled the dining room chairs and walked the strings across the circus of the living room, high above the center ring laid out on the bare hardwood floor far beneath. It was his warm and fuzzy whisper heard only in my ear, more than any adult’s exhortation, that put heart into me and lent me courage to face the ether (“Now count backward from a hundred, Sammy”) and the awful scalpel—really a wire-loop-tool—for a tonsillectomy (Do you want some ice cream afterwards?). And, painfully, he also taught me remorse at age six. I thought him beautiful, despite or perhaps because of his blue and white pillow ticking chest where Mother had repaired him when I left him on the stoop, vulnerable to the neighbor dogs that naturally ripped out his stomach. But I was bereft and guilt-stricken when I thoughtlessly deserted him again, and he was obliterated completely. It was my fault, I knew. Loyalty, I suppose, made me give up on Teddy Bears altogether after that; no successor that my kind parents offered would suffice to take his place or assuage my grief and guilt.

Sammy with his vintage Hoody Doody Puppet. Photo Credit: Audrey Matteson Christmas 1954

Sammy with his vintage Hoody Doody Puppet. Photo Credit: Audrey Matteson Christmas 1954

There were other more durable toys, fortunately, ones I learned to treasure and care for better. I, like millions of other children, was in the Saturday morning thrall of Howdy Doody. I laughed and sang with the television screen along with my brother and sister at the antics of the wooden-headed cowboy and his posse. I begged my parents with earnest pleading voice—and in writing to Santa Claus, just to be safe—for a Howdy Doody marionette. I was blessed to find him under the tree the next Christmas. He entertained us for years afterward with spontaneous and creative puppet shows, staged with sofa cushions and dining room chairs. He was joined by a supporting cast of sock puppets animated by small hands, characters that we fabricated on the spot or acquired with the savings of our pennies and nickels. “Howdy” earned his place in our memory by faithfulness; he always danced when we juggled his strings, and he always spoke our thoughts with his enameled jaws. Thus, he still stands or hangs about today, well worn and well loved among the kites, the interlocking lettered blocks, and the Lincoln Logs, a freckled icon of my childhood. Mother kept him safe for me as she did other playthings, some that I never understood, like the voice-actuated Japanese bus that “Slim,” Aunt Sister’s and Uncle Howell’s merchant marine friend gave to me one April when he was in port. It buzzed and whirred and flashed and changed direction when you called to it, no matter if in English or Nipponese. It was a curiosity for a week, then went, boxed again, up on the shelf forever. It came with all its parts and demanded nothing more. I was grateful for the stranger’s generosity but unimpressed.

In “Birdville” and later in the swamps of 1950’s Lower Alabama I had fewer toys than I wanted, but probable more than I needed.   At my house I learned that the statement “I’m bored” was not accepted as a valid complaint but rather was thought an admission that I was too lazy or too uninspired to think of some play to entertain me. So, I learned to augment our toy box with found things. The day the Catchots next door killed and plucked a huge turkey I seized upon the wing feathers and soon the air above our court of Broadmoor Place swarmed with “hawks” we built of three feathers wired together in a “T” and flown with a few yards of thread.

An old discarded shoe’s leather tongue and two lengths of its shoe string became David’s sling that launched egg-shaped pebbles far into the woods. And thus I proved to myself and to my delight the potential lethality of the shepherd-king’s defense against Goliath. I whittled twigs, with scars to prove it. I hammered wire in miniature black smithy to shape small knives and forks and spoons to complement wooden plates that I carved from rounds sawn from pine boughs. I built covered Conestoga wagons with other sectioned-limb wheels. I joined “Pete” and Dean Cooper, next door, to explore our woods and draw maps of buried and imagined treasure. I dreamed of sailing ships with models and pencil and paper, of automated and robotic automobiles that drove themselves for us and rockets that I would someday build and fly to the ionosphere. I studied chemistry in the kitchen sink with baking soda and vinegar and ecology in a drop of hay-infused creek water under a toy microscope in the wash room. I so equipped my soul with play-tools and my mind with games, that today if I am sometimes forced to sit, waiting, idly it seems, I can busy myself within. I jokingly say, but only half in jest, “Not to worry. I have a rich inner life to entertain me.”

And so my grandchildren benefit from my appreciation of play. Paul Samuel, first grandson, was heard to remark with pleasure, “I’m glad Papa is coming! He plays with me.” But now with them, mine is not the play of children, self-absorbed and selfish. Now the children are my toys, to wonder at and to encourage, and I suppose, I am theirs to use as well, a smiling and benevolent overgrown playmate or a colossal robotic doll. Play was something my grandparents had forgotten how to do by the time I came along, and I regret that deeply.

Yet, I was and am a blessed child of this planet. I am indeed a fortunate man-child, one whose adult work rewards creativity and affords his imagination a wide field in which to play. I would gladly pay, if I had the means and it were required, to do the “work” that I have chosen most seriously to pursue, for I very often find that the best work I do these days, the labor for which I am most highly appreciated—as much now as when I was rightly called “a mere child”— looks so very much like the business of children’s play; and the tools I employ to accomplish great deeds are—of a truth—really my newest toys.

Dr Sam at his retirement admiring a "tuned" wive goblet, one of his many science "toys." Photo credit: Department of Physics UNT

Dr Sam at his retirement admiring a “tuned” wine goblet, one of his many science “toys.” Photo credit: Department of Physics UNT

Read Full Post »

Functional MRI of human brain (amygdala in red) Photo credit: wikipedia/ amygdala

Functional MRI of human brain (amygdala in red) Photo credit: wikipedia/ amygdala

Johnny’s sailor hat, atop his Mexican head, is an image that always reminds me of a truth I only realized later in life: inevitably it seems we resent those who come late to the party. We congregate with “our kind” and divide the world into “us” and “them.”

Perhaps it is just our “nature.” Deep within our brain lies a small but powerful organ in the most primitive part of our brain. This master of emotion is called the amygdala. Evolutionary biologists explain that it is a remnant of our hunter-gather past. This feature of our cognitive equipment, they argue, was selected for by the preservation of “our” kind, a drive to protect the gene pool embodied in our family and clan from the danger posed by the “others,” who do not value or bear our genotype. The amygdala is source of the unthinking start we experience when we see out of the corner of our eye a sinuous shadow in the woods. Before we can think “stick” the primitive part of our brain shouts “Snake! Run!” and our heart races and our muscles contract with an unannounced rush of ephedrine. This is the famous “fight or flight” syndrome.   Thus, we might say, “It’s only nature” when we wish to justify our fears of others, just as we might claim it is natural to feel our heart race at slithering shadows.

I call for a new resolution: Question instinct! Examine intuition! I challenge what is “natural.” I contend that all that we call “natural” is not necessarily good, healthy or right. Too much adrenaline will stress the heart and other vital organs unnecessarily.  Moreover, morality is decidedly unnatural. Much of ethics is counter-intuitive. Consider the Judaeo-Christian injunction to empathy and doing good to all, even those who would harm you. Indeed in the Levitical law the Almighty enjoins us, “When an alien lives with you in your land do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens.” Apparently, divine admonition is insufficient to cause us to modify our behavior. The problem is not that we do not know what is the right thing to do; rather the problem is simply in doing the right thing. It often is amygdala versus cortex, fear against reason. Too often our lower nature wins.

Sad that, while we live in a different technological world that is so distant from the archaic horizon where our brain arose, we are still captive to the automatic, instinctive, intuitive “natural” brain of the first humans. What Jeffrey Kluger wrote about worry is true about our unreasoning xenophobia. He remarked in a Time feature article, “The residual parts of our primitive brains may not give us any choice beyond fight or fleeing. But the higher reasoning we’ve developed over millions of years gives us far greater—and far more nuanced—choices.”

Ironically, the very clannishness of our species may have made possible a way to reveal who we really are and where we have come from. I am fortunate to know my lineage, the genealogy of the “Matteson’s,” at least in America. Thanks in no small measure to the research of cousin Porter Matteson, I am aware that ten generations ago, Henry Matteson (1646-1690), called “The Immigrant” arrived in Rhode Island around 1666 at age twenty. Two or three years later he married Hanna Parsons recently arrived from England. I am designated J.411.a in the family record, tenth generation three hundred forty years here on this continent.   Most who bear my family name in the United States are descended from Henry, who is reported to have originated in Denmark. It gives a strange irrational satisfaction to know where one’s forefather lived so long ago.   Yet, the plain fact is that no matter how long one’s family has been in the America’s they immigrated here at some time.

A Genetic Decoder Ring  Recently I read that a project was underway to determine where all of humanity migrated from the first reaches of prehistory. I gave myself a sixtieth birthday present when I purchased on-line a participation kit. I was as expectant as the time that I sent off box tops for a decoder ring.

I went to the mail box expectantly every day. I had a premonition that the kit would arrive soon, and there it was, in the over-sized compartment of the communal mail box. I was sure what it was from the return address: “National Geographic Society.” I could barely restrain myself from tearing open the brown cardboard box immediately, but my prefrontal cortex did its work and reigned in my impulsiveness with an appropriate, rational inhibition. “Later when you can give it my full attention,” it told me. The rest of me agreed reluctantly.

Later that evening, I did allow myself to unpack the shipping box. Inside was a strikingly illustrated carton, six by nine, that bore the silhouetted image of a lone man walking an empty landscape. This figure suggested to me the unknown ancestor or ancestors who more than two thousand generations ago fathered all who would live today, all we could call human. From what I read, I concluded that this earth, the Adamah, is such a harsh place, at times, that only one family has survived from that time 60,000 years ago. Gone are the thick muscular children of the cold dwellers whose bones were first found in the Neanderthal; gone, too, are the tiny children of Florens; and gone are all the other hominids, all the other man-like creatures that have walked on two legs on this unforgiving and lethal planet. What is more, only one clan, the offspring of one Homo sapiens survives, a man who lived in north east Africa about sixty millennia ago. We humans are the children, the great-many-times-over grand children, the progeny of one individual or a small family. For good reason geneticists call this man “Adam.” The word is a Biblical Hebrew name that meant originally both “man”-kind and “earthling.”

Hnry Matteson was a follower of the non-conformist religioous leader Roder Williams, shown here meeting the previous tenants of Rhode Island. Phot source NPS www.nps.gov/rowi/learn/historyculture/images/roger-williams-Welcome_Colony.jpg

Henry Matteson was a follower of the non-conformist religious leader Roger Williams, shown here meeting the previous tenants of Rhode Island. Photo source NPS http://www.nps.gov/rowi/learn/historyculture/images/roger-williams-Welcome_Colony.jpg

I conclude after deep reflection that, no matter how superficially different the “other” earth dwellers that I encounter on my way, we are family, the Family of Man. In fact, “they” are actually “us.” This is what Johnny’s hat taught me those many years ago, and for that additional gift, I thank him.

Read Full Post »