Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What’s it like to be on top of a volcano?

Vulcano Island

My wife and I asked ourselves that question when we left the beach and began to climb the thousand foot mountain directly behind us.  Many years ago, on one of the Aeolian Islands in the Mediterranean, wearing nothing but sandals and bathing suits, we made our way up the volcanic cone.   It was a particularly tempting climb because this island named by the Romans now defines the very term for mountains of fire.

We easily made it to the rim of the crater and began to walk around it.  Soon we were coughing and choking from the sulfurous gases.  We ran into a group of scientists in heavy gear and oxygen, looked at each other, and decided that perhaps we should head back down.  Despite several washings we had to throw away our bathing suits as they still smelled distinctly like rotten eggs.
Sulphur Vent

I was born in Messina, Sicily, and as a child remember the distant glow of the nighttime lava flows of Mount Etna, one of the great shield volcanoes of our world.  Perhaps it’s due to that early memory, but I’ve always been enamored by volcanoes and have visited several.

Shield volcanoes are by far the most massive, spanning tens of miles, and have a gentler slope as they are formed by repeated flows of lava.  The ones that have the typical cone shapes with steep sides are created by alternating lava flows and blasts of rocky debris that rise and fall back down.  There are two basic varieties, cinder and composite cones.  Cinder cones are created by one-time eruption and are much smaller, while composite cones can grow to great heights through repeated eruptions.  The latter are incredibly destructive as was Mt. St. Helens in 1980 when an eruption blew 1500 feet off the top.

There is so much variety that each visit to a volcano is a new experience, but always I find myself awed and humbled by what I see. The harsh, alien landscape makes me feel insignificant, but also brings out the feeling of being alive.   I love the otherworldliness to the sights, smells, and sounds around you.  Often, near a vent, you can reach down and feel the heat radiating through the ground, which is usually dark and foreboding, lacking any signs of life.   It is precisely the sheer barrenness that makes me appreciate how life is a truly precious thing.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Gift of Life Elsewhere

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, detail

We humans tend to see ourselves as the center of all things.  It’s understandable, as we haven’t encountered anyone else in this vast universe, not even a lowly extraterrestrial bacteria as of yet. What happens when we do find life elsewhere?  We will lose our special status as the bearers of a unique haven of life in the cosmos, but what will we gain?

It means something that we are trying hard to find out.  As I write this blog, Curiosity is digging in the Martian landscape hoping to discover signs of living matter.  We are searching the heavens for extra solar planets in that tantalizing Goldilocks zone, the place where the temperature is just right and liquid water may exist and so life.

If we do find we are not alone, history suggests we will get used to it eventually, but it won’t be easy to adjust.  It may cause strife and unease.  In Western civilization, I can think of three great happenings that shook the human, egocentric view of our place and status in the cosmos.  By now most of us have accepted we don’t have a special home in the universe, that we are really just animals, and we’re often prone to irrational behavior.  It was not easy for us to accept such things about ourselves.

The first shock to our “ego” occurred in the 1500’s when Copernicus announced earth was not the center of the universe, but rather revolved around the sun.  This radical view of the cosmos was condemned by the  Church and many others as heresy.  A century later Galileo was tried and placed under house arrest for his support of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory.  Many died and suffered greatly for espousing this belief.
In the middle of the 19th century, a young scientist came along and tried to convince the world that humans were really part of nature.  Darwin published Origin of Species which took away the special status of humans as spiritually apart and above the life around us.  We are still dealing with that one. The third blow to our human “ego” came from Sigmund Freud himself, who introduced the notion that we humans are driven by internal, mental forces largely beyond our control.  Not only are we bound in a physical chain of evolution and adaptation, as Darwin argued, but our very minds are subject to powerful drives that challenge the lofty idea that we are primarily creatures of reason and logic.

What happens when we find life elsewhere?  I think we will find it eventually, although I am human and subject to such whims.  My feeling is that we will deal with another blow to our uniqueness more constructively than we have in the past.  It’s not so important to consider ourselves apart and unique as it once was.  In fact, most of us like to think of ourselves as connected, as part of a large whole.

When we first saw images of earth from space we discovered a blue planet with no borders and boundaries and that did change us for the better.  I think knowing we are not alone will as well.  Finding life elsewhere in the cosmos will be a gift for all of us, perhaps in ways we can hardly imagine.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Anyone Truly Normal?

As someone interested in human nature, I wonder if anyone is truly "normal." No matter how you look at it, being normal is a very strange thing, and I can't think of anyone that I know reasonably well to be a truly "normal" person. Everyone is quirky in one way or another. I mean this as a compliment and that's what curious about it.

In our society, being called normal can be a downer, as it implies being boring. It's considered better to be unique, a trend-setter, an outside-the-box person. So why is our civilization so hung up on normality?  The concept of "normal" is expressed across our cultural institutions as an ideal state.  It helps define the standards of what is a healthy person, for example.  Being normal is a part of manners, positive behavior in general, and even found in principles of law.  Considering just how much emphasis and energy we put into being normal, it seems contradictory that we aspire to and even revere individuality.

What does this have to do with nature and society which are the supposed subjects of my blog?  A lot, I'd say, as the question goes to the heart of human nature and of our "individualistic" culture.

There are two reasons usually given as to why most people aspire to be normal, or at least appear normal, as opposed to being a misfit or seen as a weirdo. From a personal point of view, the need to be "normal" is an expression of the fact that we humans are social animal and as such want to fit in. On a larger level, to have a functioning society as opposed to "Lord of the Flies" type chaos, people have to conform to social standards, in other words, people have to act normal. And this is why our institutions are so hung up on normal.

I don't know, but things seem to be changing.  I don't think it's coincidence that post-apocalyptic stories are so popular today.  People seem to be fascinated by scenarios where the normalcy of society is challenged and even falls apart.  I wonder if the very idea of "normal" is being challenged now.  I think young people are thinking about normalcy much more critically. Is the very idea of "normal" changing?  Is social media responsible?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Born to Run, or Born to Shop?

I run.  

Well, technically I’m probably jogging but every other day, I travel about four miles or so faster than walking.  What’s the difference?  If you’re not touching the ground at any given point during your stride then you’re running.
According to anthropologists, we were all born to run.  In fact, according to William Cromie we humans are (or were) particularly good at it.  Our bodies have evolved that way, but after some quick research on the web I discovered that only about 1 or 2 percent of Americans run.  Only one out of a thousand Americans have run (or jogged) a marathon.   The rates for compulsive shoppers (clinically addicted, meaning it’s a serious problem for them) is much higher, somewhere between 2 and 8 percent.  True, we all need to buy things, but personally, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t shop frivolously at least sometimes.  I think shopping wins.  We are a culture of consumers, probably the greatest ever.
So humans and our ancestors have been running for 2 to 3 million years and shopping for a lot less than that.  The first evidence of money is about 2,700 years ago.  This brings to mind the debate of nature versus nurture.  Are we shaped more by our genes or culture?  I suppose in this case, if the anthropologists are right, culture rules the day.  Even runners love to shop for really cool running shoes.

So next time someone tells you it’s their nature to do this or that, remind them about running…