Seeing the Big Picture

Today’s Mass is something new, introduced by Pius XI in 1925. We’ve had it on the last Sunday in Ordinary Time since 1970.

Focusing on who and what our Lord is seems like a good way to wrap up the Church calendar. That’s how I see it.

Today’s Gospel reading is Matthew 25:3146. That’s the one starting with “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him….”

It’s an important part of the Gospels, and not what I’ll be talking about today. I’d better explain that.

I’m okay with what the Church says about Mass, including how the annual schedule works. I’m not a religious scofflaw, disdaining the laws of God and man. But I don’t try to coordinate these ‘Sunday’ posts with what happens in Mass.

I figure it’s not a problem, since I’m a Catholic layman — and you’re probably not here looking for a homily.1 Besides, I’ve been itching to talk about what we read on cycle B’s final Sunday. We’ll see it next year around this time.2

Pilate and Bacon

Cycle B’s Gospel for today is John 18:33b-37. It tells us about our Lord’s trial before Pilate.

I don’t see that anyone apart from Jesus came out looking good in that chapter.

Malchus, maybe. He seems to have been mostly guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Peter, too, for prompt response before our Lord told him to stand down.

Living two millennia later, knowing what’s happened since the Golgotha incident, Pilate’s decision was obviously a mistake. A miscarriage of justice, at any rate.

But looking at it from Pilate’s perspective? I don’t feel like giving him a posthumous tongue-lashing. Or would that be type-lashing, since this is a virtual printed document?

Tongue, type, or whatever: I won’t follow Francis Bacon’s lead, and talk about “jesting Pilate.” Bacon was quite a few things, including England’s Attorney General and Lord Chancellor. He also added this to my culture’s heritage:

“What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer….”
(“Of Truth,” Francis Bacon (1625) via Bartleby.com)

Bacon was a smart man, and had some — interesting — things to say about truth.

He wrote quite a bit, and maybe could have written Shakespeare, but I don’t think so. Delia Bacon popularized the ‘Bacon wrote Shakespeare’ notion in the 19th century.

The 19th and 20th centuries are among Western civilization’s more colorful, I’m glad they’re behind us — and that’s another topic.

More to the point, I don’t think Pilate was joking when he asked “are you the King of the Jews?” Let’s remember who Pilate was.

Pilate was one of the Equites. It was sort of like being a knight in late medieval Europe. He was a step above commoners, but below Patricians. Think of him as ‘middle management.’

And he was in a very uncomfortable spot.

A Prefect’s Perspective

When we meet him in John 18, Pontius Pīlātus is prefect of Judea. The job came with a little authority. Also responsibility. Lots of responsibility.

Judea was a strategically important Roman border province.

It helped keep Rome’s land route to Egypt’s agricultural resources secure, and was a buffer between the Roman and Parthian Empires.3

Like I said, Pilate was a prefect or maybe a procurator or promagistrate. Either way, he was in charge of a volatile border province. If — make that when — something went wrong, his bosses would want to know why.

On top of that, he didn’t have the authority and influence a Patrician would have had. Being a Roman aristocrat wasn’t all beer and skittles. Or wine and expulsim ludere. My guess is that Romans didn’t care much for the northern European brew.

I don’t know why Pilate focused on the third charge listed in Luke 23:2: that Jesus claimed kingship. Maybe it was the charge that might be important. From Pilate’s viewpoint.

It would have been a clear challenge to Roman authority, something Pilate couldn’t reasonably ignore.

Opposing Roman taxes, the second charge, was a challenge too. Of sorts. But the Empire didn’t get much from Judea. Pilate probably realized that nobody except tax collectors and the Roman Senate liked taxes. Times change, but they don’t change all that much.

About taxes and tax collectors, in Mark 2:14, Luke 19:18 I read that Jesus told Levi to leave his post, influenced Zaccheus — and I’m drifting off-topic.

Questions

Pilate’s interview with our Lord isn’t as random as it might seem.

‘Circuitous’ may feel ‘ambiguous,’ at least to an American. But it’s not. Not, I think, in this case.

“So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’
“Jesus answered, ‘Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?’
“Pilate answered, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?’
“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.'”
(John 18:3336)

“Are you the King of the Jews?” was a reasonable question. So was our Lord’s response, although Pilate may not have seen it that way.

Different folks saw, and see, our Lord different ways.

The Sanhedrin probably saw Jesus as a political threat: someone who wanted their political, social, and economic status.

Matthew 27:18 and common sense say that Pilate understood their motives.

I don’t know what he thought of his wife’s urgent warning. That’s in Matthew 27:19. Given his culture’s view of dreams, her warning may have encouraged Pilate to literally and figuratively wash his hands of charges against Jesus.

I’ve wondered if our Lord’s question, “do you say this on your own?” was giving Pilate an opportunity to see what was really going on. Maybe Pilate saw, maybe not.

“Another Kind of Kingship”

What Pilate did was state the obvious: that he wasn’t a Jew. He said that Jesus had been handed over to Imperial authority by “your own nation and the chief priests.”

I don’t know how reality looks from the Second Person of the Trinity’s viewpoint. But I ‘hear’ a trace of exasperation in our Lord’s response: “My kingdom does not belong to this world….” (John 18:36)

Think about it: Jesus had been accused of trying to be king of a smallish border province. It’s like asking the American president if he’s some sort of shift supervisor.

The Apostles weren’t all that quick on the uptake, either.

After our Lord had been executed, stopped being dead, and had finally convinced them that they weren’t seeing a ghost — they asked “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts1:68)

Even after the reality check that followed, it took two angels to get their attention focused on the job at hand. (November 27, 2016)

That was two millennia back now.

Some of humanity’s best minds have been looking at who and what Jesus is, and we’re a trifle less clueless.

Those of us who pay attention.

Jesus is a king, the king; but not a political leader. Nothing that penny ante. Our Lord’s kingship is what St. John Paul II called “another kind of kingship, a divine and spiritual kingship.”1

Our Lord’s kingdom is everybody “who belongs to the truth:” in Palestine; in the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han empires: and beyond. (John 18:37)

We’ve been learning that there’s a whole lot of “beyond,” and that’s yet another topic.

We call today’s feast the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. I put a few ‘background’ links at the end of this post.4

Our Lord isn’t just king of this universe, though.

He’s part of a really big picture. (August 20, 2017; March 12, 2017; December 11, 2016)

Jesus, Truth, and the Best News Ever


(From Piero della Francesca, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Recapping, Jesus was tortured, executed, and buried. A few days later our Lord stopped being dead. The 11 surviving apostles eventually realized they weren’t seeing a ghost. (John 20:2627; Luke 24:3043)

Then our Lord had a final meeting with the 11, gave them standing orders, and left. That’s in Matthew 28:1820 and Acts 1:611.

They started spreading the best news humanity’s ever had.

God loves us, and wants to adopt us. All of us. (John 3:17; Ephesians 1:35; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 52, 1825)

I accepted God’s offer, so I try acting like I’m part of the family.

It’s pretty simple.

I should love God, love my neighbors, see everybody as my neighbor, and treat others as I want to be treated. (Matthew 5:4344, 7:12, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2537; Catechism, 1789)

I said simple: not easy.

I also try to act like truth matters.

Our Lord’s mission was and is “to testify to the truth” — which brings me back to Pilate’s question in John 18:38: “What is truth?” An accurate answer would be not what is truth, but who is truth.

God is truth. God is also love. (John 14:6; 1 John 4:816; Catechism, 144, 214221, 1814)

And more. As a Catholic, my faith is — should be — personal loyalty to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: three persons, one God. It is “a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 150, 233, 238248)

Okay, so I believe in God, and decide to follow our Lord. So what?

In the short run, the outlook is pretty close to Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me….'”
(Matthew 16:24)

Martyrdom is Sainthood’s fast-track option. But missing that opportunity won’t disappoint me. We’ve got many options, none of them easy. (September 4, 2016; August 21, 2016)

In the long run, the outlook’s pretty good for those of us who take God seriously. (Matthew 16:2527; 1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2; Revelation 22:15)

That bit in Revelation 22:4, about having a name written on our foreheads, puts me in mind of an over-the-top college party: and that’s still another topic.

I’m looking forward to no more tears, death, mourning, wailing, or pain.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
“I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them (as their God).
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, (for) the old order has passed away.'”
(Revelation 21:14)

Meanwhile, we have a big job.

Building a “Civilization of Love”

‘Really believing’ — thinking lovely thoughts, and doing nothing else — isn’t an option. Not a reasonable one. I must act as if what I believe matters.

“Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless?
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?
“You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works.”
(James 2:2022)

Part of my job involves truly respecting the “transcendent dignity” of humanity, and each person. It’s not easy. Neither is helping build a better world for future generations.

There’s not much I can do to abolish injustice, end hunger, or even make my nation’s leaders change their minds. But I can do something about me. My ongoing “inner conversion” isn’t easy, either. But it’s a good idea. (Catechism, 1888, 19281942)

I can also keep suggesting that preserving is good, and changing what isn’t, makes sense. So does cooperating with everyone who thinks we can build a better world.

“…The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”
(“To the United Nations Organization,” St. John Paul II (October 5, 1995))

St. John Paul II’s speech is only a couple decades old. The idea that mercy and justice matter is ancient. (February 1, 2017; November 20, 2016)

I think building a rough approximation of St. John Paul II’s civilization of love will take centuries, probably millennia. But I think we can do it, and must try. We’ve made some progress over the last two millennia.

There’s a great deal of the job left for generations who will follow us. (November 5, 2017; August 14, 2017; May 28, 2017)

I suspect we’ll still be correcting injustices and promoting mercy when the 8.2 kiloyear event, Y2K, and Y10K are seen as roughly contemporary.

On the ‘up’ side, we’re already in “the last hour,” and have been for two thousand years. The war is over. We won. This world’s renewal is in progress, and nothing can stop it. (Matthew 16:18; Mark 16:6; Catechism, 638, 670)

More about why I take Jesus seriously:


1 Homilies for this solemnity:

2 Each liturgical year has two cycles: one for Sunday Mass, the other for Mass on weekdays. We’ve got three Sunday cycles and two weekday ones. Happily, I don’t have to keep it all straight:

3 Pilate’s world, a quick look:

4 Solemnity of Christ the King, background:

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Visitor from the Stars

Scientists thought ‘Oumuamua was a comet when they spotted it last month.

Follow-up observations showed it was more like an asteroid: and going too fast to be from the solar system.

‘Oumuamua is from interstellar space. It’s the first object of its kind we’ve seen.

What scientists are learning about ‘Oumuamua tells us a bit about other planetary systems, and raises intriguing new questions.


Pan-STARRS and Serendipity

Suggestions that watching for incoming asteroids go back at least to the 1960s.

The idea started looking more important as we learned just how many asteroids whiz past each year.

That probably helped get systems like Pan-STARRS up and running. It’s a collection of astronomical cameras, telescopes, and computing equipment at Haleakala Observatory.

Pan-STARRS isn’t just an ‘asteroid spotter.’ Scientists use it to study objects they’ve already found, and expect it’ll help them discover variable stars in this and nearby galaxies.1

It also let them spot and study ‘Oumuamua. I’ll get back to that.

Pursuing Truth: or Not

‘Oumuamua isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before. To me, that’s fascinating.

Not everyone shares my interest in what we’re learning about this wonder-filled universe. I wouldn’t expect that.

But I wouldn’t mind running into fewer who seem downright hostile to pretty much everything learned since Copernicus. And Darwin.

The latter seems particularly distressing to real-life analogs of Mr. Squibbs. He’s the ‘are you satisfied?‘ chap in that cartoon.

I’ve explained why I think using our brains doesn’t offend God. Fairly often. Basically, I figure we should seek truth and God. Also that truth, all truth, points toward God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 27, 3135, 41, 74, 2500)

If we pay attention to this universe, we’ll learn things we didn’t know before. Sometimes we’ll learn that old assumptions weren’t accurate.

I like living in a world where much of the science I learned in high school is either outdated, or simply wrong.

We’ve got free will, so that’s not the only option. We can try ignoring what’s new, or live in a make-believe world. (July 23, 2017)

I enjoy flights of imagination, and think they have value. But I also think dealing with reality makes more sense that denying it.

Some Catholics seem as ardently opposed to what we’ve been learning over the last few centuries as tightly-wound disciples of Ussher. I assume they’re sincere, but am sure they are wrong.

Scientific discoveries don’t threaten faith. They’re opportunities for greater admiration of God and God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

Faith, the Catholic sort, embraces all truth. Not just the bits we we knew a few millennia back. (Catechism, 142155, 159)


‘Oumuamua: ‘First’ in Several Categories


(From ESO/M. Kornmesser, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Artwork: ‘Oumuamua is now fading from the view of telescopes”
(BBC News)

Bizarre shape of interstellar asteroid
Paul Rincon, BBC News (November 20, 2017)

An asteroid that visited us from interstellar space is one of the most elongated cosmic objects known to science, a study has shown.

“Discovered on 19 October, the object’s speed and trajectory strongly suggested it originated in a planetary system around another star.

“Astronomers have been scrambling to observe the unique space rock, known as ‘Oumuamua, before it fades from view.

“Their results so far suggest it is at least 10 times longer than it is wide.

“That ratio is more extreme than that of any asteroid or comet ever observed in our Solar System….”

ʻOumuamua is ‘first’ in several categories. It’s the first ‘comet’ re-designated as an asteroid, for starters.

Folks at Haleakala Observatory figured it was a comet when the Pan-STARRS team spotted it. Assuming it was a comet made sense at the time.

ʻOumuamua was crossing the ecliptic at a steep angle, fast. Comets from the Solar System’s distant fringes do that. Asteroids, not so much.

Astronomers standardized names — designations, actually — recently. Assuming it was a comet, they called it C/2017 U1.

A ‘next step’ was getting a closer look at C/2017 U1. And confirming that it was a comet.

Communication tech has improved a lot since my youth. That makes rapid response to objects like ʻOumuamua possible.

Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope had their system observe C/2017 U1 later the same day.

They couldn’t find any trace of stuff around C/2017 U1. It was already closer to our sun than Mars.

If C/2017 was a comet, it would have had a coma of gas and dust. It didn’t, so it was reclassified as an asteroid and renamed A/2017 U1.

More observations showed that A/2017 U1 had been coming in really fast: around 30 kilometers a second. It had already made its closest approach to our sun, and was on its way back to the stars.

Giving A/2017 U1 a Name, and a New Designation

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/IAU, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The object’s velocity and eccentric trajectory suggests it originated outside our Solar System”
(BBC News)

Astronomers figure ʻOumuamua was inbound at around 26.34 kilometers a second back in 1605. It was 2,300 Astronomical Units out at that point. That’s nearly a hundred times more distant than Neptune.

No known natural activity in the Solar System could give it that speed, that far out.

It didn’t come from our planetary system. More accurately, if it did — we’ll have to take a hard look at everything we’ve learned about physics since Newton’s day.

A/2017 U1 is now 1I: an object from interstellar space, the first of its kind we’ve spotted.

Folks at the International Astronomical Union haven’t finished working out a full set of rules for what to call stuff coming from outside the Solar System. I figure that’ll get fine-tuned as we learn more

The Pan-STARRS team picked 1I’s name: ʻOumuamua. It means “scout” in Hawaiian. Or maybe “messenger.” That language’s “ʻou” means “reach out for, with “mua” repeated for emphasis: since it’s the first of its kind we’ve seen.

ʻ, the first character, isn’t an apostrophe. It’s how my language’s Latin alphabet shows the phoneme ʻokina.2


Intriguing, and Puzzling, Data


(From ESO / K. Meech et al., via Sky and Telescope, used w/o permission.)
(‘Oumuamua’s brightness, measured in visible and near-infrared. Colored dots are from observations. The dotted line shows a light curve based on those observations: and assuming that ‘Oumuamua is a featureless ellipsoid, ten times as long as it is wide. The observations don’t match that ideal, so the object probably has dark and light patches. Or maybe pits and peaks.)

Meet ‘Oumuamua, the Interstellar Cigar
Kelly Beatty, Sky and Telescope (November 20, 2017)

Rapid-response observations by major observatories shows that the first-known interstellar visitor is 10 times longer than it is wide.

“In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 science-fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama, Earthlings discover and then investigate an interstellar ‘asteroid’ that turns out to be a huge alien spaceship shaped like a long cylinder.

“Life, it seems, sometimes imitates art….”

Nobody, including Sky and Telescope’s Kelly Beatty, has said ‘Oumuamua might be a spaceship. Or anything else artificial. Not that I’ve seen or heard.

I can see how someone might imagine it’s not natural, though.

Asteroids and comets we’ve studied generally aren’t spherical.

Most are lumpy, irregular. Sort of like a potato. Or, as someone said about Philae, a rubber duck.

But they’re not as long and narrow as ‘Oumuamua seems to be.

I almost immediately thought “ship” when seeing ‘Oumuamua’s length to width ratio. That’s partly because I read science fiction. Everything from the top-grade ‘hard science’ sort to delightfully improbable space opera.

I’ve also lived most of my life near Minnesota’s lake country. Not noticing small-to-mid-size watercraft around here takes doing. Some folks manage it, and that’s another topic.

No matter what pushes or pulls them, vehicles that move through water work better if we pay attention to hydrodynamics. We knew that long before someone coined the word.

Length to Width Ratio and Perceptions

We were building ships ten millennia back. Maybe longer. Boats, anyway.

Designs have changed a bit since then, but not the physical realities we deal with.

We’ve learned that if we’re interested in stability and don’t care about moving fast, we’re better off with something about as wide as it is long.

Coracles are a familiar example. Maybe not so familiar, today, in this part of the world, now that I think of it.

We’ll make boats and ships longer when we want to go faster, and think we’ve worked out ways to stay more-or-less upright. Sometimes we make mistakes.

It’s been a bit over three and a half centuries since the Vasa made its first short, and spectacularly unsuccessful, voyage. I see that pride of the Swedish navy as a good example of why executives should let engineers do their job, and that’s yet another topic.

The point is that ‘Oumuamua’s length to width ratio is about what we see in the longest of today’s large freighters. That doesn’t mean it’s artificial. When we started building spaceships we learned that the rules are different with no atmosphere.

Major puzzles include where ‘Oumuamua is from, why it’s so narrow and how it formed.

Not From Around Here

Astronomers tracked ‘Oumuamua as it passed between Earth and the orbit of Mars. That let us work out where it had been before the Pan-STARRS team discovered it.

It came in from Vega’s general direction.

That star is fairly close, about 26 light-years away. Quite a few folks know about it.

That probably explains why several news outlets used Vega when describing where ‘Oumuamua came from.

Some reporters also pointed out that Vega, along with pretty much everything else in this galaxy, is moving. When ‘Oumuamua was that far away, Vega was somewhere else.

I think Kelly Beatty had the right idea, saying ‘Oumuamua came from somewhere in or near today’s constellation Lyra.

That’s assuming that it didn’t make any course corrections before astronomers noticed it. Like I said, that’s a reasonable assumption.

We still don’t know where it’s from, or how long it’s been traveling. Maybe it came directly from a young star, while the star’s planets were settling into comparatively stable orbits.

That’s probably not the case, though. What we’ve been learning about how stars form tell us that something ‘Oumuamua’s size, from a young planetary system, would be mostly volatile gasses and ice. In other words, it’d be a comet. It’s not.

Then there’s its shape. Something that long and narrow, rotating very roughly once every eight hours, wouldn’t hold together. Not if it’s like many asteroids: more like a gravel pile than a single rock.

But if it’s a single more-or-less-solid piece, explaining how it formed gets very tricky.

Someone suggested it might be a whole lot of smaller pieces, barely touching each other, strung in a line.

That won’t work, unless something other than its shape explains ‘Oumuamua’s cyclic brightening and dimming.

If ‘Oumuamua is as long and narrow as it seems, with a roughly eight-hour ‘day,’ the pieces couldn’t stay connected. What we call centrifugal force would have broken it up long ago.

Informed Speculation


(From ESO/K. Meech et al., via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

The Honolulu Institute for Astronomy’s Karen Meech and other scientists have been studying ‘Oumuamua.

Many other scientists. This is a very intriguing set of puzzles.

We’ve got a pretty good idea what ‘Oumuamua is made of: the surface, anyway. Spectroscopic information, ‘Oumuamua’s color, is a pretty good match with fairly common sorts of asteroids: P- and D-type.3

Those don’t reflect much light. What they do reflect is reddish. Scientists figure their surfaces are mostly organic-rich and anhydrous silicates, and carbon.

“Organic” doesn’t mean “alive.” I’ve talked about that, vitalism and old movies, before. (September 9, 2016)

Knowing what’s on ‘Oumuamua’s surface tells us about how much light it reflects. Combining that with how its brightness varies gives us a rotation rate of very roughly eight hours and an approximate size and shape.

Like I said, its brightness varies a lot. Meech’s team figure the least-improbable shape and size is an ellipsoid about 400 meters long by maybe 50 meters wide.

That’s about a quarter-mile long, and a bit wider than the Titanic. We’ve built, and build, ships that size. But that’s not proof it’s artificial. Still, it’s an odd shape for an asteroid.

Other scientists using slightly different assumptions came up with about the same shape, but smaller: 180 by 30 by 30 meters, or 591 feet long by 98 feet across.

More speculation, and Looking Ahead

Someone on Meech’s team speculated that maybe when planet-size objects with molten cores collide, part of the cores could ‘freeze’ fast enough to be shaped like ‘Oumuamua.

Or maybe it got overly close to a supernova during its long journey.

Right now we have more questions than answers.

We gathered a fair amount of data while ‘Oumuamua was near Earth: only 30,000,000 kilometers, 19,000,000 miles away when Pan-STARRS first spotted it. And we know what direction it’s taking on its way out.

Some outfits, including Initiative for Interstellar Studies, are looking at our best options for sending a probe after it. We don’t, quite, have the technology today. Not if we want the probe to stay near ‘Oumuamua long enough for a thorough look.

A few years or decades from now? That’s hopeful. And yet again another topic.

Recapping, we’re nearly certain that ‘Oumuamua is from somewhere beyond the Solar System. We’ve got a pretty good idea of its heading as it entered and is leaving our neighborhood. Where it started out, and where it’s going? That’s another matter.

Again, I’m quite sure that it’s a natural object. I figure scientists will eventually learn a great deal about it.


Using my Imagination

Denouncing imagination, or stoutly denying that I ever had an original thought, seems like a waste of effort.

And fairly ridiculous. I might as well claim that God’s decision to make a physical reality was a mistake.

Which is pretty close to what some Christians seem to believe.

There’s an element of truth in seeing “spiritual” as better than “material.” (Catechism, 330)

But what we can see is “very good.” Genesis 1:2731 makes that clear enough. Or should. We’re not a mistake, either. (July 23, 2017; March 5, 2017)

All of which doesn’t explain that picture of a three-eyed whatsit apparently lecturing on astronomy. Or maybe asking for directions.

It’s from a 1930s pulp science fiction magazine, most likely replete with tales heavy on imagination and casual about facts.

Backing up a little, I think scientists are right. ‘Oumuamua is almost certainly a natural object. One with a very unusual shape, and not from the Solar System.

But let’s imagine that a probe launched a few decades from now catches up with ‘Oumuamua, sending back the first high-resolution images of the object.

Folks back on Earth see a quarter-mile long cylinder, coated with dust accumulated over uncounted ages.

A cluster of objects at one end look a great deal like rocket nozzles, each larger than the Florence Cathedral’s dome. A bowl only slightly smaller than the Astrodome sits at the end of a tower or mast near the cylinder’s midpoint.

It’s clearly artificial. Whoever built it used tech not far from what we developed just after the Industrial Age. And it is old. Very, very old indeed.

Then what?

Responses, Reasonable and Otherwise

My guess is that scientists would have ample funding for any research focused on ‘Oumuamua.

Some folks would start quirky religions around who they felt built it.

Others would call the whole thing a conspiracy, and the checkout-aisle press would have a field day.

Folks who embrace the Enlightenment’s silly side would assume that Thomas Paine was right.

I think the antics of some Christians encourage the notion that our faith will dry up and blow away in the light of whatever scientists are currently studying.

I don’t agree, but I’m a Catholic — and know something of our faith.

If I was writing a story using the idea that ‘Oumuamua is artificial, explaining its flight path might take the most work.

There aren’t any obviously-habitable worlds out in that direction. Not close, anyway.4

And that’s still another topic. An entertaining one.

Porky Pine and a Scientist-Monk

A bit more seriously, ‘first contact’ scenarios that were science fiction in my youth are getting serious attention today.

I’ve seen a few level-headed discussions of how we would and should respond to extraterrestrial contact.

One was written by a scientist-monk. Another appeared in a comic strip.

“…Frankly, if you think about it, any creatures on other planets, subject to the same laws of chemistry and physics as us, made of the same kinds of atoms, with an awareness and a will recognizably like ours would be at the very least our cousins in the cosmos. They would be so similar to us in all the essentials that I don’t think you’d even have the right to call them aliens.”
(“Brother Astronomer,” Chapter Three, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? — Brother Guy Consolmagno (2000))

“I been readin’ ’bout how maybe they is planets peopled by folks with ad-vanced brains. On the other hand, maybe we got the most brains…maybe our intellects is the universe’s most ad-vanced. Either way, it’s a mighty soberin’ thought.”
(Porky Pine, in Walt Kelly’s Pogo (June 20, 1959) via Wikiquote)

More, mostly how I see what we’re learning – – –

– – – and why I don’t fear new knowledge:


1 Science and thinking ahead:

2 A bit about language:

3 Asteroids and something new:

4 Looking toward Vega, and beyond:

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Happy Thanksgiving!


(“A Holiday Haven,” another installment in a tale of two turkeys.)

If you are in or from the United States, I hope you are having a good Thanksgiving Day. If not, I trust that you’re having a good November 24th. And 23rd, too, of course. Enjoy the weekend, while you’re at it. Within reason, of course.

Some folks write sober monographs for this holiday, thoroughly discussing the myriad reasons we have for being thankful.

Others present schmaltzy pieces on the same topic: about as deep as a rain puddle.

I have a great deal to be thankful for. We all do. Just existing is a whole lot better than the alternative. Add to that the hope we can have for something even better: and anything else is gravy.

I don’t think the two turkeys would appreciate that expression, and that’s another topic. Topics. About that duo — You may have seen them before, last month. (October 30, 2017)

Vaguely ‘holiday-related:’

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Disorders, Decisions

Whether you call it mental illness, lunacy, or insanity, being crazy isn’t fun. It’s not a lifestyle choice either. Not for most. Certainly not in my case. I’ll get back to that.

Folks started talking about “mental hygiene” after William Sweetser coined the phrase in the mid-1800s.

Folks promoting mental hygiene rubbed elbows with social hygiene advocates.

I figure many folks had basically good motives for supporting those ideas. I hope so, anyway.

But some of their methods were — dubious.

Eugenics and sterilization of the unfit developed serious image problems in the 20th century. That’s another topic, for another post.

Somewhere along the line “mental hygiene” got repackaged as “mental health.” I think it wasn’t just a new coat of paint on old ideas. We were learning more about how minds work, and sometimes don’t.

We were also learning what we can do: and what we shouldn’t.1

Solutions: Bedlam, Louis XIV, and the French Revolution

Crazy people have been part of societies for a very long time. Folks in different eras tried various approaches.

Some were better than others, I think.

Bedlam started as a priory in 1247. It had a different name and wasn’t a clinic or asylum of any sort.

One of its functions was to house the poor. The city of London got involved in managing the priory’s finances in the 1300s. Two centuries later, Henry VIII owned the place.

There’s probably quite a story behind the Lord Mayor of London asking for, and getting, control of Bedlam, its occupants and revenues. That deal was finalized in 1547.

Somewhere between 1377 and the 1700s, Bedlam started specializing in folks with mental problems.

Hogarth’s final installment of “A Rake’s Progress” isn’t entirely fanciful.

Friends and family could visit inmates — and were expected to bring food and other needed items.

I’m not sure why Bedlam’s management let the general public in. I’ve run into speculation that putting inmates on display helped them make money.

English sensibilities eventually changed, and using lunatics for public entertainment became unfashionable.

As I keep saying, we do learn. Slowly.

Meanwhile, in France, the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital has a shorter, but similar, story.

Louis XIV remodeled a Parisian gunpowder factory in 1656, making a hospice for the city’s poor. Part of the hospice was later used as a prison for prostitutes.

The mentally disabled, criminally insane and epileptics got housed there, too.

Given what folks knew at the time, and how European society worked, it may have been the best a secular leader could do.

Orders like the Brothers Hospitallers are another matter. I’ve discussed them, Bedlam, and good intentions, before. Briefly. (May 12, 2017)

The French Revolution wasn’t going smoothly in 1792. There was even talk of Royalists and foreigners invading Paris.

Journalist Jean-Paul Marat and others decided something had to be done.

So a bunch of French National Guardsmen and some fédérés forcibly removed folks from the old gunpowder factory and similar institutions, and killed them.

It made sense at the time, sort of. Marat and company figured the lunatics and other prisoners might support royalists. Killing them removed the perceived threat.

These days we call what happened the September Massacres. When we mention it at all.

France got Napoleon next, which may have been an improvement.

Some folks took another look at how their mentally ill neighbors were treated in the early 19th century. We’ve learned quite a bit since then.2 Including, I hope, a little wisdom.

Natural Causes

Hippocrates of Kos talked about diseases and other disorders folks deal with around the time Sophocles was writing his plays.

Talking about diseases isn’t why Hippocrates is famous — among history buffs, anyway. He gets credit for being the first in Western civilization to say diseases have natural causes.

The accepted belief then was that folks get sick or crazy because they’d offended some spirit, or run into a grumpy god.

Quite a few folks believed pretty much the same thing after Hippocrates wrote his medical texts.

Some still do, about two dozen centuries later. I see precious little difference between Zeus and the ‘angry God’ intermittently invoked after disasters. That’s yet another topic. (September 10, 2017; August 27, 2017)

Hippocrates was on the right track.

Not leaving milk out for the nisse isn’t why I get a cold. They’re more into practical jokes, now that I think of it. Sort of like kobolds or leprechauns. One of these days I’ll get back to European folklore and myth, but not today. (May 19, 2017)

Some Christians, Catholics included, act like they put their culture’s pre-Christian beliefs and new ideas into a blender.

Make that our culture’s. I strongly suspect that some of American Christianity’s weirder fringes are syncretic religions, and that’s yet again another topic.

I enjoy folklore, but I don’t ‘believe in’ it. Not in a religious sense. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 21112114)

And I sure don’t try to cure a cold by exorcising ‘demon mucous.’

Maybe that needs explanation. Recognizing natural causes doesn’t require ignoring other realities. But trying to exorcise my depression would be an exercise in futility, at best.

Satan, Insanity, and Murder

Thinking that Satan and demons are real is one thing. Seeing direct Satanic involvement in illnesses is another.

That’s why natural causes are ruled out before calling in an exorcist. (Catechism, 391395, 1237, 1673)

About exorcisms and exorcists — what’s in the movies is ‘Hollywood.’

The Church authorizes exorcisms, occasionally. It’s a well-established procedure, involving specialists. It’s emphatically not a do-it-yourself job, and that’s still another topic.

My depression and assorted psychiatric problems did not start when someone hexed me.

I’ve got glitchy neurochemistry to thank for that sort of thing. Also, almost certainly for the depression, triggering events. With a very different history I might have avoided decades of undiagnosed issues.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just as well that my depression and autism spectrum disorder(s) weren’t caught early. Lobotomies hadn’t quite gone out of fashion, for starters. Still, it wasn’t all bad news in the mid-20th century.

Quite a few folks had gotten past terms like “soulless mass of flesh possessed by the devil” by then. Some psychologists were discussing Asperger’s paper on “autistic psychopaths.” (April 9, 2017)

I’m taking medications that didn’t exist until recently. They don’t ‘cure’ my odd neurochemistry. But taking them makes dealing with it easier.

I didn’t enjoy learning that I have psychiatric/personality problems. But pretending they weren’t there didn’t make sense, and wouldn’t help. Taking reasonable steps to deal with the issues did. And does.

Since I think life and health are “precious gifts,” I have no qualms about taking my meds. (Catechism, 2288, 2278)

Mass Murders

I’ve seen a few op-ed pieces discussing a common factor in recent mass murders. It’s not the technology involved, or who the victims were.

Folks who decided to start killing had mental health problems.

Some of that may be 20-20 hindsight. But I think strictly sane people don’t wake up one morning and start the day by murdering folks in a church or school. Not generally.

Mass murder is hardly a new phenomenon. Separating fact, folklore, and rumor isn’t easy. Particularly for the days before Elizabeth Báthory. More about her later.

Quite a few Roman citizens died in 331 BC: apparently from disease. Maybe they did.

That’s what Livy hoped was the case. But he knew enough about his culture to record an another account of what happened. The apparently-unofficial story was that a servant with access to poison killed the citizens.

Then she made what we’d call a plea bargain, telling how she killed them in exchange for immunity. (“The History of Rome, Book 8,” Titus Livius, (B. O. Foster, Ph.D., Ed.))

I’m not convinced that the servant was a mass murderer in today’s sense. In that era and culture, her actions seem more like an assassin’s. Locusta’s career ended when her last patron, Nero, committed suicide.

Elizabeth Báthory killed several hundred young women before Hungarian authorities took notice. I suspect too many folks started talking about a shortage of peasant’s daughters in her area.

We’ve got pretty good documentation of her trial, thanks to her wealth and social position. That’s helped sort out reality and slightly more lurid details that got added later.

She was convicted, imprisoned, and died in 1614.

Fast-forwarding to December, 2012.

After killing his mother, a young man killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Then he killed himself.

I saw many opinions, and a few facts, in the news over the next few months.

Some folks focused on the weapon used. Others on video games he’d played.

He’d been home schooled, which prompted predictable responses. That’s a can of worms I’ll open another day.

Some news and opinion pieces focused on the impressive catalog of mental, emotional, and developmental problems the young man had.3

I don’t feel sorry for him: even though we both have autism spectrum disorder in our medical records. I don’t think that excuses bad behavior. But understanding what he was dealing with may help us understand what happened.

Decisions

I’m a mess. Far from “normal,” at any rate.

I spent my adolescence and decades of my adult life dealing with major depression. I still do. But very strong antidepressants let me think without fighting the machinery.

It’s a wonderful change of pace.

My other neural quirks — plural — quite likely started as soon as I had a central nervous system.

Two of my kids have very similar abilities and limitations. So did my father. I very strongly suspect that whatever it is, it’s genetic. At least in part.

I’m not entirely convinced that my non-depression glitches are autism spectrum disorder. But that’s the closest anyone’s come to finding a name for whatever it is.

It gives me and professionals something to work with, so I’m content.

We’ve learned a great deal since my birth. Infants and children who respond as I did are caught early. On the whole, I think that’s a good thing. I also think we’re still learning. And have a very great deal left to learn.

Getting back to antisocial behavior, I don’t think I’m a time bomb about to go off.

For one thing, I started cooperating with treatment immediately after being diagnosed. That was over 11 years ago.

Chucking everything I know about what’s right and wrong is possible, of course. In principle. So is deciding that I’ll ignore what I’m learning about how my brain works. I’ve got free will. (Catechism, 17301738)

But I know that would be a very bad idea. (Catechism, 10211022)

Perhaps just as important, I don’t want to ignore what I know is right. And that’s — more topics:


1 We’re learning, sometimes from our mistakes:

2 Dealing with disease and disorders:

3 Autism, assumptions, and attitudes:

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