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Friday, May 27, 2011

The Cosmic Perspective

One of the most inspiring essays I ever came across, written by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist.

Of all the sciences cultivated by mankind, Astronomy is acknowledged to be, and undoubtedly is, the most sublime, the most interesting, and the most useful. For, by knowledge derived from this science, not only the bulk of the Earth is discovered . . . ; but our very faculties are enlarged with the grandeur of the ideas it conveys, our minds exalted above [ their ] low contracted prejudices.

—James Ferguson, Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton's Principles, And Made Easy To Those Who Have Not Studied Mathematics (1757)

Long before anyone knew that the universe had a beginning, before we knew that the nearest large galaxy lies two and a half million light-years from Earth, before we knew how stars work or whether atoms exist, James Ferguson's enthusiastic introduction to his favorite science rang true. Yet his words, apart from their eighteenth-century flourish, could have been written yesterday.

But who gets to think that way? Who gets to celebrate this cosmic view of life? Not the migrant farmworker . Not the sweatshop worker. Certainly not the homeless person rummaging through the trash for food. You need the luxury of time not spent on mere survival. You need to live in a nation whose government values the search to understand humanity's place in the universe. You need a society in which intellectual pursuit can take you to the frontiers of discovery, and in which news of your discoveries can be routinely disseminated. By those measures, most citizens of industrialized nations do quite well.

Yet the cosmic view comes with a hidden cost. When I travel thousands of miles to spend a few moments in the fast-moving shadow of the Moon during a total solar eclipse, sometimes I lose sight of Earth.

When I pause and reflect on our expanding universe, with its galaxies hurtling away from one another, embedded within the ever-stretching, four-dimensional fabric of space and time, sometimes I forget that uncounted people walk this Earth without food or shelter, and that children are disproportionately represented among them.

When I pore over the data that establish the mysterious presence of dark matter and dark energy throughout the universe, sometimes I forget that every day—every twenty-four-hour rotation of Earth—people kill and get killed in the name of someone else's conception of God, and that some people who do not kill in the name of God kill in the name of their nation's needs or wants.

When I track the orbits of asteroids, comets, and planets, each one a pirouetting dancer in a cosmic ballet choreographed by the forces of gravity, sometimes I forget that too many people act in wanton disregard for the delicate interplay of Earth's atmosphere, oceans, and land, with consequences that our children and our children's children will witness and pay for with their health and well-being.

And sometimes I forget that powerful people rarely do all they can to help those who cannot help themselves.

I occasionally forget those things because, however big the world is—in our hearts, our minds, and our outsize atlases—the universe is even bigger. A depressing thought to some, but a liberating thought to me.

Consider an adult who tends to the traumas of a child: a broken toy, a scraped knee, a schoolyard bully. Adults know that kids have no clue what constitutes a genuine problem, because inexperience greatly limits their childhood perspective.

As grown-ups, dare we admit to ourselves that we, too, have a collective immaturity of view? Dare we admit that our thoughts and behaviors spring from a belief that the world revolves around us? Apparently not. And the evidence abounds. Part the curtains of society's racial, ethnic, religious, national, and cultural conflicts, and you find the human ego turning the knobs and pulling the levers.

Now imagine a world in which everyone, but especially people with power and influence, holds an expanded view of our place in the cosmos. With that perspective, our problems would shrink—or never arise at all—and we could celebrate our earthly differences while shunning the behavior of our predecessors who slaughtered each other because of them.

* * *

Back in February 2000, the newly rebuilt Hayden Planetarium featured a space show called “Passport to the Universe,” which took visitors on a virtual zoom from New York City to the edge of the cosmos. En route the audience saw Earth, then the solar system, then the 100 billion stars of the Milky Way galaxy shrink to barely visible dots on the planetarium dome.

Within a month of opening day, I received a letter from an Ivy League professor of psychology whose expertise was things that make people feel insignificant. I never knew one could specialize in such a field. The guy wanted to administer a before-and-after questionnaire to visitors, assessing the depth of their depression after viewing the show. “Passport to the Universe,” he wrote, elicited the most dramatic feelings of smallness he had ever experienced.

How could that be? Every time I see the space show (and others we've produced), I feel alive and spirited and connected. I also feel large, knowing that the goings-on within the three-pound human brain are what enabled us to figure out our place in the universe.

Allow me to suggest that it's the professor, not I, who has misread nature. His ego was too big to begin with, inflated by delusions of significance and fed by cultural assumptions that human beings are more important than everything else in the universe.

In all fairness to the fellow, powerful forces in society leave most of us susceptible. As was I . . . until the day I learned in biology class that more bacteria live and work in one centimeter of my colon than the number of people who have ever existed in the world. That kind of information makes you think twice about who—or what—is actually in charge.

From that day on, I began to think of people not as the masters of space and time but as participants in a great cosmic chain of being, with a direct genetic link across species both living and extinct, extending back nearly 4 billion years to the earliest single-celled organisms on Earth.

* * *

I know what you're thinking: we're smarter than bacteria.

No doubt about it, we're smarter than every other living creature that ever walked, crawled, or slithered on Earth. But how smart is that? We cook our food. We compose poetry and music. We do art and science. We're good at math. Even if you're bad at math, you're probably much better at it than the smartest chimpanzee, whose genetic identity varies in only trifling ways from ours. Try as they might, primatologists will never get a chimpanzee to learn the multiplication table or do long division.

If small genetic differences between us and our fellow apes account for our vast difference in intelligence, maybe that difference in intelligence is not so vast after all.

Imagine a life-form whose brainpower is to ours as ours is to a chimpanzee's. To such a species our highest mental achievements would be trivial. Their toddlers, instead of learning their ABCs on Sesame Street, would learn multivariable calculus on Boolean Boulevard. Our most complex theorems, our deepest philosophies, the cherished works of our most creative artists, would be projects their schoolkids bring home for Mom and Dad to display on the refrigerator door. These creatures would study Stephen Hawking (who occupies the same endowed professorship once held by Newton at the University of Cambridge) because he's slightly more clever than other humans, owing to his ability to do theoretical astrophysics and other rudimentary calculations in his head.

If a huge genetic gap separated us from our closest relative in the animal kingdom, we could justifiably celebrate our brilliance. We might be entitled to walk around thinking we're distant and distinct from our fellow creatures. But no such gap exists. Instead, we are one with the rest of nature, fitting neither above nor below, but within.

* * *

Need more ego softeners? Simple comparisons of quantity, size, and scale do the job well.

Take water. It's simple, common, and vital. There are more molecules of water in an eight-ounce cup of the stuff than there are cups of water in all the world's oceans. Every cup that passes through a single person and eventually rejoins the world's water supply holds enough molecules to mix 1,500 of them into every other cup of water in the world. No way around it: some of the water you just drank passed through the kidneys of Socrates, Genghis Khan, and Joan of Arc.

How about air? Also vital. A single breathful draws in more air molecules than there are breathfuls of air in Earth's entire atmosphere. That means some of the air you just breathed passed through the lungs of Napoleon, Beethoven, Lincoln, and Billy the Kid.

Time to get cosmic. There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth formed, more stars than words and sounds ever uttered by all the humans who ever lived.

Want a sweeping view of the past? Our unfolding cosmic perspective takes you there. Light takes time to reach Earth's observatories from the depths of space, and so you see objects and phenomena not as they are but as they once were. That means the universe acts like a giant time machine: the farther away you look, the further back in time you see—back almost to the beginning of time itself. Within that horizon of reckoning, cosmic evolution unfolds continuously, in full view.

Want to know what we're made of? Again, the cosmic perspective offers a bigger answer than you might expect. The chemical elements of the universe are forged in the fires of high-mass stars that end their lives in stupendous explosions, enriching their host galaxies with the chemical arsenal of life as we know it. The result? The four most common chemically active elements in the universe—hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen—are the four most common elements of life on Earth. We are not simply in the universe. The universe is in us.

* * *

Yes, we are stardust. But we may not be of this Earth. Several separate lines of research, when considered together, have forced investigators to reassess who we think we are and where we think we came from.

First, computer simulations show that when a large asteroid strikes a planet, the surrounding areas can recoil from the impact energy, catapulting rocks into space. From there, they can travel to—and land on—other planetary surfaces. Second, microorganisms can be hardy. Some survive the extremes of temperature, pressure, and radiation inherent in space travel. If the rocky flotsam from an impact hails from a planet with life, microscopic fauna could have stowed away in the rocks' nooks and crannies. Third, recent evidence suggests that shortly after the formation of our solar system, Mars was wet, and perhaps fertile, even before Earth was.

Those findings mean it's conceivable that life began on Mars and later seeded life on Earth, a process known as panspermia . So all earthlings might—just might—be descendants of Martians.

Again and again across the centuries, cosmic discoveries have demoted our self-image. Earth was once assumed to be astronomically unique, until astronomers learned that Earth is just another planet orbiting the Sun. Then we presumed the Sun was unique, until we learned that the countless stars of the night sky are suns themselves. Then we presumed our galaxy, the Milky Way, was the entire known universe, until we established that the countless fuzzy things in the sky are other galaxies, dotting the landscape of our known universe.

Today, how easy it is to presume that one universe is all there is. Yet emerging theories of modern cosmology, as well as the continually reaffirmed improbability that anything is unique, require that we remain open to the latest assault on our plea for distinctiveness: multiple universes, otherwise known as the “ multiverse ,” in which ours is just one of countless bubbles bursting forth from the fabric of the cosmos.

* * *

The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge. But it's more than just what you know. It's also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe. And its attributes are clear:

The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it is not solely the provenance of the scientist. It belongs to everyone.

The cosmic perspective is humble.

The cosmic perspective is spiritual — even redemptive — but not religious.

The cosmic perspective enables us to grasp, in the same thought, the large and the small.

The cosmic perspective opens our minds to extraordinary ideas but does not leave them so open that our brains spill out, making us susceptible to believing anything we're told.

The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place.

The cosmic perspective shows Earth to be a mote, but a precious mote and, for the moment, the only home we have.

The cosmic perspective finds beauty in the images of planets, moons, stars, and nebulae but also celebrates the laws of physics that shape them.

The cosmic perspective enables us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and sex.

The cosmic perspective reminds us that in space, where there is no air, a flag will not wave—an indication that perhaps flag waving and space exploration do not mix.

The cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.

* * *

At least once a week, if not once a day, we might each ponder what cosmic truths lie undiscovered before us, perhaps awaiting the arrival of a clever thinker, an ingenious experiment, or an innovative space mission to reveal them. We might further ponder how those discoveries may one day transform life on Earth.

Absent such curiosity, we are no different from the provincial farmer who expresses no need to venture beyond the county line, because his forty acres meet all his needs. Yet if all our predecessors had felt that way, the farmer would instead be a cave dweller, chasing down his dinner with a stick and a rock.

During our brief stay on planet Earth, we owe ourselves and our descendants the opportunity to explore—in part because it's fun to do. But there's a far nobler reason. The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us. In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their “low contracted prejudices.” And that would be the last gasp of human enlightenment—until the rise of a visionary new culture that could once again embrace the cosmic perspective.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Last Cross Country

In all my years of secondary school, this is only the second cross country run I've attended. That's right, I ditched my friends and made them run alone for the past 3 years. But this year, of course, being my last, I wanted to attend and be able to run one last time.

The running routes have changed again, and this time, we only had to run around the housing area (it was still the same distance). Chingx, Sara and I only ran at certain stretches of the road. The rest of the time was spent sight-seeing and inspecting the cool architectural design of some houses. Pn Chen thought I was looking for a friend when she saw me peeking into a house (hee, whoops!). We completed the entire race track in about 25 minutes (fail!), ending at 8.50. There were other girls in our category who probably finished the whole run in under 10 minutes.

After running, I had to go help out at the Interact stall, which was wrongly speculated to be placed at a "strategic spot" by Pn Mary Anne. Just as I had suspected, only the stores nearest to the coupon counter (the poor admins) drew the most students. So what did we do? We went there and marketed there. Of course, the students weren't very receptive to new ideas and didn't believe that our drinks were that great. But after talking to a lot of random people and talking a lot of crap in front of them, I must admit, I had an exceptionally awesome time conning a lot of innocent students.

When I did eventually get tired of direct advertising with the students, I took a trip to the prefects' games stall, where the rest of the committee members were getting thrown at with sponges by normal students. If the students hit our faces, they would get some form of prize. It was really cool to be there, literally. I got soaked like mad, and we committee prefects really had a fun time laughing at each other and taking revenge on "traitor prefects" who decided to throw sponges at us, their very nice seniors. This group of traitors included head prefect Daniel, Shawn and Zhong-Yuen, who eventually found themselves facing the wrath of the rest of the committee, who directly threw pails of water on them. Now, that was just the first round of things. I had to go back to check on the Interact stall again, and about 1 hour later, returned to get more soaked.

Our game garnered a lot of attention, most of it coming from the afternoon session kids. Well, we can't really blame them anyway. The idea of being allowed to throw wet sponges at important people 4 years older than you really appealed to the younger crowd. Amusingly, this year's Form 1s are one bunch of very aggressive people. The best throws came from these very scary 13-year olds. But to be fair, Lau Kah Yew from 1 Jati took the cake for being our "best" customer. After using up all his sponges, he decided it was time for somebody daring enough like him to pwn the prefects. Taking a bucket full of water, he threw the water onto the entire committee and ran away as fast as he could. Sure enough, the most important group of people in the school disbanded and gave chase. "Divide and conquer!" was the last thing heard by each of us before splitting up to look for him.

From here onwards, my side of the story becomes the most interesting one among the AJK prefects. I saw my friends running towards the canteen, the empty blocks A, B and C, and thought that no one would bother to check block E and the car park at this rate. So to the car park, I ran, and there, I found (to my surprise), non-prefects running after the little boy in Purple house shirt. Darien was the only morning session-er running after him, while the rest, I suspected, were his friends (yes, even his friends had trouble catching him). My quarry ran all the way through the deserted block E and towards the end, took a sharp turn towards the direction of the stairs. My worst fear was that this boy would decide to run up the blocks, because then, I'd be the only one left still hot on his trail!

Thankfully, the boy just took an illegal turn and ran to the other side of the block using the pathway under the stairs. I thought he would turn one round so I could nab him. Darien was nowhere to be seen at this point, just when I needed a guy around the most. When everything stood still for a few seconds, I took things to my own hands and went to the end of the block, where I found Darien staring over the steep edge, looking down at the forbidden grounds of block G. And there, below us by the height of one storey, stood the boy, grinning enthusiastically. According to Darien, this crazy fellow slid down the steep slope just to get away from us. Great, just great. And what did Darien do after that? He walked away. Just like that. After running after this boy and wasting a few precious moments of his life, he walks away. Psh.

Okay, so I stayed on to persuade the boy to come up. He followed my instructions, after I warned him that the block was a forbidden area and he could be caught being down there. Holding him by the shoulder so that he couldn't run away again, I led him back to the prefects stall.

There, he was invited to sit among us committee members to share our fate of being sponged at by students. Before we even settled down, Krystle took a bucket of water in an attempt to soak him. His reflexes were too fast for her, and he managed to backfire the attack, landing the water on Krys herself. Next thing you know, Zhong and Thiam Joo were drenching the poor boy with 2 pails of water simultaneously. What happened after that threw us off guard. Kah Yew suddenly went white and screamed "My phone!" in front of the same people who confiscate handphones from unsuspecting students. No, we didn't confiscate his phone there and then, we went white and wide-eyed with him. If his phone died, we would have to use all our profits to get him a new one.

Pravin managed to dry Kah Yew's phone, so thank goodness it didn't die. The phone was very obviously Kah Yew's main concern, for when he learnt that his phone was still functioning, he threw a grin at us again. We decided to close the prefects stall after that singular incident (and a few more throws from those who have already paid for their chance) to avoid more complications.

I left the prefects stall at about 12.05 to get back to the Interact one. We cleared the stall and proceeded to count our coupons before heading over to Pn Cheng's office to submit our coupon collection (470 in total!). Then, we went back to the canteen and each of us took a few leftover bottles home.

And that, my friend, was how I spent my last cross country run. I had a really good time practicing my filibuster skills and conning a lot of random students, including Kah Yew, who ended up following me back to the prefects stall without even putting up a fight. Special thanks to all the Interactors who managed to make today our special Con-The-Students Day and ALL the students who threw sponges at us prefects. If I were still in Form 4, I'd definitely want to come back next year. Then again, if I were in Form 4, I wouldn't be a part of the prefect committee yet, and probably wouldn't enjoy today as much as I did. Thank you, Kah Yew, you crazy little Form 1 kid.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Winning A Drama

Take a leap of faith. That's all you need.

We started early, yes. Earlier than most of the other classes by at least a week. The theme for our first and last school drama competition was Mask/Essence, whichever we prefer to use. The proposed idea our director came up with initially was to divide the stage into 2 halves, using one section for "the present" while the other half would be for flashbacks. Somebody died, and somebody got arrested. The arrested suspect would be proved innocent later on in the drama. Slightly dry, if you leave it at that.

Well, our class rejected it.

So began our quest for a new storyline. We eventually settled with one, which was....amusing. Execute. Execute. That was the last thing we needed to do, until we finally thought we were perfect.

The stage was divided into 2 sections, one for flashback, one for the "present". 4 people were seated, 2 parents, their daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law enjoying their engagement dinner. Then, a mysterious police inspector turned up and accused each of them for being the reasons for pushing a girl named Eva to take her own life just 2 hours earlier. Scenes were frozen, thrown into flashback, and secrets were revealed. After making them feel guilty enough, the inspector left, while they pondered over their wrongdoings and regretted their past actions. Father, being skeptical, decides to call up the police headquarters to check if there really was an Inspector Kane. There was no such person. So daughter decides to check with the information centre if a girl had just committed suicide. No one committed suicide yet. Being glad that it was all a bluff, they continued to enjoying their champagne.

Minutes later, the information centre calls up. A girl name Eva just killed herself.

That won 5 Cengal the first place. Catch is, my class isn't 5 Cengal. We changed the script to one much lighter and less morbid, involving parents planning to divorce and their distressed son.

We didn't win, maybe because we had too many actors who were forced to play so many side characters. We didn't win, maybe because the storyline didn't link up as well as we'd thought; maybe the scenes were too fragmented; maybe the characters didn't act well enough, maybe we didn't portray a strong "cause and effect" concept. But then again, maybe we didn't win because we chose not to. We wanted to bend the rules to include more actors, actresses and crew even if it jeopardizes our script and storyline; we wanted to work with each other despite the hassle in numbers, just to bond together and have memories of each other in our sunset days. We didn't win, maybe because we firmly guarded our stand that each Batai-an has an equal portion of this once-in-a-lifetime competition and each of us should be involved, sacrificing group coordination. We ended up having a good time with each other, and no one was ever left out.

We were given a choice. It's a trade-off between winning and creating fond memories together. Our class chose the latter, and we walked away with something more valuable than 15 gold medals only given to cast and crew. We earned something the other classes would never have from this event.

We didn't win.

But it doesn't matter any more.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Too Far

I would not have tried to see the most distant star
If I'd known the universe is infinite
Or capped a bottle of expectations
If I knew it could be burst open.

I would not have told myself
That life could've been different
If I'd only been able to see
That I'd been given this much to start with.

I would not have drawn a different route
To reach the same destination
Or satisfy an earth-bound consciousness
So eager to fly.

I would have told myself a life of lies
If revelation would have its way earlier
Forced my way to the limitless sky
Even if I had not been given wings.

I would have showed myself
How angels fall from out yonder
Tested the truths
And rocketed to star-bound fate.

I'd rather stand before heaven's door to question the existence of equality
And the reality of this nightmare
Fueled by whispers of endless lies
Than to grope inside the illusion of an unawakened dream.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Music Of The Night

Composition of this essay has been complicated. 898 words in 30 minutes. Please don't ask how this is possible, I was placed in a stressful situation. =) [47/50 marks]

The other essay for my English paper is even more mind-boggling. That 10-minute-worth essay was worth 32/35 marks. Not bad, for 2 full pages of 10-minute rush. =D

It looks as if the world was about to come to a complete standstill. Nobody knows that at this very moment, we are hurtling through space at an amazing speed. Hard to believe, since the stars don't look like they are moving. The Hunter hovers just over the horizon yonder, ready to shoot aimlessly at the vast number of bright gems studded on the black sheet of infinite depth. The moon was full tonight, instead of hiding elusively as it was wont to do. This is my favourite time of the day, the time when the Earth revolves quietly and cradles its people to sleep. This is the time where fantastical creatures of myth and magic in the sky look down upon us and say their greetings, though not often do we answer their calls.

Unlike most self-professed "nocturnal creatures", I do not stay indoors during such calming times. No, I am not a blood-sucking vampire who kills people in their dreams, neither am I a scientist who can tell you everything that exists in the sky. I am but a humble Earthling, who finds awe and inspiration in the sybilline structures of the universe, of which I can only be a part of by gazing into the sky. I see the stars coming out to play when civilization least cares about them. Most people choose to watch television, surf the internet or amuse themselves with mindless games, but I - I choose to see the subtle movements in the heavens, count the uncountable number of distant suns that paint our night sky. When I look at Orion, I don't see a lifeless constellation of a man with his signature belt that could put designer belts to shame, I see a man made of fiery flowers of hydrogen lost in a faraway world, scintillating ornately with piercing red Betelgeuse and young, blue Rigel (both are names of stars). By submitting myself to the wonders of the sky at night, I am able to travel to a place between fact and fiction, which really is a sanctuary for restive thoughts.

Inspiration is the other key as to why I enjoy the silent lure of the night. Of course, to appreciate the real wonders at night, one might need to bring along some tools. These are mainly the camera, a notepad, and same empty music sheets. When I'm out there under the mercy of the lords of the sky, I am not deafened by a silence which might haunt many. Instead, I am washed with the eternal music of the universe. Ideas pop out of thin air and before I know it, I would have experienced several 'eureka' moments out there alone. What better way to capture these thoughts before they are gone forever? Some of these ideas or thoughts would probably never have the chance to surface in my head in the hectic humdrum of life during the daytime, which is why I am very thankful to the peace and quiet the night offers.

Apart from that, I am able to indulge myself in an uninterrupted stream of thoughts. When it is raining and I can't go out, I lock myself up in my room and think. I think of the happy moments in my life and reminisce about those times I screwed up. It is via this contemplative session I provide myself that I am able to find out where I have gone wrong at certain critical times in life. It is during this time that I can finally take a step back from my consciousness and analyze situations without taking emotions into consideration. From this exercise, appreciating life as it is has become easier, and I feel that I don't flare up too easily. Almost all of my life-changing decisions were made during this time of the day, most of which I have yet to regret.

Undeniably, the most important reason why I like nights are because I can finish up undone schoolwork (heh!). Normally, I become more lucid at night, and am more able to soak up information and become more productive. People say it is good to study hard, but I prefer to study smart at night. One can almost say that I do not put in a 100% effort on this matter, because as I have pointed out earlier, I like to "nightdream". Then again, what else can I do? It is important that I grab the chance to do some real work when I am at my most attentive, as taking in ideas without putting them through much grinding is useless (to me, at least). This is when my creativity is at its peak.

Night. It is that time of the day when heaven comes a-knocking. It is the only time in the day when the Gods lend their creative spark to me. The darkness, the mystery, the ghastly shadows cast by the moon; these are exactly the things that arouse my conscience and hold the secrets to unlock my sometimes quixotic world. Not many will understand the deep affinity I reserve for the night, but nevertheless, it doesn't deter me from answering the call of the full moon. Night is when dreams awaken, and at times when I really lose it, I would dream of aliens visiting, and they would take me to a place no one has ever dreamed of before.


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