Starting Gödel, Escher, Bach

Godel Escher Bach

On Sunday I finally started reading a book I’ve been meaning to get to for years: Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter.

I’ve read other work by Hofstadter, so I know he’s a good author. And GEB itself has been heaped with praise, not the least of which was the Pulitzer Prize. I have no doubt I’ll enjoy it immensely.

So why have I waited so long to get started?

Well, GEB is…intimidating.

Books basically fall into two categories: they either will, or won’t, kill a small dog if they fall from a shelf. GEB belongs to the former camp. It’s big.

Moreover, it’s a dense, intellectual book, an intense and incredibly involved analysis of the idea of “strange loops” – hierarchies that turn back on themselves – wherever they appear, be it music, art, philosophy, or mathematics. The ultimate goal of the book, in fact, is to use this “strange loop” concept to explain consciousness itself.

So, yeah. It’s right up my alley. But I’ve been putting it off for a while.

But then I read The Myth of Sisyphus, and all that talk about seizing control of your life got me thinking: why not start GEB now? Who cares if it’s long and a bit scary? Do it!

So I did it. I started.

We’ll see how far I get.

Have you ever been intimidated by a book’s reputation? Did you ever get around to reading it?

Being Sisyphus

Yesterday I wrote on Albert Camus’s book-length essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. He suggests that life is about fully confronting the absurdity of the human condition, engaging completely with life on your own terms, refusing to bow to either hope or despair.

Today I want to ask: is it really possible to live that way?

As I said, I don’t claim to fully understand Camus’s thought, but – at the risk of oversimplifying – it seems to me that he’s talking about a carpe diem kind of life, full of courage and energy and not limited by convention, able to look mortality squarely in the eye and keep on living.

But Camus doesn’t give much practical advice as to how to achieve this way of living. Is it really possible to achieve such an attitude by an act of will alone?

Partly, yes. Courage can be an act of will. I know because I have done things that terrified me, like jumping out of an airplane and getting an IV (I have a phobia of needles). It’s possible.

But each new fear requires new courage, and energy is limited. Trying to become Sisyphus by willpower seems exhausting.

Maybe there’s another path.

Regular readers are probably sick of hearing me yammer about Zen, but it really does seem to me that Zen is the means by which Camus’s ideal can be achieved in practice. To truly live in the moment, to suck life to the marrow, is the entire goal of Zen meditation. Enlightenment doesn’t mean eternal life, but it does mean an end to the fear of death. It means defying hope and despair alike in favor of something better: the now.

Or at least, so it seems to me. But then, I am badly out of my depth here.

No philosophy tomorrow, I promise.

Postmortem: The Myth of Sisyphus

The Myth of Sisyphus

Sisyphus, for those who don’t remember, was the poor fellow in Greek mythology condemned to forever push a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down to the bottom at the last moment.

Albert Camus’s 1942 work, The Myth of Sisyphus, is a long essay on philosophy. I read it this weekend. I can’t say I understood it all, but my personal summary matches pretty well with what I read on the Internet, so I suppose I got the gist.

The Myth of Sisyphus begins: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” The entire essay is, essentially, about whether or not it makes sense (from a philosophical standpoint) to go on living.

(Note for those concerned: I am not suicidal, I just like philosophy. No worries, mate.)

Camus says that the human condition consists of two elements. There is the human mind, which seeks meaning, order, and unity; and there is the universe, which (despite the heroic efforts of science) remains ultimately chaotic and meaningless. When these two meet, the mind recoils or revolts, giving rise to a condition he calls “the absurd.”

So far, I’m with him. I think this is basically how life is. Life isn’t necessarily horrible or evil, it’s just…there. And it doesn’t care what we think about it. Life is absolutely insane, if you ever stop to think about it. Camus is right on the money.

He then writes that the only solution to this absurdity is to embrace it. Not suicide, but constant revolt, is the answer. Living life on your own terms. Taking in the good, the bad, and the ridiculous all alike. Never giving up trying to understand, even though you never will. Hopelessness without despair.

Camus writes that we must imagine Sisyphus as happy, because he has embraced his own destiny, hopeless though it may be. He has his boulder and he knows his fate, and he gazes on it without flinching. This is the ideal, the so-called absurd hero (using the term “absurd” in a positive sense).

What do I think about all this?

As I said, there’s a lot that I don’t fully understand in this essay. I’ve presented it rather simply; however the text of his book is anything but, full of references to other philosophers and complex arguments.

If I understand correctly, though, the essence of the book is carpe diem, seize the day, which I’m fully on board with. I’m also on board with not suiciding. I’m less on board with a life sans hope, but I think I can see what he’s trying to say there too: it’s not about despair, it’s about grasping fully what is, rather than hoping for what is not. Another element of carpe diem.

Of course, Camus also assumes death is inevitable, while I haven’t yet ruled out the possibility of eternal life (without religion) in this world.

What do you think?

Thursday Link – New Blog!

cassini-titan

I’ve started a new blog about astronomy on the side. It’s called Oort Cloud Nine. Check it out!

No post tomorrow. I’ll be taking the day off for Good Friday.

Say Hello to SpaceX

falcon9

Let’s talk about money.

Space travel is expensive, and money is tight. NASA has to fight for every dollar of funding it can get, and other government agencies are in the same boat. NASA’s current roadmap calls for humans on Mars in the 2030s, but that could all change depending on how the political winds blow. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a steady source of funding, one based on demand and not politics?

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a privately-funded space company?

Enter SpaceX, arguably the #1 private spaceflight company in the world. Founded in 2002 by the legendary Elon Musk, headquartered in California, SpaceX is also planning to make human life multiplanetary by the 2030s. Musk himself says he plans to “retire on Mars.”

Now. Let’s talk about rockets.

SpaceX has the Falcon 9 rocket, which has launched their Dragon capsule to the International Space Station no fewer than three times so far. They were scheduled for a fourth launch yesterday, but had to postpone due to a helium leak. (Maybe they were bringing along balloons?) The next possible launch date is this Friday.

They’re also working on a souped-up version called the Falcon Heavy, which would be the second most powerful rocket ever constructed by man (behind the mammoth Saturn V that took Neil Armstrong to the moon). That’s coming in the next year or so.

And then there’s the Grasshopper, a vertical-takeoff vertical-landing (VTVL) modification that allows their rockets to come back to Earth as neatly as a helicopter. Video of that bad boy in action is right here.

This is happening. We’re headed to Mars, one way or another. Excited? You bet I am.

Moon in a Glass

ice sphere

Betsy bought a little mold that makes spherical ice “cubes.” We feel incredibly fancy when we sip water from a glass with one of these inside. (Oh, how do you cool your beverage? With rectangles? How middle-class.) For some reason, there’s something inherently fun about balls of ice.

By that standard, Tethys should be the life of the party.

Tethys

Tethys is a moon of Saturn, and it’s made almost entirely of ice. Strange, isn’t it, to think of a whole giant moon, millions of miles away, that’s basically the same as what we put in our drinks at home. If we had a big enough glass, it would actually float!

In Greek mythology, Tethys was a titaness, daughter of Gaia, mother of rivers. This made her sister to Saturn, which is why a moon of Saturn gets “Tethys” for a name. Neat, huh?

In conclusion: Tethys!

 

Friday Links

“The Expert” – what happens in the business world when somebody actually knows what they’re talking about? Chaos, of course.

cassini

This sweet infographic gives you a rundown of all the active probes currently buzzing around in the solar system. (Make sure you enlarge it so you can read the text.) New Horizons is on its way to Pluto now, arriving next year!

enceladus

Since blog reader applenpear asked about Enceladus yesterday, here’s a quick article from Scientific American with a rundown on just what’s so fascinating about this icy moon of Saturn.

Have a stellar weekend!