Journey to the Edge of the Universe with Brain Skarpowsky

An apt title I suppose since some of you have no doubt been wondering: Where is Brain Skarpowsky? Did Yeiser take him out? Is he being vetted by the Obama cabinet selection team? Has he indeed fallen off the edge of the universe…an update then….

Post election, I suffered something akin to burnout/withdrawal; media deprivation based delirium tremens. Ty has fared much better, but his tolerance has no doubt been built up by dealing with the lingering “Gulf War Syndrome” that will some day haunt his dreams. This coincided in a very rough way with Mrs. Skarpowsky asexually budding for a second time, bringing total chaos to the Skarpowsky “household.” My brain has simply not been able to function in a manner consistent with logging into a computer, opening a browser, and taking in information. Let alone, spitting information back. In between fits of sleep, I rock gently in the corner, hoping that the magical TV box will light up with Sarah Palin’s cackling image (where has the MILF media coverage gone to? Back to Angelina supposedly). 

By the dim light of my iPhone, I have been able to keep up with some transmissions of news of the outside. But as great as the screen is, the most I can muster is an arched eyebrow or two before  I squint, cry a little, and eventually fall back asleep. Thoughts are like familiar faces passed in haste on a crowded subway–they look familiar, but for the life of me, I could not possibly put a name to a face or even make sure the subject went before the verb. 

But then tonight, what comes on the TV: Journey to the Edge of the Universe. An HD show, displaying all sorts of nooks and crannies of the outer reaches of our universe (is it really ours?). Awe inspiring, navel-gaze-inducing scenes of this thing, this universe. The pictures are cool, but the narration is only something that could be swallowed whole by a mouth breather. First off, the narrator, if it isn’t actually him, certainly sounds like Alec Baldwin. Worse he sounds like the guy who did Alex Baldwin’s voice in Team America: World Police. This is an indictment in and of itself. The Democrats/Obama has/have won. Alec (or his sound-alike), go fall off the edge of the universe — your voice is not needed. 

In between talking about how gases combine and stars are born or collapse, Alec goes on to tell us that, not only is the universe scientific, but it is actually an artist. I almost elbowed Mrs. Skarpowsky in the ribs, but she was asleep and doesn’t get enough chances for that these days. I decided to spit my coffee out and run to the computer instead. The universe is an artist???? Sentimentally this is an attractive thought and it makes you want to go pull the bong out of the garage and see if you can synch up Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” to the show. But it is an utter fucking crap thought (Megan, your comments of late have inspired this one). Well if the universe is an artist… who is the artist? Is it a he/she? Does he know the watchmaker? Did it design intelligently? Maybe it is just artistic design, instead of intelligent design. (A slightly more appealing thought, but no more intellectually rigorous). If only Douglas Adams had been around to proof the script. The universe? What can you say about it? It simply is. Scientists can tell us where the hydrogen and dairy creamer is, how deep it could appear to be, which way it’s shrinking or growing, make educated guesses about where the matter is. But in no way can you in good conscience try to pass off the overlaying of poetry and science as fact in a show that purports to be scientific. It is a bad and dare I say dangerous thinking. Because once you’ve seen another little Skarpowsky come squiggling wet, screaming, and naked out of the womb, you really can’t claim to have any answers as to the artistic structure of the universe. 

Is this terribly important? Well, No. But you get back on the horse one step at a time.

22 Responses

  1. Random thoughts:

    1) Mrs. S. is a fortunate woman to have a husband who appreciates how much she needs sleep these days.

    2) Just got around to seeing the movie ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and think it is a mercy that Douglas Adams did not live to see it.

    3) In Stuart Kauffman’s interview on Salon, he talks about reinventing the sacred without god concepts, and refers to the processes of emergence and self-organization in the universe. Emergence and self-organization strike me as artistic, because I think a lot of art is created through an emerging process rather than planned ahead and executed. Unless it’s by the inartistic crowd who inflicted the movie version of Adams’ books on us — that was probably done by committee.

  2. test

  3. welcome back Brian!

    okay, i’m going to write this fast so please forgive misspellings and run-on sentences….

    Anna K. is right, emergence is a big part of “art” as i said before, rarely does a piece of art emerge as what was originially concieved (speaking as an artist).
    speaking of bad movie interpretations, i’m going to get all “jesse” and bring into example something in the gothic vein. i’m in the process of listening to an audio version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. if you have never read it, i highly recommend you do……anyways, i had not read the book when i first saw the film version by Francis Coppolla. i love the acting, the costumes, the cinematography….but the interpretation is dreck!

    it’s made into a love story between Dracula and Mina, and Van Helsing is an over-the-top dirty old man! so, those who have only seen the movie touting the name of Bram Stoker will think this Van Helsing is a direct vision compared to the amazing character found in the story as the man who defeated the lord of the undead with scientific means.

    but i do digress, how do is this relevent to Brian’s subject and Anna K.’s random thoughts? hopefully i made some sense with my analogy in previous post of the domino example. if “things” in the universe simply are, without intelligent (or overbearing) design by a creator, then could it still be possible there is a filter that these creations emerge through in order to organize into a complete and solid puzzle. then that would be artistic.

  4. I find myself curiously sympathetic to the metaphor. I have a quite a “big tent” view of science and scientific endeavor. I was going to post something about this in a previous thread, where Anna was talking about love and brain scans. But here is a good spot too!

    When I consider scientific explanations of love, for example, I don’t see it limited to fuzzy brain scans or double blind surveys. I don’t see scientific explanations of love as feeble.

    Anna wrote: “if my sister says her husband loves her, but he beats her up, belittles her and takes her money, I can say, “That ain’t real love,” even if I couldn’t run a double-blinded randomized clinical trial to determine degrees of love. We have to use means other than scientific ones to test for things like the existence of love.”

    In this situation, I think it is science which actually brings clarity. If love developed as an evolutionary device to keep people together to aid in child rearing and raising — then the fact that your sister might be “in love” with a man who beat her makes sense. The pull of that emotion outweighs her own sense of self-respect to ensure the survivability of her offspring… so I would say that the only way to properly understand and convey the power of love is to understand how deeply ingrained and important it is to our survivability, and that comes from science… Now you say that he doesn’t “really” love her, but again, I would suggest that psychologists/psychiatrists may have some quite plausible insights about his behavior, and those insights they have gained through study and the findings of science.

    But back to our artist. I guess it all depends whether the term artist necessarily implies intent or consciousness… if it does not, then I’m comfortable calling the universe an artist all day long…

    edit: I should also add that understanding where love comes from or that fact that a desire to stay with a man who beats you is completely “natural”, does not mean we are compelled to follow nature or call such behavior “right”.

  5. “Nebula. Vast, glowing clouds of gas, hanging in space. With no wind out here they’ll take thousands of years to disperse. They seem to be forming a vast stellar sculpture. Nature is more than a scientist, an engineer, it’s an artist on the grandest of scales.”

    Is this the quote from the show? The metaphor seems to be just trying to point out the beauty of the universe. Why do we have to assume that nature being an “artist” means intelligent design? You say that the universe “simply is.” But does that convey the awe inspiring beauty that you saw in the footage?

  6. Tyson, great point about intent and consciousness.

    Jesse, I assume that as an artist you don’t accept everything that emerges, and that you make conscious decisions about when a work is finished or needs more . . . so if we assume the universe is mindless, then maybe we can’t say it’s artistic . . . and just curiously, what kind of art do you make?

    Just for the record, my sister in real life is married to a delightful man whom I consider to be a truly loving husband; I was using a hypothetical.

    When it comes to science and love, science deals with observables like behaviors and physiological changes. Like other mammals, human beings show bonding behaviors. We can also measure rises and falls in things like oxytocin levels. But I don’t think this is all that we mean when we talk about love. Also, I am not convinced evolutionary psychology should be considered science, any more than history should be (and many times, historical claims come with more evidence than the speculations I’ve seen under the rubric of ev-psych — how do you test for intent in people who died 30,000 years ago?)

    Science does not deal with the crucial components of love like the acts of empathy and imagination which sometimes have nothing to do with presumptively evolutionary goals, and in fact, sometimes thwart them (i.e., say, infertile couples who still decide to stay together because they love one another, even though they cannot reproduce; or people who join religious orders, live as celibates, and do social work among people they are unrelated to and who cannot repay them, because they say they want to live a life of love.)

    Also, why shouldn’t we assume that natural behavior is also what is right?

  7. P.S. Jesse, someone once told me that bad books make great movies and good books make bad movies, and I think it is true.

    “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (or as we call it, after Daffy Duck, the Scarlet Pumpernickel) has a couple of entertaining movie versions out, but the book is hideous. Really, really bad.

  8. First off, thanks for the comments all. It’s good to see that I can draw comment, however poorly thought out what I wrote may be. I feel today, a little bit, like Greta Van Sustern. And not JUST because I have a cold (doesn’t it always seem like she has a cold/is sick?).

    “Nebula. Vast, glowing clouds of gas, hanging in space. With no wind out here they’ll take thousands of years to disperse. They seem to be forming a vast stellar sculpture. Nature is more than a scientist, an engineer, it’s an artist on the grandest of scales.”

    That sounds right. And like I said, it is a somewhat appealing sentiment. But “they seem to be forming a sculpture” and “Nature is more than a scientist, an engineer, it’s an artist….” are thoughts on two different scales. It’s all good to gawk and wonder, but the equivocation of Nature (is this an incidental capitalization?) with a proper noun/human and the appeal to think of it as MORE than a scientist seems to me dangerous. I wouldn’t even say that “Nature” is a scientist. It seems to be saying, it would be better if the universe weren’t made up of all this hard un-fun, un-loving, science and engineering stuff. And I see a deep parallel with many religions who would love to replace that Science in the Sky with their Spirit in the Sky.

    But then again, maybe I am giving National Geographic too rough a way to go. But presumably, one of the aims of the show would be to help foster a love and wonder of the universe while at the same time paying homage to the science that got us to that wondrous artistic view. Hoping that there is more than just a scientist, something softer, more arty out there, would seem to run counter to that. In the end, I read this as (as Ty pointed out) implying intent/consciousness, etc……

  9. Anna: “Why shouldn’t we assume that natural behavior is also what is right?”

    It seems to me there is no more reason to call what is natural “right” than there is to call what is natural “wrong.”

  10. Just thinking out loud here . . . Since we agree that nature is amoral, I wonder where this leaves our ideas about right and wrong. (re Tyson’s edit above: “I should also add that understanding where love comes from or that fact that a desire to stay with a man who beats you is completely “natural”, does not mean we are compelled to follow nature or call such behavior “right”.”)

    What’s the state of our ideas about right and wrong, if right and wrong isn’t found in nature? If nature doesn’t have them, where do moral and aesthetic judgments fall? Not to mention aesthetics and artistry. If nature has no consciousness or intent, but artists do, then I guess we can’t think of nature as an artist.

    Which makes artists as unnatural as ethicists . . . but I’m not sure we want to put consciousness and intent outside of nature either. Especially not at this blog. 😀

  11. Brian (Brain? as on the sidebar?) wrote: “But presumably, one of the aims of the show would be to help foster a love and wonder of the universe while at the same time paying homage to the science that got us to that wondrous artistic view. Hoping that there is more than just a scientist, something softer, more arty out there, would seem to run counter to that.”

    I’m not sure if I’m understanding you right — are you saying that it is inappropriate to talk about nature’s beauty, because it muddies our homage to the science involved?

    But what if nature is just, well . . . really, really beautiful? Should we not mention that? It would seem kind of Puritan to resolutely ignore the beauty because we’re afraid our acknowledging it would somehow diminish our admiration of the science. Can’t we respond in multiple ways, and multiple levels? (To take it to absurd extremes, if the beauty of nature distracts us from appreciating our technical genius, then we should just post specs and equations and not sideline people with photos . . . sort of like a science burka . . . but that would be extremely silly . . .)

    Or is it personalizing nature as a scientist/engineer/artist that you find troubling? Maybe we could say something like, Scientists, engineers and artists all find something to marvel at, in mindless nature?

  12. “Or is it personalizing nature as a scientist/engineer/artist that you find troubling? Maybe we could say something like, Scientists, engineers and artists all find something to marvel at, in mindless nature?”

    EXACTLY. Although I do like the idea of a science burka. Like I say it’s an appealing sentiment that nature(whatever that is) is an artist(whatever that is). But the juxtaposition (or maybe it was Alec Baldwin’s voice) just seemed all wrong and made it seem like they were passing off sentiment for reason. At least that is what my cold medecine is telling me.

  13. Random before a major baklava baking session:

    1) Noooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!! NO science burka!

    *Looks around, whispers*

    I love science porn. Don’t take away my Hubble. Or the marine shots. Reef madness . . .

    2) Cold medicine. Sheesh. Despite the fact that your first name is possibly Brian, your heritage is clearly not Irish Catholic. Try some hot whiskey instead: take a coffee cup mug’s worth of hot water, plus a slice of lemon, plus a generous shot of whiskey, plus a couple of whole cloves and a teaspoon of brown sugar — very healing. It kills everything that shouldn’t be in you, and soothes everything else that should. Supposedly. (But who cares, after you’ve had one?)

  14. 1-the science burka could be a cool positive thing. like putting on your listening ears, or your thinking cap.

    2-I am not Brian, but I converse with him frequently-he sends his regards. And somewhere back Grandma Skarpowsky shagged an Irishman, so indeed I am of drinking lineage. It appears that several screwdrivers have fixed what ails me and cleared my head. I am only dealing with symptoms. Wouldn’t Nietzsche be proud!

  15. In some way, I think there are folks in the religious community that want nothing more than to put a burka over science and scientific discovery… that is precisely what the Intelligent Design movement is all about. They just can’t stand the raw and dirty (bodily) facts of evolution…

  16. I agree with Tyson. Just because some interpret what they see as intelligent design doesn’t mean it should be covered up with a “science burka.” Brain: Why do you think a burka would be a good idea? What are we trying to “cloak?”

    FYI – According to wiki : A burqa (also transliterated burkha, burka or burqua from برقع in Arabic) is an enveloping outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions for the purpose of cloaking the entire body. It is worn over the usual daily clothing (often a long dress or a shalwar kameez) and removed when the woman returns to the sanctuary of the household (see purdah).

  17. My burka comment was entirely facetious. But a burka not need be bad, like I said.

  18. i’m curious, do we relate “universe” and “reality” as the same thing? what i mean is when we open-minded folk talk about ‘everything’ and what it contains, we can refer to either our “world” or “universe” as a physical thing, but it can also be inclusive to non-physical subjects. i know we had the discussion already of physical vs. non but i hope you know what i mean when i say that. so, is the word or concept of “reality” the same as our “universe”?

  19. well… i still haven’t heard a convincing argument that non-physical things exists… so i would say that when we talk about “Universe,” i feel comfortable using it synonymously with “Reality”….

  20. Burkas are always bad. Always. Critical thinking is the opposite of censorship; which is the refusal to allow others to think for themselves.

  21. pity you let a line and a voice ruin an otherwise pleasurable view.. Universe as Artist? So what.. its a metaphor. Its not like they said it was a Ballerina

    Voice was engaging.. been listening to it like radio, TV behind me as I code.. Trying to discover who it is and found your silly rant

  22. hello, i went through your blog it is really wonderful and well- designed. i would like to tell you that i really liked your lens. oh god, you are terrific with your work. i think i better start trying hard.

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