Lucretius on the Nature of Things

Titus Lucretius Carus (1st Century BC)

It’s not easy to read The Nature of Things by Lucretius. Not only does he attempt to summarize the philosophy of Epicurus and the science knowledge of his day (40-55 BC), but he did in in rhymed couplets, which in this edition are translated as heptameter (“fourteeners”).

Not to worry: If you press on, you will get the gist of what Lucretius writes, and you will encounter some great passages such as this one on the role of the gods in life:

If you possess a firm grasp of these tenets, you will see
That Nature, rid of harsh taskmasters, all at once is free,
And everything she does, does on her own, so that gods play
No part. For by the holy hearts of gods, who while away
Their tranquil immortality in peace!—who can hold sway
Over the measureless universe? Who is there who can keep
Hold of the reins that curb the power of the fathomless deep?
Who can juggle all the heavens? And with celestial flame
Warm worlds to fruitfulness? And be all places at the same
Time for all eternity, to cast a shadow under
Dark banks of clouds, or quake a clear sky with the clap of thunder?
What god would send down lightning to rend his own shrines asunder?
Or withdraw to rage in desert wastes, and there let those bolts fly
That often slay the innocent and pass the guilty by?

It is a far different world than hours. Instead of the Periodical Table of the Elements, Lucretius had earth, wind, air, and fire. You can see him bending in obscure directions to explain such phenomena as magnetism, thunder, earthquakes, and plagues. Yet one could not help but admire the ingenuity of an astute observer who had no notion of Newtonian Physics, let alone Quantum Physics, yet tried his hardest to explain what he saw.


It Baffled Einstein, But Suggests a Whole Different Outlook on the Universe

Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance” and quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe!” But apparently, He does. Mind-bending experiments have seemingly invalidated the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) when two protons shot in opposite directions sped away from each other at that speed. A measurement of one of the two protons affected the other one instantaneously, although theoretically communication between them was impossible. Here is one recent explanation by a physicist.

In the Wikipedia article on Quantum Entanglement, it says:

Measurements of physical properties such as position, momentum, spin, and polarization performed on entangled particles can, in some cases, be found to be perfectly correlated. For example, if a pair of entangled particles is generated such that their total spin is known to be zero, and one particle is found to have clockwise spin on a first axis, then the spin of the other particle, measured on the same axis, is found to be anticlockwise. However, this behavior gives rise to seemingly paradoxical effects: any measurement of a particle’s properties results in an irreversible wave function collapse of that particle and changes the original quantum state. With entangled particles, such measurements affect the entangled system as a whole.

Apparently some things in the universe are linked together in ways we do not yet understand.

At the same time, I think people are also similarly “entangled.” For example, I firmly believe one cannot avoid auto accidents without being able to make a good guess whether the other driver (whose face you have not seen) is going to cut in front of you. Unless I am distracted by conversing with a passenger, I am pretty good at “reading” traffic. How is that possible?

Then there is the whole question of presentiments of disaster which are proven to be true, There have been studies that people who have survived disasters had some foreshadowing of what was to occur. Does that mean that people are in some strange way entangled with events?

We are used to seeing people, things, and events as existing in separate “boxes.” What if some elements are in fact separate, and others are interlinked in ways we cannot foresee? Perhaps in future scientists will be able to describe how some of these entanglements work. Until then, we will just have to open our minds to a certain degree of strangeness. Which is probably a good idea in any case.


Now that NASA may have a solution to the problem, it’s interesting to see how, some 200 years ago, people viewed the possibility of a comet or asteroid crashing into the earth. The quote below comes from Tales of Terror from Blackwood’s Magazine from a story by Samuel Warren entitled “The Thunder-Struck.”

“Great God, Dr ——!” said he, laying his hand suddenly on my arm, his great black eyes gleaming with mysterious awe—“Think, only think! What if, at the moment we are talking together, a comet, whose track the peering eye of science has never traced—whose very existence is known to none but God, is winging its fiery way towards our earth, swift as the lightning, and with force inevitable! Is it at this instant dashing to fragments some mighty orb that obstructed its progress, and then passing on towards us, disturbing system after system in its way?—How—when will the frightful crash be felt? Is its heat now blighting our atmosphere?—Will combustion first commence, or shall we be at once split asunder into innumerable fragments, and sent drifting through infinite space?—Whither—whither shall we fly! what must become of our species?—Is the Scriptural JUDGMENT then coming? Oh, Doctor, what if all these things are really at hand?

When Scientists Go Awry

The following is from an exhibit at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum of humorous attempts at classifying plants and animals. The surnames of the scientists involved appear in parentheses.

Abra cadabra (Eames & Wilkins) 1957 – A variety of clam

Hebejeebie (Heads) 2003 – A genus of flowering plant that must give people the creeps

La cucaracha (Blesynski) 1966 – A moth that reminds one of a cockroach

Ba humbugi (Solem) 1983 – A snail much beloved of Ebeneezer Scrooge

Ittibittium (Houbrick) 1993 – A mollusc genus even smaller than genus Bittium

Heerz lukenatcha and Heerz tooya (Marsh) 1993 – Two wasps you would rather notencounter

Riga toni (Evenhuis) 2013 – A fly for pasta lovers

Ytu brutus (Spangler) 1980 – Beware the Ides of March!

North (and Central) American Nebula

Looks Like the Map of North America from Yucatán to Panama

Every once in a while, I check out NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day which frequently has images which make me think. The above picture is technically called the Cygnus Wall of Star Formation. According to the website:

The North America nebula on the sky can do what the North America continent on Earth cannot — form stars. Specifically, in analogy to the Earth-confined continent, the bright part that appears as Central America and Mexico is actually a hot bed of gas, dust, and newly formed stars known as the Cygnus Wall. The featured image shows the star forming wall lit and eroded by bright young stars, and partly hidden by the dark dust they have created. The part of the North America nebula (NGC 7000) shown spans about 15 light years and lies about 1,500 light years away toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus).

Makes me yearn to visit Yucatán—yet again.

Terminator Moon

NASA Picture of Terminator Moon

What exactly is a terminator moon. According to the Astronomy Picture of the Day for February 15, 2022, here is the explanation from NASA:

What’s different about this Moon? It’s the terminators. In the featured image, you can’t directly see any terminator — the line that divides the light of day from the dark of night. That’s because the image is a digital composite of 29 near-terminator lunar strips. Terminator regions show the longest and most prominent shadows — shadows which, by their contrast and length, allow a flat photograph to appear three-dimensional. The original images and data were taken near the Moon by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Many of the Moon’s craters stand out because of the shadows they all cast to the right. The image shows in graphic detail that the darker regions known as maria are not just darker than the rest of the Moon — they are flatter.


The Volcanic Eruption at Geldingadalir, Iceland

When one takes an international flight to Iceland, one usually lands at Keflavík Airport on the Reykjanes Peninsula. From there, it is a From there it is 30 miles (50 km) to Reykjavík. Those 30 miles contain some of the most desolate volcanic badlands that I have ever seen. It is south of that road, on the way to Grindavík that a fissure in the earth started belching out lava on March 19, 2021. It is still going strong, and it looks like it will destroy the road to Grindavík, forcing the locals to take a more roundabout route to the capital.

The area of the eruption is part of the Krýsuvík-Trölladyngja volcanic system on the Reykjanes Peninsula, a scene of active rifting between two major tectonic plates: the Eurasian and North American. The boundary between these two plates cuts north/south right through the west of Iceland. This is the first eruption on the Peninsula in over 800 years. You can read about the eruption at Hit Iceland and Wikipedia.

The Desolate Reykjanes Peninsula Terrain Seen from the Airport Bus to Reykjavík

I took the above picture from my bus to Reykjavík in June 2013. It amazed me on both my trips to Iceland that the road to the capital was so desolate, so uninhabited, for so many miles. At places, one could see geyser activity marked with little steam clouds. I can only speculate that the Icelanders knew this place was going to blow at some point, so they decided to stay away in droves.

Now, of course, tourists are flocking to the scene of the eruption, but they are warned that things can get ugly fast. In 1783, there was a major eruption along a 27 km fissure called Laki, killing some 9,000 Icelanders with the lava and poison gases associated with the event. You can read about it on the Scientific American website.

No one knows how long the eruption at Geldingadalir will continue, and how much the Peninsula will change as the result of the massive amounts of lava being pumped out.


Birds at OstrichLand USA in Solvang, California

Back in the days when there were places to go and when coronavirus was not rampant in the land, Martine and I liked to visit Solvang, about three quarters of an hour north of Santa Barbara. There was a great bookstore (the Book Loft), yummy Danish smorgasbords, Santa Inez Mission, great cookies, and OstrichLand USA.

Ostriches are considered part of the order of Struthioniformes, which includes, in addition to ostriches, kiwis, rheas, emus, and cassowaries. At OstrichLand, there are ostriches and emus.

There is something confrontational about ostriches. One would never consider petting one without risk of being attacked by a sharp beak. You can feed them, but many visitors are afraid to. They’ll take your proffered food, but only while casting a baleful glare at you.

Joshua Trees in the California Desert

Although they are not native to the Southwest, I think of ostriches the way I think of desert cacti: One would no more pet an ostrich than hug a cholla cactus or a Joshua Tree. They’re interesting to look at, but not pleasant to touch.

More “Spooky Action at a Distance”

The Theory Has Been in Play for More Than a Century

Mention Quantum Theory to a non-scientist, and what you frequently get in response is a look of profound puzzlement. Even Einstein has weighed in against many of its premises by calling it “spooky action at a distance.” Elsewhere, he asserted that “God does not play dice.” I mean, if Einstein wasn’t on board with this, how could it be true?

Close to the center of the theory is what is called the Copenhagen Interpretation, proposed by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg around 1925-1927. According to it, in the world of micro particles, there are no equivalent certainties to the world of big objects like stones, trees, or even planets. If you set up an experiment such as the one illustrated below in which a photon is fired at an opaque object in which two slits are cut, the end result on a receiving surface is not nice and predictable. At times, it will seem that a single photon will go through both slits simultaneously, which would seem to be impossible. At times, when light is shone through the slits, it will seem that the light will act as if it were a particle; other times, it will act as if it were a wave.

The Two Slit Experiment Presents a Multiplicity of Results

Every few years, I read another book on quantum theory to see what physicists are doing with it. Currently, I am reading Through Two Doors at Once: The Elegant Experiment That Captures the Enigma of Our Quantum Reality by Anil Ananthaswamy. Like most books on the subject, there is a heavy reliance on the history of the theory over the last hundred years or so, ending with experiments currently in play.

It’s hard to believe that such a simple experiment could flummox so many incredibly smart people, but it does. And it even still flummoxes me.


Serendipity: Flowers and Bugs

In Order for Flowers to Exist …

Lately, I hav been reading two old books by naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch: The Forgotten Peninsula, about Baja California, and The Voice of the Desert. I found this interesting paragraph in the latter. I sure do like his writings!

Gardeners usually hate “bugs,” but if the evolutionists are reight, there never would have been any flowers if it had not been for those same bugs. The flowers never waste their sweetness on the desert air, or for that matter, on the jungle air. In fact, they waste it only when no one except a human being is here to smell it. It is for the bugs and for a few birds, not for men, that they dye their petals or waft their scents. And it is lucky for us that we either happen to like or have become “conditioned” to liking the colors and the odors which most insects and some birds like also. What a calamity for us if insects had been color blind, as all mammals below the primates are! Or if, worse yet, we had our present taste in smells while all the insects preferred, as a few of them do, that odor of rotten meat which certain flowers dependent on them abundantly provide. Would we ever have been able to discover thoughts too deep for tears in a gray flower which exhaled a terrific stench? Or would we have learned by now to consider it exquisite?