A Humanist Advent Calendar

Boys with Advent Calendars

Boys with Advent Calendars

My mother took my siblings and I through a Christmas Advent calendar one year. A new-ager raised Christian, she held a positive view of the Bible. I can’t recall any of the biblical stories from those sessions preceding the chocolates each night, but I do have a fond nostalgic memories of the familial fellowship.

So last year, I thought I would try my own advent countdown to the holidays in the spirit of tradition. Except, we would focus on appreciating the empirical world around us as it informs our Humanist worldview. After all, Christmas coincides with a northern-hemisphere earthfull of other celebrations right around this exact same time.

December 1: Your Body

What are you? So many dimensions to explore here. Today we start with the body. You are 37.2 Trillion cells of over 200 different kinds working together to make you you.

Go outside. Compare your body to other bodies outside. How are you the same as a worm, bird, cat, or dog? How do you differ?

How is your body connected to the world around you? Experience your body. See, taste, feel, and smell. Play some Xbox Kinect or Wii Sports or go outside and do something else amazing like ride a bicycle, toss a ball, run, jump, skip, stretch, and use your body in as many ways as possible. Feel your heart beat. This is you.

December 2: Your Mind

In another dimension of what makes you you is the perpetual stream of consciousness taking place in your waking hours (for this string of awareness is broken each night when we sleep), a train of ephemeral punctuations in attention as our minds wander from focus to focus. I appreciate Yuval Harari’s example of this, when he writes, “When I go with my spouse to sign on a mortgage for our new home, I am reminded of the first place we lived together, which reminds me of our honeymoon in New Orleans, which reminds me of alligators, which remind me of dragons, which remind me of The Ring of the Nibelungen, and suddenly, before I know it, there I am humming the Siegfried leitmotif to a puzzled bank clerk.”

Eastern philosophies hit upon the remarkable concept of mindfulness, where we focus our attention on what we are thinking from moment to moment. This observation of our own thoughts is a kind of metacognition, thinking about thinking. What are you thinking about now? What about now? And now?

December 3: Take a Forest Bath

To coincide with a day off. This year it was a Sunday. Find a public park, local, State, or National, and spend some extended time there. Appreciate the natural world. The previous two day’s advents come into play with this exercise as well. By making it an extended trip, we engage our bodies. By immersing in the sanctuary of the forest, we are alone with our minds.

December 4: Your Cosmic Address

We live on Washington Street, in the town of Occoquan, in Prince William County, in the state of Virginia, in the United States of America, on the North American Continent, on planet Earth, in the Solar System, in the Milky Way Galaxy, in the Local Group, in the Virgo Supercluster, in the Observable Universe.

Some complementary visual activities for this day are to watch the opening of the film “Contact” and Charels and Ray Eames’ 1977 classic “Powers of 10.” Google Maps/StreetView was also wonderful for exploring and conceptualizing our local and planetary geography and scale.

December 5: Your Society

Make dinner as a family and give everyone a task in the process. Now consider all the people around the entire world that went into making your dinner tonight. There are the farmers, the truck drivers, the grocery store employees, food safety inspectors, the people who build the information systems, mechanical devices, architectural innovations, all the people at all the public utilities for everywhere the food has been, the public services that keep the whole system stable… the list can go on and on. How far can you take it?

Take out some United States coinage and note the motto on all of them: E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One). Tonight we can extend that two E Pluribus Unum Cena (From Many, One Dinner).

December 6: Our Recent Ancestry’s Contributions to Modern Life

Remember that dinner from last night and all the people alive on Earth who contributed to it? Most of that food also took thousands of years to come to our plates. In 4,000 BC, the ancestor of the peach was the size of a berry and tasted sweet, sour, and salty. Over the next 6,000 years, generation after generation of farmer slowly bred that fruit into over 200 varieties of the big fat sweet juicy fruit we enjoy today. And the same is true of corn, which was evolved from plants with much smaller ears over thousands of years.

This is artificial selection. Our ancestors looked at the world around them and saw a place that was so perfect for them it was as if it were engineered and assumed there was some supernatural benefactor behind it all. What they didn’t recognize is that the environment was engineered for them, but it was by their ancestors. Through hundreds of generations of brush burning to clear fields and artificially selecting plants and animals to server our needs. Their millennial of work benefits us today.

December 7: Our Ancient Ancestry

There are many ways to appreciate the epic of human evolution. You can explore a timeline of the evolutionary history of life, or from the original Cosmos series, there is a great animation of our 4.5 billion-year epic from single cell to modern human. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos has a wonderful animation of the evolution of eyes from the creature’s eye view.

The 2014 film Noah has an impressive cosmic and animal evolution sequence that meshes our scientific understanding with the biblical mythology. Rather than shy away from it, I see this clip as an opportunity to explore how our ancestors understood our origins versus our modern understanding and how parts of our modern understanding might seem inadequate to future generations.

December 8: The Cosmic Calendar

Alan Watts once observed, “Billions of years ago you were a big bang. But now you’re a complicated human being. And then we cut ourselves off. And don’t feel that we’re still the big bang. But you are.” The Cosmos series has a wonderful instrument for conceptualizing 13.82 billion years of history leading up to us, the Cosmic Calendar. Carl Sagan can introduce it, Neil DeGrasse Tyson can modernize it, and online sites like this and this can give you graphics to explore and appreciate it.

I especially appreciate this tool for the fact that we are exploring it in December, the month where multi-cellular life on Earth appears. You can meld this tool with a review of your own most-recent year on planet Earth. Look at each month, note what was happening in the cosmos then, and reminisce about what you were doing in that month. The first fossils don’t show up until December 15th, dinosaurs don’t appear until December 25th, and humans until December 31st. Revisit the calendar, and remember it on New Year’s Eve, when humans appear at 8pm and humans migrate across the Earth from 11:56pm to 11:59pm.

December 9: Scientific Method Game Night

How do we know all of this stuff? Science. But what is science? To understand, let’s first begin with an exercise. Richard Feynmann has an excellent analogy where a scientist is like a chess player who doesn’t know the rules of chess and must learn them through observation and experimentation. For my son, chess has become the pinnacle of board gaming. When he plays other board games, he’s mastering them with the hope of one day playing games like Chess, Twilight Imperium, or other more advanced and epic games. What if I try to teach my kids how to play chess by letting them watch me move, trying their own moves, and letting them know whether the move is allowed or not?

An excellent article that illustrates how games can teach the scientific method is Nick Bentley’s Zendo as a tool for teaching the scientific method. Zendo is a guessing-game, where one player secretly determines a rule and the other players try to guess it. A very similar game you can play with just yourselves is the 2-4-6 Task, where one player determines a rule that applies to three numbers (ie. “Increasing values,” “Values increasing by the same amount,” or “Decreasing prime numbers.”). Then the other players give number sets, with the teacher answering whether they fit the rule or not until the students take a guess at the rule.

December 10: Seeing the Invisible with Science

Start this one by comparing our senses to that of other animals. A buzzard can spot a mouse from 15,000 feet in the air. A cat can hear frequencies three times higher than humans. Pigs have 6,000 more taste buds than we do. A dog can have 50 times the olfactory receptors and 40 times the brain matter devoted to smelling than we do.

Then there are the senses animals have that we do not. Like how bees and birds can sense the Earth’s magnetic field. The platypus can sense electricity in other animals. Some snakes can “see” the heat in other animals at short distances.

But you know what? Humans have ways to sense all of things animals can sense thanks to science. With the right equipment, we can “see” the full electromagnetic spectrum. We can “hear” any audio frequency. There is a near-infinite number of possible molecules allowed in our universe, of which we can taste or smell only the most minuscule variety, but we can sense them all through science. We can only hold seven elements in our working memory and our long-term memory is extremely fallible, but science equips us with computers and recording devices to which we can offload our cognition. Science gives us super-senses.

December 11: Favorite Scientific Fact Night

My favorite scientific fact in the universe is the process by which our brains adapt to our bodies. First, as our bodies grow, our genes provide a general layout of where the nerves should go, but genes can’t wire up the brain to the body with much accuracy. So the brain produces an over-abundance of synapses and uses natural selection to whittle them down. Synapses that effectively communicate with the body are reinforced, while those that don’t are allowed to die off.

Remember this the next time you see a baby. That inability to focus to command their movements, that’s because they have too many synapses firing in their brains. As the connections solidify, so too does the child’s control of their mind and body.

This also means the things we experience tell our brains to stay receptive to experiencing them. If we don’t experience certain things in infancy, our brains will drop the ability to experience them ever. This is why Chinese speakers can’t hear the “L” sound and English speakers cannot distinguish sounds common to other languages. So experience the world around you as much and in as much variety as you can to keep your brain wiring as eclectic as possible.

What’s your favorite scientific fact?

December 12: Base Number Systems

Because today is 12/12, I want to take a moment to appreciate how great the number 12 is. I love it when I can break some task up into 12 parts because nearly every unit becomes a milestone: 1/12th, 1/6th, 1/4th, 1/3rd… “Half-way there!”… 2/3rds, 3/4ths… We don’t use the duodecimal system because we have ten fingers and toes, but it’s fun to speculate about it. Schoolhouse Rock has a song Little Twelve Toes that explores a being with twelve fingers and toes and how math is both different and the same for them (lyrics).

Binary is another cool base number system. There’s a great account of a teacher using the Socratic Method to coax young students into discovering it themselves. There’s also the meditative wonder of constructing a Pascal’s Triangle and how it relates to powers of 11 and other patterns.

December 13: Dinosaurs!!!

Dinosaurs are just plain fun. It’s amazing to think that there were once giant monsters roaming the Earth and the millions of years of stories we will never know about them. Look at the birds, watch one of the Jurassic Park movies, Walking with Dinosaurs, or linger over the smorgasbord of dinosaur art to be found online. This night’s an easy one. Just have fun.

December 14: E=mc^2

It’s not inaccurate to say that all matter is concentrated energy. As we progress down into the interior of large stars, we move through shells of heavier and heavier elements being created through fusion. With elements heavier than iron formed in supernovas and even neutron star collisions.

Everything element in the Periodic Table of Elements, every atom in our being, was forged in stars. As many scientists have observed over the last century, “We are star-stuff.”

December 15: Altruism

One of my favorite aspects of the holidays is the exercise of thinking about others. We select gifts, host gatherings, and consider those less fortunate than ourselves. This altruism is not unique to humans. Vampire bats share blood with the night’s unlucky hunters, some birds and monkeys make themselves targets in alerting others to the presence of predators, and hive animals like ants and bees have complex social structures dedicated to only a few members being allowed to reproduce.

Borrowing the idea from the Central New York Humanist Association, today’s exercise is to appreciate what you have. Take inventory of all the luxuries you have in your home. The number of toilets, water faucets, rooms, heat vents, televisions, computers, books, games–you name it. Whatever conveniences you appreciate in your home, assign a monetary value to each item, add up all the values and donate to a local charity. This year we donated to paying off student lunch debt in our county schools.

December 16: Always Make New Mistakes

Esther Dyson Patch

Esther Dyson Patch
Always Make New Mistakes
Credit: Gisela Giardino

Today’s lesson is a quote from Esther Dyson. I love remembering all the obviously wrong things I was taught growing up: our brains record everything like a video camera, stegosaurus had a brain in its tail, or drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.

The only reason anyone would take personal offense at being wrong is because they aren’t able to disassociate themselves from their ideas. When you let go of ego and allow yourself a mercurial understanding of the world–one that changes and adapts to new evidence–you free yourself to be wrong.

December 17: Age of Enlightenment

Around year zero, Western Civilization succumbed to 1,000 years of stagnation and recidivism known as the Dark Ages. It was a time when people subscribed to fantasies and magical understandings of reality. Instead of understanding and mastering the reality all around them, people became helpless victims of imaginary forces.

All of that changed in the 1600s when a network of scientists and philosophers began exploring the world around them with open eyes, seeing, testing, and quantifying what was there instead of making up fairies and ghosts to explain it. It may seem like such an obvious thing to do now, working to see the world as it actually is–and it’s not always easy–but the Age of Reason ushered in our age of modern convenience and ever-accelerating pace of technical progress.

December 18: The United States Constitution

For thousands of years we had kings, a man who was the law; but then, in the last few centuries, we began to have elected representatives and the law became king. When reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I encourage my children to say, “one nation, under law.” America’s Bill of Rights, enshrining the freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, and due process are what have preserved democracy. There are grave mistakes in the Constitution, like the inhuman Three-Fifths Compromise, but the Constitution also provided means to correct such terrible laws.

December 19: Question Day

I was stumped for what to do on this day, when my six-year-old asked if we could answer some questions for today’s “Christmas candy,” as they call it. How do we taste things? How do we smell? The questions came at me rapid-paced.

This could also be called Research day because I sure didn’t have all the answers. With some googling and video-watching, we turned this night into one of intellectual exploration.

December 20: The Energy Game

Since tomorrow is the day we get the least amount of sun in our hemisphere, today seems like a nice day to play Feynman’s Energy Game. First take a moment to recognize all the energy at work around you: the hearts pumping, lights shining, fans whirring, dogs sniffing, cats purring, plants growing, fires blazing, cars whizzing, and the like. That’s energy at work.

Now have the kids pick something. How does a heart beat? It burns chemical energy supplied by our blood stream. How does the chemical energy get into our blood? From the food we eat, which comes from plants and animals. Where do they get their energy? The animals we eat get their energy from eating plants. The plants get their energy from the Sun. Ultimately, every chain of energy will lead back to the sun.

December 21: The Winter Solstice

The darkest day of the year has an epic history for human beings. Those human farmers who invented all our farm-foods over millennia, those foragers who spread us across the globe, and the scientists observing our universe all recognized this day. Feel connected to them all.

December 22: Chemistry Cookie Night

Baking is a fascinating chemical process when you think about it. I spent months ruining cakes trying to get a simple recipe right. It was like wizardry to me. You put all these carefully-measured ingredients into a pot, mix them, and then put them into an oven at a very specific temperature for a very specific time. If anything in this process deviates too far from the instructions, you won’t know until you pull your creation from the oven.

Baking involves a host of chemical reactions. Protein bonding, leaveners, maillard reactions, and carmelization all come into play to produce a batch of cookies. When we take the wisdom of those scientist-chefs who worked out the details of it, a batch of yummy yummy cookies is our reward.

December 23: The Shoulders of Giants

In Nicolas de Condorcet’s “Progress of the Human Mind,” he observes that a mind like Isaac Newton’s is a rare and revolutionary thing, but once he writes his ideas and discoveries down, we may all read them, making his genius commonplace in our society. Because we can build upon the ideas of those before us, there is no limit to how far we can grow.

None of us achieves anything entirely by ourselves, we rely on the immeasurable achievements of those who came before us and those all around us. Don’t ever believe in lone greatness of any single person. We all Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.

December 24: The Future

Ending on a high note. I brought my kids into the playroom, where I keep a large banner-print of Robert McCall’s The Prologue and the Promise, which was featured in Disney’s EPCOT Center in Orlando Florida. The sense of wonder I get admiring this epic painting has only increased the more I linger on it.

Robert McCall's The Prologue and The Promise

Robert McCall’s The Prologue and The Promise

Hi-Resolution available here

Civilization is like a relay race. With each generation doing their best to make the world a little better for the generation that will succeed them–whether they know it or not. There are setbacks, but the graph of the human condition plots persistently better as a long-term investment. Just like how all those little evolutionary changes over billions of years produced humans, imagine what the future will be like if things keep getting a just a little better each year over hundreds and thousands of years.