Enlightenment Truths and Metaphysical Inaccuracies in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol

Posted on 11th October 2009 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,Mediaphilism
Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol
Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol

I strongly disagree with avid Plotz’s commentary, Dan Brown’s Washington, which argues that the real story of Washington is in the political players, not the spiritual and philosophical history which is the focus of The Lost Symbol. Dan Brown’s power as a writer is in having his characters take an intellectual adventure, travelling down pathways of obscure knowledge and history. The Lost Symbol is at its most intriguing when the characters are just standing around reasoning, however misrepresented their facts may be at times.

Rosicrucian Metaphor for the Invisible College
Rosicrucian Metaphor for the Invisible College
“The Temple of the Rosy Cross”
Credit: Teophilus Schweighardt Constantien

If you can remember that Dan Brown writes fiction and ride along with his storytelling with a notepad and a critical eye, you can discover some very fascinating things to look for in Washington DC and the Enlightenment Era. Thanks to Brown, I discovered the Invisible College, which was the precursor to the UK’s Royal Society, a society of scientists interested in understanding the world through empirical analysis. Today, the term serves to describe any method of attaining an education without going through an official academic route, similar to attending free courses online to get the knowledge, if not the course credit. The Rosicrucians was another fascinating concept, linked to the Invisible College, another secret society that may or may not have existed, but two anonymous manifestos were attributed to the organization, Fama fraternitatis and Confessio Fraternitatis, that stirred up much intellectual debate in Europe, and may have contributed to the Enlightenment movement. One individual rumored to have written the manifestos was Francis Bacon, who’s New Atlantis, also mentioned in Brown’s book, which depicted a utopian society founded on the principles of free inquiry and scientific research.

Library of Congress, Jefferson Reading Room
Library of Congress, Jefferson Reading Room

The Lost Symbol takes place across a wonderful variety of settings right around the Washington DC mall, which would be difficult to take in over the course of a week, much less during the single night in which Brown’s book takes place. He hits most of the science imagery found in the Jefferson Reading Room, a fantastic monument to science, knowledge, and Enlightenment values. The US Botanical Gardens, National Statuary Hall, and the Kryptos Sculpture outside CIA headquarters are just a few fascinating locations in the book and they serve as just a glance at the immense amount of history packed into the nation’s capital.

Credit: CIA

Brown has a penchant for silly academic scenes where Professor Robert Langdon wows awestruck students with seemingly incredible historical facts. The Lost Symbol delivers many of these, like when students mistake the pristine Smithsonian Castle for an ancient Norman castle so the Professor can correct them. But the Smithsonian is an incredible Institution, one that requires weeks to take in just what’s on display around the National Mall. Dan Brown introduces us to the Smithsonian Museum Support Center (SMSC), described in Smithsonian Magazine as the “Nation’s Attic,” which emphasizes that what the public can access in the museums is only a tiny fraction of the Smithsonian’s total collection. However, Brown’s book is a little out of date, as the squid and coelacanth referenced in the SMSC’s “Wet Pod” are currently on display at the Sant Ocean Hall in the Smithsonian museum of Natural History, which opened September 2008.

Smithsonian Museum Support Center (SMSC)
Smithsonian Museum Support Center (SMSC)
Via Google Maps

I never suspected there was anything at the Washington National Cathedral for me, an Enlightenment scholar, to appreciate; however, I am thankful to Dan Brown for introducing me to the Space Window, honoring the Moon landing, and includes a fragment of lunar rock brought back from an American lunar mission. The cathedral also features the head of Darth Vader as one of its gargoyles, voted by children as the scariest figure to fulfill the “role of the grotesque” in the architecture.

Washington National Cathedral Space Window
Washington National Cathedral Space Window

My favorite new Washington DC discovery in The Lost Symbol is the Apotheosis of Washington, the mural gracing the inside of the Capitol Building’s dome, which depicts the Founding Fathers and other great minds of their age receiving wisdom directly from the Roman gods. Ceres sits on a McCormick mechanical reaper, bringing agricultural science to Americans, Vulcan forges cannonballs in front of a steam engine, Venus helps to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable, and Minerva is shown bringing an electrical generator, batteries, and a printing press to the great American scientists Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Morse, and Robert Fulton.

Science in the Apotheosis of Washington
Science in the Apotheosis of Washington

The problem is that all of these real-world settings and details prime us to believe other, wholly fabricated aspects of Brown’s storytelling. I unquestioningly swallowed the falsehood that the Founding Father’s originally planned to call our nation’s capital “New Rome,” because I knew they were heavily influenced by the Greek Democracy and Roman Republic; however, I have found no evidence that the FF intended this whatsoever, and must assume that it has no basis in fact1.

Brown’s protagonist, Robert Langdon, asserts at one point that Google is not research. Maybe Brown fears his readers discovering snopes.com or other original sources where they can find out how he has exaggerated or misrepresented material. For instance, the way he overhypes the CIA’s Stargate Program, which experimented with remote viewing, but was cancelled without producing anything conclusive. Or the importance of the Noetic Sciences, which deals with supernatural ways of coming into knowledge, and, despite millions of books being sold on the subject, has yet to produce anything empirical. He mentions that meditating Yogis, produce a miraculous waxy substance from their pineal glands, but fails to mention this substance would be melatonin (there’s no evidence for Brown’s statement anyway). And, of course, 2012 has to make an appearance as well.

Brown ties together the facts that Isaac Newton’s temperature scale had 33 degrees (zero being freezing, 33 boiling), there are 33 Vertebrae in the human spine, and 33 degrees in the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry as proof that 33 is perceived as a powerful number in mysticism. If Dan Brown had wanted to weave the number into his storytelling a little more, he could have included Dante’s Divine Comedy (3 canticas with 33 cantos each), the number of segments in the United Nations’ symbol, and the coming of age for hobbits in the Lord of the Rings according to Wikipedia.

Where The DaVinci Code was focused on religious institutions suppressing knowledge to maintain their power, Lost Symbol focuses on ancient institutions trying to keep psychic powers out of mortal hands. Ancient societies had an awesome understanding of the universe that we modern folk are only just now beginning to discover, according to the book, and we simply aren’t ready for much of this forbidden knowledge. Everything we discover with modern physics was already written about in all the ancient texts. The Bible, for instance, contains this forbidden knowledge, but it’s hidden in the verse to prevent us from destroying ourselves with it. According to The Lost Symbol, America’s Founding Fathers were keenly aware of this:

It was here, Robert, at the very core of this young American nation, that our brightest forefathers–John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine–all warned of the profound dangers of interpreting the Bible literally. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was so convinced the Bible’s true message was hidden that he literally cut up the pages and reedited the book, attempting, in his words, ‘to do away with the artificial scaffolding and restore the genuine doctrines.’

These words are technically true, but are highly misleading for the context in which they appear in The Lost Symbol. Dan Brown is trying to make it seem as if the Founding Fathers thought there was a hidden mystical meaning in the Bible, but this was not Thomas Jefferson’s intent in crafting his own version of the Bible. Jefferson started out constructing a simplified version of the New Testament that American Indians could easily understand, but turned to extracting what he considered Jesus’ true philosophical intent from what he came to see as the morass of supernatural embellishment the evangelicals had brought into the scriptures. Thomas Paine was highly critical of the Bible, not seeing a hidden mystical meaning, but a philosophy that he found morally reprehensible.

Dan Brown, in trying to prop up Noetic Sciences, ends up perpetuating an historical urban legend instead:

Peter once compared Noetic Scientists to the early explorers who were mocked for embracing the heretical notion of a spherical earth. Almost overnight, these explorers went from fools to heroes, discovering uncharted worlds and expanding the horizons of everyone on the planet.

This is nonsense and bad history. In American public schools we are taught that Columbus’ journey to find a western route to India was all the more amazing because everyone at the time thought the Earth was flat. While this makes his story more compelling, the reality was that the Earth’s spherical nature was a well-established fact. Aristotle knew the Earth was round in the third-century BC by observing its shadow on the Moon, Alexandria philosopher Eratosthenes had estimated the size of the Earth, and the early Romans were the first to suggest the idea of a westward route to India. Columbus’ opponents knew the Earth was round; however, they believed the explorer had grossly underestimated its size. Dan Brown is himself guilty of underestimating the “wisdom of the ancients2” in not knowing that the ancients knew the Earth was round.

The problem is, if you believe the conspiracy theory that all this powerful forbidden knowledge is being obfuscated by secret societies, then the fact that original documents reveal a truth that is devoid of supernaturalism, however intriguing their philosophical debates, then the lack of evidence is merely more support for the conspiracy to hide the “truth.” It’s a catch-22: there’s no evidence of a conspiracy to hide what the conspiracy theorist wants to believe; therefore, the conspiracy theorist takes this as evidence that the knowledge is being effectively hidden3.

I do appreciate Dan Brown bringing up Albert Einstein’s concept of a “Cosmic Religion,” which was the sense of spirituality Einstein got from uncovering the workings of the natural world and was best explained in his 1930s essay in the New York Times Magazine, Religion and Science:

…the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts, and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics!

There is spirituality in this view of life, and there is hidden power to be revealed through scientific experimentation and empirical discovery. Just as “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” as Arthur C. Clarke said, Dan Brown is correct that “If our ancestors could see us today, surely they would think us gods.”

1 The only reference I could find to America and “New Rome” was as a pejorative in a commentary by Osama Bin Laden.

2 Part of the “wisdom of the ancients” Brown cites is the ingenuity of Alchemy, from which he conveniently leaves out the fact that his icon, Isaac “Jeova Sanctus Unus” Newton poisoned himself by playing with and tasting Mercury.

3 Full disclosure, I am a Discordian, so technically I am part of the conspiracy, but since organization is against the principles of Discordianism, it must purely be an emergent phenomenon.

Carl Sagan Stars in Atomic Robo

Posted on 31st August 2009 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

When you return to your unobservable but empirically determined dimension of origin–tell them Carl Sagan sent you!
~ Fictional Carl Sagan in Atomic Robo, Shadow from Beyond Time #4

I had previously covered a Carl Sagan cameo in the Atomic Robo comic book, where Sagan sends Dr. Atomic Robo Tesla to Mars with the Viking Lander in a dream sequence.

Well, this month’s issue features the real Carl Sagan and he opens a scientific can of whoop-ass on an extradimensional monster.

Carl Sagan in Atomic Robo
Carl Sagan in Atomic Robo

The authors really know their Sagan, and Sagan fans will really appreciate the dialog, which references many of Sagan’s books and ideas. This comic is currently renewing my enthusiasm for the medium, as guest appearances by Tesla, H.P. Lovecraft, and Charels Fort and references to various historical science locations and events really enhance the action and adventure.

I highly recommend digging into the graphic novels of this comic’s previous sets.

Science Inspiring the Many Versions of Brainiac

Posted on 21st July 2009 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism
Brainiac by Alex Ross
Brainiac by Alex Ross
Copyright: DC Comics

The 1938 version of Superman was stronger than human beings because his home world, Krypton, was larger than Earth. As a result, the Kryptonians had evolved adapted to survive a force of gravity many times that of the Earthlings. This was a popular idea at the time. H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds’ Martians flop about unimpressively, struggling in Earth’s stronger gravity.

Keeping with this scientific explanation, the original Superman could not fly, but rather leapt across great distances, beams did not shoot from his eyes, and he was not immune to sleeping gas. Over the years, this science fiction Superman of the 1940s was slowly morphed into the flying across the galaxy, x-ray-telescopic-microscopic visioning, refrigerant-breathing, nuclear-holocaust-surviving, godlike being we know today, powered by the Sun and rendered powerless by kryptonite.

I recently got sucked into an entire weekend of comic book reading after discovering what is arguably Superman’s most challenging enemy, Brainiac, and wanted to learn more about this character who was the origin of the slang term for “genius.” One graphic novel, Superman VS. Brainiac, which collects various Superman issues from the past 50 years featuring the many, extremely different portrayals of Brainiac was especially interesting, because I got to see Brainiac evolve with the scientific concepts that captured people’s imaginations over the decades.

Krypton City's Sun on Tracks 1958\
Krypton City’s Sun on Tracks 1958
Copyright: DC Comics

In the 1958 first appearance of the villain, Brainiac was an uber-intelligent extraterrestrial, flying about the cosmos miniaturizing cities to collect in bottles, eventually planning to rule over them. Superman finds the city of Krypton miniaturized on Brainiac’s ship, where the citizens give him a tour of their farms run by robots, many many missiles, and a makeshift sun, which is a fireball that passes over the city on tracks each day.

Brainiac the Computer 1964\
Brainiac the Computer 1964
Copyright: DC Comics

After DC discovered that Berkeley had a DIY “electric brain” computer kit named “Brainiac,” they modified the villain’s origin in 1964. Brainiac was actually a robot of 11th-level intelligence built by other robots and given an organic exterior to fool other civilizations because… I’m not sure really. Maybe aliens are more trustworthy than robots in 1960’s culture. The comics featuring this new computer Brainiac also featured advertising for the Brainiac Electric Brain Kit.

Light from Krypton Reaches Earth
Light from Krypton Reaches Earth
Copyright: DC Comics

The computer Brainiac evolved to have a web of networking nodes across his bald head. He made an appearance in a Superman comic noteworthy for its astronomy-driven plot, where Superman is dealing with the emotional challenges of his lost home world, as the light from Krypton’s destruction is just reaching Earth in 1978.

Omniscient Brainiac 1983
Omniscient Brainiac 1983
Copyright: DC Comics

In 1983, Brainiac gets a huge upgrade, as he is converted from matter to energy and learns all there is to know about the Universe, even going back in time to watch it all happen from the big bang. He/It learns of another intelligence in the Universe, a “Master Programmer,” which we may assume is supposed to be god, and it wants Brainiac, who is a virus taking over the system, dead. Brainiac finally takes physical form as a robot that looks suspiciously like the Terminator, but with a bigger dome-head.

There’s a period of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s where Brainiac appears to inhabit the body of a psychic. Perhaps writers felt this was a natural extension of the idea that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I wasn’t too fond of this twist on the character.

Brainiac 2000
Brainiac 2000
Copyright: DC Comics

The year 2000 bug brought an awesome storyline where an upgraded Brainiac from the future comes to Metropolis, assimilates the populace into its network, and then begins “upgrading” the city so that the robot may conquer it. He even refers to it as his “motherboard.” Brainiac continues to evolve, with issues exploring his biological versus mechanical aspects, and the fact that he is an indestructible force because there will always be other copies of his consciousness out there. We’ve gone from robots, through missiles, through the boundary between science and supernatural, and into the information age.

Note: I believe I am within the bounds of fair use in displaying these copyrighted images in my blogpost as this blog is not-for-profit, the images were chosen because they best illustrate the subject-matter of my post, they are of low digital quality, and there are no non-copyrighted images that may be used instead.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s “Unscientific America”

Posted on 1st July 2009 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

Unscientific America

Unscientific America

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future is a worthwhile survey of the cultural, academic, entertainment, and political aspects of science in America, and how they all contribute to the steady decline of science primacy in our country. Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s writing benefits from their immersion in the Science Blogging culture, where they are on the frontlines of the debate about how to best communicate science and bring it into the public eye (Note: Because I’m already tired of writing the names “Mooney and Kirshenbaum,” I will heretofore refer to them as “the authors” or “Moonenbaum.”). Moonenbaum does well in expanding the scope of their book to include, not just the division between the scientifically literate and illiterate, but the divide between experts in specialized fields of science, and the differences of opinion between scientists concerning what is acceptable science coverage in the media.

For instance, the author’s mention Larry Moran of The Sandwalk blog, who I have mocked in the past with a great deal of emotional immaturity and who argues that it is fine for science journalism to die because he thinks it error-ridden and worthless. At the 2007 Science Blogging Conference I saw him take some representatives of the Science News Hour to task for not knowing the journal sources backing up the stories they were covering. Dr. Moran is pedantic and elitist, which is fine for a professor, who must guard the gates of his academic profession to make sure only those who will contribute to its integrity get in. There is a place for his writing, which takes the media to task for calling a fossil a “missing link” when the term is silly, for running a sensationalist article title that misrepresents the science content, and that science media outlets and even journals all pretty much FAIL.

Of course, if we got rid of all these aspects of popular science journalism, there would be no need for science sections in newspapers, documentary channels on cable tv, or ideonexuses (ideonexi?) on the Internet. This site thrives on “Gee Whiz” 30-seconds-or-less science news. I get enough hardcore science at work, and I want foo-foo science when I get home. Carl Sagan, Moonenbaum aptly notes, was the greatest foo-foo science popularizer of them all (I think their term was “Science Ambassador” or “Proponent”), and he was skewered by the scientific community for bringing science to the everyday person:

…Sagan was punished by the scientific community for his public endeavors… Harvard University denied him tenure. Nobel laureate Harold Urey, a chemist who had previously served as one of Sagan’s mentors, helped quash his chances with a nasty letter objecting to Sagan’s budding media and outreach efforts.

This is so tragic considering Sagan delivered that unique sense of wonder to the masses that comes from understanding the world a little better. Even if some of the details are out of context, we’re still benefiting from it. So I’m with Sagan and Moonenbaum in that I don’t want science news to die. I want people tuning into science programs all day long, science radio while they work, I want them talking science at the coffee shops like they did during the Enlightenment. I don’t care if they’re getting the details wrong or are talking about some discovery out of context or over-emphasizing the significance of a finding that really isn’t a big deal. I want people rejoicing in science daily, appreciating it the way they appreciate reality television shows or summer blockbusters.

So when Moonenbaum takes on science in Hollywood films, I was surprised to find myself falling on the side of being a little more lenient in my appraisals. For instance, the authors take the film The Core to task for its admittedly ridiculous premise, but ignore the fact that all of the film’s heroes were scientists, and that the film’s climax involved a physics solution scientists should appreciate. John Rogers, one of the six screenwriters on the film, explained his intent:

When I came on, I set out to make one of the 50’s/60’s “science hero” movies that inspired me to go into physics (it was those movies and Lucifer’s Hammer actually, that led me to my field). I probably should have told Paramount that’s what I was up to, but it’s more likely for the best they had no idea what I was up tp. The Core is an explicit rejection of the “scientists bad, blue collar/soldier boys good” ethos that seems to have taken over current cinematic science fiction… If one kid sees physicists saving the day with wave-interference formulas fer chrissake, as in our big finale, and thinks it’s cool, we did okay. [sic]

No matter what you think of The Core as a film, it did kick off an epic debate between David Brin and John Rogers about communicating science in film and the originality of ideas in Hollywood. Just like even though it misrepresented black holes, blood boiling in a vacuum, and the destructive force of supernovas, the new Star Trek was still a movie that made scientists the heroes. I got a near-sexual chill down my spine from the scene where Kirk tells Captain Pike, “I read your thesis.” Anything that provokes discussion about science is a good thing in my book.

I challenge any scientist to write an even halfway decent Science Fiction story with rock-solid science. I don’t care if the author spends an dissertation-length exposition on astrobiology explaining the metabolism of silicon-based extraterrestrials, I guarantee you a physics scientist is going to write a blog post making fun of the alien’s mode of space travel. This is exactly the reason why author Jo Walton quickly abandoned her attempts to write science fiction, because building a plausible SF world involves too much research and too much explaining details within details. Screw it, was her conclusion, it’s easier to write fantasy. That’s a writer scared off to the dark side by scientists the same way my gaggle of Dungeons and Dragons geeks will scared away the girls.

The point is that science fiction movies, even bad science fiction movies, provide teachable moments, a way to ride a little bit of science education onto a blockbuster movie’s coat tails. Moonenbaum points out how Phil Plait regularly does this on his Bad Astronomy blog (referenced in the above ST link), and he does it well, acknowledging that no science fiction story is going to get it all right and that storytelling trumps realism… until doing so violates the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Then they should be properly flamed, like 10,000 BC or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Science Debate 2008

Science Debate 2008

The topic of flaming brings me to Moonenbaum’s research on science in politics, where they have much to be proud of through their involvement with Science Debate 2008, a movement that continues to be active (and a movement of which the Larry Moran’s of the world disapprove). They note how politicians are actually afraid to debate science because they don’t want to appear ignorant on the subject. Surveying the blogosphere’s opinions of politicians, how could they win? Even if they answered 90 percent of questions thoughtfully, they’d get burned for the one fact they got wrong.

But consider the alternative:

Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), one of three physicists in Congress, describes having to rush to the floor to prevent fellow members from killing science programs they haven’t understood–assuming, for instance, that “game theory” research involves sports.

Scientists would rather abandon the control of public policy to this kind of ignorance rather than engage in public debate? If scientists represent the truth, what do they have to lose? As we can see in the author’s example, we have everything to lose by not debating.

Overall, Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book is a fantastic survey of the many dimensions to consider when tackling the issue of waning interest in science for Americans. My concern for Unscientific America is that the book has a narrow audience. Non-scientists will pass it by, while scientists appear apathetic. I greatly appreciated the book despite much of it being old-news to me, and hope to see more books tackling the issue of bringing science back to the forefront of American imaginations once again.

Additional Thought

  • The authors bring up the debate over Pluto’s planetary status as an example of Science stirring up strong emotions in the public, and this was an incredible event. It continues to be so. Unfortunately, Moonenbaum’s treatment of the subject wasn’t in depth enough for my satisfaction. It seemed like there were some great insights to be obtained from the story that Unscientific America didn’t delve into.
  • Chet Raymo’s When God is Gone, Everything is Holy

    Posted on 23rd June 2009 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

    When God is Gone, Everything is Holy

    I’ve been a longtime fan of Chet Raymo’s Science Musings blog, a rich, wonderful merging of classical literature references and modern scientific awe I discovered not long after seeing the inspiring film he wrote Frankie Starlight. I’m sorry to say that When God is Gone, Everything is Holy is the first book of his that I have had the pleasure of reading, but it will not be the last.

    The feeling I got reading this text is similar to the deep sense of peace I get reading Carl Sagan. Here is someone who echoes the thoughts in my mind, like when he refers to “truth with a lowercase t.” He even shares my fascination with the golden mean, finding a deep spiritual significance in it:

    The golden mean is the secret of tolerance, of modesty, of a healthy skepticism–of knowing that every dogmatic definition of God is a pale intimation of the truth and, inevitably it seems, an excuse for jihad, pogrom or crusade.

    Raymo was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic school, but reminds us, “The science I learned at Notre Dame was the same science that was taught at University of California at Los Angeles.” This is a sentiment echoed by my friends who attended private Catholic schools as children, that they were taught evolution and appreciation for the sciences that was completely secular.

    Religion and science do not have to be at odds, and may, as John Updike notes, share in the wonder, when he wrote, “Ancient religion and modern science agree: We are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention.” Raymo knows exactly how to draw the line:

    The religious naturalist foregoes a personal God. God defined in our own image. God invested with human qualities: justice, love, will, desire, jealousy, artifice, and so on–in short, the attributes of human personhood. To the agnostic, a personal God is the ultimate idolatry.

    The word “God,” Raymo notes, “is indeed almost irretrievably burdened with personhood. It is our golden calf, our idol.” When I use the word “spiritual” in this sense, I am not referring to anything religious or supernatural, but rather a feeling. It’s the feeling I get when I see a sunset, a satellite photo of Earth, diagram of the solar system’s boundary, hear about some fascinating scientific fact, or anything else that instills a sense of awe at the world around me and inspires a profound appreciation for the simple fact of existing to experience it.

    Raymo is a proponent of spiritual naturalism or naturalistic spirituality, and he finely articulates this sense of spiritualism:

    So this is my Credo. I am an atheist, if by God one means a transcendent Person who acts willfully within the creation. I am an agnostic in that I believe our knowledge of “what is” is partial and tentative–a tiny flickering flame in the overwhelming shadows of our ignorance. I am a pantheist in that I believe empirical knowledge of the sensate world is the surest revelation of whatever is worth being called divine. I am a Catholic by accident of birth.

    “Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration.” Chet quotes Charles Darwin, and then Lewis Thomas, “The greatest of all the accomplishments of twentieth-century science has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Raymo stresses the importance of recognizing our ignorance, and remaining humble to the vast realms of knowledge currently beyond us. “Only when a few curious people said “I don’t know” did science begin.”

    “The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer,” Charles Darwin wrote. At the core of the Intelligent Design movement, is an urging for us not to tolerate complexity, but rather throw up our hands and give up when faced with it. When Chet Raymo applies gentle scorn to the Intelligent Design movement, it is done with just the right rhetorical tone of persuasion, not mockery:

    Gaps have a way of being filled. We no longer see God’s intervening will in the appearance of a comet, or look for divine meaning in the death of a child from disease. I would hate to think that my own faith in God depended upon scientists never figuring out exactly how the blood-clotting protein cascade evolved…

    ID and other ideologies, both religious and political, stress humanity’s distinction from the natural world, and argue for our dominance over it. But Raymo argues that thinking ourselves separate from nature denies us total enjoyment of it. It almost sounds like a sin when he talks about it, just as humility about our ignorance sounds like a holy virtue.

    This is the strength of Chet Raymo’s worldview, that he can find a spiritual sense of awe at the natural world, without having “imagine fairies beneath it,” to quote Douglas Adams. Enlightenment scholars look pessimistically around at all the churches, one on every other street corner, and despairs at the apparent overwhelming popularity of religion’s fantasy. Chet Raymo sees the opposite. Every school building, university, hospital, research corporation, space mission, car, streetlight, grocery store, museum, and other modern convenience is a monument to science and the natural world. A world we all share, and would all be better off if we simply appreciated it together.

    Active Reading with the Amazon Kindle

    Posted on 28th May 2009 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

    Emily Dickinson Kindle Screensaver
    Credit: Cheneworth Gap

    I have hundreds of megabytes worth of free books that I’ve downloaded from Project Gutenberg and various other sources online, which presents me with the dilemma of finding a way to read all of them. Reading them at my desktop is uncomfortable, although I have done this, sitting at a computer monitor for hours to read a novel. I’ve gotten through a couple of books on my cell phone, but the small screen is also headache-inducing. My OLPC would make a great reading device, but it takes a long time to boot and crashes when I try to access large text files.

    That’s why I decided to try out Amazon’s second-generation Kindle, an iPod for books. I was drawn to the fact that the screen is not backlit, which is easier on the eyes, and the device uses very little energy to render text, making it portable on long trips. Plus, as text-files are extremely small, I knew the device’s several gigs worth of storage space was something I would never exhaust. Could you imagine telling someone they’d be able to store thousands of books and hundreds of hours of music on devices smaller than a dimestore novella twenty years ago? Technology is magic.

    Since this is a positive review, I’ll start with the bad and get that out of the way. At $360, the Kindle is very over-priced. I would value this device around $200 max, and there are cheaper e-readers out there with more features, such as the Sony PRS-700BC. Additionally, the Kindle should really be priced at $390 as you should absolutely buy a $30-$50 cover for it. I made the mistake of buying just the Kindle, and got a scratch on my screen within two weeks of owning it, just from carrying it around in my messenger bag with pens and a clipboard.

    With the capacity to store thousands of books on the device, it’s an incredible oversight that Amazon provides no way to organize books on the Kindle. Despite organizing my library into folders by category on the device itself, all of my books are displayed in a single list sortable by title, author, and last accessed. This is fine now, while I only have four pages of books to flip through, but will become unacceptable years down the road, after I’ve downloaded dozens of public domain texts from Gutenberg and need to find that one passage in The Age of Reason to quote in a post.

    One final gripe is that the Kindle offers an incredibly useless feature, the capability to subscribe to blogs. For a small monthly fee, you can subscribe to a wide selection of well-known blogs. Whoopdee-doo. What use is it to subscribe to a link-blog like Boing Boing on my Kindle, if I can’t navigate to anything the site links to? That would be as worthless as looking at ideonexus on the device.

    Edgar Allan Poe Kindle Screensaver

    Edgar Allan Poe Kindle Screensaver
    Credit: Stillframe

    Which brings me to the cool stuff. I am enthralled with the idea of being able to download newspapers onto the kindle for a small monthly fee, even if I have no intention of using the feature. Unfortunately for me personally, I read the news with an open text editor to take notes and links for later reference on ideonexus. Had this device come out ten years ago, newspapers might have found a viable way to survive the Information Age. Reading a newspaper on the back porch or at the breakfast table is a very relaxing and enlightening habit, and the Kindle enables this, making it a great gift for the Baby Boomers in your life.

    Another feature Boomers will appreciate is the thriftiness of the device. I easily blow through a couple-hundred dollars a month in (mostly used) books from Amazon. Two inconveniences of this practice is having to wait a week for books to arrive in the mail and having to pay delivery fees. The Kindle 2 comes with a free, built-in cellular connection, which allows for buying books from Amazon right from the device. The e-versions of books are usually about half the price, if you factor in the shipping, and the book downloads directly to the Kindle, restoring the all-important “instant gratification” factor that is missing from online shopping.

    One bit of advice though, keep the connection turned off except to synch the device, as it drains the battery. Thanks to the Kindle’s E-Ink display, the device uses very little energy. After a week of heavy reading on it, my Kindle’s battery hadn’t even lost a quarter of its charge.

    My favorite characteristic of the Kindle is how it enables active reading. I read paper-based books with my cell-phone on hand to take notes on everything I read, diligently copying passages down into word files (I hate to deface a paper book by highlighting pages) and summarizing important passages. The Kindle interweaves this practice into the e-book. With the keyboard built into the device, I can take notes directly in the book I’m reading and highlight passages on screen. It’s like I’m adventuring through realms of knowledge and taking photos of things I see along the way. : )

    The Kindle is not for everyone, but my fellow bookworms out there should definately consider an e-reader to support their addiction.

    Gaming Nostalgia

    Posted on 9th April 2009 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out,Mediaphilism

    Commodore Logo

    Commodore Logo

    Researchers are using the oceans of data in Everquest’s logs for psychological, sociological, anthropological, and other studies. Constance Steinkuehler, a game academic at the University of Wisconsin, has found clear evidence that gamers use the scientific method, experimenting and communicating results, to understand the virtual worlds in which they play.

    Academia is finally standing up to take notice of gaming as cultural phenomenon, and Volume 2 of the Journal Transformative Works and Cultures focuses on Games as Transformative Works, dedicating all of the journal articles to various aspects of gaming from a variety of academic perspectives.

    Casey O’Donnell’s The everyday lives of video game developers takes an anthropological eye towards the culture of video game developers and their technoscientific art. Rebecca Bryant’s Dungeons & Dragons: The gamers are revolting! explores the fascinating recent history of Wizards of the Coast’s buying the rights to the then waning D&D, making it open-source as a marketing strategy, attempting and failing to revoke the open-license, and finally releasing a new, copyrighted edition of the game and fans hated it. Joe Bisz’z The birth of a community, the death of the win: Player production of the Middle-earth Collectible Card Game explores the life of dedicated gamers after the company producing their game goes under, and makes the most succinct explanation for the appeal of collectible card games, “Though CCG cards are premade, players have the power to edit their own unique deck of 60 cards, a process that can be compared to writing one’s own dramatic television script for an established series.”

    I thoroughly enjoyed all of these essays, but Will Brooker’s Maps of many worlds: Remembering computer game fandom in the 1980s resonated with me the most. In it, Brooker describes his experiences revisiting the video games of his youth from the mid 1980s:

    I don’t remember Zzoom as a garish clutter of magenta airplanes and bright red tanks, like a kid’s poster painting of a war zone. I remember the way palm trees rushed toward your windscreen in the desert zone, and the way, between attack waves, the camera drifted up into the clouds in a brief, calm interlude. In both cases, I remember landscapes, skies, seas, and natural environments rather than military hardware.



    Zork and other text-based adventures had no graphics at all, and I spent months adventuring in their dark dungeons and travelling in their fantastic starships. Wasteland was my all-time favorite game on the Commodore 64. It came out in 1986, and, despite being able to push a human-looking icon around on a map, the details of the world were all described in text.

    Ultima II Cover VS Actual Game

    Ultima II Cover VS Actual Game

    The idea that a screen with stick people could serve as a rich, complex environment may seem silly to today’s gamers, but at the time games like Wasteland, Ultima I-IV, and others provided endless hours of engaging adventure. Brooker observes that these limited in-game graphics were enhanced with elaborate artwork on the box, like the way old arcade games were decorated with action-oriented cartoons to dress up the comparatively simple graphics on the screen. I remember games like the Ultima series coming with cloth maps, code wheels, miniature books, and coins to bring something tangible to the experience.

    Ultima IV Map of Britannia

    Ultima IV Map of Britannia

    Some games were based on motion pictures, and relied on the player’s experiences watching the movie to enhance the game play. One of the scariest games I ever played on the C64 was Alien, where you must try and kill the alien running around on the ship before it kills all the crewmembers… or failing that, at least make it to the escape pod. Looking at the graphics now makes the fear the game evoked seem silly.



    Brooker doesn’t fall into the trap of claiming modern games fail to provoke an imaginative response in the player. Rather, he argues that in games like Grand Theft Auto, “I could map my experiences of the simulated spaces—Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas—onto my memories of the real geography of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas.” So video games are still an imaginative adventure, requiring a suspension of disbelief, or “consensual hallucination” as William Gibson put it. Only the games today have more power to persuade us.

    I found a video of someone running through Wasteland in 16 minutes (using cuts and speeded up play). Here’s the first part:

    You can play all the old Infocom text-adventures online.

    10 Books Meme

    Posted on 18th March 2009 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

    Chriggy played with this on facebook, and the meme is totally something I can support:

    This can be a quick one! Don’t take too long to think about it! Ten books you’ve read that will always stick with you! First ten you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

    1. Principia Discordia, Malclypse the Younger
    2. The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
    3. Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan
    4. The Roving Mind, Isaac Asimov
    5. Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
    6. The Critical Tradition, Various
    7. The Postman, David Brin
    8. Blood Music, Greg Bear
    9. Zen Teachings of the Bohdidharma
    10. The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine
    Comments Off on 10 Books Meme

    The Cake is a Lie! A Review of Valve’s Portal

    Posted on 29th January 2009 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

    You think you’re doing some damage? Two plus Two is *shzzzt* ten… IN BASE FOUR, I’M FINE!!! Ha! Ha! Ha! – GLaDOS

    Infinite Portals

    Infinite Portals

    I had seen previews for this game online, and thought it looked pretty spiffy, but it wasn’t until I dabbled with the flash version that I was really intrigued (plus I found it was priced at $10, a bargain). I haven’t played a puzzle game since the original Tomb Raider, back in 1996, and this one totally sucked me in.

    The Computer is Watching

    The Computer is Watching

    You wake up in a glass cell. A computer, GLaDOS, begins taking you through a series of potentially fatal obstacle courses. “Cake and grief counseling will be available at the conclusion of the test,” she promises.

    You Play Chell, an Orphan of Bring Your Daughter to Work Day and Equipped with Heel Springs to Survive Falls. This Screenshot was captured by Opening two portals next to each other and looking through

    You Play Chell,
    an Orphan of “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day”
    and Equipped with Heel Springs to Survive Falls
    This Screenshot was captured by Opening two portals
    next to each other and looking through

    To help you navigate each level, you are given an Aperture Gun, which you may shoot into walls, ceilings, and floors to produce portals. You can open portals to cross chasms or drop weights on military drones. Open a portal in the ceiling above you, open one underneath your feet, and you can fall forever, gaining velocity as you do. With this strategy, you can fling yourself across great distances.

    Portal Physics Velocity is Maintained, but Direction Changes

    Portal Physics
    Velocity is Maintained, but Direction Changes

    Credit: Pbroks13 at Wikimedia

    The levels are difficult enough to make the game challenging, but easy enough to make you feel smart. The basic game isn’t very long, I beat it in about six hours, but a collection of bonus advanced stages have driven me batty since then.

    The Cake is a Lie!!!

    The Cake is a Lie!!!

    Any game is only as good as the story it tells, and in Portal’s case, a delightfully twisted computer provides a witty and insane narration for the action, which itself has you thinking in strange ways. I found myself chuckling throughout the many levels at GLaDOS’ silliness, and even went and downloaded the song Still Alive from the soundtrack, sung by the GLaDOS (voiced by Ellen McLain).

    I highly recommend this relaxing, mentally challenging game. It’s a rare treat in a world of first-person-shooters to find something so original and well written. Plus, at $10, you have less than the cost of a DVD at Wal-Mart to risk on what might provide 6-10 hours of fun.

    This video of an extremely advanced bonus level of some sort demonstrates Portal’s craziness (The player has disabled the drones somehow in this demo):

    Note: Portal is the “spiritual successor” of a freeware game, Narbacular Drop, which is also a puzzle game with portals, however it is a much simpler one.

    Another Note: After beating Portal, it’s fun to read the Wikipedia entry for it, as the history behind the game’s story just gets more and more twisted.

    Did Michealangelo Paint a Brain on the Sistine Chapel?

    Posted on 18th December 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

    Apparently Dr. Frank Lynn Meshberger hypothesizes the “Creation of Man” mural painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel actually depicts god bestowing intellect on man, arguing that Adam’s eyes are open in the painting, god and the angels take on the distinct shape of a brain, and that Michelangelo was well aware of human anatomy from the many cadavers he dissected in his study of the human form for his art.

    Can you see the brain in this painting?

    Brain in the Creation of Man

    Creation of Man
    Credit: Michelangelo

    There are lots of drawings from anatomy texts with the brain in the painting highlighted in this article. A discussion on physicsforums turned up this insightful comment:

    Upon reading the title and seeing the painting, I can definitely see the “brain” in the image. Of course this is coming from a neuroscientist who also knows that the brain “likes” to make associations between recognizable images and the abstract. But I have seen a lot of brain in my time and that shape is pretty “brainy”.

    This is wayyyyyy cooler than anything found in The DaVinci Code.