tai chi

I had the unexpected experience of learning a bit about tai chi yesterday. I was called in to substitute as I do on very rare occassions, only to arrive at the school to discover I really had no classes to teach--it was "arts day" at the school. Different professional artists were assigned to different rooms to demonstrate their artform (from pottery to choreography to costume design to puppetry), and all I had to do was make sure the kids behaved in my assigned room, which happened to be the tai chi room.

I was completely skeptical that I would be able to feel this chi, or life force, in the exercises this guy, Matt, was having us do, but completely to my surprise, I did feel a tingly ball of energy so to speak when I participated. I flunked the other exercise, though, which was to try to sense which side of your partner's body a plastic bag was on with your eyes shut and your hands slowly going back and forth, hovering over top of the person. I did get it on the third try, but missed the first two times. Maybe it had to do with the fact that Matt was my partner and I was supposed to be demonstrating for the class, so I guess I was sorta nervous. Or maybe it had to do with the fact that Matt was distractingly cute and I couldn't concentrate (even with my eyes shut ;)). Or maybe I need more practice. Or maybe it's just not reasonable to think we could sense such things.

I don't know--the whole experience got me thinking, though--just what would this chi be? My Star Wars obsessed side would love to believe that it's just like some Jedi power, but rationally, I don't see how it could be. Is it some sort of electromagnetic radiation? After all, human bodies do eminate radiation in the infrared. Is it some biochemical reactions related to muscle movement and breating? I wish I could understand it more specifically...

Matt and I also had a nice conversation about fate and determinism. He made a point about how once you decide that something's going to happen, it does. But I'm not sure I ascribe as much meaning to this phenonmenon as he does. He was saying how the universe will make things fall into place so that what you determine to do occurs, and he gave an example of how he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail and he was thinking about how a gas refridgerator works and he kept asking people he met on the trail about it and it wasn't too long before someone he met knew. He thought it profound that he was in the wilderness and was able to find the answer to his question merely by deciding he had to find the answer, and he saw that as the universe making it so that he would cross paths with the person who could answer his question. I guess I see it more like *he* was determined to find an answer and, through *his* actions (asking everyone he encountered about it), he was able to make his desire to find an answer come true.

It's much like how *I* decided I wanted to be an astrophysicist and through *my* determination and actions, I am now on that path. Or like how the first time I decided to try climbing that wall at REI, I decided I was going to go all the way to the top, and through my efforts, I accomplished that task.

I guess I see nothing wrong with attaching more spiritual meaning to it, if that's how you like to describe it. I just describe the same phenomenon in a different way. I mean, what is "spiritual" anyway? If you're talking about your psychological and emotional well-being, then I suppose I think your spiritual realm is highly important. But if you are talking about supernaturalness, I just prefer to describe things in a natural, rather than supernatural way, because the latter requires faith in an unknown and untestable assertion, but the former does not.

And maybe that's all it is with chi. Maybe the biochemical/physical processes that create tingly sensations and tone muscles and all that are perfectly natural explanations of something that others prefer to describe more esoterically. It is interesting stuff, though, and I'd like to learn more about it...

My baby is 2 now!

Ashley had her second birthday on Monday! The thing I thought about this year on her birthday is just how sad of a state of affairs our birthing practices are in this civilization. I had an observational astronomy class Monday night that I skipped so that I could be with my baby on her birthday. Lots of people thought I was nuts--she's only 2; she wouldn't even know the difference if I missed her birthday, why not celebrate the next day? Why? Because, she may not know or remember her birth, but *I* do!!! She wasn't born the next day (which would have been my due date)-- she entered the world March 13, 2004 at 10 AM.

Still, this bit of information (the fact that I would know it wasn't her birthday if we celebrated the next day) was still generally met with a "so, who cares?" sort of mentality, even by other mothers. My hypothesis is that most mothers missed out on the beauty and euphoria that a birth can be, and so, to them, it's not as big of a deal to commemorate the exact occassion. But when I think about Ashley's birth, my heart is always touched by the warmth of the experience. I remember it with fondness--being in my own home, my husband's hands being the first human hands ever to touch our baby, holding her naked to my breast, and snuggling into our babymoon over a tasty dish of lasagna while the afternoon sun of spring shone through the window... How could I try to pretend these precious memories occured on March 14? I feel sorry for moms that do not have that swooning nostalgia greet them when their child celebrates their birthday. Indeed, I admit, I do not feel quite as enamoured when I celebrate Sarah's birthday, as her birth was just something I managed to "get through" not something I honestly enjoyed. But are there really so few mothers out there who enjoyed their birth experiences? Is that why no one can relate to my wanting to blow out the candles on March 13th not March 14th?

In any case, she's a two year old now. And maybe that fact is just starting to make me feel old, but I've been in a bit of a funk this week. I'm having that "what am I doing with my life?" sort of feeling lately. I mean, I'm going to be 29, and I still have lots of education ahead of me if I truly want to earn a PhD. Am I doing the right thing? Or should I be simply enjoying every precious fleeting moment of my girls' childhoods? I go back and forth: I should really be at home with them... to... well, where would that leave me when they are grown if I've spent all my years doting on them and doing nothing for myself? I suppose it all is just balance, but finding the right balance is sometimes trickier than you think...

packing and holding down the house

I recall the day my dear husband approached me sheepishly with those puppy-dog eyes and asked me if there was any chance he could join his friend Peter on a week-long railfanning "blitzkreig" out west. I must have looked at him like he was speaking a foreign tongue--I don't think I uttered a word. He replied with something like I didn't think you'd be agreeable, but I thought I'd ask, because Peter's wife's going to have a baby soon and he has some frequent-flier miles he wants to use up to have one last hoorah before the babymoon. I told him to let me think about it.

Peter ended up changing his mind several times about exactly how/where he wanted to approach this venture, and I was growing uneasy with the possible terms and conditions of such a deal. But in the end, I did as any loving wife would do: I rolled my eyes as a signal of my lack of ability to relate to the male extreme-hobby syndrome, let out a sigh to convey that the whole idea was somewhat silly and unnecessary, but that I would humor him anyway, and asked how much it would cost us. The bottom dollar didn't seem like it would damage our finances in a permanent and irreversible way, so I agreed that he could have his fun in the sun, provided he agreed to fewer other train travels throughout the year, and that we could take another family vacation to FL sometime during 2006.

So the flight was booked and the hotels reserved for the week of my spring break, March 5-11. A month or so after these arrangements were made, we got a buyer for our house and a timeframe of about a month to get packed and moved out by March 30. YIKES! Of course, being the wonderful wife I am, I did not put a guilt trip on Alex, freak out on him, or demand that he cancel his trip and help me pack. Well, I actually might have been tempted to do one or more of these things, but I was way too preoccupied trying to figure out where the hell we were going to move to.

I mean, we knew we wanted to move into Pittsburgh, but we didn't expect things to--boom--happen so fast! We debated, should we rent for a while till we get the feel for the city and be sure we knew which neighborhood we wanted to be in, and also leave room for the possibility that Alex might get a job offer on the west coast? Or should we forget wasting our money on rent and having to deal with landlords, and just purchase? But it soon became apparent that we simply wouldn't have time to buy a house and close before we'd need to be out of our place. So our options were either a short-term lease while we found a house to buy (which meant we'd have to move twice) or just rent for the time being. All the rentals we looked at (short and long term leases) were awful--complete dives for more than we're paying for our current mortgage. We were becoming really discouraged and nearly panick-stricken. I was literally on craigslist and citypaper every spare second, making phone calls between classes and trying to figure it all out before Alex was to set off to CA. In fact it was two days before his plane left that we were at the end of our rope. We only had one more place to check out, and it didn't seem promising. The landlord we spoke to over the phone warned us that he'd rented out the place to college kids and that they'd trashed it. He assured us that he was going to have everything in order for the next tennents but that it didn't look like much at the moment; we'd have to use our imaginations and look past everything. Then there was some question as to whether the place was a house or an apartment. The guy's friend we spoke to (he wasn't sure if he'd be there personally to show it to us so he had us talk to his friend to set up a time), made mention that she lived in the front part of "the building" and our "apartment" would be in the back, but the landlord kept referring to it as a house. We knew we didn't want an apartment; a townhouse maybe, but definitely not an apartment.

Discouraged, we phoned my dad on the way to look at this last place. We asked him if we might be able to stay at his place for a few months while we found a house. Since he's pretty much in Cleveland all week, he said it would be fine with him, but we should talk to my stepmom, since it would impact her more than him. We hung up, resolving to call my stepmom on the way home. And then, what happened next was nearly unbelievable. We pulled into the *gated driveway* of this *house* (turns out the landlord's friend's place is a a separate building, but the exterior wall are touching--sorta like a townhouse effect, except the front building faces the main road, and the back building faces to the side) on the southside a few doors down and across the street from one of our favorite vegetarian restaurants, and a few blocks from the new southside works. What stood before us appeared to be a duplex, but we soon learned it was a single house that simply had two front doors--one to the kitchen and one to the living room. We walked into one of them and were suddenly taken aback. O.k., so, to be in total mint condition, the carpet could have standed to be replaced, and the walls could use a fresh coat of paint, but they were both arguably in better condition than our house, and were quite easy to see past. This 100 year old house had been totally gutted and modernized inside. There was a tile kitchen floor, vaulted ceilings and new appliances and cabinets. The living room was huge! There was a enclosed courtyard for the kids to run around in and there was a half bath on the main floor (which is something I really wanted but didn't think I'd find; it's such a pain to go up and down the stairs every time your 2 year old has to pee). Upstairs were two big bedrooms with exposed brick walls and a loft area above each bedroom--each loft had 2 sky lights and was practically big enough to serve as a bedroom in its own right. There was a huge closet between the two lofts and a full bathroom between the two bedrooms. Absoutely everything was updated. The landlord told us he'd have all the carpets replaced, new paint (which he was in the process of doing when we arrived), and everything would be in order by April 1, and that cats were o.k.. We took the place on the spot. It was a little more expensive than the other rentals we'd looked at, but it was lightyears ahead of them all in quality.

So when we phoned my stepmom, instead of asking if we could stay with them for a few months, all we needed to ask was, if need be, if we could stay with them for a few days, which seemed to be a fine arrangement. We stopped by the next day to pay our security deposit and take some measurements while the landlord had employed some people to help paint, and then the following morning, Alex left for L.A. Really, I didn't even have time to complain, and I was so excited that we'd found such an awesome place, that I couldn't really be too upset.

But now reality has set in, as I have been spending the past few days trying to pack and keep the house in order and catch up on all the neglected laundry and school work, while somehow keeping the kids from missing their daddy and driving me crazy. It's been a tall order and I still have until Saturday night before Alex comes home to help me out. Of course Ashley appears to be teething and has slept horribly every night, waking up screaming several times during the night (even though she's literally right next to me), and then arising before 8 each morning, only to be crabby all day.

Last night we purchased a used double stroller for $50 (thinking it would come in handy with our upcoming city life) and then tried it out at the dollar store, where we discovered that the piece of crap was completely impossible for anyone but the incredible hulk to manueuver, and the kids just kept fighting about what candy and toys they wanted to buy and arguing with me about it. When we got home Ashley was crying inconsolably just before bed, then kept me awake half the night. She and I woke up at 7:40 because Sarah had gotten up and come back into the bedroom with loud hiccups. Blearey-eyed but unable to get back to sleep, Ashley and I sat up. Ashley crawled over to the window and asked me to open the blinds. I pulled them up and she peered out the window, and immediately became upset because she wanted to see daddy's car. He's in CA, I reminded her, but she took no solace. Instead, she tried to comfort herself by playing with a toy she'd left on the nightstand the night before, only to have Sarah grab it from her and refuse to share. Several minutes of stern explaining of the merits of sharing to Sarah (while Ashley screamed in the background) and I was able to get Sarah to temporarily relinquish the toy. I come out to the kitchen to make coffee and immediately was asked to make peanut butter toast and baked potatoes and the cat sat by her bowl looking up at me for fresh water and food. Finally after all the other creatures of the house were satisfied with their breakfasts, I could grind some coffee, only to realize we were out of soy creamer. *sigh* Multiply this by 24 hours/day, and you'll start to get the picture of how this week has been going so far.

I guess I just need to look at the positives. Soon this will be but a memory, and I am sure, in some ways I will miss the serenity and history of this house. Indeed, I think I would have major difficulty parting with the sentimental value of our home if I were not an atheist. If I actually believed that the spirits of my grandparents were blessing this house or somehow that they were watching over me, I would probably feel way too guilty about leaving. But being that they are dead and gone, while I still mourn the loss of all the memories I shared here, I know they are just that--memories, part of the past. My present and future is taking me elsewhere, and I know in my heart that we are making the right decision for our family. Many people cannot relate to wanting to live in an urban area; they can't think of suburbia as anything other than a utopia. I am reminded of the movie "Far From Heaven" where living the 1950's version of a perfect life, is, well, not always as perfect as it sounds. I'm sure living in the city won't be perfect either; every place has it's faults, but it's a matter of finding which faults matter more to you. The lack of culture, the car-dependence, the unwalkable-ness, the solitude, and the horrendous commute of living out in the sticks are faults that, to us, outweigh the increased traffic, higher taxes, higher crime rates, and poorer air quality of the city. On the flip side the benefits of city-life, to us, outweigh those of suburban/rural life. Being able to walk or take public transportation practically anwhere you want to go, having easy access to cultural and educational ammenitites, being near alternative resources (health foods, vegetarian restaurants, diversity in general), having athletic facilities all nearby (ie. the bike trail, the oliver bath house, the rock climbing wall), a quick commute leaving more family time, and other such things are extremely important to us. In a nutshell, we are city people. It's completely valid to be a suburbanite, but it's also completely valid to be an urbanite...

So that's where we're headed; about to open the next chapter... I will soon post pictures of our new pad!


Woohoo, we just got an offer on our house on Saturday and accepted it yesterday! The buyers are anxious to move in ASAP, are opting out of home-inspection, and are already pre-approved for their mortgage, so it looks like a done deal and we will be moving very shortly! Not totally sure where we're moving to, yet. We want to rent for now for a couple of reasons: 1. We're not totally sure which neighborhood we'd like to live in. 2. Even if we knew for sure, we're not sure how long we'll be living in Pittsburgh, because Alex will have his master's degree in a couple of months and who knows what job opportunities might present themselves. Furthermore, even if no offers present themselves in the short-term, we still may be interested in relocating within the next 5 years or so.

So it seems a little myopic to invest in purchasing a house at this point. We are looking at some rentals this weekend in the southside, squirrel hill and regent's square. We hope to sign a lease by the end of the month. It's exciting and a little scary at the same time.

We're not totally sure who will watch the kids while I'm in class, either, but we have a couple leads that we are following up on. Hopefully everything will fall into place and this transition will go smoothly. I was planning on taking the girls on a road-trip to FL for spring break at the beginning of March, but it looks like my time might end up being better spent moving and settling in.

To be continued......

(no subject)

Wow! It's been a while since I've updated. Can you tell I've started my first semester at Pitt? It's going really well, but taking up a lot of time (as was expected). Anyhow, my continuation was supposed to use all sorts of scientific data to describe exactly what happens to our bodies when we die. But truly, I just don't have the time to reproduce the exact studies and statistics right now. Suffice it to say that when we die, our energy changes forms by biochemical reactions, and some releasing of heat. Energy is not "missing" from the equation, so therefore the "energy leftover = soul" argument doesn't hold much water.

Of course I'm happy to answer the comments that "anonymous" left me, although I'm wondering why "anonymous" did not identify him/herself, and if they even know me. It's strange how most atheists I know will not go randomly searching for believer's blog's and post comments attempting to refute them, but it is not uncommon at all for an atheist to "come out of the closet" and have all sorts of strangers who are believers trying to refute them. Why they think it is their business what a total stranger writes is beyond me. But, I will play the game and answer the questions.

First, the amount of "energy and intelligence" I've spent here is not in defense of why there is no God. You are taking the exact approach that I mentioned. You are putting up a positive assertion (that there is a God), and trying to paint me in the light of refuting that assertion. Again, I repeat, if I made a positive assertion--that there is a cavity monster that gives us cavities in our teeth, and asked you to refute it, it would be next to impossible to do so, because I could say he was invisible or only came out at certain phases of the moon or that you were somehow missing him. I could show you the cavities in my teeth as "proof" of the monster's handiwork. We could go on and on forever. The reason is because it's not a testable hypothesis. A testable hypothesis can be subject to scientific study and corroborated by such findings or found to be incorrect by such findings. But supernatural phenomenon are not testable hypotheses. So don't try to turn the tables on me. All I have spent my "energy and intelligence" on is answering people's questions as to why I only consider phenomenon that *are* testable, and do not delve into positive supernatural assertions.

Second, the amount of "energy and intelligence" I've expended really doesn't have to do with faith. The dictionary defintions of faith do not say anything about, if someone expends a lot of energy on something, that shows faith. The first two definitions in Webster's dictionary are: "1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing." and "2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." I guess you could argue that the first definition holds true and that I have faith in the "trustworthiness" of the scientific method. But I think that the connotations of "faith" more closely fit the second definition, and I would be hesitant to say I have "faith" in the scientific method, because that implies that there is no "logical proof or material evidence" for it, when indeed that is exactly what the scientific method is about. I've been told that even if science "proves" that, for instance, the speed of light is 299,792.458 km/s, how do I, personally, really *know* without taking a leap of faith? Well, since there are so many technologies that depend on the speed of light being known, I would think that somehow somewhere a discrepency would have shown up, and besides that, if there is a discrepency, it must be relatively small. It's totally different to actually *measure* something *measurable* and *testable* and say that you know within a reasonable amount of certainty due to many many tests yeilding the same results, that your answer is correct, and then having faith in the .00009% chance that it may be off, from having faith as per definition number two, without logical proof or material evidence.

Furthermore, if you know me, which I'm guessing "anonymous" does not, you know that I take great care to be sure that the concerns of my loved ones are addressed. I am just coming out of the closet about my atheism and I want my loved ones to understand that I have good reasons for being atheist, and that it's not just something I'm doing to be rebellious or different. They don't have to agree, but it's helpful for them to understand where I'm coming from. It's the very same reason I've spent enormous "energy and intelligence" on my website explaining why I had a homebirth and why I nurse my children for so long. It's not because I have any doubt that these are completely valid philosophies; and it doesn't indicate any sort of "faith" as we commonly think of the word, it simply shows that I value the understandable fears of my family and friends enough to address them (even if I feel such fears are totally unfounded).

The rest of the questions "anonymous" puts forth are very simple to answer. Basically it boils down to the fact that I do not need the crutch of religion to explain anything. I do not neet to invoke some supernatural power to explain love. Animals love each other and they surely are not worshipping some God figure. (Some would argue that they do not love as we do and that they simply care for their offspring out of instinct, but I think this is a human-centric way of thinking and doesn't explain two housecats who are not related in any way snuggling each other and cleaning each other). Love is simply a natural emotion that is hardwired into our being and comes from *within* not from *without*. Indeed, it's this human-centric, conceited attitude that only humans are capable of love, that enables us to devalue other animals to the point where we torture them and murder them by the billions and don't bat an eye. How loving is that? When carnivores kill for food they do not cause a fraction of the suffering and torture we impose upon animals we've bred to *trust* us *not* to hurt them. If humans are the epitomy of what love is, that's a pretty sad state of affairs. I would argue that there are many more loving species than homo sapiens. And while there is some degree of chaos and randomness to nature, there is also a good degree of order to nature as well. We are all part of a delicate ecosystem (which we are quickly destroying); we are all interconnected. That is not really random, but a very complex structure. Nature across the universe is a combination of chaos and structure. We can measure the exact orbital path of a planet around the sun, but at the quantum level, there is chaos in our inability to pin down the exact position and velocity of a particle. Chaos and order go hand in hand in nature, and that's perfectly o.k. Why would there need to be some ultimate design for everything in order to explain such things as love?

Love is a product of evolution. It is really an extension to our ability to suffer. Our ability to suffer evolved as an alarm system, because if we attempt to avoid pain and suffering, we have a better chance of being able to live long enough to reproduce. Then because we evolved the ability to have pain, we knew what it feels like to be in pain and suffer, and when another being is suffering, we can easily relate to that pain and suffering because we've experienced it. This is called empathy. Empathy is the root of love. Empathy is passive, and love is active; that's the only difference. Eventually we evolved to realize that when we take our empathy and act upon it by loving another person, that action will be reciprocated in some way (either by procreating with the person, ensuring the person carries on our genes as in the case of our children, a friend giving us some food to eat, etc.), and thus we became creatures that yearned to love and be love because it was good for us evolutionarily.

"Anonymous" points out the obvious that we cannot know the answers to every question. My response to that is, so what's you're point? I'm not trying to answer every question, just some common ones. I'm perfectly o.k. not answering every question. It's people that need to have an answer to every question that invoke a supernatural explanation, because no other explanations are forthcoming. I don't need to do that to be comfortable with my life. I'm o.k. with question-marks in it.

Finally, "anonymous" asks how the idea of a creator makes me feel and implies that I would feel that I must relinquish control, and that I'm not comfortable not being in control. This final question put forth is exactly why I feel "anonymous" doesn't know me as a person. If "anonymous" did, he/she would know that I used to have a strong belief in a creator, and I was pretty well-adjusted at the time. Entering the world of athiesm was not about claiming some control of my life. We are only in control of our lives to a certain degree. We cannot control a drunk driver slamming into our car and killing us. We cannot control the actions of other people, and there is still question as to what extent we can control our own actions. I don't need to be a control freak--I'll let my stepdad do that ;) Instead, I'll be happy doing what I can to positively influence my life and those people's lives around me that I can. But just as I'm o.k. with question marks, I'm certainly o.k. with not having total control over life; indeed that would make life boring if we knew we could control every aspect of it. So it's not about control...

But to answer the question as to how the idea of a creator makes me feel. You want honesty? It makes me laugh like it would make me laugh to find a grown man who still believes in Santa. It's funny, a bit sad and pathetic, but mostly hilarious that humans still have to make wild unprovable assertions in order to be comfortable with their lives, either because they can't explain everything, because they're afraid of their own mortality, or because they want some bigger purpose in life. I don't need to come up with a supernatural being to be happy and comfortable with my life. If you do, that's fine for you--I'll just try not to laugh ;). I feel free now, and I have no desire to return to the fairytale any more than I have a desire to return to believing in Santa Claus. I think I should make a bumpersticker that says something like: Religion, BTDT, got the T-shirt, and moved on....

answers to questions...

Speaking to people who believe there is a god, I have been presented with several questions. Since I am new to atheism, I am not very practiced at expressing my thoughts/answers to such questions. It can be difficult to do so, because the presuppostion is always that there is a god and I am told to prove that there isn't. This is much like me saying, I believe there is a cavity fairy that exists which is responsible for helping the sugar form cavities on my teeth by means of being a catalyst in the chemical reactions that take place in my mouth; now prove to me there is no such fairy. If you attempted to observe the fairy and found nothing, I could still say, well that's because we cannot detect the fairy with our physical senses, or that the fairy is invisible, or that you just didn't look at the right time. In short, it would be impossible to test the theory of the existence of a cavity fairy and thus prove the cavity fairy doesn't exist, because it's an untestable speculation. But on the other hand, I challenge you to try to prove that the fairy *does* exist. No one thinks from *that* side of the coin in terms of a god, even though it is more logical to invoke the existence of a supernatural being only if we see empirical evidence to do so. We don't oridnarily make wild speculations that cannot be tested when it comes to other things that are hard to explain, such as a genie who painted the grass green. Why do we speculate that there is a supernatural being? Because we fear our own mortality? Because we want, so badly, for there to be a purpose to life? Because the universe seems too complex to just have happened randomly?

Well, after giving some thought to the questions presented to me here are a few answers.

1. What would be the purpose of life if this is all there is?

In short, there is none, at least no *one* purpose. Why must there be a singular purpose? There's no evidence to think there is a purpose beyond what we ascribe. The purpose of *my* life may be defined, by *myself,* as: to spread compassion and critical thinking to humankind. I may accomplish that through raising decent and enlightened children, through my everyday interactions with others, through teaching students, or in many other ways. But that's only *my* life's purpose. Isn't it more freeing that we can all have our own unique purpose than to assume that all of life must adhere to some grandious purpose or meaning?

2. How could something have been made out of nothing? How did this whole universe come about on its own?

For this question I would like to quote from this website: http://www.positiveatheism.org/index.shtml , because this guy (who is obviously a more experienced athiest) says it better than I ever could:

"How do atheists believe the universe was created?

Atheists do not believe the universe was created: to ask it this way is a rhetorical trick known as "begging the question."

Most atheists of the philosophical variety (those who have thought their position through as opposed to those who simply lack a god belief by default) respect the liberal scientific method. In liberal scientific method, every claim to truth is up for gabs. Nobody holds the keys to knowledge, and anybody has the opportunity to overthrow even a major branch of knowledge by supplying the scientific community with new evidence. Albert Einstein, while he was a patent clerk, overturned the entire branch of physics with his theories of relativity. Graduate student Joycelyn Bell discovered the first pulsar, revolutionizing our understanding of what stars are (although it was her instructor who received the Nobel Prize).

So, anything we think we know is subject to change; this is how science works. It seems feeble to someone who thinks they have an infallible unchangeable revelation from a deity, but science is the best we have for discovering truth on our own. Besides, some of us don't believe that any of the reputed "scriptures" are anything more than human inventions, so we're stuck with using our minds and our senses and our tools to learn about our world and ourselves.

So, here is the latest thinking in the branch of particle physics, the Inflationary Big Bang model.

Basically, it is possible, in a complete vacuum, for pairs of oppositely charged particles to manifest themselves from nothing, and to assimilate back into nothing. Since they are oppositely charged, no energy is used for their creation and no energy is lost in their assimilation. This phenomenon is called a "singularity."

This is what most particle physicists think a singularity such as this got the Big Bang started. Now, it is a mistake to think that there was any energy coming from within the Big Bang; the energy came when the singularity escaped to fill the vacuum. None of this violates any known laws of physics. Recently, we have been able to establish that the total amount of energy in the universe equals about zero. So, it makes sense that if it took zero energy for the universe to get started, it would still contain zero energy today. Nothing was added to the singularity escaping into a vacuum, and nothing was used up.

Also, it is a mistake to think of the universe itself as being complex. It is not. The universe is almost complete chaos, randomness, and only here and there exist tiny (very tiny) pockets of order. People say that the laws of thermodynamics show that things go from order to chaos, and that for order to exist requires an outside force doing the ordering (even though there is no evidence of energy being added to the universe). This was a formidable objection 100 years ago, before American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble discovered that the universe is constantly expanding. This expansion leaves room for pockets of order to form without violating any known laws of physics -- and fitting in nicely with the laws of thermodynamics.

It is these tiny pockets of order that our eyes are able to see: the earth, the stars, etc. To even detect the rest of the matter in the universe (called "dark matter") requires sophisticated techniques that are only now being developed -- if we ever discover a way to detect this dark matter directly, for now, we must rely on very sensitive measurements of the effects this matter has on gravity in order to show that it exists.

What was before the universe? Perhaps just a big vacuum: nothingness. Perhaps this universe is just a tiny, brief "bubble" in a much larger system. We don't know. The latter speculation does not violate any known laws of physics (I don't know about the former) but for us to establish this as fact would be quite a trick indeed (though I will not get into why).

The most important question to keep in mind is this: If the universe is so vast and complex that it requires that a creator created it (that "it couldn't have just happened"), then that creator would need to be even more vast and more complex than the universe. Thus, all the more would we need to explain the creator. In other words, if you think the existence of the universe needs explaining, and if you posit a creator to explain the universe's existence, then you will need to explain the existence of the creator.

Another thing to remember is that any talk of creation requires first that we first establish the existence of a creator. It is backwards to try to establish the existence of a creator by observing creation. They tell us that if we find a watch in the desert, we surely know it was created. True. We can look on the back and see which company manufactured it, and then we can visit the plant and talk with the designers and the production crew. We also can look at it and observe evidence that implements have been used to form it: scratch marks and the like. But we cannot just go talk to a god, and as far as we know, everything we see is natural."

3. What happens after we die? All this energy has to go somewhere?

More on this in a future update.... For the moment, I must put children to bed...

Good-bye 2005

What to say on this New Year's Eve? I'm in Bethlehem, PA visiting my in-laws. It's basically been a pretty good time. We visited all the crazy relatives and even had an opportunity to visit our Irish buddy and his wife in New Jersey. But now we're a little bummed because the anticipated New Year's Eve celebration is turning out to be a bust--I guess everyone's too preoccupied to hang with us this year :( So instead I get to ring in 2006 with my kids, my hubby, my mother-in-law and her husband... I'm sure we'll make the most of it, and then tomorrow we'll be off to the western part of the state again to celebrate with my side of the family, which is also sure to be swell...

Solstice Celebration

Yesterday the kids and I dressed up to celebrate the winter solstice! My 3-year old can even tell you that the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year with only a little sunshine, and that each day afterward gets a little longer with a little more sunshine, bringing warmer days in the future.

Last night we celebrated the solstice with my sister, her boyfriend, and my mother. We had a big vegan feast of baked butternut squash, lentil loaf, mashed potatoes, salad, and chocolate pie. I also gave everyone a little token gift with a paper inside explaining the history of the solstice, since it was somewhat of a new concept to my sister's boyfriend and my mom.

Here's what it said; I pieced this together from various websites on the subject:

"By our Gregorian calendar, today is the Winter Solstice. By the Julian Calendar, December 25 was the winter solstice. The solstice, originally regarded by the pagans as the day of the nativity of the sun, the shortest day of the year -- when the light began its conquering battle against darkness -- was celebrated universally in all the ages of man.

If indeed there was a historical Jesus, any record of his date of birth of has been lost. From the biblical description, most historians believe that his birth probably occurred in September, approximately six months after Passover. One thing they agree on is that it is very unlikely that Jesus was born in December, since the bible records shepherds tending their sheep in the fields on that night.

But by the beginning of the 4th century CE, there was intense interest in choosing a day to celebrate Jesus' birthday. The western church leaders selected DEC-25 because this was already the date recognized throughout the Roman Empire as the birthday of various Pagan gods.

In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.

In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. In January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The festival season was marked by much merrymaking. It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the Christmas tradition of caroling was born.

Many symbols and practices associated with Christmas are of Pagan origin: holly, ivy, mistletoe, yule log, the giving of gifts, decorated evergreen tree, magical reindeer, etc. Huge Yule logs were burned by pagans in honor of the sun. The word Yule itself means “wheel,” the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant, and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual. Hollyberries were thought to be a food of the gods.

The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees.

This time of year was much celebrated universally long before Christmas. Indeed there is little doubt that in 350, when Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25, he was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them.

The ancient holiday of the winter solstice, set by motions of the celestial bodies, survives as a day of rejoicing that good will and love will have a perpetual rebirth in the minds of men -- even as the sun has a symbolic rebirth yearly. "

I think it's important for people to understand the history of winter celebrations. If people want to celebrate the birth of Jesus, that's certainly a legitimate reason for them to celebrate, but please don't go telling the rest of us that "Jesus is the reason for the season," because it is patently untrue, not to mention insensitive to other religious traditions that celebrate this time of year. Jesus may be *your* reason for celebrating this season, but he is not *the* reason, since people have celebrated this time of year long before Jesus, and people continue to celebrate this time of year for many other reasons.

So to everyone, I wish "Happy Solstice!"

Hubby's Birthday

So today is my husband's 29th birthday, and we already had a chance to, uh, "celebrate" a little last night. It's funny how you get to benefit from your spouse's birthday, too ;) O.k. now I'm probably making some people blush, so I better stop... He took the day off today, so we will probably go trainwatching and then out to dinner.

Anyway, on the flip side, one of my best friends called me Wednesday night. As soon as she started talking, she had that "someone-just-died" sound in her voice, and I asked her what was wrong. Tragically, her dad passed away, suddenly of a heart attack the day before. He was only 59. I felt really horrible for her, and pretty sad myself, because her dad had always treated me like a member of the family. We went to the viewing and the funeral...*sigh* I hate when things like this happen at this time of year, just like when my grandpap died in December of 2000. It's so hard...

But the funeral did get me thinking... I haven't been to a funeral since my great aunt died in August 2004. At that point in time I was still sort of on the fence as to whether some supernatural power might exist in the world (if it did, I believed it was more like a "force" than a "god", and if there was any "afterlife" it was more likely to be reincarnative in nature rather than like going to "heaven"), but even so, I found the overtly Christian funeral to be not really compatible with my beliefs. I remember mentioning something to my husband that if he were around when I died I did not want a Christian funeral. Since that time, I've let go of all notions of the supernatural, and at this funeral, it really struck me how much comfort people take in believing that the loved one that has passed is in "a better place" or "watching over them" and that someday they'll all be together again. I'm not putting anyone down for taking comfort in such beliefs, if that's what they hold to be true. However, I really don't want that for my funeral.

My husband tells me I have freaked out my dear father-in-law for coming out of the closet about my atheism... I really am not trying to freak anyone out; I just feel it's important to be honest. Life is too short not to be. I love my father-in-law, as I love many other believers. I just have a different set of beliefs, that's all. It's nothing personal against theirs...

So when I told my husband the other day that I don't want god or afterlife mentioned at my funeral (assuming he's around at the time), he sort of took exception and said that the funeral is for the greiving loved ones and if they believe in god, they should be able to express that. While I see his point, I also feel that a funeral is the last farewell, a way of honoring the loved one's life. It would not honor my life to talk about how I'm watching over you and will be together with you again someday, for these are beliefs I strongly disagree with. If you want to privately think that, great. If you want to privately talk about my afterlife with others who are greiving, great. But at a formal ceremony honoring my life, please, whoever is reading this that knows and loves me and happens to be there when I die, please leave the supernatural out of the funeral service. To do otherwise is to spit on my grave in disrespect. Just please talk about my life--how much I meant to you or to my children, what you loved about me, what difference you felt I made in the world, the lives I touched. That is how you can honor me at my funeral....

It's contagious

I resisted this blog trend for a long time, but now my husband just started a livejournal, so I guess I'm jumping on the bandwagon...

I don't know what I have to report except that, after working two days straight on our holiday cards, they are finally done!!!! YAY!!!! My husband wouldn't let me send out solstice cards, and, as an atheist, I couldn't handle "merry christmas," so we chose the generic "happy holidays" greeting as a compromise... My husband is a recovering Christian, too, but he's recovering much more slowly than myself ;)... At least he agrees to teach our children the truth about Santa from day one. I don't believe in lying to my children and betraying their trust just to perpetuate some strange fantasy that a weird man in a red suit brings them presents. Aren't presents more meaningful when they come from someone who knows and loves you (ie. your parents)?

Anyway... what else? oh, I registered for my first semester at University of Pittsburgh. I'm going to be working towards a second bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy. And here's my advice for anyone who's currently working on their first bachelor's and is not so sure they are pursuing the right field: DROP OUT! I've discovered that, if later on you finally realize what field you do want to pursue, you are screwed if you already have one bachelor's degree. No one takes pity on you because you had "your chance" already. Therefore, you qualify for *no* grants, regardless of your income level (you have to take out loans), and if you took any community college courses after your first degree, they will not transfer. So here I am, only using my first degree in a very limited capacity, and already, oh, $15,000 in debt from college loans, and I have to take out more money... I want to eventually go on to grad school, too. If I'd have dropped out after my sophomore year when I really didn't think I wanted to be a music teacher, I could have saved myself 2 years worth of loan money, probably would have been able to tranfer as many credits as I am able to now, and I would have been eligible for grants this time, based on our income, instead of more loans. All told it probably would have saved me upwards of $30,000!

So, again, if you're in school and really not sure if you picked the right field, quit while you're ahead. Work some meaningless job for a few years until you have it figured out. You can always finish what you started or do something totally different and not be penalized for having earned a degree you don't want to do anything with. Who the hell can possibly know what they want to do with their life at 18 when everyone pushes you to hurry yourself into college before you even know who you are? It makes no sense to me. If you really do know what you want, great, but why must everyone conform to the same life pattern?