Category Archives: Cosmos

The Los Angeles Natural History Museum: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory

When you visit Los Angeles and you want to see stuffed animals, don’t avoid the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. Within the stucco walls of the great building these cuddly plush tigers, both yellow and white, await your caresses in the Museum Gift Shop.

Along with the caresses you must also supply the purring — they are only toys, you see — but you will happily do so, won over by the charm of the plush cats.

After you have surrendered to the gentle furry toys, when your guard is lowered and your attention focussed on the doll eyes infused with no more life than your sympathetic imagination has supplied, that is the moment! The moment when you must snap out of the spell, pull yourself together, come down to earth and try to keep in mind exactly where you are:

The Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

Where dinosaurs skeletons hunt… and grade school field trip groups are the prey.

It was all a dream, Jo-jo!

Then there is the Walrus Family. If there were such a measure as The Scale of Physical Danger, the Walrus Family would lie somewhere near the middle, halfway between the plush tigers and the predatory dinosaur skeleton.

Chumley and family.


The Ball and the Cross

Dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, London“Here is the only symbol, my boy. So fat. So satisfied. Not like that scraggy individual, stretching his arms in stark weariness.” And he pointed up to the cross, his face dark with a grin. “I was telling you just now, Michael, that I can prove the best part of the rationalist case and the Christian humbug from any symbol you liked to give me, from any instance I came across. Here is an instance with a vengeance. What could possibly express your philosophy and my philosophy better than the shape of that cross and the shape of this ball? This globe is reasonable; that cross is unreasonable. It is a four-legged animal, with one leg longer than the others. The globe is inevitable. The cross is arbitrary. Above all the globe is at unity with itself; the cross is primarily and above all things at enmity with itself. The cross is the conflict of two hostile lines, of irreconcilable direction. That silent thing up there is essentially a collision, a crash, a struggle in stone. Pah! that sacred symbol of yours has actually given its name to a description of desperation and muddle. When we speak of men at once ignorant of each other and frustrated by each other, we say they are at cross-purposes. Away with the thing! The very shape of it is a contradiction in terms.”

“What you say is perfectly true,” said Michael, with serenity. “But we like contradictions in terms. Man is a contradiction in terms; he is a beast whose superiority to other beasts consists in having fallen. That cross is, as you say, an eternal collision; so am I. That is a struggle in stone. Every form of life is a struggle in flesh. The shape of the cross is irrational, just as the shape of the human animal is irrational. You say the cross is a quadruped with one limb longer than the rest. I say man is a quadruped who only uses two of his legs.”

The Professor frowned thoughtfully for an instant, and said: “Of course everything is relative, and I would not deny that the element of struggle and self-contradiction, represented by that cross, has a necessary place at a certain evolutionary stage. But surely the cross is the lower development and the sphere the higher. After all it is easy enough to see what is really wrong with Wren’s architectural arrangement.”

“And what is that, pray?” inquired Michael, meekly.

“The cross is on top of the ball,” said Professor Lucifer, simply. “That is surely wrong. The ball should be on top of the cross. The cross is a mere barbaric prop; the ball is perfection. The cross at its best is but the bitter tree of man’s history; the ball is the rounded, the ripe and final fruit. And the fruit should be at the top of the tree, not at the bottom of it.”

“Oh!” said the monk, a wrinkle coming into his forehead, “so you think that in a rationalistic scheme of symbolism the ball should be on top of the cross?”

“It sums up my whole allegory,” said the professor.

Oprah's symbol, too.“Well, that is really very interesting,” resumed Michael slowly, “because I think in that case you would see a most singular effect, an effect that has generally been achieved by all those able and powerful systems which rationalism, or the religion of the ball, has produced to lead or teach mankind. You would see, I think, that thing happen which is always the ultimate embodiment and logical outcome of your logical scheme.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Lucifer. “What would happen?”

“I mean it would fall down,” said the monk, looking wistfully into the void.

–from G.K. Chesterton’s novel, The Ball and the Cross,

First published March 24, 1909

Image of the cross atop St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, courtesy of FREEPHOTO.COM.


Note: Atlas is shrugging.We bought a bunch of books at the Festival of Books held last weekend on the campus of UCLA. One of our purchases appears to the left: The Cosmographical Glass, Renaissance Diagrams of the Universe by a guy who knows one whole lot about Renaissance diagrams of the universe, Mr. S.K. Heninger, Jr. The picture on the cover — wrapping around the spine — shows one such diagram; a scheme of the heavens with a fairly weedy-looking Atlas in the center.

More like that await inside. The Cosmological Glass is a collection of hundreds of pictures snipped from books printed before 1700 the common thread of which is their attempt to visualize ideas of the universe, both ancient and new-emerging — Aristotle to Copernicus. Some illustrate different versions the solar system, heliocentric or wrongocentric; others gamely take on the entire cosmos. Still others, like the one below, try to show how the four elements — air, earth, water, fire — though separate and even antithetical are yet somehow bound mathematically. The math in this one is symbolized by the interlinking circles.

That's the Way - Of the World

Heninger quotes a spellcheck-defying epigraph from a 1632 volume of Ovid about those elements:

Fire, Aire, Earth, Water, all the Opposites
That strove in Chaos, powrefull Love unites;
And from their Discord drew this Harmonie,
Which smiles in Nature.

The Cosmographical Glass was printed first in 1977 and brought out again in 2004. To this the newer edition Mr. Heninger adds a fresh forward. The last paragraph of the forward took me by surprise:

For cosmologists of the Renaissance, study of the heavens involved parallel inquiries, both theological and introspective, and led to the recognition of a providential plan. While I wish in no way to denigrate or deride the accomplishments of my own generation of cosmologists, I still must ask, where are they leading us?

The Cosmographical Glass
Renaissance Diagrams of the Universe

by S. K. Heninger
(Huntington Library Press, Paperback, 232pp.)


I thought Ganesh was Babar at first, then I noticed he had an axe.

One night I dreamed I was walking along a beach with the entire Hindu Pantheon. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed thousands of pairs of footprints in the sand.

Sometimes there were 330,000 sets of footprints, other times there were 329,999 sets.

This really got my goat, because, you see, whenever I was having a rough patch in my life there were only 329,999 sets of footprints and when things were running smoothly, all 330,000 were there. Someone was ditching me!

So I halted the entire procession of the Hindu pantheon and hollered, “Okay, so which one of you suddenly got real busy elsewhere whenever my life went south?”

All the Hindu deities sort of looked at each other and some of them muttered, “Did you bring this guy? Who is he?”

Finally Lakshmi laughed and smacked her forehead (four times) and said, “Oh! I remember now! You’re the guy who kept falling down, so we had to strap you to the back of Ganesh.”

I thought about this a minute, then I said, “All right. Okay. Sorry to have lost my cool like that. But shouldn’t there have been 330,001 sets of footprints during the fat times?”

Ganesh replied, “Well, you know, I ride on a mouse.”

Somehow that didn’t track. I opened my mouth to object, but then I woke up. I went to the kitchen and had a bowl of Frosted Flakes.

The Nice Work Observatory

Any friend of yours is a Palomar.The hastily constructed Nice Work Observatory was able to record sightings of the legendary Comet Lulin this night.

Despite near total lack of astronomical equipment the resourceful staff of the Nice Work Observatory were able to turn a 5′ step ladder, a roll of duct tape, a Beatles CD compilation, and a pair of Pentax 16×60 binoculars (plus a step stool for the shorter astronomer) into a serviceable star-gazing apparatus. After hauling the Nice Work Telescope (disassembled for easy transport) up to Saddle Peak far above the black sweep of Santa Monica Bay, the astronomers set up shop and were able to look at Saturn close-up and personal and mark the path of Comet Lulin as it left the Solar System at a brisk — somewhat insulting — pace.

As part of the Nice Work Observatory Outreach Public Educational Program, two drunken motorcyclists were allowed to view the bright orange planet and the blurry green comet through the  Nice Work Telescope after which the annoyed head astronomer made the necessary recalibrations to re-locate the planet and passing ice ball.

Comet gazing was an on-again, off-again affair due to clumps of clouds that flew in, parked awhile, then sped off into the night sky on unguessable errands. The astronomers took the opportunties afforded by these occlusions to become reacquainted with old friends, Castor and Pollux, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, Aldebaran, Orion, Rigel, Betelgeuse, Taurus, the Pleiades, Leo and the good ol’ North Star.

Every Earth Day Day

Topanga has its vey own private solar orbit.Our neighbors high in the valleys of Topanga have a motto, “Every Earth Day Day.” Nobody knows what they mean by that ringing affirmation (or is it an imprecation?), but that’s okay; we love our Topangish neighbors and support them 100%.

One possible interpretation of the slogan “Every Earth Day Day” is as an instruction to look to the eastern skies in this our northern hemisphere (my personal favorite) and squint for the Comet Lulin. All this squinting is best done after dark, needless to say (a phrase which is, ironically, always needless to say). Better still if you do your sky-squinting sometime after 9pm. Bring along some binocs or a telescope. The Comet Lulin is no Comet Kahoutek. It requires amplification.

You can find the astral visitor by following the instructions ON THE WEBSITE YOU SUMMONS BY CLICKING THESE WORDS. Or, just go look for Saturn a-wanderin’ in the sky — it’s the brightest light to the east (and a teensy bit south); also the orangest one. The very faint 5th magnitude green smudge to the left right of Saturn and a short FTL rocket trip above it — Hey! That’s Comet Lulin!

Miracle Man

I like Spock well enough, but I'd rather vote for T'PolA quick search of the Internet reveals that many fine minds have already noted a resemblance between Mr. Barack and Mr. Spock.

Oh, I don’t know about that. Yes, there is a resemblance, but it is not between the logical Vulcan First Officer and Obama the Empath.

The resemblance is between the fans of each fictional character.

First, think of the Spock fans:

For them, Spock is a way to redefine their self-image. It’s not social inadequacy; it’s cool self-possession. Not shyness; instead, reserve. They’re not tongue-tied; they’re laconic. The Spockophiles are not a cult; they’re an elite. Spock embodies their misty dreams of a Better Future Universe in which their awkwardness has flipped 180° into sophistication.

Obama’s groupies, similarly, are not cheering him personally so much as discovering in him a transformative, man-shaped incarnation of their vague vision of a world in which they aren’t completely nuts.

Well, live long and prosper, kids, but I wonder if the DNC will realize before the month is out that what they’ve put on is a Star Trek Convention?