On My 72nd Year: My Ten Fundamental Beliefs

On My 72nd Year: My Ten Fundamental Beliefs

By Gene Wilburn

“I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in” ~ Kenny Rogers

Every year around birthday time (June 10 for me), I like to take stock of what I believe in. Where do I fit with the cosmos? What are my bedrock, fundamental assumptions? This year’s thinking mirrors very closely what I’ve thought for several years, but age has perhaps lent them more clarity.

Let’s start at the beginning. As Terry Pratchett once wrote, “In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.” For each of us our cosmology starts somewhere, and for me it starts with the Big Bang, which I’m told was not really so much an explosion as an expansion — a very dramatic expansion in which a primordial soup of plasma emerged that was so hot not even atoms could form. As it expanded it created space and time. The universe was born. About 13.7 billion years ago, if our measurements are correct.

If it helps you to believe that this was a result of God breathing across the waters, so be it — we each have our favourite narratives. The question of how something can come of nothing is a profound one, and physicists have some thoughts about this: that there really is nothing such as nothing. Particles and antiparticles evidently come into and out of existence billions of times per second and usually annihilate one another, but, at least once, it is possible that particles accumulated faster than antiparticles forming a singularity and, well, boom!

So, that’s belief number one: the universe came into existence. This had implications. Chemistry was born. Eventually particles changed into quarks as the plasma cooled, and later, hydrogen atoms formed. Concentrate enough hydrogen atoms together and what do you get? Fusion. The birth of stars. Then, over time, some stars die in a spectacular explosion called a supernova in which most of the rest of the naturally-occurring chemical elements are created, spewn forth as stellar dust and ice. As these clouds of stellar material concentrate and condense, new stars form, with planets around them. One of these we call the sun, and the planet we live on, which we call earth, formed about 4.5 billion years ago, give or take a million or two.

Which brings me to belief number two: Out of inorganic matter, life began. How is still unsolved, but researchers are exploring the tantalizing possibilities of RNA and other life-critical molecules developing in places like deep-sea vents and evolving into a self-replicating thing that we might call first life, or even protolife — ancestors to the prokaryotes, or single-celled organisms without a nucleus, like bacteria and archaea. Somewhere along the line a bit of luck (for us) happened: two prokaryotes combined to form nucleated cells, which we name as eukaryotes.

Which brings me to belief number three: life evolved. Over great periods of time, eukaryotes developed along plant and animal lines, oxygenating the atmosphere, and eventually some pioneering life forms ventured from the oceans to the lands to colonize the barren geology of earth, turning it into large organic ecosystems.

Belief number four is that, for the most part, the universe is random. It is not willed, or fated, or progressive, though randomness can lead to increased complexities. Using some basic structural parts, nature evolved through random genetic changes into extraordinarily rich organic landscapes and seascapes, filled with the plants and animals of its day. The PreCambrian Explosion, various extinctions, and random events, such as comets crashing into the earth, diverted the path of life several times, until, after eons, the great age of reptiles was over and land mammals had the chance to fill the empty ecological niches.

Belief number five is that the emergence of human beings, in the form of Homo sapiens, was not preordained. We’re a branch of primates that evolved in particular ways to adjust to our environment and we had cousin species, Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc., who did the same. We’ve only been on the planet a short while, in geological terms, but we’ve become a new force. After nearly perishing from extinction ourselves, we made it, and we developed a complex brain that would allow us to discover agriculture, mathematics, and art. Not to mention learning how to sew reindeer hide into warm clothing for the Arctic.

Belief number six is that we originated in and emigrated from Africa. Down deep, we’re all Africans and, living in a very warm climate, we were all probably dark skinned because extra melanin in the skin protects against overpowering UV radiation. Those of us who migrated to colder climates lost some of our melanin because whiter skin helps absorb the sun’s rays better in colder conditions and not as much protection against UV radiation is required.

Belief number seven is that we developed into a language-oriented species that loves narratives. We acquired strong imaginations to accompany the impressive encyclopedic knowledge of our environment we learned through hunting and gathering. Tales around the campfire, stories of our ancestors, legends, myths, and, of course, gods. We’re a species that wants to participate in its own narrative, even if that narrative is unreliable.

Belief number eight is that this narrative of human history is important to study in all its facets, including science, the humanities, and the arts and music. Physically, humans haven’t evolved much in the past 100,000 years or so, but mentally we’ve evolved through many great civilizations in ways that are fascinating and that contributed to our rise as a species.

Belief number nine is that, mentally, we went through our ‘teen’ years between Galileo and Einstein. We began to mature toward mental adulthood by rigorously questioning, observing, measuring, and testing our premises. We bent the planet to our wants and needs with an industrial and scientific revolution.

Belief number ten is that we’ve reached, borrowing from an Arthur C. Clarke title, Childhood’s End. We now possess the ability to destroy the planet for mankind, as well as other species. As adults we must learn to be stewards of our planet and treat it with respect.

I realize I’ve said little about the human condition itself. That is left to explore and think about in the context of the first ten beliefs, but I suspect it will always remain a personal, and sometimes communal, journey for each of us. This is why I write essays — to see what I think about life. We are all part of the overall narrative of mankind and each of us expresses it in a personal way.

To be sure, if we reach mental adulthood intact, the greatest history of Homo sapiens could just be starting. As we look at our current state, we see automation trending ever forward, with artificial intelligence waiting in the wings. We may create a new kind of life form. We may, if wise, develop eco-friendly attitudes about our home planet and change how we obtain energy and food. Our journey as mental adults has just begun. We may even prosper, as long as a random comet doesn’t smash into us again, and as long as we don’t self destruct. Fingers crossed, humankind!

A Brief Meditation on Solitaire

A Brief Meditation on Solitaire

By Gene Wilburn

“Patience’s [Solitaire’s] design flaw became obvious for the first time in my life: the outcome is decided not during the course of play but when the cards are shuffled, before the game even begins. How pointless is that?” ~ David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Napoleon Bonaparte and I have very few things in common. He was short, I am tall. He was an extrovert, I’m an introvert. He was a brilliant military strategist, commanding great armies. I’m a quiet essayist with, maybe, six regular readers. He, evidently, ate arsenic. As far as I know I’m arsenic free, but we do have one shared passion: we both love to play Solitaire, or as he called it Patience, with a French accent.

Where the game originated is in question, but it seems to have emerged either in France, or in the Balkans, some time in the 18th Century. Called Patience, with an English accent, in England, it spread to Canada and the United States and became famous during the Klondike Gold Rush in the Canadian Yukon Territory as a game called, unsurprisingly, Klondike. One imagines lone miners stuck in their huts, whiling away the hours with the cards, or maybe two miners betting on the games, listening to the gales of the Arctic winds dampen their enthusiasm for finding riches. The rules of Klondike proved popular and are the basic rules of the game most of us now know as Solitaire.

Solitaire enjoyed its biggest boost ever by being included as a free computer game in early Microsoft Windows. As a consequence it is now played world wide by millions of devotees, not to mention bored office workers, but nowhere is it as enjoyable as on an iPad or other tablet where it has the feel of real cards without all the bother of shuffling, moving around, and occasionally dropping, small pieces of laminated cardboard.

For me, Solitaire is not so much a game as a centring process. When the world is too much with me, late and soon, as Wordsworth said, I turn to Solitaire for a time out and an active mindful meditation. I don’t so much play to win as to observe what different patterns of randomness can do. In order to make this more interesting I tweaked the rules of the game: I redefined what a Solitaire “win” means. Getting all the cards up to the top is the standard definition of “win” but if you play Solitaire by the three-card-up option, as I do, you very seldom win, or even come close to winning by these rules.

The Solitaire game I play on my iPad is called Real Solitaire HD, by EdgeRift. It keeps a running numeric score of the game as you play it and through playing hundreds of games I finalized on a score of 150 as “beating the odds.” Under my rules, if you beat the odds, you’ve “won.” Of course you may do much better than that and any game in which you score 200 points or more is a very decisive victory. (Your game of Solitaire may score points differently, so you may have to do your own calibration to determine a reasonable score for winning.)

David Mitchell’s complaint in the opening quote about Solitaire being decided at the moment of the shuffle is mainly true, but there are nuances. Part of the fun, for me, is looking at the initial deal and, based on lots of play experience, gauging the odds of beating the odds. If you’re dealt a set of cards that are all red or all black, you can just about kiss your chances of winning goodbye. I play the game anyway because there can be surprises lurking hidden in the deck. It doesn’t happen often, but once in awhile an unexpected chain of sequences occur that changes the odds during play. It’s like watching an unseeded underdog win a tournament. Exciting. I should probably note that I’m easily amused.

There are various patterns of Solitaire games that I’ve noted. The ones that are totally doomed from the beginning with no useful cards turning up are almost as interesting as wins, in terms of the odds. Then there are those that start well but die before reaching the magic 150-point mark. And the exciting ones that look doomed, but come through with a burst at the last minute that carries it to victory. Or the agony of games that end up at 145, just 5 points shy from winning.

In a way, it’s like the odds in life. People may start well, emerging from a good family and educational background, yet fail to achieve their full potential. Others may have a hard start, but through perseverance pull through, beating the odds. Some are golden — only good things seem to happen and they reach a “perfect” game. And then there are those who never had a good start and never achieved a second chance.

Like life, Solitaire is all about randomness. And randomness can be streaky, with long runs of good games and bad games. Just like life. You play the cards you’ve been dealt. The odds are difficult to predict, or as Winston Churchill said, “It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.” Yes, life is very much like the odds of Solitaire: unknown, but hopeful.