Foundation and Closed Priesthood


There are books that itch inside your mind and say, “It’s time! Read me again.” For me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is one of them. So I recently gave it a second read. I’m in awe of its depth of thought and its continued, if not increased, relevance today. I highly recommend this book.

I do not suggest Foundation as a light and fun read. You must show up. You must give it your full attention. You will be rewarded.

Perhaps the ingredient in Foundation which I find most interesting is the notion of science as a closed priesthood. Quite literally, scientists as a group who derive power and authority from their vocation, but who remain highly exclusive, mysterious, and suspect to non-scientists. Their work takes on the air of magic–attractive to some and fearful to others–by virtue of being well-guarded, specialized, and difficult for laymen to comprehend.

In his book Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, Carl Sagan has these cautionary words to say about closed priesthood:

“The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern – if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table – we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.”

I’ll leave you to think about this issue. But I suggest the topic is both fascinating and critically deserving of our consideration. One of the best ways to consider science as a closed priesthood, for good and ill, is to read Asimov’s masterwork.

To read an earlier review I wrote of Foundation, visit Goodreads.

First Impressions of The Last Jedi Trailer

This will be a day long remembered. It has seen the end of waiting for the Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer, and will soon see (hopefully) the end of Supreme Leader Snoke inadvertently using internal rhyme:

“I saw raw [pause for eerie underscore] untamed power!”

Never thought of Chewbacca as a fuzzy-dice-on-the-rear-view-mirror kinda driver. So why is he suddenly tolerating fuzzy dice that yell? In any case, let the debate begin over repeating Ewok marketing history.

What’s with the enjambment-like interruption of otherwise complete sentences of dialogue by underscore and sound effects? See Snoke’s quote above for the first example. For a second example, here is Kylo Ren speaking:

“Kill it… [pause for orchestral vamp beneath TIE Fighter engine scream] …if you have to.”

Seriously folks, play the trailer with your eyes closed and just listen. It’s like the non-verbal elements of the soundtrack are mansplaining how we should feel about the dialogue, which spurts out in staggered fragments.

As with all previous Star Wars trailers, I will operate under the assumption that the clips in this one which seem the most spoiler-ish are the clips that will prove the most misleading when we see the finished movie.

Not a very fun trailer. Impressive. Most impressive. But certainly not delightful or enchanting like some of The Force Awakens teaser material. This trailer gives the impression of the characters having a very stressful Thursday.

Is Finn’s new sidekick, Rose Tico, anywhere in this trailer? I feel like all I know right now is she’s cute as a button. I’d like to know more than that.

What if the power which determines the fate of all Star Wars characters is not the Force, but the writers/directors opting for whichever plot twist the audience is least likely to anticipate?

No, Star Wars fan theorists. Nuh-no. This trailer does not reveal to whom Rey is related. But go ahead and claim that it does, and that you alone figured it out, thus scoring your blog lots of page views and maybe getting picked up by the Huffington Post. Besides, Rey is totally related to Snoke. Seriously, compare their eyes. [pause for slasher film violin screech] I’m kidding. I have no clue who Rey’s parents are.

If they ever make The Last Jedi into a Broadway musical, the Act 1 Finale will be a stirring ballad called “Something Truly Special” sung by Supreme Leader Snoke.

Cassini’s Final Breath in Poetry

Waiting for the Last Wave

“Cassini Significant Events Email – Friday, Sept. 15 (DOY 258)
…As Saturn set in the western California sky, the DSN stations in Australia locked onto the spacecraft’s signal as Saturn rose above their eastern horizon…”

We wait on echoes
from the near past
the spearing death cry
from the just silenced mouth
the quintessential sitting
watching and waiting
generations mourn in synced frequencies
higher and lower together
we are all precious
fleeting folk

“…as Cassini continued to faithfully follow the commands it had received months before…”

Is the echo part of the life
still alive
last cry like a geyser spraying
up and out

“…Data continued to flow, and every bit of telemetry was captured at the Australian DSN stations…”

In silence, we watch each other
eyesight embraces eyesight
hands pass a jar of peanuts
fingers kiss fingers
ears watch for the living wave
ready to capture

“…As it tumbled out of control, within minutes Cassini had come apart, melted, and vaporized into its host planet.”

The last echo dying gives us permission
to cry.

Poet’s Note:

For NASA’s complete email text, see the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s weekly Significant Events email, 9/13/17 ­ 9/19/17.

For more Cassini-inspired poetry, try Poetry for the Grand Finale.

Saturn on the rocks

“She climbs slowly, precisely, / With unwasted grace.”

–Kenneth Rexroth, “On What Planet”

Saturn, Rhea and Mimas by Elisabetta Bonora, Savona, Italy, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/E. Bonora

On the Poetry Foundation’s website can be found wonderful poems like the myriad moons of Saturn. And in at least a couple of those poems, the planet Saturn becomes a principal character. Such is Kenneth Rexroth’s beautiful poem, “On What Planet.” The poem is not about Saturn, but about adventure-seeking rock climbers. Short and sweet, and with a delightful audio performance by the poet, this one is a gem. Check it out.

On What Planet

Note the “Amateur Images” logo on the above picture. This image also deserves a couple of minutes of your time. Let the video and web analyst herself explain the journey this vista took from Cassini’s camera, to her computer, to ours.

Saturn, Rhea and Mimas by Elisabetta Bonora

The Cassini spacecraft ends its two-decade mission on the morning of September 15th. It will have been one of the great flagship missions of space exploration. For more information, visit NASA’s Grand Finale Toolkit.

To stay in the poetry vein, try Papery Cassini Farewell.

Mother, Son, and Saturn

“He loves the buoyant, frictionless / plate / his father has in focus.”

–Stefanie Marlis, “Saturn”

Cassini’s first color composite of Saturn, the moon Titan visible at upper-left, imaged from 177 million miles away in October of 2002, Credit: NASA/JPL/Southwest Research Institute

As we get ready to say goodbye to the Cassini spacecraft, I hope you’ll take this chance to read an example of Saturn embedded in our culture, as well as our individual psyches. Stefanie Marlis’s poem, quoted above, is a wonderful and pointed glimpse into the matriarchal mind, in relation to an imperfect but precious and promising child. Saturn makes a crucial appearance at the end. Short poem. Quite accessible. Give it a try:


The Cassini spacecraft ends its two-decade mission on the morning of September 15th. It will have been one of the great flagship missions of space exploration. For more information, visit NASA’s Grand Finale Toolkit.

To stay in the poetry vein, try Papery Cassini Farewell.

Re-rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama (Rama, #1)Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Some people go to bars on Friday nights. Married couples often go on dates to keep their courtship alive. These days, I spend most Friday nights in my living room watching Star Trek reruns with perhaps the only group of Twitter users I can still tolerate. Then, on typical Saturday mornings like this one, I sit in a coffeeshop nursing my junk-food hangover with iced coffee. Today I reflect on a beautiful experience which I relished last week. Not the 2017 Solar Eclipse. The other beautiful experience I had last week.

“All his professional career he had looked upon the universe as an arena for the titanic impersonal forces of gravitation, magnetism, radiation; he had never believed that life played an important role in the scheme of things…”

The copyright page indicates I bought the above Del Rey paperback edition of Rendezvous with Rama in or after 1988. Four years earlier, I’d been converted to Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction by Peter Hymans’ movie 2010, itself a sequel to Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I read Rendezvous with Rama and loved it. Yet like so many books and flicks I consumed in those pre-internet days, Rama remained a solitary experience, largely unshared with family and friends.

“The real New York, like all of man’s habitations, had never been finished; still less had it been designed. This place, however, had an over-all symmetry and pattern, though one so complex that it eluded the mind. It had been conceived and planned by some controlling intelligence…”

I read Rendezvous with Rama again in 2008, admiring Clarke’s efficient storytelling. The novel’s plot effects an elegant marriage between grandly impersonal architectural themes and a thoroughly romantic awareness of humanity’s puny footprint in the cosmos. In this universe, could it be that intelligences exist so advanced as to be indistinguishable from gods? Might they be utterly disinterested in humans, so disinterested as to leave their ship’s door unlocked?

Might superior intelligence only threaten us inadvertently, as an ant is threatened by the shoe of an otherwise peaceful human failing to notice the insect in its path, and so crushing the smaller being unawares? Might there be something fundamentally healthy about considering the possibility humans are only a supporting character in creation? Yes, life may only be a precious accident.

“He believed that the universe operated according to strict laws, which not even God could disobey…”

Last week, for the third time in my life, I read Rendezvous with Rama. I found its door still unlocked. I crept inside while it slept. I witnessed as its gigantic interior awakened, punctuating its general quiescence with storms of electricity, wind, and metallic tsunamis. Then, as it prepared to sleep again, I fled back outside and watched it eclipse our sun.


My third encounter with Rama felt intensely familiar, as did the second and first. Rama—a vast cylindrical alien ship on an intergalactic journey—seemed familiar as a childhood backyard, deep and vivid in the memory. Rama, you remain a place where I feel less alone. And I know that I love you, because even though you make me feel smaller and more fleeting, I feel blessed to have been altered by your appearance in my life.

Eagle vs. Armadillo in NASA Rhetoric

“…we can’t keep living off Apollo’s bounty. Currently, the hair of a scientist can turn gray waiting to get their first experiment on the shuttle, let alone the necessary follow-up research.”

—Daniel S. Goldin, NASA Administrator

Yesterday I went digging for speeches by former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. And these days digging is what you must do to find archival material on, especially bookish things like administrator speeches. I dug, dug, dug, like an armadillo you might say.

Daniel S. Goldin, Image Credit: NASA

I wound up at the out-of-the-way, but highly useful, NASA NTRS webpage (NASA Technical Reports Server). They dished me up an interesting speech Mr. Goldin gave at the Space Station Utilization Conference held in Huntsville, Alabama on August 4, 1992. He spoke about Space Station Freedom, the conceptual precursor to our International Space Station.

You are hereby invited to ditch my blog and read the three-page speech in its entirety:

Goldin Speech on Space Station Freedom

In a culture where all NASA speeches exist in the shadow of that one President Kennedy gave (you know the one), it’s understandable this address ended up tucked away in an archive. After all, it promotes a Reagan Era space station that was never actually built. Yet, with impassioned tone, Goldin’s speech effectively lays out the rationale for putting a continuously inhabited laboratory in Low Earth Orbit.

Artist concept image of Space Station Freedom by Tom Buzbee, Image Credit: NASA

On a literary level, I most enjoyed mulling over Goldin’s use of an animal kingdom analogy, which he borrowed from NASA Scientist Rick Chappell. The analogy contrasts a soaring eagle with a scurrying armadillo. In short, when it comes to research and exploration we need to be like an eagle, not an armadillo. Why? Goldin and Chappell portray the high-soaring eagle as having a wise long-range mindset. The burrowing armadillo, however, only cares about finding its next meal.

Zoologists may be better equipped to weigh the merits of denigrating armadillos simply because they cannot fly. I believe there is both engineering and literary merit in honoring critters who are good on the ground. Still, Americans have long loved their eagle mascot for good reasons. Any metaphor which clarifies the wisdom of keen vision and long-term, broad-perspective thinking has merit.

Now, if only for the fun of it, here are a few words in favor of the armadillo. In recent decades both Hollywood and the aerospace industry have given this creature nods. Google “Armageddon Armadillo” and “Armadillo Aerospace” to see this animal’s rocky road to iconic status. While you’re at it, for a chuckle do an image search on the “pink fairy armadillo.” Now there’s a cute little armored critter for you!

Getting back to Goldin’s speech, we can look at today’s International Space Station and see the remarkable achievement of continual human presence in space. The day-to-day research and public-private partnerships Goldin envisioned in 1992 have come to fruition. But, in a quest for clever analogies, we could also look at the hardworking occupants of the ISS as they tunnel through the station’s interior, or scurry about the exterior wearing protective layers. We can observe them busily engaged in domicile maintenance and resupply missions. Do they seem more like eagles or armadillos?