Archive for January 2012

Strange New Worlds, by Ray Jayawardhana

January 14, 2012

Newtonian numbers set to cosmic lyres
Whelmed us in whirling worlds we could not know,
And by the imagined floods of our desires
The voice of Sirens gave us vertigo.
–Richard Wilbur, “Lamarck Elaborated”

This book from last year is already being eclipsed by new discoveries. What were blurs are becoming clear. The Doppler effect and spectral analysis allow deduction of the nature of other suns and their orbiting bodies. A planet that transits its star can be detected with patient work–like observing a gnat in front of a car’s headlight miles away.

The Galileo spacecraft returned to our vicinity on its looping way to Jupiter in 1990, and the technicians had it strain for signs of life here. Methane and oxygen react to form water and carbon dioxide, so an excess of free methane in the presence of oxygen indicates that living things are blasting it out. The large oceans reflected light to make themselves known. Chlorophyll appeared in the spectra, and radio signals were likely of artificial origin. These would be the signatures to read from other worlds.

As things progress, one day we might be looking and listening in as thousand-year-old light and signals arrive, and we can eavesdrop on the long-gone goings-on.

Radio Dish, Raisting, Bavaria


The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)

January 1, 2012

What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
Henry V, IV.i

In a future 1980 or so, the former Archbishop of Lviv (Anthony Quinn) is released from the Gulag by personal order of the Premier (Laurence Olivier) and, pursuant to an agreement with the Holy See, whisked to the Vatican, where he is made a Cardinal just in time for the Pope (John Gielgud) to die. After a number of inconclusive votes, the cardinals turn to this newcomer and make him Kiril I. In order to demonstrate his seriousness in the need to relieve world poverty, he refuses to be crowned with the tiara and pledges to give away all the wealth of the Church.

It’s full of holes, but still a lot of fun. Quinn’s earnest performance makes all the improbabilities go down easy: He’s an eastern-rite bishop made Pope–it’s never been done, but there’s always a first time; he is not attended by a gaggle of aides everywhere he goes, but seems to have all those big rooms to himself; Fr. Telramond (Oskar Werner, sounding like he attended boarding school in England with William F. Buckley Jr., as a stand-in for Teilhard de Chardin) is under investigation for heresy, but is trusted with delicate diplomatic missions; and finally, the dramatic gesture at the end–we see the Pope put aside the tiara (in Fr. Neuhaus’s phrase) and hear the cries of “Viva il Papa!“, but don’t get to see how this all turns out for good. It’s interesting to speculate–how much could the Vatican raise if it really wanted to sell everything off? Would there even be a buyer for St. Peter’s, or would it have to be stripped and pieces sold individually?

You can feel the tension in the script as the story was stretched from its pre-Vatican II origin to a post-Vatican II reality. Much of the stiffness and ceremony in Vatican proceedings was already starting to melt away by the time that the film came out. Kiril, for all his freshness and lack of pretension, is careful always to use the first person plural in dealings with clergy. This shows how on one level, the story is really a conciliarist’s fantasy–a Pope with all the strength of Pius XII, if not Gregory XVI, with the willingness to use it to cram through the much-needed change.  Of course, if Kiril governed as humbly as he spoke, he would be run over by those unwilling to join him–another St. Celestine V.

The last papal coronation was of Paul VI in 1963. He later sold his tiara to raise funds for the poor. The tiara lives only in the papal coat of arms (when not eclipsed by the miter), but the poor are still with us.