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Secrets of the Universe Revealed – Or Not?

29 Aug

A pause in the conversation led the old man to look up at the cloud formation and think about his future, which is death.

“I wonder if you learn everything,” he said. “How it all came to be; its meaning and purpose. It can’t be like that Big Bang crap. How could it all have gotten down into an infinitesimal speck, and how did it explode, instead of being sucked into itself like a black hole? And if there was nothing outside of it, how did it have a place to go?”

Death would be sweet if it meant getting all the answers. Without a body you couldn’t do much, but if you knew everything you’d feel pretty good about yourself. It would be like learning how the magician did the trick, only a trillion times better.

My intention was not to depress the old man, but I told him my theory of the moment.

“I doubt we get to know,” I said. “Our opinion of ourselves is exaggerated. Considering all that exists, I’d say we lack importance. I’m sensing we are the equivalent of a low-level employee who gets no time or attention from the boss.”

Top management, to whom the secrets might be disclosed, probably occupies another planet or dimension, is not prone to war and genocide and generally makes things easier for the CEO rather than more difficult.

While the Bible tells how Jesus came to save us, there also are passages like this one in Isaiah:

All the nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.

In a wonderfully written New York Times column (The Man in the Moon) Lydia Netzer says:

When humanity was in its infancy, we thought the universe revolved around us. Then, with Copernicus, we aged into heliocentrism, became aware we were one of a family of planets inside the walls of our house, the solar system. Nearby stars gather like a town, rotating through the galaxy, our country. Clusters are like continents. We realized in stages that we were very insignificant. And then, almost like grown-ups, we pulled our boots on and began to try to leave a significant mark anyway.

Sitting in a car seat next to the old man, I couldn’t accept that in a few years he would know it all. It’s too grand a gift. In the military, personnel are told things on a “need to know” basis. As humans, do we really need to know?

Once we have performed on Earth, it’s likely we will be whisked away like a bad vaudeville act. There’s plenty more in the wings.

But all is not lost.

“In a way, we are immortal,” I said. “Since matter is neither created nor destroyed, every atom that is you remains as part of the creation. After you die, your atoms eventually scatter. They say we could easily have been part of someone like Socrates or Newton. Can you image that? On the other end, you may help create the next Newton. But you won’t be conscious of it.”

“If what you say is true, I’ll make the next Newton but never know an ounce of what he will know,” he said.

“Look, this is only what I’m thinking today,” I said. “Tomorrow, when the clouds are different and I read a different Bible passage and cut and paste from a different New York Times column, I’ll have another opinion for you.”

“So maybe I will get to know everything.”

“Maybe you will.”

And then he went off to play cards with some ladies who had outlived their husbands and only worry about getting from one place to another without it causing too much pain.

— Lanny Morgnanesi


Genetic Memory: Is there a way to know what my great-great-great grandfather was thinking?

22 Aug

I’m hungry. Always hungry. And I eat fast.

I sometimes think my ancestors must have been starving peasants and that I inherited their hunger. Now it seems there is growing evidence such a thing could be true.

It’s called genetic memory. The theory is that a person can actually receive the memory of past generations in his or her genetic code.

Doreen Carvajals wrote on the subject recently in the science section of the New York Times. She was raised Catholic but learned that centuries ago her family was Jewish, living in Spain and forced to convert during the Inquisition. She seeks to find the facts to all this in her own DNA.

A journalist and author, Carvajals discusses some of the research on the theory and even mentions a video game – Assassin’s Creed  — that employs the concept.

Her piece mentions Dr. Darold A. Treffert, a psychiatrist with a list of 300 people who, after head injury or dementia, became musicians, artists and mathematicians. His belief is they taped into genetic memory to learn these skills. He calls it “factory-installed software.”

The animal world shows great evidence of this. How, for example, does a tiger raised by humans develop all the traits of a tiger? Animal behavior always stick with the animal, whether or not there is learning and instruction. We used to simply call that “instinct.” But what is “instinct?”

Maybe it’s genetic memory.

Maybe we’ve all got it, in a mostly unconscious form. It’s there for our survival and keeps us alive by telling us to avoid this danger and embrace that solution. Genetic memory seems like a wise thing to include when building life forms. Why make each generation of a species learn something over and over again?

Once is enough.

For too many people, it is easy to imagine that in a former life they were queens of Egypt or heads of European dynasties.  Genetic memory, if it exists, probably is much more subtle, almost imperceptible. It must work like background noise.

Like the noise in my stomach?

Probably not.

My sister is a disturbingly slow eater who is not really drawn to food, yet she has the same ancestors as I. When placed under mild scrutiny, the theory of my hunger and rapid eating habits is just an excuse for unenviable behavior. More plausible is that some kind of chemistry drives it.

Still, I would like to know if anyone reading has had an experience with genetic memory. The more restrained the better. Bold tales are hard to believe. More worthwhile is a recollection of some unexplained conduct that surfaced from nowhere but proved worthy if not prescient.

I look forward to hearing from such a person.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going for a sandwich.

Humans have no monopoly on intelligence

9 Jun

By Lanny Morgnanesi.

Animal intelligence is very much underrated.

Even when a creature does something really smart, humans just say it’s instinct – which suggests it does not involve real intelligence.

Human’s cannot grasp the full intelligence of animals because, I think, they don’t know the source of that intelligence. It would seem to me that it is the brain working with senses we don’t have and therefore don’t understand.

It would be like an alien coming to Earth. Suppose we didn’t flat out shoot him. Suppose we allowed him (her or it) to do something. We probably wouldn’t understand why or how it was done because we wouldn’t understand the physiology of the creature – especially if it was not anthropomorphic.

Same with animals.

When you live with them, however, you become very accepting of their intelligence. While they aren’t likely to grab paper and pencil and compose a sonnet, they seem to be aware of all that is going on in the household … when people fight, when they are sick, when there is something to fear and how to protect yourself against it, when someone is gone and when someone returns … the basic elements of life.

I have a cat that is getting old and can’t jump like he used to. So when he wants to get up on the counter, he cries. I, being intelligent, immediately know what he wants. But here is my question, and the reason for writing this post: Can anyone tell me how the cat knows I have the intelligence to understand his cry?

For the animal to know that alone takes a lot of intelligence.


The Greatest Science Fiction Story of All Time: A Reflection

29 Apr

Below is an essay I wrote for Analog, the science fiction magazine. It was rejected, so I thought I’d publish it here. Comments are appreciated.

Decades after its phenomenal success, a reaction to a first reading of Asimov’s “Nightfall”

Author Isaac Asimov

By Lanny Morgnanesi

For more than a year there was a task entry in my Outlook program that said simply, “Read ‘Nightfall.’ ”

Although I am a fan of its author, I had never read this celebrated short story.

Some say it is the best science fiction story ever written. It certainly is Isaac Asimov’s most famous story. Hence, the note in Outlook, which I created after reading a passing reference to the story and its hallowed reputation.

I knew I could find the story quickly online whenever I wanted, and so never quite got around to it … like living in New York and not visiting the Statue of Liberty. I must have been waiting for a special moment, not wishing to consume the piece lightly.

That moment came in the form of a premonition, or something like one. I was attending a business meeting in a college library. During a break I went over to the stacks. Directly in front of me, at eye level, was, “Nightfall and Other Stories.”

I took it home.

The story was written in 1941 while Asimov was attending Columbia University and working in his father’s candy store. It was published in Astounding Science Fiction, whose editor was a man named John W. Campbell.

The anthology I brought home came out in 1969. It contains an introduction by Asimov that is almost as interesting as the title story.

Reflecting on something he produced almost three decades earlier, when he was 21, the author expressed amazement at the story’s popularity and endurance. At the time he wrote “Nightfall,” Asimov had published a dozen stories. Another dozen had been rejected. He would go on to become an incredibly prolific author but never considered himself a trained writer.

Still, in his anthology introduction, he seemed flummoxed that as a seasoned professional he could not duplicate the success of the novice who wrote “Nightfall.”

He says in the intro:

“Now let’s get something straight.  I didn’t write that story any differently from the way I had written my earlier stories – or, for that matter, from the way I wrote my later stories. As far as writing is concerned, I am a complete and utter primitive. I have no formal training at all and to this very day I don’t know How To Write.

“I just write any old way it comes into my mind to write and just as fast as it comes into my mind.

“And that’s the way I wrote ‘Nightfall.’”

The tone almost seems resentful of his first great accomplishment.

Asimov had expected to be paid $120 for “Nightfall.” When the check came for $150 he thought it was a mistake. He called the editor, Campbell, who said there was no mistake. Such a good story deserved more.

Campbell had a personal interest in the work. In fact, he gave the idea to Asimov. It was based on his disagreement with a quote by Emerson … a quote that appears at the beginning of “Nightfall.”

This is the quote:


“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God?”

Rather than create wonder and delight, Campbell believed the sudden appearance of stars (and darkness) after 1,000 years of daylight would drive everyone mad. That is what Asimov wrote about … a planet with multiple suns that is perpetually bright, except for one true night every 2,000 years or so.

The reader learns the planet has no recorded history of these infrequent nights because during each one, the world goes mad and civilization is destroyed.

Over the eons, life has been repeatedly rebuilt from nothing. There is, however, some scattered, vague knowledge of this that is prophesized by an eccentric cult.

Unequivocally, an extraordinary premise for a story.

Yet after so much anticipation, after so many accolades, I was sadly let down by “Nightfall.” I’d like to think it was the filter of time that took the edge off, but I know it was more than that.

How to explain my disappointment with a great, wonderful, brilliant man worshiped by people much smarter and more literate than me?

“Nightfall” maps out a wonderful and inventive idea, but the writer, in my reading, fails to finesse it; doesn’t creatively exploit its potential. I call this kind of writing “idea” writing. The work of Ayn Rand is the same. Concepts are strong; characters and story telling tend to be weak.

My favorite work of Asimov is the Foundation trilogy. Like “Nightfall,” it contains an exceptional scenario and complex, innovative, paradigm-breaking concepts. So rare; so different; so insightful. It is from the mind of someone very special. But it reads the same as “Nightfall.”

There also is the filter of time working against the Foundation series.

Asimov’s work from the 40s and 50s reads as if it were written in the 40s and 50s. It’s not that way with all science fiction of the era. Some writers tried very hard to steep themselves in an entirely new milieu. In an effort to do that, Asimov will give his characters names like Sheerin 501 but then have people smoking on spaceships and treating women passengers like stewardesses.

In “Nightfall” an important and influential character is a newspaper columnist. Newspaper technology, of course, is based on a 15th Century European invention. One wishes, perhaps unfairly, that he would have seen the digital world, or something else, coming.

Still, the young man from the candy store had his touches.

As the panicked mad men and women of “Nightfall” begin setting the world on fire as a way to re-create the light from their disappearing suns, Asimov ends his story this way:

On the horizon outside the window, in the direction of Saro City, a crimson glow began growing, strengthening in brightness, that was not the glow of the sun.

“The long night had come again.”

That, from the best science fiction story ever written, gave me chills.

In the anthology, Asimov advises readers to closely look at the other stories to determine why – or if – “Nightfall” is better than the others. He can’t seem to tell. It is almost as if he is jealous of the early success and hopes the verdict elevates another candidate.

The strong reaction to “Nightfall,” apparently different from Asimov’s, suggests that the artist is really not in control of the art.  Without permission, the work goes where it wants to go or where it needs to be, depending on the mind that absorbs it.

Now there’s a subject for a science fiction story … if only Isaac were around to write it.

Lanny Morgnanesi is a writer living in Doylestown, Pa. He can be reached at


What good are crowds when you’re dead?

20 Feb

Mulberry Tree

Yesterday I stood in line with hundreds of people waiting to see a show by an artist who, while alive, sold only one painting.

The “Van Gogh Up Close” exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum was a collection of paintings done in the last four years of the artist’s life. Many were completed at an asylum where he was being treated for mental illness.

In the context of his time (the late 1800s), his work was revolutionary. It was unacceptable – almost a joke — to the majority of the established art world. Vincent Van Gogh, in his life, was a failure. It is a sad thing that greatness has to suffer in its time because it is so far ahead of its time.

The rest of us are so slow to catch up.

“This was done by a free mind,” my wife, an artist and teacher, said. “My young students can do work like this.”

Van Gogh self-portrait

She did not mean they reach Van Gogh’s level of artistry, craft and creativity. She meant that like Van Gogh their minds are unshackled.

It takes time to shackle a mind, but in the end they get locked down pretty tight.

In many ways, the reaction to new art is like the reaction to great scientific discovery, which is said to have three stages:

  • First, people deny that it is true.
  • Then they deny that it is important.
  • Finally they credit the wrong person.

Well, at least Van Gogh got his credit … belated though it was.

Can the unexplainable be explained?

28 Jan

Ernest Rutherford




Ernest Rutherford, a great and historic Nobel Prize winning scientist, once said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

As physics gets stranger, with the counter-intuitive Quantum mechanics and the many inelegant versions of string theory and multi-dimensional universes, the deep core of science almost seems unexplainable, perhaps unknowable.

How close to the shore of heaven can we get before light blinds us?

So, with a tip of the hat to Rutherford, I say:

All science is metaphor.

What do you scientists say to that?


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