Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hot Air Balunatic Time Travel

Recently, two scientists Nielsen and Nonomiya came out with what seemed to be a ridiculous theory. The Large Hadron Collider (a massive particle accelerator in Europe referred to as the LHC) has been experiencing significant setbacks to its opening. Between techincal problems, to overheating to even one of its scientists being arrested for connections with Al-Qaeda, it has suffered what appears to be an unnatural string of bad luck. These mainstream scientists (yes, they happen to be mainstream astrophysicists) have proposed that this is actually a sign that the future is traveling back to the past to save us. If not for their reputation, these scientists would have normally been laughed at and marginilized.

The basic concept goes as follows, the LHC should be able to detect a theoretical particle called the Higgs boson. This particle (if it exists) should be part of what gives items mass. If detected, some have argued that its knowledge could have potentially harmful effects and we could inadvertently annihilate ourselves (most scientists still feel that this is a ridiculous assumption). It has been nicknamed "The G-d Particle".

These scientists have concocted a theory that nature has its own protection mechanisms and, therefore, prior to our self-annihilation, it will travel through time to save itself. This concept reminded me of an explanation given to the Tower of Bavel story that is found in last week's parsha, Noach. Rav Yehonasan Eibshitz (Tiferes Yehonasan) mentions that humankind wanted to build a mechanism to transport them to the moon.

(Some rabbanim of recent seem to have misquoted or misunderstood this segment by stating that it proves that NASA's intentions are counter to Torah beliefs. Unless they are quoting from a different peirush of Rav Eibshitz, they state that he is arguing that space exploration is evil because of its haughty nature. A reading of the peirush shows that the evil nature of their spcae travel was that they were trying to escape from G-d and His judgement. These rabbanim also speak of the mechanism as being some complex rocket but, as is clear from the explanation given which I will mention shortly, this is clearly not the case.)

Rav Eibshitz suggests that they wanted to make a large sail (like a hot air balloon) and propel it above the lower atmosphere by means of gunpowder (that is what the "pulver" that he mentions) and then the lighter air would carry them to the moon where they could live without the fear of a deluge since the clouds do not go that high. Obviously, this contraption would not work.

Firstly, the amount of gunpowder necessary to elevate humanity would be enormously large. If they all got on the "ship" and lit the fuse, they probably would have blown themselves up right then and there. Secondly, if they made it afloat, they would have frozen to death when they reached the upper levels of the atmosphere Thirdly, if they somehow got around that, they would have died of asphyxiation when they ran out of enough oxygen. If, somehow, they brought along O2 tanks, and somehow (counter to all rules of physics) continued to float upwards against gravity, they would not have passed through the Van Allen Belts quickly enough and would have died of radiation poisoning. If they somehow made it to the moon, they would have died shortly with no water or resources!!! They were punished for their crime, but the Nielson - Ninomya theory was in effect, because it prevented the extermination of humankind by not allowing for their self-destruction.

Perhaps, if true, the Nielson - Ninomaya theory is actually the bracha that Hashem gave Noach when He said that He would never destroy mankind again (even by means other than a flood see Zevachim 116a). Even though a small portion of humanity would have been left (Avraham Avinu and wife) the vast majority would have perished (perhaps, earning them the biggest Darwin Award ever) and this would have mimicked the destruction of the Mabul with only a few remaining.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bracha on Space Dirt

With the Orionid meteor shower having peaked last night, I figured this was an opportune time to discuss this phenomenon. There is a bracha that is said upon seeing "zikin" (Berachos 58b), "Oseh Ma'aseh Bereishis". The definition of zikin is disputed with some (like Rashi) that maintain that it is a shooting star, and others who state that it is a comet. The Mishna Berurah rules that the bracha applies to both objects (O"C 227:1:1).

A meteor is a small piece of space debris (dirt) that enters our atmosphere. As it "burns up" it radiates light and appears as a streak of light shooting across the sky. This is what a shooting star is, they are not real stars. There are several meteor showers every year and they always happen on the same approximate dates. This is due to the fact that as comets (and in one case an asteroid) pass through the area that earth orbits (hopefully earth is in a different position at the time)they leave behind a nice amount of dirt. As we pass through this region of space on a yearly basis, a lot of the dirt enters our atmosphere. The Orionids are from the debris left from Halley's Comet.

The Orionids are called such because the radiant (center of where the debris appear to come from) is located in the constellation Orion. The fascinating thing about this is that the Gemara maintained that one will never see zikin in this constellation. The Gemara does, however, clarify its statement by stating that one may see zikin in that region of the sky, but this is not because the zikin are there. Rather, it is the shining of the zikin that make it seem to be in that area of the sky.

I do not maintain to understand exactly what this Gemara means and, therefore, will not even begin to define it in scientific terms. What I have wondered is how one can make the bracha on zikin found in Orion? The Gemara makes it seem as if the bracha is only if one sees the zikin themselves. While some have maintained that just being aware of certain phenomenon can allow for a bracha (see Taz regarding lightening), many authorities rule that one must see the object that he is making the bracha on and not its reflection. Therefore, some have differentiated between seeing an object through eyeglasses (considered a regular method of vision) and seeing a reflected object. Why are zikin in Orion not the same as reflected zikin.

If one could not make the bracha (something not mentioned by any halachic authority) then one who cannot differentiate between the constellations should never be able to make the bracha. The general rule that one does not recite a bracha when there is a doubt should apply. This clearly cannot be the case!

The truth is, how could one make the bracha on both comets and meteors? Why don't we state that since the definition is disputed one cannot make the bracha because he is always in doubt? Instead we state that one can recite the bracha on both. It does not seem that the Gemara was of the opinion that both are zikin! Maybe the answer is that this bracha commemorates the fact the Hashem created the world. When one sees the fascinations of nature, one can recite the bracha out of awe for the Creator. Therefore, we are lenient to allow one to make the bracha if he is inspired by any object that could, technically, be the definition of that which the Gemara was discussing. The main focus is the feeling and not the actual object. Therefore, perhaps, zikin in Orion would not be problematic. This is the natural way to see these types of zikin and one is seeing them in their normal and awe-inspiring form (unlike through a mirror). Because of this, it is not only permissible, but preferable for one to make this bracha upon seeing them. Mah Rabu Ma'asecha Hashem!!!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Koheles' Foolish Orion

As Sukkos approaches, once again, I start to wonder if there is some astronomical symbolism that can be found in Koheles which is always read on Sukkos.

In the beginning of the sefer (1:6), Koheles clearly describes that path of the sun throughout the sky (from the perspective of an observer in the northern hemisphere). Later, Koheles begins to constrast the qualities of a fool with those of a sage. He starts by stating,
"הֶֽחָכָם֙ עֵינָ֣יו בְּרֹאשׁ֔וֹ וְהַכְּסִ֖יל בַּחֹ֣שֶׁךְ הוֹלֵ֑ךְ"
which essentially means that fools choose to walk in darkness, whereas, a sage will go out when he can see.

The word used for fool is "כסיל" which is is also used elsewhere to refer to the constellation Orion. I have always wondered if there is deeper symbolism that can be found. If one looks in the sky, he will see that Orion and Sagittarius are at opposite ends of the celestial sphere. They are both armed and ready to hunt.

In the times of Chazal (precession of the equinoxes has caused the night sky to shift since their times), for most of the summer, Orion was primarirly above the horizon in the daytime. Every successive day of the summer, Orion is visible for a little bit more of the night, until, finally, in mid-winter it is out for the entire night (perhaps, this sheds light as to the name כסלו for the month that Orion is out for the entire month and in which it peaks in the sky). Sagittarius has the exact opposite qualities. In fact, it rises with the sun in Cheshvan and only afterwards starts to make its nighttime appearance.

Maybe Koheles was saying that the sage chooses the right times to go out of his home, either in the day, or in the warm summer nights. The fool, however, goes out during the cold winter nights, and stays indoors during the summertime (right next to the burning sun, in fact). As stated above, we read Koheles in the autumn when Orion is about to come out of hiding and Sagittarius is going home to rest.