Thursday, December 10, 2009

A call to return: tnevda fo nonaes eht

No, don't adjust your CRT or LCD, or call for tech support ... that's not data corruption from line noise. I really wrote "A call to return: tnevda fo nonaes eht" as the title!

(And all the ACS blogg-readers stare, mouths agape: oh, dear, Dr. Thursday has lost all his senses - not that he had very many to start with, but now they are all gone. He's typing gibberish, and will probably now wax eloquent with some of his abstruse technical gibberish.)

Oh, no, I am just doing what any good scholar of the Middle Ages would do: recognise that Truth is from God, and hence will be found even in the most unlikely places, even within pure mathematics! Remember?
You cannot evade the issue of God; whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him.
[GKC DN Dec 12 1903 quoted in Maycock, The Man Who Was Orthodox]
Yes - it's utterly and completely Chestertonian. It's also very medieval. But let me give you a clue to help you translate that cryptic title:
...return to me, saith the Lord, and I will receive thee. Jer 3:1

Go, and proclaim these words towards the north, and thou shalt say: Return, O rebellious Israel, saith the Lord, and I will not turn away my face from you: for I am holy, saith the Lord, and I will not be angry for ever. Jer 3:12

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Mt 3:3 quoting Is 40:3
Yes: it is a very simple idea. Here's how I got it. I happened to be playing with some prime numbers over the weekend. I have some nice toys, and primes are fun. They remind me of the stars... Some time ago I gave a tiny review of Burnham's Celestial Handbook (available from Dover) which contains these remarkable words:
"Considered as a collector of rare and precious things, the amateur astronomer has a great advantage over amateurs in all other fields, who must content themselves with second and third rate specimens. ... [he] has access at all times to the original objects of his study; the masterworks of the heavens belong to him as much as to the great observatories of the world." [BCH 5, emphasis added]
Yes. Well, like the stars, anyone can find and examine and study primes, even without a computer! In fact, you can make your own list of 25 very easily by jotting down the numbers from two to one hundred, then striking off every 2nd number after 2, every 3rd number after 3, every 5th number after 5, and every 7th number after 7 - and what's left are prime. (We don't count one, one is special.) It's fun - Eratosthenes did it about 2200 years ago, and so can you! (Later you can cut it up and make Christmas Tree decorations with it, since primes are very festive numbers, as you shall see.)

Here's mine, in case you'd rather not be bothered doing the work. The green ones were crossed off, the red ones are primes:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39
40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49
50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69
70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79
80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89
90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99

Anyhow, since I was feeling lazy, I had my computer do the work. I used a couple of tricks and found a few more than the 25 I have already mentioned. Some of them were very interesting, like the double star just past a billion - er, I mean twin primes 1,000,000,007 and 1,000,000,009. Very lovely - incidentally did I mention you can even do this in the daytime? Yes. Or on cloudy nights.

Why do I do such things? For one thing, I like to keep my computer busy over the weekend, and also I was pondering the famous dictum I often stated during my doctoral work, "Spies like big prime numbers".... And then - since it is Advent - I happened to think about DNA. (No I was not writing a spy story, but that might make an interesting one, hmm...) Ahem!

Yes, because Advent is when we recall the mystical preparations of Israel - and even of Rome - but also Advent is when we recall Mary's pregnancy and the unborn Jesus: the God-man as a single cell about 0.14 mm in diameter, the God-man as a blastula, as an embryo, as a fetus, and all the amazing stages of growth which we now know of and so can wonder at. It is worth borrowing a book like the one I have, Arey's Developmental Anatomy, and exploring the truth St. Paul told the Galatians: "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law" [Gal 4:4] It was not only the law of Moses, but the law of Biology which Jesus obeyed, as He grew - no wonder the Church calls Mary the Ark of the Covenant!

It is during Advent that we also hear the cry of John the Baptist, quoting Isaias: "Turn back, O people! Return to God!" And as I thought of this, I recalled reading a profoundly high-tech design which we have found in use in the human ribosome:
...the cell's requirement for 5-10 million ribosomes in each generation, a human cell needs all 100 copies of the 45S pre-rRNA genes it has and most of these must be close to maximally active for the cell to divide every 24 hours.
[Darnell, Lodish, and Baltimore, Molecular Cell Biology, 357]
Can you spell "extremely high parallel processing", Mr. Cray? (Hee hee! Sorry for the tech here, but I think you ought to realize how profound this is, bringing together computing and life and the Incarnation...) But indeed, yes: the machinery of the living cell is extremely high parallel processing, but then we should expect to encounter such masterly work when we consider Who is the Master Designer of Life, as Copernicus suggested:
...the machinery of the world ... has been built for us by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.
[Copernicus, translation by Charles G. Wallis in Great Books of the Western World 16: Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, quoted by Jaki in The Road of Science and the Ways to God Part 1 Chapter 3 footnote 60]
It's amazing to think that a single cell can churn out so many millions of exact duplicates, it sounds so mechanical - almost like some sort of computer, perhaps. Then I recalled how the ribosomes are built of RNA which are knit together - I have seen that verb used in a translation of Psalm 138(139)! - yes, knit together, by little loops which are called Watson-Crick palindromes....

Ah, palindromes!

Yes - like "noon" and "radar" and "A man a plan a canal - Panama", palindromes (from the Greek for "run back") can come in numbers, too.

And some of them are primes - like 30103 and 30203 and 30403 and 30703 and 30803 - or my own favorite, 11111111000100011111111 in base 2, which is 8358143 to us humans - yes, even primes come in palindromes. These numbers, like John the Baptist, remind us to turn back...

But Doctor (you complain, breathing very hard after all this tech and numerical jargon) This does not sound at all like Chesterton.

Oh. Very well, try this:
...this larger and more adventurous Christian universe has one final mark difficult to express; yet as a conclusion of the whole matter I will attempt to express it. All the real argument about religion turns on the question of whether a man who was born upside down can tell when he comes right way up. The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:363]
Advent, you recall is for the ADVENTurous... Expect God everywhere, and you will always find Him:
"The Holy Of Holies"

Elder Father, though shine eyes
Shine with hoary mysteries
Canst thou tell what in the heart
Of a cowslip blossom lies?

Smaller than all lives that be
Secret as the deepest sea
Stands a little house of seeds
Like an Elfin's granary.

Speller of the Stones and weeds,
Skilled in Nature's Crafts and Creed,
Tell me what is in the heart
Of the smallest of the seeds.

God Almighty and with Him
Cherubim and Seraphim
Filling all Eternity.
Adonai Elohim.
[GKC CW10:48]
And this was true in the most profoundly literal sense, when the Word was one cell - and He used His own 100 copies of pre-rRNA to build ribosomes - and so He became flesh, and dwelt among us.

You look doubtful - but I must ask - what do you think it means, "was made flesh", huh? It means production of proteins, of enzymes and muscles and connective tissue and haversian systems to form bones and all the rest... That means ribosomes, and all that. Really. Born under the law, as St. Paul wrote.

Oh, yes! Advent and Christmas is a time for pondering the truths in biology and mathematics, just as much as it is for pondering the history of Israel and the literature of Dickens.

Let us return!

P.S. There is one other curious "palindrome" I wished to quote and somehow I missed the suitable point to include it. One of the more ancient hymns to Mary, dating at least to the 9th century, is called Ave Maris Stella. It contains the following verse:
Sumens illud Ave
Gabrielis ore,
Funda nos in pac,
Mutans Hevae nomen.
Or, in rhyme,
Taking that sweet Ave
Erst by Gabriel spoken,
Eva's name reversing,
Be of peace the token.
Another version in rhyme,
Ave was the token
By the Angel spoken,
Peace on earth it telleth,
Eva's name re-spelleth.
A more literal translation of the Latin:
"Receiving that Ave
from the mouth of Gabriel,
establish us in peace,
reversing the name of Eva."
[Britt, The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal, 317-8]


  1. You'll notice soon enough: that makes "the seanon of advent."

  2. I recently thought I heard on EWTN that the Virgin Mary did not labor and give birth to Jesus, as our own mothers gave birth to us. That Jesus simply appeared in the manger, similar to the way he just appeared to the disciples after his resurrection. That this is the Catholic belief. Did I hear correctly? Thanks.

  3. Yes, Dr. T! Loved it. And talk about "parallel processing" your brain is pretty good at that--information processing across multiple domains at once--literary, theological, mathematical, biological. Starting from the One and leading back to it like a mobius strip. Impressive.


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