22 February 2021

There is Always Someone Smarter – Some Lessons on Self-Comparison


The IQ Test

            As a 12-year-old living in Bakersfield California, I was sent by my Catholic mother to Garces Junior High. Unbeknownst to my parents, the administrators gave all incoming young men an IQ test. There was not room for all 80+ of us in one classroom, so it was made clear to us that the “dummies” would be sent to the “other” classroom. Those of us not included in that group were initially organized in seating according to the IQ results. There were six rows with seven desk-chairs in each. I was initially ranked #2. I didn’t know much, but thought this was sort of cool. The one guy with the same or higher score was named Kenny Larkin, and we became friends. Like me, he hated sports. Unlike him, however, I could outrun everyone else among all 80 young men – except one. This was because as a poor kid I had only a broken-down bike to get from home to school and back. The whole way home, every day, was uphill. And the bike only had a 3rd gear – so I had over-developed leg muscles.

            We were strictly segregated at Garces from the young women, who were taught by another monastic group, this one comprised of black-veiled nuns. We rarely saw any of the girls, and only at a distance. The Christian Brothers were a non-priestly monastic organization running the boys’ side of the school. My mom and stepfather were shocked to learn from me about several horrifically savage beatings* that Brother Gerald and Brother Remy inflicted on us boys. Mindful of this, and of that IQ test, my new stepfather cajoled my Mom over a year and a half into letting me attend a public high school, Bakersfield High. He knew this school also had a nascent version of AP classes called the “0.5 program.” Every class was numbered, like English 9.4 for freshman college prep, English 9.3 for kids expected to go into business or auto-mechanics, and English 9.1 for special ed. English 9.5 was the much harder class intended for the smarties in the school. I learned it was designed to encourage talent. It is the reason I ended up attending the University of California at Berkeley and, ultimately, earning a PhD. 

* My best friend in elementary and junior high was Marcus Espitia, whose father was Mexican and whose mother was African American. We had defended each other against bullies in Saint Joseph elementary school for years, and started Garces together. One day in seventh grade Brother Gerald was pacing back and forth in front of the class, declining Latin nouns out loud from a book he held. Brother Gerald was a huge man – 240 lbs./110 kg. My friend Marcus had lifted the lid of his desk above where his books were kept, blocking Brother Gerald’s view. From there he was shooting spitballs at the guy sitting across the aisle from him. I watched as Brother Gerald slipped down into that aisle without changing his monotonous repetition. Suddenly he leaned hard on the top of Marcus’ desk, trapping his head inside the desk, cutting off his air. I can still vividly recall Marcus’ arms and legs thrashing around, his head locked in the desk as he tried to free it. Then – still intoning the Latin – Brother Gerald lifted the lid with the hand holding the book, and with his open right hand hit Marcus in the side of the face so hard it physically lifted him out of his seat. Marcus hit the adjacent wall, then slid to the ground, stunned. Still droning on, Brother Gerald proceeded to pick up each book in the desk and throw it – as hard as he could – at Marcus’s face. One. Two. Three. Four. Marcus finally got up off the floor and ran to the door to escape… with books bouncing off him several times before he reached it and exited. Brother Gerald then strolled back to the front of the class and continued reading out the Latin declinations to us – without any vocal interruption through this entire process.

            We all just sat there, frozen in our seats.

            Through much of the rest of my life, however, I wondered about what this IQ partitioning did to all of those boys mentally? Especially, what did it do to those left in the “dummies” class?


“Old 160”

            Fast forward a decade and a half. I had a PhD and was traveling for work with the US Geological Survey. I’d just finished a training course in science management in Monterey, CA, and on my way home to my family in Virginia I stopped in Long Beach to see my sister. Barb had arranged for a float plane to pick me up and take me to Santa Catalina Island off the coast. She was on a 32-ft sailboat with her boyfriend, surnamed Rogers. My mother had warned me that “Rog” was a successful attorney and proud of the fact that his IQ was tested at 160. He boasted of this frequently enough that Mom referred to him as “Old 160.” The amphibious plane landed in Catalina Harbor and Barb met me at the dock. She took me and my suitcase to an inflatable Zodiac and drove me out to the sailboat. For the next two days we motored around the island while Barb and Rog dived for “bugs” – illegally harvested lobsters. My job was to stand at the side of the boat to receive the grab-bag as they would bring one up every so often. We raised sails only for the traverse back to Santa Barbara at the end of the trip. Rog seemed to be probing me – and watching me closely – the entire time; I sensed a weird vibe but didn’t know what to do about it except answer his questions. I later gathered two things from Barb: (1) She and Rog had already decided to part company as a couple, and (2) Rog had somehow gotten the impression that I was super smart. A PhD does seem to fool some people. He also understood that I was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ – and he had difficulty reconciling these things. Finally, as we were docking back in Santa Barbara, Rog looked over to me and said this: “Jeff, I admire you. In 30 years, I will be a lonely alcoholic, surviving until I die on this very boat – if I’m lucky. You, on the other hand, will be happy and surrounded by grandchildren.”

            The lesson here seems obvious to me, as it was to Rog.


3-D Chess

            My first three years in the US Geological Survey were spent in the Denver field office. I was part of three geophysics branches of the USGS, all centered in rented office space on Colfax Avenue. I was the last young PhD hired in a huge hiring spurt that lasted from 1971 to 1975. One of those other newly minted PhDs I will call Gary. Gary was super smart, and made sure that everyone knew it. After three years in Denver, I was invited to move to the USGS National Center in northern Virginia, to become a deputy science office chief. This apparently led several of my former colleagues to feel jealous. (I was na├»ve enough that I didn’t learn this until later.) Once, while I was back in Denver for a technical meeting, Gary invited me over to his house for dinner, and I accepted. As soon as dinner was over, he pulled out an interesting game – a 3-D form of chess. Gary’s wife immediately started to complain to him about mistreating his guest (this must have happened before). The game had multiple vertical levels and different pieces than traditional chess, with different movement rules – which he quickly explained to me, the novice. One could move a piece horizontally, vertically, and on diagonals. “Let’s play,” said Gary. His wife again told him that this was inappropriate, but Gary insisted. After about 30 minutes, I said “I think that’s checkmate.” Gary stared at the boards for almost 20 seconds. Then he stared at me, without saying a word. I felt increasingly uncomfortable, and suggested that I should leave because I had an early technical meeting the next morning. Gary, wordlessly but still staring at me, just walked me to the door. I was never invited to dinner there again. I learned later that he and his wife divorced soon after.

            But here’s the thing: I’m not smart enough to beat anyone at chess. My high-school best friend once beat me at chess 24 games in a row. However, this time I had help in the form of inspiration, guidance that I listened to and followed. After no contact for ~20 years I learned that Gary had retired because he had developed Parkinson’s Disease. I called to express my concern and sympathy, and we talked for a long while. Our earlier friendship was renewed with just that call. Gary was a humbler person, and I hope I was also.


“This Man is GUILELESS!

            In 2002 I received two phone calls at my office in the USGS National Center. By this time, I had returned from two mission chief assignments in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Both calls were from colleagues to notify me that the position for chief scientist for volcano hazards had opened up. “You should apply for this,” both told me. I talked with Louise, who was working on Capitol Hill at the time, and whose work-week-with-commute was 63 hours (we counted them). “By all means,” she said. It would require relocating to the Pacific Northwest, but we had visited Washington State during our obligatory, State-Department-required Home Leave from Saudi Arabia years earlier – and we both loved it. I applied… and then forgot about it. Two months later the selecting official suddenly called, said he was in Reston, and wanted to interview me. What I thought would be a 15-minute conversation lasted more than two hours. He said that quite a few people had applied, and the list had been whittled down to just three short-list applicants. A week later I got a call telling me that I was selected. I called Louise. “By all means,” she answered. There followed a horrific six weeks, where I had to wind down four separate research projects, pack up an office and a laboratory, prepare and sell our house in Virginia, find a house in Washington, and move with one of our sons and several birds across the continent… while the DC Shooter was still at large. (He was caught, just 7 miles from our daughter’s house, when we were passing through Indiana.)

            There were two other applicants for that job, however. One was selected later for another management position in Denver. The other had been the chief of a science team in the National Center, but had left that position under mysterious circumstances. He was later selected to be the volcano program coordinator. One of my senior scientists, who knew him well, remarked that this new program coordinator was the smartest man he (Carl) had ever encountered. At the time the USGS was experimenting with a misbegotten thing called “matrix management.” In this system I had line authority over about 120 scientists and support staff – but the program coordinator held the purse-strings, and had a say in how the financial allocations were spent. The Golden Rule is “Him what got the gold, rules.” Initially we worked together equably enough, but he apparently decided that I didn’t have enough smarts for the chief scientist job. He decided this because I would not follow Machiavelli’s “The Prince” as my guiding management philosophy. I’m not joking here – that really was the issue.

            So… why had I been selected over him for the chief scientist position? He began to try to manage behind my back, confusing the heck out of everyone in my office. I confronted him several times, and he would back off with some excuse like “I’m just trying to help you!” I tried hard to think the best of him, and went out of my way to be open with all my information. At one program council meeting I passed something to him privately. He stared at me, then turning to the rest of the people present said in a loud voice and with a nasty smile, “This man is guileless!” He did not mean it as a compliment. As I thought about this, however, I concluded that I would not want to be any other kind of man. Machiavellian game-playing at other people’s expense is not something I would ever want for my legacy. To do nasty things – like force people into directed reassignment moves to drive them out of the USGS just to make a point – was something he recommended. “If they don’t fear you, they won’t obey you,” he told me several times. I’m not making this up.

            Eventually I talked with my own senior executive supervisor, as this was causing increasingly serious confusion among my staff. They were getting orders from the program coordinator to stop whatever they were doing, and do a task for him… without bothering to notify either me or my subordinate scientists-in-charge. I was surprised to learn that my senior executive manager knew all sorts of interesting things about this program coordinator – like, why he had been forced out of that chief scientist job earlier. Eventually, with the intervention of several senior executive managers, rules governing and limiting the program coordinator’s behavior were written and signed – to his transparent chagrin. Interestingly, and only surprising because it took so long, a few years later the USGS abandoned matrix management as “unworkable.”

            The program coordinator by this time found himself “glass-ceilinged” – he had been forced out as a chief scientist by misbehavior once before, and now was being spanked by senior executives again. He was fearful of rotating back to a scientist position, certain that people he had abused before would want to get even with him. (He was right – I got quite an earful after he left.) The man left the USGS for a dean position at a small distant university. On the last day we were together, he sat across from me at the conference table in my office to discuss some funding issue. As he was preparing to leave, I mentioned to him that I was resigning my chief scientist position and returning to research; I didn’t say why. We both knew that my job was a rotational management position, and that I had done my five years of 55-84-hour weeks; Louise had repeatedly suggested to me that I might want to consider getting a life for a change. He stared at me for a full half-minute, trying to fathom what I meant by this – what was the strategic move I was pulling here? Finally, as someone who had coveted my position for five years, and thinking I was somehow "gaming" him, he ground out, “Why are you telling me this?” I responded, “Professional courtesy, I suppose.” He stared at me icily for another very long time, then without another word put his notepad in his briefcase and walked out. I never saw him again.

            This man was extremely intelligent. But he based his personal management style, the way he dealt with other human beings, on all the wrong principles. I won the years-long management fight with him, but not because I was smarter than he was. Many people had ferociously negative opinions of him as a manager and as a human being. I just happened to be the last one in a long line of people he had tried (and often succeeded) to hurt.


Where is this Going?

            Several times during my initial years with the USGS, Louise’s brother told her I must be secretly working for the CIA, because, he said, a job requiring me to travel all over Saudi Arabia, Europe, the Far East, Australia, and South America – was the perfect cover for a spy. When other people have asked me if I’m a spy, I’ve just said no. Because I’ve never been one.

            There is some reasonable basis for this thought, however. Once in Saudi Arabia a non-descript man walked into my office, flashed his US Consulate badge at me, and asked if he could ask me some questions. “Sure,” I said.

            “We have heard rumors that there was a gun-battle in Hail, in the central Arabian Peninsula. My colleagues and I cannot find meaningful information about this, but we are aware that you travel all over the country for your work. Have you heard anything?” In fact, I had – two of my staff who came from Hail told me that the ‘Amir’s office there was abandoned and covered with bullet holes. He took notes and thanked me – and did not leave a business card.

            Something like this happened to me when I first got to Venezuela. The ambassador at the time told me that a person on his staff wanted to talk to me. Again, a very nondescript individual came into the ambassador’s office. He said that he understood that I would be traveling all over Venezuela in my job as USGS mission chief, leading the mapping project for the jungle-covered, roadless southern half of the country. He reminded me that there are "alcabalas" – Guardia Nacional checkpoints – on all roads between major cities in Venezuela. As diplomats, they did not have paperwork that would get them through those checkpoints. One had to have a reason to pass through them, especially a non-Venezuelan. “Yes, this is correct,” I replied. “Would you please take photos of roads and bridges and checkpoints in your travels, and share them with us?” he asked. I stared at him. Sure, I thought – poison the trust that our host agency, the C.V.G., had for the US Geological Survey? Huh. No, I said. And, BTW, I never saw that man again. He was not a bad man, of course – just trying to do a job.

            A year later, after we had seen several deaths up-close in both Puerto Ordaz and the jungle, as well as having had a number of close calls, a USGS colleague in the USGS National Center sent down several programable “Fly-Away” HF radio transceivers. I had no idea at that time how to use them. I asked around in the embassy in Caracas, where I picked the units up (Venezuelan postal service being so corrupt) and was told to go to the offices of the “Political Section.” However, it was made clear to me that I should go the Political Section offices on the sixth floor, not the fifth floor (which is behind a gold-leaf-lettered, fancy glass door). The Economics Section that I was vetted to (I was a formal State Department employee with Ambassador-grade of FS-12 during the three years I was there) was on the fourth floor, and the Commerce Section was in the third. I took the elevator to the sixth floor, and when it opened, I found myself facing only a blank wall with a steel door in it. The door handle had a cipher lock. A man came out, said he understood I needed some help with a radio, and took me downstairs to the secluded little park on the embassy grounds. After looking around carefully, he showed me how to set up an HF antenna, and how to program a frequency into the 25-kg radio. He then gave me a small, torn piece of paper, with a 10-meter-band frequency penciled in on it, and told me to call him at that frequency when I got home. I flew home to Puerto Ordaz, 700 km away, and set up the radio on my apartment terrace. I called the frequency he had given me, and he answered. “Okay, it works. Please lose that piece of paper now. Good luck in the jungle.” And then he hung up. I never learned his name. He took a personal risk to help another human being who was at serious risk working in the jungle.

            So, OK, I’m not CIA, as I’ll tell anyone. However, I do not tell anyone (except Louise) what my IQ is. I got that number from a high school counselor’s folder with my name on it as she discussed potential scholarships with me. I’ve given lectures at annual MENSA meetings, but no, I am not a member of MENSA. And here’s the thing: that IQ number is not important. My wealth is not important. Comparing yourself to another person – read those stories above – leads to nothing good. There is always someone smarter than you, someone wealthier than you. Just try to do good things for other people; compete with yourself if that floats your boat. If you live your life right, you will do just fine when you are forced to go toe-to-toe against the guys who think they are smarter, or better, or tougher.

            You don’t need to buy into their problem.

            And 100 years from now, it won’t matter anyway.

06 November 2020

A Long and Happy Marriage


            In 1995, I crossed the dangerous Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia for a third time. On this expedition Gene Shoemaker, the father of astrogeology and only human buried on the Moon*, joined the Third Zahid Expedition (https://www.empty-quarter.com). Together we spent five days and six nights at the Wabar meteorite impact site, mapping it geologically and magnetically. We even collected thermoluminescence samples to definitively age-date the impact. We published several scientific papers (including the November 1998 issue of Scientific American) showing that a 3,500-ton iron-nickel asteroid hit the sand at 7 to 10 kilometers per second. In milliseconds it delivered a kinetic energy blast equivalent to a Hiroshima atom bomb.


            So… What does this have to do with marriage?


            On the way back, both of us exhausted from the 17-hour drive and the high temperatures, Gene and I were standing beside our Hummer vehicle in the late afternoon sun while the engineers refilled the tanks for the final run back into Riyadh. We had talked hypervelocity impact physics and geology for days – what really happens when a 3,500-ton iron body detonates on impact? After six days, however, we had run out of technical things to talk about. While staring into the eastern desert Gene parenthetically mentioned that he and his wife Carolyn had been married for 46 years – and that they were both surprised that “it just keeps getting better and better – we are just happier and happier together than ever before in our marriage.”

            This struck me for several reasons. For one, Louise and I had been married 27 years by that point, and we had gone through some very hard times. Huh, I thought: there’s hope for us yet. Another thing I had noticed by then – and Gene confirmed it for me from his experience – was that couples who had been married many decades all seemed to be happy. As a general rule, when one died, the other was not long in following. Could these two things be related? Could this all be part of a Larger Plan?

            When I was first married, I slowly began to notice an interesting thing about Louise. Without ever saying anything about it, she was always doing something small and thoughtful for me. The better portion of food. Making the bed. Insisting I had the better pillow. Doing the dishes if I didn’t get to it quick enough. There were so many small things that I began to notice. After about a year (I’m slow in a number of ways) I mentioned this to her. She seemed surprised and had to think for a bit before she responded. “I love you,” she said.

            A lot of the problems we had in the later, middle part of our marriage could be attributed to a relatively simple thing. I had decided, after we had nearly run out of cash several times, and once were afraid to even take a very sick baby to a doctor, that my primary responsibility was to provide. I was the husband – I needed to make sure I earned enough to support my growing little family. I developed a habit of working routine 55-hour weeks. I travelled extensively for field work – weeks at a time. I had become wedded to something else – my work. My duty.

            I said I am slow at some things. It took me years to come to a very simple decision: Louise came first. My work, my personal and professional goals, even the kids were secondary to anything that I might do that would make Louise happy. It became the core of my existence.

            This morning I waited in the van to drive her to an appointment. She got in, and as we started driving, she said “You are always so kind to me.” Huh? “What did I do?” I asked. “You opened the door for me so with all these things in my hands it was easier for me to get in. And now you’re driving me to an appointment.”

            Well, duhh.

            It’s become so ingrained for each of us, that neither of us takes any thought other than to do kind and considerate things – small acts – whenever the opportunity presents itself.

            And Gene was right: we are so much happier, after 52 years together now, than we were even when first married. We worry about our kids and grandkids together. We share interesting news stories. We prefer to walk together, even though we have different paces. We ask the other first if it’s OK to spend money on something. It doesn’t matter if the other says “Of course – you don’t have to ask!” Kindness and thoughtfulness for the other always comes first.

            It is my prayer – my expectation in fact – that when one of us passes to the Other Side, the other won’t have to wait around, lonely, for very long.  




* January 6, 1998, NASA release: Lunar spacecraft carries ashes, special tribute to Shoemaker

There could be no finer tribute to the legendary planetary geologist who said his greatest unfulfilled dream was to go to the moon.

Tonight, the ashes of Eugene M. Shoemaker are to be launched in a memorial capsule aboard Lunar Prospector to the moon. The polycarbonate capsule, one-and-three-quarters inches long and seventh-tenths inch in diameter, is carried in a vacuum-sealed, flight-tested aluminum sleeve mounted deep inside the spacecraft.

Around the capsule is wrapped a piece of brass foil inscribed with an image of a Comet Hale-Bopp, an image of Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, and a passage from William Shakespeare's enduring love story, "Romeo and Juliet":


            And, when he shall die,

            Take him and cut him out in little stars,

            And he will make the face of heaven so fine

            That all the world will be in love with night,

            And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Shoemaker was best known for his work on extraterrestrial impacts and for his later collaboration with his wife, Carolyn, in the study and discovery of comets. He was long a distinguished scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Flagstaff, Ariz., where he established the agency's astrogeology branch. He was killed July 18, 1997, in a car accident in Alice Springs, Australia, during field research on impact crater geology. Carolyn Shoemaker was injured in the accident.

"I don't think Gene ever dreamed his ashes would go to the moon," Carolyn Shoemaker said shortly before leaving to witness the Lunar Prospector launch. "He would be thrilled."

The Shoemakers' children and their spouses, as well as a sister and brother-in-law, are also at Cape Canaveral for the event.

"This is so important to us," Carolyn Shoemaker said. "It brings a little closure, in a way, to our feelings. We will always know when we look at the moon, that Gene is there."

19 September 2020


Age and Respect

When I was in my early 30's, my hair rather abruptly turned gray (from dark curly brown to mostly straight white, with occasional strands of dark brown in it). I inherited this from my mother, who was bothered that her hair turned white in the front during her 30's. I thought it was sort of cool-looking, however: her hair when I was a kid, and my hair when I was barely no longer a kid.

In my late 30's I was invited to teach classes in applied geophysics to upper-division and grad students at the University of Maryland and The George Washington University. After meeting with the Department Chairs, in both cases I was designated a full professor at both universities. In part this was because I already had a long science bibliography from my work with the US Geological Survey by that time, but I suspect that it also had to do with my hair color. Respect!

When I turned 40, I was called to serve as a counselor to the CJCLDS Dulles Branch President; this Branch was formed to help a large number of southeast Asian refugees who had arrived in Northern Virginia following the end of the Vietnam War. Right away I noticed that I was treated very reverently by our mainly Laotian brothers and sisters - they would bow deeply while making the 'wai', the hands-together formal bow of greeting. The deeper the bow, the greater the respect. I came to realize that their culture afforded great respect to older people - this was deeply ingrained from childhood. I remember feeling a bit awkward at being treated with a respect that I felt I had not earned. I still thought of myself as nearly a kid.

At one point, we put on a Road Show with our Dulles youth. They were short of non-musician guys in the main part of the play, so Jared and I died our hair (my white hair, his golden hair) a deep black, in order to fit in. The box of hair-color said it would wash out with the next shower... but it didn't. For many weeks afterwards, people would pass me in the hallways in the immense US Geological Survey National Center, stop, turn around, and say "Jeff? Is that you?" Just changing the color of your hair can disorient people around you.

In 2000, I was the General Chair of the Symposium for the Application of Geophysics to Environmental & Engineering Problems. This was the annual international meeting of the Environmental & Engineering Geophysical Society (full disclosure: I was president of this society in 2002-2003), and is called "SAGEEP" - because some international visitors can get authorization to travel to a "symposium", but not to a "meeting." Go figure.

As General Chair, I organized this complex nightmare: we took over the Hyatt Arlington hotel for a week, I arranged for Dan Goldin, the NASA Administrator to be our keynote speaker, and we had over 300 international participants - who all seemed to need a letter to justify getting an American visa. I noticed that a number of people who I had called in to help me from among the DC Metro geophysical community would sometimes stare at me. One day, while driving one of them back to his office in downtown Washington, DC, the guy abruptly asked me how old I was?  I was 53 at the time. "Wow," he said, "You look like you are older than that, and you look like you are younger than that. You have the energy of a 20-yr-old, but you had the guts to called Dan Goldin!"

The hair again. That, and probably my sugar addiction.

Now, in the United States we have a culture that fairly worships youth - and it was very disorienting to our younger Dulles Branch Laotian-Vietnamese-Kampuchean teenagers, recently transplanted from rural Southeast Asia. This youth-worshiping cultural emphasis can be felt just about anywhere in this country, but it is strongest in New York City and Los Angeles, at least in my observation. The desperate effort to look youthful in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood can sometimes lead to bizarre creatures that could only be described as moms trying to out-dress each other in their teenage daughters' clothes. Madonna recently complained bitterly that her hands looked OLD, and there was nothing she could do about them. With few exceptions (Helen Mirren and Judy Dench come to mind) his adulation clearly affects your ability to market yourself as an actor or an actress. Steven Spielberg once had to quell rumors that Harrison Ford was going to be digitally "younged" in an Indiana Jones film.

At one point not long ago I looked at a passport photo, and compared it to a passport photo taken when I was 40. Hooo... when did THAT happen?!?? Around this same time I saw a TV special of before-and-after examples of several individuals getting a face-lift. The surgery was filmed, and it frankly stunned me. Don't get me wrong, I have done minor "auto-surgery" on myself a number of times. An infected ingrown toenail, acne cysts, and larvae multiplying in my feet in the jungle are strong motivations to pick up a scalpel.

I was shocked at two things: the crude, intrusive nature of a face-lift surgical procedure (the anesthetized patient was treated like a slab of beef), and the... wrong-ness of the face afterwards. It's basically the "uncanny valley" of a robot not quite looking like a human. You see, as we age, a lot more changes than just the tension of our facial skin. The juxtaposition of young and old in the same individual is strikingly artificial, and it doesn't take a Michael Jackson to convince most people that they shouldn't mess with the natural progression of things. The human eye is finely-attuned to the most subtle changes in a human face - that's why working with a corpse (when I took the Advanced Trauma Life Support class at the University of Maryland Medical School) was so shocking. Visually you get mixed signals... all wrong.

I rather enjoy being a grandpa, or as my father-in-law put it as he held our first daughter, "I'm the father of several aunts and an uncle." I enjoy having clear, corrected vision after replacing my cataracts.

The take-away here is that we will age, it's NOT bad, and moreover there is nothing we can do about it that won't look at least a bit bizarre (it's easy to identify the Hollywood types who have tried plastic surgery). If we didn't age, we wouldn't want to leave this planet. We would fear the Colored Door to the next level, and might choose to be stuck here permanently in a do-loop. If you think you want to live forever, consider the last time you were stuck at home on a rainy Sunday. Instead, I think it's great to enjoy each season of our lives and accept the admiration and respect that our changing faces and hair mean we've earned. The fact that I get to play with my grandkids and I don't have to change diapers anymore is sort of like 'having your cake and eating it too'.

Life is good. There is a progressive order to it. There is a reason for that order. 

05 May 2020

The First Vision - More significant than you might think.

             I saw a pillar of light, exactly over my head, above the brightness of the Sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. When the light rested upon me, I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. The first spoke to me, calling me by name, and said, pointing to the other, “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him.”
--Joseph Smith

There are some interesting physical phenomena involved here: Gravity is apparently constrained, and there is a “Beyond-a-19th-Century-technology-light-show,” among other things. These unusual features were also apparent in the three visits by Moroni to Joseph in 1823. Physicists have learned a lot in the past century, but mostly we’ve learned how much we don’t know. Some possibilities (among the known unknowns) are Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Quantum Entanglement – any of which may be involved. This is another reason for physicists to look forward to crossing over to the Other Side: we’ll learn what they are, and what else is involved!

TWO Brief Asides Here:
   a. This wasn’t the only time something like this happened. As noted, three years later in 1823 Moroni appeared the same way. These weren’t dreams either, but physical visits. Moroni physically carried away the plates after the translation was completed. Also, Joseph was not the only witness to this kind of visit; the Three Witnesses, the Eight Witnesses (who handled physical plates), and others (e.g., several in the Kirtland Temple) also witnessed similar visits.

   b. Why did God the Eternal Father visit a humble, half-grown, poorly-educated kid in the boonies of western New York – the wild west of the US at the time? Why not visit the Pope Pius VII in Rome? The chief Imam in Makkah? President James Monroe? There is an important pattern here: Christ himself was born in the most humble of circumstances. He died in the most humbling and degrading way the Romans could engineer. Humility is important – the Savior makes this clear time and time again throughout the scriptures. By example.

Remarkable Consequences followed from this visit: The First Vision restored to us the only Pre-Nicaean “Primitive Christianity” Church on Earth; One not “…made of The Philosophies of Men, Mingled with Scripture,” but instead fully consistent with what Jesus taught:
·       This is the only Church that preaches all the Bible, including the principle of a Separate Godhead (Matthew 3:16-17 “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” and Matthew 17:5 “While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.”), Baptism for the Dead (see 1 Corinthians 15:29 “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?”), and a Pre-Existence (Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” and Ecclesiastes 12:7 “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”), among other doctrines unique to this Church – a Church that the Savior countenances.
·       This is the only Church that has planned and operates 168 Temples, with 49 more planned or under construction, all over the Earth.
·       This is the only Church, as far as I know, that is also preached in all the World – even in China, even in Saudi Arabia (where my family were personal witnesses), even in Israel (despite severe restrictions).  It is likely even practiced in North Korea (though sub-rosa among diplomats, inferred from our experience as such in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia).

This represents only the 6th time (according to my count) that God the Eternal Father has physically visited the Earth. Most other interactions with prophets (Abraham, Moses, Paul, the Brother of Jared, Nephi, etc.) were with Jehovah.

            1. Organizing Adam and Eve (Genesis, Temple)
            2. Casting Adam and Eve out of the Garden (Genesis, Temple)
            3. Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:16–17)
            4. Transfiguration on the Mount (Matthew 17:5)
            5. To the Nephites (3 Nephi 11:7)
            6. The Sacred Grove (JS—History 1:11–20)

            Let’s now put this into larger perspective (warning – we're entering the nerd zone here):

Specifically, let’s talk about Exoplanets: In the 1830’s we learned from multiple revelations that there were “other worlds” in addition to ours. This was far beyond the science of the time. Astronomers were only just discovering what existed in the Solar System – Neptune had not yet been discovered. In fact, there is very explicit information about other worlds in the Temple Endowment ceremony.  To give a sense of how ahead-of-its-time this other worlds concept was, bear in mind that it was only in 1933 that Edwin Hubble finally proved through variable stars in a photographic plate that some blurry things seen in telescopes were other galaxies!
In the past 30 years astronomers actually began discovering “exo-planets.”
·       As of January 2020: 4,108 exoplanets are “firmly” verified. 18 can support liquid water.        (About 1,000 of these exoplanets have been found by the Kepler satellite.)
·       Kepler-452b (1,402 LY) and Kepler-1638b (2,492 LY) are Earth-sized and orbit G-type stars like ours, found at 0.75 – 1.5 Earth-orbit radii from their star. They lie in the “Goldilocks Zone” – Not too hot/too cold.
·       Note that the Milky Way galaxy hosts 100 billion stars… maybe twice that. It’s kind of hard to count.
·       We have enough information from the local galactic vicinity now to suggest that 10% - 26% of stars can host an Earth-sized planet.
·       That means there could be 5 billion Earth-sized “worlds” in our galaxy alone.
·       In 1995 the Hubble telescope was turned to a dark, star-free part of the northern hemisphere sky to gather a “Deep Field” image. This effort took 10 days to gather enough photons to see anything in that apparently empty patch – a tiny patch of sky the size of a tennis ball at a distance of a football field. Another Deep Field image was acquired in the southern hemisphere the following year, and both images were full of far-distant galaxies. These have been extrapolated by cosmologists to suggest there are as many as 2 trillion galaxies in the universe.

Some simple multiplication gives 2 x 10+12 * 5 x 10+9 ≈ 10+22 worlds out there. That’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (in other words, ten sextillion) Earth-sized worlds.

Of course, there are caveats upon caveats with this number. For one thing, the early universe did not have enough heavy elements for any Earth-like worlds until sufficient stars had formed, grown old, and gone nova/supernova to provide the life-critical heavier elements such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, silica, and iron, etc. How many of these worlds orbit in a “Goldilocks Zone”? How many orbit single stars instead of complex binary stars? How many have "correct" ratios of light isotopes (C, O, N, P, Si, etc.) to heavy isotopes (Fe, Cr, Mn, etc.)

From latter-day revelation we know that the Father and the Son have tangible bodies of flesh and bone (D&C 130:22–23 / Articles of Faith 1). They look like us (or more correctly, we are organized in their image). This implies that Father in Heaven can be in only one place at a time.

I want to qualify this “implies” word carefully, because the history of humankind is full of men who try to put human limits on a Creator who is far beyond what they can possibly comprehend.

But if so, then the significance of Father In Heaven visiting our world even once is hugeMuch less six times.

Why Now? I put together a chart of the (growing) Signs of the Times. I found seventeen separate prophesies about these Signs in scripture – and more than half of the seventeen – nine – have been fulfilled only since 1820! There are just five more to go, and two are pretty terrifying:

Clearly the Signs are accelerating. Gathering Steam.

In “Nerdlish” the curve is non-linear; the 2nd Derivative is strongly positive.

Pres. Nelson reinforced this observation in the October 2018 General Conference:

“If you think the church has been fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning… There is much more to come.… Wait till next year. And then the next year. Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.”
We are celebrating the 200th anniversary of one of just six Cusp Events in all of human history.

I am so grateful that my Father in Heaven chose to come here personally – first to bring about, and now to accelerate our salvation.

==Jeff Wynn, 8Mar2020, the last talk given in the Grass Valley Ward.