Bahá’í Calendar Redux

The Bahá’í Calendar, arguably the least lunar calendar there is, has recently been given a lunar calculation of its own. Because the founders of the Bábí and Bahá’í religions were reported to have been born a day apart on the Islamic calendar (though two years apart), the Bahá’í leaders in Israel figured it would be nice to make this happen on their calendar. To do this, they marked the 8th new moon after No-Rúz in Tehran as the one most likely to be close to the time of year when the two prophets were born, and then had one prophet’s birth commemorated on the first day after that new moon and the other prophet’s birth commemorated on the day after that.

The commemorations will no longer occur on the actual dates of birth on the solar cycle (October 20 and November 12) or even the Islamic calendar, but rather, they will take place on different dates from year to year, as is done with Easter and Good Friday.

Calendars are an important tool for scheduling our activities. A farmer might use a solar calendar to plan a harvest. A Bedouin might use a lunar calendar to plan a journey across the desert. Many calendars are a hybrid between solar and lunar so that they can be used in accord with seasonal and lunar cycles. The Gregorian calendar, for instance, is precisely calculated to remain synchronized with the seasons. It is not so precise with respect to lunar cycles, each of its months being about a day too long to keep pace with the phases of the moon. Still, a Gregorian month can be used to loosely approximate a lunar month.

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Imagine what the Bahá’í Faith might become if its idols were stripped away. What if the burden of divine authority were cleansed from every portrait, every image, every institution, and every holy word?

Imagine there’s no Cov’nant. It isn’t hard to do.

What if the Bahá’í religion were not a cult of divine images (“manifestations”), but rather a fellowship of principles (or virtues)? What if Bahá’u’lláh had said, “never mind about me and my station; let’s get down to the business of world reform.”

I know. It’s a stretch.

Imagine by Rachel Boden

Imagine, by Rachel Boden

If Bahá’ís were to forfeit their sense of divine entitlement, would they lose their famous, unquenchable sense of purpose?

Sorry. I couldn’t resist. I’ll try to keep it serious.

They’d have to give up some very comforting expectations, it’s true. I’m not saying it would be easy.

There’s a word for a religion of principles: unitarianism. Christian unitarians practice “the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus.” What if Bahá’ís could say the same about their religion? What would their religion look like?

Progressive Religion

A central, defining principle of the Bahá’í Faith is “progressive revelation.” According to Shoghi Effendi, it is the most fundamental Bahá’í principle, but alas, it is not completely compatible with unitarian thought, because revelation is a concept that depends on singling out one man or book as standing for God. That’s idolatry, so it will have to go, but we can reform the idea of “progressive revelation.” Rather than thinking of religion as leading mankind according to mankind’s needs, let us rather think of religion as evolving organically in response to mankind’s needs.

Independent Investigation of Truth

This is the most unitarian of Bahá’í principles. Named the first principle of Bahá’u’lláh by `Abdu’l-Bahá’ in Paris Talks, independent investigation of truth is often cited as a fundamental principle of the Bahá’í religion, but it has been undermined by qualifications and exceptions in the interests of idolatry since the earliest days of the Bahá’í religion.

God: To Unity and Beyond

Unity is a problematic notion, because it tends to imply uniformity and common fealty to a single book, person, or idea.

“Absolute Unity excludeth all attributes.”

—Saying attributed to the Imam `Alí, cited by Bahá’u’lláh in The Seven Valleys

Care must be taken when speaking of “Unity of God.” Unity, in this case, must be taken to mean inaccessibility and unknowability. Nothing whatever should be permitted to represent God. The very term “Manifestation” must be stricken from the lexicon. God must be seen as utterly unknowable. To suggest that a particular image, such as a holy book, is more holy than anything else is idolatry.

Ultimately, we must get beyond the term “unity,” for unity itself imposes an image of God that is presumptuous. How can we know that divinity is not fundamentally dualistic? We cannot. We can think of God being characterized by unity in some trivial, truistic way, but to declare the unity of God from pulpits and mountaintops is utter pretense and presumptuousness.

Religious Harmony

“Unity of religion” presents a big problem. It tends to encourage triumphalism, and it threatens cultural diversity. What must be aimed for is not unity, but rather harmony and tolerance.

Human Harmony

I don’t have a problem with the idea that we ought to think of all people as having a great deal in common, and I certainly like the idea of equal treatment under the law, but unity is a dangerous word. Just as it can be abused by religion, it can be abused by the state. Let’s stick with “harmony,” just to be safe. “Harmony” is for unitarians. “Unity” is for idolators.


Curiously, `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Eleven Principles mention “equality” more times than “unity.” Here are the three equalities that he emphasizes explicitly, plus a fourth principle that implies equality quite strongly:

  • Abolition of Prejudices.
  • Equalization of Means of Existence.
  • Equality of Men before the Law.
  • Equality of Sex—Education of Women.

I find it hard to argue of any of these points. They may not be unitarian ideas per se, but they certainly do not conflict with the unitarian principle.

Peace and Non-interference

Here are three more of the principles that don’t conflict with the unitarian principle:

  • Religion ought to be the Cause of Love and Affection.
  • Universal Peace.
  • Non-Interference of Religion with Politics.


I find only two of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Eleven Principles to be idolatrous:

The first might not seem so bad at first, but it implies that religion and science are one and the same–that “true religion,” because it is infallible, will always confirm science. The implication being that if science fails to comply with “true religion” then science must adapt. I would sooner keep religion and science at arms length, lest the one strangle the other.

As for the Holy Spirit, I don’t have a problem with admitting the existence of unseen, intangible powers, but what `Abdu’l-Bahá’ asserts with respect to this “Spirit” is pure, unmitigated idolatry.


`Abdu’l-Bahá’s idolatry, superstition, traditionalism, and orthodoxy aside, I think that a unitarian theme can be identified in his message. I believe therefore that it would not be unreasonable for a Bahá’í to adopt a unitarian view of the Bahá’í Faith. I also believe that a fundamentalist view would be equally justifiable. No view of the Baha’i Faith can be free of contradiction. The unitarian approach, however, enjoys a particular advantage: it accepts contradiction as an attribute of all human endeavors and moves forward. The fundamentalist clings to the purity of idols until the strain reaches a point of fracture.

I Was A Teenage Antivaxxer

I didn’t get any vaccinations as a kid, so I acquired my immunity the old-fashioned way: I earned it.

Before ... and After

Before ... and After

I can specifically remember suffering through the measles, mumps, and chickenpox. But I got through it all fine. I can’t complain.

The only vaccination I received before age 30 was for smallpox, strangely enough, because it was required for travel into South Africa. Being members of the Bahá’í Faith, we had been strongly encouraged to travel abroad to spread our gospel, and we’d heard that Africans were receptive to the Word, so we each got vaccinated for God’s sake.

My parents are as staunchly anti-vaccination as they are anti-establishment (against what Bahá’ís call the Old World Order). My father is a retired chiropractor, but it would perhaps be more accurate to categorize him as a naturopath, as he has used a variety of extra-chiropractic modalities over his career, including applied kinesiology (“muscle testing”), magnet therapy, a wide variety of targeted nutritional supplements, and I think he may have dabbled in homeopathy and reflexology.

I recall one specific treatment that we underwent as a family — a balloon-up-the-nose technique that made my dad very sick (he thinks it may have revived his diphtheria). Surprisingly, this nutty nostrum appears to be a legitimate procedure, though in our case it was presented as something everyone needs, so I got a balloon too. The balloon really gets up there, and there is a small risk of brain injury. All I know for sure is I’m never doing it again — very disconcerting to feel one’s head expand from the inside.

As I have devolved into a casual skeptic as an adult, I don’t subscribe to everything I was taught as a child, but it’s taken awhile, and I still nurture a healthy fear of hospitals — let’s be real: physicians are only human. I didn’t do so much as get my teeth looked at until age thirty.

I remain proud of my parents for what they have accomplished. My father isn’t just any naturopath: he has been blind since childhood. My mother has a blood sugar condition that once haunted her with severe (grand mal) seizures. In spite of these afflictions, this match made in heaven has enjoyed sustained success throughout their 50-year partnership. I may not agree with my parents at every turn, but I do admire their resourcefulness and perseverance. Theirs is a remarkable story, which I hope will survive them.

The antivaxxer stance is rather ironic in my father’s case, for reason of the primary cause of his blindness: diphtheria. This preventable disease reduced his eyesight to a featureless blur. He ultimately lost his eyes to glaucoma, brought on by a wrestling injury. In addition to his blindness, he suspects diphtheria to have caused the persistent sleep disorder and head pain that dog him. I recently had the temerity to respectfully suggest to him that he might have been sighted and healthier had he been given the new diphtheria vaccine as an infant. His response was that only improved hygiene has eradicated diphtheria and smallpox (though he also contends that it’s silly to wash one’s hands as a means of flu prevention).

I know: smallpox could not possibly have been eradicated by hygiene. Squalor is worse worldwide today than it has probably ever been. My modest response to my father was that we’re practically swimming in bugs, meaning that we can’t possibly hope to keep clean enough to keep them all off of us. At that point we agreed to disagree, which was a good outcome, I think.

A Synthesis of Science and Religion

Thy will be done, O Universe!

Guy Murchie, The Seven Mysteries of Life, pg. 627

In the preface to his Seven Mysteries of Life, Guy Murchie wrote that when he had set out to write the book, he had intended the project to be an exploration of life in its entirety, but somewhere on that seventeen year journey he had discovered something — something philosophical. He reported that he’d discovered

fresh insights as to why the world is the way it is, where it is going and what it means … a discovery in philosophy.

This was quite a remarkable pronouncement. Unfortunately, the preface does not identify what these insights were. I can only make the considered guess that the discovery he speaks of is the set of mysteries which the title of the book refers to. The difficulty I have with that guess is that not all those seven mysteries — if they may justifiably be called mysteries — were all that new to the world.

The first mystery, the abstract nature of the universe, was something he’d already delved into in his previous book, Music of the Spheres.

This first mystery was never all that mysterious. It was really just a declaration of philosophical idealism, as well as a recognition that mathematics is everywhere in nature.

A rather generous definition of life?

A rather generous definition of "life"?

The next two mysteries were, though not commonly recognized, not all that new in 1978. The first of these, the interconnectedness of all creatures, was quite in vogue by 1978, and the second, the omnipresence of life, was just as fashionable, as evidenced by the advent of the Gaia Hypothesis.

Then came the ancient idea of Heraclitus and the Tao, canonized by Hegel, and echoed by the likes of Marx and Mao Zedong, that the world is a kind of embodied dialectic, a harmonious interaction of opposing principles. Murchie calls this dialectic the polarity principle.

contrast and struggle, … far from diluting beauty, only etch it deeper.

pp. 626–7

Appropriately, Murchie recognized that Heraclitus shared this deep insight with him:

wasn’t it Herakleitos of Ephesos who said, in the fifth century B.C., that “the way up and the way down are the same”? And wasn’t it he who later generalized the concept by adding, “it is sickness that makes health pleasant … weariness that precedes rest, hunger brings on plenty and evil leads to good”?

pp. 471–2; also see Music of the Spheres, pg. 522

And again:

Herakleitos who went so far as to declare Homer misguided when he prayed, “Would that strife might parish from among gods and men!” because the poet hadn’t realize he was asking for the destruction of the universe, since, should his prayer be answered, all things must pass away. Herakleitos obviously recognized the Polarity Principle and saw that “the sun is new every day” and “no man can step twice into the same river since the waters that flow upon him are ever fresh.”

pg. 495; also see Music of the Spheres, pg. 489

Murchie had been meditating on this polarity principle while writing Music of the Spheres, and, like Heraclitus, he took it very seriously:

I see the abstraction we have called Polarity transcending toward ultimate Divinity, …

pg. 627

Next came another principle that Murchie had visited often in Music of the Spheres, which he now had named transcendence. This was perhaps the most obscure of Murchie’s mysteries. He was not clear at all as to what he really meant by transcendence. He called it that because he wanted to give it a sense of spiritual progress, but what he meant, if one looks closely at his development of the idea, is closer to what might be called progressive perspectivism. This is where Murchie begins to tip his Bahá’í hand.

Looking at the development of the idea, we see that much of the chapter on transcendence dwells on the phenomenon of superorganism — an phenomenon that would certainly warrant its own chapter, but Murchie wants superorganism to serve another idea which he holds more dear; an idea that he had probably held dear since he became a Bahá’í.

What I think Murchie was attempting to express in speaking of this mystery of transcendence was the idea that what we see in the world can change radically with a change of perspective, and a little dialectical thinking. This perspectivism, he hoped, could give hope that life’s puzzles could be solved.

… we need even more the principles of polarity and transcendence if we are really to explain why adversity is important and (as I believe) actually vital to our progress as spiritual beings.

pg. 621

Note that Murchie speaks of transcendence as a principle, rather than a mystery.

Murchie continues to tell the reader what he’s ultimately after in making such use of this transcendence. He thinks the world is a “soul school.” He thinks the world is hear to facilitate the education of souls. He thinks the justification for evil in the world can be found in correcting our shortsightedness. In other words, Murchie was a Bahá’í, and he needed this principle of transcendence to make his theology practicable.

Thus at last we arrive at the only hypothesis for the troubled world that fits all the known facts — the hypothesis that the planet Earth is, in essence, a Soul School.

pg. 621

Yes, that’s quite a leap that Mr. Murchie was asking the reader to make, and it’s clear now why he needed polarity and transcendence to pull it off. I for one can feel his yearning for justification of evil, though I personally have not been able to make that leap.

Transcendence … is not material so much as mental. And, to an even greater degree, spiritual.

pg. 494

When Murchie used the term transcendence, he was actually leading up to the Bahá’í doctrine of spiritual progress, which is related to the Bahá’í doctrine of unification, which is where the idea of superorganism came in. It’s not immediately apparent that this was the case, as Murchie went to great lengths to make his argument sound scientific, but it was more a rhetorical argument that sought to appeal to the reader’s yearnings.

transcendence … the development of our perspectives on space and time as we grow older, … a wider awareness as one matures spiritually … from our present earthly finitude toward some sort of an Infinitude far beyond.

This was actually nothing new to Murchie. When he began to work on Seven Mysteries, he had been a Bahá’í for 23 years. What he called transcendence was really none other than the Bahá’í doctrine of the soul’s progress through the worlds of God.

Murchie puts this Bahá’í doctrine of spiritual progression and collectivization to work as he presents his sixth mystery,

Germination of Worlds

With this mystery, Murchie put the fledgling Gaia Hypothesis to work for a Bahá’í doctrine, just as he had put superorganism to work for two other Bahá’í doctrines. In this case, the Bahá’í doctrine to be corroborated was to be the blossoming of humanity with the arrival of the promised one of all ages, Bahá’u’lláh; the Bahá’í notion that the very order of the world was to be overturned in favor of a new World Order, and Bahá’ís had long considered the advancements in science to be products of this spiritual New Jerusalem.

Rhetorically, Murchie couldn’t afford to be too explicit, but he was explicit enough to list out a number of Bahá’í principles as characteristics as this coming of age of humanity:

  • elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty (pp. 577–8)
  • gender equality (pp. 579–82)
  • elimination of racial prejudice (pp. 579-82)
  • universal education (pp. 582–3)
  • universal auxiliary language (pp. 583–4)
  • world government (pp. 584-586)
  • progressive revelation (pg. 612)
  • harmony of science and religion (pg. 615)

One can imagine Murchie reading these items off a Bahá’í brochure as he composed this chapter. This is Murchie at his most transparent as a Bahá’í evangelist.

The Gaia Hypothesis, born in the 1960s and raised in the 1970s, was not categorically new. The idea that Earth is an organism is as old as the science of geology itself. The very word “Gaia,” as it was adopted by the formulators of the Gaia Hypothesis, had actually been coined by the father of geology, James Hutton. The idea that the world would someday blossom was as old as Zoroaster. What Murchie wanted from the Gaia Hypothesis was a scientific foundation for what Bahá’ís like him had long believed.

With Murchie’s final mystery, divinity, we finally see a topic that actually qualifies as a mystery. The point of discussing this topic was apparently to argue for the existence of God as a mysterious but necessary concept, primarily by citing the preponderance of order and non-randomness in the universe. Here Murchie brought his religiosity to the fore, and he used Bahá’í terminology, such as unknowable Essence and veil of Glory (pg. 627), in speaking of God.

It now seems obvious to me that Murchie had been consciously working on a synthesis of current science and his particular religion, and I think he did remarkably well. I’m not sure that he began the project with this goal in mind, but I believe it began to take form as a religious project when his interest in religion was revived in 1963, and began to see himself as a Bahá’í author. Seven Mysteries certainly gained him the favor of many Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís around the world. Notwithstanding the lack of structure and logical lapses in Murchie’s colorful elucidations, to say nothing of his endorsements of pseudoscience (pp. 306–7), he might have had more of an impact on the popularity of the Bahá’í Faith had it not been for more traditionalist forces simultaneously gaining ground in the Bahá’í world community. We can see those forces at work in Murchie’s late life as we read through his autobiography. As early as 1979, we find him defending his ideas against critics within the Bahá’í Faith; critics for whom the harmony of science and religion was perhaps a lower priority than it was for Mr. Murchie.

One Guy’s Macrocosm

I just had the pleasure of reading the first volume of Guy Murchie’s Music of the Spheres, titled The Macrocosm, and I can see that a lot has been learned about Earth, the Moon, and planets since I was born. Take this sectional illustration of Earth’s crust for example:

A rather outdated cross section of California

A rather outdated cross section of California

Note the complete absence of tectonic plates. Note that the Sierra Nevada is represented as a folded range, which it’s not. Furthermore, today we don’t think there’s a basalt layer beneath North America, and in fact, we don’t think there’s any root at all beneath the southern Sierra. That last bit has been discovered rather recently.

Another example of the obsolescence of this volume are the two outdated hypotheses of Moon formation. The preferred hypothesis at the time of printing appears to have been a fission model, which is no longer accepted:

An outdated moon-birth hypothesis

An outdated moon-birth hypothesis

Of course this book was written before astronauts stepped on the moon — before we began to collect samples of lunar rock. Murchie can only guess that the Moon is a solid ball of granite, whereas today we know the Moon to be a stratified body like Earth, with a crust composed of basalt and anorthosite. We’ve obviously learned a thing or two about the Moon since the 1960s.

We’ve also learned a lot about the interior of Earth since then. We now believe that the source of most of Earth’s internal heat is nuclear radiation, and that Earth has a solid inner core. We’ve learned about plate tectonics and the greenhouse effect. We’ve found rings around Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, we’ve discovered a number of dwarf planets and over 400 extrasolar planets, and we’ve discovered over 130 planetary satellites (moons), including some rather significant moons of Neptune. We’ve even watched a comet collide with Jupiter! With all that, we’re not as ready to send astronauts to Mars as Murchie and Werher von Braun were in 1961, but we’re doing quite well sending robots.

Of course we should not blame Murchie for what we didn’t know in the 1960s. Still, there are some areas where Murchie may have fallen short even for his time. There are places where he omitted pertinent facts, such as the role of bacteria in producing oxygen in the early atmosphere. There are also places where he may have misrepresented the basic science, such as with his treatment of heating by compression of solids (pg. 148–50). Murchie seemed to assert that pressure alone will cause any substance to glow, but a solid (so long as it behaves as an incompressible solid) will resist compression under high pressure. If a material does not compress under pressure, it will not heat, and it will not glow.

Digressions, Flourishes, & Religion

Murchie’s composition was sometimes distracted and his prose was sometimes needlessly flowery. He would sometimes graft in digressions — often religious — that could seem extraneous and even forced:

The dozens of human jet-age stargazers waiting around for the zero hour of launching then always remind me of the faithful shepherds of similar deserts in the ancient Holy Land who have long had an equally great faith that the world can be changed. Even though on the face of it the two kinds of change are different, I think they are also profoundly related in a way that will one day be made manifest to all.

Music of the Spheres, page 24

That’s more than a statement of belief; it’s a prophecy (too ambiguous to be anything else).

I don’t mean to denigrate the idea of spiritual progress — or political progress for that matter, but I don’t understand what Murchie is getting at here: what do the Bedouin have to do with progress?

Murchie also made some rather reasonable points in favor of religion, such as pointing to Johannes Kepler’s religious motives for seeking natural law — which he Murchie equated to divine justice — in the heavens. And I ought to give Murchie credit for having kept his religion out of the science itself. Murchie can be credited, for instance, with having resisted the temptation to follow the precedent of the Bahá’í “perfect exemplar” `Abdu’l-Bahá’, who spoke out against the idea that we are descendants of animals.

… we are the cousins, if not the descendants, of the very most successful of all the most daring of fish, …

Page 25

The Heart of the Matter

Notwithstanding these faults, I’m inclined to believe that Murchie’s core ideas transcend such particulars. Indeed, one wonders why he included quite so many particulars, knowing that such detail might water down the message. Perhaps Murchie was striving to make Music of the Spheres a comprehensive historical survey of physical science, but that might have been overly ambitious given his affection for big, broad ideas. Perhaps had he dealt separately with (1) music in nature, (2) math in nature, and (3) the boundless frontiers of discovery, this book would have been more enduring and more versatile.

A Segue into the Mysteries of Life

As Murchie stated in the forward to the 1967 edition of Music of the Spheres, he intended the two-volume set to form a larger set with his next book, which he intended to name Melody of Life, but was eventually named The Seven Mysteries of Life.

I am six years along in writing a sequel and companion volume to Music of the Spheres on the subjects of life and mind. The work, now about half done, will probably be titled Melody of Life, and in due time I hope it will be offered with the present book as an integral set.

G.M., 1967

Indeed, the two books share a central thread or three, including the core theme of Music of the Spheres — what Murchie calls the abstract, musical nature of the world. The Seven Mysteries of Life actually began as the chapters of Music of the Spheres that didn’t make the cut in 1961.

This time it was about life, philosophy and things I didn’t have space enough to include in my Music of the Spheres. It was another case of one book’s leading right into the next for fulfillment.

Guy Murchie, The Soul School, pg. 352

Music of the Spheres

The melodies in intelligence are legion when we listen intensively to the world — when we really harken to its inner and outer harmonies!

Guy Murchie, Music of the Spheres (p. 593)

The next volume on my Guy Murchie reading list is the second volume of Music of the Spheres: The Material Universe-From Atom To Quasar, Simply Explained.

The Principle of Similitude

The Principle of Similitude: The Limits of Scale in Nature (Murchie)

As I recently wrote, I’ve had difficulty keeping my interest up through Murchie’s Song of the Sky, but I’ve had no problem completing this volume of Music of the Spheres. It’s not an easy 370 pages, to be sure. This is a book about expanding intuitions about physical phenomena with mind-bending insights, and I can attest to Murchie’s skill in explaining a wide variety of difficult ideas in a way that makes those ideas not merely comprehensible, but interesting and relevant. There are several discussions wherein I believe Murchie could have perhaps done a better job on — he tends to digress, his discussion on polarization leaves room for improvement, and perhaps he could have done a better job of tieing the principles of music together — but in general terms, Music of the Spheres is a remarkable piece of science literature, even now — 42 years after its second and final edition.

Yes, this book was published before string theory was developed, but Murchie discusses the string-like character of the atom.

This gives the atom the harmonic resonance and integrity of a plucked string … (p. 407)

This was before the word “black hole” was coined, but Murchie discusses the trapping of light and causation in an intense gravitational field (pp. 582–3). And this was before men stepped on the moon, before pulsars, dark matter, dark energy, and plate tectonics. Even though Murchie wrote this book back when Bertrand Russell and Werner Heisenberg were still walking the Earth, yet he crafts a lesson on the physical world that remains current. I expect that some of Murchie’s general discussions will remain pertinent for quite a long time into the future.

Murchie was of course a religious man, or at least a believer, so there are moments when Murchie digresses into religious language and characteristically Bahá’í statements about God and religion. He mentions that one 15th Century thinker believed in the oneness of religion, and in the final chapter, Murchie uses a discussion on the eternal nature of life to segue into an assertion that science and religion are complementary, that is, mutually supportive. On the whole, though, he is remarkably clear-minded and uncompromising about the science itself.

… some light must be from one slit obviously must be combining with light from the other at such a distance that the two wave frequencies were 180° out of phase, inevitable canceling each other and producing a band of darkness! (p. 421)

So much for the medieval Islamic mystic’s “light upon light.” It appears that even light has a dark side!

… light actually drops … (p. 581)

As a follower of `Abdu’l-Bahá’ who made statements such as “when we observe the phenomena of the universe, we realize that the axis around which life revolves is love,” Murchie might have been tempted to defend the classical notion of universal attraction, but he embraced Einstein’s spacetime geometry instead. Whereas `Abdu’l-Bahá’ spoke of a universal force, Murchie delights in geometry instead.

… gravitation commonly amounts to a repulsion as well as an attraction, … (p. 575)

Likewise, he might have been tempted to defend the 19th Century notion of a luminiferous aether, but he cast that aside as an outmoded remnant of the old absolutism of classical physics.

Perhaps the most striking sign of Murchie’s intellectual independence is his argument that “the material world” is fundamentally a geometrical, harmonic world. Evidently, he chose the Pythagorean term “music of the spheres” because he believed that the material world isn’t really so material, and he didn’t passively conform to the spirit-vs.-material dualism common among Bahá’ís. He wrote of the mentality and music of the material world itself, and avoided dualistic “spiritual” talk.

Murchie was, on balance, fair-minded in narrating the wonders of science. He was, no doubt, a credit to his religion. He was a man of ideas and opinions, and he didn’t appear to feel constrained by the norms of his religious community or the scientific community. There are certainly scientific points on which I personally disagree with him, but given his evident fair-mindedness, I do not consider those disagreements strikes against him. For example, one of Murchie’s central arguments, akin to his assertion that the world is geometrical and musical, is “that the world is profoundly abstract.” I do not wholly disagree with this point. I do believe that Murchie made a great case for the world’s multifarious capacity for abstraction, but I think it is going too far to suggest that the world itself is abstract simply because science has done such a marvelous job of abstracting its character.

To sum up, Murchie was essentially saying that the material is actually mental. Music of the Spheres can thus be seen as an argument for philosophical idealism, the school of thought that declares that existence is fundamentally mental. To be clear, though, the idealism of Music of the Spheres is not a magical, subjectivist idealism; rather, it is a rational, objective idealism.

I very much look forward to reading Murchie’s The Seven Mysteries of Life. I suspect that work will prove more controversial — burdened, I suspect, with more magical thinking, but I look forward to following Murchie go into more detail with respect to his ideas on life, consciousness, and immortality. I expect to learn a thing or three.

Back to the Future

Can’t you see the oneness of it all? The lonely specks of Diesel trucks a mile apart filing across the great Mojave — a hundred minds, a hundred miles, with a single purpose — parading on Highway 66, …

Guy Murchie, Song of the Sky

Ah oneness. Yes, I remember that oneness thing. A hundred diesel trucks in a row, all doing the same job, driving the same road. Same direction. No turnoffs. No stop signs. Only time and distance.

Those were the days.

Guy Murchie was a 20th Century science and technology writer, idea man, mystic, poet, and rambler. He was also a Bahá’í, which is why I’m more familiar with him than your average gen-xer. Humoring a surge of nostalgic curiosity, I’ve been reading Murchie like I never bothered to do as a Bahá’í youth, starting with Song of the Sky, his book on the atmosphere, flying, and navigation from back in 1954 that won the John Burroughs Medal.

This is a review of the first 125 (of 423) pages. I believe I’ve seen enough to get the gist of the book. I intend to move on to Murchie’s other major works, Music of the Spheres and The Seven Mysteries of Life.

Song of the Sky jacket art

Song of the Sky jacket art

Overall, reading Song of the Sky serves to remind the reader of just what a special experience flight is. 55 years later, it’s easy for us to forget how wonderful a thing — and how novel — flight is. Guy Murchie strives to inspire the reader with a rambling survey of the history, science, technology, and myth of flight and the medium of flight, and he does a fairly good job of it.

Much of the general subject matter hasn’t changed too much in those 55 years. The book has not yet been antiquated by satellite positioning systems, space exploration, interstate highways, personal computers, cell phones, and cable television. Still, there’s sufficient misinformation and questionable reasoning to diminish the credibility of the book, and make it difficult for the reader to process assertions without doubting their veracity.

It’s not always easy to tell, after all this time, whether Murchie’s facts are obsolete or whether his facts were wrong from the beginning. Some rather florid prose and superfluous content also bog the reader down from time to time.

Chapter Two: The Way

There are a few matters in the book’s chapter on the history of navigation that left me checking the facts.

  • In covering the amazing exploits of Polynesian sailors, Murchie credits the Arabs with influencing Polynesian navigation on two occasions. He suggests that the Arabs taught the Polynesians how to use the stars and sea-faring birds in navigation. There appears to be little evidence for this. Polynesian navigation was fundamentally distinct from the form of marine navigation used by Arabs in the Indian Ocean. As for using birds, it seems highly unlikely that the Polynesians would have to have been taught about their own birds by sailors from another part of the world. In this case, it may be that Murchie is expressing a characteristic Bahá’í fondness for extolling the glories of Islamic civilization.
  • Murchie also appears to fall prey to the old Great Pyramid craze. Not to take anything away from the ancient Egyptians, I think it’s been established conclusively that the proportions of the Great Pyramid do not work out to “exactly 2π”.
  • In detailing the exploits of the Greek explorer Pytheas, Murchie asserts that Pytheas discovered Iceland, 535 years before the Norse settled there. Most scholars have a problem with this claim for a number of reasons, one being that the place that Pytheas visited was inhabited.
  • In arguing that it’s easy to discover North America once one gets to Iceland, Murchie claims that Greenland can be seen from the highest summits of Iceland. I’ve worked the trigonometry for this claim, and I have strong doubts as to its veracity.

Chapter Four: Ocean of the Sky

Murchie gets particularly extravagant in his effort to extol the greatness of the atmosphere by contrasting it with the land and sea. He begins by asserting that “in the sky you cannot stop: to stop is to die.” This makes perfect sense, though a shark might beg to argue that it has the same problem underwater. Murchie appears to realize that hot air balloons and insects don’t need propulsion systems to survive aloft, so he changes his logic to mean that one cannot stop because the air is always moving. Even that fact appears to be only partially true, for air masses can stagnate in the same manner that water bodies do. Murchie himself points out that air can stagnate later in the chapter, but conveniently forgets it in this discussion.

It is true that the sky is a dynamic medium, but then it is also true that much of that dynamism is driven by the solid earth’s rotation and differential heating.

Murchie then attempts to glorify the atmosphere by observing:

the last major exploratory goal of the earth to be gained was the summit of the highest mountain.

This is a peculiar argument, given that mountains are terrestrial phenomena, and though there maybe plenty of atmosphere around mountains, the atmosphere around them tends to be quite rare. As to the veracity of the argument, it was true in 1954, a year after the summit of Everest was first gained by Hillary and Norgay, but — predictably — it has been rendered false by the passage of time. For instance, the first nuclear submarine — capable of remaining submerged almost indefinitely — was launched a year later. The frontiers of the ocean and earth remain largely unexplored to this day, whereas the highest mountains have all been conquered, many of them frequented by the footsteps of casual “weekend warriors”.

Murchie continues his assault on land and sea by asserting the superiority of the atmosphere as a source of metaphors and edification, arguing that the lessons of the earth and sea are “too rare for practical learning”, and the “gentle betweentime lessons” of the earth “do not compare with the drama of the heavens where mountains burst out of sweeping cloud oceans …” Again, Murchie makes the mistake of employing mountains as champions of the sky, but adds the metaphor “oceans of sky”, as if to make the point that the sky cannot be described without reference to land or sea.

As if all that weren’t enough, Murchie seems to think that “some physicists” had determined that volcano-generated waves (which we now call “tsunamis”) are generated by wind action. I doubt that any physicists ever believed such a thing, but they certainly don’t today.

There are assertions that Murchie makes that seem very doubtful, that I am not prepared to disprove. Here’s a good example:

Although air has been “duplicated” chemically in a laboratory retort, no one so far has been able to make sky life grow in artificial air until at least a tiny portion of natural air was added.

I’m not clear on what Murchie is reporting in this passage. Is he claiming that airborne microbes cannot grow in synthetic gaseous environments, and that “natural air” has some special nutritive mystery stuff on which microbes feed, or some kind of vital force, an elan vital? Whatever it is, he calls it a magic touch. I suppose I’ll have to read The Seven Mysteries of Life to get some clarity on that. Part of what puzzles me is that I’ve heard that Murchie believed that life is ubiquitous, such that even rocks are alive. If he really believed that, why would he need to postulate a means for life to arise from dead matter?

Murchie goes on to claim that there is no up or down in the sky, and that gyroscopes are employed to inform pilots which way is up and which way is down. This is not really true. The fact is that up and down are quite distinct in the sky. It is only when bodies are accelerated that that sense of up and down is confused. This confusion doesn’t just happen in the sky. It also occurs in automobiles, spacecraft, and freefall.

Summing it up

The jacket blurb for Song of the Sky includes the following passage:

If some of the facts here presented seem fanciful, it is because nature aloft as Mr. Murchie found it does not conform to standard textbooks. Yet his work checks with the pioneers who are gathering the amazing new material that will be the foundation of the textbooks of the future.

I would not want to go so far as to describe the book’s factual claims as fanciful. There is much good information in it, but unfortunately, there is enough misinformation and Victorian flourishes to jeopardize the usefulness of the book. It’s a sad thing to see an award-winning book no longer in print, but the cold fact of the matter is that it doesn’t have a place on today’s science bookshelf.

Still, I think I’ll keep it on my bookshelf. I hope to finish it some day. In the nearer term, I hope to find that Murchie redeemed himself as an author with his later works.

Our Daily Bread: Naw Rúz Drift

Note 26 to the Kitáb-i-Aqdas explains the timing of Naw Rúz as follows:

“Naw-Rúz is the first day of the new year. It coincides with the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, which usually occurs on 21 March. Bahá’u’lláh explains that this feast day is to be celebrated on whatever day the sun passes into the constellation of Aries (i.e. the vernal equinox), even should this occur one minute before sunset.”

Bahá’ís appear to believe that the Sun enters the constellation Aries at some time on or around the Vernal Equinox. This is not so. It was true about 2500 years ago, but not at present. At this time, the Sun enters Aries on April 19, about four weeks after the Equinox. This is because of something called precession.

The constellation Aries

One might possibly argue that what Bahá’u’llah really meant was the actual equinox (lit. “equal night”), and that the mention of Aries was only meant to refer to the first month (12th) of the astronomical year, but this argument has a leak: the Bahá’í system of watching for the equinox at some time of day is an impossible system, because the equinox cannot be determined empirically until a 12-hour day has passed, and at that point the equinox may need to be retroactively set to the day before (if the day before was closer to 12 hours).

One could conceivably stand at the equator and watch the sun pass overhead, but the sun passes over the equator at a different place each year. Better be on your toes! Of course, thanks to astronomy, one will know where to look. But there’s a catch:

“The Guardian has stated that the implementation, worldwide, of the law concerning the timing of Naw-Rúz will require the choice of a particular spot on earth which will serve as the standard for the fixing of the time of the spring equinox. He also indicated that the choice of this spot has been left to the decision of the Universal House of Justice.” (note 26)

Okay. Nevermind chasing the sun around the equator.

If one is to pick a single observation point, one had better pick a place not frequented by clouds, fog, dust storms, or mountain ranges. Muslims can tell you all about this problem.

There’s one final thing. The suggestion that a single observation point be selected for the determination of the equinox is, alas, manifestly ignorant of the science. The equinox is a global phenomenon. It does happen at a precise time, but it happens to the entire planet, at the moment that the radius vector of the earth’s orbit is at a right angle to the earth’s axis.