A New Respect for Veils

I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Gretel Murchie Porter (deceased), her brother Barnaby, and Gretel’s son Samuel Goldsmith for their time, patience, and trouble. Thanks to Sam in particular for granting me permission to copy his grandfather’s manuscript “The Veil of Glory,” in order that I might be able to read it. Thanks, finally, to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center for preserving Guy Murchie’s materials and making them available.

I’m a Guy Murchie fan. I respect his popular works on science and though I am no longer a Bahá’í I consider his magnum opus, “The Seven Mysteries of Life,” the best presentation of the Bahá’í Faith ever made for a modern audience. It follows naturally that when I discovered that Murchie had been working on a history of the Bahá’í Faith in his late years (ca. 1980 to 1988) I wanted to see if some hidden gem had been waiting to be discovered; a gem, if nothing else, for Bahá’í readers. Yes, I think I can suspend my disbelief long enough to dig up a gem that is only of value to someone else, but this is easy when the memory of an author whom I admire is involved. Continue reading

Guy on the Horizon

Guy Murchie, Jr. had big shoes to fill, and a big name to live up to. He lived as though he was keenly aware of his father’s figurative shoe size.

While a student at Harvard, Guy was a member of the school’s prestigious rowing team. He graduated from Harvard in 1929, at age 22. He left before commencement ceremonies for a trip featuring Alaska, Hawaii, East Asia, and Russia that lasted about a year. His plan was to pay his way by working as he went, sailing “before the mast” as did Ishmael in Moby-Dick, though he paid his way as a conventional traveler much of the way. He kept a trip journal that would become the book, Men on the Horizon, published in 1932. The book was something of a success, making the New York Times “Best Sellers” list for nonfiction. [1]

The Stock Market Crash of October 1929 would strike while Murchie was just getting work in the engine room of a liner from Honolulu to Kobe, Japan. Though he discussed economics at length throughout the book and throughout the Soviet Union, he seemed to do so as an open-minded but proud and optimistic American, utterly oblivious to the mounting economic catastrophe at home. But though he may have been a patriot, he delivered a pointed message of international brotherhood.

Continue reading

Misters Roosevelt, Churchill, and Murchie

The American Empire, it might well be said, was born on the day Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders defeated the Spanish in Cuba. Roosevelt was surely the first American Emperor — though a democratic emperor, and his Cuban adventure was the heroic gesture that crowned him. Largely ignoring the Constitution, Teddy expanded the powers of the Presidency so as to rein in monopolies. He made the United States a world power, and the United States and the world have not been the same since.

One of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders was Teddy’s Harvard classmate, Guy Murchie. Roosevelt wrote of Murchie:[1][2]

The Harvard contingent was practically raised by Guy Murchie, of Maine. He saw all the fighting and did his duty with the utmost gallantry, …

Continue reading

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

A Guy Murchie Timeline

Here’s a timeline of Guy Murchie’s life that I’ve constructed to help me understand his autobiography better. Page numbers are of The Soul School. Please consider this a work in progress. I expect to continue modifying it as I acquire new data. Enjoy!

  • 1907, January 25 — Born, Beacon Hill, Boston, MA.
  • 1925, October — Introduced to future wife Eleanor Parker. (pp. 37-9)
  • 1929 — Graduated from Harvard; began trip around the world.
  • 1930 — Completed trip around the world.
  • 1932 — Men on the Horizon published.
  • 1932, March — Married Eleanor Forrester Parker (b. 2 Oct 1880, Newark, New Jersey), AKA “Worgzle” and “Piggie”.
  • 1934 — Began work at the Chicago Tribune.
  • 1939 — Converted to the Bahá’í Faith after being assigned to write a story on the Wilmette temple (pg. 180). I got the year 1938 from his autobiography, but that may have been a guess. His obit in the Baha’i World 1997–98, pg. 276, indicates 1939.
  • 1939 — Divorced Eleanor … on amicable terms (Eleanor was 26 years his senior) (pg. 253-4, 306). See dedication to The Seven Mysteries of Life.
  • 1940, April 29 — Began working as the Chicago Tribune’s first war correspondent.
  • 1940, September 17 — Survived a fall from a bomb blast during the Battle of Britain.
  • 1940/1 — “Married” Josephine (Jogie) Egan, “an Irish midwife, a refugee from wartime England” (pp. xii, 251).
  • 1942 — Began working as a Navigation instructor.
  • 1942 — Divorced Josephine (Jogie) Egan (pp. 253–8).
  • 1942, December 23 — Married illustrator Barbara Cooney.
  • 1947, April — Barbara left with kids Gretel and Barnaby (pp. 288–9, 296, 355). According to a bio of Barbara, they simply divorced in March.
  • 1949, January — Married Katie Rautenstrauch, “a Prussian refugee from Hitler’s Germany” (pg. xii, 297).
  • 1953, April 21 — Son Jed died of a sudden illness. (pp. 307–8)
  • 1954 — Song of the Sky published. Astronomical content that didn’t make the cut would lead to next book, Music of the Spheres.
  • 1958, July 13 — I am a Bahá’í published in the Chicago Sunday Tribune.
  • 1960, June 30 — First wife Eleanor (divorced) died in Newport, Rhode Island (age 79). (pg. 350)
  • 1961 — Music of the Spheres published. Began work on The Seven Mysteries of Life, beginning with material that didn’t make the cut for Music of the Spheres (pg. 352). Soviet cosmonauts orbit the earth (on two occasions).
  • 1963, April — Attended Bahá’í centennial jubilee in London with wife Katie. This may have sparked a greater interest on Murchie’s part for the Bahá’í Faith, and inspired him to write on its history.
  • 1964, February — Begins research on Bahá’í history project. Travels around Middle East and Persia.
  • 1964, May — Goes on Bahá’í pilgrimage.
  • 1978 — The Seven Mysteries of Life published.
  • 1979 — With his Bahá’í history project remaining, Murchie begins a two-year phase in his life as an active Bahá’í.
  • 1985 — Bahá’í history The Veil of Glory rejected by the Bahá’í governing body, the Universal House of Justice. Continued to work with the Bahá’í publishing trust to make the book acceptable (pp. 609-10).
  • 1986, May 3 — Death of Katie, wife of 37 years. Moved to California soon afterward.
  • 1987, May 6 — Married Marie in San Francisco, at the home of Marzieh and Harold Gail.
  • 1989 — Wrote the epilogue to his autobiography, The Soul School.
  • 1995 — The Soul School published.
  • 1997, July 8 — Died at a convalescent hospital in Fullerton, CA, at age 90. His wife Marie appeared to precede him in death. His second wife and mother of his children, Barbara, outlived him by three years.

Guy Murchie’s Unpublished Opus

Guy Murchie’s final book, The Soul School: Confessions of a Passenger on Planet Earth, which he called his autobiography, reads more like a diary or a journal, with as much frankness and honesty as any diary, and almost as lacking in compositional flow. Given this impression, I don’t intend to read all 657 pages of it, but I have picked up a theme or two that I’d like to share.

The book was published in 1995, but it only covers Murchie’s life up to an 1989 epilogue, at which time he was about 82 years old. He went on to live another eight years.

One interesting thing I learned from The Soul School is that Murchie had been working on a short history of the Bahá’í Faith for general audiences — which he titled The Veil of Glory — on and off for 25 years, not long after completing his Music of the Spheres. He began by visiting Bahá’í historic sites throughout the Middle East in 1964, turned his efforts toward his next book, The Seven Mysteries of Life, and finally completed the manuscript of the history in May 1985, but was unable to find a non-Bahá’í publisher. The major Bahá’í publishers were all interested, but the book was rejected at least twice by the Universal House of Justice, who feared that Murchie’s book, which was not fully sourced, would “muddy the waters of Bahá’í history.” He continued to make efforts to “adapt [his] Bahá’í history to the Universal House’s specifications” through the late 1980s. The last we hear of such efforts was in the fall of 1988, in the closing paragraph of the final chapter, Impotence and Cancer, 1987–1988.

Large and revealing as Murchie’s self-styled autobiography is, it is not a proper autobiography, for the compositional reasons I have already stated. With this in mind, his Bahá’í history appears to have been the major project of his late career as a writer. It seems a shame that the book will probably never be published.

The Soul School includes several revealing passages pertaining to Murchie’s personal religion. Several years after the publication of The Seven Mysteries of Life, he was questioned about his beliefs by Gloria Faizi, a Bahá’í author and the wife of a Bahá’í leader:

Gloria brought up the question of God in relation to my Seven Mysteries, which she had read, and asked if my concept of God was pantheistic or plural in any sense? I guess my discussion of the degrees of Divinity and the relativity of it prompted her question. I told her that I thought the matter of singularity or plurality was only a semantic issue if God is, and as the Baha’is say, an “unknowable essence.” (1979)

Murchie also discusses his personal religion in a chapter regarding his Bahá’í activities in Alaska:

I had been a Baha’i for forty-three years. The organizational aspects had never greatly attracted me, but the warm philosophy did, … (1981)

Later in the same chapter, he relates:

A Baha’i … wanted to correspond about philosophy, particularly about the Baha’i doctrine of infallibility. I said I thought there was a relativity to it, …

And from his time in England, during World War II:

Remembering one day that I was a member of the worldwide Baha’i Faith, I looked it up in the telephone directory and went to the address given, only to find that it was merely a booth containing literature but with no one attending. I filled out a form, mailed it and got no response. However my life was full and there was the war, which the Baha’is seemed not to believe in, so I put off thinking about religion and considered instead the more promising matter of replenishing my own uncertain supply of girl friends in England. (1940)

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.