I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’
She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.
(Steven Wright)

This year the seven issues of the #ILLUSTRATI magazine by Logos Edizioni are each inspired by a Genesis day.
Even my column in the magazine will have to stick to this line; I therefore decided to offer readers seven self-help lessons, parroting those “personal growth” books and courses which — despite being often laughable — people seem to like so much.
In each issue I will start from a well-known detail and try to re-enchant it, by revealing the surprising background that lies behind that banality.

The first two “days” have already been published; here you can find both of them, in a double post.

Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.


The well-known detail: In our room, we turn on the light: a mechanical gesture we take for granted, and repeat every day. We don’t even look at that switch anymore, and we find nothing special in the bulb lighting up the room.

Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

The background: The flow of electric charge can be unidirectional (direct current, DC) or reverse direction many times a second (alternating current, AC). At the end of the 1880s, Thomas Edison had developed the direct current system, which was reliable but had a serious issue: it could cover a distance of only one mile off the power plant where the current was produced. George Westinghouse’s alternating current, instead, could be efficiently transmitted over long distances, but at that time it was a complex and experimental system which was not sufficiently understood even by engineers.
In order to corner this emerging market, the Edison and the Westinghouse companies embarked on a no-holds-barred propaganda campaign, which was called “the War of the Currents” by the press. Each of them claimed his own solution was better and safer than the other one; during this controversy, Harold Brown, an electrical engineer (no one had ever heard about him before), decided to take side and launched a crusade against AC. Determined to demonstrate how dangerous the alternating current was, he paid some local children to collect hundreds of stray dogs off the streets, then he killed the dogs one by one, connecting them to a generator of the kind used by Westinghouse. He claimed his tests undoubtedly proved how risky it was to use AC—but indeed, his study didn’t follow a scientific method. Brown decided to give a public demonstration of his ‘findings:’ on the 30th of July 1888, he subjected a dog to several shocks of direct current up to 1000 volts (to prove the animal would survive). When he applied a 330-volt shock of alternating current, the animal died with a last, ghastly bark. This show had a boomerang effect, because it only achieved the result of scandalizing the audience: not only was the experiment uselessly cruel but, since the dog received the lethal shock when he was already exhausted by the previous ones, this brutal charade did not prove at all that one kind of electricity was more dangerous than the other. For this reason, four days later, Brown repeated his demonstration and this time killed three dogs with one single 330-volt shock of AC. But even this attempt did not achieve the desired result of swaying public opinion, since shortly afterwards it turned out that Harold Brown wasn’t an independent researcher but Edison had hired him in order to discredit his competitor.
The War of the Currents reached its peak in 1890 when the State of New York decided to replace hanging with the electric chair. Under Edison’s pressure, they opted for AC as “lethal current.” It was a body blow to Westinghouse, who in the meantime had managed to get Nikola Tesla’s patent for a polyphase induction motor. Thanks to this and other technical improvements, Westinghouse won the war and, in 1895, brought to completion a huge power plant on the Niagara Falls.
Edison never resigned to the defeat. In 1903, he volunteered to electrocute with alternating current Topsy, a female elephant guilty, it is claimed, of killing two circus keepers. On the 4th of January, at 2.45 pm, the pachyderm was electrocuted with a 6600-volt shock, in front of Edison’s cameras filming the execution. But not even this last macabre feat succeeded in giving a bad name to alternating current, which had already become the standard both in the US and in Europe. And which still turns on our lightbulbs today.

The moment of Topsy’s electrocution.

The First Lesson: Current is “all well and good,” it is even fundamental, but it costed the life of a lot of animals, sacrificed in such an insane way only to win a patent war. This may suggest us an uncomfortable but essential thought—light is often matched with shadow, and every glow necessarily involves some darkness. As Bob Dylan sings: “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.



The well-known detail: Every morning we go to work, we take a quick look at the sky, just to see if there is any cloud. We know who we are and what we have to do. Every evening we come back home at nightfall, just when the first stars appear. We never think about the stars and how absurd they are. We have worked, so we know who we are.

Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, 2014.

The background: We easily forget that the universe is still a total mystery. Its shape, how it began, how it is going to end, what was there before, what is coming after: these are basically fields of speculation. Notwithstanding the huge amount of data collected and evaluated, and despite the numerous theories developed, astrophysicists and cosmologists are often puzzled by what they see. We could say that surprise is the rule in astrophysics.
The matter we are able to see, with our telescopes and other detection instruments, sometimes behaves in such an unexpected way that we need to postulate the existence of something else in order to explain its dynamics.
In other words, since what we observe doesn’t completely add up, there must be something more —and it’s not a small part of it, since we are talking about 95%: researchers conjectured that we can see only 5% of the entire universe.

One of the most complex phenomena to understand is the expansion of the universe.
Immediately after the initial explosion, the universe started expanding very fast; but the gravitational attraction between galaxies slowed down this process and, just like a balloon being almost completely inflated, the universe started to decelerate its expansion. This deceleration led the astronomers to think that in a very distant future everything would stop and cool down. This was the ultimate fate of the universe they envisioned, unless, at a certain point, the process would reverse into the so-called Big Crunch (the opposite of the Big Bang).
This vision remained nearly unchanged during the last century, until in 1998 two different teams of researchers independently made the same disconcerting discovery. It seems that the universe kept on decelerating its expansion during the first half of its existence. And then, some 6 or 7 billion years ago, surprisingly, it started accelerating. Today, galaxies move farther apart much faster than before. How is it possible that they suddenly started to move so fast? What is pushing them away?
Since there is no apparent reason, astronomers hypothesized the existence of an invisible force, called dark energy, which might be responsible for this acceleration. If existing, this energy must be of such a magnitude as to develop the pressure needed to move entire galaxies. To make the math work, dark energy should contribute a 68% of the total energy of the universe; if we add the dark matter (another hypothetical form of matter), we get to 95%—the percentage of the universe whose components cannot be revealed even with our best instruments.
The existence, out there, all around our small planet, of an immense invisible dark ‘force’ playing marbles with galaxies could be an upsetting idea to the most sensitive of us. But the alternative is not comforting either. Indeed, researchers rejecting the hypothesis of the dark energy support something even more paradoxical, at least to the eyes of the laymen: in reality, the universe is not accelerating at all—it is time which is slowing down. According to this theory, the acceleration is only an optical illusion perceived by an observer, like we are, placed inside a spacetime which is slowly coming to a halt.

Things are actually even more bizarre than this. We must consider that what has been said so far relies on the assumption that the laws of physics will always be the same, unchangeable; and until recently everything indicated that the universe had always ‘worked’ in the same manner. Then, in 2010, an Australian study questioned this assumption. Some measurements made by ESO’s Very Large Telescope Project seem to highlight a variation in time of the so-called fine-structure constant – a fundamental quality of electromagnetism that should remain unvaried, constant, as its name suggests. Should it be confirmed, this discovery would imply that the universal laws of physics (gravity, time, space, speed of light, and so on) might not be so universal, and they could vary over time or maybe depending on the ‘area’ of the universe.

The Second Lesson: We live inside a sort of great puzzle, a paradox where the only certainty is that nothing is certain. We cannot even understand what kind of strange place we live in, so how can we always know for sure what we have to do or not to do, what is right and what is wrong? Maybe, only stupid men are certain of everything, as Chuang-Tzu said, as they “believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman”. And, when they come back from work, they have no doubts about who they are or what is expected from them, and they never think about the absurdity of the stars.


All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
(E.A. Poe)

∼ Inferior Mirages ∼

Very hot air close to the ground, colder air above. Light rays refracted from distant objects get deviated by the column of scorching air moving upwards. Here is the classical mirage of Sahara Bedouins, fresh oasis among the dunes and water poodles where there is nothing but dusty desert.

A mirage which is bound to also haunt another kind of nomad, the soul who cannot help but travel because he’s a victim of the highway blues, and he knows all too well that the tarmac road might look wet under the torrid sun.

The more we get close to it, the more the illusion vanishes. We hurry towards the much coveted water to find it was mere deceit; and all our hurrying did was worsen our thirst. “If a mirage were water, why is water not seen by those nearby?Nāgārjuna asked – The way this world is seen as real by those afar is not so seen by those nearby for whom it is signless like a mirage“. Maybe we too will be soon close enough to the truth to realize it is an illusion.

∼ Superior Mirages∼

The ocean liner, in the dark night brightened only by the stars, eased out majestically on the water. Aboard, feasting passengers: on the horizon, a strange mist. Reginald Lee was on watch:

A clear, starry night overhead, but at the time of the accident there was a haze right ahead, […] in fact it was extending more or less round the horizon. There was no moon.

A dark mist, a vague tremor just above the horizon, but too far away to seem like a menacing sign. Then, from the nothingness of that fog, without warning, like a giant bursting on the scene from a funeral curtain, came the huge milky silhouette.

It was a dark mass that came through that haze and there was no white appearing until it was just close alongside the ship.

It looks like it might have gone that way: the Titanic probably sank due to a mirage. The mountain of ice remained hidden until the very last moment inside the sidereal light, which had been bended by the cold of the sea.

Ironically, this was the same kind of mirage which gave another ship, albeit fantastic, an eternal and persistant place in sailors’ fantasies. The immortal Flying Dutchman, floating over the ocean waves, perhaps owes his legend to the illusion called “superior mirage”. Superior, because its phantasmagoria appears above the horizon, and sometimes ships sailing beyond the Earth’s curve, which we shouldn’t be able to see, look like they are suspended in mid air.

Like mountaineers, who fear and respect the mountain, the people of the sea knew a secret which escaped the mainland inhabitants. They were aware of the insidious nature of water, they knew all about whirlpools always ready to gape unexpectedly, about the visions, the magical fires up on the mast, the terrible twin monsters waiting for ships to pass in the narrow strip between Sicily and Calabria.

∼ Fata Morgana ∼

It is right on the Straits of Messina that the Castle in the Sky is sometimes spotted, home to the Enchantress, cruel sister of Arthur son of Pendragon. The witch’s magical arts make the winged castle visible both from the coast of the island and from the opposite shore. Many believed they could conquer its trembling stronghold, and drowned.

Thus Morgan le Fay, “Fata Morgana”, gave her name to the rarest among superior mirages, capable of blending together three or more layers of inverted and distorted objects, in a constantly changing visual blur. The ultimate mirage, where nothing is what it seems; impossible apparitions of distant gloomy towers, enchanted cities, ghost forests. The horizon is not a promise anymore, but a mocking imposture.

∼ The Mirage of Everything ∼

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

What Zhuangzi is not considering is the possibility that both him and the butterfly might be a dream: someone else’s dream.
Quantum physicists, who are the modern poets, mystics, artists, suggest ours could potentially be a holographic cosmos. According to some scientists, the whole universe might be a simulacrum, a sophisticated simulation (atoms-pixels), us being the characters who little by little are realizing they’re part of a game. Galileo’s method is now teaming up with the opium eaters’ lucid hallucinations, and math itself seems to tell us that “life is but a dream“.

Among the supporters of the hypothesis of the universe being an elaborate fiction inside an alien algorythm, there is a controversial, visionary innovator who is trying to keep us safe from the dangers of strong AI. His inconceivable plan: to fuse our cerebral cortexes with the Net, forever freeing us from the language virus and, in time, reprogramming  our already obsolete bodies from the inside. Mutate or die!
And this mutation is going  to happen, rest assured, not in two hundred years, but in the next ten or fifteen.

Today we take a look around, and all we see is mirage.
For thousands of years philosophers have been discussing the Great Dream, but never before the veil of Maya has been so thin, so close to be torn at any moment.
What does it mean for us to accept the possible unreality of everything? Does it entail an absolute relativism, does it mean that killing is nothing serious after all, that nothing has value? Weren’t Hassan-i Sabbāh‘s last words “nothing is true, everything is permitted”?
[Old Uncle Bill smiles slyly from his parallel universe, surrounded by seductive centipede-boys.]
Are we instead to understand mirage as a liberation? Because death will finally turn out to be that “passage” every enlightened guru told us about, and this is not the true world? But does a true world really exist? Or is it just another mirage within a mirage?

Zhuangzi, the butterfly man, again:

All the while, the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman — how dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming!  It is a dream even for me to say that you are dreaming.

(Thanks, Bruno!)

Viaggi spaziali

L’esplorazione spaziale, iniziata in modo pionieristico alla fine degli anni ’60, ha conosciuto un momento “morto” negli ultimi decenni, ma oggi sta tornando ad essere parte integrante dei progetti delle grandi agenzie aerospaziali. Gli Stati Uniti hanno pianificato i primi viaggi su Marte per la metà degli anni 2030; ESA, Russia e Cina sembra abbiano in progetto missioni similari. Ma al di là dello stimolo che questi salti nell’ignoto regalano alla nostra fantasia, ci sono dei lati oscuri con cui fare i conti (che sono poi quelli che ci interessano, qui a Bizzarro Bazar!).

Innanzitutto, teniamo presente che le enormi distanze da superare pongono diversi grattacapi. Prendiamo ad esempio una missione su Marte. Il vero problema, sostengono i professori della NASA, sarebbe il costo del “biglietto” di ritorno. Far decollare una nave spaziale dalla Terra richiede già una quantità di carburante inimmaginabile, e dotare il mezzo di una quantità di combustibile tale da permettere il viaggio di rientro è al momento pura utopia. Questo significa che il volo verso Marte sarebbe di sola andata. I primi pionieri dovrebbero divenire dei veri e propri coloni, disposti non soltanto ad esplorare il nuovo pianeta, ma a fondarvi una comunità. Dovrebbero essere scelte coppie in grado di riprodursi, per dar vita alla prima vera colonia marziana che comprenda bambini nati e cresciuti sul Pianeta Rosso. Quanti di voi non esiterebbero un attimo a lasciarsi tutto alle spalle per iniziare una nuova vita su Marte? Quale uomo accetterebbe di partire sereno, sapendo che non farà mai più ritorno, che non vedrà mai più il mare, i suoi famigliari, gli uccelli nel cielo?

Parecchi, a quanto sembra. Da quando il Journal of Cosmology ha indetto il “sondaggio”, almeno 500 volontari si sono presentati all’appello. Persone per cui l’avventura, la curiosità e la gloria valgono più di ogni altra cosa; persone che non hanno più nessun legame; persone che sognano un’epopea spaziale da quando hanno 10 anni. Forse sarà proprio questo il bacino al quale gli scienziati attingeranno, in un prossimo futuro, per selezionare gli equipaggi di questa epocale “invasione”.

Ma i viaggi spaziali sono anche lunghi, e il lato più cupo della nostra personalità può prendere il sopravvento. Lo spazio può diventare una gabbia fatta di paranoie, illusioni e depressione, fatto da cui gli scrittori di fantascienza ci mettono in guardia da molti anni. Innanzitutto, la solitudine. Una solitudine inimmaginabile. Finora i viaggi sono stati troppo brevi per una qualche manifestazione psicologica in questo senso. Ma la NASA continua a ponderare gli effetti dannosi dell’isolamento per lunghi periodi di tempo, tanto da investire 1,74 milioni di dollari nella Virtual Space Station, una sorta di “psicologo-robot” che dovrebbe aiutare e dare consigli agli astronauti depressi dalla profonda solitudine. Nel 2008, uno studio condotto al NHC HealthCare in Maryland Heights ha indicato che un cane robotico si è rivelato un ottimo rimedio per la solitudine dele persone anziane, quasi quanto un cucciolo reale… anche se l’immagine di un astronauta solo nello spazio, che parla e coccola un cane-robot non è delle più confortanti.

Nello spazio, un posto che a torto riteniamo “vuoto”, si spargono radiazioni di vario tipo. Senza la protezione dell’atmosfera, queste radiazioni possono essere pericolose. E non si tratta qui soltanto delle temibili esplosioni di raggi gamma (evento talmente raro da essere trascurabile), ma anche semplicemente delle più comuni radiazioni cosmiche: alcuni esperimenti hanno dimostrato che l’esposizione a questi raggi può causare alterazioni nell’ippocampo, l’area del cervello responsabile della creazione di nuove cellule cerebrali e ritenuta responsabile dell’apprendimento e degli stati di umore. Proteggere con scudi appropriati gli astronauti potrebbe significare ridurre i danni cerebrali e la depressione di un viaggio al di fuori dell’orbita terrestre.

Un altro problema dei viaggi astrali è la fornitura e la purificazione dell’aria. Molti studi condotti sugli scalatori di alta quota hanno dimostrato come uno scarso approvvigionamento di ossigeno porti a un calo di attenzione, di capacità cognitiva e di riconoscimento linguistico. In situazioni ancora più estreme, a ridotto apporto di ossigeno, si verificano danni permanenti al cervello. Per questo si stanno dotando le astronavi di potenti rilevatori, in grado di accorgersi in largo anticipo di un cambio nell’aria della capsula. Vengono sviluppati anche dei software in grado di “misurare” la coerenza delle risposte degli astronauti a determinate domande, per prevenire eventuali danni psichici.

Aggiungete a questo quadro lo stress del lavoro di un astronauta, costantemente vigile e attento, che deve tenere sott’occhio i parametri della missione, controllare l’equipaggiamento, sapendo che soltanto un po’ di lamiera lo protegge dall’agghiacciante vuoto siderale. Molte persone, in situazioni molto meno stressanti, si imbottiscono di psicofarmaci. L’uso e l’abuso di tali sostanze (già oggi utilizzate a bordo delle stazioni spaziali) sarà un ennesimo grattacapo da risolvere. E pensate anche solo per un momento a questa situazione: non siete voi a impazzire nello spazio, ma il vostro collega. Se nella vostra giornata quotidiana c’è sempre un orario di fine lavoro, che vi permette di staccare la spina, beh, su una navicella spaziale non esiste. Per quanto professionali gli astronauti si possano dimostrare, dovranno anche essere addestrati a far fronte a qualsiasi imprevisto, persino il crollo psicologico di uno dei membri dell’equipaggio.

Ed arriviamo infine alla questione più spinosa e difficile. Cosa fare quando un astronauta muore nello spazio?

La mitica Mary Roach, giornalista scientifica autrice dell’imperdibile Stecchiti (2005), ha da poco scritto un libro sui viaggi spaziali. Con la sua consueta scrupolosa curiosità, ha indagato anche il problema della morte nello spazio. E ci ha illuminato sulle ultime tendenze della NASA al riguardo.

La morte, già di per sé destabilizzante, diviene ancora più insostenibile in un ambiente estremo come il cosmo. Nessuno sa come un piccolo gruppo isolato nello spazio possa reagire di fronte alla scomparsa di un membro: sentimenti di paura, perdita di controllo, rabbia, colpa o attribuzione di colpa possono instaurarsi. Di fronte a un decesso che colpisce inaspettatamente un membro dell’equipaggio durante una missione, il tempo per preparare il corpo sarà soltanto di 24 ore, per prevenire infezioni. Ad ogni astronauta verrà chiesto di riempire un diario in cui annotare e sfogare le proprie emozioni al riguardo.  Il corpo, dopo una cerimonia funebre che ricordi quelle terrestri (che serva da guida per la difficile situazione e riaffermi i valori che ci accomunano), verrà deposto in un modulo apposito, studiato per eseguire la cosiddetta Promession: si tratta di un “compostaggio” ecologico dei resti umani, per mezzo del quale il corpo viene completamente congelato, poi scosso violentemente fino a ridurre la salma in una fine polverina. La capsula contenente il cadavere polverizzato verrà poi estromessa dall’astronave, là dove nessuno può vederla, trattenuta da un braccio meccanico, e lì resterà fino a quando l’astronave non rientrerà sulla Terra (ritraendosi poco prima dell’impatto con l’atmosfera); una volta atterrata potrà finalmente avere degna sepoltura. Una particolare attenzione verrà mantenuta sui “sopravvissuti”, per evitare crolli psicologici e follia.

Ecco l’articolo di Mary Roach in cui viene spiegata l’intera procedura (in inglese).

Il sogno di “fare l’astronauta” non ha mai perso il suo fascino. Ma oggi, quando questa fantasia sta quasi per diventare realtà, gli scienziati continuano a interrogarsi su quali siano le vere barriere con cui dovremo fare i conti. E pare che i mostri più pericolosi, gli alieni più letali, prenderanno corpo nella nostra stessa mente.