Entropy vs. Life

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017

“The universal tendency of things to become disordered is a fundamental law of physics—the second law of thermodynamics—which states that in the universe or in any isolated system, the degree of disorder always increases.

…it is a common experience that one’s living space will  become increasingly disordered without intentional effort: the movement toward disorder is a spontaneous process requiring a periodic effort to reverse it.

Living cells—by surviving, growing, and forming complex organisms—are generating order and thus might appear to defy the second law of thermodynamics.  How is this possible? The answer is that a cell is not an isolated system: it takes in energy from its environment in the form of food…..It then uses this energy to generate order within itself.…a direct linkage of the “controlled burning” of food molecules is required for cells to create and maintain an island of order in a universe tending toward chaos.”

Bruce Alberts, Alexander Johnson, Julian Lewis et.al., Molecular Biology of the Cell,  Garland Science Publishers, 2015, pages 52-54.

Israel 2017–Day 17

Friday, May 26th, 2017

The knowledge that we’ll be getting up at 3:30 in the morning to go to the airport and we’ll be enroute home for 30 hours makes this last day especially precious.

We enter the Old City through the Muslim quarter at the Damascus gate, where there’s been a suicide attack on soldiers a few days ago, also mindful of the recent terrible incident in Manchester England.


Today is Friday, and crowds are already making their way to the noon worship at the Dome of the Rock inside the Temple Mount or Haram Esh Sharif.

Without a destination in mind, we turn left at the Via Dolorosa and head for the Ecce homo arch, the remainder of a gateway erected by the Emperor Hadrian in 134 CE, who was rebuilding the City after a second Jewish rebellion against the Romans, following the one in 70 CE that had led to its destruction by Titus. This is alleged to be the place that Pilate imprisoned Jesus and then presented him to the crowd.


We enter a small doorway to the left which leads to a large complex managed by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion.  A person at a desk says that we can see the Basilica before Mass begins in a few minutes.  Though relatively small and built in the 19th century, I’m entranced by its harmony of half circles and straight lines, its proportions, colors, and textures, its pairing of the geometrical cross in the luminescent green apse with the ruins of an ancient arched wall below.


We return to the desk and learn that this place also includes an underground archaeological site.  A slick set of stone stairs leads down to an opening 40 feet deep at the bottom of which is the entry of an aqueduct built by the Hasmoneans in the second century BCE bringing water that was stored in a vast cistern called the Struthion Pool.

Opening out from the staircase is an endless expanse of vaulted chambers arising from a stone floor which was added by Hadrian to cover the pool and turn it into a open air plaza, known as the Lithostrotos, which was later covered by the chambers.


We could stay in this place for hours exploring its gardens, guest accommodations, and rooftop observation platform, but we need to keep moving.  Passing a group African Christian pilgrims going the opposite direction, we head for the Lion’s Gate at the end of this street through which crowds of Muslim worshipers are heading for the Dome of the Rock.



Suddenly to the right an archway opens with a spectacular view of the Dome, and I beg the soldiers on duty for the chance to just take a look and a picture, which they grant.


We head back the way we came, hearing the call to worship and look for a place for lunch that’s not one of the crowded noisy cafes along the main street, El Wad.  Outside of a gateway to the dazzling courtyard of an Armenian church, there’s a menu.


We walk inside and are seated in a shady corner with all-around views of this peaceful complex and enjoy a memorable meal of salads, grilled lamb and chicken, eggplant, humous and something like pirogis.


Reentering the street, we encounter the crowds leaving the Haram Esh Sharif. To elude them we make a quick right turn heading back to the Christian quarter and stop for a half hour of Buddhist meditation in the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.  Then it’s back into the David street Market where Jan hones in on the spice merchant and hat seller we saw yesterday to shop for our gourmet cooking son and daughter-in-law, for inexpensive earings and for a hard bargained little Bedouin hat.

As we emerge into daylight at Jaffa gate, I cant bring myself to leave yet.  We turn left toward the Armenian quarter and are denied entry into an enticing garden. A small entrance opens again to the left into a crowded courtyard. Young men in dark robes disappear behind two heavy leather door coverings, and one of them beats a hanging plank reminiscent of the call to worship at Tassajara Zen Center.  We’re emboldened by other tourists’ slipping behind the door coverings and find ourselves in a gorgeous cathedral  bedecked with carpets, tilework, chandeliers, immense paintings and hundreds of beautiful lamps suspended on long chains from the ceiling.  Choruses of men sing antiphonally, and long bearded priests dressed in sinister black capes and hoods enter scowling through the crowd of gawking tourists to which we belong.  The combination of mystery, wonder and irreverence seems a fitting end to our Jerusalem stay.


Israel 2017–Days 11-15

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

A cab took us across town to the Prima Park, a less posh but comfortable and well situated location for the rest of our stay.  We celebrated the Sabbath by resting and reflecting upon the intense and varied experiences of the last week.

Sunday morning, feeling free and a little abandoned, we walked on our own to the nearby tram stop, struggled with the ticket machine and rode the three stops to the Mehane Jehuda Market, where we mixed with local residents wandering through the stalls and found a lively restaurant for lunch.  In the afternoon we reconnoitered the path to the Hebrew University, weaving our way through a maze of construction of the new light rail line that would soon be serving it.


Monday morning the conference began with snacks, introductory remarks by the dynamic and sorely tried organizer, Yaakov Mascetti, and a plenary lecture by John Monfasani, former editor of Renaissance Quarterly and protege of Paul Oskar Kristeller, a resident of the Columbia-owned building where we lived from 1967 to 1970.  As they did for the next three days, the plenary lectures were followed by 13 shorter papers on topics that once would have been of professional interest to me, but that I now simply could enjoy for their ingenuity and erudition. Almost all of them involved the kind of primary archival research that I never ventured into.

My presentation was on the afternoon of the second day.  After months of fretting, I felt comfortable and confident while delivering it and had the impression that it was well received, though it generated little discussion.  While most of the papers explored early modern theological issues arising out of disputes between Christians and Jews and among various Christian sects, two of them at least addressed the challenge to faith posed by the rise of modern science. My thesis implying that Shakespeare was coming at the Bible from a  consistent position of unbelief seemed somehow out of place.


That night we were hosted at the beautiful Eucalyptus restaurant located near Jaffa Gate and were addressed by the Chef-Owner whose family had immigrated to Israel from Iraq.


I was surprised and shaken when one of the presenters on the third day quoted two lengthy passages from my book, and in conversation afterward said that it had initiated the later proliferation of studies on its subject.

That day Jan went downtown to the famous Jerusalem YMCA building to attend a Rotary meeting and exchanged flags with the club President.



The speaker was a vigorous 92 year old American who fought the Nazi invasion of France and was seriously wounded. Then he immigrated to British Palestine and joined the underground fighting to establish the nation of Israel.

Israel 2017–Day 9

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

Photo album for Day 9

Our bus circumnavigates the Old City’s walls, passing the Mount of Olives, with the garden of Gethsemane at its base, and the Jewish cemetery, every inch packed with graves from 3000 years ago to the present.



We’re left off at Jaffa Gate, the entrance to the Christian quarter, pass the Citadel that guards it and proceed carefully on the polished rock pavement of David Street, the covered market arcade that leads downward across town.


Gabi takes us on a series of stops at significant Biblical sites. First the gender-separated tomb of David, occupied by a few praying Haredi,



Next, the Room of the Last Supper,


then down to the Jewish Quarter, completely rebuilt since 1967 in keeping with requirements for maintaining the irregular and narrow streets and low buildings of the old city while modern in infrastructure, maintenance, and methods of marketing.


We pass the excavated ruins of the Cardo, the Roman pathway of columns adorned with a wall mural aptly depicting a contemporary child with baseball hat meeting an ancient girl with baby goats.



We track back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world for Christians since it houses both the rock of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb where he is said to have been resurrected.


This church is a motley collection of structures, added onto and demolished for two millennia by various Christian sects including the three who have an uneasy arrangement to share jurisdiction today: Catholics, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox. Stairways ascend to galleries and upper chapels and descend deep underground to sanctuaries and shrines. In one area, a crane reaches 300 feet to the ceiling and large stone capitals sit in storage. But despite its sprawl over time and space, the building has a feel of overarching unity both inside and out.


It’s packed with people waiting to mount steep steps and crawl into a hole to kiss the rock on which the cross was mounted, to touch the marble shelf on which Jesus is said to have been anointed and to see the tomb covered by the Edicule, or marble shrine, that sits under the central dome.




The crowds surge everywhere and a group of the pilgrims waiting to enter the Edicule sing together in a language I don’t understand.

After lunch we proceed to the shop of a famous fabric merchant introduced by Gabi who provides silks and brocades for the vestments of the Jerusalem clergy of three religions and the Pope. He points out the fabric, the design and the sources of dozens of them—places with exotic names like  Palmyra and Aleppo and Baghdad, now largely in ruins due to wars involving the USA and lately the Islamic State.


We decide to purchase a pillow case woven in Kashmir.

Jan has signed up for the optional tour to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. Led by a Palestinian Christian guide, she travels by bus through East Jerusalem and a check point to the West Bank.


The Church of the Nativity has only one small doorway and was built over a cave (not a stable) that is venerated as the place of Jesus’s birth.



Bethlehem is a stronghold of Palestinian protest against annexation to Israel after the 6 day war in 1967.