Patterns and Ritual

We are leery of confusing correlation with causation, but we do appreciate finding connections among seemingly unrelated occurrences. These connections appear as temporary patterns, their existing paths becoming visible out of darkness, then twinkling out, just like the bright International Space Station traversing the California sky last night. (To find a viewing in your sky, click here.)

Discovery on Launch Pad 39A in November

The space shuttle Discovery landed today at 11:57 a.m. at Kennedy Space Center. It was an event that the vehicle repeated 39 times over 27 years. Today’s landing was much like the other 38 landings, though some occurred at Edwards Air Force Base in California, instead of at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Even those West Coast touchdowns followed the same basic procedures. The process of landing the shuttle is a ritual.

On this date in 1758, Franz Joseph Gall was born. He was interested in the mental abilities of humans and began looking for patterns in the shapes of human skulls. He presumed that different parts of the head were associated with different functions. For instance, he asserted that people talented in the arts must have something neurologically in common. He analyzed the external structure—the skull—because he assumed it represented the internal capacities of the mind. Besides, there was no way to safely examine the brain of a living person two hundred years ago, so measuring the skull had to suffice. What became known as phrenology has had its share of criticism and interpretive folly, when his followers began applying the concepts in disturbing ways used to justify racial discrimination and profiling. Still, the current notion of brain specialization—that there exist patterns across all human brains—stems from the same concepts that underpinned Gall’s work.

C60 with isosurface of ground-state electron density as calculated with DFT. (Image by Itamblyn)

Physicist Walter Kohn was also born on March 9, 1923. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his development of density functional theory, which revamped our notions about the electronic structure of matter. His basic idea was a few equations that allow for modeling systems with many bodies, like molecules, and thereby simplify an important task in physics, chemistry, and semiconductor science. Kohn escaped Austria in the Kindertransport to England, then was sent to Canada, while his parents remained behind and perished in the Holocaust. He earned his PhD at Harvard University and is now professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where we were less than two weeks ago.

Envelope Commemorating Yuri Gagarin's Spaceflight

On this date in 1934, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was born. His historic journey occurred on April 12, 1961. He was chosen because of his skill, intellect, perseverance, and fitness, but also because he was short and the capsule was small. That was Gargarin’s only spaceflight, in part because officials couldn’t risk losing their new hero. At the age of just 34, he died in a training flight on March 27, 1968. His ashes are buried at the Kremlin.

Each of these events has little to do with the other, except each is connected to the human need to find patterns and our tendency to develop rituals. Franz Joseph Gall wanted to figure out the basic, universal pattern of the human mind. Walter Kohn wanted to simplify and unify modeling of matter. Models are basic patterns that can be reused; modeling is a ritualized representation. Astronauts and cosmonauts have their own rituals too, certainly the procedures of spaceflight itself, but also repeated habits for luck.

STS-133 Heading to the Pad (after the card game)

In the NASA-TV coverage of Discovery’s launch almost two weeks ago, an astronaut recounted the ritual card game that shuttle crews play before they leave the suit-up room. The lounge chairs in which they sit are supposedly the same ones there since the Apollo missions, even though shuttle crews are larger than Apollo crews were. The crew has just breakfasted on steak and eggs, the same meal Alan Shepard ate before his flight. No one gets on the bus headed for the launch pad until the commander loses a hand. Since they are on a tight schedule, it sounds as if the game involves cards tossed around and the commander losing quickly.

Cosmonauts, too, have a host of pre-launch rituals, many based on repeating Yuri Gagarin’s run-up to his only flight. When they leave the training facility, they place flowers at the Memorial Wall that honors cosmonauts who’ve died in service, including Gagarin. They stay at hotel behind which is a line of trees, each planted by a previous cosmonaut. The crew, like the groom before a wedding, cannot attend the rollout of the rocket to the launch pad. They are blessed by a priest, they watch a film, they sip champagne, and they sign their hotel room doors. The adherence to the rituals is so firm that the bus stops on its way to the launch pad so that the cosmonauts can pee on the rear wheel.

We’ve written about ritual before (here and here). Our weekly writing night (or two) is a ritual. Our monthly writing group gatherings via Skype are a ritual. We are attached to these repeated tasks. We are invested in them. We depend upon them. In fact, whether an astronaut or a writer, ritual is a form of accountability, a tangible sign of holding ourselves to some standard of success we want to achieve.

Rituals are silly too, of course. Doug sets the radio volume on a prime number. Anna prefers to set it on an even number. We recognized this only last week. It’s meaningless. But we do it anyway. And we land safely.

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