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50 years ago today, during a time of strife, great political division and poor leadership, three Americans blasted off on a journey of hope for all humankind. Theirs was a mission of incredible risk, but behind them stood 400,000 people, all guided by a singular goal: to set foot on another world.

They travelled so far, you could hide our whole planet behind an outstretched thumb.

50 years later we still applaud the achievements of these people. They brought the world together, allowing us to imagine something greater than ourselves. The trip to the moon was such an expression of what we as a species are capable of when we set our minds to an awesome task.

In a time of political turmoil, strife and great impending danger for humanity, with political leaders unequal to the challenge faced, we again need this kind of inspiration.

When things seem gloomy and grim, it inspires me to think about all the things that are wonderful and marvellous about being alive on this planet, right now. We are so privileged to have the fortune to be conscious and aware enough to appreciate them.

I can think of so many:

Bumblebees, old castles, rocket launches, thunderstorms, Mozart, eyes, waterfalls, snow-covered mountain tops, deep sea living organisms, rainbows, probes on distant planets, supernovas, volcanoes, singing, colour changing chameleons, rock concerts, spiral distance athletes, galaxies, a capella, laughter, children, kittens, long Jupiter’s clouds, oxygen, microscopic insects, octopuses, global religious celebrations, magnets, hobbies, auroras, holograms, echolocation, ice ages, dinosaurs, the smell of rain on a summer day, friendship.

What else can you think of?

This world – this whole universe – is extraordinarily wonderful. We only get one chance at experiencing it. Even though sometimes it’s not possible to appreciate it fully, we should try not give up on it.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here.

I guess I could say that I’ve been concentrating on other things, that life has taken over and that there have been other priorities in my life recently. All true, to an extent. Also, blogging doesn’t seem the same as it used to be, what with the dominance of social media and everything. It’s hard to write something when you know so few people will read it.

But to an extent, it’s about me: I turned 50 some months ago and with it has come a melancholy of sorts. I’ve lost interest in things. I seem to crave being alone more than I used to. It’s more of a struggle to make the effort to do something for myself, even though I know when I do it, I will feel better afterwards. I question what I am about and I often wonder how the last 20 years have just passed by so quickly. I feel that I have aged.

My photography has been doing well. I got a new camera for as a birthday present to myself. It has added a new dimension to my photos, with one of them recently ending up in the Daily Mail, of all places.

I hope I can get back here again, and start writing again.

Maybe now is a start.

If you step outside

Of the International Space Station

With the planet spinning below you

At 17,500 miles per hour,

You will not fall to Earth;

The forces keeping it up

Apply to you too.

But if you push yourself away,

The Space Station just inches

From your grasp,

You cannot return;

There is nothing you can do

No arm movements,

No contortions,

No forward crawls;

You will gently slip away

Your salvation always in sight.

This is a terrifying thought.

What it must have been like to live in the Middle Ages. Though it’s often unfairly caricatured as a time when people knew nothing, there is a case to be made that these times were very different – a time when humanity was in its childhood.

The people of these times knew nothing much about nature, so they relied on stories and myths to explain it all. Religion was all powerful. Anyone who could set themselves apart as a mystic – who could somehow claim to know the unknowable – had a certain advantage over others. It explains why religion and power went hand in hand over the centuries and across so many cultures. The need to understand what was hidden from us provided a great market opportunity for charlatans and storytellers of all hues.

People were at the whim of natural forces in a way we find it difficult to fathom today. Storms, earthquakes and floods could take away your livelihood. A disease could wipe out your family overnight. Bad weather could cause great famine and wipe out communities. People lived their lives at the behest of forces they knew nothing about.

During medieval times, you could play the cynic and state that all things were unknowable. The systems of thought to pursue knowledge were in their infancy, so often truth boiled down to who told the best story and who had greater authority and power. Ultimately, everything was an opinion back then. Unless you were in some sort of technical area, building castles, bridges, mills or weapons of war, nobody knew anything.

Ultimately, the technicians won out, and the same processes of trial and error used by them started to be applied to all sorts of questions about the universe. Knowledge, now substantiated by experiment and evidence, got elevated over mere opinion. It was no longer so easy to play the cynic. We discovered that certain things were knowable. It wasn’t necessary to fall back on comforting fairytales anymore. We could use our newfound knowledge to create objects not found in nature, and to apply these to our own purposes. Today, planes fly above us, we can chat comfortably with someone in another part of the world, there is plenty of food on our tables and we have a better chance than ever to live healthily into old age.

The knowledge that supports this is often arcane. It involves particles traveling at light speeds, enormous nuclear forces, complex molecules performing coordinated activities, and mathematical formulas being played out billions of times simultaneously. There are no more simple stories to explain everything in our world. It’s just too complicated. Instead, we depend on lots of expertise and deep knowledge from specialists in their narrow, focused areas, often themselves relying on massive computers to grasp what’s going on. No one person can possibly understand in detail all there is to know.

We’re now in a place where the knowledge is available to explain many of the things we thought were mystical, but most of us have only the most tenuous understanding of it, if we understand it at all. Science has moved on, but our minds remain medieval. This is what we see when people deny evolution or global warming or vaccines, or they claim the earth is flat. They don’t understand the science or they refuse to understand, so they rebel against it.

We need to redouble our efforts to explain science, support science education and foster careers in science, otherwise our world could relapse into medievalism rather quickly, and we will be left alone in our caves, cursing the stormy night.

This year has to be one of the most uncertain years in living memory, what with Trump and Mueller, Nazis and Ultra-Nats, Mexican Walls and corruption on an epic scale, Yellow Jackets, cyber disinformation campaigns and stock market wobbles. Meanwhile Putin schemes from the Kremlin, while Turkey, China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia practice their own form of heavy diplomacy in a world with no real leadership anymore. The ghastly mess of Brexit ooses its way towards a conclusion of sorts – what that is we don’t know, but it’s likely to make a lot of people very angry.

William Gibson couldn’t have dreamt it up if he tried. Everything seems to be in flux at the moment. I wish you a happy New Year, but I fear we’re in for a very rough ride.

Apologies for the paucity of postings this year. I’ve been remiss on my 2019 anniversaries (for what it’s worth – it’s of interest to almost nobody other than myself) and I’ve yet to start collecting my favorite photos for the year. There are many explanations for this, and none. I’ve had something of a writer’s block over the past few months with a brief visit of the black dog during the latter part of the year. I’m ok, but many things I’ve been passionate about in previous years are not as strong this year. Ebbs and flows.

I wanted to write about something I’ve been mulling over these past days: my ancestry, and in particular my paternal ancestry. My father’s father’s father’s father’s line, and on back into antiquity. I could choose any combination of course – my father’s mother’s father’s mother for example, but the male parental line is perhaps the most obvious one, with the dubious benefit of maintaining the family name, at least for a few generations.

Who were these people? I don’t know. Prior to a farmer called Richard who lived in the mid nineteenth century (my great great great grandfather), I am clueless as to who any of them were, how they lived or where they came from.

I can surmise a few things.

1) They lived and survived through the roughest times in Ireland: the famines, the plagues, the penal times and the various scourings of the country by the English. Throughout all these calamities they survived, at least long enough to have had a male child, who himself was healthy enough to have children. It’s a pretty amazing feat given how often Ireland was devastated in the past centuries.

2) There were always just a few of them around at any one time: probably three (son, father, grandfather), often maybe just two of them or even one, in rare cases four. But nevertheless, just a handful of individuals- in any age – making up this paternal line. Faces in a crowd. Perhaps they were famous. More than likely, not.

3) We share the same Y chromosome, more or less. Y chromosomes don’t change much. They get passed down the male parent line almost intact from generation to generation. Interestingly, there are probably quite a few men around today who are related to me via the many brothers of some of these men. The mutations that do occur must be very revealing. I wonder have there been any studies on this, and what it tells us about the dynamics of the Irish ancestral population?

4) Although the surname typically gets passed down through the male line, amongst certainly, there was a break. An opportunistic scoundrel or just a chance encounter and a resulting pregnancy. The name then perhaps skipped into a different family with a different name. I wonder when this happened, and in the last thousand years, how many times?

5) Then there’s all the inbreeding: in how many ways does my ancestry lead back to this same parental line? In a small country like Ireland, this is probably more than I might allow myself to imagine.

A narrow line of individuals. Sons, fathers, grandfathers. All living lives that cannot easily be imagined. Nevertheless, real people, who bore witness to all the great events of their time. Each with their own problems, worries, hopes and concerns; now lost to time. All connected to me. I have so many questions.

Happy New Year.

My biggest worry? All this will end in war.

When people lose their senses and descend into conspiratorial thinking, when it’s all heat and little light, when the other side is the enemy, when people can agree on nothing, pushing through their agenda, irrespective of the consequences and the harm caused, when peacemakers are ridiculed and populists lauded, it seems the only way our species manages such situations is with violence. Terrible violence.

A few weeks before 1914, few would have imagined that the world would descend into total war. If the American Civil War had not broken out, few lives would have been threatened. People killed each other by the hundreds of thousands, because of different ideas of freedom, and not fear of annihilation.

We simply don’t seem to have the structures or faculties to pull ourselves away from the brink. No way of calming the fires or seeing the bigger picture. When it comes to fear, paranoia and hatred, our institutional frameworks are found sadly wanting.

I hope I’m wrong about all this. I really hope I’m totally mistaken.

I have hazy memories of the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979. The early morning start, the huge lines of traffic on the road to Dublin, the long walk to Chapelizod, the corrals, the Papal stage in the far distance, the great tents, the popemobile and the vast, vast crowd. It’s the crowd that I remember the most. There were periscopes on sale that helped me get an idea of the vastness of it all. As a ten year old, I was only allowed on my dad’s shoulders for a moment, but what I saw has stayed with me.

It’s different this time. A different pope. A different age. I’m a different person. I don’t have many thoughts on his trip. I’m not travelling to see him. There is no message he can give that will have any effect on me or my family. He represents a corrupt, arch-conservative organisation that has held back progress – particularly for women and gay people – for decades; an organisation that still refuses to take proper responsibility for the abuse scandal unleashed on children around the world; an organisation whose involvement in health and education comes with a high price tag. It’s long past the day when health, education and social welfare should be the prerogative of non-governmental organisations pursuing their own narrow agendas.

So, no. I’m staying put, like many of my fellow Irish people. If he reminds people to be better humans to each other, all the well. If he asks them to be better Catholics, well, there’s better ways to spend your time.

If someone was born in Jan 1, 1900 they would have been around for the first plane flight, the first commercial radio broadcasts, votes for women, the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, the rise of communism, the end of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the rise of the motor car, jazz music, antibiotics, Hollywood, plastics, the Wall Street Crash, fascism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, atomic weapons, the Cold War, the welfare state, television, the end of colonialism, American hegemony, domestic equipment, rock and roll, jet liners, satellites, the death of JFK, the contraceptive pill, men on the moon, the oil crises, terrorism, the killing fields of Cambodia, closeup photos of the gas giants, personal computers, IVF, the transformation of the office, the end of communism, mobile phones, and the internet.

We’re only 18 years into the 21st Century and we’re shocked by Brexit and Trump. If the last century is anything to go by, we’ve seen nothing yet.

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