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Celebrating Winter Solstice

My wife Suzie is a witch, that is, a pagan, and since 1999 we and our kids Mac and Skye have celebrated Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Four years ago I wrote an essay, “A Holiday Made for Believing,” about our ritual for the New York Times. Today is Winter Solstice, so here is the essay:

I think I finally understand the attraction of Christmas. Actually, my wife deserves the credit. Three years ago she decided that our family should celebrate winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which falls a few days before Christmas.

To be honest, I wasn't eager to cram another event into our frantic holiday schedule. As a lapsed Catholic, I had a knee-jerk aversion toward rituals and other trappings of religion, whether Christianity or voodoo.

Nevertheless, an hour or so after nightfall on Dec. 21, I dutifully pulled on my coat and boots and skidded down our icy driveway and into a field bordering our property. Near a clump of skeletal trees on the field's far side, I found a circle of stones enclosing a heap of sticks, which my wife and kids had gathered earlier that day. With the help of a chunk of artificial kindling, several sheets of newspaper and a dozen matches, I got the sticks burning, just before I spotted the candle lanterns of my wife and two children bobbing toward me.

We were only out there half an hour or so. The night was thumpingly cold, and smoke kept blowing in our faces. My son and daughter were more interested in putting sticks into the fire than in listening to their parents' makeshift creation stories about the Man on the Moon and other celestial beings. My daughter, then four years old, singed her hair, and the tip of her mitten melted. Glancing up at the stars and full moon, I felt anew that ancient sense of wonder at the improbability of life.

This was not exactly news to me. As a science journalist, I knew that scientists don't have a clue how our universe came into being, or why it took this particular form out of an infinitude of possibilities, including nonexistence. Nor does anyone know how inanimate matter on our little planet coalesced into living creatures, let alone creatures that could invent reality TV. Science, you might say, has discovered that our existence is infinitely improbable, and hence a miracle.

It is one thing to know intellectually that life is a miracle. It's quite another, however, to see it. Saints and poets aside, most of us rarely do. The psychiatrist Arthur Deikman blames our pinched perception on two innate tendencies, which he calls instrumentality and automatization. Instrumentality is our compulsion to view the world through the filter of our selfish interests. Automatization is our propensity to learn tasks so thoroughly that we perform them with little or no conscious thought.

No doubt these traits have helped us survive. Automatization is a particularly attractive cognitive feature, because it allows us to carry out more than one task at the same time; we can fret over our plummeting 401(k)'s while driving our children to their school Christmas concert. But instrumentality and automatization can also cause us to sleepwalk through much of life.

Yet now and then, we do not see the world as something to be manipulated for our ends. This recognition, which Dr. Deikman calls deautomatization, is the goal of all contemplative traditions. When an aspirant asked the 15th-century Zen master Ikkyu to write down a maxim of "the highest wisdom," Ikkyu wrote one word: "Attention." The dissatisfied aspirant asked, "Is that all?" This time, Ikkyu wrote two words: "Attention. Attention."

Spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga and prayer can help us pay attention. So can art, poetry and music.

And so can religious rituals. This, I suspect, is why so many people who aren't otherwise religious still celebrate holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. We especially need these rituals in this most benighted of seasons, when we are prone to dwelling on life's darker aspects.

The bugbear haunting Christianity and other faiths is the problem of evil. But sitting with my family in that circle of stones on winter solstice helped me see that birth, beauty, love and laughter also pose a problem. How could all this have come about? It's a mystery, which no theory or theology can possibly dispel.

My family celebrates winter solstice every year now, along with Christmas and New Year's. Even when it's unseasonably mild, as it was four nights ago, I still look forward to returning to the warmth of our home and flipping through an album of photos from the year just past. Remember last winter when we visited Grandpa in Colorado, and your brother learned to snowboard and your sister got sick? Remember Harley the starling, who pestered the other birds in the aviary so much last summer that Mommy brought him in the house, where he drove Daddy crazy?

The kids may squabble over who gets to turn the pages. I'll brood over a deadline, or plot how I'm going to ditch the family tomorrow to play pond hockey. But for at least a moment I'll pay attention and see. I won't know who or what to thank, but I'll be grateful nonetheless.



I am trying to recover my holiday spirit for this year after witnessing a family member attack our Christmas tree.


Damn, now I have to clean up the coffee I just choked on when I read the first line.

There may be hope for you yet.


Are you sure that Winter Solstice is traditionally celebrated outdoors? I know the indoor Christmas Tree tradition is a Pagan Winter Solstice idea borrowed by Christianity (together with Santa, Reindeer, etc.).

In England, Summer Solstice is celebrated by witches at Stonehenge. The sunrise is supposed to align between two of the stones at dawn on Solstice when seen from the middle. There is a famous frontispiece photo of this in Lancelot Hogben's book Mathematics for the Million (or perhaps I'm thinking of Science for the Citizen?).

"Magic is the art of attempting to influence the course of events by using the lesser-known forces of nature, or by obtaining the help of supernatural beings. Doing anything for luck, or to avert bad luck, is a form of magic.

"Throughout history, magic has exercised a great influence on human thought." -

Of course modern Witchcraft takes many cults, including mathematical M-theory.



That was excellent and enlightening.

Thank you so much and have a happy holiday -- whichever one you choose (or choose not) to celebrate!


hey endless_science,

What are your comments implying?

Are you unfamiliar with Paganism -- also known as the longest lived religion mankind has known?


Hey Tom,

Paganism is, IMHO, the religion that comes closest to allowing an individual to do things (via rituals, rites, etc.) that scientists generally categorize as 'supernatural' and 'paranormal'. (And, yes, I know that 'pagan' does not equal 'witch', and that there are a variety of pagan religions. But Horgan, perhaps with the intention of delibrate provocation, did use the term 'witch' - generally a designation that specifically implies one who has/does perform such actions.)

Horgan (as evidenced in previous postings too numerous to list here) has portrayed himself to be anti-psi and extremely skeptical of anything that a witch might take for granted.

My comments were meant to convey that perhaps he is not as closed-minded as we were led to believe. My apologies for the confusion.



Here's a relevant interesting analysis by an advocate of dark energy, the modern phlogiston of cosmology:

‘The world is not magic. The world follows patterns, obeys unbreakable rules. We never reach a point, in exploring our universe, where we reach an ineffable mystery and must give up on rational explanation; our world is comprehensible, it makes sense. I can’t imagine saying it better. There is no way of proving once and for all that the world is not magic; all we can do is point to an extraordinarily long and impressive list of formerly-mysterious things that we were ultimately able to make sense of. There’s every reason to believe that this streak of successes will continue, and no reason to believe it will end. If everyone understood this, the world would be a better place.’

– Professor Sean M. Carroll,

Jennifer Loewenherz

Magic – A mysterious quality of enchantment. (Webster’s II New College Dictionary 4th definition) Or to say: A quality of complete charm and delight that is difficult to explain or understand. The world is full of MAGIC. And this article is poignantly saying that if we take the time and pay ‘Attention’ we may be completely delighted and charmed by the yet unexplained.

And to ‘the world is not magic’…you are correct in stating that we have found answers to so many things that we, as humans, used to connect to the unknowable supernatural and we will continue to find answers to so many more things previously unthinkable to be explained, but don’t think for a minute that we will answer them all. Not only would that be impossible in our life time, but the past being the best predictor of the future, not to mention the present, we as humans probably won’t make it long enough on this planet to even come close to answering everything.

Now, I obviously love science, or otherwise why would I be on this website, but for me science is that completely delightful charm that in itself, so much of time, is even hard for the scientists to explain or understand. Just ask anyone working on the ‘spooky effect’. They ask themselves why some formulas work and why experiments turn out the way they do but stay determined to find an explanation…which I commend and wait for with excitement.

Now to the original author of this insightful article… Thank you. I am passing it along to a man I love with all my heart, but who is intent on not celebrating any special day that has been deemed religious in anyway (because of the evil as mentioned above). He loves science and nature more than anything so I just want to pick a day for us to share in the MAGIC by giving it our ATTENTION!

Delight in the charm of the yet unexplained and as stated in the article...
Attention, Attention


'... we will continue to find answers to so many more things previously unthinkable to be explained, but don’t think for a minute that we will answer them all.'

Jennifer, you are showing a bias in favour of magic over rational explanation.

Everything that in the past seemed a mystery or magic has - where pursued far enough - turned out to have a causal mechanism behind it. Quantum gravity will replace today's approximations to cosmology (general relativity solutions which ignore Yang-Mills quantum field theory dynamics, and effects on gauge bosons of relativistically receding gravitational charges, masses) and may solve the mysteries of the big bang.

If you are prejudiced in favour of there being some impossible-to-solve mystery behind something, then you are really against progress.

Otherwise, you risk falsely attributing some phenomena to magic which really have a causal mechanism, and hence you risk shutting off the pursuit of science on a topic prematurely.

Jennifer Loewenherz

Intention can be so easily lost in the written word at times.
By no means am I wanting science to slow down its progress. Its progression is truly something I look forward to...something I have enjoyed since I was very young. I do believe there is an answer to everything, I am just pointing out that the odds are against us discovering it all…we just don’t have the time. But by no means does that mean we stop our pursuit of that knowledge. Our curiosity is a gift which we should never loose.

I was simply trying to say that there is still charm in the unknown and unexplained. We may not look at it as supernatural, like a Sun God to explain it any longer…now we do favor rational scientific methods. I would just venture to say that the pursuit of said knowledge can be delightful and charming in and of itself and just because something has been explained does not remove the ‘AMAZING’ factor…it can add to it.

John Horgan

Jennifer, well said. Science poses this wonderful paradox: As our understanding deepens, so does our befuddlement. Each "Aha!" yields to an even more profound "Hunh?"

Sydney D Standen

For me solstice is a continuation of my interest in the movement of the stars/planets. And a time for friends to get together, away from the demands of family.

Happy holidays,

Curtis Park

When Discover magazine abandoned objective analysis for trashy political indoctrination I abondaned Discover magazine, after many years as a subcriber. Why would anybody seeking unbiased, researched-based truths waste their time reading a publication that has chosen to forfeit its' credibility?

Mike Cook

On the chance that Gospodin Kirilyuk will show up, I wish to say that I am struggling to understand his interesting observations about the nature of complexity itself. This seems to relate to an understanding of chaos as well. What particularly intrigued me is that in the land of Tor Bled'Nam equations generate geometrical structures on different scales that seem familiar enough, or recognizable enough, yet are always slightly different. Andrei, do you see chaos on some level as perfectly deterministic, but then vastly increasing complexity as you would measure it in your formulas effectively creates degrees of freedom that we may not only term consciousness, but free will?

But to speak just a minute of the solstice, it has always been the greatest curiosity to me that we just happened to live in a time when our sun and moon have almost identical apparent diameters as visible in the sky, a reality that not only stimulated our ancestors to pay attention to amazing events like eclipses, but to strive to understand. Indeed, even modern scientific understanding has been advanced by the pure accident that made total eclipses possible.

Another coincidence is that the sun and moon's average rotation rates are very close.

We know the sun will eventually expand and destroy the Earth, but by that time our old moon will have long fled. If humans are smart, we will go with it.

The geometry of general relativity allows us to conceptualize that when two bodies possessing mass orbit each other in space and one of the objects is much more massive than the other, then we tend to think that the smaller objects orbits the larger and that's that.

But that isn't really that. To a tiny, tiny little extent, our moon not only orbits the Earth, but in a highly intricate sense the Earth completes a circuit around the moon every so many centuries.

In an even more geometrically abstract sense, the sun truly does "orbit" the Earth every few billion years or so, but this is impossible to picture because the sun is also trying to orbit its other, much larger planets.

But if it is permissable to say that in some sense the sun does orbit the Earth over a very, very long period, then when we adapt the ancient view that the sun orbited the Earth and that this action constituted a "day" in accordance with that definition of the sun orbiting the Earth, then the Biblical opinion that the solar system was created in six "days" with a "day" equal to a couple billion years becomes more in line with our current understanding!

Just thought I'd run that up the flag pole. . .

Mike Cook

Returning to our Ukrainian friend's ideas, I will try putting them in my own language. In a town called Kamiah in the state of Idaho, USA, live my Uncle Maxie, Aunt Louise, and Louise's fat, obnoxious little lap dog, Giggles, a hairless Chinese breed.

In Andrei Kirilyuk's view, any living thing is quite a complicated but localized structure. All of the entities I mentioned, i.e. Maxie, Louise, Giggles, and Kamiah the town are quite localized. To a large-enough space-faring alien the first three creatures are much too tiny to notice, but the alien can see the town Kamiah growing like a mold on the face of the planet and observes the town to grow and change, to consume resources that are trucked in and to bury its waste products.

In Andrei-language high concentrations of organization create their own weather, in a sense, because binding interactions lead to bound quantum states. Each of the independent atoms that make up Maxie, Louise, and Giggles are bound in such an elementary way that all the atoms together will not spontaneously make a quantum jump in the same direction, but Giggles may decide to jump down from the lap of Louise to go chew something up. In that case, all of the atoms that make up the ugly little dog get dragged along.

Now Giggles may be a real dog, or an imagined dog. The point is that not only has the idea of this dog become a local, permanently localised brain pattern in me, but also in you, the reader, because I have communicated something like a meme to you and you have made a little niche to store it in your gray matter.

These niches are remarkably localized. A pinpoint brain injury could case me to forget Maxie's face, the smell of Giggles, or the fact that childless Aunt Louise controls a modest amount of wealth and I am her favorite nephew.

A brain pattern is a coherent-enough quantum thing to do the job of memory storage and of suppoorting abstract thought.

Uncle Maxie is a veteran of the Cold War who once was the coded teletype operator on a ship called the U.S.S. Pueblo. He once was captured by the North Koreans and beaten daily to force him to tell what he knew about this machine. It turned out later that the KGB already possessed the Navy codes, courtesy of the John Walker spy ring, but the KGB had to hire the Koreans to get an actual teletype machine. All of this prompted the Israelis only a few months later to have to deliberately bomb a U.S. ship called the Liberty.

At any rate, Uncle Maxie and Aunt Louise now sit of an evening near a pellet-stove fire in their double-wide trailor house in Kamiah, sipping wine that they buy at a warehouse store in a box, not a bottle. In her lap Louise holds the abominable Giggles and Maxie, under his blanket, coddles a .45 Colt automatic pistol, just in case the communists come back. Giggles having once piddled on my leg and never ceasing to yap at me, I would much prefer the gun as a companion.

It is my favorite fantasy to imagine that I convince Uncle Maxie that Giggles is, in fact, a spy for the Chinese-Korean conspiracy. After his fifth or sixth glass of wine, Giggles might yip once too many times.

I don't know that Giggles and his human family will pass into the permanent memory storage of any of you, but if this story makes it you could petition Andrei for a formula that would actually describe the whole process. I don't understand much of it, but I am starting to believe that Dr. Kirilyuk is really on to something. It is a nice theory that may be testable....

Andrei Kirilyuk

Hello in the New Year, Mike, and thank you for that artistic representation of my theory of consciousness. In fact, you describe quite correctly the essence of what consciousness is, according to my “rigorous” analysis, even though you remain far from any “formulas”. I think this mixed, “continuous” and creative character of knowledge accessible to every “thinking” person is what we need, as opposed to the broken, abstract, esoteric nature of usual science. Why indeed what we call “art” or “everyday life” is readily understandable by practically everybody (despite quite complicated structures they may contain), while “science” should remain a “secret” teaching, which only a limited group of “devoted priests” can properly understand and estimate (but everybody should pay for it!)? The demand for such “living” knowledge character is far from standard criteria of truth of usual science (“experimental testing”, etc.), and that's maybe why that usual science is explicitly dead now, despite its persisting formal domination in all labs and universities. They “test” thoroughly their absolutely abstract “models” explaining nothing at all and say how fine is the agreement between theory and experiment, until the next test reveals that all of it was but a pile of bullshit, with all their top-level prizes given for it and all the wasted time, money and efforts (as it happens today e.g. in cosmology and fundamental physics in general). After which they say “oh, it's even better to have those unsolvable problems, because it's only now that the new golden age of science will begin”. And they cheat out even greater sums of money for their “experiments” and the stupid, unaware crowd of “lay” taxpayers obediently give them all they ask for and obtain nothing in exchange. Doesn't a “knowledge-based society” merit a bit more than this?

Returning to my consciousness theory, it may be especially important that it prompts further consciousness development by showing that the corresponding “levels of (unreduced) complexity” are not really limited from above and “humans” are only dancing around the lowest accessible levels. It's another difference between living and esoteric forms of knowledge: the latter is concentrated upon themselves, their own “theories” and related personal ambitions (e.g. in conventional studies of consciousness, see Horgan's books for numerous examples), while the former is oriented to progress of real consciousness inseparable from its growing understanding by every one who wants it.

Mike Cook

I'm not sure that dynamical machine consciousness gets me to a definition of consciousness that seems complete, but never mind. There may be sufficient complexity in our turbulent sun to support consciousness. Living systems are not only complex, but a cell is an incredible machine. We think of chemistry as being slow, but everything that has to happen inside a cell happens pretty quickly, from DNA unraveling at hundreds of thousands of revolutions per second to the just-in-time delivery of amino acids when peptides are being built.

Cells are great little machines. Getting a mutation in them is pretty tricky, however, especially if we have to rely on extremely high energy inter-stellar photons zinging down. The problem is the photon has to penetrate to the sexual cell level. That's easier on males because our sex cell containers hang outside the body, but it still doesn't take much skin to stop a photon.

Without mutations of the DNA, evolution is hard to explain and without evolution machine consciousness has a hard time getting to a high level of complexity.

Perhaps radioactive rocks could do the trick of altering DNA? Do rocks produce high energy gamma rays sufficiently?

Then there is the problem that Stephen Gould identified--namely a sewer rat is about 99.99% the same as a human in terms of its complicated development. If the majority of our consciousness comes from the higher level functioning of our physical minds, we really do not have that large an advantage over rats, dogs, whales, or elephants. Not unless there is something about verbal memes themselves that is inherently layers of complexity levels above the type of reasoning and abstract thinking ability it takes to be an elephant.

The comments to this entry are closed.

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