Sunday, June 25, 2017

About Nothing

They say it’s impossible for the human mind to think about nothing at all, but apparently we think about it a lot.1 For example, the Zen kōan, with its impossible question or illogical juxtaposition, is designed to disrupt the continuous buzzing of the active mind and send the practitioner into a relaxed, passive, receptive state. This is why meditation is so refreshing: it is like the darkness of deep sleep before the nightly pageantry of dreamtime begins.

But you don’t have to be a Zen master to contemplate emptiness. Quantum physicists attempt to understand the void of creation all the time. After all, empty space makes up the largest fraction of the universe. For example, it’s a common metaphor that, if the nucleus of an atom—any atom from hydrogen to plutonium—were blown up to the size of a baseball, then the electrons in their various energy shells surrounding it would be like flies buzzing around inside the space of a cathedral. If you could stop their motion, then you could sweep the dead electrons and the nucleus itself up with a brush and dustpan, leaving a cathedral-sized nothing behind. And if a molecule is a group of atoms linked by sharing their electrons, then molecules are simply a concatenation of cathedral-sized empty spaces. And even in the most densely packed material, like that brick of plutonium, the space between the molecules would be even emptier.

Outside the densely packed substance of the Earth and its atmosphere, in interplanetary space, the most prolific form of matter is particles of the solar wind. Depending on the state of the Sun and its recurring coronal mass ejections, these particles occur at a density of between four and ten per cubic centimeter.2 And most of them are not intact atoms from the Sun’s store of hydrogen and helium but instead their ions—that is, uncoupled atomic fragments like protons and electrons. Thin soup indeed! Interstellar space, beyond the boundary of the Sun’s heliosphere, is even emptier.3

And yet, in the mind of the physicist, the empty space between atoms and particles, even the space between the planets and between the stars, is laced with the fields that are associated with dynamic particles. These fields include the electromagnetic field accompanying the photons4 flying outward from the sun and from any other release of energy, or the Higgs field accompanying the long-sought Higgs boson5 that enables all the other particles in the grand vision of quantum mechanics to have mass. So “empty” space is full of—well, let’s call a field the “potential” for things to happen if the right amounts of matter and energy are present. So empty space has structure—or at least the possibility of structure—based on the presence and number of those nano-sized baseballs, dead flies, and other bits of matter or energy, on how much mass each one contains, and on how fast it’s moving.

Science fiction writers have taken this idea of the structure of empty space to absurd but imaginatively useful limits. For example, the empty space of the physical universe is envisioned as folded and crumpled in dimensions more numerous than the three—x, y, and z—coordinates we use for defining the space in which we normally move around. The idea goes that, if you could focus enough energy at a particular point in normal space, you could break through that folded structure and instantaneously arrive at another place that might be light-years away in your frame of reference but just around the corner in that multidimensional crumple.

Another useful fiction is that, with the application of enough energy, the structure of space itself can be pulled and pushed around like a lump of taffy. This give rise to the Star Trek warp drive. Using this hypothetical propulsion system, a starship can move faster than light while not exceeding the speed of light, c, the universal speed limit, because its “warp field” collapses the space in front of the ship and expands the space behind it. This is rather like being able to walk along at a hundred miles an hour, rather than the usual human pace of four miles per hour, because the sidewalk bunches up—in the example here, at the rate of twenty-five feet for every step—before your front foot hits the ground, and then it smooths out as you lift your back foot for the next step. You walk in a bubble of collapsing and expanding space and never exceed your normal walking pace. What the warp field does to the ship itself, the passengers, and the empty spaces inside their molecules and atoms is another question.

Some theoretical physicists, taking their ideas from the pixilation of a digital image or an LED television screen, propose that empty space is actually just a field of unfilled holes waiting to be occupied by matter and energy. In this view, space is like a giant honeycomb and, rather than moving through it haphazardly, particles and objects simply transition from one invisible cell to the next, blinking into and out of existence in an orderly fashion. For me, that’s a great mind game, but it doesn’t tell you more about the rules behind matter and energy than simply imagining particles and their associated waves flying through empty space.

Finally, because the movements of stars in the spiral galaxies that we can observe do not seem to match the masses and corresponding gravitational fields of those galaxies,6 physicists believe the universe has an unseen component called “dark matter.” This is not only matter we cannot see, but also matter we cannot detect with any of our instruments because it doesn’t interact with the atoms, energies, and fields—except for gravity—that compose the universe we live in. Based on the stellar movements we can observe,7 physicists think that “normal” or “baryonic” matter—that is, particles with known masses like protons and neutrons, the stuff we’re made of—composes only about five percent of the universe, while this dark matter makes up approximately twenty-seven percent.

It gets worse. The galaxies we can see are moving away from each other—and not just moving but accelerating, moving faster and faster—rather than collapsing inward under the gravity of all the matter we can see and detect, plus any contribution from the mass of all that dark matter. Since the outward fling imparted by the universe’s supposed origin in the Big Bang would be at a steady velocity—or even gradually decelerating, as gravity began to take over—something else must be pushing the galaxies apart. Again, whatever this “something” might be is invisible to our senses and undetectable by our instruments, and so it is called “dark energy.” Based on the observed acceleration of the galaxies, this energy is thought to constitute approximately sixty-eight percent of the matter and energy in the visible universe.

And we haven’t a clue about the nature of either dark matter or dark energy. Physicists attribute the former to objects called WIMPs—weakly interacting massive particles—and MACHOs—massive astrophysical compact halo objects. These are clever names that cloak a bit of an idea but essentially translate as “I don’t know.” And dark energy is sometimes attributed to “vacuum energy,” which is giving some structure or property to the empty space between those atomic baseballs and dead flies. Some theories propose that this energy comes from virtual pairs of particles—one of matter, the other antimatter—that randomly pop into existence in empty space and immediately annihilate each other without leaving behind any visible or audible “pop.” So the whole action is invisible to us. The amount of vacuum energy or the number of virtual-pair annihilations can be adjusted to account for the universe’s dark energy requirement. But hey, when you’re summoning pixies or counting angels dancing on pinheads, any number will suffice.8

So, while we can debate whether a glass is half-full or half-empty, we can also fill up that empty place with all sorts of imaginative particles, fields, and structures. For some of us, all this “nothing” seems to be our favorite subject.

1. You knew this one was going to be weird, right?

2. When I write “cubic centimeter,” think of a sugar cube—back in the days when sugar came in little cubes in a box that you poured into a bowl, instead of measured packets of white powder that is usually not real sugar.

3. What a concept is “emptier”! More empty than empty. Perhaps the construction should be “less filled up”—until we get to the something that is really, totally nothing.

4. I don’t count photons among the particles in the solar wind because the photon only has apparent mass—and so physical existence—because it’s traveling at the speed of light. If you stop it in its tracks, it transfers that energy into something else and simply disappears. Physics is complicated stuff.

5. See “What exactly is the Higgs boson? Have physicists proved that it really exists?” from Scientific American.

6. From the vantage point of Earth, all we can see are the stars in other galaxies. We know that they must also contain an amount of nonluminous matter like planets, asteroids, comets, and loose dust and gases. But since those quantities in our own local neighborhood are such a tiny fraction of the mass of the Sun itself, we discount them in computing the mass of any galaxy.

7. Based on the masses we can see, we would expect the stars closer to the center of the galaxy to move faster than those out on the rim, like wood chips circling inside a tornado or whirlpool. Instead, the stars appear to move in a relatively fixed pattern, as if they were painted on a spinning disk. To achieve this effect, you would need more mass in the system than you can account for by the stars we can see.

8. See also Three Things We Don’t Know About Physics (I) from December 30, 2012, and (II) from January 6, 2013.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Iambic Life and Trochaic Life

Poetry in the English language seems to settle—when it settles down at all, given the modern distaste for rhyme and meter—into a series of mostly two-beat measures, like a continuous handclap: dee-DAH, dee-DAH. Or sometimes DAH-dee, DAH-dee. Kind of like a heartbeat: lub-DUB, lub-DUB.1

Compare the stressed and unstressed syllables in two pieces of poetry. One familiar from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, like all his plays written in iambic pentameter:

To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished! To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

Five measures to the line, and the second syllable in each measure stressed.2

Now read a piece from Rudyard Kipling’s The Explorer, written in trochaic octameter:

“There’s no sense in going further—it’s the edge of cultivation,”
So they said, and I believed it—broke my land and sowed my crop—
Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station
Tucked away below the foothills where the trails run out and stop:
Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”

Eight measures to the line, and the first syllable stressed in each measure.

The words are so chosen and placed, as if naturally occurring, that the lines can only be read in one way. Try reading them with the stresses reversed, and your tongue gets tangled up.

In the Shakespeare, you have to place the stress and the importance on the second syllable:

To BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUES-tion

For IN that SLEEP of DEATH what DREAMS may COME

In fact, you could drop out the unstressed words and you would still have the sense of the verse surviving in telegraphic form, almost like a text message.3

In the Kipling, the words and structure force you to pay attention to the first syllable:

BUILT my BARNS and STRUNG my FENC-es IN the LIT-tle BORD-er STA-tion

SOME-thing HID-den. GO and FIND it. GO and LOOK be-HIND the RANG-es—

Here again, the stressed words and syllables carry the sense of the poem. And the stress itself conveys the urgency of the whisper: “Go and find.Go and look.

It makes me think that these two opposite forms of reading—stress first versus stress second—almost define two separate approaches to life.

In the Kipling style, life is full of trochees, with that impetuous initial stress that leaves the second almost unvoiced. The tone is imperative, commanding, insistent, thrusting, and sure of itself. It is the voice of a British serving officer. It is the voice that drives men into battle or sends them overseas to seek their fortunes.

In the Shakespeare style, life is made up of iambs, with that hesitant initial stress and the second firming up the sense of the matter. The tone is reflective, contemplative, associative, conjoined with lots of “ands,” “fors,” and “ifs,” and yet ultimately resolute. It is the voice of a mature person weighing consequences—and not just in young Prince Hamlet considering suicide but in all of Shakespeare’s plays. It is the voice that invites us inside the character’s thinking.

When I think back on various people I have known, both in life and in literature—for yes, we readers have invisible friends—I believe many would line up under one banner or the other, the iambic types and the trochaic types.

The trochees are direct and obvious in their life and attitudes: slam-dunk, there-you-are, and sometimes in-your-face characters. For them, life is simple and unquestioned. Hit the ground running. Take the shot. Make your move. Accept the facts as they are presented. This might mean they sometimes jump to conclusions and precipitate hostilities that might better be avoided. But so be it. They also tend to win gun battles and, through their decisiveness and audacity, get the biggest piece of cake.

The iambs are more subtle and reasonable in their approaches: on-second-thought, but-what-about?, and sometimes oh-let’s-not! characters. For them, life is complex and full of questions. Pick and choose. Consider all the angles. Try to understand. Examine the facts before accepting them. This might mean they sometimes miss out on the best items in a holiday sale and fail to stand up to bullies. But they also win chess games by seeing three or four moves ahead and, through their thoughtful and sensitive natures, savor the piece of cake they do finally get.

Which personality is better? That depends on the circumstances. A trochee makes a good soldier and a competent administrator of complex systems that resolve into obvious patterns, like running a railroad or an electric-power grid. These are activities where the hesitations and second thoughts of an iamb can cause no end of trouble. But you don’t want a trochee for a military strategist or judge in a court of law. Those are activities where critical examination, questions, and playing three or four moves out are more reliable. Which makes the better and more lasting friend? That depends on whether your taste runs to playing football with its rough-and-tumble, block and tackle, or fencing with its subtle weave of parries and ripostes while respecting an opponent’s personal space. One kind is good at playing poker, the other tends to play bridge.

Do these opposites attract? In this case, I think not. The tendency for trochees to pounce and for iambs to react would lead the pair to get on each other’s nerves. The iamb would end up nursing hurts that the trochee might never perceive. Or the iamb would get back at the trochee in ways the latter would never see coming.

Are men trochaic and women iambic? Only in your dreams. I know women who are deadly quick and not at all subtle—and men who need to walk three times around the house before opening a drawer. These are not masculine and feminine characteristics played against type. They are basic approaches to life belonging to the species H. sapiens without gender distinction.

In The Iliad, Achilles and Agamemnon are blunt trochees, while Hector and Odysseus are subtle iambs. Anna Karenina and her impetuous cavalry officer, Count Vronsky, are a pair of trochees, while Stepan Oblonsky and his wife Dolly are, for all their frivolousness, more iambic. Ellen Ripley, in the Alien series, is an iamb despite her tough-gal heroism, because her basic attitude is stop-wait-and-look, and she sees right through Lieutenant Gorman or the Company’s devious Carter Burke. In the Dune series, the Fremen, despite their reputation as fierce fighters, “were supreme in that quality the ancients called ‘spannungsbogen’—which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.” That is an iambic trait: wait and see. Americans are generally considered to be trochaic, while Europeans, the Chinese, and Japanese are thought to be more iambic.

Of course, human beings in specific cases, taken one by one, are far too complex to exist under such a crude dichotomy of characteristics. That is why most of my examples above come from literature, where the author emphasizes one approach, one mindset or trait, to prove a point. And yet, in real life, some people still consistently hit that first syllable hard, while others pause and reflect on that second syllable. Dah-dee, or dee-dah, the beat of life goes on.

1. This may have something to do with the fact that English, as an amalgam language, drew on Celtic, Norse, and Germanic roots that were formalized and spread by bards and poets reciting their verses in the lord’s banquet hall, rather than by written records.

2. There are already exceptions to this formula, of course. For example, the first four lines demand that the final words—“question,” “suffer,” “fortune,” “troubles”—be partially swallowed on the second syllable in order to maintain the beat. Well, nobody’s perfect—and a perfectly restrictive meter would eventually become boring, like riding a rocking horse.

3. And now that I think of it, the actors in a noisy Elizabethan theater—where the patrons and groundlings are calling to one another and chatting among themselves—might have to shout their lines. Only the stressed words would cut through the noise, and they would have to carry the sense of the play.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sense and Imagination

All art forms bear a certain similarity to each other. For example, they invite creativity: they allow for the expression of individual and personal tastes and interests; they celebrate the introduction of new constructions or combinations of existing ideas and forms; and they expect the artist to explore new methods, stretch current standards, and try novel perspectives and viewpoints. An artist working in any format is presumed to differ in substance and style from every other artist and to explore new ways of interpreting his or her art.

Almost all art forms appeal directly to the senses. For painters and photographers, it’s the visual sense associated with color, proportion, and perspective. For musicians, it’s auditory sense associated with timbre, harmony, and tempo. For perfumers, it’s smell and the associated scents of flowers, organic pheromones, and other chemical-based memories. For chefs, it’s taste and texture, associated with flavors, scents, and the visuals of presentation.

Writing is different, however. In reading a written piece, the image of the type on the page or the feel of the book’s binding is a minor sensory note that is not particularly related to the story. Writing appeals not to the senses but directly to the intellect and the imagination. That’s one reason why books as bound paper, electrons on a screen, or a voice reciting from a loudspeaker can equally carry the content of the work.

Other arts might also tell a story. Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty presents the recreated visuals, with associated melodies and harmonies, of the classic fairytale. But one can watch the dance for just those graceful movements, or listen to the music for just those blended tones and tempos, and enjoy the ballet without knowing the story. Similarly, one doesn’t have to know the story of Peter and the Wolf or Lieutenant Kije to savor Prokofiev’s works. Indeed, a Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev symphony has no story thread at all, and it’s still comprehensible and enjoyable.

Similarly, you can look at a painting by Monet or Bierstadt and learn something about the environs of Paris or the grandeur of the American West. But you can also enjoy these works just for their color and their use of light and shadow. Indeed, you can also look at any abstract painting for its blend of shapes and colors, because it has no recognizable object and may not even have a unifying idea, and it’s still enjoyable.

When a writer tries to emulate an impressionist painter’s approach in telling a story, the reader is often left unsatisfied. That’s because most readers treat what they are encountering in the words on the page as a form of concrete reality that only differs from real life in that it is simply occurring inside their heads.1 Even a work of fiction draws on images, ideas, emotions, and dialogue that the reader can treat as if they were a form of reality.2 Vague imagery and surreal dialogue—meant to convey foggy or drug-induced impressions and half-remembered memories, without that hard-edged sense of concrete reality—usually create only uncertainty and confusion in the reader’s mind. And when a writer tries to emulate an abstract painter’s disconnected shapes and colors, abandoning story and sense for the sake of pretty words, like a Dadaist poet, the work becomes virtually unreadable. Either that, or it can only be appreciated by readers who care more for innovative and daring stylistics than they do for immersing themselves in the story.

And there, I believe, arises the power of writing over other art forms. More than painting or music, the written word requires the active participation of the reader. A gallery patron can wander from room to room, appreciating this painting, ignoring that one. A concert goer can listen intently to the music or ignore it, letting the blend of sounds wash past his or her ears while thinking of something else. A diner can wolf down an exquisite meal without savoring its flavors or appreciating its presentation. But a reader cannot follow the thread of an article, argument, or story without focusing on the words, absorbing them, interpreting them in terms of his or her own vocabulary, knowledge, and experience, and helping the author create the logical or imaginative structure—the relationship of ideas, or the embodiment of character and plot line—inside his or her own mind.

Unlike the sensual arts, which can stay outside at the limits of our ears and eyeballs, or pass quickly over our tongues, the rhetorical and literary arts must pass through to the brain and work their magic directly on the reader’s insight and imagination. This is where the conscious mind builds its perceptions of the world. Unless this active collaboration proceeds, the words remain inert marks upon the page or sounds spoken into empty air. This need for reader collaboration creates a particular challenge for the writer.

Any artist faces a certain amount of audience resistance. Gallery patrons tend to focus on and gather around paintings that have some familiarity for them, something they can approach as they have approached it before. This is why artist retrospectives and museum exhibits of famous paintings from another era are so successful: the public already knows that it will like and understand what it sees. But the new painter, striving to present some of that individual taste or explore those stretched standards, presents even the most active and receptive viewer with a question mark. “Do I like this?” “Do I understand what the artist is doing?” And ultimately, “Do I care about this?”

Similarly, a musician trying out new rhythms and new blends of harmonics risks having the audience react at first as if they were hearing mere noise. Two hundred years ago, the public and the music critics both reacted to Beethoven’s now-beloved symphonies as discordant and a caricature of other, more familiar composers.3 This may be one reason why many 19th-century composers like Dvorak and Holst took their themes from folk songs and country dances. In many ways, because a piece of music flows across time and at first hearing cannot be stopped, studied, and analyzed the way a painting can, the audience for a new musical work has less chance of asking those probing questions about liking and understanding.

The writer’s challenge is that readers are even more selective. While a person in a museum might glance at a Dali painting, even though he or she cares nothing for whimsically impressionist art, or a radio listener might catch part of a song from a heavy-metal rock band, even though his or her tastes run to country music, a reader is much less likely to pick up a book or a magazine full of stories devoted to an unfamiliar or disliked genre. A person who avidly reads science fiction might never encounter a romance story, and vice versa. And unless the reader opens the book, focuses on the words, starts giving them attention, and follows the thread … the magic does not happen.

Even when the tastes and taints of genre fiction are not involved, such as a straightforward think piece on some popular scientific, political, or economic question, the reader’s mind may have already erected barriers based on his or her previous thinking about the subject. So, to be read at all, to even start the reader’s mind along the thread of the article’s logic or the story’s plot, the writer must create a breakthrough moment. The article must start with a claim or a question that the reader has not thought about before or that ignites new impressions jarring his or her ordered sense of the world. The story must begin with piece of action or a mystery that draws the reader deeper into the plot and characters. And even before that, the book or magazine seeks a dynamic piece of cover art or a gripping blurb to draw the reader inside to the words on the page.

Writing in its appeal to the imagination and understanding, rather than the senses, differs from the other art forms in another way as well. It’s the only form that has no raw materials and uses no instrument in its expression. The painter buys canvas by the yard and pigments by the tube. He or she prepares one canvas at a time and sells it to one buyer only. The photographer and the digital artist might do a little better, in that a pixelated image can be copied, reproduced, and sold many times to many different buyers. The musician plays an instrument or sings inside a venue once for a paying audience whose size is limited by the capacity of the club or concert hall. He or she may have the performance captured as sound waves on tape or in digital format and sold again and again. The chef creates a meal out of selected raw ingredients, working in a single kitchen space, and then sells the product at the rate of one plate to a customer.

The writer, in contrast, has no physical raw materials. Well, in the most basic form, a pen spreads ink lines across a piece of paper, and for a novel that’s a lot of ink and paper. Most writers these days use a computer, where the ink lines become typed characters that flash briefly on the screen, become stored as ASCII codes in dynamic memory or on a hard disk, and get translated into electrons traveling through wires and across the air to the reader’s screen, or become imposed in patterns of ink or tone powder on a roller and spewed out in multiple copies of printed pages. The physical form is irrelevant. Some writers even compose most of the story and dialogue in their heads before ever setting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.4 The writer’s stock in trade is invisible, not even as tangible as the sound waves the musician or the singer produces. The “stuff” of an article or story is built wholly out of the writer’s vocabulary, his or her sense of grammar, syntax, and structure, and an act of pure imagination.

As an idea, the writer’s art from is conceived and produced, and as an idea it is received in the reader’s head. All the rest is energy and electrons. And that is the mystery of being a writer.

1. Actually, all reality occurs solely inside our heads. Our brains make up what we think of as objective reality from visual, auditory, tactile, and other cues brought in through nerves connected with our various sense organs. Yes, the “real world” does exist outside of us, but our perception and understanding of it are a construct as ephemeral—existing only in our short- and long-term memories—as any fairytale.

2. And when that seeming reality tells a story with fantastic, imaginative, or magical imagery, elements, and insights—as if the story constituted a part of the reader’s everyday world—then the pleasurable effect is heightened. At least, it is for some readers.

3. A view that I personally maintain—minus the aspects of caricature—for most of the works of Dmitri Shostakovich. But, ah! I do love his Symphony No. 10 in E minor.

4. I can’t do that, of course, but I still must have some pieces of the story, fragments of sentences and paragraphs, and the voices and partial exchanges of my characters swirling around in my head before I can sit down to write my fiction.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

A Game for Gentlemen

Perhaps I appreciate baseball only because I did not start to watch the sport and follow my home team—the San Francisco Giants—until after I arrived at middle age. My dad followed baseball and his hometown team—the Brooklyn Dodgers—when I was growing up. But, back then, I only watched intermittently when he had a game on television. It’s not that I wanted a faster-moving or more violent sport; my preference was for an old movie on the back channels. He tried to teach me about the game and get me to share his interest, but I only half-listened. Now, years later, I have come to see what he liked about baseball: it’s all about personal behavior, and this is the behavior of gentlemen.

To start with, baseball is not a game played by the clock, unlike football, basketball, or soccer. There is no time pressure, although the umpire will urge the game along if a pitcher or batter takes too long. But the play is not framed in periods of minutes, and there is no end point until one team has beaten the other after nine—or more—innings of play. So a baseball game can take all afternoon, or go on into the night—as one recent Giants night game did, for seventeen innings, long after my bedtime. Gentlemen are not pressured by the clock; they take their time and do things right.

And then, baseball is not a contact sport. Other than a baseman1 laying the gloved ball or touching the ball itself against some part of a runner’s anatomy, players do not intentionally touch each other or interfere with their play. The opponents do not tackle one another as in football, or guard and block one another as in basketball. Sometimes a pitcher will hit the batter with a pitch, but it’s not intentional—usually, unless it’s payback for an earlier incident—and the penalty is that the batter immediately goes to first base. Yes, players do get injured. Outfielders and infielders both dive for catches or collide with each other going for the same fly ball. Runners jam fingers and joints sliding into base, and they can collide with basemen. Catchers and umpires get hit with pitches. But these injuries are never intentional punishment, and there are no bad feelings. Or not usually.

Although the sport is played with great emotion and intense team rivalry, the players clearly do not hate or despise each other. You can see a runner standing next to a baseman and exchanging a friendly comment or sharing a joke. You listen to the announcers, who are generally assigned to one team and are as partisan as any fan, and they will praise the skills of an opposing player. Baseball is a game of personal skills: Can you pitch? Can you hit? Can you catch? Can you run? The announcers and the players in interviews never talk about how badly the opposition might be playing—or perhaps they will say, with some regret, that the other team or player is in a slump—but instead how hard they have to work to beat them. The losing team never talks about how the winners might have used some trick or cheat to beat them, only that they themselves could have done better. When a batter strikes out, he is not angry at the pitcher’s clever use of fastballs and curves or sliders, but angry at himself for missing them. When a runner gets thrown out at a base, he is not angry at the skill or speed displayed by the baseman, but angry that he himself didn’t run harder or slide more purposefully. Of course, everyone gets mad at the umpire sometimes over what he thinks is a bad call. But the anger doesn’t last long.

This is a game that rewards sportsmanship. And the great players are respected for their kindness and good spirits. The fan favorites are the players with the best and most cheerful attitudes.

In the same way, this is a game that recognizes and rewards personal effort and excellence. Unlike football or basketball, where a player’s individual actions can become lost in the flurry of activity that follows the ball across the field or court, in baseball the motion of the ball highlights the efforts of only one or two men at a time. The pitcher is under scrutiny for either a balk or a throw to base with a runner trying to steal until the ball leaves his hand and approaches home plate. The batter is under scrutiny as the ball comes at him and he either watches it go by or swings at it—and then either connects or misses. The catcher is watched to see if he makes a clean catch or fumbles a scud or a wild pitch into a loose ball that lets any runners advance. And when the ball is hit, it falls into the sphere of one or two infielders or outfielders who have the responsibility for catching and returning it. Although everyone plays a part on the team, some more important—say, the starting pitcher—than others—such as any one of the basemen or outfielders—for a few seconds of play the entire stadium is focused on the ball’s flight and the man who is throwing, hitting, or catching it.

Unlike other games where much talk—and sometimes bets—are made about the “point spread” or by how much one team outscores the other, baseball is a game of win or lose. Yes, winning a game by a crushing ten-to-one will send the fans on one side home happy for the night, while fans of the losing side will commiserate and cry woe for a day. But the game goes down in the record books as simply a win whether it’s ten-to-one or two-to-one. In a game that’s played almost every day in a long season, rather than just once a week in the fall, the figures to watch are total wins and losses, not by how much.

While the team is not judged in the long term by whether its wins and losses were crushing or achieved with a single run, each player bears a huge catalogue of statistics, marshalled by his career average, seasonal average, and record against the opposing team—and sometimes against another opposition player, such as a batter against a pitcher. Starting pitchers are judged by how many innings they stay in the game, how many opposing runs count against them, and the number of walks and strikeouts they throw. Hitters are judged by their average number of hits per at-bat, how often they get on base, how many bases they can run per hit—the “slugging percentage”—and how many home runs and runs batted in they score. Runners are judged on how often they can steal a base. It’s through these individual totals and percentages that the team’s lopsided wins and losses become visible. So, while the game is a team effort, it’s the individual records that tell the story.

When I was in high school, I had a teacher who was also a coach in one of the other popular sports—football or basketball, I forget which—who said baseball players weren’t real athletes. He pointed out that they could still promote cigarette brands—back when anyone advertised those foul things—because baseball players only had to throw or hit a ball every once in a while, and then they ran for just ninety feet. Basketball players, he said, were in continuous movement for ten or twenty minutes at a time, and that required real stamina. But now I see that baseball players show a different kind of athleticism, one that’s both mental as well as physical.

An outfielder has to stand a hundred or two hundred feet from the action at the plate and has nothing to do with his feet or hands for whole minutes at a time while the pitcher throws and the batter and catcher contend with a series of balls and strikes. An infielder may stand just ninety feet or so from this action in the same apparent idleness. But all those people playing behind the pitcher must follow the action intently, because a hitter who connects with the ball can send it on a line drive or pop fly to any part of the field, and then the fielder in line with the ball’s flight has just two or three seconds to observe and react. An outfielder may have to run fifty feet to the right or left to catch the ball. An infielder has less time and often has to dive right or left and land with his glove outstretched to catch the ball. A starting pitcher, on the other hand, is in near-continuous movement during the inning and has to throw the ball as many as a hundred times with perfect concentration and control over a game that might last three hours. Baseball is a game of intense mental focus and taut-nerved preparedness in apparent idleness during an inning that can sometimes last as long or longer than a basketball period or a football quarter.

Baseball is a simple game that children can learn and play with enjoyment, or that people at a picnic or barbecue without much experience can pick up and play barehanded. It’s also a game of subtle skills and strategies. A pitcher who can shave a fraction of a second off his delivery time, gain a few miles per hour on his fastball, or master a complicated throw like the slider or changeup can increase his standing in the record books. A batter with the good sense to lay off a pitch that’s headed away from the strike zone can increase his on-base percentage. And knowing when to rein in an eager player who swings at everything, or intentionally walk a skilled batter likely to make a double or triple, can increase a manager’s win-loss record.

Baseball is not for everyone. Certainly, football stadiums hold more people and fill more seats on a Sunday. Basketball tournaments enjoy a more intense following, especially during March. But I am proud that baseball, which plays nearly every day from April through October, is still considered America’s national pastime. A culture that values this game which celebrates patience, concentration, personal excellence, and sportsmanship is still strong at its roots.

1. Throughout this article, I use the term “baseman” and the masculine pronouns “he,” “his,” and “him” intentionally, because that is the composition of players in the major leagues today. Of course, women can and do play baseball and its close cousin, softball. And when women are admitted to the major leagues—finally! again!—it will be interesting to see if the game changes much at all.