Tuesday, May 03, 2005

How many

This blog is called "Mah rabu", Hebrew for "how many" (as an exclamation, not so much as a question). Ultimately the significance of this phrase is up to the reader, but the source is Psalm 104:24 - Mah rabu ma'asecha Adonai, kulam b'chochmah asita, mal'ah ha'aretz kinyanecha. JPS translates it "How many are the things you have made, [God]; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations."

Psalm 104 (Bar'chi nafshi) is in the liturgy for Rosh Chodesh, each time the moon completes an orbit around the earth, and 104:24 is in the liturgy every morning, each time the earth completes a rotation on its axis.

Psalm 104 is the physicist's psalm. It describes a universe ordered by natural physical laws, with elementary constituents combining into complex systems. Where Psalm 29 expresses amazement at thunder and cataclysm, Psalm 104 expresses even greater amazement at the usual state of equilibrium and stability.

Once I saw a license plate that said "PSLM 104", and my initial reaction was that the Progressive Student Labor Movement had raised its demands to $10.4/hour from $10.25.


  1. I thought it was the Park Slope Liberation Movement...

  2. I thought it was a carnivorous African stork.

  3. Best of luck with the blog!

  4. the physicist's psalm, wonderful!

    During high holidays the congregation I grew up with recited a modern prayer quoted at http://tinyurl.com/a8hlo

    "...Imagine a world without order, where no one can predict the length of the day or the flow of the tide. Imagine a universe where planets leave their orbits and soar like meteors through the heavens and where the law of gravity is repealed at random.
    We thank you God for the marvelous order of nature, from stars in the sky to particles in the atom. ..."

    When I was younger I was rather annoyed by this passage: how exactly were we to imagine a world with no rules at all, rather than just one with rules we didn't understand? It was like asking me how I'd feel if I'd never been born.

    Some of the other hypotheticals (world without sound, without color, etc) were easy enough to imagine, since after all there are plenty of people who can't access those spheres directly, and we can at least try to imagine generalizing and decontextualizing their experience. But throwing out all order from the world and still trying to superimpose our egos on the result? it seemed rather silly compared to the other imaginable scenarios (including, sadly, a world without love).

    these days I guess I'm easier on the prayer writer. Were I to rewrite it maybe I'd instead focus on the miracle that the order in the universe is not merely extant or dimly felt, but observable, analyzable, and perhaps comprehendible. The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, etc.

    The wonder at nature's stability and order really is a physicist's psalm, in that it's precisely the efforts of physicists and their spiritual brethren that allow us to see the universe in that way.


  5. I'm finally getting a chance to read your blog, and wanted to thank you for this post. I liked it!