Thursday, April 24, 2014

Radishes and science [Reprise]

[Long time readers of the blog will be familiar with Chet’s fondness for growing tomato plants every summer. Here is an early take on the subject. This musing first appeared in The Boston Globe, April 24, 1989.—Tom]

All over New England spades are turning earth. It’s that time of year to ask the perennial question: Is gardening a science or an art?

Around our house the evidence comes down heavily on the side of art. I’m the scientist in the family, and whenever I bring my analytical skills into the garden the result is disaster. My non-scientific spouse, on the other hand, needs only walk into a room and the houseplants burgeon in their pots. If she sticks a dry twig into stony ground the result is a bountiful bush.

On that basis alone I should forswear gardening as a subject for Science Musings. But the scientist in me refuses to admit that plump, juicy tomatoes cannot be engineered into existence by the brute application of analytic methods.

My dream of scientific horticulture was given a boost when I came across Roger Swain’s new book The Practical Gardener: Breaking New Ground (Little, Brown). Swain is a host of PBS’s popular television series The Victory Garden. His scientific credentials are impeccable. He is a biologist, trained as an entomologist, and Science Editor of Horticulture magazine. I know his work from two previous collections of essays, Earthly Pleasures: Tales from a Biologist’s Garden and Field Days: Journal of an Itinerant Biologist.

Swain is one of the best science writers working today. His essays are graceful, intelligent and always interesting, and the chapters of this new book on gardening are no exception. Even the armchair gardener will read Swain with pleasure. For myself, I eagerly culled his pages for evidence of a scientist successfully making things grow.

And in early chapters it did indeed seem that science, not art, made Swain’s garden flourish. Chapter one: Enough Sunlight. Swain the scientist ruthlessly applies Ockham’s Razor. “Soil, water, fertilizer—these things can be changed, but nobody ever repositioned the sun,” he writes, and gets out his compass, plumb bob and protractor to chart the motion of the sun across his backyard plot.

Now that’s the way I like to do things. Numbers. Graphs. Degrees of azimuth and altitude. How many foot-candles of sunlight fall on each radish plant? How many hours of full sun for each tomato? (And as I write these things I hear my spouse sniff derisively; she knows instinctively that our backyard is too shady for tomatoes.)

Swain is the son of two chemists (he tells us), and expounds with quantitative delight on soil acidity. I loved his chapter on the pH scale; it is laced with numbers and delicious dollops of chemistry. But at the end of the chapter comes a hint that chemistry alone will not make vegetables spring from the soil. “I will continue gardening in the soil I’ve got,” writes Swain, “which I’m certain is basically acid, more or less.”

From that moment of equivocation things start downhill (“Uphill,” I hear my spouse gleefully retort). By the time I get to Swain’s chapters on seed catalogs, mulch, and compost I detect art taking over from science. Worst of all, I detect the bane of the failed scientific gardener—the GREEN THUMB.

Listen to our author on watering grass: “Ignore all the advice about when to water; ignore the people who tell you not to water at night because you will cause fungus, or during the day because droplets of water will become tiny magnifying glasses and burn holes in the grass blades. It rains at all times of the day, doesn’t it? I prefer not to water at midday for the simple reason that the sun evaporates some of the water before it gets to soak in. I don’t water in the middle of the night because I am usually asleep.”

It dawns on me that Roger Swain the scientist and Roger Swain the gardener are not necessarily the same person. Roger Swain the gardener is part scientist and part artist, part entomologist and part insect adversary, part botanist and part implacable foe of weeds (“There are no pacifist gardeners.”). His head may be in the scientific clouds, but his hands are grubbing in the soil. This is not a man in a crisp white lab coat speaking, but a man who loves to thump the soil from a king-sized clump of carrots or feel in his hand the heft of a humungous summer squash. His lesson seems to be, “do whatever works.”

OK, so I’ll grudgingly admit, gardening is not a science. But I refuse to let this essay be banished to the Living pages. Surely science brings something to the garden. For example, the biologist who knows that plants and insects have been intimately associated for 300 million years is certain to approach the problem of pest control with a certain fatalism; “it is unreasonable to expect to have the former in your backyard and not the latter,” writes entomologist Swain.

The best gardener may be part scientist and part artist. Compasses, protractors, and pH kits won’t produce prize-winning veggies without a touch of horticultural magic, as Swain’s book on “practical” gardening delightfully confirms. And when you think of it, the best scientist is also part scientist and part artist. All the measuring and calculating in the world won’t make a laboratory drudge into an Einstein. Prize-winning science is done by those with the scientist’s equivalent of the gardener’s green thumb.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mrs. Dana’s guided tour [Reprise]

[This musing from the archive first appeared in The Boston Globe, April 23, 1990.—Tom]

The first wildflowers of the spring are small, inconspicuously colored, and inclined to bashfulness. The wood anemone and starflower, two of my favorites, unfold their blossoms tentatively, as if testing the temper of the air. They hesitate in woody shadows, like young ballerinas waiting in the wings for some more-colorful prima donna to take the stage.

Later in the season we will have more conspicuous displays—fields of raw gold, purple marshes, towering spikes of crimson—but no wildflowers are more welcome or more beautiful than the unassuming pioneers of April and May.

The same might be said for the first wildflower guide, Mrs. William Starr Dana’s “How to Know the Wildflowers,” published almost a century ago by Charles Scribner’s Sons, and recently reissued in a handsome boxed edition by Houghton Mifflin. There are field guides that are more comprehensive, authoritative, and up-to-date, but none that captures the delicacy and charm of Mrs. Dana’s original. Naturalists who have not previously acquired “How to Know the Wildflowers” from a flea market stall or second-hand bookstore now have the opportunity to add this wonderful book to their library.

Let’s give the author her own name, Frances Theodora Smith. She was born in 1861 and brought up in New York City. Her love for wildflowers was acquired during summers spent with her grandmother in Newburgh, New York, not far from the home of the famous naturalist-writer John Burroughs.

While in her early 20s, Frances Smith married William Starr Dana, a naval officer much older than herself. The marriage was happy, but the husband soon died of influenza. Victorian convention dictated a long period of mourning, widow’s weeds, and retirement from society. As a distraction from grief and imposed social inactivity, Mrs. Dana took up again her old interest in natural history.

In those days the only source of information about wildflowers was technical works such as Gray’s “Manual of Botany.” Field guides for the casual observer simply did not exist. But the need was there, and Mrs. Dana found her inspiration in a magazine article by her old neighbor John Burroughs.

“Some of these days,” wrote Burroughs, “someone will give us a handbook of our flowers, by the aid of which we shall all be able to name those we gather on our walks without the trouble of analyzing them. In this book we shall have a list of all our flowers arranged according to color, as white flowers, blue flowers, yellow flowers, red flowers, etc., with the place of growth and the time of blooming.”

Mrs. Dana took up the task and created a handbook that has been a model for all that came after. Her friend Marion Satterlee supplied delicate pen and ink drawing to complement the text. The first printing sold out in five days, and the cloth-bound book stayed in print until the 1940s. With the new edition from Houghton Mifflin, the book will have been in print for a century, surely a record for a book of this sort.

What gives the book its enduring charm are the brief essays describing each flower, written in the best tradition of Victorian natural history—warm, literate, anecdotal. Mrs. Dana frequently quotes Greek and Roman authors, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and of course the New England poets and essayists—Longfellow, Whittier, Thoreau, and Emerson. To read her book is not only to learn the wildflowers; it is also a stroll down the primrose path of cultural history.

What of the wood anemone, that exquisite flower that even now graces the verges of our woods? The name means “wind-shaken,” we learn from Mrs. Dana. We are given a snip of William Cullen Bryant: “...within the woods, Whose young and half transparent leaves scarce cast A shade, gay circles of anemones Danced on their stalks.” Then a dollop of Whittier. And a bit of flower lore from ancient Greece that will change forever how we perceive the flower when we find it blooming in the sun-dappled shade: In Greek lore the flower sprang from tears shed by Venus over the body of slain Adonis.

Another April blossom, the marsh marigold, is introduced by Mrs. Dana with Shakespeare’s song to “winking Mary-buds” in Cymbeline, which we are assured is the same flower. The “gold” in marigold is easy enough to understand, but whence the “Mari”? Mrs. Dana leads us by the hand at least as far back in this flower’s etymological history as the 16th century without finding a definitive answer. “Marsh-gold” might be a more appropriate name, she decides.

But this handbook is not all just quaint Victorian charm. Mrs. Dana also tells us when to expect the flowers and where to find them. She tells us their Latin names and family, and describes in brief non-technical words the form of stem, leaves, and blossoms. Still, it is the personal, literary touch that makes “How to Know the Wild Flowers” worth owning a century after it was written.

Natural histories such as this one remind us that it is possible to find—as Shakespeare found, as Frances Theodora Smith found—“...tongues in trees, books in running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The annual spring peeper hocus locus [Reprise]

[While our host convalesces, here is one of his essays from the archive. This musing originally appeared in The Boston Globe, April 22, 1991. —Tom]

The spring peepers are in full fortissimo chorus.

On Nantucket they call these noisy little frogs pinkletinks, presumably because that’s how Nantucketers hear the sound. I’m not sure how I’d describe the peeper’s call. Pinkletink doesn’t do justice to the volume. Not peep-peep either. The peeper’s voice is shrill and high pitched, and when the water meadow is in heady voice it’s like a zillion wedding guests clanking on glassware with spoons.

The peeper is only an inch long, but it’s all voice box from stem to stern. Most frogs call by inflating air sacs under their chins; peepers inflate their whole bodies. The air is not expelled with each peep. The peeper uses its body like a bagpiper’s bag; keeps it pumped up for the duration of its amatory calls.

This year the chorus began on March 28. A week later I stood by the side of the water meadow and the whole place seemed to sing. You’d swear they were everywhere; a carpet of sound stretched away from my feet. But not a peeper to be seen. I scanned the water with binoculars. The weeds and the bushes. Not a sign of the elusive frogs. Pure, disembodied pandemonium. The water itself seemed to be emitting the noise.

Off with the shoes. Roll up the trousers. Into the water. Out to the very middle of the water meadow. Silence, as if someone has pulled the plug on the amplifier. I stand still as a statue. Five minutes, ten. Then, it starts up again, that ear-splitting carpet of sound. The peepers are still invisible.

It’s the male frog making all the noise, and we know why. It’s that old spring business all over again: finding a mate. But why the tumultuous decibels? Why the din? Is the female peeper deaf? Does she choose a mate by the amplitude of his call? Has evolution cranked up the volume of this chorus by finding some connection between the loudness of the love song and reproductive fitness?

Or is it something else, something you won’t find in the biology books—pure excess vitality, a capacity of water and muck to make noise, to celebrate.

Of course I’m being facetious, but not altogether so. I’m talking about the astounding resiliency of life, its ability to survive the harshest conditions and to spring up in the unlikeliest places. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wondered about all those frogs coming out of nowhere in the spring with their outrageous racket, and attributed it to an “occult operation” by nature. In other words, magic. Slight-of-hand. Hocus-pocus.

We are more hardheaded about it. We know the peepers have been there all along, buried in the mud throughout the long winter, just waiting for a couple of warm days to beckon them up into song. But what about life itself? What “occult operation” of nature conjured up life on the Earth nearly 4 billion years ago, out of water and muck? One minute the planet was lifeless (presumably), and the next minute (give or take a few tens of millions of years) the whole place was swimming with microbes—and it’s been swimming ever since.

Most biologists believe that life began spontaneously from non-living materials. Darwin imagined it happened in a “warm little pond” somewhere on the early Earth—the quietly simmering primeval soup so dear to generations of biologists. According to this theory, chemicals stewing in water formed themselves into proteins, RNA, DNA, and ultimately the first living cells.

But Darwin’s warm little pond may never have existed. Recently, planetary scientists have been telling us that Earth was a nasty place back at about the time life was starting. The surface of the planet was subject to rampant volcanism. Meteorites rained from the sky for hundreds of millions of years, the same incessant bombardment that pulverized the surface of the moon (on Earth the evidence of that early bombardment has been erased by erosion and tectonic activity). A few meteorites may have carried enough energy to completely vaporize the oceans.

It’s hard to imagine how or where in the midst of such chaos the complex and delicate structures of life were created and sustained. Perhaps it happened near volcanic fissures on the floors of the deepest oceans, even as the meteorites pelted down. Or perhaps in hot springs on continents as the bombardment waned.

Since no one knows how life began, I’ll opt for the theory that it was all more or less inevitable. Start with a hydrogen-rich environment, throw in some carbon, expose it to energy, and—presto!—you’ve got amino acids, phosphates, sugars, and organic bases, the chemical building blocks of life. Add cycles of heat and cold, dry and wet, light and darkness, maybe a catalyst like iron pyrites or clay, and any old planet with a reasonably moderate environment will pull the rabbit out of the hat. Or the peepers out of the pond.

I can’t prove it but I choose to believe that water and muck has a built-in tendency toward animation, and that life is ubiquitous, not only here but throughout the universe. I don’t mean to sound mystical, but if we’ve learned anything in the 20th century it is that matter—plain old matter—is subtle stuff, rich in possibilities of combination.

Just listen to that racket rising from the water meadow. That’s what the spring peepers’ hallelujah chorus is all about: the sheer, unstoppable ebullience of life.

Monday, April 21, 2014


I'm unwell. The porch is closed until further notice.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Eyes are mirrors

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Live long enough to live forever?

Since we returned to New England from a winter on an island with little access to medical technologies, my spouse and I have been busy sorting out all those things that make life at age 77 active and enjoyable. Eye tests and glasses. Hearing aids. Dental check-ups and repairs. Prescriptions filled. Keeping the old bodies in working order.

I said to my spouse: "Just think, for most of human history our ancestors didn't have spectacles or hearing aids."

She replied: "For most of human history our ancestors were dead before they needed them."

She's right, of course. Here is a chart of the average age of death for the last 150 years. Most 30 and 40 year-olds, down there at the lower left, did pretty well with the eyes and ears they were born with. That's us at the upper right, alive and kicking, but with no help from natural selection to keep the machinery in service.

Natural selection didn't contrive eyes and ears that last longer than a few decades because it didn't have enough aged eyes and ears to work with. Life was brutish and brief, truncated by violence and disease. Gray beards and grandmas were few. Survive childhood, have sex: Those were the evolutionary imperatives. The rest was gravy.

Then along came empirical science to replace magic and the gods, and the life expectancy curve started getting more rectangular. People lived longer, then fell off the cliff at age 70-90.

The next big breakthrough will be getting rid of the cliff. Doing what natural selection couldn't do. Keeping that topmost curve flat into the indefinite future. Eliminating senescence. Practical immortality.

I won't live long enough to see it. My grandchildren might. How they and their contemporaries will solve the monumental personal, social and environmental problems is anybody's guess.

(BTW, a striking feature of the second graph above is the virtual elimination of infant mortality.)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bless me Father

A few weeks ago I wrote here about my early experience with the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession. Now, in the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) I read a review of a new book by John Cornwell called The Dark Box, a history of the sacrament. Reviewer Peter Marshall writes:
But the real starting point of Cornwell's story comes with the pontificate of Pius X (1903-14), a pope who was canonized in 1954, and who to this day remains an icon for some traditionalist Catholics, but who is the undoubted villain of The Dark Box. Pius was a humble and holy prelate of peasant stock. But he was also dogmatic and authoritarian, obsessed with the spectre of "modernist" heresy within the Church, and a rising tide of materialism and secularism outside it. His ruthless suppression of dissident scholars and theologians inflicted wounds on Catholic intellectual life from which it took decades to recover.
Before Pius X, the age at which Catholic children began to partake of the sacraments of confession and communion was about 13 or 14. Pius decreed that seven was the "age of discretion," when children could tell the difference between right and wrong, and therefore share the sacraments. He also instituted a harsh new regime of clerical formation, designed too protect candidate for the priesthood from corrupting influences of the world.
This proved to be, in Cornwell's view, a truly toxic combination. Priests imbued with a sense of their own unchallengeable authority, but inoculated from much contact with family life, or any understanding of child psychology, inculcated into generations of Catholic children an abiding sense of guilt and shame, and an image of God as a petulant tyrant to be propitiated by the performance, or avoidance, of a narrowly specified shopping list of actions. Many of these -- almost inevitably -- were to do with sex.
I suppose mine was the last generation of Catholic children to suffer under this absurd confessional regime. I would like to think that I have recovered from any permanent damage, but who knows. Cornwell apparently has much to say about how all of this relates to the clerical abuse scandal, of which he was himself a victim, but I had no experience of that. My quarrel with the Church was always more intellectual than moral; once exposed to empirical criteria for truth (lower-case), the whole shabby brocade of archaic dogma collapsed into a heap. Lord knows I've sinned, and I hope those I've sinned against can forgive me, but that doesn’t include the Lord, or the sleepy priest in the dark box.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Speed demons

They're back! Rocketing about like teenage hot-rodders, One can almost imagine the squeal and screech of tires as they stitch the meadow with their shenanigans. Zip! Zoom! Skimming the grass. Then, up, up, and away, pausing at the top of the sky, diving with the speed of a falling rock. Swish! Swish! Stop on a dime.

White-bellied. Backs of iridescent blue. Sleek as a bullet. All muscle and feather. As aerodynamic as a dart.

Tree swallows. Once upon a time they nested in trees. A century ago when Neltje Blanchan wrote her classic bird guides, she was already aware of the tree swallows' preference for ready-made habitations, that is to say, the bird boxes humans provided for martins, bluebirds and wrens. She foresaw the day when tree swallows no longer deserved their name.

That day has come. The tree swallows in the meadow have commandeered the bluebird boxes. When the bluebirds arrive soon they'll find the obstreperous squatters have taken over.

OK. We'll call them white-bellied swallows. And forgive their squatter ways because we love their high-jinks, their youthful devil-may-care carousing, their air-show acrobatics. Yes, we love the bluebirds too, but they'll have to hurry their spring migration, or stay the winter, if they want to find a place to nest.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Oh great, something else to worry about

Tom and I watched the movie Gravity this past weekend. He'd seen it before and wanted me to view it.

Spectacular special effects, but I can't say I was taken by the film. Just a lot of non-stop smashing and not much human drama other than the usual pop fare. For my taste, I much preferred director Alfonso Cuarón's previous film, the Mexican coming-of-age road movie Y Tu Mamá También.

What I liked best about Gravity was learning afterwards from Tom about the Kessler syndrome, the cascading collisions of satellites and space debris that provides the driving plot of the movie.

Low Earth orbits are now so crowded with active and defunct satellites and other junk that one catastrophic shattering collision could set off a chain reaction that would wrap the Earth in a shroud of fine debris that could render space inaccessible for generations.
Not to mention the devastating disruptions of life on the ground if all active low-orbiting satellites were lost.

I suppose I had heard about this before as part of the background noise, but it never firmly registered on my consciousness. What is the critical density of orbiting objects that makes the Kessler effect likely? Are we there yet?

But think of the spectacular nights of "shooting stars" as bits and pieces of all those pulverized objects rain to Earth.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Breaking the ice

This morning I'll turn you over to Mo.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Unending time

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why cranes fly -- a Saturday reprise

There were a few Comments here recently about herons, from right around the world. What is the power of this bird to touch our minds and hearts?

The naturalist Aldo Leopold was intimately familiar with the cranes of Wisconsin, cousins of our New England great blue heron, the Irish gray heron, and Adam2's aosagi from Japan, and wondered about their ability to move us so deeply. In A Sand County Almanac he watches as a crane "springs his ungainly hulk into the air and flails the morning sun with mighty wings." Our ability to perceive beauty in nature, as in art, begins with the pretty, he says, then moves into qualities of the beautiful yet uncaptured by language. The beauty of the crane lies in this higher realm, he proposes, "beyond the reach of words."

Words may fail, but poets have tried to capture the ineffable.

John Ciardi sees "a leap, a thrust, a long stroke through the cumulus of trees" and stops to praise "that bright original burst that lights the heron on his two soft kissing kites."

Theodore Roethke observes a heron aim his heavy bill above the wood: "The wide wings flap but once to lift him up. A single ripple starts from where he stood."

In Chekhov's The Three Sisters, sister Masha refuses "to live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why the stars are in the sky. Either you know and you're alive or its all nonsense, all dust in the wind."

(This post originally appeared in July 2007.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle

Like many of us, I faithfully check APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day). When this image popped open the other day it took my breath away. I sat there gaping for five minutes.

Go to APOD. Drag the image to your desk-top. Open it and make it large enough to fill your screen. Or at least click on the image here.

You are looking into the heart of the Great Orion Nebula, a gassy star-forming region of the Milky Way Galaxy that appears to the unaided eye as a blurry star in the scabbard of Orion's sword.

As I gazed, I thought of what Beatrice says to Dante as they ascend to the seventh heaven:
She was not smiling. "If I smiled,"
she said, "you would become what Semele became
when she was turned to ashes,

for my beauty, which you have seen
flame up more brilliantly the higher we ascend
the stairs of this eternal palace,

is so resplendent that, were it not tempered
in its blazing, your mortal powers would be
like tree limbs rent and scorched by lightning.
What Dante sees reflected in Beatrice's face is the divine beauty itself, the love that moves the Sun and the other stars.

The poet, writing in the 13th century, must imagine the Beatific Vision. The Hubble Space Telescope brings us face to face.

I'm speaking metaphorically, of course. We can only speak metaphorically when confronted with the deepest mysteries of creation, here the powerful beauty of the forces and energies that build the very stuff of our existence, stars forging carbon, oxygen and iron. Some will look into the fiery furnace of Orion and see an image of themselves inflated to cosmic proportions, an all-powerful personal God. I see a flower, the flower in the crannied wall, perhaps, or the chambers of a human heart, the universal mystery that resides in every nebula and every grain of sand, before which I simply bow my head in silent acknowledgment.

(The translation above is that of Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander.)

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Renée, our concierge of yesterday, has more to say about tea. As a prescription for human accord, her cup of tea may be simplistic. But perhaps not altogether irrelevant.

Tea is no minor beverage, she says. "When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?"

Tea has become pretty much a universal drink, from Tokyo to Glasgow to Istanbul. A sippy sort of drink, that soothes, slows and silences. An inexpensive drink, enjoyed by the wealthy and the poor. Perhaps each session of Congress should begin with a tea ceremony, to remind the reps of our common humanity. I like those photographs of uniformed American military commanders sharing tea with tribal elders in Afghanistan.

Small things that aspire to nothing. Is it possible to find happiness with such simple accoutrements as a cup of tea, a Chopin Etude, a vase of fresh-cut flowers? Poor, unattractive Renée, in her frugal loge, doesn't envy the affluent families that inhabit her apartment building. Their wealth does not seem to make them happy, or generous, or kind. Renée has her art, high and low. And tea.