Friday, July 08, 2016

A Fresh Page

Off to Ireland.   Comments are getting lost in the long thread.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The porch

If you are a first time visitor to this site, or returning after a long absence, I regret to tell you that Science Musings, the blog, has ceased to publish, after over a decade of almost daily posts. I invite you to browse the archives.

As for my recent medical procedure (DBS), I am pleased  to say my right-hand tremor is essentially gone. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015


In response to BB, an MRI and CAT showed the surgeon where he wanted to go, and as far as I know it was a straight shot thru tissue,  After surgery, I had complete relief from tremor for 4 or 5 days, known as the microlesion effect.  Apparently this is a good sign that the electrode is in the right place, and that I should get a positive result when the stimulator is turned on –- Jan. 6.

Happy holidays to all.

Friday, December 18, 2015


Thanks to everyone for being so kind.  Some of you have asked what it was like.

In the OR the surgeon screwed my skull into a beautiful anodized steel cage.   Then I was taken to radiology for an MRI that mapped my brain x-y-z with reference to the cage coordinates.

Back to OR.  With the MRI data as a guide on the computer, the surgeon drilled a 14mm hole in my skull.  Then  fished an electrode deep into my brain looking for the right spot.  We're listening to the neurons firing on the speaker.   When he found the right cells, the frequency of the firing matched the frequency of my tremor.   When they fired up the electrode, the tremor stopped dead.  The surgeon and assistants were pleased with how fast it went.

In all of this I was wide awake and talking to surgeon, even while drilling!    No pain at all.

Then to sleep while they fished the lead under my scalp and neck to where they implanted the controller/battery under my collar bone.  Minimum incisions.  Home the next day,

Even without the power on, my tremor is much improved.  I'm typing this with almost not typos!  And eating soup.  In a week or so, when everything is healed, I will see the neurologist who with turn on and program (tweek) the freq. and voltage of the simulator.  This is done wirelessly by remote.  I will have a  remote too.  I can turn it off/on, e,g,, at night.   Battery should last 4-6 years, which is probably longer than I will last.

I'll let you know when we're up and running.

Monday, November 30, 2015

On the porch

At Paul's suggestion -- a fresh slate.

FYI: In two weeks I am having Deep Brain Stimulation surgery for my PD tremor.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, August 21, 2015

On the porch

The porch light is off. Refreshments have been put away. And still old friends (who I know only by name) continue to visit. How do I show my appreciation for such loyalty? I can't continue the blog. I have my memories and Amy's music. Thanks again to you all for a dozen happy years.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Wooing the world -- a reprise from long ago

...Thisby knows

so little of the world
as yet: the bit

she can see through the
chink in the wall

has made her heart beat
faster in its cage...
A few lines from a poem of Linda Gregerson. Never mind the context; the image is arresting. Beautiful Thisbe is confined by her parents' to her high-walled house in Babylon, with only a crack in the wall through which to communicate with her forbidden lover. And, of course -- as so many parents discover -- the restriction makes her passion all the more intense.

We look out at the universe through a metaphorical chink in the wall. We are prisoners of our limited sensory apparatus, our finite brains. Slowly we have widened the chink -- just think of the Hubble photographs compared to what Ovid, say, knew of the world. But the wider chink has only made us more aware of the limits of our knowing, heightened our curiosity, excited our passion -- made our hearts beat faster in their cages.

We put our lips to the chink, we whisper prayers, not knowing to whom or what we pray, imagining a lover whose remembered image grows ever more indistinct even as our passion grows.

If it were possible, would we want to have the walls down, to have full access to what the physicist Stephen Hawking whimsically called "the mind of God" -- a full and complete knowledge of everything that is? Not me. Woo prolonged is woo sustained. Remember what happened to Thisbe and Pyramus, and for that matter to Eve and Adam when they ate of the Tree of Knowledge. The ancient myths tell a great truth: the tease is more exciting than the consummation.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 6 (August 2008)

I walked the other day, as is my habit, to the far end of the beach, where the beach comes near to the public road. About twenty American college students, guys and gals, presumably on interterm break, had taken up residence on the sand. The young men played frisbee, tan and trim in their long, baggy trunks, heartbreakingly handsome. The women stood by in an appreciative row, posing seductively in their bikinis; "a bevy of beauties," my father would have said. The scene might have been out of Bosch's central panel, the Garden of Earthly Delights -- pure hedonism, pure innocence.

In the course of the week I had been reading about life in the 16th century, Bosch's century. How different, I thought, is life for these 21st-century college kids. With only a little bit of luck, they will live out their lives without the direct experience of war, without epidemic disease -- plague, smallpox, typhoid, cholera, etc. -- without grinding poverty or famine. They can have sex without fear of sexually transmitted disease, and give birth without fear of dying. They will not spend half their lives with toothache, and they will keep their teeth till the day they die. They will live longer, healthier lives than even my generation, three or four times longer than the contemporaries of Bosch. All of this because of the empirical way of knowing.

The circumstances of human life have dramatically changed for those of us who live in the science-based, secular democracies. But, of course, human nature has not changed. We are still prey to pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. The worm is still in the apple. (Who is that gloomy fellow with his head in his hands, on the back of the goldfinch?) The apparently carefree college kids on the beach will -- like humans everywhere, at all times -- struggle to find and keep love, to sleep soundly in the darkest hours of the night, to wake with joy each day to a world made fresh with innocence. They will strive to choose the good and resist evil. Science won't help them with any of that.

I reach the rocks, turn around, and head back up the beach. As I pass the frolicking youngsters again I give them a thumbs up. They will need all the luck they can get.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 5

In 1504, the year Hieronymus Bosch probably painted The Garden of Earthly Delights, hundreds of miles to the south the Florentines set up in the center of their city Michelangelo's just completed David, a 14-foot-tall white marble statue of the young Israeli king. The statue was meant as symbol of Florentine power -- the giant-killer becomes a giant -- but it was more than that. It was a supreme Renaissance recognition of the power of humans to control their own destinies. No longer need men and women be the playthings of gods who must be placated by incantations and sacrifice. Tall, youthful, mesmerizingly beautiful, utterly naked -- Michelangelo's David paid only the slightest nod to its biblical source. It was set up in the Piazza della Signoria, outside the Palazzo Vecchio, a secular setting for a secular work of art. Hubris? Perhaps. But confidence too, a confidence that would be largely confirmed by history.

Meanwhile, in that same year, Copernicus began to make the celestial observations that would allow him to tear the Earth from its cosmic foundations and send it spinning through the heavens. If the Earth is in motion around the Sun, then the absence of stellar parallax requires that the stars be vast, almost incomprehensible distances away. This was more than a recondite matter of mathematical astronomy. Suddenly the tidy cosmos of Dante and the theologians, contrived by God as a stage for the drama of sin and salvation, was smashed. Humans broke free of the great chain of being. They discovered new civilizations across the Atlantic (and cruelly destroyed them in the name of religion and gold.) Eventually, they would send ships across oceans of interplanetary space.

Hieronymus Bosch does not interest us, I think, for his qualities as an artist. It is as an explorer of the human psyche that we engage him. In the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych he takes us where no one else will quite so explicitly go until Freud appears on the scene four centuries later. He grasps the human psyche by its ankles and shakes it out onto his "canvas." It's all there. Our hankerings for a prelapsarian Eden. Our propensities for envy, gluttony, avarice, sloth, lust, anger, pride. Our capacity for violence. The itch of sex. Altruism. Reverence. Curiosity. Beauty. Love.

Evolutionary psychologists debate what parts of human nature are genetic and what parts are cultural. I think it would be foolish to underestimate biology. Foolish, too, to underestimate our ability to transcend biology. Our neuro-biological natures are sufficiently complex to confer upon us a de facto freedom to choose the good, not because we fear eternal punishment but because reason and experience assures us that our own happiness depends upon the happiness of all.

Tomorrow: One last visit to the jardin de las delicias.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

El jardin de las delicias -- Paart 4

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years at the University of Notre Dame, while in the throes of newfound Catholic piety, I crafted a coffee table in my father's basement workshop, with a tiled chessboard built into the top. I designed and jigsawed a chess set, thirty-two pieces enameled black and white, hollowed and weighted at the bottom with solder, the bottoms then covered with green felt. I was hugely proud of the entire production, the finest thing I had ever made.

I was also racked with guilt. Pride is the first of the Deadly Sins. We are called -- so I believed -- to keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is not in this world but the next. The sin called for penance. I would chasten my pride by destroying one of the chess pieces, the white king. I laid the poor fellow on the cement basement floor. I raised the hammer. Then, in a change of heart, I replaced the king with a more easily replaceable pawn. Smash!

As you can see, I was neither a very good sinner nor a very good penitent. I was also already on my way toward apostasy from the bipolar Catholic theology of Paradise and Hell, those enclosing wings of Bosch's triptych. Already my secret longing was for the Garden of Earthly Delights.

The traditional interpretation of the central panel of Bosch's masterpiece is humankind's descent into wickedness, to be paid for in the fiery torments of Hell. And certainly we know from his other works that Bosch had a moralist's regard for sin. But no one could have painted the Garden of Earthly Delights who had not felt -- and did not long for -- pleasures of the flesh. I look at the Garden and see a world that is far more attractive than the sterile precincts of Paradise or the shuddering horrors of Hell.

Men and women, black and white, humans and beasts, enjoy a peaceable kingdom, a world that while tolerant of unconventional desires is devoid of violence. Couples make love in bubbles, in pools, in orchards, in teepees, in mussel shells, on grassy lawns. Everywhere there are luscious fruits -- cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries. The children of Adam cavort with the children of Eve, the lion lies down with the lamb. In the central pool the women bathe, their golden tresses hanging down; their companions circle, an unending parade celebrating the diversity of life. Even the birds, recognizable by species, look on with charmed delight, sharing fruits.

Bosch has pulled a sly trick. Never has "wickedness" been made to look so inviting. Forget for the moment, he seems to say, death, judgment, heaven, hell, all the dark preachings of Savonarola, the burkas, the hairshirts, the smashed chess piece, all those catalogues of sin. Enjoy beauty and pleasure where you find it. Treasure what is yours -- this Earth, this flesh, these creatures, these fruits and flowers. Let Venus rule; not gloomy Saturn or violent Mars.

I look again at the presumed portrait of the artist in the panel Hell. The old master seems to wink.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 3 (January 2008)

Three A.M., the hoo-ha hour. Wake from nightmarish dreams. Rehearse in darkness all the things that might go wrong, a catalogue of ominous thoughts. The edge of the bed might as well be the brink of the abyss.

How thin is the line between reason and unreason, civilization and anarchy, law and chaos. The library of Alexandria goes up in smoke. Plague, syphilis, civil war and fire ravage the serenity of Bosch's Flanders. The Germany of Goethe and Humboldt descends into 20th-century savagery. Planes smash into the World Trade Center, tumbling the towers like houses of cards. Our personal lives, too, teeter on a knife edge. A mutant gene. A germ. A drunken driver swerves into our lane.

Three A. M. The long-beaked bird takes me by the hand, leads me round and round.

If we can imagine Bosch's hell, it is because every detail has been drawn from the here and now. The burning cities. The marching armies. The rivers colored with blood. The blades and thorns, spears and arrows. The insect people, scurrying. The nightjar judge on its potty throne, devouring a hapless sinner -- you? me? -- who farts birds, the nightjar judge who defecates men and women into a dark pit. (Is that cesshole connected by subterranean channels to the dark pool at the foreground of Paradise?) The tables are turned. Musical instruments have become instruments of torture -- the officers of Auschwitz listening to Mozart on their gramophones. A pig, dressed as a nun, forces a kiss.

Three A. M. We need not wait for eternity. The judgment is now, day by day, moment by moment. The nightjar judge, with his iron pot crown, disturbs our sleep, his minions scuttle our neuronal passageways, like rats in sewers. I get out of bed. I go to the kitchen. I turn on the light.

But wait. Who is the white man peering out from the center of the panel, the man with the eggshell body, the treetrunk limbs? He is the one incongruous element in the painting, a Gulliver in a Lilliputian hell. Is it a self-portrait of the artist himself? Amid all the madness, his expression is eminently sane, kindly, mildly curious. He watches dispassionately. I dreamed all this up, he seems to say. It's all there, in my head. And if it's in my head, it's in your head too.

Three A. M. The heart of darkness.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 2 (january 2008)

Tout les matins du monde sont sans retour: The mornings of the world are without return. The line is from a novel, and gave the title to a film. It might describe the left-hand panel of Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

It is the morning of the world that Bosch depicts, the Judeo-Christian version of that ancient and almost universal myth of a time in the past before woe and worry. Eve kneels demurely in her nakedness to receive God's blessing. Adam looks on bemusedly, as if wondering exactly what it is he is supposed to do with the thing between his legs. Their wondrous paradise is filled with birds and beasts of every sort. (Bosch proves himself a careful observer of the natural world; dozens of species can be recognized.) There is indeed a bliss of sorts -- who would not want to wander within these zoological precincts, pet a unicorn, climb the bird-flocked mountain, discover sex for the first time? But all is not as benign as it seems. A cat makes off with a rat; a lion devours a deer. At the center right is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, with its tempting fruit, twining serpent, and slithering beasties emerging from the pond. And what, pray tell, lurks in the dark pool at foreground?

Never mind, forget the ominous hints that paradise is imperfect. It is morning. A passing shower during the night has washed the air. I sit on the terrace in almost Edenic nakedness and watch the sky brighten in the east. Our resident spider, Argiope argentata, six centimeters from claw to claw, has as usual rebuilt overnight her dazzling orb that fills the space between the porch and the white torch tree. The mocking bird, Mimus polyglottos, sings from the peak of the roof. No newspaper lies on the front stoop with terrible headlines from Darfur or Iraq. No television. The radio is silent. It is morning, and every day dawns anew -- awaits its Original Sin.

There is the wish to make this apparently perfect sunrise hour extend indefinitely, to live suspended between thought and action -- to live without thought and without action -- in the stillness of an unending dawn. Perhaps that is what took me briefly as a young man to the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. Surely that is the attraction of the cloistered life, Simon on his pillar, the woman in the wall. The mornings of the world are without return, they dawn but once. Catch them if you can.

The itch of sex, the scratch of mind, the nagging voice of responsibility: these haven't yet dawned on Adam, haven't yet crossed Eve's mind. But they will, oh yes they will. Look carefully. Paradise is not what it seems. The great globe of the sun breaks free of the horizon, as it has done more than a trillion times since the first terrestrial dawn. I feel its warmth on my naked skin. Argiope argentata waits beneath her silver shield for the fly that bumbles into her trap. The myth of Eden -- the immaculate auroral hour -- is only that.

(You can click and then click again on any of this week's illustrations for enlargements.)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 1 (January 2008)

Hieronymus Bosch painted his ever-intriguing triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights in or about the year 1504 -- on a cusp of history (click to enlarge). The Middle Ages are ending. Modernity is being born, most dramatically in the Italian Renaissance. Orthodoxy butts head with adventure, dogma with curiosity. The printing press has been invented. Luther will soon nail his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Copernicus is thirty-one years old.

The city of Florence has recently experienced a last gasp of theological repression with the brief ascendancy of the priest Savonarola, who railed against preoccupation with earthly delights. His bonfire of the vanities consumed mirrors, fine clothing, secular books, musical instruments and the equipment of gaming, perhaps even paintings by such masters as Michelangelo and Botticelli. It was not to last. In 1497, the people, especially the young, revolted, danced in the streets, reopened the taverns, threw wide the doors of their souls to an increasingly secular future. Michelangelo's monumental nude David can be taken as a symbol of a new immersion in the natural order, a new embrace of las delicias.

All of this can be seen working itself out in Bosch's Flemish masterpiece. In the left-hand panel Adam and Eve are blessedly -- and nakedly -- at peace in Eden, in a state of innocence, before the Original Sin (although the lion does not quite lie down with the lamb). In the right-hand panel is the ultimate bonfire of the vanities, a vision of Hell more terrifying than any sermon of Savonarola. And in the central panel, men and women nakedly cavort, indulging themselves in every sort of sensual pleasure, much like the beautiful young people in the streets and bedchambers of Florence once Savonarola had been toppled from influence, and for which, in the traditional interpretation of the painting, they will pay a horrific price in the nightmarish Hades to their right.

Anyone who has seen Bosch's painting, even in reproduction (the original is in the Prado in Madrid), will not have forgotten it. It is one of those works which mirror our souls, in which we see our own dreams and nightmares. Over the next few days I will reflect at length on each panel separately, from a purely personal perspective. In doing so, I am mindful that a much-admired colleague in the nature-writing community, Terry Tempest Williams, spent seven years looking at her own soul in Bosch's mirror, and reported what she found in a remarkable book, Leap. It has been some years since I read Leap; in any case, there is unlikely to be much overlap in our responses.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

What is your one image? A reprise (August 2010)

The poet Yeats said of the poet Shelley, "There is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, for wisdom speaks first in images."

What, I wonder, is my one scene, one picture?

It would depend, I suppose, upon the time of life.

There was a time when I could have stood all day before Monet's room-sized painting of water lilies at MoMA, all gorgeous natural depths, lush, sensual, accepting. The story then was not so much about myself as about the world out there, the world for which I was a curious spectator. I wanted to see the world as Monet saw it, with a kind of X-ray vision that dives through the surface to whatever it is that makes the world go, and glow.

Then I became obsessed with the paintings of Mark Rothko, those haunting, agnostic canvases of floating color that spoke in cryptic utterances, revealing nothing. Those were the days when I kept company with the medieval mystics -- Julian of Norwich and John of the Cross -- and their absconded God.

As I settled into comfortable middle age I might have chosen one of Vermeer's quiet domestic scenes or Pieter Bruegel's The Harvesters, crystal clear in its mathematical precision, its unabashed realism, its sensual celebration of work and rest, food and drink, a brow moist with sweat and the white nape of a neck inviting touch. Not ecstasy or transcendence, but tranquility and immanence. Oh yes, there was a worm in the bud, but hidden out of sight.

And now? And now? I keep coming back to the young Caravaggio's The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt. The black wings and white robe of the angel, curling together -- the yin and yang of a human life. On the left, darkness, a stony foreground, the anxious gaze of the seeking soul; on the right, light, verdancy, the quietude of acceptance; on the left, the masculine, hard, dry, fraught with tension; on the right, the feminine, gentle, soft, wet, conserving. The whole suffused with an erotic frisson. This angel is not one of the Christian heavenly choir; he is Eros. He is Cupid, with music for his wounding dart. And I am Joseph holding the score, a motet in C major by the Flemish composer Noel Baulduin, the text from the Song of Songs, that most erotic of scriptures: "How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden."

(Click to enlarge)