Thursday, December 18, 2014
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Friday, December 12, 2014
I don't have a so-called "smart phone", maybe because I'm not smart enough to operate one. I do have a flip-phone, which cost almost nothing, and the cheapest connectivity plan I can find ($100/year). I can't use it the half of the year when I'm in Ireland or Exuma. No matter, I hardly ever get a call anyway. In fact, it's seldom turned on. So why have it? For making connections while traveling, or for emergencies while driving.
Nevertheless I live in the cloud, unavoidably.
By "the cloud" I don't mean the usual definition of that word -- the giant server farms that store gazillions of bytes of user data and information. I mean the invisible cloud of electromagnetic radiation in which we live and breathe and have our being. We swim in it. We are enveloped. A little while ago my flip-phone rang in my pocket. How did that happen? How did a signal filling all of local space, passing through walls and bodies, find me? Make my phone ring? I could have been anywhere, Miami. San Francisco. How does it work?
I don't know.
I have a degree (circa 1958) in electrical engineering, and an advanced degree in physics (circa 1964), and I don't know how it works. Oh, I understand radiation, and modulation, and the other basic principles, but still it seems rather like a miracle. Buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz "Where are you?" "I'm in the library."
Years ago -- I think it was on the occasion of an exhibit at MIT of replicas of Hertz's equipment with which he made the first electromagnetic transmission, all varnished wood and shiny brass -- I wrote about being able to snag out of the ether Mozart or Motown with my hand-held radio. That was before everyone had cell phones and WiFi. That universal, invisible sea of modulated radiation. It wraps the planet. It leaks into space. It fills my fingertips as I type.
And here, unplugged in my comfy library chair, I'm in touch, at virtually the speed of light, with every one of you.
Tuesday, December 09, 2014
I've been reading Edmund White's memoir City Boy, an account of his young years as an aspiring writer from the Mid-West, poor and gay in the scrappy, scruffy New York of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a fit companion to Patti Smith's memoir of the same scene, Just Kids, which I read a few years ago.
Anne was there, then, living the bohemian life of a young artist in a run-down, third-floor walk-up apartment on the Lower East Side with bars on the windows and a police security bar on the door. I visited her there, and didn't know whether to be inspired or frightened. She was part of a revolutionary culture I knew nothing about.
Two years older than Anne, I was a creature of the 1950s. I got married right out of college, soon started a family, and pretty much missed the entire drug/sex/music/anti-war/feminist/civil rights upheavals. If it hadn't been for Anne's reports from the front lines, I would hardly have noticed that the 60s and 70s happened.
My world was one of physics and domesticity. I got my thrills from Maxwell's equations and the residue theorem of complex analysis. I was boggled by the way the spectrum of hydrogen unfolded with a cool elegance from Schrodinger's wave equation. Soon, I was sensing a murmur of mathematical magic that suffused all of creation. The epic events of my young adulthood were the discoveries of the DNA double helix, the cosmic microwave background radiation, and plate tectonics.
My creative period started at about the time the world described by Edmund White and Patti Smith was winding down.
What did Motown mean to me? At the time, I didn't know it existed. But now, half-a-century later, when we dance in the kitchen at dinner time it is Motown we listen to. I haven't thought about Schrodinger's equation for a long time, but I still subconsciously sense that mathematical music animating nature. I'm a child of the 1950s who missed the revolution, but finds himself satisfied to have inherited the best of both worlds.
Sunday, December 07, 2014
Tonight and tomorrow night the Lifetime channel presents a two-part dramatization of Anita Diamant's 1997 biblical-themed novel The Red Tent We only have basic cable, so won't be able to watch, but I read the book years ago and liked it. Well, never mind; I watched the trailer for the Lifetime mini-series on the web, and can't say that I recognized the novel.
When I read the novel, those years ago, I wrote about it in my Boston Globe column, and later reprised it on the blog. Here it is again.
Looking back, I would have to say that the greatest scientific achievement of my lifetime is the discovery of the secret of the DNA and the consequent sequencing of the human genome. You will hear the latter compared to the building of the atomic bomb, or putting a man on the moon. It is more, much more.
It is an end and a beginning.
It is the end of the reign of the gods.
No one knows yet what is beginning.
Anita Diamant's The Red Tent comes to mind, a novelistic retelling of the biblical story of Jacob and his wives and children from the point of view of Jacob's only daughter, Dinah. The novel beautifully evokes the people of 4,000 years ago -- farmers, herdsmen, city builders -- who invented the stories by which we in the Western world -- through the Scriptures and myths -- have pretty much measured our lives ever since.
The gods are everywhere in Diamant's tale. In every tree and stream. In moon, sun, and stars. In menstrual blood and spindle. In the waters that nourish the planted seed and the drought that withers the nanny goat's teats. Dinah learns the stories of the gods in the woman's tent -- the red tent -- as they are told and retold by her mother and aunts.
Jacob and his clan live in constant negotiation with the gods, through prayer and sacrifice. Behind the world of their daily lives is a shadow world of spirits with human faces, or semi-human faces, who act with human willfulness, raising up and striking down, imposing outrageous demands, bestowing blessings.
By Jacob's time the gods were already old. They were born in the minds of our earliest human ancestors, who, finding themselves in an uncertain world, created a measure of order by imagining unseen spirits with human features.
Even today, as a new millennium begins, the ancient gods still haunt our imaginations, investing the world with presumed consciousness and will. Polls show that eighty percent of Americans believe in miracles; nearly three-quarters believe in angels.
And now, in opposition to the gods, we have -- the genome.
A double helix, as long as my arm, tucked into every cell in our bodies. A sequence of 3 billion chemical "letters" (molecules called nucleotides) -- A, G, C, T -- that code three-by-three for amino acids that link together and fold into the proteins that make our bodies (and minds) work. Print out the sequence of As, Gs, Cs, and Ts and it would fill a dozen sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica; it is now available at a mouse click on the Internet. That sequence of just four kinds of molecules causes to happen, in a marvelous and still uncertain way, the "miracle" of the newborn babe: the tiny perfect fingers and toes, the lashes, the wisps of hair, the bawl of life. A vessel waiting to be filled.
All that DNA, packed into those tens of trillions of cells, is not static. Protein-based "motors" crawl along the strands of DNA, transcribing the code into single-strand RNA molecules, which in turn provide the templates for building the proteins that build and maintain our bodies. Other proteins help pack DNA neatly into the nuclei of cells and maintain the tidy chromosome structures. Still other protein-based "motors" are busily at work untying knots that form in DNA as it is unpacked in the nucleus and copied during cell division. Others are in charge of quality control, checking for accuracy and repairing errors.
Working, spinning, ceaselessly weaving, winding, unwinding, patching, repairing -- each cell is like a bustling factory of a thousand workers. Trillions of cells humming with the business of life.
Mind-boggling. Jaw-dropping. A story to shake us to the soles of our feet.
Not gods, but biochemistry.
But make no mistake: The mystery of life is not lessened by the sequencing of the human genome, and the genomes of many other creatures, including our Neanderthal cousins. If anything, it is deepened. What we have discovered is not a shadow world of humanlike spirits, but rather an elusive and enigmatic fire that burns in the very stuff of creation. The fire does not have a human face, but it animates the planet and perhaps the universe.
How do we come to terms with this new knowledge? In Diamant's novel, Jacob decides to return to the land of his ancestors, from which he has lived (and married) in exile. His wives are fearful. Zilpah says to the other women: "All of [our] named gods abide here. This is the place where we are known, where we know how to serve. It will be death to leave. I know it."
And Bilhah answers: "Every place has its holy names, its trees and high places. There will be gods where we go."
We are no less fearful than were Jacob's wives of leaving the familiar. But, as Bilhah says, every place has its sacred meaning. Whatever Mystery we meet in the land of the genomes will not greet us with a human face, but, if we are receptive, it cannot fail to drop us to our knees with awe and reverence, fear and trembling, thanksgiving and praise.
Friday, December 05, 2014
Behind the blue of a Sun-lit sky, hidden in the dark of night, invisible to our unaided sight, far off in the winding eddy of the Milky Way, a star-birthing nebula, NGC 7822, a seething cauldron of creation, 40 light-years wide, in which the Earth and all that we formerly thought as ours would be as a dust mote (click to enlarge). NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite teases grandeur out of darkness, forces us to face a universe of incomprehensible fullness. Powerful winds of stellar radiation sculpt banks and pillars of gas. Worlds are born. We gape, awestruck, like Dante in Paradise; WISE is our Beatrice. We say with Dante, "O how scant is speech/ Compared to what I still recall my words are faint." Call in the poets:
In a Dark Time
By Theodore Roethke
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
Thursday, December 04, 2014
In the spirit of yesterday's comments, I offer the first seven lines of "THE KISS", by the Irish writer/poet Ulick O'Connor, now in his mid-80s, and still sustained, I would imagine, by the memory of that favored osculation. You can find the entire poem elsewhere online, but beware of typos. I copy it here exactly from the volume One Is Animate.
She said to me,I've written about this poem before in the Boston Globe and reprised it here. And had a nice note from O'Connor, who somehow found my musing.
"Kiss me specially",
And with her lips on mine
Traced a design
To show the way
Bees on a drowsy day
Suck honey from fuchsia.
Wednesday, December 03, 2014
In the current issue of Science, By The Numbers: "80 MILLION -- Number of bacteria that can be transmitted during a 10-second kiss, according to a study in Microbiome."
That's it. Just a tossed-out fact. But enough to set my imagination reeling. That kiss this morning. Those teeming armies of microorganisms, swarming both ways, Vandal hoards, malevolent throngs, saliva-to-saliva, tongue-to-tongue. A 10-second rush of ugly organisms.
That tender osculatory moment -- an amoebic invasion.
And so to the journal Microbiome -- easy enough to find online -- to get the details. Researchers in the Netherlands asked couples for mouth swipes and kissing history. That's an illustration from the article above. Never mind the experimental details, which are exacting and considerable. Bacteria were duly traced, identified and counted.
And here's the somewhat reassuring bottom line. Me and my spouse very likely have pretty much the same oral microbiome. Fifty-six years of intimate smooching, sixty counting those premarital make-out sessions in the back seats of cars. But not just that. Living in the same house. Breathing the same air. Eating the same food. What else would you expect.
That sloppy exchange this morning probably didn't make much difference. Eighty million this way, a mostly identical eighty million that way. What do bacteria know. Maybe the grass always looks greener on the other side of the lips.
Anyway, there may be a good evolutionary reason for kissing, besides sexual arousal. You can read some possibilities here
Monday, December 01, 2014
Tom put me onto this lovely short film by Erik Wernquist imagining future explorations of the Solar System. Here is shot from the film, showing human colonists awaiting the arrival of dirigibles on the rim of a Martian crater.
Wernquist acknowledges the precedent and inspiration of Chesley Bonestell.
Chesley Bonestell. Now there's a name I know. We have visited him before, here. You will be rewarded by a Google image search for "Chesley Bonestell".
Tom, as I recall, this was one of your early influences.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Yesterday's post is an excerpt from a book-length, multipart poem called The Leaf and the Cloud. I meant it to be a teaser for what I will mention today.
Mary Oliver celebrates the beauty and goodness of the rose bud and the heron's white feather. In this she is very much in the religious naturalist tradition. But, as Paul suggests, nature includes more then the rose bud and feather. It also includes the parasitic mite in the heron's plume and the bacteria in its gut, the hummingbird and the Ebola virus, the rosy sunset and the tsunami, the raindrop and the supernova. Naturalism embraces it all. All are equal objects of scientific knowing.
Beauty and goodness are human constructs. They do not designate things, but the effect of things on human consciousness. They are sustaining and consoling products of millions of years of human evolution. When the poet celebrates the beauty and goodness of the bud and the feather, she is giving voice to the "religious" part of religious naturalism.
Why celebrate the white heron and not the Ebola virus? That is where it "gets difficult". No one said that responding to the ineffable and perhaps unknowable mystery of the world would be easy. We embrace it all as potentially knowable, and out of that web of knowledge shape an evolving nest of the beautiful and the good.
Which brings me to the Religious Naturalist Association, a new community founded by the microbiologist Ursula Goodenough and her like-minded friends. You will have met Ursula many times on this blog, principally as the author of The Sacred Depths of Nature. I'm not much of a joiner, but this is a group of people I am pleased to be a part of: science as a way of knowing, poetry as a way of living.
(Thanks to bromegrass for the image above.)
Monday, November 24, 2014
Thursday, November 20, 2014
During the academic year 1968-69, I lived with my growing family in paradise. To be more precise, in a flat in Prince's Gate Mews, off Exhibition Road in London. Backing up against our flat was the Victoria and Albert Museum. Across the road were the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the Geology Museum. Who could ask for a more endlessly enriching dwelling place. For the kids, of course, but for papa too, who probably learned more in the museums that year than in all the rest of his education put together.
Many an hour I spent on the top floor of the Geology Museum browsing the cabinets of minerals from around the world, of every color of the rainbow and of dazzling crystalline forms. As I recall, that was also the year I first read mathematical-physicist Hermann Weyl's delightful little book Symmetry, which explores the relationship between symmetry and beauty, in art and science.
Weyl begins with a 4th-century B.C. bilaterally-symmetric Greek sculpture of a praying boy, but soon enough moves on to crystals, such as those in the Geology Museum that piqued my esthetic and scientific sense. A crystal is mathematically symmetric through and through. A piece of glass can be cut in the shape of a diamond, but the imposed external shape has nothing to do with the amorphous internal structure of the glass. A cut diamond's external facets reflect an inner beauty (as too, by the way, does the external beauty of the human model of the praying boy).
Which brings me to Tom's latest offering, the photograph at the top of this post (click to enlarge). These crystals look like those one finds inside a geode, but look at the human figure at lower-right; this is a "geode" the size of a football stadium, the Cave of the Crystals in Mexico. Why hadn't I heard of this before? Thanks, Tom.
In his book Symmetry, Hermann Weyl chases symmetrical beauty to its mathematical roots. The lucky visitor to the Cave of the Crystals -- or the top floor of the Geology Museum -- learns the lesson that we also heard from the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare."
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
As the Rosetta comet mission drifts silently out of the news, Tom reminds me of when I took him, as a little kid, to see the Rosetta Stone in London's British Museum. He claims "vivid memories", which is more than I can muster. And now he sends me the above images of the Narmer Palette, another inscribed Egyptian stone that strikes his fancy (click to enlarge).
If I ever saw a photograph of the Narmer Palette before, I don't recall it. I can see why Tom is fascinated; this is a remarkable object in the delicacy and complexity of its imagery.
Palette? Stones such as this were used for grinding pigments for cosmetics or painting, although his one, two-feet tall, would have been large and heavy for that purpose. Possibly it was a votive offering for a temple. It is about 5000 years old, and in nearly perfect condition. One scholar has called it "the first historical document in the world." The inscriptions are thought to commemorate a victory of King Narmer of Upper Egypt over his enemies.
As I said, I have no memory of the Palette, but the image of Narmer about to bash in the head of a kneeling prisoner rings a bell. Could it be from those wonderful old National Geographic paintings of "Everyday Life in Ancient Times", from issues of the 1940s. A little hustle around the college library and -- Yes! And, as a matter of fact, I've written about this before. Funny how some things linger in memory and others do not.
As I study the Narmer Palette, my eye keeps coming back to the ten decapitated corpses, bound about the chest, severed heads between their feet. Clearly the recent decapitations by ISIS are on my mind. Religion, superstition, tyrants, bloodlust, war: Some things have remained constant for 5000 years.