Friday, December 31, 2004

Comet Machholz

Each week I receive via email Sky & Telescope Magazine's free Skywatcher's Bulletin. It provides a good summary of any interesting celestial events for the coming week. The bulletin provides an excellent starting point for beginner stargazers looking for guidance on what to look for under a canopy of stars.

This week's bulletin sent me out into the cold New England air last night in hopes of spying Comet Machholz. By star-hopping from Aldeberan, I soon spotted the comet in binoculars. It appears as just a fuzzy patch of dim light. Nothing spectacular.

Standing in the cold, looking for a run-of-the-mill comet, may seem like an pointless exercise to some. The joy in such an endeavor, of course, is actually finding something so nondescript and recognizing in the mind's eye what it represents. This dim smudge of light is in fact a large ball of dust and ice hurtling through the inner solar system on a highly elliptical orbit. Its visit in our sky will be short before it recedes in the vastness of space. While it was here, I can say I saw it. There's some pleasure to be derived in that...I think...

Bats and bat moths

Took the grandkids back to the bat caves yesterday, a secret Tom-Sawyerish place on the back side of the island. The bat colony in the upper cave has pretty much vanished this year, just a few old "grandfather" bats hanging out by themselves. The colony in the lower cave is thriving. I'm sure the bats don't appreciate us awakening their pitch-dark daytime slumber.

The floor of the cave is deep in guano, decorated with the wings of hundreds of giant bat moths (Noctuidae), a big black insect with a six-inch wingspan that flies at night -- obviously a favorite food of bats.

The moths are called "bat moths" not because they are bat food but because they look like bats as they flit around at night. The locals call them money bats because of the intricate currencylike designs on their wings. In Cuba they are called brujas, witches, and considered to be spirits of the dead.

Bat moths love sweets. They have perched on the rims of our wine glasses as we sit on the terrace in the evening.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

The year ahead

This is the week each year I traditionally peruse Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar for the coming year, to prepare myself for the many pleasures the sky will offer. This is the book I recommend to friends and strangers more often than any other.

Guy has a gift for the graphic presentation of astronomical events -- comets, eclipses, occultations, conjunctions, meteor showers, you name it. Skywatching without Guy is like going to a play without a program. His annual inside-the-cover essay alone is worth the price of the book (a large format 80-page compendium).

And while you are ordering your copy, check out Guy's homepage for his many other publications. He is quite simply one of the cleverest guys around.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Welcome to Mars

Yow! Take a look at this. After almost a year roving the surface of Mars, the Opportunity rover has approached the remains of it's discarded heat shield. The shield detached from the descending rover moments before landing and crashed down onto the surface of the Meridiani Plains.

For more good stuff like this, be sure to watch Nova on PBS, January 4th. They will be airing Welcome to Mars, a follow up on their terrific program of last January, MARS Dead or Alive. It should provide a good overview of the hugely successful Mars Expedition Rover missions.

Carbonate solution

These islands are riddled with caves and sinkholes. During the last ice age the sea level was much lower than today, and rainwater percolating down through porous limestone dissolved underground cavities and channels along faults and fissures. The roofs of some of the larger cavities collapsed to form sinkholes.

Yesterday we found deep in the bush what I believe to be the biggest sinkhole on Exuma, perhaps a hundred meters across and ten meters deep. We climbed down the wall to find a unique flora of giant ferns, soaring fig trees, and air plants. A journey to the Lost World.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

In over our heads?

Tom's post on the Asian tsunami has me involuntarily glancing out the window at the sea. Here on the island of Exuma in the Bahamas, we are only a few dozen feet from the shore and about 10 feet above sea level -- highly vulnerable to a wave such as the one that devastated communities along the Indian Ocean.

Fortunately, if history is a guide, we don't have much to worry about. In the 500 years since European colonization, there have only been about a half-dozen recorded tsunamis in the Caribbean region, with a total of about 50 deaths. Most were caused by local earthquakes, but one resulted from the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

The latter quake occurred on an active fault in the Atlantic off Portugal and is sure to be repeated, although no one knows when. As for the predicted Canary Island landslide, triggered by a volcanic eruption, well, there's quite a bit of controversy about that. A possible meteorite impact in the Atlantic, although utterly certain to happen someday, won't keep me awake at night.

But storm surges due to hurricanes, now that's another story. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 caused surges in these islands of over 4 meters. The old folks here still talk about the 1926 hurricane that sent waters 5 or 6 meters deep across Exuma.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Sobering news

The reports of the devastation caused by the tsunami in south east Asia are truly depressing. The massive tidal wave was the result of an undersea earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. The ocean floor suddenly ruptured and rose up sending an enormous swell of water northwards toward India and Sri Lanka. Those unlucky souls by the coastline had little or no warning of the impending wave.

Could something like this happen to the United States? Some scientists report that a powerful volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa could trigger a tsunami which could devastate the east coast of the U.S.. In such a scenario, a 50 meter high wave would reach New York City about 8 hours after the eruption, completely subsuming the city.

Is it time to sell your beach front property? No, although this kind of tsunami is possible in the Atlantic, it's highly unlikely to occur in your lifetime.

On the other hand, newly discovered asteroid 2004 MN4 is currently estimated to have a 1 in 37 probability (!) of striking the Earth in 2029. Yikes!

Junkanoo morning

Boxing Day morning, the day after Christmas (actually two days this year, since the next day was Sunday), the island celebrates with a uniquely Bahamian pre-dawn celebration of music, dance and extravagant floats and costumes. A full moon in the west and Venus and Mercury in the East , all framed by dramatic moonlit clouds, made the morning especially memorable.

The two planets appear to draw closer. Actually they are 50 million miles apart along the same line of sight.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Silent light, holy light

I thought I would share my artist sister's Christmas e-card. Her sources of inspiration are rather more eclectic than mine, ranging from eastern religion to Buckminster Fuller. She is an avid reader of Scientific American, and science often figures in her work.

Here she takes off from the information that "Five million high energy solar neutrinos pass through every square centimeter of your body every second." The neutrinos have their origin at the center of the Sun, where hydrogen nuclei fuse to form helium, turning part of their mass into pure energy. Neutrinos are a byproduct of the reaction. They pour out of the Sun in every direction (they hardly interact at all with matter), race across space and pass through the Earth "like dustmaids down a drafty hall." During the day they pour down through your scalp. At night, they pierce you from underneath the bed.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Dawn dance

When we built our house on the beach in Exuma, we added a screened porch off the bedroom facing southeast. I had spent thirty years looking unsuccessfully for the green flash -- a blaze of emerald light that can sometimes be seen just as the sun is rising or setting over a sea horizon -- and I was determined that this would be the place to see it.

And I did. Many times now. But the practice of getting up before the dawn remains. There is no more perfect time of the day, in my opinion, especially in the tropics.

Over the next week or two I will watch Venus and Mercury almost kiss in the predawn sky, with Mars and Jupiter looking on approvingly.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Rock of ages?

On the low cliff down along the beach, the rock has broken away revealing...a plastic bottle!

I would have thought these sandstone cliffs were at least some tens of thousands of years old, perhaps deposited as windblown inland dunes during the last ice age, when the sea level was lower. and the islands of the Bahamas were considerably larger.

Can sand consolidate so fast, and in the face of the sea? I await the comment here of my soft-rock geologist daughter.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Breakthrough and breakdown

OK, so George W. Bush is Time's Man of the Year. That was predictable.

What was Science magazine's Scientific Breakthrough of the Year? That's a no-brainer too. The two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

The plucky robots dropped onto the surface of the red planet, took a few big bounces, and got right to work. Opportunity was especially lucky, finding itself among rock outcrops that offered convincing evidence of a previous water environment on Mars.

The real significance of the story, says Science, is the demonstrated value of robotic space exploration. There is now even talk of using a robot to rescue the aging Hubble Space Telescope.

And what was the magazine's Science Breakdown of the Year. Another gimme. Increasing tension between the scientific community and the Bush administration and its Evangelical constituency.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Our feeder is up and we are open for guests.

No other bird can perform their tricks of flight - flying backwards, hovering in place. It takes energy for a hummingbird to move its wings so fast - an invisible 80 beats per second, which is why it must consume its weight each day in nectar -- or sugar water.

I never cease to wonder at the innate system of chemical command and control that lets the bird perform a dozen intricate maneuvers more quickly than I can turn my head. Every cell of the hummingbird's body is a buzzing conversation of proteins, speaking a language of shape - shapes as various as the words in a human vocabulary.

"The power of the visible is the invisible," said poet Marianne Moore. The sleek, iridescent body, the soda-straw beak, the whirring helicopter wings. What we see is dazzling enough. What we cannot see is even more dazzling.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Global warming?

My paleoclimatologist daughter has cautioned me about my recent post on global warming. Yes, most scientists agree that climate is warming, she says, but it's impossible to say how much of the warming is due to humans. Maybe 5%, maybe 75%; it's hard to say.

She also suggests that the Kyoto Protocol is a drop in the bucket, and would probably have little noticeable effect on climate. Does that make Kyoto political, as the Bushies say? Maybe, she says.

My own gut feeling is that the recent warming trend is almost certainly human-induced; call it circumstantial evidence. But she's the expert, so let's say "case unproved." We agree that government-mandated conservation can't be a bad thing.

Sunday, December 19, 2004


If you are looking for the perfect gift for the space nut on your list -- or for anyone who appreciates the sheer beauty of the universe -- check out this week's Musing.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Guns, germs and steel

Often when I'm sitting on our terrace here, looking out into the Atlantic, I wonder what it must have been like on October 12, 1492, when the Lucayan people of the Bahamas saw what must have seemed like winged gods come sailing over the horizon.

Nothing in their experience could have prepared them for what they saw, and perhaps never before or since in history have two so different cultures clashed.

The Europeans had sailing ships, steel blades, gunpowder, germs and militant religion. The peaceable, gentle Lucayans lived a Club Med sort of life, with shell beads, pointed sticks, and no metal (except perhaps a few imported gold trinkets).

At the time of first European contact, there were perhaps 50,000 to 80,000 people living in the Bahamas , about the same density as today, excluding the urban centers of Nassau and Freeport. The people were the only useful resource of these scruffy, carbonate islands. They were rounded up by the Spaniards to work as slaves in the gold mines of Hispaniola and the pearl fisheries of Venezuela, where they died of malnutrition, harsh treatment, or European diseases.

Within twenty-five years, not a single Lucayan remained alive and the islands were deserted.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Tropical languor

Since my last post I have translated myself 1300 miles south and sixty degrees up the temperature scale. I am on an island in the southern Bahamas, with a dial-up connection to the internet. One gets used to wireless, broadband.

On the other hand, I love life here without a TV. Working with hand tools. No answering machines. All of that by choice. The only two accouterments of modern times I can't do without are my PowerBook and my iPod. Words and music.

And, of course, a dark night sky.

So expect some tropical Musings for the next several months.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

An ancestor's tale

The chicken has now become the first bird to have its genome sequenced.

Direct descendants of dinosaurs, birds diverged from our own ancestors more than 310 million years ago. The chicken genome is only about a third the size of our own, but contains approximately the same number of genes. About a fourth of the chicken's base-pair sequences are similar to those of humans. These genes are most likely associated with function rather than form.

By function, of course, I don't mean hen parties, playing chicken or crossing roads. I'm taking about the basic chemical machinery of life that lets an adult creature develop from a single fertilized cell, and then maintains it (more or less) intact for the allotted number of years.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Just musing

When a visitor asked the 15th-century zen master Ikkyu the meaning of life, the master responded, "Attention." "Is that all?" the visitor reiterated, inpatient. "Attention, attention," said Ikkyu.

"Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul," wrote the 17th-century philosopher Nicholas Malebranche. "To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work," agrees the contemporary poet Mary Oliver. "I don't know exactly what a prayer is," she writes in another poem; "I do know how to pay attention."

Sounds so simple, but so hard. To stay awake. To see the flower in the crannied wall, the grain of sand. To listen to the almost inaudible glide of black water under the bridge, the tip-tip of the nuthatch.

The world is inexhaustibly strange, beautiful, terrible. John Ruskin wrote in Modern Painters: "The greatest thing the human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw."

You're getting warm

As recently as last week the Bush administration was still insisting that the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gases was based on politics, not science. This is nonsense.

The ever-growing scientific consensus on global warming is clearly expressed in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all issued statements asserting that the evidence is compelling for human modification of climate.

There is room for honest disagreement on what to do about global warming, but to suggest that the scientific community is divided on the reality of human-induced climate change is disingenuous. The concensus may not be universal, but it is overwhelmingly lolpsided.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Through a glass darkly

My Musing this week is about a possible Irish record of the 1054 A. D. supernova, the progenitor of the famed Crab Nebula, as discussed by Irish scholars Daniel McCarthy and Aidan Breen. Here is another celestial event they discuss.

On May 1, 664 A.D., a total solar eclipse occurred in northern England. The track of darkness was centered upon the town and monastery of Whitby, site of the famous Synod of Whitby, at which King Oswy of Northumbria aligned the liturgical practice of the Celtic church with Rome.

Here is the Whitby eclipse as viewed by my Starry Night Pro sky simulation software. The Sun and Moon were in Taurus. That's the Hyades to the left, the Pleiades to right, and Mercury below.

McCarthy and Breen believe the the synod was called in that year and held in that place because the eclipse was taken as a sign of imminent Apocalypse. Presumably, King Oswy wanted to get his spiritual ducks in a row before he met his Maker.

As I say in my Musing, nature will always provide signs and portents to minds predisposed to superstition.

Sunday, December 12, 2004


It was a story that barely made a blip in the national media so I'd like to give a little tip of the hat to a personal hero of mine -- NASA astronaut John W. Young. This past week he announced his retirement from NASA at the age of 74 years.

Young began his career at NASA in 1962 when he was selected to be among the second group of astronauts (after the Mercury Seven) in the fledging U.S. space program. His first flight into space, in 1965 during the Gemini program, was with another NASA legend, Gus Grissom.

Later during the Apollo program, twelve Americans became the only human beings in history to walk on the surface of another world, the Moon. John Young was one of them as commander of Apollo 16 in 1972.

When the Apollo flights came to an end and NASA began the transition to the Space Shuttle era, most of the veteran astronauts left NASA and enjoyed successful careers in the private sector. John Young stayed on and continued to serve his country.

In 1981, on the first space shuttle flight, Young was at the helm as commander of the Columbia. This was followed by a second Shuttle flight in 1983.

Even after his flying days were over, Young continued at NASA working as Chief of the Astronaut Office.

At the end of December, Young will end his 42 year career at NASA leaving an incredible legacy which includes two flights to the Moon and two generations of admiring space fans, myself included.

Feeder find

A few days ago my wife spotted an unfamiliar bird at our bird feeder. We pulled out our Stokes guide and identified him as a male Red-Bellied Woodpecker. I mentioned seeing it to the expert bird watcher in our family, Chet. I was delighted to discover that he had never seen one in Massachusetts.

My curiosity piqued, this led me to a Google search where I discovered a terrific website called Run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, eBird allows birders from across the country to record their observations in one central database.

Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are common in the Southeast United States, but are slowly moving north. According to observations submitted to eBird, Massachusetts is now at the northern boundary of their range.

Using their mapping tools I discovered that the last reported sighting of a Red Belly in my area of Massachusetts was in October. I dutifully reported our sighting using their submission form. I will keep a look out to see if he returns to the feeder...

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Driving Miss Daisy

A cute little graph in the January Scientific American show the exponential increase in computing power since the first digital machines of the 1940s.

The Mac G5/Dual 2.0 GHz computer is now at the top of the desktop line, executing 10 billion instruction per second. This is about the brain power of a guppy, says roboticist Hans Moravec. Extend the graph and you reach the processing equivalent of the human brain in about 2040.

I figure my kids will take the car keys away from me in about 5 years. By 2040 we will have cars that drive themselves, more reliably than you or me, to wherever we want to go, unassisted, through heavy traffic. I was born about 30 years too soon.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Aglet anxiety

There are tens of trillions of cells in my body and every one of them has about an arm's length of DNA, packed as 23 pairs of chromosomes. Now I know it sounds impossible that molecules several feet long could be packed into the nucleus of a cell too small to see with the eye, but take my word for it, I've done the math, and it fits nicely.

Each strand of DNA is terminated at both ends by a sort of aglet (the little plastic cap on the ends of shoe laces), called a telomere. The telomere insures that the meaningful part of DNA is accurately replicated.

Each time a cell reproduces the telomere gets a bit shorter, and many biologists believe that's one reason we age. All those DNA shoe laces unraveling at the ends.

Now they tell us that the integrity of telomeres is diminished by stress. No surprise there, but I can feel my aglets peeling away even as I write. Just thinking about those diminishing telomeres is stressing me out.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


My new novel has just been published in Ireland/UK, a love story of the physician Valentine and blind Julia, set in the 3rd-century Roman Empire. Yes, this is the man who gave his name to lovers, but not quite the saint you expect. The novel addresses many of the themes of Science Musings: reason vs. superstition, empiricism vs. revelation, naturalism vs. supernaturalism. For the time being, you can get it through AmazonUK.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


In his book The Future of Life, biologist E. O. Wilson suggests that we are hardwired for the nearby and the short term.

"The human brain evidently evolved to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography, a limited band of kinsmen, and two or three generations into the future." Anything else was counterproductive from a Darwinian point of view.

If Wilson is right, it is against our biological nature to worry about rain forests in Bolivia, higher sea levels in 2100, or AIDS in Africa.

Our capacious, adaptable brains may not have evolved to take the wide, long view, but they make it possible to do so. Our higher human nature is to transcend our biological nature.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Core curriculum

1. The universe is big. Human space is not cosmic space.

2. The universe is old. Human time is not cosmic time.

3. The universe evolves -- galaxies, stars, planets, life, consciousness.

4. The universe perceived by the senses is all we can know. The more we learn about the universe -- including ourselves -- the more we understand the depths of our ignorance.

5. The more we learn, the more we appreciate the universe as the revelation of a Mystery worthy of our wonder, awe, reverence, praise.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Body and soul

I'm a bit late posting my Musing this week. I was traveling over the weekend, to see my Mom in Chattanooga. As I passed through the airport last evening I noticed that Newsweek has a cover story on The Quest for Memory Drugs. A timely connection to my Musing.

Tomorrow morning looks like a washout for the Jupiter occultation here in New England. Check the weather report for clear skies in your area. For you folks out west the show will be over by the time the Moon rises.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Back to Saturn

Meanwhile, at Saturn, Cassini is in the middle of her second orbit of the ringed planet. The images released by the Cassini team this past week or so have been incredible. Included are intriguing views of the moons Titan, Tethys and Rhea. But most stunning is a color view of the tiny moon Mimas against a backdrop of enormous ring shadows. Wow!

Occultation of Jupiter

A heads up for observers in the Eastern U. S. and Canada. The moon will move in front of Jupiter during the predawn hours on Tuesday, December 7, high in the southeastern sky. In the Northeastern Corridor this will occur between about 4 and 5 AM. You can check for exact times at Sky & Telescope's website.

You'll want to get out at least a half hour before the occultation begins to see the crescent Moon almost on top of bright Jupiter, then watch as the Moon devours the planet. About an hour later Jupiter will emerge from the dark limb of the Moon.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Theory and perception

California reader Jennifer shared by e-mail some photos taken on a recent hike into the Sierras, including this one of glacial gouging and polishing of rocks where no glaciers exist today.

In the fall of 1831, young Charles Darwin accompanied his geology teacher Adam Sedgwick on a field trip to the mountains of North Wales. Half-a-century later he wrote: "We spent many hours in Cwm Idwal, examining all the rocks with extreme care, as Sedgwick was anxious to find fossils in them; but neither of us saw a trace of the wonderful glacial phenomena all around us; we did not notice the plainly scoured rocks, the perched boulders, the lateral and terminal moraines. Yet these phenomena are so conspicuous that...a house burnt down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than did this valley."

We only see what we expect to see. Because the theory of the ice ages had not yet been invented in 1831, Darwin and Sedgwick were blind. Later, with a theory in mind, the evidence of ice was obvious and irresistible.

Is religion in our genes?

Notre Dame Magazine has asked me to write an article on geneticist Dean Hamer's fine little book The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes.

Hamer claims to have identified a gene, rather prosaically called VMAT2, that appears to be related to spirituality.

It is not faith in God that the gene correlates with, but a trait called self-transcendence, a feeling of connectedness to the universe and everything in it. Self-transcendent people may or may not believe in God.

I look forward to the assignment. For the moment, in preparation, I am reading again a book I first read almost half-a-century ago, as an intensely religious undergraduate, William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, a work that stands at the root of all attempts to trace the natural origins of religion.

Jupiter's moons -- Part 3

Here is a re-creation of Galileo's view of Jupiter. This is what he would have seen on the evening of January 7th, 1610.
Jupiter and Uranus are about 2.5 degrees separated in the sky--about two fingers width held at arms length. The small circle is the approximate field of view of Galileo's first telescope. I think we can forgive Galileo not spotting the undiscovered Uranus. What he saw through his eyepiece, moons orbiting another celestial body, was the discovery of a lifetime and literally an earth-moving event.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Moth attack

My daughter on the phone this evening: "Pop, what are the zillions of little brown moths around my house? They are everywhere!"

Yep, and they've been an early winter fixture for a few years now. Only the males have wings, so it's the boys you see frolicking at your back door. The larvas will raise havoc in the spring.

Apparently, these are a European invader, and have no natural enemies here. If you live in eastern New England, get used to them.

Jupiter's moons -- Part 2

The smallest shadow is Io's. The shadow at Jupiter's left edge is Ganymede's. The shadow at the right edge is Callisto's. Callisto would be a few inches off to the right of its shadow.

Back in 1988 I had a program called MacStronomy for my Mac Plus (my third Mac!) that I used to recreate Jupiter's position in the sky in the winter of 1609-10 when Galileo first observed Jupiter's moons. I noticed that the yet undiscovered planet Uranus was only a few degrees away, and easily bright enough to have been visible in Galileo's scope. It was one of the brighter objects in that part of the sky. Was Galileo the first to see Uranus? Unable to resolve its tiny disk, he would have thought it to be a star.

I had a little note on this published in Sky & Telescope in February 1988.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Jupiter's moons

Here's a puzzle for you, a recent Hubble Space Telescope photograph of Jupiter. The three black dots are the shadows of three of Jupiter's moons, in a rare triple solar eclipse: Io, Ganymede and Callisto (listed in order of their distance from the planet). Two moons are visible: Ganymede is the blue dot, and Io is the white dot just slightly above the planet's center.

Can you match shadows to moons? Where in the sky relative to the photograph would you go looking for Callisto? (Answer tomorrow.)

Although Io and Ganymede (the white and blue dots) look like they are swimming in Jupiter's clouds, they are actually well in front of the planet, Io by about 2.5 Jupiter diameters, and Ganymede by 14 diameters.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Of rocks and blood

My Musing this week is about the extraordinary fossilist Mary Anning, who helped fill in blank pages of the Earth's past. Since Anning's time, the fossil record has been vastly expanded. And now, as we enter a new century, we have a way to check the evidence of the rocks.

Every cell of our bodies remembers the eons. We share most of our DNA with other primates, and a lot of it with bugs and barnacles. Almost every week another plant or animal's genetic code is published in Science or Nature. And so far, at least, the tree of life deduced from the DNA confirms in almost every respect the story told by Mary Anning and her fossil-hunting successors.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Into the dark

In the November 18 issue of Nature, two Pakistani scientific administrators, Atta-ur-Rahman and Anwar Nasim, call for Islam to return to the tradition of "enlightened moderation" that characterized Islamic culture from the 8th to the 15th century. Six of the eight poorest nations on Earth are primarily Islamic, they say, and Islam in general is drifting toward fundamentalism and extremism.

Central to the called-for renaissance is renewed emphasis on scientific education and research, say Atta-ur-Rahman and Nasim, and they reach out to the West for cooperation and interaction. It would be wonderful to think that the United States would answer their call, but unfortunately it seems that we are moving away from "enlightened moderation" towards our own brand of anti-science fundamentalism.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Wink, wink, nudge, nudge -- Part 2

My wife asks, "What was the phony Piltdown skull?" Well, it turned out to be fragments of a human skull and an orangutan jawbone, doctored, even painted, to make them look appropriately ancient and as if they belonged together.

Who dunnit?

The obvious villain is the amateur geologist and archeologist Charles Dawson who "found" the bones.

Some people point a finger of guilt at the French Jesuit anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin, who was part of the dig. His motive, presumably, was to pull a Gallic joke on his English colleagues.

Possibly the bones were planted by Charles Chatwin, a young staff member at the British Museum of Natural History who chafed under the leadership of his deeply unpopular and dictatorial boss, Arthur Smith Woodward. His motive would have been to embarrass the pompous and gullible Woodward.

The list goes on. At least a dozen possible perpetrators have been suggested, including Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes.

Creationists never fail to use the Piltdown caper to flog evolutionists. "See how wrong scientists can be," they say. Yes, scientists can be wrong because scientists are human. Which is why there is in science a constant checking and rechecking, and a willingness to say "We were wrong" when the jig is up.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Wink, wink, nudge, nudge

On my walk across England last fall, I visited the site of the discovery of Piltdown Man, the infamous fake fossil skull that English paleontologists trumpeted as "the missing link." Although non-British scientists doubted the find from the beginning, it was decades before the fraud was definitely exposed. No one yet knows for sure who was the perpetrator.

I stopped for a pint at the local pub, formerly The Lamb. I thought you might like to see the sign. The gleaming eyeball. The mischievous smirk.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


You may have missed the story about the pod of dolphins who saved a group of New Zealand swimmers from shark attack. Apparently this behavior is not unique.

To the extent that these reports are true, they are remarkable examples of cross-species altruism by animals without previously existing alliances with humans.

Sometimes it's easy to get depressed and believe that humans are genetically destined to kill each other. As often as not the killing instinct is reinforced by religion or politics.

But in fact altruism is deeply ingrained in our biology, and apparently not only in our own species. Of course, nature and nurture play off each other both ways, but when it comes to ethics, I trust the genes more than I trust the self-appointed guardians of public morality, who include, I suppose, my blogging self.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Life, the universe and everything

In a program to be screened soon on Britain's Channel 4, the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees opines that the entire universe we know may be a simulation in the computer of a race of super beings.

Not a new idea. Douglas Adams proposed as much in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The film The Matrix had it too. In fact, the idea has been kicking around in science fiction for years.

What if we are all just characters in a game controlled by joysticks in the hands of Olympian divinities? That would explain the sex and violence. "Yahoo!" shouts Zeus, "I just leveled Fallujah!"

Monday, November 22, 2004

A response

Reader Brian takes me to task for poking fun at the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. His comments are thoughtful and well-taken. But I disagree that it is dishonest to conflate the grilled cheese story with young-Earth creationism.

If the universe is less than 10,000 years old, then everything we have learned about physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy since Galileo is wrong. Young-Earth creationism is grilled-cheese science.

I have no problem with 13-billion-year creationism. What caused the Big Bang? Some folks say, "God did it." I say, "I don't know." The two statements have exactly the same information content.

What is not in doubt is that the universe is shot through with mystery that none of us understands, and that deserves our awe and reverence.

Saturday, November 20, 2004


Cover headline on this month's Scientific American: "ARE VIRUSES ALIVE?" The answer: Uh, well, er, dunno.

A snippet of RNA or DNA in a protein coat. Dazzlingly beautiful (a model of the SARS virus at right), like invisibly small Christmas-tree ornaments. Can't reproduce without highjacking the chemical machinery of something or someone that is undeniably alive, like you or me.

Were viruses an evolutionary step on the way to life? Or are they renegade genes from living organisms? And WHERE'S MY FLU SHOT?

Have Segway, will travel

While walking down Beacon Street in Boston yesterday, a man on a Segway zipped by me. This was the first time I had seen one of these vehicles up close. I was startled at first because he had approached me from behind and glided past. There was no engine whine. No puff of choking exhaust. Just a smooth silence. He effortlessly weaved through the other pedestrians, turned the corner and sailed off down Cambridge Street. I stood agape at the corner and watched him trundle away on his two-wheeled transport. Wow. I want one.

The Segway Human Transporter was introduced with much fanfare in 2001. Almost immediately the public and the mainstream media responded to Dean Kamen's invention with derision. $4000 for just a fancy scooter? Get real.

It always rankled me that Kamen didn't get more recognition for what I think is a remarkable bit of engineering.

The Segway is self-balancing. Imagine yourself straddling a motionless bicycle; you are constantly adjusting the pedals, handlebars and your own body to keep it in balance. A Segway's computer and gyroscopes do all that for you, instantly. Once you mount a Segway, it will not allow you to fall off.

The Segway is controlled via body motion. Lean forward, it moves forward. Lean back, it switches to reverse. Corners are made by leaning from side to side. It's almost like magic.

So what? Just get a bicycle or walk, they say. It's far cheaper. That's where I believe most people are missing the point of the Segway. It's not an alternative to a bicycle. Most adults don't ride bikes anymore anyway. Nor do they walk distances further than 600 feet. What it is is an efficient and non-polluting alternative to a second car. And by that comparison, it's also cheaper.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Animate dust

"Wow, what's this?" asked a companion as we walked in the woods yesterday. The leaf litter under our feet seemed to be dusted generously with black pepper. And the pepper was hopping!

Snow fleas. Tiny insects of the springtail family, millions of them, on one of their warm-winter-day frolics. Put your hand down near them and they hop all over you. Lift you hand away from the ground and they abandon ship.

To the eye, featureless specks. I gathered some into an envelope and took them to the biology lab to have a look through a stereo microscope. Of course, they wouldn't sit still. I moistened the glue on the envelope's flap and a few snow fleas got stuck in place, wiggling furiously -- legs, antennae, segmented bodies, and the spring-loaded tails that flip them through the air.

Almost invisibly small, but assembled by their genes, atom by atom -- eyes, mouth, belly, anus, genitals, heart, brain, nervous system -- something like 10 quadrillion atoms in all (by my rough calculation), every one in its proper place.

Capitalism and Velveeta

Well the Virgin Mary Sandwich is really taking off! I performed a search on eBay hoping to find the original auction listing that's been all over the news. I was delighted to discover a copious array of Virgin Mary Sandwich-related merchandise for sale -- from t-shirts to pop art. However I think my favorite is the SuperKnife you can use to cut your Virgin Mary Sandwich!

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Science and Velveeta

By now I suppose everyone has heard about the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese that was offered earlier this week on eBay (and which inspired a rash of parodies).

It is easy to chuckle when some dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of people take this sort of thing seriously, and to feel a bit of smug superiority. But when you think that almost half of Americans believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old, it makes one wonder just what is happening to science-based thinking in America.

As Carl Sagan wrote: "Science has beauty, power, and majesty that can provide spiritual as well as practical fulfillment. But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, providing easy answers, casually pressing our awe buttons, and cheapening the experience."

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Into the wormhole

I met Max Tegmark at a book event in Harvard Square last evening. Max is an MIT astrophysicist who believes our universe is only one of an infinite number of parallel universes, some of which are like this one in almost every detail. Max gave his reasons in a May 2003 article in Scientific American which is included in the 2004 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing.

I asked Max whether there are red universes and blue universes. Absolutely, he agreed. In an infinite multifold of universes there must be one where John Kerry had a squeaky win in Ohio, or, if you are really disgruntled, there's another where Bush lost every state except Idaho.

In fact, if Tegmark's reading of the laws of physics is correct, you can pick the universe of your choice. The only trick is figuring out how to get there.

Maybe Canada is a more practical choice.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Boys must play

My path to work each morning takes me through woods and meadows in the care of my town's Natural Resources Trust. On mornings after heavy snows, such as the one we had this past weekend, the place is a paradise of silence, pristine whiteness, crisp clarity.

Or, rather, it should be. Unfortunately the snowmobilers spoil all that. They unload their machines from pickup trucks, drive them blatantly past signs that read "Snowmobiles prohibited," and proceed to churn up trails and meadows in a jag of noise and fumes.

Perhaps someone can explain to me why people who are enamored of internal combustion in natural places so often believe that the rules do not apply to them.

Monday, November 15, 2004


Massachusetts Electric is offering its customers an opportunity to buy from one of four companies that provide electricity from renewable sources -- wind, small hydro, solar and biomass. The catch: The cost is 15 to 25 percent more than fossil fuel generation.

"Put your money where your mouth is," urged my wife. We signed up.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Here we go again

A judge in Georgia will soon rule on the constitutionality of disclaimer stickers on biology textbooks stating: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

There is nothing to object to in the second part of the statement. All material in every science textbook should be approached with an open mind and critically considered, and any good science text should say as much in the preface. The objections to the stickers are that evolution is singled out and that the stickers are religiously motivated.

In the past, the courts, including the Supreme Court, have been bulwarks against the intrusion of religion into public school science curricula. It remains to be seen how long this will last.

By the way, as a humorous side to the issue, have you heard of Project Steve?

Friday, November 12, 2004

Alone in a sea of company

As I walked from my office to the college library this morning, a distance of about thirty yards, I passed six students. Every one was talking on a cellphone.

It occurred to me that the space I was walking through -- indeed, even the cavities of my body -- were aquiver with electromagnetic oscillations, the unheard conversations of these six students and hundreds, thousands more.

We live in a sea of chat, an ether tremulous with ghostly voices, gigahertz radio waves bearing in their modulations the words and thoughts of people who might live anywhere on the planet.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Looking for the aurora -- cont.

The aurora is caused by high energy electrons and protons hurled from the Sun by magnetic storms on its surface. Several days later, this wind of particles slams into the Earth's magnetic field, drawing it out into a long tail that points away from the Sun. The magnetic field in turn snares electrons from the solar wind and pumps them inwards along lines of magnetic influence. Down they dive, near the poles of the Earth, smashing into the rarefied air of the upper atmosphere, causing the atoms of the atmosphere to glow like the gas in a neon tube. On almost any clear, dark night near the Arctic and Antarctic Circles the lights might be seen. Only occasionally, during particularly violent solar storms, does the aurora push down into temperate latitudes.

Looking for the aurora -- cont.

Take a look at this gallery of aurora photographs caused by the most recent solar activity, available at

Activity has ebbed for the moment but may pick up again in the next two days.

Looking for the aurora

I was just out looking for the aurora. No luck. But here is an image of a solar storm from the TRACE satellite. These are the storms that hurl the particles into space that cause the aurora. The planet Earth would fit comfortably within one of these loops.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Keep looking up!

The heavenly treats keep on coming... The NOAA has issued an alert on a series of solar flares which may result in spectacular auroras here on Earth. In fact, reader Daniel reports viewing the Aurora Borealis right here in Massachusetts last night!

You can determine whether you'll have favorable conditions to view the Northern Lights by consulting this page provided by the Space Environment Center. Find the minimum Kp index for your magnetic latitude, then compare to the current estimated index. If the forecast looks favorable, get out into the cold November air and take a peek!

Bones of contention?

You have no doubt been hearing about the "hobbit" human whose bones were recently discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia. (I will be writing about it at length in my next Musing.) This close human relative apparently survived alongside our own species until very recent times, about 12,000 years ago.

I have been struck by how little caution is expressed by the popular media. It's as if the interpretation of the bones offered by their discoverers is a done deal.

Not so. Controversies among scientists have already begun. One skull and a scattering of bones does not a new species make.

If the discovery is confirmed by further findings, it will indeed be a stunning new chapter in the story of human origins. For the time being, take what you read (in my Musing too) with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Evidence-based reality

According to the pundits, the recent American election was decided on the issue of values -- "God, guns, and gays." Where is the scientific data that would show us the superiority of red state values?

We know, for example, that the divorce rate is highest in Bible Belt states and lowest in Massachusetts, which says something, I suppose, about the "sanctity of marriage." (Born-again Christians divorce just as often as the rest of us.) The teen pregnancy rate also tends to be higher in red states than blue states. The abortion rate is the same in Texas and Massachusetts. And so on.

Meanwhile, those of us who try to live in evidence-based reality recognize the colossal disparity in health, wealth and education between the U. S. and the developing world. Surely if we want to talk about values we should address the fact that America, the richest nation in the world, contributes less to alleviating world hunger, ignorance and disease than any other developed nation, a mere 0.2 percent of our GNP, less than a third of what donor nations promised at the Monterrey Consensus of 2002.

Monday, November 08, 2004

A reminder

Don't forget to watch for the thin crescent Moon near Venus and Jupiter on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. Looking at the sky maps below (the size of the Moon is exaggerated), you might ask: Does the Moon cover the planets as it goes by? The answer is yes. These relatively rare events are called occultations. Unfortunately, the Moon occults Jupiter during daylight hours in the U. S., and occults Venus only for observers in the southwest Pacific, also in daylight.

But not to worry. Next month when the Moon comes this way it will occult Jupiter for observers in the eastern U. S. in the pre-dawn hours, well worth getting up for between 4 and 5 A.M. We'll remind you when the time comes.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Conjunction Junction -- cont.

The dance in the dawn sky continues. On Tuesday and Wednesday mornings the waning crescent Moon will be near Venus and Jupiter, eyelash thin. The views at right are about an hour before sunrise. That's the star Spica in Virgo closer to the horizon, and Mars is rising just behind, maybe lost in the dawn light.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Conjunction Junction

Clear skies here in New England the last two mornings and excellent views of Venus and Jupiter. Some nice photographs of the conjunction are available from English astrophotographer Pete Lawrence. Venus is the brighter of the pair. Notice in the closeups that you can make out Jupiter's four largest moons. Neat!


Last night I watched again, for the first time since the late-1950s, Robert Bresson's classic film, The Diary of a Country Priest, based on Georges Bernanos' novel of the same name.

The story is that of a young priest who arrives at his first parish in rural France filled with naive idealism, spiritual longing,and a good bit of repressed sexuality. He lives in a world haunted by God and demons.

Spurned by his parishioners, unable to pray, his stomach ravaged by cancer, the young priest drifts inexorably towards death. His last words are: "Does it matter? Grace is everywhere..."

Both film and book made a great impression on me the first time around. I was then a young graduate student in physics, deeply religious, struggling to find my way between faith-based reality and evidence-based reality.

After some years of searching (and no small amount of stomach pain), I chose evidence over faith. Does it matter? Oh yes. I have lived the latter part of my life without God or demons, but I am still willing to say with the country priest, "Grace is everywhere."

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Red and blue America

"Was Darwin Wrong?" asks National Geographic boldly on the cover of the November issue.

National Geographic is as quintessentially American as mom and apple pie. There was a time when the yellow-edged magazine might be found in school rooms, doctors' offices, and homes across the heartland. It stood for curiosity, cultural diversity, and global vision.

And how does the magazine answer the question posed on its cover? With a resounding "NO" in letters two inches high. The evidence for evolution by natural selection is "overwhelming," says National Geographic, and shows us why in concise and convincing words and pictures.

Yet Gallup pollsters tell us that nearly half of Americans believe the Earth and its myriad species were created pretty much as we find them sometime within the past 10,000 years. Only 12% of Americans believe evolution can account for the diversity of life without divine intervention.

Perhaps never in its 116-year history has there been such a disconnect between the venerable magazine and its readers.

I'd wager that the answers to no other question posed by Gallup would more perfectly correlate with red/blue politics than the one about evolution. What is at work here are two ways of knowing: faith versus empiricism, authority versus curiosity, scriptures versus nature.

Jan LaRue, chief counsel for the conservative group Concerned Women for America, says of the recent election: "The real issue at play is whether there is absolute truth or there isn't. That's the dividing line in America."

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

A reminder

If you have clear skies Thursday or Friday morning, don't foget to step outside at dawn to view the spectacular conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the eastern sky.

(The sky map at right, and elsewhere in our blog, is generated using the marvelous sky simulation software Starry Night.)

The big lie

Let me offer some techno advice to whoever is the next president of the United States.

While we spend hundreds of billions of dollars stirring up a hornet's nest of hatred in Iraq, Al Qaeda is quietly preparing a "dirty" bomb for delivery to a U. S. port by container ship. The bomb will consist of a container full of conventional explosives, liberally salted with non-weapons-grade uranium and/or plutonium acquired from North Korea, Iran, or, most likely, the former U.S.S.R. Not a mushroom cloud, but our very own Chernobyl.

This is called "Making America Safer."

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Birds got socks

And speaking of China, lately it seem as if all the great fossil finds are coming from there. Within recent weeks, Chinese paleontologists have given us an Early Cretaceous bird embryo, curled up in an oval the size of a robin's egg, each tiny rib in place, and -- more spectacular -- an Early Cretaceaous bird with feathers on its legs. Did dinosaurs evolve feathers as a body covering before discovering their advantage for flight?

Monday, November 01, 2004

A fierce green fire

I'm a bit late posting the Musing this week. I have been in Corvallis, Oregon for a gathering on Nature and the Sacred.

I was particularly honored to be part (as a reader of selections from my books) of a musical program with the Oregon State University Chamber Choir and Chamber Orchestra performing Daniel Pinkham's In the Beginning, Joseph Haydn's The Creation, and a premiere performance of Michael Coolen's In the Beginning. Hubble space photos too, projected onto a giant screen over the stage.

It was a hope-reaffirming weekend. Artists, musicians, writers, political and ecological activists, teachers, homemakers, people from all walks of life working quietly and effectively to make this planet a better place.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Asian century?

Will the U.S. still be the world's dominant economy in two decade's time?

I'd put my money on China, a land of surging energy, intelligence, and innovation, in spite of its retrogressive political system.

Chinese scientists have always done first-rate work as expatriates. Now the number of homegrown papers published in international journals is soaring -- a 20-fold increase in 20 years.

In a recent issue of Science, Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science decries "a counterproductive overlay of politics, ideology, and religious conviction on the U.S. climate for science."

Friday, October 29, 2004

Time is money

Hey, I'm as vain as the next guy. And I'm not adverse to techno bling. For example, I love to flash my brushed-aluminum-alloy 12-inch Apple G4 PowerBook. It flips a bird at Microsoft, and says: "arty, rebel, votes Democratic."

But what about techno bling for the wrist? This month's Esquire has an feature on watches "every man should own." A Zenith Grande Chronomaster XXT for $104,000? A Lange & Sohne Chrono for $97,000? A Patek Philippe Calatrava for $21,000? Or a plain old Rolex Sea-dweller for $4,425.

Now in retirement, what I'm looking for is a life that will let me toss out my $29.95 Casio and keep time by the Sun.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

All the music of life seems to be... Part 2

If you have access to the journal Nature -- at a library, say; it requires a subscription online -- take a look at the article on the new draft sequence of the human genome, and the following article on sequencing the genome of Tetraodon, a freshwater puffer fish. A comparison of the two genomes -- gene by gene -- tells us much about early vertebrate-to-human evolution.

Don't worry if you can't read the articles; just scan the pages. When you look into the cockpit of a 747 you may not understand how it all works, but you know someone has done some pretty impressive engineering.

Do creation "scientists" or ID (intelligent design) "scientists" produce equivalent research? Zip. Nada. Yet they want their miracle-talk included in our public school classrooms as science. It's rather like plucking an astrologer/priest out of ancient Mesopotamia and putting him in charge of R&D at Boeing.

Spooky moon

Tonight's total eclipse of the Moon may be the most widely witnessed eclipse in history. Anyone watching the World Series will be treated to a view courtesy of Fox, which, in idiotic Fox Baseball fashion, will probably give us shots of the eclipsing Moon while action is happening on the field.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

All the music of life seems to be...

The current issue of Nature announces an updated draft of the human genome. Along with the journal came a wall-sized poster of all 24 human chromosomes mapped out like the score of a symphony. I've included here chromosomes 19 and 20, two of the smallest, each 63 megabases long (63 million rungs on a DNA double helix, 63 million notes in a score that is 3 billion notes long). The lettering is too small to read, but the vertical words along the bottom identify specific genes. The red names are genes for disease. Other info designates such things as overlap of human DNA with that of a mouse.

I wish I could offer you here the full poster, the entire magnificent score for human life, written in a music of just four notes and playing incessantly in every cell of my a bell that is ringing for me.

A closer look

Later today, Cassini will be making its first close flyby of Saturn's enormous moon, Titan. Although Titan is shrouded by a thick atmosphere, Cassini's cameras are equipped with spectral filters able to penetrate the haze and reveal surface details. Cassini will be imaging the area of Titan where the Huygens probe is scheduled to land in January. A NASA webcast of the flyby will be available.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The consolations of philosophy

After a stunning comeback in the playoffs, Boston is now up two games in the World Series and the Red Sox Nation is in a tizzy. Will the Fenway boys break our hearts again?

Well, consider this. In any finite bubble of the universe -- say that part we see with our telescopes -- there is only a finite number of particles, and therefore a hugely large but finite number of ways they can be put together.

If the universe is infinite in extent, as most cosmologists now believe, then there must be another bubble of space exactly like this one down to the smallest detail, and still other bubbles different from this one in every possible way.

So even if the Sox blow it, in classical Sox fashion, we can know that somewhere else they won the Series.

There, now doesn't that make you feel better?

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Celestial events

Sky mostly overcast all week, but behind the clouds Jupiter and Venus drift towards their November 4 rendezvous in the dawn sky.

Meanwhile, make sure to watch the total eclipse of the Moon on Wednesday evening, October 27. The eclipse begins high in the south east at 9:14 PM EDT, as the full Moon begins to move into the shadow of the earth. Totality starts at 10:23 PM and lasts about an hour and twenty minutes. The show ends at 12:45 AM.

For viewers west of the Rockies, the eclipse begins just as the full moon rises at sunset.

Let me know how you would describe the color of the moon during totality.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Lord of the flies

Along the path yesterday afternoon, a rare find in these parts, a Common Stinkhorn mushroom. It is hard to imagine a more bizarre, wickedly evocative growth -- phallus impudicus, the head covered with a foul-smelling green slime that attracts flies and other winged insects that spread the spores. A spookmeister fit for Halloween. Impudent, indeed!

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Reading event tonight

Any Science Musings readers in the Boston area may want to swing by the Stoughton Public Library tonight at 7PM. Chet will be there to give a reading from his book The Path: A One-Mile Walk Though the Universe. A Question and Answer session will follow. Chet would love to meet some of his cyberspace readers in meatspace. Come on out...

The case for...

Apropos this week's Musing, the case for intercessory prayer: Red Sox defeat Yankees!

The web of life

Reading today, with my four students, an excerpt from David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. It is a beautifully written, powerful book, by a gifted philosopher/ecologist.

Like many other contemporary nature writers, Abram looks to indigenous peoples of the world for ways to integrate our lives more fully with non-human nature.

In our excerpt, he describes a transforming experience in Bali, where he has gone seeking shamanic wisdom. He sits alone in an ancient temple enclosure carved into living rock, watching spiders weave their orbs. The craft of the spiders, he writes, "so honed and focused my awareness that the very webwork of the universe, of which my own flesh was a part, seemed to be being spun by their arcane art."

Well, yes. And indeed it is. The "arcane art" is the ceaseless spinning of proteins by DNA in every cell of the spider's body -- spinning, spinning, checking, correcting. Proteins that then, by a geometrical language we are only beginning to understand, give rise to spiders, webs, shamans, and philosophers.

It is a matter of taste, perhaps, but I think I learn more about the "very webwork of the universe" by reading Science and Nature each week than I might learn sitting at the foot of a Balian shaman.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

A world made on Sunday?

Donna Haraway, a feminist critic of science, suggests that Coyote, the trickster deity of western Native Americans, is an appropriate god for a scientist. When you play with Coyote, she says, expect to be surprised, look out for sleight of hand, and be ready to turn a few tricks yourself.

Certainly, the more one knows about the way the world works, the more difficult it is to relate to the poker-faced God of my youth, a consistently benevolent fellow, who lays all his cards on the table and plays by the rules. Hence, the problem of evil, the untoward turn of events, the lion eating the lamb, the ball that bounces between Bill Buckner's knees.

A creation myth from the Middle East -- a variation on Genesis -- has God bring the world into being with seven laughs: ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I like to imagine the Creator having a hell of a time, creating the universe with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, then sitting back and watching with bemusement as we try to figure it all out.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The real immunization gap

I sent in my application today to the college clinic for a flu shot. As a healthy 68 year-old, I am not high on the list of those who might receive the scarce vaccine.

Oh, well. Even if I get the flu, which is by no means certain, it is unlikely to be life threatening.

Meanwhile, in sub-Saharan Africa -- the continent that seldom makes a blip on our national conscience -- only half of children receive immunization for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTP). Even fewer are vaccinated against hepatitis B and polio. Measles and diarrhea are killers. Millions of children die each year needlessly.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Morning prayer

Venus continues slipping away from from Saturn, which is now left high and dry in the morning sky. But new actors enter the stage. Jupiter now shines below Venus in the dawn, and Mars too struggles to make itself visible in early light.

Venus and Jupiter are on collision course for a spectacular conjunction on November 4. Over the next few weeks, watch them drawing together; they'll be easily visible even as the sky brightens. Make a note in your calendar for this must-see event.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Hiding in plain sight -- Part 4

It is easy enough to understand how natural selection might provide a butterfly with protective coloration, or even wings with the shape and vein pattern of a leaf. Computer simulations show that these things can happen with surprising alacrity.

But most butterflies spend their reproductive lives among live foliage. How come the Dead Leaf butterfly is not a Green Leaf butterfly? Can someone with knowledge of tropical lepidoptera help?

And, by the way, Kallima has beautifully colored upper wings. Flashily fit for finding a partner with wings unfurled; slyly disguised when resting, wings folded, on a tree.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Hiding in plain sight -- Part 3

While browsing through bug books and websites online trying to identify my moth, I came across the even more remarkable Kallima or Dead Leaf butterfly. Yow!

Who decides?

A recent poll in Italy asked citizens who should make decisions regarding development and application of new biotechnologies, such as cloning, stem cell research, and genetic modification of plants and animals.

Two percent said the Catholic Church. The same number chose the entrepreneurs who stand to profit by the research. Not much confidence there.

Nine percent expressed faith in the Italian government. Twelve percent trust scientists. Twenty percent would decide these issues by popular vote. An overwhelming thirty percent of respondents chose to rely on the European Union.

When it comes to messing around with the essence of life, Italians would put biotech decision-making in responsible multinational hands, while allowing input from as many constituencies as possible. Sound like good popular wisdom to me.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Hiding in plain sight -- Part 2

See below a photo from the wild acres around Tom's new house: a leaf that looks like an insect, and an insect that looks like a leaf.

The spots on the leaf, of course, are a fluke, two pits of insect damage or disease that just happen to look like eyes. It's like seeing pyramids in NASA photographs of Mars, dinosaur footprints in randomly eroded Texas sandstones, or the face of the Virgin on a water-stained wall.

The moth is identical to others of its species, a neatly camouflaged product of natural selection, one of countless examples of cryptic coloration and mimicry in nature.

The pair are a nice metaphor for two sorts of people: those who look for meaning in miracles and prodigies; and those who anchor their search for significance in the steady creative power of natural law.

Hiding in plain sight

A leaf and moth found by the side of the house.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

"The light at the center of every cell"

The human genome contains about 30,000 genes. Genes make molecules. Molecules make organisms.

How a mere 30,000 genes can make a creature as complicated as ourselves is still something of a mystery.

Here's how geneticist Enrico Coen puts it in his book, The Art of Genes: "The software, the program, is responsible for organizing hardware, the organism. Yet throughout the process, it is the organism in its various stages of development that has to run the program." In other words, the hardware runs the software, while at the same time the software is making the hardware.

Call it, if you want, the miracle of life, but only in the sense that everything that is natural is miraculous.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004


I've been observing with bemused anticipation this past week as Chet's postings have delved into political matters. It was only a matter of time before he got some push-back on some of this. While some of us would like "science" to be nothing more than papier-mâché volcanoes and potato clocks, it is rarely that simple. Modern science deals with the "big" questions as well. This means there will be some overlap into religion and politics.

With this in mind I thought it might be wise to formalize a commenting policy. We enjoy and encourage the feedback and discussion. If you choose to leave public comments on the blog, please be aware you are responsible for your own words. It is not our intention to ever censor or stifle any discussion, with the following caveat: keep your comments civil and don't stray too far off-topic.


Monday, October 11, 2004

Respite -- Part 2

I watch the sun burn a hole through morning haze and think of the very last line of Walden: "The sun is but a morning-star."

What is certain is that the Sun is but a star. In our neighborhood of the Milky Way galaxy -- within a dozen light-years, say -- there are about 25 stars. The Sun is fourth brightest, after blue-white Sirius A, white Procyon A, and our near twin, yellow Alpha centauri A.

Most of our neighbors are tiny red dwarf stars, barely massive enough to sustain nuclear fusion. The big stars burn like bright birds in a berry bush.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


"Only that day dawns to which we are awake," writes Thoreau at the end of Walden. The dawns these last two mornings have been especially lovely, with a waning crescent moon slipping past Venus in the eastern sky. I completely forgot it was Columbus Day, and my early walk to the college this morning was marked by unusual silence and solitude.

"The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us," says Thoreau. Amid the national and international hubbub and violence of recent months one latches onto faint light -- that eyelash thin slip of moon, that welcoming star -- that "morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn."

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Bush's America -- Part 2

Students at Florida Gulf State University have invited writer/naturalist Terry Tempest Williams to come to their campus and volunteered to pay for her visit, doing an end run around the university's president and Jeb Bush appointed trustees. For her part, Terry has expressed a willingness to speak with the students without fee.

You can read the little book that got Terry banned here.

Friday, October 08, 2004

The Closed Space of Bush's America

Terry Tempest Williams is one of America's most respected writers and a passionate advocate for the environment. I have met Ms. Williams, read her books and essays, and know her to be a thoughtful, caring citizen who wants only the best for her country.

Her latest book, The Open Space of Democracy, published by the Orion Society, is an invitation to engagement and dialogue, chosen by the faculty at Florida Gulf Coast University as required reading for all freshmen.

Williams has now been disinvited to speak at the state-funded university by the school's president and trustees, who fear political backlash at what they expect to be an anti-Bush message.

Here (from her book) is the message the freshmen will not be allowed to hear: "Question. Stand. Speak. Act. Make us uncomfortable. Make us think. Make us feel. Keep us free."

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Evolution and morality

House majority leader Tom DeLay is fond of suggesting that the teaching of evolution in the public schools is a root cause of a supposed decline in American morality.

Within the last week, DeLay has been twice admonished by the House ethics committee.

In my experience, Darwin-bashing Christians are no more ethical in their daily lives than atheists, agnostics, evolutionist Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or Moslems. Like other sanctimonious moralists before him -- William Bennett, Rush Limbaugh, Jim Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart come to mind -- DeLay has now been revealed as a less than perfect role model.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Bag it

John Kerry has been hammering Bush on science policy. He takes his cue from a recent statement of the Union of Concerned Scientists that says in part: "When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions."

This theme is reiterated in an editorial by David Baltimore, president of Cal Tech, in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this nation's premier scientific organization.

AIDS prevention, climate change, and stem cell research are areas of public policy where the Bush administration has purportedly let politics override scientific research.

For example, stopping the catastrophic spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa and Asia should be a high American priority. Abstinence and fidelity surely help, but the ready availability and use of condoms is acknowledged by all relevant international agencies to be the only safe and effective remedy -- a course of action which the present administration has been slow to support, presumably in deference to the religious right.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Dowsing -- Part 2

Here is a comment on an early post that visitors to our site would almost certainly overlook.

My Irish friend resisted my exhortations to get on with our dowsing test, which would have been carefully controlled for telepathic communication. "Next summer," he says, pleading a lack of time. We both look forward to the test in a spirit of fun. I'll let you know the outcome, if and when it happens.

Meanwhile, if Fred or anyone else can direct me to a double-blind experiment that confirms the effectiveness of dowsing, I would be grateful. Certainly, no such evidence was offered in Gribbin's article.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Midnight mushrumps -- Part 4

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Trick or treat -- Part 3

Fungi are heterotrophs, which means they require for their nourishment organic compounds synthesized by green plants. Most fungi are saprobes; they feed on dead organic matter, autumn's refuse, and cause its decay. Some fungi, like the amanitas, are parasitical; they take nutrients from a living host.

They are more than nature's recyclers. They are cloaked in myth and magic, icons of our own mortality. "Here is beauty from decay," wrote the naturalist Edwin Way Teale, "a frail and insubstantial form of life, a kind of botanical ectoplasm."

Friday, October 01, 2004

Trick or treat -- Part 2

A cool wet summer prepared the earth. Autumn rains tease them out of the ground. Ghosts, wraiths, imps and specters: They appear at night as if evoked by incantations. Midnight mushrumps.

Death cap. Destroying angel. Their names betray our distrust. Something deep in our folk consciousness turns away in revulsion. As we turn away from snakes.

Why the poison? Are they afraid of us too? Of animals, I mean. Afraid we will gobble them up before they have a chance to spread their spores?