Thursday, September 30, 2004

Trick or treat

Here they come, lifting their noggins into the air, the Amanita mushrooms, beautiful, poisonous, eager to spread their gaudy caps and shower their spores on a wayward wind. Death caps, they are called.

But they are not all bad, in spite of their Halloween garb. The mushrooms we see are the fruiting bodies of the fungus that grows underground, wrapping its fibers around the roots of trees. The fungus gives the tree nutrients from the soil that it couldn't get by itself, and in turn takes sustenance from the tree's roots. A mutually happy relationship.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004


Something is stirring again beneath Mount St. Helens. Take a peek in on the mountain with the Live VolcanoCam. If you can still see it, I expect that's a good sign...

Ignorance and bliss

In my blog yesterday I said: "No one yet knows how proteins compel and instruct the spider to spin its web."

If I were a well-known biologist -- a Stephen Jay Gould, for example, or a Richard Lewontin -- the anti-evolutionist crowd would yank that comment out of context and use it to suggest that naturalistic science can't explain the spider's web, therefore "creationism" or "intelligent design" should be taught in science classes as a viable alternative.

But to say "God did it" is a cop out. An honest "I don't know" does not mean "we'll never know." With "God did it," thinking stops.

It may well be that evolutionary theory as it is currently understood will need to be supplemented or changed if we are to understand in all of its detail the origin of the spider's web, but whatever scientific explanation comes along, it will be naturalistic, falsifiable by reproducible experiment, and embraced by a consensus of working scientists...

...because that is by definition what we mean by "science."

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The power of the visible is the invisible

Tom's orb-weaving spider creates a structure of astonishing sophistication, Calatravan in its beauty and structural finesse. For a human engineer to build such a thing would require many years of training and a team of specialists.

Yet the spider is born knowing its craft. Those glorious orbs are encoded in its genes in the same "four-letter" chemical code that is the basis for all life on Earth.

Of course, the DNA doesn't whisper, "now do this, now do that." The DNA makes proteins. No one yet knows how proteins compel and instruct the spider to spin its web. We have learned the language of the genes. We know how genes make proteins. Now we must now learn how proteins make spiders that spin webs.

(And humans that spin blogs.)

Monday, September 27, 2004

Some pig!

The mantra in real estate is "location, location, location." The same holds true for the world of arachnids. This past week, a large orb weaver spider has taken up residence in a decidedly plum location -- the back corner of my house. In a breezeway between the house and the back garden, the spider has been constructing enormous and spectacular webs. By slinging strands from a down spout, a garbage can, and overhanging branches, she can snag any prey making its way around the back of the house.

Unfortunately, since my house is currently for sale, I've felt obligated to keep the exterior looking tidy. Sadly, this has meant destroying these giant webs, which has pained me. Each evening, however, she has constructed a new one to replace the web I callously disposed of the day before. It seems she knows the value of her prime location and is reluctant to move to a different and perhaps less productive neighborhood.

Today brings good news for the spider (and myself). We have found a buyer for the house. I can leave her alone now, and she can resume her web slinging in peace.

Some more superstitious than I will say that the dramatic appearance of the spider was a harbinger of good luck. If that is the case, I better not tell you about all the spiders I vacuumed up in the basement...

UPDATE: I did a little more research on my spider friend. She's an Araneus diadematus, or cross spider. According to my Audubon guide, cross spiders consume their webs and rebuild new ones each evening--so now I don't feel so bad about wrecking them.

Tired and expired

I glance through Wired magazine each month to see what's up in the world of cybertech. Tom tell me that anyone who is really wired is months ahead of the magazine.

It has a feature called Wired, Tired and Expired. For example, this month: World Cyber Games, X Games, Olympic Games; or Firefox, Mozilla, Explorer; or cellphone worm, IM worm, email worm; or "audacious," "amazing," "awesome."

I only recognize the first three "expired" terms. I'm OK with "amazing" because I caught it a previous time around, before "awesome."

That's why I need Tom. He's audacious.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Bottoms up

A drink a day keeps the doctor way, concludes a new study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Except maybe not. And how big is a drink?

The institute surveyed previous studies on health benefits and risks of alcohol consumption and concluded -- well, it all depends. Maybe moderate drinking lowers the risk of heart disease. Maybe it increases risk of liver disease or cancer. And no one agrees, apparently, about what is meant by "moderate."

So what am I to do? I read the report. I'm totally befuddled. I think I'll have a drink.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Morning star

As I step out of the house to collect the paper at 5 AM, Venus is blazing in the eastern predawn sky, hugely bright. All month it has been there, moving away from Saturn in Gemini, past the Beehive star cluster in Cancer, heading for a close rendevous with Regulus a week from now.

People all over the globe have known Venus as the Morning Star. They have also taken note of the Evening Star, in the west at sunset. I wonder who was the first to guess it was the same object, slipping back and forth in its two guises?

Mars roundup

The Mars Rovers, now well past their original 90 day missions, have been extended for another six months. Spirit and Opportunity have been hunkered down for the Martian winter, conserving power and biding their time until the sun starts to rise higher in the sky again. Hopefully, they will emerge from their hibernation and continue what has been an extraordinarily successful mission.

Earlier this year, PBS aired a special Nova broadcast which examined the Mars Expedition Rover missions along with the cadre of nerds and engineers who put it together. It was easily the best program I've seen on television in a while. Highly recommended. I ended up buying a copy on dvd I liked it so much.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency this week released some intriguing results from their Mars Express orbiter. It seems that the same places they are finding water vapor in the martian atmosphere are the same places they are finding methane. What does that mean? We don't know for sure yet. Methane in the atmosphere is either caused by some sort of active geothermal process, or life. For life to exist, it needs (we think) water. Hmmm...

Friday, September 24, 2004

The sweet glow of revenge

New imaging technologies make it possible to watch different parts of the brain activate as a subject thinks about -- oh, say, the war in Iraq or Cameron Diaz.

A recent paper in the journal Science describes experiments with subjects who administer punishment to "norm violators," that is, to other people who break the rules. Certain parts of the punisher's brain light up like a Christmas tree.

Apparently, it feels good in a deeply satisfying, hardwired way, to see someone punished for cutting in line or cheating at cards.

In a civilized society, we no longer whack unruly school children or stone adulterers, but we still have those parts of the brain that love to see the baddies get their just desserts.

Which may be why a wicked grin crossed my face today when on my early morning walk through quiet conservation land I passed a kid with a broken-down three-wheel all-terrain vehicle.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

"Passionate things endure"

I am working with four students this semester, writing about the natural world. For my part, I feel like I'm getting more than I'm giving.

Today we walked to the foundation of an 18th-century farmstead in a deeply wooded part of the campus. The path I cut to the site several years ago has become overgrown. The site itself -- the yard, the well, the stone-walled fields -- has long since reverted to wildness.

But not even wild nature can erase the evidence of human presence. Eudora Welty, in one of her affectionate essays about the Mississippi River Country, writes: "A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out." And later in the essay adds: "There is a sense of place there, to keep life from being extinguished, like a cup of the hands to hold a flame."

We sat in the sun-dappled woods where the house once stood and cupped the flame.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Wither shall I wander

Like most open spaces with lots of grass, our college campus is favored in migrating seasons by flocks of Canada geese.

To my eye all Canada geese look identical, down to the last feather, males and females too.

Yet they mate for life. It's fun to watch a happy couple meet after being apart and do their "Honey, I'm home" routine -- ahonk -- hink -- ahonk -- hink.

But if they all look exactly alike, how does a Canada goose recognize its spouse? Maybe they are monogamous because the grass always looks the same on the other side of the fence, so to speak -- the "no-temptation" theory of goose fidelity.

Or maybe relationships survive because the he-goose gets away with it. "Gosh, honey, I'm sorry. I thought she was you."

Faith and belief

A. makes a valuable distinction between faith and belief. The words are almost synonyms, but belief denotes something passive and secure -- "believers let other people do their thinking for them," says A., quoting (perhaps) Buckminster Fuller -- whereas faith suggests risk and daring, a leap into the unknown. Belief is dogmatic, intolerant, righteous. Faith is open and welcoming. I suggested something of this distinction in my book Skeptics and True Believers. I wish I had pursued it further.

A's "virtuous" memory is a pun on "virtual." I'm not quite sure what he/she meant, but I chuckled. Certainly, my memory selectively filters past virtues from foibles.

Monday, September 20, 2004

You eat what you are

We knew it was a dog eat dog world out there. But snake eat snake?

Here's a pic from a recent issue of the journal Science showing a king snake devouring a corn snake, a creature bigger than itself! You can watch this bizarre behavior (if you have the stomach for it) here. Click on Supplementary (video) material. The swallowing phase will take a few minutes to load, even with broadband.

I'm not sure what to make of this. It happens in the wild, but somehow watching it happen in a lab seems -- well, indecorous.

Site update

In the past few weeks, I've made a few tweaks to the ScienceMusings site.

I see that some of you are already using the blog's RSS feed. I've also added a feed for the weekly essays if you only want to read those and not all the blather over here on the blog ;-)

For those unfamiliar with RSS, it is a method for receiving frequently updated web content without necessarily using a web browser. RSS reader software will let you know when your favorite web sites have been updated and automatically download the latest content.

Also, if you're interested in a good web browser that supports RSS, you should try out Mozilla's FireFox. The sooner you stop using Internet Explorer the happier you will be.

I've also added an "Events" page to the site. Here Chet will list his upcoming speaking engagements and book signings. If you see something in your area, go check it out! If I may say so, Chet always puts on a good show.

I've made the Musings page more printer friendly. Many other sites do this by providing a separate printable page that doesn't have all the extraneous muck that web sites have, just the text. I've opted to use what I feel is a more elegant solution--a media-specific style sheet. Any webheads out there can read a good explanation of this technique at A List Apart. For everybody else, you don't need to click anything, just print it and all should be well.

Lastly, if any of you have any comments or suggestions relating to the design of this site, please let me know -- One thing I do have planned for the future is building a searchable archive of the Globe columns. Since that's twenty years worth of material, it may come slowly however.

Thanks to all our regular visitors! Keep the comments coming, we love 'em.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

The path to heaven...?

My Musing this week on science and faith is by way of response to comments on previous posts. I do not seek to proselytize. Every journey towards or away from faith is personal. I can only say where I have been and where I ended up -- and wish others happiness in their journeys.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Why we don't talk in binary

01010111 01101000 01101001 01110100 01100101 00100000 01010111 01101111 01101111 01100100 00100000 01000001 01110011 01110100 01100101 01110010

(white wood aster)

Friday, September 17, 2004


My walk to and from the college takes me through the community gardens of the Easton Natural Resources Trust. The gardens are burgeoning. Onions. Radishes. Lettuce. Tomatoes. Beans. Corn. And marigolds, of course, framing each plot.

The gardeners could buy their veggies at the store for less money than they spend on garden tools. But money's not the point. The gardeners are cultivating a love affair with seeds, sun, soil, and the sweet tactile sensation of snapping a homegrown sugar pea or holding a hefty tomato in the hand.



Thursday, September 16, 2004

The music of life...

As readers of The Path will know, until my retirement from teaching recently it was my privilege to walk back and forth each day from my home to my place of work, Stonehill College. The path traverses woods and fields, borders a water meadow, crosses a brook.

The college welcomes me in retirement, and I still do the walk each morning and evening.

Sadly, I am losing my hearing, entirely in one ear, a bit in the other, which means I hear less of life's music: the tip-tip of the nuthatch, the tunk-tunk of the downy woodpecker, the gurgle of the stream, the wind in the reeds, the chorusing of spring peepers.

As the sounds of nature fade, I am increasingly astonished at the number of walkers I meet along the path with earphones attached to electronic boxes of one sort or another.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

A conscious universe

Back to a heap of unread magazines that accumulated during the summer, including the current issue of Scientific American, which is dedicated to the legacy of Albert Einstein.

Einstein once said that "the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." And when you think about it, it is indeed remarkable that a mass of nerve fibers the size of a softball can comprehend the cosmos -- a myriad of galaxies with a 13 billion year history.

Of course, some softball-sized masses of nerve fibers are more remarkable than others, which is why we are remembering Einstein.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Tom says the universe is turtles all the way down.

For the past three months I have been working on this site from a village in the west of Ireland with a slow, slow, slow internet connection. I felt like I was about twenty turtles down in Tom's pile.

Back in US today with cable broadband -- and running again with the hares.

Turtles all the way down

My favorite explanation of the unknown is the oft-repeated anecdote from Stephen Hawking. A scientist giving a lecture on astronomy is challenged by an old lady. "The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise," she says.

The bemused scientist replies, "But what is the tortoise standing on?"

"You're very clever, young man, very clever,"
says the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down."

That's good enough for me.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Gardeners, chefs and theologians

My Science Musing this week is about our reluctance to say "I don't know."

The biologist Richard Dawkins once asked a distinguished astronomer to explain the big bang theory. "He did so to the best of his (and my) ability," writes Dawkins, "and I then asked what it was about the fundamental laws of physics that made the spontaneous origin of space and time possible.". "Ah," smiled the astronomer, "now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand you over to our good friend, the chaplain."

But why the chaplain? asks Dawkins. Why not the gardener or the chef?

Quite so. The gardener, chef, astronomer and chaplin are equally ignorant. The word "God" and the phrase "I don't know" have exactly the same explanatory content.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Hurricane Ivan

There was a time when people believed natural disasters were sent by God to punish malfeasance. Many folks still believe it. And here comes Ivan, wheeling towards Florida, the third hurricane in weeks to target that state.

Perhaps my old Florida-based nemesis, the antievolution tub-thumper Reverend Doctor Kent Hovind, can tell us what's up?

Once, after a Boston Globe column on evolution, I had a letter from Mister Hovind suggesting that I will burn eternally in hell for doing the devil's work. He was kind enough to include an entertaining video purporting to show there were dinosaurs on the ark.

Even as I write he may be holed up in the Pensacola headquarters of Creation Science Evangelism using biblical prophecies to track the storm. No need for the National Hurricane Center with its banks of computers and mathematical physics.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

The highest circle of spiraling powers

Steve comments on the structural similarity of hurricanes and galaxies.

Here is Ivan whirling towards Jamaica, and the face-on spiral galaxy NGC 1232 in the constellation Eridanus (I've flipped its direction of rotation).

The galaxy is roughly 3 quadrillion times larger than the hurricane (that's 3 with 15 zeros). It is 70 million light-years away. The similarity does indeed suggest a deep universality to the laws of nature.

(I'll let Tom google my title.)

Friday, September 10, 2004

Two bees or not two bees

The Irish don't use screens in their windows. No mosquitos here. Flies can be a nuisance, which is why we have imported that great American invention, the screen door.

But this time of the year, late summer, bees have a way of getting in. A open jam jar or sugar bowl brings them humming.

Bees use honey for fuel. I read somewhere recently that they can fly 40 miles without a refill, which means they get something like 10 million miles per gallon. Pretty good technology.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

The squirming coil

OK, Tom stumped me with the title of his latest post. I could guess that "melting wax and feathers brown" referred to Icarus, but...?

Anyway, it was easy to google, and you can too. Then you'll also know that my title refers to the Sun.

And speaking of that golden coil, how's this for squirming? The TRACE satellite has been making fabulous pictures of the Sun's surface since 1998. These powerful magnetic storms spew into space the particles the Genesis craft was trying to catch and return to Earth.

Make sure to click on link to larger pic.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Melting wax and feathers brown...

Gravity wins again. NASA's Genesis space probe returned to Earth after a three year journey in space collecting particles of solar wind. Unfortunately, the parachute did not open and Genesis impacted the Utah desert at considerable speed. Scientists were seeking to recover bits of the Sun captured by Genesis in order to learn more about the creation of the Solar System. Now the precious cargo of minute particles is perhaps hopelessly mixed up in the desert sand. It was an ambitious mission, the first sample return attempted since the Apollo flights 30 years ago. I hope NASA deems it worthwhile to take another crack at it.

The sky is falling!

The oldest rocks of the Dingle Peninsula are those of Clogher Head. Fossils trilobites are common in the nearby cliffs. Well, not so common that finding one isn't a thrill. Here's one from a recent walk.

Trilobites -- so called because their bodies have three lobes -- were fabulously successful marine animals for several hundred million years. Big ones, little ones, skinny ones, squat ones. Then about 250 million years ago they disappear from the rocks.

Very likely they were done in by the impact of a sizable asteroid, and not only trilobites became extinct. This little fellow lived in the trilobite heyday, oblivious of rogue rocks from space that make life on Earth a dicey thing.

Faith and begorra!

According to a new study at Trinity College Dublin, the Irish aren't Celts after all.

DNA analysis shows little connection with the people of central Europe who drifted westward during the Iron Age.

This will come as a surprise to the Irish, who have ballyhooed themselves as Celts. It also has relevance to my newest book, Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain, which has much to say about Celtic nature worship.

Fortunately, I stressed that Celtic spirituality in Ireland had its origin in ideas, not genes. The new data bolsters my idea of the ready assimilation of invasive cultures by the peoples of the Atlantic fringe.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Beautiful Frances -- Part 3

Meanwhile, Hurricane Frances leaves the battered Bahamas behind and heads for Florida.

We have no idea what happened on our little island in the central Bahamas. Telephone communications are out, and -- if past experience is a guide -- may stay out for days. Does the house have a roof? Is there sand on the beach? Is the car sitting in three feet of water?

Not so many years from now we will all be in cell phone communication with any place on Earth by satellite.

But not before Hurricane Ivan, churning along behind Frances, makes its way in our direction.

Left behind -- Part 2

Increasingly in the British and Irish press we have articles wondering if the US is going off the rails. They note the rash of best-selling books in America connecting world events -- the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American politics -- to supposed biblical prophecies.

According to a PBS poll, almost sixty percent of Americans accept the literal relevance of the Book of Revelations, and one in five believe the Rapture is imminent.

It's as if the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment never happened.

In yesterday's Irish Times there was an article titled: "In the US, evangelical Christians are stoking an obsession with the apocalypse -- but before the end of the world, George Bush wants their votes."

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Sardonyx, damson and smalt

Tom clues us into supposed differences in color perception between males and females.

As a lifelong sky watcher, I see stars as reddish, yellowish, whiteish or bluish, and that's about it.

The celebrated British observer William Henry Smyth professed to see stars the color of sardonyx, damson and smalt (you can look those up). He listed a dozen shades of white, including pearly, lucid, creamy, silvery, and just plain whitely white.

The Russian-German astronomer Wilhelm Struve invented a Latin classification system for star colors that would make a paint chip namer blush, including olivaceasubrubicunda for pinkish-olive.

Am I deficient in color perception -- or merely imagination?

Friday, September 03, 2004

Beautiful Frances -- Part 2

Frances churns up the Bahamas with its counterclockwise fury.

The early history of European exploration of the Caribbean is replete with fleets being taken by surprise, scattered, and destroyed by hurricanes that seemed to come out of nowhere. A storm in 1780 killed an estimated 22,000 people on Barbados. St. Vincent, St. Lucia, and Martinique. The winds were generally ascribed to the wrath of God.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the Enlightenment was underway, and God's wrath was being replaced by the laws of mathematical physics. We now understand the cause of tropical storms and their westward progress, model their evolution on computers, and follow their progress from eyes in space.

No one has reason to be surprised anymore, or wonder the source of divine disfavor.

Beautiful Frances

Long time readers of Science Musings will know that I spend part of each year in the Bahamas. And as I write, Hurricane Frances is giving our island a swipe.

The amazing thing is that I can sit here on a hill in Ireland and watch the whole thing unfold hour by hour on the screen of my computer.

My Bahamian friend who keeps an eye on the house is watching too, on television. "It's beautiful," he said to me on the phone, referring to the satellite image of the storm that was bearing down on him.

Yes, beautiful. "Beauty is the beginning of terror," wrote the young poet Rainer Maira Rilke. Amoral nature doesn't know the difference.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Quick bits...

A few items of interest...

A new study has suggested that women are genetically better equipped than men in distinguishing between colors. This would explain why the wife insists that the living room is painted "dune white" despite the fact that it looks yellow to me.

Folks are buzzing about a curious radio signal detected by the SETI@home project. SETI@home is the clever distributed computing project that is helping to process radio signals from space with the hopes of finding extraterrestrial life. It's of course highly unlikely that the signal is from an intelligent source. However, the SETI@home project is a very cool way for the average home computer user to contribute to real scientific work.

Speaking of signals from above, while walking at lunchtime yesterday I passed a woman in front of the Massachusetts statehouse. She was holding a sign that read "Stop abusing humanbeing from satellite" (sic). I'm with ya, ma'am!

Finally, reader Jason calls our attention to English bookmakers giving odds on scientific breakthroughs. If you want to bet on life on Titan, now's the time to call your bookie. Our best shot at finding out will be coming up in the next six months. NASA's Cassini will be doing its first close flyby of Titan in October and the Huygens probe will be detaching from Cassini and landing on Titan this coming January.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Left behind

"Nutty Irish ex-priest disrupts Olympics", screamed headlines here.

The Irish are embarrassed that it was one of their own who pushed the Brazilian runner out of the marathon. Pinned to the interloper's chest was a sign: "The second coming is near, says the Bible."

Equally nutty is the fabulous success of the apocalyptic "Left Behind" series of books in the US. Having read one of the books, I can attest that it is not literary merit that drives sales.

A bit of scientific skepticism would take note of the fact that the Bible has been "predicting" the end times are near for two thousand years.