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?