Tuesday, May 31, 2005

For she was the maker of the song she sang

Yesterday's post might seem to be an affirmation of scientism, the belief that the only things that matter are objective and external.

I do assert that science is the best and perhaps only engine of progress -- material, medical, technological, cosmological -- and the only source of reliable knowledge about the world that transcends accidents of birth and upbringing. But I emphatically believe that subjective and internalized reality is where a life is lived.

Among the posthumously published aphorisms of the poet Wallace Stevens is this:

"We never arrive intellectually. But emotionally we arrive constantly (as in poetry, happiness, high mountains, vistas)."

And again he wrote:

"The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us."

But if we are going to internalize a world, let it be insofar as possible real, and not a tissue of dreams or wishful thinking.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Is science a religion?

It has become fashionable in recent times to say that science is religion under another guise. The Czech poet, playwright and statesman Vaclav Havel, for example, famously said of science that "it kills God and takes his place on the vacant throne...as [the] sole legitimate arbiter of all relevant truth." Religious fundamentalists, too, accuse scientists of embracing theories, such as "Darwinism," on faith, not evidence. Certain postmodern academic critics assert that science is just one more way of organizing knowledge of the world, no better or worse than any other; hold fast to your traditional knowledge, these critics advise indigenous peoples, don't be duped by the snake oil of modern science. Curiously, the intellectual left and the religious right agree: Science has made of itself a new dogma, and scientists are the high priests who dispense these presumed "truths" to the masses.

True as charged? Certainly science, like religion, is based on unproved articles of faith:

---There is a world that exists independently of our own minds.

---Things in that external world happen according to natural laws, not whimsically or miraculously.

---Nature's laws can be known with an ever greater degree of confidence.

That's it. That's the extent of the "faith" of science. No one can prove these articles of faith. Our conviction of their truth is supported only by the manifest success of science as a way of acquiring reliable knowledge. Every other avenue to truth -- myth, magic, tradition, revelation -- is static. Only science is open-ended; only science is an engine of change.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Walking zero

The photo at right is of England's rolling South Downs, a few steps outside of the built-up town of Peacehaven on the English Channel. And open for walking! English respect for their near countryside is the subject of this week's Musing.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

If the shoe fits

Lady's slipper. Moccasin flower. Squirrel shoes. The scientific name is Cypripedium, which is Greek for "slipper of Venus." Doesn't look much like a shoe to me, but the pink lady's slipper is certainly the most spectacular wildflower of New England, and this is its season.

The blossom fairly forces cross-pollination: that is, pollination by a plant other than itself, which may yield hardier stock. There are two ways for an insect to enter the flower: through the long, inward-curving slit at the front of the big, pink sac, or through two little holes at the top of the sac that are hidden by petals. Attracted by color or scent, the insect invariably enters at the front, and soon discovers it has passed through a one-way door into a voluminous chamber, lush with nectar but with no obvious exit.

If the insect persists in its explorations, it will find its way toward the two escape holes at the top of the sac. Forcing its way upward through a narrow passage toward freedom, the insect must first encounter the female part of the plant, the stigma, which is equipped with tiny bristles, like a lint-brush. The brush removes from the body of the insect whatever pollen it has carried from another lady's slipper.

But escape is not yet complete. The insect struggles on toward one of the small round exits, where a male part of the plant, an anther, almost blocks its way. Forcing passage, the insect becomes covered with pollen. Free at last, it is ready to pollinate whatever plant it visits next, although one wonders why, after so much trouble, it has not learned to leave well enough alone.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Ice and fairies

Thirty-three years ago when we first lived in the west of Ireland I was explaining to a neighbor, a country woman, how the glaciers had carved the bowl-shaped valley on the nearby mountain. Later, she asked me if we weren't frightened to stay at night on "the fairies' road" (ours was the only house up there on the hill).

I pooh-poohed the possibility of fairies.

She retorted: "'Tis easier to believe in fairies under the hill than ice on top."

And, of course, she was right.

Which has relevance to the current brouhaha over evolution vs. intelligent design. Intelligence design is the explanatory equivalent of "the fairies did it." If nothing else, it's easy.

Science takes work. Intelligent design takes no work at all. Which may help account for its popularity.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

A brief commercial

My Ireland/GB publisher (a small, quality house) could use an encouraging bump in sales as they pursue foreign editions of Valentine (so far the ever-faithful French are aboard). If you are looking for a rip-roaring summer read on themes of interest to this site, the book is readily available from AmazonUK.

Defining moments

At my son's house recently I walked into the kitchen to find my daughter-in-law P. concluding a cell-phone call from my 12-year-old granddaughter. "I didn't know she was away," I said. "She's downstairs in the TV room," said P.

Yesterday I was talking on the phone to my daughter Mo about our forthcoming eclipse trip." "I just e-mailed the itinerary to V.," said Mo. V. is her 14-year-old-daughter, my grandchild. "Oh, where is she?" I asked. "In her room upstairs," said Mo.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Cell wars

Geoff and Anonymous remind us of the commonwealth of cells -- soma and commensal -- that make up our bodies. Let's not forget how valiantly the commonwealth defends itself against interlopers, viruses and microbes capable of causing disease or death.

The body's first line of defense is the outer walls and moats: the skin, with its formidable barrier of keratin, and the mucus membranes. Other exterior membranes are flushed with fluids: saliva, tears, and nasal secretions. The skin and the lower intestinal tract harbor populations of bacteria that do battle for the body the way pacified tribes on the marches fought for the Roman Empire.

Once an enemy has penetrated the outer barriers, more sophisticated defense systems swing into action. The presence of an alien microorganism triggers chemical alarms that cause white blood cells to move to the site of the intrusion. The white blood cells do their best to engulf the enemy the way an amoeba engulfs its prey.

If the foe is a virus, the infected cells of the body release small proteins called interferon, like cries of warning. Interferon rouses surrounding cells and stimulates their resistance to infection by the virus.

Most effective of the body's defenses are the lymphocytes, the agents of the immune response, small, round, non-dividing cells that are always on the alert. At any time there are as many as 2 trillion lymphocytes patrolling the human body. The huge number is crucial: Lymphocytes are very specific about what intruders they can recognize. Each lymphocyte is trained by evolution to respond to a particular alien.

Recognition of a foreign body causes lymphocytes to become active and start dividing. The offspring cells produce huge numbers of antibodies. The antibodies go to work attacking the invader.

The commonwealth which is a human self is protected by a stupendous array of walls, moats, traps, triggers and chemical alarms. Some of the body's cells act as patrols, sentries, infantry, and artillery to defend the integrity of the larger society. And all of this goes on without our awareness -- until something goes wrong.

And now, having used all of these military images, I am a little abashed. If there is a lesson to be learned from the defense system of the human body, it is that life is characterized mainly by cooperation. The great thrust of evolution has always been toward "getting along." A society of cells as complex as the human body could not exist for even a minute unless the common good took precedence over individual concerns.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The greatest miracle is as close as my next breath

Oscar Wilde said, "The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." The smallest insect is more worthy of our astonishment than a thousand choirs of angels. The buzzing business of a single cell is more infused with eternity than any disembodied soul.

Even as I write, a flurry of activity is going on in every cell of my body. Tiny protein-based "motors" crawl along the strands of DNA, transcribing the code into single-strand RNA molecules, which in turn provide the templates for building the many proteins that are my body's warp and weft. Other proteins help pack DNA neatly into the nuclei of cells and maintain the tidy chromosome structures. Still other protein-based "motors" are busily at work untying knots that form in DNA as it is unpacked in the nucleus of a cell and copied during cell division. Others are in charge of quality control, checking for accuracy and repairing errors. Working, spinning, ceaselessly weaving, winding, unwinding, patching, repairing -- each cell like a bustling factory of a thousand workers. A trillion cells in my body humming with the business of life.

What a thing it is to think of ourselves as manifestations of this molecular machinery, ceaselessly animating the world with sensation, emotion, intelligence. To say that it is all chemistry doesn't demean the dignity of life; rather, it suggests that the fabric of the world is charged with potentialities of a most spectacular sort. Forget all that other stuff -- the angels, the auras, the disembodied souls. Embodied soul is what really matters.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Skepticism and true belief

Many years ago, back in the "anything goes" 60s, I was co-teaching a seminar with a professor from the English department. One day he brought in a collection of scholarly articles: as I recall, about a dozen from science journals, and an equal number from philosophy and theology journals. He doled them out and asked us to count qualified statements -- the ifs, buts and maybes.

The results were enlightening. The science articles contained far more qualified statements than the philosophy and theology journals, turing upside down the preconceptions of many of our students.

Along that line, here are some quotes from a one-page article in the May 6, 2005 issue of Nature, entitled "Changes in the Sun May Sway the Tropical Monsoon." Note the "may" in the title.

"'[The latest evidence] is kind of selling me on [a sun-climate link],' says longtime doubter Gerald North of Texas A&M University."

"That's a strong contention in a field littered with debunked claims and disappearing correlations..."

"'This is probably the best monsoon record I've seen,' adds paleoclimatologist Dominik Fleitmann of Stanford University. 'Even better than ours."

"'In sun-climate, 'just when you think you're making progress on one front, something on another front falls apart,' says solar physicist Judith Lean...Now Lean questions her [own] brightness estimates."

And so on. The great strength of science is organized doubt and the willingness to shed firmly held beliefs when the evidence requires it, something you do not find in the annals of true belief.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Tyger, tyger...

It has been almost half-a-century since the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow created a stir among educators with his idea of the "two cultures." According to Snow, "scientific culture" and "literary culture" have become separated by a gulf of mutual incomprehension, often marked by hostility and dislike. Scientists have nothing to say to those who practice or study the arts -- and vice versa. Each "culture" has its own language and agenda, said Snow. Each is impoverished by ignorance of the other.

Not much has changed since Snow's challenge. This week's Musing explores the chasm.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The art of physics

I'm well out of teaching now, but I still walk in to the college each day, where I have been kindly provided with a space for pursuing genteel retirement. And I watch with detached delight the debates about a subject that has been on the agenda since I started teaching 43 years ago: What should be the science component of general education?

Some of our faculty think general education should consist of an introductory course of physics, chemistry or biology, pretty much the same thing science majors take, but perhaps less rigorous. Others opt for something that won't put students to sleep or turn them off science forever, and so offer courses called, for example, "The Chemistry of Art."

I have a colleague who says the course should not be "The Chemistry of Art," but rather "The Art of Chemistry," and that's pretty much what I tried to do during my many years of teaching general studies. My goal was not to convey the content of physics, but the essence of physics itself.

For example, a splendid introduction to the physicist's way of knowing is Aristarchus's On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon, a book that's more than 2000 years old but a perfectly brilliant example of what physics is all about: With a few simple observations and some elegant mathematics (which any high-school student could do today), Aristarchus deduces, yes, the sizes and distances of the Sun and Moon, and suddenly the universe becomes very much larger than what people had previously supposed.

Or stand with the old, nearly blind Galileo and watch him roll a ball down an inclined plane, timing its passage with a water clock. The distance the ball traverses is proportional to the square of the time! In this simple experiment is revealed the very thing that makes physics possible: the mysterious consilience of mind and nature through mathematics.

One can go on, right up to the most recent issues of Physical Review, but you get the idea: Not physics, not the physics of art, but the art of physics.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Beginnings wear their endings like dark shadows

Yes, I love that flash of flame in the foliage which is the first oriole of the season. But what I really miss this time of year is the call of the meadowlark from the newly green fields along the path. That call once defined spring hereabouts, now sadly gone.

I can whistle it, but how to describe it, those sweet, sad notes with the downward slur? A dive from a springboard into icy water? No, not quite right. I go to my bird books. The Golden Field Guide provides a "sonogram" of frequency vs. time. The song, I see, is about two seconds long and ranges from three to four octaves above middle C. That doesn't help at all. Peterson's guide is a little better: "Two clear, slurred whistles, musical and pulled out." Tee-yah, tee-yair, tries Peterson, striving for objectivity, and that gets us close to the sound, but not to the strange, melancholy music.

As usual, one has to go back to the older manuals for something closer to reality. Chapman's classic Handbook of the Birds, published in 1895, catches a bit of it: "The meadowlark's song is a clear, plaintive whistle of unusual sweetness." Ah, that's better -- the sweet and the sad. But in this matter, as in all things birdsong, F. Schuyler Mathews' nearly century-old Field Guide of Wild Birds and Their Music does it best. The song, says Mathews, is "unquestionably pathetic, if not mournful." With characteristic extravagance, he transcribes the meadowlark's call as the first two bars of Alfredo's song in La Traviata, but sung the way Violetta sings it when she discovers that she must give up Alfredo.

The sweet and the sad. Every beginning -- a season, a life, a love affair, a universe -- anticipates an ending.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

In praise of the useless

Baltimore orioles are back along the path, which slowed my walk to work this morning by half-an-hour or so. Birdwatching is a wonderful activity, not because it has any practical value, but precisely because it is so totally "useless." In a world that sometimes seems preoccupied with greed, birds range blessedly beyond the laws of economics.

As far as I know, there is only one place on earth where birds are used as money. On Santa Cruz Island in the South Pacific, the tiny scarlet-colored honeyeater is hunted for its feathers, which are woven into a rolled wampum-like currency.

John James Audubon was himself -- until his fame was established -- the economic victim of his passion for birds. In 1807 he opened a store in Louisville with his partner Ferdinand Rozier. The venture was not a success. Wrote Audubon later: "[The store] went on prosperously when I attended to it; but birds were birds then as now, and my thoughts were ever and anon turning toward them as the objects of my greatest delight." Rather than attending to business, Audubon ranged the woods with his sketchbook and ornithological journal, leaving poor Rozier to mind the store. Rozier intended to grow rich, wrote Audubon, "and what more could he wish for?"

In the end, in spite of himself, Audubon became reasonably prosperous. He lived out his last years comfortably in a fine big house on the Hudson River in what is now the Washington Heights section of New York City, still minding, no doubt, the orioles.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Not words, but attention

Science Musings on the web is approaching its first anniversary. Let me take a moment to offer a concise statement of what the site stands for:

1. Science is a way of knowing -- invented in Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE, cultured in the Arabic schools of medieval Baghdad and Grenada, and perfected in the European Renaissance and Enlightenment -- that provides reliable public knowledge of the world. At the heart of the scientific way of knowing is organized skepticism that transcends religion, politics, ethnicity, or nationality. Scientific knowledge is partial, tentative, and evolving, but it has become the irreversible basis for our health, wealth and secular freedoms, and therefore a proud achievement of humankind.

2. Reliable public knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition for our collective happiness. We are by nature esthetic and religious creatures, enchanted by mystery, drawn to celebration of the ineffable through art, music, poetry, dance. We are also by nature clannish and prone to intolerance or violence against "the other," and must work constantly to express a culturally mandated universal altruism, not only to other humans but to other creatures. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from modern science is that we are all related by common descent. No one of us or group of us has a lock on truth; no one of us or group of us is favored by God or the gods.

3. In the current issue of Poetry magazine there is a contribution by Mary Oliver titled "The Real Prayers Are Not the Words, But the Attention that Comes First." Science Musings celebrates attention as the highest form of prayer.

PS: I don't often respond to comments to these posts, but they are much appreciated. Many thanks especially to those folks whom I have never met -- Kara, Steve, Barry, Geoff, Tom, Dave and all the others who never fail to offer interesting and provocative observations.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Faith-based reality

The circus down in Kansas continues. The antievolutionists now want to change the definition of science on offer to school children. At present science is defined in the Kansas curriculum as "seeking natural explanations for what we observe around us." Christian fundamentalists want to replace this with "continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena."

What's wrong with this? Nothing, on the face of it. But notice the new definition omits the one word that is utterly fundamental to science and utterly anathema to the fundamentalists.

How about "continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate natural explanations of natural phenomena?"

Michael Behe and his ilk say: "The cell is too complicated to have a natural cause, therefore the cause must be supernatural." So now incredulity constitutes scientific proof? By this standard, we would have learned nothing over the centuries. "I don't understand comets, therefore they must be signs from God." "I don't understand why thousands of people get sick and die at the same time, therefore God must be punishing us."

Thank goodness for the curious thinkers who pushed beyond ignorance and discovered the laws of celestial mechanics and the biological causes of disease.

The origin of the universe, the origin of life, the details of cellular evolution: Yes, they still await fully adequate natural explanations. Maybe we will find such explanations, maybe not. But to throw up our hands and say "God did it" is not science. Leave the supernatural in the churches where it belongs.

The school board in Kansas can't change what scientists do. They can only turn Kansas school children into unquestioning citizens of their much sought for theocratic Christian America, in the same fashion as the Holy Book schools of radical Islam seek to buttress theocratic governments. And that, my friends, is the real agenda.

Monday, May 16, 2005

What is love?

Our campus is home to several red-tailed hawks, magnificent birds that show no fear of humans. I have watched one of the birds devour a squirrel or a rabbit from only a dozen feet away.

Here are Audubon's Red-tailed hawks, male and female, caught in midair, the male's wings swept back, his talons tearing at the female, seeking to snatch from her the frightened hare in her claws. The painting was done in Louisiana in 1821, not long after Audubon witnessed the airborne battle.

It was Audubon's genius that he was able to combine lively storytelling with accurate scientific description. He refused to prettify nature or soften its apparent cruelty. The hare in the female's talons can almost be seen to shiver and whimper with fright. Its belly is streaked with blood and urine.

As I watch our campus hawks -- their magnificient aliveness -- I think of lines from Robert Penn Warren's poem, Audubon: A Vision:

He slew them, at surprising distances, with his gun.
Over a body held in his hand, his head was bowed low,
But not in grief.

He put them where they are, and there we see them:
In our imagination.

What is love?

One name for it is knowledge.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Beauty and terror

The great Jesuit scientist/mystic Teilhard de Chardin wrote: "It is a terrifying thing to have been born: I mean, to find oneself, without having willed it, swept irrevocably along on a torrent of fearful energy."

Throughout his life, Teilhard sought to turn the terror into an overwhelming joy. He died in 1955, in exile, with much of his life's work officially censored by the Church to which he had dedicated his life. Near the end, he wrote: "How is it possible that I am so incapable of passing on to others...the vision of the marvelous unity in which I find myself immersed?"

The vision endures. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The view from Alpha Centauri

Here's an illustration I made for an early book, now out of print.

I have placed an ET at the mouth of a cave on a planet of a star in the system Alpha Centauri. Let us imagine that evolution on this Centaurian planet has brought my ET to the threshold of intelligence and wonder -- to the point, say, our human ancestors were at 100,000 years ago. Both Centaurian suns have set, the yellow sun and the orange sun. The Milky Way sweeps across the sky like a sash of feeble light. The W-shaped group of five stars known on Earth as Cassiopeia blaze at lower right. At upper left is the dazzling yellow star Earthlings call Capella. Between Cassiopeia and Capella, almost centered in the view from the mouth of the cave, is another yellow star, almost a twin of Capella. It is a star that has never been seen in the nighttime sky of Earth, just one of the hundreds of billions of stars in our spiral galaxy, floating serenely in the stream of the Milky Way. It is, of course, our Sun.

As ET contemplates the immensity of the night, perhaps it wonders if it alone endows the universe with consciousness and life.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Face it

Someone who knows my age (68) sent me this URL. (Click on "Launch," then "Skincare," then "See for yourself," then the Forward button.)

Talk about seeing your life pass before your eyes! Now what am I supposed to do? Soak my head in L'Oreal products?

Hey, life is ephemeral. An adult mayfly lives for minutes or hours: flit, procreate, and die.

Only turtles live longer than humans. We can outlive two (successive) hippopotamuses, three cats, four dogs, or seven aardvarks. Hippos and aardvarks seldom complete their allotted span; most often, they are struck down in the prime of life by predators or disease. Death from old age is an almost uniquely human privilege, shared with our pampered pets.

Even for us, the expectation of a healthy 68 is relatively new. Ninety years ago, only one American in two reached age 60. Today, nine out of ten of us survive for at least six decades. Flit, procreate, and flit, flit, flit.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Facing backwards

One of the most provocative books I've read in recent years on the cultural conflicts of our time is Meera Nanda's Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India. Nanda argues that radical critiques of modern science are enabling Hindu reactionary ideologues to propagate religious myths in the guise of science and secularism.

Her shrewd analysis does not apply only to India. Virtually everything she says has direct application to America.

Perhaps surprisingly for an Easterner, Nanda champions the European Enlightenment, with its secular-scientific challenge to all inherited dogmas backed by political power. The ideals of the Enlightenment undermine all legitimations of monarchy, class supremacy, slavery, women's subordination, and church authority, she says, replacing them with reliable transcultural knowledge, universal equality, and a sense of the sacred that does not offend reason.

The distinguishing feature of modern science is that it has learned to take refutations seriously, she says. Paradigms change and old theories are abandoned, however reluctantly, when confronted with new evidence or more consilient explanations.

At a time when the world is violently beset by religious triumphalism, Nanda's concluding words are more pertinent than ever: "Modern science combines in it the power of disenchantment and universalism. It is time it was recognized, once again, as an ally of social justice, peace, and advancement all around the world."

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Mix and match

Chimeras have replaced clones as the most contentious topic in bioethics.

A chimera is an animal with its own cells and cells of another animal (often a different species) in its body.

Cardiac surgery patients who have received pig valves to repair their hearts are chimeras. Scientists at the University of California at Davis fused sheep and goat embryos to make a "geep." Human brain cells have been implanted in mice.

These mixed up species are called chimeras after a female creature in Greek mythology who possessed the body of a goat, the head of a lion, and the tail of a snake. Think also of the Sphinx (lion and human), Pegasus (horse and bird), centaurs (horse and human), Capricornus (goat and fish), and angels (humans and birds). Ancient cultures were rife with imaginary biological amalgams.

The struggle of humanlike gods against monsters was an important theme in ancient religions. The struggle was that of light against darkness, order against chaos, good against evil. It was out of this struggle that the universe was born.

The mixed-up monsters of yesteryear were vanquished by the gods, but it is always possible, according to those ancient faiths, that if the pressure of order and goodness is relaxed, even for a moment, the universe might slip back into chaos.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A living fossil

A dead possum in the street in front of the house this morning.

Possums reached Massachusetts in the mid-60s, from their more southerly habitats. The construction of Interstate 95 may have helped their migration north, providing a nice runway of ditches and culverts. I wonder how they got across the Hudson?

With the scruffy look of a Bowery bum and a reputation for stupidity, the possum is nevertheless resourceful. The first possums, after all, shared the Earth with dinosaurs.

When volcanic action at Panama connected North and South America about 3 million years ago, the possum was one of the few southern animals to successfully make the journey north, and the only marsupial to survive on the new continent. In general, the southern marsupials didn't fare well against northern placentals.

But the plucky possum adapted to changing environments and climates. It outsmarted placental mammals, including humans and their dogs. We mostly see possums today dead in the road, but they will likely outlast the automobile as well.

Monday, May 09, 2005

p's in a Pod

A year or so ago I sent an e-mail to Apple's Steve Jobs. I gave him an idea for his next killer product. Great guy that I am, I gave it to him free.

What does every woman carry in her purse? I asked. What does every man have a few of in his wallet? Family snaps.

So what is required is the iPhoto equivalent of iPod for iTunes. A 3x5 screen, one-eighth of an inch thick, flash memory. Dump your pics into it the same way you dump tunes into your iPod. The pPod, I called it.

We could use a credit-card-sized pPod-mini, too, cardboard thin and flexible, but that may require a few technology breakthroughs.

Well, did Jobs listen to me? Ha! I didn't even get a response, much less a thank you. Yeah, he came out with the iPod Photo. Big deal. Who wants to look at photos on that tiny screen. Or carry that fat thing around in purse or pocket.

Well, maybe he's still working on it. Remember, you saw it first here.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Birth order and personality

In the 19th century, you were more likely to oppose the new theory of evolution if you were a first born child (Lyell, Agassiz, Cuvier, etc.), and more likely to support the theory if you were later born (Darwin, Wallace, Lamarck, etc.). At least that is historian of science Frank Sulloway's conclusion in his book, Born To Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives -- the (whimsical) subject of this week's Musing.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Thy shalt not think

Meanwhile, in Kansas, the dumbing down of American science education proceeds posthaste. I grew up near Dayton, Tennessee, the venue for the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Things are pretty much the same down there, except more so. A literalist church on every corner. Bible bookstores in every mall. Piles of the infamous Left Behind series of novels in every mart. When I was growing up, we saw little makeshift signs tacked to trees along the highways that said "Jesus is coming soon." Those signs are now replaced by huge glossy billboards.

Here's an editorial cartoon from the first go-around in 1925. That's innocent little Kansas at the lower right.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Tongues in trees

Wood anemones along the wooded path.

One of the first popular nature guides was Mrs. William Starr Dana's How To Know the Wild Flowers, published just before the end of the 19th century, and now back in print. Here is what Mrs. Dana has to say about the anemone:

The name means "windshaken." She quotes a snippet of William Cullen Bryant: "Within the woods, whose young and half transparent leaves scarce cast a shade, gay circles of anemones danced on their stalks." A dollop of Whittier, too. And then some lore from ancient Greece: the flowers sprang from the tears shed by Venus over the body of her slain lover Adonis.

You don't get this sort of thing in modern field guides. Mrs. Dana's delightful book reminds us (with Shakespeare) that it's possible to find "tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything."

Thursday, May 05, 2005


Several people have called my attention to a story in the April 29 Wall Street Journal called "Evolutionary Psych May Not Help Explain Our Behavior After All," about a new book by philosopher David Buller. Apparently, Buller thinks much of evolutionary psychology rests on flawed data.

I haven't read the book yet, but a few observations:

1. It would appear that Buller is not out to debunk evolutionary psychology, but to sharpen its focus and curb its excesses. His book is published by MIT Press. Not much comfort for those looking for a ghost in the machine.

2. I don't know of any evolutionary psychologist who believes we are prisoners of our DNA. Our big brains and culture trump genes.

3. For example, conventional evopsych wisdom says that men are hardwired to prefer young nubile women and women are hardwired to prefer successful older men. According to the WSJ article, Buller marshals contrary data. Well, yes, if you look at personals in the newspapers, most older men are looking for someone of (nearly) their own age and interests. That's intelligence and culture. But I would guess older men more likely fantasize about nubile younger women than women their own age. That, presumably, is genes.

4. One doesn't have to watch television very long to reasonably guess that the male chromosome inclines men towards weapons and violence...

5. ...or that something in our genes is at the root of religious experience.

6. Some innate human behaviors are obvious: to suckle, to smile. It is still controversial to what extent complex social behaviors are innate, but it would be truly astonishing if we were the only animal to escape the shaping influence of natural selection.

7. Genes may predispose us to act in certain ways, but they excuse nothing.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Mirror, mirror...

A week or so ago, I posted here some of my ambigrams, including a "through the looking glass" inversion of the name "Lewis Carroll." I did not consider my Carroll inversion successful, and invited readers to do better.

Well, the inimitable and always ingenious Douglas Hofstadter has responded to the challenge. His ambigram is a right-left reflection, which accurately represents Alice's journey, and also takes advantage of the central symmetry of both "Lewis" and "Carroll."

Most readers will know Hofstadter from his hugely popular Godel, Escher, Bach. My favorite of his books is Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language.
Thanks, Doug.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A Tiger in the tank

OK, I guess I'll have to spring for Tiger, Mac's new operating system. From what I read in the reviews, it's miles ahead of the competition.

In fact, Apple has always been miles ahead of the competition. It was Apple that made computers user friendly -- point and click, windows, menus, icons, setback keyboards, touch pads, the whole shebang. Apple didn't necessarily invent these things, but they were the first to put them in our hands. Almost every element of personal computing, hard and soft, was pioneered by Apple.

By rights, Apple should be running the world right now, not the other guys.

But who said the world was just? The reason Apple was trumped by Microsoft is the same reason we diehard Apple fans are diehard Apple fans. We don't have much of a head for business. Rather, we admire technical cleverness and beautiful design. We are artists, writers, musicians, or plain old computer geeks who know class when we see it.

And we rather like being in the minority. It flatters our sense of smug superiority. Tiger -- grrr --bring it on.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The littlest human?

The "hobbit," Homo floresiensis, had a segment on 60 Minutes last evening. Much ballyhooed, she was, as a second species of human who lived only 13,000 years ago on the Indonesian island of Flores.

Well, it may be too early to confirm a new human species on the evidence of a single skeleton, just as it may be too early to say that the ivory-billed woodpecker is safely back from supposed extinction. But if there was one "hobbit" specimen, there are bound to be more. Let's wait and see.

What was most interesting about the CBS story was interviews with islanders who recounted tales of hairy little people who live in the mountain forests. Might Homo floresiensis still be with us, skulking in the woods up there on the flanks of the Flores volcano? Not likely. Many country people around the world have stories of wee folk who live at the edges of society.

But what a thing it would be if a remnant population of "hobbits" were discovered. It would certainly shake up notions of our own unique humanity, especially for the nearly half of Americans who explain the world with a neolithic creation myth. We are presumably less likely to wreak violence on "the other" today than in former times, but we might well kill them off with attention.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Where the bee sucks

At least once each year I fly back and forth to Ireland on Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline. Woven into the upholstry of the seats are lines from famous Irish writers, including this fragment from the poet Ulick O'Connor: "The way bees on a drowsy day suck honey from fuchsia."

The poem is The Kiss, and recounts how "her lips on mine traced a design to show the way bees on a drowsy day. . ." Some kiss.

Whenever I find myself drifting into the kind of dreamy reverie that comes from reading poetic phrases on the backs of airplane seats, I remind myself that beauty and meaning are found at every scale of creation -- at the scale of centimeters (bees, flowers, lips), yes, but also at the scales of microns and light-years.

The poet explains the unfamiliar (the thrill of that special kiss) in terms of the familiar (bees sucking honey from fuchsia). The scientist explains the familiar (the bee, the honey) in terms of the unfamiliar (aerodynamic lift, arthropodal metabolism, chemistry, genes). Both poetry and science explore the mystery of the world.

And both are enriched by metaphor, the subject of this week's Musing.