Thursday, June 30, 2005

Somewhere Oprah the rainbow

I must live on a different planet than my fellow Americans.

In a poll to choose the Top Ten Americans who ever lived, millions of respondents put Ronald Reagan in first place. Ronald Reagan!

But then Oprah Winfrey and Elvis Presley made the list too. In fact, Oprah beat out Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who squeaked in at tenth. George W. Bush made the list, but not Thomas Jefferson, another sure sign of the dumbing down of America.

George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King were properly included. But no scientist, inventor, artist, writer, poet, or person noted for intellectual achievement. Yes, Ben Franklin made fifth place, but you can be sure it wasn't for of his important "Experiments and Observations on Electricity," which most Americans have never heard of.

By contrast, a similar Top Ten poll in Britain included the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and scientists Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. A French poll listed Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie, and Germans picked Albert Einstein and Johann Gutenberg.

On Monday I will reveal my choice for the greatest American scientist of all time. Can you guess who it will be? (We will generously allow Einstein to the Germans, although they didn't want him when they had him.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Go with the flow

Ventry Harbor is swimming with jellyfish.

And watch out as you walk the beach, where the tide has stranded hundreds of jellies. Mostly Aurelia aurita, the common jelly of Irish waters, but also flotillas of compass jellyfish, Chrysaora hysoscella, as big as dinner plates with their two-score tentacles and four trailing frilly mouth arms.

Their bodies are 99 percent water; they have fewer non-aqueous ingredients than lemonade. But they've been around for 700 million years. Armored trilobites, thunder-footed dinosaurs, and saber-toothed tigers have come and gone; the watery jellyfish endure. They have outlasted animals with bulk and brains. Their strategy for survival has been spectacularly successful: Keep it simple, go with the flow.

Eat and drift, drift and eat -- the original hobo existence. And, if you live in the sea, transparency is more or less equivalent to invisibility: another survival secret of the hobo.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Degrees of lawlessness

Apparently, education does not make you honest.

A recent survey here in Ireland showed that university graduates tend to have significantly less respect for the rule of law than those with only a primary or secondary education. Subjects were queried about such things as tax evasion, speeding, drink driving, littering, buying stolen goods, and making false insurance claims. Mind you, we are not talking about violent crime or habitual criminality.

A distressing result, but not necessarily surprising.

What's going on? Are more highly educated people simply better informed about what they can get away with? Are they more distanced from traditional sources of morality -- church, family, community? Or -- as I'm inclined to believe -- are they generally better off than their fellow citizens, and therefore believe that the ordinary rules of civilized life don't apply? That is to say, it is not education that leads people to shave their integrity, but money.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Saturday, on Monday

Another incident from Ian McEwan's new novel, Saturday. Again, Henry Perowne's daughter is trying to get her neurosurgeon father to read something besides medical books. This time she is urging upon him the so-called "magical realists," the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Mario Vargas Llosa, I suppose, who grant their characters supernatural powers and out-of-this-world experiences.

McIwan writes: "A man who attempts to ease the miseries of failing minds by repairing brains is bound to respect the material world, its limits, and what it can sustain -- consciousness, no less...If that's worthy of awe, it also deserves curiosity; the actual, not the magical, should be the challenge. [His daughter's] reading list persuaded Perowne that the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and the wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible."

"When anything can happen, nothing much matters," says Perowne to his daughter. To which I would add "Amen."

Of course, his daughter has the last word, as daughter's do. "You ninny," she chides. "It's literature, not physics.!"

Sunday, June 26, 2005


In the garden I continue my apparently doomed battle against the slugs. "They have four acres of vegetation to eat," I rant. "Why do they want my lettuce?" "The same reason you do," says my spouse sweetly. And so evolution converges on a taste for Burpee Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce -- the subject, so to speak, of this week's Musing.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

A grandeur in this view of life

In Ian McEwan's new novel, Saturday, the daughter of the protagonist Henry Perowne, London neurosurgeon, quotes to him the first lines of a poem by Philip Larkin: "If I were called in/ To construct a religion/ I should make use of water." Perowne opines that if he got the call he would make use of evolution. "What better creation myth? An unimaginable sweep of time, numberless generations spawning by infinitesimal steps complex living beauty out of inert matter, driven on by the blind furies of random mutation, natural selection and environmental change, with the tragedy of forms continually dying, and lately the wonder of minds emerging and with them morality, love, art, cities -- and the unprecedented bonus of this story happening to be demonstrably true."

McEwan has always been a fine writer. Saturday is his best novel yet, lifting him into the rank, say, of a Philip Roth.

Friday, June 24, 2005

An agnostic's faith

There was a time in my life when I was deeply into the medieval Christian mystics -- John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich -- and readers of Honey From Stone will know that those writers exerted a considerable influence on my life. From them I learned that even the mundane is shot through with wonder, the commonplace more worthy of awe than all the so-called miracles. Julian of Norwich writes: "See! I am God. See! I am in everything. See! I never lift my hands off my works, nor will I ever. See! I lead everything toward the purpose for which I ordained it."

See! See! See! See! Good advice. Paying attention. And seeing grandeur everywhere.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Only you

In a comment, Dave says, "Whenever I see the word 'only,' and especially when I see it repeated, my 'certainty alert' radar lights up." He refers to my repeated use of the word "only" in one of my posts.

And I'm happy to be called on it.

A good skeptic should use such words sparingly, if at all. Or I should say, a good skeptic should probably use such words sparingly, if at all. Or maybe, I suppose a good skeptic should probably use such words sparingly, if at all. Or...

Uh, oh. Go too far down this road and we'll have the Platters singing:

Perhaps you can make this world seem right
Possibly you can make the darkness bright
Conceivably you and you alone
Can thrill me like you do
And fill my heart with love for maybe you

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Fast track

Poor Amtrak. America's national railroad stumbles from woe to woe. Recent troubles with the so-called "high speed" Acela train in the Northeast Corridor suggest that we can't even do a halfway job right.

Meanwhile, Europe, Japan and now China race ahead in high-speed rail technology.

The Paris-Nantes run in France, about the same distance as Boston/New York, takes just a bit over 2 hours -- from city center to city center less time than you could fly. Paris/Bordeaux, about the same as Boston/Washington, takes 3 hours, in spacious comfort, with all the amenities, compared to 8 hours presently with Amtrak.

In 2007 Britain will open a new Channel Tunnel/ downtown London dedicated high-speed link, a marvel of engineering through the most densely populated part of the country. It will be possible to travel from London to Paris in less time than it would take to get to and from the airports.

Europe's 1900 miles of high-speed rail line now in operation will expand to 6200 miles by 2020. And these are trains that travel up to 180 mph.

America deserves such service, especially in the Northeast Corridor.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Menage a trois

A lovely conjunction of planets this week low in the WNW at sunset. In my pic that's -- left to right -- Saturn, Venus, Mercury and the stars Pollux and Castor, the Gemini Twins, on Thursday evening as seen in the Northeastern US (and pretty much anywhere in the mid-northern hemisphere). Then the next few nights things get even tighter. You will need a clear view of the northwestern horizon. Wait too long after sunset and these objects will have set. Meanwhile, Jupiter blazes high above to the southwest.

Twilightwise, the situation is not quite so good here in the west of Ireland. In any case, I'll have to walk to the top of the hill to see the conjunction, assuming, that is, that we get a rare clear evening.

Of course, the planets are no where near each other in space. Here is a diagram of the inner solar system on Thursday evening. Saturn is way, way out there, about ten times further than Mercury.

Monday, June 20, 2005

One size fits all?

Dave takes me to task for advocating a "one-size-fits-all" world.

Certainly, science is a "one-size-fits-all" activity. It makes no reference to nationality, ethnicity, religion, politics, race, or gender, and that has been its strength as a generator of reliable knowledge, health, and prosperity. When science moves away from consensus, as in Lysenko's Soviet Union or creationist America, mischief results.

And what if everyone on the planet embraced a scientific world view? Yes, we'd lose some diverse traditions, such as inquisitions, fatwas, witch-hunting, female genital mutilation, book burnings, xenophobia, homophobia, and a host of other abominations founded on superstition. But my experience is that where scientific globalization prevails, the best of local customs flourish. Here on the Dingle Peninsula we see it in crafts, music, architecture, and stonework. Everyone may watch the same movies, drive the same cars, and wear the same sneakers as the rest of the world, but there is no mistaking local pride. When people have the health, leisure and wherewithal to do so, they celebrate their heritage. And other heritages too. In Dingle Town one can now eat Indian, Chinese, Italian and French cuisine, as well as Irish.

So bring on economic and scientific globalization. Three cheers for the internet. A certain amount of "one-size-fits-all" has been good for the world, especially when that "one-size" is a notion of our shared humanity.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Blue Sunday

In comments on a previous posting, Barry and Geoff shared with us something of their personal spiritual and intellectual evolution. I promised there to contribute something of my own journey. This week's Musing was originally published in Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, a thoughtful and wonderfully eclectic journal, whose openness to the many ways of saying "yes" to the world is evidenced by their willingness to publish me.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Slug fest -- part 2

Geoff urges me to forgive the unforgivable. And Anthony presents us with the spectacle of gastropods caught flagrante delicto, asking us, I suppose, to admire in this extraordinary act of copulation a kind of beauty.

Well, beauty is as beauty does, and my garden comes first. Even as I write, here are two slugs on the window by my desk, lusting (or so I suppose) for my tomato plants, which lie just out of reach across the glass.

I will concede this to the tribe of slugs. Once, just once, during my many summers on the Dingle Peninsula of County Kerry, on a rainy ascent of Mount Brandon, I came across the famous Kerry spotted slug, Geomalacus maculosus. It was far enough away from our garden that I could almost think it beautiful: a gray-black body with yellow spots, as long and fat as my index finger, a leopard among its kin.

This rare and elusive slug lives only in the extreme southwest of Ireland and the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula in Spain and Portugal. It is part of the mysterious so-called Lusitanian flora and fauna of Ireland. An accidental blow-in from the sea? A hitchhiker on a Spanish galleon? A remnant of a once more continuous coastal distribution? Irish naturalists debate.

Friday, June 17, 2005


It is a thankless job this business of disenchantment. It has been the fate of science to drive the naiads and dryads from their pools and groves, fairies from their hills, seraphs and cherubs from their celestial spheres. Poltergeists, incubi and succubi, tooth fairies, guardian angels: All sent packing.

Charles Taylor, in his monumental work Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, suggests that the disenchantment of nature is a prerequisite for the secularization of consciousness. For men and women to find their own meaning and develop their own unique potential they first must rid the world of preordained meanings and divinely-prescribed moral purpose. Only then is it possible to understand that individual freedom and dignity is a universal human right. Only then might we work to achieve a global society which places a premium on the reduction of avoidable human suffering and the affirmation of the ordinary life of the here-and-now. Only when we no longer consider ourselves to reside at the center of the world with privileged access to the divine mind can we create a society in which every man, woman and child has an equal claim to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Slug fest

I've put in my veggie garden here in Ireland -- lettuce, onions, beans, peas, squash, things that have a chance of reaching maturity before the end of summer. I don't plant because I expect many meals from the garden, but for the pleasure of watching things grow.

I've surrounded my tiny plot with wire fencing to keep out rabbits, but insects have free entry. Most devastating of all are the slugs.

Biologist E. O. Wilson has coined a word -- biophilia -- for what he calls our natural affinity for other organisms. We are rooted by the tree of life, he says; bound to our fellow creatures by history, biology and destiny. Biophilia means literally "love of life." All of life, insists Wilson. Koalas. Butterflies. Daisies. Bluebirds. Slugs.


Am I expected to love these globs of slime, these God-awful ugly eating machines? These viscid vermin? These ghastly gastropods? These glutinous gluttons? These clammy, pituitous malfeasors of mucus? I pluck them out of the garden and hurl them across the field. I really want to bash them with a rock.

I wonder what the warmly biophilic E. O. Wilson would do if he found a herd of our fat Irish slugs devouring his lettuce?

Love of life? I draw the line.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

On morality

As everyone knows, the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 caused widespread controversy. Although Darwin had left humans out of Origin, he did suggest briefly in the book's conclusion that "Much light will be thrown on the origin of Man and his history." The publication of his more explicit Descent of Man in 1871 renewed public debate.

More was apparently at stake than mere science. The Times of London put it succinctly: "If our humanity be merely the natural product of the modified faculties of the brutes, most earnest-minded men will be compelled to give up those motives by which they have attempted to live noble and virtuous lives, as founded on a mistake."

The Times was correct that men and women of enlightened scientific learning might question their previous motives for goodness -- anticipation of the rewards of heaven or fear of hell -- but the paper was wrong in believing that only churchgoing Christians might chose to lead noble and virtuous lives. It was churchgoing Christians, after all, who initiated and sustained the African slave trade, the greatest moral abomination of Darwin's century. Darwin was agnostic, yet he found ample motives for virtue, and he was firmly on the side of progressive social and political change.

The Times of London is echoed today by the likes of Tom DeLay and a host of bible-thumping televangelists, but scientific agnostics go right on living virtuous lives.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A day on the hill

It had rained in sheets for 40 days and 40 nights. At last, the downpour subsided and the level of the flood began to fall. The tip of Carrantuohill mountain, Ireland's highest, emerged like a tiny island in the sea, and Noah made for it. As he stepped ashore from the ark he met a rain-drenched Irishman, who greeted him: "A fine soft day, thanks be to God."

A fine soft day, indeed. For the past five days we have enjoyed a rare spell of glorious sunny weather, and yesterday we made for the summit of Carrantuohill, over there across Dingle Bay, up the Devil's Ladder, down through the Eagle's Nest.

If you want to know Ireland's past you must explore its hills. On the flanks of hills are the ruined homesteads of Catholic farmers driven onto the island's most inhospitable land by the English. On the crests of low hills, such as Tara, are the seats of Irish kings, from the time before English dominance. On the higher summits of the west are megalithic tombs, dolmens, and stone forts that take us back to the myths and legends of Irish prehistory, even to the time when Cessair, granddaughter of Noah, supposedly set foot on Irish soil at Ballinskelligs Bay, near the foot of Carrantuohill.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Ode to a p-brane

In his "Defense of Poetry," Percy Bysshe Shelley contended that it is the task of the artist to "absorb the new knowledge of the sciences and assimilate it to human needs, color it with human passions, transform it into the blood and bone of human nature."

I have just finished reading Brian Greene's newest book, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, a long and engaging exposition of the new cosmology -- superstrings, quantum chromodynamics, vacuum field fluctuations, entanglement, brane worlds, that sort of thing. Greene deserves his reputation as a popularizer of far-out science, but what we are really waiting for are the poets and artists who will (can?) transform this stuff into blood and bone.

The quantum-grtavity cosmologists are no less tenuously connected to ordinary reality than the medieval theologians who supposedly argued about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but at least the theologians abstractions took human form. One can imagine warming to an angel -- just think of those sexy enclosing wings -- but a Higgs boson or -- gasp! -- an M-theory Dirichlet-p-brane -- it will take more than Percy Bysshe Shelley to make those things warm our hearts.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Talk radio

Good morning, guys and gals. This week's Musing takes note of America's drift into irrationalism.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Hand work

I'm a fair-weather friend of technology. I love my Apple Powerbook, my flash memory stick, my bicycle, my new Keen sandals. But by and large I resist the intrusion of too much technology into my life. Our cottage here in Ireland is a welcome refuge from mass production. Virtually everything in the house -- furniture, crockery, rugs, soft goods, and especially art -- was made by our own hands or by artists and craftspeople who live nearby. We have lately been replacing our Louis Mulcahy dinnerware with pieces by friend and potter Hedi O'Neill. We love the gay colors of her work and the fact that every piece is whimsically different. What joy to have such neighbors.

My friend John, the sculptor, has taken up a new medium. He used to work with the great chunks of wood tossed out by the shipyard in Dingle. The yard is now gone (the era of the wooden trawler has passed), and John has made the move to laminated plywood. He sketches out his 3-D pieces on the computer, saws the requisite shapes, and glues them together into rough blocks. Then he sets to work giving the piece its final shape, the long and laborious work of the hand. The natural wood grains of his previous sculptures are replaced by the artificial grain of lamination -- and thus does art make of mass production a thing of beauty.

Friday, June 10, 2005

On the mountain

A splendid day -- for Ireland -- warm sunny, calm. Off at 7AM for the hill. Mount Brandon, Ireland's second highest and, as readers of Climbing Brandon will know, a big part of my life for the past 35 years. The photo shows my walking companion Maurice, my age almost exactly but an all-year regular on the mountain. He has to shift into a lower gear when he walks with me.

The subtitle of Climbing Brandon is "Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain," and the book considers the topic that seems to spark most comments on this blog: Can one live a life of attention and celebration without invoking myths or miracles?

For a few centuries after the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, while the new faith was still in the thrall of Celtic druidism, something like what I'm talking about happened here. Columbanus, one of the early Irish Christian scholar/saints, asked in a sermon: "Who shall examine the secret depths of God? Who shall dare to treat of the eternal source of the universe? Who shall boast of knowing the infinite God, who fills all and surrounds all, who enters into all and passes beyond all, who occupies all and escapes all?" Those who wish to know God, he said, "must first review the natural world." For those earliest Irish Christians, as for the pagan Celts before them, the creation was the primary revelation.

Writing about Celtic spirituality, Noel Dermot O'Donoghue speaks of the Irish perception of a Presence in the world, existing somewhere between light and darkness, clarity and mystery. The God of the early Irish Christians was the King of the Elements, Righ na nDul, he says, and adds: "Just as Christianity became wedded to logos in Hellenism, and to authority in Romanism, it became wedded to nature and the natural world, in all its various levels and regions, in the Celtic world."

By virtue of my own background, I know the Christian tradition best, but I suspect the same trichotomy can be found in every religion. Only in the third part of the triad are we likely to find common ground for people of all faiths, for the same reason that scientists of all ethnicities, nationalities and religions achieve consensus.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Twinkle, twinkle...

At Ireland's latitude in summer, Vega dominates the night sky by virtue of its place near the zenith. Vega's light moves away from the star's surface in every direction, out past the glowing ring of protoplanetary dust, into the emptiness of space, a vast expanding sphere of energy. At our distance from the star -- 27 light-years -- Vega's light is spread out over a spherical surface with an area of 320 septillion square miles (an unimaginably large number, 320 followed by twenty-eight zeros). My eyes form an image of the star with the infinitesimal fraction of the Vega's light that falls upon my pupils -- twice the area of this letter o.

I sit here on our hill in the short Irish summer night and the light from 10,000 stars (it's a rare clear night) enters my eyes in sufficient quantities to allow me to form perceptible images, 10,000 distinct wavelets of energy from slightly different directions, and somehow my brain sorts it all out, puts every star in its proper place, enables me to recognize familiar constellations, throws the sash of the summer Milky Way across the night, and opens my soul to a universe whose breadth and complexity exceeds my wildest imagining.

Attention is a kind of prayer. The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich asked: "What is the use of praying if God does not answer?" In starlight, I have my answer.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A universe in a box!

An extraordinary paper in the current issue of Nature, titled Simulations of the Formation, Evolution and Clustering of Galaxies and Quasars, has not attracted nearly the attention it deserves. A group of European theoretical cosmologists, after 20 years of preparation, have modeled the Big Bang in a month-long run on a supercomputer, tracking trillions of particles. They plugged in what we think we know about the relevant physics, and let the computer spin out a universe -- 20 million galaxies in a cube 2.23 light-years on a side -- from the first moments of creation to the present day. And -- this is the kicker -- the simulated universe looks stunningly like the one we live in. Crucially, the model seems to confirm the existence of the so-called "dark matter" and "dark energy" that supposedly account for most of "what's there."

Einstein's wife Elsa was once asked if she understood her famous husband's theory of relativity. She replied, "Oh, no, although he has explained it to me many times -- but it is not necessary to my happiness." Well, it's necessary to my happiness. I don't particularly care what sort of universe we live in -- whether infinite or finite, big bang or steady state -- but it thrills me to know that the human mind can build a machine that mimics the creation.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The music of what happens

My post yesterday -- with its evocation of whispers, patters, caws and sizzles -- might seem far removed from science. But the music of what happens is more than what is heard, and it is the beauty of science that it opens our inner ear to the music which is reality. It is interesting that the first person to think of the electron as a wave was Louis DeBroglie, who was a musician as well as a physicist. We now know that every atom is a kind of exquisitely tuned musical instrument, singing out its characteristic notes. The quantum-gravity theorists, with their vibrating strings and quantum loops, propose that the universe is made not of things but of oscillations. Here you one can view a quantum loop universe of one space and one time dimension doing its musical thing. The prospect is exhilarating that behind the world of our senses is this ceaseless Planck-scale fandango.

Monday, June 06, 2005

In the west of Ireland

The Irish hero Fionn asked his companions, "What is the finest music in the world?"

"The cuckoo calling from the highest tree," guessed one.

"The ring of a spear on a shield," cried another.

Other champions ventured: the bellowing of a stag across water, the braying of hunting hounds, the song of a lark, the laughter of a pretty girl.

"All good sounds," agreed Fionn.

"Tell us, chief," one warrior asked. "What do you think is the finest music in the world?"

"The music of what happens," answered Fionn.

And that is what I like about living on this hill above Dingle Bay. No TV. No alarm clock. The phone never rings. The wind whispers. The rain patters on the roof. The crows caw in the copse below. The bacon sizzles in the pan. The music of what happens.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

I sing the body electric

Researchers recently took brain scans of young people in love. Not sexual attraction, mind you, but real gaga head-over-heels love. The researchers showed love-smitten subjects pictures of their beloved and watched a deep little nuggest of the brain light up like a Christmas tree. No big surprise, of course. We might say "What I feel for you is beyond physical," but everything we think or feel is embodied in flesh.

What about faith in God, the subject of this week's Musing? Are we hardwired to believe?

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Circadian rhythms

Since last I posted, I've flown the Atlantic and settled myself for the summer in Ireland. I've reset my watch, turned the small hand ahead five hours. Reset the clock in my laptop. There's one clock I can't reset so quickly -- the one inside my body, the tick-tocking proteins that tell my body when to wake and sleep.

Eventually, my body clock will reset itself in response to signals from specialized photoreceptors on the retinas of my eyes. The clock will change its rate of ticking until it is again in synch with light and dark.

Mosquitoes, morning-glories, even bread molds possess biological timekeepers; only the most primitive single-cell organisms appear to be without internal clocks.

"We live in an old chaos of the sun, or old dependency of day and night," wrote poet Wallace Stevens. The Earth spins and carries all living things into light and shadow. Anthropologists tell us that the primary myth of human culture is the story of the luminous hero who goes into darkness and returns triumphant. Our bodies hum with the solar rhythms. All complex plants and animals have innate biochemical metronomes beating in time with the spinning Earth.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The seat of the soul

I have been reading again after almost 30 years the surgeon Richard Selzer's marvelous collection of essays Mortal Lessons.

In Selzer's phrase, it is the "exact location of the soul" he seeks as a writer. For thousands of years theologians have sought to identify the organ of the body that is residence for our higher nature. Is it the heart? The brain? Or -- as the ancients claimed -- the liver? Medicine is the offshoot of religion, and physicians still pursue the seat of our humanity. But they are no longer so naive as to believe that the soul sits curled up in a cavity of the heart or a lobe of the liver, like a butterfly in a chrysalis, awaiting revelation by the surgeon's knife. No, the soul must be discerned in the totality of the body's animated organs and their interaction with the environment, and it is revealed not by the parings of a scalpel but by the writer's art

Why does a surgeon write? "It is to search for some meaning in the ritual of surgery, which is at once murderous, painful, healing, and full of love," says Selzer. And what does he find among the blood and gore? "That man is not ugly, but that he is Beauty itself."

Thursday, June 02, 2005

A lifetime of miniaturization

In my grandmother's house a huge Stromberg-Carlson radio stood against the the living room wall. It was the size of a church window. The whole family could gather around it in the evening listening to Kate Smith or Amos 'n' Andy. The radio was big because the electronic tubes inside were big. The size of Coke bottles. And glowing red hot.

By the time my parents got their own house electronic tubes had shrunk to the size of salt shakers. The radio sat on a table, not on the floor. Every weekday afternoon I sat beside that sturdy Zenith listening to Tom Mix and Sky King.

On my 14th birthday, in 1950, I was given a radio of my own, a little Sears Silvertone, about the size of a recipe box. Inside were a half-dozen tubes the size of lipsticks. Tubes were shrinking fast, but they still glowed red hot, so they needed space inside the box to keep them from overheating.

Then along came transistors, the size of pinheads, that did the same thing as electronic tubes, but more cheaply and reliably. Didn't burn out. Didn't break. No more trips to the tube tester at the drugstore with a paper sack full of tubes. Because transistors worked at room temperature, lots of them could be packed close together. Radios became the size of a pack of cards.

And that's where things stand. I recently bought my wife a little Grundig radio, also the size of a pack of cards. But the new radio gets AM, FM, and world band short-wave. The size is limited by speaker, speaker power, aerial, knobs, dial, battery. Today, the electronic circuitry for thousand radios could be packed onto the period at the end of this sentence. It's been a hellava ride.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The coming plague?

The current issue of the journal Nature has a sobering series of articles on the potential bird flu pandemic brewing up in Asia, for which the world is poorly prepared.

Medicine Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg once observed: "We are in an eternal competition. We have beaten out virtually every other species to the point where we may now talk about protecting our former predators. But we're not alone at the top of the food chain." He was talking, of course, about invisible pathogens.

Fourteenth-century visitations of the black death killed one-third of Europe's population. The great flu pandemic of 1918 killed 40 million people worldwide. Tens of millions of people are currently infected by HIV. "Nature is not benign," Lederberg reminded us.

Unfortunately, the public health workers on the front lines of disease must contend not only with microbes but also with apathetic or stingy governments, entrenched bureaucracies, rapacious warlords, warring tribes, and religious taboos and ignorance.