Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Mind over matter -- or mind over mind?

I noticed in the paper this weekend that firewalking is coming to Ireland. A guru from New Zealand will teach (for 299 euros) seekers of transcendence how to walk on red hot coals -- fields of consciousness, life energy, mind over matter, that sort of thing.

Poppycock. The heat capacity of wood ash is small. Although the temperature of the glowing coals is high, the amount of heat energy contained within them is deceptively low. The same is true for the air in a hot kitchen oven, which is why you can safely put your hand in the oven. Also, wood ash doesn't conduct heat well. During the fraction of a second that the foot is in contact with the coals, there is not enough time for a damaging amount of heat to transfer to the skin.

I know, because I did it once in my backyard in preparation for a Globe column debunking claims of firewalking transcendence. In that column I offered $1000 to any entrepreneurial guru who would walk across a steel plate heated to the same temperature as the hot wood ash. I got no takers.

The laws of physics are made to be broken, say the gurus, if we can harness the spiritual power that lies deep within our souls. As a way overcoming fear and developing self-confidence, firewalking might have something to recommend it. As an extreme sport, it ranks right up there with sky-diving and bungee-jumping. But as for overcoming the laws of physics, it's a penny miracle indeed.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

More flies

I remember the article in Science five years ago announcing the sequencing of the fruit fly's genome. The thing that struck me most forcibly was the list of nearly 200 authors, including names like Amanatides, Agbayani, Basu, Blazej, Bolshakov, Chandra, de Pablos, Ferraz, Gu, Jalali, Murphy, Puri, Rubin, and Zhang -- an apparent United Nations of ethnicity -- working in public and private institutions in eight countries.

It is one of the glories of science that it manages to transcend the fractious divisions that characterize so many human activities. And why not? At the level of the DNA, we are all pretty much the same, more alike than we are different. We are a single species that somehow manages to spend an inordinate amount of our time bashing each other for superficial differences.

Monday, August 29, 2005


I can't seem to get fruit flies off my mind.

Some years ago, a colleague came to my office at the college to ask about something or other. She carried a box filled with small glass bottles.

"What's that?" I asked. Fourteen bottles full of fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, the "black-bellied dew lover," newly purchased for student experiments. Plastic foam stoppers kept the flies in the bottles, which were otherwise open to the air. A nutrient broth covered the bottom of the bottles. In each bottle several dozen flies crawled ceaselessly over a web of nylon fibers.

I lifted out the bottles and read the labels. "White." "Yellow." "Wild." "Vestigial." "Ebony." "Dumpy."

"Wild," I knew, would be the red-eyed, black-bellied fruit fly found in nature. The others were mutants, created in the laboratory, cultivated in great numbers, and used for breeding experiments in genetics and embryology.

Here was a chance to get to know a famous experimental animal. "Can I borrow them?" I asked. And so it was that six bottles full of fruit flies became my companions for a few days of close observation.

Drosophila mutants have Seven-Dwarfs sorts of names, generally derived from the appearance of the mutant under a microscope (anesthetized with a substance called FlyNap). Who can resist little animals called Dumpy, Curly, Stubble, Spineless, Wrinkled, Bristle, and Scarlet? The mutants in my bottles seemed happy enough; indeed, as happy as their wild cousins. I observed them with a magnifier as they went about their usual fruit-fly activities, blissfully oblivious to their aberrant eye colors and oddly shaped wings. And think of them again this week as we put our fly-teeming compost bin to sleep.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

By any other name

Tradition has it that Adam was allowed by the Creator to name all the creatures of the Earth.

It must have been some task. According to biologists, there are between 10 and 100 million species of living organisms. That means if Adam thought up a name a minute for 16 hours a day (Sundays included), it would take him somewhere between 30 and 300 years to complete the job.

Still, it must have been fun coming up with names like "duck-billed platypus," "tufted titmouse" and "precious wentletrap." And speaking of names, see this week's Musing.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Listen, darling, they're playing our song

Since we are on the subject of fruit flies, let me rehearse that insect's short, sweet life.

Like ourselves, a fruit fly begins life as a mother's egg fertilized by a father's sperm. Within a day, the egg hatches to produce a tiny larva, or maggot. The larva typically feeds upon yeasts that it finds in rotting fruit -- a compost bin is perfect! Six days and a few molts later the larva seals itself up in a hard brown capsule, or pupal case. It remains in this enclosure for four days, during which time almost all of the larval organs dissolve into a soupy mix from which the organs of the mature fly form. When the transformation is complete, the adult fly inflates a little bag on its head which forces open a trap door in the pupal case.

The fruit fly generally emerges from the pupal case in the early morning (Drosophila means "dew lover"). Good timing is essential. The earlier out, the easier it is to be successful in the competition for mates. There is no advantage to emerging in darkness when a mate can't be seen, and fatal to emerge in the heat of midday with delicate wet skin. A genetically programmed chemical "clock" ticks in Drosophila's brain. The clock is set in the embryonic stage by changes in temperature and light. When the "alarm clock" signals that the time is right, out pops Drosophila.

Now comes the moment of truth. A male fruit fly follows a prospective mate and vibrates its wings to produce an exotic "love song" of clicks and whirrs. The song is amazingly species specific, and genetically determined. Even geneticists can't tell some species of Drosophila apart except by their song. If the pitch or rhythm is not just right, the female immediately terminates the courtship.

If the female responds, then a little foreplay begins while the male continues to vibrate. Copulation follows, which can last as long as 15 minutes. From then on it's all down hill; the female lays her hundreds of fertilized eggs and the cycle begins again.

Fruit flies are wonderfully prolific. They can produce 25 generations in a year. Let's assume that a female lays 100 eggs, half male and half female. These hatch, develop into mature adults, mate, and each of the 50 new females lays 100 eggs, half male and half female. And so on. In the absence of any natural checks on the growth of population, within 25 generations a single pair of fruit flies would give rise to enough progeny to fill a ball the size of the Earth's orbit! No wonder our compost bin teems with flies.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Shoo fly

Our compost bin has been has been gathering kitchen scraps all summer. Soon we'll be putting it to sleep for the winter. When we return next year, we'll have lovely compost in which to plant my veggies.

In the meantime, the bin is a breeding ground for fruit flies. They are a bit of a nuisance when one opens the top of the bin, but it's hard to think too badly of them. Fruit flies have been faithful servants of science since they were adopted by T. H. Morgan in his important studies in genetics that began at Columbia University in the early years of this century. Since that time, much of what we know about mutation, speciation, and other genetic phenomena has been discovered with populations of fruit flies in nature and in the lab.

They are ideal research animals, small enough to breed in the lab in large numbers, but large enough to examine with only modest magnification. And they have a short life cycle, which means they can be bred through many generations during a typical graduate student's time of study.

So welcome, Drosophila, dainty "dew-lovers," to the leavings of our table. You have earned your repast.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Body and soul -- Part 3

One last thought on the scientific understanding of the soul, this from the cartographer and writer Tim Robinson (who I will have more to say about on Sunday). He is talking about scientific explanations in general vis-a-vis the supernatural. I don't have his book in front of me, so I will paraphrase:

Miracles are explainable. It's the explanations that are miraculous.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Body and soul -- Part 2

I have a philosopher colleague who worries deeply about research such as I described in yesterday's post. As we learn more about the electrochemical brain, he foresees increasing reliance upon the technological control of our mental lives -- a pill for this, a pill for that. "Increasingly, there's no room for us to talk to one another about our lives," he says. "No room for our histories, our stories, our art; no room for ourselves."

The soul has become another object to be investigated, analyzed and manipulated, he says, nothing more than a flickering image on a brain scan monitor as electrochemical activity flares up, dies down, perhaps under chemical control -- a brushfire of cognition. "Science is squeezing us to spiritual death," he groans.

My colleague's pessimism is unwarranted. The discovery that our spirits are inextricably linked to electrochemical processes in no way diminishes our true selves. We still have histories, tell stories, make art. We love, we cry, we respond with awe to the marvelous machinery of cognition. And we arm ourselves against the devils of mental illness.

Many of us seem to believe that anything we can understand cannot not be worth much, and therefore -- most especially -- we resist the scientific understanding of self. But the ability to know is the measure of our human worth, the thing that distinguishes us from the other animals.

Understanding the machinery of spirit does not mean that we will ever encompass with our science the rich detail of an individual human life, or the infinitude of ways by which a human brain interacts with the world. Science is a map of the world; it is not the world itself.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Body and soul

More than three centuries ago, Pascal said, "Man considering himself is the great prodigy of nature. For he cannot conceive what his body is, even less what his spirit is, and least of all how body can be united with spirit."

The French mathematician and philosopher lived at the dawn of the scientific era, but his words still ring true. We have sent spacecraft to the planets. We have listened to signals from the dawn of time. We have unraveled the mystery of starlight. We can even conceive what the body is. But the deeper human mystery remains: What is the spirit, and how is it united with body?

There is a sense among neuroscientists, psychologists and artificial intelligence researchers that the ancient riddle is ripe for solution. Powerful new imaging technologies make it possible to probe the living brain -- watch the orchestra play even as we listen to the music of thought. More powerful generations of computers provide analytical tools to model the astonishing complexity of neural circuits. Subtle refinements of molecular biology and chemistry let us fiddle with the machinery of the soul. Almost every week in Science or Nature we read of further research binding the soul inextricably to the body.

Perhaps no scientific discovery has been more fundamental than this: There is no ghost in the machine. The ghost and the machine are one and ever shall be. Some people react to this knowledge with despair or disbelief. I count it glory. "Man considering himself is the great prodigy of nature."

(More tomorrow.)

Monday, August 22, 2005

A moment out of time

After descending from Carrauntoohil, Ireland's highest mountain, we visited a farm that had been willed to one of my companions. As we approached the gate, a grey heron took to wing from a pond not twenty yards away -- neck crooked, head feathers flying like pennants, toes trailing in the still, black water of the pond.

If I have a totemic animal , this is it (as readers of my books will know). The heave of wings! The blazing eye! The pterodactylian beak! The effect was positively prehistoric -- one might as well have been standing in Jurassic Park. As the great balsa-light bird lifted into the air its six-foot wings spanned continents, their ponderous beats marked eons of geologic time.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Boys and their toys

In the northern part of this island there is some hope of an end to violence as the IRA vows to lay down their arms and pursue their goals by the political process. But peace will not come easy. For decades, young men -- Nationalists and Loyalists -- have been inculcated into a culture of violence. What is it about males and guns? See this week's Musing.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Green alleluia

The lettuce and tomatoes are burgeoning in the greenhouse window of my writing studio. I love looking out at the world through a screen of green. Love too the way the morning glories bind it all together in their promiscuous reach. I don't plant seeds for harvest, although I am happy to eat whatever ripens in the three months I am here. No, rather, I plant to watch the invisible dance of the DNA, ceaselessly spinning, weaving, checking, correcting -- TGACTTCGACAA -- a dervish dance of constancy and variation that has over the course of 4 billion years covered the planet with a seemingly infinite variety of living things. A lettuce leaf is a scripture, a tomato a prophet. The tendrils of the morning glory a Te Deum.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Scrambling among the rocks

The sandstone cliffs at the end of the Dingle Peninsula are quick to yield trilobite fossils. I have several fine specimens on the ledge above our fireplace. In 1839, fossils were collected here by Richard Griffith, the first important cartographer of Irish geology. He sent them off to London to be examined by expert paleontologists. The verdict came back: The fossils were of Silurian age, which we now know to be about 420 million years ago.

Farther east, near the limestone Vale of Tralee, the rocks of the Dingle Peninsula were recognized as Devonian, younger than the Silurian. What then of the strata between, the so-called Dingle beds? Were they Silurian or Devonian?

The question might now seem to be of little consequence, but at the time it was momentous, for reasons that were personal and social as well as scientific. The dispute about the age of the Dingle rocks was a skirmish in a larger war of ideas and personalities, the so-called Great Devonian Controversy.

The chief antagonists were, on the one hand, Henry De la Beche, the director of the Geological Survey of Britain, and, on the other, Roderick Murchison and Adam Sedgwick of the Geological Society of London. At issue was the proper interpretation of those sedimentary formations that (as we now know) were laid down between 300 and 400 million years ago.

Careers and reputations turned on the outcome of each skirmish in the war. The status and prestige of scientific institutions waxed and waned with the rise and fall of hypotheses. Egos swelled and shrank with each new coloring of the geologic maps.

It short, it was a classic conflict of scientific ideas, fought with all the gusto and resolve that a few years later would mark the battles over Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

In the end, the issue was not resolved by the exercise of institutional power or the weight of egos, but by the evidence of the rocks themselves.

It is the great strength of the scientific enterprise that it can contain flawed personalities, rampant egos, hidden agendas, imperfect motivations, and still reach consensus. The bottom line is the evidence of nature. Not piecemeal evidence -- a rock here, a fossil there -- but the vast, systematic assembly of data that speaks with more authority than any individual or institution.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Real life -- Part 2

With reference to my post yesterday on Henry Margenau's philosophy of perception and cognition, where does the construct "intelligence design" fit into the scheme?

First of all, there is not a single direct link connecting the construct "intelligent design" directly to the perception plane. The construct has links only to other constructs, such as "God," "irreducible complexity" and "miracles," which themselves have no direct links to the perception plane. "Intelligent design" therefore floats out there in construct space with a loose cluster of associated ideas that have no reliable or reproducible links to direct sense experience.

And that's why "intelligent design" is not real.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Just a "theory"

America's finest news source, The Onion, provides the amusing and necessary satirical look at the recent Intelligent Design debate.
"Traditional scientists admit that they cannot explain how gravitation is supposed to work," Carson said. "What the gravity-agenda scientists need to realize is that 'gravity waves' and 'gravitons' are just secular words for 'God can do whatever He wants.'"


Real life

My post yesterday touched upon that most perennial of philosophical problems: What is the real? As the post suggested, my own views on the matter were given shape when I was young by the poet Wallace Stevens. More influential was a book I read as a graduate student, the physicist-philosopher Henry Margenau's The Nature of Physical Reality (1950).

Margenau uses a simple diagram to illustrate the conceptual maps we make of the world. Down the middle of the page he draws a vertical line that he calls the "perception plane." It is the locus of our immediate sensations of the world -- sights, tastes, odors, touches, sounds -- the interface between the world as it is and the world as we know it. To the left of the line is the world "out there," which we know only through the windows of our senses. To the right of the line Margenau draws circles representing "constructs" -- names, descriptions, or ideas we invent to make sense of our perceptions. The more abstract the construct, the farther the circle from the line.

Immediately adjacent to the perception plane are constructs that correspond to direct sensations: "blue," "bitter," "pungent," "brittle," "shrill." The construct "dragonfly" is a bit further from the perception plane, but not very far away. I feel a sensation on my finger ("tingle"), I see a color ("blue"), a quality of light ("iridescent"), a shape ("long and narrow"). I name this ensemble of sensations "dragonfly,"

As my experience of the world increases, the construct "dragonfly" becomes enmeshed in a web of other constructs at varying distances from the plane: "insecta," "Jurassic," "mitochondrial DNA," etc.

Resilience and interconnectivity of the web are the defining characteristics of the real. "Atom" is bound to the perception plane by a dense and sturdy web of constructs. "Cosmic strings" and "branes" are way out there, far from the perception plane, dangling by a gossamer thread.

Perception and cognition are hugely complex processes, endlessly debated by psychologists, neurologists and philosophers. Margenau's simple schematic of connected constructs is itself only a construct, a useful way of describing the devilishly complex business of perception and cognition. The important thing is to realize that our ideas about the world are not the same as the world itself (a point often missed by true believers). Nevertheless, only the most obtuse idealist would hesitate to call "dragonflies" or "atoms" real.

For more on this, see Chapter 4 of my Skeptics and True Believers.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Telling stories

I have just finished reading Brian Greene's new book, The Fabric of the Cosmos. As with his earlier book, The Elegant Universe, he does a damn good job explaining the almost unexplainable -- string theory, braneworlds, multiple universes, and all that. None of this stuff has an empirical basis, and is not likely to for the foreseeable future. So does it qualify as science?

Well, yes, barely. Because in principle at least experiments are possible. We should value the wild speculations of the theoretical cosmologists precisely because they are pushing the limits of what is imaginable.

We live in an imagined world. Some parts of that imagined world are so tightly bound to sense perceptions that we call them "real." The chair I'm sitting in is real. Atoms are real. The common ancestry of humans and raccoons is real. Strings and branes and multiple universes are not yet real, but they spring from the same storytelling tradition. Democritus and Lucretius told stories of atoms long before atoms were real.

It is ever for us as it was for the singer in a famous poem by Wallace Stevens: "Even if what she sang was what she heard...there never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang, and singing made."

Monday, August 15, 2005

Here we go again -- Part 5

Over here the media pundits just won't let go of George W. Bush and intelligent design. They haven't had so much smug fun since Ronald Reagan consulted astrologers. Here's Martyn Turner in Friday's Irish Times.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The discovery of ignorance

Recently, on the occasion of its 125th anniversary, Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, dedicated a special issue to "what we don't know."

We invent all sorts of explanations to cover our ignorance -- gods, fate, luck, spirits. When it finally dawned on humans that it was permissible to say "I don't know," science began. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The demise of the fairies

When we built our cottage here in the west of Ireland twenty-five years ago, the road we built on was little more than a rough track. The "Fairies Road" the old people called it, and wondered why anyone would want to live up there on the hill with the wild winds and unpredictable spirits. It was also called the Lover's Walk, a place of courtship for the young people of the village. The official name is Bothar a Chinn. When we came here, I was told by an old person that this translated "the road of the keening," from the mournful sound of the wind on the hill. Brendan Kavanaugh, a placenames expert with the Irish Ordnance Survey and a native of the village, assures me the proper translation is "the road at the head (of the fields)." It is here that arable fields give way to bog.

Today, the road has been paved -- although it is still a single lane -- and is considered a very desirable place to live, with splendid views over Ventry Harbor and Dingle Bay. The fairies have been banished from the hill by the Irish economic miracle, and young lovers are presumably in bed somewhere.

Friday, August 12, 2005

A few words about Lewis Swift

The parent comet of the Perseid meteor shower is Comet Swift-Tuttle. It was first observed by Lewis Swift, a farmer and amateur astronomer of Marathon, New York, on the evening of July 15, 1862, with a 4.25-inch refractor mounted on a platform attached to his barn.

Unfortunately, Swift did not realize he was looking at an object never seen before. Three days later he finally realized he had discovered a comet, but by then Horace Tuttle of the Harvard Observatory had seen it too, so Swift shared the name -- and fame.

The comet brightened to become one of the most splendid of that century. Swift's enthusiasm for astronomy was fired. He subsequently discovered thirteen comets, although none as bright as the comet of 1862.

For his work with comets, the star-struck farmer was awarded a gold medal by the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna, and in the 1880s he was appointed director of the Warner Observatory in Rochester, New York. From the people of that city he received a 16-inch refractor telescope worth $10,000, with which he discovered more than a thousand nebulas.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Night has no darkness

The west of Ireland in summer is no place for someone who loves the night sky. It doesn't get dark until almost midnight, by which time I am generally sound asleep. Uncloudy nights are rare. Still, when it is clear, it is very clear and dark. Last night, for example, when I rose in the wee hours for a glass of water, I stepped into the garden to a canopy of ten thousand stars. The Milky Way poured from the zenith into the sea, the Great Rift a doorway to darkness. The Double Cluster in Perseus hung like fruit from the bough of Cassiopeia, and from a nearby radiant an occasional meteor lashed across the sky.

Tomorrow is the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, and with luck we'll have another clear night. In many rural parts of Europe the Perseids are called The Tears of Saint Lawrence, martyr, and yesterday was his feast day. When the Emperor Decius demanded worship of the ancient gods, Lawrence answered: "Whom should I adore, the Creator or the creation?" In reply, Decius had Lawrence whipped with scorpions and roasted on a grill.

I'll settle for the creation, palpably present, awash with stars. What streams from the heavens are not a saint's tears, but bits and pieces of a comet falling like luminous rain onto the Earth.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Jefferson's moose

During the late 18th century, the Frenchman Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon was the world's most respected zoologist and botanist. In his comprehensive natural history of the world, he expressed the pontifical opinion that native animals of the New World are smaller than those of Europe, that there are fewer species of animals in America, and that domesticated European species degenerated upon crossing the Atlantic.

On his mountain top in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson read these opinions with outrage. In 1784, he was appointed Minister to France. Before leaving America, he asked John Sullivan, Governor of New Hampshire, to capture a moose, the biggest that could be found, prepare it for stuffing, and ship it to Paris. He would teach Buffon a thing or two.

The governor's agent "sallied forth with his forces" into the snowy wilderness of Vermont, where he killed "with Difficulty" a moose. By the time the animal reached Sullivan it was in a sorry state of putrefaction. The governor set about having the moose cleaned and prepared for shipment, a job (as he wrote Jefferson) "such as was never before attempted."

The moose's antlers were apparently unimpressive, but Sullivan sent along the horns of a deer, an elk, and a caribou. "They are not the horns of this moose," he wrote, with some lack of scientific objectivity, "but they may be fixed on at pleasure."

Sullivan's bill arrived in Paris before the moose. Jefferson had expected that an animal could be obtained from some hunter for a pound or two, to which might be added a few pounds for shipment. To his dismay, Sullivan's carefully itemized invoice amounted to 46 pounds sterling. As nearly as I can figure it, this would be about $4000-5000 in present money, a pricey put-down for Buffon.

At last, the moose itself appeared in Paris, in an appalling state of decay. Jefferson nevertheless sent it on to Buffon, along with the horns of the elk, deer and caribou, assuring him that all of the specimens were disappointingly small. "The horns of the Deer which accompany these spoils [sic], are not the fifth or sixth part of the weight of some I have seen," wrote Jefferson in his cover letter, undoubtedly with red-faced embarrassment.

Buffon was unimpressed. I have not been able to ascertain what happened to the moose.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Here we go again -- Part 4

There also aren't many Bush administration policies that I agree with, but that doesn't mean I am unwilling to acknowledge where the President is absolutely leading us in the right direction. His much hyped New Vision for NASA is, I believe, a terrific step forward for the country and the world.

For better or worse, human spaceflight has stagnated during the Space Shuttle era. The Reagan and first Bush administrations seemed to have viewed the space shuttle as nothing more than a convenient delivery van in the weaponizing of space. (Many of the shuttle flights in the 80s and early 90s carried classified Department of Defense payloads.) The Clinton years saw the shuttle program sidetracked into a expensive construction project of dubious value -- the International Space Station.

While humans in space had become a high-tech construction gang, plucky and relatively inexpensive robots were doing the real exploring.

The refocus of human spaceflight on exploration missions to the Moon and Mars is exactly what we need. It's good for science, good for business, and good for national pride. It's good for the world.

The first human to walk on the surface of Mars is probably alive right now -- a teenager most likely. He or she will need a top notch education in science and mathematics to insure his or her future as an astronaut. So the question right now for President Bush is -- will that future astronaut be the product of an American school system?

Here we go again -- Part 3

This site has no political agenda, except when politics impinges on science. President Bush's recent remarks on teaching of intelligent design in the science classroom is one of those occasions. "Both sides ought to be properly people can understand what the debate is about," said Mr. Bush. Of course, there is no debate within the scientific community.

Comments in the European press continued over the weekend, a mixture of incredulity and dismay. Here is the Irish journalist Diarmuid Doyle in the Irish Sunday Tribune: "In less than five years under Bush, the US has become an ugly, coarse and belligerent nation. Now it threatens to become stupid as well, elevating superstition and nonsense to the level of proven truth." I am not endorsing Doyle -- I don't think things are as bad as all that -- merely reporting what has sadly become common opinion in a country that was formerly rapturously disposed to any US president, Democrat or Republican.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The plow and the stars

Milton in Paradise Regained refers to "cold Septentrion blasts." The north wind, he means. In both English and Spanish, "septentrion" is "the north."

The Latin root of the word means "the seven plow oxen."

You might easily guess that the "seven plow oxen" are the seven stars of the Big Dipper, the most prominent constellation of the northern sky. By the time of Chaucer and Dante the term "septentrion" was applied not only to the constellation, but also to the north itself. You'll see the word on medieval maps.

The Romans imagined the seven oxen moving around a threshing floor, in keeping with the way the constellation turns on the fixed pole. The official name, of course, is Ursa Major, the Great Bear, but here in Ireland the constellation is commonly known as the Plow, and so it is appropriate enough to imagine oxen in the sky.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

By Hooke or by crook

Enough for the moment of things divine. This week's Musing celebrates pure worldly curiosity.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

A joyful noise

While reliable knowledge of the world is the firmest foundation for a civilized society, humans cannot live on science alone. We need too the artists 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 quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Defense of Poetry.") The best way to oppose ignorance and superstition is to celebrate the real, in so far as we can know it, and to show by living it that all that is natural, and palpable, and present is shot through with mystery.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Here we go again -- Part 2

Subsequent to my post this morning on G. W. Bush and intelligent design, I read an editorial in today's Irish Times precisely confirming my observations of the reaction of the European press.

This is not a matter of academic freedom, says the Irish Times, in which two competing "theories" should be given equal time: "The disingenuous case that essentially religiously-grounded theory should be granted the same status as well-established science -- and natural selection, whether or not precisely as Darwin formulated it, is well-established science -- undermines both science and potentially the constitutional separation of church and state."

By contrast with the unfortunate words of our president, the Irish Times quotes Woodrow Wilson: "May it not suffice for me to say...that, of course, like every other man of intelligence and education, I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised."

Here we go again

I suppose I should report that the European press is amused that George W. Bush wants intelligent design taught in science classes. They are quick to point out that there is not a single research paper supporting intelligent design in the vast international peer-reviewed scientific literature, a point that is mostly lost on the American press (thank you, Paul Krugman, in today's NYT). One can't offer reproducible empirical evidence for miracles, or provide naturalistic explanations for the actions of a deity.

Do children have a right to hear about intelligent design? Of course. I would guess that red state American children hear more about intelligent design and creationism than they do about natural selection -- in Sunday sermons and Bible schools. Which is exactly where it belongs.

On miracles and radish seeds

Barry, our much appreciated resident theist, offers two reasons for his belief in God.

He refers to recent developments in cosmology and particle physics. I presume he means the big bang. First of all, if I were going to believe in a personal God, I wouldn't base my belief on anything in science. By this time next century the big bang might be history, and gaps in science have a way of being filled. It is certainly true, however, that we do not yet have a scientific explanation for the origin of the singularity from which the universe seems to have emerged. Barry says "God." The scientific naturalist says "I don't know."

Second, Barry evokes his own answered prayers. A child is sick. I ask God's help. The child recovers. Therefore, God exists. Might I point out that every double blind test for the effectiveness of petitionary prayer has shown no significant positive result (and, yes, I've read the paper of Randolph Byrd, etc.). The most basic difference between a true believer and a skeptic is one's attitude towards anecdotal evidence.

There are many reasons to be in awe of this world, to wonder at the transforming power of love, to honor the beautiful and the good. And, yes, there is enough mystery in a single radish seed or in the red admiral butterflies I saw yesterday on Mount Eagle to make me fall to my knees. I don't need the big bang or answered prayers to live a life of celebration.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

A commercial break

The bald truth of the matter is that one reason for this site was the hope that it might help sell a few books. Right now, the book that needs a push is Valentine. My Ireland/UK publisher has begun foreign sales -- so far, France and Bulgaria. (My first Bulgarian translation!) A little bump would help.

The novel is set in the late-3rd century Roman empire. The themes are those that seem to so exite diccussion on this blog -- naturalism vs. supernaturalism, reason vs. faith, Lucretian skepticism vs. true belief. It is not yet available from a US publisher, but it can be readily obtained from Amazon UK.

If any one of you has read Val and cares to comment pro or con, your contribution would be welcome.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A concise statement of faith

The biologist E. O. Wilson wrote (in On Human Nature): "The core of scientific materialism is the evolutionary epic. Let me repeat its minimum claims: that the laws of the physical sciences are consistent with those of the biological and social sciences and can be linked in chains of causal explanation; that life and mind have a physical basis; that the world as we know it has evolved from earlier worlds obedient to the same laws; and that the visible universe today is everywhere subject to these materialist explanations."

The evolutionary epic, says Wilson, is subject to improvement in all of its details, but its most sweeping claims cannot be proved with finality. It has, therefore, aspects of myth, but it is "probably the best myth we will ever have."

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A bit more on eclipses

The moon's orbit is tipped to the plane of the Earth's orbit, which is why we don't have a solar eclipse each month. Usually, when the Moon is new it is above or below the plane containing the Earth and Sun (the ecliptic) and so the tip of its long, thin shadow passes above or below the Earth. Only when the intersection of the planes (the line of nodes) is lined up with the Earth and Sun, and only if the Moon is at the intersection of the two planes at the right time, can we have an eclipse of the Sun. This generally happens twice a year.

On April 8th of this year the tip of the Moon's shadow barely scratched the Earth's surface, like the tip of a rapier across a cheek. This took place in the relatively inaccessible South Pacific and was of brief duration.

On October 13th of this year, the Moon is again in the right position, but the Moon is at a greater than average distance from the Earth and its shadow does not quite reach the Earth's surface. This means that even if you are in the right place (a narrow band across Iberia and northeast Africa) the Moon's disk will not quite cover the Sun's face and the eclipse will be annular -- the Sun will appear as a thin ring of light.

Monday, August 01, 2005


Every spherical object in the solar system wears a conical shadow pointing away from the Sun. Even the astronauts spacewalking up there with the Discovery shuttle cast shadows. If an astronaut in Earth orbit points her feet toward the Sun, she wears a wizard's cap of darkness one hundred feet long. The Moon's shadow cap, by wonderful coincidence, is almost exactly as long as the average distance of the Moon from the Earth. During a total eclipse of the Sun, the Moon's shadow brushes the Earth's surface like the tip of a feather. To see a total solar eclipse, one must be standing exactly where the shadow's tip intersects the Earth, which is why I will be on a shore of the Eastern Mediterranean next March 29.

Take a terrestrial globe such as you might have in your home, and every year or two draw a random line ten or twelve inches long across its face with a black felt-tip marker. The line can be anywhere from north pole to south pole and in any hemisphere. These marks are typical of total solar eclipse paths. It takes the Moon's shadow about 4500 years to "paint the globe black." That is, the longest you will have to wait for the Moon's shadow to brush your home is 4500 years.