Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The McMansioning of America -- Part 2

My wife and I raised four kids in a 1000 square-foot, one-bath house that had been built more than a century ago for the family of a worker in the Ames shovel factory. It was a tight squeeze, but we all spent quite a bit of time outdoors. The kids were almost always out and about, playing with neighborhood pals and roaming the woods and meadows. There wasn't much to do indoors but get in each other's way.

The McMansion kids have lots to do indoors, and plenty of room to do it. Private bedrooms with computers and personal TVs. Game rooms. Media centers. As someone who has walked the same path every day for 40 years, I can vouch for the fact that today's kids seldom venture outside. No more forts in the woods. No more fishing on the bridge. No more dams in the brooks.

Something is being lost: a connection to the organic. In her book The Sense of Wonder, published in 1965, Rachel Carson wrote: "If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of childhood are the time to prepare the soil." Seeds and soil: she has chosen her metaphors carefully. What the child absorbs from nature is a sense of something whole and enduring, a lesson that cannot be learned in the world of instant obsolescence and virtual reality.

It will be unfortunate too if science looses its connection to the organic. In his autobiography, Naturalist, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson describes his own childhood roaming the woods and seashore of rural Alabama. Nature gives the child "a compelling image that will serve in later life as a talisman, transmitting a powerful energy that directs the growth of experience and knowledge." It is better for the future scientist "to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail," he writes. "Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming."

Science is knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power bears enormous moral responsibilities. I would rather live in a world where those who exercise power had their sensibilities formed in contact with organic nature, rather than with the virtual indoor world of McMansion America.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The McMansioning of America

Over the Thanksgiving holidays my wife and I went for a walk to Picker Field. This is a meadow that once was deep in the nearby woods, where years ago villagers held community outings on the 4th of July and Labor Day. These events had been discontinued by the time we moved to town -- thirty or forty years ago -- but the meadow was still a favorite walking destination for kids and adults.

Today, the meadow is almost gone, colonized by cedars and white pines. So is the former isolation. Only yards away from what used to be a sweet and silent place there is a new development of giant family homes.

And I do mean giant. These houses must have at least 5000 square feet of space, including the mandatory three-car garages. Lined up on the sides facing the woods are banks of air conditioners. God knows how much fuel it must take to heat and cool one of these palaces and keep the multiple SUVs on the road.

Rich folks have always had big houses. In our town the Ames family built a half-dozen mansions a century ago, on huge tracts of land that have now mostly come into the public domain as public open space. The family was a generous benefactor to the town, contributing public buildings, schools and parks.

The new McMansions are as big as anything the Ames put up, but they sit side by side in what would otherwise be a typical suburban development. Their half-acre plots will never add to the town's green space. I wonder if the people who live in these houses are interested in schools or parks. Certainly, we saw not the slightest evidence on our walk that anyone from the neighborhood is using the town woods or Picker Field for recreation. With all that space indoors, why go out?

What does this have to do with science? More tomorrow.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Falcon has landed

It now appears that the Japanese Hayabusa space craft successfully landed on the asteroid Itokawa, took a sample, and lifted off again. If all goes well, the craft will return to Earth with a smidgen of space dust two years hence.

Itokawa is a potato-shaped chunk of rock about the size of a football stadium (with parking lots). Its orbit is not all that different from the Earth's, as you can see from the diagrams here.

But let's get a better fix on the scale. Let the Sun be represented by a basketball on the 50-yard line of a football field. Then the Earth would be a pinhead on the home team's 20-yard line. Right now, as Hayabusa journeys along with Itokawa, the asteroid is on the opposing team's 22-yard line, and far too small to be visible on this scale -- say, the size of a big molecule.

Engineers on the pinhead Earth hurled a box of instruments on a two-year journey, chasing and catching up to the asteroid. From the pinhead Earth they now control this complex sampling operation more than half a football field away (15 minutes by radio signal) the first ever that -- if successful -- will return to Earth with material from a celestial object other than the Moon.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

No doing without ruing

"The good you have done cannot be undone; though all the hills should crash in ruin, yet it would stand," says the priest on the last page of Sigrid Undset's novel Kristin Lavransdatter.

It is generally acknowledged that non-human nature is amoral. The fox does not sin by taking the chicken. The tsunami does not do evil by devastating the shore. If humans are part of nature, from whence does morality arise? See this week's Musing.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The first snowfall -- Part 2

Remember those cold November afternoons of our youth when we looked up from our desks to see snowflakes falling outside the classroom window. A buzz of joyfulness zipped from desk to desk until our teacher smiled and we took that as a signal that we could crowd to the window sills and feed our dreams of winter wonderlands. It didn't stick, of course. The asphalt in the playground dampened but stayed black. Still, those fat, dancing flakes traced a calligraphy in the air that every child could read -- boots, mittens, snow forts, sleds, skidding in ice, throwing snowballs, making snow angels in meadows of fresh white powder.

The thrill is no less now, sixty years on. When those first snowflakes fall, they excite some web of neurons deep in the brain that was wired in childhood and has resisted every effort of time to erase. And God knows time has done its best. Driveways to shovel. Dirty wet slush. Colds. Flu. Heating bills. Long dark days that seem to start in the middle of the night and end there too.

No wonder we like those water-and-flake-filled toy globes with winter scenes that always seem pristine -- tiny villages, snowmen, Santa Claus -- swirls of immaculate flakes, first snowfalls that never end. Tip the globe, the snow falls fresh, no ice, no slush, no cheerless dark. Those ever-popular globes tell us something about the way the brain is wired, about our ability to forget what we don't like.

Selective forgetfulness offers a release from nature's endless cycles -- seasonal, diurnal, life and death. Mothers suppress the memory of childbirth pain, remembering only the pleasure of new life. When daybreak comes, we forget the terrors of the predawn hours when we lay awake and wrestle with our private dreads. And when the first November snowflakes fall, we put out of our minds the harsh reality of February when we swear that, if it snows one more time, we'll pack up and head for the Bahamas.

And so we shall. But today, the air is filled with whirling flakes. I spread my arms in joyful welcome. The world's globe is tipped. Some wonderful capacity of being alive lets us forget what's coming a month from now. Tip the globe. Tip. Our hope lets us make the world anew.

Friday, November 25, 2005

First snowfall

One fat flake. Then two. Then dozens dancing in the air. One lands on the sleeve of my jacket -- a perfect hexagon, an icon of some great ordering principle in nature. Hold out my arm. Another, and another. Each with an invisible heart of stone, a microscopic grain of atmospheric dust about which water molecules crystallized high in the storm. Now my sleeve is covered with flakes, patterns of flawless loveliness and infinite variability. The flakes seem static, the essence of rigidity, but I know that the molecules are impressed into their symmetries by atomic vibrations of exquisite sensitivity, molecular resonances, a kind of cold, wet cosmic music.

"The snowflake eternally obeys its one and only law: Be thou six-pointed," wrote the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch. The story of the snow was finished the day the universe was born, but the story of life is still in the telling. Life is "rebellious and anarchical," said Krutch. "It may hope and it may try."

And so we hope and try, living in a world of our own imagining, struggling to escape the blind inevitably of nature's laws, trying on new futures: six points? five? seven? ten? As Krutch reminded us, no living thing can be as icily beautiful as the snowflake, but no snowflake can know what beauty is.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Apathia, athambia, aphasia

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labors left unfinished crowned by the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Essy-in-Possy of Testew and Cunard it is established beyond all doubt all other doubt than that which clings to the labors of men that as a result of the labors unfinished of Testew and Cunnard it is established as hereinafter but not so fast for reasons unknown that as a result of the public works of Puncher and Wattmann it is established beyond all doubt that in view of the labors of Fartov and Belcher left unfinished for reasons unknown of Testew and Cunard left unfinished it is established what many deny that man in Possy of Testew and Cunard that man in Essy that man in short that man in brief in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation wastes and pines wastes and pines and concurrently simultaneously...

You may recognize the first part of Lucky's speech from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot I once acted the part of Vladimir in a faculty production of the play it was a pretention-puncturing experience an instruction not to take too seriously even those formulas and schemes that seem so dear the essays the books the postings here the science oh yes the science and to always keep a tongue at least partly ready to stick in the cheek and laugh laugh yes laugh especially when I am inclined to be most serious there's a little bit of Lucky's speech in all of us the trick is to know it when we see it yes and on this Thanksgiving morning thanks to all who read and comment here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Decay and rebirth

I've been reading the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran's A Short History of Decay. He who also wrote On the Heights of Despair and The Trouble With Being Born. A bracing read, to be sure, and especially useful, I would imagine, for ideologues of every stripe, those purveyors of Absolute Truth whom Cioran excoriates mercilessly. True belief is deep in our human nature, he says, and the only remedy is indifference. Disengagement. Ultimately, the oblivion of death. Although Cioran did not take his own life (he died in 1995 at age 84), we would not be surprised had he done so.

Then why did he write? There would be no need to write if we could weep at will, he says. So, no, you do not want to read Cioran unless you are looking for a reason for despair or you need to stiffen your skeptical spine.

Cioran asks the ultimate existential question: Without God, without the anticipation of personal immortality, without political absolutes of right or left, why not indifference? Why not despair? I was pondering my answer when I came upon this quartet of overripe Halloween spooks along my path.

Who set them up there on a stone wall at the back of the community gardens I do not know. But I smiled at their toothless threat, their swollen, liquidy eyes, their squirrel-eaten, punched-in, late-November grins. Here was a little history of decay on the garden wall and I could only laugh. Onto the compost heap with them! A new harvest next year. What goes around comes around. What were those lines of Hopkins I quoted last week? "...for all this, nature is never spent;/ There lives the dearest freshness deep down things."

This is the one absolute: the creation. In all of its multiplicity. In all of its complicity. In all of its simplicity. "There is only life in the inattention to life," moans Cioran. I'd turn his sour adage on its head. There is only life in attention to life. In plugging ourselves into the never spent. In paying attention.

Science is the best way forward we have yet devised for extracting collective, reliable knowledge from nature that is not tinctured with our personal yearning for immortality. And it is here that I part company with Cioran. Personal oblivion is not an inducement to despair, but an invitation to love, to action, to playing a role -- a bit part to be sure -- in a drama that enfolds the light-years and the galaxies.

There is only life in the attention to life -- to the dearest freshness deep down things. That, at least, is what I read in the lopsided grins of the jack-o'-lanterns.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Who made the world?

(The following thoughts are inspired by Barry's much-appreciated comments on previous posts.)

Let's start with this observation, commonly associated with Jean Piaget but now generally accepted by most child psychologists, that the explanations of children across all cultures are initially artificialist: that is, objects or events are understood as the product of a humanlike agency. Thus, the sun was made to provide light for us. A tree was made to give shade. "Why is the stone round?" asks the psychologist. "Because it was made that way," responds the child. Making requires a maker. At first, the child is unspecific about who that maker might be, but culture soon provides an answer: the gods or God.

Why are a children artificialists? There may be something innate about it, as some evolutionary psychologists suggest (Dean Hamer thinks he has identified a gene for self-transcendence), but it seems to me an adequate reason can be found in the infant's initial experience. A newborn human is helpless. Food, warmth, affection, lullabies, light, shade and every other material and emotional requirement of life are provided by a provident parent. What could be more natural than that the default human explanation is artificialist? Is it any surprise that we call God father or mother, or that the gods in every culture are represented in human guise? (Even animal gods have human personalities.)

A comet appears in the sky, unheralded and unexplained: It is a sign from God. A disease ravages a city: It is God's punishment. A fine soft day, thanks be to God, say the Irish. And so does the experience of the infant carry over into adulthood.

Newtonian physics provided a naturalistic, non-artificialist way to account for comets. The germ theory of disease explains epidemics without invoking a deity. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection pushed artificialism out of the story of life. And so do we put behind us the biologically inculcated default explanations of the child.

There remain, of course, things or events we cannot yet explain. Why is there something rather than nothing? What came before the big bang? How did life begin? What is the biological basis of self-awareness? The default answer to these questions for the vast majority of humans remains artificialist: God. The alternate response is not atheism, which is no explanation at all. The alternate response is: "I don't know."

If the history of science teaches us anything, it is that behind the artificialist explanations of our ancestors there are patterns of order that go far to help us understand the world. And no gift of science is more important to our maturity as a species than permission to admit our ignorance.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Unfortunate moments in the history of science

From Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, London, to Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Delft, Holland, 20th of October, 1676:

Dear Mr. Antony van Leeuwenhoek,
Your letter of October 10th has been received here with amusement. Your account of myriad "little animals" seen swimming in rainwater, with the aid of a so-called "microscope," caused the members of this society considerable merriment when read at our recent meeting. Your novel descriptions of the sundry anatomies and occupations of these invisible creatures led one member to imagine that your "rainwater" might have contained an ample portion of distilled spirits -- imbibed by the investigator. Another member raised a glass of clear water and exclaimed, "Behold, the Africk of Leeuwenhoek." For myself, I withhold judgment as to the sobriety of your observations and the veracity of your instrument. A vote having being taken among the members, it has been decided not to publish your communication in the Proceedings of this esteemed society. However, all here wish your "little animals" health, prodigality, and good husbandry by their ingenious "discoverer."

Cyrill Franz Napp, abbot of the Monastery of St. Thomas, Altbrunn, Moravia, to Father Gregor Mendel, June 15, 1859:

Dear Brother in Christ,
On Wednesday of this past week I had tea with His Excellency the Bishop. During the course of our conversation, he inquired about rumors that have come to his ear regarding certain experimental investigations by one of the brothers of our monastery. He was referring, of course, to your inquiries into of the procreative habits of peas. I assured him that your efforts were in earnest, and that you had discerned intriguing mathematical patterns among the inherited characteristics of your plants. The Bishop suppressed a snigger as I described your pea-geneologies, which he thought more exquisitely contrived than the family tree of the Emperor himself. He asked if I thought it seemly for a man of your intellectual attainments to be plodding in a pea patch, prying into the germinal proclivities of peas. He suggested that pea propagation was a subject less worthy of your curiosity than, say, the writings of the Church Fathers or the Doctrine of Grace. My dear Brother Mendel, as sympathetic as I am to your researches, we can ill afford to have the monastery made a laughingstock. I have therefore issued instructions that your pea patch be plowed and replanted with potatoes.

The Editor of the Annalen der Physik, to Albert Einstein, September 25, 1905:

Dear Herr Einstein,
I am in receipt of your paper submitted to this journal for publication, on a so-called "relativistic" explanation of the laws of electrodynamics. The editorial staff of the Annalen der Physik are in agreement that the paper represents an ingenious parody of contemporary physics, and send you hearty congratulations for having concocted so elegant a spoof. What makes the paper so terribly clever is its apparent ordinariness, but of course, the perceptive reader will recognize that your theses are at odds with everything in physics from Newton to the present. Once we discerned the joke, we had a rollicking good laugh. We are herewith returning your amusing contribution, and thank you for the entertainment.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Prophets facing backwards

Sometimes we can learn more about our own failings by looking into the mirror of another culture. See this week's Musing.

Friday, November 18, 2005


I gave a presentation last week for the Brookline Adult Education Program on my newest book, Climbing Brandon. Afterwards, someone asked me why I don't worship as a Universalist Unitarian. I get asked this often, and I certainly get enough invitations to speak at UU services.

I was never much for collective activities. Whatever religion I profess is best practiced alone in the woods. But there is something else, something darker, maybe sexual, irrational even -- something I don't get much of a sense of in those sunny UU liturgies.

I was raised a Roman Catholic, and an odor of that faith just won't wash away. A sense of Druidic magic. A sense of presence. A profound attraction to the symbolic possibilities of earth, air, fire and water -- wax, oil, wine, and bread. I cannot profess the Creed, nor do I have any truck with the supernatural, yet I retain an indelible stamp of the creation mysticism that has long been a part of the RC faith. I find in my maturity that something of that quasi-pagan pantheism -- think Columbanus, Pelagius, Erigena, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Georges Bernanos, Sigrid Undset, Teilhard de Chardin, Flannery O'Connor, and all the rest, many of who were condemned as heretics or sanctioned -- rests comfortably with the other faith of my childhood, the one I picked up in woods, meadows and drainage ditches -- a passion for the immanent, the sensual, the here and now.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Mystery pic --the answer

I posed the puzzle because the answer is so unexpected. These forms do indeed appear organic. Peter guessed -- among other things -- surface formations on one of our sister planets. Jack guessed "Martian snot." Well, there you have it.

These are marks left by collapsing lava tubes on the slopes of the Martian volcano Ascraeus Mons, imaged by the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on board the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. This instrument combines a 5-wavelength visual imaging system with a 9-wavelength infrared imaging system. The colors, of course, are an instrument artifact. You can find other stunning images here.

Cranberry blog

In the deep woods at the back of the campus is a hidden wild cranberry bog that almost no one knows about. This year it is more flooded that ever in my memory. I was there yesterday with Greg and Bailey. It took a while, but we found a place where we could wade into the freezing water and gather some berries. It was not that we wanted berries to eat -- although we did eat a few, squinching up out noses at the bitterness. No, it was simply because we knew the berries were there and the day was warm enough to tempt us to take off our shoes. Would I have waded into the bog without Bailey and Greg? I doubt it. Would they have found the bog without me? Un-uh. We are good for each other.

The real question is: What does wading into a cold cranberry bog have to do with higher education? After all, my two students will be getting academic credit for our semester together. It's true they've done a heap of reading, and more writing than I had any right to expect. But there's another kind of education too, that comes through the soles of one's feet, through the eyes, ears, taste, touch and smell. The squish of berries between the toes. The slant of mid-November light through sulking pines. Berry-pocked clouds reflected in black water. It's a kind of education that doesn't stop with graduation and has nothing to do with credits and GPAs and diplomas. There is no distinction between students and teacher in our peripatetic trio.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Down Mexico way

In the November 4 issue of Science, the distinguished Mexican biologist Antonio Lazcano discusses the teaching of evolution in his country -- and Latin America generally. He admits to being bemused when American colleagues ask about the problems he faces as an evolutionist in a predominantly Catholic country. He points out that pressure to include creationism in public teaching is almost exclusively confined to the United States. "Only twice during my 30 years of teaching about evolutionary biology and research into the origin of life have I encountered religious-based opposition to my work," he writes. "In both cases, it came from evangelical zealots from the United States preaching in Mexico."

Lazcano's article is illustrated by a photo of an elementary school named Evolucion, in the Mexican city of Pachuca, where children celebrate Darwin's birthday with displays and murals on his life and theory. Can you imagine the outcry from the Christian right if such a thing happened in the States? Evolution is a cornerstone of Mexican science education at all levels.

Writes Lazcano: "It is hard for Mexicans to understand the hold that religion has in the United States, and many of us are baffled by the lax attitude of policy-makers in the United States to the religious right, who manage to influence and sometimes undermine the public education system." He might as well be speaking for scientists in Europe and other developed nations of the world. Lazcano worries about the growing influence of American evangelical missionaries on secular public institutions of Mexico.

It is baffling enough that U. S. evangelicals feel a need to save Mexican Catholics from Catholicism. It is even more worrisome that their agenda includes undermining the Enlightenment foundations of foreign secular democracies.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mystery pic

Can you guess what this is a picture of? If you know the answer because you have seen it identified, don't give it away. This is a guessing game. Answer in a few days.

Playing with planets

Anyone who has been outside at night these past few weeks couldn't help but see Mars blazing away like a stoplight. High in the east as the Sun goes down, the red planet drifts across the sky all night, setting in the west just before sunrise. Last week Mars had an apparent magnitude of - 2.3, which rivals Jupiter at its brightest. It is fading now, but still bright enough to make someone who notices it for the first time exclaim, "Wow! What's that?"

Back in 1968-69, as a post-grad at London's Imperial College, I worked out the orbit of Mars that year using the theories of Claudius Ptolemy (2nd c. AD), Nicholas Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler. I am not aware of anyone else who has done this, and I am sharing my diagrams from that time in my new book, Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian, to be published by Walker in the spring. Here is my unedited drawing for Ptolemy's theory, taking into account precession since his time. It matches closely the actual motion of Mars in the sky in 1968-69, and shows more vividly than later heliocentric theories the varying distance of Mars from the Earth, and hence brightness.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Somewhere over the rainbow

By some quirk of cyberspace a private exchange of e-mails appeared on my computer. Although Science Musings doesn't often visit political themes, I feel a public obligation to share the intercepted messages:

Dear George,
Forgive this e-mail, but I have a bad case of laryngitis and must curtail my thundering from on high. I have good news and bad news. First the bad news. The Earth has become corrupt, and filled with violence. I will send a great flood to destroy men, and with them the creatures of the Earth. Now the good news. You shall build an ark (see attachment). You, your wife, your daughters, and your immediate staff will be saved. You shall bring two of every sort into the ark, male and female. Of the birds, of the animals, and of every creeping thing of the ground, two of every sort shall come with you.

Dear God,
Thanks for allowing me and my family to survive. I knew our personal relationship would pay off some day. I have instructed Dick's old company Haliburton to begin building the ark according to your plans. A no-bid contract, of course. Can I make a suggestion? The idea of preserving what the tree-huggers call biodiversity is -- well -- fine. But, really, is that the most sensible use of space on the ark? Wouldn't it be better to bring along the CEOs of all them great American corporations and their families. Who needs cockroaches, rattlesnakes and armadillos anyways?

Dear George,
Sometimes I wonder why I bother. All you chainsaw Republicans think about is your pocketbook. Do you really imagine I made the Earth just for you? Do you think cockroaches, rattlesnakes and armadillos were afterthoughts, to be brushed aside when they become inconvenient? A panther lazing in the sun affords more pleasure in my sight than a hundred men scrabbling after gold. A condor soaring on the wind fills my heart with immense satisfaction. Please don't second-guess my creation. Get on with it, George. Load the ark, two by two.

Dear God,
I don't mean to be unpertinent, but the task you have set me won't be easy. Gosh, there must be at least a thousand different kinds of animals. How will we ever fit them in? I've asked my pal Brownie to look into it. He did a heck of a job with Katrina.

Dear George,
There are upwards of 50 million species of animals. I recall having created 30 million kinds of beetles alone (I have an inordinate fondness for beetles). But don't worry, I've worked this out carefully. The hundred or so largest species -- the elephants, hippos, and giraffes, for example -- will occupy more space on the ark than all the rest put together. A boat three hundred cubits by fifty cubits by thirty cubits will be sufficient. Take my word for it, George, there is room enough for all of my creation -- if you and your cronies don't hog it for yourselves.

Dear God,
Forgive me for saying so, but the forthcoming flood offers a pretty darn good chance to get rid of unnecessary species. I mean, all those caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they're just a nuisance. Maybe I misunderestimated, but I thought we humans were your favorite species.

Dear George,
O.K., I'm tired of arguing. Decide for yourselves the value of snail darters, spotted owls, and caribou. But don't imagine I created these species lightly. The atmosphere, oceans, rocks, and life are all of a piece. Keep those so-called "unnecessary" creatures off the ark and you'll find a change in the air you breathe, the soil you plant, and the weather that brings rain to your crops. Take care, George, lest you inadvertently destroy the very source of your prosperity.

Dear God,
I've talked it over with Dick and Karl. We'll stock the ark with domesticated species only. When the waters go down, we will turn the Earth into one big subsidized industrial farm. Biodiversity has a certain antidiluvian -- is that the word? -- charm, but the cost is too great. Let those 30 million kinds of beetles take care of themselves.

It's a good thing I've got laryngitis, because I really feel like thundering from on high. When I gave you humans more brains than the other species, I had in mind that you'd be responsible stewards for my creation. It turns out that even an Intelligent Designer can make a mistake. Take care, George. It has started to rain...

Sunday, November 13, 2005

As kingfishers catch fire...

Remember the Mary Oliver quote I shared last week: "I am sensual in order to be spiritual."

If there was ever a poet who engaged with nature through all of his senses it was Gerard Manley Hopkins. My God, how he loved the natural world.

But feared it too, as a distraction from God. The Jesuits, to whom he gave his short life, believed the senses were the enemy of sanctity, and beauty the Devil's snare. The young men at the Jesuit novitiate -- eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old -- were kept occupied every waking hour lest their idle senses become an occasion of sin. They were even given "modesty powder" for their bath to make the water opaque. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

On the internet, no one knows...

I recently visited one of those travel websites where customers weigh in about their experience at hotels and resorts. I wanted to check out how the new luxury resort on our island is being received. The customer comments fell into two categories: lackluster, and seemingly spontaneous; or gushily enthusiastic, with a curious sameness.

Maybe I'm paranoid, but I wonder if the parent company of the resort might be skewing the average with phony reviews. I can imagine some hack in the public relations department whose job is to crank out raves and post them from a battery of purpose-made e-mail addresses.

I know this happens on Amazon. Authors write reviews of their own books, or ask friends to post five-star reviews, to pump up their rating. I've had authors tell me they do it. It is, of course, a practice no self-respecting author would engage in. As with comments here, when nice things are said about my books I am grateful for the kindness of strangers.

Friday, November 11, 2005

More on lichens

"I could study a single piece of bark for hours," Thoreau wrote in his journal. He meant, of course, a piece of bark covered with lichens.

I don't own a really first-rate lichen field guide, but the college library does have a copy of Lichens of North America by Irwin Brodo, Sylvia Sharnoff and Stephen Sharnoff (Yale University Press, 2001), which has got to be one of the most beautiful nature guides ever published. Unfortunately, at a hefty 9 pounds, it's not a book you'd carry into the field. Maybe Bailey, Greg and I could take turns lugging it around.

Most folks know that a lichen is an alga and a fungus living together for mutual benefit. The alga makes nutrients with sunlight; the fungus provides the alga with a steady water supply and a chance to live in habitats -- dry rocks, exposed tree bark -- where it could not survive on its own.

What we seldom hear about is the dicey nature of the symbiosis. The fungi feed on the algae they have enticed or trapped into collaboration, sucking their vitals, sometimes killing them. It is only because the alga cells reproduce faster than they are consumed that a lichen can exist at all.

Sort of makes me think of the symbiotic relationship of teacher and student. Over the years I have fed on the youth and enthusiasm of my students, while they still had youth and enthusiasm to feed on; and every year a new batch of youthful, enthusiastic students appeared on the doorstep. Let's hope they got something in return from the crusty old fungus.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Winter or summer, as other creatures come and go, lichens endure, in their rainbow colors, their multiplicity of forms, their prodigious capacity to thrive in the least hospitable environments. They colonize gravelly ground, bare rock, concrete walls, tombstones -- the nooks and crannies of the planet snubbed by every other creature. Lichens are nature's graffiti artists, painting every exposed surface with swaths of color.

Some of the most engaging lichens in our area require getting down on hands and knees. To look for lichens is to "go gnawing the rails and rocks," wrote Thoreau

And so -- I was creeping about with Greg and Bailey the other day at the old quarry behind the town wells. Greg had been there with me before; we wanted to show Bailey the hard, broken earth with its prodigious covering of lichens. Reindeer lichen in thick cushiony billows. British soldiers in prim red coats, and their cousins, the pink earth lichen, all bubble gum and whimsy. And pixie cups, those pale green goblets set out for a fairy bacchanal. Little stuff, close to the ground. I remembered a Calvin and Hobbes strip in which Calvin says: "If your knees aren't green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The din of ubiquity -- Part 2

The range of audibility of the human ear can be represented as a graph of sound intensity versus frequency. The lower boundary of the range is the threshold of hearing: for example, at a frequency of 256 vibrations per second (middle-C on the musical scale), a sound must have a intensity level of about 20 decibels (the loudness of rustling leaves) to be heard at all. The upper limit of the range of audibility is the threshold of pain. At the frequency of middle-C the limit of pain has an intensity level of about 130 decibels, slightly less than the sound of a leaf blower at close range.

Think of the graph of human audibility as a blank canvas upon which nature paints with sound. For example, the shrill double-note of the blue jay (three-tiered in frequency, at 3000, 2000, and 1000 vibrations per second, repeated twice), and the cacophonous caw of the crow (between 1000 and 2000 vibrations per second), add dollops of color to the canvas in the mid-decibel range. The chickadee's call is more sharply defined in frequency (at about 2800 vibrations per second), but can range widely in loudness depending on the distance of the bird. The nuthatch fills in the low-decibel part of the graph with its tap-tap-taps and a loudness in a conifer forest just above the threshold of hearing. There are other natural sounds that can only be heard in the complete absence of noise: the papery shiver of beech leaves on their branches, the ethereal whir of mourning doves rising from the ground, the rattle of the seedpods of wild indigo when stirred by the wind.

The roar of a leaf blower -- or trail bike or snowmobile -- is the equivalent of throwing a bucket of black paint onto the ear's white canvas.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The din of ubiquity

Silence is not a mere absence of sound. Thoreau had a good image: Sound, he said, is a bubble on the surface of silence which straightaway bursts. Below a froth of noisome bubbles silence flows like an infinite stream.

Again, Thoreau said: "If the soul attends for a moment its own infinity, then and there is silence." It's an old theme, common to Transcendentalist hermits and medieval monks, to philosophers and religious teachers of all cultures: In silence we are in touch with something infinitely greater than ourselves. Even those of us who eschew the mystical know that a measure of silence is necessary to our happiness.

And now we are in the season of the leaf blower, that most pernicious of modern inventions, and most unnecessary. As I write, I hear the steady, peace-shattering whine of a leaf blower attached to a riding mower tidying up the college quad. With a wide leaf rake I could easily keep up with the fellow on the mower -- who looks like he could use a bit of exercise -- without the noise, the pollution, the wasted gasoline.

It was in the chapter on "Sounds" that the author of Walden made his well-known remark about needing "a broad margin to my life." And now, listen -- just listen -- as our necessary white spaces are scribbled over with needless decibels.

Monday, November 07, 2005

An invitation

"I am sensual in order to be spiritual," says the poet Mary Oliver, in her little book of miscellany, Winter Hours. Care to comment?

Added next day: Let's have some thoughts on this cryptic theme, and I will collate them and post them.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The hallowing of the everyday

To what extent do rituals enhance or stultify mindfulness? I am certainly ritualistic in my own life: What would I do without my daily sunrise walk to school, for example. Familiarity with time and landscape means any little variation stands out against the background of the usual. I remember too with some measure of nostalgia the liturgical cycles of my youthful Catholicism -- the canonical hours of the day and the sweeping grandeur of the liturgical year -- the colors, sights, sounds, the sacramental substances and songs that were an invitation to engage with the diurnal and annual cycles of the sun. But on the testimony of friends and writers who have lived the rigorously liturgical life of the convent or monastery, rituals can become an end in themselves, an impermeable membrane between the seeking self and the thing sought. It is a tricky thing, I would think, to balance the commonplace with the exceptional, the endlessly-repeating cycles of the natural world with the soul's quest for growth, so as to keep the senses on edge, taut and perceiving. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Sticks and stones

While walking home from college the other day and thinking about the role of ritual in our lives (does it enhance or stultify mindfulness?), it occurred to me that I held a bit of ritual in my hand. Each day as I walk to and from my place of work, I reflexively pick up a round smooth stone from the path and carry it in my fist. A Queegish neurosis? A substitute of sorts for prayer beads? No, I think rather the stone represents an unconscious wish to be grounded to something hard and enduring. Something -- in a word -- material.

When I was in school back in the 1940s and '50s -- parochial school -- materialism was thrown up to us as the bugbear of bugbears. Not even "Godless communism" offered a more perfidious peril for our souls.

Later, at university, we learned that materialism was one of two philosophical categories by which humans have tried to explain reality, the other being idealism. Broadly speaking, materialists believe that matter is the essence of reality; matter exists independently of life and mind, but no life or mind can exist independently of matter. Idealists, on the other hand, believe that mind and spirit are the ultimate reality; spirit abides; matter is ephemeral.

Science has been pretty much materialist since the 17th century. Only the materialist view of the world offered a useful program for research or progress. Disembodied mind, vital spirits and the supernatural just don't lend themselves to quantification or experiment.

Meanwhile, our understanding of what we mean by matter has been radically changing. No more hard little particles rattling around in the void, as proposed by Democritus, Lucretius and Newton. Matter, as it shows itself at the turn of the millennium, is a thing of astonishing, almost "immaterial" subtlety -- all resonances, vibrations and spooky entanglements. A kind of cosmic music.

If the matter created in the big bang was only hydrogen and helium, as the cosmologists say, then those primeval atoms possessed the built-in capacity to spin out stars and galaxies, carbon, oxygen, iron, and ultimately life and consciousness. Maybe it is time to dump the old debates between materialism and idealism. The practical success of science should be enough to satisfy the most ardent materialist, and the shimmering, prodigiously creative and perhaps ultimately inexplicable potential of matter should be enough to satisfy the idealist's hankerings for spirit.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Perennial conflict

This morning's Boston Globe reports comments by two highly placed persons in the Roman Catholic Church which offset the recent essay by Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna regarding intelligent design. Cardinal Paul Poupard or the Pontifical Council for Culture urges the faithful to respect the findings of science, lest they slip into fundamentalism. Professor Gianfranco Basti of the Pontifical Lateran University reiterates Pope John Paul II's assertion that evolution is more than a hypothesis: "There is proof," say Basti. One suspects that since Schonborn's intervention in the American dustup (facilitated, apparently, by the Discovery Institute), Rome has been cautioned by Catholic scientists fearful of a resurgence of anti-science sentiment. If so, the intervention is warmly welcomed.

The perennial tension between religion and science is built into the nature of those institutions. Religion, as practiced by most religious people in the West, is organized certainty. Science, as practiced by almost all scientists, is organized doubt.

That is to say, the foundations of religious truth -- revelation, tradition, the institutional authority of churches -- are contrived to preserve an inflexible orthodoxy. The foundations of scientific truth -- empiricism, quantification, mathematical reasoning, critical peer review -- are meant to ensure a steady evolution of reliable knowledge.

If you plucked an ordinary person from the Middle Ages and brought her into the modern world, she would be astonished at the progress of science. Not much would strike her as unfamiliar about religion.

There will always be tension between two systems that make claims to cosmological truth but hold truth to different standards. Western science and religion, in particular, are placed at odds by a philosophical dualism at the heart of our culture: natural vs. supernatural, immanent vs. transcendent, body vs. soul, natural law vs. miracle. If we could go back, say, to the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius in the 5th century, and have the Church come down on the side of Pelagius rather than Augustine, we might ameliorate the present tension between science and faith. But, of course, history cannot be remade, and the tension endures.

There are, however, a growing number of people -- a minority to be sure, although amply represented in the commenters to this blog -- who embrace a non-dualistic scientific cosmology, yet remain attuned to mystery, mindful of beauty, receptive to the grace that flares now and then from a person, animal, plant, or even a stone or a star. We are happy to celebrate community, treasure self-transcendence, participate in rites of passage, join in songs of thanksgiving and praise, and live, as best we can, so as not to harm our fellow humans or rend the fabric of creation. We have no Creed, no dogmas, no God who favors our faith above all others, and, by the same token, no wars of religion, no heresies, no autos-da-fe. When we die, we die, but we live in the hope that, having lived, we have left the world a better place -- or at least no worse than we found it.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Universal and necessary history

My posting yesterday on Michael Novak of the conservative American Enterprise Institute brought to mind Emerson's essay The Conservative, which every American might profitably read in these distressingly polarized times, and which should be in the curriculum of every school.

This is the essay in which Emerson famously said: "Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory. Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry." If any institution -- state or church -- is to prosper, it must find a way to balance conservatism and reform, past and future, wisdom and wit, wrote Emerson: "Each is a good half, but an impossible whole."

Those of us who incline towards liberalism have been discouraged in recent years by the dismaying rise of muscular conservatism. But we can take solace in the knowledge -- as Emerson reminds us -- that both conservatism and innovation are part of organic nature (they are in fact at the heart of evolution by natural selection), and popular opinion will eventually swing, as it must, our way.

Meanwhile, one of our institutions -- science -- maintains a rather steady course between the Scylla of fixity and the Charybdis of anarchy.

Any system of ideas that makes a claim to truth must be conservative. If every idea has equal currency in the marketplace of ideas then truth becomes a matter of whim, politics, expediency, or the tyranny of the strong.

Science has evolved an elaborate system of social organization, communication, and peer review to ensure a high degree of conformity with the existing orthodoxy. This conservative approach to change has allowed for an orderly and exhaustive examination of fruitful ideas. It has allowed science a measure of insulation from fads, political upheavals, religious conflicts, and international strife.

Offbeat ideas have a hard time of it in science, but not an impossible time. Revolutions are few and far between, but they do happen. The mantra I have used here on several occasions is this: Science is radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change.

So, yes, science is conservative, but of all truth systems that have helped people organize experience, science has proved to be the most reliably progressive. And all of this by institutional consensus with a minimum of strife. Scientists affirm in their very devotion to research Emerson's belief that the hopes of humankind transcend all previous experience.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


My elusive friend.

Crazy is as crazy does

I see in the paper that Michael Novak, graduate and friend of Stonehill College, has proposed a way to "heal the rift between science and religion": Teach intelligent design in the public school science classroom.

I seem to remember the Novak when he was something of a liberal, those many years ago. He has since moved ever more firmly to the right, and has now become a ubiquitous voice for everything conservative from his pulpit at the American Enterprise Institute. Just last week he was at the college talking about his book Business As a Calling (and, yes, he means "calling" in the religious sense; the book was published in 1996, and, alas, Novak presented Ken Lay as an exemplar of the ethical, religiously-motivated businessman).

If there is tension between science and religion, please, let's not blame the scientists. Except for the occasional militant atheist such as Richard Dawkins, most scientists are content to live and let live. For every Dawkins roiling the waters, there are a dozen Paul Daviess or Ken Millers who try to bring some calm to the discussion. It's not scientists who are driving the controversy, but the religious right.

And it is not only science in the classroom that is under assault; it is the very existence of this nation as a modern secular state embracing religious freedom for all, including the freedom not to believe. The great irony is that as we try to impose secular governments on the likes of Iraq and Iran, the religious right wishes to return America to its supposed roots as a "Christian nation."

Regrettably, the present rift between science and religion cannot be healed. Approximately half of Americans believe the world is less than 10,000 years old. The same number believe God created humans more or less as we find them today within the same time period. Let's put it bluntly: The universe cannot be 14 billion years old and 6,000 years old at the same time. Only 15 percent of Americans believe humans evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years. That's a rift that cannot be bridged, and no amount of wishing will make it so.

Many well-meaning religious conservatives will say, "But of course we are not talking about biblical literalism or a 6000 year-old universe." Well, fine, but take away the fervor of evangelical literalists and the intelligent design controversy would disperse like the smoke it is. Not even the Discovery Institute and Mr. Novak could keep it alive.

So let's agree to disagree. Scientists will stay out of the churches, and creationists will stay out of the public school science classrooms.

Even if the religious right succeeds in getting creationism (in any of its forms) into the public school science curricula, it will have zero -- let me repeat that -- zero effect on how science is practiced by scientists. So we will have a curious disjuncture between what scientists do and what is taught as science. A sorry situation, indeed, and not worthy of this great nation.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the flap and fury, some of us -- theists, atheists, and agnostics alike -- believe that science is too shallow a vessel to contain the fullness of our response to the world, yet we treasure science for what it is: the most valuable way of knowing humans have yet devised for obtaining reliable public knowledge of the world.

"To have antagonism between science and religion is crazy," Novak is quoted as saying at a forum last week. He is right. The two ways of knowing are often utterly incompatible, but the world has quite enough antagonism. Which is reason enough to keep religion out of the public school science classrooms.

(More on this topic here and here.)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Beauty, terror

I offer below two images from the October 20 issue of Nature. Exactly what they represent is not as important as the visual appearance of the diagrams.

The first is a representation of mutations in flu viruses. Each horizontal row is a key amino acid position in one of ten viral proteins. The amino acids at each position are color coded. Mutations during five recent flu seasons (vertical columns) show up as a change in color across a row.The second image is a map of interactions between 121 human disease-associated proteins.The first image reminds me of music as it might be displayed with music-synthesizing software. The second might be a map of social interactions within a community, or perhaps a map of the internet. I am struck by two things: 1) That researchers are clever enough to figure out the machinery of life on such a microscopic scale; and 2) that the machinery of life, even on the scale of a virus, has so much in common with humankind's greatest works of art.