Saturday, December 31, 2005

On being good

In yesterday's posting, I suggested that empirical knowledge -- with its attendant principle, Ockham's Razor -- is corrosive of traditional belief. When I was writing for the Boston Globe I often heard from fundamentalist Christians who sent me tracts or tapes asserting that science is antithetical to moral values. Scientists become atheists so they can lead dissolute lives without fear of hellfire, claimed my correspondents. Every time I wrote about evolution, especially, I got letters saying I would burn forever.

There is no evidence that I know of -- and I have looked -- that atheists or agnostics are in general less ethical in their daily lives than theists. In fact, most studies I have seen point in the opposite direction. Certainly, religions can be applauded for promoting ethical values, but I would be quicker to trust my wallet to any one of the atheists of the National Academy of Sciences than to those churchgoing Christians who sent me the damning letters.

The 18th-century essayist Montesquieu wrote: "Happy it is for men that they are in a situation in which, though their passions prompt them to be wicked, it is, nevertheless, to their interest to be humane and virtuous." It has always seemed to me that empirical learning makes one more inclined, not less, to recognize that our personal interests are best served by ethical behavior towards our fellow men and women. Christian charity has done much to alleviate human suffering over the ages -- would we all lived by the Sermon on the Mount -- but Montesquieu's Enlightenment values have led us forward too. We have not reached a Peaceable Kingdom on Earth by any stretch of the imagination, but we are probably closer than at any time in the past.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Having our cake and eating it too

Americans have a love-hate relationship with science. We love the technological fireworks that are the handmaidens of scientific learning: space spectaculars, digital technology, pharmaceuticals, scientific medicine. We know in our heart of hearts that none of this would exist without the plodding efforts of scientists to understand the world. But we are deeply suspicious that science undermines traditional religious values.

Nine in ten Americans say they believe in a personal God. Among scientists that figure falls to four in ten, and among the members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences it's one in ten. Clearly, empirical knowledge of the world is corrosive of traditional belief, and people are smart enough to know it. So they keep science at arm's length. It has been estimated that only one in ten Americans can be considered scientifically literate. We pick and choose what parts of science we are willing to give our assent, knowing full well it is all of a piece. We seem perfectly willing, as a people, to live with a large measure of cognitive dissonance.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


It has been glorious, morning by morning, to watch the waning Moon creep ever closer to the still-hidden Sun in the blue-purple morning sky -- past Spica, past Jupiter, its bow ever thinnner. Put an arrow in that bow and it would be pointing to the heart of the Sun, there, below the horizon. This morning the Moon was less than two days from new. Tomorrow it may be too old and frail to see, but I'll give it a go.

I walk the beach before sunrise. The sea lays pink and golden at my feet. On the eastern horizon dark clouds catch the first direct rays of the Sun. I try to feel the turning Earth, carrying me eastward at a thousand miles per hour to meet the Sun. But I can't. I know my celestial mechanics, but the Sun still rises, bubbliing up out of the sea. Was it Aristarchus who first imagined that the Earth turned and the Sun stood still? Or was it someone else whose name has been lost to history? It was surely one of the most original and counter-intuitive thoughts of all time.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Wasp waste

According to a brief story in Science (November 25), entomologist W. Joe Lewis of the U. S. Department of Agriculture found that he could train wasps to detect and react to scents associated with explosives. And he could do it in five minutes by associating the scents with a sugar-water reward.

Of course, you can't put a wasp on a leash like an explosive-sniffing dog. So Lewis designed a portable "Wasp Hound," a device with a fan that pulls air into a chamber with trained wasps. When the target scent appears, the wasps crowd around the intake looking for a reward. According to Lewis, they do the job as good as a trained hound, far more cheaply.

OK, what next? I suppose wasps are too small to carry transmitters so that their free-wing searches for suspect molecules can be tracked. On the other hand, yelps of pain from explosive-handling terrorists might do the job better than radio.

But then innocents might get stung too. So here's my idea: Train butterflies. Flocks of explosive-sniffing butterflies would add a lovely note to otherwise drab airport terminals and public buildings. Security personnel would keep an eye out for persons in a cloud of fluttering wings.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

To love the darkness

You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.

But the darkness pulls in everything:
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them! --
powers and people --

and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.

I have faith in nights.

I have long pondered these verses by the poet Ranier Maria Rilke (here translated by Robert Bly). I think I first mentioned them in something I wrote 25 years ago. Perhaps I have quoted them previously on this blog.

The words seem shocking, somehow. Human have a terrible need to know. We invent stories and myths to explain away our ignorance. And sometimes, because we are unwilling to say "I don't know," we turn our stories into Truths. Knowledge then becomes a fence that seals us off from most of what exists.

Consciousness has arisen out of the dark abyss of time. We see the flame that burns around us: birds, insects, grasses, and flowering plants -- tens of millions of species of living things. We are in it up to our necks. A zillion bacteria inhabit our guts. Mites creep in the forests of our eyelids. Viruses swim in our blood. We depend utterly upon plants to capture the energy we get from the sun. An uncountable number of creatures that live in the sea maintain the air we breathe.

But what of the darkness that we came from? The billions of years of hidden history, the patient crafting of complexity, the long unfolding of diversity? Every cell of our bodies remembers the eons; we are related to every organism on Earth by common descent. Our atoms are the dust of stars.

We split open sedimentary rocks along their seams and spill fossils into the light after millions, or billions, of years of darkness. Like hieroglyphics on the walls of a newly opened Egyptian tomb, the fossils are a record of our past.

"The past is continually erased, and the record of the most distant time survives only by a chain of minor miracles," writes the paleontologist Richard Fortey. What other wonders await us in the unopened pages of sedimentary rocks? "One of the glories of the fossil record is that it continually surprises," says Fortey. We look into the dark abyss of time and are made humble in the face of what we do not know.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Are men necessary?

My wife is reading Maureen Dowd's new book, Are Men Necessary?, a Christmas gift from one of our two daughters. I am confident all three women would answer Dowd's title question in the affirmative. At least, I hope so.

For me, Dowd's title evokes a book published a generation ago by the humorists James Thurber and E. B. White, called Is Sex Necessary? That title question, too, was not entirely frivolous, and any biologist can tell you the answer: No.

Sex is a terribly inefficient way to go about the business of reproduction, fraught with dangers, blind alleys, and wasted resources. Humans are so preoccupied with sex that we tend to overlook the fact that life would be much simpler without it.

I'm not talking about abstinence, but about asexual methods of reproduction -- cloning, or sending out shoots, or parthenogenesis (reproduction by means of unfertilized eggs, seeds, or spores). Even certain vertebrates get along with only one gender.

What a lot of energy we waste, as a species, thinking about sex, talking about it, and doing it. And apparently it's not much different with the birds and the bees. Given all the fuss and bother, biologists wonder why sex evolved at all, and what sort of evolutionary pressures maintain it.

Perhaps Thurber and White got it right. According to those tongue-in-cheek philosophers, males and females have always sought, by one means or another, to be together rather than apart. At first they were together by the simple expedient of being unicellular. Later, in the course of evolution, the cell separated, "for reasons which are not clear even today, although there is considerable talk." The two halves of the original cell have been searching for an appropriate other-half ever since.

Sunday, December 25, 2005


On this Christmas morn let me thank all visitors to Science Musings and wish you the best of the season. By the evidence of the Comments, you are a remarkable group of people -- wise, thoughtful, courteous. I've learned from you, and I hope in turn to have added some small pleasure to your lives. Whatever our faith or lack thereof, we can affirm together the message of the angels in the Christmas story: Peace on Earth, good will towards men.

Ten years ago, for Christmas 1995, I wrote a holiday parody for the Boston Globe. It has appeared more widely on the internet than anything else I have ever written. A bit dated now, but prophetic too. Enjoy this week's Musing.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Feasts of light

This is the season when people of many faiths celebrate the deepest mysteries of their faiths. An appropriate time to ponder the mystery that surrounds and permeates science. During the past year and a half I have chronicled here many discoveries of science. What we have learned only deepens our wonder at what we do not yet know.

Einstein once wrote that science is an activity in which we are permitted to remain children all of our lives. "What I mean," he explained, "is that we never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we are born."

It is a common misconception that science is inimical to mystery, that it grows at the expense of mystery, and intrudes with its brash certainties upon our sense of wonder. Many times students said to me that science "takes the mystery out of the world." In reply, I referred to the metaphor of knowledge as an island in a sea of infinite mystery, and pointed out that the extension of our knowledge insignificantly depletes the sea. Rather, the growth of knowledge extends the shore along which we might encounter the thing that Einstein sometimes spelled with a capital M.

To Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, he wrote: "It gives me great pleasure to tell you about the mysteries with which physics confronts us. As a human being, one has been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly how utterly inadequate that intelligence is when confronted with what exists." Profound humility from a man who spent his entire life using his intellect to extend the shore of our knowledge.

Friday, December 23, 2005


I mentioned not long ago that at semester's end I gave my students Greg and Bailey each a copy of Sigrid Undset's Nobel-prizewinning novel Kristin Lavransdatter, and bought myself a copy too.

The novel is really three books: the first takes Kristin's life up to her marriage; the second accounts for her married life; the third folows her to widowhood and death.

When I first read the novel in my twenties, I thought it passionately romantic, but it was Kristin's youth I related to then. I should have read the novel again in mid-life, when I had teenage children of my own, but I suppose I was too busy for a 1200 page journey to 14th-century Norway. I'm now halfway through a second time round and enjoying the book as much as I did the first time,and with far more understanding.

But this is Science Musings. What, if anything, does Undset's novel have to say about science?

I can't think of any novel I have read in my life that depicts the human condition with more knowledge and feeling than Kristin Lavransdatter. It's all here -- love, passion, fear, joy, pain, sex, guilt, parents, children, nature, neighbors, politics, war, and through it all that terrible hungry search for meaning in a world that can be lonely and cruel. None of this has changed since the 14th century, or indeed since the dawn of history. Human nature remains the same. Which is why we learn so much about ourselves from great art of any age.

But between Kristin and ourselves stands a divide that is starkly evident in the novel: the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. The world of Kristin and her contemporaries is awash in superstition -- gods, demons, benevolent and mischievous spirits, and the fear and helplessness that goes with believing that one's happiness and sorrow are in the hands of powers other than one's own, and that our actions, however inadvertent, have supernatural consequences. Perhaps the most significant difference between the prescientific world and our own -- at least for those of us who embrace Enlightenment values -- is the knowledge that we stand on our own two feet, and that to a far greater extent than for our ancestors, we are -- as individuals and as a species -- masters of our own destiny.

More, much more, when I have finished reading.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The rectangular curve

During the last century, the average life expectancy of an U. S. citizen almost doubled. If you were born in 1900, you could expect to live 47 years on average. An American born today can reasonably count on living to almost 80. Moreover, an American typically lives twice as long as a citizen of Afghanistan or Sierra Leone.

The reason, of course, is advances in scientific medicine and sanitation. When Florence Nightingale brought home the lessons she learned in the military hospitals of the Crimea, her influence was quickly felt in Europe and America. The English writer Lytton Strachey said of Nightingale that she seemed "hardly to distinguish between the Deity and the Drains," that is, between religious faith and scrupulous elimination of agents of infection. Only when the drains -- scientific medicine -- became paramount did hospitals enter the modern era and life expectancy begin to significantly change.

Antibiotics, rather than incantations. Vaccines, rather than charms. Antiseptics, rather than resignation. In the developed countries of the world, most of us now die of old age, something previous generations took as rare good luck.

Which is probably why the genes that cause senescence have not been deleted or modified by natural selection. In former times, no one lived long enough for those genes to significantly affect reproductive survival. Death began to reap its harvest starting at birth, and the number of people living to a given age steadily declined until old age took the few remaining survivors. The human survival curve was the same as that for sparrows or salamanders. Today we have an increasingly "rectangular" survival curve. Survival is virtually assured until senescence, then -- boom -- we fall off the edge.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


In 1851, Charles Darwin's eldest daughter and treasured child, Annie, died at the age of ten of what is presumed to have been tuberculosis. During the girl's illness, Darwin was at her bedside night and day. Her death gave poignant meaning to his developing notions of the amorality of nature and the struggle of all creatures for survival.

Charles' wife Emma searched for the divine meaning behind Annie's death. A widely-held view among Christians at that time was that death is due to sin -- either the victim's, another person's, or Adam's. Most assuredly Emma did not blame Annie. If she thought Charles' apostasy was implicated, she did not say so. Since God cannot cause evil, she assumed that Annie's death must be meant for good in some mysterious way. Charles did not believe there was any divine purpose behind Annie's death. For him, death was a purely natural process, part of the machinery of life that drove evolution towards "endless forms most beautiful." The only comfort he had at Annie's loss was that during her brief life he had never spoken a harsh word to her.

Humans are animals, Darwin believed, and like all animals we are locked in a struggle for existence, which, left to itself , eliminates the weak. But he also firmly believed that humans can escape the relentless logic of natural selection, and that by exercising our moral conscience and caring lovingly for the sick and weak we lift ourselves above our animal natures.

(Thank you, Judge John Jones, for affirming the constitutional bulwark against the establishment of an American theocracy.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In the beginning?

In 1993, the $10 billion Superconducting Super Collider, intended to be the world's most powerful particle accelerator, was canceled, leaving a very big hole in the ground in Texas, and suspending America's long dominance of high-energy particle physics. The reasons for the cancelation were multiple. The Cold War ended, cutting the perceived connection between high-energy particle physics and defense. The biological sciences began to capture some of the romance the previously had accrued to "the search for the fundamental particles of the universe." But also the public wearied of paying an ever increasing price tag for creating ever more esoteric and short-lived bits of matter. It seemed there might not be a bottom to the search for the ultimate stuff. Build a more powerful machine, and discover one more class of arcane ephemera.

If particle physicists were going to get the big bucks again, they would have to find a new way to package their quest.

We get a sense of what they're up to in a guest editorial by Michael Turner in a recent issue of Science (December 2). Turner is an astrophysicist and Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the National Science Foundation. He writes: "The focus has shifted from searching for the smallest subatomic seed to understanding the universe and the nature of matter, energy, space, and time. Big questions are ripe for answering. What is the "dark matter" that holds our galaxy together? Where did space and time come from, and how many space-time dimensions are there? How did the universe begin, and what is the mysterious dark energy accelerating its expansion? And perhaps the biggest question of all, one whose answers probably underlie all the others: How are the two pillars of modern physics -- quantum mechanics and general relativity -- to be reconciled and a unified understanding of the forces of nature achieved?"

This is surely a more glamorous agenda than looking for the next bit of nothing, and many physicists believe the answers to these lofty cosmological questions are just around the next $20 billion corner. Well, maybe. But big-budget projects in science are going to have a hard time of it while the country is preoccupied with paying for the war in Iraq and rebuilding the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. The present administration in Washington, and a substantial part of its constituency, are no big fans of science. Half of Americans think they already know how the universe began. Why spend billions finding out when it was all written down thousands of years ago at the instigation of the Maker himself.

Monday, December 19, 2005

A remoter charm

The Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote this of his youth:
     ...the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.

As I enjoy what might be the last months of deep darkness here on the island, there is a tendency to abandon myself, with the poet, to the sheer sensations of the starry sky, to lie on the terrace at night and sate an appetite for beauty that needs no charm unborrowed from the eye. But mind keeps intruding. Sensation becomes, inevitably, perception. It is impossible to unlearn all that I have learned in a lifetime of learning: The various sizes and temperatures of the stars, the nature of those colossal celestial furnaces powered by fusion, their distribution in three dimensions, the enveloping nebulas revealed by telescopes, the abyss of galaxies that reaches back to the beginning of space and time. Perhaps only a child can view a universe unalloyed with all that thought supplies. There are times, of course, when one wishes one could turn off the mind and surrender oneself to the pure gush and rush of sensation. But a life cannot be unlived, nor science foresworn. The desire for unadulterated sensation passes, and the adult perceiver revels in a universe that far outshines the mere downpour of photons on the retina of the eye.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


The Indian philosopher Meera Nanda -- whose book I have recommended here -- has a new article on the Butterflies and Wheels website. By coincidence, my Musing this week touches on the same topic, although in a more irreverently humorous way.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Awash in a sea of light

When we came to this island a dozen years ago we were seeking three things:

Warmth, of course.

A life with a minimum dependence upon technology and energy consumption. The film Frankie Starlight built a sweet little house on the beach, without heat or air conditioning. M. and I furnished it with the products of our own hands. And, as far as driving goes, there is essentially only one road on the island, and it's only 20 miles long.

And dark skies. I wanted to live part of my life in a place where I could see the universe.

When we came here, there were very few lights on the island. The Double Cluster in Perseus, the Beehive in Cancer, and the Andromeda Galaxy were easy naked-eye objects. The zodiacal light reached up from the western horizon in the evening like a second Milky Way. At any time of the night I could step out onto the terrace and be overwhelmed with stars. We called our place Starlight House.

Well, it's still warm. And life is still lived close to the bone. But like everywhere else in the world, the lights are coming on. A big tourist resort has opened a few miles up the coast, the island's first; its glow pollutes the northern sky. The Bahamian Electrical Corporation has installed environmentally-insensitive street lighting along the Queen's Highway (we managed to talk them out of lighting the side road that lead to our house). And -- disaster of disasters -- a condominium development in going in next door.

The island now shows up on nighttime satellite photographs of the Earth. What a dozen years ago was a blessed patch of darkness is a dot of light. And every photon of light that is visible from space does not the least bit of good on Earth.

Friday, December 16, 2005

When meteors fly

On rare occasions the Leonid meteor shower of November puts on quite a show. Such was the case on the night of November 13-14, 1866, when the sky over Europe was ablaze with shooting stars. By all reports the spectacle was both terrifying and beautiful. It was, in any event, a sobering reminder of the precarious and impersonal power of nature.

A week or so later, the English author and divine Charles Kingsley preached a sermon The Meteor Shower which is still relevant today. In that sermon he said: "Terrible enough Nature looks to the savage, who thinks it crushes him from mere caprice. More terrible still does Science make Nature look, when she tells us that it crushes, not by caprice, but by brute necessity; not by ill-will, but by inevitable law. Science frees us in many ways (and all thanks to her) from the bodily terror which the savage feels. But she replaces that, in the minds of many, by a moral terror which is far more overwhelming." Only faith in a higher guiding power can keep us from despair, preached Kingsley.

How I long to see a meteor storm such as Kingsley observed in 1866. When several years ago a powerful Leonid shower was predicted, you can bet I was out there waiting, only to be disappointed. We now know exactly what causes these unusual events, and can predict them to some extent years in advance. No longer do we experience the raw terror which our ancestors felt on seeing the heavens fall. We can appreciate meteor storms for what they are: demonstrations of nature's grandeur -- and of the power of the human mind to grasp nature's laws.

For this Kingsley insinuates a Father, outside of nature, loving to be sure, but also just, a Father who can suspend nature's laws to exact retribution, to punish the sinner, even to confine the unworthy to hell fire. Yes, science frees us in may ways from the physical terror which the "savage" feels. Why then do we insist on remaining in bondage to a moral terror of our own making? Can we not find a basis for moral action in joy, in beauty, in the gracious possibilities of human evolution? As a father, I want my children and grandchildren to be good not because they fear punishment or hope for reward, but because being good does honor to themselves. Call it grace if you wish. It is the same grace that illuminates the sky when meteors fly.

(Kingsley's complete sermon can be found here. Scroll down to the beginning.)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The top

There is a short (very short!) story by Franz Kafka about a philosopher who hangs around children in the street who are playing with tops. As the tops are sent spinning across the pavement, the philosopher leaps to grab them, to the distress of the kids. He has this idea that if he can understand any deatil of reality, a spinning top for instance, he will grasp it all. But as soon as he has a top in hand, he is depressed, nauseated even. He tosses the top away -- until the next time.

The story is called The Top, and is, I suppose, a parable, one of those Kafkaesque parables we can make of what we want. I see it representing our desire to know and understand the reductive laws of nature, the perennial quarry of science. But knowing those laws does not satisfy our deepest yearning, which is for the thing that spins, the non-reductive thing.

Some folks are content to watch the spinning top, the blur of color and squeal. Others are satisfied by the solidity and heft of the thing in the hand. And others of us struggle as best we can to balance whirl and heft, to have our spinning top and grasp it too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Snow birds

Tomrrow, Thursday, I will be in transit to a warmer clime. Don't know what I'll find there with my internet connection. With luck, I'll be back here on Friday.


Just beyond the outermost parking lot of the Stonehill College campus, in what were deep woods only a few years ago, is a 200-year-old millstone quarry. What makes the place special is the way it shows how our colonial ancestors hewed millstones from the solid crust of the earth, step by step, from raw rock to cultural implements, as if the quarryman were preparing a demonstration for future archeologists about how the work was done.

One of the stone wheels has been barely sketched out -- a flat surface, a shallow central hole, and half a circumference nicked into the rock, hardly more than a scheme in the quarryman's eye. It might be easily overlooked under its cloak of lichens and moss.

Nearby, another wheel half hewn from the living rock. Why the quarryman put down his mallet and chisel we'll never know.

Then the largest wheel of all, five feet in diameter, a foot thick, and completely released from its long geologic sleep. It lies on its haunches at a comfortably lazy angle, ready to be tipped vertical and rolled away to whatever grist mill was its destination, perhaps a mile or two away on the Queset Brook. But this stone isn't going anywhere; the weight of years holds it fast.

As campus development encroached on the quarry, someone took the trouble to surround the stones with a rail fence, to give them some protection against the ever-expanding parking lots. With the fence, the place is reminiscent of an old cemetery with tombstones tipped cockeyed to the earth. It is a cemetery of sorts, containing the remains of a culture different from our own. Stepping over the fence, we enter a world where men and women laboriously gathered their livelihoods from the unrefined substance of the earth -- wheat, rye, oats and corn and the stone to grind the grain into flour and the running water to turn the wheel.

All of that still happens, of course, but out of sight, and mostly out of hand too. Inert earth is still turned into livelihoods, but we are not part of the process. The work of muscle, mind, hand, and eye takes place elsewhere on an impersonal scale that dwarfs the millstone quarry. These stones once had a dynamic purpose, but each year now that they lie waiting they become more set in their repose, relics of an almost forgotten past.

(This post was written collectively by Greg, Bailey and Chet. And so the semester ends. Thanks Bailey and Greg, for your friendship, and for the joy and enthusiasm of your lives.)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Star time

Here you can see a stunning new Hubble Space Telescope mosaic of the Crab Nebula in the constellation Taurus. As many of you will know, this is the remnant of a star that blew up in the year 1054 A.D., Earth time, an event that was observed and recorded by Chinese and, maybe, Native American skywatchers. (It's also possible that the Irish took note.) The progenitor star was 6500 light-years away, which means it actually blew up 6500 years before it was observed on Earth.

Most nebulas photographed by astronomers appear to hang motionless in the sky. What motions they have are made imperceptible by size and distance. These things exist in a space and time that dwarfs human existence.

The Crab was first photographed a century ago. If old photographs are carefully compared to contemporary photographs, it is possible to detect the outward motion of the gases against the background stars. I used to do this exercise with my students. One can work backwards and confirm (more or less) the date the star went supernova. I always liked this exercise because it let us directly observe an event unfolding in cosmic time.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

... is another man's superstition

Far and away, the factor which correlates most closely with one's religious beliefs is the circumstances of one's birth -- where and to whom. Yet the overwhelming majority of people believe their religion is true and all others are false. As Francis Bacon said, "What a man would like to be true, he preferentially believes." See this week's Musing.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

A book in the hand is worth two on the screen

The University of Texas at Austin has removed almost all of the books from its undergraduate library to make way for a 24-7 electronic information center. Only dictionaries and encyclopedias remain, although it would seem to me that those might be the first to go.

The University of Texas is not alone. Other institutions have also made the move towards digital libraries, including the University of Southern California, Emory, the University of Georgia, and so on. It is not, I think, an altogether felicitous development.

Certainly, universities should make every effort to provide their students with high-speed, wireless access to the web. And every incoming freshman should be required to take a course in using the web as a learning resource, including how to evaluate the reliability of web-based information. But for God's sake, leave the books alone. Grazing the shelves of a good library can be the surest and best introduction to the world of ideas. There is nothing like holding in your hands a broadsheet like the New York Times, a narrow sheet like the New York Review of Books, or a thick dusty volume of, say, the Brothers Karamazov. What the digital library architects overlook is that learning has a tactile dimension. It is not for nothing that we talk about weighty ideas. Ponder and ponderous have the same root, as do grave ("requiring serious thought") and gravity.

When my two student colleagues, Bailey and Greg, came over for dinner the other evening, I gave them each as a Christmas gift the splendid -- and hefty -- Penguin Classics Deluxe edition of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, and ordered an extra copy for myself. After days at my laptop this winter I will curl up -- for the first time since I was Greg's and Bailey's age -- with that particular satisfyingly palpable analog bundle of bound printed paper freighted with ideas.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The widening circle

Not long after she read my novel Valentine, a friend gave me a postcard reproduction of a popular late-19th-century painting called The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Leon Gerome. It depicts a scene in Rome's Circus Maximus during the reign of Nero. In the foreground, wild beasts emerge from a trap door in the arena floor. In the middle ground, a group of Christians of all ages and both genders kneel in prayer. In the background, other Christians smeared in pitch and bound to crosses are ignited one by one.

Of course, people are still martyred for their faith today, but it seems impossible to imagine the gratuitous murder of hundreds of people as mass entertainment, as was the case in Rome. This was the Rome of Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius, Seneca, Virgil, Cato, Cicero, Ovid and the Plinys; that is, a Rome we were taught to look upon as high civilization. It was this apparent contradiction between lofty ideals and base inhumanity that gave me the theme of Valentine.

Clearly something of the ravenous beast still lurks in each of us, perhaps in our genes, something that is satisfied by hunting, violent video games, murderous films, suicide bombings, and war. The anthropologist Margaret Mead defined civilization as the ever growing circle of those whom we do not kill. Will that circle ever expand to include every other human on the planet?

I walked out of the film Gladiator because I was made uncomfortable by the violence, even though a central character was the "saintly" Marcus Aurelius, who himself, after all, was no big fan of Christians. Would I have done the same from the Circus Maximus had I lived in Nero's time?

It seems that cultural influences such as Marcus Aurelius' Meditations and Christ's Sermon on the Mount take us only so far along the road to tolerance. What if scientists were to identify the gene or genes that incline us towards violence to the other. Would we choose to excise or chemically suppress such genes, assuming that were physically and socially possible, ushering in a Peaceable Kingdom on Earth? Or should we live with our demons and trust cultural evolution and our innate altruism to keep them in check?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pennsylvania polka

It now seems fairly certain that presiding judge John E. Jones III of the intelligent design trial in Harrisburg, PA, will rule in favor of the plaintiffs; that is, that intelligent design should be kept out of science classes in the Dover, PA, public schools. Margaret Talbot provides a superb account of the proceedings in the December 5th New Yorker.

The star witness for the defense was, of course, that indefatigable champion of ID, biochemist Michael Behe, who is just about the only scientist with respectable scientific credentials who supports ID. Even Behe's colleagues at Lehigh University do not endorse his views.

The ID crowd insists that intelligent design is science, not religion, and that it can be tested empirically. Although ID has been around at least since the Reverend William Paley's 1802 book, Natural Theology, no experiments or observations supporting ID have yet appeared in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

As expected, Behe pushed the bacterial flagellum -- the little propellerlike appendage that pushes bacteria through aqueous media -- as the premier example of a biological system that is too "irreducibly complex" to have happened by natural selection. And, he says, like any other scientific theory, the intelligent design theory for the origin of the flagellum is falsifiable. "A scientist could go into the laboratory, place a bacterial species lacking a flagellum under some selective pressure (for mobility, say), grow it for ten thousand generations, and see if a flagellum -- or any equally complex system was produced."

An attorney for the plaintiffs, Eric Rothschild, asked Behe if he had attempted such an experiment. Well, no.

The attorney pointed out that even if the experiment were performed and failed, it would hardy mean a thing. "It's entirely possible that something that couldn't be produced in the lab in two years or a hundred years...could be produced over three and a half billion years," said Rothschild. Behe conceded the point.

In other words, it's conceivable that an experiment might be performed that would show intelligent design is unnecessary to produce a flagellum, but impossible to imagine an experiment that would rule out natural selection. Indeed, even the first part of this statement is up for grabs. Presumably an Intelligent Designer -- if he (she, it?) had a sense of humor -- could cause a flagellum to appear in the experimental petri dishes, much to the consternation of those who champion the necessity of an Intelligent Designer.

One feels rather sorry for Behe. By all reports he is a nice fellow. He seems to have got himself out on a scientific limb and doesn't know how to get off, wanting desperately to be respected as a scientist, but unable to come up with a single test of his pet "scientific" theory.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A wiki wiki world -- Part 2

When I suggested the other day that the Wikipedia concept might provide a model for world government, I had my tongue partly in cheek. I'm not surprised that the Onion got there first.

Still, I would love to see a wiki site devoted to writing a constitution for world government. It would attract the input of experts and amateurs, people of all nationalities, races, and religions. It would also attract crackpots and ideologues, dreamy idealists and incorrigible pessimists. But you know what? I'll bet what emerged would be better than anything politicians or political theorists could come up with.

My wife scoffs. She thinks I'm hopelessly optimistic. And yes I am optimistic about the collective wisdom and intelligence of the mass of humanity. I'd rather be ruled by the wiki consensus of the first 1000 people in the New York or Shanghai phone book than by the current crowd in Washington. Most of the troubles in the world are caused by puffed-up egos, mostly men, some well-meaning, some not, who think they know what's best for the rest of us.

A wiki site would not only draft a world constitution, but also draw up a plan for implementation. Presumably, the wiki concept of web-based free-for-all consensus-building would be part of how any such government works.

Of course, my tongue is still partly in cheek, but even if never implemented, a wiki world government would be instructive to contemplate. Within a decade, the internet has transformed how we think, communicate, and conduct business, but its potential for global social organization has hardly been tapped. If I had the skills and resources, I would build the site myself, and then sit back as see what "the collective wisdom and intelligence of humanity" came up with.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


According to news reports, the Roman Catholic Church is about to jettison limbo -- or at the very least, consign limbo to limbo.

Yeah, I know all about limbo. I learned it with my ABCs in parochial school. And, like every other young Catholic of my time, I believed it. Limbo was a medieval solution to a thorny theological problem: If only baptized Christians can go to heaven, what happens to all those little babies who die before baptism? And what about the good folks who lived before Christ? Was Moses burning in hell?

Well, no. There was another place, the limbus inferni -- the edge of hell -- where newborns and Moses frolicked for all eternity, deprived of the Beatific Vision, to be sure, but beyond the lick of flames.

Today, it seems astonishing that we believed such nonsense, 400 years after the Scientific Revolution. Apparently, even the present pope has now decided it's time to tweak the theology. Of course, the theology needs more than a tweak, but that's another matter.

For myself, I am grateful that in high school I was taught by a group of remarkable Dominican nuns who downplayed the sillier aspects of theology and taught me science. Real science. Science with the word "natural" at the heart of the definition. And for that, I am eternally grateful. Well, maybe not eternally, but at least for a lifetime.

It turns out -- as I have discovered to my delight -- that Dominican sisters (and other women religious) are at the very forefront of progressive, truly ecumenical, science-respecting Catholicism today. They are way ahead of the pope on limbo and other archaic remnants of prescientific theology. More power to them.

Meanwhile, evangelical Christians are striving to deprive their children (and ours) of a self-respecting science education. I suppose if you believe there were dinosaurs on the ark that makes a lot of sense. But heaven help the children -- and limbo help the rest of us.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A wiki wiki world

Yesterday's New York Times had an article about the on-line Wikipedia, an encyclopedia written and edited by users. Anyone is welcome to add an article to the encyclopedia, modify an article, or even delete an article. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the concept seems to work remarkably well, and in my experience, provides generally accurate information. The gist of the NYT article was the same.

The astonishing thing about Wikipedia is not just that it works so well, but that it works at all.

At present, Wikipedia has over 800,000 articles, in more than 80 languages. It is the world's largest encyclopedia, and a stunning testament to the wisdom and integrity of the mass of humankind. Not democracy, not anarchy, but give-and-take consensus.

A few weeks ago Tom drew my attention to an entry for me.

And, yep, there I was, along with a photo. The info, as brief as it is, is accurate. The photo is ten years out of date, but that's my fault since it's the same one as on this site, and I'm not complaining. I have no idea who wrote the entry, or who updated it, although the history is there to be looked at.

I also learned the meaning and origin of the word wiki.

When Tom and I started this website, I worried that the Comments feature might evoke unruly debate and chaos. "Don't worry," Tom replied; "The commenters will police themselves." And indeed I think we'll all agree that Comments adds immeasurably to the site. Maybe the Wiki idea provides a template for a future world government.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Not just a pretty face

Women scientists in the movies are always young and beautiful -- think Jodie Foster in Contact. But what about in real life? See this week's Musing.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Into the blue

Joel -- who you will know from Comments -- reports seeing Venus with the unaided eye in broad daylight from San Antonio, at 2:30 in the afternoon on December 1. This is no mean feat.

He had a couple of things in his favor. He lives further south than most of us here in the States, and therefore Venus was higher in his sky. And right now Venus is as bright as it ever gets, about magnitude - 4.7. A waning, growing crescent.

To pull this off, you'd need a perfectly clear sky and know exactly where to look. Getting your eyes to focus at infinity can be a problem; try looking at the horizon first, then up into the sky. It can also help to dilate your pupils. And so on.

But why, Joel, why? What's the point? Why all that trouble to see a dot of light against the blue?

Well, we both know the answer to that, but I suppose it isn't easy to explain. It's not just the dot of light. It's making ourselves part of the intricate machinery of the world. It's having the solar system turning in our brain, as a kind of mental orrery. It means knowing why that dot of light is where it is, and as bright as it is, and why a whole universe of celestial objects is there swimming in the blue.

And, by the way, this evening offers a chance to see a very young crescent Moon, about 56 hours old and eyelash thin, perhaps the youngest Moon you have ever seen (anything younger than 30 hours is an achievement). Just as the sky gets dark, low in the southwest, to the lower right of Venus (about a fist-width at arm's length). Not the best time of the year for young Moon spotting, but doable. Venus will be easy to spot in the gathering dusk. Don't wait too long or the Moon will have set.

Tomorrow evening, ABSOLUTELY NOT TO BE MISSED, a lovely crescent Moon will join Venus in the twilight sky. As the sky gets dark, look for Earthshine on the part of the Moon not lit by sunlight.

Way to go, Joel!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Facing the future

According to news reports, French doctors have carried out the first partial face transplant. The surgeons lifted nose, mouth and chin off the skull of a donor and reattached that floppy mask to the arteries, veins and nerves of a recipient whose own severely disfigured face had been removed.

It surely will not be long before an entire face is transplanted. Think of that thing in the surgeon's hands, that oval of tissue with lips and lashes, that -- that person.

Which prompts us to ask more urgently than ever before: What is a human self?

The question is complicated by a long tradition of philosophical dualism that divides the human self into body and soul. For many people, the essence of a self is thought to be the spiritual thing, the thing that only temporarily resides in flesh and will live on when the flesh is gone.

But body-soul dualism has been soundly refuted by science. Every aspect of our conscious and unconscious selves has an organic basis. There is no ghost in the machine. No self that lives forever.

So is a self defined by DNA? Fingerprints? Memories? A face? All might get you convicted in a court of law. The immune system? The body seems to know what's self and what isn't, and must be bludgeoned into allowing transplants.

What about self-awareness, the ability of the brain to reflect upon itself? Self-awareness can be altered by brainwashing, psychoactive drugs, electrical stimulation, political or religious propaganda, even advertising. A lifetime in front of a TV set may be the equivalent of a self transplant.

So what is the essence of a self? And how do we protect its integrity?

Because we have no consensus about this most important of questions, physicians, geneticists, and biotechnicians stumble forward on their own, although they have no more ethical wisdom in these matters than the rest of us, taking us willy-nilly into a biotech future we can barely imagine.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

December's subtlety

October blows through New England like a hurricane of color, a gaudy extravaganza of yellow, orange and red. Gone. All gone.

Now we seek our color in flecks and dabs. The rosy cap of the russula mushroom hunkered under brown leaves. The yellow and crimson berries of the bittersweet. The flash of scarlet on the downy woodpecker. The red berries of the tiny, evergreen teaberry plant.

One of my favorite nature guides is Lauren Brown's Weeds in Winter. Nothing fancy, no glossy color plates, just delicate line drawings of the subtle apparatuses of thorns, burs, seed pods, calyces, bracts -- flowers undressed by winter, their hidden contrivances and secret stratagems made clear. This is nature for the fine-tipped pen, not the Kodacolor print. On a walk with Greg and Bailey the other day we found a rare little plant called blue curls. Only the paper-crisp, upturned bracts remain, like tiny flames. No summer blossom could be lovelier.

When autumn's Crayola riot fades, we turn our attention to the burrowings of insects, galls and cankers, abandoned bird nests, bracket fungi, tracks in mud and snow. In winter's black-and-white we hoard the gold of the kinglet's cap, the speckled pink of granite, blue shadows on snow. In winter, we really start to figure out what nature is all about. Hard work. October was easy.

(Weeds in Winter is out of print. I would guess that Brown's newer Wild Flowers and Winter Weeds is just as good.)