Sunday, July 31, 2005

The empty lair

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?


A few lines from a poem by Mary Oliver. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Breaking symmetry


And speaking of symmetry, my wife won't let me have anything to do with the design of our garden. She abhors my tendency to make walls and plantings in straight lines, with everything in pairs. Odd numbers, she insists. Sinuous curves. We have different tastes, apparently. I like symmetry. She thinks asymmetry is beautiful. She scorns my "French" taste, and chooses instead the rambling landscape esthetic of Capability Brown. I suppose she is right. After all, four billion years of biological evolution have yet to produce anything resembling, say, the ultra-symmetrical Tuileries Gardens in Paris. Except, of course, the Tuileries Gardens in Paris.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Twisted beauty

I have two morning glory plants here in the window of my studio. My wife has two more in the house. All spiral up their poles in a right-handed sense. It is eerie that the morning glory knows which way to twist. But, of course, it doesn't "know." It is driven up its pole by internal asymmetries. Life on earth uses left-handed amino acids almost exclusively. Right-handed DNA is all the rule. Why do the internal organs of our bodies have the same twist? Why, for that matter, do we live in a universe that is exclusively matter? Why didn't equal quantities of matter and antimatter annihilate each other exactly in the earliest moments of creation? The physicists tell us that symmetry and the breaking of symmetry are at the very heart of understanding why the universe exists. The symmetrical leaves and blossom of the morning glory and the asymmetrical corkscrewing of its vine hint at something deep beyond our knowing.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Religion without God

In his book Dreams of a Final Theory, physics Nobelist Steven Weinberg writes: "Religious liberals are in one sense even farther in spirit from scientists than are fundamentalists and other religious conservatives. At least the conservatives like the scientists tell you that they believe in what they believe because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy."

An interesting observation, but doesn't explain why the great majority of scientists are religious liberals, if not outright agnostics or atheists. The answer, presumably, has something to do with the difference between true and True.

Of course, atheistic Weinberg is not endorsing religious conservatism, far from it. But he is not so far off the mark when he says that defining God as "order," or "energy," or "beauty," or "love" is a bit of a cop out. "The more we refine our understanding of God to make the concept plausible,": he says, "the more it seems pointless.".

My book Honey From Stone was subtitled "A Naturalist's Search for God." The word "God" appears only once, in the last paragraph of the book, where I have been talking about Vega, the first star to be photographed, in 1850: "A grainy stuttering of heat on a simulated photograph -- knowledge condensing from a sea of mystery, extending the shore along which we might encounter God. (Can that ancient, much-abused word still have currency in an age of science? Perhaps not. But let it stand, like a distant horizon, like a foreign shore.) Este saber no sabiendo, "This knowing that unknows," is what John of the Cross called it, the knowing that takes place just here on the surface of the eye where Vega and the thought of Vega are one. Photons of radiant energy stream across the light-years, wind-whipped whitecaps of visible light and the longer swells of the infrared, to fall upon the Earth out of the dark night -- denying, revealing, hiding, making plain. I am soaked by starlight, I am blown by a stellar wind. I am bent low in that downpour of revelation."

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Urban astronomical myths

This time it's e-mail messages saying: "By August 27, Mars will look at large as the full moon to the naked eye."

Mind you, as usual there is a germ of truth to the rumor. On July 17 Mars was at perihelion, its closest to the Sun in space. In early November Mars is at opposition, in a line with Earth on the same side of the Sun, and as close to Earth as it gets (at least for the time being). Even then its disk will only be about 1/100th the diameter of the full moon and about 1/10,000th as bright. Mars will be high in the south at midnight, in the constellation Aries, and perfectly situated for viewing all night long.

In 2003 Mars came closer to Earth than at any time between 57,617 B.C. and 2287 A.D. We had another round of e-mails then.

On November 14, the almost full Moon and fat Mars will be close together in the sky. You can check out the rumor for yourself.

A little puzzle for you: Mars is at opposition on November 7, but is actually closest to Earth on October 30.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Waiting for broadband

Today I'll be sitting around waiting for the person from ilDana to install wireless broadband intenet. They've put up an antenna across Ventry Harbor at Cuan Pier that will provide coverage for anyone in line-of-sight, which pretty much covers the parish. One more component to the bath of radiation we live in.

Electromagnetic waves were predicted theoretically by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1864. Twenty-two years later they were experimentally demonstrated by the German Heinrich Hertz, who in effect made the first radio broadcast and reception. At Hertz's transmitter a spark jumped back and forth between two metal spheres 50 million times a second. Across the room a similar spark was instantly produced at the receiver. Invisible electrical energy had passed through space at the speed of light.

A spark dancing between two spheres -- an unpretentious beginning for the age of radio, television, mobile phones and wireless internet. Some years ago I saw replicas of Hertz's experimental apparatus at the MIT Museum. The replicas were built in the late l920s by German model-maker Julius Orth, working from the originals. The first transmitter and receiver had a basement-workshop simplicity about them. Hertz proved the existence of electromagnetic waves with constructions of wood, wire, string, and sealing wax.

His original radio waves were twenty feet long, later two feet, and his equipment was correspondingly large. His focusing reflectors, refractor, polarizer, coaxial transmission line, and other apparatus filled the room at the MIT Museum like stage props from some 19th century opera. The replicas were beautiful in an antique sort of way -- yellow varnish, tarnished metal, the patina of crusty wax. They evoked the day when a clever person with a halfway-decent workshop and a knack for construction could unravel mysteries of the cosmos.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The way that he went

On Saturday I spoke of Robert Lloyd Praeger, the Irish naturalist, and his classic natural history of Ireland The Way That I Went (1937). At the end of his book he confesses to "old-fogydom," and being out of step with his times. He prefers Mozart to Ravel, Constable to the cubists, Browning to Joyce, he confesses, and is befuddled by the rush and clatter, fuss and noise of the 20th century. He remembers with affection the courteous quakerish naturalists who taught him "the truths that lie at the bottom of all true science." And what are those truths? Praeger does delineate them explicitly, but they infuse his book from beginning to end: curiosity, attention, open-mindedness, deep thinking, skepticism of dogmas, especially those of religion and politics, a fierce love and loyalty to his own people and place, knowing he has much to learn from people and places everywhere.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Swimming in Jurassic seas


In recent years, the British Museum of Natural History in London has been dolling up their exhibits, making them less Victorian, more 21st century, not always successfully. One of my favorite places in the museum is what I call "The Hall of the Flat Beasts," a long gallery whose walls are adorned from floor to ceiling with fossilized marine reptiles, collected in the early 19th century, splendidly displayed cheek-by-jowl in a bit of a jumble, Victorian fashion, including a few plaster replicas of important specimens in foreign museums.

One ichthyosaur specimen in the gallery (from Germany) contains six unborn young inside its body, and another has three unborn young with the almost perfect impression of a fourth being born tail first just as the mother died. A Lyme Regis ichthyosaur has bits of another ichthyosaur between its teeth, part of the creature's last meal. To move along the gallery from specimen to specimen is to be taken back 200 million years to vanished Jurassic seas teeming with monsters -- eating, being eaten, mating, bearing young.

No matter how rotund these creatures were in life, when they fell dead to the sea floor and became buried in sediment their skeletons collapsed or were pressed nearly flat, so that when they are revealed in the strata they have an intaglio appearance, like carvings by Renaissance masters. The gallery has not changed since I first visited the museum in 1968. It would be hard to imagine how to improve it and I hope the curators have the good sense to leave it alone, since it happily conveys the passion for fossilizing that characterized early 19th-century England.

See this week's Musing.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The way that they went

Toward the end of the 19th century and through the early part of the 20th, the naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger walked over Ireland, "stopping often, watching closely, listening carefully." In 1937 he published a wonderful natural history of the island, called "The Way That I Went." I dip into it often.

In the first chapter he thanks the "sturdy workers" of the Belfast Field Club, who shared with him their knowledge and enthusiasm: S. A. Stewart, trunk-maker, botanist and geologist; William Swanston, linen manufacturer and geologist; F. J. Bigger, solicitor and archeologist; Joseph Wright, grocer and specialist in the foraminifera; William Gray, Inspector for the Office of Works and a scientific jack-of-all-trades; Charles Bulla, commercial traveler and paleontologist; S. M. Malcolmson, physician and microscopist; Robert Bell, shipyard worker and geologist; R. J. Welch, photographer and crusader in the interest of Irish natural history; Canon Lett, clergyman and botanist; W. J. Knowles, insurance agent and prehistorian. These men, and others, says Praeger, "knew all there was to know about local birds and insects and flowers and rocks and fossils."

That's a world that has pretty much been surrendered to the professional scientists, but what a debt we owe to those gentlemen (and gentlewomen) amateur natural historians of yesteryear, who filled their infrequent "idle" hours with the love of learning.

Friday, July 22, 2005

A bit more on Ben

Americans tend to think of Benjamin Franklin as a tinkerer and dabbler: inventor of bifocals and the Franklin stove, kite flier, and quaint aphorist of Poor Richard's Almanack.

In fact, the man behind the popular iconography was energetic, insatiably curious, and prodigiously active. Even in the midst of strenuous diplomatic labors on the part of the infant American republic, Franklin squeezed science into every free moment of his time.

His voluminous correspondence with scientists worldwide includes observations of clouds, storms, ocean currents (he mapped the Gulf Stream), tides, rivers, sunspots, whirlwinds, lighter-than-air balloons, lead poisoning, daylight savings time, and the common cold. We saw yesterday how he anticipated the essential idea of plate tectonics. Little escaped his ravenous attention.

In Europe -- today as in his own time -- he is best known as the author of "Experiments and Observations on Electricity," a book that helped lay the foundations of electrical science. It was Franklin, for example, who discovered that electrical charge was of two kinds, which he called positive and negative.

The historian Carl Becker says of Franklin: "[Science was the] one activity from which he never wished to retire, to which he would willingly have devoted his life, to which he always gladly turned in every odd day or hour of leisure, even in the midst of the exacting duties and heavy responsibilities of his public career. Science was the one mistress to whom he gave himself without reserve."

Thursday, July 21, 2005

A wreck of a world

The tip of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula is the westernmost point of Europe. There was a time, some 200 million years ago, when I could have walked home from here without getting my feet wet. As everyone now knows, the ocean that separates Europe and North America is a relatively recent artifact of the slip and slide of the Earth's crustal plates.

But here's something I bet you didn't know.

In July 1747, Ben Franklin wrote to Jared Eliot, a Connecticut clergyman: "The great Appalachian Mountains, which run from York River back of these Colonies to the Bay of Mexico, show in many Places near the highest Parts of them, Strata of Sea Shells, in some Places the Marks of them are in the solid Rocks. 'Tis certainly the Wreck of a World we live on!"

And what caused this "wreck" that heaved the floors of oceans high into the air, lifting sea shells to mountain peaks? Franklin found other clues during his travels in Britain. In a coal mine at Whitehaven in northern England he observed the leaves and branches of ferns impressed upon slates which formed the natural roof of the mine, deep beneath the present surface of the Earth. Elsewhere in England he found oyster shells mixed with the rocks of a mountain top. Evidently, surface marshes had been depressed and the ocean floor thrust upwards.

Franklin wrote: "Such changes in the superficial parts of the globe seemed to me unlikely to happen, if the earth were solid to the centre. I therefore imagined, that the internal parts might be a fluid more dense, and of greater specific gravity than any of the solids we are acquainted with, which therefore might swim in or upon that fluid. Thus the surface of the globe would be a shell, capable of being broken and disordered by the violent movements of the fluid on which it rested."

This strikes me as a pretty accurate description of the fundamental notion of plate tectonics, written a generation before James Hutton founded the modern science of geology with his "Theory of the Earth" in 1785, and more than two hundred years before the theory of plate tectonics changed our way of thinking about the Earth.

I came across this info in Ronald Clark's biography of Franklin, but I don't recall ever seeing it mentioned in the scientific literature. Does anyone know of a geology text that gives the great man credit?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Bog


A few days ago I wrote here about the Coumanare "arrows," splinters of yew wood about a foot long, sharpened at both ends, now eroding from bog on a shoulder of Mount Brandon here on the Dingle Peninsula. My guess is that they were set vertically into the ground in great numbers and used for laming deer driven onto them. Subsequently, a meter or more of peat has grew over them which is now eroding away. What is remarable is that the sticks look today, thousands of years later, as fresh as the day they were stuck into the ground.

Ireland's history is buried in bog. Because of the water-logged and anaerobic nature of the soil, whatever gets buried is preserved. Pollen, twigs, tree trunks, bones, and antlers are maintained in the peat in recognizable form, enabling naturalists and climatologists to reconstruct past climates, flora, and fauna with remarkable completeness. Human history, too, is in the bog. Dwelling places, timber trackways, tubs of butter, even clothed bodies are yielded by the peat for study by archeologists. Most remarkable of all are the troves of ecclesiastical treasure -- jeweled chalices, patens, and other artifacts of wood and metal -- buried in the bog a thousand years ago, perhaps in nervous anticipation of a Viking raid, and not recovered until our own time.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

In verdant pastures

Uh-oh. I just noticed here at the back of a bookshelf a Roman Breviary, a thick compendium of prescribed daily prayers for clerics, known as the Divine Office. I borrowed it many years ago for something I was writing -- Honey From Stone, perhaps -- but I can't remember from whom. Do clerics still read the Breviary every day? I don't know.

As I thumb through it I see much that is beautiful, the Psalms, for instance. I admit to a lingering affection for liturgies linked to the diurnal and annual cycles of nature. The symbolism of earth, air, fire, water. Candlelight in darkness. Gregorian chant. All of that this book of tissue-thin pages evokes.

But what now strikes me as most alien to my present state of mind is the twenty-six pages of "rubrics" that precede the prayers, delineating every detail of when, where, and how to recite the Office. It is as if the intent of the rules is to suck every element of spontaneity out of the act of praying. Today, it is precisely the spontaneous element of prayer that is most meaningful to me -- falling onto my knees to see what nocturnal beast has left its scat on the garden path, listening in midnight darkness to the typewriter chatter of slates on the roof, or now -- just now -- watching a glacier of cloud slip low and liquid trough Mam na Gaoithe, the Windy Gap.

For all of the magnificent scriptural poetry of the Breviary, the "rubrics" (those myriad rules in red) iron it strangely flat. I think of a few lines of the poet Mary Oliver: "Of course! the path to heaven/ doesn't lie down in flat miles./ It's in the imagination/ with which you perceive/ this world,/ and the gestures/ with which you honor it."

Monday, July 18, 2005

The powers that slumber


A screen of green between me and the world. Seven weeks ago I planted seeds and a few little tomato plants in pots along the window sill of my studio (an earth-covered "hobbit hole" looking out at Dingle Bay). And look now at what has been assembled atom by atom, molecule by molecule, out of dirt, water and air. Yeah, I know, I know. DNA, RNA, protein assembly, and all that. But knowledge just makes it seem all the more remarkable. For example, the way the morning glories all helix in the same right-handed fashion up their poles. The way the lettuce leans into the sun. The way the peas, as they blossom, announce their kinship to vetch, trefoil and clover. All of that asleep in tiny flecks in a Burpee packet.

I think of words of Teilhard de Chardin: "Let us go on and on endlessly increasing our perception of the hidden powers that slumber, and the infinitesimally tiny ones that swarm about us, and the immensities that escape us because they appear to us simply as a point."

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Evidence for design?

In a letter to a colleague, Charles Darwin wrote of his doubts that something as wonderful as the human eye might be the product of natural selection: "The eye, to this day, gives me a cold shudder, but when I think of the fine known gradations, my reason tells me I ought to conquer the cold shudder." As biologist Richard Dawkins says of this remark, "Darwin...saw his doubts as a challenge to go on thinking, not a welcome excuse to give up." See this week's Musing.

Let me take this lovely Sunday morning to thank again all of you who comment here. There can't be many blogs with such thoughtful and instructive readers.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

An archeological diversion


The photo is from the ridge above Lough Adoon (Lake of the Fort) on Ireland's Dingle Peninsula. The island you see in the lake was apparently a place of refuge in Iron Age times, about 2000 years ago. Where the island is separated from the shore by shallow water, it is defended by a dry stone rampart about 2 meters high with a single gate.

We have just climbed the corrie headwall above the lake, alongside gushing waterfalls, and are entering Coumanare (the Hollow of the Slaughter), supposed site of an ancient battle between the champions of Ulster and Munster. There is hardly a square meter of this peninsula that does not have archeological associations; there are more sites of archeological interest here -- Bronze Age, Iron Age, Early Christian -- than in any other place in Europe.

On a ridge above Coumanare the blanket bog is eroding away to reveal what are called "Coumanare arrows," sharpened sticks by the hundreds, about a foot long, believed by local people to have been used in the mythical battle, but more likely dating from even earlier Bronze Age times and used for laming deer. We have occasionally found the "arrows" in situ standing vertically in tight cluster

Friday, July 15, 2005

Instruments of learning

An incident from Rohinton Mistry's award-winning novel A Fine Balance:

India. The years just after the Second World War on the eve of independence. Two young boys from the Untouchable caste, and therefore precluded from education, spy on the children in the local school. They are attracted by the songs, the voices of children reciting the alphabet, the squeak of chalk on slate.

One day the teacher takes the class out into the yard to practice a dance. The boys climb in a window. They open the cupboard where the teaching materials are kept -- the books, the maps, the charts, the chalks and slates. They are fascinated, eager to touch. So rapt are they in their excitement that they fail to notice the return of the teacher. The teacher drags the boys into the yard and in the presence of the upper caste children administers savage beatings.

That evening the boys' father goes to see the village elder, an upper caste Brahmin known for his sage powers of justice and arbitration. Humbly, the father suggests that the teacher might deserve punishment, or at least chastisement, for so viciously thrashing his sons. The Brahman listens patiently. "But the teacher had no choice," he finally intones. "It was a terrible offense." The boys polluted the schoolroom. They touched the instruments of learning. They defiled the slates and chalks which upper caste children would touch.

The Brahmin adds: "You are lucky there wasn't a holy book like the Bhagavad Gita in that cupboard, no sacred texts. Or the punishment would have been more final."

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Is history one damn thing after another? -- Part 2

When we arrive at our Irish cottage every summer the place is overrun with spiders -- common cellar spiders, Pholcus phalangioides, sometimes called "daddy-long-legs." We go at them with the broom, a sad but necessary murderous sweep.

But the ones that have taken up residence under the bookshelves above my desk I let be. They are fun to watch, especially as they do their mysterious wiggle dance when I touch them with the point of a pencil. When babies are born, I feel a bit of the proud parent. What, pray tell, do they eat?

Their free energy rate density may not be as high as that of my Powerbook laptop, but they have a quality no laptop has. My Powerbook doesn't respond in surprising ways to my touch, or make babies, or move about from day to day. It doesn't touch my life the way other things clustered here about me do: books, plants, spiders, the ever-changing weather outside the window, the dew on the grass that is glittering like diamonds in the early morning sunlight.

Yes, I want to know where my species came from and where it's going, and I'm proud of the tradition of human curiosity and inquiry that has led us to an awareness of the DNA and the galaxies. But what's ultimately important in my life is this place, this moment, this slant of light, this improbably long-legged spider that even as I write is climbing its silver thread toward a book on the shelf called -- yes, I'm serious -- Mystery of Mysteries.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Is history one damn thing after another?

In Comments there has been discussion of futurist Ray Kurzweil's prediction that computers will soon equal human intelligence.

Eric Chaisson, a physicist at Tufts University, defines history's direction with something he calls free energy rate density, a measure of the concentration of energy as it flows through space and time.

For example, vastly more energy flows through a star than through a worm, but the concentration of energy is greater for a worm than for a star -- roughly 10,000 ergs per second per gram for a worm versus 2 ergs per second per gram for a typical star.

When Chaisson calculates the free energy rate density for everything from stars to living cells to worms to human brains he gets an exponentially rising curve that he takes to be the signature of increasing complexity -- and, by implication, the direction of cosmic history.

What's at the top of Chaisson's curve? Not the human brain, but the Pentium chip and its equivalents, with a free energy rate density of something over 10 billion ergs per second per gram. This exceeds even the human brain because microchips perform their operations so much faster than do webs of organic neurons. According to Chaisson, we are rapidly conceding to computers our place as the most complex things in the known universe.

Are there other forms of complexity out there among the galaxies with free energy rate densities in the hundreds of billions? We'd be fools to think otherwise. But does this affect the way I live my life? More tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A silence close to mystery

Bernie Long (Bearnard O Lubhaing) is the uncle of our local postmaster Jim. Jim's family have been valued friends since we first came to Ventry 32 years ago. Jim was then a boy of 12 years who played with my son. He is a third generation postmaster.

Bernie's memoir of growing up in Ventry in the 30s and 40s has now been translated from the Irish into English. It is a lovely book, wonderfully evocative of a way of life that has passed away. It begins: "In the days of my youth there was a silence close to mystery in the world quite unlike the noise of today. In everyday life would be heard only the whinnying of the horse, the cart squeaking on the untarred road, the dog barking, the soft plash of the oars as the currach steered for the slipway of a yellow autumn evening, the song of the hammer on the anvil from the forge near the slipway."

All gone now. From here on the hill we can hear from all over the parish the whine of petrol-powered strimmers, the growl of mechanical excavators, the occasional scream of jet-skis in the harbor, the rumble of traffic on the Slea Head road, the high hum of the jumbo jets making their way to America. It was in the chapter on "Sounds" that the author of Walden made his famous remark about needing "a broad margin to my life." It is in the silence of the margins that we encounter whatever it is in the world that strikes awe and wonder into our souls. Thoreau said: "If the soul attends for a moment its own infinity, then and there is silence."

Monday, July 11, 2005

Disenchantment

Back when I was writing for the Globe, a reader wrote: "To laymen, science often seems to take away mystery and make them feel a little stupid at the same time. It seems to me that there is a growing suspicion that while science might be useful it is also spiritually destructive. A lot of people want to feel that there are things out there that can't be explained. Maybe we all feel that way to some extent."

Yes, I suppose we all do feel that way to some extent. The human mind loves a mystery, loves a world possessed by spirits. And science does have a way of disenchanting. The ancient gods have been tossed from their Olympian thrones. The spirits of trees and brooks sent packing. Like a heartless landlord who cares more about profit than compassion, science has evicted the fairies from their hills.

But is science spiritually destructive, as my correspondent suggested? At its best, science is a manifestation of curiosity, intelligence and imagination -- that is, the best of the human spirit.

As for wanting to feel that there are things out there that can't be explained: Not to worry. The human brain is finite, a few hundred billion nerve cells. The universe is possibly infinite. It will continue to surprise us for a long, long time -- possibly forever.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

In praise of secularization

When we first came to the Dingle Peninsula 33 years ago for a yearlong residence, it was like stepping back in time. Our village had only a few telephones, including the public kiosk outside the post office from which we made our calls. Our car, a bright yellow Volkswagen 411, stood out among the few black Morris Minors on the streets of Dingle. It was a poor community, but spectacularly endowed with natural beauty. Endowed too with wonderful people who welcomed us into their cheerful and generous lives.

Today, the natural beauty and the people are the same, but there's a car or two in every driveway and an internet connection in every house. What brought about this rapid and dramatic transformation? See this week's Musing.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

The place within

"As time went by, I realized that the particular place I'd chosen was less important than the fact that I'd chosen a place and focused my life around it."

In his lovely book, The Island Within, Alaskan nature writer Richard Nelson continues: "What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it's flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which its bounty is received."

Nelson's special place is an island on the coast of Alaska, which he leaves unnamed for fear of contributing to its despoliation. The island is a wilderness. But a place need not be wild to bury itself in the heart. Some of the best nature writing has come out of places as ordinary as our own backyards: Henry Beston's outermost house on Cape Cod; Edwin Way Teale's old farm in Connecticut; Annie Dillard's Tinker Creek in Virginia; John Hanson Mitchell's cottage on the edge of time in a suburb of Boston.

Two geographies in particular have been important in my own life and work: the path between my home and work which I walked for 40 years, and Mount Brandon on Ireland's Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. Because I am a writer, I have shared the bounty of those places. But one need not be a writer to know a place and love it. One need only turn off the TV, step outside, walk, and watch. Rocks, sky, flora and fauna, diurnal and annual cycles of natural and human history -- these things are there for the taking in any place, an inexhaustible munificence.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Golden Fort


Larry Dunne, a local archeologist, gave my wife and I a tour of an official dig just over the hill on the shore of Smerwick Harbor. Dune erosion has revealed substantial medieval structures, in several levels, including a church and burial ground. Here is a child peaking up out of the sand, its long repose briefly disturbed.

What the archeologists would like to find is some connection with Dun an Oir, the Golden Fort, just a mile away across the bay. In 1580 an English army led by Lord Grey of Wilton, and including among its hangers-on the poet Edmund Spenser and the adventurer Walter Raleigh, besieged here an invading force of Italians, Spaniards and Irish who sought to foment a Catholic uprising against the infidel English queen. The invaders were holed up in the clifftop fort, and cut off from escape by sea by an English fleet. The leader of the garrison may have betrayed his own people, in collusion with Grey, by talking them into surrender and the laying down of their arms. So rendered defenseless, about 600 Catholics were slain, virtually everyone in the fort, including women and children. Most of those killed were decapitated and their bodies thrown over the cliffs into the sea. The mutilated corpses would likely have washed up near the archeological dig.

So far, no bodies without heads or heads without bodies.

Queen Elizabeth's response to Grey: "I joy that you have been chosen the instrument of His glory."

Thursday, July 07, 2005

In the beginning was America, and America was with God, and America was God...

There has been a thoughtful ongoing discussion in Comments (so deep in this blog that I have a hard time keeping up with it) as to what sort of religious faith, if any, is compatible with scientific skepticism. Can atheists, agnostics, pantheists, panentheists, and, yes, even theists find common ground for wonder, celebration, contemplation, love of neighbor, and ethical action? The discussion so far provides an encouraging affirmative.

Why then are so many of us anxious about what is happening in America today? What disturbs us, I think, is not any particular manifestation of religiosity, but the alliance of religion and politics, the conflation of American values with one self-annointed brand of dogmatic Christianity, the marriage of convenience of neo-con politicians and televangelists and megachurch preachers, a sociology of saved and damned, an apocalyptic world view that believes saving souls "for Christ" is more important than saving lives, and the highjacking of secular public education in the name of a faith-based retreat from empirical science.

In this regard you may be interested in David James Duncan's take on "What Fundamentalists Need for Their Salvation" in the current issue of Orion.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Deep Impact

We've all been keeping tabs on the rendezvous of the Deep Impact space craft with Comet Tempel 1 (that video link Tom provided is spectacular).

For curiosity's sake, here is the inner solar system at the time of the encounter, with the comet barely inside the orbit of Mars. The comet's five-and-a half year orbit keeps it inside the orbit of Jupiter. It reached perihelion (closest to Sun) the day after impact. The orbit is inclined by about 10 degrees to the plane of the solar system, and the comet was plunging through the plane just as the encounter took place. It will now follow Mars on around the Sun, but drifting out towards Jupiter.

Folks who worried that we might nudge the comet from its orbit and cause a collision with Earth need not be concerned. It's future colonists on Mars who must keep an eye on Tempel 1, and Jupiter is more likely to perturb its orbit than anything we throw at it.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Deep Impact Roundup

The ubiquitous tool of every field geologist is the trusty rock hammer. There's no better way to discover the composition of a rock than cracking it open and looking inside. This is exactly what NASA succeeded in doing with the Deep Impact mission.

Comets are thought to be formed in the coldest reaches of the solar system. As such, a comet such as Tempel 1 is a rock sample unlike any found on Earth and of great interest to astronomers.

NASA delivered a whopping hammer blow to this comet in the shape of small spacecraft whose sole purpose was to impact the comet at high speed. During the event, a sister craft was imaging the impact and the resulting crater and dust plume.

Scientists are studying the details of the impact now. In the meantime, the rest of us can "ooh" and "aah" at the neat pictures and videos(!) of the impact.

Willard who?

Why have so few American's heard of Josiah Willard Gibbs, my choice for the greatest American scientist of all time?

We are a practical people. Every American schoolchild has heard of inventors like Robert Fulton, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell, but the theoretician Gibbs languishes in obscurity. We admire the Benjamin Franklin who invented the stove, bifocals, lightning rod, a stool that opened up into a ladder, and a rocking chair that fanned the sitter as he rocks, but we hardly know the Franklin who debated with the most brilliant natural philosophers of his time about whether there is one electrical fluid or two, and whether electrical force acts at a distance or through the agency of an electrical effluvia. Ten editions in four languages of Franklin's "Experiments and Observations on Electricity" were issued by European presses before the American Revolution, but no American edition of the book appeared until the middle of the 20th century.

Gibbs lived in an age of mechanical ingenuity and the raw aggrandizement of physical power -- the transcontinental railroad, the Atlantic cable, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the efficient killing technologies of Shiloh and Gettysburg. His own city of New Haven boasted Charles Goodyear, discoverer of the vulcanization of rubber, Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin and manufacture by interchangeable parts, and Samuel Morse, inventor of the electrical telegraph. Meanwhile, Gibbs labored away quietly, laying down the mathematical foundations that would sustain theoretical science for more than a century.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The greatest American scientist of all time?

Here's my choice: Josiah Willard Gibbs.

Years ago, as a graduate student in physics, I kept coming across Gibbs' name -- Gibbs' phase rule, Gibbs' paradox, Gibbs free energy, the Gibbs-Helmoltz equation, Gibbs functions, Gibbs ensembles, and so on. The name popped up in texts on chemistry, mathematics, theoretical mechanics, optics, and thermodynamics. Sometimes the latter subject seemed entirely a Gibbsian invention. Almost every branch of technology benefited from his work, especially the chemical industry. Alloys, explosives, fuels, and medicines were all touched by his genius.

Gibbs (1839-1903) lived all of his life in New Haven, Connecticut, a bachelor in his sister's house. He seldom traveled. Even his fellow professors at Yale University considered him something of a recluse.

As his work became known, universities in America and abroad bestowed upon him honorary degrees. He was recipient of the Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Sciences and the Copley Medal of London's Royal Society, the highest honor open to a scientist until the founding of the Nobel Prize. So modestly did Gibbs absorb these accolades that even his friends were unaware of the honors until they read of them in his obituary.

Gibbs' physics was the one great cornerstone of 19th century science that survived unscathed the relativity and quantum revolutions of the 20th century. Einstein and Max Planck, the architects of those revolutions, were late to discover Gibbs' work and were forced to reinvent many of the same results independently -- and with difficulty.

Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein was asked who he considered the most powerful thinker he had ever met. He answered without hesitation, "Lorentz" -- referring to Hendrick A. Lorentz, the mathematical physicist, and then added -- "I never met Willard Gibbs; perhaps had I done so, I might have placed him beside Lorentz."

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Nocturne

"How insupportable would be our days," wrote Thoreau in an essay on night and moonlight, "if the night with its dews and darkness did not come to restore the drooping world." See this week's Musing.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Google the Earth

Well I've been MIA on the blog for a while as the discussions have turned to weightier matters. But I'd thought I would chime in on a new piece of software I've been playing with.

Regular readers of this blog will know that both Chet and I are enthusiasts of the sky simulation program Starry Night. This program allows you bring up on your computer screen any view in the sky at any angle.

But what about an Earth simulator?

This week Google released "Google Earth" -- a simulator which uses satellite images and 3D modeling to recreate any view on the planet Earth. You'll need a fairly decent Windows PC to run it (No OS X version yet - boo hiss!) but you can't beat the price. It's free!

As a demonstration of some of the fun you can have with this software, I put together a little geography quiz for you. See how many of these landmarks you can identify. Click on the thumbnail views for a larger image.

The last one is a view perhaps only Chet will be familiar with. :-)

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans

Visitors to this site will be aware of the lively theological discussion that's been going on in Comments between Barry, Geoff, Teresa, and others. I've stayed out of it, not because I think it uninteresting, but because I have enough chance to have my say.

What all the participants seem to have in common is respect for reliable scientific knowledge of the world and a sense that the universe -- in Geoff's phrase -- "hums and bristles with mystery."

Like the great majority of people in the world, a few commenters want to give a name to the mystery, and to claim a personal relationship with its source. But most of us who have joined the discussion are content to say "I don't know." We agree with the philosopher Karl Popper: "The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance. For this, indeed, is the main source of our ignorance -- the fact that our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite."

We resist using the G-word if for no other reason than that it carries a historical burden of idolatrous baggage. We reject all dogmas and formulations, especially those that project a human face or personality onto what is so clearly transhuman. We pray, if reverent attention to "what is" can be called a kind of prayer, but we expect no response. We celebrate by engaging joyfully with the universe as it presents itself to our senses, never forgetting the apparently infinite mystery that lies just beyond the limits of our knowing.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Years a-growing

Just over the hill from here and across a mile of water is the Blasket Island, formerly the home of a tiny community of Irish speaking people who collectively gave rise to an astonishing body of literature in that language. One of those books is Maurice O'Sullivan's memoir of growing up in the Blasket, Twenty Years A-Growing, in translation one of the Oxford World Classics.

O'Sullivan recounts the time when he and his young friend Tomas hitch a ride off the island to visit the Ventry Races on the mainland. It is the first time Tomas has left the place of his birth. As the boys reach the mountain pass across the Blasket Sound, Tomas looks down on the parish of Ventry and says, "Oh, Maurice, isn't Ireland wide and spacious!"

Today, less than a century later, one can have the internet on the Blasket, and -- if one wishes -- instant access to the latest photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope -- the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph, for instance, with its thousands of galaxies from the dawn of time. Our response to these marvelous celestial images should be the same gape-jawed sense of wonder experienced by Tomas: "Oh, isn't the universe wide and spacious!"

But many of us turn our eyes away or put the knowledge of the myriad galaxies out of our mind. Faced with a universe vast beyond our knowing we experience a failure of nerve, we turn back down the hill to the place where the boat lies bobbing in the sea. We prefer our tight little island, centered upon ourselves, watched over by a loving parent...

...and forego the opportunity for adventure and growth that took boys from the Blasket into wide, spacious Ireland and the world beyond.