Friday, September 30, 2005

Out and about

Jack's comment on young gadabout Charles Darwin reminds me of something I wrote some years ago. On Dec. 27, 1835, in the fifth year of his round-the-world voyage as naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin posted a letter to his sister, Caroline, from New Zealand.

"My last letter was written from the Galapagos," he began, "since which time I have had no opportunity of sending another."

The letter to Caroline from the Galapagos has not been found. I tried to imagine what Darwin might have written, had he the prescience to foresee the future:

My dear Caroline,

We have lately arrived in this land of volcanic Craters, having crossed from the coast of Ecuador. A Whaling Ship lies at rest not far from our present anchorage, and will presently sail for the Atlantic. I take this opportunity of telling you how we are getting on. If this were the third year of the voyage, rather than the commencement of the fifth, I dare say I would be in better spirits. I am sustained by the thought that in 10 months time I will be sitting with you by your hearth in Shrewsbury.

These islands are a little world within themselves, only recently having arisen from the sea. The exceedingly strange creatures we find here, including giant tortoises and lizards, seem to have come up from the bowels of the Earth with the lavas themselves. It will be most interesting to find from future comparison to what mainland district the beings of this archipelago are attached.

From island to island, the animals show distinct differences. Local residents can tell with certainty from which island any tortoise or mocking-thrush was brought. It is puzzling that islands lying within sight of one another should be so differently tenanted. We seem to have been brought near to that great fact -- that mystery of mysteries -- the first appearance of new things on this Earth.

Everything here speaks of isolation. The human presence in the archipelago is sparse, only several hundred hardy souls. Although complaining of poverty, they live a not uncomfortable life, subsisting upon sweet potatoes and bananas, supplemented by the flesh of giant tortoises. These latter carapaced beasts are a singular resource of the islands.

The numbers of tortoises, of course, have been greatly reduced. The crews of whaling ships and bucaniers have for many years relied upon these animals for fresh meat. It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as 700, and that the ship's company of a frigate once harvested 200 tortoises in a single day. One wonders how long these primeval beasts can endure such deprecations before they are extinguished from the islands.

The melancholy fate of the giant tortoises raises the broader spectre of ruin for the native flora and fauna of the islands and the waters 'round about. As I have said, the Galapagos by virtue of their recent volcanic genesis are a kind of antediluvian paradise, perhaps holding on their several shores answers to the questions posed by Lyell in his recent Principles: How do new lands become clothed and tenanted with living organisms, and how are the uniqueness of these species to be explained?

The islands are thus of great interest to the philosophical naturalist, but these same primordial qualities will inevitably attract hoards of less attentive visitors. Is it too much to imagine that in some future time people will seek out this place of origins as now they flock to visit the antiquities of Athens and Rome? And how will the creatures of these islands, so long protected by isolation from the rapacious hand of man, survive his deprecations?

But do not let me trouble your mind with the fate of these islands. In two weeks time, we sail for Tahiti, which will bring me closer to home. Give my affectionate love to my father, Erasmus, and all of you. Goodbye, my dear Caroline.

Yours.

C. Darwin

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The center is nowhere, the center is everywhere

As I wrap up the manuscript for Walking Zero (or whatever we end up calling it), I am wondering if the book needs an epigraph. If I give it one, perhaps it should be the following words from Scott Russell Sander's Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World.

There are no privileged locations. If you stay put, your place may become a holy center, not because to gives you special access to the divine, but because in your stillness you hear what might be heard anywhere. All there is to see can be seen from anywhere in the universe, if you know how to look.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Eclipse

Since I will be going back to Turkey for the total solar eclipse of March 2006, I was quick to read the article Bordering on What?" ("The East in the West") by Christopher Caldwell in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, about changes in Turkish society.

Since the founding of the modern Turkish state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, Turkey has been a secular nation, overwhelmingly Islamic, but with no established religion and full freedoms for minority Christian and Jews. Istanbul and Ankara are sophisticated modern cities, and Turkey is anxious to be admitted to the European Union.

But changes are afoot. Fundamentalist Muslims in the provinces are acquiring economic and political clout, and access to powerful technologies of communication. Religion is being driven to the forefront of Turkish politics. Preachers rail against the "growing immorality of society." Religion is invading the secular curriculum of schools. There is an increasingly strident assertion that "Turkey is an Islamic nation." An Islamic Republic is not impossible.

Does all this sound familiar? The irony is that as we watch with anxiety Turkey drift under the influence of religious fundamentalists, America is heading in exactly the same direction.

Is this of relevance to science? Consider the case currently before the U. S. District Court in Harrisburg, PA.

(Please, if you have not already done so, let us hear your opinion of subtitles below.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Walking Zero, One, Two, Three, etc...

As Chet has mentioned before, in the fall of 2003 he traveled to England to tramp the countryside along the Prime Meridian. This formed the backdrop for his new book Walking Zero.

You don't have to be a science writer or even a TV personality to have your own longitudinal adventure. Like Milne's Pooh, we can discover our own "poles."

Check out the website for the Degree Confluence Project. Their goal is to record a photograph of every intersection of a latitude and longitude line in the world. Since everyone on Earth lives within 49 miles of a "degree confluence", everyone can participate in a little exploration.

Of course, like Letterboxing and Geocaching, this is another happy excuse to get outdoors and walk around. It is impressive, however, to browse their photo mosaic of the over 4000 confluences already documented by their volunteer adventurers. Neat!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Subtitles

I have mentioned here before that a new book is in the works, from Walker & Company. Here is a preliminary design for the jacket, with two subtitles. We ask your help. Which subtitle would most likely attract your interest if you saw it in a bookstore? Please respond in Comments. Really, your help is greatly appreciated.

That's not me with the beard, by the way; it is, of course, the great man himself.

(Click on the images for a larger view.)

Sex 101

Writing about J. Henri Fabre reminds me of another turn-of-the-century naturalist whom I read at a very young age, the Belgian man of letters and beekeeper, Maurice Maeterlinck. His The Life of the Bees published in America in 1901, somehow found its way into my parent's library.

Consider this passage from the chapter on the queen bee's nuptial flight: "Around the virgin queen, and dwelling with her in the hive, are hundreds of exuberant males, forever drunk on honey; the sole reason for their existence being one act of love."

What Hollywood scriptwriter ever penned a steamier love scene than this: "She, drunk with her wings, obeying the magnificent law of the race that chooses her lover, and enacts that the strongest alone shall attain her in the solitude of the ether, rises still; and, for the first time in her life, the blue morning air rushes into her stigmata, singing its song, like the blood of heaven ... she summons her wings for one final effort; and now the chosen of incomprehensible forces has reached her, has seized her, and bounding aloft with united impetus, the ascending spiral of their intertwined flight whirls for one second in the hostile madness of love."

No one mentioned the birds and bees in my house when I was growing up, or human sex either for that matter. My sex education, such as it was, came from the likes of Fabre and Maeterlinck, Victorian naturalists who drew more honey from the copulatory habits of birds and bees than any bee ever drew from a blossom.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

A gentler kind of science


In his many fascinating books, the 19th-century French entomologist J. Henri Fabre made ordinary bugs of the household and garden seem as exciting as the beasts of the African veldt. He told stories of their nestings and matings, their languages and societies, and their roles as predators and prey, all based on his own careful observations.

In spite of his popular success, Fabre was never made welcome within the scientific community. His folksy, literary prose style was resented by his fellow entomologists. They were further put off by his resistance to dissection and laboratory experiments. Stymied in his career, Fabre never advanced beyond an assistant professorship at a tiny salary.

He believed that the methods of science must be consistent with our motives for knowing. His method was to enter as intimately as possible into the lives of the creatures he studied. His laboratory was the field. "I make my observations under the blue sky," he wrote, "to the song of the cicada." See this week's Musing.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Tooth and claw

It was my pleasure recently to blurb a little book of nature reflections by the Tennessee naturalist Lynne Bachleda. She responded with a copy of her book Dangerous Wildlife in the Southeast. It's a handsome book, profusely illustrated, and written with authority and humor. As someone who grew up in Tennessee, I never knew we were surrounded with so much danger. The usual stuff, of course: chiggers, ticks, mosquitoes. Wasps, hornets, bees. Poison ivy and poison sumac. We had our eye out for copperheads and rattlesnakes, but I never saw one, except in boxes out back of a snake-handler church in Rising Fawn, Georgia. (Rising Fawn: perhaps the prettiest community name in America.) Black widow spiders turned up now and then; we gave them a wide berth. But that's just a small part of the flora and fauna that Bachleda catalogs. We never even heard of the stinkpot turtle, the bird-voiced treefrog, the two-toed amphiuma, the "cow killer" ant, or the boodsucking conenose, to name just a few threatening species. Just as well, I suppose, or we might never have gone outside.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Beauty and terror

Almost every week lately the journals Science and Nature warn about the threat of a worldwide pandemic of avian flu originating in southeast Asia. It's even the cover story of this month's National Geographic.

Flu is caused by a virus, a snip of renegade RNA or DNA in a protein shell. Viruses can only reproduce by hijacking the chemical apparatus of invaded cells. Yours. Mine. The 1918 influenza pandemic claimed 20 to 40 million lives worldwide.

And yet, and yet . . .

They are beautiful.

Computer-generated images of viruses, as revealed by X-rays and the electron microscope, rival in their loveliness the rose window of Chartres. The beauty of a virus is a matter of necessity. A virus has only enough genes to code for a few proteins. To build its shell, it must use the same few proteins over and over, like the repetitive pattern of patches on a soccer ball. For many viruses, the result is an icosahedral structure, with 20 identical triangular faces, one of the five regular polyhedrons admired by the Greeks as the epitome of beauty.

"Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare," wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. Euclid was a geometrician. The beauty of a virus is geometrical. Making do with life's bare minimum, a virus comes up with beauty bare.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A tooth for a tooth

How old am I? Oh, never mind. But if you want to know how old a person is, and they won't tell you, ask for a tooth. According to a report in the September 15 issue of Nature, tooth enamel can indicate a person's age to within a year or so.

Here's why. Several nations tested nuclear bombs in the atmosphere during the period 1955-63. The amount of radioactive carbon-14 in the atmosphere shot up dramatically, peaking with the signing of the Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Since then it has been decreasing exponentially as the atoms decay or are incorporated into plants. and animals that feed on plants. The amount of C-14 in the human body closely parallels that in the atmosphere at any given time. Tooth enamel is formed at specific times in childhood and, unlike other parts of the body, remains stable. Measure the amount of C-14 in tooth enamel and you have a reliable indicator of age.

But I'm safe. Or rather the best you can say is that I was born before 1943, twelve years before the onset of nuclear testing. The final formation of dental enamel is for wisdom teeth at age 12.

As for the rest of you young pups, consider that you are carrying around in your teeth atoms that were produced in nuclear explosion -- maybe somewhere in Nevada or Siberia, half a century ago -- little souvenirs of a dark chapter of human history, reminders of the way even your chompers are part of something bigger and more fragile than yourselves.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A commercial break -- in time for Christmas shopping


My books Soul of the Night and Honey From Stone are now available from Cowley Publications in a beautiful matched-set edition. (You can find Amazon customer reviews here and here.)

Soul was first published by Simon & Schuster; Honey by Dodd, Mead and Penguin. When they went out of print, they were picked up by Hungry Mind, aka Ruminator. When Hungry Mind went out of business a few years ago, Cowley asked if they could take over. I am grateful to them.

You might think that the subtitle for Honey from Stone -- A Naturalist's Search for God -- is an odd choice for an atheist/agnostic/pantheist/theist (take your pick; I can live with it). The book is full of science, but infused too with the prayerful spirit of the medieval mystics. The word "God" appears twice in the book. In the last lines of the introduction...

This is not a work of metaphysics or theology. It is instead a kind of serendipitous adventure, a spiritual vagabond's quest. I have tramped the landscapes of the Dingle Peninsula, studying the rocks, the sky, the flora and the fauna, and I took whatever scraps of revelation I could find. I sought the burning bush and did not find it. But I found the honeysuckle and the fuchsia, and I found the heather and the gorse. When I called out for the Absolute, I was answered by the wind. If it was God's voice in the wind, then I heard it.


...and on the book's last page, where I have been talking about the star Vega.

A grainy stuttering of heat on a 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.


The title, by the way, comes from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, paraphrasing the Old Testament: "More things are learnt in the woods than from books; trees and rocks will teach you things not to be heard elsewhere. You will see for yourselves that honey may be gathered from stones and oil from the hardest rock."

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A neat red hole in the heart

When I was a boy growing up in Tennessee I once snitched my uncle's .22 rifle and went hunting with my friends. My first shot brought a gray squirrel tumbling down through the branches of a tree. The squirrel lay on the ground at my feet, its belly pierced by a neat red hole, convulsed with pain. I watched, paralyzed by horror at what I had done, until one of my friends dispatched the squirrel with the butt of his rifle.

That was my last experience with hunting. I tell this grim little tale in response to an article in Sunday's New York Times about efforts to recruit children to the dwindling sport of hunting. Boys and girls as young as six are taken into the woods and encouraged to kill.

I'm no fanatic on this issue. Humans have hunted animals since day one, and those who hunt to eat are perhaps doing less violence to animals than those of us who buy our meat packaged at the supermarket. The writer Richard Nelson, who lives in Sitka, Alaska, has a long section about killing deer in his beautiful book The Island Within; it is hard to take issue with his love for the animals he kills for his table.

But I would certainly not want my children or grandchildren taking pleasure in killing for sport. In Sunday's Musing I mentioned the anthropologist Margaret Mead's definition of civilization as the ever expanding circle of those we do not kill. Why shouldn't that circle include other species? When we must kill for food, let it be as humanely as possible and never for sport.

Compassion, like life itself, is a seamless web. I recall something Thoreau wrote about killing animals: "I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect...I have skill at it, and, like many of my fellows, a certain instinct for it . But always when I have done I feel that it would have been better if I had not fished. I think that I do not mistake. It is a faint intimation, yet so are the first streaks of morning."

Monday, September 19, 2005

Colonizing Mars -- Part 2

I've studied the maps and I have my Martian acres all picked out. Near latitude 30 degrees south, longitude 280 degrees, on the rim of a vast circular depression called Hellas Planitia. This is one of the few lowlands in the mid-latitudes of the red planet's southern hemisphere. I figure this will become one of the first artificial seas on Mars, when the climate has been warmed sufficiently that water can exist as a liquid. If I'm calling it correctly, my Mars-transported progeny will be owners of enviable beachfront property.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Bones of contention

In 1857 a beetle-browed skull cap was found in a cave in Germany's Neanderthal valley, and soon other "cave man" relics began turning up all over continental Europe. These so-called Neanderthals were anatomically different than modern humans, and British anthropologists pined to have a "cave man" of their own

Then, near end of the 19th century, fossils that were claimed to be Neanderthal turn up in a gravel pit at Galley Hill, on the banks of the Thames River. The much ballyhooed Galley Hill Man was subsequently shown to be a modern woman, perhaps a victim of the gallows from which the hill takes its name.

If one does an internet search for "Galley Hill Man," most of the hits will be sites maintained by creationists. Nothing more delights these folks than evolutionists making mistakes. If scientists were wrong about Galley Hill Man, they crow, then they could be wrong about other things too. But of course scientists are human and as prone to folly as the rest of us. What the Galley Hill -- and Piltdown Man -- stories demonstrate, if anything, is the willingness of scientists to change their minds when a preponderance of evidence goes against them, a characteristic decidedly lacking among those who believe that truth has been revealed once and for all by divine communication.

See this week's Musing.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Colonizing Mars

According to the Boston Globe this morning, a private firm called 4Frontier hopes to put a human colony on Mars in twenty years or so.

If price were no object, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that by the end of the 21st century, prospering self-supporting colonies might exist on terraformed Mars. But the colonization of Mars will be hugely expensive, and doubtless beyond the reach of any private corporation.

Some years ago I suggested -- with tongue only half in cheek -- that we take a page from the opening of the American west.

To encourage the building of transcontinental railroads, federal and state governments gave away huge tracts of land. Six square miles of land was typically granted to the railroad companies for every miles of track that was laid. The companies parlayed free land into big profits.

Nor was it a foolish transaction for government. Before the coming of the railroads, western land could hardly give away. In the wake of the railroads, federal holdings became immensely valuable.

During the years 1850 to 1871, the U. S. government passed out more than 130 million acres, or more than the combined areas of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

So here's the deal. By a treaty involving all spacefaring nations of Earth, ownership of Mars will be claimed in the name of humanity, then sold to finance exploration and colonization of the red planet.

Land thought to have substantial subsurface water or mineral resources will be auctioned to the highest bidders, most likely multinational investment consortiums. A stake in Martian exploration and development by big business will stiffen political resolve to get the job done quickly.

The romance of owning land on Mars will also appeal to a broad range of small-scale investors. I would gladly sign up for a few acres for my progeny.

The surface of Mars is roughly 36 billion acres, approximately the same as the land area of Earth. If, say, a tenth of that were sold at an average of $100 per acre, a Martian exploration program could be well under way.

Of course, large tracts of land will be held in trust for future public parks. These will include such natural wonders as the Olympus Mons and Tharsis Montes volcano complex and the Coprates Chasma canyonlands. Also historic sites such as the landing places of the Viking 1 and 2 probes. Certain low-lying areas will be reserved for future lakes or seas -- if sufficent water can be found.

As the adventure proceeds, more land will be offered for sale. As the first colonies are established -- say by the year 2050 -- property values will appreciate, especially near settlements. By law, any land transactions between private owners will be subject to a heavy tax, with the proceeds plowed back into colonization.

By the end of the 21st century, Martian colonies should be economically independent of the home planet.

On Monday, I'll reveal the plot I have picked out for my great-great-grandkids.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Thank you

Blogger has not been working well lately, which accounts for the erratic posts.

A comment on "Comments." I seldom respond in the threads, but I listen, appreciate, and learn -- and your contributions often inspire posts or Musings. It is a remarkably engaging and articulate group of folks who are gathered here, and I am honored to be your host.

While I'm at it, let me recommend Andrew O'Hehir's The Know-nothings on Salon, which addresses the current "war on science." And Bill McKibben's essay in the August Harpers.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

To think that I saw it

When I set out for school each morn, my spouse says to me, "Chet, keep your eyelids up, and see what you can see."

But when I tell her where I've been and what I think I've seen, she looks at me and sternly says, "Your eyesight's much too keen. Stop telling such outlandish tales. Stop turning minnows into whales."

Apologies to Dr. Seuss. But I'm feeling a bit like young Marco in the good doctor's story, To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. There isn't much to see in Marco's neighborhood, just a plain old horse and wagon. But Marco imagines all manner of things, culminating in a howdah-topped blue elephant galloping between two yellow giraffes and pulling a wagon with a seven piece band. What did you see? asks his father when he gets home from school. "Nothing," says Marco, knowing Dad won't believe a word of it.

I live on a Mulberry Street sort of street in a Mulberry Street sort of town, a domesticated suburb of Boston. But, lordy, what things there are to see.

Yesterday morning, at the fog-shrouded brook, a great blue heron took to wing not twenty feet from where I stood watching on the bridge. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh. I dipped my head and applauded.

Then, a ragged vee of Canada geese, low, oaring through the misty dawn, clanging their great gong voices.

And again, the grazing deer, half-hidden in the fog of the Oak Meadow, as still as statues in a graveyard.

"Just draw up your stool," said my spouse when I returned in the late afternoon, "and tell me the sights on your way to school."

"Nothing," I said, growing red as a beet, " just a squirrel and a robin on Mulberry Street."

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

September song

Summer's end! Stickball in the seedy meadows. Messing about in drainage ditches. Long warm twilights on green lawns, catching up fireflies in our cupped hands, carefully transferring them to clear glass jars in the hope that if only we catch enough we'll have a useful lantern. The brilliant summer stars -- Arcturus, Vega, Deneb, Altair -- coming on like street lamps, guiding us into sleep made fitful by the day's unfinished projects, tomorrow's beginnings.

Most of my life, I think, has been spent trying to remember what it was I experienced then, those late summer days and nights a half-century ago, to become like a child again in the presence of nature, to perceive nature's wholeness and my place in it with a child's purity of sight. Mostly, we forget. So we turn to artificial rites and rituals, to the purveyors of the supernatural, to guru's who promise out-of-body experiences, mind over matter, the seven secrets of transcendence. I remember a cover of Time magazine some years ago, for story on spiritualism and healing. It promised an "alternative universe."

All the while, the real universe is at our doorstep, twinkling, shining, chattering, rustling, scenting the late summer air with healing perfume. Remember. Remember. Remember.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Selling anxiety

Since I've returned to the world of television, I've been making a list of all the things I should ask my doctor about: Lamisil, Lunesta, Singulair, Viagra, Cialis, Nicotrol, Restasis, Nasonex, Actnel, Nexium, Imitrex, etc. etc. I did a Google search for "Ask your doctor about..." and got more than a million hits. Hey, Doctor K, I have my annual physical in a few week's time. You had better book me in for the day. We have a lot to talk about.

When Bill Clinton was elected president, he and Hillary wanted to call all the players to the table -- state and federal government, pharmaceutical companies, insurers, hospitals, doctors, nurses, patient advocates -- to hammer out a 21st-century health care system that worked first of all for the public good. They were shot down in flames by special interests, right-wing ideology, and AMA-fanned fear of "socialized medicine." Well, now it has come to this: the Big Sell.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Foresight, political will, the common good

On my prime meridian walk across England I visited the Thames Barrier near Greenwich. Here is a photo (that's the Millennium Dome in the background) of a few of the eleven futuristic pods strung across the river. In the face of a storm surge from the North Sea, huge gates rise up from the river floor between the pods to hold back the tide. Like the Dutch, the English made a decision to protect a great city from storm surges and followed through, in what turned out to be a great feat of civil engineering.

There is a mini-museum at Thames Barrier Park that shows how the mechanism works. It is interesting to compare these models to the display of lifting machinery at the late Victorian Tower Bridge.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A demon haunted world

Carl Sagan may have been the last of the popular skeptics. Where is he now that we need him more than ever before? See this week's Musing.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

One big happy family

(My post yesterday reminded me of this Globe column I wrote 7 years ago.)

Summertime! The season of family reunions. And this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to the first-ever Primate Family get-together, as representative of the Homo sapiens branch of the family.

The turn-out was better than anyone might have expected, with at least one member present from all 250 primate species -- our closest cousins on the family tree of life.

There were lorises, pottos, bush babies, lemurs, aye-ayes, tarsiers, monkeys and apes. The latter category, of course, included myself, as my name tag made clear.

I took my wife along, and we were a source of great merriment as the only folks at the gathering who consistently walked erect and lacked a full covering of body hair. A couple of white-cheeked gibbons asked me to remove my shoes and socks so they could see my non-opposable big toe. When I did so, their impolite hoots of derision caused quite a sensation.

Early in the afternoon we fell in with a nice chimpanzee couple from Cameroon, our nearest relations at the party. To tell the truth, we did not have as much in common as you'd might expect, considering that we share 98.4 percent of our genes.

The chimps showed great interest in photographs of our children and grandchildren, but annoyed my wife by nibbling the photos around the edges. My wife was also rather put off by the heaping plate of termite grubs that the male chimp insisted on sharing.

I must say, though, that we found the chimps' company more congenial than that of mandrill couple who roamed the reunion looking for others from Cameroon. They crashed our table and started making an awful racket, flashing their colorful body parts and otherwise being offensive.

I mean, we're talking brain weight here. The mandrills were nearly as big as our chimpanzee friends -- and proved it by jumping up and down on the table -- but behind their plug-ugly baboon snouts were brains not half the size of a chimp's.

Of course, human brains are three times bigger than the brains of chimpanzees, but we discreetly left that fact unsaid.

Eventually, we excused ourselves from the chimps' table and mingled with the crowd, determined to make acquaintance with all our relations.

As carnivores, we made our way to the barbecue area, but found it rather sparsely populated. An owl-faced monkey and its mate were happily sinking their teeth into roasted rodents. I complimented the male monkey on his handsome white nose stripe and earned an ear-rattling roar for my trouble. So much for trying to be polite.

The veggie buffet, on the other hand, with its heaping bowls of leaves, bark, fruits, nuts and seeds, was packed with takers, as was the insect buffet. A red-faced bald uacari dashed back and forth between the two tables, wolfing down alternate handfuls of seeds and ants.

A pygmy mouse lemur from Madagascar, the smallest primate at the reunion, had seated itself in a large bowl of berry snacks, to the embarrassed consternation of its more discreet lemur cousins. It would have made a nice snack for some larger opportunistic carnivore had my wife not plucked it from the bowl and kept it curled in the palm of her hand.

As the afternoon wore on and more beer was consumed, things started getting rather out-of-hand. There was lots of indiscriminate heinie-flashing by female baboons. Male vervets, drills and red-shanked douc langurs got into an indelicate competition concerning who had the most colorful -- ah, you know. I mean, I've been to some rowdy office parties, but this took the cake.

I will admit that the glorious bushy posterior appendages of the ring-tailed lemur and her mate made me a little jealous that my wife and I were among the few dozen folks at the party without tails; only apes lacked this adornment.

It was particularly gratifying to observe the presence at the reunion of a hairy-eared dwarf lemur from Madagascar and a tonkin snub-nosed monkey from Vietnam, both of whom represented wild populations whose total numbers are in the dozens. Another half-dozen of the gang are on also the "critically endangered" list, but they put up a good front, knocking back brewskies with the rest of us.

Toward the end of the day, a call went out for everyone who qualified as a "critically endangered" or "endangered" species to gather at the volleyball court for a group photo. I was astonished when nearly half of the species at the reunion answered the call. Every lemur was there, as were our closest relatives -- the orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees.

My wife and I faded rather sheepishly into the background, knowing that it was the phenomenal success of our own species that tipped the scales so precariously against so many of our cousins. As the camera snapped, we decided it was time to take our leave, wondering how many of the species in the photograph would be with us at the next primate family reunion in ten years time.

(Added note: Perhaps 80 or 90 % of lowland eastern gorillas disappeared during the fighting in the Congo in the past 3 years.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

Chimp genome

The new issue of Nature arrived yesterday, reporting the first draft of the chimpanzee genome. I look forward to reading the detailed comparison with the human genome.

Within a few years, scientists will have sequenced the genomes of other primates -- lorises, pottos, bush babies, lemurs, aye-ayes, tarsiers, monkeys and apes -- and we'll have a much clearer picture of how we are all related and the paths by which we evolved from a common ancestor. It's all there, written in the genes.

It is ironic that as we understand human evolution in ever more convincing detail, Americans increasingly affirm the necessity for supernatural meddling in the story of life. I think it was Saint Augustine who said, "There are no miracles but one, and that one miracle is the creation."

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The view from Husband Hill

Someday humans will stand on Husband Hill, where Spirit rests today after its long trek and perilous climb. By then, that little space craft's tracks will have been erased by the Martian wind, but the view will be pretty much the same. There is a grandeur in this dusty landscape, a pristine inanimate innocence, as if we were standing on Earth on the second day of creation. Still, I suppose all of us who grew up with Flash Gordon secretly harbor a wish that the cameras on Spirit would spy out there in the Martian plains the spires and domes of a glistening alien city.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Beginning

After 40 years of teaching, retirement seems most strange on these first warm days of the fall semester. No classes to teach, but I still walk to the college every day, and I am working with two students in a directed study, Greg and Bailey, both keenly interested in writing about the natural world. For a start, we are reading Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginning, a beautiful little work of autobiography, divided into three sections: Listening, Learning To See, Finding A Voice.

I think I learned to see at a fairly young age. It took me years of unpublished striving to find my voice. I am still learning to listen. The last line of Welty's book is a lesson I early took to heart: "As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Looking Out the Window...

Earth's robotic explorers recently returned more stunning views of our universe.

When the Mars rover Spirit landed in Gusev Crater in January 2004, it sat in a vast martian plain. Early images returned by the robot showed a distant group of hills which NASA named for the lost Columbia astronauts. The possibility of Spirit visiting these hills was impossibly remote, both in distance and within the 90-day design lifetime of the mission.

A year and a half later, Spirit, still going, is now sitting triumphantly atop Husband Hill. Spirit carefully climbed the hill which rises 269 feet above the surrounding plain. That's almost the height of the Statue of Liberty!

The view from the top is of course spectacular. Spirit's cameras have also captured dust devils winding their way across the plain below.

Meanwhile, another robot is on its way to a different planet. Messenger, also launched in 2004, will achieve a stable orbit around Mercury in 2011. Messenger recently performed a flyby of the Earth to get a gravity assist in its trajectory. On the way by, mission controllers conducted a test of the spacecraft's imaging components with Earth as their subject. The images of the receding Earth were stitched together into a large (5MB) movie documenting Messenger's pass. Stunning!

Deus absconditus

Walking to school this morning just at dawn, four grazing deer almost hidden by mist in the Oak Meadow. I had stopped there to read from F. Lynne Bachleda's Canticles of the Earth, a collection of meditations drawn from a variety of faith traditions. She was kind enough to include several selections from my writing. This one -- from Skeptics and True Believers -- seemed appropriate to the moment: "It is the nature of God to reside in mystery -- ineluctable, inexhaustible mystery. We do not need to understand the cabala of mathematical physics to apprehend the mysterium tremendum. We need only look out the window."

Monday, September 05, 2005

Baptism

Water

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes.

My litany would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

-- Philip Larkin


If I were called in to construct a religion, I too would make use of water, that most remarkable of molecules, composed of those most remarkable of elements, hydrogen and oxygen. Thales of Miletus -- who might reasonably be considered the first scientist -- believed water was the original substance of the universe. He observed that the seeds and nutriments of everything are moist, and from this deduced that everything comes from water. Not a bad guess. Certainly, the most distinguishing feature of our planet is its liquid envelope, without which there would be no life, or at least no life as we know it. So yes, my religion would have sacraments of praise -- earth, air, fire, and lots and lots of water. No miracles, but liturgies of celebration. No supernatural, but a joyful treasuring of the real -- beautiful and sometimes terrible.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Believing the impossible

"One can't believe impossible things," says Alice in Through the Looking-Glass. "I dare say you haven't had much practice," replies the Red Queen. "When I was your age I did it for a half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." See this week's Musing.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Science and spirit

I have mentioned before that for the last year or so I have been a back-page columnist for Science & Spirit magazine. This is the only popular journal I know of that explores the interface of skepticism and belief with respect, uncompromised reason, and openness to mystery.

The July-August issue, which I've just caught up with, offers a forum to Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic Magazine, an evangelical Christian who lost his faith while studying theology, and Oxford don Alister McGrath, who began as a student of biology and chemistry, felt unfulfilled by science, and became a believing Christian. My own sympathies, as you might guess, lie with Shermer.

Best of all however is Science & Spirit editor Karl Giberson's sensible and balanced introduction to the Shermer-McGrath face-off -- a perfect illustration of the way the magazine contributes a valuable voice to a discussion often filled with rancor and intolerance. Unfortunately, Karl's essay does not appear in the website archive.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Beating in time with the spinning Earth

Back in the States. I turned the small hand of my watch back five hours. Reset the clock in my laptop. But I still woke up at 1 AM. I know from past experience that it will take weeks to reset my body clocks.

"We live in an old chaos of the sun, or old dependency of day and night," wrote the poet Wallace Stevens For billions of years, a sensitivity to light and darkness was key to survival. The whole point of plants is to soak up sunlight. Animals too evolved patterns of hunting and feeding in light or darkness that increased their ability to find food or lessened their vulnerability to predators.

The earliest mammals may have been burrowers in dark tunnels, with a world of hungry dinosaurs overhead. Those troglodyte ancestors needed to know -- needed to feel in their bones -- when it was safe to go outside. Any genetic mutation that finessed their circadian clocks was presumably favored by natural selection.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

In transit

I'm sitting in the departure lounge at Shannon Airport, which kindly provides free wi-fi. See you tomorrow.