Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Tao that cannot be told

Yesterday's post on drawing theological conclusions from the big bang prompts a rerun of a post from a year or so ago, that might be a sort of manifesto for this site:
Who am I? Why am I here? What does it all mean? The Big Questions. There was a time in my life, as a youngster, when I was happy to be given answers. Now I am content to say "I don't know."

I want instead answers to the Little Questions. How do the enzymes in every cell of my body build proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids? How do helium atoms form carbon in the cores of stars? How does a hummingbird hover?

"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao," wrote Lao Tzu, two-and-a-half thousand years ago. "The name that can be named is not the eternal name." Let me celebrate here what can be told and named.
Celebrating what can be told and named may be the best way humans have of honoring the untold, unnamed eternal. Naming the eternal, especially giving it those qualities that we see in ourselves -- personhood, intelligence -- strikes me as idolatrous. And looking for proofs of God in the singularities and gaps of science -- the big bang, for example -- has a history of failure. Singularities have a way of becoming plural, and gaps of being filled. More to the point, today's favored theory can be tomorrow's approximation.

The same can be said for those scientists who would turn a scientific theory -- neo-Darwinism, say -- into an "eternal Tao." Newton's mechanics stood as a pillar of science for two centuries until it was found to be a limiting case of a more general theory. Darwinism may have the same fate. Hubris becomes neither scientists nor theologians.

What was it Rilke said in the Ninth Duino Elegy? "Perhaps we are here only to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate." And with that, we'll lay the subject to rest for a while.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Celebrating what is

For those of you who haven't read An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, here is a way (from the book) to come as close as you will ever get to the first moment of Creation.
Take yourself as far as possible from city lights, to a place where the night is inky black and thick with stars. If you can, turn off all local lights. Make sure the Moon is not in the sky, or at least no more than a slender crescent. A winter or summer night is best, when the Milky Way arches high overhead and the sky is posted with brilliant stars. Two other requirements: solitude and silence. You'll also want an audio CD player and a recording of Joseph Haydn's The Creation oratorio. Lie back comfortably on a deck chair or a blanket, facing up to the stars. Place your finger on the "Play" button, and close your eyes. Wait a few moments until you are perfectly relaxed, then, with your eyes still closed, push "Play."

Silence. A C-minor chord, somber, out of nowhere. Followed by fragments of music. Clarinet. Oboe. A trumpet note. A stroke of timpani. A prelude of shadowy notes and thrusting chords, by which Haydn meant to represent the Darkness and Chaos that preceded the creation of the world. Listen now, eyes closed, as the music descends into hushed silence. Hear the voice of the archangel Raphael: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep." The chorus, subdued, barely audible, sings: "And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters; and God said: Let there be light!" Then, the voices whispering, once and only once: "And there was light." Open your eyes! A brilliant fortissimo C-major chord! A sunburst of sound. Radiant. Dispelling darkness. A universe blazes into existence, arching from horizon to horizon. Stars. Planets. The luminous river of the Milky Way. As you open your eyes to Haydn's fortissimo chord and to the (almost) forgotten glory of a truly dark starry night, you will feel that you have been a witness to the big bang.

But was the big bang truly creation ex nihilo, or was it only a singular moment in an endlessly oscillating universe? Was it unique? Maybe our universe is just one in a vast number of universes that pop into and out of existence like champagne bubbles in a greater, and perhaps eternal, metaverse. Who knows? It seems to me that to use the big bang as an argument for a divine personal Creator is a bit of a stretch. Better to just glory in what we know -- as in the Haydn experience above -- and leave the theology for those who like to wander the echoing corridors of non-empirical speculation.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Are males necessary?

Before the end of Valentine's month, let me squeeze in one more tongue-in-cheek Musing on the eternal question.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Contact -- Part 2

Yesterday I quoted Thoreau on the evening stars, which he compared to the Hesperian Isles. Hesper has a Greek root, meaning west or evening, and the name was often applied to the planet Venus in her guise as the Evening Star. The Hesperian Isles were thought to lie in the westernmost part of the world, where nymphs and a dragon watched over a garden where golden apples grow. For poets -- from Milton to Tennyson to Longfellow -- the Hesperian Isles were the happy isles, out there beyond the sea on the western horizon where all our dreams are realized.

The image, of course, is more important for Europeans than for Longfellow and Thoreau, and more relevant for me when I am in my summer bailiwick in the west of Ireland, where oceanic isles and golden apples have a long history in myth and lore -- as I recount in my book Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain. There I try to show that looking for eternal bliss on a sea horizon -- a horizontal vision -- has rather different philosophical implications than looking vertically for heaven. Horizontal,/vertical; immanent/transcendent; nature/supernature; body/soul.

But these weeks, in the Bahamas, I am looking out to an eastern sea horizon, and Venus is a morning star (joined this morning gloriously by the crescent Moon). I wonder, did the native Bahamians, the Lucayans, have equivalent myths about happy isles in the eastern sea? When they saw those sails billowing in the morning sun, no wonder they imagined gods.

Friday, February 24, 2006


Just out there over the horizon is the island of San Salvador. Five centuries ago, after a long sea voyage, Columbus saw a glimmer of native fires and knew he had found land. Good for Columbus. Bad for the native Bahamians, the Lucayans, who were wiped out to a man/woman within 25 years.

In the fall of 1852, Thoreau wrote this about stepping out of the house in the evening and seeing the stars: "How incredible...these bright points which appear in the blue sky as darkness increases, said to be other worlds...Far in this ethereal sea lie the Hesperian isles, unseen by day, but when the darkness comes their fires are seen from this shore, as Columbus saw the fires of San Salvador."

A nice conjunction to stand here on my terrace in the evening, looking out to the sea from which Columbus came, and into the deeper, darker sea of space. Will we ever make contact with an alien civilization behind those twinkling lights, glimpse their electromagnetic bonfires, so to speak? And, if so, what will be the effect on them and us? A happier encounter, one must hope, than what ensued when Europe encountered the Lucayans.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Sweet mystery of life

Where did the white sand on our beaches come from? That's easy. From the erosion of the islands. But wait. The islands are themselves made of heaped up sand, consolidated into a soft white rock. Drive up to the places where a road cuts through the ridges and see the layers, blown this way and that by Pleistocene winds. So where did the original sand come from?

I have seen at least part of the answer. When we snorkel in the shallows we cruise through algal gardens, colonies of little plants that have hardly changed since the dawn of time. One of these, Halimeda, a green alga, incorporates into its tissues grains of calcium carbonate extracted from sea water. When it dies it leaves behind -- you guessed it -- sand.

Give me Halimeda and a billion years or so, and I'll give you an island. It's a lovely story, and half of Americans refuse to believe it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The balance of nature

A crowd of mosquitos in the bathroom this morning. I let 'em have it with a rolled up newspaper, bearing in mind, of course, that they have a role to play in nature, namely to keep human populations in check. Until relatively recently, they did a pretty good job of it by transmitting malaria, dengue fever and filariasis. In turn, mosquitos are preyed upon here by Bahamian mosquito fish, voracious creatures that eat their weight in mosquito larvae every few days.

Science and technology have rendered the balance of nature obsolete. We make our own "balance" now. No more mosquito-borne diseases here, and the human population booms. I'm not sure what's happening to the mosquito fish, but the naturalist David Campbell tells us that "it has on several occasions during the last century been distributed by public health personnel to pools and ponds all over the Bahamas," thereby making these islands more pleasantly inhabitable.

Long before I met David, he lived in and traveled extensively through the Bahamas. Out of that experience he wrote a book called The Ephemeral Islands: A Natural History of the Bahamas, published first in 1978 and still in print. My copy is falling apart from use.

David now teaches nature writing at Grinnell College in Iowa. He is a recipient of one of this year's Lannan Literary Awards for his nonfiction work. Congratulation, friend.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

On being an Occamist

The following thoughts are inspired by John Cornwell's review of Daniel Dennett's new book, for which Geoff kindly provided a link.

Is there a conflict between religion and science?

In some respects, absolutely. For example, the Earth cannot be 4 billion years old, as the scientists say, and less than 10,000 years old, as nearly half of Americans apparently believe for religious reasons. One side is simply wrong, and there's no ifs, ands or buts about it.

But what about the person who says, for example, "I prayed that my headache would go away and God answered my prayer." I can draw his attention to the double-blind studies that sought to measure the efficacy of petitionary prayer, all negative. But he can reply, "That doesn't prove God didn't answer MY prayer." And of course he's right. I can point out that millions of Indians pray for sons rather than daughters, but the sex ratio remains 50-50. He'll say, "They are praying to the wrong God." The conflict here is not between religion and science, but between religion and Occam's Razor: Never suppose a complex or esoteric cause for an event when a simpler, more familiar explanation will suffice. I would rather be called an Occamist than an atheist.

Then there are those who profess to find God in the gaps of science -- in the things science has not yet explained or perhaps might never explain. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are the laws of nature what they are? How did life arise from non-life? To which I reply, "I don't know." In answering thus, I am not being a scientist or a theist or an Occamist, but simply a person who is willing to admit his ignorance in the face of a mystery manifestly greater than himself.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Dead as a dodo

Slate Magazine gives us Finnish artist Harri Kallio's photographic resurrection of the dodo from extinction.

The dodo vanished 175 years before Lewis Carroll introduced his favorite bird to his favorite little girl in Alice in Wonderland.

Alice has fallen, along with a mouse, sundry birds, and several other "curious creatures" into a pool of her own tears. The Dodo proposes that all should dry themselves by holding a foot race, in which the contestants begin running whenever they wish and run until the Dodo decides the race should end. Everyone wins, everyone receives a prize, and everyone gets quite dry.

In John Tenniel's famous illustration, the bird is solemn and wise, a rather distinguished-looking gentleman, not at all the "dumb-dodo" of common parlance. After all, the Dodo of the story was meant to represent Carroll himself, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, and who sometimes stammered his name "Do-Do-Dodgson."

The biologist Bradley Livezy of the University of Kansas has wondered (Nature, Sept. 23, 1993) if the dodo's curious physique was a result of so-called paedomorphosis, in which development stops when a creature becomes sexually mature, although some parts of the body have not yet achieved developmental maturity. Thus we get, as one observer noted, a bird that resembles "a young duck or gosling enlarged to the dimensions of a swan." With his sweet/sad fixation on little girls, Lewis Carroll seems to have had his own problems achieving sexual maturity, which makes his choice of ornithological persona even more appropriate.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A hard drive to a soft place

This has been the first winter I have had a fast and reliable internet connection from the island. It's great! But if I had to choose between the island I knew a dozen years ago -- with such a slow and sporadic internet connection that I might as well have sent my bits and bytes by mailboat -- and the island of today, I know which I'd prefer. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

In blue deep thou wingest

Oh, these magnificent tropical dawns. Now here comes the Moon again, swimming down into the morning, pacing Jupiter, then Venus. Venus! At its brightest. Ablaze in the awakening sky at magnitude - 4.6, visible even when the Sun has climbed above the horizon. This is the daytime star that Shelley writes about in To a Skylark:
Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see -- we feel that it is there.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The mundane and the miraculous -- Part 3

In the current issue of Nature there is a paper called "A lever-arm rotation drives motility of the minus-end-directed kinesin Ncd." A kinesin is a microtubule-based motor protein. The old mechanical metaphor.

It's probably fair to say that if the four authors of this paper hadn't done the work, someone else would have, perhaps not today, or tomorrow, but eventually.

But what about that mechanical metaphor of Mary Oliver in yesterday's post? "...the brisk motor of his heart/ singing/ like a Schubert..." It is probably also fair to say that if Oliver had not written those lines, they would never exist. Ever. Imagine writing: "...the hummingbird comes/ like a small green angel, to soak/ his dark tongue/ in happiness ---"

And here we have the difference between science and art. Even the greatest science -- Darwin's theory of natural selection, say, or Einstein's theory of relativity -- is inevitable. If Darwin hadn't done it, then someone else would have (indeed, someone else did, simultaneously). Likewise for Einstein.

But those lines from Shakespeare's Sonnet 16 in Anne's valentine the other day? Only Shakespeare. And only Anne.

It is the great strength of science that it relies on consensus. In Bacon's words, scientific understanding "is extracted...not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature." Darwin or Einstein may have dreamed up their theories in the secret closets of their minds, but it was the collective measuring of their ideas against nature that makes natural selection and relativity reliable public knowledge. Out of the closets into the light.

When the hummingbird motor sings Schubert, we are invited to journey in the other direction: out of the light of common experience into the secret closet of a single, unmatchable, individual mind.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The mundane and the marvelous -- Part 2

I expected to get lambasted for yesterday's post on the mechanical metaphor for life. I've been told more times than I can count: Think of life as a machine and you'll treat life as a machine. Think of the hummingbird at my bird feeder as a little lawn mower, and I'll treat it as a lawn mower.

Well, no. I don't treat the hummingbird as a lawn mower. You have never heard about lawn mowers on this blog, but you have often heard about hummingbirds. What makes the hummingbird different from the lawn mower is not that the bird has an irreducible soul, but complexity. Even a single cell in the hummingbird is vastly more complex than a lawn mower.

It is the complexity of the hummingbird that commands my reverence and love, the amazing emergent majesty of it. My appreciation for the hummingbird's complexity is only enhanced by what I know about its metabolism, its aerodynamics, its biochemistry -- in short, everything scientists have learned by application of the mechanical metaphor.

The idea of an irreducible soul is lovely, but it has led exactly nowhere in science. And before you say "So what?", ask yourself if you would prefer to live in a world without modern medicine. If your kid had foot-and-mouth disease (see yesterday's pic), would you rather know about reducible viral biochemistry or irreducible souls?

Perhaps the nearest thing we have today to an adequate metaphor for life is the internet. We can talk about an ecology of the internet, the evolution of the internet, and perhaps even a metabolism of the internet, turning the tables, using biological metaphors for a technological artifact. The internet is a thing of almost organic complexity -- Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere -- and no one doubts that it is reducible to hardware and software.

But make no mistake, scientific knowledge does not exhaust the hummingbird's meaning, any more than does the motor metaphor in Mary Oliver's poem Hummingbird Pauses at the Trumpet Vine: "...who doesn't want/ to live with the brisk/ motor of his heart/ singing/ like a Schubert..."

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The mudane and the marvelous

It's striking how often authors of biology papers in Science and Nature use mechanical metaphors. "Cellular machinery." "Molecular machines." "Molecular motors." "Replication mechanisms." "Mechanisms for maintenance of DNA integrity." And so on.

Life as a machine. The metaphor has been ingrained in scientific thought since the 17th century, when a scientific revolution coincided with a time of mechanical innovation (perhaps not coincidentally).

The mechanical metaphor has some life in it yet. At least, no more fruitful metaphor has come along. But the metaphor is taking on on a new twist: not the 17th-century clockwork of gears and levers, but the silicon chip.

A completely functional digital computer could be made out of gears and levers, but such a machine would be mammoth, cumbersome and slow. What goes on inside an electronic computer is closer in scale -- size and speed -- to what happens inside a living cell. Indeed, the computer has become an indispensable tool of molecular biologists. Only with computers can they begin to give visible representation to the chemical machinery of life. Witness that exquiste image of the foot-and-mouth virus I posted here not long ago.

Many people recoil from the mechanical metaphor for life. They cling to the notion that there is something magical, irreducible and transcendent about living organisms, something that will forever escape the grasp of the molecular biologists with their mechanical models of chemical structures.

Two things to keep in mind:

1) "Life is a machine" is only a metaphor. All understanding is metaphorical -- in science, in poetry, even in theology. No one mistakes the gray-bearded man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for God, but Michelangelo's powerful metaphor evokes awe and understanding of something essential to the believer's idea of God. In science, too, we use the metaphors that most fruitfully advance our understanding.

2) The mechanical metaphor for life does not so much reduce the marvelous to the mundane as it elevates the mundane to the marvelous. "Mundane" comes from the Latin mundus, meaning "world." The more we understand the staggeringly complex molecular machinery of life, the more truly marvelous the world becomes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


See what happens when an artist who lives on a mesa in New Mexico gets hold of an Apple PowerBook. Happy Valentine's Day to you too, Anne. And to all.

that sweet artificer, the earth...

Valentine, the eponymous protagonist of my most recent novel, is a skeptic and a naturalist at a time -- the 3rd century A.D. -- when the Roman world is awash in mysticism, superstition and religious strife. He would, by yesterday's definition, be called a bright, along with others of the ancient world such as Lucretius, who wrote: "Men are afraid because they see things on earth and in the heavens that they cannot explain, and so suppose them to be caused by the will of gods." Valentine strives to find his way to goodness, but he comes to an untimely demise. There is a happy ending, of course, if not for Valentine, then for the woman he loves.

And speaking of love, the great poem of Lucretius begins with a hymn to Venus:
    ....Ah, goddess of the spring
And pleasant days, when warm west winds
Stir the amorous air, and high in the sky
The chorusing birds attend your coming,
The promise of love...

Happy Valentine's Day to my nearest and dearest reader.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Bright lights

In Comments, shhiggins draws our attention to the brights website. I've had my eye on this movement ever since Dan Dennett brought it to national attention with an op-ed essay in the New York Times, July 12, 2003.

What is a bright? According to the website:

-- A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview.
-- A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements.
-- The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview.

By that definition, I certainly qualify, as would many of the readers of Science Musings. And I am a big admirer of Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Steve Pinker and other prominent self-professed brights. I certainly wish them well.

Then why have I resisted sticking my toe into those waters?

Maybe it's the name itself, but the whole idea seems a bit smug to me. It's not like bright secular humanists/freethinkers/skeptics/agnostics/atheists are a persecuted subculture in need of advocacy. And if we are, so what?

Nor do we need to go around knocking on doors like Jehovah Witnesses to gather others to our cause.

Once we give ourselves a name and start raising money, what are we? A Rotary club for intellectuals? The Church of the Latter-Day Agnostics?

There's something I find missing among the brights, at least in their collective public face. A sense of mystery, of poetry, of silence. An attitude of prayerfulness, in the best Emersonian sense. A willingness to say "I don't know."

The brights make much of light, the light of the Enlightenment, as well they should. But darkness has its virtues too, not as a metaphor for ignorance, but for the turning of the Earth away from the Sun -- for rest, for solitude, for introspection. What was it the poet Roethke said? "In a dark time, the eye begins to see, I meet my shadow in the deepening shade; I hear my echo in the echoing wood...I live between the heron and the wren."

And then again, it may just be that (to paraphrase Groucho) I wouldn't want to belong to any church that would have me for a member.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Of bell birds and angler fish

For Valentine's day, I offer a Musing on the mysteries of love.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The silence -- Part 2

As I calculate it, it would take 16 million Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photographs to cover the entire celestial sphere. At 10,000 galaxies per photograph, we are talking 160 billion galaxies that the same application of technology might potentially reveal.

What I find most astonishing is that a big bus-sized telescope floating in space can be precisely pointed at such a tiny part of the sky during 400 orbits of the Earth. Makes me proud to be part of a species that can pull off such a feat -- a species that includes everyone from the chief project designer to the machinist who cuts widget no. 35, 347.

Having taken aboard a universe of 160 billion galaxies, how would I answer the BIG questions?

Who am I? With Whitman I say: I am the journey-work of stars.

Where did I come from? I am the product of 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution.

Why am I here? The universe is silent. Each of us must decide for oneself. Some of us choose to take our answer from popes, televangelists, ayatollahs, or holy books. For myself: I am here to pay attention and to celebrate what I see.

And I didn't need the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph to come to these conclusions. With Whitman: "...the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren..."

Friday, February 10, 2006

The silence

In a comment of few days ago, Paul mentioned a close-up, blown-up view of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo at the Boston Scuence Museum. Here it is:

Go out at night and hold up two crossed sewing pins at arm's length against an absolutely starless part of the sky. The area of the sky covered by the intersection of the two pins is the field covered by the photograph.

What you are seeing in the photograph, as Paul said, are not stars but galaxies -- 10,000 of them -- colossal systems of hundreds of billions of stars, presumably with planets. (On the linked photograph you can probably pick out a few star images, stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy that just happen to lie along the same line of sight.)

To make this photograph, the Hubble Space Telescope soaked up light from the chosen part of the sky for a total of 278 hours, over the course of 400 orbits around the Earth. You are looking at some of the most distant objects ever seen, some of them as they were less than 1 billion years after the big bang.

Remember, the telescope could have been pointed at any speck of sky, in any direction, and the view would have been much the same. It would take 20,000 photographs like this just to cover the bowl of the Big Dipper.

Anyone who doesn't take this information on board when asking the BIG questions -- Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? -- is missing something important.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The tickle in the ears

There is no irreducible secret of life. Our bodies are a mess of chemicals. Our minds are electro-chemical circuits firing like the chips of computers. Scientists have plumbed the human soul and found no ghost, no thing that lingers when the body's substance turns to dust.

Our genetic self is determined by a chemical code that can be read and amended. Consciousness can be turned on, turned off, altered chemically. Memories can be jogged electrically, deleted surgically.

Anyone who still thinks the soul can float free of the flesh hasn't been paying attention.

I look at the trillions of interacting cells that are my body, the webs of flickering neurons that are my consciousness, and I see a self vastly more majestic than the paltry soul illustrated in my grade-school catechism as a white circle besmirched with sin. The more I learn about the biochemistry of life and consciousness, the more I stand in awe of self.

The Judeo-Christian Scriptures tell us that God created the first man and woman out of the slime of the earth, breathed life into those creatures, and pronounced his creation good. The myth is consistent with our current understanding of the nature of life. We are literally animated slime. Now we must re-learn to think ourselves "good."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Bach to the future

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Sunday Magazine interviewed philosopher Daniel Dennett regarding his new book on the natural origins of religion. This week a letter writer takes Dennett to task for his reductionist understanding of what it means to be human. "Can he really explain the beauty of Bach's music as merely the right combination of sound waves tickling his eardrums?" asks Andrew Caudal.

I don't think Dennett, or anyone else, would claim to understand the response of the human brain to the music of Bach. But the tickling of the eardrum is surely a part of it.

Why should our response to Bach be off limits to scientific understanding? This will be the century of the brain, when more and more of its secrets are revealed, perhaps even why a tangle of nerve fibers fire in a special way when the eardrums are tickled by Bach.

Caudal's comment adds nothing to our understanding of human nature -- or of music. Dennett's attitude at least holds open the possibility of greater future understanding. Would understanding the human response to beauty make something less beautiful? Does that old reductionist Mr. Dennett get less out of Bach than Mr. Caudal?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Will the guns go silent?

Malta is not alone as a killing ground for birds. The slaughter of animals for so-called sport is a worldwide pastime, but nowhere else I have been is killing for killing's sake in sharper focus.

What is this compulsion men have to discharge weapons at defenseless birds (and, yes, it's almost entirely men)? The migrating birds are acting out an ancient evolutionary script encoded in their genes, probably resulting from patterns of survival imposed by the ice ages. The hunting instinct in human males may also be innate: Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, boys gotta shoot birds out of the sky.

My guess is that the killing is not so much genetic as cultural, a phallic enterprise, a way of asserting macho masculinity by making a big bang with a loaded gun.

I don't want to come across as holier-than-thou; we all have our ways of asserting our sexuality, and I kill -- or cause to be killed on my behalf -- many species of animals for my nourishment, health, or convenience. And certainly my own country has its share of gun-happy idiots.

What so disturbed me in Malta was the sheer gratuitousness of the killing -- the murder of innocence and beauty for no ostensible purpose other than a presumed pleasure in seeing innocence and beauty destroyed. Genetic? Cultural? Both? It was an instructive reminder of just how precarious innocence and beauty are in the face of human perversity.

Monday, February 06, 2006

When the guns go silent

"It's an ill wind that blows no good," my mother says, meaning every misfortune can have some happy side effect. And so it is for bird flu and the birds.

Bird flu has now been reported in Iraq, and according to the newspapers, Iraqi hunters -- big bird blasters -- have stopped shooting migrating birds for fear of disease.

Several years ago I went on a solo walking tour of Malta. The island is smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on an avian flyway between Europe and Africa. Each spring and fall migrating birds are greeted by Maltese men armed with shotguns and nets -- and slaughtered in the millions. My springtime walk was accompanied by the ever-present pop, pop of shotguns.

Every shore, every field, every open patch of land was chockablock with the paraphernalia of massacre. Nets for trapping songbirds. Blinds for hunters. Traylike stands for holding live decoys in cages.

We are not talking about shooting for the table. Songbirds, hawks, owls, ospreys, herons, swans, even sparrows: If it flies, it's dead. This so-called sport goes back centuries to a time when fowling made a necessary contribution to the islanders' diet. Hunting is now ingrained in island culture as a perverse caricature of the former activity.

Visitors to Malta have long condemned the slaughter, and lately the Maltese are turning up the pressure on the shooters -- organizing bird sanctuaries, pressing for more stringent laws, and supporting conservation organizations.

Maybe fear of bird flu can do what the best efforts of conservationists have so far failed to effect.

(More tomorrow.)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

How to make a universe

Want the recipe for cooking up a universe? See this week's Musing.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The journey-work of stars

Everyone is waiting for the bird flu virus to find and exploit the mutation that allows human-to-human transmission. Given the notorious genetic adaptability of viruses it would seem to be just a matter of time. The little stinkers have a huge bag of tricks up their sleeves for sneaking into cells and avoiding defenses. Their very simplicity is key to their plasticity.

A recent article in Nature (12 January) takes the viral story one step further. Evolutionary biologist Patrick Forterre of the University of Paris-Sud, Orsay, thinks viruses invented DNA as a way around the defenses of the cells they infected. Yep, he imagines an early world of cells that used single-stranded RNA as their template for reproduction. Even then viruses were preying on cells, says Forterre, and they came up with double-stranded DNA as a way of avoiding their host's defenses. DNA is more chemically stable than RNA, and better able to resist the enzymes that cells had evolved to break apart viral RNA.

Of course, DNA had another advantage. Its greater stability also made possible larger genomes, and therefore organisms of greater complexity. If Forterre is right, the whole marvelous panoply of life on Earth today started as a viral ploy. Nature red in tooth and claw from day one. Well, ok, day two.

In her wonderful book The Sacred Depths of Nature, my microbiologist friend Ursula Goodenough writes: "The religious naturalist is provisioned with tales of natural emergence that are, to my mind, far more magical than traditional miracles. Emergence is inherent in everything that is alive, allowing our yearning for supernatural miracles to be subsumed by our joy in the countless miracles that surround us."

Friday, February 03, 2006

Bird flu -- Part 2

"Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare," wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. Euclid was a geometrician. The beauty of a virus is geometrical.

Here, at the smallest dimension of life, at a scale too small to be observed even with the best optical microscope, nature has contrived structures of stunning elegance. And not accidentally.

The beauty of a virus is a matter of necessity. A virus has only enough genes to encode 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 a icosahedral structure, with 20 identical triangular faces, one of the five regular polyhedrons admired by the Greeks as the epitome of beauty.

Buckminster Fuller didn't invent the geodesic dome. Nature has been wrapping viral genes in geodesic domes since the dawn of time. And inside each dome -- a single or double strand of chemical instructions saying "Make more."

A virus is a shoestring operation, a paragon of frugality. Making do with the bare minimum, it comes up with beauty bare. There may be a lesson there.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Bird flu

As we begin to think about our trip to Turkey next month for the solar eclipse, we are keeping our eye on the bird flu situation. Of course, everyone on the planet these days is doing the same, especially those charged with protecting us from infectious diseases.

What is the bird flu virus? A snippet of genes in a protein shell. A submicroscopic packet of disruptive strife. Ten thousand could line up across the head of a pin. Viruses lack the genetic information to make their own energy or proteins. They can only reproduce and build their protein shells by hijacking the chemical apparatus of an invaded cell.

And what they leave behind is a mess. Their name comes from the Latin for "poison." Just look at the devastation wreaked by the 1918 flu pandemic that claimed 20 to 40 million lives worldwide. Smallpox, chickenpox, AIDs, ebola, poliomyelitis, hepatitis, yellow fever, mumps, measles, respiratory infections, rabies, warts, genital herpes, the common cold: There's not much to like among the viruses.

And yet, and yet . . .

They are beautiful.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


In his journal for September 13, 1852, Thoreau says: "What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye." Lovely word that, saunter. To walk about at a leisurely pace. Does anyone saunter anymore? With the feet? With the eye? From the Middle English santren, "to muse." This blog, I suppose, is a sort of saunter. Of the eye. Of the mind. I was always a saunterer, which is why I sauntered out of science into writing. To be a first rate scientist these days one has to specialize, unless, of course, one is a genius polymath like, say, Murray Gell-Mann or Stephen Jay Gould. Writing is all about making connections, wandering from place to place with the eyes open. Thoreau's journals are sauntering at its best. He made a career of it.