Friday, March 31, 2006


OK, here I am in Cappadocia. My spouse, daughter and grandchildren are off to see Whirling Dervishes or some such thing. I was happy enough with the astonishing geology, underground cities, early Christian sites, etc. Gotta talk our mutual friend (my son) Tom into coming back here with me for a walking trip. Turks friendly. Food and drink excellent. Scenery astonishing. I have the contacts worked out. There can't be any other place in the world with more bizarre geography.

The eclipse. The brightest, sunniest day of the trip. The gods of eclipses were benevolent. I bet my granddaughter 20 lira that she'd say "Oh my God!" at totality. I won. It really is an astonishing thing. No photograph or description can describe it.

This may be my last post till Monday. Tom will post a Musing on Sunday. I wish you all could have been there when the Sun went dark.

Now I will see if the Noosphere will let me send this to you.

Eclipse from Above

A photo of this week's total solar eclipse as seen from the International Space Station:

Cyprus is visible at the top. The south coast of Turkey is on the left. And somewhere in the middle of that shadow...was Chet. (He should be back on Sunday.)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Perfect conditions for the eclipse. The same reaction as last time. When totality occurred, hundreds of voices saying, "Oh my God!", "Wow!", "Oh, oh, oh, oh!!!" The great black hole of the Sun looks like an entrance into the world beyond the celestial sphere. Blogger isn't uploading photos, Some pics when I can. More description too.


Eclipse morning dawns gloriously clear, the Sun rising golden over the mountains to the east, the sea glistening in the west. The Sun is in Pisces, a rather starless part of the sky, so there will be no bright stars near the dark Sun. But Mercury and Venus are nearby and should be conspicuous.

Spent yesterday afternoon in the old Roman town of Side, where lots of eclipse chasers were picking spots where they might photograph the eclipse against a background of a Roman temple or such. No camera for me. It will be all eyes.

The folks I'm hanging with have a spot all picked out on the roof garden of the hotel.

In a few hours the tip of the Moon's shadow will touch the Earth near the coast of Brazil, race across the South Atlantic, Nigeria Chad, Libya, the Mediterranean Sea, and hit us at 1:54 PM local time. Of course, we will be in partial shadow long before that. Most of Africa and all of Europe will have a partial eclipse.

Here's the place in the sky where the Sun will go dark.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Four PM Tuesday local time in Side. Grandkids in the pool. The weather report looking good for tomorrow.


Back on line. This hotel we are staying in at Side on the south coast of Turkey is not to my taste. It is more like Las Vegas on the Med than what I would prefer to stay at when I'm traveling. However it has one important advantage: It is on the centerline of the eclipse, and therefore offers almost 4 minutes of totality. I've noticed that the Sky & Telescope Magazine eclipse tour is also here, as well as the official NASA eclipse team.

Eclipses can last anywhere from a fraction of a minute to upwards of seven minutes, depending on how deeply the rapier tip of the Moon's shadow reaches the Earth; that is -- maintaining the same grisly metaphor -- whether it barely grazes the Earth's cheek, or slices clean through the planet.

Today the sky is clear and sunny, and the prognostication is good for eclipse day tomorrow. We have our fingers crossed.

Here's a bit of ancient technology: Underfloor heating chambers at the baths of the Roman city of Perge, not far from here -- with two of my grandchildren in the background.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Mir's-Eye View

Chet is on the south coast of Turkey by now for this Wednesday's total eclipse. Since he is offline by this point, I'll post one of my favorite photographs. This is the famous image taken from the former Mir Space Station looking down on the moon's shadow as it swept across Europe in 1999.

To experience a solar eclipse in totality, you have to position yourself in the exact center of this shadow.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Lancelot Hogben

Tom here. Before his departure to Turkey, Chet left a Sunday Musing for me to post in his absence. Memories of childhood books and the work of Lancelot Hogben in this week's Musing.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


The long, skinny conical shadow of the Moon just barely reaches the Earth. That's the little black dot in the graphic for yesterday's post. If the Moon were a bit smaller we wouldn't have total solar eclipses at all. And if the Moon were bigger the intersection of the shadow with Earth would be larger and eclipses wouldn't be so rare. By celestial coincidence, the relative sizes and distances of the Sun and Moon are such that we are graced with an extraordinary event that is deliciously rare.

Take a 12-inch diameter terrestrial globe such as you might have in your home or schoolroom, and every year or so draw a random line 10 or 12 inches long across its face with a black felt-tip marker. The line can be anywhere from North Pole to South Pole and in any hemisphere. These marks are typical of the paths of total solar eclipses. How long until the entire globe is painted black with shadows? That is: What is the longest time that any place on the Earth's surface would have to wait for a total solar eclipse? Mathematical astronomer Jean Meeus has done the calculation, and the answer turns out to be 4500 years. Hang on for that long and the little black dot is certain to sweep across you no matter where you live.

A day on the town in Istanbul, visiting some places we missed last time.

Friday, March 24, 2006


On the ground in Istanbul, and yes the hotel (on a narrow little street in the old city) has free WiFi. A couple of days here seeing the sights, then to the south coast for the eclipse on Wednesday.

Most people know why a solar eclipse happens: The Moon blocks the Sun's light. What is less well understood is why total solar eclipses are so rare. Think of the Earth as a grapefruit. On this scale, the Moon would be a grape about 20 feet away. Both Earth and Moon cast conical shadows pointing away from the Sun (Shelley's "pyramid of night/ which points into the heaven."). To have a total eclipse of the Sun, the Moon's conical shadow must touch some part of the Earth's surface.

And here's the kicker: The Moon's shadow is almost exactly as long as the average distance of the Moon from the Earth (think of the grape with its 20-foot-long shadow tapering to a point near the grapefruit Earth). Because of the tilt of the Moon's orbit to the plane of the ecliptic, most months the tip of the Moon's shadow passes above or below the Earth, but about twice a year, when the Moon is near the ecliptic plane (the plane of the Earth's orbit), a solar eclipse is possible.

But it's not a sure thing. The Moon moves around the Earth in an almost perfectly circular orbit, but the Earth is not quite at the center of the circle. Sometimes the Moon is a bit further from the Earth, and sometimes a bit closer. When the Moon is near apogee -- its greatest distance from the Earth -- the tip of its shadow does not quite reach to the Earth's surface and a total solar eclipse cannot occur. When the Moon is at perigee -- its nearest distance to Earth -- the rapierlike tip of its shadow just reaches Earth, or even extends a bit beyond.

To see a total solar eclipse, one must be in the narrow path where the rapier's tip slices the surface of the Earth -- like a fencer's rapier scoring the cheek of his opponent.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Darkness at noon

As you read this, I am on my way to Turkey and -- with luck and cloudless skies -- a total solar eclipse (TSE). Postings here may be sporadic for the next ten days, but I'm taking my laptop and hope to be with you. It's a WiFi world, they say.

Why Turkey?

If you stay in one place, the average time you will have to wait for a TSE -- one of nature's most spectacular phenomena -- is 375 years. During my lifetime, there were TSEs in the northern mid-US in 1945 and 1954, along the extreme east coast in 1970, and in the northwest in 1979. I missed them all. The next US TSE will be right across the country from northwest to southeast in 2017. If you live in Southern Illinois, you will have a TSE in 2017 and 2024 without leaving home. Jackpot! You can see the tracks of TSEs over five millennia at this terrific NASA website.

This will be my second TSE. I was on a ship in the Black Sea for the TSE of August 11, 1999.

More on all of this as we go along.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


According to new research reported in the March issue of Scientific American, the U-shaped curve of marital happiness has been debunked.

For a long time, researchers believed we were happy at the wedding, unhappiest after about 20 years of marriage, then happiest of all at the 50th anniversary -- the traditional U. And, in fact, I would say that pretty much summarizes my own experience. (My spouse will have to speak for herself).

But new and better contrived statistical studies now show that for most Americans it's all down hill from the honeymoon, or at best a leveling out after 20 years or so at a level of relative misery. So much for bliss.

But even if it's not a bed of roses, we still overwhelmingly choose matrimony. SciAm also notes a study by two researchers who sought to calculate the monetary equivalent of marriage's effect on mental well-being. They find that being married is equivalent to making an extra $100,000 a year -- which more than doubles my income. Perhaps we should call it matrimoney.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Of dreams and reality

As Lewis Mumford put it: "If man had not encountered dragons and hippogriffs in dream, he might never have conceived of the atom."

According to Mumford, a historian and critic of Western culture, it was from the experience of dreams that humans came to believe that there is more to reality than meets the eye. Dreams gave sleepers access to an unseen world, veiled from our senses and daily experience, but as apparently real as the food we eat.

We no longer believe in the literal reality of dream images. But belief in an unseen world veiled from our senses is an important part of modern science. We believe, for instance, in atoms. Atoms are as real to us as were dragons and hippogriffs to our ancestors.

Sometimes the unseen realities of science seem no less bizarre than the creatures of dream. Is any dragon or hippogriff stranger than the solar neutrino?

As you sit at your computer reading this post, a flood of neutrinos from the sun is pouring through the roof of your house. Every second, hundreds of billions of these unseen subatomic particles pass through every square inch of your body! At night, equal numbers of solar neutrinos enter the Earth on the opposite side, zip virtually unhindered through the body of the planet (and your mattress) and pierce you in your sleep.

It is easier, I suppose, to believe in dragons. But neutrinos have been an indispensable part of physical theory since Wolfgang Pauli proposed their existence in 1931 to balance the books on energy in certain nuclear reactions. They have been produced and detected experimentally since 1956. These will-o'-the-wisps are securely established as a very real part of the unseen world of physics.

It takes some stretch of the imagination to think about neutrinos. It cannot hurt to have practiced on hippogriffs and dragons.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Engineering the future

Off soon to Turkey for the eclipse.

The next accessible total solar eclipse will be in China (right across Shanghai) on July 22, 2009. With luck, it will be my first trip to China, and maybe my last TSE.

We can expect extraordinary things from China in the coming years, but for the time being consider these statistics from the State of the World 2006 report of the Worldwatch Institute (and summarized in Scientific American):

Gross domestic product per person: China $4,600, United States $40,100.

Barrels of oil used per person every year: China 1.9, United States 25.3.

Kilograms of grain consumed per person in 2005: China 292, United States 918.

Ecological footprint (areas with significant photosynthetic activity or biomass accumulation) per person in hectares: China 1.6, United States 9.7

If and when China and India increase their consumption and ecological footprint to equal that of the United States -- and by what divine right are we allowed to be richer than others? -- the planet will groan unbearably under the load. It will take some extraordinary ingenuity on behalf of scientists and engineers to keep this from happening, and just when we should be encouraging children to study these disciplines, the present tendency in America is in the opposite direction. Oh, well, the Chinese and Indians will pick up the slack.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


Join me on a visit with the great man himself, in this week's Musing.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The facts and the white fire

Back from the Bahamas to a pile of journals, three months worth of Science and Nature, a dozen of each. When I'm away I keep up with the highlights online, but I save the nitty-gritty till I can put my feet up on the couch with hard copy.

It's not all fun. Scientific literature is dull by design. It's Joe Friday: "Just the facts, Ma'am."

For example, the current issue of Science is largely devoted to analyzing the data from spacecraft Cassini's reconnaissance of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Numbers, graphs, tables, formulas, diagrams.

A sample sentence:
From this fit (HRD data for Rp > 2 μm), we can infer the rate of particles larger than 2 μm emitted by the south pole source and escaping the moon's gravity to amount to 5 x 1012 particles s-1, whereas the impactor-ejecta mechanism would produce at most 1012 such particles s-1. These numbers correspond to an escaping mass of at least 0.2 kg s-1, assuming Rp = 2 μm for all grains.
This passionless, colorless prose has a purpose.

Scientific literature emphasizes that part of our experience that is common to anyone who makes the observations in the same way. It is independent of the politics, gender, race, nationality and emotional state of the observer -- which is why we have confidence in science as reliable public knowledge.

Of course, the dry facts are not enough. We are emotional creatures. We have appetites. We are driven by awe, terror, love, distaste. A diet of purely objective knowledge is oppressive. With the poet Mary Oliver we say...
...what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled --
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
But make no mistake, the white fire is there too, in the Cassini-observed emanations of Enceladus. Facts, yes, a flood of facts. But also, for a moment, reading Science, I am transported to the vast multi-world of Saturn, where a moon the size of Arizona plumes water vapor into space. I am there, cruising that maelstrom and forge of creation -- the white, white fire of a great mystery.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Saint Paddy's Day

Saint Patrick's achievements were many and real, but driving snakes out of Ireland was not one of them. Solinus noted the island's snakelessness long before Patrick arrived in Ireland in the 5th century. The historian Bede, writing in the 8th century, confirms the absence of snakes on Irish soil, and makes no mention of Patrick. Bede tells us that when snakes were transported to Ireland on ships, they invariably expired when the ship reached the midpoint of the Irish Sea -- exterminated, presumably, by their first whiff of Irish air. Bede also claims that people in Britain suffering from the bite of vipers could be cured by drinking water in which the scrapings of Irish books had been steeped.

None of the early biographers of Patrick mention the episode of the snakes. So if not Patrick, then who? Or what?

The answer is both topological and climatological. During the most recent ice age, the flora and fauna of the British Isles were pushed south by the advancing glaciers. Then, about ten thousand years ago, as the ice caps on the northern continents began to recede, the plants and animals came creeping back, first to Britain, then to Ireland. For a time, when great quantities of frozen water were still piled on the continents, Britain and Ireland were connected to the rest of Europe by dry land. Across these natural bridges the creatures moved. But as the ice continued to melt, the level of the seas rose, and the lowest lying parts of the European continent were flooded. Britain and Ireland became islands. The snake, deliberate creature that it is, made its way successfully from France to Britain while the present channel was still dry, but its migration further west was cut short by the rising waters of the Irish Sea. The quicker lizard established itself as the only reptile on Irish soil.

But the mystery is not fully resolved. It has been ten thousand years since the end of the last ice age, and it seems surprising that in all of that time snakes have not somehow managed to reestablish themselves in Ireland. Zoologists have debated whether there is some property of the Irish climate or soil that has prevented the successful reentry of snakes into Ireland. As far as I know the issue is unresolved.

The Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger tells of a test of the compatibility of snakes and the Irish environment that had a curious outcome. In 1831 a snake was found at Milecross in County Down. The idea of a "rale live sarpint" having been found so near to Saint Patrick's burial place created a sensation among the country people. One clergyman preached a sermon citing the snake as a portent of the coming Millennium.

It turned out that the unfortunate reptile was one of half-a-dozen harmless English garden snakes that had been purchased in Covent Garden Market in London by a gentleman who wished to learn why the Irish environment was destructive to snakes. He turned the reptiles loose into his garden near Milecross and they promptly escaped into the countryside. Four were eventually killed.

The fate of the other two Milecross snakes was never determined. They did not, it can be confidently asserted, manage to establish themselves as permanent residents of Ireland. Whether the reason was bad luck, some inclement quality of the Irish climate or soil, or the baneful effects of Patrick's supposed malediction I will leave for you to decide.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


I've mentioned here before Ursula Goodenough's little book The Sacred Depths of Nature, a lovely reflection on religious naturalism. But it's more than that. Strip out the religious meditations and you have the shortest, clearest introduction to biochemistry you'll ever want or need.

In two pages, for instance, she explains the workings of enzymes, those long strings of amino acids that curl into curious shapes like the pieces of a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The "pockets" in the outer surface of an enzyme attract other molecules that fit into the cavities like keys into locks. Pockets filled, the enzyme twists and brings small molecules together to form large ones, or wrenches large molecules apart. The products are expelled and the enzyme resumes its original shape, waiting to do its work again.

"And that's basically all there is to biochemistry," writes Goodenough.

Talk about understatement!

As I sit here writing, in every one of the trillions of cells in my body thousands of different kinds of enzymes are twisting and turning, building and deconstructing, catalyzing the biochemistry that keeps me alive. Yes, I guess that's basically all there is -- all (in E. E. Cummings' words) "which is natural which is infinite which is yes."

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The wiki which

I have written here before about Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia written and maintained by anyone who wants to contribute. The wonder is not that it works so well but that it works at all. And work, it apparently does. It has been found to be generally as accurate as the Britannica.

Some years ago, I wrote a Boston Globe column that contained three spoof letters, one of them purportedly from Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, London, to Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Delft, Holland, 20th of October, 1676. The column was clearly flagged as a spoof.

The letter showed up in the Wikipedia entry for Leeuwenhoek, accepted as authentic, generating a bit of an on-line to-do. The Royal Society archivist was consulted, and the letter was finally traced to me. I confirmed the spoof.

I was surprised that anyone might have taken the letter as authentic, but impressed at the self-correcting character of the wiki concept.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

My father's slide rule -- Part 2

And while I'm on the subject, let's not forget my father's piles of Keuffel & Esser graph paper, heavy stock paper with green lines and light stock paper with orange lines, in an assortment of scales. Linear, semilog, log-log. A graph paper for every purpose.

He plotted everything. The many aspects of his work as a quality control engineer. The family finances. The weather. The ebb and flow of Hitler's campaign in Russia. Only when he saw data displayed on a graph did he feel he understood it.

With a supersharp pencil tracing a line on a sheet of beautiful K&E paper he physically participated in the patterns that gave order to the world -- and to his life. He reveled in the sensual feel of thinking with wood, steel, paper, graphite, and glass. Three significant digits were all he required. He died just as computers and calculators began to sweep it all away -- to be replaced by speed, convenience, and a degree of precision unimaginably greater than the tolerances of daily life.

Monday, March 13, 2006

My grandfather's slide rule...

...was passed down to Chet, who has given it to me. It is still in beautiful shape and works as perfectly as it did 60 years ago.

My father's slide rule...

...was a Keuffel & Esser log-log-duplex-decitrig slide from the 1940's, with twenty-one white plastic scales bonded to teak and a glass hairline indicator, neatly cozied in a stiff leather case.

My father took his slipstick seriously.

He used it all day long, every day. While tinkering in his basement workshop, or while preparing a speech for the local chapter of the American Association of Mechanical Engineers.

He lived in a world of three significant figures. That was the accuracy of the calculations he performed on his slide rule. It was enough for a life of service to his profession and his community.

Even on his deathbed he was slipping his slipstick, plotting the cycles of medication and pain.

With a slide rule, the structure of thinking is visible and tactile. He liked that. He could see and feel the numbers add, multiply, divide. Today, processing takes place invisibly in a microchip forever sealed away from human inspection.

More is going on here than an advance in technology. The change from slide rules to electronic calculators was different, say, than the change from oil lamps to electric bulbs, or from horses and buggies to automobiles. The passing of the slide rule represented a change in how we understand the world.

It is a change from nuts-and-bolts materialism to digital formalism, from a world imagined as hardware to a world imagined as software. The dance of digits inside a computer's silicon chip is destined to become the 21st century's metaphor for reality.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


This week's Musing offers some thoughts on science, Islam amd the West.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The creatures, two by two

As late as three years ago, the island of Exuma was a scruffy, backwater sort of place, asleep in tropic languor. Even the rich and the very rich snow birds tucked their homes unostentatiously into the landscape and lived close to nature and Bahamians.

Now, suddenly, the island has been discovered by people -- mostly Americans -- who build five star hotels and pretentious gated communities of "Look-at-me" houses. These projects invariably begin with bulldozers clearing the land down to bare rock and sand -- dunes, ridges, vegetation, all. One magnificent landscape of rolling vegetation and wildlife on the road to George Town was reduced to a flat, sterile desert in anticipation of selling half-million-dollar sites. For some reason the project collapsed, and now we have a many-acre scar where once there was beauty.

These projects, when completed, are expensively landscaped, but also dosed with pesticides to keep down the bur grass and sand flies -- and, inadvertently, the rest of creaturedom. We are already seeing the impact of scrape-and-build development. Fewer snowy egrets, butterflies, bat moths, boas.

We take aboard on our property whatever refugees come skittering or flittering our way. Soon we may be skittering ourselves.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Intelligent design

What wonderful divine tomfoolery!
An eyeless crab, all white and woollery.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The lachrymose onion

One of my favorite long walks here in Exuma takes me through the Ramsey-Mount Thompson gardens, a strip of fairly arable soil between the beach dunes and the rocky rising ground behind. Onions, cabbages and bananas are the staples, but onions grow best. They are on the Exuma coat-of-arms.

Onions are one of those foods we eat for flavor rather than nourishment. The distinctive tastes and aromas are based on sulfur, which the plant takes from the soil and turns into "ammunition" compounds. These wait in the plant's cells until an animal comes along and tries to eat the plant. Damaged cells release "trigger" enzymes that break the sulfur compounds apart into obnoxious, irritating molecules. One of those compounds makes us cry when we slice a raw onion; we are being zapped by a highly evolved defense mechanism.

Cooking transforms these sulfur-based molecules into the savory flavors we love.

Anyone who enjoys cooking or eating should own Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen -- from which I fetched up this onion lore. There you will find the entire chemical and cultural history of this and every food -- etymologies, origins, etc. McGee adds an intellectual fillip to the sensual experience of eating -- another proof that science and spirit are mutually enhancing.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

In the society of creaturedom

A snake lives under the stoop of my writing studio. A Bahamian brown racer, Alsophis vudii, three feet long and as thick as my thumb. Not quite sure why it's called a "racer." My snake moves with a tropical languor. If it's basking on the flagstones when I come along, it will flatten its neck, flick its tongue, and fix me with its beady eyes, as if to say, "Move along, lump, you are blocking my sun." It is sometimes waiting for me with its head sticking out of its hole between the flags when I come to take up my post at my laptop. I get down on my knees and we have a staring contest to see who'll blink first. (Yeah, yeah, I know, snakes can't blink.) (Which is why I never win.) It's a beauteous, sinuous thing that seems to have discovered that life without legs saves on shoe leather without any noticible abridgement of mobility. Flannery O'Connor once described her life in an interview: "I write every day for at least two hours, and I spend the rest of my time largely in the society of ducks." I would answer similarly, but with the ducks replaced by snakes, geckoes, hummingbirds and spiders.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"Not a creed, but a method" -- Part 2

Thomas Henry Huxley, to whom I made a nod yesterday, described how it was that he came to originate the term "agnosticism":
When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain "gnosis" -- had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble....So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic". It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant.
Agnosticism, Huxley insisted, is not a creed, but a method. "Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable." This might seem a thin foundation upon which to stand a life, and indeed it takes a certain courage to make one's way in the world without the buttress of true belief. Huxley himself was sorely pressed by circumstance, but he found the courage to endure and to prevail. He said that if a person stays true to the agnostic principle, with humility, as best he can, "he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him."

Monday, March 06, 2006

"Not a creed, but a method"

Thomas Henry Huxley, who as much as anyone can be credited with inventing the 20th century, was just months older than me when he died, at the ripe old age -- in Victorian times -- of seventy. It is because of the secular, liberal, scientific values Huxley fought for so valiantly all his life that I enjoy health and vigor at an age when he was in terminal physical decline.

Physical, but not mental. In a letter to a friend a few years before his death, Huxley took note of his infirmity, then wrote: "But for all that, the cosmos remains always beautiful and profoundly interesting in every corner -- and if I had as many lives as a cat I would leave no corner unexplored."

As part of his obituary, the British journal Punch penned this epitaph:
The great Agnostic, clear, brave, true,
Taught more things may be, than he deemed he knew.
Every time I see a picture of Huxley in later life, I am reminded of our own E. O. Wilson, another champion of secular, liberal, scientific values.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The deity and the drains

Two hundred years ago, the Hotel-Dieu in Paris was perhaps the best hospital in the world, catering to several thousand patients. Over a door of the hospital were inscribed these words: C'est icy la Maison de Dieu, et la Porte du Ciel, "This is the House of God, and the door to heaven."

The door to heaven, indeed! The death rate at the Hotel-Dieu was one in four. Three patients to a bed was the rule; the middle patient's head lay between the feet of the patients to either side.

Sheets were washed once a month by novice nuns, who soaked the laundry in the polluted waters of the Seine, then banged out the crusted soil with a kind of spade.

Physicians and nursing staff at the Hotel-Dieu served their patients bravely and unselfishly, but matters of life and death were thought to be in the hands of God. Prayers and processions were the primary regimen for effecting cures. Not much changed in this regard until Florence Nightingale began her hospital reforms in the 19th century, emphasizing separation of wards, cleanliness and ventilation.

The English writer Lytton Strachey said of Nightingale that she seemed "hardly to distinguish between the Deity and the Drains," that is, between religious faith and scrupulous elimination of agents of infection. Only when the Drains -- scientific medicine -- became paramount did hospitals enter the modern era.

See this week's Musing.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Awfully vast

What was that line from Johnson yesterday? "Awfully vast or elegantly little." Comet Pojmanski is elegantly little. The awfully vast is coming. On March 29, at 10:56:52 AM local time, I will be at longitude 31 degrees 23.1 minutes E, latitude 36 degrees 46.0 minutes N, to watch the Sun go as black as an inkpot for 3 minutes 44.9 seconds. On that day and in that place the Moon will pass directly in front of the Sun, and the apparent disk of the Moon will be 1.0493 times larger than the apparent disk of the Sun. (This ratio varies from about .90 to 1.07, depending on the distances of the Sun and Moon from the Earth.) It is just a coincidence that the apparent sizes of Sun and Moon in the sky are so nearly the same. If the ratio of apparent diameters was always less than 1, we would never have a total solar eclipse, one of nature's most awfully vast events. If the ratio were significantly greater than 1, total eclipses of the Sun would not be so gloriously rare.

Friday, March 03, 2006

A slip of comet, scarce worth discovery

Still looking each morning before dawn for that blur of light I can barely see in my spotting scope. Comet Pojmanski. Is that a hint of tail I'm seeing, or am I only imagining it? No point in dragging my wife out of bed. She would roll her eyes and wonder why I bother. Well, it's not the comet; I've seen dozens of these faint visitors. It's the spine-tingling experience of standing on the terrace in my skivvies while a black star-spangled sky becomes a tropic dawn. And it's not just the sensual rush. There's an intellectual dimension too, as the mind tries to grasp the three-dimensionality of space, Comet Pojmanski tracing its huge arc around the Sun, now climbing back into Hopkins' "cavernous dark," chasing its tail. I like to think there is a touch of the poet in all of us, and I recall something Samuel Johnson wrote: "To a poet, nothing can be useless. Whatever is beautiful, and whatever is dreadful, must be familiar to his imagination: he must be conversant with all that is awfully vast or elegantly little."

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Thoughts on seeing Comet Pojmanski

Among the most beautiful words ever written about comets are surely these lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins, written in September 1864:
    -- I am like a slip of comet,
Scarce worth discovery, in some corner seen
Bridging the slender difference of two stars,
Come out of space, or suddenly engender'd
By heady elements, for no man knows;
But when she sights the sun she grows and sizes
And spins her skirts out, while her central star
Shakes its cocooning mists; and so she comes
To fields of light; millions of travelling rays
Pierce her; she hangs upon the flame-cased sun,
And sucks the light as full as Gideons's fleece:
But then her tether calls her; she falls off,
And as she dwindles shreds her smock of gold
Amidst the sistering planets, till she comes
To single Saturn, last and solitary;
And then goes out into the cavernous dark.
So I go out: my little sweet is done:
I have drawn heat from this contagious sun:
To not ungentle death now forth I run.
That master comet discoverer David Levy has convincing shown that the lines were inspired by Hopkins' observation of Comet Tempel about a month earlier. Tempel was the first comet to be observed spectroscopically. But what about that phrase "To single Saturn, last and solitary?" In 1864, Saturn was known to be neither last nor solitary. But the poem was meant to be a speech in a play set in Renaissance Italy, before the discovery of Saturn's rings or moons, and before the discovery of Uranus, Neptune or Pluto.

And, last evening, a slip of Moon, Amor's bow, shooting its arrow straight into the setting Sun.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Hints and traits

We are a culture of swoosh and glitter. It takes a blockbuster to gain our attention. Super-bowls. Tsunamis. Colassal acts of terrorism. We sit transfixed by our televisions waiting for the next megaevent.

Meanwhile, nature whispers sweet nothings and there is too much background noise to hear.

Since lyra drew our attention to Comet Pojmanski, I've been up at 4:30 AM, onto the terrace with my spotting scope. Hazy clouds in the eastern sky the first two mornings. Then, yesterday, there it was, a faint smudge on the windowpane of night. With sublime discretion, Pojmanski sails across the deep, trailing a wake of fairy dust.

The 19th-century naturalist John Burroughs said that "the good observer of nature exists in fragments, a trait here and a trait there." And again, "one secret of success in observing nature is [a] capacity to take a hint." Looking for Pojmanski was a matter of hints and traits.

What we saw was the story of our beginnings. Comets are the stuff of which the solar system was born, preserved in the deep-freeze of the trans-Plutonic realm. Volatile compounds. Carbon-based molecules. Amino acids. Some scientists believe these building blocks of life were rained down upon the Earth by comets in the early eons of the solar system, 4 billion years ago. A few scinetists have suggested that life might have come to our planet on a comet, as primitive microorganisms.

Watching Comet Pojmanski, we are witness to the insipient glow of life in the dark abyss of the galaxies.

When night's faint lights revealed themselves to Burroughs, his thoughts, he wrote, went "like a lightning flash" into the abyss, and then the veil was drawn again. It was just as well, he said, to have such faint and fleeting revelations of the deep night: "To have it ever present with one in all its naked grandeur would perhaps be more than we could bear."