Friday, June 30, 2006

The war of science and faith -- Part 2

One of the most self-transcendent moments of my life was when I entered almost alone Sainte-Chapelle in Paris on a radiantly sunny day when those walls of gorgeous stained glass were ablaze with light. Whatever religious fervor it was that inspired medieval architects and craftspersons to build this astonishing structure was still very much in evidence. For me it was a sense of overwhelming beauty and an appreciation for that quality of the human spirit that lets one rise above the sheer doggedness of survival.

Traditional religion has three components: a shared story of the origin and history of the universe; a collective response to the mystery of the world; and public expressions of praise and thanksgiving, including liturgies and rites of passage. The conflict of science and faith centers almost entirely on cosmology, the shared story of the world. The cosmology of the builders of Sainte-Chapelle was different from mine. But I would be happy to sit in that radiant space and listen to a choir sing a Te Deum or an ensemble play the sacred music of Bach. Which is to say, I can reject Christianity's archaic cosmology and still identify with the spiritual and aspirational aspects of that faith.

It is the archaic cosmologies embedded in faith traditions -- which invariably include privileged access to a deity or deities -- that have nourished over the centuries crusades, pogroms and jihads. The beauty of the new story, the scientific story of the world, is that it is universal -- the first cosmology with global, transcultural credentials. I know of no instance of violence perpetrated on behalf, say, of natural selection or the Big Bang. Strip away the archaic cosmologies and the world's faith traditions would offer a rich and beautifully diverse tapestry of self-transcendence and praise.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The war of science and faith

There are several ways science and religion can be in conflict.

If, say, one literally believes the world began sometime in the last 10,000 years as described by Genesis, the conflict is fundamental and irresolvable.

If one believes for religious reasons that God intervened miraculously at crucial moments in the history of life, ala intelligent design, there is little science can do to prove you wrong. But what science can do is show that there is no need for such an hypothesis, that the appearance of complex life forms can be accounted for by natural processes. The conflict here is not with the content, but with the spirit and method of science.

What about those matters that seem essential to many people of faith: the miracles of Jesus, his resurrection, the immortality of the soul, etc.? Again, one can choose to believe these things as a matter of faith and there is little science can do to prove you wrong. But there remains a conflict with the spirit of science, which has shown remarkable progress in explicating the world without invoking miracles. What science can show is that similar beliefs are common in many faith traditions and can be accounted for culturally. What science has done is show that whatever it is we can empirically call the soul is inextricably embedded in body. What science can do is show that none of the defining miracles of the world's faith traditions meet even the minimum evidentiary requirements of science.

Anyone who embraces the spirit of science -- and the powerful tool of Occam's Razor -- must naturally be skeptical of the miraculous claims of religion, which undoubtedly explains why so many scientists count themselves agnostic or atheistic.

But the fact remains that we find ourselves in a world shot through with mystery, and that the more we discover about the world the more profound becomes our sense of the world's grandeur and our own ignorance. In addition, an itch for self-transcendence seems to be part of our human nature. Strip religion of the historically contingent, the miraculous and the sectarian, put away the gods and spirits, and there is still ample room for awe, mystery, attention, praise, which is why many of us who embrace both the content and spirit of science think of ourselves as religious.

More tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Kid Lit -- Part 2

We live in an age of information. Too much information can swamp the boat of wonder, especially for a child.

From a science book we might learn that a flying bat might snap up 15 insects per minute, or that the frequency of its squeal can range as high as 50,000 cycles per second. Useful information, yes.

But consider the information in this poem from Randall Jarrell's "The Bat Poet":
A bat is born
Naked and blind and pale.
His mother makes a pocket of her tail
And catches him. He clings to her long fur
By his thumbs and toes and teeth.
And then the mother dances through the night
Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting--
Her baby hangs on underneath.
What wondrous information! Even the rhythm of the poem ("naked and blind and pale"; "thumbs and toes and teeth") mimics the flight of mother and child, doubling and looping in the night.

The mother eats the moths and gnats she catches
In full flight; in full flight
The mother drinks the water of the pond
She skims across. Her baby hangs on tight.
That wonderful line -- "In full flight; in full flight" -- conveys the single most important fact about bats: their extraordinary aviator skills. Jarrell's repeated phrase conveys useful facts about chiropteran dining; it also lets the child feel in her bones what it is to be a bat. This is information that enhances wonder.

In Jarrell's book, the Bat-Poet recites his poem about bats to a chipmunk. Afterwards, he asks, "Did you like the poem?" The chipmunk replies, "Oh, of course. Except I forgot it was a poem. I just kept thinking how queer it must be to be a bat." The Bat-Poet says, "No, it's not queer. It's wonderful."

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Kid lit

Every now and then I am asked for recommendations of good science books for kids.

There are lots of terrific science books out there, and a good place to find them is the children's book section of a science or natural history museum. But my advice is: Don't be overly worried about providing science books for your kids. Expose them to good children's literature and the science will take care of itself.

Over the years I have often made reference to children's books in Science Musings, first in the Boston Globe and now on the web, including the books of Dr. Seuss, Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince," Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-glass", Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz," Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows," and Felix Salten's "Bambi." All of these in essays about science.

Science books for children are packed full of interesting information. What most of these books do not convey is the story of how the information was obtained, why we understand it to be true, and how it might embellish the landscape of the mind. For many children -- and adults too -- science is a mass of facts. But facts are not science any more than a table is carpentry.

Science is an attitude toward the world -- curious, skeptical, undogmatic, and sensitive to beauty and mystery. The best books for children are the ones which convey these attitudes. They are not necessarily the books labeled "science."

Albert Einstein wrote: "When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking." The best time -- perhaps the only time -- to acquire the gift of fantasy is childhood.

More tomorrow.

Monday, June 26, 2006

On threads of slime

There was a time here in the west of Ireland thirty years ago when you couldn't walk down our road without stepping to avoid the ubiquitous slugs. In the garden we set out jar caps of beer to protect the lettuce, and when that didn't do the job, slug bait. In the morning the garden was full of dissolving threads of slime. They died by the dozens but still some got through to eat our plants.

Today the tide of battle has turned. We never see slugs on the road anymore, and not so often in the garden. Something has reduced the creepy-crawly population and it was not our beer and bait.

Something rather more murderous has been going on.

Whereas before our neighbors rotated crops and animals among many small fields that were tilled by hand, today the hedgerows have been grubbed and large fields opened up for mechanical monocrop agriculture. The land is kept fertile by the application of massive amounts of nitrates.

Gone are the hedgehogs and the badgers, the corncrake and the cuckoo, the fox and hare. And fading fast the slugs, those glutinous, viscid, semifluid, voracious banes of the vegetable rows.

But on the bright side, the country is more prosperous. The younger generations have euros jingling in their pockets (and fat bank accounts). There is a consequent growing demand for organic food, and farmer's markets are springing up in every town. Farmers who tended exclusively to sheep and cattle are showing interest in a variety of new market crops, including biofuels.

Nostalgia is not a viable environmental principle. Our fate and the fate of the slugs, whatever it is to be, lies in a creative future, not in the dead past.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Place, solitude, silence

"A person wielding a fifty-ton digger in search of coal will learn quite different lessons from one who wields a pair of binoculars in search of warblers," writes Scott Russell Sanders in one of his many fine books. He might have said that we learn different lessons when we travel by car, by bike, by foot. We don't often find what we are looking for, but we invariably find what our tools and our habits equip us to see. See this week's Musing.

Again, a bit of Anne's cyber art to brighten the day. We live half a world apart, and these arrive through cyberspace like beautiful migrating birds.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


My friend Brian Doyle is surely one of the best writers around. Well, I gush, but no kidding, sometimes he puts so much of his own irrepressible exhilaration into words it takes one's breath away. Confider this paragraph from his little book The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart:
Let us contemplate, you and I, the bloody electric muscle. Let us consider it from every angle. Let us remove it from its bony cage, its gristly case, and hold it to the merciless light, and turn it glinting this way and that, and look at it as if we had never seen it before, because we never have seen it before, not like this. Let us think carefully about the throb of its relentless tissue. Let us ponder it as the wet engine from which comes all the music we know. Let us contemplate the thousand ways it fails and the few ways it does not fail. Let us gawk at the brooding genius of its architecture. Let us consider it as the most crucial and amazing house, with its four rooms and meticulous plumbing and protein walls and chambered music. Let us dream of blood and pulse and ebb and flow. Let us consider the tide and beat and throb and hum. Let us unweave the web of artery and vein, the fluttering jetties of the valves, the coursing of ions from cell to cell, the sodium that is your soul, the potassium that is your personality, the calcium that is your character.
Brian had cause enough to spelunk the wet red cave of the heart. His son was born with a heart defect, and Brian tells that story in the book. Oh, he gives us the facts: The heart weighs eleven ounces; it feeds a vascular system that comprises sixty thousands miles of pipes; it beats a thousand times a day, shoving two thousand gallons of blood through the body. Yep, the science is all there. But for Brian the science is the scaffolding of life, the armature on which he hangs one hellava lot of poetry, one hellava lot of love. If you know anyone who has reason to care about what goes right and what might go wrong with the bloody muscle that thumps away in our chests, The Wet Engine would be a lovely gift.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Time, person, year, way...

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, the 25 most used nouns in the English language are: time, person, year, way, day, thing, man, world, life, hand, part, child, eye, woman, place, work, week, case, point, government, company, number, group, problem, fact.

All very prosaic. Very workaday. Time leads the way, with year, day and week bucking up the calendar. Hand takes precedence over eye. Man, child, woman in her place. Case in point: government and company. Problem precedes fact. Work is always with us, of course; play is not to be found.

Nothing in the list that reflects science or technology or the lofty ruminations of academics. More surprising, nothing that reflects religion.

When it comes right down to it, it's as the poet Rilke wrote in the Ninth Duino Elegy: "Perhaps we are here only to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate."

"Praise this world to the Angel," says Rilke. "Do not tell him the untellable...Show him some simple thing, refashioned by age after age, till it lives in our hands and eyes as a part of ourselves. Tell him things. He'll stand more astonished."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Hot Sexy Blonde Chick Putting On Socks

Back in the 60s I was one of the many who admired the lanky Jesuit anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin. The Phenomenon of Man we took to be a phenomenal book, a brave attempt by a scientist=priest to fuse science and faith, Darwin and Christ in one grand vision. Forty years later the book has pretty much slipped from sight, and many of Teilhard's early admirers, like me, wonder what it was about the book we then found so exciting. Brave, yes, but far too fuzzy, jargonistic, and idiosyncratic to have endured.

But give Teilhard this: He imagined the internet long before it was invented by Al Gore (wink-wink, nudge-nudge). Except Teilhard called it the Noosphere, a layer of disembodied thought wrapping the Earth. If the Earth were an infinite flat plane, he said, the human species would simply disperse forever as it grew in numbers and there would be no pressure building towards progress. But because the Earth is a sphere, as our numbers increase we are perforce impressed upon each other, and our minds are mutually stimulated by proximity: He wrote: "Thanks to the prodigious biological event represented by the discovery of electromagnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously present, over land and sea, in every corner of the earth."

Not even Al Gore could say something like this: "And now, as a germination of planetary dimensions, comes the thinking layer which to its full extent develops and intertwines its fibers, not to confuse and neutralize them but to reinforce them in the living unity of a single tissue." Whew!

So let the gigablogs bloom. MySpace. The FaceBook. And now, YouTube, more than 50,000 personal video clips uploaded daily, everyone a director and producer. Every little drama of life made instantly available over land and sea in every corner of the Earth. And, no, I haven't seen the hot sexy blonde chick putting on her socks -- with my dial-up connection I'd be asleep before she got them over her toes -- but I read about her last week in the London Sunday Times, and wondered as I did so if this is what Teilhard had in mind when he dreamed of the deployment of the Noosphere, on the way to his grand and glorious apocalyptic Omega.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Attention is the highest form of prayer

There is a well-known, much-loved eight-line poem by William Carlos Williams that goes:
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
The poem has been discussed endlessly by critics, but the secret of its appeal remains elusive. Sixteen words. Nursery words. No capitalization. No punctuation. The simplicity of the poem belies its power. Certainly, simplicity is part of the poem's meaning. It affirms something that we all know, even if we cannot put our knowledge into words. Something that exists beyond words, beyond philosophy, beyond science. "So much depends." So much depends upon something we can intuit -- in silent, jubilant beholding -- but not express, not as scientists, certainly not as theologians. Something hidden deeply in the exquisite complexity of the world.

It is the thing that Thomas Merton draws our attention to in his discussion of prayer, and in particular what he calls "prayer of the heart." He writes: "In the 'prayer of the heart' we seek first of all the deepest ground of our identity in God. We do not reason about dogmas of faith, or 'the mysteries.' We seek rather to gain a direct existential grasp, a personal experience of the deepest truths of life and faith." We discern this truth in direct and simple attention to reality, he says.

We need not feel obliged to use the G-word to appreciate Merton's notion of prayer. Apprehension of a red wheel barrow glazed with rain can be the highest kind of prayer, if, as the poet suggests, we are aware that so much depends upon the apprehending. We are struck, rung like a bell, a shudder down the spine. Color, shape, texture, matter, animation: red, wheel, glazed, water, chicken. Not a a mighty wind that shatters rocks or wrecks the walls of Jericho. Not earthquake, nor fire. Rather, a gentle breeze. A barrow glazed with rain. A mask that hides another mask, and another, and another. The prayer of the heart is not garrulous. It listens in silence, expectant.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

...glimmer, glimmer

The luciferase gene -- the DNA segment that gives rise to the firefly's light-producing chemistry -- has been isolated. It has been transferred into the cells of tobacco plants and monkeys, making plants and animals glow with an eerie green light.

Researchers have also isolated light-producing genes from a Jamaican beetle called the kittyboo. Kittyboo genes give expression to four colors of light, and these have been introduced into yet other organisms. Scientists have learned how to make plants and animals glow with a rainbow of hues.

There is purportedly a serious purpose behind this research. The luciferase gene is a tag or marker that can be detected by the luminescence it stimulates. For example, chemicals from a firefly's tail can be added to the urine sample of a patient who may be suffering from bacterial infection; if bacteria are present in the urine, the firefly extract will make them glow with a faint but detectable light. The lights of the firefly and kittyboo are also used to study gene expression, monitor plant diseases, track the spread of toxins in the environment, detect cancerous tissue, even monitor brain activity in living animals.

One can imagine other uses.

Light is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Where geneticists lead, the commerce of sex might follow. Think of it (he said, tongue in cheek). Human lovers glowing in the dark with the glowworm's light, like a luminous perfume. Imagine the ads in GQ and Vogue for bioluminescence genes by Mennen and Clinique. "Let Estee Lauder make you glow with love's soft light."

Once the luciferase gene is in the body, the light will be turned on and off according to the demands of romance, perhaps by catalyzing the reaction with the hormonal secretions of sex. Lovers will ignite with the kittyboo glow of desire. Their eyes will shine with the firefly's come-hither light.

The old song had it right. The glowworm will lead us on to love.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Glow little glowworm...

Along the tidal rivers of Southeast Asia, thousands of male fireflies gather in trees at dusk and flash their bioluminescent lights in an attempt to attract the female of the species. At first, their blinking is uncoordinated, but as darkness deepens they begin to flash in unison. Soon, entire trees full of fireflies pulse like flickering fires.

The females, from far off, see the pulsating lights. They come. They mate in the cold incandescence of a winking tree.

As the glowworm love song says, when you gotta glow, you gotta glow. Everywhere, from the riverbanks of Southeast Asia to the inky depths of the oceans, nature glows with self-lit lights.

Certain toadstools can be seen from far off by their own shining. The lips of the megamouth shark are lined with hundreds of tiny lights that twinkle like a fairground's string of bulbs, enticing plankton into the gaping maw. Some starfish, if threatened, shed a glowing arm to distract the attacker, then flee in darkness to grow another.

Not so long ago, scientists believed self-luminescence was rare in nature. Now we know that living lights are common, especially in the sea. In very deep water, perhaps as many as 90 percent of creatures are luminescent.

The female marine fireworm releases her eggs in a luminous secretion for the male to find and fertilize. The angler fish of the dark abyss dangles a lighted wormlike appendage in front of its mouth and waits for an unwary prey to take the bait. Certain species of surface-swimming squids emit light from their undersides that mimics sky-glow, the better to hide from predators below.

Sex, predation, defense: The uses of light by living organisms are wonderfully diverse. Behind them all is a bit a basic chemistry. Proteins combine with oxygen to jack up the energy of molecules; when the molecules return to their original lower energy, they emit photons of light. The process is facilitated by an enzyme called luciferase. Luciferase makes the glowworm glow.

Recently, biologists have begun harnessing the firefly's blinking tail light to make things glow that never glowed before. More tomorrow.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Schrodinger's cat

You may recall the photo of my nephew Matt and Schrodinger's equation. Here is an Anne cyberpic inspired by that photo and post. And with the solstice we are out of the box of winter, too. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Two years!

Somehow I let the second anniversary of Science Musings online pass last week -- my little homestead in the blogosphere. Not quite sure what it's all about. The original idea was to sell books, but the thing has taken on a purpose of its own. I suppose I have written a half-million words here in the past 24 months. I find it is a good discipline, especially in retirement. And your wonderful comments have been an education. To all of you who visit here (and Tom tells me the numbers continue to grow), thank you.

A few lines from a favorite poet, Mary Oliver:

Look, I want to love this world
as though it's the last chance I'm ever going to get
to be alive
and know it.

Friday, June 16, 2006


Jet lagged and awake in the dark hours of the night -- of which we do not have very many here at the latitude of Ireland in summer. But for the last few nights, a special treat. There, outside our bedroom window, a waning gibbous Moon shining on Dingle Bay, only a dozen degrees above the horizon. The whole parish glows in its light.

Our exceptionally large Moon is an ornament for insomniacs, but an embarrassment for theoretical astronomers. Theories of the Moon’s origin have traditionally stumbled on the Moon’s outlandish size compared to Earth.

When I was a kid, three kinds of theories were in the works. They can be characterized by calling the Moon the "sibling," the "child," or the "spouse" of Earth.

The "sibling" theory assumed that Earth and Moon condensed together from an eddy in the larger whirlpool of gathering dust and gases that became the solar system.

The "child" theory proposed that the Moon's material was spun off from the outer layers of a rapidly spinning Earth, early in Earth's history when the planet was still mostly molten.

The "spouse" theory had the Moon form somewhere else in the solar system and subsequently captured by Earth's gravity.

Each of these theories had dynamical problems that were not easily resolved.

In recent years, a fourth theory of the Moon's origin has gained general acceptance, based on computer simulations and physical evidence. This theory assumes that a very young Earth suffered a grazing impact by a Mars-sized object. The collision blasted into Earth orbit a mass of molten materials, partly from the Earth, partly from the colliding object, which subsequently solidified to become the Moon.

The impact theory agrees with current ideas about the formation of the solar system, which apparently began as a whirlpool of gas and dust around a new star, the Sun, and condensed in stages. First, the gas and dust collected gravitationally into pea-sized objects. Then the "peas" gathered into chunks the size of buildings. The "buildings" collided to make bigger bodies, and so on until the present planets and their satellites came into being.

In the last stages of this process, a few very large impacts can be expected. One of these massive impacts apparently splashed the Moon into being. And there it is, outside the window, that splash of molten rock, now chilled, a child of Earth, but one born in awful violence.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The kiss

I have now made the annual transfer to Ireland on Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline. Woven into the upholstery of the airplane seats are lines of prose and poetry from famous Irish writers. The one that always catches my eye is this: "The way bees on a drowsy day suck honey from fuchsia."

The line is from a poem called The Kiss, by Ulick O'Connor, and recounts how "her lips on mine traced a design to show the way bees on a drowsy day. . ." Some kiss. I believe I may have mentioned this last year, so I'll try not to repeat myself.

Why does the phrase stick in mind? Well, for one thing, the words are individually gorgeous. Suck is an Old English word, with an ancient Latin root. Each breath we take, each drop of mother's milk, is sucked from the world.

Fuchsia found its name more recently; it commemorates the 17th-century German botanist Leonhard Fuchs. In moving from botanist to plant, the word softened, became redolent with fragrance, got juicier.

And honey. There is probably no English word that evokes more succulent imagery: golden, pure, sweet. Honeycombs spilling their luscious liquid. Oozy sensuality.

Add "bees" and "drowsy" and you have a mini-dictionary of delight.

But it is not just the words. It is what they do together. O'Connor wraps his kiss with every sense.

Even a science writer has moments when he wonders what's the point of science. Do we need to know, after all, that honey is the result of partial digestion in the stomach of the bee, regurgitated in the hive -- when all that really matters is the drowsy day, and a kiss?

There is an answer to that question, but I think you already know it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


From Renaissance times until the late-18th century people of rank and wealth kept "cabinets of curiosities," or as they were called in German wunderkammers, "wonder chambers." In these collections, which might take up many rooms, were cultural and natural artifacts returned to Europe from the four corners of the Earth, everything from Zulu spears to stuffed Tasmanian birds. In the 19th and 20th centuries public museums took over the roles of the private collectors, but also as the distant world became more familiar its "curiosities" seemed less exotic.

We need not go to the ends of the Earth to look for wonders. Our own backyards can yield a satisfying cabinet of curiosities. I love this poem by Charles Goodrich, from his book The Insects of South Corvallis:

Winter Seeds

Peas, beans,
haws, hips -- I am
a superstitious man.

That's why
I've gathered all these seeds
and placed them around my desk
to help me germ through
winter's dark:

grass seed half-filling a water glass,
a peach pit seated next to a chestnut,
five acorns leaning together
like tired school kids,
a sake cup brimful with rice.

I light a stick of incense,
finger my beads. A man
could spend his whole winter
arranging seeds,
scrawling proverbs in a tray full of flax,
stacking up kernels of dry corn
like a human spine,

or just listening
to the mind inside a walnut

preparing to speak.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

What's bugging you?

There have been a number of reports lately in the scientific literature about using bacteria to generate electricity. When bacteria respire they pull electrons off organic debris. Catch those electrons and you have a source of power. As described in the May 18 issue of Nature, microbiologist Peter Girguis of Harvard has bugs turning on a light with a bucket of cow manure as fuel.

It's not hard to imagine the day when sewage plants will be electrical generating plants. How about microbes in the family septic tank trickle-charging my electric car? Bacteria are the most numerous living things on the planet, having more total mass than all other creatures put together. Isn't it time they carried their own weight?

(Just kidding, of course. Bacteria play a crucial role in maintaining the ecosystem. They made the ecosystem!)

Monday, June 12, 2006

Hearing the galaxies

In her wonderful autobiography, the beloved Mississippi writer Eudora Welty tells of her time at the Mississippi State College for Women. The first book she bought for her bookshelf was In April Once, by the Mississippi poet William Alexander Percy. The first poem in the book, written in New York City, was entitled "Home":
I have a need of silence and of stars.
Too much is said too loudly. I am dazed.
The silken sound of whirled infinity
Is lost in voices shouting to be heard...
She is walking on the campus at night, the poem in her head, and around her is nothing but silence and stars. She writes: "In the beautiful spring night, I was dedicated to wanting a beautiful spring night. To be transported to it was what I wanted. Whatever a poem was about -- that it could be called "Home" didn't matter -- it was about somewhere else, somewhere distant and far."

What she felt that night became a theme of Welty's life: that one could stay put but still travel far. She spent most of her life in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house where she was born, but she considered herself a citizen of the world. The first chapter of her autobiography is called "Listening." Good advice for any of us who want to be citizens of the world -- or of the universe. We mean it metaphorically, of course, but we cock our ears for the silken sound of whirled infinity -- the galaxies turning on their languorous axes, the pulsars spinning in their millisecond compactness.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Toys R Us

After a week of dreary rain (here in New England), here is a bit of Anne's color to brighten the day:

Whether this week's Musing will brighten or darken your day remains to be seen.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

"Oh, to live always in it!"

A few years ago, when I was in England for Walking Zero, we lived within a short walk of London's Highgate Cemetery. I can't imagine that there is another cemetery in the world where are interred more famous people. The grave to which I made special pilgrimage was that of Michael Faraday, the great 19th-century electromagnetic experimentalist and a man of inexhaustible childlike wonder. He laid the foundations for our electric civilization, but never lost his delight in discovering the secrets of nature. "Nothing," he famously said, "is too wonderful to be true."

But everything wonderful need not be true. At the time of Faraday's 1853 Christmas lecture to children, England was in obsessed with spiritualist and pseudoscientific fads. "Oh, how wonderful!" people no doubt exclaimed when a table levitated at a seance. Faraday cautioned the youngsters:
Study science with earnestness -- search into nature -- elicit the truth -- reason on it, and reject all which will not stand the closest investigation. Keep your imagination within bounds, taking heed lest it run away with your judgment. Above all, let me warn you young ones of the danger of being led away by the superstitions which at this day of boasted progress are a disgrace to the age, and which afford astonishing proofs of the vast floods of ignorance overwhelming and desolating the highest places.
(Quoted in Alan Hirshfeld's The Electric Life of Michael Faraday.)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Andy Goldsworthy

Few contemporary artists are as beloved as Andy Goldsworthy, an Englishman who specializes in constructing ephemeral works out of natural materials -- leaves, reeds, twigs, stones, ice, clay, petals, wind, water, gravity, darkness, light. Many of his creations last only for hours or days, until wind, sun, or flowing water takes them away. They are preserved as photographs in a series of stunning books, most of which I own.

Goldsworthy creates what J. R. R. Tolkien called a "Secondary World," made of the stuff of the Primary World of nature but reshaped by imagination. "The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water," wrote Tolkien. The artist who would create such worlds, he observed, requires an "elvish craft." Elvish craft is what Andy Goldsworthy possesses in abundance.

Goldsworthy's art reminds us how precious is the Primary World we are using up, paving over, chopping down, draining dry. He has no quarrel with modern civilization. What he asks for is a new alliance with the Earth, informed by science and technology, yet transparent to mystery -- a re-enchantment in the Tolkien sense. It is impossible to look at a Goldsworthy work -- a river boulder, say, wrapped in red poppy petals -- without feeling that one has entered the world of faerie: nature transformed by impish imagination.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Rosy glow, cold shudder

My sister Susan sent me this photo of my nephew Matt, a new graduate in physics. That's Schrodinger's equation on the board. I was exactly Matt's age when I first encountered Schrodinger's equation.

The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger invented the equation in the 1920s as a way of describing the behavior of matter on the subatomic scale. It is a wave equation; that is, the solutions have the form of vibrations. I remember the emotions I felt the first time I saw the equation solved for the hydrogen atom, a task that required several class sessions. The solution yields precisely the wavelengths of light emitted by hydrogen gas. Hidden in this lovely equation is the rosy glow of distant galaxies. I shivered with delight.

The now deceased biochemist Erwin Chargaff, who contributed mightily to the early understanding of DNA, wrote: "It is the sense of mystery that...drives the true scientist; the same blind force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva into the butterfly. If the scientist has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist."

I trust Matt felt the shiver too.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Faces of excellence

Recently the Boston Globe ran a page of photographs and brief interviews with the 38 valedictorians of the Boston Public High Schools. It was a striking mosaic. Eighteen of the students were born outside of the United States, three in Albania. Others came from Haiti, Peru, Vietnam (2), Uganda, China, Cape Verde (2), Venezuela, Morocco, Dominican Republic, China (2), Bangladesh, and Tibet. Of the US-born students most were (by appearance) Black and Asian. The brief interviews did not reveal every student's ambition, but of those who indicated their plans most look forward to careers in science or medicine.

I looked at that page of eager faces and took hope -- hope for the future, hope for science, hope for inclusiveness and civility. It made me terribly proud to be an American at a time when we have ample reasons for pessimism and embarrassment.

The age of reptiles

Be still, don't startle. She is in the midst of her preparations, spread-eagled on the sandy lawn, using her hind legs to excavate a nest.

She casts a wary eye, but goes about her business. I creep close to get a photo. Then feel abashed. There is something intensely private about her activity. The camera only adds to my sense of being a Peeping Tom.

I can't watch a turtle lay without thinking of Mr. J. W. P. Jenks of Middleboro, Mass., my neighbor in space if not in time. A century ago, nature writer Dallas Lore Sharp told the story in an essay called "Turtles Eggs for Agassiz." The essay became something of a classic, often anthologized, but now -- like other tales of pluck and patience -- gone sadly out of style.

At the age of 23, John Whipple Potter Jenks was principal of Middleboro's Pierce Academy. One day Louis Agassiz, Harvard professor of zoology and America's most famous scientist, appeared in the doorway of Jenks's classroom. The great man asked for turtle eggs, for his study of turtles, part of his monumental book "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States."

Jenks said yes. The catch was this: If the proper information was to be obtained by dissection, the turtle eggs could not be more than three hours old. The distance from Middleboro to Agassiz's home in Cambridge was 40 miles. And thereby hangs the tale.

On May 14, weeks before the turtles were likely to lay, Jenks began his vigil at a Middleboro pond. There he sat, among the cedars, from 3 A.M. until the bell at the Academy announced early classes. Here is how he described those mornings, many years later, to Dallas Lore Sharp:

"What fragrant mornings those were! How fresh and new and unbreathed! The pond odors, the woods odors, the odors of the ploughed fields -- of water lily, and wild grape, and the dew-laid soil! I can taste them yet, and hear them yet -- the still, large sounds of the waking day -- the pickerel breaking the quiet with his swirl; the kingfisher dropping anchor; the stir of feet and wings among the trees. And then the thought of the great book being held up for me!"

But no eggs, not yet. He sat and watched, Sundays and rainy days included, until finally, at the end of the second week in June, an enormous female snapper came shuffling up out of the pond. She paddled across the meadow to a sandy bank, excavated a nest, and laid her eggs. No sooner had she finished than Jenks scooped up her cache and layered them with sand into a bucket. It was 4 A.M. on a Sunday morning, and he had three hours to get his treasure to Cambridge.

I'll not tell the rest of the story -- of the wild gallop toward the Boston Pike, the unexpected freight train, the frenzied hackney ride across the Charles River, the knock on the door of Agassiz's house just as the clock struck seven, the distraught face of Agassiz's maid as she opened the door upon a wild young man with a bucket of sand. Suffice it to say that Jenks was acknowledged in the preface of the great book.

Pluck and patience. Necessary virtues if one is going to watch turtles. And maybe that's why I feel abashed as I watch my turtle lay. It is not a private intimacy that I intrude upon, but the intimacy of another age, a slower, more patient age, an age willing to wait for a month for something to happen.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

What a tangled web we weave

Some issues before Congress are clear cut: the so-called Marriage Protection Amendment, flag-burning legislation, inheritance tax. We all know where we stand.

But net neutrality? The issue is technical and complex, and both sides purport to represent the same thing: a free and independent internet. Here's one way to decide which side to support. Look to see who your allies would be. Hands Off the Internet. Save the Internet.


A little poem called Sacrament by the Canadian poet Alden Nowlan, in its entirety:
God, I have sought you as a fox seeks chickens,
curbing my hunger with cunning.
The times I have tasted your flesh
there was no bread and wine between us,
only night and the wind beating the grass.
Night, wind, grass. And, yes, bread and wine too, although not as symbols of something otherworldly and divine, but as themselves. Bread, wine, candlelight, convivial conversation, rain on window glass, thunder somewhere afar off. The early morning coo of the mourning dove. A stone picked up along the path, hard and cool in the hand.

I want to know the stories of things. Concrete, sensual, particular things. This drop of rain on glass. This stone. But to know the particular in its fullness, it helps to know the general. Every molecule of H2O is identical to every other molecule of H2O. The stone in the path was carried here, like every other stone in the path, by glaciers. That's why I have studied science for half a century.

I call it cunning.

Monday, June 05, 2006


On December 26, 2004, the Earth's crust slipped beneath the Indian Ocean, generating a mammoth tsunami that left more than 250,000 people dead. We know what's going on down there: one great crustal plate is pushing down beneath another, dragged along by roiling convection loops deep in the planet's mantle. All is aboil inside the Earth, albeit on a time scale long by human standards. The surface plates move an inch a year or so, slowly rearranging the map.

Plates don't slip one under the other easily. Friction binds them. Pressure builds up, and up, and up, then -- zap! -- the crust crashes forward. The whole planet rings like a bell.Here is an astonishing diagram (click to enlarge) from the journal Nature showing (the red stars) the great tsunami quake and the second less devastating quake that followed on March 28. The vertical axis is latitude; the horizontal axis time. The other circles are associated quakes and aftershocks. On the day of the Big One, the Earth chattered along a line northward for 800 miles, like a piece of cloth being ripped asunder. The second big quake racheted southward for a few hundred miles. Then, for more than a year, the planet shivered along the fault.

What we see in the diagram is a stunning visualization of a massive and complex event, a kind of planetary coronary, the Earth shuddering forward, manifesting its geological destiny, oblivious to the biosphere that rides on its restless shoulders.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Natural law vs. laws of nature

The Catholic Church's ban on contraception is based on the so-called "natural law"; it is "natural" for the sex act to lead to offspring, and therefore wrong to obstruct a possible pregnancy -- a policy that in AIDs-ridden Africa has devastating consequences. But disease and agression are also natural. Why, then, is it sinful for humans to contracept, but not to find cures for disease or seek to banish wars?

See this week's Musing.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

For a light heart lives long

Let me take note here of Nimble Spirit: The Literary Spirituality Review presided over by Michael Wilt, director of Cowley Publications, the publishing house of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cowley was kind enough to bring Soul of the Night and Honey From Stone back into print in a handsome matched set. Early next year they will reprint my novel In the Falcon's Claw and also the first American edition of Valentine.

Michael's site has an associated blog called "In Good Company." The title refers to a T-shirt he bought several years ago. "Heretic," it proclaims, "In Good Company," and then goes on to list many heretics, celebrated and obscure, past and present: Joan of Arc, Meister Eckhart, Copernicus, Galileo, Ivone Gebara, Hans Kung, Teilhard de Chardin, and so on. Michael is himself a bit of a heretic, in the best sense of the word. He celebrates spirit wherever he finds it. Thanks, Michael.

Chick lit

Lyra treated us to some spectacular photos of her fledging phoebes. Of my phoebe's six eggs, only three chicks fledged. Sad, but the way of nature.

If each phoebe pair laid an average of five eggs, twice a season, if all eggs hatched and survived to adulthood, and if all adults lived a maximum phoebe life span (6 years or so), within a few years the air would be chockablock with phoebes. Early death by accident, environmental stress or predation is a necessary part of the phoebe equation.

As it is part of the equation of life.

Three chicks from six eggs is not untypical. As many as 80 percent of fledged phoebes will not survive their first year of life. Evolution takes care to see that the breeding habits of animals insure survival but not overpopulation. Species such as phoebes that care for their young have fewer offspring than species like fish and insects that lay eggs and forget them. Our sympathies quite naturally lie with species that inhabit our end of the care spectrum.

Are we the only species in which the young care for the old?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Net neutrality?

It seems like only yesterday that early internet users were up in arms at the commercial takeover of an instrument designed by geeks for geeks. As I recall, the first ad posting was for a law firm in Arizona. When was that? 1994? Not much more than a decade ago. When has any human invention so quickly transformed society?

The world wide web was conceived by Tim Berners-Lee, a British physicist working at the CERN nuclear research facility near Geneva, in the early 1990s. It was the product, he said, of his "growing realization that there was a power in arranging ideas in an unconstrained, weblike way." A defining early decision by CERN was to make the web publicly available without fees.

The web has remained essentially anarchic, linking the world in a grand grab bag of ideas -- sane and looney, wild and wonderful, a free-for-all cyber universe of
everything that makes us human.

It is something of a miracle that the web has by and large escaped the control of governments (although you can be sure they are monitoring traffic) and the big telecoms who would dearly love to harness the web for maximum commercial gain.

In recent days we are seeing the first ads and op-eds for and against "net neutrality." Now I must confess that most of the debate is over my head. But it seems the big telecoms want control not only over the pipes (the internet) but what goes through the pipes (the www).

My idea of net neutrality means that ScienceMusings has the same unconstrained access to the web as does Google or Amazon. The little guys and the big guys on an equal playing field.

The service providers want to charge tiered fees for web access, and marginalize smaller, poorer customers. Their ads make it sound like they are on the side of freedom, against government control, and so on, sort of like Bush's "tax relief for all Americans." My neck bristles.

I pay Comcast $40 a month for my cable, and fair enough. Through their cable I have unrestricted access to a world of ideas -- the first in human history -- not controlled by churches, governments, or corporations. The glorious democratic unifying potential of the web is in its infancy. Let's hope the infant is not strangled in the cradle.

Here (thanks, Tom) is a map of recent visits to Science Musings (click to enlarge). All of us together, from Anchorage to Ankara, from Cali to Cairo. A beautiful thing.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Two-legged weed

Yellow irises (called flags) are common along our road in Ireland. They are European natives, and we often snip a few for the vase by the hearth.

And now here they are showing up in the water meadow along my New England path, garden escapees, imported from Europe during the last century, and by all appearances a lovely addition to the native flora.

Unfortunately, like many alien species, yellow irises have a way of crowding out natives plants, and many North American environmentalists consider them an invasive pest. The few lovely plants in my photo may make of themselves a nuisance a few years down the road. Which means, by dictionary definition, we must consider them weeds.

Many handbooks define a weed as "a plant out of place." This assumes that we know what is the proper place for a plant. Dandelions are considered out of place in a lawn, but don't tell that to the dandelions. From a Darwinian point of view, a dandelion in the lawn or in a crack in the driveway is very much in place, a flawless adaptation of plant to habitat.

The concept of "weed" can be usefully extended beyond plants. Most of us would categorize starlings as animal weeds. Some of us would apply the term to the white-tailed deer that invade our backyards. Definition: A weed is any species of life adapted for prolific colonization of disturbed habitats, often displacing indigenous species.

Now you know where I'm heading. What is the species that is best adapted for intruding its burgeoning progeny into every nook and corner of the planet, displacing other species of plants and animals, driving many to extinction?