Monday, July 31, 2006

Pipe dream

How do you make a tube? By rolling up a sheet. By extruding a tube from a plastic substance that then hardens. By drilling out a rod.

Now consider that a big animal such as ourselves needs lots and lots of tubes and pipes to carry nutrients and oxygen to individual cells and remove their waste. How does a developing embryo make all those pipes? Not by extrusion, surely. Rolling up a sheet doesn't seem likely. Maybe by forming solid cylinders of cells and then letting the central cells die off.

In the current issue of Nature, developmental biologist Makoto Kamei and colleagues for the first time confirm a longstanding theory in which cells form vacuoles -- internal bubbles -- which then fuse and merge into tubes. And they do it by making high-resolution time-lapse movies of the process taking place in vivo.

You can watch this amazing process here.

Which brings me to that old metaphor I have used a thousand times: Knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. As we learn, the island grows, but so does the shoreline where we encounter the undiminished wonder of the world.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Would he?

This week's Musing is a Boston Globe column from September 2000, with a few edits. When Tom shows me a world map of where our visitors come from, it is clear than not many readers will be familiar with my former work with the Globe (a thousand essays over twenty years). I hope folks in the Boston area will indulge me an occasional recycle.

And something bright and new from Anne's New Mexico mesa. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Nothing too wonderful...Part 2

The earliest generations of Irish Christians seamlessly wedded their faith with Celtic nature worship. There were no dualities of natural and supernatural, matter and spirit, body and soul. All was one, and, as Saint Columbanus said, if you want to know God, study nature.

Here was a kind of religion that was wonderfully welcoming to science, and Irish scholars went out of their way to find and study science texts from the Hellenistic world. Alas, when they carried Celtic Christianity to the continent it did not fare well. Eriugena, for example, an Irish monk who taught at the court of Charlemagne's grandson Charles the Bald, wrote: "We should not think of God and of the creature as two different things remote from one another, but as one and the same. For not only does the creature subsist in God, but God, in a wonderful and ineffable way, is created in the creature." Needless to say, his teachings were condemned by the continental Church as pantheistic.

Eriugena was part of what I have elsewhere called a "parallel Church," which included such people as Meister Eckhart, William of Occam, Tommaso Campanella, Nicholas of Cusa, and Giordano Bruno, and continuing into our own time with the likes of Teilhard de Chardin, Matthew Fox, and Thomas Berry, most of whom were condemned or marginalized by the official Church.

We have inherited in the West a dualistic world view that by its very nature makes tension between science and religion inevitable. The existence of the "parallel Church" is evidence that it need not have been.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Nothing too wonderful...

For the earliest Irish Christians, exceptional events do not occur because of the interventions of a supernatural being who suspends the ordinary course of things, but rather because of the marvelous potentialities inherent in nature itself. The scholar John Carey tells us that for the authors of the early Irish Christian texts, a reluctance to believe in "the full extravagant strangeness of existence" amounted to blasphemy.

I love that phrase. The full extravagant strangeness of existence. It should be engraved over the door of every science building in the world, just to remind us that the nets of words and numbers we throw to catch the world invariably let most of what matters slip through the mesh. And, as a matter of fact, over the door of the physics building at UCLA, where I spent two delightful years immersed in the study of science, was inscribed Michael Faraday's similar aphorism: "Nothing is too wonderful to be true."

The earliest generations of Irish Christians sought out and studied whatever scientific texts they could find, and took what they found there as the most reliable revelation of the Creator. They applied the potentialities of the natural order even to explaining the so-called miracles of Scriptures. For these remarkable Irish men and women of the 5th to the 10th centuries, God did not manifest his power in providing exceptions to the natural law, but in the full extravagant strangeness of nature itself.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Bog book

Think of Ireland and peat comes to mind. One-sixth of the country is covered with the stuff -- a creamy simmering heap of partly decayed plant matter, slathered onto the western hills and central lowlands like gobs of rancid brown butter. Not much useful will grow on it. You need a good pair of rubber boots to walk across it. But in a country with almost no coal and few trees, peat (or turf as the Irish call it) has one great advantage: Cut into chunks and properly dried it will burn, with a coolish but fragrant flame. The smell of a turf fire is as uniquely Irish as the taste of Guinness, and the memory of that sweet aroma is enough to make any Irish emigrant long for home.

In effect, a peat bog is a poorly functioning compost heap. The compost heap at the back of your garden turns recognizable plants into a uniform brown humus that is perfect for planting. To do its job properly, the heap must be neither to dry nor too wet. Unbalanced, the heap stagnates, plants do not fully decompose, and the whole thing becomes a sour smelly mess. As a compost heap, the Irish bog is too wet. The mass of decaying plant life is supersaturated with water. Microscopic organisms that are the agents of decomposition are aerobic; that is, they depend on oxygen. But oxygen is not very soluble in water, and in stagnant water, as in the bog, the supply of oxygen is soon depleted. Decomposition comes to a screeching halt.

Ireland's history is buried in the bog. Because of the non-decomposing conditions of the soil, whatever gets buried is beautifully preserved. Jeweled chalices, timber trackways, tubs of butter, clothed bodies. And now -- miracle of miracles -- a thousand year-old book of Psalms has been found intact in the black goo. We haven't heard yet which Psalms are recorded. Perhaps the 104th: "From your palace you water the uplands until the ground has had all that your heavens have to offer." (Jerusalem Bible)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Why cranes fly

There were a few Comments here recently about herons, from right around the world. What is the power of this bird to touch our minds and hearts?

The naturalist Aldo Leopold was intimately familiar with the cranes of Wisconsin, cousins of our New England great blue heron, the Irish gray heron, and Adam2's aosagi from Japan, and wondered about their ability to move us so deeply. In A Sand County Almanac he watches as a crane "springs his ungainly hulk into the air and flails the morning sun with mighty wings." Our ability to perceive beauty in nature, as in art, begins with the pretty, he says, then moves into qualities of the beautiful yet uncaptured by language. The beauty of the crane lies in this higher realm, he proposes, "beyond the reach of words."

Words may fail, but poets have tried to capture the ineffable.

John Ciardi sees "a leap, a thrust, a long stroke through the cumulus of trees" and stops to praise "that bright original burst that lights the heron on his two soft kissing kites."

Theodore Roethke observes a heron aim his heavy bill above the wood: "The wide wings flap but once to lift him up. A single ripple starts from where he stood."

In Chekhov's The Three Sisters, sister Masha refuses "to live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why the stars are in the sky. Either you know and you're alive or its all nonsense, all dust in the wind."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Tearing continents apart

Three hundred miles to the northwest of here, a third of the way to Iceland, a speck of quano-covered rock juts from the stormy waters of the North Atlantic. It is called Rockall and may well be, as the sailors say, "the most isolated speck of rock in the world." Britain, Ireland, Iceland and Denmark all claim it, but since it is almost impossible to land on and is hardly bigger than your backyard is might seem improbable that anyone would want it. However, it stands in the middle of a relatively shallow submerged bank of considerable size (50x150 miles), and who knows what mineral riches might lie down there. Fishing rights, too, are at stake.

The Atlantic is full of islands, of course, but they are all volcanic. Rockall is granite -- continental rock -- and there may lie the answer to its riddle. Geologists believe the Rockall Bank is a fragment of the supercontinent of Pangea that broke off and sagged beneath the waves when the Atlantic Ocean was opening up 200 million years ago. Pangea was ripped apart from below, with lava oozing up to form new ocean floor. The definitive rupture corresponds to what is now the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, but apparently another rift separated the Rockall Bank from what is now Europe. Most of the floor of the Atlantic Ocean is new volcanic rock (basalt) less than 200 million years old, but down there under the waves near Rockall is a chunk of more ancient submerged continent, a true Atlantis, of which only a jagged tooth is visible.

On my New England college campus (out there across the Atlantic) I have found only one remnant of that time 200 million years ago when Pangea was being torn asunder, a six-inch-wide dike of basalt that oozed up through a crack in the stretched granite continent. When a large parking lot was planned for the spot, I managed to have the outcrop saved, and there it now sits, a sacrificed parking slot in the middle of a sea of asphalt, preserving a small clue to one of the great episodes in the planet's history.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Watching the world go by

My writing studio here in Kerry is earth-covered and tucked into the hill so as to make it as inconspicuous as possible in the landscape. We call it the hobbit-hole. But at the front it has a glorious window on the world. As I sit here each morning I never know what's going to appear. The always changing sky, of course, boiling in off the Atlantic. A heron cruising zeppelinlike across the middle distance, a wren in the bramble, two fat hooded crows prancing on the outside sill, a peacock butterfly beating against the glass. Perhaps a fox. The human drama too; the whole parish is spread before my eyes.

The naturalist John Burroughs wrote that the student of nature has an advantage over people who "gad up and down the world seeking novelty and excitement." The naturalist need only stay at home and watch the procession pass, he said. Well, he may have overstated the case. If I chose to stay at home I would never have seen a total eclipse of the Sun, for example, or those massed monarch butterflies in Mexico I wrote about recently, or, for that matter, the view out his window. But still, we know what Burroughs meant. Even a modest training in natural history makes any square meter of the Earth's surface endlessly interesting.

Robert Lewis Stevenson said something similar about general education: The difference between an educated person and an uneducated person is that if one has a hour to kill waiting for a train at a remote country station, the educated person will find a hundred things to engage her interest, whereas the uneducated person will be bored silly.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

William of Occam -- heretic

Scientists are Occamists; it's part of their nature. Are artists generally Anti-Occamists? Do their rich imaginative powers mean they are less in thrall with parsimony? See this week's Musing and Anne's Sunday pic (click to enlarge).

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ulex europaeus -- Part 2

Many years ago I visited near Uppsala in Sweden the home of the great 18th-century botanist Karl von Linne, better known to history by his Latinized name, Linneaus.

It was a charming place, filled and surrounded by nature's beauty. Butterflies flitted in the dooryard. The interior walls were papered with marvelous drawings of plants. In this rural Eden, Linneaus discarded the common names of plants and animals -- names according to tradition bestowed by Adam -- and proposed a system of Latin binomials. Thus the plant we know as gorse, or furze, or whins became Ulex europaeus.

Linneaus knew that nothing is well described unless well named, and that nothing is well named until well described. Naming and exact description go hand and hand, and, if carefully done, reveal the patterns of order implicit in nature. Without a Linneaus, there might not have been a Darwin.

And yet, and yet, the common names of plants have their own cultural and historical significance. Loosestrife and selfheal. Devil's-bit scabious and Saint Patrick's cabbage. Honeysuckle and meadowsweet. Cuckooflower and ragged-robin. To name just a few local plants. The common names perhaps tell us more about ourselves than about the plants, but that too is knowledge worth having.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Ulex europaeus

When we first came to summer here in the west of Ireland, a neighbor's horses grazed on the gorse in the acre behind the house and kept it low and tidy. The horses are gone now and the gorse is out of control; we are surrounded by an impenetrable six-foot-high forest of prickles and yellow blossoms. Oh yes, when the gorse and heather are in bloom together it is a sight to see. When the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus first saw gorse and heather in bloom on an English common he is said to have fallen to his knees and thanked God.

It was Linnaeus, of course, who taught us the interconnectedness of life. Simply by inventing a regular way of naming creatures -- species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom -- he made it obvious that plants and animals are not the inventions of a whimsical and arbitrary god, but rather a web of astonishing order.

Well, gorse by any other name would be just as combustible. Our worry is that the hill will catch fire and the threat to the house is too awful to contemplate. So year by year I struggle to cut it back a few more feet, sparing the heather wherever I can. The two plants -- purple and gold -- love to cohabit. To our mind they are Beauty and the Beast.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee...

Here is a short notice in Nature of two papers to be published this month in Science.
Climate science: Poles apart

Help may be at hand for climate scientists struggling to explain dramatic shifts in Earth's past ice cover.

The periods of glaciation that began around 3 million years ago come and go on a 40,000-year cycle, which clearly follows changes in Earth's tilt towards the Sun. What puzzled scientists was the lack of evidence for a cycle tracking the planet's proximity to the Sun during summer, which varies over a 20,000-year period. These properties of the Earth and its orbit affect the amount of sunshine reaching Earth's surface, which in turn influences ice cover.

Maureen Raymo of Boston University and her colleagues argue that the proximity effect is canceled out in the sea-level records used to track glaciation because changes in ice volume at the South Pole are equal and opposite to those at the North Pole. In a separate study, Peter Huybers of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggests instead that proximity is simply canceled by speed: when Earth is close to the Sun, it moves faster, so a hot summer is also a short one.

The two hypotheses have different implications for global climate; further data might determine which effect is the greater.
One of the long-standing mysteries of paleoclimatology, two proposed solutions. Both solutions with sufficient empirical support to get past peer review. Which will prevail? Time will tell. Already researchers are considering whether the two theories make different predictions about other aspects of climate that can be tested empirically. The answer may lie in ancient air bubbles trapped deep in Antarctic ice or in isotope ratios of deep ocean sediments. Query nature. That's what science is all about.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

And speaking of Weinberg...

In the last chapter of his book, Dreams of a Final Theory, the Nobel-prizewinning physicst Steven Weinberg writes:
I have to admit that sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary. Outside the window of my home office there is a hackberry tree, visited frequently by a convocation of politic birds: blue jays, yellow-throated vireos, and, loveliest of all, an occasional red cardinal. Although I understand pretty well how brightly colored feathers evolved out of a competition for mates, it is almost irresistible to imagine that all this beauty was somehow laid out for our benefit. But the God of birds and trees would have to be also the God of birth defects and cancer.
Weinberg cautions that the more we refine our understanding of God to make the concept plausible ("God is beauty," "God is love," God is the foundational principle of the universe, " etc.), the more the exercise seems pointless.

And, of course, he's right. But still the religious naturalist finds much to stoke his awe in the hackberry tree. We encounter there, gape-jawed and silent, the universe of birds and birth defects, trees and cancer, quarks, galaxies, earthquakes and supernovas -- awesome, edifying, dreadful and good, more beautiful and more terrible than is strictly necessary. What we find in the hackberry tree strikes us dumb, beyond words, beyond logic. What shall we name it? Any name is idolatrous.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

On being good

Tom sent me this link to the current travails of Reverend Kent Hovind, the creationist preacher/entrepeneur who once told me I'd burn in hell for writing about evolution. I wish no harm to anyone, but it is good to see lawbreakers find justice this side of the grave.

There was some discussion among Comments here recently about whether religion is a necessary basis for morality. It is often argued that without fear of eternal punishment we'd all be bad. This is nonsense, of course.

One of you asked if there have been any scientific studies on the connection between religion and morality. Are believers more moral than the rest of us?

Some years ago I did a search for relevant research, and although I don't have the results at hand what objective data I found suggests that whether or not one believes in a hereafter doesn't matter a tinker's damn. Atheists and agnostics are on the whole as moral as believers.

The Nobel-prizewinning physicist Steven Weinberg famously remarked (if I remember correctly): "With or without religion, good people do good things and bad people do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, that takes religion."

Monday, July 17, 2006

Glorious, glorious sunshine

A regular part of our life here in the west of Ireland is the six o'clock shipping forecast on the BBC, a daily litany of weather reports from stations around these islands -- Malin Head, Shannon, Valentia, Fastnet, etc. -- which my wife religiously listens to, although I never quite understood why. One of two reports will suffice for most of the time. "Wet almost everywhere with sunny intervals." or "Mostly dry with occasional showers."

It's all that warm water out there in the North Atlantic. The air moves across it from the west, soaking up moisture like a paper towel moving across a wet kitchen counter, to wring itself out on Ireland's west coast.

Geochemist Wally Broecker imagines a globe-spanning oceanic conveyor belt with its northern terminus near Iceland. Cold winds from Canada blow across the water there, cooling it. The cold, dense water sinks, and flows as a deep bottom current southward around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian and Pacific oceans. There it rises, warms, and as a shallower current returns to the Atlantic and flows northwards.

Near Iceland, this water from a tropic sea finds its way to the surface where its heat is stolen away by Canadian winds. These are the balmy, moisture-drenched westerlies that warm and wet Ireland.

So, if Broecker is right, Ireland's green damp has its origin in palm-fringed oceans on the other side of the world.

But occasionally, every tenth summer or so, a high pressure ridge drifts up from the Azores and sits for weeks upon Ireland like a sunny crown. We are having a brilliant streak of grand weather now -- perfect for yesterday's Ventry Regatta.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Elephant man

Joseph Merrick, born in Leicester, England, in 1861, is known to history as the Elephant Man. He suffered awful disfigurements. Lumpish growths on his head, back, buttocks and legs. Slabs of reptilian skin. Twisted bones. One arm slender and normal, the other a grotesque tuber. Healthy in mind, with normal genitals and sexual appetites, Merrick was nevertheless so monstrous in appearance that he ignited fear and loathing in all who saw him.

As a young man, he allowed himself to be exhibited as a freak as his only way of making a living. In his twenties, he was "rescued" from this fate and given a room in which to live at London Hospital. Even his nurses could not bear to look upon him.

The Victorians were fascinated with Merrick. In his hospital chamber, called the Elephant Room, he was visited by members of the medical establishment, celebrities and royalty. They gawked; they were repelled; they spoke platitudes. He inspired in them, one imagines, a feeling of smug superiority, an opportunity to practice their Christianity, to love (or pretend to love) the utterly unlovable.

Fascination with Merrick continued into our own century. He has been the subject of a number of books, an award-winning play by Bernard Pomerance, and a film by David Lynch. The Elephant Man endures as a cultural icon because his very existence confirms our faith that nature's laws are there to be broken. See this week's Musing.

A Sunday pic by Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Technology -- Part 2

OK, so what are the engineering achievements I can't live without at this stage in my life (my seventieth summer)? Very few, it turns out. I am much less enamored of high tech than I was a decade ago, much more dependent for my emotional well-being upon organic things, natural things. Plants. Animals. The night sky. My sunrise walk to school along the path. Coffee with my laptop in a morning slant of light. Access to a good college or university library. Silence.

So I'll list:

-- Mac laptop

-- Internet access, preferably wireless

-- Google

I suppose too I'm glad for the relevant healthcare technology for if and when I need it. But on the whole I'm less interested in tech, more content to fall behind the curve. I have Tom, thank goodness, to sort out my digital dilemmas. The morning glories at the window are now three feet high and the tomato plants are in bloom.

Friday, July 14, 2006


I am typing this on a new laptop, a MacBook. Certainly a slick little machine. I'll say this for Apple: Their stuff looks great. Even the packaging is designed to look good. My first Apple was a Mac 128. How many years ago was that?

Sixteen years ago the National Academy of Engineering announced the ten greatest engineering achievements of the past 25 years. At that time I listed in a Globe column what I took to be the ten best engineering achievements in my own life:
--Voyager II, the little spacecraft that could.

--The compact disc.

--The Sony Discman.

--My Fuji Ace lightweight 12-speed bicycle.

--The Macintosh Portable computer.

--The ATM.

--The New York Sunday Times.

--The rechargeable power screwdriver and multi-use "drywall" screws.

--The Gillette MicroTrac disposable razor and aerosol shaving cream.

--The solar-powered calculator.
Sixteen years later it all seems rather quaint. The only items that are still front and center in my life are the ATM (now available, I discovered recently, in the most remote villages in Turkey), the New York Sunday Times, and the rechargeable screwdriver. That Apple Portable! What a bust! And it's amazing to think that only sixteen years ago the internet wasn't even on my list.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The versatile molecule

An extraordinary story from this week's Science. Researchers have identified a gene in DNA extracted from a 43,000 year-old frozen woolly mammoth carcass that likely determined the color of the mammoth's fur. Woolly mammoths have been extinct for nearly 5000 years.

Genes. The ineffable, ineluctable agency of genes.

It has now been just over half a century since James Watson and Francis Crick announced their discovery of the structure of DNA.

What they proposed had a compelling simplicity: A molecule in the form of a spiral staircase. The side rails of the staircase are linked sugar and phosphate molecules. The treads are molecules called organic bases, arranged as pairs. The bases, four in kind, are adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine, usually labeled simply A, T, G and C. Base A always pairs with T; G always pairs with C. The sequence of pairs along the staircase is the genetic code. The counterclockwise twining of a morning glory, the color of a woolly mammoth's coat, written in a four-letter code.

Watson and Crick added an almost parenthetical remark to their announcement: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

This is what they had in mind: When a living cell replicates, the DNA staircase unzips down the middle of the "treads." Each unpaired base attracts its complement; each half of the staircase completes itself. One set of genes becomes two, two become four, four become eight. Life copies itself in an unceasing dervish dance of recombination.

We do not know how the first DNA molecules came about, but they have been a sturdy and versatile basis for life on Earth. And now engineers are plugging into DNA's remarkable combination of simplicity and fecundity. Almost every issue of Science and Nature seems to have a report of some new engineering use of DNA, from computation to nanotechnology. However it happened that the first DNA molecules arose on the early Earth -- if indeed they had their origin here -- our little blue planet hit the chemical jackpot.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

...for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Each of us will have had certain moments in our lives when we have seen or experienced something that left us utterly speechless. Life transforming moments. Moments when we glimpse, as through a glass darkly, a grandeur in nature that no science -- no words -- can adequately describe. For me, one of those moments was a display of the aurora borealis that I witnessed from northern Indiana in the early 1960s when the whole night sky went wild with psychedelic lights. Another was my first total solar eclipse, observed from a ship in the Black Sea. And another was when I visited the Chincua monarch butterfly refuge in the mountains of central Mexico. I described the latter experience in my book The Path. Twenty million gorgeous black and yellow butterflies wintering in a tiny patch of fir trees, as thick as leaves. When the sun broke through the clouds they all took flight, a great fluttering cloud of color that hid the sky. Twenty million butterflies that had gathered there from all over eastern North America, guided by that ineffable, ineluctable agency of genes I spoke of yesterday.

Now, for the first time, conservation agencies in Mexico, the United States and Canada have joined forces to help preserve the Mexican refuges and the milkweed meadows throughout the continent upon which the monarch larvae feed. It may be a hopeless task. That the monarchs in their milling glory might vanish from the Earth is a thought too sad to be endured.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Three weeks ago we placed the seeds in wet paper towels and waited from them to burst their seams, then I pushed my share into pots at my studio window. Now they are a foot high and starting to climb their poles. A month from now my view will be framed by morning glories.

Ah, what was that phrase I used here last Sunday? "The ineluctable agency of genes." A lovely word: ineluctable. That which cannot be escaped from. In the seed, the two-lobed leaves, the tendrils twining counterclockwise up, the blue trumpets blaring their sunrise tantaras. GATACGATACC. A window full of plants, and beyond the glass still more: bramble, fuchsia, montbretia, escallonia, willows. The morning, noon, and evening glory of burgeoning plant life written in a four letter code.

Another lovely word: ineffable. Unutterable. Too great for description in words. The ineffable, ineluctable agency of genes.

Monday, July 10, 2006


I'm sure I am not the only person who was nudged toward the study of the natural world by reading the books of the great 19th-century entomologist J. Henri Fabre.

Fabre made bugs -- ordinary bugs of the household and garden -- as exciting as the great beasts of the African veld. He told stories of their nestings and matings, their languages and societies, and their roles as predators and prey, all based on his own careful observations.

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

He believed that the methods of science must be consistent with our motives for knowing; that is to say, if we are motivated by love for the thing we study, our way of knowing will be loving. He entered as intimately as possible into the lives of insects. His laboratory was the field. "I make my observations under the blue sky," he wrote, "to the song of the cicada."

He wore himself out discovering the secrets of the natural world, on his knees in the grass, ears alert to the cicada's song.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The silk road

I think I mentioned here before that when we arrive here each summer a first task is to get rid of the hundreds of daddy-long-legs that have taken up residence over the winter. But I keep a few under the shelf over my desk so I can observe their habits. Whenever I need a light moment I touch one with the tip of a pencil and watch it do its crazy dervish dance. See this week's Musing.

And again as a Sunday treat, a cyber pic from Anne, my sis on the mesa. You can always click to enlarge.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Honey, I'm home!

The word on the technostreet is that the robots are coming.

Oh, yeah, we have robots now that vacuum our homes, put automobiles together, and even perform surgery. In fact, a surprising amount of the stuff we buy has been made by machines acting more or less independently.

But I'm taking now about robots that might more properly be called humanoids, or androids, such as the waxy creatures you met in Spielberg's AI. Game technology, movie animation, prosthetics research, distributed computer processing, and advances in artificial intelligence are merging to make the time not far off when you might find yourself on a bus sitting across from a person who looks just a little bit -- well, synthetic. Pray it doesn't get off at your stop.

I met the Sony robot dog once. Not exactly the pet I'd want around the house, but at least this pooch wasn't programmed to yap at my heels when I'm riding my bike.

If Hollywood movies are a reliable guide, the real honest-to-god humanoids will initially be programmed mostly for sex and violence. Your own personal fun partner waiting in sleep mode for you to come home from work. Robocops on the streets of Baghdad.

This month the Institute of Intelligent Systems for Automation in Genoa, Italy, will publish a guide to robot ethics. Security, safety and sex will apparently be the primary concerns. How intelligent should we let robots become? How do we keep them from running amok? Do robots have rights?

"My guess is that we'll have conscious machines before 2020 with human levels of intelligence," says Ian Pearson, a futurologist with BT (British Telecom), quoted recently in the London Sunday Times.

Are we ready for this? Not me. I was spooked by the Sony poodle.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The end is nigh? Nah.

Only a few dozen years ago Ireland was one of the poorest nations in Europe, dominated by a Church that seemed in some perverse way to welcome the people's impoverishment. Today Ireland has one of the highest standards of living in Europe, and the influence of the Church has receded -- in this outsider's view -- to near invisibility.

Ireland's prosperity is based to a large extent on a superbly educated population. The exams the kids take here in their last year of high school -- the leaving certs -- constantly astonish me for the depth and rigor of required knowledge in maths, science, economics, geography, and so on.

In their new prosperity and secular ways the Irish look with something of bemused bewilderment on contemporary America. A big article in the Irish Times the other day took note of the evangelical Americans who await the Second Coming. The article quoted polls showing that 40 percent of Americans believe that a sequence of events presaging the "end times" is under way. Here is the scenario as described in the Times: "Jews return to Israel after 2,000 years; the Holy Temple is rebuilt; billions perish during seven years of natural disasters and plagues; the Antichrist arises and rules the world; the battle of Armageddon erupts in the vicinity of Israel; Jesus returns to defeat Satan's armies and preside over Judgment Day."

What puzzles the Irish is how a nation unequaled in its scientific and technical prowess can at the same time be so in thrall to what they see as rank superstition. To their mind, there is little difference between the Christian end-times fervor of evangelical Americans and the almost identical Islamic scenario propounded by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What frightens the Irish -- as it frightens other Europeans -- is what they perceive as an unholy alliance in America between apocalyptic religion and neo-conservative politics.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Embracing the eons

From the window of my studio here in the west of Ireland I look out into the wide Atlantic. This is the westernmost point of Europe; next comes North America, thousands of miles away and drifting farther away each day at a rate of about an inch a year.

There are lots of theoretical and empirical reasons for believing that the Atlantic widens, but the clincher is that the drift can be directly measured. One method, borrowed from astronomers, is known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry. Two widely separated dish antennae -- in Europe and the United States, say -- record radio signals from a distance source, typically a galaxy or quasar billions of light years away. The slight difference in the arrival times of the signals are recorded with atomic clocks. If these differences are measured for at least three different sources, it is possible to calculate the distance between the two receivers with centimeter accuracy. This has now been done over a long enough period to show that, yes, the continents are drifting apart.

I love the idea that radio waves that have been traveling across the universe for billions of years can be harnessed to confirm that the Atlantic widens -- has in fact been widening since that time 200 million years ago when I could have walked dry-shod from Dingle to Boston. What a glorious stretch of our imaginations.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

One never knows

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince lives on an world so small he can watch a dozen sunsets in a single evening just by moving his chair westward around the circumference of his tiny planet. His planet has three volcanoes, two active, one extinct; he keeps the active volcanoes tranquil by periodic cleaning with a Q-tip sort of swab.

It would be cruel to turn the cold eye of science on so charming a tale, so I will not point out that the Little Prince's tiny planet would have too little gravity to retain an atmosphere, or for that matter a prince. Or that so small a planet would have long since lost whatever internal heat might cause an untended volcano to erupt. But this much is true: There are lots of tiny planets in our solar system that would make perfect habitats for imaginary princes.

A half-mile wide minor planet gave the Earth a near miss on Monday, passing just 269,000 miles away, slightly farther than the Moon. A quarter-of-a-million miles may sound comfortably removed, but it's roughly equivalent to a stray bullet passing within 20 feet of your head. You wouldn't want to take that risk every day. If something that size hit us it would be very serious businesss indeed.

These kind of things are flying all around out there. It is inevitable that now and then a good-sized object will hit the Earth; the planet is pocked with the scars of former collisions. It doesn't pay to dwell too long on the subject, since threre is nothing we can do about it. A catastrophic collision could happen today or not for thousands of years.

The Little Prince faithfully cleans even his extinct volcano. "One never knows," he says. The advantage of fantasy over science is that we are allowed to think the universe tidier and safer than it actually is.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A few more words about the Enlightenment

I have written here before about Meera Nanda, the Indian philosopher who champions Enlightenment values as the antidote to radical Hindu nationalism in her native country.

Now a Muslim woman takes up the same urgent plea for the Enlightenment as a corrective to Islamic fundamentalism, and particularly to the oppression of women in Muslim countries.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was raised a Muslim in Somalia. Her father saw to it that his bright daughter was educated, and he protected her from the ritual custom of genital mutilation, but he cruelly rejected her when she refused to marry the husband he had chosen for her. Ali sought asylum in Holland, where she is now a fully-assimilated member of parliament. She was a collaborator of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh who was murdered in 2004 by Muslim extremists, and she lives under around-the-clock armed guard.

Ali is a fervent champion of the Enlightenment. What Islam needs, she says, is less Koran and more Voltaire. She lashes Western liberals for their reluctance -- in the name of political correctness and multiculturalism -- to criticize Islam. Religion -- all religion -- she says, is the enemy of progress. Meanwhile, countless Muslim women live wretched lives as property of their menfolk.

The Enlightenment may have had its origin in the West, but it is, as Nanda insists, the sea of progress into which all cultures flow. Perhaps it will be women such as Nanda and Ali who bring Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Meanwhile, we have our own hands full in America.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Thank you, Galileo

My Musing yesterday described Enlightenment values as under attack by religious fundamentalists, New Agers, and postmodern academic critics of science.

Environmentalist romantics too. The Enlightenment is rued for its so-called "disenchantment of nature," for ripping us away from our roots in the enchanted Earth.

Would critics of the Enlightenment rather have lived in 14th or 15th-century Europe? What was so enchanting about the Black Death or the Saint Bartholomew's Massacre? Would they have preferred pre-Columbian America, with its constant warfare between neighbors? What's the alternative to enlightened reason? Burning women as witches? An Index of Forbidden Books? Human sacrifice?

An enchanted Earth was an Earth full of demons, jealous gods, and malevolent spirits. An enchanted Earth belonged to viruses, bacteria, rats, and mosquitoes. The "blessing" of enchantment was a short, quick life with rotten teeth that ended in sickness or violence.

Whatever its flaws, the Enlightenment project is better than the alternative. I'll take reliable, empirical, consensus knowledge of the world -- and supply my own enchantment.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The view from Monticello

Fourth of July week, an appropriate time to think of Thomas Jefferson, his respect for science, and his vision for America. See this week's Musing.

And another colorful "musing" from sis on the mesa.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Men and their guns

Today is the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. On the morning of July 1, 1916, thousands of British, French and Belgian troops went over the top of their own trenches and assaulted the German lines. As instructed by their officers, they walked steadily across no-man's-land as German machine guns mowed them down like wheat. On that first day alone, the British suffered more than 50,000 casualties. Before the battle dragged to its sorry conclusion in November, more than 1 million men on both sides were killed or wounded, all for a few kilometers of churnned-up mud.

Why does the Somme haunt us so? Next to other horrendous events of the 20th century -- Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dresden, the Holocaust, the purges of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot -- the Somme seems relatively benign. Just ordinary Joes like you and me on both sides, with no particular quarrel against those they kill with machine guns and bayonets, causing the earth to run red with blood to no one's advantage. Perhaps it is the very ordinariness of the butchery at the Somme, the fact that we can imagine ourselves pressed into action on either side -- carpenters, shoemakers, farm workers, accountants, teachers, sons, brothers, husbands -- that frightens us so. We look at the Somme and we feel -- rightly or wrongly -- our implication in all of the other violence that defined that ghastly century.

The Great War inspired Freud to add a second basic instinct to his view of human nature. To Eros, the sexual impulse, he added Thanatos, a death wish. And indeed it seems likely that a propensity for violence is part of our genetic inheritance, a biological residue from a time when killing was an essential part of survival. If there is a biological basis for violence toward "the other," one need only read history or watch the news to surmise that the trait is particularly expressed in the male of the species.