Thursday, August 31, 2006

Sacred time, holy places

I retired from full-time teaching five years ago, but in subsequent fall semesters the college allowed me to mentor small, informal groups of highly motivated students. Our text (among other more spontaneous things) was the Norton Book of Nature Writing. We spent our collective time outdoors, learning what we could about the flora, fauna, and geology of our local area. We journaled. We wrote essays. I'm not sure what the students took from the experience, but it was of a huge benefit to me. My young colleagues helped me see things that would otherwise have passed by in a blur of familiarity.

What was the point of our endeavor? To read, of course, To write. To love words, to let the language enfold us like a lover. To be silent. To embrace solitude. To ascertain our kinship with the muskrat, the Indian pipes, the poison ivy, the geese sculling south on cadenced wings. The students wrote beautiful essays, which, when perfect, we read aloud, sitting in whatever holy places we could find. I am grateful to them, and now that it is over will miss them more than they know.

Miss them especially in this anxious time when the news each day brings more evidence of a fractured world. I'm an optimist. I believe the future will outshine the past. But having access to the idealism of good-hearted young people was a salutary boon. (Click to enlarge.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Pleiades

Since time immemorial humans have been intrigued by the little cluster of faint stars in the constellation Taurus called (in the Western tradition) the Pleiades. Six can be reliably seen with the unaided eye, although the ancients named seven Sisters. On a night of exceptional clarity, when my eyes were sharper, I have seen nine.

Galileo saw six. Then, in the winter of 1609-1610 he turned his newly-contrived telescope to the Pleiades and saw more than 40 additional stars, of which he mapped 36. He did the same for other nebulousities, the blur in Orion's sword, for example, but I like to take his observation of the Pleiades as a turning point in history, a first empirical confirmation of the radical opinion that the universe wasn't made explicitly for us. Giordano Bruno had a few years earlier gone to the stake for supposing as much without any observational evidence for doing to.

We no longer burn folks at the stake for such heresies, but the idea that humankind is a local and random cosmic phenomenon is still very much a minority opinion. I am happy enough to leave to the majority their self-defined centrality, as long as they are willing to allow me to follow Galileo into the stars. (Click to enlarge.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

On the porch

Every now and then Tom sends me a map showing where the most recent few hundred visitors to Science Musings hail from (click to enlarge):

I'm always a little astonished. Here I am, lying on the couch with my laptop, wireless no less, open to the world. We know who some of these yellow circles are from thier comments: the visitors from Fiji and Japan, for instance. But who is that dot in Beijing? In Istanbul? In Lima? Lyra called the site a cyberporch. And I love that image. I imagine the globe hanging in space with a wraparound verandah, and all of us -- the yellow dots -- hanging out.

Blogging is a curious activity. For years I kept a journal. For twenty years I shared my thoughts in a weekly Boston Globe column, always a little abashed that someone would pay me to write -- and that people would read my offerings. Now in gentile retirement I sit here on the cyberporch and exchange ideas with yellow dots from Anchorage to Auckland. We share a language. We share bandwidth. To a large extent we share hopes and dreams about the kind of world we want to live in. We collectively hardly make a blip on the radar screen of world affairs, but if this little community is multiplied a million times over in other web-based communities, then perhaps we contribute one small thread to the ties that will bind the planet together in a less fractious future.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Two Adams

The Jewish rabbi and teacher Joseph Soloveitchik addressed the tension between reason and faith in his wonderful little book The Lonely Man of Faith.

Soloveitchik's man of faith is fraught with conflicts and incongruities, caught between ecstasy in God's companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God. He is lonely because faith is inevitably a courageous and private act that springs from an individual's solitary apprehension of the mystery in the world.

Soloveitchik is aware that his faith has no possibility of empirical verification, and no utilitarian value; it is, in that sense, out of step with the times. He fully accepts the scientific story of the world, but reaches beyond to touch what he perceives to be a deeper, more abiding presence.

The first two chapters of the Judeo-Christian scriptures give us somewhat different characterizations of the chief protagonist, Adam. These do not represent different sources or traditions, says Soloveitchik, but rather two representations of the human soul, which he calls Adam I and Adam II, corresponding to the Adam of the first and second chapters of Genesis respectively.

Adam I is driven by curiosity. He wants to know how the cosmos works; he is less interested in the why. His practical destiny is to "fill the Earth and subdue it," which he pursues boldly and aggressively. He is creative and abstract, imitating in his mathematical theories the creative act of God Himself. His representative in the modern world is the scientist, mathematician, technologist, and secular philosopher.

Adam II is also intrigued by the cosmos, says Soloveitchik, but "looks for the image of God . . . in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of a starlit evening." He wants to know why there is something rather than nothing, and what is the purpose of things and events. His contemporary representative is the mystic, the poet, the ascetic, the person of faith.

Adam I is only interested in questions that can be answered empirically; Adam II is more introspective, more spiritual, trusting his intuition of the divine. Adam I seeks mastery over nature; Adam II wishes to be overpowered by nature.

Adam I asks, "How?" Adam II asks, "Who is He who trails me steadily, uninvited and unwanted, like an everlasting shadow, and vanishes into the recesses of transcendence the very instant I turn around to confront this numinous, awesome, and mysterious 'He'? "

Although Soloveitchik identifies himself with Adam II, he asserts that Adam I also follows God's command and achieves dignity through his work. The completion of creation requires the energies of both Adams, he says.

If we are to collectively reconcile science and faith, each of us must individually confront this tension in our lonely solitude. The person of faith can acknowledge the dignity and rational primacy of science, and the skeptical empiricist can open himself or herself to the abiding presence of the unanswered "Why?", who is simultaneously the deus revelatus (the god who is revealed) and deus absconditus (the god who hides).

Sunday, August 27, 2006

O'er the ramparts we watch'd

It's a dog eat dog world out there, as any Darwinist will tell you. Except we don't have to worry much about dogs, other than the occasional pit bull. Still, there are plenty of creatures out to get us, most of them invisibly small. If a pit bull attacks, we must consciously muster a defense. But when viruses and bacteria come to call, our body's defenses kick in on their own, without conscious control. See this week's Musing.

Anne's Sunday cyberpic. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The woods bite back

As readers of this blog will know, I spend a lot of time outdoors. My walk back and forth to college each day takes me through woods and meadows. That walk has been an anchor of my life for more than forty years, the book of nature flung open for study, an education. What was it Thoreau said? "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

What little I know worthwhile I have learned from nature. Not, of course, that I haven't spent time in the library too. But books are only clutter unless the soul is in order first; words are empty unless they have referents in experience. So much of what passes for public discourse is an echoing of self in the empty corridors of mind. Anything I write here in Science Musings is offered tentatively, hesitantly, until I can take it back into nature and measure it against the real.

So what a harsh lesson it is when the woods bite back. This past spring I was apparently bitten by a deer tick while cutting a trail in the Stonehill woods. A week or two later, in Ireland, I developed a "bull's-eye" rash. I knew this was a symptom of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection contracted from ticks and common in New England. But I was in Ireland, and the clinic was unable to do a blood test for the disease. The rash went away. I waited...

...and wasted. Tired. Lethargic. Respiratory complaints. Finally, I bailed out and came home to where I could be properly diagnosed. The tests are in; the tick had done its deed.

And if Lyme disease were not enough, our part of southeastern New England is now experiencing an outbreak of even more deadly Eastern equine encephalitis, a mosquito-borne viral disease. Another reason to stay out of the woods.

But this is a lesson too, and a valuable one at that. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, watched over by benevolent spirits. We live -- as Wallace Stevens said -- in an old chaos of the sun:
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Backwards or forwards

If you wanted to divide humankind into two categories, none might be more relevant to the present state of the world than 1) those who look to the authority of the past, and 2) those who put their hope in the future.

In the first category are those who give their conceptual and intellectual allegiance to ancestors, holy books, tradition, or venerable prophets. In the second category are the children of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment.

The idea of progress was pretty much an invention of 17th-century Europe. Not that the intellectual revolution of that time and place was without precedent, but it was the forward-facing colleagues of Francis Bacon who first systematically doubted the authority of the ancients and offered an alternative avenue to truth.

The absoluteness of ancient authority prior to the Scientific Revolution is demonstrated by a statute of the medieval Oxford University, which decreed "that Bachelors and Masters who did not follow Aristotle faithfully were liable to a fine of five shillings for every point of divergence." Galileo, of course, ran up against the same slavish alliegence to the past in the form of Church doctrine

By contrast, Bacon and his contemporaries emphasized the inadequacy of ancient learning, and urged its advancement. Truth was to be measured not by conformity with the past, but by the open-ended inquiry of nature.

In his seminal study of the 17th-century Scientific Revolution, Richard Foster Jones defined the new movement this way: "First was the spirit of adventure, of finding out what lies beyond the closed boundaries of knowledge, of widening the limits of acquired truth, together with the faith that such expansion was possible. Another attitude stressed the need of an unbiased and critical mind and of freedom of thought and expression."

These values became the basis for the Enlightenment's commitment to democracy, secularism, individual rights, universal public education, and free speech. They are the foundation of modern medicine, open markets, and the exponential (and sometimes dangerous) growth of technology.

The clash of civilizations in the world today is not between Islam and the West, but between the spirit of the Scientific Revolution (which has until recently been mostly identified with Western culture), and those East and West who define themselves by the unyielding authority of ancient scriptures and traditions.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The drift towards theocracy

Here is a graphic that every American should be interested in, from an article on Public Acceptance of Evolution, by Jon Miller, Eugenie Scott, and Shinji Okamoto, in the August 11 issue of Science (click to enlarge). The blue bars represent the percentage of people in a survey of 32 European countries, Japan, and the United States who agreed with the statement "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals."

Only Turkey has a lower acceptance of evolution than the US.

The graph dramatically illustrates the extent to which American science literacy and science education have been highjacked by religious conservatives.

In a study referenced by the authors, 78 % of American adults accept natural selection among plants and non-human animals (if the bugaboo word "evolution" is omitted), but 62 % of the same respondents believe God created humans as whole persons without any evolutionary development. "It appears that these adults have adopted a human exceptionalism perspective," say Miller, Scott and Okamoto.

This picking and choosing represents no less than a rejection of the scientific enterprise, which derives its strength from mutual coherence. It is easy to understand why most Europeans and Japanese look on American attitudes towards science with bewilderment and dismay.

Of course, this won't bother American religious conservatives. Just as they accept human exceptionalism, they also believe in American exceptionalism. Our biological origins have nothing in common with other animals, they say; so too is Christian America favored by God above all other peoples and nations as a repository of truth.

In our attitudes towards religious exceptionalism and science, the US is perhaps now closer to Iran, say, than to Sweden, France or Japan.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The bluebird of happiness

Psychologist Adrian White of the University of Leicester, UK, has mapped the world of happiness. He surveyed people's satisfaction with life, together with data on health, wealth and access to education. (Click to enlarge.)

Of the three countries I know best -- USA, Ireland, Bahamas -- the Bahamas comes out tops at number 5 in the world. And, yes, I'd agree, the Bahamas is a happy place. A new nation, mostly Black, reasonably prosperous (although poor by US standards), family-oriented, deeply religious. Universal health care and access to education. A stable democratic government based on British institutions. And of course, sunshine, turquoise sea, and fresh air. The Bahamas, especially the Out Islands, are presently undergoing rapid development. It will be interesting to see if their happiness rating survives cultural saturation from across the Florida Straits.

Ireland comes in at a relatively gleeful number 11. During the past decade Ireland has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the developed world to one the richest. The nation has also become dramatically secular. In my experience, the Irish are considerably happier than they were a decade ago, not least, I think, because they have thrown off the gloomy oppression of a sin-obsessed Church.

The United States makes the list at 23, behind Malaysia, New Zealand and Norway, but well ahead of Britain, Germany and France. Being the most powerful nation in the world doesn't make us the happiest.

Of course, all of this is as much of a parlor game as it is good science. Recently, we have seen a slew of books purporting to explain happiness scientifically, from the point of view of genetics, psychology and economics. Having looked at the offerings, I would say that the sources of our relative contentment remain elusive, or rather they are so diverse and general as to hide in plain sight. By and large, I would take the secret of happiness from the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life: "Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."

For a rather different sort of happiness map, check out the Happy Planet Index.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Technology and organic nature are seemingly locked in a battle to the death, and it is not yet clear which will come out on top. At the moment, technology has the upper hand, and many environmentalists foresee the ultimate demise of nature. But nature may have a winning trick up its sleeve yet, a deadly virus, say, that puts the kibosh on humankind. Or humans could self-destruct in a nuclear holocaust.

Any sustainable future will have to be a synthesis of natural and artificial. Technology and organic nature must converge. The very distinction between natural and artificial will be erased. This may not be the future you want or I want, but it is the only viable option.

To this end, technology must become green, and wild nature must yield to design.

Try to imagine, if you can, a technology based not upon resource consumption but upon information. Try to imagine a technology based on organic principles of natural selection, feedback, distributed processing, and recycling of resources. Try to imagine nature not as a wilderness, but as an artifact of human artistic design.

What would the fusion look like?

On several occasions I have taken note here of the British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who approaches a natural-artificial fusion from the side of nature. Less well known is Tara Donovan, who approaches nature from the artificial.

To create a sustainable future -- for humans and non-human nature alike -- we must be able to imagine it. Artists like Goldsworthy and Donovan can be our teachers.

Untitled, 2003. Ace Gallery Los Angeles. Styrofoam cups, hot glue.

(See also Robert Frenay's Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things.)

Monday, August 21, 2006

By any other name

What a stir! The proposal by the International Astronomical Union to redefine what constitutes a "planet" made front page news in the major dailies. The story is all the buzz. Nine planets become twelve! Our familiar solar system turned upside down!

Hey, we take our planets seriously, and we have a lot of affection for little Pluto. Ceres? UB313? Who are these upstarts anyway?

What's really going on is a straightening out of nomenclature: making language conform to our evolving understanding of what the solar system is and where it came from. Pluto is half the size of Mercury. Ceres -- between Mars and Jupiter -- is half the size of Pluto. Why call Pluto a planet and not Ceres? The choice is arbitrary. And what about new objects beyond Pluto that have been and will be discovered.

Where do we draw a line that is not arbitrary? A planet -- according to the new definition -- is a non-stellar object that orbits a star and is large enough for gravity to give it a spherical shape. Potato-shaped, not a planet. Spherical, it makes the list.

The great 18th-century botanist Karl von Linne, better known by his Latinized name, Linneaus, taught us 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 implicit in nature itself.

Not long after Linneaus proposed his new nomenclature for biology, the Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier set out to do much the same thing for chemistry. In the preface to his great work, Elements of Chemistry, Lavoisier quotes the philosopher Condillac: "We think only through the medium of words...The art of reasoning is nothing more than a language well arranged."

Lavoisier then goes on to tell us: "Thus, while I thought myself employed only in forming a nomenclature, and while I proposed to myself nothing more than to improve the chemical language, my work transformed itself by degrees, without my being able to prevent it, into a treatise upon the Elements of Chemistry. "

That's what's going on with the International Astronomical Union: Reorganizing nomenclature to conform with our developing understanding of planetary systems -- to consolidate present knowledge and to facilitate future research. The rest of us will just have to adjust.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Getting it together

A week or so ago bromegrass gave us a link to a soil bacterim that has an interesting lifestyle. He reminded me of a related organism that I spent a delightful week with some years ago. I offer what I wrote then as this week's Musing.

A Sunday cyberpic from Sis. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Pretty sure

I had an essay about contemporary cosmology (big bang, string theory, multiple universes, all that jazz) in the Spring issue of Notre Dame Magazine. In the current Summer issue, a reader writes:
I enjoyed this excursion into the weird world of astrophysics in "Unreal." How many dimensions? But the author, Chet Raymo, steps once or twice through the portal to philosophy, and there, he is lost. Astronomers as the new theologians! This is just wrong. Knowing the far-off origins of the visible universe tells us nothing about "who we are." We gain no information from it that enables us to live better lives or know what constitutes a good life. Nada.
The first questions in the old Baltimore Catechism (if I remember correctly) were "Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here?" Before I decide why I am here, I want to have the most reliable information I can get about who I am and where I came from, and I'm pretty sure that means paying attention to modern cosmology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience. We have enough strife in the world based on archaic religion-based cosmologies.

In the same issue as the reader's letter, the poet and essayist Nancy Mairs has an essay called "Letting Go of God" that suggests an appropriate spirituality for one who embraces the theological implications of our "far-off origins" and biochemical natures. She concludes: "I'm pretty sure that the cosmos is meaning-less in any human sense of the word, without purpose or consequence. It is not for. It is. Yahweh, in Hebrew Scripture: I Am. What God offers is not significance for a chosen few but mystery for whoever chooses to see it, an inexhaustible source of devout astonishment." Kudos to Notre Dame Magazine for publishing Mairs' refreshing -- and thoroughly heretical -- essay.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Yesterday I had occasion to sit for the better part of an hour in the lobby of a local medical center (yes, I am back in the States). I was struck by the human traffic.

On the one hand there was a parade of old folks, my age and up, shuffling to and from their doctors' examining rooms. I didn't know whether to be exhilarated or depressed: exhilarated to know that I have a way to go yet; depressed to see how halting the going might be.

On the other hand, there was a steady stream of pharmaceutical reps with black sample cases, every one stunningly young and beautiful in a tailored dark suit, the women mostly knockout blondes, the men trim and fit, all with Ipana smiles, the very pictures of health. Again, I didn't know whether to be exhilarated or depressed.

What is this thing about pharm reps? Why are they all young and gorgeous? Have the drug companies discovered that the only way to distract doctors from their busy schedules is to offer them eye candy with the pill samples? Or do drug reps who radiate an aura of robust good health make the pills look better?

Hey, I'm not knocking big pharm (although I've done my share of of that). I would love for one of those willowy blonde reps to let me shuffle through the pills in her sample case, a cornucopia of life extension. Two hundred years ago the average human lifetime was 37 years; I have pretty nearly doubled that already -- and I have the drug companies at least partially to thank.

The futurologist Ray Kurzweil predicts that within 15 years we will be adding more than a year annually to remaining life expectancy, and you know what that means. His book is subtiled Live Long Enough To Live Forever. Maybe too late for me, but if Kurzweil is right, those good-looking young sales reps can look forward to the prospect of genetically-engineered immortality -- barring accident or disease.

In 1990, it cost $10 to sequence a base-pair of DNA. The cost is today less than a penny and dropping exponentially. Biology, in the new dispensation, is information, and soon genetic engineers will be rewriting the body's programs as readily as computer engineers rewrite computer software. Live long enough to live forever? I don't know whether to be exhilarated or depressed.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

On being good

The current issue of Science & Spirit has a long section on the origins of morality, a topic of some interest to readers of Science Musings.

Harvard professor of psychology and biology Marc Hauser argues that ethical judgments are based on unconscious, involuntary intuitions that have evolved over millions of years. He is the author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.

Philosopher Paul Kurtz sees morality as a set of evolved biological and social principles common to all humans. Integrity, trustworthiness, benevolence and fairness are "moral decencies" accepted by religious and non-religious people alike. He writes: "There is no easy road to moral truth, and it is presumptuous of theists to claim that they have a monopoly on moral virtue -- particularly in light of a history littered with religious war of violence and hatred perpetrated in the name of God."

Keith Ward is an Anglican priest and professor of divinity agrees that morality is a matter of reflection and analysis. But the fundamental rules of right and wrong come through religion, he says. Secular humanism rests on sandy soil. A sound ethics cannot exist without a bedrock faith in a supremely personal God who objectifies moral goodness.

Biological, social, religious? Can objective data decide which is the basis for moral decency? What studies I have seen suggest that secularists are no more or less moral than theists. And peoples who have never heard of the great monotheistic religions have moral codes that are not all that different from the rest of us. If I were a betting man, I would put my money somewhere between Hauser and Kurtz: i.e., universal moral principles based on bio-cultural evolution.

Commenting in a Science & Spirit sidebar, the Dutch-born primatologist Frans de Waal sees the roots of moral decencies even among our primate cousins. Biology and morality are not at odds, he writes. "Human nature is not all selfish and nasty, and we do not need religion to tame us into becoming moral beings."

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Prophet or curmudgeon?

Erwin Chargaff, the great biochemist who discovered rules of chemical combination that led to the discovery of the DNA double helix, grew up in Austria in what seemed to him the last golden days of a more civilized era. He was watching the younger sons of Kaiser Wilhelm II play tennis when news came of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that plunged all of Europe into darkness. He spent the years between the wars in Vienna, where he took his academic degrees. Torn between science and the study of literature, he drifted into chemistry, as later he drifted into biochemistry. He was forced to leave Europe by the rise of the Nazis. Again darkness descended. His mother was deported from Vienna into oblivion.

Chargaff came to the US in 1935, and became a US citizen in 1940. He died in 2002 at age 97.

In his autobiography, Heraclitean Fire, Chargaff says of his life: "In the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo depicts the creation of man, God's finger and that of Adam are separated by a short space. That distance I called eternity; and there, I felt, I was sent to travel." At every moment of his life, Chargaff was aware of the immensity of the darkness that is nature. As a scientist, he made the darkness a little bit brighter. As a nonagenarian, surrounded by solved riddles, he still remained struck by how little we understand -- and frightened by how much we do understand.

In certain contemporary research, particularly the science of incipient life, Chargaff felt that science comes dangerously close to bridging the gap between God's finger and the finger of man. In a 1997 essay in Nature, the grand old man of science asked for restraint. "Scientific curiosity is not an unbounded good," he wrote. "Restraint in asking necessary questions is one of the sacrifices that even the scientist ought to be willing to make to human dignity."

Chargaff's philosophy was marked by paradox. He believed humans cannot live without mysteries, yet he devoted his life to unraveling the greatest mystery of all, the mystery of human life. He contributed mightily to discovering the secret of DNA, and yet worried about the use to which that knowledge would be put. He was a man of reason who agreed with Goya that "the dream of reason brings forth monsters."

Recognizing these paradoxes in Chargaff's life, many scientists dismiss his critique of genetic research as cantankerous obfuscation. Unbounded scientific curiosity, they say, has proven its worth; light is invariably better than darkness; in turning his back on the search for knowledge, Chargaff would have us return to a time when human life was the helpless plaything of disease and death.

Chargaff answered: "A balance that does not tremble cannot weigh. A man who does not tremble cannot live."

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Here is the church, here is the steeple...

Itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout, down came the rain and washed the spider out. . .

This little piggie went to market, this little piggie stayed home, this little piggie. . .

Fingers and toes.

Yeah, I know. It's our brain that defines our humanity -- that gray stuff locked up in the strongbox of the skull. But it's with our fingers and toes that we begin our lives. Tugging. Sucking. Wriggling. Making rhymes.

In fact, it may have been our fingers and toes that made our brains what they are. Stroking. Grooming. Gesturing. Pointing. Holding tools. Hurling weapons. Activities that encouraged bigger, more versatile brains.

Before we were Homo sapiens we were Homo digitatis. Before we made looms and potter's wheels, we made cat's cradles. Before we invented geometry and algebra and calculus, we counted on our toes. Before we made harpsichords and flutes and tambourines, we put blades of grass between our fingers and blew.

Our hands and feet are our emissaries to reality. Computers may one day equal human intelligence in rational thought, but the light that turns on in a child's mind with "Itsy bitsy spider" or "This little piggie" is viscerally human in a way that programmed thought will never be -- a mind in joyful, tactile contact with the world.

Monday, August 14, 2006


My early education was by priests and nuns of the Irish diaspora, dispensers of a grim Catholic Jansenism that is now mostly extinct even here in Ireland. The world is a distraction from the true object of your piety, they said; if you would know God, you must shut up your senses and listen to his voice. He will speak to you not through the touch, taste, smell, sight and sound but through the spirit.

So I closed my eyes, stopped my ears, and listened. And indeed I heard a voice, the insistent murmuring of self, easily mistaken for the whisper of God. It is no bad thing, I suppose, to listen to the voice of self. The self is a proper object of attention, for if there are mysteries in the world deserving of our contemplation, among the greatest of these is self. It is perhaps not surprising that so many of us understand God as a person, for if it is the murmuring of self that we interpret as God's voice, then it is certainly the voice of a person we hear.

How different was the message of my teachers from that of the earliest Irish Christians, whose faith assimilated much of the druidic nature worship of the Celts. If you would hear the voice of God, they said, throw open the windows of your soul. Listen to the distant roll of thunder, the crash of waves on the shore, the baying of hounds and the lowing of cattle. Watch the fog slide down the mountain pass, the aurora that lights the northern sky, the gannet that dives like a warrior's dagger into the sea. Smell the aroma of the smokehouse fire. Feel the smoothness of the mare's flank. Taste the yeasty flavor of fresh-baked bread. If you would know God, said the early Irish saints and scholars, attend to the world.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sunday morning

What a person would like to be true, that he preferentially believes, said Francis Bacon. A chastening thought that is the subject of this week's Musing.

And if you prefer coffee and oranges in a sunny chair and the green freedom of a cockatoo, here is something brighter and sunnier from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Camberwell Beauty

What a delicious name for a butterfly. The insect was first observed and named in Britain in 1748 in the village of Camberwell in southeast London. It is a common butterfly in Scandinavia and central Europe, but rarely visits Britain or Ireland. It also is called Grand Surprise and White Petticoat.

The Camberwell Beauty is same as our American Mourning Cloak. It is the only conspicuous New England butterfly that over-winters as an adult, hunkering down in whatever refuge it can find. How it survives a New England winter is a bit of a mystery, but out it pops on the first warm day of early spring, flitting along the roadsides and flashing its petticoat silks, a grand surprise indeed.

The few Camberwell Beauties that have been recorded in Ireland were on the east coast and no doubt migrants from Norway across the North and Irish Seas.

North American species of butterflies have been observed in the west of Ireland, most particularly that noted long-distance flyer the Monarch. It beggars the imagination that a butterfly might survive an ocean crossing. American birds are occasionally blown across the Atlantic and fall exhausted upon these shores: Irish ornithologists have recorded one or more Indigo Buntings, Bobolinks, Scarlet Tanagers, Redstarts and American Robins, for example.

I sometimes wonder if the occasional colorful and unfamiliar winged migrant -- bird or butterfly -- arriving in the west of Ireland on the prevailing westerly wind, might have reinforced that most common of Irish myths: a Land of Delight or Isle of the Blessed out there in the Western Sea beyond the misty horizon.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Urban astronomical myths -- again

It's the astronomical e-mail spam that won't die. "Tell your children, your grandchildren!!! By August 27, Mars will look at large as the full moon to the naked eye. Never again in your lifetime or theirs will Mars look so big and bright. Etc. Etc."

The message has been making the rounds at least since the summer of 2003, when it bore a germ of truth. In that year Mars was closer than it had been since 57, 617 B. C., but only minutely so. Only a skilled skywatcher would have noticed a difference between Mars in that year and Mars in any of its every-other-year oppositions (when the Earth catches up and passes Mars in their orbits).

At its nearest, Mars is only about 1/100th the diameter of the full moon and about 1/10,000th as bright. This is an off year for Mars. We are on opposite sides of the Sun, and the Red Planet is disappearing in the evening twilight. It will be December before we again have a chance to see Mars, as the dimmer of a triad of planets -- Mercury, Jupiter and Mars -- low in the morning sky. The current rash of e-mails will send folks on a wild goose chase.

The question is not where these messages come from, but why we have such an appetite for the presumed exceptional. Why do we hanker for the unusual when the commonplace is so endlessly satisfying? Hardly a day or night goes by that doesn't offer up something in the sky that is worth dragging the grandchildren out to see. As I write, early on Thursday morning, an almost full golden moon slips behind Mount Eagle, itself slathered in pink cloud.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The world as conspiracy

The first conspiracy theories about the fall of the Twin Towers came, as might be expected, from abroad.

The Frenchman Thierry Meyssan's best-selling L'Effroyable Imposture, or "The Horrifying Fraud," suggested that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were planned and executed by US government officials as part of a plot to justify military intervention in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

In Muslim countries it is still widely held that the airplane highjackings were planned and executed by Israel's Mossad secret service, and that thousands of Jews were pre-warned not to go to work in the towers on the day of the attacks.

Now it seems homegrown 9/11 conspiracy theories have taken hold in America.

Nothing new about any of this. Conspiracy theories spring up in the wake every major news event -- the assassination of JFK, the Apollo moon landings, the death of Princess Diana. Our predilection for conspiracies probably accounts for the fantastic popularity of The Da Vinci Code and a host of other best-selling books over the years touting everything from worlds in collision to alien abductions. We love to imagine that behind the course of extraordinary events there is a deeper hidden plot.

And, of course, from the dawn of time, the most prevalent conspiracy theory of all is that behind the exceptional events in each of our otherwise unexceptional lives -- an accident, a disease, a stroke of luck, a child that drowns, a child saved from drowning, a crop that flourishes, a crop that fails -- there is a controlling force or power that makes what might otherwise seems capricious or frivolous part of a grander, more purposeful plan.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The war on science

We are all depressed by the madness that seems to be presently engulfing the world, the fury of mindless antagonisms between peoples of different religious faiths and cultures. Of course, there is nothing new in any of this; thus it has always been. Is there any chance that we might rid ourselves of this irrational fear of the other?

In his introduction to Michael Shermer's book Why People Believe Weird Things, the late, great Stephen Jay Gould wrote: "Only two possible escapes can save us from the organized mayhem of our dark potentialities -- the side that has given us crusades, witch hunts, enslavements, and holocausts. Moral decency provides one necessary ingredient, but not nearly enough. The second foundation must come from the rational side of our mentality. For, unless we rigorously use human reason to discover and acknowledge nature's factuality...we will lose out to the frightening forces of irrationality, romanticism, uncompromising 'true' belief, and the the apparent resulting inevitability of mob action."

It is a sad commentary on the present political climate in America that it emphasizes what is presumed to be "moral decency," while at the same time denigrating "nature's factuality."

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Let there be light

This Hubble photograph of two galaxies passing in the night (click to enlarge) is just one of hundreds of photographs that change the way we view the universe. Together they constitute the contemporary equivalent of the creation myths of our ancestors, although on a vastly more inspiring scale. Peruse this visual document

The two galaxies are NGC 2007 (the larger) and IC 2163 (the smaller, about the size of our Milky Way). The smaller galaxy seems to be passing behind the larger one in a near collision. Their mutual gravity draws out streamers of stars.

Stars within galaxies are far apart compared to their size. Think of a grapefruit in Boston and another in San Diego. The galaxies in the photo contain hundreds of thousands or even trillions of stars. The galaxies themselves are rather closer together compared to their size. Think of a half-dozen saucers floating around in a space the size of your living room. Stars seldom approach each other. Galactic collisions are not all that rare.

At the end of Walking Zero I use this analogy: If the 200 miles of the prime meridian track across southeastern England is taken to represent the distance to the most distant objects we observe with our telescopes, then a couple of steps would take me across the Milky Way Galaxy. A mile or so of walking would take me to the colliding galaxies NGC 2207 and IC 2163.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Living the questions

I was a young graduate student of physics when I first read Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters To a Young Poet. It is a little book that every young poet (or physicist) might usefully read. It counsels patience at a time when the impatience of youth is in full spate.
Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart; try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek answers which cannot be given to you now because you would not be able to live them now. And the point is to live everything, to live the question now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
I read the letters again recently when I stumbled into a translation on the web, on the eve of my seventieth birthday. Have I found answers? Gradually, without noticing it? Perhaps. But it is still the questions that I love, the seeking, the pilgrimage towards the ineffable object of desire that always recedes.

An infinite universe will always have the capacity to surprise.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Working on Sunday

This week's Musing is an interview I did several months ago for Powell's bookstore in Portland, Oregon, one of the great independent bookstores. An unabashed sales pitch to use it here, but a guy's gotta make a living.

And a pic from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Hue's there

The Irish Tourist Board describes this island as a "thousand shades of green." I'm not sure who counted the thousand shades, but the view from my window suggests the number is not far off the mark, especially on a day like this when puffy sun-struck clouds are roiling in off the Atlantic and the quality of light changes every minute.

When the artist Wassily Kandinsky bought his first box of paints at age thirteen he was astonished at the quality of the colors as they slipped from their tubes. Some colors where cheerful and jubilant, he said, others meditative and dreamy. Some pigments emerged from the tubes with a "bubbling rougishness" or "sigh of relief," others "with a deep sound of sorrow." Of course, his impressions were not entirely visual; the textures and smells of the paints were part of his experience.

Some people's color sensitivity seems especially acute. The 19th-century Russian German astronomer Wilhelm Struve used Latin labels to classify star colors: egregie albae, albaesubflavae, aureae, rubrae, caeruleae, virides, purpureae, and even olivaceasubrubicunda, which translates as something like pinkish-olive. I'm not sure I've ever seen a pinkish-olive star. Clearly, Struve's eyes (or his imagination) were more sensitive than mine.

If you look with a magnifier at the pixels on the flat screen of your computer, you will see that each pixel is made up of three sub-pixels: red, blue and green, the mix of which at varying intensities yields a rich array of colors. If each pixel is designated by a byte (8 bits) of data, then 256 colors are possible, as in the palette here. The program Anne uses for the works of art we have been enjoying on Sundays assigns a byte of data for each sub-pixel, which yields 16.7 million possible hues (256x256x256). I wonder if the human eye can distinguish that many colors?

Anyway, the 50 or so shades of green in the palette here will just about do me for the Irish landscape. The astronomer William Henry Smyth saw stars the colors of "damson," "sardonyx" and "smalt." God knows what he would do with the greens outside my window.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The body itself balks account

Soul. What a beautiful and nettlesome word. I've used the word twice in the titles of books: The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage, and The Virgin and the Mousetrap: Essays in Search of the Soul of Science. It seems the prefect word to describe the elusive essence of a thing, the thing that is too broad and subtle to be captured by a formula or theorem. The thing that is always the object of a search or a pilgrimage. Once you have found it, it is no longer soul.

Soul is the source of our joy and our anxiety. Joy because it beckons us forward; anxiety because it ever recedes before our grasp. Anxiety too because of the dualistic burden of the word. "The immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life, usually thought to be immortal," the dictionary says in its first definition of the word. Immaterial! Immortal! The ghost in the machine. The sprite that will fly free when bones and sinews turn to dust.

We know how Walt Whitman regarded the soul, how he spelled it out in his poem I Sing the Body Electric. "...Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,/ Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking and sleeping of the lids,/ mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw hinges/...The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean/...The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings/...The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones...etc., etc." -- to merely dip into his exuberant praisings of the flesh. "Oh I say now these are the soul!" he enthuses.

Yes. It is enough. One might spend a lifetime with a person -- with that long catalog of what Whitman calls the "parts and poems of the body" -- and still not know her soul. Material? Why not? What a thing is matter! In the formulations of contemporary physics, matter is all vibration, resonance, and inexhaustible potentialities. A literal music of the cosmos. Who in such a world needs the so-called immaterial, the immortal? Who needs a ghost in the machine when the machine itself is a thing of such infinite surprise?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

By design -- Part 2

It sometimes seems we are in full retreat from visually harmonious surroundings. For example, the regional materials and housebuilding styles that served us well in the past -- timber in New England, limestone in Indiana, adobe in Santa Fe -- are replaced everywhere by ubiquitous cookie-cutter Tyvec-wrapped McMansions. Cheapness and convenience rule the day, with ugliness as their corollary.

But the industrial age has also produced visually satisfying environments.

I grew up in the valley of the Tennessee River when the TVA was in full flower. I was dazzled by the beauty of the great dams and Art Deco powerhouses that TVA engineers threw across flatland rivers and mountain streams

The landscapes flooded by the dams seemed then no great visual loss: dirt roads, tin-roofed shacks, ramshackle barns with "Mail Pouch Tobacco" signs painted on their sides. In retrospect, I can better appreciate the visual integrity of that vanished landscape, but the dams remain for me monuments of pleasing design, and they lifted the region out of poverty.

The automobile parkways established early in the last century were another pleasing contribution to the landscape. My first trip north by car from Tennessee was along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive of North Carolina and Virginia. It was a slow journey, but as visually satisfying as anything Samuel Johnson might have seen on his way to Oxford.

I remember being made breathless by my first drive along the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut. Every bridge over the parkway was a jewel of unique design. That such a thing came to be built seemed a miracle. Of course, it is slowly being obliterated today by generic concrete overpasses.

Artifacts of industrialization need not be ugly. Consider the beauty of Rockefeller Center, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Texaco and Gulf gas stations of the 1930's, and the Art Deco federal post offices of that same economically depressed but design-conscious era! The visual blight that presently afflicts so many of our public spaces -- especially the strip-malling of America -- represents a lapse of judgment and resolve.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

By design

In the autumn of 1728, Samuel Johnson, future author of the famous dictionary, rode with his father from his birthplace at Lichfield in the English Midlands to the university town of Oxford. He was 19 years old.

His biographer, John Wain, describes the countryside that young Sam passed through: "It was a place in which ugliness was very rare; indeed, with the important exception of the ugliness that disease and disfigurement produce in human beings and animals, ugliness was unknown."

Wain continues: "In [Johnson's] day there was probably no such thing as an ugly house, table, stool or chair in the whole kingdom." This was about to change. By the end of the century the Industrial Revolution was in full bloom. "Industrialism, by moving people away from the natural rhythms of hand and eye, and also from the materials which occur naturally in their region and to which they are attuned by habit and tradition, cannot help fostering ugliness at the same time as it fosters cheapness and convenience," writes Wain.

When first we came to this village in the west of Ireland 34 years ago, it was still a pre-industrial corner of the world. As such, it attracted artists and craftspeople of every kind. The result is that our cottage is full of beautiful things made of local materials by the hands of people we know. Pottery, rugs, wall hangings, paintings, sculptures.

But, of course, the visual aspect of life is not everything. In Johnson's 18th-century England, the nose was assaulted on every side by the stench of raw human and animal waste, and safe drinking water was in short supply. And, as Wain says, disease and disfigurement were common.

For those very reasons, few of us would opt to return to a time before the Industrial Revolution, and the sleepy villages in the west of Ireland have made a running leap into the 21st century. But still we are blessed to have creative people among our neighbors who choose to live simply and value things of handmade beauty.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

In the still of the night

How many times in my life have I had these lines of Walt Whitman quoted to me?
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
The intention is always to put down science, to drag out the old romantic complaint "to dissect is to murder."

As if the astronomer and those in his attentive audience might not equally appreciate the "mystical moist night air."

But imagine not knowing what is there behind the dome of twinkling lights. The galaxies. The exploding stars. The myriad of mysterious worlds. The quasars, pulsars and black holes. The yawning, teeming infinities.

When Whitman wrote these lines he was just in a cranky, intellectually lazy mood. Unfortunately, many intellectually lazy people take him at his word.