Thursday, November 30, 2006

Avoiding the rusty hinge

I find myself in Kentucky for a few days -- the first time in many, many years -- as a guest of Berea College.

Once, when I was an undergraduate myself, and under the sway of Thomas Merton's autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, I hitchhiked from northern Indiana along rural two-lane blacktops on a cold, rainy day to the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky, arriving late at night. There was a bell to be rung, waking, I suppose, Brother Gatekeeper from his few hours of sleep. I was admitted with surprising graciousness, given the ungodly hour, and began a visit of several days in the company of Merton and his confreres.

The monastery was the center of the monks' world. Or rather, the center of their world was at a place deep within each of them. Merton wrote a lot about centers. Our griefs, he said, lay at the hands of men armed with science and technology but without a rootedness in a mystery deeper than themselves. "Shamans without belief," he called them.

He wrote: "The way to find the real 'world' is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self. This 'ground,' this 'world' where I am mysteriously present at once to my own self and to the freedoms of all other men, is not a visible, objective and determined structure with fixed laws and demands. It is a living and self-creating mystery of which I am myself a part, to which I am myself my own unique door."

A friend of mine, who shared with me this quote of Merton's, suggests that our task in life is to keep applying WD40 to the hinges of our doors.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Who made America?

Atlantic Monthly Magazine asked 10 eminent historians to rank the 100 most influential Americans of all time. The list has been widely published and will feature in the December issue of the magazine.

Not surprisingly, the usual pantheon is at the top: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR, Hamilton, Franklin, in that order. The first woman makes her appearance at 30th place -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- and women make only a modest showing after that. This will surely change dramatically on any list compiled 100 years from now. The abolitionist Lyman Beecher, at 91st place, is known best as the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, at number 41.

As for scientists and engineers...

The clever tinkerers figure strongly, a typical American forte: Thomas Edison (at 9), Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Alexander Graham Bell, Eli Whitney, Samuel Morse, Bill Gates, Cyrus McCormick, and George Eastman.

As for the pure scientists...

Benjamin Franklin at number 6 deserves a place for his scientific contributions, but that is surely not why he made the list. Europeans are likely to memember Franklin best as the author of the influential Experiments and Observations on Electricity, in which he first named positive and negative electric charge.

Albert Einstein tops the roll at 32, followed closely by Jonas Salk. Rachel Carson makes the top 50, although her influence was more as an environmental crusader than a biologist. Robert Oppenheimer checks in at 48, and james Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, at 68. Anthropologist Margaret Mead makes the list. The Italo-American Enrico Fermi is there. And Booker T. Washington squeaks in at 98.

It is perhaps a sad comment on the 20th century that the three physicists on the list -- Einstein, Oppenheimer and Fermi -- are all associated in the public mind with the construction of the most devastating weapon in human history. Do they bear a moral responsibility for Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I will have more to say about this in next Sunday's Musing.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Uncommon sense

One of the advantages of having a daughter who is a children's book editor is that I get to see a lot of really terrific children's books, sometimes before they even hit the streets, at least those published by Houghton-Mifflin, which include some outstanding author/illustrators like David Wiesner and Barbara Lehman. Wiesner is a particular favorite of mine, and I always eagerly await his next book. I have just now "read" his new Flotsam, along with Lehman's The Red Book.

Both books are wordless. Both have much the same theme: imagination uniting children all over the world. In the one case, the instrument of unification is a magical box camera that sails the seas, in the other, a red book and a globe-spanning flight on a cluster of balloons. The illustrators could not be more different: Wiesner's style is exquisitely realistic; Lehman's seduces with childlike simplicity.

Einstein once famously wrote: "When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking." It is a paradox that a gift for fantasy can be the royal road to reality. Lmited imaginations doom us to live in conceptual worlds of a commonplace sort. Our gods will be little more than extensions of ourselves. Our heaven will look pretty much like the local neighborhood, except with streets of gold. Our hell will look like the other side of the tracks, with licking flames.

Meanwhile, reality, with its grand and unfamiliar infinities, goes by the board.

Poor Galileo. Imagine him trying to convince his contemporaries that they were whizzing along at 800 miles per hour on a spinning Earth. And at 66,000 miles per hour as the Earth orbits the Sun. "Ridiculous!" they said. "We have no sense of motion. The air is still. The birds perch unperturbed in still trees."

And common sense confirmed their view. They made the nearly blind old man kneel on the marble floor of a Vatican palace and deny what he knew to be true.

Galileo taught us that common sense is a limited guide to truth, and his great lesson is one we should teach our children. Where better to learn than with lovely books such as Wiesner's Flotsam and Lehman's The Red Book that do not preach or indoctrinate, but simply ask children to travel in their imaginations to places where no one else has gone before.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Morning stars

For some years this William Blake watercolor hung in my living room, blown up photographically to enormous size (that was back in my darkroom days). An illustration from The Book of Job: "When the morning stars sang together..." The original watercolor is small, not a lot larger than what you will get if you click on the image here.

That's Job and his family at the bottom, enclosed by the thickest clouds, representing the flesh. Under the Lord's left arm is the Moon goddess Diana, the heart or feeling, delicately holding the passions in check. Under his right arm is the Sun god Apollo, the intellect, pushing back clouds of ignorance. Above the thinnest wisps of cloud, a choir of singing angels, representing the imagination.

Here, then, is Blake's vision of fourfold human nature, as imagined in his mystic dreams, and which Job presumably encountered in the whirlwind. Binding all together is the Divine Imagination.

When I was young I took this image as a guiding icon, a promise to myself to keep flesh, intellect, heart and imagination in balance, and to always aspire to the stars. At some point, early in the fuss of marriage and family, the big photographic reproduction of Blake's watercolor got shifted to the attic, where presumably it still resides amid dust and cobwebs and the discarded detritus of a lifetime.

Has my understanding of the human self changed in the forty intervening years? I have more respect for the flesh now than then. I cannot think of the unceasing activity of the DNA in every cell of my body without esteeming those trillions of tiny whirlwinds. I am less confident than in my idealist youth that Apollo can hold back the clouds of unknowing and that Diana can keep human passions in check. But I still choose optimism. That at least has remained constant since this, one of Blake's most optimistic images, hung on my wall.

Blake roiled between optimism and pessimism, shaken by his visions (oh, the mystery of that unquiet mind), steadied by his art (he died with a pencil in his hand), and bouyed by his beloved wife Catherine (imagine being married to such a soul on fire?).

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Thinking big

Is that thousands or billions of angelic souls that Beatrice and Dante see swarming on their way to Paradise? A few gigathoughts in this Sunday's Musing.

I bumped Anne's Sunday pic up to Happy Bird-day. She'll be back in her regular place next week.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

And speaking of sequencing the sea urchin genome

The articles in Science reporting the sea urchin genome and its analysis have collectively hundreds of authors, representing labs in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Sweden, UK, and USA, a cross-cultural global collaboration without apparent rancor or violence. On the evidence of the names, there are among the researchers a strong oriental presence.

It is no coincidence that most of the major science being done in the world today takes place in the secular democracies. Secular public institutions, democracy and science are natural allies. When any one is in danger, all are threatened.

Herewith, the authors of the main article, a peaceful portrait of the human family:
Sea Urchin Genome Sequencing Consortium: Erica Sodergren, George M. Weinstock, Eric H Davidson, R. Andrew Cameron, Richard A. Gibbs, Robert C. Angerer, Lynne M. Angerer, Maria Ina Arnone, David R. Burgess, Robert D. Burke, James A. Coffman, Michael Dean, Maurice R. Elphick, Charles A. Ettensohn, Kathy R. Foltz, Amro Hamdoun, Richard O. Hynes, William H. Klein, William Marzluff, David R. McClay, Robert L. Morris, Arcady Mushegian, Jonathan P. Rast, L. Courtney Smith, Michael C. Thorndyke, Victor D. Vacquier, Gary M. Wessel, Greg Wray, Lan Zhang, Christine G. Elsik, Olga Ermolaeva, Wratko Hlavina, Gretchen Hofmann, Paul Kitts, Melissa J. Landrum, Aaron J. Mackey, Donna Maglott, Georgia Panopoulou, Albert J. Poustka, Kim Pruitt, Victor Sapojnikov, Xingzhi Song, Alexandre Souvorov, Victor Solovyev, Zheng Wei, Charles A. Whittaker, Kim Worley, K. James Durbin, Yufeng Shen, Olivier Fedrigo, David Garfield, Ralph Haygood, Alexander Primus, Rahul Satija, Tonya Severson, Manuel L. Gonzalez-Garay, Andrew R. Jackson, Aleksandar Milosavljevic, Mark Tong, Christopher E. Killian, Brian T. Livingston, Fred H. Wilt, Nikki Adams, Robert Belle, Seth Carbonneau, Rocky Cheung, Patrick Cormier, Bertrand Cosson, Jenifer Croce, Antonio Fernandez-Guerra, Anne-Marie Genevière, Manisha Goel, Hemant Kelkar, Julia Morales, Odile Mulner-Lorillon, Anthony J. Robertson, Jared V. Goldstone, Bryan Cole, David Epel, Bert Gold, Mark E. Hahn, Meredith Howard-Ashby, Mark Scally, John J. Stegeman, Erin L. Allgood, Jonah Cool, Kyle M. Judkins, Shawn S. McCafferty, Ashlan M. Musante, Robert A. Obar, Amanda P. Rawson, Blair J. Rossetti, Ian R. Gibbons, Matthew P. Hoffman, Andrew Leone, Sorin Istrail, Stefan C. Materna, Manoj P. Samanta, Viktor Stolc, Waraporn Tongprasit, Qiang Tu, Karl-Frederik Bergeron, Bruce P. Brandhorst, James Whittle, Kevin Berney, David J. Bottjer, Cristina Calestani, Kevin Peterson, Elly Chow, Qiu Autumn Yuan, Eran Elhaik, Dan Graur, Justin T. Reese, Ian Bosdet, Shin Heesun, Marco A. Marra, Jacqueline Schein, Michele K. Anderson, Virginia Brockton, Katherine M. Buckley, Avis H. Cohen, Sebastian D. Fugmann, Taku Hibino, Mariano Loza-Coll, Audrey J. Majeske, Cynthia Messier, Sham V. Nair, Zeev Pancer, David P. Terwilliger, Cavit Agca, Enrique Arboleda, Nansheng Chen, Allison M. Churcher, F. Hallbook, Glen W. Humphrey, Mohammed M. Idris, Takae Kiyama, Shuguang Liang, Dan Mellott, Xiuqian Mu, Greg Murray, Robert P. Olinski, Florian Raible, Matthew Rowe, John S. Taylor, Kristin Tessmar-Raible, D. Wang, Karen H. Wilson, Shunsuke Yaguchi, Terry Gaasterland, Blanca E. Galindo, Herath J. Gunaratne, Celina Juliano, Masashi Kinukawa, Gary W. Moy, Anna T. Neill, Mamoru Nomura, Michael Raisch, Anna Reade, Michelle M. Roux, Jia L. Song, Yi-Hsien Su, Ian K. Townley, Ekaterina Voronina, Julian L. Wong, Gabriele Amore, Margherita Branno, Euan R. Brown, Vincenzo Cavalieri, Veronique Duboc, Louise Duloquin, Constantin Flytzanis, Christian Gache, Francois Lapraz, Thierry Lepage, Annamaria Locascio, Pedro Martinez, Giorgio Matassi, Valeria Matranga, Ryan Range, Francesca Rizzo, Eric Rottinger, Wendy Beane, Cynthia Bradham, Christine Byrum, Tom Glenn, Sofia Hussain, Gerard Manning, Esther Miranda, Rebecca Thomason, Katherine Walton, Athula Wikramanayke, Shu-Yu Wu, Ronghui Xu, C. Titus Brown, Lili Chen, Rachel F. Gray, Pei Yun Lee, Jongmin Nam, Paola Oliveri, Joel Smith, Donna Muzny, Stephanie Bell, Joseph Chacko, Andrew Cree, Stacey Curry, Clay Davis, Huyen Dinh, Shannon Dugan-Rocha, Jerry Fowler, Rachel Gill, Cerrissa Hamilton, Judith Hernandez, Sandra Hines, Jennifer Hume, LaRonda Jackson, Angela Jolivet, Christie Kovar, Sandra Lee, Lora Lewis, George Miner, Margaret Morgan, Lynne V. Nazareth, Geoffrey Okwuonu, David Parker, Ling-Ling Pu, Rachel Thorn, and Rita Wright.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Strongylocentrotus purpuratus

The November 11 issue of Science reports the sequencing of the sea urchin genome.

Every wader in a tide pool knows this spiky creature. What most people don't know is that we are more closely related to sea urchins than we are to worms or flies. Vertebrates and urchins share a common ancestor, 500 million years ago.

Now we have a complete readout of the 814 million base pairs (compared to the human 3 billion bases) that are the four-letter code for making an urchin, encoding approximately 23,300 genes.

Sea urchins have been standard laboratory animals for over a hundred years, a sort of marine white rat. A century ago Theodor Boveri demonstrated in a famous experiment that a complete set of chromosomes must be present in every cell of a sea urchin for embryonic development to occur normally. The same, of course, applies to us.

Expect now to see even more rapid progress in understanding basics of embryonic development, immunology, speciation -- and a more complete understanding of our place among the myriad creatures of Earth.

Who would have guessed that a history of life over hundreds of millions of years is written in every cell of our bodies, linking us across the eons with creatures that begin their larval lives as tiny bells of transparent jelly afloat in the sea.

This is what the naturalist Donald Culross Peattie called the "most unutterable thing" in evolution, "the terrible continuity and fluidity of protoplasm, the inexpressible forces of reproduction -- not mystical human love, but the cold batrachian jelly by which we vertebrates are linked to things that creep and writhe and are blind yet breed and have being."

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Everything which is yes

I thank you God for this most amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and for the blue dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.
There was a time as a teenager when I thought e. e. cummings was, like, uh, you know, a terrific poet. My taste today runs more to the likes of Howard Nemerov, but -- what the heck -- let's drag out old Edward Estlin for our Thanksgiving prayer.

Can one be thankful for trees and sky if there is not a someone to be thankful to?

Maybe not a someone, but certainly a somesomething. Here, now, around this table with the fat crispy bird and cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. Call it the Big M, for Mystery.

You don't hear much about gratitude from the sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists. They have proposed an evolutionary basis for violence, altruism, religion, language, ethics, sexiness, and so on. Why not gratitude? Do children have to be taught to say thank you? Or do those words come naturally to our lips, as I suspect they came to Edward Estlin's lips one especially fine blue day. There are times when one simply feels an overwhelming gratitude that seems to well up from some primitive part of the brain, some overflowing pool of unarticulated appreciation. It may be that people invented the gods at least partly to have someone to be thankful to. That is to say, gratitude may not be a response to God so much as God is a response to gratitude.

So, thank you, God, for this most amazing day.

Thank you for those who read and comment here. I wish I could invite them all in from the porch to join us around the table.

Thank you for sis Anne, on her western mesa, for her weekly illuminations (click to enlarge). And for all artists and poets.

Thank you for son Tom, who makes Science Musings work.

Thank you for Pelagius, John Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Joan of Arc, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilee, Charles Darwin, Teilhard de Chardin, Rachel Carson, and all the other heretics over the ages who have challenged accepted dogma.

Thank you for the residue theorem of complex variable analysis.

Thank you for that C-major fortissimo chord in Haydn's Creation Oratorio and all that it represents.

That is to say, thank you for quarks. And for galaxies.

And for the heart-thumping, head-spinning choreography of the double helix.

And -- speaking of DNA -- thank you for our four spectacular children and their spouses and children who join us at table today.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A color of his own

OK, what were those strange flora I posted several days ago? Identified by Lyra!

While poking among children's picture books in the college library's curriculum collection, I came across a charming work by Leo Lionni: Frederick, about a field-mouse poet. The author's name seemed familiar. Then I remembered a book I read 25 years ago, Parallel Botany, by a Leo Lionni, an amazing evocation of a kingdom of imaginary plants and a profound reflection on the nature of science, the uses of imagination, language, anthropology and philosophy. Could it be the same author?

It is.

Lionni's 1977 Parallel Botany apparently had a short shelf life -- in English, at least -- which is a shame. But he made quite a name for himself as the author and illustrator of children's books. He died in 1999 at age 89

The plants in my posted illustration are woodland tweezers, a social species whose propagational distribution resembles the patterns one encounters in the Japanese game of Go. This led to some disputes -- according to Lionni -- between Eastern and Western botanists, which reflected, of course, the different shades of knowing typical of the Eastern and Western minds.

And so on.

The book ends with these lines: "It is reported of the Swedish philosopher Erud Kronengaard that he once said to a friend: 'There are two kinds of men, those who are capable of wonder and those who are not. I hope to God that it is the first who will forge our destiny.'" As far as I know, Erud Kronengaard is as fictitious as woodland tweezers, but his words are no less wise for it.

Parallel Botany is a tour de force of scientific and philosophical whimsy that deserves to be brought back into print, to join Lionni's many children's picture books that live on. Lionni takes as his epigraph for Parallel Botany the famous dictum of Marianne Moore that poets should create "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." The very best fantasy rubs our noses in the real.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Skin deep -- a reprise

As a response to People Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" feature, Salon, the e-zine, came up with their own thinking-woman's list. And lo and behold, there is Richard Dawkins, with -- among others -- Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart (hey, and speaking of the Daily Show, how about that Samantha Bee; is she hot or what?).

A sexy scientist? Whowoulda thunk it? "Take me with you, Richard: You put the "sex" in sexagenarian. Let us clinch in a godless embrace, crying out to what we know does not exist," enthuse the gals at Salon.
Wonder is sexy. Knowledge is sexy. And embodying both as much as any man in the world today is a man in a tweed jacket riding his bike around the Oxford University campuses, the damp English breeze sweeping a curtain of silver hair from the delicate bones of his face. Yes, those cheekbones, those piercing eyes, that pursed bow of a mouth -- but that brain, oh that brain, oh, god, that brain -- is what makes Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and the most famous atheist in the world, the sexiest man around.
Go Richard!

A year ago I did a little spoof here on People Magazine's sexiest persons profiles. For those who missed it, here it is again:
-- Gavin Studley is not your typical number-cruncher. "I guess most people expect a mathematician to have Coke-bottle glasses and a pocket-protector full of pens," say Studley, 34. "But I just try to be myself."

Which is pretty terrific. Studley has the sun-kissed good looks of a Baywatch lifeguard. He is also the world's leading expert on hyper-dimensional Riemannian topology and a tenured professor at Cal Tech. He begins his day at 6 a.m. with a 15-mile run in the San Bernardino Mountains, then works out at Gold's Gym until time for his 1 o'clock lecture.

"Feeling confident about my body turns on my creative juices in mathematics," says Studley. What's the secret of his traffic-stopping hunkdom? "I eat organic, drink lots of milk and orange juice, and I know a terrific little shop on Rodeo Drive that sells marvelous skin-care products for men."

The 6-foot-2 prof has no scarcity of female admirers, but right now there's no special person in his life. "I'm working on a knotty problem in multivariate complex manifolds," says Gavin. "I can't think of anything that could be more fun than that."

-- "My mom always wanted me to be a cheerleader," says Yale University entomologist Jennifer Lovely. "But I wanted to be in the Science Club. I used to sneak away from cheerleading practice to do my biology homework."

Lovely's determination paid off. She is the youngest person ever to get tenure in the Biology Department at Yale. "I guess you would call me an early developer," says Lovely, 24. Her voluptuous figure is the talk of the campus, and her classes are generally oversubscribed. "There seems to be a lot of interest in entomology," says the self-effacing professor.

Lovely eschews make-up. "When you're sorting bugs in the lab all day you don't have time to worry about your looks," she says. "I wash four times a day with baby lotion, that's it." Did her good looks help her career? The blonde, blue-eyed, mini-skirted professor scoffs at the idea. "In science, everything depends on your data," she asserts confidently.

-- "I want to be respected for more than my mind," says Brookhaven nuclear physicist Tracee deLectable, 37, who is hot on the trail of the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called "God-particle" that holds the key to unifying the laws of physics. But you're as likely as not to find her pumping iron at the fitness center. "When I was in high school, all the smart boys liked me because I helped them with their homework," she recalls. "God, how I envied the girls who were asked out by football players."

When deLectable sets her mind to something, she usually gets it, and when she decided to do something about her looks -- well, ask her boyfriend Jeff, who says, "When we go clubbing, the other guys can't believe she's a nuclear physicist, they think she's a starlet or something." What is it like to be with someone who's headed for a Nobel Prize. "Gee, I never think about that," says Jeff. "As far as I'm concerned, Tracee is just one hot babe."

And that's just the way she wants it. "Brains can only take you so far," says deLectable wistfully.

-- Archeologist Daryl Dashing laughingly recalls the time his looks caused a traffic accident. "I was working on a dig on the site of a new bank building in Mexico City. A couple of girls drove by in a Jeep and started whistling. They lost control of the Jeep and smashed into our equipment van."

Dashing's work takes him to some pretty exotic places, where he spends lots of time in the sun with his shirt off. "I know it's not fashionable for a scientist to say this, but I like looking good," says the 29-year-old fender-bender. He tries to do 1,000 push ups every week, whether he's in the field or back in his shard-filled office at UCLA.

"I was prepared to dislike Daryl because he is so good looking," muses co-worker Irma Booker, "but he won me over with his wonderfully intuitive feel for the dig. And, let's face it, he looks great with sweat glistening on his pecs."

"Sure, I pay attention to my looks," says Dashing. "In my line of work, two things are important -- a good shovel and a good moisturizer." The six-foot Harrison Ford look-alike thinks of himself as a role model: "I hope kids realize you don't have to be a geek to be a scientist."

Monday, November 20, 2006

Strange flora

Here's a little puzzle for you. Can anyone identify these plants growing at the base of a ben tree. (Click to enlarge.) I first made acquaintance with them many years ago, and have just been reminded of them again by the most curious circumstance.

I will have more to say about them later -- and the remarkable person who first brought them to scientific notice.

The naturalist

Although I taught science for most of my life, I wouldn't call myself a scientist. I am a naturalist. Naturalists differ from scientists in that they include in their purview the moral and esthetic universes. (Which is not to say that both morals and esthetics are not open to scientific investigation.)

Like most scientists, naturalists assume a material universe that exists independently of human observers, and we want to know that universe as reliably as we can. Which is why we take care to educate ourselves in the minutae of science.

But naturalists go beyond science in that we are interested in qualitative relationships between ourselves and the non-human universe. We explore ethics and esthetics through the medium of art, most commonly writing.

So how does a John Muir differ from an Anton Chekhov?

The naturalist has a foot in both science and art. It is rather like standing with a foot in each of two chariots that are hurtling across a rocky plain. No wonder the ground between science and art is so sparsely populated and so sparing of reward.

But someone has to be there, using our talents, such as they are, to hold together the two great creative energies of the human spirit.. We do it because we love, say, Muir's high Sierras as much as we love Chekhov's Olga, Masha and Irina.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

In thanksgiving for graciousness wherever we find it

Today's Musing has a rather more specific audience than my usual offering. But perhaps those of you who are not associated with Catholic education will share your thoughts.

Anne offers a Thanksgiving gift. Please click to enlarge.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The night is our window on the infinite

This is the time of the year when we catch Orion sneaking back into the sky before we hit the sack. I couldn't resist posting this new Hubble image of the Great Orion Nebula, the middle "star" of the Hunter's scabbard. Click to enlarge.

A scabbard! Our ancestors looked into the night and saw images of ourselves. A hunter stumbling blind across the night, his dogs at his side. A Virgin with her sheaf of wheat. A Boxer and a Horseman, twin brothers, arm in arm. I have just been reading anthropologist Stewart Guthrie's Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, which documents the universal human propensity to explain the inanimate and the non-human in terms of animate and human characteristics. Thus Orion. Thus Virgo and Gemini. Thus the gods.

This is an idea I have touched on over the years, most recently in Walking Zero, and it is nice to see someone with psychological and anthropological expertise flesh it out. It is not exactly a "new theory." Anyone who has read Piaget on the animism and artificialism of children will make the extrapolation to the gods.

But who will look at this Hubble image of the Great Orion Nebula and pretend to see a God with a human face? Whatever divinity we see here as through a glass darkly is certainly not a projection of the human self. Three Persons in One God? Try all persons in one God. Try 100 billion galaxies in one God. Try humility. Try awed silence.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The lay of the land

It is a common complaint that kids today have very little knowledge of geography. Each year we read more gloomy statistics about the number of children (or adults) who can't find X on a map. X might be their own hometown.

I'm not sure things are worse than they have ever been, but surely geography is a slighted part of the American curriculum.

There are many fabulous resources -- in print and on the internet -- for teaching world geography, but I can't think of anything more exciting that Google Earth and Microsoft's Virtual Earth. If I was a geography teacher I would have these tools at the heart of my lessons. Give me a big screen at the front of the class and off we go to Red Square, Baghdad, Mount Everest, the Great Barrier Reef, the South Pole. Homework? A good set of questions and access to a computer -- let the travels begin! Throw a dart at the globe and zero in. What do you see? Look at that picture of Cape Schmidt I posted yesterday: barrier island, tombolo, tundra, sea ice. What are those gray circular features and how are they formed? Why is the airport where it is? What is the direction of the prevailing wind? What is the season of the year? Why an air traffic control station in such a remote place?

But world geography is only half the equation. It is also important to know one's local landscape in a visceral, sensual, soles-of-the-feet sort of way. Microgeography. Bugs, dirt, sticks and stones. Bird song. Bedrock. Flowing water. In the Prologue to The Path I quoted the Canadian novelist Anne Michaels: "If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another."

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The nether arc

My walk along the prime meridian that I described in Walking Zero began at the zero-longitude monument on the chalk cliffs above the English Channel at the town of Peacehaven. You can see a photo of the monument in Gallery. It commemorates the 1884 international conference in Washington that established our global system of longitude and time zones.

When my friend Wallace Kaufman was here a week or two ago, he mentioned that he had visited a monument marking the anti-meridian -- the line of 180 degree longitude -- on the shore of the Arctic Ocean in eastern Siberia. He has now sent me a photo.

As I describe in my book, getting the nations of the world to agree on a common prime meridian was no easy matter. in 1884 there were at least eleven mapping systems in use, with prime meridians based on Greenwich (England), Paris, Rio, St. Petersburg, Rome, Lisbon, Cadiz, Berlin, Tokyo, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. Far and away the most common prime was the one that passed through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich -- the basis for the maps of both Britain and the United States. But the French delegate to the conference vowed, "France will never agree to emblazon on her charts 'degrees west or east of Greenwich'!"

It was to solve the political problem, while recognizing the practical primacy of Greenwich, that Sandford Fleming, the Canadian "prime" mover of the conference, recommended a prime meridian exactly halfway around the world from Greenwich, which passes almost entirely through the watery Pacific Ocean. This was the so-called anti-prime or nether-arc. No Greenwich-based maps would need to be redrawn, but the French would not have to suffer the indignity of a "Greenwich prime."

As it turned out, Greenwich was adopted over French objections.

The anti-monument photographed by Wallace is about 14 miles west of Cape Schmidt in the Siberian arctic. There can be few more remote inhabited places on the globe. The amazing thing is that I can visit Cape Schmidt -- with its small Russian and Chukchi communities, air-traffic control station, and air field -- without leaving my laptop. Google Earth is surely one of the most remarkable gifts of the internet, and if you don't have it you should download it free. The monument is at longitude 180 degrees -- exactly! -- and latitude approximately 69 degrees. Type in the find box 68.96, 180, then drive east across the tundra to Cape Schmidt. (Click to enlarge.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Breaking the ice

Three weeks ago I was sitting in a meadow at Sheep Pasture with Professor Mooney's environmental studies class, telling them about Frederick Law Olmstead. In passing I mentioned that the place where we were sitting was covered with a half-mile-thick sheet of ice only 15 thousand years ago -- that is, at about the time their Western Civ textbooks begin.

The students were properly incredulous, at least some of them. After all, what I was asking them to believe was as foreign to their common experience as if I had caused the stones to rise from the ground.

Oh, sure they had all heard of the Ice Ages, but for the most part only as some abstract theory of science. Give me an hour of your time, I joked, and I will convince you it is true.

Well, a few days ago I met with the class again, in the woods along the Nature Trail. I showed them an outwash plain, till, south-facing ledges, glacial scratches and grooves, chatter marks, erratic boulders (and described their sources which I had previously tracked down and visited). If I had had a day and transportation I could have showed them kettle ponds, drumlins, eskers, and moraines.

One story, moving ice, explains it all.

The point of science is to find the simplest story that explains the most. The story should involve nothing except natural processes that we see at work somewhere on the Earth today. All of the features I showed the students in our New England neighborhood are identical to those we might see in glaciated places like Greenland or Antarctica.

Did I convince them? I gave it my best shot. The evidence, after all, is overwhelming, not just for a single Ice Age, but for dozens of glacial advances over hundreds of thousands of years. It is a testament to the stultifying power of blind faith that half of Americans believe the Earth is only half as old as the scratches we saw on the rocks.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Saint Joan

I first watched Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc in the late 1950s as a young man discovering the cinema in a reflective, intellectual way. As someone who had grown up with the Three Stooges and Gabby Hayes, I was riveted by what I saw. It was the beginning of a long love affair with Truffaut, Goddard, Bergman, Fellini, Kurasawa, and all the other auteurs who turned the 60s into a magical decade of the cinema. This was not cinema as entertainment, but as food for the mind. (Of course, the best cinema is both.)

I have just watched Joan again in a new version digitally-restored from the only known intact original print, discovered in a closet in Norway in 1981. Much of it is brilliant. Some of it is silly. But -- ah! - those eyes of Renee Falconetti, the actress who played the Maid of Orleans. No wonder I was stricken as a young man.

In the new cut, Falconetti is as striking as ever. But what most intrigues me now is the way Dreyer used human faces in unrelenting close-ups to express what in the 14th century was thought to be the unrelenting war of God and Satan for possession of human souls. The colossal apparatus of Canon Law and church bureaucracy, the giving and withholding of the sacraments, the instruments of torture, the blood, the tears, the faggots waiting at the stake, the flames and smoke: all ostensibly directed to a single purpose -- the eternal salvation of Joan's immortal soul. "The Church is merciful," says one of her tormentors in the film, "it always welcomes the misguided lamb."

Joan was burned in Rouen, France, in 1431, forty-two years before the birth of Copernicus, one-hundred-and-thirty-three years before the birth of Galileo, and five centuries before I was taught in school that God and Satan are contesting for my immortal soul and that I should be as frightened as was Joan that I'll end up in the fire that burns forever. The vast majority of people still believe in heaven, and many will blow themselves up or bomb their neighbors to get there.

Joan was an uneducated peasant girl who quite reasonably believed the theology of her time and place. As Dreyer portrays her, she is brave and patriotic -- and painfully, endearingly human. It would be nice to think that she is now blissfully residing in Paradise. At least she achieved a kind of cinematic immortality.

Monday, November 13, 2006


This is one of the two times each year when my morning walk along the Path takes me straight into the sunrise. That big yellow star seems to be lurking just behind the trees. (Click to enlarge.)

Within 20 light-years of Earth there are about 100 known stars. Of these, nearly 70 are tiny red dwarf stars, much less bright than the Sun, barely hot enough to ignite the fires of nuclear fusion that blaze at a star's core. These stars are so faint that they are not visible to the naked eye, even though they are among our closest neighbors.

The 20-light-year neighborhood includes about 15 orange stars, hotter and bigger than the red dwarfs but not as hot or bright as the Sun.

There are six yellow stars, including the Sun, with surface temperatures of about 6,000 degrees Celsius.

Only three stars in the solar neighborhood are brighter than the Sun: Procyon in Canis Minor, Altair in Aquila the Eagle, and Sirius in Canis Major. Sirius, a white-hot star, is the big boy on the block.

The star population is a pyramid: A few hot giants at the top, a crowd of cool dwarfs at the bottom.

The capstone stars burn fast and furiously and die violently, forging heavy elements like carbon and oxygen and spewing them into space to become part of new generations of stars and planets. The red dwarfs burn their hydrogen fuel so slowly they live for hundreds of billions of years. Because the universe is only about 14 billion years old, every red dwarf star that was ever born is still with us.

The Sun is less than 5 billion years old -- young enough to have heavy-element planets, but old enough for conscious life to have evolved on one of those planets.

I think of all of this as I walk each morning into that doorway of radiance, that nuclear furnace in the trees beyond the pool of mist. Like the eye of a jungle cat shining in darkness. The world's animal soul.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


My high school in Chattanooga had a single small science lab that served for general science, chemistry and physics. It was not well equipped, but it did have prominently displayed on the wall one of those big colorful Periodic Tables of the Elements that Sargent-Welch used to sell, and may still do for all I know. I sat right beside the chart and spent a lot of time looking at it. See this week's Musing.

Click on Anne's Sunday offering for a bigger view.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

On being good

Marc Hauser is a psychology professor and director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory at Harvard University. His new book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong is a useful response to those who argue that only divinely revealed moral codes -- with hope of heaven and fear of hell -- keep us on the straight and narrow. Hauser knows his book is only a prologue to what will surely be an ongoing study, and he is not dogmatic in his conclusions, but he offers ample evidence that biological and cultural evolution can satisfactorily account for moral behavior, without invoking revelation.

The Dutch-born primatologist Frans de Waal offers another more empirical take on the question in his new book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. He observes and describes empathetic behaviors among apes and monkeys.

This is an old debate. More than a century ago, for example, the British statesman Arthur Balfour addressed the problem in a book called The Foundations of Belief. With Kant, he compared the God-given Moral Law to the starry heavens and found them both sublime. But if one accepts the "naturalistic hypothesis," he wrote -- thinking, of course, of Darwin and his successors -- then the Moral Law becomes as mundane as "the protective blotches on the beetle's back," an ingenious contrivance of nature, perhaps, but hardly worthy of our affinity to angels.

But Balfour misses the point. The Darwinian synthesis does not reduce the sublimity of the starry sky to the lowly beetle's spots; rather it shows the beetle's spots to be as sublime as any starry sky. Naturalism spins a web of enchantment that equally embraces the beetle and the distant galaxy. No more Great Chain of Being with the Moral Law descending from above and the flames of hell licking our feet from below -- a hierarchy of subservience and domination. Henceforth, we are part of an endlessly fructifying tapestry of mutual relationship and self-imposed responsibility.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Making scents

Diane Ackerman begins her A Natural History of the Senses with this assertion: "Nothing is more memorable than a smell."

Well, thanks, Diane.

I have no sense of smell. My affliction is called anosmia, and it is rare enough not to have a common name. Ackerman suggests "smumb," a blend of smell and dumb ("There goes Chet. He's smumb.").

I haven't a clue why my nose doesn't work. I was born that way.

There are something like 100 million olfactory receptors in the nose -- bare nerve endings that somehow detect specific molecules in the air and trigger the appropriate scent sensation in the brain. My problem seems to reside at the cerebral end of the circuits.

Naturalist recently drew our attention to a relatively new theory of smell. The biochemist Luca Turin thinks he has evidence that nerve endings in the nose are sensitive to the vibrational frequencies of molecules; according to this theory, each molecule of scent is like a little turning fork the nose interprets as a smell.

Most neuroscientists are skeptical.

The standard theory of smell assumes the triggering mechanism is lock-and-key. Molecules of a certain shape fit the nooks and crannies on nerve-cell proteins, causing the nerves to shoot a message down the line -- pine, bacon, aftershave, dirty diaper.

However it works, all sensation is chemical. Molecules are the messengers that connect the world "out there" to the imaginary worlds we build in our heads. What a miracle, when you think about it. Our wonderfully rich interior lives, our dreams, memories, loves and lusts are mediated by chemistry. The "heady succulence of life," as Ackerman calls it, is molecules.

I mentioned in Comments a gorgeously sensuous novel by Patrick Suskind called Perfume that is about as close as I have ever come to imagining smell. It is about a man born without a personal scent but with an unnaturally acute sense of smell, who apprentices himself to a perfumer in 18th-century France and masters the craft of distilling aromas. Orange, lime, clove, musk, jasmine, bergamot, attar of roses, ambergris, civet, sandalwood: Of these and a thousand other scents, our protagonoist mixes aromas "capable of creating a whole world, a magical, rich world, and in an instant you forgot all the loathsomeness around you and felt so rich, so at ease, so free, so fine . . ." His quest for the ultimate scent that will give him irresistible power over others leads him at last to murder -- and to an unspeakably horrible end. Suskind's talent is to portray the outer and inner worlds of smell in words so vivid that it almost lets me feel those lock-and-key molecules -- or is it tiny tuning forks? -- tickling my nose.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The doorway into thanks

My retirement nest at the college is in the midst of the English department, a congenial place to be. I don't know why, but one of my literary colleagues was passing out to his students Samuel Taylor Coleridge's journal notes on prayer:
First stage -- the pressure of immediate calamities without earthly aidence makes us cry out to the Invisible.

Second stage -- the dreariness of visible things to a mind beginning to be contemplative -- horrible Solitude.

Third stage -- Repentance & Regret -- & self-inquietude.

Fourth stage -- The celestial delectation that follows ardent prayer.

Fifth stage -- Self-annihilation -- the Soul enters the Holy of Holies.
I can't say that I understand what the poet meant by all this, but it sounds vaguely like the evolution of prayer in my own life. I would translate it something like:
First stage -- Help!

Second stage -- Here I am!

Third stage -- O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee...

Fourth stage -- Gee! -- followed by -- Wow!

Fifth stage -- silent attention.
I've been reading Mary Oliver's newest book of poems, Thirst, and I hope she won't mind if I copy here a few fifth-stage lines from a poem called Praying.
It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Hard green, soft green

"In wildness is the preservation of the world," wrote Henry David Thoreau in one of his more self-indulgent moments, and environmentalists never tire of quoting him. Into the woods, they urge. That's where we'll find salvation.

"Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps," wrote Thoreau, but he was glad to get back to good old civilized Concord after a sojourn in the Maine woods.

Wallace Kaufman was by for a visit the other day. Back in the late 1960s, inspired by the first great flowering of green politics, Kaufman bought 330 acres of forested land in North Carolina with the idea of creating a whole community of little Waldens, including one for himself.

He built a road into the forest, doing his best to save the fine old trees, then wrote covenants for prospective purchasers that would keep the place wild -- no chemical pesticides or serious tree-cutting, that sort of thing. Soon he was the "mayor of Hippie Town," according to the yuppie folks in nearby Chapel Hill.

On his own corner of the 330 acres, he built a house and settled in. Like Thoreau, he went into the woods "to live deliberately," communing with nature, washing his spirit in the wild -- and he stayed 15 times longer than Thoreau resided at Walden.

Kaufman recounted his experiences in a book called Coming Out of the Woods. It would be a shame to spoil the reading by retelling his adventures. Suffice it to say that green dreams met practical realities, and what came out of the clash was less quaking swamp than quaking principles.

Copperheads in the crawl space, squirrels in the eaves, and deer in the bean patch: Kaufman tried his best to accommodate them all, but found that human and creaturely interests don't always mesh. Then came Hurricane Fran, roaring up his valley and knocking down all those grand old trees he had tried so hard to protect.

"Nature had been no kinder to this forest than God was to Job," he muses in his book. "She would as soon make maggot meat out of a squishy little human being as offer him or her a fine view."

This is the lesson Kaufman drew from his experience: "Nowhere is nature a Garden of Eden. Whenever consciousness dawned in the human brain, our ancestors found themselves in a wilderness. They set about conquering its dangers. They began to reshape it with Eden as their model. They knew, in those days before romantic illusions, that if nature was ever to be a friend to humankind, they would have to command it to be so."

We did not come from Eden, but we can go there, wrote Kaufman. With humility, optimism and restraint, we can devise a world in which humans and the wild achieve some sort of accommodation. Science and technology will be part of the equation. Thoreau had it backwards: In civilization is the preservation of the wild.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Don't hold your breath

This time it's Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins debating in the pages of Time magazine, atheist and believer, both scientists. They get nowhere, of course. Collins essentially agrees with everything Dawkins says, but...but his faith in the supernatural is impermeable to dilution. Meanwhile, Dawkins is his usual acerbic self and will surely turn off more Time readers than he convinces.

By now you know where I stand on this contentious issue, and it is not with Dawkins or Collins. Let me simply add this to the discussion: Any religion worthy of humankind's future will have three characteristics:

1) It will be ecumenical. It will not imagine itself "truer" than other religions. It will be open and welcoming to the best of all faith traditions.

2) It will be ecological. It will take the planet and all creatures into its commandment of love.

3) It will embrace the scientific story of the world as the most reliable cosmology. It will look for the signature of divinity in the extravagant wonder of creation itself, not in supposed miracles or exceptions to nature's laws.

Within these parameters there is room for many faith traditions, modes of celebration, and sacramental practices. The most vibrant embrace of these principles that I have personally encountered is within communities of Roman Catholic nuns. There are similar communities within all faith traditions -- including atheists and agnostics -- who understand that what unites us takes precedence over what divides us, and that spiritually and morally we are more often hindered than helped by sectarian dogma.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Honk time

I love these fall morning when just at sunrise Canada geese skim the treetops, tooting their horns as if to warn one and all to get out of the way, They are heading south, and apparently in one heck of a hurry. Their racket would have toppled the walls of Jericho.

Yesterday, a highflying vee went by that stretched halfway across the sky, hundreds of geese, with one black beak drilling the way for the others to follow. How, I wondered, does the cohort decide who gets to lead? And how does he (she?) know where to go?

And why the vee?

Scientists have tried to find the reason geese fly in vees, so far not successfully. There are two theories on the table - aerodynamic efficiency and ease of communication.

The aerodynamic analysis was first done by aerospace engineers Peter Lissaman and Carl Shollenberger in 1970. The advantage of formation flying derives from something called "wingtip vortex," they say. On the downstroke, air beneath a bird's wing is pushed downward. Beyond the wingtip, air moves upward to restore the displaced air. This updraft provides extra lift to the next bird in line.

Presumably, geese will adopt positions in flight that optimize their aerodynamic advantage. With ideal spacing, birds flying in a vee can gain a 70 percent range increase over a bird flying alone, according to the calculations of Lissaman and Shollenberger.

Observations of actual flights, however, show that geese are seldom in optimum position for maximizing lift. This has led other researchers to suggest that geese fly in vees to keep each other in view and optimize communication.

The important thing here is that both theories assume an advantage for the birds, to be explained, ideally, by some sort of analysis based on physical laws. It is a fundamental tenet of science that things don't happen by chance, or just to please the human watcher. We may find the vee formations beautiful, as the geese stream south in the golden light of a rising sun, but our aesthetic sense has zero value as an explanation.

Sunday, November 05, 2006, bridge, fountain, gate

As the poet Rilke says in the Ninth Duino Elegy: Perhaps we are here only to say...

See this week's Musing.

Be sure to click on Anne's pic for a larger view.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Like rubies ringed with gold -- Part 2

In Dante's time, astronomy was one of the seven liberal arts -- with grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, and music -- required of every student who aspired to a university degree. Of all the secular sciences, astronomy was deemed most likely to lead one to the contemplation of things divine. Yesterday's Hubble pic made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, which is about as close to the divine as I ever get.

Dante's Divine Comedy is based on the medieval astronomical conception of the world -- a system of concentric spheres centered on the Earth and bounded just up there by the Empyrean.

In yesterday's Hubble photograph of colliding galaxies we see something akin to Dante's paradisal vision, but it is not a cosmos centered on the Earth. Here are other Suns and other Earths being born, in prodigious numbers, massive stars destined to die soon as supernovas, and other less massive stars that will live long lives, perhaps evolving life or consciousness on their planets.

We see in the Hubble photograph a universe of a fullness and dimension that makes Dante's human-centered cosmos of concentric spheres seem like a dust mote in an immense cathedral.

Astronomy is no longer a required course of study in our universities, and it's something of a shame. Who can look at the photograph of colliding galaxies and not be moved to rapture? An understanding of the size, age, and prodigality of the universe should be part of every liberal arts graduate's intellectual furniture.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Like rubies ringed with gold

Here's a new Hubble Space Telescope composite photograph of two colliding galaxies in the constellation Corvus. Click to enlarge or look for large image on the link.

Each of the three books of Dante's Divine Comedy ends with the same words: "the stars."

The Inferno concludes with distant stars glimpsed through the narrow exit of hell. "We emerged," says the poet, "and saw the stars."

The poet's journey through Purgatory ends on Earth's highest mountain, with the heavens seemingly not so far away. He is "ready to ascend to the stars."

Finally, Dante looks down upon the stars from above, from the luminous realm of Paradise. He has experienced "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars."

The beauty of that final destination, the Empyrean Sphere that encloses the created universe in divine brilliance, taxes the poet's powers of description:
I saw light in the shape of a river
Flashing golden between two banks
Tinted in colors of marvelous spring.
Out of the stream came living sparks
Which settled on the flowers on every side
Like rubies ringed with gold...
Nothing in Dante's experience could have prepared him for the splendors of the heavens as revealed by the Hubble. The photograph of colliding galaxies in Corvus is a work of genius in the tradition of the Divine Comedy -- imagination in service to humankind's loftiest aspirations and longings.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Young and smart and confident

I was at Boston College the other evening talking to students in the Honors Program. That is to say, I was talking to the fifty or so smartest students in a first-rate, highly competitive university.

The first thing that struck me was how gorgeous they were, guys and gals. I seem to remember that back in my day the smartest kids were pimply-faced geeks with mismatched clothes, shirttails hanging out, and glasses like the bottoms of Coke bottles. But maybe I'm just remembering my own pimply-faced self. Anyway, here was a room full of head-turning, heart-stopping lookers of both sexes. Was I really in the right place?

The second thing I noticed was that they looked bored out of their minds. They were more or less required to be there, to listen to some old guy they'd never heard of impart presumed words of wisdom, when they could have been back in their dorm rooms composing avant-garde music, or reaching Level 76 of some mind-bendingly obtuse computer game, or writing their generation's Bell Jar novel. What was I going to say to these bright young kids that would be remotely as interesting as simply scrolling through the random thoughts of the 300 friends on their Facebook pages?

I gave it my best shot. In following a theme often talked about here, I posed the conflict between the two greatest forces in the world today, science and religion, which is really a conflict between two ways of knowing, not a new conflict by any means, but one that is currently more fraught than at almost any other time in history, and I suggested that the disharmony was going to get worse before it gets better, and that each of them, individually, would have to negotiate the apparently irreconcilable demands of intellect and feeling, empiricism and faith.

That sounds somber, but I ladled it out with as much humor as I could muster, and got a few laughs, and some knowing smiles, and by the time I got to the end -- by reading a poetic rumination from one of my books that conveyed, in an oblique sort of way, my own solution to the problem I had posed -- my fifty auditors seemed rather more awake than asleep, and rewarded me with a few sharp questions. I figured I had gotten more from them than they got from me, namely I went away reminded of what it is like to be young and smart and confident, and to believe that there is no problem afflicting humankind which their young and smart and confident generation will not solve.

Thanks, BC honor students, for having me. With you guys on the case, maybe it will work out after all.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Here's a story you may have missed

At the urging of Craig Venter, the entrepenuerial genius who drove the sequencing of the human genome, the X Prize Foundation has announced that it will pay $10 million to the first privately-financed group to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days. This is the same foundation that offered a $10 million prize for the first private company to fly a rocket into space and back twice in 10 days, awarded to Burt Rutan and his associates in 2004.

The genome challenge won't be easy. We are talking about 6 billion base pairs of sequence from the maternal and paternal components of the chromosomes, a listing that would fill more than two dozen sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The job will require staggering computer power and yet-unthought-of technologies. Will it happen? You bet. And sooner than you think. We are about to enter the age of the individual human genome. A decade from now, I'm guessing, you'll be able to have your genome sequenced for less money than you are now paying for a car, maybe those of your partner and offspring too.

There are four kinds of nucleotides along the DNA double helix: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. Adenine always pairs with thymine, and guanine always pairs with cytosine: A-T, T-A, G-C and C-G. Four possibilities. The instructions for making a human self is written in a chemical code of just four letters.

Print out the sequence in 12-point type and you'll need a warehouse to store all those sets of books. You can spend the rest of your life combing through those volumes of four letters -- A, G, C, T -- for the differences that make the brown-eyed you different from your blue-eyed daughter.

Here's an analogy I worked out some years ago: Imagine the human DNA as strands of sewing thread. On this scale, the DNA in the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a typical human cell would be about 150 miles long, with about 600 nucleotide pairs per inch. That is, the DNA in a single cell is equivalent to 1000 spools of sewing thread! This represents two copies of the genetic code.

Take all that thread -- the 1000 spools worth -- and crumple it into 46 wads (the chromosomes). Stuff the wads into a shoe box (the cell nucleus) along with -- oh, say enough chicken-noodle soup to fill the box. Toss the shoe box into a steamer trunk (the cell), and fill the rest of the trunk with more soup.

Take the steamer trunk with its contents and shrink it down to an invisibly small object, smaller than the point of a pin. Multiply that tiny object by a trillion and you have the trillion soma cells of the human body, each with its full complement of DNA.

And soon you'll be able to buy a readout, assuming you are interested. The spine-tingling, mind-boggling score for the symphony of self.

But don't suppose the score is everything, any more than the score of Beethoven's Eroica is what you hear when played by an orchestra of world class musicians. Having your daughter's genome in a computer data bank is not the same as holding a human being in your arms. Not by a long shot.