Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Getting a kick out of kickapoo

Someone is missing on the island this year. My neighbor Joe R., the bush doctor, a native Exumian. Joe's getting on in years and his health has gone poorly. He has left the island.

"Every plant has a remedy," says Joe. Aloe for joint pains. Banana leaf for fever. Jumbey as a sedative. Pond bush for prickly heat. Love vine for what the TV commercials call erectile disfunction.

All this lore is dying out. There are government clinics on the islands now, with MDs and pharmacies. Why take prickly pear for headache when you can get Excedrin at the market?

Many bush cures may "work" through the power of suggestion. But plants used for remedies can be poisonous, too. Many a sick person in the islands may have been made worse by sipping a strong bush tea.

Still, pharmaceutical and dietary supplement companies are busily prospecting for bush medicines that in fact contain an active ingredient that effects the reputed cure. Nature has whipped up many more potentially useful chemical compounds than can be expeditiously contrived in the laboratory. Drugs and dietary supplements are big, big business, and it's always possible that some local remedy might be a gold mine.

Which raises the question of whether and how bush docs like Joe should be compensated for their lore. Is "bush medicine" protected by intellectual property rights? Do pharmaceutical and dietary supplement companies have an ethical obligation to recognize these rights? Who gets the compensation? How is it distributed?

These are important matters for the bioprospectors, but right now it would just be nice to have Joe back, and maybe even a quaff of his all-purpose remedy/invigorator he calls (after Al Capp) kickapoo joy juice.

Monday, January 30, 2006

A poser


Here's a little puzzle for those of you who enjoy such things. Above are two "photos" of the Moon, taken at exactly the same instant from London and Paris. The Moon is one-half a degree wide in the sky; i.e. about half as wide as your little finger held at arm's length. How far away is the Moon?

Consider how interesting it is that an answer is possible. The distance to the Moon was first measured by the Alexandrian astronomers of the 3rd century B. C.. It was they who invented in all of its glory what we today call science, a way of thinking that combines abstract thinking, empirical observation, and mathematics that can take us step by step away from the omphalos of our birth into the space and time of the galaxies.

By the way, these are not actual photos; I made them with Starry Night Pro software to illustrate my forthcoming book, Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian.

The call

One of the themes of this website has been the distinction between truth with a lowercase t and truth with an uppercase T. If any of you have access to this Sunday's New York Times Magazine story on "The Post-colonial Missionary," I would be very interested to hear from you. Not just Daniel Bergner's article , but (perhaps especially) Jackie Nickerson's photos too.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Schrodinger's cat

Every Sunday Musing needs a comic.


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Seeking the sweet spot -- Part 3 (the end)

For a baleen whale, the sweet spot is sea full of krill. For our "domesticated" Bahamian ants, the sweet spot is (quite literally) the sugar bowl I inadvertently left open all night on the kitchen counter. For 21st-century humans, the sweet spot is a place I have called* Arcadia, somewhere between Wilderness and Technopolis.

Arcadia has the benefits of modernity -- medicine, comfort, security, education, the arts -- in harmony with the natural world. Arcadia has dark night skies, clean air and water, gracious landscapes, home that are comfortable and modest in scale. The antithesis of Arcadia is the strip mall, the sprawling McMansion exurbs, petroleum-based technology, non-recyclable waste.

My friend Aileen Vincent-Barwood called her book about Exuma This Sweet Place. She took her title from something said by a now-deceased Bahamian gentleman we both knew, Will Nixon: "I've traveled round and about but I always long to come back to this sweet place."

Over the years, I've talked to many elderly Exumians to whom I have given rides. (This has been the kind of place where everyone offers rides to anyone we see along the road.) They are always full of warm nostalgia for "the good old days" when they lived in the island settlements sans electricity and running water and walked barefoot to school. They talk about that life as if it were an idyllic Eden. But if I ask, "Would you go back?" the answer is an emphatic "No!."

So now their children and grandchildren must see if they can keep the best of what made and nourished this gracious, family-oriented and unselfish people, while gleaning the best of modernity and absorbing the likes of me.

*Most notably in The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Seeking the sweet spot -- Part 2

First, let me say I understand that I am part of the force that drives this lovely island into its uncertain future, and I have no desire to see it preserved in amber for my sake. The island will inevitably evolve. The question is: What will it become?

There are ominous signs. Things like restricted access by Exumians to their own beaches as foreigners (like me) buy up waterfront property the locals can't afford. I watch rich Americans grubbing up mature palm trees from along public roads and common land to move to their gated communities. Traditional Bahamian music celebrates sun, sand, sea and (joyous) sex, but what we now hear booming from automobile sound systems is American rap, and the kids in the schools (where my wife and I have long volunteered our help) are becoming ruder and cruder. And so on.

There are positive signs too. There is growing local interest in environmentalism and the arts. Plans are afoot for a museum of local culture. There is talk of using government land to make a golf course-sports complex for Exumians. More local educational programs are available. Young islanders who used to have to migrate to Nassau or Florida for work can now find jobs at home. Etc.

Am I pessimistic? On some days, yes. But I'm a firm believer that the greater mass of humanity is better off today than at any time in the past. All complex organic systems evolve toward a "sweet spot" of adaptability. If human cultural evolution is to mimic organic evolution, we must seek to maximize feedback, distributed processing, and democratic choice, all things aided, by the way, by the internet, itself an evolving system remarkably free of corporate of government control.

This island -- like global culture -- can have modernity and stay sweet. But it will mean adopting a new metaphor for progress, not the corporation, not the machine, but organic evolution. The gated-community, million-dollar homes going up on the island, with their Milky Way-obliterating outdoor lighting and energy-gulping air conditioning (in a place delightfully air conditioned by nature) are artifacts of paradigms that have outlived their usefulness.

Still more tomorrow.

These thoughts are partly inspired by a book I am currently reviewing for Orion, Robert Frenay's Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired By Living Things. I will have things to say explicitly about the book after the review (and the book) appears.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Seeking the sweet spot

Which of the following strings of letters do you find most interesting?

1) Aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa.

2) One fish two fish red fish blue fish. Black fish blue fish old fish new fish.

3) How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon the bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears.

4) Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

5) Vfg w eklpsi muc dvpk dbjhq a v sm i yu ncq bfox w wgbm ifiai lvdymssa lsa s s aiuro y astwaeqyw rtwvme gv k ljr jxbkdq.

The human mind is most at home somewhere between perfect order and perfect chaos. Young children will prefer No. 2, a passage from Dr. Seuss with lots of rhythm and simple pattern. A few adults profess to enjoy No. 4, from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, full of complex, deeply buried patterns. My guess is that most of you picked No. 3, a snippet of Shakespeare.

Organic evolution seeks out that sweet spot between perefct order and perfect chaos. The human organism has evolved a brain -- mirrored by our language -- most at home in the sweet spot.

Each of us as individuals can try to create for ourselves a life in the sweet spot. Can we do it as a global civilization? Can this little island do it? More tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bye-bye sweet spot

Theorists of complex systems -- the weather, the internet, the global economy, biological evolution -- tell us that everything interesting happens at the zone between order and chaos, what has been called the "sweet spot of greatest adaptability."

We came to this little Bahamian island a dozen years ago looking for that sweet spot -- just enough order in the form of modern infrastructure to make life reasonably comfortable, but still enough chaos to keep us on our creative toes and provide an element of surprise.

But like the other places we have chosen to live our lives, things change. Seven homes for American millionaires are going up next door, in our otherwise modest and mixed-race neighborhood. It sometimes seems like chaos during construction, but it is really order that is imposing itself on the island -- gated communities, air-conditioning, a US-style supermarket (although, of course, on a much smaller scale), telecommunications that reliably work, a car-parts supplier that may have just the part you need, outdoor lighting that obliterates the stars, natural dunes by the sea bulldozed to make place for temperature-controlled swimming pools, restaurants that cater to people exactly like you.

And so this sweet spot of adaptability will be lost, and with it the expectation of creative novelty. (More tomorrow.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Whence the gods?

We are eagerly awaiting Daniel Dennett's book on the natural origins of religion. In the meantime, we have Richard Dawkins' take on the question. According to Dawkins, the human trait that natural selection provided was a tendency to believe whatever parents and tribal elders tell us. Uncritical credulity helped children survive and reproduce. "If you swim in the river, you'll be eaten by crocodiles." Religious beliefs have no particular Darwinian advantage, suggests Dawkins, but credulity keeps them alive and well. Certainly, no factor correlates more closely to our personal religious beliefs than the religion into which we are born.

But where do religious beliefs come from in the first place?

Start with the innate human characteristics of curiosity and awe. It is human to ask "why?" It is human to gape with wonder at the inexplicable mystery of the creation. If there is a ground for a religious response to the world, it is here -- in the awareness of and response to a transhuman mystery. (Notice, I did not say transnatural.) This is the religious instinct that Einstein, among many others, spoke of often.

But whence the gods, or God? Whence immortality, miracles and all the rest? As Piaget has shown, the default explanations of children are animistic (everything is alive) and artificialist (everything is made or caused by a humanlike agency). It is not hard to understand how these universal patterns of thought evolved by cultural evolution into the vast array of animistic and artificialist religious beliefs that we find in the world today.

The irony is, this overlay of childlike credulity in culturally manufactured dogmas very often submerges and debases the pure experience of awe that is at the heart of every thinking person's religious response to the world.

(The question of whether curiosity or awe were selected for by evolution is an open question. They may be accidental by-products of a bigger brain. Here's another book I am waiting for: Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods by archeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce.)

Monday, January 23, 2006

If the deer don't nibble

A last cheap shot at astrology. A poem by the 6th century A.D. Greek poet Agathias tells of a farmer, Kalligenes, who consults an "astrologer" about his crops:

The astrologer cast his stones across the board,
Studied them, wiggled his fingers and said:
"If, Kalligenes, there is rain enough
On enough of your land, and if the weeds
Don't take over, nor frost wreck the lot,
If a hailstorm doesn't knock it all flat,
If the deer don't nibble, if no calamity
Up from the earth or down from the sky
Occurs, the signs show a good harvest.
Unless there's a plague of grasshoppers."


I once had my birth chart done by a professional astrologer. She labored long over ephemerides and graphs, then told me I was sensitive, intelligent, basically generous but sometimes a bit self-indulgent, inclined towards optimism, but subject to occasional bouts of feeling low. Wow! Right on!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Down in dim woods the diamond delves!

Forget all that astrology stuff I was writing about yesterday. True star fans will be watching Venus return to the predawn sky, joining Jupiter and the waning crescent moon. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Yearning to be free?

The writer Dostoevsky worried that science would soon learn the laws of nature with such precision that it would be possible to predict in advance the course of a human life: "All human acts will be listed on something like logarithm tables, say up to 108,000, and transferred to a timetable...They will carry detailed calculations and exact forecasts of everything to come." A person will no longer be responsible for his acts, said Dostoevsky. Life will be "easy."

Well, not to worry. Nothing that science has discovered yet undermines the notion of free will. Even if the laws of nature were at every level deterministic, the complexity of a human life is such that no conceivable calculator could predict the future. If it walks like free will, and quacks like free will, it's free will.

And what brings these thoughts to mind? When we arrive at our house here on Exuma each winter, there are always lots of popular magazines left by family members who visited in our absence. And every one has a horoscope.

Now I know that no one takes these things terribly seriously, but isn't it curious that many of the same people who fret about the determinism of science, are happy to turn their lives over to the stars. If there's anything like Dostoevsky's life-negating logarithm table, it's the astrological chart.

Friday, January 20, 2006

In our stillness

Yesterday I shared the preface of Walking Zero. Here is the epigraph that stands at the front of the book, a few lines from my friend and ever-popular writer on all things human, Scott Russell Sanders:

"There are no privileged locations. If you stay put, your place may become a holy center, not because it gives you special access to the divine, but because in your stillness you hear what might be heard anywhere. All there is to see can be seen from anywhere in the universe, if you know how to look."

The track of the prime meridian across England from Peace Haven in the south to the mouth of the River Humber in the north is nearly 200 miles. If that distance is taken to represent the 13.7 billion year history of the universe, then all of recorded human history is less than a single step. The entire story I have told in Walking Zero, from the Alexandrian astronomers and geographers to the present-day, would fit into a single footprint. If those same 200 miles are 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 mote of dust from my shoe is large enough to contain not only our own solar system but many neighboring stars! In such a universe, how do we dare assume access to the divine? As Scott says, it's all in knowing how to look.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Walking zero

The bound galleys for my new book arrived yesterday. Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian. Looks good, especially the lovely illustrations supplied by my son Dan. The book will be out in April.

Here's the Preface:

In the fall of 2003 I set out to walk along the prime meridian -- the line of zero longitude -- across southeastern England. My choice of the Greenwich Meridian was not arbitrary; through various accidents of history, the Meridian is the touchstone by which the entire world measures place and time. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, founded by King Charles II in 1675, has defined a common standard for maps and clocks since 1884. The Meridian also passes close to a surprising number of other locations important in the history of science. Isaac Newton's chambers at Trinity College, Cambridge, are not far from the line, as is his place of birth in Lincolnshire. Charles Darwin's house at Downe, in Kent, is two-and-a-half miles from the Meridian. And more, much more. It would be hard to think of a walk of equivalent length anywhere in the world that would provide so rich a thread on which to hang a story of human curiosity.

Walking Zero is about the epic struggle to understand cosmic space and time. It is a story of constantly expanding horizons, of intellectual courage and physical adventure, of men and women who dared to believe that the universe was not centered upon themselves. It is a story of the breaking of the cosmic egg, of a planet becoming conscious of itself, and of the discovery of an abyss of space and time that might in fact be infinite.

Science is often imagined as a soulless activity administered by men and women in white coats bent on removing spirit and meaning from the world. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Many courageous individuals have bucked reigning orthodoxies to let their imaginations soar where no one had gone before. Pioneers such as Nicholas Copernicus and Charles Darwin were reluctant revolutionaries who understood that their ideas would be resisted by those who preferred familiar truths. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600, paid the ultimate price for (among other things) surmising the multitude of worlds that we now take for granted. Galileo Galilee, as a blind old man, was forced to kneel before assembled churchmen and deny what he knew to be true, the mobility of the Earth.

Our ancestors, perhaps naturally, believed themselves to live at the center of space, coevally with time. "All the world's a stage," wrote Shakespeare, and he meant it literally: a stage for the drama of human affairs. Creation myths from around the world assume that the cosmos was created for us, that it is centered upon us, and that time has no meaning other than as a frame for human history. Our discovery of cosmic space and time -- a universe of galaxies and geological eons that makes no reference to human history -- must be counted a glory of our species, a triumph of human pluck and cunning. After all, who among us would not like to live at the center of the world? Surely, nothing can be more flattering to our sense of importance than to think that we are the measure of all things. To forego the cozy human-centered cosmic egg of our ancestors requires courage, and a willingness to make our own meaning in a universe that is vast beyond our imagining. In making the journey into cosmic space and time we surrender certainty for curiosity, simplicity for complexity, comfort for adventure. We are perhaps a bit frightened by the light-years and the eons, but we are proud of all that the human mind has come to know and privileged to share, even as spectators, in that epic quest.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

1421 and all that

Here we go again. It's the Vinland Map all over again.

By now you have probably heard about the newly discovered Chinese map of the world, purportedly copied in 1763 from a map drawn in 1418. The original supposedly is based on the worldwide explorations of the great Chinese navigator Zheng He.

Already the internet is abuzz with those who think the map is authentic and those who think it's a fraud.

Put me down in the latter camp.

Why? I would love for the map to be authentic, just as I was thrilled in 1965 when Yale University published the supposedly authentic Vinland Map of the 15th century, showing conclusively the Viking discovery of North America.

We now know (from archeological evidence) that the Vikings did in fact reach Newfoundland, but the provenance of the Vinland Map is still debated. Only the Shroud of Turin evokes more heated controversy on the web.

We'll leave the Vinland Map to the experts; it is plausibly authentic. But I'd bet my last dollar that the Shroud is a medieval fraud. And I'd bet a pretty dollar that the Chinese map is a forgery too.

It just falls too neatly into the theories proposed a few years ago by Gavin Menzies in his best-selling book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. I read the book, and thought it one of the best examples of the selective use of evidence I'd come across since Erich Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods. Every unexplained phenomenon Menzies could find anywhere in the world -- including the Newport Tower in Rhode Island and the so-called Bimini Roads here in the Bahamas -- he attributed to Zheng He, even though those phenomena have perfectly reasonable alternate explanations that Menzies conveniently ignored. Menzies wouldn't recognize Occam's razor if it was held to his throat.

The new map just has too many striking evocations of post-Columbian exploration to have the ring of truth. (The Ring of Truth. by the way, was Philip Morrison's title for his wonderful TV series on science.)

It is terrific that we in the West are finally learning about the remarkable voyages of Zheng He. He did apparently sail through southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. It is unfortunate that we must burden the great man with a overlay of fantasy.

As in most matters of this sort, my default position is skepticism. But, hey, I'm willing to be convinced.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A one-minute course in the philosophy of science

There was a time in my life, many years ago, when I immersed myself in the philosophy of science. I wanted to understand what science was and on what basis it could lay claim to truth. I read everyone from Plato to Popper. I sat in on classes with Paul Feyerabend at the London School of Economics and wondered what the hell the great man was saying. I gobbled up Thomas Kuhn and Jacques Monad like candy. And when it was all over, I didn't know much more about science than when I started.

The history of science is infinitely interesting, but the philosophy of science is pretty much a bust. Scientists are generally oblivious of the philosophical assumptions underpinning their work, which can be written down on a half-sheet of notepaper:

-- There is an external world independent of our perceptions.

-- There are patterns in that world that can be expressed mathematically.

-- The external world can be known with an ever greater degree of verisimilitude.

-- The proof is in the pudding.

Beyond that, ho hum.

Scientific method? Here's what the biologist Lewis Wolpert suggests: Try many things; do what makes your heart leap; challenge expectation; cherchez le paradox; be sloppy so that something unexpected happens, but not so sloppy that you can't tell what happened; never try to solve a problem until you can guess the answer; seek simplicity; seek beauty.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Science or theology?

"If the number controlling the growth of the universe since the Big Bang is just slightly too high, the universe expands so rapidly that protons and neutrons never come close enough to bond into atoms. If it is just ever-so-slightly too small, it never expands enough, and everything remains too hot for even a single nucleus to form. Similar problems afflict the observed masses of elementary particles and the strengths of fundamental forces." (Nature, Jan. 5, 2006)

For several decades now, cosmologists have been puzzled by how finally tuned the universe is. As Leonard Susskind, a string theorist based at Stanford University in California, says: "It's like you're throwing darts, and the bullseye is just one part in 10120 of the dart board."

So finely tuned is our universe for life, that many cosmologists have imagined a kind of Intelligent Design, a world made just for us, although instead of calling it God, they call it the strong anthropic principle.

Now, however, string theorists are coming around to the idea that our universe is just one of 10500 universes -- a number vastly larger than the number of particles in our universe -- with every conceivable combination of values for the fundamental constants. Our universe appears particularly suited to us because this is the one (or one of the many) that made us possible. There are other universes exactly like this one (including a person exactly like me), some that are slightly different, and many, many more in which human life would be impossible. This has melancholy implications: As I said once in a Globe column, for every parallel universe where I'm trapped in an elevator with Cameron Diaz, there's another parallel universe where I'm trapped in an elevator with Dick Cheney.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A close shave with Occam's razor

We all believe weird things. Some things are just weirder than others. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

p-books

A month or so ago, Science had an article called "The Real Death of Print." The digitization of hundreds of thousands of books old and new, and the advent of new display technologies such as flexible screens (e-paper) will soon put print out of business, says Science.

Well, maybe. This isn't the first time the demise of paper books has been ballyhooed.

To be sure, there are marvelous advantages to having books available on the internet, most important of which is searchability. Yesterday, I was asked by a magazine to check some possible discrepancies in quotes for an article I had written. I'm far away from the library where I found the original sources, but I was able to google both of the quotes in a flash. Voila!

And, well, yes, I'm getting used to downloading music. Over the years I've tossed out 78s, 45s, LPs, and cassette tapes. My CDs will presumably go next. Flash memory music sales are overdue, but may never come. CDs may be the last in-store format.

But books?

Readers will know I recently finished reading Sigrid's Undset's 1200-page novel, Kristin Lavransdatter. Why lug around all that wood pulp if I could read the book page by page on a single piece of e-paper? I'll tell you why. Because I love the feel of wood pulp. I love the heft, the crinkle of the page. I love underlining, and writing notes in the margin. I love seeing just how far I have come, and how far I have to go. I love those notes at the back of the book: This book was set in Janson, a typeface long thought to have been made by the Dutchman Anton Janson but has been conclusively demonstrated to be the work of the Hungarian Nicholas Kis (1650-1702). I love waking up from an inadvertent nap with a pound or two of history resting on my chest.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Zoo

These recent mornings Jupiter has been snuggling up to Zubenelgenubi in the predawn sky. Yeah, that's right. That little star right next to Jupiter is called Zubenelgenubi. It's one of a pair. The star about a fist's width (at arm's length) to the east of Jupiter is Zubeneschamali. No trouble finding Jupiter, by the way. It's blazing away there in the southeast before the sun comes up.

When sixty-something years ago my father taught me star names, I thought he was making up Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali. Sounded like something out of a fairy tale. Rumplestiltskin. Abracadabra. But no, the names are real. They mean "Southern Claw" and "Northern Claw." They once were imagined to be the claws of the Scorpion. But then the Romans came along and chopped off the claws to make a new constellation, Libra, the Scales, the only non-zooey constellation in the zo(o)diac.

There are 8 1/2 non-human animals and 4 1/2 humans in the zodiac. Can you name them?

And by the way: The sun and planets spend more time in the constellation Ophiuchus than in the de-clawed Scorpio. The Romans should have left the Stinger alone and added the Snakehandler.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

On saying "I don't know" -- Part 2

That old curmudgeon H. L. Mencken had it right: "Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops."

Consider the theory of quantum electrodynamics, an amalgam of quantum mechanics and special relativity. Half a century ago Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger and Sin-itiro Tomonaga used the theory to predict the magnetic moment of the electron, a measure of the magnetic field associated with this tiny bit of spinning charge. At about the same time, and independently, Willis Lamb measured the magnetic moment of the electron. And, wonder of wonders, the predicted and measured values agreed to an accuracy, of, oh say, one part in a hundred billion. Talk about penetrating secrets!

At which point one might reasonably suppose that there is no secret the human mind can't penetrate. Stephen Hawking looks forward to knowing (metaphorically, of course) the "mind of God," and Steven Weinberg dreams of a "final theory." And indeed physicists might be forgiven a bit of hubris.

We may know the magnetic moment of the electron, but the mystery of knowability sits there licking its chops.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

On saying "I don't know"

Johannes Kepler is best known for figuring out the laws of planetary motion. In 1610, he published a little book called The Six-Cornered Snowflake that asked an even more fundamental question: How do visible forms arise?"

He wrote: "There must be some definite reason why, whenever snow begins to fall, its initial formation is invariably in the shape of a six-pointed starlet. For if it happens by chance, why do they not fall just as well with five corners or with seven?"

All around him Kepler saw beautiful shapes in nature: six-pointed snowflakes, the elliptical orbits of the planets, the hexagonal honeycombs of bees, the twelve-sided shape of pomegranate seeds. Why? he asks.

Why does the stuff of the universe arrange itself into five-petaled flowers, spiral galaxies, double-helix DNA, rhomboid crystals, the rainbow's arc? Why the five-fingered, five-toed, bilaterally symmetric beauty of the newborn child? Why?

Kepler struggles with the problem, and along the way he stumbles onto sphere-packing. Why do pomegranate seeds have twelve flat sides? Because in the growing pomegranate fruit the seeds are squeezed into the smallest possible space. Start with spherical seeds, pack them as efficiently as possible with each sphere touching twelve neighbors. Then squeeze. Voila!

And so he goes, convincing us, for example, that the bee's honeycomb has six sides because that's the way to make honey cells with the least amount of wax. His book is a tour-de-force of playful mathematics.

In the end, Kepler admits defeat in understanding the snowflake's six points, but he thinks he knows what's behind all of the beautiful forms of nature: A universal spirit pervading and shaping everything that exists. He calls it nature's "formative capacity."

We would be inclined to say that Kepler was just giving a fancy name to something he couldn't explain. To the modern mind, "formative capacity" sounds like empty words.

We can do somewhat better. For example, we explain the shape of snowflakes by the shape of water molecules, and we explain the shape of water molecules with the mathematical laws of quantum physics.

Since Kepler's time, we have made impressive progress towards understanding the visible forms of snowflakes, crystals, rainbows, and newborn babes by probing ever deeper into the heart of matter.

But we are probably no closer than Kepler to answering the ultimate questions: What is the reason for the curious connection between nature and mathematics? Why are the mathematical laws of nature one thing rather than another? Why does the universe exist at all?

Like Kepler, we can give it a name, but the most forthright answer is simply: I don't know.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Of gods and germs -- Part 3

The repeated visitations of the Black Death to Europe during the late Middle Ages were certainly traumatic. As many as one-third of the population died in a single visitation, agonizingly. The disease seemed to come from nowhere and depart as mysteriously. No wonder people looked for a transcendental cause.

But, of course, God or the Devil had nothing to do with it. The culprit was a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. The disease is carried from rats to humans by fleas, that feed first on the infected blood of rats and then bite humans.

When a cell of the human immune system encounters an invading pathogen -- a virus or bacterium -- it sends out a chemical call for help to other immune cells. The summoned cells, together with the summoner, gang up on the pathogen and take it apart.

Yersinia pestis has evolved a brilliant strategy for thwarting this defensive response. The bacteria hovers just outside an immune cell and shoots into the cell a protein called YopJ. This magic bullet instantly dismantles the immune cell's ability to send out the call for help. Effectively silenced and on its own, the immune cell is now easy work for Yersinia pestis's other destructive proteins.

Remember the film Where Eagles Dare? Richard Burton and a small band of Allied agents infiltrate a Nazi castle stronghold in Bavaria during World War II. Zap, zap, with a silenced revolver, the invaders kill off Nazi sentries one by one before they can raise the alarm. By the time the Germans finally manage to get their defensive act together, the castle has been pretty much blasted apart and the Allies have accomplished their mission. It is the old Yersinia pestis story all over again.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Of gods and germs -- Part 2

For many of us of a certain age, the words "Black Death" evoke images from Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal.

Like Kristin Lavransdatter, the story is set in 14th-century Scandinavia. The Black Death is ravaging the land. The cause of the plague, according to the priests, is a wrathful God. People go about inflicting terrible punishments upon themselves to appease God's anger. A young woman suspected of abetting the plague by her commerce with the Devil is burnt alive.

Antonius Block, a knight, has returned from the Holy Lands with his squire. He meets black-robed Death, and is told that his time is up. The knight proposes a chess game as a delaying tactic, and Death accepts. The story unfolds as the fateful game is played.

The knight is a doubter. He cannot understand why a just God would inflict such a terrible punishment upon his creation.

Death asks the knight, "Don't you ever stop asking questions?" To which Antonius Block replies, "No, I'll never stop." For which we should all be grateful. Within the next few centuries, Block's skepticism and questioning spirit led to the Scientific Revolution -- and ultimately to the elimination of the plague bacillus as a scourge of humankind.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Of gods and germs

When the Black Death visited Norway in the 14th century, it may have wiped out half the population of that country. This staggering tribulation was, of course, considered an act of God. We now know it was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which was doing what all living things must do -- trying to make a living. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

A bit more local natural history

When I rose before dawn this morning to make my coffee the ants were back in force, a long streaming army of them schlepping crumbs up along the window screen to the place where they foolishly think they can take the crumbs outside. A crack big enough to admit an ant is not necessarily big enough to allow reverse passage for a bread crumb.

Ants go with the territory here in the tropics. I always find myself lingering between the murderous swipe of the sponge and leaving them be. I made the mistake once of reading Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson monumental study, The Ants -- everything you want to know, and more, about these creatures. Ever since, I've been more inclined to reach for my magnifier rather than the Raid.

So here I am, watching ants schlepping crumbs, and trying to discern what goes on in their tiny formicarian minds. What is manifestly clear is that they have a hard time focusing. They come and go on their project, taking up their places at a crumb's perimeter for a few seconds, then scurrying off to somewhere else. Still, the crumb ascends. It's a sort of collective intelligence I'm watching. I wonder if the 100 billion neurons in the human brain work the same way.

Ogden Nash thought he understood the ant's unfocused busyness: "Would you be calm and placid," he asks, "if you were full of formic acid?"

Formic acid occurs naturally in the bodies of ants and takes its name from the Latin for "ant" (formica). From the Latin root we also have the scientific name of the ant family, Formicidae, and a bunch of other ant words, such as formicary (a nest of ants), formicate (to swarm with ants), and formication (an abnormal sensation of ants crawling over the skin). The very thought of finding oneself on a formicating formicary is enough to make the skin crawl.

Holldobler and Wilson tell us that ants can specialize when the need arises, but I don't see that among the frenzied throng along our window screen. What I see is an uncalm, unplacid, six-steps-forward-five-steps-backward kind of life. It's a helluva way to make a living. Which probably explains why those of us with less formic acid and bigger brains prefer to be out fiddling with the grasshopper.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Traits

On the shallow bottoms of our sheltered beaches here one can often pick up a stone that is covered with a colony of Acetabularia, sometimes called "the mermaid's wine glass." These delightful alga organisms are a few centimeters tall, and attach themselves with a stalk and rootlike fibers to the rocky substrate. What is remarkable about them is that each "wineglass" is a single cell.

Yes. We are used to thinking of cells as microscopic, but here are cells one can hold between the fingers.

Acetabularia played an important role in the history of genetics. In the 1930s, the Danish biologist Joachim Hammerling used acetabularia to prove that genetic information is stored in the nuclei of eukaryotic cells. The experiments were simple and elegant, science at its best. You can read about them here.

From such simple beginnings did our present awesome power over the genes derive. In the face of such power, we should exercise cautious restraint. We have been wonderfully successful at unraveling the biological secrets of life, but that knowledge does not convey moral wisdom. Erwin Chargaff, a contemporary of Hammerling's and another genetic pioneer, lived long enough to see the birth of genetic engineering. In his memoir, he cautioned against overreaching: "A balance that does not tremble cannot weigh. A man who does not tremble cannot live."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Holding time

At the end of his book A History of the Mind, Nicholas Humphrey writes: "For it is consciousness, with its power to make the vanishing instant of physical time live on as the felt moment of sensation, that makes it LIKE SOMETHING TO BE OURSELVES -- and so sweetens and enriches the being of the external world FOR US." (his emphasis)

Surely, this is the miracle of consciousness: that it takes a vanishing instant and holds it in mind. And a succession of vanishing instants that it holds in the mind as an event. And indeed an entire lifetime of vanishing instants that consciousness holds in the mind as a self.

There is a collective aspect of consciousness too. Storytelling allows moments of held sensation to be transferred from one person to another, and from one generation to another. The invention of writing made possible the dissemination of stored instants of sensation far beyond the limits of spoken language. And now, with the googly universe of the internet we have achieved something very like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere, a shared consciousness of humankind that exists independently of any one mind, but which potentially exists as an extension of every mind. This blog unites visitors from as far away as Australia, Fiji and Japan. A myriad of vanished instants of individual sensation -- fished from the unstoppable river of time and held firm, made available to all to sweeten and enrich the experience of being human.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The shape of night

Two A. M. I wake, and stumble to the kitchen. A cold drink of water, my nightly ritual. Then, step onto the terrace.

Praise horizons. Most of the year I live in a 19th-century house in a compact New England village. From my stoop the view is straight up only, through a screen of amber light. Here, 360. Stars burn on the sea like the mast lamps of distant ships. On those evenings when the just-past full moon rises, the eastern horizon glows with a lunar dawn.

I lay flat out on a lounge chair and look straight up. Saturn burns brightgly at the zenith, holding court in Cancer with the Beehive Cluster. I try to imagine the shape of night, that long conical witch's hat of darkness pointing outward, away from the Sun, into the universe of galaxies. The witch's hat fits snugly on the Earth's brow, out there over the horizon in West Africa where they are watching sunrise.

I think of these wonderful lines the Earth speaks in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound:
I spin beneath my pyramid of night
  Which points into the heavens, dreaming delight,
Murmuring victorious joy in my enchanted sleep;
  As a youth lulled in love-dreams faintly sighing,
  Under the shadow of his beauty lying,
Which round his rest a watch of light and warmth doth keep.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Translations

THE TIRED SCRIBE

My hand has a pain from writing,
Not steady the sharp tool of my craft
Its slender beak spews bright ink--
A beetle-dark shining draught.

Streams of wisdom of white God
From my fair-brown, fine hand sally,
On the page they splash their flood
In ink of the green-skinned holly.

My little dribbly pen stretches
Across the great white paper plain,
Insatiable for splendid riches--
That is why my hand has pain.

St. Colmcille, 6th century, translated by Brian O'Nolan


THE TIRED BLOGGER

My fingers out of joint
Skating the touchpad of my craft
Helvetica, twelve point--
A dot-pixeled shining draft.

Musings of an absconded God
From my Apple metallic-silver keys
On the screen they splash their flood
In a silicon flicker of LCDs.

My PowerBook purrs, fetches,
The words stumble, electronic ink,
No likelihood of splendid riches--
I pour myself another drink.

Chet Raymo

Monday, January 02, 2006

An underweening proposal

We were discussing at dinner the other evening the question raised in Comments: Why are scientists much less likely than the general population to believe in a personal God?

My daughter's husband posited, only half in jest, "Overweening hubris?"

We laughed. Well, yes, there could be some of that.

My daughter then wondered, "What does 'ween' mean?"

And although we had heard and used the expression all of our lives, we didn't know.

So to the dictionary. Ween: v. tr. archaic, be of the opinion, to suppose.

Overweening then means to be arrogantly of the opinion, over confident in one's suppositions. Overweening hubris is redundant, but a grand phrase nevertheless.

Is it possible to be underweening? Wishy-washy in one's opinions.

Ween may be a good word to bring back into the language, to represent the intellectual posture that goes with good science: confidence that our theories represent reality ever more closely, but knowing that every supposition is tentative and subject to change. "I ween that the big bang happened." "I ween that life arose on Earth from inanimate matter." Not overweening. Not underweening. Cautious confidence that what we ween is true.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

On a cusp of history

To all who visit Science Musings, Tom and I wish a healthy and productive 2006.

And in the spirit of the season, I offer this week's Musing.