Saturday, April 29, 2006

In Memoriam

Chet will be offline for a few days. I'm sorry to report that his mother (my grandmother), Margaret, passed away yesterday at the age of 92.

Chet got his scientific mind from his engineer father. But it was from his mother that he received his love of language and writing. She was a sharp lady, and like the rest of us, a big fan of Science Musings.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The journey

Here's a deep-deep sky map of the universe from the March 9 issue of Nature. The horizontal scale is a 360 view right around the sky; the vertical gaps at 6 hours and 24 hours are the parts of the universe that are blocked to our view by the disk of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The vertical scale -- distance from Earth -- is logarithmic (10, 100, 1000, etc.) measured in megaparsecs (a parsec equals 3.26 light-years). Across the top is the Big Bang, and the oldest and most distant thing we can see, the cosmic microwave background, the radiation of the Big Bang itself. A few relatively nearby galaxies are designated at the bottom. All that stuff in the middle that looks like smoke or dusty cobwebs are quasars and galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

A smoke of galaxies! A universe cobwebbed with Milky Ways! Each galaxy itself a smoke of stars, hundreds of billions of stars, many or all of them with planets. My new book, Walking Zero, is about the human journey from the omphalos of our birth into the world of the galaxies, a journey many of us are disinclined to make. Here is how the Prologue to the book begins:
Each of us is born at the center of the world.

For nine months our physical selves are assembled molecule by molecule, cell by cell, in the dark covert of our mother's womb. A single fertilized egg cell splits into two. Then four. Eight. Sixteen. Thirty-two. Ultimately, 50 trillion cells or so. At first, our future self is a mere blob of protoplasm. But slowly, ever so slowly, the blob begins to differentiate under the direction of genes. A symmetry axis develops. A head, a tail, a spine. At this point, the embryo might be that of a human, or a chicken, or a marmoset. Limbs form. Digits, with tiny translucent nails. Eyes, with papery lids. Ears pressed like flowers against the head. Clearly now a human. A nose, nostrils. Downy hair. Genitals.

As the physical self develops, so too a mental self takes shape, not yet conscious, not yet self-aware, knitted together as webs of neurons in the brain, encapsulating in some respects the evolutionary experience of our species. Instincts impressed by the genes. The instinct to suck, for example. Already, in the womb, the fetus presses its tiny fist against its mouth in anticipation of the moment when the mouth will be offered the mother's breast. The child will not have to be taught to suck. Other inborn behaviors will express themselves later. Laughing. Crying. Striking out in anger. Loving.

What, if anything, goes on in the mind of the developing fetus we may never know. But this much seems certain: To the extent that the emerging self has any awareness of its surroundings, its world is coterminous with itself. We are not born with knowledge of the antipodes, the plains of Mars, or the far-flung realm of the galaxies. We are not born with knowledge of Precambrian seas, the supercontinent of Pangea, or the Age of Dinosaurs. We are born into a world scarcely older than ourselves and scarcely larger than ourselves. And we are at its center.

A human life is a journey into the grandeur of a universe that may contain more galaxies than there are cells in the human body, a universe in which the whole of a human lifetime is but a single tick of the cosmic clock. The journey can be disorienting; our first instincts are towards coziness, comfort, our mother's enclosing arms, her breast. The journey, therefore, requires courage -- for each individual, and for our species.

Uniquely of all animals, humans have the capacity to let our minds expand into the space and time of the galaxies. No other creatures can number the cells in their bodies, as we can, or count the stars. No other creatures can imagine the explosive birth of the observable universe 14 billion years ago from an infinitely hot, infinitely small seed of energy. That we choose to make this journey -- from the all-sustaining womb into the vertiginous spaces and abyss of time -- is the glory of our species, and perhaps our most frightening challenge.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Walking Zero

Have received my first copy of Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian (see Books).

In a sense, this is the third book in a series. The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe was a distillation of what I have learned walking the same one-mile path to school for 40 years. The path is through a landscape designed by the great American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, although now more or less reverted to wildness. His spirit and environmental philosophy presides. In the second book, Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain, I use a mountain I have climbed maybe a hundred times to delve into the mysteries of science and religion.

Walking Zero also had its origin in a walk I did dozens of times -- in the imagination.

For many years I taught an earth science course for general studies students called The Earth (a companion to The Universe). One exercise I did with the class was to tape a huge geologic map of Britain on the wall, then lead the students on an imaginary walk across southeastern Britain along the prime meridian, the line of zero longitude. As we "walked," I drew a cross-section of our ups and downs on the blackboard, and with colored chalk we took note (from the map) of the kinds of rocks under our feet. When the walk was done -- English Channel to the Wash -- it was clear there were patterns in the rocks we had walked across, and it was up to the class to explain the patterns with the geological principles we had learned -- deposition, folding, erosion, etc. By the end of the period the blackboard was awash in colored chalk and the class had doped out on its own the geologic history of southeastern England.


As the years passed, the itch grew to actually make the walk. As I explored the possibility, I realized how many sites related to the history of science lay near the meridian. And so at last, a few years ago, I equipped myself with the relevant Ordnance Survey maps and did on the ground what I had so often done in the imagination. Walking Zero is the result. It is grounded in my walk, but ranges more widely to tell the story of how we made the journey from the self-centered universe of our birth into cosmic space and time.

Tom has kindly added a new Gallery of photographs from the walk.

(Phoebe report: Six days, six eggs. Now we wait.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The sea grows old in it

A few weeks ago we were treated to news of a 375 million-year-old "missing link" fossil find from the Canadian arctic, a glimpse of that moment when fins became limbs and vertebrates made the transition from sea to land.

What would have prompted a fish to forsake its familiar medium for life on shore? Perhaps a taste for terrestrial insects. Go here to see short flicks of an African catfish that has mastered the art of shore feeding. Key to this fish's success is a neck than allows the head to bend down.

It's a dog-eat-dog, catfish-eat-insect world out there, and has been since the beginning. Intelligent design? Every innovation in evolution was driven by the need to eat, the hard, defiant battering of creature against creature.

I shared with you a few days ago Marianne Moore's poem on the ostrich. Here is another, The Fish. A cryptic poem, much admired but little understood. The tone is clearly one of resignation. The subject is ostensibly a seaside chasm, filled with creatures and the thrusting sea. We might, however, apply her imagery to any product of evolution, including, most particularly, ourselves: All/ external/ marks of abuse are present on this/ defiant edifice--/all the physical features of/ ac-/ cident--/...Repeated/ evidence has proved that it can live/ on what can not revive/ its youth.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Flying high

Anyone who has flown a commercial airplane in the United States is familiar with the SkyMall catalogue found in every seat-back pocket. In his Small Change column in the March/April issue of Orion magazine, Bill McKibben writes: "To browse its pages is to understand the essential secret of American consumer life: we've officially run out not only of things that we need, but even of things that we might plausibly desire." And he goes on to make wonderful fun of such infinitely desirable devices as a digital barbecue fork or the Vintage Express Aging Accelerator that ages your bottle of wine ten years in ten seconds by surrounding it with "extremely powerful Neodymium magnets to replicate the Earth's magnetic field." And don't forget the "exclusive heavy duty vinyl snow castle." A real snow castle would, SkyMall notes, "take hours to build and requires lots of snow," but this inflatable version "encourages children to use their imaginations while having fun."

McKibben is our prophet of excess; you will know his work from such provocative books as The End of Nature and Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. I'm not as pessimistic as Bill about the state and fate of the world, but there is no doubt that he is one of our most valuable writers. Any civilization that can produce a SkyMall catalogue absolutely requires a McKibben to remind us just how far we have strayed from sense and sensibility.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Field notes

1. Vega rises in the northeast as the sky darkens, a teasing taste of summer. It is the second brightest star for northern hemisphere observers, after Sirius, mainly because it is relatively nearby, only 25 light-years from the Earth, a star in the prime of life, bigger and brighter than the Sun.

The 13 April issue of Nature has a new analysis of Vega's spectral characteristics that suggests the star is rapidly rotating -- nearly fast enough to tear itself apart. From Earth, we are looking at the star along its axis of rotation. It is a younger star than the Sun, about half-a-billion years old, surrounded -- like the bull's-eye of a target -- by a disk of dust and gas.

Three pages of data and graphs and mathematical analysis of a point of light in the night sky. I tuck it away. I file it in my brain in a folder marked "Vega: Summer Stars." And tonight (or the next night it's clear), when the star rises jewel-gorgeous in the northeast, winking at Jupiter in the south, I'll see it not only with the eye of vision, but also with the eye of the imagination -- a ballerina whirling out her skirts of protoplanetary dust.

2. No fifth egg this morning in the phoebe nest. Perhaps she's finished at four, although I'll check again on my walk home. Hard to believe that each of those tiny eggs -- no bigger than the tip of my little finger -- will become a chick.

The first-time phoebe mother mates, builds (or repairs) a nest, lays eggs and incubates them by instinct, presumably with no notion that baby birds are on the way. But when they hatch, she'll know what to do, again by instinct.

It is only through the cultural transmission of knowledge that a first-time human mother anticipates a child. Will the phoebe remember what's in store when she broods her second clutch of the season? Next year? Here's a subtitle from a story in the February 2 issue of Nature: "Despite its tiny size, the fruitfly brain is staggeringly intricate. So teasing apart how it remembers things -- even a simple line pattern -- is a daunting task."

Later, PM: Looks like I was the early bird. The phoebe did indeed produce a fifth egg, one a day, like cluckwork.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

One, two, three...

One of the great rewards of writing here has been the responses of readers. By the evidence of Comments, few blogs can have a more thoughtful and articulate audience. I learn from you and I thank you.

More on a theme of common interest in this week's Musing. And speaking of attention to small things, the phoebe in the old root cellar along the path produced her third egg yesterday morning. When the rain lets up, I will walk to the meadow and check for number four.

(Later)...four...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

"Nothing is too wonderful to be true."

My friend Alan Hirshfeld has just published a terrific book on Michael Faraday, the early-19-century experimentalist who as much as anyone can be called the Father or the Electrical Age. Born into poverty and trained as a bookbinder, Faraday had rough going to establish himself among the pompous well-born gentlemen of the Royal Society and Royal Institution. Nevertheless, from simple but elegant experiments he forged the notion of the electric and magnetic fields -- and transformed science. Hirshfeld tells the story brilliantly.

Where did the idea of the field come from. Out of Faraday's prodigiously fertile imagination, of course, as Hirshfeld makes clear. But for an exercise in the archeology of ideas, see my previous Musing, and especially the illustrations therein.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The desert and the well

An essay by Martin Kemp in the April 13 issue of Nature takes note of the symbolism of ostrich eggs in classical myth and medieval Christian art. The ostrich was called the camel-sparrow by the ancients. It was believed the bird could incubate its eggs by staring at them -- this at a time when vision was thought to involve emanations from the eye. Christian writers and artists used the ostrich egg to remind worshippers to keep their eyes fixed firmly on Christ.

All of which reminds me of a wonderful poem about the ostrich by a favorite poet of mine, Marianne Moore. 'He "Digesteth Harde Yron"' is a rich meditation on our relationship with animals, and by extenson with the natural world. The heart of the poem is the line "The power of the visible is the invisible." I've never been quite sure what Moore was getting at here, but I think her message is rather like that of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince: "What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well."

We celebrate on this site the reliable knowledge of science, living gorgeously in the sensual, but we know too that what makes the world beautiful is something that eludes the empiricist. This is not to admit the supernatural, only to affirm that the complexity of the world so far (and perhaps forever) eludes the limitations of our senses and mental powers. Even as we celebrate what human ingenuity has expressed through the artifice of natural law, we know too there is something that might be loosely called "brute courage" that resides unexpressed and possibly inexpressible in every star, every atom, and, of course, every "alert gargantuan little-winged, magnificently speedy running-bird." To admit the inexpressible into our lives is not superstition but humility.

(And, yes, my phoebe produced a second small white egg, on schedule, one a day. I can expect two or three more over the weekend. Then the sit.)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The future?

So, just what are the hopes for a stable-climate future, based on clean, renewable energy?

My sister Anne lives in a house in New Mexico completely serviced by the sun. With modest technological breakthroughs in photovoltaic roofing and cladding systems there is no reason why every building couldn't be energy self-sufficient in the relatively near future.

Motor vehicles can run on some combination of electricity and hydrogen.

All of which is good, but does not address the problem of a primary energy source necessary to produce the photovoltaic systems, batteries, hydrogen and electricity.

Wind power is unsightly.

The sun delivers to the Earth more than 10,000 times the global consumption of commercial energy. Our primary energy requiirements could be met by photovoltaics covering less than one percent of the land area presently under crops or pastures. Imagine sun farms raising electricity rather than food. For the moment, however, photovoltaics are less than half as efficient as their theoretical limit, and more suitable for secondary energy production.

Electricity or hydrogen from genetically-engineered bacteria? Worth investigation.

Nuclear fission? Practical and feasible, yes, but after Chernobyl an unattractive option, even without considering the problem of waste.

Fusion? This could be our "white knight," but will require a yet unimagined breakthrough, perhaps something of the nature of bubble cavitation. How about an international prize of 1 billion dollars for a practical solution to the fusion problem? That should get some creative juices flowing.

(Meanwhile,life goes on. My phoebe has produced a single egg.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Al Gore, where are you...?

When we wasted food as children, our parents said, "Think of the starving children in China." Well, just wait till we get a look at the new China during the Olympics of 2008.

China is on its way to becoming the world's greatest superpower, and America's sense of entitlement is in for a shock.

Look again at the graph of total greenhouse emissions in yesterday's post. We are currently gobbling up more of the planet's nonrenewable resources than China, although China has a population more than four times greater than ours. By what God-given right do we appropriate so much of the planet's resources for ourselves? When China assumes the right to the same per capita energy consumption as the US, the top two bars of the graph will switch places and China's greenhouse emissions will be outta sight.

Ten-dollar-a-gallon gas? You betcha. Global warming? Hold onto your hat. China's thirst for oil will be insatiable, and we will be competing for every drop. You would think that in the face of this challenge a program for energy independence and greenhouse reductions would be a top priority of our government, but the short-term greed of the oil companies -- abetted by their surrogates in Washington -- trumps national wisdom.

China may sink us, but maybe, just maybe, they will show us the way to a green future. The Chinese have a long-suppressed gift for scientific and technological innovation. If that raw intellectual power is supported from the top in a national program of energy independence, China could be the "white knight" that saves us all.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

High on the hog


Here's a graph from the March 24 issue of Science showing total greenhouse gas emissions of major countries. It's self-explanatory. You will note that the two largest emitters -- the US and China -- have not ratified the Kyoto accords. Russia and Germany, on the other hand, have reduced emissions.

In the face of such a graph, I feel more than a tinge of guilt. Regular readers of Science Musings will know that I own three homes, in three countries. You might also guess that I own three cars. Guilty as charged.

In my defense, let me say that for 42 years I have made my principal residence in a 1000-square-foot 19th-century house for which I paid $14,000. The Irish cottage (18x36 feet) cost $20,000, and for 10 years was not connected to the electric grid. The Bahamas house (paid for by the windfall of Frankie Starlight) cost $150,000, including site. Two of these homes require no heat, winter or summer, except for the occasional peat fire in Ireland. The New England house is heated in winter just enough to keep the pipes from freezing. None of the houses have air conditioning. Two are furnished almost entirely by my own hand, mostly with hand tools. Two have no clothes dryer. As for the three cars: All are small, old-model, high-mileage cars that together rack up less than 5,000 miles a year.

I'm guessing that puts my greenhouse footprint somewhere below the American average, and near the bottom of those within my income bracket. But it doesn't make me feel any less guilty. I suppose I could retreat to the New England homestead year round, but at the expense of more heating, air-conditioning, power appliances, and driving. What's a fellow to do?

Tax non-renewable energy heavily; I'll pay my share. Reward conservation. Ratify Kyoto. And instead of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on ill-conceived military entanglements, invest heavily in renewable energy.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Operating system

In one of his essays, Lewis Thomas expresses satisfaction that "my own mind is so much smarter than I am." And it's true, most of the nervous system's work goes on beyond our conscious control. Think of the skill required to walk, to talk, to sneeze, to heal a scrape, to grow a fingernail, to have an orgasm, to pucker for a kiss. Yeah, I know, it is my conscious self that wants to plant a peck on her cheek, but someone or something has to send all those signals that make a whole bunch of muscles do the right thing -- and it isn't me, at least not the me I am aware of. Can you imagine the myriad of chemical and electrical communications that are required for me to scratch my head. My conscious self doesn't have a clue how to do it. And a good thing too. If our minds had to consciously conduct the body's business we wouldn't have time to think, to do science, compose poems, whisper sweet nothings. Maybe that's what dreams are for: cleaning up the brain, dumping superfluous information, clearing out blocks of the hard drive so that system software has more space to work with. And now that I think of it, the analogy is pretty good. If conciousness can be likened to what appears on the screen of a computer, the operating system is the hidden adminstrator that is so much smarter than the visibly pixeled words, images and icons.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

An Easter greeting

My sister Anne, whose work you have met before, lives in the universal "yes" of art, whereas I inhabit the cautious "maybe" of science. But we share a propensity for celebration, and we feed on each other's interests and insights. Here is her Easter greeting.



In Gallery, you will find a new collection of her cybercreations.

A new scientific study has demonstrated (once again) that prayer has no beneficial effect on medical patients. (As Jay Leno said, there goes the Republican heath plan.) Of course, such studies have no relevance to believers and little relevance to skeptics. Does the concept of prayer have any meaning to agnostics. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

What is life -- Part 2

A typical bacterium reproduces every half hour. One makes two, two make four, four make eight, eight make sixteen, and so on. Start with a single bacterium, and 20 generations later -- 10 hours -- you have a million, enough, by my calculation, to cover the head of a pin.

Two days later -- 120 generations -- you will have enough bacteria to fill the oceans of the world chock-a-block with goo. A few hours later, the entire surface of the Earth will be wrapped in a layer of bacteria 10 miles thick!

Clearly, something must be wrong with my calculation; the globe is not wrapped in a thick layer of bacterial slime.

No definition of life is complete that does not include death. Death is the driving engine of evolution. As microbiologist Ursula Goodenough writes: "Death is the price paid to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love."

Friday, April 14, 2006

What is life?

No question in science is more fundamental. No question is more difficult to answer. It is easy to recognize life when we see it, but devilishly hard to say what it is.

The biologist Lynn Margulis and co-writer Dorion Sagan tackled the question in a book called "What Is Life?" They proffered several definitions:

"A material process, sifting and surfing over matter like a strange, slow wave."

"The watery, membrane-bound encapsulation of spacetime."

"A planetary exuberance."

"Existence's celebration."

All of which are lovely metaphors, but none of which get us any closer to the ineluctable heart of the mystery.

What is life? How does one define a flight of wild geese, a Mozart symphony, love?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Nidification

Tom told me last week that the female phoebe was back again preparing its nest under the eaves of his house. So I began looking for the phoebe that makes her nest each year in the old root cellar along the path. And sure enough, she was there, on schedule. I have put the penlight and mirror into my backpack so that I can follow the progress of eggs and chicks. As of today, no eggs. A clutch of phoebe eggs is always a dicey thing, under threat from the incursions of cowbirds and curious humans like me.

But what a clumsy naturalist I am, satisfied with a few quick gulps of observation, compared to Darwin, who -- as described in Lyanda Lynn Haupt's new book, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent -- might wait for four hours on his knees in Brazilian mud for a glimpse of a sedge wren. Humility, she reminds us, derives from the same Indo-European root as humus -- dirt, ground, earth. As does human. On the South American continent Darwin was like a child suddenly released from an aseptic playpen and let roam. As his clothes collected mud and grime, he was transformed from a outdoorsy dilettante into a finished naturalist.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

On a cusp of history

Just after reading Paul's comment of last Sunday, I turned back to The Education of Henry Adams, which I had taken down from the shelf for yesterday's post. In an essay called "The Grammar of Science," Adams continues his struggle to understand what it is that science has unleashed upon the world. The year is 1903, and science and culture are in the throes of an extraordinary revolution, and Adams knows it. The central lesson he takes from his readings of science, and the tutorials of his scientifically informed friends, is that we can know only the small fraction of the universe that is available to our senses -- "much as the deep-sea fish takes for granted the circle of light which he generates." This is a radical departure in history -- humankind's first admission of ignorance -- and he doesn't quite know what to do with it.

Give this to Adams: He perceived almost before anyone else the central discovery of 20th-century science -- the shattering of absolutes. Beyond the sensual was only chaos, or at least that was all he could put a name to. And yet he -- we -- long for access to the supersensual. A yen for transcendence is possibly part of our genetic makeup. And here precisely is the central dilemma of our time, which few of us have come to terms with. After 1900, wrote Adams, "no one could any long hope to bar out the unknowable, for the unknowable was known."

I would say: Be grateful, Paul, as I know you are, for those momentary insights. It is when we grasp them and refuse to let them go, trick them up in law and dogma, and make of our ignorance the Golden Calf of idolatry (or the God of Moses, for that matter), that we lose the thing which is most precious -- the unnamable, unknowable that reveals itself only in fleeting intuitions.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The iPod and the Virgin

In 1900 Henry Adams, American historian, 62 years old, visited the Paris Exposition, a world's fair celebrating the end of Adam's century and the beginning of a New Age. Again and again he was drawn to the Gallery of Machines, where huge 40-foot-high dynamos spun at vertiginous speeds, scarcely humming as they generated quantities of a silent, invisible new force -- electricity.

Adams did not quite know what to make of the dynamos. He recognized he was in the presence of something of historical importance, as significant as the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages, but he was baffled by his inability to find in these huge machines anything recognizably human. He had spent fifty years educating himself. He had published a dozen volumes of history, and he thought he understood the force behind the building of the cathedrals: homage to the Virgin. But in the hall of the dynamos he was reduced to ignorance by forces that he could neither see nor understand. The great wheels spun, power surged through wires, and there was nothing he could detect with his senses.

Now, as we begin a new century, a different sort of invisible power defines out times. Perhaps the quintessential symbol of the new power is the spinning disk inside Tom's iPod that I spoke of yesterday. The entire works of Bach are stored there, plus lots of other stuff. That's right, the entire works of Bach on a spinning disk in a handheld box that can turn those ones and zeros into breathtaking sound. Not the Virgin, not physical power, but information.

Monday, April 10, 2006

iPod, therefore I am

The first draft sequence of the human genome was completed 5 years ago at a cost of $300 million. According to an article in the March 17th issue of Science, researchers expect it will soon be possible to sequence an individual's DNA for $1000.

Three billion base pairs, tens of thousands of genes. As I figure it, the complete sequence of my genome would just about fit on a single CD -- without compression, about which I understand little. Imagine sending off a fleck of spit and a thousand bucks and getting back one's genome. Netflix for genes.

A template for building a Chet clone. More information than I want to know, or want anyone else to know. But not yet a Chet. There's also the nearly 70 years of experience stored in my brain -- a hundred billion neurons, each with a thousand or so possible connections, an almost unimaginable amount of information. OK, more disks. Lots more.

Tom has the complete works of Bach in a boxed set of 160 CDs. It all fits on his 20 GB iPod as compressed MP3 files, and -- he assures me -- leaves enough room for Handel, Corelli, Telemann, Purcell, Vivaldi and Rameau. Will the day come when we can achieve a kind of immortality by downloading a reasonable proximity of our coded selves into a iPod? Do we want that day to come?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Curriculum matters

I have a colleague here at the college who tells his physics students, "If it isn't simple, it isn't physics." As they struggle with his homework assignments they can be forgiven for thinking he's nuts, but you know what he means. The universe begins and ends in simplicity, and only now and then, here and there, expresses itself in an efflorescence of complexity. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Is cleanliness next to godliness?

A recent story on CNN's web site debated the wisdom of keeping kids hyperclean? Might not early exposure to a few germs be good for a child's long-term health?

My wife always thought so. She let our infants have the run of the floor. Everything went in their mouths. Were they healthier for it? I don't know, but my wife sure thinks so.

Kids love dirt. For a child, the best days are those that leave the thickest ring around the tub. Dirty clothes are badges of bliss. A little dirt never hurt anyone, insisted my tolerant spouse.

A taste for dirt may be in our genes, a sort of evolutionary boost to our immune systems. There's even a scientific word for eating dirt: geophagy. Geophagy has been practiced for centuries, maybe forever. Plato observed pregnant women eating dirt. Boys in the medieval ages where whipped to break them of the habit. In the 17th century, Spanish noblewomen ate so much dirt the authorities passed laws making the practice illegal. Geophagy has been recorded in every part of the world and in every class of people. Apes do it too, which suggests that the habit might be deeply embedded in our primate nature. All those millions of years that our soapless ancestors sat in the dirt eating unwashed food with unwashed hands may have left their genetic mark. It may be worth noting that "human" and "humus" come from the same ancient Indo-european root: dhghem, meaning "earth."

But don't tell that to the super-fastidious parents of today. Are their bubble-wrapped kids healthier? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: We came from the soil and to the soil we shall return. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but a child's layer of backyard grime may be the next best thing to innoculation.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Remembering Lewis Thomas

I've been reading again after many years Lewis Thomas's Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The guy really was one of the best stylists and insightful thinkers to ever write about science.

He is best known, of course, for The Lives of a Cell. The great irony is that he died Waldenstrom's disease -- an abnormal proliferation of the white blood cells. It is as if Audubon had died of bird flu, or Thoreau had drowned in Walden Pond.

My taste in late night music is rather different, my brain too tired for Mahler. Something less demanding, more appropriate to the hour, such as Chopin's nocturnes.

But I imagine Thomas as a man who best dealt with complexity in darkness. In his view, all of life is a blur of collaboration, accommodation, exchange, barter, compromise, doubt. He was not without hope for humanity, or for a kind of immortality. He once told a reporter: "For one thing, our individual coming to an end may have some connection with the continuity of the species. It may be as important for us to die as it is for plant life to die. So we die and live in our successors."

What he wanted from life was to be useful: "The thing we're really good at as a species is usefulness. If we paid more attention to this biological attribute, we'd get a satisfaction that cannot be attained by goods or knowledge."

Certainly, Thomas was useful. In contributing as a physician to the health and well-being of his fellow men and women. In writing essays of a hopeful -- though sometimes melancholy -- humanism. In being one of the most effective philosophers trying to heal our fractured culture: scientific six days of the week, religious on Sunday.

The dichotomy made no sense to Thomas. Deep in the minutia of his science he discovered a sustaining source of awe and wonder. Because he had the courage to accept the blurriness of his selfhood, he was rewarded with mystic's view of the wholeness of creation.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

March of the Stones

A few weeks of wet weather, freezing nights, and daytime thaws and the stones are rising up out of my path. They burgeon from the soil like lithic cabbages, shouldering aside the frozen earth.

It's called frost heaving. Wet soil beneath a buried stone freezes and expands, lifting the stone and creating a cavity underneath. Pebbles or grit sift into the cavity. When the ground thaws the stone is prevented from settling into its old place. It has been lifted, ever so slightly. Another freeze, another thaw: the cycle is repeated. Millimeter by millimeter the stone makes its way to the surface, emerging into the light of day.

Once on the surface, stones make their way downhill. Freezing water lifts a stone in a direction perpendicular to the slope of the hill. Then, as the soil thaws, gravity pulls the stone straight down. Up forward, straight down. Up forward, straight down. Thus do stones descend to the bottom of sloping meadows, taking their sweet geologic time, creeping on icy fingers.

Robert Thorson, a geologist at the University of Connecticut, has a theory about the stone walls of New England: Many of them are waste dumps for stones heaved up out of the ground by the deep frosts that occurred after the region's trees were cut down in the 18th and early 19th century. Prior to the great deforestation, soil was insulated from deep freezing by trees, leaves, and snow. With the clearing of the trees, stones were waked from a subterranean slumber that had been undisturbed since the end of the last ice age.

According to Thorson, many of New England's storied stone walls were not built to fence in livestock or mark boundaries, but to dispose of rocks that frost heaving popped out of the ground.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

March of the Penguins

On the evening before I left for Turkey, I finally got to see the documentary -- March of the Penguins -- that caused all the buzz when it appeared last year in the cinemas. Spectacular photography, and a story that would touch the heart of a stone: the procreational habits of the emperor penguins of Antarctica.

I was astonished to recall how the religious right took up the film as a parable of family values and intelligent design. Those poor penguins who stand shivering over their egg through the Antarctic winter must surely wonder -- in their dim bird brains -- why the Designer did not think of a more intelligent way to ensure the survival of their species.

In the February 23 issue of Nature, biologist Marlene Zuk sees March of the Penguins as a perfect illustration of blind Darwinian selection. And as for "family values," she points out the prevalence among penguins of promiscuity and homosexuality.

It turns out that some species of penguins are even into prostitution; females provide sexual favors for males other than their mates in exchange for stones with which they build their nests.

All of which suggests just how silly the culture wars have become.

One rather wishes the parablists of the Christian right would leave the hapless penguins alone and worry more about why red states lead the nation in such family-value indicators as divorce and teenage pregnancy.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Cappadocia

The Cappadocia region of Turkey is bounded on the east and west by two majestic snowcapped volcanic peaks, Erciyes Dagi and Hasan Dagi. The mountains have been dormant for thousands of years, but during the time they were active they filled the valley between with thick layers of volcanic ejecta and ash that rain, wind and flood have carved into bizarre forms that are, as far as I know, unique on Earth. The so-called "fairy chimneys" -- thin spires topped by balanced rocks -- are perhaps most famous, but here are some equally charming formations. That's grandson Dan in the foreground on the shoulder of Caner, our guide to "Love Valley."


Since humans first arrived in the Cappadocia region, and especially in early Christian times, they have become themselves agents of erosion, carving the soft white rock into dwelling complexes, churches, dovecotes, and even underground cities capable of housing thousands of people.


Never have I visited a place where geology and human history are so engagingly entwined. I am now trying to talk our webmaster and occasional contributor Tom into returning with me to explore the region on foot.

Monday, April 03, 2006

TSE -- the end

Back to US, and trying to get back the groove. Thanks to Tom for posting the Musings while I was away. Access to internet was not a problem. Even the littlest hotels in remote Turkey are wired. The problem was time. Too much to see and do, brain too tired to think.

The eclipse. The bluest, most cloud free day of the trip. If you watched the NASA livecast, they were just down the road. But no photograph can capture the experience of totality. The sudden chill. The birds flying hither and yon in confusion. The unworldly color of the sky, the 360 degree twilight on the horizon. The shadow racing towards us across the sea. Bailey's beads. The diamond rings. The gasps and shouts of awe. And all over in 3 minutes 44.9 seconds.

Here is a pic of pinholed partial phases on Dan's chest. Almost as interesting as totality was the astonishing geology of Cappadocia. More on that tomorrow.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Widgets and rockets

Last week I mused about some science books in my father's library. While I'm on a nostalgia kick (and traveling), let me share another memory of my youth, prompted by bromegrass's comment here on Popular Mechanics. This week's Musing is a column I wrote for the Globe back in 1992. The 40 year fit of nostalgia mentioned there has now become 54.