Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Green dream

Yesterday's proposal for green-belted suburban villages linked by internet will sound hopelessly utopian to Americans. We have turned sprawl into a way of life. One suburb merges with another, the roads between are strip malled. Land of the free and the home of the build whatever, wherever you want.

The American model seems positively foolish in certain other parts of the world. Britain, for instance. I became familiar with the British countryside when I did my Walking Zero walk, and I liked what I found.

Here is snip of a British Ordnance Survey map, near the Sussex village of Wivelsfield Green -- picked by throwing a virtual dart at their Get-a-Map web site. You will notice that the village itself is built up compactly, including its shop, pub, post office, and so on. Then -- stop! -- no development until you reach the next village. Look at South Road: the north side developed, the south side pristine.

Take an imaginary walk if you will; the green lines are all rights of way. Out of Wivelsfield Green to the east, south through Grassy Wood, and on by footpath to Cottage Wood, west through North America Farm, then north through West Wood to Wivelsfield, and home in time for a pint at the Cock Inn. (That blue mug above the PO is the symbol for a pub.)

A walk of only a few miles. You could have tramped across the countryside as far as you wished, seldom putting foot on asphalt and never passing a one-off new home or business.

This strict separation of development and countryside is the result of planning regulations that would be repugnant to Americans. We are a nation of rugged individuals; the common good plays second fiddle to private property. The Brits treasure their countryside and put its preservation ahead of individual rights. My model of distributed employment would not seem so farfetched there.

For the time being.

The British countryside has no great champion in Tony Blair's Labour government, which seems as intent at making war on rural Britain as it was in making war on Iraq. I have little truck with the right, but I suspect on this issue I have more in common with those tweedy Tory types with walking sticks and border collies I met along my walk. "O, if we but knew what we do/ When we delve or hew -- / Hack and rack the growing green! / Since country is so tender." (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


I suppose as someone who drives less than 5000 miles a year it's easy for me to say, but I'm quite happy with $3 a gallon gas and hope it stays that way, artificially through increased gas tax if necessary. Europeans pay as much and it hasn't hurt their prosperity. What it does do is make alternate energy sources more economically viable. Keep petroleum prices high and we'll see more solar farms such as this one in Bavaria. Not quite "amber waves of grain," but certainly a "fruited plain."

In the May 12 issue of Science, a group of scientists from MIT report using generically modified viruses to synthesize and assemble nanowires for lithium ion battery electrodes! The same methods might increase the efficiency of photovoltaic devices. Not so many years from now, viruses and bacteria will be supplying electricity and hydrocarbons directly, ideally using human waste and garbage.

Every now and then, for one reason or another, I find myself caught in the commuter traffic that jams our highways and count my blessings that I was always able to walk to work. Even now, in retirement, I walk to the college each day, where I have been generously provided with an office. I get more writing done than if I stayed at home, I have a library next door, and I get to interact with stimulating people from a variety of academic disciplines. Wouldn't it be lovely if our suburbs were organized as green belted villages suitable for walking and biking, each with centrally located office complex with rental work stations. Instead of driving into Boston, say, for a job at company headquarters, a person might walk or bike to a work station or office paid for by his or her employer, and, in effect, commute by wire. In a typical village office complex would be people working for a wide variety of employers. Less traffic. Less gasoline. Less stress. More healthy exercise. More family life. More intellectual stimulation by working with colleagues from a variety of jobs. The "garden cities" of yesteryear connected by the internet.

Monday, May 29, 2006


Poor Calvin, in yesterday's post, is overwhelmed with the vastness of the cosmos and no small dose of existential angst. He is not the first, of course. Most famously the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal wailed his own despair: "I feel engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing and which know nothing of me. I am terrified...The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me."

And he didn't know the half of it.

Not so long ago we imagined ourselves to be the be-all and end-all of creation, at the center of a cosmos made expressly for us and at the pinnacle of the material Great Chain of Being. Then it turned out that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos. Nor the Sun. Nor the Galaxy. The astronomers Sebastian von Hoerner and Carl Sagan raised this experience to the level of a principle -- the Principle of Mediocrity -- which can be stated something like this: The view from here is about the same as the view from anywhere else. Or to put it another way: Our star, our planet, the life on it, and even our own intelligence, are completely mediocre.

Moon rocks are just like Earth rocks. Photographs of the surface of Mars made by the landers and rovers could as well have been made in Nevada. Meteorites contain some of the same organic compounds that are the basis for terrestrial life. Gas clouds in the space between the stars are composed of precisely the same atoms and molecules that we find in our own backyard. The most distant galaxies betray in their spectra the presence of familiar elements.

And yet, and yet, for all we know, our brains are the most complex things in the universe. Are we then living, breathing refutations of the Principle of Mediocrity. I doubt it. For the time being, Calvin will just have to get used to living in the infinite abyss and eternal silence. He has Hobbes. We have each other. And science. And poetry. And love.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


No need to scream. Any creature that can count the stars and hold in its head a universe of galaxies is hardly insignificant. For all we know, our brains may be the most complex thing in the universe. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The tao that can be told... not the eternal tao

The biggest problem for theoretical cosmologists in recent decades has been explaining why we are here at all. If the apparently random expansion rate of the universe were just slightly higher, the expansion would have been so rapid that protons and neutrons would not have had the chance to bond into atoms. It the rate were just slightly slower, the universe would have remained too hot for atomic nuclei to form. In either case, we would not exist.

So maybe there is something we don't yet know that constrains the universe to be one that's suitable for us. God, maybe. Or some yet unidentified law of nature.

String theorists have another answer. Our universe is just one of 10500 universes (1 followed by 500 zeros), with all conceivable values for the expansion rate, and we just happen to live in one that makes our existence possible. That's more universes than there are particles in this universe. Give me enough monkeys and enough typewriters and the odds are certain that one of them will clatter off the works of Shakespeare. By chance. Or so the story goes.

String theory or string theology? The multiple universes hypothesis is not quite science since there is presently no conceivable empirical test. But then there's no empirical test of the God hypothesis either. Neither hypothesis is worth getting worked up over. The phoebe has hatched her chicks. Her white throat shines in the musty dark of the root cellar. Life goes on.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The big kill

Here's an interesting graph from the May 11 issue of Nature, from a paper by R. Dale Guthrie titled "New carbon dates link climatic change with human colonization and Pleistocene extinctions."

The red-black columns left-to-right represent carbon-dated Alaskan and Yukon Territory fossils of mammoths, horses, bison, elks, and moose, respectively. The blue dots at right represent dated evidence of human presence, mainly hearth charcoal). The vertical scale is time, from 18,000 to 9000 years before the present.

Clearly something big happens between 13,000 and 12,000 B.P., just at the end of the last ice age. Mammoths and horses become extinct in North America (along with other species not shown on the graph). And human arrive, presumably by crossing the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska.

The coincidence of the extinction of many large animals with the arrival of humans has long been taken as evidence for human overkill, a terrible and decisive slaughter as humans armed with bladed spears and hurling devices moved down across a pristine continent, a truly catastrophic consequence of global warming.

But Guthrie thinks the evidence for human overkill is not so clear cut. He thinks the extinctions and human arrivals might be separately related to climate change. During the transitional period from ice age to post-ice-age it seems (from the graph) that bison and elks flourished, perhaps sufficiently altering the landscape to the detriment of mammoths and horses. Meanwhile, humans drifted into the Americas with perhaps less decisive impact than formerly believed.

Still, the graph looks gravely suspicious. Have we unfairly implicated our ancestors in one of the great ecological disruptions of all time? Or are they unfairly condemned by coincidence?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Dawkins redux

It has been 30 years since Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene took the world by storm. Who would have imagined that such a thoroughly reductionist theory of who we are could become such a resounding popular success.

What Dawkins did was to show that Darwin's logic of natural selection can be applied to the fundamental units of life, the genes. To molecules! He did not, of course, attribute selfishness in a moral sense to genes, but he did show that if those molecular entities "acted" as if they were interested in nothing but their own replication, then the world of organisms that resulted might be very like the one we find ourselves in. You and I, argued Dawkins, are the upshot of "selfish" molecular replicators.

The extent to which Dawkins was right is still debated by evolutionists. Does natural selection act at the level of genes, the organism, groups of organisms? Or through some combination of them all? The answer may become clear soon enough.

So how did so a book of reductionist science compete for attention with the hundreds of self-help books that assure us we are masters of our own fates and apples of the Creator's eye?

Well, for one thing, it was 1976 when the book was published, not 2006, and rebellion against orthodoxy was in the air. For another thing, Dawkins wrote with such skill and panache that he carried us along for the sheer thrill of the ride.

In 1976, we quite happily conceded selfishness to the genes, so busy were we with ending wars, sexism, racism, religious triumphalism, corporate greed, and environmental degradation. I wonder if the book would have the same reception today, in Bush's Enron/EndTimes America, when we have so thoroughly appropriated selfishness to the organism rather than the genes?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Among the roots

In the current edition of GQ, George Saunders is sent on assignment to write about Ram Bahadur Bomjon, the teenage "Buddha Boy" who until mid-March had been sitting for seven months almost motionless among the roots of a pipal tree without (according to his handlers) food or water. Thousands of pilgrims flocked to be in the presence of the miraculous holy child, and a thriving business built up around him.

Saunders knows there are two reactions to a story such as this. He writes:

"One type of American -- let's call them Realists -- will react by making a snack-related joke ("So he finally gets up, and turns out he's sitting on a big pile of Butterfinger wrappers!") and will then explain that it's physically impossible to survive even one week without food or water, much less seven months. A second type -- let's call them Believers -- will say, Wow, that's amazing," they wish they could go to Nepal tomorrow, and will then segue into a story about a transparent spiritual being who once appeared on a friend's pool deck with a message about world peace."

The two categories correspond almost exactly to my Skeptics and True Believers.

Saunders is a lively writer, if not sufficiently skeptical. GQ would have been better served to have sent the professional debunker James Randi to Nepal. Randi would have made short work of exposing the thing as a fraud.

Which is not to denigrate the value of meditation, which can surely have beneficial results for mind and body. But claims that the boy lived for seven months without food or liquid is patently fraudulent and cheapens religious experience, even as it fattened the pockets of the boy's sponsors and local tradespeople.

I have friends who would be properly skeptical about the Buddha Boy's scientifically implausible fast, but who believe with fervor -- and less evidence -- equally miraculous things, such as the appearance of the Virgin to Bernadette at Lourdes, or, for that matter, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But of course our miracles are different than their miracles. And thus it was always so.

Why go seeking miracles when there is sufficient wonder in a single cell of our own bodies to keep us rapt in prayerful attention for a lifetime?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Back in 2000, when the Brookhaven Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider came on line, there was speculation that the high-energy subsatomic experiments might result in the catastropic destruction of the Earth. Implausibly, a subatomic-sized black hole or gravitational singularity, created in the accelerator, would accrete ordinary matter, eventually (in a flash) gobbling up the Earth. Or, alternately, a stable "strangelet" might accrete ordinary matter and convert it into strange matter. Poof!

The upshot of either scenario would be instantaneous destruction of the planet.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva comes on line next year, and scaremongers now raise the same concerns. It's rather like the anxieties of physicists before the first nuclear explosion in 1945: Would the blast at Alamogordo ignite the atmosphere by fusion and destroy the Earth? When the bomb exploded, the confidence of at least one physicist was briefly tested. Emilio Segre, an eyewitness and nuclear scientist, wrote: "We saw the whole sky flash with unbelievable brightness in spite of the very dark glasses we wore...I believe that for a moment I thought the explosion might set fire to the atmosphere and thus finish the earth, even though I knew that this was not possible." Why impossible? Physicists had done the calculations and decided the chances of catastrophe were infinitesimal.

A recent accessment published in Nature suggests that the risk from the present generation of accelerating machines is reassuringly less than 0.000000000001 per year. But not to worry. If the physicists suck the world into oblivion, it will happen so fast that we'll won't have time to wring our hands and rue.

Maybe those folks who are searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe are looking for the wrong things. Instead of tuning their instruments to the extraterrestrial equivalent of Beethoven's Ninth, they should look for brief, bright flashes of annihilation.

Things that creep and writhe

The water meadow along the Path is pocked with frog spawn, a scum of bubbly goo that one can scoop up in the hand, a-throb with incipient life.

This is the stuff that 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."

It can be a little frightening to attend to our kinship to the slime, but to do otherwise is to ignore the bipolarities that anchor our lives in meaning -- the individual and the collectivity, birth and death, generation and decay, beauty and terror.

Monday, May 22, 2006


Several times over the years I have visited Salisbury Cathedral, eighty miles to the southwest of London and not far from the great megalithic monument at Stonehenge. It is one of the most graceful of medieval cathedrals. As an added attraction, it is home to the oldest mechanical clock in Britain, probably the oldest mechanical clock in the world with most of its original parts and in working order. (It might reasonably be argued that Stonehenge, constructed thousands of years ago in prehistoric times, is the oldest "clock" in Britain; certainly the stones are aligned to mark the peregrinations of the Sun.) The Salisbury cathedral clock was constructed in about the year 1386, of wrought iron, by an unknown craftsperson. It is about as big as a steamer trunk -- an assembly of clunky gears in a boxy iron frame, driven by a falling weight and controlled by an escapement mechanism. The clock has no dial. It strikes the hour on a cathedral bell, as it faithfully did for nearly five hundred years until it was replaced in 1884. In 1956 it was repaired and set up on public display in the nave of the cathedral, where again it whirrs away like some goofy Brobdingnagian windup toy, the great-granddaddy of all subsequent mechanical clocks. This marvelous timekeeper, this ticking correlate of cosmic time, makes a cameo appearance in my Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

What is to be preserved and why?

John Dailey, an early settler of our town, died a wealthy man -- by comparison with his colonial neighbors. Few of us today would trade places with him. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


When I came across this cartoon in the New Yorker a few weeks ago I laughed out loud. I copied it and taped it to my door at the college.

No one else laughs. Most folks say, "I don't get it." Which makes me wonder why I laughed in the first place. And why I still think it's funny.

I mean, after all, isn't TRUTH what we are all seeking? "Ye shall know the TRUTH, and the TRUTH shall set you free."

Why then is that pilgrim returning from TRUTH looking shell-shocked and defeated?

I suppose I laughed because I don't believe TRUTH sets us free. In fact, I suspect that TRUTH has been the biggest cause of mischief in human history. TRUTH is the end of curiosity, the end of mystery, the end of wonder. TRUTH is the cradle of intolerance. TRUTH is rigor mortis of the mind.

I don't know what's to the right of the cartoon panel, but I've seen enough of folks who are convinced they have the TRUTH to make my own eyes bulge out and hair stand on end. My advice to the eager pilgrim on the left would be, "Go home and settle for whatever lowercase truths you can scrape together by paying attention to the commonplace. And hold them tenderly to your heart."

Friday, May 19, 2006

The weight of sunlight

Theresa drew my attention to an essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times. An op-ed by Klinkenborg is not to be missed. He is a writer's writer -- graceful, literate, full of front-porch wisdom. Not so long ago I read his recent book, The Rural Life, an almanac of observations and ruminations, and was reminded of other writers' writers who celebrate the land: Donald Culrose Peattie, Aldo Leopold, Henry Beston. Writing that lets you hear "the scissoring and gnashing of a skater's blades against hard gray ice,", smell rotting apples, see the very moment when winter turns to spring.

"It often seems...that science has grown too institutional, too complex, to value the private watcher of a small patch of ground," Klinkenborg writes, by way of introduction to the book. And it's true, science has little use of the amateur observer. But the amateur observer has every need of science, which is why Klinkenborg was visiting the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, in the op-ed essay referenced by Theresa. In the September chapter of The Rural Life, the author tells us: "The weight of the afternoon sun already falls more lightly on my back than it did a few weeks ago." He knows that energy has a mass equivalent.

Ah, those pesky chimps

Bad enough we have to share common ancestors, but now it seems chimpanzees stayed on the humanoid radar screen as potential mates for longer than we had imagined.

Why would creatures who had become bipedal want to fool around with quadruped cousins? Who knows? Maybe for the same reason boys on isolated Nebraska farms purportedly experiment with sexual congress among the ewes.

According to genetic studies reported in this week's Nature, Harvard scientists claim some interspecies hanky-panky that led eventually to modern humans.

If claiming kinship with chimpanzees causes certain folks among us to wax wroth, this new study will surely ignite their afterburners.

Hey, take a deep breath and relax. The most effective doubters will be scientists themselves, as they scrutinize the new work for potential or actual flaws. On a story like this, the mill of peer review will grind exceedingly fine.

And, while we're at it, don't fail to note the sequencing of actual Neanderthal DNA, which suggests that Neanderthals and modern humans did little interbreeding. The poor Neanderthals must have had their hands full -- to the point of extinction -- with those chimpy Cro-Magnons. The book of DNA is only partly open. More details are surely in the offing.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Prayer rocks now provides a "concordance" for some of their books, a list of the 100 most frequently used words. Here is the list for my Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain. I suppose the book could have been called Fairy Faith. No need to buy it now, the concordance is neater and sweeter, even poetic.

In praise of the useless

You'll find the Massachusetts Audubon Society's "Bird Sightings" tucked away in the Boston Globe twice a week, with the comics and crossword puzzle. For some folks the Audubon report is more interesting than the winning Megabucks numbers, or what the weather will be for tomorrow's Red Sox game.

I'm not a serious birder, but birds do provide a kind of punctuation to my life. In late-February (for many years) I listened for the crraaack of the season's first red-winged blackbird, then later the sweet-sad song of the meadowlark, and the lightning streak of orange that is the first Baltimore oriole. And, of course -- phoebes. Commas, semicolons, exclamation points, occasionally a question mark -- never, let us hope, a period.

Amateur birdwatching embodies one of science's best qualities: Knowledge for its own sake, pure, unselfish curiosity.

In 1807, John James Audubon, amateur birder extraordinaire, opened a store in Louisville with his partner Ferdinand Rozier. The venture was not a success. Wrote Audubon: "[The store] went on prosperously when I attended to it; but birds were birds then as now, and my thoughts were ever and anon turning toward them as the objects of my greatest delight."

Rather than attending to business, Audubon ranged the woods with his sketchbook and ornithological journal, leaving poor Rozier to mind the store. Rozier intended to grow rich, wrote Audubon, "and what more could he wish for?"

What more, indeed? Perhaps a flash of oriole orange or a phoebe's six white eggs.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

What we know, why we know

Most people think first of all about what they know, not how and why they know it.

It is a characteristic of most traditionally religious people that apologetics (justifying what we know) comes before epistemology (thinking about how and why we know).

In science, epistemology takes precedence.

First we ask, "What are reliable grounds for belief? What is the role of logic? Empiricism? Skepticism? Peer review? How do we guard against cultural or innate prejudices? Which version of the truth can amass the most universal consensus among people of all geographical and cultural backgrounds?"

The motto of the first modern scientific organization, The Royal Society of 17th-century London, was "Don't take anyone's word."

Only when we have established a satisfying epistemology do we commit ourselves to belief, and then only tentatively.

People who hold religious beliefs without first having studied epistemology seldom consider, for example, that the factor that correlates most closely with their beliefs is the circumstance of their birth. The vast majority of Christians were born Christians; the vast majority of Muslims were born Muslims; and so on. Epistemology would ask, "Are the circumstances of one's birth a reliable guide to truth?"

When apologetics comes first, one can always amass a body of lore to justify any system of belief. When I was in college at the University of Notre Dame, a required course in apologetics was part of the curriculum. Our text was Frank Sheed's Theology and Sanity, the theme of which was: If you don't recognize the truths of Catholic theology, you are insane. Which meant, of course, that most of the world was insane. Fortunately, that excellent institution also provided me with a good course in epistemology and -- bless 'em -- a sound scientific education.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Imagination and reality

On a wall of an administration building here at the college someone has made a bulletin board of inspiring quotes for graduating seniors. One of them caught my eye: "Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality." -- Jules de Gaultier.

I haven't a clue who is Jules de Gaultier, but his thought strikes me as infelicitous. America is presently engaged in a "faith-based" war on reality, and I would want our graduates to ally themselves with the "reality-based" community so denigrated by the present administration in Washington and its political base.

Which is not to denigrate imagination. Imagination is at the heart of all great art and science; it is the wings that let us soar where no one has gone before. But imagination need not be at war with reality. Rather, a healthy respect for reality is the one thing that keeps imagination from winging off into superstition, hubris, and paranoia.

Einstein is sometimes quoted by those who exhalt the role of imagination: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." It is certainly true that Einstein had a prodigious imagination. But he always tested the products of imagination against the hard blade of empiricism, and he was not afraid to let go of an imaginative concept when reality gave the nod.

Monday, May 15, 2006


The phoebe is on her nest. She stands her ground now (or rather sits her wattle and daub) when I enter the root cellar where she has built her nest, six tiny white eggs under her warm body. Does she know what's coming, or when? There is so much we don't understand about animal intelligence and instinct.

But this we do know: She is born with the instinct to build a nest, incubate her eggs, feed her chicks. Somehow that knowledge is in her DNA, as a sequence of four chemical bases. The DNA spins out proteins on cue as the phoebe embryo develops. My God, what a mystery! It was all so much easier to understand when we imagined that the phoebe was divinely ensouled with knowledge.

One cell, two, four, eight, sixteen. The earliest cells, the so-called stem cells, have the potential to become any other kind of cell -- feather, muscle, bone, brain. What they become depends upon which genes are expressed at each stage of development, and that in turn is sensitive to what has already been expressed. It's a bootstrap process. The phoebe pulls herself into being.

Her DNA is not quite a blueprint, because there's no builder to follow the plan. It's not quite a computer program, because there's (initially) no hardware to run it.

Here's how geneticist Enrico Coen puts it in his book, The Art of Genes: 'The software, the program, is responsible for organizing hardware, the organism. Yet throughout the process, it is the organism in its various stages of development that has to run the program. In other words, the hardware runs the software, whilst at the same time the software is generating the hardware."

Sounds terribly circular, and the metaphor is unsatisfactory. Metaphorical thinking is always perilous. There is really nothing else quite like what happens in the developing organism. And yet, and yet -- the phoebe knows.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Oh, joy!

Modern pharmaceuticals are one of the wonders of our time. They have improved the health and quality of life of countless people, including me. The scandal is in the marketing. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The familiar and the unfamiliar

Our mutual friend Lyra sent me this hand-colored plate from Alain Manesson Mallet's monumental late-17th-century work Description de l'Univers. That's the sun shining down on a domestic scene of cattle being led to drink.

Close examination shows mountains in the sun's northern and southern latitudes and what would appear to be a seething lava field between. Volcanos erupt on the sun's limb and across its face. Mallet may have been influenced by the ideas of the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who among other things studied sunspots. Kircher once had himself lowered into the crater of Mount Etna in Sicily so that he could more closely examine the volcanic activity of that mountain, and by analogy guessed that sunspots might be clouds of smoke emerging from the hot interior of the sun.

It is human nature -- and perhaps a logical necessity -- to explain the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, which is why children invariably draw a face on the sun, and why anthropomorphic explanations -- animism, artificialism, personal gods, etc. -- are so deeply entrenched in human thought. After all, what is more familiar to us than ourselves?

Anthropomorphism has not been a fruitful scientific principle, but the idea that the rest of the universe resembles the Earth in important ways -- ala Kircher's and Mallet's Sun -- has been stunningly successful. Once Newton showed that the same mathematical law describes the fall of an apple from a tree and the orbits of the planets, anthropomorphism was pretty much finished for scientists. But of course anthropomorphism remains alive and well for those who are uncomfortable with a scientific worldview -- such as the advocates of intelligent design and the nearly half of Americans who take Genesis literally.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Six things

My mother was part of the last generation of Americans who were welded into a national cohesiveness by the classroom memorization of poems by English language poets -- Longfellow, Whittier, Riley, Lowell, Field, and all the rest. All her life, lines of verse were on her lips...

"All at once, and nothing first,/ Just as bubbles do when they burst." (The One Hoss Shay, Oliver Wendell Holmes)

"Each morning sees some task begin,/ Each evening sees it close;/ Something attempted, something done,/ Has earned a night's repose." (The Village Blacksmith, Longfellow)

"The more we listened, the more our wonder grew/ how his small head could contain all he knew." (The Village Schoolmaster, Oliver Goldsmith)

"My candle burns at both ends;/It will not last the night;/ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--/ It gives a lovely light! (First Fig, Edna St. Vincent Millay)

...and so on.

Memorized poems provided young scholars of her generation with a common language that defined a national consciousness and expressed respectful continuity with the past. Not mere rote. It was called "learning by heart," and heart was very much at work.

Is there a common canon of scientific knowledge that global citizens of the 21st century should have at heart? Here are six bits of knowledge that might constitute minimum scientific literacy for every grade-school graduate:

1. The world is big. With our best telescopes we observe a universe of tens of billions of galaxies. Each galaxy consists of hundreds of billions of stars. Most of those stars probably have planet systems. Our Earth is a typical planet of a typical star in a typical corner of a typical galaxy.

2. The world is old. Human time is not cosmic time. If a year is represented by the thickness of a playing card, all of recorded human history would be a pile of cards about 10 feet high. The age of the universe is about 14 billion years; lay this pile of cards on its side and it would reach from New York to San Francisco.

3. The world is made of atoms. Nature's construction set is astonishingly simple: protons, neutrons, electrons. Of these, nature makes 92 kinds of atoms, and these combine into molecules. Out of simplicity comes complexity -- the clear liquidity of water, the smell of bananas, the blue of the sky. A molecule called DNA determines my species, my gender, the color of my eyes.

4. The world evolves. The history of the universe is an unfolding of matter and form from a seed of pure energy. Stars, planets and life have histories, determined by law and contingency. Everything alive on the planet Earth today is related by common descent from primordial ancestors.

5. Everything is connected. Our bodies are made of stardust -- atoms forged in earlier generations of stars as they lived and died. Stars, planets, plants, animals, rocks, soil, sea, and atmosphere are interrelated in a fabric of wondrous refinement and resilience. We disrupt the fabric at our peril.

6. The world is wonderful. The more we learn about the form and function of the world, the more we realize the depth of our ignorance, and the more we appreciate the creation as a source of wonder, awe, reverence, praise -- or, if you prefer, as revelation of a power worthy of our wonder, awe, reverence, praise.


I wouldn't call my few hundred square feet of "grass" a lawn. It's mostly a mess of dirt, crab grass and dandelions, especially lush near the cess pool. I have a mower, but getting it started every spring after an idle winter consumes more time than a season of mowing.

So, for me, National Lawn Care Month (April) passed without a care in the world. I was in Home Depot the other day and was astonished at the volume of products on display to create and care for the perfect lawn -- an extravaganza of chemicals and machines - - a $40 billion-a-year industry based on the conspicuous consumption of oil and water, two commodities in short supply.

My attitude to dandelions is live and let live. Better all those yellow blossoms than the ubiquitous little lawn flags warning of poisonous applications of pesticides. The perfect lawn may be America's least felicitous contribution to planetary ecology.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

His blood is sea water and his tears are salt

The American nature writer Donald Culross Peattie, who I quoted yesterday, lived in rural Illinois during the depths of the Great Depression and the devastation of the Dust Bowl. The Great War was fresh in his memory, with its shattered landscapes and poisoned air. Not an easy time to be an optimist.

The lofty moralizing of earlier nature writers like John Burroughs and John Muir no longer resonated with a generation who had seen (in Peattie's words) "the trees blasted by the great guns and the bird's feeding on men's eyes." Like Loren Eiseley and Lewis Thomas after him, Peattie looked skeptically at nature, not expecting sermons in leaf and stone, but rather a chastening existential silence.

Yet he wrested from nature the will to go on, to affirm a point to life, to get up in the morning and earn his keep. W. H. Auden said of Eiseley that he was "a man unusually well trained in the habit of prayer, by which I mean the habit of listening." Peattie, too, knew how to listen. Listening -- as these writers listened -- required courage and the will to change, to surrender the simple pieties of the past and embark upon an immense journey into the lonely spaces between the galaxies and the atoms.

From his closely observed acre of land in Illinois, Peattie listened and watched as the years passed, and turned his "habit of prayer" into words of great meaning and beauty. The meaning had something to do with beauty; something to do with the gorgeous, prodigious throb and thrust of life; something to do with being part of a continuity that is greater than himself.

"I say that it touches a man that his blood is sea water and his tears are salt, that the seed of his loins is scarcely different from the same cells in a seaweed, and that the stuff of his bones are coral made," he wrote. He was immersed up to his neck -- nay, to the top of his head -- in the "essential and precious something that just divides the lowliest microorganism from the dust," the inexplicable essence of life. He reveled in it, and turned his experience into poetry. He did not look for an incorruptible heaven beyond the stars. Nature itself is the miracle, he wrote, with all its imperfections.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The more tender functions

I gave a talk Monday evening at the new Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, introducing my new book Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian. I began by make a distinction between science as practiced and communicated by scientists among themselves -- which I called the Big Snooze (for non-scientists) -- with the work of interpretive institutions like the Museum and writers like me. Our task is to take the reliable knowledge of the world gleaned by scientists, make it accessible to the non-scientist, and use it to enrich and illuminate the human adventure.

I own a book from my mother's library called Green Laurels: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Naturalists by the mid-20th-century nature writer Donald Culross Peattie, which I happened to be scanning this morning, and on the last pages he make a similar observation. He writes: "The biologist, the man [sic] of the the assayer, the tester, the one who takes the stuff of life, analyzes its composition, exercises its individual units to test their pure properties and behaviors. To him theory, in the future, must be handed over for verification...mechanism is his business, his instrument, and his signed search warrant served upon mystery."

I love that last phrase, "a signed search warrant served upon mystery."

By contrast, he writes, "[The role of the naturalist] has the more passive, more tender functions. Toward the findings of the laboratory its should make a certain amount of submission. But it dwells in its own house and is mistress to it. And that mansion is the earth, rolling upon its predestined course through space, its poles glistening with snows, its flanks with the oceans, its continents with the deep true green of the jungles and forests. This whole, this planetary life entity, breathes with the rhythm of tides, of day and night, enacts the drama of the colored seasons, and plays out the titanic epic of the geologic ages. On earth and only on earth are sunset glow, green leaf, and eyes to see them. Here is all we know of reality, all sufficient to our destiny, our thoughts and passions."

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A few more words about Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley was a man of the Enlightenment, a champion of reason, a foe of superstition. He was also deeply religious, and divided his life between scientific investigations and religion. In science, he is best known as the discoverer of oxygen, and for his stubborn belief in phlogiston, a now-discredited hypothetical substance supposedly mixed with all combustible matter that was released as flame in burning.

In religion, Priestley was a Dissenter, a Unitarian who took issue with the doctrines of the established Church of England. As a Dissenter, he was precluded from attending either Oxford or Cambridge universities, which at that time required for graduation assent to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Established Church, a catalog of official orthodoxy.

As Robert Schofield notes in his biography of Priestley, it was just as well that Priestley could not attend the ancient universities. Intellectual life at those institutions was hobbled by curricular requirements imposed by the Church of England. Mired in religious and political orthodoxy, Oxford and Cambridge had become pretty much irrelevant to the explosion of rational knowledge we call the Enlightenment.

Most of the important science, philosophy, history and literature of late-18th-century England was accomplished by people who had no connection to the traditional universities. Priestley took his education at a Dissenting academy, and soon found colleagues who shared his own scientific interests and liberal political and religious views, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. He was a friend of American democracy, and ended his days in Pennsylvania.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A prospect truly sublime

In my book Honey From Stone I used the metaphor "knowledge is an island in a sea of mystery." I attributed the image to "a friend," and drew the corollary that as the island grows, so does the shoreline along which we encounter mystery. Rather than depleting the world of mystery, knowledge in fact increases our opportunities to encounter mystery on levels and in places of which we were previously ignorant.

Not long after the book was published, the motto "Knowledge is an island in a sea of mystery" began appearing on those signs you see outside of churches -- Universalist Unitarian churches in this case -- attributed to me. It was a flattering attribution, but the thought is not original.

The 19th-century experimentalist Michael Faraday used the metaphor, among others. The earliest reference I have found is in the Preface of the second volume of Joseph Priestley's Experiments and Observations Relating To Various Branches of Natural Philosophy, published in 1781. He wrote: "The greater is the circle of light, the greater is the boundary of the darkness by which it is confined. But, notwithstanding this, the more light we get, the more thankful we ought to be, for by this means we have the greater range for satisfactory contemplation. In time, the bounds of light will be still further extended; and from the infinity of the divine nature, and the divine works, we may promise ourselves an endless progress in our investigation of them: a prospect truly sublime and glorious."

Which is, all things considered, a splendid affirmation of the open-ended curiosity of science, never satisfied with absolutes, eschewing Truth, always searching.

On the title page of his book, Priestley took as his epigraph a phrase from Virgil's Aeneid, Vires acquirit eundo, which translates roughly as "it gathers strength as it goes," which Priestley applies to science, that ever increasing circle of light, that growing island of firm knowledge lapped on every side by all that we do not yet know.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Taking the world into my arms

The end of a long life well lived is cause for both sadness and joy. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Primordial soup for the soul

"Our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud," said House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay some years ago, by way of explaining the Columbine school massacre.

His remark would be merely silly were not similar thoughts commonly expressed by influential folks on the religious right. I can't tell you how many times I've heard fundamentalist preachers suggest that the reason scientists embrace evolution is so they can lead dissolute lives without fear of divine retribution.

The thought is both stupid and insulting.

There is something called common morality shared by all human beings, based on -- in ethicist Bernard Gert's formulation -- our common fallibility, rationality, and vulnerability. A basic altruism that makes no reference to any particular religious code of behavior seems to be part of the human condition, evolved genetically and culturally during our long journey from the primordial soup. Atheists, agnostics, and people of all religious persuasions generally agree on such basic moral principles as do not cause pain, keep your promises, obey the law, and so on. The Ten Commandments are a reflection of common morality, rather than the other way around. Which is not to say, of course, that we all live by the rules.

I'm an evolutionist because I judge the evidence for the unity of life by common descent over billions of years to be overwhelming, not so that I can cheat on my wife or kick the cat with impunity. I live in no hope of heaven or fear of hell, but like most of my fellow humans I try to live a decent life. Some folks just can't get it through their heads that a person can choose to live ethically because civilized life among rational, willful beings requires restraint and concern for others.

Tom DeLay should have tended to his own ethical compass, and worried less about those of us who acknowledge our origin in the primordial soup.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Rabbits from hats

"Like croziers they come up, like Irish shillelaghs, shaking their tight little fists at winter past. In a few days time, with a confident flare, they will unfurl sails of chlorophyll, drinking up the sun's red and blue light and leaving the green for the season."

I'm quoting myself, from a post last spring, talking, of course, about the fiddlehead ferns in the moist soil by the brook, a sure sign that spring is irreversible and summer is just around the corner.

The American nature writer Donald Culross Peattie wrote: "I have that haunting feeling that spring this year again performed all her old tricks and showed me just how life is made and what it is made of, but her hand has such slight and she so distracts the attention with the waving green scarves and birds let loose from the loft that just when you think it is time now to watch carefully, the thing is done."

He might have been talking about our New England spring, which for all the ferny hocus-pocus mostly isn't, until one day it was, and you wonder how you missed it.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The miracle of self

All six of Mother's children and about half of her grandchildren were in Chattanooga for the funeral. Yes, it is clear they are family. Siblings and cousins. Here a mother's mouth, here a father's eyes, here a grandma's nose. Even a child's posture evokes associations. The genes flow down through the generations.

We start as one of half-a-million eggs stored in our mother's ovaries, and one of the hundreds of millions of sperm produced each day in our father's testes. Egg meets sperm, and a multiplication of cells begins, mother-genes and father-genes switching on and off, certainly not at random but with sufficient chemical complexity to be essentially a matter of chance.

Here's how my erstwhile friend the microbiologist Ursula Goodenough describes it: "Patterns of gene expression are to organisms as melodies and harmonies are to sonatas. It's all about which sets of proteins appear in a cell at the same time (the chords) and which sets come before or after other sets (the themes) and at what rate they appear (the tempos) and how they modulate one another (the developments and transitions. When these patterns go awry we see malignancy. When they change by mutation we can get new kinds of organisms. When they work, we get a creature."

A unique and special creature, waiting to be loved.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

"tending, as all music does, toward silence..."

Mary Oliver has a poem called When Death Comes, which ends with these lines:
When it's over, I don't want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
My mom did not simply visit. She made her life her own. She was the oldest of eight girls, and lived all her life in the world of books and ideas, in love with literature, full of curiosity. As she lay dying -- that long, drawn-out wait for the hungry bear -- the few books remaing from her once expansive library were her most treasured material possessions.

My thanks to all of you for your expressions of sympathy. She had a long good life and was ready to go.

You may have missed Sunday's Musing which Tom posted while I was away. It is a revision of a Globe column I wrote in 1997, although not much revision was necessary. Scientists are now more united than ever in the reality and the danger of global warming, but the public remains deeply confused. Meanwhile, I'm the fella with the hookah, so I'm poking a little fun at myself.