Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Grace notes

I've been looking for Comet Swan, so far unsuccessfully. The weather hasn't cooperated, and the ambient light in my town is a curse.

But so what? I've been outside in a mess of weathers when I might have been sprawled on the couch in front of the TV. The thing about looking for comets, even unsuccessfully, is that the mind and senses are both engaged. Let's see? Where will the constellation Hercules be at this time of the evening? Where can I go to view that part of the sky? What about the globular cluster in Hercules? In binocs, it should be a pretty good visual match for the comet.

The naturalist Henry Beston, author of The Outermost House, was asked why he spent a year alone on the Nauset dunes of Cape Cod. "Creation is here and now," he answered. "So near is man to the creative pageant, so much a part is he of the endless and incredible experiment, that any glimpse he may have will be but the revelation of a moment, a solitary note heard in a symphony thundering through...time."

He might have said that we are so much a part of the endless and incredible experiment that we hardly take notice of it. The creation is not something that took place 6000 years ago, or even 13.7 billion years ago. The creation is going on all the time -- the grand unfolding, the shaping, the complexification.

Meanwhile, up there above the clouds a dirty snowball makes a swan dive toward the Sun, anointing our mostly unsuspecting heads with an asperges of cometary dust. Lavabis me.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Red fish, blue fish...

In his autobiography, the brilliant physicist John Archibald Wheeler makes this confession of faith: "Whatever can be, is." He goes further: "Whatever can be, must be." Anything not prohibited by the laws of nature, exists, he says.

Well, that's an extravagent claim, but it passed my mind the other day when my colleague Maura T. invited me up to the Science Building to see a strange creature she had just added to the aquarium.


Here's a pic, Chaetopterus, the parchment tube worm, contained here in a plastic tube. In nature, it makes its own U-shaped "parchment" tube, which, except for the open ends, is buried in mud on the seafloor. And there it lives, sifting nourishment from the water it pumps through the tube.

What a goofy critter! It looks like something snapped together from a K'Nex kit.

Some years ago, in a Globe column, I mentioned Dr. Seuss's Grickily Gractus, a bird "that lays eggs on a cactus," as an example of a wildly improbable creature. A reader then sent me a photograph of a bird on the island of Bonaire perched -- where else? -- in a nest on a cactus. Apparently not even Dr. Seuss can think up a creature too odd to exist.

A biologist friend who had returned from a field trip to the upper Rio Negro in Brazil told me about a school of Curimata fish, in their tens of thousands, that passed under his boat, filling the water and air with a "metallic buzz saw sound" (caused, my friend discovered, by the stridulation of the fish's air-filled swim bladder by a bone). Singing fish! Not even Seuss could think of that.

Cactus-laying birds and singing fish are fine lessons in the diversity of life on Earth. Every niche in every habitat is filled. And for every creature alive today, a thousand others, even more improbable because they are less familiar, have lived before and become extinct.

All life on Earth is related by common descent, and there has not been enough time to exhaust the possibilities. Nor are terrestrial habitats infinite in number. Still, the astonishing diversity of life bears witness to the truth of Wheeler's conjecture, at least in broad outline.

The chemistry of carbon-based life presumably applies throughout the universe, and the universe presents us with the prospect of hundreds of billions of galaxies, chockablock with stars and planets. The number of worlds, and therefore habitats, is unimaginably large, perhaps infinite. Who is willing to bet against any possibility in all that vastness?

Boo!

A halloween treat from Anne (click to enlarge).

And for another artist, see this week's Musing.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Kneeling in the grass

Our militant scientist atheists are front and center these days, with full page ads in the newspapers for their books, a front page review in the NYT Book Review (Richard Dawkins), an op-ed essay in the Boston Globe (Sam Harris), and a cover story in Wired magazine called "The New Atheism" (Dawkins, Harris and Daniel Dennett). They have certainly roiled the waters of religious debate with their scathing attacks on theistic belief, evoking equally indignant rebuttals.

What we seldom hear on either side of the contretemps are two points I have often emphasized here:

1) Do away with the notion of God as a person and there's not much left to debate. It has always seemed to me that the personhood of God is a pathetically idolatrous meme. If the best we can do for whatever it is that creates and sustains the (possibly infinite) universe is a somewhat exalted version of ourselves, then we have paltry imaginations. Saint Columbanus, a 6th-century Irish monk, asked in a sermon: "Who shall examine the secret depths of God? Who shall dare to treat of the eternal source of the universe? Who shall boast of knowing the infinite God, who fills all and surrounds all, who enters into all and passes beyond all, who occupies all and escapes all?" Who indeed?

2) What then is God? Why is there something rather than nothing (the ontological argument)? Where did the universe come from (the cosmological argument)? Why does the universe seem perfectly tuned for conscious life (the design argument)? And why -- why, oh why -- is it so hard for so many people to say those three little words "I don't know"?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Crack-up


Here is a sight near my Path I haven't shared before (click to enlarge). Every time I see it I stop involuntarily in my tracks and stare, as if I were a schoolboy standing beside his desk, fixed in the teacher's stern accusing glare. I know this glacial erratic boulder and white pine are trying to tell me something, but maybe I'm just too dumb too learn.

So I say: Hey, Teach. In one of his essays, The Colloid and the Crystal, nature writer Joseph Wood Krutch wrote about opposing forces in nature. "Order and obedience are the primary characteristics of that which is not alive," he wrote. "Life is rebellious and anarchical."

Teacher doesn't bat an eye. So I think: Perhaps Krutch was wrong to identify obedience with non-life and rebellion with life. We know, for example, that the inanimate six-pointed snowflake, so apparently lawful and static, is shivering with molecular vibrations. And we know too that life would not be possible unless nature had contrived elaborate molecular machinery to detect and repair any rebellious deviation of an organism's genetic code. The inanimate and the animate are equally products of law and chaos.

Still, the teacher's accusing glare. Well, I say, Krutch also said that "the ultimate All is not one thing but two."

Teacher sighs. Too neat. Too pat. She's right, of course. What is that damn tree doing? Surely it could have found an easier route to the sun.

Because we are willful creatures we are inclined to see purpose and intention where there is none. So maybe there is no lesson here at all, maybe what I see is just a car wreck of chance, a juxtaposition of improbabilities. Maybe Teach is just waiting for me to figure out that things don't have to mean, just be.

But I make a last ditch effort, quoting Krutch again: "I need, so I am told, a faith, something outside myself to which I can be loyal...and I know, though vaguely, what I think that is. Wordsworth's God had his dwelling in the light of setting suns. But the God who dwells there seems to me most probably the God of the atom, the star, and the crystal. Mine, if I have one, reveals Himself in another class of phenomena. He makes the grass green and the blood red."

Or maybe it's all of it, Teach. The star and the grass, the atom and the blood, the glacial erratic boulder and the pumping capillaries of the pine tree, sunlight, soil, quartz and feldspar, the straining, muscular force of sap -- and the crazy, exhilarating, life-affirming car wreck of chance.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The gift of sleep


naturalist and Bearwalking recently gave us links to low-temperature scanning electron microscope photographs of snow crystals. (Click to enlarge)

Hans Castorp, on Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, looked at snow crystals on his sleeve and found them "uncannily anti-organic, life denying." The effect was terrifying.

Beautiful, yes, but frightening. The cold, aseptic stillness of the inorganic. These are the insignia death wears on its sleeve.

But on an even more microscopic scale the crystals are aquiver with the eternal and ubiquitous vibrations of atomic matter. Looked at close enough, the icy hardness we see in the photograph dissolves into pure song, a kind of music that no human ear is keen enough to hear. The hardness, the Euclidian perfection, the life-denying fixity of the ice crystals are illusions of human perception. And just as well. If we could see or hear the commotion at the heart of every ice crystal -- every cloud, every stone, every cell in our body, the whole of creation burning like the bush Moses saw while tending sheep on the mountain -- all that agitation might be scarier than death.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

R-rated genes?

A film called Saw was advertised in Sunday's NYT with a full page ad. Rated R: "Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Strong grisly violence and gore, sequences of terror and torture, nudity and language." On the evidence of print and TV ads, this seems to be typical of the horror genre today: gratuitous violence of the most graphic sort, usually directed towards scantily-clad beautiful young people. It is simply inconceivable to me that any parent or guardian would accompany a child to such a film.

Then there's the video games, which kids are playing pretty much without adult supervision, and which are getting more graphically violent all the time.

What is this taste we have for gore? Is blood lust part of human nature? Certainly, it is nothing new. The Romans turned torture and carnage into mass entertainment.

I wrote about the violence of the Roman Colosseum in my novel Valentine (due out here and in France early in the new year), but if the novel were made into a film I would have to skip the screening. I walked out of Gladiator. If you asked, I would say that I wrote graphically about Roman violence as a dispassionate literary examination of human nature. My hero, Valentine, a physician, throws up on his first and only visit to the amphitheater as a spectator.

But maybe in writing the book I was satisfying a blood lust of my own in a self-deceptive, vicarious way. I don't underestimate the influence of genes, especially when it comes to a male preoccupation with sex and violence. One need only open the newspaper on any day to guess that the sex chromosomes carry some fearsome biological baggage that expresses itself almost exclusively in males.

Each of us, male and female, lives our life with an angel on the right shoulder and a devil on the left, and we are still a long way from knowing what part of either voice is nature or nurture.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A few more thoughts about the hours of monastic prayer

In the introduction to a book of photographs of the medieval Cistercian monastery at Le Thoronnet, France, Francois Cali connects the hours of monastic prayer with medieval songs and poems about the quest for the Holy Grail. In his conception, each of the canonical hours had symbolic meaning:

Matins, the adventure of fear.
Lauds, the adventure of the Sun-Christ
Prime, the adventure of the Rule, or of order in general
Terce, the adventure of the Word
Sext, the adventure of the absolute
None, the adventure of God's death
Vespers, the adventure of the marvelous
Compline, the adventure of the dark night

Thus, each day was an arc of prayer from darkness into light and into darkness again, each day a repetition of the great human adventure, the quest for meaning, for the Grail as symbol of that meaning, for God.

What a marvelous conception. The focus is on the quest, not the thing searched for. The seeking, not the sought. We live, of course, in a different time and the categories of medieval theology are strange to us. Those of us who embrace the scientific way of knowing are properly suspicious of claims for the supernatural or miraculous. But because we understand that scientific knowledge is tentative and partial, we welcome too the insights of the poets, artists and -- yes -- contemplatives who illuminate the ineffable. String theory may be a holy grail of sorts for string theorists, but science is not the thing that consumes our thoughts in the darkest of the morning hours. We wait for light, for order. We ascend with the Sun to the bright zenith of the day, knowing too well that we will soon weary of the light. We wait -- always expectantly -- for the rare glimpse of the marvelous, for the peace of the dark night.

The quest is as relevant for the secular humanist as for the traditionally religious, perhaps more so, because we are less likely to assume we have attained the Truth, less likely to objectify the thing seen only through a glass darkly, the Deus Absconditus of the mystics. We choose instead to live our lives in the endlessly regenerative cycles of the day and year and human life that were the archetypes of monastic prayer.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Morning prayer

My friend the Reverend George P. invited me to be the guest reflector at Night Prayer on Sunday evening. Night Prayer! I love the canonical hours of the monastic tradition -- Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline (Night Prayer) -- and wish I could align my life more consistently with a regular celebration of the day -- this day, every day. I might have been, I think, a Trappist monk had it not been for little things like sex, and falling in love, and theology. Prayer, as I understand it, is a matter of focusing the mind and senses to more fully experience the world -- what Thomas Merton called "a silent listening of the heart." Over the generations and throughout the world humans have developed dozens of techniques to enhance perception, to open the windows of the soul. The monastic tradition of canonical prayer is one such technique. There is nothing mystical or supernatural about this. It is simply a matter of paying attention.

Did I say "simply"? Nothing is more difficult. The distractions are generally overwhelming. Give me then those rare moments of darkness, silence, a Chopin Nocturne -- or solitude on a summer's day in a meadow where a spider spins a web one silken thread at a time. These postings are prayers of a sort, composed each morning over coffee in a quiet corner of the College Commons, sunlight streaming through the shadows -- small personal psalms cast onto the sea of the internet like messages in bottles, not anticipating that they will wash up upon a receptive shore, but merely because it becomes us all to listen and to praise.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

It's lovely to live on a raft

I'll have to take Huck's word for it, never having rafted myself. But I've always imagined the Earth as a sort of raft adrift on the great river of the Milky Way. Where are we heading? See this week's Musing.

Anne's offering this week was created, I assume, for the two dear people illuminated. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

You'll be the death of me yet

What parent hasn't said that to a child. Or at least thought it.

"You're taking years off my life," we say. And maybe we mean it and maybe we don't, but it seems like all that energy we are investing in our offspring must come from somewhere.

Scientists talk about the "disposable soma" theory. (Soma refers to an organism's body as distinct from its reproductive cells.) According to the theory, producing and raising children diverts the body's limited resources away from the task of maintaining and repairing cells, with early aging as the result. The theory has been pretty much confirmed with fruit flies and mice. The data for humans is less conclusive.

Whatever the research shows, parents feel the "disposable soma" in their bones, and every sleepless night minding a colicky baby or waiting up for a tardy teen uses up some of it. We don't need scientists to tell us that enduring a petulant 13-year-old or putting a kid though college takes years off our lives.

But so what? Even if having kids leads us to an early grave, we would still choose to do it. Kids may literally be the death of us, but they are also the best thing in our lives. Especially now, as grandparents, when our children are friends rather than responsibilities, and -- heh, heh -- we get to watch them losing their own disposable cells to the next generation.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The value of consensus

We don't exactly come into the world as blank slates. We may, for example, be genetically predisposed to self-transcendence (imagining ourselves part of a reality greater than ourselves). We may also have an innate willingness to accept the instructions of parents. Evolutionary biologists offer reasonable grounds for the selection of both qualities, and the geneticist Dean Hamer believes he has demonstrated a gene for the former.

Put the two qualities together and it is easy to understand why religion is a nearly universal human characteristic, and why the vast majority of people profess the religion into which they are born.

This last fact should give every thoughtful believer pause.

Theresa, through her daughter's good graces, provided me with an article from the May/June 20006 issue of Child Development, called "Trust in Testimony: How Children Learn About Science and Religion," that demonstrates rather convincingly the dependence of children on the testimony of adults.

Is our belief in a Sun-centered solar system based on the same adult assurances as, say, our belief in the resurrection of Jesus? Well, yes, to a certain extent I suppose it is. After all, we have no personal evidence for either belief.

But there is a difference. The number of the world's religions is multitudinous and they make mutually contradictory claims about the world. Science, by contrast, has devised a hard-won path toward consensus. Every child on the planet who studies science in school will be a heliocentrist.

Imagine, for the moment, that with equal seriousness I tell a four-year-old child that an invisible guardian angel walks at her side, protecting her from harm, and reinforce my story with a picture, say. I also tell the child that billions of invisible particles called neutrinos from the center of the Sun are pouring though her face as we speak. One story is no more or less farfetched than the other. I'm not a child psychologist, but it's my guess that the child will more likely internalize the former story rather than the latter. After all, an angel represents only a modest extension from the common experience of children.

Later on, perhaps as an adolescent or adult, the child might consider the sobering fact that only her religious confreres believe in guardian angels, whereas all scientists the world over believe in neutrinos. It's the rare adult who has mastered the theoretical and experimental evidence for those elusive particles from the Sun, but we trust the physicists, at least provisionally, because we are impressed by their track record for generating reliable, useful knowledge, and because we understand that their claims are supported by a broad consensus among those who are qualified to judge the evidence.

Truth is elusive, but it is certainly not defined by an accident of birth.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mad, mad, mad

The glory days of the mad scientist were the 1950s. And the archetypal mad-scientist film was The Thing.

The eponymous creature crash-lands its flying saucer near an American research station at the North Pole, setting off all kinds of scientific instruments: sound detectors, seismographs, magnetometers, compasses. "This geiger counter's going crazy!" says one young researcher. "Could be the Russians," replies dashing Air Force captain Pat Hendry. "They're all over the Pole like flies."

Yes, the Cold War is raging, but it's not the Russkies this time. The Thing is a giant manlike plant, intent on sucking human blood. What to do? Captain Hendry organizes an assault. The chief scientist, Dr. Carrington, has other ideas. Destruction of the monster would betray science, he insists. This walking carrot from outer space knows "the secrets of the stars," and must be studied.

Carrington is impressed by the Thing's exceptional brain -- pure vegetable intelligence unencumbered by human distractions like love and sex. "No emotions, no heart, our superior in every way!" the mad doctor enthuses, revealing what Hollywood thinks of science at its worst.

You can guess how this all turns out. Carrington rushes up to the monster shouting, "I'm not your enemy. I'm a scientist." Whack! So much for scientific curiosity. Captain Hendry saves the day by frying the Thing with high-voltage electricity.

Ah, that was a time when science was held in enough regard to make the demonization of science possible. No Mad Scientists these days. The horror genre now belongs to psychotic villains of no particular talent who love to slice up nubile teens for the pure hell of it. We have become more interested in the worlds inside our heads than in the common world outside.

For science to be a source of fantasy horror, it must first be held in some respect. Maybe we have no more Mad Scientists because we have no more science heroes.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Imagination and knowledge

A few weeks ago I mentioned a quote attributed to Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." I had not been able to discover its source.

Reader Michael Medeiros came to the rescue. The quote is from an interview by George Sylvester Viereck in the October 26, 1929 issue of the Saturday Evening Post -- which I now have in hand.

GSV: "If you owe so little to the experience of others, how do you account for sudden leaps forward in the sphere of science? Do you ascribe your own discoveries to intuition or inspiration?"

AE: "I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am. When two expeditions of scientists...went forth to test my theory of relativity, I was convinced that their conclusions would tally with my hypothesis. I was not surprised when the eclipse of May 29, 1919, confirmed my intuitions. I would have been surprised if I had been wrong."

GSV: "Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?"

AE: "I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."

Well, yes. But imagination without knowledge is pie in the sky. If the photographic images of those stars had not shifted by the predicted amount during the total solar eclipse of 1919, Einstein's beautifully imagined theory would have counted for nothing.

His theory also predicted that the universe must expand or contract -- a result which his intuition and imagination were not prepared to accept. So he added a term to his theory to keep things steady. Then, a few years later, Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason at the Mount Wilson Observatory discovered that the galaxies are in fact racing away from each other. Einstein hopped a train to California to have a look. The red-shifts were unmistakable. The universe is expanding. Knowledge trumps imagination.

The lever by which we pry open the world's secrets may be imagination, but the fulcrum is knowledge.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The problem of good


A visit to Wayne's homepage revealed this marvelous photograph of a saddleback caterpillar, which I reproduce here with his permission. A spectacular little beast, with, yes, a fine green "saddle blanket" and brown "saddle." But what are those saddlebags? They are the cocoons of a braconid wasp. The wasp lays its eggs in the caterpillar's flesh. The larvae feed on the caterpillar from the inside until they're ready to emerge through small holes they make in the caterpillar's skin, to which they attach their cocoons. Bad news for the caterpillar.

But that's the way life works. Predation and murder are nature's modi operandi. If the saddleback caterpillar had conscious awareness, it might well ponder the "problem of evil": Why does a benevolent God allow the wasp to prey on my flesh? But, of course, good and evil have nothing to do with it. Only a person who believes in a omniscient, omnipowerful, just and loving personal God has a problem of evil.

The rest of us have a problem of good.

The wasp has evolved a fine balance with the caterpillar; it must keep the host alive long enough for the next generation of wasps to complete their metamorphoses. Humans have apparently evolved a tendency towards altruism. The long term success of our genes depends upon the collective welfare of our close relations. The Golden Rule seems to have a biological basis, at least within the clan.

But unlike the caterpillar and the wasp, we have a tangle of neurons at the top of our spine that is able to extrapolate the Golden Rule beyond the biological imperative. Natural selection has not had time to adapt to a world of 6.5 billion technologically-advanced humans who depend utterly upon one another for survival . We are in new territory, with only our brains to guide us. An omniscient, omnipowerful, just and loving personal God is not going to pull our fat from the fire.

Forget the so-called problem of evil. Think of the saddleback as the Earth and the wasp as ourselves. How do we sustain ourselves -- all 6.5 billion of us -- without killing the host? That's the problem of good.

The resolution? I can only speak for myself. Tread lightly. Be gentle. Attend the beautiful. Vote for those who know that the wasp and the caterpillar are all of a piece.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Commercial break


There is some discussion of books in Comments. The new matched edition of Soul of the Night and Honey from Stone from Cowley would make a particularly lovely holiday gift. Send them to me before December 10 with a SASE (%Stonehill College, No. Easton, MA 02356) and I'll happily autograph them. And thank you all for the kind words.

Women in science

A week or two ago I mentioned here the names carved on the facade of the original building of the Boston Public Library, designed by Charles Follen McKim and opened in 1895. A librarian at the BPL has very kindly provided me with a list of the names, more than 500 in all, a kind of roll-of-honor of (mostly) Western civilization.

With few exceptions, only last names are used, and there are some I would not be able to identify without help. Philosophers, inventors, writers, artists, military men, religious leaders, mathematicians, politicians. Scientists are well represented, from Hipparchus to Agassiz. Women make a modest showing in literature (Sappho, Austen, Bronte, George Eliot, etc.), but the only two women scientists I notice are Mary Somerville and Maria Mitchell.

It would have been interesting if the new 1972 wing of the BPL, designed by Philip Johnson, had been inscribed with an updated list of names from the intervening 77 years. We can be sure that women would have figured more prominently. Here is a roll-call of women in science from a 2002 issue of Discover magazine. If you scroll down to the Rs you will see why I appreciate the greater opportunities that women now enjoy. Let's hope that my female grandchildren -- should any of them drift towards science -- will meet with even fewer impediments to success.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Limpid lucidity?

Anne sent me the pic below (a page from her journal), not to be posted but -- well, you'd have to ask her. She has given me permission to use it for her Sunday offering (click to enlarge).

I would like to aspire to these qualities in my writing, but I'm not sure I have achieved "unconcerned coolness" in this week's Musing. I suppose when it comes right down to it, I'm an eternally struggling child of the West.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A cusp of history

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature. I took note of one of his novels in my most recent book, Walking Zero. Because the subject is topical, I excerpt it here:

There is a wonderful novel by Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most popular contemporary writer, that takes us to that moment in world history when Europe crossed an intellectual divide from which there would be no turning back. Part murder mystery, part love story, part historical fiction, Pamuk's novel is called My Name Is Red, and is set in Istanbul in the late 1590s. The Ottoman sultan Murat II has secretly commissioned a book that will celebrate his life and empire, to be illustrated by a group of master miniaturists, men trained in the artistic styles of the great traditional masters of Islamic text illumination. Why secrecy? The illustrations will be in the new European style of realistic representation, with shadow, perspective, and all the other tricks-in-trade of European Renaissance art -- all heretical by Islamic standards. Shockingly, the book will also include a recognizable portrait of the Sultan himself, not as a stylized appendage to Allah's word, but as an object of admiration in itself. Portraiture, of course, had recently been brought to a high level of accomplishment in Europe; think, for example, of Hans Holbein's familiar portrait of Henry VIII. Within sultan Murat's secret book, innovation confronts tradition, secularism confronts theocracy, individual artistic style confronts anonymous conformity to established modes of expression. Soon, two men are dead, and we have a baffling murder mystery on our hands that is not resolved until the final pages of the novel.

Pamuk's story concerns itself with art, but of course something else, not unrelated, was happening in Europe in the 1590s. Astronomers debated the truth of the Copernican system of the world, which removed the Earth (and humankind!) from the center of the universe. Anatomists dissected the human body, and used their careful observations to challenge ancient learning. Galileo began his studies of terrestrial motion. Soon the telescope and microscope would reveal new worlds, William Harvey would discover the circulation of the blood, and William Gilbert would explain the magnetic influence of the Earth. This upheaval in science can trace its beginning to art.

Once an artist such as Albrecht Durer could take as his subject a single rabbit or patch of weeds, and describe with lifelike realism every hair and whisker, every leaf and stem, the Scientific Revolution was inevitable. Once an artist, such as Durer, prominently signed his work and took pride in his individual style, the Reformation and collapse of monolithic theology was inevitable. With the Renaissance, Europe embraced progress, individual creativity, and empirical learning, and turned its back on tradition, religious conformity, and the authority of the past.

As the 16th century began, Islamic civilization was experiencing a Golden Age, and one might reasonably have thought that the East was destined for cultural and military dominance over the West. It was not to be. The Turks were turned back from the walls of Vienna in 1529, and beaten at sea at Lepanto in 1571. But it was in the realm of ideas, not on the battlefield, that Europe gained its primary ascendancy. In his novel, Pamuk describes a large mechanical clock with statuary sent as a gift to Sultan Murat II by England's Queen Elizabeth I, meant to represent, presumably, the best of European scientific, technical and artistic innovation. Will Islam follow Europe's lead? Will Murat's illustrated book, in the European style of realistic representation, set a new standard of artistic illustration? Murat dies. His less forward-looking successor, Ahmet I, takes a mace to Elizabeth's gift clock and bashes it to pieces in the name of Allah -- and returns Islamic book illustration to slavish imitation of the past. Pamuk's wonderfully original whodunit evokes a moment in Islamic history replete with all of the conflicted loyalties -- to past and future -- that are Islam today.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Yin and yang

In Comments, brome grass drew our attention to a remarkable Astronomy Picture of the Day that bears an uncanny similarity to the classic Yin-Yang symbol of Eastern philosophy.

What we are looking at is a whole-sky map showing the motion of our local group of galaxies (including the Milky Way) against the cosmic background radiation, the afterglow of the big bang. The computer-generated colors represent the so-called Doppler shift -- the same physical effect employed in a police radar gun to measure relative speed. We are moving toward the "blue" part of the sky, and away from the "red" part, and our motion shows up as a compression or stretching of the measured radiation.

So is the universe congruent with the diagramatic insight of the wise old East? No. The similarity of the sky map with the classic Yin-Yang symbol is an artifact of this particular map projection. Any other projection would have blue and red regions, but their arrangement would not be so evocative.

And therein lies a tale.

Most prescientific explanations of the world are based on the kind of dualities represented by Yin and Yang. Male and female. Day and night. Heat and cold. Active and passive. The Aristoltelian physics of the premodern West employed polarities: heat and cold, dry and wet, and so on. Most prescientific religions embrace some sort of Manichean duality: God/Satan, order/chaos, good/evil, etc.

The opposed qualities of a Yin-Yang scheme are generally mixed, but polarities are key to the thinking of most prescientific people. Many of our contemporaries still view the world in stark polarities: The Shining City on a Hill vs. The Axis of Evil, for example, or the Saved and the Damned.

Modern science takes exception to this rule. Hot and cold, for example, are not two species in opposition, but different kinetic energies of particles along a continuous scale. The same can be said for the map above, which shows a continuous blending of colors (relative velocities).

For those of us imbued with the scientific spirit, the world is not black and white, but brushed with shades of gray. We are suspicious of dualities (natural/supernatural, body/soul, matter/spirit, us/them). On the whole, we are less given to dogmas and True Belief. The success -- so far -- of the scientific way of knowing suggests that the universe more likely anticipates Newton's and Leibnitz's calculus (a language of continuities) than it does the Yin and Yang of Chinese philosophers.

Which reminds me...

Yesterday I quoted a line from the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: "Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare."

Many years ago, when I was a young faculty member teaching a night school class in geometry to eke out the family finances, I walked into my classroom one evening and found chalked on the board, "You kids alone have looked on beauty bare."

I recognized the handwriting. It was my colleague Frank R. of the English department in his usual punning mode.

Which prompted a few rejoinders from me:

You, Kidd, alone have looked on booty bare.

And the not quite so punny...

The Beast alone has looked on Beauty bare.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Beauty bare

Look at that computer-generated image of the polio virus in yesterday's post. The stars and pinwheels on its surface. "Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare," wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. Euclid was a geometrician. The beauty of a virus is geometrical.

A virus has reduced life to its irreducible essence: a few genes whose only business is to make copies of themselves. They make do without the usual apparatus of reproduction. No flowers or bright plumage or paired sexes. No warbling or chirping or whispering sweet nothings. Just opportunistic DNA or RNA in a protein coat.

A virus alone on a desert island could never make copies of itself. Two viruses alone on a desert island could never make copies of themselves. They need a host.

Viruses lack the genetic information to make their own energy or proteins. They can only reproduce by hijacking the chemical apparatus of an invaded cell. Human cells, for example. What they leave behind is a mess.

Their name comes from the Latin for "poison."

The beauty of a virus is a matter of necessity. A virus has only enough genes to code for a few proteins. To build its shell, a virus must use the same few proteins over and over, like the repetitive pattern of patches on a soccer ball. Hence, the stars and pinwheels of the polio virus.

Buckminster Fuller didn't invent the geodesic dome. Nature has been wrapping viral genes in geodesic domes since the dawn of time. And inside each dome -- a single or double strand of chemical instructions with a blind, dogmatic message: "Build more."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

"We have met the enemy and they are us." Pogo

No one who was child in America during the early 1950s will forget polio. Our summers of fear. Fear of public swimming pools. Of the invisible stalker that could come seemingly out of nowhere and strike down the healthiest child. Nearly 60,000 cases in 1952, at the height of the epidemic. Someone near and dear to me was a victim the following summer. In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself crippled by the disease, established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, soon known as The March of Dimes. Medical science was mobilized.

We know the triumphant story of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and the development of successful vaccines. In 1957, after mass inoculations, there were only 6000 cases in the U. S. By 1977, the wild polio virus had been eliminated from the country. The entire Western Hemisphere was certified polio-free in 1994.

The World Health Organization had hoped to drive the virus from the face of the Earth by the year 2000. Alas, war and poverty stood in the way. The global eradication of polio might still happen, but as usual humans are their own worst enemy. When will we learn that we are all in this together, one species, indistinguishable to viruses and other pathogens that take no notice of ethnicity, race or religion? Where is the Jonas Salk or Albert Sabin who can inoculate us against tribalism and religious superstition?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Beautiful flyer

Last Friday -- the first crisp, cold day of October -- I was the guest of Professor Mooney's class in environmental ethics for a walk along the Path. Among many other things, we talked about milkweed and monarchs and Mexican refuges and migration and DNA and assorted related mysteries and mischief. Having said my goodbyes, I walked home along the Path and found this poor creature in the grass, barely alive, one monarch that waited too long to depart, one less butterfly among the tens of millions that gather each winter in a small patch of fir trees in the mountains of central Mexico. Butterflies as thick as leaves -- a sight to see, holy and inspiring.

We talked too about the various transformations of the landscape: geologic upheavals over hundreds of millions of years, ice ages, native Americans, European colonists, industrialization, Frederick Law Olmstead, suburbanization, all of which left their mark. The woods and meadows we walked through are now in the care of the Natural Resources Trust of Easton, and my companions too represented something relatively new. Only in recent years has a course in environmental ethics been offered at my college, as part of a growing worldwide awareness that our moral obligations extend beyond the human species. Just in time, perhaps, for the monarchs.

Monday, October 09, 2006

On being a Catholic agnostic

The Catholic Church may soon reject the concept of limbo, the supposed place where unbaptized babies spend eternity. Not even the most hard-nosed theologian of yore was apparently willing to send those innocent darlings to hell, though tainted as they were with original sin. But without the water of salvation they couldn't see God. So there they reside, for time without end, in an exurb of heaven devoid of the Beatific Vision.

Clearly, limbo is an embarrassment. But if you are going to rid theology of every concept that stands in contradiction to the modern empirical way of knowing, why stop with limbo? Surely limbo is no more farfetched than Dante's paradisio and inferno, no matter how you gussy up the latter concepts in vaguely modern garb. Is theology a parsing of improbabilities?

And yet, as readers of yesterday's postings know, I will call myself a Catholic -- adjectivally speaking. Not because I can recite the Creed (I can't), or because I practice that faith (I don't), but because the nitty-gritty of Catholicism went into my system like mother's milk. No one of us can free ourself entirely from the cultural influences that shaped our ways of thinking and experiencing the world. And, besides, I cosset in my heart a heap of affection for the Catholic tradition. I have been happily associated with Catholic educational institutions for most of my life.

I am repelled, of course, by the triumphalism, paternalism and authoritarianism of the institutional Church, its Jansenism, miracle-mongering, and misogyny. But the sacramental tradition is a treasured part of my being. A sacrament is a "visible sign of invisible grace," according to the Church, and "invisible," as I understand it, need not mean "supernatural." I experience every aspect of the natural world as the "visible" surface of a reality that is deep and mysterious beyond my knowing. A hundred years ago, who could have imagined the dervish dance of the DNA or the big bang ripples that gave rise to galaxies. Who today can imagine what we will know a hundred years hence? The world is shot through with a grandeur and mystery that now and again flames out "like shining from shook foil." And so I wait, alert, for the angel, that rare random descent.

I love the Catholic liturgical tradition -- the wax, water, fire, chrism, candlelight, bread, wine, palm fronds, colors, chants, bells -- the whole sensual celebration of the material world. I love the Campbellesque, sun-centered cycle of the liturgical year, and the canonical hours of the day. I love the monastic tradition of a life lived with a balance of physical labor, intellectual study, and prayer, the last of which I would define -- with Thomas Merton -- as a quiet listening of the heart, or, more simply, attention. I love the tradition of creation spirituality that I have elsewhere called "the parallel Church," heretical to be sure, but in love with the world and suspicious of dualities -- Columbanus, John Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich, Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Teilhard de Chardin, and all the rest. I love the whole smoky, sexy physicality of Catholicism that inspired the art of Gislebertus, Bernini, and Undset, that sent Heloise and Abelard careening into mad abandon and bedeviled Clare and Francis. I love the quintessentially Catholic dark night of the soul as much as I love the luminous Easter symbolism that goes with a planet tipped cockeyed on its axis.

Can I have all of that without embracing the tottering panoply of miracles and the supernatural?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

We have seen a recent spate of books by scientists treating of science and faith. See this week's Musing.

Anne's "The Tree of Light." She tells me it was inspired by Lyra's dream. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Quasi modo geniti infantes

In recent years, evolutionary biologists and psychologists have proposed plausible selective pressures for a universal human religious instinct, and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell has brought the evolutionary origins of religion into the public eye. Geneticist Dean Hamer believes he has identified a gene for what he calls "self-transcendence," a possible first step tying religion to DNA.

There is no dearth of studies of the cultural origins and history of religion, including, of course, the epic investigations of Sir James Frazer and Joseph Campbell.

Astonishingly, what seems to be missing are empirical studies of the development of religious ideas in children, with a view to disentangling nature and nurture.

A friend who is a developmental psychologist pointed me to Robert Coles' The Spiritual Life of Children, which is certainly interesting, but too anecdotal to be of much help understanding the origin of religious thinking. We need something more akin to Piaget's groundbreaking studies of the development of physical thinking in children. To be really useful, such studies should be cross-cultural, with appropriate controls and common protocols.

Does a child have an innate sense of the sacred? How do the animism and artificialism documented by Piaget play into the notion of a supreme being? Do children project aspects of the parent onto their developing concept of God? Where do "invisible friends" fit in the story? Miracles or causality: Which is the primary concept? How do dreams relate to the concept of the supernatural? And so on.

All of this seems a rich field of investigation. If such studies are out there, I am not aware of them. I would be grateful for leads from readers of this blog.

(P.S. The title above is the first words of the Introit of the Catholic Mass for the First Sunday after Easter, traditionally called (therefore) Quasimodo Sunday. They translate "Like newborn infants..." I will let the reader make the connection with Victor Hugo's hunchback.)

Friday, October 06, 2006

The machine in the garden

With last Sunday's Musing on Thoreau, I recommended D. B. Johnson's illustrated children's book Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. Johnson takes as his theme a line from Walden in which Thoreau contrasts his own day-long walk to Fitchburg with the journey of a neighbor who works all day to earn the train fare. They arrive in Fitchburg at the same time. The message is that Henry (the bear without a last name) has used his time more wisely.

This morning I read reader reviews on Amazon. Adults loved the book -- as I did. The only review by a child -- a seven-year-old -- said, "I would have rather been Henry's friend because the work seemed like it might be fun, and I would ride a train for anything." The four-year-old child of another reviewer had pretty much the same reaction.

Take Amazon reviews with a heaping tablespoon of salt. Many writers impose upon their friends to write gushing praise, to up their number of stars. (So far, thankfully, I am not aware that any writer friend of mine engages in this practice.) But since the children's comments here are negative we might reasonably assume authenticity, and concede that kids are as interested in trains (even at the expense of a day's work) as in berry picking. Maybe more so.

Four decades ago, Leo Marx told us (as if we didn't know) that industrialization and the pastoral ideal are equally parts of the American character. I would suggest that they are equally parts of the human character, and that kids anywhere on the planet would be as thrilled to ride a train (or an airplane, or a skateboard, etc.) as to pick posies in a meadow with Henry -- which is pretty much the point I was making in my Musing (and in The Path).

Environmentalists tend to oppose the natural and artificial, at the latter's expense, as if a 747 weren't as much a part of planetary evolution as is a monarch butterfly. Our task as environmentalists is not to expunge the artificial, but to create an artificial environment that nourishes the human spirit while honoring the integrity of non-human nature -- a devilishly difficult task that will require the best angelic efforts of both sauntering Henry and his hardworking, train-riding neighbor.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The power of positive thinking?

Here is a graphic that should be of interest to anyone who cares what the world will look like 25 years hence, from the October Atlantic, drawn from a report titled "Math and Science Education in a Global Age: What the U.S. Can Learn From China," published by the Asia Society.

The top graph shows scores on a standardized science test by eighth grade students in Australia (left), the USA (right) and several Asian nations. The bottom graph shows the "self-confidence" expressed by the same students in their ability to learn science.

Self-confidence will not be enough to maintain American precedence in science, medicine and technology. We should, of course, be happy to see other formerly impoverished nations enter the ranks of the rich and powerful; American precedence, after all, is not the God-given prerogative assumed by the Christian Right. But as we slip behind in science, more than economic and technological precedence is at stake. So too are the democratic and liberal social values that were the Enlightenment corollary of the scientific way of knowing.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

On the beach

A few days ago, I was walking the promenade along Pacific Beach in San Diego, which surely attracts one of the hippest, tannest, most unconventional crowds of people on Earth. Without tattoos or multiple piercings I felt out of place, but enjoyed the company all the same. Three times I saw folks wearing tees (several-sizes too small, of course) that read "Imagination is more important than knowledge: Einstein."

I know the quotation. But when or where did Einstein say it? It is listed in Alice Calaprice's The Quotable Einstein (1996 edition) as "unattributed." A brief Google turned up more than half-a-million hits for the quote, but not its source. Can a reader help?

In my experience the quote has become a mantra for the New Age, a presumed justification from the frizzy-haired ubergenius for a life of anything-goes hallucination. Drop out and tune in. Which is surely not what Einstein had in mind -- if he said it at all.

Imagination may be more important than knowledge if you want to be an Einstein, but you better have one helluva lot of knowledge to start with. By the time Einstein had his great ideas he had mastered the physics of his time.

Would I rather live in a country ruled by a tut-tutting cabal of tweedy, wine-sipping Princeton professors or an anarchic swarm of grass-fueled, roller-bladed hipsters. Well, neither, actually. Surely, knowledge and imagination are equally necessary for the good life. The great task of child-rearing and education, it always seemed to me, is promoting a synergistic balance of reliable public knowledge and private flights of fancy. It is when the two feed off each other that all great science and art has its beginning.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

I cannot live without books: Thomas Jefferson

I was reminded this morning of a remark President John F. Kennedy made in 1962 when he welcomed forty-nine Nobel Prize winners to the White House: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Jefferson was not a perfect man by a long shot, but he was certainly a man of intellect and science. In addition to his extraordinary political contributions, he was also an architect, horticulturist, paleontologist, archeologist, inventor -- and not least, an author and musician. Among his correspondents and friends were such eminent scientists of the time as Joseph Priestly, Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Edward Jenner, and, well, almost anyone else you'd care to name. He understood well the connection between science and democracy, as articulated more recently by Jacob Bronowski: "The society of scientists must be a democracy. It can keep alive and grow only by a constant tension between dissent and respect, between independence from the views of others and tolerance for them."

Jefferson demanded empirical evidence for his beliefs. When two Yale professors described a meteorite that fell in Connecticut, he is said to have remarked, "It is easier to believe that Yankee professors would lie, than that stones would fall from heaven." He was wrong about the celestial stones, but right to be skeptical. For Jefferson, the Divine Will was not evidenced in kings, prelates or holy books, but in the natural order, to be made evident by patient observation and experiment. His greatest experiment was the Nation -- prosperous, free and democratic.

What a contrast to our present leader, who by all accounts is oblivious to the scientific spirit, and for whom the reading of a book is an event worthy of the nightly news.

(I have been away from my computer for five days. Thanks to Tom for postings, and to those of you who have offered in Comments kind words about books.)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Virtually yours

In recent years astronomers have been busy discovering planets around other stars. These have been almost entirely big Jupiterlike planets, for the obvious reason that big planets are easier to detect. What was surprising is that many of these big gassy planets were very much closer to their host star than the giants in our own solar system. It has long been thought that gassy giants can only form in the cooler outer regions of star systems.

In a recent issue of Science (September 8), astronomers Sean Raymond, Avi Mandell and Steinn Sigurdsson help explain these apparently exotic worlds by simulating planet formation on a computer. The illustration here show one such simulation, in which a giant planet forms at a respectable Jupiterlike distance, then in the course of 200 million years migrates (because of dynamic forces in the protoplanetary disk) closer to its star. Other smaller planetoids coalesce into more Earthlike planets, including one with liquid water at an Earthlike distance. Voila! Everyone is happy. (The gray area on the bottom time slice is the so-called "habitable zone" where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for life as we know it.)

What I like about all of this is the way astronomers use powerful, high-speed computers to play with planets and stars. Start with the physics, run the simulation, compare the results with what we observe with telescopes. There are even wild-eyed sci-fi buffs who imagine that our own "real" solar system -- including us -- might be a simulation in the super-supercomputers of a super-super race.

I'll settle for the opportunity that computer-savvy astronomers give me to be a spectator at creation.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Dining on woodchucks

"I learned this, at least, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours," wrote Thoreau in Walden. See this week's Musing.

Anne's pic. Click to enlarge.