Sunday, December 31, 2006

The music of the spheres

A few more thoughts on Gerard Manley Hopkins in this week's Musing.

And a New Year greeting from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Patch, matchwood -- immortal diamond?

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows/ flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay gangs/ they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash,/ wherever an elm arches,
Shrivelights and shadowtackle in long/ lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous/ ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest's creases;/ in pool and rutpeel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed/ dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squandroned masks and manmarks/ treadmire toil there
Footfreted in it. Million-fueled/ nature's bonfire burns on.
This is the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins out of control, his sprung verse springing about like a jackrabbit, his soul burning, burning in the apprehension of a roiling skyscape -- tumbling clouds, light and shadow. He is near the end of his short life; he died in 1889, aged 45, of typhoid fever, weakened by several years of poor health. And although we might conclude that in this late poem -- That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire -- he has let language run amok, it is probably also true that his perception of the natural world had become so acute -- so soul-searing -- that he struggled to find a way for language to contain it.

Hopkins was certainly aware of the glittering successes of Victorian science, but he understood too the Heraclitean maxim "Nature loves to hide." He did not have intellectual access to the mind-blowing beauty of Maxwell's equations, or the many-arching grandeur of Darwin's view of life. For him the Heraclitean fire was both an exhilaration and an agony. Only the possibility of resurrection in Christ (as the rest of the poem makes clear) gave meaning to his life, or so he believed. Otherwise, he was just one more part of the many-fueled fire that burns in an enormous dark, a "jack, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood." Though apparently racked with existential doubt, his faith consoled him to the end. His last words were "I am so happy. I am so happy."

Charles Darwin, the tormented agnostic, and Hopkins, the tormented believer, were not so far apart. They both burned in the Heraclitean fire, they both wanted to see beyond nature's veil. Neither man was satisfied with the commonplace world of immediate perception. Nor did either man pretend that he had seen nature stripped of its veil. What marks them as brothers is that they were both creatures of the portal -- the flaming soul-exciting, soul-consuming doorway between the particular and the universal where the questing human spirit defines itself and endures.

(More on Hopkins tomorrow.)

Friday, December 29, 2006

An epic confrontation

On one side is Augustine, champion of Mediterranean gnosticism, faithful son of Roman authority. On the other side, Pelagius, a Celt from Britain, earthy, sensual, rebellious. Augustine's God is a transcendent spirit who stands in opposition to base matter. Pelagius's God is in and of the earth, immanent in wind, sea, sky, plants and animals. Augustine understands the world dualistically: body/soul, matter/spirit, natural/supernatural. Pelagius takes everything as one. Augustine is misogynistic; he chastises Pelagius for his associations with women and for learning from them. Pelagius is at home in his sexual identity and comfortable in the presence of women. Salvation for Augustine is by divine grace, which alone can redeem us from Adam's sin. Salvation for Pelagius is through individual responsibility, simplicity, laughter and joy; there is no Original Sin.

Here were two great defining spirits of Western spirituality, in contest for the soul of the Church. We know how the contest turned out. Augustine prevailed and the Church has ever since been primarily defined by paternalism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and contempt for fallen nature. But the Pelagian Celtic tradition survived as a kind of underground river, now and then coming to the surface -- John Scotus Erigena, Meister Eckhart, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Francis of Assisi, to mention only a few -- only to be batted back down.

If there is today in the West an inordinate tension between science and religion, it because we are heirs to an Augustinian faith tradition that stands in opposition to the very things that make science possible: a unitary view of nature, respect for the world of the senses, and a healthy skepticism for authority.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Rejecting profane novelties"

"It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, and the honor of kings to search it out," said the great Russian chemist Mendeleev. It was his own honor to have discerned a hidden rhythm within the elements of which the world is made. To understand just how deeply concealed is the Periodic Table of the Elements take a look about you. What a glittering triumph of the human imagination to have discerned in the diversity of the sensate world the harmonic music of atomic matter.

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, certain Catholic theologians and philosophers, the so-called modernists, sought to turn Mendeleevean curiosity upon the origin and evolution of religion. Their goal was to bring Church teaching into consonance with the world-shifting discoveries of science.

The modernists were roundly condemned by the papal encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, promulgated just one hundred years ago. It is an extraordinary document, the general drift of which can be stated: It is the glory of God to have revealed through Holy Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition everything that is necessary to know about God and his relationship to humankind, and it is the honor of men and women (kings included) to humbly accept the immutable truths of faith and shut up. "Curiosity by itself, if not prudently regulated, suffices to account for all errors," says the document flatly.

And so with a blunt iron fist, the Church sought to crush the very thing that makes us most majestically human: our questing intelligence. A century later, the pernicious influence of the condemnation of the modernists is still very much with us.

Fortunately, there is also within Catholic tradition something called the sensus fidelium, literally the "sense of the faithful." Just as the Spirit supposedly guides the infallible magisterium so that it doesn't propose teachings that would lead the whole Church into error, so do the faithful, as a whole, have an instinct or "sense" about when a teaching is -- or is not -- in harmony with faith. With time, let us hope, the sensus fidelium will shift Pascendi Dominici Gregis into well-deserved irrelevance.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Kalik, kalik

When we first came to Exuma many years ago, we were awakened at 3AM on the morning after Christmas by an extraordinary noise. We stepped onto the balcony of our tiny hotel to see a tangle of barefoot island boys making a music such as we had never heard before with cowbells, whistles, and goatskin-covered drums. It was just the sort of spontaneous color that won our hearts for the island.

It was, of course, the ragtag local equivalent of the elaborate Junkanoo parades on the far more populous island of New Providence, with its capital city of Nassau. Junkanoo is to the Bahamas as Carnival is to Rio -- a great outpouring of national creativity and tradition. And, in must be said, a great social leveler, embracing in one exuberant scene rich and poor alike.

If one wanted to write a treatise on globalization, one could do no better than trace the evolution of this island in the twenty years since our first visit. Not all of the changes have been felicitous, and I have written about some of them before. Environmental degradation. Americanization, with all of its cable-TV tackiness and crass commercialism. The usurpation of much of the choicest landscape by outsiders. And so on.

But those who worry that globalization will homogenize world cultures may be overly fretting. With the relative affluence that has come with development, young Exumians need no longer go to Nassau or to the US to find work. When we first came here, the island consisted mainly of children and old people. Now an intermediate generation has returned, youthful and energetic, with a few extra bucks in their pockets. And -- wow! -- just look what has happened to Junkanoo.

For half the year, three fiercely competing groups prepare costumes and floats of ever more elaborate crepe-paper splendor. Suddenly it seems that everyone on the island is a dancer or musician. In the pitch dark hours of Boxing Day morning the island's one little town with its one street explodes with what can only be called "true-true" Bahamian culture thumbing its nose at every economic and cultural force that would reduce these islands to an indistinguishable adjunct of the US mainland.

Yes, there's globalization, but with its own sweet face of Bahamian pride.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Grace

A rainbow last evening, and another this morning. I have seen as many as four bows in a single day here in Exuma. Morning and evening showers tend to sweep swiftly across the islands, with clear intervals between -- ideal conditions for rainbows.

I have made something of a hobby of predicting bows. "There'll be a rainbow just over there," I'll say to whoever is in my company, with an arching sweep of my arm, "in six minutes time." I am seldom wrong.

The trick never fails to astonish, but it's not hard to do. After watching me do it often enough, my spouse has picked up the habit. "Rainbow alert," she'll shout, and we run to the terrace to see if she's right. Yep, there's the bow.

Fred Schaaf, the astronomy popularizer, sometimes calls people on the telephone to tell them a rainbow is heading their way.

Of course, that's only a matter of speaking. Rainbows don't exist out there, like a cloud or an airplane. They exist only on the retina of an observer's eye, and every observer has a different posture with respect to rain and Sun. What is moving down the telephone line are the meteorological conditions that are likely to produce a bow: direct light from a low-altitude Sun and mist or rain in the opposite part of the sky.

Perception, writes Diane Ackerman, is a form of grace. In Catholic theology, one must be predisposed to grace to receive it.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Peace on Earth, good will to all

Jupiter, Mars and Antares in a rosy dawn. Soon the Sun's gold doubloon will rise out of a pirate sea. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. And the best of all the other northern hemisphere feasts of light that humankind have invented to allay the midwinter darkness. We share the same star, the same tip of the planet's axis. Those of you who live south of the equator might tell us of feasts of light associated with your winter months.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Sunday morning, Christmas Eve

Early. In a few hours I will receive the Sunday New York Times, one of the few copies that makes it to the island -- thanks to my friend Holland and his connections at the airport. It costs a pretty penny by the time it makes it to my doorstep, but Holland's baggage-handling pals each take a cut along the way -- Miami, Nassau, Exuma. This is ad hoc entrepreneurship at its best, and more power to them.

The most conspicuous aspect of the Times these days is the full-page ads for luxury watches. If you were a royal from "the East" bringing a princely gift to a star-heralded child, I suppose today you'd choose a diamond-encrusted Gucci watch. See this week's Musing.

A season's greeting from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Must upward still

My mother, bless her, often quoted the poets she memorized as a young woman studying English literature at the University of Chattanooga. Even until the week she died, earlier this year at age 92, the words were fresh in her memory and on her tongue, such as these lines from James Russell Lowell, written sometime in the mid-19th century:
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth.
They must upward still and onwards
Who would keep abreast of truth.
Lowell was speaking of slavery, and his lines became part of a popular Protestant hymn, no doubt Unitarian. The slave trade that I spoke of here these past few days was, of course, initiated and carried on by good Christian men. When the American Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia to hammer out a constitution for the new republic, slavery was the elephant in the room, recognized by many as an abomination, but generally ignored in the deliberations by tacit agreement that no federal arrangement was otherwise possible. (The representative from Georgia insisted that the Bible placed its benediction on the institution of slavery.) Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and many others we take to be paragons of virtue were slave holders. Seventy years would pass, and a horrendous civil war fought, before the "ancient good" became at last by law uncouth.

Another century later, when I was growing up in Chattanooga, it was thought good and appropriate by my white neighbors that blacks and whites be kept strictly separate in schools, churches, and public facilities. And heaven forbid that blacks might exercise their right to vote. Thanks to the civil rights movement of the 1960s that "good" too became uncouth. And so it goes, onwards and upward, not so much keeping abreast of truth as making up truth as we go.

The very idea of the progress of truth is associated with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. Until that epic transformation of human culture, truth was defined by the authority of the past, as embodied in ancestors, holy books, or divinely appointed prelates and kings. Which is not to say that liberal spirits had not always been with us, but not until the time of Bacon and Galileo did it become common to suppose that ancient truth might be amendable. The Earth-centered universe was a venerable truth that Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo showed to be untenable. And if the Earth could be moved from its central position in the cosmos, then everything else was up for grabs -- the divine right of kings, the power of the Church to burn heretics, slavery.

By its commitment to an open-ended search for truth, science has been the great engine and friend of political and religious liberalism. It is no coincidence that the present foes of science in American public schools are the same unyielding adherents to ancient authority who would deny, for example, the civil rights of gays or a living wage for the poorest of the poor.

Friday, December 22, 2006

A few more thoughts on the islands

Often when I'm sitting on the terrace here looking out to sea, I try to imagine what it must have been like to have been a native Bahamian seeing the sails of Columbus' three ships appear on the horizon. Little did they know what a terrible fate the westerly winds had brought to their shores.

When the Spanish arrived, the population of the Bahamas was not much different than today, excluding Nassau and Freeport. Within 25 years, the islands were deserted. The gentle Lucayans were exterminated by disease or transport to a short wretched life in the gold mines of Hispaniola or the pearl fisheries of Venezuela. All for the greater glory of God and His Spanish Majesties, of course.

We know little about the Lucayans. Their tools were perishable bone, shell or wood. Because the islands are entirely soft limestone, you could hardly say they had entered the Stone Age. A few hard stone pestles and hammers were imported from the Greater Antilles. From what archeologists have pieced together, the Lucayans enjoyed the same things that attract us modern snowbirds: sun, sea and balmy breezes.

Then came steel. Armor. Swords. Guns. And, of course, as Jared Diamond reminds us, germs. The pre-Stone Age met the Iron Age. A brutal European wind swept across the Bahamas. The islands had no gold, No pearls. No fertile soil. Nothing of use to the messengers of Christian civilization but the people themselves. Not a single indigenous Bahamian survived.

The present-day islanders are descendants of African slaves, brought here at the time of the American Revolution by loyalist planters from the Carolinas. There was no way to make this sandy soil yield profitable cotton. Within a few generations, the loyalists hightailed it to England, leaving the slaves behind.

Now comes another high-tech invasion (of which I play my own small part). Everything American. Cable television. Gated communities of wealthy foreigners. Conspicuous consumption. Environmental degradation. All for the greater glory of Mammon and His American Majesties. The newly affluent islanders profess to love it -- but at what price?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Good morning, my sweet

According to Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton (which I am currently reading), there was a time after the French and Indian War when Britain contemplated swapping all of Canada for the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Sounds on the face of it like an astounding bit of foolishness. But Guadeloupe had on its few volcanic acres something you couldn't find in all of the cold wilderness of Canada: sugar.

In the 18th century, Europeans couldn't get enough of the "white gold" to sweeten their coffee, tea, and cocoa -- new, exotic drinks. The West Indies were perfect for growing sugar cane, but the Spanish had pretty much wiped out the indigenous people of the Caribbean. The hoity-toity Europeans weren't about to toil in the sun. So who would till the fields?

The rest, of course, is history. Hundreds of thousands of black Africans were forceably shipped from the trading forts of West Africa to grow sugar for the cafes of Europe. Two thirds of all enslaved peoples in the Americas worked on sugar plantations. Of those who were lucky enough to survive the passage from Africa, three out of five were dead within five years of arrival.

We all have a taste for sugar, which we imbibed first in mother's milk. Our pleasure in sweetness is nature's way of telling our brains "calories." Sugar is pure energy. Funny, isn't it, that 6 carbon atoms, 12 hydrogen atoms, and 6 oxygen atoms should be so important to life? It's all in the way they are put together.

Pure sugar was a luxury in Europe until 1700. The source was generally sugar cane, a tropical grass with unusually high sugar content that originated in New Guinea and was carried west by migrating peoples. Columbus brought cane to the Caribbean on his second voyage. On our little island here in the Bahamas, every public gathering has someone selling chunks of macheted sugar cane out of the back of a pickup truck. It's a popular treat, nibbled and sucked like an ice cream cone.

Oh, and what's the connection with Hamilton? He was born on the sugar-plantation island of Nevis, and lived in the islands until his teens. Among the Founding Fathers, he was conspicuous for his abolitionism.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Evo-devo

If I were a young scientist starting out today, I would seek out the exciting new field of evo-devo, where evolution and developmental biology intersect.

Scientists have long been interested in phylogenesis -- the evolution of organisms over geologic time -- and ontogenesis -- the development of a single organism from its earliest stage to maturity. Evo-devo looks at the genetic processes that control development of plants and animals in hopes of establishing how these processes evolved.

I don't pretend to know much about this stuff, although I try to keep up with the drift of things. But I look at an illustration like this one in the November 17, 2006, issue of Science, showing possible stages in the evolution of gene regulatory networks of metazoans (multicellular animals with differentiated tissues), and a little bell rings deep in my brain that was established a half-century ago when I was studying electrical circuit theory as a young engineer.


Look at the language on the diagram (click to enlarge). "Gene battery subcircuits." "Regulatory state circuits." "Address." "Kernel." "Progenitor fields." All terms from Eric Davidson's new book, The Regulatory Genome: Gene Regulatory Networks in Development and Evolution, all adapted from electrical engineering or computer science. The connection is more than metaphorical. The gene regulatory system does indeed function much like the operating system of a computer. And just as subprograms are often conserved as a computer operating system evolves, so genomic subprograms are conserved in biologic evolution.

It would be interesting to see a diagram similar to the one above (on a very much more complex scale) for the evolution of, say, the Apple operating system over the 30 years since Steve Jobs sold the first Apple I, and compare that diagram to the evolution over 600 million years of the gene regulatory system of the fruit fly.

The sequencing of the genomes of many species of plants and animals and the rapid acceleration of computer power will converge into what will surely be the most exciting science of the next half-century. And -- you can bank on it -- intelligent design will have exactly zero role in the equation.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The tables turned

A few more thoughts on the pollen book: page after page of microscopic orbs, exquisitely photographed and reproduced the size of soccer balls, each glistening ball containing flower sperm.

Why do plants encase their germ within these lovely jewel boxes? After all, the male cells of animals make their naked way to the female egg. The answer of course, as Kesseler and Harley point out, is that animal sperm swim their short journey to the egg in a aqueous environment. By contrast, the male seed of rooted plants must sometimes travel far in air to find a receptive female (with the help of wind, insects, birds and even mammals, especially bats). The pollen case protects the sperm from drying out -- a robust FedEx packaging of a sort. But with what a variety of envelopes! All those zillions of gorgeously packaged sperm wafting hither and yon on the breezes, flower sex without a whiff of romance.

Francis Bacon, the great philosopher of experimental science, said that nature must be "put to the torture" to yield her secrets. Not so, countered William Wordsworth:.
Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things;
-- We murder to dissect.
It may well be that we are murdering nature, but it is consumerist greed, not intellectual curiosity that is doing the dastardly deed. Sweet may be the lore which nature brings, but great continents of nature's lore are beyond our powers of unaided perception. Without the probing curiosity of experimental science, pollen on the wind is nothing but an annoying cause of sniffles and sneezes, and the beauty of each microscopic speck of flower nuptial dust would be forever beyond our contemplation.

So let the scientists follow their Baconian muse, exposing with their gentle torture the secret apparatuses of the universe; you and I will add our dollop of Wordsworthean balance, bringing to the universe revealed by science what the poet called "a heart that watches and receives."

Monday, December 18, 2006

Eternal nuptials

One of the advantages of hanging out in a good college library is that I get to possess, albeit briefly, an abundance of expensive books I could not afford to buy. I recently finished one such book, Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers, a magnificent coffee-table collaboration between a professional botanist at Kew Gardens, Madeline Harley, and an artist photographer, Rob Kesseler. A visually exhilarating survey of the sex lives of flowering plants -- colorful, luscious, moist with nectar and dew.

It was the great 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who formalized the theory of sexual reproduction in flowers. Apparently, it came as something of a shock to some of his contemporaries that plants "did it."

Early in the next century the aged poet/botanist Johann Goethe welcomed a new (and ultimately unsuccessful) theory purporting to show that plant reproduction had nothing to do with sex. He wrote: "For the instruction of young persons and ladies this new pollination theory will be extremely welcome and suitable. In the past the teacher of botany has been placed in a most embarrassing position, and when innocent young souls took text book in hand to advance their studies in private, they were unable to conceal their outraged moral feelings. Eternal nuptials going on and on, with the monogamy basic to our morals, laws, and religion disintegrating into loose concupiscence -- these must remain forever intolerable to the pure-minded."

Goethe's outrage sounds eerily similar to the sanctimonious objections of our own religious fundamentalists to any form of human sex beyond monogamous coupling within the "sanctity" of heterosexual marriage. Kudos to Harley and Kesseler for so lovingly illustrating the beauty and diversity of plant sexulaity.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ho ho ho...

If you are feeing just a little bit elfish, join me at the North Pole in this week's Musing.

And a gift from Anne to set the holiday mood. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Floundering around

My daughter Mo gave me this poster print that was used for an exhibit of the Coastal Institute on Narragansett Bay at the University of Rhode Island. The photo is from a collection of the Field Museum in Chicago. Four pics of the same flounder on different backgrounds.

With one appraising eye the flounder sizes up its environment, then adjusts its color and pattern to match. An astonishing talent for camouflage!

No matter how long one has lived, how many trips made to the zoo or aquarium, how many books of natural history read, how many science journal perused, nature still has the capacity to surprise.

Speckles, checkers, black or white. Intelligent design? Surely an intelligent designer smart enough to create a universe from scratch could have more precisely ruled those checkers . Which is not to say, of course, that we necessarily have the whole story of how nature contrives such marvels of adaptation. But this much is clear to anyone who takes the creation as the primary revelation: However the flounder made it to the top of Mount Improbable, it did it on its own.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Snowbirding

Sorry about the missing post yesterday. I was in transit to a warmer place. Some of you will know from previous years that I am fortunate enough to spend the winter on a sweet little island in the south central Bahamas. I never quite know what the internet situation will be when I arrive, so if I'm not here now and then you'll know what's up. Or rather "down." As it turns out, the DSL connection I finally got last winter is non-functioning and I am temorarily reduced to an incredibly slow dial-up. The bits and bytes might as well come and go by mail boat.

It is distressing to find myself so wired to the web, me, who extolls the virtues of visceral vs. virtual reality. But I must admit I love the discipline of this on-line journal, and the warm reception it seems to have found with like-minded people around the globe.

I have only the the sketchiest understanding of how the internet works -- physically or economically -- but like so many of us, I have become an active node -- reading and writing -- in a web of interconnectedness that rivals the human brain in complexity. Google has stopped showing on its search page the number of pages indexed, but it is larger than the human population of the world. The amount of information I have access to is vastly more than I could ever assimilate. We used to worry about the web crashing. The greater danger today is that we will crash from information overload.

Which is an important reason why I like to escape to the island. A wobbly internet connection is the price I am willing to pay for dark skies, silence, no TV, a phone that almost never rings, and nowhere to drive except up and down the island's one road.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ancient mother of the world -- Part 3

A few last thoughts on the aphorism of Heraclitus: Nature loves to hide.

As I have said, there are several common responses to the hiddenness of nature:

One tradition assumes that nature's truth is revealed to initiates. The source of revelation might be the gods, God, or some mystic essence of nature itself. Fine for the chosen few, but of little relevance to the rest of us.

For those of us who rely on our own wit and cunning, two attitudes prevail.

The first is that of the scientist, who is interested first of all in what is under the veil of Isis, the naked essence of the goddess -- the atoms, the DNA, the fundamental laws of nature -- that accounts for the world of our senses. Francis Bacon, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein are exemplars.

Then there's the romantic -- Wordsworth, Goethe, or Nietzsche, for example -- who feels no need to strip the goddess. The only nature the romantic cares to know is the one that presents itself to our immediate perception, to be encountered with awe and reverence. All else is mystery.

Is there a sexual subtext to our two-and-a-half-thousand-year-long preoccupation with the goddess and her veil? Perhaps a sexist subtext, too, since until relatively recently the debate has been framed mainly by men.

It comes down to this: Is the goddess more desirable naked or clothed?

According to the romantic, science is a kind of porn that strips nature of its individuality. At the level of the DNA we are all just reams of indistinguishable code. Every atom is interchangeable with every other atom of the same element. So the debate becomes: The universal vs. the particular. All women vs. this woman. For the scientist, the universal is the ultimate pursuit. For the romantic, individuality is everything.

And what of us who are caught somewhere between the reductionist and the romantic? We are not so keen on having Isis stripped bare. The physicist's "theory of everything" or the mystic's Beatific Vision has little appeal to us. On the other hand, we like those teasing glimpses of flesh that are the eternal beauty of universals. For us a more attractive allegorical figure is Salome of the seven veils -- or seven thousand, or seven times seven thousand -- and nature is one long seductive dance.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ancient mother of the world -- Part 2

Nature loves to hide. The aphorism is attributed to Heraclitus, although it is difficult to know exactly what he meant. "Nature" is generally taken to signify the hidden something that gives form and structure to the world. A physicist might understand it to mean the elusive "theory of everything." Johannes Kepler, in his essay on the snowflake, referred to the facultas formatrix, or "formative capacity" of nature. For the religious person, the most concise name for the hidden creative agency is "God."

The idea that God loves to hide is common in many religious traditions of the world. Christian mystics speak of the Deus absconditus, the absconded or unknowable divinity. Call it if you want Deus absconditus or facultas formatrix; the medieval mystic and the modern physicist seek the same deeply hidden essence of creation.

The trouble comes when religious persons or scientists believe they have seen Isis in all her naked glory. The born-again Christian who claims to be a personal friend of the Creator, or the physicist who thinks we will soon know "the mind of God" are equally idolatrous.

In 384 C. E. the Christian emperor Gratian ordered the pagan Altar of Victory removed from the assembly hall of the Roman Senate. In an ecumenical spirit, the pagan politician Symmachus protested: "We contemplate the same stars, the heavens are common to all of us, and the same world surrounds us. What matters the path of wisdom by which each person seeks the truth? One cannot reach such a great mystery by a single path."

For his tolerance, Symmachus was banished from Rome.

Nature loves to hide. We have learned much, especially through the instrumentality of science; we have much, much more to learn. Our knowledge is finite; what we have yet to learn is perhaps infinite. The assumption of knowability has been the cause of centuries of grief. A little modest agnosticism would become us all.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ancient mother of the world

Nature Unveiling Herself To Science, created by Louis Barrias in 1899, stands on a pedestal in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. The sculpture gives expression to one of the oldest themes in philosophy -- and one of the most enduring.

Sometime in the early 5th century B.C., Heraclitus famously said "Nature loves to hide." Forget for the moment that this three-word fragment of Greek text (phusis kruptesthai philei) lends itself to various translations. "Nature loves to hide" is how it has come down to us. From the time of the Socratics "nature" has been allegorically identified with the goddess Isis/Artemis, and the entire history of Western philosophy can be taken as a debate about the goddess and her veil.

Is nature ultimately unknowable?

Does nature reveal herself as esoteric knowledge to the initiated?

Can nature be known by reason? By experiment? By intuition?

That is to say: Is the veil of Isis/Artemis impenetrable, does she remove the veil herself for the chosen few, or can her veil be stripped away by human cunning?

And what is "nature" anyway?

As I write these words, I am sitting in a comfy chair in the stacks of the college library. All about me are thousands of volumes that in one way or another represent attempts to answer these questions. It is a measure of the profundity of those three words of Heraclitus that thousands of years later we are still trying to figure out what they mean.

Many of us believe that natural science is as close as we'll get to lifting the veil. We are convinced that the dazzlingly successful applications of scientific knowledge are a sure sign we are doing something right. But a sizable part of the academic community nevertheless believes that nature cannot be known as she is, and that science is just one more stab at what lays beneath the veil, no more or less "true" than any other social construction of supposed reality. And, quite aside from the academic debates, the great majority of people believe that the only knowledge of the world that really matters has been revealed to them by God.

So there she stands, in the Musee d'Orsay, having revealed a teasing glimpse -- coy smile, bared breasts, peekaboo toes -- but still mostly wrapped in mystery. I suspect that another two-and-a-half millennia from now we'll still be wondering what the lovely goddess has yet to reveal.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Despite his under-fissioned art...

Hiroshima? Nagasaki? See this week's Musing. And for your perusal, here is a poem by Phyllis McGinley, called:

THE CONQUERORS

It seems vainglorious and proud
Of Atom-man to boast so loud
His prowess homicidal,
When one remembers how for years,
With their rude stones and humble spears,
Our sires, at wiping out their peers,
Were almost never idle.

Despite his under-fissioned art
The Hittite made a splendid start
Toward smiting lesser nations;
While Tamerlane, it's widely known,
Without a bomb to call his own
Destroyed whole populations.

Nor did the ancient Persian need
Uranium to kill his Mede,
The Viking earl, his foeman.
The Greeks got excellent results
With swords and engined catapults.
A chariot served the Roman.

Mere cannon garnered quite a yield
On Waterloo's tempestuous field.
At Hastings and at Flodden
Stout countrymen, with just a bow
And arrow, laid their thousands low,
And Gettysburg was sodden.

Though doubtless now our shrewd machines
Can blow the world to smithereens
More tidily and so on,
Let's give our ancestors their due,
Their ways were coarse, their weapons few,
But ah! how wondrously they slew
With what they had to go on.
A Starchild from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

In the still of the night

On these first cold winter nights, some people curl up with next season's seed catalogs. I settle in with Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar. What makes his calendar great is Guy's extraordinary gift for graphics. This is not so much a traditional 12-page calendar as a large-format book.

This year's calendar arrived with a nifty Hertsprung-Russell aurora on the cover -- the familiar astronomical diagram turned into shimmering lights in the northern sky. Another example of Guy's fertile imagination.

With Ottewell as my guide, I anticipate a year of celestial pleasures.

The year begins with Venus and Mercury moving into the evening sky and Jupiter blazing in the dawn. By year's end Mars will put on an especially bright show (and we'll get those silly e-mails telling us it will be as big and bright as the full Moon).

A few fine planetary occultations next year, but alas none that are visible in the parts of the world where I'll be residing. The partial solar eclipses of March 19 and September 11 will take place while my side of the planet faces night. The August 28 total lunar eclipse is a Pacific Ocean event, but I'll be watching from my island terrace on March 3 as an eclipsed full Moon rises over a silver sea.

The heavens are half of our visual field. If we don't pay attention to the sky, we are missing half of the world's beauty. I've been skywatching for a lifetime -- with Ottewell as a guide for nearly half that time -- and every year there's still something new.

You can order The Astronomical Calendar at ShopatSky.com.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The darkness that we come from

"You darkness, that I come from, I love you more than all the fires that fence in the world," wrote the poet Ranier Maria Rilke.

It was a bright day when John Perry, the Berea College forester, took me on a walk along the precipitous edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky. We stood on 350 million year-old rocks and looked out across the Blue Grass country, and tried to imagine what Daniel Boone must have felt when he stood on a similar outcrop nearby (was it this one?) and saw what must have seemed the Promised Land.

The cliffs are marine limestone, laid down at a time when this part of the country was a shallow inland sea. Here is a fossilized branching coral that Perry's assistant picked up and gifted me, a frozen moment of the past, on the eve of the great continental collision that heaved the Appalachians into the sky. As the crust ascended, a sunny coral sea teeming with life was folded into the mountains' cold, dark roots.

Millions of years of the planet's hidden history are now exposed in the limestone cliffs, layered like the pages of a book. This is the darkness that we come from. We and the corals are one.

"The past is continually erased, and the record of the most distant time survives only by a chain of minor miracles," wrote the paleontologist Richard Fortey. Like the miracle here in my hand.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Words

Dear Mr. Raymo, My name is Jennifer and I am currently a junior at a college in Maryland. As the semester is coming to a close, I have been asked to give a final presentation on you and some of your writing for my Nature Writing class...I am writing to you to ask about yourself as a nature writer, your experiences in teaching nature writing and other insights you have to offer. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Dear Jennifer, I am glad that your college offers a nature writing course and I am glad that you are taking it. Nature writing is a rather special genre, occupying a territory somewhere between science and the arts. The nature writer tries to inform herself with the empirical knowledge of science, then uses that knowledge to chart a course to the things most of us seek: happiness, beauty, love. I say "seek" because the journey is more important than the finding, and not every nature writer makes it safely home.

As for all writers, our instrument is words, and for the nature writer the form is most often the nonfiction essay. The essay should be clear and succinct. It should inform and please. And in the best of all circumstances, it should send a shiver of pleasure up the reader's spine.

Nature writers tend to have a holistic view of the world. That is to say, we reject dualisms of natural and supernatural, matter and spirit, body and soul. These oppositions are not so much "wrong" as simply irrelevant to the way we experience the world. Which is why we are relatively neutral in debates between the so-called "two cultures." By the same token, nature writers tend to be religious, but not theistic or militantly atheistic. Politically, in my experience, we lean to the left, as do most creative writers (your class can debate why that might be so). It goes without saying that we think of ourselves as environmentalists.

As for teaching nature writing: I'm not sure it is possible to teach writing, although many of us "do it." A teacher can help you with the mechanics of writing, and tell you what "works" and doesn't "work." A good teacher will build confidence as well as skill. Reading successful writers helps. But ultimately nothing replaces your own head-over-heels involvement with the natural world -- and a gut love of language that comes from god-knows-where.

When I was teaching nature writing we spent every class out of doors, except on days of pouring rain. Here is a photo of a sign we saw in the woods on one of our walks. Good luck.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Peace on Earth

An interesting study in Nature Neuroscience (December 1, 2006). It seems that male and female fruit flies have different styles of aggressive behavior. Males slug it out. Females push and shove. Why am I not surprised? It sounds so -- so playground.

Now Barry Dickson and his colleagues at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna have identified a gene called fruitless that determines the difference. Further, they engineered male flies with a female variant of the gene, and female flies with a male variant. Sure enough, the modified males shove, and the modified females box.

Ah, now if only we could do some similar genetic jiggering in humans, replacing the fist-and-gun gene in males with a female open-palm shove variant. Much less lethal.

We have lots yet to figure out about the biological and cultural components of violent behavior, but it seems pretty clear there's an innate difference by sex. Some years ago, Russell Fernald, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, studied African cichlid fish in Lake Tanganyika. He found that bullying, violent males developed bigger brain cells in the hypothalamus, which in turn caused the fish to develop large testes and bright body colors. Wimpish, nonviolent male fish had smaller brain cells, shrunken testes, and drab sand-colored scales. You can guess which male fish get the cichlid chicks.

Here's a thought: Perhaps women could help the world evolve to a more peaceful place by consistently expressing a sexual preference for wimpish, nonviolent guys like me.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Catholic identity -- a reprise

I had some challenging responses from colleagues regarding my essay a few Sundays ago on the search for identity in Catholic higher education. One common response boils down to this: Accommodation with the scientific story of creation is of course necessary -- for instance, there is no need to take the Genesis story of creation literally -- but the Nicene Creed remains an inviolate core of faith and any definition of Catholic identity must affirm it.

Why not take the six-day creation literally? I ask. My orthodox colleagues reply: Because the authors of scriptures were writing out of a world view that is different than our own. But then why is the 4th-century Nicene Creed sacrosanct? Weren't the authors of the Creed also expressing the mysteries of their faith within the understanding of their time -- a time when gods, spirits and miracles were commonplace?

We are scientifically literate enough to dispense with a six-day creation, but hold firm to virgin birth? We wink at limbo, but make "the resurrection of the dead" an article of faith? Is religion then a parsing of improbabilities? Where draw the line?

Some of my colleagues accuse me of scientific reductionism. No regular reader of this blog is likely to do so. Let us begin, then, with the contemporary, tentative, always-evolving, non-miraculous, naturalistic consensus of science as the most reliable collective, public knowledge of the world that we are likely to find. Science is only an sketch of what is, but it surely gives us a more reliable approximation to reality than was available at Nicea in the 4th-century. With the scientific world view as a platform, let us construct our religious responses to the Ultimate Mysteries, embracing the insights of artists, poets, saints and mystics of past and present.

The biologist E. O. Wilson writes: "The spirits our ancestors knew intimately fled first the rocks and trees, then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative." Creating a scared narrative -- for the 21st-century universe of the DNA and the galaxies -- should be a defining element of Catholic higher education.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Let the sun shine in

Last Monday's Wall Street Journal had a story about Stanford Ovshinsky's decades long effort to build a factory that can crank out cheap, flexible photovoltaic sheeting. Most people think of putting photovoltaic panels on their roofs. Ovshinsky says, "Mine is the roof." His company is now selling his product as fast as he can make it, most of it to countries like Germany and Japan that offer incentives for solar energy systems.

President Bush talks about wanting to break our dependence on foreign oil, but the record of his administration on energy and global warming issues is not stellar. It is time for Congress to step up to the plate and insist that as of 2010, every new residential or commercial structure in the country must have a photovoltaic roof. Experience in other countries has shown that such systems will be able to pay for themselves by feeding excess energy back into the grid. According to the WSJ article, some Germans rent their neighbor's roofs for solar panels that sell power to the grid. Germany has about the same solar exposure as Anchorage, Alaska.

Granted, the US has a more complex grid than Germany, and German solar systems have government support. But mandate solar roofs by 2010 and watch the price of systems plummet. The technology has come a long way since I wrote about this more than two years ago.

My sister Anne, whose cyberpics you have enjoyed, has been living in a completely solar-powered house for decades. No one is starting wars for oil to power her computer.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Nazi shmazi?

Last week I mentioned the Atlantic Magazine list of the 100 most influential Americans. John F. Kennedy did not make the list (Richard Nixon did). JFK deserved the honor if for no other reason than that it was he who provided the political will that took humans to the Moon, surely one of the epic events in American history -- and human history.

Wehner von Braun, the German rocket scientist, played a not-inconsequential role in making the Moon voyages possible. How should he be remembered? See this week's Musing.

As usual, click on Anne's pic to enlarge.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Galileo Code

Some weeks ago, Michael Skube, a journalism professor at Elon University in North Carolina, had an op-ed in the Washington Post ruing that college students don't read. He asked a class of 17 sophomores to name some of their favorite writers. He got one name: Dan Brown.

I tried to remember what books I had read when I was a college sophomore. I had soaked up a lot of bookishness around the house while I was growing up, by osmosis from my mother, especially, who was a voracious reader. And my high-school summer job as stack boy in the Chattanooga Public Library let more bookishness soak in. But by the time I went to college I hadn't read much beyond the Hardy Boys and Red Randall -- as my mother never let me forget. Oh wait. If a professor had asked me to name a favorite author I might have mentioned Mickey Spillane.

But I made up for lost time once I got started, and I suspect a few of Professor Skube's students too might end up being lifelong readers.

But for the most part, college students don't read. College and university libraries report empty stacks and carrels. They are adding coffee shops and game rooms to draw students in. Rules against talking on cellphones and bringing food and drink into the library are abandoned. The University of Texas has even removed all the books in the undergraduate library to make way for electronic resources.

Here are a few random science-related books I would leave lying around the library-cum-playroom, just in case a rare curious student might wonder what are those paper things on the few remaining shelves:

Galileo Galilei's Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.

Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle.

Eve Curie's biography of her mother, Madame Curie (blessedly still in print).

James Watson's The Double Helix, or if that's too common, then Francis Crick's What Mad Pursuit.

Evelyn Fox Keller's, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock.

Richard Feynman's Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

E. O. Wilson's The Naturalist.

Thomas Eisner's For Love of Insects.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Thank you, Berea College

The subject of my convocation talk at Berea College was drawn from my book Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain. I started with the current tension between science and faith, which is probably greater than at any time since the late 19th century, and tried to show how a writer negotiates these troubled waters using the writer's craft.

Berea College is a remarkable institution, with a history of inclusiveness that goes back to pre-Civil War days when the school was the first in the South to educate blacks and white, women and men, together. It accepts only talented students of limited financial means, mainly from Appalachia. All students receive free tuition. Berea is probably the only college in America that turns away academically qualified students who can afford to pay. All students work to help defer room and board. The motto is: learning, labor and service.

Berea calls itself a Christian College, but as you can see from its statement of Christian identity, there is no reference to doctrine or dogma, only to what the college's founder called the "gospel of impartial love."

The science faculty gave me a gracious reception and a tour of their educational facilities and ongoing research; quite impressive for a school of only 1500 students. During the two days of my visit, I had a sense of a community at home in their intellectual skins, and expecting the best of the rest of us.