Saturday, March 31, 2007

One last rant

I saw on some news site or other that a fisher has been spotted not far from my home in southeastern New England -- where I will be in a few days. A fisher is a large brown animal in the marten family that preys on porcupines. Welcome, fisher. And welcome too to all the other animals, including blue birds, foxes, deer and coyotes, that are making themselves at home in New England, some after a long absence, some for the first time.

Meanwhile, on this little Bahamian island the species fade away, and there is no reservoir or refuge to replenish them.

In the dozen years I have lived here we have watched a falling population of worm snakes, brown snakes, boas, frogs, geckos, birds, moths and butterflies. The islands have a rather limited fauna to begin with, so failing populations are easy to observe.

I'm part of the problem, of course, as every acre of development reduces habitats. Still, we left as much of our plot as possible in a natural state, and for a long time had a healthy population of creatures. Now the island is going upscale -- million-dollar holiday houses for nouveau riche Americans. The pattern is to bulldoze the land flat and clean -- rocks, ridges, dunes, every scrap of native flora -- then spend a fortune landscaping. The "restored" environment is soaked in pesticides. It's not a pattern that is healthy for populations of animals that have few places to run and no avenues of replenishment.

The Bahamians seem unwilling to enforce environmental regulations and any rational development plan seems nonexistent. In true American fashion, the lure of the fast buck trumps any long-range concern for quality of life. And so the "exclusive," "gated" developments go up (excluding whom? gated against whom?), the island becomes a suburb of South Florida, and Bahamians become second-class citizens in their own country.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Light in the shadows

Science is under attack by the religious Right, the political Left, social constructivist philosophers, and certain environmentalists. I have addressed each of these assaults at various times in these Musings. For the moment, let's agree that the attacks, although worrisome in regard to science education and public support for science, have little influence on how science is practiced by scientists.

Science is not a body of knowledge. Science is a way of knowing that generates reliable -- although tentative and partial --knowledge of the world. Let me give one example from the history of science that suggests what science is all about.

Early in the 19th century, as part of a competition sponsored by the French Academy, Augustin-Jean Fresnel submitted an alternative to Newton's widely-accepted corpuscular theory of light. At issue was whether light consists of bulletlike particles (Newton) or waves such as you might see when you drop a stone into a pond (Fresnel). A judge of the competition, the mathematician Simeon-Denis Poisson, a champion of Newton, pointed out an implication of Fresnel's theory that even Fresnel was not aware of: When light falls on a disk, it will of course produce a circular shadow; Fresnel's wave theory predicts that under suitable circumstances there will be a bright spot at the center of the shadow, a conclusion Poisson thought absurd. The experiment was carefully performed. The shadow had a bright spot. Fresnel copped the prize.

No religious test here, no political agenda, no social construction. A bright spot or not? Put nature to the test. Fresnel's triumph led directly to Maxwell's electromagnetic theory of light and -- well, by application of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, to a goodly part of the technology that is enjoyed today by science-bashing TV evangelists, science-scolding political bloggers, and ivory-tower social constructivists who chatter on their cell phones even as they say science is all an arbitrary phantasmagoria of the human mind.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Eye in the sky

"Knowledge has killed the sun, making it a ball of gas with spots," wrote D. H. Lawrence in one of his crankier moments. "The world of reason and science...this is the dry and sterile world the abstract mind inhabits."

Well, David, whatever you say. But before you fold on science, take a look at the pics from the TRACE satellite telescope.

What you'll see is not a god, not Helios's golden chariot, not the yellow circle with smiling face we see in a child's drawing. Here in the TRACE photographs is the seething hearth of life, the roiling, boiling dynamo of creation. Not merely a ball of gas with spots, but a dancing, flickering furnace of unquenchable energy.

Loops of blazing gas -- plasma is the technical term -- soaring tens of thousands of miles out from the surface of the Sun. On the scale of these firestorms, the planet Earth shrinks to physical insignificance -- like a pea flicked into the flames of a roaring campfire.

The TRACE satellite orbits the Earth a few hundred miles above the surface, north to south, staying pretty much above the dawn-dusk line between day and night, with its eye fixed permanently on the Sun. The telescope is about as tall as a man, with mirrors the size of dinner plates. Forty million bucks worth of human ingenuity. An extension of human scientific curiosity, it catches knowledge by the bucketful.

"The power of the visible is the invisible," wrote the poet Marianne Moore. The TRACE satellite makes the invisible visible, reveals the Sun's power to the mind's eye, lets us feel the fire.

Dancing loops of roiling gas, hurled outward by powerful magnetic fields. Millions of tons of the sun's substance hurled into space like a wet dog shaking off sheets of water, sweeping the Earth with the energy that lights the green fuse of life.

A gassy ball with spots, indeed! Knowledge may threaten our human-centered sense of self-importance. Knowledge may shatter our consoling myths. But take my word for it, David: Knowledge is better than ignorance.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

At the window

We have no glass in our windows here. Only wooden louvres, with screens on the inside. Animals love the spaces under the louvres, and we watch them there as if in cases at the zoo. Here is the night-flying giant bat moth (Noctuidae), that gets its name from the way it dips and dives like a bat. Here on the island they are called money bats, because of the intricate scriptlike designs on their their wings.

We see them everywhere, brushing the stars with their big dusty wings. They flutter overhead while we eat at Big D's outdoor restaurant. They perch on the rims of our wine glasses as we sit on the terrace with friends, attracted by the scent of sweet white wine.

In nearby Cuba, they are known as brujas, "witches." Throughout the islands they were thought to be embodied spirits of the dead. It is not hard to imagine them as miniature human corpses sporting death's dark wings.

We have, it seems, a fierce attraction to the world of spirits -- spooks, angels, poltergeists, disembodied souls, out-of-body experiences. We inherit the spirit world from a time when our ancestors huddled in dark shelters at night and let their imaginations draw up creatures more or less like ourselves but lacking corporeal substance. Maybe bat moths were part of their inspiration.

But why should I care about disembodied spirits when I can watch a giant bat moth flex its moire wings against the window screen? Why should I look for treasure in heaven when a pair of arthropodal eyes glow at my kitchen window like tiny rubies? Why should I wish for out-of-body experiences when it is my body that connects me through the five open windows of my senses to the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and tactile sensations of the tropic night.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Shaving close

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life," wrote Thoreau famously in Walden.

The trick, of course, is knowing what is essential.

What was essential for Thoreau -- the pond, the bean patch, the sounds of night -- might not be essential for, say, the ballerina, or the contemplative monk, or the doctor in Darfur.

It is what Thoreau said next that unites them all: "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms."

It is not for me to say what are the essential facts of life for others. For myself, I am deeply suspicious of so-called "facts" that come as accidents of birth or upbringing. I look for universals that are part of the human condition by genetic inheritance or general aspiration. I am skeptical, for example, about the "facts" of the Roman Catholic faith, into which I was born and raised, but not to a disposition to reverence and celebration -- call it natural religion -- which seems to be general. I am respectful of the "facts" of science because of the way they are grounded in universal empirical experience, independent of culture, creed or political persuasion. Thoreau could not live by his pond without wondering about its depth. He plumbed the pond, and plotted the depths on a map, and what he plotted there will pretty much match what might be measured by anyone else.

To live deliberately. The word has at its root the Latin libra, a balance or scales, as in the astrological sign. A scientific instrument. To weigh, to measure, to trust only what can be reliably, reproducibly, quantitatively discerned by the senses. To shave close. To cut away the shabby, moth-eaten brocade of phantasmagoria that has accumulated culturally over millennia, and to discover within my own traditions -- Roman Catholicism, the American South, Western European culture -- those things that have a universal empirical basis, the things that bind me in a respectful unity with those who have been born into different cultures and traditions.

Drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touches. Food, clothing, shelter. Sex. The need to give and receive love. Altruism. Curiosity. Awareness of mystery. Awareness of how little we really know and understand.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The god of dirt

I will let the reader discover the source of the title of this post. I am sitting on the sand, a broad expanse of pure white grains of calcium carbonate. Each powdery grain contains a billion billion atoms (by my rough calculation), atoms of carbon, oxygen and calcium forged in stars that lived and died long before the Earth was born. Now. The grains adhere to my skin, a sugary frosting of stardust. Now. Atoms fused in the hot interiors of stars from the primeval stuff of creation. Now. I dig and scoop. The sand shifts with each lick of the tide. Now. I bury my foot in the ash of stars, I push my foot deep into the root of the world. Here. This. Now.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

On the Beagle

The back page ad for Bauman Rare Books in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review offered an original copy of the official four-volume report of the 1831-36 voyage of HMS Beagle for $68,000 -- and prompted this week's Musing.

I don't often interject in Comments, but please know that I am sustained by your kind words, and follow all your leads. Thanks.

Click to enlarge Anne's weekly gift.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


I have written here before, I think, about the game of chasing very young and very old Moons. Here on the island I have an almost unobstructed view of the western horizon at sunset, and a completely unobstructed eastern sea horizon at dawn. Moreover, in winter the sky is seldom overcast. And March is the best time of the year for new Moon spotting, when the Moon's track up the sky is almost vertical to the horizon (not so for old Moons in March). This month we had a shot at a 20 hour-old Moon -- unsuccessful, cloudy -- and 44 and 68 hour-old Moons -- voila! and gorgeous.

The record for seeing a young Moon with the naked-eye is about 15 or 16 hours after new, by a couple of 19th-century English housemaids, as I recall. I forget my own record, but it's in the low 20s. Any Moon less than 30 hours old is breathtakingly thin.

If you want to try the sport, the invaluable resource is Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar -- no skywatcher should be without it.

Our house here is called Starlight House, because a dream of clear dark skies was a big part of what brought us here, and because the film Frankie Starlight paid for it. Alas, as I said before, the island has begun to surrender itself to environmentally insensitive artificial lighting. The zodiacal light (the faint reflection of sunlight off meteoric dust in the plane of the Solar System) becomes increasingly difficult to see. The Double Cluster in Perseus and the Beehive in Cancer used to jump out at you; now one has to go looking for them. Even the winter Milky Way is fading. Someday people will be taking cruises to remote parts of the Pacific Ocean for the sole purpose of seeing the night sky as it was known to our ancestors.

But for the moment, new and old Moon spotting is still a viable activity. It's not just a thin crescent that is the object of the sport. It is placing one's self attentively, discreetly, just offstage, at the magical interface of day and night, when the turning Earth slips into the wings to change her costume.

(Watercolor by Galen Pejeau. Click to enlarge.)

Friday, March 23, 2007


Anne, my sis who graces this site with her Sunday art, sent me the image above, which she found on the New Scientist web site. She offered it without comment, except to call it a mandala, the geometric figures used by Buddhists and Hindus to represent the symmetry and completeness of the universe. She is enchanted, I assume, that explorations of higher mathematics would yield so lovely a design.

I know next to nothing about Lie groups (the mathematical entities behind the diagram), but mathematicians, scientists and artists can agree with Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."

In his book, "Hunting for Hope," my friend Scott Russell Sanders offers the experience of beauty as one reason why we can be hopeful in a world fraught with human tragedy and environmental cataclysm. He begins his chapter on beauty with an account of his daughter's wedding -- the beauty of the church, the dresses, the music, and, especially, of his daughter Eva.

Then he wanders into science. He talks about the sort of beauty implicit in the equations of physicists, which they trace back to the symmetrical energy of the Big Bang.

He writes: "Without being able to check their equations, I think the physicists are right. I believe the energy they speak of is holy, by which I mean it is the closest we can come with our instruments to measuring the strength of God. I also believe this primal energy continues to feed us, directly through the goods of Creation, and indirectly through the experience of beauty."

The call of an owl, a photograph of a galaxy, the smile of his daughter through her wedding veil: In these experiences Sanders senses a harmony between himself and the thing he beholds, a sympathy between inside and outside. The name for this resonance, he says, is -- quite simply -- beauty.

Sanders is a humanist -- he teaches in the English Department at Indiana University -- but his understanding of beauty is not unlike that of the physicist. Beauty gives us a glimpse of the underlying order of things, he says: "The swirl of a galaxy and the swirl of a gown resemble one another not merely by accident, but because they follow the grain of the universe."

The grain of the universe! What a felicitous phrase. This is what Newton, Darwin and Einstein beheld when they found simple and elegant ways to express complex realities. And what my sister Anne is right to see in the "mandala" of the mathematicians.

Beauty is a resonance of flickering neurons in the brain with patterns of order in the world, nature's signature of truth. "Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us," writes Sanders. "It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

There is a grandeur in this view of life

In previous posts from this tropic island, I have extolled the virtues of native plants and scolded those among my neighbors who douse their plots with pesticides. Now a confession: I'm not a friend of all native species.

Two plants are a scourge. Bur grass, which is prodigiously reproductive and the bane of bare feet. And love vine, which sends out bright orange feelers that crawl across the sand until they find a leafy plant, then, turning themselves into a tangled mass of gaudy tendrils, suck the life out of their victim.

For months my wife and I have relentlessly ripped up these plants, knowing full well that when we return nine months hence they will have reestablished themselves and the battle will begin again.

What to do? Let nature take its course? Bring in the Ortho?

Some time ago I read about a roboticist (in Florida, I think) who created a robot named Chew Chew that gets its energy by eating food -- microbial fuel cells digest carbohydrates, converting them to electricity. Another English team has created a similar robot that feeds on garden slugs. Now that's what I need, a robot that will stay on patrol all year round, gobbling up the bur grass and love vine...

...and garden slugs, and geckoes, and frogs, and coco plums, and bougainvilleas, and the neighbor's tomatoes, and the neighbor's cat, and...

Isaac Asimov is known for his three laws of robotics: 1. A robot may not injure a human being. 2. A robot must obey orders, except in violation of the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence except in violation of the First and Second Laws. Well, yes, that's well and good, but the thrust of robotics these days is to create robots with minds of their own -- like bur grass and love vine.

In the last analysis, it's us against them, a Darwinian struggle for existence. Certain of my neighbors douse and spray. My wife and I will continue our hand-to-hand combat. We get older -- and wearier. One day you will find us here, wrapped in thick shrouds of orange tendrils, partially digested, fists full of bur grass, defiant to the end.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Be cheerful, Sir

It was my pleasure once to act in a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Surely, few lines have ever been written in the English language more beautiful than these of Prospero:
      Be cheerful, Sir,
Our revels are now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Science can neither prove or disprove the immortality of the human self. Those who choose to believe that we live forever cannot and will not be refuted by experiment. The only thing at issue is how seriously we take Ockham's Razor, which has been and remains one of the most fruitful metascientific principles upon which is based the scientific way of knowing. If every observable aspect of the human self -- physical characteristics, behaviors, immune system, memories, and so on -- can be shown to be material processes, then the idea of an immaterial spirit self becomes simply redundant. A swipe of the Razor and not a rack of the immortal soul is left behind.

It can be argued, of course, that one believes in the efficacy of the Razor with no more evidence than one believes in immortal souls, and that is true. These are, however, different sorts of beliefs: the latter makes a claim about what actually exists in the world, the former is a principle of knowing. I choose the Razor. You choose the immortal soul. Let's leave it at that.

And in doing so, I'll be cheerful. I will revel while I can, and then, like my soma, like the Sun and the great globe itself, one day dissolve and fade. We are such stuff as dreams are made of. Let us dream then the great dreams of the universe described by science -- the dreams of Aristarchus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and all the other players in that glorious pageant -- and be content that our little lives are rounded with a sleep.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

...into one great Florida of global culture?

Is it really as bad as all that?

In one of her last speeches (as quoted in the NYTBR), Susan Sontag -- woe, woe is we -- said, "We live in a culture committed to unifying greeds, "with "everyone on the planet feeding at the same trough of standardized entertainment and fantasies of eros and violence." Watching Bahamians feeding on their own little piece of standardized entertainment -- the Anna Nicole brouhaha -- alternately tut-tutting and gorging themselves with every shabby tidbit, it is easy to imagine that Sontag got it right. There is no question that globalization will be the defining historical movement of the 21st century. Whether it will lead to a lowest common denominator of greed, eros and violence, or to what Sontag called "a standard of altruism, of regard for others" remains to be seen.

I choose to be optimistic. Maybe we are optimists and pessimists by birth, genetically predisposed to hope or despair. Maybe our personal experiences in life so far incline us one way or the other. Maybe I am right in seeing a trend in history, what Margaret Mead called "the ever-expanding circle of those we do not kill" (or words to that effect; I rely on memory of a talk I heard more than 50 years ago). Or maybe I linger under the influence of Teilhard de Chardin, a hero of my youth, who in his concept of the Noosphere imagined something very like the internet -- in his vision, a suprahuman global radiance of all that is redeeming in the human spirit. Is the glass half-empty or half-full? It has helped to have had a career in teaching. There are times for me, as I am sure for everyone, when the march of human folly nudges one towards Sontagian gloom. Then I spend time with students -- ideally in a natural environment -- and my optimism is restored.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Filling the ether

Something new on the island this year. A half-dozen tall cell phone towers strung out along the Queen's Highway. A sure sign, I suppose, that our sweet little island has embraced the world beyond.

I have mixed feelings about this, of course. I'm glad for my island neighbors, who have as much right to jabber inconsequently into a cell phone as anyone else. But along with cell phones comes all the rest of garbage culture -- Anna Nicole Smith and Howard Stern are big news here -- winging on the ether, bathing the island in a ceaseless slop of American-pop-culture-saturated electromagnetic waves.

Already islanders are asking themselves if they really want to let this laid-back jewel of sand in a turquoise sea become just another neighborhood of Florida. The answer, apparently (sadly), is yes.

I'm just finished reading Erik Larson's Thunderstruck, which is about -- among other things -- Guglielmo Marconi's experiments with wireless telegraphy. The scrappy Italian showed that electromagnetic waves could reach right around the curvature of the Earth. Marconi's imagination raced ahead of most of his contemporaries, but even he could not have imagined the planet wrapped in its 21st-century cocoon of invisible radiations, the sublime and the ridiculous -- the music of Mozart, the BBC World Service, Anna Nicole's funeral live, the postings on this blog -- a Noosphere of all that is glorious and absurd of human culture.

Some years ago, at the MIT Museum, I saw replicas of the apparatus with which Heinrich Hertz demonstrated (in 1886) the existence of electromagnetic waves. The first transmitter and receiver had a basement-workshop simplicity about them -- brass, wood, wire, string, and sealing wax -- hand-crafted, handsomely varnished, polished to an impressive shine. Such a simple beginning for the day when the very space in which we live and move and have our being would invisibly shimmer with a thousand exudations that bind us all together, ready or not, higgledy-piggledy, into one great glorious and tawdry Florida of global culture.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Stop bugging me

A friend e-mails this question: "I read somewhere that microbes outnumber cells in the body 10 to 1. Is that true? Are we just skins filled with & crawling with bugs?" Find the answer, friend, in this week's Musing, an updated reprise from a Globe column of long ago. I don't promise that it will make you happy.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday pic.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

An Irish diversion

In the spring of 1990, I spent six months in the Boole Library of University College Cork, in Ireland. Each morning, as I made my way to my desk, I passed beneath the watchful eyes of George Boole, whose stern but kindly portrait hangs in a place of honor.

The name will be familiar to every computer scientist. George Boole's algebra of logic underlies the design of all modern computers. The memorial plaque on his home in Cork boldly calls him "the father of computer science."

In two ways Boole's story illustrates the power of the human mind to escape the commonplace. With nothing but pluck and hard work the poor son of a shoemaker lifted himself to a professorship of higher mathematics. And in his mathematical researches, Boole freed algebra from its long servitude to arithmetic. No less an authority than Bertrand Russell credited Boole with the discovery of pure mathematics.

He was born in Lincoln, England, in the year of Waterloo, into poverty no less restricting than that of his American contemporary Abraham Lincoln. In 19th-century America a boy might be encouraged to better his position in life, but in class-bound Britain it was expected that sons or daughters of the lower classes should stay uncomplainingly in their places. Boole wanted out, but with no clear idea where he could go. With no education beyond primary (a knowledge of the shorter catechism was considered an appropriate level of instruction for a shoemaker's son), Boole taught himself Latin, Greek, French and German. His father, a man of wide-ranging curiosity, inspired Boole to study mathematics and natural philosophy. At the age of 19, the precocious youngster opened his own school at Lincoln.

Boole learned mathematics by reading (in French) the works of the great French masters, Lacroix, Laplace, and Lagrange, plodding by candlelight through horrendously demanding texts, forced to invent for himself all of the mathematical preliminaries he had never learned in school.

Perhaps because he was self-taught Boole noticed things about the symmetry and beauty of mathematics that the great mathematicians had missed, most notably the germ of the theory of invariance, which later became the basis for Einsteinian relativity.

The originality of Boole's work was soon recognized, and in 1849 he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the newly established Queen's College in Cork, now University College, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1854 he published the work for which he is now chiefly known, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought.

Boole died at age 50, only ten years after the publication of his great book, leaving behind a grieving wife and five young daughters. Anyone who wishes to argue that scientific talent is genetically transmitted can do no better that refer to the daughters of George and Mary Boole.

Alicia became a mathematician of considerable talent, like her father self-taught. Lucy was a chemist, the first woman Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Free Hospital, London. Margaret is best remembered for her son, the well-known physicist Geoffrey Ingram Taylor. Mary's husband, the mathematician Charles Hinton, wrote on worlds of dimensions other than three; he was probably inspired by his mother-in-law and her daughters. Most interesting of all is Ethel, whose life as a political radical, revolutionary, lover of master spy Sydney Reilly, and best-selling novelist deserves a book to herself.

Boole's wife Mary, herself only 32 at the time of his death, went on to make eccentric but interesting contributions to the psychology of education.

The key word here is liberation. In using his mind to liberate himself from burdens of poverty and class, George Boole helped liberate mathematics from restricting conventions of the past. He also pointed the way for his wife and five daughters to chart unconventional courses at a time when women were expected to act in strict subservience to men.

Friday, March 16, 2007


I've just written a review of a book about the Space Shuttle and International Space Station for the Toronto newspaper. The best reference on these subjects I found on the web was Wikipedia. Accurate? Every fact I used in the review I checked against the NASA web sites and found no errors. In general, Wikipedia was more comprehensive and better organized than the official sites. The amount of information to be found on there is impressive, and the links to other sources invaluable.

I would imagine there are hundreds of people out there who have as their hobbies knowing everything there is to know about every aspect of the space programs, maybe as much or more than the engineers who build and launch the crafts and the astronauts who fly them. You can be sure these aficionados are picking at Wikipedia with a fine-toothed comb, scrutinizing every decimal point. It is a brilliant concept, when you think about it: Harnessing the collective knowledge of the masses for the benefit of all.

Once before I proposed here building a WikiWorld online global "government," a virtual alternative to the United Nations and its associated agencies. Such a "government" would have no powers other than moral, but it could show the way to a real world government that would be secular, democratic and people-based. The internet is the defining invention of our age; it is inevitable and desirable that its diffusion of power and expertise should be harnessed to the political agenda of alleviating the excesses of nationalism, religious separatism, and economic imperialism.

How to build such a WikiWorld template? That's beyond me, but not -- I am sure -- beyond the imaginations of smart young wiki-ites around the world who can turn the web into an instrument of human unification and moral compulsion.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

In the dark

"Dark energy, an invisible, undetectable force that seems to break all the rules of physics may be about to redefine the universe," says last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, as the subtitle to an article on dark matter and dark energy by Richard Panek.

Dark matter is a presumed non-luminous massy stuff that accounts for 22 percent of the universe. It's presence is signaled in the rotation of galaxies, which seem to require more mass than is visible to keep them from flying apart.

Dark energy is an even more mysterious something that makes up 74 percent of the universe. Its presence is signaled as an acceleration of the outward flight of the galaxies against the pull of gravity.

That leaves 4 percent to contain everything we thought the universe was made of, including us.

If dark matter and dark energy exist, it would have "philosophical consequences of the civilization-altering variety," writes Panek. The ultimate Copernican Revolution, he calls it; not only are we not at the center of things, we re not even made of the same stuff as most of what is.

I once mentioned to a friend that 96 percent of the stuff of the universe is unknown and possibly unknowable. He responded, with his usual wry wit: "It's probably the best stuff too."

Well, maybe. I'm not about to get all hot and bothered. Anyone who still thinks we are the be-all and end-all of creation hasn't been paying attention. A glance at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph -- tens of thousands of galaxies in a part of the sky you could cover with a pinhead held at arm's length -- should pretty much put the kibosh on any shred of self-importance we assumed on the cosmic scale. Yet still we have preachers with Rolex watches and Lincoln Town Cars telling us the Creator of the universe wants us to tithe, and popes who sit on Renaissance thrones channeling "infallibly" the Creator's thoughts.

We have been sufficiently humbled cosmically. It's time now to strive for some terrestrial humility. Until we have the simple modesty to treat each other as equal accidents on this pinprick of ordinary matter called Earth, I wouldn't worry about 96 percent of the universe we know nothing about.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I am, therefore I think, I think

Yesterday's sea hare was not much more than a fist-sized blob of goo on the sand, but it was aware. If we touched it, it quivered in response, as if to signal "Put me back in the water, please!" Self aware? With only a few tens of thousands of neurons, presumably only in the most elementary sense. The sea hare's awareness is mostly focused on finding food and a mate. For food, seaweed (of the same color as itself!). For a mate -- well, another sea hare; they are hermaphroditic.

All sexual eukaryotes are aware of their environment; all must find food and mates, and escape predators. Specialized cells -- neurons -- make this possible. A human brain contains about 100 billion neurons; stretch out their axons end to end and they'd reach to the Moon. One hundred trillion synaptic connections. A human brain is the most complex thing we know about in the universe, and with it comes that mysterious thing called self-awareness. The apes may be self-aware, but in humans self-awareness has become a planet-transforming emergent quality. We are, whether we like it or not, the lords of creation -- at least in this little corner of the universe -- and with such awesome power comes a proportionate responsibility. To whom? We have no dictates from on high. We assume our own responsibilities. To ourselves. To each other. To sea hares.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

I am, therefore I think

How this fellow got himself stranded on the sand, I don't know, but if my sister hadn't pulled me aside I would have squished him with my bare foot. A spotted sea hare, Aplysia dactyolmela. A worthy creature, as I shall now disclose, of estimiable value to science. We put him back in the sea where he quickly revived, flapping his mantle wings as if he wanted to fly.

The 2000 Nobel Prize in medicine went to Eric Kandel, Paul Greengard, and Arvid Carlsson for studies on the physiology of memory. In his address to the Nobel Foundation, Kandel recounted his evolution as a scientist.

He first became interested in the study of memory in 1950 as a result of his readings in psychoanalysis as an undergraduate at Harvard. Later, as a medical student, he began to find psychoanalysis limiting; it treated the brain as a black box, observable only from outside. Kandel wanted to open the box, to see what was inside -- to explore the mansion of memory as flesh and blood.

He was convinced that memory was biological and that human memory might have much in common with memory in other organisms. His approach, therefore, would be reductionistic: Start with the rudiments of memory in a simple organism, with the hope of eventually understanding the apparent miracle of human memory.

Kandel took Aplysia as his model. This shell-less aquatic snail has several advantages as an experimental animal: It has only 20,000 central nerve cells, rather than the tens of billions in mammalian brains, and the cells are big, ten times larger than human neurons. And Aplysia can be trained to respond to stimuli. It learns and remembers.

When a sea snail remembers, changes happen at the places where nerve cells touch each other, the synapses. Kandel, and others, worked out the biochemistry of these changes, for both short-term and long-term memory, and showed that the cellular and molecular changes at work in Aplysia's rudimentary brain are present in mammals too.

There may be as many as 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain, and each one is connected to thousands of others. Memories are stored as electrical and chemical changes at the synapses where cell communicates with cell. A scribble. A lifetime of experiences scribbled into flesh.

As Kandel pointed out in his Nobel address, there is lots more yet to learn, and full understanding of human memory will require the combined efforts of molecular biologists, cognitive psychologists, neurologists, psychiatrists, and perhaps even computer modelers. The 21st century promises to be the century when we explore every corner of the human brain, and understand, at least in principle, how a brain gives rise to mind.

The sea snail Aplysia has helped confirm that Descartes was wrong; the human self is not a dualism of mind and matter, but rather an efflorescence of self from matter, a shimmering exuberance of the stuff of the universe gathered in the human brain into biochemical webs of astonishing complexity. Not "I think, therefore I am," but rather "I am, therefore I think."

Monday, March 12, 2007


From the peak of the roof he sings. Or shall I call it jabbering. All morning. My wife loves it. When I'm trying to write and he's yammering away outside the window I sometimes feel like taking a pot shot. But it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, says Atticus, in Harper Lee's story. And so it is.

Mimus polyglottos,: "many-tongued mime." The northern mockingbird is a consummate plagiarizer, stealing the calls of dozens of other birds and using them as its own. In 1725, Mark Catesby, one of the earliest naturalists to explore the southeastern United States, wrote of the mockingbird: "It is justly called the Queen of all singing birds. From March to August it sings incessantly, day and night with the greatest variety of notes; and, to complete its compositions, borrows from the whole choir, and repeats to them their own tunes with such artful melody, that it is equally pleasing and surprising."

I grew up with mockingbirds in Chattanooga. These days, it is the mascot of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Scrappy , they call him. I've never been to a UTC football game, but I imagine mockingbirds sitting on the uprights of the goal posts mocking the opposing teams. It's hard to think of that part of the country without a Mimus polyglottos on every prominence singing its heart out.

They arrived here in the Bahamas sometime early in the last century and made themselves at home, displacing the Bahamas mockingbirds, their less vocal cousins. "Rank bird, how it persists./ Showoff. Not singing. Mimicking, cleverly/ mocking my dream to hold this day forever," says Grace Schulman in her latest book of poems.

Well, yes, one person's music is another person's racket. And so I sit here at my laptop, trying to summon up affection for the indefatigable songster who sits on the peak of the roof mocking my dream of writing about something other than himself.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Constructing the real

Anne's pic this week includes a quote by the quantum physicist David Bohm, who had some unconventional ideas about how the mind constructs reality. What is the relationship between our ideas of the world and "the thing itself"? Can we know "the thing itself"? See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's cyber art.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Emma Bell MIles -- Part 2

Of the Baltimore oriole, Emma Bell Miles had this to say: "Its color is splendid, as if brought from the tropical jungle, rich orange, with black wings and tail."

The bluebird: "A wintry roadside may be suddenly illumined by the descent of a dozen bluebirds on a sumach bush, or a pokeweed in late summer may be laid flat under the weight of a flock coming to eat purple berries."

The goldfinch: "The song is quite canary-like, but softer, with a variety of pretty chirps and trills. On the wing, their undulating course is punctuated by a twitter described by the mountain people as 'Meat's cheaper -- meat's cheaper.' "

Miles intended her little book as a teaching guide for school children. In an epilogue, she advised teachers to encourage their students to procure a good notebook, keep records of their observations ("...the most important of them should be written in ink. .."), and discuss in class such questions as "Why birds should be protected" and "How we may protect the birds." I suppose I was one of many youngsters touched by her talent, and it is with pleasure that I acknowledge her here.

Emma Bell Miles lived for common things, she said -- "smells of hot meadows, of rain-wet plowed land, of barn lofts and kitchen corners." And birds, of course. It might have been her life that the writer Eudora Welty was describing when she wrote in her own autobiography, One Writer's Beginning: "As you have seen, I am a writer who came from a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."

Friday, March 09, 2007

Emma Bell Miles -- Part 1

Chattanooga, Tennessee. The early 1950s. I am 16 years old, dreaming lazily in bed on a summer morning. I look out the window and see a bird unlike any I have noticed before, brilliant orange, like a leaf afire.

I have a job that summer as stack boy for the Chattanooga Public Library. When I get to work I look for a book that might help me identify the bird, and find Our Southern Birds by Emma Bell Miles. It isn't the most useful guide I might have found -- the author's pen-and-ink illustrations aren't in color -- but it helps me identify a Baltimore oriole. Inspired by her simple but lively sketches, I spent a few weeks sketching birds myself.

Decades pass. The early 1990s. I am back in Chattanooga on a visit, browsing a bookstore, and come across a reprint of Our Southern Birds, published by the Walden's Ridge Historical Association. In a moment of nostalgia, I buy the book and rediscover Emma Bell Miles.

She was born on October 19, 1879, to schoolteacher parents in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. At the age of 11, she moved with her family to wooded Walden's Ridge near Chattanooga. Her interests were art and nature. At age 20, she went away to the St. Louis School of Art, but after two winters returned to her beloved mountain, where she married Frank Miles and bore five children.

Her life was hard. The family lived in a shack. Emma sold stories, poems, and paintings to make ends meet, including a book called The Spirit of the Mountains, drawn from her experience as a school teacher on Walden's Ridge (later, the book would become a treasured record of the life and songs of the mountain people). Her health broke. Tuberculosis.

In and out of the sanatorium, Emma moved with her family to Chattanooga, where she painted and lectured on birds to school and civic groups. She acquired a modest local fame, but clung to life by a thread. The thread was her love of birds.

In the spring of 1918, a Chicago book publisher called on Emma and together they planned a book on southern birds. Preparing the text and illustrations kept her alive for another summer. Our Southern Birds came off the press in March 1919, and the publisher brought copies to her house. Two weeks later she was dead, at age 39.

More tomorrow.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Going to the dogs

Whatever happened to the historical novel?

When I was a stack boy for the Chattanooga Public Library, back in the early 1950s, in memory at least it seems that all the most popular fiction was historical. Every cartload of books to be shelved contained the works of Thomas Costain, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Samuel Shellabarger, Kathleen Winsor, A. J. Cronin, Frank Yerby, Daphne du Maurier, and so on. A quick google confirms my memory. I never read any of this stuff (I read very little of anything in those days), but my wife devoured it all as a teenage girl hungry for the rich tapestry of the past.

The current New York Times bestseller list contains, as far as I can discern, not a single work of historical fiction. It is all murder, spydom and intrigue set in the present. Number 15 is called You Suck ("A 19-year-old discovers that his girlfriend is a vampire -- and now, so is he.")

It is into this culture that I send Valentine and the soon-to-be-reissued In the Falcon's Claw. It takes a brave publisher to bring any work of historical fiction to print.

I have yet another work ready for press, a YA (young adult) novel set in Tudor England and Ireland, with, of course, a young Irish Catholic lad and English Protestant girl thrown together in the midst of violence. My daughter, who is deeply involved in children's book publishing, tells me it'll be a hard sell. It seems the only thing YA boys are reading these days is Harry Potter, and the only things girls read are Gossip Girls and Clique.

Oh, well, it is not only for kids that the past is dead. Even the nonfiction bestseller list gives scant evidence of interest in where we have come from. Instead we get Marley & Me ("A newspaper columnist and his wife learn some life lessons from their neurotic dog."), still number 5 after 70 weeks on the list. Sour grapes? Maybe I should get a dog.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


"At bottom, the whole concern of religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe," said William James, who, in the Varieties of Religious Experience, was one of the first to study religion as a natural phenomenon. Ironically, most people who consider themselves religious say "no" to the universe. Their guiding purpose is to get out of the universe into a supernatural realm where they will live forever in the bosom of their deity. They wait to be raptured. They blow themselves up with suicide bombs. When a loved one dies, they say, "She's in a better place." Meanwhile a universe of astonishing mystery and majesty goes unexplored.

Yes, I say, yes. Yes to the gecko on the window screen. Yes to the cherry tomatoes that ripen in the pots on the porch. Yes to the thick gray clouds that roll in from the north as I write. Yes to the woman who lies sleeping in the bed I left just moments ago. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Why am I here? asked the catechism of my youth. The answer: To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him. Evolutionary psychologists have gone a long way toward explaining why we anthropomorphize the Mystery with the idolatrous "Him," but with William James I might still give pretty much the same answer. Why am I here? To know the universe (science), to love the universe (art), to serve the universe (conscience). Acceptance. Acceptance of what is, and when the time comes to let it go, be grateful that I was part of it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Why believe?

The cover of the New York Times Magazine on Sunday asked rhetorically in big white letters on (what purports to be) a starry background "Why Do We Believe?" "How evolutionary science explains faith in God," whispers the subtitle of the article by Robin Marantz Henig.

Henig suggests at one point in her essay that the current interest by evolutionary biologists in explaining the almost universal human belief in supernatural spirits (including, of course, the Big Guy Himself) is by way of revenge on the creationists who have so diligently sought to ban the teaching of evolution from the public schools (or at the very least counter natural selection with the pseudoscience called intelligent design). After all, belief is a natural phenomenon like sexual desire or the male propensity for violence. If desire and agression are evolved behaviors, why not religious faith?

Note here, as Henig is careful to assert, that it is the behavior of belief that scientists study, not the more abstract question of God's existence. But of course the implication is plain. If belief in a personal supernatural being who attends to our individual lives and hears and answers prayers is merely a more elaborate version of belief in fairies, poltergeists or the spirits of trees and brooks, then He is no more likely to exist than they. Har! Take that, creationists!

Well, revenge, I suppose, is sweet, but rather beside the point. If a tendency to populate the world with spirits is part of human nature, then evolutionary biology is not likely to have much effect on whether or not people believe. Even scientists can find ways to justify faith. The psychologist Justin Barrett is quoted by Henig: "Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people. Why wouldn't God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?"

There's no way to answer such a statement except to get out Ockham's Razor and start slashing away. If my belief or disbelief in a God who intervenes in human affairs makes not the slightest empirically verifiable difference in my life, then why believe? That's precisely the question evolutionary biologists are trying to answer, and more power to them. Meanwhile, if it is in my biological human nature to be religious, then I will be religious -- that is to say, reverent, celebratory and grateful in the face of the world's unfathomable Mystery -- but I will stay armed with the Razor and wary of anthropomorphic idols.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The shape of night

Saturday evening we just squeaked into the show for the total eclipse of the Moon. The eclipse was already at totality as the Moon rose. Over there across the Atlantic, in deep night, they got to see the Moon slip into the Earth's shadow.

Clouds on our horizon obscured the best part of the affair -- the dusky colors of totality, the Moon lit by a faint wash of sunlight refracted into the shadow by the Earth's atmosphere. The color of an eclipsed Moon is hard to predict exactly, since it depends on such things as the amount of dust in Earth's atmosphere. We did get to watch as the Moon drifted out of the Earth's shadow and resumed its fullness.

The Earth's shadow is a long thin cone pointing away from the Sun -- as long and thin as a fencer's rapier -- about twice as wide as the Moon at the Moon's distance from Earth. Whenever I watch a lunar eclipse, I never fail to think of these wonderful lines the Earth speaks in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound:
I spin beneath my pyramid of night
  Which points into the heavens, dreaming delight,
Murmuring victorious joy in my enchanted sleep;
  As a youth lulled in love-dreams faintly sighing,
  Under the shadow of his beauty lying,
Which round his rest a watch of light and warmth doth keep.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The terrifying burden of daily responsibility

Even among the few fragments of thought we have from the Pre-Socratic philosophers, we find there the conceptual armature upon which hang our most profound debates today. For all of our modern scientific and technological sophistication, the questions that needle us remain remarkably constant. See this week's Musing.

Meanwhile, we had the eclipse of the moon. I had all the neighbors watching. Unfortunately, our eastern horizon was cloudy so we only saw the emergence of the moon from the umbra. Still, all in all, a lovely evening's gift.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday offering.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The handmaiden of knowledge

Speaking of Huxley and his sea creatures: His monograph on Oceanic Hydrozoa had the misfortune to be published within weeks of Darwin's Origin of Species. It was lost in the furor occasioned by Darwin's book. Huxley was a big enough man to know he had been properly upstaged. His work on the hydrozoa was a patient gathering of the tiny truths out of which he thought grand Truths might be made. The Origin was about as grand a Truth as science had yet conceived, and Darwin was manifestly the Newton of biology. (Science awards capital Ts sparingly, if at all, and takes them back at the first sign of unworthiness.)

Natural selection was the cause Huxley had been waiting for, the cause he was born for. Darwin's synthesis was not just a scientific idea; it was a challenge to the Establishment, to the whole encrusted apparatus of Church, State and Class. No sooner had the book appeared than the guns of privilege began blasting away, and Huxley drew out his fiercely talented pen in rebuttal. Of the Origin, he wrote: "Bigots denounce it with ignorant invective; old ladies of both sexes consider it a decidedly dangerous book, and even savants...quote antiquated writers to show that its author is no better than an ape himself."

Huxley had some qualms about the Origin, in particular its unwavering emphasis upon chancy adaptation; he had hoped to find in nature some guiding developmental laws. But he was awed by the breadth and scope of Darwin's vision, and left his qualms aside as he entered the rhetorical fray. He knew, with Darwin, that even if nature was cruelly red in tooth and claw, human ethics stood above the struggle for existence. There was a place in the Darwinian scheme of things for his own liberal politics and work on behalf of the poor. One need not have the promise of heaven and fear of hell to be good, nor did natural selection negate his moral vision. "Freedom and order are not incompatible," he wrote, "[and] reverence is the handmaiden of knowledge."

Friday, March 02, 2007

In praise of tiny truths

In the southern hemisphere summer of 1848, twenty-three-year-old Thomas Henry Huxley was sailing Australian waters as Assistant Surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake. He was head-over-heels in love with a young woman he had met Down Under, and drifting into the critical skepticism about matters of religion he would later dub "agnosticism." Other than young Henrietta "Nettie" Heathorn, the main thing on his mind was jellyfish, of which he had netted hundreds. As the ship sailed up the Australian coast he worked at sorting out the relationships among his many specimens, and between the jellyfish and other marine organisms.

Huxley's brilliant biographer Adrian Desmond writes: "Nettie, a sensible girl who liked Schiller and penned love poems, must have asked 'Why jellyfish?' And he must have led her self-importantly from these pulsing 'nastinesses' to the great problem of existence, contrasting the tiny truths of creation with the great sandcastle sophistries for which men were willing to die. The tiny truths were real bricks which would build a palatial foundation to Truth. They were stanzas of Nature's great poem; and only by reciting the ultimate sonnet could we gain a rational set of mores and a real meaning to life."

Darwin grand synthesis, that would make sense of Huxley's jellyfish observations, was still more than a decade away, and Huxley would eventually enter the lists and make a name for himself as "Darwin's Bulldog." But here in the South Seas we see him formulating his own important contribution to the human story: The idea that we have something important to learn about human mores and meaning from even the lowliest blob of protoplasm afloat in the sea. He had already decided that eternal truths, if they were to be found, would be discovered in the Book of Nature, not from the hands of Anglican high divines, as a patient accumulation of individually minute observations. The only knowledge worth having was secular, not theological, and "was not to be delegated by episcopal patrons, but seized by plebeian hands." The jellyfish represented common knowledge, by and for the common person.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Telescopes and bayonets

One of those rare mornings here when the air is full of a soft mist and the sea and sky meet at an indistinct horizon. The sun didn't so much rise as seep into the deep half of the world, a hazy melt of liquid color percolating upwards and spreading horizontally like a wine stain in cloth. Walking the beach was like striding along the edge of infinity. Remember that famous woodcut, from a 1888 work of the French astronomer Camille Flammarion, of the fellow poking his head through the terrestrial sky and spying the wheels and workings of the universe beyond. It was like that. I felt as if I walked into the sea I might find myself emerging into Elysian Fields beyond.

"Only that day dawns to which we are awake," said Thoreau. Flammarion was awake. He wrote: "What intelligent being, what being capable of responding emotionally to a beautiful sight, can look at the jagged, silvery lunar crescent trembling in the azure sky, even through the weakest of telescopes, and not be struck by it in an intensely pleasurable way, not feel cut off from everyday life here on earth and transported toward that first stop on the celestial journeys? What thoughtful soul could look at brilliant Jupiter with its four attendant satellites, or splendid Saturn encircled by its mysterious ring, or a double star glowing scarlet and sapphire in the infinity of night, and not be filled with a sense of wonder? Yes, indeed, if humankind -- from humble farmers in the fields and toiling workers in the cities to teachers, people of independent means, those who have reached the pinnacle of fame or fortune, even the most frivolous of society women -- if they knew what profound inner pleasure await those who gaze at the heavens, then France, nay, the whole of Europe, would be covered with telescopes instead of bayonets, thereby promoting universal happiness and peace."