Monday, August 13, 2007

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, and the Sunday crossword...

If, like Joseph Smith, I were going to write the scriptures for a new religion, the first chapter would begin with an all-powerful deity -- call him Shortz -- creating a weekly series of crossword puzzles, easy on Monday, getting harder each day until devilishly difficult on Saturday, then a Sunday puz, ingeniously themed, not as hard as Friday's or Saturday's, but bigger and more languorously pleasurable.

That done, our all-powerful deity could turn over the details of creation -- Sun, Moon, Earth, land and sea, plants and animals -- to lesser demigods.

I never worked crosswords until in retirement I took up the New York Times puzzles at my mother's urging, "to keep your brain sharp." Seemed to work for her, still sharp as a tack when she passed on at age 92. Now the puzzles order my life, one each day, starting at 5 PM, and, if all goes well, finished handily in time for glass of wine at 6. Except on Sunday, when with coffee and Bach I sprawl on the sofa, sunlight streaming in the window, and savor the 21x21 with delicious antemeridial repose.

Is that a word? Well, never mind. As long as we have the great god Shortz creating divine posers, he can concoct any word he wants. And, now that I think about it, my version of creation is not all that different from what cosmologists believe actually happened. It wasn't stars and planets, land and sea, plants and animals that were created during the first moments of creation. Rather, the really interesting act of invention was the laws of nature that determine how the universe unfolds.

What gives science its vigor is the way the whole thing hangs together like a crossword puzzle, vertical and horizontal. It is not any one clue or answer that is interesting, but the way it works as a web. Lots of people think they can pick and chose among scientific theories -- accept chemistry and physics, say, but not certain aspects of geology or biology. It doesn't work that way. It would be like a crossword with all downs and no acrosses. Or a crossword with nonsense words threaded through an otherwise ingenious construction. The very best crosswords have a satisfying consistency, and that is what we look for in science too. And speaking for myself, I like themed crosswords, a puz with some lovely trick up its sleeve. A theme that is perfectly consistent with the laws of the crossword universe, but still has the power to delight and surprise.