Sunday, September 30, 2007

The microscopic rhinoceros

The weather, of course, has been spectacular. And me with a cold. See this week's Musing.

Anne's art cheers things up. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

An uneasy truce

I stumbled in from retirement yesterday to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for Stonehill College's new $34 million science center, far and away the biggest commitment of resources in the history of the college. I am proud of the college for its support of science. Ours is a Roman Catholic institution, founded by the Congregation of Holy Cross, who also run the University of Notre Dame and Portland University. We hear a lot these days about the conflict between science and religion, but here at least faith does not impinge on the doing and teaching of science. The science that will be taught in Stonehill's new science center is exactly the same as that taught in any of the great secular institutions of higher learning. In my 40+ years of science teaching at Stonehill, a student would have been hard-pressed to say what was my religion, if any, and I dare say the same is true for my colleagues. And that, of course, is the strength of science as a way of knowing -- what I yesterday called the disentanglement of knowedge and desire.

What about the other way round? Should science impinge on faith? Should courses in religious studies seek to incorporate the latest scientific understanding of the world? One would hope so. Countless events that were once explained through the action of divine agencies are now understood as natural phenomena, such as comets and hereditary disaese. Of course, people of faith can and will find ample opportunity to see God's miraculous action in the world. Science cannot disprove, for example, that Jesus was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. And so, at this institution, and others like it, a sort of uneasy truce exists between faith and science, one domain grounding itself in miracles, the other excluding the miraculous. Not the most felicitous situation, in my opinion, but to each her own.

The college has certainly tolerated my agnosticism (as manifested in my books and other writings), and I have greatly profited -- spiritually and intellectually -- by my friendships with people of faith, especially a number of remarkable members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, men of wise counsel, charitable action, and keen intelligence.

Friday, September 28, 2007

In praise of modernity

I had very little good to say yesterday about philosophy. I am particularly befuddled by so-called postmodern philosophy. This may be a failing of my own. I am a concrete thinker. I like terms that are not far removed from sense impressions. I like taut simplicity. I like to be able to pluck the strings of an argument and see the whole thing quiver.

Speaking of befuddlement, I have just read Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern, translated from the French and published by Harvard University Press. It is a blessedly brief book, but no more transparent for it. I don't suppose we can call Latour a postmodernist since he thinks we have never been modern. Latour calls his game "science studies," but, lordy, I detect nothing in his mare's-nest prose with the clarity of science.

As near as I can make out, Latour says that the modern dream of disentangling science from human nature and human society is a fraud. The science of global warming, for example, is inextricably mixed up with politics, technology, economics, and the like.

Well, yes, of course. No one claims that science transcends personal and social constraints. But the manifest success of science as a way of knowing derives precisely from the fact that it strives mightily to minimize entanglement. Quantitative reasoning and observation. Double blind experiments. Reproducibility. Consensus building. Peer reviewed communication that makes no reference to the personal or social. Materialist presuppositions. Disenchantment from the divine. It has all evolved to disentangle knowledge from desire.

Latour and other practitioners of so-called "science studies" would, in fact, undo modernity. Pretending to praise the scientific enterprise, they muddy the very disentanglement that makes science work. Fortunately, they have so far had zero influence on the practice of science.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Minding my Ps and Qs

When I was a young academic, I felt a certain obligation to make myself aware of philosophy. I started with the preSocratics and worked my way, in no particular order, to the postModernists. It was a long, hard slog, and except perhaps for David Hume I can't say that I'm better off because of it. The Greeks stated the questions succinctly: What is the good? What is beauty? What is truth? Shelves and shelves of tomes follow. Two-and-a-half millennia after Socrates, philosophers are still rearranging the furniture in the House of Intellect.

What is the good? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Altruism almost certainly has evolutionary roots. Let us repair to science for the origin of the Golden Rule.

What is beauty? Beauty is what we find beautiful. What we find beautiful also has likely been determined by natural selection.

What is truth? Ah, now that's the truly interesting question. Perhaps we will never know. For the time being, the best answers come not from the philosophers, who like spiders spin webs of their own substance, but from the intellectual successors of the mathematical empiricists of Alexandria, the worker bees in the hive of science who make honey from nectar -- not Truth with a capital T, to be sure, but the best sort of truth we are presently able to obtain. Francis Bacon (who supplied my spider/bee metaphor) put it this way: truth "is extracted...not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature." We call it, loosely, the scientific method. It involves the "closets of the mind," certainly; no way to avoid that. But it also involves interrogating nature in a way that forces a maximally unambiguous response, which means quantitative reasoning, quantitative measurement, and reproducible experiment. As Hume told us, reason alone is a dead-end road on the journey to truth. The anticipation of nature is a fraud.

But that hasn't stopped the Bs (philosophy) from expanding as rapidly as any other category of books in the library. What we get is a few books by Kant, say, followed by a half-dozen shelves purporting to tell us what Kant was saying. Ditto Nietzsche. Ditto Derrida. Etc. A cottage industry for academics. As I enter my Golden Years, my pursuit of answers to the three big questions takes me mostly to the Ps (literature) and the Qs (science). In my humble view, all of those laden shelves of philosophy can be reduced to a few words: Be good, leave the world a more beautiful place than you found it, be skeptical of claims for absolute Truth.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Listen, darling, they're playing our song

Here is a pic of part of a mile-long bicycle path near Cambridge, England. The four colors represent the base pairs of the BRCA2 gene, mutations of which increase the risk of breast cancer. There are about 10,000 base pairs in the gene. The path was designed to increase awareness of breast cancer.

The path reminds me of one of those kiddie xylophones with each note a different color. It would be neat if the path were somehow rigged so that as you rode over it you heard the four-note song. A complete-genome bike path on this same scale would wrap around the Earth ten times!

Wouldn't it be fun to cycle with a friend along two parallel four-color xylophones, representing our individual genomes. Long stretches the same, of course, but every now and then those different notes in the four-note symphony that make us unique selves.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bridging the gap

Charles Percy Snow was that rarest of intellectuals in 1950s-1960s: A physicist, a civil servant and a novelist. Nothing stuffy about his little book, The Two Cultures, which I read in the mid-1960s as a young teacher, and which I just read again yesterday. As befits a person trained in science, he said what he wanted to say with as few words as necessary. What he had to say was just what a young, scientifically-trained, fledgling intellectual wanted to hear: science had every right to be in the House of Intellect, not as some embarrassing cousin kept locked out of sight in the cellar or attic, but right there in the parlor with the pipe-puffing literary profs. Scholars of the humanities and scientists had very little to say to each other, said Snow, and they were both the poorer for it. Even at my small liberal arts college, the science and humanities faculties might as well have lived on different planets. I was determined that wasn't going to happen to me, not just because C. P. Snow said it was a bad thing, but because I was too much of a flitterer to settle down in any one place.

Snow's book, as everyone knows, made a very big splash. Perhaps no other book of 58 pages has ever precipitated a greater deluge of print. Colleges and universities rushed to repair the split that Snow so concisely diagnosed, but a curriculum could not remedy the problem when the faculty was so profoundly divided. Requiring science courses of liberal arts students, or humanities courses of science students, merely exposed them to another "culture" -- like a semester in Spain -- but did nothing to integrate intellect. I watched -- I was part of -- a slew of curricular experimentation, trying to solve the "two culture" dilemma. In particular, with a colleague from the English Department, and another from the History Department, we talked the college into supporting an interdisciplinary program of Heuristic Studies, which focused not on content but on ways of knowing: Language, Structure, Classification, Theory Making, that sort of thing. It died with the Countercultural Revolution.

A half-century later things seem to be in about the same place they were in 1959, when Snow wrote the book. The sciences and humanities are as divided as ever. The so-called Third Culture has had minimal impact on undergraduate education.

I'm not sure any curriculum can create an omnivorous, integrating mind. The best a college can do is provide a lively faculty, a good library, and a variety of engaging intellectual activities. Some students will find their way to a satisfying intellectual life of their own devising. Some will have ladled into their heads a glob of this and a glob of that. And some will spend four years drinking beer and hanging out.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Index Librorum Prohibitorum

On Saturday, I used the destruction of the Alexandrian library to suggest that religious dogma and public libraries are not congenial companions. It was not religion I meant to place in opposition to libraries, but dogmatic religion.

When I was a young graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in the early 1960s, I wanted to read the French philosopher Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution. To my astonishment, it was off-limits, locked away in that part of the university library reserved for works on the Index of Prohibited Books. It was not difficult to gain access; a note from a priest-teacher was sufficient, and it was obvious that he and the librarian were embarrassed that such rigamarole should be necessary.

The library didn't have much choice, I suppose. Everything was done in conformity with Rome, and the Index of Prohibited Books was still a part of the Roman desire to hold all the strings of power. The Church had been banning "heretical" books since the earliest centuries of Christianity. The first published lists of prohibited books date from the 15th century, codified by the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The Index of Prohibited Books was not abolished until after the Second Vatican Council, in 1966. Most Catholic universities and colleges must surely have breathed a sigh of relief. Now Rousseau, Voltaire, Zola, Flaubert, Hugo, Sterne, Gibbon, Goldsmith, Mill, Montesquieu, Bacon, Comte, Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Locke, Spinoza, Stendhal, Balzac, Dumas, and all the rest could come out of the locked closets and take their rightful place on the library shelves. In fact, there are no more closets. My own Catholic college library has three copies of Bergson's Creative Evolution ready for the taking.

Of course, the Catholic Church was not alone in censoring books. Book banning and book burning are always with us. Every community has its committee of bluenoses who want to restrict what their neighbors read, and totalitarian regimes notoriously censor books. Fundamentalist religions seem particularly desirous of enforcing orthodoxy. It is the old Caliph Omar syndrome -- when you possess the truth by divine revelation, there is no need for any book other than the one by the divine Author.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Human knowledge, A to Z

My first job was as stack boy in the Chattanooga Pubic Library. I've been in the stacks ever since. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday offering.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

In praise of books

The greatest library of the ancient world was founded by the Ptolemaic dynasty at Alexandria in the 3rd century B.C.E. It is said that the library possessed hundreds of thousands of scrolls. No ship was allowed to enter the harbor at Alexandria without surrendering any book it carried for copying by the library scribes. As befits a city with so superb an institution of learning, Alexandria became for several centuries a center for creative science and mathematics. Euclid, Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Eratosthenses, Aristarchus, and Archimedes are just a few of the famous names associated with Alexandria. Their achievements were considerable, not least of which was measuring the size of the Earth and the sizes and distances of the Sun and Moon. When Alexandrian science collapsed, it would be a millennium-and-a-half before humans again achieved the same level of scientific learning.

Science thrives on free access to knowledge, which is exactly what the Alexandrian library provided. Science also thrives on social stability and secular values. Unfortunately, the library fell victim to political intrigue and religious intolerance. The first crisis came when Julius Caesar appeared on the scene in the middle of the 1st century B.C.E., at a time when Egypt was co-ruled by Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy. Caesar intruded himself into local squabbles and was soon besieged in the city by allies of Ptolemy. It appears that a substantial number of books went up in smoke during the ensuing troubles.

The final destruction of the Alexandrian library was left to the Arab emir Amru, who captured the city in 642 C.E.. According to one tradition, Amru wrote to his Caliph Omar asking what to do with the tens of thousands of papyrus scrolls that were part of the fallen city's treasure. The Caliph's answered: "If the contents of the books accord with the Book of Allah, we do not need them, because in that case the Book of Allah is more than enough. If, on the other hand, they contain anything contrary to the Book of Allah, you must proceed with their destruction." Amru distributed the books to the city's thousands of bath houses to use as fuel for heating the water. It took six months to burn them all. Is the story true? Who knows. Scholars debate the authenticity of the sources. But even if the tale is apocryphal, it embodies a truth: religious dogma and public libraries are not congenial companions.

Friday, September 21, 2007

All night, in the dark

Why do we so admire the poetry of Mary Oliver? She is not the most technically proficient poet around, and there is a disquieting sameness to her work. But we come back to her again and again. My volumes of Oliver's collected poems are the most dog-eared of any on my shelf.

I think it is something about the way Oliver is able to get out of her body and into the skin of a hummingbird, a swan, a snake, or a black bear. She is a shape-shifter, a shaman. When she describes a grasshopper moving its jaws this way and that, we almost feel it is Oliver's own animal spirit behind those bulging orthopteran eyes.

It is a gift to have that sort of sympathy with the natural world; a greater gift to have the language to give it expression. Her poems are spells, incantations, as if she learned her craft at some ancient druid's knee. "My work is loving the world," she says, in her newest collection of poems, Thirst:
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird --
      equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
The new volume takes us somewhere we have not been before. She has lost her partner of more than forty years. Thirst is a book of grievings -- elegies between two hard covers, which are the old human longing for a Heaven where there is no loss and the modern self that knows that death is final. We follow her into that thirsty place, and watch, and watch, as she tries to create another Kingdom of "grace, and imagination..."
...and the multiple sympathies: to be as a leaf, a rose,
      a dolphin, a wave rising
slowly then briskly out of the darkness to touch
      the limpid air, to be God's mind's
servant, loving with the body's sweet mouth--its kisses, its

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Once a Catholic...

Except for two years as a graduate student at UCLA, I have spent all my life in a Roman Catholic milieu. I was raised a Catholic, but since young aduthood I have not been able to recite the Creed. I cannot give intellectual assent to any presumed manifestation of the supernatural -- miracles, answered prayers, and certainly not the central claim of Christianity, that Jesus was God and rose from the dead. Why not? Because my years of study of science, and the history and philosophy of science, have taught me the difference between cautious evidential affirmation and blind faith. I opt for the former.

Yet I remain very much at home with Catholicism. It is rather like the accident of my birth in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a young man, I chose not to return to the South to raise my own family, because I despised the redneck racism that characterized that part of the country in the 1950s and 1960s. But I never lost my affection for Chattanooga, enjoyed every return, and took pride in every step that my native city made away from its racist past.

The same for Catholicism. I can't change the circumstances of my birth, but neither do I reject them. Several times each year I am asked to talk to Unitarian Universalist congregations -- no doubt because they are in sympathy with the religious naturalism of my books -- and I am often asked why I don't become a UU. Because I am a Catholic, I say. Take me back to Chattanooga, and in a few hours I am tawkin' again in a Southern drawl; take me to a church and I am immediately nostalgic for bells, candles, incense, liturgical colors, vestments, diurnal and annual rituals -- the whole smoky, sensual apparatus of Catholic worship. As I have said here before, I have a special regard for the Catholic monastic tradition, with its emphasis on a balanced life of work, study and meditative attention to the world. I value the Catholic mystical tradition, with its heroic attempt to marry body and spirit. There is something visceral and sexy about Catholicism that I don't find in the cheerily cerebral celebrations of the UUs: a sense of mystery, and -- ironically for a church encrusted with dogma -- respect for doubt, for the dark night of the soul, for a geography of the spirit that includes the cloud of unknowing and slough of despond. These things may appeal to me because of the experiences of my youth; nothing wrong with that, as long as they do not compromise the evidence-based rigor I hope to obtain when I say "I believe..."

This too in defense of Catholicism: During my long association with Catholic institutions of higher learning, I have never experienced anything but supportive tolerance for my own agnosticism. My Catholic colleagues -- including professed men and women -- have been challenging, open-minded, and often inspiring. I have been fortunate to have friends and colleagues of faith who brought to the religious quest a sense of poetry, humility, and intellectual adventure.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Shanks mare

The naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger, who tramped all over Ireland early in the last century and recounted what he saw in The Way That I Went, says in his introduction that even a bicycle was too fast for careful observation. Too fast for thinking, too. One of the chapters in Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking is called "The Mind at Three Miles an Hour." That's about the pace at which the brain works, no doubt because for most of our evolutionary history the brain was foot-powered. The Greek philosophers were not called peripatetics for nothing. No one ever had a great thought while ripping down the freeway at sixty miles an hour. Rousseau tells us in the Confessions that his mind only works with his legs: "When I stop walking, I cease to think."

Walking is the one thing that connects us to the deep past. Food, drink, clothing, shelter, sex, childbirth have all been transformed by technology, mostly for the better. But when we walk, we might as well be on the savannas of East Africa two million years ago. Wait, what am I saying? Of course walking has been transformed by technology. Most of the people I pass when I'm walking have on ear phones. They might as well be on a treadmill at home. In fact, I would guess that most of the walking Americans do is on treadmills. Curious, since service on treadmills has long been a form of indentured servitude. We enslave ourselves to our machines.

I'd rather think of walking as a spiritual activity. It has nothing to do with keeping the body fit, although that may be a convenient side effect. Walking is a time for the natural rhythms of the organism to assert themselves -- limbs, breath, heartbeat, thought -- a smoothly functioning unity honed by natural selection at a time when we were still a part of the natural world, not masters of it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Monkey business

Here's an example of what can go wildly amiss in a world without Ockham's Razor.

It is hard to believe that as we enter the 21st century any substantial number of people could believe that Lord Ram and an army of monkeys built Adam's Bridge. But then, half of Americans believe Moses parted the Red Sea, and I imagine they would be just as exacerbated if, say, Egypt proposed to build a radar station on Mount Sinai. I won't mention the farfetched things I believed as a youth, with no more evidence than the word of my religious teachers.

Today I believe things almost equally incredible. The big bang. Black holes, The drift of continents. The germ theory of disease. The dance of the DNA.

How does the dance of DNA differ from Lord Ram and his monkeys? The answer is pretty obvious to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of science. But it is not easy to put it into words. Here is my best shot, from Skeptics and True Believers, for those with the time and the interest to read it.

Wouldn't it be nice if we lived in a world where India and Sri Lanka could be linked peaceably with a real bridge across Adam's Bridge, and where the only issues of contention for a bridge or canal would be environmental.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Darwin's dream pond

The largest flower is the giant arum of Sumatra, 8 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter. It smells so awful it's not on anyone's list of favorites. The tiniest blossom is that of duckweed. The flower is reportedly so small that a magnifier is required to see it, and so rare, apparently, that although I have examined lots of of these tiny plants, I've yet to see a blossom.

What duckweed lacks in size it makes up for in numbers. Although each plant is the size of a salt grain, it has a prodigious capacity for reproduction by budding off copies of itself. The pond near my campus office is covered with a pea-green mat of duckweed, floating masses of grain-sized plants that drift with every breeze into op-art swirls and eddies. Ducks cruise the slime, trailing clear wakes that slowly close to green. Frogs plop into the pond; the duckweed parts and closes over them. I plunge my hand into the water; it comes up in a green glove.

Under a magnifier, the duckweed resolves into a myriad of minuscule lima beans, little bags of watery goo. Questions come to mind: What do these tiny plants live on? Why do they so reluctantly flower? How are they pollinated?

This is Darwin's dream pond, a freshwater Sargasso Sea, a primeval arena of eat and be eaten. I examine my green glove with the magnifier. Larvas, rotifers and who knows what else, hiding and feeding among the plants. Protozoans, too, must swarm here, too small to see at this level of magnification. The pond scum is as thickly populated as the African veld.

I plunge both hands into the duckweed, bring up two green gloves. In Southeast Asia, they eat this stuff. We would eat it, too, if we were less squeamish. Spread out on the surface of the pond, duckweed has an unsavory appearance. Under the magnifier, each tiny plant looks like a juicy grape. All part of the web of life that scums the planet.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Try using a paper clip...or a hammer

Today's Musing appeared as my Boston Globe column six years ago. It is as relevant as ever.

Click to enlarge Anne's weekly gift.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


The philosophical foundations of science can be reduced almost entirely to one principle: Ockham's Razor. Do not needlessly multiply hypotheses. The simplest explanation is probably the best.

In the Introduction to his scientific/philosophical memoir, The Way Things Are (1959), the physicist P. W. Bridgman had this to say about the Razor:
I do not know what logical justification can be offered for the principle. To me it seems to satisfy a deep-seated instinct for intellectual good workmanship. Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons for adopting it is that thereby one has given as few hostages to the future as possible and retained the maximum flexibility for dealing with unanticipated facts or ideas.
Two important ideas here:

Workmanship. We instinctively recognize good design in a chair, a tool, or an electronic device. It has something to do with form and function. An object does what it's supposed to do with maximum efficiency and without excess. We don't use a Rube Goldberg machine to catch a mouse when a Victor spring trap will suffice. The same applies to explanations of the world. It's what Einstein meant when he said, "Theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler."

Economy. By not multiplying explanations needlessly we are less likely to be caught with our pants down in the future. Supernatural and paranormal explanations are superfluous. They lodge themselves in the gaps of science and risk extinction when the gaps are filled. Ockham's Razor instructs us to leave the gaps alone. For the time being, be content with ignorance. If someone asks, "What came before the big bang?" or "How did life begin?", answer, honestly, "I don't know."

Theology is generally set against science as a separate domain of knowing. But any "God" who is presumed to act in the world of matter and energy qualifies as a scientific concept. Like gravity or quarks, the concept of a personal interventionist deity was invented as a way of accounting for our observations. Like phlogiston and vital spirits, it is a concept that has been shown to be superfluous. There is no evidence for miracles, so there is nothing for an interventionist God to do. Theology, like alchemy and astrology, has become irrelevant.

Friday, September 14, 2007

I said the sparrow, with my bow and arrow

When I was a child, I was puzzled by the English rhyme "Who killed cock robin." The stolid American robin seemed an unlikely victim of a sparrow. It was only when I crossed the Atlantic and saw the endearing sparrow-sized European robin that the crime excited the appropriate sympathy.

The cock robin rhyme is perhaps of medieval origin. It first appeared in print in the nursery book "The Pretty Songs of Tommy Thumb," published in London in 1744, while Gilbert White was studying at Oxford. It was a time when birds were still a sufficiently intimate part of the cultural environment to be given Christian names. Thus we have Robin Redbreast, Jenny Wren, Tom Tit, Madge Magpie and Jack Curlew. All small birds were Dick, from which our Dickie-bird derives.

Gilbert White was a modern ornithologist at a time when most country folk were content to know Robin, Jenny, Tom, Madge and Jack. He was a keen observer of songs, behaviors, and breeding and nesting times. He was particularly attuned to curiosities and ironies. He tells us, for example, that the smallest British bird, the golden-crested wren, will be unconcerned as an observer approaches within three or four yards, whereas the largest British land bird, the bustard, will not allow a person to approach within as many furlongs.

During the years that White studied birds, Britain was engaged in dramatic events on the world's stage. Her colonies were in revolt. Her neighbor France stood on the brink of cataclysm. The Industrial Revolution was about to remake the landscape.

None of this intruded upon the quiet of White's Selborne; few hints of these greater social events are found within the pages of The Natural History of Selborne or in the author's daily journals. We find instead a world of lapwings, woodlarks, cuckoos, turtle doves, whinchats, linnets and wigeons, existing in a kind of Franciscan harmony with the villagers. These are the birds we find in the stained-glass window of Selborne parish church that commemorates White's world, a romanticized world that perhaps never existed even in White's time, but to which we can aspire: All creatures in attendance as Francis preaches his message of peace.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Boys and birds

In the parish church of Selborne, England, where Gilbert White was curate, there is a three-paneled stained-glass window depicting "St. Francis Preaching to the Birds." In my color slide of the window, I can count 60 or so species of birds, all the species mentioned by Gilbert White in his The Natural History of Selborne, published in 1789.

It is easy to identify many of the birds attendant upon St. Francis; they are similar or identical to American species. Here, for example, are the heron, woodcock, mallard, barn owl, starling, swift, martin and wren.

Here too are species that are different from our own. Perched upon St. Francis' finger is the European robin, a smaller, more winsome bird than the American robin, sharing only a red breast with its namesake.

But what is this bird in the lower right-hand panel of the window, with outlandish headdress and black-and-white cape, like a Mayan priest in a costume of feathers? It is that most outlandish of all European birds, the hoopoe.

The hoopoe is not common in Britain; it is a rare visitor from the continent. In his Natural History, Gilbert White mentions a pair of hoopoes, "the most unusual birds I ever observed in these parts," which came to Selborne one summer and frequented the garden adjoining his own. "They used to march about in a stately manner, feeding in the walks, many times in the day; and seemed disposed to breed in my outlet; but were frighted and persecuted by idle boys, who would never let them at rest," he wrote.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Of nightingales and whistling plovers

Exactly 220 years ago today, Gilbert White, the curate of Selborne, England, wrote in his journal:
Lapwings leave the low grounds, & come to the uplands in flocks. A pair of honey-buzzards, & a pair of wind-hovers appear to have young in the hanger. The honey-buzzard is a fine hawk, & skims about in a majectic manner.
White is the granddaddy of all of us who write about the natural world. I own two copies of The Natural History of Selborne: the little Oxford World Classics edition; and the Frederwick Warne edition of a century ago, with its associated extras. Best of all, in a funny way, is the MIT edition of White's journals I keep dipping into. There is something fresh and unstudied about the fragmentary journals, as if one were in the company of White himself.

I once had the very great pleasure of visiting Selborne, a tiny village nestled in a quiet dale about forty miles southwest of London. I walked through the rooms of the beautiful old house on the village green where White lived from 1730 until his death in 1793. I visited the garden behind the house, where he tended vegetables, flowers, and fruit, and where Timothy the tortoise presided. I tramped the beechwood "hanger" above the village, where White saw the lapwings, and the path that follows the gentle brook that flows from Selborne village to the ruins of old Selborne Priory.

To visit Selborne is to step back into history, into a time, when the natural environment still pressed close upon consciousness and the migrations of lapwings could serve to punctuate the year.
Jan. 15. Hailstones in the night.

Jan. 25. Snow gone. The wryneck pipes.

Feb. 17. Partridges are paired.

Feb. 21. Ashed the two meadows.

Mar. 14. Daffodil blows.
White's world has nearly vanished. Today, the products of the Industrial Revolution press close upon Selborne. The village itself is protected -- like Walden Pond, it is a place of pilgrimage for naturalists from around the world -- but a drive of three miles in any direction from the village brings one back to the reality of busy highways, railroads, electrical pylons, and urban sprawl. Preserving what is left of the world that White so affectionately recorded will require vigilance and love.
Apr. 10. Therm. 72!!! Prodigious heat: clouds of dust.

Apr. 12. Wheat mends. Barley-grounds work well.

Apr. 18. A nightingale sings in my fields. Young rooks.

Apr. 20. Some whistling plovers in the meadows toward the forest.

Apr. 27. Many swallows. Strong Aurora!!!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Growing by degrees

Tom and Margaret were rooting around in the attic this past weekend for relics of their youth. Tom found my Ph.D. thesis, University of Notre Dame, 1964, and read out the abstract to me as I stood at the foot of the stairs:
Optical properties were measured in the visible and ultraviolet for molybdenum films of varying thickness evaporated onto fused quartz substrates at pressures from 10-6 to 10-9 torr. Evaporation was carried out by electron bombardment or resistive heating of molybdenum wires or ribbons. The spectral dependence of the complex index of refraction n=ik was similar for all films, and could be approximated in the visible by the Drude theory for absorption by free electrons...etc. etc.
Talk about relics of one's youth!

My doctoral degree was a ticket into the world of academics, but the optical properties of molybdenum films were soon left far behind. I have no idea if my thesis work ever found application. I vaguely remember someone's interest in using molybdenum films on the nose cones of rockets, but if that ever came to pass I would prefer not to know about it.

Were the four years in the lab then a waste of time? Not at all. Looking through my thesis for the first time in 43 years, I can see how important those long hours of primary research were for shaping my intellectual life.

I learned the value of questioning nature closely, without preconceptions. I learned the importance of quantitative thinking. I learned the difference between reproducible evidence and anecdotal evidence. I learned to respect and cherish the sensate world. I learned that beauty can be found at every level of reality.

Monday, September 10, 2007


I mentioned here the other day the title of my forthcoming book: When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy. I have used the phrase before, as brome grass discovered. What do I mean?

I carry from my Catholic upbringing a deep sense of grace and the holy. In the theology of my youth, grace was a gratuitous gift from God, and nothing was holy that did not partake of God's goodness. We were taught to seek grace and experience the holy by focussing our attention on things supernatural: our immortal souls and the Divine Presence. Nature, and especially our bodies, was corrupted by Original Sin, and must be subdued by acts of self-abnegation. All sense of holiness was directed out of the creation onto the Creator, who we were taught to imagine as a person, no doubt for the reason that no other metaphor is so ancient and close at hand.

With the study of science I discovered that reliable evidence for a personal God, miracles, and immortal souls was nonexistent. Can grace and a sense of the holy be salvaged from the wreck of traditional theology?

I now understand grace to be those moments of personal ravishment that come now and then unbidden, from a source that remains hidden -- call it, if you wish, the Deus absconditus, the absconded God. If science has taught us anything, it is awareness of our ignorance. The more we learn of the universe, the more conscious we become of the depths of our unknowing, and of the shallowness of any anthropomorphic metaphor for mystery. I cannot tell you why -- perhaps our brains are wired that way -- but now and then, we experience the profundity of the mystery that surrounds us, what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the "inscape" of things. It flares out, "like shining from shook foil." There is nothing supernatural about this; it is simply an awareness of the prodigality of the natural world and the limitations of human knowing.

And the holy? To experience the world as holy is to experience it wholly, to grasp intuitively the depth and breadth and width of it. This does not mean running away from the world, but engaging with it ever more fully. To understand, for example, that every atom in my body was forged among the stars, that consciousness itself is an efflorescence of starlight. Science is not a distraction from the holy; it is revelation itself.

Grace and a sense of the holy are too preciously a part of the human interaction with the world to be wrapped up in anthropomorphic theologies and set over and against the creation. And -- irony of ironies -- this is something I carried away from the Catholicism of my youth.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


I have just got around to reading Francis Collins' The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. It is pretty cold porridge for those of us who grew up on C. S. Lewis. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlage Anne's Sunday art.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Mind over matter

Cleaning out my office here at the college, I came upon a box of graph paper. That wonderful tissue-thin, orange-printed Keuffel & Esser graph paper. Linear. Semi-logarithmic. Log-log. One, two, three, four cycles. Polar. And suddenly I was back before the days of computers. Before the days of scientific calculators. Back to the time when a slide rule, a razor sharp pencil, and a sheet of the appropriate K&E paper was the way to analyze one's data, discover patterns, find the law.

When I used this paper in my work and studies, it was just a tool, rather like the graphical computer programs we use today. Now, as I look at these pristine sheets of paper, the experience is rather more philosophical. Without a mark on them, they suggest the fabric of the universe itself, which is mathematical in a way beyond our knowing. Why are the laws of physics power laws? Do we invent mathematics, or discover it in nature? We plot our data on the paper. We draw error bars on our data points. The world we experience is an approximation. An invention. Subject to ever greater precision. The pristine paper is like an immaterial thought upon which the world is hung.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The music of what is

Before I left Ireland, I cleared the desk in my studio. Rachel Holstead, a young Irish composer and dear friend, has settled herself there for the winter, with her keyboard and computer, working on a commissioned piece of music to be performed next spring by the RTE (national radio/television) Orchestra. The piece will celebrate the life of the Antarctic explorer Tom Crean, who came from the village of Annascaul not far from our Irish home. Rachel has been to Antarctica with her recording equipment, and has an archive of sounds from that faraway place to be translated into instumental music. The window of the studio looks south, into the Atlantic. The jagged Skellig Rocks are on the horizon. Next comes the jut of West Africa, then the icy continent. What a mystery music is! What strange power it has to move our spirits. How pleased we are to give Rachel a beautiful place to ply her art.

A recent study, reported in Science (August 3), found that monkeys prefer silence to music -- to any kind of music, including lullabies. A previous study found that monkeys have no preference between harmonious and dissonant music. A similar study of humans showed a distinct preference for music over silence, and for harmony over dissonance. An innate inclination to engage with music seems to be a distinctly human trait. Our brains are apparently hardwired for music appreciation.

Now -- which came first? Music or language?

Ah, the blogosphere...

Tom got this e-mail response to my most recent Sunday Musing:
I usually like Chet Raymo's musings, but the column for September 2 is full of blatant plagiarism. Raymo made me curious about the poem he quotes. A casual search led to the blog below, where Raymo stole much of "his" musings: (the respondent then gives the URL of another blog). I suggest that Raymo take it down and apologize to the writer whose words he lifted without attribution.
Lest anyone else made the same mistake, they can check my Boston Globe column for March 13, 2001, and my blog posting for May 1, 2005. There is a lack of attribution going on here, but it is not mine.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


I started this blog more than three years ago as a continuation of my Boston Globe column, with the idea that it might sell a few books. The name -- Science Musings -- was the same as for the column, dubbed by my original editor, Gerry O'Neill. The web site has become rather more broadly focussed and personal than was the column, and for me that has been the pleasure of it. Is the title still suitable?

The scientific way of knowing is at the heart of almost everything I write, fiction and nonfiction. It informs and enlivens my response to the world. It has guided my religious quest. It doesn't matter to me if the universe is big bang or steady state. It doesn't matter if the Earth is thousands of years old or billions. It doesn't matter if petitionary prayer works or it doesn't. Let the empirical chips fall where they may (for the moment: big bang, billions, no). What is important to me about the scientific way of knowing is that it is the best method yet devised for attaining reliable consensus knowledge of the universe. In a world dangerously fractured by "revelation" and cultural tradition, the scientific way of knowing seems to me our one best hope of sharing a civilized future.

I know, of course, that science is the driving engine of technology, and that technology is an imperfect blessing. Sunnis and Shias, Catholics and Protestants, Hindus and Muslims, kill each other with the same AK-47s and plastic explosives. But few of us would turn back the clock of technology. We will have a better chance of dealing intelligently with the gifts of technology when we rid ourselves of neolithic ways of knowing, and consign our fractious pantheons of anthropomorphic gods to the dustbin of history.

Agnostic empiricism may not be a perfect philosophy, but it has given us the closest thing yet to transcultural consensus. If my books make any modest contribution, it is to explore how agnosticism can be a suitable basis for art, poetry, environmental stewardship, charity, and spirituality -- indeed for all of those things that refine and elevate the human spirit. Look within the next year for When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy: The Making of a Catholic Agnostic, to be published by one of the most distinguished religious presses in America.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The foaming meadow

Yesterday morning, as I emerged from the woods on my first autumnal walk to college, the meadow was thick with Queen Anne's lace, more than ever before. Many of the blossoms were curled into a cup, past their prime, but others spread their umbrels like so many Spanish mantillas.

Wild carrot is the plant's prosaic name, but we prefer the more romantic appellation. At the center of some of the snowy disks is a single deep purple flower, colored by anthocyanin, evolved, presumably, to attract insects, although why the plant is so sparing of advertisement is a mystery. In our imaginations we see a drop of blood where Queen Anne pricked herself while making lace.

Adrienne Rich has a cryptic poem called The Knot, that begins: "In the heart of the queen anne's lace, a knot of blood.
For years I never saw it..." What a tumble of metaphors! A "foaming meadow," a "Milky Way", a "bridal web." And there, all along, the "tiny dark-red spider," the "knifepoint," the dark stain spreading in the "white apparancies." I would quote the poem in its entirety, but authorly solidarity forbids me. You can find it on the net.

In former times, every plant and animal found its place in the world by relation to the human species. Earlier this year I posted a bit of wooing between Aileran and Melisande from In the Falcon's Claw. The two lovers would have been familiar with the medieval bestiaries that assigned to each creature a human meaning. As readers of that book will know, Melisande knew her herbal too. With Linnaeus, all of that went out the window. Queen Anne's lace became Daucus carota; the plant found its place in the botanical scheme of things, botany flourished as a science, but the prick of the metaphorical needle was no longer quite as sharp.

Still, I can't walk into a meadow of Daucus carota without Adrienne Rich's poem coming to mind. Metaphors have a way of exploding the bounds of perception. We live in a sea of apparancies. To be human is to see through a mist of blood.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A passion for understanding

In 1934, the noted astronomer Annie Jump Cannon returned to her alma mater, Wellesley College, to speak to her 50th class reunion. She told this story:

"During our senior year, one of the distinguished guests was Matthew Arnold, who gave his lecture on Emerson, characterized as the friend and lover of those who live in the spirit. When Mr. Arnold was being driven up through the College grounds, he exclaimed, 'Extraordinary, extraordinary. All for young ladies.' Then, putting his monocle on for a close survey, he asked, 'But what are their chances?'" His question was particularly applicable to young Wellesley women who wished to pursue careers in science.

Annie Cannon made remarkable contributions to astronomy at a time when women were generally thought incapable of serious scientific work. Her love affair with the stars began with a makeshift observatory in the attic of her family's home in Delaware. After study at Wellesley and Radcliffe, in 1897 she joined the staff of the Harvard College Observatory as a protege of Director Edward Pickering.

But not, of course, as an astronomer with academic rank. Cannon was one of "Pickering's harem," a group of women who received twenty-five to thirty-five cents an hour to analyze and catalogue the voluminous stellar data accumulated by male astronomers at telescopes.

Cannon's immediate predecessor, Antonia Maury, had proven unsatisfactory to Pickering because her "passion for understanding" was thought to impede her efficiency for drudge work. Annie Cannon was less offensive to Pickering, but no less talented. Both women made important contributions to the understanding of stellar spectra (the colors in starlight).

In the early decades of the 20th century, Cannon personally classified the spectra of more than 300,000 stars. Every astronomy student today learns by rote the OBAFGKM classification scheme of stellar spectra that Cannon invented ("Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me," is the mnemonic used by generations of mostly male students to remember the sequence of letters). Her work is a pillar upon which rests our knowledge of stars.

Cannon was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1914, the first woman admitted to that body, and received honorary degrees from institutions here and abroad. But it was not until 1938, when Annie Cannon was 74, that Harvard University granted her academic status by naming her professor of astronomy.

"But what are their chances?" asked Arnold. Even now, more than a century later, the answer to his question (for aspiring women scientists) has to be "better, much better, but still not equal to a man's."

Monday, September 03, 2007

Sky, sea, land

In retirement my life has serendipitously settled into three earthscapes: the Dingle Peninsula of Western Ireland, the island of Exuma in the Bahamas, and semi-rural New England. In Ireland, it is the sky that commands attention. Our cottage perches on a hill looking out into an ocean of sky -- a roiling, always changing spectacular of clouds, rainbows, sun, mist, and wind. In Exuma, the sea is at our doorstep -- turquoise, breeze-licked, seemingly infinite in extent, bringing to us gifts of the deep, fish of every color and stripe, sharks, dolphins, turtles, rays. In New England it is the land that holds one's notice, the underfoot. I walk back and forth to college each day with mini-binocs and magnifier, and it is the near-at-hand, the solid, the attached that I attend to -- flora and fauna, rock and still water.

You who have kindly joined me on this cyber porch are obliged to make the transitions with me. So put aside your rain gear now, dry your shoes and socks. For the next four months it is my land-bound Path through quietly domesticated New England that will inspire these musings. Everything has a story to tell. We'll walk alert. Listening. To the whisper of creation.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Where the bee sucks

As you read this, I am winging across the Atlantic. I believe I briefly mentioned the subject of today's Musing several years ago in a previous post. Forgive a wee bit of repetition.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday art.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


Here is a photo of the Blasket Islands in the west of Ireland, lying as usual in a steel-gray sea under a steel-gray sky, from a recent walk over Mount Eagle on the mainland. The headland where I'm standing is the westernmost point of Europe. Tomorrow I cross the sea to New England.

Four hundred million years ago, I might have walked there dry shod. At that time North America and Europe were part of a single landmass geologists call the Old Red Sandstone Continent. The part of that continent that is now the Dingle Peninsula was then an inland basin, and sands, muds, and pebbles eroded from the surrounding uplands were deposited on the floor of that basin. These eventually became the layered rocks that are the backbone of the Dingle Peninsula: sandstones, mudstones and conglomerates, gritty, well-consolidated and resistant. Meanwhile, to the south, the drifting continent of Africa was nudging northward, squeezing up against the underbelly of Europe and pushing the floor of an intervening sea back into the interior of the Earth. A great mountain range was lifted skyward, the ancestral Alps. Further north, behind the jagged peaks, the crust of the Earth was more gently crumpled in wavelike folds, like a carpet pushed from its edge. These folds reveal themselves today in the five rocky fingers of land and intervening bays that are the southwest coast of Ireland. Then, about 200 million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean started to open, as the Old Red Sandstone Continent fractured and was torn asunder by convection currents in the roiling mantle of the Earth. It opens still. When I return next summer, I will have an inch or so further to travel than I do tomorrow.