Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Not wanting it to end

Early in his book The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley writes: "Sex mingles easily with religion, and their blending has one of those slightly repulsive and yet exquisite and poignant flavors, which startle the palate like a revelation -- of what? That, precisely, is the question?"

Precisely the question, indeed. Huxley's book is a study of the so-called demonic possession of nuns in the Ursuline convent at Loudun, France, in the early 17th century. It seems the prioress of the convent, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, became obsessed with the local Catholic priest, Urbain Grandier, a man of seductive demeanor and well-deserved reputation as a satyr. Sister Jeanne's obsession was communicated to the other sisters, and all began to accuse Grandier of being the satanic agent of their possession. He was cruelly tortured and burned at the stake, proclaiming his innocence to the end.

The language of religious mysticism in all faith traditions borrows from the language of sex. In Christian tradition, the soul is the "bride" of Christ and asks for nothing more than to be "ravished," "annihilated," and "assimilated" into the beloved. Perhaps the most vivid portrayal of the identity of religious and sexual rapture is Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. (Click to enlarge.)

Huxley suggests that behind both sexual and religious fervor in both men and women is a desire for self-transcendence, for escape from the prison of self. This escape can take one "up" or "down," in Huxley's terms, to the sublime or to the depraved. In the case of the Loudun affair, and other witchcraft hysterias -- male and female -- of the late Middle Ages, sex and religion became mutually reinforcing in a downward spiral.

The geneticist Dean Hamer believes he has identified a gene for self-transcendence, what he calls "the God gene." It remains to be seen to what extent sexual passion and religious ardor spring from the same biochemistry, and to what extent the two drives are organically alike or different in the male and female. It would be interesting to compare brain scans of subjects experiencing sexual excitement and religious fervor. Genes may be, after all, the biological equivalent of Original Sin, whereby (in Huxley's words), "every potential impurity is already, even in the most innocent, more that half actualized."

What biochemical firestorm inflamed the passions of Saint Theresa of Avila when she famously wrote of her vision: "He was not tall but short, and very beautiful, and his face was so aflame that he seemed to be one of those superior angels who look like they are completely on fire...In his hands I saw a large golden spear, and on its iron tip there seemed to be a point of fire. I felt as if he plunged this into my heart several times, so that it penetrated all the way to my entrails...The sweetness of this intense pain is so extreme, there is no wanting it to end, and the soul isn't satisfied with anything less than God."

(Ken Russell's absurdly over-the-top The Devils, 1971, with Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne and Oliver Reed as Grandier, is based on Huxley's book.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Keeping an eye on Comet Holmes means keeping an eye on Algol too. The comet is in the constellation Perseus. Perseus is the wing-footed hero who saved beautiful Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. He had first slain the evil snaky-haired Medusa, who was so ugly that anyone who looked directly at her turned to stone. Perseus chopped off her head while looking at her reflection in his shield. He then carried the head around in a bag, using it for his own advantage to turn his enemies into stone -- including Cetus. (And the lovers lived happily ever after.)

But look at the eye of Medusa on this old star map. This is the Ghoul Star, Algol (al-gol, the ghoul), supposed to be the most demonic and malevolent star in the sky, a perfect star for Halloween. Ghoulish because it changes brightness dramatically every three days, by nearly a magnitude and a half.

Algol is the sky's best example of an eclipsing binary, two stars bound in a gravitational dance that appear to our eye as one -- a hot blue-white star several times larger than the Sun, and an even larger but cooler yellow star that is not as bright as the primary. The stars circle their common center of gravity every three days, in a plane orientated in such a way that from our perspective the two stars eclipse each other. When the brighter primary passes in front of the less bright secondary, the combined brightness takes a small dip. When the bigger, less bright secondary totally eclipses the brighter primary, the combined brightness take a sharp dip. The Medusa's ghoulish eye winks every three days. You can find out when to catch the wink here.

The map of Perseus is from the atlas of the German astronomer Johannes Hevelius, published posthumously by his wife Elizabeth, also an astronomer, in 1690. It is reversed right-to-left from what you see in the sky, as if you were looking at the stars from outside of the celestial sphere. Over the next few weeks, Comet Holmes will move toward Mirfak, the brightest star in the constellation, shown here in the right middle of Perseus' back.

Monday, October 29, 2007

World Series comet

The top story in last Friday's Boston Globe began: "There was brief confusion at Fenway Park last night. Under clearing October skies, a streaking Comet Holmes, and a Jackie Gleason moon, the Red Sox actually trailed the Colorado Rockies, 1-0, for three innings." Well, yes, I'll buy the Jackie Gleason moon, but a streaking Comet Holmes? Where did Mr. Shaughnessy come up with that?

I doubt if there were more than a few people in the stadium who would have known where to look for Comet Holmes, or would have recognized it if they saw it. On Wednesday, a faint telescopic object suddenly flared to naked-eye brightness in the constellation Perseus, which placed it in our skies all night long. Alas, the weather and personal circumstance didn't cooperate for me. It was last night before I had a chance to see Holmes. And there it was, like a new star in Perseus, not as bright as Mirfak, but rivaling Algol. In binocs, its cometness was plain -- a fuzzy blur, rather than the sharp pinprick of a star.

Not streaking. Drifting lazily through Perseus. And no tail. The tail of a comet always points away from the Sun, and Holmes is in the opposite part of the sky from the Sun -- rising as the Sun sets -- which means that if it has a tail it is hidden behind the comet.

Still, it's enough. Just knowing that the universe is full of surprises, that the empty dark can suddenly ignite. A faint smudge on the windowpane of night. And the chill that runs up the spine.

As I arrive on the campus this morning, a red-tailed hawk is perched on the apex of the library with a three-quarter moon. . "Praise this world to the Angel," says the poet Rilke. "Do not tell him the untellable...Show him some simple thing, refashioned by age after age, till it lives in our hands and eyes as a part of ourselves. Tell him things. He'll stand more astonished."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Trying to remain on the cool bright plain of rationality

Yesterday's post on a Primo Levi story prompts a reprise of a Boston Globe column in this week's Musing.

No tricks. Click to enlarge Anne's Halloween treat.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Very, very, very, very, very...

In a short story that was published posthumously in the New Yorker earlier this year, the inestimable Primo Levi meditated on the limits of language. The story was called The Tranquil Star.

He writes "The star was very big and very hot, and its weight was enormous," and realizes immediately that the adjectives have failed him:
For a discussion of stars our language is inadequate and seems laughable, as if someone were trying to plow with a feather. It's a language that was born with us, suitable for describing objects more or less as large and long-lasting as we are; it has our dimensions, it's human. It doesn't go beyond what our senses tell us.
Until fairly recently in human history, there was nothing smaller than a scabies mite, writes Levi, and therefore no adjective to describe it. Nothing bigger than the sea or sky. Nothing hotter than fire. We can add modifiers: very big, very small, very hot. Or use adjectives of dubious superlativeness: enormous, colossal, extraordinary. But, really, these feeble stretchings of language don't take us very far in grasping the very, very, very extraordinarily diminutive or spectacularly colossal dimensions of atomic matter or cosmic space and time. We can overcome the limitations of language, Levi say, "only with a violent effort of the imagination."

I spent more than forty years trying to find ways to violently stretch the imaginations of my students (and myself) to accommodate the dimensions of the universe revealed by science. I would project onto a huge screen a photograph of a firestorm on the Sun, then superimpose a scale-sized Earth, which fit comfortably inside a loop of solar fire. I would take the class into the College Quad here near Boston, where I had set up a basketball to represent the Sun, then gathered 100 feet away with a pinhead Earth; we walked together with our pin in the great annual journey of the Earth, and looked through a telescope at the marble-sized Jupiter than I had previously installed at the other end of the long Quad (the next closest star system would have been a couple of basketballs in Hawaii). We walked geologic timelines that took us from one end of the campus to the other.

In one of my Globe essays I used this analogy:
Imagine the human DNA as a strand of sewing thread. On this scale, the DNA in the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a typical human cell would be about 150 miles long, with about 600 nucleotide pairs per inch. That is, the DNA in a single cell is equivalent to 1000 spools of sewing thread, representing two copies of the genetic code. Take all that thread -- the 1000 spools worth -- and crumple it into 46 wads (the chromosomes). Stuff the wads into a shoe box (the cell nucleus) along with -- oh, say enough chicken soup to fill the box. Toss the shoe box into a steamer trunk (the cell), and fill the rest of the trunk with more soup. Take the steamer trunk with its contents and shrink it down to an invisibly small object, smaller than the point of a pin. Multiply that tiny object by a trillion and you have the trillion cells of the human body, each with its full complement of DNA.
Or this description from Waking Zero:
The track of the Prime Meridian across England from Peace Haven in the south to the mouth of the River Humber in the north is nearly 200 miles. If that distance is taken to represent the 13.7 billion year history of the universe, as we understand it today, then all of recorded human history is less than a single step. The entire story I have told in this book, from the Alexandrian astronomers and geographers to the present-day astronomers who launch telescopes into space, would fit neatly into a single footprint. If the 200 miles of the meridian track is taken to represent the distance to the most distant objects we observe with our telescopes, then a couple of steps would take us across the Milky Way Galaxy. A mote of dust from my shoe is large enough to contain not only our own solar system but many neighboring stars.
But as hard as one tries, the scale of these things escape us. If one could truly comprehend what we are seeing when we look, say, at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo, which I have done my best to convey to myself and others in a dozen ways, it would surely shake to the core some of our most cherished beliefs. Just as our language is contrived on a human scale, so too are our gods.

Friday, October 26, 2007


James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers, published in 1823, introduced American readers to Natty Bumppo, a.k.a. the Deerslayer, the Pathfinder, the Leatherstocking, or Hawkeye. In the book, Natty is an old man of nearly 70 years, settled on the shore of Lake Otsego in Upstate New York, and he plays only a supporting role among the cast of characters. The books that recount his earlier adventures -- the Leatherstocking Tales -- came later from Cooper's pen, as prequels inspired by the popularity of Natty's character.

In his old age, Natty has become, willy-nilly, something of a philosopher. And mostly what he philosophizes about is the destruction of his beloved wilderness by "the wasty ways" of settlers.

"Ah! the game is becoming hard to find, indeed, Judge, with your clearings and betterments," he tells the principal landowner of the region, upon whose land he squats. With his Pennsylvania long rifle and dead eye, Natty takes his share of game, but it is the farmers, not the hunters, he insists, who make game scarce.

The farmers use long seines to drag fish by the thousands from the waters of the lake, rather than hook or spear. They blaze away with abandon at the great flocks of passenger pigeons that pass overhead, employing even cannon charged with grapeshot, killing 20 birds to eat one. "This comes of settling a country," laments Natty.

The felling of trees frets him most. He imagines the day when the great silent forests will have been reduced to an endless desert of stumps, with no place for game to live. His landlord, Judge Temple, shares his concern, and predicts that if laws against the taking of wood are not enacted, then "20 years hence, we shall want for fuel."

All of this when the population of Boston was less than 20,000.

Natty Bumppo and Judge Temple were not alone in lamenting the wanton destruction of the wilderness. Many early-19th century naturalists warned of the fateful consequences that would follow denudation of the forests.

It is difficult for present-day New Englanders, who find all the necessities of life at WalMart, to imagine the pressures on the forests of 200 years ago. In Natty Bumppo's day, the overwhelming majority of citizens were farmers, and the clearing of land for agriculture proceeded apace. There were also the timber industry, the charcoal industry, the barrel stave industry, and the taking of oak bark for tanning. Drafty fireplaces hungrily consumed what was left of the forest.

As it turned out, the forests of the Northeast not only survived but mostly recovered from early depredations. With the opening of the Erie Canal, farmers moved west to more fertile lands in Ohio and beyond. The railroads brought building timber from the far northern forests of New Hampshire and Maine. Coal, and eventually oil and gas, replaced firewood as domestic fuel. Today, there are more woodlands in southern New England than in Cooper's time.

There are those who will take this as a lesson that technology will solve whatever environmental problems technology creates, and that conservationists are therefore bothersome doomsayers, destined to be as wrong as was Natty Bumppo. They fail to remember that the technological developments that allowed northeastern woodlands to recover simply moved environmental problems into someone else's backyard.

The northeastern woodlands survived, but only at the expense of the soot- covered industrial cities of the Midwest, the strip-mined hills of Appalachia, and ultimately the more vulnerable environments of Third World countries.

The old woodsman of Lake Otsego would not have cared a fig about what happened to distant rain forests or tropic reefs, as long as the dark cathedrals of his own forests remained intact. What is required today, however, is a global conservation that Natty Bumppo could not have imagined -- not NIMBY (not in my backyard), but TPIMBY (the planet is my backyard).

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Seeking the sweet spot

It must have been some sense of deja vu that caused me to pull down from the library shelf Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine. And, sure enough, on the check-out card in the pocket at the back there was no one's name but my own, not once, not twice, but eight times, extending over the period 1973-1987. Was I really so taken with Mumford and his urgent anxieties about technological civilization?

Mumford (1895-1990) was a scholar of remarkable breadth: literary critic, architecture critic, historian of cities, and -- here and in his book Technics and Civilization -- a commentator on humankind's fraught relationship with tools and technology. Did I learn to be wary of technology from Mumford, or was I attracted to him because of my own evolving love-hate relationship with machines?

Humans have been called "the tool-making animal," no doubt because the oldest remains of our species are often found with flint blades. Mumford took issue with this designation; after all, what is more likely to endure than flint. He wrote: "With man's persistent exploration of his own organic capabilities, nose, eyes, ears, tongue, lips, and sexual organs were given new roles to play. Even the hand was no mere horny specialized work-tool: it stroked a lover's body, held a baby close to the breast, made significant gestures, or expressed in shared ritual and ordered dance some otherwise inexpressible sentiment about life or death, a remembered past, or an anxious future. Tool-technics, in fact, is but a fragment of biotechnics; man's total equipment for life." It is sharing and communication that makes us human, he said, and he feared the dehumanizing effects of what he called "megatechnic," in which humans become mere cogs in a vast mechanical system driven by greed and lust for power.

As Leo Marx pointed out in The Machine In the Garden (1964), Americans have long been torn between fascination with machines and a longing for the organic, and I suppose that makes me a typical American. My idea of a perfect moment is sitting in the October woods with my beautiful MacBook laptop.

This much is sure: Technology is not going away. I read somewhere that more than 90 percent of the stuff made in America today ends up in a landfill within one year of the time it's produced. I can't vouch for that statistic, but even if it's only approximately correct it dramatizes the unsustainability of our present way of life. Somehow we have to find a way to bend technology to organic purpose, rather than the other way around.

Robert Frenay (Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things, 2006) plumps for a global economy modeled on ecological principles -- bioeconomics, he calls it -- a "feedback culture" that, as in organic systems, drives the future towards a "sweet spot of adaptability" between order and chaos. Whether we have the will or the ability -- as a civilization -- to impose a direction on technology remains to be seen. In the meantime, each of us can create our own "sweet spots". If enough of us tend to them with attention and care, the future may not be so bleak as the techno-pessimists presume.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The ogre and us

A passage from H. G. Wells' Outline of History, 1920:
...We know very little of the appearance of Neanderthal man, but this...seems to suggest an extreme hairiness, an ugliness, or a repulsive strangeness in his appearance over and above his low forehead, his beetle brows, his ape neck, and his inferior stature...Says Sir Harry Johnston, in a survey of the rise or modern man in his Views and Reviews: "The dim racial remembrance of such gorilla-like monsters, with cunning brains, shambling gait, hairy bodies, strong teeth, and possibly cannibalistic tendencies, may be the germ of the ogre in folklore..."
For 200,000 years, Neanderthals had Europe pretty much to themselves. Then, about 45,000 years ago a new breed of humans, anatomically identical to ourselves, came sweeping out of Africa. They fanned across Europe, displacing Neanderthals. The last Neanderthals seem to have gone extinct in Southern Spain about 28,000 years ago, their backs against a sea they had no way of crossing.

Did Neanderthals and modern humans interbreed? Did Neanderthals have speech? On these matters the fossil evidence has been silent. But in the past few years Neanderthal DNA has been retrieved from bones. It is now being sequenced. No evidence so far of interbreeding. And last week researchers announced that Neanderthals share with us a gene (FOXP2), one of many that are associated with speech. Certain other bone fragments of previously uncertain origin have now been identified as Neanderthal using DNA, extending the range of those people as far east as Siberia.

There is always the possibility of contamination with modern human DNA, so for the time being we should take the language gene result with a grain of salt. But still, what an extraordinary thing it is that a history of the distant past is written in a four-letter code shared by all life on Earth.

It remains to be seen why modern humans prevailed over our close relations. Was speech the advantageous factor? More sophisticated weapons? Some sort of religious conviction of divinely-conferred superiority?

Do a search for "Neanderthal" in Google Images. Look at the new reconstructions of what those "repulsive...inferior...gorilla-like monsters" might have looked like. We are not only learning about Neanderthals; we are also learning about ourselves and our relations to "the other."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A joyful noise

I enjoyed reading this story about Stonehill graduate Lois Commodore on the college website, and visiting her own site. I did not know Commodore when she was a student, but I certainly noticed her presence on the campus.

Here is a young woman who seems to have found a place of peace between science and faith. She is aware of the tension: "You have to prove everything to a scientist. Proving you believe in something you can't show exists is very, very difficult."

Her faith expresses itself through music -- gospel music -- and I tend to be right there with her.

I grew up on gospel music. It was part of the radio soundscape in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the 1950s. Many hours I spent in my room with my little Sears Silvertone listening to country and gospel on WCKY out of Cincinnati (along with commercials for chewing tobacco and baby chicks). I still listen to Black gospel, and when I'm on my Bahamian island I sometimes slip into the back pew of a Baptist church and soak my soul in the exhilaration. Black gospel is what religion should be all about -- celebration, thanksgiving, praise -- without any hangups on dogma or need to proselytize. Yes, there are the usual referents of Christian faith, but if these empower what Commodore calls "that part of you that embraces kindness and gentleness," I say, more power to her.

If I were going to join a religion, it might be part Black gospel, part Catholic sacramental tradition, and part Unitarian Universalist scientific agnosticism.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Darrow and Bryan redux

The current contretemps between secularism and Christian fundamentalism in America is not new. These things come in cycles, as Susan Jacoby makes clear in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. I grew up not far from Dayton, Tennessee, where one clash of secularism and Protestant fundamentalism had its culmination in the Scopes Trial of 1925. And I lived through another dust up in the years after World War II, this one involving such Catholic luminaries as Cardinal Francis Spellman and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, on one side, and the likes of kindly Eleanor Roosevelt, anti-Catholic pitbull Paul Blanshard, and crusading atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair on the other. Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale were part of the fray. Primarily at issue was public support for parochial schools, the teaching of religion in public schools, and censorship of books and films, the whole thing exacerbated by the Red Scare. Oh, what fun. We Catholics girded ourselves in the armor of faith ("Armies of youth flying standards of Truth..."), let our taste in movies be guided by the Legion of Decency (utterly fascinated, of course, by anything rated C (condemned, for the word "virgin" or Jane Russell's cleavage)), railed about the treatment of Cardinal Mindszenty by the Commies, and sputtered with moral indignation when Ingrid Bergman had a baby out of wedlock with Roberto Rossellini.

The courts put the whole thing to rest, affirming the Constitutional separation of Church and State. The lingering ashes of controversy were swept away by the cultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies, not to be rekindled until the era of George W. Bush and the political empowerment of Evangelicals, which brought the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens thundering into the lists. Once again, as in the Twenties, science is at issue.

This too shall pass, but not forever. Every generation of freethinkers must fight for the right to be free. Sometimes that means pushing back -- gently -- to preserve a little room for agnosticism. We cup our hands around the fragile flames of our lowercase truths, to protect them from the gales of righteous bombast. We will always have with us those who believe they know the Truth and want the rest of us to know it too.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


As Dave Barry once said: "The best baby-sitters, of course, are the baby's grandparents. You feel completely comfortable entrusting your baby to them for long periods, which is why most grandparents flee to Florida." See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday gift.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Born to rebel

More research has been reported lately on the influence of birth order on personality. As described earlier by Frank Sulloway, it seems first-borns are ambitious straight arrows who are steadier, heavier, and smarter than their younger siblings. The latter, however, are more likely to be creative, take risks, and rebel against expectations. I've addressed this here before in interviews with some famous sibs. Saturday morning is a good time for a reprise.

First-borns wear blue. Younger sibs wear red.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Dawn gold

"In summer, greenness is cheap," said Thoreau. The grassy meadows, the forest, the duckweed on the ponds. We walk in a world of green. Almost all plants contain that most marvelous of molecules, chlorophyll, without which life on Earth would be dicey indeed. Atomic electrons in the molecule are bumped up in energy by sunlight. As they return their bounty, they energize reactions that leave carbohydrates on nature's table. Packaged sunlight. And here's the surprise. Green is not the color of photosynthesis. Chlorophyll absorbs energy from the blue and red parts of the solar spectrum -- the ends of the rainbow. The green middle of the spectrum is spurned, and that's what reflects off the plants and enters our eyes.

Green is cheap, yes. But in autumn the chlorophyll pigments go out of circulation, and -- well, everyone knows the story. And here in my quiet corner of the College Commons, in these few October weeks before the clocks change, sunrise and deciduous colors coincide with coffee, and I am the recipient of Midas's gold. Last Sunday's New York Times had a thick magazine supplement on watches, yes watches, hugely expensive watches, watches costing many thousands of dollars that tell time no better than my $30 Timex, but which presumably give satisfaction to those who wear them. To each his own, I say. Breitling, Tourneau, Patek Philippe? I'll settle for those yellow and red pigments, the carotenoids and anthocyanin. The treasure I value is just outside the window, and whatever satisfaction I feel is not in the possessing, but in being the recipient of this showering of autumnal light.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The work of doubt is never done

Thanks to Lyra, Tony and Jeff for bringing Hypatia of Alexandria to life, that remarkable woman tucked in among all those men in Raphael's School of Athens (October 11). And thanks too to Jeff for mentioning Jennifer Michael Hecht's book Doubt, which is required reading for those of us who choose to live by our own wit and reason, rejecting all forms of supposed revelation. Her subtitle is The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. Her theme is that doubt is the engine that throughout history and in every tradition has driven intellectual discovery.

Here is a counter-example from Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, a book which traces pretty much the same theme in American culture from the time of the founding fathers and mothers:

The Reverend Timothy Dwight assumed the presidency of Yale University in 1795. He was the grandson of the famed Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards, whose best-known fire and brimstone sermon was titled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God":
The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.
Yow! Following in his grandfather's footsteps, Dwight was heaven-bent on confounding the doubters and unbelievers among his student flock.

One of Dwight's most memorable sermons was on the immorality of smallpox vaccination. William Jenner introduced vaccination in 1796, one of scientific medicine's greatest boons to humanity. Dwight would have none of it. As Jacoby writes: "If God had decided from all eternity that an individual's fate was to die of smallpox, it was a sin to interfere with the divine plan through a man-made trick like vaccination."

How many young Hypatias has a Dwightlike adherence to doctrine stopped in their tracks?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Intoxicated by delight

I do not mean to denigrate Soren Kierkegaard. The sheer volume of his writing is a worthy epitaph, and the fierce purity of his ethics is reason enough for Christians and non-Christians to attend to what he has to say. But that stern, complex man has never been my cup of tea. Early on I was drawn more firmly to Kierkegaard's almost exact contemporary, another solitary philosopher with a fierce moral sensitivity, Henry David Thoreau. There are many similarities between these two journal-keeping bachelors who died young, but differences are sharp and fundamental. Listen to Kierkegaard on immortality, from his journal for 1839:
The principal problem with respect to the question of the immortality of the soul will probably center more upon the nature of immortality than upon immortality itself, specifically, whether at death the soul may be considered as tightly embracing the contents of its action or as dissolved in the divine all. This is so remote from signifying that the soul thereby is surrendered that within ourselves we can perceive analogies to this, in which the purely subjective consciousness walks in the shadow ahead of a far more objective consciousness and in which existence gains a transparency, and the question is still whether or not these moments are not of a higher kind than the moments of action.
What that means, I have no idea. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says "faith begins where thinking leaves off," and it seems to me in the passage above thinking has a loose grip on reality.

At the same age, Thoreau would write in his journal:
I have just heard the flicker among the oaks on the hillside ushering in a new dynasty. It is the age and youth of time. Why did Nature set this lure for sickly mortals? Eternity could not begin with more security and momentousness than the spring. The summer's eternity is reestablished by this note. All sights and sounds are seen and heard both in time and eternity. And when the eternity of any sight or sound strikes the eye or ear, they are intoxicated with delight.
It is a matter of taste, I suppose. Some will live their lives with their attention fixed on the hereafter. Others listen for the flicker's note in the distant oaks.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A wildly seething power

I read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling at about the same age as Kierkegaard was when he wrote it -- thirty. The young philosopher was wrestling with his demons, including the death of his father, a sternly religious man who demanded absolute obedience from his son. He had jilted the woman he loved, a self-inflicted wound that perhaps not even he understood. He was torn, in my opinion, between the demands of faith and reason. Like many before him, he turned to the story of Abraham and Isaac as a way of understanding his own endangered faith.

The book begins with four retellings of the biblical story, each slightly different. In yesterday's post, I added my own naturalistic retelling, suggesting what can go terribly wrong when one mistakes the voice in the head for the voice of God. Abraham's dilemma is this: He believes the sacrifice of his son is required by God. What then is more important: Obedience to God or loyalty to his only son by Sarah? Heaven or earth? The unseen or the seen? What is it that gives meaning to a life?

Kierkegaard opts for faith -- a leap of faith in the face of doubt.

He writes:
If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all -- what then would life be but despair? If such were the case, if there were no sacred bond which united mankind, if one generation arose after another like the leafage in the forest, if one generation replaced the other like the song of birds in the forest, if the human race passed through the world as the ship goes through the sea, like the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless activity, if an eternal oblivion were always lurking hungrily for its prey and there was no power strong enough to wrest it from its maw -- how empty then and comfortless life would be.
This is what Abraham wrestled with in the empty hours before dawn. This is the fear that drove him to choose heaven over earth, the unseen over the seen. This is the dread of a mindless oblivion that causes so many to choose faith over reason, righteous action over doubt.

No less than the traditional theist, the scientific agnostic needs to believe that we are not poised above a bottomless void. We know -- in our tentative and uncertain way -- that our consciousness is ephemeral. And, yes, we know that one generation replaces another like the leaves of the forest. But we exalt in the leaves of the forest, and the song of the birds, and the wind in the desert. We stand in awe of the "wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant," and we struggle to understand that power through reason and observation, and in doing so we have come to know of the whirling galaxies, the stars that forge elements, the helices that spin out proteins in every one of the trillions of cells in our bodies. And in the darkest hours of the night, if we are lucky, we look across to Sarah sleeping beside us, and to Isaac lost in his young man's dreams, and we understand that love and loyalty are blessings that well up out of the void in mysterious ways. We feel no need to make that terrible journey to Mount Moriah when every jot and tittle of creation, here and now, is filled -- with sanctifying grace.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Fear and trembling

In the deepest hour before the dawn, Abraham lay awake in the tent, his wife Sarah asleep by his side. He was tormented by the kind of doubt that comes in darkness. How could he prove his faith in God?

In the shadows at the other side of the tent, his son Isaac slept soundly. It came into Abraham's head that he could affirm his faith by sacrificing Isaac, the thing he most loved. The gravest doubt required the greatest refutation. It was a mad idea, of course, but the old man could not shake it. It burrowed into his brain and lodged there, behind his watery eyes, driving every other thought aside. His fists clenched beneath the coverlets, fingernails digging into the flesh.

With first light, he rose from his pallet and went to stir the campfire. The ashes were cold and gray. Sarah saw that her husband's eyes were swollen and red. Her heart was filled with pity, but this sadness in Abraham's countenance was not new. She remained silent, and prepared breakfast for her husband and son.

Abraham said to Isaac, "Come." Isaac demurred: "Father, I must tend to our family's business." "Come," said Abraham. Isaac heard the fierceness in his father's voice. He laced his sandals and followed Abraham out of the camp.

They walked for three days, without speaking. Isaac grew frustrated, angry and distraught. There was much work to be done at home, and here he was following his silent father -- where? At night, as they lay wrapped in their cloaks, he heard his father weep. He understood that Abraham was wrestling with some inner demon, and knew he must remain at his side as a prop and protection. It was his duty as a son.

On the fourth day they came to the summit of Mount Moriah. Abraham took out his knife and laid it upon a flat stone. He looked into his son's eyes and said, "You understand what I must do." It was the first words he had spoken since they left the camp.

Isaac might have resisted. He was a grown man, in the prime of life; his father was old and weak. "God wills it," said Abraham.

Isaac looked into his father's eyes and saw deep wells of doubt. He understood that Abraham could only be made whole again if he proved himself to God. But he believed too that the old man would never be able to commit the heinous act. He let himself be bound, trusting that at the last moment his father's resolve would fail.

Abraham raised the knife. His face glowed with a dogged resolution. Isaac realized he had made a terrible mistake in letting himself be bound, that the conflict of faith and doubt in his father's mind was so great that love and reason and human pity would be swept before it. Sunlight glinted on the poised blade.

And then they heard the bleating of a stray ram entangled in a nearby thicket.

(An explanation tomorrow.)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The meaning of life?

You're not likely to find it in this week's Musing. I recommend that you brew a cup of coffee, put a Brandenburg Concerto on the stereo, and do the New York Times Sunday crossword. That's about as close to the meaning of life as I get.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday offering.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Reason and revelation

The image above (click to enlarge) is the fresco Saint Thomas Confounds the Heretics by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), in the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. My description relies on Charles Freeman (The Closing of the Western Mind, 2002), who in turn draws upon Gale Geiger (Filippino Lippi's Carafa Chapel, 1986).

At the center of the composition sits Thomas Aquinas, in the black and white habit of the Dominicans. The friar crushes with his foot a scowling old man who personifies evil. In the old man's hand is a banner with the Latin inscription "Wisdom conquers evil." Above Aquinas, just out of the margin of the picture, on panels held by cherubs, are words which express the theme of the fresco: "The revelation of Thy words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple." In Aquinas's left hand is a book with words from the Apostle Paul: SAPIENTIAM SAPIENTUM PERDAM, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." Freeman suggests that this statement of Paul was the "opening shot in the enduring war of Christianity and science."

Aquinas is the champion of revealed truth, but to his right and left are figures representing human learning: Philosophy, Theology, Grammar and Dialectic. Theology is clearly predominant; she sits at Thomas's right hand, wears a crown, and points toward heaven.

Below this assembly are two groups of cranky and suspicious men who stand to the sides of a clutter of discarded books and manuscripts. The reference here is to the theological debates that racked Christianity in the 4th and 5th centuries, primarily over the nature of Jesus' divinity. Among the gathered heretics (Augustine listed more than 80 heresies) are Arius, Sabellius, and the Persian Mani. Against their many false views, Aquinas upholds the doctrine of the Trinity -- three distinct persons within a single Godhead. As he taught in the Summa Theologica, this doctrine cannot be known by reason along, only through revelation and the light of faith.

With the conversion of Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, faith solidly triumphed over reason in Western Christianity. Later, as the fresco suggests, Aquinas brought reason back into the equation, and taught that revealed truth and human reason can coexist. Still later yet, the Enlightenment challenged the notion of peaceful coexistence, and returned the crown to reasoned empiricism.

Of course, the debate continues. Is there such a thing as revelation? Can reason and revelation coexist without conflict? Why is science able to attain so remarkable a degree of consensus and progress, whereas the proponents of revealed truth remain today as divided as the heretics in Lippi's fresco, and over pretty much the same issues?

It is interesting to compare this fresco to Raphael's The School of Athens, in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, painted not long after Lippi's Saint Thomas Confounds the Heretics. Here the greatest philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians of antiquity -- including a woman -- peacefully conspire together to discern the secrets of nature by reason alone. No heretics to condemn or burn at the stake. No acts of violence on behalf of revealed truth. Galileo, or Darwin, or Einstein, or Watson and Crick could walk into the frame of this painting and find themselves at home among like-minded friends.

(You can find an identification of the people in the Raphael fresco here.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

A heavenly nursling

As epigraphs for his book The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, Charles Freeman quotes the 5th century B.C. playwright Euripides...
Blessed is he who learns how to engage in inquiry, with no impulse to harm his countrymen or to pursue wrongful actions, but perceives the order of immortal and ageless nature, how it is structured.
...and, from the late-4th/early-5th century A.D., Augustine of Hippo...
There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity...It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.
And there you have it, a conflict which still resounds, to which this site has often turned its collective attention.

Freeman's excellent book traces the rise of the Greek tradition of reasoned empiricism, which led to such stunning intellectual achievements in antiquity as the syllogistic logic of Aristotle, the geometry of Euclid, the geography of Eratosthenes, the astronomy of Aristarchus and Claudius Ptolemy, the medicine of Galen, the physics of Archimedes, and the natural philosophy of Lucretius. The Greek empiricists were confident in the ability of the human mind to gather some measure of truth about the world, but fully cognizant that truth (other than mathematical) is a tentative and evolving thing. This tradition endured within the Roman empire right up to the time of Constantine, although threatened by the Pauline attack on Greek philosophy, the adoption of Platonism by Christian theologians, and the enforcement of orthodoxy by emperors desperate to keep good order. To these erosive forces listed by Freeman, I would add the usual human vices, to which both Christians and pagans were subject, and to which the Sermon on the Mount and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are useful antidotes.

"By the 5th century, not only has rational thought been suppressed," writes Freeman, "but there has been a substitution for it of 'mystery, magic and authority.'" Pope Gregory the Great warned those with a rational turn of mind that by looking for cause and effect in the natural world they ignored the true cause of all things, the will of God. With the post-Constantine consolidation of dogmatic Christianity, the Greek door that led away from supernaturalism was firmly closed. The Athenian philosopher Proclus made the last recorded astronomical observation in the ancient world in A. D. 475; it would be a millennium before Copernicus resumed the tradition.

I tried to express this tension between Greek rational empiricism and Christian faith-based supernaturalism in my novel Valentine, which is set in the Roman world just prior to Constantine's epochal tipping of the scale firmly to the side of "mystery, magic and authority." Each of us, of course, will find a place somewhere on the scale. As Freeman's book amply demonstrates, naturalism and supernaturalism do not rest comfortably together. However, the Greek rational empiricists were not immune to wonder. Claudius Ptolemy was the greatest of the ancient scientific astronomers, but he remained in awe of the natural world:
I know that I am mortal, ephemeral; yet when I track the
Clustering spiral orbits of the stars
My feet touch earth no longer: a heavenly nursling,
Ambrosia-filled, I company with God.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The plank bridge

There are certain places that define a life. One of those places for me is the plank bridge over the Queset Brook, along the Path I have walked almost daily for 43 years. It will be familiar to those who know my work. Arcturus reflected in dark water. Boys angling for sunfish in the shadows of the purling stream. Dragonflies curling their bodies into copulatory valentines. A great blue heron that lifts into morning mist on bedsheet wings. Clement autumn afternoons journaling with students in my Naturalist class. And countless other moments that never made it into print. A kingfisher I saw 40-something years ago, the only one I have ever seen in New England. The swimming turtle that came when the mysterious child summoned it. A black snake improbably taking the sun in the middle of the bridge.

One foot onto the planks. Then another. And another. Twenty feet of timber suspended between heaven and earth. Earth, air, fire, water. If you learn to love one place, says the novelist Anne Michaels, sometimes you can learn to love another.

It was a bit of a worry recently when the Natural Resources Trust of Easton decided the bridge needed to be replaced. What would take its place? Some concrete monstrosity? Earth fill over corrugated steel culverts? Ah, blessed continuity. The new bridge is a sturdier version of the old one. A plank bridge. The Queset Brook makes its way to the sea. The world turns on its same old axis.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Theresa drew our attention to the Templeton Foundation's two-page ad in last Sunday's New York Times that gave the responses of a dozen prominent scientists and scholars to the question "Does the universe have a purpose?" You can read the complete essays here.

I am reminded of a previous Musing in which I put the question to three famous (fictional) characters.

Specifically, I asked for a response to Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg's famous remark near the end of his 1977 best-selling book, The First Three Minutes: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

Knowing the point can be consoling, I suppose. It can also be dangerous to those who know a different point, or who don't know the point at all. Everywhere in the world today where there is intolerance and violence, it is practiced by people who are convinced they know the point.

But what about Weinberg's point -- that the universe appears to be pointless? Although we may come to know the foundational laws of nature, those laws appear to be quite impersonal, he says, "not showing any sign of concern for human beings."

A Nobel Prize in physics doesn't make you a good philosopher, but Weinberg is certainly correct when he says that science provides no evidence of a point to the universe, other than the amazing and mysterious laws themselves. Science has been fabulously successful at figuring out how the world works, and nowhere does science invoke purpose. Nowhere does it make reference to the meaning of human life. In fact, the scientific method works so well precisely because it eschews purpose. If purpose was all we used to explain the world, we would still be living in the Stone Age.

Of course, science doesn't take the full rap for suggesting that the universe is pointless. Shakespeare's Prospero said it, too, in the Tempest:
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Rationalists since the dawn of time have purported to see a world of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But if science discerns no evidence of a point, neither can it disprove a guiding purpose to the universe. As far as I'm concerned, this whole business of requiring a point is pointless, Why should a finite human brain be able to fully comprehend a universe that may be infinite in both space and time?

Steven Weinberg doesn't think there is a point to the universe, but his view of the world is nevertheless benign. "We can decide for ourselves which of our inherited values to hold onto, such as loving each other, and which to abandon, such as the subordination of women," he wrote in the New York Review of Books. His views are not unlike those of the highest spirits of all religions who have looked for purpose in tolerance and love.

Whether or not the universe has a point, it certainly seems inclined to construct islands of complexity in a sea of increasing disorder. Humans are the most complex things we know about in the universe, and the only creature we know of who wonders whether the universe has a point. With conscious awareness comes -- apparently unbidden, but that's another story -- a sense of moral responsibility for each other and for the planet. Peace on Earth, good will to all: Now that's a point, which all of us -- atheists, agnostics and people of faith -- can share.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Love songs

I mentioned here some weeks ago a study that showed our nearest primate ancestors prefer silence to music, which seemed to suggest that music appreciation is uniquely human. But what about birds? They make music. Some birds seem to enjoy singing for the sheer fun of it.

Another study by S. Watanabe and K. Sato gave sparrows a choice of three perches producing either silence, classical music, or modern music. The birds consistently chose the classical perch, preferring Bach and Vivaldi to Schoenberg and Carter -- or to silence. What this means exactly is not clear, but when it comes to Bach or Schoenberg I'll take the same perch.

Steven Pinker thinks our taste for music is an accident, something that came along with our language ability and just happens to give pleasure; that is, music had no adaptive advantage. Daniel Levitin thinks music had something to do with demonstrating reproductive fitness, like the peacock's tail. Could it be that cooing love songs came along before humans had the words to whisper sweet nothings? Or maybe it was the lullaby that came first, the la-la-la that put the baby to sleep. La-la became ma-ma, and pretty soon we were talking. Put the la and the ma together and the next thing you know we had Bach's Saint Matthew Passion.

OK, no one knows where music came from. Right now I'm listening to Diana Krall sing If I Had You. Sounds adaptive to me.

Monday, October 08, 2007

bluebird book boston brook

The students in Professor Mooney's Environmental Ethics class are reading The Path, so she invited me to join the students for a walk along the path. Now that I am not teaching, I leap at any chance to be with students. They are beautiful, young and smart, with their whole lives in front of them. I breathe in their innocence like fresh air.

Can you tell what the book is about from Amazon's "concordance," a computer-compiled list of the 100 most frequently used words?

across along america american ames animals another away birds bluebird book boston brook called century children complexity course day down early earth easton energy england estate even family few fields first forests gardens generation great ground history home house human ice know land landscape law leaves life long may meadow might million monarch natural nature new nitrogen north now oliver olmsted own park part pasture path perhaps place planet plants pond queset see sheep shovel something species spring stars stone stream street sun take things time today town trees two universe upon village water white wild woods work world years

Scott Russell Sanders has an essay in The Force of Spirit that recounts, among other things, the death of his wife's mother after years of Alzheimer's. He writes: "On page after page in a spiral notebook she wrote down in broken phrases what mattered to her, what defined her life, as if words on paper might preserve what the mind no longer could hold." And then Scott summarizes the essay with his own very brief list of words.

Even Amazon's "concordance" is unnecessarily long to summarize my forty-three years along the Path. How about an abridged version:

Day down early earth.
Few fields, first forests,
Great ground history.
Home. Landscape.
Pasture path, plants, pond,
Stars, stone, sun.
Take things time today:
Village water, wild woods,
Work, world, years.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The snake in the stone

The summit of the highest mountain on Earth, Everest, is composed of marine limestone, consolidated sediments from the bottom of the sea. How it got there is a grand saga. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday offering.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

That old snakecharmer, the Sun...

...piped this serpent out of the ground, led it wavering onto the hot black asphalt, its undulations matching the undulations of the rising summery air. Its body too intact to have been crushed by a passing car. Rather, the red badge of spilled guts suggests a rock, or a whack with a stick. Still paying the price of that first supposed temptation, someone else's Original Sin.

Its body a calligraphy of meanderings and oxbows, a silky river, now stilled forever. Those two ophidian eyes -- your eyes, my eyes -- asleep in death, those bloody tracings of a last agony -- your blood, my blood. Even Cain, that murderer, received a mark that those who met him would not kill him.

That old snakecharmer, the Sun, piping us all into the unnaturally hot October air. We dance the old Darwinian dance of death. Not even beauty bestows reprieve.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Holy clay

On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.
The first paragraph of Thomas Merton's autobiographical The Seven Storey Mountain, which I read in the twenty-first year of my own life, in 1957, as an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame. It was one of the first serious books I had read -- and it blew me away. It seemed as if it had been written expressly for me, to address my own spiritual struggle. Here was a man, raised by irreligious artist parents, who had arrived after a romantic quest at the place where I had begun, in the Church of Rome. I read the book straight through, hardly putting it down, following Merton's journey across the world until he found his way to baptism in the Catholic faith, then to profession as a Trappist monk. I promptly hitchhiked from northern Indiana to Merton's monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky, and began a retreat of several days in the company of Father Merton and his confreres.

I was a student of science and technology. Our griefs, Merton wrote, lay at the hands of men armed with science and technology but without a rootedness in a mystery deeper than themselves. "Shamans without belief," he called them. He wrote: "The way to find the real 'world' is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self. This 'ground,' this 'world' where I am mysteriously present at once to my own self and to the freedoms of all other men, is not a visible, objective and determined structure with fixed laws and demands. It is a living and self-creating mystery of which I am myself a part, to which I am myself my own unique door."

This philosophy seemed exactly apropos my own situation as a student of science coming to terms with the sacramental tradition of Catholicism. I suppose in other circumstances I might have done the impetuous thing and become a Trappist myself. As Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain: "Is there any man who has ever gone through a whole lifetime without dressing himself up, in his fancy, in the habit of a monk and enclosing himself in a cell where he sits magnificent in heroic austerity and solitude, while all the young ladies who hitherto were cool to his affections in the world come and beat on the gates of the monastery crying, 'Come out, come out!'" Yes, I was susceptible to that fancy, except for the fact that I was already in love, with the woman who would become my wife, and unwilling to give up the promise of lifelong intimacy with another person -- what the novice masters in those days called a "particular friendship" -- to embrace the celibate life.

Rereading The Seven Storey Mountain today, it is clear that it is a young person's book -- for both author and reader. The moral clarity that characterized Merton as he embraced the monastic life turned out for him and for us not to be all it was cracked up to be. God makes a cold bedpartner. Yes, we have an innate longing for self-transcendence, but there is another part of our nature that longs for imperfect human intimacy. The mature Thomas Merton found a brief measure of that intimacy with the student nurse his biographers refer to as S. or M. The middle-aged monk who suddenly found himself head-over-heels in love is a more attractive man than the spiritual prig of The Seven Storey Mountain. He had by then established his true vocation, as a guide and inspiration to a generation of spiritual seekers. His lifelong battles between selflessness and self-love, solitude and sociability, theological orthodoxy and ecumenical doubt made him all the more accessible to those of us who shared so many of his spiritual travails.

I started to say, "We prefer our saints with feet of clay." But, of course, we are all clay, through and through. Merton's great gift was to give voice to clay, to guide us into our deepest selves. Even clay is a living, self-creating mystery, of which each of us is a part, and to which each of us is a unique door.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union hurled the world's first satellite into space. Tiny Sputnik I was an unexpected shock to American pride, and the beginning of "the space race," an intense competition between the Soviets and Americans that was a scientific and technological parallel to the Cold War. The Cold War is over, and one happy outcome of detente is the International Space Station, a collaborative work in progress of several nations, but most especially the United States and Russia. Working together has highlighted the differences in the American and Russian space programs -- differences of philosophy, hardware, and personalities.

On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was on its way home from a rather ho-hum journey into the wild black yonder, with a crew of seven astronauts, five men and two women, who had spent two weeks performing science experiments on the Space Station. Somewhere northwest of Hawaii, Columbia touched the upper molecules of the atmosphere on its long glide to a planned landing at Cape Kennedy, Florida, Deeper and deeper it gouged into the air, and friction began to heat the craft's protective tiles orange hot. Unbeknownst to the astronauts, one of those those tiles on the leading edge of a wing had been fatally damaged at launch by a loose piece of foam from the external fuel tank. Flames licked through the hole and began to devour the shuttle's wing from inside its heat-resistant skin. As the space craft streaked over the southern United States, it shattered into a thousand charred pieces of metal, tile, and human flesh.

The demise of Columbia made big news. Lost in the excitement was a story that weighed heavily on NASA administrators. Three humans remained in space -- two Americans, Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit, and a Russian, Nikolai Budarin -- as the current crew of the Space Station, orbiting 220 miles above the Earth. It was obvious that another shuttle would not be flying any time soon. Three astronauts had lost their ride home.

With the shuttles grounded, it became the Russians' responsibility to bring the astronauts back to earth, ferry up fresh crews to take their place, and keep the space station supplied and in working order. This meant relying on older hardware with a dicey safety record -- Russian-built Soyuz space capsules -- museum pieces by this time. When Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin crammed themselves into Soyuz TMA-1 and disengaged from the Space Station -- well, Chris Jones tells the story in Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space. The thrilling climax is the plummet of Soyuz from the silent grandeur of space into the wilds of Kazakhstan. This time, stolid Russian engineering, rather than American techie pizzazz, saved the day.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

To infinity -- and beyond

Cindy asks: "Does the concept of infinity bother you? I'm not kidding....I really am interested....Does it bother you? The thought that stars go on and on and on and on....How do you really get your head around that?"

Good question, Cindy. The greatest philosophical and mathematical minds of all times have wrestled with this question-- and still do.

It is neat that we have invented ways to deal rigorously with the concept of the infinite, within the context of mathematics. What a beautiful thing, for example, is the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, or, as you mention, the summation of an infinite series.

But no matter how you cut it, the concept of infinity ends in paradox. Here's a little teaser. How many points in any finite line? An infinite number, of course. Now imagine two concentric circles, of radius 1 and radius 2. The outer circle is twice as long as the inner. A radius that passes through any point on the inner circle must intersect exactly one point on the outer circle. And any radius drawn from any point on the outer circle must pass through exactly one point on the inner circle. So you have two lines of different length each with the same number of dimensionless points! Two infinities that are simultaneously different and equal.

The Greeks worried about this little problem, and others like it. So did Galileo. So did such great modern mathematicians as Cantor and Hilbert. So if you and I are befuddled by paradoxes of the infinite, we are not alone.

What about an infinite universe? Do the stars go on forever? It is difficult to imagine space going on forever, but -- as the Greeks observed -- it is impossible to imagine space coming to an end. If space has a boundary, then what lies beyond? The same can be said for time.

General relativity provides a way to mathematically describe a finite three-dimensional universe without a boundary, but only by imagining space curved in a higher dimension -- which pushes infinity into another realm, sort of like the way Plato and Augustine "solved" the paradox by invoking an infinite God.

Are there an infinite number of stars and galaxies? Who knows. Take a look at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo (above) and the difference between a finite universe and infinite universe doesn't make a lot of practical difference. Either way we can say with Pascal: "When I consider the small span of my life absorbed in the eternity of all time, or the small part of space which I can touch or see engulfed by the infinite immensity of spaces that I know not and that know me not, I am frightened and astonished to see myself here instead of there...and now instead of then."

Each of us, like Pascal, will respond to the actual or practical infinities in our own way. Some with fear. Some with astonishment. Some with exhilaration. Some with denial.

(Note: Go out tonight and hold up two crossed sewing pins at arms length against the night sky. The area covered by the intersection of the pins is equivalent to what is imaged in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo. In what direction? In any direction. Remember, what you are looking at is not stars, but galaxies -- each galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars. Infinite? Does it matter?)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The dark cloths of night

Cindy asks how to encourage the celestial curiosity of her daughters. I can only respond with what turned me on: A parent who took me out under the night sky and told me stories.

My father didn't know a lot about the night sky, but what he learned he shared. Among my earliest memories are evenings on the badminton court in the back yard of our own home in Chattanooga, gazing upwards with my father to a drapery of brilliant stars flung across a gap between the dark pines. He told me stories of the constellations. Of Orion and the Scorpion. Of the lovers Andromeda and Perseus, and the monster Cetus. Of the wood nymph Callisto and her son Arcas, placed by Zeus in the heavens as the Big and Little Bears. No child ever had a better storybook than the everchanging page of night above our badminton court. My father also taught me the names of stars: Sirius, Arcturus, Polaris, Betelgeuse, and other, stranger names, Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, the claws of the Scorpion. The words on his tongue were like incantations that opened the enchanted cave of night.

A parent can transmit information to a child. Better to transmit a love of the natural world -- stars and star lore in a context of cool night air, bird song, lightnin' bugs, mystery.

How to learn the night? Lyra's idea of an astronomy club is a good one. If there is a club nearby, join, with the kids. Two other resources I'd recommend for the day-by-day: Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar, and Starry Night software. Learn to follow the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets. Get a feel for the third dimension of the night. Don't even think about a telescope of your own until the night sky is as familiar as your backyard.

In a poem titled "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven," William Butler Yeats wrote:
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet.
I can think of no better gift a parent can give a child.

(There is a lovely bedroom scene in my movie Frankie Starlight where Bernadette (Anne Parillaud) reads the Yeats poem to Terry (Matt Dillon), in that sexy French voice of hers. More to the point of this post is the scene where Jack (Gabriel Byrne) and the boy Frankie (Alan Pentony) sit on the roof of Frankie's house, and Jack tells Frankie stories of the stars. It is, for the boy, a life transforming experience.)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Via positiva and via negativa

Before I turned my my back upon Catholicism, as a young man in my twenties, I determined to give it a fair go. I would read my way through the Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, a collection of 150 small books published by Hawthorn Press in the 1950s and 60s that took up one by one the essential aspects of the Catholic faith. I started, randomly, with volume 47, What is an Angel? Oh, dear. The author, the French Dominican Oie-Raymond Regamey, began by giving all of the reasons it is so difficult for moderns to believe in angels. Well, his reasons for skepticism made perfect sense to me. When Father Regamey then began giving his "proofs" of angelic presences from scripture and tradition, it all sounded very much like the world of spooks, goblins, fairies, and woodland spirits I had read about with the historians of religion. It dawned on me -- as I rolled my eyes at the improbable propositions that Regamey was asking me to accept -- that I believed in angels only because I was born into an angel-believing Catholic milieu. As simple as that. All the folderol the good Dominican offered -- outlining in astonishing detail the kinds and categories of the angelic choirs and the various properties of pure spirits -- suddenly seemed like so much self-delusion. The Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism was really a Thirteenth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism. And that was the end of that.

But there was another series in the library, also published by a Catholic press, that began to attract my attention: the Paulist Press' Classics of Western Spirituality, a post-Vatican II project that is ecumenical in its scope, including works from the Jewish, Islamic and Protestant Christian mystical traditions. And here I found much to learn and admire. The mystics were a different breed from the theologians. They emphasized negative theology, the via negativa -- God is not this, God is not that. They rejected all metaphors for God, most especially perhaps the personal metaphor so dear to orthodox theologians. The God of the mystics is the intuited Mystery that is implicit in the creation, the Mystery that becomes ever more manifest the more we know about reality -- what Nicholas of Cusa called Learned Ignorance. All negations are true, said Cusa, and all affirmations are inadequate: "Sacred ignorance has taught us that God is ineffable."

As I read in Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, and many others of the mystics, I found a tradition that rested easily with a scientific understanding of the world. The God of the mystics is the Deus absconditus, the absconded God, of whom any metaphor is untrue, including, of course, the metaphor "whom." The language of the mystics is poetry, not theology; it springs from the (innate?) human sense that there is more to reality than meets the eye, more than we can immediately (perhaps ever) know by science. We know vastly more about the universe than did the great spiritual thinkers of an earlier time, and our language of celebration is correspondingly different, but we can learn from them the dimensions of our ignorance, and praise with them the intuited Mystery for which even the word God is a diminishment.