Monday, December 31, 2007

On offering it up

I provided here yesterday a religious naturalist's reading of Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical Spe Salvi, "in hope we are saved." I have no delusions that my critique will satisfy or convince the majority of people. The hope for something better than we find in this vale of happiness and tears is part and parcel of the attraction of Christianity and other religions. In the latter part of the encyclical, the pope comments at length on suffering as a school for learning Christian hope. "It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed," he writes, "but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love." Offer it up, he advises.

I think of old Tom Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, the archetypal religious naturalist and coiner of the word "agnostic." The year is 1887. His beloved daughter Mady slips towards dementia and death. His adored wife Nettie has a tumor to be surgically removed. The poor are rioting in the streets. The kingdom is apparently destined for political and social anarchy, and Huxley's dream of lifting the mass of men and women out of their grinding poverty seems futile. He comes close to despair.
You see a meadow rich in flower & foliage and your memory rests upon it as an image of peaceful beauty. It is a delusion...Not a bird that twitters but is either slayer or [slain and] every hedge & every copse battle murder & sudden death are the order of the day.
Both Thomas and Nettie must have been sorely tempted to place their hope in an otherworldly salvation.

But the old scrapper was not done yet. He was not yet ready to throw in his lot with the ecclesiastical and political establishments who advised the masses to be content with their lot and look for a better life in heaven. He was not ready to "offer it up." Yes, nature is red in tooth and claw, but it is the sublime human task to detach human ethics from the evolutionary law of death, he believed, not to endure suffering, but to use the power of knowledge and public education to alleviate human misery. And he held fast to his conviction that "the cosmos remains always beautiful and profoundly interesting in every corner," worthy of study, celebration and praise.

Agnosticism is not a creed, said Huxley. It is a method, a Socratic questioning, a demand that every person "give a reason for the faith that is in him" -- a reason tempered in the fire of empirical experience. And in keeping that faith "a man...shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face."

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The cardinal virtues

Is the universe on a course to a predestined future, or is it toddling blindly towards who-knows-where? Can one live without hope of something better? See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday pic.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


This past fall, a two-story house in our Massachusetts village exploded with a bang -- a gas leak in the basement. The walls blew out and the roof fell onto the foundations. Four Stonehill College students who were asleep in the house managed to crawl out of the wreckage just before the whole pile of debris became a roaring inferno. Except for some bumps and scratches, they were unharmed.

I must have heard a hundred people say, "It is a miracle they are alive." I probably said it a dozen times myself. Some of the people who used the expression meant it quite literally. "God was watching out for them," they added. Or "God surely helped them escape." Well, yes it's not impossible that the Big Guy intervened, but then one wonders why he let the house blow up in the first place.

Improbable events are not miracles. For every person who walks away from Lourdes cured, a hundred petitioners leave unsatisfied. I have heard that the walls of the shrine are hung with crutches, each presumably representing a "miracle." When an amputee walks away with a new limb it will be time to take notice. The creator of one hundred billion galaxies should have no trouble with an arm or leg.

I don't mean to sound cynical, and I certainly wish every pilgrim well. The mind/body connection is mysterious and powerful, and the placebo effect is well recognized by science. But in seventy years of pondering the world, I've yet to see non-anecdotal evidence for a miracle of any sort.

Some years ago I wrote an essay on petitionary prayer for Commonweal magazine, an excellent lay Catholic journal. As balance, the editors asked
John Wright
, a Jesuit theologian, and Phillip Johnson, the anti-Darwinist crusader, to respond. Johnson quoted the famed evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin: "We have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door." Start with the assumption that miracles don't occur, says Johnson, and of course you'll not find evidence of miracles.

Science cannot prove that miracles don't occur. Science can examine the evidence for purported miracles, and ask if that evidence is compelling. Science can show that the escape of the Stonehill students from the exploded house is not inconsistent with natural causes. But to admit a Divine Foot into the door of science is to bring the roof of reliable explanation crashing down on our heads. Scientists can choose to believe in miracles, and many do, but they don't invoke miracles when they are doing science.

Improbability and personal incredulity are not evidence for the absence of law. We are all thankful the students survived the blast. Whether we thank an interventionist God or lucky chance is a matter of personal preference.

(If it doesn't work above, check brome grass's comment for the Johnson link.)

Friday, December 28, 2007

The pleasure of anticipation

This is the time of year when I curl up with Guy Ottewell's new Astronomical Calendar and savor the anticipation of next year's celestial pleasures. If you don't know Guy's calendar, you really should buy one; the man has a gift for graphical presentation. This is not a calendar is the familiar sense, but a large-format book packed with information.

Some years ago, Guy transported himself from South Carolina to Dorset, England, and the cover of the 2008 Calendar is a painting of the astronomical clock in Wells Cathedral. Guy is an artist, and a cyclist too. He has had a long-standing invitation to visit us in Ireland, and I'm still hoping that some summer day he'll come pedaling up on his bike.

In the meantime, I see that as Venus abandons its prominence in our evening sky, it will have a close conjunction with Jupiter on February 1. Other nice groupings are in the new year's offing, such as a conjunction of Mars and Saturn on July 10/11.

No interesting naked-eye lunar occultations this year, at least not for any place I'll be residing.

The most anticipated event here in Exuma will be the total lunar eclipse of February 20-21, which couldn't be better placed. There is a total solar eclipse later in the year, on August 1, but you'll have to go to Siberia or Mongolia to see it. I'll try for the Shanghai eclipse the following year.

Here in Exuma, with our clear skies and marvelous horizons, I'll be looking for the young Moons of January 9, February 8, and, especially, March 8. The latter Moon will be less than 30 hours old, and on a track that puts it almost vertical to our horizon. Eyelash thin!

These are just a few of the pleasure that await us.

Gut Ottewell is an astronomer, artist, poet, novelist, and polymath, all of which shows up in his Calendar. He has Fred Schaaf as a collaborator, another poet-astronomer. These two guys know more about the sky than I could ever dream of knowing, and I am lucky to have them as my guides.

And what's the point? What's the point of watching young Moons, conjunctions, eclipses, or even something as ordinary as Mercury in a rosy dawn? Under a dark night sky I feel pretty much what Vladimir Nabokov felt with his butterflies. In his autobiography Speak Memory he wrote: "The highest enjoyment of when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude..."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Watching the Moon and Mars apparently kiss

My neighbor watched the conjunction of Mars and the Moon last Sunday evening. On the beach the next day he was trying to get a feel for the 3-D relationship. Here's what I had to say.

First, since the Moon was full, it was on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun. Since Mars was in the same part of the sky, it too was opposite the Earth from the Sun -- and therefore as close to the Earth as it gets on our mutually concentric orbits. So imagine the Earth, Moon and Mars strung out in a line from the Sun.

How far the Moon? Wrap a string around the Earth's equator 10 times. Now unwind it like a yo-yo string. That's the distance to the Moon. Wrap the string around the Earth 2,000 times. That's the distance to Mars. Last Sunday night, Mars was 200 times farther away than the Moon.

Here's another way to think about it. Imagine the Earth is a basketball. The Moon would be a tennis ball about 25 feet away -- from one side of a big room to the other. Mars would be a softball a mile away. (I drew the circles in the sand, and pointed to the imaginary softball way down there at the far end of our mile-long beach.)

So there we were on Sunday night, standing on the night side of the basketball, looking at the fully-lit tennis ball 25 feet away -- like a big eye in the sky -- and almost touching it in our line of sight, the red glow of the fully-lit softball a mile away.

Those tiny objects in all that vastness of empty space. (Wrap the basketball in Saran Wrap and that thin film is sufficient to represent the atmosphere.)

The Sun invisible behind us, two miles away from our basketball Earth -- way down there at Farmer's Hill communication tower in the opposite direction along the shore -- a great blazing ball as big as the tower is tall.

And all of this is just an miniscule speck in the almost unimaginable vastness of the galaxy, itself a dust mote in the cosmos.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Kalik, kalik

As regular visitors to Science Musings will know, we spend the winters in the Bahamas and summers in Ireland. In both places, it is the day after Christmas, Saint Stephen's Day, or Boxing Day in countries formerly under British influence, that see the most distinctive celebrations of the season. In the Bahamas, Junkanoo -- a name of uncertain origin -- begins in the dark wee hours of the morning with elaborate costumes, floats and parades, and a distinctive music employing goatskin drums, cow bells, and whistles. One delightful side-effect of the recent prosperity of our little island is a ramping up of its Junkanoo celebrations. This year, three groups competed for best presentation -- a riot a earsplitting noise and gaudy papier mache that began at 3 AM and continued until dawn. For my money, the winner was The Musical Youths, with their African themed parade.

The national beer of the Bahamas is named for the sound of those cow bells: Kalik.

In Ireland, and especially in our local town of Dingle, it is the ancient Wren Boys, of presumably druidic origin, who dress themselves in weird straw suits and masks and parade through town making a joyous noise with any musical instrument at hand. Ending up, of course, in one of Dingle's innumerable pubs.

Not much in this post to warrant notice in a site called Science Musings. These wonderful festivities are the very antithesis of reasoned order. But perhaps that is reason enough to give one day each year to sheer physical exuberance.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Let there be light

Christmas and Chanukah are feasts of light -- light that comes in darkness and illumines the world. Not a bad time to consider the ways in which the light of reason illuminates reality. Science illuminates nature, but does not deplete its mystery. Science at its best, as practiced by a Newton or a Faraday or an Einstein, is an essentially religious activity, a deliberate effort to engage intellectually, passionately with the mystery that permeates every particle of existence.

It was the encounter with mystery that inspired Einstein's life work and reinforced his sense of human worthiness. "Measured objectively," he wrote, "what a man can wrest from Truth by passionate striving is utterly Infinitesimal. But the striving frees us from the bonds of self and makes us comrades of those who are the best and the greatest." Einstein was proud of his Jewishness, but open to the purest lights of every faith. The following letter he once wrote is self-explanatory:
Dear Children,
It gives me great pleasure to picture you children joined together in joyful festivities in the radiance of Christmas lights. Think also of the teachings of Him whose birth you celebrate by these festivities. Those teachings are so simple -- and yet in almost 2000 years they have failed to prevail among men. Learn to be happy through the happiness and joy of your fellows, and not through the dreary conflict of man against man! If you can find room within yourselves for this natural feeling, your every burden in life will be light, or at least bearable, and you will find your way in patience and without fear, and will spread joy everywhere.
Merry Christmas to all who visit here.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A place of marvel

I generally wake at least once each night in the dark hours. Here in Exuma that means trundling to the fridge for a glass of cold water, then stepping onto the terrace to see what transpires in our dark sky. Back in Massachusetts, if I stepped out the back door I would be looking up into a milky orange glow.

Standing here in my skivvies, in the warm breeze, a full Moon is high in the sky. We are on the Tropic of Cancer, so at the winter solstice the full Moon tracks directly overhead. Last evening, the Moon rose just moments before Mars, and during the night the Moon slipped by the red planet, a sight of breathtaking delight. Parts of the Earth saw an occultation, with the Moon actually obscuring Mars.

I remembered something Loren Eiseley wrote about the insomniac: "That man must be disencumbered of reality. He must have no commitments to the dark, as do the murderer and thief. Only he must see, though what he sees may come from the night side of the planet that no man knows well. For even in the early dawn, while men lie unstirring in their sleep or stumble sleepy-eyed to work, some single episode may turn the whole world for a moment into the place of marvel that it is, but that we grow too day-worn to accept."

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Away in a manger

Last year at this time I wrote about the gifts of the Magi. This year's Christmas Musing takes a look at the star that guided them to Bethlehem.

And above a lovely Christmas gift from Anne.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Any neighborhood is every neighborhood

After a few misadventures, we arrived here on Exuma a day late. Our scheduled flight from Miami carried us to the island, but the pilot refused to land. Our little airport has no electronic navigation to guide planes in, the electricity in the tower had gone out (we lose electricity briefly every few days), and the island was wrapped in cloud and rain. So back to Miami. But, blessedly, soon after our arrival, our friends at Batelco managed to get my DSL working, so here I am.

When Batelco (the nationalized phone company) first started offering internet service several years ago, they featured an ad on the cover of the national telephone directory with a "generic" web address: It didn't occur to anyone that this would be the address of a porn site, but soon enough -- not before the printing and distribution of tens of thousands of directories -- the company and the government were in hot water. Out went an army of employees with black markers to censor the offending offering on whatever directories they could retrieve or find. Which no doubt drew even more attention to the unwelcome address.

I've noticed that when I've made a likely typo in a completely innocent address, I sometimes find myself at a porn site. Apparently, enterprising folks buy up addresses that people might commonly mistype. My sons were perceptive enough to snag early and, which the family has been making good use of. We don't get enough traffic to make it worth anyone's while to buy, say, but I just noticed that that "typo" will take you to a site "not necessarily meant for the entire family." Likewise, is a viable destination.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Natural and artificial -- Part 5

Natural and artificial are sometimes conflated with real and fake. While the former distinction becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, real and fake are pretty straightforward.

We know there's a difference between a real and a fake Picasso, even if we can't tell the one from the other. We know the difference between a real Gucci handbag or Rolex watch and a fake bag or watch, even if the latter is indistinguishable to the people we are trying to impress. Fake Christmas trees look more like the real thing every year, but they are still indubitably fakes.

A tree-farmed Christmas tree is no more or less natural or artificial than one made in a plastics factory in Indonesia, but we have no problem calling the former real and the latter fake. One can quibble over whether a Viagra erection in natural or artificial, but still agree that it's easier to fake an orgasm than an erection.

All of which is to say that we can move into a future where the natural/artificial distinction is irrelevant, yet still, as a matter of personal preference, choose the real over the fake. Revel in the real snowfall while rejecting the flocked tree. Choose real life over Second Life. Prefer a real $30 Timex to a fake Rolex. Fill the house with lopsided real flowers that wilt rather than the perfect silk creations that will look as "fresh" next year as on the day we buy them.

And, yes, we'll opt for real science, too -- as defined by the established consensus -- rather than fake sciences, such as intelligent design, astrology, homeopathy, parapsychology, flood geology, and all the other quackeries that distract us from the awesome wonders of the real.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Natural and artificial -- Part 4

When I was a young Catholic, we heard a lot about "the natural law." The natural law was the reason we were not permitted to use contraceptives, for example. Humans were not created by God with a packet of condoms in their pockets, and therefore contraceptives are unnatural and morally wrong. I never quite grasped the concept. If condoms are unnatural, what about penicillin? iPods? Popemobiles? We were urged not to think about it too much and leave it up to the moral theologians to decide what is natural and good, or artificial and evil.

The natural/artificial dichotomy continues to haunt our ethical lives. Is the genetic engineering of crops and animals natural or artificial? What about modification by selective breeding? Is human cloning immoral because it is unnatural? Is same-sex marriage unnatural? Can a sufficiently intelligent machine have moral rights? Is it morally permissible to "artificially" extend human lifetimes, perhaps even eliminate senescence altogether?

In all of these issues, the age-old distinction between natural and artificial lurks with a vexing tenacity. Even when not explicitly evoked, it remains embedded in our language and patterns of thought. I would submit that it is no longer useful as a guide to ethical action. For example, Roman Catholic opposition to contraceptives in the face of the AIDS pandemic in Africa may itself be deeply immoral.

The natural/unnatural distinction as a basis for ethics had its origin at a time when the world was understood in the dual categories of nature/supernature, body/soul, matter/spirit. These dualities have been shown to be elusive, yet we still try to organize our lives as if they have relevance. In the coming century, natural/artificial distinctions will become increasingly difficult to maintain. It is time to lay a basis for ethics that makes no reference to "natural law."

(Tomorrow: One last meditation on this theme.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Natural and artificial -- Part 3

A student from Professor Mooney's environmental ethics class came up to me in the College Commons the other day and asked me, "What is your environmental ethic?"

Most environmental thinking begins with a distinction between natural and artificial. Natural is the non-human world. Artificial is anything that is the work of human contrivance. The two are seen in opposition. Natural is good. Artificial is bad. The bad is driving out the good. Hence our environmental dilemma.

Here again, it seems to me, we are hung up on a false dichotomy with roots deep in the past: Humanity as somehow separate from nature. Unnatural. Or should I say, supernatural.

Some billions of years ago, life evolved the chemistry of photosynthesis. The planet was transformed in profound ways. For example, oxygen is a byproduct of photosynthesis. As plants extracted energy from sunlight, oxygen in the atmosphere began to rise, from zero to the present level. I suspect we would all call the oxygenated atmosphere natural, not artificial.

Within the last millions of years, one species of animal evolved sufficient neuronal complexity to give rise to an unprecedented level of intelligence, technology, and speech. A long-established predator-prey equilibrium was disrupted and human population soared. Anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases. The Earth warms. Ice melts. Oceans rise. Natural or artificial?

I would say that it is both "natural" and inevitable that the planet will become -- for better or ill -- a human artifact. It already is a human artifact. It would be difficult to find any place on Earth that has not been transformed by human activity. It is too late to talk about a natural/artificial dichotomy. A human engineered Earth is no more artificial or less natural than an oxygenated atmosphere.

So let's dump the notion of humans versus the environment. Let's start thinking about what sort of Earth we want our descendants to inherit. Do we want an Earth with wild rivers? Mountain gorillas? Pristine seas? Healthy babies? We will not get the Earth we want by backing off and leaving "nature" alone, as if that were possible. We will only get it by making it, the way we might make a magnificent painting, a cathedral, or a symphony.

This is our destiny, like it or not, our Great Work. To contrive a planet that is a human work of art, that nourishes what is best and good in the human spirit, that is generous and caring of our fellow creatures. A planet that is a natural artifact.

Utopian? It is the only choice we have short of killing off six billion humans, surely an unnatural solution if ever there was one. Maybe nature will do the killing for us, through pandemic disease. In the meantime, we can stop wasting energy on a futile natural/artificial debate -- humans vs.nature -- and focus our creativity on planetary transformation that will involve science, technology, architecture, art and ethics.

(Tomorrow: Natural, artificial and ethical action.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Natural and artificial -- Part 2

The thing we know best is our self. We experience our own agency and will and "naturally" tend to ascribe agency and will to other people, animals, even inanimate objects. Our ancestors invested rocks, mountains, streams, clouds, and celestial objects with the attributes of life. Animism was the first philosophy.

A corollary of animism is artificialism: Whatever exists is the product of conscious design. The thunderbolt and the earthquake happen because someone makes them happen. Zeus hurling from on high, for example. Artifacts require artificers, Thus the spirit world, gods, God.

Piaget and others have shown that animism and artificialism are the default explanations of children, undoubtedly for the same reason they were the default explanations of humankind.

Beginning with the pre-Socratics, certain philosophers entertained another idea. Things happen not because of agency and will, but because they are constrained to happen by "natural laws." The search for these laws began with astronomy, and has been gradually extended to almost every area of human experience. As more and more phenomena were seen to act in accord with "the laws of nature," the spirit world was rendered largely superfluous. The naiads and dryads, the fairies, the mountain trolls, the angelic choirs who pushed the planets in their courses -- all sent packing.
Artificialism gave way to naturalism.

Have all phenomena been reduced to natural law? Of course not. Consciousness, the origin of life, the origin of the universe, the origin of the laws themselves continue to resist our probing, although remarkable progress has been made. Where natural explanations are not yet available, the naturalist will say "I don't know, let's continue probing." The artificialist will claim an artifact and presume an artificer. So-called intelligent design is the latest pseudoscientific manifestation of artificialism.

"I don't know" and "God did it" have exactly the same explanatory content: Zero. Yet the great majority of us continue to posit an artificer, and waste a huge amount of human energy championing one idea of the artificer over another.

Why not just let the distinction go. Instead of natural and artificial, how about known and unknown, or law and mystery. Look again at the diagram I posted yesterday. Even without understanding the biochemistry, how can anyone look at this diagram and not be struck dumb with awe, reverence, celebration, praise? The more we learn about the way the world works, the more we become aware of our ignorance. We are made no less ignorant by endowing our ignorance with personhood, agency and will.

Natural/artificial is one more outmoded duality -- like matter/spirit, body/soul, nature/supernature -- that explains nothing and makes life on a crowded planet fraught with disagreement.

(Tomorrow: Natural/artificial and the future of the Earth.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Natural and artificial -- Part 1

Nothing more exacerbates my nature writing colleagues than the mechanical metaphor for life. Think of life as a machine, they say, and you'll treat life as a machine. We will only preserve what we cherish, and no one loves a machine. Life is an organism, irreducible to its component parts.

Well, fine. And certainly we have the pleas of Wordsworth and Goethe ringing in our ears: To dissect is to murder.

But the problem arises when we want to understand exactly what life is, where it came from, and how it works, a goal that even the most ardent romantics can aspire to, unless of course they are willing to forego the benefits of modern medicine. So far, the most fruitful -- the only? -- way of doing biology has been reductionism, pulling the organism apart and inspecting it piece by piece.

These thoughts came to mind as I looked through a recent issue of Nature. Article after article invoked the mechanical metaphor for life. Protein "motors." Intercellular "sensors." "Scaffolds." And so on. One remarkable article, "Determining the architecture of macromolecular assemblies," is devoted entirely to "a mechanistic understanding of the cell." Take a look at the illustration at right from another article, "The molecular architecture of the nuclear pore complex." It will surely look familiar to anyone who has taken a few machines apart.

A distinction between natural and artificial goes back at least to Aristotle and Plato. It is a distinction that is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Living organisms look more and more like machines, and machines look more and more like living organisms. Is a computer-controlled artificial limb fitted on an Iraq war vet natural or artificial? OK, artificial. What if we find a way to regrow limbs, which is very much within the realm of possibility? Is such a limb natural or artificial?

The natural/artificial distinction is subtly at work in our discussions of religion, conservation, genetic engineering, food production, food consumption, virtual realities, computer intelligence, medicine, contraception, and heaven knows what else -- troubling our consciences, complicating analysis. We are deeply ingrained with the notion that "natural" is good, and "artificial" is -- well, artificial, as in "She has an artificial smile." Even the secondary meanings of the words have moral implications.

This is a deep and perplexing subject, to which I shall return all week.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Coyote's business

The poet Muriel Rukesyser said: "The universe is made of stories, not atoms." See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Snow kidding

You wouldn't have wanted to be on the road when this snow came down late Thursday. But for those of us who walk, it was one of those Christmas-card-perfect snowstorms, light, fluffy, pristine. In trying to explain why snowflakes have six-points, the 16th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler was reduced to saying that, like Olympic athletes, snow contrives to "fall gracefully." Not much of an explanation by our standards, but it worked fine for me as I shuffled home through a gorgeous hexagonal swirl. Four centuries later scientists are still struggling to explain how snowflakes grow with such perfect symmetry. The tip of one point is a galaxy away from the tip of another, molecule-wise. That is to say, how does a water molecule attaching itself to a flake at the tip of one point, know what's happening 10 million molecules away -- by my rough calculation -- on the other side of the flake?

The walk to college the next morning was in a world made new. The pic is from my coffee corner in the Commons, decorated for the holidays. And now, with this one perfect snowstorm, it's time to translate to another of my parallel universes. I'll leave a few things for Tom to post, but when next you hear from me directly it will be from our tropic isle. I don't know what I will find there by way of an internet connection, but that's why we chose the place -- for a life that's pared (almost) to bare essentials.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Little Beaver

When I was twelve years old, more than anything else I wanted a Red Ryder lever-action BB gun for Christmas. God, I wanted that gun. Cock. POW. Cock. POW. Ping. Ding. Hi ho, Silver. Home on the range.

My parents wouldn't hear of it.

These days five-year-olds get guns that can kill a 440-pound bear.

I can't tell you how sad this story made me feel.

I didn't get the BB gun, but I "borrowed" my uncle's .22 and went squirrel hunting with a friend. Slipped that little golden bullet into the breech, took aim at the squirrel in the top of the tree, and fired.

BAM. First shot. The squirrel tumbled down. Lay writhing on the ground, a bead of crimson oozing from the hole in its gut. I didn't have the heart to kill it. My friend dispatched the squirrel with the butt of his gun.

That was the last living thing bigger than an insect that I have killed.

I'm not trying to sound holier-than-thou. I have friends who are hunters. I know this is an issue on which reasonable people disagree. Let's just say I have no taste for it.

What made me so sad about the Arkansas video is the way that little boy was petting the dead bear's head. I think he may instinctively know something his father and grandfather have forgotten. Something that dawned on me one terrible moment in the piney woods of Tennessee. Compassion is a seamless web. Love and beauty and life are better than anything that comes out of the barrel of a gun.

But, Lordy, I still admire that Red Ryder airgun.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The refining fire

Every year or so we hear of an experiment or proposed observation that will test the veracity -- say -- of general relativity to one more decimal point.

Why bother testing a theory with such precision when everyone already believes it to be true? Astronomer Bradley Schaefer of Yale University says: "We push as hard as we can, hoping that something breaks."

One of the reasons we have confidence in scientific theories is because scientists keep pushing and pushing, looking for cracks.

Scientists generally work within the confines of a "paradigm," a commonly held set of assumptions about how the world works. The questions scientists pose, and the answers they get are shaped by the paradigm. This is what the philosopher Thomas Kuhn called "normal" science.

Within normal science, minor cracks in a theory are sometimes ignored. Eventually, however, difficulties within a paradigm can become unsustainable, and a revolution occurs. A new paradigm is established, and work goes on.

It was a shift of paradigms, for example, that took us from Newtonian physics to Einsteinian physics.

Many critics of science see normalization within a paradigm as self-serving. Alternate versions of the "truth" are delegitimized, says the critics, and established science becomes the only legitimate game in town. Young scientists are acculturated within a paradigm, and spend the rest of their careers tweaking established theories. Dissent is frowned upon. Meanwhile, the real problems of society are ignored in the pursuit of an extra decimal place.

Science may be the only legit knowledge-building game in town, as the critics say, but so far no one has proposed a better one. And, yes, science has often allied itself with militaristic and corporate interests, and made some egregious excursions on behalf of prejudice. Nevertheless, I think history will show that, in the long haul, science has advanced the cause of human well-being.

At the same time, scientists should concern themselves with how research within an established paradigm can best serve society. Adding a twentieth decimal place to a theory's verification begins to look a tad self-indulgent in the face of such manifest problems as AIDS in Africa or growing inequalities of rich and poor.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Cher, 61, credits Fiji water for her youthful-looking skin

It takes about 20 liters of clean water a day per person to meet basic human requirements -- drinking, cooking and hygiene. The average American uses between 225 and 340 liters a day. Many folks on the planet survive on 5 liters a day. In some parts of sub-Saharan Africa women spend 15 to 17 hours a week collecting water.

I gather this information from a Nature report on a new exhibition on water at New York's American Museum of Natural History.

I am fortunate to live in a time and place where the stuff spews freely from a tap at a fraction of a cent per liter. Water never passes my mind, even though nothing is more crucial to sustaining my life.

Perhaps the most felicitous quality of water is that it is a liquid at moderate temperatures. Most other substances consisting of similarly small molecules -- such as methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide -- are gases.

Liquid water is an excellent solvent that bathes living cells in nutrient-rich solutions, transports substances within cells, and helps flush away the toxic detritus of life. Fortunately, water doesn't dissolve calcium phosphate, which is why our bones don't melt away. Of all liquids, water has one of the highest surface tensions, which allows capillary action to lift water up through the fibers of plants.

Water is so uniquely favorable to life as we know it, it is hard to imagine life without it.

And, wonder or wonders, as our correspondent Mark has suggested we might, I find bottled water from Fiji (!!) on my supermarket shelf in New England. It isn't cheap, but obviously lots of people are willing to pay a premium for water that has been shipped in plastic bottles halfway around the world. The Fiji water folks advertise themselves as green, but one has to wonder just how green it is to move water thousands of miles from a place of relative affluence to a place of even greater affluence where clean, pure water already flows at essentially no cost from a pipe. On the other hand, Fijians have every right to benefit from one of their few natural resources. What do you think, Mark?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"Tending, as all music does, toward silence"

One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, the average life span in developed countries was about 40 years. In 1900, it was closer to 50. Today, we're pushing 80 (click on map). Men have an appreciably shorter life expectancy than women, which means, on average, that I am in the last decade of my life. Funny, but I feel like a spring chicken.

The increase is almost entirely due to scientific medicine, agriculture, nutrition and sanitation. My doctor wants me on drugs for cholesterol and blood pressure. My sister urges me to buy lots of little weedy things from Dr. Andrew Weil. My daughter pushes deep breathing. I'll stick cautiously with my doc and try to live healthy and breathe deep.

The futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that we are on the verge of dramatically increasing the length of human life as we learn the biochemical causes of senescence and death. If he is right, my grandkids, now in their teens, may live with good health well past 100, or -- who knows? -- until they get knocked down in the street by a bus or cut low by disease. Kurzweil apparently takes fistfuls of dietary supplements. He's twelve years younger than me; we'll see who lives the longest.

Will humanity be able to cope with another doubling of life span? I am just as happy that I won't be around to find out. Give me another decade or so and I think I'll be ready to tottle off to "that cottage of darkness." I'm not expecting anything on the other side, but if the immortalists turn out to be right and I am blessed with an eternity of Chetness, maybe I'll finally get around to reading Proust.

(The two phrases in quotes are from Mary Oliver.)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dogmatism or consensus?

Back to the second story in last Friday's Boston Globe, concerning the post-doc formerly at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who claims he was fired because he doesn't believe in evolution.

Unfair religious discrimination? Or a legitimate concern for the integrity of science? The courts will decide.

I was once involved in hiring a Ph.D. from one of the country's finest universities to teach history of science. He came with a glowing recommendation from his thesis director. It turned out he was a creationist, who held to a literal Genesis.

If the universe is 6000 years old, as this person believed, then virtually everything we know about astronomy, geology, physics, and biology is wrong. That is to say, if his one particular neolithic account of creation is true, then virtually everything on the science shelves of our college library can be tossed.

If I had known in advance of this gentleman's beliefs, I would not have voted to hire him. But once aboard, I found myself cutting him slack, while steering him toward the teaching of subjects where his personal beliefs would impinge minimally way on the accepted scientific consensus. Fortunately for the college, he soon chose to move on to a fundamentalist Christian school where science is tailored to conform to Scriptures.

Apparently, the postdoc at Woods Hole was hired to do work for which evolution was central. Let's be absolutely clear: Biblical creationism and intelligent design are not science. They have certainly been around a lot longer than evolution, common descent and natural selection, but they have identified no new phenomena, made not a single testable prediction, generated no experimental results, and produced no research acceptable to a non-faith-based, peer-reviewed scientific journal. Yet the creationists will cry foul, and accuse the scientific establishment of intolerance and dogmatism. What the creationists call dogmatism, the scientific community calls consensus -- a freely-embraced consensus across boundaries of religion and politics. I wonder if a respected evolutionary biologist or deep-time geologist could get a job at Liberty University, or any other fundamentalist institution.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

His bright materials

Let's have a party to celebrate cosmic dust. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's weekly illumination.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Reality-based reality

The top two stories in the Boston Globe yesterday were about religious faith and job suitability.

The first was presidential candidate Mitt Romney's speech on whether his Mormon faith should disqualify him from being president of the United States. What Romney had to say shows how far we have moved toward an American theocracy since John Kennedy gave his Catholic speech 47 years ago. Kennedy made a ringing endorsement of the separation of church and state. Romney mentioned Mormonism only once, but suggested -- absurdly -- that religious faith is a necessary prerequisite for freedom. His message, in effect: I accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God and my personal Savior; therefore I am qualified to be the president of this Christian nation.

I am happy and proud to live in a society that offers religious freedom to all. If Mr. Romney believes the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith on a hillside in New Your and led him to a new testament inscribed on plates of gold, that's fine by me. If Mr. Huckabee believes the universe is 6000 years old and the Rapture (for Christians only) is just around the corner, he's welcome to it. Should Romney's, or Huckabee's, or Obama's, or Clinton's, or any other candidate's religious beliefs influence my personal vote? You bet.

When I vote for the most powerful person in a multicultural world, I will be looking for evidence-based qualities of mind. All of the present candidates are professedly religious. It's hard to imagine anyone getting elected to the highest office in America today who does not claim to be a Christian, so intolerant have the pious become. Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, if queried closely on their religious beliefs, would be snubbed by many American voters, and a self-confessed atheist or agnostic wouldn't make it out of the starting gate. Still, what I'm looking for is someone of inclusive, humane spirit, of any faith or none, who will base public policy on sound empirical principles rather than the faith-based tenets of his or her personal religion.

The second story involves a science post-doc formerly at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who claims he was fired because he doesn't believe in evolution. Religious discrimination? Scientific dogmatism? More on this topic Monday.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Ordain his dark materials to create more worlds

The thought police are at it again. This time it is the new fantasy film The Golden Compass, based on the first volume of Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. Hollywood and Mr. Pullman are accused of trying to turn our good Christian children into -- gasp! -- atheists. I haven't seen the film, but I read the book and it is indeed subversive. It comes down against any institution that seeks to impose doctrine and root out heretics. Be brave, be curious, and think for yourself, the book suggests. No wonder the Possessors of Truth are hot and bothered.

Why all this adult interest in the fantasy literature that engages children? The Narnia Chronicles get a pass because C. S. Lewis was a Christian. The Lord of the Rings barely slips under the wire with a Catholic author. I don't know what J. K. Rowling's religion is, but the Harry Potter books and movies ruffle feathers because they supposedly traffic with the Evil One himself. Philip Pullman is a self-confessed atheist; oh, dear, we must keep him out of the neighborhood.

Back off, grownups. Expose your kids to a variety of ideas that elevate the human spirit and let them find their own way in the world. His Dark Materials has shades of Milton's Paradise Lost and William Blake. Shall we chop those classics from the curriculum too? I'd be proud if my 11-year old child or grandchild had the pluck and cunning of Lyra, the heroine of The Golden Compass.

Nullius in verba. Take no one's word. That was the motto of the Royal Society and the beginning of modern science as we know it, just sixty years after Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for thinking unorthodox thoughts, and twenty-seven years after Galileo was made to kneel before the assembled princes of the Church and renounce his belief that the Earth goes around the Sun.

And now the self-appointed guardians of faith and morals are at it again, urging parents to keep their kids away from an author who dares to affirm nullius in verba. Kick ass, Lyra. Go, girl.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Condition of the enjoyable

Last week, I spent some time here with the poet Wallace Stevens. Several readers commented on the difficulty of his poems. They are indeed abstruse.

One of Stevens' poems begins: "The poem must resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully." He then offers an illustration: an unidentified man on a winter evening, carrying an unidentified object. There! the poet seems to say; you don't know who the man is or what he is carrying or where he is going. Deal with it. Think about it. Gather your information in bits and scraps, like scattered snowflakes. Toss and turn all night in your uncertainty, until, if you are lucky, the "bright obvious" appears.

Stevens is abstruse by design. He wants the poem to reflect the thing itself -- the world -- which is abstruse. He wants the poem to resist the intellect the way nature resists. Almost successfully. No poem that is crystal clear can adequately represent a world that is deeply mysterious and tantalizingly beyond our grasp. Almost beyond.

The great 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell said something similar: "It is a universal condition of the enjoyable that the mind must believe in the existence of a discoverable law, yet have a mystery to move in." Science, like the poem, finds its highest expression in that qualifying word "almost."

Most people reject the world of "almost." They want unambiguous answers. Clear. Dogmatic, even. They want certainty, even if it requires a suspension of disbelief. Even if it requires a high degree of cognitive dissonance. That man in the winter evening is God, say. The thing that he carries is Truth. Fixed. Infallible.

Poets and scientists live in a rather different sort of world, with (as in the Stevens poem) "parts not quite perceived/ Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles/ Of the certain solid." Confident of the existence of a discoverable law, but content to live with a substantial measure of mystery.

Man Carrying Thing
Wallace Stevens

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Deep history underfoot -- Part 2

If you followed my snowflake reflection yesterday, then the graph above -- from Maureen's web page -- will make a bit of sense. The bigger the number for oxygen-18 percentage in benthic (ocean-floor) sediments, the more ice on the continents. A warmer Earth is up; a cooler Earth is down. Click to enlarge.

You can see that the Earth began cooling significantly about 3 million years ago. For the past million years or so the climate has dipped in temperature every 100,000 years -- the ice ages. We are in a warmer, interglacial period now.

The 100,000-year cycle is well understood. It correlates with precisely calculable "wobbles" in the Earth's orbit that affect how much solar energy falls upon the planet's surface.

All other things being equal, we are sure to drop back into another ice age, with glaciers creeping down across the northern continents. But all things aren't equal. Human technology has the power to overwhelm the astronomical cycle and send the curve climbing back toward the top of the graph. Anthropogenic global warming.

But what set the whole thing cooling about 3 million years ago? There are various theories. One theory that has strong support is the "mountain uplift hypothesis," for which Maureen can take much of the credit. Mountain building means mountain weathering -- mountains go up, rain and erosion takes them down. The chemistry of rock weathering takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a green house gas. Less CO2 in the air means less trapped solar energy and a cooler Earth.

The Himalayas rise, the Earth cools.

Of course, it takes a lot of planet-wide research to put it all together.

Drifting continents, mountains in Asia, ice in Canada, isotopic ratios on the ocean floor: All connected in one grand system into which a single species of life on Earth as become a planet-transforming geological force. We are clever enough to figure it out. Will we be clever enough to manage our interventions?

At least one of the leading candidates for president of the US believes the Earth is less than 6000 years old and that the end of the world is imminent. That doesn't bode well for American leadership in climate research and action.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Deep history underfoot

First snowfall last night. Only a slushy half-inch on the ground this morning, just enough to set the Bahamas meter ticking. A beautiful walk, however. The sky just fading from black to a pale indigo. The leaves crisp under a frosty rime. I'm not the first one on the path; someone with a dog has tracked before me.

Here's a little snowy reflection for you.

The ocean are are full of water, H2O. Most of the water molecules contain an atom of oxygen with 8 protons and 8 neutrons, oxygen-16. A tiny but precisely measurable percentage of the water molecules contain an oxygen-18 atom, an isotope with two extra neutrons.

When sea water evaporates, the slightly lighter O-16 water molecules are preferentially lifted into the atmosphere, leaving the ocean slightly richer in O-18 water.

But the water in the atmosphere soon falls back into the sea as rain. If it falls as rain on the land, it runs back to the sea. In either case, the equilibrium isotopic ratio of O-16 and O-18 is restored.

But if, as during an ice age, the water in the atmosphere precipitates as snow and stays on the continents as ice, then the oxygen isotopic ratio of sea water is slightly tipped toward O-18 -- with more of the lighter O-16 water molecules trapped on the land.

Microorganisms that live in the sea build their bodies with sea water, and the oxygen isotopic ratio in their tiny skeletons is the same as the water in which they live. When they die, they fall to the ocean floor and build deep beds of sediments.

Along comes my daughter (and her scientific colleagues) and pulls up long cores (cylinders) of the sediments, representing millions of years of microorganisms living and dying. She picks the skeletons out of the muck, and determines their oxygen isotopic ratio with an instrument called a mass spectrometer. The ratio varies as she goes down the core and back in time, as the glaciers come and go.

Plot the data, and one has a record of continental glaciation going back millions of years -- buried on the bottom the the sea!

Monday, December 03, 2007

The fire that burns in every cell

Still clearing out my retirement office at the college. Behind a bookcase I find folded up a huge poster that many years ago hung on the wall of my original office: Biochemical Pathways, by Gerhard Michal, 1974, published by Boehringer Mannheim. What you see here is a random 8-inch square of a 5x4 foot diagram. Click to enlarge.

Folded out, it looks for all the world like the blueprint for a vast petrochemical plant -- acres and acres of pipes, valves, reactors, storage tanks, etc. -- turning out hundreds of petrochemical products. And in a sense, I suppose it is. Except this petrochemical plant is contained with a single cell. Well, not necessarily all of it. These various chemical reactions are distributed among animals, plants and microorganisms, some in common, some uniquely.

"What in the world is that?" asked a friend, when I had folded out the poster on the floor of a corridor. "Life," I replied.

More than half-a-century ago, the great Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger tried a definition of life in a little book called What Is Life? He was convinced that life would eventually be accounted for by physics and chemistry, and his book helped inspire the biomolecular revolution, of which the poster is a momentary snapshot. The best he could come up with was "an elaborate, coherent, meaningful design traced by the great master."

Well, here it is, the great design. We will have different ideas about who or what is "the great master."

What we know for sure is that life has existed on Earth for nearly 4 billion years, and that all life on Earth (so far described) is related by common descent. As for what got the whole thing going we have only speculations.

Let us assume an ancestral living cell, as simple as the simplest bacterium existing today -- an unnucleated blob of protoplasm enclosed by a membrane. Microscopically small. Autopoietic: that is, capable of maintaining itself by chemical interaction with the environment.

For billions of years, microbes competed for the opportunity to reproduce. Far more failed than succeeded. Most branches on the tree of life were nipped in the bud. A few lucky lineages eased into the future, avoiding the sweeping scythe of death, like the few stalks of grain that remain standing in a harvested field.

In biology textbooks, timelines of the first 3 billion years of life on Earth are mostly blank. Photosynthesis. Respiration. Nucleated cells. Sexual reproduction. It would appear that not much happened. But in fact everything was happening; life was perfecting the complex chemistry that sustains every living creature on Earth today, the reactions we see on the poster.

By the time the first multi-celled organisms appeared about 700 million years ago -- and the timeline of Earth history becomes crowded and familiar -- most of the real work of evolution is finished. The basic chemical machinery of autopoiesis and reproduction is in place. Everything that follows -- apple trees, great horned owls, great blue whales -- will be variations on a theme.

The Biochemical Pathways poster gives us a glimpse of those first 3 billion years, those delicate lineages fingering into the future, inching forward under the great overarching shadow of death, always bearing the residue of the past, teasing self-maintenance from the environment, transforming the Earth's crust, atmosphere and oceans, competing, occasionally turning exploitation into mutual advantage, perfecting metabolic pathways of astonishing complexity.

What is life? Here it is, folded out on the floor of a college corridor.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Shut up and take your pill

I'm no Luddite. Nor socialist. But it's hard not to be suspicious of the pharmaceutical industry. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Backdoor naturalist

There are two kinds of naturalists.

There are the big picture naturalists, the generalists, who see the way it all hangs together. These are the folks who worry about global warming, declining species diversity, and acid rain. These are the naturalists who concern themselves with river systems, oceans, and rain forests. And God bless 'em. What would we do without them? Without them the whole shebang would soon go to hell in a handbasket.

I sometimes wish I were a big picture naturalist. And because I'm not, I feel a shawl of guilt upon my shoulders. But I am what I am, a little picture naturalist. I revel in particulars. This ice-pink morning. This frost etching upon the glass. These tappings of the nuthatch. This blood-red drop of color which is the berry of the Canada mayflower against the snow.

I've written books about the big picture. Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian is the subtitle of one book. The picture doesn't get much bigger than that. But I could only write that book one step at a time. This village in the chalky South Downs of England. This flinty stone picked up in a chalky dale. This cluttered room where Darwin sat to ponder how the flinty stones came to be dispersed in the chalk.

I am of course interested in the big picture, but mostly as a context for particulars. In his chapter on Henri Fabre in Green Laurels, Donald Culross Peattie writes, "Any life is all life, and the line of attack of the naturalist begins at the front door -- or better still, the back door." He's talking about the little picture naturalist. The backdoor naturalist. The naturalist in search of "the epic commonplace."

The general is the tuned string. The particular is the finger against the fret.