Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"They ought to make good and skilled servants..."

Sitting on the beach here in the Bahamas, looking out into the Atlantic, it is inevitable that one's thoughts turn to Christopher Columbus. What a thing it must have been for the native Bahamians, the Lucayans, to see those three winged ships appear on the horizon.

No sooner had Columbus stepped ashore and "taken possession" of the land in the name of the Spanish monarchs, than the Lucayans approached, "as naked as their mothers bore them." A tall, beautiful, well-built race, according to Columbus. "They are friendly and well-dispositioned people who bear no arms except for small spears, and they have no iron," wrote the Admiral in his log. "I know that they are a people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Faith more by love than by force."

They had no iron. Nor gold. Within 25 years every Lucayan was dead or transported and these paradisal Bahamian islands were deserted.

By the evidence of Columbus' log, which I have been reading in Robert Fuson's translation, he was not -- at least initially -- a bad man, and his first impulses were to treat the peoples of the Americas gently. We don't know the extent to which the Lucayans were converted to Christianity before they were made extinct, but we do know that greed and steel ultimately trumped Christian charity, all in the name of the "Holy Faith." The physicist Steven Weinberg might have been thinking of the Spanish-Lucayan encounter when he said, not so long ago: "With or without religion, good people do good things and bad people do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, that takes religion."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A visit to the Lost World

The islands of the Bahamas are all of a loosely cemented limestone, much of it dune ridges blown up at the time of the last Ice Age when the sea-level was lower. The rock is porous, and rain water seeps down through it to the fresh-water table below, dissolving as it goes. Small channels open up, and these become preferred solution paths which continue to widen. Soon the surface is pitted with sinkholes, from inches to feet across, called banana holes because they tend to fill with halfway decent soil and are ideal for planting a banana tree.

Where the freshwater lens was very deep during the Ice Ages, these sinkholes became very wide, and are called blue holes if they subsequently filled with sea water. Blue holes are favorites with divers. The largest dry sinkhole I am familiar with on Exuma is well-hidden on the jungly backside of the island. It is about fifty feet deep and as big as a basketball court (although approximately round). I have posted it before when I took a couple of grandchildren to explore. I was there again last week with two other grandkids.

We had to climb down a vertical cliff to get into the hole, which is filled with a wild variety of tropical plants, some rare, including giant air plants growing on trees. There are caves in the cliffs and "castles" -- huge chunks of fallen rock. It is impossible not to feel that we are in some Lost World, a visit to the Jurassic, perhaps. Was that a dinosaur we saw dart away from the murky pond?

There was no sign that anyone had visited the hole since the last time I was there. The approach road was in disrepair and almost impassable, the trail I cut out overgrown. My trail to another favorite place, the bat caves, was completely overgrown; I'll have to open it again before the next grandchildren visit.

Meanwhile, with all these wonders abounding, the tourists flock in to the new Four Seasons resort. They pay many hundreds of dollars a night to stay in a place that could as easily be in Florida or Cancun. The children spend all day frolicking in a generic pool, or playing computer games in the game room.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The sunrise disease

I wake up at 6 A.M. with an overwhelming desire to write. At 6 P.M. I start thinking about a drink. Are the two addictions related? I seem to remember reading a book some years ago called The Thirsty Muse, about writers and booze. Until recently, when a new generation of writers got all trendily heath conscious, the clatter of typewriter keys and the tinkle of ice cubes often went together.

The neurologist Alice Flaherty tries to sort out the writer's instinct in her book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain. She takes us deep into the limbic system -- visiting the hippocampus and amygdala and other assorted organs -- and her pages are full of fun stuff, but at the end I didn't know any more about why I write than when I started. She quotes Yeats: "I went out to the hazel wood/ Because a fire was in my head." Every serious writer knows about the fire, but what it is that burns, and why, remains a mystery.

All I know is that if a day goes by without putting words on paper (or at least on the web) some part of my soma goes all wonky. Maybe it is chemical in the same way that wanting a sundowner drink is chemical. Flaherty is inclined to believe that the urge to write has a innate basis, related presumably to Steven Pinker's language instinct.

Whatever. I think I rather agree with Nathaniel Hawthorne: "I don't want to be a doctor, and live by men's diseases; nor a minister to live by their sins; nor a lawyer to live by their quarrels. So I don't see there's anything left for me but to be an author."

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Eschatology

Frank Tipler is not the first scientist to try to make room for personal immortality within the hallowed halls of science. His attempt at least has the benefit of reducing the whole enterprise to absurdity. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday offering.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

John-o'-Birds -- again

John Burroughs was astute enough to know that the local, agrarian life he extolled was doomed by the rise of science and technology. Wendell Berry is one of the few writers of our own era who has taken up Burroughs' mantle to rail against "scientific barbarism" and urban chaos. We should listen to these voices -- these Jeremiahs rooted in the land -- but creating a civilization that will encompass science and technology, yet nourish the best of the human spirit, will require a different vision and different gifts.

Burroughs saw the future when he visited the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia -- an event that was attended by one out of every five Americans. The exhibition sprawled over 450 acres in Philadelphia's Fairmont Park and celebrated the 100-year-old nation's scientific and industrial might. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a linked pair of four-story-tall steam engines that supplied electricity to eight thousand machines of every sort. Burroughs walked through the Machinery Hall and was repulsed -- not enchanted -- by the hissing and banging and whirring and thumping. A bird had somehow gotten into the hall, a cardinal, and flew frantically above the machinery, seeking a way out. Burroughs felt no less frenzied than the bird, and could not wait to escape the "Hellish cacophony." Where eight million Americans saw a glorious future, he sensed the end of all he held local and dear.

More than a century has passed. Is humankind better or worse off than we were in 1876? It depends, I suppose, on who you are and where you are. There are certainly too many of us now for each one of us to sit on a rocking chair on a rustic front porch and watch the seasons roll by, as Burroughs was wont to do. But maybe we can still achieve a kind of locality. The internet makes every place a center. Solar energy might yet make every home energy sufficient. The old dream of garden cities might still have some life in it, but only through the wise application of science and technology. The key to the future is not to turn our backs on knowledge and know-how, which is impossible in any case, but to subdue the barbarism of consumerist greed. What we can learn from Burroughs is that sometimes, among plenty, less is more.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A few more words on John-o'-Birds

John Burroughs, did not believe in a personal God or have any truck with the supernatural, but he was the archetypal religious naturalist. According to his biographer Edward Renehan, he took seriously the Biblical saying, "In Him we live and move and have our being." The "Him" in which we exist was for Burroughs the natural world, especially the woods, meadows, brooks, and ponds. "How childish this talk is, that we can be nearer God, nearer heaven, in some other world, than we are here!" he wrote in 1883, when he was 46 years old and already far from his fundamentalist Baptist roots. "What irreligion and atheism it is! The child in its mother's womb is no nearer its mother than you and I and all men are at all times to God." Was he a pantheist? Yes, of course, but there was a "-the-" in his pan-the-ism that was considerably more Godlike than the crude projection of our personhood that he boldly termed "irreligion and atheism."

Burroughs would have us live, like John the Baptist, on locusts and wild honey. He rejected cities and "scientific barbarism." The New York Museum of Natural History was for him a sort of funeral parlor filled with stuffed animals. He may have lived at the last time in history when it was remotely possible to dream of all men and women living in close harmony with wild nature. Science and technology were in the ascendancy, and his own essays, so wildly popular during his lifetime that they were issued in special editions for use in schools, were already headed for the yard sales, where I ultimately found my sad but brave collection.

Does Burroughs have any relevance for us today? Oh, yes. Every dead river restored to life, every green rooftop on a factory building, every patch of woods saved from development, every hawk nesting on a New York high-rise that is allowed to live, honor the man who told schoolchildren that nature is not to be found in museums, or in his own books, but where the sparrows circle, the sea gulls screech, and the squirrel nests in the old oak. Burroughs can't be our prophet of the future -- the world has long since passed him by -- but he can teach us to save enough of the past so that we can remember where we came from.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Facts

For most of my career at Stonehill College I kept near my desk an early edition of the complete works of the naturalist John Burroughs, a dozen or so volumes I picked up for a couple of bucks at a yard sale. Readers of my books will know how much the grand old man of American nature writing influenced my work.

What I loved about Burroughs can be summed up in this entry from his journal for October 24, 1907: "To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, to imagine your facts is quite another."

Burroughs had a great respect for careful empirical observation. He avoided the intellectual fads and superstitions that often preoccupied his fellow citizens, and he was disinclined to faith in God and the supernatural. But once he had facts in hand, he shaped them into essays of grace and spiritual nourishment. "Facts are the flora upon which [the literary naturalist] lives," he wrote. "To interpret nature is not to improve upon her...it is to have an emotional intercourse with her, and reproduce her tinged with the colors of the spirit."

When I retired from teaching and cleaned out my office I gave my shelf of Burroughs away to a budding young literary naturalist. It was like parting with an old friend (but I knew the college library had the same set of books, near to hand should I need them). Never in my 40 years of teaching did I proselytize my students to any opinion of mine that might be at all controversial. But I do hope I managed to convey by example respect for the consensus knowledge of the world that is the hallmark of science. Facts are elusive things, and should be treated with suspicion. But, as Burroughs knew, they are also the fragile sustenance upon which we live.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Keeping one's head above water

Several weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issue its latest landmark report and the evidence for human-induced global warming appears ever more robust. As the journal Nature says: "The debate is no longer about whether we can believe the numbers, but what we should do about them."

Now the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest scientific society, has issued its own consensus statement on global warming and concludes: "The evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now and is a growing threat to society."

The issue is of particular concern to low-lying island nations like the Bahamas. A sea-level rise of several feet would put much of this country underwater and make the rest vulnerable to hurricane surges. There is only a single speck of land in the entire nation as high as Disney World's Space Mountain.

The squabbles between climatologists and politicians are of little comfort to people who live in a nation that barely rise above the waves. When Hurricane Lily blew across this island a decade ago, lots of folks found fish on their front porches. If the most drastic predictions about global warming transpire, the fish will be swimming in the front door.

Ironically, these islands wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for ups and downs of the sea caused by the Ice Ages. During the last interglacial period, sea level was about 15 feet higher than now, and the Bahamas were reduced to a few ridge tops. During glacial periods, when the sea was hundreds of feet lower, most of the broad Bahama Bank was high and dry, and winds blew up the dunes that provide the backbones of the present islands.

Bahamians learn this geological history in school, so they know what sea-level change is all about. The Bahamian government mouths an official policy of prudential planning, but immediate economic gain, rather than prudence, appears to guide action in such things as shore development.

And who will blame them? As long as the US government continues to oppose most actions or incentives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions, why should a poor nation like the Bahamas make economic sacrifices? If global warming is real, as the IPCC and the AAAS insist, it is not Bahamians who have caused the problem. They will, of course, be among the first to suffer the consequences.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Moss piglets

"Ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can get hold of something fresh," said Aristotle. Light is a wave. Atoms are little billiard balls. Some metaphors take us into whole new realms of understanding. Others just remind us of the essential unity of the world.

And so it was when a biologist friend gave me a bottle containing a few ounces of water, some algae, assorted microscopic organisms, and -- wonder of wonders! -- a few tardigrades. She knew I would be appreciative. On a few occasions over the years, I had mentioned to her how much I would like to see a tardigrade in the flesh. These little creatures, about the size of the period at the end of this sentence, are adorably cute in microphotographs. And now, thanks to my friend, they were cavorting like playful otters in the field of view of my microscope.

Like playful otters! Tardigrades - literally, "slow walkers" - are sometimes called "water bears" because of the way they lumber along bearlike on eight (or six) stumpy appendages, or even more charmingly, "moss piglets." Under the microscope, they do indeed look remarkably like vertebrates of some sort, but they have no bony skeleton. They are invertebrates, related to insects, but so unique they have a phylum all of their own.

Tardigrades do not interest scientists only because they are cute. They are also among the hardiest of multicelled animals, maybe the toughest animals of all. Dry them out and they go into a state of suspended animation in which they can live for -- well, no one knows. When some apparently-lifeless, 120-year-old moss from an Italian museum was moistened, tardigrades rose as if from the dead and scampered about.

They can be frozen at temperatures near absolute zero, heated to 150 degrees centigrade, subjected to high vacuum or to pressure greater than that of the deepest ocean, and zapped with deadly radiation. It is not impossible that tardigrades could survive space travel without a spaceship.

My own curiosity, I confess, was based entirely on the tardigrade's reputation as a water bear or moss piglet. The metaphors are irresistibly seductive. Who can resist a creature the size of a dust-mote that might have stepped right out of Beatrix Potter?

Monday, February 19, 2007

The elusive bluebird of happiness

Recently, we have seen a spate of books purporting to explain happiness scientifically, from the point of view of genetics, psychology and economics. Having looked at these offerings, I would say that the sources of our relative contentment remain elusive, or rather they are so diverse as to hide in plain sight.

Now we are offered a measure of childhood happiness in 21 developed countries. Secular, tolerant Holland comes out on top with the most contented children. Whether Dutch kids are true bundles of glee or merely spoiled is not for me to say.
CHILD WELL-BEING
1. Netherlands
2. Sweden
3. Denmark
4. Finland
5. Spain
6. Switzerland
7. Norway
8. Italy
9. Republic of Ireland
10. Belgium
11. Germany
12. Canada
13. Greece
14. Poland
15. Czech Republic
16. France
17. Portugal
18. Austria
19. Hungary
20. United States
21. United Kingdom
Source: Unicef
Americans will no doubt be surprised to discover that our children are among the least happy. There is ample gist here for social scientists to sort out, but one thing is clear: Religion isn't a guarantor of happiness. Surveys that measure how important religion is in the life of a nation show the "child well-being table" turned upside down, U.S.-wise.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

The United Nations is trying to come up with a plan to save the planet -- should the need arise -- from an Earth-bound asteroid. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's weekly offering. For newcomers to the site, Anne is my sister who lives in a sweet sun-powered adobe house in the western desert. You can see more of her cyberart in the Gallery.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The death of a wasp

In one of his books on animal behavior, the biologist Adrian Forsyth writes about frogs he encountered in a rain forest: "[They] have a way of facing you with a goggle-eyed gaze that is disconcertingly humanoid. Their huge wrap-around mouths, while perhaps not actually resembling a smile, are certainly not frowning. Sitting hunched up as though in anticipation, they assume the posture and calm demeanor of patient listeners ready to participate in conversation." Forsyth is clearly anthropomorphizing, but his response is not frivolous. "The art of natural history," he writes, "lies in allowing such personal reactions to organisms to lead us into their biology."

Natural history is not quite the same thing as biology. It lies in that sparsely populated territory between science and poetry, where exact observation and reliable scientific information is paramount, but where human emotional and aesthetic responses are not slighted. In natural history, we learn as much about ourselves as about the thing studied. RM's beautiful wasp story is an example.

Here on the island we don't have glass in our windows, just wooden louvres with inside screens. The spaces between the louvres and the screens are attractive as places of creaturely refuge. And so we find them there -- geckos, free-toed frogs, bat moths, and just about anything else that creeps or flies -- as if on display in a museum case. Perfect for study. What am I studying? The creatures, of course, but also human nature. Curiosity. Empathy. Love.

In this I am guided by my friend the biologist David Campbell, who lived in the Bahamas before he decamped to Iowa, and who wrote a marvelous book on Bahamian natural history. In his first paragraph he discounts the necessity of looking for "nature" in the wildest and most remote of environments -- the flamingo salt lakes of Iguana, the green turtle beaches of uninhabited isles, the shark reefs at the edge of the Bahama Bank. "Any backyard, any weed patch will do, whether in Bain Town or Bay Street [populous Nassau neighborhoods]," he writes. "Turn over a stone or glance into a nearby tree and, by careful observation and study, you will find a hint of wilderness."

To enter the near "wilderness" is to explore the history of our species, and to learn of the molecular affinities that bind us to the gecko, the frog, the moth. And the wasp.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Swann's way

I have not read Marcel Proust's huge, lumbering Remembrance of Things Past. But I have read the first volume, Swann's Way, twice, at two different times in my life when I set as my summer project doing the "big read." Doesn't every dedicated reader set out at some time in her life to read Proust? Does anyone actually finish?

It has long been thought that the role of memory is not just to remember the past, but to enable us to predict the future. Proust's prodigious memory conferred little in the way of survival value, except insofar as it enabled him to more advantageously negotiate the future. The person who remembers the crocodile in the river will dive in with care. Many biologists believe that the ability to imagine possible futures was the central driving force in the evolution of memory. Some recent studies of patients with amnesia caused by damage to the hippocampus, the brain region intimately associated with memory, show that their ability to imagine the future is also impaired -- a conclusion that seems to me rather self-evident.

Great works of literature -- Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust -- would also seem to be enabled by particularly sensitive and capacious memories. War and Peace, Ulysses, and Remembrance of Things Past may be felicitous by-products of natural selection.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Earth star

Last evening an electrical storm out in the Atlantic lit up the horizon for an hour with festive pyrotechnics. We lay in bed and watched as the show of lights moved slowly from north to south. Overhead the sky was bright with stars.

The Earth is itself a little star of sorts. For billions of years it has glowed with a pale sporadic light. The flickering of electrical storms. The red glow of volcanic eruptions. The will-'o-the wisp and Saint Elmo's fire. Spontaneous methane ignitions. And bioluminescence. Algae sometimes turn the sea into shimmering sheets of light. Certain mushrooms of Southeast Asia can be seen from afar by their telltale glow. The lips of the megamouth shark are lined with hundreds of tiny lights that twinkle like a fairground's string of bulbs, enticing plankton into the gaping maw. The giant deep-sea squid Taningia danae emits blinding flashes of light to disorient its prey, and perhaps to woo a mate. Genes from the Jamaican kittyboo beetle express four colors of luminescence.

Then along came humankind.

At first we added little to the planet's illumination. Campfires. Candles. Oil lamps. Then came Faraday and the dynamo and the planet lit up like a red dwarf star.

We almost never turn on the outside lights of the house, and we stopped the Bahamas Electrical Corporation from putting a street light on the pole at the end of our driveway. For the moment, we treasure our little enclave of tropical darkness. But recent development on the island seems oblivious to environmental concerns; I can't imagine that the people who choose to live in such ostentatious circumstances care a hoot about the stars. If we were ten years younger it would be time to move on to some other place where the planet's own sweet starness is still visible.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Valentine...

...from Anne, which she calls Stellar Heart. Click to enlarge. My post below.

Duckweed

"Love, we are a small pond," says Maxine Kumin in one of her wonderful poems that celebrate New England nature. It is a delicious metaphor: The pond as tender affection, touching skin, the scratches that leave no scar, the mouths that gobble. "The blackest berries fatten over the pond of our being," she writes, exuberantly.

So exuberantly that even here, in the tropics, in winter, I am carried back to the autumn pond. Turtles sun themselves on whatever solid perch protrudes above the surface of the water. Dragonflies dart above the alga mat in copulatory flight, their iridescent bodies locked in valentine embrace. Mallards waddle into the muck from the muddy bank. And the duckweed! That skin of granular green, the partings and closings, the hiders and grazers, speak to us of our own protoplasmic origins, the pond water of our blood, the ancient urgings toward feeding and reproduction.

And love.

We need to keep in touch with those things -- the duckweed, the ducks, the dragonflies, the gush of life -- lest we forget what touch and sight and sound and scent are all about. Even love is in danger of being made into a virtual reality -- those flickering bits on a TV screen or Internet monitor -- stripped of sensual fullness.

Our drawing toward each other was cradled in the pond, nurtured on the tangled bank, perfected in the same urgency of seek and join that causes the dragonflies to bend their bodies into a heart-shaped kiss. The pond is more than a metaphor for our lives; our lives are steeped in it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Cultivating delight

As an epigraph to one of the chapters in her book Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden, Diane Ackerman quotes Oscar Wilde: ""The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." Of course Ackerman agrees. While most people in world, like our remote and superstitious ancestors, go on assuming that the only things that matter are invisible -- God, gods, angels, demons, immortal souls, the spirits of the dead and ancestors, and so on -- she celebrates and is nourished by (in this book, at least) a Burpee catalog's worth of plants. To read her book is to visit a garden more delightful than any prelapsarian Eden or Elysian Fields.

Ackerman is our great poet of the world illuminated by science. In a book review in the February 9 issue of Science she reveals something about her own background. When she began college in 1966 it was her intention to major in biopsychology. A computer glitch mistakenly put her in English. She was a bit of a poet and considered it fate. The rest is history.

The astronomer Carl Sagan and the poet A. R. Ammons were on her doctoral committee at Cornell. Her thesis was on the workings of the mind in science and poetry.

Not many people find their way into that garden of nature informed by science but yielding itself promiscuously to the senses. Poets and scientists seldom talk to each other; the "two cultures" are as much at odds today as when C. P. Snow famously defined the opposition nearly half-a-century ago. John Brockman's "third culture," although meant to ameliorate the problem, in some ways only complicates the situation, by adding yet another level of elite abstraction remote from our sensate lives.

In Cultivating Delight, Ackerman writes: "But life doesn't require you to choose between reason and awe, or between clear-headed analysis and a rapturous sense of wonder. A balanced life includes both. One of the fascinating paradoxes of being human is that we are inescapably physical beings who yearn for transcendence. One can be spiritual without believing in a supernatural being."

Monday, February 12, 2007

Naked in the sun

Like many snow birds to the island, I love being almost naked in the sun. I love the play on skin of sunlight, salt and sea breezes, the occasional warm rain, the whole sensational tropical feast of it. I love the feel of snow on skin too, but with snow you never have quite so much skin exposed.

I know too that evolution didn't prepare me for the tropics. My skin is dark enough that I don't burn, but the specter of melanoma is always lurking about like a dark shadow.

Here's the trick:

Ultraviolet light damages DNA and also destroys the folic acid necessary for DNA synthesis. Bad. Ultraviolet light is necessary to make vitamin D, without which we cannot incorporate calcium into our bones. Good. So we are caught between a rock and a hard place, between melanoma and rickets.

Evolution, in it's leisurely wisdom, carefully forged the necessary balance between too much ultraviolet and not enough by adjusting pigmentation in the skin. My Bahamian neighbors, whose ancestors came from equatorial Africa, are well suited for the climate here. My ancestors were mostly northern European; I have no business running around half-naked in the sun.

Still, what can you do? Culture has outraced natural selection. Descendants of tropical peoples now live in great numbers in northern cities, and northerners like me have migrated to sunnier climes. For the latter, sun cream and shade are in order -- which I blithely and dangerously ignore as I sprawl in my beach chair reading a review of Nina Jablonski's Skin: A Natural History.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Earth angel...

...earth angel, will you be mine? A Valentine Musing this Sunday, and a Valentine from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Going where no one has gone before

A few days ago I had an e-mail from a university student who was reading Skeptics and True Believers. He wrote: "On page 27 you discuss that there is an arms length of DNA in every cell and the difficulty in believing that it actually fits. I too found this very unbelievable. You mentioned that you did the equation and it works, yet you left out the equation or any of the calculations. I wish you would have sort of walked your reader through the calculation much like you did for Arcturus. This is not to say that I don't trust your calculations. I do. It is just that as a true skeptic, I would have appreciated the equation."

An arm's length of DNA in a space too small to see with the naked eye! Yeah, that's pretty hard to believe. As I said in the book, it strained my credulity too, although of course I had confidence in the result (that's the beauty of science as a collective, peer-reviewed way of knowing).

Here was my response: "Glad to see your skepticism is intact. I will leave the calculation to you. We know from X-ray diffraction studies that a strand of DNA is 1.5 nanometers (1.5 x 10 to the -9 meters) in radius. Assume a cylinder 1 meter long (the arm's length) with a radius of 1.5 nanometers and work out the volume (length x pi r squared). A typical animal cell is about 8 micrometers (8 x 10 to the -6 meters) in radius. Assume a spherical cell and calculate the volume (4/3 pi r cubed). You will see that the DNA fits easily inside the cell."

A nice little illustration of the power of mathematics as an aid to the imagination.

Science began with mathematical reasoning. Eratosthenes figured out the size of the Earth and Aristarchus deduced the sizes and distances of the Sun and Moon with the same sort of Euclidean geometry I used above. When Aristarchus claimed that the Sun was vastly larger than the Earth and an unimaginable distance away, he was apparently met with almost universal skepticism. The philosopher Cleanthes thought Aristarchus should be indicted on a charge of impiety; to imagine such a commodious universe was an insult to the gods.

Like the human senses, the human imagination is limited as an instrument for knowing. Mathematics allows the imagination to go where the senses have not been. And, yes, I guess there is something impious about the mathematical way of knowing -- for those whose gods are made in the image of man.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Having it out

Drosophila melanogaster, the "black-bellied dew lover," is better know to you and me as the fruit fly that swarms annoyingly about our food trash. Never mind. Sing its praises. Perhaps no other creature has contributed so much to our understanding of life.

The fruit fly was adopted by T. H. Morgan in his important studies in genetics that began at Columbia University in the early years of this century. These studies led to the classic textbook of Morgan, Sturtevant, Muller, and Bridges, "Mechanisms of Genetic Inheritance," which in 1915 established the link between genes and chromosomes. Since that time, much of what we know about mutation, speciation, and other genetic phenomena has been discovered with populations of fruit flies in nature and in the lab. Drosophila is an ideal research animal. It is small enough to breed in the lab in large numbers, but large enough to examine with only modest magnification. And it has a short life cycle, which means it can be bred through many generations during a typical graduate student's time of study.

Lately, Drosophila has been teaching scientists about the genetic basis of aggression.

Try this experiment (ala geneticists Ralph Greenspan and Herman Dierick of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego). Put 120 male fruit flies and 60 virgin females into an enclosure with 11 dispersed cups filled with fly food. Care to guess what the males do first? Yep, the first thing they think about is sex. Then they settle down to sup.

As they sup, they establish and defend their sugar-cup territories. And that's where the scientists come in. Greenspan and Dierick selectively bred the most aggressive flies for 21 generations, creating a superaggressive line of flies that were meaner and scrappier than their normal cousins. Then the scientists used DNA microarrays to look for changes in gene expression, and identified 42 genes that had significantly increased or decreased their activity. One gene in particular, Cyp6a20, stood out among the aggressive flies as less active than normal, an enzyme-producing gene whose reduced activity may make the flies hypersensitive to pheromones.

This is just one of many recent experiments looking for the genetic basis of aggression, summarized in a fine article by Greg Miller in the January 12 issue of Science. It's a bit early to say what these experiments tell us about vertebrate aggression, but I dare say if you put 120 human males, 60 virgin females, and 11 scattered caches of beer and pizzas, in a sealed space, the observed behaviors would not be all that dissimilar from those of drosophila.

As I believe I mentioned here before, female fruit flies can be aggressive too, although with a lot more pushing and shoving and less slugging it out.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Renunciation or engagement?

These have been the two great poles of the religious life in both the Western and Eastern traditions.

On the one hand, there is the "call" to take the message of revelation to the world, by selfless service to humanity, by proselytization, or by violent crusade. Thus we have mission sisters courageously serving ebola patients in equatorial Africa, evangelicals knocking on doors with religious tracts in hand, and Taliban jihadists forcibly imposing their God-given regimen on an often unwilling population.

At the other extreme is retreat into self in search of the essential gnosis of revelation. This tendency gave rise to the monastic movements of West and East -- the spirituality of Thomas Merton and the Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki, for example -- visible to us in its most extreme form in the lives of Desert Fathers such as Antony and Jerome.

To a certain extent, I suppose, a predisposition to activism or introspection is innate in each of us, and religion is just one of the givens which our natural talents serve. Thoreau needed no holy book to take him to the seclusion of Walden Pond, and one suspects that Martin Luther King would have been a political activist on behalf of his people with or without religious motivation.

Science is by definition a public activity, although it has its share of hermits. Darwin was loath to leave his "desert cave" at Down House in Kent, and let his more activist friends carry his scientific ideas into the public forum. Huxley loved engagement as much as Darwin loved his solitude.

The religious naturalist, among whom we might count Darwin and perhaps even Merton, needs no divine revelation to adopt a life of either quiet reflection or social activism. What distinguishes the religious naturalist from others who call themselves religious is the absence of dogma, which means that retreat is generally into the silent contemplation of nature, and activism takes the form of service without proselytization.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Kickapoo joy juice

One of the great characters of Exuma is Christine Rolle, who for some years has been giving minibus tourist tours of the island on which she shares her knowledge of bush medicine. It has not been so long ago that doctors, nurses and scientific drugs were unknown here, especially in the more remote of the scattered settlements. Nature was the medicine chest.

Bay geranium for lost appetite. Big sage for measles and chicken pox. Cough vine is self-defining, as is fever bush. Bread fruit leaf for high blood pressure. Broom bush for dizziness. Hard head for toothache. The eponymous love vine will cure your man of a "weak spine," says Christine, which is her euphemism for what the TV commercials call ED. The leaves of featherback had no medicinal value but made perfect spoons for administering remedies.

Some bush cures may "work" through the power of suggestion; the placebo effect is well established scientifically. And many a sick person in the islands may have been made worse by being fed a strong bush tea.

Still, pharmaceutical and dietary supplement companies are busily prospecting for bush medicines that in fact contain an active ingredient that effects the reputed cure. Nature has whipped up many more potentially useful chemical compounds than can be expeditiously contrived in the laboratory. Drugs and supplements are big business, and it's always possible that some local remedy might be a gold mine.

Which raises the question of whether and how indigenous peoples should be compensated for bush lore when the bucks start rolling in. Is "bush medicine" protected by intellectual property rights? Do pharmaceutical and dietary supplement companies have an ethical obligation to recognize these rights? Who gets the compensation? How is it distributed?

No matter. Christine just loves to share her knowledge with the likes of me. We had another bush doctor here on Exuma, my neighbor Joe Romer. He made me a couple of strong brews for one thing or the other which I politely tasted. Old age caught up with Joe. A year or two ago he returned to the US where he had spent a good part of his working life and had some benefits. Bush meds don't come with Medicare.

We now have a private pharmacy on the island, a 6x6 foot enclosure in a back corner of Smitty's variety store. When Joe and Christine leave the stage, a body of traditional lore will depart with them.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Selene and Endymion

"I am sensual in order to be spiritual," writes Mary Oliver, in her little book of miscellany, Winter Hours. I was thinking about her remark the other evening as we watched a huge tangerine moon rise above the silver sea. It was one of those moments so perfect in its confluence of attributes that nothing needed to be said, a moment when even a writer recognizes that the most articulate expression is silence. The moon bubbled up out of Exuma Sound and all the phantoms and false gods fell away. "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."

Monday, February 05, 2007

The hijacking of Conservatism

"There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me...that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are?"

Who is this speaking? Richard Dawkins? Sam Harris? In fact, the words were entered into the Congressional Record on 16 September 1981 by the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, and quoted by Michael Shermer in a review of Dawkins' The God Delusion in the January 26 issue of Science. Can you imagine any American politician, liberal or conservative, giving voice to such sentiments today?

Like many of us, Shermer is made uneasy by Dawkins' in-your-face militancy, but he welcomes the scrappy biologist's eloquent take on Goldwater's concern. If our political leaders have been universally cowed into silence by the religious right, then maybe it's time for scientists to speak.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The end of history?

The bus for the 14th century is about to leave the terminal. It's a one-way trip and the tickets are free. Any takers? See this Sunday's Musing.

And for your delectation and delight, a Sunday cyberpic from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The rise of a global taliban

In the January 11 issue of Nature, three Turkish scientists address the teaching of creationism in Turkish schools. A recent poll showed Turks ranked lowest among 25 developed nations in the acceptance of evolution, a matter of "grave" concern to the three scientists.

It seems that in 1985 a conservative minister of education took the initiative to include creationism in the high-school curriculum and textbooks. Where do you think he went to obtain educational materials? If you guessed the US you are correct. The Turkish Ministry of Education continues to rely on US sources, including intelligent-design materials produced by the Discovery Institute of Seattle.

So we have the ironic situation that as we rue the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, US Christian fundamentalists are participating in undermining the Enlightenment values that have so far kept a secular Turkey from the fundamentalist fold.

Make no mistake, the scientific way of knowing is cut from the same cloth as those Enlightenment values we claim to hold dear in America: democracy, nonsectarian public education, separation of church and state, and religious freedom. It is no accident that countries that excel in science are also those that are most free.

Should we worry that Islamic education is increasingly falling into the hands of religious fundamentalists who disdain modernity and science? You bet. If a "clash of civilizations" is in the offing, it is not so much between Islam and the "Christian" West as between those who look to empiricism for truth about the world and those who look to supposed revelation. It is not encouraging that religiously-motivated Americans are aiding and abetting "the enemy."

Meanwhile, a lawsuit on behalf of a non-governmental educational institution is in the Turkish courts demanding that creationism be removed from the public high school curriculum. In defense, the Ministry of Education contends that evolution is not compatible with Turkish "culture and values." It remains to be seen how the case will play out.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Old money, new money

Yesterday I mentioned the prospect of humanity diverging into the genetically-enhanced rich and the roll-of-the-genetic-dice poor. Would rich folks spend big money bumping up their odds of "perfect" offspring? You better believe it.

Here on this little island in the central Bahamas we are watching another sort of divergence.

There has always been a small population of very rich winter residents on the island. Old-money rich. Their homes were gems but relatively modest and completely inconspicuous, tucked away in the local vegetation on idyllic sites, but never far from the homes and lives of Bahamians. Their satisfactions, from what I have been able to discover, were esthetic and very private.

The new-money rich who have recently arrived (in the wake of the new Four Seasons resort) are building holiday houses of astonishing ostentation. In gated communities. Neither the indigenous environment nor integration with their Bahamian hosts seem high on their agenda.

Already some islanders are wondering if the new money being dumped into their economy is worth the changes in quality of life, and the danger of becoming second-class citizens in their own country. With a little foresight and planning, the economy could be grown without shattering the environment or surrendering to millionaire foreigners everything that made this beautiful island the domain of very proud -- if not so rich -- Bahamians.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Genetic divergence?

I've been reading Jeffrey Eugenides's novel, Middlesex, the plot of which revolves around a rogue recessive gene afloat in a family's gene pool. When circumstances lead to the gene's expression -- well, the title is a clue to the result.

Which leads me in the middle of the night -- the book on the floor by the bed -- to those nattering thoughts that bother every parent now and then, especially parents who are well beyond the first sexy flush of procreation and looking back on a passel of children and grandchildren flowing out like a river from what at the time was a happy-go-lucky mixing of genes.

What if?

Who knows what variant genes are hiding in the pool, for generations perhaps, waiting for the right moments to express themselves? How many unwelcome genes would be necessary before we would forego reproduction? What would be the odds of a genetic surprise before we would be too frightened to take the chance?

Natural selection will work over the long haul to keep the odds in favor of the continuation of the species. Meanwhile, cultural taboos against consanguineous interbreeding help keep recessive anomalous genes in check. Yes, I know that parental love will embrace every child, no matter how difficult certain genetic flukes might be for the child or parents. But still the dark thoughts come, the apprehension that lurks like a shadow behind the biological imperative.

The day of the $10,000 sequenced genome is not so far away, and designer genes will not be far behind. The moral and social implications are almost too monumental to think about. How will we as a society balance the desire for whatever kind of child is deemed most desirable against the horrendous prospect of a species that diverges into the genetically-enhanced rich and the roll-of-the-genetic-dice poor?