Thursday, May 31, 2007

The burden of thinking

Let me speak for gray.

Not black or white. Good or evil. Truth or falsity. Yes or no.

Let me speak for maybe. Sort of. More or less. I think so.

I am reluctant to speak for gray for fear of being considered wishy-washy. Indecisive. Unprincipled. But lately it seems as if we are surrounded on every side by zealots, and it's not a pretty sight.

We are surrounded by people who are so certain of their Truth that they are willing to strap bombs to their chests and walk into crowded pizza parlors. Or fly airplanes into towers. Or bomb abortion clinics. Or subvert American principles of civil liberties to fight those who have no principles of civil liberty.

There's an ugly stridency in the air, too many people who are certain God is on their side. Too much certainty with a capital C.

So why does the world look gray to me? After all, I was raised in a tradition of Absolute Truth. I was taught that infidels will burn in hell, at least those guilty of "culpable ignorance." "Armies of youth flying standards of Truth," we sang.

But I was studying science, too, and the history and philosophy of science. I discovered truth with a lower-case t. Evolving truth. I encountered people who held their most cherished beliefs to the refining fire of experience, and who changed their minds when their tentative truths failed the test.

When a group of Englishmen established the first modern scientific society in the 17th century, they took as their motto, "Take no one's word." They believed the only reliable guide to truth was the evidence of the senses. And even the senses can be deceiving. Which is why they embraced the experimental method. Reproducibility. Observations that can be repeated by anyone, and that always give the same result.

Many people think of science as a body of knowledge -- the germ theory of disease, evolution by natural selection, Newton's laws of motion, that sort of thing. Well, yes, it is. But these things are tentatively held, with varying degrees of certainty. More fundamentally, science is a way of thinking. A way that rejects absolutes.

Of course, one can't blow hither and yon on a sea of uncertainty. To be useful, any system of knowledge must be confident of itself. To do scientific work at all, one must start with firm convictions. But every good scientist must be radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change.

Black and white is easy. It relieves us of the burden of thinking, of learning, of experiencing the other. Gray is more difficult -- but it's the planet's best hope for a civilized future.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The standing chill

A headline in a Scientific American story about the evolution of galaxies: "The universe has run out of steam since half its current age. Mergers have ceased, and black holes are quiescent." Oh dear, that's all I need. Cosmic metaphors.

The universe's problem, it seems, is something called dark energy that makes up abut 74 percent of what is. Astronomers don't know what dark energy is, but it has the opposite effect of gravity. It pushes things apart, stretches the universe thin. Accelerates the long slow glide into dark oblivion.

A few hundred billion years from now other galaxies will have receded from our view. Within the Milky Way, the last dregs of energy will be squeezed from star-birthing nebulas. Stars will die; no new stars will be born. The night sky will grow dark. Somewhere, in a last fading pool of cosmic warmth, life, which for billions of years had burned among the stars like a cool blue flame, will flicker out.

I think of Philip Larkin's poem Aubade:
I work all day, and get half drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not used, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never:
But at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

It's a grim poem from a poet who could be grimly fatalistic. But he got one thing right: Everything dies. Galaxies. Stars. Humans. Life itself. The sure extinction. He got this right too: Death is no different whined at than withstood. Death is part of the equation, part of a universe whose origin and ultimate fate is perhaps beyond our knowing. We make our own meaning. Invent gods. Invent the consolation of immortality. It would be lovely to believe, but the age-old notion that the universe was created just for us is no longer possible to maintain. Hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Born in fire. Destined for cold annihilation.

Art. Religion. Procreation. Drink. We all deal with the sure extinction that we travel to, each in our own way. I don't begrudge Larkin his morbidity, nor the believer her hope of Paradise. I immerse myself as deeply as I can in the glorious and mysterious thick of things, and sail with the galaxies into darkness.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

He wishes for the cloths of heaven

In my Skeptics and True Believers, I talk for a bit about the 1996 apparition of Comet Hyakutake. In particular, I recount the events of one special night:
Best of all was the evening of April 3, when we forsook the observatory for a broad dark field where we watched the Moon rise in full eclipse, a spooky pink pearl. The comet was in the northwest, showing a degree or two of tail. Venus had joined the Pleiades, a blazing beacon. Meteors streaked the firmament. I was with a group of young people, students at the college. I was impressed by their reverence, wonder -- and especially by their intense desire to know. I described the physics of cometary motion and produced a three-dimensional model of the orbit that I had previously constructed. We talked about the chemistry of comets and the chemistry of life. Knowledge, wonder, and celebration played off one another in perfect harmony. I thought: How sad that such experiences are not part of our formal religious traditions. It was at that moment, in that field, watching that comet, that I decided to write this book.
In a sense, just about everything I have written during the past decade had its origin in the inspiration of that special evening and those special young people. Knowledge, wonder, celebration: Those have been my themes.


Now, a reader of Skeptics and True Believers, Jeff Pickens, has sent me a re-creation of that evening, using Starry Night software, which is the same program I use to plan my skywatching. He sends two views, one to the west (above), with Hyakutake and Venus with the Pleiades, and another to the east (below), with the moon rising in eclipse. You will have to click on the images to see them properly.


And it all comes back -- the chill of the night air, the cloudless sky, the intense pleasure of being in possession of knowledge that my young companions yearn to hear. In that same chapter of my book, I quoted a verse from a poem of William Butler Yeats:
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet.
I spread the cloths. The long ellipse of the comet. The planet 20 million times closer than the stars of the Pleiades. The moon slipping though the rapier-thin shadow of the Earth. But sharing the dark cloths meant nothing without my eager companions.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Work of the heart

In 1914, at age 39, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke had a substantial body of published work behind him. "Work of sight is achieved," he wrote; "now for some heart work."

That's more or less what I have been doing on this site for the past three years: heart work. For seventy years it was sight work: looking, reading, teaching, writing books. Now I'm more interested in trying to discern the contours of the journey, the shape of the landscape I have traversed. How did the things seen fit together? How did the fit determine what things were seen? Heart work.

It's a pleasant task, and these daily posts are part of it. It is, as you have suggested, the sort of work that takes place on the porch of life. I imagine a broad summer verandah, perhaps in the south, with cicadas singing and constellations of fireflies mimicking the stars. A pink moon rising in the east. From afar off, the flicker of heat lightnin'.

In Letters To A Young Poet, Rilke advises: "Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." Good advice, and I would like to think that now is that time far in the future when whatever answers might be found will reveal themselves. But they will come, I am sure -- if they come at all -- in solitude and silence and love. A meteor streaks the mirroring sky. An alignment of planets in the west. Listen! A whisper. A calling into the thick of things.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Questions and answers

If you were forced to chose between questions without answers or answers without questions, which would it be? See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday pic.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Does misery love (divine) company?

Phil Zuckerman's chapter in the new Cambridge Companion to Atheism makes illuminating reading. Zuckerman is a sociologist of religion at Pitzer College in California, and he takes as his task an objective survey of rates and patterns of non-belief around the world.

One correlation stands out. Those nations with the highest rates of non-belief are also the nations with the highest quality of life, as measured by food, housing, health care, literacy, low rate of homicide, low infant mortality, and gender equality. Low suicide rate is the only indicator of societal health in which religious nations fare better than secular nations. The growing popularity of suicide bombing by religious extremists may change this statistic.

A few exceptions to the general pattern: The United States and Ireland. Ireland's economic boom is so recent that I doubt if the data is meaningful; from personal experience of the youngest Irish generations, I'd say that nation is well on its way to typically European levels of secularism. The American fascination with God stands out as a particular anomaly; the U. S. has one of lowest rates of unbelief in the world, right down there with Albania and Kyrgyzstan.

Why the correlation between economic development and atheism? If God exists, he certainly has an inscrutable way of rewarding his followers.

Of course, Marx and Freud were not the first to suggest that belief in God serves to comfort humans in the face of pain, suffering and death. Some writers of antiquity offered the same explanation for belief. Zuckerman's data would seem to confirm that theism fades when life becomes secure. The opposite interpretation -- that secularism is a driving engine of economic development -- might also have merit.

And what about the U. S.? Why the anomaly? I would suggest that American prosperity has been driven by European secular values, imported at the time of the nation's founding and fed by a steady influx of European scientific genius. Rates of belief among America's scientific elite are virtually the inverse of that of the general population, and more typical of other developed nations. Another explanatory factor might be this country's great system of secular public education, which the courts have so far successfully defended against religious incursions.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Ask your doctor about...

What's an ordinary citizen to do? I'm no Luddite. Nor socialist. I am deeply grateful for modern pharmaceuticals, and in favor of private industry and fair profit. When I got Lyme disease last year, you can bet I was glad for antibiotics.

But it's hard not to be suspicious of the pharmaceutical industry, and saddened by the way medicine is corrupted by its influence.

I am referring, of course, to the recent spate of reports in the New York Times (May 10: A stunning correlation between payments to Minnesota psychiatrists and number of prescriptions; May 9: "Doctors Reap Millions from Anemia Drugs"), the Boston Globe (May 7: Dr. Daniel Carlat accuses colleagues, including his former self, of being "drug whores" and "hired guns" for taking money from drug companies), Salon (which may or may not be relevant), and who knows where else about the unholy alliance between pharmaceutical companies and some doctors.

The industry is responding. In the last few days we have seen two defenses of industry practice in the Op-Ed and Letters sections of the Boston Globe by representatives of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and the American Council on Science and Health. The latter organization protests its independence on its web site, but a substantial part of its funding comes from the pharmaceutical industry.

As an ordinary patient, I would feel more confidence in American health care if the following things were in place:

1. No glossy mag or TV advertising for prescription drugs.

2. No gifts or services to doctors worth more than, say, $20.

3. Consumer advocacy groups, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Council on Science and Health, list their sources of funding prominently on their web sites. When such organizations are quoted as media sources, relevant corporate sponsorship is duly noted.

4. The Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health insulated entirely from political and corporate influence.

The beautiful thing about science is that it has been relatively immune to influence by religion, politics, ethnicity, and the other forces that divide us. It's a shame to see our confidence in the scientific way of knowing eroded by greed.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Great Books of science

A few more words on Britannica's Great Books of the Western World.

I can't imagine what inspired Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler to include so many original works of science in their collection. I think I can safely guarantee that neither man had read his own way through Copernicus's On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres or Newton's On the Principles of Natural Philosophy, say. OK, the prefaces, maybe. But the entire books? No way. And I doubt if anyone among the tens of thousands of customers who bought the Great Books made it past the prefaces either.

Yes, it would pay someone's time to dabble in Aristotle's Physics, say, or Plato's Timaeus. Likewise a glance at Galen's On the Natural Faculties, Archimedes' The Sand Reckoner, and Lucretius' On the Nature of Things. But Apollonius of Perga and Nicomachus of Gerasa? Forget it. Life is too short.

Euclid's Elements is a monumental contribution to civilization. I worked my way through Book I (of thirteen), which ends with a brilliant proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. It was an illuminating exercise. But for a person without substantial prior mathematical training it would be impossible.

For my money, the greatest work of classical science is not included in the collection: Aristarchus's On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon. A dazzling tour de force. But, again, don't begin unless your geometry is up to snuff and you have a few months to spend.

It would pay any liberal arts student to read the prefaces of Copernicus and Newton, but it would turn them off science forever to ask them to go further. I once spent a summer slogging my way through Copernicus's chapters on the Sun and Mars (see Walking Zero). Could Hutchins or Adler have done it?

The collection includes Galileo's Dialogues On the Two New Sciences, which is indeed one of the founding documents of experimental science. But the average reader would be better advised to read The Starry Messenger or Letter to Grand Duchess Christina.

Lavoisier, Fourier and Faraday? Only if you have a serious interest in the history of science, although I would happily recommend to the general reader Faraday's lectures on The Chemical History of a Candle, not included. Darwin and Freud are of foundational importance to western civilization, and anyone who wants to engage in "the great conversation" should have an acquaintance with their work, but there are cheaper ways to do it than by investing in a shelf of mostly impenetrable science texts.

So there! Take that Britannica. The story of discovery represented by the science books in your collection is indeed amazing, but primary texts are by and large not the best way to learn it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The A to Z of knowledge

Our college library is organized on the Library of Congress classification system. The last book in the collection -- ZA 4234.G64 J431 2007 -- is Jean-Noel Jeanneney's Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge. Jeanneney is president of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. His little book is a cri de couer from someone who thinks Google's big project to scan entire (American) libraries of books into their searchable data base is an assault upon non-English-speaking cultures. What Google calls "universal knowledge," says Jeanneney, is really American knowledge. And further, it is knowledge out of context. A Google search will bring up individual pages of books, he says, but those pages can only have meaning within the context of the whole work. Jeanneney is not a Luddite; he knows that search engines are invaluable tools. But he would like to see Europe and other cultural regimes build their own searchable data bases independent of Google's (or anyone else's) commercial control. He writes: "We should be less interested in the utopian dream of exhaustiveness than in aspiring to the richest, the most intelligent, the best organized, the most accessible of all possible selections."

It occurred to me to see what is the first book in our library's collection. By happy coincidence, it turns out to be -- AC1.G7 v. 1 -- The Great Conversation, Robert Hutchins' thin introductory volume to the Britannica Great Books of the Western World. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, and others at the University of Chicago, undertook with the Britannica company to compile the best of western philosophy, science and literature into fifty-four volumes. To read these books, writes Hutchins in his introduction, is to participate in the "great conversation" of Western history, and to acquire a liberal education. The reception of the project was not altogether enthusiastic. It was variously criticized as arbitrary, elitist, self-serving, and unreadable. One wonders what would have been Monsieur Jeanneney's reaction.

Although I've read a goodly number of them in other editions, I was never enamored of the Great Books. The idea of spending a good chunk of my life reading my way mechanically through that ponderous collection always struck me as bizarre. Better to have a fine library to run wild in, following one's enthusiasms of the moment, discovering one's own "great books" serendipitously, taking the whole of AC1.G7 v. 1 to ZA 4234.G64 J431 2007 as a happy hunting ground. Stuffy old Hutchins and Adler can stuff it. I'll give Jeanneney this: Google and the internet are invaluable tools-- I use them all day, every day -- but without access to a library of good old-fashioned books my life would be much diminished.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The path to heaven

May I add a few observations to my Sunday Musing about Philip and Edmund Gosse, father and son? I suppose what I had to say there left the impression that growing up in the Gosse's fundamentalist Christian household was unremittingly grim. Not quite so.

The father, as I said, was a zoologist, and during, most of Edmund's youth the family lived on the south coast of England. There, father and son would happily explore together the shallows and tide pools in search of the sea creatures that the elder Gosse would describe in his History of the British Sea-Anemones and Corals, a book that had the misfortune of coming out at the same time as Darwin's Origin of Species.

Edmund writes in Father and Son:
It was down on the shore, tramping along the pebbled terraces of the beach, clambering over the great blocks of fallen conglomerate which broke the white curve with rufous promontories that jutted into the sea, or, finally, bending over those shallow tidal pools in the limestone rocks which were our proper hunting ground, -- it was in such circumstances as these that my Father became most easy, most happy, most human. That hard look across his brows, which it wearied me to see, the look that came from sleepless anxiety of conscience, faded away.
Here, in the pleasures of scientific collecting and the beauties of nature, Philip Gosse was almost able to forget the burden of imagined sin that he bore in the face of a stern and demanding God. Here he was almost able to forget the onus of righteousness that his faith imposed upon him, the terrible responsibility of being one of the elect in a world in which most people labored in error and were damned. Writes Edmund of his father: "With all his faith in the Word of God, he had no confidence in the Divine Benevolence; and with all his passionate piety, he habitually mistook fear for love."

What sort of God forbids enjoyment of his own creation? I think of few lines of the poet Mary Oliver:
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
And again:
Of course! the path to heaven

doesn't lie down in flat miles.
  It's in the imagination
    with which you perceive
      this world,

and the gestures
  with which you honor it.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Vital dust

That's what Nobel Prize-winning biologist Christian de Duve titled his book on the origin and evolution of life: Vital Dust His title reminds us that we live in a sea of invisible spores swimming on the wind. We breathe these seeds of life in and out with every breath. Rusts. Smuts. Molds. Mildews. Mosses. Mushrooms. Ferns.

Given the quantity and variety of airborne reproductive germs, it might seem likely that our lungs would become gardens of foreign organisms -- the invasion of the body snatchers. But that's not quite the way it works. Most airborne spores must alight in a highly specific environment if they are to bear fruit.

Consider, for example, the cedar-apple rust. Here is a photograph I took yesterday of a mysterious apparition on a cedar tree along my Path -- the tentacled fruiting bodies of cedar apple rust, caused by the fungus Gymnosporangium jumiperi-virginianae.


The life cycle of this curious organism "starts" in the springtime, on an apple tree. Small yellow dots develop on the underside of the leaves shortly after the tree comes into bloom. The yellow spots gradually enlarge and become orange. In late summer, small tubes grow on the lower leaf surface near the orange spots, and brown spots may develop on fruit.

The orange spots release spores that are distributed by the wind. If -- and only if! -- they land on a cedar tree, they germinate and put out tubes that penetrate the tiny leaves. By some chemical magic, these tubes cause the growth of fleshy, reddish-brown galls, called cedar apples, about the size of a grape. The development of the galls and the maturing of the fungus within them require nearly two years from the time of infection.

Then, during wet weather in May, the galls put out the long orange tentacles, slimy and gelatinous, that you see in my photograph. These release spores of a different sort, which make their way by random breezes back to an apple tree. The cedar and the apple are necessary alternate hosts to the fungal parasite. All those spores, at different stages of the fungus's life cycle, wafting back and forth on the wind, utterly dependent upon making a lucky landing on a specific plant.

You'd have to see a cedar tree full of these otherworldly orange-tentacled galls to dream that such a thing could exist. After I had taken my photograph, I stood there on the path shaking my head in astonishment. Vital dust, indeed!

And for another amazing story of life's resilience, go here. I was in Indiana once when the 17-year cicadas emerged from the ground. It was something to behold.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

To know thyself

This morning's Musing looks back with affection to a book published exactly 100 years ago, Edmund Gosse's Father and Son, that captures within the soul of a single family an important aspect of the cultural wars raging in America today.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday gift.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The actual world

Books about Thoreau have become something of a cottage industry in recent years. Now comes David Robinson's Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism. Robinson, a Professor of English at Oregon State University, does not add a lot that we didn't already know about the so-called hermit of Walden, but he puts a twist on the story that reminds us just why this guy with the Abe Lincoln beard and melancholy gaze continues to intrigue us these many years on.

Well, I can't speak for others, but I keep returning to Thoreau because he was the first to teach me that one can have religion without the supernatural and science without scientism. And this is exactly what Robinson's title is all about.

Upon his return from his week-long boating trip on the Concord River with brother John, Thoreau resolved to change the way he lived. He wrote: "Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. Man would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him. He needs not only to be spiritualized but naturalized, on the soil of the earth."

In seeking a "natural life," Thoreau meant to live as part of an organic whole, not separate from nature, not clinging to the divine like a helpless child, but as the sturdy elm about which the vine clings. He shunned talk of immaterial souls, and, like Whitman, stood in awe of the body. "Talk of mysteries! -- Think of our life in nature, -- daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, -- rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact!"

The actual world! The world of common sense and the common senses. The world he could touch, and taste, and see, and hear, and smell. This is where he would encounter the divine -- in the wind on his cheek.

He took scientists to task too. He did not reject science; he read and approved of Darwin's great book, for example. But he feared that in their experimental rigor scientists would lose sight of the organicity of nature. He was not a romantic in the mold of Wordsworth or Goethe; he relished knowing the secret inner workings of nature that science reveals. But the natural life he sought would not be found on the lab bench, or under the dissector's knife, but in silence, solitude, and reverie.

Thoreau was smart enough to know that science cannot be done while sauntering in moonlight, his own favorite activity. By definition, science is a matter of reduction and dissection. A scientist cannot lead a "natural life" as a scientist. But a scientist can live a natural life as a woman or a man.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Seven Rules for Believing

The first bluebird hatchlings along the Path, four tiny fuzzballs.

I was reading again recently Richard Dawkins' letter to his daughter Juliet on her tenth birthday, urging her to avoid tradition, authority and revelation as reasons for believing. Ask for evidence, he writes -- evidence that is at least potentially available to all. Good advice, and I wouldn't mind passing on Dawkins' letter to my own children or grandchildren.

But there is further advice I would add.

A week or so ago I proposed here Four Rules of Rational Thinking, and had some savvy comments by readers. Let me now propose Seven Rules of Believing that I would offer for the consideration of young people.

1. Respect what your parents and teachers tell you, but keep an open mind.

2. Be skeptical of anything told you by people who are themselves not a little bit skeptical. Be especially skeptical of anything told you by people who believe they know the mind of God.

3. Trust science as a reliable guide to truth, but attend to poets too. Every "fact" is an open door to mystery.

4. Be willing to say "I don't know."

5. Don't be afraid to say "I was wrong."

6. Keep a sense of humor.

7. Respect the beliefs of others, in so far as they are willing to respect your beliefs.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hooke's flea

Telescopes and microscopes get ever bigger and more expensive. NASA is now planning the James Webb Space Telescope as a replacement for the Hubble. Its light-gathering mirrors will be seven times bigger than its predecessor. The Webb will let astronomers study the universe at ever greater distances from Earth, and therefore at earlier moments in the universe's history. Meanwhile, CERN's Large Hadron Collider will come on line next year, the biggest, most powerful particle accelerating machine ever. The LHC is a microscope of sorts, enabling physicists to observe fragments of subatomic matter that existed only in the instantaneous aftermath of the Big Bang. The Webb and the LHC are multibillion dollar projects.

Let us not forget, however, Hooke's flea. Robert Hooke was one of the first to use a microscope to extend the human visual sense. He recounted his observations in a delightful book, Micrographia, published in 1660, with illustrations of the things he studied -- seeds, hairs, plant cells, snowflakes, mites, flies, chiggers -- none more wonderful to behold than a big, fold-out drawing of a flea.

A flea! With shining armor like a knight, bristles like a porcupine, and legs like cocked springs. "The truth is," writes Hooke in his preface, "the science of nature has been already too long made only a work of the brain and the fancy: It is now high time that it should return to the plainness and soundness of observations on material and obvious things." In other words, no more disquisitions on angels dancing on the heads of pins. Attend instead to the fleas dancing on a dog's back.

Hooke was the first Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society, whose motto was "Take no one's word." The "no one" included the authors of holy books, popes, archbishops, Aristotlean philosophers, King Charles, and anyone else who laid claim to authority in matters of knowing. Henceforth reproducible experimental observation would be the gold standard of truth.

As we gush at the spectacular beauty of the new "Hubble's Ten Best," mind the flea, and the humble beginnings of a powerful way of knowing.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Seventy years old, still learning to see

About midway along my Path between home and college, a plank footbridge crosses the Queset Brook. Here the stream widens and purls beneath the bridge, and here I'm inclined to sit, feet dangling, and idle away my time.
See here the diving beetle split
flat on the underside like a peachpit

and kindergarten blue the frail
biplanes of dragonflies touch head to tail...
The surface of the dawdling brook provides no end of entertainment as it makes its way lazily to the sea. The water moves on, the creatures keep their places in sun or shadow.
...and water measurers on jury-rigged
legs dent the surface film and whirligigs

crowblack and paddlefooted spin clock-
wise and counter- somehow locked

in circus circles...
All this black water pumped up into the atmosphere by sunlight to fall as rain. Just a few miles north of here a resistant granite ridge separates two watersheds. Every drop of rain the falls north of the ridge ends up in Boston Harbor. Every drop of rain that falls south of the ridge glides under my feet.
...and backswimmers all
trim as college racing shells

row trailing their four eyes upside down...
Energy from a star 93 million miles away falls on the sea, lifts molecules into the air, and drives the rivers of the atmosphere that carry the water over the land, the great cycling engine of star and planet, water and air. And life.
...and mayflies seek the undersides of stones

to squirt their eggs in rows as straight as corn
and only after clamber out to drown...
And I sit with my feet dangling an inch or two above the water and I'm reading a poem called Creatures from Maxine Kumin's Up Country, a fine book of verse from a fine New England poet that has spent so much time in my backpack that it is falling apart, and still, although I call myself a naturalist, trained in science to be a careful observer, I learn from a poet how to see.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Subtlety

I suppose I should read Walter Isaacson's new biography of Einstein, which sits on top of the NYT Bestseller List, but, lordy, I have read so many biographies of Einstein I'm not sure there is room in my brain for another. My favorite is Abraham Pais's Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (Oxford University Press, 1982)

Einstein said: "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." And when you think about it, it is indeed remarkable that a mass of nerve fibers the size of a softball can comprehend the cosmos -- hundreds of billions of galaxies with a 15 billion year history. Of course, some softball-sized masses of nerve fibers are more remarkable than others. Einstein proposed "laws of nature" so remote from ordinary experience that a generation passed before experiments could be devised to decisively test them.

Let me mention just one experimental confirmation of Einstein's theory of general relativity.

At the end of a star's life, gravity causes the star to collapse upon itself. Stars rather more massive than the sun are squeezed so strongly by gravity that even atoms are collapsed; electrons are squeezed into protons to create neutrons. Such an object will be about as big as the state of Rhode Island, and spinning extremely rapidly for the same reason a ice skater spins more rapidly when she draws in her arms closer to her axis of spin. Radiation from the whirling star is emitted as a beam and observed in pulses, like light from a rotating lighthouse lamp. These collapsed stars are called neutron stars or pulsars. The first pulsar was observed in 1967. Today, thousands of them are known. Their pulses of radiation are as exact as the best atomic clocks on Earth.

One pulsar, called PSR 1913+16, is part of a binary system -- two stars locked in a whirling dance. Einstein's theory predicts that two masses revolving about each other will emit gravitational waves, in the same way that oscillating electric charges emit radio waves. We do not have the technology to detect these gravitational waves, but they should carry energy away from the rotating star system and the flash rate of the pulsar should slow down. Astronomers have been observing the binary pulsar for 30 years, and the slowdown is exactly as predicted by Einstein's theory. The agreement is breathtakingly precise.

A collapsed star thousands of light-years away flashes precisely as predicted by equations dreamed up by Einstein long before pulsars were discovered. Nothing is more incomprehensible than that this should be true.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The small still voice

When you hear a loud noise, it is usually associated with destruction: tornado, tsunami, hurricane, bulldozer, chain saw, snowmobile, gunshot, war. Creation takes place in silence.

Listen! What do you hear? The spider weaving its silken snare. The bluebird laying her eggs. The fiddleheads along the brook unrolling their green scarves. The petals from the pear trees blowing like confetti on the wind. The paired leaves of the wild-lily-of-the-valley shouldering aside the leaf litter on the forest floor. What's that, you say? You don't hear a thing? My point exactly.

"The still small voice is the voice of life and growth and perpetuity," said John Burroughs. I went one fine spring day to the place where John Burroughs is buried, on a rural hillside in the Catskills. There was not a sound, not even the hum of a car on a distant road. And all around me nature was building a grand creation called summer -- in utter silence.

The longing for the dance

The poet Stanley Kunitz died last year at the poetic age of 100. Late in his career, as he drifted like most of us into sentimentality and reminiscence, he wrote these lines in a poem called Touch Me:
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
My friend Bluebird Bob invited me along the other day as he checked the nesting boxes in Sheep Pasture. He has quite a number of eggs this season, small and blue in their cups of grass. He said, "You know, although I have been doing this for many years, I'm still moved almost to tears each spring when it happens all over again." For Bob, it is a confirmation of his faith in God. I respect that, and certainly Bob's dedication to the bluebirds has about it a touch of the divine. If one dropped the anthropomorphic personhood implied in his belief, I could almost concur.

Call it God, if you wish. Or call it desire, desire, desire.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Wright stuff

Joseph Wright of Derby is not nearly as well know as he should be. He had a knack for artificial light and wizards, more than a century before the Wizard of Menlo Park. See this week's Musing.

You will note that the Gallery is back. Thanks,Tom.

Anne's Mother's Day offering contains at least one mother. The other half is yours truly. Click to enlarge.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Colonizing cyberspace

The Wall Street Journal had an article the other day about Googling one's name. It seems people are increasingly distraught when their name gets lost among a myriad of others. Pity poor James Smith. Parents, it seems, will now run a new offspring's prospective name through the search engine to make sure it's unique. No point saddling a child of the Google Age with a place on hit page 631. If you have a common surname like Smith, then name the kid Dishikalina.

There is a bit of a problem, however. It seems that acceptance in business or politics has long depended on a nice white-bread name. If a recruiter is going to choose between Jane or Dishikalina, well, you know who'll get the job. All other things being equal, would you be more likely to vote for John Carter (1,080,000 hits) or Chester Figgbottom (0 hits)? Maybe Barack Obama's success (3,890,000 hits) will change things.

For the moment, Hillary Clinton (4,070,000 hits) beats out Obama, but then she had a head start. "John Edwards" (4,910,000 hits) trumps Hillary, but you can be sure that a lot of those John Edwardses aren't the candidate himself.

Only one of my six grandchildren is unique on Google, and she is helped by the Raymo surname. As far as I know, I'm the only Chet Raymo in the world. And probably the only Chester Theodore Raymo in the universe.

(Tom and I will both be on the road tomorrow. As compulsive as I am, I'll take the day off. See you Sunday.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Shaving with Ockham's Razor

Brownie, dwarf, elf, Zeus, enchantress, crop circles, genie, gnome, goblin, gremlin, hob, imp, leprechaun, UFO, mermaid, seraphim, unicorn, nymph, puck, siren, angel, sprite, demon, phantom, Osiris, poltergeist, virgin birth, spoon bending, Bigfoot, revenant, shade, shadow, Leviathan, levitation, soul, specter, spirit, ghoul, vampire, wraith, zombie, astrologer, seventy-two virgins, Athena, streets of gold, banshee, augur, auspex, miracle, clairvoyant, diviner, limbo, druid, dowser, fortuneteller, Beelzebub, dryad, haruspex, pyramid power, horoscopist, magus, medium, Thor, tarot, oracle, palmist, card reader, seer, sibyl, griffin, soothsayer, sorcerer, tea-leaf reader, witch, wizard, astrologer, augurer, answered prayer, Eros, clairvoyant, werewolf, transubstantiation, conjurer, diviner, enchanter, dragon, god, goddess, fortune teller, alien abduction, magician, ESP, magus, Cupid, alchemy, necromancer, Grendel, fairy, thaumaturge, warlock, witch, Elysium, Shangri-la, Holy Trinity, dreamland, perpetual motion, enchantment, fairyland, crystaline spheres, pearly gates, promised land, the Rapture, voodoo.

THE 4 RULES OF RATIONAL THINKING

Do not use more when less will suffice.

Prefer the probable to the improbable.

Do not evoke the exotic when the commonplace will do.

Be prepared to admit you are wrong.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Signum sacro sanctum efficax gratiae

It's that time of year again. My phoebe is back to her old nest in the root cellar. Five tiny white eggs, one a day, like cluckwork. Now she sits, and resists the intrusions of cowbirds and me. The male hangs about, proprietary, but not inclined to share the chore of incubation.

I suppose I am destined by my upbringing to experience the world sacramentally. In Catholic theology, a sacrament is an outward sign of invisible grace, instituted by God for our sanctification. Here is a paragraph from the Catholic Encyclopedia web page on sacraments:
The reasons underlying a sacramental system are as follows: Taking the word "sacrament" in its broadest sense, as the sign of something sacred and hidden (the Greek word is "mystery"), we can say that the whole world is a vast sacramental system, in that material things are unto men the signs of things spiritual and sacred, even of the Divinity.
It's a simple and elegant formulation, which translates readily enough to religious naturalism: Every object of the natural world bears within itself a mostly hidden relationship to every other object. In attending to these webs of relationship we integrate ourselves more fully into the fabric of the universe. Grace, in this sense, is that which enables us to live gracefully.

Unfortunately, this valuable insight into our deepest spiritual longings is -- in typical Catholic fashion -- lost in a stultifying gobbledygook of theological flimflam (see the rest of the linked article). My phoebe reduces the nit-picking of the theologians to absurdity with her deeply mysterious ability to find her old nest, lay and incubate her eggs, and, for a few weeks in May, become an outward sign of the inward grace that lifts my daily walk out of the ordinary.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

...of elements and an angelic sprite


Let me say a few words about another painting that came up in a conversation lately, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini ("Behold the handmaid of the Lord"), painted in 1850. (Click - and again - to enlarge.)

The theme, the Annunciation, was a common one (scroll down for gallery) in Late Medieval and Renaissance art. Rossetti has adopted many of the conventions of that time, but given them a new interpretation.

In the earlier paintings, Mary is generally portrayed as a mature woman, up and about, dressed for the business of the day in red and blue. She is slightly abashed by the words of the angel, but usually appears as if she were expecting the message and accepts her fate with equanimity.

Rossetti's virgin is a young girl, perhaps just woken from sleep, in her night clothes of virginal white. The traditional red is seen here as an embroidery hanging on a folded embroidery frame (we have seen it before in an earlier Rossetti work, The Girlhood of Mary). A blue screen is in the background, and a blue sky.

The lilies, the white dove, and the just extinguished candle (here a wall sconce) are all Medieval and Renaissance conventions.

Something new is going on here.

The angel Gabriel is a slightly androgynous young man, wingless, naked beneath his simple gown. He hovers just above the floor on fiery feet. The stem of the lilies points to Mary's womb. Here are the usual three blossoms, representing, presumably, the Trinity, but one of them is still in bud.

Mary is -- well, you tell me. She seems to be looking at something -- a hint of angelic tumescence? -- that Gabriel's turned posture does not allow us to see. She is aroused, embarrassed, fearful. She doesn't seem to have a clue that she is being invited to be the mother of God.

We are a long way here from the Age of Faith. We are witnessing a very modern drama, one that has less to do with the salvation of the world that working out the tangled scripts of Rossetti's -- and our -- psychosexuality.

If yesterday's Pontormo painting anticipated Copernicus, Vesalius and Agricola, this 1850 work of Rossetti anticipates Darwin and Freud. If we want to understand the painting, it is not to the theology that we must turn, but to evolutionary psychology.

In her big fruitcake of a book, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia has a lot to say about Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite "decadence" (although, curiously, she does not mention this early painting). She does mention the influence on Rossetti of "Italian Catholicism's vestigial paganism," and I think here she is close to the mark. In its sacramental colors and symbols, its frank sensuality, and its mythic interpretation of dreams, Rossetti's Annunciation -- this very Catholic painting -- takes us away from the supernatural drama of sin and salvation and back to the forest groves and caves where our neural circuitry acquired its primal wiring.

Monday, May 07, 2007

"New philosophy calls all in doubt..."


Here is a painting that has long intrigued me, The Entombment by Jacopo Carucci, known as Pontormo, an altarpiece in Santa Felicita, Florence, painted about 1528. (You can click to enlarge.)

There are many things that are striking about the painting, which shows Christ being taken from the place of crucifixion to the tomb, mourned by his mother. The colors are Day-Glo vivid, atypical for the time. The composition is highly unusual; a circular swirl with an empty center -- or rather, nothing at the center but a rag. The artist has sketched himself incongruously at Mary's left. And look at the faces! The haunted and haunting expressions! What do they register? Fright? Pity? Uncertainty? Doubt? These are not the faces of souls saved from sin by the sacrifice of the Son of God. These are deer caught in the headlights of an onrushing cultural transformation.

This is the end of the Age of Faith and the beginning of the Age of Reason.

As Pontormo paints, Copernicus is preparing his revolutionary work that will move the Earth from the center of the universe. Vesalius has begun the studies that will lead in a few years to his great work on human anatomy. Georg Agricola is compiling his scientific survey of technology.

Florence is in turmoil, the Protestant Reformation in full swing, and Pontormo himself -- always melancholy -- teeters on the brink of neurosis.

That empty center! The Earth sent spinning into orbit. The human body flayed by Vesalius, a soulless machine of flesh and blood like the pumps and engines of Agricola. It must have been a frightening time, as one world comes to an end and another is struggling to be born.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Till we found a sea of green...

Everyone of us has all we need,
Sky of blue and sea of green,
In our yellow submarine.


See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday art.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

With progeny, it's hodge-podgenee

Plant a radish.
Get a radish.
Never any doubt.
That's why I love vegetables;
You know what you're about!
We were talking last evening about the next generations -- our four children, the six grandchildren -- their likenesses and differences. The family resemblances are uncanny, but every member of the family is unique. You would recognize any one of them if you met him or her anywhere in the world.

Six-and-a-half billion individually recognizable human beings.

Which made me wonder: Why so much variability among the human species? Every robin looks (to me) like every other robin. Every Canada goose like every other Canada goose. Jane Goodall notwithstanding, every chimp looks like every other chimp. Dogs are bred into a bewildering variety of breeds, but within a breed -- well, I couldn't tell one collie from another.

Perhaps some of this is psychological. It used to be a cliche among Westerners that "all Orientals look alike," and I wouldn't doubt that Orientals said the same thing about Westerners. Dian Fossey claims to have recognized every gorilla among her subjects, so familiarity may be a big part of it.

And among humans, variations of grooming, makeup and clothing contribute to individual uniqueness.

But still, it seems to me that our species is exceptionally variable, which is what makes possible the art of caricature, and why People and Us magazines are so popular. Has anyone discussed this scientifically? Does consciousness drive selection of surficial diversity? Why don't we look as much alike as a flock of geese?

Whether or not we are more individually diverse than other species, and whatever the explanation, we revel in the utter uniqueness of each child and grandchild. We're glad we're not vegetables. Plant a radish, get a radish, but...
...with children,
It's bewilderin'.
You don't know until the seed is nearly grown
Just what you've sown.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Hidden wells

(Paul asks if I have seen the green flash, the object of a quest I wrote about in Honey From Stone and Natural Prayers. By way of answer, let me post part of a Globe column from 1999. The flash is a brief blaze of green light sometimes seen just as the Sun rises or sets. I have left out the details of my search, and the scientific explanation of the flash; for that, you can go to one of the books.)

EXUMA, Bahamas - Morning. The sky mostly clear to the far horizon, just a few wisps of cloud far out there over the sea where the Sun will soon rise. The air is tinged pink, orange and yellow, like layers of sugar icing on the turquoise sea.

Rays stream upward -- faint vees of light defining the place where the Sun will appear. I wait, as I have waited in similar circumstances for 34 years, at sunrise and sunset, over seas and deserts, on three continents, in all seasons, north and south of the equator. For the green flash.

I have waited and watched so many times without success that the waiting and watching has become an end in itself, a quiet time to experience the beauty of sunrise or sunset, a time to reflect upon all in the world that is inexplicable, ineffable, beyond our ken.

A time of prayer to the Deus absconditus -- the hidden God.

And now -- just now -- the disk of the Sun bubbles up on the horizon. And suddenly I am startled as the top of the disk turns emerald green -- a brilliant, blazing color like none I have seen before.

The object of all that searching, found at last.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince told his pilot: "What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well." The green flash was my hidden well. So I am a little disappointed to have seen it, but glad too. "What's the use of praying if God does not answer?" asked the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich. If waiting and watching for the green flash for 34 years was a kind of prayer, I've had my answer.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

And speaking of John Muir...

When our webmaster Tom was twelve years old, or so, and living with us abroad, he acquired a voluminous collection of the British comic 2000 A.D., in which the formidable Judge Dredd held violent sway. And a really nasty character he was, in a comic of such extreme scuzziness as to make Batman and Captain Marvel look like Disney concoctions.

Dredd is the law, so to speak: judge, jury and executioner rolled into one. He lives in a place called Mega-City One, a sprawling metropolis on the eastern seaboard of the former United States, where people are housed in skyscraping City Blocks by the tens of thousands. Beyond the city limits is the Cursed Earth, a wasteland inhabited by assorted slimeballs and technomutants who move about in ghastly punk-tech machines.

I occasionally perused those comics, if only because I had a sense the Cursed Earth might be just around the corner.

I was right. It is here.

It used to be that we could escape from the noise and congestion of the city into the tranquility of unspoiled countryside. A day at the beach. A walk in the woods. A bicycle spin down peaceful lanes.

No more. The ghastly punk-tech machines are everywhere.

Highest on the list of offenders are the jet-skis, earsplitting Dreddnoughts of coastal waters and inland lakes. Last summer in Ireland I watched buzzing swarms of these wretched things drive terrified young swimmers onto the sand. "See me! see me!" the infernal engines shriek, "I'm young, I'm male, I'm Judge Dredd, and I don't give a bokk whose afternoon at the beach I ruin."

Almost as bad are the snowmobiles. Fresh soft snow. Pine boughs dipping under pristine burdens. Blessed silence. Then -- VROOOOM! VRRMMMMM! Fleets of gasoline-powered peace shatterers, judge, jury and executioner, dsytopian violators of the winter woods.

Two-, three- and four-wheeled ATVs, all-terrain vehicles, and I do mean all. Mountains, deserts, dunes, forests, meadows -- no place is safe from these earth-gouging robo-toys for boys of all ages. Even my beloved Path, posted to machines of any sort, was violated the other day by a teen on an ATV.

OK, I'm being crotchety, but the battle lines are drawn between Thoreauvian conservationists and the Dreddful technomutants. It's a fight for the last remnants of organic wildness. The wind in the willows vs. the infernal combustion engine. Walden Pond vs. the Cursed Earth.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A walk of a thousand miles begins with...

I mentioned yesterday John Muir's "thousand mile walk" across the Southeastern United States, as a young man in his twenties. It was not just a trek of physical discovery; it was also a journey away from the strict and humorless Presbyterianism of his father's household into a joyously agnostic pantheism.

What had begun to impress itself on Muir's consciousness was the extent to which humans make God in their own image. In his journal he wrote: "[God] is regarded as a civilized, law-abiding gentleman in favor of either a republican form of government or of a limited monarchy; believes in the literature and language of England; is a warm supporter of the English constitution and Sunday schools and missionary societies." Such a God is as purely a manufactured product "as any puppet of a half-penny theater," he wrote.

A corollary of the penny-puppet God was the idea that everything in creation was made for "Lord Man." Sheep were made for woolen clothing; whales for lamp oil; pine forests for timber for houses; iron for hammers and plows. As John Muir tramped his thousand miles he discovered a world whose glory did not require man for its definition: "Nature's object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one."

On encountering a palmetto for the first time he wrote: "They tell us that plants are perishable, soulless creatures, that only man is immortal, etc.; but this, I think, is something that we know very nearly nothing about. Anyhow, this palm was indescribably impressive and told me grander things than I ever got from human priest."

All of this may sound self-evident to many of us, but for Muir it was an awakening to a immanent Deity that was commensurate with a creation of which we "know very nearly nothing." It was also the beginning of an education that would make John Muir one of the founders of environmentalism in America.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

To go a-sauntering

When a visitor to Wordsworth's house asked a servant to show him the poet's study, she answered, "Here is his library, but his study is out of doors."

I'm starting to feel that old wanderlust again, the need to soak up some wisdom through the souls [sic] of my feet. I weary of the library. I have the Thoreauvean itch to saunter. Saunter: from the Middle English santren, to muse.

Of course, I walk every day, some miles at least, along familiar paths. And there's nothing wrong with familiarity. Someone who read my book The Path asked me recently, "You've walked it a thousand times, doesn't it get boring." I could only smile. A walker might get boring, but a walk has an endless capacity to surprise. Thoreau said we should set out on even the shortest walk with a spirit of adventure -- with the idea that we might never return. Well, that's asking a lot, but we know what he means. Set out like explorers and we'll find something new.

But what I'm feeing now is the need to put my feet on unfamiliar soil. My tramp across England has faded. My circumnavigation of Malta is ancient history. I'm thinking Mallorca, maybe, or the levadas of Madeira. I'm too old for walking rough. When John Muir was young he threw a few things in a bag -- a change of underwear, his journal, soap, towel, comb and brush, map, and four books: Wood's Botany, The New Testament, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Burns's poems -- and walked a thousand miles across America, from Indianapolis to Florida. I require a clean bed at night, and a meal with wine in an outdoor cafe. So we are talking someplace warm and civilized, with ancient footpaths.

Walking is exercise for both body and mind. Thinking stops at any pace more accelerated than three miles per hour. I mean this more than metaphorically. I suspect that our thought processes evolved in the grasslands of East Africa to keep pace with pedal locomotion. Which may be why Wordsworth was out and about when the visitor came knocking.