Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Everything is holy

In writing my book Climbing Brandon, I drew heavily upon the work of John Carey, a scholar of early Irish Christianity at University College Cork in Ireland. According to Carey, for the early Irish Christians exceptional events do not occur because of the interventions of a supernatural being who suspends the ordinary course of things, but rather because of the astonishing (and holy) potentialities inherent in nature itself. For the authors of the early Irish Christian texts, a reluctance to believe in "the full extravagant strangeness of existence" amounted to blasphemy, say Carey.

"The full extravagant strangeness of existence." I love that phrase. It should be engraved over the door of every science building in the world. And, as a matter of fact, something similar was carved over the door of the physics building at UCLA where I spent two years as a graduate student, Michael Faraday's familiar epigram: "Nothing is too wonderful to be true."

Most religious people look for confirmation of their God in miraculous exceptions to nature's laws -- water to wine, resurrection from the dead, answered prayers, and so on. For the early Irish Christians, still in thrall to their druidic past, God was to be discovered in the extraordinary quality of ordinary events -- the rising and setting of the Sun, the call of the cuckoo, the rainbow, the aurora, the dew on the grass.

The full extravagant strangeness of existence! I was thinking of that phase a few days ago when I held the walking stick insect in my hand. Who needs miracles when every jot and tittle of existence is shot through with glory? We should walk through the world with our jaws agape, breathless, singing alleluias. What the early Irish Christians had in common with modern scientists is a willingness to admit our ignorance about the greatest mysteries, and a sense of dumbstruck awe in the presence of the commonplace.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Growing up

Two summers ago in Ireland I watched a mare give birth. Within minutes the foal was finding its legs. Soon it was scampering about. This past summer it was hard to tell the mother from her offspring.

Meanwhile, for all of that time and more, human parents would be cuddling, feeding, burping, changing diapers, and otherwise tending a child toward eventual independence. Street children in big Third World cities cannot survive on their own unless they are at least six years old. In the developed nations we continue to coddle our kids until they have made it through puberty and adolescence.

What's the deal? Why do we get stuck with such a long period of maturation on the part of our kids? Our nearest relatives, the chimps, are pretty much on their own by age 4. Female chimps are moms at 11, half the age at which the average human female breeds. Of course, chimps are dead of old age at 45, so they pay at the end for their faster start.

Paleontologists exhaustively study the fossil fragments of our humanoid ancestors, especially children, for clues to childhood. The result seems to be that our nearest ancestors were more like chimps than like modern humans in the duration of dependence. An extended childhood appears to be unique to us, and the big question is why.

One possibility is that delayed reproduction creates higher quality moms. Also, humans wean their infants twice as fast as chimps, which means human moms can pop out successive babies more quickly. No wonder then that we live so much longer that chimps and are so overwhelmingly numerous.

I would guess that prolonged childhood has more to do with the development of culture. That little foal galloping around the meadow on day two pretty much already knew all it needs to know. We are still teaching our human kids at age 20, not just stuff like speech and the three Rs, but also Shakespeare, constitutional law, computer science, and the difference between right and wrong. Perhaps extended childhood and acculturation evolved together.

By the way, I wrote last year about the Homo erectus fossil youth I called Nari, one of the most complete hominid fossil skeletons ever found. I said he was thought to be 11 or 12 years old, an estimate based on his height compared to modern humans. Now, microscopic study of Nari's tooth enamel suggests he was 8 years old. Kids grew up faster in those days.

(These thoughts inspired by an article by -- appropriately -- Ann Gibbons called The Birth of Childhood, in the November 14 issue of Science. Nari photo credit: John Gurche.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Knowing the mind of God

This photo appeared in Nature (or was it Science?) some months ago. Pope Benedict blessing Stephen Hawking on the occasion of the October meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The subject: "Scientific Insight into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life." I dragged the photo onto my desktop, where it has been sitting ever since. I know it means something. I have not been able to figure out what.

Which is to say, I've been trying to sort out my own reaction to the photo, which seems to reside somewhere between unworthy cynicism and congenial approval.

The most powerful and revered religious person on Earth laying his hand upon one of the most brilliant minds in the history of humanity -- a mind locked in a body almost totally incapacitated by motor neuron disease. Which way is the energy flowing? Or does it flow both ways? Intellectuality and spirituality meeting and merging at that spot where thumb meets forehead.

In his chair, the author of a book titled The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. Standing with his left hand on Hawking's voice synthesizer, a man who understands himself to be custodian of the essential story of the origin and fate of the universe. Both men profess to be interested in knowing the mind of God. For Benedict, God's thoughts have been revealed directly in scriptures and tradition, and it is his responsibility as successor of Peter to see that the content of revelation is transmitted intact to future generations. For Hawking, God's thoughts will be discerned with increasing clarity by the ongoing theoretical and empirical pursuits to which he has given his remarkable life.

Alas, as we know, there is an uneasy tension between the two readings of the mind of God. It would be lovely if we could forego all claims to knowing God's mind, and discern in the photograph a complete circle from pope's right hand to Hawking's mind to Hawking's voice-synthesizing computer to the pope's left hand to the pope's mind -- always-advancing empirical cosmology circling endlessly with the Christian message of human love.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Is infallibility a virtue?

See this week's Musing. Expect Anne on New Year's Day.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Where's Waldo

This morning I posted a pic of a walking stick. He (she?) must have been a juvenile, 'cause look at what I have now. This one is still alive and well and released to the wild. What grabby legs he has. When on my shirt, impossible to pull off.

Give that man a new drawing table

Gabriel: Your Divine Excellency, you may remember a fellow who showed up here seventeen years ago by the name of Theodor Geisel. Calls himself Dr. Seuss.

God: Well, of course I remember him. I remember everyone, in all 100 billion galaxies. I'm omniscient, you know.

Gabriel: Yes, Sir. Of course. Anyway, this guy Geisel has some artistic talent so we assigned him to Earth Design, Animalia, in the Arthropoda department.

God: I love that department! I have a particular fondness for beetles. Have this Geisel fellow design me some beetles.

Gabriel: I suggested beetles, Sir, but he has come up with something so phantasmagorical I decided I better run it past you. Have a look. (He opens a box.)

God: A stick? I though you said Animalia, not Plantae.

Gabriel: Not a stick, Sir. It's an insect.

God: No kidding, let me have a closer look. (He peers.) This fellow Geisel has a sense of humor, doesn't he? I doubt if even I could have come up with this.

Gabriel: It has certain advantages, Sir. For the insect, I mean. It is virtually invisible when perched on a bush. Invisible to predators.

God: But I love seeing my creatures eat one another. Tooth and claw, and all that.

Gabriel: Yes, I know, Sir. But this adds a bit of fun to the chase. Or so says Geisel.

God: And look. The "stem" is brown and the "twigs" are green. How cunning!

Gabriel: Just like a real bush.

God: What does he propose to call it?

Gabriel: A walking stick. (Chuckles.) But I think something like Phasmatodea is rather more dignified.

God: I like it, I like it. One of the more intelligent designs we've seen from that department. I think it's a keeper.

Friday, December 26, 2008

What is it about tomatoes?

There's something about growing tomatoes that's different than growing onions, say, or green peppers. It must be that brilliant bloom of red -- tomato red -- amidst the green. Those little buds of improbable color that swell into fat crimson globes. And for no other reason, apparently, than that we can argue about whether they are fruits or vegetables.

The first thing I do when I arrive on the island is acquire a half dozen tomato plants, usually from Marco the nurseryman, but this year from the friend of a friend. Then fill the pots with last year's compost and potting soil from Marco. Nothing but sand on our scruffy acre.

All of which I mention so that I can recommend Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, a thick compendium of everything a curious and scientifically-inclined person would want to know about food. My wife has her Fanny Farmer and Julia Child. I have my McGee.

So I know that tomatoes started out as small, bitter berries growing on bushes in the west coast deserts of South America, that they were domesticated in Mexico (the name comes from the Aztec term for "plump fruit", tomatl, and that Europeans were slow to adopt them because of their resemblance to deadly nightshade, a poisonous plant. In fact, tomatoes are in the nightshade family, plants that stockpile chemical defenses, mostly bitter alkaloids. It took many generations of selective breeding to render tomatoes harmless.

Do you want to know what chemicals give tomatoes their flavor? McGee has it all. He'll tell you too the chemical reason why vine ripened tomatoes are more favorable than the ones you buy at the supermarket. So what? you say. Shut up an eat. Not me. I love knowing the secret history of what goes into my mouth. Where it came from. What it's related to. And why a particular arrangement of atoms -- carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, almost entirely -- stuck together like Tinker Toys, accounts for the flavors we enjoy. Citrus. Eucalyptus. Mint. Clove. Cinnamon. Anise. Vanilla. Thyme. Oregano. Tarragon. My wife has her herb garden. I have McGee's lovely diagrams of organic compounds.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas...from Anne

(Click, and then again, to enlarge)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas all year

I was out for a walk a few weeks ago, in the late autumn woods, and saw what I thought was some sort of white fungus growing on the branch of a shrubby tree. I snapped off a twig and looked closely.

It wasn't a fungus at all. It was white cotton, like Q-tip fuzz. Wiggling in a nonexistent breeze.

I pinched off a tuft and took out my pocket magnifier. Beneath the fuzz was a tiny bug, the size of a pinhead. Six little legs thrashing the air. On the bug's back were a bunch of spigots, extruding strands of white cotton.

Woolly aphids. That's what they were. They suck sap to grow and to spin the cotton-candy fluff with which they adorn themselves.

Why, Santa? Why would such a thing evolve? I can't think of any advantage that an inconspicuous bug would gain by accentuating its visibility to predators with a pompom of cotton. I'd love to ask my youngest grandchildren what they think. Kids have nifty insights.

Next year, bring my grandkids woolly aphids.

Farther along the path I found a colony of polyporus versicolor. Turkey tails, we call them. They are mushrooms, one of those fungi that grow like little shelves on rotting trees. But this particular colony, on a spiky bit of wood, looked just like a flock of miniature turkeys. Necks up, tails spread. You could almost hear them gobble.

The grandkids would have loved it, Santa. Bring them turkey tails.

I heard and saw lots of other things the kids might like. The tunk- tunk of downy woodpeckers, and tippity-tap of nuthatches. What looked like pine cones on the tips of willow twigs that were actually insect galls. The velvety "cat ears" of the common mullein's winter rosette.

When I got back from my walk I had to pick burs off my sweater. Burdock burs. Each spiky sphere had a tiny hook at the end of each spike, and a sheath containing a seed. When I pulled a bur off my sweater, the sheath separated and spilled a seed. And that's how burdock get around. Burs are great fun to toss at a friend's clothing. All those tiny Velcro hooks. Bring my grandkids burdock burs.

But keep it under your fur-trimmed hat. My name would be mud if the grandkids knew it was me that caused their stockings to be filled with woolly aphids, turkey tails and burdock burs.

And listen, Santa. Keep those presents coming right through the year. Snow fleas. Skunk cabbage. Red-winged blackbirds. Mourning cloak butterflies. Pussy willows. Ladyslippers. Whirligig beetles. Dragonflies. Orioles and bluebirds. The summer Milky Way. The caterpillar of the luna moth. Garter snakes. Goldenrod galls. Rattleweed. Perseid meteors. Ripe milkweed pods. Woolly bears. British soldier and pixie cup lichens. Snowflakes. Orion. And those big six-foot icicles that hang from leaky gutters.

I can't promise the kids will be pleased. Mattel and Hasbro have huge advertising budgets. But I know a few things about which those big companies haven't a clue. Like what can be found inside those mysterious green spheres that grow on oak leaves. And what will happen when you touch the seedpods of jewelweed. And how to get a praying mantis to perch on your finger.

It's all free, Santa. It won't cost a dime

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The evolution of rocks

This wonderfully diverse planet we live on began as a rather homogeneous conglomeration of minerals in the pre-solar nebula, an inventory not unlike what falls from the sky as meteorites. Inanimate, almost certainly, although I suppose it is not impossible that some sort of living spore arrived on or with the early Earth from elsewhere.

The primeval Earth was hot from the energy of its gravitational formation and radioactivity, hot enough that its minerals were molten. As the planet cooled, only a few basic minerals condensed from the magma, such as feldspar and olivine. As the Earth continued to cool, elements formed more "picky" mineral structures and combinations, such as clay and zeolites. All of this is pretty straight forward: elements find their way into chemical combination and crystalline structures depending on the ambient temperature, pressure, and so on. So, in a certain sense, minerals "evolved" as the planet cooled.

This inanimate "evolution" was discussed recently by Robert M. Hazen, et. all. in American Mineralogist, and summarized by Minik Rosing in Nature (November 27). The next big step was the origin of life, which may have required a mineral template such as clay. As living organisms evolved, still other minerals appeared on the scene as by byproducts of life, such as aragonite (in animal skeletons), gypsum (drywalls) and hematite (red paint). As life diversified, so did the mineral inventory of the planet.

All those years ago when I lived next door to the Geological Museum in London, I spent many happy hours drifting among the cases of minerals -- the inanimate substance of the Earth -- as even now I am browsing my Larousse Guide to Minerals, Rocks and Fossils. Gorgeous stuff! Native elements -- gold, silver, copper, iron. Combinations of elements in crystalline arrays, glittering in their jewel-like shapes. Gemstones. Geodes. Agates. And the colors! Erythrite. Turquoise. Jasper. Jade.

I hadn't thought much about it before, how the mineral composition of the Earth diversified according to temperature, pressure, and chemical and biological environment from the relative humdrum uniformity of meteorites. Whether evolution is the right word for this process of diversification I'll leave to the geologists to debate (Rosing would reserve the term for its biological meaning). Gnomic artificers in their underground halls could not arrange a more splendidly beautiful stage for the drama of life.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Le rayon bleu?

I am writing this yesterday, Sunday. I have just come back from watching sunrise on the beach. The Sun rose at 6:41 AM. The winter solstice was at 7:04 AM. So I was watching the Sun rise at almost exactly its southernmost point along the horizon. Tomorrow it will begin its long crawl back to the north.

From where I stood in front of the house, the Sun rose just at the beacon monument on the highest point of Stocking Island, the outer barrier of Georgetown Harbor, about nine miles away. It was almost as if that pillar of stone had been erected for me, as a marker for the solstice. There is no marker at the northern end of the Sun's horizon crawl, only flat sea.

Our island lies athwart the Tropic of Cancer. At the summer solstice the Sun tracks exactly overhead, beating down like a hammer. We'll be long gone by then.

I watch, every morning, because it is the most magical time of the day, because its fun to watch the Sun creep along the barrier islands near Georgetown, and because I am always anticipating the green flash, le rayon vert, that sudden blink of emerald light at the moment the Sun breaks the horizon (or sinks below it), a trick of scattering, absorption, and refraction. As readers of Honey from Stone and Natural Prayers will know, I searched for it for years, from three continents, morning and evening, on desert horizons and sea horizons, unsuccessfully. And now, with so many sunrises over so flat a horizon, the gift of green has become almost commonplace.

In his masterful book The Nature of Light and Color in the Open Air, M. Minnaert mentions the even rarer possibility of a blue, or even violet flash. I suppose I have that to look for, although after so many hundreds of sunrises I'm beginning to wonder if even Minnaert had seen it. Has anyone reading here ever seen a flash of blue?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A mouse in the house

Anne will be with us on Christmas day. The mouse, hopefully, will be gone. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Entangled minds

A fine new book by Louisa Gilder called The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn. Entanglement is that mysterious property of two or more bits of matter or light behaving, though separated, as if they were intimately and instantaneously connected -- a kind of spooky action-at-a-distance that seems to lie at the heart of the universe. Imagine human twins separated at birth and taken to different continents. Pinch one twin, and the other twin jumps, instantly. The effect is "non-local" -- that is, it happens faster than the speed of light and without the agency of any known species of causality. Physicists have been trying to "understand" entanglement for nearly a century. What it means for you and I and the evolution of the universe remains unknown. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything,

Quantum theory is astonishingly successful, predicting the results of certain subtle experiments with exquisite precision. But what -- pray -- does it "mean," and why does it seem so counterintuitive. Can a "thing" really be in two places at once? How does one particle of a pair that has once interacted "know" what is happening to its separated cousin across the universe? And where, if anywhere, is the boundary between the quantum world of atomic particles and photons and the classical world of pebbles, planets, and people?

The entanglement story is well told by Gilder. What is really interesting about her book is the story of how cutting-edge physics works, with clever like minds from around the world finding each other and pushing things forward by mutual inspiration, often as commonplace as a chat over beer.

My friend and colleague Mike Horne figures prominently in Gilder's book, as one of the authors of the famous GHZ paper of 1988 that showed when three particles are entangled, then entanglement is decisively demonstrated by a single measurement. By contrast, when two particles are entangled many thousands of measurements are required to be decisive. The paper is widely cited in all present work on entanglement.

As long as I have known Mike -- and that goes back before GHZ -- I've seen him using every minute between teaching classes and helping students with a yellow legal pad and sharp pencil figuring out the secrets of the universe. What a thing it is that one can do such things with a pad and pencil. Of course, once the theoretician has an idea what can be done, it's up to the experimentalist to do it. Every theoretical idea must be put to the test of observation. And every test of entanglement seems to demonstrate its perplexing reality.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend

There is that special moment on the beach each morning when the Sun explodes out of the sea and the sky lights up in the colors of flame. It is easy then to imagine how those who lived on the shores of the Aegean Sea came to the conclusion that the world was made of earth, water, air and fire.

Four elements that in their mixing gave us cold/wet, cold/dry, hot/wet, hot/dry, and, by extension, all the other qualities and compounds of existence, including our own bodies with their various humours. It was an ingenious concept and served well for two thousand years.

As it turned out, the elements of the world are not four, but ninety-two. Still, a smallish number will serve me well on the beach at sunrise. Hydrogen for the Sun. Nitrogen and oxygen for the air. Hydrogen and oxygen for the water (ok, add some sodium and chlorine for the salt). Calcium, carbon and oxygen for the sand. And with these elements you also have the better part of me. So the Greeks in their search for simplicity were not so far off the mark.

And now we wait for the Large Hadron Collider to crank up and take us even deeper into the fundamental building blocks of matter, even close to the stark simplicity of the creation when a universe exploded into existence as even now the Sun explodes from the sea, furious and favorable, and I stop in my tracks, dig my toes into the sand against the wind-blown spray, and recite "Batter my heart four-elemented God...and bend your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

One fish, two fish...

"When we transform thoughts into speech, we do something that no other animal ever achieves." So begins a review article in Science (November 14) on the biological and neurological bases of language. And what a thing it is that I can sit here with my laptop weaving a pattern of words that has never been expressed before in the history of human language. Indeed, I can go to Goggle, and type in almost any list of ten (say) consecutive words that I have ever written -- and with this blog alone I have committed more than a million words to the web, not to mention a thousand Globe columns and I don't know how many other articles and reviews that my publishers have posted -- and -- bingo! -- there they are, uniquely identified out of upwards of 10 billion web pages.

There are about 7000 languages spoken in the world, remarkably diverse, but with deep similarities that many (most?) linguists believe are genetically based. Certainly, children learn to speak without being taught, something no chimp can do, and genes have been identified with certain language deficits. But the mystery of how thoughts get converted into meaningful strings of spoken or written words remains to be unraveled. Live scans show the brain lighting up like a Christmas tree when we express a thought. Goggle that last sentence and see how long it takes Google to index it.

If you want to appreciate the virtually infinite diversity of language, consider just this one stanza from Robert Pinsky's poem Jersey Rain:
The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather...
List those seven towns in any other order and you haven't changed the semantics, but you will certainly have changed the magical thing Pinsky is doing with words -- the end rhymes, the internal rhymes. Let those syllables roll off the tongue and you'd be reasonable to guess that you are tapping into brain structures that have to do with music too. We are a ways here from "One fish two fish red fish blue fish," but just watch those lights flashing in that astonishing few pounds of meat that is the human brain.

(BTW, in case you didn't know, this site or any site can be Google searched with this format: "search term")

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Garden School of Epicurus

So, here I am, on my island retreat. No daily paper. No television. Nothing to buy. So little to consume. One road that goes nowhere really. An acre of sandy soil that we cultivate assiduously, with so little reward. Escape? Yes. Irresponsible? To turn one's back on the strife and pandemonium of the public domain? Perhaps.

We hear much about Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum in ancient Athens, schools that emphasized engagement with the polis. We hear less about the Garden School of Epicurus. Students there actually cultivated their little plot of land beyond the city walls. They ate the fruits and vegetables they teased from the soil. In his book Gardens, Robert Pogue Harrison writes of the Epicureans:
Their garden activity was also a form of education in the ways of nature: its cycles of growth and decay, its general equanimity, its balanced interplay of earth, water, air, and sunlight. Here, in the convergence of vital forces in the garden's microcosm, the cosmos manifested its greater harmonies; here the human soul rediscovered its essential connection to matter.
The most important lesson espoused by the Epicureans is knowledge that the soul is material and mortal, and that the goal of life should be careful cultivation of an equanimity of spirit.

It is a common misconception that Epicureanism is a selfish, amoral hedonism, a Mall-of-America self-indulgence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there is a certain disengagement from the hubbub of the polis and focus on self, but only to nurture qualities of companionship, gratitude and spiritual repose. These are the sources of human happiness, the Epicureans believed, and these are fostered by a quiet attention to nature -- not the wilderness, where nature runs unruly and wild, but the garden where the mortal human soul and the immortal soul of the world exist in symbiosis.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Deck us all with Boston Charlie

For a bit of bah-humbug, see this week's Musing.

Tomorrow morning early I head off to Exuma, where there is nowhere to shop, even if one wanted to. Just jolly, Christmasy junkanoo fun. I never know what I will find there for an internet connection. I will be back with you as soon as I can.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

And if you took the synapses...

Out walking on a blustery Sunday afternoon the lyrics of a song popped into my head. I sang out loud:
If I sent a rose to you
For every time you made me blue
You'd have a room full of roses.
It must have been the early 1950s when I last heard that song, as a young teenager, probably listening to the Grand Ole Opry on my little Sears Silvertone radio. I couldn't remember who sang it, but I could hear his voice in my head.

And I fell again into one of those moments of wonderment at the seeming miracle of memory.

The lyrics, the tune, the voice. All somehow stored in my head for nearly 60 years. Along with an astonishing amount of other stuff. Experiences. Voices. Images. Learned knowledge. How? No one knows for sure.

The human brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons, and each neuron is in contact with a thousand others, more or less, through a cobwebby tangle of synapses. If we think of each connection as being "on" or "off" (a crude simplification), then we can say that the human brain stores roughly 5,000 gigabytes of information (did I do the calculation right?). The hard disk of my MacBook Pro has 186 gigabytes of memory of which I am currently using 30. I have stored a huge music collection, a few thousand photographs, and millions of words, not to mention a heap of applications. So it's no miracle to imagine all that stuff stored in the brain.

But how? With what sort of encoding? How are memories "read" without erasing? How does the brain know not to "write over" crucial memories? We know how this works in computers, but how in the brain? An article in the 4 December issue of Nature describes some of the remarkable progress researchers are making in understanding how long-term potentiation of synaptic transmission occurs. The molecular biology is breathtaking.

Where memory fails, there's always Google, the collective memory of our race. I Google "Roomful of Roses." Within a few seconds I know that all those years ago I was listening to country singer George Morgan, singing a song written in the 1940s by Tim Spencer of the Sons of the Pioneers. I close my eyes and other lyrics of the song come bubbling up out of the cobwebby neural tangle:
And if you took the petals
And you took them all apart
You'd be tearing at the roses
Just the way you tore my heart.

Friday, December 12, 2008


When Galileo discovered moons in orbit around Jupiter it was rather a big deal. In 1610 the Earth was assumed by all except a few radical Copernicans to be the unique center of the universe, expressly created by God as a stage for the human drama of sin and salvation. In 1600 Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for, among other things, teaching that the other stars were other Suns and that the universe contained a multiplicity of inhabited worlds. Galileo was lucky to have escaped the same fate.

When a few weeks ago we saw the first photographs of extrasolar planets, it created hardly a stir. For one thing, the existence of over 300 massive planets had already been indirectly deduced by their gravitational influence on their host star or by their periodic eclipsing of their host star's light. Further, we have long known that the stars are other Suns -- in virtually uncountable numbers -- and that the physics of star formation spins off planets as a matter of course. Now we have actual images of three large planets orbiting the Sunlike star HR 8799, and another large planet orbiting the somewhat bigger star Fomalhaut. We have every reason to believe that there are a trillion billion planet systems -- at least! -- in the universe.

To expect that our star system is the only one with life, or even intelligent life, would seem to be something of a stretch. If astronomers detected an intelligent extrasolar signal tomorrow, it would be a news sensation, but hardly a surprise.

Still, I think it is fair to say that psychologically most of us still live in the anthropocentric cosmos of Dante.

It is interesting to watch forward-thinking theologians grapple with the implications of multiple inhabited worlds. The problem, within a Christian perspective, has to do with the supposed uniqueness of Adam's fall into sin and the redemption of Christ. If there are other sentient beings in the universe, did they share in Adam's sin, and did they require separate acts of atonement on the part of the Redeemer? It may seem strange to many of us, but these obtuse questions have exercised theologians from Origen in the 3rd century to Karl Rahner in the 20th. A quick trip to the web turns up contemporary speculation, here and here, for example, and I remember reading a learned article on the subject by the eminent Catholic theologian Thomas O'Meara a decade or so ago.

It all seems rather a tempest in a teapot -- doing handstands and body twists to make first millennium theology mesh with third millennium science. This is the sort of intellectual acrobatics that results from committing oneself to dogmatic truth systems.

Meanwhile, we see the newly imaged planet of Fomalhaut moving along its orbit, three times more massive that Jupiter and 23 times further from its star than Jupiter is from the Sun. It is almost certainly a Jupiterlike gassy planet and unlikely to be a home for Earthlike life. But why should we expect Earthlike life? And closer to Fomalhaut there are very likely smaller, more Earthlike planets. The whole point of science is to apply our curiosity to the world and accept whatever we find. What we have found is infinitely more breathtaking than the tiny Danteesque cosmos that set the imaginative limits for the early codifiers of traditional theology.

(Photo credit: NASA, ESA, P. Kalas, J. Graham, E. Chiang, E. Kite (Univ. California, Berkeley), M. Clampin (NASA/Goddard), M. Fitzgerald (Lawrence Livermore NL), K. Stapelfeldt, J. Krist (NASA/JPL))

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gibberellin-induced DELLA recognition by the gibberellin receptor GID1

Now there's title for you. I bet you can't wait to read this post. Well, not to worry, the title is that of a featured article in the current issue of Nature, by a team researchers in Japan and North Carolina. Here is the abstract:
Gibberellins control a range of growth and developmental processes in higher plants and have been widely used in the agricultural industry. By binding to a nuclear receptor, GIBBERELLIN INSENSITIVE DWARF1 (GID1), gibberellins regulate gene expression by promoting degradation of the transcriptional regulator DELLA proteins, including GIBBERELLIN INSENSITIVE (GAI). The precise manner in which GID1 discriminates and becomes activated by bioactive gibberellins for specific binding to DELLA proteins remains unclear. Here we present the crystal structure of a ternary complex of Arabidopsis thaliana GID1A, a bioactive gibberellin and the amino-terminal DELLA domain of GAI. In this complex, GID1A occludes gibberellin in a deep binding pocket covered by its N-terminal helical switch region, which in turn interacts with the DELLA domain containing DELLA, VHYNP and LExLE motifs. Our results establish a structural model of a plant hormone receptor that is distinct from the mechanism of the hormone perception and effector recognition of the known auxin receptors.
Gibberish? I haven't a clue what the article is about, but I love scanning this stuff every week, and feasting my eyes on the colorful schematic diagrams of fabulously twisty molecules. It's one thing to look at a grain of rice. It's something else altogether to have a sense of what's going on inside that tiny package -- a buzz of molecular machinery as complex as a massive oil refinery.

For important articles like this, Nature will often provide a "News & Views" summary in slightly more commonplace English. We learn, for example, that "gibberellins (GAs) promote plant growth and development processes, such as seed germination and flower induction. Their action allows plants to respond to changes in their environment. At the molecular level, they stimulate the destruction of growth represssing proteins." The more immediately relevant story is that the so-called "green revolution" in global food production depends crucially on understanding the molecular signaling systems that are busily at work in every rice grain -- and other plants.

It's hard to know what to marvel at more -- the astonishingly complex molecular machinery of life, or the cunning of the human brain that reveals this microscopic machinery for our appreciation and utilization.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hard wired

As that part of my pension invested in the stock market evaporates, I find I have to cut back on my techno-wish-list to Santa. So I'm settling this year for just five items, all drawn from the special Christmas-shopping issue of Wired magazine. You know Wired. That's the magazine that lists technologies as "Wired," "Tired" or "Expired." I generally relate to "Expired." But never mind, here are my choices:

To go with my iPod, a Steinway & Sons Model C Music System, with sound so pure "experts can discern a violin's make and country of origin." $148,000

At my desk, a Herman Miller Embody Chair, which promises to be "heaven on our ischial tuberosities." $1600

No Bic for me. A Ducato Corse Rollerball Pen. $850

A wrist Polar FT80 heart rate monitor, with GPS, for exercise. Just looking at this thing sets my heart racing. $460

Bonfort Classic Swiss Army Knife, with "72 eye-popping diamonds." $2700

Do I sound greedy, Santa? Don't fret. Is there a patch of green? Pave it. A stream? Dam it. An acre of old-growth forest? Chop it. You are our patron saint, Saint Nick. Consumption is our national creed. So deck the halls with boughs of baubles. Keep those Wired magazine wish-lists coming. Peace on Earth, more goods to men.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The endless beginning

Before I put Nemerov's Collected Poems back on the shelf, let me comment on another of his later poems, written in his mid-fifties (he died in 1991 at age seventy-one). The poet is taking note of a shelf of books collected in his younger years, "Field Books of This, The Beginner's Guide to That." He recalls the hours and hours he spent learning the wildflowers, the birds, the stars. Was it a waste of time? he asks. And answers:
But it felt good to know the hundred names
And say them, in the warm room, in the winter,
Drowsing and dozing over his trying times,
Still to this world its wondering beginner.
I have the same long shelf of field guides, and another long shelf of black journals in which I identified, sketched and recorded plants, insects, birds, mushrooms, lichens, rocks, and stars. After a while all of that went by the board, my head stuffed to overflowing with names and attributes. It wasn't a waste of time, I think. Today I walk through a world of named elements and see things I might otherwise have missed. To have a word for a thing -- stinkhorn, nuthatch, jewelweed, feldspar -- is to invite the world into one's head. And yes, now, here, in this warm room, in winter, the only universals I care about are those that were patiently pieced together, long ago, word by word, of particulars.

Monday, December 08, 2008

How do we know what we know

Howard Nemerov has a little four-line poem called "Knowledge" that goes in its entirety:
Not living for each other's sake,
Mind and the world will rarely rime;
The raindrops aiming at the lake
Are right on target every time.
The poem has a zenlike quality about it, and I can imagine a professor in an epistemology course spending a class or two trying to unravel what it means, if anything.

The brain evolved to make sense of the world, so I suspect that mind and world will rhyme more often than Nemerov supposes (I change his spelling). The fact that we can send a spacecraft across hundreds of millions of miles of interplanetary space and have it land on a dime is an impressive rhyme.

The last two lines of the poem are rather more cryptic. The poet seems to be suggesting that the world is so big and various and human knowing so fractional and stuttering that it is hard to say anything that isn't in some sense true. I'd say that the spacecraft that plops down on target on a distant moon is more like a raindrop aiming at a dime.

Surely, the world does not live for our sake, but maybe we live for the world's sake. Our minds rhyme with the world for the same reason our bodies evolved, say, a circadian rhythm. We should take Nemerov's little poem to heart, but it is the whole point of science to narrow the target of the raindrop, and to sharpen the rhyme between knowledge and the world.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Stop bugging me

Anne is off with two of my other sisters on the island, enjoying a well-deserved rest. Do you recognize the fellow here, with his polka-dot coat, blue vest, shoes and gloves? See this week's Musing.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Eat your "is" and have your "ought" too

What gives scientific knowledge its authority? Harvard historian Steven Shapin addresses the question in his new book The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation.

He quotes Einstein: "The concepts which [science] uses to build up its coherent systems are not expressing emotions. For the scientist, there is only "being," but no wishing, no valuing, no good, no evil, no goal. As long as we remain within the realm of science proper, we can never meet with a sentence of the type: 'Thou shalt not lie.'"

Which is to say, in science there is a strict separation of "is" and "ought."

The authority of science as a body of knowledge about the world rests on the idea that the "is" is paramount. The moral character of the scientist is irrelevant. The social circumstances of discovery are irrelevant. "Being" is all.

Ironically, the authority of science is made suspect by this same disengagement from "ought."

And so the public is conflicted -- impressed by the obvious successes of science, but ready to ignore the "is" when it comes into apparent contradiction with "oughts" -- religious doctrines, for example.

Shapin's book explores this theme within the contexts of entrepeneurial, academic and governmental science. There is more "ought" in the mix than scientists or the public generally concede, he says.

While there may indeed be a lot of "ought" in the funding and adminstration of scientific research, at the end of the day the "is" is paramount. Or so we like to believe.

All of which may be academic as far as the general public is concerned. The authority of science will continue to be revered for its ability to generate antibiotics, iPods, and ever-higher-speed WiFi environments. And the authority of science will be ignored whenever it conflicts with less "is-ish" avenues to "truth."

Friday, December 05, 2008

Wonder and humility

My generation is the last who will remember these old Mobil gas pumps with the round glass globes on top and the sign of the Flying Horse. Or, for that matter, the two-lane blacktops that threaded their way across America in the days before the Interstates. Here we see them in Edward Hopper's 1940 painting titled, simply, Gas. Click to enlarge.

So much of Hopper's work evokes solitude and loneliness -- somber loners in spare hotel rooms, store fronts on deserted streets, Victorian houses on desolate hills. Gas, too, captures a moment of isolation. A filling station on a road to who-knows-where, the attendant -- that 1940's tie and vest! -- shutting down the pumps for the night. Soon he will flick off the station lights, casting the road and the trees across the road into darkness. The ellipsis of the three white globes at the top of the pumps points down the road into unlit possibilities, like a declarative sentence suddenly suspended in ambiguity.

Technology superimposed on uncertainty. Light pours out the station door; the road plunges into darkness. Of all of Hopper's paintings, this is the one that stays with me. Not only because it captures a seductive moment in my own life, but as a metaphor for the uneasy equilibrium between technology and nature that characterizes our time.

To the right of the road, the warm security of civilization. To the left of the road, beyond the verge, unsullied nature, wild, free, but frightening too. Who is willing to walk at into those woods at night, to forego the benefits of artificial light, to risk the forest primeval?

We can't live without the Flying Horse and all it represents, but part of us remains attached to the organicity out of which we came. I think of something Hopper said about the future of art and the lure of abstraction: "There will be, I think, an attempt to grasp again the surprise and accidents of nature, and a more intimate and sympathetic study of its moods, together with a renewed wonder and humility on the part of such as are still capable of these basic reactions."

Thursday, December 04, 2008

On turtles and divinity

For some years Barry has been pushing here the so-called Cosmological Argument for the existence of God. It is an argument I have been exposed to in its many forms -- going back to Plato and beyond -- since my high school religion classes and my college apologetics and philosophy classes. Not to mention a lifetime of reading. So, for what it's worth, and without inviting debate, here are the reasons why I think the argument is a nonstarter. I suspect that most contemporary scientists who do not have a prior commitment to theism will agree with me.

In its most common expression the argument is this: Every event has a cause. Trace a sequence of events backwards in time and one must eventually arrive at an uncaused causal agency. That agency is God.

The uncaused cause (or prime mover, or whatever) is immune from requiring a cause because it is eternal. But of course the universe itself may be eternal, as Plato and Aristotle assumed. Turtles all the way down.

Present cosmology suggests that the universe had a beginning, the Big Bang. It is foolhardy to base philosophical/theological arguments on contemporary scientific theories; theories are subject to amendment, even to radical change. The Big Bang, for example, may turn out to be merely a Big Bounce in an eternally oscillating universe, or this universe may be just one of many in an eternally bubbling metaverse. Who knows? But let's assume the Big Bang is a true beginning. Does it require an uncaused cause; i.e. God. Space and time and therefore causality came into existence with the Big Bang. Why that, why then? The only honest answer is "I don't know." Call the "I don't know" God if you wish; you have added zero information to the sum of human knowledge.

In any case, the Cosmological Argument does not require the uncaused cause to have any of the properties that theists commonly insist on -- personhood, love, justice, or the capacity to act within creation to work miracles or answer prayers.

We used to wonder whether or not the universe was finite or infinite in spatial extent. It is hard to imagine space going on forever, and impossible to imagine space coming to an end. Now, with the mathematics of general relativity, we can imagine unbounded finite space. Who knows what future developments in science or mathematics will throw light on the question of beginnings.

Do we know why there is something rather than nothing? Or why the laws of nature are what they are? Of course not. The theist gives it a name -- God -- and assumes the problem is solved. The scientist keeps probing.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The red thread

I am seventy-two years old and have never witnessed a human death. I have been there as loved ones -- father and mother, most prominently -- awaited the approaching darkness, but I was not present when the last flicker of light was extinguished. For this, I suppose, I should feel grateful, retaining a kind of innocence, a blessed lacuna in the realm of possible experience. I think of how for so many in the world death is a commonplace and sometimes grisly presence.

In the journal my father kept as he lay dying of cancer, he recounts a dream in which he is a ball of twine rolling down a spiral staircase, unwinding as he goes. As he descends, he passes his children going up. They do not notice.

It is a sad dream, not altogether true. We were there, as our lives permitted, to attend his unreeling. Would I have wanted to be at his side when the string came to an end and there was nothing more? I do not know.

It is a decisive moment, between life and non-life, amazingly abrupt when one thinks about the long, rich course of a life -- the difference between string and no string. I thought of my father's dream as I watched again today one of Arthur Ganson's whimsical machines in the college art gallery, called "The Accumulation of Time." Ganson set the machine going some weeks ago as the show opened. A whirring motor is geared down so that a blood-red thread is slowly, ever so slowly, almost imperceptibly, unwound to accumulate on the white pedestal. Will the spool of thread last till the end of show? Will someone be there when the last bit of thread falls into the pile?

Virginia Woolf has an essay called "The Death of the Moth." She watches a tiny moth flutter against a window pane, from one corner to another. "Watching him," she wrote, "it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body." She imagined the moth's life as a thread of vital light. And, of course, as she watched the thread ran out. The spool of the insect's metabolism stopped turning. "As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Kindle? No thanks.

Sunday evening I did a bookstore event for When God Is Gone at the Hingham Public Library, sponsored by Buttonwood Books of Cohasset, Massachusetts, one of those wonderful independent bookstores holding out by the skin of their teeth against mass marketers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. The folks at Buttonwood and Hingham Library have been faithful supporters of my work in the past, and the auditorium was full of familiar faces, people who have been to my talks/readings before, mostly folks of a certain age who grew up with books and still appreciate the feel of real paper in their hands.

It was -- for me at least -- a warm and fuzzy occasion. I was sharing a book that challenged deeply held beliefs of some in the audience, but the spirit of the occasion was amiable and gracious, much like the tenor of discussions in Comments here. Christians, Jews, UUs, atheists, agnostics -- wanderers and pilgrims all -- we shared a sincere search for truth and respect for differences. This against a background of horrific news from India and Nigeria of sectarian slaughter.

What makes a civilization gracious and tolerant? Well, lots of things certainly, but independent neighborhood bookshops are certainly near the top of the list, places where books are honored as something other than commodities or propaganda. When I was last home in Chattanooga for my mother's funeral, I was struck by the number of "Christian bookstores." I would no more want to visit a "Christian bookstore" than an "agnostic bookstore" or an "atheist bookstore" or a "religious naturalist bookstore." Give me a place like Buttonwood where a diversity of ideas jostle on the shelves for our attention.

If you have read When God Is Gone, you will know the extent to which books played a role in my own intellectual formation, especially books that challenged me to press beyond whatever place I currently found myself. When I was a student at the University of Notre Dame in the 1950s, library circulation was restricted by the Index of Prohibited Books, which included many of the great writers of Western literature, including Rousseau, Voltaire, Zola, Flaubert, Hugo, Sterne, Gibbon, Goldsmith, Mill, Montesquieu, Bacon, Comte, Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Locke, Spinoza, Stendhal, Balzac, and Dumas. Those days are long gone, gratefully, and students at Catholic universities and colleges today have free access to all books of merit. It is no small thing that Ave Maria Press at Notre Dame published When God Is Gone.

A blessing on books, all books -- and a blessing on adventuresome publishers and independent bookstores! Thank you, Ave Maria. Thank you, Buttonwood.

(Thursday evening I will be at another independent bookstore event in Wellesley, MA. Details at their website.)

Monday, December 01, 2008

That animal eye

These late fall days my walk to college takes me directly into the rising Sun. I wondered this morning -- if I kept walking at the same leisurely pace, how long would it take me to get to the Sun? That's easy. I can do it in my head. About 5000 years. That is to say, if I had started walking -- without ceasing -- at the time the Sumerians invented cuneiform writing on clay tablets, I'd just now be getting to my destination.

Who would have thunk it 5000 years ago, that the Sun -- that god, that consoling presence, fructifier, lamb-begetter, anointer of kings -- was so big, so distant? There it is, bubbling up on the horizon, tangled in the branches of the trees, "that strange flower," Wallace Stevens called it, "that tuft of jungle feathers, that animal eye."

If you have not previously visited the website of the TRACE satellite, you might have a go, still images and movies. Here is a flare on the limb of the Sun. The Earth would be a pea on the dinner plate of this great loop of blazing gas. And it's only 160 billion steps away.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Out and about

Beatrix Potter, of Peter Rabbit fame, was a fine naturalist. She was the first person in Britain, and one of the first in the world, to recognize that lichens were composed of two organisms, a fungus and an alga. These late November afternoons are excellent for lichenizing. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's weekly pic.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Born that way?

Before I leave behind the special issue of Science on the Genetics of Behavior (November 7), let me take note of one more article, "Biology, Politics, and the Emerging Science of Human Nature," by James H. Fowler and Darren Schreiber. Do genes affect the way we vote?

A twin-based study published in the American Political Science Review in 2005 suggested that liberal and conservative tendencies are heritable. Most evidence, however, shows that choice of a political party is primarily determined by parental socialization, that is, nurture. One might have guessed as much from a red-state-blue-state political map.

What does seem to be strongly heritable is political activism.

Here is a diagram from Fowler and Schreiber's article, showing the results of three twin studies on political participation (click to enlarge). The vertices of the diagrams represent respectively shared genes, shared environment, and unshared environment; that is, the studies considered identical and non-identical twins, and twins raised together and raised apart. The correlations suggest that genetics and environment both play a role in political activism, with genes being the dominant factor.

The next step is to find the genes that determine our level of political engagement. Genes that affect the regulation of neurotransmitters have been most closely scrutinized. Three genes mentioned by Fowler and Schreiber -- MAOA (monoamine oxidase A), 5HTT (serotonin transporter) and DRD2 (dopamine receptor) -- have been linked to political behavior.

Aristotle said that we are by nature political animals. We are surely animals. Some of us are apparently more political than others.

Friday, November 28, 2008


I am still engaged with the special issue of Science (November 7) on the Genetics of Behavior. Consider this abstract of an article called "Wired for Sex: The Neurobiology of Drosophila Mating Decisions" by Barry J. Dickson:
Decisions about whom to mate with can sometimes be difficult, but making the right choice is critical for an animal's reproductive success. The ubiquitous fruit fly, Drosophila, is clearly very good at making these decisions. Upon encountering another fly, a male may or may not choose to court. He estimates his chances of success primarily on the basis of pheromone signals and previous courtship experience. The female decides whether to accept or reject the male, depending on her perception of his pheromone and acoustic signals, as well as her own readiness to mate. This simple and genetically tractable system provides an excellent model to explore the neurobiology of decision making.
Ah, yes, mating decisions. We all know about that. We all have our pheromones, hormones, wiggle dances and courtship songs. Dickson gives us a sweet little diagram of Drosophila courtship (click to enlarge). The outcome? Yes or no? Home base or strike out? It's like the cover of Cosmo for fruit flies.

Except a Cosmo diagram would be rather more complicated. Fruit flies apparently only have one "sex position." Cosmo offers "a different sex position for each day of the month." Fruit flies need only sniff and listen. Cosmo offers "a dozen ways to drive him wild in bed."

Dickson, of course, is cautious about extrapolating decison-making in Drosophila to more complex organisms, such as ourselves. He does say, however: "There may be only a limited set of efficient neural solutions to complex behavioral problems, including difficult decisions such as choosing a mate." Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender is a more sophisticated invitation to romance than the simple hum on the diagram above, but -- who knows? -- maybe? -- yes? no? -- we may have more in common with fruit flies than we care to admit.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks to all who visit here

Click to enlarge Anne's holiday embellishment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The eternal silence of infinite spaces...

The little book from which I took the numerical example of two days ago, British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey's Leaps of Faith, published in 1995, may have been the first (and best?) shot in the current brouhaha of science and faith. I've been reading again my copy, and recognize my debt to his trenchant analysis. I seem to recall quoting him in my own Skeptics and True Believers (1998).

He poses his theme with this statement: "All great supernatural belief systems -- indeed, all philosophical systems, up till now -- have catered to two central [human needs]: the need for a rational understanding of the surrounding world, and the need for emotional security within it."

The first need has been answered by the various cosmologies that humans have used to explain the origin and working of the world. For most humans, in all places at all times, the second need has been met by the belief that a supernatural being attends lovingly (or at least justly) to our needs, and that the self will survive the death of the body.

The dual assumptions of godly attention and personal immortality have been discredited by science, Humphrey contends. Science has provided a dazzlingly successful rational understanding of the world, but it has not found the slightest evidence that a divine being intrudes into the workings of nature, or that a human self will survive the death of the body.

Psychologist that he is, Humphrey surveys the sources and symptoms of our existential angst, and prescribes a remedy: "Instead of pining for our lost souls and absent psychic powers [prayer, the paranormal, etc.], we shall have to begin to take pride and pleasure in the facts of our embodiedness, our mortality and individuality." Individuality and mortality are the driving forces of evolution, "the elements on which life has taken wing...on which all things bright and beautiful -- natural and cultural -- have relied for their creative energy." It is not just that we have no need for the hypotheses of a watchful divinity and personal immortality, says Humphrey; we would not be here if those hypotheses were true.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

There are more ways of being wrong...Part 2

The distances of the planets from the Sun has been a source of fascination since Copernicus. Johannes Kepler's was the first to look for a rule that explained the relative distances. In his first major astronomical work, The Cosmographic Mystery, he came up with a scheme of inscribing and circumscribing within spheres the five regular Platonic polyhedra to account for the distances of the six known planets -- Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. And, indeed, he found a nesting of the polyhedra that matched the known distances of the planets pretty well. Voila!

Had he stumbled upon the Creator's plan of creation, as he fervently believed? The disovery of Uranus in 1781 put paid to his scheme. By then astronomer's had come up with another mathematical rule for the distances of the six known planets, known as the Titus-Bode Law, which had the futher advantage of predicting a planet close to where Uranus was subsequently found. The Titus-Bode rule also precicted a planet between Mars and Jupiter where there apparently wasn't one, but when Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, was found in 1801 at approximately the right distance from the Sun the Titus-Bode Law began to look pretty good. Alas, the discovery of Neptune and then Pluto proved the rule inadequate.

Most astronomers now believe the early success of the Titus-Bode Law was a coincidence. There are currently theories that explain the origin of planetary systems -- gravitation, conservation of angular momentum, etc. -- and computer simulations generate systems similar to our own, but they also allow for a degree of apparent randomness. Other planetary systems will certainly contain planets of different sizes and spacings.

Kepler's nested polyhedra and the Titus-Bode Law were schemes to anticipate nature, and, as such, were prone to failure. Francis Bacon put it this way: truth "is extracted...not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature." We call it, loosely, the scientific method. It involves the "closets of the mind," certainly; no way to avoid that. But it also involves interrogating nature in a way that forces a maximally unambiguous response, which means mathematical reasoning, quantitative measurement, and reproducible experiment. As Hume told us, reason alone is a dead-end road on the journey to truth. The anticipation of nature is a fraud.

Monday, November 24, 2008

There are more ways of being wrong...

...than being right.

Here is a sequence of numbers: 2, 4, 6, 8. These might be, for example, the distances from the star (in some arbitrary units) of the four known planets in your planetary system. Predict what will be the next number in the sequence. Express mathematically the rule you use for your prediction. Go ahead. I'll wait.


Ah, surely you guessed that the next number was 10, and the rule was X+2, where X is the previous number. Are there other rules that work for the given sequence? Well, yes, there is at least one alternative: -(1/44) X3+(3/11)X2+(34/11) works equally well, although the rule is rather more obtuse.

If one were going to invest in research to look for a new planet further out in your solar system, where would you put your money? Of course, you'd spend your time looking at D=10. A simple application of Ockham's Razor: Don't assume a more complicated explanation when a simpler one will suffice. And if indeed you find a planet at D=10 you will feel happily justified and go looking for the next planet at D=12. You will be confident that you have discovered "the Law of Planetary Distances."

But what if after diligent searching you find no planet at D=10. So you say, "Just for the hell of it let's look at D=8.91, which is the next number predicted by the second rule." And what if you find a planet at that distance. Whoa! Clearly, the stunning agreement of observation with the more complicated prediction suggests that Ockham's Razor let you down. The simplest rule did not suffice. (How useful the formula will be for the next step in the series remains to be seen.)

At this point you would probably start looking for a simple set of fundamental laws of nature from which you might derive the complex formula. You will be especially gratified if your new fundamental laws explain something in addition to planetary distances. You are still guided by Ockham's Razor, but willing to let nature have the last word.

There are lots of ways to be wrong, and fewer ways of being right. There are dozens of mutually contradictory religions, for example, but only one science. There is no conceivable way to falsify a supernatural truth system -- such as a religion or Intelligent Design -- since whatever is observed or not observed can be ascribed to the will of an inscrutable supernatural being. A scientific hypothesis can be falsified by finding a single reproducible counterexample (a planet at D= 8.91 exposes the inadequacy of the original hypothesis). There is an irony here. Systems with no conceivable way of confirmation or falsification often claim immutable truth. The one system that holds its hypotheses to the fire of exact reproducible experience claims nothing more than reliability -- and looks forward to refinement.

(More tomorrow. I take the numerical example above from Nicholas Humphrey's Leaps of Faith, of which more later.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008


"The ant has made himself illustrious/ Through constant industry industrious," wrote Ogden Nash. For the rest of the verse, see this week's Musing.

Click, then again if you wish, to enlarge Anne's weekly illumination.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin -- Part 2

In the last two paragraphs of the novel Anna Karenina, Levin, happily married to Kitty, humbly embraces the ethical message of the Christian faith:
This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed, just like the feeling for my child. There was no surprise in this either. Faith -- or not faith -- I don't know what it is -- but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.

I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.
Let Levin learn, as we have learned, about our genetic predispositions to certain behaviors, fidelity, for example, or impetuosity. Let him catch a vision, as we have caught a vision, of the myriad biochemical nudgings and tuggings that cause us to act one way or another. Will this new knowledge of the genetics of behavior change the moral circumstances of his life?

Levin recognizes that Christian moral principles transcend any particular religion. They transcend too our new knowledge of behavioral genetics. The biochemistry of the human brain in interaction with the world is so overwhelmingly complex that the question of determinism vs. free will is rendered moot. Whatever are the forces that guide our behaviors -- genetic, neuronal, or cultural -- we are left with the practical assumption of responsibility for our actions, just as Levin knows that his embrace of the Christian faith has little practical consequence for how he treats his coachman.

I can read the issue of Science on The Genetics of Behavior from cover to cover, and say with Levin: There will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand the mystery of existence, and I shall still go on attending to the mystery; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more intrinsically meaningful or meaningless than it was before, but it still has the positive meaning of goodness which I have the power to put into it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin

I've been happily married for more than half-a-century. Is it because I happened to wed an irresistibly lovable partner? Or has my wandering eye been restrained by residual Catholic guilt? Or does the credit go to a variant of my AVPR1a gene?

Just one of the intriguing questions raised in a special section of last week's issue of Science: The Genetics of Behavior (November 7, 2008).

And indeed there does appear to be evidence (not yet reliably reproduced) that a tendency toward stable marital relationships is in the DNA.

Few questions in science have raised more hackles than nature vs. nurture. That is to say: How many of our behaviors are we born with, and how many are inculcated socially. Is there a math gene (or genes)? An aggression gene (or genes)? An anxiety gene (or genes)? A liberal or conservative gene (or genes)? A God gene (or genes)? There was a time not so long ago -- back in the 1970s --when scientists were scratching each other's eyes out over these issues, mainly in response to E. O. Wilson's book Sociobiology, which emphasized the genetic basis of behaviors. These days there is rather more of a consensus that behaviors are a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

As the authors of one review article in Science say:
Genes do not specify behavior directly but rather encode for molecular products that build and govern the functioning of the brain through which behavior is expressed. Brain development, brain activity, and behavior all depend on both inherited and environmental influences, and there is increasing appreciation that social information can alter brain gene expression and behavior. Furthermore, variation in behavior shapes the evolution of genomic elements that influence social behavior through the feedback of natural selection.
In other words, as a species we are what we are at least partly because of what we have been, and what we will become is a least partly determined by what we are.

We are surely less free of our genome and its expression than we might like to believe. Perhaps my fidelity genes and my hanky-panky genes battle it out with dueling hormones and neurotransmitters, with perhaps a bit of true love and Catholic guilt thrown in. But no scientist that I know of thinks we are prisoners of our genome. The authors of the previously mentioned article state:
There are many levels of neural and neuroendocrine regulation that lie between the genome and a social behavior, including transcription, translation, posttranslational modifications, epigenetic changes, brain metabolism, neural (electrochemical) activity, and neuromodulation. Moreover, this regulation occurs in complex and dispersed temporal and spatial patterns within the brain, over physiological time, developmental time, and throughout an individual's life. The study of social behavior adds an additional tier of complexity because it depends on interactions and communication among individuals. In most cases, social behavior must be studied in a natural context in which the full repertoire of environmental influences and behaviors are expressed.
Which is to say, we are wonderfully complex molecular machines in interaction with an almost infinitely variable environment. In the next few decades we'll be learning a lot more about the genetic and environmental roots of behavior. None of this will change the perennial dynamics of trying to live an ethical life. A complete transcription of Anna Karenina's genome would not change a whit the worth of her story.

(More on Anna tomorrow.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reinventing the sacred

What are we to make of Stuart Kauffman? Here he is again, in an interview with Salon, promoting his new book, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Those of us who call ourselves religious naturalists will applaud; Kauffman says what we have been saying all along, that there is ample reason within a completely naturalistic world view to regard the world as sacred. He says: "I think the creativity in nature is so stunning and so overwhelming that it's God enough for me, and I think it's God enough for many of us if we think about it."

Well, yes, but what is this "new view" of science, reason and religion? Kauffman wants to offer up a new kind of science, a non-reductionistic science based on laws of self-organization and emergence. And, who knows, maybe such a science is in the offing. The problem is, neither Kauffman nor anyone else has so far demonstrated what the laws of emergence might be or provided empirical evidence that they exist -- as I said in a previous post.

I read Kauffman's Salon interview looking for "new science," and find nothing but supposition:
"Can you get sustained quantum coherent behavior at body temperature in something like neurons? Nobody knows."

"The mathematics [of self-organization] has been proved, but it still needs to be shown experimentally."

"Yet a number of physicists, including Nobel laureates Philip Anderson and Robert Laughlin, feel that reductionism is not adequate to understand the real world. In its place, they talk about "emergence." I think they're right."

"Maybe the mind is acausal. Maybe the mind is non-algorithmic. I don't want you to take this very seriously. It's just Stu Kauffman getting old and thinking weird things. But it may be true."
Well, yes, it may be true. And the existence of a supernatural personal God may be true too. Whatever self-organization and emergence might be, for the time being they are not science. As I wrote in the earlier post: "Sometimes Kauffman's speculations sound like a kind of pervasive, built-in 'intelligent design' -- a stealth supernaturalism, or at best a resurgent vitalism."

Like Kauffman, I suspect that there is more going on in the world than our present science supposes, and wish him success in finding out what it might be. Certainly, he is one smart fellow. I also welcome him to the fold of religious naturalists. But we don't need laws of self-organization or emergence to think of the world as sacred. It is not a "new science" that makes a religious response to the world possible; it is an awareness that our present science -- or any future science -- illuminates but does not obviate mystery.

The basis for religious naturalism can be found in the Kauffman quotes above, but not -- as he would apparently wish -- in his references to a "new view" of science. Rather, it is in his willing admission of "I don't know." Religious naturalism is nothing more or nothing less than cosmic humility.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Every step a mile

I have been reading David Bain's Empire Express, an account of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Part of the fun was using Google Earth to trace the course of the tracks. I started at Donner Pass in the High Sierras (where a new and longer summit tunnel seems to have replaced the original) and spent several enjoyable hours tracing the railroad west to Sacramento and east to Council Bluffs. It gave me an appreciation of the scale of the achievement that the maps in the book could never do.

Meanwhile, I'm doing my one-mile walk to college every day, mostly through woods and meadows, up and down. And as I go, I imagine laying out the tracks of a railroad -- cuttings, embankments, trestles and tunnels.

At first, I had in mind an HO-scale (1:87) railroad, the most popular model railroad scale in the US and the one I could most easily visualize twisting and curving along the path. But then, after a few days, I began to wonder just what would be the scale if my approximately one-mile walk represented the nearly 2000 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Sacramento, California.

The distance ratio is 1:2000. The gauge of the transcontinental railroad was (and is) 4 feet 8.5 inches. Which means the distance between the rails of my imaginary railroad is less than a millimeter, and a locomotive would be less than a centimeter long.

So now, as I walk, I imagine that tiny little train puffing along that thread-thin track, following my half-hour walk to school -- and forge an even greater appreciation for the monumental achievement which was the first transcontinental railroad.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

To be alive

Sixty-five years ago, my religious education began with the first question of the Baltimore Catechism: "Why did God make me?" Answer: "He made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him." These days, I reverence a Mystery that is less purposeful, less personal, and less gendered than the fatherly "He" I studied in primary school. But the answer to that first catechism question seems as relevant as ever.

In his book The Diversity of Life, Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson quotes the Sengalese conservationist Baba Dioum: "In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught." It is the same lesson that I learned all those years ago in primary school.

Knowledge, love, service: These are at the core of the religious impulse, and they are what unites the religious naturalist and the traditional believer. We differ, however, in the object of our attention. The religious naturalist honors the world itself, rather than an elusive supernatural divinity. We differ too in what we take to be the most secure avenue to knowledge. I have been looking again at Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson's magisterial work on ants (for next Sunday's Musing), a massive tome that strikes me as more full of useful knowledge than any ancient scriptures or pronouncements by popes or prophets. Ants? Yes, why not. Reliable, consensus, scientific knowledge of the world -- all of the world! -- is our starting point for love and service.

We don't need a promise of everlasting bliss. We agree instead with the poet Mary Oliver:
Look, I want to love this world
as though it's the last chance I'm ever going to get
to be alive
and know it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

News and views

On Monday evening, January 13, 1840, the steamship Lexington went ablaze in Long Island Sound, on her usual run between New York and Stonington, Connecticut, where she connected with the Boston train. She carried 143 crew and passengers, and 150 bales of cotton. The fire soon raged out of control, the ship's three lifeboats foundered, and passengers and crew were forced to choose between fire and freezing water. One-hundred-and-thirty-nine people died. There were only four survivors.

A new lithographic firm in New York produced a wildly popular hand-colored print of the conflagration -- and so it was Currier and Ives became to 19th-century America what CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are to the country today.

In 1942 my mother acquired a newly published volume of Currier and Ives prints, presumably from the Book-of-the-Month Club, of which she was an avid member. I was six years old. No television in those days. That book of prints was almost as exciting to me as to 19th-century Americans.

Oh, sure, there was lots of boring stuff. Pictures of quaint New England villages. Scenes of hunting and fishing. Racehorses. A lot of sentimental claptrap. But exciting things too. Ship wrecks. Steamboat races. Whales smashing the boats of whalers. Pittsburgh and Chicago in flames. Gunships wreaking havoc on the Mississippi. The burning of New York's Crystal Palace. Brunel's Great Eastern. Roebling's Niagara Suspension Bridge. I must have spent a lot of time looking at these prints because they are still fresh in my memory.

The other day I went looking to see if that same volume is in the college library. Yes, two copies in fact. And the prints are just as I remembered them. What I hadn't remembered were the many prints of "niggas" and "Dark Town" meant to be humorous, even after a catastrophic war had been fought to end slavery. Early suffragettes garnered ridicule, as did "injuns" and drunken Irishmen.

The lithographic process pioneered in this country by Currier and Ives was cutting edge technology at the time. The prints the company produced helped several generations of Americans define themselves. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC surely play an equally significant role in defining the self-image of the current generation of Americans. I'm not sure that what we see and hear always appeals to "the better angels of our natures."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Humana ex machina

The artist Arthur Ganson says he wants to draw his audience "to that narrow place between two infinitely large fields of clarity and ambiguity." It is indeed a narrow place, but oh how much fun to wander there, confident one is in the presence of a clear idea, but not quite sure what it is. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


You may have seen the Cisco TV commercial of video screens in Xi'an, China, and Rome, Italy, that let people interact life-sized in real time. If not, go to, then click "Expand to learn more." I'm assuming these are real installations, although I can't find anything about them on the web. If they are not real, they should be. Wouldn't it be great if installations like this were set up in town squares around the world -- Tehran, Tokyo, Mogadishu, Calcutta, Denver, Sao Paulo, Baghdad, Dublin, Harare, and so on. On all the time. Once each 24 hours the screens would be randomly rerouted. What fun, for kids especially. What a gift for bringing us all together.

Expensive? A single minute of the war in Iraq ($240,000) would pay for an installation.

Friday, November 14, 2008


My Astronomical Calendar 2009 arrived the other day. I anticipate its arrival the way some folks wait for the Burpee seed catalog, as a delicious foretaste of things to come.

Guy Ottewell, the wizard behind the Calendar, has a gift for the graphical presentation of all things astronomical. I curl up in a comfy chair and make mental notes of things I don't want to miss.

I will be watching Venus and Mercury during January, February and March, when I am on our tropic island with generally clear horizons in the east and west. I'll be looking at Venus in late January as I go looking for the very young crescent Moon. The Moon and Venus on the 29th should be particularly beautiful. Will I be able to catch the dawn dance of Mercury, Jupiter and Mars during February, low on the horizon as I sip my coffee? Maybe binocs will help, for Mars especially.

With a telescope, it would have been fun to see Saturn's rings disappear in September when they go edge-on for the first time since 1995, but alas the planet is low in the dusk and I'll be in a place with a poor horizon. There will be a brief interval on the night of September 2-3 when Jupiter will have no visible moons; two of the Galilean satellites will be behind the planet, and two in front, a rare event. Why would one want to see Jupiter without a moon? The event itself is not important. It's the witnessing of the event that's neat.

On almost every month of the year the Moon will go crashing through the Pleiades. March 3 and March 30 should be especially favorable occasions to watch the occultations from Exuma.

Not a great year for lunar eclipses. The total solar eclipse of July 22 will be the longest between 1991 and 2132, six-and-a-half minutes of totality. Having much enjoyed recent solar eclipses from the Black Sea and the southern coast of Turkey, we pondered going to Shanghai, but the expense and the prospect of clouds -- not to mention pollution -- dissuaded us. Still, reading Ottewell's blow-by-blow description of what to expect all along the eclipse path is the next best thing to being there.

Don't tell Tom, but I ordered him a copy of the Calendar for Christmas.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Living water

In last Sunday's comments, Ken posed a challenge which has been on my mind. He wrote:
When I read Eliade, the realization that struck me was his observation that in modernity we are no longer religious in the sense he used that word, that the world to us is homogenous, that we no longer divide the world, space or time, into sacred and profane. We have inherited ways and language from our religious ancestors, but they have lost their meanings. At most what we call religious today is nostalgia. It is sentiment. It is sorrow.

It seems like the greater challenge you face is not defending religious naturalism from claims that it is a supernatural belief. Instead, the challenge is to show that the word "religious" means something more than nostalgia. That is what any of us face who use the word "religious."
This strikes me as exactly right. My response has generally been that certain emotions we call religious are very likely part of our evolved biological nature. What emotions? Awe. A sense that there is something afoot in the world that we do not fully understand, something deep and mysterious that is worthy of attention, celebration. A cosmic humility.

Of course, there are other things that are part of our nature that are also sometimes associated with religion. Fear of the other. Aggression. Authoritarianism. Credulity. We choose to repress these emotions and behaviors as not part of "the better angels of our nature." We are not slaves to biology.

But do we need to repress those aspects of our nature that are generally benevolent, that bind us together in constructive communities, that lead us to treat non-human nature with a greater degree of respect? What is wrong with nostalgia when it is directed to things sweetly remembered, to the more benign landscapes of our evolutionary and cultural pasts? Nostalgia is a mostly innocent emotion, a form of love that anchors us in a tradition -- "the mystic chords of memory" (to quote Lincoln again). I make no apology for it.

Last evening I attended a concert of gospel music by a group who call themselves Living Water. I grew up in Tennessee in the 1950s listening to gospel on my little Silvertone radio. Loved it then, love it now. Love the sense of joyous celebration. Love the assurance of triumph over adversity ("I'm blessed and highly favored," Living Water sang). Love the confidence that there is a redemptive power (in the Creator? in the creation? in ourselves?) that can turn ugliness to beauty. Gospel music is "religious," but can you imagine anyone in a gospel choir doing violence to another human being or to any of "God's creatures"?

Nostalgia? Yes, I suppose so. Why not?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


On a shelf in the room where I keep my laptop at the college: The Horizon Book of Makers of Modern Thought, published in 1972 by American Heritage. Thirty-six short biographies. One woman. One non-European.
Leonardo da Vinci. Niccolo Machiavelli. Desiderius Erasmus. Nicolaus Copernicus. Martin Luther. John Calvin. Francis Bacon. Thomas Hobbes. Rene Descartes. Blaise Pascal. John Locke. Isaac Newton. Voltaire. Jean Jacques Rousseau. Adam Smith. Immanuel Kant. Jeremy Bentham. Mary Wollstonecraft. Thomas Robert Malthus. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Robert Owen. Karl Maria von Clausewitz. George Perkins Marsh. Charles Robert Darwin. Karl Marx. Michael Bakunin. William James. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. James George Frazer. Sigmund Freud. Mahandas Karamchand Gandhi. Albert Einstein. John Maynard Keynes. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch (who share an essay).
Obviously, any such list is idiosyncratic and to some extent arbitrary. Why Pavlov, for example, and not Pasteur? Why Pascal and not Spinoza? Why Descartes and not Galileo? Why Bakunin and not Jefferson? Why Hobbes and not Hume? Why Marsh and not Thoreau? Why Wiener/McCulloch and not Shannon/von Neumann? Of course, any list today would be more inclusive by ethnicity and gender.

Less arbitrary would be a list of Makers of Your Thought, or Makers of My Thought. Who among the list above were most influential in creating the intellectual world I personally inhabit?

Erasmus for humanism and tolerance.

Francis Bacon for empiricism.

John Locke for understanding the limits of knowing.

George Perkins Marsh for ecology.

Charles Darwin for naturalism -- and "grandeur in this view of life."

William James for natural religion.

Mahandas Gandhi for nonviolence.

Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch for the embodiment of mind.