Thursday, January 31, 2008

Star light, star bright

A sign at the beginning of our driveway here in Exuma says "Starlight House." Two reasons for the name. It was the movie Frankie Starlight that paid for this tropical retreat. And we came here for the stars.

That is to say, we came here for the dark, a precious commodity that was in short supply at home, and even here is now being seriously eroded. Our starry universe is shrinking around us.

But not as fast as we might think. The stars we see in a dark night sky are not representative of the stellar population.

Within 20 light-years of Earth there are about 100 known stars. Of these, nearly 70 are tiny red dwarf stars, much less bright than the Sun, barely hot enough to ignite the fires of nuclear fusion that blaze at a star's core. These stars are so faint that they are not visible to the naked eye, even though they are among our closest neighbors.

The same neighborhood includes about 15 orange stars, hotter and bigger than the red dwarfs but not as hot or bright as the Sun. There are six yellow stars, including the Sun, with surface temperatures of about 6,000 degrees Celsius.

Only four stars in our 20-light-year neck of the Milky Way are more luminous than the Sun: Alpha Centauri, Procyon in Canis Minor, Altair in Aquila, and Sirius in Canis Major. Sirius, a white-hot star, is the big boy on the block.

A larger neighborhood, say 2,000 light-years in radius -- still just a corner of the Milky Way Galaxy -- would show the same pyramidal distribution, but with a few blue-white supergiants sitting near the top, 2,000 times more luminous than Sirius, including Deneb, Rigel and the stars of Orion's belt. The capstone stars pay a price for their dominance. They come and go quickly.

The red dwarfs at the bottom of the pyramid burn their hydrogen fuel so slowly they live for hundreds of billions of years. Since the universe is only about 14 billion years old, every red dwarf star that was ever born is still with us -- which at least partly accounts for their dominant numbers.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sanctifying grace

All month Venus and Jupiter have been blazing away in the dawn, Venus drawing ever closer to the red giant. On Friday the two planets will be about a half-degree apart, less than the angular width of the Moon -- the closest readily observable conjunction of the two planets since 2004 (the next in 2014). The crescent Moon will come this way a few days later, another sight well worth getting up for.

Venus is presently about six times brighter than Jupiter, far and away the brightest thing in the sky other than the Sun and Moon. It is getting fuller and smaller as it speeds away from us around the back side of the Sun. Meanwhile, in our own orbit, we are overtaking Jupiter, so the planet grows slightly in apparent size and brightness. Ah, what a merry dance.

My book to be published later this year is called When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy (more about this later). "Holy," of course, only has meaning within the context of a human mind. We anoint the world with our attention. A conjunction of of two bright planets in a rosy dawn is a sacrament, a grace, a blessing. The world is shot through with a grandeur that now and again flames out "like shining from shook foil." In Catholic tradition, one must be predisposed to grace to receive it. We wait. Alert. Always. For the shining.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Squirt. Scrape. Smush.

The battle with the termites continues.

These insects are about the size of a pepper grain, almost too small to see (their wormlike larvas are bigger). Collectively, they do a heck of a lot of damage. If I believed in Intelligent Design, I would have a mighty grudge against the Designer.

Under my kitchen cabinets the termites have constructed an ingenious array of galleries, directly on the masonry floors and walls, even freestanding vertical tubes no thicker than a piece of string, all made of -- what? -- digested wood?

The engineering is superb. Their skill is genetic. What a miracle that all that know-how, all that marvelous machinery of life -- limbs, sense organs, digestive track, reproductive apparatus, and instinct to build tunnels, galleries, towers -- is contained an animal almost invisibly small. Killing a single termite would seem to be a greater act of vandalism that smashing a Rolex watch.

But don't think for a minute that will stop me.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Running out the clock

The tendency of energy to become randomly distributed in the kinetic form among molecules is the basis of the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics. There are almost as many statements of this law as there are thermodynamicists, but all of them convey the idea that in an isolated system entropy will increase...A system moving toward equilibrium assumes the most disordered molecular state consistent with the conditions under which it is maintained. At equilibrium everything is completely homogeneous and nothing interesting can happen.
Ah yes, a statement of the Second Law, this one by thermodynamicist Harold Morowitz. Everything tends to disorder. Tell me about it.

It happens faster in the tropics. My house on the beach in Exuma is a blunt violation of the Second Law, an affront to the equilibrium system that has evolved here over eons. A non-equilibrium structure made of non-equilibrium materials in a non-equilibrium place. And the Second Law knows it. The Second Law is doing everything it can to remove the affront.

Termites, sun, salt and rot are as articulate at expressing the Second Law as any thermodynamicist. To maintain the affront to equilibrium requires a constant input of what Erwin Schrodinger called negentropy. Which in this case means mostly money.

My house requires a constant dose of negentropy at the expense of my own negentropy, which like the negentropy of all life must come at the expense of a greater tendency of disorder elsewhere, namely at the center of the sun. The universe is running down. We can buck the trend but not stop it. Ultimately every affront to disorder -- a living organism, a beach house -- is doomed to dust. Paint, bug spray, hurricane shutters, pressure-treated timber -- all a brief uptick in the running down clock of time.

"At equilibrium everything is completely homogeneous and nothing interesting can happen," says Morowitz. I've had a few too many surprises lately. I could use some entropic repose.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The spine and tingle

This past week I had occasion to quote Vladimir Nabokov. Which prompts me to revise and reprise something I wrote 15 years ago. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Water, water everywhere...

The other day, out of solidarity with Mark, our Fijian correspondent, I bought a bottle of Fiji water here on the island of Exuma. By my rough calculation, that means I bought about 10 to the 25th water molecules from Fiji -- 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 water molecules that have been shipped almost exactly halfway around the world. Every one of those molecules was exactly identical to every other, and, for that matter, exactly identical to every water molecule here in Exuma.

Of course, there were a few other molecules in the bottle, various minerals that in their particular combination may be unique to Fiji, but it would take better taste buds than mine to tell the difference between Fiji water and the water we buy for a dollar in gallon jugs from our local reverse-osmosis supplier.

But what a sweet pure thing the Fiji water appeared to be, in what must be the prettiest bottle of any bottled water. With each sip, I closed my eyes and imagined myself on some idyllic island in the South Pacific.

On one of his Tahitian masterpieces, Paul Gauguin famously asked "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" The first two questions can reasonably be answered: "Water." Terrestrial life first appeared and prospered in the sea. Our bodies are about 60 percent water by weight. Fruits and vegetables are about 95 percent water. Water is the major component of all foods -- and of ourselves.

Water is short supply on this small island. We have no fresh water lakes or streams. From time immemorial Exumians got their water from shallow wells hewn from the soft limestone rock. A thin lens of fresh water floats on the top of a deeper reservoir of brackish soup. Even the fresh water is not so fresh, and quickly depleted. In the last few years the government has built a reverse osmosis plant to supply the growing population, but for drinking we still refill the gallon jugs at our local supplier.

Where are we going? Fresh water may be destined to become more valuable than oil. Only 3 percent of the water on the planet is fresh, and 99 percent of that is locked up in glaciers, ice caps, or too deep in the ground to be practically reached. I swig back my Fiji water and marvel that I can find 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Fijian molecules on a market shelf in Exuma.

Friday, January 25, 2008


In 1815, a self-taught geologist named William Smith published the first geological map of a sizable part of the Earth's surface, the island of Britain. The map was 8 feet by 6 feet, published in 16 separate sheets. Four hundred copies were printed, many of them hand-colored by Smith himself.

A reduced-size poster of Smith's map is available from the Liverpool Geological Society. Placed side by side with a modern geological map of Britain (above), one sees how much Smith got right; the geology is almost identical. The modern map also follows the color scheme invented by Smith for designating different kinds of rocks.

One of my favorite things to do when I taught earth science was to take my students on an imaginary walk across southeastern England, along the line of zero longitude, using the big modern geological map as a guide. I drew a multicolored cross-section across 20 feet of chalkboard, showing the ups and downs of the landscape, the sights we might see along the way, and the rocks we would find exposed at the surface of the Earth.

Then I asked the students to guess at the three-dimensional arrangement of strata that would explain what we saw on the surface. Now the colored chalk came out in force, as we hypothesized sweeping folds of rock -- mostly sandstone and mudstone -- rising and falling across the chalkboard. We ended our imaginary walk where William Smith ended his remarkable mapping achievement, with a grand view of the changes that have taken place on the surface of the Earth over eons of time.

After years of taking the imaginary walk, I decided to do it with boot to the sod. Knapsack on back, I walked from the Channel to the North Sea, visiting along the way sites of interest to the history of science. This is the story I tell in Walking Zero: The Discovery of Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

In the presence of ineffable mystery

An acquaintance who knows of my admiration for Thomas Merton sent me this quote, from Merton's A Search for Solitude:
I must get to know something of modern physics. Even though I am a monk, that is no reason for living in a Newtonian universe or, worse still, an Aristotelian one. The fact that the cosmos is not quite what St. Thomas and Dante imagined it to be has after all some importance. It does not invalidate St. Thomas or Dante or Catholic theology, but it ought to be understood and taken into account by a theologian. It is futile to try and live in an expanding universe with atomic fission an ever present possibility and try to think and act exclusively as if the cosmos were fixed in an immutable order centered upon man's earth. Modern physics has its repercussions in the monastery and to be a monk one must take them into account, although that does nothing whatever to make one's spirituality either simple or neat.
There is much to admire in this passage: the willingness of Merton to make himself knowledgeable about modern science, and his admission that what we have learned about the world since the time of Dante and Aquinas is of some relevance to theologians. It is also certainly true that knowing modern physics does not make leading a spiritual life any easier.

And of course modern science does not invalidate Dante and Aquinas. Dante remains a giant of literature, even as his Earth-centered cosmos has been rendered obsolete. Thomas remains an important historical figure in the context of his time.

But all of this is to miss what is central to the modern scientific way of knowing: the rejection of supernaturalism. Science has achieved its spectacular success by ruling out the miraculous as a mode of explanation. Countless events that were once thought to be supernatural -- the appearance of comets, the visitation of a plague, earthquake, or drought -- have been shown to be part of the natural order. And science knows of no reliably affirmed event, in the present or the past, that cannot have a natural explanation. This is the real import of modern science.

Which is to say, there is but one miracle, and that miracle is the natural order. Theology has been subsumed by science; creation is the primary revelation. Religion, of course, remains as important as ever, as a private or community expression of wonder, reverence, celebration, praise. It is religion in this sense that I admire in Merton. He attended with a keen sensitivity to the natural order. He felt a presence in his heart, an awareness of the ineffable Mystery that permeates creation. It was this that drew him to the mystical tradition of Christianity, especially Celtic creation spirituality, and to Zen.

He knew that science in and of itself was not an adequate door to a spiritual life. He wrote: "The way to find the real 'world' is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self. This 'ground,' this 'world' where I am mysteriously present at once to my own self and to the freedoms of all other men, is not a visible, objective and determined structure with fixed laws and demands. It is a living and self-creating mystery of which I am myself a part, to which I am myself my own unique door."

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The spine and its tingle

In last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, the poet William Logan writes of sailing "the traitorous Internet between the lies of Scylla and the damned lies of Charybdis." Well, yes, those choppy waters are full of enough misinformation to bring even a skillful navigator to wreck.

The other day I googled a phrase I remembered from Vladimir Nabokov: "Let us worship the spine and its tingle." And there it was, in someone's list of favorite quotations, attributed Scyllalike to me. I had indeed used the phrase, many long years ago, in pre-Internet days, in The Soul of the Night, where I clearly attributed it to Nabokov.

You may recall that a few months ago a commenter here accused me of plagiarizing someone else's blog. When I went to look, the blogger had lifted a post of mine verbatim. In fact, half of what was on her blog was mine, carefully adapted to make it look like her own -- a Charybdis for the unwary sailor. Tom sorted it out, but for all I know her plagiarized musings are still floating around out there in the cybersea.

But back to Nabokov. If I were at Stonehill, I would access the print version of his Lectures on Literature. As it is, I will have to rely on the Internet, with all its risks. Here is the complete quote, which someone will no doubt attribute to me:
All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine, the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle. If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week.
I wish it were mine.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

O felix peccatum

O happy sin. A Latin phrase that perhaps only a Catholic will know. I believe it may have first been used by Saint Augustine. The meaning is made clear in a Latin hymn:
O certe necessarium Adae peccatum,
quod Christi morte deletum est!
O felix culpa,
quae talem ac tantum
meruit habere Redemptorem!

O truly needful sin of Adam,
which was blotted out by the death of Christ!
O happy fault,
that merited
so great a Redeemer!
I never quite grasped the concept. Would it not have been better to live in a prelapsarian Eden, without death or woe, than to struggle through this vale of tears even with the dicey promise of salvation? What sort of God would dream up the notion of "needful sin"?

But there is a sense in which the idea of happy fault makes sense -- if you are willing to consider death a "fault" of the creation. Microbiologist Ursula Goodenough says it well in The Sacred Depths of Nature: "Sex without death gets you single-celled algae and fungi; sex with a mortal soma gets you the rest of the eukaryotic creatures. Death is the price paid to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love."

I discovered a few days ago that we have a nasty infestation of termites, gnawing away inside the kitchen cabinets -- a not uncommon tribulation in the tropics. In total darkness the termites are getting their share of sunlight, by eating the stored energy of leafy green trees. It's all part of the driving engine of evolution. It's me against them now, and there's going to be a heap of death before it's all over.

O happy death that gave us all that shimmering awareness and all that love.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ode to OJ287

Nothing more wonderful in heaven
Than black hole OJ287

The mass of OJ287 is equal to 18 billion Suns (see Saturday's post). That's about a thirtieth of the mass of the Milky Way Galaxy. By my calculation, all of that mass must be contained in a volume with a radius about the size of the Solar System (including the realm of the comets beyond Pluto). In other words, roughly, to make a black hole like OJ287, you take a smallish galaxy and squeeze it down to something the size of the a planet system. That's the equivalent of squeezing the Earth into a space the size of this letter O -- which would turn the Earth into a black hole.

Now suppose that I give you as a present an O-size black hole, in a jewel box made of an antigravity material. You open the box...

I will leave it as an exercise to our physicist commenters to describe what happens next.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Dust to dust

I don't know who said it first, maybe Bob Pyle, but it's a memorable phrase: Nature always bats last. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlatge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Imagine this

At the center of a galaxy 3.5 billion light-years away -- one-fourth of the way back to the beginning of time -- there is a black hole with a mass 18 billion times the mass of the Sun, so much mass squeezed into so small a space that not even light can escape the pull of its gravity. How do we know it's there? Around the black hole is a flat whirling "accretion disk" of matter -- stars, dust, gas -- that glows with fierce energy as it falls into the black hole, to disappear forever. At the heart of the galaxy we see a luminous beacon, a pit of darkness surrounded by a blaze of radiation.

Black holes at the centers of galaxies are not unusual; there is one at the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. But this one, known as OJ287, is the most massive black hole so far known in the universe. And it has an unusual property. Every twelve years it blazes up 100,000 brighter in two bursts just over a year apart.

The periodic double flare of energy suggests a companion, another smaller black hole with a mass of 100,000 Suns, orbiting the monster in an elongated orbit, like a comet around our Sun. Every twelve years the smaller black hole plunges through the monster's accretion disk and out again, splashing matter into the black hole in two bursts of radiant energy.

After the paired flare-ups of 1994 and 1995, and the initial flare-up of November 2005, astronomers calculated the orbit of the smaller black hole, and predicted the second flare-up on September 13, 2007. It occurred right on schedule.

And ponder this. The calculation was based on Einstein's theory of gravitation, which proposes a curvature to apace-time and gravitational waves. Without curvature, the flare-up would have occurred 10 days earlier; without gravitational waves, 20 days later. A stunning confirmation of a theory spun from the great one's brain a century ago; a test of human genius that reaches one-fourth of the way across the universe.

No dragon, no hippogriff, no pantheon of gods represents a greater stretch of the human imagination than OJ287 and its orbiting companion. The difference? The precise prediction: September 13, 2007. Telescopes around the globe were waiting and watching as OJ287 and its companion performed their cosmic duet exactly at showtime.

What is more mind-boggling? A universe with orbiting black holes at the centers of galaxies? Or a brain the size of a softball that can reach across the light-years to reliably grasp such wonders? If this sort of thing does not make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, nothing will.

(This post is based on a story in the January 18 issue of Science.)

Friday, January 18, 2008


You'd think in the tropics the Sun would be our primary object of celestial attention. Not so. The Sun shines with such reliable favor that we hardly notice it at all. It is the Moon that impresses itself most forcibly upon our consciousness.

First, through the tides. At low tide we are able to walk around the rocks that both ends of the beach, and thereby extend our walks by miles without benefit of sandals. So that twice-a-day pulse becomes part of our own activity.

We never tire of watching for the wispy thin crescents of old and new Moons, with their armsful of earthshine. Of special pleasure are the lunar dawns we see over the dark ocean as the just-past-full Moon approaches rising. And we welcome too those evenings when there is no Moon in the sky, and we can test our eyes on faint objects obscured by moonlight: the Double Cluster in Perseus, the Beehive in Cancer, the zodiacal light, and the winter Milky Way.

Although the Moon is bright enough to obscure faint lights, it is not -- like the Sun -- bright enough to obliterate the stars of its zodiacal path, and so we follow it on its celestial way, as tonight, when it cruises past the Pleiades. For the next weeks we will be looking forward to the total lunar eclipse of February 21, when the Moon dips into the long, skinny cone of darkness that the Earth wears like a wizard's cap.

I think of something May Sarton wrote in her Journal of a Solitude: "Whatever peace I know rests in the natural world, in feeling myself a part of it, even in a small way...To go with, not against the elements." Here in this dark place, with a full hemisphere of night, we feel the Moon's tides in our thoughts, faint, but perceptible, tugging, gently tugging our anxious spirits into harmony with nature's peaceable rhythms.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The clash of civilizations

I have just finished reading two novels -- Isabel Allende's Inez of My Soul, and Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. They are very different books, set in very different times, but they both ask us to confront a sinister side of ourselves.

Allende's book recounts the Spanish conquest of Chile in the 16th century. As in Mexico and Peru, a small band of conquistadors, with guns, steel, horses and dogs, subdue a vastly larger indigenous Mapuche population. It is a story of mind-bending cruelties on both sides, inspired first and principally by the Spanish: the slaughter of innocents, heinous torture, decapitations, the severing of hands, feet, noses and ears, the heartless imposition of slavery. The Mapuche fight for their freedom and their homeland, the Spanish for God, gold and glory.

Kidd's story is set in South Carolina in the 1960s, as blacks begin to assert their civil rights. I grew up in the American South in the 40s and 50s, and the racial hatred and violence that Kidd describes is heartbreakingly familiar.

One comes away from the books with a depressing awareness of the dark potentials of human nature.

During the 16th-century Spanish conquests and 20th-century American racial apartheid, institutional Christian churches aided and abetted evil. Every contingent of conquistadors had its complement of priests, who wielded the sword as often as the cross. White Southern churches were often bastions of segregation.

Times have changed. Consider the outrage that accompanied the Abu Ghraib revelations, and the vigorous debates about Guantanamo. Western soldiers today by and large act in combat with admirable restraint, in accordance with the revised expectations of their societies. Few churches in the American South today do not welcome blacks, and where prejudice remains it is countered by law.

Religious people were often in the forefront of these revolutions, but I would hold that religion was not the critical transforming factor. It was the Western Enlightenment -- the development of free empirical inquiry, secular democracy, and emphasis on individual rights, together with a corresponding rejection of political and religious absolutisms.

Even as the Spanish conquistadors were hacking their way through Chile, Copernicus was moving the Earth from the center of the universe, Vesalius was tracing the Sierras and Amazons of the human body, and Agricola was compiling a catalogue of new technologies. Of course, the Enlightenment project is not complete; the dark potentialities remain. But in the secular democracies the confirmation of the dignity and intellectual autonomy of every human seems irreversible. It remains to be seen whether these values have global currency.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


I may have been in the last generation of youngsters who grew up with an awareness of the works of Maxfield Parrish. The children's' books he illustrated were still in circulation. Reproductions of his works appeared with some regularity in books and magazines meant for kids, and they were commonly framed for children's rooms. To me, they represented a fantasy world, a never-never land of make-believe. Those skies! The blues! The golds! The luminous mists! The billowing clouds like castles in the air! The unearthly light that sugarcoats trees and crags! Certainly, nothing like the skies I experienced in Chattanooga.

Seeing is partly stimulus and partly imagination. I know now, six decades later, that Maxfield Parrish help prepare my imagination to see the sky. As I write, I am looking out at a tropical sunrise that could have been lifted from one of his paintings. Clouds heaped like cotton candy, suffused with pink and gold, against a backdrop of Parrish blue. Is this why I came to the tropics, not just for the stars, but for those childhood fantasies of dawns and dusks?

I try never to be too far away from a copy of Marcel Minnaert's Light and Color in the Outdoors. Minnaert (1893-1970) was a Dutch astronomer who reveled in the magic of vision. His book first appeared in English in 1940; a new translation was prepared in 1993 to commemorate the centennial of the author's birth. It is a compendium of tricks of light and color in the natural world. Minnaert treats the colors of sea, sky, lakes, waterfalls, and puddles along the road. And treats they are: graces, revelations, great gusts of visual beauty blowing in the windows of the brain. For each luminous effect the author gives a scientific explanation.

And now, as I watch, the clouds rise and rise, changing color. The still-hidden Sun approaches the horizon, running through a Maxfield Parrish palette with its tricks of refraction and dispersion. Wake, wake, I whisper to my sleeping spouse, come look.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


We spend a lot of time talking about "the Creation," something that took place 13.7 billion years ago. An infinitely small, infinitely hot seed of energy blazes into existence, apparently ex nihilo. And we invoke this exceptional event as proof of God. The Uncaused Cause, and all that.

This has always seemed to me rather pointless. For one thing, if I wanted proof of the existence of God I wouldn't base it on any scientific theory, especially one as speculative as the Big Bang. Theories have a way of being superseded. Maybe the universe will turn out to be Steady State after all. Maybe the Big Bang is cyclic. Who knows what we'll believe a hundred years from now?

And why does the Uncaused Cause have to be a person, which -- face it -- is most people's idea of God? Sounds like the ultimate idolatry to me. Divest the Uncaused Cause of human trappings and you have a God that is exactly equivalent to "I don't know," so why bother? Call it X, if you wish. The Church of X.

Hitching God to the Big Bang is a fool's errand. "Creation is here and now," wrote Henry Beston in The Outermost House, his account of a year spent on the Nauset dunes of Cape Cod. "So near is man to the creative pageant, so much a part is he of the endless and incredible experiment, that any glimpse he may have will be but the revelation of a moment, a solitary note heard in a symphony thundering through...time."

Let others go looking for God in the singularities and presumed gaps. I'll sit here on the porch and watch Argiope argentata spin her web, listening as best I can to the creative symphony of the here and now.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Our resident spider, a female Argiope argentata, as big as a toddler's hand, persists in building her orb between the screen porch and the white torch tree, across a path we are used to traveling. Which means, at our forgetful age, that we occasionally blunder into the web and end up with Argi clinging to our clothes. We brush her off onto the ground, and the next morning she once again hangs in her usual place, her splendid web more glorious than ever, three kinds of silk spun against the sky.

Fossil spiders with spinnerets (silk glands) on their abdomens are known from the Devonian and Carboniferous periods of Earth history, 300 to 400 million years ago. A 110 million-year-old piece of Spanish amber clearly shows a fly and a mite trapped by strands of spider silk, apparently from a spiral web. This possible instance of orb architecture coincides in the geological record with the explosive diversification of flowering plants and pollinating insects. "What refinement of art for a mess of flies!" exclaimed the great entomologist J. Henri Fabre, in his The Life of the Spider. "Nowhere, in the whole animal kingdom, has the need to eat inspired a more cunning industry."

And ponder this. Hatchling spiders spin webs that rival the finest work of adults. Says Fabre: "There are no masters or apprentices in their guild; all know their craft from the moment that the first thread is laid." Somehow, the Calatravan gift of cable architecture is encoded in their genes, in a four-letter code they share with you and me. The DNA spins proteins with the same facility the spider spins silk. And somehow these two things are linked.

I suppose we should move the spider to another location where it won't impede our passage. I like it where it is. I can sit in the hammock chair on the porch and see it suspended just beyond the screen, a reminder of how much we have learned about the world -- and how much we have yet to learn.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Heh, heh, heh...

Remember Dr. Carrington, the scientist in the movie The Thing? A plantlike creature crash-lands its flying saucer near an American research station at the North Pole, causing all kinds of mayhem. Carrington is impressed by the Thing's pure vegetable intelligence. "No emotions, no heart, our superior in every way!" he enthuses. Now there's a mad scientist we can love. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination, Virgin Moon.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 6 On the beach

I walked the other day, as is my habit, to the far end of the beach, where the beach comes near to the public road. About twenty American college students, guys and gals, presumably on interterm break, had taken up residence on the sand. The young men played frisbee, tan and trim in their long, baggy trunks, heartbreakingly handsome. The women stood by in an appreciative row, posing seductively in their bikinis; "a bevy of beauties," my father would have said. The scene might have been out of Bosch's central panel, the Garden of Earthly Delights -- pure hedonism, pure innocence.

In the course of the week I had been reading about life in the 16th century, Bosch's century. How different, I thought, is life for these 21st-century college kids. With only a little bit of luck, they will live out their lives without the direct experience of war, without epidemic disease -- plague, smallpox, typhoid, cholera, etc. -- without grinding poverty or famine. They can have sex without fear of sexually transmitted disease, and give birth without fear of dying. They will not spend half their lives with toothache, and they will keep their teeth till the day they die. They will live longer, healthier lives than even my generation, three or four times longer than the contemporaries of Bosch. All of this because of the empirical way of knowing.

The circumstances of human life have dramatically changed for those of us who live in the science-based, secular democracies. But, of course, human nature has not changed. We are still prey to pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. The worm is still in the apple. (Who is that gloomy fellow with his head in his hands, on the back of the goldfinch?) The apparently carefree college kids on the beach will -- like humans everywhere, at all times -- struggle to find and keep love, to sleep soundly in the darkest hours of the night, to wake with joy each day to a world made fresh with innocence. They will strive to choose the good and resist evil. Science won't help them with any of that.

I reach the rocks, turn around, and head back up the beach. As I pass the frolicking youngsters again I give them a thumbs up. They will need all the luck they can get.

Friday, January 11, 2008

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 5 1504

In 1504, the year Hieronymus Bosch probably painted The Garden of Earthly Delights, hundreds of miles to the south the Florentines set up in the center of their city Michelangelo's just completed David, a 14-foot-tall white marble statue of the young Israeli king. The statue was meant as symbol of Florentine power -- the giant-killer becomes a giant -- but it was more than that. It was a supreme Renaissance recognition of the power of humans to control their own destinies. No longer need men and women be the playthings of gods who must be placated by incantations and sacrifice. Tall, youthful, mesmerizingly beautiful, utterly naked -- Michelangelo's David paid only the slightest nod to its biblical source. It was set up in the Piazza della Signoria, outside the Palazzo Vecchio, a secular setting for a secular work of art. Hubris? Perhaps. But confidence too, a confidence that would be largely confirmed by history.

Meanwhile, in that same year, Copernicus began to make the celestial observations that would allow him to tear the Earth from its cosmic foundations and send it spinning through the heavens. If the Earth is in motion around the Sun, then the absence of stellar parallax requires that the stars be vast, almost incomprehensible distances away. This was more than a recondite matter of mathematical astronomy. Suddenly the tidy cosmos of Dante and the theologians, contrived by God as a stage for the drama of sin and salvation, was smashed. Humans broke free of the great chain of being. They discovered new civilizations across the Atlantic (and cruelly destroyed them in the name of religion and gold.) Eventually, they would send ships across oceans of interplanetary space.

Hieronymus Bosch does not interest us, I think, for his qualities as an artist. It is as an explorer of the human psyche that we engage him. In the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych he takes us where no one else will quite so explicitly go until Freud appears on the scene four centuries later. He grasps the human psyche by its ankles and shakes it out onto his "canvas." It's all there. Our hankerings for a prelapsarian Eden. Our propensities for envy, gluttony, avarice, sloth, lust, anger, pride. Our capacity for violence. The itch of sex. Altruism. Reverence. Curiosity. Beauty. Love.

Evolutionary psychologists debate what parts of human nature are genetic and what parts are cultural. I think it would be foolish to underestimate biology. Foolish, too, to underestimate our ability to transcend biology. Our neuro-biological natures are sufficiently complex to confer upon us a de facto freedom to choose the good, not because we fear eternal punishment but because reason and experience assures us that our own happiness depends upon the happiness of all.

Tomorrow: One last visit to the jardin de las delicias.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 4 The Garden

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years at the University of Notre Dame, while in the throes of newfound Catholic piety, I crafted a coffee table in my father's basement workshop, with a tiled chessboard built into the top. I designed and jigsawed a chess set, thirty-two pieces enameled black and white, hollowed and weighted at the bottom with solder, the bottoms then covered with green felt. I was hugely proud of the entire production, the finest thing I had ever made.

I was also racked with guilt. Pride is the first of the Deadly Sins. We are called -- so I believed -- to keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is not in this world but the next. The sin called for penance. I would chasten my pride by destroying one of the chess pieces, the white king. I laid the poor fellow on the cement basement floor. I raised the hammer. Then, in a change of heart, I replaced the king with a more easily replaceable pawn. Smash!

As you can see, I was neither a very good sinner nor a very good penitent. I was also already on my way toward apostasy from the bipolar Catholic theology of Paradise and Hell, those enclosing wings of Bosch's triptych. Already my secret longing was for the Garden of Earthly Delights.

The traditional interpretation of the central panel of Bosch's masterpiece is humankind's descent into wickedness, to be paid for in the fiery torments of Hell. And certainly we know from his other works that Bosch had a moralist's regard for sin. But no one could have painted the Garden of Earthly Delights who had not felt -- and did not long for -- pleasures of the flesh. I look at the Garden and see a world that is far more attractive than the sterile precincts of Paradise or the shuddering horrors of Hell.

Men and women, black and white, humans and beasts, enjoy a peaceable kingdom, a world that while tolerant of unconventional desires is devoid of violence. Couples make love in bubbles, in pools, in orchards, in teepees, in mussel shells, on grassy lawns. Everywhere there are luscious fruits -- cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries. The children of Adam cavort with the children of Eve, the lion lies down with the lamb. In the central pool the women bathe, their golden tresses hanging down; their companions circle, an unending parade celebrating the diversity of life. Even the birds, recognizable by species, look on with charmed delight, sharing fruits.

Bosch has pulled a sly trick. Never has "wickedness" been made to look so inviting. Forget for the moment, he seems to say, death, judgment, heaven, hell, all the dark preachings of Savonarola, the burkas, the hairshirts, the smashed chess piece, all those catalogues of sin. Enjoy beauty and pleasure where you find it. Treasure what is yours -- this Earth, this flesh, these creatures, these fruits and flowers. Let Venus rule; not gloomy Saturn or violent Mars.

I look again at the presumed portrait of the artist in the panel Hell. The old master seems to wink.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 3 Hell

Three A.M., the hoo-ha hour. Wake from nightmarish dreams. Rehearse in darkness all the things that might go wrong, a catalogue of ominous thoughts. The edge of the bed might as well be the brink of the abyss.

How thin is the line between reason and unreason, civilization and anarchy, law and chaos. The library of Alexandria goes up in smoke. Plague, syphilis, civil war and fire ravage the serenity of Bosch's Flanders. The Germany of Goethe and Humboldt descends into 20th-century savagery. Planes smash into the World Trade Center, tumbling the towers like houses of cards. Our personal lives, too, teeter on a knife edge. A mutant gene. A germ. A drunken driver swerves into our lane.

Three A. M. The long-beaked bird takes me by the hand, leads me round and round.

If we can imagine Bosch's hell, it is because every detail has been drawn from the here and now. The burning cities. The marching armies. The rivers colored with blood. The blades and thorns, spears and arrows. The insect people, scurrying. The nightjar judge on its potty throne, devouring a hapless sinner -- you? me? -- who farts birds, the nightjar judge who defecates men and women into a dark pit. (Is that cesshole connected by subterranean channels to the dark pool at the foreground of Paradise?) The tables are turned. Musical instruments have become instruments of torture -- the officers of Auschwitz listening to Mozart on their gramophones. A pig, dressed as a nun, forces a kiss.

Three A. M. We need not wait for eternity. The judgment is now, day by day, moment by moment. The nightjar judge, with his iron pot crown, disturbs our sleep, his minions scuttle our neuronal passageways, like rats in sewers. I get out of bed. I go to the kitchen. I turn on the light.

But wait. Who is the white man peering out from the center of the panel, the man with the eggshell body, the treetrunk limbs? He is the one incongruous element in the painting, a Gulliver in a Lilliputian hell. Is it a self-portrait of the artist himself? Amid all the madness, his expression is eminently sane, kindly, mildly curious. He watches dispassionately. I dreamed all this up, he seems to say. It's all there, in my head. And if it's in my head, it's in your head too.

Three A. M. The heart of darkness.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 2 Paradise

Tout les matins du monde sont sans retour: The mornings of the world are without return. The line is from a novel, and gave the title to a film. It might describe the left-hand panel of Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

It is the morning of the world that Bosch depicts, the Judeo-Christian version of that ancient and almost universal myth of a time in the past before woe and worry. Eve kneels demurely in her nakedness to receive God's blessing. Adam looks on bemusedly, as if wondering exactly what it is he is supposed to do with the thing between his legs. Their wondrous paradise is filled with birds and beasts of every sort. (Bosch proves himself a careful observer of the natural world; dozens of species can be recognized.) There is indeed a bliss of sorts -- who would not want to wander within these zoological precincts, pet a unicorn, climb the bird-flocked mountain, discover sex for the first time? But all is not as benign as it seems. A cat makes off with a rat; a lion devours a deer. At the center right is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, with its tempting fruit, twining serpent, and slithering beasties emerging from the pond. And what, pray tell, lurks in the dark pool at foreground?

Never mind, forget the ominous hints that paradise is imperfect. It is morning. A passing shower during the night has washed the air. I sit on the terrace in almost Edenic nakedness and watch the sky brighten in the east. Our resident spider, Argiope argentata, six centimeters from claw to claw, has as usual rebuilt overnight her dazzling orb that fills the space between the porch and the white torch tree. The mocking bird, Mimus polyglottos, sings from the peak of the roof. No newspaper lies on the front stoop with terrible headlines from Darfur or Iraq. No television. The radio is silent. It is morning, and every day dawns anew -- awaits its Original Sin.

There is the wish to make this apparently perfect sunrise hour extend indefinitely, to live suspended between thought and action -- to live without thought and without action -- in the stillness of an unending dawn. Perhaps that is what took me briefly as a young man to the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. Surely that is the attraction of the cloistered life, Simon on his pillar, the woman in the wall. The mornings of the world are without return, they dawn but once. Catch them if you can.

The itch of sex, the scratch of mind, the nagging voice of responsibility: these haven't yet dawned on Adam, haven't yet crossed Eve's mind. But they will, oh yes they will. Look carefully. Paradise is not what it seems. The great globe of the sun breaks free of the horizon, as it has done more than a trillion times since the first terrestrial dawn. I feel its warmth on my naked skin. Argiope argentata waits beneath her silver shield for the fly that bumbles into her trap. The myth of Eden -- the immaculate auroral hour -- is only that.

(You can click and then click again on any of this week's illustrations for enlargements.)

Monday, January 07, 2008

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 1

Hieronymus Bosch painted his ever-intriguing triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights in or about the year 1504 -- on a cusp of history. The Middle Ages are ending. Modernity is being born, most dramatically in the Italian Renaissance. Orthodoxy butts head with adventure, dogma with curiosity. The printing press has been invented. Luther will soon nail his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Copernicus is thirty-one years old.

The city of Florence has recently experienced a last gasp of theological repression with the brief ascendancy of the priest Savonarola, who railed against preoccupation with earthly delights. His bonfire of the vanities consumed mirrors, fine clothing, secular books, musical instruments and the equipment of gaming, perhaps even paintings by such masters as Michelangelo and Botticelli. It was not to last. In 1497, the people, especially the young, revolted, danced in the streets, reopened the taverns, threw wide the doors of their souls to an increasingly secular future. Michelangelo's monumental nude David can be taken as a symbol of a new immersion in the natural order, a new embrace of las delicias.

All of this can be seen working itself out in Bosch's Flemish masterpiece. In the left-hand panel Adam and Eve are blessedly -- and nakedly -- at peace in Eden, in a state of innocence, before the Original Sin (although the lion does not quite lie down with the lamb). In the right-hand panel is the ultimate bonfire of the vanities, a vision of Hell more terrifying than any sermon of Savonarola. And in the central panel, men and women nakedly cavort, indulging themselves in every sort of sensual pleasure, much like the beautiful young people in the streets and bedchambers of Florence once Savonarola had been toppled from influence, and for which, in the traditional interpretation of the painting, they will pay a horrific price in the nightmarish Hades to their right.

Anyone who has seen Bosch's painting, even in reproduction (the original is in the Prado in Madrid), will not have forgotten it. It is one of those works which mirror our souls, in which we see our own dreams and nightmares. Over the next few days I will reflect at length on each panel separately, from a purely personal perspective. In doing so, I am mindful that a much-admired colleague in the nature-writing community, Terry Tempest Williams, spent seven years looking at her own soul in Bosch's mirror, and reported what she found in a remarkable book, Leap. It has been some years since I read Leap; in any case, there is unlikely to be much overlap in our responses.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

All terrain

I can be cranky when I want to be. I wait in cranky anticipation for the first ATV to appear on our beach. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's weekly illumination.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Carbon footprints in the sand

As far as I know, the Bahamas had only one representative at the recent climate change conference in Bali, the Minister of Works and Transportation. The nation's interests were also represented by CARICOM, a multinational Caribbean alliance. No one from this warm neck of the world was particularly pleased with the results. They wanted more and quicker action.

The Bahamas is one of those nations that barely rises out of the sea. Of the 23 largest islands, only one -- Cat Island -- reaches 200 feet in elevation. Three islands have a ridge over 150 feet in height. Thirteen have 100 foot elevations. And five islands rise above fifty feet. The narrow ridges consist of barely consolidated sand dunes from Ice Age times when the sea was lower and winds blew across the Bahamas Bank. Most of the nation lies only a few feet above the waves.

Even a modest rise in sea level would leave the islands even more perilously exposed to hurricanes. And it is generally feared that global warming will result in more frequent and powerful storms.

The irony is that some of the most vulnerable nations contribute least to carbon dioxide emissions and can least afford to respond to changes to sea level and weather patterns.

The islands of the Bahamas generally tend northwest/southeast, and consist entirely of weakly consolidated sand. Typically, as in Exuma, there is a backbone ridge dating from the Ice Ages, and a lower modern ridge along the shore. When Hurricane Noel hit this fall it dumped a huge amount of rain which filled the natural wetlands between the ridges -- which also happens to be where the island's one major road lies. Large parts of the island were isolated by car-deep flooding.

Will the worst-case global warming prognostications come to pass? I will leave it to my climatologist daughter to make the predictions. And to my great-grandchildren to cope with the sea lapping at our terrace.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The heart of the matter

The biologist Lewis Wolpert calls it "Thales's leap."

It is to Thales of Miletos, who lived about 600 B. C., that Wolpert gives credit for being the first to suggest that the world is primarily matter, not mind. Thales chose water as the primary substance. A reasonable guess, to be sure: water exists as a solid, a liquid and a gas; it is manifestly essential to life, and hence to mind. Understand water said Thales, and you are on you way to understanding the world.

It was a daring suggestion that ran counter to every prior explanation that we know about, all of which invoked an animate and intelligent creative force. In place of the Ionian pantheon of gods, Zeus and all his cohort, including the spirits of rocks and pools and trees, Thales said "water."

Of course, Thales was himself a creature of his time, and he almost certainly had precedents that we don't know about, but give him his leap. Start with "stuff." Stuff has one great advantage over mind as an explanatory principle: it can be described mathematically, and Thales was no slouch as a mathematician. With the union of stuff and mathematics, science as we know it began.

We have come a long way from water as the primary stuff. We now understand that water molecules are composites of atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, which are composed of electrons and protons. And even these subatomic particles are...

No more hard little particles rattling around in the void, as proposed by Democritus, Lucretius and Newton. Matter, as it shows itself at the turn of the millennium, is a thing of astonishing, almost "immaterial" subtlety, with a built-in capacity to complexify and diversify, to spin out stars and galaxies, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and ultimately life and consciousness.

As physicists probe the structure of atoms, the fundamental particles dissolve into a kind of cosmic music, all resonances, vibrations and spooky entanglements. There is nothing at the heart of matter that is quite "material" in the way we previously understood the word, but we only got to this place by taking Thales's leap and committing ourselves to a materialist philosophy.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

In quest of the holy

I had an e-mail the other day from Robert Michael Pyle, one of his last before beginning his experiment of living off-the-grid for a year. Curiously, it came just as I was re-reading Doug Burton-Christie's marvelous account of the early Christian anchorites, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism.

I would guess that Bob Pyle is motivated by a "quest for holiness" of a secular sort, a purer sort of life lived in proximity with simple things, in this case butterflies. Bob is an expert lepidopterist, and for the next year he intends to see as many species of butterflies as he can. He has defined his title as Overseer of Butterflies, a nonpaying job, to be sure, but then he figures he can live on very little. Nature will be his Scriptures, his anchorage an ever-changing room in some seedy motor court.

John Burroughs "John-'o-Birds," the naturalist writer and one of Bob's more illustrious predecessors, wrote: "Saints and devotees have gone into the wilderness to find God. Of course, they took God with them, and the silence and detachment enabled them to hear the still, small voice of their own souls." When Bob comes home from his sojourn in "the desert," we can expect another beautiful book of encounters with the holy. A great voice from a great soul.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A few last words on the encyclical Spe Salvi

The last part of the document concerns those things which encourage Christian hope in eternal salvation. Prayer is one. As I mentioned yesterday, the acceptance of suffering is another. Judgment is a third.

By judgment Benedict means the Final Judgment: "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." The world is full of injustice. The wicked prosper and the innocent suffer. Such a world is inconsistent with a loving God unless there is some sorting out. And Benedict brings out all the old apparatus of sorting: the resurrection of the body, heaven, hell, praying for the souls in purgatory -- the works. Have hope, says the pope; if you feel put upon now, it will all be set right in the afterlife.

One reads with a bit of sadness as Benedict struggles to reconcile prescientific dogma with modern reason. He mentions with understanding the philosophers of the Frankfort School, Horkheimer and Adorno, who recognized the equal absurdity of injustice without Judgment and the resurrection of the flesh, and who rejected both atheism and theism as inadequate resolutions. Have faith, says the pope. We can only understand these things through the light of faith. Without faith, no hope.

Which makes me think again of poor old Huxley, whose biography by Adrian Desmond I have been reading again. "Large Victorian families were always edged with grief," writes Desmond. It was not uncommon for children and grandchildren to be carried off by disease, and the Huxley's endured their share of sorrow. Certainly, the old Darwinian war horse had ample reason to rail against the injustice of the world. In his late sixties, frail, going deaf, he would not allow himself to be comforted by the ecclesiastical establishment's promise that he and his loved ones would meet again in justice and judgment on the opposite shore. He puttered in his garden. "I find nailing up creepers a delightful occupation," he wrote. To the best of his ability, he carried on until the end with his insatiable curiosity, confident that love and knowledge offered humankind its best hope of alleviating life's ragged edge of grief, rejecting like Horkheimer and Adorno both atheism and theism, content in the face of the world's apparent injustice with the agnostic's "I don't know."

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year

A New Year's gift from Anne. Click to enlarge.