Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap day

Any Intelligent Designer worth his salt could have done a better job designing a solar system for his favorite creature. I mean, what's this business of having the Earth spin on its axis 365.2422... times during a single journey around the Sun? A nice round number, like 365, would have made things hunky-dory. No need then for leap days.

But no. We have to go to all this silly business of adding a day to every year divisible by 4. Except not in century years. Except in those century years divisible by 400, such as 1600 and 2000. Which gives us 97 leap days every 400 years. Which averages out to 365.2425 days per year, which still isn't perfect, but close enough.

And while he was at it, a really intelligent Designer might have contrived a year of exactly 360 days. Now that's a nice round number, divisible by lots of factors, offering plenty of opportunities for interesting calendars. Even the Babylonians saw the advantages, which is why we divide circles into 360 degrees. A protractor is a model of the solar system that might have been. Twelve months of 30 days. Four 90-day seasons. Sixty 6-day weeks, 15 to a season. Forty-five 8-day weeks. The possibilities of tidy segmentation are endless.

What could he have been thinking, the Intelligent Designer? I suppose it was a test of sorts, not wanting to make it too easy for us, seeing if we could rise to the challenge. Well, we did. So there.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Natural prayers

It occurs to me that during the past four years I have written upwards of a million words on this site. That's roughly the same total as the sixteen books I published during the past 25 years. Or the 1000 weekly columns that I wrote for the Boston Globe. But with a difference. This latest million words exist only in digital form, on some massive computer in California.

Why? What in holy hell am I doing in the blogosphere? At the beginning the idea was to sell books. But the thing soon took on a life of its own. It is gratifying that the site has found a modest readership, but what keeps me going is a kind of monastic discipline. I love the early morning hour with a cup of coffee at my elbow, giving shape to a thought or two from the previous day's experience. I do it for me.

Matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline: These I have incorporated into my life, each with a secular equivalent. A blog, a walk, a book, a starry sky. In the monastic tradition, the arc of canonical prayer recapitulates the arc of a human life, imagined as a quest, for meaning, for the Grail, for God. It is a magnificent conception, encompassing the intellectual, the physical, the contemplative, and it survives translation into religious naturalism.

The monk's prayer is sustained by the belief that someone is listening. I suppose my fidelity to these daily posts is sustained by the fact that someone is reading. To all of you who visit -- thank you.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What should sixth graders know about science?

Some years ago, E. D. Hirsh Jr. compiled a list of what he thinks kids should know by the time they enter junior high, everything from proverbs to geography. The chapters on science list 442 terms, from acid to x-ray. It's a good list, but, as Hirsch would be the first to acknowledge, a vocabulary is itself no basis for literacy. What is required is an understanding of how the world works and our place in it.

If it were up to me, I would organize the primary school science curriculum around five key concepts:

1) The scale of the universe. Every classroom in America has a solar system model, probably hanging from the ceiling like a mobile. Hirsch's dictionary has a solar system diagram. The trouble is, the models and diagrams give no sense of true scale. In fact, they are hugely deceptive. So get the kids out in the playground. Use a basketball for the sun. The Earth is a grain of sand 80 feet away, and the moon is a pinpoint 2 1/2 inches from the Earth. Add the other planets to scale. Have the kids walk around in this model solar system and feel the vastness of space.

Alpha centauri, the next-closest star, is another basketball in Hawaii.

How many stars in the Milky Way galaxy? Make a spiral galaxy on the classroom floor with a box of salt. Astronomers estimate that there are a hundreds of billions of stars in the galaxy. Have the kids figure out how many thousands of boxes of salt it would take to have a grain for every star. It will blow their minds.

2) The dynamic Earth. Soft-boil an egg and break it open. Now you've got something approximating the inside of the Earth. We live on eggshell. The ground is literally moving under our feet. Every year Boston creeps another inch away from Paris. Los Angeles slips an inch toward San Francisco. Every few hundred million years the face of the Earth is made anew.

Why don't we notice all this moving around?

Without saying anything, set up a motorized telescope in the classroom and turn it on. It will rotate once a day on its axis. Sooner or later someone in the class will notice that the telescope has moved. That's when to talk about geologic time and human time.

3) DNA. Every school in America should have a stick-and-ball model of part of a strand of DNA. A big model, as tall as the classroom, a model that shows every atom. Sure, it would be the most expensive teaching tool in the school, but it would be worth it.

There's an arm's length of DNA in every cell of our bodies.

Live with the model in the classroom. Bask in its beauty. Do all the things teachers usually do: Grow bean sprouts in Styrofoam cups, keep turtles in a terrarium, watch a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. But all the while keep an eye on that beautiful strand of DNA.

4) Evolution. Kids love dinosaurs, so talk about dinosaurs. But not just the monsters of Jurassic Park. Talk about all of the dinosaurs. Two hundred million years of dinosaurs. The big ones and the tiny ones. The rapier-toothed meat-eaters and the gentle nibblers of plants.

Roll out a paper time line in the longest corridor of the school. Start with Day One, the formation of the Earth. Walk across 3 1/2 billion years of life, most of the way down the corridor, before encountering anything but microbes. Give the dinosaurs their few feet of time. Find our sliver of space at the end of the line.

Construct a family tree of life on Earth. A big one, with a primal bacterium at the base of the trunk, dinosaurs on their truncated branch, and every kid in the class at the end of a twig.

And send any textbook that calls evolution a theory rather than a fact back to the publishers.

5) Reliable community knowledge. Talk about the difference between theory and fact. Stress that all knowledge is tentative and partial, but that some knowledge is more secure than others. The evolution of animals and plants across millions of years is a reliable fact; astrology is poppycock.

Paper one wall of the room with the front pages of supermarket tabloids: "Woman gives birth to dinosaur baby," that sort of thing. Paper the opposite wall with posters of galaxies, planets, coral reefs, rain forests, dinosaur fossils, the human nervous system, and that famous face of Einstein with the big, brooding, curious eyes. Let the kids decide which world they prefer to live in.

That's enough. I wouldn't care very much if a sixth grader didn't know the definitions of acid and alkali, or pistil and stamen. If the kid had a sense of place,a sense of time, a sense of wonder -- that would be scientific literacy enough for me.

The rest, the 442 definitions, will come in their own sweet time.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Loony tunes

Among the books in my parent's library when I was a child were the popular works of Hendrick Willem van Loon, published in the years between the World Wars. Those books made an lasting impression on my young mind.

Van Loon was a man of encyclopedic interests. The volumes in our house included The Story of Mankind, Van Loon's Story of Art, and Van Loon's Geography. With folksy wit and a genius for simplification (all too often, oversimplification), van Loon reduced eons of history to pithy paragraphs, illustrated with his own charming, slightly loony drawings.

The first page of the Geography had a drawing of a packing crate teetering on the brink of the Grand Canyon. Van Loon wrote: "If everybody in this world of ours were six feet tall and a foot and a half wide and a foot thick, then the whole of the human race (and according to the latest available statistics there are now nearly 2,000,000,000 descendants of the original Homo Sapiens and his wife) could be packed into a box measuring half a mile in each direction." He issued a challenge: "If you don't believe me, figure it out for yourself."

I accepted the challenge. I knew just enough arithmetic to scribble out the calculation. It came out exactly right. All of the people in the world would fit into a box that could be tipped into the Grand Canyon.

In Van Loon's drawing, the box looks tiny, teetering on the brink of the chasm. It was easy for the boy in the chair (and presumably other readers) to imagine that the human impact on the planet was slight, reversible, and manageable. In the first illustration of his Geography, van Loon perhaps unintentionally underplayed the most important geographical problem of our time: The exploding human population.

Today, world population stands at 6.7 billion, more than three times what it was in 1932, the year Van Loon's Geography was published. Current projections foresee 9 billion humans by 2050.

For all his half-baked science, chauvinistic politics, and loony illustrations, Hendrick Willem van Loon knew, even in 1932, that unchecked population growth and depletion of natural resources were serious problems, demanding serious solutions. His Geography ends with a plea for "planetary-planning" that sounds remarkably relevant to our time.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Edging forward

A story from the Science section of Time magazine:

Dr. Helene Deutsch, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, has published a scholarly tome called Psychology of Woman, based on 30 years of research. According to Deutsch, the normal feminine woman is passive and masochistic by nature. She enjoys her own suffering. She is always conservative and matriarchal.

"Woman's intellectuality is to a large extent paid for by the loss of valuable feminine qualities," writes Deutsch. "Everything relating to exploration and cognition, all the forms and kinds of human cultural aspiration that require a strictly objective approach, are with few exceptions the domain of the masculine intellect, or man's spiritual power, against which women can rarely compete."

The intellectual woman is masculinized, says Deutsch; she has yielded her warm intuitive knowledge to cold unproductive thinking. An aggressive woman is often concealing a fear of her own femininity.

Does something seem fishy about this story? It's from Time magazine, all right, but from the issue for June 12, 1944. A salutary lesson in taking science with a grain of salt.

Deutsch thought she had doped out the essential nature of woman, but few psychologists today would accept her view that women are by nature passive and masochistic. She is sometimes accused of having given a stamp of inevitability to self-denigrating female behavior. The feminist writer Kate Millet accused Deutsch of advocating a "doctrine of female subjugation."

Of course, Deutsch's Psychology of Woman, like all science, was a product of its time. She was a female psychiatrist working in a world of mostly male professionals, dominated by the influence of the great male myth-maker Sigmund Freud, whose student she was. The world was at war -- a war presided over and fought by men. All this is undoubtedly reflected in her work.

Will the science we read about today seem as wrongheaded 64 years from now? Perhaps, in some cases, but that's no reason to dismiss it. What's called for always is confidence hedged with skepticism. Science isn't a perfect instrument of progress, but it would seem to be the best we have.

Helene Deutsch's science may have been flawed, but she was herself a woman of impressive force and intellectuality. She grew up in a time and place -- the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- when women were denied access to higher education and important clinical positions. Nevertheless, she carved out for herself a considerable reputation in international psychiatry, and had a long, productive life as analyst, spouse and mother.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Try to remember...

I was playing this week with my daughter's iPod Nano. Eight gigabytes of memory in a package not much bigger than a matchbook, All her music. All her photos. A technological marvel. But not a patch on the human brain. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


An illustration in last Sunday's New York Times evoked the pixelated pics of not so long ago, all jagged little squares, lines that looked more like staircases. This was intentional, of course. One can assume that any illustrator employed by the Times has up-to-date hardware and software graphics. The idea, I suppose, was to look retro. How quickly what we once thought was cutting edge became antique.

I sit here working at my laptop and if I stop to think about what's in front of me I can only shake my head in wonder. I was there in the 1950s and 1960s when the first commercial computers were coming on line. Not so many years later I was dragooned into teaching a two-semester course on how computers work because I was the only one on the faculty who had the knowledge. It was fun. We started with Boolean logic, then went on to the electronic expression of logic functions, flip-flops, edge-triggering, registers, ALUs, and so on. The culmination of the course was to break up into groups of four and build a working computer out of 7400 series integrated circuits -- clock, registers, instruction decoders, ALU, the works. They were simple machines, with an extremely limited instruction set, but they embodied all the elements of timing and control of a real machine. The students could step their way though a program -- front edge, back edge, front edge, back edge -- and watched data move around with their logic probes. I wish I had a photo of one of those machines, spread out on a board about a meter square. When the students finally debugged their creations and got them to work, they were inordinately proud -- and understood how computers work.

Time passed, and computer theory and practice raced far ahead of me. The college developed a department of computer science, and I retired from the front lines with my 7400 chips. No one builds a hands-on machine anymore; it's all theory. The current students know vastly more about computers than I will ever know, but I wonder if any of them have a clue about what's actually happening down there in the guts of the CPU with each beat of the clock.

I sit here thinking about what's going on inside this sweet little MacBook at 1.83 billion times a second, for hours on end, with never a missed beat, never a dropped bit, and it makes my head spin. I belong to the generation of the jagged pixels, dot-matrix printers, and 8-bit CPUs. And I remember with an aching fondness those long afternoons in the electronics lab when we huddled around a bench with a logic probe in our hands, watching the red and green LEDs flicker on and off as our handful of machine-code instructions were executed step -- by step -- by step -- by step.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Block heads

A brief story in the Times drew my attention to Unit Blocks. You know the sort of toy blocks I'm talking about. Invented by educator Caroline Pratt in the early 19th century. Solid maple. Unpainted. Beautifully machined. The unit block has a 1-2-4 ratio, 1-3/8 inch by 2-3/4 inch by 5-1/2 inch. Hefty enough to give a child a sense of real construction, or to do serious damage when hurled at a sib. Units. Half-units. Double units. Quad units. Pillars. Columns. Triangles. Gothic arch. Roman arch. Buttress. Door. Early in our child-rearing days -- living on $1500 a year as a graduate student -- my mother-in-law gave us $100 out of the blue. An unimaginable sum to spend as we wished. We blew it on the biggest set of Unit Blocks, even though they very nearly crowded us out of our tiny apartment. And never looked back.

I used to set challenges for the kids. Build a tower that reaches to the ceiling. Build a bridge that spans the gap between two rugs. Did they learn the laws of balance, fulcrums, centers of gravity, angles of repose? These are physical principles. They are life principles too.

We had all the other construction sets too, at one time or the other: Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Erector Set, Mechano, Legos, and, for the grandchildren, K'Nex. All those little twiddly pieces mostly got sucked up in the vacuum cleaner, lost behind sofa cushions, or disappeared down heating vents. But the Unit Blocks endured, impossible to lose or break, as solid as the stone tablets Moses brought down from Sinai.

Our kids would have to say whether the blocks were a significant part of their intellectual (and moral) development. I think it might be Maureen, the scientist, who has them now. At least I hope they are still in family possession, waiting for the great-grandchildren.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A midwinter's night dream

SNOUT: Doth the moon shine that night we play our play?

BOTTOM: A calendar, a calendar! look in the almanac; find out moonshine, find out moonshine.

QUINCE: Yes, it doth shine that night.

Oh yes, it shined. Then it didn't shine. Then it shined again. On schedule, as the almanac said. And we the players played.

Couldn't have asked for a more perfect night. Not a cloud in the sky. The waves lapping gently at the sand. Enough of a breeze to keep the bugs away. Neighbor Dwight and our two granddaughters made a splendid bonfire. The neighbors gathered. Drinks and snacks. And then, at 9:43 PM exactly, the moon touched the Earth's shadow.

As bright an eclipse as I can recall, more tangerine-colored than coppery. What I love about the moon in eclipse is the way it looks positively three-dimensional. This is an illusion, due to the uneven illumination of the moon's surface (the shadow is darkest at its center, lighter toward the edge). But still, there it is, a globular pearl, a luscious fruit.

And at totality, what a sky! Bedazzled with stars. Saturn and Regulus keeping company with the moon. The winter Milky Way. Lordy, even the Double Cluster in Perseus was a fine naked eye object. We lay back in our beach chairs and gaped.

An hour later, the moon edged into direct sunlight, "like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven" to bless the night of our solemnities.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Every heart a Walden Pond

Back when I conducted a writing seminar called The Naturalist, it was our habit -- our happy band of scribblers -- to make a visit to Walden Pond. We always chose a day out of season, middle of the week, overcast sky, so that we might have the place to ourselves. We sat at the site of Thoreau's cabin and read aloud passages from Walden. Then we separated to find each our own place of solitude to sit and journal.

Did we catch something of the spirit of the man himself, who urged us to build castles in the air -- and then take care to give them proper foundations. Each word we wrote was like a brick set carefully in place.

Mary Oliver has a poem called Going to Walden in which she expresses skepticism about the value of such a visit. She reminds us that Thoreau cautioned against scurrying here and there in search of what we might more usefully find closer to home. Pilgrimages are easy, Oliver suggest. "It is the slow and difficult/ Trick of living, and finding it where you are," that she sees as our proper goal.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Unraveling the mystery

Let me revisit once again something I touched upon In Skeptics and True Believers.

I mentioned to a friend the other day that there is an arm's length of DNA in every cell of the human body. His perfectly reasonable response: How could there be an arm's length of anything in something too small to see with the naked eye?

I might as well have asked him to believe in hobgoblins or unicorns.

Let's do the math.

We know from X-ray diffraction studies that a strand of DNA is 1.5 nanometers in radius (1.5 billionths of a meter). Assume a cylindrical molecule 1 meter long with a radius of 1.5 nanometers. The cylinder has a volume of 7x10-18 cubic meters. A typical animal cell is about 8 micrometers in radius. Assume a spherical cell and calculate the volume: 2100x10-18 cubic meters. The cell has 300 times the volume of the DNA strand. The DNA fits neatly inside.

Or put your head around this apparently outlandish claim: The DNA in your body, if stretched out end to end, would reach to the Sun and back 30 times. No way!

Do the math. An arm's length of DNA in each of, say, 10 trillion cells. Ten trillion meters. Ten billion kilometers. Six billion miles. A round trip to the Sun is (approximately) 200 million miles. QED.

Lovely illustrations of the power of math as an aid to the imagination!

Many of us tend to believe those things that give us a sense of empowerment over our bodies or of being the focus of cosmic attentions: astrology, UFOs, reincarnation, angels, out-of-body experiences, miraculous cures, parapsychology, personal gods, etc., for none of which is there a shred of nonanecdotal, reproducible evidence. Meanwhile, the real wonders go by the board. As the naturalist/cartographer Tim Robinson wrote: Miracles are explainable. It's the explanations that are miraculous.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Like a kid's Christmas, anticipation is half the fun.

On Wednesday evening the Moon will slip into total eclipse. Two of my granddaughters, ages six and eight, will be visiting with their parents. A bonfire on the beach, then a little before nine o'clock the Earth's shadow will start nibbling at the bright disk of the Moon. A hour-and-a-half later the Moon will have turned a spooky red (how dark and what color precisely one cannot reliably predict). By midnight it will all be over, with the restored full Moon standing almost directly overhead. And, as a special treat, Saturn and Regulus will be near the eclipsing Moon, excellent background objects by which to measure the Moon's slow slide through shadow.

Here in Exuma we are pretty much perfectly situated for the eclipse. Warm night. Unobstructed view over the sea. An evening event (our friend Mark in Fiji is out of luck; daytime there, with the Moon hidden behind the Earth).

The only uncertainty is the weather. Will we have clouds or clear sky? We are following the weather reports closely.

My task will be to help the two little girls imagine the shadow, which the Earth wears like a long skinny wizard's cap pointing away from the Sun. At the distance of the Moon's orbit, the shadow is about twice as wide as the Moon, tapering to a point about twice that much further again away. The wizard's cap has a name. The name is "night." Night has a shape.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Words can mean as much or as little as we want them to mean. Poets and scientists use words in different ways. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Heads or tails

One last comment before I put away Tim Birkhead's book. Consider this tidbit of information: Male fruit flies of the species Drosophilia bifurca produce sperm that are 38 times as long as their bodies. That is, the fly is about as big as this letter i, and its sperm is as long as your little finger. It's as if a human male produced sperm as long as a football field. Producing such sperm and delivering them successfully to a female takes some doing, as you can well imagine.

And what do intelligent design advocates make of such a fact? One can only imagine the Creator sitting as His drawing board chuckling to Himself as he imagines yet another bit of whimsy.

Evolutionists, at least, can suppose that long sperm -- which females seem to prefer -- confer some adaptive advantage. For example, does the pinkie-long tail provide nourishment to the fertilized egg? Well, let's do the observations. Nope, only the gene-bearing head of the sperm is absorbed by the egg. Do long tails let sperm swim faster? Nope, the longer tail produces greater propulsive force, but this is more than offset by greater drag. There are at least a half-dozen other hypotheses, including the possibility that big sperm in fruit flies are like a big rack of antlers on a stag; they signal reproductive fitness in the male. As far as I know, the issue hasn't been resolved -- which is nice, because it means more work for biologists. The intelligent designists, on the other hand, can rest on their laurels; their work is done.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Tut, tut...

Charles Darwin's evolutionist grandfather Erasmus was something of a rake. He had an inordinate fondness for the ladies, and apparently fathered several illegitimate children. Sex loomed large in his private life; it loomed large in his scientific thinking too. His long poems on plant sex were explicit enough to qualify as erotica.

By the time Charles came along, Victorian reticence about sex was in full swing, perhaps (suggests Tim Birkhead) "as a way of controlling the masses, preventing them from dissipating their energies and permitting them to do only what was essential to maintain the workforce." Whatever the reason, Charles was much less inclined to write about sex for a popular audience than was his grandfather, and for this reason his important work on the role of sex in natural selection was not as influential as it might have been. Only in his more technical writing, which he assumed would not be read by the susceptible masses, did he give free expression to his many detailed observations of animal reproduction.

His work on barnacles was particularly important. He was intrigued by the fact that female barnacles had little pockets on their bodies in which they kept multiple "husbands." Part of his problem was convincing his scientific colleagues that these little organisms were males of the same species, rather than parasites. Elsewhere he describes the penis of one species of male barnacle as being "wonderfully developed", lying "coiled up, like a great worm" and when extended between eight and nine times the length of the animal. Heaven forfend that the eyes of a proper lady should fall upon such a description.

Birkhead proposes that it was inhibition that kept Darwin from more fully developing the idea of sperm competition, perhaps delaying progress in this area by many decades. Darwin's daughter Henrietta, who edited his The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, was even more prudish, striking out passages in her father's manuscript she thought unduly suggestive. Birkhead says that Henrietta initiated a campaign to eradicate the stinkhorn fungus (Phallus impudicus) from the English countryside, lest it have a bad influence upon its beholders.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

That's the story of, that's the glory of...

Click to enlarge Anne's Valentine.

I read somewhere that Valentine's Day is big in Iran. And in China. Here on this little island in the Bahamas it is one of the most celebrated days of the year. Seems as if every Bahamian man is buying a big red-cellophane-wrapped basket of romantic goodies for his honey. The women too are snapping up amorous tokens for their lovers.

Cupid is apparently more ubiquitous than Santa.

But what is the purpose of all of these endearing gifts? Disinterested love? Or is it something we want in return?

Biologist Tim Birkhead writes about a key concept of sexuality in Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition:
Far from being a co-operative venture between the sexes, reproduction was a selfishly motivated exercise, with each male and female out to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. Sometimes the interests of each sex coincided, creating the illusion of co-operation, but most of the time each individual was out to get the best deal -- even at the expense of his or her partner. This is sexual conflict: the battle of the sexes, where males and females are out to screw each other for the best, selfish genetic deal they can get...[T]his unconsciously selfish attitude by each sex has been the driving force for many behavioral, physiological, and anatomical aspects of reproduction.
Is Valentine's Day a triumph of romance over biology? Or are we really selfishly signaling what we want in bed? "What do women want?" has been the perennial male question. Women pretty much know what men want, but they are no happier for it. Considering the sex lives of other species doesn't help much to answer the questions. A female screwworm fly mates only once in her life. The male giant water bug might copulate more than 100 times in a 36-hour period. Humans seem to fall somewhere between the screwworm flies and the water bugs. Where they fall may depend on a box of chocolates or a dozen long-stemmed roses.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Imperfect symmetry

Remember little moron jokes? They may be politically incorrect these days, but here's one I remember from my mother's Treasury of American Folklore:
A little moron is nailing shingles on a house and tossing away every other nail. Another little moron comes along and asks, "Why are you throwing away half the nails?" "The heads are on the wrong end," says the first little moron. "You moron," says the second little moron, "those are for the other side of the house."
Well, I thought it was funny at the time. And it still has a nice philosophical absurdity about it. Maybe even a dollop of existential profundity.

In 1927, the English physicist Paul Dirac, pondering the equations that govern subatomic particles, predicted that every particle should have a kind of mirror image, or "antiparticle" -- a nail with the head on the other end, so to speak. The electron, with its negative charge, should be complemented by an antielectron, or positron, alike in every respect except for having a positive charge. The positively-charged proton should be complemented with a negatively-charged antiproton. And so on.

If antimatter exists, then antielectrons and antiprotons can form antimatter atoms. Antimatter atoms can make antipeople, antiplanets, antistars, antiworlds -- another whole universe on the other side of the house.

There is just one problem. If matter and antimatter meet, they annihilate each other in a burst of pure energy, called gamma rays.

Five years after Dirac's startling prediction, positrons were produced in the laboratory. Today, at high-energy particle accelerator labs, the production of antimatter is commonplace. These antimatter particles are born into a world of matter. Immediately, they meet their matter complements and vanish in a puff of gamma radiation. It takes lots of energy to make antiparticles. They disappear in a flash.

As far as astronomers know, the observable universe is made almost entirely of matter, not antimatter, and this presents a puzzle.

Matter and antimatter should have been created in equal amounts in the furious first moments of the Big Bang. But if other parts of the visible universe were made of antimatter, we would see a flood of gamma radiation from mutual annihilation at the boundaries where domains of matter and antimatter meet.

So where is all the antimatter today?

It seems that just before the universe was a millisecond old, primeval matter and antimatter annihilated each other in a sweeping extinction. But a tiny asymmetry was built into the universe from the very beginning, so that matter dominated over antimatter by -- oh, say -- one part out of 100 billion. When the epoch of annihilation ended, only matter remained. And that's the universe we live in

Why the initial asymmetry? Why not a perfect balance of matter and antimatter, in which case the history of the universe would have lasted less than a thousandth of a second. Physicists have proposed ideas to account for the "breaking of symmetry," but it's mostly a matter of making up just-so stories to fit the apparent facts. Little morons would suggest that in every bag of nails, half of the nails should have heads on the other end. And maybe, just maybe, there is another side of the house.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


"The a different Eden for every gardener," says Diane Ackerman. Our neighbors in the new condos next door have finished their landscaping. They scraped the earth flat and bare, then planted from scratch -- truckloads of imported sod, transplanted mature palms, tropical shrubs of every sort, sprayed and trim. Our friend the talented nurseryman Marco got the job, so you can be sure it looks good. This is Eden for a very upscale Adam, an Adam who wants to sit down with God and negotiate a contract: "I'll contribute a rib in return for a suitable trophy Eve -- young, lithe, looks good in a fig bikini."

Our garden is a rather more scruffy thing, a postlapsarian wilderness held tentatively at bay. The love vine and bur grass are as persistent as sin, and -- yes -- there's a snake, a big white boa that tries hard to come across as the Prince of Darkness, but we like him because he keeps down the rats. God knows what our new neighbors make of the sea lettuce that grows with all the abandon of human hubris run amok. The closest thing we have to forbidden fruit are the coco plums; whenever the guys from Darville's Lumber come by with a delivery they wolf them down, thereby acquiring, I would suppose, about as much knowledge of good and evil as it is possible to obtain in this world. And the sea grape, which my own Eve loves with a consequential longing, juts and flops and elbows its way into places it has no business being, like angels in rebellion, fallen choirs. Not so much Eden this as Milton's infernal "all-demon" palace where plants collude and conspire to bring creation to ruin.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Good scouts

Sometimes it just doesn't pay to do a good deed. Consider the Bahamian boa, a thick white snake that grows to an impressive length and spends its indolent life feeding on the vermin -- rats, mice -- that no one wants around the house. You'd think folks would welcome a boa to the neighborhood, set out little treats. But no. Show a Bahamian a boa and he'll hack it with a shovel. Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent. And -- whacko! -- dead.

But it is the hairy ground spider I wanted to write about. Another good scout. Keeps garden pests under control. A regular Orkin man who works for free.

Yeah, well. First, you gotta see a hairy ground spider. As big as your hand and covered with brown fur. Eight eyes in a ball turret on the top of its head. Ugly as sin. Belongs to a family of spiders known as the hairy mygalomorphs. Hairy mygalomorphs! Invasion of the body snatchers.

No kidding. This is a harmless creature. Hunts mostly at night. Keeps out of sight as if it knew it was ugly as sin. If it were a human, it is the sort of fellow who would help old ladies across the street. Except the old ladies would take one look and faint dead away with fright.

Female ground spiders are "peas-'n-rice" plump (as they'd say in the Bahamas), and these seem to be the ones we find in the garden when we are rooting around in the litter. Males are scrawny and leggy; they can't shed their skin and so cannot grow after reaching maturity. You can be sure that a female hairy mygalomorph is the most beautiful thing in the world to a male hairy mygalomorph. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- or eight eyes, as the case may be.

On my honor the ground spider does its best as nature intended, but doing one's best just ain't enough when you are plug ugly.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Even educated fleas do it

For Valentine's week I am repeating a Musing of three years ago. The search for love is endless. Enjoy.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Gorillas in the mist

I have just finished reading Harold Hayes' fine biography of Dian Fossey, the remarkable (and disturbingly complex) primatologist who spent so many years living with the mountain gorillas of the eastern Congo and Rwanda. One puts away the book with what I suspect is a somewhat romantic view of gorillas. Human primates come off as a rather more mixed bag of virtues and vices, capable of great acts of altruism and heinous crimes of inter- and intraspecies violence. Fossey seems to have established an almost humanlike bond with the subjects of her study, and certainly felt for them more tenderness and affection that she was able to muster for some of her fellow humans. Her colleagues were often appalled by the violence she evinced towards anyone who threatened her gorillas.

Primatologists met recently in Gottingen, Germany (see Nature, January 25) to discuss what unique characteristic or combination of characteristics lit the fuse that led to the singular pace of human cultural evolution. The capacity for advanced planning? Our ability to trade immediate gratification for long-term rewards? Social organization and cooperation? Spontaneous altruism? Use of tools? Imitation? Innovation? Language? All of these characteristics appear in other primates in at least a rudimentary way. Cognition researcher Joanna Bryson summarized the conference discussions this way: "We are just primates with a particular combination of traits. Seeing how all those traits came together and exploded into our current culture is really interesting. It makes you wonder whether it might happen soon for another species, given the chance."

Whether any other primate will have that chance is a matter of some conjecture. Certainly, the mountain gorilla hangs onto continued existence by a thread, a thread that to a large extent is the result of Dian Fossey's efforts on their behalf. It is after all her story that captured the attention of the world.

Somehow, hundreds of thousands of years ago, one species of primate distilled a combination of behaviors that led to a ratcheting up of all of the characteristics we share with our evolutionary cousins. The cultural gap between us and them widened to the extent that they now depend entirely upon our forbearance for their existence. We are their greatest enemy; we are their only friend.

In the late 19th century, the Belgians massacred a estimated five million Congolese within five years at the behest of the Belgian king Leopold, one of the most brutal genocides in history. It was standard practice of the Belgians to cut off the hands of any African who didn't work fast enough on their rubber plantations. Hayes recounts episodes of stomach-churning cruelty against whites by descendants of those plantation workers. Yes, we are unique among the primates for our art, our language, our technology, our capacity for disinterested altruism, but any attempt to account for the special nature of human evolution must recognize that we also surpass our primate cousins in our capacity for evil.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Like shining from shook foil

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man's smudge & shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast & with ah! bright wings.
Poor Gerard Manley Hopkins. Caught agonizingly between God's immanence and God's transcendence. From the time he was a child he was drawn to the natural world: plants, animals, hills, dales, streams, slants of light, the forms of frost, starry nights, comets, stones, bells, the aurora borealis, human faces. He was attuned to these things with a special sensitivity. It was almost as if he could see into them, to what he called their inscape, "the deepest freshness deep down things," a grandeur inherent in materiality that he perceived as divine.

But Hopkins could not rid himself of the notion that by attending to the material world of particular things he was being drawn away from the spiritual and universal. The Jesuits, to whom he gave his short life, believed the senses were the enemy of sanctity, that beauty was the Devil's share. The young men at the Jesuit novitiate -- eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, at the peak of their sexual and sensual awakening -- were kept occupied every waking hour of the day lest their idle senses become an occasion of sin. They were even given "modesty powder" for their bath to make the water opaque; God forbid that they might be aroused to lascivious thoughts by the sight of their own genitals. Hopkins seems to have borne such training gracefully, and it must be said the Jesuit regimen was not at odds with his own ascetic inclinations. He often practiced what his religious superiors called "custody of the eyes," forcing himself to walk though the world with his vision fixed at his feet.

It is all terribly Roman Catholic, this perplexed attraction and revulsion to materiality -- heaven knows I was there myself as a young man. Hopkins seems to have resolved the conflict only in his late sonnets, such as God's Grandeur. It was an almost pantheistic formula he contrived, and it was looked upon with suspicion by the Jesuits. But as we read the poems we sense a man who has looked deeply into himself and caught there a sense of something both material and spiritual, not as opposites, but as complementary manifestations of the same "bright wings."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Speaking of health

My wife volunteers in the high-school library here on the island. Recently, she brought home a book that was about to be discarded, a battered copy of The Best Short Stories, 1936, English and American. Published in the year we were born.

According to stamps and labels inside, the book made its way to the island from the "Ranfurly Library Service, Kensington Palace Barracks, London," which seems to have acquired it from a Scottish county library. What interests me is a printed label on the inside cover, with instructions for Scottish borrowers. Among the instructions: "Readers should report to the Local Librarian any case of infectious disease occurring in the house while a library book is in their possession."

We forget sometimes just how impressive has been the progress of scientific medicine even in our lifetimes.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Plague comes to Alexandria

I wrote yesterday about physicalist medicine and alternative and complementary therapies. I have written a novel on the topic, about a 3rd-century Galenist physician, Valentine, who advances naturalistic healing at a time when most matters of medicine were left in the hands of the gods, the stars, and necromancers. (It's a love story too.) Here is a passage about young Valentine's first encounter with epidemic disease.
On the night of Eppia's death, as Theophrastus grieved, Valentine walked across the Heptastadium causeway to the island of Pharos. The lighthouse was dark: No blazing beacon welcomed sailors to the stricken city. A chain blocked the harbor's mouth. On the beach near the lighthouse he spreadeagled himself on the sand. Red Mars blazed in Pisces in the southwest, where he could also see the glow of fires in the necropolis beyond the city walls. The Great Bear skimmed the northern sea horizon. In the east, towards the channels of the Nile, rose majestic Orion. Sirius, too, was there, presiding over the pestilent dog days of autumn. As Valentine watched, a crescent moon lifted out of the distant marshes like a silver cup of libation to indifferent gods. Soon, he knew, the Morning Star would follow. He whispered to himself the opening lines of the great poem of Lucretius:

Dear Venus, creatress of the world,
joy of earth and heaven, mother of Romans:
For you that sweet artificer, the earth,
Offers gifts of flowers, and for you
The deep ocean smiles, the peaceful heavens shine
With shoreless light.

The city slept. A deep silence hung upon the sea. The star-pricked heavens arched from east to west, from north to south, godlike in their uninterrupted turning. Theophrastus lives. Eppia dies. Do the gods roll dice? Does fortune choose? Or is it all a chancy thing, as Lucretius says, a jumble of atoms in the void, corpuscular seeds of pestilence on a capricious wind, wafting here and there, alighting randomly on the good and bad alike, rich and poor, Christian, Jew and acolyte of Venus. He closed his eyes. And then for some reason that he did not understand he thought of Olivia, the girl of Apollonia whom he had left with child. It was perhaps the first fully adult thought of Valentine's life -- a sudden sense of consequence, of responsibility. It had been two years. What had become of the child who was his seed? Was it aborted as an embryo? Did it die in childbirth? Or was there even now somewhere in the district of Cyrenaica a toddling boy or girl who would never know a father, watched over by sweet Olivia.

...for you
The deep ocean smiles, the peaceful heavens shine...

For the first time since he had come to Alexandria, Valentine was homesick.

The moon cradled upwards. And thinking of his single act of love with Olivia -- the impetuous spilling of his seed that had entrained such unintended consequences -- his thoughts turned to [the prostitute] Nibi, careful Nibi, with her contraceptive balms of honey and resin, her locks of fine white wool soaked in the juice of balsam. Honey. The resin of cedar. Myrtle oil. Incense. The sweetness of her oiled skin. The delicious fragrance of her lamp. He rose from the sand and made his way back across the Heptastadium and through the dark city to the Street of the Emeralds. It was the first time he had been to the house of Nibi since the sickness had come to Alexandria.

Her door was marked with the magistrates' black "X" of pestilence.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Finding meaning in randomness

In the January 27 New York Times Book Review, noted physician/writer Jerome Groopman reviews Harvard professor Anne Harrington's The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. A timely book, observes Groopman. In the United Sates, visits to providers of complementary and alternative medicine -- homeopathy, acupuncture, herbal remedies, crystal therapies, and the like -- now outnumber visits to medical doctors, to the tune of $40 billion a year. Can all of this be mass delusion, or is there something real on offer?

Harrington looks at the deep history of the mind-body connection, and thinks it at least partly addresses the personal mystery of illness: Why me? Why now? What next? Positive thinking gives the patient some measure of being in control of her own destiny. And of course, there's the placebo effect, about which physicalist doctors understand very little.

Placebo Domino in regione vivorum, "I will please the Lord in the land of the living." This verse from the Latin Vulgate Bible brought the word placebo into the English language. It is the name commonly given to the Roman Catholic Vespers for the Dead, which has the biblical passage as the initial responsive verse. Long before the word showed up in medical literature, it had already acquired other English meanings -- flatterer, parasite. "To sing placebo" means to play the sycophant.

Today, we use the word almost exclusively for the famous "sugar pill" that physicians sometimes give to patients who insist upon medicine when none is strictly called for, and which are used as controls in tests of new drugs. The sugar pill has therapeutic effects, or so it has been claimed. It has long been gospel within the medical community that placebos have clinical benefits in as many as one-third of patients who take them. Can thoughts affect physical body functions by tricking the brain into releasing endorphins -- a natural morphine-like drug -- into the body?

A few years ago, two Danish researchers, Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Peter Gotzsche, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that the curative power of placebos is a myth. They tracked down 114 studies that compared placebos to no treatment at all, and found no significant differences, except possibly in the subjective relief of pain. In other words, the famous "placebo effect" does not exist.

In the meantime, 60 million Americans believe in therapies that have no recognized physical causation. Psychologist Barry Beyerstein lists ten reasons why these therapies sometimes seem to work, including (in addition to the placebo effect) spontaneous remission of symptoms, the power of suggestion by charismatic gurus who peddle alternative therapies, psychological distortion of reality (what psychologists call cognitive dissonance -- the denial of unpleasant truths), and the possibility that some allegedly cured symptoms might be psychosomatic to begin with.

Placebo means literally "I will please." Like everyone else, physicalist skeptics like me (and Groopman) have a tendency to please ourselves. More research needs to be done to discover the precise biochemical nature of whatever is meant by "the power of suggestion," "mind-body connection" and "psychosomatic." Until we know in some real physical sense how the mind affects the body, alternative therapies will continue to lurk in the dusky corners of medicine.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The slime of the Earth

Long time visitors to Science Musings may recall my paean to the amoebic creatures called slime molds. In that essay I wrote:
But wait. Watch. Observe their streamings and slitherings and towerings. They are a mass of individuals. They are a society. They blossom like flora. They creep about like fauna. They are plant and they are animal. And neither. They embody in their life cycle the history of life, and the history of our race. They are charged full with animation.
Slime molds are one-celled organisms that in the course of their life cycle band together and specialize in what is to all intents and purposes a multicelled fruiting body -- in a curious way recapitulating the history of life on Earth.

And now it turns out we can add another talent to the strange list of the slime mold's accomplishments: memory!

According to a report in the January 23rd issue of Nature, a team of researchers in Japan have demonstrated that slime molds learn from experience. The rate at which slime molds move varies with the humidity of the environment; they slow down in drier air. The Japanese researchers gave the organisms hourly "shocks" of dry air, and watched them slow down. When the shocks stopped, the slime molds continued to slow down on the hour, as if they were anticipating the next regular shock. This behavior persisted for several cycles before the memory faded. The Japanese say that their findings "hint at the cellular origins of primitive intelligence."

Well, we'll see. A result so startling needs confirmation. But if true, we have a gooey colony of slime picking up a rhythm, learning a beat.

In that earlier essay, I wrote:
There is a sense, I suppose, in which you and I are slime molds of a sort, accretions of trillions of cells that have banded together and specialized for the purpose of producing sperms and ova. The essence of life is to make more life. Over an over again in the history of life the efficiency of reproduction has been aided by collaboration, symbiosis, even altruism.
And, of course, by learning and memory.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sagittarius A

Dazzling apparition in the morning sky. Even better tomorrow, if clear.

A week or so ago I had some things to say about the largest known black hole, OJ287, at the center of a galaxy 3.5 billion light years away. Today's Musing takes us to a black hole rather closer to home.

The perfect Valentine gift for your sweetie.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The fact of it all

The locus of the tension between science and religion lies precisely in an idea famously articulated by the physicist Steven Weinberg: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."

For most of human history, we imagined that we were the point. We resided at the center of a cosmic egg that had been created for us by a benevolent (if sometimes inscrutable) god. The stories we invented and passed down to our children were various, but they all asserted the centrality of self. Each of us lived at a focal point of divine attention. And that was the point.

What a different world has been revealed by science! The human abode is a dust mote in a vast (perhaps infinite) cathedral of galaxies, a random accretion of cosmic matter near an ordinary star. Our bodies and minds are products of 4 billion years of random variation and contingent selection. We have no idea if we are the only efflorescence of consciousness in the universe, but everything we have learned about what the universe is and how it works suggests that we are in no way special. Of the old stories, we have discovered not a whit of confirmation.

No wonder so many of us see science as a threat to our self-esteem. No wonder so many of us choose to live in a state of cognitive dissonance -- with science and faith confined to watertight compartments of our minds. We want to know the point of it all, and science seems to offer only nihilism and despair.

Can science and religion reconciled? Only for those who are willing to forego knowing the point. In her beautiful little book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, microbiologist Ursula Goodenough writes:
The realization that I needn't have answers to the Big Questions, needn't seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me. I assimilate the vastness of the distance, the impermanence, the fact of it all. I go all the way out and then I go all the way down, to the fact of photons without mass and gauge bosons that become massless at high temperatures, I take in the abstractions about forces and symmetries and they caress me, like Gregorian chants, the meaning of the words not mattering because the words are so haunting.
For the religious naturalist, we are not the point. We are an apparently ephemeral and contingent part of a grand and (at least partly) mysteriously comprehensible fact, and we revel in that factuality, attending reverently to its every particular, accepting with whatever grace we can muster that we need not be the apple of a Creator's eye.

Friday, February 01, 2008

A brief credo

William James said: "There must be something solemn, serious, and tender about any attitude that we denote religious. If glad, it must not grin or snicker; if sad, it must not scream or curse." This is a mantra that those of use who call ourselves religious naturalists must keep in mind. We try to avoid the smug certainties of the fundamentalists and the angry scolding of the militant atheists. We seek something reflective, and tender, and open to a revelation that occurs not in some distant past but in every moment of the here and now.

We recognize what is beautiful and pure in the various religious traditions; we share with them the Golden Rule, an awareness of Mystery, and the innate human tendency to celebrate and praise. But we find in the evolutionary epic of science a more compelling narrative of who we are and where we came from than what has been on offer in supernaturalist faiths.

We have no need of miracles because we perceive the cosmos as a living miracle, even when it seems cruel and uncaring. All dualisms of natural/supernatural, body/soul, matter/spirit seem to us to fragment a creation that is most luminous in its unity. Like all people, we experience the world as strange and wonderful and sometimes terrible. If asked what is the source of that strangeness and wonderfulness and terribleness we are content to say -- reverently, humbly -- "I don't know."