Monday, June 30, 2008

Nature's ministry

While we are with Wordsworths's The Prelude, let's make a nod to what may be perhaps the most familiar lines of all, from Book I, where the poet recalls his childhood among the lakes and hills of Cumbria:
Ye Presences of Nature in the sky
And on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills!
And Souls of lonely places! can I think
A vulgar hope was yours when ye employed
Such ministry, when ye, through many a year
Haunting me thus among my boyish sports,
On caves and trees, upon the woods and hills,
Impressed, upon all forms, the characters
Of danger or desire; and thus did make
The surface of the universal earth,
With triumph and delight, with hope and fear,
Work like a sea?
Few kids today will grow up in such wild majesty, if for no other reason than the internal combustion engine, which intrudes its noise and stench and speed upon every landscape.

Some years ago, I attended a gathering of nature writers on Martha's Vineyard. On the first morning, we took time to introduce ourselves and say a bit about how we came to be interested in the natural world. I was struck by how often the experience of a drainage ditch gave direction to our lives. We were mostly children of the suburbs. More often than not it was while mucking about in a ditch that we discovered what would become the passion of our lives. Ditch water, in dribble or flood, is the stuff of creaturedom, the great animator that turns cracked suburban mud into Darwin's tangled bank. Loosestrifes soak their feet in it. Knotweeds slurp it up. Striders stride and whirligigs skitter on its slovenly surface. A seasonal zodiac of frogs, newts, salamanders, mudpuppies, crayfish, turtles and snakes. Even a trickle of ditch water is an invitation to play -- dams, canals, bridges, boats -- squishing barefoot in the mud among the cattails, shattering the gothic webs of argiope spiders. That was the story for so many of us: ankle-deep in ditches, struck unconsciously and unalterably with the prodigiousness of life, a burry, buggy, algae-slicked introduction to nature's inexhaustible capacity to surprise. "The flowering of the ditches," is Thoreau's delicious phrase. It was in ditch water that we discovered the forms of danger and desire, hope and fear, triumph and delight. Ditches were our lonely places.

When we have paved over the woods and fields, when chemically-addicted suburban lawns stretch in unbroken continuity from sea to sea, when ATVs and snowmobiles have invaded the last vestiges of Wordsworthian wildness, there will still be ditches. Down at the back of the subdivision, at the side of the road, behind the mall. Places where a curious, outdoorsy kid might discover the "presences of nature." The final habitat.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Starry thoughts

Anne's beautiful illumination today inspired this week's Musing. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The silence

The hiding places of my power
Seem open; I approach, and then they close;
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all, and I would give,
While yet we may, as far as words can give,
A substance and a life to what I feel...
These few lines from Wordsworth's The Prelude leapt off the page at me this morning. They capture well enough what my life has become. All those years of teaching, of writing in the Boston Globe, were years of sharing public knowledge, knowledge that had been vetted by the scientific community. The work was not about me. The teacher was me, the writer was me, but what I taught and wrote was reliable, consensus knowledge of the world. A student in my classes or a reader of my newspaper columns would have been hard pressed to know my politics or my religion or the nature of the questions that came in the darkest hours of the night. And that is the way it should have been; that was my homage to objectivity.

Those were valuable years, years of building up a sturdy polder in the sea of mystery, a place to stand with a firmness of foot. And now, in retirement, with time on my hands -- and on my mind -- I find myself more inclined to explore what Wordsworth called "the hiding places of my power." I approach. They close. I touch with my hand the surface of the pond that Pat wrote about the other day; my hand comes out of the depths to meet me. I see by glimpses. It is, I suppose, a kind of forgetting. With the forgetting comes a certain freshness. My fingertip touches the surface of the world from above and from below, and concentric circles spread outwards, rippling, like a soundless sound, and I struggle, in words, as best I can, to give a substance and a life to what I feel.

This does not mean, I trust, that I am going soft, finding supernaturalist religion or getting all New Age squishy as "age comes on." I keep my feet planted on solid fact and read my weekly Science and Nature along with my Wordsworth. No, it is rather a simple freedom to explore the hiding places, attending to private particulars as opposed to public universals, listening for the small voice that whispers from the nooks and crannies of yet unassimilated reality.

There is a passage in The Prelude where a young Boy (the poet?), standing in evening air by the glimmering lake, makes a mimic hooting with his hands to his mouth and the owls answer. Twooo-twooo. And the reply. Twooo-twooo. Then, unaccountably, the answers cease. And in the silence the boy becomes more keenly aware than ever of water, rocks, and woods, and mountain torrents, "that uncertain heaven, received into the bosom of the steady lake." Thoreau has something similar. He rejoiced in owls; their hoot, he said, was a sound well suited to swamps and twilight woods. The interval between the hoots was a deepened silence, suggesting, to Thoreau, "a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized." It is that that I now attend: the deepened silence between the hoots.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Are we truly alone
With our physics and myths,
The stars no more

Than glittering dust,
With no one there
To hear our choral odes?
This is the ultimate question, the only question, asked here by the Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon. It is a poem of exile, from the ancient familiar, from the sustaining myth of rootedness, of centrality. A poem that the naturalist can relate to, we pilgrims of infinite spaces, of the overarching blank pages on which we write our own stories, our own scriptures, having none of divine pedigree.

Yes, we feel the ache of exile, we who grew up with the sustaining myths of immortality only to see them stripped away by the needy hands of fact. We scribble our choral odes. Who listens? We speak to each other. Is that enough? Having left the home we grew up in, we make do with where we find ourselves, gathering to ourselves the glittering dust of the here and now.

Are we truly alone? Mahon again:
If so, we can start
To ignore the silence
Of infinite space

And concentrate instead
on the infinity
Under our very noses --

The cry at the heart
Of the artichoke,
The gaiety of atoms.
Better to leave the blank page blank than fill it with sentimental hankerings for home, with those prayers of our childhood we repeated over and over until they became a hard, fast crust on the page. Incline our ear instead to the faint cry that issues from the world under our very noses, from there, the tomato plant on the window sill, the ink-dark crow that paces the grass beyond the panes, the clouds that heap on the horizon -- the dizzy, ditzy dance of atoms and the glitterings of stars.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wet and green

The weather comes down like this, like an iron clamp. First, the top of Mount Eagle is sledged flat by Atlantic mist. Then, wedging the clasach -- the gap between Eagle and Croaghmarhin -- all that thick and heavy air, a chisel of remorseless wet. We wait. The burdening sky gathers, glowers. The first raindrops clatter on the slates like a tinsmith's hammer. Soon we are wrapped, the cottage gripped, held tight in the hard fist of the storm.

And this is what they call summer here in the west of Ireland.

But what could you expect, this thumb of land, the Dingle Peninsula, jabbing out into the eye of the ocean. Warm water from the tropics pumped northward by the spinning planet, encountering cold currents that issue from arctic ice. The perfect recipe for rain, those battering rams of barometric lows. They say that when the biblical Deluge began to subside, Noah steered his ship to the first dry patch of land he saw. It was the summit of Carrantouhill, Ireland's highest mountain, out there just now in the lumbering mist. As the ark drew near to the rain-drenched shore, the passengers spied an Irishman walking there with his dog and stick. "A fine soft day, thanks be to God," says he.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Into the pool

Let's start this morning with a bit of late-Victorian soft porn, Hylas and the Nymphs, painted in 1896 by the Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse. (Click to enlarge.) Hylas is one of the Argonauts, sailing with Jason in quest of the Golden Fleece. While the ship is stopped at an island, he goes in search of fresh water. As he stoops to fill his jug at a woodland spring he encounters a bevy of naiads, who fall madly in love with the heartbreakingly handsome youth. They invite him into the pool -- and he is never heard from again.

Did he find with those immortal beauties every young man's idea of bliss? Or, mortal that he was, did his lungs fill with water and...? I'll come back to the question. But first, it is Hylas in another appearance that I want to consider: as participant in Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, written in 1713 by George Berkeley, Irish philosopher, later Bishop of Cloyne.

Berkeley, as every philosophy student learns, was an arch antimaterialist. The material world out there is an illusion. The only reality is in our minds. It is an old idea, going back to Plato at least. And, it must be admitted, the question of how ideas of things are related to a presumed external reality is central to philosophy. Berkeley's solution is simple: deny the existence of a physical world out there. Matter does not exist.

He had a not-so-hidden agenda. By denying materialism, he meant to clear the way for belief in God and the immortality of the soul.

In the dialogues, Philonous takes Berkeley's role; his name means "lover of mind." Hylas begins the exchange as a materialist, convinced that ideas are reflections of a knowable external reality; his name means "wood" in ancient Greek, or more simply "matter." You can guess who wins the debate.

You will also remember Samuel Johnson's reaction to Boswell's report of Berkeley's antimaterialism. He kicked his foot forcibly against a stone. "I refute it thus!" said the inimitable Johnson. Today's naturalists are more impressed by Johnson's sore toe than by Philonous' long-winded philosophizing. We are the heirs of Hylas, the erstwhile materialist, confident that consensus scientific knowledge of the world reflects in some meaningful way a reality that exists independently of ourselves. We are content to let Berkeley's God and immortal souls remain phantoms of Berkeley's mind.

Which brings us back to the other Hylas, the one in the painting. He is not a philosopher. Merely mortal. Attracted to the importunings of the comely spirits of the pool, ready to plunge or be pulled into the world of nature, hoping perhaps to find there some measure of material bliss, fated for oblivion.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In the moment

The first of the year was sunny, as January days surprisingly often are in the rainforest winter. I was cutting English ivy away from the trunks of trees, where it clambers back eternally, and watching with satisfaction the periodic spurt of saturated soil's floodwater from a new drainage pipe; water that for years had overtaxed the cellar's sump pump and flooded the furnace. I decided to survey the damage from the previous night's storm, which had been so strong that Thea was trancelike with trepidation during our New Year's Eve of reading and playing Chinese checkers.
I have been reading again Robert Michael Pyle's most recent book, Sky Time In Gray's River, from which I have plucked above a random paragraph. The book recounts a closely-observed year (or a compilation of many years) in Bob's home neighborhood near the mouth of the Columbia River in the American Northwest. It is a common conceit among nature writers, to record the passage of a year (or a compilation of many years) in a given place; I have done it myself. On the face of it, there is nothing about Bob's life in Gray's River that is exceptional, nothing that is different from the lives that you and I live in our own places -- nothing, that is, except attention. Bob attends. He attends voraciously. He empties out the clutter of the past and anxieties about the future and attends to the present, to the rich deep moment that overflows with particulars, particulars as fine and as common as English ivy entwining a tree and an overtaxed pump.

Why do we care? Because of the way Bob weaves the ordinary into a cloth of gold. I could expound for twenty minutes on the paragraph above, the consonances and the dissonances that without our even knowing it plump up the meaning. There is as much pleasure to be had from reading Bob's finely crafted prose as from listening to a Bach partita.

He is not trying to convince us that his place is special. Quite the opposite. He is trying to convince us that every place is special -- if attended to with care, without preconceptions, informed by knowledge, and open to surprise. I put the book aside, and I realize that my eyes are wider open, my attention more acute. The past and future have been pushed ever so gently more widely apart, making more room for the present, which suddenly fills with the unexpected extravagance of the commonplace.

Monday, June 23, 2008


brome grass drew our attention recently to this APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) of the galaxy NGC 5907 in the constellation Draco (click to enlarge). We see the galaxy edge-on. It is a spiral galaxy, much like the Milky Way, containing surely more than 100 billion stars, as well as dark banks of dust and gas. What the new photograph shows are ghostly bands of light looping around the galaxy. These are presumably the light of stars shed by smaller galaxies that were gravitationally captured, torn apart, and assimilated by the more massive spiral. Galaxies grow by attracting less massive neighbors into dancing orbits, then gobbling them up.

Dancing galaxies shedding stars like fairy dust!

NGC 5907 is 40 million light-years away. The stars you see in the photograph as discrete points of light are in the foreground; they are part of our own Milky Way Galaxy. We are inside, looking out at the universe of galaxies beyond. Some of the blurrier "stars" are perhaps galaxies more distant than NGC 5907. This is certainly true for the oval blur in the upper right-hand corner of the photograph, which could be as far as a billion light years away.

The region of the sky shown in the photo could be covered by a pinhead held at arm's length.

Stand outside on a dark night and hold a pinhead at arm's length and imagine how many pinheads it would take to cover Earth's entire sky, of which you can see at any one time somewhat less than half. How many photographs such as this one showing wonders galore! Once, at the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia, I had the opportunity to look at one of the hundreds of glass photographic plates that were part of a survey of the southern sky. The emulsion-covered glass was thin enough that it could bend to conform to the focal plane of the telescope. It was about the size of a newspaper page. From a few feet away it appeared to be covered with dust. But bending low, with a magnifier to my eye, the "dust" became stars and galaxies. Hundreds and hundreds of galaxies, island universes, scattered across the glass. I had to catch my breath. I felt like I was falling, falling, falling into a universe so sublime that no adequate words could describe it.

Intellectually, the Copernican Revolution is over. We know we are not the center of the universe. Psychologically, the Copernican Revolution has just begun. We have yet to fully grasp what it means to live in a universe where galaxies shed stars in their dancing tracks like fairy dust.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Even educated fleas do it

This week's Musing offers advice to the lovelorn.

Click to enlarge Anne's weekly illumination.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Este saber no sabiendo

In his book on the 16th-century Carmelite mystic John of the Cross, Iain Matthew summarizes the saint's message this way: "Something is taking place, and it is important to be part of it."

It is a concise summary of the religious impulse, broad enough and vague enough to embrace the faith of a devout Jew, Christian or Muslim, and that of the religious naturalist. When a William James or a Daniel Dennett looks for the natural origins of religion, he ultimately comes face to face with the fact that human consciousness, by its very nature, senses more to reality than meets the eye, and feels a need to acknowledge the mystery.

Unlike the traditional believer, the religious naturalist accepts the intuition of mystery, as part of what it means to be human, but refuses to put a name to it, or especially a human face -- personhood, love, justice, anger, artifice. In this, we are not so different from John of the Cross, who never failed to emphasize the hiddenness -- the unknowability -- of God.
Where have you hidden away,
lover, and left me grieving, care on care?
...imploring the empty air.
No sign for me to mark,
no other light, no guide/
except for my heart--
the fire, the fire inside.
But the air is not empty. As I sit at my window here in the west of Ireland showers come streaming off the Atlantic, wave after wave of misty air dragged up from the tropics by currents in the sea. Rainbows appear and vanish like a magician's colored silks. And in that air, invisible, photons, neutrinos, cosmic rays, messages from galaxies flung like sea spray across the universe. Something is taking place, right here before my eyes. Something of which I have only the faintest intuition, but which science amplifies. Something it is important to be a part of.
Wings flickering here and there,
lion and gamboling antler, shy gazelle,
peak, precipice, and shore,
flame, air, and flooding well.
For John of the Cross, prayer went beyond praise, petition, or begging for forgiveness. His prayer sprang from the impulse to be a part of, to join self with the beloved. The religious naturalist would call it simply paying attention.

Friday, June 20, 2008

First life

Back on our hill overlooking Dingle Bay, with an incredibly slow dial-up internet connection. No more big files by e-mail, no more videos. This hillside in the west of Kerry must be one of the few places in the developed world without broadband.

Oh well, it has other attractions. For our first ten years in this cottage -- in the 1980s -- we didn't have electricity. The nearest phone was a box in the village, a mile away. We didn't mind. In fact, we rather liked the disconnected life.

Too old for that today. Need the mod cons. Especially need connection to friends in cyberspace. But to tell the truth, I think I generally spend too much time on the internet, a temptation that here is vanishingly small.

This beautiful Atlantic end of the Dingle Peninsula has always attracted creative folks, and this year it seems the artistic community is more visible and vital than ever: painters, sculptors, musicians, composers, poets, novelists, photographers, weavers, potters, performance artists, dancers, and workers in metal, glass, wood and leather. They come from Ireland, Britain, the United States, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Lebanon, Japan -- and that's just a sampling from a gallery show that opened just before we arrived. It has been my honor to know many of these people, and the tenor of their lives is inspiring. They are a technically savvy lot, with their Macs and whatever internet connection they can get, but technology is a tool, not an end in itself. They remind me to keep it simple, remember that I have hands and feet, and stay connected to the world of flesh and blood.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ever this day be at my side

This story on the CNN website sends chills up the spine: Villagers in Kenya slaughter their neighbors out of fear of witches or ghosts. The reporter says of the rife superstition that "it may be difficult for Western cultures to fathom."

Oh, really? It was only three centuries ago that 19 people went to the gallows in Salem, Massachusetts, on charges of witchcraft, this more than half-a-century after the same good folk of Massachusetts Bay Colony founded Harvard University. Even today, 80 percent of Americans believe in angels and two-thirds believe in the devil. A third believe in ghosts and a quarter believe in witches. I wonder if these figures are all that different than for Kenyans? Fortunately, in America, secular humanist traditions deriving from the scientific Enlightenment undergird our laws and mores, and keep our more violent tendencies in check -- something that didn't prevail in the theocracy that was late-17th-century Massachusetts.

We sniff at the superstitious Kenyans, but cosset our own beliefs in spirits. One person's superstition is another person's dogma. Lord knows, I was brought up in my own mishmash of miracles.

Angels. Banshees. Bogies. Demons. Devils. Djinns. Fairies. Fays. Gods. Ghosts. Goblins. Heaven. Hell. Incubi. Kachinas. Nixies. Phantoms. Poltergeists. Pucas. Shades. Specters. Succubi. Witches. Wraiths. To merely dip into the thesaurus of spooks. Humans have a prodigious appetite for believing in unseen worlds -- and that applies as much to New York City as to remote villages in Kenya.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What really matters

Let me share here a few lines by my friend the poet Tom O'Grady. They are from a poem called "Close to Death," in his collection What Really Matters:
By that gray pool, I thought, that windowpane
on the deep, deep heavens -- in that last breath

before light plunges through the murky depth
(as if Reason's lucid reach could explain

what lurks beneath the surface of our night) --
solace might emerge with the rhythmic flick,

of an angler's wrist or the pulse-quick
fluttering of the day's first flock in flight.
Let's not be too concerned for the moment with meaning; I think you might intuit something of that easily enough. No, let's think about language, and how the language of the poet differs from that of the scientist. Read the excerpt aloud. And think of all the ways the poet uses sound and image -- sound and image that are mutually reinforcing -- to convey a meaning that harbors in Mystery somewhere beyond that windowpane.

I wrote the other day about engineering drawings and the creative artist's sketch. The first might be skillfully done and have a elegance of line, but it is ultimately anonymous and strives for unambiguous meaning. The second belongs uniquely to the artist herself, and while striving for clarity, hints at far more than it unambiguously expresses. Something of the same could be said for the languages of the scientist and the poet.

In another poem, "How a Poem Begins," Tom speaks of "the plain made strange, the odd matter-of-fact." In that, at least, science and poetry are in consonance. In their separate ways, and in their separate languages, both science and poetry reveal the rich complexity of the commonplace, and the ordinariness of the seemingly miraculous.

(Taking a day off tomorrow. In transit to Ireland. Never know what we'll find there on our hill in Kerry for an internet connection. Hope to see you Thursday.)

Monday, June 16, 2008

Swimming with the tide?

Cute little fellow, this. A bdelloid rotifer, a tiny freshwater invertebrate known for its ability to survive repeated desiccation. More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that rotifers have evolved over millions of years without sex. Sex is nature's way to juggle genes, providing the variation that drives natural selection.

Now, in the May 30 issue of Science, researchers at Harvard University and the Marine Biology Lab at Woods Hole report that bdelloid rotifers have been busy scavenging genes from whatever sources they can find -- including bacteria, fungi and plants. It's called horizontal gene transfer (HGT), and may explain why bdelloid rotifers have diversified into more than 360 species over 40 million years. Many of the purloined genes appear to have retained their functionality. Variation by theft! The advantages of sex without the bother of finding and wooing a mate.

Anything rotifers can do, we can do better. Genetic engineers have mastered the art of splicing genes from one organism into the genome of another. Armies of clever HGT abettors in white coats are snipping and stitching in a horizontal frenzy. It's a development that might help humans as much as it helped the little translucent swimmer in the photo above -- but it is fraught with moral ambiguity.

It's not just a matter of moving genes around from species to species. The day is not far off -- if it's not here already -- when a genome can be designed on a computer from the ground up, gene by gene, then executed in the flesh. Few will object to the elimination of inherited diseases, or the regrowth of amputated limbs. But are we ready for designer babies? Cosmetic gene therapy? Drug-producing goats with human genes? Factories that grow chicken meat without chickens?

We are just beginning to figure out how a half-a-billion bits (or so) of DNA becomes a rotifer, and how 3 billion bits of DNA becomes a human being. If nature can do it, so can we. If we choose to.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

It's a gas

If it ain't simple, it ain't physics. See this week's Musing.

Tomorrow's post won't appear until afternoon. Away with my gal tonight celebrating our 50th anniversary.

Anne offers a Father's Day illumination. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

French curves

When I went off to college in 1954 to study engineering, one of the first courses I took was Mechanical Drawing. Lordy, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. What fun! To sit at a drafting table with the set of spiffy instruments I had inherited from my father and draw screw threads, bolt heads, and machine parts in isometric projection. Our textbook was Thomas Ewing French's Mechanical Drawing, the same book my father used at the University of Tennessee a generation earlier.

The stainless steel compass, the three-sided rule, the sandpaper paddle on which to shape the pencil lead, the T-square, the clear plastic French curves. (Why "French"? Did Thomas E. invent them? I haven't been able to find the answer. Any help?) There was something wonderfully sensual, tactile, and deliberate about mechanical drawing. Nothing particularly creative. The emphasis was on technique and the consistent application of established conventions that the man in the machine shop could understand. Nevertheless, some students in the class had the gift; their drawings were exquisite. Others students had a hard time drawing a straight line with their pencil point against a rule. I fell somewhere in between.

But I loved it. As I love the current exhibit in the gallery at my college. Mechanical drawings from the college's industrial archives, inherited from the Ames tool company whose history is so intimately bound up with the history of our town and our college. And delightful semiabstract interpretations by the artist Heather Hobler. It is lovely to see an artist of Hobler's talent offer homage to the engineering draftsperson. (Click image to enlarge.)

All gone now. The compasses, the T-squares, the French curves, the thin graphite lines on crisp white paper. Today, it's all done with computers -- CAD, computer-aided design. I wonder if my copy of French's Mechanical Drawing is up in the attic. I would love to thumb it again and relive in memory those pleasurable afternoon hours on the drafting table at the University of Notre Dame.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The geography of spirit

I offer here Jan Vermeer's The Geographer, painted in Holland in 1668-69, as an iconographic image of religious naturalism, particularly that with a Roman Catholic flavor. (Click to enlarge.)

But first, a few words of context.

In the academic year 1968-69, a National Science Foundation grant enabled me to study history of science at Imperial College, London, with A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall. Few scholars know as much about the foundations of modern science, and especially about the beginnings of the Royal Society, established in 1662, the first scientific society. While with the Halls, I had the opportunity to read widely in the early Transactions of the Royal Society, and in the communications of Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Society. What comes across in these documents is an insatiable curiosity about every aspect of the natural world. It is almost like the excitement that attended the discovery and exploration of the transAtlantic New World in the previous two centuries, but this time the "new world" is that in which we live our daily lives, revealed in its depths and dimensions for the first time by telescope and microscope -- and by awakened attention.

Oldenburg was in communication with Vermeer's exact contemporary and fellow citizen of Delft, Anthony van Leewenhoek, the famed microscopist, whose simple instrument revealed an unexplored universe of the very small. Many scholars believe that Leewenhoek my have been the model for The Geographer, and might even have commissioned the work. If so, here we have art and science converging in the lives and works of two remarkable men.

The Geographer is surrounded by the implements of the new secular quest for reliable public knowledge: maps, charts, globes, dividers, square, cross-staff. It is clear that Vermeer shared a respect, even affection, for these objects. His painting offers unmistakable homage to the scientific enterprise.

But more, the painting invites us into the interior thoughts of the Geographer. He is caught in a moment of private reflection, when public and personal knowledge flow and ebb together like a tide on a shore. What is he thinking? What meaning does he glimpse?

Vermeer converted to Catholicism at age 20, probably as a condition for marriage to his Catholic betrothed. But there is no reason to doubt that his conversion was sincere. The scholar Daniel Arasse has suggested that Vermeer's "religion of painting" drew him to, and was reinforced by, the Catholic "dogma of the mysterious union of the visible and the invisible, along with a faith in the power of the image to incorporate a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable." If Arasse is correct, in the distracted gaze of the Geographer we encounter the Catholic sacramental tradition, in which the sensate world of color and materiality invites us to participate, even as spectators of the painting, in an intuited world of inexpressible Mystery.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Leaps of faith -- part 2

Why believe in the absence of convincing evidence? Says Haught: "Theology, unlike scientism, wagers that we can contact the deepest truths only by relaxing the will to control and allowing ourselves to be grasped by a deeper dimension of reality than ordinary experience or science can access by itself. The state of allowing ourselves to be grasped and carried away by this dimension of depth is at least part of what theology means by 'faith.'"

If this means we have an intuition of a depth to creation that for the moment -- and possibly forever -- eludes scientific explanation, then I would be the last to take issue. Art, poetry, even what we might call the mystical experience, all give expression to the sense that we remain profoundly ignorant of the universe of which we find ourselves a part. In fact, the more we learn scientifically about the world, the more marvelous and mysterious it seems. This is the faith of the religious naturalist. It is presumably what Haught means by "depth."

But if Haught means we must relax our critical faculties and our respect for the evidence of "ordinary experience" in order to be "grasped and carried away" by some transcendent person, then the religious naturalist -- and most certainly Dawkins and company -- will beg to demur.

I hope this second meaning is not what Haught has in mind, but it's damnably difficult to pin him down. He wants to embrace an orthodox theology, but every time he eases up on a traditional dogma, he gets all wispy. "Inexhaustible mystery"? Fine. The "deeper ground" of our being? OK. But what about all that other stuff, John? The Nicean Creed, for example? Or the literal resurrection of the God-man from the dead? If it's all just symbolic language for expressing our sense of depth, then why not just come on over and join those of us who choose to put our faith in the reliable, tentative, consensus knowledge provided by science, while remaining open to the depth and mystery implicit in our essential ignorance. Surely there is enough to celebrate in this world of inexhaustible wonder without giving a wink and a nod to the neolithic formulations codified in Catholic doctrine.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Leaps of faith -- part 1

John Haught is a Roman Catholic theologian who specializes in the relationship between science and faith. He warmly embraces scientific knowledge of the world, and he has been a firm ally in keeping creationism and intelligent design out of public school science classrooms.

I have kept up with Haught's work because he has been so often recommended to me by Catholic friends. I have now read his latest book, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens -- one more in a spate of books responding to the three bad boys of God-bashing.

Haught goes out of his way to give his opponents a fair shake. In fact, I thought Dawkins and company come off rather better in the book than do Haught's counter-arguments. Let me address just a few of Haught's ideas.

He repeats the standard argument that the new atheists' have their own belief system, grounded in faith, which Haught calls scientific naturalism. And indeed it is true that the practice of science makes no room for supernaturalism or miracles of any sort. Science works on the assumption that everything that happens is a product of inexorable natural laws that are part and parcel of the universe itself.

Is this a leap of faith? Yes. Why then do scientific naturalists make the leap? Because the enterprise based on the naturalistic assumption has proved to be astonishingly successful. It works! Who would be so perverse as to deny it? Certainly not Haught. How, then, to respond to those who claim that scientific naturalism is itself a "religion"? My answer would be simple: Whack them over the head (gently, of course) with any weekly issue, say, of Science or Nature.

Can science prove or disprove the existence of a personal, transnatural God who intervenes in the creation to answer prayers, for example, or to incarnate himself in the person of a Galilean? No. Why then choose not to believe? Because there is not a shred of reliable, non-anecdotal evidence that requires such belief. One looks long and hard through Haught's book for evidence one can sink one's teeth into. Scientific naturalists choose not to believe in Haught's personal God for the same reason Haught doesn't believe in Zeus or fairies. We simply take one more stroke with Ockham's razor.

Haught gives a fair hearing to these points; indeed, he presents them better than I can. Yet he chooses to believe. Why? More tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

On the porch

Technorati claims to track over 112 million blogs. I would imagine that the number of people who maintain some sort of presence on the web -- blogs, homepages, Facebook, MySpace, Second Life, etc. -- must exceed 600 million, or a tenth of the world's population. What an extraordinary thing the internet is! Some part of the lives of all those folks are available to anyone with web access. Within a decade it will all be wireless. Globally. This is truly the inception of what Teilhard de Chardin called the Noosphere, a new stage of human evolution. Whether it will be a force for cementing our common humanity, or another arena for aggression remains to be seen.

I'm not much of a webbie myself. I have only the dimmest notion of what's out there on Web 2.0. I've never entered a chat room -- whatever that is. At least once a month I get invited to be on someone's Facebook or MySpace page; I always decline. I don't supply links to other blogs. In general, I try to keep as low a profile on the web as I do in "real" life. But don't take that too literally. There are more than a million of my words currently out there in cyberspace; I have no idea where. I suppose they could evaporate tomorrow.

I must admit that this public journal has become addictive. Today is the fourth anniversary of Science Musings on the web. I am grateful to son Tom for getting me started and making it work, to sis Anne for her weekly illuminations, and to the many hundreds of people who visit each day, from as far away as the antipodes (that's you, Mark, in Fiji). On the evidence of those who comment, you are a remarkably courteous, articulate, well-informed and thoughtful lot. I wish I could pluck a dozen of you out of the ether for a summer evening on a real porch.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Messier shootout

My Musing yesterday on Halley's Comet brings to mind another Sky & Telescope sponsored trip, this time in March of 1991 to write an article that would be called "Shoot-out at Star Hill Inn."

The idea was to stage a Messier Marathon, an attempt to see in a single night all 109 of the blurry sky objects cataloged by the late-18th-century astronomer Charles Messier. Messier had no idea what he was looking at, only that the blurs were not comets (they didn't move). It turns out the objects were star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae of various sorts.

On only a few days of the year -- mid-March -- is a Messier marathon theoretically possible, catching the first objects as the Sun sets, and the last as the sky lightens at dawn. Moreover, to make the adventure more fun, Sky planned to pit a skilled sky observer against a computer-controlled telescope. In one corner, Tomm Lorenzin of North Carolina, manhandling his sleek, white, 18-inch Dobsonian, supplemented with his own 1000+ deep sky observing guide and star atlas. In the other corner, John Ebersole, Jim Connor, and Phil Mahon, fingers poised on computer keyboard and console buttons, piloting Jim's 14-inch Celestron with CCD camera and a 400-mm focal length reflector riding piggyback.

The power of raw experience versus the power of the microchip. The sensitivity of the human eye versus the CCD camera and a heap of electronics. This was to be the astronomical equivalent of John Henry and the Steam Driver, with me along with pen and notebook to record the long dark night at the Star Hill Inn in the foothills of New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

I was struck by the strangeness of it all, this gathering of grown men, most of who had traveled great distances, leaving behind important jobs to spend a night chasing after blurs of light in the sky. And what a night! After a frenzied few moments at twilight, things settled down during the midnight hours, with long stretches of sipping hot chocolate and enjoying the beauty of the night. At dawn things became frenetic again, and both Tomm and the computer team struggled to catch the final objects before they were lost in the gathering light, Final tally: images of 108 Messier objects stored in a Mac, and 107 on Tomm's retina (and verified by me).

Lorenzin was heartened by his close run to the computer. He observed: "The satisfaction I get is like that of a sailor who has learned the skills to navigate a large body of water" -- in this case, an ocean of inky New Mexico darkness containing a myriad of worlds.

(My account of the shootout was in the October 1991 issue of Sky and Telescope.)

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Chasing Halley's Comet

A trip down memory lane this morning. See this week's Musing.

Anne gives us her own river of light in the sky. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The thing with feathers

I just had the pleasure of reading in manuscript Chris Cokinos' new book on meteorites. I'm not sure when the book will be available, but it will find an appreciative audience. Chris traveled from pole to pole in search of those bits and pieces of the universe that fall from the sky. He tells us of the men and women who collect and study celestial rocks. And we learn too about Chris Cokinos and the passion that drives a gifted writer to spend years of his life on a single-minded quest.

I've been an e-mail friend of Chris since he asked me some years ago if I would provide my name as support for Isotope, a literary journal that explores the intersection of art and science, published at Chris' home institution, Utah State. I had previously read and admired his wonderful book Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. In that book, Chris told the story of North American birds that have become extinct at the hand of man -- the passenger pigeon, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Carolina parakeet, the Labrador duck, and the great auk. These birds once graced our skies in teeming numbers, and are now no more.

Embarrassingly, for a longtime New Englander, I had never heard of another of the birds chronicled by Chris -- the heath hen.

The 18th-century naturalist Thomas Nuttall wrote that the birds "were so common on the ancient bushy site of the city of Boston that laboring people or servants stipulated with their employers not to have the heath hen brought to table oftener than a few times a week!" The bird was not, apparently, a great delicacy, which is why it was considered appropriate fare for the common folk below stairs. Of course, as Boston, New York, and other Eastern cities grew, there were common folk aplenty. The heath hen cooperated by making itself an easy target for hunters. In the spring, the birds would seek out wide fields of cropped grass for courtship rituals, the males "booming" out calls that announced their presence far and wide. They perched in low trees like "sitting ducks." And, when they took to the air, they flew in such nice straight lines that even a youngster with a new gun could pop them off with ease.

And then -- well, it's Chris' story to tell, a story of relevance to anyone interested in the preservation of species. The last eastern heath hen, nicknamed "Booming Ben," boomed his last in 1932 on Martha's Vineyard.

The big question is why we should care about the demise of a few species of birds when 99.9 percent of all species that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. Extinction is a necessary engine of evolution, a corollary of the thrust toward biological complexity and diversity. Without extinction, we would not be here. Again, with his big, vulnerable heart, Chris is the best one to answer the question. As conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote: "For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun."

Friday, June 06, 2008

The human soul

What is it about this painting that holds my attention? (Click to enlarge.) OK, I'm from Boston, or close enough. Everyone from Boston has heard of John Singleton Copley even if they don't know who he was. Copley Square is the hub of the Hub, and in the center of the square is a statue of the artist himself, the first American painter to achieve transAtlantic fame.

The subject of "The Boy with the Squirrel" is Copley's half-brother Henry Pelham. (The squirrel is a northern flying squirrel, once common in New England and popular as pets, although I have never seen one in the wild.) The painting was done in 1765, when Copley was in his mid-twenties. It is, I think, on a different level from the artist's other work of the time, which was mostly a matter of cranking out rather prosaic portraits of his A-list clients. What a difference, say, from this cliched, bone-stiff portrait of Sam Adams painted a few years later.

Yes, the technical perfection of "The Boy with the Squirrel" is complete. The composition. The light and shadow. The silky hair. The texture of wood, cloth and skin. But that's not the secret of the painting's appeal. Young Henry Pelham looks dreamily away, his lips lightly parted, his soul alight with an adolescent boy's wistful anticipation. Look at the delicacy with which he holds the squirrel's gold leash. See how the squirrel's posture echoes the boy's. Posture, yes, but not spirit. This is more than just another workaday portrait, more than just a few more pounds in Copley's pocket. The artist is showing us what it means to be human.

How is that possible? How is it possible that mere oil on canvas can capture the ineffable thing that separates us from brute creation? Science can count the cells in Henry Pelham's body, match his genes to those of his half-brother, or, for that matter, compare his genome to that of Glaucomys sabrinus, the northern flying squirrel. But science cannot distill the thing that is a conscious organism of 100 billion neurons in interaction with an essentially infinite environment. We turn to artists to catch a glimpse of the soul.

John Singleton Copley complained that in colonial America painting was considered just one more useful trade, like carpentry or shoemaking. And practical Benjamin Franklin opined: "To America...the invention of a machine or the improvement of an implement is of more importance than a masterpiece of Raphael." And yet, and yet -- at the remove of almost two-and-a-half centuries, we look at Copley's portrait of young Henry Pelham and know that what is not materially useful can be utterly essential to knowing who and what we are.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The wire universe

A half-century ago, the American psychologist Harry Harlow did a provocative experiment with baby monkeys. He wanted to know if mother love in infants is generated by the satisfactions of feeding, as had long been postulated by psychologists. He placed eight infant monkeys in individual cages, each with equal access to two surrogate "mothers." One "mother" was made from bare welded wire surmounted by a wooden head. The other "mother" was comfortably sheathed with soft terry cloth. For four of the infants, the wire "mother" was provided with a nursing bottle with its nipple protruding from the mother's "breast," from which the infants took their nourishment. For the other four monkeys, it was the terrycloth "mother" that provided the source of milk.

The wire and cloth "mothers" proved to be physiologically equivalent: All of the infants drank the same amount of milk and gained the same weight. But the "mothers" were not psychologically equivalent. The infants that took their nourishment from a wire "mother" spent no more time with her than feeding required. All of the infants spent most of their non-feeding time clinging to their warm and fuzzy cloth "mothers." It is apparently not satisfactions of feeding that generate affection in infants, but a sense of cozy security.

It is tempting to see the wire "mother" with the milk-producing nipple as metaphorically representing science, and the terrycloth "mother" as traditional religion. Science -- like the wire monkey for four of the infants -- is the source of our health, wealth and physical well-being, but it provides little in the way of emotional support -- it places us in a universe of incredible vastness apparently governed by inexorable law. What is our response? As a culture, we pretty much divide our time between science and religion -- the wire monkey and the terrycloth monkey -- going to the former when in need of physical sustenance (technology, medicine, creation of wealth), but spending most of our time clinging to the latter. When faced with a large, frightening and impersonal universe, it is not to science that we turn for reassurance, but to the warm and fuzzy consolations of traditional religion.

At the risk of both hubris and condescension, can I take the metaphor further? Growing up has something to do with putting aside our teddy bears and security blankets. It would be comforting to think, as did our ancestors, that we live in a nurturing universe, centered upon ourselves, watched over by attentive gods. The scientific version of the truth, however, is rather different. Our Earth is apparently a typical planet in an immensity of morally silent space, and it is a measure of our maturity as a species that we have the courage to accept this difficult truth. It would be nice to imagine that we had our origin in a secure nursery presided over by a warm and fuzzy parent, but the truth -- alas -- seems otherwise. The universe is not warm and fuzzy. It can even be capricious and sometimes cruel. It does, however, have one thing that recommends it; it is a fact by every criterion of science.

But not to despair. In that big, indifferent, wire universe, we create our own islands of terrycloth love. And that is meaning enough, and challenge enough, for any one life.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Nanobiological machinery

Consider for a moment the diagram above, from an article in the May 23, 2008, issue of Science called "The Microbial Engines That Drive Earth's Biogeochemical Cycles," by Paul Falkowski, Tom Fenchel and Edward Delong (click to enlarge). Here is the abstract of the article:
Virtually all nonequilibrium electron transfers on Earth are driven by a set of nanobiological machines composed largely of multimeric protein complexes associated with a small number of prosthetic groups. These machines evolved exclusively in microbes early in our planet's history yet, despite their antiquity, are highly conserved. Hence, although there is enormous genetic diversity in nature, there remains a relatively stable set of core genes coding for the major redox reactions essential for life and biogeochemical cycles. These genes created and coevolved with biogeochemical cycles and were passed from microbe to microbe primarily by horizontal gene transfer. A major challenge in the coming decades is to understand how these machines evolved, how they work, and the processes that control their activity on both molecular and planetary scales.
Don't be put off by the technical language. The authors are describing an unseen microbial world of almost unimaginable dimension -- bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and archaea -- that live in places as diverse as the human gut and the bottom of the sea, cycling and recycling the material stuff of life. The diagram depicts the global, interconnected network of the microbial-mediated cycles for hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and iron, the principle elements on which all living things depend. This world of unseen organisms drives some of the largest scale phenomena on the planet, including photosynthesis, nitrogen cycling, and pandemics of infectious disease. Understanding how these systems work is key to dealing with such issues as climate change, energy shortages, and food production.

It is wonderful enough to realize how our very existence, and that of human civilization, depends upon an unseen universe of "bugs." Wonderful too to see some of these reactions displayed in a diagram of such intrinsic beauty -- like a painting by Mondrian.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The obscurity of an order

Few books in my personal library are as well-thumbed as my The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. When I was a young man trying to develop a coherent philosophy of life, Stevens' mid-career poems concerning the relationship of ideas to "the thing itself" were exceedingly useful, helping me create a bridge between the public knowledge of science and the personal knowledge of intuition. I am thinking of poems like "The Idea of Order at Key West" and "The Poems of Our Climate," poems that articulate the role of the perceiver in constructing reality.

The Collected Poems went onto the shelf for a long mid-life hiatus. Secure with the balance of public and personal knowledge in my life, Stevens then seemed to me excessively abstract, even deliberately obfuscating. The poetry I chose to read was more immediately sensual, celebratory, transparent. My most thumbed book, I suppose, was the New and Selected Poems of Mary Oliver.

But Stevens' big red volume was always close at hand, and as I enter the golden years his late poems to speak to me again as the balance in my life tips toward personal knowledge, from action to contemplation. All I want is what Stevens' asked of the lifelong body of his work -- that "in the poverty of their words" they contain some honest intuition of the world of which they were a part.

Was there in all my years of engaging with the natural world some firm perception of the real? Did the balance I achieved between public and personal knowledge rest aptly on its fulcrum. Did my words catch some kernel of the thing itself, some echo of that "scrawny cry from outside." I hope so. If not, it's too late to do anything about it now. It is time for "The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour":

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

Monday, June 02, 2008

A commonwealth of truth

It is useful to keep in mind the difference between public knowledge and personal knowledge.

Public knowledge is that which can at least in principle be reliably shared by all open-minded people. The best filter our species has yet devised for obtaining reliable, consensus knowledge of the world is science: mathematical reasoning, quantitative experiment, double-blind tests, peer review, Ockham's razor, and all the other apparatus of the scientific method. The result isn't Truth with a capital T, but the very existence of modern, technological civilization attests to the effectiveness of the method.

Personal knowledge can be just as firmly held to be true. For example, I know with certainty how I feel about my wife, but I wouldn't expect another person to credit my feelings with the same assumption of veracity as he would give to nuclear fusion at the center of the sun. I might give expression to my feelings for my wife through poetry, music or art, but the truth I thereby share becomes a public part of the work itself, separate from what I feel in my heart.

Public knowledge makes common discourse possible. If I say the Earth is four billion years old and another person says the Earth is four thousand years old we can refer our disagreement to the filter which is the global scientific community. (Whether we are willing to accept arbitration by the scientific community is another matter.)

Personal knowledge belongs to me alone, and I have no right to assume that others must share it. Much of the world's mischief derives from the belief that others should embrace what I personally hold to be true. It is a striking feature of the scientific method that a global consensus has been achieved without resorting to violent persuasion. If physicists everywhere believe in quarks, it is not because anyone has resorted to thumbscrews.

In a civilized society we rely on secure public knowledge to provide cohesiveness and stability. Within that commonwealth of shared belief we live out our lives in a life-enhancing (or life-depressing) milieu of personal knowledge.

(Tomorrow: Finding the balance.)

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A modest proposal

My wife is away this weekend, attending her 50th college reunion. We must be getting on in age. See this week's Musing.

Another delightful Sunday illumination from Anne. Click to enlarge.