Sunday, August 31, 2008

The poetry of place

Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay, Trafalgar, Fitzroy, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes, South East Iceland. What do these names represent? See this week's Musing.

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


A week or two ago, I looked out the window here by my desk and wrote about what I saw. That post has stuck in my mind. Every time I turn to the window, I feel myself sucked into the view.

Even before the glass, the papyrus plants, morning glories, tomato plants, and geranium, with their teeming green fly pests. Beyond, the fox, the rat, the grass, the roses and montbretia, the bramble and the willows. Falling away down the hill, the gorse and heather, the fuchsia hedgerows along the road, the neighbors' fields with grass and sedge, cows and sheep. Then, marching away to the edge of Dingle Bay, a patchwork of green fields, hedgerows and conifer plantations. Across the water, the deep dark green of the Iveragh Peninsula.

Not just a pretty view. Alive!

There are something like ten trillion cells in my body. I figure I'm seeing in their collectivity something like a billion times that many more cells in the view outside my window. (We will ignore the staggering number of microorganisms in land, sea and air that I cannot see), I try to imagine all those cells humming and buzzing with the business of life, all of them ultimately descended from common ancestors, all of them sharing the same biochemistry, the same four-letter code of life. I sit here, in my snug studio, and I feel the tug of all that activity, feel myself bound to it all by ten trillion threads of affinity. It takes one's breath away.

Some years ago I owned a clear glass "Ecosphere" about three inches in diameter. The sphere was two-thirds filled with water. one-third air. A snip of green sea grass floated in the water, and four tiny pink shrimp swam lazily about. The sphere was completely sealed. With the exception of heat and light, there were no transactions with the outside environment. The sphere was a closed ecosystem, a miniature world in which plants and animals live in balance with each other and all material resources and waste products are recycled.

The contents of the globe were not as simple as they appeared. The shrimp and the sea grass are not sufficient to sustain life in a sealed container. There were perhaps as many as a hundred other species of life in the glass sphere, microorganisms invisible to the eye. The precise mix (the product of NASA research) is crucial for the long-term success of the system. For example, ammonia is a waste product of the shrimp, but becomes poisonous in high concentrations. At least two kinds of bacteria are necessary to convert the ammonia into useful nitrite, thus keeping the nutrient and energy cycles going.

I sit here now in my own little glass-enclosed world, but I wouldn't last long without what I see beyond the glass -- the seen and the unseen, ceaselessly weaving a fabric of life that was four billion years in the making.

Friday, August 29, 2008


The word everyone uses is "spooky." What they are talking about is entanglement, the spooky heart of quantum mechanics. You create a pair of subatomic particles, photons say, and send them on their separate ways. The particles seem to know what is happening to each other on their separate journeys. An activity performed on one particle can instantaneously change the properties of the other particle, no matter how far apart. And -- this is the kicker -- apparently instantaneously. Their fates are "entangled."

In the latest test of entanglement (reported in the August 14 issue of Nature), physicists entangled photon pairs using a source in Geneva, Switzerland, then passed them through fiber-optical cables of exactly equal length to receiving stations in the villages of Jussy and Satigny, which lie respectively east and west of Lake Geneva, 18 kilometers apart. "Here, the photons' entanglement was checked by an identical pair of interferometers. As they had travelled identical distances, the photons would have reached the interferometers simultaneously, as best as modern optics and electronics allows."

The effect does not seem to diminish with distance. Eighteen thousand kilometers? Eighteen milllion kilometers? Acrosss the universe? Instantaneous action-at-a-distance? The new experiments in Switzerland suggest that "any signal passing between the entangled photons is, if not instantaneous, travelling at least ten thousand times faster than light." Is the universe itself entangled at the subatomic level from a big bang source? And what, pray, would it mean if this were so?

I'm being somewhat whimsical about an entangled universe, but clearly nature is trying to tell us something with the quantum entanglement experiments, but no one knows quite what. Einstein and Schrodinger, two of the founders of quantum mechanics, admitted to being baffled by entanglement, an effect that seems to violate our common notions of physical causality. Spooky? Oh, yes, spooky, indeed.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Quick, Henry, the Flit

Surely, no idea has caused so much mischief or unnecessary debate as philosophical dualism: natural/supernatural, body/soul, matter/spirit, law/miracle. And few ideas seem so deeply ingrained in minds and hearts. The vast majority of people embrace dualism in some guise.

Where did the idea come from? The experience of sleep and dream? An unwillingness to accept the finality of death? And why does it persist in the face of a total lack of evidence?

Let this be said: The astonishing progress of science is predicated on a unitary naturalistic philosophy. Furthermore, science has yet to encounter a single phenomenon that would require a dualistic explanation. The idea of a transnatural reality is simply a bust.

The morning glory plant on my window sill is covered with tiny green bugs. From a distance they look like dust; under my hand magnifier they look like fleas with lacy wings and long paddle-footed legs. I don't know what they are, but I am sure that somewhere in the world there is an entomologist who specializes in just this species, devotes a lifetime to its study, and then has surely only scratched the surface of what is there to be known. It would take a thousand lifetimes to exhaust the mysteries that harbor on my window sill.

Somewhere in the new book I write: The smallest insect is more worthy of our astonishment than a thousand choirs of angels. The buzzing business of a single cell is more infused with eternity than any disembodied soul. The Jesuit scientist/mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin celebrated "the flame [that] has lit up the whole world from within...from the inmost core of the tiniest atom to the mighty sweep of the most universal laws of being." He asked, wonderingly: "How is it possible that I am so incapable of passing on to others...the vision of the marvelous unity in which I find myself immersed."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Again our friends on the river

There was wind in the willows as the Water Rat and the Mole rowed their boat along the river. They were on their way to visit Toad of Toad Hall.

"Not many honey bees along the river," said the Rat.

"I've read in the paper that honey bee colonies are collapsing," the Mole responded.

"I wonder why?" mused the Rat.

The Mole shook his head. "Well, I'm not surprised," he said. "The weather has been especially wet, which some folks blame on global warming. Farmers are growing more crops, like wheat, that don't produce nectar, and using more fertilizer and pesticides. When a honey bee colony is stressed, it is more vulnerable to mites, viruses, and malnutrition."

"We must ask Mr. Toad what's happening to the bees," said the Rat, his brow furrowed with concern.

Just then they rounded a bend in the river and saw Toad Hall, a handsome, dignified old house of mellowed red brick. They glided up to the landing and Rat shipped the oars. Toad was waiting to greet them.

"We were wondering" said the Rat, "what's happening to the honey bees."

Toad grew somber. "Indeed," he shook his head gravely. "I heard on the wireless this morning that the country will run out of honey by Christmas. No more till the summer of 2009."

"If we're lucky," grumbled the Mole.

"And it's not just the honey," said Toad. "Farmers and gardeners rely on bees for pollination. The UK farming minister, Lord Rocker, told parliament last winter that the country's honey bee population could be wiped out in ten years."

"Oh, you are such a worrywart," said the Rat. "These things come and go." He wondered off into Toad's garden, which he found strangely silent.

"Well, if the farmers are growing lots of wheat, at least we'll have plenty of bread in the shops," said the Mole.

"But will we have honey to put on the bread?" murmured Toad.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Down in dim woods the diamond delves

It's not my habit to read horoscopes, but as it's my time of the year my eye fell upon the featured advice for Virgos by the (London) Sunday Times astrologer Shelley von Strunckel:
In the run-up to the New Moon in your sign -- which takes place this Saturday -- you're likely to feel confused. Although you may not recognize how this is releasing you from restrictive situations -- personally, professionally and in close relationships -- that's what's going on...Keep your nerve, and when the stunning developments promised by early September's brilliant alliance between expansive Jupiter and canny Saturn, which is in Virgo, brings life-changing ideas, offer and opportunities, you'll be ideally positioned to make the best of them.
Now I know astrologers live in a sky all of their own, but what am I to make of this advice? OK, Saturday's new Moon is in Leo, not Virgo, but that's par for the astrologer's course; the fact that precession has shifted the Sun's circuit by a constellation since antiquity doesn't seem to bother them. And what's this alliance between Jupiter and Saturn? In Virgo? In early September, Jupiter is doing a bit of retrograde in Sagittarius, while Saturn is trucking along through Leo, a third of the way around the sky. It's clear I need a course in astrology.

I would have written:
In the run-up to Saturday's New Moon in Leo, you're likely to feel confused by Ms. von Strunckel's prognostications. Have a go instead at spotting the 75-hour-old Moon low in the southwest on September 2, to the left of Venus in the twilight. It won't be easy. This is the worst time of the year for new Moon spotting for observers in the northern hemisphere, so feel proud of yourself if you succeed. Observers south of the equator should have no trouble seeing a much thinner crescent on the evening of the 1st. Jupiter is fairly low in the south at dusk for northern observers, but still dominating the evening sky. Warm September nights are an ideal time to go star-watching with your sweetie. Sprawl on a blanket and let Jupiter be your guide. Saturn, alas, is in conjunction with the Sun in early September, and so unavailable. And speaking of romance, Mars, Venus and Mercury are tangled in a delightful menage a trois low in the western sky at sunset, but lost in the twilight for viewers in northern latitudes. If you live in southern climes, this will be a dance of planets not to be missed.
Polls show that half of Americans are open to astrological influences in their lives. It has always been a source of great mystery to me that people will take seriously the nonsense of horoscopes, yet won't step out the back door to observe the always changing delights of the real sky.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Away above the chimney pots

So Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that "there's no place like home", but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began.
In the last paragraph of his delightful meditation on the film The Wizard of Oz, Salman Rushdie, himself an immigrant to another land, takes gentle issue with the concluding cliche: "There's no place like home." If the net result of Dorothy's technicolor adventure is to end up where she began, in gray old Kansas, then what was the point? asks Rushdie.

Poor Dorothy, waking up in bed with Auntie Em and the others clustered around her, born again, so to speak, into the same old life. "It wasn't a dream, it was a place," she cries, piteously. "A real, truly live place! Doesn't anyone believe me?" She must begin her rebellion all over again.

Visitors here will have observed that I have reached a stage in life where I am prone to look back on the journey, reflect somewhat nostalgically upon the place I came from, and try to ascertain where it is I have ended up. It is clear that the destination was in part determined by where I began, as is true, I suppose, for all of us. We are armed, after all, only with "what we have and who we are." But it is clear too that having experienced the technicolor universe of the galaxies and the DNA, there is no going back to the dusty, gray dogmas of my youth. The Emerald City may indeed be over the rainbow, but it is still in the here and now. The Wizard's powers may not be supernatural, but his translucently turreted city sure beats Kansas. Science was my Yellow Brick Road. I'm still a "Kansas" boy, so to speak, but with no desire to be born again. For better or worse, home is here, now, in a universe of a grandeur of which I had no idea at the beginning, at a place along a Yellow Brick Road that reaches tantalizingly into the future, with no foreseeable terminus in an ultimate Oz.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

In the pellucid zone

I was talking about the language of proteins last week. It is the language spoken by single cells, including those whose wigglings and wooings begin a human life. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


The other day the daughter of dear friends and her husband contrived for others of her family, and for us, a "treasure hunt" that took us careening -- three teams in three cars, each starting with a different sequence of the clues -- around the end of the Dingle Peninsula. Solving the clues took a considerable knowledge of local geography, history and culture.

One clue, for example, referred to St. Brendan's "glassy gaze" looking at a "place of knowledge where children once learned." The glassy gaze suggested stained glass, and therefore one of the several churches of the area, leading us eventually to the church in the village of Ballyferriter where, from inside, a window image of Brendan on the opposite wall looks out the door to a tiny museum of local history across the road that, we affirmed, was once a school. We paid our entrance fees. Prominent in the collection is a group of ogham stones, inscribed with an ancient runelike script, an alphabetic key of which was displayed on the wall. Among the stuff we had been given at the start was an ogham inscription (we now recalled), but with no indication of which way to read it -- right-to-left or left-to-right, right-side up or upside-down, all of which gave different translations. The only one that made sense was " beltbucle," and sure enough in one of the museum cases was an iron belt buckle "lost and found" (a phase from the clue) at Dun an Oir (the Fort of Gold), a site several miles away down country lanes where in 1580 an invading force of Spanish and Italian Catholics, with their Irish allies, were massacred and decapitated by the English. A monument there has carved heads which the clue suggested we should count. This number, together with numbers ascertained upon solving each of the other clues, would help lead us to "the treasure."

And so it went, through language, literature and archeology, a grand way to spend a drizzly August afternoon, and a jolly confirmation that not all of the younger generation have yet surrendered their minds and wits to Web 2.0.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pruning the tree of science

Scientific knowledge grows organically, like a tree.

Every piece of published research is like a new bud on a twig. The bud is connected to every other bud on the tree. Two buds may be very close together, on the same twig, or very far apart, so that to trace the connection one would have to follow twigs and branches all the way back to the trunk and out again along other branches and twigs. Ultimately, all scientific knowledge is one. It is the connectedness of science that give us confidence in its reliability.

The amount of research being published today is so great that no one can claim to know the overall shape of the tree. The last time I checked, there were upwards of 100,000 scientific journals. It is virtually impossible for any one scientist to become familiar with more than a single branch of the tree.

A rule of science requires that every published paper cite all previously published work that bears upon the same subject. The citation rule assures that new research is firmly connected to the tree of science.

As it turns out, only about half of published papers are cited by subsequent research. That is to say, about half of the twigs on the tree of science are dead ends. They could be snipped away and the tree would grow as robustly as ever. At first glance, this might seem promising. Good horticultural practice suggests that a tree grows best with judicious pruning. The nutrients for growth, in the form of funding, are limited. Snip a branch here and there, and the other branches will grow more vigorously.

The problem is knowing which branches to prune. Who can tell which scientific research being done today will be the start of a fruitful new branch of the tree and which is destined to be deadwood? Significant work may go unrecognized for years following its publication. Without some possibly wasteful measure of support, promising ideas may fade before they have a chance to establish themselves in a citation index.

More worrisome, science might become a self-perpetuating aristocracy, rather than an open meritocracy. It may be necessary to tolerate a substantial amount of fruitless research in order to insure that science remains open to the gifted young, and to others working outside of elite research establishments.

It may be that science grows best wastefully and wild, without the horticulturist's tidying hand.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Knowledge and mystery -- Part 2

It strikes me that my last two posts have a lot in common. Basically, I understand how my new iPod works. Inside, it's just ones and zeros moving around from register to register under the control of stored instructions and a clock. Well, not ones and zeros, actually, but bits of electric charge or flip-flop circuits in one state or the other. Binary. On or off. Eight bits to the byte. A different byte for each stroke of the "keyboard." All that electric charge sloshing around at a speed of a billion sloshes per second. This is technology so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.

Meanwhile, in each of the trillions of cells in my body, an arm's length of DNA is running its own program. An arm's length of DNA distributed over 23 pairs of chromosomes. A double helix, spiral staircase. The railings are alternate sugar and phosphate molecules. The treads are pairs of organic bases, of just four kinds. Adenine, thymine, guamine and cytosine, designated A, T G and C. A always pairs with T, G always pairs with C. You can see a snip of the spiral, every atom, in the illustration here. Three billion treads in the human DNA. Three billion treads in every cell. Thirty thousand genes.

Not binary, but a four-letter code. Each three steps on the spiral can be in one of 64 states -- AAA, AAT, ATC, and so on. Twenty of these combinations code for the twenty amino acids of which all proteins are composed. Some other combinations do housekeeping. The DNA spins off messenger RNA. The RNA is a template for assembling proteins. You and I are big protein machines. More or less.

DNA and proteins interact. Tiny protein-based "motors" crawl along the strands of DNA, transcribing the code into single-strand RNA molecules. Other proteins help pack DNA neatly into the nuclei of cells and maintain the tidy chromosome structures. Still other protein-based "motors" are busily at work untying knots that form in DNA as it is unpacked in the nucleus and copied during cell division. Others are in charge of quality control, checking for accuracy and repairing errors.

A Tinker Toy set. But what a set! Talk about indistinguishable from magic! And the clock? The pacemaker? I look out my window into an overwhelming sea of life. Garden, fields, hedgerows, woods, reaching away to the horizon. Spiders, butterflies, cows, sheep, gulls, crows, invisible organisms in the sea and air. A panorama of teeming biological activity. All of those four-letter programs running continuously, inexhaustibly, creatively. Running ceaselessly here on Earth for 4-billion years, and for all we know throughout the universe. Running to the beat of a rhythm that has been humming at the heart of creation since the dawn of time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


My six-year-old iPod has given up the ghost. I used it to carry my music collection between the three places where I spend my life. An iPod Nano would do the the job fine, but in a moment of wild extravagance I sprang for the new iPod Touch.

A gorgeous little thing, glass and stainless steel, the size of a slightly elogated playing card, a quarter-inch thick. One button. Tom brought it over this past weekend when he came for a holiday, and loaded it up for me off my computer. All my music, classical and oldies, 1300 "songs". More than a 1600 photographs. Address book, calendar, Wi-Fi internet browser, e-mail, calculator (turn the darn thing sideways and it becomes a full-functioned scientific calculator), and a lot of other stuff I haven't explored yet. Do I need this? Probably not.

As someone who was there at the dawn of the computer age, and who used to build simple computers with my students out of 7400-series ICs, the device I hold in my hand seems little short of miraculous. I'm reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. My grandkids take these things as givens; they haven't a clue what's going on inside. I know enough to know it isn't magic, but as I skate my fingers across the glass and watch things ebb and flow on the screen, I feel like Merlin.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Knowledge and mystery

"Science takes the mystery out of life." How often have I heard that complaint from someone too stubborn to learn a bit of science. Nothing, it seems to me, could be further from the truth.

An article in a recent issue of Science recounts progress on the protein-folding problem. Proteins are long sequences of amino acids, which are themselves rather simple molecules, just twenty types of which account for the chemistry of life. DNA specifies the sequence -- three steps on the double helix code for each of the amino acids -- and through the intermediary of RNA assembles the protein chain. Then the chain -- which can be hundreds or thousands of amino acids long -- all on its own and with remarkable alacrity folds up into a characteristic shape, like a wad of string, but with nooks and crannies and protrusions that help determine the protein's function. You and I are pretty much a buzzing commerce of proteins, proteins canoodling and nooking each other, doing what proteins do.

So what is the "protein folding problem"? Start with a given sequence of amino acids and predict the three-dimensional shape of the protein. The shape will be the particular "wad of string" that has the lowest free energy level -- like a marble rolling to the bottom of a bowl, except on vastly more complex scale. Researchers have the rules of folding more or less in hand, but to do the necessary calculations requires colossal computing power -- sometimes hundreds of thousands of computers linked in tandem grinding away, trying different configurations, seeking the one with lowest free energy. The prize for success is understanding how nature does the folding in a flash, and perhaps drugs that will repair or enhance protein function.

Does this take the mystery out of life? Well, in one sense, yes. We will soon know how proteins fold. But, lordy, when you know what is going on in every cell of our bodies, second by second, the huge, elegant, utterly simple, amazingly complex spinning and weaving and checking and correcting and jiggling and winding and unwinding in trillion of cells, trillions of protein factories, humming and churning to some cosmic tempo -- if all of that doesn't stand out as a mystery more worthy of attention than the half-baked superstitions that attract so much human notice, then...

...then one must be comatose or incorrigibly incurious.

(The schematic image of a globin protein is from

Monday, August 18, 2008


The solar eclipse of August 1 -- just a nibble out of the Sun here in Ireland, but even a nibble can be fun. The Perseid meteor shower of August 11-13 -- with a ZHR (zenithal hourly rate) of upwards of 100. The partial lunar eclipse of August 16 -- about 80 percent shadowed. A washout! All of it! The summer has been historically bad. Since we arrived in June, we have enjoyed one clear night. Oh, occasionally Jupiter has played peek-a-boo through the clouds, out there on the southern horizon, but on the whole the big, bright planet has proved as elusive as Bigfoot.

In An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, I say of summer: "Again the Milky Way arches high overhead, and the second act of the celestial drama begins -- brilliant stars and constellations afloat in a stream of galactic light." Har! The only stream we have seen this summer is rainwater sloshing down off the hill.

So what's a skywatcher to do? Curl up by the fire with Guy Ottwell's Astronomical Calendar 2008. Watch in my mind's eye that dot of darkness creep down across Siberia on August 1. Count in my imagination those meteors flashing out of the northeastern sky on August 12. Close my eyes and watch the Moon rise spooky red on August 16. Somewhere I once wrote that skywatching is 20 percent vision and 80 percent imagination. Around here, this summer, it is imagination or nothing.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

What a man would like to be true...

Last week I made some remarks here about the Shroud of Turin. It wasn't the Shroud itself I was interested in, but an essay about the Shroud by the Irish Times' science columnist, which I thought was insufficiently skeptical. Comments on that post prompt a reprise of some earlier remarks on the Shroud, which remain as pertinent as ever. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's weekly offering.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mortal soul -- redux

Well, Raymo, you often take contemporary religious fundamentalists to task -- creationists and those who await the Rapture, for example -- but in yesterday's post you seem to give the medieval mystics a free pass. Surely, they too were awash in superstition?

Ah, an interesting observation. Thank you for raising the point.

First, I only take fundamentalists to task when their beliefs impinge upon what I consider the common good. As when they seek to subvert public school science education, or inject apocalyptic theology into politics and foreign policy. Otherwise, to each his or her own, I say.

The medieval mystics were by and large rather private sorts, even to the extreme of sealing themselves up into tiny cells, or hiding away in convents and monasteries. Their spiritual commerce was between themselves and their God. To the extent that someone like Saint Bernard used religious demagoguery to excite passions for violent crusade, well, no free pass for him.

As for superstition: If you believed in a personal God or a 6000-year-old Earth in the 14th century, it hardly counts as superstition. Superstition is a slippery term that depends upon the prevailing world view. The Romans thought the early Christians were superstitious. After Constantine took the empire into Christianity, the Roman gods and goddesses were considered superstitions. It is natural that the medieval mystics expressed their ideas in the intellectual vernacular of their time.

I can pare away the supernaturalist theology, anthropocentric world view, and ascetic excess from the writings of the medieval mystics and what remains is something sweet and private -- a wedding of religious feeling and eroticism, an intense sensitivity to the natural world ("Must the nightingale/ Not sing her song/ When Nature tells her loving tale": Mechtild of Magdeburg), a profound awareness of mystery, and, especially, a sense of the unknowability of God.

No free pass, but certainly a deeply discounted ticket. I know I risk scientific credibility in looking back nostalgically on some of these enthusiasms of my youth, but in a world that tends to be excessively synthetic, hedonistic, and fractious, perhaps silence, attentiveness and passionate longing are virtues not to be despised.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Mortal soul

Every now and then a book shows up -- at the back of a closet, in a box in the attic, on a shelf in a secondhand bookshop -- that jogs one into the past, to some early moment of discovery, to the you you once were. Someone mentioned here recently Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, and I felt a shiver of deja vu; there was a time as a young man when I was all atwitter about that book. Even as everyone else was reading Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, I was absorbed by the Glass Bead Game, maybe because I was trying at the time to mush together a monkish Catholicism with some hard-nosed science, not very successfully. What prompts this musing now is another book that just fell off my shelf, H. A. Reinhold's The Soul Afire, an anthology of the writings of the great mystics, dedicated, no less, to Jacques Maritain. The book was first published in 1944, with an imprimatur by Francis Cardinal Spellman, but it was the Meridian edition of 1960 that coincided with my youthful plunge into the exhilarating and murky depths of EuroCatholic spirituality.

Consider just a few of the section headings: The Eros of the Intellect; Knowing in Part, Darkly; The Restless Heart; Holy Indifference; The Flesh, Error and Sin; All Things Are But Loss; The Still Small Voice; The Loving Pursuer; The Dark Night; The Wounded Heart; The Great Silence; The Loving Gaze. Heady stuff for a restless young man experiencing religious feeling for the first time. John of the Cross, Hildegarde of Bingen, Richard Rolle, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Genoa, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Good Lord, no wonder the wounded heart.

Meanwhile, the light of a joyful empiricism was glimmering there in the distance, like a light at the end of a long dark tunnel, or sunlight seen from the depths of a pond, a perfectly natural light that illuminates the world of nature. And you know the rest of the story, the eventual emergence into a robust scientific agnosticism.

But we never leave our past completely behind, nor should we necessarily. It is our respective pasts that make us who we are, that shape our individuality. From those youthful days of the soul afire I retain a sense of mystery, a sense that even in the light of science we see as through a glass darkly. I remain at this late stage in my life the loving pursuer who listens -- listens to the still, small voice in the great silence.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Volatile history

I have just finished reading Amanda Foreman's Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, a well-researched biography of one of England's most vibrant late-18th-century personalities, a beautiful and vivacious celebrity who was vigorously active in Whig politics at a time when government was assumed to be an exclusively male domain. I gained a new perspective on why the American colonies won their War of Independence: The British ruling class was so busy shagging and gambling that no one was paying attention.

Georgiana lived at a time when upper-class people were generally prolific letter-writers and diarists. It seems she was scribbling pretty much constantly. She was also very much in the public eye, with the newspapers of the day following her every move. Her many famous friends noted her comings and goings in their own letters and diaries. Foreman had a wealth of archival material to draw upon in reconstructing Georgiana's life.

Will future historians have the same access to the intimate lives of today's movers and shakers? So much of our correspondence -- public and private -- is electronic, and diaries and journals have been replaced by blogs. Will all of that information be archived in a readable format 200 years from now? Or will it evaporate into a meaningless gas of ones and zeroes?

And what, pray, of the ink blots, tear drops, and coffee stains that make history come alive?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Left behind

We read in the media over here of an E-mail/internet campaign in the States suggesting that Barack Obama is the AntiChrist. Not that he is a liberal, or an elitist, or even a secret Muslim, but that he is the literal embodiment of the endtimes archfiend predicted in Revelations. Needless to say, this is the sort of thing that makes Europeans roll their eyes with disbelief and wonder if Americans have gone around the bend.

With so many megachurch pastors and televangelists telling their congregations to distrust science and put their faith in the Good Book, is it any wonder that the country is awash in blithering nonsense. If you can be made to believe that the universe is 6000 years old and the Grand Canyon was caused by Noah's flood, what's so farfetched about Gog and Magog and the lake of fire and sulfur? According to a PBS poll several years ago, almost sixty percent of Americans accept the literal relevance of the Book of Revelations, and one in five believe the Rapture is imminent. Poor Obama. Poor America. It's as if the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment never happened.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Understand the internet? Icann't.

"Thanks to the prodigious biological event represented by the discovery of electromagnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously present, over land and sea, in every corner of the earth." Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man

The Internet Engineering Task Force was in Dublin last week, one of three annual meetings to sort out problems and keep the net going swimmingly. The group has a chair, but no formal structure. Anyone can attend the meetings; this time, 1200 people from all around the planet. Who runs the internet? Officially, no one. A lot of folks seem to be involved, and things are sorted out by some sort of apparently magical consensus.

Does anyone understand how the internet works? Perhaps only Jon Postel, and he's dead. OK, I'm sure there must be a lot of people -- like the ones who met in Dublin -- who have a pretty good idea what's going on, but I haven't a clue, and I have never met anyone who does. There are presently 1.5 billion internet users, with staggering quantities of data flying around the world at essentially the speed of light, and no one seems to be in charge, and who the hell owns the hardware? and who makes money? and how? and who is monitoring the traffic? and why? and who's in charge of security? There was a time some years ago when everyone thought the internet would crash for lack of bandwidth, but that problem has miraculously gone away.

My sons were prescient enough to latch onto and before anyone else, and presumably some of the pittance they paid goes to Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a private, US government-supported outfit in -- where? -- California? And there are root servers somewhere. And protocols like TCP/IP. And all those little packets of 1s and 0s flying around as you read this, to be recomposed on your screen. It makes my head spin.

It's all rather anarchic, and yet it works, presumably because of an incredible amount of built-in redundancy and distributed "DNA," rather like a living organism. No one knows completely how the human body works, but it does, and it can take a lots of damage and go on functioning, as long as the master text file at the top of the spine remains intact and the power stays plugged in.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The fox guarding the chickens

The United States continues to export creationism to the rest of the world. A recent issue of the Irish Times reports that a Protestant politician who heads the Northern Ireland government's education committee is pressing to have the biblical account of creation taught in schools alongside the standard evolutionary story, as a legitimate scientific alternative. The same gentleman has suggested that the visitor's center at the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland -- a remarkable formation of ancient lava columns -- include the creationist argument that the rocks are 6000 years old. I am happy to report that no such nonsense is going on in the more substantially Catholic Irish Republic -- at least not yet.

In the same issue of the Irish Times, the weekly science columnist, Dr. William Reville, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Public Awareness of Science Officer at University College Cork, weighed in on the Shroud of Turin: Is the linen cloth with an image of the crucified Christ at Turin's cathedral the authentic burial cloth of Jesus or a medieval forgery? Reville ostensibly adopts an open-minded attitude, but his credulity is breathtaking. He recommends reading Is the Turin Shroud a Fake? by Ian Wilson and Barrie Schwortz, one of countless book supporting the Shroud cult, without directing his readers to a more skeptical source. I would have thought the issue was pretty much settled by the 1988 radiometric tests reported in Nature, but it's not in the cards that any scientific evidence -- or application of Ockham's Razor -- will dissuade true believers.

Reville writes:
What if the TS [Turin Shroud] really is the burial cloth of Christ? The Gospels record that the disciples found the tomb empty and the linen cloth left lying there. The Gospel account of the resurrected Christ is that he was entirely different to a physically embodied Christ -- able to pass through walls, and to appear and disappear suddenly. What if his resurrection involved nuclear events in his dematerialization? Dr. August Accetta, California, has carried out a fascinating experiment in which he injected himself with a radioactive compound used in medical imaging to show up internal organs. He then assumed the pose of the man imaged on the TS and a gamma camera imaged the radioactivity emanating from his body. The results astonishingly replicated most of the features of the image on the TS.
With this sort of thing from the Public Awareness of Science Officer at UCC, can a 6000-year-old Giant's Causeway be far behind? If Dr. Reville takes at face value that a man can rise from the dead and pass through walls, then why not an authentic Shroud of Turin or a six-day creation. If you believe one miracle, then why not all?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Solder and sawdust

My daughter has just finished remodeling her kitchen -- woodwork, cabinetry, electrical, plumbing, flooring -- pretty much all by herself, except for what code required to be done professionally. The "manly pursuits" I describe in this week's Musing are not so exclusively male anymore.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Curiosity -- Part 2

About a dozen years ago, physicist Albert Wattenberg was poking about in the Chicago branch of the National Archives. He was looking for artifacts used by Enrico Fermi and his team of nuclear physicists in achieving the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction in the squash court under the University of Chicago's football stadium in December 1942.

Wattenberg had been on Fermi's team. Now, more than 50 years later, he reached into a box and picked up an 8-inch metal rod. Its heft surprised him. "There's only one metal that heavy," he thought. It was uranium. Radioactive uranium.

Wattenberg's discovery led to an examination of other documents and artifacts in the archives. Hundreds of laboratory notebooks and papers dating from the early days of nuclear research turned out to be contaminated with radioactivity.

The early 1940s were a careless time in nuclear physics. Scientists were heady with the excitement of discovery. The dangers of radiation were not as well understood as they are today, and safety sometimes went by the board. Many researchers and workers were accidentally contaminated. Research on the physiological effects of radiation was a medical necessity.

Some medical experiments were entirely proper and useful. Others raise troubling questions of ethical responsibility. In 1945-47, eighteen supposedly terminally-ill hospital patients were injected with high doses of plutonium to learn whether the body absorbed it, without informed consent of the patients or their families. About the same time, six hospital patients were injected with uranium salts to determine the dose that produced injury to the kidneys; again, without informed consent. More than a hundred prison inmates had testicles exposed to x-rays to determine the effect of radiation on sperm production. Eleven comatose brain cancer patients were injected with uranium to learn whether it is absorbed by brain tumors. In other medical experiments, small and probably harmless levels of radiation were used as "tracers" on populations that included infants, retarded children, blacks, and women, often without informed consent. All this in addition to the deliberate exposure of soldiers to detonations of nuclear weapons.

In retrospect, it is easy to make judgments about the inappropriateness of these experiments. At the time, the ethical issues were presumably less clear, national security seemed paramount, and safety rules were lax by present standards (Can you imagine an experimental reactor in the heart of Chicago today?). In their zeal to discover, the nuclear scientists sometimes risked the health and lives of themselves and others, including the helpless, the incarcerated, and the terminally ill. In their enthusiasm to discover, they left contaminated fingerprints on the pages of history.

Friday, August 08, 2008


In December of 1942, in a squash court under the University of Chicago's football stadium, the Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi pushed his team to assemble the first nuclear reactor, a room-sized pile of graphite bricks interspersed with chunks of uranium and uranium oxide. If all went well, a chain reaction of fissioning uranium atoms, triggered by neutrons, would produce a new form of energy. And perhaps a weapon. A war was on; a nuclear bomb might shorten the war and save American lives.

Graphite dust blackened walls, floors, faces, notebooks. It was dirty work, as different as one can imagine from the white-coated, dust-free environments of modern nuclear facilities.

At last the moment came to allow the reactor to go "critical." Neutron-absorbing cadmium rods were slowly removed from the pile, under Fermi's direction. There was concern that the reaction might get out of control, that the pile might melt down. A "suicide squad" of three young physicists stood by with jugs of neutron-absorbing cadmium-sulfate solution to douse the reactor.

All of this in the middle of a crowded city. It is inconceivable that such a thing would be allowed today.

The self-sustaining reaction was achieved. For four-and-a-half minutes, Fermi let neutrons multiply. Left uncontrolled, a runaway reaction would have killed everyone in the room and caused a mini-Chernobyl.

But before that happened, control rods were re-inserted and the chain reaction halted. The physicists shared a celebratory bottle of Chianti. The crowd departed. Fermi stayed behind with Leo Szilard, the physicist who had first imagined that a nuclear chain reaction was possible. Szilard shook Fermi's hand -- and worried that the day would go down as a black chapter in the history of mankind.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

On the mountain

Those who have read my book Climbing Brandon will know that I spend my summers near the foot of Ireland's second highest mountain and have climbed it more than a hundred times. It is a magnificent mountain, not least because of the way it sits on a peninsula that juts out into the sea; the views in every direction are spectacular. It is known as one of Ireland's holy mountains, and every year on the Sunday closest to the feast of Saint Brendan pilgrims make their way to the top for the celebration of Mass.

Each year my ascents to the summit take a little bit longer. My climbing buddy Maurice, who is my age, waltzes up and down like a mountain goat. I feel my gathering decrepitude with every step.

In his book The Mountain Behind the Mountain: Aspects of the Celtic Tradition, Noel Dermot O'Donoghue writes of another Kerry mountain in whose shadow he grew up, and by extension the generic mountain that is the source of Celtic spirituality:
The mountain behind or within the mountain is not the perfect or ideal mountain in some Platonic sense. Neither is it that mythical Mount of Parnassus on which the Muses dwell. Nor yet is it the Holy Mountain in which God reveals himself in theophany or transfiguration...No, it is a very ordinary, very physical, very material mountain, a place of sheep and kine, of peat, and of streams that one might fish in or bathe in on a summer's day. It is an elemental mountain, of earth and air and water and fire, of sun and moon and wind and rain. What makes it special for me and for the people from which I come is that it is a place of Presence and a place of presences. Only those who can perceive this in its ordinariness can encounter the mountain behind the mountain.
Religious naturalism has deep roots in Celtic tradition. It begins with a wholehearted embrace of the ordinary world that presents itself to the senses -- the world of earth and air and water and fire, of sun and moon and wind and rain -- and opens to the mysteries and to the Mystery encountered there, what the Irish call Neart, not something supernatural, but a deeper and still hidden aspect of nature itself. My climb up the mountain does not take me closer to heaven; it does take me deeper into encounter with the world. As I wrote in a previous post, Neart is not something we read about in holy books, or hear about in sermons. In it, we live, and move, and have our being.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

When God is gone

The new book arrived here in Ireland yesterday, and it is very handsome indeed. I also note that it is now available on Amazon. You will make my publisher -- Sorin Books at the University of Notre Dame -- very happy by ordering a copy. Send it to me at Stonehill College, North Easton, MA 02356, with a stamped, self-addressed envelope and I will happily autograph it for you, or for the person you intend to give it. However, wait until I return to the States on September 10.

From the jacket, by Sister Miriam MacGillis, O.P., the founder and director of Genesis Farm in New Jersey: "In these times, to be devoted to contemplation is to carry all you love in the vessel of yourself into uncharted terrains, sustained by ineffable astonishment as you are asked to surrender, bit by bit, so much of what you carry in that vessel. Readers on the contemplative journey will find that Chet Raymo leads them to the point where contemplation must align itself with the revelations and demands of an unfolding universe; the only adequate context for choosing a "seamless garment of being.""

Click to enlarge the cover image.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Edging open the door

Richard Dawkins is getting the drop on next year's bicentennial of Darwin's birth. His three-part series The Genius of Charles Darwin premiered on Britain's Channel 4 yesterday. We don't have a TV here, so I couldn't watch, but a long interview with Dawkins in the Sunday Times (London) made it pretty clear what the lovable curmudgeon is up to now. More of the same.

In the first episode he interviews a class of 15-year-olds at a secondary school in London, some of whom readily confess that they don't believe in evolution because it contradicts their religious beliefs. He bundles the kids into a bus and takes them to the seaside where fossils of ancient creatures tumble from the cliffs. Faced with the apparent conflict between the evidence of the senses and the Holy Book, some students stick with the book. Why? Because that's the way they were brought up.

Not much Dawkins can do about what goes on at home or at Sunday School, but he works himself into a lather about the teaching of creationism in public schools, something he considers akin to child abuse and institutionalized ignorance. He lashes science teachers and school administrators for going along with this nonsense for fear of offending someone's religious sensitivities. If, in the name of multiculturalism, you are going to teach that the Earth is 6000 years old, he says, you should also talk about the Nigerian tribe who believes the world was created from the excrement of ants.

Give this to Dawkins, he doesn't back away from a scrap. And he takes his job as Oxford professor for the public understanding of science seriously. Donnish, he is; he is also a terrific showman, a worthy opponent for the Darwin-bashing televangelists who have built lucrative empires on a foundation of neolithic superstition.

Of course, my own kids believe that much of what I write concedes too much to religion. The phrase "religious naturalist," as in the subtitle of my new book, strikes them as an oxymoron. I dare say Dawkins too would say, "Buck up, Chet, open the door even that little bit and the fanatics will charge through." In fact, that's just what he does say in the Sunday Times interview, with regard to those who "give too much respect to religion."

Well, my new book will make its own case. I trust not even my skeptical daughters will find between its covers a whiff of supernaturalism. What they will find is a long-lapsed Catholic who knows that buried within the untenable dogmas of his natal faith there is a traditional response to mystery -- call it creation spirituality or religious naturalism -- that is as much a part of who we are as human beings as our capacity for love and facility for language. It is a door we can step through uncompromised with Origin of Species in hand.

Monday, August 04, 2008


Yesterday's Musing prompts a few thoughts on the scale of living organisms.

Humans are roughly a meter in size. Lice are a thousand times smaller. The bacteria that live on lice are a thousand times smaller still. Six orders of magnitude between humans and bacteria.

The largest creatures we know about are only one order of magnitude larger than humans -- great blue whales, for instance.

The smallest creatures -- viruses -- are only one order of magnitude smaller than bacteria, although whether you can count viruses as alive is a matter for debate.

I suppose you could also debate whether James Lovelock's Gaia counts as a living organism, in which case we jump six orders of magnitude up from the human. Teilhard de Chardin's Noosphere, which has come to pass as the global internet, has some properties of a living organism, with individual minds making up the "cells" of the "body." The Earth is as many orders of magnitude larger than a human as a bacterium is smaller.

Fred Hoyle's science fiction classic The Black Cloud imagines a living, intelligent creature that is another three orders of magnitude larger than the Earth.

Is it possible that out there among the galaxies there are evolving organisms on such a scale that we humans are as puny in comparison as a virus is in comparison with us -- an interstellar internet, so to speak? The speed of light would seem to be a limiting factor determining how large an organism could be and still function coherently. I suppose one could imagine a more languorous "life-style" than what we are used to, for which a million years is as a human second, but then one runs up against the age of the universe itself.

Still, look at yesterday's photo again, of a louse swinging from a human hair, and muster up a bit of respect for what we yet don't know about a universe (or universes) that may be larger and more complex than we presently imagine.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Scratching one's head

Yesterday's post stressed the interconnectedness of all things. This week's Musing describes a dance of life and death involving three creatures, on the scales of a meter, a millimeter, and a micrometer.

For a brighter Sunday morning perspective, click to enlarge Anne's illumination.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Religious naturalism

Walked the high sea cliffs at Feohanagh yesterday with friends -- red sandstone strata plunging almost vertically into the wild Atlantic. At our backs, sheep grazed the heathery upland fields. Below us, gulls screamed and dove above crashing breakers. We watched clouds gather far to the south and hoped the rain would hold off long enough to enable us to compete our walk. It was one of those times in one of those places when everything fits together: land, sky, sea, plants, animals, human friendship. On one high peak feathery golden grass softened sheer walls of rock, inviting us to sprawl and take in a panorama that seemed to spread itself for us alone.

In his account of an expedition he took with his friend the marine biologist Ed Ricketts into the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), Nobel-prizewinning novelist John Steinbeck wrote of the collected sea creatures: "One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air...And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable."

He continued: " This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things -- plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and the expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time."

Friday, August 01, 2008


The Big Dipper hangs over the hill behind the house. So familiar is this particular configuration of stars that I have sometimes wondered if it might be part of our genetic inheritance.

This idea is not as bizarre as it sounds. It has been demonstrated experimentally that certain migrating birds orient themselves by observing the stars. In a classic series of experiments, Stephen Emlen placed captive indigo buntings in cages under a planetarium sky and tested their response to stellar cues. The birds were able to find north by observing the rotation of the stars about the fixed pole. Some researchers believe that migrating birds might innately recognize the pattern of the Big Dipper.

Might not humans also have evolved the ability to recognize a prominent pattern of stars that would help them find their way? Several things argue against this hypothesis.

First, the place of north among the stars is not fixed. The Earth's axis wobbles under the stars, like a top that wobbles as it spins. Every 26,000 years, the axis sweeps out a circle in the sky. Today, the axis conveniently points close to the bright star Polaris, but this coincidence is temporary. Fourteen-thousand years ago, the axis pointed towards Vega, and it was the North Star. At that time, the Dipper was farther from the pole than it is today.

Second, the relative positions of the stars on the sky are not permanent. Every star has some tiny motion relative to the others. These motions do not significantly change the appearance of constellations over many generations; however, over longer periods of time, the appearance of constellations is considerably altered. One-hundred-thousand years ago, when Neanderthal humans inhabited the Old World, the Big Dipper looked more like a straight-handled spade than a dipper. One-hundred thousand years in the future it will look like a duck.

The rate of genetic change would have to be extremely rapid for natural selection to keep an inborn star map up-to-date on a time scale of tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. This may be why some birds fix on a center of stellar rotation rather than on a particular pattern of stars.

Moreover, the selective pressure of evolution would seem to have been less for human ancestors, who presumably didn't range far from home, than for migrating birds.

All of which makes an inborn map of the Big Dipper exceedingly unlikely.