Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The road less traveled

I have never met the pundit Michael Novak, but his spirit would be hard to ignore here at Stonehill College. Novak was a graduate of the college (1956), he has remained a loyal friend of Stonehill, and his personal archives reside here. I seem to remember him as a young left-winger back in the Sixties, but he is now a prominent pillar of the conservative establishment, opining on matters of cultural contention from his post at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. I once took issue with him here when he advocated adding intelligent design to the public school science curriculum.

Like everyone else, Novak has added his voice to the science/religion debate with a book called No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers. He takes Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et. al. to task for their "literature of contempt," and pleads for a more civil conversation between atheists and believers. No quarrel with that. Our religious and political discourse could certainly use a more generous spirit.

The Big Questions will be always with us, says Novak: Who are we? Why are we here? What might we hope for? How ought we to live? He answers:
In the face of such questions, both the atheist and the believer stand in similar darkness. The atheist does not see God -- but neither does the believer. If there is a God such as Jews and Christians and many deists have held there to be, such a God cannot be reached by eyes, ears, taste, touch, or scent. Not be imagination or memory either. Not directly even by a clear distinct concept. The only knowledge of God we have through reason, all the ancient thinkers have taught us, is dark -- and by the via negativa, that is, by reasoning from what God cannot be. Direct empirical knowledge of God could only be a false God.
Well, fair enough. And the agnostic would respond: Thank you, Mr. Novak, Q.E.D.

Surely Novak knows that the God that so rouses the indignation of Dawkins, et. al. is not the God of the via negativa, who is not this and is not that. It is the God of the vast majority of believers, a personal God who communicates with humans and intrudes into his creation. It is the God who throughout history has stirred the troubled pot of human parochialism, and demanded loyalty with the enducement of everlasting life. It is the God who most believers (including Novak) embrace through an accident of birth.

Novak's plea for civil discourse between secularism and faith is certainly welcome, and he makes a convincing argument that humans do not live by science and reason alone. The task before us, it seems to me, is not to prop up our various parochial Gods, but to forge a modern narrative that transcends sectarian theologies. Faith and doubt will never be reconciled, and conversation between them is essentially fruitless. But there is no reason why the secular, scientific enterprise cannot seamlessly accommodate a sense of the sacred and the holy -- call it, if you will, in Novak's phrase, the God that no one sees. The via negative is not a yellow-brick road that leads to an enchanted Oz where we see God face to face; rather, once we abandon the notion of a transcendent destination, we realize that the road we are traveling traverses a landscape of astonishing beauty and mystery.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A candle ready for its flame

I can't quite leave the Eta Carinae Nebula. If you haven't already done so, go here and explore the details. The Sun is about 30,000 light-years out from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, about two-thirds of the way from the center to the edge of the spiral. The Eta Carina region is 8000 light years from the Sun, off along the stream of our spiral arm.

I think of Beatrice leading Dante into the luminous regions of Paradise. The poet prays for adequate language to describe the beauty of what he has seen:
Not only does the beauty I beheld
Transcend ourselves, but truly I believe
Its Maker only may enjoy it all.
Of that he can be sure. No human can fully enjoy or comprehend the grandeur of the universe we live in. In the Eta Carinae Nebula we visit a tiny neighborhood, only 50 light-years wide, of the Milky Way Galaxy, just one of 100 billion galaxies we might see with current technology.
Like sudden lightning scattering the spirits
of sight so that the eye is then too weak
to act on other things it would perceive,

such was the living light encircling me,
leaving me so enveloped by its veil
of radiance that I could see no thing.

The Love that calms this heaven always welcomes
into Itself with such a salutation,
to make the candle ready for its flame.

No sooner had these few words entered me
than I became aware that I was rising
beyond the power that was mine; and such

new vision kindled me again, that even
the purest light would not have been so bright
as to defeat my eyes, deny my sight.
And we, having visited the Eta Carinae Nebula, might say with Dante's almost exact contemporary Meister Eckhart: "That which one says is God, he is not; that which one does not say, he is more truly that."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Getting the point

In Comments the other day, Michael mentioned a funny story in Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics in which the narrator -- old Qfwfq -- describes what life was like when everything in the universe was contained within a point. See this week's Musing.

Anne sends us another message from her mesa in New Mexico. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Coming of age in the Milky Way

Before we leave yesterday's Eta Carinae Nebula panorama, take a closer look at the Caterpillar (click to enlarge). In the panorama, it is located just above dead center. This globule of gas and dust looks strikingly like the creature it is named for -- the stumpy legs, the eye, the antenna. Although it looks like a caterpillar, it is more properly a chrysalis; it is inside such dusty clouds that stars are born.

The Caterpillar is roughly a light-year long. If you set out to travel from end to end at the speed of a typical solar-system spacecraft, it would take about 50,000 years to make the journey.

How big a part of the sky does the Eta Carinae panorama cover? Hold this letter O at arm's length. It would cover the nebula, with the tiny Caterpillar floating within.

You tell me what it means to live in such a universe.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Six memos to myself

Early morning walk to college. The Sun, that votive candle lit each day at dawn, spills its light along the path. Autumn is in the air; one can almost feel the water molecules in the brook beneath the bridge slowing their jittery vibrations in preparation for a change of phase. The birds chatter their morning prayers.

Lightness. Quickness. Exactitude. The morning is distilled into its essence. Austere. As brittle as glass. Visibility. Multiplicity. Consistency. Sunlight spills along the path, collects in sandy pools.

Eight thousand light-years away a star is dying. Eta Carinae, in the southern sky, in the stream of the Milky Way. A big star, 100 times more massive than the Sun. Shuddering in its death throes. Since it was catalogued in 1677, Eta Carinae has been blazing up and dying down. In 1843 it outshone every star but Sirius, then faded to naked-eye invisibility. Then slowly brightened.

To the eye, a speck of light in a dark sky. The Hubble telescope reveals a star blasting off bubbles of its own substance in two great lobes -- the residue of the 1843 explosion racing outwards. In the 11 September issue of Nature, astronomer Nathan Smith reports previously undetected sheets of ejecta surging outwards even faster than the lobes (scroll down on the link and watch the animation). The bulk of the star is still intact. A supernova is in the offing. Today? Tomorrow? Ten thousand years from now?

A star dies, taking its planets with it. But look at the part of the sky around Eta Carinae in this spectacular Hubble panorama (or click to enlarge image below), 50 light-years wide, 8000 light-years away. A place of prodigious starbirth. Roiling with creation and destruction (Eta Carinae is the small, intensely bright oval at center left). Our little planet would be lost in this cauldron of gas, dust and stars -- a grain of sand flicked into the eye of a hurricane.

Lightness. Quickness. Exactitude. The Sun heaves itself above the highest branches of the trees. The day gathers itself into itself. Visibility. Multiplicity. Consistency. I gather the day into this simple thing I hold in my mind's eye. Somewhere afar off I hear a siren.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mr. Palomar's infinite lawn

Italo Calvino's fiction embodies nicely the six qualities he outlined at the end of his life. Let me consider just one little volume, called Mr. Palomar.

A sweet little book. A transcript of Mr. Palomar's thoughts. Thoughts that move in an elaborate -- and playfully -- plotted way from the visual, to the anthropological, to the cosmic. A Rubik's cube of a book.

Mr. Palomar is generally perplexed to find himself overwhelmed by the most ordinary things: a cheese counter in a market, a gecko on the window glass, a jar of goose fat, a naked breast on the beach, a starry night, and so on. He describes what he sees. His descriptions become entangled with his thoughts, and soon he is swimming upstream in a universe that may or may not be infinite, only to be rescued at the end of most chapters by a sudden intrusion of the mundane.

Chapter 1.2.3., for instance. Around Mr. Palomar's house there is a lawn. The lawn consists of three kinds of grasses. And weeds. Mr. Palomar is weeding. Why is he weeding? Pull up one weed and he immediately sees another, then another, and another. Mr. Palomar briefly flirts with what might be called a scientific census of the blades of grass, the intruding weeds, perhaps by sectioning off a single square meter of lawn and devoting himself to its study. But the boundaries of the imagined square meter burst. The lawn itself adjoins the wild. Artificial and natural merge. What is natural? What is artificial? Mr. Palomar's mind has wondered. He is trying to apply to the universe everything he has thought about the lawn, "the universe, collection of celestial bodies, nebulas, fine dust, force fields, intersections of fields, collections of collections..." The lawn is infinite.

The lawn is infinite. Science can section and draw boundaries, dissect and parse. Still, the jar of goose fat is infinite. Flocks of starlings gather of an evening. The starlings are infinite.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Six memos

Italo Calvino, the famed Italian storyteller, died in 1985, just before he was to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. He had writen five of the six lectures he proposed to give. The title of the series: Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Each lecture was devoted to one of the qualities Calvino believed literature should aspire to. Lightness. Quickness. Exactitude. Visibility. Multiplicity. Consistency.

Qualities, perhaps, we could all aspire to.

Lightness. The opposite of the heaviness that tries to drag us all down. Wit. A spring in one's step. Playfulness. Not taking oneself too seriously.

Quickness. A certain deftness in combining thought and action. Nimbleness. Agility. Mercury with winged feet who outpaces gloomy Saturn.

Exactitude. A concern for precise, apt expression. Clarity. Simplicity. Respect for facts.

Visibility. The visible imagination as an instrument for knowing the world and oneself. By extension, honoring the senses as a way of discovering the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Description as revelation.

Multiplicity. The infinite possibilities of language. But also the infinite contingencies of the universe itself. The way every little thing contains the whole. The way everything is related to everything else. The artist seeks to contain the infinite in the finite -- an impossibility, of course, but to the extent that the artist succeeds, we are lifted by the art.

Consistency. We can only guess what Calvino had in mind.

He concludes with an observation about literature and science: "Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function. Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various 'codes,' into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world."

(Tomorrow: On Mr. Palomar's infinite lawn.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Who's irrational?

An interesting essay in the September 19 Wall Street Journal: Look Who's Irrational Now, by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway. The gist is this: Self-professed atheists are more likely to believe in paranormal phenomena -- astrology, Bigfoot, alien abductions, and the like -- and Evangelical Christians are least likely to believe.

Ziegler Hemingway references a new study from Baptist-affiliated Baylor University, funded by -- guess who? -- the John Templeton Foundation. Nothing wrong with the survey, of course. It is a useful look at who we are and what we believe. It is the slant that Hemingway (and Baylor) gives to the results that needs critique.

The suggestion is that Evangelical Christians are less superstitious than members of more liberal Christian denominations, and especially less superstitious than agnostics and atheists. Take that! Richard Dawkins.

That is to say, people who believe that there were dinosaurs on the ark are less superstitious than people who read their horoscope in the newspaper. Or to put it another way, people who have read the Left Behind novels are less superstitious than those who have read The Da Vinci Code. The implication is so fatuous as to be beyond comment.

There is no "gotcha" in Ziegler Hemingway's essay. What the Baylor study shows -- and we already knew -- is that humans have an insatiable appetite for baloney, and that applies to both atheists and Evangelicals. We want desperately to believe that we aren't ignored by the universe, and UFOs are as useful as guardian angels in affirming our cosmic importance.

I wonder what the Baylor researchers would find if they asked the same questions, say, of members of the American Academy of Science. We know that the great majority of members count themselves atheists or agnostics. I would bet my last dime that they are equally skeptical of the paranormal.

The great divide with regard to superstition is not between atheists and Evangelicals, but between skeptics and true believers of every ilk. What never ceases to amaze me is why we go searching for the supernatural and the paranormal, when the natural and the normal is so endlessly fascinating. The tiny insect that is at this moment crawling across the screen of my computer is a greater cause for awe than a choir of angels or a fleet of UFOs.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Cell wars

Follow this link and click on the animation (under Related Projects) to see a bacteriophage landing on and injecting DNA into an E. coli bacterium. If you have a slow connection, it may take a few minutes to load.

You are looking at the most common act of aggression on Earth.

A bacteriophage (phagein, "to eat"), or simply phage, is a virus that feeds on bacteria. A typical phage, such as the one in the animation, looks a bit like a lunar lander, or some sort of extraterrestrial bot. Ten thousand of them could lie down end to end across the period at the end of this sentence. Like other viruses, they can hardly be called alive, since they are inert except when in interaction with a host.

Phages waft aimlessly about, and now and then manage to bind with their spidery "legs" to a host cell that has the proper surface receptors. Then, as in the animation, it squats and injects a snippet of viral DNA into the cell. The viral DNA replicates and builds more viruses, until the host cell is filled to bursting.

According to an article by Ryland F. Young III in a recent issue of Science (August 15), there are upwards of 1030 phage infection a day in Earth's biosphere -- a number so colossally large as to defy imagination. Quantitatively, phage aggression is far and away the dominant predator-prey relationship on the planet. "Within 2 hours of the addition of a single T7 bacteriophage particle to a culture of 10 billion Escherichia coli cells, more than 99.9% of the bacteria are destroyed and 10 trillion virus particles are generated," says Young. Take another look at the animation. Imagine a biosphere teeming with those myriads of spindly-legged robots -- land, squat, squirt -- land, squat, squirt -- 10 billion in a teaspoon of sea water, not quite alive but not quiet dead either, the stripped-down primal machinery of life, hell bent on making more of itself.

Of course, bacteria never cease to evolve defenses, and phages counter by finding their own useful mutations. As I write, I am battling my own viral infection, the common cold. The table here by the couch has its array of tissues, NyQuil, and cough drops, a pathetic armory of prophylactics that won't do a bit of good. I must leave it up to my body's natural defenses, evolved over the ages -- my own local version of the epic warfare of phages and bacteria that is the ubiquitous backdrop of life on Earth.

I don't have to draw the moral of this story. Land, squat, squirt. It's been going on for three billion years, and it'll be going on long after we are gone.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Shared mind

So civil and useful are the conversations here that I sometimes think the official name of this cyberplace should be THE PORCH. Then what would be its subtitle? What, succinctly, is the thing that unites us? I thank you all, those who comment with some regularity, and the far greater number who visit silently. In a world of anger and ungraciousness, there is a bit of the Shire about the porch. See this week's Musing.

Anne's Sunday illumination catches the spirit of the place. Click, and click again, to enlarge.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Let there be light

The critic John Ruskin compared the painter James Mallord William Turner to the Great Angel of the Apocalypse: "Glorious in conception -- unfathomable in knowledge -- solitary in power...sent as a prophet of God to reveal to man the mysteries of His Universe."

Well, that's a bit much, but there are many who would say that Turner was the greatest of English painters, certainly the best of his time. The Met in New York is currently hosting an important Turner exhibition. I haven't seen it, but on several occasions I have stood transfixed before the many Turners at the Tate in London. The artist is indeed a revealer of the mysteries of nature.

He was a strange bird -- uncouth, reclusive, alcoholic -- but there can be no doubt that he had a peculiarly acute sensitivity to the animating mystery that lies behind nature's more obvious forms. While his early-19th-century contemporaries were striving for ever more faithful "realism," Turner was after something else, something ineffable but real -- the power behind the apparent. I would compare him to his contemporary Michael Faraday, who with his concept of the electric and magnetic fields tried to give scientific expression to the invisible energies that hold the world in thrall.

Turner's work becomes increasingly abstract as he peels away layers of surface sensation, looking for -- what for him was -- the hidden divine. Much of his work reflects his fascination with wind, storm, wave, and fire -- hugely impersonal natural energies in the face of which humans are utterly helpless. But late works, such as Sunrise, With a Boat Between Headlands (1835-1840) or Norham Castle, Sunrise (1835-1840, shown here), revealed an inner repose. In Norham Castle, the castle is a blur of blue, a foreground cow a wash of brown with its reflection. These works baffled Turner's contemporaries. The likes of them would not be seen again until the development of abstract expressionism in the 20th century.

Shall we count Turner a religious naturalist? He sought nothing beyond the natural, but his engagement with nature was one of ecstatic attention. It is said that his last words were "The sun is God."

Friday, September 19, 2008

In a holy place

In the winter of 1968-69, my family -- me, wife, three young kids (Tom not yet with us) -- toured Spain in a Volkswagen camper. Luck and happenstance led us to the famous cave at Altamira near the northern coast. It was a cold, dreary day. The place was all but deserted. At last we found a kindly gentleman who admitted us to the cave and led us deep into its recesses. There we lay on our backs and looked up onto the most astonishing murals we had ever seen -- bison, horses, a deer and a boar, rendered with amazing animation and verisimilitude, cavorting on the ceiling of a prehistoric Sistine Chapel.

After visiting the cave, Picasso is said to have exclaimed, "After Altamira, all is decadence." I don't know about that, but Altamira was surely a peak experience in my life. And just in time. During the 70s the cave was closed to the public. Apparently, limited access is now allowed (Wikipedia notes a three-year waiting list). The following summer, we visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome. No doubt, Michelangelo's murals are spectacular, but for depth of feeling I will take the Altamira animals any day.

It is hard to know what religious impulses inspired Michelangelo. I would guess his art was an end in itself, not so much for the glory of God as for the glory of the artist. And fair enough. But for the artists of Altamira I suspect their art was a matter of life and death. Their gods had not yet been banished to an abstract heaven, Nature itself was sublimely divine. Our own environmental problems could perhaps be made less fraught if we could bring the sacred back down to earth and imagine ourselves once again as dependent parts of the natural order.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Batter my heart...

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, the physicist Steven Weinberg addresses the question: How do we live without God?

Humor helps, he says. And "then there are the ordinary pleasures of life, which have been despised by religious zealots, from the Christian anchorites in the Egyptian deserts to today's Taliban and Mahdi Army...We who are not zealots can rejoice that when bread and wine are no longer sacraments, they will still be bread and wine."

I know where Weinberg is coming from, and I generally agree, but I think he is selling short the notion of sacrament. It is a fine old concept that may have some life in it yet.

Of course, I would suppose that no one any longer believes that the bread and wine of the sacrament are literally the body and blood of Christ (and I suppose I would be wrong). The entry for Eucharist in the Catholic Encyclopedia strikes me as so much gobbledegook. Wienberg is right: bread is bread and wine is wine, and we don't need to believe in God to take pleasure in both.

But this too from the Catholic Encyclopedia: "Taking the word "sacrament" in its broadest sense, as the sign of something sacred and hidden (the Greek word is "mystery"), we can say that the whole world is a vast sacramental system, in that material things are unto men the signs of things spiritual and sacred, even of the Divinity."

To understand the world sacramentally is to be aware of the depths of our ignorance, to know that even the most ordinary aspects of reality -- bread and wine, for instance -- are windows onto a mystery that we will perhaps never fully understand. I am not positing anything supernatural, and certainly not a knowable, personal God. There is only one reality, the one that presents itself to our senses, of which science gives us our most reliable knowledge. But scientific knowledge does not exhaust reality. Indeed, the more extensive becomes our knowledge, the more we are shaken, dazzled, blown and battered by "what is."

To live sacramentally is to love the world as we find it, to be open to the intuition of something vast and holy, and to know that the here and now is a pale intimation of the all and always.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Another birthday

Take a look at the schematic diagram above. Any idea what it represents? Well, I only know because I read the article by Jan Vijg and Judith Campisi, "Puzzles, promises and a cure for aging", in the August 28 issue of Nature.

The diagram shows three different biochemical pathways related to aging that are common across species. That is to say, you're looking at the downward slope to senescence and death. Not a pretty picture on one's 72nd birthday.

Our authors list the ravages of age, from flabby skin to loss of memory. Yeah, tell me about it. Apparently, natural selection never sorted out these problems because in earlier, more risky environments few people lived long enough for senescence to make a difference. But now, with the intervention of modern medicine, sanitation, food production, and exercise regimens, more and more of us are living longer and longer. Long enough for our cells to give up the ghost.

What nature didn't do, perhaps science can. That's the issue Vijg and Campisi address: What do we know about aging, and can it be stopped?

It turns out we know quite a bit. And extended lifetimes have been achieved in certain other species. Vijg and Campisi see no intrinsic reason why human senescence might not be delayed, and maybe eliminated. But they aren't immediately hopeful. "Can we mimic the evolutionary process to the extent that senescence becomes essentially negligible?" they ask. Their answer: "At this stage the answer must be that we do not know. Although there is no scientific reason for not striving to cure aging -- similar to what we profess to do for cancer and other diseases -- our current understanding makes it impossible to assert that indefinite postponement is feasible." Which is perhaps just as well, given the staggering social and economic consequences of longer lifetimes.

John McCain is my age and he wants to be president. I'll settle for a nap.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Minds obscured by a sea of data

Lordy, what a ride! When I started out in science, the most efficient way we had to look for meaning in data was graph paper. And let me tell you, I was damn good at graphs, something I learned from my father. He loved graphing data. Any data.

Then came calculators. And computers. Toggling in programs on a PDP-8. Then my very own Mac 128, which was obsolete almost as soon as I bought it. Kilo to mega to giga. My new iPod Touch has 16 gigabytes of flash memory, which is more memory that in all the computers on the university campus where I was a graduate student in physics.

We now routinely talk of terabytes, and petabytes are edging into the mainstream. Can exa and zetta and yotta be far behind? Every step a factor of a thousand. Meanwhile, in astronomy, genome analysis, proteomics, and high-energy physics, data is being generated faster than computers can keep up. The Large Hadron Collider will pump out data so fast that entire buildings full of computers will be needed to troll for meaning. Six hundred million collisions per second, year in and year out, spewing out debris. A sharp pencil and a piece of graph paper are as quaint as a monk in a scriptorium with an inkpot and a quill.

The September 4 issue of Nature focuses on dealing with data in the Petabyte Era. Perhaps the most poignant piece is the essay by Sue Nelson on "Pickering's harem," the poorly paid employees of the Harvard College Observatory, who, in the first half of the 20th century, under the direction of astronomer Edward Pickering, searched for meaningful data among hundreds of thousands of astronomical photographic plates -- tedious and often unrewarding work. Among these women were Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who made significant breakthroughs in discovering the scale of the universe. History has rescued them from oblivion. Most of what they did would now be done by machines, but their story reminds us that behind the vast complexity of data generation and analysis in the Petabyte Era are human minds in eager interaction with the universe.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The battle of the sexes

Ever since Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene we have known that a goodly part of what we are is the result of little snippets of DNA trying to have their own way. We have 20,000 or so genes and everyone of them is out for itself. My genes are in competition with your genes. You may think I'm a nice guy, but my genes are self-serving and vainglorious. I might invite you onto the porch for a drink, but my genes would kick your genes over the railing into the shrubbery.

The idea of the selfish gene was not original with Dawkins, but he gave it popular currency. He did not mean genes are willfully "selfish" in the human meaning of the word, only that the genes that get passed on to the next generation are the ones that serve their own replication. Our physical selves, and a good part of our behaviors, are a result of genes jostling their way to the front of the queue. Start with a blob of protoplasm, add genetically-determined reproduction, variation and natural selection, and you end up with Chartres Cathedral and the Large Hadron Collider. Who would have thunk it?

And now the competition gets nastier. In the August 28 issue of Nature, sociologist Christopher Badcock and evolutionary biologist Bernard Crespi argue that the genes we inherit from our parents do battle with each other. Some genes are expressed when inherited from one parent but not the other. This is achieved by a process called imprinting, in which genes in the sperm and egg are marked for expression or silencing in a later embryo or child. For example, a fetus inherits a growth factor gene called IGF2 from both mother and father. Ordinarily, only the father's copy of the gene is expressed. It is to a father's genetic advantage to have big babies -- they are healthier and live longer at no personal cost to the father. The mother pays the cost of giving birth and suckling a larger child, and therefore she silences her copies of the growth-factor gene.

But the competition is real, and sometimes the mother's gene is expressed, and sometimes both parents' copies are silenced -- to ill effect for the child in both cases. According to Badcock and Crespi, many mental disorders from autism to schizophrenia might be the result of a tug-of-war between a mother's and a father's genes.

What's the moral of this story? What we are and who we are is to a large extent the result of a dynamic of which, until recently, we didn't have a clue. Oh, we had names for it. The will of God. The Devil's work. Luck. Fate. And all along, down there among the genes, the elbowing, the pushing, the playground squabbles -- the all-pervasive invisible molecular commerce of life on Earth.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Storming the gates

On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog. See this week's Musing.

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

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A delicate balance

In the second volume of Robinson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy, the narrator, David Staunton, the son of the friend of the narrator of volume one, is reflecting upon the progress of his analysis with the Jungian Dr. Johanna von Heller in Zurich:
But what am I headed for? Where has Dr. Johanna been taking me? I suspect toward a new ground of belief...which might be called esse in anima: I am beginning to recognize the objectivity of the world, while knowing that because I am who and what I am, I both perceive the world in terms of who and what I am and project onto the world a great deal of who and what I am. If I know this, I ought to be able to escape the stupider kinds of illusions. The absolute nature of things is independent of my senses (which are all I have to perceive with), and what I perceive is an image in my own psyche.
Not felicitously stated, but he is confronting explicitly for the first time in his life the central problem of being in the world: Living with a reality that is partly of our own making.

The two greatest mistakes we can make philosophically (I will boldly suggest) are 1) to imagine that the world in our head is the world as it is, or 2) to think that the world in our head is the only world we can know. Naive realism or naive idealism.

The first mistake is made by very few philosophers any more, and even fewer scientists. But the great majority of people assume they are in touch with reality when in fact their thoughts are deeply shaped by accidents of birth, education and culture. These can be Staunton's "stupider kinds of illusions," which can be a source of much mischief.

The second mistake is common these days among so-called postmodern philosophers who argue that every world view is of equal worth; the Big Bang and Coyote throwing the stars into the sky are equally valid myths of beginnings, for example.

The importance of science as a way of knowing lies precisely in the ways it tries to minimize the personal and cultural: quantitative measurement, mathematical theories, double-blind experiments, peer review, specialized languages, and so on. Few, if any, scientists believe their theories describe the world as it is, but all hold as an act of faith that the world as it is shines through their theories more reliably than through any alternative versions of reality.

That is to say, the sanest among us are those who walk a middle path between the illusion of objectivity and the illusion of subjectivity. It is a delicate balance to achieve, for science, and for each of us personally. For David Staunton it is only achieved at the end of deep soul-searching in the company of his analyst.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The marvelous and the miraculous

In the first volume of Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy, the narrator, the Canadian schoolmaster Dunstan Ramsay, visits the shrine of the Virgin of Guadeloupe in Mexico. As he sits at the side of the basilica observing the pilgrims who come to see the cloak with the miraculous image of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, he muses: "Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable fact? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real?"

As Ramsay suggests, our need for marvels would seem to be a very deep part of human nature, into which magicians and miracle-mongers play. But his last question implies that our taste for the marvelous is not all folly, and that we share a wise -- perhaps innate -- intuition that behind the humdrum of the everyday there is a mystery that is deep beyond our knowing.

The trick, I would suppose, is to wean ourselves from supposed miracles -- such as the image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe -- and learn to see the marvelous in the everyday. And, as a matter of fact, earlier in the novel a grizzled old Jesuit suggests just this to Ramsay. Life itself is too great a miracle, says Father Blazon, to make so much of a fuss about "potty little reversals" of the natural order.

The old Jesuit recognizes the bogus dualism of natural and supernatural. It is time to recognize that the life of the spirit and the life of the flesh are one, says Blazon. "Then perhaps we shall make some sense of this life of marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The creep and the cheese

"Everywhere I go, that big lump of muscle is worshiped! And I, the greatest mind the world has ever known, get only scorn and sneers!"

Sorry, Sivana. That's the way of it. You are a creepy little bald guy. No one cares about your big brain. Or about that wonderful laboratory of yours. The Big Red Cheese, as you call him, has Hollywood good looks. And rippling pecs. And skintight leotards. Your every plot is doomed to go astray. Curses! Foiled again!

Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana appeared in the comics as Captain Marvel's archenemy at about the time I first became aware of comic books. Throughout the 40s, while my pals read Superman, I was a loyal fan of the Big Red Cheese. There was something hometowny about Marvel, something -- well -- cheesy, something more fitting for pokey Chattanooga than for a northern metropolis. And I liked the fact that his real-life self was Billy Batson, boy reporter. Say the magic word -- Shazam! -- and whoa! look at that chin! those powerful fists! those legs like tree trunks! Even Sivana's luscious daughter Beautia had a crush.

But, really, it was Sivana, the mad scientist, who was the attraction. I had my Gilbert chemistry set in the basement, and if it wasn't quite Sivana's elaborately-outfitted lab, I could still stir up a stink bomb or two. My pathetic experiments usually ended in pffft! and fizzle, but I was a smart enough kid to grasp that real science was more deeply interesting than any comic fantasy. With my skinny little legs, it was clear that I was never going to be a red-caped World's Mightiest Mortal, and no Beautia crushes were in prospect. But I had my test tubes, and bottles of assorted chemicals, and a sense that science would somehow be part of my future. Mad little creep that he was, that's what I learned from Doctor Sivana. Heh! heh! heh!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Consider the word "market." First, it suffered a certain aggrandizement and became "supermarket." Then, as compact supermarkets appeared on the scene, a new word was needed. The simplest solution would have been a return to "market." What in we ended up with instead was "superette," a curiously self-canceling word made of a prefix and a suffix with nothing in the middle.

Twenty years ago I took note in my Boston Globe column of the superfluity of "supers" in science. This was when American physicists were excited about building the superconducting supercollider in super-sized Texas, the proposed most powerful particle accelerating machine in the world. A supernova had just exploded in southern skies. The supersonic transport (SST) was in vogue as the Concorde zipped back and forth across the Atlantic. Everyone was talking about supercomputers, and physicists were all atwitter about superstrings, supersymmetry, and supergravity. Science was supersaturated with "supers."

The rush towards superfication seems to have subsided. Computers have raced past the ability of "super" to keep up. Superstrings and supersymmetry have more or less run out of gas for the time being. The SST is out of service. The superconducting supercollider got axed as too expensive, whereupon the Europeans stepped in to build the world's most powerful accelerator. It will soon be smashing particles, but is is modestly called the Large Hadron Collider.

Superconductivity is still with us -- the ability of certain materials to conduct electricity without resistance. At the moment, this only happens at very low temperatures, but the hope remains barely alive of discovering a material that is superconducting at room temperature, a development of staggering economic and scientific consequence.

Room-temperature superconductivity will require a name, and calling it supersuperconductivity may be carrying things too far. In my Globe column I suggested that the hoped-for phenomenon be called simply supertivity, a "superette" sort of word with no middle, superbly suited to its task.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Bag it

We have all seen those little kids toddling off to school under the crushing weight of a backpack laden with books. Apparently, those spine-bending burdens have become something of a public health concern. Well, help is at hand -- if you want it.

A group of 18 secondary school children in Dublin, Ireland, have become the first students worldwide (according to the Irish Times) to replace their 13 pounds of texts with a one pound e-book. The Kindle-like device, manufactured in the Netherlands, is preloaded with all of the kids' textbooks, plus workbooks, a dictionary, and 50 classic novels, including Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist. Moreover, the device also serves as a copy book, enabling the students to take notes (or doodle) with a stylus on electronic pages.

Is this the future? Probably. I've written here before about electronic technology in the classroom. In that earlier Musing I wrote: "When I walk into a classroom and see 30 students sitting at computers, I groan. When I walk into a classroom and see every wall and surface covered with maps, posters, books, models, plants, and even some things I never would have expected, I know some real education is going on." I guess that makes me something of a sentimentalist, but I believe education is a sensual as well as an intellectual experience. We learn through all five senses, not just our eyes. Kids already spend most of their home time in front of a screen -- visiting FaceBook, playing computer games, or texting on their cell phones. Give me a classroom full of provocative clutter, book spilling from shelves, maps sagging from the walls. Give me stuff that grows and crawls and hatches. Give me color, sound, and tactile sensations. Give me kids sitting in the grass sketching a grasshopper.

OK, OK. Let the kids do their homework with e-books. But in my classroom, they'll keep the damn thing in their bookbag.

(In transit tomorrow. Back on Wednesday, from my cozy corner of a library full of real books.)

Sunday, September 07, 2008


It's one thing to see the universe in a grain of sand. It is something else altogether to see a grain of sand in the universe. See this week's Musing.

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

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Nature loves to hide

A rainbow. Pretty to look at. But what do you see? The arc of a perfect circle. Pure geometry.

Think about how seldom we see pure geometric forms in nature. Rivers never run straight and true. Nature draws straight lines reluctantly. Circles? The sun and moon. I look out my window at a broad panorama or earth, sea and sky, and I see not a single shape or line that might be found in a geometry book.

In the Timaeus, Plato suggested that behind the manifestly ungeometrical higgledy-piggledy of nature there lay a hidden world of geometrical atoms. It was a prescient insight, but led nowhere at the time. Kepler hoped to explain the spacing of the planets with nested Platonic solids -- spheres, cubes, tetrahedra, etc. -- but it turned out to be a bit of a wild goose chase. When Galileo rolled balls downed inclined planes and measured distances and times, a parabola winked in his data. Plato was right! It wasn't long before mathematical regularities started showing up everywhere. The book of nature really is written in the language of mathematics.

But how closely nature hides that secret. I look out the window and I don't see a hint of it. Then -- the rainbow appears in the sky...

Friday, September 05, 2008

A soggy undertaking

Here, hidden in the ferns and nettles along our ancient track, is a bench mark from the 19th-century survey of Ireland, the epic adventure of mapmaking at the time -- the entire island on a scale of six inches to the mile, including every building and field boundary. The bench marks were cut into walls, or buildings, or even natural stones. They are called "crows feet," or in Irish Lapa na circe, "the hen's foot."

It is hard to get one's head around this ambitious undertaking: Starting with a precisely measured baseline on the banks of Lough Foyle, laying out of a web of triangles across Ireland, from mountain top to mountain top, then ever smaller webs of triangles, ultimately defining fields and the boundaries of townlands. All by hand, in all weathers. A colossal amount of calculation, without benefit of modern computational devices. The resulting maps are things of great beauty; I have examined some of them in their great folio volumes in the University of Cork Library. What is remarkable is how little the field boundaries have changed. The maps are still used in property transactions.

Every time I pass this particular "crow's foot" I think of those intrepid mappers, lugging their theodolites around muddy country roads and bogs, trying to take notes in damp notebooks, rain drops dripping from their beards. And here I sit in my snug little house with satellite images from Google Earth popping up on my computer.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


It is sometimes said that the name of Ireland, Eriu, or Eire in modern Irish, is that of a sun goddess. Be that as it may, it is more certain that the great god of the preChristian Irish, Dagda, was solar in origin. Sean O'Faolain describes him this way: "He is of enormous size; he rules the weather and the crops; he is swift; he wields a deadly club, which may be lightning; he own a cauldron as inexhaustible as the cornucopia, and he is thought then to preside over the feasts of the Otherworld; he is very old and very wise, indeed he is the source of all wisdom, especially of occult wisdom." Nothing could be more natural in these northern latitudes than to deify the sun, the heavenly eye. The many stone alignments and megalithic graves to be found hereabouts are all oriented to significant points on the solar compass.

When Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century A. D., it lay lightly over the older faith. Columbanus, John Eriugena and their disciples took a highly pantheistic Christianity back to the continent -- and were generally declared heretical. The preChristian Irish gave anthropomorphic characteristics to the sun; Mediterranean Christianity set anthropomorphism free of any natural referent. With the triumph of that abstract and otherworldly personal God, Dagda was relegated to the realm of "superstition," but, really, the wise old sun god at least had characteristics one could see and feel, especially after weeks of dreary mist when the sky clears and Dagda floods the green fields with warm, golden light.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Whirled-wide webs

This thumb of land that sticks out into the Gulf-Stream-warmed Atlantic has been wrapped in morning mist for a month. It can be rather depressing to wake up day after day in fog, but it has one benefit: The mist bejewels the spider webs, making them gorgeously and ubiquitously visible. Every gorse bush is slung with balconies of sparkling gossamer. My car is so exquisitely draped with orb webs that I hesitate to open a door. The spiders were there all along, of course, industriously inconspicuous, but now their labors become apparent. The garden glistens in dewy silk.

Where the hose is coiled beneath the tap, four beautifully-crafted orbs compete for whatever insects bumble by. At the center of one orb, its maker, a creature whose body is no bigger than a pinhead, presides in a web ten-inches wide. All that filament would seem to be more voluminous than the spider itself. How did it manage to extrude so much silk in the course of a night?

I've written about spiders and their silk before, so I won't repeat the science here. I will simply exult in the gift of fog that turns an otherwise dreary morning into a glittering Oz.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Islands of compassion

In a small country such as Ireland, that has been minutely examined by naturalists for two centuries, the discovery of a new macroscopic species is a matter of some excitement. So kudos, then, to Dr. Chris Williams, a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Ireland Galway, for finding a previously unknown species of parasitic wasp in the bogs of Mayo. He has dubbed his discovery Mesoleptus hibernica.

Not an especially lovable creature, this. M. hibernica lays its eggs in the larvae or pupae of marsh flies. The wasp eggs hatch and the larvae eat their living hosts from the inside out, emerging as adult wasps -- ta-ta -- from a hollowed-out shell. But before you start feeling sorry of the marsh flies, bear in mind that they feed on aquatic snails, which in turn carry liver flukes, which...Need I go on?

Granted, this is a minor drama in the great scheme of things, but it reminds us again that nature is amoral. Good and evil appear to be exclusively human categories, although no doubt prefigured among primates and perhaps other species. That is, morality is an emergent concept, primarily cultural, but likely with biological roots.

We have a way of calling tidal waves and hurricanes "acts of God." We wonder why a loving, just God lets bad things happen to good people. It is part of the anthropomorphic frame of mind to want to see justice everywhere, but natural catastrophes have no more to do with morality than do the parasitic habits of wasps. Meanwhile, for one reason or the other, humans cultivate islands of compassion and justice within a sea of amorality, and let us be grateful for that.

Monday, September 01, 2008

990 falling quickly

The BBC area shipping forecasts I described yesterday end with Weather Reports from Coastal Stations. These go something like the following: Lerwick. West-northwest 3, intermittent rain, 22 miles, 1007 rising slowly.

Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands, is one of 13 weather stations scattered around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. The report gives wind direction, wind speed (on the Beaufort scale), present weather, air pressure in hectopascals (or millibars), and pressure tendency (rising or falling and how fast).

Two of the 13 stations are in the Republic of Ireland: Malin Head, the northernmost point of Ireland, and Valentia, which I can see out of my studio window across Dingle Bay. Valentia was one of the original network of weather observatories established by Robert Fitzroy in 1868, at a time when the Irish Republic was still under British dominion. Valentia Island was the starting point for the first transAtlantic telegraph cable which linked Ireland to Newfoundland in 1858. The cable station was in operation here until 1966, and one of the station buildings is now a museum of sorts, where one can examine cross-sections of the cables and telegraphy equipment from various eras.

Valentia island and the Dingle Peninsula vie for being the westernmost point of Europe: Valentia got the cable, and the Dingle Peninsula was where Lindbergh made his landfall, flying right over our house, then veering south toward the telegraph station, from which news of his successful solo flight was tapped out to the world. Most of the weather in these islands comes from the same direction as did Lindbergh, which is why the Valentia observatory remains one of the most important in the system.