Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Everything is holy

In writing my book Climbing Brandon, I drew heavily upon the work of John Carey, a scholar of early Irish Christianity at University College Cork in Ireland. According to Carey, for the early Irish Christians exceptional events do not occur because of the interventions of a supernatural being who suspends the ordinary course of things, but rather because of the astonishing (and holy) potentialities inherent in nature itself. For the authors of the early Irish Christian texts, a reluctance to believe in "the full extravagant strangeness of existence" amounted to blasphemy, say Carey.

"The full extravagant strangeness of existence." I love that phrase. It should be engraved over the door of every science building in the world. And, as a matter of fact, something similar was carved over the door of the physics building at UCLA where I spent two years as a graduate student, Michael Faraday's familiar epigram: "Nothing is too wonderful to be true."

Most religious people look for confirmation of their God in miraculous exceptions to nature's laws -- water to wine, resurrection from the dead, answered prayers, and so on. For the early Irish Christians, still in thrall to their druidic past, God was to be discovered in the extraordinary quality of ordinary events -- the rising and setting of the Sun, the call of the cuckoo, the rainbow, the aurora, the dew on the grass.

The full extravagant strangeness of existence! I was thinking of that phase a few days ago when I held the walking stick insect in my hand. Who needs miracles when every jot and tittle of existence is shot through with glory? We should walk through the world with our jaws agape, breathless, singing alleluias. What the early Irish Christians had in common with modern scientists is a willingness to admit our ignorance about the greatest mysteries, and a sense of dumbstruck awe in the presence of the commonplace.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Growing up

Two summers ago in Ireland I watched a mare give birth. Within minutes the foal was finding its legs. Soon it was scampering about. This past summer it was hard to tell the mother from her offspring.

Meanwhile, for all of that time and more, human parents would be cuddling, feeding, burping, changing diapers, and otherwise tending a child toward eventual independence. Street children in big Third World cities cannot survive on their own unless they are at least six years old. In the developed nations we continue to coddle our kids until they have made it through puberty and adolescence.

What's the deal? Why do we get stuck with such a long period of maturation on the part of our kids? Our nearest relatives, the chimps, are pretty much on their own by age 4. Female chimps are moms at 11, half the age at which the average human female breeds. Of course, chimps are dead of old age at 45, so they pay at the end for their faster start.

Paleontologists exhaustively study the fossil fragments of our humanoid ancestors, especially children, for clues to childhood. The result seems to be that our nearest ancestors were more like chimps than like modern humans in the duration of dependence. An extended childhood appears to be unique to us, and the big question is why.

One possibility is that delayed reproduction creates higher quality moms. Also, humans wean their infants twice as fast as chimps, which means human moms can pop out successive babies more quickly. No wonder then that we live so much longer that chimps and are so overwhelmingly numerous.

I would guess that prolonged childhood has more to do with the development of culture. That little foal galloping around the meadow on day two pretty much already knew all it needs to know. We are still teaching our human kids at age 20, not just stuff like speech and the three Rs, but also Shakespeare, constitutional law, computer science, and the difference between right and wrong. Perhaps extended childhood and acculturation evolved together.

By the way, I wrote last year about the Homo erectus fossil youth I called Nari, one of the most complete hominid fossil skeletons ever found. I said he was thought to be 11 or 12 years old, an estimate based on his height compared to modern humans. Now, microscopic study of Nari's tooth enamel suggests he was 8 years old. Kids grew up faster in those days.

(These thoughts inspired by an article by -- appropriately -- Ann Gibbons called The Birth of Childhood, in the November 14 issue of Science. Nari photo credit: John Gurche.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Knowing the mind of God

This photo appeared in Nature (or was it Science?) some months ago. Pope Benedict blessing Stephen Hawking on the occasion of the October meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The subject: "Scientific Insight into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life." I dragged the photo onto my desktop, where it has been sitting ever since. I know it means something. I have not been able to figure out what.

Which is to say, I've been trying to sort out my own reaction to the photo, which seems to reside somewhere between unworthy cynicism and congenial approval.

The most powerful and revered religious person on Earth laying his hand upon one of the most brilliant minds in the history of humanity -- a mind locked in a body almost totally incapacitated by motor neuron disease. Which way is the energy flowing? Or does it flow both ways? Intellectuality and spirituality meeting and merging at that spot where thumb meets forehead.

In his chair, the author of a book titled The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. Standing with his left hand on Hawking's voice synthesizer, a man who understands himself to be custodian of the essential story of the origin and fate of the universe. Both men profess to be interested in knowing the mind of God. For Benedict, God's thoughts have been revealed directly in scriptures and tradition, and it is his responsibility as successor of Peter to see that the content of revelation is transmitted intact to future generations. For Hawking, God's thoughts will be discerned with increasing clarity by the ongoing theoretical and empirical pursuits to which he has given his remarkable life.

Alas, as we know, there is an uneasy tension between the two readings of the mind of God. It would be lovely if we could forego all claims to knowing God's mind, and discern in the photograph a complete circle from pope's right hand to Hawking's mind to Hawking's voice-synthesizing computer to the pope's left hand to the pope's mind -- always-advancing empirical cosmology circling endlessly with the Christian message of human love.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Is infallibility a virtue?

See this week's Musing. Expect Anne on New Year's Day.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Where's Waldo

This morning I posted a pic of a walking stick. He (she?) must have been a juvenile, 'cause look at what I have now. This one is still alive and well and released to the wild. What grabby legs he has. When on my shirt, impossible to pull off.

Give that man a new drawing table

Gabriel: Your Divine Excellency, you may remember a fellow who showed up here seventeen years ago by the name of Theodor Geisel. Calls himself Dr. Seuss.

God: Well, of course I remember him. I remember everyone, in all 100 billion galaxies. I'm omniscient, you know.

Gabriel: Yes, Sir. Of course. Anyway, this guy Geisel has some artistic talent so we assigned him to Earth Design, Animalia, in the Arthropoda department.

God: I love that department! I have a particular fondness for beetles. Have this Geisel fellow design me some beetles.

Gabriel: I suggested beetles, Sir, but he has come up with something so phantasmagorical I decided I better run it past you. Have a look. (He opens a box.)

God: A stick? I though you said Animalia, not Plantae.

Gabriel: Not a stick, Sir. It's an insect.

God: No kidding, let me have a closer look. (He peers.) This fellow Geisel has a sense of humor, doesn't he? I doubt if even I could have come up with this.

Gabriel: It has certain advantages, Sir. For the insect, I mean. It is virtually invisible when perched on a bush. Invisible to predators.

God: But I love seeing my creatures eat one another. Tooth and claw, and all that.

Gabriel: Yes, I know, Sir. But this adds a bit of fun to the chase. Or so says Geisel.

God: And look. The "stem" is brown and the "twigs" are green. How cunning!

Gabriel: Just like a real bush.

God: What does he propose to call it?

Gabriel: A walking stick. (Chuckles.) But I think something like Phasmatodea is rather more dignified.

God: I like it, I like it. One of the more intelligent designs we've seen from that department. I think it's a keeper.

Friday, December 26, 2008

What is it about tomatoes?

There's something about growing tomatoes that's different than growing onions, say, or green peppers. It must be that brilliant bloom of red -- tomato red -- amidst the green. Those little buds of improbable color that swell into fat crimson globes. And for no other reason, apparently, than that we can argue about whether they are fruits or vegetables.

The first thing I do when I arrive on the island is acquire a half dozen tomato plants, usually from Marco the nurseryman, but this year from the friend of a friend. Then fill the pots with last year's compost and potting soil from Marco. Nothing but sand on our scruffy acre.

All of which I mention so that I can recommend Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, a thick compendium of everything a curious and scientifically-inclined person would want to know about food. My wife has her Fanny Farmer and Julia Child. I have my McGee.

So I know that tomatoes started out as small, bitter berries growing on bushes in the west coast deserts of South America, that they were domesticated in Mexico (the name comes from the Aztec term for "plump fruit", tomatl, and that Europeans were slow to adopt them because of their resemblance to deadly nightshade, a poisonous plant. In fact, tomatoes are in the nightshade family, plants that stockpile chemical defenses, mostly bitter alkaloids. It took many generations of selective breeding to render tomatoes harmless.

Do you want to know what chemicals give tomatoes their flavor? McGee has it all. He'll tell you too the chemical reason why vine ripened tomatoes are more favorable than the ones you buy at the supermarket. So what? you say. Shut up an eat. Not me. I love knowing the secret history of what goes into my mouth. Where it came from. What it's related to. And why a particular arrangement of atoms -- carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, almost entirely -- stuck together like Tinker Toys, accounts for the flavors we enjoy. Citrus. Eucalyptus. Mint. Clove. Cinnamon. Anise. Vanilla. Thyme. Oregano. Tarragon. My wife has her herb garden. I have McGee's lovely diagrams of organic compounds.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas...from Anne

(Click, and then again, to enlarge)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas all year

I was out for a walk a few weeks ago, in the late autumn woods, and saw what I thought was some sort of white fungus growing on the branch of a shrubby tree. I snapped off a twig and looked closely.

It wasn't a fungus at all. It was white cotton, like Q-tip fuzz. Wiggling in a nonexistent breeze.

I pinched off a tuft and took out my pocket magnifier. Beneath the fuzz was a tiny bug, the size of a pinhead. Six little legs thrashing the air. On the bug's back were a bunch of spigots, extruding strands of white cotton.

Woolly aphids. That's what they were. They suck sap to grow and to spin the cotton-candy fluff with which they adorn themselves.

Why, Santa? Why would such a thing evolve? I can't think of any advantage that an inconspicuous bug would gain by accentuating its visibility to predators with a pompom of cotton. I'd love to ask my youngest grandchildren what they think. Kids have nifty insights.

Next year, bring my grandkids woolly aphids.

Farther along the path I found a colony of polyporus versicolor. Turkey tails, we call them. They are mushrooms, one of those fungi that grow like little shelves on rotting trees. But this particular colony, on a spiky bit of wood, looked just like a flock of miniature turkeys. Necks up, tails spread. You could almost hear them gobble.

The grandkids would have loved it, Santa. Bring them turkey tails.

I heard and saw lots of other things the kids might like. The tunk- tunk of downy woodpeckers, and tippity-tap of nuthatches. What looked like pine cones on the tips of willow twigs that were actually insect galls. The velvety "cat ears" of the common mullein's winter rosette.

When I got back from my walk I had to pick burs off my sweater. Burdock burs. Each spiky sphere had a tiny hook at the end of each spike, and a sheath containing a seed. When I pulled a bur off my sweater, the sheath separated and spilled a seed. And that's how burdock get around. Burs are great fun to toss at a friend's clothing. All those tiny Velcro hooks. Bring my grandkids burdock burs.

But keep it under your fur-trimmed hat. My name would be mud if the grandkids knew it was me that caused their stockings to be filled with woolly aphids, turkey tails and burdock burs.

And listen, Santa. Keep those presents coming right through the year. Snow fleas. Skunk cabbage. Red-winged blackbirds. Mourning cloak butterflies. Pussy willows. Ladyslippers. Whirligig beetles. Dragonflies. Orioles and bluebirds. The summer Milky Way. The caterpillar of the luna moth. Garter snakes. Goldenrod galls. Rattleweed. Perseid meteors. Ripe milkweed pods. Woolly bears. British soldier and pixie cup lichens. Snowflakes. Orion. And those big six-foot icicles that hang from leaky gutters.

I can't promise the kids will be pleased. Mattel and Hasbro have huge advertising budgets. But I know a few things about which those big companies haven't a clue. Like what can be found inside those mysterious green spheres that grow on oak leaves. And what will happen when you touch the seedpods of jewelweed. And how to get a praying mantis to perch on your finger.

It's all free, Santa. It won't cost a dime

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The evolution of rocks

This wonderfully diverse planet we live on began as a rather homogeneous conglomeration of minerals in the pre-solar nebula, an inventory not unlike what falls from the sky as meteorites. Inanimate, almost certainly, although I suppose it is not impossible that some sort of living spore arrived on or with the early Earth from elsewhere.

The primeval Earth was hot from the energy of its gravitational formation and radioactivity, hot enough that its minerals were molten. As the planet cooled, only a few basic minerals condensed from the magma, such as feldspar and olivine. As the Earth continued to cool, elements formed more "picky" mineral structures and combinations, such as clay and zeolites. All of this is pretty straight forward: elements find their way into chemical combination and crystalline structures depending on the ambient temperature, pressure, and so on. So, in a certain sense, minerals "evolved" as the planet cooled.

This inanimate "evolution" was discussed recently by Robert M. Hazen, et. all. in American Mineralogist, and summarized by Minik Rosing in Nature (November 27). The next big step was the origin of life, which may have required a mineral template such as clay. As living organisms evolved, still other minerals appeared on the scene as by byproducts of life, such as aragonite (in animal skeletons), gypsum (drywalls) and hematite (red paint). As life diversified, so did the mineral inventory of the planet.

All those years ago when I lived next door to the Geological Museum in London, I spent many happy hours drifting among the cases of minerals -- the inanimate substance of the Earth -- as even now I am browsing my Larousse Guide to Minerals, Rocks and Fossils. Gorgeous stuff! Native elements -- gold, silver, copper, iron. Combinations of elements in crystalline arrays, glittering in their jewel-like shapes. Gemstones. Geodes. Agates. And the colors! Erythrite. Turquoise. Jasper. Jade.

I hadn't thought much about it before, how the mineral composition of the Earth diversified according to temperature, pressure, and chemical and biological environment from the relative humdrum uniformity of meteorites. Whether evolution is the right word for this process of diversification I'll leave to the geologists to debate (Rosing would reserve the term for its biological meaning). Gnomic artificers in their underground halls could not arrange a more splendidly beautiful stage for the drama of life.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Le rayon bleu?

I am writing this yesterday, Sunday. I have just come back from watching sunrise on the beach. The Sun rose at 6:41 AM. The winter solstice was at 7:04 AM. So I was watching the Sun rise at almost exactly its southernmost point along the horizon. Tomorrow it will begin its long crawl back to the north.

From where I stood in front of the house, the Sun rose just at the beacon monument on the highest point of Stocking Island, the outer barrier of Georgetown Harbor, about nine miles away. It was almost as if that pillar of stone had been erected for me, as a marker for the solstice. There is no marker at the northern end of the Sun's horizon crawl, only flat sea.

Our island lies athwart the Tropic of Cancer. At the summer solstice the Sun tracks exactly overhead, beating down like a hammer. We'll be long gone by then.

I watch, every morning, because it is the most magical time of the day, because its fun to watch the Sun creep along the barrier islands near Georgetown, and because I am always anticipating the green flash, le rayon vert, that sudden blink of emerald light at the moment the Sun breaks the horizon (or sinks below it), a trick of scattering, absorption, and refraction. As readers of Honey from Stone and Natural Prayers will know, I searched for it for years, from three continents, morning and evening, on desert horizons and sea horizons, unsuccessfully. And now, with so many sunrises over so flat a horizon, the gift of green has become almost commonplace.

In his masterful book The Nature of Light and Color in the Open Air, M. Minnaert mentions the even rarer possibility of a blue, or even violet flash. I suppose I have that to look for, although after so many hundreds of sunrises I'm beginning to wonder if even Minnaert had seen it. Has anyone reading here ever seen a flash of blue?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A mouse in the house

Anne will be with us on Christmas day. The mouse, hopefully, will be gone. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Entangled minds

A fine new book by Louisa Gilder called The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn. Entanglement is that mysterious property of two or more bits of matter or light behaving, though separated, as if they were intimately and instantaneously connected -- a kind of spooky action-at-a-distance that seems to lie at the heart of the universe. Imagine human twins separated at birth and taken to different continents. Pinch one twin, and the other twin jumps, instantly. The effect is "non-local" -- that is, it happens faster than the speed of light and without the agency of any known species of causality. Physicists have been trying to "understand" entanglement for nearly a century. What it means for you and I and the evolution of the universe remains unknown. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything,

Quantum theory is astonishingly successful, predicting the results of certain subtle experiments with exquisite precision. But what -- pray -- does it "mean," and why does it seem so counterintuitive. Can a "thing" really be in two places at once? How does one particle of a pair that has once interacted "know" what is happening to its separated cousin across the universe? And where, if anywhere, is the boundary between the quantum world of atomic particles and photons and the classical world of pebbles, planets, and people?

The entanglement story is well told by Gilder. What is really interesting about her book is the story of how cutting-edge physics works, with clever like minds from around the world finding each other and pushing things forward by mutual inspiration, often as commonplace as a chat over beer.

My friend and colleague Mike Horne figures prominently in Gilder's book, as one of the authors of the famous GHZ paper of 1988 that showed when three particles are entangled, then entanglement is decisively demonstrated by a single measurement. By contrast, when two particles are entangled many thousands of measurements are required to be decisive. The paper is widely cited in all present work on entanglement.

As long as I have known Mike -- and that goes back before GHZ -- I've seen him using every minute between teaching classes and helping students with a yellow legal pad and sharp pencil figuring out the secrets of the universe. What a thing it is that one can do such things with a pad and pencil. Of course, once the theoretician has an idea what can be done, it's up to the experimentalist to do it. Every theoretical idea must be put to the test of observation. And every test of entanglement seems to demonstrate its perplexing reality.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend

There is that special moment on the beach each morning when the Sun explodes out of the sea and the sky lights up in the colors of flame. It is easy then to imagine how those who lived on the shores of the Aegean Sea came to the conclusion that the world was made of earth, water, air and fire.

Four elements that in their mixing gave us cold/wet, cold/dry, hot/wet, hot/dry, and, by extension, all the other qualities and compounds of existence, including our own bodies with their various humours. It was an ingenious concept and served well for two thousand years.

As it turned out, the elements of the world are not four, but ninety-two. Still, a smallish number will serve me well on the beach at sunrise. Hydrogen for the Sun. Nitrogen and oxygen for the air. Hydrogen and oxygen for the water (ok, add some sodium and chlorine for the salt). Calcium, carbon and oxygen for the sand. And with these elements you also have the better part of me. So the Greeks in their search for simplicity were not so far off the mark.

And now we wait for the Large Hadron Collider to crank up and take us even deeper into the fundamental building blocks of matter, even close to the stark simplicity of the creation when a universe exploded into existence as even now the Sun explodes from the sea, furious and favorable, and I stop in my tracks, dig my toes into the sand against the wind-blown spray, and recite "Batter my heart four-elemented God...and bend your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

One fish, two fish...

"When we transform thoughts into speech, we do something that no other animal ever achieves." So begins a review article in Science (November 14) on the biological and neurological bases of language. And what a thing it is that I can sit here with my laptop weaving a pattern of words that has never been expressed before in the history of human language. Indeed, I can go to Goggle, and type in almost any list of ten (say) consecutive words that I have ever written -- and with this blog alone I have committed more than a million words to the web, not to mention a thousand Globe columns and I don't know how many other articles and reviews that my publishers have posted -- and -- bingo! -- there they are, uniquely identified out of upwards of 10 billion web pages.

There are about 7000 languages spoken in the world, remarkably diverse, but with deep similarities that many (most?) linguists believe are genetically based. Certainly, children learn to speak without being taught, something no chimp can do, and genes have been identified with certain language deficits. But the mystery of how thoughts get converted into meaningful strings of spoken or written words remains to be unraveled. Live scans show the brain lighting up like a Christmas tree when we express a thought. Goggle that last sentence and see how long it takes Google to index it.

If you want to appreciate the virtually infinite diversity of language, consider just this one stanza from Robert Pinsky's poem Jersey Rain:
The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather...
List those seven towns in any other order and you haven't changed the semantics, but you will certainly have changed the magical thing Pinsky is doing with words -- the end rhymes, the internal rhymes. Let those syllables roll off the tongue and you'd be reasonable to guess that you are tapping into brain structures that have to do with music too. We are a ways here from "One fish two fish red fish blue fish," but just watch those lights flashing in that astonishing few pounds of meat that is the human brain.

(BTW, in case you didn't know, this site or any site can be Google searched with this format: "search term")

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Garden School of Epicurus

So, here I am, on my island retreat. No daily paper. No television. Nothing to buy. So little to consume. One road that goes nowhere really. An acre of sandy soil that we cultivate assiduously, with so little reward. Escape? Yes. Irresponsible? To turn one's back on the strife and pandemonium of the public domain? Perhaps.

We hear much about Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum in ancient Athens, schools that emphasized engagement with the polis. We hear less about the Garden School of Epicurus. Students there actually cultivated their little plot of land beyond the city walls. They ate the fruits and vegetables they teased from the soil. In his book Gardens, Robert Pogue Harrison writes of the Epicureans:
Their garden activity was also a form of education in the ways of nature: its cycles of growth and decay, its general equanimity, its balanced interplay of earth, water, air, and sunlight. Here, in the convergence of vital forces in the garden's microcosm, the cosmos manifested its greater harmonies; here the human soul rediscovered its essential connection to matter.
The most important lesson espoused by the Epicureans is knowledge that the soul is material and mortal, and that the goal of life should be careful cultivation of an equanimity of spirit.

It is a common misconception that Epicureanism is a selfish, amoral hedonism, a Mall-of-America self-indulgence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there is a certain disengagement from the hubbub of the polis and focus on self, but only to nurture qualities of companionship, gratitude and spiritual repose. These are the sources of human happiness, the Epicureans believed, and these are fostered by a quiet attention to nature -- not the wilderness, where nature runs unruly and wild, but the garden where the mortal human soul and the immortal soul of the world exist in symbiosis.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Deck us all with Boston Charlie

For a bit of bah-humbug, see this week's Musing.

Tomorrow morning early I head off to Exuma, where there is nowhere to shop, even if one wanted to. Just jolly, Christmasy junkanoo fun. I never know what I will find there for an internet connection. I will be back with you as soon as I can.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

And if you took the synapses...

Out walking on a blustery Sunday afternoon the lyrics of a song popped into my head. I sang out loud:
If I sent a rose to you
For every time you made me blue
You'd have a room full of roses.
It must have been the early 1950s when I last heard that song, as a young teenager, probably listening to the Grand Ole Opry on my little Sears Silvertone radio. I couldn't remember who sang it, but I could hear his voice in my head.

And I fell again into one of those moments of wonderment at the seeming miracle of memory.

The lyrics, the tune, the voice. All somehow stored in my head for nearly 60 years. Along with an astonishing amount of other stuff. Experiences. Voices. Images. Learned knowledge. How? No one knows for sure.

The human brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons, and each neuron is in contact with a thousand others, more or less, through a cobwebby tangle of synapses. If we think of each connection as being "on" or "off" (a crude simplification), then we can say that the human brain stores roughly 5,000 gigabytes of information (did I do the calculation right?). The hard disk of my MacBook Pro has 186 gigabytes of memory of which I am currently using 30. I have stored a huge music collection, a few thousand photographs, and millions of words, not to mention a heap of applications. So it's no miracle to imagine all that stuff stored in the brain.

But how? With what sort of encoding? How are memories "read" without erasing? How does the brain know not to "write over" crucial memories? We know how this works in computers, but how in the brain? An article in the 4 December issue of Nature describes some of the remarkable progress researchers are making in understanding how long-term potentiation of synaptic transmission occurs. The molecular biology is breathtaking.

Where memory fails, there's always Google, the collective memory of our race. I Google "Roomful of Roses." Within a few seconds I know that all those years ago I was listening to country singer George Morgan, singing a song written in the 1940s by Tim Spencer of the Sons of the Pioneers. I close my eyes and other lyrics of the song come bubbling up out of the cobwebby neural tangle:
And if you took the petals
And you took them all apart
You'd be tearing at the roses
Just the way you tore my heart.

Friday, December 12, 2008


When Galileo discovered moons in orbit around Jupiter it was rather a big deal. In 1610 the Earth was assumed by all except a few radical Copernicans to be the unique center of the universe, expressly created by God as a stage for the human drama of sin and salvation. In 1600 Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for, among other things, teaching that the other stars were other Suns and that the universe contained a multiplicity of inhabited worlds. Galileo was lucky to have escaped the same fate.

When a few weeks ago we saw the first photographs of extrasolar planets, it created hardly a stir. For one thing, the existence of over 300 massive planets had already been indirectly deduced by their gravitational influence on their host star or by their periodic eclipsing of their host star's light. Further, we have long known that the stars are other Suns -- in virtually uncountable numbers -- and that the physics of star formation spins off planets as a matter of course. Now we have actual images of three large planets orbiting the Sunlike star HR 8799, and another large planet orbiting the somewhat bigger star Fomalhaut. We have every reason to believe that there are a trillion billion planet systems -- at least! -- in the universe.

To expect that our star system is the only one with life, or even intelligent life, would seem to be something of a stretch. If astronomers detected an intelligent extrasolar signal tomorrow, it would be a news sensation, but hardly a surprise.

Still, I think it is fair to say that psychologically most of us still live in the anthropocentric cosmos of Dante.

It is interesting to watch forward-thinking theologians grapple with the implications of multiple inhabited worlds. The problem, within a Christian perspective, has to do with the supposed uniqueness of Adam's fall into sin and the redemption of Christ. If there are other sentient beings in the universe, did they share in Adam's sin, and did they require separate acts of atonement on the part of the Redeemer? It may seem strange to many of us, but these obtuse questions have exercised theologians from Origen in the 3rd century to Karl Rahner in the 20th. A quick trip to the web turns up contemporary speculation, here and here, for example, and I remember reading a learned article on the subject by the eminent Catholic theologian Thomas O'Meara a decade or so ago.

It all seems rather a tempest in a teapot -- doing handstands and body twists to make first millennium theology mesh with third millennium science. This is the sort of intellectual acrobatics that results from committing oneself to dogmatic truth systems.

Meanwhile, we see the newly imaged planet of Fomalhaut moving along its orbit, three times more massive that Jupiter and 23 times further from its star than Jupiter is from the Sun. It is almost certainly a Jupiterlike gassy planet and unlikely to be a home for Earthlike life. But why should we expect Earthlike life? And closer to Fomalhaut there are very likely smaller, more Earthlike planets. The whole point of science is to apply our curiosity to the world and accept whatever we find. What we have found is infinitely more breathtaking than the tiny Danteesque cosmos that set the imaginative limits for the early codifiers of traditional theology.

(Photo credit: NASA, ESA, P. Kalas, J. Graham, E. Chiang, E. Kite (Univ. California, Berkeley), M. Clampin (NASA/Goddard), M. Fitzgerald (Lawrence Livermore NL), K. Stapelfeldt, J. Krist (NASA/JPL))

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gibberellin-induced DELLA recognition by the gibberellin receptor GID1

Now there's title for you. I bet you can't wait to read this post. Well, not to worry, the title is that of a featured article in the current issue of Nature, by a team researchers in Japan and North Carolina. Here is the abstract:
Gibberellins control a range of growth and developmental processes in higher plants and have been widely used in the agricultural industry. By binding to a nuclear receptor, GIBBERELLIN INSENSITIVE DWARF1 (GID1), gibberellins regulate gene expression by promoting degradation of the transcriptional regulator DELLA proteins, including GIBBERELLIN INSENSITIVE (GAI). The precise manner in which GID1 discriminates and becomes activated by bioactive gibberellins for specific binding to DELLA proteins remains unclear. Here we present the crystal structure of a ternary complex of Arabidopsis thaliana GID1A, a bioactive gibberellin and the amino-terminal DELLA domain of GAI. In this complex, GID1A occludes gibberellin in a deep binding pocket covered by its N-terminal helical switch region, which in turn interacts with the DELLA domain containing DELLA, VHYNP and LExLE motifs. Our results establish a structural model of a plant hormone receptor that is distinct from the mechanism of the hormone perception and effector recognition of the known auxin receptors.
Gibberish? I haven't a clue what the article is about, but I love scanning this stuff every week, and feasting my eyes on the colorful schematic diagrams of fabulously twisty molecules. It's one thing to look at a grain of rice. It's something else altogether to have a sense of what's going on inside that tiny package -- a buzz of molecular machinery as complex as a massive oil refinery.

For important articles like this, Nature will often provide a "News & Views" summary in slightly more commonplace English. We learn, for example, that "gibberellins (GAs) promote plant growth and development processes, such as seed germination and flower induction. Their action allows plants to respond to changes in their environment. At the molecular level, they stimulate the destruction of growth represssing proteins." The more immediately relevant story is that the so-called "green revolution" in global food production depends crucially on understanding the molecular signaling systems that are busily at work in every rice grain -- and other plants.

It's hard to know what to marvel at more -- the astonishingly complex molecular machinery of life, or the cunning of the human brain that reveals this microscopic machinery for our appreciation and utilization.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hard wired

As that part of my pension invested in the stock market evaporates, I find I have to cut back on my techno-wish-list to Santa. So I'm settling this year for just five items, all drawn from the special Christmas-shopping issue of Wired magazine. You know Wired. That's the magazine that lists technologies as "Wired," "Tired" or "Expired." I generally relate to "Expired." But never mind, here are my choices:

To go with my iPod, a Steinway & Sons Model C Music System, with sound so pure "experts can discern a violin's make and country of origin." $148,000

At my desk, a Herman Miller Embody Chair, which promises to be "heaven on our ischial tuberosities." $1600

No Bic for me. A Ducato Corse Rollerball Pen. $850

A wrist Polar FT80 heart rate monitor, with GPS, for exercise. Just looking at this thing sets my heart racing. $460

Bonfort Classic Swiss Army Knife, with "72 eye-popping diamonds." $2700

Do I sound greedy, Santa? Don't fret. Is there a patch of green? Pave it. A stream? Dam it. An acre of old-growth forest? Chop it. You are our patron saint, Saint Nick. Consumption is our national creed. So deck the halls with boughs of baubles. Keep those Wired magazine wish-lists coming. Peace on Earth, more goods to men.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The endless beginning

Before I put Nemerov's Collected Poems back on the shelf, let me comment on another of his later poems, written in his mid-fifties (he died in 1991 at age seventy-one). The poet is taking note of a shelf of books collected in his younger years, "Field Books of This, The Beginner's Guide to That." He recalls the hours and hours he spent learning the wildflowers, the birds, the stars. Was it a waste of time? he asks. And answers:
But it felt good to know the hundred names
And say them, in the warm room, in the winter,
Drowsing and dozing over his trying times,
Still to this world its wondering beginner.
I have the same long shelf of field guides, and another long shelf of black journals in which I identified, sketched and recorded plants, insects, birds, mushrooms, lichens, rocks, and stars. After a while all of that went by the board, my head stuffed to overflowing with names and attributes. It wasn't a waste of time, I think. Today I walk through a world of named elements and see things I might otherwise have missed. To have a word for a thing -- stinkhorn, nuthatch, jewelweed, feldspar -- is to invite the world into one's head. And yes, now, here, in this warm room, in winter, the only universals I care about are those that were patiently pieced together, long ago, word by word, of particulars.

Monday, December 08, 2008

How do we know what we know

Howard Nemerov has a little four-line poem called "Knowledge" that goes in its entirety:
Not living for each other's sake,
Mind and the world will rarely rime;
The raindrops aiming at the lake
Are right on target every time.
The poem has a zenlike quality about it, and I can imagine a professor in an epistemology course spending a class or two trying to unravel what it means, if anything.

The brain evolved to make sense of the world, so I suspect that mind and world will rhyme more often than Nemerov supposes (I change his spelling). The fact that we can send a spacecraft across hundreds of millions of miles of interplanetary space and have it land on a dime is an impressive rhyme.

The last two lines of the poem are rather more cryptic. The poet seems to be suggesting that the world is so big and various and human knowing so fractional and stuttering that it is hard to say anything that isn't in some sense true. I'd say that the spacecraft that plops down on target on a distant moon is more like a raindrop aiming at a dime.

Surely, the world does not live for our sake, but maybe we live for the world's sake. Our minds rhyme with the world for the same reason our bodies evolved, say, a circadian rhythm. We should take Nemerov's little poem to heart, but it is the whole point of science to narrow the target of the raindrop, and to sharpen the rhyme between knowledge and the world.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Stop bugging me

Anne is off with two of my other sisters on the island, enjoying a well-deserved rest. Do you recognize the fellow here, with his polka-dot coat, blue vest, shoes and gloves? See this week's Musing.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Eat your "is" and have your "ought" too

What gives scientific knowledge its authority? Harvard historian Steven Shapin addresses the question in his new book The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation.

He quotes Einstein: "The concepts which [science] uses to build up its coherent systems are not expressing emotions. For the scientist, there is only "being," but no wishing, no valuing, no good, no evil, no goal. As long as we remain within the realm of science proper, we can never meet with a sentence of the type: 'Thou shalt not lie.'"

Which is to say, in science there is a strict separation of "is" and "ought."

The authority of science as a body of knowledge about the world rests on the idea that the "is" is paramount. The moral character of the scientist is irrelevant. The social circumstances of discovery are irrelevant. "Being" is all.

Ironically, the authority of science is made suspect by this same disengagement from "ought."

And so the public is conflicted -- impressed by the obvious successes of science, but ready to ignore the "is" when it comes into apparent contradiction with "oughts" -- religious doctrines, for example.

Shapin's book explores this theme within the contexts of entrepeneurial, academic and governmental science. There is more "ought" in the mix than scientists or the public generally concede, he says.

While there may indeed be a lot of "ought" in the funding and adminstration of scientific research, at the end of the day the "is" is paramount. Or so we like to believe.

All of which may be academic as far as the general public is concerned. The authority of science will continue to be revered for its ability to generate antibiotics, iPods, and ever-higher-speed WiFi environments. And the authority of science will be ignored whenever it conflicts with less "is-ish" avenues to "truth."

Friday, December 05, 2008

Wonder and humility

My generation is the last who will remember these old Mobil gas pumps with the round glass globes on top and the sign of the Flying Horse. Or, for that matter, the two-lane blacktops that threaded their way across America in the days before the Interstates. Here we see them in Edward Hopper's 1940 painting titled, simply, Gas. Click to enlarge.

So much of Hopper's work evokes solitude and loneliness -- somber loners in spare hotel rooms, store fronts on deserted streets, Victorian houses on desolate hills. Gas, too, captures a moment of isolation. A filling station on a road to who-knows-where, the attendant -- that 1940's tie and vest! -- shutting down the pumps for the night. Soon he will flick off the station lights, casting the road and the trees across the road into darkness. The ellipsis of the three white globes at the top of the pumps points down the road into unlit possibilities, like a declarative sentence suddenly suspended in ambiguity.

Technology superimposed on uncertainty. Light pours out the station door; the road plunges into darkness. Of all of Hopper's paintings, this is the one that stays with me. Not only because it captures a seductive moment in my own life, but as a metaphor for the uneasy equilibrium between technology and nature that characterizes our time.

To the right of the road, the warm security of civilization. To the left of the road, beyond the verge, unsullied nature, wild, free, but frightening too. Who is willing to walk at into those woods at night, to forego the benefits of artificial light, to risk the forest primeval?

We can't live without the Flying Horse and all it represents, but part of us remains attached to the organicity out of which we came. I think of something Hopper said about the future of art and the lure of abstraction: "There will be, I think, an attempt to grasp again the surprise and accidents of nature, and a more intimate and sympathetic study of its moods, together with a renewed wonder and humility on the part of such as are still capable of these basic reactions."

Thursday, December 04, 2008

On turtles and divinity

For some years Barry has been pushing here the so-called Cosmological Argument for the existence of God. It is an argument I have been exposed to in its many forms -- going back to Plato and beyond -- since my high school religion classes and my college apologetics and philosophy classes. Not to mention a lifetime of reading. So, for what it's worth, and without inviting debate, here are the reasons why I think the argument is a nonstarter. I suspect that most contemporary scientists who do not have a prior commitment to theism will agree with me.

In its most common expression the argument is this: Every event has a cause. Trace a sequence of events backwards in time and one must eventually arrive at an uncaused causal agency. That agency is God.

The uncaused cause (or prime mover, or whatever) is immune from requiring a cause because it is eternal. But of course the universe itself may be eternal, as Plato and Aristotle assumed. Turtles all the way down.

Present cosmology suggests that the universe had a beginning, the Big Bang. It is foolhardy to base philosophical/theological arguments on contemporary scientific theories; theories are subject to amendment, even to radical change. The Big Bang, for example, may turn out to be merely a Big Bounce in an eternally oscillating universe, or this universe may be just one of many in an eternally bubbling metaverse. Who knows? But let's assume the Big Bang is a true beginning. Does it require an uncaused cause; i.e. God. Space and time and therefore causality came into existence with the Big Bang. Why that, why then? The only honest answer is "I don't know." Call the "I don't know" God if you wish; you have added zero information to the sum of human knowledge.

In any case, the Cosmological Argument does not require the uncaused cause to have any of the properties that theists commonly insist on -- personhood, love, justice, or the capacity to act within creation to work miracles or answer prayers.

We used to wonder whether or not the universe was finite or infinite in spatial extent. It is hard to imagine space going on forever, and impossible to imagine space coming to an end. Now, with the mathematics of general relativity, we can imagine unbounded finite space. Who knows what future developments in science or mathematics will throw light on the question of beginnings.

Do we know why there is something rather than nothing? Or why the laws of nature are what they are? Of course not. The theist gives it a name -- God -- and assumes the problem is solved. The scientist keeps probing.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The red thread

I am seventy-two years old and have never witnessed a human death. I have been there as loved ones -- father and mother, most prominently -- awaited the approaching darkness, but I was not present when the last flicker of light was extinguished. For this, I suppose, I should feel grateful, retaining a kind of innocence, a blessed lacuna in the realm of possible experience. I think of how for so many in the world death is a commonplace and sometimes grisly presence.

In the journal my father kept as he lay dying of cancer, he recounts a dream in which he is a ball of twine rolling down a spiral staircase, unwinding as he goes. As he descends, he passes his children going up. They do not notice.

It is a sad dream, not altogether true. We were there, as our lives permitted, to attend his unreeling. Would I have wanted to be at his side when the string came to an end and there was nothing more? I do not know.

It is a decisive moment, between life and non-life, amazingly abrupt when one thinks about the long, rich course of a life -- the difference between string and no string. I thought of my father's dream as I watched again today one of Arthur Ganson's whimsical machines in the college art gallery, called "The Accumulation of Time." Ganson set the machine going some weeks ago as the show opened. A whirring motor is geared down so that a blood-red thread is slowly, ever so slowly, almost imperceptibly, unwound to accumulate on the white pedestal. Will the spool of thread last till the end of show? Will someone be there when the last bit of thread falls into the pile?

Virginia Woolf has an essay called "The Death of the Moth." She watches a tiny moth flutter against a window pane, from one corner to another. "Watching him," she wrote, "it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body." She imagined the moth's life as a thread of vital light. And, of course, as she watched the thread ran out. The spool of the insect's metabolism stopped turning. "As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Kindle? No thanks.

Sunday evening I did a bookstore event for When God Is Gone at the Hingham Public Library, sponsored by Buttonwood Books of Cohasset, Massachusetts, one of those wonderful independent bookstores holding out by the skin of their teeth against mass marketers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. The folks at Buttonwood and Hingham Library have been faithful supporters of my work in the past, and the auditorium was full of familiar faces, people who have been to my talks/readings before, mostly folks of a certain age who grew up with books and still appreciate the feel of real paper in their hands.

It was -- for me at least -- a warm and fuzzy occasion. I was sharing a book that challenged deeply held beliefs of some in the audience, but the spirit of the occasion was amiable and gracious, much like the tenor of discussions in Comments here. Christians, Jews, UUs, atheists, agnostics -- wanderers and pilgrims all -- we shared a sincere search for truth and respect for differences. This against a background of horrific news from India and Nigeria of sectarian slaughter.

What makes a civilization gracious and tolerant? Well, lots of things certainly, but independent neighborhood bookshops are certainly near the top of the list, places where books are honored as something other than commodities or propaganda. When I was last home in Chattanooga for my mother's funeral, I was struck by the number of "Christian bookstores." I would no more want to visit a "Christian bookstore" than an "agnostic bookstore" or an "atheist bookstore" or a "religious naturalist bookstore." Give me a place like Buttonwood where a diversity of ideas jostle on the shelves for our attention.

If you have read When God Is Gone, you will know the extent to which books played a role in my own intellectual formation, especially books that challenged me to press beyond whatever place I currently found myself. When I was a student at the University of Notre Dame in the 1950s, library circulation was restricted by the Index of Prohibited Books, which included many of the great writers of Western literature, including Rousseau, Voltaire, Zola, Flaubert, Hugo, Sterne, Gibbon, Goldsmith, Mill, Montesquieu, Bacon, Comte, Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Locke, Spinoza, Stendhal, Balzac, and Dumas. Those days are long gone, gratefully, and students at Catholic universities and colleges today have free access to all books of merit. It is no small thing that Ave Maria Press at Notre Dame published When God Is Gone.

A blessing on books, all books -- and a blessing on adventuresome publishers and independent bookstores! Thank you, Ave Maria. Thank you, Buttonwood.

(Thursday evening I will be at another independent bookstore event in Wellesley, MA. Details at their website.)

Monday, December 01, 2008

That animal eye

These late fall days my walk to college takes me directly into the rising Sun. I wondered this morning -- if I kept walking at the same leisurely pace, how long would it take me to get to the Sun? That's easy. I can do it in my head. About 5000 years. That is to say, if I had started walking -- without ceasing -- at the time the Sumerians invented cuneiform writing on clay tablets, I'd just now be getting to my destination.

Who would have thunk it 5000 years ago, that the Sun -- that god, that consoling presence, fructifier, lamb-begetter, anointer of kings -- was so big, so distant? There it is, bubbling up on the horizon, tangled in the branches of the trees, "that strange flower," Wallace Stevens called it, "that tuft of jungle feathers, that animal eye."

If you have not previously visited the website of the TRACE satellite, you might have a go, still images and movies. Here is a flare on the limb of the Sun. The Earth would be a pea on the dinner plate of this great loop of blazing gas. And it's only 160 billion steps away.