Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Whatever happened to Astrolabe?

The love affair of Heloise and Abelard produced an illegitimate child, a boy, that Heloise named Astrolabe, after the instrument developed by Islamic astronomers. European scholars of the 12th century, such as Heloise and Abelard, must have been deeply impressed by the sophistication of these beautiful devices and by the learning they clearly represented. While students in grungy Paris were debating fine points of trinitarian theology, their counterparts in bright Cordoba possessed a knowledge of the heavens, geography and mathematics that the northern Europeans could only envy. It would be like a woman in a sci-tech backwater today naming her son iPod.

Heloise and Abelard were certainly two of the brightest minds of their time, and their son would have possessed their brainy genes. He was abandoned by Heloise to be raised by her sister, but except for a few brief allusions in letters not much else is known about him. He vanishes into history like the illegitimate child of Albert Einstein and the physicist Mileva Maric, whose little girl, Lieserl, was given up for adoption and followed Astrolabe into sad oblivion.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sic et non

Legend has it that Peter Abelard's last words were "I don't know."

We know Abelard, of course, for his ill-fated love affair with the brilliant and strong-willed Heloise. Even today their purported burial place in Paris is a place of pilgrimage for lovers. But it is as a charismatic teacher and provocative thinker that Abelard was best known in his own time. He was not adverse to challenging the smug certainties of the ecclesiastical establishment, and his rambunctious young students cheered him on. Systematically applied doubt was his "master key to wisdom," clearly a challenge to those who felt they held the exclusive keys to truth. Eventually Abelard stirred the wrath of that other great charismatic of his time, Bernard of Clairvaux. Their epic confrontation in 1121 can be taken as a classic expression of a dichotomy that still resonates in our culture, and sometimes in the comments on this blog: "God did it" versus "I don't know.

Where did the primal seed of the big bang come from? How did life begin? How did monarch butterflies evolve the ability to navigate to their winter home? God did it, says the believer. I don't know, says the agnostic. The two statements have exactly the same explanatory value. Zero.

Why then opt for one rather than the other? The first provides an illusion of understanding, and reinforces the ancient belief in a personal divinity who attends to our individual lives. The second is a goad to curiosity, and leaves open the possibility of greater future understanding. Which path we pick may reflect an innate preference for security or risk.

Bernard and Abelard both understood God as mystery. Bernard believed God has revealed himself once and for all in the deposit of faith. Abelard believed the goal of life is to seek a God who is and remains hidden. The controversy, for all of its theological nitpicking, came down to a matter of temperament. Bernard liked answers. Abelard liked questions.

Monday, April 28, 2008

In the meadow

The phoebe has returned again to rebuild her nest at the same spot in the old cellar along the path. One by one she laid her eggs, one a day for five days. Now she sits. And I keep watch, hoping her nest stays hidden from cowbirds and boys with sticks.

Meanwhile, Bob Benson, the bluebird man, tends his boxes. Four boxes along the path have eggs. The blue birds do their best to put up with the harassments of the tree swallows. Who cannot love swallows? So sleek. So agile. And, this year, so tame. They sit on their squatted bluebird box and let me approach within a few feet. No zoom for this pic.

The bluebirds are more skittish. The naturalist John Burroughs heard the bluebird's song as "pur-i-ty, pur-i-ty." Some field guides transcribe the song as "tru-al-ly, tru-al-ly." I walk with Bob from box to box, as he counts, repairs, keeps watch. His heart is pure and true.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

An index of reality

Before we are scientists, before we are philosophers, before we are theologians, we are biological organisms. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Choosing our miracles

"We seek through doubt," wrote the philosopher Peter Abelard nearly 900 years ago, "and by seeking we perceive the truth."

Yesterday I suggested that the long tension between science and religion boils down to naturalism vs. miracles. Science began its long progressive march when it eschewed the miraculous in favor of natural law. It has found no reason to regret that decision.

Of course, science cannot prove that miracles do not occur. Faith can believe in the absence of evidence.

But what miracles to believe? Do I accept the corporeal Assumption of Mary, but not the literal Flood of Noah? Do I accept the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, but not the Assumption of Mary? If God is all-powerful and intervenes in creation, then every miracle is equally plausible.

The believer will say: God has revealed to us which miracles are true. Well, fair enough. But parsing revelation is formidable task in itself. The parsing that led to the Nicene Creed, for example, was as much political as theological. And let's be honest enough to admit that what one considers to be divine revelation is overwhelmingly dependent upon the religion of our birth. Mormons believe that God revealed the truth to Joseph Smith on a hillside in New York for exactly the same reason and with the same reliability of evidence as the Catholic believes in the Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth.

All miracles are equally plausible. By the same token they are all equally implausible. The naturalist takes the latter view as being most compatible with commonplace experience. The religious naturalist finds more reason to celebrate the inexhaustible mystery of existence in the everyday metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly than in the problematic raising of Lazarus from the dead.

I have suggested in this series of posts that the church of my birth would lose nothing and gain much by shedding its supernaturalist baggage. I am not so naive as to believe it will happen in my lifetime, nor am I vain enough to think the Church should change to accommodate me. However, miracles have been in slow retreat at least since the preSocratic rationalists, and especially since the Scientific Revolution. Attrition will continue as science reveals more and more of the marvelous, naturalistic, and deeply mysterious underpinnings of reality.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The "Galileo Affair"

On June 22nd, 1633, Galileo Galilei was condemned by a tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church for teaching that the Earth revolves about the Sun, rather than the other way round. On his knees before the assembled cardinals, the seventy-year-old man recanted his belief in the Earth's motion and renounced his life work. So doing, he escaped torture or death by burning at the stake, and won instead the lighter sentence of house arrest in Florence. It has been said that after reciting the official recantation he whispered under his breath, Eppur si muove -- "Yet it moves."

Whether Galileo actually whispered the legendary words hardy matters; he surely thought them. He returned to Florence, frail and blind, and continued his experiments in physics. And the Earth went on revolving about the Sun.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II formally proclaimed that the Church erred in condemning Galileo. The condemnation resulted from a "tragic mutual incomprehension," said the pope, and became a symbol of the Church's "supposed rejection of scientific progress."

The photograph that accompanied the newspaper story about the church's "rehabilitation" of Galileo showed John Paul II dressed in Renaissance garb sitting on a Renaissance throne in a Renaissance palace, surrounded by other men (no women) also dressed in Renaissance clothes. All that was missing was the seventy-year-old man on his knees on the marble floor. The photograph was symbolic: in spite of the pope's cautious and carefully-worded proclamation to the contrary, orthodox theology and science remain essentially at odds.

The heart of the Galileo affair was not the question of whether the Earth went around the Sun or the other way around. And the ongoing tension between science and religion has nothing to do with heliocentricity, the big bang, evolution, or neurobiology. At issue is the fundamental philosophical assumption that underlies all science: that the universe unfolds in an ordered way that is susceptible to analysis by empirical observation and mathematical logic. Or to put it more bluntly: No supernatural agency intervenes arbitrarily in nature.

The only proof of this metascientific assumption is the pudding: Natural science has been spectacularly successful. Moreover, supernaturalists have yet to offer anything other than anecdotal evidence for any supposed miraculous event.

There is nothing new about this clash of understanding. As Philip Ball shows in an essay in the April 17 issue of Nature, the same question was argued by Catholic scholars as early as the 12th century. For example, William of Conches, a teacher at Chartres, insisted (I quote Ball) "that the divine system of nature is coherent and consistent, and therefore comprehensible: if we ask questions of nature, we can expect to get answers, and to be able to understand them." William did not countenance a Creator who was constantly intervening in the world -- and he got into trouble for his opinion. He was nevertheless devoutly Catholic. Today we might call him a religious naturalist.

Embracing heliocentrism did not resolve the Galileo affair, nor do soothing words about the "supposed" antagonisms between science and religion. The conflict is not between science and religion; it is between naturalism and miracles. The Church remains as committed as ever to an anthropomorphic God who intervenes in the creation. As a consequence, the Church has cut itself off from participation in one of the great adventures of the human spirit -- the flight of the human imagination into a universe of unanticipated majesty and mystery.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Credo

Last week I commented on Pope Benedict's remarks to Catholic educators, and proposed a way to define the Catholic identity of colleges and universities that does not offend naturalism.

Several colleagues quite reasonably asked: "Delete the supernaturalist content from our faith and we might as well cease to exist as Catholic institutions of learning. What would then distinguish us from Unitarians?"

I don't expect the Church to dismiss supernaturalism any time soon. Saint Paul said "If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain," and rising from the dead is about as supernaturalist as you can get. Moreover, the Nicene Creed is a shopping list of miracles that most Catholics take as defining elements of their faith.

Nevertheless, supernaturalism is in slow retreat within the Church. Let's pick a random dogma: the Assumption of Mary, say, which in 1950 was declared infallibly to be a truth of faith. Did Mary's corporeal body go off somewhere into incorruptibility? If so, where? The whole notion seems so preposterous as to defy credence. And, if confronted with the dogma, most Catholics one encounters in higher education will hem and haw and blush with equivocation. If one infallible dogma of faith is so iffy, then why not others? Why not the central miracle itself?

The Catholic naturalist (assuming there can be such a thing) does not dismiss the stories connected with the founding of the faith -- the Annunciation, Visitation, Virgin Birth, the Magi, the Flight Into Egypt, and all the rest leading up to and including the central event of the Resurrection. The stories are the way our prescientific ancestors embellished the life of Jesus, at a time when the world was almost universally thought to be full of supernatural spirits and miracles. Like great works of religious art, architecture and music, the stories are a part of our cultural heritage, even if not literally true.

Here are the elements of a Catholic faith I could return to:

--Science provides the most reliable knowledge we presently have of who we are and where we came from. It is a story of breathtaking grandeur.

--Science does not exhaust the mystery of the world; rather, each new discovery confirms our ignorance and deepens our sense of mystery.

--Our response to mystery is to understand the world as holy. We celebrate this holiness through the sacramental rites and rituals of traditional faith. The water of baptism, the bread and wine of the eucharist, the chrism of the anointing, and all the other liturgical traditions of Catholicism are visible signs of an inward grace that is deep and transforming beyond our knowing. They are the language of shared reverence and thanksgiving.

--The life of Jesus of Nazareth is the central sacrament of the Catholic faith. The message of that sacrament is love.

--Catholic tradition is just one of the historic ways humans have understood and celebrated the essential mystery of the world. The creation itself, shared by all humans, is the primary revelation, what Umberto Eco calls "God's discourse to man." The challenge of the Church in the 21st century is to divest the word God of its anthropomorphic encrustations.

--There are no miracles except the single miracle which is the universe itself. No need for the supernatural when every jot and tittle of this perhaps infinite creation is shot through with mystery. We humbly honor that mystery with science, art, universal love, and the joyful noise of the liturgy.

--Finally, it goes without saying that I would look to a Church that has rid itself of its present paternalism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and homophobia.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The music of what is


When I was still conducting a post-retirement nature writing seminar, we would occasionally sit quietly somewhere in the deep woods and make lists of the different sounds that we could hear. We were always surprised at how many sounds emerged from what at first seemed to be complete silence.

The range of audibility of the human ear can be represented as a graph of sound intensity versus frequency. The lower boundary of the range is the threshold of hearing: for example, at a frequency of 256 vibrations per second (middle-C on the musical scale), a sound must have a intensity level of about 20 decibels (the loudness of rustling leaves) to be heard at all. The upper limit of the range of audibility is the threshold of pain. At the frequency of middle-C the limit of pain has an intensity level of about 130 decibels, slightly less than the sound of a leaf blower at close range.

Think of the graph of human audibility as a blank canvas upon which nature paints with sound. For example, the shrill double-note of the blue jay (three-tiered in frequency, at 3000, 2000, and 1000 vibrations per second, repeated twice) and the cacophonous caw of the crow (between 1000 and 2000 vibrations per second) add dollops of color to the canvas in the mid-decibel range. The chickadee's call is more sharply defined in frequency (at about 2800 vibrations per second), but can range widely in loudness depending on the distance of the bird. The nuthatch fills in the low-decibel part of the graph with its tap-tap-taps and a loudness in a conifer forest just above the threshold of hearing. There are other natural sounds that can only be heard in the complete absence of noise: the papery shiver of beech leaves on their branches, the ethereal whir of mourning doves rising from the ground, the rattle of the seedpods of wild indigo when stirred by the wind.

The roar of a leaf blower -- or trail bike or snowmobile -- is the equivalent of throwing a bucket of black paint onto the ear's white canvas.

Yesterday as I walked home from college I enjoyed the songs of the frogs in the water meadow. A downy woodpecker was tick-tick-ticking in the nearby woods, and somewhere afar off I heard the wick-wick-wick-wick of a flicker. I bemoaned the fact that I am slowly going deaf. Almost everyone I passed along the path -- walkers or joggers -- wore earphones or earbuds, listening to who-knows-what on their MP3s. I would gladly give up my iPod for two good ears.

(The middle three paragraphs of this post are a repeat from three years ago, when my own auditory canvas had considerably more area.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day

This albino gray squirrel greets me every morning as I approach the College Commons for my coffee. I call it Whitey Bulger. Somewhere in its genome is a missing instruction for making pigment. A recessive gene inherited from both parents? A mutation? One wonders if lack of pigment makes the squirrel more likely prey for the red-tailed hawk that is often circling overhead.

I don't know the size of the squirrel genome. A rat's genome has about the same number of base pairs and genes as a human, so I would assume the squirrel is in the same ballpark. Somewhere among those 30,000 genes is Whitey's distinguishing inheritance.

And among all those genes too is the squirrel's place in the history of life on Earth. In the April 10 issue of Nature, an international group of more than a dozen scientists describe the most complete attempt yet to suss out evolutionary relationships based on sequenced genomes. The researchers worked with a huge genetic data base drawn from 21 phyla, including 11 animals for which no genomic data was previously available. By and large, the results confirm the familial relationships previously established from anatomical similarities and differences. The evolutionary history that is writ large in an organism's physical appearance is writ small in the DNA. Some new and interesting relationships were also discovered.

And yes, there we are, in the full-page phylogram of 77 species, Homo sapiens, snuggled up with Gallus gallus, the red jungle fowl, our closest relative in the sampling, and tucked between the sea squirt and a wormlike lancelet. Together we four represent the phylum Chordata, characterized by "backbones" (or a primitive precursor thereof).

What a succinct little corner of the animal kingdom! Just look at some of the other animals swimming around on the cover of Nature, including assorted worms, jellyfish and a sea spider. Where is Homo sapiens? We are the journal itself. We are the researchers from the United States, Sweden, United Kingdom, Denmark, and Germany who together compiled the phylogram. And isn't it a wonder that in seeing our place in the grand unfolding of life on Earth we cannot manage to get along better among ourselves -- and with the other creatures of the planet.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Dark Angel

The American Civil War claimed an estimated 620,000 lives, approximately the same number as in all of the nation's other wars put together. Compared to the size of the country's population, six times as many young men died between 1861 and 1865 as in World War II. Few American families, north or south, were unaffected.

Lincoln insisted at Gettysburg "that these dead shall not have died in vain." Drew Gilpin Faust, historian and President of Harvard University, has written a book that tries to measure the effect on the American psyche of the apocalyptic slaughter. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War is an impressive and illuminating work that draws heavily on the letters and diaries of the millions of ordinary people, soldiers and their families, who struggled to cope with unprecedented loss.

There is a public, collective story here, of course: how the young nation and its government had to quickly invent or improvise ways to deal with and honor that vast number of bodies that piled up on the battlefields. More interesting is how the soldiers and their families made sense of the overwhelming shadow of the Angel of Death.

Faust takes note of the scientific background of the crisis. Mid-19th-century science was busy dismantling the literal underpinnings of biblical faith. Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, published in the early 1830s, challenged Genesis by asserting the great antiquity of the Earth. Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859, replaced divine benevolence with the heartless mechanisms of natural selection. "Humans had been moved into the realm of animals, and God threatened a distressing indifference to the fall of every sparrow," writes Faust. Finally, new ideas about the neurological basis of thought and consciousness called into question traditional notions of the immortal soul.

The stark question of how a loving God could allow the horrors of the battlefields led some Americans into doubt and apostasy. For the majority, it seems, only the promise of a heaven where loved ones would be reunited made the suffering bearable. The scale of human loss in the war demanded an explanation that satisfied hearts as well as minds, writes Faust. Doubters and believers alike exalted the notion of the Good Death -- a brave, unflinching death in service to a noble cause.

Certainly, it is true that the science of the last two centuries offers little solace in the face of death, and this alone might largely account for the ongoing tension between science and faith. Whether we die in the hundreds of thousands in a great war, or alone in bed with family, each of us confronts the darkness in our own way. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was one of those who as a young Civil War soldier facing death resolutely rejected the Christian promise of everlasting life. He too praised the Good Death. What the war taught him was that every person is "capable of miracle, able to lift himself by the might of his own soul."

Faust concludes of the Civil War carnage: "We still struggle to understand how to preserve our humanity and our selves within such a world. We still seek to use our deaths to create meaning where we are not sure any exists. The Civil War generation glimpsed the fear that still defines us -- the sense that death is the only end. We still work to live with the riddle that they -- the Civil War dead and their survivors alike -- had to solve long ago."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Let's get earthy


Anne's illumination this week celebrates Earth Day (click to enlarge). You might also check out her expanded two-page gallery.

My Musing today also celebrates the Earth.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mission

As one long associated with Catholic education, it was with some interest that I turned to Pope Benedict's remarks to a gathering of Catholic educators in Washington.

Certainly, the question of the identity and mission of Catholic colleges is a recurring theme of concern. I have read the Pope's remarks and find nothing of particular use in helping those of us who care deeply about Catholic education confirm a sense of 21st-century purpose. The speech is mostly a string of pious platitudes about faith, truth, hope and love -- all worthy topics, to be sure, but the real challenge is to know how these things are related and how they are to be understood in the modern world. There is nothing in the pope's remarks that could not have been said five hundred years ago.

Running throughout the speech is a notion of objective truth that can only be understood in the light of faith based on revelation. Several times, the pope speaks of evangelization as the Church's primary mission. If that is what Catholic higher education is to be about -- transmitting the eternal verities -- then I suspect that most of my faculty colleagues, Catholic and non-Catholic, would be prepared to walk away. To be sure, Benedict makes the required nod to "academic freedom," but he cautions against any teaching that undermines the truths of faith.

In my view, Catholic institutions of higher learning should ground their identity in those things that are uniquely Catholic. Of course social justice and ethics should be part of a curriculum, but there is nothing uniquely Catholic about trying to be good. Evangelization, apologetics and catechesis more properly belong in the family and church. I would prefer to see scholars in Catholic colleges and universities exploring the modern meanings of truth and faith within the Church's rich traditions of sacramental theology and creation spirituality. Let students read Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, for example, the themes of which are timeless, rather than Thomas Aquinas, whose arcane speculations are couched in prescientific cosmology. How about reconstructing the debates of Augustine and Pelagius in the context of the current sci-faith cultural wars? Meister Eckhart. Flannery O'Connor. Galileo. Nikos Kazantzakis. Heloise and Abelard. Francis and Clare. Julian of Norwich. Shusaku Endo. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Mary Gordon. Let students confront with complete freedom the roaring river of creative Catholic thought, orthodox and heretical, and discover the universal human concerns that find expression within Catholic tradition. What makes us Catholic intellectuals is not a list of infallible supernaturalist doctrines that have grown up like stony encrustations on the faith, but a passionate immersion in a two-thousand-yearlong pilgrimage through darkness and light.

U. S. News & World Report had a brief story recently about Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, a tiny Catholic institution that (according to USN&WR) "embodies the pope's vision for education." There are no biology or chemistry classes. All professors pledge annually to stay loyal to Vatican authority. The story quotes a student's favorable comment about the school: "There is no risk involved. When you go to other universities, you don't know what you are going to get." It seems to me that if you know what you are going to get, there is no point in going to a college at all.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bugs

A few weeks ago I posted a cover of Science showing lovely little golden balls -- the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus revealed by the scanning electron microscope, a nasty antibiotic-resistant microorganism. As bad luck would have it, only a week later, someone dear to me became infected by this very pathogen.

To tell the truth, the planet belongs to bacteria. They were here before us. They outnumber all other organisms put together. A significant part of our body weight is bacteria, mostly harmless, some beneficial. Harmless, beneficial or deadly, they have only one objective: exploiting our bodies for their own purpose.

The body's first line of defense is the outer walls and moats: the skin, with its impregnable barrier of keratin, and the mucus membranes. Other exterior membranes are flushed with fluids: saliva, tears, and nasal secretions. The skin and the lower intestinal tract harbor populations of benign bacteria that do battle for the body the way pacified tribes on the marches fought for the Roman Empire.

Despite these defenses, microbes sometimes overwhelm the outer defenses by force of sheer numbers. Or they slip in quietly by an unguarded gate. They are masters of deceit and disguise.

Once the enemy has penetrated the outer membranes, more sophisticated defense systems swing into action. The presence of an alien microorganism triggers chemical alarms that cause white blood cells to move to the site of the intrusion. The white blood cells do their best to engulf the enemy the way an amoeba engulfs its prey.

Most effective of all the body's defenses are the lymphocytes, the agents of the immune response. Lymphocytes are small, round, non-dividing cells that are always on the alert. At any time there are as many as 2 trillion lymphocytes patrolling the human body. The huge number is crucial: Lymphocytes are very specific about what intruders they can recognize. Each lymphocyte is trained by evolution to respond to a particular alien. Recognition of a foreign body causes lymphocytes to become active and start dividing. The offspring cells produce huge numbers of antibodies.

The body is protected by a stupendous array of traps, triggers, walls, moats, and chemical alarms. Some of the body's cells act as patrols, sentries, infantry, and artillery to defend the integrity of the larger society. The defense system never rests. And all of this goes on without our awareness -- unless and until something goes wrong.

Then the defense mechanism of last resort comes into play: the brain.

We invented antibiotics, and temporarily gained the upper hand. But we have been profligate in their use, especially in agriculture. The little golden balls have evolved defenses, as we might have expected. It's us against them.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hand to mind

Let me add a few glosses to a review in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review.

The book is Richard Sennett's The Craftsman, which I have not read. According to the review, Sennett's intent is to exalt craftsmanship -- the work of the hands -- to its rightful place alongside the work of the mind. More. He wishes to show that craft takes precedence over mind, that mind had its origin in the work of the hands.

This is a theme I can relate to, and I look forward to the book. I recently submitted a little essay to Notre Dame Magazine, called "The Workbench," that will be published in the fall, about my father's respectful blending of craft and mind. From an early age he taught me to use my hands, to value craft, to relish the touch of wood and metal, to respect the heft, hardness and edge of a tool. It was his conviction that the best way to understand how the world works is to take it apart and put it back together again.

Some years ago, a treasure trove of prehistoric art was discovered in a cavern near the town of Vallon-Pont- d'Arc in southern France. The cave contains multiple images of horses, bison, bears and rhinos, in red, ocher and black pigments. These exquisite drawings appear to date from around 20,000 years ago. They open a new window on the emerging mind and culture of our Cro-Magnon ancestors.

The animal images are accompanied by stenciled hands. Lots of hands. Some anthropologists say the hands are a mystery, but I think not. The animal drawings at Vallon-Pont-d'Arc are similar to those at other caves in southern France and Spain (I once visited with my children the exquisite galleries at Altamira). The images of animals probably had something to do with religion or the magic of the hunt. Collective things. Congregational things. But the stenciled hands seem to spring from something prior and private. Warm flesh pressed against cold stone. Spontaneity. Individualism. The hands are not abstract works of mind; they are immediate projections of the body. They are the physical self making contact with the stuff of the world. They remind us that behind the wonderful animal art there was mortar and pestle, pigment and torch, stone and spear.

The purest way to live, it has always seemed to me, is with what might be called a Benedictine balance of manual labor, intellectual work, and prayer. The closest I have come to achieving this is on the island, where part of each day is given over to reading and writing, part to woodworking and household maintenance, and part to paying attention, usually while walking. Yes, I know. It's our brain that by most accounts defines our humanity -- that gray stuff locked out of sight in the strongbox of the skull. But it's with our hands that we make physical contact with reality. Our hands are our emissaries to the world.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My soul would sing of metamorphoses

A few days ago I posted here an old Globe column about the metamorphosis of the woolly bear caterpillar into an Isabella moth. That same day I was reading again Ovid's Metamorphoses in the splendid translation by Allen Mandelbaum. That classic poem begins with the creation of the world, a metamorphosis of chaos to order, then follows the subsequent history of the Earth through ages of gold, bronze and iron. The poet then gives us the stories of gods and humans that were part of the intellectual inheritance of his time -- and, at a greater remove, ours.

The Metamorphoses is a saga of constant change of one thing into another, the archetypal transformation perhaps being that of Daphne into a laurel tree when she is pursued -- and caught! -- by Apollo. By this mutation her virginity and, more importantly, her autonomy, is preserved. The moment of change has been a popular subject of the arts, never more strikingly than in the marble statue of Bernini. It has always been a great mystery to me how anyone with Renaissance tools could carve stone with such delicacy.

The book of the world described by science might well be called The Metamorphoses. We are a flux of atoms -- caterpillar to moth, cornflakes to human flesh, stellar atmospheres to laurel leaves. Conservation laws are at the heart of physics; in the flux of change, some things remain the same. Ovid knew this. He knew his own atoms would return into the eternal flow, and who knows but that some of his atoms have made their way into the glass of Italian wine that stands just now at my elbow. Ovid knew too that a kind of immortality would be his, that some things endure through the ages:
And everywhere that Roman power has sway,
in all domains the Latins gain, my lines
will be on people's lips; and through all time --
if poet's prophecies are ever right --
my name and fame are sure: I shall have life.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On not "offering it up"

Benedict XVI arrives in the United States today on his first visit to this country as pope -- an appropriate time, perhaps, to consider again his second encyclical, Spe Salvi ("In hope we are saved" Rom 8:24).

In the encyclical, the pope says it is a distinguishing mark of Christians that they know their lives will not end in emptiness. He then asserts that old canard: "Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live in the present as well."

He means, of course, a future beyond the grave. And it is precisely here that the scientific agnostic diverges most dramatically from the person of faith. After centuries of empirical study, not a shred of non-anecdotal evidence has emerged to suggest that there is a ghost in the machine or life in the hereafter.

Which does not prove it is not so, of course. The pope's first encyclical was on faith. Faith can believe in the absence of evidence, and the scientific agnostic will be the first to admit that he doesn't know everything. The world is constantly turning out to be stranger than we ever imagined. A hundred years ago, who could have imagined the strange dance of the DNA or the myriad galaxies revealed by the Hubble Ultra Deep-Field Photo.

But for the scientific agnostic the world's strangeness reveals itself most reliably in reproducible empirical observation. And on the basis of reproducible empirical observation the immortal soul has been for centuries in full retreat.

To each his own. Far be it for me to deny anyone hope of heaven. What I will dispute, however, is the pope's assertion that without faith in an immortal future one cannot live fully in the present. In fact, the opposite would seem to make rather more sense. When the present is all one has, it behooves one to make the best of it.

Yes, for some that might mean heedless hedonism. But for the religious naturalist, living fully in the present means attending with reverence to every particular of the world -- not in hope of a better world, but because this one is magnificent and full of mystery. For the religious naturalist, living fully in the present means seeking to ameliorate suffering, selfishness, superstition and internecine strife -- not because of the promise of reward or fear of punishment, but because a thoughtful empiricism suggests that one's personal happiness depends upon the happiness of all.

Ironically, Spe Salvi is a rather gloomy document. Human suffering is not only an ineradicable part of the world, says the pope, it is a necessary school for hope and faith: "It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it." What a grim version of hope! For all of the difficulty of alleviating the suffering of humankind, the religious naturalist, having only this world, grounds her hope in the very thing the pope dismisses -- the incremental perfectibility of this corner of the universe that cosmic happenstance has rendered into our care.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Just one of those things...

The intelligent design champion David Berlinski has entered the sci-faith wars again with a book called The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, excerpted at some length in the current issue of Harper's Magazine. The title is clearly meant as a riposte to Dawkins' The God Delusion.

OK, I grant that it is unfair to judge a book or its argument by what might be a badly edited excerpt. I may not be the sharpest tack in the box, but, lordy, having read the excerpt twice, I find nothing but a stew of half-cooked ideas.

Take any paragraph at random, say this one:
The advantage of materialism as a doctrine is that it sanctions an easy argument for atheism. Either the Deity is a material object or He is not. If He is, then He is just one of those things, and if he is not, then materialism could not be true. But if God is just one of those things, what is His interest? And if materialism is false, why are we arguing? Whatever the merits of this argument, the world of matter revealed by the physical science does not serve to endow materialism with a human face.
If you know what to make of this, you are sharper than me. But let me make a few observations. First, the argument, such as it is, assumes a Cartesian dualism, matter versus -- uh, what exactly? Materialism is a worn out word that lost its philosophical usefulness at about the time the atoms of the physicists dissolved into spooky resonances and probabilities. And if Belinski's dualism is defunct, what replaces the old dichotomy of matter and spirit? A unitary view of whatever is. Call it naturalism (my preference). Or, if you wish, call it supernaturalism. Call it X. Whatever you call it, let's get beyond dualism and embrace the universe as one. One what? Just one of those things. A trip to the moon on gossamer wings.

Berlinski suggests that "the world of matter revealed by the physical sciences does not serve to endow materialism with a human face," which is certainly true enough. But this hardly constitutes an argument against materialism (or naturalism). Rather, it would seem to argue against putting a human face on whatever it is that the physical sciences study, which is whatever the universe presents to our inquiring minds.

As I read it, the drift of Berlinki's book (as excerpted in Harper's) is the old chestnut: Science cannot disprove the existence of a God with a human face -- that is, a personal God who attends to our individual lives and intervenes at will in the creation. Well, duh. Science cannot disprove that there's a teapot orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars either, but that doesn't require the teapot to exist. We can go looking for the teapot, and after millennia of unsuccessful searching decide that, well, maybe we have better things to do with our time.

What better things? Continue the quest to find reliable empirical knowledge of the world. Stand attentively in awe of a universe that is deep and diverse and mysterious beyond our knowing. Admit our ignorance of ultimate realities. Celebrate a God that is -- yes -- just one of those things, but a thing so far beyond human understanding as to be utterly trivialized by giving it a human face.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tis Nature's voice, the universal tongue

As a Henry Purcell song suggests, music is the food of love. It is also in some mysterious way -- like mathematics -- a universal tongue. They are at the heart of our search for universal laws of nature. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday gift.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The marriage of heaven and earth


Two beautiful women look out at us across half a millennium. Two women painted at almost the same time -- 1482 or thereabouts -- by the same artist, Sandro Botticelli, who clearly had an eye for beauty. (Click to enlarge.)

On the left, a detail from Virgin and Child with Eight Angels, one of a number of wonderful madonnas painted by Botticelli. She looks towards us with modestly unfocused attention, as if she knows that you and I will never understand the role she has been asked to play in the drama of salvation. She hardly understands herself, but accepts her fate dreamily. She is the quintessential faithful wife and loving mother. Her face is framed with the lilies of purity.

On the right, the goddess Flora, a detail from Botticelli's famous Primavera. A very different woman this. Her hair and dress are laced with spring flowers -- daisies, violets, cornflowers and wild strawberries -- her girdle is of roses, her collar myrtle, the tree of Venus. She looks directly at us with lidded, come-hither eyes. Her lips are parted in a sultry smile. She is framed by trees burgeoning with luscious fruit.

The two faces of the male fantasy. Yours, mine, and Sandro Botticelli's too.

But there is more here than the old wife/mistress, virgin/whore dichotomy, more than the bifurcated itch of male desire. Botticeilli was painting on a cusp of history. The Middle Ages were ceding to modernity. A preoccupation with the Otherworld was giving way to a reborn interest in the world of Nature. Secularity and curiosity were in the air. It was the eve of the Scientific Revolution.

The power brokers and guardians of tradition knew that something was slipping from their grasp. The Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478. The witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum was printed in 1487 (Flora beware!). Botticelli's fellow citizen Savonarola had his bonfire of the vanities, a last desperate attempt to crush the new emerging humanism. Soon thereafter Savonarola himself went up in smoke in the same Florentine square.

Botticelli was torn both ways. His art swung back and forth from the sacred to the profane, from religious themes to pagan myths. The guilt-monger Savonarola owned part of his soul; the Renaissance ideal of natural beauty owned the rest.

The Virgin and Flora are part of everyone's soul -- male and female, gay and straight -- part of our human nature. We are spiritual and we are sensual. We cherish stability and we long for the fling. The religious naturalist wants to morph the two images, erase the duality, celebrate Flora's profane natural beauty without forgoing the sacred mystery we see expressed in the Virgin's eyes. Is it possible?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Grace is everywhere

Breathtaking! The cover of the April 3 issue of Nature has a striking computer-generated illustration of a ribosome translating messenger RNA into a protein. Inside the journal, a report by an international team of scientists describes remarkable experiments which followed the translation process one codon at a time. A codon is a sequence of three RNA (or DNA) nucleotides that code for a specific amino acid. A protein is an elaborately folded chain of thousands of amino acids.

I can't reproduce the Nature cover, but here is a similar computer-generated image of a ribosome, which is generally described as an evolutionarily ancient "molecular machine" for translating genetic information into proteins in the "factory" of a cell. What you see looks like a tangle, but every nook and cranny is a part of the way the thing works.

Many of these machines are at work in every cell of our bodies, ceaselessly constructing the stuff of life. "The power of the visible is the invisible," wrote the poet Marianne Moore. Here, on the cover of Nature, and in the work described therein, the invisible is made partly visible.

Are our cells really just "factories" and our ribosomes "machines"? These are metaphors, of course. All understanding is metaphorical -- in science, in poetry, even in theology. The mechanical metaphor for what happens inside living cells does not so much reduce the marvelous to the mundane, as it elevates the mundane to the marvelous. The more we understand the staggeringly complex -- and breathtakingly beautiful -- molecular machinery of life, the more truly marvelous the world becomes.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Every particular contains the universal

I gave a talk/reading last evening in the Non-fiction Writing Program at Brown University. My theme: Everything has a story to tell.

Yes, everything! That pebble in the path. Those drops of dew on the spider's web. This ridge on my left thumbnail.

For twenty years I wrote a weekly column for the Boston Globe. A thousand columns altogether. Sometimes the number startles even me. I was often asked: "How do you think of something to write about every week?"

That's the easy part. The universe is so diverse and interesting that any science or nature writer with an ounce of awareness must encounter every day at least a hundred things worth writing about.

Everything has a story. First, one attends to the thing of interest. Then one does whatever is necessary to learn the story. Then one tells the story. The first two steps are part of the craft of writing. The third is the art.

Look! A woolly bear caterpillar in the path. "Write about that," my students said thirteen years ago. Here is the resultant essay, which appeared in the Globe in October, 1994, and, if I am not mistaken, in Natural Prayers.
Woolly bears are on the march. Double time. Making tracks. Trucking.

They really move, along the sidewalk, across the path, at a typical speed of a yard-a-minute -- supersonic for a caterpillar -- on sixteen little legs (or what pass for legs) hidden in their brushy fur. Where are they going?

The guidebooks say if you see a woolly bear in the path in the fall, it is looking for a secure place to spend the winter -- under leaves, inside a log, behind a loose clapboard. Then why do we so often see them on open paths, barreling along in the same direction we are going, as if late for an appointment or out for a jog?

They'll get to their hidden resting places sooner or later, for I've occasionally found them in January or February curled up under leaves or logs like sleeping kittens, snoozing the winter away in frozen slumber. The naturalist Edwin Way Teale described the tightly curled woolly bears as dozing doughnuts.

But the search for a suitable wintering place can't explain the caterpillar's October predilection for sidewalks, roads and open spaces. Even a half-blind bug with a pinpoint brain can tell smooth asphalt from a place that is likely to have cozy nooks and crannies.

I'll tell you what the woolly bears are doing. They are doing the same thing we are doing. Enjoying these last warm days of autumn. Taking the air. Stretching their limbs.

Whenever I meet someone jaded with life, forgetful of mystery, bored out of their minds, I pick up a woolly bear and place it in their palm. An inch-and- a-half of slippery fur. A walking mustache. Two bulging eyes (or what pass for eyes) in there among the bristles, the only way to tell which end is going and which is coming.

This slip of cuteness -- for, yes, they are cute, a favorite of children, worthy of a place in the teddy bear stores -- this fragile slip of cuteness survives New England's deep freeze, one of the hardy insects that winter over in the larval stage. In spring, it wakes, has a bite to eat, then rolls itself into a pupa, using its hairs to make the cocoon, lacing them together with silk. Two weeks later, an Isabella tiger moth emerges, presto-chango, like a magician's trick.

A black-and-brown woolly bear goes into the box -- a wave of the wand -- a yellow-winged tiger moth emerges. Somehow, the creature has managed to remake itself, rearranging its atoms, from crawling fuzzball to airborne angel.

In few insects is the transformation so stunning, so complete. An insatiable leaf-eating machine becomes a sex-obsessed nectar-sipper. Shape, color, internal organs, mode of transportation -- all changed. It's as if an elephant became a swan, or a rattlesnake became a parakeet.

Of course, the totality of the transformation is to some extent illusory. What remains constant through all the stages of metamorphosis is information. It's all there, at the heart of every cell, in the DNA, blueprints for making a woolly bear and a tiger moth.

There are clusters of cells in the larval caterpillar that are destined to become anatomical features of the adult moth, dormant, awaiting a chemical signal that will make them surge into activity. The warmth of spring releases hormones from glands in or near the brain. These cause the caterpillar to build a chrysalis and begin metamorphosis.

Previously dormant adult cells begin to multiply. They take their nutrients from superseded larval cells, which are transformed into a kind of nutrient soup for the benefit of the growing adult organs. The woolly bear's six stumpy front feet are turned into the tiger moth's slender legs. Four bright wings develop, as do reproductive organs. Chewing mouth parts become adapted for sucking. In two weeks, the rearrangement of atoms is complete. The chrysalis breaks.

There's no way to think about this without gasping for breath. It's one thing to understand the biology, at least that part of it that we know something about: DNA, hormones, gene expression, and all that. But knowing the biology only makes the metamorphosis all the more breathtaking.

Not magic at all, but a fierce, inextinguishable force driving the
universe, Dylan Thomas' "green fuse," permeating every atom of matter, soaking nature the way water soaks a sponge. Call it life, call it God, call it an inch-and-a-half of black and brown fur. It can't be ignored when you hold it curled in your hand, a gram of divinity.

Lift it gently from the palm, taking care not to let it slip between your fingers. Place it again on the sidewalk. The larva of the Isabella tiger moth slowly uncurls, lifts its head (ah, so that's the anterior end), takes a nearsighted gaze around (or is it a sniff?), then scurries off again in its headlong dash for who-knows-where, a many-footed distillation of the Heraclitean fire that animates the world, hell-bent-for-caterpillar-leather under October's golden sun.
Attend. Learn. Write. A craft. An art. A lifelong education.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Mission


Yesterday morning steel workers topped off the framing for Stonehill College's new $34 million science building. It will be the most expensive project in the college's history. I am tremendously proud of the college for the quality of its science programs and the support they receive from the administration.

Like many church-related schools, Stonehill is concerned about its Catholic identity. We define ourselves as a Catholic college, and our students are mainly the children of devout or nominally Catholic families. But the faculty is increasingly laic and non-Catholic, and the formal trappings of Catholicism that I experienced as a student at Notre Dame in the 1950s and at Stonehill in the 1960s -- prayers before classes, courses in apologetics, teachers with Roman collars, etc. -- are no longer much in evidence. A casual visitor to our campus would be hard pressed to recognize the place as Church-related. And certainly the science taught in the new building will be identical to that taught in any first-rank secular institution.

And there's the rub.

Science and religious faith are the two greatest forces in the world today, and the tension between them is palpable and real. In Catholic higher education, the battle with the content of science has been mostly won. But the clash of orthodox theology with the spirit of scientific inquiry is generally swept under the rug, and the tension will become more acute as scientists learn more about the genetic, chemical, and anthropological origins of religion.

Theologically, it's as if the Scientific Revolution never happened. We teach 21st-century science in the classroom, and in the chapel we recite a Creed based on neolithic cosmologies. No wonder it is so difficult to find and hire topnotch Catholic scholars; we are asking them to live in two contradictory conceptual worlds at once -- naturalist six days a week, supernaturalist on Sunday. Meanwhile, we tell ourselves that there is no contradiction between classroom and chapel because science and faith belong to separate domains. But knowledge is a single domain, and it was the historic triumph of Christian Europe (with significant assists from elsewhere, especially from Hellenic Alexandria) to devise a unitary way of knowing -- the scientific way of knowing -- that is a more reliable guide to reality than tradition, authority or revelation.

Can there be a distinctively Catholic intellectual mission for an institution of higher learning? Absolutely. In place of the magic, miracles and anthropomorphic gods of our prescientific ancestors, a renewed Church would embrace the evolving empirical cosmology of the 21st century -- what the Catholic visionary Thomas Berry calls "the New Story." The antagonisms between science and faith are deeper than they might appear to be, writes Berry. The older redemptive stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition simply do not meet the most basic tests of rational knowing, he says. But the newer, scientific story of creation has not yet acquired a spiritual aspect: "An integral story has not emerged." It should be the fundamental mission of Catholic colleges and universities to help forge the integral story -- to make sacred and holy the world described by science by drawing upon the Church's rich traditions of sacramental theology and creation spirituality. In a world beset by religious strife, no mission can be more important to our collective future.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ghost


I came across this photograph in a magazine the other day. A blast from the past. Literally.

1952. I was sixteen years old.

An above ground nuclear shot, recorded one-thousandth of a second after detonation with a special camera designed by Harold "Doc" Edgerton of MIT (click to enlarge). Shutter speed one 10-billionth of a second. Doc was famous for capturing on film things that happened too fast to see.

An explosion in the kiloton range. Just a firecracker, really. The fireball is 200 feet in diameter. And expanding. Thermal energy follows the guy wires down from the tower that held the bomb.

Within days or weeks (I'm not certain of the exact date of this test) the first hydrogen bomb would be exploded at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Ten thousand kilotons, that one. Code named "Mike."

I grew up not far from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the uranium-235 for the Hiroshima bomb was separated. Big mystery about what was going on there during the war. I remember my father speculating. By 1952 we knew, of course. The bomb that obliterated Hiroshima was named "Little Boy." Mike and Little Boy. It was as if by giving these devices such innocent names we cold assuage our loss of innocence.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Science sucks

The February issue of Wired magazine has a feature called "Things That Suck." Thirty-two things. The usual suspects, of course. Car alarms. Spam. Air travel. Printer ink cartridges. Dead batteries. Hangovers.

But what's this on the list? Science! Science sucks? Oh, come on.

Here's what Wired has to say, tongue partly in cheek: "The real reason science sucks is that it makes us look bad. It makes us bit players in the Big Story of the universe...Look at it this way: Before science, we humans had dominion over Earth, the center of the universe. Now we are just a bunch of hairless apes on a wet rock orbiting a minor star in a marginal galaxy."

Depressing. Downright threatening. Demoted from lords of the universe to motes of dust in a big silent space that for all we know is infinite. No wonder half of Americans reject science. Oh, they like the benefits of science, all right. Modern medicine. Plentiful food. The wireless internet. But they aren't all that happy with the bottom line: The universe doesn't give a fig.

Yep, science sucks. All the things that should exhilarate us -- the myriad galaxies, the dazzling dance of the DNA, the creation of elements at the cores of stars, the grand saga of evolution -- make us uneasy. Worse than uneasy. Scared shitless.

But not to worry. The old anthropocentric story is still there for the taking. And most people on the planet take it. The creator of the universe has me -- yes, me -- as the apple of his eye.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Tang, anyone?

Cutting-edge science requires expensive instrumentation. Think of the James Webb Space Telescope, the proposed replacement of the Hubble, and the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva that will soon go looking for the Higgs boson, the so-called "God Particle." These instruments are built with public money, and making the case is not always easy. An appeal could be made to curiosity and the spiritual edification of humankind. But that doesn't wash for everyone. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday Illumination.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Lighting the green fuse

The idea is to return from the tropics in time to watch spring happen in New England. This year we could have waited another few weeks. Oh yes, the redwings are back and the skunk cabbages have tripped across the stage, but those things are not so much the beginning of spring as they are the close parentheses of winter.

So here I am, with heavy jacket and scarf replacing shorts and bare feet, walking the path in a freezing rain, wondering where the hell are the Canada mayflowers and spring peepers.

What a difference 20 percent makes! This time of the year, about 20 percent less solar energy falls on a square meter of New England than on the same size patch of land in Exuma. The Earth is tipping its north polar cap sunward, begging for warmth. The ground is brown and soggy and bare. But surely something is stirring in the soil -- those green silks the old magician has up his sleeves.

One thing follows another. No mourning cloak butterflies until sap is flowing at broken twigs. No spider webs until there are winged insects to snare. No caterpillars until there are young leaves to feed on. No nestlings in the robin's nest until the first big hatch of insect grubs.

One thing follows another. I pull my stocking cap down on my brow and wait.

Friday, April 04, 2008

And yet it moves...

According to a report in a recent issue of Science, the Vatican is about to erect a statue of Galileo in its gardens. "The Church wants to close the Galileo affair and reach a definitive understanding not only of his great legacy but also of the relationship between science and faith," says Nicola Cabibbo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Well, we'll see. The relationship is fraught, to say the least.

The Church is of course now willing to admit that the Earth orbits the Sun, rather than the other way around. But heliocentrism was never the real issue in what the Church euphemistically calls "the Galileo affair." What was -- and is -- at issue is the most reliable basis of faith -- reproducible empirical evidence, or tradition, revelation and authority.

As with heliocentrism, the Church has begrudgingly come to terms with evolution and the big bang, but science plays a negligible role in shaping fundamental matters of faith. For all of its intellectualism, Catholic theology is still as beholden to supernaturalism, miracle-mongering and neolithic myth as any other fundamentalist creed on the planet.

Which is a great shame. The Church has proud traditions of sacramental theology and creation spirituality that are wonderfully compatible with science. Alas, every attempt to reconcile these traditions with empirical learning have had rough going against official orthodoxy, and erecting a statue for the pigeons is not likely to change a thing.

My daughter was in Rome recently and while strolling in the busy Campo de' Fiori had a sense of deja vu. Well, yes, she was there forty years ago, where I photographed her standing in front of the statue of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake on that site in 1600, for various heresies, an event that was surely on Galileo's mind a decade later as he turned his telescope on the sky. Now the great Pisan philosopher gets his own statue, in the Vatican garden no less. A better tribute might be what that other scientist/heretic, Teilhard de Chardin, wrote near the end of his life: "If only Rome would start to doubt herself at last, a little!"

Thursday, April 03, 2008

When God is gone...

I have just finished reading Rick Atkinson's An Army at Dawn, a superb account of the Allied campaign in North Africa in 1942-43. One is left with an unbearable sadness for the grunts -- the towheaded, fuzz-cheeked boys from Iowa and Maine -- who carried the burden of battle, who got their legs blown off and their guts spilled while their commanders squabbled and fussed among themselves to preserve their preeminence and pride -- Patton and Montgomery, Rommel and Arnim, and others. What an awful grinding up of the innocent while Yanks, Brits and Frenchies on one side, and Germans and Italians on the other, eyed each other with mutual distrust and let concerted action seep ineffectually into bloody sand.

How often, too, in Atkinson's account, the commanders evoke the name of God, as if any God worth worshiping would have anything to do with such an ego-driven cataclysm of fire and steel. Patton inscribes in his diary before he falls asleep: "God was very good to me today." German commanders also invoke the divine name.

This is not to suggest a moral equivalence. The Allies fought against a regime as evil as any in the history of humankind, and if a supernatural being watched from on high one would like to think he was cheering for the Allied side. But spare us, please, the presumption of those who think they know the divine mind. Gott Mit Uns it said on the belt buckles of the Wehrmacht, God Is With Us. Even the Romans, two thousand years earlier, went into battle with the self-assured cry, Nobiscum Deus.

"I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least," wrote Walt Whitman, who was himself witness to the slaughter of another war. That war too was fought at least partly to alleviate a great evil, human slavery, not that it mattered much in the heat of battle to the cannon fodder on both sides. "Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself," Whitman continued. He did not mean his personal self, but the preciousness of the human person. He worked as a volunteer in a military hospital in Washington, tending the human wreckage of the battlefields.

There is something to be said for Whitman's agnostic pantheism. A personal God who is outside of the creation can pass out belt buckles and be kind to commanders on the battlefield. If the creation itself were universally recognized as holy -- every jot and tittle of it, every human self -- perhaps we would have fewer reasons to go to war.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What hath God wrought?

America celebrated its centennial in 1876 with a grand exhibition in Philadelphia designed to showcase the nation's emerging preeminence in science and technology. Between the opening of the exhibition on May 10 and its closing six months later, 8 million visitors -- one in every five Americans -- trekked through the displays, which took up 450 acres in Fairmont Park. Most of those visitors, we can assume, were impressed by what they saw -- the giant steam engines and electrical dynamos, the presses, pumps, gins, hammers and lathes, the roaring, thumping colossi of iron and steel that screamed "POWER!" The gentle naturalist John Burroughs was discombobulated by the "hellish cacophony" of the Machinery Hall. His heart went out to a bird that had somehow wandered into the hall and flapped frenziedly about the ceiling in search of escape.
He was not the only visitor who fretted. Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others, worried that the rising tide of science and technology might tear Americans from their spiritual roots.

Meanwhile, a speech professor from Boston University, Alexander Graham Bell, demonstrated his new invention, the telephone. President Ulysses S. Grant was astonished to have a chat with Don Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil, who was sitting all the way on the other side of the fairground! It was perhaps Bell's gizmo, rather than the mammoth instruments of power, that was the real star of the show. Here was the first inkling of coming Age of Human Connectivity. I read somewhere recently that half of the people in the world now have mobile phone subscriptions. And here I sit typing a few words about the 1876 Philadelphia Exhibition that can be read right around the world a instant after I click "Post."

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Schrodinger's cat

When quantum physics is used to describe physical events, the descriptions have a kind of fuzziness. For example, if one tries to pin down the position of an electron, then the electron's velocity necessarily becomes less precisely known -- the Uncertainty Principle. This fuzziness is not just a product of our ignorance, but seems to be built right into the fabric of reality. In the quantum world, precise description and prediction is impossible. The best we can do is calculate the probability that when we make an observation a certain thing will be observed.

Erwin Schrodinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, imagined a cat inside a box. Also in the box is a little bit of radioactive material, and a radiation detector that will trigger a trip on a hammer poised above a glass vial containing cyanide. If even a single particle is emitted by the radioactive substance, the hammer will fall, the vial will break, and the cat will die.

With the box closed, let us turn on the detector for just long enough that the probability of a particle being emitted is 50-50. So what is in the box after the experiment is run? A dead cat? A live cat? Apparently, there is no way to know without opening the box and looking in.

But maybe, just maybe, nature doesn't choose between two equally probable outcomes. Maybe both outcomes occur. The particle is emitted and it isn't emitted. The detector trips the hammer and the detector does not trip the hammer. Instead of settling for one or the other outcome, the universe splits into two simultaneous, non-interacting universes. In one universe the cat dies; in the other universe the cat lives.

This is the so-called "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics, and if it's true, then even at this instant your universe is splitting into a myriad of parallel universes, in each one of which your life unfolds in different ways. It is an unsettling concept, but one that I have become used to.

As longtime visitors to his site will know, I live in three parallel universes: a New England town, a fishing village in the west of Ireland, and a quiet little island in the Bahamas. Different food, different dress, different activities, different habits, different friends. The worlds are essentially non-interacting, like the branching worlds of quantum mechanics. It is all I can do to keep three worlds straight. Tomorrow morning I will inhabit another universe. Will the cat be alive or dead? We'll have to open the box and see.