Saturday, May 31, 2008

More "seems" than cloth

While the religious naturalist can find much to agree with in the atheistic screeds of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, he will no doubt feel a shudder of revulsion at the acrid and disheartening tenor of their discourse. It is not enough for them to batter the gods into senselessness; they insist on incinerating the remains and scattering the dust to the winds. Call it a scorched heaven policy. What is left is not only a world disenchanted of anthropomorphic spirits, but a spiritual landscape as sere and bare as the Sahara.

One turns to the scientific theists -- Francis Collins, Owen Gingerich, Kenneth Miller, et. al. -- for balm, only to find the kind of faith-based self-pleading one was trying to get away from. Surely, if these folks had been born into another culture they would be as energetically defending a different divinity. The dean of the scientific theists is John Polkinghorne, theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest and full-fledged Christian Trinitarian apologist. I've read his books because thoughtful believers have told me I should, but I can never quite escape the feeling that the good reverend's answers antecede his questions.

Polkinghorne's newest is Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship. I approached the book with caution, fearful of finding some Deepak Chopraesque attempt to lodge a theology in the spooky interstices of quantum indeterminacy. But no, Polkinghorne is too orthodox a theologian for that, and too smart a physicist. What he wants to do is show that quantum physics and Christology are both rational, evidence-based inquiries in search of truth -- to the extent that truth can be known -- and that the quests have many parallels.

Well, indeed. Polkinghorne does an excellent job tracing the epistemological foundations of the two disciplines. But when he comes to elaborating the rational basis for Trinitarian Christianity -- with its central doctrine of the God-Christ's physical resurrection -- his language betrays the weakness of his argument. Almost every paragraph is riddled with phrases like "I think...", "Rather, I believe...", "For reasons that one might speculate about...", "It is as though...", "There does seem to be..." , "...the less likely it seems...", and "It seems clear to me..." -- all this in just a few pages on the historical evidence for the Resurrection. His conclusion: "Nevertheless, resurrection belief is well-motivated belief that I personally find persuasive."

No paper in quantum mechanics could get published with so many qualifiers. It is not enough in science to find a theory "personally persuasive." It is necessary to amass sufficient empirical evidence to create a consensus. Which is why the same quantum physics is taught in universities worldwide, to people of widely-varying religious faiths and none. In spite of Polkinghorne's earnest efforts to show otherwise, the epistemological foundations of quantum science and Trinitarian theology are as different as chalk and cheese.

With the "new atheists" on one side and the scientist theists on the other, religious naturalists are caught betwixt and between -- confident in consensus scientific knowledge of the world, suspicious of faith-based claims to know the mind of God, content to celebrate the ineffable Mystery that resides in every jot and tittle of creation.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Through a glass darkly

For a bird that has no song -- only a call that we'll get to in a minute -- this little fellow has been making a heck of a racket. For the last week I have been having my morning coffee in the deserted College Commons, in a comfy chair near a big wall of glass windows that look out into the trees. And every morning this mad male nuthatch has been rattling his beak relentlessly against the glass. Is it his reflection he is attracted to? I have thought about opening a window and letting him in, but then it would be impossible in this big space to get him out again. So I sit here and type on my silent keyboard and imagine his clack-clack-clack is the sound of a typewriter.

But it's impossible to put him out of mind. His persistence, hour after hour, day after day, suggests a kind of insanity. Will he never learn that the bird in the glass that follows him from sill to sill is only a reflection of himself? His bird brain has not grasped the concept of mirror.

Why should I feel superior? I wrote here yesterday about projection. Knowing nothing quite so well as we think we know ourselves, we project our hopes and desires onto those we love, and onto the universe itself. We peck-peck-peck at the cosmic glass we see through darkly, mistaking our reflections for divinity.

Back to the nuthatch. No sound is quite so delightful in a snowy winter woods as the nuthatch in its element, using its hatchet beak to open nuts it has so diligently squirreled away. The inimitable F. Schuyler Mathews, who a century ago set out to score the music of wild birds, didn't know quite what to do with the nuthatch. Yank-yank-yank is the best he comes up with for the nuthatch's call, the first A or B above middle-C on the piano keyboard, he says, "in a clear falsetto, best imitated by pinching the nose and singing the note staccato." He goes even further and likens the call to the nasal twang of a down-East Yankee farmer's wife who lifts her voice to call "Dan," the boy who goes for the "caows." Talk about projecting ourselves onto the universe!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

When god is gone

Having seen the announcement for my new book, my friend the theologian Greg Shaw shared with me some remarks of his addressed to the question "Is God a Projection of the Human Mind?"

He first considers the answers of the early Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa, who explicitly recognized the dangers of projection. Clement says: "Most people are enclosed in their mortal bodies like a snail in its shell, curled up in their obsessions after the manner of hedgehogs. They form their notion of God's blessedness taking themselves for a model." And Gregory: "Every concept formed by the intellect in an attempt to comprehend the divine nature can succeed only in fashioning an idol, not in making God known." The Fathers were theists, but their God resides in mystery.

For the Platonists of antiquity, even this was too much. For them, God is not a supreme being, but the One that precedes being. We understand the One by seeking the unity within ourselves.

Greg summarizes: "Is God a projection?"
Yes, in two ways. First, there is the God that we invent to satisfy our need for security and with whom we set up a commercial exchange: we give him obedience and prayers, and we give money to his representatives, and in return we receive a sense of righteousness and a guarantee of eternal life. This is the invented God projected by the mind, the idol described by Gregory of Nyssa that reflects our shallowness and insecurity. The other God is also a projection, but it arises from a mysterious depth within us and is an expression of our deepest longing. The manifestations of this "god" change as we change, its imagery deepens as we deepen. This latter god is not an entity or a being of any kind and its "appearances" allow us to enter the mystery of our deepest yearning, moving us back and forth between positive and negative ways of experiencing god.
The scientific skeptic might reasonably ask if even this second Platonic notion of God is a step too far. The G-word -- upper or lower case -- carries so much anthropomorphic baggage it might seem best to avoid it altogether.

But still, I think, Greg's second notion of projection deserves respect, and certainly not the scorn heaped upon any idea of God by the "new atheists." It is something close to this second notion that I am reaching for in When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy. I would not look for divinity only within the self, but in the self in interaction with the world. The more we learn about the universe of the galaxies and the DNA, the more we become aware of the depth of our ignorance. We face the universe in silent awe, refusing to give any name to the source of our awe. Knowledge -- reliable scientific knowledge of the world -- is a portal through which we enter "the mystery of our deepest yearning."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On winged imagination


A sure test of dark skies is the ability to see with the naked eye the nucleus of the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest large spiral galaxy to our own and the most distant thing -- 2 million light-years -- you are likely to see without optical aid. On literally hundreds of nights I have stood with a group of companions (of all ages) and unfolded the story illustrated by constellations in that part of the sky. Cassiopeia. Cepheus. Andromeda. Cetus. Perseus. Pegasus. The star Algol. It's a grand story that you can find here, one that has been a theme of artists since the Renaissance.

Here is one of my favorite representations, by the Florentine artist Piero di Cosimo (1515, Uffizi, click to enlarge), not because I particularly like it as a work of art, but because it is so dense with mysterious imagery. We have two views of Perseus, with his flying sandals (other tellings invoke a flying horse). Andromeda demurely prefigures the pose of later paintings by Poynter and Dore (see link above). And -- my, my -- that wonderful sea monster, with tusks, fuzzy ears, paddle feet and corkscrew tail. (Could this creature have been based on sketchy knowledge of the walrus? The Norse had been importing walrus ivory into Europe for centuries, and by 1515 reports of the Cabot voyages may have been percolating through Italy. The North American range of the walrus at that time was apparently as far south as the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.) I have no idea who are all the folks in the foreground, although they presumably meant something to a contemporary of di Cosimo. I do like the two odd musical instruments, one of which appears to be a combination of wind and string.

Did di Cosimo take the story of Perseus and Andromeda literally? Later artists -- Poynter and Dore, for example -- might draw on mythic themes, but they knew Perseus and Andromeda had no more factual basis than did the crystalline spheres of Renaissance astronomers.

Of course, the mythic imagination is alive and well today, No one any longer takes the classic Greco-Roman stories literally, but the equally preposterous stories of the various holy books are considered literal by an astonishing number of us. Many people are willing to kill and maim to uphold the veracity of stories that have no more empirical basis than do flying sandals.

Meanwhile, a real Andromeda beckons, a fuzzy blur of light in a dark night sky, which optical aid reveals as a spiraling beauty of hundreds of billions of stars.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Getting used to being ordinary


The Phoenix has landed. On the money. And here is yet another photograph of the surface of Mars.

No surprises. And that's the biggest part of the story.

The surface of Mars appears very like the surface of Earth. It has dust and pebbles and boulders. Hills and valleys. Winds and weather. Day and night. Seasons. Photographs from the Phoenix are virtually indistinguishable from photographs of the surface of the Earth.

Phoenix's message from Mars is this: Our place in the universe is unexceptional.

We have yet to come to terms with this message. Many more missions to many more places, perhaps even to the planets of other stars, will be necessary before we at last surrender our ancient claim to uniqueness and centrality.

Anthropologists tell us that many tribal peoples designated a central place in the village as the center of the cosmos; then, as their horizons widened, those peoples discovered a village next door with another center. Medieval European maps showed a central Europe rimmed with wildness and barbarism; when Europeans reached the Americas in the late 15th century, they found folks just like themselves, living in cities, raising domesticated plants and animals, worshiping gods with human faces.

Copernicus displaced the Earth from its central location in the cosmos. Twentieth-century astronomers bumped the Sun into an ordinary suburb of the Milky Way Galaxy. The Galaxy itself is typical.

Every time we thought ourselves special, central, or unique, we have been chastened by experience. Some scientists and philosophers have raised this recurring disappointment to the level of a principle -- the so-called Mediocrity Principle: The universe looks much the same from here as from anywhere else. We are cosmically mediocre.

The word "mediocre," although accurate in its original meaning ("of middling degree"), has an uncomplimentary connotation. "Fairly bad," says the dictionary. The Commonplace Principle might be a better way to put it: Our place in the universe is commonplace.

But again, "common" bears a negative connotation. "Of inferior quality, low-class, vulgar," says the dictionary in one of its several meanings.

Our language of middling degree is loaded with value. "Mediocre," "common," "average," "ordinary": All of these words suggest inferiority. But to be ordinary, to be average, to be commonplace, is to be at the center of a bell-curve of diversity, neither good nor bad.

We need to wrest the language of middling degree from its perjorative history. We need a fanfare for the common man, the common species, the common planet, the common star. We need to look anew at our place in the creation -- a place that appears to be utterly commonplace -- and rethink what it means to call ourselves good. Not good because we are at the top of the heap, but because the whole heap is good.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Exloring the deep past


I noticed the other day that the college has put up bollards around "Raymo's rock" in Parking Lot 17. This is an outcrop that was saved some years ago when a few acres of the campus were paved over for parking. It occurs to me that it might be nice to have a sign there explaining this island in a sea of asphalt. How about this?
The north-south polish and grooves you see on this granite outcrop are the work of ice, not so long ago -- 15,000 years -- when all of New England was covered with a moving glacier.

The granite itself was implanted at the base of a long-vanished mountain range that was pushed up here 300 million years ago when drifting continents collided to form the supercontinent of Pangaea ("all-earth").

The reason this outcrop has been saved is the band of black volcanic rock that fills the crack running transverse to the glacial grooves. This is the only known place on campus where we have evidence of that time 200 million years ago when Pangaea was being stretched asunder and the present Atlantic Ocean was being born. The crust was rent, and molten rock welled up through cracks from below, here forming a rather modest dike. Elsewhere -- Connecticut and New Jersey, for example -- vast sheets of lava poured out across the land, incinerating forests, sizzling into lakes and marshes, and sending dinosaurs scampering before the fiery flood.
There. I'll send this on to Facilities Management and see what they come up with.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Generalists and specialists

Science is a back-and-forth journey from particulars to the universal, and from the universal to the particular. Out of the Many comes the One, and the One illuminates the Many. See this week's Musing.

Anne reminds me that this week's illumination marks two years of Sunday pics. Thanks, sis, for gracing this site with your cyber blessings. Click to enlarge, then again.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Looking for water on Mars

Tomorrow, if all goes well, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander will touch down on Mars, after a 422 million mile voyage that began last August 4,

Here are a few paragraphs from the New York Times:
Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said that for him the most hair-raising part of the journey will begin about 14 minutes before touchdown, when the spacecraft reaches the beginnings of the thin Mars atmosphere, jettisons the cruise stage that has nurtured it since leaving Earth and experiences three minutes of radio silence as it turns its heat shield toward Mars.

Then, with seven minutes remaining, Phoenix is to plunge into the atmosphere at 12,750 miles an hour, where friction will slow it, heating the shield to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit. At 8 miles in altitude and 1,000 miles an hour, the spacecraft will deploy its parachute for the next three minutes of descent, when it is to jettison the heat shield, extend its three landing legs and begin using its radar to gather readings on its speed and distance from the surface.

At six-tenths of a mile above the surface and 125 miles an hour, Phoenix is to separate from its parachute and the back shell that holds it and begin the sequential firing of 12 rocket thrusters that slow it to landing at 5 1/2 miles an hour 40 seconds later.
That the landing can be anticipated with such detail, at such a remove, is simply breathtaking.

Make no mistake, the flight of the Phoenix rests on several bedrock philosophical principles of science:

1. The universe is ruled by natural laws that can be at least partially comprehended by the human mind.

2. The laws are best discovered by the application of Ockham's razor: Do not needlessly multiply hypotheses.

3. Miracles do not occur

4. Teleological causality is a bust.

There is no a priori proof of these principles. But if Phoenix touches down as scheduled, it will be one more stunning reason to have confidence in the naturalist paradigm.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Big Bang

Twelve years ago, Nobel prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman was concerned about the rising tide of anti-science in the mass media. Prime-time TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries and The X-Files feed our appetite for pseudoscience and superstition, he said. So he teamed up with TV producer Adrian Malone, of Cosmos and The Ascent of Man, to develop a science-based competitor to ER and NYPD Blue.

I don't recall the outcome. But at the time in my Boston Globe column I made the following suggestions for prime-time shows:
Chesapeake Baywatch A group of gorgeous young Ph.D. oceanographers watch over the ecosystem of Chesapeake Bay. In Speedo briefs and thong bikinis, our cast of hunks and babes collect plankton, count the eggs of horseshoe crabs, and band piping plovers.

4615 Melrose Place A group of Cal Tech physics graduate students share the apartment next door to the hip swingles of the Monday night soap. Their occasional early morning at-home encounters are charged with psychosexual tension as they discuss nuclear scattering cross-sections and multidimensional string theory.

NYPD White A spine-tingling scientific thriller set in the Forensic Science section of the New York City Police Department. Our bosom-enhanced hero, Dr. Jennifer Sweet, spills out of her white lab coat as she pits her DNA polymerase chain reaction amplification skills against perpetrators of crime.

The Simpsons: The Next Generation Lisa Simpson has grown up and teaches chemistry at Springfield High School. In Episode One, she prepares her students for the State Science Fair while struggling with the ethical implications of disconnecting her father from life-support. Meanwhile, Bart embarrasses his sister by claiming to be an alien abductee.

Square Wheel of Fortune Mathematicians spin the wheel and compete to guess mathematical formulas. The grand prizes include a platinum pocket protector, a two-week holiday at the math department of Iowa State, and a facsimile edition of the collected mathematical papers of Gottlob Frege and Giuseppe Peano.

Late Show with Leon Lederman Nobel laureate and raconteur Leon Lederman interviews guests from the world of science. The star-studded pilot features Lee Smolin talking about quantum gravity applied to space-time, Roger Penrose on Hilbert's 10th problem and the noncomputability of consciousness, and Lynn Margulis on symbiosis and the evolution of the eukaryotic cell. Lederman will begin with an hilarious monologue about up and down quarks.
It turns out I was ahead of my time. A new situation comedy called The Big Bang Theory is a smash hit on CBS: two male physics postdoc nerds living next door to a blonde bombshell.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose

I have just finished reading God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, by NYU history professor David Levering Lewis, a dense, exhaustively-researched, and evenhanded treatment of a subject I knew very little about.

Oh, I once thought I knew a lot about it. I grew up with a sanitized Catholic European version of the story. The Song of Roland. Charles Martel and the Battle of Poitiers. Charlemagne. The Crusades. Christians against the unholy infidels. The triumph of light and truth over darkness and error. It wasn't until I was young man and visited Grenada in southern Spain that I began to suspect the story was more nuanced than my teachers had led me to believe. Of course, that wasn't a matter of deception on their part; they were inculcated in the same Eurocentric myths. Lewis' book is a superb attempt to separate myth from fact -- to understand those fraught years of Islamic-Christian conflict from both sides of the Pyrenees. The relevance of the story to present-day world affairs is not lost on the reader.

Lewis details half a millennium of conquest and slaughter, driven by power and greed on both sides, with both sides invoking the approbation of God. Both sides were also racked by internal doctrinal disputes -- Shia vs. Sunni, Arian vs. Trinitarian -- with each doctrine's adherents attempting to violently extirpate the heresy of the other. Of course, the hacking and torture of infidels had motives other than religious intolerance, but religion legitimized the bloodshed and stiffened the backbones of warriors on both sides with the promise of eternal bliss.

Meanwhile, Charlemagne, that Catholic hero of my early education, was wreaking horror on his pagan Saxon neighbors across the Rhine, giving them the choice of baptism into the true faith or annihilation. This was done, of course, with the satisfied blessing of the papacy for the greater glory of God.

Islamic Cordoba under the Umayyad dynasty was a center of relative enlightenment and religious tolerance compared to the Europe of Charles Martel and Charlemagne, although the Umayyads would have quite happily overrun their more illiterate and economically primitive Catholic neighbors to the north. Indeed, at times it was touch-and-go, and with another roll of the dice at any one of several crucial junctures Europe might have become an Islamic continent. But the relatively enlightened Islamist regime south of the Pyrenees lapsed into fundamentalist squabbles that took the wind out of their sails and ultimately made possible the Catholic reconquista.

If Christianity and Islam are religions of love, there is precious little evidence of it in the pages of Lewis' balanced and nonjudgmental book. What we see instead are religious doctrines being shaped to suit political purpose, and God's communications to his saints and prophets conforming to the needs of wealth and power. With or without God's providence, the newly united Europeans under Charlemagne and his successors managed to hold back the tide of Islamic conquest -- and immediately began contriving the mythic narrative that made it all seem divinely preordained.

There is an ironic conclusion to this story which Lewis doesn't mention. From the Islamic preservation, enhancement and transmission of classical science sprang the European Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. With the Enlightenment, came secularization and religious tolerance. And now, due to differential birth rates and liberal immigration policies, European nations like France and Holland might acquire Muslim majorities in the coming decades. What centuries of armed conflict could not achieve -- a Muslim Europe -- scientifically-enlightened, secular tolerance might facilitate.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The great divide


As commencement exercises ended on the college quadrangle last Sunday, the graduates filed out into a milling throng of parents and friends. All at once, hundreds of cell phones came out from under gowns. "Let's meet by the tree in front of the Computer Center." "Let's meet by the fountain in front of the Library." Graduates and families found each other by phone.

How all those hundreds of overlapping signals found their target I do not know. Oh, I suppose I could figure it out if I thought about it for a few minutes. What struck me at the time was that I was walking through a sea of radiation, an invisible, inaudible cacophony of communications. And not just between those hundreds of excited families. With the right device I could have picked out of the air a thousand worldwide transmissions -- music of any genera, the Sunday exhortations of churches, news, weather, lovers arranging assignations, weeping, whispering, gnashing of teeth. Who knows, maybe mixed in with that electromagnetic clutter was a faint signal from some other part of the galaxy,

Humans have a prodigious appetite for believing in unseen worlds. Angels. Banshees. Bogies. Demons. Devils. Djinns. Fairies. Fays. Ghosts. Goblins. Incubi. Kachinas. Nixies. Phantoms. Poltergeists. Pucas. Shades. Specters. Succubi. Wraiths. To merely dip into the world's grab bag of invisible spirits. And now, having rid ourselves of the anthropomorphic presences, we find ourselves awash in imperceptible energies, voices that speak to us out of the ether.

Underline in your history books that day in 1887 when a spark jumped back and forth between two metal spheres 50 million times a second in the lab of Heinrich Hertz. Across the room a similar spark was instantly produced at the receiver. Invisible waves of electromagnetic energy had passed through space at the speed of light, confirming the prediction of james Clerk Maxwell -- a beginning for the age of radio, television, mobile phones and wireless internet, although at the time not even Hertz foresaw the epoch-making significance of his experiment. With that dancing spark, an invisible world of humanoid spirits gave way to an invisible world of radiant energy.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

When God is gone

In rejecting a recent essay of mine, the editor of a journal responded in part: "The position of the magazine has always been that faith and science can be reconciled, and we have devoted a lot of space and resources over the years to highlighting the work of any number of scientists and theologians who believe this. I suppose that remains where we are most comfortable."

This is a common view of religious people with a liberal bent, and I respect it: the so-called NOMA of Steve Gould, non-overlapping magisteria. But I think it rather misses the point. Of course supernaturalist faith and science can be reconciled. What cannot be reconciled is traditional faith and Ockham's razor. The supernaturalist dogmas of every religion can be dispensed with without jeopardizing one iota of our empirical knowledge of the world. From the Ockhamist point of view, supernaturalism is not irreconcilable, it is simply superfluous.

If someone wants to believe that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven, or that Mohammed made a night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, or that the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith on a hillside in New York and revealed the hiding place of golden plates, there is nothing science can do to dispute it. At this remove, the evidence is inconclusive. In that sense, yes, faith and science can be reconciled. On the other hand, there is zero non-anecdotal evidence that these beliefs are required to explain anything we reliably know about the world.

It has been a theme of this website, and of many of the readers who gather here, that religion can only be enhanced by a close shave with Ockham's razor. Pare away the supernaturalist accretions and the universe stands revealed as a thing of astonishing majesty and mystery, worthy of attention, celebration, thanksgiving and praise, What a thing it would be if the world's great religious traditions were not (often violently) divided by supernaturalist dogmas -- almost invariably embraced by accident of birth -- and focused instead on their rich cultural traditions of humility in the face of mystery. The human quest for meaning is universal. We live in a single cosmos, shared by all, gloriously revealed by science but sufficiently complex to remain forever beyond human grasp. Let us gather on the shore between knowledge and mystery and celebrate together, in a variety of voices, the common revelation.

Not so long ago I was invited to dinner at the home of a group of Catholic professed women. As was their custom, dinner was preceded by a prayer service that drew upon the humble expressions of a wide variety of religious traditions, from Buddhist to Christian to Native American. Not a hint of supernaturalism or triumphalism, only a celebration of what is most gracious in the here and now. It was a an exhilarating experience.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Born again naturalists

Each morning I check the phoebe nest in the old root cellar along the Path. This is the fifth season she has returned to the same place to build her nest. Five eggs this year, five hatched chicks. I wait for them to fledge. The mother bird watches me carefully, but seems to accept my benevolent intent. I make my intrusions -- with penlight and mirror -- as brief as possible.

I mentioned before that almost everyone I meet along the Path is wearing ear buds or ear phones. This is not true at dawn. Dawn walkers seem to prefer nature's music, especially in the spring. Thoreau wrote: "We learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn." Evangelical Christians make much of being born again. The naturalist is born again with every dawn, with every spring. "If a man does not revive with nature in the spring, how shall he revive when a white-collared priest prays for him?" said Thoreau.

Exactly one-hundred-and-fifty years ago today, the so-called hermit of Walden was minding birds. In his journal for April 19 he records a marshhawk, geese, pine warblers, goldfinches, and thrashers. Wildflowers too. Violets, columbines, potentilla, water lilies, and bluets. A somewhat more eclectic bounty than I have seen along my Path, but then Thoreau was undoubtedly a more perspicacious observer than me. I note violets, bellflowers, starflowers, anemones, and Canada mayflowers -- rather commonplace fare on the woodland floor, hungrily getting their first bite of the season before the arboreal canopy obscures the sun. "Only that day dawns to which we are awake," Thoreau famously said. I sit on the streambank by the bridge and try to stir myself into a more embracing wakefulness.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Where's the beef?


Poor Charles Darwin. They just won't let the poor man rest in his grave. Evolution by natural selection can't possibly account for the rich diversity of life on Earth, they say. Well, maybe not. But so far no one has offered an alternative or supplementary paradigm that works nearly as well as a template for research, or demonstrated convincingly that one is necessary. When it comes along, you can be sure that biologists will embrace it. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination, with a view from her lovely southwestern mesa.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

When scientists turn

The renowned psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton will be the speaker tomorrow at Stonehill's commencement. The most recent of his books I have read is The Nazi Doctors (Basic Books, 1986), an account of the the Nazi perversion of medical science during the middle of the past century, It is a book that every scientist (indeed, evey human) could read with profit as a cautionary tale.

Not that many of us are likely to turn science to such evil purpose. In the face of the Nazi medical atrocities the mind recoils, stunned, revolted, unbelieving. The German "mad scientists" do not fit the usual hero/anti-hero dichotomy. They carried the arts of healing into inversions so terrible as to seem beyond the bounds of human good and evil.

How could "civilized," well-educated scientists have gone so far off the rails? Lifton proposes that the Nazi scientists managed to cope with their crime by a process he calls "doubling" -- the division of the self into two functioning wholes, so that a part-self acts as an entire self: "The Nazi doctor needed his Auschwitz self to function psychologically in an environment so antithetical to his previous ethical standards. At the same time, he needed his prior self in order to continue to see himself as humane physician, husband, and father." Each self disavowed the other. The Auschwitz self repudiated the normal meaning of murder; the prior self remained detached from anything done by the Auschwitz self.

Doubling, as Lifton defines it, is not schizophrenia. The Nazi doctors cannot be judged "not guilty" on account of insanity. Doubling is a sane person's way of evading moral responsibility, not of eliminating it.

It is this last insight that makes Lifton's book valuable cautionary reading for any scientist or medical researcher whose work has any sort of antisocial or antienvironmental potential, no matter how trivial by the ghastly standard of the Nazi death camps. Doubling is a psychological maneuver we can all employ to deal with moral contradictions; in the camps, the maneuver was carried to unparalleled extremes.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The eighth day of creation

My son's business is named Platypus Multimedia. I suspect he chose the name because the platypus breaks the mold of what we expect for an animal. It has a bill and webbed feet like a duck, lays eggs like a bird or a reptile, makes venom like a snake, and produces milk (without nipples) and has a fur coat like a mammal. What could the Intelligent Designer have been thinking? Obviously, he was having a bit of fun. Maybe he designed the platypus on the eighth day of creation, when he had time on his hands and some leftover parts.

Clearly this hodgepodge of an animal had to come from somewhere, and if you are not into intelligent design, the the answer must be in the genome. Which is why zoologists are happy to see the platypus genome sequenced.

Evolutionists reasonably assume that the platypus can trace its linage to an ancestor that lived at the time -- 160 million years ago or so -- when mammals were diverging from the reptiles. If that's so, then the platypus should share some genes with mammals and some with reptiles. This is the sort of testable prediction that distinguishes science from Monday-morning creationism.

The platypus genome contains about 18,500 genes, similar to other vertebrates and about two-thirds the size of the human genome. Genes for egg-laying, vision and venom production link the platypus to reptiles, although the venom genes may be a case of convergent evolution. Genes for antibacterial proteins and lactation are mammalian.

Anyone who doesn't understand why intelligent design isn't science should look at the article in the May 8th issue of Nature reporting the platypus results. More than a hundred authors, from all over the world, with names like Laura Clarke, Asif Chinwalla, Shiaw-Pyng Yang, Carlos Lopez-Otin, Gennady Churakov, Ravi Sachidanandam, Enkhjargal Tsend-Ayush, and Yoko Sekita, just to dip into the pool. These folks presumably represent a variety of religious faiths and no faith at all. In any case, absolutely nothing in the long and brilliant article hints at the religion, politics, or ethnicty of the authors. The data speaks for itself. By contrast, I know of no reasearch data on intelligent design that has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. No surprise, of course, because there can be no data for miracles.

It is not surprising that the platypus is native to Australia. That continent has been uniquely on its own since early in mammalian evolution. It provided a sort of natural zoo where genes could be conserved that were elsewhere lost or modified among the mammals.

Genes, anatomy, fossils and geology must be mutually supporting if we are to have confidence in the story of evolution. Intelligent design makes no predictions whatsoever.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A commercial break


My newest book -- When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist -- will be published soon by Sorin Books, part of the 143-year-old Ave Maria Press, a ministry of the Congregation of Holy Cross located at the University of Notre Dame. I am thrilled that they have taken on the book. (Click to enlarge image.)

I spent eight years as an undergraduate and later as a graduate student at Notre Dame, eight happy and formative years. It was there that I wooed and won my wife of fifty years. I spent more than forty years teaching at Stonehill College, also established and run by the Congregation of Holy Cross. Men of the Congregation have been my teachers and friends.

Publishing this book is a bold and spirited act on the part of Ave Maria, and I am deeply grateful to them for allowing me to continue my relationship with Notre Dame in this way. The book is now available for pre-order on their website, and you can show your own appreciation to Ave Maria by ordering a copy now.

With an unabashed lack of modesty, I offer here the publisher's pitch:
Chet Raymo, author of sixteen books, steps into the fray between science and religion and seeks to delineate a new perspective, forged from both the rigorous standards of the academy and the reverence for creation born of the Catholic sacramental tradition. As a scientist, Raymo holds to the skepticism that accepts only verifiable answers, and replies to life's ultimate questions with the agnostic response, "I don't know." But as a "religious naturalist," he never ceases his pursuit of "the beautiful and terrible mystery that soaks creation, diminished by any name we give it." "Faith no longer matters to me," he says, "so much as attention, celebration, wonder, and praise."

In what he describes as a "late-life credo," Raymo traces a half-century journey from traditional faith-based Catholicism to scientific agnosticism. The point of religion, he asserts, is to celebrate the unfathomable mystery of creation. Thus he believes, "My work as a teacher and writer has been to discover glimmers of the Absolute in every particular, and praise what I find."

Raymo takes the reader on a tour de force of science, philosophy, theology, and literature as he gathers together the rich array of voices of his many traveling companions. With wonderfully detailed anecdotes Raymo brings to life a diverse cadre of mentors such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Darwin, and Teilhard de Chardin. With wit and insight he brings forth an array of quotes from the likes of Blaise Pascal, Albert Einstein, Meister Eckhart and John Updike.

Whether exploring the connection of the human body to the stars or the meaning of prayer of the heart, Raymo's challenging and engaging reflections will cause believers and agnostics alike to pause and pay attention.
Also, here are some early reviews:
Chet Raymo is one of the best science writers working today, and in this remarkably thoughtful and balanced book he has confronted the realities of the physical world that science has given us as only a truly spiritual person could: with courage and integrity, awe and wonder. His personal journey from committed Catholic to scientific agnostic resonates deeply because he addresses the questions that all thoughtful people face. Regardless of which path you choose to take, it is the journey itself that really matters, not the destination, and I can think of no one more qualified than Chet Raymo to be your guide.
Michael Shermer
Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, author of How We Believe, The Science of Good and Evil, and Why Darwin Matters.

Amongst the angry and often strident tones of several atheists writing today rises Chet Raymo's affirmative voice, good humored and calm to the core. A scientist himself, Raymo reminds us that human consciousness is plenty big enough to accommodate both science and a sense of the holy. If the two were recognized equally and reconciled, we might make some progress toward preserving ourselves and repairing the world.
Nancy Mairs,
Author of A Dynamic God

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

This is a magnificent book, but not one for the faint of heart. In an age of militant atheists and strident believers, Chet Raymo dares to stand, where mystics and philosophers have always stood, in the place of mystery. Born of a lifetime of observing and reflecting on the physical universe and our place in it, this book offers a bracing, moving sacramental vision of existence. Neither a defense of faith nor a denunciation of the possibility of belief, Raymo invites the reader to consider the endless beauty and grace of the physical world -- a necessary spiritual practice for our age.
Douglas Burton-Christie, PhD
Professor, Christian Spirituality, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles
Editor, Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality

Angry, funny, piercing, brilliant, transcendent, eloquent. One of the nation's finest naturalists and writers pours out his heart on the roaring prayer of Everything That Is and the idiocy of arguing over labels and possession of that which is beyond our ken but not our celebration and singing, which is what Raymo does with stunning power and passion.
Brian Doyle
Author of The Wet Engine
Editor, Portland Magazine

Chet Raymo has enriched and graced our lives with this wonderful book, steeped in wisdom, warmth, and clarity. A classic.
Ursula Goodenough
Author of The Sacred Depths of Nature

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Probing the depths

I have previously identified myself here as a Catholic agnostic. As a naturalist, I cannot recite a supernaturalist creed, so I no longer identify myself as a Catholic (noun), but the adjective is part of who I am. I have been associated with Roman Catholicism since the day I was born.

Certainly, eight of the most formative years of my life were spent as an undergraduate and graduate at the University of Notre Dame. Oh yes, we took -- were required to take -- courses in theology and apologetics, all of which were pretty conventional. They rolled off my consciousness like water off a duck's back.

But outside of the classroom, the fifties and early sixties were a thrilling time to be a young Catholic intellectual. We devoured Bernanos, Greene, Mauriac, Bloy, Peguy, Undset. We tried on Gilson, Maritain, de Lubac, Danielou, and, most lastingly, Thomas Merton. We were stirred by classic films like Dreyer's Passion of Saint Joan and Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. We weren't so much interested in theology as in a life lived in passionate contact with the invisible world. What sort of invisible world? Not, surely, a world of pure spirit. We had no taste, as I recall, for the Beatific Vision. Rather, we were seeking immersion in the murky waters of a pond of which the visible world was the dark and mysterious surface.

I don't see any of that among students at Catholic colleges and universities today. They are more committed than we were to the social gospel of the Church, more ready to volunteer to help the poor and needy. Theirs is a faith of service, more Christian than uniquely Catholic.

Our 1950's Catholicism was visceral, sexual, sensual, and as I grew into a robust scientific skepticism some of that stayed with me. I do not see any reason to shed it now. I'm still ready to poke with a stick at the dark and terrible beauty that lies beneath the surface of the pond. Grace, said Bernanos' country priest, is everywhere.

Tomorrow, the book.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A gracious universe?

Writing about the theologian John Haught the other day prompted me to look again at his little book What Is God?, published more than 20 years ago, one of his earliest works.

It is a smart little book. Haught anchors his notion of God in mystery, and then talks about five ways we confront mystery in our daily lives: our experiences of depth, future, freedom, beauty and truth. "For ultimately 'God' means mystery, and the prevalence of a sense of mystery would render books like this one superfluous," he writes.

In all of this he is one with the religious naturalist.

But there are two major truths that a genuine religious sense requires, he says. The first is that our lives are embraced by mystery. The second is that this mystery is "gracious." It is here, in the second "truth," that Haught and religious naturalists part company.

For the religious naturalist, the mystery is sometimes gracious and sometimes not. Was it a graciousness that sent a cyclone streaming into Myanmar, causing tens of thousands of deaths and untold misery? Is it graciousness that lets a quarter of human pregnancies end in spontaneous abortions? is it graciousness that drives natural selection? Like all believers in a gracious God, Haught must confront the problem of evil. The religious naturalist does not have to explain the apparent "ungraciousness" of God. For the religious naturalist, the mystery is law and chaos, light and darkness, good and evil, creation and destruction, hope and despair -- not as Manichean opposing forces, but all at once. In the face of this all-encompassing unitary mystery we -- humans -- struggle to be gracious. Why? That too, I suppose, is part of the mystery. Certainly, there is no evidence that atheists or agnostics are any less gracious than theists. Perhaps graciousness is part of who we are biologically.

Once Haught insists that the mystery is gracious, it is only a small step to endow the mystery with personhood, for graciousness is a human trait. And so he ends where he needs to be as an orthodox theologian, with a personal God -- thereby at least partly negating his truth number one.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Love in the afternoon

Oh, if only it were that simple. We human males must woo and coo and wash dishes and vacuum and buy roses and provide candlelight and wine and whisper "God, you look beautiful tonight" and who knows what else to entice our partners into bed. The male fruitfly need only sing. Well, not sing exactly. He vibrates one wing, just one, to make what one assumes is a pleading sort of noise. If the song is satisfactory, the female fly allows copulation.

Female fruitflies don't sing, which has long suggested that they lack the neural circuitry to produce the wing vibrations.

Now, in a clever series of experiments reported in the journal Cell -- involving photoactivation of neurons and the chopping off of heads -- researchers have shown that females have the same song circuitry as males, located in the thorax. They can sing too. But their brains tell them not to.

The difference in behavior has been traced to a dimorphic command center in the brain. Female fruitfly brains are different than male fruitfly brains.

As if that's telling us something we didn't already know.

Inhibition, the biologists call it. A cluster of neurons in the female's brain inhibits the wing-fluttering behavior. Male insect brains inhibit certain behaviors too. Some biologists believe the female praying mantis bites off her partner's head to improve his sexual performance. This seems a rather drastic way to overcome his inhibitions. Humans are more inclined to rely -- counterproductively, perhaps -- on alcohol.

Anyway, it's all rather complicated. The sexes will never understand each other, regardless of species. We have these packets of neurons all over our bodies urging us to do certain things, and other packets telling us not to. Someday biologists may figure it out, using brains scans, genomes, photoexcitation of neurons, and other techniques yet to come.

For myself, I'd just as soon not know what's going on at all those synaptic centers of excitation and inhibition. Everything I know about sex, I learned at the movies.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The sorcerer's apprentice?

The biggest machine ever contrived by the mind and hand of humankind will soon be up and running. Will it give us fresh insights into the creation of the universe -- or trip the Earth into oblivion? See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Mother's Day illumination.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

God and the new atheism

John Haught is a much-admired Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University and a prolific writer on matters of science and faith. I have read his books with profit. While I do not concur with his earnest efforts to preserve the essential elements of orthodoxy, he always gives science and philosophical naturalism a fair shake. I share with him the conviction that science is an inadequate vessel to contain the hopes, fears and strivings of a human life. He has also been an ally in the battle to keep creationism and intelligent design out of the science curriculum of pubic schools.

So it was with a bit of disappointment that I read his "Last Word" essay in the current issue of Commonweal, titled "Don't Assign These Books." The books he's referring to are those of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, the so-called "new atheists," now available in paperback and ready for assignment in college classes. He writes: "I hope teachers will think carefully before putting them in the hands of their students, at least as introductory texts. These tirades simply add to the sad spectre of global fundamentalism. In their own way they reinforce the growing -- and dangerous -- ignorance about religion in the world today. Ironically, they also fail to offer readers an accurate and substantive understanding of atheism."

Haught's argument that the books are theologically naive can be read as protecting the turf of the professional theologian. It is certainly true that the books in question are polemics rather than nuanced theological tracts, but sometimes it takes a naif to see that the emperor has no clothes. As far as Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are concerned, if God makes himself manifest in the natural world, then those manifestations are open to scientific scrutiny. If God does not reveal himself in the sensate world, then he cannot be known, and "the-ology" is an oxymoron.

As Haught well knows, the "new atheists" are responding to what they perceive to be a dangerously reinvigorated religious fundamentalism, Christian and Islamic. Their response is worthy of attention, and I for one would be happy to see university students reading and debating these books, perhaps in association with Haught's own God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Why bother reading a "response" unless one has read the books being responded to?

Book burning or banning is unworthy of a free people anywhere, and although I am confident that Haught would neither burn nor ban, his plea in Commonweal comes uncomfortably close to the sort of religiously-inspired illiberalism that provoked the "tirades" in the first place.

Friday, May 09, 2008

At the pond


Where the Queset Brook passes under the plank bridge along my Path, it slows and purls into a broad pond. This was called "The Girl's Swimming Hole" when it was part of the estate of Oliver and Elise Ames. The pond is no longer deep enough for swimming, but on these fine May afternoons I will sit there for an hour on my way home from college, reading, thinking, doing nothing.

And watching the surface of the pond come alive with the flit and skitter of a new season.

Water striders scull and stop, scull and stop, and now and then do an energetic back flip, in their search for morsels; the indentations of their feet and antennae on the surface of the water show up on the sunlit bottom of the pond as six fat blobs of shadow. Whirligigs spin like tops, like whirling dervishes, black as night in the afternoon sun. Mayflies enjoy their ephemeral fling as adults, their aerial orgy like snowflakes whirling above the dark water. Dragonflies and damselflies patrol the weedy margins of the pond, their bodies iridescent. Now and then a tree swallow from the boxes in the meadow makes a low, lightning-fast devouring sweep just millimeters above the surface of the water.

My mind drifts back to the new phylogenomic tree of life that was published in Nature a few weeks ago, 77 species across 21 phyla. I don't have to go back too many steps on the phylogram to connect myself to all the creatures I am watching at the pond. Our common ancestral group is the bilateria, animals that are bilaterally symmetric, with a front end and a back end, an upside and downside, a mouth and an anus. The first of our tribe appears in the fossil record about 600 million years ago, and it turned out to be an effective body plan. Of course, we bilateria don't exhaust the ranks of life on Earth, but we make up a goodly part of the phylogram. Anyway, I sit at the bridge and I feel part of something a lot bigger than myself -- something with a front end and a back end, an upside and downside, a mouth and an anus. The swallow zips across the pond; I give her a wink. She and I have our own little niche in the phylogram. We have backbones.

Humans have a way of drifting through the world as if we were temporary visitors from another dimension. A few moments at the bridge remind me that we are bound to the rest of creation by a myriad of genomic threads.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Becoming modern


Many years ago, Time magazine illustrated an article with a painting of Pablo Picasso. As I recall, it was the ground-breaking cubist work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Someone wrote to the magazine saying something to the effect, "My eight-year-old son could have painted that." Time accompanied the letter with a highly-accomplished sketch by the eight-year-old Picasso. I haven't been able to track down the letter or the sketch, but here is a painting by the artist at age fifteen.

What Picasso was up to in 1907 with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon has been a matter of debate among art historians, but it clearly wasn't to provide a photographic representation of reality. Ostensibly, the subject of the painting is five prostitutes in a brothel, but what the painting documents is a mind in interaction with the world. The "reality" Picasso seeks is at a remove from what presents itself unmediated to the senses.

At almost the same time, Picasso's contemporary Albert Einstein was showing that physical space and time is relative to an observer.

The parallels between the two lives are numerous and striking, as Arthur I. Miller has shown in Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc. By force of their creativity and personalities they pretty much defined modernity in art and science. Neither man, however, quite let go of classicism. Einstein never accepted the pure mathematical formalisms of Heisenberg and Bohr. Picasso never made the break into pure abstraction.

What they left us with is a simple lesson that has survived subsequent developments in art and science: We construct our own reality.

Which does not mean, of course, that every reality is equally real. We stub our toe against the real. It does mean to distrust pure objectivism and pure subjectivism -- and abjure dogma wherever we find it.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The dance of life


Anne sent me this pic the other day, bacteriophages attacking a bacterium. It was recently featured as an APOD (astronomy picture of the day) on the APOD site. Not quite sure what bateriophages have to do with astronomy, although they do look a bit like lunar landers setting down on a tiny moon.

They are viruses, of course. Like other viruses, they lack the resources to make their own energy or proteins. They can only reproduce and build their shells by hijacking the chemical apparatus of an invaded cell. Phage viruses are parasitical on bacteria. They sit on the surface and inject their genetic material (RNA or DNA) into the bacterium, commandeering the host's reproductive machinery to make more phages, in the process often killing the host.

Where did they come from? Some scientists believe viruses are degenerate life-forms that have lost every animating function except the minimum genes essential to their parasitic way of life. Other scientists suspect viruses evolved inside cells, as organelles, and subsequently escaped to take up their vagabond existence. Then again, maybe they evolved on a parallel track to cellular life.

This electron micrograph of bacteriophages reminded Anne of angels dancing on the head of a pin. And when you think about it, they are no less improbable than a company of angels. They may even turn out to be angelic allies in out fight against bacterial human pathogens. In the meantime, there they dance, little APOD pods on their spidery legs, and millions could gaily cavort on the head of a pin. Holy and terrible. Beautiful and scary.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Making up stories

I was with environmental science students in the campus woods the other day. Big pink granite boulders. The bedrock under the boulders is a green volcanic rock. Where did the boulders come from?

Pretend it is 1840. Two stories explain the granite boulders.

--During the great flood of Noah, when the Earth was covered with water, rock-bearing ice bergs drifted south from the Arctic. As they melted, they dropped their burden. The story nicely accounts for why we don't find these "erratic" boulders much further south.

--At some time in the past, the Earth's climate was colder and large parts of the northern continents were covered with ice. The glaciers moved out from their centers of accumulation, eroding the crust of the Earth, and plucking boulders from the downstream slopes of hills. As the climate warmed and the ice melted, its burden of rock was dropped in place.

Two stories. Both propose an improbable event: an all-engulfing flood, a continent-spanning sheet of ice. Which to believe?

Continent-spanning glaciers exist today, in Greenland and Antarctica. Water for glaciers of greater extent could come from the oceans.

The water for an all-engulfing flood requires a miracle.

The ice theory makes predictions, based on what we see where glaciers exist today. The bedrock should be scratched, and the scratches should all be aligned in the same direction, pointing to the centers of ice accumulation. Here on the Stonehill campus, if we follow the scratches north, we should find a source for the pink granite boulders on the south-facing slope of a hill. In fact, all of the ledges we find on the campus should be on south-facing slopes, and every rock we find should have a source somewhere to the north. And so we go, tramping through the woods, and -- lo and behold -- our predictions are confirmed in every respect.

This is the game of science. Explain the past using only natural agencies that we see at work in the world today. Find the simplest story that explains all of our observations. Be happy when we can find a story that can be as easily falsified as confirmed.

And, on a lovely bright spring day, let the students figure it out for themselves, by placing them in front of the evidence and letting them ask -- and answer -- questions.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Friends, countrymen, lend me your ears

You have reached the office of Harry Hawker. You may leave a message at the beep.

"Hello, Harry? Robert here. I can't give you the full scoop right now. I'm on my cell at a concert. Middle of the second movement of some symphony or other. I've got something big for you. The latest thing in personal communications. It's hot, Harry. Real hot. If you check your machine, give me a call. You know my number. I'll call you again when I get to the restaurant."

Chirrup...chirrup

"Harry? Oh, it's you, Ally. Listen, I told you not to call Daddy when he is at the concert. Yeah, I know the baby-sitter won't let you watch TV after 10 o'clock. That's what Mommy and Daddy told her to do. Now hang up your phone. Some people don't like it when a phone rings at a concert. And besides, I'm waiting for an important call. Yeah, Daddy misses you too. Go to bed."

You have reached the office of Harry Hawker. You may leave a message at the beep.

"Harry. Robert again. Where are you, guy? The concert sucked. Something dumb by Brahms. Or was it Bach? We're waiting for a table at Gina's, the new restaurant downtown. You'd like it, Harry. We'll do lunch here sometime. Listen, I'd rather not be talking to your machine but the story is this: Our R&D guys have come up with a drop-dead product. We're looking for a strategic alliance with someone with marketing clout. That's you, Harry. Give me a buzz when you get in. This is something you don't want to miss."

Chirrup...chirrup

"Harry? Mom! Why are you calling this time of the night? We're just finishing desert at Gina's. Nice place. Real classy, you know what I mean? Your boy's made good. So, what's up? No, I didn't forget that Sunday is your birthday. Yeah, I know. We'll be there for dinner. Listen, Mom, I gotta hang up, I'm expecting an important business call. Yeah, see ya Sunday. Yeah, Mom, love you too."

You have reached the office of Harry Hawker. You may leave a message at the beep.

"Harry. Robert. I'm hittin' the sack. Don't ring now, I need the shut eye. I'll call you in the morning."

Good morning. HighTech Marketing. Mr. Hawker's office.

"Hi, Karen. Robert here. Is Harry in? On the phone? OK, have him give me a call when he's free. Use my cell number. I'm on the expressway."

Chirrup...chirrup

"Harry, at last! Hey, thanks for calling, buddy. I'm on my way to town. It'd be great to do lunch. I've found a new place. No? OK, listen. Our R&D guys have come up with a voice-activated cell phone that's smaller than a pea. Microphone and speaker fabricated right on the silicon chip with the electronics. New kind of microantenna. Also picks up and transmits ambient sound. Pop it right in the ear. It's there all the time. Think about it, Harry! You dial by voice. Hang up by voice command. No bigger than a pea.

"What's that? No one will want a pea in their ear? That's where you come in. This is cutting-edge technology, Harry. The ultimate status symbol.

"Think about it, Harry. There's three billion cell phones in use in the world. Think of the market! If we get only a piece of it, we will have the hottest product since sliced bread. A cell phone in every ear. Twenty-four/seven. Never out of touch.

"Harry, listen, I'm on the downtown off-ramp. I could be at your office in... Jeez, a guy just cut me off. Some people drive like maniacs. Harry, let's get cell phones out of the hands and put 'em in the ear where they belong. Total, ubiquitous, hands-free connectivity. It's a winner...Beep...Harry, listen, can I put you on hold for a sec? I've got a call on the other line."

Sunday, May 04, 2008

A taste for fantasy

This week's Musing dates back more than a few years, and is rather longer than my usual Sunday offerings.

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

On the river

You may remember the wonderful chapter in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind In the Willows -- The Piper at the Gates of Dawn -- when Rat and Mole go rowing on the night river in search of the young otter. As first light tints the horizon, Rat hears a delicious piping: "O, Mole! ," cries Rat. "The beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us." And Mole, greatly wondering, obeys. "I hear nothing myself," he said, "but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers."

Remember? Remember the piping? We heard it as children, until the adults closed our ears by filling our heads with useful sense. We heard the piping, which is the unfathomable mystery of the world, beautiful and distant, until our parents and teachers and pastors stopped up our ears with answers. What they did was necessary, I suppose. We can't go through the world in a dreamy reverie, not this world, with its rush and certainty and bother. Soon we were made to believe that the magical music we heard as children is only the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.

Only! The piping that Rat hears on the river is indeed the wind playing in the reeds, but it is not only. Nothing is only. When we get caught up in the only we cease to wonder. And when we cease to wonder, we might as well not be on the river at all.

"I believe that the analogy between childhood wonder and adult creativity is good biology, not metaphor," said Stephen Jay Gould. I wrote on the same theme myself many years ago, in a 1992 article for Horn Book, the children's literature journal, called "Dr. Seuss and Dr. Einstein." I suggested that the most creative scientists retain an ear for the piping that is the wind -- and more than the wind. I ended that essay with these words: "In children's books we are at the roots of science -- pure, childlike curiosity, eyes open with wonder to the fresh and new, and powers of invention still unfettered by convention and expectation."

And now I enter upon a second childhood of sorts. I have time to idle on the river. A pension check arrives in my bank account each month. The children are grown and independent. I've had a lifetime to extract the cotton of only from my ears. And I strain to hear again the piping I heard as a child, the merry bubble and joy that sets the world alight. "Clearer and nearer still," cried Rat joyously. "Now you must surely hear it! Ah -- at last -- I see you do!"

(I wasn't able to find a copy of the Horn Book essay on the internet, but I did find it using Stonehill Library's electronic data bases. I will post it tomorrow as my Sunday Musing.)

Friday, May 02, 2008

Ponder this

Ponder a quasar called OJ287, about 3.5 billion light-years away from us in the constellation Cancer, relatively close as quasars go, a super bright (for its distance), super small source of optical and radio energy. A quasar is thought to be powered by a massive black hole at the center of a galaxy. Energy is emitted as gas and dust are swept into the dark pit of oblivion. Astronomers have been observing OJ287 for more than a century, long before it was recognized as a quasar -- long before such things as black holes and quasars were known to exist.

OJ287 has the curious property of flaring up at 12-year intervals, with two flashes about 2 years apart. The best way to account for the flare-ups is to assume OJ287 consists of two black holes, one with a mass of 18 billion Suns, the other with a mass of 100 million Suns. The smaller black hole orbits the larger in an eccentric orbit with a 12-year period. As the smaller black hole approaches the larger, it dives through the accretion disk of hot matter surrounding the primary, causing a burst of energy, zips around the primary, then 2 years later plunges through the accretion disk on its way out again, stirring up another burst.

Now if this is what is actually going on, then Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts that the orbit of the secondary black hole should precess -- that is, the axis of the orbit should slowly rotate like the axis of a top. The theory predicts by exactly how much the orbit should precess -- 39 degree per orbit -- which affects the timing of the flare ups.

And so it was that in September of last year astronomers waited expectantly on the predicted day, the first since the theory was applied in detail, for the second of the expected flares in the current cycle. And -- bingo -- OJ287 brightened on schedule, in perfect compliance with general relativity. (See Nature, April 17, 2008, p.851)

Now what thrills me about this story is not just that we live in a universe with orbiting black holes, or that galaxies (including our own) have supermassive black holes at their centers, but that the human mind can formulate mathematical laws that apply to objects 3.5 billion light-years away. Einstein said: "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." His theory of general relativity has so far passed every test.

The next flare up of OJ287 is expected in early January 2016, and then again two years later. Part of the story of general relativity is the emission of gravitational waves by the orbiting bodies, which so far we have no way to detect. By 2016, or soon thereafter, a gravitational wave detector may be available, to confirm (one assumes) in yet another way the marvelous nature of OJ287, and to celebrate the incomprehensible comprehensibility of nature.

(The diagram is from the Tuorla Observatory of the University of Turku in Finland.)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

New wine in old vessels


In a post last week I suggested that the stories associated with the foundation of Christianity -- The Annunciation, the Visitation, the Virgin Birth, the Flight into Egypt, and so on -- might be respectfully entertained by a religious naturalist even as he rejects the literal truth of the stories. As might be expected, I was challenged by friends who contend that the world has quite enough superstition without keeping religious fairy tales alive.

Do the stories attendant upon the birth of Christianity have any value in the 21st century? Or should they be jettisoned as the supernaturalist humbug of an earlier age?

Let us not be so quick to condemn the imaginings of our ancestors. The Christian stories have resonated down through the centuries as vessels that can contain a multitude of truths, just as the Greek and Roman myths remain generously instructive in their frequent retelling. We fill the vessels with our own imagining.

Here is a work of the young Caravaggio -- The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt -- painted in Italy about 1597, as Galileo was in Padua laying the foundations of modern science. The young Mary sleeps with the infant Jesus cradled in her arms. Her older husband holds a songbook for the young angel who just happens to appear on the scene with his violin. The ass looks on with a dreamy eye. (Click to enlarge. And here is an image you can examine more closely.)

I love this painting. Why? There is nothing literal about it. Surely this resting place under an oak tree is not the desert the family would have had to cross. Nor were there violins or modern musical notations at the time of Christ. Caravaggio makes no pretense at historical realism. His purpose is otherwise.

The madonna and child sleep in a natural bower. They are the feminine still point at the heart of creation. Cut the painting in half along the angel's edge-on wing and the right side is a Raphaelesque world of neo-Platonic repose.

The real action is on the left, where a less reposeful male drama is acted out. The aged Joseph, who has accepted the responsibility of bringing his young wife and child out of danger, is here reduced to holding the score for youth. Look at the old man's feet and read there the anguish of his heart confronted with the beautiful adolescent boy. And the boy, with feigned indifference, knows full well he is playing on the old man's heartstrings as well as upon his violin.

A distinctively male tension between age and youth resonates through all of Caravaggio's work, which no doubt accounts for why the artist has become something of a gay icon. But here, in The Rest On the Flight Into Egypt, something more than homoeroticism is at play. On the left -- darkness, a stony foreground, the anxious gaze of the seeking soul. On the right -- light, verdancy, the quietude of acceptance. Most luminous of all, the angel, his wings improbably affixed at the center of his back, filling the frame with a music that excites the ache of longing and lulls the sleep of innocence. (Why are the angel's wings black? As counterpoint to the white of the flowing robe?) Caravaggio offers his own version of yin and yang, a dichotomy of the human spirit that transcends any historical tradition and permeates them all.