Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fox gloves and cuckoo pints

The fox has been fairly faithful walking by my window in the morning, occasionally across the sill (long and low), sometimes along the wall at the edge of the garden past -- foxglove!

How did foxglove get its name? I turn to Richard Mabey's wonderful compendium, Flora Britannica, in which is gathered the country lore of almost every plant in these British/Irish Isles.

"The tapered, tubular flowers of foxglove obviously suggest the gloves of some small creature," says Mabey. "But why, given their rosy-pink coloring, should it be a fox?" Perhaps because it grows in foxy places, he guesses, places of bracken and heather like our garden. Children use the flowers as finger puppets and fake claws. The temptation seems irresistible to slip them glovelike onto finger tips.

While I'm with Mabey's book, I browse other plants. The local names of many plants, I note, have a sexual connotation, presumably recalling a time when the mechanics of reproduction were a prominent part of the country person's world. Wild arum, for example, with its pale green sheath hooding the purple or yellow spadix, is alternately called cuckoo-pint (short for pintle, or penis), priest's pilly, and the delightfully ribald willy lily.

According to an old legend, the medieval monks of Ely, in the English fenlands, stole the body of St. Withburga from a rival monastery and carried it back to Ely by boat down the river Little Ouse. As they paused to rest along the way, the nuns of Thetford came down to the riverside and covered the saint's body with blossoms of cuckoo-pint. As the boat continued its journey, flowers fell into the river and immediately took root. Within an hour they had covered the river banks as far as Ely with blossoms -- which glowed radiantly at night.

Apparently, the pollen of the cuckoo-pint does glow faintly at dusk. When Irish workers came to the neighborhood of Ely in the 19th century to drain the fens during the famine in their own country, they called the plants along the river fairy lamps. The fen folk themselves had long called them shiners.

This rich plant lore is fading fast, ignored by a generation who live their lives gazing into the face of a television or computer monitor, which is why Mabey so urgently set about collecting his materials. When the current cohort of aging Brits and Irish die off, one wonders if anyone will remember St. Withburga's miraculous procession lit by fairy lamps -- or the willy lily.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Renaissance man

In the year 1482, young Leonardo da Vinci sent Lodovico Sforza, duke of Milan, a letter in which he offered his services as inventor and engineer.

"Most illustrious Lord," he wrote. "I am emboldened to put myself in communication with Your Excellency, in order to acquaint you with my secrets, thereafter offering myself at your pleasure effectually to demonstrate at any convenient time all those matters which are in part briefly recorded below."

The document is well known, but a hitherto missing page of the letter has come to my attention, and I make it public here for the first time. I have rendered some terms both in the original Italian and English.

Leonardo writes: "It will behoove Your Excellency to note that all of the aforementioned instruments and devices can be categorized as mercanzia dura (hardware). However, I am also able to provide mercanzia soffice (software) of diverse and sundry sorts. I foresee the day when the control of informazione will be more important to Your Excellency's wealth and power than all machines, fortresses and palaces."

"Presente! (Don't miss the boat!)," writes Leonardo.

He professes to know how to construct macchini personale per cacolare, which, as best as I can understand his meaning, would be similar to modern computers. However, he informs Lodovico that these machines can best be made by others, while he will confine himself to the sviluppo (development) of the corresponding mercanzia soffice.

"There are molta moneta (big bucks) to be made in prodotti d'informazione (information products)," he predicts confidently.

One long passage in the new document refers to something Leonardo has invented called Finestre (Windows). It is difficult to make out exactly what he has in mind, but Finestre seems somehow related to making his machines easier to use. "As easy as watching a pomo (apple) fall from a tree," he writes.

Another invention, which Leonardo refers to as la rete (the net), is presumably a way of connecting many macchini personale per cacolare into a single larger entity. While the details of this idea are not clear, he tells Lodovico that success in this endeavor will mean molta, molta, molta moneta.

Certainly the most extraordinary idea to be found anywhere in Leonardo's writings is his proposal to put hundreds of piccole lune (little moons) into orbit around the Earth, which would be used to reflect la rete from place to place. He assures Lodovico that if this is accomplished, Milan will become the world's luogo caldo per informazione (data hot spot) and the duke will achieve a lucrative presa strangolare (monopoly) in the business of communications.

Leonardo concludes: "All of these things can be readily accomplished at the request of Your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Holy hell

As I recall, the first serious book I ever purchased was a collection of the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, in a yellow paperback edition at the University of Notre Dame Bookstore. I was a curious undergraduate, experiencing the first awakening of an independent intellectual life.

Of course, Gandhi was every young intellectual's favorite in those days -- the diminutive man with spectacles and loin cloth who led hundreds of millions of people to independence with a philosophy of nonviolence.

I've read a lot about Indian independence since. Right now, my wife is reading Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which I read some years ago, a fictional account of independence. And I'm reading Alex von Tunzelmann's iconoclastic Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire. There's not a lot that is secret in von Tunzelmann's book, but she tells a terrific story and she's done her research. Gandhi comes off as a saint whose uncompromising moralism delayed Indian independence by decades and set the stage for the horrific violence that accompanied independence and partition.

Of Gandhi's thought, she writes: "Merely driving the British out of India would not serve to make India free. To be free, Indians needed to relinquish violence, material possessions, machinery, discord between Hindu and Muslim, alcohol, and sex." No wonder I was drawn to Gandhi's writing as an undergraduate. I too was a moralistic prig, a budding religious ascetic who put pebbles in his shoes and sand in his bed, racked with Catholic guilt over sex, ready to devote my life to Lady Poverty.

India's best hope in the prewar decades lay not in Gandhi's religious essentialism, suggests von Tunzelmann, but in the secular, pragmatic politics of Motilal Nehru (Jawahar's father) and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The Nehrus, father and son, "saw social and economic hardship as a cause of suffering, and therefore wanted to end it," she writes; "Gandhi saw hardship as noble and righteous, and therefore wanted to spread the blessings of poverty and humility to all people."

We know what happened at the stroke of midnight, August 14, 1947. India and Pakistan became free of British rule, and all hell broke loose as Hindus, Muslims, and assorted other religious sects began to systematically slaughter each other.

Gandhi was undoubtedly a remarkable man who inspired and gave hope to millions, but his uncompromising religiosity may have been instrumental in causing untold deaths and suffering. The well-thumbed book of his writings is still on a shelf somewhere in my house in New England; the young undergraduate who took inspiration from it moved on to a secular scientific skepticism and made his peace with modernity and materialism.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Fairy work

Yesterday I pulled the yellow flowers off the few dandelions in our grassy garden before they went to seed. Today, a few more yellow flowers. I'm always astonished that a dandelion can make a flower overnight.

Make a flower out of atoms of mostly carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, resources drawn from the soil and air. Overnight, while we slept, the plant was moving around and arranging all those atoms -- something like 100000000000000000000000 atoms, by my rough calculation, as many atoms as there are tablespoons of water in all the world's oceans -- ray florets, bracts. A pigment -- a carotene? -- for that golden color. All those boxy chlorophyl molecules with a magnesium heart and a long tail (where do they find the magnesium? oh, well, the entire country is green). Finding, shifting, arranging, under the direction of dandelion DNA. And in the morning -- presto! -- a flower head ready to open in the sun.

I've mentioned before that we live on "The Fairies' Road" here in the west of Ireland. There was a time, not so long ago, when country folks believed that the little people who lived under the hill were busy at night, stealing tools from the garden, milk from the cow, babies from the cradle. No fairies are more nocturnally industrious than the never-ceasing busyness of life itself, cleverly arranging 100000000000000000000000 atoms into a golden flower -- that I will pull off in the afternoon and toss away.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rounding off

How many tablespoons of water in all the world's oceans. I wanted to know for tomorrow's post. See this week's Musing.

Anne has been amazingly faithful with her Sunday cyberpics. Thanks, Anne, for adding the artist's temperament and grace to Science Musings. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Nature's music -- Part 2

I suggested yesterday a likeness between the Periodic Table of the Element and music. It might be more accurate to say that the Periodic Table is the score of the symphony which is the world.

The person who first transcribed the music was the Russian chemist Dmitri Ivanovitch Mendeleev, in 1869. At that time, 63 elements were known. Mendeleev was something of a dreamer and a philosopher. He was convinced that the elements and their properties were not contrived at random. Behind the apparent chaos of chemistry he sought a pattern. "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing," he said, "and the honor of kings to search it out."

Mendeleev wrote the names, atomic weights, and chemical properties of the elements on 63 cards, and these he arranged into recurring sequences, by atomic weights, like the octaves of the musical scale. He was not the first to look for a pattern within the properties of the elements -- the idea was in the air -- but he was the first to see the pattern in its entirety.

Within Mendeleev's arrangement of cards there were three blank spaces, where elements were needed to complete the pattern and none were known. Boldly, Mendeleev predicted the existence of the missing elements, and even suggested their properties. For example, he predicted an element with an atomic weight close to 70, similar to aluminum, easily fusible, able to form alums, and with a volatile chloride. Within a decade just such an element -- named gallium -- was discovered. So were two other predicted elements -- germanium, and scandium -- with precisely the properties asserted by Mendeleev. His beautiful arrangement of cards was vindicated.

In 1955, a group of physicists at the University of California in Berkeley announced the discovery of a new element with atomic number 101. Seventeen atoms of the element were artificially created by bombardment of lighter nuclei with the Berkeley cyclotron. The discovery came at the height of the Soviet-American Cold War. Nevertheless, the Berkeley scientists decided to name the new element for a Russian. Element 101 in the Periodic Table of the Elements became Mendelevium, and, like all other elements discovered since Mendeleev's day, fell precisely into place in the score of nature, confirming once again the musicality of matter.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Nature's music

Somewhere on the wall of every high school chemistry lab hangs a Periodic Table of the Elements. I need only close my eyes to summon up the Periodic Table that hung in my own high school lab -- a giant, colorful thing with the symbols of the elements printed in bold black letters on sturdy fabric, published by Welch Scientific, if I remember rightly.

I was not an enthusiastic student of chemistry, but when I looked at the Periodic Table I knew I was in the presence of a fundamental mystery. The way the elements fell into place, in ranks and rows according to their properties -- well, it was like music.

Why should the stuff of which the world is made be replete with patterns, harmonies, and cadences? On the left, in column 1, the alkali metals -- lithium, sodium, potassium, and their heavier cousins (keep them away from water, our teacher stressed). On the right, in column 18, the noble gases -- helium, neon, argon, krypton, and xenon (safe and sane, completely inert). And bracketed between, like substances neatly arranged on a pharmacist's shelves, the 92 naturally occurring elements, and a partial row of unstable heavier elements added by those modern alchemists, the nuclear physicists.

There were puzzles aplenty in the table to intrigue the curious student. Why did the gaseous elements cluster at the upper right of the chart? What was liquid mercury doing down there in the middle of the chart surrounded by solids? Why did copper, silver, and gold, among the few elements known since ancient times, have a column of their own?

In short, what was the magic behind the music? What was the instrument whose tuning made the harmonies? The mysteries were soon unraveled by our teacher, who introduced us to the theory of atomic structure and chemical valency. It would be hard to describe the excitement that accompanied the realization that the amazing diversity of the world of matter -- the reactiveness of the alkalis with water, the inertness of the noble gases, the slipperiness of mercury, the solitariness of gold -- all of this and more, could be explained by a theory of almost childlike simplicity.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Beyond the porch-light of language

The title of this post is another phrase from the poet Pat Boran. It struck me, I suppose, because of the way readers sometimes refer to this blog as "the porch." (I forget who first suggested the image; was it you, Theresa?) A lovely image, evoking friends in rocking chairs sipping ice tea or gin-and-tonics on a drowsy summer night. Out there in the darkness lightnin' bugs flash their sleepy semaphores. Somewhere afar off heat lightnin' illuminates the horizon. Our language drifts into the dark. We have words too for stars, for black holes and quasars, for the cosmic microwave background radiation. Our words leak off the porch into the summer darkness, bringing some small part of the darkness into our circle of light. And so we sit and sip and talk, and our language eases back the darkness, hallows an interval, makes "a dwelling in the evening air,/ In which being there together is enough."

We sit and we sip and we are content to let the darkness embrace us. No, we are more than content. The darkness is a positive presence, a soft and fragrant backdrop for our conversations. Without the darkness there would be no lightnin' bugs, no heat lightnin', no stars. We rock and sip and the darkness enfolds us like a shawl.

There are a those who are less comfortable with the darkness. They want language to light up the darkness to the farthest horizon, to the beginning and end of space and time, turn night to day. They shout into the dark -- "God," "Father," "Person," "Friend." The miracle of language becomes the language of miracles. "I am the Light of the World, I expel the dark."

Well, fair enough. But here on the porch, in our circle of friendship and faint light, we rock and sip and talk. And the lightnin' bugs flash, and the stars come on one by one, and now and then, afar off, the horizon shimmers with a soundless light. And we talk, with measured voices. And our words drift off into the darkness. And sometimes they never come back.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Spirit and flesh

I say it again: the spirit loves
the flesh, as the hand the glove.
A few lines from the Irish poet Pat Boran. A great truth we have always known but work so hard to deny.

Let us admit that the spirit is flesh, but more than flesh.

The spirit is the brain, of course, that neuronal web of almost infinite complexity. We could explore those tangled corridors for a thousand years and not exhaust their contents. For one thing, the contents change, more quickly than we could possible complete an inventory. The spirit is fleet, a master of metamorphosis.

The spirit is more than flesh. The spirit is flesh in interaction with a universe of even greater complexity. The windows of the flesh are thrown open to the world. The spirit is a wind of awareness, a pool stirred by angels.

The spirit is all this and more.

And some part of the spirit will linger after the flesh is gone, as memories in other flesh, as words, music, science, art -- a fleshless hand that retains the shape of the glove.

But this is the great truth: A self is hand and glove. Spirit and flesh. There is no self without the glove. "We are biological and our souls cannot fly free," writes Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, summarizing what science has taught us about ourselves. He adds: "This is the essential first hypothesis for any consideration of the human condition."

So let us begin there, hand in glove. Let us learn to think ourselves good, flesh and all. Skin, teeth, tongues, genitals, the soles of the feet -- that supple kidskin glove, the body. And let us learn to love this world, the world outside the windows of the flesh. For in truth there is no other world, no other world for us except the world we inhale like a deep, deep breath and seal into our soul.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Yet another cloudy night

I mentioned yesterday that the average cloud cover for New England is about 60 percent. Although the percentage varies widely depending on location and season, 60 percent is about average for the entire globe.

But what if the number were 100 percent? How would the intellectual history of humans have been different on a cloud-covered planet? No part of the natural environment is so clearly marked by regular periodic phenomena as the heavens. Anthropologist Alexander Marshack argued that certain regular markings on bone artifacts of Ice Age humans record the changing phases of the moon, and that these are the earliest examples of symbolic notation. Historians of science Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend contend (in a book called Hamlet's Mill) that all of the great myths of the world have their origin in the regular behavior of celestial bodies. Other commentators have stressed the connection between the heavens and the development of scientific thought.

As Jacob Bronowski pointed out, the stars might seem improbable objects to have aroused such curiosity. The human body is closer at hand and a more obvious candidate for systematic investigation. But astronomy advanced as a science before medicine, and early medicine turned to the stars for signs and omens. The reason is clear: The regular motions of the heavens lent themselves to mathematical description. Behind the apparent chaos of terrestrial experience, the stars proclaim the rule of law.

On a cloud-shrouded Earth the rise of the human species to civilization would almost certainly have been delayed. Delayed, but not forestalled forever. The survival value of science and technology is such that sooner or later the inhabitants of the White Planet would have developed vehicles to lift themselves above the clouds. We can imagine their first view of the universe beyond the clouds -- the beckoning stars, the Milky Way, the luminous orb of the Sun, the changing Moon, planets and comets, solar and lunar eclipses -- celestial rhythms at last laid bare, the rule of mathematical law, so laboriously learned in the terrestrial environment, in the heavens made crystal clear.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Head in the clouds

I have now been here on the Dingle Peninsula in the west of Ireland for over a month, and we have had but one starry night. Mind you, it was cloudy when I went to bed, and cloudy when I got up in the morning, but when I rose in the middle of the night for a glass of water -- there they were, blazing in all their glory against a backdrop of inky darkness. I stepped out into the garden and feasted. Jupiter chasing the Teapot across the southern horizon. Arcturus scraping the top of Mount Eagle. The Milky Way pouring out its riches overhead.

It is hard to imagine that for three-quarters of a century the largest telescope in the world was in Ireland. During the 1840's, William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse and master of Birr Castle in the center of Ireland, constructed an iron-hooped monster more than six feet in diameter, hoisted between massive Gothic walls, with ladders and viewing galleries. Visitors to the castle liked to have their pictures taken (by the earl's wife Mary, a pioneer amateur photographer) standing in the gaping maw of the great tube. Astronomers from as far afield as the United States, Australia and Russia came to Birr to see Lord Rosse's leviathan of the cosmic deeps. One wonders how many of them managed to get a look at the stars -- or went away cursing the Irish weather.

"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "how men would believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown. But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile." Every night? Not quite. In Emerson's New England the average cloud cover is about 60 percent. Here in the west of Ireland we are grateful for one cloudless night in ten. Or twenty. Still, our rare glimpses of the heavens have something of the effect Emerson was talking about. I step out into the midnight dark, stand in my bare feet in the dewy grass, and gape. Gawk. Bowled over. Dazzled. A city of God made all the more spectacular by its rarity.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Thinking meat

I had to think about what I was going to write here. I don't have to think about breathing. I can think about not breathing -- for a few seconds. Sometimes unwanted thinking interferes with what should happen on automatic pilot, like falling asleep when I'm tired. And sometimes... Oh, never mind. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ad majorem Dei gloriam


On a recent Sunday afternoon, we tripped over the hill to the annual races on Beal Ban Strand, an afternoon of thundering excitement up and down the tide-washed sand, sleek and powerful horses ridden by young jockeys in gaily-colored silks. A good time was had by all, but I couldn't help but think of the events that occurred on those cliffs you see in the background of the photograph, just above the head of the jockey in white.

In the year 1580, six-hundred Catholics -- Spaniards, Italians and Irish, including women and children -- were besieged on a fortified promontory called Dun an Oir, the Fort of Gold, by Protestant troops of Queen Elizabeth I, under the command of Lord Grey of Wilton, assisted by Walter Raleigh. Recognizing that they had no chance of escape or relief, the Catholic forces agreed to surrender their arms, with a promise of mercy. They placed their weapons beyond the outer breastworks. Raleigh called the Irish out, and marched them away to where gallows had been erected to hang the lot. Then, he sent his swordsmen onto the crowded promontory. Blades flashed among the defenseless Spaniards and Italians. When it was over, five hundred severed heads were piled high in a field outside the fort, and in the English camp a hundred Irish men and women hung from beams in a long terrible row. These grisly spectacles would be left to rot when Grey and Raleigh departed, as a salutary lesson to the Papist rebels who would challenge the authority of the English Queen.

When word of the massacre at Dun an Oir reached London, Elizabeth wrote to Lord Grey, "I joy that you have been chosen the instrument of His glory."

There was, of course, more going on at Dun an Oir than religious antagonism, but religion was the armature on which hung the various political rivalries and alliances of late-16th-century Europe. Ireland has had a long and bloody history of religious strife. Only now, as an increasingly secular populace realizes that they have more in common to unite them than to divide them, do they turn their competitive instincts to such entertaining amusements as the headlong horse races on Beal Ban Strand.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The raw and the cooked

It has been a cold, rainy summer so far, which is about par for the west of Ireland. Which means lots of fires in the fireplace -- Irish peat, Polish coal, and furze from the field -- and lots of hours gazing into the companionable flames.

Humans would appear to be the only fire-using animal. I've heard that cheetahs and hawks will sometimes position themselves to attack animals fleeing from naturally-occurring fires, but this hardly qualifies as "the discovery of fire." Exactly when humans figured out how to retrieve fire ignited by volcanoes or lightning and keep it alive is unknown. The earliest evidence I recall is charred animal bones from the Swartkrans cave in South Africa, dating from about 1.5 million years ago. Perhaps the deliberate use of fire is as good a criteria as any other for defining that moment when hominids can be said to be human. Certainly, as I sit staring dreamily into the dancing flames I am intensely conscious of being conscious.

Once campfires were common for warmth, light and protection it would not have been long before our ancestors discovered that cooked meat tasted good and took less effort to chew. Anthropologists ascribe all sorts of cultural significance to fire. The requirements of tending a fire presumably led to a more settled lifestyle. The hearth was a place for communal life, and therefore for new kinds of communication -- dance, storytelling, and decorative and symbolic arts. In the most imaginative of these flame-lit scenarios, happy bands of early humans sat next to a fire, swapping yarns, cooing to infants, sharpening spears, sharing tidbits of roasted meat, and taking from the hissing, crackling flame, and from the smoke curling heavenward, new ideas about life, death and immortality.

As I sit here musing in front of the hearth, I have a grim little fantasy, for which (as far as I know) not a shred of evidence exists: A little band of hunters of the species Homo erectus come to the cooking cavern where their fire, tended by the weaker members of the band, is protected from wind and rain. On the menu at one time or another is antelope, zebra, warthog, baboon, and -- depending on availability -- an occasional Australopithecus robustus, from whom Homo may have diverged only a million years earlier, roasted to perfection, thereby hastening our smaller, less erect, tool-making cousins toward eventual extinction.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Into the wild

I haven't noticed the same phenomenon in the States, but here in Britain/Ireland there has been a roaring spate of books recently with "wild" in the title: Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places, Roger Deakin's Wildwood, Jay Griffith's Wild, Richard Preston's Wild Trees, Christopher Somerville's Britain and Ireland's Best Wild Places, Kate Rew's Wild Swim, and Daniel Start's Wild Swimming, to name just a few of the most popular.

What's up? Why the headlong rush to wilderness? What is this hankering for wild places, and in these British Isles, where you would think wildness has been long extinct. "Rural," yes. "Countryside," of course. The Brits, especially, have always had a place in their hearts for the leafy lane and windswept fell. But this new gush of books seems to go a step beyond.

I can't say what's at work here. Are we fed up with being connected? Has the mobile phone (as they call it here) chased the wild into the farthest corners of the landscape? Is it a breath of privacy we're after, a moment of repose? Thoreau said, "It is vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves." Maybe what we are looking for is an opportunity to turn inward and explore the last remaining shreds of wildness in our souls.

Maybe. I have this vision of Kate Rew, say, stripping to dip in a wild Highland loch. The moment she sinks blissfully into the icy water a ring-tone chimes from within a pocket of the piled clothes on the bank. Does she scamper out to answer? Or does she dive deeper into the silent water?

I venture a new definition of wildness: Any place near or far beyond the reach of a mobile call.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A modest proposal

Creationists in America carry on their battle against Darwin in the classroom. Biblical literalism was struck down by the courts. Intelligent design, with an unnamed designer, was the next ploy to be deemed unconstitutional. The latest trick to sneak God into the science curriculum is "critical thinking."

The Louisiana state legislature has passed overwhelmingly a law that gives teachers license to supplement the existing science curriculum with material that they feel "promotes critical thinking skills." The language seems innocuous, even praiseworthy, but no one doubts the law's real intent. Teachers are free to introduce "creation science" along side of evolution and give it any spin they want. A new stealth attack on scientific biology.

You want critical thinking? Here's what I would do. I'd bring into the Louisiana state legislature a year's worth of Science and Nature, the two most widely read and respected weekly international science journals. I'd pass them out and ask the lawmakers to count the number of articles that evoke evolution or natural selection and the number that refer to creationism or intelligent design, then divide up curriculum time accordingly.

Put on your critical thinking caps, honorable ladies and gentlemen of the assembly, and tell us why our children should learn as science ideas that count not a single appearance in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The G-word, again...

Stuart Kauffman is at it again. He is the great champion of emergent evolution, implacable opponent of the reductionism that has reigned in science since the 17th century, and currently the director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary. He does not doubt the Darwinian paradigm; he would agree that biology without natural selection is unthinkable. But Darwinism is not enough, he says. Nature does not just unfold from the bottom up; it is also constrained from the top down. Context is as important as components.

Kauffman has written on these matters before, beginning with The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution in 1993, and I have been a cheerleader from the beginning. Back then he wrote: "Almost 140 years after Darwin's seminal book, we do not understand the powers and limitations of natural selection, we do not know what kinds of complex systems can be assembled by an evolutionary process, and we do not even begin to understand how selection and self-organization work together to create the splendor of a summer afternoon in an Alpine meadow flooded with flowers, insects, worms, soil, other animals, and humans, making our worlds together." To the task of explaining the Alpine meadow he has applied brilliant mathematics and computer simulations -- and more power to him. Alas, fifteen years later, it has to be said that reductionism remains far and away the most fruitful way of doing science.

In his newest book, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, Kauffman gives the science of emergent evolution a religious imperative. The present cannot be anticipated in the past, he again insists; there is a "ceaseless novelty" in nature which he is willing to call God. Certainly, Kauffman's God is not the intrusive God of the Abrahamic faiths, nor even the God of the deists who sets things going, then steps aside. Kauffman feels he must use the G-word, "for my hope is to honorably steal its aura to authorize the sacredness of the creativity in nature."

To my mind, Kauffman's does valuable work in asking us to question reductionism, and I have no doubt that increasingly powerful computers will illuminate the nature of emergence. But if and when emergence becomes a scientifically fruitful paradigm, it will have zero theological implications. Kauffman finds God in the "ceaseless novelty" of emergent evolution. I would prefer to use the G-word for "the splendor of a summer afternoon in an Alpine meadow flooded with flowers, insects, worms, soil, other animals, and humans, making our worlds together." Access to the God of mystery has been there all along. What a successful science of emergence will do is extend the shoreline between the known and the unknown where we encounter whatever unnamable mystery is worthy of being called divine.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Watchers at the pond

Henry David Thoreau was an exacting observer and prolific journal keeper. For 6 years, he tracked the life histories of more than 400 plant species in a 67-square-kilometer area around Concord, Massachusetts. Now, a group of plant ecologists at Boston and Harvard Universities have surveyed the same area, comparing notes -- abundances, habitats, and flowering times -- with Thoreau. They claim to have substantiated the stress on plant communities caused by global warming (Science, July 4, 2008).

I don't doubt the warming, but I wonder whether a study of plants in so highly developed an area can yield any meaningful data vis-a-vis climate change. My wife has been recording the flowering time of the montbretia on our hill for 17 years. It varies a week or more from the average, with no discernible secular trend. As for abundances of plants and animals, changes have been dramatic. The montbretia has prospered, running riot in the ditches. Some of the more delicate wildflowers of the hedgerows, such as herb robert, have become rarer. Slugs have faded from the scene (except the garden). Badgers are gone. Foxes rarer. Corncrakes and cuckoos kaput. Before I would attribute any of this to climate change I would consider the massive transformation in agriculture -- the use of heavily fertilized monocrops and grubbing out of hedgerows -- and the domestication of the landscape for holiday homes. Looking for the signal of a degree or two of global warming in the midst of so much human-inflicted trauma seems to me a bit of a stretch.

Mind you, I'm not knocking the ecologists. Here on the Dingle Peninsula they have come to the rescue of one of our rarest and most mysterious species, the Natterjack toad. This little animal inhabits one tiny patch of Ireland near the head of Dingle Bay. Whether this is the last remnant of a once wider population, or a relatively recent introduction has been a matter of considerable debate. Now the government is offering farmers subsidies to provide shallow ponds for the toads. A cooperating farmer can earn up to $6000 annually, no small inducement. Will it help the Natterjack survive?

I mentioned here the other day the fox on my window sill, the first fox I had seen on our property in several years. Two days later a friend saw a dead fox in the road nearby and I feared it was my visitor. But no, my wife saw our fox again yesterday, waltzing along the wall in front of the cottage. The threat of climate change is surely of less consequence to the foxes of our area than the huge increase in automotive traffic. On the main road below the house recently I saw what appeared to be a black mink scampering from ditch to ditch, dodging traffic, no doubt descended from escaped importees as minks are not indigenous to Ireland. Where in the midst of so much direct and local environmental disruption are we to spot the elusive signature of global warming?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Science and pseudoscience

A remembrance and a message in this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination. I believe that's yours truly in short pants under Umbrella Rock on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Distributed processing

I have been reading L. T. C. Rolt's now outdated and excessively reverential biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the greatest of a generation of audacious engineers who dragged the world into the Age of Steam and Iron. I read the book before, as I recall, back in the late 1960s when I was studying the history of science and technology in London. Then I traveled about England, Wales and Scotland visiting the railways, bridges, tunnels, canals, and buildings of iron and glass of Marc and Isambard Brunel, Thomas Telford, George and Robert Stephenson, John Rennie, Joseph Paxton, and others of that intrepid band of engineers. Within a lifetime they transformed Britain from a mostly rural, agricultural nation into a thriving industrial colossus that ruled a mighty empire.

Steam and iron. And human muscle. Armies of laborers, often toiling under almost inhuman conditions, high above precipitous gorges, deep in the bowels of the earth, or beside a hissing boiler in the belly of a leviathan ship, dying in industrial accidents with a frequency that would not be tolerated today. The engineers were not adverse to sharing the dangers; Brunel nearly lost his life on several occasions. And, Lordy, what awesome projects, conceived and executed by the force of a single brain. I remember standing by the Menai Strait in Wales and seeing Thomas Telford's suspension bridge and Robert Stephenson's tubular railway bridge still usefully spanning the race. These were the pioneers who showed what was possible, and their names are indelibly attached to their works.

We are, of course, in the midst of another technological revolution, no less significant that the one of steam and iron. For the engineers of the Industrial Revolution, the direction of imagination was to bigger and faster. Today the thrust is to smaller and faster. What would Brunel have thought of this little box on which I type, linked by a web of wires and waves to hundreds of millions of other boxes girding the globe, an electronic snowstorm of ones and zeros distributed at nearly the speed of light. The new commodity is not coal, or iron, or the products of smoky factories, but information. This is a revolution of mind, not muscle. No sweating navies wreck their health or lose their lives in the cushy corporate precincts of Google. The names of a few techno-entrepreneurs are familiar -- Bill Gates and Steve Jobs come to mind -- but the engineers who drive the electronic revolution are mostly nameless.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Hope

Here is one of the most beautiful artifacts from pre-Columbian America, the life-sized Hopewell hand, cut from a thin sheet of natural mica by a craftsman who lived a thousand years ago in southern Ohio. I saw the hand almost half-a-century ago in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. For years, I had a colored transparency of the hand taped to the window of my office, aglow in the sunlight. Something about those long, graceful fingers, the delicate crook in the thumb. The universal symbol of the raised hand, palm turned outward, weaponless. "I come in peace."

The people of the mica hand were ancestors of the Algonquins, Iroquois, Cherokees, and other native American peoples. They lived in river valleys of central North America from 200 BC to 1000 AD, and left behind impressive complexes of burial mounds, temple mounds, hilltop ramparts, and earthen walls. They are generally called the Mound Builders.

Many of the ancient sites were excavated by archeologists a century ago to provide an archeological exhibit for the 1893 Chicago world's fair. One of the richest sites was on the farm of M. C. Hopewell in Ross County, Ohio, and the Hopewell name has come to signify the culture of the people who built the mounds.

The mica hand was found in a burial mound on Hopewell's farm. It is flaky-thin and subtly tinged with color. That it survived unbroken in the earth for a thousand years seems little short of miraculous.

"Peace," the appropriately-named Hopewell hand seems to say, and that is a part of its beauty.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Not known, because not looked for

Tony shared with us the other day these well-known lines of T. S. Eliot (Little Gidding):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
It is not quite what Eliot is up to, but I was reminded of some lines of Pascal that I shared here several years ago:
Scientific learning is composed of two opposites which nonetheless meet each other. The first is the natural ignorance that is man's lot at birth. The second is represented by those great minds that have investigated all knowledge accumulated by man only to discover at the end that in fact they know nothing. Thus they return to the same fundamental ignorance they had thought to leave. Yet this ignorance they have now discovered is an intellectual achievement. It is those who have departed from their original condition of ignorance but have been incapable of completing the full cycle of learning who offer us a smattering of scientific knowledge and pass sweeping judgments. These are the mischief makers, the false prophets. (Pensees V:327)
It took almost three centuries for Pascal's remarkable insight to become the common opinion of scientists. The 20th-century philosopher Karl Popper expressed it this way: "The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance. For this, indeed, is the main source of our ignorance -- the fact that our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite."

It is an odd, unsettling thought that the culmination of the scientific quest -- the long slow gathering of reliable empirical knowledge of the world -- should be confirmation of how little we understand about the universe we live in. A willingness to say "I don't know" is a prerequisite of scientific discovery. Only in the silence of acknowledged ignorance can we hear -- half hear -- the thing that calls us to attend.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The uses of enchantment -- part 3

The front of my earth-covered studio looks out on Dingle Bay through a wall of windows. This morning as I sat down with my coffee, a fox came trotting out of the woods and pranced smartly along the sill. He seemed not to notice my own presence a few feet away behind the glass.

Talk about enchantment! The fox bowled me over with its sleek beauty. But it wasn't just the fox. I wish I had had my camera so you could share what I saw outside the window. The fox. The roses. The montbretia and the willows. The patchwork of green fields reaching away to the sea. The curtain of rain out in the Atlantic. Somehow, the unexpected appearance of the fox brought it all into focus, made me see what had been there to see all along.

It is easy to become blind to the commonplace, to forget the extraordinariness of the ordinary. The fairies have vacated the landscape, but the fox remains -- dragging behind him a myriad of connections that bind him and me into a seamless web.

That is the import of the new story. Nothing is arbitrary. Nothing is independent. Pluck one string of creation and the whole resounds. The fox and I share genes contrived in the depths of time. Our atoms were forged in stars that lived and died before the Earth was born. That we exist at all depends upon what happened in the first nanoseconds of creation.

If there is an ethic to which we should attend, it does not derive from stone tablets brought down from the mountain, but from the connectedness of things. I could ramble on at length about the science of connectedness, but the fox on the windowsill reminds me of another fox, the one that asks to be tamed by Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince. The Little Prince responds:
"What does that mean -- 'tame'?"
"It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. "It means to establish ties."
"'To establish ties'?"
"Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you will tame me, then we will need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world... [I]f you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat..."

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The uses of enchantment -- part 2

There are those who seek to re-enchant nature by reviving the past. They will gather at Stonehenge on the equinox in druidic garb and chant hymns to the Sun, or refurnish the imagination with alien abductors, crop circles, angels, or witches covens. All up and down this westernmost fringe of Europe there are colonies of folks trying to live like ancient Celts in a spirit-infested landscape.

Their efforts are sincere. All things considered, I would rather hang out with homespun people who have their ears atuned to the keening of fairies than sit in a California megachurch listening to a polyester-suited Bible-thumper telling me how to avoid hellfire. But for someone trained in the scientific way of knowing and the application of Ockham's Razor, the one way of life is as archaic as the other.

Where then do we find the sources of re-enchantment? How do we cultivate a sense of ambient mystery?

Before I sat down to write these thoughts, I was examining under a magnifier one of the red spider mites that swarm on the outside window sill on a sunny day. Eight little legs. Antennae. Mouth. Eyes. Internal organs too. All in a package no bigger than the dot at the end of this sentence. And the mite no doubt has yet smaller creatures living on and in it, even as our own bodies are infested with trillions of microbes for whom we are a habitat. I lean close, my eye to the magnifier, and I'm breathless.

Breathless with the prodigiality of life, united by the epic story of cosmic evolution. Feeling oneself part of that story, swept along by the unfolding mystery, a wind of atoms forged in stars that blows though creation, cycled and re-cycled, me and the spider mite, every cell of us spinning and weaving, ceaslessly, the four-letter code of the DNA like the notes of Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

I don't need a druidic priest or a Bible-thumpering preacher to enchant the world. I need only learn as best I can what human curiosity has reliably discovered about the cosmos we live in -- the evolutionary epic that embraces the eons and the light-years -- then pay attention.

Does the new story have ethical implications? More tomorrow.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The uses of enchantment

This landscape -- the Dingle Peninsula in the west of Ireland -- is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from any other landscape in the Western world. But until very recently it had preserved its rural character, and a residue of the ancient pagan faiths lay lightly on the land. Each pool and grove had its resident spirit, pre-Christian in origin, but often given a Christian guise. The hills and ring forts belonged to the fairies. The megaliths that stand in high places told of gods who at their whim controlled the sun and stars, wind and rain, and the fertility of plants and animals. When we built our cottage on this hill 29 years ago there were old people in the village who called our one-lane, hillside track "the Fairies' Road" and wondered mightily that anyone would choose to live there at night.

Where there is mystery, the mythic mind invented spirits, humanlike, but often immortal, an invisible otherworld, or parallel world, that explained what would otherwise be unexplainable. Every aspect of the natural world, every feature of the landscape, was endowed with some quality of the fairy faith, here in Ireland called the creideamh si. Religion -- the propitiation and mollification of the gods -- endowed the material world with a sacred quality, an integrity worthy of reverence.

The fairies are gone. Our track has been paved and lined with the holiday houses of the urban Irish. The ring forts are plowed up, the sacred wells polluted, the forest groves long since surrendered to the ax. The spirits of earth, air, fire and water have been displaced from the landscape into a supernatural heaven, wholly other. The priests and preachers herd us into churches to offer our obeisance to a consolidated He who is, it would seem, sublimely indifferent to the creation outside the window. We no longer think of the natural world as sacred, no longer experience a sense of mystery. We have been assured that the material creation is all just "stuff," to be used and abused, fodder for conspicuous consumption. We inhabit nature with as little awe as if were the family room of our house.

Can -- or should -- nature be re-enchanted? Can we -- or should we -- recover the sense of ambient mystery that was the wellspring of religion? More tomorrow.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A little world made cunningly?

What's wrong with the contemporary university curriculum? Where is the unifying understanding of the cosmos that would give the curriculum coherence? See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Rewriting the code of life?

Would you support stem cell research and genetic engineering that let amputees grow new limbs? Yes, of course.

What about stem cell research and genetic engineering that let factories grow chicken meat without chickens? Yeah, really. Nice firm white chicken meat, real chicken meat, honest-to-goodness chicken meat without ever there being a chicken with head, feet and feathers. Would you eat it?

Would you prefer chickenless chicken meat to the meat from chickens raised in a battery barn?

I'm willing to pay more for free-range chicken and free-range eggs even if it means I might have to give up or delay something else I want, like, say, a MacBook Air. Like many folks, I'm uneasy about factory farming of animals. But I'm realistic enough to know that the world is not going to feed 10 billion mostly urban people with free-range chickens and organic veggie gardens.

Which brings us back to the chickenless chicken meat. Humankind stands on the threshold of unprecedented control over the very nature of life itself. The First Law of Technology is "What can be done, will be done." It's all well and good to talk about free will and reasoned civil debate, but I know of no historical example of a technology that has been foresworn.

The evidence seems to suggest that the planet will reach a population maximum sometime late in this century, a resource bottleneck. It would take a better prophet than me to guess what life will be like on the other side. If we reach the other side.

Meanwhile, I sit in my comfy cottage on a hill in Ireland eating a free-range egg with local black pudding, and looking at pictures in the press of starving children in Ethiopia.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The blind eye of the supernatural

Lest my post yesterday seem cynical, let me add a few words of context. As every visitor to this site will know, I have a great affection for the religion of my youth, Roman Catholicism. I have lived my life within a RC milieu, and would no more disown the influence of that faith than I would disown the fact that I am an American.

I reject, for course, the paternalism, misogyny, homophobia and triumphalism of the Church, as do many who remain within communion. I reject also the supernaturalism and miracles, which is why I cannot recite the Creed or call myself a Catholic. But within the Church I find much to admire, especially the rich and ancient tradition of creation spirituality (often condemned as heretical), and a sacramental tradition that sees the visible as a window into mystery.

I have said here before that any religion worthy of humankind's future will have these characteristics:

--It will be ecumenical. It will not imagine itself as the "True Faith." It will be open and welcoming to to best and holiest of all faith traditions.

--It will be ecological. It will take the planet and all of its creatures into its commandment of love.

--It will embrace the scientific story of the world as the most reliable revelation, not necessarily True, but truer than the neolithic myths that presently give shape to the world's theologies.

How can one engage with the universe of the galaxies and the DNA and not be struck dumb with what can only be called religious awe? Why do we continue to look for God in anthropomorphic stories that were written down thousands of years ago, when the world itself is spread before our admiring eyes in all of its majesty and mystery? The Church I could come back to would look for the signature of divinity in the extravagant wonder of the creation itself, not in supposed miracles or exceptions to nature's laws.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Numeration

At dinner last evening my spouse surprised me by rattling off the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth. I must have memorized that list myself many long years ago, but I would have been hard pressed to drag it up out of memory. My spouse observed: "We were made to list the sins before we even knew what they were."

We were in fact made to learn an entire arithmetic of vice and virtue. The Seven Deadly Sins. The Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost. The Three Theological Virtues. The Four Cardinal Virtues. The Ten Commandments. Evolutionary psychologists debate the extent to which vice and virtue are innate. They might also look for the evolutionary origins of our need to itemize and number.

Having those tidy lists in one's head made preparing for Confession somewhat easier. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I was prideful six times. Greedy twice. I had bad thoughts twenty times. I was angry with my sister once. And...and...uh...I was lazy...uh...eight times."

"Go in peace, my son. For your penance, say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys."

I'm not sure we learned much about morality by all of this, but we certainly learned how to count.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Wind in the willows


When we bought this acre of hillside above Dingle Bay, thirty years ago, is was rough grazing -- grass, gorse and heather. Not a tree to be seen. But there was a flat spot, suitable for a house, from which the view was breathtaking. We sold off an insurance policy, turned over a few thousand dollars to a local farmer, and the rest is history.

When we could afford it, we built a tiny cottage, and there it sat, forlorn and naked to the elements. M. began her long battle with the wind, which, it seems, is never ceasing. What plants went in during our summer sojourns were blown away by winter gales. Then she gave a local nurseryman 200 pounds to plant 200 trees (ah, those were the days!). Little trees, of course, that hardly raised their wind-battered heads above the grazing. Some were proper trees with roots -- sycamores, alders, rowans, hazels. Half at least were willow sticks stuck in the ground. She tended them, counted the survivors from year to year, whispered encouragement. Today our hillside looks fairly domestic, with copses and bowers and a bit of protection from the wind for some proper gardening. It only took half a lifetime.

Most successful of all were the willows, those scrawny sticks jammed into the soil. They dodge and weave with the wind, adapting their shape to the direction of the prevailing gales, all lithe and limber. They sprawl about with a wonderful insouciance, as if they have all the time in the world on their hands and don't give a damn about a gardener's designs.

In ancient Ireland, trees were protected by law. The "nobles of the wood" were oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine and apple. We have few of those. The "commoners of the wood" were alder, willow, hawthorn, rowan, birch, elm and cherry. Fell a mature willow and you'd be fined one milch cow. Below the "commoners" were the riffraff of the wood, the bracken, gorse, heather and bramble that would drive us off the hill if we let it. M. protects her patches of heather with the ferocity of ancient law, but the bracken, gorse and bramble she consigns to the hungry lash of my strimmer.

Certainly, each of our willows is worth a milch cow, not only for the protection they give from the wind, but because of their perfectly fitting name. Willow. Willow. One of the most beautiful words in the English language. What woman would not want to be called willowy. Salix, the scientific Latin, is not nearly so euphonious, although salley (an Irish name for willow) captures a bit of the feminine quality of the tree. Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet, wrote Yeats. Indeed.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

To get very, very hot, you have to get very, very cold

At the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) on the French-Swiss border they are cooling things down. As I write, hundreds of tons of liquid nitrogen and liquid helium are being poured into the magnets that line the 17-mile-long circular tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), around which, in August, subatomic particles -- protons -- will be whirled in opposite directions, faster and faster, until they collide at nearly the speed of light in the most powerful smashups ever witnessed on Earth. The liquid nitrogen and helium helps cool the magnets to a temperature only a smidgen above absolute zero. In that frigid state, the wires of the magnets become superconducting -- electric current flows without resistance -- creating the powerful fields that will hold the speeding particles to their circular courses. The whole multibillion-dollar shebang in a deep, deep freeze.

For what? To create the superhigh temperatures that pertained in the universe a tiny fraction of a second after the big bang. When the protons collide, the focused energy will mimic the first moments of creation. The particles will splatter into primal stuff. Physicists have some idea what they would like to see, but no one knows for sure just what will show up. The Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle"? Dark matter? Dark energy?

The ultrahot radiance of the creation, concentrated in a space tinier than a pinpoint. Nearly ten thousand multi-ton magnets in a 17-mile tunnel cooled to a temperature not unlike that which will characterize the last days of the exhausted universe as it drifts into cold and dark. The ultimate saga of human hubris? Or a magnificent manifestation of human intelligence and curiosity?