Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Kum-bi-ya, pooh-pooh

I've been a big fan of Richard Dawkins ever since I read The Selfish Gene all those many years ago. Since then I've read virtually everything the man has written. He's very smart, very clever and a terrific writer. The only thing I have against Richard Dawkins is that he married Lalla instead of Leela (a remark that Tom, a Dr. Who fan, will understand).

But lately -- well, I don't know. His Darwin-tumping evangelism is taking on the aspect of a Bible Belt tent revival. He's the Elmer Gantry of atheism. If there's such a thing as fundamentalist disbelief, Dawkins has it.

Now, mind you, in Dawkins' hands even that can be fun. I liked The God Delusion as much as the next guy. Lord knows, the Almighty had it coming, and who better to give the the Big Guy a poke in the eye than Richard. But I had to laugh out loud when I saw in the London Sunday Times that Dawkins is helping to finance an atheist summer camp for kids.

I mean, really. Keeping religious indoctrination out of the public schools is one thing; a boot camp for little scoffers is another.

As freethinkers, will they be allowed to get up in the morning at whatever time they choose, except on Sunday when sleeping to noon is mandatory? In campcraft, will they braid plastic bookmarks for their little gray copies of Origin of Species? Relieved of fear of eternal punishment, will they go on a binge of short-sheeting the counselors? Will they sit around the campfire at night singing "Faith of our fathers -- fiddlesticks and fie"? Will the great man himself make an appearance at Saturday assembly to urge the pint-sized scampers to ever greater heights of dubiosity?

How about if adults just leave the kids alone and let them have some summer fun.

And --

A gift from Anne

(Click to enlarge.)

Monday, June 29, 2009

The call of the wild -- Part 2

Writing about cuckoos and global warming yesterday, reminds me of some cuckoo research I once read about. But first, a bit more background.

In Britain and Ireland, four species of birds are victimized by cuckoos -- reed warblers, meadow pipits, dunnocks, and pied wagtails -- all of them much smaller birds than the cuckoo. There seem to be four genetically distinct strains of female cuckoos, each specializing in one host species. Except for the cuckoo that lays her egg in the dunnock's nest, each female's egg closely resembles the eggs of the selected host.

Nicholas Davies and Michael Brooke are (were?) two Cambridge University ornithologists who specialize in cuckoos. They described their work some years ago in Scientific American. You'd have to be a little cuckoo to do what these guys do, but their research elegantly demonstrates the power of evolutionary theory to explain natural curiosities.

Our intrepid researchers armed themselves with phony cuckoo eggs, made of resin, the exact size and weight of real cuckoo eggs, and painted to resemble the different eggs laid by the four strains of female cuckoos.

Then they played cuckoo.

They snitched real eggs from reed warbler nests and replaced them with phony cuckoo eggs. The warblers accepted eggs that resembled their own and rejected most of the others, pushing them out of the nests.

Clearly, reed warblers aren't without some powers of discrimination, and natural selection would favor a cuckoo egg that closely resembles the host's. The evolved similarity of eggs is a classic example of mimicry.

But this was just the beginning. Davies and Brooke systematically replaced eggs in the nests of all four species of host birds, with phony eggs of every type, at different times of the day, removing different numbers of host eggs, and every other combination of thieving and confounding they could think of. They even went to Iceland to try their surreptitious switches on meadow pipits and wagtails that have long lived in isolation from cuckoos.

Every response of the cuckoos and their hosts to phony eggs was consistent with natural selection. For example, Icelandic birds were more easily fooled by phony eggs than their British cousins; they have not needed to evolve defenses against cuckoo trickery. And the cuckoo that lays its eggs in the dunnock's nest has no need of egg mimicry; the dunnock accepts almost any egg as its own, regardless of color or pattern, perhaps because it has only recently been parasitized by cuckoos.

What we have here appears to be a case of coevolution: Cuckoos have responded to the host's defenses by evolving eggs that closely resemble host eggs. Hosts, in turn, have adapted to cuckoo parasitism by becoming ever more discriminating and less likely to be fooled. And all of this inscribed in the "four-letter" code of the DNA.

The most delightful thing about this story is the thought of the two cuckoo-ologists, their pockets full of phony cuckoo eggs, skulking around in marsh and moor trying to unravel the ways of evolution. Such behavior on the part of humans is a natural curiosity as worthy of investigation as the egg-laying habits of birds.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The call of the wild

So what's happening to the cuckoo?

The call of the cuckoo -- that speaks its name -- used to be a familiar part of the spring and early summer here in Ireland. The letters column in the Irish Times invariably announced the first cuckoo, arriving, usually in April, after a long flight from South Africa. You heard it before you saw it -- cuc-coo -- and your heart made a little leap towards summer.

We don't hear the cuckoo any more. One more sad deletion from nature's prodigiality.

The cuckoo, of course, is a parasite. It disdains to build a nest or incubate a brood. Instead, the female cuckoo lays her egg in the nest of another species, removing an egg that belongs there. The unsuspecting mother bird, who went to all the trouble of building the nest, sits on the impostor egg along with her own. When the young cuckoo hatches, it tosses its "sibling" eggs or hatchlings out of the nest, thereby receiving the full attention of its foster parent.

Ah, isn't evolution grand. Imagine that cuckoo hatching being born with murder on its mind. It was all there in a "four-letter" code on the DNA, which makes proteins, which makes a bird brain intent on instant mayhem. TCCGAATGGGGATT=felony, so to speak. And if that doesn't make your head spin, nothing will.

So where are they? The cuckoos, I mean. Apparently, one problem is global warming. The parasitized species migrate from the Mediterranean basin. Because of changing climate, they are arriving in Northern Europe earlier and earlier, and starting families. By the time the cuckoos arrive all the way from the southern hemisphere -- unawares of the quickening tempo in northern climes -- the young of the usual surrogate parents have hatched and fledged. No nests in which to infiltrate an egg. No short-hop mothers to bamboozle.

Are we wrong to feel sorry for the felonious cuckoo? Or was a little intraspecies malfeasance an acceptable price to pay for that wonderful cuc-coo resounding over the gorsy moor, and the graceful shape of the long-haul trickster sculling the misty air?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

How not to love the world -- Part 2

A few more words on John Cornwell's Seminary Boy.

In the epilogue, Cornwell tells us briefly of his life after leaving the minor seminary at age eighteen. He briefly continued his priestly formation at one of England's major seminaries, but became disillusioned by the stultifying and infantilizng regimen. He left to continue his education at Oxford and Cambridge. There the contrast he had glimpsed earlier between "make-believe and reality" became more apparent.
One world picture involved the supernatural realm beyond the veil of appearances where resided the Holy Trinity, the angels and the saints, and the dead from the beginning of time -- in hell with the Devil and all his demons, or suffering in purgatory, or enjoying celestial happiness in the presence of God...

The other world picture, admittedly skewed by my youthful Cambridge optimism and sense of certitude, acknowledged the wonder and mystery of the vast material universe, and the emergence, through blind evolution, of the stupendous fertility of life on the planet. It paid homage to the dignity, genius and resourcefulness of humankind...
The one world, he writes, was entirely subject to belief and imagination. The other could be constructed and perceived by direct knowledge, underpinned by the natural sciences and unaided reason. Recognizing that the two world pictures could not be reconciled, he left the Church and put his faith behind him.

Twenty years later, he tells us, he returned to the fold (and here our paths diverge). He does not tell us why, except to say that he married a Catholic woman who raised their children Catholic. It would be interesting to know if and how he presently reconciles what he previously called make-believe and reality. I do know from what I have read of his writing that his newfound faith is skeptical ("doubt of doubt"), measured, and more metaphoric than literal. It is fun to watch him scrummaging with Dawkins in the British press.

Friday, June 26, 2009

How not to love the world

I've been reading John Cornwell's fine memoir of his life as a young seminarian in England in the mid-1950s -- roughly the same time as my own religious education.

Cornwell is a prolific journalist who has written a number of books on matters Roman Catholic. Perhaps the best known (to me at least) is Hitler's Pope, about Pius XII's silence in the face of German atrocities. I also know his work from the London Sunday Times.

In Seminary Boy, he give us an account of his escape, in 1953, at age 13 from a dysfunctional and impoverished East London family to the diocesan minor seminary of Cotton in the rural countryside. What ensues is a struggle between piety and hormones that will be familiar to anyone who came of age as a Roman Catholic at mid-century.

I have read a similar account of seminary life in my friend Frank Phelan's novelistic memoir, Four Ways of Computing Midnight. Those of us raised in Catholic schools got the same stuff as the seminarians, secondhand, so to speak -- the same mix of Jansenistic piety, although without the isolation and imposed harsh discipline.

There was something, for example, called "custody of the eyes," to which we were encouraged by our teachers and confessors, which meant that we should avoid looking at anything that might be an "occasion of sin." A glimpse of angelic Angela's budding breasts beneath her tight cashmere sweater might be enough to cause an "irregular motion of the flesh" -- and, possibly, barring a quick confession or Act of Contrition, an eternity in hell.

The seminarians of the time -- and presumably also novice nuns? -- were enjoined to avoid "particular friendships," which meant any attachment to another human being that might divert one's attention from Almighty God and his mother Mary. Cornwell tells the story of attraction and scruple with tenderness and poignancy. Deprived of anything like normal crushes and friendships, is it any wonder that the products of such a system sometimes went off the rails into perversity?

Today's boys and girls seem to have no interest in custody of the eyes, or of avoiding occasions of sin. The "houses of formation" for priests, brothers and nuns are effectively empty (Cotton is a closed ruin). Perhaps the whole system of celibate vocations only could sustain itself by tapping into the driving force of adolescent sexuality and sublimating it into a devotional rubric of sin and salvation. At one point about halfway through his memoir, young John Cornwell has a glimmer of doubt about the exhortations of his spiritual advisors to repress his inclinations toward "impurity" -- including spontaneous erections and wet dreams -- in an ever greater devotion to Our Lady. "[I]t began to dawn on me," he writes, "in a niggling, insistent scruple, that our spiritual lives involved not real feelings for real persons, but invented feelings for imaginary persons. The reflection disturbed me so much that I wondered whether it was not a whispered suggestion of the Devil himself, the Father of Lies. For if we were inventing our relationships with Jesus and Mary, were we not therefore dwelling in a world of make-believe?"

He put his scruple aside -- for the moment. More on his subsequent evolution tomorrow.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cultivating amazement

There is only one question, says the poet Mary Oliver: "How to love this world."

So here I am scanning a recent copy of the journal Nature, with articles titled "Parvalbumin neurons and gamma rhythms enhance cortical circuit performance" and "F-box protein FBX031 mediates cyclin D1 degradation to induce G1 arrest after DNA damage."

What is this stuff to me, and how does it help me love the world?

In her poetry, Oliver brilliantly evokes the sensate stimuli of love: the "lapped light" of pond lilies in the black pond, the goldfinch hatchlings "in the swaying branches, in the silver baskets," the dead snake in the road "as cool and gleaming as a braided whip."

Who can walk in the world that Oliver describes and not be blown over by love, made stammering and speechless?

And here I am wading through articles with titles like "Kinematic variables and water transport control the formation and location of arc volcanoes." What is here, among this technical language, to pluck the heartstrings?

I'll tell you.

What we glimpse in these technical reports -- some of which I understand and some of which I don't -- is the invisible machinery of the world, the magic of the elements, the sizzling fuse that burns in every atom, every molecule, every cell -- igniting, creating, animating.

We glimpse what Mary Oliver calls "the white fire of a great mystery."

Yes, there is only one question: How to love this world? That's why I read poets. And why I read Science and Nature, too. When it's over, I want to say with Oliver:
...all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Yesterday my friend Maurice and I drove to remote Gougane Barra in West County Cork to walk the mountain ridge that surrounds the valley. This is a holy place in Irish lore. Saint Finbar, who founded Cork City at the mouth of the River Lee in the 6th century, had a hermitage here, on an island in the lake that lies flat and smooth on the valley floor. A tiny modern church now sits on the island, and "rounds" (a kind of mini pilgrimage) are made here on the saint's feast day. It is a stunningly romantic setting, and it's no wonder that many brides choose the venue for their wedding. It would have to be a small wedding; the wee chapel would not seat more than thirty people.

The lake is the source of the River Lee.

Our purpose in coming to Gougane Barra was not religious, but physical; we had our eyes on the peaks and ridges that cradle the lake and mossy forest. But I was not oblivious to the spiritual significance of the place. It is no coincidence that so many of the earliest Irish Christians sought out these remote places of hermitage. They were still very much in thrall to the nature worship of their druidic predecessors -- as I discuss at length in my book Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain.

"If you wish to know the Creator, understand the creature," said Saint Columbanus, a contemporary of Finbar. The historical tension between transcendence and immanence (at work in every religious tradition) was decided in continental Christianity in favor of transcendence, and with it came the troublesome dualisms of natural/supernatural, matter/spirit, body/soul. By contrast, the early Irish texts suggest a God who is immanent in every part of creation -- in Sun, Moon, stars, wind and wave -- indeed , inseparable from the creation, even as the unutterable mystery of the universe confounds our understanding and perception. It is a kind of faith that rests more conformably with the spirit of modern science.

Continental Christianity developed as a faith of cities, of social hierarchies, of popes and emperors -- legalistic, authoritarian, rooted in sacred texts and miracles. Early Irish Christianity, like the druidic faith before it, was grounded in the natural world. There were no miracles except the inexhaustible miracle of nature itself. The spirit of the early Irish saints and scholars still haunts the enchanted valley of Gougane Barra.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


In one of his always delightful essays, Stephen Jay Gould traced the "evolution" of Mickey Mouse from the time of his creation by Disney, in 1928, to the mouse we know today. The early Mickey was a bit of a rascal -- mischievous, occasionally cruel. And he looked more or less like a real adult mouse: small head in proportion to body, pointy nose compared to cranial vault, beady eyes, spindly legs. As time passed, Mickey's personality softened and his appearance changed. Head and cranial vault became enlarged, eyes grew to half the size of the face, limbs got pudgier. Gould elucidated the evolutionary principle behind Mickey's transformation: It is called neoteny, or progressive juvenilization.

Mickey became a national symbol, and Americans like their national symbols cute and cuddly. Mickey's chronological age did not change, but he developed babyish features. To explain these perhaps unconscious developments on the part of Disney's artists, Gould referred to the work of animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz, who believed that juvenile facial and body features release "innate triggering mechanisms" for affection and nurturing in adult humans. The adaptive value of this response is obvious, since the nurturing of young is necessary for survival of the species. According to Lorenz, evolution has provided us with a caring response to juvenile features, a genetically-programmed reaction that apparently overflows onto other species.

If Lorenz is right, teddy bears, Andy Pandas, and the young rabbit in the grass just now outside my window are beneficiaries of our innate nurturing response to big eyes, round craniums, and pudgy limbs. Even Mickey Mouse evolved juvenile features in response to our evolved preference for all things cute and cuddly.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The meaning of life?

And speaking of pseudoscience, allow me to reprise a few paragraphs from something I wrote in the early days of this blog.

I had heard from a high-school student in the midwest who had read my book Skeptics and True Believers, in which, as you may know, I take to task all forms of faith that lack an empirical basis, including astrology and supernaturalist religion. He writes: "Are we just meaningless beasts roaming a meaningless Earth with the sole purpose of popping out babies so we can raise them to live longer, more meaningless lives?

A good question, the best question.

What we have learned about our place on Earth does indeed suggest that we are beasts, related even in our DNA and molecular chemistry to other animals. And, yes, the driving purpose of all animal life would seem to be "popping out babies."

But our uniquely complex human brains allow us to be more than beasts, more than baby-poppers. As far as we know, humans are the most complex thing in the universe, and in our desire to gain reliable knowledge of the universe the universe becomes conscious of itself.

As for myself, I don't need stars or gods to give my life meaning. I work at meaning every day, in the love of family and friends, in caring for my own little pieces of the Earth, in art, in science, and in making myself conscious of the mystery and beauty -- and terror -- of the cosmos.

"Or is there a possibility that there may be more?" asks my midwestern correspondent. Yes, there is almost certainly more to existence than what we have yet learned. Just think how much more we know than did our pre-scientific ancestors.

But that still greater knowledge will have to wait for minds other than my own. My children and grandchildren will know far more than I, and in that growing human storehouse of reliable knowledge I hope they will find some greater measure of meaning.

In the meantime, I attend to the fox that sometimes walks across my windowsill, the morning glory seedlings that reach achingly for the sun, and the moon that hangs like a great milky eye in the sky. Francis Bacon said that what a man would like to be true, he preferentially believes. That's a mistake I try to avoid. I choose instead to believe what my senses tell me to be palpably true.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Down in dim woods the diamond delves -- again

Is there really such a person as Shelley von Strunckel? Well, there must be, because there's her photograph at the top of her "In The Stars" astrology page in the Style section of the London Sunday Times. And, my goodness, she looks both starry-eyed and wise. I better see what she has to say about Virgos:
Few things are more disheartening than seeing things you've worked hard to make happen fall apart. Tempting as it is to try to breathe new life into these -- and there could be several such situations -- if they're floundering, let them. In distancing yourself, you'll get a clearer perspective on their potential. However, with the Sun brilliantly aspecting both Neptune and the expansive Jupiter during the week, unexpected developments and sudden and glorious offers could completely alter the landscape of your personal, romantic or working life. Once you have these to think about, you'll be relieved you wasted no time on those pursuits that, with every passing day, are becoming less interesting.
Ah, yes, now that makes a lot of sense, and I'm sure it applies just to me, especially the part about a sudden and glorious offer that will alter my romantic life. I'm waiting, I'm waiting.

A few years ago, I compared here the advice offered in four separate astrology columns, all on the same day, all mutually contradictory. It is hard to resist the idea that this stuff is made up out of whole cloth, perhaps even by a computer that randomly juggles pat phrases. And yet, I'm confident Ms. von Strunkel is a wealthy lady. "The most common of all follies," wrote that old curmudgeon H. L. Mencken, "is to believe passionately in the palpably not true."

Now, here is my own stellar advice for the coming days, which I offer entirely free of charge:
Tossing and turning? Can't sleep? Get up before the Sun and step outside. Brilliant Jupiter dominates the southern sky, blazing majestically. The Milky Way streams overhead -- there is no Moon to shed obscuring light. In the southwest the gorgeous center of the galaxy slips below the horizon, the Teapot of Sagittarius pouring its steaming contents onto the Earth. Now wait. Turn toward the east. The sky brightens, and -- voila! -- Venus and Mars rise together into the dawn. Put aside your cares and woes, lie back in a lawn chair, and enjoy the spectacle of a sunrise. Ask your sweetie to join you and -- who knows? --something sudden and glorious may happen in your romantic life.
There. Now wasn't that fun. And it didn't matter when you were born (although where you are will make a difference).

Polls show that half of Americans are open to astrological influences in their lives. I could never quite grasp why folks find astrology so compelling when the real sky is so full of wonder. The science writer Isaac Asimov had an explanation: "Inspect every piece of pseudoscience and you will find a security blanket, a thumb to suck, a skirt to hold,"

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The written word

When we think of the written word we think of literature, or newspapers. We think of little children in one-room school houses learning their alphabet with chalks and slates. We think of universal literacy. But the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said that the main function of early writing was "to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings."

Certainly, the use of writing helped white European colonists overwhelm illiterate Native Americans, displacing them from their lands and obliterating their traditions. This was true for the Cherokees as for other tribes. As Jared Diamond has pointed out, words on paper were as important as guns, germs and steel in the colonialist's advantage.

The illiterate Cherokee metalsmith Sequoyah "got it." He didn't have a clue what those scribbles on the white man's paper were all about, or how they worked, but he knew a good thing when he saw it. In 1820, he set about doing the same thing for the Cherokee language.

He started by inventing a pictographic sort of writing, with a different representational image for each word, but gave it up as hopelessly complicated. Then he tried devising a separate arbitrary sign for each word, but again was overwhelmed with thousands of signs.

Now, a light-bulb moment. Sequoyah realized that the many thousands of words in the Cherokee language were made up of a smaller number of sounds, what we call syllables. He whittled these down to 85 -- a few vowels, mostly combinations of a consonant and a vowel. He assigned a simple sign for each syllable, borrowing some signs at random (letters and one number) from an English book, inventing others of his own. Bingo! He had an easily-mastered written language, not an alphabet but a syllabary, something the Minoans of Crete had devised thousands of years earlier.

By 1825, the Cherokees had almost universal literacy in their own language and their own newspapers.

Sequoyah had before him the example of written English, but he knew nothing of its structure or meaning. The analysis of his own language and the invention of the syllabary was entirely his own -- one of the few known examples of the invention of a written language by a single individual.

Sequoyah was not quite a Chattanooga native, but he came from the neighborhood, and Chattanoogans take pride in him today. His most conspicuous monument: The TVA's Sequoyah Nuclear Generating Station just north of the city.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The tending of conscience

I was born and raised on land in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that once belonged to the Cherokee Nation. Beginning in 1838, the Cherokees were rounded up, herded into camps, then forcibly removed from their ancestral lands to new territories in Oklahoma. Their homes were burned, their farms distributed to whites.

Their transport west is known among the Cherokees and other removed tribes as "The Trail of Tears." Hunger, cold and disease took a heavy toll (nearly a third died along the way). This shameful episode was allowed, organized, and enforced by such American heroes as Justice John Marshall, President Andrew Jackson, and General Winfield Scott. White voices raised in protest were few and far between.

We learned about Marshall, Jackson and Scott in school, but nary a word about the forced expulsions that took place within a few miles of the classroom. The incident had been pretty much erased from the collective memory of the inheritors of Cherokee land. Nothing unusual about any of this. The Trail of Tears was a typical incident in the long colonial history of guns, germs and steel. The Cherokee were relatively fortunate compared, say, to the exterminated native peoples of Tasmania.

One assumes that the perpetuators of these colossal crimes knew in their heart of hearts that what they were doing was wrong. A justification was required, and as usual that meant defining the Cherokees as an inferior race having inferior rights. It was God, after all, who gave peoples of European extraction superior intelligence and moral dignity. The savages were blighted by divine approbation; it might even be debated whether or not they possessed immortal souls. Science too was often enlisted in the effort to show the subjugated peoples inferior.

Greed and injustice will no doubt always be with us, but science at least has been self-correcting. The anthropologist Jared Diamond, who traces the fates of human societies in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel, cites advances in genetics, molecular biology, biogeography, epidemiology, linguistics, geology, and climatology, among other sciences, to account for the successes of the colonizers. No reliable evidence has emerged from science to suggest intrinsic differences of intelligence or moral worth among the human peoples of the Earth. Tomorrow I will cite one extraordinary example of creative genius among the Cherokees, that of the self-taught linguist Sequoyah.

Several years ago I sat in the grass of a new park that was being opened on the banks of the Tennessee River at the place in Chattanooga where the Cherokees were herded aboard boats to begin their forced journey west. We were entertained with wonderful music by Cherokee musicians who had come from Oklahoma. On the rise above us was the stunning new Tennessee Aquarium, with its surrounding terraces and fountains dedicated to the memory of the Trail of Tears and Cherokee culture. The place is called Ross's Landing. John Ross was a Cherokee.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

My writing studio here in Kerry is an earth-covered structure, buried in the hill. We wanted it to be virtually invisible from the village below, so as to intrude upon the landscape as little as possible. We call it the Hobbit Hole.

The front is a wall of windows looking out to sea, twenty feet of sloping glass with a wide sill inside. It is a natural greenhouse, and every summer I give it over to plants. My usual company is tomatoes and morning glories. There are a couple of papyrus plants that survive outside during the winter that I bring in for the summer. And this year, for the first time, I am starting greens from seeds in dozens of little peat pots -- Bloomsdale Longstanding, Georgia Southern, and Spinach Mustard. They have germinated, If and when they start to burst their pots I will move them to the garden.

I'm not a gardener; I leave that to my wife. And it's not really food I'm after. I just need to feel the rush and throb of the universe at my elbow as I work. I piece syllables into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Meanwhile, the plants on the sill piece atoms into molecules, little molecules into big ones, big molecules into stem and leaf. Together we do our building. I'm under no illusion as to who is the better builder.

Consider the spinach mustard seed. It is not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. I had a hellava time picking them up one by one to put in the soil. Tiny, hard and brown, a hundred of them in their little paper packet, every one a Brassica rapa. Put one in soil, water it, give it a bit of sunshine, and in a few days two little leaves appear, splayed, like supplicant hands. Gimme, gimme. It's atoms they're after. They need a lot to build a plant. All that leaf and green to make another seed.

I once walked through Darwin's greenhouses at his home in Downe, Kent. He spent long hours there, observing plants, intensely curious as to how they behaved -- yes, behaved! -- in response to their environment. He wrote two books on the subject: The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants, and The Power of Movement in Plants. He tells us that it "always pleased him to exalt members of the botanical world in the scale of organized beings," plants generally being consigned to a lower status than creatures that get up and go. If you read Darwin, you sometimes feel he preferred the company of his climbers and twiners to the company of people.

Be that as it may, to watch a tiny seed turn itself into a spinach mustard is no small thing. All that wonderful molecular machinery, the DNA winding and unwinding, spinning and weaving, crafting proteins, artfully arranging. No matter how often I have watched it happen, it still cheers and inspires me to have it happening at my elbow.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Out of the dark -- Part 2

A few more thoughts on coming of age. Yesterday I mentioned falling in love with a bright-spirited young woman and the study of science as formative influences of my early adulthood. Last evening at table I thought of two more influences that must be acknowledged. Kindly indulge my reverie.

I was at UCLA at the time (the University of California at Los Angeles, 1959-60), a grad student in physics, just married, and still in the throes of a Jansenistic Catholicism. One day I wandered into the university's art galley, which had been given over to the work of Sister Mary Corita Kent and her students at LA's Immaculate Heart College -- a joyous explosion of colorful words and images such as I had never seen, Catholic in their essence, but not explicitly so. Well, wait, I had seen something like this before, at St. Mary's College at Notre Dame, in the work of Norman Laliberte and his students, including our sometime contributor Anne (see pic above). But here were rooms spilling over with art proclaiming that the point of religion is joy and love. I was deeply moved, and returned again and again to the gallery until the end of show.

Meanwhile, I ate my brown-bag lunch each day in the university's botanical garden with new friend and fellow grad student in physics Moises Levy, a Panamanian secular Jew (as I recall), who indulged my naive religious certainty with a kindly, bemused generosity. In the course of those lunches, surrounded by a wonderful variety of exotic plants - - Darwin's tangled bank? -- I imbibed from Levy a suspicion that the dualisms that had been so much a part of my early education -- natural/supernatural. body/soul, matter/spirit -- were not only without empirical foundation, but that modern science had rendered the distinctions superfluous. It was as if I had received permission to take pleasure in the world of the here and now.

Sister Corita left her order in 1968 and plied her radically-innovative art in opposition to war and in praise of ecumenical joy. She died in 1986 at age 68. It was she who turned the huge Dorchester gas tank in Boston into a much beloved work of art.

I have no idea what became of Moises Levy, but owe him -- and our common love of physics -- a debt of gratitude. I find more to celebrate in the tiny red spider mite that is at this moment crawling across my computer screen than in all the theological paraphernalia of my youth.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Out of the dark

Here in Ireland the news is all of the Ryan report, the devastating summary of a government-instituted investigation of decades of child abuse -- physical, emotional and sexual -- in institutions run by eighteen orders of Roman Catholic priests, brothers and nuns. Thousands of children were victimized, from toddlers to late-teens. It is a grim picture of what when on in Catholic Ireland before the Celtic Tiger of economic success brought secular Enlightenment values -- including democratic openness -- to the fore.

There is plenty of responsibility to go around. Throughout most of the 20th century, the government took a hands-off attitude to the doings of the Church. The hierarchy shifted perpetrators unpunished from place to place. The police deferred to the bishops. The Ryan report makes clear that the abuse was not just the work of a few bad apples, but systemic and pervasive. If you've seen the movie The Magdelene Sisters, you will have some idea of what transpired.

A few days, ago, the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Reverend Diarmuid Martin, said, "There are questions to be asked regarding how much Irish devotional practice in general had drifted away from the fundamental fact that God is love...We have to ask to what extent the punitive and humiliating culture which seems to have developed in some such institutions was due to the fact that we had drifted away from the God who is love into one inspired by a punitive, judgmental God; a God whose love was the love of harsh parents, where punishment became the primary instrument of love."

I was raised in a Roman Catholic culture of a primarily Irish flavor, with its emphasis on sin -- mostly sexual -- and punishment. As a college student I went through a period of intense intellectual religiosity of a thoroughly Jansenistic sort -- Leon Bloy, Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac -- sex, sin and punishment all wound up together. I subjected my body to harsh disciplines in the misguided notion that the flesh was evil and needed chastisement. I can imagine how easy it might have been for priests, brothers and nuns, confined to grim institutions filled with morbid religious imagery, dressed in stiff and colorless clothes, deprived of most of the bright and joyous pleasures of life, most especially including normal sexual and emotional relationships, and steeped in a theology of efficacious physical punishment, to take their frustrations and repressed sexuality out on their young charges.

This is not to excuse the terrible actions of the perpetrators, or to dismiss the good work done by the majority of religious men and women who kept their moral bearings in unselfish service. But I know from experience that the prevailing ambiance of mid-century Catholicism was a potent and unhealthy mix of perverted religion and sexuality.

I had the good fortune to fall in love with a sensible, even-tempered, skeptical woman who had somehow escaped the Jansenist curse. I also had the good fortune to study science, from which I learned to love the natural world, to see it as neither intrinsically good nor evil except by human volition. From science too I learned to use Ockham's razor to pare away the supernaturalist excrescences that so often bind the human soul in service to a punitive, judgmental God. I have spent my adult life celebrating the beauty and wonder of the here and now.

Monday, June 15, 2009

It's almost like being in love

When a man loves a woman,
can't keep his mind on somethin' else.
Language. Everyone agrees that language is a defining -- maybe the defining -- attribute of our species. No one knows how language evolved, or exactly when. In The Descent of Man, Darwin made the bold suggestion that language could have started with love songs, reinforced by sexual selection. Maybe brain and sweet talk grew together.
Love me tender, love me sweet,
never let me go.
Could it be true? Did we learn to speak on the boulevard of broken dreams? Was it that old devil moon that caused our chimplike tongues to shrink in size and retreat to the back of the mouth, our larynx to flex and bend? Neanderthals, presumably, could only grunt. Did they grunt their desire? Did the more alluring grunts win sexual favor?
Does she love me
with all her heart?
Should I worry
when we're apart?
It's a lover's question...
Mice have sex. Mice make babies. We read recently about researchers in Germany who modified a mouse gene -- Foxp2, I think it was -- to make it more like the human version of the gene, a gene considered essential to the human capacity for speech. The modified pups had a different call than normal mouse pups. A substitution of only two amino acids in the relevant protein made the difference. We haven't heard yet if the modified mice score more often with the opposite sex.
Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you.
Embrace me, my irreplaceable you.
Darwin was much interested in sexual selection -- males competing for mates, females choosing the males they like best -- as a driving engine of evolution. Lots of creatures pitch vocal woo. Could a slightly more attractive song confer as much selective advantage as, say, brighter feathers or longer antlers?
Who's sorry now?
Who's heart is aching
for breaking each vow?
No one knows, of course, whether sexual selection, much less love songs, had anything to do with the origin of speech, but is the idea really so far fetched? How many base substitutions in the DNA are required to go from a grunt rolled seductively at the back of the throat to "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliette is the sun."
They asked me how I knew
my true love was true...
Something here inside
cannot be denied...
Pitching woo. Woo, oh, woo, woo, woo. Sweet nothings. Woo, I woo you. Bill and coo. Woo, woo, I, oh, oh, oh, woo. Woo, oh woo! Oh God, OH GOD!
You've got to give a little, take a little,
and let your poor heart break a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Two years ago, on April 1, I re-posted here a Boston Globe column from April 1, 1991. At the time, I couldn't find the drawing I had made to accompany the column, but recently I came across it in a pile of old papers (click to enlarge).

The column, of course was a spoof -- although not every reader got it. But what I had to say about Stenonychosaurus was true. Stenonychosaurus (Troodon) was a smallish, relatively big-brained dinosaur that lived near the end of the Cretaceous period of geologic history, just before the dinosaur extinctions. The paleontologist Dale Russell and others have suggested that if the dinosaurs had not become extinct (or almost so, excepting the ancestors of modern birds), then Stenonychosaurus or its ilk might have fairly quickly evolved humanlike intelligence and perhaps even civilization. After all, the several millions years of human evolution from similar ancestors are but a blink in geologic time.

Pockets? Just think of the selective advantages! A place to keep a jack knife. Loose change. Billets-doux. OK. OK. Just kidding. But the contingency of evolution is not a joke. We like to think of ourselves as the inevitable culmination of natural selection, as if the entire universe of galaxies labored and groaned to bring us forth. It ain't necessarily so. Just ask the pocket-lizard.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Loon star state

The creationists in Texas and elsewhere continue their efforts to dumb down science education standards in the U. S. so as to allow the teaching of religion-based pseudoscience. (The graph above shows acceptance of evolution by the citizens of 34 developed nations. Click to enlarge.) The new strategy is to "teach all sides of the issue" so as to develop "critical thinking" among the students. I mean, who could object to that?

Well, no one really, except that it will allow an opening for poorly informed and religiously-motivated teachers to use the science classroom to indoctrinate students who themselves do not have the training or the knowledge to evaluate evidence.

Who has the superior ability to evaluate evidence? Eighth grade students, or the international professional scientific community?

Before we start changing the curriculm and textbooks, school committee members should be required to do this simple exercise. Take a year's worth of Science and Nature, say, the two most respected and comprehensive international journals of science. Count every article or research report that invokes evolution. Then count every article or research report that invokes creationism or intelligent design.

When the first glimmer of creationism or intelligent design appears in the peer-reviewed, professional scientific literature, that will be the time to teach all sides of the issue.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fifth anniversary

Tom tells me that we have reached the fifth anniversary of this blog. Millions of words, more words perhaps here in retirement than in all of my books together, more words than during those twenty years with the Boston Globe. To what end?

Not to entertain, surely, although those of you who visit here have been a blessing and a treasure.

Nor because I am flattered by the sound of my own voice; it is too late in the game for that.

Then why?

I mentioned here a few weeks ago playing ,as a young man, Ariel in Shakespeare's The Tempest. At my present age, it is lines by Caliban I think of:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after a long sleep,
Will make me sleep again.
Now, in my nodding retirement, I have time to attend the sounds and sweet airs that fill this wondrous isle we call Earth, the glimmerings and whisperings that give delight and hurt not, the strange noises -- the chirping of crickets and the cosmic microwave background radiation, the language of Shakespeare and the rumble of distant thunder. And out of those glimmerings and whisperings and strange noises to compose, such as it is, a soul.

Yes, that's what I have been doing here: soul building. In his third sonnet to Opheus, Rilke uses the phrase Gesang ist Dasein, singing is being. And so I sing. Not to entertain, or for applause, or for lucre; those days are past. I sing to be.

And say with Yeats:
Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it it study
In a learned school
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Testy delirium
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come --
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath --
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades;
Or a bird's sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

From the island

There's a lovely moment in Maurice O'Sullivan's classic Twenty Years A-Growing that I'm put in mind of this morning as I sit here once again in my little studio above Dingle Bay. The book is an account of growing up in the early part of the last century on the Blasket Island off the end of the Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, the westernmost place in Europe. Maurice and his friend Tomas steal a ride in a curragh (a traditional Irish rowing boat) across the Blasket Sound to attend the curragh races in Ventry. It is Tomas' first visit to the mainland. They land at Dunquin, and climb the hill to the pass that separates the end of the peninsula from the parish of Ventry and beyond. When the boys achieve the summit and look out to the east, Tomas is lost in astonishment." "Oh, Maurice," he exclaims, "isn't Ireland wide and spacious."


Of the various places I spend my time, this is the one that offers the most spacious views -- the lush green fields of Ventry falling away from my window, the silver dish of Ventry Harbor, Dingle Bay beyond, and across Dingle Bay the dark mountains of the Iveragh Peninsula, including Ireland's highest, Carrantuohill. Then the Atlantic, with the distant jut of the Skellig Rocks punctuating the far horizon.

And now we wait, as at the top of our own mountain pass, excursionists from our little planet Earth, for those first images from the refurbished Hubble Telescope, including, presumably, a new Ultra Ultra Deep Field Photograph, a look back to the very beginning of time as the first galaxies formed and stars began cooking up the elements of life. And we exclaim, like Tomas, astonished, mouth agape, "Isn't the universe wide and spacious!"

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince lived on an asteroid scarcely larger than himself. As readers of the childhood classic will remember, his companions were a sheep and a rose, and some baobab seedlings that he carefully weeded, lest they grow into giant trees that would split his tiny world. The asteroid had three volcanoes, two of which were active, and all of which the Little Prince assiduously cleaned.

A charming little world, but of course scientifically implausible. An asteroid the size of the Little Prince's would not have enough internal heat to cause volcanic activity, nor enough gravity to hold an atmosphere. Water too would be absent, and surface temperatures would be either too hot or too cold for comfort.

Where children fly in their imaginations, NASA takes us in reality. On Feb. 17, 1996, the NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) spacecraft was launched on voyage to the asteroid, Eros.

Eros is not so far away. It doesn't circle in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but on an eccentric orbit that takes it nearly as close to the sun as Earth, and out just past Mars. Eros was the first near-Earth asteroid to be discovered, and the second biggest. It is a potato-shaped chunk of rock about the size of Martha's Vineyard. Not as small as The Little Prince's world, but small enough to circumnavigate in a brisk day's walk.

NEAR's journey to Eros took four years. A three-year journey was planned, but the first attempt to put the spacecraft into orbit around the asteroid failed. An extra year's travel gave engineers time to trim their skills and calculations. And it allowed NEAR to rendezvous with an asteroid named for the god of love on Valentine's Day 2000.

An object as small as Eros doesn't have much gravity to hold a spacecraft in orbit. The Little Prince would weigh about an ounce on Eros, and he could launch a stone into space with a swing of his arm. The orbiting NEAR was bound to Eros by a slender gravitational thread, and slipping the spacecraft into the thrall of the asteroid was a tour de force of remote navigation.

NEAR orbited just above the lumpy surface of Eros for a year, sending back stunning pictures of a gray and lifeless world without air or water. It was then crashed onto the surface, surviving well enough to send back an analysis of the surface debris.

No sheep or baobabs, no volcanoes, but lots of impact craters and scattered boulders. We catch a glimpse into the early history of the solar system, when scattered dust and gas was gathered into larger and larger chunks of rock, some of which would eventually coalesce to form the planets, and other potato-shaped clumps destined to drift through space like gloomy Flying Dutchmans.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Conspicuous conspicuousity

This evening, we fly to Ireland for summer in a little cottage we have owned for 30 years. I never know what we'll find in the way of internet access; our corner of our village may be the last place in Ireland to get broadband. I won't be here tomorrow. Hopefully Wednesday.

Somewhere early in my education -- was it an undergraduate economics course? junior seminar? -- I was required to read Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899 by the University of Chicago professor of economics. All I remember directly from the book is that it was a swamp of virtually impenetrable prose. But our professor told us what it was all about, and insisted that Veblen's thesis should be part of the furniture of every educated mind.

It was Veblen who invented the term "conspicuous consumption," and who described a class of people who make lots of money doing nothing useful -- just pushing money around. If Veblen's analysis still applies, personal worth in American society today is measured by one's ability to spend $25,000 on a prestige watch or $2000 on a designer handbag. The more expensive and less utilitarian an item , the more it announces that one has arrived in the tribal elite.

In the current economic and environmental crises I am surprised that we haven't seen Veblen quoted more often on the op-ed pages. To Veblen's economic analysis we might today add a theory of the celebrity class -- our compulsive adulation of beautiful people from the world of entertainment (mostly) whom we reward far out of proportion to any tangible benefit they add to society. Which is to say, our conspicuously-consuming tribal elites seem to play a welcome role in a society that almost uniformly aspires to conspicuously consume. We don't resent those $25,000 watches and $2000 handbags because we want them too.

I do not, of course, remove myself from those who aspire to more of the material accessories of life than are necessary. Readers here will know that I own three homes in three lovely locations (total cost $200,000), when one would surely do. I try to keep my environmental footprint low (and, believe it or not, the three homes help, with nature supplying heat in winter -- Exuma -- and AC in summer -- Ireland), but I also know that I am more affluent and consume more than the vast majority of people in the world, and if all 7 billion of us consumed as much as me (or any of my ardent conservationist friends) the planet would go to hell in a handbasket PDQ.

Every now and then when I aspire to greater wealth, my spouse asks, "Chet, what do you want that you don't have?", and I am hard pressed to answer. So I'll settle for this. An Apple laptop. A new pair of jeans every year or two. A bottle of halfway decent wine with dinner every evening. A daily hour on the Path. An occasional starry night.

And, now, having patted myself on the back so effusively, I think I will supplement the next evening's bottle of wine with a tumbler of outrageously expensive port.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The ink of night

Cleaning out a closet, I found a New Yorker cover from 1988 that I had liked enough to frame. The drawing, by Eugene Mihaesco, is simple. A pen lays on a white table, its nib dark with ink. An ink bottle stands open. The ink in the bottle is a map of constellations of the northern sky -- Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and Draco -- including the stars Dubhe, Merak, and Mizar. Click to enlarge.

Simple, yet hauntingly provocative. It seems to suggest that the possessor of the pen -- a poet? an astronomer? -- draws inspiration from the ink of night. But the star map, with its constellations and star names, is the work of a creative imagination. So the ink in the bottle is both the night and an image of the night. Ambiguous? Certainly, but that very ambiguity is an essential part of both art and science.

Does science describe reality, or does science invent reality? The question is as old as Parmenides and shows no sign of resolution. I suspect that most scientists are willing to live with the ambiguity. They are confident that their theories describe something that is real in the world, but they also know that theories are creations of the human mind.

Consider that little patch of night in the ink bottle -- the constellations near the northern pole. F ew groups of stars have so inspired the human imagination as Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The seven brightest stars of the constellation -- the stars we know as the Big Dipper -- are so instantly recognizable that sometimes I wonder if the pattern might not be genetically encoded in the human brain, the way some birds are endowed with the ability to navigate by stars.

The Greeks provided a charming legend to account for the constellation. The nymph Callisto was loved by Zeus, who transformed her into a bear to protect her from the wrath of Hera, his jealous spouse. One day Callisto's son Arcas was out hunting in the forest and raised his bow to shoot the bear, not recognizing his mother in altered form. Zeus observed the impending tragedy from Olympus, and speedily intervened. He changed Arcas into a little bear, and placed mother and son into the heavens where they remain today, arched poignantly toward each other, the eternal victims of Zeus' wandering eye. But Hera had the last laugh; she moved the two bears into the part of the sky near the celestial pole, so they would never set and therefore never rest.

There was a time when images of bears and the story of Callisto and Arcas might have satisfied our curiosity about the sky, but the tension between experience and story become too slack for the story to have currency as science. Today we have new stories, more closely tied to our experience of the stars, and more consistent with our other knowledge of the world.

Let me dip my pen into Mihaesco's ink of night and tell the story of Dubhe, Merak, and Mizar, the three stars that are named on the map in the bottle. Dubhe, the star at the lip of the Dipper, is a yellow-orange giant ten times larger than the Sun and a hundred times more luminous. It lies 100 light years from Earth, a distance so vast that it would take a spacecraft, such as the ones we sent to the outer planets, a million years to get there. Dubhe was once a star very much like the Sun, but it has depleted its energy resources and entered its death throes, swelling up to devour its inner planets, and boiling away whatever oceans and atmospheres those planets might have had. Dubhe's fate will someday be the Sun's.

Merak and Mizar are sibling stars, born at the same time from a great gassy nebula and streaming together through space from the place of their birth. They are stars in the prime of life, many times brighter than the Sun, and almost certainly accompanied in their travels by families of planets. Mizar is a wonderful thing to behold through a telescope. It is actually a system of two great Suns, bound together by gravity, circling about each other once every 10,000 years.

How is it that astronomers can tell such stories, stories more wondrous than any myth of gods and nymphs, when the ink of night offers to the eye only tiny points of light? The answer is both simple and complex. We look, we invent, we look again. We test our inventions against what we see, and we insist that our inventions be consistent with one another.

And tension! Always we are testing the tension of the instrument which is science, observing that the strings of theory are taut and resonant. The same theories -- of gravity and dynamics, for example -- describe the fall of an apple from a tree and the streaming of stars through space. The story of the falling apple and the story of the stars resonate together.

Night is both the ink of our invention and the invention -- an ambiguity we have learned to live with. We are confident (or we wouldn't do science at all) that out there in space, 600 trillion miles from Earth, the dying star Dubhe burns with the brilliance of a hundred Suns. But we also know that Dubhe is our invention. It is for us as it was for the singer in a famous poem by Wallace Stevens: "Even if what she sang was what she heard...there never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang, and singing made."

Saturday, June 06, 2009

In praise of clarity

These days at the college I spend my time in the library. But I keep my laptop in a building I have access to at any time, in a lockable cupboard in the English Department's Critical Theory Library. And there I find myself surrounded by the likes of Foucault, Derrida, Latour, Baudrillard, Barthes, and all the rest of the fashionable theorists of the postmodern intelligensia.

Let me say at once that I don't even know what "postmodernism" means. Every definition I have read is as abtruse as the authors themselves. Not that I haven't tried. I've given the pomo gurus my best shot, only to find myself wallowing in bafflement (with the occasional exception of Foucault). Maybe I'm just not smart enough. Maybe it was all those years of reading and teaching science, where X is defined with a precision that allows unambiguous measurement. Francis Bacon said that truth "is extracted...not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature." The pomo crowd are supremely adept at rooting around in the closets of the mind; one wishes that now or then they would step out into the sunlight.

Give me instead the poet who sees and describes, simply, exactly, as in this poem, called Pheasant, by Sylvia Plath:
You said you would kill it this morning.
Do not kill it. It startles me still,
The jut of that odd, dark head, pacing

Through the uncut grass on the elm's hill.
It is something to own a pheasant,
Or just to be visited at all.

I am not mystical: it isn't
As if I thought it had a spirit.
It is simply in its element.

That gives it a kingliness, a right.
The print of its big foot last winter,
The tail-track, on the snow in our court --

The wonder of it, in that pallor,
Through crosshatch of sparrow and starling.
Is it its rareness, then? It is rare.

But a dozen would be worth having,
A hundred, on that hill -- green and red,
Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!

It is such a good shape, so vivid.
It's a little cornucopia.
It unclaps, brown as a leaf, and loud,

Settles in the elm, and is easy.
It was sunning in the narcissi.
I trespass stupidly. Let be, let be.
As the critic John Ruskin said, "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way."

(I haven't mentioned the structural contrivance of the poem itself. Would someone like to observe closely and tell what you see?)

Friday, June 05, 2009


Here is a recent APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day), an image of the Sun made with the orbiting SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) in September 1999, showing a huge solar prominence, a mass of twisted plasma arching high above the solar limb. These violent storms can hurl winds of charged particles into space, disrupting terrestrial communications and causing spectacular auroras. Click to enlarge.

To the image I have added a black dot representing the size of the Earth on the same scale. There it is, nestled minutely in the center of this great firestorm.

Yes, that black dot is the Earth, our magnificent planet, in all of its natural wonder, with nearly seven billion of us seeking love, and security, and purpose, and meaning -- lost, dwarfed, in this local manifestation of cosmic violence.

More than two thousand years ago, Aristarchus devised a clever way to measure the sizes and distances of the Sun and Moon, and told his contemporaries that the Sun was six or seven times bigger than the Earth (I tell how he did it in Walking Zero). Apparently, only a handful of Aristarchus's' contemporaries had the technical know-how to appreciate his method or the imagination to embrace his result. Aristarchus was a skilled mathematician and a careful observer, but his true greatness lies in his willingness to accept what was so counterintuitive to "common sense."

We now know that Aristarchus's method was correct, but he lacked the technical ability to make one crucial quantitative observation with sufficient accuracy. The Sun is not six or seven times bigger than the Earth; it is more than one hundred times bigger! Perhaps it is just as well he didn't get it right. Would even Aristarchus have had the courage to accept what we now know to be true?

Look at the image above again, with that tiny black dot. Even today, how many of us are psychologically prepared to live in a universe of such arching grandeur? There was a time when cosmology reinforced our sense of cosmic centrality. How do we reconcile the scale of the cosmos as we now understand it with our sense of being central and important in the lesser circle of our daily lives?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The wonder of mortal beauty

Back in the 1950s, it was axiomatic that college students read James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Even an engineering student like me found the novel on his junior seminar reading list -- the Viking edition with green cover, $1.25. It was an awakening.

I'm sure I am just one of thousands of students who first glimpsed the intellectual life by reading Portrait. The Irish writer Seamus Deane has called the book "the first novel in the English language in which a passion for thinking is fully expressed." The intellectual Edward Said elaborates Deane's remark: "Neither the protagonists of Dickens, nor Thackeray, nor Austen, nor Hardy, nor even George Eliot are young men and women whose major concern is the life of the mind in society."

There was the teasing epigraph, of course, from Ovid's Metamorphoses: Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes (And turned his mind to unknown arts). And then, out of the blue: "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...."

What? What followed was the story of a young mind awakening, challenging Church and Irish strictures -- anti-sex, anti-joy - daring to spread wings and fly like Dedalus of old. So much of the book resonated with my own Catholic childhood, so little had changed in the half-century between Joyce and me, that it seemed to have been written for me alone. And when Stephen Dedalus sees the girl with her skirts jacked up on the beach at Blackrock, and becomes fully aware for the first time of "the wonder of mortal beauty," it was my epiphany too.

For me and for others the book was an invitation to the life of the mind, or at least to a life of joyous skepticism. Edward Said, in the little work referred to above, says of the intellectual life that it must be secular, eschewing all gods natural and supernatural who require "a total, seamless view of reality that recognizes only disciples or enemies.
What strikes me as much more interesting is how to keep a space in the mind open for doubt and for the part of an alert, skeptical irony (preferably also self-irony). Yes, you have convictions and you make judgments, but they are arrived at by work, and by a sense of association with others, other intellectuals, a grassroots movement, a continuing history, a set of lived lives. As for abstractions or orthodoxies, the trouble with them is that they are patrons who need placating and stroking all the time. The morality and principles of an intellectual should not constitute a sort of sealed gearbox that drives thought and action in one direction and is powered by an engine with only one fuel source. The intellectual has to walk around, has to have the space in which to stand and talk back to authority, since unquestioning subservience to authority in today's world is one of the greater threats to an active, and moral, intellectual life.
It is a fine line one must walk, between blowing hither and yon in a random wind, and aligning one's thoughts with a chosen authority. We have seen in recent days what transpired in Catholic Ireland when subservience to authority overwhelmed a joyous skepticism. Would that more young Stephen Dedaluses had caught his glimpse of mortal beauty. Certainly, some of us did, as we stood with Stephen barefoot in the sand on Blackrock Strand.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The dream of the earth

Thomas Berry traces some of the present tension between science and faith to the trauma of the Black Death in 14th-century Europe, which may have killed up to a third of the population. There were two responses, he says: One toward a religious redemption out of this tragic world, the other toward greater control of the physical world to escape its pain and increase its utility to humans -- redemptive, otherworldly religion, on the one hand, the scientific and industrial revolutions, on the other. We know, of course, which reponse led to the eradication of plague.

An excessive commitment to redemptive stories remains with us, says Berry. At its center is a preoccupation with the Savior, the interior spiritual life of the faithful, and focus on a postearthly paradise. Meanwhile, a new creation story has evolved within the secular scientific community, a story that "seems destined to become the universal story taught to every child who receives formal education in its modern form anywhere in the world."

Berry imagines a cosmology based on evolutionary science in which the Christian redemptive story might still play a role. According to this story, the cosmos and every creature in it reflects "the divine exemplar" -- what Plato called the Good, Plotinus the One, and Christians God. "All things are beautiful by this beauty. The supremely beautiful is the integrity and harmony of the total cosmic order."

The scientific story by itself is inadequate, say Berry. It is a story of objects, not subjects. Every being has its own interior, its self, its mystery, its sacred aspect. Reverence to the natural world will be total or will be not at all. When a vision of this vast symbolic -- I would call it sacramental -- world with its all-pervasive numinous qualities is lost, the world is open to the terrifying environmental assault we have witnessed in our own time. Thus, the integrity of the earth and our own spiritual lives are intimately bound up together.

But all is not lost:
Here we might observe that the basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through the earth. If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and the seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.
This vision of the future is not altogether original with Berry. It has precedents among John Erigena, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, Teilhard de Chardin, and many others, generally dismissed as heretics. I see no indication, alas, that an understanding of God as cosmic process has made much progress today; rather, redemptive, supernatural salvic stories seem on the rise globally. Which is not to denigrate Thomas Berry's brave efforts to bring our intellectual and spiritual lives into consonance.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Thomas Berry, 1914-2009

Anyone who has read my books or been a longtime visitor to this blog will know of my admiration for Thomas Berry, who died yesterday morning at age 94. Berry was a Roman Catholic priest, a cultural historian, and an ardent conservationist. But to say all of that is to overlook his status as one of the great gurus of religious naturalism. He world have rejected that designation himself, but those of us who seek room for the sacred within the scientific evolutionary story of the universe found in Berry an inspiration and an ally.
Today, in the opening years of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a critical moment when the religious traditions need to awaken again to the natural world as the primary manifestation of the divine to human intelligence. The very nature and purpose of the human is to experience this intimate presence that comes to us through natural phenomena. Such is the purpose of having eyes and ears and feeling sensitivity, and all our other senses. We have no inner spiritual development without outer experience. Immediately, when we see or experience any natural phenomenon, when we see a flower, a butterfly, a tree, when we feel the evening breeze flow over us or wade in a stream of clear water, our natural response is immediate, intuitive, transforming, ecstatic. Everywhere we find ourselves invaded by the world of the sacred.
The creation, said Berry, is the primary revelation. All other sources of revelation -- sacred books, prophets, tradition -- derive from the natural world as understood within a historical context. Times change. In place of the spirit-haunted world of our prescientific ancestors, a renewed Church should embrace the evolving scientific cosmology of the 21st century -- what Berry called the "New Story." The antagonisms between science and traditional faith are deeper than they might appear to be, he wrote, and cannot be swept under the rug. The older redemptive stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition simply do not meet the most basic tests of rational knowing. But the newer, scientific story of creation has not yet acquired a spiritual aspect: "An integral story has not emerged."

Berry was full of hope, and it was his spirit of optimism that I most admired. Like his own hero Teilhard de Chardin, Berry's influence on the institutional Church was minimal (unlike Teilhard, he avoided censure by flying under the radar). His influence on the ordinary people of the Church, however, is significant, especially, it seems to me, among Roman Catholic professed women. The "green sisters," as they have been called, will carry on his ecological, universalist vision of what the future of the Earth might be, what Berry called "the Great Work" -- celebrating the scientific story of cosmic evolution, caring lovingly for the natural world, and open to all traditions that embody an expression of the immanent divine. Maybe, just maybe, some of it will rub off on the stasis-obsesssed patriarchy in Rome.

Pace, Thomas, and thanks.

(If I can suggest one reading from Berry's work, it would be the essay "The New Story" from The Dream of the Earth. I will summarize tomorrow.)

Monday, June 01, 2009

The fat season

I see Bernd Heinrich has a new book out, Summer World: A Season of Bounty. Just in time for summer.

Heinrich is Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Vermont. He also has a home in the Maine woods. He is a prolific writer, giving us a book every year or two at least, and every one of them a terrific read. The guy is a Doctor Doolittle of the wild. He seems to know more about wild animals than anyone else around -- ravens, crows, geese, owls, bumblebees, deer and whatever else wanders into his purview. Five or six years ago we had Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival . I suppose Spring and Autumn are yet to come.

I met Heinrich once, back early in his writing career when we knew him as the raven man. We also knew him as a champion marathoner, which has had some interesting tie-ins with his studies on the physiology of animals. Energy in, energy out. I always imagined Heinrich loping along with a herd of antelopes, taking notes as he goes.

Anyway, back to the new book, which I haven't yet read. We northerners are tipping toward the sun, leaning into the curve, catching more rays. And the woods and meadows along the Path are burgeoning. I stopped on the plank bridge over Queset Brook today, watched the striders and whirligigs and mayflies and dragonflies dancing on the surface of the water, and was glad I had read Heinrich's Thermal Warriors, a solidly scientific book about how insects collect and use summer's bounty. I set there on the bridge with my legs dangling over the water and soaked up some sun myself, grateful for biologists like Bernd Heinrich who don't just sit and muse -- although I'm sure he does some of that too -- but measures, experiments, quantifies, and tabulates, and gives us all a deeper knowledge of the buzz and hum.