Monday, August 31, 2009

The most beautiful thing to a worm is...

Charles Darwin spent a good part of his life studying earthworms, a grand long adventure that Steve Jones has admirably described in Darwin's Island, an account of the great naturalist's home-based researches. Earthworms, like twining plants and pollinating insects, made ideal subjects for study. They were readily at hand, and -- to an insatiably curious mind like Darwin's -- endlessly interesting.

In a memorable phrase, Jones writes: "A worm is an animated intestine." It is a description that comes to mind these wet days when earthworms -- long, pink and slimy -- crawl onto the road in front of the house. They do indeed look like an excised organ that belongs inside a more complete animal, a hare, say, or a hedgehog. I suppose in the great evolutionary scheme of things we all started out as animated intestines. Eating and reproducing: Everything else is gravy.

If an earthworm is an animated intestine, then I am an embellished earthworm. String out my intestines, large and small, and they'd be nearly 28 feet long. Add the esophagus and stomach and you've got more than 30 feet of earthworm. In one end and out the other. That's the essential me. The rest is frills.

Arms and legs. Prehensile paws. A bony skeleton. Big eyes. The copious brain typical of my species. Altogether a rather attractive package for the long, pink, slimy annelid that's curled up inside.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The nature of the miraculous

By the time Gerald of Wales arrived in Ireland in the 12th-century, full of credulity for marvels and aberrations, the Irish tradition of scholarship was already ancient. As I have described in Climbing Brandon, the early Irish Christians married the new Mediterranean mystery religion with a prior druidic nature worship, yielding a faith in which God was more immanent than transcendent -- a Christian pantheism, as it were. One of the thorniest problems they faced was how to account for the miracles of scripture within the context of respect for nature and nature's laws.

The person who tackled this problem most effectively was the 7th century monk known as Augustinus Hibernicus, the "Irish Augustine." He tried to show that most of the miracles of scriptures could be accounted for within the framework of nature -- God modifying the temporal unfolding of events, but not acting against nature itself.

For example, when the Israelites were in Egypt, God changed water into blood in an instant, and made salt water sweet when it was touched with a staff. Both things happen naturally, noted Augustinus Hibernicus. Our bodies change the water we drink into blood, and salt water becomes sweet when it passes through clouds or earth. So, in both cases, God did not so much set aside the laws of nature, as employ them for his purposes.

Augustinus had more trouble accounting for, say, Moses' rod turning into a serpent, since he knew of no example in nature where plant becomes animal. Here he was inclined to believe the "miracle" was some sort of hallucination -- both rod and serpent actually being made of earth, for instance.

Now all of this sounds far-fetched, but it is not the same sort of credulous embrace of the supernatural that we find in Gerald of Wales. Augustinus accepted the stories of the Bible as reliable accounts, and struggled to show that they could be accounted for within the natural order: God created the universe, and thereafter felt no need to set aside the laws of his creation. This is a rather remarkable affirmation for the 7th century, and stands in stark contrast to the supernatural/natural dualism that characterized continental Christianity. It is perhaps not too much of a stretch to count Augustinus an early religious naturalist -- allowing him, of course, the conceptual limitations of his time.

For Augustinus, there is no miracle except the creation itself. As the scholar John Carey says of the world view of Augustinus and his Irish contemporaries: "Existence itself, then, is the ultimate miracle: had our eyes not grown so dull, they would be dazzled with ineffable wonder wherever we turned our gaze."

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cognitive dissonance

Gerald of Wales was a member of a fine old Norman family involved in the 12th-century invasion of Ireland. He was an ecclesiastic and a scholar, the author of many books, among them The History and Topography of Ireland. It is a strange little book, worth reading as much for what it tells us about the mind of an educated person in 12th-century Europe as it does about Ireland.

The first thing that strikes us is the credulity of the author. If he hears a story, he reports it, no matter how outlandish -- from a man who is half an ox to a whirlpool that swallows ships. There is no hint of the modern historian's demand for reliable primary evidence.

Secondly, there is Gerald's taste for the wondrous and apparently miraculous over the commonplace and the ordinary. His book is a compendium of the strange and unusual -- a lion that loved a woman, a fish with three gold teeth. A single reported occurrence of a thing is enough to attract Gerald's interest, as opposed to the modern scientist's exclusive interest in reproducible events.

Thirdly, there is Gerald's apparent desire to portray the indigenous Irish as savage and uncivilized, no doubt to provide a moral underpinning for the Norman invasion.

If all of this sounds familiar, it is because so much of it is still with us. The man who is half an ox shows up today in the tabloid newspapers at the supermarket checkout counter. A taste for the miraculous endures in our insatiable appetite for the paranormal, including the many miracles of supernaturalist religion. And the less said about slanting history to justify conquest the better.

Against all of this, we have a new way of knowing -- the scientific way of knowing -- with a history going back to the Hellenic world, but forged into a powerful instrument in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. The scientific way of knowing is the basis for our modern health, wealth and technology, not to mention the Enlightenment principles that underlie our personal freedoms and equality, but the great majority of us choose to live psychologically in the premodern world of Gerald of Wales. We would rather read about alien abductions and astrology than about the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo or protemics. We accept the many miracles of religion -- the resurrection of Jesus, Mohammed's night flight to Jerusalem -- with the same credulity that Gerald affords to the fleas banished from Connacht by Saint Nannan.

Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance: living in two contradictory worlds at the same time. We can't accuse Gerald of cognitive dissonance; he was writing out of the prevailing world view of his day. We, on the other hand, eagerly embrace the fruits of the scientific world view and insist on our Geraldean miracles too.

Friday, August 28, 2009

An adequate step?

Tim Robinson is an Englishman who went to Ireland's Aran Island in 1972 to write, think, and otherwise jolt his life out of a London rut. In 1984, he moved across Galway Bay to Connemara, where he remains. His long sojourn in those rocky landscapes has led to several wonderful books and maps of surpassing loveliness.

In the first chapter of Stones of Aran, he defines something he calls the "adequate step," a step worthy of the landscape it traverses. The adequate step takes note of the geology, biology, myths, history, and culture of the landscape, Robinson says. It also includes the state of consciousness of the walker.

On the day when Tim Robinson first arrived on the Aran, he met an old man who explained the basic geography: "The ocean," he said, "goes all around the island." By the time Robinson had stepped along every shore, cliff, field and boreen (little road), the geography of Aran in space and time filled two fat volumes and a big-sheeted map.

And even that, he knew, was not enough. No step or series of steps can ever be fully adequate. "To forget the dimensions of the step is to forgo our honor as human beings," he writes, "but an awareness of them equal to the involuted complexities under foot at any given moment would be a crushing backload to carry."

I tried to incorporate Robinson's notion of the adequate step into my books The Path and Climbing Brandon, teasing out of those two landscapes as many layers of discovery and meaning as were possible to carry without being crushed under their weight. And still those landscapes yield their treasures. The ocean of mystery goes all around the island.

No step or series of steps can ever be fully adequate. "Knowledge of [the natural environment] is a magic well," writes E. O. Wilson in The Creation, "the more you draw from it, the more there is to draw."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dreams of a final reconciliation

In his book Dreams of a Final Theory, the Noble-prizewinning physicist Steven Weinberg writes: "Religious liberals are in one sense even farther in spirit from scientists than are fundamentalists and other religious conservatives. At least conservatives like the scientists tell you that they believe in what they believe because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy."

There is, of course, an important difference between scientists and religious fundamentalists. The latter believe their truths are inalterably true, inerrantly revealed by the divinity. The scientist's truths are tentative and open to amendment. But I know what Weinberg means. It's my religiously liberal friends that I have the hardest time understanding.

Take, for example, the Feast of the Assumption, which Catholics recently observed, obligatorily. The day celebrates the infallibly proclaimed doctrine that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed bodily into heaven. That is to say, her former soma is not intermixed with the soil of the Middle East, but resides forever intact and entire in some other place. I ask my liberally Catholic friends about this, and they wave their hands and say that none of this is meant to be taken literally, that its all a mystery, or that the truths of faith (such as the Assumption) are metaphorical, etc. In fact, I rather doubt that here is a Catholic academic theologian anywhere in the world who takes the doctrine literally.

Then why? And if the Assumption is merely metaphorical, why not the rest. The entire Creed -- a compendium of politically formulated 4th-century dualisms -- coexists in shaky connosance with the unitary world revealed by science. Push my religiously liberal friends on any of this and they hem and haw and say things like "God is love" or "God is graciousness" or "the mysteries of faith are beyond human understanding, which is why we call it faith." And I hear Steven Weinberg whispering in my ear: "The more we refine our understanding of God to make the concept plausible, the more it seems pointless."

Well, not exactly, I'd respond. By all means let's refine our concept of God to make it plausible. In fact, let's refine it all the way to a robust agnosticism. And let's stop talking about the Assumption too, and all the other supernaturalist falderal that religious liberals feel obliged to wear like an uncomfortable suit of clothes.

And you know what? When we stop the theological waffle, it just may turn out that scientists and religious liberals have a lot in common. An abiding sense of wonder and mystery. A felt ethical responsibility to lift the world out of pain and squalor. An urge to join with one another in communities of celebration and thanksgiving.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The art of losing

"The art of losing isn't hard to master," writes Elizabeth Bishop in a poem; "so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster."

Door keys. The hour badly spent. Names. These slip away and are lost. No disaster, says the poet.

Houses in which she had lived. Places. Rivers. A continent. They grow hazy in memory. Until they too are lost.

Even you. Losing you? "The art of losing's not too hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster."

Write it! We do that now. Make lists of names so that we can remember from one year to the next. Make notes to oneself, little strings of words tied around one's finger. Post-its on the fridge.

So much slips away. Mostly no disaster. Less to carry forward.

Write it! Get it down before it's gone. Seventy-three years spent filling up the head. Now. The great emptying out.

Tidying up.

Slipping off the superfluous. Clearing out the attic. The basement. The boxes of photographs (black-and-white with crinkled edges, faded Polaroids). The college yearbooks. The half-finished manuscripts. So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost.

Pacing through the alphabet, trying to remember the name of a friend's daughter. Then. Trying to remember the name of a friend.

The art of losing's not so hard to master. In fact, it is a biological imperative.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose

On Saturdays, the Irish Times prints facsimile pages from historic issues of the newspaper. This past week it was the front page from Tuesday, August 7, 1945.

President Truman yesterday startled the world of science by announcing that an American aeroplane on Sunday dropped an atomic bomb on a Japanese supply base on Hiroshima. "That bomb," he said, "had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T., and more than 2,000 times the blast power of the 10-tonners dropped by the R.A.F. on Germany.
The new bomb harnesses the power of the universe, the President is quoted as saying: "The most amazing advance in warfare since the invention of gun powder."

And a photo of HST, beaming like a kid on Christmas morning.

And just to keep things in proper Irish perspective, the adjacent story on the front page of the August 7, 1945, Irish Times: BANK HOLIDAY WEEKEND SPOILED BY WEATHER.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tyger, tyger burning bright...

Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet."
You may recall these words from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. There is nothing intrinsically cheerful about the world, she says. To live is to die; it's all part of the bargain. Stars destroy themselves to make the atoms of our bodies. Every creature lives to eat and be eaten. And into this incomprehensible, unfathomable, apparently stochastic melee stumbles...

You and I.

With qualities that we have -- so far -- seen nowhere else. Hope. Humor. A sense of justice. A sense of beauty. Gratitude.

But also: Anger. Hurt. Despair.

Strangers in a strange land.

Galaxies by the billions turn like St. Catherine Wheels, throwing off sparks of exploding stars. Atoms eddy and flow, blowing hot and cold, groping and promiscuous. A wind of neutrinos gusts through our bodies, Energy billows and swells. A myriad of microorganisms nibble at our flesh.

We have a sense that something purposeful is going on, something that involves us. Something secret, holy and fleet. But we haven't a clue what it is. We make up stories. Stories in which we are the point of it all. We tell the stories over and over. To our children. To ourselves. And the stories fill up the space of our ignorance.

Until they don't.

And then the great yawning spaces open again. And time clangs down on our heads like a pummeling rain, like the collapsing ceiling of the sky.

Dazed, stunned, we stagger like giddy topers towards our own swift dissolution.

Inexplicably praising. Admiring. Wondering. Giving thanks.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Peacocks and painted ladies

My wife has planted our garden here in Ireland with butterfly bushes, with which she hoped to attract butterflies. We have butterflies, but I haven't noticed that they show any particular preference for the bush that bears their name. Ah, never mind, the bushes are quite lovely in themselves.

Ireland is not so rich in butterflies as the European continent, or even the UK. Only 32 species are considered truly Irish; that is, species that breed on the island. Most of these are fairly common and inconspicuous -- hairstreaks, blues, whites, fritillaries -- although I'm sure they'd be enough to excite a lepidopterist. The most gaudy visitors to our garden are the Red Admirals, Peacocks, and Painted Ladies. Once, on a shoulder of Mount Brandon, I found myself in a cloud of Red Admirals. Still, for all of that, an Irish butterfly guidebook is rather slim.

There are vagrants, of course. In the east of Ireland a dozen or so Camberwell Beauties have been recorded -- what North Americans call Mourning Cloaks. They presumably drifted across the North Sea from Scandinavia, where they are common. My guidebook also informs me that here in the west of the island nineteen Monarchs have been recorded over the years, the largest butterfly to grace these shores. Where did these North American natives come from? Did they hitchhike on a ship? The consensus seems to be that they winged their way across the Atlantic on the prevailing winds, as improbable as that might sound. We know Monarchs are prodigious fliers -- they make a journey of several thousand miles from New England to Mexico each autumn, presumably with rest stops along the way. But across the Atlantic? These fragile slips of things?

In 2005 a Blue-winged Warbler showed up at the Cape Clear Bird Observatory in the southwest corner of Ireland. It was apparently migrating from northern North America to Mexico when it was blown thousands of miles off course to land on tiny Cape Clear Island. So extraordinary was its appearance that it drew hundreds of birders from all over Europe hoping for a glimpse of the plucky aviator. Irish mythology is full of stories of a paradise -- a Land of the Blessed -- beyond the Western Sea. All it would take to plant such an idea in my mind would be one Monarch butterfly or Blue-winged Warbler beating shoreward from the gray Atlantic.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


There is a moment early in Stefan Zweig's The Post Office Girl when the eponymous heroine has a moment of illumination: "In this instant, shaken to her very depths, this ecstatic human being has a first inkling that the soul is made of stuff so mysteriously elastic that a single event can make it big enough to contain the infinite."

Two interesting thoughts here.

First, that the soul is elastic. This is a rather different notion of the human soul than the one I was raised with. We were taught that the soul -- the essential self -- is created fully formed at the first moment of conception and lives on forever after the death of the body. And why not? The soul (I was taught) is a thing different from the body, independent of matter, an "angelic sprite" that lifted human beings above the status of the mere animals. Mind you, we never thought any of this through to its manifestly absurd conclusion, but it served at the time to hold up a rickety bric-a-brac of theology.

"Soul" is still a good word for the essential self, but in the new dispensation it is a rather more fleshy thing of many complex parts: an inherited genome (unique except for identical twins), a soma, an immune system that can tell self from non-self, a lifetime's worth of experiences stored with varying degrees of permanence in the brain, an environment. The soul as revealed by science is indeed elastic. It grows and contracts. It bends and flows. It encompasses and excludes. It is not the same from one moment to the next, and yet it remains. In a sense it even remains after the dissolution of the body, in that the flow of the world has been in some small way redirected by our being here. Oh yes, elastic. And sometimes, as Zweig suggests, it swells with an unexpected urgency, as when we encounter a particularly moving work of art, or suddenly comprehend a truth that had previously been hidden.

Second thought: The soul can contain the infinite. The human brain is certainly the most complex thing that we know of in the universe. But it is not infinite. And yet we have a concept of the infinite. We can even give the concept a precise mathematical expression. And conceiving of the infinite we can strive to attain it. Thus Darwin and Einstein. Thus Mozart and Matisse. Thus Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich. Thus in his infinitely inferior way your host, in the tail-end of life reading Stefan Zweig. Why? Not because I will carry it with me into infinity, but because having glimpsed the idea of the infinite I feel the uniquely human need to test and measure the soul's elasticity.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Gathering honey from stone

When we first came to Ireland 35 years ago, these wild Atlantic cliffs were open for walking. And for fossil hunting. We found trilobite fossils, among others. Then, as the number of tourists and pleasure walkers increased, a new generation of farmers began posting their land. Many of our favorite walks were closed off.

The farmers had some justification. A few irresponsible walkers left gates open, broke down fences while clambering over, let dogs run among the sheep. Sometimes it was a single instance of mindlessness and the "No trespassing" signs went up.

Now the old walks are slowly being reclaimed, as farmers are compensated for permission to use their land. Styles are put in place over fences. Signposts keeps walkers on narrow tracks through fields. And so it is that the marvelously rugged coastline in the photo here is again yielding up its fossils and breathtaking scenery.

I wrote about these cliffs in Honey From Stone. They were explored in the mid-19th century by James Flanagan and his famous colleague in the Geological Survey of Ireland George Victor Du Noyer, as they struggled to unravel a geological mystery known as "the great Devonian controversy." No need to retell that story here; you can read about it in Honey From Stone. Here's a teaser:
One hundred years ago there was hardly a wilder place in all of Ireland for human habitation than this westernmost tip of the Dingle Peninsula. The standard of life was exceedingly poor. The countryside was often gripped by famine. The life of a field geologist in such an environment could not have been easy. Comfortable accommodation west of Dingle Town was probably difficult if not impossible to find. The geologist' workday began at 9:00 A.M., six days a week. First came the ten-mile walk from Dingle to the cliffs with the puzzling fossils, then hours of field work and mapping, more likely than not in mist or rain. The workday ceased in time to allow the researchers to return to their base of operations by 6:00 P.M. In the evening, around the hearth in a Dingle public house, wet tweeds steaming in the heat of the fire, the geologists transferred their observations to the huge paper base maps that were a growing portrait of the island's geological past.
The scene has changed dramatically in this westernmost tip of Ireland, but the cliffs are as wild and unspoiled as ever. We scramble among the scree looking for the fossils that so perplexed the 19th-century geologists. We know one big thing they didn't know: Two hundred million years ago there was no Atlantic Ocean. Two-hundred million years ago one could have walked dry-shod from here to New England. But we only know this one big thing because of the habits of close observation and open-minded empirical rigor pioneered by the likes of Flanagan and Du Noyer.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The future of life

"The race is on," writes E. O. Wilson in The Future of Life, "between the technoscientific forces that are destroying the living environment and those that can be harnessed to save it. We are inside a bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption. If the race is won, humanity can emerge in far better condition than when it entered, and with most of the diversity of life still intact."

The central problem of the 21st century, he writes, is "how to raise the poor to a decent standard of living worldwide while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible."

A prerequisite to success is bringing population growth under control. The present trend toward smaller families, if it continues, will eventually halt population growth and then reverse it. This is Wilson's "bottleneck." If the population peak occurs, as predicted, sometime late in this century, we might just emerge on the other side with a bright future.

The estimated 80 million unplanned births each year is about the same as the global population increase. When given the means and freedom to choose, women worldwide opt for fewer children raised with better health care and education over larger families. Means and freedom to choose -- that is to say, readily available contraception and the empowerment of women.

In both matters, the church of my youth is on the wrong side. Even as the faithful in ever greater numbers embrace contraception and the equality of women, the patriarchy toes the line of hidebound tradition.

Of course, the RC Church is not the only religious institution that subjugates women and denies them access to family planning. But think what a splendid thing it would be if so powerful a body ("the mystical body of Christ") were to come down decisively on the side of equality and opportunity for women -- thereby helping "to raise the poor to a decent standard of living worldwide while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dear Mr. Computer

During the years I wrote Science Musings for the Boston Globe, I had a occasional column called Mr. Computer, in which I answered queries from "correspondents". Herewith a sampler.

Dear Mr. Computer,
After a lot of trouble, I managed to construct my own homepage on the web, with a list of my favorite songs, a picture of my cat, favorite links, little "Under Construction" signs, and everything. But so far, I haven't had a hit. What can I do to make my site more attractive?
Bill B., Boston

Dear Bill,
There are almost as many personal homepages on the Web as homes on our streets. It's unrealistic to expect a lot of uninvited visitors. Be patient, sooner or later you'll get a hit from the Jehovah Witnesses.

Dear Mr. Computer,
My 8-year-old daughter goes to a private school that has put a computer on every desk. The school's catalog promises to "make learning fun." Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I always thought learning was supposed to be hard work. Am I getting my money's worth?
Mary M., Miami

Dear Mary,
Depends on what you want for your daughter. If you want her to become a proficient member of the clickerati, she's in the right place. On the other hand, if you want a child who will curl up in a cozy chair with a book, fiddle with violin, or run barefoot in a sunny meadow, then you might want to reconsider your choice.

Dear Mr. Computer,
My husband Vernon stays up late every night, sometimes till 3 or 4 in the morning, "cruising the information superhighway," as he calls it. What's he going to do with all that information? He certainly doesn't seem any better informed to me.
Debbie D., Denver

Dear Debbie,
The information superhighway runs through some seamy parts of town. Vernon's nocturnal habits are probably harmless unless they start interfering with his day job. What your boy needs is less cruising and more snoozing.

Dear Mr. Computer,
For the past 12 months I have been telecommuting to my job, doing all of my work out of my house. I bank by computer, shop by computer. I'm even having a cyber-relationship with a nice man named Vernon that I met in a chat room. It seems I never get out of the house any more. Can this be good for me?
Helena H., Hartford

Dear Helena,
No, it's not good for you. Everyone should have some contact with the outside world. I would suggest a nice screen-saver from the collection marketed by DigiNature. You can select pictures of mountains, seashore, a forest, poppy fields, and so on.

Dear Mr. Computer,
I have a terrible crush on Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft. I know he's married, but I can't get him out of my head. My letters return unopened. My e-mail messages disappear into the void. How can I get him to pay attention?
Cindy C., Chicago

Dear Cindy,
I am afraid you are suffering a painful delusion. Bill Gates is not a real person. He is a company mascot, like the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Michelin Tire Man, or the Keebler Elf. The boyish, bespectacled "richest-man-in-the-world" was created for Microsoft by a advertising agency as a way to give the mammoth software firm a human face.

Dear Mr. Computer,
Help! I'm a college student addicted to the Internet. I'm on-line 20 hours a day, minimum! I skip classes. Miss meals. Go without sleep. I have no social life. My friends have left me. I'm flunking my courses. My fingers twitch involuntarily. I need help fast.
Danny D., Dartmouth

Dear Danny,
I get lots of letters from kids like you. Campus counseling services report skyrocketing cases of what they call IAD (Internet Addiction Disorder), more than they can currently handle. Your best bet is to find an on-line support group.

Dear Mr. Computer,
I have heard from a friend that a computer virus is going round that lays dormant in your machine for a while, then kicks in and starts converting typed S's into $'s. Should I worry?
Marvin M., Memphis

Dear Marvin,
You can avoid DTD's (digitally transmitted diseases) by staying out of disreputable parts of cyberspace.

Dear Mr. Computer,
I thought computers were supposed to make books obsolete. My local bookstore has row after row of books on computers. They are taking over the store. I can hardly find a good novel.
Peter P., Portland

Dear Peter,
I recommend that you buy my book, "How to Get Along in the Paperless Society." You will find it at your local bookstore.

Dear Mr. Computer,
I met this really cool guy in a chat room and we got on really great. Now we are talking about getting intimate, virtually-speaking, and I asked him to download a photo. What a hunk! The thing is, the photo is in Adobe Photoshop format. How can I be sure that he has not retouched his pix? I mean, really?
Dolly D., Dallas

Dear Dolly,
I think you miss the point about virtual sex. As long as you are doing it in cyberspace, you might as well do it with a "hunk."

Dear Mr. Computer,
I'm finally getting around to buying a computer. I've heard that in six months time the machines will be faster, more powerful, and cheaper than today. Should I wait?
Susan S., Sacramento

Dear Susan,
Buy your computer now and enjoy it while you can. Six months from now machines will indeed be better and cheaper, but then you will be six months away from even better, cheaper machines. You are going to feel rotten no matter when you buy.

Dear Mr. Computer,
We own a home computer and bought several highly recommended "totware" packages for our 18-month-old child. However, Jason insists on playing with his blocks instead of the computer. We are worried that he will not be competitive when he starts playschool. Should we take the blocks away and insist that he use the computer?
Terry T., Tallahassee

Dear Terry,
I would recommend a software package called Digi-Blocks. With this program, your toddler can move brightly-colored, simulated blocks on the screen of the computer, using the mouse. The future belongs to those who are comfortable in virtual reality. The sooner Jason stops playing with real objects, the better.

Dear Mr. Computer,
The Internet would appear to be the most important technological innovation of the millennium, yet I cannot find anyone who can tell me who runs it, who owns it, how it's financed, or how it works. It just seems to be there. Like air. Can you answer my questions?
Sam S., Seattle

Dear Sam,
Well, you $'$ like...uh...that i$...uh...Mr. Computer i$ tired now. Maybe he'll an$wer your que$tion$ later.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Spacetimemind -- from Anne

(Click to enlarge.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

The highest circle of spiraling powers

Among the exhibits of Boston's Museum of Science is a ten-foot-high model of a segment of DNA, spiraling upwards from floor to ceiling. The atoms are represented by colored balls -- carbon black, oxygen red, nitrogen blue, hydrogen white -- linked by rods. Whenever I used to visit, I'd stand in front of this partial strand of the code of life, gape-jawed at the beauty, at the simplicity, out of which emerges the astonishing diversity and awesome complexity of life. The museum's DNA model contains only several dozen base pairs, a tiny fraction of what is contained within the DNA of even the simplest living organism. If the whole of a human's DNA were shown at the scale of the model, it wouldn't fit within the entire museum.

I was thinking about that beautiful model when I was reading yesterday about the sequencing of DNA from fossil Neanderthal bones from Europe and Russia. Fossil DNA degrades over time into fragments just tens of base pairs long. Moreover, 99 percent of fossil DNA tends to be contaminated with the DNA of microbes and fungi that invaded the decaying bone. Nevertheless, with new highly-automated sequencing techniques and a lot of computer matching, Neanderthals are yielding their secrets. A complete Neanderthal genome was announced last year. Now, the mitochondrial DNA sequences of a half-dozen separate individuals have been completed. The samples show little genetic diversity across thousands of miles of territory. It has even been possible to estimate the total population of Neanderthals -- about 70,000.

This stuff is breathtaking. To my mind, the discovery of the double-helix, 4-letter code of life is the most stunning scientific discovery of all time. I was a high-school student when Watson and Crick's 1953 paper was published, and pretty much oblivious to anything but girls, but by the time I reached grad school the importance of the discovery was obvious to all: The whole of life, from microbes to humans, plants and animals, across the eons, share a molecular continuity.

If I had Bill Gates' money, I would donate one of those gorgeous ten-foot DNA models to every school that would take one, for display in the most public space, perhaps accompanied by this quote from Erwin Chargaff, who contributed mightily to unraveling the riddle of the genome: "It is the sense of mystery that, in my opinion, drives the true scientist; the same blind force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva into the butterfly. If the scientist has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The ring of truth

In Salley Vickers' novel, Where Three Roads Meet, the shade of Tiresias, the blind seer of the Oedipus myth, visits Sigmund Freud in London during the psychoanalyst's final terrible illness. In a series of conversations, Tiresias retells the story of Oedipus -- he who was fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother -- a story at the heart of Freud's own theory of the human psyche.

At one point in the conversations, as Tiresias and Freud discuss the extent to which our lives are fated, the question of immortality arises. Freud says of Oedipus that "he made his story into an immortal one, so far as any story is." And Tiresias replies, "But, Dr. Freud, stories are all we humans have to make us immortal."

Oedipus lives on, whether he lived or not in actuality. Sophocles lives in our consciousness as vigorously as ever he did in life. They live because their stories touch something resonant and unchanging in human nature. Vickers suggests that what makes the Oedipal story immortal is not any necessary tendency of humans to act out the Oedipal myth, a la Freud, but rather Oedipus's rage to know the truth -- or become conscious of a truth he has known all along and suppressed -- even though the truth will be his undoing.

The poet Muriel Rukesyser got it exactly right when she said: "The universe is made of stories, not atoms." Even atoms are stories we tell about the world, having first paid close attention to how the world works. The plays of Sophocles and the other Greek dramatists live on not because their authors were immortal, but because nature endures and their stories tell us something that rings true about enduring nature.

And, like Oedipus, we have a rage to know, even if knowledge will unseat some of our more comfortable illusions.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The story without an end

A few more words on John Holstead's sculptures, especially those he thinks of as cosmic, such as the three hanging in the lobby of Dingle's new secondary school, and the piece currently under construction called "The Story So Far."

These things are solid, but they are fashioned of layers of 18-mm plywood. They would have to be made of layers, because the finished sculptures have interior recesses that cannot be seen into from outside, and that the hand can grope for but not quite reach. These John has to finish and polish as he assembles.

You might well ask: Why finish and polish what no one will ever see or feel?

You'd have to ask John, but I'll hazard an answer. I said yesterday that I'd like to imagine the Creator of the real universe looking something like the fellow in yesterday's photograph (we all know God has a gray beard and wears Bud Light tees). And I'd suppose that the Creator of the real universe would like to make a part of it so deeply mysterious that it could never be fully known by a creature. But of course that elusive part of the universe would be just as important to the Creator, just as worthy of his spit and polish.

John has said as much: "I give my universe mystery by making it hollow. You will be able to see into it, but no matter how hard you try, there will be some part beyond your knowing. Some part whose light can never reach you."

That old curmudgeon H. L. Mencken once said of science: "Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops." As I moved about John's workshop, caressing his sculpture, trying to squeeze my hand into its hidden recesses, John stood at the side of the room -- licking his chops.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The story so far

I have mentioned here before my friend John Holstead, the sculptor. Last year it was with regard to a work called "The Shape of the Universe," which came in three versions -- wood, stainless steel, and glass. They are now hanging in the lobby of the secondary school in Dingle. From the balcony, students can look into those evocative shapes and wonder what was going on in John's mind as he pondered the four-dimensional space-time continuum.

John has a hearty respect for science. He says: "We have an insatiable desire for an understanding of the laws of the universe and of where we fit in with them, We have learnt an awful lot, but it seems that as each question is answered, a dozen more questions appear to take its place. And still we search. It is the searching that makes us what we are. It is the searching that is the foundation of all religions, each of which has its own creation story, and,if you are good, a happy ending. Neat little packages of answers, gift wrapped in sanctity. Science has no fancy wrapping, but it usually does what it says on the tin, and, if it doesn't, it is quickly removed from the shelves."

This summer I find him working on a piece called "The Story So Far," which I take is a further step in the evolution of John's universe. It is hard to tell from this angle in the photograph, but the shape is based on a double Mobius strip. I am not quite sure what John is trying to tell us about the story: A one-sided story with no beginning or end? The internal and external convolutions of the piece -- put together from laminations -- could only have been conceived, much less expressed, with the aid of a computer, and John's love affair with his big-screen Apple Mac seems to almost equal his love affair with wood.

If a personal God did design and make the universe, as the ancient religions tell us, I would like to imagine him looking rather like the fellow in the photograph here. And what would he be thinking? "Nice story so far. Now if only those feckers on Earth would stop making such a mess of things, and in my name no less."

Thursday, August 13, 2009


There is an old Irish story called The Madness of Sweeney. Sweeney was an Ulster king who was cursed by a saint whom he had insulted. In his consequent insanity he fled to the treetops where he sang like a bird, endlessly praising the trees of the forest. It is not the only time in Irish lore that Christian saints or pagan gods effect magical transformations.

The master storyteller of transformations is the Roman writer Ovid, who set down dozens of metamorphoses for our delectation. I have mentioned here before how Daphne was turned into a laurel tree at the moment (stunningly rendered by Bernini) she is caught by her pursuer Apollo -- flowered rather than deflowered, I suppose you'd say. The lovely Hero, when she finds her lover Leander's drowned body, expires in sympathy; Neptune takes pity on the couple and turns them into birds that sing, Sweeney-like, in thistle tops. Remember too how jealous Hera turned the mortal huntress Callisto into a bear to frustrate her husband Zeus' desire for the young woman. Then along came Callisto's son Arcas, and believing himself endangered by the bear, raised his bow to shoot. Zeus, looking down, saw the impending tragedy, and instantly turned the boy into a little bear. He placed mother and son safely in the sky as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

And so it goes, in Ireland, in ancient Greece, and in countless other cultures, these magical transformations in which human and non-human nature flows back and forth, outer appearances changing, something essential remaining the same. The myths anticipated a scientific truth: We are a flux of atoms in endless embodiments -- star dust to planet, caterpillar to moth, soil and water to tomato, tomato to human. For all I know there were a few of Ovid's atoms in the Italian olives I had for lunch. They are part of me now.

When I die, dump my ashes in a hole here on this Irish hillside along with a willow twig, that I might become, Daphne-like, the little tree of which Mad Sweeney sang, "Bright cheerful salley."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Our better angels

I was about 12 years old when I came across Francisco Goya's collection of etchings called "The Disasters of War." I knew nothing of Goya, nor of the subject of the etchings, the Spanish insurrection of 1808 and the resulting war with Napoleonic France. Anyone who has seen the etchings will not have forgotten them. Bodies without heads or limbs impaled on trees. Soldiers splitting naked bodies lengthwise with swords. Unmitigated scenes of rapine and slaughter. I had just lived through the Second World War, which to a young American boy seemed rather noble and heroic, aspetic even. Goya's etchings may have been the first time I had a sense of the human capacity for gratuitous violence.

I was reminded of those etchings while reading an article in this week's (London) Sunday Times by Steven Pinker. He takes on the notion that we are living in increasingly violent times. World Wars I & II. The Stalinist Gulags. Cambodia. Darfur. Afghanistan. It might sometimes seem that we are sinking into an abyss of violence. Not so, says Pinker. The evidence suggests that we enjoy the most peaceful era of human history, especially those of us who live in the post-Enlightenment West.

The homicide rate in Europe has dropped from 100 killings per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages to fewer than one per 100,000 in the modern times. Worldwide, the number of deaths in interstate wars has fallen from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to fewer than 2000. Among our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the chance that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent among the most violent tribes to 15 percent at the peaceable end. By contrast, says Pinker, the chance that an American or European would be killed by another person was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period that included the two World Wars.

I mentioned a few days ago that I was reading Peter Ackroyd's big history of London. Until the 19th century, violence within that "civilized" city was pervasive. Executions and torture were spectator sports, attracting huge crowds. The heads of malefactors were severed and placed on spikes on London Bridge. The horrors depicted by Goya would have been assimilated as a matter of course. Today, in the West, we debate the morality of capital punishment for even the most heinous crimes. In pre-Enlightenment London, one might go to the gallows for what today would result only in a fine.

I am 72 years old, and have never witnessed an act of mortal violence or deliberate mutilation -- a fact that would astonish Samuel Johnson.

Natural selection has no doubt endowed us -- especially males -- with a propensity for aggression against those outside the tribe. Natural selection also seems to have favored altruism among the local group. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." If, as Pinker asserts, we are becoming collectively less violent, it is because the circle of those we call our own has been constantly expanding, to include more and more of those we previously considered "other."

It is hard to imagine any Frenchman today doing such violence against a Spaniard as was depicted by Goya. Europeans, at least, now think of themselves a one tribe. But the dark potential still lurks in our natures. We must align ourselves on the side of those things that unite us rather than divide us.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Falling stars

How do we gather the stuff of the universe for study here on Earth?

The StarTrek method: Go where no one has gone before. Apollo astronauts brought back buckets of rocks from the moon. Three Soviet unmanned Luna missions also returned lunar rocks to Earth. The method is expensive, which explains why round-trip missions to the moon or other celestial bodies have been rare.

The cheaper method: Let the universe come to us. The turn-of-the-century naturalist John Burroughs felt no need to travel; sooner or later, he said, the turning Earth brought everything by his door. The same apparently applies to those scientists who study the stuff of the cosmos.

Each year, tens of thousands of tons of meteoric material fall upon the Earth from space. Most of this material is in the form of small particles that burn up in the upper atmosphere. Occasionally a meteorite arrives that is big enough to blast a huge crater and cause mass extinctions.

Most interesting from the scientific point of view are those meteorites that are large enough to survive the plunge through the atmosphere, but not large enough to be devastating. These collectibles from the sky are messengers from the world beyond.

They come from Mars, from the Moon, from the asteroid belt, and even from beyond the solar system.

It turns out that finding and collecting meteorites is quite a story in itself, a story that my friend Chris Cokinos tells in his just published book, The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars. I had the pleasure of reading the book in manuscript, and here is the comment I offered, which I notice Chris' publisher has used on Amazon:
Christopher Cokinos goes from pole to pole in his search for the bits of cosmos that fall onto the Earth, and the remarkable people who collect and study them. He is a natural philosopher and gifted writer who sprinkles his own kind of stardust on every page. If you have ever wished upon a falling star, this is your chance to know just what is falling, where it comes from, what it tells us about our place in the universe -- and what things in life are worth wishing for.
We learn too about Chris Cokinos and the passion that drives a poet/naturalist to spend years of his life on a single-minded quest for chunks of rock and iron from the sky.

Monday, August 10, 2009

In dust and ashes I repent

While we are on Blake's illustrations for the Book of Job, here is the next in the series, where God speaks to Job of Behemoth and Leviathan.

At this point in the story, God is just being a smart-ass. He has already made his point in the speech I posted yesterday. Hey, he said, I made it all. Who are you to assert yourself or question my justice?

Now he delivers the knockout punch: the two scariest creatures Job might know about.

Behemoth. Those loins! Those stomach muscles! That tail, stiff as cedar. Vertebrae like bronze tubing, bones like hammered iron. He is the masterpiece of my creation, says God -- and I treat him like a puppy.

And Leviathan. His matchless strength, the double armor of his breastplate. Just look at those terrible rows of teeth! From his mouth come fiery torches. He has no equal on Earth, says God -- and he's my pussy cat.

So where does that leave you, Mr. Job?

Blake has made of Behemoth and Leviathan a yin and yang. Behemoth: white, stony, herbivorous. Leviathan: black, fiery, carnivorous. Matter and energy, curling endlessly upon themselves.

I would guess that the author of Job had in mind creatures he had heard about in vague reports -- the hippo of African swamps, and the crocodile of the Nile. Blake, of course, has his own vivid imagination. And God -- well, he's playing his trump card, the image most likely to cow poor Job into a proper spirit of respect and contrition.

Today, the hippo and the crocodile would be trite manifestations of divine power. Instead, God might point to, say, the Hubble photograph of the region around Eta Carinae, a star 100 times more massive than the Sun shuddering in its death throes, blasting off bubbles of its own substance (the star is the intensely bright oval at center left). The image is 50 light-years wide, 8000 light-years away. A place of prodigious star birth and star death, roiling with creation and destruction. Our planet with all its hosts of Behemoths and Leviathans would be lost in this cauldron of gas, dust and stars -- a grain of dust flicked into the eye of a hurricane.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

When the morning stars sang together

And God answered Job out of the whirlwind:
Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations?
Tell me, since you are so well-informed!
Who decided the dimensions of it, do you know?
Or who stretched the measuring line across it?
What supports the pillars at their bases?
Who laid its cornerstone
when all the stars of the morning were singing with joy?
We wait, for the technicians at CERN to repair the Large Hadron Collider. When it is up and running we will inch closer to the morning of the world, or to what in out supreme confidence we imagine to be The Beginning. We are promised the Higgs boson, the "God particle" that holds the ultimate explanation for the origin of matter. The machine we have built to do this is the most complex and expensive contrivance ever constructed on Earth. The achievement, when it happens, will be Promethean -- the human mind wresting from darkness the final secret of how it all came to be.

Or so we are told.

The achievement will be undeniable. But, please, let's have no more talk of God particles, or ultimate explanations, or final theories. Every advance in science has led to deeper mysteries. Did the telescope and microscope lessen or deepen the mystery of the world? Knowledge is an island in a sea of infinite mystery (if not truly infinite, at least effectively so). As we build up the island of reliable knowledge, we do not significantly diminish the sea; rather, we extend the shoreline where we encounter what we do not know.

As the Large Hadron Collider cranks up, let's keep in mind William Blake's illustration of the passage from Job I quoted above -- God rebuking Job's hubris. Under God's right arm, Apollo/Helios (science, if you will) pushes back the clouds of ignorance. Under his left arm, Diana/Selene delicately controls the passions. Job, his wife , and friends crouch below in their cavelike darkness (note that Job's God is a mirror image of himself). And above -- above God even -- the Morning Stars sing for joy.

God's arms are spread as if to say, "This far and no farther. Push back the clouds of ignorance, learn to live in peace and joy, but do not presume to exhaust the Mystery that sings in the morning stars, in every cell of your bodies, in every grain of sand. Tell me, since you are so well-informed, where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?"

Where, indeed?

(I wrote on Blake's illustrations for the Book of Job in a different context some time ago. You can find it here.)

Saturday, August 08, 2009


"Good morning," said the little prince.
"Good morning," said the merchant.
This was the merchant who sold pills that had been invented to quench thirst. You need only swallow one pill a week, and you would feel no need of anything to drink.
"Why are you selling those?" asked the little prince.
"Because they save a tremendous amount of time," said the merchant. "Computations have been made by experts. With these pills, you save fifty-three minutes in every week."
"And what do I do with those fifty-three minutes?"
"Anything you like..."
"As for me," said the little prince to himself, "if I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water."
You will remember this episode from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince. I was thinking about it last evening as I was popping my daily pills -- the cholesterol pill, the blood pressure pill, the stomach-acid pill. And I'm wondering, "Why do I have a nervous tummy? Why high blood pressure? Why high cholesterol?" Maybe, I thought, I should be spending more time walking toward a spring of fresh water -- metaphorically speaking.

I mean, why not? I am retired. The pension check and social security appear in my bank account every month. Why not settle back and relax? Why this perceived need to be busy all the time? What's to worry?

A hundred years from now, historians will look back and see the 20th century as the time when scientists discovered that the human self is a biochemical machine. The 21st century will be the time when we learn how to make the machine do pretty much anything we please. We are entering the age of pharmaceutical design. Chemical compounds will be tailor-made -- pieced together with the help of computers from vast molecular "libraries" -- to bind to specific sites on specific molecules in the human body, to bring about some desired effect. It all comes down to geometry, fitting one molecule to another, tab A into slot B.

Almost no one wants to admit that we are biochemical machines, but we pour out our treasure for drugs that enhance sex, prevent wrinkles, grow hair, relieve stress, control body weight, augment memory, delay senescence, induce euphoria, improve muscle tone, whiten toenails, or add fifty-three minutes a week to our lifetimes, while Big Pharm cheers us on. We confirm with our pocketbooks what we are reluctant to admit intellectually: the biochemical self.

Are we more than biochemical machines? Yes, I think that we are, in the sense that no existing or imaginable algorithm can express the full complexity of our bodies in interaction with their environments. As when we walk at our leisure toward a spring of fresh water.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Where we came from

Author Doris Lessing began her sci-fi chronicle of space with this dedication: "For my father, who used to sit, hour after hour, night after night, outside our home in Africa, watching the stars. 'Well,' he would say, 'if we blow ourselves up, there's plenty more where we came from.'"

Oh, there's plenty more, all right; stars spangle the sky in uncountable numbers. And they're blowing up all the time.

Here's one that appeared on APOD the other day, the remnant of a star that blew itself up in 1006 AD Earth-time. Since the star was 7000 light-years away, it actually exploded 7000 years before it suddenly became visible in Earth's sky. APOD calls it the brightest supernova in recorded human history.

What we see today, a thousand years later, is this gorgeous bubble of star-stuff, still expanding, against the star-spangled background of more distant stars in the galaxy.

Human life is short compared to the lifespans of even the most short-lived stars. Lessing's father, in a lifetime of watching the sky, would be unlikely to see more than a few dying stars blow up. In my lifetime, I have seen only one stellar eruption, the nova of August 1975, which for one glorious evening blazed almost at bright as the nearby star Deneb in the constellation Cygnus, like a feather plucked from the swan's tail. Over the next week it faded to invisibility.

The most famous supernova of recent times was visible to the unaided eye for a few months during the first half of 1987, but only for observers south of the equator. It was a very big bang as stellar explosions go, but it was rather far away, in a small companion galaxy of the Milky Way, and never became bright enough to dazzle the backyard skywatcher. I count myself lucky to have seen the "new star" of 1975. And even luckier to have access to images such as the one above. These terrible and beautiful remnants of exploded stars are indeed "where we came from."

Thursday, August 06, 2009

"Dung moche goeth into Thamise"

You will forgive me if I'm a bit tetchy this morning. It seems we have a blockage in the main drain from the house to the septic tank. This in itself doesn't come as a tremendous surprise. When our cottage was built thirty years ago the building arts in this part of the world were in their infanthood. Fortunately, we are saved from disaster by the toilet and shower in my writing studio, and the kitchen sink drains into a soak-away. But still we are reminded hourly of the blessings of modern sanitation.

As it turns out, I am reading Peter Ackroyd's massive history of London. Anyone who longs for "the good old days" would do well to read what the good old days were like in the capital city of Merry Olde England for most of its history. Household waste was discharged into the gutters, along with the excrement of animals in the streets. Piss pots were emptied into public thoroughfares from upper story windows. Houses with cess pools under them often had effluent seeping up through the floorboards. The rivers and streams of the city -- the Ranelagh, the Fleet, the Shoreditch and the rest -- were open sewers, and the dumping places of butchers, fishmongers, and the like. Everything went into the Thames, including the droppings from public lavatories on the bridges.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the filth and stench, people had to obtain water for washing, cooking and drinking, which generally involved a recycling of ordure and germs.

None of this essentially changed from the Middle Ages till the mid-nineteenth century (Roman London was perhaps a cleaner, safer place than the city of the early 19th century). In 1855 a Metropolitan Board of Works was established to remedy an unbearable situation. Hundreds of miles of sewers were constructed, carrying the refuse of the city to outfalls far down the river (and eventually to treatment plants). Clean water was piped into the city from pristine sources. While all this was happening in London, it was also unfolding in other great cities of the western world. The second half of the 19th century was the heroic age of urban infrastructure engineering. It is hard to imagine a more felicitous development in the history of humankind than the scientific and technological separation of water and waste.

We take it for granted today -- until something goes wrong.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Don't ask, don't tell

Yesterday's whimsical post on downloading a soul into a computer prompts a reprise of a more serious story I told here some years ago. I am thinking of the life and career of Alan Turing, one of the best scientific minds of the 20th century, sometimes called the Founder of Computer Science.

In 1928, as a dreamy schoolboy of 16, he fell powerfully under the spell of a slightly older school chum, Christopher Morcom. There was nothing explicitly sexual about their relationship. The boys were friends and intellectual comrades. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Turing was deeply in love.

In 1930, Morcom suddenly fell ill and died. Turing was shattered. He turned his attentions to the question of how the human mind -- and Christopher's mind in particular -- was embodied in matter. Could there be any way in which a mind might survive the death of the body?

According to his biographer, Turing's longing for his dead friend sparked a lifelong interest in the mechanical embodiment of thought.

During World War II, Turing turned his considerable genius to cryptoanalysis, the breaking of codes. He was a leader of the British team at Bletchley Park that broke the famous "Enigma" code, which the German high command used to communicate with its Atlantic U-boat fleet. The breaking of the code is generally credited with turning the Battle of the Atlantic in favor of the Allies, and perhaps deciding the outcome of the war.

After the war, Turing's brilliant theoretical and practical work on the use of mechanical and electronic machinery for breaking complex codes helped advance the development of the first electronic computers.

Always in the background was the issue of his sexuality. In early 1952 the police came to his house at his request to investigate a burglary. They discovered something that turned out to be far more serious -- Turing's sexual relationship with another man -- at the time, a criminal offense.

He did not deny the relationship. It was inconceivable to Turing that his private life might be of interest to Her Majesty's government. He was arrested, brought to trial, and convicted. As an alternative to prison, which would have interrupted his scientific work, he agreed to a course of hormone injections to neutralize his libido -- a kind of chemical castration. He chose, says his biographer, "thinking" and sacrificed "feeling."

No one knows exactly what or how he suffered in the period that followed. On June 8, 1954, he was found dead by his housecleaner, a half-eaten, cyanide-spiked apple at his bedside. The coroner's verdict was suicide. He was 41 years old.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

"But in contentment I still feel the need..."

Anne (my sister who lives on the desert mesa) retired from her regular Sunday pic here to pursue more personal work. She still sends me an image every week or so, but not for publication. They constitute a sort of graphic memoir. She says she is "downloading my soul @ 70 a la Ed Fredkin."

Ed Fredkin is the digital guru who thinks the universe is a computer and you and I are subroutines running on the big machine. At the very least, I suspect, the computer is a better metaphor for the universe than the organism of our animistic ancestors or the mechanical clockwork of the Newtonians. Certainly the great majority of science being done these days would be inconceivable without computers. Just look at all the computer-generated images of the molecules of life in any issue of Science or Nature. The staggering quantity of data to be generated by the Large Hadron Collider, when it's up and running, would be impossible to comprehend without giant elctronic brains -- a digitization of the beginning of the universe itself.

So, yes, I understand Anne downloading her soul into her art. The walls of her little house are covered with colorful computer-generated graphics. One can imagine her flesh-and-blood body vanishing and her self remaining, like a hologram, in the midst of all those shimmering pixels. I think I can remember when she got her first box of Crayolas, eight colors. Then sixteen. What was her biggest box? Forty-eight? Now she has millions of colors in her pixel palette. Does the soul have millions of colors?

Meanwhile, it occurs to me that I am doing the same thing with this blog -- downloading my soul into binary code. Impossible, of course. The soul increments day by day and I can only download a part of it here. Still, @ 72, one feels a growing imperative to lodge one's soul in an imperishable place. And so each morning I click "Upload" and a little part of me shimmies out into the Fredkinian universe of cyberspace.

Those billions of binary bits are presumably stored on a massive server somewhere in California. Have they found a more imperishable afterlife than the Heaven I was promised as a child?

Monday, August 03, 2009


Here is the most famous bunny in the Western World. No, not the most famous; that would be Peter Rabbit or Bugs. And it's not a bunny. It's a young hare. The most famous young hare in the Western World. Rendered in gouache and watercolor by Albrecht Durer in 1502.

A cusp of history, a watershed, a turning point.

Before the hare, representational art pointed to something beyond the thing depicted. The animals on the cave walls at Lascaux invoked the magical forces of the hunt. Classical sculpture depicted emperors and gods and famous battles; it was meant to inspire awe and civic virtue. Church art of the Middle Ages directed the viewer's attention to a supernatural realm. Medieval bestiaries were allegorical; the hare's alertness and speed were symbols of Christian vigilance and the need to flee from sin.

Durer's hare is a hare. It stands for nothing but itself. No allegories, no metaphors, no symbolism. Precise observation of a present natural reality.

Within decades, Vesalius would be dissecting the human body, Agricola dissecting the earth, Copernicus dissecting the sky. No longer was the natural world a glass through which one viewed a more resplendent supernatural world darkly. The natural world became itself a reality worthy of the artist's and scientist's full attention.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Free wheeling -- Part 2

Continuously-spinning electric motors have commutators to pass electricity between rotor and housing. Certain chemical reactor vessels use something called positive-pressure mechanical seals to transmit lubricants and coolants from bearings to axle. It is difficult to imagine how such things might be implemented biologically, but what human engineers can accomplish is surely possible -- in principle -- for nature.

The anatomist Michael LaBarbera once suggested that the main reason evolution eschews rotation is adaption to environment, rather than any intrinsic biological limitation. Wheels and propellers, he said, aren't necessarily the best ways to get around. For animals in water and air, for instance, the flapping of a flexible foil (a fish's tail or bird's wing) is a more efficient propulsive mechanism than a rotary propeller. Propellers on ships are about 60 percent efficient at converting power to thrust. A typical aircraft propeller is about 80 percent efficient. Oscillating flexible foils, according to LaBarbera, can reach efficiencies of 96 percent. Flapping is better than propellering. (Which raises the question: Why isn't flapping used more often in sea and air transport?)

Wheels also have limited advantages for land organisms. A wheelchair is an efficient mode of transport, but a six-inch-high curb can be an insurmountable obstacle. A bicycle is the most energy-efficient of all terrestrial modes of human transport, but only on hard, smooth, unrestricted terrain. There are few natural environments where wheels work better than legs.

But where wheels work, nature has an adaptation. A small marine crustacean, Nannosquilla decemspinosa, found on beaches of the Pacific coast of Panama, has short laterally-projecting legs and cannot walk when out of water. Cast up on the sand by waves, it moves along by backwards somersaults. For nearly half of each somersault cycle, its curled-up body rolls along the hard, smooth sand. Nannosquilla decemspinosa solves the problem of continuous rotation by making its whole body a wheel and doing away with the axle.

Dr. Seuss's fish with a pinwheel tail may seem unlikely, but perhaps not impossible. Maybe when E.T. arrives in its flying saucer it will come freewheeling down the ramp on spinning appendages.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Free wheeling

Inchworms inch. Whirligigs whirl. Sidewinders wind. Grasshoppers hop. It's called getting around, and the animal kingdom has devised a thousand ways to do it.

Fleas have springs in their legs that store up energy and then release it explosively with a trigger mechanism. Hovering insects do a thing with their wings called "clap and fling." Bushbabies leap from tree to tree with their bushy tails as balance.

Animals swim, fly, creep, slither, glide, slide, and walk on water. The only mode of transport not widely exploited by nature is the wheel, at least not this side of Dr. Seuss, who imagined a fish with a pinwheel tail.

Why not? There is no more efficient way for humans to travel than on a bike. Why didn't humans evolve with wheels? Homo bicyclus.

The answer has to do with the nature of the wheel.

A wheel (and its cousin the propeller) must turn freely and continuously about its axle. But animals need connections between their parts for the transfer of nutrients, blood, and nerve impulses.

As it happens, nature did invent the continuously turning wheel. Certain bacteria swim by spinning a single whiplike flagellum. This tiny appendage is attached to a base that fits into a cavity in the bacterium's body, and -- astonishingly -- it spins continuously, driven by a biochemical motor. Nutrients move between the bacterium and its rotating appendage by diffusion; that is, molecules drift across the gap.

But this will work only for bacteria-sized creatures. As an animal gets bigger, the ratio of surface area (length squared) to volume (length cubed) decreases. Diffusion, which depends on surfaces, can no longer supply the larger volumes with nutrients. Physical connections -- pipes and wires, if you will -- are necessary. So it would seem that Dr. Seuss's fish with a pinwheel tail is impossible.


(More tomorrow.)