Saturday, January 31, 2009

Entropy

Ultimately, the termites will win. Well, maybe not the termites directly, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics of which the termites are an agent. The entropy of the universe increases. Everything tends to disorder. Sooner or later, this house by the sea on a termite-infested island will turn to dust.

With a little luck, I can fight them to a standstill, at least until I turn to dust myself.

Every winter, I rout them out of their tunnels and caverns, rebuild shelves and sills and jambs. Every summer, in my absence, they gorge themselves on my defenseless house.

Bahamian damp-wood termites, mostly, Nasuatermitidae, which generally build their nests in trees, but will happily devour a house if provided.

They are fragile, soft-bodied insects, susceptible to injury from direct exposure to sunlight or slight changes in temperature and humidity. You'll see their climate-controlled, barrel-sized termitariums all over the island, in woods at the edge of the road or on the roofs of abandoned houses, constructed from particles of wood or soil cemented together with excrement and a secretion from glands in their heads. Heavily-traveled paths from the nest to the wood upon which the termites feed are covered over with the same material. The termites need never see the light of day.

Until I intrude on their privacy with my crowbar or chisel.

Somewhere, in a royal chamber, reside the queen and king. The queen's abdomen, in the fullness of her sexual maturity, achieves the size of a human thumb -- a bulbous egg factory attached to her tiny forefront. The union of the royal pair can last for decades, while their millions of offspring -- workers and warriors -- live and die, prevented from ever reaching sexual maturity by special hormones transmitted from parents to offspring by physical contact.

Sex-inhibitors are not the only vital substances they pass around. Each termite carries in its gut microscopic bacteria and protozoans which enable the insect to digest wood. Without the microbes, a termite starves. These invisible but indispensable creatures are maintained by the colony and conveyed from generation to generation like family heirlooms.

When a successful termite colony has outgrown its food supply, the king and queen stop producing sex inhibitor hormone. A generation of fertile offspring is produced, which, unlike their sterile brothers and sisters, are winged. On an evening when the temperature and humidity are right, they take to the air. The winged pioneers who survive the hazards of the Bahamian night -- bats, birds, insects, spiders, toads -- will establish new colonies.

And so the entropy of the world increases. At my expense.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Oneirology


Awoke this morning from a dream so lucid and strange that I lay in bed for half-an-hour trying to reconstruct its elements in my conscious mind. Never mind what it was -- we all have such dreams -- except to say that it incorporated places and events from my distant past that I would assume had been long forgotten, along with stimuli from the previous day. Instead of my own dream, I offer here Salvador Dali's painting of his wife's dream, called "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening." The painting is as enigmatic as dreams themselves.

Researchers tell us that we spend about six years dreaming during a typical lifetime -- about two hours a night -- which means dreaming occupies as much of our time as eating and sex put together. We know about as much about eating and sex as we'd want to know, biologically speaking. About dreams we know next to nothing.

We have no idea where in the brain dreams originate or how they are executed. There are dozens of theories for why we dream -- what might be their biological or evolutionary purpose -- none of which remotely approaches consensus. Six years of our lives about which science remains almost completely ignorant.

I dream in black-and-white, as most people did 50 years ago. Today, apparently, the majority of people dream in color, presumably the influence of color media. I recall that when I was a kid my dreams were framed with round corners, like the silver screen on which my father projected his 8-mm home movies. Today my dreams expand to fill all available mental space.

Like most people, my dreams sometimes have recurring themes, usually associated with fears of some sort -- teeth falling out, backyard septic systems opening up beneath my feet. Occasionally an agent of impending harm is so vivid that I wake with a shout, as the woman in Dali's painting might wake at the moment the bee's (tiger's) stinger (bayonet) is about to pierce her neck.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Balance -- Part 2

The tenor of my last two posts -- having my cake and eating it too, a cynic might say -- brings to mind a letter I received recently from a good friend in Ireland. Just before I departed Ireland last summer, I gave him a copy of When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist.

"You delude yourself," he writes. "You run with the hare and hunt with the hounds." Religious naturalist is an oxymoron, he suggests, lacking the integrity of either term separately. "Religious soft theological Angela's Ashes stuff," he sniffs.

That's why I so enjoy his company. He holds my feet to the fire, and we know each other well enough and long enough that he can dispense with the civilities.

I suppose I'm guilty as charged. Hare and hound. Religious and naturalist. Catholic and agnostic. A liberal, forward-looking idealist who knows that genes and culture hold us firmly in their grip.

In response to my friend, let me repeat here a post of several years ago:
Let me speak for gray.

Not black or white. Good or evil. Truth or falsity. Yes or no.

Let me speak for maybe. Sort of. More or less. I think so.

I am reluctant to speak for gray for fear of being considered wishy-washy. Indecisive. Unprincipled. But lately it seems as if we are surrounded on every side by zealots, and it's not a pretty sight.

We are surrounded by people who are so certain of their Truth that they are willing to strap bombs to their chests and walk into crowded pizza parlors. Or fly airplanes into towers. Or bomb abortion clinics. Or subvert American principles of civil liberties to fight those who have no principles of civil liberty.

There's an ugly stridency in the air, too many people who are certain God is on their side. Too much certainty with a capital C.

So why does the world look gray to me? After all, I was raised in a tradition of Absolute Truth. I was taught that infidels will burn in hell, at least those guilty of "culpable ignorance." "Armies of youth flying standards of Truth," we sang.

But I was studying science, too, and the history and philosophy of science. I discovered truth with a lower-case t. Evolving truth. I encountered people who held their most cherished beliefs to the refining fire of experience, and who changed their minds when their tentative truths failed the test.

When a group of Englishmen established the first modern scientific society in the 17th century, they took as their motto, "Take no one's word." They believed the only reliable guide to truth was the evidence of the senses. And even the senses can be deceiving. Which is why they embraced the experimental method. Reproducibility. Observations that can be repeated by anyone, and that always give the same result.

Many people think of science as a body of knowledge -- the germ theory of disease, evolution by natural selection, Newton's laws of motion, that sort of thing. Well, yes, it is. But these things are tentatively held, with varying degrees of certainty. More fundamentally, science is a way of thinking. A way that rejects absolutes.

Of course, one can't blow hither and yon on a sea of uncertainty. To be useful, any system of knowledge must be confident of itself. To do scientific work at all, one must start with firm convictions. But every good scientist must be radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change.

Black and white is easy. It relieves us of the burden of learning, of thinking, of experiencing the other. Gray is more difficult -- but it's the planet's best hope for a civilized future.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Balance

In yesterday's New York Times, the conservative pundit David Brooks contrasted two ways of living.

First, he quoted a recent report of a faculty committee at Harvard University on the purpose of education: "The aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves." Individuals should learn to think for themselves, summarizes Brooks. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values.

Then Brooks turned to a book published last summer by the political scientist Hugh Heclo, called On Thinking Institutionally. "In this way of living," says Brooks, "we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions -- first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we're supposed to do...New generations don't invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of."

Brooks, as you might expect, extols the second view. "Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world," he writes. "Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior." Drugs in sports, greed in banking -- all have their origin in a disrespect for institutional rules we have inherited from the past.

Well, yes, that's an easy shot. But institutions can be stultifying, too. Rules readily become dogmas. Traditional habits become rote recitation. Dreary conformity replaces creative thinking.

What is required is a balance between skeptical thinking and respect for traditional structures. And that is what has made the scientific way of knowing such a reliable and useful human invention.

Skepticism is institutionalized in science. Doubt is mandatory. But players must play by the rules of the game: reproducible data, publication in peer-reviewed journals, citation of relevant past work, exclusion of appeals to emotion, personality, politics or religion, and so on.

Skepticism without the institution is pseudoscience. The institution without doubt is scientism. A scientific thinker should be radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change -- cautiously questioning everything, respectful of the accumulated knowledge of the past. This same balance might usefully apply to other institutions, such as journalism, sports, banking, politics, religion -- and, yes, university curricula.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mysticism

Talk about the "mystical experience" in the company of scientists and you'll often get looked at as if you were going on about crop circles or astrology. This not quite fair, I think. The "mystical experience" is too well documented in the religious literature of the world to be so easily dismissed.

Granted, people who report these experiences often invoke the language of supernaturalism, and the language is properly suspect. But we use the descriptive categories we are familiar with, and supernaturalism is deeply ingrained in our culture.

Is there a way of talking about the "mystical experience" that places it firmly within the natural order? And, if so, what is the "mystical experience"?

Even amoebas are in some sense aware. They must find nutrients and sources of energy, and they have evolved the chemical machinery to do so. Multicelled, sexual organisms must be aware of potential mates and pathogens, and they have evolved special cells -- neurons -- to help. The human brain contains something like 100 billion neurons, each in contact with about 1000 other neurons, and out of this prodigious tangle comes something called self-awareness, a sort of internal spectator to awareness.

Psychologists tell us that the working memory can hold about seven pieces of information at once, seven bits of information of which we are at any moment self-aware. Mostly, these seven things are as prosaic as a shopping list. Occasionally, the seven things collapse into one thing, and the brain experiences an extraordinarily acute sense of self -- and of the self as part of a wholeness. Poets report these moments. Artist, too. And the so-called mystics. These are the moments that Sylvia Plath writes about in Black Rook in Rainy Weather that come now and then out of the mute sky, "thus hallowing an interval/ Otherwise inconsequent/ By bestowing largesse, honor,/ One might say love."

Nothing supernatural about any of this. We know that certain drugs, mental exercises, or physical rigors can sometimes send the brain spiraling into states of acute awareness. The description of the experience may sometimes be delusional, but the experience itself is real, and often electrifying.

I don't pretend to be a "mystic," nor do I claim to have experiences as intense as those of a Sylvia Plath or a Julian of Norwich. On the whole, I prefer a life of quietly ordered observation and patient ritual. But I know what it means to have the seven ordinary, day-to-day things be overwhelmed by the one thing, and in those infrequent moments to feel a sense of participation in something greater than myself. Not an "out-of-body" experience. Very much an "in-body" experience -- those 100 trillion synapses just doing their thing.

Einstein was not adverse to using the term "mystical" for these moments of rapture. They are, he said, the source of all true art and science.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Peacocks and magpies

Here's the deal. It's all about how much time and effort males invest in the next generation.

Peacocks copulate and cop out. The peahen goes off to incubate her eggs and raise her offspring. So there are always more sexually active cocks than hens, which means greater competition between males, which favors the males who are best at fighting and looking good. And you know the outcome: a huge degree of sexual dimorphism. All that male strutting and aggression and showing off. What a tale! What a tail!

By contrast, male magpies invest lots of energy in reproduction. They copulate, of course. But they also feed the incubating females and provide most of the food for the hatchlings. These responsibilities limit the male magpie's opportunities for hopping other hens. The result: Similar numbers of sexually active males and females, not so much male competition, and very little dimorphism. Male and female magpies look pretty much the same.

The name of the game, of course, is to get one's genes into the next generation. Two strategies: both seem to work for their particular species.

So what about male humans? Do we have in us more of the peacock or the magpie?

Depends, I suppose, on the male. Maybe it has something to do with genes and their expression. Culture certainly has something to do with it. Lord knows there's a lot of male preen and bling and swagger; just look at any issue of People, Us or InTouch. And it's women who buy these mags, which are mostly pics of women tarting up for the peacocks. Or is it for each other?

Someone else will have to explain what's going on. I'm just a little old magpie (he said endearingly).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chasing eclipses

Every spherical object in the solar system has a conical shadow pointing away from the Sun. Even the head of a spacewalking astronaut wears a wizard's cap of darkness one hundred feet long. The Moon's shadow cap, by wonderful coincidence, is almost exactly as long as the average distance of the Moon from the Earth. During a total eclipse of the Sun, the Moon's shadow scratches the Earth's surface like the tip of a rapier. To see a total solar eclipse, one must be standing exactly where the shadow's tip intersects the Earth.

Tomorrow, that will almost happen in the southern Indian Ocean. The Earth, Moon and Sun are lined up, but the Moon is at apogee -- its furthest distance from the Earth -- and the tip of the shadow does not quite reach the surface of the Earth. If you managed to make your way by boat to the eclipse path you'd see the Sun not quite fully covered by the Moon. A ring of light! An annular eclipse. Just at the end of the eclipse, the path of annularity reaches Indonesia. Perhaps Mark will see the ring. At the least he will see a partial eclipse of the Sun, clouds permitting.

All of which reminds me that on July 22 of this year I won't be in China for what will be the longest total solar eclipse between 1991 and 2132. When the alignment of astronomical bodies occurs, the Moon will be at perigee -- closest to the Earth -- and the shadow's rapier tip will slice deeply into the Earth. I was on a ship in the Black Sea for the total solar eclipse of August 11, 1999, and in southern Turkey for the total solar eclipse of March 29, 2006. But China defeated me. I will console myself in late April with a week-long walk along the Ridgeway in England with sons Tom and Dan.

Now, if I can hang on for another eight years, I will certainly be somewhere along the track of the eclipse that slices across the United States in 2017.

Why not just wait until a total solar eclipse comes to you? You might wait a very long time. Take a 12-inch diameter terrestrial globe such as you might have in your home or schoolroom, and every year or so draw a random line 10 or 12 inches long across its face with a black felt-tip marker. The line can be anywhere from North Pole to South Pole and in any hemisphere. These marks are typical of the paths of total solar eclipses. How long until the entire globe is painted black with shadows? That is: What is the longest time that any place on the Earth's surface would have to wait for a total solar eclipse? Mathematical astronomer Jean Meeus has done the calculation, and the answer turns out to be 4500 years.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Walking streets of gold


Here is a Hubble photograph of the planetary nebula NGC 2818, the gaseous shroud of a dying sun-like star, featured the other day on APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day). Says APOD: "It could well offer a glimpse of the future that awaits our own Sun after spending another 5 billion years or so steadily using up hydrogen at its core, and then finally helium, as fuel for nuclear fusion." The red, green, and blue hues represent emission from nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms in the nebula. Click to enlarge.

It is difficult to look at this picture and not imagine that one is looking through the dome of night into another more ethereal domain. I am reminded of the famous wood engraving below, which seems to have first appeared in Camille Flammarion's 1888 book L'atmosphere: meteorologie populaire. For a long time, the image was thought to be medieval, but it probably originated with Flammarion himself.


In any case, it depicts a medieval pilgrim who has somehow arrived at a place where the Earth and the dome of night touch, and -- lo! -- he is able to peak through into a celestial realm. The same sort of sensation, I would suppose, that we experience looking at the Hubble photo of NGC 2818.

For as long as we have a historical record, humans have imagined a Heaven somewhere up there beyond the stars, a realm immune to earthly imperfections, woes and cares, where other beings, divine and immortal, hold sway, and where we might ourselves be transported after death.

And what have we discovered? There is no dome of night. There is no "up there." This earthly realm is replicated trillions of times over within a space that may for all we know be infinite. NGC 2818 is not a hole in the sky; it is the remnant of an exploded star 10,000 light-years away, a star not unlike our Sun.

The pilgrim In Flammarion's wood engraving can have a real peek at Heaven if he wishes. All he needs do is click his way to the Hubble web site. Heaven, as it turns out, is here, now, available to everyone -- even the naughty -- through the agency of science and technology.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The thrill of desire

Question: Is eroticism a uniquely human characteristic?

By eroticism I mean something other than sexuality, which is clearly part of our biological natures and shared with other species.

Eroticism is an attribute of mind rather than an observable behavior, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to know what stirs in the brains of our nearest primate kin, or whales, or dolphins.

The safest assumption would be that eroticism is cultural rather than genetic, and uniquely human.

What is eroticism? A state of mind, related to sex, but interior and private. The French philosopher Georges Bataille opines that "eroticism differs from animal sexuality in that human sexuality is limited by taboos and the domain of eroticism is that of the transgression of these taboos." In other words, desire is fueled by culturally imposed restraints. Eroticism, says Bataille, "presupposes man in conflict with himself" (and surely he means "man" to include both men and women).

What sort of taboos? The taboo against nakedness, for example. If we all ran around naked, presumably there would be nothing erotic about nakedness. The peek, the glimpse, and the striptease kindle desire precisely because nakedness is forbidden -- and in many religious traditions, sinful. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and must henceforth cover their bodies, especially their sexual parts. Everyone recognizes the absurd gratuitousness of the nakedness taboo, says Bataille, but the taboo endures. It is almost universal across cultures.

Other prohibitions include the taboo against incest, on sex outside of marriage, on non-generative forms of sex, masturbation, and so on. Some taboos serve biological integrity (the taboo against incest), others might support the orderly organization of society and property (the taboo against extramarital sex), but all have the potential to quicken desire. It would be interesting to know the extent to which sex in the absence of taboos partakes of the erotic. There is a vast speculative literature on this subject, both philosophical and literary, but seeemingly very little science.

In the meantime, there is love and loyalty too, which impose their own taboos -- and the challenge of keeping eroticism alive within the bonds of these freely embraced constraints.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On beauty

And speaking of beauty, Lyra wants us all to watch this.

On beauty

OK, sunrises are a cliche. All that pink and peach and tangerine gushing over the sky. The Cool-Whip clouds. The Sun rising out of the sea like a golden coin in a magician's hand. Beautiful. Blah. Blah. Blah.

But wait! What's that? That burst of emerald green. Le rayon vert! Not altogether unexpected, but rare enough to make one gasp.

Someone said to me once that the greatest prayer is "Wow!" The sky a symphony of color suddenly punctuated by a trumpet blast of green. More beauty than would seem to be necessary for the mere business of turning night into day.

But, of course, nothing in nature is "mere."

Which raises the very "un-mere" question: Why is the green flash beautiful? Or alternately, why do we think the green flash is beautiful?

The 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection, encountered a birdwing butterfly on an island in the Malay archipelago. His description is worth quoting at length:
The beauty and brilliancy of the insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in appreciation of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.
I suspect that most people encountering a birdwing butterfly in the forest for the first time would have a similar response. There is something universal about our perception of beauty, something that seems to be a part of human nature.

"Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty," says Keats (or more accurately, says his Grecian urn). The poet W. H. Auden disagrees: Truth and beauty are not identical, he says. Beauty is that "which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable suffering." In other words, beauty is that which distracts us from truth.

The critic John Ruskin, in "Modern Painters," describes a time when he gazed in wonder upon a storm in the Alps -- thunder and lightning crashing among towering spires of rock, valley, river, forest. He writes: "And then I learned -- what till then I had not known -- the real meaning of the word Beautiful." Beauty, he tells us, is that which turns the human soul from gazing upon itself.

All of which sounds terribly profound, but none of which tells us much about the source of "Wow!"

Oh, I can explain the optics of the green flash. But whence the "Wow!" Our ability to recognize and respond to beauty almost certainly has an evolutionary origin. Our brains were shaped by interaction with a world that contains a neatly balanced mix of order and chaos. Negotiating our way successfully through such a world undoubtedly placed selective value on certain kinds of perceptual responses. Our aesthetic sense may be subtly adaptive, or perhaps a byproduct of some useful adaptation.

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but only because our brains are adapted to a beautiful world. "Beauty is nature's fact," wrote Emily Dickinson, and there might not be much more to say than that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Clap and fling

One A. M. The insidious song. The fateful buzzing at the ear.

Consider, if you wish, this beautiful prize-winning photograph of an Anopheles mosquito in flight after a blood meal, by Hugh Sturrock of the University of Edinburgh. It appeared the 21 December, 2006, issue of Nature.

But don't talk to me about beauty at one A. M. My thoughts are on murder. On turning that little winged bag of my blood into smush.

There's no escape. From wherever they are, they know where we are, and as quick at you can say "aeronautical perfection" they have sunk their proboscis into our flesh.

Birds fly, too, of course. And bats, those furry mammals. Pterodactyls, extinct winged reptiles, were aviators, or at least they knew how to do a terrific glide. Certain fish put on a good imitation of winged flight. Sometimes we'll see a "flying fish" here in front of the house that stays aloft for what seems an impossibly long time.

But insects were the first animal to evolve true flight, and they're still champs when it comes to maneuverability. They can take off backwards, fly sideways, land upside down, and make love on the wing. And suck our blood, all the while making their merry music.

How do they do it?

For birds and bats the answer is fairly straight forward. The physics of airplanes more or less applies. A wing with an aerodynamic shape is cocked into the wind. A single vortex of air flowing around the wing generates lift. And if the wing is flapping, well, then this more complex behavior can be broken down into consecutive instances of airplanelike flight.

In other words, any aeronautical engineer can pretty much tell you how birds and bats fly.

But things get rather more complicated with insects, especially the tiny ones. The viscosity of air becomes a problem. The biologist Robert Dudley says it's like trying to swim in molasses. Can you imagine a human swimmer in molasses having the agility of a mosquito?

Lots of theories have been generated to explain insect flight, involving upstroke and downstroke, rapid wing rotation and rotation reversal. Some scientists talk of something called "clap and fling," where the wings come together on the upstroke in a way that helps generate lift on the downstroke. Other talk about "delayed stall," "rotational circulation," and "wake capture."

I suppose we could take a certain philosophical delight in the complexities of insect flight while we are laying awake at night with that mosquito buzzing near our ear. The buzz is the audible physics of delayed stall, rotational circulation, wake capture, and maybe some clap and fling. A marvel of evolution. perfected long before a pterodactyl ever thought of gliding off a cliff, never mind the Wright Brothers.

Ingenious! Just look at that lovely photo again.

SWAT!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hope

Neither of the parents of the man who is inaugurated today were religious -- at least not in the sense of belonging to a conventional faith. But listen to Barack Obama describing his mother, in The Audacity of Hope:
And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice, and scorned those who were indifferent to both.

Most of all, she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional. During the course of the day, she might come across a painting, read a line of poetry, or hear a piece of music, and I would see tears well up in her eyes. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to have me gaze at a particularly spectacular moon, or she would have me close my eyes as we walked together at twilight to listen to the rustle of the leaves. She loved to take children -- any child -- and sit them in her lap and tickle them or play games with them or examine their hands, tracing out the miracle of bone and tendon and skin and delighting at the truths to be found there. She saw mysteries everywhere and took joy in the sheer strangeness of life.
If the son internalized the mother's gift -- to see mysteries everywhere and take joy in the sheer strangeness of life -- I happily give him my support and best wishes for success. A sense of wonder is not a sufficient qualification to be president of the United States, but it suggests a quality of mind that might be conducive to conciliation and inspiration, qualities that are essential to effective and humane leadership.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A new sunrise

Is the universe going nowhere in particular? Or is there a built-in destination, one which includes our own preordained fate?

This is of course the central question of philosophy. And religion. Made particularly decisive in our own time by two great discoveries of science. 1. Evolution by natural selection, which has a random element that precludes any precise formulation of future developments. Run the history of life on Earth over again, and there is no reason to assume that anything exactly like ourselves would emerge. 2. The discovery of cosmic space and time. The human habitat is typical of a virtually uncountable number of galaxies, stars, planets. And human life is the briefest tick in the long calendar of cosmic evolution.

These deflating discoveries after millennia of believing that our place in a human-scaled cosmos is central and decisive, and that the universe and human life are contemporaneous.

How do we respond? With despair? With self-delusion? By plugging up our ears? Like all of us, the Jesuit scientist/mystic Teilhard de Chardin struggled with this question, seeking some reason to remain optimistic in a world that increasingly seems insensitive to our fate. He latched onto the fact that "within the domain of our experience" humanity is at the edge of two great waves of cosmic evolution -- life and intelligence -- and that we hold in our hands the fate of at least our own domain. Embracing this fact with courage and hope, we can turn our face fearlessly and creatively "to the grandeur of a new sunrise."

In The Phenomenon of Man, he wrote: "Man has every right to be anxious about his fate so long as he feels himself to be lost and lonely in the midst of the mass of created things. But let his once discover that his fate is bound up with the fate of nature itself, and immediately, joyously, he will begin again his forward march."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

On your mark, get set...

In last Sunday's New York Times magazine, Steven Pinker wrote about the genetic bases of personality, and tells about having his personal genome sequenced (and posted on the internet).

His conclusion: A huge part of who we are is written into our DNA, behavioral as well as physical traits. But so many genes and their expression stir the pot of self that having a complete read-out of one's genome doesn't take one very far in knowing who we are. Having a partial scan to look for certain genes associated with disease, for example, might make sense, but paying $100,000 for all 6 billion A's, C's, G's and T's is a waste of money.

But personal genomes will get cheaper, and reading them will become more reliably predictive. So what? Knowing where we came from won't change who we are. The bushy-haired Harvard psychologist tells us he has a gene that predisposes him to baldness. What should he do? Shave his head?

The big philosophical question has been answered, with what may be the greatest series of scientific and technological breakthroughs of the last century-and-a-half. To a greater extent than we might care to admit, genes are destiny. If I've been happily married for more than half a century, it's not altogether because I am particularly virtuous, or because my wife is particularly lovable, or because I am imbued with particular "family values." It's at least partly because one particular sperm out of 200 million in one particular ejaculate won the race to one particular waiting egg, bearing a particular mix of genes that predisposed me to a stable relationship. It might help that something similar happened in the race that led to my wife's conception. Nature, nurture, and blind chance.

None of this changes anything. Pinker still has a bushy head of hair and I'm still mostly bald. We still struggle to make our way in the world with what we have. We still count our actions moral or immoral. We still try to raise our kids to conform to what we believe to be the best cultural norms. And meanwhile those strings of A's, C's, G's and T's go on doing their merry dance. There is no ghost in the machine, but the machine turns out to be more amazing than we ever imagined.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Making amends

On Wednesday, July 9, 1522, after a voyage of nearly three years, the tattered remnant of Magellan's fleet -- a single leaking ship and skeleton crew -- reached the harbor of Ribeira Grande in the Cape Verde Islands, tantalizingly close to home. According to the islanders, it was Thursday. The captain wrote: "We were greatly surprised for it was Wednesday with us, and we could not see how we had made a mistake; for I had always kept well, and had always set down every day without interruption." Slowly the explanation dawned: "It was no error, but as the voyage had been made continually toward the west, and we had returned to the same place as does the sun, we had made a gain of twenty-four hours."

This was a source of great amazement to the sailors (as later to Europeans in general). But it was also a source of moral consternation. By this miscalculation, they had violated their faith by eating meat on Fridays, and celebrating Easter on a Monday.

Some years ago -- 1986, to be exact -- Sky & Telescope magazine flew me out to Australia to write a piece about Halley's Comet, which promised its best apparition in southern skies. Flying home, the plane approached the international date line near midnight on Easter. A short time later it was Easter morning. I had two Easters that year. I willingly concede my extra Easter for the repose of the souls of the Magellanic circumnavigators.

Friday, January 16, 2009

We hold these truths

I have just finished reading Laurence Bergreen's Over the Edge of the World, an account of Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe. It is a ripping yarn, full of heroism and derring-do, horrifying privation and unexpected success (alas, not to be enjoyed by Magellan himself). It also depicts a time when life was cheap, torture and brutality were commonplace, kings and tribal chieftains had absolute power over their subjects, religious and racial intolerance were rife, ancient superstitions went unexamined, and diseases ran unchecked. I doubt if anyone living in one of today's secular, developed democracies would willingly transport themselves to that earlier time.

What has changed? Not human nature. We are still individually and collectively capable of horrendous acts of intolerance, violence and superstition. No, what has changed is the conceptual framework within which increasing numbers of us choose to live our lives:

Reason and empiricism replace authority, tradition and revelation as the basis for reliable knowledge of the world. The scientific way of knowing is respected and supported.

All men and women are equally endowed with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion.

Government derives from the consent of the governed, not divine right, religious precept or armed might.


Simple principles. Not always adhered to and easily perverted, but widely embraced. The philosophical articulation and widespread adoption of these principles has a name. It is called the Enlightenment.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Grandeur

He lies in a quiet side aisle of Westminster Abbey, beneath a dignified black stone inscribed with these words: "Charles Robert Darwin. Born 12 February 1809. Died 19 April 1882." On several occasions I have stood there, alone, thinking of the great man.

Poor Darwin. He would perhaps be abashed to find himself in Westminster Abbey at all, so reclusive and retiring was he in life. And his doubts about traditional theology provide another incongruity to his final repose in this most eminent symbol of Anglican orthodoxy.

But in a sense, he had carried on the work of the architects and master craftsmen who built the Abbey. They, too, lifted our eyes away from the cares and woes of day-to-day existence and focused our attention on the light and glory of the cosmos.

So here we are, approaching the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, the 150th anniversary of the publication of the great book. Origin of Species appeared on the scene like a bombshell. Perhaps never before or since has a dense scientific tome created a greater hubbub. Within days of publication everyone had an opinion, whether they had read the book or not.

It was not an easy read. But for those who plowed through it, and made the effort to understand, the effect was like a brilliant sunrise. Like soaring pillars and expanses of luminous glass.

No reader mattered more than the great scientific communicator Thomas Huxley. He found the book "humdrum and prosaic." But persevering, he entered a world "vast and mysterious." He was swept away by the all-encompassing beauty of Darwin's vision.

"There is a grandeur in this view of life," Darwin wrote of evolution, on the last page of Origin, and in knitting the history of our individual selves, our species, and all life on Earth, into the expanding space and time of the geologists and astronomers, he accomplished what the architects of Westminster Abbey sought in their own way to do with arches and spandrels and flying buttresses -- to focus our attention on a "vast and mysterious" unity that transcends the "humdrum and prosaic" of our individual daily lives.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The discovery of ignorance

Like me and Tom, many of you appear to be addicted to APOD, the Astronomy Picture of the Day. For this daily delight we are grateful to astronomers Bob Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell, who have maintained the site since 1995.

On a good dark night, one might see some thousands of stars with the unaided eye. In a dark place like Exuma, one can see a few things that do not appear to be stars: the blur in Cancer called the Beehive by the ancients, the double blur between Cassiopeia and Perseus, the blur in Andromeda, the blur in Orion. And what about all that darkness between the stars? Empty, or so it seems. The stars are like pinpricks in the black canopy of night.

Well, not quite. Point a modern telescope in almost any direction and the canopy of night reveals itself to be full of an astonishing profusion of wonders, many of which we are treated to by APOD. The cozy Earth-centered universe of the ancients turns out to be vast and full on a scale that is almost impossible to grasp.

What is the meaning of it all? There are certainly enough folks who think they know, who claim a "personal" relationship with the creator, and who perform acts of inspiring charity and horrendous violence in his name. The only meaning I know is that which I make for myself, with those I love, in this minute corner of the universe, out of the accumulated graces of the commonplace -- including those APOD glimpses into the overwhelming abyss of our ignorance.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In place of belief

No one can contemplate the universe -- from the teeming machinery of a single cell to the snowstorm of galaxies that fills visible space and time -- without confronting the mystery of why there is anything at all and why what is is what it is. If you want to call that mystery God, then do so.

And too it seems part of our biologically evolved nature to long for certainty of belief and refuge in a greater meaning. If you want to call the thing longed for God, by all means do so.

If the unknown and unknowable source of the longing and the curiosity and the awe is God, then count me a theist.

But the word is historically invested with an almost unerasable quality of personhood, human artifice, justice, love -- all the trappings of anthropomorphism. We tend not to see through a glass darkly, but in a mirror brightly. If the reflection is what we mean by God, then count me an atheist.

Chalk it up, if you want, to my long immersion in the Catholic mystical tradition, but whatever God I deem worthy of that name is the deus absconditus, the absconded God, the God who hides in a cloud of unknowing, the God who does not answer when John of the Cross implores --
Where have you hidden away,
lover, and left me grieving, care on care?
...imploring the empty air.
No sign for me to mark,
no other light, no guide/
except for my heart--
the fire, the fire inside.
The fire inside! The raging fire of curiosity, of wonder, of reverent attention, the fire that is the signature of a human consciousness that seeks to transcend our baser instincts through art, music, science, and -- yes -- religion. Here are a few stanzas from a poem of Grace Schulman:
I thought of Hopkins and his praise today
when I studied the pure symmetry
of cross-stitches on an oak leaf's underside
and knew that love is nothing less than accuracy:

the fire that I lit this morning flares
sapphire and violet as it gasps for air;
the blackening logs, the smell of cedar wood
are what I have of an evasive God.
Attention, praise, accuracy: These are the cardinal virtues of the religious naturalist. We listen, in whatever silence we can manage, for the strains of a distant music, knowing neither the composer nor the player, and when, having been afforded those few moments of grace, the music stops, or hides, or becomes obscured by the clamor of making one's way in an imperfect world, we give thanks, not to someone, but to existence itself, of which we are an inseparable part.

(The Schulman poem is "In Place of Belief," from her most recent collection The Broken String.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

The luminous Earth

Last evening we watched the just past full Moon rise majestic and golden out of the sea, preceded by a lunar dawn, something we never see in New England where ambient artifical light blots out all of night's faint treasures.

One of the earliest travelers to the Moon was a Spaniard named Domingo Gonsales who -- in a book published in 1638 by Francis Godwin, called "Man in the Moone" -- winged his way there and back by attaching himself to a flock of wild swans.

Twelve days after taking leave of Earth the birds deposited Gonsales on a high lunar hill, where he began to take note of the incredible sights of his new world. Not the least of the wonders was the Earth, suspended like an ornament in the lunar sky.

Only the Apollo astronauts have observed what Godwin imagined, but most of us have seen photographs of Earth from space, surely among the most beautiful artifacts of the 20th century. The photographs show the planet in all its phases -- crescent, half, gibbous, full -- confirming spectacularly what every schoolchild learns: The Earth shines only by reflected sunlight (some of it previously reflected from the Moon).

Or does it? Even Domingo Gonsales, on his swan-assisted journey, might have looked back and observed the Earth shining by its own light, and since his time the self-luminosity of our planet has increased dramatically.

The planet has many sources of light that illuminate its night side. Lightning storms, volcanic eruptions, and naturally-ignited fires all glimmer in the darkness. It has been estimated that something like 100 lightning strokes per second occur over the Earth's surface, flashing like fireflies. Auroras illuminate vast tracts of terrestrial night.

Life too adds emanations to the planet's aura. Glowworms, luminescent toadstools and flashlight fish, light-emitting plankton and bacteria, all combine protein with oxygen to radiate a cold biological light. But of Earth's living creatures, one contributes overwhelmingly to the planet's self-luminosity. The artificial aurora of Homo sapiens is easily visible from space.

Looking back at Earth today, space traveler Gonsales would see a planet glowing far brighter than the one he saw in 1638. To a large extent it glows with the luminosity of waste. The prodigious burning of tropical forests and oil-field waste gas bodes ill for the planet's fragile atmosphere, and every lumen of energy from electric lights cast upwards into space serves no useful purpose on Earth. Our intemperate, will-o'-the-wisp planet glows wastefully brighter all the time.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A new format

At Tom's suggestion, the Sunday essay is being folded into the blog. The weekly essay began five years ago as a continuation of the weekly Boston Globe column. As time passed, the daily posts became longer and the Sunday essays shorter until there seems to be no reason to keep them separate. What we have here today is a stopgap consolidation until Tom sorts things out to his satisfaction. Find today's offering below. Anne's pics will be more sporadic; I thank her for being so diligent for so long, and understand her need to focus on other work.

Composing in the dark

(I've just come across a little anthology called Prayers at 3 A.M., collected by Phil Cousineau, which contains an excerpt from my Honey From Stone. At the risk of boring those of you who have read the book, I'll post the excerpt here. The references to luminous owls and the speed of our falling toward the star Vega are only clear in the context of the book. It is night. I am sitting on a hillside in the west of Ireland.)

This is the world I love best -- the world lit by starlight. There are a few dozen electric lights burning in the parish below me, and I can make out another dozen or so lights on the Iveragh Peninsula across Dingle Bay, including the resolute beacon of the Valentia Harbor lighthouse. My immediate environment -- the grassy bank, the hedge of honeysuckle and fuchsia, the wild irises and foxgloves massed in the ditch -- is illuminated solely by the light of stars. Vega, at the zenith, is a thousand times less bright than the full moon, fifty million times less bright than the sun. But multiply Vega's faint light by the 10,000 stars of the summer Milky Way and it is illumination enough.

In the bardic schools of ancient Ireland, the young poets-in-training, having been set in the evening a theme for composition, retired each one to his private cell, a cell furnished with nothing more than a bed and perhaps a peg on which to hang a cloak, and -- most importantly -- without windows, there to compose the requisite rhymes, taking care to observe the designated rules as to syllables, quartans, concord, correspondence, termination, and union, in total darkness, throughout the remainder of the night and all the next day, undistracted by the least ray of the sun, until the following evening at the appointed time when a light was brought in and the poem written down. An eighteenth-century account of the bardic schools by the Marquis of Claricarde asserts that the discipline of darkness was imposed so that the young poets might avoid the "Distractions which Light and the variety of Objects represented thereby commonly occasions," and in darkness "more fully focus the Faculties of the Soul" upon the subject at hand. From the Marquis' language one might suppose that the soul has a light of its own, that it glows with a self-luminosity, like the owls of the Blackwater Valley, and that the soul's crepuscular light is drowned out by the light of day. Certainly poets, like mystics, have traditionally been creatures of the night. The world of daylight is a world of impenetrable surfaces, resplendent, metallic, adamantine. In starlight, surfaces are transparent, like the flesh of a hand held to a bright light, and the soul sees into objects and beyond. But there is a danger that the soul will leak away like water into loose soil, or be dispersed like breath in wind. Could that be why the poets of the bardic schools shut themselves up in total darkness to compose their verses, without the light of a single star? The light of one star is enough to prick night's dark skin, and the enclosing sphere of the sky goes pop like a balloon, and we fall out of ourselves, upward toward Vega, at twelve miles per second, into Infinity.

(And now it is winter, in warm Exuma, and Vega is down there somewhere, on the other side of the world, and instead of falling upwards, we are plummeting downwards, spinning with the whirling Earth, racing around the sun, the whole kit and caboodle hurtling at twelve miles per second -- towards that point in the deep sky where Vega shines in the summer Milky Way.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Intelligent design

In a post some time ago, I mentioned the artist Tara Donovan. At the time, I knew her work only through art mags and the internet. Then, in mid-October, the Institute of Contemporary Arts brought Donovan to Boston for a major show, a entire floor of the gallery devoted to her astonishing installations. I visited the day before I left for Exuma.

Donovan works with the most banal of industrial artifacts -- straight pins, plastic cups, paper plates, wooden toothpicks, plastic drinking straws, scotch tape, buttons, adding machine tape -- in massive quantities. By gathering the lowly and inanimate in teeming numbers she achieves effects that can only be called organic, much as you and I are both conglomerations of a few simple kinds of atoms and vastly more than that.

Her signature piece, I suppose, is a sky of styrofoam cups, suspended from the ceiling of a gallery, billowing in their thousands, glowing eerily. In the stark white space of the otherwise bare room one felt as if one were walking on a cloud-draped, sun-startled moor.

My favorite work was a wall of millions of clear plastic drinking straws, stacked like tiny logs, wall to wall, ten feet high, held in place by gravity and the side walls of the gallery, illuminated from behind, the outward-facing surface contoured by the artist in gently heaving hills and hollows, like a fog bank rolling in the from sea.

Again and again, in room after room, Donovan achieves breathtaking effects by discovering the innate potentialities of her elements. The painstaking effort put into these arrangements must be prodigious, but there is a sense in which the elements, by their sheer numbers, arrange themselves, like atoms adapting to their valencies.

Banality into beauty. Inanimate simplicity into forms reminiscent of organic nature. Industrial artifacts into soul-stirring art.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Butterflies of the cosmos

An exceedingly interesting thread in Comments the other day (Jan. 6) on "subjective" and "objective" reality. I was struck by a few sentences of Pat, mainly because of what I was reading at the time.
Our "subjective" thoughts are themselves as much a part of "objective" reality as cosmic rays and anti-matter. A sentient mind is an unknown in the grand scheme of the universe. Even if all of its sources and resources are known, the new connections, beauty, and ideas it will create from them cannot be deduced nor anticipated. We are the butterflies of the cosmos. The conceptions we spin, whether expressed in music, paint, words, or our lives themselves, are a brand new wrinkle in the fabric of reality, unforeseen, and profoundly unpredictable. They permanently change local reality and ripple through the totality of its existence.
Of course, we have no idea to what extent human consciousness is unique in the universe. If experience is any guide, we are utterly typical, mediocre really, neither the lords of intelligence nor the fools.

But consider this. As I read Pat and the others, I was also reading The Day Is So Long and the Wages So Small: Music On a Summer Island, by Samuel Charters, published in 1999, recounting the summer of 1958 when music anthropologist Charters and his partner Ann Danberg, graduate students at the time, made their way with little money and a tape recorder to the isolated island of Andros in the Bahamas to record native music. Their greatest discovery was a guitarist named Joseph Spence, descendant of slaves, dirt poor, minimally-educated and immensely talented, who one day stopped his work with his friends and gave Charters and Danberg a spontaneous concert. Charters writes:
In all the years of recording music since then, and with all the guitarists I've worked with, Spence is still in a musical place by himself. He was playing simple popular melodies and hymns, but he was using them as the basis for extended rhythmic and melodic variations. There were sometimes two separate rhythms crossing each other simultaneously, while the melody extended the harmonies into another dimension. He often seemed to be improvising in the bass, the middle strings, and the treble at the same time. Sometimes a variation would strike the men and Spence himself as so exciting that he would simply stop playing, they would forget about their work, and they would shout at each other in their excitement.
When later on musicians in the States heard the recording Charters made in Andros, Spence was dragged out of anonymity (by Pete Seeger) all the way to the Newport Jazz Festival and concerts in New York.

A tiny settlement on a swampy, mosquito-infested island with no road to anywhere, no indoor plumbing, almost no electricity, and a man with self-taught, world-class musical talent who can bring people to shouts and tears with the beauty of his playing. "Even if all of its sources and resources are known, the new connections, beauty, and ideas it will create from them cannot be deduced nor anticipated," says Pat.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The omnivore's dilemma -- 2

The new dietary, world-saving mantra is "Eat local." This, for example, is the theme of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, a good read that -- if nothing else -- makes one think about what goes in the mouth. As much as possible eat fresh food from nearby sources, preferably produced and distributed organically, Mr. Pollan advises.

Easier said than done. Give me a big Exumian cabbage, some Exumian onions, peppers and tomatoes, and I could eat happily for a week. But one does not live on veggies alone. And the sources of local food are fast disappearing as the island is sucked into the global vortex of industrially produced and distributed food.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan visits Gene Kahn, who started out in the 70s as a countercultural farmer in Washington State, producing and selling organic food to local markets. His New Cascadian Survival and Reclamation Project eventually turned into the large and successful Cascadia Farms, and was gobbled up by the industrial food giant General Mills, with Kahn as a wealthy VP. Organic farmer to agribusinessman.

"Everything eventually morphs into the way the world is," says Kahn by way of explanation.

A sad thought, but one with the irresistible force of truth.

Cabbages and onions grown in sandy soil with a watering can and a machete stand little chance against the global food industry. Nor is it fair to expect Exumians to forego the variety of foods and ease of acquisition that those of us in the megasupermarket culture enjoy. And how, pray, to feed 7 billion people without the food science and technology that is both the blessing and the bane of the contemporary world?

I will leave the omnivore's dilemma to wiser heads than mine, and for as long as I can stick with my big sandy heads of Exumian cabbage. I know exactly where they came from and how they were grown, because I can walk through the fields and see the farmer bent over the ground plying his or her machete. But I know little or nothing about the big block of strangely-colored cheddar cheese and processed turkey "bacon" that I buy at our market to go with the cabbage -- except that the turkey may have suffered less than the smarter (and tastier) pig. Oh dear.

"Everything eventually morphs into the way the world is," says Mr. Kahn. The best we can hope for, I assume, is one by one to nudge the world in whatever direction we want it to go.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The omnivore's dilemma -- 1

Onions, cabbages, pigeon peas, corn, bananas, papayas, goats, chickens, conch. Until surprisingly recently these locally grown, raised or fished foods constituted the essential diet of most of the people who lived on this island in the central Bahamas. By "surprisingly recently" I mean mere decades. It was a poor island, with limited electricity and brackish water drawn from shallow wells, pits really, chiseled from the soft carbonate rock. People lived in clusters of homes on the ridges, and farmed the few low-lying areas where there were snatches of semi-fertile soil. A simple life, remembered with fondness by the old people of the island. A hard life, too, no doubt. Two tiny government clinics supplemented by bush medicine. The nearest dentist in Nassau, 275 miles away.

All changed now. The electrical grid has reached the most remote settlements, along with cable television. Sweet water is piped from a central reverse osmosis plant. I know of only one remaining person on the island who is familiar with native remedies. Farming has pretty much gone by the board. The community packing shed, where local produce was available, was damaged by hurricane flooding a few years ago and has not reopened. The industrial food chain -- bane and blessing -- has this little island firmly in its grip. New Zealand butter. Long-life milk from Italy. Frozen fish from Indonesia. Strawberries from California. Asparagus from Argentina. Water from Fiji. And every sort of packaged junk food you might want to eat made from Iowa corn and Persian Gulf oil.

When we came here twenty years ago we caught the very end of a unique traditional way of life. And, of course, we were part of the cultural squeeze that brought it to an end. We came for the simplicity -- basic local food, gentle tempo, dark skies. We carried the virus of globalization. And the locals love it.

(More tomorrow.)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The eye of the mind

In recent days we have been watching Mercury, Jupiter and Venus in the western sky at sunset, with the crescent Moon moving from evening to evening along the line of planets. Together, planets and Moon slipped one after the other below the horizon as we sped on the spinning Earth at a thousand miles per hour to the east.

The Moon and planets mark the plane of the ecliptic in the sky -- the plane of the solar system -- and night by night they drift among the stars as they and we make our great circuits around the Sun. On the darkest nights we can see a band of faint light reaching up from the horizon, the zodiacal light, sunlight reflected from meteoric dust lying in the plane of the solar system, leftover debris from the pancake of whirling dust and gas out of which the solar system was born.

Another band of pale luminescence, the winter Milky Way, arches overhead from north to south, the light of billions of stars individually too faint to be visible to the unaided eye -- another plane, the plane of the galaxy, another whirling journey.

A spinning Earth, in a spinning solar system, in a spinning galaxy! Wheels within wheels within wheels, like the vision of the prophet Ezekiel.

And my flight isn't over yet. In the northwestern sky, in the constellation Andromeda, I can just make out a blur of light, too fuzzy to be a star, like a smudge on the dark windowpane of night. This is the central part of the Great Andromeda Galaxy, the closest spiral galaxy to our own, towards which we fall in another mutual motion.

I stand in the darkness and try to feel my vertiginous flight. And I think of that blind old man kneeling on the floor of the Office of the Inquisition in Rome in 1633, having renounced his belief in the motion of the Earth, whispering -- as legend has it -- under his breath, "And yet it moves."

Monday, January 05, 2009

Making a me, cell by cell

"A self, I thought, that's what I want: a pure/ production of the cells, like ivory/ or copper claws..." So begins a poem in Erica Funkhouser's newest collection of poems, Earthly. She is a splendid poet, with whom I once had the pleasure of spending a few lovely days. She teaches at MIT, and has an acute sensitivity to the natural world. Earthly, indeed.

This particular poem, in which she longs for a natural self -- "I wanted her to show herself, to ache/ to brim, to banish all ambivalence..." -- is one of a number of sonnets in the new volume that pay homage to the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. The self she wishes for, this pure production of the cells, would "master me, and in her mastery/ I'd flourish like the brilliant spiral tusk/ advancing from the narwhal's alchemy/ to penetrate the sea's perpetual dusk."

And like any good poem, this one makes me think, about just what is a self, and how a self is to a large extent a production of the cells, not pure perhaps, because in interaction with non-self from the first moment when the progenitor cell starts to divide -- two, four, eight, sixteen -- and a self begins emerging, like the tiniest tip of a narwhal's tusk, spiraling into a waiting world. Cells, oh yes, trillions of cells -- blood, bone, flesh, ivory teeth, copper nails, and more neural synapses that you can count, each one carefully potentiated by genes or experience -- a completely natural thing, no ghost in the machine, and yet, and yet, so tangled in ambivalence, in pangs of longing for the undefinable thing, in the seemingly perpetual dusk that haunts the darkest hours of the night. All those scientists at MIT working busily to discern the substance and dimensions of the natural self, and over there in the Department of Writing and Humanistic Studies the poet does her own burrowing into the mystery.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

X marks the spot

Another look at the Crab Nebula in this week's Musing.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Growing up in the Milky Way

In early July, 1054, a blazing new star appeared in the constellation Taurus. For a time it was far and away the brightest thing in the night sky, except for the Moon. Then it faded away. This spectacular event was recorded by Chinese and Japanese astronomers, and perhaps in a pictograph by native Americans. It is a mystery why European records are silent, although I did describe here one potential reference from Ireland.

Today, photographs show the remnants of an exploded star, still racing outwards, called the Crab Nebula. At the center is a city-sized pulsar, the collapsed core of the star, as dense as the nucleus of an atom and spinning furiously. The Crab is available to the amateur astronomer with a decent scope and a dark sky as a faint blur. Many a cold winter night I have gone looking for it.

When I used to teach an introductory astronomy course, I had the students work with two photographs of the Crab Nebula, taken decades apart. They identified nodes of the twisted gas and -- carefully, very carefully! -- measured the distance from the central pulsar, using background stars to establish a common scale. Then they calculated backwards to the moment of explosion (assuming a constant rate of expansion). And, sure enough, got dates somewhere near the 11th century.

A glimpse of the blur and the exercise with the photographs made the supernova come alive.

The goal of my astronomy course was not just to convey a bunch of facts, but to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the imaginations of the students to accommodate cosmic space and time. Reaching out to that roiling cauldron of gas, 10 light-years wide, 6000 light-years away, was just one small step. Did they come away from these mind-stretching exercises as true children of the Milky Way? I doubt it. I taught the course for 30 years and I can't say that I fully appreciate what it means to live in a universe of 10 billion galaxies (at least) and more exploded stars than one can number.

(Tomorrow: The Crab's ghostly X-ray aura.)

(A cloudy yesterday cleared gloriously overnight for the Quadrantid meteor shower this morning between 4 and 5 AM. We saw approximate one per minute, including several bright enough to leave trails across the sky. A New Year's fireworks.)

Friday, January 02, 2009

Debauched on light

And so it begins, The International Year of Astronomy, with the theme "The Universe, yours to discover," marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first observations through a telescope in 1609.

According to the IYA2009 website, the celebration will portray astronomy as "a peaceful global scientific endeavor that unites astronomers in an international, multicultural family of scientists, working together to find answers to some of the most fundamental questions that humankind has ever asked."

As upright primates, the sky is half of our visual field, but we give it only a tiny fraction of our attention. Food, drink, clothing, shelter, sex are all to be found close to the ground. What goes on above our heads is mostly irrelevant.

Irrelevant to the body, that is. To the mind, and whatever it is we call spirit, the sky is supremely important. Every culture has put their chief gods in the sky. Sun, moon and stars figure prominently in the history of religion. Mathematics and science began in the sky. Few things evoke so profound a sense of awe as a dark sky ablaze with stars.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman writes: "To taste or touch your enemy or your food, you have to be unnervingly close to it. To smell or hear it, you can risk being further off. But vision can rush through the fields and up the mountains, travel across time, country, and parsecs of outer space, and collect bushel baskets of information as it goes." Vision is the sense that puts us in touch with infinity.

Ackerman suggests that perception is a form of grace. In Catholic theology, one must be disposed to grace to receive it. The International Year of Astronomy has as its purpose disposing us to grace -- grace capacious enough to contain the universe.

Thursday, January 01, 2009