Saturday, February 28, 2009

Abecedary

Albedo, bolide, constellation,
dichotomy, eclipse, first point of Aries,
great circle, Hertzsprung-Russell, inferior planet,
Julian date, kiloparsec, limb darkening,
Maunder minimum, node (descending), occultation,
proper motion, quadrature, retrograde,
synodic period, Titus-Bode law, universal time,
Viking lander, waning gibbous, x-ray source,
young moon, Zubenelgenubi and -- oh yes --
Zubeneshamali.

Begin with wonder. Lying on one's back, perhaps, under a dark canopy of stars. Head empty, except for awe. A sense of enormous depth and enormous mystery.

Wonder is a private emotion. But wonder leads to wondering, and wondering leads to knowledge. Reliable, public knowledge.

For that we can be grateful to generations of curious minds who submitted their investigations to the test of reproducible observation.

Begin with naming. Zubenelgenubi, the southern claw of the Scorpion. Zubeneshamali, the northern claw. With Hipparchus, add numbers. Zubenelgenubi is a 3rd magnitude star; Zubeneshamali is a 4th magnitude star. Add color, then temperature. Then distance. Eventually arrive at the x-ray source at the center of the galaxy powered by a black hole with a mass of millions of suns.

Hipparchus. Aristarchus. Claudius Ptolemy. Copernicus, Tycho and Kepler. Bruno and Galileo. Titus and Bode, Hertzsprung and Russell. The Herschels -- William, Caroline and John. Maria Mitchell and Henrietta Leavitt. Shapley and Hubble. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Jocelyn Bell. An endless parade of unfettered curiosity. One test and one test only -- exact, quantitative, reproducible data.

On my back on the terrace. The sky awash with stars. Wonder. And knowledge too.

Friday, February 27, 2009

On agnosticism

In a post the other day I spoke of the finality of life, and wrote: "And then oblivion."

Our friend Carmen, who always nudges us in interesting directions, gently teased me:
"Doesn't agnosticism yen for a qualifier? I.e.,:
"And then, perhaps oblivion."
"And then, possibly oblivion."
"And then, probably oblivion."
"And then, for bloody sure, oblivion."

Without any adjective or adverb (or gerund or gerundive) would the statement still qualify as "agnostic?"
One could chew on Carmen's question for quite a while, and I did. Certainly, few things are as widely and ardently believed as personal immortality. The idea is deeply ingrained in human culture, and is at the heart of most major religions. Simple humility would seem to dictate a qualifier: "And then, most likely, oblivion." To state unequivocally the mortality of self does seem to violate the agnostic's attachment to "I don't know."

So I go back to Thomas Huxley, who invented the term. Agnosticism, he insisted, is not a creed, but a method. "Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable."

What are the observable aspects of a self? A unique physical body and innate behaviors that are the products of an inherited genome in interaction with a supremely complex environment. A remembered store of lifetime experience. Emotions. An immune system. All of these science has shown to be inextricably embodied. Negatively, science has recorded not a shred of reproducible, non-anecdotal evidence for the continued existence of a self after death. I would go so far as to say that no matter of presumed knowledge has less scientific credibility than the immortal immaterial self.

Do not make a leap of faith beyond what can be reliably demonstrated, says Huxley. There is a sense in which adding a qualifier to "And then oblivion" legitimates the leap.

To be agnostic is to be prepared to admit the unthinkable when the evidence requires it. It does not require hedging our every belief with what Anonymous described as a possibly tiresome and disingenuous wobbliness. Or at least that's what I'm inclined to believe. Maybe. For the moment.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A few words in praise of Diane Ackerman

Every now and then, when I feel my prose going stale, I take down one of Diane Ackerman's natural history books from the shelf and indulge myself in a few luscious paragraphs. Like this one, the last graph of Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden.
Any day now spring will revive the blast-frozen valley, tune up the dawn chorus, and hymn the poplars with winter's end. I swear, the willows are yellowing as I look at them. Other trees are glistening with sap, blurring with buds. Squirrels are fidgeting in last year's leavings. Moss has laid down a welcome mat, and red-capped fungi are mustering like British soldiers in a rum confusion of sun and ice. Spring is unlatching its heavy doors, rousting old dusty hibernators from their sleep, and beginning a quiet fumbling with buttons, knots and nubbins, and the bolting ribbons of time, light, and gore. As I walk down to the mailbox, enveloped in mist, birds snitch on twitchy feet in the aspens, morning ghosts between the houses, and the air tastes green at last.
It is, of course, over the top, but dazzlingly so, all those obedient syllables in the hands of a master gardener of vowels and consonants. "...with winter's end. I swear, the willows are yellowing..." Just look at how she sends those w's marching across the page, leading us down her primrose path. "...buttons, knots and nubbins, and the bolting ribbons of time..." I would imagine that she sets out her garden in the same way, in courses and clusters of alliterative colors. I'm a sucker for this stuff, but only when it's done so well. Too much of it would be cloying and sticky, but Ackerman we rightly treasure because we can tell she is sincerely enchanted with the music of the English language. "...Moss has laid down a welcome mat, and red-capped fungi are mustering like British soldiers in rum confusion..." Picking apart her paragraphs has some of the same delight as perusing a Burpee seed catalog in the depths of winter -- ah, yes, and over there by that swerve of pines we'll plant a patch of sweet peas.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dies cinerum

The day of ashes. How we looked forward to this day as school children, the day when Lent begins, and the nuns marched us across the yard from school to church where we lined up on our knees at the altar rail and piously dipped our heads while Father Shea marked our foreheads with the ashes of the burnt palms. "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return," he said, which struck me as a bit of a paradox since we were otherwise made to believe that we would live forever.

No matter. Such theological niceties where not as much on my mind as sweet Carmen who looked so adorable besmirched with her own sign of earthy temporality. We trooped out of church with the badge on our foreheads, a visible sign that we belonged to the One True Faith, going so far as to avoid our foreheads in the bath that evening so that the next day a remnant of the ashes remained. Our dirty little secret.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. "The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground," says the Bible, echoing many ancient creation myths. We're made of dirt. We may wash our vegetables before we eat them, but the veggies themselves are just recycled dirt, occasionally recycled again through a chicken or cow before we get it. Where do our atoms come from if not from the soil? It is worth noting that "human" and "humus" come from the same ancient Indo-European root, dhghem, meaning "earth."

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. "The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying." The one day of the year when we were allowed to contemplate our one true fate.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

And speaking of immortality...

According to a report in the New York Times (and elsewhere), the Roman Catholic Church is reintroducing indulgences, those officially-issued tickets of exchange (so to speak) that can shorten one's time in purgatory. Next thing you know, we'll be bringing Johann Tetzel out of retirement.

Many younger Catholics today have never heard of indulgences, which we thought had gone the way of many other medievalisms during the brief enlightenment of Vatican II. Indulgences were very much with us when I was a child. By saying certain sanctioned "ejaculations" one could tote up time off in the next world. Say "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," for example, and you got 500 days indulgence (or something to that effect), 500 days off the time of torment I'd spend as punishment for whatever sins an eight-year-old boy might commit. We rattled off our ejaculations and watched the number of days roll up on the remission meter. Presumably, my eight-year-old understanding of indulgences was flawed; time works differently in eternity, and days in purgatory are not to be understood literally. But our teachers -- good Irish nuns -- didn't grasp the theological subtleties either, so we all lived in a kind of semi-fear of the hereafter, spitting out the ejaculations, whirling the dial of the remission meter, trying to keep our credits above our debits.

It's easy to be cynical about all this, and I don't mean to sound smug or cutsey, but surely the very notion of purgatory and indulgences suggests that for all its protestations to the contrary, the Church has not made its peace with modernity -- or with science. One waits in vain for Church leaders who are ready to come to grips with the post-Galilean universe.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Natural killer cells remember

If an automobile lasts ten years, it gives good service. Three years for a computer is par for the course. On this humid, salt-soaked island it is the rare technological artifact that doesn't quickly make its way to the junk heap.

And look at me, 72 years old and still going strong. Well, maybe "strong" is overstating it, but there may be a few years in the old bod yet.

I am vastly more complicated than a car or computer. You'd think there would be that many more things to go wrong. Especially since there are so many other organisms out there intent on bringing me to ruin.

Such is the beauty of life that organisms are self-repairing. Not least among our bases for resiliance is the immune system, an army of cells that have no other purpose than recognizing what is not me and doing it in before it does me in. Without the immune system, my life might have been shorter than my laptop's.

Recent issues of Science (January 23) and Nature (January 29) offer new insights into the cells that know me better than I know myself. Here is the abstract of a summary article by Sophie Ugolini and Eric Vivier:
Cells of the adaptive immune system hold a grudge: on re-encountering a pathogen, they show a robust protective response. It seems that natural killer cells of the innate immune system might also have this ability.
Learning is a hallmark of life, say Ugolini and Vivier. The immune system, like the nervous system, learns from previous experience -- such as a single encounter with the many pathogens that exist. The result is immunological memory that confers long-lasting protection. It has long been known that cells of the so-called adaptive immune system can learn and remember. We are also host to "killer cells" of the so-called innate immune system. Now it seems that these cells too learn from experience, refining their understanding of what constutes a self.

The reports in Science and Nature make astonishing reading -- as science. They also have philosophical relevance.

Not so long ago we thought of a self as an immaterial ghost in the machine that somehow comes into existence at conception and lives on after the body decays. Science has not discovered a shred of evidence for this immortal soul. To believe in the immortality of self today requires a leap of faith that flies in the face of an overwhelming body of research.

A self is a physical body implicit in the DNA we inherit from our parents, in interaction with the environment. A self is a vast array of experiences stored in the brain. Then there is that other aspect of self, not often mentioned by the philosophers, the immune system -- cells we have inherited from hundreds of millions of years of evolution that have as their purpose maintaining a self against all that is unself. Which is why if I am lucky I will achieve my four score years.

And then oblivion.

None of this distresses the religious naturalist. Rather, with Whitman, we sing the body electric: O I say these are not parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, O I say now these are the soul!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Most excellent creatures all


This fellow washed up on our beach yesterday. A burrowing sea cucumber, Holothuria arenicola, I believe, ten inches long. If there were a prize for the ugliest form of life, this blob would have few competitors. Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, in this case a brace of grandchildren shouting "Yuk!"

We are here at the opposite pole of esthetics from the moment that Alfred Russel Wallace found a golden birdwing butterfly in the wilds of Indonesia:
The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable...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 apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day.
No doubt if you were a burrowing sea cucumber, you'd think this fellow handsome. Except, there is really no need for beauty. Presumably, these creatures reproduce by spewing eggs and sperm into the water and leaving the rest to chance. A gonad. A mouth and an anus. What else does one need? All that beauty and brilliancy of the birdwing butterfly? No thanks. Beauty in the great scheme of evolution is what works.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

AH-CHOO!!!

(The genome of the common cold virus has been sequenced. I'm rather surprised it has taken so long. Anyway, as we have family visiting this week, I will use this important announcement as an excuse -- in my present good health -- to reprise a post of several years ago.)

Excuse me. I had meant to write about something else this morning -- the origin of the universe, perhaps, or the evolution of consciousness. But, you see, I have this...

AH-CHOO!!!

...this cold. My body has been hijacked. I don't feel like writing about anything. All I seem to be able to do is...

AH-CHOO!!!

...sneeze.

It's those viruses. Multiplying like crazy in my nose. They have irritant proteins on their surface that trigger my sneezes. It's part of their plan. They have ravaged my respiratory system in their reproductive frenzy, and now they're looking for another innocent victim, more cells to commandeer. So they irritate my nose. Ah-ah-AH......CHOO!!! An explosion. Ten thousand globules of moisture expelled at 40 miles per hour. Each globule packed with viruses. Ordinary common cold viruses. Now afloat in the air.

To drift into someone else's nose.

Whereupon they are propelled along in a film of mucus by a tiny oaring hairs, called cilia, to the back of the throat, where, if we are lucky, they are washed down to the gut and digested. End of story. But occasionally a virus binds to a cell in the nasal passages. And that's when the trouble begins.

The virus penetrates the cell. Inside, it unzips its protein coat exposing a bundle of naked genes. These pirate genes take over the cell's reproductive machinery and start making copies of themselves. Loads and loads of copies. A few days later the symptoms appear. The sore throat. The runny nose. The sneezing.

Cats don't get colds. Dog's don't get colds. Canaries and hippopotamuses don't get colds. Just humans and chimpanzees. We alone are the targets of these mischievous invaders. They are legion; at least 200 different kinds of viruses can cause a cold. The bewildering variety makes it hard for our bodies to muster defenses. And for scientists to provide a vaccine.

In spite of their differences, most cold-causing viruses are part of a family called rhinoviruses. Snips of genes in a protein coat. The coat is put together like a Buckminster Fuller dome. Sixty identical equilateral triangles, arranged in groups of five to make an almost-sphere, a perfect icosahedron. At the center of each group is a bump surrounded by a deep circular canyon, like a castle with a moat. Twelve castles and twelve moats on the surface of each virus. The castles differ from virus to virus. The moats are pretty much the same.

The bumps and canyons seem to be the key to the rhinoviruses' success. By the time our body has learned to recognize one virus by its bumps, and prepare antibodies that will attack and destroy the virus, along comes another virus with different bumps. The common cold virus is master of a hundred disguises.

But rhinoviruses must have something in common if they can all attach themselves to the same cells in our noses. What they seem to have in common is a binding mechanism hidden at the base of the deep and narrow moats, safely out of reach of antibodies.

Devilishly clever.

A few decades ago we knew very little about the viruses that cause the common cold. Today, we know their structure, almost atom by atom. A cure for the common cold may not be in sight, but drugs that prevent infection appear to be possible. Such drugs might prevent a virus from binding to cells in the nose, or from unzipping its coat once it is inside a cell.

Scientists can be devilishly clever too.

Clever enough to figure out the structure of something that is much too small to see. Ten thousand rhinoviruses can line up on the head of a pin, and a simple icosahedral shape with bumps and canyons is all they need to render my body completely miserable.

Who would have guessed that the cause of such mischief is a thing of such simple elegance.

The common cold virus has reduced life to its essence: genes making copies of themselves. They eschew the usual apparatus of reproduction. No flowers or bright plumage or paired sexes. No warbling or chirping or whispering sweet nothings. Just opportunistic genes in a protein jacket. The jacket protects the genes and binds the virus to a cell in the human nose. The invaded cell provides what the virus needs to reproduce.

A cold virus alone on a desert island could never make copies of itself. Two cold viruses alone on a desert island could never make copies of themselves. They need me...

AH-CHOO!!!

...and you.

They need a nose.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The (modern) male gaze

The parenthetical adjectives in the titles of yesterday's and today's posts are probably unnecessary. The male gaze has been embedded in our genes since -- well, since long before the Dancing Venus. Yesterday's pic of Betty Grable, from 1944, was the most widely distributed pin-up of the Second World War. If morale was crucial to the Allied victory, Betty can claim some of the credit.

I was eight years old in 1944 and I remember the Grable image vividly. Which raises the question: At what age does the male gaze kick in?

This famous photograph of Rita Hayworth from an August 1941 issue of Life magazine certainly registered on my five-year-old consciousness, although I probably had no notion of why I kept sneaking peek after peek -- something in the chromosomes anticipating conscious desire. August 1941, by the way, is the same month that Laura Mulvey was born, she who defined the "male gaze."

Then in the very next year came the "Shirley Temple Grows Up" cover of Life, and I fell head over heels in love, obsessing for months over the image of a girl who was eight years older than me.

Ms. Mulvey suggests that the male gaze objectifies women and denies them human agency, forcing them to view other women and themselves through male eyes. Well, maybe so. But just look at Shirley Temple's 14-year-old gaze (click to enlarge) and tell me that's not genetic too.

We are not prisoners of our genes, and that's what creating a civilized, mutually-respectful culture is all about. But the genes had a million-year head start. There's going to be a lot of gazing as long as we are human.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The (paleolithic) male gaze


A review article in the February 6 issue of Science traces the earliest expressions of human art, some of which apparently go back 100,000 years or more. Not mentioned in the article is an artifact I wrote about 20 years ago in the Globe, the "Dancing Venus of Galgenberg."

This delightful figurine is about 3-inches tall and is carved from green serpentine stone. It was discovered in Germany at a site that had previously yielded the bones of Ice Age animals, including reindeer and mammoths, together with charcoal and flint flakes. Carbon dating suggests an age of about 30,000 years.

The statuette is lithe and saucily posed, a real "pin-up" among the many other female statuettes caved by our Cro-Magnon ancestors. More than 60 of these figurines, called Venuses by archeologists, have been discovered from France to Siberia. Not only is the Galgenberg Venus older than the others, but she differs from them in startling ways.

The typical Ice Age Venus is shaped in clay, or carved in stone or ivory. She is grotesquely rotund and rigidly symmetrical, with dropping breasts, bulging belly and exaggerated buttocks. The head and limbs are usually merely suggested by the sculptor as knobs or stumps. Most archeologists believe these Venuses were fertility symbols, or icons of a Mother Goddess revered by the Cro-Magnons as source of life and protector.

The Dancing Venus of Galgenberg is unique. Her head and limbs are carefully depicted, and even accented with openings in the stone. Her left arm is raised with the hand behind the head. She stands with her weight resting insouciantly on one foot, and the right hand is placed on the hip. One breast is shown in profile, the other is carved in low relief. In my column, I drew attention to Betty Grable's familiar pose.

The Dancing Venus is no Mother Goddess. This is a chick with sex appeal. Cheesecake since the dawn of time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The one and the many

Near the end of Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps, the protagonist -- Meg Sargent, a stand-in for Mary -- and her therapist steer away from talking at length about her childhood, "for it suggested...that the universe is mechanical, utterly predictable, frozen, and this in its own way is quite as terrible as the notion that the universe is chaotic."

And there you have it, really, the balancing act each of us must maintain if we are to stay sane -- call it, if I may use a physical metaphor, the liquid state, somewhere between the immobility of the solid (frozen) state and the stochastic chaos of the gaseous state. Recall the line of the physicist James Clerk Maxwell I quoted here recently: "It is a universal condition of the enjoyable that the mind must believe in the existence of a law, and yet have a mystery to move about in."

If the human mind is most comfortable with a balance of order and chaos -- law and freedom, stability and adventure -- it is undoubtedly because the universe itself is poised somewhere between the utterly predictable and the utterly unpredictable. Our brains evolved to cope with the world as it is; it can be no surprise that we are frightened of extremes of rigidity and randomness.

In politics, our preferred system lies between the poles of totalitarianism and anarchism. In religion, we gravitate to something between infallible dogma and "anything goes." Literature? Which of the following strings of letters do you find most interesting?
1) Aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa.

2) One fish two fish red fish blue fish. Black fish blue fish old fish new fish.

3) How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon the bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears.

4) Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

5) Vfg w eklpsi muc dvpk dbjhq a v sm i yu ncq bfox w wgbm ifiai lvdymssa lsa s s aiuro y astwaeqyw rtwvme gv k ljr jxbkdq.
No. 1 is pure repetition, presumably boring. No. 5 is chaos; I programmed my computer to generate random letters and spaces. Young children may prefer No. 2, a passage from Dr. Seuss with lots of rhythm and simple pattern. A few adults profess to enjoy No. 4, from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, full of complex, deeply buried patterns. My guess is that most of you picked No. 3, a snippet of Shakespeare.

And so we make our way, with the instrument nature has given us sitting at the top of our spine, terrified of determinism, frightened by chance. We want desperately to believe we are free, but seek out islands of repose. We are mirrors of the universe that spawned us.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

You horny devil, you


Let me share with you this charming illustration from a recent issue of Nature (February 12). Four dung beetles of the same species. At the upper right, the female. At upper left, the alpha male, with an outsized horn. Below him, the beta male. And to his right, below the female, the hornless gamma male. Yes, three levels of macho. You can surely guess which one the female prefers. And which poor fellow must rely on more subtle strategies of seduction. Isn't nature grand?

And this for a creature who pitches his mansion in "the place of excrement."

Dung beetles were venerated as gods by the ancient Egyptians. And in this day when recycling is all the rage -- indeed, a moral imperative -- dung beetles should be venerated again as recyclers par excellence. Without them we would be up to our...

Never mind. Let J. Henri Fabre, the famous turn-of-the-century French entomologist, have the say. He spent years studying the lives of these "dealers in ordure," as he called them. He filled cages with the insects, and bribed local children with lollipops to bring him heaps of excrement gathered from the fields and roads. And he watched. Watched as the dung beetles cut the excrement into balls, rolled them away, and buried them.

The dung-balls serve as food for adult beetles and for larvae. "Out of filth, she creates the flowers," rhapsodized Fabre, "from a little manure, she extracts the thrice-blessed grain of wheat."

The curious ball-rolling habits of these insects evolved tens of millions of years ago. Several entomologists have suggested that hordes of dung beetles followed dinosaurs around, cleaning up behind. It makes perfect evolutionary sense. The mountainous droppings of the lumbering dinosaurs were rich in nutrients -- an ecological resource not to be wasted. A triceratops plop must have seemed like manna from heaven to the earliest dung-scavenging insects.

Today, thousands of species of dung beetles clean up after large animals worldwide. They inhabit pastures, paddocks, roadsides and prairies-anyplace animals graze. They come in all sizes, from ant-sized beetles that roll pea-sized balls, to beetles bigger than a baby's hand that cut spheres the size of baseballs from elephant dung.

Both males and females harvest ordure. Like Cinderella and her Prince Charming, a pair is likely to meet at the ball. Together, they cut and roll -- the female sometimes rides the ball while the male pushes it along with his back legs. When they find a suitable place, the male buries the ball by digging the earth from underneath, and the female sinks along with their treasure. Underground, the pair feeds upon the ball, then mate. It is a quaint nuptial rite, one of nature's more charming courtships, a fecal fairy tale.

Much has been learned about these insects since Fabre huddled over his cages. Dung beetles clean up messes that would choke out plant life upon which the mess-making animals depend. They fertilize and aerate the soil. They remove breeding sites for disease organisms and flies.

And with what athletic skill! Entomologists Bernd Heinrich and George Bartholomew watched African dung beetles roll balls at rates as fast as 40 feet per minute. Ball stealing is another activity studied by the entomologists. Apparently, some beetles would rather commandeer a ready-made ball than fashion one of their own. The ensuing battles for possession contain more grappling and body tosses than a World Wrestling Federation Royal Rumble. A big horn may help.

It is inspiring to think of all those generations of entomologists, down on their knees, clothespins on their noses, studying the habits of the ball-rolling beetles. These day, scientists get government grants to go where the elephant plops abound -- the cost of research has gone up since Fabre distributed lollipops. As Fabre had it, "Notwithstanding their disgusting occupation, dung beetles are of a very respectable standing."

Monday, February 16, 2009

A sordid boon?

I write these words after spending three days of frustration with an internet connection that drops out every few minutes, requiring a reboot of the DSL modem. Wasted time. Anger. The Bahamas Telecommunication Corporation silently cursed.

"The world is too much with us," wrote Wordsworth at the beginning of a sonnet extolling the wonders of nature. Yes, dear William, the world is too much with me. And my good wife. We seem to rely inordinately on being wired, to the readers of this blog, to e-mail, to the journals Science and Nature, to the New York Times (and its daily crossword), to CNN, BBC, Salon, the endless compendium of knowledge that is the world wide web.

The whole point of being on this little island was to disconnect. No television. No cell phone. The land line seldom rings. Pare away the clutter; that was the idea. Live close to nature. Simplify.

But the internet has a way of sucking the air out of one's Wordsworthean resolutions. Pixelating attention. As a writer, I couldn't live without it.

"The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it," wrote Thoreau. The cost of the internet is fair enough -- when it works. It's when it doesn't work that the price seems exorbitant, too much out of life's pocket. All that angry frustration frittering away the day. Some of which I now dump on you, my tolerant friends.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. -- Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The (unattainable) thing itself

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations -- one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.
Simplicity. Morning. Forty minutes till sunrise. Coffee. An English muffin. Sit on the terrace. The sky a deep violet. Then rose. Then gold. Simplicity. The senses fill to overbrimming, displacing thought. The moment is sweet and pure. Distilled. The shackles of conscience fall away. One simply is.
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one's torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.
Now I wait with my eyes fixed on that place along the horizon where the Sun will rise. The sky itself holds its breath, anticipates the flash of green. I try, I try to empty myself, Zenlike, to become an empty vessel for nature to fill. A gathering vessel, brilliant edged. To exist entirely in the moment, outside of time, this moment, just now, now, as the disk of the Sun bubbles up on the sea horizon, that orb of of molten gold.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
It's no use, of course. No way to obviate the conscious mind. Perhaps a Zen master might do it, a mystic in transport, a drunken sailor who walks into a lamppost. Even as the Sun's disk inflates, swells, unaccountably huge, the mind parses, frames, construes. I close my eyes to shut out thought and the words fill up the space behind my eyelids. The thing itself is out of reach, the moment adulterated by mind. The blessing of consciousness. And the curse.

(The three stanzas are Wallace Stevens' The Poems of Our Climate.)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Valentine from Anne



(Click pic to enlarge.)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Unlucky day

Back in the 1940s, the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner did a famous experiment with pigeons that he thought had some relevance to human superstitions. He put birds in the kind of cages used for training animals by reinforcement -- peck a bar, get some birdseed, that sort of thing. Except in this new experiment, the feed was provided at regular intervals regardless of what the pigeons did.

And guess what? The pigeons fell into certain behaviors all by themselves -- nodding or turning or pecking for food -- although their behaviors had nothing to do with the reward being offered. Skinner wrote: "A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances...The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies to human behavior," said Skinner.

One could go on at length about the implications of this experiment, and I have done so elsewhere. It is a common human propensity to mistake coincidence for causality, which is why science puts such store in controlled reproducible experiment. Some results of superstition are fraught with consequence (appeasing the gods by human sacrifice, Ronald Reagan consulting an astrologer), other are merely silly (Friday the 13th is unlucky).

Anyway, here we are, on the first of three Friday the 13ths this year. Maybe you'd better stay in bed.

And while you are there, think about Friday the 13th in April 2029. That's when asteroid 99942 Apophis will come zipping by the Earth, a chunk of rock the size of three football fields that could wreak havoc if it hits. Apparently, the best current calculations show a near miss -- closer than the orbits of geosynchronous satellites -- but you wouldn't want a bullet that close to your head. I doubt if I'll still be around twenty years from now. As for the rest of you: Good luck.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday

Today is the big day for the birthday boy, 200 years since the great man's birth.

It has been some years now since I made the pilgrimage to Darwin's home, Down House, in the village of Downe in Kent, south of London. I took the train from London to Orpington. From there one could take a taxi, but I chose to walk, about five miles along pleasant country roads. One arrives first in the village, which is about as charming an English village as you'd hope to find, with ancient church on the green and two picturebook-perfect pubs -- The George and Dragon and The Queen's Head. Too early in the day for a drink, so on down leafy Luxted Road to Down House.

After a long tour of duty as a girl's school, the house is now in the care of English Heritage. Several rooms have been lovingly restored as they were when Darwin was in residence with his big and loving family. The grounds and the greenhouse too are as Darwin left them. I arrived early, just as the house opened, and had the place to myself. I lingered long in the study where Darwin pondered the intricacies of life on Earth, surveying the clutter of books, papers, artifacts and natural relics that occupied his mind. I walked the Sand Walk at the back of the property where he went to meditate on the mysteries of evolution.

As I left Down House, I didn't go back to the village, but headed south the mile of two to the edge of the chalk escarpment of the North Downs that looks out over the Weald to the mirroring escarpment of the South Downs, twenty miles away. In the Origin, Darwin tells us that he stood here and pondered the vast expanse of time that was necessary to lift and erode away the great arch of chalk and sandstone that once connected the escarpments, all during relatively recent geological times. The vanished strata might have been 1,100 feet thick, he calculated, and at present rates of erosion it would have taken 300 million years for water and weather to eat away the rocks. He wrote: "I have made these few remarks because it is highly important for us to gain some notion, however imperfect, of the lapse of years. During each of these years, over the whole world, the land and the water have been peopled by hosts of living forms. What an infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years."

It was long past time now for a pint, and as I walked along the escarpment towards Sevenoaks sure enough I came -- as one always will in England -- to another ye-olde pub, just in time for a late lunch and a chance to sit in a quiet corner and organize my thoughts. "Which the mind cannot grasp," wrote Darwin. But a mind did grasp, a rare and perspicacious mind, that we celebrate today.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The inheritors

Tomorrow, Darwin's birthday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science will begin their annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois. One eagerly awaited report will be the entire genome of a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal, sequenced by a team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The genome will certainly confirm the common ancestery of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Our genomes overlap by more than 99 percent.

Our common ancestor lived about 660,000 years ago. Home sapiens emerged as a separate species about 400,000 years ago. For hundreds of thousands of years, Neanderthals had Europe and Western Asia to themselves. Then, about 35,000 years ago, Homo sapiens came sweeping out of Africa and fanned out across the northern continents. For thousands of years Neanderthals and modern humans lived side by side. Did they interbreed? Perhaps the genomes will tell us. What we do know is that Neanderthals became extinct about 30,000 years ago, having been pushed by Homo sapiens into a final refuge on the Iberian Peninsula, perhaps a dripping cave on the Rock of Gibraltar, their backs to a sea they had no way to cross.

When I was a kid, we read the story of Neanderthal extinction as a triumph of modern humans over a grisly, sub-human race, of reason, imagination, and lofty moral vision over ugliness, stupidity, and amorality. Then, in his 1955 novel The Inheritors, William Golding turned the story on its head. Golding's Neanderthals live in a state of childlike innocence, possessed of wonder and imagination. They do not willfully kill other animals. They are sexually restrained, and charmingly uninhibited about their nakedness. Into this Edenlike existence come the violent and cannibalistic Cro-Magnons. The new folk revere a witchdoctor with an antlered mask. They are adulterous and engage in orgies. The gentle Neanderthals are no match against the craftiness and cunning of the new arrivals. Except for a single child, Golding's happy band of Neanderthals are eliminated. The tougher, more adventuresome Cro-Magnons inherit the earth.

Golding's version of the story is as much an invention as the one I heard as a child. Scientifically, it remains to be seen why modern humans prevailed over our close relations. Was speech the advantageous factor? Superior intelligence? More sophisticated weapons? Some sort of religious conviction of divinely-conferred superiority? About all of this the genomes will be mostly silent. But more of the story remains to be told. Darwin would have loved to be in on the telling.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Learning and yearning


This photograph of the Eagle Nebula made by a rather modest telescope -- the 0.9 meter instrument at Kitt Peak, Arizona -- appeared on APOD yesterday (click to enlarge). I sat in front of the computer screen for ten minutes, breathless. One tiny corner of the Milky Way Galaxy, one of tens of billions of galaxies that we can potentially see with our telescopes! At the center are the so-called "Pillars of Creation" from a famous Hubble photograph.

I recall when the Hubble photograph appeared in the media hundreds of viewers claimed to see the face of Jesus in the billowing clouds. Which prompted these observations from Skeptics and True Believers:

In an article on the psychological basis of belief, the psychologist James Alcock proposed that two aspects of the human brain might be called the "yearning unit" and the "learning unit." He probably didn't mean these terms to be taken literally, as referring to separate compartments of the brain, but yearning and learning are certainly central to the way we interact with the world. It is hard to imagine how we can be fully human without a little of each. Finding the proper balance between the two is a task that can keep us occupied for most of our lives.

We yearn when we dream of fulfillment, of greater happiness, of knowing more. We yearn when we love, when we laugh, when we cry, when we pray. Yearning is wondering what is around the next bend, over the rainbow, beyond the horizon. Yearning is curiosity. Yearning is the driving force of science, philosophy, and religion.

Learning is listening to parents, wise men, shamans. Learning is reading, going to school, traveling, doing experiments, being skeptical. Learning is looking behind the curtain for the Wizard of Oz, touching the stove to see if it's hot, not taking anyone's word for it. In science, learning means trying as hard to prove that something is wrong as to prove it right, even if that something is a cherished belief.

Yearning without learning is seeing Elvis in a crowd, the fossilized footprints of humans and dinosaurs together in ancient rocks, weeping statues. Yearning without learning is buying tabloid newspapers with headlines announcing "Newborn baby talks of Heaven" and the like. Yearning without learning is looking for UFOs in the sky and the meaning of life in horoscopes.

Learning without yearning is pedantry, scientism, dogmatic belief. Learning without yearning is believing that we know it all, that what we see is what we get, that nothing exists except what can be presently weighed and measured. Learning without yearning is science without a heart, without a dream, without a hope of beauty.

Yearning without learning is seeing the face of Jesus in a gassy nebula. Learning without yearning is seeing only the gas.

Monday, February 09, 2009

(The end of?) the Age of Helvetica

Here is a little ad box on the Slate website. I dare say that almost anyone on the planet with access to a computer will recognize the reference to Facebook, Google and Apple.

A single letter of the alphabet is all it takes to evoke Facebook and Google. In the case of Google, it is not even the first letter of their logo.

The Google "g" is a typeface called Catull, designed by Gustav Jaeger in 1982 for the Berthold typeface foundry. The Facebook "f" is apparently based on a font from FontShop. The Apple apple takes us somewhere else, but few corporations have made such effective use of typefaces as Apple. Think of "Apple Computer Inc." (Motter Tektura), "Think different" (Apple Garamond), and "iPod" (Myriad).

Such is the magic of typefaces, that twenty-six letters can be recognizably rendered in so many ways. And such is the magic of computers that each of us has access to a virtually unlimited variety of fonts.

I love the crisp typeface (Trebuchet; or is it "tres beau, Chet"?) that Tom used for the posts on this website, black on white. No nonsense, easy to read. And his choice of typefaces for the header is smart: The "Science" font (Euclid) evokes the familiar logo of the journal Science. The "Musings" font (Bradley Hand Bold) -- well, it has a musing sort of feel, rather more private and idiosyncratic.

For my own writing I once preferred Palatino, then American Typewriter. These days I compose in Lucida Grande. I suspect the fonts trace an evolution in my relationship with my work, or perhaps in my attitude towards life. Surely by now someone has written a book analyzing a person's character and personality according to the typeface(s) and size(s) they use on their personal computer. A Palatino guy is a different person from a Lucida Grande guy. Exactly what the difference is, I will let you decide.

It would be interesting if the comments here showed up in the font of your choice. Could we recognize the usual suspects from the typeface they use to communicate?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Natural history

The biologist Adrian Forsyth writes of frogs:
[They] have a way of facing you with a goggle-eyed gaze that is disconcertingly humanoid. Their huge wrap-around mouths, while perhaps not actually resembling a smile, are certainly not frowning. Sitting hunched up as though in anticipation, they assume the posture and calm demeanor of patient listeners ready to participate in conversation.
We have only one species of frog here on the island of Exuma, the free-toed frog, so called because it lacks the usual webs between the toes. They are elusive creatures, never seeming to invite conversation. They like dark nooks and crannies, and we usually encounter them lurking between the screens and wooden louvres of the windows. No, for us, Forsyth's description might be more appropriately applied to the lizards.

We tend to call these ubiquitous little creatures geckos, but they are properly anoles, most commonly the brown (or Bahamian) anole, less commonly, but more conspicuously, the green anole. Unlike the frog, they are not at all shy. They love to bask on porch railing or terrace wall, virtually fearless. One can move one's hand to within inches before they bolt. Head cocked to the side, they will engage you for minutes on end with unblinking eyes -- a goggley gaze that is indeed disconcertingly humanoid. Their long splayed toes look engagingly like human hands. One almost expects them to stand up on their hind legs and put out their paw for a shake, like the Geico gecko we see on TV. These are delightful creatures, welcome companions and useful devourers -- one supposes -- of mosquitos, sand flies and termites.

Like the free-toed frogs, the anoles are becoming less numerous. I suspect the reason is the pesticides sprayed on the new condo properties next door. Everything over there is neat and tidy, rather more like something you'd find in West Palm Beach than on a scruffy little island in the central Bahamas. They scraped away every shred of native vegetation, down to bare earth, then trucked in sod and palms. I'm sure they have fewer pests than we do; fewer anoles, too.

We love to watch the way the anoles change color to match their background, and the way the males pulse their dewlap to establish territories and attract mates. Love too the way the millions of microscopic suction cups on their toes let them climb any surface, sometimes hanging upside down like circus acrobats. Adrian Forsyth goes on to say about frogs what I would say about our bug-eyed, always-curious green and brown anoles: "Our emotional responses to these appealing features...are not irrelevant. The art of natural history lies in allowing such personal reactions to organisms to lead us into their biology."

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Celebrating the Unnamable

It has been a source of wonder to some of my friends that Ave Maria Press at the University of Notre Dame chose to publish When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy, a book that is frankly agnostic. It is a source of wonder to me too, but also a source of gratitude, and pride -- pride that my alma mater (twice) is open to a variety of interpretations of the encounter with mystery that is at the heart of the religious impulse. They surely recognized that the book is deeply Catholic in a cultural sense; how could it be otherwise, given that I have spent my entire life in a Catholic milieu.

Notre Dame Magazine has over the years been exceptionally open to publishing essays of mine on soul, free will, the genetics of belief, etc. that were entirely naturalistic (and heretical by the standards of orthodox theology.) I have read essays in that most excellent journal by Nancy Mairs, Gary Bowman, and others to which the most ardent naturalist can give wholehearted assent. What all of these essays have in common is a sense of humility in the face of mystery that is -- when all is said and done -- the mystical ground where religion begins.

Here, for example, is the non-Christian physicist Gary Bowman (Winter, 2005):
Seen only as a means to the practical ends of health, wealth and comfort, science becomes rarefied engineering. Seen only as good works, as morality, as reward or punishment in this life and the next, religion becomes a carrot-and-stick connection to God.

Yet always there have been those who sought in religion, and sometimes found, a deep core that transcends self and time -- where morality is not an end in itself but a means to that core. This core is immune to scientific and intellectual attack; it is neither history lesson nor moral code nor explanation of the world. It is accessible not through reason and logic but through personal experience of the ineffable, the unnamable, the mysterious -- through the mystical experience...

...As moral authority, religion is subject to moral failure; as explanation of the world, it is subject to scientific condemnation. What refuge, then, can religion offer the modern critical mind? Without a thread of mystery running through religion, without God as mystery at its heart, that mind may well conclude that religion itself is bankrupt, that God is nothing at all...

...It is a mystery that resides in that place where the deepest science ends and the deepest religion begins.
Although I have long since rejected the superincumbent apparatus of institutional Catholic theology that has so often threatened to smother the mystical instinct -- and so often found itself in contention with science -- it remains true that within Catholicism the flame of mystery has remained alive, always burning like the flickering altar light in a darkened cathedral. I found it burning during my eight years at Notre Dame. It burns there still.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Biochemistry

There are twenty kinds of amino acids, modest little molecules. They seem to have been around almost since the beginning, stirred up and cobbled together by inanimate processes, in interstellar space, perhaps, or in deep-sea hydrothermal vents on Earth. One can stew them up in the laboratory by putting common chemicals in a jar and zapping them with energy.

String amino acids together, in their hundreds or thousands -- in a sequence prescribed by the DNA -- and you have a protein. The sequence determines the shape of the protein, as the various domains jostle and jockey into their lowest energy arrangement. Every protein is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, with knobs and pockets, in three dimensions. Proteins are the building blocks of life, just as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle go together to make a picture.

Proteins are also the machinery of life. Proteins called enzymes catalyze chemical reactions. A molecule, glucose say, snuggles into an appropriately shaped pocket on an enzyme, like a key into a lock. Anther molecule, galactose say, snuggles into a nearby pocket, galactose-shaped. The disturbed enzyme shrugs in response, bringing the glucose and galactose close enough together to form a bond. The new united molecule pops out of the enzyme. The enzyme resumes its former shape and stands ready to do the job again. Snuggle, zip, pop. Snuggle, zip, pop.

"And that's basically all there is to biochemistry," says microbiologist Ursula Goodenough.

I was walking the beach yesterday and the sea was quiet and clear. Just beyond the tide line four big needle fish were herding a vast cloud of little silver fish, two needle fish at one end of the cloud, two at the other. Every now and then, in a splash of water, one of the needle fish extracted its dinner. I could not but feel a tad of sympathy for the little silver fish, dashing this way and that, confused and frightened. No other creature on Earth except ourselves would read sentimental significance into this little episode of eat-and-be-eaten. It's all a matter of passing around the molecules of life -- proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and nucleic acids.

And that's basically all there is to....

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Curmudgeon unplugged

The full-page ad in the newspaper promises to help me get the most out of my weekend, "one app at a time."

I'm talking about the iPhone, of course. for which 15,000 applications are now available, for free or for very little money. According to Apple, there have been 500 million downloads. No wonder Apple and AT&T are taking out full-page ads.

With Yelp you have instant reviews of the best places to eat, drink, shop and more. Cor.kz gives you access to ratings for 530,000 wines. Tipulator takes the guesswork out of restaurant tipping. Pandora lets you create a custom soundtrack for your weekend. Loopt provides an interactive map that shows you where your friends are and what they are up to. Classics puts a collection of literary classics -- Robinson Crusoe and Paradise Lost, for example -- on your tiny screen. RunKeeper uses the phone's GPS to track your run, ride, hike or walk, showing your route on a map and keeping track of time and distance. Yoga Stretch offers your personal yoga instructor. iFart Mobile gives your phone flatulence capability (I kid you not).

Now, I'm not knocking any of this. We own some Apple stock, and every time someone's iPhone farts I'm potentially making money (Apple takes 30 percent of paid-application sales). But is this really what life is about? Work all week in front of a computer screen, then spend the weekend glued to a screen you can hold in the palm of your hand? Is it really impossible to entertain ourselves without an iPhone?

Call me old fashioned, but my idea of a nice weekend is a long snuggle with my sweetie on Saturday morning, a walk on the beach with nothing in my ear, a romantic dinner (dancing in the kitchen, chopping veggies, plonk wine), a Bach cantata singing through the house on Sunday morning, and -- oh, yes, one app -- the print edition of the New York Sunday Times. And my friends? I don't know where they are or what they're up to. I hope they're having a good time.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Problem of Good

I have just read Ann Patchett's Truth & Beauty, a memoir of her long friendship with Lucy Grealy -- two writers of very different temperaments who met in college and independently achieved a considerable measure of literary success.

Grealy had survived a bout with cancer as a child that left her face severely disfigured and most of her teeth gone. She was a vivacious, talented young woman, with many friends of both sexes, who desperately wanted to be beautiful -- and to be loved by a man -- so much so that she endured thirty-eight horrific reconstructive surgeries. Truth & Beauty is a story with many moments of tenderness and joy, that ends tragically with Grealy's death by overdose.

I put the book down with that age-old question on my mind -- why do bad things happen to good people? Why cancer for a child? Why beauty at all if beauty is so vulnerable to arbitrary obliteration?

The Problem of Evil, it is called in the long history of philosophy: If God is omniscient, all-powerful, and loving, why are innocents afflicted? The answers to the riddle have been various, and never satisfying. Ann Pachett's book is itself an answer of sorts. (I will leave aside the question of whether Pachett's book intruded unfairly upon the grief of Grealy's family.)

But perhaps the Problem of Evil starts with the wrong premise.

Nature is arbitrary and violent, and cares not a fig for human conceptions of love and justice. Massive black holes at the centers of galaxies gobble gas and stars. In the arms of galaxies, suns explode with a violence that shatters surrounding worlds. Comets and asteroids smash into the Earth, causing planetwide extinctions.

Violence and death are the engines of life. To persist, living creatures must take matter and energy from their environment. As life proliferates, competition for resources becomes inevitable. Aggression is advantageous, even necessary. If nature were not cruel (a human concept), conscious creatures such as ourselves would never have evolved. As Loren Eiseley wrote: "Instability lies at the heart of the world."

From nature's point of view, there is no such thing as the Problem of Evil: order and disorder, life and death, cooperation and competition are the twin principles of nature's creative force. Love or justice have nothing to do with it.

But our brains are of sufficient complexity to give rise to that mysterious thing known as self-awareness -- and to notions of love and justice. What humans uniquely face is the Problem of Good: How to create on this tiny planet an oasis of peace. Food for the hungry. A cure for cancer. An end to intraspecies violence. Solicitous stewardship of the planet.

The loyalty of Lucy Grealy's friends, their loving, selfless care, suggests that the Problem of Good is not intractable. That Americans of all races recently installed a black family in the White House evinces movement in the right direction. Lifespans extend. Diseases are eliminated or held at bay. Natural disasters evoke worldwide relief. Reconstructive surgery for cancer victims becomes ever more effective. As Margaret Mead once pointed out, the circle of those whom we do not kill has steadily expanded throughout human history. The optimists among us imagine that the circle will ultimately embrace the entire planet.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Two Adams

(The posts of these past few days on law and mystery prompt a reprise of a posting of several years ago.)

The Jewish rabbi and teacher Joseph Soloveitchik addressed the tension between reason and faith in his little book The Lonely Man of Faith.

Soloveitchik's man of faith is fraught with conflicts and incongruities, caught between ecstasy in God's companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God. He is lonely because faith is inevitably a courageous and private act that springs from an individual's solitary apprehension of the mystery in the world.

Soloveitchik is aware that his faith has no possibility of empirical verification, and no utilitarian value; it is, in that sense, out of step with the times. He fully accepts the scientific story of the world, but reaches beyond to touch what he perceives to be a deeper, more abiding presence.

The first two chapters of the Judeo-Christian scriptures give us somewhat different characterizations of the chief protagonist, Adam, says Soloveitchik. These do not represent different sources or traditions, but rather two representations of the human soul, which he calls Adam I and Adam II, corresponding to the Adam of the first and second chapters of Genesis respectively.

Adam I is driven by curiosity. He wants to know how the cosmos works; he is less interested in the why. His practical destiny is to "fill the Earth and subdue it," which he pursues boldly and aggressively. He is creative and abstract, imitating in his mathematical theories the creative act of God Himself. His representative in the modern world is the scientist, mathematician, technologist, and secular philosopher.

Adam II is also intrigued by the cosmos, says Soloveitchik, but "looks for the image of God . . . in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of a starlit evening." He wants to know why there is something rather than nothing, and what is the purpose of things and events. His contemporary representative is the mystic, the poet, the ascetic, the person of faith.

Adam I is only interested in questions that can be answered empirically; Adam II is more introspective, more spiritual, trusting his intuition of the divine. Adam I seeks mastery over nature; Adam II wishes to be overpowered by nature.

Adam I asks, "How?" Adam II asks, "Who is He who trails me steadily, uninvited and unwanted, like an everlasting shadow, and vanishes into the recesses of transcendence the very instant I turn around to confront this numinous, awesome, and mysterious 'He'? "

Although Soloveitchik identifies himself with Adam II, he asserts that Adam I also follows God's command and achieves dignity through his work. The completion of creation requires the energies of both Adams, he says.

If we are to collectively reconcile science and faith, each of us must individually confront this tension in our lonely solitude. The person of faith can acknowledge the dignity and rational primacy of science, and the skeptical empiricist can open herself or himself to the abiding presence of the unanswered "Why?", who is simultaneously the deus revelatus (the god who is revealed) and deus absconditus (the god who hides).

Monday, February 02, 2009

Law and mystery -- Part 2

Law and mystery: The twin pillars of scientific creativity. On the one hand, reliable empirical knowledge of the world. On the other, a depth of unknowing that inspires curiosity, reverence, awe.

Many years ago, as a young faculty member at Stonehill College, I had a column in the student newspaper called "Under a Skeptical Star." The phrase came from a line of the Scots poet/scholar William MacNeile Dixon: "If there be a skeptical star I was born under it, yet I have lived all my days in complete astonishment." That was 40 years ago, and the phrase might still be a fitting epigraph for my life.

In Honey From Stone, I first used the image of knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. I subsequently discovered that the metaphor had been used by others, including such admired personages as Joseph Priestley and Thomas Huxley. The substance of the island, in the understanding of Priestley and Huxley, is knowledge painstakingly extracted from nature by reproducible observation -- empirical knowledge, the spoor of law.

Be skeptical, Huxley especially would urge, of knowledge that depends for its pedigree upon revelation, authority or tradition. Be skeptical even of scientific knowledge, knowing that our grasp of law is always partial and tentative. Never lose sight of the fact that in a universe that is effectively, if not actually, infinite, our island of reliable knowledge but a patch on the unreachable horizons of our ignorance.

There are stolid souls who choose to hunker down on the high ground of knowledge, and there are blithe spirits who throw reliable knowledge aside to swim far out into the sea of mystery. I am a creature of the shore, one foot firmly fixed in law, one in mystery, reveling in what science reveals about the world, knowing that every broadening of the island extends the shoreline where we encounter what we do not know -- always skeptical, endlessly astonished.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Law and mystery

The great 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell said, "It is a universal condition of the enjoyable that the mind must believe in the existence of a law, and yet have a mystery to move about in."

Newton's Principia and Darwin's Origin have received their proper due from historians, two great books that helped make the modern world. Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, published in 1873, is a work of equal stature, mostly forgotten by popular culture. The book united in one beautiful mathematical theory everything that was known about electricity, magnetism -- and more. We live today in a sea of electromagnetic radiation that Maxwell anticipated.

I first came across the book as a young graduate student in physics, after having had enough courses in electricity and magnetism to appreciate its significance. Law? Oh, yes. All of electrical and magnetic science Maxwell reduces to four elegant equations. Then -- voila! -- out of those equations he spins a theory of light -- and, by extension, the complete electromagnetic spectrum.

The effect is stunning. Breathtaking. Gorgeous.

Why does the universe hang on so lovely an armature of mathematical design? No one knows. As I thumbed through Maxwell's book as a young man the sheer mystery of physics overwhelmed me. Against the spare beauty of those four equations the heavy brocade of religious dogma in which I was raised seemed cumbersome and artificial.

Law and mystery: The two pillars of scientific creativity -- and of life.