Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Snakes alive


Sometime ago I wrote this about the Bahamian boa, one of the two snakes that live on this island:
Sometimes it just doesn't pay to do a good deed. Consider the Bahamian boa, a thick black-and-white snake that grows to an impressive length and spends its indolent life feeding on the vermin -- rats, mice -- that no one wants around the house. You'd think folks would welcome a boa to the neighborhood, set out little treats. But no. Show a Bahamian a boa and he'll hack it with a shovel. Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and -- whacko! -- dead.
I also predicted that with all the recent strip-to-the bare-land development we wouldn't see another boa in the neighborhood. Wrong! Yesterday morning my neighbor Dwight called and said, "Chet, a boa."

I zipped down the lane with my camera (click to enlarge) and there it was, a gorgeous thing, five or six feet long, a thick as my arm. Fowl snakes, the Bahamians call them, presumably because they took chickens from the yard. Babies from the cradle too, according to legend, but I don't believe that for a moment. Nevertheless, the Bahamians believe it, and a seen boa is a dead boa. And so this magnificent animal edges toward extinction.

The Bahamian boa is a true boa constrictor, descended from South American invaders that crossed a supposed land bridge during the Ice Age. In his book on Bahamian natural history, David Campbell says that a typical fowl snake litter is one to fifty. Fifty baby boa constrictors! That would be something to see.

(In transit tomorrow. Back Thursday.)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Cupid's dart -- the mysterious shift -- Part 2

What is it about the martyr Saint Sebastian? He has perhaps been represented in art more than any other minor saint, young, lank and handsome, usually naked except for a loincloth, always with a benign and dreamy visage. Sometimes is is shown pierced by one arrow, often near the groin; sometimes he is as prickly with shafts as a porcupine.

I suppose my description hints at an answer: perhaps he is a homoerotic icon, an irresistible subject for artists with homoerotic inclinations. A Google image search would seem to confirm this interpretation.

But maybe that's too simplistic. Straight folks too are apparently drawn to these images, both men and women. Maybe it is the juxtaposition of nudity and mild violence, all those arrow shafts with hardly a drop of blood. "Prick me, stick me, just don't kill me." Whatever is going on, it's got something to do with bare flesh and penetration. Time to call in the psychologists.


For myself, I prefer a subset of the Sebastian theme: The wounded Sebastian tended by Saint Irene, a Roman widow. Here, for example is the representation by Georges de la Tour, suffused with light and tenderness, the candle and the arrow, the hand on the knee, blessedly humane and intensely erotic at the same time. Surely there's a love story here about to develop.

Oh, wait. There is a love story. It's called Valentine (another early Christian martyr who may or may not have existed). And at my suggestion the jacket art of the novel is another representation of Sebastian and Irene, by Hendrick Ter Brugghen, equally tender and and sexy.


Maybe I'm revealing too much of my personal psychoses, but I think it is rather more universal. After all, doesn't Cupid always carry a quiver full of arrows. And think of Bernini's Saint Teresa. Sebastian in Bugghen's painting is pierced through the heart. Irene touches a less fatal arrow as if it were the bow of a violin, as if she were playing on his heartstrings. Look at the composition of the painting: X marks the spot, and the spot is Sebastian's heart, wounded with eros and longing, dead center.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The mysterious shift

This from Colm Toibin's NYTBR review of a new biography of the writer Donald Barthelme:
By early 1963 he had enough stories for a book. He also had an aesthetic vision. In the second issue of [the arts magazine] Location he took part in a debate about the future of fiction in which Saul Bellow argued that the modern novel was "predominantly realistic" because "realism is based upon our common life." Barthelme countered that a "mysterious shift...takes place as soon as one says that art is not about something but is something," when the literary text "becomes an object in the world rather than a commentary upon the world."
One could chew on this paragraph for a long time. What exactly is the relationship of a work of art to the world? A Mark Rothko or Franz Kline, say, might seem to satisfy Barthelme's notion of "an object in the world rather than a commentary upon the world" -- pure abstraction, nothing "realistic" to get one's teeth into. But then what is the source of the power of these works to move us deeply? Surely they draw that power from the world, if nothing else from human psychology which is part of the world. It is hard to imagine a work of visual art or literature -- or music, even -- that does not in some direct or indirect way make commentary upon the world. What gives a work of art its power is the energy that flows back and forth between the representation of a thing and the thing itself. When we look at a Mark Rothko we are looking at an object that is as realistic as a tree; we are also looking in a mirror at our own deepest selves.

Where does science fit in this discussion? Bellow's realism might seem to be the obvious answer. Science is a matter of consensus knowledge "based upon our common life." But a scientific theory also "is something," rather than being just "about something." Einstein said that we discover the deep truths of nature only by "free inventions of the mind." The equations of quantum electrodynamics, for example, sprang as much from a search for pure aesthetic symmetry as from any empirical imperative. They predict that the electron should have a magnetic strength of 1.00115965214; the measured value is 1.00115965219. The "mysterious shift" of which Barthelme spoke flows both ways, from theory to world and back again, like a spark leaping between two poles.

This is a subject that would require a book to properly explore, or at least a long summer night on the porch.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The work of Vatican III

The notion of the 72 virgins came up in conversation last evening -- the Muslim martyr's supposed heavenly reward -- and it reminded me of this piece by Steve Martin that appeared in the New Yorker several years ago. Which I shared. Which brought up the question: What had we good Catholics been promised in the afterlife? We scratched our heads and remembered -- the Beatific Vision.

What's that? We didn't remember exactly. Something about seeing God face to face. Or F2F, as we say these days. So to the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia: "The blessed see God, not merely according to the measure of His likeness imperfectly reflected in creation, but they see Him as He is, after the manner of His own Being." Whatever that means.

And while I was there, I read the entire entry on heaven.

Not just F2F, but the light of glory, primary and secondary objects, species expressa, impeccability, objective and subjective beatitude, amor concupiscentiae, accidental blessings, resurrection of the body, and a whole lot of other stuff none of which has the slightest experiential reference, all of which has accreted since the earliest centuries of Christianity, refined repeatedly from heresy, and much of it made an article of faith. It reads like something written by Steve Martin.

I can't believe that any serious academic Catholic theologian these days believes any of this, and I suspect most of them would join me in imploring the Church to shake off this accumulated dust of centuries. Subsume it all under the one-word rubric of Mystery, of which, Lord knows, there is enough to incite qualities of reverence, awe, wonder, celebration, thanksgiving, praise. But then what would be essentially RC about such a faith? What would define the Church as the unique repository of truth? And so, this encyclopedia entry, like the others, has its Nihil Obsta and Imprimatur, its ecclesiastical approbation, its stamp of dusty orthodoxy, and increasing numbers of the faithful, apprising the essential 72-virginness of it all, will wander off into a sterile secularism, when there is so much in Catholic tradition of a liturgical and sacramental nature to satisfy our innate religiousity without in any way violating the modern spirit of empirical knowing.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Whispers

This evening is about as good as it gets.

Spotting young Moons is a favorite sport of ours here on the island of Exuma, if for no other reason that we are more likely to have a clear western horizon than in any other place we live. Moreover, in February and March the Moon's track in the sky is almost vertical to our horizon, lifting the Moon higher into the gathering darkness. In February, the Moon at sunset was about 21 hours old -- the slimmest of crescents -- virtually impossible to spot with the naked eye (we didn't). Tonight, the Moon will be 32 hours old at our longitude. Given its steep ascent, this should be doable, if only the clouds cooperate. Not a record, certainly, but whisper thin. Eyelash thin. Breathtakingly beautiful.

So why? Why go looking for slips of Moon in the gloaming? I think of something Samuel Johnson wrote about poets that might apply equally to young Moon chasers: "To a poet, nothing can be useless. Whatever is beautiful, and whatever is dreadful, must be familiar to his imagination: he must be conversant with all that is awfully vast and elegantly little."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The land of lost content?

I have written before about Richmond Hill, an abandoned village here on the island of Exuma. At one time about 50 people lived there, in a dozen or so houses, with a tiny church and a one-room school house. Thirty-four years ago the last residents closed their doors and walked away -- walked, in fact, into another world.

I had been there several times before, but yesterday was different. We were accompanied by our friend Emmazelle, who was born and raised in Richmond Hill in the 1940s and 50s. Also, her son has in recent years returned occasionally to the village to cut away the forest and make what is still there more accessible. Emmazelle gave us a tour.

No village on the island was so remote. No electricity. No running water -- just two wells cut into the soft limestone rock. No telephone. No indoor plumbing. No window glass -- only hinged wooden shutters. The people lived mostly on the fruits of the land and sea, supplemented by their gardens and goats and chickens. The school had no books or equipment other than a chalkboard; the students had slates and chalk. Emmazelle's father was pastor of the church; he neither drank or smoked. Access to the outside world was by shank's mare.

It was clear as we moved through the decaying, overgrown buildings that Emmazelle was filled with nostalgia. Her memories of growing up in Richmond Hill are fond -- of family, community and nature. Part of this, perhaps, is the rosy glow of retrospect, but we too felt something of the simple beauty of the place and the lives that had been lived there.

Except for the internet, the house I live in here on the island has no convenience that I didn't have in the house I grew up in during the 1940s and 50s. Hot and cold running water. Electric stove, fridge and washing machine. Radio. Books and music. Surprising, really, how little has changed in a half-century. How different for Emmazelle.

Walking the newly-opened paths of Richmond Hill gave us a wonderful opportunity to reflect upon the ways that technology has both enhanced and impoverished our lives. Emmazelle picked up a ripe sapodilla that had fallen from a tree, split it open with her thumbnail, and offered us a taste of the juicy fruit. Not far beyond the trees was the turquoise sea and arching sky, filled at night with a myriad of stars.

Go back? No thanks. Not Emmazelle either.

(Click pics to enlarge.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The third culture

I am reminded by an essay in the NYT Book Review that it is the fiftieth anniversary of C. P. Snow's lecture that became the famous book The Two Cultures. According to Snow, "scientific culture" and "literary culture" have become separated by a gulf of mutual incomprehension, often marked by hostility and dislike. Scientists have nothing to say to those who practice or study the arts -- and vice versa. Each "culture" has its own language and agenda. Each is impoverished by ignorance of the other.

I think it is fair to say that not much has changed in a half century.

Snow looked forward to a "third culture" that would bridge the gap. For the past two decades, the New York literary agent John Brockman and friends have been pushing a third culture that doesn't so much bridge the gap as push the two camps further apart.

Brockman realized there were lots of very bright people -- evolutionary biologists, evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists, notably -- doing important work on big questions (What is life? What is mind? Where did we come from? Why are we here? etc.) who were also effective communicators. Generally, these scientists talked only with each other, at scientific conferences or through technical journals. Brockman offered to help package their ideas for a wider audience. His authors have enjoyed enviable success. Their website is invigorating.

The people gathered by Brockman under the Third Culture banner are certainly doing exciting work that cannot be ignored by anyone who pretends to be educated. But Snow's culture wars are hardly done. In truth there is no Third Culture, just Snow's original two cultures with the tide of battle going temporarily to a particularly fashionable cadre of scientists.

The third culture we need to worry about is the vast majority of the population of this planet who don't give a hoot for either science or literature, and especially the growing tide of religious fundamentalism. If the two cultures want to do something useful, they should stop squabbling and start creating what Snow looked for in the first place: respect for the scientific way of knowing humbly infused with the universal truths enumerated by William Faulkner -- "love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A one-mile walk through the universe


The new edition of The Path: A One-mile Walk Through the Universe is now available, and a handsome thing it is, with a new foreward by Dava Sobel, whom I have never met.

Sobel established herself as a first-rate storyteller with her best-selling books Longitude and Galileo's Daughter. Her latest is The Planets, which many of you may have read.

I read The Planets in one eager gulp for the sheer beauty of the writing. Sobel knows her science, and she has a gift for choosing facts and anecdotes that let us engage with the familiar in original ways, but best of all is her ability to spin the dry chaff of scientific texts into the silk of poetry.

Sobel's tour of the solar system is a pleasing mix of science, space exploration, history of astronomy, and personal experience. A chapter is devoted to each of the planets (Uranus and Neptune share a chapter, and the Sun and Moon have chapters too). Each chapter has a theme -- Genesis, Mythology, Beauty, Geography, Sci-FI, etc. -- and sometimes a special mode of presentation. For example, the chapter on Uranus and Neptune is presented as a fictional and warmly affectionate letter from Caroline Herschel, the sister of the discoverer of Uranus William Herschel, to the 19th-century American astronomer Maria Mitchell.

Science would be a more welcome part of our lives if we had more writing like this. The planets, of course, are familiar to most of us, but Sobel's writerly gifts transform the way we think about the things we know. I pick a sentence at random: "The Martian landscape hosts a desert more dust than sand, and when its fine, smooth, iron-rich particles of rusted dust hang in the sky like a haze of smoke, they share their color with the air." I can almost taste that dust on my tongue.

Thanks, Dava.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A credo

John Burroughs -- John-o'-the-Birds -- America's most beloved nature writer, was just my age when in 1910 he wrote in his journal: "Joy in the universe, and a keen curiosity about it all -- that has been my religion. As I grow old, my joy and my interest increase. Less and less does the world of men interest me, more and more do my thoughts turn to things universal and everlasting."

Things universal and everlasting. Burroughs did not look to find those things beyond the grave. They were here, now, just outside the window of his study at Riverby -- the seasons endlessly turning, bringing a burgeoning bounty of the universal by his door, the river bearing its dusting of Adirondack gneiss to the sea, and the birds, always the birds, in their multiple generations. Nature had better things to do than preserve individual souls, he wrote. Like a wave, a self rises and subsides: "We settle back into the deep, as a wave settles back, or as it breaks and is spent upon the shore. The waves run and run, the force or impulse that fills and makes them is coequal with the universe."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A dead, dinosaural kind of thing?


Twenty years ago, California proposed statewide science education guidelines that asserted, "Like gravitation and electricity, evolution is a fact and a theory."

This was too much for the powerful Traditional Values Coalition, a group that at the time represented more than 6000 mostly conservative churches. The Coalition's spokesperson, Rev. Louis Sheldon, was quoted in the press as saying: "When you teach kids that they came from monkeys, that's a dead, dinosaural kind of thing. It's a negative. It's not a warm, fuzzy kind of thing."

Which prompted a Globe column (and a reprise in Skeptics and True Believers). I raised the question: Is truth always warm and fuzzy?

Infants do seem to prefer their truths warm and fuzzy. Most very young children would rather cuddle a teddy bear than a Barbie doll. Toy stores are full of warm, fuzzy stuffed animals, including monkeys, to console babes in the cradle.

Growing up has something to do with putting aside the teddy bear and the security blanket. I suggested that Reverend Sheldon underestimated our children when he insisted that high school kids can't handle cold and clammy truths, like descent from reptilian or amoebic ancestors. And he forgets, I wrote, "that many paleontologists now believe dinosaurs were warm-blooded animals, not fuzzy perhaps, but certainly warm."

Well, well. Now it turns out that dinosaurs may have been fuzzy after all. New fossils from China show fuzz that might have been the precursors of feathers. Lawrence Witmer, who writes about the new discovery in the March 19 issue of Nature, tells the BBC: "Maybe all dinosaurs, even the predominantly scaled ones, had fuzzy parts. And if they were covered in a fuzzy coat, what does that tell us about their physiology? Perhaps they were warm-blooded."

I wrote in the Globe: "It is one of the glories of a free society that people can believe whatever they want about human origins. And certainly scientific truth is not infallible. But high school kids do not need intellectual security blankets. By insisting that science textbooks be warm and fuzzy, California creationists participate in the infantization of the next generation of Americans." My response may have been premature. Maybe the kids can have the truth and warm and fuzzy too.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

And speaking of sunlight...

An article in a recent issue of Science discusses the origin of photosynthesis. "Try to picture the world without photosynthesis," the story begins. And it's difficult to do. Everything green and lush and live depends upon the ability of certain cells to capture and use the energy of sunlight. (Well, almost everything. At deep-sea volcanic vents, colonies of organisms tap into the heat energy of the Earth.)

Every high school student learns the basic equation of photosynthesis: Carbon dioxide plus water plus sunlight yields carbohydrates and oxygen (with all the C's, H's and O's appropriately balanced). The equation doesn't begin to convey an appreciation for the complex reactions that connect one side of the reaction to the other. That little arrow in the science book disguises a complexity that rivals a modern petrochemical factory. Crucial to the process, of course, is a boxy molecule -- chlorophyll -- with a magnesium heart and a long tail. Atomic electrons in the molecule are bumped up in energy by sunlight. As they return their bounty, they energize reactions that create intermediate products called ATP and NADPH, which then move along the assembly line. When all is said and done, it is sugar that appears at the factory door -- where non-photosynthesizing animals and fungi wait to appropriate their share.

The article in Science discusses current ideas for how all this chemical processing might have evolved -- mainly by looking at the simplest energy-trapping bacteria we find on the planet today. When did it happen? At least 2.4 billion years ago, and maybe much earlier. "Looking so far into the past is difficult," says Science. "The geological record for that time is skimpy and tricky to interpret. Eons of evolution have blurred the molecular vestiges of the early events that remain in living organisms."

I read somewhere that humans currently command between one-third and one-half of the products of all terrestrial photosynthesis, as food for ourselves and our domesticated animals, or for fuel, building material, and clothing -- the lion's share, we might say, except that the lion gets slim pickings. One twig on the tree of life finds itself sucking an inordinate proportion of the living sap that keeps the tree alive.

Will the tree survive our outsized depredations? Of course. But it may not be the tree we know and love today.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tipping homeward

This evening as the Sun sets here on the island of Exuma, it will also cross the celestial equator, moving north. That is to say, the vernal equinox occurs at 7:45 PM Eastern Daylight Time, within an hour of sunset. Equi-nox. Night and day of equal length. Each day now for three months the Sun will track higher in the sky for us in the northern hemisphere. Sunlight will fall more directly onto the surface of the Earth, warming it more intensely. Seeds stir in the soil. Trees put out new leaves like solar sails to catch the energy of nuclear fusion. And we who fled the ice and snow for warmer climes begin to think about returning home.

Deep in the belly of the star, protons -- the nuclei of hydrogen -- fuse together to form the nuclei of helium. And here's the wonderful thing: The helium nucleus weighs about 1 percent less than the total weight of the four protons out of which it was made. Matter has vanished from the universe. And in its place -- energy. Every second at the Sun's core, 660 million tons of hydrogen is converted into 655 million tons of helium. The missing 5 million tons is turned into an amount of radiant energy equal to the missing mass times the speed of light squared -- Einstein's famed equation. Fuel for crocuses.

All of that energy produced deep in the Sun takes several million years to make its way to the surface, up through half-a-million miles of roiling plasma. At the surface, it is hurled into space as heat and light. Eight minutes later, a tiny fraction of this flux of energy bathes the Earth - to warm the planet, sustain photosynthesis, and draw snowbirds home from the south.

(BTW. You might think that at 5 million tons per second the Sun would disappear in no time. I just ran the numbers. In the 5 billion years or so of the Sun's life so far, it has radiated about a thousandth of its mass.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Totem


All winter this heron has been living in the bushes at the edge of our property. It has been a good neighbor, and we loved the sound of its quocky voice. Loved, too, the way it strutted out into the open like a boulevarding Maurice Chevalier, its bright orange eye flashing this way and that, taking in what's there to be seen. It became, as time passed, increasingly oblivious to our presence, as if to assert that this island belonged as much to it as to us. More, certainly, to it than to us. The heron is the native; we are the blow-ins.

Now the quocks have silenced. The heron sits subdued at the edge of the bushes, unable to properly stand or fly, barely able to spread its wings. Uncertain of its plight, we have provided food and water, which it ignores. We have thought to capture it, but have no idea what we'd then do with it, especially in this our last two weeks on the island. It seems serenely determined to die, and I am inclined to let it have its way. But with sadness and regret.

Regret. There is a heron hiding in that word, even as our heron hides in its unarticulated necessity.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wonder full

I was scrolling through some photos yesterday and was struck by the juxtaposition of two pics in particular, side by side in my photo file.

The first is of a DC3 that went down in the brush a few miles from our house in a blinding rain storm as it made its approach to our little island airport. The plane was owned by an American missionary society and was on its way to Haiti. Rescuers had to hack a path to the scene of the crash. We arrived on the scene just as the first of the missionaries -- all of whom survived unscathed -- stumbled out onto the nearest road. One by one they said as they emerged, "It's a miracle we're alive."

They meant it literally. They were fervently praying as the plane went down. They credited their survival to divine intervention.

I don't want to be smug or smartass here. These were good people engaged unselfishly in good works. Their survival was remarkable. And Lord knows I was raised on a culture of miracles myself. But if God intervened to keep the plane from breaking apart on impact, I couldn't help but wonder why he let it go down at all.

"Miracle" derives from the Latin word "to wonder." In its most general sense, it refers to any wonderful thing. And the tough little Douglas DC3 is indeed a wonderful thing, many of them still winging their way around the world 73 years after the first one took to the air. But the sort of miracles I was raised on -- "when the effect is of such a kind that no natural power could bring it to pass in any manner or form whatsoever" (Catholic Encyclopedia) -- well, yes, that would certainly incite wonder, but I've yet to witness my first.

Meanwhile, the next photo over, a hummingbird nest, the size of my thumbnail, with two tiny eggs. And I think of something the British cartographer (long living in Ireland) Tim Robinson wrote in one of his books: Miracles can be explained. It's the explanations that are miraculous.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Thrust to greatness

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em," says Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, quoting Maria's letter.

Caenorhabditis elegans, the little worm I mentioned here yesterday, had greatness thrust upon it. This lowly creature has been chosen from a million species of its nematode cousins to become one of the best understood animals on Earth. Why? Why have these tiny worms, as thin as spider silk, a millimeter long, been rocketed to fame?

Their life cycle is quick, a three-day generation time, which is handy for genetic studies. They reproduce happily in the lab. They can be frozen for storage, and revived as needed. Best of all, they are transparent; their insides are as easy to see as their outsides.

And they are simple. Wriggle, eat, defecate: life reduced to basics. They are mostly self-fertilizing, so they don't even have to bother looking for a mate. For these minimal activities, C. elegans requires a mere 959 body cells. The "parts list" of this tiny worm is about as long as that of your washing machine -- and as exactly known. But your washing machine doesn't start with one part (a gasket, say) and grow into a thousand (gaskets, drums, valves, dials, etc.). Your washing machine doesn't squirm, eat and defecate. Your washing machine doesn't make other washing machines. Your washing machine doesn't colonize every habitat on Earth.

Every cell in the nematode is sublimely more complex than anything you'd find in a hardware store.

We have much, much more to learn about the machinery of life. For example, how do those DNA strands, which are snarls to start with, unwind and reproduce over and over without getting hopelessly tangled? How are errors in the DNA code corrected, at lightning-fast speed? How does a "one-dimensional" genetic code (a sequence of nucleotides) reliably build three-dimensional shapes? How does a DNA molecule always find just the right chemical compounds it needs to reproduce itself -- or make a protein? How do genes tell some cells to become gut and other cells to become muscles?

How, how, how? C. elegans is one of the best-understood animals on Earth, but it is still a millimeter-long bundle of mystery.

A lowly worm, thrust to greatness by human curiosity.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The unity of life


Sometimes an illustration in Nature or Science stirs a more spontaneous response than the text it accompanies, such as this delightful rendering of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans and the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster, from the March 12 issue of Nature.

Except for the bacterium E. Coli, no two creatures have been more relentlessly studied by scientists than C. elegans and Drosophila. In the case of the worm, every one of its precisely 959 cells has been catalogued, including 302 neurons. Who would have guessed you could do so much with so little. Fruit flies have been faithful servants of science since they were adopted by T. H. Morgan in his important studies in genetics that began at Columbia University in the early years of the last century. They are ideal research animals, small enough to breed in the lab in large numbers, but large enough to examine with only modest magnification. And they have a short life cycle, which means they can be bred through many generations during a typical graduate student's time of study.

But enough, I have sung their praises before.

Why here, why now? Nature reports a study that shows the worm and the fruit fly produce similar relative amounts of analogous proteins, even though levels of the messenger RNAs that code for these proteins vary widely between the species, "illustrating that regulating protein abundance is more important than maintaining gene-expression levels." These relative abundances have been maintained across 600 million years of separate evolution.

And if that were not enough, two research articles in the same issue of Nature explore the sensitivity of Drosophila's hearing organ (in the fly's antennae) to gravity and moving air. The organ is not only atuned to courtship songs, it also lets the fly know which way is up and when to hunker down out of the wind. According to Nature:
In the ear, hearing receptor cells also show clear adaptations for fast responses relative to gravity-sensitive receptor cells. This similarity extends the list of recently discovered parallels between fruit fly and vertebrate ears, including related genes for specifying ear development, the involvement of particular classes of ion channel, and evidence for mechanisms that amplify the mechanical input to the sensor. Such similarities excite the speculation that hearing organs in fruitflies and vertebrates arose from a sensory structure present in a common ancestor, rather than independently as was long thought.
On the face of it, you and I and the nematode and the fruit fly are about as different as one might imagine. At the level of genes and their expression as chemical strategies for survival, the ties that bind go deep into geological time. The unity of life that Darwin proposed 150 years ago is written in the DNA.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Island biogeography


Nothing could have been more fortuitous for the young Charles Darwin -- and for us -- than that the H.M.S. Beagle stopped among the Galapagos Islands on its voyage around the world. The islands are just large enough, just old enough, just different enough, just far enough apart, and just far enough from the mainland to be an ideal laboratory for the study of evolution by natural selection. Here Darwin could see speciation in action, by geographical isolation and environmental adaptation. A classic example of the right person in the right place at the right time.

As I range my own island -- Exuma in the Bahamas -- I can't help but notice the myriad land snails of the genus Cerion, alive in a variety of environments, and as fossils in the young limestone rock. The Bahamian snails were to the young Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge what the Galapagos finches were to Darwin -- another case of the right persons in the right place at the right time. The snails unfolded a tale of punctuated equilibrium. As Gould said, it is rare to find such a continuous record of variation -- or the lack of it -- unbroken by time and erosion.

For Darwin, Wallace, Gould, E. O. Wilson and countless others, islands have held the answers to the questions posed by Charles
Lyell in his 1830 Principles of Geology: How do new lands become "clothed and tenanted" with living organisms, and how are the uniqueness of these species to be explained?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The roots of morality

During the twenty years I was writing a column for the Boston Globe, I naturally sometimes turned my attention to evolution, which invariably initiated an outpouring of letters from Christian fundamentalists (including two of America's most prominent young-Earth creationists) who accused me of doing the work of the devil. A general theme of these letters -- as of the preaching that inspired them -- was that scientists choose to believe in "atheistic Darwinism" so they can live dissipated lives without fear of divine retribution.

I ignored the letters, and only time will tell if I burn in hellfire, as my correspondents promised. In the meantime, we might all usefully read Adrian Desmond and James Moore's new book, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution.

The authors begin with an account of the cultural milieu out of which Darwin came, in particular the Darwin and Wedgwood families of the British industrial midlands -- enlightened, freedom-loving, charitable, compassionate. Central to their beliefs was an abhorrence of the institution of black slavery. The young Darwin incorporated these virtues into his own life, and his commitment to them was unvarying, even as he became agnostic in matters of religion.

Desmond and Moore contend that Darwin's detestation of slavery lay behind his insistence on the common descent of all human races (and ultimately, all life). I'll have more to say about Desmond and Moore's thesis later, but this much is clear from their excellent book: Darwin's naturalistic vision of the unity of life was never inconsistent with his ethical principles; indeed, it underlay them with a firmer foundation than the pick-and-choose Biblical sources so often invoked by those who sought -- for economic reasons -- to enslave their fellow men and women.

And certainly, the gentle, unassuming Darwin would never have lashed his intellectual opponents with the same unChristian vehemence as some Christian readers lashed me for merely mentioning the great man's name.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Scout and about

The other evening, our neighbors Karen and Pete showed up for a beach bonfire with a Celestron SkyScout, a remarkable flashlight-sized device I had not seen before.

You hold the SkyScout in your hand and look through it along the long axis, as if you were looking through a paper tube or spotting scope. Point it at any object in the sky and press a button. The object is identified on the read-out screen, along with descriptive info. You can even have a voice speak the identification and info to you.

Want to find something in the sky? Just select any one of the tens of thousands of celestial objects in the data base -- the Andromeda Galaxy, say -- and peer through the device. Flashing LEDs will guide you across the sky until you are pointing at the selected object.

It's undeniably a cute toy, although I would be disinclined to pay $179 to have a little box tell me what I mostly know already. But how does it work? I lay awake half the night trying to work it out in my head.

Built-in GPS uses satellites to locate position on Earth and exact time. A gravity sensor detects the angle of the device's axis to the vertical (altitude). Magnetic sensors use the Earth's magnetic field to tell in what direction around the vertical the device is pointing (azimuth). This last can be tricky, since the magnetic field varies widely over the face of the globe and from year to year. I couldn't find confirmation on the internet, but I assume the SkyScout has a data base of thousands of point values for magnetic field, and interpolation algorithms to calculate the variation between points. (Help, anyone?)

What really interests me about this thing is that it exists at all -- a technological tour de force, a marvel of hardware, software and data bases packed into a box you can hold in your hand, continuously in touch with satellites in orbit around the Earth. In many respects, our little group of friends around a bonfire could have been any similar group of humans ten thousand years ago; human nature, presumably, has changed little, if at all, in that time. But the SkyScout represented a staggering and irreversible accumulation of knowledge, of the universe and how it works. Talk about the cosmic and the local! As I pointed the gizmo this way and that, and had it tell me exactly what I was looking at, I knew our bonfire was nowhere special in the universe -- and utterly central.

(By the way, for those who are interested, there is a lovely animation of magnetic declination during the past four centuries on the Wikipedia page for that subject. Scroll down to near bottom of page. One more thing the SkyScout must somehow take into account.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The progress of all humanity

A few days ago, brome grass linked us to President Obama's Memorandum on Scientific Integrity, which affirms that government should not tailor scientific and technological information to a political agenda. Perhaps more encouraging, the President shows a respect for science -- in general, as a way of knowing -- that has been conspicuously absent for the past eight years. He intends to advance the cause of science in America, he says: "By doing this, we will ensure America's continued global leadership in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs. And that is essential, not only for our economic prosperity, but for the progress of all humanity."

Does science contribute to the progress of humanity? It is easy to list advances in science and technology that most of us value -- from antibiotics to the internet. You could also tote up a list of things we could do without -- from nuclear weapons to global warming.

I once visited Selborne village in England, where Gilbert White lived in the late 18th century and wrote his delightful Natural History of Selborne. The village has been preserved almost untouched by two centuries of scientific and technological progress, and a wonderfully charming place it is. As I walked the paths that White walked, and sat in the beautiful church on the village green where White presided, it was easy enough to wonder if we haven't lost something as important as what we have gained. Read White's Natural History or his journals and you'd never know there was anything in the world but bliss. Ah, to be a country curate in such a place at such a time -- illusory as that bliss might be.

Each one of us will make a judgment of what constitutes "the progress of humanity," and to what extent science and technology represent an advance. I suspect the overwhelming majority of us would not turn back the clock. I could live without plastic pop bottles and GM corn, but I wouldn't want to forego scientific medicine, clean water, sterile parturition, and Hubble photographs of deep space. Most of all, I value the scientific way of knowing, based on reproducible, peer-reviewed evidence, gathered and analyzed -- in so far as possible -- free of prejudicial influence. Science is a global way of knowing independent of nationality, ethnicity, gender, race, politics and religion, and to the extent that it abbreviates the causes that divide us it is a precious gift we inherit from the past. It is gratifying to have a President who speaks not just to scientific progress, but also to "all humanity."

Now, if we could only figure out how to combine Gilbert White's scientific frame of mind with the sustainable beauty of his Selborne village.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Thinking and acting

I came across a review on the web of my book Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian. The reviewer had some nice things to say about the book, but took me (and the scientific community generally) to task for exalting the cosmic over the human-centered circumstances in which we live our daily lives. In particular, she was offended by my implication that belief in human-centered space and time belonged to the childhood of humankind. The reviewer ends by saying, "I believe that the lesson should not be "Grow up!" but something more along the lines of "Think cosmically, act locally."

I like that: "Think cosmically, act locally." In fact, I would almost say it was the theme of the book (consider the subtitle). And certainly I hope that the posts on this blog successfully combine the cosmic and the local.

But there is some growing up, involved, if by "growing up" we mean accepting the implications of centuries of scientific discovery, rather than clinging to the anthropocentric conceits of our ancestors. Thinking cosmically and acting locally cannot be kept in separate compartments of the mind -- science and religion, say -- but must be consistent with each other, and, indeed, feed off each other. For all my admiration for Stephen Jay Gould, his concept of science and religion being "non-overlapping magisteria" is profoundly unsatisfying.

I try to affirm on this blog what so many of us believe: That scientific knowledge -- of cosmic space and time, life and consciousness -- enhances our day-to-day lives, enriches our interactions with every jot and tittle of our local environment. The same laws of physics and chemistry apply to the gecko here on the window sill as to a galaxy 10 billion light-years away. The local and the cosmic are all of a piece.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The virtue of being ordinary

The Kepler Mission is up and running, trailing Earth around the Sun, its eye focused on a wedge of space about 3000 light-years long reaching out along our arm of the MIlky Way Galaxy -- just a nick of our neighborhood really. For three-and-a-half years (at least) the telescope will keep a continuous watch on 100,000 Sunlike stars. It will be watching for the tiny dimming of a star's light as a planet passes in front of the star, an event called a transit. From the amount of dimming, the timing of transits, and some basic physics, astronomers can calculate the size, mass, orbital period, distance from star and surface temperature of the planet. They will be looking for Earth-sized planets in the sweet zone, just far enough from a Sunlike star to have a rocky surface and liquid water.

To have a transit, the plane of the planet's orbit has to lined up with the Earth. Only about one exoplanet system similar to ours out of 200 can be expected to offer an edge on view, which is why Kepler will be monitoring so many stars. If all goes well, within four years we should know just how unique or how common our watery blue planet is in the universe.

The safest bet is that we are common. Why? Because every time in the past we thought ourselves unique or central, we turned out to be wrong.

I think of Giordano Bruno, Kepler's contemporary, who taught the multiplicity of worlds and paid the ultimate price for suggesting (among other heretical things) that we might not be the singular lords of creation. Bruno was unfortunate to live in a society that defined itself by hierarchy -- a great chain of being that reached from the center of the Earth to the foot of God's throne, with humans at the top of the material heap, and even among humans an itinerant philosopher fell somewhere below pontiff, cardinals, bishops, and secular princes. The divinely-ordained hierarchy brooked no notion of cosmic ordinariness.

And now look. Without leaving my desk on this Bahamian island (thanks to Google Street View) I can walk through the streets of Rome to the corner of the Campo de Fiori, where Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600, and there looming over the market stalls is the statue of the man himself, on the site of his execution. Perhaps the Kepler Mission should have been named for him.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Moral robots -- an oxymoron?

A new book reviewed in Nature (January 29) asks if machines can have a conscience: Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right From Wrong, by ethicist Wendell Wallach and philosopher Colin Allen. The book will be worth reading when I get back to my college library nook, but for the moment the theme sparked a lively dinner table conversation with my son-in-law, a robotic engineer, and my daughter, an editor with a fictional work on her forthcoming list that deals with exactly this question.

Apparently, Wallach and Allen focus on a functional definition of morality: "Moral agents monitor and regulate their behavior in light of the harms their actions may cause or the duties they may neglect." From my point of view, the most interesting reason to address the question of machine morality is for the light it will throw on human conscience. What part of human morality is hardwired? What part is programming? Is self-awareness a prerequisite for moral action? Free will? What role do emotions play? Do we have moral obligations to ourselves? To non-human organisms? To inanimate nature?

A housebroken dog presumably regulates its behavior in light of the harms its actions might cause, and similar elementary functional behaviors might easily be programmed into machines, but is it morality? Collies presumably have different behavior-regulating hardware than pit bulls; are collies more moral? An automatic pilot that wrests control from a human pilot in an emergency has made a functional decision of sorts; does it have a conscience?

After thousands of years of philosophical discussion and hundreds of decades of relevant science, we still don't understand the depths and dimensions of human morality, which is why literature can still bring us face-to-face with the shattering complexity of our own moral selves. The bewildering anguish of a Sophie's choice should give us pause before we contemplate giving the same agency to machines.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

That old devil moon

Yesterday's post brought to mind Somerset Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence, which was based on the life of Paul Gauguin, and I began to wonder about the meaning of he title. I read the book too long ago to remember, if I ever knew.

So to the internet. Apparently, the title is not drawn from the novel itself. Rather, it was adopted from a review of an earlier Maugham novel, On Human Bondage. The reviewer says of a character in that novel that he was so busy yearning for the Moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet. I'm guessing a more thorough search would show an even older pedigree for the saying; it has the ring of a common adage.

In any case, we know what a "moony" person is, someone dreamy and impractical who always has his head in the clouds. And, look, he steps right over the sixpence. Tsk-tsk.

Here on this island of tides, wide horizons and clear skies, I'm inclined to vote for the Moon. We follow its phases assiduously. Watching for that first eyelash of new Moon in the gloaming, then in the following nights "the new Moon in the old Moon's arms," lit by Earthshine. From beach chairs at the edge of the tide in the afternoons we watch the Moon climb high and grow fat. Then, the full Moon rises out of the sea, improbably large, a textbook illustration of the Moon illusion. Best of all, the next few nights the just-past-full Moon rises in darkness, preceded by a lunar dawn, moonlight reflecting off of clouds before the disk breaks the horizon, until -- there! -- that flash of light just where sea meets sky. Awake in darkness to trace the Moon on its high winter arc (here on the Tropic of Cancer the full Moon tracks directly overhead in winter). Up before dawn to watch the old Moon shrivel and slide into the dawn.

And, of course, I'd never be without my Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar, always prepared for lunar conjunctions, occultations and eclipses, any one of which is worth a pocketful of sixpences.

There was a time when the Moon loomed large in human lives. Old Moon. Snow Moon. Sap Moon. Egg Moon. Milk Moon. Flower Moon. Thunder Moon. Grain Moon. Fruit Moon. Harvest Moon. Hunter's Moon. Long Night Moon. All of that is mostly gone now. In my New England village we barely know the Moon exists. But here on this speck of land in wide dark sea the Moon holds her own in an inky sky like a shiny silver coin, newly minted month after month.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Catechism


Paul Gauguin had a good Catholic education. From ages eleven to sixteen -- those formative years -- he was a student at the Petit Seminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, near Orleans, where he took religious instruction from the bishop of Orleans himself. He no doubt began his instruction with some version of the questions most Catholic kids begin with: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here?

I am a child of God. God made me. To know, love and serve God.

That was it. It was as simple as that. The flesh was a distraction. The world was a distraction. The trajectory of a life was to get from A (birth) to B (death) with the least amount of physical pleasure, then live blissfully forever with the Beatific Vision in heaven.

The questions remain. The answers I learned in school no longer satisfy. They seem paltry and shallow in the face of the overwhelming mystery which is the world. They take no account of what science has learned about the universe. They take no account of what science has learned about the self. They take no account of the beauty, depth and terror of inseparable flesh and spirit. They slap a name on the mystery and let it go at that.

The answers Gauguin learned in school did not satisfy. His great South Pacific masterpiece, now in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, poses the questions "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" (Click to enlarge.)

I'll have a go at interpretation.

At the right, an infant, the beginning. Perhaps the dog represents our origin as part of the tree of life, our animal ancestry. The three adolescent girls, coy, flirtatious, discovering their emerging sexuality. The two nunlike figures in shadow, somewhat older, almost prayerful, perhaps discussing the very questions that define the painting. The splendid central figure, plucking ripe fruit from the bough, shadowed by her alterself, introspective, frightened. The mature woman, serene, with child and domestic animals, representing motherhood, hearth and home. The old woman, resigned, not altogether happily, to death. The full stop of the white bird: Could this be the soul turning away from the white hereafter? And in the background, the mysterious idol, more Hindu than Polynesian, with her raised hands, palms outward, who seems to suggest "Enough. Enough questioning already. Accept. This place. This world. This life. This mystery."

Friday, March 06, 2009

End times

Earlier this week, a big-house-sized asteroid whizzed by the Earth, missing us by only 38,000 miles, about one-fifth the distance to the Moon. Or think of the Earth as your head; the asteroid passed about a meter away

Not to worry. This sort of thing happens on a regular basis. Now and then one hits, but it's nothing to keep you awake at night.

It occurs to me that this asteroid -- dubbed 2009 DD45 -- was about the same size as the one that crashed into Arizona about 50,000 years ago, creating the famous Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, somewhat less than a mile in diameter. The blast of that impact would have leveled everything within a radius of ten miles, setting forests afire at even greater distances. It if happened today, it would cause untold human tragedy.

Then I remembered a painting of our artist of yesterday, Chesley Bonestell, from his series of natural calamities published in Coronet magazine in 1947, some of which might end life on Earth or destroy the Earth itself. Not all of them bear up to scientific scrutiny, but the one I am thinking of -- and have a vague memory of seeing when I was about twelve years old -- imagines the result of a 2009 DD45-sized meteorite making a dead hit on Manhattan. (Click to enlarge.) Bonestell's Manhattan crater is about the same size as the one in Arizona.

So there you have it. It could happen any day, but probably won't. More likely, you say, it will splash down harmlessly in the ocean. No, you don't want that. Not unless you live in Denver or Moscow or La Paz. In the meantime, stay away from the corner of 5th Avenue and 14th Street in midtown Manhattan.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Between imagination and reality

I wonder to what extent Chesley Bonestell influenced the person I am today?

Chesley who?

Chesley Bonestell, the artist whose vividly realistic paintings of outer space graced the covers and pages of magazines like Life and Colliers in the late-1940s, just as I reached the age where a boy's imagination is drawn to themes of adventure and exploration. Bonestell worked with Werner von Braun, who lived and worked just down the road from my Chattanooga home, in Huntsville, Alabama. With von Braun's guidance, he gave us paintings of rocket flights to the Moon and Mars. His influence was probably equal to von Braun's in jump-starting the American space program and actually putting a man on the Moon.

Oh Lordy, how I poured over those paintings (click to enlarge). And when I wasn't looking at the paintings, I was looking up at the stars. I may have got my love for the night sky from my father, who taught me the constellations at an even younger age, but it was Bonestell who turned points of light into worlds meant to be explored. I've been learning about and writing about the night sky ever since.

Bonestell was the bridge between Buck Rogers and John Glenn, between Flash Gordon and Neil Armstrong, between imagination and reality. That may be the trickiest bridge in the world to cross -- to get to firm, reliable knowledge on the other side without leaving behind the child's sense of wonder. Negotiating that bridge has been the great theme of my life as a teacher and writer, and of this blog.

The bridge, of course, is science, the empirical way of knowing, the most reliable way humans have yet invented to separate what we wish to be true from what is real. Chesley Bonestell took me by the hand and walked me onto the bridge.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Cloud crawler


Look at this superb specimen, an argiope, the size of a child's hand, apparently hanging from a cloud. What you don't see is its orb web, a meter in diameter, closely strung of the finest thread -- so fine that it doesn't show up in my photograph.

"What refinement of art for a mess of flies!" exclaimed the great entomologist J. Henri Fabre, in his The Life of the Spider. "Nowhere, in the whole animal kingdom, has the need to eat inspired a more cunning industry."

Spiders have been spinning silk for several hundred million years. A 110 million-year-old piece of Spanish amber shows a fly and a mite trapped by strands of spider silk, apparently from a spiral web. With the explosive diversification of flowering plants and pollinating insects, spiders were quick to evolve orb webs with which to fish the skies.

The Calatravan gift of cable architecture is in their genes. Hatchling spiders spin webs that rival the finest work of adults. Says Fabre: "There are no masters or apprentices in their guild; all know their craft from the moment that the first thread is laid."

And if that doesn't make your head spin, nothing will.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Hang onto your hats

Heliocentricity and evolution were flash points in the enduring conflict between science and faith. Evolution by natural selection remains a sticking point for many religious people. As I have written here (and elsewhere) many times, a far more serious scientific threat to traditional religion is neurobiology. Curiously, we have so far heard little about it from people of faith or from scientists.

In a letter to the editor in the February 27 issue of Science, neuroscientist Martha Farah and theologian Nancey Murphy raise the issue explicitly in hope of an early resolution. Since a resolution will be virtually unattainable, perhaps it would have been better to let the sleeping dog lie.

Farah and Murphy write:
Most religions endorse the idea of a soul (or spirit) that is distinct from the physical body. Yet as neuroscience advances, it increasingly seems that all aspects of a person can be explained by the functioning of a material system. This first became clear in the realms of motor control and perception. Yet, models of perceptual and motor capacities such as color vision and gait do not directly threaten the idea of the soul. You can still believe in what Gilbert Ryle called "the ghost in the machine" and simply conclude that color vision and gait are features of the machine rather than the ghost.
But increasingly, brain imaging techniques show that personality, emotions, morality and even spirituality correlate with brain function.
Furthermore, pharmacologic influences on these traits, as well as the effects of localized stimulation or damage, demonstrate that the brain processes in question are not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these central aspects of our personhood. If these aspects of the person are all features of the machine, why have a ghost at all?
As all of this becomes more widely known, we can expect new tension between science and faith. Predictably, we are already hearing about "nonmaterialist neuroscience," a pseudoscientific correlate of "creation science" and "intelligent design." More sparks will fly.

Farah and Murphy plead for a reexamination of the matter/spirit, body/soul, natural/supernatural dualism that has plagued Western philosophy and theology since the early centuries of the Christian era.
To be sure, dualism is intuitively compelling. Yet science often requires us to reject otherwise plausible beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary. A full understanding of why Earth orbits the Sun (as a consequence of the way the solar system was formed) took another century after Galileo's time to develop. It may take even longer to understand why certain material systems give rise to consciousness. In the meantime, just as Galileo's view of Earth in the heavens did not render our world any less precious or beautiful, neither does the physicalism of neuroscience detract from the value or meaning of human life.
Farah and Murphy do not explicitly mention the real sticking point, which is personal immortality. My guess is that belief in life after death will be more vigorously defended by people of faith than the idea of cosmic centrality or special creation. Galileo and Darwin were warmups. We are now embarked on the century of neuroscience. You ain't seen nothin' yet.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The oldest road


During the academic year 1968-69, I lived with my young and growing family in London as I studied history of science at Imperial College. We owned a Volkswagen camper, in which we visited a prodigious number of places of historical or natural interest. One day near the village of Uffington in Oxfordshire, we climbed up through a hanging valley to view the famous White Horse of Uffington, carved into the chalk escarpment of the Berkshire Downs during the Bronze Age. At the top of the hill was a magnificent Iron Age hill fort, Uffington Castle, beside an ancient trackway called the Ridgeway. We walked along the track to Wayland's Smithy, an immense 5000-year old-chambered long barrow (burial site). The Ridgeway stretched out along the high ground in both directions, east and west, inviting visits to more ancient sites.

That magical place has been on my mind ever since. Now, 40 years later, I'm planning to walk the entire Ridgeway in late April, from Avebury to Ivinghoe Beacon, 90 miles in six days. My sons Tom and Dan have asked to come along. Our air tickets are purchased, our overnight accommodations in place.

Half the fun is the anticipation. We have in hand the several published guides to what is now (since 1972) a nationally designated footpath. We have the 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 scale Ordnance Survey maps. Tom has marked our route on Google Earth -- we can zoom in at any scale.

The Ridgeway is the oldest known trackway in Britain. It connects megalithic monuments (starting at the Avebury stone circle), tombs, ditches and hill forts. Our walk will take us into deep time, back to the roots of Anglo-European civilization.

(The image above is from Google Earth, showing the White Horse and Uffington Castle. To give a sense of scale, the horse is longer than a football field (374 feet). Tom has marked the Ridgeway in red. Click to enlarge.)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

How faith can heal

The February 23 issue of Time magazine has a special section called "How Faith Can Heal," with a cover pic of a woman in prayer. It's a typical Time religion cover story: making all the right nods to religion, without any concessions to the supernatural. That is to say, a religious person can read the issue with satisfaction, and a naturalist will find nothing to complain about.

We've known for a long time that religious belief has a healthy payoff (about the same as regular exercise and taking statins), presumably for the same reasons placebos work. Certain religious practices -- meditation, deep prayer -- clearly are conducive to good health (I wish I could learn to relax). The mind and body are connected in myriad ways, and Time makes it clear that the health benefits of spirituality are neurobiological. The magazine does not hesitate to acknowledge that every double-blind study of intercessory prayer in a medical context has shown no effect.

Time knows that religion sells, and the editors have developed a slick way to package their product. They are careful to call their story "How Faith Can Heal," not "Faith Is a Placebo." A careful reading, however, shows it all comes down to the same thing. The parietal lobe gets central billing; the ghost in the machine shows up not at all.

So if belief in the supernatural makes us statistically healthier, why don't naturalists jump on board? Presumably because we value our commitment to reality more than a marginal life extension. Religious naturalists can hope for the best of both worlds by seeking to fill our lives with love, tranquility, wonder and celebration -- scientific medicine and a bit of the sugar pill too.

Curiously, Time does not mention what I would guess to be the most powerful influence of supernaturalist faith on health: The vast number of scientific hospitals started and maintained by people of faith, and the long tradition of medical service by religiously motivated nursing sisters. That is to say, people with a sincere belief in the supernatural have been prominent in bringing the benefits of scientific medicine to believers and unbelievers alike. A naturalist can read about the heroic service of nursing sisters fighting ebola in the Congo and admire them no less than we admire the secular Doctors Without Borders who do the same thing. What both groups have in common is selfless service to one's fellow men and women, which may be what religion at its best is all about. The prayers of the sisters may even add a remedial benefit for patients who are aware they are being prayed for -- as long as the sisters also have an adequate supply of disinfectant and pharmaceuticals.