Sunday, May 31, 2009

My charms I'll break...

... their senses I'll restore, and they shall be themselves.

Many years ago, in my sprightly youth, I played Ariel in a faculty production of The Tempest. It's hard to imagine now that I was ever young enough or foolish enough to don white tights and tunic and flit about the stage at Prospero's bidding, singing "Where the bee sucks, there suck I." But such was the case. For three nights, on a spot-lit stage, I joined the elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves, whose pastime is to make midnight mushrumps. And on the third night, when Prospero, as promised, spoke the liberating words -- "My Ariel, chick, to the elements be free, and fare thou well!" -- I leapt into the wings, rolled up my tights, and spent the next forty years, charms o'erthrown, with what faint strength I had my own.

Whenever, during those post-sprite years, I required some heavenly music -- as even now I do -- to work my ends, I harken back to my brief fling as Prospero's tricksy spirit, and wonder what became of Ariel when his master set him free. I've even thought of writing a novel on the theme.

I suspect that Ariel relished his freedom -- for a week or two. Then I wonder if he might have pined for his former servitude to a stern but fair master, freedom being a burden he found oppressive. It would seem, from the almost universal popularity of institutional religion, that servitude to the precepts of a divine Prospero and his holy book are -- for the great majority of people -- preferred to taking on responsibility for one's own life.

Would Ariel have been up to the burden of freedom? Would he have been resourceful enough to fill his life with useful activity, without Prospero's assigned tasks to fulfill?

As you may recall, Ariel came into Prospero's service when the great magician freed him from a cloven pine in which he had been imprisoned by the hag-witch Sycorax -- imprisoned because his airy spirit was too good and delicate to do the witch's foul bidding. After Sycorax, Prospero must have seemed a better master -- just, reasonably benevolent, modest in his requests, in other words rather like the father God so many people choose for voluntary servitude.

And so, dear Ariel, where are you now? Napping happily in some cowslip's bell, free as a bird and content with your freedom? Or are you darting disconsolately about that enchanted isle, alone and uncommanded in a world of daunting possibilities, looking vainly for Prospero (who is long gone) to volunteer your tricksy charms?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Red light, green light?

You will have read about it in your newspaper or on the internet. In this week's issue of Nature, Japanese researchers report the creation of the first transgenic primates able to pass on a foreign gene to their offspring. The genome of marmosets -- tiny New World monkeys -- was modifed to produce a jellyfish protein that causes the animals to glow green under UV light. We can now expect marmosets to become a new model animal for transgenic medical research.

This is not the first time a jellyfish gene has been inserted into a primate genome, but it is the first time the foreign gene has been passed on to future generations. One of the sweet little creatures looks out from the cover of Nature as if it were asking, "Do you guys know what the hell you are doing?"

Which prompts me to reprise here a Globe column I wrote in 2001. I suppose I would lean more firmly to the side of animal rights if I were writing it today:

An adorable 3-month-old rhesus monkey looks out at us from the pages of the journal Science. His name is ANDi. He has, apparently, not a care in the world; a healthy little scamp who is presumably treated affectionately by his keepers.

ANDi (whose name in reverse stands for "inserted DNA") is unique. He is the first transgenic primate. He carries a gene isolated from a jellyfish that codes for a protein that causes the jellyfish to glow green. ANDi doesn't glow, but he might have. The gene transfer was a "success."

To create ANDi, biologists at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center first modified a virus to contain the jellyfish fluorescence gene, then inserted the virus into the unfertilized eggs of rhesus monkeys. A few hours later, the eggs were injected with sperm and implanted in females.

Three healthy monkeys were born, but only one, ANDi, carries the fluorescence gene. A pair of miscarried twins also carried the gene, and, unlike ANDi, their hair follicles and toenails glowed green under UV light. It is not known if the inserted gene had anything to do with the miscarriages.

None of these techniques are new. In vitro fertilization has been used extensively even for humans, and jellyfish fluorescence genes have been inserted in plants, amphibians and mice. But ANDi's birth brings transgenic experiments closer to our own species.

What are we to make of this experiment? I am no antivivisectionist. I approve of the use of animals in medical research when there is no satisfactory alternative, and most scientists, I suppose, feel much the same. We hold the amelioration of human disease of greater value than the lives or genetic integrity of research animals.

At the same time, we have all grown more sensitive than in the past to animal rights, and to the unnecessary or frivolous use of experimental animals.

Indeed, most scientists who work with animals seem far more concerned about animal welfare than many nonscientists who would as soon whack a garden snake with a shovel as swat a mosquito, or blaze away at a white-tailed deer for sport.

But still, here is sweet little ANDi with his big baby-doll eyes, seemingly imploring love, and who cannot feel at least a twinge of guilt that his genes are not entirely his own? And what about those miscarried twins with glowing toenails?

The staggering power of the gene manipulators calls out for a vigorous public debate on the ethics of transgenic experiments. The debate rages in public forums and on the Internet, but we are a long way from reaching consensus as a society.

Where do we go for moral guidance? The received wisdom of the world's great religions is silent about the specifics of transgenic experiments. There was no 11th Commandment on Moses' tablets that said, "Thou shalt not mess with a monkey's genes."

So how about the Golden Rule, common to many religions: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? But the Golden Rule implies the possibility of reciprocity. How does it apply between species, when we are the only species with the power to "do unto?"

If we suddenly found ourselves on the Planet of the Apes, would we want the apes tinkering with our genes?

How do we do the moral arithmetic of animal experimentation? How do we weigh the human children afflicted with AIDS, say, against the well-being of animals used in AIDS research? How many genetically modified rhesus monkeys equals the one future child with Down's syndrome or hemophilia who might be spared that fate by transgenic primate research?

Who has the wisdom or the courage to make these determinations?

The Oregon researchers believe ANDi and his future transgenic cousins will help us understand such things as aging, neurodegenerative diseases, immunology and behavior, presumably leading to healthier, happier lives for all. And certainly few of us want to go back to the days before modern medicine, which has depended mightily in its development upon animal research.

On the other hand, I have friends, wise and good, who would deliver a resounding "No" to all transgenic research, as the tip of a wedge that will eventually open a moral chasm. They contend that the Oregon experiment does not have any immediate therapeutic application, and that disease can be ameliorated without the use of transgenic animals.

Meanwhile, ANDi's trusting eyes pose a question we dare not turn away from?

I don't know the answer to the question. I wish I had the moral certitude of those who can utter an unqualified "Yes" or "No," but I do not. In the end, I trust the collective moral goodness of my species to make the right decisions -- the dismal example of the Nazi scientists notwithstanding.

Friday, May 29, 2009

In defense of artifice -- Part 3

Last Saturday, my daughter Maureen and I walked the Skyline Trail in the Blue Hills Reservation just south of Boston (and well within the metropolitan area). What a magnificent ammenity for the city -- 7000 forested acres, with rocky summits, stunning views, and crisscrossing trails. The reservation was established in 1893 by Charles Eliot, son of Charles William Eliot, the President of Harvard, and a protege of the great American landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted. Eliot and his associates were instrumental in procuring for Boston many other semi-wild places that adorn the city.

Semi-wild. The Blue Hills Reservation is a work of human artifice, farms and pastures returned to fen and forest just in time to keep them from being gobbled up by urban expansion. Not pastoral, not technopolis, but what I have elsewhere called Arcadian -- after that mythical time and place in ancient Greece where urban sophistication mingled with pastoral simplicity -- artifice in the service of humanity and nature.

To propose the pastoral as an alternative to environmental devastation, as does Jay Griffith in the essay referenced over the past two day, is to surrender our future to the forces of unchecked development. Why? Because the pastoral is kaput, a useless ideal, except for the very small number of us who are affluent and mobile enough to carve out our own little gardens with squeaky gates in yet unblemished corners of the planet, leaving the other 7 billion of our fellow humans to urban slums, strip malls, impoverished villages, fouled water and air, and dim memories of the sort of natural beauty Maureen and I found along the Skyline Trail (and that a few weeks earlier sons Dan, Tom and I found in the English countryside).

Did you ever consider what a remarkable thing is Central Park in New York City? Artifice. Can we look forward to a world largely powered by cheap photovoltaics or clean fusion power? Artifice. Can we choose to adopt planning restrictions such as those that preserved the undeveloped -- but thoroughly humanized -- landscapes I walked through with my sons along the Ridgeway in England? Artifice.

The Arcadian ideal seeks to combine the Baconian Enlightenment, with its confidence in the human mind to make sense of the world, and Wordsworthean romanticism, with its belief that all life is sacred. Whether an Arcadian balance is possible in a world of unchecked population growth remains to be seen.

The chemist Paul Crutzen has proposed the term Anthropocene to represent the present age of Earth history, in which human artifice is the dominant geological force. This age can be said to have started in the later part of the 18th century, when analysis of air trapped in arctic ice shows the beginning of global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. The paleoclimatologist Bill Ruddiman might set the beginning of the Anthropocene much earlier, with the rise of agriculture. In The Path, I wrote:
The technological products of human ingenuity represent an inevitable stage in planetary evolution, yet our Arcadian yearnings are dictated by millions of years of pretechnological human evolution. It is a conundrum of human life that our intellects have outraced our instincts; cultural evolution has overtaken organic evolution. Biologically, we are hunter-gatherers who suddenly find ourselves in command of almost unimaginable powers for planetary transformation. We struggle to bring together our genes and our aspirations. Wilderness and Technopolis. the romantic and the visionary, spirit and economics. Scientists and engineers are responsible for ensuring that the Anthropocene Era will be good for the human race and good for the planet, with its diversity of creatures and habitats. Architects and planners are implicated too, and the managers and stockholders of multinational corporations, politicians, philosophers, poets, and religious leaders. Most of us, however, will make our contribution for good or ill on the local scale, along paths that begins at our own front door.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

In defense of artifice -- Part 2

And where, pray, did the West go wrong?

Jay Griffiths has the answer: "...about four hundred years ago, in the West, a new era began, heavily influenced by Francis Bacon, promoting the age of human supremacy, arguing for artifice and a politics of cruelty against nature." She adds: "Francis Bacon was a nasty piece of work."

There you have it. A fork in the road. The West turned the wrong way. Away from sweet indigenous thought, with its balance of all things human and natural, toward the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. And all the fault of Francis Bacon.

More, Griffiths associates Bacon's experimental method with the torturing of witches. In this telling of the story -- which is not original to Griffiths; one wishes, for example, that she had referenced Carolyn Merchant in particular -- in this telling of the story, science is male, nature is female, and science puts nature on the rack to make her yield her secrets. The Enlightenment is founded on misogyny.

Bacon did say somewhere, as I recall, that nature must be "put to the torture" to yield her hidden patterns of order. I do not recall him advocating the torture of witches. The evidence Griffiths cites in this regard has been challenged by Alan Soble and others.

Bacon, of course, was a man of his time, and a rather enlightened one at that, although by no means without his faults. Let us not forget that the experimental method he espoused was already being used to great effect by Galileo and others. Let us also not forget that the persecution of witches in the West ceased as the Scientific Revolution was consolidated.

And where today are witches still prosecuted? Well, precisely in those parts of the world least affected by the Western Enlightenment. So if you are against the persecution of witches, then by all means drag Francis Bacon into the light. It was the empirical way of knowing he espoused that caused the West to question the superstition and religious fanaticism than still afflicts women (mostly) in places like the Congo and the wilds of Pakistan.

Griffiths' anti-science screed is in the tradition of radical feminists such as Carolyn Merchant, Sandra Harding and Evelyn Fox Keller. More power to them, I say; science is surely not immune to sexism, and, as a hedge on hubris, scientists can usefully be reminded of Wordsworth's chastisement:
Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things;
-- We murder to dissect.
It may well be that we are murdering nature, but it is consumerist greed and overpopulation, not intellectual curiosity or the experimental method that is doing the dastardly deed. Those who reject the gifts of the Enlightenment can always find some dark little corner of the planet where they can live in pre-Baconian bliss, leaving human artifice behind.

Meanwhile, scientists will follow their Baconian muse, exposing with their "torture" the secrets of the universe, and you and I will add our dollop of Wordsworthean balance, bringing to the universe revealed by science what the poet called "a heart that watches and receives."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In defense of artifice

I have just got around to reading Jay Griffiths' essay "Artifice v. Pastoral" in the March-April issue of Orion. For those who don't know it, Orion is a first-rate, handsomely-produced journal devoted primarily to conservation of the natural world. Poetry, art, and spirituality all fall with its purview. Only rarely do I find myself taking issue with what appears in Orion, but Griffith's essay -- although well-intentioned, and by a writer of enormous sensitivity and talent -- strikes me as so much balderdash.

Everything that is wrong with the world, Griffith suggests, is rooted in our preference for artifice over what is natural. Climate change, financial crisis, unsustainable energy use -- she squeezes it all into the straitjacket of artifice versus pastoral. We know what artifice means, presumably: the product of human agency and cunning. And pastoral? "In the pastoral, the world is familiar: the squeaky gate, the cottage garden, the snug joining of things, each acre and each person known."

Well, who doesn't love the squeaky gate? But isn't the gate itself an artifice. Does Jay Griffith forego electricity, mechanical transportation, computers, antibiotics? What about her clothing, her house, her food? All artifice.

Does she really suggest that we should empty out the cities and send everyone out into the pastures, a cottage garden and squeaky gate for all 7 billion of us, "common people on common land"? For her ideal human she turns to indigenous peoples, as if indigenous people are not equally adaptive to television, snow mobiles, and AK47s when they can get their hands on them. Would she deprive indigenous peoples access to modern health care?

If this critique of Griffiths' essay sounds reductionistic, it is because her thesis is reductionistic. Of course there are problems in the world, huge problems, and excesses, and violence. But to blame it on artifice is simply silly. How about overpopulation and greed? How about abuse of power? How about, in other words, the less admirable side of human nature.

The pastoral is an unrealistic ideal in a world of 7 billion people. Only artifice can give us anything like a sustainable future -- artifice tempered by beauty and wisdom. While Griffiths putters in her cottage garden, let us hope that somewhere an artificer is working on clean energy sources, a new green revolution in agriculture, and cures for the diseases that afflict so many of humankind.

(There is an anti-science subtext to Griffiths' essay that I will address tomorrow.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Beauty is truth, truth beauty

Each day at college, as I go to collect my laptop, I pass the Art Department's bulletin board. And, in recent weeks, I have been drawn up short by an announcement for a gallery show by the New England artist Janet Rickus, with this illustration of one of her works.

Why? What is it that so attracts me to the painting? A collection of ceramics and a fat vegetable arrayed on crisp cloths. The original painting, I understand from the internet, is life size. I also see from the internet that this is typical of Rickus' work.

Technical proficiency? The artist is indeed stunningly adept at portraying objects realistically. But that alone cannot account for the emotional reaction to her work.

The subject? There is a certain intellectual appeal to the juxtaposition of the organic and inorganic, but surely there is more to it than that. After all, these are commonplace objects, stark in their simplicity.

Maybe it is the stark simplicity of the objects that is their appeal -- shape, color, natural light, shadow. Then too we recognize the intentionality of the artist, her careful selection of the objects, their arrangement, their likenesses and contrasts.

And, yes, now we are getting at it. It is not so much the paintings themselves that grasp our attention, as it is a certain way of seeing the world. A certain way of making the world that we see.

Simple elements. Artfully arranged. Elegantly expressed. These are the same qualities we look for in a scientific theory. When Einstein proposed his General Theory of Relativity, physicists knew immediately they were in the presence of truth, even though -- initially -- not a single experiment confirmed the theory. The mathematics of general relativity was just too beautiful not to express reality. Beauty is the resonance of a pattern of flickering neurons in the brain with patterns of order in the world. And that is why beauty is nature's signature of truth.

"Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us," writes my friend Scott Russell Sanders. "It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature."

Monday, May 25, 2009

AM in the PM

In my grandma's living room in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the late-1930s and early-1940s was a huge Stromberg-Carlson radio with a dozen electronic tubes the size of Coke bottles, glowing like bonfires. My parents' new house, built in 1941, had a Zenith as large as a breadbox (remember breadboxes?) with salt-shaker-sized tubes. In 1950 I got a radio of my own, a little Sears Silvertone with minitubes no bigger than my little finger. Then, along came transistors, and radios shrank to the size of a deck of cards. Integrated circuits appeared in the 60s, and if it weren't for the necessity of a battery, tuner and earphones, a radio could be the size of this letter o.

The March issue of Scientific American described a radio in which the active element is a single carbon nanotube -- a radio you can't see. Forget Dick Tracy. In the 1940s, we thought his wrist radio was the cat's pajamas. Now a bacterium can wear a wrist radio, so to speak.

Not that I know what that's good for. What I see these days is everyone going around with buds in their ears listening to their own streams of sound. My daughters were extolling the virtues of Pandora the other day, a computer application that personalizes your radio content -- in effect creating as many stations as there are listeners. Sounds a little spooky to me, although my cat gave up her pajamas years ago. Maybe it's because I grew up sitting in a tight little circle with my grandma and my young aunts and uncle around that big Stromberg-Carlson, listening to Your Hit Parade, Dr I. Q., Fibber McGee and Molly, and all the rest. Radio brought folks together in that golden age; now it isolates each of us in our own little world.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

She has composed, so long, a self...

J'ai passe trop de temps a travailler mon violon, a voyager. Mais l'exercice essentiel du compositeur -- la meditation -- rien ne la jamais suspendu en moi...Je vis un reve permanent, qui ne s'arrete ne nuit ni jour.
This quote from the famed Romanian violinist and composer Georges Enescu is the epigraph for Wallace Stevens' poem The World As Meditation. I translate:
I spent too much time working at my violin, in traveling. But the essential exercise of the composer -- meditation -- nothing suspended this in me...I saw a permanent dream which didn't stop night and day.
The poem is one of Stevens' last, so we can take it that he understood meditation to be the essential work of the poet too. The central metaphor of the poem is Penelope awaiting Ulysses, the long imagining of his returning, her faithfulness to a consummation that may or may not come.

Meditation. I'm not sure I know what that means. It is a difficult word that would seem to take its meaning only through its object. I would rather say "attention." Paying attention to what is given, here, now, in this world of flesh and blood, night and day. Not knowing whether there is some greater meaning to it all, but living as if every moment matters. A permanent dream? Not quite. I am not disciplined enough for that, or dreamy enough. But I keep my binoculars and my magnifier ready at hand. I walk wary. I wait and watch. And Ulysses? That thing I set out fifty years ago to find? Has it drawn nearer? I think what the poem suggests is that it doesn't matter, that it is the composing of a self that is important, that Penelope is not completed by Ulysses' arrival but by her own imaginings of his coming.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

On growth and form

As you may have noticed, I've had the 14 May issue of Nature in my bag all week and have yet to run out of things to think about.

This particular issue has a special Insight section on planktonic life in the sea. We don't pay much attention to these microscopic creatures, but in their teeming numbers they may be fabulously important in maintaining the planet's equilibrium.

Be that as it may, it was the "cover" of the special section that attracted my attention: a microphotograph of the silicate cell walls of various diatom species. Such beauty! Such symmetry! And in creatures so small. Suddenly I found myself thinking of D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson.

Thompson's On Growth and Form took its place among the classics of biology when it was first published in 1917. Cambridge University Press came out with a paperback edition in 1966, edited and with a preface by the eminent biologist John Tyler Bonner, which gave the book a bounce of popularity among my generation of young scientists. Those of us with even a modest literary bent recognized a work of striking originality and philosophical merit.

Thompson was the last of the old generation of classically educated biologists. He rejected natural selection as an sufficient explanation of evolution, looking instead to mathematical and mechanical constraints on the devlopment of organisms. Galileo said that the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics. Thompson was convinced that this included living things. His book pays particular attention to the beauty and symmetry of diatoms.

Thompson was both behind the times and ahead of the times. The mathematics he was able to bring to bear on life yielded only superficial insights into growth and form. Today's powerful computers apply mathematical algorithms even to the amazingly complex structures of proteins. And yes, as Thompson supposed, the Book of Life is indeed written in the language of mathematics.

Thompson retained a healthy sense of awe in the face of the life's complexity. In the Introduction to On Growth and Form he wrote:
How far even then mathematics will suffice to describe, and physics to explain, the fabric of the body, no man can foresee. It may be that all the laws of energy, and all the properties of matter, and all the chemistry of all the colloids are as powerless to explain the body as they are impotent to comprehend the soul. For my part, I think it is not so. Of how it is that the soul informs the body, physical science teaches me nothing; and that living matter influences and is influenced by mind is a mystery without a clue. Consciousness is not explained to my comprehension by all the nerve-paths and neurons of the physiologist; nor do I ask of physics how goodness shines in one man's face, and evil betrays itself in another. But of the construction and growth and working of the body, as of all else that is of the earth earthy, physical science is, in my humble opinion, our only teacher and guide.
It would be interesting to know to what extent Thompson would revise these opinions a century later. The mystery of consciousness still lies beyond our grasp, although most biologists would not say beyond the realm of the "earth earthy." We still don't have a clue why goodness shines in one man's face and evil in another. For this, the great works of classical literature so beloved by Thompson have as much to teach us as do his equally beloved mathematics and physics.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Free will?

In an essay in the 14 May issue of Nature, German biologist Martin Heisenberg asks the question: "Is free will an illusion?" And he answers: No.

We are free, says Heisenberg, if our actions are self-generated, and not mere responses to external stimuli. But how can they be self-generated in a world of cause and effect? As befitting the son of Werner Heisenberg, father of the Uncertainty Principle, Martin invokes the stochastic nature of quantum mechanics. Presumably, randomly firing neurons equal free will. One does not have to be consciously aware of an action for that action to be self-generated, says Heisenberg.

I did not find his essay to be a convincing defense of free will. For one thing, no one that I know of has shown that quantum effects have anything to do with the firing of neurons. And secondly, why should we be morally responsible for actions that are triggered by quantum noise rather than cause and effect?

Further, how can we be morally responsible for an action that we are not aware of until it has been initiated?

Free will has traditionally been defined within a context of philosophical dualism. Free actions are initiated by intentionality in a nonphysical realm, the immaterial soul. This assumes that conscious intention precedes brain activity. That this is not the case is shown rather convincingly in experiments described in the 8 May issue of Science.

Researchers electrically stimulated patients undergoing awake brain surgery. The stimuli excited movements of the limbs or movement of the lips to talk. The patients became aware of intentionality after the stimulation. That is to say, conscious intention came after the brain activity that initiated action.

This is pretty important stuff, from a philosophical point of view. It suggests that a dualistic understanding of free will is untenable. Is free will then an illusion? Don't expect the debate to end soon. We have too much morally invested in the idea of free will -- and of a nonmaterial self -- to concede the field to the physicalists.

I have elsewhere suggested that a more satisfying place to look for free will is in what is sometimes called chaos theory. In sufficiently complex systems with many feedback loops -- the global economy, the weather, the human nervous system -- small perturbations can lead to unpredictable large-scale consequences, though every part of the system is individually deterministic. This has sometimes been called -- somewhat facetiously -- the butterfly effect: A butterfly flaps its wings in China and triggers a cascade of events that results in a snowstorm in Chicago. Chaos theory has taught us that determinism in complex systems does not imply predictability.

An example: Photons of light and odor molecules from a piece of candy stimulate neurons in my optical and olfactory organs. Signal-transduction cascades inform my brain. Mmm, candy! Do I pick it up? Do I put it in my mouth? My action depends not only upon the external stimuli and my genetically inborn taste for sweets but also upon prior experiences and anticipations of future consequences as recorded in the soft-wired sections of my brain. I pick up the candy or I do not, depending upon a hugely complex -- and to an outside observer unpredictable -- conversation of molecules. This is not what traditional philosophers meant by free will, but is indistinguishable from what traditional philosophers meant by free will, i.e., the power to make free choices unconstrained by external agencies. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck.

When all is said and done, free will is a social construct, not a scientific hypothesis. Humans long ago discovered that living peaceably in groups requires a notion of individual responsibility. Responsibility implies freedom. In contemporary society, it is the judicial system that ultimately decides to what extent our actions are "free."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The origin of life

Give me an amoeba and I'll give you a planet teeming with a rich diversity of life. I'll go further, give me a self-replicating molecule -- DNA, for instance -- and I'll give you an amoeba, or something like it.

No big trick. It's inevitable. Replication. Mutation. Natural selection. It would take divine intervention to stop it.

I don't mean to say, of course, that you'd get scarlet tanagers, coral snakes, and Cameron Diaz. No even that you'd get birds, reptiles and mammals. But you'd get something, diverse, complex, and perhaps intelligent.

The trick is getting that first self-replicating molecule.

We know that it happened, and more or less when -- four billion years ago on the primeval Earth. It's not impossible that the seed for terrestrial life came from somewhere else in the universe, but that just moves the riddle to another venue, so we might as well address the question of how might it have happened here.

Many biologists believe that DNA and catalyzing protein enzymes -- the bases for all terrestrial life -- came along after RNA, a self-replicating, self-catalyzing single-strand molecule that can itself be a template for molecular evolution. So how does one start with simple pre-biotic molecules that can be reasonably expected to be present in the early terrestrial environment -- nucleobases, sugars, phosphates -- and get something as complex as RNA. It's a matter of getting these things to join up in the right way, but unfortunately a plausible chemistry for making it happen has eluded researchers for 40 years. Ah, a perfect opportunity for a Designer to step up to the plate.

Not so fast. In the 14 May issue of Nature, chemists from the University of Manchester -- Matthew Powner, Beatrice Gerland and John Sutherland -- offer a pathway for RNA synthesis (the green pathway in the diagram; click to enlarge) that just might break the RNA deadlock. The riddle of the origin of life is not solved, but maybe the solution is in sight.

If there is a lesson here, for the purveyors of creationism and intelligent design, it is that not knowing is not the same as not knowable.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Landscape as art -- Part 2

A few more thoughts on those Wayne Thiebaud landscapes I shared the day before yesterday. I suggested that the terrestrial environment is inevitably going to be a human artifact, that we might as well make that artifact a work of art, and that artists as well as scientific ecologists might lead he way.

Whenever I hang out with my nature writing pals, they cringe when I mention artifact. They have another notion of what the environment should be, something wild and beautiful and untrammeled by humans. Their notion of what we should strive for is rather more Bierstadt than Thiebaud.

Albert Bierstadt was a 19th-century German-born artist who made his reputation with large, romantic paintings of the American West as it was -- or was imagined to be -- before the coming of those defiling white folks from the East (click to enlarge). Oh, there were humans in Bierstadt's nature, native Americans, but they were imagined to be as seamlessly a part of the natural world as eagles and deer.

Bierstadt's landscapes are no less idealized than Thiebaud's. It is a different esthetic at work -- the esthetic of an unspoiled Eden -- but what you see on the canvas is what you want to see, not what is actually there. If pre-Columbian Americans had a lighter touch on the land it was only because they had less advanced technologies. It is possible that they were implicated in one of the most extensive mass extinctions in recent Earth history (the demise of large North American mammals at the end of the most recent Ice Age). They were certainly engaged in almost constant warfare among themselves. Give Bierstadt's "noble savage" a gun and a steel plow and there goes whatever untrammeled nature you might find in his paintings.

Which is not to say that we might not have much to learn from native Americans about the kind of landscapes we want to create, or that in managing the Yosemite Valley, say, we might not have more to learn from Bierstadt than from Thiebaud. What is important is that we recognize our responsibility toward the future Earth, decide upon a spiritually-nourishing esthetic, and then use the surface of the Earth as an artist might use a canvas.

Two things will work against us: greed and the idealization of the wild. We either create a work of human art, or concede the environment to the exploiters.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mentally enhanced

Here she is, folks, from a report in the current issue of Nature (14 May), the oldest known piece of representational art, a 35,000-year-old female figurine carved from mammoth ivory, from the Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany. Huge breasts. Explicit vulva. Tiny head. Are we surprised? The first images our male ancestors looked at were -- porn.

But wait. Why do we automatically assume that the artist was male? Maybe while the guys were out hunting woolly mammoths, the gals were home carving figurines, magical talismans, meant to enhance their own fertility. Or perhaps the so-called Venuses (there are similar figurines) were religious icons, images of the Mother Goddess. Perhaps they stood in a shrine of sorts, a niche in the cave lit by votive lamps, were mostly women came to pray, the men milling about at the door of the cave waiting for the service to end.

In fact, archeologists don't know who carved these figurines or why. All we can guess with reasonable probability is that sex was on someone's mind, which comes as no surprise. Thirty-five thousand years ago is about the time that our direct Cro-Magnon ancestors were displacing Neanderthals in Europe. They had something going for them -- more agile minds? language? imagination? Maybe the source of their success was not reproductive efficiency, as such, but eroticism. That is to say, maybe the conceptualization of sex was a driving engine of cerebral facility and language. The Playboy bunny. The Harlequin romance. Foreplay. Dirty dancing. Maybe sexual fantasy prepared the way for art and religion and technological innovation. Maybe the brain evolved as a sexual organ, and then found other things to do.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Landscape as art

I'm still thinking about our walk along England's Ridgeway, the splendid landscapes. Nature,yes. But human cunning too. Careful planning. An ethic of neatness. Respect for the past. Landscape as a work of art.

And I think of the landscape paintings of the California artist Wayne Thiebaud, the ones he did in the 1990s. Thiebaud is perhaps best known for his pop-arty cupcakes and gumball machines. Those pretty confections do nothing for me. But the landscapes! The landscapes stick in my mind like glue.

By all accounts, Thiebaud is an affable fellow. That he has a sense of humor is evident from his paintings. Even his cupcakes exude a genial kindness. Critics talk about the relationship to de Kooning, but for me the spiritual affinity is with Saul Steinberg. And the landscapes! Let's put Thiebaud in charge of the countryside.

The paintings are inspired by the waterways and agriculture fields around Thiebaud's home in the Sacramento Valley, but the viewpoint is clearly some airy place in the artist's imagination. Light, pattern, color, perspective. Wit and ease. An affable grace. Nature, yes. But human cunning too. The cunning of the horticulturist, the animal husbandman, the orchardist, the arborist, the hydrologist. And the cunning of the artist, who informs our vision of what a landscape might be.

Thiebaud's work is all about the sources of our happiness. Cupcakes. Gumball machines. Water making its way to the sea through fields of shimmering color. So fragile, and because they are fragile they are shadowed with the possibility of loss. Nowhere is that loss more tragic than in the uglification of the land itself.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Mid-May. I'm walking along the Path near the plank bridge over Queset Brook and nearly step on -- a snapping turtle hatchling! What is this little creature doing here? Snapping turtles lay their eggs in the spring, April to June, and the eggs take three or four months to hatch. So where did this wee scrapper come from, and what is it doing away from the water? It looks too small to have remained in the nest all winter -- not much bigger than my thumb, with its egg tooth.

If you are an early morning walker in late spring or early summer, in the eastern half of the United States, and if your path, like mine, takes you by sandy soil near a lake or pond, and if the God of Reptiles is awake and minding his business, then you are almost certain to come upon a snapping turtle laying eggs.

And what a sight! This lumbering behemoth from the Age of Dinosaurs, this carapaced, nightmare-ugly, Mesozoic monster, this -- uh oh, silence, be still, don't startle. She is in the midst of her preparations, spread-eagled on the sandy slope, tail to the pond, using her hind legs to excavate a deep, flask-shaped nest.

She's a good-sized snapper, maybe a foot from stem to stern, a thing of leather and chitin. She sees me. She casts a wary eye in my direction, but goes on about her business.

She has almost buried herself. I scramble down the pond bank to obtain a rear-end view. And now she lays. Plop. Plop. Plop. Plop. Twenty leathery white eggs, the size of plump grapes, eased into the hole.

A dinosaurian gum-ball machine disgorging her contents.

Plop. Plop. Twenty-one, twenty-two. Then the careful burial. The push and pat of the back feet. The swish of the tail, like a broom, disguising. A last suspicious glance at me. Then, the shuffle and slide back into the pond.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cosmic silence

I mentioned here yesterday that a refurbished Hubble Space Telescope will almost certainly give us an Ultra Ultra Deep Field Photograph, the deepest look yet into cosmic space and time. This prompts a reprise of a post from three years ago.

As I calculate it, it would take 16 million Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photographs to cover the entire celestial sphere. At 10,000 galaxies per photograph, we are talking 160 billion galaxies that the same application of technology might potentially reveal.

Having taken aboard a universe of 160 billion galaxies, how would I answer the BIG questions?

Who am I? With Walt Whitman I say: I am the journey-work of stars.

Where did I come from? I am the product of 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution.

Why am I here? The universe is silent. Each of us must decide for oneself. Some of us choose to take our answer from popes, televangelists, ayatollahs, or holy books. For myself: I am here to pay attention and to celebrate what I see.

And I didn't need the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph to come to these conclusions. With Whitman: "...the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren..."

Friday, May 15, 2009


As I write (on Wednesday morning), the Hubble Space Telescope is over the Atlantic Ocean, heading for the coast of North Africa. Whoops, no, I just looked again; it has reached the coast of North Africa.

The scope orbits 353 miles above the surface of the Earth, once every 97 minutes. And all the while it's truckin' along, it keeps itself pointed at its target. With exquisite precision.

This in itself is no big deal. All orbiting telescopes do it. Sensors lock onto guide stars and keep the instrument pointed at the same part of the sky. It's like shooting ducks in a carnival gallery while riding on the ferris wheel, with the advantage that the duck is effectively an infinite distance away.

No big deal -- until you think about it. Such a tiny part of sky, and every star within that frame must be recorded without blurring, and meanwhile that massive instrument whizzing around the Earth in 97 minutes. I just looked again. The Hubble is over Saudi Arabia.

We take all this stuff for granted. But the engineering involved is little short of astonishing. The sensors, the gyros, the thrusters. As I write, the Atlantis Shuttle is closing in. The Hubble is getting its last fix. If all goes well, the telescope should perform for another five or ten years. But there'll be no more upgrades or repairs. It's all downhill from here for HST. But, with luck, we'll have a few more triumphs. Among other things, expect an Ultra Ultra Deep Field image, the best look yet at the universe's beginning.

The photo below is from an earlier Hubble servicing mission. Can you identify the geography in the background? What city lies between the Hubble and the elbow of the Shuttle's robotic arm? Click to enlarge.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


For my own part, I am pleased enough with surfaces -- in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child's hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl's thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind -- What else is there? What else do we need?
I quote Edward Abbey, that cranky secular saint of the American West, from Desert Solitaire. I love reading Abbey. Love his gruff humor, his six-pack passion for nature, his take-no-prisoners conservation ethic. And when he praises surfaces -- well, I know where he's coming from. I love surfaces too, the matte, semi-gloss and gloss of things, the taut and texture and paint-chip colors. The cool and the warmth. The touch of lips on skin. One could spend a lifetime surfing the surface of the world, skimming the lap and ebb of things, without ever giving a fig for what lies beneath the waves.

But that's not me. I want to know. I want to know what makes the world tick. I want to see in my mind's eye the dance of the DNA, the winding and unwinding, the spinning of proteins. I want to visit the fiery inferno at the center of the Sun where protons fuse and photons flash into existence. I want to imagine the bacteria propellering through my blood, dinosaurs tromping Jurassic soil, and black holes at the centers of galaxies gobbling stars. Is that too much to ask? To have the surfaces and innards too?

Surfaces are arbitrary. They are defined by our senses, those narrow windows through which we view the world. The fox's surfaces are different from my own. The ant lives in a world of scent I'll never experience. Curiosity pries open the windows, knocks down the doors. What else is there? Everything. What else do we need? We need it all.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The thing with feathers

This week's Nature has three essays marking the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow's influential lecture on The Two Cultures. Snow argued that the sciences and the humanities had little to say to each other, to the detriment of society. He urged more interaction.

The gist of the Nature essays: Not much has changed in 50 years.

Science writer Georgina Ferry suggests, however, that the divide is not so much between scientific and literary intellectuals, as between optimists and pessimists. She references writers such as Ian McEwan and Philip Pullman who ally themselves with science, and with the optimistic view that science expands the possibilities of human happiness. And she takes note of pessimistic scientists such as the astronomer Martin Rees, who gives human civilization a 50-50 chance of surviving the century.

By and large, literary intellectuals tend to be a gloomy lot, with little but scorn for science and technology as engines of human happiness. By contrast, science is impossible without hope; it is inherently forward-looking. As Ian McEwan says: "You can't be curious and depressed."

So the two cultures are not based so much on the academic disciplines themselves as on basic temperaments, says Ferry. One is either an optimist or a pessimist about the direction of human civilization; science and technology are leading us to a brighter future, or to hell in a handbasket. Ferry doesn't mention the possibility, hinted at by several scientific studies, that we might be genetically predisposed to optimism or pessimism, in which case it is unlikely that the two cultures will ever see eye to eye.

Ferry concludes: "We are left with two choices. We can either regret the massive social and global changes that have accompanied the shift to a largely technologically driven society, and predict humanity's decline; or we can use the skills we have -- including science but also politics, art and literature -- to try to mitigate the worst evils."

This much is sure: Science and technology may contain the seeds of their own destruction, as Martin Rees and the pessimists suggest, but handwringing will not stop human curiosity or technological innovation. So let us hope that the optimists carry the day. Hope is a virtue, says Philip Pullman: "A virtue is something that you have to work at, something you have to do. And we can try to think and act as if it's possible to survive and to make things better, because hope is a great energizer, a comforter, an inspirer."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

True worship

Be a gardener
Dig and ditch
Toil and sweat,
And turn the earth upside down
And seek the deepness
And water the plants in time.
Continue this work
And make sweet floods to run
And noble and abundant fruits
To spring.
Take this food and drink
And carry it to God
As your true worship.
A few lines from Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century mystic, who in a time of horrendous suffering and grief wrote lovingly of the goodness of God. With the Black Death stalking the land, she praised the tiny plant. From her anchorite cell, she extolled gardens.

Gardens. Each morning I walk through the community gardens on land of the Easton Natural Resources Trust. And now, just now, in this second week of May, the first shoots and tendrils are showing forth, the fruits of dig and ditch, toil and sweat. Well, not so much toil and sweat. The folks who garden here do so at an easy pace. They turn and till with an apparently effortless languor. They woo and coax the plants from the soil.

The Earth does not need us to fructify. If there were no humans, she would burgeon each spring with new growth; her green fuse is lit with no attention from us. But we are here, and we are the dominant organism, and the surface of the Earth will be -- is! -- a human artifact whether we like it or not. Let it be then a garden, a place where the hand touches lightly, where human cunning insinuates itself ever so gently into the rhythms of life. As I walk through the community gardens I silently thank the gardeners. Every shoot and tendril is a prayer they carry to God.

Monday, May 11, 2009

In the smithy of the Sun

It is one of the wonders of science that we can tell exactly what distant galaxies, stars and nebulas are made of by a spectral analysis of their light. And the unsurprising answer is that they are made of exactly the same elements as the Earth.

I say "unsurprising," but that is only from our modern perspective. For most of human history it was assumed that the heavens were made of other stuff, less mundane, more ethereal. But no. It's hydrogen, helium, carbon, oxygen, and all the other familiar atoms that make up our terrestrial environment.

But not in uniform abundances. There is about ten times more of the heavier elements -- carbon and oxygen, say -- relative to hydrogen and helium in the shell of an exploded star (such as the Cat's Eye Nebula above) than in the surrounding gaseous medium. That's because heavy elements are forged in stars as they burn, fused from hydrogen and helium, and when a star dies explosively it sheds these elements to space -- to perhaps become in the fullness of time other stars and planets.

In the beginning, in the wake of the big bang, there was only hydrogen and helium. Stars, yes. Galaxies of stars. And big gassy planets like Jupiter. But no solid planets like Earth with cores of iron, shells of silicon and oxygen, and biospheres of carbon-based life. Many stars had to live and die in the arms of the Milky Way Galaxy to make the stuff of Earth and life. Starlight is the product. We are the ash.

There are about 1027 carbon atoms in a human body. That's 1000000000000000000000000000 carbon atoms, and every one was fused in a star that lived and died before the Sun and Earth were born. These atoms are passed around. I got mine from food, ultimately from the air and soil. I'm only using them temporarily. I'll give them back. Maybe some of my carbon atoms once resided in the body of Archimedes. Maybe some will eventually end up in my great-great-great-great-grandchildren's shoe polish or cucumbers.

You can never step in the same river twice, said Heraclitus. Everything flows. We are a river of atoms -- we coalesce, we effervesce, we disperse. A human soul is an eddy in a whirlwind. Enjoy it while you can.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cosmic humility

Here's another APOD photo that deserves a few more words: the Perseus Cluster of Galaxies. What are we looking at? (Click to enlarge.)

The photo is of a part of the northern sky in the constellation Perseus that you could cover with the tip of your little finger held at arm's length -- a part of the sky in which you would see nothing with the naked eye. So let's start with that. Until the invention of the telescope, nothing.

All of the well-defined dots in the photo, mostly bluish, are stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy, some nearer than others, most of them the very hot blue-white stars that show up at enormous distances. Many more Milky Way stars in this part of the sky -- cooler, more reddish stars -- are simply not bright enough to show up in the exposure. Beyond these foreground stars we see the mostly yellowish galaxies of the cluster.

Get this. The foreground Milky Way stars are typically several thousand light-years away. The Perseus galaxies are 250 million light-years away. That is, if one of the Milky Way stars was at the tip of your outstretched arm, the Perseus Cluster galaxies would be 60 miles away.

And each of the galaxies is another Milky Way, another swarm of hundreds of billions of stars.

And -- and -- a longer exposure of the same part of the sky would show more galaxies beyond the Perseus Cluster, hundreds of thousands of galaxies, reaching back to the beginning of time.

When Galileo turned his telescope on the "Beehive" nebulosity in Cancer, he counted thirty-six stars. To the three stars of Orion's belt he added fifty. When he examined the Milky Way with his instrument, the stars he saw defied enumeration. Those starry nights in the winter of 1609-10 were -- or should have been -- a turning point in history, an awakening to the vast territories of our ignorance.

And Galileo didn't know the half of it.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The oldest Road -- 9

When Frodo and his companions returned home after their epic journey to Mordor, they found things changed. In their absence, Saruman had idustrialized the Shire -- in effect, if you will, constructed a Didcot Power Station where before was untrammeled nature. As the adventurers gazed toward Hobbiton --
...the great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building staddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking outflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.
Tolkien paints an bleak picture of technology run amok, and by implication the future that awaits us all if we allow ourselve to drift into a disenchanted world.

But our walk along the Ridgeway was a source of hope and encouragement. In 90 miles of walking we saw not a single thing that offended the eye -- with the exception of the Didcot Power Station off in the distance. Rural parts of the walk were delightfully protected from one-off houses. The villages and towns had no strip development, no commercial clutter; each village had a storybook quality, each town a surprising grace and dignity. (Click pic to enlarge.) Yes, it was true that village and town drew electrical power from Didcot, but the conduits were hidden, the environment unblemished. This much was clear; the British have been remarkably successful -- by U. S. standrads -- in preventing the urban from spilling into the countryside. You can see it strikingly on the 1:25,000 maps: Towns are built up densely to a sharply defined border, then nothing. A single step takes you from town to unspoiled countryside, and the web of public footpaths that allows access to the countryside is -- for an American -- astounding. I am sure there are parts of Britain that look like Saruman's baliwick, but we saw none of it on our walk.

Upon arriving home, Frodo and his friends drive away the usurpers and scour the Shire of Saruman's excesses, planting trees and tearing down the technological excrescences. We could do the same if we had the will. In the meantime, we can sing with Frodo his final song:
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The oldest road -- 8

I first read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in the early 1960s, and, frankly, it was the maps of Middle-earth that attracted my interest. I had not previously heard of Tolkien, and his books were only beginning to become cult favorites of the college crowd.

I was a graduate student at the time. As I read the books, I retold the tale in a much condensed version to a recurring gathering of children in the housing complex for married students in which I lived. They hung on every word of hobbits, elves, orcs, ents, and, of course, wise Gandalf and dashing Aragorn.

The Lord of the Rings is a classic story of good and evil -- power, ambition, greed, courage and heroism. On the face of it, it is a magical tale set in a fantasy place in a mythic past, but that hasn't stopped any number of interpreters from finding in it lessons for our time. Tolkien wrote the Ring as his beloved England waged war against a Nazi empire that threatened to drag the world into darkness. It is tempting to identify Sauron, the book's embodiment of unmitigated evil, with Hitler.

But another character from the trilogy, perhaps more than Sauron, has contemporary relevance -- the wizard Saruman, Gandalf's traitorous counterpart, and Saruman came to mind as I looked out from the bucolic Ridgeway to the giant Didcot Power Station that dominated the valley below. (Click on pic to enlarge.)

Saruman professes to be interested in knowledge, but his real objective is control. Language and meaning are slippery on his tongue. Ends justify means, and he is willing to make an alliance with evil if it serves what he believes to be the greater good. When Saruman speaks, his listeners "mostly remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves."

"We can bide our time," Saruman says, "we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order, all things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak and idle friends."

Knowledge, rule, and order: These are certainly the goals of science and its handmaiden technology. Worthy goals, too. As Tom Shippey noted in his study of Tolkien, Saruman is the consummate technologist. His name derives from the Old English searu, which means cunning, with connotations of metalwork and craft. Treebeard the Ent says of Saruman, "He has a mind of metal and wheels."

With Saruman, the wheels spin out of control. Shippey writes of Saruman's treason: "It starts as intellectual curiosity, develops as engineering skill, turns into greed and the desire to dominate, corrupts further into a hatred and contempt of the natural world, which goes beyond any rational desire to use it. Saruman's orcs start by felling trees for the furnaces, but they end up felling them for the fun of it."

Saruman's dream, which is all too often our own, is of a future techno-utopia contrived by human cunning. What we get instead are fouled wildlife refuges, poisoned rivers, unbreathable air, diminishment of biodiversity, and climate change that threatens the biosphere in costly and dangerous ways. What we get is the Didcot Power Station.

Tolkien's answer to Saruman is the folksy Shire, home of the hobbits with fuzzy feet, a sort of pre-Industrial-Revolution English countryside untouched by the curse of iron or gold. But, of course, there can be no going back to a pretechnological past. Knowledge once learned cannot be unlearned. What can be done, will be done -- as the Didcot Power Station testifies. As Gandalf says, "It is wisdom to recognize necessity."

But Gandalf also says: "He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." What is required in our present environmental quandry is a brake on hubris, an abiding love for the natural world, and a willingness to resist what Tolkien calls the "bewilderment" of treasure. The solution to our environmental dilemma is nothing so simple (or so dangerous) as throwing a ring into the fire in which it was forged. But a little hobbit pluck and hobbit restraint might serve us well as we feel our way into an uncertain future, embracing the beneficent artifacts of knowledge, but holding fast to all things that live and breathe and grow.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The oldest road -- 7

Once upon a time. The formulaic beginning of fairy stories. Tolkien suggests that the phrase "produces at a stroke the sense of a great uncharted world of time." "Uncharted" is the key word here. Scientific time is charted time. Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age: We know exactly what those terms mean in the context of the Ridgeway antiquities. Uncharted time is not so much vague as it is all-encompassing. In uncharted time we can traverse millennia with a single step. Uncharted time is the time of enchantment. Of art.

Science is the tip of time's arrow. Science exists in the present moment only. Yesterday's science is already obsolete. Art, on the other hand, is timeless. Neolithic art has the power to move us today. The gracefully stylized White Horse carved into the chalky hillside above the village of Uffington thousands of years ago still stirs the soul.

This is the place along the Ridgeway I briefly visited in 1969, vowing to come back someday and walk the entire track. Dan, Tom and I arrived at White Horse Hill on a warm spring day of brilliant sunshine, a third of the way into our walk. Amazingly, we had the place all to ourselves -- the vast wind-swept, double-ditched fortification looking out over Oxfordshire, the chalk White Horse, and Dragon Hill. Once upon a time this place was a spiritual center for peoples of the Bronze and Iron Age. Once upon a time King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, encamped here. Once upon a time Saint George slew his dragon here. Once upon a time King Alfred defeated the Danes nearby. Once upon a time three fellows named Dan, Tom and Chet ranged the ramparts and scanned the vale. (Click pic to enlarge.)

Enchantment is timeless. It is enchantment that has preserved intact so much of the English countryside. Enchantment does not mean sacrificing the Secondary World of science to the Secondary World of art. Enchantment means being able to live simultaneously in the present moment of reliable scientific knowledge and in the uncharted continuum of mythic time. Mythic time contains all moments. Mythic time is a continuum of particulars.

There is a danger, of course, of confusing the particulars of mythic time with the Primary World of direct experience. We no longer give much credence as fact to Wayland and his smithy or Saint George and his dragon. But the great majority of humans hold certain mythic moments -- Christ's resurrection, say, or Mohammed's night flight to Jerusalem, or Joseph Smith's golden plates -- to be part of the charted realm of reliable knowledge. This is the very opposite of enchantment and -- by reifying the mythic past -- can be as much a detriment to contriving a spiritually nourishing and sustainable environmental future as is living in the present moment only.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The oldest road -- 6

Tolkien, that master of enchantment, does not denigrate science. Rather he insists that all good fantasy starts with reasoned, reliable knowledge of the world -- "a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it." Fantasy is founded "upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun," says Tolkien. The Secondary World of fantasy is made out of the Primary World, no less so than science.

It is the task of art to exalt the particular -- call it "enchantment" -- just as science explores the universal. A world of science without art is a disenchanted world -- the modern equivalent of Mordor. Fantasy that is not grounded in reason is equally to be abjured, says Tolkien, and, indeed, we read in the newspapers every day of the evil that flows from fantasy that has lost its bearings in the Primary World.

And so, back to the Ridgeway. Along the highest part of the Marlborough Downs we came to Wayland's Smithy. I quote from a guidebook:
This is an extraordinary site, a Neolithic chambered long barrow of immense proportions, created in two stages nearly 5000 years ago. It was begun around 2800 BC as a mound over 52 feet (16 meters) long, covering a mortuary chamber with wooden walls and a stone floor, which contained 14 bodies. This was then enclosed by boulders and chalk. Then around 50 years later, the much larger mound was built on top of it, with a sarsen kerb all around the outside and flanking ditches. Immense sarsens stand at the entrance, and four of the original stones have survived in situ. A passage then leads to a cruciform burial chamber, where bodies were placed, but for some inexplicable reason no thigh bones were ever found.
Today the barrow sits in a copse of ancient trees. It is an enchanting place, I would even say enchanted. Enchanted by its present woody bower. Enchanted by its origin in deep time. Enchanted by its name: Wayland is a corruption of Volund, a Scandinavian god who appears in various guises in many northern European prehistoric cultures.

Wayland was a smith. It was said that if a traveler needed a horse shod, he could leave the horse and a coin outside the "smithy" overnight, and the horse would be shod by morning. All of this, of course, lifts Wayland's Smithy out of the commonplace. An otherwise typical barrow gathers an aura of mystery. Our own sense of enchantment as we visited Wayland's Smithy may have had its roots in scientific knowledge of the barrows, but we felt it through the seat of our pants as we sat on the ancient stones -- something esthetic, spiritual even.

For us, the stories of the ancient gods are just that, stories. Enchanting fancies. For the builders of the barrows, the stories might have had less felicitous implications. Who was buried here, and why were hundreds of people corralled into the backbreaking work of moving so many tons of earth and stone? Why the missing thigh bones? What awful sacrifices did the gods require -- those gods who were thought to be part of the Primary World of lived experience? Here, possibly, we catch a glimpse of the darker uses -- abuses! -- of enchantment.

Tolkien writes: "Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess...It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came...Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors' own evil." Tolkien embraced a god of his own, the Christian god, and worshipped him. His faith was innocuous enough, but sometimes the gods lead men and women into terrible excesses of oppression and violence. Which is why the communally-contrived and empirically reliable Secondary World of science is so important -- a brake on excess. Abusus non tollit usum.

And so we try to balance art and science, the particular and the universal, the sacred and the profane, enchantment and disenchantment. We know in our bones that a spiritually nourishing and sustainable environmental future depends on knowing and employing commonplace truths of the Earth -- and endowing every tree and leaf with a sense of the sacred.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The oldest road -- 5

Science must go abroad in the world in the company of art. Both science and art are acts of the imagination, both invent what J. R. R. Tolkien called a Secondary World, a world that exists side by side with the Primary World of direct sense experience. A Secondary World is a kind of reflection in the mirror of imagination. The Secondary Worlds of science and art have different sorts of ties with the Primary World, which can perhaps be best described by the words general and particular.

In the Secondary World of science, the sarsen stone is a fragment of a now-vanished overbearing stratum lodged in geologic space and time; the sarsen takes its scientific meaning from what it shares with every other sarsen -- the ties that bind "sarsen" into the entire panorama of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, meteorology, and all the rest. Those ties are vibrant and strong. The Secondary World of science does not allow much jiggering; it is like a finely tuned violin -- loosen one string and the whole instrument goes flat. Loosen one string and the whole orchestra goes wrong. Every instrument in the orchestra of science is tuned to the same key. This is why I was able to learn soething about sarsens before I ever left home, from books and maps.

The Secondary World of art is a grey wether shadowed by morning sun on a hillside in the Marlborough Downs. It is not irrelevant to the Secondary World of art that the stones look superficially like sheep; it is precisely this looseness of description that stopped us in our tracks and touched a chord in us that resonates to a particular beauty. Grey wether: the very words evoke a sense of a particular time and a particular place; it might have been Gandalf striding across that hill. The Secondary World of art is not a fine-tuned orchestra; it is a solitary walker in the Marlborough Downs whistling on the wind.

Art, fantasy, enchantment: in his essay on fairy-stories referred to above, Tolkien uses the words more or less interchangeably. The enchantment of art "produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside," writes Tolkien. Enchantment does not destroy or even insult reason, he says; it neither blunts the appetite for, nor obscures the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary, "the keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make." Much of the fabulous success of Tolkien's Middle-Earth trilogy derives from the author's scholarly and scientific knowledge of language and myth.

Unfortunately, for all of its virtues and values, the Secondary World of science tends to promote by its usefulness the notion of possession -- control denoting ownership -- and this as much as anything is the source of our environmental difficulties. The Secondary World of art rejects possession. What the artist seeks is the enchanter's secret knowledge of the Earth's own truth, and through the Earth the artist hopes to come to a more truthful understanding of self. Only when we come to understand that each thing -- each stone, each tree and leaf, each handful of earth -- has its own truth, both general and particular, will we respect the integrity of the natural environment and discover what it means to live as part of an enchanted landscape.

(Tom has added a gallery of Ridgeway pics. Set slide show to max size.)

Monday, May 04, 2009

The oldest road -- 4

As we left our lodgings at East Kennett and began climbing to the crest of the Marlborough Downs, we saw on a hillside off to the east what appeared to be a flock of sheep. We were not the first to make this association. Our 1:25,000 map identified the "sheep" as grey wethers, a wether being an old word for a castrated ram. These are in fact sarsen stones, blocks of hard sandstone lying on the chalky substrate, the residue of a once more extensive overlying layer of Tertiary sandstone removed by weathering and glaciation. Sarsens are fairly common in these parts of England, as our map confirmed, and were used by the builders of the Avebury and Stonehenge monuments. Most of this I knew, because I had done my geological homework before I ever set out on the Ridgeway walk.

I also knew that the mysterious grey wethers, cast hither and yon upon the Cretaceous chalk as if by the hand of a god, are steeped in folk lore. The word "sarsen" is thought to derive from "saracen," meaning foreigner, and the stones were generally considered to have appeared by magic of one sort or another. A trip to the internet revealed many stories that link the sarsens to the deep human history of the countryside.

The grey wethers, once layered with mystery, each with its own story, are now understood collectively within the one great story of geologic time. The particular yields to the general, magic to law. This stone becomes stone, Tertiary. This tree becomes tree, genus Fagus. This spring becomes spring, textbook exercise in hydrology. And so it is that science disenchants, scrubs the lore from the land, chases the fairies from their barrows, and sends the spirits packing.

Of course, I would very likely not be on the Ridgeway at all if it were not for science. For one thing, humans life expectancies are today more than three times longer than they were even a few centuries ago; in an earlier era I would probably be dead. I would certainly not be winging across the Atlantic on a jumbo jet, or taking photographs of Neolithic monuments with a digital camera, or calling home from the Marlborough Downs with my son's mobile phone. Reliable scientific knowledge of the world is a great gift of history, not to be despised or forsaken. At the same time, the discovery of universal principles behind the flow of events renders the environment commonplace, and what is commonplace is unlikely to merit our solicitation. If we are to enjoy a spiritually nourishing and sustainable environmental future we must learn to re-enchant the world in ways not inconsistent with scientific learning, to redeem the glittering particular from the whitewash of the universal, and to make this stone, this tree, and this spring holy.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


A surprise Sunday treat from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The oldest road -- 3

The megaprojects of the Avebury area are today steeped in romance. New Agers consider the place holy. Your three merry trekkers felt the thrill of Neolithic mystery as we touched the massive stones and walked the high earth banks. I suspect it would all have been less romantic if you were one of hundreds of men pulling on ropes to move the 40-ton megaliths or lugging basket after basket of dirt to build the barrows. It is perhaps just as well that we know so little of the minds and motives of the builders.

Of more importance are the minds and motives of your trekkers, and by extension of all of us who are creating -- or destroying -- the world we will leave to future generations. Like the builders of the Avebury complex, we will be guided by a vision of our place in the great scheme of things -- that is, by an environmental philosophy. By the time our walk began, I had lived long enough in England, walked enough of her rural byways, and read enough A. A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame, Richard Adams and J. R. R. Tolkien, to suspect that I might learn something useful by immersing myself in the deep history of the countryside. The Ridgeway -- generally acknowledged to be England's oldest road -- seemed an ideal path.

But what would we find? Old Bilbo often said to Frodo -- before Frodo's epic trek began -- that there was only one Road, that it was like a great river, with springs a every doorstep, and every path was its tributary.
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?"
In a sense, the Ridgeway -- the oldest road -- is every road, and we are all collectively walking it towards an uncertain future. Old Bilbo was wise in his advice to his younger nephew: Every time any one of us leaves her doorstep, she embarks on a journey that ultimately includes us all, and our children, and our grandchildren.

The Ridgeway begins on the outskirts of the village of East Kennett, snuggled in a quiet dell near Avebury, surrounded by tidy fields and woodlands threaded by public footpaths -- a place about as close in character to Hobbiton as you might find. We stayed the night in a B&B called The Old Forge, which preserves something of the preindustrial charm of its former self. An ancient parish church sits in a well-kempt churchyard. The village is unmarred by the tangle of overhead utility wires that clutter most rural towns in America. Every home in East Kennett, even among the newer ones, is in keeping with the storybook look of the place. Our first step onto the Ridgeway might as well have been from the stoop of Bilbo's house at Bag End.

Roads serve many purposes. It would seem that the original Ridgeway was a corridor for trade among the Neolithic peoples of central England. It also surely served a military purpose; it links a series of Iron Age hill forts along the high points of the Marlborough Downs. But trade or warfare did not bring us to England; our walk along the ancient track would be a pilgrimage of sorts, of a secular, not religious, nature.

In their book The Archetype of Pilgrimage, Jean Dalby Clift and Wallace B. Clift list fifteen reasons why people go on pilgrimages, from 1: To go see the place where something happened, to 15: Perhaps simply because one's neighbor did this and one wants to be among the privileged. My own motive partook of 2: To draw near to something sacred, and 10: To reclaim lost or abandoned or forgotten parts of oneself. I hoped to discover or confirm a way to enter the future without losing the best of the past.

The Clifts quote the theologian Richard R. Niebuhr:
Pilgrims are persons in motion -- passing through territories not their own -- seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal which only the spirit's compass points the way...Though we are born into families, we all must become what Melville's Ishmael calls isolatoes, islanders, and hence creatures perpetually searching for passages that promise approach to another shore -- a shore that will complete us...These physical passings through apertures can print themselves deeply into us, not in our physical senses alone but in our spiritual sense as well, so that what we apprehend outwardly becomes part of the lasting geography of our souls. The pilgrim in us begins to awaken.
I am not so presumptuous as to believe that any awakening I might have had along the trek might serve as a moral compass for our collective environmental future. But, as Bilbo suggested, every individual rivulet merges into a collective stream. Each of us can only direct our own feet outward from our doorstep, and shoulder one's own responsibility for the future as my sons and I shouldered our day packs and stepped out along a track that was impressed upon the land thousands of years before we ever appeared on the scene.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The spooky hand

What do we make of this? A cosmic hand, vast and nebulous, reaching out to quench a fiery inferno. Or is it hurling a luminous discus, a universe in the making? Or conjuring the primeval fire? (Click to enlarge.)

Well, actually, none of that. In fact, this is not something you could see at all, at least not with the eye. It is an image made with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory of the region of space around a pulsar known as B1509. The invisible X-rays have been artificially colored according to their energy -- coolest red, hottest blue.

At the center of the brightest spot is a star more massive than the Sun that has gobbled up all of its nuclear fuel and collapsed upon itself. Gravity has squeezed it down to the size of a smallish city, so dense that electrons have been squeezed into protons to create neutrons. The star is as dense as the nucleus of an atom. A neutron star.

As the star was crushed smaller, its original modest rotation sped faster and faster, like an ice skater who pulls in his outstretched arms. As it furiously whirls, it spews out energy in our direction in thousands of bursts per second -- a pulsar. It is 17,000 light-years away.

Still, we see a hand. Maybe even the hand of God.

It is human nature to see ourselves in the non-human world. Faces in clouds. The Virgin Mary on a water-stained wall. Canals and pyramids on Mars. When the Hubble team published the famous Pillars of Creation photograph, hundreds of people reported seeing the face of Jesus.

Nothing strange about any of this. We necessarily explain the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, and what is more familiar than ourselves? The gods of all peoples everywhere have generally taken human form. The gods may have multiple arms, or wings, or thrones of gold, or infinite powers, but they are all projections of ourselves. Address God as Father, or Mother, and we are indulging in the same anthropomorphizing as the person who sees a spooky hand in the Chandra image.

By doing so we shrink an infinite mystery to our own dimensions.