Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I don't know

Humphry Davy was one of the best known and revered British scientists of the early 19th century. His specialties were chemistry and electricity, both in their infancy as experimental sciences. Davy is remembered as the discoverer of a half-dozen elements, including sodium, potassium and calcium. Perhaps his greatest discovery was Michael Faraday, who he hired as his assistant at the Royal Institution in London.

Looking back, he said of his work: "The first step towards the attainment of real discovery was the humiliating confession of ignorance."

"I don't know." The most underused words in any language.

We are loath to confess our ignorance. It was only when a few brave men and women dared to say "I don't know" that science began. Those three words are the foundation for everything reliable we have learned about the world.

Why is there something rather than nothing? I don't know. Why are the laws of nature what they are? I don't know. What came before the Big Bang? I don't know. How did life begin on Earth? I don't know. How does a single cell reliably develop into a sea cucumber or an elephant? I don't know. What were the precise evolutionary steps that led to the blood-clotting cascade or adaptive immune system? I don't know.

All subjects for further inquiry.

Those who are loath to confess ignorance are apt to say "God did it" -- and that's that, case closed. "God did it" has exactly the same information content as "I don't know." And closes the door to future understanding.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Irreducible complexity

Let me dally for a moment with a poem of Amy Clampitt, yes, the always interesting Amy Clampitt, she who walked through the world with her mouth agape, bug-eyed, astonished. The poem is called "The Sun Underfoot among the Sundews," of which I will quote a few lines.

She happens upon a patch of sundews, those golden, dew-globed carnivorous plants.
An ingenuity too astonishing
to be quite fortuitous is
this bog full of sundews, sphagnum-
lined and shaped like a teacup.
"Too astonishing to be fortuitous." We have all had that feeling occasionally, encountering some natural thing so perfect, so improbable, so suddenly just there, as if entering that room in MoMA where Monet's water lilies bloom, we see the thing and it takes our breath away, and we say "Oh my God," or some such oath or prayer. Too astonishing to be fortuitous. Sundews by Monet.

And some little voice lodged in our head by a thousand thousand years of scrambling about among astonishments whispers...
...that either
a First Cause said once, 'Let there
be sundews,' and there were, or they're
made their way here unaided
other than by that backhand, round-
about refusal to assume responsibility
known as Natural Selection.
It's William Paley's pocket watch on the heath all over again, but who needs a watch when the heath has teacup hollows full of sundews, each gnat-hungry plant tipped with golden globes of sticky digestive juice. "Oh my God," we say, shaking our head. It just comes out of our mouth, "Oh my God," as when we see that wall of water lilies at the MoMA.

Responsibility? Why this need to assign responsibility? For myself, I am more inclined to fall on my knees in front of the sundews than tottle off praising what the poet Charles Simic calls the "Boss of all bosses of the universe. Mr know-it-all, wheeler-dealer, wire-puller."


(The photo source is here..)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Science and spirit

The philosopher Karl Popper called science "one of the greatest spiritual adventures man has yet known."

Spiritual adventure? Most people would say that science is the antithesis of spirit. This is no doubt because most people are caught up in the philosophical dualism that has dominated Western thinking at least since Augustine -- body/soul, natural/supernatural, matter/spirit. But if we have learned anything in the past several centuries, it is that philosophical dualism is bankrupt. Consider what unitary science has given us, then ask yourself what dualism has contributed to human progress. Body and soul are one. Natural/supernatural is a sterile distinction. The dross matter of the dualists has dissolved into a thing of musical resonances and spiritual potentialities.

In a recent letter to the editors of Nature (11 June), Dick Taverne, distinguished British politician and humanist, concisely summarized the significance of the scientific way of knowing.
Because science rejects claims to truth based on authority and depends on the criticism of established ideas, it is the enemy of autocracy. Because scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, it is the enemy of dogma. Because it is the most effective way of learning about the physical world, it erodes superstition, ignorance and prejudice, which have been at the root of the denial of human rights throughout history, whether through racism, chauvinism or the suppression of the rights of women."
He might have added that by rejecting philosophical dualism, science shatters the various brittle idols we have set up as gods, and opens the door to encounter with authentic mystery.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Terse and prolix

Back in my voracious 30s, eager to gobble up every idea I could find, I fell for a while under the spell of the French "post-moderns." In particular, I devoured the works of Michel Foucault, on madness, on sex, but especially The Order of Things, his major work on the history and philosophy of science. I seem to recall a seismic shift in my understanding of what it means to understand.

Well, time passes, and the order of things changes.

Yesterday, the book fell off the library shelf into my hands and I settled down in a comfy chair to see what it was that so engaged me forty years ago.

A sentence at random: "It is essential to observe that the function of 'nature' and 'human nature' are in opposition to one another, term by term in the Classical episteme: nature, through the action of a real and disordered juxtaposition, causes difference to appear in the ordered continuity of beings; human nature causes the identical to appear in the disordered chain of representation, and does so by the action of a display of images."

I suppose I understood this stuff forty years ago, or thought I did, and no doubt Foucault was a very clever fellow, but after an hour in my comfy chair with his book I felt my brain entering a fug of despond.

Two possible explanations: 1) My brain is not as nimble as it once was; or 2) my brain is more nimble than it once was.

As I have aged, I have come to prefer the particular to the general, the concrete to the abstract, the poetic to the philosophical, the concise to the prolonged. If a thing can't be said in 300 words it is probably not worth saying at all.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The miraculous commonplace

My mention of the poet Howard Nemerov yesterday reminds me of another of his poems that has long haunted my imagination, called "Seeing Things":
Close as I ever came to seeing things
The way the physicists say things really are
Was out on Sudbury Marsh one summer eve
When a silhouetted tree against the sun
Seemed at my sudden glance to be afire:
A black and boiling smoke made all its shape.
We have an incident here not unlike that defining moment in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim At Tinker Creek when she sees "the tree with the lights in it." A backyard cedar, illuminated with sunlight. A particular slant of light set "each cell buzzing with flame." It was less like seeing than being seen, she writes. A kind of miracle. An apparition into which she pours her spirit.

Nemerov continues:
Binoculars resolved the enciphered sight
To make it clear the smoke was a cloud of gnats,
Their millions doing such a steady dance
As by the motion of the many made the one
Shape constant and kept it so in both the forms
I'd thought to see, the fire and the tree.
Ah, yes, the binoculars! The fire that knocked Annie Dillard "breathless by a powerful glance" was not a divinity's glance at all but a flood of photons rom the Sun. And Nemerov's fiery tree is revealed as a cloud of gnats. A cloud of gnats! The miraculous is not a miracle at all but only a sudden flaring of the commonplace.
Strike through the mask? you find another mask,
Mirroring mirrors by analogy
Make visible. I watched till the greater smoke
Of night engulfed the other, standing out
On the marsh amid a hundred hidden streams
Meandering down from the Concord to the sea.
But wait! The commonplace is miraculous. The cloud of gnats, the flood of photons, are themselves as replete with mystery as any tree made suddenly luminous. That is what Nemerov means by seeing things "the way the physicists say things really are": To strike through the mask, and then another mask, and then another. To plunge into the possibly infinite depths of the ordinary. To walk through the world wary, primed for astonishment, one foot in front of the other, in a worldscape watered by a hundred hidden streams.

Friday, September 25, 2009

When God is gone, everything is holy


The New York Met is currently running a mini-show based around Jan Vermeer's "The Milkmaid," on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (click to enlarge). I'm guessing there aren't many single works of any artist that could draw a bigger crowd. Vermeer seems to be everyone's sentimental favorite.

What is the appeal of this particular work? It is not dissimilar from other Vermeer interiors: a scene of quiet domestic activity lit by a window on the left. I find the composition to be slightly lopsided: a wee bit too much empty space on the right, with nothing but that lonely foot-warmer and tile "baseboard" to balance the busy left. But I'll leave that to critics more knowledgeable than me.

There is no denying the attraction of the painting. For me, it is a celebration of physicality. Of the particular. Of the sacredness of the commonplace. Nothing in the painting points beyond itself. There is no allegorical meaning. There is no evocation of the supernatural, no need for redemption.

The painting is nevertheless sacramental. Every element hints at something mysterious and fulfilling in the thing itself. Wicker, brass, ceramic, flesh, linen, milk, bread. The broken pane of glass, The nail and nail hole in the wall. We are invited to enter a world of matter as spirit, body as soul -- the new unitary world that Newton and his contemporaries were teasing from nature even as the young Vermeer was perfecting his craft.

The vanishing point of the window's horizontal mullions, the milkmaid's gaze, the diagonals of the composition -- all draw our attention to the act of pouring, to the black hole of the pitcher and the white thread of milk. That dribble of milk and crusts of bread might well be the eucharist of the new scientific dispensation, what Teilhard de Chardin called "the Mass on the world."

The poet Howard Nemerov has a poem called "Vermeer", of which the first stanza might be the creed of the religious naturalist:
Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures,
Keeping it simple; being in love with light
And the marvelous things that light is able to do,
How beautiful! a modesty which is
Seductive extremely, the care for daily things.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Scrambling to the top

A striking cover photograph on the 4 September issue of Science: Ants build a living bridge, using their bodies as structural elements to enable other ants to traverse a vertical gap. The cover introduces a review essay on the evolution of cooperative behavior among members of a family, a clan, a species, and even between species.

Cooperation has always been a problem for strict Darwinists. Darwin himself considered it an almost insurmountable problem for his theory, which emphasized the competitive fitness of individuals. Since Darwin's time, much work has been done to show that cooperation between genetically related groups can enhance the inheritability of beneficial mutations., but a full understanding of cooperative behavior remains to be explored.

Some biologists include cooperation as one of three pillars of evolutionary theory, along with mutation and natural selection. One thing is sure: cooperative behavior is ubiquitous -- from microbes to meerkats. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, as Darwin supposed, but often it pays to cooperate in the scramble for the top.

These days everyone worries about the loss of biodiversity and destruction of the environment. What no one talks about is the fact that the destructive exploitation of the planet by humans is a consequence of cooperation. A single human hunter would have a hard time killing a mastodon or saber-toothed tiger, but hunting in packs, like hyenas, helped drive those animals to extinction. The rise of agriculture, cities, war, science and technology are all examples of cooperative behavior. Language, music, dance, art, religion -- all have a social dimension. Humans have become the dominant species on the planet because we, like ants, have exploited "living bridges" to rise to the top.

In a zero-sum world, our gain is someone else's loss. What seems to be uniquely human is the fact that we worry about the consequences of our success. Cooperation and group altruism may well be compatible with natural selection. It will be interesting to see if evolutionary theorists can account for a guilty conscience.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"...and the souls of the wounded cry out for help"


The Fire in the Borgo is a painting from the workshop of Raphael, commissioned as decoration for the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican (click to enlarge). It depicts a fire in the Borgo neighborhood of Rome in the year 847 CE. According to legend, Pope Leo IV contained the fire by invoking divine intervention from a Vatican balcony. That's him in the background of the painting, beseeched by a crowd of wailing women, while in the foreground general misery reigns.

The fire is contained. Further misery averted. And once again God has demonstrated his power in the world -- and, incidentally, confirmed the authority of the popes.

"Nothing almost sees miracles but misery," says Kent in Shakespeare's King Lear. It is a particularly profound observation. Never do we so earnestly call upon the divine as when we are in need. In fact, it is hard to recall any instance of a supposed miracle that does not spring from a sense of helplessness. What could be more natural? It is surely no accident that the most secular countries in the world are those with the greatest measure of economic well-being, health care, and general tranquility. If our lives were bliss, we would have little use for an interventionist deity.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Islands of Wonder

Two superb new science books: The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Graham Farmelo, and The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes.

The first I am reviewing at the request of the Toronto Globe and Mail, so I will not comment until the review appears in the paper. It is one of the best scientific biographies I have read in a long time.

The second engages with a remarkable interval in the history of science between the abstract formalisms of Enlightenment science and the clear-eyed pragmatism of Victorian science. For one wonder-full generation poets and scientists took inspiration from each other, discovering in nature an inexhaustible treasure trove of marvels. We find in "Romantic science" a reaction against the cool, mathematical universe of Newton, a world of hard objects in forceful interaction, to be replaced (says Holmes) with a softer science "of invisible powers and mysterious energies, of fluidity and transformation, of growth and organic change."

Holmes' thesis is developed biographically: Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Mungo Park, Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, Samuel Coleridge, William Blake, Wolfgang Goethe, Alexander Humboldt, Joseph Wright, and others. He writes of the Romantic generation: "The ideal of a pure 'disinterested' science, independent of political ideology and even religious doctrine...began to emerge." The emphasis, he says, was on a secular, humanist body of knowledge that would serve all mankind. With this new ideal went a commitment to explain, to educate, and to share scientific discoveries with the general public.

All of this, of course, is consistent with the themes explored in this blog, and I have traversed some of the same territory (as, for example, here and here. I am not so sanguine as to imagine that a new Romantic alliance is in the offing, no matter how earnestly desired by yours truly and those who visit here. Political ideology and religious doctrine are in the ascendancy. Science has drifted into aloof self-interest, on the one hand, and pragmatic servitude to technology , on the other. Few poets or artists are inspired by the universe revealed by science.

It would be lovely to enter a new Age of Wonder, and certainly the elements of wonder unfold on every side. We are bathed as never before in invisible powers and mysterious energies, of fluidity and transformation, of growth and organic change. Perhaps the best we can hope for is lots of little Islands of Wonder -- such as this porch aspires to be -- awash in a sea of dogma and incuriosity.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Entangled


From Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Humility in the face of complexity

In the September issue of Harper's Magazine, contributing editor Mark Slouka has an essay titled "Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School."

The title and subtitle say it all. Education in America today is all about preparing Americans to compete in the global marketplace, says Slouka, all about inflating the nation's GNP. Math and science are key to making our kids competitive. He quotes everyone from Bill Gates to Thomas Friedman on the need for job related skills. What is taught in the schools at any given time, in any culture, is an expression of what that culture considers important, says Slouka, and in our time, in our place, the reigning orthodoxy is economic. The humanities are shunted aside.

Slouka is wrong on two counts, but before I get to that, let me quote his ringing defense of the humanities, which strikes me as right on the mark"
[The humanities] teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their "product" not truth but the reasoned search for truth...{T]hey complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our priorities. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb mechanism for what we might call democratic values.
To which I say "Amen."

So where does Slouka go wrong?

First, in suggesting that the humanities are being displaced by math and science. Not in the world I live in. The students I see coming out of the schools are no better educated in math and science than in my own generation. The curriculum may indeed shortchange the humanities in favor of pragmatic "get ahead" values, but it's not math and science that are taking up the slack.

Second, in my book, math and science are a necessary part of a liberal education, and can contribute mightily to achieving the kind of humane, democratic values Slouka outlines above. I always taught math and science as "humanities," as part of the necessary intellectual equipment any educated person can profitably use to navigate the world -- because they grow uncertainty, because they expand the reach of our understanding. Let's not forget that arithmetic, geometry and astronomy were among the seven liberal arts of the medieval European university.

By all means, let's have grammar, rhetoric, logic and music (the other four "liberal arts"). And art, literature, and history. But know, too, that math and science teach the values of axiomatic reasoning and institutionalized skepticism, of consensus building and civil discourse, and of the open-ended search for truth.

Slouka says: "To put it simply, science addresses the outer world; the humanities, the inner one. Science explains how the material world is now for all men; the humanities, in their indirect, slippery way, offer raw materials from which the individual constructs a self -- a self distinct from others." Well, yes. And the point of a liberal education, I would maintain, is to find a balance between the subjective inner world of the individual and the objective outer world we all share. Too often there is a disconnect that leads to nothing but mischief.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Materialism

The other day I mentioned "materialism" as the guiding paradigm of science since the Scientific Revolution, which sparked interesting comments from Carmen, Paul and Theresa. Let me add a few words.

When I was in school back in the 1940s and '50s -- parochial schools -- materialism was thrown up to us as the bugbear of bugbears. Not even "Godless communism" offered a more perfidious peril for our souls.

We were never quite clear what materialism was. Our teachers might as well have said "Beelzebub." Whatever it was, we knew it made no place for God or spirit. It was the great eraser of soul from the world.

Later, at university, we learned that materialism was one of two great philosophical categories by which humans have tried to explain reality, the other being idealism. As a philosophy, materialism, like idealism, has a long and honorable history, going back (at least) to the Pre-Socratics, and listing among its adherents such luminaries as Lucretius, Hobbes, Hegel and Marx.

Broadly speaking, materialists believe that matter is the essence of reality. Everything comes from matter, including life and mind. Nature exists independently of mind, but no mind can exist independently of matter.

Idealists, on the other hand, believe that mind and spirit are the ultimate basis of reality. Spirit abides; matter is ephemeral.

The materialist/idealist split is behind all other dualisms in philosophy: natural/supernatural, body/soul, mortal/immortal, even, according to our elementary and high school teachers, the difference between the grim Satanic horrors of Soviet Russia and the God-showered blessings of American democracy.

Where did these philosophies come from? Presumably from our experience of the world.

Materialism may have had its origin in our experience of thunder and lightning, sun and moon, weight and force, the sharp edge of a knapped stone, fire, food, blood, bone.

Idealism may have sprung from self-awareness, dreams, the mystery of birth, the loss of death, the vague but incontrovertible intuition that there is more to the world than meets the eye.

Scientists have been both materialists and idealists, but science itself is thoroughly materialist, at least since the 17th century. Only the materialist view of the world has offered a useful program for research.

Disembodied souls, vital spirits and the supernatural just don't lend themselves to scientific investigation. Wherever progress has been made in science, it has started with the assumption that the world is material -- which may explain some of the popular antipathy towards science.

Meanwhile, our understanding of what we mean by matter has been radically changing. No more hard little particles rattling around in the void, as proposed by Democritus, Lucretius and Newton. No more billiard balls writ small. Matter, as it shows itself at the turn of the millennium, is a thing of astonishing, almost "immaterial" subtlety, interchangeable with energy.

As physicists probe the structure of atoms, the particles dissolve into a kind of cosmic music, all resonances, vibrations and spooky entanglements. There is nothing at the heart of matter that is quite "material" in the way we previously understood the word.

If the matter created in the Big Bang was only hydrogen and helium, as the physicists say, then those primeval atoms possessed the built-in capacity to complexify and diversify, to spin out stars and galaxies, carbon, oxygen, iron, and ultimately life and consciousness.

Far from explaining away the mystery of the world, our new knowledge of matter rubs our noses in the mystery of nature. The more we learn, the more we become aware that matter -- ordinary matter -- is more than we had ever dared to guess.

It's time to dump the old debates between materialism and idealism, and the corresponding dualisms. The practical success of science should be enough to satisfy the most ardent materialist, and the shimmering, prodigiously creative and perhaps ultimately inexplicable potential of matter should be enough to satisfy the idealist's hankerings for the transcendental.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A birthday post

W. B. Yeats was just my age today -- seventy-three -- when in 1938 he wrote his last poem, or at least his last published poem, "Politics":
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here's a traveled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
Indeed. War and war's alarms, health care, recession -- I leave all that to those who know what they talk about, as I once thought I did (and still do, if truth be told). Perhaps it's a cop-out, but so what? I gave it my best shot. And now -- well, there's that girl standing there, rebuking folly with her loveliness, her innocence.

The tomatoes ripen on the vine, the waterstriders and whirligigs skitter on the surface of the pond, the moon rises tinged with amber. May 1938: the world teeters on the brink of apocalypse. Yeats would be dead within a year. In his penultimate poem he wrote: "Now that my ladder's gone/ I must lie down where all ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

Rag and bone shop of the heart, yes, but, no, not foul. Tomatoes ripen on the vine, waterstriders and whirligigs skitter on the surface of the pond, the moon rises tinged with amber. And there's that girl standing there, who takes no notice of me, rebuking folly with her youth, her loveliness, her innocence.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Machines that learn


I once played ball with the SONY robot dog Aibo. It was a surreal experience, but nothing that struck me as philosophically interesting. Just massive computer algorithms and some wonderful engineering. Aibo shows every evidence of being the product of an Intelligent Designer.

The Japanese have been the front-runners in this sort of thing -- electromechanical versions of Vaucanson's duck. But here is a picture of a rather more interesting project -- a European robot called iCub. The idea here is not to simulate human activities, but to investigate human learning.

iCub is about the size of a three-and-a-half year-old child. Its brain is also that of toddler. That is, the programmers gave iCub the basic skills of perception and data processing that might come hardwired in a human infant: visual, auditory and tactile senses that are filtered to determine what sensations are most relevant to the task at hand; a comparison of sensations with what has previously been experienced; the use of prior experience to decide "what if" for present actions. iCubs have been (and will continue to be) distributed to researchers who want to know how children learn motor skills and even language. Neurologists will be closely following the results.

The 20th century was the century of physics (quantum and relativistic) and molecular biology (genomics and proteomics). The two most exciting areas of scientific research in the present century will be -- IMHO -- developmental biology (how a single cell develops reliably into a platypus or a hummingbird) and neurology (how the brain enables us to navigate through a complex world of physical objects and abstract ideas).

Will solving one or the other problem require a modification of the materialist paradigm that has prevailed in science since the Scientific Revolution? I doubt it. I wish I were going to be around to see if a descendant of iCub can be taught to understand and communicate in human language, starting only with basic sensory input and data processing algorithms.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pixels and paper

A preppy high school near Boston made the news recently by getting rid of books. Emptying out the library. From now on kids will twitter and kindle their way toward higher education. Moby Dick on their iPod. Wikipedia. Google.

Nothing new about this. Other high schools and universities have gone the same route. I seldom see students ranging the stacks in my college library. They are all downstairs at the computer terminals, cutting and pasting term papers between long bouts on Facebook.

The internet is an invaluable resource -- one of he greatest inventions of humankind -- but I can't conceive of my life without libraries. Libraries with real books.

My parents had a decent home library, mostly acquired from the Book-of-the-Month-Club. I poked into most of those volumes at one time or another, although the only thing I read was the Hardy Boys and Red Randall.

My first job was as stackboy at the Chattanooga Public Library, right through high school. Thomas Costain, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Samuel Shellabarger, Kathleen Winsor, A. J. Cronin, Frank Yerby, Daphne du Maurier. I didn't read these books either, but I came to know pretty much knew every book in the collection, and absorbed a lot by osmosis.

Libraries remained important right through my adult life, and now in retirement I'm permanently installed in the college library, banks of books on all sides. Bliss!

I know this puts me on the wrong side of history, but I love running my finger along the spines of books on the shelf, finding my name in the back of a book I read forty years ago and forgot, feeling the musty heft of cardboard and paper. And when electronic publishing is exclusively the name of the game, what will replace the shivering thrill of a new author receiving in the mail that long-awaited package with the first inky copies of her just-published book?

Monday, September 14, 2009

42

I was never a big fan of Douglas Adams, but in a younger incarnation I did read The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. And I do remember the answer to life, the universe and everything.

Forty-two.

I would rather have hoped that the answer might be a prime number, like forty-three, so that one wouldn't be tempted to parse and fiddle. I mean, if the answer is forty-two, then one is left with a niggling anxiety as to whether there is really something more basic -- two, three and seven, for instance.

Forty-two. I'll admit that was a good year. The last good year before the male mid-life crisis sets in with a vengeance. And then, once the crisis has passed, well, it's all downhil from there, physically speaking. So yes, forty-two is as good an answer as any.

The very first printed book in the West, and the first in the world to be disseminated widely, was the so-called "Forty-two Line Bible" of Johannes Gutenberg (each page had forty-two lines). For many people that book became the answer to life, the universe and everything. Still is, in later editions.

The nineteenth-century scholar Herbert Spencer said that religion can be reconciled with science only if we agree that there is no final answer to life, the universe and everything. "A permanent peace between science and religion," he said, "will be reached when science becomes fully convinced that its explanations are proximate and relative, while religion becomes fully convinced that the mystery it contemplates is ultimate and absolute."

As we enter the 21st century, I don't know of any scientist who does not admit that scientific knowledge is proximate and relative. It might be forty-two now, but a generation from now it might be forty-three, or even forty-seven. But billions of religious people right across the planet claim to know God's mind infallibly. Forty-two, they say, with unshakable conviction, now and forever. Not much chance of a reconciliation there.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mind over matters


A Sunday illumination from Anne. Please click to enlarge.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Oh, Pygar!

Reading this morning a poem by Richard Wilbur in the New Yorker, a reverie about flying, which reminds me of a well-lubricated dinner party a few week's ago at which I mentioned how lovely it would be to have wings -- big, fluffy, white angel wings. When I was a young child, a picture of an angel hung on the wall above my bed, a beautiful winged creature guiding a boy and girl across a rickety footbridge. I think even then I identified with the angel, rather than with the kids on the bridge. I knelt by the bed and said the traditional prayer -- "Angel of God, my guardian dear..." -- but I tucked away in my brain the fantasy of flapping into the treetops. Some kids wanted to grow up to be firemen, or Buck Rogers, or even President. I wanted feathers. Nothing religious, mind you. Even then I was skeptical of angels of the heavenly sort. It was self-propelled aviation I had in mind. Later on, as an adult, I even gave hang-gliding a try, ending up bruised and battered in a treetop. Not exactly the landing I had imagined.

Anyway, when I expressed my ornithological fantasy at the dinner table, my friend Barbara plucked from her shelf (she was our hostess) a novel called Mr. Pye, by Mervyn Peake, with the implication that I should read it.

As I did. It is a quaint fable from half-a-century ago, about a chubby little man with pink cheeks and a pointy nose who -- well, we needn't go into all that. Even with his wings, I wasn't taken with the infuriatingly pious Mr. Pye. What I had in mind was rather more like Pygar the blind angel who shared his nest with Jane Fonda's Barbarrella (surely one of the most embarrassingly awful scenes in the history of cinema).

Of course, that kind of angel is anatomically improbable from an evolutionary point of view. We can imagine humans adapted for flying, perhaps with skin membranes between arms and legs that would make gliding possible, but for the scapulae (shoulder blades) to give rise to bone, muscles and feathers would likely call for a hefty measure of the supernatural intervention.

Not to mention the aerodynamic implausibility.

That said, various polls show that between 55 and 70 percent of Americans believe in angels. This is a fact so utterly astounding that my own yen for Pygarean appendages seems positively benign.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The heaven's embroidered cloths


In his "Defense of Poetry," Percy Bysshe Shelley said that one of the sacred tasks of the artist is to "absorb the new knowledge of the sciences and assimilate it to human needs, color it with human passions, transform it into the blood and bone of human nature."

It is a lofty aspiration, but seldom works in practice. Contemporary science is increasingly complex and abstract, and the artist by temperament and training is seldom in a position to act as an interpreter. Scientists, on the other hand are not nearly as prepared as the artist to color their discoveries with human passions. The sad result is that the thrilling universe revealed by science remains largely aloof from "the blood and bone of human nature." Nearly half of Americans believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old, which suggests a staggering ignorance of biology, astronomy, and geology. The disconnect between science and the human passions is almost complete.

I wonder how many people who look at the astonishing new photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope (for example) grasp what it is they are looking at -- the scope of cosmic space and time, the churning forges of the elements. Shelley saw the shape of night in his mind's eye -- that long, conical shadow -- and turned it into one of the most beautiful astronomical images in all of poetry. In Prometheus Unbound, the Earth speaks these lines:
I spin beneath my pyramid of night,
Which points into the heavens, dreaming delight,
Murmuring victorious joy in my enchanted sleep;
As a youth lulled by love-dreams faintly sighing,
Under the shadow of his beauty lying,
Which round his rest a watch of light and warmth doth keep.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The greatest show on Earth

I have finished reading Richard Dawkins' new book, The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. It is classic Dawkins -- informed, clever, witty. However, it is perhaps my least favorite of his books for the simple reason that there is virtually nothing in it that I did not already know, as would be the case, I suspect, for anyone who is reasonably well-informed about contemporary science. Of course, the book is not addressed to the well-informed.

And, as I said before, there is not much point in addressing hardcore creationists, who have proven themselves to be impervious to evidence. After all, if you believe the Creator of the Universe has told you the truth, you are not likely to be dissuaded by Richard Dawkins, the self-proclaimed "devil's chaplain."

To whom, then, is it addressed? Presumably to the fair minded but not so well informed person who has heard a lot about the evolution wars and wants to know just why scientists are so confident that they are right. If this is the case, I would have thought it best if Dawkins had left out the snarky and condescending comments about creationists. Admittedly, they are easy targets, and perhaps Dawkins by temperament cannot resist taking pot shots (I do it myself), but the book would work best, I believe, as a persuader of the unpersuaded if he had let the evidence stand on its own, untainted by polemic.

Even a big book like this one (nearly 500 pages) can touch on only a tiny fraction of the tightly woven tapestry of discovery that embraces not only biology, molecular genetics, and paleontology, but also physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, information theory, and who knows what else. The real strength of evolution is not any one piece of evidence, or any courtroom presentation of evidence, but the way the entire fabric of science hangs elegantly together -- a taut and vibrant woof and warp of observation and theory.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Surrounded by a sleep

In an interview in this past weekend's Sunday Times, the Irish novelist John Banville reflects on mortality: "All that will be left is a name. But we'll have been here, and we'll have seen these extraordinary things that we see. And that, in some peculiar way, can't be erased. This is the only reason to try to make a work of art: to say that there was a man once here, and this is how he saw this amazingly beautiful place. It's awful here, of course, but I can't imagine anywhere better."

Banville was raised a Catholic, with the whole convoluted calculus of sin and salvation, and the promise at the end -- if you play your cards right -- of eternal bliss. Gone, all gone. And now, in the place of eternity, art. Words on the page. This is what I saw, Banville tells us in his novels. This is the awful, and this is the amazingly beautiful.

Art. It need not be the art of a Dante, a Bernini, a Bach, or a Matisse. It can be something as simple as a potted geranium in sunlight, an arrangement of beach pebbles on a windowsill, a few lines of Wordsworth recounted on a windy hilltop. What's important, I believe Mr. Banville would tell us, is that we have been here, that we have seen these extraordinary things, and lived in them and with them and of them.

All that will be left is a name. "Perhaps we are here only to say: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate," says the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He continues: "But to say them...oh, to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being."

To experience -- and to say the words. And in saying the words houses float up from their foundations. Bridges leap into the air like birds. Fountains gush hallelujahs. Gates fling themselves open to the world.

(Tomorrow I will be winging westward across the Atlantic. Back on Thursday.)

Monday, September 07, 2009

Moments of being

A passage from the "Pensees" of Teilhard de Chardin:
Though the phenomena of the lower world remain the same -- the material determinisms, the vicissitudes of chance, the laws of labor, the agitations of men, the footfalls of death -- he who dares to believe reaches a sphere of created reality in which things, while retaining their habitual texture, seem to be made out of a different substance. Everything remains the same so far as phenomena are concerned, but at the same time everything become luminous, animated, loving...
Whatever we think of Teilhard's Christocentric phenomenology, however much we are baffled by his vague and gushy prose, it is clear from his writing that he was a man who was in love with the world and experienced it as luminous, animated, and loving.

Certainly, the experience he describes is not restricted to "he who dares to believe," by which Teilhard means a specifically Christian faith, or at least a faith which for him involved an image of the "cosmic Christ." No, I would suggest that the interior experience of the world he describes -- as luminous, animated, and loving -- is an predisposition of the human condition, part of our evolutionary makeup. It finds expression in religion, certainly, but also in art, music, poetry, scientific discovery, and in even in the quiet contemplation of a single flower or grain of sand.

It is an experience we all consciously or unconsciously seek, with varying degrees of success. For certain people -- an artist like Kandinsky or a mystic like Teilhard -- the interior rhapsodic state seems more or less permanent. For most of us, its achievement is a struggle against the humdrum and superficial, the "habitual texture" of things.

The challenge is not to abjure the world of immediate sensation, but to experience the world as fully as our present knowledge allows -- not just earthworms and nematodes, wind and weather, Sun, Moon and stars, but also the ineffable flow of atoms, the ceaseless dance of the DNA, the whirling of the myriad galaxies, the infinite and the infinitesimal -- to see in the mind's eye and feel in the mind's heart the fire and the flow that animates all things. We may not experience the universe as "loving," but we might certainly find it lovable.

"The whole universe is aflame," wrote Teilhard. His vision was partly informed by his science and partly by his religious faith. And partly, surely, because he was born with a particularly acute sensitivity to the ineluctable wholeness of things. Those of us of a less sensitive nature will settle for the occasional moments when the gates of our senses unaccountably fling themselves open to the unspeakable and unspoken mystery of the world.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Alphabet Soup

This hasn't got anything to do with the usual subjects of discussion, but it's something I wrote last week for my grand-daughters K & C, and as it is Sunday, playday, I'll share it here, for the children among you.
A

Annie has pitched her tent, a teepee.
She stands by the doorflap, arms akimbo, proud as can be.
Want to come in? Say the magic word.
(Don't tell Annie I told you. It's abracadabra.)

B

Boy. Boy-oh-boy, what a boy.
Big tummy. Sticks out his chest. Look at me!
Boisterous. Belligerent. He buzzes like a bee.
Bully boy. All bluff and bluster. Get outta my way!

C

See! Cecil saw.
Mouth agape. Eyes popping out of his head.
What did Cecil see? He saw a seesaw. Up and down, click-clack.
Up and down. Like waves on the sea.

DD

Dee and Di go downtown.
Doughty dowagers, arm in arm.
Arm in arm. Filling up the sidewalk. Walking side by side.
Don't dither! Don't dawdle! Don't dilly-dally! say Di and Dee.

E

Eek! Those teeth! Those claws!
Tiger, tiger, burning bright. In the forest of the night.
Scratch and gobble. Gobble and scratch.
All the better to eat you with, said the Big Bad E.

F

Fiddle-faddle. Fiddle-de-dee.
The fastidious fiddler, his violin tucked under his chin.
Just so. His fingers on the frets, his bow on the strings.
Just so. Just so. The fiddly fiddler.

G

Grrrrrrr! Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!
The growling galumphous. Those fearsome jaws.
Where did he come from? Where is he going?
Goodness gracious, I hope he's not interested in me.

H

Hi, stiltwalker. High in the sky.
On stilts. Put one stick in front of the other.
Left, right, left, right. Teeter. Totter. Don't fall!
Higgledy-piggledy, hobbledehoy. The happy stiltwalker.

I

I like ice cream, icy cold.
I like icicles. I like igloos full of eskimos.
I like iguanas and impalas. I like inchworms and izards.
All eyes are on me. Let's hear about you.

JJJJJJ

Jaybirds.
A street full of jaywalking jaybirds, jeopardizing traffic.
Jabbering jaybirds. Jiggling and jostling. Read the signs!
Cross at the corners, between the white lines.

K

K, K, K, K, K, K, K, K. Here comes Katie.
She is taking her kid to kindergarten in her pouch.
Her kid goes to school with kaolas and kookabarras.
Katie is a -- Can you guess?

L

Lulu in her clown shoes.
Clip-clop. Flip-flop. See her go, with her loooooooong toes.
Why is Lulu wearing clown shoes? I'll ask her.
Wait up, Lulu, wait! Clip-clop. Flip- flop.

M

Mmmmmm. Mama's making marmalade.
Marmalade and home-baked muffins. Mmmmmm.
We put our bibs on. See them dangling from our chins.
Bibs to catch the orangey crummmbs. Mmmmmm.

N

In the playground, on the slide.
A girl named Naughty Nellie. Up the ladder, down she glides.
Up, down. Up, down. Won't give the other kids a turn.
Can you guess -- how Naughty Nellie got her nick-name?

OO

Open your eyes, Barney Google.
Goo-goo eyes. Moon eyes. Eyes as round as the Sun at noon.
Eyes like big balloons. Eyes like cookies. Raccoon eyes.
Look! Look! Look at Barney Google's eyes.

P

And look at Peter's bulging cheeks.
Plump peaches, pulpy plums. Prunes and persimmons.
Stuffs everything in. Pears and peanuts, peas and pecans.
Pudgy Peter's bulging cheeks.

Q

Cute little Queenie, with her curlycue curl.
She washes her hair in cucumber juice.
Call it quaint. Call it queer. Call it a strange little quirk.
But take Queenie's word for it: It works.

R

Roger the Pirate on his stiff peg leg.
Jolly Roger, they call him. Every day he drinks a keg of grog.
Fee-fie-fo-fum. Run up the skull and crossbones.
Arrrgh! he says.

S

Estelle has a pet. The pet says Ssssssssssss.
I don't want to pet Estelle's pet.
Estelles's pet slithers. Estelles's pet is slimy. Estelles's pet has scales.
Estelle keeps her pet in a big glass box. Don't let it escape!

T

Auntie Tia invites me to tea.
Auntie Tia is a teetotaler. She never touches Uncle Tio's tequila.
She drinks nothing but tea. Her tea table has just one leg.
The table is tipsy, but not Auntie Tia.

U

You, you, you, said the ram to the ewe.
I'm in love with you, you you. No one else will do.
You make me smile. A great big smile. A mile-wide smile.
You certainly do, you little ewe you.

V

Victor lives in a valley. Victoria lives on the hill.
Or is it vice versa? I can never remember.
Victor looks up at Victoria. Victoria looks down at Victor.
Or is it vice versa? Who has the best view? Vic or Vic?

W

Dopplegangers, side by side. Weedledee and Weedledum.
Double your letters. Double your fun.
Wiggle, wabble, watch them wobble. Two whippersnappers.
Weedledee and Weedledum making whoopee.

X

The mysterious Mister X.
Always asking for a kiss.
Right here on my cheek.
X marks the spot.

Y

Why is the sky blue? Why is the sea green?
Why is this the very best day I've ever seen?
Yippee! I shout, my hands in the air. Yip, Yip, hooray!
Why is this the yummiest day in the whole long year?

Z

And that is the end of the alphabet soup.
It's time for a snooze. Time to saw logzzzz.
A great long snooze. A snooze with a snore.
Goodnight. Zzzzzzzz, zzzzzzzz, zzzzzzzzz.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

And in the center ring...

The indefatigable Richard Dawkins has struck again. This time with a book called The Greatest Show On Earth, in which he presents the evidence for evolution. It is not quite clear to whom the book is addressed. Those who reject evolution for religious reasons have long since proven themselves impervious to any marshaling of evidence, and the rest of us (who have seen it all before) need no persuading. But I'm enjoying the book nevertheless. No matter what you think of Dawkins, he is invariably interesting. If evolution is the greatest show on Earth, then Dawkins is one of the greatest showman. There are other popular books that present the evidence for evolution, such as Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True. And, of course, any good biology textbook does the same. But Dawkins does it with such panache and mischievous intent -- and with such an eclectic gathering of scientific illustrations, personal anecdotes, and snarky asides -- that the mix is irresistible even to someone fully apprised of the evidence.

The title of the book is somewhat fatuous. Evolution is not the greatest show on Earth; it is the only show on Earth. The show is undeniably great. The show is one of gape-jawed, eye-popping, spine-tingling grandeur. We are the audience and we are performers.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The light at the center of every cell

It's that time of the year, rather earlier here in Ireland than in New England.

The caterpillars are out and about. We see them on the road, in pinstripe suits or fur coats, making their way from one side of the road to the other. (Who is this creature with its long "snout" and phony eye-spots? Who is it trying to fool?) Looking for an appropriate place to pupate, I suppose, although why one side of the road is better than the other we'll never know. When they find the perfect spot -- a plant, a rock, the rail of a fence -- they'll attach themselves, build a chrysalis, and...and then happens one of the most amazing tricks in the world of nature. A many-legged caterpillar goes into the box -- a wave of the wand -- a butterfly or moth emerges. Somehow, the creature will manage to remake itself, rearranging its molecules, from earthbound devil to airborne angel. A crawling, insatiable leaf-eating machine is transformed into a winged, sex-obsessed nectar-sipper. Shape, color, internal organs, mode of transport -- all utterly changed. It's as if an elephant became a swan, or an armadillo became a parakeet.

I'm plagiarizing myself (from Natural Prayers), but it's worth repeating. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar dissolves into a kind of soup. Previously dormant adult cells begin to multiply. They take their nutrients from superseded larval cells. The caterpillar's six stumpy front feet are turned into the butterfly or moth's slender legs. Four wings develop, as do reproductive organs. Chewing mouth parts become adapted for sucking. The chrysalis breaks.

It's one thing to understand the biology, at least that part of it that we know something about: DNA, hormones, gene expression, and all that. But knowing the biology only makes the metamorphosis all the more breathtaking. Not magic, but what the poet Mary Oliver calls "the light at the center of every cell," permeating every atom of matter, soaking nature the way water soaks a sponge.

Now, in early September, the caterpillars are on the move, humping across the road in their headlong dash for who-knows-where, many-footed distillations of the Heraclitean fire that animates the world. We'll see them next summer, utterly transformed, with something besides chewing on their minds -- and gorgeous wings to help them find it.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Sour berries


Earlier this summer I believe I had some nice things to say about the weather. A "blackberry summer" I called it. The first plump blackberries were appearing in the hedgerows at the side of the road, weeks early, fat and pulpy in the sun. God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.

I was, of course, premature. The Irish summer does not take well to being called clement. It has wreaked its revenge. For the past month-and-a-half the Atlantic Ocean has lifted itself out of its basin and dumped itself on our hillside. Days and nights of rain of biblical proportions. The hill leaks. The ground is sodden. Our unpaved driveway down to the road is a gurgling brook. In the big sloping windows of my studio the morning glories refuse to blossom and the tomatoes struggle to find a blush of red. At the Valentia weather station out there across Dingle Bay, it has been the wettest summer since record-keeping began in 1866.

The third wretched unsunny summer in a row! My neighbors scoff. "Where's all this global warming we hear about?" they ask.

Well, I don't know about global warming, but what goes up, must come down, and that includes water evaporated from Atlantic Ocean. Where does it come down? Just follow the prevailing wind and the first land you hit is -- yes, the Dingle Peninsula.

It takes about 1,000 calories of solar energy to evaporate a thimbleful of water from the sea, a bit less if the water is warmer. Each thimbleful of water in the atmosphere represents 1,000 calories of stored solar energy. When it comes back down it gives up that energy. Round and round. It's the same principle as a steam engine, except sunlight, not fossil fuel, does the heavy lifting. I'm an old TVA boy from Chattanooga. I grew up with electricity squeezed from sun-evaporated water. The Tennessee River runs downhill, taking all those thimblefuls of water back to the sea. Catch your calories while you can.

Too bad I can't put a dam and generator at the bottom of my driveway. Global warming -- if that's what it is -- could power my house. In the meantime, here is a weathery pic from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The divine proportion


The July 27 New Yorker had an article on Thomas Campbell, the new director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The writer asked him what was his favorite object in the museum's collections. After some hesitation, Campbell mentioned a particular fondness for "The Harvesters" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1565 (click to enlarge). "It's a timeless image, an affectionate but critical eye on humanity," he is quoted as saying.

As I read this, I remembered Tom's visit to the Met several years ago and his confession of his own particular fondness for "The Harvesters" -- which prompted a post you can read here. As I said in that post, my own fondness for the painting derives from having had pretty much the same experience harvesting hay and oats when I first summered in this part of Ireland 30 years ago. Saving the hay successfully in those days required a period of dry weather, something in short supply this summer.

But never mind. No one here cuts and dries hay by hand any more. In Lizzie's fields below, where I used to ply the rake and pike, tractors in short order cut the grass, gather it into rolls, and wrap it in black plastic, all mechanically. The musty, dusty hay sheds have given way to mountainous outdoor stacks of what look like gigantic black beach balls. This method of making fodder apparently works rain or shine.

But back to Bruegel. Part of the charm of the painting may be due to the vertical tree that divides the panel into approximately the Golden Ratio. (The Golden Ratio is such that the whole is to the larger part as the larger part is to the smaller part. That is: (a+b)/a = a/b. A little algebra and the quadratic formula yields the ratio a/b = (see below).) Euclid was apparently the first to give a mathematical expression to the ratio. In 1509, Luca Pacioli described the aesthetic significance of the ratio in a work called De Divina Proportione. Whether Bruegel the Elder consciously employed the ratio in this painting, I don't know, but that it represents a pleasing proportion to artists, architects and viewers alike is well documented.

Science too. Kepler thought the Creator of the universe -- artist that he was -- would surely have used the ratio in the creation, and his long struggle with mathematical aesthetics led eventually to the laws of planetary motion. (Kepler's teacher Michael Maestlin was the first to give the Golden Ratio a decimal expression.) The Golden Ratio shows up in many places in nature, from flowers to shells. For all of the millions of words that have been written about it, no one knows why the human mind finds pleasure and delight in that marvelous irrational number 1.6180339887498948482...

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

And speaking of worms...

In The Creation, E. O. Wilson writes: "Ants alone, of which there may be 10 thousand trillion, weigh roughly as much as all 6.5 billion human beings...They are rivaled...in biomass by copepods (minute sea crustaceans), mites (tiny spiderlike arthropods), and at the very apex, the amazing nematode worms, whose vast population swarms, probably representing millions of species, make up four-fifths of all animals on Earth."

Nematodes? Four-fifths of all animals on Earth? Who's ever heard of nematodes.

Nematodes are threadlike worms that range in length from a millimeter to a meter. A handful of loam might contain a thousand. They live virtually everywhere -- soil, water, desert sand, arctic ice, hot springs, and as parasites of plants and animals. Pinworms and hookworms, familiar parasites of humans, are nematodes. C. elegans, that favorite research animal of biologists, is a nematode.

In the 1914 edition of the Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture, the American parasitologist N. A. Cobb wrote:
If all the matter in the universe except the nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable, and if, as disembodied spirits, we could then investigate it, we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes and oceans represented by a thin film of nematodes. The location of towns would be decipherable, since for every massing of human beings there would be a corresponding massing of certain nematodes. Trees would still stand in ghostly rows representing our streets and highways. The location of the various plants and animals would still be decipherable, and, had we sufficient knowledge, in many cases even their species could be determined by an examination of their erstwhile nematode parasites.
I've always loved this thought experiment, that ghostly nematodean world. Bingo! Everything that isn't part of a nematode vanishes. And there, at least for an instant until it disperses, is the shadow world. The giant hollow sphere. The mountains, valleys, oceans, rivers. The plants. The animals. Spookily represented by worms.

Four-fifths of all animals on Earth! E. O. Wilson adds: "Can anyone believe that these little creatures are just there to fill space?" He means, of course, that we are all of a piece. All necessary. All part of a balance that has been billions of years in the making.