Friday, December 31, 2010


One of our great joys here on the island is watching our hummingbirds at the feeder, Bahamian woodstars, no bigger than your little finger. My, how their tiny hearts must flutter, their wings an invisible blur as they hover, dipping their soda-straw beaks into the sugar water, sucking up the carbohydrates they need to keep their turbo-charged metabolism going.

But look at the photo here, a nest with two eggs, with my thumb for scale.

An architectural wonder, beautifully woven with the finest of threads, not too big, not to small, sublimely shaped and suited to its purpose.

And this is what never ceases to elicit wonder: The bird is born with the knowledge of when and how to make the nest.

Somehow, in a way no one has yet begun to understand, the art of the nest comes with the DNA. A four "letter" code on the double helix. GAGATTACA… and all that.

The DNA spins off proteins as genes are called into play and expressed. A brain is constructed and hardwired, and the "idea" of the nest is woven into the hummingbird's brain as exquisitely as the hummingbird weaves scavenged fibers into a nest. In every invisibly small cell of the hummingbird's body is the information with the potential -- given the appropriate conditions for expression --to make a hummingbird nest.

One can't think about this without one's jaw at least slightly dropping. There is something deep and beautiful and mysterious afoot in the world, something that weaves all of us -- hummingbirds and humans -- into a single mutually-dependent unity. Something that as yet has no name worthy of its majesty.

Oh, yes, you will say. It has a name. Its name is God. But that little word with all of its anthropomorphic resonances is far too paltry to express the thing we sense but do not yet understand. It allows the part -- the human -- to stand for the whole.

Better to call it simply "life."

Or better yet, keep reverently silent.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Celestial seed catalog

The New Year approaches, and as usual I am curled up with Guy Ottewell's annual Astronomical Calendar anticipating the celestial treats of 2011.

Let's start with the morning of New Year's Eve -- tomorrow -- when a thin crescent Moon will join Venus in the pre-dawn sky. And Mercury too, peeking over the horizon.

On February 6th, a waxing crescent Moon skims by Jupiter.

In April, Venus, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter snuggle together in the sunrise sky, but too close to the Sun to be easily visible. The Moon joins them on May 1. The winter months belong to Saturn, high in the sky all night long.

During May, the four morning planets do a dazzling dance of conjunctions in the pre-dawn sky, and we'll all be trying for a glimpse. Meanwhile, Saturn is in the opposite part of the sky, giving an almost alignment of all five naked-eye planets. Guy has a whole page devoted to this gathering.

Some experts are predicting an especially fine Draconid meteor shower on October 8.

All year long, we'll be looking for very young and very old Moon's with Guy's charts as a guide.

Two fine total lunar eclipses in 2011, but not for those of us in the eastern U.S. Mark in Fiji will have a nice show on December 10.

Four (!) partial eclipses of the Sun, mostly in polar regions of the globe, and none for North America.

Meteor showers, comets, occultations. Just a taste of the events Guy catalogs, with his usual gift for graphic presentation. If Guy didn't exist we'd have to invent him.

Expect a flood of internet spam about the "planetary alignment" early in the year, predicting catastrophes of every sort. The people who fan this sort of foolishness are probably the sort who would not be bothered to step out the back door to see the Moon and Venus blazing together in the morning sky.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


My daughter and granddaughter have been visiting with us on the island for Christmas week. They both have MacBook Airs.

This is one sweet machine, an iconic artifact of our time. My granddaughter takes it as a given -- after all, she grew up wireless. For me, holding the Air in my hands is breathtaking.

In graduate school, I worked on an IBM 1620 and a Univac, computers that had whole rooms to themselves, sucked up huge amounts of power, and were "down" as often as they were "up." A contemporary laptop is a vastly more powerful machine. And the Air, with its flash memory and sleek, minimalist beauty, silently humming away flawlessly day in and day out, well --

I said to my gals, "This is to the Computer Age what the Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale was to the Industrial Revolution."


"You were there," I said to my daughter. "I took you there when you were ten years old."

The bridge was built in 1779-81 by the grandson of Abraham Darby, the man who perfected the smelting of iron with coke. Lithe and graceful, it arches the gorge of the River Severn in Shropshire, England, a stunning demonstration of the potential of iron.

The MacBook Air will surely end up in the Museum of Modern Art, if it's not there already. The Iron Bridge is an outdoor museum by itself. The Iron Bridge and the Air -- technological wonders, each a perfect marriage of form and function.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Last year I contributed a takeoff on Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Circus, inspired by some of nature's strangest creatures. Now, Karen Osborn, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and colleagues, have found in the deep ocean near Borneo an animal that we just had to have in our circus. Read the link above, then click to enlarge.

And now, a newcomer, from the Celebes Sea,
The most curious beastie you're likely to see.
Teuthidodrilus samae, a segmented worm
with enough weird appendages to make anyone squirm.
What is it for -- all that tentacled foppery?
Evolution devising its own sort of moppery.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Peace on Earth, good will to friends

I'm not a Facebook user, and don't respond when people try to friend me. Not that I have anything against it. I just treasure my little nook of semi-privacy. Yeah, "semi-privacy" he says, when here I am blogging to the world.

You may have seen the map above (click to enlarge) generated by Paul Butler, an intern on Facebook's data infrastructure engineering team, called "visualizing friendships." You can read about how he prepared the map here. The important thing to notice is that this is not friendships plotted on a map. This is a "map" revealed by plotting friendships.

Five-hundred million users. Lord knows how many "friendships." This can't be a bad thing.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Season's Greetings

To all of you who are kind enough to gather on the porch, Happy Holiday Greetings from Chet and Anne. Click on the pic to enlarge Anne's Christmas illumination.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Gifts of the Magi

In his book The Wild Places, the British naturalist Robert MacFarlane says this of the early Christian monk/hermits who settled on Europe's wild Celtic fringe: "For these writers, attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship."

This is a thought I have explored here on several occasions and at great length in Climbing Brandon. The formulation I like best is "Seeing is revelation, description is praise." It is a way of thinking about the world that works well with or without a transcendent or supernatural referent.

As one who hews to Ockham's Razor I prefer to do without the superfluous deity. But, as readers of my books will know, I have nothing but admiration for those men and women who in the first millennium of the Christian era sought out beautiful, wild places to commune with their God. By putting the comforts of civilization behind them they sought the infinite, which they thought was more readily to be encountered in wind and water and wildness than within in the four walls of a palace.

And so tonight I will join with them in spirit in celebrating the birth of their transcendent polestar, their fixed referent. I will be like the Magi, knowing the beauty of the sky and the waves and the wild places betoken something -- what? who knows? -- that we perceive dimly but powerfully in nature, some mysterious force that stirs in every termite, hummingbird and eclipsed Moon that asks us to pay attention, and, in seeing, to describe.

I will add description to gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Daughter Margaret gave me for Christmas The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I had read reviews of the book and wanted to read it. Margaret must have picked up my vibe by mental telepathy.

You will surely have heard of the book -- thirty-one weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, the current presiding non-fiction co-champ. Briefly, Skloot tells the story of a Johns Hopkins Hospital scientist who in the early-1950s took cancerous cells from a poor black woman while she was still alive, without her knowledge or consent, or that of her family. Her cells turned out to have the remarkable property of reproducing indefinitely in culture. All previous cells lines cultured in laboratories eventually died. Henrietta Lacks' cells (with her DNA), called HeLa cells, are still alive and reproducing in hundreds of labs around the world, a workhorse tool of cell research. They were instrumental in the testing of the Salk polio vaccine, and in many other positive developments in medicine. It has been estimated that if you piled all the HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale they'd weigh 50 million metric tons!

The history of HeLa is to a remarkable extent the history of cell research for the past half century, and Skloot tells that story well. But her book is more than science. It is also the heart-wrenching story of the Lacks family, racism, scientific misadventure, and the gradual development of government regulation of scientific research on human subjects -- all in the shadow of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study and the crimes of the Nazi doctors. Read it.

"Get the government off our backs!" shout the radical right. Well, yes and no. A civilized society cannot exist when government is unconstrained, as the horrific crimes of the Nazi doctors evidence. Civilized life is equally impaired when the rights of the least of citizens are not protected by enlightened government intervention, as manifested by the Tuskegee syphilis study and the sweet, sad story of Henrietta Lacks.

The art of civilization lies in creating just enough government to restrain human greed and ambition -- in science, in business, in environmental utilization -- even when that greed and ambition is ostensibly in the service of a good cause. Try to imagine life in the United States without the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control, for example. Rue too the current disparities in access to health care that disproportionally afflict the poor and minorities. "Get the government off our backs!" OK, off our backs. But for me, at least, I like having government walking at my side -- and at the sides of the Henrietta Lacks of the world.

Three cheers for health-care reform, for repeal of Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell, and for government regulation of the banks and hedge funds. And three cheers for Rebecca Skoot, who has written a moving and instructive book, and who has used her success to set up a scholarship fund for the very mortal descendents of Henrietta Lacks.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The shape of night

In Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, the Earth speaks these wonderful words:
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 in love-dreams faintly sighing,
  Under the shadow of his beauty lying,
Which round his rest a watch of light and warmth doth keep.
Beautiful words, but beautiful too that the poet has fixed in his mind's eye a geometry that was first imagined by astronomers in the ancient Near East.

Night as a pyramid! A long, skinny cone of darkness. A wizard's cap of shadow cast by the Earth into the illuminated space near the Sun.

Those ancient astronomers conceived of that cone of darkness and used it to explain eclipses of the Moon.

As I watched the eclipse Monday night I tried to imagine the shape of night, as long and skinny as a rapier. And the Moon, as typically happens twice a year, on course to collide with that pyramid of shadow, which at the Moon's distance is a bit less than three times as wide as the Moon. That pyramid of shadow under which he Earth, like a youth lulled by love-dreams, drowsily spins.

Every object in the solar system wears a conical shadow pointing away from the Sun. Even the helmeted head of a spacewalking astronaut wears a wizard's cap of darkness one hundred feet long. The solar system is as prickly as a hedgehog with spines of darkness.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Up a good part of the night for the total lunar eclipse. The Bahamas had a ringside seat, with the eclipse taking place high overhead. The disadvantage: The show took place between 1:30 and 5:00 AM, with mid-totality at 3:15.

We stepped out onto the porch as the partial phase was scheduled to begin. Ouch! The sky mostly covered with scudding clouds, only glimpses of the Moon through occasional gaps. We persisted. By the time the Moon was half in shadow the sky was clearing. As totality began not a whiff of haze in the sky.

And there was the Moon, drifting high overhead like a tangerine-colored balloon, in the midst of the brilliant winter constellations -- Taurus, Orion, Gemini, Auriga. The jewel in the crown. Dazzling!

As the Earth circles the Sun, the tip of its rapier-like shadow sweeps across the starry sky at about a degree a day (a degree is about twice the width of your little finger held at arm's length). The Moon moves across the stars at about a degree every two hours. As we watched, the Moon overtook the moving shadow and plunged into the tinted gloom. A bit over an hour later it nosed out of the other side of the shadow and raced on ahead, recovering its full-moon status.

It was a bright eclipse, by my estimation an L=4 on the brightness scale. The light that illuminates the Moon during totality is bent into the shadow by the Earth's atmosphere. How much light falls on the fully-eclipsed Moon and its color is greatly dependent on conditions in the atmosphere and difficult to predict. A fully-eclipsed Moon can range from almost invisible to last night's dusky orange.

More on the aesthetic experience tomorrow.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Biblical studies

Just before I left my nook in the college library stacks, I picked up off the new book shelf my colleague Michael Coogan's revised text The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2011). Michael is one of the world's foremost experts on the Bible, and it shows in the text, which is rich in history, archeology, and literary allusion. I spent most of the day with the book, remembering what a really interesting document the Old Testament is.

Since I was raised a Roman Catholic, the Bible did not play a very big role in my early education, especially the Old Testament. It was mostly a source of stories -- Adam and Eve, Noah'sArk, David and Goliath, Solomon and the baby claimed by two women, etc. -- bedtime stories, really, that had little to do with religion. All we were meant to know about the Old Testament was that it was full of prophets who anticipated Jesus.

And then there were the movies.

We got our real introduction to the Old Testament sitting in the dark gazing at the silver screen.

Who could forget Samson and Delilah, from Cecil B. DeMille in 1949, with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr, maybe the two hokiest actors in the business. Samson: "Your arms were quicksand. Your kiss was death. The name Delilah will be an everlasting curse on the lips of man." Not so far from the good book itself: "The lips of a foreign woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword." (Proverbs 5:3-4) Delilah: "No man leaves Delilah." Hot stuff for a 13 year-old boy.

Or how about David and Bathsheba, 1951, with a young, devilishly handsome Gregory Peck and moony-eyed Susan Hayward. David sees Bathsheba bathing from his palace roof and is smitten. (Did we get the briefest distant glimpse of Hayward's nude backside? How did that get past the censors?) Mostly what David sees is a bit of bare shoulders over a strategically placed screen; hardly realistic if Bathsheba is playing the temptress (the Bible is coy on this point). Ah, as the Bible tells us, "It was springtime, the time when kings go forth to war." (2 Samuel 11:1) We know where Gregory should have been instead of playing the rooftop Peeping-Tom. Bathsheba: (as David tries to kiss her in an open field) "No, David! The boy! He'll see us!" David: "No matter. Shepherd boys learn early about life."

Such were my biblical studies. Our fates were in the hands of Hollywood's Hays Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency. The former determined what we saw; the latter determined how many days in purgatory we'd get for that glimpse of Susan Hayward's bottom.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Click and then again to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Here I am, on our little island. No bookstore. A tiny public library I have long since worked my way through; no more comfy chair in the college library stacks surrounded by hundreds of thousands of books.

I'm not complaining. I have that other book, the book of nature, lying open on every side. I've been reading it for years, but I've barely made a dent in the contents. More to the point: I'm still learning how to read,

“It is not easy to live in that continuous awareness of things which alone is true living," wrote the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch. He knew what I'm talking about. To pay attention all the time can be exhausting.

It's not meaning I'm looking for; those days have passed. I'm not looking for moral lessons. Nor revelations. Philosophy? No thanks. Theology? Ho hum. Just give me the thing itself. The shimmer of sand as the wave retreats. The rainbow that spills its spectrum onto Duck Cay. The free-toed frog that clings to the window screen.

Seeing is the hardest thing of all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


You may remember the chipmunk I have been watching throughout the autumn, the one with the Beatrix Potter home under the roots of a white pine tree. During November, as the weather cooled, he took to blocking up his door with wood chips on the coldest days. Then, when the temperature went up again, out he came to continue stocking his larder with pine cone seeds.

Now, in the heart of December, he seems to have retired permanently for the winter. The chips are piled high and thick at his door. I see no sign of harvesting.

I wish I could make myself small enough to crawl into his house and see what sort of accommodations he has in there among the roots. A bedroom, a pantry, a place for feces. A mate? Never saw one, but who knows.

Apparently he has gone into a state of hibernation, lower body temperature, slower heartbeat and breathing. Wakes up every week or so for a nibble, then back to sleep. Unfortunately, I won't be around during the first warm days of February when he pushes through the wood chips and embraces the sun.

And now it's time for me to do my own hibernating, on my sunny southern island. I'm away early tomorrow. As usual, I have no idea what I will encounter for the internet. I'll be back when I get back.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Erasing stars

My daughter Maureen was recently in Egypt, visiting sites ancient and modern from Alexandria to Lake Nasser. Here are a couple of her photos (click to enlarge) of ceilings in the Temple of Hatchetsup, at Luxor, about 180 km north of Aswan on the Nile. Yellow stars on a blue background -- the sky goddess Nut who arches her star-spangled body over the earth from horizon to horizon. Among those stars is Canopus, the second brightest in the sky, after Sirius, and visible in the south from the latitude of Luxor or Aswan. It is not a star we can see from New England, or indeed from most of the United States.

Aswan is perhaps best known today as the site of the Aswan High Dam. As the Egyptian town of Syene it played a pivotal role in he history of science -- it provided the key to the first measurement of the Earth's diameter by Eratosthenes of Alexandria, in the 3rd century B.C.E.

According to the story, there was a deep well in Syene that at noon on midsummer day one could see the Sun reflected in the water at the bottom of the well. This meant that the Sun was directly overhead at Syene in midsummer; that is to say, Syene was on the Tropic of Cancer, the line that marks the Sun's northernmost excursion during the course of the year. Eratosthenes knew that the Sun was not overhead at Alexandria at the same time, and he knew why; the Earth is a sphere. He measured the Sun's shadow at Alexandria, and from the known distance to Syene (measured by surveyors of the Pharaoh), and a bit of geometry, worked out the diameter of the Earth. I tell this story in all of its details in Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian.

The sky goddess Nut and Alexandrian astronomers of a startlingly modern bent lived in what was perhaps then, as now, an uneasy coexistence.

In a few days I will be off to our island, which happens to lie, like Aswan, exactly on the Tropic of Cancer. Canopus is prominent in our winter sky, low in the south. And the sky goddess Nut, whose dark star-spangled body was one of the reasons we chose the island, is losing her luster to artificial light.

More of Mo's photos here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Midwest paralyzed by snow

A long time ago, writing about snow in Honey From Stone, I quoted Thomas Mann's 1924 novelThe Magic Mountain, specifically the part when Hans Castorp, the novel's protagonist and a patient in a Alpine sanatorium, gets caught in a snow storm while out on a solitary skiing adventure. He considers snowflakes that have fallen onto his sleeve -- "little jewels, insignia, orders, agraffes," he calls them, "uncannily anti-organic, life-denying, icily regular in form." I wrote:
For Castorp, the rigid symmetry of the snowflakes was terrifying. But I know what Hans Castorp could not have known (because…science had not yet probed the interior of the ice crystal), that the snowflake is more than a life-denying hexagon of solid water. The snowflake is icily regular, but it is also chaotic; it is the seal of Abel and the mark of Cain, a dactylogram of the eternal conflict between order and disorder that rages at the heart of creation.
When I wrote Honey From Stone I was using H. T. Lowe-Porter's 1927 translation of the novel, which I read as a young man. There has since been a new 1995 translation, by John E. Woods, which I have been reading lately.
Hans Castorp stepped out from under a tree to let a few [snowflakes] fall on his sleeve and to examine them with the connoisseur's expert eye. They looked like shapeless tatters, but more than once he had held his good magnifying glass up to them and knew that they were collections of dainty, precise little jewels: gemstones, star insignia, diamond brooches -- no skilled jeweler could have produced more delicate miniatures. Yes there was something special about that light, loose, powdery white stuff that weighed down the trees, covered the breadth of the land, and carried him along on his skis, something that made it different from the sand on the shore at home, of which it had reminded him. It was not made up of tiny grains of rock, but, as everyone knew, consisted of myriads of water droplets, violently gathered up and frozen into manifold, symmetrical crystals --- little pieces of an inorganic substance, the wellspring of protoplasm, of plants and human beings…And yet absolute symmetry and icy regularity characterized each item of cold inventory, Yes, that was what was so eerie -- it was anti-organic, hostile to life itself…Life shuddered at such perfect precision, regarded it as something deadly, as the secret of death itself.
Well, yes and no. Yes, water is the wellspring of life. But life is more than water, more than oxygen and hydrogen. And there is something about the snowflake -- that exquisite balance of order and chaos -- that surely touches upon the mystery of life. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of how the snowflake's symmetry is maintained: How does a water molecule attaching itself on one branch of the flake know what is happening on the other branches? On the scale of molecules, the faces of the growing crystal are light-years apart. Forced "tiling"? Vibrations of an almost unimaginable refinement? Or are we still missing something, some anti-entropic principle, perhaps the same something that will help explain the awesome, endless dance of the DNA?

Thomas Mann's majesterial novel is all about life and death, order and chaos, entropy and anti-entropy, health and disease. Science has learned an astonishing amount about life and death; the biology shelves here in the college library are as burdened with books as the boughs of Castorp's trees were burdened with snow. It is easy to recognize life; more difficult to say what it is. A single snowflake rebukes our ignorance.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


A reprise from Anne. Click, and the again, to enlarge.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

He knows when you've been bad or good

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why. No, forget about Santa. Missing a few Christmas presents is the least of it. When I was a kid we had a better reason to be good.

Hell fire. Eternal torment. A long, never-ending roasting on the charcoal spit.

One mortal sin was all it took. No matter if one had been as good as gold since the day of one's birth. A single mortal sin -- having a really dirty thought, for example -- and you might spend all eternity in Hieronymus Bosch's ghastly hell. Meanwhile, the folks who didn't get caught with a mortal taint on their souls are up there in Paradise basking in bliss.

It sounds absurd now, but this was no laughing matter. I was always mumbling the Act of Contrition, just in case. That's all it took to cancel the possibility of eternal pain -- a mumbled formula, seventy words. Even in college, when danger loomed I made the Act of Contrition, covering all bets. I was pretty much always in a state of sin in those days. Or at least I thought I was.

Granted, they didn't mention Bosch's butcher blades and prickly beetles in my college theology course -- a sign we've made some progress since Bosch's time, I suppose. But Satan was presented as very real, and very interested in claiming my soul. Even without literal fires, hell would be the agony of having missed out on the Beatific Vision -- an eternity of thumping myself on my resurrected head and groaning "only if."

Funny thing, then. My own children and grandchildren were not exposed to any of the hellfire nonsense that was so much a part of my youth, and as far as I can tell their lives have been as moral as mine. Maybe more so. Bosch? Bosh! They were raised to believe there are reasons to be good besides "the loss of heaven and the pains of hell." They were raised to be good for goodness sake.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fact and fiction

Ah, better late than never.

I have received in the mail a review copy of Nancy Marie Brown's just published The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages. The subject? Gerbert of Aurillac, who in the year 999 became Pope Sylvester II.

Those who have read my novel In the Falcon's Claw have met Gerbert, or at least my fictional Gerbert based (loosely) on the historical person. It is Gerbert with whom my protagonist Aileran has a contentious and affectionate relationship throughout his adult life. Together they usher in the year 1000, a time when many in Europe feared the world might end.

Brown has done her research, certainly more than I did in writing the novel. I wish I had had her book when I was inventing the story of Aileran, Melisande and Gerbert. But then again, maybe not. My Gerbert is a fiction, based as much upon persons of my own acquaintance as on the man who unfolds in such intriguing detail in Brown's very readable history. The two Gerbert's share an intense curiosity about mathematics and astronomy. They are both worldly and ambitious. They both ascend to the throne of Peter.

Brown the historian develops the theme of faith and reason, which she thinks Gerbert and a few of his contemporaries brought seamlessly together. Faith and reason is also the theme of my novel, although my story is one of irreconcilability. From Gerbert (and the apparent arbitrariness of divine providence), my Aileran learns a healthy skepticism. From Gerbert he also learns the dangers inherent in the secular world. Gerbert dies in the raiment of opulence, the most powerful person in Christendom after the emperor himself. Aileran has a more humble death in the service of romantic love.

If you haven't read In the Falcon's Claw, I invite you to do so -- and share your impression here.

From Brown I learn - or am reminded if I once knew -- that young Gerbert's teacher at Aurillac was Raymond of Laval. In his recent genealogical researches, Tom has discovered that our Raymo ancestors in France were Raymonds, not Rameaus as I had supposed. Might it be that even deeper in time than Tom has penetrated we have an ancestor who was teacher of a pope?

Thursday, December 09, 2010


Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was the third of his parent's eighteen children (according to his biographer Jane Campbell Hutchison). His mother Barbara had her first child at age sixteen and her last when she was forty; that is to say, she was almost continuously pregnant. Only three of the children lived to adulthood.

There was nothing unusual about any of this in the 15th century, except the fact that Barbara herself survived so many pregnancies. For all of prior human history, contraception was rare, childbirth was exceedingly dangerous for the mother, child mortality was the rule, and disease ran essentially unchecked. I doubt if any 21st-century woman would swap places with Barbara Durer, even for the chance to be the mother of an artist of lasting renown.

How did it change?

As Durer lived, Europe was on the brink of a Scientific Revolution, a new way of knowing based on an optimistic understanding of the human potential for progress, respect for empirical evidence, an emphasis on natural (as opposed to supernatural) causality, and rejection of revelation and authority as guarantors of truth. Human nature did not change. What occurred was escape from what Carl Sagan called "a demon-haunted world," a world in which humans believed their fates were in the hands of gods.

Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and their contemporaries forged this new way of knowing. To that illustrious list of scientists I would add Albrecht Durer, artist, the northern Leonardo. He has always seemed to me a pivotal figure.


He was one of the first artists to put his talent in the service of exact observation of nature, as evidenced by his drawings of a hare, a clump of grass, or a bird's wing. He was among the first artists to sign his work; this was a man who was no plaything of the gods, no anonymous servant of authority. And he was among the first artists to paint self-portraits.

Look at the fellow in the painting above, age 26, or in this other self-portrait, age 28. Oh, he is familiar enough with the traditional images of Jesus Christ. But it's not the God-man of Galilee he sees looking back from the mirror; it's Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg -- good-looking, sexy in a Johnny-Deppish sort of way, self-obsessed, supremely confident. He is quite prepared to perform his own miracles, with pigment and talent. Reality is not what some churchman or scriptures says it is; reality is what he sees with his own eyes.

If women today in developed (science-based) countries can control their own reproductive health, and expect to safely give birth to children who will more often than not live long healthy lives, give just a little credit to the fellow you see here, with the piercing green eyes, who helped pioneer the radical notion that if you want to understand how the world works, you look at the world.

(I've written before about Durer, here and here.)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The iPhone way of happiness

Humans spend a lot of time thinking about stuff other than the activity they are currently engaged in, such as things that happened in the past, things that might happen in the future, or things that might never happen at all. Psychologists call this "stimulus-independent thought" or "mind wandering." I reckon it's what the rest of us call day dreaming. Presumably, it's this capacity of the human mind to wander that enables us to learn, reason and plan.

But does it make us happy? Is living in the moment the secret of bliss, as some gurus tell us? Or does fantasizing a happy scenario make us happier than focusing on the task at hand, say, peeling the potatoes?

As reported in the 12 November issue of Science, a couple of Harvard researchers set out to answer to these questions. They devised an iPhone app that calls people at random moments during normal waking hours, asks what they are doing, whether their mind is wandering, and how happy they are at the moment. The researchers have compiled quite a large data base. The results are represented in the following graph of mean happiness during each activity (top) and while the mind is wandering to unpleasant, neutral, and pleasant topics, or not wandering at all (bottom). The size of the circle indicates the percentage of responses. Click to enlarge.

As I read the graph, daydreaming gets you nowhere as far as happiness is concerned, and working is the pits. Peeling the potatoes is so-so; eating them is better. Praying doesn't take up much of people's time, but it makes them marginally happier. Chatting and jogging brings cheer to your life. Making love is far and away the road to bliss.

The lesson of the research? Stop your daydreaming, and whatever else you are doing -- blogging, reading blogs, eating or sleeping. Whisper sweet nothings in your honey's ear and show him/her this graph. Maybe you'll get lucky.

And hope the phone doesn't ring.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

First love

Tom can check me here, but I believe the first computer to enter our house was a Commodore 64 which we purchased sometime in the early eighties. It was a funky, serviceable machine, a keyboard mostly, with 64K of RAM, and an RF modulator that let you use the family TV as a monitor. I remember writing a game program. You had to navigate a blinking square from the upper left corner of the screen to the lower right corner as a screen-filling grid filled in randomly. Get blocked, you lose. Not quite as thrilling as Pong, but a bit of a lark. That machine may still be up in the attic, unless Tom took it for his computer collection.

But what I really want to recall here is the first computer I used to actually do something useful -- a TRS-80 Model 100.

A sweet, sweet little machine from Radio Shack. The college bought two, in 1983, and my colleague Barbara and I appropriated them to ourselves. A mere 32K of RAM. But wonderfully portable. Ran on four AA batteries. And a built-in LCD screen that let you read 8 lines of text.

I loved that little box. I wrote The Soul of the Night on it, my first really personal, literary book. That machine kept me in business until I bought my first Mac the next year, the ground-breaking Macintosh 128, for something like $2400. It's been all Macs since then. 512. Classic. The Portable (a dog). Up to the MacBook Pro I'm writing on now. I'm sure Tom has some of those machines in his basement collection.

But back to the Model 100.

At that point I had already published three books, scrawled in longhand on yellow legal pads, then laboriously typed out in multiple drafts on a cheap Smith-Corona. And now. Backspace. Delete. Revise to one's heart's content. I hugged that machine to my heart. I slept with it by my bed. If one can have a crush on a computer, I had a crush on my TRS-80 Model-100.

Twenty-seven years ago. The world turned upside down.

Monday, December 06, 2010


I just read Nicholas Carr's new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Well, actually I didn't read it. I scanned it. I dipped for the crucial nuggets. Two-hundred-and-fifty pages! Who needs it? The message of the book can be reduced to a few paragraphs. Ten minutes. Tops.

And what's the message? That the internet and the new social media have shattered our ability to concentrate, to pay attention for a long time, to read a two-hundred-and-fifty page book, say. Carr quotes a graduate student: "I scroll. I have very little patience for long, drawn-out, nuanced arguments."

So why did he write the book?

Who does he expect will read it?

Our brains are being inexorably re-wired, says Carr. Re-trained to skim and scroll. We hop and jump with hypertext. War and Peace has been made unreadable by the internet, just as the ability to memorize long oral content was made redundant by the invention of movable type.

Is he right? I read Anna Karenina last winter, not quite War and Peace, but almost. I see my grandkids lugging around massive volumes of Harry Potter. But, yep, I did scroll Carr's The Shallows. Maybe it's not that our brains are getting shallower; maybe it's the content we are offered for perusal.

Maybe the message is the message,

Maybe it's not that our brains are changing. Maybe we are simply twittering ourselves into twits.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


Another pic from Anne's doll series. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Counting stars

The story made the top of the first page of the National section of the New York Times. It was on the nightly news. Half-a-dozen people asked me about it.

The universe contains three times more stars than previously thought!

300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the visible universe. Not 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Now that's news!

I'm being facetious, of course.

A few comments. The result is tentative. It's significance has to do with the relative distribution of stars of various sizes in elliptical versus spiral galaxies, which may -- if true -- help in understanding how the different types of galaxies formed. A not insignificant development.

But all of that about elliptical versus spiral galaxies got lost in the fine print. It wasn't even mentioned by Diane Sawyer. The big news! Three times more stars that previously thought!

So what.

One big, incomprehensible number replaced by another big incomprehensible number. Not even an order of magnitude different.

When in the winter of 1609-10 Galileo turned his new telescope on the faint blur called "the Beehive" in Cancer, he counted 36 stars, invisible to the unaided eye. To the three stars of Orion's belt his instrument added 50. When he examined the Milky Way the stars he saw defied enumeration. Now that was newsworthy! The news? The universe wasn't made for us.

"He tells the numbers of the stars, He calls each by name," sings the psalmist. With Galileo's telescope the stars became too numerous to be namable, even by a deity. One hundred sextillion or three hundred sextillion. The change in the number is not important to anyone but the professional cosmologist with an interest in galaxy formation. For the rest of us, it is the number itself we should set about accommodating. A universe whose aching vastness Galileo glimpsed through his wonderful tube.

Friday, December 03, 2010

I-Thou -- Part 2

The essence of Buber's I-Thou experience, it seems to me, is the recognition of oneness, a sense that the perceived and the perceiver are part of a mutual necessity. Of course, none of us is uniquely necessary for the completion of the whole. If the sperm that become half of me had lost the race, the universe would not have been substantially changed. One star more or less makes no difference to a galaxy. I depend utterly on the Sun; the Sun does not depend on me, but there is a sense in which we are in this together. It is the deeply-felt perception of wholeness that is the defining experience of the religious naturalist.

In the I-Thou experience we are lifted out of the grayness of It into what Virginia Woolf called "moments of being." I hesitate to use the term "mystical experience"; that sounds rather too pretentious. There is nothing supernatural or out-of-body about it. It can be as simple as "the certain minor light" that sometimes leaps out of inanimate objects, as in Sylvia Plath's Black Rook in Rainy Weather, or Gerard Manley Hopkins' "shining from shook foil" -- a synaptic firestorm in the brain triggered by the senses, available to all. We are changed by the experience, elevated -- sometimes, for particularly fragile souls, dangerously so.

We don't give the source of the experience a name. Any name is idolatrous, especially the name of God, burdened as it is with anthropomorphism. To experience the Thou we must be skeptical but open, knowledgeable but ignorant, walking wary, ready to be struck dumb. "Creation happens to us," writes Buber, "burns itself into us, recasts us in the burning." We tremble. We submit.

Knowledge enhances the experience of the Thou, especially the reliable knowledge of science, but knowledge alone will not evoke the experience. We walk the shore where knowledge is lapped by mystery, one foot on dry land, the other in the sea. "Men do not find God if they stay in the world," says Buber. "They do not find Him if they leave the world."

"'Here world, there God' is the language of It," he writes; "'God in the world" is another language of It; but to eliminate or leave behind nothing at all, to include the whole world in the Thou, to give the world its due and its truth, to include nothing beside God but everything in him -- this is full and complete relation."

It is clear that nothing is lost in Buber's notion of the eternal Thou if we reject the words that have become heavy with anthropomorphic meaning. Indeed, Buber's "God" has no namable qualities. In Buber's I and Thou some of us found a path away from the dualisms that so bedevil traditional religions: natural/supernatural, matter/spirit, body/soul. Dualism, as Buber suggests, is the language of It. His Thou, like the Thou of religious naturalism, is the undivided all that we experience partly illuminated by knowledge and partly through a glass darkly.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

I-Thou -- Part 1

As I stepped outside this morning to fetch the newspaper, I was bowled over by the thin crescent Moon and Venus together in an inky sky. "Thou Moon," I said. "Thou Venus."

I'll wager that I am not the only one on the porch for whom Martin Buber's I And Thou was a formative book of our youth.

Buber was an eminent Jewish philosopher and religious scholar, born in Vienna in 1878. His most famous work was first published in English in the 1930's, but a second English edition was brought forward by Scribner in 1958, just as I was beginning my struggle to reconcile my scientific training with my childhood faith. Buber offered me, and others like me, a vocabulary for understanding what we felt -- a naming of two kinds of experiences, what he called the I-It and the I-Thou.

Ordinary day-to day experience -- the scientific experiment, for example, or how I feel just now as I stare at the screen of my word processor -- belongs to the realm of the I-It. Such experience is necessary for living in the world. We win our bread in the realm of the I-It. We put on our shoes, go to the bank, and change the oil in the car in the realm of I-It. "Without It man cannot live," says Buber. And he adds: "But he who lives with It alone is not a man."

There is a different kind of experience that is relational, mutual and transcending that Buber calls I-Thou. It is an experience we feel most commonly in interaction with another human being -- a partner, a parent, a child, a friend. But it can also be experienced with other living beings, or even inanimate objects. "Thou Moon," I whispered. "Thou Venus." For a moment in the morning darkness, I felt -- I understood -- that I was part of something mutual, all-encompassing, deeply mysterious. Selene and Endymion.

There is a hierarchy of experiential relation within the I-Thou -- celestial body, plant, animal, human. All of these lines of relation culminate in what Buber calls the eternal Thou. By means of every particular Thou, we address the eternal Thou, says Buber.

And now he makes a statement that was important for me at that crucial stage of my life: "Men do not find God if they stay in the world. They do not find Him if they leave the world. He who goes out with his whole being to meet his Thou and carries to it all being that is in the world, finds Him who cannot be sought."

It took some years of deconstruction to turn this into a usable philosophy, although it contained the germ of religious naturalism. Is Buber's I-Thou just a more intellectualized version of a defunct animism? Does his "Thou" imply personhood? What can mutuality mean with an inanimate object? I will take up these questions tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


Years ago, someone gave me a student's astronomy notebook, from the fall of 1936, that he/she had picked up somewhere. I wish I could remember who gave it to me, or where it was found. It was identified only with a sticker on the cover that said "Merle McKay, Pearson 16."

Whoever kept these notes was clearly part of an impressive course in astronomy. The notebook is full of exact data keeping in a neat hand -- the positions and phases of Sun, Moon and planets, personal star mapping, spectral analysis, and so on. It suggested a level of effort far beyond what I asked of my own students.

I stuck the notebook aside and didn't think more of it.

I came across it the other day and wondered if now in the age of the internet I might identify the author.

Goggling "Merle McKay" yielded a list of names, most too young to be my subject. "Merle McKay Wood Dexter," who died in Salem or Rockport, Massachusetts, in 2002 at age 92, looked promising. Googling that name took me to a photograph in the Mount Holyoke College archives: "A student room with toys on the bed. Inscription on the back: 'Room of Meg McKay (Merle McKay Wood Dexter) at Mt. Holyoke College 1937-1938.'"

Ah, the right time frame. I quickly ascertained that in 1936 there was a dormitory room 16 in Pearsons Hall at Mount Holyoke. Meg was my gal!

From a scrapbook in the Holyoke archives it seems Meg was still there in 1940, which means she was probably a freshman when she took the astronomy course. And who was teaching astronomy at the time? Alice B. Farnsworth, herself a Holyoke graduate, who earned her M.S. and PH.D. at the Yerkes Observatory, University of Chicago. She was director of the Mount Holyoke Williston Observatory for 37 years, beginning in 1936. It was very likely the talented Miss Farnsworth who made the careful corrections in red ink in my student's notebook.

Merle McKay seems to have married twice, probably outliving both husbands.

It was a bit of a thrill to identify the red ink with one of the women pioneers in early 20th-century astronomy. As for what Meg McKay did with her superb course in observational astronomy, I don't know. If she has descendents who would be interested in her freshman astronomy notebook, it's theirs for the asking. Or perhaps it was one of them who sent me the notebook in the first place.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Liberalism the wind, conservatism the ballast

In the six years I have been writing this blog I have assiduously avoided politics. Certainly I have greatly widened the scope of topics since Science Musings retired from the Globe, but politics has been a no-no. Lord knows there are enough places on the web to wax political.

Still, I'm sure readers have intuited my political stance, and, if pressed, I will confess to being a dyed-in-the-wool progressive.


I was raised in a conservative part of the South. My parents were not particularly political; at least they didn't talk much about it. My family was Roman Catholic, a religion not known for progressivism. My education was conservative. By most measures I should lean to the right.

It's true I live in Massachusetts, a traditional bastion of liberalism. But I came here from conservative Tennessee and Indiana precisely because of my admiration for a progressivism that went all the way back to Emerson and Thoreau.

Could I have been born a leftie?
Liberal streaks run deep, a new genetic study suggests. James Fowler, a social networks researcher at the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues looked at whether 2574 American teenagers harbored copies of a variant of a dopamine receptor gene, known as DRD4-R7, that has been associated with novelty seeking. The team found that teens with the variant were significantly more likely than others to describe themselves as liberal -- but only if they also had many friends. Loners were just as conservative as teens without the novelty-seeking variant. The team looked for DRD4-R7 because liberals "tend to be more progressive and more receptive to new ideas," Fowler explains. They were surprised to find that friends were a mediating factor, Fowler says. But without friends, "you might spend your time seeking new foods or new experiences" rather than other points of view. "This is a solid and intriguing paper that could spark lots of future work," says sociologist James Moody of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. But he cautions that it's also "clearly a first-step paper." Fowler agrees that more work is needed. Still, "it's easy to see there are political personalities," he says. And if genes can influence personalities, they might also influence politics. (Science, 5 November, 2010)
So, is DRD4-R7 lurking in my genome? Is my proudly-worn badge of liberalism really just a matter of neurotransmitters? Is it all about an inborn predilection for novelty?

It's pretty generally acknowledged that artists and scholars tend to be liberal, and they are primarily defined by novelty-seeking. That should be the researchers' next step: Do artists have a greater prevalence of the dopamine receptor gene variant than the general population?

We should take all of this stuff with a hefty grain of salt, but I don't doubt for a moment that much of what we consider to be personality has a genetic component. As sequencing becomes ever cheaper, and genomes are ever more widely sampled, expect more research like the study noted above. In the meantime, let's not talk politics here. You can address any political questions to my DRD4-R7.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The life of the boy

While I had my Fabre in hand, I read again his recollection of the pond of his childhood, from his book The Life of the Fly. Allow me to quote at length; it's worth it:
The pond, the delight of my early childhood, is still a sight whereof my old eyes never tire. What animation in that verdant world! On the warm mud of the edges, the Frog's little Tadpole basks and frisks in its black legions; down in the water, the orange- bellied Newt steers his way slowly with the broad rudder of his flat tail; among the reeds are stationed the flotillas of the Caddis-worms, half-protruding from their tubes, which are now a tiny bit of stick and again a turret of little shells.

In the deep places, the Water-beetle dives, carrying with him his reserves of breath: an air-bubble at the tip of the wing-cases and, under the chest, a film of gas that gleams like a silver breastplate; on the surface, the ballet those shimmering pearls, the Whirligigs, turns and twists about; hard by there skims the insubmersible troop of the Pond-skaters, who glide along with side-strokes similar to those which the cobbler makes when sewing.

Here are the Water-boatmen, who swim on their backs with two oars spread cross-wise, and the flat Water-scorpions; here, squalidly clad in mud, is the grub of the largest of our Dragon-flies, so curious because of its manner of progression: it fills its hinder-parts, a yawning funnel, with water, spirts it out again and advances just so far as the recoil of its hydraulic cannon.

The Molluscs abound, a peaceful tribe. At the bottom, the plump River-snails discreetly raise their lid, opening ever so little the shutters of their dwelling; on the level of the water, in the glades of the aquatic garden, the Pond-snails -- Physa, Limnaea and Planorbis -- take the air. Dark Leeches writhe upon their prey, a chunk of Earth-worm; thousands of tiny, reddish grubs, future Mosquitoes, go spinning around and twist and curve like so many graceful Dolphins.

Yes, a stagnant pool, though but a few feet wide, hatched by the sun, is an Immense world, an inexhaustible mine of observation to the studious man and a marvel to the child who, tired of his paper boat, diverts his eyes and thoughts a little with what Is happening in the water. Let me tell what I remember of my first pond, at a time when Ideas began to dawn in my seven-year-old brain.
Every child should have a pond. I had one, in the woods at the bottom of the hill behind our house in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Not a big pond. It must have been created artificially when the land was agricultural, but now, as the suburbs encroached, it had reverted to a kind of wildness that was adequate to excite the imagination of a seven-year-old boy and his chums. We made our wobbly rafts and set out on the short voyage from shore to shore. I won't pretend to have been awakened to nature to the extent that gave direction and purpose to Fabre's life, but the teeming mud and frog spawn and alga slime certainly entered my bloodstream. We collected crayfish and yellow-bellied newts and painted turtles, and always watched out for the deadly cottonmouth that never appeared. What animation in that verdant world!

Gone now, the pond. Filled in for house lots, the feeding stream channeled through buried conduits. No pond or ditch for the seven-year-olds who grow up there today. Those boys and girls are no doubt affixed to their Xboxes, living in a vicarious world of someone else's imagination.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


A repeat pic of Anne's from several years ago. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Here I am, run wild, and I shall be so till the end"

A few more words about J. Henri Fabre.

His works are voluminous, and my college library has a representative sample. As I take down those century-old translations today I see my name filling the old check-out cards in the back pockets. I apparently read a lot of Fabre as a young man. Not that I was particularly interested in insects. I was interested in learning how to see. And how to describe what I saw. Fabre was a master.

The best selected introduction to Fabre's work these days is Edwin Way Teale's The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, a selection of his writing, with a photo on the cover of the master's laboratory, preserved today as a museum as Fabre left it, like Darwin's study in England.

Fabre's life was rather more stressed than Darwin's, at least as far as finances were concerned. At age eighteen, in 1842, he began to earn his living as a schoolteacher, his meager salary often in arrears. In 1852 he became a professor at the Lycee of Avignon, where he labored for eighteen years at a salary that never increased in all that time, spending his few personal hours in the study of insects. In 1870 he was dismissed -- and denounced from the pulpit -- for admitting girls to his science class.

Now began a long hard struggle to support his family with his pen, all the while pursuing his great life's work in isolation from the professional scientific establishment. One by one, his classic books on the lives of insects were issued to little attention.

Finally, in his mid-eighties, Fabre was discovered by the literary and scientific establishments, and showered by international acclaim, scientific awards, a generous government pension, and the laboratory instruments he had never been able to afford. Edwin Way Teale writes of the old man, as he neared his nineties, "His sense of wonder outlived his sense of sight; his interest and enthusiasm outlasted his strength."

May we all be so generously blessed with wonder and delight.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pitching one's mansion in the place of excrement

Stephan Pastis's comic Pearls Before Swine had a couple of strips recently about Donny the Dung Beetle. The gist of which was: If you think you have problems, Donny has it worse. (Click to enlarge.)

Which reminded me of an episode in J. Henri Fabre's book The Sacred Beetle and Others, published in English in 1918.

I've written about dung beetles before, and about Fabre. Fabre was the Homer of the insect world. He spent his life studying insects, and wrote about them in a series of books that are as delightful to read today as a century ago -- full of experiment and close observation, described with a flair worthy of a poet. And still in print.

For his studies on dung beetles he bribed neighborhood children with lollipops to bring him cow pats. And he watched, long and patiently, as the beetles excavated the precious ordure from the pat and molded it into balls, which they then pushed backwards away to a place of security where the ball would be buried as a well-provisioned pantry for the owner or his progeny.

And often, as he rolled his ball along, another beetle would sometimes ride along on top of the ball, waiting for an opportunity to purloin the nutritious sphere, thus avoiding the drudgery of making a ball of his own.

And now comes the experiment I have in mind, in which Fabre sought to test cooperation between a ball's lawful owner and the potential usurper.

Fabre fixed the ball to the ground with a long straight pin, the head of which was embedded in the dung.

The pusher fruitlessly pushes. He walks three times around the ball seeking an obstruction. Finding nothing, he tries pushing again. To no avail.

He looks on top. Nothing but the interloper.

"Now is the time, the very time, to claim assistance," writes Fabre, "which is all the easier as his mate is there, close at hand, squatting on the summit of the ball." At last, after much pushing and bumping, the thief-in-waiting comes down to help. After all, it's his problem too.

Together, they start exploring under the ball, and soon find the pin. No fools these, they dig themselves under the ball and start heaving. Up. Up. Pushing the dung-ball up the pin. Standing on their fore-legs, pushing with the rear legs. Up. Up. Until -- voila! -- the ball drops off the pin.

The rolling resumes.

But the thief-in-waiting, having deigned to help, climbs back aboard, waiting for the hard work to be completed before he makes his felonious move.

I've always loved the image of the infinitely curious Fabre down on his knees, watching this drama of his own contrivance. And one can't help but feel a pang of sympathy for Donny the Dung Beetle, having to put up with entomologists with pins as well as false mates and natural obstacles.

The next time you are inclined to whine about your travails, keep Donny in mind.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


A Thanksgiving Day "thank you" from me and Anne to the hundreds of people around the world who visit here every day, and especially to those of you who have introduced yourselves in Comments and made yourselves comfortable on the Porch. Your presence is a blessing. Click Anne's pic to enlarge.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I passed a kid on the campus yesterday with a tee shirt that said: "If it's too loud, you're too old."

Well, there you have it.

Yes, it's too loud. The television. The traffic. The neighbor's leaf blower. The music. The national discourse.

And I'm too old. Tending towards silence. OK, maybe Elvis singing Love Me Tender just loud enough to dance to in the kitchen. Maybe a Chopin nocturne late at night, pianissimo.

The range of audibility of the human ear can be represented as a graph of sound intensity versus frequency. The lower boundary of the range is the threshold of hearing: for example, at a frequency of 256 vibrations per second (middle-C on the musical scale), a sound must have a intensity level of about 20 decibels (the loudness of rustling leaves) to be heard at all. The upper limit of the range of audibility is the threshold of pain. At the frequency of middle-C the limit of pain has an intensity level of about 130 decibels, slightly less than the sound of a leaf blower at close range.

I like to think of the graph of human audibility as a blank canvas upon which the world paints with sound. For example, the shrill double-note of the blue jay (three-tiered in frequency, at 3000, 2000, and 1000 vibrations per second, repeated twice) and the cacophonous caw of the crow (between 1000 and 2000 vibrations per second) add dollops of color to the canvas in the mid-decibel range. The chickadee's call is more sharply defined in frequency (at about 2800 vibrations per second), but can range widely in loudness depending on the distance of the bird. The nuthatch fills in the low-decibel part of the graph with its tap-tap-tap and a loudness in a conifer forest just above the threshold of hearing. There are other natural sounds that can only be heard in the complete absence of noise: the papery shiver of beech leaves on their branches, the ethereal whir of mourning doves rising from the ground, the rattle of the seedpods of wild indigo when stirred by the wind.

A blank canvas, waiting for the delicate brushstrokes.

The seedpods of wild indigo stirred by the wind.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

One simple wish

Let me share a poem, an early work of the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, called "Our Lady of Ardboe." I would post it here in its entirety, but that may not be legit. You can find it on the web, or, better, buy the whole shebang. Muldoon was in his mid-twenties when he wrote the poem, in 1977, making his way in a craft that would eventually take him to the very top of the game.

The poem has three parts. The first, in six lines, evokes a moment both secular and holy. A girl at the half-door of an Irish cottage looks out upon a field of thistles, gorse and cattle. "She stood there as in Bethlehem/ One night in nineteen fifty-three or four." Perhaps it is his mother the poet imagines, or perhaps his friend Seamus Heaney's wife who came from Ardboe; at the very least the date provides a rhyme. The cattle kneel, a characteristic behavior that seems to have had a prayerful significance in Irish Catholic lore, evoking the reverence that even dumb animals expressed in the stable on the first Christmas. Watching the cattle, the girl kneels too, an act of apparently spontaneous piety.

Both secular and holy. In the rural Catholic environment in which Muldoon grew up I would suppose that there was not much space between secular and holy. Everything, even kneeling cattle, possessed a sacramental significance, a transparency that let the divine shine through. The whole of the natural world was charged with the ancient drama of sin and salvation.

In the second part of the poem, a sonnet, the poet gives the girl her due. "Who's to know what's knowable?" he asks. "Milk from the Virgin Mother's breast,/ A feather off the Holy Ghost?/ The fairy thorn? The holy well?" Catholicism, fairy faith: Who's to say? We all wish that there be more to life than "a job, a car, a house, a wife --/ The fixity of running water." The girl at the door makes her poetry out of what she has been given, those intimations of transcendence that reason calls superstition.

The third part of the poem, again a sestet, begins with a partial recital of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, something familiar to all of us of a certain age who grew up in the Catholic faith. "Mother of our Creator, Mother of our Saviour, Mother most amiable, etc." Here, I think, the poet is evoking both the young woman at the door and the Catholicism of his youth. Then, the final cryptic couplet:
And I walk waist-deep among the purple and golds
With one arm as long as the other.
The purple and gold are easy enough; we are back -- waist deep -- in the thistle and gorse. "One arm as long as the other"? What can the poet mean? I suspect he is walking away from the mumbled litany and bent knee of rural Catholic Ireland into his own university world of secular poetry in the language of Homer and Heaney, a new kind of litany in which kneeling cattle evoke not Bethlehem but the girl at the door who thinks of Bethlehem and who might, "as well as the next" -- one arm as long as the other -- "unravel/ The winding road to Christ's navel."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cosmic view

When writing about Philip and Phylis Morrison's Powers of Ten the other day I found I had made the following notation in the flyleaf, perhaps a dozen or more years ago:
32 volumes
1000 pages per vol
1200 words per page
5 letters/wd
=200 million letters
So, 200 million letters in the 32 volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Why was I making that estimate?

I can think of several possibilities. Perhaps…

1. I was making a comparison with the number of nucleotide pairs in the human DNA; that is, the number of steps -- ATTGCCCTAA, etc. -- on the double-helix. If the information on the human genome -- an arm's length of DNA in every human cell -- were written out in ordinary type, it would fill 15 sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nearly 500 thick volumes of information labeled YOU.

Think of that for a moment. Fifteen 32-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica in every invisibly-small cell of your body. And every time a cell reproduces, all of that information has to be transcribed correctly.

Did I say the other day that it took a semester to stretch the imagination to grasp the universe of the galaxies? It could take another semester to stretch the imagination to grasp the scale of the molecular machinery that makes our bodies work.

Or maybe…

2. I was trying to give an insight into the complexity of the human brain. There are something like 100 billion nerve cells in the brain. That's equivalent to the number of letters in 500 sets of the Britannica! Each many-fingered neuron connects to hundreds of other neurons, and each synaptic connection might be in one of many levels of excitation. I'll let you calculate the number of potential states of the human brain. We've left behind the realm of Britannica. Even talking of libraries would be insufficient.

I was marveling here recently about the amount of digital memory Google must command to store all of those 360-degree Street View images from all over the planet, all of it instantly retrievable by anyone with access to a computer and the internet. I imagined banks and banks of electronics in some cavernous building in California. Big deal! I'm sitting here right now in the college Commons and I can bring to mind street views of every place I've lived since I was three or four years old.

By the way…

3. The number of letters in 500 sets of the Britannica is about the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.


Sunday, November 21, 2010


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday offering.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Picnic in the park

Here's the photo that is the starting point of the Eames movie Powers of Ten and the Morrison book of the same title: A couple picnicking in the park opposite the Field Museum of Natural History and Soldier's Field on the Chicago lake shore. Click to enlarge.

When was the photo taken?

The movie is dated 1977. It was based on an earlier 1968 film called A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with Powers of Ten. Was the photo part of the earlier film, which I have never seen?

I recognize the book with the clock face by the man's hand; it is the volume called Time in the Time-Life Books Science Series, to which my new and growing family subscribed in the 1960s. This volume was published in 1966. The other book, The Voices of Time, I don't recognize, but easy to track down on Amazon. It's the book edited by J. T. Fraser and subtitled "A comprehensive survey of man's views of time as understood and described by the sciences and the humanities," also published in 1966. The date is consistent with the earlier film.

But wait. We also have copies of Science and Scientific American at the man's shoulder. The title header on Science is too modern for the 1960s. And the photograph on the cover is powerfully suggestive of the surface of Mars. The Viking 1 Lander reached the Martian surface on June 19, 1976. Viking 2 touched down on September 3 of the same year.

The picnic photo has north at the top, so from the shadows we are near mid-day. An estimate of the angle of the shadow (I used the fellow's head), together with Chicago's latitude (42 degrees), indicates the photo was taken late-August-ish. So, to the on-line archive of Science. We are looking at the issue for 22 August 1976, showing on the cover stereographic images of Mars' surface made with the two lander cameras. That issue of Science was packed with Viking science. I remember it well. It was a thrilling time.

Easy now to track down the issue of Scientific American: September 1976, a special issue on food and agriculture. The cover image is a Landstat 2 photo of the Imperial Valley on the border of California and Mexico, made from an altitude of 570 miles. The first Landstat satellite was launched in 1972. Landstat 2 was launched in January 1975 and operated until 1981. Ah, those were glory days of space science. And the glory days of Scientific American too, with Martin Gardner conducting his feature on Mathematical Games and the book reviews in the always engaging hands of Philip Morrison.

So our picnic is late August 1976. America has just celebrated its Bicentennial. Gerald Ford is President and edges out Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. Jimmy Carter has been nominated by the Democrats. The Summer Olympics in Montreal are concluded. The Viking Landers are looking for life on Mars.

And I have just wasted an hour of a lovely afternoon. Thanks, Tom.

Goodbye to Brian Marsden, keeper of the skies.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Coming of age in the Milky Way

Tom emailed me this link to a nifty interactive scale of the universe.

This sent me to the back room upstairs to see if I could find the granddaddy of scales of the universe, Kees Boeke's delightful little book from 1957, Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps. I don't remember exactly when I obtained my copy, but it can't have been long after it first appeared in English. And, yes, here it is, coffee-stained, dog-eared, frazzled from use.

The book begins with a picture of a girl sitting in a deck chair in the courtyard of the alternative school established by Boeke in the Dutch village of Bilthoven. A succession of drawings zooms out by 26 orders of magnitude to a view that includes the most distant visible galaxies, then zooms in by 13 orders of magnitude to the nucleus of an atom. The book has an Introduction by the eminent physicist Arthur Compton.

Boeke was an interesting fellow -- a pacifist, a Quaker missionary, and an innovative educational reformer. Cosmic View had its origin as a classroom project. He writes in the Foreward:
We tend to forget how vast are the ranges of existing reality which our eyes cannot directly see, and our attitudes may become narrow and provincial. We need to develop a wider outlook, to see ourselves in our relative position in the great and mysterious universe in which we have been born and live…It is therefore important in our education to find the means of developing a wider and more connected view of our world and a truly cosmic view of the universe and our place in it.
Boeke took his students on a cosmic adventure, engaging them as much as possible in working out the details. His book has inspired numerous imitations, most notably Charles and Ray Eames' film Powers of Ten (1977, watchable on YouTube) and Philip and Phylis Morrison's book elaboration of the film, Powers of Ten: About the Relative Sizes of Things in the Universe (1982). For years I used the Morrison book as a supplementary text for my general studies course The Universe. It is the best one-volume introduction to science I know of. I'd tell my students: Don't think of this book as a text to resell at the end of the semester; think of it as a first element of a family library for your children and grandchildren.

My course The Universe pretty much recapitulated the outward half of Boeke's journey. We began with the first step of a walk with a surveyor of the Pharaoh from Alexandria to Syene, down the valley of the Nile, then in just about 26 lectures traveled outward to the Big Bang, discovering how distances were measured every step of the way, with exercises that let the students play with real data. When we got to the Hubble Deep Field Photograph at the end of the course, I like to think they had stretched their imaginations to the point where they knew what they were looking at.

Thanks, Kees Boeke. You never knew me, but I was one of your students.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Anne has been bugging me to pay more attention to my bugs.

Hey, wait. I know they are there. I've written about them.

By some estimates, there is a kilogram's worth of bacteria in my gut. A kilogram! Commensal, they are called -- eating at the same table. That's a lot of bugs.

Like everyone else, I was born pristine. Just me, myself and I. But no sooner did I poke my nose into the world than bacteria, fungi and viruses started colonizing my nooks and crannies, like the colonization of a new island arisen from the sea. It's called the human microbiome. Wave after wave of pioneers entered my body by every access.

Everyone has a gut full of bugs and Anne is convinced they are doing more than sharing a table. Maybe they are even -- gasp! --affecting my thoughts.

Can she be right?

By now you may have heard about experiments with fruit flies by researchers at Tel Aviv University. By diet and a judicious use of antibiotics, they showed that gut bacteria had an effect on the sexual preference of their hosts. Flies with bacteria of a predominant strain somehow made their host prefer mates with the same strain of gut residents. Smell is the presumed mechanism by which a fly advertises a particular microbiome.

So, dear sister, what should I conclude? Is the secret to a happy marriage sharing the same bugs? Did I detect in my spouse a certain cooling of affection several years ago when I went on a month-long course of antibiotics to rid my body of Lyme disease -- and heaven knows what else? Are my own gut bacteria frustrated in their forlorn attempt to manipulate my sexual preference by my lack of a sense of smell? Is that attractive woman who batted her eyes at me the yesterday attracted to my bacteria? Gee, and I thought it was my dashing good looks.

It is now possible to transplant an entire digestive track into someone whose system has been ruined by disease. It used to be that the physicians first flushed the new track clean of microorganisms before transplanting, then relied on recolonization. Now it is apparently standard practice to leave in place the microbiome that came from the donor. A transplanted gut and transplanted bugs. Someone else's bugs.

And when the patient comes home from hospital to his waiting mate...
The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


There can hardly be anything better established and more widely accepted by scientists than that humans evolved from "less advanced" life forms over millions of years. Yet almost half of Americans believe that humans in their present form were created especially by God sometime in the last 10,000 years. A 2006 summary of polls in 34 developed countries showed only one -- Turkey -- with a lower rate of acceptance of human evolution.

A new poll on creationism by Angus Reid Public Opinion compares Americans to Canadians and Britons. The results are striking. Only 16 percent of Britons believe in a recent special creation of humans compared to 47 percent of Americans. Three times fewer! Twenty-four percent of Canadians are special creationists, half that of Americans.

How is one to understand these astonishing statistics? Is there something in the drinking water that makes Americans more susceptible to religious myth? Are we smarter? Dumber? Better educated? Less well educated? Or is it that Americans have generally been raised to believe in their specialness, their superiority among the nations of the Earth, their particular favor in the eyes of God? Does it all go back to the Shining City on the Hill, the new Eden established by righteous European Christians who were led by God to a New Promised Land and sustained there by his divine providence?

Take a look at Adam and Eve at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Yes, exactly. Americans. Right off the cover of People Magazine. Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt. Not only did God create humans "in their present form" sometime during the past 10,000 years; he created them in OUR form -- white, Christian, middle-class, heterosexual, with a swimming pool in the backyard. Not only are we unrelated to chimpanzees; we are also elevated above all those folks of alien ethnicity and false religion who we want to keep beyond our borders.

Adam and Eve in the water-lily pool are the first chapter of the narrative of divinely-ordained American exceptionalism that we learned in school.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Into great silence

Why would sane men want to live on a bleak, storm-swept ocean rock, in tiny hovels without a hint of creature comfort? Christian eremetic monasticism began in Egypt in the 3rd and 4th centuries. It was soon transported to Italy and Gaul by Athanasius, Cassian, and others. Patrick and Columba brought it to Ireland, then Scotland in the 5th century. The Skellig Michael community was probably established in the 7th century. By then Irish monks had carried the monastic ideal back to central Europe, in full flower.

A life as spare as that on the Skellig was certainly not typical. Only the holiest or craziest of monks would seek such isolation. By and large, medieval monastic establishments were places of great physical beauty, and, for their times, oases of security and comfort.

Which reminds me of the Plan of St. Gall.

This is a 9th-century drawing of an idealized monastic establishment preserved in the library of the former monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland. I became acquainted with it in the early 1980s when our college library acquired the magnificent three-volume study of the plan by Walter Horn and Ernest Born, published by the University of California Press in 1979. I have just trundled down to the other end of the stacks to see if it is still here, and indeed it is. Oops, there goes the afternoon.

Not just three volumes, but three gorgeous over-sized doorstop volumes printed in red and black on high quality stock, with hundreds of exquisite drawings, detailing the Plan of St. Gall itself, but also providing a historian's best guess as to every architectural and technological feature of a typical 9th-century European monastic establishment. Don't go rushing to Amazon to buy a copy; it appears to be out of print, and a used copy will set you back hundreds of dollars.

The abbey church, of course, with sacristy, vestry, scriptorium, library, and various lodgings for master, porter, and visitors. Monks' dormitory and privy, laundry and bathhouse, refectory, kitchen, larder and wine cellar. Physician's quarters, infirmary, and house for bloodletting. Goose house, hen house, and stables for horses, sheep, goats, cows, swine. Granary, vegetable garden, medicinal herb garden. Mill, kiln, and workshops for coopers, wheelwrights, and brewers. And at the very heart of the complex, the cloister, a place of reflection, private prayer and repose.

A completely self-sufficient community, an eco-friendly way-stop on the road to heaven.

And beyond the walls -- brigands, wolves, grinding poverty, hunger.

Who wouldn't be attracted to such a life?

Hmmm? Where two or more humans are gathered together there's sure to be squabbling. Put two or more sex-starved men together and I would suppose you have a surefire recipe for crankiness and aggression.

Still, the beauty of the architecture, the liturgy, the chant. The opportunity for scholarship. The certainty of faith. Release from the niggling "mundanities" of life in the hardscrabble world. I will admit to being attracted to the monastic ideal in my youth, when I still believed. I am still attracted.