Sunday, January 31, 2010


Anne returns to grace our blog with a Sunday illumination. Please click to enlarge, and then again if you wish.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dream the impossible dream?

Today at 1600 GMT a company called Steron will demonstrate in Dublin, Ireland, a device called Orbo that produces -- so they claim -- more energy than it uses. That is, the energy-out/energy-in ratio is greater than unity.

Spunky little Orbo is proclaimed to be the long-sought perpetual motion machine, the answer to all of humankind's energy needs.

I know about the demo because I have a friend in Ireland who keeps me posted. He's a big fan of free energy, and we have a long-standing bet about Orbo. If Steron's claim turns out to be true, I owe him a beer. Heck, I'll buy him all the beer in the pub.

I know nothing about Orbo except that it works with magnets. Certainly, I could find out a lot more by going on the web, starting, I suppose, with Wikipedia. But I can't be bothered. The bet stands, sight unseen and word unheard.

Does that make me close-minded, as my friend claims?

Well, let's put it this way. The search for perpetual motion machines is as old as machines themselves, so far unsuccessful. The idea violates the laws of physics as we know them. If Orbo is greater than unity it will be the greatest breakthrough in science since science, not what you'd expect to come out of a virtually unknown outfit in Dublin with nothing to show for past success except a website making extravagant claims. All the other bells ring too. This is just not the way science works.

So I think my bet is safe.

Could I be wrong? Of course I could be wrong. Who would have thought, for example, that a 747 could get off the ground, much less fly across the ocean in hours, or that a softball-sized lump of "dirt" could blow up a city?

But some things just don't bear wasting time thinking about. Perpetual motion machines. Antigravity shields. Teleportation. The Fountain of Youth. Better to get on with the joys of living. Like knocking back a cold pint in a pub with my Orbo-fixated friend. And, what the hell, I'll pay for the beers no matter what the outcome of today's demonstration.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The gift

I stood on the terrace, newly tiled and damp with dew, and held my breath, sucked in a deep draught of air and held it, knowing that any second the fiery Sun would lift over the horizon. And there! On schedule. To the second. As if someone opened the circular door of a furnace.

And the wind whispered hosannahs. The clouds paused processing in their gorgeous vestments. Geckos ceased their skitterings and genuflected. I let out my breath in a long slow prayer: Introibo ad altare Dei.

Teilhard de Chardin called one of his essays "The Mass on the World." Sunrise is my daily Mass.

I think of an image of Mary Oliver, in a poem called Morning in a New Land:
I stood like Adam in his lonely garden
On that first morning, shaken out of sleep,
Rubbing hs eyes, listening, parting the leaves,
Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What does it all mean?

A good friend tells me via e-mail that she is reading Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I read the book for a second time two years ago, in the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It's one of those novels I had to read twice -- once in middle age (I would not have had the patience in youth) and once in settled maturity. In middle age, it was all about Anna, and passion, and doubt. In old age -- for me at least -- it's about Levin, settled, happily married, enjoying as much intellectual peace as might be possible in this big, sprawling epic of a world.

The book ends with Levin on the terrace of his house under a starry sky. Away on the horizon a storm has gathered and lightning flashes. He meditates on his Christian faith and its ethical imperatives, and on the vast and seemingly indifferent universe of nebulas and distances spread out before his eyes. He thinks about how it is that the stars appear to move, when in fact it is the Earth that turns under the sky. And he thinks too about how a moral imperative is apparently part of the human condition, as much so for the Jew, the Muslim, the Confucian, the Buddhist -- and, one must suppose, the secular agnostic -- as for the Christian. The accident of Christian faith make as little difference to the moral trajectory of his life as does the question of whether it is the stars or the Earth that turns.

In the last words of the novel, Levin muses: "There will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand the mystery of existence, and I shall still go on attending to the mystery; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more intrinsically meaningful or meaningless than it was before, but it still has the positive meaning of goodness which I have the power to put into it."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mystery and miracle

"Mysteries are not necessarily miracles," said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. That was two hundred years ago and it is still a lesson we have a hard time learning.

Mysteries surround us on every side, the inevitable consequence of being a finite creature in a possibly infinite universe. For a long time, mystery was subsumed as the province of the gods. Every mysterious event had a miraculous cause. The ways of the gods might be inscrutable, but they had some purpose in the divine mind.

Slowly, mysterious events were shown to have a recurrent causes -- comets followed calculable paths, specific diseases were associated with specific germs, earthquakes occurred along geologic faults. We call this the history of science. And eventually, something rather remarkable dawned in the human mind: a recognition of our own ignorance.

Ignorance may be the most important discovery in the intellectual history of our species. As Goethe suggested, mysteries are not miracles; they are riddles to be solved. We chip away at our ignorance. Mysteries are illumined by the light of reason. And with every "miracle" made commonplace, more mysteries are revealed.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Acts of God?

There is a U. S. Christian missionary society that for years has flown its members back and forth to Haiti in a DC3 that stops here in Exuma to refuel. Once, a dozen years or so ago, the plane crashed in a driving rain storm into a hillside near our house. We arrived at the scene just as the passengers, all of whom survived, made their out of the bush to the road. "God was with us," they exclaimed.

I don't want to disparage good people who take themselves to a poor country to help those less fortunate than themselves. The missionaries are certainly less selfish than me. But I couldn't help wonder: If God let them all survive the crash, why did he let the plane crash in the first place? I would be inclined to give the credit for survival not to an interposing divinity, but to that sturdy little DC3 that banged into the hillside and held together.

This incident comes back to mind because the society's replacement DC3 has been making more frequent trips to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, part of a generous outpouring of support -- religious and secular -- for the Haitians. And everyone it seems, is talking about God. Pat Robertson's infamous attribution of God's wrath to a Haitian "pact to the devil." President Obama's "but for the grace of God, there go we." Haitian bishop Eric Toussaint's "What happened is the will of God." And any number of Haitian locals and visitors interviewed by the media who thanked God for their survival.

We are faced here with the problem of theodicy: If God is good, just, and all-powerful, why does he (he!) let bad things happen to good people? Why does he scourge some and favor others?

After millennia of struggling with this question, theologians are no closer to an answer than ever. The best they can do is ascribe inscrutable motives to the divinity; only God knows what he has in mind but it's surely all for the best. Writing in the New York Times, James Woods draws the logical conclusion: If God's actions are as capricious as nature, then he is effectively nonexistent.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Facultas formatrix

Snowflake Bentley is in the news. The BBC website reports that ten of Bentley's more than 5,000 snowflake microphotographs are going on sale at an auction in New York. You may know of Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley as the Vermont farmer who a century ago dedicated his life to recording the exquisite beauty of snowflakes with a microscope and a bellows camera, standing in the cold for hours at a time. Just before he died of pneumonia he published a handsome volume of hundreds of images, no two alike. I've long owned the Dover edition of that book, still in print.

Page after page of snowflakes. Each one an utterly symetrical six-pointed jewel. Ephemeral! Beauty that forms in the air on a core of dust -- a microscopic mineral heart -- and melts away in a flash. But not before Bentley captured an image on film.

There are two stories here that have always intriqued me, and I have written about them before. First, of course, is the human story -- a story of a passionate curiosity, a farmer obsessed by beauty. This is the story told in Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian lovely children's book. The second story is why. Why the symmetry?

The basic hexagonal form of a water crystal is easy enough; that has to do with the shape of a water molecule, an atom of oxygen with two hydrogen atoms hanging off at just the angle that causes them to link up in a hexagonal fashion. (Think of you and a bunch of your friends standing with your arms stretched out with an angle of 120 degrees between them. Now you link up by holding hands. Six of you will naturally fall into a hexagon.) The angle between the arms of the water molecule is explained by quantum physics.

But what about the perfect six-fold symmetry of a snowflake? As a snowflake grows, adding water molecules essentially at random, how does one point know what is going on at another point? On the scale of molecules, the faces of the growing crystal are light-years apart. That is to say, how does a water molecule attaching itself to a flake at the tip of one point, know what's happening 10 million molecules away -- by my rough calculation -- on the other side of the flake? If you go to the internet you will find theories to explain the symmetry -- forced "tiling", sensitive vibrations, that sort of thing -- but I've yet to see anything that is convincing.

Snowflakes aren't the only place in nature where we find symmetry that staggers the imagination. Think of the hexagonal cells of a honeycomb. Or the arms of a starfish. Or the perfect little fingers and toes of a developing human foetus. Why does the stuff of the universe arrange itself into spiral galaxies, planetary ellipses, double-helix DNA, five-petaled flowers, the rainbow's arc? Why?

Why does nature love mathematics?

Standing at the door of his barn with his bulky apparatus, Wilson Bentley was engaged in philosophy of the most profound sort.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

To other worlds

Mars is high in the sky in the evening, the only planet to grace the midnight sky. On January 29, it reaches opposition; that is, Mars is opposite the Sun in Earth's sky. That means we are as close to Mars as we'll get this time around (although not as close as at an average opposition). The Red Planet has a magnitude of -1.3, which makes it just a bit brighter than the brightest star in the sky (Sirius). As we glide past Mars in our respective orbits, the other planet appears briefly to move backwards against the background stars, making a little loop-the-loop in Cancer.

So there it sits, 62 million miles away, tantalizingly near and yet so far.

There have been over 40 missions directed at Mars, more or less evenly divided between the U. S. and the Soviet Union (now Russia), with one unsuccessful Japanese mission and a couple from Europe (a flyby and an orbiter). The Soviets had a long streak of bad luck; a dozen missions failed before they finally landed a craft on Mars. The U.S. has had three rover missions, including spunky Spirit and Opportunity, and is planning the best rover mission yet, the Mars Science Laboratory. NASA is also planning to mesh its Mars exploration program with that of the European Space Agency, with the long-range goal of sending a robotic mission to the surface of Mars that will return some Mars dust to earth.

But it doesn't appear likely that humans will go to Mars any time soon. Back when I was a young fellow, Wernher von Braun campaigned vigorously for a manned mission to Mars, in articles in Collier's magazine. He imagined it might happen in his lifetime. He died in 1977, by which time Viking 1 and 2 had landed on the Red Planet, but humans had got no farther than the Moon.

I won't live to see humans on Mars. My children won't either. My grandchildren? Well, maybe. It will happen, eventually. The Chinese may pull it off. In the meantime, I walk the beach at night with that bright beacon in Cancer, dreaming the dreams of the 1950s when V2 rockets and German space scientists made shaking hands with little green men on the little red planet seem a realistic possibility.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Poor souls

By now you are getting royally tired of Tudor England, and so am I. Derek Wilson's hefty history goes on and on, and I'm too busy tiling the terrace to make more expeditious progress. As I mentioned, the book's slant is political -- the contentious politics of Henry's court, and of Europe in general, including the tangled machinations of the papacy. Henry ruled from 1509 to 1547. It was a watershed time in Europe, what with the spread of printing, the Protestant Reformation, peasant revolts, contentions with Turks and Moors, and the ransacking of newly discovered Western continents. Religion and gold, and lots of ink.

And speaking of ink --

In all of the 580 pages of Wilson's book, there is no mention of two books published in 1543 that may have had as much to do with shaping the future of Western civilization as any lusty monarch or rambunctious priest. I'm thinking of Andreas Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body), and Nicholas Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres).

The microcosm and the macrocosm. Vesalius opened up the human body to empirical observation. He found a marvelous array of tissues and organs, and not a trace of the immortal soul or any seat thereof. Copernicus removed the Earth from the center of the universe and, in the absence of parallax, pushed the stars (and Empyrean) an essentially infinite distance away -- in effect removing any place an immortal soul might find repose. Both of which rendered superfluous all the interreligious squabbling -- Christian versus Christian, Christian versus Muslim, Christian versus New World "pagans" --that defined the era and caused such a tsunami of human suffering.

Of course, folks at the time were rather more interested in theological disputation than in using their eyes to see what's what, which is why Vesalius and Copernicus don't even have walk-on parts in Wilson's book. In that, nothing has changed. We still squabble about our respective versions of immortality. If we do it for the most part less violently than in the reign of Henry VIII, it is more because of the long-range influence of empirical anatomy and astronomy than of Luther's ninety-five theses or the Council of Trent.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Keeping one's head

Thomas More wore a hair shirt under his velvet robes. No wonder he is a hero of conservative Catholics. What could be more Catholic than hair shirts and velvet? Better, I suppose, to wear a hair shirt under your velvet than velvet under your hair shirt. We have enough churchmen of every stripe who pretend to ascetic piety and dally in sensuality.

A lunatic tension between lust and asceticism seems to be one of the defining characteristics of Catholic Christianity, although heaven knows it's not confined to Catholics or even Christians. I blush to affirm than in my testosterone-fueled youth I put pebbles in my shoes and sand in my bed. I haven't a clue what I hoped to accomplish by such minor chastisements of the flesh, but ostensibly it had something to do with meriting an eternity of bliss. My asceticism was phony anyway; I put sand only on one side of the sheets and slept on the other. And the pebbles were tiny.

Lust, of course, is never phony. It's a biological given. The biologist Lynn Margulis, who co-wrote a book on the subject, puts it in the context of physics: "We represent, as sexual beings, the cosmos becoming aware of its own tendency to create and destroy. Sex is the beginning and end of that metacycle of carbon chemistry we recognize as an "I"...In experiencing sexual temptation or pleasure, we enact a cosmic breakdown more primordial than life itself, one mandated in the very meaning of the Second Law of Thermodynamics."

Oh dear, what would Thomas More have made of that? His lusty monarch as a living, breathing embodiment of the inexorable Second Law. And sainted Thomas with his hair shirt trying to keep it all in check.

And while we're at it, now is the time to order the perfect gift for your sweetie on Valentine's Day.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


A passage from Derek Wilson's history of the court of Henry VIII:
Humanism was a different organism from scholasticism, the system of study hitherto prevailing in the schools. They shared common DNA elements but with crucial variations. Study of Scripture, the Fathers and classical authors were the fundamental genetic elements in all classrooms but, whereas the old schoolmen based their teaching around age-hallowed commentaries and convoluted disputation over doctrinal minutiae, the reformers insisted on going back to the original texts so that students could discover for themselves a civilized and pious pattern of living untrammeled by traditional interpretations and barren logic-chopping.
Those early years of the 16th century were indeed a time of intellectual ferment in the universities -- new learning versus old. Both groups professed to want the same things: equipping men (not women) for the good life in this world and salvation in the next. At issue was method: primary classical texts, including Scripture, versus medieval commentaries. We know the outcome: the Reformation and Scientific Revolution.

The Council of Trent and the Galileo affair kept the Roman Church locked in a backwater of history, as the rest of the world moved toward modernity. I mentioned here a week or two ago the 1907 encyclical of Pope Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, still defending the old order and scholasticism five hundred years after Erasmus set the pots of modernity boiling at Cambridge and Oxford. These issues interest me because I lived through something of a replay at a crucial time in my intellectual development.

I was a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame in 1955 when Monsignor John Tracy Ellis set our pot a-boiling with a speech and essay titled "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life." He asked: Where were American Catholic Rhodes scholars, scientists, and intellectual lights? He blamed the universities and seminaries for a "self-imposed ghetto mentality" -- in effect, a slavish adherence to traditional commentaries and barren logic-chopping. His essay was a spark in what was called -- briefly and grandly -- the "Catholic intellectual renaissance."

As I experienced the "renaissance," it was all a bit of a muddle. On the one hand there was something called neo-scholasticism, which was no more attractive to some of us than the logic-chopping scholasticism it replaced -- Thomas Aquinas gussied up in dull modern duds. We were supposed to be excited by Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and the whole Sheed and Ward (Catholic publishers) neo-scholastic stable, but frankly it all seemed like gobbledygook to me. I had fallen in love with the clarity I found in my science courses, and, as for the Catholic renaissance, it was an altogether different strain that attracted me. What did Thomas Merton, Teilhard de Chardin, Sigrid Undset, and Georges Bernanos (among many others) have in common? I don't know, but it wasn't logic-chopping. I loved their journeys into a sensuous darkness, which made a happy (and sometimes soul-stirring) counterbalance to the logical purity of my studies in mathematics and physics. Oh, it was Catholic all right, but more to the point, it was visceral, elemental, intuitive.

Anyway, it's all gone now. Students in Catholic institutions of higher learning today have likely never heard of Thomas Merton or Sigrid Undset, and certainly not of Jacques Maritain or Etienne Gilson. Some 1950s Catholics drifted into a Buckleyesque Catholic conservatism; others drifted right out of the Church into a firmly liberal agnosticism -- in other words, pretty much the same thing that happened when Erasmus showed up at Cambridge early in the reign of Henry VIII.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Can I trade you some colocynth for penicillin?

Or how about some tutty for a roll of cloud-soft toilet tissue?

The court of Henry VIII was catered to by merchants who did a brisk business in luxury items from the Levant and Orient. This commerce went through the trading centers of Italy until the Portuguese and Spanish consolidated their long-haul sea routes around the southern continents.

Derek Wilson lists some of the items sought after in English palaces: musk, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, sugar, nutmeg, aloes, dragon's teeth, agaric, ebony, cane, tutty, senna, colocynth, scammony, theriac, mithridate, camlet, silks, brocades, cloth of gold, grogram, rice and Parmesan cheese.

Some of these items are on our kitchen shelves. Even the poorest among us has a bit of sugar, and maybe a dash of Parmesan. I had to Google dragon's teeth, tutty, colocynth, scammony, theriac, mithridate, camlet and grogram, which suggests that tastes have changed (or we are less likely than Henry to have need of poison antidotes). On the other hand, we throw out glass bottles, aluminum foil, and paper that would have fetched a handsome price on the 16th-century market.

We still import our treasures from the East: flat-screen televisions, iPods, frozen fish, rubber ducks, drinking water. And if we don't recognize tutty and scammony, the biggest reverse surprise among Henry's contemporaries would no doubt be all of the items we pump from the ground -- a vast reservoir of cheap fuel and plastic. We may never run out of mithridate, but when the oil is gone it's gone.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Joan Quigley, where are you?

I've been reading Derek Wilson's In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII. Dense and smart. Not focussed , as usual, on the six wives, but on the six Thomases -- Wolsey, More, Cromwell, Cranmer, Howard and Wriothesley. Very political.

But here on page 199 Wilson says:
Incipient revolt was something sixteenth-century governments always took seriously -- and never more so than in 1525. This was a crisis time and had long been prophesied as such. Astrologers pointed out that, in the autumn of 1524, all the planets would be aligned in Pisces and that this could only be a portent of great disaster. Right on cue in the closing weeks of the year the first rumblings of what would become the Peasants' War were heard.
Hmm, I thought, that can't be right. In autumn, the Sun is in the opposite part of the sky from Pisces, and Venus and Mercury are never far from the Sun. So off I go to the Starry Night software on my computer, to see just what was going on in the sky in 1524. Jupiter and Saturn were indeed dawdling in Pisces in the autumn, but the other three naked-eye planets were gallivanting in other parts of the sky. Run the calendar back to February of that same year, however, and -- wow! -- a really tight gathering of all five planets in Pisces. This is clearly what the astrologers had in mind. Not only that, had they only known, Neptune joined the crowd.

Alas, this spectacular alignment -- within 15 degrees -- would not have provided a visual spectacle since the Sun was smack dab in the middle of the gathering and the planets would be smothered in its light.

Poor Henry. Not only did he have to contend with the not always consistent advice of his six Thomases, the various contradictory urgings from Pope and royal allies, and his earnestly felt responsibilities to an inscrutable God, he had also to worry about the hithers and yons of the planets whose comings and goings exerted their terrestrial influence -- agitating an already fraught disquiet of peasants. Mr. Obama at least can put the stars out of mind. My Starry Night software confirms nicely that nothing terrestrial disturbs the planets' wanderings -- and presumably vice versa.

Monday, January 18, 2010


There are days here when the sea is as calm and flat as bottle glass, an apparently infinite expanse of turquoise stretching to the place where sea meets sky, where sky-gods touch the earth. I sit in a beach chair with my feet in the gently lapping surf and imagine that day 518 years ago when the white sails of three ships appeared on the horizon to the bewildered gaze of the gentle Lucayan people who inhabited these isles. Sails like the wings of birds, sea-birds, white and glorious. God-birds, dreamed of perhaps, but never met, and now they came, drawing closer, folding their wings, kind and benevolent.

And there are other days, rarer to be sure, when the wind blows up from the north, and the waves crash on the shore, glittering like burnished steel, cutting like the edge of a sword, roiling out of a horizon obscured by rain, pounding, wrathful, wonderful and frightening.

Twenty-five years after the arrival of those white-winged gods from the east, not a single Lucayan was left in the Bahamas. The only natural resource of value to Spain's Christian Majesties was slaves, a docile people who were shipped to die in the gold mines of Hispaniola or the pearl fisheries of Venezuela. The islands were left desolate.

I stand on the rocks above the pounding, spray-swept beach, the tide angrily swirling at my feet, and I think of lines of a poem by Grace Schulman, a poem about a crashing surf:
Speed, thunder, surprise. The jarring thump
of low bass drums, the dancers leap and bow,

the gospel singer's growl, the pause, the shout,
dodging the beat, notes jammed with syllables,

the hums, mumbles, and cries, the choruses,
cymbals that gleam in sudden white-gold light.
Sky gods, out of the east, folding their wings on a calm sea -- and then the clash and clatter, the scrape of steel and stench of powder, the terrible exterminating gloria Deo. And now --
How all that matters is to stand fast
on the ridge that's left, and hear the music.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

New moon

I don't want to be a new Moon bore. I know I've written about new-Moon-chasing a dozen times. But last evening's crescent was especially beautiful. It's on my mind.

What makes a young Moon beautiful first of all is seeing it, the younger the better. Any Moon younger than 30 hours is deliciously thin, and tricky to see in the waning daylight unless you have a crisp, clear western horizon. Catching a 24-hour-old Moon before it sets is spine-tingling.

Last evening's Moon was an easy 38 hours old. But youth is not the only thing that makes a new Moon beautiful. There's also the sky -- its color, its clarity, the disposition of clouds, the presence of planets such as last evening's Jupiter -- and how many glasses of wine one has had to drink. Standing half-naked on a tropic isle helps too. And so it was that even a 38-hour-old Moon was breathtakingly lovely. An silver eyelash. The paring of a nail. A wisp of thistledown afloat on the breeze.

There was the time, before clocks and calendars and "top-of-the-hour" television, when folks divided up their lives by the cycles of Sun and Moon. The solar seasons are marked by the solstices and equinoxes; the year began when the shadow of a vertical stick at noon is longest. But that's not something that is obvious to the casual observer. "Solstice" means "Sun-stands"; the length of the shadow doesn't change much from day to day around the solstices. And besides, what fun is there standing in the sun looking at a stick? But the Moon! the month! -- ah, now that's different. We know when the month begins -- when the most keen-eyed among us catches that slip of moonglow in the western sky. Which is why the cycles of the Moon figure so prominently in the world's past and present calendars, such as that of Muslims, who begin their New Year at sunset on the day when the appropriate new Moon becomes visible, or the Jewish New Year, that begins at sunset with the new Moon closest to the autumn equinox.

And so do Muslims and Jews begin their religious observances. As for me, catching that wisp of lunar light with Earthshine gathered in its arms is liturgy enough.

Saturday, January 16, 2010 vacant or in pensive mood...

For those with a decent amateur telescope, spring is a good time for galaxy hunting. There is a swath of sky between the Big Dipper and Virgo that is rich in "island universes", including the magnificent M81 in Ursa Major and the Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici. M94 is in Canes Venatici too, another of Charles Messier's fuzzy spots. And that is what it looks like through an amateur telescope. It's only the bright central core of the galaxy that one sees -- a smudge on the windowpane of night.

Thursday's Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) is the most revealing image yet of this beautiful face-on spiral, more or less a twin of our own Milky Way Galaxy. For the first time we see the faint outer arms of the galaxy, dragging their gas and stars in a grand sweeping revolution -- perhaps turning once on its axis every few hundred million years.

What I love about this photograph is the way it reveals the three-dimensionality of space.

When we look at M94, we are looking pretty much straight up out of the flat spiral of the Milky Way; that is to say, we are looking into the deep universe with as little as possible obscuring local stuff in the way. But there happens to be three Milky Way stars in the picture, the three bright objects with diffraction spikes (caused by the telescope). These stars are less than, say, a thousand light-years away, which is about the thickness of the Milky Way Galaxy in our neighborhood of the spiral arms. These stars are much too faint to be seen with the naked eye.

M94 is 15 million light-years away. If the Milky Way Galaxy were a dinner plate (containing hundreds of billions of stars, including the Sun and the three we see here), M94 would be another dinner plate a few hundred feet away -- down the block. That makes it, by the way, a relatively near neighbor. By comparison, the closest spiral galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), would be a dinner plate just across the room.

Except for the three local stars, the stars we see in this image of M94 are the giants of that galaxy. A mediocre star like the Sun would not show up in the picture at all.

But wait! We have another layer of universe.

Here and there among the stars of M94 you can see what look like little elongated smudges; for example, one above and one below the central nucleus. I can count a dozen or so. These are other galaxies, other M94s if you will, far, far beyond -- other dinner plates in the next town.

And so this APOD invites our imaginations to soar, up and out of our galaxy across millions of light-years of empty space to another magnificent whirl of hundreds of billions of stars, and then on -- on -- on into the depths of a universe whose vastness and hidden wonders our species has only begun to sample.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Geological fault

We did not feel the quake in Haiti, although we kept our eye on the sea during the few hours these islands were under a tsunami alert. Our thoughts go out to our Haitian next door neighbors in New England, Paul and Marguerite, who have friends and family on the island, and of course to the Haitians themselves, who among their many other miseries have the misfortune of living on a tectonic plate boundary.

I saw this photograph on the internet just after I posted my Paul Gauguin musing yesterday. Somehow it reminded me of another famous Gauguin work, The Yellow Christ, a crucifixion scene with pious Breton women kneeling at the foot of the cross, painted in France in 1889. What possible connection could I have felt between the scene of utter devastation and sadness on the left, and the serene image on the right?

Color, yes, but something else.

It is perhaps the most unique aspect of Roman Catholic Christianity -- the predominant religion of Haiti -- that the central image of that faith is a suffering man, accompanied often by the Pieta, the suffering mother holding her son.

Of all the mysteries to which religion responds, the thorniest is surely undeserved suffering. The earth groans and thousands perish. A mosquito bites and a child dies of malaria. A hurricane roars across an island -- and another, and another -- and the hillsides slump into the valleys, carrying away whole villages.

We call it the problem of evil. How can a just and loving God let such things happen? From time immemorial we have created stories and myths to explain what almost certainly needs or requires no explanation. The image of Christ on the Cross and the Pieta at least acknowledge that undeserved suffering is part of the world.

The notion of cosmic indifference is new -- a product of scientific inquiry. We are still getting used to it. It solves the problem of evil by erasing the idea that so-called "acts of God" are willful acts of a divinity. Everything we have learned about nature suggests that we are on our own in a vast universe that cares not a fig whether we live or die. The crust of the Earth moves -- it always has, and always will -- and those who live on plate boundaries suffer. Which replaces the problem of evil with the problem of good: How do we learn to love more earnestly our brothers and sisters who suffer through no fault of their own?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Forbidden fruit

One of the treasures of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is Paul Gauguin's masterpiece, which takes its name from the words scribbled in the upper left-hand corner: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" (Click to enlarge.) It was painted when Gauguin received word in Tahiti of the death of his favorite child, Aline. He had spent months wrestling with poverty, illness and despair. Ailine's death evoked an existential cry that is one of the most mysterious and evocative works of art ever painted.

I have limned the painting before. It has elements of Edvard Munch's The Scream, particularly in the face of the grieving old lady at left and the two women lost in a black cloud in the right background. But there is hopefulness too -- a kind of prelapsarian Eden -- the central figure who reaches to pluck the (forbidden?) fruit from the tree, the child who puts the fruit to her lips, the coy, flirtatious adolescent girls at right foreground. Clearly we are dealing with a complex allegory; what exactly it means was locked up in the painter's troubled mind.

I would argue that this is an intensely Catholic work -- in its questions, which echo the Catholic Catechism, in its bold colors and imagery, in its simmering sensuality, in its dreamy contrast of dark shadow and shimmering light. On the face of it, the painting would seem to be the very antithesis of all that Gauguin ran away from -- the stultifying propriety, the strictures of Catholic guilt, the Jansenistic view of the flesh. You can run but you cannot hide. Gauguin brought his Catholic formation with him to his Pacific isle and tried to transform it into something free of Original Sin. That he did not altogether succeed is evidenced by his suicidal despair, his venereal disease, and the complex contradictions of the painting.

I am often asked why I don't worship with the UUs, given that my firm agnosticism and celebration of nature is so compatible with their general take on things. I could give no better reply than this painting, which is a (perhaps unconscious) melding of the Catholic mythos with a search for an Edenic innocence. Mystery? Oh yes. Sex and sacrament. Saints and sinners. The valley of darkness and the radiance of the Beatific Vision -- the beatitude of a young girl reaching for the perilous fruit. Gauguin was a French Catholic who took himself to a tropic island looking for what Margaret Mead thought she found in Samoa -- an unvarnished, untarnished baptismal innocence. As if we didn't all share the same genes, genes shaped by millions of years of evolution, genes that convey original sin and original bliss.

I like to think of myself as that apparently superfluous and fully clothed figure in the background to the right of the idol, wandering bemused and befuddled in a world both familiar and strange. "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" I know where I came from. I have a pretty good idea who I am. I haven't a clue where we are going.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lumping and splitting

In the 11 December issue of Science, Jim Endersby writes about the "lumpers" and "splitters" among early 19th-century biologists. It was a time when naturalists spread out across the globe collecting and classifying plants and animals. The lumpers focussed on broad categories of likeness; the splitters on the almost infinite degrees of difference. Lumpers, like Joseph Hooker, railed against the proliferation of species among the splitters; only by seeking the likenesses of organisms would the underlying laws of biology be revealed, he argued. He favored defining species broadly, submerging many minor varieties under a single name, whereas splitters named varieties as subspecies or even full species.

When Darwin provided the underlying explanation that Hooker sought -- evolution by natural selection -- it became clear that both lumping and splitting had its uses. Writes Endersby: "If every species had been created in its modern form, their boundaries should be clearly defined; but, if each species evolved from another, there ought to be cases where the random variations that characterized all living things had yet to be sifted by natural selection or where extinction had not yet created the gaps that allowed species to be clearly discerned and named."

In Origin of Species, Darwin asserted that "Our classifications will come to be, as far as they can be so made, genealogies."

To some extent, the distinction between lumpers and splitters continues today among biological taxonomists. A creative tension between the general and the particular is at the heart of science. Without the general, there can be no "laws of nature." Without careful attention to the particular, the "general" can only be an airy generalization.

We are all of us, even in our nonscientific lives, lumpers or splitters. Some of us are most excited by the big picture -- politics, ecology, global warming. Others focus on next-door neighbors, the backyard garden, this morning's sunrise. Even within these broad categories we lump and split. We love our fellow humans, for example, but we fall in love with a single individual.

The biggest lump in the human conceptual repertoire, I suppose, is God. The finest split is the subatomic particle. Darwin resolved the lumper/splitter debate of early 19th-century naturalists with the idea of incremental common descent -- taxonomy as geneology. The same might be possible with the memes by which we order our intellectual lives. Our ideas no more came fully formed into the world than did species by special creation. They evolved from beginnings that are lost in the mists of time. Each of us -- intellectually -- is a twig on an evolutionary tree of ideas; we gathered up our conceptual understanding of the world from a well of history that includes both nature and nurture. We lump and split, but our categories are given by our pasts. Even the most creative among us drags our memetic inheritance into the future, as a biological species or individual expresses a historical gathering of genes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Carson and Cousteau

Ted Turner,the media entrepreneur, once said that if Rachel Carson was the mother of the environmental movement, then Jacques Cousteau was the father. I have just read back to back biographies of Carson and Cousteau. It would be hard to imagine two more different people: Carson -- solitary, unassuming, apparently asexual (although given to intense emotional relationships, especially with women); Cousteau -- gregarious, charismatic, physically voracious. What they shared was a love of the sea and a passionate desire to defend it against the predations of humanity.

I read these biographies at the edge of the sea, on an island in the Bahamas. In the almost twenty years we have been coming here, we have watched the slow erosion of the natural environment. You might even say we were part of the erosion. But we tried to lay a gentle hand on the land, and keep our hands off the sea. We pick up from the beach each year the plastic detritus that washes ashore (although it ends up in an iffy landfill at the back of the island). We have left our property pretty much as we found it, although to do so means an annual mano a mano battle with love vine and bur grass. We rely on the breezes for air conditioning and the Sun for drying clothes. I'm not trying to sound holier-than-thou; lord knows my ecological footprint is larger than it needs to be. But when I see the new developments hereabouts that cater to wealthy Americans, I feel positively virtuous.

The general strategy is to strip the land bare, dunes and all, down to bare rock and sand, shedding tons of reef-killing sediment into the sea. Then truck in plants, sod, and trees that require lots of water and pesticides to keep tidy and picturesque. Then, multimillion dollar air-conditioned homes that might be lived in a few weeks a year. What's the point, I wonder, of coming to this Edenesque place and turning it into Florida.

Jacques Cousteau was an effective advocate for the environment, but he had a taste for the highlife. My own affections run more to Rachel Carson, who finally had enough financial success to buy a cottage on her beloved coast of Maine, on a piece of property she maintained in its natural state. Cousteau live to age 85, long enough to make a mess of his life and the lives of those around him. Carson died of cancer at age 56, regretting more than anything else that she would no longer be able to enjoy her pristine tide pools.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Modernism -- Part 3

According to the Modernists, we are to look for the origins of religion within ourselves, in the innately human response to the mystery we encounter when we stand at the (always evolving) limits of scientific and historical knowing. In his 1907 encyclical, Pius X wrote dismissingly of the Modernists: "The object of science, they say, is the reality of the knowable; the object of faith, on the contrary, is the reality of the unknowable...Therefore if any religion at all is possible, it can only be the religion of an unknowable reality." Is it possible to imagine a Roman Catholic Church that a modern scientific skeptic might embrace -- a religion of "unknowable reality"?

Possible to imagine, yes, although unlikely to happen.

First the negatives.

Get rid of archaic doctrines that not only fail to meet the standards of 21st-century knowing, but which also -- ironically -- objectify and therefore reduce the Deus Absconditus of the mystics, the unknowable divine seen through a glass darkly. Admit, with the Modernists, that all our intimations of the divine are incomplete and evolving. Jettison the anthropomorphic spirits, the philosophical dualism, the miracles, the authoritarianism, the triumphalism, the paternalism, the misogyny, the homophobia, the active proselytizing of "heathens.". And toss Pascendi Dominici Gregis on the trash heap of history.

Then the positives.

Celebrate the story of Jesus as the founding myth -- the human Jesus glimpsed through the fog of history.

Celebrate the Mystery -- the unknowable reality -- by embracing unflinchingly the scientific quest for knowledge that leads us ever more deeply into the splendor and wonder of existence.

Celebrate the Church's long and glorious history of art, architecture, music and literature.

Celebrate the Church's traditional commitment to health care and education.

Celebrate the Church's (not always adhered to) tradition of social justice.

Celebrate the liturgies that have traditionally been closely tied to the annual and diurnal cycles of the Sun, the material elements of creation, and the adventure of the human soul from birth to death.

Imagine, if you will, a Church of equal women and men bound together in joy, gathering its authority from the ground up, acting communally on behalf of ecumenism, peace, justice, health, education and the ecological integrity of the planet. The "Real Presence" of the Eucharist in such a Church would be the reality of the communal meal itself, to which all are invited, not as an invitation to the Truth, but as a celebration of the truth -- amply confirmed by science -- that we are all one human species under the Sun and we sink or swim together.

A Church not of archaic supernaturalist doctrine but of actual and sanctifying natural grace.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Modernism -- Part 2

The drawing above, from 1922, suggests the tone of the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Admit that dogma is mutable, subject to scientific and historical circumstance, says the pope, and you are on the slippery slope -- or descending stairway -- to atheism.

The encyclical perceptively gets at the gist of Modernism: "Science and history are confined within two boundaries, the one external, namely, the visible world, the other internal, which is consciousness. When one or other of these limits has been reached, there can be no further progress, for beyond is the unknowable." It is in confrontation with the unknowable that the Modernists look for the origin of the religious instinct, says the pope -- "the need of the divine in a soul which is prone to religion," in his disapproving words. Since both the external and internal boundaries of knowing evolve -- with science and history -- then (according to the Modernists) the dogmas of religion must evolve too.

Traditional dogmas, such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of Jesus, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist, must be understood symbolically, asserted the Modernists, as symbols that at once reveal and conceal the unknowable divine. In this sense, science and faith exist in separate, waterproof compartments -- what Stephen Jay Gould would later call non-overlapping magisteria.

Flannery O'Connor famously said, "If the Real Presence in the Eucharist is only symbolic, then the hell with it" or words to that effect. In this she echoed Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Admit that the traditional miracles of faith are to be understood only symbolically and you lay an ax to the very root of faith, says the pope. Either Christ was God and he rose from the dead, or your faith is in vain. There is no such thing as "non-overlapping magisteria." There is only one magisteria, and that is the Church of Rome -- as embodied temporarily in the pontiff himself -- with responsibility to maintain the immutable (and literal) deposit of faith.

Now, a century later, the standoff within the Church is pretty much where it was a century ago when the encyclical was written. Most of the Catholics among my academic acquaintances will not admit to taking literally such doctrines as the Virgin Birth, the Assumption of Mary, or even the Resurrection of Christ. Yet they do not abandon the doctrines either, reciting the Creed at Mass as if the words were literally true. They are what I call agnostic Catholics, living in a curious world of doctrines they neither fully affirm or reject -- a world of non-overlapping magisteria.

I believe Pius X's encyclical against the Modernists was correct in suggesting that the notion of non-overlapping magisteria is bogus. You can't have your scientific cake and eat it too. Jesus was born of a virgin or he was not -- the event took place within the world of phenomena and therefore is or is not a historical fact. If the Virgin Birth is only a symbol, then it is an archaic symbol that points to a falsehood, and Flannery O'Connor is right to say "To hell with it."

So where does that leave us? Shall we take that last step from the descending staircase into a robust Dawkinsesque atheism? Do we take a sidewise step and join up with the UUs? Or is it possible that the Church can redefine itself in some meaningful way within the scientific and historical context of the 21st century -- a sacramental Eucharist, say, without "transubstantiation"? On this fraught topic, more tomorrow.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Modernism -- Part 1

As a freshman at the University of Notre Dame I lived in Zahm Hall, named for the priest-scientist John Zahm. Zahm, I later discovered, was a rather remarkable man, an astute scientist, a devout Catholic, an ardent evolutionist, and a theological reformer earnestly interested in bringing the Church and science into consonance. He was part of what came to be called the Modernist movement within the Church, a "heresy" that flourished in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Although somewhat loosely defined, Modernists tended to oppose a natural/supernatural dualism, were suspicious of miracles, believed in the evolution of dogma within a historical and scientific context, looked for the origins of religion and ideas of God within human nature, supported the democratization of the Church and separation of church and state, and so on. The movement was roundly condemned by Pope Pius X in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis. This extraordinary document put the brakes on Modernist thinking within the Church, and reaffirmed the primacy of Scholastic philosophy and the authority of Rome. If the Modernists wanted to make theology subservient to science, the pope stressed unambiguously that the proper relationship was the other way around.

Pascendi Dominici Gregis was as important in affirming a tension between science and faith as was the condemnation of Galileo in the 17th century. The response of the Modernists to the encyclical was threefold. Some, such as Father Zahm, at least publicly acquiesced (his book on evolution and dogma had earlier been placed on the Index of Forbidden Books). Some took the logical next step into agnosticism or outright atheism, leaving the Church entirely. Others simply divided their lives into two parts -- outward obedience to enforced orthodoxy, and private dissent. At the University of Notre Dame, where I spent eight years of my young life, we were given a Scholastic grounding in orthodox theology and a scientific education the equal to that of any secular institution. In accordance with the spirit of Pascendi Dominici Gregis, I had to get the permission of a priest/teacher to take Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution out of the library -- a Modernist document if ever there was one -- but getting permission was simply a matter of asking. It was a strange and discontinuous intellectual environment -- the university walking a delicate line between adherence to Roman authority and building a thoroughly modern university. Although much of the fraughtness was alleviated at the time of Vatican II, the University presumably still feels the pressure of ecclesiastical conformity, as illustrated recently by the conservative reaction to President Obama's invitation to be graduation speaker.

Pius X decreed in his encyclical that "No books or papers or periodicals whatever of this [Modernist] kind are to be permitted to seminarists or university students. The injury to them would be not less than that which is caused by immoral reading...It is not enough to hinder the reading and the sale of bad books -- it is also necessary to prevent them from being published." A half-century ago, when I was a student at Notre Dame, When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy would never have been published by a press associated with the university. How happy I am to see the book appear under the Sorin imprint, in the shadow of Zahm Hall. Pascendi Dominici Gregis attempted to return the Church to a pre-Galilean, anti-science fundamentalism. As it turns out, Modernism is alive and well within the Church -- although all too often it dares not speak its name.

More tomorrow.

Friday, January 08, 2010


A few stanzas from The Poem by Galway Kinnell:
On this hill crossed
by the last birds, a sprinkling
of soil covers up the rocks
with green, as
the face
drifts on a skull scratched with glaciers.

The poem too
is a palimpsest, streaked
with erasures, smelling
of departure and burnt stone.
The hill, an outcrop of rock scratched by glaciers. Then covered over with a thin layer of soil and growing green. And then the birds, crisscrossing, crosshatching. Layer upon layer. The hill as a palimpsest, a parchment, written on, erased, written on, erased, written on again. Stories upon stories upon stories.

Literary scholars try to reconstruct from the subtle clues of palimpsests the former documents, traces, perhaps, of ink, shadows revealed by special light or chemical analysis. So too does science try to reconstruct former worlds of drifted continents, vanished flora and fauna, ice ages, story upon story upon story.

Here and there on Exuma a road has been sliced through the backbone of the island, exposing in the soft carbonate rock the windblown layers of former sand, the tangled cavities of vanished roots, fossilized snails. Stories. Written, erased, and written again. The eternally revised poem of creation.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The happiness of the bee

Each December, the journal Nature offers a gallery of some of the most striking scientific images of the preceding year, any one of which invites commentary here. Let me settle on this one, an astonishing picture of the five million atoms in a capsid, the protein coat used by many virus particles to protect their DNA. (Click image to enlarge.) It took three years for Junhua Pan, then at Rice University in Houston, Texas, to create the picture from hundreds of smaller X-ray-diffraction images of the Penicillium stoloniferum virus F, which infects the fungus that makes penicillin. (The colors, of course, are artifacts.)

The rose window at Chartres is not more beautiful.

Five million atoms, in long sequences of amino acids, curled into a cozy wrap. The machinery of life at it very simplest functional level. Everything else, the bacterium, the blue whale, you and me, are variations on the theme.

How big is this object? As big as the period at the end of this sentence? Five million atoms compressed into a dot?

That doesn't begin to tell you what we are looking at.

Take the period at the end of this sentence and blow it up to the size of your computer screen. A period on that new screen is approximately the size of this virus.

More than a hundred million of these rose windows would fit into this letter o. What a cathedral that would be!

And Junhua Pan, with the help of hundreds of X-ray diffraction patterns and a powerful computer lets us enter that cathedral, the occasion, surely, for a whispered prayer in whatever language of praise comes to our lips.

At Jacques Cousteau's funeral, his son Jean Michel quoted his father: "The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know about existence and to marvel at it."

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Two bees or not two bees

A few summers ago, my good friends and neighbors in Ireland had an infestation of bees in their bedroom wall. I sent them the following poem by Pauline Stainer, called "The Honeycomb:
They had made love early in the high bed,
Not knowing the honeycomb stretched
Between lath and plaster of the outer wall.

For a century
The bees had wintered there,
Prisoning sugar in the virgin wax.

At times of transition,
Spring and autumn,
Their vibration swelled the room.

Laying his hand against the plaster
In the May sunrise,
He felt the faint frequency of their arousal,

Nor winters later, burning the beeswax candle,
Could he forget his tremulous first loving
Into the humming dawn.
My friend Philip responded with a lovely poem of his own, "The Singular Bee":
The singular bee
Knew nothing of caresses
Had no use for woolen warmth

The singular bee
Knew pleasure in flowers
In closeness meaning
It was much more than one

The hive gave the bee warmth
Purpose, and meaning not understood
But found.

Inside the space touched
Not penetrated by the hive
Touch was exclusive
Breath shared with one
As love

Or so perhaps the two
To the gathered swarm
I share these poems here now because I just came across them in a forgotten folder on my laptop. Living in a world where bees nest in bedroom walls, and -- as here on the island -- ants invade the sugar bowl, brown racer snakes slither across the garden path, termites devour the door jambs, and scorpions delight in hiding in shoes on the closet floor, well, yes, to live gracefully in such a world requires finding grace were we least expect it, as, yes, the two poems above so delightfully illustrate.


...from Anne...

...a New Year's greeting. Click on the pic to enlarge.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Nature or nurture?

In last weekend's New York Times Book Review, Katie Roiphe contrasts two generations of male novelists writing about sex. On the one hand, she gives us Bellow, Mailer, Updike and Roth, who treat sex, and especially adultery, as a grand, quasi-religious adventure, an exploring of possibilities, a carving out of a self from the raw material of animal lust, explicit and satirical, shadowed with guilt, rage, titillation and disappointment. On the other hand, she lists younger writers such as Franzen, Chabon, Wallace and Eggers, who came of age with post-70s feminist friends, who are a little abashed about sex, self-conscious, ambivalent, childlike and cool, stirred by lust, of course, but embarrassed by it too. What the two groups have in common, says Roiphe, Is narcissism, the one taking pride in their daredevil highwire acts, the other in their phallic restraint.

Roiphe, to her credit, gives the old guys their due. "Compared with the new purity, the self-conscious paralysis, the self-regarding ambivalence, Updike's notion of sex as an 'imaginative quest' has a certain vanished grandeur," she writes.

Whether Roiphe is right, you can decide, but she offers up an opportunity to reflect on the twisted threads of biology and culture. What remains constant across the generations is the male sexual circuitry, built into our bodies at birth.

The penis and the brain are in constant communication, exchanging signals up and down the spinal cord. There is something called the "erection-generating center," located at the tail-end of the spine, between the S3 and T12 vertebrae, that can get things going all by itself if provided with the appropriate inputs from above, perhaps triggered by the sight or smell of an alluring partner. The penis responds by releasing pro-erectile neurotransmitters, chemicals that tell the muscles of the penile arteries to relax, causing more blood to flow into the organ, and...

Oh, well, you get the idea. Certainly males get the idea. All that electrochemical traffic up and down the spine over which we have so little control.

But, wait! It seems there's also a specific cluster of neurons in the hindbrain, called the paragigantocellular nucleus, or PGN, that suppresses spinal-mediated erections. The hindbrain is an evolutionarily ancient part of the brain that controls such basic functions as blood pressure and heart rate. It's easy to understand why the "brake" evolved. Even our earliest ancestors presumably needed an occasional rest from thinking about sex.

As the urologist Irwin Goldstein says, a man's sexual response is a delicate, dynamic balance between being turned on and turned off. And that, presumably, is where culture comes in. And where literature finds its niche.

Of all the writers discussed by Roiphe, I am drawn most closely to Updike, no doubt because we are so close in age and background, the same countrified, guilt-haunted religious upbringing, the same unabashed fascination with the feminine, a mysterious continent begging to be explored, a tonic against senescence and death. Bellow, Mailer and Roth -- especially Roth, although his latest books are unbearably sad, embarrassing even -- were part of my intellectual heritage; the new guys are terribly alien.

And so it goes, the unending commerce between culture, the brain, and that buzzing hive of arrant desire between the S3 and T12 vertebrae. It would take a better man than me to sort it out. Meanwhile, I suppose women look on with some mix of amusement, puzzlement and rage.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Circular reasoning

Eratosthenes is best known for measuring the size of the Earth. I suggested yesterday that his greatest achievement might have been his ability to imagine a cosmos of a size that would have boggled the minds of his contemporaries.

There is another aspect of his Earth measurement that deserves comment: That circle in yesterday's diagram that represents the Earth.

We have seen the Earth from space, perfectly round and smooth to the eye. For us, the circle in the diagram is no big deal.

But put yourself in the shoes of a typical Alexandrian in the 3rd century B.C.E. Eratosthenes draws a circle and says, "The Earth". Just that: "The Earth."

Plants, animals, hills, valleys, rivers, seas, cities, temples, waves, clouds: All of this -- all of the intricate diversity of the Earth, everything that is of interest and important to the lives of women and men -- Eratosthenes dismisses in his diagram. He draws a circle with a compass and says, “This is the Earth.” Then, having reduced our multifarious globe to a pure geometrical figure, he calculates its size. This, I maintain, was a pivotal moment in human history, an act of stupendous intellectual abstraction that stands as the beginning of mathematical science.

Abstraction! Stealing from the cluttered complexity of things an underlying simplicity. Stealing from the infinite diversity of the Earth its essential circularity. Putting all else out of mind and focusing upon a single geometrical quality that exists only in the mind's eye.

Here, in Eratosthenes's demonstration, for the first time we know about, we see the three pillars of the scientific method working together: 1) an idealized conceptual model of the world (the Earth as a geometrical sphere); 2) quantitative observation (measuring the angle of the shadow and the distance from Alexandria to Syene); and 3) mathematical computation (in this case, the rules of Euclidian geometry). It was Eratosthenes's genius to put them all together.

The Greeks gave us many wonderful things; try to imagine Western civilization without the underpinnings of Greek politics, art, architecture, drama, history. But Eratosthenes’ drawing of the Earth as a geometrical circle represents something as formidable as the plays of Sophocles, the history of Herodotus, or Athenian democracy: a way of abstract thinking that would eventually carry human imagination to the far-off galaxies.

(I have made these observations before in Walking Zero. You will find them explored there in a much richer context, and forgive me for replaying them here.)

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A leap into the unknown

Let me rehash here a story I told in Walking Zero, of how Eratosthenes measured the size of the Earth. I want to draw on your collective experience.

Eratosthenes lived in the the city of Alexandria at the mouths of the Nile in Egypt in the 3rd century B.C.E.. He was the librarian of the great book (scroll) repository at Alexandria, the greatest library of its time. We know almost nothing about him personally, other than his skills and a geographer and astronomer. The story of his measurement of the Earth is often told.

Here is the relevant diagram. Eratosthenes had heard from travelers of a deep well at Syene, some hundreds of miles down the valley of the Nile, where at noon on midsummer day you could see the Sun reflected in the bottom of the well -- which implies, of course, that the Sun is directly overhead. He knew from his own observations that the Sun is not directly overhead in Alexandria at the same time. And, as the diagram shows, the reason is clear if the Earth is a sphere.

At noon on midsummer day Eratosthenes measured the length of the shadow cast by a pillar at Alexandria whose height he had previously determined, and therefore the angle made by the Sun's rays with the vertical at Alexandria. As you can see from the diagram, this is the same as the angle subtended at the center of the Earth by Alexandria and Syene. The angle he measured was one-fiftieth of a circle. Therefore the distance from Alexandria to Syene is one fiftieth of the circumference of the Earth. From the experience of travelers, he knew approximately the distance between the two cities, and therefore the Earth's circumference. His result, we now know, was remarkably accurate.

Again, this story is told in every astronomy book. But I have yet to come across a telling of the story that notes one crucial point. The diagram above assumes the Sun's rays are parallel; i.e. that the Sun is very far away compared to the size of the Earth -- a remarkable assumption. As you can see from the following diagram,Eratosthenes might just as well have assumed the Earth was flat and used his angle measurement to determine the distance to the Sun.

Presumably he had good reasons to believe the Earth was a sphere {the changing elevation of stars as one travels north/south, the masts of ships on the horizon, the shadow of the Earth on the Moon during eclipses, etc.). But even then, was it fair to assume the Sun so far away? This was, on the face of it, a bold leap into the dark, later confirmed by another Alexandrian, Aristarchus, in what I believe to be the most ingenious work of science in antiquity (see Walking Zero).

At the heart of Eratosthenes' brilliant deduction of the Earth's circumference is an outrageously bold assumption about the size of the cosmos -- one that I have yet to see mentioned in accounts of his story. Does anyone reading here know of a published account that gives those parallel rays due discussion?

Using the well and shadow to figure out the size of the Earth was ingenious. Imagining the Earth in a universe of staggering dimension was perhaps an even greater contribution to the progress of human knowledge.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Seeds of contemplation

Some folks spend the winter curled up in a comfy chair with the Burpee seed catalog, anticipating the veggies and blossoms that will come with summer. I eagerly await my Astronomical Calendar from Guy Ottewell so I can anticipate a year's worth of celestial harvests.

The year begins with Mars on show. The planet reaches opposition on January 29; that is, the Earth overtakes Mars in our separate orbits around the Sun, which brings the two planets as close as they've been since the last opposition two years ago. Red Mars shines high in the sky all night long at magnitude -1. As we overtake, Mars seems to reverse direction and move backwards in the sky, from Leo to Cancer.

The full Moon rises on the same day, January 29, within hours of the time the Moon makes its closest approach to the Earth for 2010. We'll be waiting for its big golden disk to peek over the sea horizon.

January offers one of the best opportunities of the year for new Moon spotting. On the 16th it rises just 39 hours old, eyelash thin. If clouds preclude that observation, February serves up a 44-hour-old Moon, and March a virtually impossible to see 26-hour-old wisp of light. Never mind; we'll catch that March Moon the next evening at a still satisfying 50.

This year's total solar eclipse occurs on July 11 in the South Pacific. Folks will be packed onto Easter Island for that one, but I'll take a pass. Instead, I hope to be here on my own little island on December 21, when North America will have ringside seats for a total eclipse of the Moon.

Guy's nifty graphics keep us posted on the morning and evening dances of Venus, Mercury and the Moon, with Jupiter and Saturn occasionally thrown in for cheap thrills. In early August, for example, Mars, Venus and Saturn have a nice little menage a trois in the evening sky.

And so it goes, every evening offering some sort of delight, with Guy Ottewell and his collaborators as my guides.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Intimations of immortality

And so it is with great pleasure I open Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar for this new year 2010, one of the indispensable tools of the sky-watcher. You have met Guy here before. A polymath and a good "guy"," who happens to have a genius for the graphical presentation of information. He also adorns the cover of his annual calendar with an original color painting, this year recording his visit to the Mayan "Temple of the Inscriptions" in Palenque, Mexico.

In 1949, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier discovered a hidden rubble-filled passage that led to a chamber deep inside the pyramid, containing the sarcophagus of the king Pakal, who ruled the Mayan empire from 615 to 683. There his bones still rested, with his funerary goods. Where, pray, is his soul, his immortal self? Erich von Daniken famously interpreted a carving on the sarcophagus slab as a spaceship blasting off to other worlds (Chariots of the Gods). Does Pakal now royally reside on some distant planet in his robe of gaudy feathers, waited on by dozens of nubile maidens, as surely he must have dreamed? Or did his soul go out like a snuffed candle when his body expired?

Certainly, I am in the small minority of humans who have no expectation of life after death. Why? Because in the face of all we have learned about the physical embodiment of self, and the utter lack of evidence for life beyond the grave, it seems like so much wishful thinking to expect to live forever. Personal immortality is perhaps the most warmly affirmed and persistent meme that infects the human race.

The other evening, with the grandchildren, and after a sufficient indulgence of wine, we had the annual "Goofy Contest," to see who could effect that goofiest costume or activity. It will be immortality enough for me if twenty or thirty years from now one of the grown-up grandkids says, "Remember the time Grandpa dressed up as a ..."

More on Guy's calendar tomorrow.