Friday, April 30, 2010

And speaking of Audubon...

Each morning for the past few days as I approached the plank bridge over Queset Brook I've seen a flash of blue in the willows. Just a flash and my heart leaps. The bluebird of happiness.

A long way from its box, up there in the meadow. Why here? Why not? The plank bridge is a good spot for birds and people. A spreading pond. A purling stream. Orioles. Redwings. Herons. And just once, forty-five years ago, a kingfisher -- a single kingfisher, and never again.

A bluebird is enough. "A man's interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town," said Thoreau, who carried a complete list of flora and fauna in his head. "The bluebird carries the sky on his back," he said.

An oriole makes me grin. A heron makes me gasp. A bluebird almost lifts my feet off the planks of the bridge.

Listen to Audubon: "The song of the Blue-bird is a soft agreeable warble, often repeated during the love-season, when it seldom sings without a gentle quivering of the wings." That's why we love the bluebird. Because it is so like us it cannot pitch its woo without a quiver of its wings.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Starry Nights

Dan Schroeder, a physicist at Weber State University in Utah, is one of several people over the years who have created indexes for 365 Starry Nights: An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year. I just discovered that he has posted it on-line here. Thanks, Dan.

Bloody rags and cruel delight

Many years ago, for my birthday, my wife gave me the splendid two-volume boxed edition of The Original Water-color Paintings by John James Audubon for The Birds of America, published by American Heritage in 1966. Back then, when we were living pretty much from hand to mouth, it was an extravagant gift. Then, in 1993, I had the opportunity to see the original paintings at an exhibit in Washington's National Gallery of Art.

It was Audubon's genius that he was able to combine lively storytelling with accurate scientific description.

He refused to prettify nature or soften its apparent cruelty. When he arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, looking for a printer for his work, he showed his watercolors to the engraver William Home Lizars. Lizars was immediately drawn to the paintings depicting violence in nature: Mockingbirds attacked by a rattlesnake (see above), a hawk pouncing on partridges, a Whooping Crane eating newly-born alligators. He decided to begin his work with Audubon's Great-footed Hawks, "with bloody rags at their beaks' ends and cruel delight in their daring eyes."

Audubon shot his birds to paint them -- and to eat them. He experienced daily the continuum of violence that links us with the other beasts. He also participated in incidents of violence of a kind that separates us from the rest of nature.

In Kentucky, in 1813, a billion Passenger Pigeons came to roost in a forest on the banks of the Green River. Farmers traveled hundreds of miles to greet them. They came with wagons packed with guns and ammunition. Audubon was there. His description of the ensuing slaughter is chilling, During the course of one long night, uncountable numbers of the birds were shot with guns or simply beaten from the trees with poles, each man taking as many birds as he had provision to carry. Hogs were let loose to feed upon the considerable remainder. The carnage vastly exceeded any need for food.

Later, Audubon participated in a buffalo hunt on the Great Plains, a prodigious and terrible taking of life. After shooting his first bull, he cut off the tail and stuck it in his hat. Other hunters smashed open the skulls of animals and ate the brains, warm and raw.

The great ornithologist experienced a twinge of remorse. He wrote: "What a terrible destruction of life, as if it were nothing, or next to it, as the tongues only were brought in, and the flesh of these fine animals was left to beasts and birds of prey, or to rot on the spots where they fell."

Among Audubon's paintings are many of sweet tranquility and gentleness: the sad, wise face of the Great Gray Owl, and the Great Egret with a tail like a flow of water. But here too are Red-tailed Hawks engaged in the bloody aerial battle for a hare. Violence in nature is neither moral nor immoral. It is only to acts of human violence that we apply moral judgments. Most of us do not fault Audubon the use of his gun on behalf of his art and science, but we shrink from the unrestrained slaughters of pigeons and buffaloes of which he was an unfortunate part.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Grimm business

The American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a superb draftsman. He also veered successfully towards impressionism. He could be pompously formal, or endearingly sentimental. But here is the painting that seems to have evoked more comment and analysis than any other, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, painted in Paris in 1882 (click to enlarge). It normally resides in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, but it is currently on display at the Prado in Madrid, paired with Velazquez's Las Meninas (1651).

Las Meninas, although widely considered a masterpiece, has never been my cup of tea; a bit of a clutter, in my untutored opinion. But like many other folks, I have stood in front of Sargent's Daughters strangely moved, and not quite knowing why.

Four girls, ages four, eight, twelve and fourteen, receding from the illuminated foreground into an ominous dusk. There have been any number of interpretations, compositional and psychological, and I've read them all. But...

Rudolf Arnheim, the art theorist, begins his little book on Entropy and Art with this observation:
Order is a necessary condition for anything the human mind is to understand. Arrangements such as the layout of a city or building, a set of tools, a display of merchandise, the verbal exposition of facts or ideas, or a painting or piece of music are called orderly when an observer or listener can grasp their overall structure and the ramification of the structure in some detail. Order makes it possible to focus on what is alike and what is different, what belongs together and what is segregated. When nothing superfluous is included and nothing indispensable left out, one can understand the interrelation of the whole and its parts, as well as the hierarchic scale of importance and power by which some structural features are dominant, others subordinate.
Well, that's all well and good, but what does it mean? Entropy is a physical concept, a tendency of the universe towards disorder. But clearly this is opposed by ordering principles in nature, or else we wouldn't be here. Entropy may grind everything to dust in the end, but in the meantime nature -- and art -- builds islands of order at the expense of a greater diminishment of order elsewhere.

As Arnheim suggests, understanding requires order, and science thrives best where order is most manifest. But perfect order is not the natural habitat of the human mind. Utopias and heaven smack of boredom, says Arnheim, and he is surely right. Our aesthetic sense seems to require some encroachment of entropy, some hint of degradation. And our aesthetic sense is best fulfilled when -- in art, or music, or the layout of a city -- we have an ordered focus that invites repose and a mildly threatening ambience of adventure.

Little four-year-old Julia fixes us with her innocent gaze. Her eight year-old sister Mary Louisa is slightly more abstracted. Twelve year-old Jane illuminates the shadow. Fourteen year-old Florence has turned away from us; she stands like a caryatid at the porch of darkness.

I would propose that Sargent's Daughters transfixes us with the same attraction as a Grimm fairy tale -- Snow-White and Rose-Red, for example -- that same exquisite balance of invitation and menace, order and entropy, that is the natural playground of the human mind.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The universe becomes conscious of itself

By now most of us will have seen this spectacular photograph of a dusty star-birthing region of the Carina Nebula, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. I offer a slightly different cropping from what you may have seen in the media or on APOD. Please click the image to see it it all of its glory.

Let me add some context. The image shows an area of the sky that you could cover with the intersection of two crossed sewing pins held at arms length. Think about that for a minute. Hold two imaginary crossed pins up against the sky and think of the area covered by their intersection, what a tiny part of the visible universe you are looking at. The photo shows a nebulosity that is invisible to the naked eye, in the midst of the southern-hemisphere Milky Way. Where is this object? Our Sun is on the inside edge of an arm of our spiral galaxy, about two-thirds of the way -- 30,000 light-years -- out from the center. The Carina Nebula is in the same spiral arm, trailing along 7500 light-years behind us as we make our languorous 200-million-year rotation about the galactic axis. There are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, including the ones you see aborning here. And the Milky Way Galaxy is just one of tens of billions of galaxies we could potentially see with present telescopes.

Now, in my usual mischievous way, let me juxtapose two images of the heavens (please click to fill your screen). On the left is Gustave Dore's rendering of Dante and Beatrice looking upon the heavenly realm, the choirs of angels attendant upon the Diety, the anthropomorphic Empyrean Fields where the souls of the Blessed find everlasting life, just up there beyond the spheres of air and aether. And on the right, the new image from the Hubble.

I'm confident that anyone who visits here, and probably most educated people, will agree that the image on the right, and my description above, is the truer representation of the universe we live in. But which universe do we psychologically inhabit? I would maintain that the great majority of educated people today have not yet assimilated the picture on the right, and continue to live as if they were contemporaries of Dante. I know I have a hard time grasping the scale of the universe as revealed by modern astronomy -- and I have been studying and teaching this stuff for a lifetime. Coming to terms with the vast size and apparent indifference of the universe is not easy when the tug of culture continually pulls us back into the cozy human-centered cosmos of our ancestors.

Where is our contemporary Beatrice who will take us by the hand and lead us into the swirling star-birthing vortex of the Carina Nebula, and say to us, "See, all this is the gift of the human intellect -- human ingenuity and human daring -- all this is contained in those convolutions of mortal flesh that sit at the top of your spine"?

Monday, April 26, 2010

A commercial break

Someone told me the other day that the movie Frankie Starlight, from my novel The Dork of Cork, is available for download from iTunes and Amazon. You can watch a trailer here, including this scene from the novel with Gabriel Byrne and the wonderful Alan Pentony.
Silence. That's the first thing I remember about the stars. The huge overarching silence, like a thick duvet that muffles every sound.

Jack Kelly led me to the top floor of the house in Nicholas Road, to a garret used for storage. He carried an electric torch to guide us through the gloom. At the back of the garret a gable window opened onto the sloping roof of Bernadette's kitchen. Jack prised open the window. He sat me down in darkness and removed my shoes, small brown boots especially cobbled by a shoemaker in the Douglas Road. He removed his own shoes. He put his finger to my lips.

"Shush," he whispered. "Your mother mus'nt know. She will worry with her boy on the roof." We held our dusty breaths and listened for Bernadette's shuffle-shuffle as she moved between the sitting room and kitchen below, in her stockinged feet, two pairs of woolen socks. But of course we heard nothing. I stared at the open window, my heart in my mouth, and seeing the stars reflected in my gaping eyes, Jack said, "Don't be afraid."

I wasn't afraid. The window framed the stars of Lyra and Cygnus. Bright beckoning stars, swimming in a sea of light. The window was the entrance into another world. What lay beyond the window was not the same outside that I entered through the door of the house, the door that led into Nicholas Road Outside the garret window there were no trams with unmanageable steps, no shops with sweets in tall glass jars on unreachable counters, no kindly people offering the dwarf child beggar's mites of pity. None of that. The window was a passageway to silence. To solitude. And to beauty.

Jack squeezed his large body through the frame, turned and lifted me onto the roof. We sat on the slope of the kitchen roof with our backs against the garret slates. We were sandwiched between two black planes -- the slates below, the sky above. The sky! So luminous with stars. Like sparkling water flowing over black rock. A vast endless cascade of twinkling light. And silent. Utterly silent. As if I had cotton in my ears. All those stars, that cascading river of light, and not a sound.

Jack took bits of the silence and shaped it into words, whispering. He named the stars: Vega, Deneb, Altair. He traced the patterns of the constellations. He told me stories of birds and fish and of Orpheus with his lyre. "Albireo," he said, and the name of the star was like an incantation. He might as well have said "abracadabra." Words ignited on his tongue.

"Stars blow up," said Jack.

Stars blow up. For the first time in my life I understood what words are made of. They are made of silence. Later, in school, one of my teachers did a demonstration with an electric bell suspended inside a glass jar. The bell was set clanging and then the air was pumped out of the jar. The bell went silent, its clapper swinging soundlessly like a boxer throwing punches at a pillow. As I sat with Jack on the roof of my mother's kitchen looking up at the stars it was like that, like the bell in the vacuum. Stars exploded in utter silence. My heart, too, beat as wildly as the clapper of the bell, but there was no sound.

I was six years old.
This scene on the roof was shot on a set constructed in an empty warehouse in Dublin. As Byrne and Pentony looked up they saw pipes and rafters. The stars were added digitally from drawings I supplied. The novel, remarkably, is still in print. If you haven't read it -- and there's much more in the novel than in the movie -- you can help keep it in print by buying one from Amazon.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

More red shoes...

...from Anne. Click to enlarge, then again if you want.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

We golden lads and girls

For Astronomy Day, let's revisit that image I posted Thursday, the Solar Dynamic Observatory ultraviolet false-color pic of the Sun, with the huge solar flare leaping from its surface, to which I added a black dot indicating the size of the Earth.

Consider the roiling, furious bulk of the Sun, stoked by fusion fires at its core, blazing and blasting into space a seemingly limitless envelope of energy that gushes into the depths of space, some infinitesimal fraction of which falls upon the Earth. How much? Take that tiny black dot and back away from your computer until the circle of the Sun on the screen appears half as wide as your little finger held at arm's length. No, really, do it.

And now that tiny black dot you have carried with you -- not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence -- is the actual Earth in relation to the Sun. That dot! That full stop. Catching face-on its own minute share of the Sun's blazing glory, that tiny portion of the gushing stream the dot happens to intercept.

The dot has its own volatility. We have lately experienced what seems like a spate of earthquakes and, of course, the Icelandic volcano. In all of this cosmic violence -- the churning and roiling and spewing and quaking -- you and I, our metabolisms the frailest of cosmic flames, hang on for dear life, remembering those full-stop words of the Bard:
Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Draw her home with music

In a Nature review of Philip Ball's new book on the science of music, Daniel Levitin asks: "Why is it that strangers plucking on strings, dragging horse hair over them or blowing into tubes can cause some of the most deeply satisfying moments of our lives?" With Ball, he offers this answer: "The secret to composing a likable song is to balance predictability and surprise."

Which prompts a reprise of some thoughts I developed in a Boston Gobe column of 1995.

In which I asked: Which of the following strings of letters do you find most interesting?
1) Aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa.

2) One fish two fish red fish blue fish. Black fish blue fish old fish new fish.

3) How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon the bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears.

4) Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

5) Vfg w eklpsi muc dvpk dbjhq a v sm i yu ncq bfox w wgbm ifiai lvdymssa lsa s s aiuro y astwaeqyw rtwvme gv k ljr jxbkdq.
No. 1 is pure repetition. Bor-ring.

No. 5 is chaos; I programmed my computer to generate random letters and spaces. Not much interesting here either.

The human mind is most at home somewhere between perfect order and perfect chaos. Young children will prefer No. 2, a passage from Dr. Seuss with lots of rhythm and simple pattern. A few adults might profess to enjoy No. 4, from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, full of complex, deeply buried patterns.

My guess is that most of you picked No. 3, a snippet of Shakespeare.

Linguists tell us that all human languages are about equally complex, and the level of complexity is roughly equivalent to No. 3. My guess is that the complexity of languages matches the complexity of the human brain; that is, the richness of vocabularies and grammars is about that which the brain can process efficiently and without intolerable errors.

I'd also guess that the complexity of the brain matches the average complexity of the human environment.

We evolved in a world that is balanced somewhere between perfect order and perfect chaos. Our neural systems were presumably adapted by natural selection to recognize and process patterns in the environment.

If I am correct in these suppositions, then No. 3, from Shakespeare, is a pretty good match for nature's average level of complexity. Or, I should say, nature's average level of predictability and surprise. Our brains evolved to process our experience of the world. So too our pleasure centers. As with language, we like music that teases our sense of expectation, and satisfies our expectations just enough to maintain our interest.

Which is pretty much the consclusion that Bell, Levitin and other music theorists are currently proposing. Shakespeare said it long ago (Lorenzo, in The Merchant of Venice):
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look, how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn:
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear,
And draw her home with music.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


In recent days we have been seeing the first images from NASA's new Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), now in orbit around the Earth and sending back the highest resolution images of the Sun ever achieved, such as this full-disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image taken on March 30, 2010 (click to enlarge). False colors trace different gas temperatures. Reds are relatively cool (about 60,000 C, or 100,000 F); blues and greens are hotter (greater than 1,000,000 C, or 1,800,000 F). I have added a black dot, in the middle of the huge flare at the upper left, to indicate the relative size of the Earth. This solar firestorm makes today's pic of Eyjafjallajokull -- below -- look puny indeed.

Fire and ice

This photograph (click to enlarge) of the mischievous Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, by Marco Fulle of the Osservatorio Astronomico di Trieste, cries out for commentary, but words can add nothing to its beauty. Let it stand, then, as an icon for for the powers of nature -- fire, ice, matter and energy -- over which we have so little control.

Iceland is part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a vast mountain range (mostly submarine) that stretches for thousands of miles down the center of the ocean. Here the crust of the Earth is being lifted and stretched asunder by forces from below. Like other parts of the ridge, Iceland is being torn apart, the cracks filled with lava. The rift valley near the ancient Icelandic capital of Thingveliir has widened by about forty feet in the thousand years since the Norse settled there.

Why so much more volcanic activity in Iceland than at other places along the ridge? Years ago it was proposed that a large meteorite punctured the Earth's crust here, releasing a flood of molten rock from the hot interior. But the chances of a meteorite hitting exactly on an already existing "crack" seems slim indeed. No, Iceland simply sits above an unusually hot "hot spot" in the Earth's mantle, like the big island of Hawaii.

Iceland, of course, is where Professor Lidenbrock chose to begin his Journey to the Center of the Earth, down the throat of another volcano, Snaefellsjokull, eighty miles or so northwest of Reykjavik, after decoding the fateful message in an ancient text:
Descend into the crater of Sneffells Yokul,
over which the shadow of Scartaris falls
before the kalends of July, bold traveler,
and you will reach the center of the earth.
I have done this. Arne Saknussemm.
Lindenbrock's nephew raises all the usual scientific objections -- the interior of the Earth is too hot, and so on -- which the Professor summarily dismisses. And so, down they go with their intrepid Icelandic guide Hans.

Of course, as we now know, the nephew was correct in his objections; descend the apparently extinct Snaefellsjokull and pretty soon you'd meet the fires that stoke Eyjafjallajokull.

Still, science fiction is fun. So how about this. Imagine a hole straight down from Snaefellsjokull to the other side of the Earth, insulated from heat and evacuated of air. No need to tediously descend with Lindenbrock and company. Just jump in (with your air pack). You'd accelerate as you fell, zipping past the center of the Earth at about 18,000 miles per hour, then decelerate until you approached the surface on the other side. Where you'd better grab hold of something before you start the return journey (ignoring the fact that the antipode of Iceland is in the ocean south of Australia). Forty-two minutes. That's how long the journey would take. Twenty-one minutes to the center. Rather faster than Professor Lindenbrock imagined.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


On a beautiful spring morning last week, I was out with Professor Mooney's environmental studies class for a walk along the Path. Yes, that Path, the one I called "a one-mile walk through the universe."

I quoted the novelist Anne Michaels, as I do in the book: "If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another." I don't know what we might have learned about this particular landscape in 75 minutes, but we walked, and talked, and sat on the plank bridge over Queset Brook, and shared a few stories about our respective home places, and here we are standing by the glacial erratic known as Dogface Rock (click to enlarge), and -- well, maybe we soaked up a bit of knowledge though the soles of our feet, and maybe, just maybe, each of us went away a little bit more in love with the world. I know I did.

The one thing that makes this one-mile walk unique is the fact that it traverses a landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, as the estate of Oliver Ames, great-grandson of the founder of the Ames Shovel Company and the Ames family fortune. Olmsted was and remains America's greatest landscape architect, the designer of Central and Prospect Parks in New York City, Boston's Emerald Necklace, as well as prominent public spaces of many other cities in the United States and Canada. To be a landscape architect is to be patient. Trees must grow. Plantings must mature. Olmsted said that it took forty years for his works to reach completion.

The Oliver Ames family moved away from the estate at about the time the plantings reached maturity. Now another forty (and more) years have passed during which the estate passed into the care of the Natural Resources Trust of Easton. Olmsted's completed work of art has faded somewhat, like a old master painting with cracks and cloudy varnish. Trees have grown up where Olmsted planned clearings. Banks of flowering shrubs have been displaced by native weeds and brambles. Sandy pools in the Queset Brook have silted up. Still, enough remains of the original design to give a sense of what Olmsted attempted to do -- create a landscape that honored nature and nourished the human spirit. Not wilderness, but art. Know, love, serve. He taught us a bit of how to do it.

So we walked, me and the those bright young people, listening to woodpeckers, watching tree swallows do their acrobatics, picking up snakes, and I found myself wishing I was the students' age again so that I might see what this landscape will become another forty years hence when they are in charge. From what I saw and heard on our morning walk, the planet is in good hands.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's time

It's way past time.

The eminent Catholic theologian Hans Kung has spoken out in an open letter to the bishops on what he perceives to be a crisis in the Church -- a crisis much broader than child abuse. Among other things, he mentions the Vatican's retrogressive attitude toward science.

As someone who has long since left the practice of the faith, perhaps I have no right to offer an opinion. But my affection for the Church remains. Like many Catholics who have left the fold, I care. This may not be the appropriate venue for so parochial a subject, but here goes.

It's time for a clean sweep.

It's time to throw out the pampered bureaucrats in Rome, with their silly Renaissance costumes, watched over by guardsmen in even sillier outfits with halberds no less, waited on by subservient nuns in the Catholic equivalents of burkas. It's time to end the groveling before men who live in palaces, the ring kissing, the ruby slippers, the obsequious deference.

It's time to see the Church as a people, not a monarchy.

It's time to reform the archaic theology based on an inchoate mix of Platonic and Aristotelean philosophy, as if the last four hundred years of scientific discovery never happened.

That is to say, it's time to end the miracle-mongering and the magic.

It's time to admit that women are fully human, and as able -- perhaps more so in the present circumstances -- to minister to the needs of the faithful.

It's time to let men and women ministers, heterosexual and homosexual, live normal partnered relationships in sacramental unions, if they so choose.

It's time to abandon the proscription on artificial contraception that has caused so much human suffering and death in developing countries.

It's time to rekindle the forward-looking spirit of Vatican II and John XXIII.

This morning I walked through the community cemetery of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the order of priests who -- among many other ministries -- founded my college. So many of the stones evoked memories of remarkable men who dedicated their talented lives to the service of others. Be sure of this: there is goodness -- a tidal wave of goodness -- in the Church, waiting to be released, waiting to be empowered, among the laity and professed men and women.

It's time.

This rant is prompted by an invitation from a center for spirituality in the American midwest, sponsored by an order of American Catholic nuns, an invitation I am unfortunately not able to accept. These women, and others like them I have met, are remaking the Church in the image of the man of Nazareth who preached on the Mount. They are living lives of spirituality and service, open to goodness wherever they find it. Almost unanimously, in my experience, they embrace and celebrate contemporary scientific cosmology, both in substance and in spirit. When I am in their presence, I feel a breath of sweetness flowing through a greening Earth. And for their trouble they get hauled on the carpet in Rome, chastised by bishops, lectured by fuddy-duddy bureaucrats intent on rooting out every whiff of nonconformity.

It's time. It's way past time.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Things in themselves, myself being myself

One of the consistent themes of this blog has been the search for "the thing itself," that is, a knowledge of reality that is not mediated by accidents of history, culture, religion, politics, or personal foibles and prejudices. Impossible, of course. We are always to some extent prisoners of our limited perceptual apparatus and the hard and soft wiring of our brains. Nevertheless, "the thing itself" remains the elusive Holy Grail of human knowing.

Science is the most effective instrument we have yet devised to minimize the intrusiveness of cultural and personal prejudice. The goal of science is reliable consensus knowledge of the world out there, not necessarily "the thing itself," but as close to "the thing itself" as we can get. Mathematics, quantification, instrumentation, experiment, impersonal communication, peer review, and all the rest have been devised to strip away the filters of culture and biology.

By its very nature, scientific knowing is limited to those aspects of the real that lend themselves to quantification and experiment. Which means whole realms of human experience -- self-awareness, love, beauty, the apprehension of mystery -- have been, so far, largely impermeable to scientific inquiry. Which leaves ample territory for artists to pursue their own quest for "the thing itself."

I have written here before about the photographer Edward Weston and his explicit search for "the thing itself," and the poet Wallace Stevens' "not ideas about the thing but the thing itself." Virginia Woolf is another artist who sought the thing itself -- "it," she called it -- especially in her novel The Waves.

Woolf wanted to express "the fundamental things in human experience," unmediated, as far as possible, by the novelist's art. She wanted "to reach into the silence" and retrieve something fundamental and universal. The novel begins with elemental description:
"I see a ring," said Bernard, "hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light."

"I see a slab of pale yellow," said Susan, "spreading away until it meets a purple stripe."

"I hear a sound," said Rhoda, "cheep, chirp; cheep, chirp; going up and down."

"I see a globe," said Neville, "hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill."

"I see a crimson tassel," said Jinny, "twisted with gold threads."

"I hear something stamping," said Louis. "A great beast's foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps."
This would not seem to be a promising beginning for a novel, but at least the novelist shows her cards. What follows will be the voices of six characters trying to articulate their unvarnished perceptions and inner feelings. We are taken deep into the inner and outer realities of Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny and Louis, searching for the thing itself. Recognizing that any apprehension of the real must be expressed in "flawed words and stubborn sounds," we end, as with Wallace Stevens, in silence. Or if not in silence, at least with many excrescences of the mind pared away. In his final soliloquy, Bernard says:
"I have done with phrases. How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee-cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself. Do not come and worry me with your hints that it is time to shut the shop and be gone, I would willingly give all my money that you should not disturb me but let me sit on and on, silent, alone."
The paradox: As humans we inevitably perceive and describe, seeking the real, never knowing with certainty which of our words are merely echoes in the sounding chambers of our minds.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Hey gang, site admin Tom here.
Due to some changes that Blogger made recently, we've had to move the blog to a different web address. The blog is now located here:

The rest of the Science Musings site is unchanged. You should be automatically forwarded to the new address, but you should still update your bookmarks if you can.

One glitch in the move, however, is that the comments did not transition. You should be able to leave new comments, but the old ones are absent. I will see if I can get that resolved.

Thanks for your patience and support!

Red shoes

After more than half-a-century, Anne was recently reunited with her red ballet slippers from the time she studied dance as a girl. They have sparked a spate of Red Shoe cyber-art, two of which you can click on above and below. Anne says in an e-mail: "The shoes brought back a flood of memories about those hours & hours spent perfecting my moves with such earnestness in front of the dance studio wall-to-wall mirror virtual world...made indelible neural connections that rule me to this day. Who knows what seeing The Red Shoes twenty or so times at age 11 can do to a little girl brain all mixed up about Art vs. Life."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

That savage of fire

Some of you will have seen this photograph already and know what it is. If not, try to guess. You can click the photo to enlarge.

Okay, here's a hint. The white bar at lower left represents 5000 kilometers (3000 miles). That is to say, a couple of the seedlike granules in the photograph would span the United States.

Let me make it more vivid. Here is the same pic on which I've superimposed an Earth to scale.

By now you have probably guessed. We are looking at a high-resolution image of the surface of the Sun, a recent APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day).

If you could put the pic in motion, you'd see that each of the granules is a bubbling upwelling of hot plasma from below, bringing energy from the Sun's core to the surface, like the churning surface of boiling water in a pan on the stove.

The temperature of the Sun's surface is about 6000 degrees Centigrade. At the core the temperature is more like 10 million degrees C, hot enough for nuclei of hydrogen (protons) to fuse together to form helium nuclei, turning mass into energy in the process.

Every second the Sun converts roughly 700 million tons of hydrogen into helium. And the helium weighs less than the original hydrogen. Five million tons less. Matter has disappeared. Matter has been turned into pure energy. The famous Einstein equation -- energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Every second the Sun turns five million tons of its own substance into radiant energy.

In summer, about a millionth of an ounce of the Sun's depleted mass falls each second onto my college campus. In winter less than half as much. A fraction of a millionth of an ounce per second is all it takes to ignite the felicities of spring.

The Sun never misses so little of its mass; it will go on burning for more billions of years. But for us, that smidgen of star stuff turned into sunshine is the difference between the snows of March and the green explosion of May.

(For photo credit, see APOD link above.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Living in a sea of radiation

Stout little X is our emissary to the unknown. When Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen discovered penetrating radiations of an unknown nature on Nov. 8, 1895, he called them X-rays.

As it turned out, the mysterious rays were not so mysterious as he at first imagined; they are of the very same nature as the rays that enter our eyes from the Sun, only of a shorter wavelength. Roentgen had stumbled into a previously unexplored part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

We live in a sea of electromagnetic waves, from the very long to the very short: AM radio, FM radio, television, radar, microwaves, radiant heating, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, gamma rays, cosmic rays. The wavelength (distance from crest to crest) of a typical radio wave might be as long as a city block. A billion X-ray waves can fit across the head of a pin.

What is it that is waving? Electric and magnetic fields. What are electric and magnetic fields? The things that wave.

That didn't help much. Let's try again.

What are electric and magnetic fields? The things that physicists represent in their equations by the letters E and B. What are E and B? The electric and magnetic fields.

Still unsatisfied? That's because you want to see or touch these waves, the way you see and touch waves in water or vibrating piano strings. Can't be done. Electromagnetic waves are electromagnetic waves -- and that's that.

But they are undeniably real. Turn on your radio. Thaw the hamburger in your microwave. Look at those CT-scan images my doctor ordered last week. Never mind that electromagnetic waves seem spookily immaterial, evanescent, hard to describe in familiar terms. Our equations precisely describe their behaviors. X goes forth in the world as respectable E and B.

The most familiar electromagnetic waves are visible light. Ten or twenty thousand light waves would fit across your thumbnail. They are focused by the lens of the eye and detected by the retina. We were born with electromagnetic wave detectors on either side of our nose.

Our bodies are less dramatically sensitive to waves a little shorter than the visible, called ultraviolet. These can change cells in our skin and give us a tan or skin cancer. We are also sensitive to waves a little longer than visible, called infrared. We feel them as heat.

The rest of the spectrum, stretching away toward the very long and the very short, was X-territory -- until the late-19th century.

We followed X into the unknown. Down the spectrum to longer and longer wavelengths, and up the spectrum to shorter and shorter wavelengths. We learned how to produce each kind of wave, turn it to our purpose. We learned how to detect those waves falling upon the Earth from space, and used what we detected to discover more about the universe.

We are creatures of X. We love our mysteries. When Roentgen announced his discovery, the news spread like wildfire. Public demonstrations sprang up everywhere. "Wondrous rays." "See the bones in your hand." "Count the coins within your purse." Now, Roentgen's rays have now been assigned to their appropriate place in the electromagnetic spectrum. They are as well-understood as the colors of the rainbow. Maybe it's time to give them a name less suggestive of mystery: Roentgen-rays, perhaps, or more simply, R-rays.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


This is the week the first wildflowers appear in our woods. The wild lily-of-the-valley. The wood anemone. The bell flower. The star flower. White. All of them. As if in this season of slanted sunlight they can't waste precious rays on color. Well, maybe the bell flower yields to its blossoms the faintest tinge of gold.

Fragile flowers, all of them. Tentative. Creeping cautiously into the season, testing the mildness of the air. None of that rash extravagance we'll see later on -- those seas of purple loosestrife, those oceans of goldenrod and yellow mustard. No, these earliest spring wildflowers whisper their arrival. Eyes cast down, they spread their delicate leaves like prayerful hands. Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. There is something blessedly benevolent about them. "In a pleasant spring morning all men's sins are forgiven," wrote Thoreau. I bow my head and receive their benediction.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

With every beat of my heart...

I read in last week's issue of Science that an average man makes upwards of 1500 sperm per heartbeat. That came as something of a revelation. When my heart beats faster, does the production line speed up too? Thump. Thump. Thump. In the time it took me to type this sentence I produced nearly half-a-million tiny wrigglers. And I didn't give it a moment's thought.

In four days I make as many sperm as there are people on the planet. Well, maybe at my age four weeks is more like it. Still, every one of those little guys carries my DNA, an emissary from planet Chet. That's its mission, potentially at least. To make more of me -- or part of me. Lord knows how many trillions of sperm I've made in my lifetime, only four of which fulfilled their cosmic destiny.

Remember that scene in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*But Were Afraid to Ask, where white-suited, wiggle-tailed Woody lined up with the other spermatozoa, waiting like paratroopers to jump behind enemy lines, his confused and terrified eyes peering out through horn-rimmed specs, then, in the moments before ejection, nervously playing Red River Valley on his harmonica?

A hundred million paratroopers per ejaculation. Competing in the race for one egg. Even at the level of the basic machinery of reproduction men and women are different. That regal egg, reclining in her bower, on fluffy pillows, a plump Penelope. A hundred million suitors racing, tumbling, pell-mell, scatterbrained, not bothering to stop to ask for directions, not even sure where they are going or why, but knowing they want to get there.

With every beat of my heart. Fifteen-hundred sperm per heartbeat. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


As I've mentioned here before, son Tom has been researching the family tree. I'm amazed at what is available on the internet: census records, property surveys, military records, birth certificates, and so on. He has followed some branches of the family back to the 17th century. I always thought our name was a corruption of the French Rameau. It turns out that our French ancestor was a Raymond.

Anyway, his research prompted a discussion on what technological development of our lifetime has had the greatest effect on how we live our lives. The internet has changed how we communicate, how we organize social relationships, how we get our news, how we shop, how we conduct our finances, how we monitor our health, and just about every other aspect of our lives. I do without television for half of the year; I'd be hard pressed to do without the internet.

But if we are talking about my lifetime, maybe antibiotics and vaccines would be a contender. The further back one goes with Tom's research, the more one encounters lives snipped off in the bud -- children dying of diphtheria, scarlet fever, infections, and so on. Better to be alive, I suppose, than to have Facebook, Blogger, Google Earth, and Quicken/TurboTax.

Still, children died and families got on with their lives. Here's the Raymo boys (my dad on the right) dressed for baseball in 1924. Not much has changed here -- the same pinstripes, the same gear. Drop these kids into 2010 and I'll bet the thing they'd be most astonished at is the internet.

How quickly it happened. Apparently organically. Who understands it? Someone, surely. But for the vast majority of us, it as natural and ubiquitous and the air we breathe, binding all the knowledge and peoples of the world into an almost seamless unity. Teilhard de Chardin anticipated it as the Noosphere, an inevitable successor of the Biosphere, a kind of superorganic being of its own, driven by thought rather than biochemical metabolism, wrapping the planet in an invisible electronic "mist", integrating individual humans as the human body integrates the cells that make it up.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Longtime readers here will know that I have had a lifelong attraction to Christian monasticism, at least since the time I read Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain in college and made my way to his monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky, for a week-long retreat. Not enough attraction to draw me away from love and sex, but the infatuation remains.

What is the attraction? Not a perceived call from God, certainly; that was never the case. No, rather, an oasis of order in a chaotic world, silence, beauty, nature. A sharpening of the senses. A rhythm of living that opens up spaces in the mind for study and contemplation. I think of Gregor Mendel in his garden, teasing from his peas the laws of genetics.

An idealization, perhaps, when the reality might have been stasis, ennui, a paralysis of the senses, a mind feeding only on itself. Who knows?

My erstwhile friend Douglas Burton-Christie traces the origins of early Christian monasticism in his fine book, The Word in the Desert. It is said to have arisen (he writes) "as a quest for knowledge (gnosis); a flight from taxes; a refuge from the law; a new form of martyrdom; revival of an earlier Jewish ascetical movement; a rejection of classical culture; an expression of Manichean dualism; a response to a call from the Gospels." To which might be added a "quest for holiness." All of which might have been at work. By the European Middle Ages, monasticism had been raised to a high art -- in architecture, music, and technological innovation. Not least among the attractions of the medieval monastery, I suppose, was some measure of economic security and peace in a world rife with penury, servitude and violence.

Critics of the monastic ideal have been many. For the pagan emperor Julian, the desert monks were miscreants who refused to share the burdens of society. Edward Gibbon, in Decline and Fall, had nothing but scorn for monks, who "inspired by a savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal and God as a tyrant...embraced a life of misery as the price of eternal happiness." The historian W. E. H. Lecky, writing at the end of the 19th century, employed even stronger invective (I quote from Burton-Christie): The monk was "a hideous, sordid and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain." Ouch!

Yet, for me, the attraction remains. This posting is inspired as I listen to Gregorian chant and imagine the silent beauty of a cloister garden. I suspect we are all of us by nature knights or monks (if I may use male metaphors), activists or contemplatives, seekers of adventure or cultivators of routine. Perhaps society requires both if we are not to go flying off the handle or sink into a mire of convention.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Whence ourselves?

My post of yesterday took me back to David S. Goodsell's The Machinery of Life, and I found myself reading the book again. There is nothing I didn't already know, but it's worth reading again for the same reason one might read, say, Anna Karenina or Moby Dick several times in the course of a life. In fact, Goodsell's book would be a good candidate for the one science book I would recommend to someone stuck on a desert island.

Step by step he takes us through the molecular machinery shared by all life on Earth. Humans have a lot more in common with a bacterium, say, that we might be inclined to think. One of Goodsell's vivid illustrations shows three versions of the enzyme glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase -- vital for the metabolism of sugar -- from E. coli bacteria, spinach, and human. At first glance they look identical. Close inspection shows minor differences. Our shared family tree.

Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorous, hydrogen. Four nucleotides and twenty amino acids. Nucleic acids (DNA, RNA), proteins, lipids, polysaccharides. Rotors, pumps, motors, triggers, dams, channels, gates: Not just metaphors, but functional analogies. The Tinkertoy set that unites all life on Earth.

Many of us seem to believe that anything we can understand cannot be worth much, and therefore we resist the scientific understanding of self, and especially any understanding that evokes "machinery." But, as I wrote in When God Is Gone, the ability to know is the measure of our human uniqueness, the one emergent quality that distinguishes us from other creatures. Understanding the machinery of life does not mean that we will ever encompass with our science the rich detail of an individual human life, or the infinitude of ways by which a human brain interacts with the world. Thousands of years ago Heraclitus said: "You could not discover the limits of soul, not even if you traveled down every road. Such is the depth of its form."

The mechanical metaphor for life does not so much reduce the marvelous to the mundane, as it elevates the mundane to the marvelous. "Mundane" comes from the Latin mundus, meaning "world." The more we understand the molecular machinery of life, the more truly marvelous the world becomes. Anyone who can read Goodsell's book -- or even look at the illustrations -- and not feel elevated is floating in a conceptual universe totally cut off from the place that gave us birth.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Whence pattern? -- Part 2

And so, for the time being at least, we live in a universe that is best understood from the bottom up. Particles interact in a great cosmic jiggle, purposelessly. Somehow out of this apparent chaos, this skitter and scatter, order arises. Galaxies spin. Stars shine. Continents move. Bacteria split and multiply.

And the human brain, the most complex thing we know about in the universe, tries to figure it all out. This we know: A tendency to order was built into the universe from the very beginning -- if there was a beginning.

The great majority of humans are put off by reductionistic explanations of the kind that have been dominant in science for the last four centuries. We prefer to imagine that the universe is on a preordained journey, like Dorothy and her friends on the way to the Emerald City -- if you want to understand the journey, start with the destination. But the opposite approach has proved far more successful in science: Start with the the chaos of a tornado, a girl, a tin man, a scarecrow and a lion. Let them interact and see what happens. The interactions between the players present themselves here and now for study. The idea of an Emerald City and all-powerful Wizard may be part of the mix, but an actual Emerald City and all-powerful Wizard may or may not exist somewhere over the rainbow.

To those who are put off by reductionism, I would recommend David S. Goodsell's marvelous book The Machinery of Life. Goodsell is a molecular biologist at the Scripps Research Institute, with an artist's gift for illustrating the molecular machinery of life, on a scale that takes us below and beyond available methods of imaging. What we see is breathtakingly beautiful.

A random paragraph:
The hundred trillion [sic] cells in our brain control everything, processing inputs from all corners of the body and making the proper outputs. This amazing network was wired in our first few months of life. As our brain developed as an embryo, the nerve cells multiplied and extended many connections to their neighbors, wiring the different portions of the brain involved in sense, motion, and thought. Then, as we grew and learned, our many childhood experiences strengthened connections, remodeling the brain into an efficient machine for biological computation. Together, these cells guide the cycles of sleep and wakefulness, they interpret signals as pleasurable or painful, they recognize colors and sounds and words, they remember things that we have done in the past, they figure out what to do in tricky situations in the present, and they plan where we are going in the future.
Goodsell's language veers toward the anthropomorphic: "interpret," "figure out," "plan." But he makes it clear that there is no "planning" in a top-down sense. Molecules bump around at random until they find a place where they fit, hand to glove. And wait until you see Goodsell's gorgeous watercolors of what's going on in every cell of your body. Bottom-up, yes, but what a bottom, and what an up!

Is there an Emerald City in the universe's future? Who knows. But what we have learned about molecular biology by bottom-up research is itself so mind-blowingly marvelous that to dismiss it as "mere reductionism" is to willfully close our minds to the here-and-now glory of creation.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Whence order?

These remarks are inspired by a review in TLS (Times Literary Supplement) by Martin Kemp of Philip Ball's trilogy on Nature's Patterns. Kemp is the prolific Oxford art historian who appears frequently in Nature on the subject of art and science. Ball is an equally prolific Oxford-educated science writer. The subject of Ball's trilogy and Kemp's review is the oldest problem in science: How does order arise in nature? The problem is made more urgent in modern times by the discovery of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the entropic imperative toward disorder.

In general, solutions to the problem have fallen into two categories.

The first category involves solutions from the top down. These might invoke a supernatural designing agency. Or they might look for similar patterns across ranges of scale or experience, such as the medieval idea of microcosm and macrocosm, D'Arcy Thompson's 1917 classic On Growth and Form, or contemporary chaos theory.

The second category is bottom up, reductionistic -- looking for casual laws that operate at the level of assembling fundamental particles, atoms, or molecules. By these accounts, similar patterns encountered in different areas or scales of experience may or may not be related.

I think it is fair to say that as a matter of practical utility the reductionistic approach has been overwhelmingly more successful. Of course, bottom-up explanations are less satisfying aesthetically, and emotionally. The human brain seems to want unity across the full spectrum of experience -- holistic explanations. We like to think that existence is more than just impersonal mechanical laws nibbling their way into an unspecified future.

Is science necessarily reductionistic? Of course not. What works works. But we are still waiting for top-down explanations that provide fruitful paradigms for research. Just look at any weekly edition of Science or Nature: reductionism reigns unchallenged.

Consider one example of order in nature: the honey bee's hexagonal comb. Kepler sought an explanation four centuries ago (in The Six-Cornered Snowflake) and showed that hexagonal cells are the way to compartmentalize a volume with the least amount of wax. Aha! The bee knows. The bee shares the human (or divine) talent for top-down design.

But does the bee know? How does it know? Surely its propensity for a certain collective architecture is genetically encoded, contrived by the trial and error of natural selection. At least this is the only explanation that at the moment offers a program for research. The human mind may love the fact that the bee employs an optimal -- and beautiful -- architecture, but saying so takes us nowhere new. To say "the genes do it" leaves us languishing in the same vale of mystery -- but it is a vale whose hidden paths and tangled undergrowth invite specific exploration.

More tomorrow.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

From this the poem springs...

I have written here about Karen Armstrong's newest book, The Case For God (July 16, 17, 18, 2009). Jennifer Michael Hecht is the anti-Armstrong: her book makes the case for doubt. It is called, simply, Doubt.

The subtitle: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. Clearly, she spreads her net wide. What all her doubters have in common is a tendency to march to their own drummer, to question received wisdom, and to examine the bases of their beliefs.

Great believers and great doubters may seem like opposites, says Hecht, but they are united in their engagement with the great questions of human life. They are both awake to the fact that we live between two divergent realities. On the one side, there is the world in our heads, a world of reason, love and purpose. On the other side, there is the world beyond human life, a world which shows no sign of caring or value, planning or judgment, love or joy. We live in a "meaning-rupture," says Hecht, because we are human and the universe is not.

Humans have a sense of fairness; the universe is anything but fair. Human seek answers; the universe poses only questions. "Consciousness itself seems missing in the wider universe," says Hecht, "and the human heart seems quite out of place. There is a serious weirdness to the mind, thinking amid the vast unthinking world." Or as I quoted Wallace Stevens the other day: "We live in a place that is not our own and, much more, not ourselves."

Well, there you have it: the meaning-rupture. Believers respond by transposing human characteristics onto the universe. Doubters wonder if we might not be better off weaning ourselves from invented narratives of cosmic personhood, justice and love. Believers resolve the "serious wierdness" by positing a humanlike God who bridges the rupture. Doubters suggest that mysteries are to be enjoyed, not solved, and that we will be happier if we regard the universe and existence itself as mysteries.

Nothing new to any of this, and nothing said on this blog or in Hecht's or Armstrong's books will resolve the rupture. Most people will continue to be believers for all the obvious reasons: it's consoling to think one knows the meaning of it all and will be rewarded for belief with life everlasting. Doubters will continue to nudge humanity along new and untrodden paths -- and some of those paths will in time become ossified beliefs. Still, in a world overwhelmingly dominated by anthropomorphic narratives of the universe, it is good to have a scholar as free-spirited as Hecht celebrate the equally grand but less often told history of doubt.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


A few days ago, on one of those unnaturally warm days of this unusual spring, I encountered a woolly bear caterpillar humping across the path, just emerged from hibernation. I picked it up, held it in my hand, and pondered for a while the incredible story of its life cycle.

Perhaps I saw this same creature in the fall, trundling along the same path, looking for a cozy place to spend the winter, curled under leaves or logs like a sleeping kitten, snoozing in frozen slumber. Now it wakes, has a bite to eat, then rolls itself into a pupa, using its hairs to make the cocoon, lacing them together with silk. Two weeks later, an Isabella tiger moth emerges, presto-chango, like a magician's trick. A black-and-brown woolly bear goes into the box -- a wave of the wand -- a yellow-winged tiger moth emerges. Somehow, the creature has remade itself, rearranging its molecules, from crawling fuzzball to airborne angel.

In few animals is the transformation so stunning. An insatiable leaf-eating machine becomes a sex-obsessed nectar-sipper. Shape, color, internal organs, mode of transportation -- all changed. It's as if an elephant became a swan, or a rattlesnake became a parakeet.

There are clusters of cells in the larval caterpillar that are destined to become anatomical features of the adult moth, dormant, awaiting a chemical signal that will make them surge into activity. The warmth of spring releases hormones from glands in or near the brain. Previously dormant adult cells begin to multiply. They take their nutrients from superseded larval cells, which are transformed into a kind of nutrient soup for the benefit of the growing adult organs. The woolly bear's six stumpy front feet are turned into the tiger moth's slender legs. Four bright wings develop, as do reproductive organs. Chewing mouth parts become adapted for sucking. In two weeks, the rearrangement of atoms is complete. The chrysalis breaks.

There's no way to think about this without gasping for breath. It's one thing to understand the biology, at least that part of it that we know something about: DNA, hormones, gene expression, and all that. But knowing the biology only makes the metamorphosis all the more breathtaking. Not magic at all, but a fierce, inextinguishable force driving the universe, Dylan Thomas' "green fuse."

Later that day I was in conversation with a good friend, a Catholic priest. He was telling me about celebrating Easter Mass alone, which he considered a rare and happy indulgence. Just himself and the Eucharist, and a fiercely felt "encounter with God."

"You encountered God," I said, a little enviously. "I encountered a caterpillar."

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

At the end of winter

The last poem in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens is called "Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself." It is a kind of culmination of the poet's career -- a lifelong exploration of the nature of reality, seeking an answer to that thorniest of philosophical questions "How do we know?" Few poets have struggled longer and more earnestly than Stevens to understand the relationship between ideas and the real, between thoughts and objects.

Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself? Is it possible? Isn't reality always mediated through mind? Doesn't every intimation of the real enter through the murky doors of perception? Can we ever escape the limitations of our given store of metaphors?

And yet, and yet, and yet. As Stevens wrote elsewhere: "From this the poem springs: that we live in a place that is not our own and, much more, not ourselves." We have two alternatives, neither entirely satisfactory: to speak inadequate words, or to be silent. Stevens could not be silent -- he was, after all a poet -- but his entire work tends toward silence, arriving at last at the "scrawny cry" of the last poem, which he hoped --- we hope -- comes from outside, from the thing itself, heard, not invented, as fragile and as hopeful as a bird's cry heard somewhere afar off among the newly leafing trees.
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache...
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry--It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Monday, April 05, 2010


In a few weeks I will be on a panel discussing children and the natural world: Is the interaction becoming less common in the age of electronic play, and, if so, is something important being lost?

I will have things to say here about these questions after the event. For the moment, I invite your input.

Certainly, my childhood pals and I ran wild in the woods, building "forts," damming streams, catching snakes and crawfish. We were lucky to have access to a near wilderness of woods, drainage ditches, ponds -- a near-enough wilderness to be reasonably safe, a wildness enough to invite discovery of the unfamiliar.

Discovery. That was what I took away from my childhood sojourns in the woods. The joy of finding something new. The same thrill that sent Columbus out across the ocean blue, and Burton and Speke in search of the source of the Nile. On a more minor scale, of course. Our new continent might have been something as common -- but exotic -- as a yellow-spotted newt. Our Lake Victoria might have been a woodland stream in spate after rain. I think of what E. O. Wilson wrote at the end of his autobiography: "A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree." I've been circling that tree ever since.

As readers of The Path will know, I am still lucky enough to have access to a near wilderness, acres of land in the care of the Natural Resources Trust of Easton that I traverse every day on my walk to college. I have walked that one mile many thousands of times and I have never failed to find something new. What's the point? Is there an intrinsic value to novelty? I can only speak for myself. Novelty is the spice that turns the hamburger of the daily grind into a gourmet meal.

Sunday, April 04, 2010


There was a review in last Sunday's NYT Book Review of Judith Shulevitz's The Sabbath World, an extended reflection on the history and meaning of the Sabbath in Judaism, and by extension Christianity. Shulevitz is quoted: "What others call God, I call ritual . . . God, then, is the ungovernable reality commemorated by ritual."

I can relate to that. As a child I loved the rituals of Holy Week. If anthropology teaches us anything it is that we are ritualistic creatures. We love ceremony. We love the ritual punctuation of our lives. Alas, the rituals of my childhood faith came into unsustainable conflict with the Church's creedal insistence on literalness. It is one thing to love the darkness and light, the smoke and chrism, the purple, black and white vestments, the unknowable "ungovernable reality" that sustains the cosmic Myth of the Eternal Return. It is another thing to profess belief in a personal God who came to Earth as a human, worked miracles, rose from the dead, and ascended bodily into Heaven. For me, that's a step way too far. The rituals are made untenable by that little voice in my head that asks, "But is it true?"

Anne, I think, is not so bothered by that voice. Her notion of reality is more elastic. She takes spiritual sustenance wherever she finds it, as you have probably noticed in her eclectic art. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The cartographer

Morning. He closes the door and steps into the street. The sun gathers its watercolors behind the trees, behind the horizon. The birds are waking, testing their voices a capella. He turns into the woods, the path that leads down to the Queset Brook, to the plank bridge. He stumbles over roots and stones.

The day is a sheet of blank paper, crisp and white.

Didn't he spend yesterday filling it up, mapping the light and shadows, the byways, the flora and fauna, the little exhilarations and tiny fears? Didn't he sketch a picture of the world? Didn't he compile what the poet Adrienne Rich called An Atlas of the Difficult World?

And now the sheet is blank again, an intimidating expanse of emptiness, and he has to take up the pen, the T-square, the French curves, all the tools of the cartographer's art, sketching the path, following its meanderings, noting its twists and turns, so that tomorrow he will know where he has been, what he has seen, what he says that he knows. All day he will catalog the latitudes and longitudes of a life, one life, just one.

By the end of he day he will hold an atlas in his hands, heavy with notations, topographies, the contour lines of a soul. He will fall into bed exhausted, the atlas at his side.

And tomorrow he must do it all over again, trying to remember what he had thought he knew, where he thought he had been, trying to see afresh what can only be seen once.

Friday, April 02, 2010

A Good Friday blessing from Anne

Click to enlarge.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


Several times before I have written about paintings of Jan Vermeer of Delft, notably The Geographer and The Milkmaid. Let me turn this morning to another, Woman Holding A Balance, in the collection of the National Galley of Art in Washington, D.C.. You can click on the image to enlarge.

The painting was made sometime around 1662-65. This is just at the time when the Scientific Revolution was getting up steam. Britain's Royal Society, the first national scientific organization was founded in 1660. The microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek was working in Delft, and may have been aquainted with Vermeer. The polymath Christian Huygens was active nearby. It was a time of intense empirical immersion in the natural world, and there is every reason to believe that Vermeer was aware of what was going on.

He was a Catholic, a convert at age 20 as a condition for marriage to his Catholic betrothed. I do not doubt that his conversion was sincere, but we can only guess his true religious sentiments by examining his paintings. Perhaps nowhere is this more transparent than in Woman Holding A Balance.

A typical Vermeer in many ways: A single figure, at a table, against a wall, lit by a window on the left. The composition is exquisite. The fulcrum of the balance is at the exact center of the frame. The diagonals are expressed by shadows, the blue table cloth, and the gaze of the woman. The painting on the wall, in its dark frame, is a traditional rendition of the Last Judgment -- the Lord separating the sheep and the goats, welcoming the just to Paradise, condemning the sinful to everlasting agony. This painting within the painting is medieval, prescientific -- the whole intent is to direct the viewer's attention away from this world to the next. Fear is the motive for being good.

Some commentators see the balance in the woman's hand as a recapitulation of the Judgment. I think not. The atmosphere of the painting -- in spite of the painting within the painting -- is serene. The woman, apparently pregnant, is perfectly at peace, and thoroughly immersed in the materiality of this world, good health, prosperity. Her madonnalike face looks out from the turmoil of the Last Judgment. She is not a recapitulation; she is a refutation.

The painting is sometimes called Woman Weighing Gold, or Woman Weighing Pearls, but there is nothing in the pans of the scales. It is balance itself that is being exalted as the purest value, balance as the basis for a life, for its own sake. Look at the woman's pinky finger, exactly parallel to the beam of the scales. In this painting, as in most of his paintings, Vermeer is affirming the goodness of the material creation -- light, shadow, cloth, wood, gold, pearls, fur, flesh, the here and now -- and, yes, it is a sacramental goodness, a materiality shot through with "a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable."