Monday, May 31, 2010

In the midst of mystery

The other day I had words to say about Martin Gardner, who among other things is remembered by me as the annotator of Lewis Carroll's two Alice books.

The Annotated Alice was published by Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. in 1960, with the classic original illustrations by John Tenniel.

Thirty years later, Gardner came along with More Annotated Alice (Random House, 1990), not a revised edition, but a complementary one with all new notes.

In More Annotated Alice the illustrations are those of Peter Newell, from the Harper and Brothers editions of the Alice books published in 1901 and 1902. Not all lovers of Alice appreciated the audacity of another artist replacing Tenniel, but Newell was already well-known for his Topsys & Turvys books, which could be read right side up and upside down. Alas, Newell's Alice illustrations have been mostly forgotten, but his The Hole Book (1908) and The Slant Book (1910) were still in print when I was growing up and when my kids were tots, and still are apparently. The books are no longer at our house, so they must have migrated to one of the childrens' libraries. Two classics that no kid will forget.

Newell was perfect for Carroll. He had the same wit and whimsy, the same love of children. He described Alice as "a sweet childish spirit at home in the midst of mystery," which are qualities we could all aspire to. Newell's Alice is respectful of received wisdom, but always curious and open to surprise.

I rather prefer Newell's Alice illustrations to Tenniel's. And this marvellous illustration -- "In fact, it was an elephant - as Alice soon found out." -- must surely have been the inspiration for Disney's Dumbo.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday afternoon

I'm posting a repeat pic from Anne, and will take the afternoon off. You should too. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

In praise of the useless

Out for an early morning birding walk with my friend Richard Grant. Richard is an avid amateur ornithologist. Walking with him is to be awake to everything I might miss if by myself. And he takes his love of birds home with him. The photo shows a few of his beautiful bird carvings. We saw two of the three species on our walk.

It was a pleasant hour, and we didn't make a dime.

As far as I know, there is only one place on earth where birds are used as money. On Santa Cruz Island in the South Pacific, the tiny scarlet-colored honeyeater is hunted for its feathers, which are woven into a rolled wampum-like currency. Three hundred honeyeaters are required to produce a roll of feathers that in 1962 was worth about twenty Australian pounds. (My source on this matter is somewhat dated.) On Santa Cruz Island, a skilled birdfinder might make himself a bundle.

John James Audubon was an economic victim of his passion for birds. In 1807 he opened a store in Louisville with his partner Ferdinand Rozier. The venture was not a success. Audubon tells us the store "went on prosperously when I attended to it; but birds were birds then as now, and my thoughts were ever and anon turning toward them as the objects of my greatest delight." Rather than attending to business, he ranged the woods with his sketchbook and ornithological journal, leaving poor Rozier to mind the store. Rozier intended to grow rich, wrote Audubon, "and what more could he wish for?"

Audubon wished for something else -- to see as many of the birds of North America as was humanly possible. The only part of the store business that he enjoyed were the trips to New York or Philadelphia to purchase goods for sale -- because he could study birds and their habits as he traveled through the forests of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Audubon's wife Lucy must have often wished her husband would forget birds and settle down to something "useful." But that never happened. Audubon continued to be a failure in business until he managed to turn his hobby into a profession. In the end, his paintings of birds found a wide audience and Audubon became reasonably prosperous. He and Lucy lived out their last years comfortably in a fine big house on the Hudson River in what is now the Washington Heights section of New York City.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Sic et non

Richard Capobianco's explanation of what philosophers do -- or should do -- strikes me as on the mark.
So, to put it simply, good philosophy keeps our unknowing in view, and therefore keeps us thinking, keeps us questioning, keeps us wondering. Good philosophy keeps us unsettled in our knowing.
Yes, it would be good to have a department in every college and university whose function is to remind us of the limitations of our knowing. There is enough dogmatism to go around, enough pompous posturing, even in philosophy departments. Maybe the "wisdom" we should all learn to "love" is the possibility that we might be wrong, and that the answers to some questions might be beyond our grasp.

Legend has it that the 12th-century philosopher Peter Abelard's last words were "I don't know." He was best known in his time as a charismatic teacher and provocative thinker who was not adverse to challenging the smug certainties of the establishment -- and his rambunctious young students cheered him on. Systematically applied doubt was his "master key to wisdom." Eventually he stirred the wrath of that other great charismatic of his time, Bernard of Clairvaux. Their epic confrontation in 1121 can be taken as a classic expression of the tension that still resonates in our culture between dogmatic belief and doubt. The controversy, for all of its theological nitpicking, came down to a matter of temperament. Bernard liked answers. Abelard liked questions.

I take it that Professor Capobianco stands with Abelard.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Remembering Martin Gardner (and Philip Morrison)

This is a few days late, but I can't let the death of Martin Gardner pass without comment. The great man died several days ago at age 95.

Anyone in my generation with a scientific bent will know Gardner for his 25 years as author of the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American, beginning in 1956. From the columns, we migrated to his many books on recreational mathematics and puzzles. He was our playful guru, our inspiration.

I have subscribed to Scientific American since November 1959, so I came aboard not long after Gardner. I was a graduate student in physics at the time and my new spouse gave me a subscription to the magazine for my birthday. I was doing a lot of heavy, brow-sweating mathematics in graduate school. Gardner's column kept reminding me that mathematics was fun.

Tom and I perhaps best appreciate Gardner for his popularization of John Conway's Game of Life, a recreation that gave us both a lot of joy. (Maybe Tom will tell us the best on-line site.) I also especially value Gardner's Annotated Alice, and, 30-years later, More Annotated Alice.

In 1965, Gardner was joined at Scientific American by book review editor Philip Morrison, whose reviews were consistently gems of original thinking, offering illuminating insights into science. Like Gardner, Morrison had a great sense of fun.

Once, back when I was writing my column for the Boston Globe, Philip and Phylis Morrison invited my wife and me to dinner at their Cambridge house. Talk about fun! Their home was a little museum of scientific toys.

Gardner and Morrison defined the glory days of Scientific American. It remains a fine magazine, but it no longer has the family feel of the Gardner/Morrison era. Those were the days when we opened the magazine with a sense of curiosity and play. The fun may have begun in the back pages, but it infiltrated even the most obtuse articles up front.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A philosopher speaks

My friend and colleague Professor Capobianco has responded to my question, "What do philosophers do?" -- and with a conciseness untypical of his profession does it in less than 400 words. Thanks, Richard.

My good friend Chet has challenged me (at least I think it was me!) to help us understand what a philosopher is. As he points out, in earlier centuries that might have been an easier task because philosophers, as "lovers of wisdom," were often precisely those who advanced our understanding of the natural world and of every other aspect of what we call "reality." Admittedly, thinking about what a philosopher is or does in the contemporary world is more difficult because the study of what used to belong to the domain of philosophical thinking has split off over time and has been taken up by specialists in the other disciplines, what we call today the natural and social sciences. So, Chet asks, what's left for philosophers to think about? Why do we need philosophers at all anymore?

The answer, I think, has to do with the peculiar nature of philosophical thinking from its origins. Philosophy, in the proper sense of that term, is concerned with examining, clarifying, and questioning the fundamental assumptions of all our human activities and inquiries. Philosophers ask: what are the fundamental assumptions of our social and political lives? our institutions? our religions? our ethical stances? our art? our various modes of inquiry? With respect to that last item, we might observe that the working physicist, to use one example, proceeds with a method and a vocabulary but does not spend time examining that method and vocabulary; that is what a philosopher does best.

It's the philosophers, and, yes, even those much maligned postmodern philosophers, who remind the practitioners of the other disciplines that in the deep background of their research are basic assumptions about who we are and what the world is that are not fixed and eternal, but contingent and subject to modification or even radical revision. If history is our guide, then the very assumptions that Chet the physicist proceeds with today are likely to be viewed sometime in the future as no less quaint as Aristotle's assumptions appear to us today! So, to put it simply, good philosophy keeps our unknowing in view, and therefore keeps us thinking, keeps us questioning, keeps us wondering. Good philosophy keeps us unsettled in our knowing -- and, remarkably enough, it's precisely in this way that philosophy serves to "advance civilization."
Let the Porch have its say. I'll chime in on Friday. Tomorrow: Remembering Martin Gardner.

(Cartoon by Charles Barsotti, New Yorker. Capobianco's new book is Engaging Heidegger, University of Toronto Press.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A few more cranky words about philosophy

There was a time in my life, many years ago, when I immersed myself in the philosophy of science. I wanted to understand what science was and on what basis it could lay claim to truth. I read everyone from Plato to Popper. I sat in on classes with Paul Feyerabend at the London School of Economics and wondered what the heck the great man was saying. I gobbled up Thomas Kuhn and Jacques Monad like candy. And when it was all over, I didn't know much more about science than when I started.

The history of science is infinitely interesting, but the philosophy of science is pretty much a yawn. Scientists are generally oblivious to the philosophical assumptions underpinning their work, which can be written down on a half-sheet of notepaper:

-- There is an external world independent of our perceptions.

-- There are quantitative patterns in the world; all is not chaos.

-- The patterns can be recognized and expressed with an ever greater degree of verisimilitude.

Class dismissed.

Scientific method? Here's what the biologist Lewis Wolpert suggests: Try many things; do what makes your heart leap; challenge expectation; cherchez le paradox; be sloppy so that something unexpected happens, but not so sloppy that you can't tell what happened; never try to solve a problem until you can guess the answer; seek simplicity; seek beauty.

Oh, yeah. One more thing on that half sheet of paper.

-- The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

(Cartoon by Charles Barsotti, Parade Magazine.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

What is a philosopher?

Simon Critchley, a philosopher at the New School for Social Research in New York, opens a new series of philosophical essays on the New York Times website with "What Is A Philosopher?"

I read it eagerly, because, quite frankly, I've always wondered what is a philosopher, notwithstanding the fact that I've spent half-a-century reading philosophy and have philosopher friends -- that is, people who hold academic professorships in philosophy departments.

The problem is this: A definition of a profession usually makes reference to what one does for a living, and I've never been able to figure out exactly what a philosopher does.

To his credit, Critchley begins by saying, "I certainly don’t want to add more hot air to the volcanic cloud of unknowing."

And then he does.

A philosopher, he says, is someone with time on his hands. And: "Because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect for social convention, rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous"

And that's about all I can dig out of the essay.

Which more or less makes me a philosopher. I have time on my hands and a modicum of irreverence. I don't think of myself as dangerous.

So what do philosophers do? They make footnotes to Plato. Or footnotes to footnotes to Plato. Or footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to Plato. Which doesn't exactly advance civilization or increase the gross national product.

There was a time when philosophers thought about how the world works, but that activity has been subsumed by science. Epistemology is a useful occupation, but I'm not sure much has been added since Ockham, Bacon and Hume. Ethics? After you've stated the Golden Rule, what's left to do?

Here at the college, in retirement, I keep my laptop locked up in the Critical Theory Library of the Literature Department. The shelves groan with the likes of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Rorty and all the rest of the recent gang of philosophers. Talk about "a volcanic cloud of unknowing"! These books suck the air right out of the room.

OK, OK, I'm being deliberately provocative. I'm going to send this post to a philosopher friend with whom I've had many lively discussions. If he wants to tell us what philosophers do, in 400 words or less, I'll post it here.

(Tomorrow: Philosophy of science. Cartoon by Charles Barsotti, New Yorker.)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pixel doll

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination -- a last doll.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One world

My wife is getting in the mood for our summer in Ireland. She came home from the supermarket with a package of "Bantry Bay" frozen mussels in garlic sauce, from Bantry, County Cork. A little touch of the Ould Sod, she said.

As it turns out, tiny print on the side of the package tells us where the mussels came from. Chile! That's right. Mussels harvested on a sea farm on the western coast of South America, transported to Ireland, packaged, transported to the United States, and sold in our local. I'm glad I don't know the details -- the history of growing, harvesting, freezing (and thawing?) and saucing. One places one's trust in the system and hopes for the best.

Onions from Argentina, tilapia from China, water from Fiji. There may not be a country in the world that doesn't supply a product for our local supermarket. Even with all that moving around, the food is fresh and cheap. As for why it's fresh and cheap -- maybe it's best not to inquire too closely.

There's much to be said for eating local, but there's also something to be said for the integration of economies.

Americans have an exaggerated sense of exceptionalism. A large number of us seem to believe that the world beyond our borders is a benighted wasteland, inhabited by miserable wretches who want nothing else than to come here. It's true that there are less fortunate places in the world, and the United States has an enviable record of domestic tranquility and scientific and technical innovation. Most Americans I know are as nice as you'll find anywhere, and I love the congenial mix of races, cultures and sexual orientations you'll see walking down Boston's Newbury Street. I feel fortunate to have been born here.

But I feel fortunate, too, to live part of each year in Ireland and the Bahamas, each of which offers pleasures and privileges I don't find at home. Of the developed nations, the United States has the highest income inequality, the lowest degree of social mobility, poor health, low educational outcomes (especially in science and math), most expensive medical care, low life expectancy, highest homicide rate, more people in prison, greater mental illness, shorter vacations, poor retirement benefits. We rank low in perceived quality of life and general happiness, number 20 of 21 in childhood happiness. In fact, it's hard to find any statistical indicator that favors average, middle-class Americans above their counterparts in, say, France, Norway, New Zealand or Japan. Still, that doesn't stop many of us from wrapping ourselves in the flag and looking down our noses at people who live elsewhere.

My granddaughter, a high school student, participated this year in an exchange with a Spanish girl. They took turns in each other's home and school. When they showed up together at our house, it would have been hard to tell from their dress, accessories and demeanor who was the American and who the Spaniard, and they did a pretty fair job speaking each other's language. What they studied in math and science was, of course, exactly the same.

Eating local may have much to recommend it. Thinking local may be dangerous.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Contaminating the dark

It is a sad irony that the journal Science arrives with a review article on bioluminescence in the ocean as billows of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico.

Those dark, sunless depths where the goo gushes are full of delicate luminous beauty. The vast majority of bioluminescent organisms live in the oceans -- from bacteria to fish and everything in between. Diatoms, shrimp, jellyfish -- you name it, they glow with mysterious light, in every color of the spectrum.

Headlights for finding prey, or glowing lures to attract a meal.

Come-hither illuminations for attracting mates.

Light to deter predators, by signaling unpalatability, or by attracting secondary predators that will attack the first predator.

Even creatures where the sun don't shine have eyes, to see other creatures that decorate the dark with glowworm light.

At the top of the diagram (from Science, May 7, 2010) are four of the best known light-producing molecules, and below some of the organisms that use them. Nature has been endlessly inventive, contriving molecules that tease the senses. Light works particularly well below a kilometer deep in the sea were even bright sunshine is totally extinguished.

Which is where the sludge is presently issuing forth to blink out every light, one by one.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The engineer's way of death -- Part 3

Real life for my father was family, work, and community service, in that order. He had six children, all of whom he doted on. He worked for almost thirty years at American Lava Corporation, and was chosen Engineer of the Year by the Chattanooga Engineer's Club in 1965. He was a scoutmaster, a volunteer Director of Athletics at Notre Dame High School, and he barbecued tons of meat each year for the church fair. Nothing exceptional. Nothing that would make him famous. A responsible citizen who gave back to his community and church.

He was an engineer by training and spirit. He didn't design ocean liners, throw suspension bridges across yawning chasms, or invent life transforming machines. He tinkered. He fiddled. He had his finger on the mechanical pulse of the world. He was one of the many thousand of men (few women) of his generation who had a sense of the way the world was put together, the last generation, perhaps, of descendants of the Renaissance engineers and scientists who imagined the world as a great clockwork, designed and set going by the Great Clockmaker. His universe was one of tension and balance, of friction and lubrication, of levers and fulcrums, cogs and ratchets, escapements and cams, of Hooke's Law, the Mhos scale, and the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. There is a famous six volume compendium of 5,000 mechanical devices by the Russian engineer Ivan Artobolevsky, written in the spirit of great tinkerers everywhere. I don't think it appeared in English translation before my father's death, but he would have been very much at home.

Yesterday, while thinking about my Dad's last days, I purchased copies of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics from the newsstand. I hadn't read these magazines for more than 50 years, not since my teens. My father brought the magazines into our house. He was the quintessential popular mechanic, and popular scientist. His basement workshop, with the recycled coal-bin workbench, was well equipped for tinkering. And in a corner of the workshop was an ever-growing pile of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. These were the sources of his prodigious inspirations, the muses that inspired his many projects. A new way to keep the gutters from clogging up with leaves. A new way to twiddle the carburetor to make the car run smoother. A new jig for cutting pickets for a fence. Popular Science and Popular Mechanics kept my father on the cutting edge of gimmickry.

To his pile of well-thumbed magazines I often retired for entertainment. During long afternoons I sat huddled under the basement stairs reading about the latest innovations in high and low technology. As I recall, cover stories almost always featured some futuristic mode of transportation: electric automobiles, ocean-going hovercraft, folding-wing airplanes that would fit in the family garage. News-notes featured such things as multi-tipped screwdrivers, self-flushing toilets, and sprayed-concrete houses. It was from these magazines, also, that I first heard about computers, radio astronomy, atomic energy and space flight. That nook under the basement stairs wasn't a bad place to get an education. I read the magazines religiously. They were part of the reason I decided to study science and engineering in college.

Now, as I look at current issues of the magazines, more than a half-century later, I'm pleased to see that not much has changed. They still contain the engaging mix of slick technology and serious science that appealed to my father, the same gee-whiz utopianism that fed his sense of optimism and wonder. As I peruse them again, I am back under the basement stairs, rummaging through issues of the magazines circa 1945-1950, imbibing a down-to-earth philosophy that served my father well for half-a-century, even to the moment of his death.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The engineer's way of death -- Part 2

The first pages of that first red notebook are ruled by my father into rows and columns, and each cell is filled with numbers. The pages look for all the world like a computer spreadsheet application, VisiCalc, for example, usually considered the first spreadsheet, which came along in the late 1970s, a half-dozen years after my father's death, and revolutionized the keeping and analysis of data. He would have loved to have been there at the dawn of the personal computer age -- when the Commodore PET and the Apple II appeared in 1979. He was a slide rule man -- he owned several, linear and circular -- and just missed the arrival of the first electronic calculators. He might have been astonished how quickly slide rules became obsolete, but his death-bed journals, with their spreadsheet-like tabulations of data, suggest he would have been quick to have adopted a computer at work and at home.

What went into the cells of his "spreadsheets"? Horizontally the days, vertically the hours. Carefully entered: the times he received each medication, with notes on pain and sense of well-being. A code for each medication. PK=painkiller. C=cortisone (a steroid hormone). V=Valium. SP=sleeping pill. There was also the morphine, and the laxative -- a veritable pharmacy of pills and shots. He had no control over his mix of medications, at least not at the beginning; that was determined by his doctors. And initially no control over when he received them. What he wanted to know was their effect. From his spreadsheet he hoped to discover the patterns -- the causal relations between pills and pain -- that would yield the most benefit.

Even in the first weeks of the journals it is clear (to those of us reading them now) that the disease had the edge. My father's neat engineering hand wavers in and out of legibility; for some parts of the medication cycles his print is precise and familiar, other times it is barely readable and full of misspellings. The data accumulates, becoming, I would guess, ever more intractable because of its sheer volume.

If he had had a laptop there by his hospital bed, with spreadsheet software, he would have only to have clicked a button to run the numbers, to look for the correlations. What he had instead was a book with blank pages, which he filled from edge to edge with notes and numbers. The journals fatten, line by line, entry by entry, page by page, and somewhere in all that tidy hand or drug-induced scribble was hidden (he believed) the sort of miracle that might have taken a more pious seeker to Lourdes. He believed in God, and he believed that God had a plan for his life. But the God he believed in was not the sort who went in for flashy showmanship -- the throw-down-your-crutches-and-walk sort of thing. His God was the Great Engineer who had designed he whole shebang and set it going, the deity who set and kept the planets moving in exacting courses. For his Great Engineer, fixing a cancer patient's body would be as ordinary and everyday a thing as repairing a short in an electric toaster.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The engineer's way of death -- Part 1

My father died of cancer at age 64 in 1974. I have recently obtained from my sister Peg the journals he kept during the last 12 weeks of his life, as he lay dying in the hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As I have mentioned before, Dad was a mechanical engineer by training, and worked most of his life as a quality control engineer for a company that made ceramic insulators and mechanical parts. He was something of a pioneer in the field of maintaining production quality by random testing and statistical analysis. The secret to quality, be believed, is lots of data. Patterns that are not obvious in small batches, become apparent with the statistical force of large numbers.

He brought this faith to bear on his disease. As he lay almost totally paralyzed on his hospital bed, he kept exhaustive data, minute by minute, day and night. He had us supply him with a yard stick, a six-inch rule, a protractor, a thermometer, even a barometer, and of course blank journals and a supply of sharp pencils. He measured, or had us measure, his cycles of medication, radiation treatments, blood transfusions, minutes or hours of waking and sleeping, his position on the bed, the positions of the adjustable bed, food, drink, the frequency and success of bowel movements, urination, and flatulence, the temperature and pressure of the room. Nothing was overlooked. Even in the dark of the night, as his wife or one of his kids lay sleeping on a nearby cot, he kept his notes, by the light of a penlight flashlight he had ingeniously rigged up over the bed.

From his data he extracted what he called "the cycle of energy," which he plotted over and over, refining its characteristics, and a theory involving what he called "currents." On the evidence of the journal, he was convinced that somewhere in these pages of numbers, graphs, and diagrams he would find the solution to his misfortune.

Of course, it was not to be. Cancer cells are less amenable to statistical control than ceramic widgets. He tried to make his doctors see the importance of what he was doing -- not only to himself, but to medical science -- and, indeed, his voluminous journals may be one of the most complete quantitative records of a dying ever compiled by a patient. The doctors in their kindness humored him, and went on with their various therapies, which in the end did no more good than "the cycle of energy" and "currents." It was simply too late.

What is actually manifest in his data is the inexorable multiplication of cancer cells out of control, finally in every part of his body. The journals may not have contained a hidden cure for cancer, but they certainly were a cure for despair, and for the horrible boredom of incessant pain -- the exercise of an active mind in a body wasted by disease. In the final volume he writes: "It is very difficult to wake up in the morning and face "nothing" to do.  Writing this diary has been a "life" saver to me.  If I live long enough and manage to develop a degree of "balance", I think all the important, valuable, impressions, and sensations that I have experienced can be made available to the public -- if I can't do it maybe Chet will be good enough to do it for me."

Not until the very last pages does he seem to recognize the futility of his data and the inevitability of death.

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

Monday, May 17, 2010


Anyone who has looked on the undersides of leaves of plants at the edge of a meadow or in the garden is familiar with aphids, tiny grain-sized insects that feed on sap. Here is a photograph of pea aphids, from the April 30 issue of Science. Pea aphids come in two colors, red and green. The colors are caused by molecules known as carotenoids, which serve other necessary functions in animals, including immune system regulation and vision (Eat your carrots!). Unlike most (all?) other animals, aphids have the genes to make their own carotenoids, which they apparently got by a lateral gene transfer from a fungal pathogen 30 to 80 million years ago. A single point mutation in the genes accounts for the difference between the red and green coloration.

Well, now, that's a bit of interesting genetics, the sort of science that has become possible with the widespread -- and increasing fast and cheap -- sequencing of genomes. But here's the thing I think is neat. Among the aphids' natural enemies, ladybugs prefer to gobble red aphids, and parasitic wasps prefer to deposit their eggs in green aphids. Which may have something to do with maintaining the different color populations.

It is, when you think of it, a Dr. Seussian sort of world. Red aphids, green aphids. Ladybugs, wasps. Sap-mopping, stem-hopping, gene-swapping pests. Add the ants that farm aphids, protecting and tending them, milking them of their honeydew by stroking them with antennas. If all of this is the product of an Intelligent Designer, then he has a wonderful sense of whimsy. One fish, two fish. Red fish, blue fish. And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.

In his autobiography, the brilliant physicist John Archibald Wheeler makes this confession of faith: "Whatever can be, is." He goes further: "Whatever can be, must be." Anything not prohibited by the laws of nature, exists, he says. That may not be exactly true in the biological world; one has to work with the genes that one's got. But there can be a bit of cutting and pasting, and pretty soon you have red aphids running from ladybugs and green aphids running from wasps.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Writ in pixels

Another doll from Anne. A lot of nostalgia from both of us lately. Must be the age. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

At the blackboard

In my post the other day on science literacy, I mentioned that the journal Science had recently dedicated a special section to the subject. Here is the cover of that issue. The inside caption reads: "Children learning science, like these 7-year-olds tackling chemistry in 1948, must work through their mistakes and misconceptions. The route to science literacy involves reading, debate, presentation, and writing. Photo: Nina Leen/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images." Click to enlarge.

Seven-year-olds studying some sort of science in 1948, I can just about believe. But chemistry? And all those equations on the blackboard? Someone is pulling my leg.

The kid in the center could have been me a few years earlier, 1944 maybe. Same tee shirt. Same jacket. Same haircut. A conscientious student at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Taught by Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Iowa, many of them of Irish extraction. Holy women. Good teachers. Strict disciplinarians. A very Catholic education. Literature consisted of the likes of Joyce Kilmer ("A tree whose hungry mouth is prest/ Against the sweet earth's flowing breast...") and Alfred Noyes ("The wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees..."), good Catholics all. We learned our multiplication tables. Our Palmer penmanship. And the Catechism. Chemistry? Never heard of it.

I don't recall any science until high school. I don't blame the good BVMs; they probably had never studied science either.

Even in high school -- Notre Dame High School, Chattanooga -- my science education was sketchy. Chemistry was taught by the basketball coach, as I recall. We had one lab/classroom, which was nicely fitted out. We managed to make our share of smoke and sizzle.

Sister Dominica (Gobel), of the Nashville Dominicans, gave me a superb grounding in English, and Sister Jane Francis (Beck) left nothing to be desired as a math teacher. With that background, and the seed of scientific curiosity planted by my father, it was easy to do science catch-up when I got to university. When I wrote When God Is Gone a few years ago, I tracked down the birth names of Sisters Dominica and Jane Francis, now departed. I thank them for their inspiring and free-ranging intellects. Even had they known they were equipping me to leave the fold I doubt they would have done anything differently. If my contemporary experience of Dominican women is anything to go by, I am confident that science -- real consensus science -- is now an early part of their schools' curricula. May their community prosper.

I mention all this because primary, secondary, and even tertiary education in great swaths of fundamentalist America keep science in the straitjacket of religious orthodoxy. Throughout the Muslim world Koran-based madrasah schools presumably don't mention science at all. China, apparently, has no religious constraints on science education. We'll see who dominates -- technologically and economically -- the second half of the 21st century.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Flares and whispers

We've been here before. Let's go again.

Click here to watch a time-lapse movie of a giant solar prominence -- firestorm -- recently observed (on March 30, as one of its first images) by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a satellite telescope in geosynchronous orbit. The eruption occurred over a matter of hours.

I've watched this clip again and again. Before you click on the PLAY arrow, consider this. On the same scale the planet Earth would fit into the arrow, about the size of this letter O. Now, holding that little O in mind, click PLAY

You can also watch the flare again and again here, including a wider field view.

The Indonesian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull are pinpricks of violence compared to this stupendous explosion of energy that flings the substance of the Sun millions of miles into space.

How can the Sun can sustain this outpouring of energy for billions of years without apparent depletion? A century ago this was one of the greatest mysteries of science. No chemical reaction, no gravitational collapse, could possibly supply so much energy for so long.

But as usual, when nature poses a question, she whispers an answer.

How's this for a whisper?

It is nine o'clock in the evening at the Curies' house in Paris, in the year 1902. Marie is sitting at the bedside of her four-year-old daughter Irene. It is a nightly ritual; the child is uncomfortable without her mother's presence. Marie sits quietly near the girl until the restless young voice gives way to sleep. Then she goes downstairs to her husband Pierre. Husband and wife have just completed an arduous four-year effort to isolate from tons of raw ore the tiny amount of a new element that will win them fame. The work is still on their minds -- the laboratory, the workbenches, the flasks and vials. "Suppose we go down there for a moment," suggests Marie. They walk through the dark streets to the laboratory and let themselves in. "Don't light the lamps," says Marie. On a laboratory shelf the precious particles of radium in their tiny glass receivers glow with an eerie blue light. "Look! Look!" whispers Marie. They sit in darkness, their faces turned toward the glowing vials. Later, her daughter and biographer Eve would call it "the evening of glowworms."

Matter into energy. Tiny iotas of vanished matter multiplied by the speed of light squared. Soon, Einstein would show that Marie Curie's glowworm light and the light of the Sun had the same source.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The flow of history

Constance Lindsay Skinner was a Canadian writer, living in New York, who in 1936, the year of my birth, conceived a series of books that would tell the history of America through the story of its rivers. It was a brilliant notion, given that our history hangs on the armature of flowing water. The books she had in mind would be written by novelists and poets, not professional historians, and illustrated by artists. The publisher Farrar & Rinehart bought the idea, and the first of the Rivers of America series, on the Kennebec of Maine, came out in 1937. Eventually, the series included 65 volumes issued over a 37-year period.

I have read at least a half-dozen of the books, including The Susquehanna, The Delaware, The Shenandoah, and The Cumberland. The two volumes I most enjoyed, naturally, were those about the Tennessee River, the Old River and the New River, by the poet Donald Davidson, published in the late 1940s. I have reproduced above one of the two-page illustrations -- the river just below Chattanooga, where I grew up, with Williams Island in the foreground and Lookout Mountain looming behind.

The Tennessee Valley is rich in history, not always edifying. Here were committed white atrocities against native Americans, including the expulsion of the Cherokees across The Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Here were the bloody slaughters of Shiloh and Chickamauga. Here too was one of the great social experiments of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which lifted a benighted region out of poverty but had many local detractors. Tragedy and triumph, disharmony and poetry, history gathering force as it flows, eroding, depositing, collecting into itself a thousand rivulets and streams.

It is hard to imagine any such series succeeding today, but the Rivers of America stands as one of the great publishing achievements of the 20th century. The books are to American history as the circulatory and nervous systems are to the human body. They came to mind as I looked at the new mapping of the rivers of the world in the current National Geographic -- human history as flowing water.

Constance Lindsay Skinner died at her desk in 1939 while editing the sixth volume of the series, The Hudson. The illustration above is by Theresa Sherrer Davidson (click to enlarge).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Storming Olympus

I mentioned before that Tom has been engaged in genealogical research, as well as digitizing a century's worth of family photographs and home movies. He's not the only one. Out there in Wellesley Hills, west of Boston, Ray Kurzweil is doing the same thing. Kurzweil's motive is rather more ambitious than Tom's; he has in mind resurrecting his beloved father, a conductor and concert pianist who passed away in 1970.

No kidding.

You may know of Kurzweil as the 62-year-old multimillionaire inventor who believes "the singularity is near," the tipping point when silicon-based machines become more intelligent than carbon-based people. He also famously hopes to "live forever"; that is, he wants to live long enough naturally so that science can discover a remedy for senescence and death, which he believes will happen sometime within the next few decades. And his father? Kurzweil plans to retrieve paternal DNA from the grave and -- with forever to do it -- reconstruct a clone or "facsimile" from the biological blueprint and all that digitized information -- photos, home movies, recordings, sheet music, books and documents -- his father left behind. This I learn from an issue of the Boston Phoenix which I picked it up in the college library, attracted by the headline: "IS GENIUS IMMORTAL? Tech god Ray Kurzweil is a modern-day Edison. Now he's battling to stay alive -- forever."

I'd bet Kurzweil a hundred bucks it won't happen in his lifetime, except that I won't be around to receive or pay the bet. If I was him, I'd stash away some of his own DNA, and start backing up his own brain. Is he a genius or a loony? I don't doubt that the singularity is coming; I'm less confident it's "near" -- and still less confident that it will be to humankind the greatest thing since sliced bread.

It takes a pretty big ego to want to live forever. Immortality traditionally belonged to the gods on Mount Olympus; is it now to be extended to the tech gods of Wellesley Hills? Me, I prefer to spend whatever years I have left roaming the woods and fields of Arcadia, at he base of the immortals' summit. Tom and his modest digitizing project are immortality enough for me.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Science literacy

This week's Science has a special section on science literacy. And more power to them. In the United States we live with a paradox. For the past century we have led the world in doing science. Our education of scientists has been the envy of the world. We have collected more Nobel Prizes in science than any other nation. Yet our general populace is essentially scientifically illiterate. As a people, we have little idea what science is, and little assimilation of what science has learned about the world. As for understanding who (or what) we are and our place in the universe, we might as well be living in the Middle Ages.

During my forty-year teaching career, I gradually transitioned from teaching science to aspiring scientists to teaching science literacy to nonscientists. As a physical scientist, my efforts eventually resolved into two one-semester courses, called The Universe and The Earth.

In The Universe, we began with the Alexandrian Greeks measuring the size of the Earth and the sizes and distances of the Moon and Sun. This offers a beautiful way to illustrate scientific methodology, within a mathematical context any liberal arts student can understand. Suddenly, the world got very much bigger, and part of my challenge was to convey a real appreciation for the sizes and distances.

From there we addressed the distance of the stars, and solved the riddle of what makes them burn. Then on to the discovery of the galaxies, and measuring their distance. The expanding universe. The Big Bang. At every stage we had room-filling photographic images of spectacular beauty. We pushed back the desks and made a spiral galaxy with salt on the floor. We walked into the college quad to set up mind-stretching demonstrations of scale. Every time I gave a what I told a how.

In The Earth, we walked across Britain with Hutton and Lyell, using the biggest geological maps available from the British Geological Survey. We unraveled the riddle of the strata, and stood with Hutton and Playfair at Siccar Point as they glimpsed the abyss of geological time. We pondered the meaning of fossils, passed fossils from hand to hand around the class, and journeyed with Darwin around the world as he too pondered the implications of the creatures in the rocks.

Step by step we watched the unfolding of the theory of plate tectonics, with Maria Tharp's big map of the sea floor dominating the classroom. Once we grasped the theory, I posed geographical puzzles for the students to solve; that theory is best which explains the most with the least. We posited an Ice Age, then tramped our 600-acre campus observing how everything we saw now made perfect sense.

If I had been qualified to do it, I would have offered one more semester to complete a three-part course in science literacy: Life. The (still mysterious) origin of life. Fermentation, respiration and photosynthesis: How these transformed life and the planet. Sex. DNA and protein synthesis. Natural selection. Evo-devo. Ursula Goodenough's book The Scared Depths of Nature, with all the sacred stuff stripped out, would make a good outline. I would have loved to join up with her for Part 3.

Did it work? I don't know. The students would have to say. Maybe one or two are out there reading this.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Shank's mare

"What do you do now, Chet, that you are retired?"

"I saunter."

"Saunter? You mean walk? Amble? Gad about?"

"Yes, but more. I amble -- and I muse."

In his essay on Walking, Thoreau wonders about the origin of that delicious word saunter. He suggests that it is derived from idle people who roved about Europe during the Middle Ages asking for alms, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, that is, to the Holy Land. Children would cry, mockingly, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer," a saunterer. Thoreau likes this etymology as it suggests his own occupation as a peripatetic pilgrim, tramping about Concord and environs in search of natural grace.

But then he also supposes that the word might derive from sans terre, without a land or home. He likes this etymology too, if not having a home means being at home everywhere, which, he says, is the secret of successful sauntering.

All of which is lovely, and an invitation to be afoot, but the contemporary dictionaries I consulted say the word probably derives from the Middle English santren, to muse, which I rather like because it suggests what I am about in my genteel retirement -- walking and musing. It is my blessing, as readers of The Path will know, that my home and place of work are separated by woods and meadows and babbling brook, not quite a wilderness, but a kind of tamed wildness that fits my settled stage of life, and through which I saunter each day to and fro, observing and musing. In his essay on Walking, Thoreau says that a town surrounded by woods and meadows is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but also poets and philosophers. I am grateful if a bit of that rubs off on me.

Walking and musing is a kind of idle vagrancy, I suppose, but the retirement check appears in my bank account each month which means I don't have to ask for alms and children don't mock me as I amble by.

Thoreau again, his final paragraph: "So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly that ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our mind and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn."

Sunday, May 09, 2010


From Anne's red ballet slippers to her childhood dolls. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The roots of morality

My friend Robert passed on to me a review by William Portier of Bruce Ward's Redeeming the Enlightenment: Christianity and the Liberal Values, from the current issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. Both author and reviewer are distinguished theologians.

I won't comment on the book, because I haven't read it. According to the review, Ward is interested in the provenance of the liberal virtues of equality, authenticity, tolerance, and compassion. As embodied in the Western Enlightenment these are a kind of secularized Christianity, Ward apparently suggests, "a glittering parody of Christian moral ideas."

According to the review, Ward wants to reclaim these virtues from a secular humanism that cannot sustain them, and bring them back into a Christian context where they had their origin and properly belong.

There can be no question, I suppose, that the Enlightenment values of equality, authenticity, tolerance, and compassion are shared with Christianity, at least in so far as Christianity reflects the virtues espoused by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. And it is certainly true that the Enlightenment sought to wrest these virtues from their supposed transcendent roots and exalt them for their own sake; that is, to ground them in human nature. Whether we need to re-rescue the liberal virtues from the Enlightenment -- well, that is a matter for debate.

What struck me about Portier's review is the fact that both author (apparently) and reviewer make no mention of the possibility that the "liberal virtues" might be universal. We have instead phrases like "humanism founded on Christ," ""transcendent love," "the light from beyond," and "whatever love [Christians] have managed to muster by the grace of God." This seems to rather arrogantly suggest that equality, authenticity, tolerance, and compassion are a Christian or Western monopoly. I would be inclined to think that even those cultures that preceded or had no contact with Christianity or the Enlightenment practiced altruistic behaviors to the same degree as anyone else, before or since, Christian or otherwise.

On the evidence of the Commonweal review, Ward and Portier come across as more sophisticated and intellectually-nuanced versions of the evangelical preachers who assert that there is no morality without God, and, more specifically, without Christ. This grievously shortchanges secular humanism, the Enlightenment project, and human nature itself. The Golden Rule is too universal for any religion to claim exclusive provenance.

Portier reminds us approvingly of the Act of Contrition that we Catholics and ex-Catholics learned to recite as youths:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all, because I have offended Thee, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins and to amend my life. Amen.
Like most other post-Enlightenment secular humanists, I do not dread the loss of heaven or pains of hell, nor do I believe in a personal God who is deserving of all my love and who would cast me into eternal flames if he doesn't get it. I value equality, authenticity, tolerance, and compassion because I choose to believe that my fellow humans are deserving of all my love. To the extent that my practice of the liberal virtues is innate, I will leave to the evolutionary biologists to decide. Certainly, there are reasons enough -- biological and otherwise -- to embrace them without out invoking Christianity.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Here it comes!

Creeping across the frozen tundra. The Thing from another world.

Animal? Vegetable? An intermediate life form? Intelligent, certainly. Lusting for human blood.

Remember the movie? The Thing. Howard Hawks, 1951. The eponymous creature crash-lands its flying saucer near an American research station at the North Pole, setting off all kinds of scientific instruments: sound detectors, seismographs, magnetometers, compasses. "This geiger counter's going crazy!" says one young researcher. "Could be the Russians," replies dashing Air Force captain Pat Hendry. "They're all over the Pole like flies."

Not the Russkies this time. Just look at those probing tendrils. What to do? Captain Hendry organizes an assault. The chief scientist, Dr. Carrington, has other ideas. Destruction of the monster would betray science, he insists. This bloodsucking blob from outer space knows "the secrets of the stars," and must be studied. Carrington is impressed by the Thing's single-minded purpose, unencumbered by human distractions like love and sex. "No emotions, no heart, our superior in every way!" the mad doctor enthuses.

All of this came back to me when I saw the strangely terrifying image above in a recent issue of Nature, No, not a giant alien blob. A cancer cell. Invisibly small. Still, no less the Thing. No emotions, no heart. And, if my family history is anything to go by, destined to get me sooner or later.


You may remember how the movie turned out. Carrington rushes up to the monster shouting, "I'm not your enemy. I'm a scientist." Glop! Glug! So much for Carrington. Captain Hendry saves the day by frying the Thing with high-voltage electricity. The zapping with radiation didn't save my Dad. I'll put my faith in the scientists who are sequencing the genes of in situ tumor cells -- GATTACA, and all that. Perhaps not the "secrets of the stars," but certainly the secret of life on Earth.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Ordinary time

In the Catholic liturgical calendar, the parts of the year between the day after the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 and the day before Ash Wednesday, and between the day after Pentecost and the day before Advent, rather more than half the year altogether, are known as Ordinary Time. A curious choice of adjective, suggesting a kind of coasting between the two high seasons of Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter.

Our bodies beat to diurnal, lunar, and solar rhythms. The planet circles the Sun, now leaning the northern continents away from the Sun-- the winter solstice, Christmas -- now nodding back towards heat and light -- the spring equinox, Easter. All of the northern religions were shaped in response to that annual rhythm.

The twenty-three-and-a-half degree tilt of the Earth's axis was a cosmic fluke. It could have been forty, it could have been zero. If it had been zero, we would never have had the foundational myth of the Eternal Return -- the Sun instead making its same-old, same-old trek day by day, all year long, with no day any more or less likely to be New Year's Day than any other. We would have had a stellar year, with different stars as the months rolled by, and perhaps we would have celebrated in our foundational faiths the circle of an equatorial "zodiac," but no solstices or equinoxes, no Eternal Return, no Christmas or Easter. the swirling mass of dust and gas that became our solar system, it would have been extremely unlikely for the third planet from the Sun to have found its rotational axis exactly perpendicular to the plane of its orbit. Even a little lean would have presumably been enough to give rise to solar religions of the sort that was subsumed into the Christian liturgical year.

Ordinary time. I was sitting yesterday on the plank bridge over the Queset Brook, feeling the thump-thump of my heartbeat, that primary timekeeper, and watching the vernal season swell back into vibrance -- there! that flash of orange! an oriole! Sweet-phew, it ambiguously sings -- and I remembered that green is the color of vestments in Ordinary Time, and that the world is greening around me, and that every heartbeat of ordinary time is -- well, extraordinary .

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The golden age of nature guides

On a recent warm Saturday afternoon, Tom and I did a six-mile walk in the backcountry of Borderlands State Park. It was a busy day at the park, but we met few people once we got a mile or so away from the parking lot. Again and again our trail crossed brooks that skipped and tumbled down from the granite uplands, awakening spring. The broad green leaves of skunk cabbage clustered near the water. Fiddlehead ferns unrolled their furls, their stalks like croziers or shillelaghs. Here and there a jack-in-the-pulpit expounded a silent sermon. Blue and white violets accompanied the purling waters up and down their banks, each brook a mossy, wet gathering of a thousand trickling tributaries of solar fire.

I thought of a book in my collection of nature guides, Mary Rogers Miller's The Brook Book, published in 1901 by Doubleday, Page & Co. I don't know much about Miller, except that she was a disciple of Henry James Comstock, the great Cornell University entomologist and naturalist, which would put most of Miller's affectionately described brooks in the Finger Lake region of New York.

I prize the nature guides from that era written by women such as Mary Rogers Miller, Mable Osgood Wright, Neltje Blanchan, Mrs. William Starr Dana, and Julia Ellen Rogers. It was assumed at that time, I suppose, that professorial gentlemen would write the epic sorts of nature books grounded in "scientific" research, such as the immensely popular works of J. Henry Fabre, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Henry James Comstock. The women meanwhile cut out a somewhat less grand niche for themselves with more domesticated guides -- bird and wildflower books, and plashing about in the brook sorts of things. I prize them for their poetry, their tender regard for their subjects, and their assumption that everyone should know what is going on in their own backyards. Julia Ellen Rogers could write a book called Trees Every Child Should Know. I can't imagine such a book being published today: a tree is a tree is a tree.

Fabre or Maeterlinck wrote wonderful stuff; they were the Homers of the natural word who could turn the life of a wasp or bee into an entomological Iliad or Odyssey. But grand epics are of little use on a Saturday afternoon ramble in a deep woods riddled by babbling brooks. I'd rather have for my companion someone of Mary Rogers Miller's bent, who without pomposity or pretense will bend to show me the egg cases of the caddis fly or the cast-off armor of a dragonfly nymph.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Form and function - Part 2

I was a quick learner. After the 1948 race it dawned on me that coil-spring suspensions and the ingenious steering and braking mechanisms designed by my father were irrelevant to winning, and might even be detrimental. Wheel lubrication and air resistance: That's what I would concentrate on. So here is my 1949 car. Not the engineering marvel of its predecessor, but sleeker and slimmer. The axles are only as thick as the three-quarter-inch steel they encased in an airfoil.

My father watched all this with approval. He grasped the concept of "simple is better," once he got his gizmo-ization in check. He went out of his way to figure out what might be the very best oil for the wheels.

Looking at this photo now -- which Tom was able to extricate from negatives saved by my aunt -- I see two things I'd change. That rubber rim around the cockpit (a few feet of garden hose slit lengthwise) offered an unnecessary bit of air resistance. And what is that lump on the front tire, apparently a gob of tar? How did I miss that?

Nevertheless, I won my heat, which meant I got to run the hill a second time. To my dad's delight. The skills and concepts I learned from him out there in the family garage have served me well all my life, especially the lesson that the most beautiful contrivances are those that are most perfectly suited to their task

Byrne & Co. Sound Systems was my sponsor both years. What they got was more than a soapbox on wheels, but quaintly simple compared to the gorgeously manufactured and professionally painted cars that win in Akron. I can't remember why I didn't compete again in 1950, probably because I had become more interested in girls than in building racers. Still, I had learned a lot, and no doubt version 3.0 would have been even sleeker -- and buffed to a fare-thee-well.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Form and function -- Part 1

I see in the papers that the All-American Soapbox Derby has fallen on hard times. The organization is deeply in debt. Crowds for the all-national races in Akron, Ohio, have dropped from 50,000 to 15,000. Corporate sponsors have abandoned ship. Still, local competitions are held in 150 cities, and hundreds of local winners, boys and girls, take their cars to the national.

For those who don't know, Soapbox Derby contestants build their own cars, powered only by gravity on a downhill track. When I was a kid, standardized steel axles, wheels, and helmets were supplied by the national organization. There was an entrance fee, generally paid by a local business sponsor, who got to paint its logo on the car. The races have been held since 1934.

And here is yours truly, in 1948, almost 12 years old, sanding down the surface of his racer in the family garage in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The skin of this beauty is made from the thin slat sides of orange crates, scrounged from local markets.

Let it be said at once that I had a lot of help from my father. He was perhaps more excited about the competition than I was. He basically designed the car, then taught me how to build it. Cars were supposed to be entirely the creation of the boys (no girls in those days) -- the proverbial soapboxes on wheels -- but by 1948 it was generally conceded that the derby was a family affair. In fact, the cars that won had the look of being designed by Ferrari and built by teams of expert mechanics in machine shops -- and probably were.

While my father was designer-in-chief, he taught me how to do the building, all with hand tools and scrounged lumber. I mastered the usual tools -- saws, plane, chisels, brace and bit -- and became something of an expert with the drawknife.

I have mentioned here before my father as the consummate tinkerer. He was a mechanical engineer by training and occupation, and could fix anything in house or car that required repair. To get a sense of his obsessions, look at the axles on the car above (click to enlarge). They are four-inches thick. Why? Inside we embedded coil springs. That's right. Coil spring suspensions of my father's design! I didn't grasp -- at least not yet -- that a spring suspension on a smooth track was of little use, and presumably was only there for the comfort of the driver, who hardly needed comfort on a ride that lasted about a minute. Those thick axles surely added enough air resistance to slow me down by the fraction of a second that would cost the race. Which it did. We competed in heats of three. I came in second in my inaugural plunge down Ninth Street.

Was that the end of story? More tomorrow,

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Red shoes

Two more Sunday illuminations from Anne, inspired by the red ballet shoes from her youth. She may be a bit abashed that I have posted them all, but I love the way she finds so many riffs on the same theme. Please click pics to enlarge.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Laughing in the dark

I wrote here not long ago about Jennifer Michael Hecht's book Doubt: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. Hecht is a historian of science at Nassau Community College in New York. What 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.

At the heart of her analysis of doubt lies what she calls a "meaning-rupture." We live between two divergent realities, she says. 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. In the weird and discordant wonderland between these divergent realities believers and doubters make their homes.

In my earlier post I said: Believers respond by transposing human characteristics onto the universe. 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.

When I read Hecht's book, I noted from the author's bio that she had also published a much-praised book of poetry , The Next Ancient World. Interesting. A historian of science who is also an accomplished poet. I ordered the book through interlibrary loan. What, I wondered, would the poet do with the seeming mismatch between human aspirations for cosmic purpose and nature's silence?

I am pleased to report that as befits a doubter her poetry is full of wit, whimsy, and a playfulness that is serious without ever taking itself too seriously. She does indeed "regard the universe and existence itself as mysteries," and revels in it. Hecht gives a big snort to fundamentalists on both sides of the "meaning-rupture." She's not out to proselytize. She just wants to have a little fun with her existential angst.

You can find a poem from The Next Ancient Wold here, and a poem from her newer book Funny (all of which incorporate a joke or two) here.