Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Stars in our eyes

The hot, dense surfaces of stars emit light in every part of the visible spectrum, from deep red to violet. The part of the spectrum that is the brightest depends on the star's temperature. Cooler stars appear red (their temperature is the same as the red burner on your stove). The hottest stars appear bluish. Our Sun, with a middling surface temperature of about 6000 degrees C, is brightest in the middle part of the spectrum and appears yellow to the eye.

But all the colors are there, as you see when sunlight is refracted through raindrops and spread out into a rainbow. I love this pic of the solar spectrum, a recent APOD (click to enlarge). A modern spectrograph has spread sunlight out into one long solar "rainbow". Cut the image into 50 thin strips along the horizontal lines and stick them together end to end. That's the "rainbow," stretching across the room and then some.

But what are all the dark gaps in the spectrum, those myriad of "lines", some fat, some thin, some dark, some barely visible? These represent absorption of light by gases in the cooler, less dense, atmosphere of the Sun.

And here's the marvelous thing. Every element has its own absorption spectrum, as electrons are bumped up from one energy level to another. Every element has its own absorption "fingerprint." In this solar spectrum all the "fingerprints" are layered on top of one another, like the figerprints on a gun that dozens of people have handled. In spite of the jumble, the very same elements of which the Earth is made are identifiable in the Sun's atmosphere.

Without ever leaving Earth, we know that the entire universe is made of the same 92 naturally-occuring elements as the world I see outside my window. This beautiful solar spectrum is like looking at the shelves in a chemstry lab store room, with each element neatly labeled: hydrogen, helium, lithium, berylium, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc.

Beautiful and wonderful.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

7 Prince's Gate Mews

I'm reading Richard Fortey's The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum: Dry Store Room No. 1. The museum is London's, a monumental Victorian pile on the Cromwell Road. The author is former senior paleontologist at the museum, and a prolific science popularizer.

I think I've read everything Fortey has written, but I have a particularly soft spot in my heart for this behind-the-scenes look at the Natural History Museum, the "unseen galleries, locked doors, priceless specimens and hidden lives." One priceless year (1968-69) I lived with my wife and three young children (Tom not born yet) in a flat around the corner and across the street from the Natural History Museum. Even closer to hand was the Geological Museum and the Science Museum, a perfect trifecta of scientific bliss. Not to mention that other great pile, the Victoria and Albert Museum of arts and crafts, which abutted our bedroom wall. These unparalleled collections were, in effect, our front yard, backyard, attic and basement, and no young family ever had a more endlessly instructive neighborhood.

On Saturday mornings, we'd walk the kids to the Natural History Museum, where for the deposit of a big, brown English penny they were each given a folding canvas stool, a clipboard with sheets of plain white paper, and a fistful of colored pencils. Off they would go into the endless corridors and galleries to sketch duck-billed playpuses, birds of paradise, woolly mammoths, and dinosaur bones. Maureen, the oldest, as it turns out, has made a triumphant return; the last time I was in the Geological Museum, there she was in an endless video loop describing her work on ice ages and tectonic uplift.

In his introduction, Fortey writes: "All our lives are collections curated through memory. We pick up recollections and facts and store them, often half forgotten, or tucked away on shelves buried deep in the psyche. Not everything is as blameless as we might like. But the sum total of that deep archive is what makes us who we are." I know my own year living adjacent to three of the world's great scientific museums vastly enriched my own store of recollections and facts. I've tried to curate them faithfully, keeping what I can fresh in memory, occasionally taking others off the shelf, polishing them up and committing them to paper. I sometimes wonder if who my three oldest children are today was in some tucked-away, half-forgotten fashion shaped by the year they spent with the greatest museum complex in the world as their neighborhood playground.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Is economics a science?

I avoid politics on this blog -- and I'm glad you do too -- not because I don't have political persuasions, but because our public political discourse is quite contentious enough without my adding to it. One of the lovely things about science is that it is all about achieving consensus. There is no right or left science, no red-state/blue-state science. If there is dissension, we devise a crucial experiment that will distinguish between the two theories.

So I will not mention that I have been reading Naomi Klein's explosive critique of global economics, The Shock Doctrine. What I know about economics I could write on the back of a postage stamp, but I know greed when I see it, and whatever the merits of her arguments, greed is on full display.

Economists like to claim that theirs is a scientific discipline, but there is nothing like consensus in Klein's book, and therefore nothing I would recognize as science. There is a huge divergence of principles and applications between the mixed-economy regulators -- who want all boats to rise together -- and the freemarket fundamentalists -- who are happy in a world with a few megayachts and billions of leaky skiffs. For the life of me I can't think of a crucial experiment that would validate one theory or the other, because the criteria of success are so wholly incommensurate.

Some of us have megayachts and some have leaky skiffs, but we all have pretty much the same DNA. Klein's book makes depressing reading, which is why I am reading at the same time Richard Fortey's The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum: Dry Store Room No. 1, an account of what goes on behind the scenes of Natural History Museum in London. Rocks and bugs and dinosaur bones, and the tedious teasing out of consensus. Nobody catapulted to extravagant wealth, nobody left eking a living from dust and table scraps. No shock and awe. No Green Zones and Red Zones. No gated communities and disposable poor. Just men and women motivated more by curiosity than greed, grateful to have a comfortable standard of life, and perhaps feeling a little bit guilty that they have considerably more than most.

More tomorrow on Mr. Fortey.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


An Anne reprise. Click to enlarge. She'll be back next week with a new celebration of the Fourth of July.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tick, tick, tick

Our property here in Ireland has lots of tall grass and brush that requires cutting each year when we arrive, otherwise we would be overwhelmed with wildness. And that means ticks. Tiny black ticks that climb to the tops of grass stalks and wait for me to arrive with my strimmer and bare legs. The last ritual before going to bed at night is tick check.

I'm leery of ticks since I managed to contact Lyme disease in New England several years ago -- that nasty little malady that seems to be all the rage. It was no fun. And now, apparently, there's a bit of a Lyme scare in Ireland, par-tick-ularly in Kerry and Cork. I have no evidence that the ticks in our fields are infected with the disease-causing bacteria -- Lord knows I've been bitten often enough -- but I'm taking no chances. So I watch, and they wait, there on the tops of their stalks.

What goes on in a tick brain, such as it is? More or less the same thing that goes on in any animal brain: eat and have sex. For the tick these compulsions would seem to work at cross purposes. Ticks can't hop or fly. They barely creep. Their inner appetite says "Climb." Climb to the top of a grass stalk so that you might be brushed against by a dog, or a sheep, or a human with a strimmer, buckets of blood all. How then, I wonder, does a tick find a mate? Scale wise, it would be like a male and a female human wondering around in the thousands of square miles of the Amazon jungle, hoping to bump into each other. And there you are at the top of a grass stalk waiting for a blood meal to amble by. How will you find her? How will she find you? Stunning, isn't it, the diversity of life contrived by evolution

The tick needs blood. The Borrelia bacterium needs the tick and me. The tick needs another tick to make more ticks. All of us, tick, bacteria, and bare-legged strimmer go round and round in an endless dance. There is a grandeur in this view of life, said Darwin. When it comes to ticks, I could do with a bit less grandeur.

Friday, June 25, 2010

In the sweet by and by

In the Bahamas there's a saying: Everbody wanna go to hebben, but nobody wanna die. I suppose you could find the same expression anywhere in the world. It's one of those universal axioms, a cognitive dissonance the human species has learned to live with.

We want to live forever, but there's always that nagging fear that death is final. When someone comes along promising eternal life, we are quick to jump on board, to buy into the program, to make our Pascal's Wager with a generous tithe. The Keys of the Kingdom have always been the ultimate commodity in the marketplace of ideas.

And in our more scientific age, what is on offer from the white-coated boffins?

Not much, I'm afraid. Everything that can be counted part of a human self -- soma, immune system, self-awareness, memory -- has been shown to be inextricably entwined with the uncorrupted flesh. No hint of a ghost in the machine. Not a whiff of immortal soul. Of course science can't disprove the self's immortality, but it offers precious little -- zero -- affirmative evidence.

So it was with some curiosity that I looked at an essay on the Huffington Post called "What Happens When You Die?," by Robert Lanza, M.D., scientist, theoretician. His answer: "Experiments suggest the answer is simpler than anyone thought. Without the glue of consciousness, time essentially reboots."

Experiments suggest? What experiments, I wondered. I read further. A nice little essay about Mr. O'Donnell the blacksmith, and a few references to quantum theory. Then in the last paragraph: "Without consciousness, space and time are nothing; in reality you can take any time -- whether past or future -- as your new frame of reference. Death is a reboot that leads to all potentialities. That's the reality that the experiments mandate."

Nobody gonna die. Everbody gonna reboot.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Green thoughts in a green shade

Two stanzas from Andrew Marvell's The Garden, surely among the loveliest lines in the English canon:
What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine ;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach ;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.
Ours is a somewhat scruffy garden, here on our windblown hillside in the west of Ireland. When we built the cottage thirty-something years ago there was nothing but low heather, gorse and mud. A few years later my wife had two hundred trees planted, tiny things, half of them willows, for a pound apiece. Now after years of struggling against the wind the survivors have reached a ragtag maturity. She also planted flowering bushes and shrubs, and I built steps and walls from native stone, so the place has a kind of down-at-heel gentility, not quite nectarine and peaches and luscious clusters on the vine, but enough beauty to make me fall into the grass and say, "What wondrous life is this I lead."

Meanwhile, the mind withdraws into its happiness, the two of us, early-seventies, blessed with good health, and nothing for me to do but let the mind drift into other worlds and other seas, those oceans where each kind does its own resemblance find. And to those of you who for whatever reason follow these daily driftings, thank you and welcome.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The end of vernaculars

In the early 1770s, East Tennessee was a tinderbox waiting to explode into warfare. Settlers and traders from the Carolinas and Virginia were moving into the country of the Cherokees. Some leaders of the tribe had been invited to Charleston, and had even visited London. They were well aware of the overwhelming material and technological superiority of the Europeans. For these tribal elders, resistance to the whites seemed futile; better to make the best deals one could manage and get on with it. The young warriors, however, were not so sanguine. They saw the erosion of their traditional way of life, the usurpation of their lands, and the threat to their rich hunting grounds in central Tennessee and Kentucky. They chose resistance. Dragging Canoe, son of one of the old chiefs, became the leader of the resisting faction.

But there was a catch. Attacks on the white settlements would mean a withdrawal of British trade, and without trade the young braves would soon run short of the implements of war -- muskets, powder, iron. No Cherokee, not even the most avid traditionalist, was willing to return to bows and arrows and flint-headed tomahawks. Once having tasted the fruits of European technology, there was no going back.

And so they were caught between ease of life and quality of life, between future and past, between homogenized technoculture and the customs and faith of their ancestors.

The rest of the story, of course, runs to its foregone conclusion, ending in the forced expulsion of the Cherokees to the western prairies along the tragic Trail of Tears. And so my hometown, Chattanooga, which had been the center of the resisting Cherokee nation, became instead a node in the vast network of railway steel that soon spread across the land.

And so are we all, caught between ease of life and quality of life, between future and past, between homogenized technoculture and the customs and faith of our ancestors.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Marilynne Robinson, she of the fine Pulitzer-prizewinning novel Gilead, has like everyone else entered the science/religion fray, taking on the New Atheists and making the case for religion. Her book is Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self -- whatever that means. Richard Dawkins has given the publishing industry a new lease on life.

Let me say at once that I haven't read the book, and probably won't. The whole issue is getting rather stale, and every time I write about it my wife groans "Not again." But I did read Gilead and enjoyed it, so I know Robinson is a smart cookie. And I've read several reviews of her new book, all highly favorable. So let me just comment on one of her points, presumably the main one, that comes up in all the reviews.

She takes Dawkins et. al. to task for their "omniscient posturing" and "pompous declarations of infallibility," as one reviewer puts it, and I suppose there she has a point. But then she goes on to task the New Atheists for imagining that they know more about what it means to be human than Herodotus, Dante, Michelangelo or Shakespeare.

I dare say that Dawkins and kin appreciate the great artists and writers of the past quite as much as does Robinson, and I doubt any of them would deny that we could learn much by spending an afternoon with the poems of Wordsworth or the music of Palestrina. But do we know more today about what it means to be human than did Herodotus, Dante, Michelangelo or Shakespeare? You bet.

We know that women who act a bit odd are not possessed by the Devil and deserve to be burned at the stake. We know that pubescent boys who touch themselves and don't properly repent won't burn in hellfire forever. We know that the Creator of the Universe doesn't insist on the genital mutilation of girls. We know that unbaptized babies won't rot in Limbo. We know that only born-again Christians will not be raptured into heaven while the rest of us are left behind. We know that writing a novel about the Prophet or drawing his picture does not deserve a death sentence. We know that the concept of a Chosen People or One True Faith is fraught with mischief. Etc., etc., etc..

In short, we know one heck of a lot more about the world and what it means to be human than did our ancestors, and no doubt we have much more to learn. We can be moved by the image of God as a gray-haired old man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and still get beyond the notion of a God who is, in all of his (his!) qualities, a projection of ourselves. And that, after all, is the point that Dawkins, et. al., are trying to make. I'm happy to live in a world that includes an atheist scientist like Dawkins who wants to sweep away the parochial and half-baked detritus of the past and a fine novelist like Robinson who explores the yet-unexplicated corridors of human mystery.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Chimps and cosmologists

Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and president of the Royal Society in Britain, caused something of a flap recently by suggesting that humans may never be able to understand the universe. "Some aspects of reality may elude us simply because they're beyond human brains, just as surely as Einstein's ideas would baffle a chimpanzee," he said.

Einstein used existing mathematics to develop general relativity, describing how gravity controls the universe on the largest scale. Dirac also used "off-the-shelf" mathematics when devising quantum theory, which describes nature on the subatomic level. After decades of trying, physicists have not been able to unify the two theories, maybe because the mathematical tools to do so are beyond our comprehension, said Rees. So too, understanding our own consciousness and self-awareness may require grasping aspects or dimensions of the universe where the human brain is not equipped to go.

Of course, Rees may be right. The universe may exist on scales and in dimensions that will forever elude us. Our brains are finite; the universe may be infinite.

But I wouldn't be too quick to shut the door of progress. History suggests that every generation has had its "dream of a final theory," only to have the next generation take us to a new level of understanding. Yes, our brains are finite, but the future will almost certainly see artificial brains -- not necessarily silicon based -- vastly superior to our own, .

So yes, complete understanding of the universe, or even a complete inventory of what exists, may be ultimately beyond us, which is why it is so silly to base arguments for or against the existence of God on the scientific theory de jour. But I would also suppose that a hundred years or two hundred years from now, our descendants will look back on the science of today with as much condescension as we look back at the science of the medieval university -- or the cosmological thought of chimpanzees.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Animal, vegetable, mineral

Anne has dressed a rock since seeing Mo's pics of dressed rocks in Kyoto. She has moved on from her own dolls to those of friends. Mo has been in Kyoto for the past week at some scientific meeting or other. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Needed: A powerful idea

Being in the wrong place, without a television and with a wonky internet connection, I did not get to watch Mr. Obama’s speech to the nation on the BP oil spill in the Gulf. By all accounts, it was something of a damp squib, a sadly wasted opportunity to rouse the nation to something worthy of a resourceful and forward-looking people.

Over here, across the sea, a new book by William Rosen addresses the question of how within a century – a generation, really -- Britain went from being just another European agricultural country to a techno-industrial powerhouse that for a century dominated the world. The book is called The Most Powerful Idea In the World: The Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. It is Rosen’s thesis that what drove Britain’s Industrial Revolution was an educated class of tinkerers, a host of “onetime wheelwrights and carpenters,” ingenious handymen who saw the possibility of turning a better piston or mechanical linkage into a modest fortune.

They were looking for alternate energy resources. England’s forests had been depleted for fuel and charcoal. Coal mines went ever deeper, requiring better pumps to drain them. One thing led to another and a perfect storm of innovation was ignited.

And so here we are today, drilling holes two-miles deep into the sea floor a mile beneath the surface of the sea. It is clearly time for another alternate, sustainable energy revolution -- wind, tide, geothermal, photovoltaics -- and the country or countries that rise to the challenge will prosper the way Britain did in the 19th century.

What can government do? It can establish policies of taxation and subsidies that will insure that innovation is amply rewarded, then get out of the way. And, of course, inspire us to greatness, not to power and conquest, but to quality of life. Which is what we might have hoped for from Mr. Obama.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Handyman -- Part 2

With a father who made chests and chairs for the family home, doll houses and scooters for the kids, and blasted phosphate out of the ground with water, it was perhaps inevitable that the boys would grow up to be engineers, or at the very least to carry on the handyman tradition. But if nurture inculcated mechanical aptitudes, nature had an anti-mechanical surprise in store.

In the summer of 1917, Arthur Elsworth moved his family to the Chattanooga, a bustling industrial railroad center on the Tennessee River, just where the river makes an improbable deviation from its south-tending course along the East Tennessee Valley and cuts a deep gash westward through the high Cumberland Plateau. He was hired to help build and operate the Southern Ferro Alloys Company, which would manufacture ferrosilicon for use producing hydrogen for observation balloons during World War I. My father was seven years old.

Ten years later, he was a seventeen-year-old student at Notre Dame Academy in Chattanooga when his father, a farmer/bookkeeper turned superintendent at the Southern Ferro Alloys Company snagged the glove on his right hand under a moving conveyor belt. His body was thrown forcibly against a post and the arm ripped off at the shoulder. He was rushed to the hospital for surgery. A blood transfusion was desperately required, but by the time a suitable donor was found the patient had died, at forty years of age. I try to imagine how this traumatic turn of events must have affected my father, a bright, handy high-schooler who lived admiringly in the shadow of his father's many mechanical gifts. Now a machine had cruelly wrenched away his father's arm and life. One might think this tragedy would cause the son to foreswear anything to do with machinery. But no, a year later, as a new high school graduate, he gave up the promise of a good job and rapid advancement at the Chattanooga Boiler and Tank Company to go off, at his mother's insistence, to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to study mechanical engineering,

All three brothers received engineering educations at the University of Tennessee, by taking cooperative courses -- three months working, three months in class. Chester and Roger, the youngest boys and only a year or two apart, worked for the Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company and the American Lava Corporation. They alternated on the job -- one would work while the other went to school. In this way they were able to keep the same employment in Chattanooga and living quarters in Knoxville. Roads were bad in those days, and the 120 mile trip between the two cities in the family car took five or six hours. In spite of all the back and forth, my father was elected to the university's honorary engineering society and served as editor of the Tennessee Engineer. If there was a mechanical gene in the family line, it expressed itself fully in the subsequent careers of the three Raymo boys.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, the second oldest child, was required by her gender to forgo a college education to support her mother. She was bright, but there is no evidence I know of -- and I remember her lovingly and well -- that she possessed the boys' mechanical aptitude. Nature? Nurture? Either way, theirs was the last generation bound so severely by convention. All six of my father and mother's six children -- two boys, four girls -- went off to college, and in recent months I have been watching my own scientifically-educated daughter building decks and remodeling her kitchen, expressing "handyman" skills that may or may not have flowed down to her in Arthur Elsworth's genes.

(These familial reflections have been inspired and informed by Tom's historical researches, some of which can be followed here. Thanks, Tom. Another family blog is daughter Mo's beautiful evocations of the arts and crafts, here.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Handyman -- Part 1

Is a handyman born or made? Nature or nurture? Are little boys born with an innate desire to take things apart and put them back together? Is tool wielding, as gun-toting seems to be, enshrined in the male genes?

My father Chester, like his two brothers, Arthur and Roger, one older, one younger, seem destined for engineering from the first glimpses we have of them in the family records -- handy, deft, intrigued with toys that test mechanical skills. There was a sister too, Charlotte, who became a bookkeeper.

Nature and nurture are always tightly entwined, perhaps especially so for handyman talents in my father's generation. Boys got Erector Sets for Christmas and girls got dolls. It was assumed that boys would go to college and study technical subjects, and girls stay home and learn domestic arts. But was culture responding to innate male and female predispositions, or was "the handyman" a purely cultural construction? In either case, the word "handywoman" wasn't in the dictionary. Like all questions of nature and nurture, then or now, the threads are devilishly difficult to pick apart. My father's propensity for engineering, and that of his brothers', could have come from their own father, Arthur Elsworth Raymo, by either corridor.

Arthur Elsworth was a self-made engineer who grew up on a farm in Nankin, Michigan. In 1905, he married Margaret Merrow, the daughter of a tug boat captain on the Great Lakes, and four children followed in quick succession. The earliest census records show my grandfather as a "farmer," but by the time the second of his children came along he is listed as "bookkeeper." There is no evidence I know of of any formal training in engineering, but somehow his innate technical skills were apparent enough to win him a job managing a phosphate mine in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, a typical small town of rural mid-America to which he brought his young family. Their snug, wood-framed home was not far from the mine, from which surface phosphate was extracted hydraulically. Photographs show the kids playing barelegged in the sluice water with the hustle and bustle of extraction going on in the background.

By all accounts, Arthur Elsworth was a consummate handyman. He made much of the family's furniture -- chests, dressers, tables and chairs -- and play equipment for the children too -- merry-go-round, seesaw, swings, climbing bars, doll houses sleighs, kites and scooters. It would have been hard to grow up in that environment and not pick up some mechanical skills, especially if you were a boy. Sister Charlotte had a role model too. My grandmother Margaret Merrow Raymo made all of the children's cloths, from pajamas to Buster Brown suits for the boys and frilly dresses for Charlotte. Whenever she made a dress for Charlotte, she made one just like it for the girl's doll. She was a good cook too, who always came up with special food and decorations for holidays. It would seem from the photographs that have come down to us that she was adept with a camera, at a time when the Kodak Brownie era of personal photography was just beginning. Meanwhile, Arthur Elsworth proved he was not just a whiz with material things. He was a pretty good self-taught musician too, who entertained the family with violin, harmonica and organ. The family's most cherished possession was an early Edison Phonograph, with cylindrical wax records and a diamond needle that never needed changing. Records cost 35 cents apiece or three for a dollar. The family bought six recordings each month, patriotic, humorous and musical. The kids learned from the recordings how to recite Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Longfellow's Paul Revere's Ride.

I have a photograph of Chester as a very young boy, spiffily attired in a homemade outfit, proudly displaying an airplane he has made from a construction kit presumably supplied by his father, a budding engineer no doubt hoping his mechanical skill will please the handyman parent. Nature or nurture? In that place and that time it was all a part of being male.

(More tomorrow.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In the garden

Each summer when I get to our cottage on the hill in Ireland, I set out my little ten-by-ten foot veggie garden. I try to choose plants that have a reasonable chance of harvest in three months -- this year peas, lettuce, spinach mustard, cabbage and cucumber. Still, I'll be lucky to have much of anything for the table. The slugs and rabbits will have their bite first.

That's OK. We all have to eat. And when it come right down to it, my main reason for the garden is to watch things grow. Celebration, not appetite.

Start with a seed. A -- uh -- pea-sized seed for the peas. Lettuce seeds so small you can barely pick one up. Cabbage, spinach mustard, cucumber: each seed its own size, shape and color. And in each seed all the info the earth, water, air and sun need to make peas, lettuce, spinach mustard, cabbage, or cucumbers.

One can think about this for years and still shake one's head in disbelief. Four chemical units called nucleotides: adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. Arranged in pairs between twisted strands of sugars and phosphates like the steps in a spiral staircase. A always paired with T. G always paired with C. A language of four letters in which to write the instructions for peas, lettuce, spinach mustard, cabbage, cucumber. Or, for that matter, slugs and rabbits, you and me.

I'm not telling you anything you don't know already. I'm reciting these facts with a rote wonder the way we used to recite litanies -- long devotional lists of essentially meaningless words: Mirror of justice, Seat of wisdom, Vessel of honor, Mystical rose, Gate of heaven, Morning star. The point of those repetitions, I suppose, was to reinforce our sense of mystery, confirm there was more to the world than meets the eye.

And so I kneel in the warm, wet soil of the garden, pushing seeds into the earth. Seed of pea. Seed of lettuce. Seed of spinach mustard. Seed of cabbage. Seed of cucumber. Down the rows. A pious litany of devotion.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Only that day dawns to which we are awake

I must own a half-dozen copies of Walden, more than any other book in my library.

There is the New American Library Mentor paperback which I bought new for 50 cents in 1956, my first Thoreau, which I read in Junior Seminar at the University of Notre Dame, the engineering student's required exposure to "the Big Ideas." The pages are yellowed now, and my underlinings and marginal notes have almost faded away, but I can still see flagged with red checks the words I had to look up -- tantivy, tantara, ebriosity, imbricated, pellicle, suent, esculents, and so on. It wasn't easy going. I'm still not sure what some of those words mean.

Never mind. Something of the book struck a chord, as I'm sure it has done for generations of idealistic students. To live deliberately. That was the idea. Not necessarily in a cabin in the woods, but not as a toy of fortune either. Deliberately.

Then there is the handsome Heritage Press edition of 1939, with wood engravings by Thomas Nason, which my aunt Charlotte gave me toward the end of her life.

And the big The Annotated Walden, by Philip van Doren Stern, one of the Clarkson N. Potter annotated classics, 1970, especially valuable for its endpaper map of Thoreau's Concord. A better and spritelier annotated edition is Walter Harding's Walden, Houghton Mifflin 1995, which has the same map and notes and sketches by Thoreau. Walden is not a book that especially needs annotations. They tend to weight down with excess baggage a book that was meant to travel light.

Which is why I like my little Shambhala abridged edition, 1992, the size of a pack of playing cards, light enough for a place in backpack or hip pocket. Pithy and perfect. On the cover is Michael McCurdy's wonderful wood engraving of Thoreau At the Cabin Door, of which I am proud to own a signed original. McCurdy is the artist who illustrated The Soul of the Night.

But if one had to own just one edition, I suppose it would have to be Shambhala's 2004 one-hundred-and-fiftith anniversary edition fully illustrated by McCurdy. Henry and Michael are a match made in heaven. Or if not in heaven, at least by the pond.

And every fan of Thoreau will want Stowell and Howarth's A Thoreau Gazetteer, which has every map you'll ever need.

Monday, June 14, 2010


My daughter, the editor, sent me an early copy of a book to be published soon, Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing -- and Discovering -- the Primal Sense, by Bonnie Blodgett. Blodgett, a gardening writer, attributes her loss of smell to a popular over-the-counter nasal spray she used to combat a cold. Not a happy turn of events for someone who writes about flowers.

Why did my daughter send me the book? I was born without a sense of smell. Or, at least, I have no memory of smell. The only doctor I have talked to about this suggested that my anosmia (that is what the condition is called) probably resulted from birth damage to the frontal lobe of my brain. Well, who knows?

Blodgett's book has a lot to say about the science of smell, and the trauma of losing that sense -- and the joy of recovery. I couldn't tell you what a smell smells like, never having smelled a smell. Sweet and sour, salty and bitter -- any thing to do with the tongue is OK. I can tell if a mug of coffee has sugar in it, but not if it has coffee in it. Could be hot water for all I know. Wine? I buy the cheapest stuff that hasn't gone to vinegar.

In her book A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman suggests "smumb" as an appropriate moniker for my condition. "There goes Chet. He's smumb."

Am I missing what Ackerman calls "all of the heady succulence of life"? Orange, lime, clove, musk, jasmine, bergamot, attar of roses, ambergris, civet, sandalwood. Maybe.

But, hey, don't feel sorry for me.

Apparently, our taste buds -- tiny onion-shaped receptors embedded in the tongue -- are multipurpose. Each bud can deliver multiple sensations to the brain. The buds are complex chemical processors capable of sorting out an assortment of molecular stimuli. For example, the salty pleasure I derive from anchovies begins with sodium chloride molecules, NaCl, approaching a taste cell. The atoms in the molecules disassociate, and sodium ions enter the cell through special channels on its surface. The accumulation of sodium ions in the cell enables calcium ions to enter, too. This prompts the release of chemical signals called neurotransmitters that trigger adjacent nerve cells. A message zips to the brain. Yum, I'll have more anchovies, please.

The sense of smell is rather different. The 100 million olfactory receptors in the nose are bare nerve endings; no fancy buds to do complex biochemistry. Smell is raw and primitive, a link to our premammalian past.

Mice, we are now told, have about 1200 genes for scent receptors, most of them in full working order. Humans, by contrast, have only about 1000 smell receptor genes, and the greater part of these have been put out of action by deleterious mutations. It seems that with our big brains and keen color vision modern humans don't rely as much on the nose as did our mammalian and premammalian ancestors.

So rather than smumb, I think of myself as more highly evolved.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


A reprised Sunday illumination from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Quick then -- open the door

Although Mary Oliver is one of America's best-loved poets, not everyone likes her work. A common criticism is the sameness of her poems; if you have read one Oliver poem you have read them all. I suppose there is some truth to that. But I return to my volumes of Oliver poems again and again. I read her as often and with as much pleasure as any other poet.

The very sameness that turns off some readers is the recurring source of my pleasure. Oliver's poems are familiar, yes, but -- paradoxically -- always fresh. What a gift, to never grow tired of the familiar! The owl, the pond, the black bear, the snake. Each day to be awake to a new illumination.

Several years ago the neurologist Oliver Sacks had a piece in the New Yorker about a man -- named Clive Wearing -- who suffered from a complete loss of short term memory, the result of a brain infection. Whatever happened seconds ago was deleted from consciousness. Every moment was as if he was waking for the first time.

Wearing's malady is tragic and heartbreaking, akin to death, as he himself seems to recognize. But the opposite extreme is deathlike too: Being so inured to the familiar that memory is like a vise on one's sense of wonder. Every time one opens one's eyes, it's the same old same old.

Mary Oliver's memory is intact. The same old same old is a treasured embroidery to which she adds each day more gorgeous stitches, a work in progress. She stands on the shore of Blackwater Pond, say, where she has stood a hundred times before, and she sees the white heron, or the fireflies, or some other radiance that lights up the familiar with something breathtakingly new.

That's why I keep coming back to Oliver: to be tutored in the art of seeing afresh. She has the capacity to trot out the familiar again and again -- always decked in new particulars. Isn't that what it's all about?

Friday, June 11, 2010

The stages of prayer

I try not to repeat myself too often here, but some repetition is inevitable. Having published millions of words in books, articles, newspaper columns and blog, I sometimes wonder if I have anything at all left to say. Perhaps now, on the sixth anniversary of this blog, it's time to just shut up.

Previously, here and in When God Is Gone, I quoted the "five stages of prayer" that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge jotted down in his journal:

First stage -- the pressure of immediate calamities without earthly aidence makes us cry out to the Invisible.

Second stage -- the dreariness of visible things to a mind beginning to be contemplative -- horrible Solitude.

Third stage -- Repentance & Regret -- & self-inquietude.

Fourth stage -- The celestial delectation that follows ardent prayer.

Fifth stage -- Self-annihilation -- the Soul enters the Holy of Holies.

Which I translated like this:

First stage -- Help!

Second stage -- Here I am!

Third stage -- Oh my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee...

Fourth stage -- Gee! -- followed by -- Wow!

Fifth stage -- silent attention.

Which pretty much summarizes my own religious evolution.

I should by now have reached the fifth, silent stage. The essayist Pico Iyer says: "Silence is the tribute that we pay to holiness; we slip off words when we enter a scared place, just as we slip off shoes." But perhaps I'm not there yet. I find myself still saying "Gee!" and "Wow!", which is pretty much all I do on this blog. So I might as well keep doing it for a while longer -- until I find the Holy of Holies.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Food, clothing, shelter

I thank my daughter Mo for this quote from Houses and Gardens, Arts and Craft Interiors, published 1906  by M. H. Baillie Scott:
A house too may possess that strange inscrutable quality of the True Romance.  Not shallow, showy, and pretentious as most modern mansions are, but full of a still, quiet earnestness which seems to lull and soothe the spirit with promises of peace.  Such a house is the greatest achievement possible to the art of man better than the greatest picture, because it is not a dream alone, but the dream come true - a constant daily influence and delight.
This evening we fly to Ireland for our 31st summer in the cottage on the hill over Dingle Bay. Eighteen by thirty-six feet. Perfect for two people, with that "inscrutable quality of the True Romance." What more does one need? Oh yeah, there's my little writing studio buried in the hill. Even True Romance needs a bit of private space.

The older I get, the more I realize how little one needs to sustain the spirit. Food, clothing and shelter, of course, but those things best nourish the spirit when they are simple and natural and sustainable. I'm no Luddite. I need my four jet flights a year, I've grown attached to the internet, and you'll have to wrench my MacBook from my dying hands. But when the tar balls start washing up on our Gulf Stream-washed Irish beach, I hope not too many will have my name on them.

(I never know what we'll find there for an internet connection. It may be a few days before I am back here.)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


A recent APOD, a cloud of cosmic gas shaped vaguely like a winged Norse helmet, called Thor's Helmet. The nebula is 30 light-years wide and 15,000 light years away, among he stars of our own Milky Way Galaxy. A hot, massive central star is blowing off a wind of matter and energy that heats and excites the surrounding molecular medium. The pink is the glow of hydrogen. The blue-green emission is the signature of oxygen. No doubt the cloud also contains carbon and nitrogen, and smatterings of other elements. Stars are forges of the elements, fusing the nuclei of primeval hydrogen into the stuff of Earthlike planets and life.

It is worth pondering that every atom in our bodies -- yes, the very atoms -- had a cosmic origin. Here again is a schematic of the twenty amino acids that constitutes the building blocks of proteins, with atoms represented by their chemical symbols and by colored "balls," black for carbon, red for oxygen, white for hydrogen, gray for nitrogen (click to enlarge). This is the stuff we are made of. Proteins are hundreds or thousands of amino acid units long, assembled into chains by RNA with information in DNA. Wiggle your finger. You are wiggling stuff that was made in the big bang (hydrogen) and in the cores of stars that lived long before the Sun was born and died in convulsions like the one above.

Think about what makes a successful child's building set, Tinkertoy, say, or Lego, or K'NEX. You'll want a set of basic units in standardized sizes, enough sizes to be versatile but not so many as to be unwieldy. The units should snap or lock together smartly, and hold securely. Lincoln Log constructions fall apart too easily. Erector or Meccano constructions may be fun to build but are a pain to dismantle. A good construction toy should be easy to put together, rigid once assembled, and not too hard to take apart.

And guess what? That's just the way the world is made.

Look out the window at this marvelous world. A gigantic Tinkertoy construction, rigid enough to be satisfyingly permanent, but easily enough disassembled and rearranged to allow for the universe to have a history. My own body -- my own self -- is a temporary accretion in an unceasing cosmic flow of "sticks" and "knobs".

Of course, there is one crucial difference between nature's construction set and Tinkertoy, Lego or K'NEX. Nature's set is self-assembling and self-disassembling. The physics and chemistry of how it happens are pretty well known. But the grand trajectory of cosmic evolution? That, my friends, is a mystery too deep for this poor tinkerer's brain to illuminate.

Monday, June 07, 2010


The oil spill in the Gulf is an unmitigated disaster -- unless it can be turned into a teachable moment.

Where are the politicians who can channel the anger and dismay into a program for national energy independence, something as massive and forward looking as Eisenhower's interstate highway system or Johnson's Medicare? Where are the politicians with the courage to significantly raise taxes on gasoline and petroleum products, and use the money to subsidize development of alternate energy resources? Not only do we reduce our dependence on foreign oil and the likelihood of another catastrophic spill, we also do our part to reduce anthropogenic global warming.

Wait, you say. There is not an airtight consensus on either the reality or deleterious impact of anthropogenic warming. Well, ok, if you say so, but another learning moment from the Gulf: When the stakes are big, prudence dictates we prepare for the worst case scenario.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

And on the seventh day...

...he rested. Click to enlarge Anne's meditation.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

One world

Once again, Boston honors the 36 valedictorians of the city's high schools.

Almost half were born outside of the United States, in countries as diverse as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, China, Bangladesh, Albania, Ethiopia and Nigeria. The multiracial faces of these smart and dedicated students are more representative of the global population than of America. They will go on to top universities, with substantial scholarships.

It makes me immensely proud of my country and my region.

Even prouder to be a citizen of the world.

I am neither wise enough nor knowledgeable enough to address questions of immigration policy or law enforcement. I will leave that to the politicians. But I do know there is no long-term hope for our species unless we arrive at a place where global citizenship becomes more important than the national, racial and religious differences that divide us.

This is something that has been largely achieved in science, to a greater degree than anywhere else. Pick up any issue of a science journal and the apparent diversity of author names and institutional affiliations is as great as the faces of the Boston valedictorians. I say "apparent" because national citizenship, politics, religion and gender are otherwise invisible. By design.

Why? Because if something approximating objective truth about the world is possible to obtain, it will not depend on accidents of birth.

Friday, June 04, 2010


As I noted here not long ago (May 18-20), I have been trying to understand the significance of the journals my father kept as he was dying of cancer at age 64. Which means cancer has been much on my mind -- not a particularly cheerful train of thought. But take a look at this cover of the May 21 issue of Science. Not only is it pretty, it conveys a bit of cheerful news.

The therapeutic effect of many anticancer drugs is limited by their ability to penetrate tumor tissue. A group of researchers in California found a way to channel the drugs deep into a tumor, as illustrated schematically on the Science cover (click to enlarge). Along with the drugs (green), the researchers administered the peptide iRGD (multicolored ring), which binds to integrin receptors (blue and yellow) in tumor blood vessels, and is subsequently cleaved (open rings). The cleaved peptide then binds to neuropilin-1 receptors (purple), activating a transport system that carries the drugs deeper into tumor tissue.

All this is going on deep inside a mouse's body in a space smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.

Now I don't know what you make of this, but it makes my head spin. What's a peptide? From the Greek, "a little digestible," a little protein, if you will. A short chain of those ubiquitous molecules in the Tinker Toy set of life called amino acids, of which twenty will do nicely, thank you. We think of life as rather like the cover above, all pink and meaty and chunky -- a fatty dish of flesh and blood and bone. But it's all chemistry. It's all Cs and O and Hs and Ns. Hooking up. Making chains. Twisting and folding. Binding and releasing. We think of living as pumping and breathing, coughing and wheezing, eating and sleeping, burping and excreting, with that angelic sprite called "Me" operating the machine. But down there it's all those utterly indistinguishable Cs and Os and Hs and Ns doing what they have been endowed to do since the dawn of time.

So pop in those peptides, let them cleave and bind and pump through pores. Oh Lord, if only we could see it, feel it, that unceasing stir of molecules that just goes and goes and goes in every cell of our bodies.

Until it doesn't.

(Cover image: Peter Allen/University of California, Santa Barbara.)

Thursday, June 03, 2010


A few days ago I attended the funeral of a person who at a formative stage of my life offered me friendship and inspiration. He was older than me by sixteen years, wiser, and a poet. He didn't teach me how to see, but he taught me how to register what I see, how to make the experience of seeing a part of who I am.

At the funeral, his daughter read this poem by Thomas Hardy, written towards the end of the poet's life:

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
"To him this must have been a familiar sight."

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone."

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things"?
He didn't teach me how to see. Six years of scientific research had taught me that. What he did teach me is that nothing is fully seen in all of its shades and mysteries until it is artfully described.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The empirical imperative

Carmen drew our attention the other day to the new movie Agora, based on the life of Hypatia, the philosopher/mathematician of 4th-century Alexandria, the only woman to appear in Raphael's famous The School of Athens. She is the standing white-robed figure at left foreground. Click to enlarge.

Not a lot is reliably known about Hypatia. The best biography I know of is Maria Dzielska's Hypatia of Alexandria, published by Harvard University Press in 1996, notable for its determined effort to separate fact from fiction. Certainly, Hypatia has been made a hero or villain by lots of people with axes to grind, beginning soon after her death, traditionally at the hands of an angry Christian mob.

A long time ago, before the recent spate of books on Hypatia, I read -- or tried to read -- Charles Kingsley's 1853 novel Hypatia, Or, New Foes With an Old Face. I can't say that I remember much of the plot, which had more going on than I could digest, but as one might suppose from the good Anglican divine, Kingsley's Hypatia is admired for her neo-Platonic virtue and her beauty, but she is made to recognize the inadequacy of her pagan ways and comes to Christianity just before her tragic death -- yes, at the hands of a Christian mob, but one working the will of a corrupted Church. The real hero of the book is Philammon, a manly proto-Protestant Christian stand-in for the author himself.

And so it is that we all interpret the world through our personal paradigms.

It is said that as a neo-Platonist Hypatia disparaged empiricism in favor of abstract reason. This may or may not be true, but if so then her reputation deservedly floats mostly free of facts. As I recall, there is a chapter in Kingsley's novel called Nephelococcygia, or Cloud Cuckoo Land, from Aristophanes' The Birds. The word also refers to the business of seeing shapes in the clouds, and by extension imagining things that have no substantial basis in reality, such as making Hypatia into whatever we want her to be and creating gods of our eager imaginings. If science has any useful function in this world beyond technology, it is surely its insistence that we occasionally drag our cloud castles down to empirical earth.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Epigenetics and cognitive aging

Even in my genteel retirement, I read Science and Nature every week. Or, at least, I browse the stories, even those I don't fully understand. One can generally sop up a sense of what's going on.

Consider the following abstract of an article called "Altered Histone Acetylation Is Associated with Age-Dependent Memory Impairment in Mice":
As the human life span increases, the number of people suffering from cognitive decline is rising dramatically. The mechanisms underlying age-associated memory impairment are, however, not understood. Here we show that memory disturbances in the aging brain of the mouse are associated with altered hippocampal chromatin plasticity. During learning, aged mice display a specific deregulation of histone H4 lysine 12 (H4K12) acetylation and fail to initiate a hippocampal gene expression program associated with memory consolidation. Restoration of physiological H4K12 acetylation reinstates the expression of learning-induced genes and leads to the recovery of cognitive abilities. Our data suggest that deregulated H4K12 acetylation may represent an early biomarker of an impaired genome-environment interaction in the aging mouse brain.
The key words here are histone and acetylation, so I provide Wikipedia links, but there's no need to dig into the biochemistry. What we are talking about here is gene expression, and its declining effectiveness with age. Our researchers worked with three groups of mice, ages 3, 8 and 16 months (average lifetime, 27 months). The older mice had a harder time remembering their way through the maze.

Those of you in my age cohort will relate.

This mousal memory deficit correlates with a decline of histone acetylation, as illustrated by this lovely little diagram. I like the look of that DNA wound up on those histone bobbins with the acetyl groups happily hanging on. Isn't it wonderful that something so pretty on a sub-microscopic scale may determine whether or not I remember my wife's birthday or where I put the car keys.

What works for mice may or may not work for humans, but our researchers were able to restore memory function in those not-quite-tottering 16-month-old mice with a intrahippocampal infusion of suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid (don't try this at home). You can be sure memory pills will be in the works for humans in the not too distant future. Alas, not soon enough for me.

There was something else I wanted to add. Now what was it?

(Illustration credit: C. Bickel, Science.)