Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tempestuous seas

Somehow, during my father's first year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, while working part-time as a trainee engineer in Chattanooga, he found the time to construct from scratch a model Spanish galleon. As I was growing up it sat on a shelf above his workbench in the basement. A thousand tiny knots in the rigging. Shellacked billowing sails, painted with the symbols of Christian empire. Rows of gun ports with upswung covers and the mouths of cannons sticking out. On the deck, tiny cannons on their carriages with wheels not much larger than pinheads. Ladders to the forecastle and aft upper decks. A golden bear inscribed on the stern. It seemed to me a thing of preternatural accomplishment. (Click pic to enlarge.)

Why did he keep it in the basement? Why not in a place of honor, on the bookcase in the living room, for example. I never asked. I would never have dared to ask. But I had an intuition it had something to do with my mother, perhaps a marking out of her own inviolate territory.

There was another sailing ship, a tiny one, that my father made for my mother while they were courting. Its hull was a half walnut shell, bowsprit and all, to which my father had glued a cardboard deck. Above he fashioned full three-masted rigging. As I was growing up that little ship resided in a corner of the china cabinet in the dining room. In a funny way, it was as inspirational to me as the infinitely more accomplished Spanish galleon in the basement.

Then, one evening at dinner, when I was about eight or nine, for a reason I cannot recall, my father took the little walnut ship out of the china cabinet, pried off the deck with a dinner knife, and there written on the underside in his neat engineer's hand was the message "I love you," hidden all those years. The message struck me as terribly romantic, but I have a vague recollection of something unsettling in the air at table that evening, an ironic tilt to the atmosphere. I was too young to pick up on the subtler complexities of matrimony, but wise enough to remember the handyman's token of romance and forget the sparks of discontent.

(Tom, Thanks for the pic and for all you are doing for family history.)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Late summer

Our roadsides here on the Dingle Peninsula are ablaze with color. Fuchsia. Montbretia. Meadowsweet. Buttercups. Tick trefoil. Vetch.

And purple loosestrife, that European native that has made itself very much at home in North America, to the extent that many people consider the plant a pernicious weed.

But consider this.

Inside each loosestrife blossom, the sexual organs come in three different lengths: short, medium, long. These are arranged male-male-female, male-female-male, or female-male-male. All blossoms on any one loosestrife plant are of the same kind, as one can ascertain with a bit of patience and a magnifier.

Now here's the clever thing: A plant can only be fertilized when pollen from a male part lands on a female part of the same length. This means a plant can never fertilize itself, because only a different plant will have a male part of the same length as the female part.

This guarantees cross-pollination between plants, which confers evolutionary advantages. Cross-pollinated plants are often better adapted to survival and reproduction than either parent, and they avoid the genetic deterioration that sometimes results from inbreeding.

Imagine the exquisite molecular chemistry that regulates fertilization. The lock-and-key fit between loosestrife sperm and egg must be a thing of almost unbelievable subtlety and refinement.

In his delicious little book Saving Graces, the horticulturist Roger Swain tries to remember what it was like to be a sneaker-clad child in nature:
All of us are born wild-eyed, but our outlook changes with time. First you stop seeing camels in the clouds, then you outgrow the fear that there is a snake in your bed, then you learn that there aren't really alligators in the sewers. Plans to become a forest ranger disappear along with any chance of seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker. The expansive optimism of childhood becomes as limited as a two-week summer vacation.
What a shame that we lose the ability to see wonders where everyone else see a weed.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Getting there

Many people keep books or magazines by their toilet, to bide the time while they are sitting on the can. I keep a daddy-long-legs. Or a mommy-long-legs.

A common "cellar" spider, Pholcus phalangioides. They love to winter here in my studio, and when I arrive I generally sweep dozens out with a broom. But I keep a few -- one here under the shelf over my desk, and one in the loo. They are endlessly interesting to watch, although they don't do much but sit there in their almost invisible webs and hope something falls on their plate. Whatever mating they do is done with some discretion -- they like to do it in the dark -- and I suppose my broom makes rather a dint in available partners. But when the tiny baby spiders are born it's all rather exciting, and I feel the proud parent.

Touch the web with a pencil point and they do a dervish dance, some reflex ingrained in deep time, possibly to further entangle a prey in the web, or to make the spider invisible, or to scare away a predator. I don't scare, but I like to see them dance. Imagine that tiny brain controlling those sprawling legs with the skateboarder knee pads.

Here's a mystery. In these climes, at least, Pholcus phalangioides is never found outdoors, or so I'm reliably told by a guidebook. How then do they colonize new barns, cellars, and homes? When we built our cottage it was a quarter-mile from other buildings of any sort, and yet it soon had its population of Pholcus phalangioides. Did they "balloon" here? Some spiders let out a thread that catches the wind and if the thread is long enough the spider can let go of its perch and sail away. It would seem a rather catch-as-catch-can way of finding new indoor spaces to inhabit, but here is this mommy-long-legs, watching me on the can as I watch her. If a reader knows of an answer to this mystery, I'd like to hear it. Surely some arachnidologist has made it her life's work to illuminate Pholcus phalangioides migration. The Book of Job had it long ago: "Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


There is a four-line poem by Yeats, called "Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors":
What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.
Like so many of the short poems of Yeats, it is hard to know what the poet had in mind, who exactly were the unknown instructors, and if unknown how could they instruct. But as I opened my volume of The Poems this morning, at random, as in the old days people opened the Bible and pointed a finger at a random passage seeking advice or instruction, this is the poem that presented itself. Unsuperstitious person that I am, it seemed somehow apropos, since outside the window, in a thick Irish mist, every blade of grass has its hanging drop.

Those pendant drops, the bejeweled porches of the spider webs, the rose petals cupping their glistening dew -- all of that seems terribly important here, now, in the silent mist. There is not much good to say about getting old, but certainly one advantage of the gathering years is the falling away of ego and ambition, the felt need to be always busy, the exhausting practice of accumulation. Who were the instructors who tried to teach me the practice of simplicity when I was young -- the poets and the saints, the buddhas who were content to sit beneath the bo tree while the rest of us scurried here and there? I scurried, and I'm not sorry I did, but I must have tucked their lessons into the back of my mind, a cache of wisdom to be opened at my leisure.

Whatever it was they sought to teach has come to pass. All things hang like a drop of dew upon a blade of grass.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Late one night

Thirty years ago, in 1980, I was a young(ish) professor, with one kid at university, another about to go, and two more in the pipeline. Basically living from hand to mouth. How would we manage?

One evening in bed I said to my wife, half in jest, "I'm not going to sleep until I figure out a way to make $10,000." Ten thousand dollars seemed like a fortune in those days.

Before I drifted off to slumberland I had the idea for a book called 365 Starry Nights that would have a short astronomy lesson for every night of the year. Illustrated by me.

I got right to it. I sketched out a month's worth of nights and sent it off to half-a-dozen publishers. And didn't hear from anyone, not even the usual postcard dismissal.

Until more than a year later, when out of the depressing silence Mary Kennan at Prentice-Hall wrote me a nice letter and said, "Let's do it."

I quickly sketched out the rest of the year. Mary supplied me with a stack of especially formatted (with camera-shy blue lines) drawing boards, and off we went for our second summer in the cottage here in Ireland, with drawing pens, ink, boards, and youngest child, Tom.

The cottage had cement floors, virtually no furniture except what I had made, no electricity, and a dribbly water supply. And it rained incessantly.

I drew. They called me the Woodpecker because of the sound of my stippling. I was damp. The cardboards were damp. The pens clogged. I stippled, and stippled, and stippled. Maureen typed, on a cheap portable typewriter we had to go a hundred miles to buy. Tom was eleven. He read everything I wrote and gave me lots of good advice. I dedicated the book to him.

The book has now been in print for 28 years and has gone through many printings. It has made much more than the $10,000 I hoped it might. In fact, it has been my most lucrative book, not counting the movie of Dork of Cork.

Alas, in my naivety, I signed a contract that made no provision for a royalty rate that escalated with sales. Prentice Hall/Simon & Schuster made out better than I did. It was a costly error no aspiring author should make.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Though summer turns to winter

At the end of A Natural History of Love, Diane Ackerman draws an analogy between the collections of the Natural History Museum in New York, especially an exhibit of glass models of microscopic organisms, and the heart. She writes: "The heart is a living museum. In each of its galleries, no matter how narrow or dimly lit, preserved forever like wondrous diatoms, are our moments of loving and being loved."

And it's true. The memories that are most reliably preserved in my own fading recollections are those related to affairs of the heart. A touch. A smile. A glance across a crowded room. A whispered endearment.

And heartache and heart break, too.

Of course, it has nothing to do with the heart. The heart is down there in the museum basement, with the lungs, stomach and the rest of the machinery -- pumping, burning, keeping the museum warm. The collection galleries are upstairs in the brain, those infinitely mazy corridors, the myriad tendrils reaching out, almost touching, sparks leaping from axon to axon like that archetypical synapse between the fingers of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

I have only the haziest memories of some of the biggest events in my life, but I can remember as if they were preserved in unbreakable glass a first kiss, a glimpse of flesh, a forbidden touch.

Why is that? Is it because the original potentiations of the synaptic connections were stronger? Are memories of the heart preserved in more nonvolatile sectors of the brain? Is there a capacity of the brain assigned to the refurbishment of those memories that assure us we are not alone?

"Ransack the museum of your heart for love-sappiness," says Ackerman, "and you'll find it for sure." And there they are, shelf after shelf of the seemingly inconsequential memorabilia of love.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday illumination...

...from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

By the waters of Babylon

In his introduction to the British edition of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Richard Adams suggests that English nature writers are characterized by rejection of 1) technological progress and industrial society, 2) orthodox religion, and 3) contemporary social values as worth writing about. He is talking about the great tradition that runs from Wordsworth to Kenneth Grahame to -- well -- to Adams himself. He has a hard time fitting Dillard into these categories, finding a writer who flits in and out of technology, religious orthodoxy, and social interactions. And it's true enough -- Dillard is hard to pin down. She is as quixotic as the light and shadows that play about Tinker Creek.

My daughter Margaret gave me John Lister-Kaye's At the Water's Edge: A Personal Quest for Wildness for Father's Day. Lister-Kaye is an eminent British conservationist and nature writer. At the Water's Edge is his own Tinker Creek, an account of life in the environs of his home in a Scottish highland glen. He fits neatly into Adams' categories of rejection. He is a marvelous writer, and vastly more knowledgeable about nature than Dillard, say. But there is a steady soberness about him, none of the wild recklessness that sends Dillard careening up and down her creek in an anorak of purple prose. Lister-Kaye is more a gum-boot and waxed-cotton writer, which makes you want to sit with him on a log by his loch and sip a quiet whisky. His "wildness" seems rather tame compared to Dillard's churning, God-struck whirlwind of light and mystery.

In fact, I would be disinclined to call Dillard a "nature writer," and certainly not in the same sense as Lister-Kaye or Richard Adams. She is rather more a theologian. She can write a powerful passage about a giant water bug sucking the guts out of a frog, for example, but nature here is just a front for an all-encompassing drama that is more Old Testament than water's edge -- Yahweh torn between pity and rage.

I don't think of Dillard in the tradition of Thoreau or Lister-Kaye, but of a kind with the author of the Song of Songs or St. John of the Cross. Readers of The Soul of the Night, especially, will detect prose and purpose that have been blessed with the waters of Tinker Creek.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The dot and the abyss

Let's take a stroll around the neighborhood. Nearby. Not very far. Let's say 20 light-years from the Sun.

A typical neighborhood, for our neck of the galaxy.

About a hundred stars. If we travel to the nearest one on, say, a Voyager spacecraft, it will take us upwards of thirty thousand years to get there. So our neighborhood amble will take a while.

First we'll pop in on Alpha Centauri and its two companions. Alpha is a twin of our Sun, a yellow star. In our 20-light-year neighborhood there are half-a-dozen Sunlike stars. Not many stars are bigger or brighter. Sirius, Altair, Procyon. Nothing really hot and bright like Rigel in Orion, and no red giants. All things considered, our Sun is one of the big shots on the block.

A dozen or so orange stars, somewhat cooler and less bright than the Sun. A passel of red dwarfs. And a handful of white dwarfs make up the mix. About a hundred in all.

Now let's put the neighborhood in perspective. Imagine the 20-light-year-radius sphere with its hundred stars is the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Then the Milky Way Galaxy would be about the size of your desktop, a great wheeling whirl of stars with our neighborhood dot about two-thirds of the way out from the center.

The next spiral galaxy? Andromeda? Another circular tabletop of a hundred billion stars at the other end of the house. How many galaxies? Well, tens of billions that we can potentially see with current technology, spread out around us in every direction for hundreds of miles.

And our sweet little Sun and its one hundred neighboring stars are in this period.

We know all of this. But there is a sense in which we don't know it. Psychologically we still live in the cosmic egg universe of Dante, our cozy planet with the Empyrean just up there above the clouds. We have lived through the most breathtaking transformation of human knowledge and we haven't begun to grasp what it means. It’s as if the transformation never happened.

We know and we don't know.

Maybe we don't want to know.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


About this time last year I shared a couple of posts about my friend, the sculptor, John Holstead. At the time, he was working on another of his "cosmic" pieces, titled "The Story So Far." Here is the finished sculpture. For the moment, it is hanging in an insurance office in Dingle. Click to enlarge.

As I mentioned last year, the piece is conceptually based on a double Mobius strip, and like other of John's works, this one has recesses that cannot be seen or touched, but which are nevertheless finished to the same degree of polish as what you see. How is that possible? The works are assembled from pieces of 18-mm plywood, and the ultimately hidden recesses are finished as he goes. I love John's sense that the cosmos has aspects that are forever beyond our knowing.

Ah, but are they beyond our knowing? Might we not try to extrapolate the smooth curves of the sculpture into the regions we cannot see, working on the assumption that John at his computer was using mathematical algorisms. Then we could test our extrapolations by, say, submerging the entire sculpture in water to ascertain its volume, weighing it with ever greater precision, and making ever more exact measurements on the parts we have access to. Of course, we could never be sure -- without gaining access to John's computer -- that we have it right, but we could approach the truth with ever greater degrees of confidence.

A piece like this requires months of work on the computer before it would ever be possible to cut out the laminae and glue them together. Then more long months of hand-shaping and polishing. First, the rasp, then sandpaper in ever finer grades until the thing is as smooth and glistening as -- as the universe itself.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Speaking of God

"The theologian Paul Tillich once observed that among scientists only physicists seem capable of using the word 'God' without embarrassment."

I quote the physicist Steven Weinberg, from his Dreams of a Final Theory. Of course, as a robust atheist, Weinberg has little use of the G-word. But we know what Tillich meant. Indeed, he need not have added he qualifier "among scientists". Physicists concern themselves with such things as why the laws of nature are what they are and not something else, why is there something rather than nothing, how the universe began, and so on. If any questions force us to look into the abyss of mystery, it is these, and if anyone has a right to invoke the word God, it should be the folks who ask and try to answer the big, big questions. More so, say, than you or I, who might say, "Thank God, I found my car keys."

But, of course, it turns out to be the other way around. One seldom hears first-rate physicists invoking God. Yes, Stephen Hawking once famously spoke of a final theory as "knowing the mind of God," but he was being metaphorical. He certainly didn't mean meeting up with the fellow who listens to prayers and helps find the keys. Why, after all, should physicists who wrestle with the big questions invoke God? To say "God did it" puts them out of a job.

No, it is rather those of us who go through life with lost car keys (and lost dear ones) who are most apt to invoke God as an explanation or a source of solace. That is to say, it is those of us who are most deeply mired in the ordinary who are most apt to invoke the extraordinary -- those of us who are up to our necks in the natural who are most likely to invoke the supernatural.

When we identify God with the commonplace ("A fine, soft day, thanks be to God."), whatever transcendent usefulness the word might have gets lost in the ordinary. Wouldn't it be better to reserve the word for that which is beyond our knowing, the deep unspeakable mystery that lies at the heart of all things? When someone tells me they have a personal relationship with God, I'm always tempted to say, "And while you have his ear, can you ask him why there is something rather than nothing, and how the universe began."

This is more or less what I meant by the title of my book When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy. Get rid of that personable fellow who helps us find the lost car keys -- who cossets the good and smites the wicked -- and we begin to become aware that the entire universe is shot through with an ineffable (and perhaps unknowable) grandeur that is alone worthy of that ancient word God.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Memories are made of this

Forty-six years ago when I moved with my family to the village of North Easton, Massachusetts, I began working my way through the local Ames Free Library, an eccentric collection of books (in those days) housed in a marvelous Henry Hobson Richardson building. At one point in those first few years I brought home a 19th-century book on microscopic fungi called Rust, Smut, Mould and Mildew, which not only had the irresistible title, it also had (as I recall) the lowest acquisition number in the library, No. 1. The title became a family catch phrase for anything that needed a wash-up or a dusting.

Last evening at dinner, for reasons I need not relate, I referred to the book: Rust, Smut, Mould and Mildew. "No," says my spouse, "the book was titled Rust, Smut, Mildew and Mould."

"I demur, my pet," says I.

""Ah, but you are wrong, as usual," says she demurely.

"I remember distinctly," says I.

"Erroneously," says she. "Check it on the internet."

"It won't be on the internet," says I. "The book is more than a century old."

"Everything is on the internet," says she.

So I google "Rust, Smut, Mould and Mildew." And smarty-pants Google says, "Do you mean Rust, Smut, Mildew and Mould?"

And there it is, not only the title, but the entire book, published in Britain in 1865, by the delightfully named Mordecai Cubitt Cooke, with the hand-colored illustrations just as I -- er -- remembered them. Googlized!

I recount this little story to confirm the extent that the internet, and especially Google, has become the collective memory of our species. Whereas previous generations slipped into doddering old age with raveled recall of the past, we are only a click away from Mordecai Cubitt Cooke and his mycological compendium.

"Pass the peas," says she, with her pixie smirk.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Apis moralis

When I came up to my writing studio this morning I found this wasp curled on my closed laptop. Vespula vulgaris? I'm guessing it wore itself out against the windows, trying to get out, then chose to expire where it did to lay a guilt trip on me. Not one to reject a gift from the gods, I got out my hand magnifier and had a good look. Hairy body. Battered wings. Intact stinger. A beautiful little piece of machinery. How do those wing muscles keep going at such a pace?

Strong as an ox. Wise as an owl. Graceful as a gazelle. Wasp-waisted. Busy bee. We have always been inclined to see ourselves in the animal kingdom, perhaps because we have known all along that that's where we belong, even when we wouldn't admit it to ourselves. In 1715 Isaac Watts penned a little poem for children "Against Idleness and Mischief":
How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthy play,
Let my first years be passed
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.
It seems to me we excel the bee in being able to occasionally relax. To dawdle. To dilly-dally. To be deliciously naughty in the Devil's workshop. Why must we improve each shining hour when the hours are already shining? Louis Carroll knew how to write a book for kids without the slatherings of guilt and earnest moralizing:
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spread his claws,
And welcome little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

Sunday, July 18, 2010


,,,and a pic from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Six impossible things

It is morning. Early morning. I am sitting at my desk with my laptop open before me. The shelves are lined with books. At my elbow, the big glass windows looking out to Dingle Bay. On the sill, morning glories and tomatoes. At my other elbow, a mug of coffee. In an hour or two I'll have breakfast.

This is my White Queen time. "But one can't believe impossible things," cries Alice, in frustration. "Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast," replies the White Queen smugly.

If I can believe six impossible things before breakfast I count it a useful day.

For example, yesterday I screwed up my puss and believed the life cycle of the slime mold Dictyostelium discoideum. Rather impossible when you think of it, that those teeming amoebas know how to build those gleaming minarets, that it's somehow built into their genome. A four-letter code. Impossible! But I believed it. Why? Because I had seen it with my own eyes.

And the tiny red spider mite that I picked -- ever so carefully -- off the tomato plant. As small as the period at the end of this sentence. And that little dot -- it has legs, and mouth, and eyes, and digestive system, and -- and everything I have basically, and it eats and excretes and repeats, just like I do, that pinprick of red. Impossible! But I believed it. Because I placed the spider mite here on my laptop and examined it with my magnifier.

And all that was before my coffee was half gone.

Oh, lordy, the world is full of impossible things. And it takes a lot of practice to believe them. I try to practice every morning. Six impossible things before breakfast, I say.

But I have one rule. I only believe impossible things that I've seen myself. Or have reliable, reproducible evidence that someone else has seen. Goodness knows there's enough reliably attested impossible things to keep me occupied for many mornings to come without making up impossible things that no one has reliably seen. I don't believe in Cheshire Cats, for instance. Cheshire Cats are all well and good, but they have a way of drifting in and out of existence. You say you talked to a Cheshire Cat, but when I went to look it had faded away. Not even a whisker remained. I require of my impossible things some measure of permanence.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The soma and the germ

Paul drew our attention a week or so ago to some research that appeared in the 9 July issue of Science, comparing the genome of the single-celled alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii to the 2000-cell organism Volvox carteri.

It turns out that the two related organisms have about the same number of genes -- 14,500. Moreover the genes are remarkably similar. The conclusion seems to be: The change from single-celled life to multicellularity was no so much what "tools" organisms had as how they used them.

And what a change it was! About 700 million years ago invisibly small cells got together and soon the world was full of towering oaks and great blue whales. There is a real sense in which you and I are societies of cells that learned to cooperate and specialize to make for more efficient reproduction of the precious germs cells. It is only slightly with tongue in cheek that I'd say Chartres Cathedral, the plays of Shakespeare, Bach's Saint Mathew's Passion, and the Large Hadron Collider are just side-effects of a collectivity contrived by a string of genes to make copies of itself.

Does that sound distressingly reductionistic. It doesn't need to be. Emergence is the name of the game.

I once had the opportunity to watch the life cycle of a slime mold --- Dictyostelium discoideum -- under the microscope.

At first they are invisible individuals, an uncountable army of free-roaming, single-celled amoebas, grazing on bacteria. Like other single-celled organisms, they multiply by splitting down the middle, two from one. Their population soars. Their food becomes scarce.

Triggered by hunger, they gather in their tens of thousands, streaming like gleaming rivers to an assembly point, at last becoming visible to the eye in their slimy congregations.

Surrendering their individuality, they heap themselves into a gooey blob half-a-millimeter high. The blob falls onto its side, becoming a sluglike creature. Some amoebas know they are at the front; others bring up the rear. The front end of the slug lifts as if to sniff the wind. The newly-contrived creature slithers on a film of slime toward light and warmth.

As it slithers, the cells begin to change. The anterior cells are destined to become a stalk; the posterior cells will become spores.

A bright, warm place is found. The slithering ceases. Anterior cells push down through the spore mass, becoming a slender pillar anchored at the base, lifting a perfect sphere of spores into the air. The spores are dormant amoebas that will travel on the air to form new colonies when the sphere bursts asunder. The stalk amoebas die; they have sacrificed themselves so that others might live.

The fruiting tower is beautiful. Glittering. Translucent. An Ozmian minaret, sometimes as tall as this letter i. Fifty thousand amoebas pool their individual resources to build a reproductive spire that is as marvelous in its own amoebic way as the towers of Chartres.

What I watched on the stage of the microscope was, in a sense, a recapitulation of one of the great chapters of life on Earth, the evolution of multicellularity, with all of the glorious side effects that seems to us to be -- in our exalted sense of exceptionalism -- the point of it all.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bottom kill

This business of the relief wells as a way of stopping the gusher in the Gulf. I have to admit the whole idea left me gobsmacked.

First, you drop a drill string a mile deep into the ocean, then start drilling. You are going to drill another 2 miles into the sea floor and intersect a 16 centimeter (7 inch) pipe that's almost a kilometer off to the side. Whoa!

I'm sitting here looking out the window to Dingle Bay, two miles out there across the parish. And I'm trying to imagine that turning string of pipe worming through that much rock and hitting a soccer ball. How, I wonder, could the drillers possibly have that much control over where the drill bit is going?

Well, what do I know? That's why the BP engineers make the big bucks.

An article in last week's Science "explains" how it's done. They start with a navigation device invented for submarines and missiles, a set of 3-dimension accelerometers so tiny they can fit just above the drill bit. (Not unlike, I would imagine, the ones in your iPhone.) The device monitors the position of the bit within a few meters at all times. How the accelerometers are powered or communicate with the surface, Science doesn't say.

But a few meters isn't good enough. Once they are near the steel casing of the target well, they use an electromagnetic sensor to zero in on the pipe they are trying to intersect.

Remember, the three mile-long drill string is turned from the drilling platform. How can you steer it? By giving the drill bit an "extra bump" at the appropriate point in each revolution.

I'm impressed, even if I don't fully understand. And still I sit here looking out across the parish imagining that pipe chewing its way through two miles of rock looking for a soccer ball, with me here at my desk doing the turning, and with all that friction, and all that twisting of the pipe string, and it still seems impossible.

Apparently it's been tried 40 times before and hasn't missed yet.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The middle way

Roland Merullo is a writer who lives in Western Massachusetts who has written a number of highly regarded books, novels and memoirs. He can be a bit too sweet for my taste, but Lord knows the world can use more sweetness. Like me, he was raised a Catholic and still carries a sentimental attraction to certain aspects of that faith. He now counts himself a Buddhist.

In Revere Beach Elegy he has a few things to say about faith, and his "somewhat seasoned optimism" that some kind of benevolent force runs the universe.
I believe this in spite of the torture and misery, the murder and molestation. It is clear enough to me that I may only want the world to be a good place, for life to make sense, and that the motivation for my faith might be purely selfish...I accept the possibility that all my cherished theories about God and the Afterlife and Karma and Enlightenment might turn out to be so much self-delusion, born of the terrible fear of pain, meaninglessness, and the end of my own existence.
High marks to Merullo for hedging his faith with doubt. He admits to having "a real problem" with people who profess certainty about ultimate matters.

At the same time he has a problem with the educated cynic.
There is a danger -- spiritual, psychological, emotional, even practical -- in being suspicious of all goodness, piling up evidence of the meaninglessness of living, the hard-heartedness of divinity...The cynic is afraid to believe that human existence aims toward some greater purpose -- just as the religious fanatic is afraid to believe it doesn't...The cynic guards himself, at all costs, against ridicule...The territory he abides in is a safe but sterile territory.
So where does that leave us? Somewhere between Benedict and Dawkins, I suppose, between pious self-delusion and smug self-satisfaction.

Buddhism charts a middle way, although still a bit too tenet-laden to suit my skeptical bent. Does religious naturalism chart a middle way? The religious naturalist holds as (tentatively) true only that knowledge that passes the rigorous test of empirical inquiry -- which at this time in our evolution more or less equates with science -- yet acknowledges that what we know is probably only a pale intimation of what is. In the overarching ambiance of our ignorance we find ample grounds for humility, wonder, reverence, awe. Hope and goodness we struggle to make for ourselves, because it seems to be the better part of human nature to do so.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The sword and the scimitar

Just before daybreak on June 20, 1631, two ships manned by Barbary pirates and a force of Janissaries -- elite troops of the Turkish Ottoman empire -- slipped into the harbor of the fishing village of Baltimore, not far from here on the southwest coast of Ireland. With muffled oars they rowed ashore, surprising the villagers in their beds. The village was put to the torch, and nearly two dozen men, thirty-four women and fifty children -- mostly English settlers -- were hauled away to a life of slavery in Algiers. Some ended up in the galleys of the Ottoman navy, many were sold into private hands, some no doubt were sent in tribute to the Sultan in Constantinople and vanished into his harem. Few were ever heard from again.

The hue and cry in England and English-ruled Ireland was great. Barbarians! Infidels! Pernicious devils without a whit of Christian charity! Of course, the outrage did not keep the English from engaging in the same sorts of raids on West African villages in the succeeding two centuries.

One would like to think that we are all rather more civilized now. The idea that some humans might own other humans seems anachronistic, although we remember that the Greeks and Romans at the heights of their civilizations kept slaves, and that even that great democrat of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, was a slaveholder. Slavery still exists in various parts of the world today. But as I sit here looking out my window at the waters plied by the 17th-century Barbary corsairs, all is serene. It would be hard to imagine a perspective less troubled by human greed or misery.

Progress? Is the world really better off today than in the past, and if so why? I would like to believe that the answer to the first question is yes, that a greater percentage of people enjoy security, prosperity, and health today than at any other time in history. As for why -- ah, that is a more contentious issue.

Certainly not a change in human nature. We are no doubt as biologically prone to greed and violence as ever. Religion? Almost everywhere in the world today were strife is rampant religion is part of the mix.

I would suggest that two things have contributed to social constraints on our rapacity.

First is the idea of progress. By and large, we no longer look back to a Golden Age in the past, as humans have done for most of their history. We are Utopians, with our eye on the future. We do not define ourselves by tradition

Second, empiricism. We ground our truths in the close observation of nature, not in tradition, authority or revelation.

These two qualities were being formulated in Europe at the time of the Baltimore raid. Francis Bacon had just died. Robert Boyle and Christian Huygens had just been born, and Newton's birth was a few years in the offing. Galileo was preparing his book on The Two Great World Systems for publication.

The Turks were turned back from the walls of Vienna in 1529, and beaten at sea at Lepanto in 1571. But it was in the realm of ideas, not on the battlefield, that Europe gained its ascendancy. Those two great ideas -- progress and empiricism -- have more than anything else contributed to the scene of security, prosperity and health I see outside my window. They are by no means universally accepted, not even in my own country, dedicated by the founders to secular equality. We are not out of the woods yet.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Glory be

I know I've written about this before, but so what. Some things are worth a reprise.

Each summer when I arrive here in Ireland I stick a few morning glory seeds in pots on the window sill by my desk. And wait. And watch.

They start slow. Lifting their paired two-lobed leaves out of the soil. Unquestionably morning glories, and that in itself is cause for wonder, that the seed knows how to make a morning glory plant. GATACGATACC and all that.

But the best is yet to come.

Four inches. Eight inches. Now, the exploring tendril. Sweeping around. Looking for something to climb on. Touching the pole. Ah!

From here on, it's home free. Up the poles, every plant twining in the same counterclockwise sense, up, up.

Watching those tendrils searching, touching, grabbing -- it's almost as if the plant had a mind, a purpose. Knew what it was looking for.

No wonder Darwin was so taken with climbing plants. His biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore write: "Tables and sills were an entangled mass of twiners and tendrils; pots perched on every ledge as he timed sweeps and tested the effects of light. Warm summer days were spent in the hop fields watching the plants snake up their poles. He brought hops inside, and sat ill in bed tying weights to their tips in an attempt to slow their ascent. Around the house the vines took on a surreal appearance, covered in paint markers as he timed their twisting movements."

Sixteen miles to the north, London had been stirred into a tizzy by the publication of Origin of Species. If all living things were related by common descent from a primeval ancestor, what made humankind unique? If chance and struggle shaped the tree of life, what was the role of Divine Providence? Oblivious to the turmoil, Darwin tended his twiners.

The ineluctable agency of genes. A lovely word: ineluctable. That which cannot be escaped from. In the seed, the two-lobed leaves, the tendrils twining counterclockwise up, the blue trumpets blaring their sunrise tantaras. GATACGATACC. A window full of plants, and beyond the glass still more: bramble, fuchsia, rose, montbretia, willow. The morning, noon, and evening glory of burgeoning plant life written in a four-letter code.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday illumination

Another doll from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Time and again

Yesterday, driving home from the village along our one-lane, hedge-crowded road, they suddenly darted out onto the tarmac -- four young stoats, as sleek as otters, twisting and tumbling in frisky play. There was no getting by. I stopped the car. We sat and watched as they sported along the road, oblivious of our presence. I slipped the car into gear and we followed close their pell-mell frivolities, rapt by their innocent wildness, their helter-skelter fun, content to idle there all day if the stoats had no objection.

It had been a while since I had seen a stoat.

When we came here 38 years ago, they were common. Badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, hares. Cuckoos and corncrakes. Many a time, sitting here in my studio, I had a fox look in at the window, its moist black nose pressed against the glass not four feet from my elbow. All gone now, or mostly so.

It began with the change in agriculture. Thirty-eight years ago, farming in this remote corner or Ireland had not changed much since the Middle Ages. A patchwork of tiny fields separated by hedgerows, among which our neighbors rotated their animals and crops, keeping the land naturally fertile. The scythe, the hay rake, the spade: these were the tools of the trade. The hedgerows -- "ditches" locally -- were ideal wildlife habitats, thick earthen banks topped with a wild tangle of bramble and hawthorn. Then, beginning about 20 years ago, a younger generation of farmers began grubbing out the hedgerows, consolidating fields into tracts large enough to be cultivated and harvested by machines. A single crop, silage to keep the animals through the winter. The land made productive by the application of artificial fertilizers. Insects, earthworms and slugs vanished, and the wildlife food chain collapsed.

There's no point being nostalgic about it. The change was inevitable if the standard of human living was to improve. Which it did. Modernity is always bought with a price.

How happy, then, to see the stoats at play, gay throwbacks to an earlier time when the farmer put down his scythe and took his tea in the shade of the ditch. There's still a few of the old folks here who look back and wonder what has been lost. The younger generation roll their eyes in justifiable disbelief and watch with satisfaction as the big machines bundle the grass into plastic-wrapped bales.

This morning we woke with a wren crashing frantically about the bedroom. They seem to have a gift for finding their way in the open window, but not for finding their way out. Never mind. A lovely alarm clock that, that little brown bundle of wildly fluttering heart.

Friday, July 09, 2010

We are such stuff…

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again.
Caliban is talking to Stephano and Trinculo in Shakespeare's Tempest, telling them not to be "afeard" of the mysterious place they find themselves, an island seemingly beset with magic, strangeness, ineffable presences.

And you and I, and, yes, all of us, find ourselves inexplicably thrown up on this island that is the world, and we too, if we are attentive, hear the strange music, the sounds and sweet airs, that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere

No, I'm not talking about the usual ubiquitous clamor, the roar of internal combustion, the blare of the television, the beeping of mobile phones. I'm not talking about the Limbaughs and the Becks, the televangelists, the blathering politicians, the twitterers and bloggers (including this one). I'm not even talking about the exquisite music of Mozart, the poetry of Wordsworth, the theories of Einstein.

I'm talking about the sounds we hear in utter silence, in moments of repose, in the heart of darkness, when we are a little bit afraid, disoriented, off kilter. A strange music that comes from beyond our knowing, a felt meaning. You've heard it. I've heard it. You'd have to be deaf not to have heard it.

Where we differ is how we describe it.

Mostly, we give its source a name. Angels. Fairies. Gods or demons. Yahweh. Allah. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nixies, E.T.s, shades and shadows. Naiads, dryads, Ariel and Puck. A host of invisible creatures who are, in one way or another, images of ourselves. And, in naming, we are a little less afraid.

And some of us are just content to listen, to take delight. Having woken to the inexplicable mystery of the world -- the sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not -- we let the music lull us back into a sweet slumber, a kind of dreamless dream, a reverie.

Does reverie share a deep root with reverence? I don't know.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

In the land of counterpane

From our hillside here in Ireland the big triple window at the foot of the bed looks out to the south over Ventry Harbor and Dingle Bay. As I lay in bed at night the view is all sky. It is summer, of course, as always when we are here, and in the middle of the night the ecliptic -- the approximate path of the Moon and planets -- lies parallel to the horizon, seemingly right outside the window. When I wake in darkness -- the nights are brief this time of year -- I don't even have to raise my head from the pillow to watch the parade of the zodiac marching by.

First, Spica, alone in Virgo, tooting her tinny horn: "Make way! Make way!" Then those two inconspicuous stars of Libra with the wonderful names, Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, twirling their batons. Ta-ta! Ta-ta! The Scorpion, with its blazing red heart -- the giant star Antares -- and curling stinger dragging in the sea. And Sagittarius, the centaur archer, prancing into view, draped in the flowing robes of the Milky Way.

Once a month the Moon joins the parade, full or nearly full, like a big booming calliope. Some years we have Mars, or Jupiter, or Saturn, in their sequins, doing handsprings across the horizon; this summer only Jupiter joins the parade, pulling up the rear, chased by the dawn. The occasional satellite soars upwards out of the horizon like a Roman candle. In August, shooting stars fly the other way, extinguishing their fires in the sea.

All in all, it's hard to sleep with that razzle-dazzle and hulabaloo high-stepping past the foot of the bed. I suppose we are lucky that this is, after all, Ireland, with its customary curtains of cloud.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

And then my heart with pleasure fills...

No, wait! It's not all green outside my window. At least not in the foreground.

Daubs of color. Wild red roses. The white flowers of bramble. Purple-jeweled heather. Soon, yes, soon, the raging orange wildfire of montbretia.

I think of those endless waves of yellow rape we saw on our walk across England last year. The sun-dappled woods carpeted with bluebells.

Green may be the canvas, but on it natural selection has painted a work of pointillist genius. Dabs of pigment. Every color of the rainbow.

For hundreds of millions of years, green had the planet all to itself. For hundreds of millions of years, plants relied almost exclusively upon wind and water to unite male and female germs. Then, about 100 million years ago, in the Cretaceous -- not so long ago on the geological time scale -- angiosperms allied themselves with insects. Here's the deal. I'll supply you with nectar, you carry my pollen from plant to plant. A win-win situation.

Any good commercial undertaking will thrive on advertising. So plants advertised. Colored blossoms shouting "Here I am!" Scents too, perfuming the air with seductive gradients. "Over here! Over here!"

Fossils tell the story: Suddenly, magnolias are blooming among cone-bearing pines. Flowering sassafras among the ferns. Bright-hued additions to a world of green.

Like fur and feathers, the idea of flowers seems obvious once we have it, but who could have imagined it before the fact? Who can imagine a world without them?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Green grow the rushes, O

It's a green, green world outside my window, a patchwork of green as far as the eye can see. No wonder they call this the Emerald Isle. No wonder the Irish everywhere wear green on Saint Paddy's Day.

Billions of years ago single-celled organism were living a hardscrabble life in the sea, scrounging for food, for bits of carbohydrate brewed up catch-as-catch-can by random chemical reactions. Hunting and gathering. Hanging on for dear life.

Then some lucky line of cells pieced together or appropriated what surely turned out to be the most important chemical process ever contrived in the history of life -- a way of absorbing sunlight and using the energy to cobble together carbon dioxide and water to make -- Ta-da! -- energy-packed sugar. Food! Inexhaustible food. The invention of agricultural by one-celled PLANTS.

All the microbes in the sea benefited, even the ones that couldn't do photosynthesis themselves. Even the ones without that necessary agent chlorophyll.

And here's the thing: the new chemical reaction absorbed sunlight in the red and violet ends of the solar spectrum. Leaving green behind. I look out my window and I'm seeing leftover sunlight. Table scraps.

There is a certain purple bacterium that lives in salt lakes, called Halobacterium halobium, that accomplishes a primitive sort of photosynthesis using a pigment other than chlorophyll. The pigment absorbs light in the middle (green) part of the solar spectrum. This leaves reflected red and blue light at opposite ends of the spectrum to give the bacterium its purple color. H. halobium may have appeared earlier in the history of life than organisms that use chlorophyl. It is not unreasonable to imagine that they might have remained the template for all successive plant life, in which case even land plants might be purple. Would I like that? Living on the Amethyst Isle? Wearing purple on Saint Paddy's Day?

Well, it happened otherwise. Green is the color of the planet's livelihood. Green is nine-to-five, nose-to-the- grindstone, earning one's keep. "In summer, greenness is cheap," said Thoreau. He was simply applying the law of supply and demand. Green is the ubiquitous badge of a planet plugged into a star.

But wait...

(More tomorrow.)

Monday, July 05, 2010

Chasing eclipses

Next Sunday the long thin cone of the Moon's shadow, like the tip of a rapier, will brush the Earth's cheek. If it were truly a blade, rather than a cone of darkness, it would cut a thin gash across the South Pacific, thousands of miles long and about 200 kilometers wide. The shadow will first touch the sea near the International Date Line, then rush across the open ocean to the southern tip of South America. If you are anywhere in that path, you will experience one of nature's most spectacular shows -- a total eclipse of the Sun.

Unfortunately, there are not many places to stand, at least not on dry land; only a couple of tiny islands are available for eclipse chasers. But by the rarest of chances, Easter Island happens to lie smack in the path, and you can bet that the competition will be fierce to get the most dramatic photograph of the eclipsed Sun with one of the mysterious Easter Island statues -- the moai -- in the foreground. Even now the most fanatical photographers will be staking out their territory. I can imagine that some uncomfortable scenes will ensue as shutterbugs seek to defend their positions from late-coming interlopers.

The situation will be ideal for photography, with the Sun at mid-eclipse 40 degrees above the north-northwest horizon, among what we in the north would call the brilliant stars of winter.

So who will take the prize? Who will have their photo appear as the APOD, the Astronomy Picture of the Day. We'll all be waiting to see.

Meanwhile, year by year, the eclipse Americans have been waiting a lifetime for creeps closer. On August 21, 2017, the Moon's full shadow -- that black dot of totality -- will sweep across the central United States from west to east, passing just to the north of my old hometown of Chattanooga. It will also pass over the site of the famous New Madrid geological fault in eastern Missouri. So many people will move from north and south into the shadow band, with their automobiles and RVs, that the weight may trigger an earthquake as great as the ones that shook the heartland in 1811-12. (Just kidding.)

Tom, is it too early to start planning? Where along the path of that moving dot is there a lovely place to stay, with a reasonable promise of cloudless sky? Can we take over an entire inn and get all the family there?

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Fourth of July

A patriotic festivity from Anne. I suspect it's for all of US no matter where we live. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

In the agora of ideas

There was some discussion in Comments recently about the film Agora, by Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar, that tells the story of Hypatia, the brilliant female mathematician, astronomer, and teacher who lived in 4th-century Alexandria and was apparently murdered by a religious mob. Not many films get reviewed in Science, the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Agora is given a rave (June 18). I have not seen the film, but according to the reviewer -- Stuart Firestein -- it takes a nuanced view of the whole science/religion controversy. Another film considered in the same review is the French-made Oceans, a documentary about the seas. Both films were released in Europe to popular and critical acclaim.

Firestein notes that Agora required a year to find an American distributor. Oceans was picked up by Disney but re-edited to make it less challenging and coorporate-friendly. The reviewer writes:
To me, a larger question is why there is no adult market in the United States for an environmentally sensitive and demanding film with an informed and important scientific message. Did potential American distributors turn down Amenabar's star-filled, award-winning, historical action film because it had a cogent scientific theme? Why are films like Oceans and Agora finding strong, sophisticated, adult audiences in Europe and failing to attract attention in America?
Well, you tell me.

But I will add a story.

The film Frankie Starlight, made from my novel The Dork of Cork, had three beautiful Hollywood stars; Matt Dillon, Gabriel Byrne and Anne Parillaud. But the real stars of the movie were Corban Walker and Alan Pentony, who played the adult and child protagonist of the film, who happened to be a dwarf. The whole point of the novel and film was to force us to rethink our notions of beauty.

In Europe, and the rest of the world, Corban and Alan were prominently featured on posters and in advertising. The American distributor pushed Dillon, Byrne and Parillaud to the fore. Walker and Pentony weren't even named on the box that held the VHS! According to what I was told, "Americans would be turned off by dwarf actors," which pretty much defeats the whole point of the film.

Is it that Americans are really so unsubtle? Are we too quick to let corporate interests define us? Or have we become what the corporate interests want us to be -- passive consumers of insipid intellectual pabulum?

And speaking of Dork, Tom has directed me to this Huffington Post list of the twelve worst book titles. Ah well, it's not a National Book Award, but it'll do.

Friday, July 02, 2010

All together now, let's sing

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.
These, or course, are the opening verses of the old Anglican hymn. What no one sings anymore is the next verse:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
No, no, we can't have that, not in these more leveled times. So on to the next verses -- the purple headed mountains, the river running by, the sunset and the morning that brightens up the sky. He made them every one.

The hymn was written in 1848, a decade or so before Darwin's Origin. It was a last gasp expression of the medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being, a hierarchy of value running from the foot of God's throne to the dregs of the earth. Each creature an ordained place. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate. Ordained by the Designer. Woe betide the creature who overreached his or her estate.

Then along comes Darwin, who says we are all twigs on the tree of life, products of random mutations and natural selection. The establishment would have none of it. Darwin's old Professor of Geology at Cambridge, the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, went so for as to blame the socially-leveling French Revolution for such "gross (and I dare say, filthy) views" as transmutation of species; allow species to change, he wrote, and you "undermine the whole moral and social fabric [bringing] discord and deadly mischief in its train."

Funny, isn't it, how God gets credit for all things bright and beautiful, but not those things we detest and fear. The Victorian hymn should always be accompanied by the Monty Python version, of which three verses follow:
All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat,
All things rude and nasty,
The Lord God made the lot.

Each nasty little hornet,
Each beastly little squid--
Who made the spikey urchin?
Who made the sharks? He did!

All things scabbed and ulcerous,
All pox both great and small,
Putrid, foul and gangrenous,
The Lord God made them all.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Behind the scenes at the museum

I mentioned that I've been reading Richard Fortey's book on the Natural History Museum of London. I can't resist taking note of the author's photograph on the back jacket of my paperback copy. Click to enlarge.

Loose tie. Collar askew. Glasses dangling haphazardly. A slightly goofy smile. Surely Mr. Fortey is trying to evoke the image of a dusty boffin, squirreled away in some cluttered office in that huge Victorian pile on the Cromwell Road picking through trays of trilobite fossils. I'll bet he said to the photographer, "Hang on just a sec while I rumple myself up."

Certainly, his book is chuck full of stories of eccentric scholars who spend their lives in the bowels of the museum studying some curious corner of creation, the dung beetles, say, or fruit bats. Do naturalists become eccentrics, or do eccentrics become naturalists? Either way, the English seem to have a gift for eccentricity and donnish nature study.

The new Darwin Centre at the museum allows visitors to look in upon the scientists at work, disheveled tweeds and all, as if they were exotic animals on display. And now that I think about it, this photograph of Fortey makes him look rather like a meerkat, say, one of those adorable creatures across town at the Regent's Park Zoo.

Fortey tells us of museum naturalists who keep coming into work long after they retire, living off their pension checks until they expire among their tottering piles of books, papers, and specimens. What possesses these men and women to potter away all their lives on their esoteric specialty? Let Fortey explain:
The real joy of discovery is to see the exuberance of life, those trilobites with tridents, or those great flying reptiles as big as gliders -- organisms almost as exotic as the confabulations of Hieronymus Bosch, but thriving here on Earth long ago. To know about the wonderful excursions that life has taken is to be enriched, to be made aware of the fecundity of our small planet. This is what motivates paleontologists to tap away for weeks at ungrateful rocks. This is the point of securing the booty recovered as testimony for generations of scientists to come in the drawers of the hidden museum.