Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Most benign star

A few lines from Diane Ackerman's The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral:
At night I lie awake
In the ruthless Unspoken,
knowing that planets
come to life, bloom,
and die away,
like day-lilies opening
one after another…
I've mentioned before that our bed here in Ireland looks out a big window to the south. From our hillside nothing blocks the view of the sky -- cinematic, Imaxy, star-bedazzled. All summer long Jupiter has dominated the night, blazing like a spotlight from its perch in Pisces. No, "perch" is not the right word, implying stability. The planet has been doing a bit of to-and-froing, like a blossom waving in the wind. At the beginning of August it halted its eastward progress and began a three-month retrograde crawl to the west. Of course, the reversal is only an illusion; the Earth is overtaking Jupiter in our respective orbits. On September 21 the giant planet will be directly opposite the Sun in Earth's sky, dead south at midnight, and at maximum brightness -- magnitude -3. By then we'll be in another bed, on another continent, with no view of the sky at all, still awake with the "ruthless Unspoken" but without Father Jupiter to bestow his benedictions.

Monday, August 30, 2010


bromegrass shared with us the other day a photograph of the Gallarus Oratory, a remarkable corbelled dry-stone building, with about the footprint of a one-car garage, just over the hill from our house here in Ireland. The building dates from early Christian times, perhaps the 7th century. It never fails to impress visitors in an almost magical way. This is not the grandeur of the Coliseum or Pantheon; this is a place where you can hear your own breath, feel your own heartbeat. I wrote in Climbing Brandon about the night I spent alone in the Gallarus Oratory; it was as close as I have ever come to feeling the breath and heartbeat of the world.

The most remarkable thing about the Gallarus Oratory is that it exists -- intact. There are ruins of maybe half-a-dozen similar structures hereabouts; over the centuries they must have been tempting as ready piles of building stone. Why did this one survive? No one knows. Perhaps because it became identified in popular lore with some particular saint, Brendan perhaps, or acquired the protective aura of fairydom. Even today one sometimes sees a "fairy tree" standing unmolested in the middle of a large track of consolidated fields otherwise made suitable for cultivation by agricultural machinery. This landscape is so rich in archeological artifacts -- pre-Christian and Christian -- that it is not easy to shake off the superstitions of the past.

The fairies are in retreat, of course, and the saints are not far behind. The challenge now is to preserve the past with protective legislation. The first step is to catalog what remains. This was done some twenty-five years ago with an exhaustive archeological survey of the Dingle Peninsula, published as a thick oversized book that sits here on my desk -- everything from megalithic wedge tombs to holy wells, literally thousands of entries. One can hardly take a step on the peninsula without tripping over the past. Almost all of these artifacts are on private property, which raises delicate issues of access and preservation.

Why? Why preserve the detritus of former ages? Because we cannot know who we are unless we know who we have been. I've noticed that when tourists approach the Gallarus Oratory they invariably fall silent. Even when a coachload of tourists descends on the place all you hear is the click of cameras. That little stone building seems to whisper: "I am the womb wherein was gestated the silent longing of your race."

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Click, and then again if you wish, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dancing with the daffodils

Take your pick. The Age of Reason or the Romantic Revolution. Laplace or Rousseau. Newton or Goethe. Locke or Liszt. Thinking or feeling. The world out there or the world in here. "It" or "me."

It has to be said, I think, that science owes its success primarily to the first terms of these polarities -- to detached mind in interaction with the world. By design, science leaves little room for the explicit "me." No doubt a lot of "me" goes into the making of science at the highest level, but what is made must stand on its own without the authority or the aura of "me."

Which is what inspired the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, and what drives much anti-science feeling today. We like a world soaked in "me." We like to look into the world and see ourselves, or something very like ourselves. Animism and anthropomorphism are the default philosophies. As Piaget taught us, young children imagine the world operates in the same way they do, consciously, willfully, and why not? What other model do they have to go on?

So children draw smiley faces on crayoned pictures of the Sun and flowers. Adults imagine a god Helios who drives a golden chariot across the sky. There was a time when our ancestors endowed every tree, brook, animal and mountain with a humanlike spirit. Slowly, with the advance of empirical knowing, the naiads, dryads, oreads, nereids, limoniads, potamids, fairies, gnomes, leprechauns, elf children, banshees, hobgoblins, incubi, succubi, and gods of heavenly bodies were banished to the realm of superstition. The crowded pantheons of Greeks and Romans were collapsed into one abstract person, the omniscient, all-powerful Father of the monotheistic faiths (albeit with a retinue of angels and saints). Still, we want to know that what goes on inside -- our very own hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows -- matters, not just to ourselves, but to the universe.

And maybe it does, only not in so consequential a way as we once imagined. Do I really need to believe that an anthropomorphic deity who created the universe has "me" in mind? Might it not be enough to draw into myself my immediate environment, those other creatures, human and otherwise, whose lives I touch and am touched by? Is it not enough to balance the exercise of reason with the romance of here and now?

To have Voltaire and Wordsworth too.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Earth time, human time

Walking the nearby wild Atlantic coast we came upon this pile of rocks. How long it had been there I have no idea, although it is hard to imagine it holding up to the wind for long. Some person or persons with a sense of whimsy clearly sought to assert creativity in the face of the elements. Very Andy Goldsworthyesque.

Reversing, if only briefly, the wreck of worlds.

This bit of coast is made up of Silurian siltstone, with some volcanics, 425 million years old, or thereabouts, from a time when an older "Atlantic" Ocean, the Iapetus, was closing up. We have found trilobite fossils in these rocks, small ones, and inch or two in length -- they scratched out an existence on the shallow sea floor as volcanic islands rose up around them. A crush of continents!

A vast new supercontinent was forming, the Old Red Sandstone Continent -- one could have walked dry-shod from our house in Ireland to our home in New England. I have told the story before, in Honey From Stone, of the role these rocks played in the development of mid-19th-century geology. Richard Griffith, Joseph Beete Jukes, James Flanagan, George Victor Du Noyer, and even the great Roderick Murchison, scrambled along this shore trying to sort out the history of the planet, gaining a sense of the eons of time that Charles Darwin would soon fill up with the history of life. When I walk these cliffs I never fail to think of those eminent men in their top hats and frock coats standing here (no doubt in the rain) where we stand, passing fossiliferous stones from hand to hand, furiously debating their meaning.

Mountain ranges ground to dust, lifted out of the sea, then pulverized again. The rubble of former worlds. And here some light-hearted soul has sought to reverse the arrow of entropy, with a structure even more ephemeral than that of the other anti-entropic creature who has volunteered to provide a sense of scale.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In praise of doubt

Among Graham Greene's voluminous body of work there is a charming little book that generally slips under the radar -- Monsignor Quixote -- a takeoff on the great Cervantes classic. Our new Quixote is a simple country parish priest, and Sancho is the crusty, Marxist, atheist ex-mayor of Quixote's village. Together they go on a picaresque jaunt about Spain in the priest's dilapidated old Seat automobile -- named, of course, Rocinante -- all the while debating their respective faiths.

And their doubts.
The Mayor put his hand for a moment on Father Quixote's shoulder, and Father Quixote could feel the electricity of affection in the touch. It's odd, he thought, as he steered Rocinante with undue caution round a curve, how sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over shades of difference: the doubter fights only with himself.
It was good to spend of few days last week in the back seat of Rocinante, listening to Father Quixote and the Mayor muddle their way through life, committed to their respective world views, each confident that his way is better than any alternative, but open to the possibility that they might be wrong, and, if only inadvertently, to learning from the other. What a relief from the stridency and certainty of the True Believers of all stripes who presently dominate the American media, and, as always, world affairs. Father Quixote makes a distinction between belief and faith. One can't always believe, he says, but one can have faith. His own faith is hedged with doubt, which is not a comfortable place to be, but at least he is not picking a fight with anyone but himself. "Oh, Sancho, Sancho," exclaims the man of faith, "it's an awful thing not to have doubts."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Two poets, two fish -- Part 2

Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish:
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly--
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
--It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
--if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels--until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
Yes, we see the words are broken up into short lines on the page, but it is not form that impresses us. We read the poem straight out, in the apparent rhythms of ordinary speech, and the line breaks seem incidental. What we are most aware of is the catalog of exact observations. The fish is hanging at the side of the boat, but it might as well be on a dissecting tray in an ichthyology lab.

How precisely the poet sees. The tiny white sea lice. The rags of green weed. An accumulation of raw data. Only slowly, on a second reading perhaps, do we begin to appreciate the poet's technical finesse, the rhymes -- breathing in/oxygen, lenses/isinglass, engine/orange -- the alliteration -- shallower and yellowed, tarnished tinfoil -- and the metaphor and similes -- the white flesh packed in like feathers, the pink swim-bladder like a big peony. One could spend an hour admiring the art that at first reading seemed so effortless.

And only then, only then, when all of this is contained within the parentheses of the poet's action -- I caught a tremendous fish/I let the fish go -- does the point of it all turn on like a light bulb -- rainbow, rainbow, rainbow -- the startling glory of this old dead fish worn out by life, magnificent in homely death.

Two ways of engaging the world: Fitting content to form; fitting form to content. We are all of us engaged, day by day, hour by hour, in both activities. Even in science we employ both methodologies. What is important is that we know what we are doing. Truth, to the extent we can find it, will emerge with a balance of judicious engagement and unprejudiced observation.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Two poets, two fish -- Part 1

Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, two of the most distinguished American poets of the last century. Moore about twenty years older, a mentor to the younger poet; both died in the 1970s.

Two poems, both called The Fish.

Two ways of seeing and expressing what is seen.

First, Moore's poem.
The Fish

through black jade.
       Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
       adjusting the ash-heaps;
               opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
       The barnacles which encrust the side
       of the wave, cannot hide
               there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
       glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
       into the crevices—
               in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
       of bodies. The water drives a wedge
       of iron through the iron edge
               of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink-
       bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
       lilies, and submarine
               toadstools, slide each on the other.

       marks of abuse are present on this
       defiant edifice—
             all the physical features of

       of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
       hatchet strokes, these things stand
               out on it; the chasm-side is

       evidence has proved that it can live
       on what cannot revive
               its youth. The sea grows old in it.
Our first impression is not content, but form -- the obvious end rhymes, the strict accounting of syllables (1-3-9-6-8), the physical shape of the stanzas on the page. We lose track for a moment of what it is that we are looking at, until we realize that the poem's form evokes the surge and retreat of the tide in the cliff-chasm, the waving rhythm of the sea-creatures in response to the tide, and the sweeping spotlight of the sun flashed by the flowing water into every crevice.

And so the rhythm is impressed upon us, fixed in the brain, the ebb and flow, and we read the poem again, this time with the cadences of ordinary speech, and we see what the poet sees -- the crow-blue mussel shells (crow blue, not black; how exactly seen!), the ink-bespattered jelly fish, the "dynamite" grooves in the rock.

There are two ways of doing science. In one, we begin with a theory, a preconceived notion of what the world should be, and look to see if the world agrees. We nudge our observations into the form, rounding off rough edges perhaps, or hyphenating an observation if necessary, always hoping not to do violence to the integrity of observation. In the second way of doing science, we focus first of all upon the raw data of the senses, observed as precisely as possible, without preconceptions of what it is we are looking for, and trust that out of exactitude meaning will emerge. Both ways of doing science are seldom pure, and each complements the other.

Something analogous is happening with our two poets and two poems. Having decided upon a form, Marianne Moore waves what she sees against the fixed bulwark of the rocky shore, in and out, back and forth, slosh and flow, and the sea grows old in its ancient rhythm, (forgetting the inscrutable last stanza). Ultimately, as the poet would surely have insisted, the form, though prominent -- here almost overwhelming -- is incidental to delight, to that flush of excitement when nature, language and mind chime together.

Tomorrow, Bishop.

Monday, August 23, 2010

On foot

A few days ago a local friend asked me to lead her and a small group of her friends into the Coumanare lakes. This is the wildest, most remote part of the Dingle Peninsula. In all the times I have been there I have never seen another human being or sign of human civilization. Not a fence or a stray sheep. Three cold lakes are connected by a rushing stream tumbling giddily over the rocks. Waterfalls cascade down the surrounding cliffs. Coumanare means "the valley of the slaughter," although whatever event the name commemorates is lost in the mists of time.

The walk I planned would be taxing, taking us miles from easy assistance, and I was a bit apprehensive, not knowing the fitness of four of our party. I shouldn't have been. It turned out that everyone was younger and fitter than me, and all were practiced members of walking clubs -- professionals who in their free time love nothing more than to don their boots, throw on a knapsack, and head for the hills.

I think of the friends Robert Lloyd Praeger lists in his classic book of Irish rambling, The Way That I Went, published in 1937. These included a trunk-maker, a linen manufacturer, a solicitor, a grocer, a commercial traveler, a physician, a shipyard worker, a minister, and a photographer, all with a passionate interest in the outdoors. They were Protestants from Belfast, in the great British ramblers tradition, walking "with reverent feet through hills and valleys, stopping often, watching closely, listening carefully." Catholic Ireland was not so much interested in rambling in those days; scraping a living from the land was about all of the outdoors that anyone wanted.

The recent boom in Irish prosperity has meant a burgeoning new interest in walking for pleasure. Short and long distance footpaths are opening up across the country. It's too late for Ireland to gain the ubiquitous public rights-of-way that make Britain such a delightful venue for the rambler, but the new walking clubs are lobbying hard for right-to-roam legislation in the upland hill country.

Another change: Praeger's companions were all male; we were four women and two men. And why walk? Let Praeger speak for us: "Quite wandering on foot along brown streams and among the windy hills can bring a solace and a joy that is akin only to the peace of God that passeth understanding."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Natural Prayers

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday musing.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Names and landscape

Oliver Rackham is a researcher in the Botany Department at Cambridge University. His book The History of the Countryside (1986) is indispensable for anyone who loves -- as I do -- the English landscape. His purpose is to show us how the landscape we enjoy today evolved over centuries through the interaction of humans and non-human nature. Certainly the book enormously enhanced my walk along the Prime Meridian (Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian), and the walk I did last year with sons Tom and Dan along the Ridgeway (recounted on this blog, in nine parts, beginning here).

For an American, the English system of public footpaths, rights to roam, and countryside preservation is a thing of wonder. So extensive are the rural rights-of-way, that on my Prime Meridian walk -- 200 miles from the Channel to the Wash -- I never had to stray more than a few miles from "the line," and seldom put foot on tarmac except as I made my way through London. So deep and rich is the history of the landscape that any extended walk is not just though cosmic space and time, but also through the history books and stories we have read since childhood. I recorded here the way our Ridgeway walk evoked the trek in Tolkein's Fellowship of the Ring. My Meridian walk took me close by the habitat of Winnie the Pooh (the Pooh-sticks bridge is still to be seen).

As I say, to American eyes, the degree of preservation seems remarkable. But even in 1986 Rackham was worried about preservation:
It is not just trough the rosy spectacles of childhood that we remember the landscape of the 1940s to have been richer in beauty, wildlife, and meaning than that of the 1980s. It was, and the Luftwaffe aerial photographs prove it. The landscape of the 1800s was richer still…There are four kinds of loss. There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and the complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. There is the loss of freedom, of highways and open spaces…There is the loss of historic vegetation and wildlife, most of which once lost is gone forever…In this book I am especially concerned with the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us.
As I look out the window of my studio here in the west of Ireland, I see broad fields where only a decade ago there were maybe a dozen smaller fields whose hedged and ditched borders went back centuries, each field with a name (Gort na cearc, the Field of the Hen, for example). The hedges have been grubbed out to make mechanical farming more efficient, the old borders erased, and with them so much history. The big new consolidated fields have no names, at least none that carry a weight of meaning, none that tell us who we are and where we have come from.

Of course, there is no going back, to the 1990s, the 1940s, or the 1800s, but we should at least recognize that we only love what we can name, and names can be as endangered as frog-orchids, sundews and dragonflies.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower

The poet Yeats said of the poet Shelley, "There is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, for wisdom speaks first in images."

What, I wonder, is my one scene, one picture?

It would depend, I suppose, upon the time of life.

There was a time when I could have stood all day before Monet's room-sized painting of water lilies at MoMA, all gorgeous natural depths, lush, sensual, accepting. The story then was not so much about myself as about the world out there, the world for which I was a curious spectator. I wanted to see the world as Monet saw it, with a kind of X-ray vision that dives through the surface to whatever it is that makes the world go, and glow.

Then I became obsessed with the paintings of Mark Rothko, those haunting, agnostic canvases of floating color that spoke in cryptic utterances, revealing nothing. Those were the days when I kept company with the medieval mystics -- Julian of Norwich and John of the Cross -- and their absconded God.

As I settled into comfortable middle age I might have chosen one of Vermeer's quiet domestic scenes or Pieter Bruegel's The Harvesters, crystal clear in its mathematical precision, its unabashed realism, its sensual celebration of work and rest, food and drink, a brow moist with sweat and the white nape of a neck inviting touch. Not ecstasy or transcendence, but tranquility and immanence. Oh yes, there was a worm in the bud, but hidden out of sight.

And now? And now? I keep coming back to the young Caravaggio's The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt. The black wings and white robe of the angel, curling together -- the yin and yang of a human life. On the left, darkness, a stony foreground, the anxious gaze of the seeking soul; on the right, light, verdancy, the quietude of acceptance; on the left, the masculine, hard, dry, fraught with tension; on the right, the feminine, gentle, soft, wet, conserving. The whole suffused with an erotic frisson. This angel is not one of the Christian heavenly choir; he is Eros. He is Cupid, with music for his wounding dart. And I am Joseph holding the score, a motet in C major by the Flemish composer Noel Baulduin, the text from the Song of Songs, that most erotic of scriptures: "How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A few more words inspired by the tomato plant

Mostly we think of life in terms of individuals -- this person, this tomato plant, this frog, this oak tree, this gnat. And we talk about birth and death as the beginning and ending of life.

But there is another sense in which life is just one thing, whose beginning is lost in the depths of time and whose end is not in sight. Life in this sense embodies itself in matter, temporarily, as a tomato or a frog, puts on matter and puts off matter as we might don or doff clothes. By this account, I am an ephemeral conglomeration of atoms that life is using to perpetuate itself.

But what is this thing called life? It cannot exist except as embodied form, but it maintains a continuity independent of any particular embodiment. It is a strange enduring wave that stirs the material world into purposeful and directed avenues. With Johannes Kepler we might call it the facultas formatrix of nature, the formative faculty, but giving something a name doesn't explain it.

Whatever life is -- in the unitary, enduring sense -- it would be surprising if it only existed here on Earth. If I were a betting man I would bet that life is as pervasive as matter itself, or energy. Matter, energy and complexification. We have lots left to learn.

But let's be cautious. There are lots of folks out there with half-baked biocentric theories of the universe. Someone once chided the philosopher W. V. O. Quine with a quote from Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” To which Quine is said to have responded: “Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than are in heaven and earth.”

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Order of magnitude

A photo of one of my tomato pots. When I set the plant (about 8 inches tall) the pot was filled with soil to the height I have indicated with the white paper. Allowing for some settling, a lot of dirt has gone missing.

Well, not exactly. It's still around. Although now part of the tomato plant. And if one of the tomatoes happens to ripen in the next few weeks, I'll be incorporating some of those atoms into my own body.

What the photo doesn't show is the rest of the plant, reaching almost to the ceiling. A lot of atoms -- carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen mostly, but other elements too -- and they had to come from somewhere. Air, water, soil.

We take this all for granted, but what a miracle it is. The ability to do this staggering job of arranging atoms into just this sort of plant -- leaves, stems, flowers, fruits -- was there in the seed.

Maybe my tomatoes will be ripe in time, maybe they won't. Doesn't matter. They're not here to feed my body. They feed my imagination. They're here to remind me day by day not to take the world for granted, to get up every morning awake to mystery. To wake up every morning and realize that overnight 100 billion trillion atoms -- by my rough calculation -- have been jiggered into molecular position, lifted, and arranged.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The wind in the willows

Childhood has two seasons: the anticipation of summer and summer.

Or so it seems in memory. And memory is all that matters in the long run.

Stickball in the meadows. Messing about in drainage ditches. Long warm twilights on green lawns, catching fireflies in our cupped hands. Camping out in the back yard under the brilliant summer stars -- Arcturus, Vega, Deneb, Altair -- lulling us into sleep made fitful by the day's unfinished projects, tomorrow's beginnings.

And no days of summer sweeter than the last few weeks of August, with school just around the corner. Long pants, combed hair, lunch boxes and galoshes. Staring listlessly out of classroom windows. And bells.

No bells any more. Now, in retirement, I come and go as I please all year round. But these last few weeks of August retain their sweetness, anointed by memory, the rosy glow of childhood.

And what do we remember. The piper. The piper at the gates of dawn.

The sun has set. Mole and Rat push off in their boat to look for Portly, the infant otter, who has gone missing from his home. They row upstream in moonlight. The night is full of animal noises -- bird song, chatter and rustling. Purple loosestrife, meadowsweet and wild rose fringe the river's banks, their odors pervading the still air. Mole and Rat pass the night in dreamy searching and silent reverie. Near dawn they hear a magical piping that draws them to an island in the stream, hemmed with willow, birch and alder, cradled in a weir.

"Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him," whispers Rat -- and it is not only Portly that he means, as the capital H suggests.

In a clearing on the island they find themselves in an "august Presence" -- goat-hoofed, pipe-playing, great god Pan, friend and helper. And nestled between Pan's hooves is the sleeping infant otter.

As the sun's first rays shoot across the water-meadow, the Vision vanishes and the air is full of the caroling of birds that greet the dawn. With the sun comes forgetfulness. Was the Vision real? Was it a dream? They know something exciting has happened, yet nothing particular has happened. As they row home, they hear a song in the reeds bidding them to forget.

How long ago and far away those summer days and nights of childhood. What was it we found? Something was there, certainly, something exciting, a presence -- call it, if you will, the pagan god Pan -- that children are particularly able to perceive. The universe was at our doorstep, twinkling, shining, chattering, rustling. The minutes and the hours flowed together in a sweet, unhurried bliss.

Remember. Remember. Remember.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Once you've tried this you will never look back

My spouse and I have reached that stage of life when we are paring down, clearing out, tidying up. Amazing how much unnecessary junk one collects in a lifetime, especially having lived in the same house for almost half-a-century. Nine-tenths of what has accumulated could be tossed out and it wouldn't make a bit of difference in our lives.

Which is why my brain went all wonky when I flipped through the "EasyLife Lifestyle Solutions" catalog that came with the newspaper on Sunday. Thirty-four pages of items "You can't do without." Each one "You'll wonder how you ever lived without it." Starting with the folding aluminum ladder that "converts into nine positions." A veritable Kama Sutra of ladders! At my age, that's about eight more positions than I am capable of. Then there are products for expanding the waistbands of your pants, clip-on magnifiers for your reading glasses, hearing amplifiers disguised as Bluetooth head-sets, portable "carry-it-with-you" urinals, titanium knee supports, a magnetic "slouch preventer", and half-a-dozen devices for relieving lower back pain. Just when I'm trying to get rid of stuff, EasyLife wants to convert me to a new lifestyle of geriatric consumerism.

But it’s the watches and clocks that really got to me.

How can I do without the radio-controlled alarm clock that's "accurate to one second in ten million years"? That's more accuracy than I would have needed when I was half-a-century younger. Between now and the great by-and-by I don't think I will notice if I'm waking up a millionth of a second earlier or later.

Then there's the wall clock that has a different farm animal announce each hour. Moo. Oink. Woof. A light sensor puts the animals to sleep at night and wakes them up at dawn with a cock crowing. I can imagine flinging a shoe across the room to shut the damn thing up.

And what about the "talking watch," for those of us with failing eyesight. Touch a button and it speaks the time. I trust it also says things like "Is it too early to go to bed?" and "I think I'll just have a lie down and read."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

String theory

Click, and again, to enlarge Anne's cyber musing.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The wild silence and the wild dark

It is probably obvious by now that I have been reading Yeats. So let me share one more poem, "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven":
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
There is a wonderfully sexy scene in Frankie Starlight where Anne Parillaud reads this poem to Matt Dillion while sprawled on a bed, with that lovely French accent. Although the poetry of Yeats figures in The Dork of Cork, the novel on which the film is based, this poem is not there. Once, when I was passing through an airport with the film's producer Noel Pearson, talking about the script, he suddenly darted into a book stall and came back with a tiny souvenir volume of Yeats which held the poem. His instinct was unerring; it went into the script. A beautiful little poem, sentimental, yes, but perfect for my Bernadette.

The poem is from Yeats' collection The Wind among the Reeds, which recalls the biblical reed shaken by the wind and anticipates Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. And asks the question I posed on the penultimate page of The Soul of the Night:
There is a tendency for us to flee from the wild silence and the wild dark, to pack up our gods and hunker down behind city walls, to turn the gods into idols, to kowtow before them and approach heir precincts only in the official robes of office. And when we are in the temples, then who will hear the voice crying in the wilderness? Who will hear the reed shaken by the wind? Who will watch the Galaxy rise above the eastern hedge and see a river infinitely deep and crystal clear, a river flowing from the spring that is Creation to the ocean that is Time?
So read, Anne Parillaud, those soft, sweet syllables, spread your dark cloths, show us that the world unfiltered by rite and ritual, priests and shamans, is wild, and dark, and sexy. Listen. Listen! In the dark and the dim and the half-light for the sound of the wind in the reeds, the wild, wild wind of creation that is the only revelation.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Invariant ecstasy

I mentioned the other day that our little one-lane road here in the west of Ireland was once called "The Fairies' Road," or at least it was referred to as such by several of the old people of the neighborhood when we bought our plot more than thirty years ago. (The more common name is Bothar a caoine, "the road of the head (of the fields)"; it hugs the hill just where the cultivated fields give way to rough upland pasturage.) A few of our older neighbors expressed surprise that we would want to live -- especially at night! -- in such an enchanted place. They didn't quite believe in fairies, but they didn't quite not believe either.

That's all gone now, gone with that generation. How quickly it happened! For more than a thousand years the fairies were a felt presence in the Irish landscape. In his introduction to W. B. Yeats: The Poems, Daniel Albright writes: "The faeries of peasant superstition were presumably the old pagan gods, dwindled and in retreat from the Christian ethos, but something of the brutal splendour of the gods of the ancient myths remained in them…It was as if, in Ireland, a region of invariant ecstasy were all around, hovering invisibly in certain sacred places." In The Shadowy Waters, Yeats evokes that sense of pervading enchantment:
Is Eden far away, or do you hide
From human thought, as hares and mice and coneys
That run before the reaping-hook and lie
In the last ridge of the barley? Do our woods
And winds and ponds cover more quiet woods,
More shining winds, more star-glimmering ponds?
In Yeats's time, the fairies were still a powerful presence in the rural landscape, if only in "the last ridge of the barley". Today, the reaping hook of scientific rationalism has swept away the last of the fairy ilk, and with them a sense that one messes with the landscape at one's spiritual peril.

And the landscape suffers. The road is paved, the hedgerows grubbed, the fields of barley, oats and hay replaced by mechanically-cultivated monoculture, silage wrapped in plastic, the hares and mice and coneys virtually extinct. What is required is a new enchantment, a new sense of something marvelous and integral that resides in the land, a new compulsion to treat the land with respect, awe, perhaps a little fear. And what might that be? Not a reintroduction of the fairies, certainly, but perhaps the sense of spiritual dependence that gave rise to the ancient gods in the first place, now expressed as an awareness of ecological wholeness.

If we were awake to what is happening in every cell of living matter -- the unceasing shuttlecock of the DNA weaving and unweaving the stuff of life -- and to the geological forces rolling across the eons that make and re-make the surface of the Earth, if we could feel as a tingle in the spine the infinitely subtle entanglements of earth, air, sea and creaturedom that have been woven over billions of years on the loom of natural selection, if we could teach ourselves that Eden is not far away, but here, now, everywhere around us in a world that is marvelous beyond our knowing even as we know more and more, then every insect, every leaf, every hare and mouse and coney, every trickle of ditchwater, every beach pebble, every wood and pond and starry night -- is fairyland.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Riddled with light

Robert Burnham Jr., the author of Burnham's Celestial Handbook, was mentioned here in Comments some weeks ago. There is no need to retell his strange, sad story; you can read it on Wikipedia and elsewhere. I do want to say a few words about the Handbook. You might want to glance at the Wikipedia entry first.

My own copy, purchased not long after it was published by Dover in 1978, sits on the shelf here above my laptop, within easy reach, all three volumes, 2,138 pages, the most voluminous and useful compendium of star lore available to anyone who minds the universe. It is, like Burnham himself, an eccentric collection, organized by constellations, a mix of obtuse technical information, photographs and diagrams, and generous dollops of poetic lore from cultures around the world. This is not a book you sit down with and read. It is more an encyclopedia, and in the days before the internet it was an invaluable resource. (The book is now available on the net.) I referred to it often when writing 365 Starry Nights and Soul of the Night. At the time, like most people, I knew nothing of Burnham's straitened personal circumstances. Had I known, I would surely have been more generous in my acknowledgements.

A man of crippling shyness, apparently without loves and few friends, he found his only refuge in the night sky. He wanted to know and to gather into one place everything that was known about the stars he loved. It is clear from the Handbook that he combined in his tortured soul qualities of both scientist and poet.

The night sky can indeed be a source of grand intellectual adventure, and even a kind of intimacy, but for creatures of flesh and blood it is a joyless bed. When I think of Robert Burnham, I think of W. B. Yeats' poem The Cold Heaven:
Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! When the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The race goes to the swift

Meteor showers are associated with the orbits of comets. As comets travel along their trajectories, they shed part of their substance, icy dust blown away by the pressure of sunlight. As time passes, the tracks of comets become dirty spaces, littered with bits of dust moving in the same orbit as the comet. Every year in August the Earth intersects the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle, sweeping up debris. The tiny particles plunge into the Earth's atmosphere at 40 miles per second, where they are heated by friction and vaporize in streaks of light. Not "falling stars" or "shooting stars," but grains of icy rock making spectacular swan dives into the air.

Comets take their names from their discoverers. The parent comet of the Perseids was first observed in 1862 by Lewis Swift, a farmer and amateur astronomer of Marathon, New York. Tuttle nearly missed his moment for glory. When he observed the blur of light in the constellation Camelopardis, he thought it too bright to be a comet that had not been observed by someone else. He wrote it off as the already reported Comet Schmidt. Three nights later he realized his mistake and reported his observation, simultaneously with Horace Tuttle of the Harvard Observatory. Swift might have had the comet all to himself. By protocol, the two men share the honor of discovery.

When I wrote about this in Honey From Stone, in 1987, Comet Swift-Tuttle was five years overdue for its predicted return, which added a note of mystery and anticipation to my account. The comet was subsequently recovered in 1992, by the Japanese astronomer Tsuruhiko Kiuchi. The orbit has now been greatly refined. We'll next see the comet in 2126.

But wait! If we intersect the comet's path every August, what if the Earth and Swift-Tuttle arrive at the fatal spot at the same time? The comet is bigger than the object that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. A collision would be of apocalyptic consequence.

Calculations suggest this is highly unlikely, at least for the next few thousand years (and obviously it hasn't happened for countless orbits in the past). But farmer Swift has his name attached to a potentially devastating object. He went on to discover a total of thirteen comets, although none as bright or as famous as the Perseid progenitor. For his discoveries he was awarded a gold medal by the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna, and in the 1880s he was appointed to the directorship of the Warner Observatory in Rochester, New York. From the citizens of that city he received a 16-inch refractor telescope costing $11,000, with which he discovered more that a thousand nebulae, among them hundreds of distant galaxies.

In the Roman Catholic prayers of the Feast of Saint Lawrence, we hear again and again the martyr's purported words to the emperor Decius, who had promised the saint a night of pain: "Night has no darkness for me, all things become visible in the light." The words might aptly be applied to the ex-farmer of Marathon.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Falling stars

The Perseids are the most reliable meteor shower of the year, and occur (in the northern hemisphere) when nights are warm and the sky has a good chance of being clear. According to Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar, this year might yield a particularly bountiful harvest of meteors, especially around Europe's midnight on the night of August 12-13.

The shower is called the Perseids because the "shooting stars" all seem to radiate from a spot in the constellation Perseus, which here in Ireland at midnight will be in the northeast. So, if the night is clear, spread your blanket on the lawn and enjoy the show.

And to celebrate, fetch out your copy of Honey From Stone and read again:
In many rural parts of Europe the Perseid meteors are called the Tears of Saint Lawrence. I have known the story of Lawrence since I was a child. It is the kind of story that was certain to make an impression upon a young mind. Even now, forty years later, I remember its first telling: how Decius, upon becoming emperor of the Roman Empire, began a persecution of Christians. For Lawrence he devised a special torture. He prepared a sort of barbeque grill that he placed above a fire of glowing coals. He stripped Lawrence and pressed him upon the grill to roast. "Turn me over," said the saint after an appropriate interval of torment. "I'm done on this side."

The story of the martyrdom of Lawrence, like much hagiography of early saints, is almost certainly apocryphal. There is little primary historical evidence that would verify the saint's existence. The characters in the story, as I heard it, did not even live at the same time. Still, when I heard the story as a child. I regarded it as fact. Lawrence was presented to me as a real-life actor in the drama of faith and salvation. "Whom should I adore," asked the saint accusingly, when the emperor demanded worship of the ancient gods, "the Creator or the creature?" It was a huge question. And in reply, Decius had Lawrence whipped with scorpions.

What am I to make of the story now, forty years later? Lawrence's story is a child's story. But the question asked by the saint echoes across the years: Whom should I adore, the Creator or the creature? And what is the answer? The creation is here, palpably present, on this night of shooting stars. The sky weeps meteors. The Milky Way stands like a pillar on the sea. And where is the Creator, the God of Lawrence? Gone. Flown away on some heavenward trajectory, like Comet Swift-Tuttle, into the darkness at the edge of knowing.
It has been a quarter-century since I wrote that. Honey From Stone is still in print, and the God of Lawrence is still absconditus.

Of Comet Swift-Tuttle, the progenitor of the saint's tears, more tomorrow.

Monday, August 09, 2010


It is summer, and in mid-northern latitudes the star Vega stands at the zenith. The name derives from the Arabic, al-Waqi, which Robert Burnham translates as "the swooping" eagle. The fifth brightest star as seen from Earth (not counting the Sun). The third brightest that can be seen from our latitude (after Sirius and -- barely -- Arcturus). A blue-white star in its prime of life. Three times bigger and 40 times more luminous than the Sun. Twenty-seven light-years away. Vega is right next door compared to the other five stars of the traditional constellation Lyra; Delta Lyra, the most distant, is about 900 light-years away, and the others are strung out in between.

I am reminded of a bit of musing I did in the final chapter of Honey From Stone. Vega's light moves away from the star in every direction, into the great emptiness of interstellar space, becoming ever more dilute as it expands. At our distance from Vega the star's light is dispersed over a spherical surface with an area of 320 septillion square miles -- an almost unimaginably large number, 320 followed by twenty-eight zeros. We see Vega with the Infinitesimal fraction of the star's light that happens to be intercepted by the pupils of our eyes. How small a fraction? Compare the size of these two oo's to the surface of a sphere with a radius of 27 light-years -- 320 septillion square miles!

I wrote: "I can work all of this out on paper, and still it seems a miracle. I lie back on this grassy bank and the light of 10,000 stars enters my eyes in sufficient quantity to enable my brain to form images of the stars. Ten thousand subtle but distinct wavelets of energy from out of the depths of space, and by some miracle my eyes and brain sort it all out, put each star in its proper place, recognize the familiar patterns of the constellations, construct a Milky Way, and open my soul to a universe whose length and breadth exceed my wildest imagining . . . Starlight blows through my body like a wind through the hedge. My atoms ebb and flow in a cosmic tide of radiation. Vega surges into luminescence and electrons do handsprings in the cortex of my brain . . . If you sip the sea but once said the Zen master, you will know the taste of all the oceans of the world. Tonight I have sipped 10,000 stars. I have tasted the universe."

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Fuzzball theory

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

What matters

A year or so ago I wrote about Jan Vermeer's The Milkmaid, and ever since the painting (or a part of it with the proper aspect ratio) has been my computer desktop. Which means day by day I have lived with the wonderful textures and colors that Vermeer was able to evoke with oil on canvas. In the detail above (I see it now peeking out from under my document in progress) one can almost feel the bread crumbling in one's hand, the suppleness of the wicker, the smooth glaze of the earthenware, the soft fabric at the girl's waist, and the cool trickle of milk from the pitcher. Click to enlarge.

Vermeer was clearly a man in love with the world, the world of everyday material things, the stuffness of the world.

I was raised in a tradition -- Roman Catholicism -- with a conflicted attitude towards materiality. On the one hand, matter was the polar opposite of the pure spirituality we should aspire to, and "materialism" was the philosophical underpinning of all that was opposed to God's plan of salvation. On the other hand, the Catholic sacramental tradition was steeped in materiality -- bread, wine, wax, chrism, oil, incense, richly colored and brocaded fabric, gold, silver, light, dark, fire, water. What an apprenticeship into materialism it was to be standing at the side of Father Shea in my altar-boy cassock and surplice holding his chasuble aside as he applied the crossed beeswax candles to the thin white necks of the seventh-grade girls on the Feast of Saint Blaise! One was torn between wanting to escape from the body into immaterial union with the angels, or cozying down in the world of matter like a weasel in his burrow.

Who could have predicted which force would win that particular tug of war? In my case, it was materiality -- this world, here, now, this world of things that breathe and flow and reside and flourish. Stuff you can taste and touch and see and hear. Stuff you can scratch and caress and feel the heft of in the hand. I have no interest in airy, bodiless spirits.

But the influence of the Catholic sacramental tradition is still very much with me, a sense that all things -- the bread, wicker, ceramics, cloth and skin in Vermeer's painting -- are shot through with a strange, ineffable power, what Vermeer scholar Daniel Arasse called "the power of the image to incorporate a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable."

Friday, August 06, 2010

Where the ring-dove broods

A poem by Rudyard Kipling called The Way through the Woods:
They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate.
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few)
You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods…
But there is no road through the woods.
Here in the west of Ireland we live on a narrow one-lane bothareen ("little road") and the enclosing hedges are wildly rampant. The fuchsia, especially, spills outward, glorious with its Japanese-lantern blossoms, but quick to close on whatever car passes by. Left to themselves the hedges would smother the road as decisively as do the woods in Kipling's poem.

That's not likely to happen to our bothareen. These days there are too many new holiday houses down the way to allow the road to disappear. The new houses have tidy lawns that march right down to the pavement; one might as well be living in a Dublin suburb. Except for the grassy terrace directly in front of our cottage, our own field is a disgraceful wildness of gorse, bracken, heather and bramble that shields us from the road and the road from us. And that's the way we like it. Walking or driving the road in front of our property is like taking a garden path, lush with fuchsia blossoms and bell flowers and blackberries.

But the road is not ours alone, and the neighbors and the county council have other ideas. There was a time when our bothareen was called "the Fairies' Road" and "the Lovers' Road." Not any more. Now it belongs to the motor car and it's time to hire the guy with the tractor and mechanical hedge trimmer (devourer!) to cut back the wild, to tidy things up, to bring on the dull fastidiousness of civilization.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The butterflies of Ballybeg

It doesn't take a very thick guidebook to butterfly watch in Ireland. Only twenty-eight species are permanent residents of the island. Even fewer make their home on the windswept Dingle Peninsula. Most would not knock your eye out. Meadow Browns. Small Heaths. Coppers. Common Blues. Run-of-the-millstream sorts of things. A few more extravagant species sometimes make an appearance. Red Admirals, with their nautical epaulettes. Eye-spotted Peacocks. Painted Ladies, hussied up in rouge and henna. My wife plants butterfly bushes in hopes of attracting these gaudier species. They come. They dally. They flitter on.

The caterpillars have more tempting fare to feast on. Nettles for the Red Admiral and Peacock. Thistles for the Painted Lady. Lord knows we have enough of that stuff. Red Admirals migrate to Ireland from their winter home in central and southern Europe. Why they choose this brisk, damp place for their summer holidays rather than the sunny south of France, I'll never know. Ah, but then you could ask the same question of me.

On rare occasions, American Monarch butterflies have been observed in western Ireland, having arrived inadvertently on the prevailing westerlies. How these slips of papery tissue survive the two-thousand mile Atlantic crossing and still have the energy to flit is a mystery. What a shock it must be to find oneself on these rockbound shores of thistle and nettle rather than in the luscious fir forests of Mexico.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

On one's knees

There are two sorts of people in the world. Those for whom seeing is believing. And those for whom believing is seeing.

There's a fellow here in Ireland, apparently in the latter category, who says he's in touch with the Virgin Mary. Yes, her. The Mother of God and Queen of Heaven. She talks to him on a regular basis. For a while it seems he had a bit of a following, but most folks nowadays pay little attention.

Then -- according to what I read in the papers -- Our Lady told yer man that she would prefer to talk to him at Knock, the famous Marian shrine in County Mayo where in 1879 the Virgin, Saint Joseph and Saint John the Evangelist appeared on the gable of the local church to a whole bunch of people. Today, thousands of pilgrims flock to Knock, a Hibernian Lourdes. The place even has its own international airport.

It seems that the Church authorities at Knock aren't too happy with the freelance channeler. They dismiss his claims of celestial communication as inauthentic. There are real, honest-to-goodness visitations of the heavenly Consort, and there are the imaginings of the credulous.

Which brings up the old issue of parsing miracles.

All believers in the supernatural draw the line somewhere.

Does the Mother of God talk to Bernadette, but not to the Irishman? Does she choose to appear lantern-slidelike on a church gable in Mayo, but not on a water-stained church wall in Brooklyn? Did she ascend bodily into Heaven? Did her Son? Was he born of a Virgin? Did he rise from the dead? Will you live forever?

We want our miracles, but we have a dickens of a time deciding where to draw the line. Especially when so many different religions have their own rosters of the miraculous.

The naturalist, at least, doesn't have the problem of knowing where to make the cut. Everything -- everything! -- happens according to the order of nature. We may not fully know the order, but we assume it is inviolable. The concept of miracle is redundant.

Or perhaps it would be equally accurate to say everything natural is miraculous -- miraculum, object of wonder. Better on one's knees in the grass examining a spider spinning its web than in the basilica at Knock.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Never pure, but pure enough

A review of Steven Shapin's new book in the New York Review of Books, by his enthusiastic cheerleader Jenny Uglow. Shapin is a historian of science at Harvard University. A year or two ago I took note of his last book here (although that post seems to have vanished from the archive). The present tome is a collection of essays called Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority. He writes:
As historians of science, we're committed to telling rich detailed, and, we hope, accurate stories about science without believing that it is cognitively or methodologically or socially unique, without believing that it is integral and unified, without believing that it has a special set of values not possessed by other forms of culture, without believing that it divinely inspired, without believing that it is only produced by geniuses, without believing that it is the only progressive force in history, or that its practitioners do not eat chicken.
I'll give this to Shapin: He has wit.

One gets the impression from Uglow's review that she loves seeing science cut down to size. No more genuflection to humanity's "noblest achievement," no more "unquestioning reverence." She asks: "But how have we learned, or been persuaded, to accept the 'facts' presented to us as 'true,' to regard science as a secular enlightenment, in contrast to the obscurantism of religion? Why should we believe in quarks and not in demons?"

Good questions. Deserving answers.

But let's get rid of the straw men first. By the end of the 20th century you'd be hard pressed to find a scientist who does not accept that scientific knowledge is tentative and subject to revision. There is no capital T (for truth) in science. Physicists would gleefully toss quarks in the wastebasket along with the demons if they fail to carry their empirical and theoretical weight.

Likewise, there is nothing new about recognizing the cultural context of science. When I studied the history and philosophy of science half-a-century ago we were already deep into context, reading, among many others, sociologist Robert Merton, philosopher Mary Hesse, linguist Benjamin Whorf, and even the poet Wallace Stevens. What is new with so much of what passes as "science studies" today is an undisguised attempt to relativize science -- to pull it down off its pedestal -- and maybe a touch of science envy.

So from what does the authority of science stem? In a word, It works.

It works in a way that no other knowledge generating system has ever worked. It is the foundation of everything from the iPad to the H-bomb, modern medicine and the Gulf oil spill, the Hubble Ultra-Deep-Field photograph and the ozone hole. How knowledge is used, of course, and what knowledge we choose to pursue, are matters of "ought," not "is," and for that scientists, Shapin, Uglow, and you and I all have a measure of responsibility.

Yes, science is embedded in a cultural context, but it has struggled mightily to minimize parochial influences, by emphasizing empiricism, quantification, reproducibility, mathematical language, peer review, and so on. It is easy enough to snipe, but so far the new critics of science have not proposed a system that works better. And I dare say that in the meantime they will be reluctant to give up their penicillin and laptops.

Does science deserve a privileged position as a generator and guarantor of reliable knowledge? I'll take quarks over demons any day.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Wireless in Gaza

I had a problem with my internet connection the other day and needed technical help. So I called the four-digit help number. And of course a very nice gentleman in Bangalore answered. With perfect English and impeccable courtesy he asked me my first name, then walked me through a solution to my problem. Which was really an end-run around my service provider's problem.

It wasn't so many years ago when the television went on the blink one opened the back, pulled all the tubes, walked down to the drugstore with the tubes in a brown paper bag, where there was a tube-testing machine, which told one which was the faulty tube, and in a cabinet under the tester one fetched the appropriate replacement in its cardboard box and took it up to the counter for purchase.

No tubes anymore. For that matter, there are no brown paper bags. Or neighborhood drug stores.

But we do have the nice gentleman in Bangalore, who for all I could tell might have been next door. Quite suddenly, it seems, the world has become rather small. Which I suppose is not a bad thing.

Did I read recently that there are 500 million active users on Facebook? There are also hundreds of millions of blogs, a couple of new ones every second.

"Do I detect an Indian accent?"

"Yes, Chet."

"Are you in India?"

"Yes, Chet."


"Yes, Chet."

"Ah, welcome to the neighborhood, and thanks for the help."

Sunday, August 01, 2010

A reprise...

...from Anne. Click to enlarge.