Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The deep end of the pool


I have often commented here on the APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day), usually of some astonishing star-birthing nebula or swirl of galaxies, something that drags us breathlessly into the universe of the eons and infinities. Here is pic that offers a quieter beauty -- the Moon traversing the Pleiades -- something our remotest ancestors might have observed, although not in such subtle detail. Click to enlarge.

The Seven Sisters was an ancient name for this cluster in Taurus. Most folks can only see only six stars, the six brightest you see here. Some observers have claimed to see a dozen or more stars with the naked eye, although certainly not with the Moon in such close proximity. The most I have seen is nine, many years ago on a night of unusual clarity when my eyes were young and sharp. There are in fact hundreds of stars in the cluster, born together from a nebula whose wisps and streamers still wrap the newborns in swaddling clothes.

It takes just over a second for light to reach us from the Moon. The Pleiades cluster is 440 light-years away, 12 billion times farther. Think of it this way: If the Moon were at the tip of your nose, the Pleiades would be as far away as the Moon.

And what about all that black in the photograph, like the background in a painting by Caravaggio? Point the Hubble Space Telescope into any patch of that darkness, say the square I have outlined with a white box, leave the "shutter" open for ten days, and you'd see 10,000 galaxies, far far beyond the Pleiades. Anyone who can grasp that fact and still believe they know the answers to the biggest questions is more confident than me.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A few more words on the self

What is it? The philosopher Galen Strawson, whose book on the self was reviewed by Peter Hacker in the TLS (see yesterday), is an avowed materialist. He believes the self is a thing, and admits only physical things. That is to say, whatever it is we call a self -- a state of self-awareness supported by a body of memories -- must be physically embodied. Scientists don't yet know how self-awareness arises in the human brain, but no neuroscientist I know of doubts that our selfhood is inextricably tied to that mass of convoluted flesh at the top of the spine. The materiality of self is the default, Ockhamist position of science, not to be doubted until compelling evidence suggests otherwise.

Of course, the material self flies in the face of the long-standing notion of a self as an immaterial thing that temporarily resides in the body and will endure after the body has turned to dust. It is easy to understand why someone would cling to this everlasting, immaterial self, but hard to understand how any scientist or scientifically-informed philosopher of the 21st century can seriously entertain it.

As far as I know, Peter Hacker is not an immortalist, but he demurs from the idea that only material things exist. Is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony not a thing? he muses. Well, yes, I'd respond, but Beethoven's Ninth is embodied in much the same way as a self is embodied. If there were no paper scores, or neuronally-encoded memories of the music, or modulated electromagnetic radio waves (broadcasts of ochestral performances) speeding away from Earth -- that is to say, no physical embodiments of Beethoven's Ninth, then the Ninth would not exist.

Have I understood Hacker rightly? Darned if I know. Consider a typical paragraph of his review:
The second half of Selves is dedicated to fundamental metaphysics that purports to show that there are such things as physical selves thus conceived. They in fact consist of a synergy of neural activity which is either part of, or somehow identical with, the synergy that constitutes an experience as a whole. So the thin concept of a subject of experience is of a process-stuff in the brain. But this suffices for being a sesmet [subject of experience-as-a-single-mental-thing]. Hence there is an indefinite plurality of temporally passing selves. The thicker notion of a self as a persistent mental thing is merely a construction out of such a "gappy" plurality. And both thin and thick notions are, of course, distinct from the human being, the person, as a whole. So, contrary to all the evidence from the use of natural language, the pronoun "I" is polysemic -- at least in the hands of a fundamental metaphysicist.
If you know/understand what this means you are smarter than me.

Let Strawson, Hacker and their philosophical colleagues natter on about what constitutes a self. Several millennia of philosophical speculation have added little to our knowledge/understanding of self. For myself, like everyone else, I have an acute awareness of my own selfhood. How it arises from the electrochemistry of the brain I do not know. I'll bide my time as the neuroscientists and AI (artificial intelligence) researchers plug away in their laboratories, holding fast to Ockham's materialist razor, confident that a generation from now we will know more empirically -- and therefore understand more -- than we do today.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Knowledge and understanding

Allow me to quote a paragraph from philosopher Peter Hacker's review of Galen Strawson's Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics, in the 22 January TLS (Times Literary Supplement). Hacker outlines the long, contentious and ultimately fruitless philosophical debate over the notion of "self" (to which I will return tomorrow). He then writes:
Indeed, one might innocently have thought that the problem of the self would fade away. But the same philosophical problems, like childhood diseases, emerge again in each generation. And each generation must struggle with them by itself. For while knowledge can be transmitted from one generation to another, understanding is something that has to be won afresh. And philosophy is concerned with the achievement of understanding, not with the augmentation of knowledge.
Ah yes, knowledge and understanding. The distinction is so "obvious" that it is seldom questioned. Science tells us what's what; philosophy helps us understand.

May I offer a modest dissent.

The distinction between knowledge and understanding is as phony as those other dualisms that have befuddled Western philosophy: brain/mind, matter/spirit, body/soul. What is understanding, after all, but knowledge? We now "understand" why the Sun comes up in the East. We now "understand" the source of energy of the Sun. We now "understand" the cause of diseases like the plague. We "understand" because we have wrested consensus knowledge from nature that we consider reliable. We do not yet "understand" the nature of self because we do not have sufficient knowledge of how the brain gives rise to self-awareness.

Yet.

The crucial distinction is not between knowledge and understanding, but between knowledge and ignorance.

Science slowly and patiently chips away at ignorance, so far making only modest progress on some of the thorniest subjects, such as the nature of self. In the meantime metaphysicians busy themselves constructing castles of "understanding" on foundations of ignorance. Every generation of philosophers -- from the pre-Socratics to Hacker and Strawson -- has wrestled with the same issues, such as the problem of self, and found nothing that remotely comprises consensus. Meanwhile, science has discovered enough about how the brain works to dismiss some of the worst manifestations of ignorance, such as demonic possession, and chemically alleviate some of the agonies of self, such as clinical depression.

Do we have a greater understanding of self than did our ancestors? Yes. It is called knowledge.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday


How we loved Palm Sunday as kids -- the baskets of fronds at the back of the church which we took home and split onto slivers and wove into all sorts of scout-campy sorts of things, including crosses. On our little island of Exuma, in the Bahamas, as on the other islands, local women weave "silvertop" palm fronds into hats, baskets, and mats, which they sell at the "straw market." I've incorporated their beautiful work into coffee tables, desk panels and bed headboards. There is a botanical garden on the island of New Providence (Nassau) called The Retreat that boast 176 species of palms from around the world. The variety is bewildering and wonderful.

Anne celebrates the day above (click, and again, to enlarge). How lovely that the Christian Messiah should ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, to be greeted with palms instead of the trappings of imperial grandeur. How lovely too that Christians still remember with so modest a symbol the humility of the man they worship as the Son of God.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tinker Toys


Another pic dug up by Tom, this time of my father -- his grandfather -- Chester Theodore Sr., Chattanooga, Tennessee, age nine, 1918. What interests me here is the airplane. It appears to be made from some sort of construction kit, not unlike the K'Nex kits available today, although the bits and pieces are wood instead of plastic. That my father put the plane together is no surprise; as long as I knew him he was putting things together and taking them apart.

He liked things. Mechanical things. Things he could fix. Toasters. Wheelbarrows. Table legs. I've written here before about his workbench in the basement. There was another piece of furnishing down there -- a big black wooden cabinet, with two voluminous drawers at the base. What was in it? Everything. Nothing mechanical or electrical got discarded at our house. Every nail, every screw, every piece of wire, every replaced part from the toilet tank, every worn-out gasket or hose clamp from the car -- it all got plunked on a shelf of the cabinet or tossed in a drawer. The world was made from stuff like this and you'd never know when something might come in handy.

He was a mechanical engineer by training, an early advocate and practitioner of quality control in the manufacturing process. He worked for a company that made ceramic electrical insulators, tiny ones mostly, the sorts of things you'd wrap wire around to make an inductor or resistor. It was his job to make sure that the insulators of each kind were interchangeable, to exacting tolerances. He never doubted, I think, that the world was made the same way, of precisely identical interchangeable parts. The atoms of creation may have been smaller than my father's ceramic chips, but the Creator would have insisted on quality. Some of us marvel that the rich diversity of the world is put together from a construction kit with just a handful of different kinds of parts -- protons, neutrons, electrons; my father would not have had it any other way. The Creator was the mechanical engineer par excellence.

That big black cabinet in the basement couldn't save him when cancer started ravishing his own parts. There were no replacement bits and pieces for the cells that went haywire, no micrometer or slide rule that could keep their divergence from quality in check. Even as he lay on his deathbed he was measuring and graphing, with the tools of his profession on the bedside table. I think he was a little baffled that he couldn't find among his neatly compiled data the "fix" that he had always been able to contrive on the shop floor or in the basement.

Today is his birthday. He would be 101.

Friday, March 26, 2010

To reach the unreachable star


Here is an image from the journal Nature's annual roundup of impressive scientific images -- a photograph of a see-through deep-sea sea cucumber, discovered last year 2,750 meters down in the Gulf of Mexico. Not at all like those leathery, opaque and god-awful ugly sea cucumbers that occasionally wash up on our beach in the Bahamas. This fellow (or is it a she?) is exquisitely lovely, jellyfish-like in its diaphanous beauty. Life reduced to its basics: a mouth, an intestine, and an anus. (click to enlarge.)

No brain. An elemental nervous system. Primitive vascular system. Rudimentary sex organs. Eat and shit. Make more of the same.

Aren't you glad we aren't transparent. All that digestive plumbing on permanent display. Of course, down in the pitch-dark deep where Enypniastes lives, transparency doesn't matter.

From such humble beginnings sprang we all. Eat, shit, make more of the same. The rest is gravy. Dante's Divine Comedy. Chartres Cathedral. Bach's Saint Matthew Passion. The Hubble Space Telescope.

And, yes, what may be the most marvelous conception of all -- the common descent of all creatures on Earth, the incremental honing of suitability, turning clusters of raggedy neurons and calciferous cells into a softball-sized powerhouse of cognition at the top of a bony spine. Eat, shit, make more of the same -- and dream the impossible dream.


(I believe this is the first time I have used here a naughty word. The technical or euphemistic terms just lacked the rhetorical punch. Image credit: Laurence Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

RateMe.com

You can run, but you can't hide. The wiki witch of the west will find you.

To live is to be rated. How many hits on Google? How many visitors to one's blog. How many friends on Facebook? How many stars on Amazon? Did you get a chili pepper for "hotness" on RateMyProfessors.com?

Two pieces in a recent Sunday NYT caught my attention. In one, a woman fretted to the social advice columnist about her brother, who had not thanked her husband for having asked everyone in his e-mail address book to vote for the brother in an online photo contest. She showed not the slightest awareness that "stuffing the ballot box" might itself be ethically dubious. In another article, the author opined that the reviews on RateMyProfessors.com are unreliable -- "read them like a novel" -- mainly because professors inflate their own ratings with fake reviews. No doubt, some profs ask everyone in their address book to submit five-star raves. With chili peppers.

I know for a fact that some authors ask friends to submit enthusiastic reviews to Amazon, and even submit five-star appraisals of their own, under a phony name, of course. It seems to be an acknowledged fact that hotels submit their own raves to hotel rating sites. I've heard there are services that can be hired to make up authentic-sounding favorable reviews for you.

Then there are sites like HotOrNot and seamier cousins, which I don't know much about, where you can submit your photographic or video self (or be submitted) to the appraisal of the masses, inviting an ego boost or abject humiliation.

In the wiki world, everyone can express an opinion on everything. I retired from teaching before RateMyProfessors got up to steam, but my books get evaluated on Amazon. I stopped reading the reviews long ago. There was a time when all you had to worry about was what rating Saint Peter had in his book when you reached the Pearly Gates. In the wiki world, that's the least of your worries.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Suckled in a creed outworn

Sitting on the beach over the winter with my pal Dwight, we kept track of the Moon, Sun and tides. He's insatiably curious. I showed him -- with diagrams in the sand -- how the Alexandrians of the 3rd centiry B.C.E. determined the sizes and distances of the Sun and Moon. It's a fabulous story, which I told in Walking Zero: Discovering of Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian.

It is almost a cliche to say that Western civilization was created by the Greeks. Our government, law, art, music, architecture, literature, drama, historiography, science, and mathematics are largely Greek inventions. We could be dropped into a Greek city state of the 4th century B.C.E. and feel pretty much at home. Only the institution of slavery and the absence of modern technology would seem alien.

Beginning about 600 B.C.E., the Greeks embarked upon an astonishing period of creativity characterized, in the words of classical scholar E. R. Dodds, by a "progressive replacement of the mythological by rational thinking." From the founding of the Lyceum about 335 B.C.E. to the end of the 3rd century B.C.E., Greek science was transformed from "an untidy jumble of isolated observations mixed with a priori guesses into a system of methodical disciplines." All of this culminated in Alexandria with the astonishing story I was telling Dwight.

According to Dodds: "Despite its lack of political freedom, the society of the third century B.C. was in many ways the nearest approach to an 'open' society that the world had yet seen, and nearer than any that would be seen again until modern times."

But the seeds of irrationality were also there, embedded in popular culture, or perhaps embedded in human nature. By the end of the 3rd century B.C.E., a fear of the new freedom had set in. Supernaturalism returned. Astrology and magical healing replaced astronomy and medicine. Cults flourished, rationalists were scapegoated, and scientific culture began to decline. The old dualisms -- mind and matter, God and nature, soul and appetites -- which the rationalists had striven to overcome, reasserted themselves. Dodds called it "the return of the irrational."

He wrote (in The Greeks and the Irrational): "As the intellectuals withdrew further into a world of their own, the popular mind was left increasingly defenseless...and left without guidance, a growing number relapsed with a sigh of relief into the pleasures and comforts of the primitive...better the rigid determinism of the astrological Fate than the terrifying burden of daily responsibility."

It is perhaps not too wild a notion to see some of this happening in our own time. Science is distusted. Supernaturalism is rampant. Psuedosciences and the paranormal appear to be more popular than at any time in my lifetime. Might this be what Dodds called in the Greek context "the fear of freedom -- the unconscious flight from the heavy burden of individual choice which an open society lays upon its members."

Why did the Greeks recoil from the path of rational science? Why do we recoil from our own Enlightenment? Dodds blamed "those irrational elements in human nature which govern without our knowledge so much of our behavior and so much of what we think is our thinking."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Come hither

Is there anything more annoying than to wake in the middle of the night to the sound of a mosquito buzzing near one's ear? It is a nightly occurrence on the island of Exuma where I spend the winter. No matter how diligently we try to keep mosquitos out of the house, a few get in on any given day. In the dark of night, they find us in our bed. Then -- that barely audible whirr of wings anticipates the moment when Anopheles plunges her bloodsucking proboscis into our flesh.

How do they find us, all the way at the other end of the house? Unbeknown to us, as we lay in the bed, we emit a cloud of odorants -- indole, phenol, methtlphenols, and other aromatic compounds -- tiny molecules that drift through the house and say "human blood, follow me up-gradient." And Anopheles, as it turns out, has built into her antennae odorant detectors precisely tuned to exactly the odors that humans emit.

In the 4 March issue of Nature, a group of researchers from Yale and Vanderbilt Universities, report a brilliant body of work identifying and analyzing the mosquito' s suite of odorant detectors. Here, for you edification, is just one illustration from the report, showing the "tuning curves" for 36 human odorant molecules. At the top of the chart are the structures of several odorant molecules that generate particularly strong responses. Click to enlarge.


All this (and more) on the mosquito's antennae -- so perfect a match between insect and human that one could almost see the signature of Intelligent Design, except that the chemical matchmaking facilitates the transmission of the malaria parasite, which afflicts hundreds of millions of people each year -- the work of an Intelligent Designer perhaps, but certainly not one who cares about the human species.

No, what we are see here is the infinitely fine tuning of natural selection, acting over eons of time, to provide the female Anopheles mosquito with the human blood she needs to nourish her offspring, and to incidentally facilitate the life cycle of the malaria parasite.

We trust that our Exumian mosquitos are malaria free. Nevertheless, we wake in the night in our house-filling envelope of mosquito attractants, slapping our ears in a vain attempt to keep the little devils from sucking our blood. Dare we hope that with this new research we'll soon be able to buy an air "unfreshener" that will emit a cloud of odrorants more perfectly mimicking the human species than even our own faint emanations, luring the mosquitos to, say, a fatal electrocution.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Eating one's shorts

Back in 1970, the planetary scientist Larry Taylor promised his colleagues he'd "eat his shorts" if there was water on the Moon. He had good reason for saying so: a careful analysis of Moon rocks collected the previous year by Apollo 11 astronauts revealed pure unoxidized iron -- nothing that would indicate the presence of water.

At this year's Lunar and Planetary Science Conference he didn't eat his shorts, but he ate his words. A new analysis of Apollo rocks and recent data from India's Chandrayaan-1 and NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft indicate water in the body of the Moon after all -- which will require some readjustment of theories of the Moon's origin. Taylor's colleagues provided a cake iced with an image of boxer shorts.

This anecdote is not unusual; almost any issue of Science or Nature contains an example of a scientist or scientists "eating their shorts." Usually it's a small matter; sometimes it's paradigm shattering. Science has been so fabulously successful as a way of knowing precisely because nature is given the last word.

Larry Taylor's cake was especially refreshing to read about given the clashes of unbending opinion that have dominated the political and religious news lately. Nature is not only disallowed the last word; it is not even given the first word. All of which leads to a personal examination of conscience: To what extent are my own beliefs fixed in stone?

Inevitably, our religious and political views are predisposed by the circumstances of our birth and upbringing. People overwhelmingly adopt the religion of their parents and teachers. To a lesser extent this is true of politics too. Genes may even have something to do with whether we are liberal or conservative. And, to be sure, the more of our life we invest in a particular suite of "truths," the more reluctant we are to change.

When I was a young graduate student in physics at UCLA I had a friend, a secular Panamanian Jew, with whom I often ate my brown-bag lunch, sitting in the campus botanical garden. He had a habit of asking me "Why?" Why did I believe Catholicism was the "true faith"? Why did I believe in immortality? Why did I believe in the efficacy of prayer? Why did I believe in miracles? And so on. As he gently urged the point home, it became increasingly clear to me that I had not the slightest non-anecdotal evidence for my beliefs, and that in different cultural circumstances I might believe something entirely different. Since that time, I have tried to be respectful of where I have been, but determined not to make "leaps of faith" in the absence of empirical evidence. Better to say "I don't know" than to objectify the subjective.

The late Harvard psychologist John Mack, he of the alien abductions, once told an audience -- in response to a skeptical column of mine -- that if an alien spacecraft landed in Boston Common and all the major news outlets where there to record the event "Chet Raymo still wouldn't believe." He was certainly correct that my first response would be to suspect an elaborate hoax. But if the aliens took me on board, and then zipped me away to Mars at the speed of light -- well, I hope I would be honest enough to eat my shorts.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A volatile past?


In the course of his enthusiasm for genealogical research, Tom came up with this 1885 tintype of his great-grandfather, my grandfather, Arthur Ellsworth Raymo. He looks strikingly like Tom at the same age, whereas we never saw much of ourselves in Tom, nor much of his grandparents. The genes seem to have skipped across two generations. Three acts of coupling, three shuffles of the genes, and out pops those particular facial features and curly hair. Click to enlarge.

A photograph was obviously a big thing in those days. Whereas before a formal portrait might be something only the child of wealth or nobility might enjoy, the camera brought portraiture to the masses, even if the mansions and manicured gardens were only painted on a backdrop. I love the shirt and straw hat, no doubt young Arthur's Sunday best. He doesn't look all that comfortable. No doubt his parents are standing behind the photographer and bulky cloth-draped camera, expecting their son to stand perfectly still and look like the handsome child he was. Do I detect rosy cheeks, hand-colored by the photographer?

And so we see him after 125 years, a little faded perhaps, but otherwise intact, and I wonder what will become of my huge archive of digital photographs. Will all those electronic bits -- those 1s and 0s -- go their volatile way? And if they somehow endure, will the technology to turn them into photographs be at hand. I suppose every family will need to designate an archivist in each generation to take the products of obsolete technologies and transfer them to the new. Businesses will no doubt make archival services available, as some already do. Perhaps I should think about printing out those photos on my hard drives that are likely to be of greatest historical interest, with the most enduring inks and papers available, and stash them away in a strongbox for future genealogists.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Global warming -- a reprise

"Goodness," thought Alice to herself, "what a very strange place this is."

Only a moment before, the sun had been shining brightly and Alice was quite comfortable in her pinafore. Now the snow was falling furiously, and lay on the ground as high as her waist.

"I shall catch my death of cold," she said to no one in particular.

No sooner had she spoken than the sun burst through the clouds and the snow melted away. Soon she was standing up to her ankles in water.

"What could possibly happen next?" she thought. Whereupon dark clouds covered the sun and hailstones as big as hedgehogs splashed into the flood.

"Tornado, tornado!" she heard someone cry in a small, squeaky voice. The Dormouse came swimming by in a bit of a panic. Alice looked in the direction from which he had come and saw a dark twister scattering shrubs and houses and teapots every which way. Immediately, the water subsided and the ground became parched and arid.

"Global warming," said a confident voice.

Alice turned to see a large blue caterpillar sitting upon a mushroom. "Who are you?" she asked.

"Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," said the Caterpillar between big smoky puffs on his hookah. "Cutting down rain forests. Burning fossil fuels..."

He exhaled a dense cloud of blue smoke. "It's a scandal."

"Then why are you smoking?" coughed Alice.


"Ah," said the Caterpillar, "my little bit of smoke won't make a difference. It's the big corporations, you see. The farm interests. The..." He paused to exhale. "The sea is rising. If I were you, I'd find a nice tall mushroom and stay put."

"Global warming? Rising seas?" wondered Alice. "I do wish I had an expert who could tell me the cause of the capricious weather."

And just as this thought passed through her head, she noticed two identical little scientists in white lab coats standing under a tree. One scientist had "Tweedlehigh" printed on his pocket-protector; the other scientist's pocket-protector read "Tweedlelow."

"Can it possibly be true," she asked, "that the world is getting hotter, and that the sea is rising?"

"Indeed, it can," said Tweedlehigh. "The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases every year, and the global mean annual temperature has risen by more than a degree in the last century. There will be a two or three-degree change in the next hundred years. Sea level will rise as the ocean expands thermally and glacial ice melts. We can expect crazy permutations in the weather."

"Contrariwise," said Tweedlelow, "the present aberrations in the weather are statistical flukes, no different than extremes we have had in the past."

"Contrariwise," said Tweedlehigh, "my computer models show that small increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere significantly affect global climate, sea level, rain patterns..."

"Contrariwise," interrupted Tweedlelow, "computer models are not nearly sophisticated enough to describe the real climate system. There are too many variables. Too many kinds of feedback..."

"Contrariwise," shouted Tweedlehigh, "my model includes atmospheric composition, changes in ocean circulation and biochemistry, incoming and outgoing radiation, vegetation, atmospheric circulation, clouds..."

"Contrariwise," cried Tweedlelow, "clouds are too complicated -- an enormous variety of types, variability on all spatial scales, from sub-millimeter to thousands of kilometers, and time scales, from microseconds to weeks. The amount of cloud cover depends on sea temperature, atmospheric pollution, plants. No computer model yet devised can adequately model clouds. And then there's the deep sea. It takes thousands of years for the deep sea to come into equilibrium with surface changes..."

"Contrariwise," roared Tweedlehigh, "my ocean model has one degree resolution in latitude and longitude, and 100 levels in the vertical! It includes sea ice..."

"Contrariwise," thundered Tweedlelow, as he thumped Tweedlehigh with a large barometer.

"Contrariwise," stormed Tweedlehigh, as he adjusted a brass rain gauge on his head as a helmet.

The two scientists went tumbling off into the woods, head over heels, shouting and pummeling each other fiercely.

Suddenly, the hot sun was eclipsed by clouds and it started raining, a drenching deluge. "What a very strange place this is," thought Alice somberly, as raindrops the size of wrens' eggs splashed into the flood.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Mortal soul

Once, many years ago, I made my way to the hillside farm in New York's Catskill Mountains were John Burroughs was born and where he was buried in 1921 at age 84. He was one of the two John's who established the genre of nature writing in America: John Muir was "John o' Mountains", and John Burroughs was "John o' Birds."

It was a hardscrabble farm. Burrough's grave had to be blasted out of the Devonian sandstone with dynamite. Not much farming thereabouts today; when I visited there were few signs of human activity in the broad vista over the valley. I sat on the slab of rock that marks his grave and heard nothing but the sound of the wind.

I thought of the old man whose dust lay beneath my seat, how he must have often sat there himself, letting his eyes drift across the valley, filling up his soul with the peace of it, the wonder of it, the mystery of it. A naturalist, certainly. But religious too, in a way that eschewed the miraculous, the supernatural. "I would have gladly sat in a pew, too, if I could," he wrote.

And what did he expect beyond -- beyond that hole in Catskill sandstone? "This I know too," he wrote, "that the grave is not dark or cold to the dead, but only to the living. The light of the eye, the warmth of the body, still exist undiminished in the universe, but in other relations, under other forms. Shall the flower complain because it fades and falls? It has to fall before the fruit can appear. But what is the fruit of the flower of human life? Surely not the grave, as the loose thinking of some seem to imply. The only fruit I can see is in fairer flowers, or a higher type of mind and life that follows in this world, and to which our lives may contribute."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Fundamentally animal

In her book on gardening, Cultivating Delight, Diane Ackerman writes: "We believe [nature] is beneath us, or rather behind us. We believe we are evolution's goal, and that what is animal is dirty, low-class, immoral. We think we can somehow shed our animal nature."

Lord knows, we try. Spirituality gurus and televangelists make a fortune promising us that we can leave our animal natures behind and ascend to a new airy-fairy plane of existence. Attend their workshops, buy their books, and biology falls away to fleshless bliss.

How long we have labored in the Judeo-Christian West with a distrust of the body, seeing it as something verminous and corruptible. How long we have dreamed of flying free of the blood and visera and foul excretions -- the immaterial self ascending like a luminous vapor.

The thing I love most about living part of each year in the tropics is feeling my animal self. Being (almost) naked most of the time in sun and breeze. Diving in the water like a fish. Living cheek by jowl with geckoes, boas, hummingbirds, anis, frogs, scorpions and (grrr!) termites. None of that New England wrap -- the insulated walls, double-glazed windows, bulky clothing, tidy artificial lawns -- that separates us from the material ambiance from which we came. Here in the tropics I love the way the untidy vegetation sprawls, the way the sun bakes and shatters, the way the whole place would revert to wilderness if unattended for a minute.

Which is not to say I don't love New England too -- the reliable high-speed internet, the college library, the supermarket burgeoning with every imaginable food -- but I don't forget that all of that is as much a part of our animal natures as (in Ackerman's words) a wombat's burrow.

She writes: "Accepting our own wilderness, rejoicing in it, will be an important step toward learning how best to promote what we love about human nature and curb what shames us. If we can achieve that, a refined sense of ourselves as fundamentally animal, then the world we share -- what we call nature -- will feel homier, and we'll want to protect it like a second skin."

(In transit tomorrow, from the tropics to New England. See you Friday.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

In the spider's web

In Michelle Cliff's powerful novel of Jamaica, No Telephone To Heaven, Kitty is preparing her mother's body for burial:
Her mother could not respond to her. Where had she gone? Where were her ideas? Her beliefs? Where were her mind and memory? It seemed impossible that these things could have vanished into thin air. A black spider lighted on the back of Kitty's hand and made her
ashamed.
It seems impossible, indeed. Impossible that the thoughts and dreams of a loved one simply vanish at the moment of death, that mind and memory are inextricably embedded in flesh and blood. Surely, there is no human wish more persistent than this: personal immortality.

We search and scratch for confirming evidence. Near death experiences. Answered prayers. Table rapping. Apparitions and felt presences. Nothing, however, that is not anecdotal. Nothing that meets the loosest criteria of scientific evidence. Moreover, everything we have learned empirically about mind and memory speaks forcefully for embeddedness.

I am not so foolish as to suppose that any weight of scientific skepticism will dissuade believers in an an afterlife from their belief, nor would I want too. It is by and large a harmless conviction (except when it reinforces violence against others -- seventy-two virgins, and all that). In Cliff's novel, Kitty wants to believe, to be consoled that her mother is still with her, and who would deny her that consolation?

But, ah, the black spider.

There in that sweltering tropical room, her mother's body has begun the process of decay. No anointing with coconut oil or bay rum, or the tenderness with which Kitty applies those ointments, disguises the necessary extinction of her mother's mind and memory. The black spider that lights on Kitty's hand surely stands for the niggling doubt that must inevitably infect the faith of any post-Enlightenment believer in the afterlife. And Kitty is ashamed.

She does what tradition requires must be done. She turns the mirrors to the wall. She sweeps the room, sweeping out the dead. She repeats to herself: "We done wid she now. We done wid she now. We done wid she now."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Finding it where you are

Yes, I've been to Walden. Been there several times, in fact. With students. We sat on the earth at the site of the cabin and read from the book. And the wind stirred the pines, and the hickories, and the oaks, and rippled the pond that shone like silver in the early morning sun. And then, to honor the spirit of the man we came to visit, we sat silently, as if on the stoop of his cabin with friends, knowing that any words, even his own, intruded on the haunting beauty of the place itself.

Mary Oliver has a poem called "Going To Walden," in which she recounts refusing an invitation to visit the pond, remembering "that far-off Yankee whisper:/ How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!" Going to Walden is not so easy a thing as taking oneself to Concord, she writes. Rather: "It is the slow and difficult/ Trick of living, and finding it where you are."

Maybe so. No, certainly so. And yet, and yet. I don't regret having made the journey, particularly with young people who, like me, are used to hurrying here and there, and who, maybe, just maybe, while sitting in the silence and the shadows of pines, and hickories, and oaks, caught a glimmer of the trick of living that sustained Thoreau in his anchored solitude.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Angling for happiness

There is a concept in physics called angle of repose. Set an object, a book say, on a plank. Now slowly tip up one end of the plank until the moment when the book just starts to slide. The angle between the plank and the horizontal is the angle of repose, where the component of the gravitational force down the plank becomes greater than the maximum friction force holding the book at rest.

Or, in more evocative terms -- As I write I am lying on the couch with the laptop in my lap, in perfect repose. If you started tipping up the couch, at some point I'd go sliding into a heap at the bottom. That's the angle of repose, or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it the angle of the end of repose.

This comes to mind because I just spent fifteen minutes on my knees in the yard watching ants excavate a nest in the ground. One by one they scurry out of the hole carrying a tiny grain of sand, which they dump in a ring around the hole. A circular pile. Now if the ants just dumped their burdens at the mouth of the hole, pretty soon the pile would get so steep that the sand grains would slide back into the hole. Instead, the circular ring gets higher and wider, with a slope that never exceeds the angle at which the grains will slip -- the angle of repose.

Now here's the thing: the ants almost invariably carry their grain to just beyond the top of the pile. If the grain slips, it will slide away from the hole. These tiny ants, hardly bigger than sand grains themselves, understand a little physics in their mysterious instinctive way.

Wallace Stegner has a novel titled "Angle of Repose." It is indeed an evocative phrase. In a job, in a relationship, in life itself, many of us instinctively seek that maximum degree of individual gratification that will satisfy emotional needs without doing violence to our essential repose, and that of those around us -- the art of walking close to the edge, the thrill without the spill. Every day in the news we hear of folks -- politicians or celebrities -- who tipped the plank too far, whose lives went sliding into self-destruction, who failed to grasp, metaphorically speaking, something that a tiny ant instinctively understands.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Balance of nature

We have lots of beautiful fish on our reefs, but here is one of the gaudiest -- a lionfish, a native of the Southeast Pacific, popular with folks who keep aquaria. Somehow, a few individuals were released or escaped into the waters near Florida, and, according to reports, they are spreading throughout the Bahamas like weeds. My son-in-law spotted one on the reef in front of the house, and with my granddaughter saw another on a reef just to the north of here. The lionfish have arrived.

They have no natural predators in the Atlantic. They have voracious appetites for other reef denizens, and for the young of local food fish. An adult grouper (an island staple) will apparently gobble a lionfish, but lionfish go about hoovering up grouper young. So far the lionfish appears to be winning that particular battle. And, to top it off, the spines of lionfish are venomous to humans.

It's all one big world now. Viruses and tropical birds wing around the globe at nearly the speed of sound. The lionfish may have made it to the Atlantic on a jet liner from Auckland, via a aquarium in Boca Raton. Oh, it's pretty, all right. I'd love to see one on the reef. But beauty is not always benevolent. "Beauty is the beginning of terror," wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. I'm not quite sure what he had in mind, but the lionfish fits the bill.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Spring break

Herewith, a simplified history of the first three billion years of life on Earth:

The first living organisms got their energy by fermentation. They took
sugar molecules from their environment -- brewed up by plain old non-biological chemistry -- and broke them apart, rearranging the atoms into smaller molecules of carbon dioxide and alcohol, releasing some of the energy stored in the sugar.

Two problems: The earliest organisms were essentially hunter-gatherers, living off the land (or rather sea), and life was increasing faster than the abiotic production of sugar. The food supply was running out. Moreover, alcohol is a poison: The first toxic waste crisis.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Just in the nick, so to speak, life "invented" photosynthesis, a kind of primitive agriculture -- using sunlight to synthesize carbon dioxide and water into sugar, thus securing the food supply.

More problems. To photosynthesize you had to be in the sun, which meant exposure to ultraviolet light, which can kill. And a byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen, the second toxic waste crisis; life was in danger of burning up by spontaneous combustion.

However, as the level of oxygen in the atmosphere rose, an ozone umbrella formed in the upper atmosphere, which helped with the UV problem. And -- necessity again -- life learned to use oxygen to burn sugar -- respiration -- breaking it down more completely and releasing far more energy than fermentation. Respiration solved the alcohol problem, and kept oxygen in the atmosphere at a safe level.

And with all that extra energy, it wasn't long before life invented sex.

There, now that was simple, wasn't it?

Not much has changed. It's spring break here in the Bahamas, and thousands of American college students are pretty much recapitulating three billion years of life history. Alcohol, sun and sex. Hangovers, sunburn, and broken hearts.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fly away with me

Look who's on the cover of Science, Drosophila melanogaster, the "black-bellied dew lover," better known as the fruit fly that swarms annoyingly about our food trash. Shoo! Shoo! We brush them away with our hand, and still they swarm, a cloud of living confetti.

And here he is, in all his ugly glory, up close and in your face, every bristle, every crease, every facet of its compound eyes. An 8-by-10 glossy ready for the Hollywood casting agent -- "The Creature from the Black Banana," Gozilla's tiny cousin. A splendid portrait this, made with a scanning electron microscope (the eyes artificially colored).

The fruit fly was adopted as a research animal by T. H. Morgan in his important studies in genetics that began at Columbia University in the early years of the last century. These studies led to the classic textbook of Morgan, Sturtevant, Muller, and Bridges, "Mechanisms of Genetic Inheritance," which in 1915 established the link between genes and chromosomes. Since that time, much of what we know about mutation, speciation, and other genetic phenomena has been discovered with populations of fruit flies. Drosophila is an ideal research animal. It is small enough to breed in the lab in large numbers, but large enough to examine with only modest magnification. And it has a short life cycle, which means it can be bred through many generations during a typical graduate student's time of study.

The Science cover introduces work by a group of California researchers who identify proteins that inhibit age-related pathologies in fruit flies -- muscle degeneration and cardiac malfunction, among others. Does Drosophila hold the key to eternal youth? Who knows. Humans are more complex than fruit flies -- more genes, more chromosomes -- but many of our proteins and their way of functioning are virtually the same. Much of the basic biochemical machinery of human life evolved before the ancestors of fruit flies and humans diverged a half-billion years ago.

I've had the pleasure of examining mutant fruit flies, jiggered by geneticists to study the relationship between genes and their expression. The mutants have Seven Dwarfish sorts of names -- Dumpy, Curly, Stubble, Spineless, Wrinkled, Bristle, and Scarlet -- every aberrant feature determined by a sequence of four paired chemical units called nucleotides, A-T, T-A, G-C and C-G. Somehow it's all there in the four-letter code, the plan for making a fruit fly maggot, then for rearranging the maggot to make a fly, the alarm clock that causes the fly to emerge from its pupa in the dewy morning, the courtship love song, and all the rest.

Take another long look at the microphotograph above, and next time you swat, think of all the wonderful living detail that you squash between your hands.

(Image by T. Deerinck and M. Ellisman of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego.)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Feathered scapulae

As I wrote Monday's post on the avian poetry anthology Bright Wings, I had just finished reading a cover review in the NYT Book Review of Danielle Trussoni's novel Angelology. I had two kinds of winged creatures in mind: natural and supernatural.

The review observed that books about angels are wildly popular, something I made note of in a Boston Globe column twenty years ago. I suggested then that the 90s promised to be the decade of angels, and polls confirmed that a healthy majority of Americans believed in the literal existence of heavenly spirits. Well, if anything, angels have grown in popularity, Apparently you can now better your life with angelic alliances. The self-help literature includes How to Hear Your Angels, Working With Angels, In the Arms of Angels, and so on.

Now, I'm as fond of fairy tales as the next person. Humanoid celestial creatures have been a part of our culture since Genesis. By Milton's time, the lore of the angelic armies had reached epic proportions. Lord knows I learned enough of it in parochial school. Angels have even danced through these posts on occasion. But literal? Anyone who in 2010 takes angels literally suffers a severe detachment from empirical reality.

Meanwhile, the real wonders get lost in the din of fluttering wings.

If a medieval philosopher were confronted, on the one hand, with the lore of angels, and, on the other, with the idea of the air resonant with a hundred species of unheard music (Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, to say nothing of the Grateful Dead and Norah Jones) made actually audible by a small box called a radio, he would surely call the latter more wondrous. And what of that continuous wind of invisible neutrinos that pours through our bodies from the animating furnace of the Sun? Closer to home, the idea of humanness revealed by molecular biology and neurobiology is a far more stunning conception than the medieval philosopher's "little world made cunningly of elements and an angelic sprite."

There's no point decrying our culture's preoccupation with the mystical and paranormal, at least not until scientists and naturalists are better able to show that a scientific world-view can satisfy the human need for meaning. Scientists and naturalists may feel plugged into something larger and more wonderful than themselves, but so far they have failed to convince the public that science is anything more than a practical tool for wringing material benefits from nature. Until they do, aerodynamically impossible spirits will continue to haunt the bookstores. And Danielle Trussoni's biologically implausible angel-human hybrids have surely already been optioned for the movies.

Meanwhile, I have my own little angels at the hummingbird feeder, stoking their racing metabolism with my wife's own mix of celestial ambrosia.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Osprey, riding gifts of air

As I wrote those words in yesterday's post I was watching an osprey cruise the shore in front of the house. Fish hawk, they call it here. It dipped and soared, hardly moving its wings, its keen eye fixed on the turquoise water below, waiting for a glint of sunlight from the scales of a silver fish. Flow. Flow. The bird, the air, the sea, the fish. Different at every moment. Always the same.

And somehow my thoughts drifted back more than half-a-century to...

Somewhere about the second or third week of every university calculus course, the student is introduced to the concept of the limiting value of a ratio both terms of which approach zero -- a concept crucial to all that follows. The definition was the most incomprehensible thing I had encountered in my life, a mess of mathematical gobbledegook. It was appended to the statement "These preliminary remarks should now enable us to understand..."

But, of course, I did not understand. I doubt if any first-year calculus student reaches this point in the course with understanding. Still, I was smart enough to know that if I sidestepped this initial hurdle I would never grasp what followed. So I beat my head against it for a week until the light bulb finally went on. I had figured out the concept of a limit.

The rest, as they say, was a piece of cake. The study of calculus became pure bliss, the neatest thing I encountered in college.

I took my final degree in physics, and physicists use calculus to express the laws of nature. But it was a funny sort of nature we studied in physics -- without ospreys, wind, sea, or fish. As the years passed I drifted into writing, and more or less forgot about calculus. But something ineradicable had been planted in my mind. Something about flow. About transformation. About continuous change.

Something about ospreys riding gifts of air.

The poet Marianne Moore wrote: "The power of the visible is the invisible." Calculus is about invisibles -- the infinite and the infinitesimal. That's what the cryptic definition of a limit is all about. A way to talk meaningfully about the unobservable instant. The thing we call a derivative in calculus is the calculable ratio of two numbers that separately vanish into nothingness, leaving behind something spooky but palpably real, like the grin of the Cheshire cat -- a rate of change, a measure of continuous flow. Calculus clicked when I made the connection between the grin and the cat.

Which brings me back to the osprey. As I watched that splendid bird riding gifts of air it occurred to me that I was observing the physical embodiment of those abstract differential equations I studied long ago. Calculus was invented as a language for describing continuous change in nature -- the glide, the dive, the soar, the flow. Watching the osprey I was an eavesdropper, listening in on nature's conversation with itself.

Monday, March 08, 2010

...and with ah! bright wings

House guests brought me as a gift Billy Collins' spanking new anthology of poems about birds, Bright Wings, splendidly illustrated with paintings by David Allen Sibley, who you may know from his Sibley Guide To Birds. Collins is himself a poet of considerable renown, twice Poet Laureate of the United States. The book is beautifully produced by Columbia University Press, and I have been curled up all morning enjoying the feathered flights of many of my favorite poets: Marianne Moore, Mary Oliver, Amy Clampitt, Elizabeth Bishop, Howard Nemerov, Wallace Stevens, and more.

Who, watching birds, hasn't wished to be a poet? The hummingbird, there! at the slipper-flower blossom, a blur of wings, stealing fuel with his soda-straw beak -- it's not science he evokes but breathless excitement. And the mischievous bananaquit, hopping from branch to branch in the white torch tree, waiting for her turn at the feeder -- one wishes then for a gift of rare words, not some dry and abstract ornithological treatise, but a song of praise, an Ode To Joy, a Hallelujah Chorus.

Oh! how one wishes to rise into their element, to loose the hawsers that anchor us to earth, to dive, to dart, to dance at the tips of twigs in the buttonwood tree, to cruise out there along the shore like the osprey, riding gifts of air. But even poets must rue the way their words stay pasted on the page. Howard Nemerov's Blue Swallows ends:
Swallows, swallows, poems are not
the point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind's eye lit the sun.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

XA


Click Anne's image to enlarge, then again if you wish.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

"Upon this chaos rode the distressed ark"

I've been reading Stephen Baxter's Ages In Chaos, the story of James Hutton and the discovery of geologic time. As someone who has studied and taught this stuff for half a century, there is not much in the book that I don't already know. It strikes me, however, that the book is not so much an account of the discovery of geologic time as it is the story of how Europeans escaped from the intellectual shackles of the Scriptures.

Leonardo, Bacon, Steno, Burnet, Buffon: All grappled with the problem of how to make the evidence of their senses conform to the ancient stories and myths of prescientific peoples -- stories and myths that had been ordained the inerrant word of God by the Christian church. The intellectual acrobatics necessary to stay on the right side of orthodoxy were sometimes ludicrous, but try they did. It wasn't until the time of Hutton, Lyell and Darwin that the senses finally trumped Scriptures as the arbiter of truth.

Today, within the scientific community at least, it seems obvious that what presents itself to the senses -- the fossils, the folded strata, the faults and unconformities -- tell a more reliable story of the Earth than the utterly typical imaginings of peoples who lived in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Indeed, it seems so obvious that one wonders how the ancient books were ever considered to be divine communications. But of course, not a lot has changed. The majority of peoples in the world continue to put their faith in scriptures -- the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, etc. -- even when it requires rejecting the knowledge so painstakingly wrested from nature by Hutton, Lyell and Darwin.

Why? Is it that we like immutable certainty? Do we prefer the ancient stories because we like to believe that the creator of the universe has me -- yes, me -- constantly in mind? Is it the privilege of belonging to a chosen people -- God's in-crowd? Is it the irresistible attraction of immortality?

Who knows? Perhaps a bit of all. Whatever the reason, those of us who accept with gratitude the liberating efforts of Hutton and company find in the new empirical stories a cosmic vista of unsurpassed grandeur -- even if it means foregoing the notion that we possess the Truth and will live forever.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Thinking about thinking

Nothing we know about in the universe approaches the complexity of the human brain. What is it? A vast spider web of neurons, cells with a thousand octopuslike arms, called dendrites. The dendrites reach out and make contact at their tips with the dendrites of other cells, at junctions called synapses.

A hundred billion neurons in the human brain, with an average of 1,000 dendrites each. A hundred trillion octopus arms touching like fingertips, and each synapse exquisitely controlled by the cells themselves, strengthening or weakening the contact, building webs of interlinked cells that are knowledge, memory, consciousness -- a soul, a self.

A hundred billion neurons. That's more brain cells than there are grains of salt in 1,000 one-pound boxes of salt. A roomful of salt grains, floor to ceiling. Each in contact with hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of others. The contacts flickering with variable strength. Continuously. Unconsciously. Never ceasing. Remembering. Forgetting. Feeling joy. Feeling pain. Thinking. Speaking. Lifting a foot, moving it forward, putting it down again. Flickering. A hundred trillion flickering synapses.

Just thinking about it is exhausting.

In recent years, new scanning technologies enable neuroscientists to watch live human brains at work. Active neural regions flicker on the screens of computer monitors as subjects think, speak, recite poems, do math. Thinking -- displayed on the screen of a scanning monitor -- can look like a grass fire exploding across a prairie.

Perhaps the most exciting research is that of the scientists who study the biochemistry of neurons: How do the cells regulate synaptic connections to build new neural webs? One big surprise is just how much of the "thinking" of neurons is done by the dendrites, those hundreds of spidery arms that connect neurons to one another. DNA in a neuron's nucleus sends messenger RNA down along the dendrites to active synapses, where they are translated into proteins that regulate the strength of synaptic connections. Tiny protein factories in the dendrites are apparently key to learning and memory.

What all this amounts to is awareness of awareness. The biochemical machinery of awareness has been turned upon itself, and we begin to glimpse the astonishing architecture of the human soul.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

So soft the dart

If love's a sweet passion, why does it torment?
If a bitter, oh! tell me, whence comes my content?
Since I suffer with pleasure, why should I complain,
Or grieve at my fate, when I know 'tis in vain?
Yet so pleasing the pain is, so soft the dart,
That at once it both wounds me and tickles my heart.
A song from Henry Purcell's 1892 opera The Fairy Queen, a musical retelling of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The song is part of the "Fairy Mask" with which Titania entertains Bottom, who is wearing the donkey's head. According to the program notes that came with my Purcell Quartet CD, the song "became by far the most popular song in the play, was endlessly reprinted and imitated, and was used to great effect by John Gay in The Beggar's Opera." All of which suggests a certain universal resonance of the theme.

Closer to home I think of Lou Rawls' Love Is A Hurtin' Thing:
For every little kiss there's a little teardrop
For every single thrill there's another heartache
There are some things we don't expect science to explain, and romantic love is surely one of them. A hundred billion neurons in the human brain, with an average of 1,000 dendrites each. A hundred trillion tendrils reaching out and touching like lovers' fingertips, each synapse exquisitely controlled by the cells themselves, strengthening or weakening the electrochemical contact in response to internal and external stimuli -- a touch, a blush, a sigh, a pout -- building webs of interlinked cells that are a sweet passion or a bitter, wounding and tickling. Who can map that intricate circuitry? Who can follow that braided Amazon of pleasure and hurt to its source? Lou Rawls again:
When love brings so much joy why must it bring such pain
Guess it's a mystery that nobody can explain

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Icon


From NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center comes this stunning composite photograph of Earth, the sharpest "blue-dot" picture yet. Here is the planet that two thousand years ago the boldest of thinkers could imagine only in their mind's eye. Here is the watery sphere that Columbus and Magellan kept fixed in their imagination as they launched their tiny craft into the wet unknown. The blue-white planet, dappled with ocher and green, suspended in the vast -- perhaps infinite -- black of space. Almost perfectly round and smooth. If you wrapped a schoolroom terrestrial globe in kitchen wrap, that thin layer of plastic would be thick enough to encompass oceans and atmosphere, the deepest oceanic trench and the highest mountains. And in that gauzy layer too is all of life, teeming, photosynthesizing, respiring, copulating, thinking, dreaming.

What is the season? Note the slight brightening around the tip of the Baja California Peninsula (click to enlarge). Here the Sun is directly overhead, exactly on the Tropic of Cancer, twenty-three-and-one-half degrees north of the equator -- the summer solstice. Here in Exuma we are also exactly on the Tropic of Cancer, a bit more than two hours east of Baja; it is early afternoon on a cloudless summer day. Europe is in twilight.

Nothing in the photograph obviously reveals the presence of the human species (unless it is that perplexing straight line between the southern tips of Greenland and Hudson Bay, which must be an artifact of the photomosaic process). But lord knows we have the power to change the picture dramatically. A nuclear war could shroud the planet in obscuring smoke and dust. Global warming might change the coastlines and the amount of cloud cover. Already, it seems, we have diminished the amount of summer sea ice at the top of the globe.

As I was growing up, in every one of my parochial school classrooms, high on the wall at the front of the room, was the image of a suffering man nailed to a cross. It was there to remind us that the creator of the universe had come to Earth and died to redeem us from the sin of having been born human in a fallen world. What it more graphically instructed me is how "inhumanely" humans can behave toward each other, even to the point of hammering nails through palms. Better, I think, to have had this image of Earth hanging there at the front of the room, to remind us of the gossamer insubstantiality of life in a universe complex and wonderful beyond our knowing, and of the moral imperative of being the only creatures in the universe (that we know about) who can say "It is beautiful" and resolve to make it more so.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

"Taking what is, and seeing it as it is"

Last fall, I wrote here about Jan Vermeer's The Milkmaid, which at the time was enjoying a bit of limelight as the centerpiece of a show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since then, the painting has been the desktop for one of my laptops. Here is a detail: this stocky, sensible young woman, who has been studiously ignoring me every day as I write. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Who was she? How long was she required to pose, holding the heavy pitcher, the muscles of her arms straining with fatigue. Did Vermeer pay her, this maid of Delft, or did she volunteer her service for the artist? Could she have guessed that 350 years later we would celebrate her beauty through the illuminating power of art?

The painting is very much a homage to materiality: the flesh of the girl's bared forearms, the rough cloth of her dress, the ceramics, wicker, brass and bread, the dribble of milk. It is, in one specific sense, a very Catholic painting, sacramental in its "faith in the power of the image to incorporate a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable" (I quote the scholar Daniel Arasse). If there is a defining difference between traditional religions and religious naturalism it is in the notion of revelation. In traditional religions, revelation comes as direct communication from an extranatural divinity through holy books or prophets -- that is, through human imagination and the received stock of stories and metaphors. Traditional revelation is generally expressed in anthropomorphic forms and quickly becomes dogma. For the religious naturalist, revelation is encountered anywhere and everywhere, in the isness of what is, as a vague perception of "a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable."

With The Milkmaid, Jan Vermeer is our prophet. He sees into the isness of this simple domestic scene -- sees it charged with mystery, that sense, so amply confirmed by science, that there is always more to the world than meets the eye, not something supernatural, but metanatural, the rich and extravagant isness of things that overflows our knowing. And here, this thoughtful young woman from the household or neighborhood has become the instrument of revelation, the channel by which something ineluctable leaps out of the isness of matter and transfixes us. How else to explain the power of pigments on canvas to hold our rapt attention across the ages?

Monday, March 01, 2010

The mother tongue

As I mentioned before, during February I presided over a creative writing seminar with a dozen island residents, ten adults and two high school students. Some terrific writing but let me quote here a single sentence from Tamika's final essay:

The wind on my face was a sweet relief for the fire I felt on my skin.

I suggested at our last gathering that this is what it's all about. At first glance there is nothing complex or "writerly" about the sentence. No five-dollar words or big ideas. Just words of one syllable, except for "relief," and honest emotion.

But read the sentence aloud. Catch the rhythm. Hear the way "wind" plays off "sweet," and "sweet" eases up to "relief." Hear the five "fs" beat out their neat tattoo. And note the way "wind" and "skin" bracket the sentence.

Behind the apparent simplicity there is a carefully constructed loveliness, a writer at work, perhaps on autopilot, but with an unerring sense of sound and syntax.

Good writing is not pompous or pretentious. It does not preach or prattle. It can be as effortless as breathing, or, rather, it should appear as effortless as breathing.

Go, Tamika. Fill your life with such sentences.