Sunday, October 31, 2010

Boo!


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday pic.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Once upon a midnight dreary

Late October. Green fades. Chlorophyll closes down. This is the season of the Grim Reaper. Mushrooms skulk the forest floor like spirits of the damned. Costumed for trick or treat.

Why do so many species of mushrooms have Halloween names? Destroying Angel. Fairy Helmets. Jack-o'-Lanterns. Death Cap. Witch's Butter. The names betray our feelings. We don't trust them. Something deep in our folk consciousness turns away in revulsion.

Is it that some mushrooms are poisonous? Hallucinogenic? Or is it something deeper? Druidical? Are we reminded of the fairy spirits of our forest-living European ancestors? Is this what Shakespeare's Prospero had in mind when he addressed the elves "whose pastime is to make midnight mushrooms"?

Fungi are heterotrophs, which means they require for their nourishment organic compounds synthesized by other organisms, namely green plants. Some fungi are parasites; they take nutrients from a living host. Most fungi are saprobes; they obtain nutrients from non-living organic matter and cause its decay.

Mushrooms are the grave robbers of the plant world, shunners of sunlight, and it is appropriate that they come out in autumn's failing light to prowl with goblins, witches, incubi and succubi, dancing in fairy circles. There is something darkly sexual about them. The phallic stinkhorn. The vulval earthstar. And those wicked little men of the woods, which I have never seen except in foreign handbooks, the Crowned Earthstars, Geastrum fornicatum, marching in lascivious gangs, with open mouths.

Our ancestors roaming the dark forests of Northern Europe may have seen the mushrooms as spirits of the dead in macabre resurrection. Appearing overnight, in garish colors, these Lords of the Flies evoked, somehow, mysteriously, thoughts of malevolence and lust.

This is the week of their final fling -- night-stalking tricksters, ectoplasmic Halloween spooks.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Why we need poets

The other evening the poet Jane Hirshfield referred in a poem to the number of atoms it takes to make a butterfly. Ten to the 24th power, I think she said. I thought I'd check it out.

A typical butterfly might weigh about half a gram. The exact ratio of elements I don't know, but mostly hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. Let's assume an atomic weight of ten for a typical atom; that is, an atom with ten nuclear particles (Hydrogen=1, carbon= 12, oxygen=16, and so on). A proton or neutron has a weight of about 1.6 X 10-24 grams. About 3 X 1022 atoms in a butterfly.

If I'm remembering Hirshfield's reference correctly (and I may not be), we are off by one or two orders of magnitude. No matter. It's a very big number. You want to make a butterfly? You will need 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. And every one in exactly the right place.

Now consider the miracle of metamorphosis.

The caterpillar builds a chrysalis. Wraps itself up in its closet. And there, in the privacy of its self-sufficiency, it rearranges those arrangements of atoms. The caterpillar's six stumpy front feet are turned into the butterfly's slender legs. Four wings develop, as do reproductive organs. Chewing mouthparts become adapted for sucking. A crawling, insatiable, leaf-eater is transformed into a winged, sex-obsessed nectar sipper.

This is why we need poets. It's one thing to count atoms, or draw diagrams of the 22 amino acids, or suss out their sequence on the long chains that are the proteins. Or read out the genome that controls the machinery that turns a creeping leaf-cruncher into a winged angel. But all that biochemistry, as wonderful as it is, leaves the essential mystery intact. The hum. The unceasing hum that is life. The inextinguishable continuity.

Sing, poets. Sing your hosannas.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Silence and speech

The poet Jane Hirshfield was last evening's guest of the college. As I read her work in anticipation of the visit, I found myself thinking of Rainer Maria Rilke, and in particular of the Duino Elegies, among my favorite poems.

"Does a poem enlarge the world,/ or only our idea of the world?" asks Hirshfield in one of her poems. She wrestles with the central paradox of artistic creation, a paradox that also concerned Rilke.

I recall reading somewhere that the painter Wassily Kandinsky could be transfixed, enraptured, by the sight of a collar button in the gutter. It is the nature of the artistic temperament to be acutely sensitive to the isness of things, what the photographer Edward Weston called "the thing itself." Hirshfield has a poem about a button ("It is its own story, completed," she writes). A button, a spoon, a blue mug. Tapioca, peaches, toast. The enrapturing insistence of the thing that exists independently of the artist who perceives it, even though we know that a thing cannot even be known to exist except in its perception. Still, the painter must paint and the poet must write because that too is part of the artistic temperament, but always there is an awareness of the unbridgeable distance between the thing and the expression of the thing.

"Why is it so difficult to speak simply?" asks Hirshfield in a poem. And in the very next poem she lets another artist answer:
"If you wish to move your reader,"
Chekhov wrote, "you must write more coldly."
Hirshfield continues:
And so at the center of many great works
is found a preserving dispassion,
like the vanishing point of quattrocentro perspective,
or the tiny packets of desiccant enclosed
in a box of new shoes or seeds."
One cannot, however, so easily escape the paradox:
But still the vanishing point
is not the painting,
the silica is not the blossoming plant.
"Only when I am quiet for a long time," writes Hirshfield, "and do not speak/ do the objects of my life draw near." Near, yes, but always that irreducible gap, that disquieting lacuna inviting the pronoun I.

Of course, what Hirshfield is dealing with here is not just the problem of artistic creation, but really the central problem of philosophy. How do we know? And how do we know that we know? What is the relation of the perceived particular -- in all of its redolent, enrapturing isness -- to the abstract general? How can we grasp the thing itself without the intrusion of the transformational I?

Silence and speech: These are the mutually annihilating qualities that define our humanness.

"Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate?" asks Rilke in the Ninth Duino Elegy. And Hirshfield:
I look at my unhandy hand,
Innocent,
Shaped as the hands of others are shaped.
Even the pen it holds is a mystery, really.

Rawhide, it writes,
and chair, and marble.
Eyebrow.
That is to say, to say. But Rilke adds: "But for saying, remember, oh, for such saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be."
Praise the world to the Angel, not the untellable; you
can't impress him with the splendor you've felt; in the cosmos
where he more feelingly feels you're only a novice. So show him some simple thing, refashioned by age after age, till it lives in our hands and eyes as a part of ourselves.
Tell him things.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Constant


I wrote some time ago about Vermeer's Milkmaid. I have used her for the desktop on my computer.

She pours, and the world endures -- a thought I take from a poem in Nobelist Wislawa Szymborska's new collection, Here (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

And here is the poem, in the original Polish (minus accents):
VERMEER

Dopoki ta kobieta z Rijksmuseum
w namalowanej ciszy I skupieniu
mleko z dzbanka do miski
dzien po dniu przelewa,
nie zasluguje Swiat
na koniec swiata.
And translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak:
So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn't earned
the world's end.
How does Google Translator do the job?
As long as the woman with the Rijksmuseum
painted in silence and recollection
milk jug into a bowl
day after day are handled,
The world does not deserve
at the end of the world.
Ah, yes, human translators still have the edge. Give Bing's translator a go:
As long as this woman from Rijksmuseum in silence And concentration covered with milk jug to bowls day after day of the Yung JOC zasluguje not credited at the end of the stay worldwide.
Google gets the laurels on this one.

Anyway, there she is. The milk has been curling into the bowl for 352 years, the milkmaid's concentration unbroken. Apocalyptic fervors have come and gone. Nuclear annihilation has so far been averted. We've escaped an Earth-shattering asteroid impact. The milkmaid in her quiet rapture holds the cool pitcher in her hands. The stream of milk is the still axis of the world. The world turns.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rock concert

This afternoon I will be meeting personnel from a film production company to make a short film on the geology of Easton, sponsored by our town library. No better place to illustrate local geology than here on the college campus.

First, there is a story of deep time, unfolding over hundreds of millions of years, told in four kinds of bedrock. It's a story of drifting and colliding continents, high mountains thrust up and eroded away, volcanoes, earthquakes, swampy depositions, continents splitting and a ocean being born.

Then there's a story of shallow time -- a thousand times shallower -- just tens or hundreds of thousands of years, a story of cooling climate, of continental glaciers grinding across the land, breaking, shaping, smoothing, transporting.

Together the two stories account for the landscape we know and love today.

It's all here to see if one knows where to look and what to look for, and so we will be visiting some of the hidden woodsy corners of the campus.

But right now I'm sitting in my usual quiet corner of the Commons trying to decide how I will tell the stories. Sequentially, as the events actually happened. Or together, deep and shallow stories at once.

The thing is, most of the sites I will visit tell parts of both stories: how the rock had its origin, and what gave it the appearance we see today -- the polish, the scratches, the tumbled boulders. Unless we are going to do a lot of to-and-froing with the camera, I think I will have to weave the stories together from the very beginning.

Of course, things can be rearranged in the editing, but I won't be there for that. I better do it all in one go.

This is not the first short film I have done in the neighborhood. The inimitable Chuck Kraemer made a lovely little flick some years ago when The Path was published, for Emily Rooney's Greater Boston TV show (Andy's daughter). And a year later the Hallmark Channel also went for a walk. You can see these films by Googling videos for "Chet Raymo." Amazing that this stuff is still available on the internet. Certainly, I didn't put it there.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A hint of gooseberries

That was one of the qualities of the wine I had for dinner last evening, "a hint of gooseberries." Not, mind you, that I detected the labeled hint with my dysfunctional nose. Nor was the wine one I had purchased myself. Having no sense of smell -- and therefore little sense of taste -- I tend to buy cheap plonk that wouldn't know a gooseberry if it saw one.

I'm OK with sensations that reside on the tongue: sweet, sour, salty, bitter. Our taste buds -- tiny onion-shaped receptors embedded in the tongue -- are multipurpose chemical processors capable of sorting out an assortment of molecular stimuli. For example, the salty pleasure I derive from anchovies begins with sodium chloride molecules, NaCl, approaching a taste cell. The atoms in the molecules disassociate, and sodium ions enter the cell through special channels on its surface. The accumulation of sodium ions in the cell enables calcium ions to enter, too. This prompts the release of neurotransmitters that trigger adjacent nerve cells. A message zips to the brain. Yum, I'll have more anchovy pizza, please. And, by the way, I think the wine has gone off.

The sense of smell is rather different. The 100 million olfactory receptors in the nose are bare nerve endings; no fancy buds to do complex biochemistry. As the chemist P. W. Atkins said: "In essence, the brain is exposed in the nose." Smell is raw and primitive, a link to our premammalian past.

The triggering mechanism is lock-and-key. Molecules of a certain shape fit nooks and crannies on nerve-cell proteins, causing the cell to send its own unique message up the line -- musk, citrus, oak, attar of roses. It's all geometrical.

For almost everyone but me.

Presumably molecules of certain shapes find their nests in my nose, and presumably the appropriate signals go whizzing up to the frontal lobes of my brain. But whoever operates the equipment there that registers conscious sensation has been asleep at the switch for as long as I have memory.

A hint of gooseberries, indeed!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ancient light


Click to enlarge Anne's cyber-musing.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cat's cradle


I was not a big fan of Stephen Hawking's 1988 runaway bestseller A Brief History of Time. In fact, getting through it was a chore. So I'm not in a hurry to read his new book The Grand Design, although co-author Leonard Mlodinow's previous The Drunkard's Walk was an OK read.

The two physicists now promise to answer the BIG QUESTIONS: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why are the laws of nature what they are? Did the universe need a designer and creator?

The answer to even one of those questions would be worth the $28 cost of the book. To answer them all would be to sweep away 2500 years of philosophy. And theology, too. The authors conclude there's no need for a God to get the whole thing going.

They invoke M-theory, a 11-dimensional version of string theory that promises the long sought goal of uniting quantum theory and gravity. In one version of this theory the universe as we know it has zero total positive and negative energy and therefore could have sprung into existence from nothing by quantum fluctuations. M-theory also predicts the existence of 10 500 universes, one of which we inhabit. Etc.

The string theorists are having fun, and I wish I were smart enough to follow their game. But I'm not getting hot and bothered by Hawking's and Mlodinow's answers to the BIG QUESTIONS. The Big Bang theory is not much older than me. M-theory is younger than my grandchildren. By the time my grandchildren are my age who knows what cosmologists will understand about the universe(s)?

Proposing answers to the BIG QUESTIONS based on any momentary version of science is a fool's game. The universe may have a grand design, but anyone who thinks M-theory is it, now and forever, is setting himself up for a tumble. And anyone who uses the Big Bang or M-theory to argue for the existence or nonexistence of a Designer is already out on a limb.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Once upon a time…


… there was a little Chipmunk, and his name was Chester, He lived in a sand bank, underneath the root of a very big pine tree.

Sorry. All autumn I have been watching a chipmunk that lives in this cozy house under the root of a pine tree. As the weather cools, he has been closing up his door with wood chips, although on a warm afternoon he will push through the chips and take the air. It's inevitable that one thinks of the first illustration in Beatrix Potter's first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Wikipedia says that 45 million copies have been sold in 36 languages, making it one of the most successful books of all time. Potter published the book at her own expense after it was rejected by half-a-dozen commercial publishers -- a circumstance that should be of some encouragement to writers who have had a manuscript rejected.

Writing and illustrating children's books was not Potter's first passion. Her early enthusiasm was natural history, and in particular the study of fungi. If she had been born even a half-century later, we might know her as a mycologist, an expert on mushrooms. She haunted the woods seeking new specimens, which she represented in beautiful and scientifically accurate drawings and water colors.

Potter was the first person in Britain, and one of the first in the world, to recognize that lichens are composed of two organisms, a fungus and an alga. Her microscopic study of lichens led her to the conclusion that the two organisms lived in a mutually advantageous relationship: symbiosis. The alga took care of photosynthesis, converting sunlight to useful nourishment; the fungus gave the alga a safe haven, stored water, and drew minerals necessary for photosynthesis from the anchoring rock or tree trunk.

In the October 1972 issue of Natural History Magazine, Naomi Gilpatrick said Potter "would have liked to discuss her growing portfolio of fungus and lichen drawings with some of the scientists at the Botanic Gardens. She had questions to ask -- small, moot points that weren't touched upon in any of the books she had consulted . . . Her own observations, made not only in her third-floor study but also on frequent holidays to seacoast towns with her father, a leisure-class photographer, had brought her to the forefront of what was known about lichens and fungi."

But getting anyone in the exclusively male scientific community to listen to her proved difficult. Her appearances at the Royal Botanic Gardens were met with snubs by the staff. The scientists at the Museum of Natural History at South Kensington gave her short shrift. At best, someone might make passing comment on her bonnet.

"They do not seem to be half-sharp," she wrote of the scientists in her coded diary.

Admittedly, Potter was not aggressive in her courtship of the experts; she could be painfully retiring on her visits to their gardens and museums, and saved her hurt feelings for her diary. Still, there is a clear sense that it was her gender that barred her way to a full hearing.

At last, through the helpful influence of her uncle, a chemist, she managed to have a scientific paper presented at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London: "On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae," by Helen B. Potter. Of course, she was not allowed to read it herself; only men were allowed to attend the meetings.

This was in 1897, and Potter was growing increasing weary of her role as ignored supplicant in the house of male science. She turned her artistic talents and careful observations of nature to the production of books for children, and the rest is history.

(The bulk of this post is a reprise from five years ago.)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Waiting for Godot

The 14 October issue of Nature includes full-page interviews with ten science Nobelists. Three of them are asked: "What is the one discovery that would herald a scientific revolution in the 21st century?"

Arno Penzias, co-discoverer of the cosmic background radiation, answers:
A scientific model of how mammalian genomes pack so much into so little space. Just think of the amount of information stored in a mere three billion base pairs, let alone all else these mere molecules must accomplish. Measured from a computer perspective, that's four bits of storage per pair — or about one tenth as much as a high-end iPod Touch. How can so little 'memory' store the exquisite details of our entire bestiary? Consider, for example, that experiments have shown that a newly-born mountain goat is wary of heights from the instant that it opens its eyes for the first time.
There can be no doubt, I'd say, that Penzias has put his finger on the biggest scientific mystery awaiting explication. How can a sequence of four organic bases, encoding proteins, implant a wariness of heights in the brain of a newborn mountain goat, or give newly-hatched monarch butterflies the geographical instinct to fly unguided from New England, say, to a particular patch of fir trees in central Mexico? We have learned a lot already about the basic biochemistry of how it happens. More complete knowledge will slowly unfold, bit by bit, over the century. I personally doubt if a "scientific revolution" is necessary.

To the same question, John Mather, co-discoverer of the anisotropy in the cosmic background radiation, answers:
Room-temperature superconductivity could enable efficient sharing of electrical power around the world, changing the economic balance dramatically. It could also enable magnetic levitation for transportation, changing the entire structure of nations. Similarly, any other discovery or innovation that changes the availability of energy for food, transportation and shelter would have extraordinary impact.
Room-temperature superconductivity would hardly be a scientific revolution, but it would be a breakthrough of staggering significance. The temperature at which superconductivity occurs has been creeping upwards for decades. Finding a reasonably cheap material that conduct electricity at ordinary ambient temperatures without resistive loses would certainly transform our energy future -- and earn a quick Nobel Prize for the discoverer. Is it possible? I'd put this in the same category as cold fusion, a potential discovery of even greater significance. That is to say, highly improbable, but perhaps not impossible.

Peter Agre, who shared the chemistry prize for discovery of a water channel protein in cell membranes, gives a rather more whimsical answer:
Discovery of the molecular explanation for happiness would be revolutionary. But this may not be just wishful thinking. Neuroscientists are making incredible breakthroughs in understanding the actions of serotonin. So who knows?
Who knows, indeed? Are we ready for happy pills, if we don't have them already? How about genetically engineering the entire species to float through life on a cloud of glee? And while we're tinkering with the genome, we can eliminate the molecular causes of senescence so that we live forever -- or at least until we go bonkers with the burden of endless bliss.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hanging on


I change the desktop image on my laptop every now and then, generally when I come across a new image I like. In the last year or so you'll remember that I wrote about Caravaggio's The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt and Vermeer's The Milkmaid. Live with an image for a while and it's inevitable that you learn something from it.

Here is the painting I've had as my desktop in recent weeks, Winslow Homer's Snap the Whip, 1872, one of America's sentimental favorites. Click to enlarge.

A simpler, more innocent time. Boys at recess, barefoot in the grass. Hand-me-down clothes. Autumn wildflowers, trees turning to red and gold. A fumbling Ulysses S. Grant is in the White House, the country is at peace after a horrendous civil war, and the Panic of 1873 and subsequent depression is still in the offing. Anyway, all of that political and economic stuff is a bit of a pother and far away. The sun is high in the sky, there's an apple in the pocket, and only the oldest boy is thinking yet about the eternal mystery that is girls.

Yes, a lovely sentimental anecdote to the busy rancor of our own time, the incessant noise of the television, the attack ads, the news of war. How blissful to be twelve years old again, fit and healthy with the grass between your toes. Never mind that these boys had a life expectancy at birth of about 40 years, and that many of them had probably already lost a sibling or parent; when the sun's out, and it's recess, and you've got eight pals to play with…

But that's not why I like the painting. I love the way the arc of the whip reflects the curve of the hill. The vanishing point of the red schoolhouse and three white shirts -- everything converges on the two adults in the distance, the grown-up world that inevitably awaits.

Between the three boys who anchor the whip and the six who resist the centrifugal force that breaks the chain is the schoolhouse, the open door and window bracketing the anchor's grip. Maybe it's because I was a teacher all my life, but I like to think that the "message" of the painting has to do with education, with what goes on when the boys and girls are called back inside by the teacher's bell -- the glue that holds a civil society together when the whiplash of events threatens to tear us apart. Not indoctrination. Rather, reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, the basic skills that enable an individual to explore the world creatively. History, geography and science, with their lessons of diversity, tolerance and respect for empirical fact. The ameliorating influence of poetry and art.

And one of these boys, maybe the oldest in the center, will become a teacher himself, maintaining an unbroken chain of accumulated knowledge that anchors us to the past and propels us together into a mutually supportive and secure future.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Natural and artificial

I was out again the other day with Professor Mooney's environmental ethics class. We sat on the plank bridge over Queset Brook and I expounded on the environmental philosophy of Frederick Law Olmsted, the American landscape architect who designed the landscape we were sitting in (a former private estate, now in the care of the Easton Natural Resources Trust), as well as major parks in an astonishing number of cities in the U. S. and Canada.

Not a wilderness, untouched by human hands. Not a synthetic techno-utopia. But, yes, some measure of artifice. Landscape as a work of art, on a natural canvas, using (as much as possible) natural materials. Landscape that fulfills some human yearning for spiritual nourishment, in the same way that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, say, or the soaring stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle, evokes what is best within the human soul.


For example, Olmsted created the miracle that is Central Park in New York City, the living, breathing heart and lung of that almost totally synthetic metropolis. To the students on the bridge I proposed that it will be incumbent upon future generations to apply the Olmstedian ethic to the entire surface of the planet. Yes, the planet as a canvas for human art.

Needless to say, there was some push-back. Reverence for wilderness is lodged deep in the American psyche. The students are deeply distrustful, and rightly so, of human willingness to put art before greed. They see a natural environment going to hell in a handbasket and imagine the day when the entire surface of the planet is a polluted wasteland. Get out of the way, they say, and let nature be.

Ah, if it were only possible.

There are 7 billion of us and the population will continue to grow for at least another 50 years. Only ten thousand years ago, humans, their livestock, and their pets accounted for less that one percent of animal biomass by weight; today they account for 98 percent. It is too late to get out of the way. For better or worse, the planet will be a human artifact. And if it is to be an artifact, let it at least be artful. Let it be a work of art that integrates human and non-human nature in a way that respects our species' evolutionary oneness with earth, air, water, flora and fauna.

Possible? Who knows? But it is the best we can hope for. Olmsted believed it was possible, and left us with a legacy of the artful integration of natural and artificial that can be our inspiration for the future.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sci-fa redux

Barry linked us the other day to an article in the Boston Phoenix about Brown University biologist Ken Miller. Miller has distinguished himself as an advocate for keeping creationism and intelligent design out of our public school science curricula. He is also a committed Roman Catholic who experiences no incompatibility between science and his faith.

I have never met Miller, although we have exchanged a couple of e-mails. I've read and enjoyed most of what he has written on science and faith. He is certainly a far better scientist than I ever was, and he writes well to boot. We share a Catholic background, and the early influence of Thomas Merton.

We have ended up on opposite sides of the church door.

I have many friends and colleagues who, like Miller, are good scientists and professed Catholics. I have often fantasized pursuing the following sort of interrogation.

I'd start with a question like this: In 1950, Pope Pius XII infallibly proclaimed in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Here are the key sentences in this much longer document:
We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.
Do you believe (I would ask) that the very atoms of Mary's body are somewhere other than the dust of the Holy Land, fully intact, as the dogma would seem to require?

If the answer is yes, then that's the end of the conversation. Further discussion will get us nowhere. Let's go have a beer.

If the answer is, "Uh, no? You have to understand the dogma in the context of its time. It's symbolic. Metaphoric. Etc.", then I would want to proceed through the doctrines of the Church, searching for the place where "metaphor" becomes "literalness." The Virgin Birth? The multiplication of the loaves and fishes? The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead? His identity with the creator of the universe? Personal immortality? The resurrection of the bodies of the faithful? Answered prayers? And so on.

Having found a boundary between metaphor and presumed fact, I would want to know why one believes literally in some of the story and not all of it, since there is zero reliable evidence for any of it, and I'd want to know why the miracles of the Catholic faith are more to be believed than the miracles of Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, or, for that matter, astrology, homeopathy, or intelligent design.

If we get to the end of the story and it's all metaphor, then I would whip out Ockham's Razor and wonder what's the point. We are really then not so far apart -- the "it's-all-a-metaphor" communicant and I -- with only a door of archaic myth between us. And the conversation comes to an end.

A myth is as good as a smile, I say. Let's go have that beer.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Medicine bag


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

Saturday, October 16, 2010

To each his own

Since I wrote about Elizabeth Mayer's book Extraordinary Knowing a few weeks ago I've been engaged in several discussions about the possibility, or even likelihood, that so-called paranormal phenomena might be real -- ESP, remote viewing, communication with the dead, astrology, divinely answered prayers, miracles, and so on, all of which I have in one place or the other dismissed as-- ah, bunk.

Isn't it presumptuous of science to diss what it doesn't understand? say my critics. Elizabeth Mayer says as much in her book when she quotes Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Someone once quoted the same to the philosopher W. V. O. Quine. To which Quine is said to have replied, "Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than there are in heaven and earth."

Quine, of course, is applying one of the oldest and most reliable tools of rational knowing, Ockham's Razor: Don't multiply explanations needlessly. If a paranormal phenomenon can be reasonably explained as some combination of coincidence, intuition, wishful thinking, the placebo effect, fraud, and so on, then let's dismiss it and get on to phenomena for which we can find reproducible evidence.

This does not mean, of course, that what we presently understand in science is the be all and end all of knowing. There may be whole continents of knowledge yet to be discovered and explored.

Books like Mayer's -- and there are thousands of them -- argue, on the one hand, that paranormal phenomena by their very nature elude the methodologies of science, and then go on to amass what the authors purport to be scientific evidence -- a curious disconnect to say the least. I would quote the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein: "So can there be good evidence for nonscientific propositions? No. Because the minute there is good evidence, it becomes science."

So it all comes down to evidence. Reproducible, non-anecdotal evidence that can be amassed by believers and skeptics alike.

I choose to live within the paradigms of a way of knowing that has proven stunningly successful -- scientific naturalism hedged with Ockham's Razor. Others, the great majority of humans, happily inhabit supernaturalist and paranormal paradigms for which reproducible evidence is in woefully short supply.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A certain slant of light


These are the mornings I like best, sitting in my quiet corner of the College Commons, laptop open, coffee at hand. Late October. Sunlight falling aslant on leaves of red and gold, setting them aflame.

Sunlight. Fusion at the Sun's core. Matter turned into energy. Two million years for the energy to bubble up to the solar surface, then eight minutes to speed across 93 million miles of space to fall upon the Earth.

In summer, about a millionth of an ounce of the Sun's depleted mass (multiplied by the speed of light squared) falls each second onto our college campus. In winter less than half as much. A fraction of a millionth of an ounce of matter, turned into energy in the roiling furnace of the Sun's core, tips the balance of the season from summer to winter.

And now the light comes slanting in, burning in the foliage. In a few week's time the limbs of the trees will be bare, and my corner of the Commons locked in a pale and lifeless monochrome.

Winter light. I think of Emily Dickinson's "certain slant of light/ On winter afternoons,/ That oppresses, like the weight/ Of cathedral tunes." Which in turn makes me think of Ingmar's Bergman's film Winter Light, and Tomas, the country parson, struggling with God's silence, torn between an absent deity he wants to believe in and a present love he cannot will himself to accept. As the film ends, the service begins in the almost empty church. The organ lifts its weary tune and Tomas turns from the altar to the empty pews and hopelessly intones, "Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty. All the earth is full of his glory…"

A fraction of a millionth of an ounce of matter. Kindling radiance outside the window, filling the Earth with glory.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The flowering of mind

In my mother's library when I was growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, were two book that had a telling influence on my life: The Flowering of New England: 1815-1865 and New England, Indian Summer: 1865-1914, by Van Wyck Brooks. The books, published in 1937 and 1940, respectively, no doubt came into our house as monthly selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The first was a Pulitzer Prizewinner. Together, they traced a century of New England's literary and cultural history.

I can't say that I read the books. I can't say that I read any books other than the Hardy Boys and Red Randall. But I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor by the bookcase dipping and browsing. The two Brooks books entered my bloodstream by osmosis. That must be true, because when I pull them off the college library shelf today everything about them is familiar: the spines, the covers, the title page, the chapter headings, even paragraphs of text. Sixty years later!

New England, of course, loomed large in the myths of the nation's beginning which every American child learned in school. The Mayflower. Plymouth Rock. The First Thanksgiving. "Speak for yourself, John Alden." Sam and John Adams. Paul Revere. The rude bridge that arched the flood. "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes."

Of course, we heard nothing of the dark side of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies. The European diseases that almost obliterated the native American population before Miles Standish and company ever stepped ashore. The mutual atrocities of King Phillip's War. The utter certainty of the Puritans that God meant them to inherit a land that had long been inhabited by others. The grim and unforgiving tenor of Puritan religion, with its affection for the stocks and the lash.

But none of that is what I found in Van Wyck Brooks. By the 19th century Cotton Mather had given way to William Ellery Channing, and a gloomy Calvinism was replaced by a more life-affirming Unitarianism. Thoreau, Hawthorn and Emerson were the new secular saints. Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, and Alcott were spinning out a brand of sentimental literature perfectly suited for the great American experiment in public education (including long poems my mother had memorized word for word).

The New England I absorbed there on the floor by the bookcase was as cool and detached as the waters of Walden Pond. Not even the horrors of the Civil War seemingly disturbed the intellectual civility of 19th-century Boston and environs, where a young Emerson would take a copy of Pascal's Pensees to church to read during the sermon. Channing exhorted his congregants: "We want great minds to be formed among us. We want the human intellect to do its utmost here."

Van Wyck Brook's summed up the age and place: "Mind, mind required all one's care!" It was inevitable, I suppose, that I would end up in the environs of Boston, as much a product of New England Emersonian Transcendentalism and Thoreauvian Naturalism as of Chattanooga Catholicism.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Credo

In some posts a week or two ago I called myself a "religious naturalist." I've been asked: What does that mean?

Most readers here will know, but for those who asked, here, briefly, is the answer.

"Religious" in the sense that I stand with awe and attentiveness in the face of an intuited mystery that soaks every jot and tittle of the world. The extent to which that intuition comes from within or without remains to be explicated, but is irrelevant.

"Naturalist" in that I see no point in invoking the concept of the supernatural. The world of matter and energy seems adequate to account for every aspect of my experience. I see no evidence of miracles.

But -- the theist will reply -- where did the world of matter and energy come from? Why are the laws of matter and energy what they are? What is beyond space and time?

The honest answer: I don't know. Giving the unknown a name adds precisely nothing to our knowledge.

On other occasions I have referred to myself as a "Catholic agnostic."

"Catholic" in the circumstances of my birth, upbringing and education, all of which has left an inevitable residue. I have, of course, rejected the paternalism, triumphalism, misogyny, homophobia, Jansenistic moral theology, and miracle mongering of the Church. Rejected, too, creed and dogma that is medieval at best.

But I see no compelling reason to shed a Catholic sacramental attitude towards nature, allowing visible things to act as conduits for the intuited mystery. And no reason to dismiss out-of-hand a creation-centered mystical tradition exemplified by such worthies as Meister Eckhart and Teilhard de Chardin. That is to say, I feel no need to shed that which does not conflict with an unflinching naturalism.

"Agnostic" in that when faced with the biggest questions humans can ask -- Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the "meaning" of it all? -- I prefer silence to speech, believing that "the- -ology" is an oxymoron. Whatever is the referent for our word "God," if anything at all, hides -- as the great mystics have always intuited -- in impenetrable mystery.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Maters of life and death


For the past few days I've have passed this poor bedraggled creature on the sidewalk. I cannot help but think of that essay in Lewis Thomas' The Lives of a Cell called "Death In the Open." How rare it is, he writes, to see a dead wild animal. He mentions squirrels in particular. They teem in his backyard, he says, all year long, but he has never seen, anywhere, a dead squirrel.
It is always a queer shock, part a sudden upwelling of grief, part unaccountable amazement. It is simply astounding to see a dead animal on the highway. The outrage is more than the just the location. It is the impropriety of such visible death, anywhere. You do not expect to see dead animals in the open. It is the nature of animals to die alone, off somewhere, hidden. It is wrong to see them lying out on the highway, it is wrong to see them anywhere.
Yet here he is, asleep in his own shadow, a reminder -- as if any were necessary -- that all things die. Everything that comes alive, writes Thomas, seems to be in trade for something that dies. There might be some comfort, he says, in recognizing that "we all go down together, in the best of company."

What is life? The great 19th-century French physiologist Claude Bernard famously (and paradoxically) said "Life is death." He seems to have meant more or less what Thomas said, that everything alive is in trade for something that dies. An even earlier French physiologist, Marie Francois Xavier Bichat, sometimes called the father of modern pathology and histology, gave it a different spin: "Life is the totality of the death-resisting functions."

Two centuries have passed since Bichat's death at age thirty-one, and we are not a lot closer to understanding what life is. The mechanics of the "death-resisting functions" have been marvelously explicated, but the mystery remains. The biologist Lynn Margulis, with her son Dorian Sagan, wrote a big, beautiful book called What Is Life?. Each chapter ends with the poser "So what is life?", recapitulating the chapter. We get some lovely science, and some lovely writing, but the enigma remains, unless their "Life is evolutionary exuberance" satisfies.

Whatever life is, we recognize it most forcefully in its absence, as here on the sidewalk. And in its absence, we rejoice that, for the moment at least, our own bodies swell with the exuberance that animates the Earth.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Of elements and an angelic sprite


Who is this young girl, painted by the Flemish master Jan Gossart about 1530, now featured in a show "Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art? Maybe the young princess Dorothea of Denmark. Or maybe Jacqueline, daughter of Adolphe de Bourgogne, one of Gossart's patrons. Clearly, her exquisite dress suggests she belongs to a family of considerable means. And the object in her hands, too, is not something you'd find in an ordinary household. (Click to enlarge.)

It is a beautifully crafted amillary sphere, a representation of the heavens, not designed for navigation or observational astronomy, but for demonstration. The tiny sphere at the center is the Earth, The horizontal rings are the Arctic and Antarctic circles, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and the Equator. The broad, engraved band sloping down from left to right is the Ecliptic, or Zodiac, representing the path of the Sun and (approximately) the Moon and planets. With her right-hand index finger she appears to be adjusting the other, thinner oppositely sloping ring, which represents the user's horizon. It appears to be set for a latitude of about 45 degrees, the latitude of Milan, say, rather than northern Europe.

How old is she? Looks about the age of my granddaughter Kate -- ten or eleven, maybe. Perhaps she has been given the armillary sphere as a birthday gift. She would be about the age a young royal of her time might begin instruction in astronomy, which was an integral part of the late medieval and early Renaissance curriculum. I can't imagine a child of her age today having a clue about tropics and ecliptic.

For the artist, the sphere is probably just a prop. The heavenly orbs and circles are echoed in the large pearl at the girl's breast, the drooping chain, the design on her sleeves and cap, even her round pre-adolescent face and eyes. What we have here is the macrocosm and the microcosm -- the cosmos and the human self -- between which Europeans of her time saw multiple correspondences. "I am a little world made cunningly," wrote John Donne, and he meant it literally. Every part of the human body had a correlate in the sky; the stars and planets ruled human affairs. There was ample reason for an educated person or the 16th century to understand things that today we pretty much leave to professional astronomers.

We no longer believe in the correspondences or astrological influence. But we are as much as always children of the stars. Our atoms were forged in stars. Our planet was whirled out of celestial dust. There is no way to understand ourselves without understanding where we came from. Reason enough for children today to learn astronomy.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Vitalism


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Silence on Blasket Sound


I spoke yesterday about my long and unrequited love affair with silence. Like a crush from afar on a woman who doesn't know you exist. An achy-breaky sort of Hank-Williams pining.

That's why I suppose I've always had a weak spot for minimalist art. A Mark Rothko, for example, seems to me like a door into that locked room where silence waits. And so it is that I find myself standing in a state of limerence in front of works by Sand T now on display in the college's gallery.

Born in Maylasia, Sand T was educated and has her studio in the U.S. Her current works are executed in epoxy resin, graphite, and paint on clayboard. From a distance, all of the works in the show look like shiny blank squares of solid black or white. Closer, you see draftsmanlike geometrical drawings and bubbles of clear epoxy that change in the light with every movement of the viewer's body.

If I may continue my theme, they are like windows looking in on silence.

More -- much more -- to my liking are the works of my friend Maria Simonds-Gooding, one of Ireland's most respected artists, who lives and has her studio not far from our home in the west of Ireland. Since I met her decades ago her work has become ever simpler in line, but -- to my mind -- ever more evocative of the silent landscapes that are her primary inspiration.

We own, or have given to our kids, a number of Maria's prints. Guests to our house will sometimes stand bewildered in front of a Simonds-Gooding wondering why we have these few lines and washes of pigment on our wall. The same print will send shivers up my spine.

Consider the plasterworks here. To appreciate them you really should see them full-sized, with their rich surface textures apparent. What to say? Absolutely nothing. The only appropriate response is silence. An achy-breaky silence. The silence of the Irish Atlantic landscape, marked as it is with the scratches of innumerable hard-scrabble generations.

Maria has stripped away the clutter and noise of modernity to reveal the substrate of silence which is and always has been the source of our spiritual longing, or, at the very least, the spiritual longing of the silent, forgotten men and women who hoed the soil, piled the stones, and coaxed a meager sustenance from a flinty land, and who worshipped gods who withheld in their divine aloofness even a whisper of recognition.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Silence

A gray, drizzily day. As I take my place in a quiet corner of the college Commons it is still dark. I open my laptop and there on the screen is the poem I was reading yesterday afternoon in the library, as I closed my laptop for the day: Silence, by Billy Collins.

These lines particularly resonate:
And there is the silence of this morning
Which I have broken with my pen,
A silence that had piled up all night

Like snow falling in the darkness of the house --
The silence before I wrote a word
And the poorer silence now.
When I was a young man I read a little book by the Swiss/German Roman Catholic convert Max Picard called The World of Silence. He said: "Poetry comes out of silence and yearns for silence. Like man himself, it travels from one silence to another."

I put my fingers to the keyboard. I break the silence that has been storing up all night in wakefulness and dream. Why? Why break so dear a thing?

Because we are human. To be human is to speak. Speech defines our humanness.

Certain orders of monks and nuns vow themselves to silence, but not unbroken silence. They bind themselves to an absence of chatter so that when they gather to sing the Divine Office their poetry will arch from silence to silence like the vault of their chapel.

The first of my books that could be said to be "poetic" was The Soul of the Night. The first chapter is called "Silence." It's about the moral silence of the universe, the great over-arching silence of the stars. If there is something in this universe that might be called God, it does not make a noise of sounding brass or Joshua's trumpets at Jericho. It hides in absolute and utter silence.

Silence has crept through everything I have written since, like a cat in a busy house. I recognize the irony of using speech to extol silence, but there it sits, on little cat feet, on silent haunches, demanding attention, and utterly, absolutely oblivious to whatever attention is paid.

Poetry -- music, art, science, creativity of any sort -- is the homage we pay to silence. When creativity becomes untethered from silence it is mere noise. Noise is silence in shards.

So it is with a certain sense of caution, humility, that I put fingers to the keyboard -- as the wet pines outside the window begin to glow with a mellow golden light -- knowing that silence deserves whatever gifts I might bring to the altar, but always aware that the gifts are unworthy of the thing itself.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

What is God? -- Part 3

According to John Haught, religion is the scratch we invent for the itch of depth, future, freedom, beauty, and truth (my metaphor). And, he says, God is mystery. Not the mystery of the gaps in our knowledge, but of knowledge itself.

So far, his formulation is an adequate preamble for religious naturalism or for his own Catholicism. And, in my opinion, a fine foundation for a religious studies curriculum.

But there is one thing I left out of my summary of his book, and it’s the thing that takes us in different directions.

In his last pages, Haught suggests that there are only two major "truths" that a genuine religious sense requires. The first is that our lives are embraced by mystery -- and on that we agree.

The second truth is that the mystery is "gracious."

In this, Haught makes a leap of faith.

There is not much to suggest that the universe is gracious. Beautiful and terrible, yes. Light and dark. Silence and din. But gracious?

Were the Mycobacterium tuberculosis pathogens that (likely) killed Darwin's beloved daughter Annie gracious?

Haught is gracious (even to the New Atheists). The folks who comment on this blog are gracious. But the universe? No so much so.

Graciousness is an emergent human quality, like love, or justice. To say that God is gracious is like saying he is just, or of the male gender, or stands on a mountaintop hurling thunderbolts.

Haught knows that "our images of a personal God always have a projective aspect," but he uses them anyway. Of course, without metaphorical language we can't speak of God at all, and as a Catholic theologian Haught presumably feels it is necessary to speak -- to give the the- an -ology.

The religious naturalist prefers silence. We encounter the mystery as through a glass darkly, not in a mirror brightly. We believe that all projective language diminishes the intensity of the encounter. We forego familiarity for ache of doubt and the shiver in the spine.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

What Is God? -- Part 2

Here's what I like about John Haught's What Is God? as an introduction to religious inquiry.

It clears the deck. It doesn't start with a holy book or revelation. It looks for the divine in human experience. Haught seeks a universal intuition of the divine beyond any formalized religion or sect. What this generously offers is a place from which a student could go in any direction, filling out the story with, say, orthodox Catholic theology, or paring back into agnostism.

Note that the book is called What Is God? not Who Is God?. Haught believes that any transcendent reality that does not possess qualities such as intelligence, feeling, freedom, creativity, etc. will not adequately inspire trust or reverence in human beings. At the same time he recognizes that personality does not fully express what God is either. Perhaps Haught is trying to have his cake and eat it too, but at least he is emphasizing the inadequacy of all metaphors to express the divine. And he admits up front that, because of this, the God of believers is frustratingly elusive, so elusive as to inspire atheists with their disbelief.

Where then do we encounter the divine? Haught suggest five ways we confront the divine in our daily lives: the experiences of depth, future, freedom, beauty, and truth. I'll not comment on each of these thoughtful chapters, except to note the obvious (momentary) absence of love, but here surely are the very kinds of experience for which religions generally have sought a transcendental context.

Haught's conclusion: "To say that God is ultimately mystery is the final word in any proper thinking about the divine…And it is also necessary to evoke in us a cognitive "feeling" of the inexhaustibility we have pointed to by way of our five metaphors." By mystery he does not mean lacunae in our knowledge that can be filled in by science, but rather something that grows larger and more incomprehensible as science advances. "It is the region of the 'known unknown,' the horizon that keeps expanding and receding into the distance the more our knowledge advances." Haught ends his book by asking what justification we might have for calling this mystery "God."

And that, it seems to me, is a pretty good place to begin one's spiritual journey. There is nothing explicitly Catholic in the book, but -- hey, it's by an eminent Catholic theologian. Sounds to me like a fine text for that one required course in Catholic theology.

Of course, it's where one goes from there that matters, and I would like to think each student would then set out on his or her own intellectual adventure. Certainly, Haught and I ended up in different places, and I will comment on the difference tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

What Is God? -- Part 1

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame in 1954-58, we were required to take a theology course every semester for four years. I can't remember the names of the courses, but I assume they were similar to the required courses at Stonehill College during the same period, for which I can find a catalog description here in the college library: Apologetics I and II, Moral Principles, Christian Virtues, Christian Life and Worship I and II, Catholic Dogma, and Christian Marriage. No electives. All good orthodox doctrine taught by priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Sometime during the next decades -- the decades of Vatican II and the Counter-cultural Revolution -- all this went out the window. (John XXIII talked about opening the windows of the Church, but more went out than went in.) Theology Departments became Religious Studies Departments. Required courses were cut back to two, which could be chosen from a broad slate of electives. Catholic faculties embraced teachers from other faith traditions. Today, a student can graduate from Stonehill without ever encountering a course grounded in Catholic tradition. We now have courses in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, The Mystery of Evil, Violence and Sex in the Bible, Religion in Film, and so on. Not an apologetics course to be found. Of course, there are ample possibilities for exposure to Catholic tradition too -- if a student inclines in that direction.

Today, it seems there is a feeling among administrators and trustees that maybe liberalization has gone too far, and that a college that calls itself Catholic should at least require some sort of exposure to Catholic intellectual tradition. There has been some push-back from students and faculty, but a compromise appears to be in the works: a single required course, offered from a variety of disciplines and departments, that would "explore Catholic theological questions." Presumably these courses might treat of anything from the stories of Flannery O'Connor to matters of faith and science from a Catholic theological perspective. The college would be careful about proselytizing non-Catholic students, and the proposed requirement would not apply to any present student.

And fair enough.

Want a good Catholic place to start with the God question? How about reading John Haught's little book, What Is God?. Haught is a Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University, who has established himself as an eminent American Catholic authority on faith and science. He has been a valuable voice in keeping creationism and intelligent design out of the public schools, and takes religious fundamentalism and the "New Atheism" equally to task. What Is God? makes no mention of all that. It is, simply, in my opinion, a good place for any nominally Catholic undergraduate student, or indeed any student, to begin a religious inquiry.

I'll have more to say about the book tomorrow.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Rush to judgment

“The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That's how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.” Words by the world's richest and most popular pundit, Rush Limbaugh. (OK, I don't know that he is the richest and most popular, but he's surely the loudest.)

I will let others deal with his indictment of government, academia and media (although not here, please). Let me confine myself to science.

We live, of course, in an imperfect world. All of us in government, academia, science and media are human. All of us are afflicted, consciously or unconsciously, by varying degrees of greed, ambition, and poor judgment. We spread ourselves out across the political spectrum from liberal to conservative. And most of us, I would argue, are motivated more by sincerity than deceit.

A democracy only works when we give our fellow citizens -- of all ideological stripes -- the presumption of virtue.

So does science exist "by virtue of deceit"? What can the man be talking about?

Evolution -- or "Darwinism," as the Creationists call it? Oh, come on, Rush. Are you really suggesting that virtually every important biologist in the world -- who presumably know a bit more about these things than you or I do -- is motivated by deceit?

Maybe it's those embarrassing climate-change e-mails hacked from the computer server at a British university? Stupid and tactless, yes. But the brouhaha prompted a self-study on the integrity of the data that left standing the majority consensus among scientists that anthropogenic global warming is a credible threat. The debate will continue, within and without the scientific establishment. My daughter, a paleoclimatologist, is part of the debate. She spends all her time immersed in the data. I've detected no impulse to deceive.

Is science perfect? Of course not. It is made up of humans. But since the 17th century it has striven mightily to create protocols to minimize the effect of human idiosyncrasies, including deceit: reproducibility, double-blind experiments, peer review, quantification, and so on. Is there occasional fraud? Yes. Which is why all important work requires replication. If Rush has a better way of conducting affairs, let's hear it.

In the meantime, Mr. Limbaugh, cut your fellow American's some slack. It is hardly possible to have civil discourse when one believes everyone but himself is part of a deceitful conspiracy.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Lambs


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday musing. (I used David Bohm's text in quantum mechanics at UCLA.)

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The view

Tom made me aware that a Google Street View camera car has been to Ventry, the little village in the west of Ireland where I spend my summers. Not only to the village itself, which lies on a fairly well-traveled tourist road. The camera car found its way to our one-lane bothareen ("little road"), up on the hill overlooking the village. And every other by-way too.

Go to a place in front of our cottage -- that's it peeking over the brush at the top of the driveway -- and do a 360 with the camera. If Google has been to Ventry, it must have already visited most of Ireland, and a 360 view is available from every place along every one of those roads. And if Google has been to Ireland, you can be sure that a camera car has been to most other places in -- well, you tell me.

All of these views are stored as strings of ones and zeros on a server in (I'm presuming) California, available free for instant viewing by anyone in the world with a computer and access to the internet. The quantity of data stored, along with its indexing, must be mind-boggling. If you can find our little cottage nestled among the bramble, what can't you see?

It's a mystery to me how Google Earth+Street View pays for itself. I've used it for hours without ever contributing a penny. For example, I've been reading The River Congo: The Discovery, Exploration, and Exploitation of the World's Most Dramatic River, by Peter Forbath. I was able to go to Google Earth and follow the river from its source to its mouth, tracing from on high the routes of the 18th and 19th-century European explorers I was reading about -- and the unfolding tragedy to Africans. As far as I know, a camera car has not yet prowled the streets of Kinshasa, but that can only be a matter of time.

Anyway, go for a virtual visit to our nearby town of Dingle. I'll meet you here at the Holyground for a virtual pint.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The powers of the human mind -- to transcend the ordinary

A friend and colleague, who is favorably predisposed to the anomalous and paranormal, suggested I read Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind, by Elizabeth Mayer, who unfortunately died just after completing the book.

If you are a fan of ESP, remote viewing, channeling, body auras, intercessory prayer, and so on, this is your book. If you've been impressed by works by Larry Dossey, Rupert Sheldrake, John Mack, Deepak Chopra, and so on, this will be your cup of tea.

Mayer comes across as a sincere, well-meaning investigator of the paranormal. But if you have a healthy regard for reproducible, non-anecdotal evidence, you won't find much of it here.

I have no desire to debunk a book whose author is no longer with us. And I am open to the idea that there may be much more to reality than we presently understand; in fact, I would say it’s a virtual certainity. So let me only say a few words about the title of Mayer's book, Extraordinary Knowing.

It seems to me that the author is actually making a case for ordinary knowing, if "ordinary" means commonplace. She is talking about the kind of knowing that has characterized most of human history, and is still dominant. Shamanism. Witchcraft. Voodoo. Intercessory prayer. Communication with the dead. Fortune telling. Clairvoyancy. Astrology. Magic. The presumed power of the human mind to directly control inanimate nature. The kind of knowing that Mayer is so keen to document is as commonplace as commonplace gets. As commonplace as the tabloid newspapers at the checkout counter of the supermarket.

You want extraordinary knowing, try science.

Try the science that for all of its missteps and occasional lapses gave us the universe of the DNA and the galaxies. Try the science that sequenced the human genome and mapped the radiation of the Big Bang. Try the science that gave us conventional modern medicine, the electricity grid, computers and the internet. Try the science that is deeply skeptical of the anomalous phenomena that Mayer describes.

I find more extraordinary knowing in any weekly issue of Science or Nature than in a bookstore full of best-sellers on the paranormal.