Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sic et non -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in 2008. More reflections on The Swerve next week.)

Legend has it that Peter Abelard's last words were "I don't know."

We know Abelard, of course, for his ill-fated love affair with the brilliant and strong-willed Heloise. Even today their purported burial site in Paris is a place of pilgrimage for lovers. But it is as a charismatic teacher and provocative thinker that Abelard was best known in his own time. He was not adverse to challenging the smug certainties of the ecclesiastical establishment, and his rambunctious young students cheered him on. Systematically applied doubt was his "master key to wisdom," clearly a challenge to those who felt they held the exclusive keys to truth. Eventually Abelard stirred the wrath of that other great charismatic of his time, Bernard of Clairvaux. Their epic confrontation in 1121 can be taken as a classic expression of a dichotomy that still resonates in our culture, and sometimes in the comments on this blog: "God did it" versus "I don't know.

Where did the primal seed of the big bang come from? How did life begin? How did monarch butterflies evolve the ability to navigate to their winter home? God did it, says the believer. I don't know, says the agnostic. The two statements have exactly the same explanatory value. Zero.

Why then opt for one rather than the other? The first provides an illusion of understanding, and reinforces the ancient belief in a personal divinity who attends to our individual lives. The second is a goad to curiosity, and leaves open the possibility of greater future understanding. Which path we pick may reflect an innate preference for security or risk.

Bernard and Abelard both understood God as mystery. Bernard believed God has revealed himself once and for all in the deposit of faith. Abelard believed the goal of life is to seek a God who is and remains hidden. The controversy, for all of its theological nitpicking, came down to a matter of temperament. Bernard liked answers. Abelard liked questions.

Friday, December 30, 2011


It seems a simple, innocuous, almost obvious statement: The point of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It was a goal enunciated by Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) and reiterated in On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (in the first century B.C.E).

What could be more obvious?

Yet it wasn't obvious in the Christian West. The philosophy of Epicurus was libeled as a license for debauchery and dissolution, a sure-fire road to eternal punishment. To be an "Epicurean" was to surrender to the most base of human desires, to wallow in wanton depravity.

Of course, Epicurus (and Lucretius) proposed no such thing. Happiness is to be found in peace and moderation. Yes, the pleasures of life are to be enjoyed -- food, drink, sex, the beautiful gifts of the Earth -- but as a temperate balm. Self-indulgence is a recipe for discontent.

Seek pleasure and avoid pain. It was the antithesis of the teaching of the Roman Church (and post-Reformation Christian churches). We are called to mortify the body, a body made corrupt by the sin of Adam. We expect pain as the price of eternal life. Whatever pleasure is ours will be found beyond the grave.

This description may sound extreme, perhaps even unfair, but as Greenblatt makes clear, it was the order of the day at the time Lucretius' book was recovered in the 15th century, and it was still the order of the day as I was growing up a young Catholic in the 1940s and 50s.

Even the most harmless and readily available pleasures, such as masturbation, might deserve eternal damnation. Self-denial was a virtue, fasting and penance the rule. The epitome of goodness was to give up one's dearest pleasures during Lent, in sympathy with the suffering Christ. We were taught to admire as models of sanctity men and women who wore hairshirts and lashed themselves with nettles. Martyrs who died the most agonizing deaths were at God's right hand. Whatever discomforts or pains we lesser mortals felt were to be offered up for the poor souls in purgatory. God was pleased by our suffering. Thus we showed Him our love.

Seek pleasure and avoid pain. A subversive philosophy, distracting our attention from the only thing that mattered -- eternal life with the Beatific Vision. How much of this rubbed off on a kid is hard to say, but it was adequate preparation for the university student's intellectual encounter with the darker undercurrents of European Catholicism in the late 1950s.

(More on Monday.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Standing alone

Ah, yes. The swerve. How the world became modern.

It was inevitable that I would like this book. It is, after all, pretty much the story of how I became modern.

That is to say, Stephen Greenblatt's account of how the 15th-century recovery of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura accelerated Europe's progress from a world obsessed with supernaturalism and the afterlife into Enlightenment naturalism and empirical science recapitulates my own journey as a young man along the same road -- a journey in which the reading of Lucretius' poem played a part.

The Swerve is not only a fine work of history. It is also a powerful argument for the transformation it traces -- from fear and intolerance to liberalism and wonder.

Wonder? Oh, yes. Greenblatt writes: "More surprising, perhaps, is the sense, driven home on every page of On the Nature of Things, that the scientific vision of the world -- a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe -- was in its origins imbued with a poet's sense of wonder. Wonder did not depend on gods and demons and the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else." The world of Lucretius is in motion and constant change, forever bringing forth new forms. It is not rendered insignificant by its transience -- by its erotic energy -- but made more beautiful.

"A glorious affirmation of vitality," says Greenblatt.

Lucretius' naturalistic vision of the world -- a world without gods and demons, without immortal souls -- has implications for how we live our lives. Finding ourselves alone in a majestic universe, we must learn to stand on our own two feet and accept our brief existence for what it is, says Lucretius. We must cultivate virtues of self-reliance, curiosity, skepticism, peacefulness, and tolerance. Seek pleasure and avoid pain, as best we can, tempering our appetites with moderation. Enjoy in our own lives the erotic energy that flows through the universe, the kind of eroticism one sees flowing, for example, through Sandro Bottecelli's beautifully temperate Primavera.

These ideas, which Lucretius took from Epicurus, stand in stark contrast -- as Greenblatt amply demonstrates -- to the 15th-century Christian world in which the Latin writer's great poem was recovered. They also stand in contrast to the religion of my youth, as I shall delineate over the next few days.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The teeth of time

Knowing my affection for Lucretius, daughter Margaret gave me Steven Greenblatt's Swerve: How the World Became Modern for Christmas, quite independently of my earlier comments on this blog. The book centers on the rediscovery of Lucretius' long philosophical poem On the Nature of Things in the early 15th century by Poggio Bracciolini and its reintroduction into Europe -- a vision of the world dramatically at odds with the supernaturalist Christian worldview that had reigned more or less unchallenged for centuries.

I will have much more to say about the book over the next few days, but for the moment let me focus on the chapter called "The Teeth of Time," in which Greenblatt describes the forces working against the survival of classical manuscripts, including book burnings by persons of intolerant faiths, the recycling of writing surfaces, wars, fires, and of course bookworms, a generic name for insects that feed on papyrus and parchment.

When Robert Hooke in the 17th century described the tiny insects he observed under his newly-invented microscope, he called bookworms "one of the teeth of time." Of these voracious enemies of books, I have some experience.

I've mentioned before our constant battle against termites here on the island. So far, they have left our books alone, but in the long months we are away they have helped themselves to virtually everything else. Meanwhile, my wife volunteers as assistant to the librarian at the island high school, and there books are the main course on the termites' menu.

The high school is a cluster of prefab buildings set on the highest point of the island, with spectacular views to the sea on both sides. The termites have no interest in the view; they live their glutinous lives in the dark, chewing up the lifeworks of writers like me. Each winter when my wife arrives, bug-ridden books go out in the trash. I'm kept busy ripping out and replacing shelving that has been reduced to powder. The "teeth of time," indeed.

Given the long neglect of "pagan" authors during the Christian era -- all those papyri and parchments left moldering in uncared-for piles, is it any wonder that so little of the Greek and Roman authors survived, and of those that did only as hand-written copies of the ancient books.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Star light, star bright

A beautiful gathering of the crescent Moon and Venus last evening reminds me that it's time to curl up with Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar 2012 and anticipate my year of stargazing.

Two solar eclipses, one annular (May 20-21), one total (November 13-14), but both expending themselves mostly over the waters of the Pacific. Not on my agenda.

Not much for lunar eclipses, one partial, one penumbral, also mostly Pacific and East Asian events.

There is an historic transit of Venus in early June, when the planet moves across the face of the Sun, a first since 2004. Before that, the last transit was in 1882, and the next will be in 2117. A pair of transits in a lifetime. Alas, this is also mostly a Pacific event.

No prominent occultations for parts of the world where I'll be residing.

So, all in all, a fairly ho-hum year.

Did I say "ho-hum"? No, never. Every night can offer some special moment of beauty.

Venus and Jupiter will be doing a lovely dance together during the first part of the year. Mid-March, especially, will be notable here in Exuma with our glorious view of the western sky.

I'll be in Ireland in August when Mars, Saturn and Spica make a tight gathering in the west at sunset, joined on August 21 by a slim crescent Moon.

Some stunning Moon-planet conjunctions, exquisitely thin new and old Moons, meteor showers. An almanac of wonders.

Monday, December 26, 2011


Let me posit a difference between religion and science.

Religion: Future>Present>Past

Science: Past>Present>Future.

Let me explain.

Religion, as it has traditionally been understood in its institutional guise, begins with the dream of a comforting future. An escape from the apparently inescapable reality of death.

Which impacts our daily lives in the present. Determines, for example, codes of morality, inspires great deeds of goodness or mayhem. Mandates rites and rituals.

Appease the gods and live forever.

Which requires a story to satisfy the human need for context. So we look to past reports of foundational miracles. Christ rising from the dead. Muhammad's night flight to Jerusalem. Joseph Smith's encounter with the angel Moroni.

Science, on the other hand, begins with the past. With sequences of events that appear to be causally related. The causal connection is affirmed or refuted by experiment. If such-and-such occurred in certain circumstances in the past, does it also occur in the present?

We devise quantitative "laws of nature" that express our consistent experience with the past.

Which can be extrapolated to predict probable futures.

Stephen Jay Gould called religion and science "non-overlapping magisteria." But they run in opposite directions in our minds. The a priori future of religion is not the same as the a posteriori future predicted by science. Nor is the a posteriori past promulgated by religion susceptible to the a priori examination of science.

The opposing intellectual streams of religion and science may be non-overlapping, but the "real" worlds they hypothesize are sharply divergent. Some folks manage to hold both worlds in their minds simultaneously. To me this smacks of cognitive dissonance. For those who can pull it off, more power to them -- as long as they don't restrict my freedom to dissent.

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Anne, Tom and I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice. Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Right down Santa Claus lane -- a reprise

(This is an abbreviated version of a Sunday musing from December 2006.)

Here's a riddle for the kids. A man leaves his house for a walk. He walks a mile due south, a mile due east, and a mile due north, and finds he is back where he started. What is the man's name?

Yes, Virginia, his name is Santa Claus. And his house is at the North Pole.

But don't go looking for him there, Virginia. Here's the cold fact: Santa Claus doesn't live at the North Pole.

I knew from a young age that there was something fishy about Santa's address. At the age of five or six I discovered that the North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. I asked my mother about this and she said that the ocean is frozen. Santa's workshop, she said, is built on the ice.

It sounded reasonable, and a little research in the geography book confirmed her story. The Arctic Ocean is indeed mostly frozen, and the ice at the North Pole is typically ten feet thick (or so said the book at the time). Thick enough to support a workshop and an army of elves.

But, alas, Virginia, it's not that simple. For one thing, the sea ice is drifting all the time, in a direction away from Siberia toward Greenland. Soviet and American scientists sometimes set up research stations on the thicker parts of the ice and go with the flow. A station might drift a thousand miles or more during its lifetime.

If Santa built his workshop on the ice at the North Pole, it wouldn't stay there. It would drift away. Next thing you know, elves, toys, reindeers and sleigh would be floating into the North Atlantic on a rapidly melting ice island.

What's that you say, Virginia? Maybe Santa's workshop is built on the floor of the sea, right smack at the North Pole? An underwater factory that Santa enters and exits by submarine?

Hmmm, a clever idea. But even that doesn't quite work. It turns out that the floor of the Arctic Ocean has a tricky way of moving around with respect to the pole.

The geographical North Pole is defined as the place where the Earth's spin axis intersects the crust. But the body of the Earth wobbles with respect to the rotation axis, something an astronomer named Chandler discovered back in 1891. No one is quite sure what causes the Chandler wobble -- probably a shift of mass in the body of the Earth, or in the oceans, or in the atmosphere. The Earth wobbles like the wheel of a car when a tire gets out of balance.

I'll grant you it's not much of a wobble, Virginia. The Earth's crust wobbles about the pole in a circle about 50 feet in diameter every 14 months. Still, if Santa had a workshop on the floor of the sea, it would wobble too.

And we won't even talk about plate tectonics.

So you see, Virginia, with all this drifting and slipping it's simply not practical for Santa Claus to locate his workshop at the geographic North Pole. Not unless he wants to mount his entire operation on a giant sleigh and continually go moving about on the ice.

And now! With global warming!

But not to worry. There is no need for Santa to take up residence at an unsteady, rapidly warming pole. He has found a firmer address.

The real North Pole, Virginia, is in your heart.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hedy Lamarr?

Sure, I remember Hedy Lamarr. I was a 13-year-old boy in 1949 when Hedy played the starring role in Cecile B. DeMille's costume blockbuster Samson and Delilah. What 13-year-old boy is going to forget Hedy Lamarr?

By that time, she had been dubbed "the most beautiful woman in the world." In 1945, Time Magazine proclaimed Hedy Lamarr as the American soldier's favorite pin-up. There was an especially sexy aura attached to Lamarr, dating from the mid-1930s, when at age seventeen she stared, with brief nudity, in a scandalous Czech film called Ecstasy.

Now, in Hedy's Folly, Richard Rhodes tells us about another side of Hedy Lamarr, which I must admit comes as a complete surprise. Hedy was a talented inventor! She came home from her days on the Hollywood set to bury herself in the inventor's room of her super-star's mansion, complete with technical books and drafting table. Among her inventions, in collaboration with the musical composer George Antheil, was a radio guidance system for jam-proof torpedoes that incorporated an idea called "frequency hopping," which in its more modern manifestation as spread-spectrum technology is the basis for everything from cell phones to GPS.

Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler, in Vienna, Austria, in 1913, the only child of a well-to-do family of assimilated Jews. From an early age she dreamed of becoming a movie star, but she also had an insatiable curiosity. Her handsome, vigorous father read her books and took her on long walks, during which he would explain how everything worked, "from printing presses to streetcars," she later explained.

At age 19, stunningly beautiful and infamous for her role in Ecstasy, she married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy, Vienna-based arms manufacture who was apparently willing to sell weapons to whoever would buy. It was a fraught, doomed marriage -- a rebellious, independent woman and a dominating, possessive man (Mandl tried to buy up every extant copy of the infamous film). But in Mandl's company she learned about armaments inside and out. "He [Mandl] had the most amazing brain," wrote Hedy later; "There was nothing he did not know."

But Hedwig Kiesler Mandl was not content to be a trophy wife. In 1937, she gathered her jewels and furs and, disguised as her maid, escaped to Paris, and eventually to Hollywood, where she was transformed by MGM into Hedy Lamarr and splashed all over the silver screen. Her inventive talents also now came to the fore. By day, she dazzled in Busby Berkeley's Ziegfeld Girl; by night, she worked on frequency-hopping. "Any girl can be glamorous," Lamarr famously said; "All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."

It took a while for the idea of frequency-hopping to mature, and not many people were aware of Lamarr's inventive accomplishments. But good things come to those who wait; in 1996, at age 82, Lamarr was awarded the Sixth Annual Pioneer Award of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

(This is an abbreviated version of my recent review in the Toronto Globe & Mail.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

More map fun

OK, OK, I was only half serious yesterday, and 2100 may be too soon, but it will happen.

A spirit of adventure. The challenge of the unknown. Scientific curiosity. A common project to unite humankind. A high-tech alternative for scientists and engineers who have hitherto made their living producing the instruments of war. Entertainment. The inspiration of young people. A hedge on our survival in case the human race becomes extinct on Earth through self- annihilation or cosmic catastrophe.

It's inevitable that sooner or later humans will colonize Mars.

Early in its history, Mars was warmer, wetter and had a denser atmosphere than it does today; except for the composition of the atmosphere, the planet was altogether more congenial for life. It can be made that way again. And the atmosphere can be terraformed too.

If my whimsical scheme for financing Martian colonization by selling real estate is implemented, I have my Martian acres all picked out. Near latitude 30 degrees south, longitude 280 degrees, on the rim of a vast circular depression called Hellas Planitia. This is one of the few lowlands in the mid-latitudes of the red planet's southern hemisphere. I figure this will become one of the first artificial seas on Mars, when the climate has been warmed sufficiently that water can exist as a liquid. If I'm calling it correctly, my great-great-great-great-grandchildren will be owners of enviable beachfront property.

Latitudes on Mars are of course defined, as on Earth, by the poles and equator (the axis of rotation). But what determines the prime meridian -- the Martian Greenwich? I know, Tom. Do you?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Speaking of maps

If cost were no object, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that by the end of the 21st century, prospering self-supporting colonies might exist on Mars.

They will perhaps have modified the atmosphere to make it compatible with terrestrial flora and fauna, and have warmed the planet sufficiently so that subsurface frozen water will be flowing as liquid and falling as rain. The terraforming of the planet will likely involve bioengineered microbes, as agents of change and sustainers of the new Martian biosphere.

But how to pay for it?

With tongue only half in cheek, let me suggest that we take a page from the opening of the American west.

To encourage the building of transcontinental railroads, federal and state governments gave away huge tracts of land. Six square miles of land was typically granted to the railroad companies for every mile of track that was laid. The companies parlayed free land into big profits.

In the years 1850 to 1871, the federal government passed out more than 130 million acres, or more than the combined areas of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Before the coming of the railroads, the government could hardly give away the western lands. In the wake of the railroads, federal land became immensely valuable.

So here's the deal. By a treaty involving all spacefaring nations of Earth, ownership of Mars will be claimed in the name of humanity, then sold to finance exploration and colonization of the red planet. To be sure, this would be a very long term investment, but if the price were right, irresistible.

Land thought to have substantial subsurface water or mineral resources will be auctioned to the highest bidders, most likely multinational investment consortiums. The surface of Mars is roughly 36 billion acres, approximately the same as the land area of Earth. If, say, a tenth of that were sold at an average of $10 per acre, a Martian exploration program could be well under way.

Broad areas of lowlands will be reserved for future seas. And large tracts of land will be held in trust for future public parks, including such natural wonders as the Olympus Mons and Tharsis Montes volcano complex and the Coprates Chasma canyonlands. Also historic sites such as the landing places of the early Martian probes. As the adventure proceeds, more land will be offered for sale. As the first colonies are established -- say by the year 2050 -- property values will appreciate, especially near settlements. By the end of the 21st century, Martian colonies should be economically independent of the home planet.

And what about small investors, like you and me, the sort of folks who bought sight-unseen tracts of Florida swampland early in the last century? I have my Martian plot picked out. I'll tell you where tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mapheads on State Line Road

Tom gave me for Christmas Ken Jennings' new book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. Ken Jennings is the guy who ruled on Jeopardy for six months, the unbeatable trivial master. He has been a map wonk since childhood. I've been a map wonk since childhood. Tom has been a map wonk since childhood. Tom knew I'd like the book.

I wrote here recently about Treasure Island, the first real book I ever read. The map of the island stands out in my memory as an epiphany. Maps were invitations to other worlds, real and imagined.

I once also blogged here about the 4x8-foot topographical relief map I made for our budding family when I was in graduate school, and which son Dan restored not so many years ago. For years it hung in the dining room, and the kids grew up with map quizzes. Tom shared some of his childhood map experiences with Jennings, and the map made it onto Jennings' blog (scroll down). Thus, do map wonks communicate.

A cabinet in our living room was filled with maps, a teeming geographic jumble. Of course we subscribed to National Geographic, even when we had no money, and hoarded the maps that came with the mags. Also, hundreds of gas station maps from all over the country. Remember those? A map was almost as good as being there.

At the college where I worked, I collected maps on an even grander (and more expensive) scale. Marvelous huge geological maps from the Geological Survey, which I used in my course The Earth. Marie Tharp's brilliant map of the world's ocean floors, which I empoyed so much in the classroom it ended up being more repair tape than paper. And dozens of the plastic relief maps of the produced by the army mapping service and sold commercially by Hubbard. In class, we'd push back the desks and lay these out on the floor mosaic-wise, the eastern or western United States taking up most of the room. God, I loved those maps. It was like being an astronaut.

I could go on and on. My pilgrimages to Stanfords in London, the best map store on Earth. The Middle-earth maps that attracted me to Tolkien before almost anyone else in the States had heard of him. Being unable to read Watership Down without acquiring the relevant sheet from the UK Ordnance Survey (yes, there is a real Watership Down). Walking the Ridgeway on maps decades before I was able to do it in the flesh with Dan and Tom.

Enough, enough. And now we have Google Earth, which Tom and I use almost daily to tease our wonkishness back and forth.* Maybe the reason I don't believe in an afterlife is because I've never seen a map.

*(For example, I queried Tom: How many states can you DIRECTLY enter by moving due south from Tennessee? He correctly answered eight. You have to be something of a map wonk to include Virginia. He responded by asking: From what other state can you do the same thing? I leave this as an exercise for the reader.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Not a single sparrow falls

If you don't know this painting don't read beyond this first paragraph until you have examined it closely. Click to enlarge.

The painting is titled Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, or simply The Fall of Icarus. It was painted about 1560 and is ascribed (perhaps erroneously) to Pieter Breughel.

Icarus, of course, is the character in Greek myth, son of Daedalus, who flew with wax-attached wings too close to the sun. The wax melted and Icarus fell to his death. Yes, those are the lad's legs protruding from the sea at lower right. Funny fall, that. The sun is on the horizon, half set. A long curious arc it must have been that brought the boy to this particular place of demise.

But physics was not Breughel's subject. It is generally conceded he had something else in mind, namely the indifference of ordinary folks like you and me to the suffering of others. The boy drowns. The plowman plows. The shepherd gazes into the sky, indifferent (in this version of the painting). Even the fisherman, so near at hand, seems oblivious to the tragedy unfolding before his very eyes.

As W. H. Auden says in a poem on the painting:
…The plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
William Carlos Williams also wrote on the same theme:
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning.
The blade of the plow lays the turf cleanly over. The sheep dog sits faithfully beside his master. The sailors in the ship's rigging go about their business. A boy drowns.

This is quite different from Ovid's version of the foundational myth, which clearly inspired Brueghel.
A fisherman, who with his pliant rod
Was angling there below, caught sight of them;
And then a shepherd leaning on his staff
And, too, a peasant leaning on his plow
Saw them and were dismayed: they thought that these
Must surely be some gods, sky-voyaging.
In Brueghel, interest becomes indifference. This is, after all, Northern Europe in the 16th century, aflutter with commerce and technical innovation. We are halfway between Leonardo and Galileo. Copernicus has put the Earth into flight around the sun. Vesalius has laid the body bare. Gold and silver from new worlds west and east flow into the coffers of money managers. What is Icarus' sad demise to us? It is not just a mythical boy who is drowning; it is myth itself.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination. I'll be back tomorrow.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Commercial break

 Chet is in the a book!

Herewith, a cast of characters for the new novel featured at the right, all packed into a big house on Ninth Street in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the summer of 1944.

The widowed matriarch, Mamie Buffon, and, confined to an upstairs bedroom, her unpredictable, slightly loony bachelor brother Iggy.

Seven daughters, the oldest, repressed sexpot Wanda, with her thoroughly ignored bird-watching husband Roger, a munitions engineer with a private laboratory in the basement. They have an eleven-year-old daughter, Tootsie, who is growing up way too fast.

Sweet, responsible Button, disastrously married to unemployed Buddy, the horniest horn-toad in Chattanooga.

Emily Sue, who in spite of her mental impairment may be the sanest person in the house.

Becca and Lynette, flirtatious, jive-talkin' be-boppers, interested in nylons and servicemen on leave.

Reclusive Alma, with weird religious fixations.

And Bitsy, the pretty but ditzy youngest daughter who makes the mistake of falling hard for the totally wrong guy.

Add to this volatile mix Eva, the family's elderly black maid, and her beautiful seventeen-year-old great-granddaughter Tometta, who is filling in as maid while Eva ails.

There's a war on. A missing child. Rumors of race riots. A Miss Chattanooga contest. An escaped German POW. A canary. And the whole thing goes tumbling pell-mell towards a bizarre conclusion.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Being human

I've been thinking a lot about hands lately. Or, rather, a hand. Specifically my right hand, which has developed an annoying tremor.

I never paid much attention to my hands before. Hands pretty much operate on automatic pilot. It doesn't take a lot of conscious decision-making to scratch your nose. Or button your shirt. Hands follow the brain rather like an obedient dog trots alongside its master. But now my right hand clamors for attention like an unruly pup.

So I find myself looking at my hand with more awareness than before, and realizing more than ever what a really wonderful thing it is.

The image above is a detail from Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks, the original Louvre version. Such a versatility of hands! The Madonna's hand hovers protectively above the Infant Jesus. Jesus raises his right hand in the traditional posture of a blessing -- a blessing for the infant John the Baptist who is out of the detail's frame on the left. The angel glances at us the viewers, and directs our attention to John with pointing finger. A dramatic play of hands.

One could write a treatise on Leonardo's hands, in his paintings, in his notebooks. Perhaps it has been done. I don't know of any artist who uses hands more expressively. Leonardo's hands are as expressive of the personhood of his subjects as are the eyes -- the so-called windows of the soul-- maybe more so.
A not uncommon theme of prehistoric rock or cave art is the stenciled hand. Before there were mirrors, a person's most vivid notion of selfhood may have derived from the hand, that agile and obedient servant of self-awareness. The poet Robinson Jeffers has a poem about hands painted by a prehistoric race on a rock vault in a California canyon, "a multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men's palms." Religion, magic, the idleness of art? The hands are like a sealed message, says Jeffers, saying, "Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws."

(Detail from Leonardo's Lady With an Ermine. Tomorrow I will be in transit to the island. As usual, I have no idea what access I will have to the internet when I get there. I'll be back as soon as I can. Maybe Tom will move my Chattanooga "cast of characters" post to the fore as a place holder till I return.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The seeker and the sought

Ovid's great work, The Metamorphoses, like Lucretius's poem, begins by addressing the gods:
My soul would sing of metamorphoses.
But since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe
your breath into my book of changes; may
the song I sing be seamless as its way
weaves from the world's beginning to our day.
Like Lucretius, Ovid bites off the whole shebang, the universe and its history. But whereas Lucretius is focused on unchanging verities -- the elementary particles and laws of nature sought by modern physicists -- Ovid is interested in change itself. It is not what stays constant that obsesses Ovid, but the flux and flow of particulars. He might agree with Heraclitus: You cannot step in the same river twice.

No wonder Ovid is a more popular read than Lucretius. Lucretius talks about love and sex, for example, but only to convince us that it is all a matter of invisible "seeds." The darts of Cupid? The wiles of Venus? Forget it. "A pleasant person to be living with./ That's about all it takes," writes Lucretius, "and love depends/ On habit quite as much as the wild ways/ Of passion." Ho hum.

Ovid, on the other hand, is all about love and passion; Cupid's darts fly about his verses. His poem is a sprawling, rollicking compendium of passions, legitimate and forbidden. All it takes is a glance at some nubile maid or handsome lad to set in motion the churning wheels of the universe. Ovid's universe has hardly begun when he sends Apollo chasing the reluctant Daphne -- ""the wind laid bare her limbs; against the nymph/ it blew; her dress was fluttering; her hair/ streamed in the breeze; in flight she was more fair" -- and who then cares about eternal atoms. The only law of Ovid's Nature is desire.

Here we have it again: the general and the particular. Lucretius and Ovid. Science and art. The one a bit of a bore, perhaps, but essential for understanding how the world works, and for making possible the development of scientific medicine and technology. The other full of hot-blooded voluptuosity, a heart that is never still, passions that run unchecked. One reads Lucretius in repose, as a meditation on the still substrate of creation. One reads Ovid because we are sensual, ephemeral creatures, determined to suck dry the beauties and exhilarations of life during our four-score spins around the sun.

(My Ovid is Allen Mandelbaum's translation.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

That sweet artificer, the earth

Back in September I took note here of Stephen Greenblatt's new book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which recounts how Renaissance Europe became acquainted with Lucretius' 1st-century BCE poem De Rerum Nature, often translated The Way Things Are. I haven't read Greenblatt's book yet, mainly because it hasn't appeared on the new book shelf of the college library. But blogging about Lucretius caused me to dig out my copy of Rolfe Humphries' translation of De Rerum Natura and it's been by my bedside ever since.

Lucretius begins with a wonderful paean to nature:
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered oceans, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence -- all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.
For you that sweet artificer, the earth,
Submits her flowers, and for you the deep
Of ocean smiles, and the calm heaven shines
With shoreless light…
A prayer of thanks to the gods, Venus in particular? Oh dear, no. The poem takes pains to dismiss the actions of the gods in the affairs of humans, or indeed in the world at all. Lucretius is a fervent Epicurean materialist. Whatever exists is the result of eternal atoms moving in the void. His address to Venus is metaphorical only.

One is reminded a bit of the opening passages of Wordsworth's The Prelude, but again the likeness is deceptive. Whereas Wordsworth is out to exalt imagination, Lucretius is the unwavering champion of reason. It is reason that breaks down the fiery walls of superstition and sets us free from fear of the gods.

If the book begins with a Wordsworthian hymn to all in nature that is beautiful and good, it ends on a note that would be anathema to the English bard -- a chilling description of the horrors of the plague that afflicted Athens during the Peloponnesian War. I doubt if a more graphic and terrifying description of disease has ever been written. Men, women, children, rich and poor, brought low with reeking sores and anguished thirst.
               …All along the streets,
In all the squares, you'd find the bodies, caked
With their own filth, rag-covered, or with skin
The only drapery across their bones
And that almost invisible under the crust
Of sores and ulcers. Even the shrines of the gods
Were charnel houses, and cadavers lay
Where guides had once conducted visitors.
The gods were paid no worship -- no one thought
Their presence worth a straw…
Has the problem of theodicy ever been more poignantly laid bare?

There are no great heroes or heroines in Lucretius' poem, no passionate love affairs, no epic battles with clashing swords, nothing to appeal to the romantic imagination. No one will make a movie of De Rerum Natura. Lucretius is the Homer of cold reason, a poet who is not willing to embellish the world with comforting phantasms of his own invention.

(Tomorrow, a few words on that other Roman poet, of another stripe, who, given my druthers, I would rather curl up with and read -- Ovid.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Stars are us

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

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Herewith, a cast of characters for the new novel featured at the right, all packed into a big house on Ninth Street in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the summer of 1944.

The widowed matriarch, Mamie Buffon, and, confined to an upstairs bedroom, her unpredictable, slightly loony bachelor brother Iggy.

Seven daughters, the oldest, repressed sexpot Wanda, with her thoroughly ignored bird-watching husband Roger, a munitions engineer with a private laboratory in the basement. They have an eleven-year-old daughter, Tootsie, who is growing up way too fast.

Sweet, responsible Button, disastrously married to unemployed Buddy, the horniest horn-toad in Chattanooga.

Emily Sue, who in spite of her mental impairment may be the sanest person in the house.

Becca and Lynette, flirtatious, jive-talkin' be-boppers, interested in nylons and servicemen on leave.

Reclusive Alma, with weird religious fixations.

And Bitsy, the pretty but ditzy youngest daughter who makes the mistake of falling hard for the totally wrong guy.

Add to this volatile mix Eva, the family's elderly black maid, and her beautiful seventeen-year-old great-granddaughter Tometta, who is filling in as maid while Eva ails.

There's a war on. A missing child. Rumors of race riots. A Miss Chattanooga contest. An escaped German POW. A canary. And the whole thing goes tumbling pell-mell towards a bizarre conclusion.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The art of the luminous particular

It was a love affair that lasted till the end. Donald Hall, the poet, was 19 years her senior when he married his former student in 1972. Jane Kenyon went on to be an esteemed poet in her own right. Hall quit his job at the University of Michigan and the couple moved to his grandparents' farm at Eagle Pond in New Hampshire, where they lived until Kenyon's death of leukemia in 1995.

Hall is himself a cancer survivor, and Kenyon, on the evidence of her poems, was prone to depression. But their respective poems leave no doubt as to the loyalty and passion of their relationship.

I'm not the biggest fan of either Hall's or Kenyon's poetry, but Hall's little memoir of his life in poetry, Unpacking the Boxes, is a favorite read. Kenyon's final volume of new and selected poems, Otherwise, chosen by the poet on her deathbed, often comes down from my shelf. Her dark angels are never far below the surface. Her bright angels shine in their luminous auras.

Hall added an Afterward to Otherwise, recounting the salient features of Kenyon's life. He says her poetry "gathered resonance and beauty as she studied the art of the luminous particular."

I love that phrase: The art of the luminous particular. It is the thing that separates poetry from science.

Science, of course, as it must, examines particulars -- this organism, this rock, this star. But the scientist is looking for the universal principle of which the particular is only a typical and ultimately dismissible manifestation. For the poet, the particular is everything, different from every other particular, and full and complete within itself. It may stand as a symbol for a generality beyond itself, but the generality is only of interest insofar as it illumines the particular.

I wrote yesterday of mortality and immortality. Science pursues the immortal, the immutable laws and principles that have been at work since the beginning of time. Every particular must die. Every star, every mountain, every human. Living contentedly with our own mortality must surely mean studying the art of the luminous particular, letting the luminosity of the universe fill our time alive so that even our own particularity becomes -- insofar as we can make it so -- luminous.

Kenyon has a poem with an almost William Carlos Williams reverence for particulars, called Now That We Live:
Fat spider by the door.

Brow of hayfield, blue
eye of pond.
Sky at night like an open well.

Whip-Poor-Will calls
in the tall grass:
I belong to the Queen of Heaven!

The cheerful worm
in the cheerful ground.

Regular shape of meadow and wall
under the blue
                   imperturbable mountain.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Thus spake neuroscience

Early in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes:
"'I am body and soul' - so speaks the child. And why should one not speak like children. But the awakened, the enlightened man says: I am body entirely, and nothing beside; and body and soul is only a word for something in the body…You say 'I' and you are proud of this word. But greater than this -- although you will not believe in it -- is your body and its great intelligence, which does not say 'I' but performs 'I'…Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, stands a mighty commander, an unknown sage -- he is called Self. He lives in your body, he is your body."
Whatever you think of Nietzsche, or that disheveled grab-bag of a book, he has stated something here that science increasingly confirms: There is no ghost in the machine.

There is no Self that lives independently of the body. The Self is the body. The Self is what the body performs.

We don't yet fully understand how the body performs the Self. But the evidence is overwhelming that the Self is inextricable from the flesh.

This is a hard truth, because if it is true, then death is final. There is no Hereafter.

That is to say, one of the oldest and most precious beliefs of humankind is a myth.

No wonder what Nietzsche says is so widely rejected. The extinction of Self is an unpalatable truth.

Might Nietzsche be wrong? If neuroscientists do not yet fully understand how the body gives rise to consciousness and self-awareness, might there be an out, an elusive ghost waiting to be discovered, an immortal phantasm hiding among the neurons?

Anything is possible. In fact, I would not be surprised if something totally unexpected were in the offing before we crack the nut of consciousness. But to believe in an unbodied Self requires accepting as true a thing for which there is not a shred of evidence and every empirical reason to believe otherwise.

A fatal nick from Ockham's razor.

There is also this. The death of individuals is an essential part of the engine of evolution. If there were no death of selves, there would probably be no Self. As the British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey said of immortality: "It is not just that we have no need of the hypothesis. It is that we would probably not be here if it were true."

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Curiosity is on the way to Mars. A perfect launch. On the NASA Mars Space Lab website a clock ticks down the time to landing. I looked just now. 242 days, 16 hours, 64 minutes, 42 seconds.

Think about that. The trip will take the better part of a year, and NASA predicts touchdown to the second. Well, sort of.

Of course, there's lots of tricks that have to happen just right for Curiosity to get there safely. This new Martian rover is a lot bigger than its spunky predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, that bounced onto the Martial surface swathed in air bags. Curiosity is the size of a small car. It will have to be set down more gently. With untried technologies.

But what you really want to think about is this.

Imagine the Sun is a basketball on the goal line of a football field. The Earth would be a pin head on the 30 yard line, one of those sewing pins with a round plastic head. Mars would be an even smaller pinhead on the 50 yard line.

Except they are not just sitting there. They are in motion around the Sun, sometimes on opposite sides of the Sun. That infinitely tiny car-sized package is blasted off of the first pinhead, chases the other pinhead in its orbit, a pinhead that is revolving on its axis, and lands smack on the flat floor of a designated crater (see pic above) exactly 242 days, 16 hours, 53 minutes and 18 seconds from now.

We tend to take this stuff for granted. We've become blasé.

Little Opportunity is still exploring Mars, nearly eight years after landing -- thirty times longer that its planned mission. Opportunity and Curiosity will be too far apart to make a rendezvous, but wouldn't it be sweet if they could meet and shake robotic hands on the surface of Mars, like Livingston and Stanley in darkest Africa.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Shiver my timbers

An essay in last week's TLS (Times Literary Supplement) reveals a new source that Robert Louis Stevenson almost certainly drew upon when writing Treasure Island -- a earlier pirate story by C. E. Pearce called Billy Bo'swain. It has long been recognized that Stevenson borrowed widely for his famous novel; he admitted as much. He did not, apparently, acknowledge Pearce. Innocent filching or plagiarism? The author of the TLS essay, John Sutherland, makes it a close call.

Anyway, the TLS essay pushed lots of memory buttons. Treasure Island was the first novel I ever read, from cover to cover, by myself, even before I went on to the Hardy Boys and Red Randall. I remember almost nothing about the latter books; I remember almost everything about Treasure Island.

"Fifteen men on a dead man's chest -- Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum." Blind Pew. Long John Silver. Missing leg. Parrot on the shoulder. X marks the spot. Spy-glass Hill. A glistening pile of minted gelt. And, of course, Jim Hawkins, a hero who makes Frank Hardy seem like a cardboard cut-out. That's Jim above, taking leave of his mother to go seeking treasure.

I remember, too, each and every one of N. C. Wyeth's illustrations -- luminous, muscular, bristling with menace. What Tenniel is to Alice and Shepard is to Pooh, Wyeth is to Treasure Island.

How explain the book's tenacity on the fading circuits of my brain? I fetched it from the shelf here in the college library and gave it a read.

It is good. It is uncommonly good. Stevenson may have been a borrower, but he was a terrific storyteller. The writers he borrowed from are mostly forgotten; Treasure Island is still with us.

Or is it? I suspect mine was the last generation of boys to read the book. Boys don't seem to read any more, and girls are in thrall to the likes of Harry Potter, which, from a literary point of view, is a cut below Treasure Island.

I greatly enjoyed re-reading the book, at age 75. Maybe I'm reverting to boyhood. But maybe too I appreciated the moral ambiguities, the conflicted loyalties, the nuanced shadings of good and evil. Treasure Island is a subversive book, a ripping yarn that leads a young reader by the hand into a world where dogmatic simplicities are of little use.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Cognitive dissonance

Daughter Margaret gave me Lisa Randall's new book for my birthday, and I have just now got around to reading it. Randall is an eminent theoretical particle physicist and cosmologist at Harvard University, who the media seems to adore as much for her stunning good looks as for her physics. Certainly, she gives the lie to the idea that cutting-edge mathematical physics is a man's game.

Her book is Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. She is a terrific explicator of such esoteric aspects of physics as the Large Hadron Collider and multiverses. But what I found most refreshing about the book is not the physics, but her emphasis on "scientific thinking."

The Large Hadron Collider -- the biggest and most expensive scientific instrument ever devised -- may "illuminate the universe," but it won't have much influence on the "modern world." Whether or not the machine discovers the sought-for Higgs boson will have zero effect on the national debt or resolving the health-care crisis. The relevance of string theory and multiverses to the peace of nations is zippo.

But the kind of thinking that led to the LHC and string theory has everything to do with the quality of life in the modern world, and Randall is careful to make that point.

Curiosity, creativity, rationality, openness, and tolerance, unconstrained by dogma are characteristics of the scientific temper. Randall writes:
Scientific thought recognizes that uncertainty isn't failure. It properly evaluates risks and accounts for both short- and long-termed influences. It allows for creative thinking in the search for solutions…The scientific method helps us to understand the edges of the universe, but it can also guide us in critical decisions for this world that we now live in.
Nothing new here for those of us who have imbibed the scientific spirit, but given the current flourishing worldwide of political and religious fundamentalisms (not least among the current crop of candidates for president of the United States), one has to wonder to what extent the scientific temper has illuminated the "modern world," even as people enthusiastically construct their lives upon the technological and medical advancements that flow purely from a way of thinking they feel constrained to reject.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination. Now where have I seen those cells before?

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Translations -- A Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in January 2006.)


My hand has a pain from writing,
Not steady the sharp tool of my craft
Its slender beak spews bright ink--
A beetle-dark shining draught.

Streams of wisdom of white God
From my fair-brown, fine hand sally,
On the page they splash their flood
In ink of the green-skinned holly.

My little dribbly pen stretches
Across the great white paper plain,
Insatiable for splendid riches--
That is why my hand has pain.

St. Colmcille, 6th century, translated by Brian O'Nolan


My fingers out of joint
Skating the touchpad of my craft
Helvetica, twelve point--
A dot-pixeled shining draft.

Musings of an absconded God
From my Apple metallic-silver keys
On the screen they splash their flood
In a silicon flicker of LCDs.

My PowerBook purrs, fetches,
The words stumble, electronic ink,
No likelihood of splendid riches--
I pour myself another drink.

Chet Raymo

Friday, December 02, 2011

Listen! The tap-tap-tap of a nuthatch

And now, the Henry David Thoreau Award for the most obnoxious technological product of all time. The envelope, please.

The winner: The gasoline-powered leaf blower.

As I write this, I am sitting in what is called the "quiet cafe" of the College Commons. It is 7:30 AM. Just me and a dozen students who are studying for exams. Outside the window a groundsman is blowing leaves into piles. The noise is deafening. Head-ache inducing. I feel sorry for the students. I feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for anyone in America with a leaf-blowing neighbor.

I watch the guy outside. He is young and fit. It is obvious that even an old guy like me could rake the leaves into piles faster than he is blowing them. There is no conceivable reason why so many should suffer so that he can wield his smelly, lung-polluting, ear-splitting contraption. He's not even wearing ear muffs. We should all be wearing ear muffs.

"I love a broad margin to my life," wrote Thoreau. We know what he meant: a page of print with spacious, empty margins inviting reflective glosses -- a metaphor for a life. Lord knows he filled up enough pages himself, and he was a voracious reader. But words without silence are a mere cacophony. "Silence is the communing of a conscious soul with itself, " he wrote early in his journals. "If the soul attend for a moment to its own infinity, then and there is silence."

We seem hell-bent on wringing silence from our lives. Our leaf blowers crank up at 7 AM on Sunday morning. Our television sets are on all day even when no one is watching. Even the people I meet walking in the woods have buds in their ears and an iPod in their pocket. No wide margins. No margins at all. No white spaces to scribble those solitary notes affirming that one is listening to infinity.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Star light, star bright

While perusing Biography of a Planet the other day for the illustration of bacterial symbiosis, I was jogged into reverie by the drawing above: The night sky above the administration building of Stonehill College. If you are a star-gazer, see if you can recognize the stars and constellations before I tell my story.

Any luck?

You probably worked it out. The constellations of summer: Lyra (the Lyre), Cygnus (the Swan) and Aquila (the Eagle). The "Summer Triangle" stars: Vega, Deneb and Altair. And, of course, the Milky Way and the Great Rift.

But what is that star near the top, nearly as bright as nearby Deneb?

Late one Friday night in 1975, my pal Mike Horne called me at home to say a naked-eye nova had appeared in Cygnus. I rushed outside. It took but a second to recognize the intruder.

Deneb is the Arabic word for "tail." The star represents the fanned tail of a long-necked swan that wings its way south along the stream of the Milky Way. On that particular evening it looked as if a tail feather had been plucked from the swan as it flew by.

Nova means "new," but of course the nova is not a new star. It is the sudden brightening of an old star near the end of its life when its energy balance goes askew, a star thousands of light-years away in our arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, too far away to be seen even telescopically.

The nova was short lived. By the following evening it had dimmed noticeably. Within a week it was visible only with binoculars. But while we had it, every night was a thrill. I remember the tingle in the spine and we watched its fading apparition night-by-night.

Nova Cygnus 1975 was the brightest nova of my lifetime, except for a southern hemisphere nova in 1942 (I was six years old). It was the only nova to reach the first magnitude of brightness. And it appeared at the very peak of my lifelong interest in the night sky.

I look back on those moments of celestial punctuation with gratitude and delight: nova, comets, fireballs, meteor storms, auroras. Unexpected gifts of beauty, scattered by the goddess Urania like banknotes from a royal carriage.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


I have a soft spot in my heart for monarch butterflies. As I described in The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe, I once had the opportunity to visit the forests in central Mexico where the monarchs of eastern North America retire for the winter, after flying thousands of miles from, say, my neighborhood here in New England to a particular patch of fir trees they have never visited before.

Reaching the butterflies' winter refuge required a harrowing bus ride from Mexico City over narrow mountain roads, then a hike along trails billowing with fine volcanic dust. At last we stood in silent awe among trees festooned with millions of monarchs, butterflies as dense as leaves. When the sun broke through the clouds, the monarchs took to the air, filling the sky with their glorious wings.

The visit to the Mexican monarch refuge was one of the two most thrilling natural adventures of my life, along with a total solar eclipse seen from the middle of the Black Sea.

The monarchs that fly from New England to Mexico are at least two generations removed from any butterflies that have previously made the journey. How do they do it? How do they find that patch of trees? Those fragile slips of chitin with pin-point brains? The clock, the map, the navigational skills must be genetically embedded in the monarch's DNA, that twisty helix of "four-letter" code.

Now the monarch's genome has been sequenced by neurobiologists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Two-hundred-seventy-three million base pairs. Nearly 17,000 protein-coding genes, including many that are likely to be instrumental in the seasonal migration. But identifying genes and proteins is still a long way from knowing how the insects perform their awesome feat of navigation, particularly as they start their journey from places hundreds of miles apart, and end up, so to speak, on a dime.

This is one of those things -- like consciousness -- that becomes more apparently miraculous the more we illuminate the essence of the miracle. The supernatural pales in comparison to the natural. Who needs the paranormal when the normal is so astonishing?

We have a tiny patch of milkweed -- the monarch's sole food plant -- near the compost bin in the backyard. I've never seen a monarch there, but I preserve the milkweed as a kind of shrine to the mundane. The mundane is shot through with wonder.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The multiverse -- Part 2

(This continues a discussion from last Friday.)

Philosophers, theologians, and even some scientists have made much of the fact that the universe has exactly the properties that make possible life and intelligence as we know it. For example, if the nuclear force were slightly stronger all the hydrogen nuclei in the early universe would have fused into helium and there would be no water to nurture life. If the force were slightly weaker, then heavier atoms like oxygen and carbon would not hold together. Other examples of apparent fine-tuning abound. This gives rise to the "anthropic principle": the universe must have exactly the properties it has because we are here to observe it.

Or, as theologians are wont to say, the universe is apparently designed just for us.

Or as I would say, we are here because the universe we live in allows our existence. The fuss about the anthropic principle always seemed to me to be a tempest in a teapot.

In any case, as Alan Lightman points out in his Harper's essay, the multiverse idea -- if it's true -- renders the intelligent-design implications of the anthropic principle moot. We're here because among the supposed gazillions of universe that exist, one of them just happens to have the parameters that allow our existence. We are a cosmic accident.

All of this makes great cocktail party fodder, but it leaves me cold. Drawing grand philosophical or theological conclusions from whatever is the hottest current cosmology seems to me a fool's game. I like my speculations to have an empirical handle. The big bang? OK. We have lots of evidence for that. What came before the big bang? Your guess is as good as mine. The multiverse? Give me a call when you have some observational data.

I don't think physics is having a crisis of faith, as Lightman's subtitle suggests. Physicists will go on doing what they have always done, refining the physical laws of the universe in light of empirical observations. In the course of that search, they will come up with highly speculative ideas, like string theory and multiverses, but such ideas rise and fall on the basis of observation.

One can't have a crisis of faith unless one has a faith to begin with. Faced with choice between an intelligent designer and 10-to-the-500th-power accidental universes, I'll stick with a healthy agnosticism. For the time being.

Monday, November 28, 2011


I want to take a break here to note the passing of Lynn Margulis, biologist, last week at age 73.

Margulis was married to Carl Sagan for something less than a decade back in the late-1950s and early-1960s. Sagan was and remains a superstar of science. Margulis is less well-known.

Too bad, because she was probably the more influential scientist and an equally prolific popularizer of science.

When I published Biography of a Planet in 1984 her theory of cellular evolution by symbiosis was still controversial. I wrote: "Her theory is a story of hard times and cooperation. According to Margulis, eukaryotic [multi-compartmented] cells arose by symbiotic combinations of single-cell prokaryotes, a partnership for mutual benefit." I illustrated her idea with the full-page drawing reproduced above. (Click to enlarge.)

An idea that was initially scorned by many biologists -- perhaps partly because of Margulis's gender -- eventually became orthodoxy. Natural selection, said Margulis, is not all about competition. Cooperation can also give organisms an edge. She developed this idea extensively in many publications.

I had a brief encounter with Margulis as a result of Biography of a Planet. I had previously published 365 Starry Nights and The Crust of the Earth, books I wrote and illustrated. She was about to begin her own adventure as a popularizer of science and got in touch seeking advice on working with mass-market publishers. I gave what I could.

But Lynn didn't need help from me. Her subsequent books far surpassed mine in their quality and production, and of course in the breadth and depth of her scientific knowledge. She was my teacher.

She'll be missed.

(The promised second part of the reflection on Lightman's essay will be here tomorrow.)

Sunday, November 27, 2011


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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Of pumpkins and velvet cushions -- a Saturday reprise

"Art is I; science is We," said the great French physician Claude Bernard.

Which says a lot in six words.

Science is consensus, and because of that it is pretty much confined to the simple. It is no accident that science had its origin in astronomy, describing the motions of mere dots of light across the sky. It took rather longer to bring the experimental method to bear on the human body, say; Bernard was himself a founder of modern experimental medicine. Above all else, science is a way of finding a compelling We. Everyone on the planet is bound together in that We -- though medicine and technology -- even if some of us scorn science or don't know a molecule from a mastodon.

The We is there to put constraints on the I, to rein in megalomania, to short-circuit the divine rights of kings and the infallibility of popes. The We is there because we cannot live in an anarchy of I's.

But every individual life is -- or can be -- a work of art. The I carries us beyond the simplicities of science. Is it not the We that walks the boundary between knowledge and mystery, but the I. Science takes us to the limits of consensus, but only the I can step through the door into infinity.

I pondered these matters the other day after spending a hour-and-a-half outdoors with Professor Mooney and seven students from her environmental ethics class. We did some We-ing. We talked about Frederick Law Olmsted under the curious gaze of tree swallows. We ran our hands across glacial striae and looked at glacial erratic boulders. For an hour-and-a-half we were a We.

But we were also nine I's. On Whale Rock in the deep woods, with sunlight streaming through the trees, we read fragments from Thoreau, who taught us as much as anyone about finding a balance between We and I. He left the woods for as good a reason as he went there, he tells us. He urged us to build castles in the air -- and then take care to give them proper foundations.

(This post originally appeared in the spring of 2007.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

The multiverse

Alan Lightman, another Tennessee boy (now at MIT) who works on the interface of science and the humanities, has an essay in the current Harper's called "The Accidental Universe: Science's Crisis of Faith" that explores the implications of recent developments in theoretical cosmology.

I am such a big fan of Alan that I am reluctant to take issue, but let me gently demur from some of what he has to say.

Early in the essay he says: "The history of science can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles. One can add to the list of the fully explained: the hue of the sky…", etc.

Before the advent of science, the default explanation was not "accident." Whatever happened was the will of the gods. "A fine soft day, thanks be to God," say my neighbors in Ireland, and that, I think, pretty much sums up the universal attitude across cultures. When I was a kid I was told that the sky is blue because that is Mary's color. The hue was no accident.

Science began when divine whim gave way to necessary consequences of "fundamental causes and principles." A small distinction, perhaps -- unpredictable divinity and accident are in practice indistinguishable -- but important to the development of Lightman's thesis, and important to how we live our lives.

As Lightman suggests, it has long been the hope of physicists that if fundamental laws can be discovered, then the universe we live in will turn out to be a necessary consequence of those laws. Even our own presence in such a universe would be no accident. Reduction, determinism, and materialism have been pillars of the philosophy of science.

Now, says Lightman, dramatic developments in cosmological thought -- namely, eternal inflation and string theory -- "have led some of the world's premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties" that follow essentially at random from the fundamental principles. There is no way physicists can uniquely derive the characteristics of our universe from first principles; thus, the "accidental universe" of Lightman's title. Also, since there is no way to experimentally observe any other universe than our own, the "multiverse" must be taken as a matter faith; thus, the "crisis" of the subtitle.

This has particular relevance, says Lightman, to the so-called "anthropic principle" -- the apparent fact that our universe seems fine-tuned for the possibility of human existence, something made much of by advocates of intelligent design. More on this Monday.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


For those of you in other parts of the world, today is the American holiday known as Thanksgiving, which is mostly about spending time with family over (if you are so blessed) a sumptuous dinner. This afternoon we will gather at son Dan's house, with kids and grandkids, and the family of Dan's spouse. All except paleoclimatologist daughter Mo, who is spending three months in residence at the oceanographic institute in Goa, India.

Before she moved west many years ago, sister Anne used to join us for Thanksgiving. Today she sends her Thanksgiving blessing above (click, and then again, to enlarge).

She and I (and webkeeper Tom) thank you all for visiting this site and for your thoughtful comments. Our family has much to be thankful for, and you are a part of it.

We live only about 30 kilometers from the place where the Pilgrims stepped ashore at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, and where they celebrated the first Thanksgiving the following year, having survived a cruel winter. Americans cultivate a highly romanticized version of those first colonists, as exemplified by this picture, the sort of thing we were all brought up on as kids. Of course, what you are looking at is a prelude to genocide. After much blood was spilt on both sides, the native Americans of New England were essentially exterminated. You see two of the agents of extermination in the painting -- guns and steel; the third -- germs -- are present but invisible.

As pious Christians, the colonists looked to the Bible for justification for taking the land and its bounty. Psalms 2:8: "Ask of me and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession." And Romans 13.2: "Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. The scriptures are a wonderfully versatile document; something can be found therein to justify any sort of mischief.

But enough of that. This is a day for blessings, for gratitude, and for gobs of potatoes, turkey and gravy. Dig in. Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


I mentioned here before that the novel Chattanooga was on the way, thanks to son Dan who has rescued it from exile, and added his own touches. This is the novel that was enthusiastically received in France some years ago -- my wife and I were flown to Paris and treated royally -- but which I never published in the States for personal reasons. Those reasons have now receded.

Chattanooga is the tragic-comic story of a wildly dysfunctional multi-generational family, fraught with marital, sexual and racial tensions, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the summer of 1944.

The book is now available in paperback and as an e-book for the Kindle.

This is a rather different endeavor from my other books, certainly a far cry from the contemplative tone of Soul and Honey.

The novel is narrated in a half-dozen voices, one of whom is Roger, the bird-watching husband of Wanda. Roger is an engineer at the Volunteer Ordnance Works, just outside of Chattanooga, contriving explosives for the war. Here is a snippet: Roger is late for work, having stopped along the way to watch a pair of painted buntings.
What I missed at work were the first ten minutes of a bombing-run damage-assessment film of a night raid on Hamburg, the Brits dropping our 500-pounders from Lancasters. You could see a thousand cotton puffs springing up across the city as if by magic, until the entire field of view of the camera is tufted with cotton like a North Georgia bedspread. The guys in the screening room are shouting "Yahoo!" with each successive wave of detonations. And I'll admit there was a kind of beauty about the images on the film, as if the city were being blown kisses, smothered in kisses. The bombs fell from the belly of the plane into – well, like into another world, like there's no people down there, and all the time our slide rules were clicking in the dark screening room as we refined, one more time, the precise mix of high explosives and incendiaries that will cause maximum destruction to the German cities. Cotton puffs raced across the industrial districts, the dockyards, the old quarter, the suburbs. "Yahoo, yahoo!" the guys shouted. I was sick. I guess I kept thinking about what was happening under the cotton wool – the firestorm with temperatures of eighteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit, the asphalt of the streets ablaze, trees uprooted and flung through the air, automobiles whirled skyward. In tunnels beneath the city, tens of thousands of men, women, and children are suffocated as the air is sucked out of their refuges, then incinerated as superheated air rushes in to replace what has been drawn out. I know all of this, everyone in the room knows it, but we put it out of our minds. Or we try to put it out of our minds. There's a war to be won. The Nazis must be stopped. The world must be "made safe for democracy” and all that rubbish. Strangely, I found myself thinking of the birds – the birds down there in Hamburg's parks and suburbs. When the bombs fell I imagined thousands of birds going puff in the air like Chinese firecrackers – tiny explosions of flesh, little starbursts of singed feathers.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


The first ten summers we spent in our Irish cottage we had no electricity. It would have taken five poles to bring the wires to our house, and the electric company charged $1000 a pole, beyond our means at the time.

But this was the 1970s. We were younger. Clothes got washed in the kitchen sink, and dried with a hand wringer and line. Kerosene lamps provided light. I typed my books on a manual typewriter. We cooked and heated hot water with bottled gas. It was, in retrospect, romantic. But it was summer, with long hours of daylight. And, as I said, we were young.

I can't imagine doing it today. Surely there is no technology that has changed our lives more than the electricity that comes into our homes on a wire. Lighting, cooling, heating, ironing, cooking, and entertainment at the flick of a switch. Cheap, silent, invisible energy at our beck and call, flowing though a wire.

Magic. Wonderful.

One of my scientific heroes is Michael Faraday -- gentle, brilliant, infused with wonder. No one did more to wrest electricity from the gods and make it do our bidding than he. For most people of his time, electricity was a curious novelty, a parlor game. Faraday understood it another way:
Electricity is often called wonderful, beautiful; but…The beauty of electricity or of any other force is not that the power is mysterious, and unexpected, touching every sense unawares in turn, but that it is under law, and that the taught intellect can govern it largely.
There you have it, as perfect a statement of the scientific spirit as you are likely to find.

Everyone who flicks a switch to turn on the light and at the same time espouses a belief in miracles is embracing a kind of cognitive dissonance. The lightning bolt that jags across the sky is not the whim of a willful Zeus -- or as we might say, an act of God -- it is lawful. Behind all of the apparent randomness of nature, law prevails. And the taught intellect can govern it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mind the gap

A recent cover of the journal Science. What is it?

A "conceptual illustration of information, in the form of electrical impulses, flowing through neuronal processes in the brain."

An estimated 100 billion neurons in the human brain. Each neuron reaching out with spidery arms to touch thousands of others. Or almost touch, at connections called synapses. Each synapse in any one of about ten levels of excitation.

Something like 100 trillion synapses, spidery fingertips almost touching.

I like to think of those synaptic gaps as physical embodiments of the famous gap between the finger of Adam and the finger of God in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting. The fingertips don't quite touch. But one can feel -- sense -- the energy flowing across the gap.

One hundred trillion synapses, in different levels of excitation. That is me, that spider web, that softball-sized glob of spider-web meat. One hundred billion neurons, and an equal number of glial cells , physically supporting the neurons, protecting them from pathogens, feeding them with nutrients and oxygen. My conscious life. My self-awareness. My dreams. My lifetime of memories.

For no other organ of the human body is the relationship between structure and function so poorly understood as for the brain. Finding out how those flickering neurons give rise to a conscious self will be the premier problem of biology in the 21st century.

For the time being, I'll continue to think of those 100 trillion synapses as 100 trillion almost-touching fingertips of God and Adam, where my soma plays roles both human and divine -- the spark of selfhood spontaneously arising from the enormous complexity of the organ.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

No escape

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A wreck of a world -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared on July 21, 2009. At the time, Jack drew our attention to a geology book that mentioned Franklin's prescient notion.)

The tip of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula is the westernmost point of Europe. There was a time, some 200 million years ago, when I could have walked home from here without getting my feet wet. As everyone now knows, the ocean that separates Europe and North America is a relatively recent artifact of the slip and slide of the Earth's crustal plates.

But here's something I bet you didn't know.

In July 1747, Ben Franklin wrote to Jared Eliot, a Connecticut clergyman: "The great Appalachian Mountains, which run from York River back of these Colonies to the Bay of Mexico, show in many Places near the highest Parts of them, Strata of Sea Shells, in some Places the Marks of them are in the solid Rocks. 'Tis certainly the Wreck of a World we live on!"

And what caused this "wreck" that heaved the floors of oceans high into the air, lifting sea shells to mountain peaks? Franklin found other clues during his travels in Britain. In a coal mine at Whitehaven in northern England he observed the leaves and branches of ferns impressed upon slates which formed the natural roof of the mine, deep beneath the present surface of the Earth. Elsewhere in England he found oyster shells mixed with the rocks of a mountain top. Evidently, surface marshes had been depressed and the ocean floor thrust upwards.

Franklin wrote: "Such changes in the superficial parts of the globe seemed to me unlikely to happen, if the earth were solid to the centre. I therefore imagined, that the internal parts might be a fluid more dense, and of greater specific gravity than any of the solids we are acquainted with, which therefore might swim in or upon that fluid. Thus the surface of the globe would be a shell, capable of being broken and disordered by the violent movements of the fluid on which it rested."

This strikes me as a pretty accurate description of the fundamental notion of plate tectonics, written a generation before James Hutton founded the modern science of geology with his "Theory of the Earth" in 1785, and more than two hundred years before the theory of plate tectonics changed our way of thinking about the Earth.

I came across this info in Ronald Clark's biography of Franklin, but I don't recall ever seeing it mentioned in the scientific literature. Does anyone know of a geology text that gives the great man credit?

Friday, November 18, 2011

The tao of Steve

So now that he is gone, what do we make of Steve Jobs?

Give him this. When he knew death might be in the offing, he asked Walter Isaacson to write his biography. He gave full access and many interviews, and placed no restrictions on what Isaacson might say. It is a brilliant biography, which paints an honest portrait of the subject, warts and all. No, "warts" is not strong enough. Jobs -- in his own word and in Isaacson's -- could be an "asshole."

The reviewer of a book on Ernest Hemingway in last week's NYTBR, said "Hemingway was not an absolute swine to absolutely everyone absolutely all of the time, but it was a close thing…Also, he liked to fish." You might say the same thing about Jobs, but add "Also, he liked to give us gorgeous, easy-to-use products that we had no idea we wanted."

Everything -- and everyone -- was either "shit" or "insanely good." Intemperate and charismatic. Whatever his personality defects, he was able to inspire loyalty and affection.

He may not have been the smartest cookie in the jar, but he was indisputably a genius, a man who lived at the intersection of art and science and imagined a kind of technology that pushed the buttons of our esthetic centers even as it transformed our lives. And maybe "pushed the buttons" is the wrong metaphor. Jobs hated buttons, even on-off switches. He wanted his products to be so simple that buttons were redundant.

I confess to being an Apple junkie, ever since I bought one of the first Macintosh 128s in 1984. I'm writing this post on an iBook, probably my sixth or seventh Mac. I don't use a cell phone, but if I did it would be an iPhone. My next laptop will be a MacAir.

Isaacson smartly captures the whole roller-coaster ride of Apple Inc., from its inception in the Jobs family garage with Steve Wozniak to its place today as the most valuable company in the world. Apple was more than Jobs, of course. Jony Ive, the designer, and Tim Cook, the organizer, among others, were crucial to the company's success, but Jobs was responsible for hiring them and driving them to the edge of perfection. It will be interesting to see if one of Job's kids has the DNA -- the drive, the perfectionism, the imagination -- to step into his or her father's shoes, perhaps Eve, the youngest.

Having read Isaacson, I can say definitely that I wouldn't want to be stranded on a desert island with Steve Jobs. But I wouldn't want to be there without my Apple Mac.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is knowledge unitary?

On the New York Times website last week, philosophers Alex Rosenberg and William Egginton continued their debates about the relationship between the humanities and the sciences. At particular issue in the exchange: Do advances in neuroscience render redundant the kind of knowledge provided by the humanities.

The humanities provide feelings, not knowledge, says Rosenberg, and feelings are the subject of neuroscience -- synapses firing, and all that. "Eventually we will have to choose between the narrative self-understanding and science’s explanations of human affairs," he writes. Story-telling and interpretation, the stock in trade of the humanities, does not after all really explain much of anything at all, he says. "What science can’t accept is some “off-limits” sign at the boundary of the interpretative disciplines."

The human mind is the new frontier of scientific investigation, says Rosenberg. Our thoughts and feelings -- as important as they are -- are destined to fall before the unstoppable advance of reductive science.

Egginton will have none of it.

Science is itself grounded in a historical, interpretive milieu, he insists. What can neuroscience add to the very debate he is having with Rosenberg? "That our respective pleasure centers light up as we each strike blows for our preferred position? That might well be of interest, but it hardly bears on the issue at hand, namely, the evaluation of evidence -- historical or experimental -- underlying a claim about knowledge. That evaluation must be interpretative. The only way to dispense with interpretation is to dispense with evidence, and with it knowledge altogether."

It's an old debate. The two cultures banging away at each other. Fun to watch, but ultimately futile. The advance of science has not rendered the humanities redundant. We don't stop reading poetry because we identify a poetry center in the brain. And science need not feel that any part of human experience, including the neurological response to poetry, is off-limits.

Science is the most effective methodology yet devised for providing reliable consensus knowledge of the world. A reductive kind of knowledge to which all of us can give assent. The humanities provide a different kind of knowledge -- synthetic, non-reductive, a multifaceted mirror in which each of us can gather the elements we need for constructing a unique self. It's hard to imagine living without one or the other.