Thursday, March 31, 2011

Under the el

A few words of appreciation for English-born artist Rackstraw Downes. (Click pic to enlarge.)

I am not generally a fan of photorealism in painting, preferring some element of abstraction in my landscapes, such as in the work of Wayne Thiebaud. But there is something compelling about Downes' meticulous renderings of urban, industrial and scrubby country environments. He has been called "a bard of weeds." He might equally be called a bard of rust, or crumbling concrete, or dirt.

But no. That is to ignore a delicacy of light and shadow, of water and air, of stainless steel and glistening glass.

You can visit some of his work here.

There is more going on in these paintings than composition, color, and technique, more than disquisitions on the visual perception of three-dimensional space and its representation on two-dimensional surface. Downes wants us to see something that is so commonplace that we seldom see it al all, something that is all around us on every side -- the human-made environment. A world made willy-nilly by human artifice. A world that in some eerie sense overwhelms its makers, ignores us even, mocks us with its own disturbing inorganicity.

But beauty too.

Very little of what Downes chooses to paint was contrived to be beautiful. Its purpose is almost exclusively utilitarian -- a vast untenanted space in the World Trade Center, for example, redeemed from total artifice only by shafts of winter sunlight. But there is a beauty in these paintings that the artist's eye discovers. Or does the artist's eye impose the beauty?

One has to look carefully at Downes' paintings to find the occasional human presence, diminutive doll-like figures going about their business. But there is one human presence that can't be ignored -- that of the artist, the eye that beholds, and through his "being there", we are there too.

Because these images were made brush stroke by brush stroke over an extended timespan, and not by the click of a camera's shutter, we stand there with Downes, watching, watching, watching as he painstakingly applies paint to canvas, forced dab by dab to see the world we have made, a world in which utilitarian artifice has squeezed the organic into graceless nooks and corners. What is required, the artist seems to be saying, is a new esthetic, one that -- for better or worse -- makes room for the patently artificial.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


I must have some rare genetic mutation. Why am I the only person in America who doesn't want a gun?

OK, maybe not the only one. But sometimes it seems like it. Last week's New York Time Magazine had a one-page display of "purse pistols," small, deadly handguns specifically designed to appeal to the ladies. How about a cute little Taurus 738 TCP? It comes in pink and black. Or a Charter Arms Cougar Undercover Lite, also in pink and black, with a rubber grip to ease recoil, made to "complete your self-defense wardrobe"? Or the Casull's Improvement Freedom Arms .22, a tiny five-shot elegantly engraved by jeweler Paul Lantuch? Or the adorable North American Mini .22, with a sky-blue grip?

Kill in self-defense if you must. But do you have to do it with a fashion accessory?

The NRA tells us that "when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." Sounds to me like the recipe for a civilized society. I would rather live in a society where only outlaws (and the police) have guns than in a society where every purse, briefcase and bookbag conceals a weapon.

The murder rate in the pistol-packing U. S. is three times higher than Canada, four times higher than Ireland, and eight time higher than Norway. My guess is that the "outlaws" don't do as much of the killing as loony ordinary folks who can purchase a 33-round Glock with hardly a hitch. With a little ingenuity I can pretty much stay out of the way of hardened criminals, but steering clear of the aggrieved teenager who can find a gun in the drawer next to his parents' bed is more problematic.

What does this have to do with science? Not much, really, I'm just venting. But I think it may have something to do with genes -- nature red in tooth and claw and all that. Nevermind. I'll be back in Ireland soon and feeling much safer.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Everything that rises...

The cover of a recent issue of Science. In grey at the bottom is a map of Afghanistan, divided into six regions. Rising above each region is a column representing monthly civilian casualties from January 2009 to December 2010, deaths as large dots, wounded as small dots, with weaponry and perpetrators (Allies and insurgents) coded by color. During this period 2537 civilians were killed and 5594 wounded.

It must be my Catholic upbringing that causes me to see these columns of dot as the souls of the dead rising to heaven, month by month, each little colorful cohort ascending to whatever reward welcomes them in Paradise. I am reminded of Gustave Dore's illustration for Dante's Divine Comedy of the souls of the just winging their way upward to their eternal bliss.

Is it a good or a bad thing that some quirkiness of mind makes me see a connection between 21st century graphic on the cover of Science and a fantasy of the medieval imagination?

We have gone from a view of humanity that sees each human soul as an immortal entity whose eternal fate is determined by whatever it takes (in that soul's particular religion) to stay in God's good graces, to one in which the fates of thousands of innocent casualties can be represented by colored dots. Divinity, if you will, versus data.

Strangely enough, I am inclined to think the latter view serves humankind best.

The religion I was brought up in would have excluded (at that time at least) unbaptized Muslims from Dore's ascending circles of saints, and Afghani Muslims (for all I know) might exclude Christians (and agnostics like me) from their own exclusive paradise. In either case, the hope of heaven has not done much to ameliorate strife on Earth and given rise to a lot of mayhem on behalf of vernacular theologies.

I look at the rising columns of colored dots and see not Christians, Jews, Hindus or Muslims but mothers, fathers, children and parents, who may not end up in heaven, but who deserved better on Earth than being the ancillary casualty of a land mine or errant missile. I look at the colored dots and see this…

"Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge." Teilhard de Chardin

(The (cropped) photo of an Afghan girl by Steve McCurry appeared on the cover of National Geographic in June, 1985. The quote from Teilhard de Chardin is the source for Flannery O'Connor's title.)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Wonderful life

It has been called a "walking cactus."

It is the cover creature of the February 24 issue of Nature, reconstructed here from fossils found in Cambrian deposits in China, a 500-million-year-old wormlike animal about as long as my finger, with armored and possibly articulated legs. Its name is Diania cactiformis, and its discoverers suggest it may be connected to the origins of the arthropods, a hugely diverse phylum of animals with external skeletons, segmented bodies and jointed appendages.

The arthropods make up more than 80 percent of living animal species, including scorpions, crabs, earwigs and butterflies.

Stephen Jay Gould wrote brilliantly (and controversially) about the weird creatures of the Cambrian in a book called Wonderful Life. Certainly, it was a time of wonderful diversification, sometimes called "The Cambrian Explosion." Gould proposed that many of these fossil creatures were dead ends. Which ones impressed their body plans on the future was something of a crap shoot, he said. Given a different roll of the dice, the animals on earth today might have been very different.

It is the dearest conceit of our species that we are inevitable, necessary, central to creation, that in this universe of more than 100 billion galaxies we -- Homo sapiens, bipedal, internal-skeletons, bilaterally symmetric -- are the apple of the Creator's eye, that the whole shebang was arranged for us alone. Sometimes we define our specialness even more narrowly, as when some of us imagine (for example) that the point of creation was to make white, English-speaking, American Christians.

Just how contingent was the evolution of life I will leave to the biologists to figure out, but the fossil record shows unambiguously that the Creator was more whimsical than we are generally wont to admit. The "walking cactus" looks weird to us, but that is only because it is unfamiliar. Is it really weirder, say, than a woolly bear caterpillar, to which it might be ancestrally related? And if the Cambrian rocks of Earth hold such gems of whimsy, imagine what specialness-deflating surprises reside in those 100 billion other galaxies.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book 1

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

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Saturday reprise

((The author Anita Diamant will be visiting the college in a few weeks. This prompts a reprise of a November 2007 post on her novel The Red Tent.)

Looking back, I would have to say that the greatest scientific achievement of my lifetime is the discovery of the secret of the DNA and the consequent sequencing of the human genome. You will hear the latter compared to the building of the atomic bomb, or putting a man on the moon. It is more, much more.

It is an end and a beginning.

It is the end of the reign of the gods.

No one knows yet what is beginning.

Anita Diamant's The Red Tent comes to mind, a novelistic retelling of the biblical story of Jacob and his wives and children from the point of view of Jacob's only daughter, Dinah. The novel beautifully evokes the people of 4,000 years ago -- farmers, herdsmen, city builders -- who invented the stories by which we in the Western world -- through the Scriptures and myths -- have pretty much measured our lives ever since.

The gods are everywhere in Diamant's tale. In every tree and stream. In moon, sun, and stars. In menstrual blood and spindle. In the waters that nourish the planted seed and the drought that withers the nanny goat's teats. Dinah learns the stories of the gods in the woman's tent -- the red tent -- as they are told and retold by her mother and aunts.

Jacob and his clan live in constant negotiation with the gods, through prayer and sacrifice. Behind the world of their daily lives is a shadow world of spirits with human faces, or semi-human faces, who act with human willfulness, raising up and striking down, imposing outrageous demands, bestowing blessings.

By Jacob's time the gods were already old. They were born in the minds of our earliest human ancestors, who, finding themselves in an uncertain world, created a measure of order by imagining unseen spirits with human features.

Even today, as a new millennium begins, the ancient gods still haunt our imaginations, investing the world with presumed consciousness and will. Polls show that eighty percent of Americans believe in miracles; nearly three-quarters believe in angels.

And now, in opposition to the gods, we have -- the genome.

A double helix, as long as my arm, tucked into every cell in our bodies. A sequence of 3 billion chemical "letters" (molecules called nucleotides) -- A, G, C, T -- that code three-by-three for amino acids that link together and fold into the proteins that make our bodies (and minds) work. Print out the sequence of As, Gs, Cs, and Ts and it would fill a dozen sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica; it is now available at a mouse click on the Internet. That sequence of just four kinds of molecules causes to happen, in a marvelous and still uncertain way, the "miracle" of the newborn babe: the tiny perfect fingers and toes, the lashes, the wisps of hair, the bawl of life. A vessel waiting to be filled.

All that DNA, packed into those tens of trillions of cells, is not static. Protein-based "motors" crawl along the strands of DNA, transcribing the code into single-strand RNA molecules, which in turn provide the templates for building the proteins that build and maintain our bodies. Other proteins help pack DNA neatly into the nuclei of cells and maintain the tidy chromosome structures. Still other protein-based "motors" are busily at work untying knots that form in DNA as it is unpacked in the nucleus and copied during cell division. Others are in charge of quality control, checking for accuracy and repairing errors.

Working, spinning, ceaselessly weaving, winding, unwinding, patching, repairing -- each cell is like a bustling factory of a thousand workers. Trillions of cells humming with the business of life.

Mind-boggling. Jaw-dropping. A story to shake us to the soles of our feet.

Not gods, but biochemistry.

But make no mistake: The mystery of life is not lessened by the sequencing of the human genome, and the genomes of many other creatures, including our Neanderthal cousins. If anything, it is deepened. What we have discovered is not a shadow world of humanlike spirits, but rather an elusive and enigmatic fire that burns in the very stuff of creation. The fire does not have a human face, but it animates the planet and perhaps the universe.

How do we come to terms with this new knowledge? In Diamant's novel, Jacob decides to return to the land of his ancestors, from which he has lived (and married) in exile. His wives are fearful. Zilpah says to the other women: "All of [our] named gods abide here. This is the place where we are known, where we know how to serve. It will be death to leave. I know it."

And Bilhah answers: "Every place has its holy names, its trees and high places. There will be gods where we go."

We are no less fearful than were Jacob's wives of leaving the familiar. But, as Bilhah says, every place has its sacred meaning. Whatever Mystery we meet in the land of the genomes will not greet us with a human face, but, if we are receptive, it cannot fail to drop us to our knees with awe and reverence, fear and trembling, thanksgiving and praise.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Looking for heaven on Earth

And there it is again this week, at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, Heaven Is For Real, "a father recounts his 3-year-old son's encounter with Jesus and the angels during an emergency appendectomy." Yep, the boy visited heaven, saw angels with wings, God on his big throne, and departed Grandpa with a halo. And came back with a message: The end is near. And only Christians go to heaven.

The father, by the way, is an evangelical Christian pastor.

A similar book in 12th place (paperback): 90 Minutes in Heaven, "a minister on the otherworldly experience he had after an accident."

And I notice on Amazon's site another book that's doing extremely well, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, by Kevin Malarkey, an evangelical Christian therapist.

One would not wish the trauma of a near-death experience on anyone, especially a child, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of these authors. But it's hard not to be cynical, or at least discouraged, by the critical acumen of American readers.

Of course, I should talk. The stuff I believed as a child! Why have I ended up such a skeptic?

Because of my science education, which provided two crucial blessings: 1) a respect for empirical evidence; and 2) an appreciation for the intrinsic wonder of the natural world.

Come to think of it, there are things I believe now that are far more "unbelievable" than angels with wings and God on his big throne. And far more wonderful. The unceasing dance of the DNA, for example, in every one of the trillions of cells of my body.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

From out of left field

During the twenty years I was writing Science Musings for the Boston Globe, I frequently received letters from people (invariably men) promoting some off-beat scientific theory ranging from the clever to the merely silly. They were almost always accompanied by protests against the "close-mindedness" of the scientific establishment.

Can a fresh or oddball idea receive a fair hearing in science? Or is science locked up in an iron-bound orthodoxy that admits no breach of faith?

Any system of ideas that makes a claim to truth must be conservative. If every idea has equal currency in the marketplace of ideas then truth becomes a matter of whim, politics, expediency, or the tyranny of the strong.

Science has evolved an elaborate system of social organization, communication, and peer review to ensure a high degree of conformity with the existing orthodoxy. This conservative approach to change has allowed for an orderly and exhaustive examination of fruitful ideas. It has allowed science a measure of insulation from fads, political upheavals, religious conflicts, and international strife.

An offbeat idea has a hard time of it in science, but not an impossible time. Revolutions in science are few and far between, but they do happen. Science is conservative, but of all truth systems that have helped people organize experience, science is the most progressive.

My formulation was always this: Science must be radically open to marginal change and marginally open to radical change.

Pseudoscientists concentrate on anomalies and ignore the vast system of interlocking ideas that is orthodox science. Scientists focus on the orthodoxy and sometimes ignore the exceptions. Neither attitude towards observations is ideal, but the latter is certainly the most fruitful.

For the folks who sent me home-grown theories, the path towards scientific acceptance seems frustratingly strewn with obstacles. But science is the one truth system with its goal set firmly in the future rather than the past. Ironically, some measure of conservatism may be the best way to ensure that progress is made.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Plain old carbon

As plain as soot, as plain as the lead in a pencil. And old -- as old as fire, as old as the charcoal cave drawings of our Cro-Magnon ancestors. Carbon was one of the first elements to be utilized by humans in a pure form.

Plain and old, but hardly dull.

Of the 92 elements that make up the natural world, carbon is the most prolific when it comes to making molecules. Chemical compounds based on carbon outnumber the compounds of all other elements put together. We divide chemistry into two branches: organic chemistry (the chemistry of carbon compounds), and inorganic chemistry (the chemistry of everything else).

Carbon is special because of its ability to make links with itself. Chains and rings of carbon are at the heart of almost everything interesting in the natural world -- sex hormones, stimulant drugs, painkillers, tranquilizers, gasoline, plastics, dyes, soaps and detergents, artificial fibers, explosives, the pigments of fruits, the scents of flowers -- the list is endless.

Most importantly, carbon is the element of life. Every living thing is composed of carbon compounds.

Follow a typical journey of a carbon atom:

A candle burns, releasing carbon atoms. Some of the atoms link in pairs to make soot. Others combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, and drift away in the air. A flowering plant steals carbon dioxide from the air, and with sunlight makes glucose (sugar), by that wonderful process known as photosynthesis. The flower's sweet nectar attracts a bee. The bee makes wax. From the wax, a candle is made. The candle burns.

And so it goes, as carbon atoms cycle from place to place, stirring and animating the surface of the planet. Carbon -- plain old carbon, forged in the cores of dying stars, blasted into space in supernovas, the stuff of flesh and blood, God's favorite Tinker Toy.

Today we translocate, back to New England from the sunny Bahamas, hopefully as the daffodils bloom. I can't predict what will appear here for the next several days. Thank you for your faithful company on the porch.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Puss music

The animated feature film was born about the same time as me, Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Well, actually about a year later, but our gestation periods may have overlapped. Anyway, it was surely the first movie I saw in a theatre, and a scary one at that. But there was nothing scary about scenes like this one. The Disney genius at its best.

Whistle while you work. Who whistles anymore?

OK, OK, I know there are whistling championships and all that, but when is the last time you heard someone whistle a happy tune? Maybe about in the year 1951, with Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I.

Everyone whistled in the 1940s, including Bing Crosby and The Whistler. My childhood was filled with whistling. My father had a characteristic whistle he used to call us kids from play: who-WHEEEEEE-heeeeee (as best I can transcribe it). My spouse, who grew up in Brooklyn in the same era, tells me she could always tell who was walking by in the street by their whistles.

Then whistling went out of style. Maybe with the birth of rock and roll. Certainly the timing is right. No more whistling in the street; from the mid-50s on, it's rock around the clock. The Colonel Bogey March from The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957 was the grand finale.

In Ireland, in former times, folks too poor to have proper musical instruments held dances at the crossroads accompanied by "puss music." Has there been a proper history of whistling?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What we see...

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Saturday reprise

At the end of his big-bang book The First Three Minutes, physicist Steven Weinberg famously wrote: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

His point is this: We have discovered in this century that the human species is just one of billions of species of life on a typical planet near a star that is just one of a trillion stars in a galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies. It is no longer possible, he implies, to think that the universe was made for us or that our existence is in any way important on the cosmic scale.

Subsequently, in a book of interviews, Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer asked 27 top cosmologists what they thought of Weinberg's remark. Some agreed with Weinberg. Some emphatically disagreed. Responses ranged from traditional religious faith to total skepticism and indifference. Apparently, 27 of the world's most brilliant mathematicians and physicists are no better than the rest of us at figuring out the human meaning of the universe.

It occurred to me that I might confront some ordinary people, kids even, with Weinberg's remark and record their reactions.

For my first interview I called Molly Bloom, an old friend in Dublin, Ireland. It was very late at night when I spoke to Molly ( I had forgotten the five hour time difference). We talked about nature a bit, and what it all might mean. When I quoted Weinberg's remark to her she responded with some agitation:

"...God in heaven," said Molly, " there’s nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours spring up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is as for them saying theres no God I wouldn't give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why don’t they go and create something I often asked him atheists or whatever they call themselves go and wash the cobbles off themselves first then they go howling for the priest and they dying and why why because they're afraid of hell on account of their bad conscience ah yes I know them well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah that they don't know neither do I so there you are they might as well try to stop the sun from rising tomorrow..."

Excited by Molly's unpunctuated enthusiasm, I gave a call to Huck Finn, a friend of my youth from Hannibal, Missouri. How did he respond to Weinberg's impression of pointlessness, I asked. Huck was thoughtful, and then answered by recalling something that happened when he and a pal named Jim were drifting down the Mississippi River on a raft.

"It’s lovely to live on a raft," said Huck, his voice choked with nostalgia. "We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened."

"That question is certainly related to Weinberg's observation," I suggested, "especially when you consider the size and complexity of the universe. There's a heck of a lot of stars out there."

"Jim he allowed they was made," said Huck, "but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many."

"Ah, yes," I said. "Many modern cosmologists would seem to agree with you. The number of stars is staggering."

"Jim said the moon could a laid them," Huck said. "Well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it, cause I've seen a frog lay most as many."

I laughed: "I don't think many contemporary cosmologists would accept the frog-moon theory for the origin of stars."

My conversation with Huck reminded me of another friend of my youth, a kid from an asteroid called B-612, if I remember rightly. I never knew his real name; we called him the Little Prince.

Now it happened that he was in the neighborhood for another visit, so I gave him a buzz. We chatted for a while, recalling our earlier affection for one another. Then I quoted Steven Weinberg: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

He laughed, and said, "Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will be just one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all of the stars in the heavens."

I wasn't sure I understood his meaning.

"All men have the stars," he continued, "but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems."

"Like for my 27 cosmologists," I ventured.

"All these stars are silent," said the Little Prince, his voice so soft and gentle I could barely make it out over the noisy telephone line. "You -- you alone -- will have the stars as no one else has them --"

I was still perplexed. I did not exactly see what this had to do with finding a human meaning in the universe of galaxies.

"In one of the stars I shall be living," he said. "In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing when you look at the sky at night...You -- only you -- will have stars that can laugh!"

And he laughed again.

(A slightly different version of this post appeared on October 22, 2006.)

Friday, March 18, 2011


I once spent six months researching and writing in the Boole Library of University College Cork, in Ireland. Each morning, as I made my way to my desk, I passed beneath the watchful eyes of George Boole (1815-1864), whose stern but kindly portrait hangs in a place of honor.

The name will be familiar to every computer scientist. George Boole's algebra of logic underlies the design of all modern computers. The memorial plaque on his home in Cork (not far from where I lived at the time) boldly calls him "the father of computer science."

Boole's story illustrates the power of the human mind to escape the commonplace -- in two ways. With nothing but pluck and hard work the poor son of a shoemaker lifted himself to a professorship of higher mathematics. And in his mathematical researches, Boole freed algebra from its long servitude to arithmetic. No less an authority than Bertrand Russell credited Boole with the discovery of pure mathematics.

Russell's appraisal may be an exaggeration, but no one underestimates Boole's contribution to the 20th century. His mathematics of invariants became part of the inspiration for Einstein's theory of relativity. And the "Laws of Thought" which Boole published in 1854 provide the language for digital computing.

Boole was born in Lincoln, England, in the year of Waterloo, into poverty no less restricting than that of his American contemporary Abraham Lincoln. In 19th-century America a boy might be encouraged to better his position in life, but in class-bound Britain it was expected that sons or daughters of the lower classes should stay uncomplainingly in their places. Boole wanted out, but with no clear idea where he could go. With no education beyond primary (a knowledge of the shorter catechism was considered an appropriate level of instruction for a shoemaker's son), Boole taught himself Latin, Greek, French and German. His father, a man of wide-ranging curiosity, inspired Boole to study mathematics and natural philosophy. At the age of 19, the precocious youngster opened his own school at Lincoln.

Boole learned mathematics by reading (in French) the works of the great French masters, Lacroix, Laplace, and Lagrange, plodding by candlelight through horrendously demanding texts, forced to invent for himself all of the mathematical preliminaries he had never learned in school.

Perhaps because he was self-taught Boole noticed things about the symmetry and beauty of mathematics that the great mathematicians had missed, most notably the germ of the theory of invariance, which later became the basis for Einsteinian relativity.

The originality of Boole's work was soon recognized, and in 1849 he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the newly established Queen's College in Cork, now University College, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1854 he published the work for which he is now chiefly known, "An Investigation of the Laws of Thought."

The gist of Boole's contribution was to recognize that the symbols of algebra, such as X, Y, + and x, need not refer only to numbers or operations on numbers. Boole applied them to the terms and categories of human thought.

His free-ranging algebra eventually become the basis for the theory of digital computers, but in the short run it helped liberate mathematics from the tyranny of numbers. After Boole (and his contemporary William Rowan Hamilton), mathematicians felt free to explore abstract worlds of their own invention.

Boole died at age 50, only ten years after the publication of his great book, leaving behind a grieving wife and five young daughters. Anyone who wishes to argue that scientific talent is genetically transmitted can do no better that refer to the daughters of George and Mary Boole.

Alicia became a mathematician of considerable talent, like her father self-taught. Lucy was a chemist, the first woman Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Free Hospital, London. Margaret is best remembered for her son, the well-known physicist Geoffrey Ingram Taylor. Mary's husband, the mathematician Charles Hinton, wrote on worlds of dimensions other than three; he was probably inspired by his mother-in-law and her daughters. Perhaps most interesting is Ethel, whose life as a political radical, revolutionary, possible lover of master spy Sydney Reilly, and best-selling novelist deserves a book to herself.

Boole's wife Mary, herself only 32 at the time of his death, went on to make eccentric but interesting contributions to the psychology of education.

The key word here is liberation. In using his mind to liberate himself from burdens of poverty and class, George Boole helped liberate mathematics from restricting conventions of the past. He also pointed the way for his wife and five daughters to chart unconventional courses at a time when women were expected to act in strict subservience to men.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Eppur si muove

A few more words about Galileo.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II formally proclaimed that the Church erred in condemning Galileo. The condemnation resulted from a "tragic mutual incomprehension," said the pope, and became a symbol of the Church's "supposed rejection of scientific progress."

As I recall, the photograph that accompanied the newspaper story about the church's "rehabilitation" of Galileo showed John Paul II dressed in Renaissance garb sitting on a Renaissance throne in a Renaissance palace, surrounded by other men (no women) also dressed in Renaissance clothes. All that was missing was the seventy-year-old man on his knees on the marble floor. The photograph, I wrote at the time, was symbolic: In spite of the pope's cautious and carefully-worded proclamation to the contrary, orthodox theology and science remain essentially at odds.

I recently searched the web (including the Vatican's website) for the photo, unsuccessfully. I know that some of you are better at this than I am. If you can track down the photo, I'd be grateful.

Essentially at odds? The heart of the Galileo affair was not the question of whether the Earth orbited the Sun or the other way around. The ongoing tension between science and religion has nothing to do with heliocentricity, the big bang, evolution, or neurobiology. At issue is the fundamental assumption that underlies all science -- that the universe unfolds in an ordered and consistent way that is susceptible to analysis by empirical observation and mathematical logic. Or to put it more bluntly: No supernatural agency intervenes arbitrarily in nature.

The only proof of this metascientific assumption is the pudding: Natural science has been spectacularly successful (witness my sitting here communicating around the world, instantly, wirelessly). Supernaturalists have yet to offer anything other than anecdotal or hearsay evidence for any supposed miraculous event, including the one that is central to the faith.

There is not, of course, any way to disprove the assertions of supernaturalists, nor would I wish to. Perhaps the man Jesus was indeed the same person who created 100 billion galaxies. Perhaps he did rise from the dead. Perhaps his mother immaculately conceived and now resides somewhere in her uncorrupted earthly body, as Catholics are required to believe. All such assertions are immune to empirical examination. So the standoff continues, and Church authorities wear their patriarchal Renaissance garb with the same confident flair as they embrace their Renaissance cosmology.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Heretical depravity

What was he thinking during the night of June 21-22, 1633, confined by the Holy Office in Rome, waiting for the moment the next day when he would be asked to kneel before the assembled cardinals and Dominican friars of the Inquisition and recite the recantation that had been prepared for him, denying that he now believed or ever had believed that the Sun, rather than the Earth, is the center of the cosmos? Seventy years old, blind, caught in a bind partly of his own making, believing firmly (we must suppose) that Copernicus' heliocentric system is true, but fearing too the fate that might await him should he refuse to recant. The Holy Office was not known for its gentleness with heretics.

The long hours of darkness. Thinking, perhaps, of his life's work, especially his spectacular telescopic discoveries, all of which led him inexorably to believe in the double motion of the Earth. Thinking too of the work he had yet to do, which would (as it turned out), even in his blindness, lay the foundations for modern physics. Thinking of his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, who urged him to be a faithful son of the Church.

His body old, his sight gone. His pride intact. Now, surely, was the time to make a stand, to assert the evidence of the senses over blind dogma, stale authority. To resist the abject humiliation of kneeling on the cold marble floor, of speaking the objectionable words.

The hours. The minutes. The interminable darkness. Did he sleep? Did he imagine the flames licking at his feet should he fail to recant? Did he believe, even in some deep recess of his spirit, in the greater fires of Hell? Did he wonder about his immortal soul?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Lost innocence

When my friend the sculptor John Holstead was last here on the island he left as a gift a beautiful guidebook to the wildlife of north Florida. Our flora and fauna have enough overlap with Florida to make the book useful. But I see now as I am using the book to identify a bird that there is a place in north Florida widely thought to have been the site of the Garden of Eden.

Literally. The guidebook doesn't make clear why this particular landscape rates being the primal paradise, but it is not unusual for biblical literalists in various places to claim their own locality as Adam and Eve's abode. The Mormons, of course, put Eden in Missouri, conveniently close to where Joseph Smith tried to establish a colony of followers. He was not the first or last prophet to bring Genesis home.

My Wildlife of North Florida book makes a pretty good case for a North Florida Eden, but it has nothing to do with religion. The beautiful Photoshopped assemblages of creatures have a familiarity about them; for example, the double-page spread of "white waders" -- egrets, stork, ibis and spoonbill -- somehow reminds me of the foreground aviary in Hieronymus Bosch's Eden.

This much is true: Any place can be a garden of innocence if we make it so. And if we have been thrust out of Eden into a damaged world, we can't blame it on a snake or a peeved deity. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Deep in the belly of the Sun, where the temperature is 10 million degrees, protons -- the nuclei of hydrogen -- are fused together to form the heavier nuclei of helium. By a marvelous magic of nature, the helium nuclei weigh about one percent less than the total weight of the four protons out of which it was made. Mass has vanished from the universe. And in its place -- energy.

Every second at the Sun's core, 660 million tons of hydrogen is converted into 655 million tons of helium. The missing 5 million tons is turned into an amount of energy equal to the vanished mass times the speed of light squared. The rate of conversion is prodigious, but the amount of hydrogen in a Sunlike star is virtually inexhaustible. The Sun will burn for another 5 billion years before it has exhausted the hydrogen at its core.

All of that energy produced deep in the Sun takes several million years to make its way to the surface, up through a half-million miles of roiling plasma. At the surface, it is hurled into space as heat and light. Eight minutes later, a tiny fraction of this flux bathes the Earth -- to warm the planet and sustain photosynthesis.

Imagine the Sun as a basketball. On this scale, the Earth would be a pinhead about 85 feet away. The Sun pours out its energy in every direction. Only that part that falls upon the pinhead can we count as ours. It would be nice to think that the Sun burns for us alone, but the vast majority of its bounty is destined for deep space.

We catch what we can. Every second, about a millionth of a millionth of an ounce of the Sun's depleted mass falls onto my body as I lie on the sand. I consume the Sun.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


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

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Saturday reprise

While I'm on the subject of trees, I can't resist sharing one of my favorites, this magnificent copper beech that overspreads the nun's cemetery in the grounds of the Presentation Sisters convent in Dingle, Ireland.

The convent now stands empty, and no one knows quite what to do with it. The chapel is magnificent, lit by gorgeous Harry Clarke stained-glass windows that take one's breath away. But no more sisters. In one memorable year decades ago, my two daughters were taught here by nuns, and splendid women they were too. Today, girls in the Dingle primary and secondary schools are taught by lay people. Generations of Presentation sisters lay sleeping among the roots of the beech, and few young women are enlisting to take their places.

But back to the tree -- which seems to have adapted its form to shade the sleeping nuns -- a cultivated ornamental variety of the common beech, Fagus sylvatica. If oaks are the rugged masculine icons of the forest, the beeches, with their elegance and smooth skin, have something decidedly feminine about them. Not the spritely femininity of a young girl, but the stately solemnity of a Queen Mother. Just as when one enters a medieval cathedral one senses the predominant spirit of the Virgin, rather than her God-Son, so when one enters a beech grove one feels the spirit of the ancient Mother-goddess of European forests, here in Ireland called Mor-Rioghna, the earthy feminine counterpart of the Sun-deity.

Yes, I'm anthropomorphizing, but why not? Metaphor is one of the ways we bind the world together, solidify our kinship with other creatures. Without some overlay of metaphor this copper beech in the convent garden is just another pretty tree. But as Mor-Rioghna she spreads her purple-green mantle over her sleeping acolytes, women who gave their lives to the teaching of girls, including -- gratefully -- briefly, my daughters.

(This post originally appeared in June 2007.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Filling in the blanks

For most of the Christian centuries -- until the 14th -- maps of the world were commonly centered on Jerusalem and those parts of the globe of which the cartographers had no knowledge were filled in willy-nilly as their imaginations ran riot, often with totally fictitious lands, monsters and aberrations of every sort.

It has been suggested that the Catalan Atlas of 1375 was the first European cartographic production to omit what it did not know. As Daniel Boorstin has written: "In an impressive feat of self-control, the cartographer actually left parts of the earth blank."

Old traditions die hard, and the admission of ignorance is a rare human virtue. Imaginary lands -- such as a supposed great southern continent -- endured on some European maps right up to the time of Captain Cook.

Eventually the spirit of the Catalan Atlas prevailed, at least within the scientific community, and no cartographer today would dream of adding to a map of this world or any other what has not been confirmed to exist.

The courage to leave blank. To have unanswered questions. To say "I don't know." This, I would suggest, is the grandest achievement of the European Scientific Revolution.

It is not, of course, even today, a prevailing view. Most folks still fill in their conceptual maps of the world with imaginary constructs, most commonly that portmanteau "answer" to every unanswered question, God.

Some of us are content to live with the blank spaces on the map.

What came before the Big Bang? I don't know.

Why are the laws of nature what they are? I don't know.

How did life begin? I don't know.

How does a fertilized egg reliably develop into a human baby? I don't know.

What is the nature of consciousness? I don't know.

Big questions. Whole continents of knowledge waiting to be explored -- and, possibly, eventually mapped. In the meantime, we leave aside the fictional constructs that give an illusion of knowledge.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The bat caves

On the forested and sparsely inhabited backside of the island are two caves a local led me to many years ago. As far as I know, the only people who have since visited are people I have brought there, including, at one time or the other, all of my grandchildren. Was there last week with Kate and Charlotte, and their dad who took the pics.

The caves are something right out of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn: tiny entrances you must crawl through that open out into spacious caverns. And bats! Large colonies of bats hanging from the ceilings. When we enter with our lights they flit and swarm.

Bats (so the story goes) get tangled in your hair. Bats carry rabies. Bats are flying rats. Bats suck your blood.

Nobody likes a bat, and that's that.

Alas, the good name of bats is besmirched by superstition. Our antipathy toward these furry flying mammals has little foundation in scientific fact and hastens their demise. The needless destruction of roost sites, pesticides, and a declining food supply (mostly insects) are important factors in the plight of bats. But the biggest obstacle facing bat conservationists is bad press. Whales, bluebirds, and baby seals are loved by one and all, but nobody likes a bat.

Why not? The poet Ruth Pitter picked up a tiny bat dragged in by the cat and found it "warm as milk, clean as a flower, smooth as silk." I once held an orphaned bat in my hand: an adorable furry mouse with wings. And to one and all who dislike bats I recommend the poet Randall Jarrell's delightful children's book The Bat-Poet. Who can read lines like the following and still find nothing to like about bats:
A bat is born
Naked and blind and pale,
His mother makes a pocket of her tail
And catches him. He clings to her long fur
By his thumbs and toes and teeth.
And the mother dances through the night
Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting --
Her baby hangs on underneath.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

All and once and nothing first

As I have said before, the geckoes and anoles are everywhere. This place should be called "Lizard House," not "Starlight House." They skitter. They climb. They hang upside down. Fearless, they seem. They will sit in place, pulsing their dewlaps, and let you almost touch them. We love their company.

Alas, yesterday a gecko fell afoul of my step. I saw him just as I was about to put my foot down, and jerked my foot to the side. He darted too, in the same direction. Squash!

I don't like killing any creature. I mop up ants on the kitchen countertop with sadness -- all those exquisite machines! OK, OK, centipedes I kill without a qualm. But geckoes. Never. And so remorse.

At least it was quick. My mother's death a few years ago came after a long and debilitating decline. Years of increasing helplessness. It was not the way she wanted to go. She used to quote to me a line from Oliver Wendell Holmes' "The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay," about a one-horse carriage so contrived that when its time came to expire "it went to pieces all at once, -- all at once, and nothing first, -- just as bubbles do when they burst." That's the way she wanted to go.

Don't we all.

If Holmes' deacon could design such a carriage, why not natural selection? Well, part of the answer may be that it didn't have to. For most of evolutionary history most creatures didn't live long enough for senescence to be a problem. Even for humans, until recently, death began to reap its harvest starting at birth, and the number of people living to a given age steadily declined until old age took the few remaining survivors. The human survival curve was the same as that for sparrows or geckoes. Which may be why genes that cause senescence have not been deleted or modified by natural selection.

These days the progress of medical science and our relative peace and safety means the human survival curve is becoming more and more "rectangular", with more and more of us getting to experience the so-called "golden years." Perhaps not so golden. At seventy-four I feel my springs and axles, hubs and spokes, panels and crossbars wearing out. One by one.

I have blogged here before about robust secularist Susan Jacoby's books. She has a new one out of a rather different sort, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, a not particularly sanguine view of what I have to look forward to.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Updates are available

Moses went up the mountain.

There God gave him Ten Commandments carved into stone tablets. The tablets were labeled "Version 1.0."

"I am the Lord thy God, thy shalt not have strange gods before thee."

And all the rest.

Moses thanked the Lord and went down the mountain.

He gave the Commandments to his people. They wrote the Commandments in their holy books. They began to use the Commandments to order their lives. It was difficult at first, but soon things were going swimmingly. The people were happy.

God came to Moses in a dream. "I have an update," he said. "Version 1.1. It will make the Commandments easier to follow. And cover more ethical questions." He whispered the update to Moses.

Moses gave the update to his people. They erased a few words of the older Commandments from their holy books, and wrote new words in the margins. It was a bit of a bother, but it did make the Commandments easier to follow.

A few people did not revise their holy books. They stuck with Version 1.0. But soon they decided to go along too, for the sake of conformity.

Months passed, and again God came to Moses in a dream. "Another update," said God.

And so Moses went to the people with Version 1.2.

More erasing, more scribbling in margins, but the people wanted to be up-to-date. They wanted to have the latest Godware. Most of them, at least.

There was some grumbling. "Version 1.1 was fine," some people said. "We don't need the bells and whistles."

Soon Versions 1.3 and 1.4 were spoken to Moses in dreams, and the holy books were becoming a bit of a mess. People could not remember which version of the Commandments they were supposed to be following.

But God had not been idle. After a decent time elapsed, he again called Moses to the mountain. He handed Moses new and bigger tablets.

"The Commandments5.0," he said. "You can't live without them."

"What happened to Versions 2, 3 and 4?" asked Moses.

"Oh, this is far, far better that that," said God. "This is a quantum leap forward. User friendly. Many new features."

"But it's too big," said Moses. "It won't fit into our holy books."

"Time to buy new holy books," said God. "Bigger, better holy books, with lots of spare pages. I can't believe you are still using those tattered old volumes from three years ago."

Moses looked at the big tablets and groaned. "I'm sure these new Commandments5.0 are fine," he said, "but don't all these situational refinements and hair-splitting distinctions make it harder to tell right from wrong? How in the world will the people keep the rules in mind?"

"I am the Lord thy God," said God. "Folks who continue using Commandments1 will get no support from me."

Moses went down from the mountain and ordered his people to buy bigger and better holy books, with lots of spare pages.

"Why do we need all that extra space?" the people asked.

But no sooner had they copied Commandments5.0 into the books than God gave Moses update 5.1. Then 5.2. Then 5.3. Soon the extra pages were filled and the erasing began. And the scribbling in margins. People began squabbling over the meaning of the laws. Almost no one could keep in mind all the features of Commandments5.

Three years passed and Moses got another call to the mountain. UltraCommandments10.0. "Makes everything else obsolete," said God. "A feature for every ethical situation you are likely to encounter. You can't live without it."

"And besides, no more support for Commandments5.0," said God.

"It will never fit in the holy books," protested Moses.

"New books," said God.

So Moses lugged the voluminous new tablets down the mountain, and when the people saw him coming, they ran and hid -- except for a few commandment nerds, who just had to have the latest Godware.

"Wow," said the nerds. "Seventy-three ways to keep holy the sabbath. Twenty-seven ways to covet thy neighbor's wife. Forty-five ways to…"

"New books!" commanded Moses.

Moses and the nerds cast about, looking for the people.

"Hurry!" shouted Moses. "Version 10.1 is coming soon."

But the people had slipped away and gathered in a remote place. They abandoned the holy books. They fetched a single fine piece of parchment, and on it they wrote the Godware that was appropriate to their needs:

"Do unto others…"

Monday, March 07, 2011

Selene and Endymion

In the early part of last week we watched a waning crescent Moon slide past blazing Venus in the predawn sky. On Friday the Moon was new, and lost in the light of the Sun. Saturday was cloudy, but the sky cleared brilliantly at sunset, except for a band of low clouds in the west frustrating my slim chance of seeing the whisker-thin moon hiding in the twilight with Mercury.

Last night, a two-day-old waxing crescent, still wondrously thin, had climbed away from the setting Sun to join Jupiter. An eyelash. The paring of a nail. Holding the Earth-lit orb in its arms. If one had been standing on the Moon last evening, the Earth would have been almost full in the lunar sky, with only a crescent of darkness on its eastern rim where I was slipping into night.

Why? Why follow the Moon in its peregrinations? Because I can. Because the skies here are dark and clear and the horizon sweeps clear around. Because the Moon is part of my here and now, a beautiful part, telling time, marking out the passage of the days, punctuating the poetry and prose of life. Watching the Moon is part of what the poet Mary Oliver calls "the slow and difficult/ Trick of living, and finding it where you are."

Sunday, March 06, 2011


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

Saturday, March 05, 2011

A Saturday reprise

Books about Thoreau have become something of a cottage industry in recent years. Now comes David Robinson's Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism. Robinson, a Professor of English at Oregon State University, does not add a lot that we didn't already know about the so-called hermit of Walden, but he puts a twist on the story that reminds us just why this guy with the Abe Lincoln beard and melancholy gaze continues to intrigue us these many years on.

Well, I can't speak for others, but I keep returning to Thoreau because he was the first to teach me that one can have religion without the supernatural and science without scientism. And this is exactly what Robinson's title is all about.

Upon his return from his week-long boating trip on the Concord River with brother John, Thoreau resolved to change the way he lived. He wrote: "Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. Man would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him. He needs not only to be spiritualized but naturalized, on the soil of the earth."

In seeking a "natural life," Thoreau meant to live as part of an organic whole, not separate from nature, not clinging to the divine like a helpless child, but as the sturdy elm about which the vine clings. He shunned talk of immaterial souls, and, like Whitman, stood in awe of the body. "Talk of mysteries! -- Think of our life in nature, -- daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, -- rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact!"

The actual world! The world of common sense and the common senses. The world he could touch, and taste, and see, and hear, and smell. This is where he would encounter the divine -- in the wind on his cheek.

He took scientists to task too. He did not reject science; he read and approved of Darwin's great book, for example. But he feared that in their experimental rigor scientists would lose sight of the organicity of nature. He was not a romantic in the mold of Wordsworth or Goethe; he relished knowing the secret inner workings of nature that science reveals. But the natural life he sought would not be found on the lab bench, or under the dissector's knife, but in silence, solitude, and reverie.

Thoreau was smart enough to know that science cannot be done while sauntering in moonlight, his own favorite activity. By definition, science is a matter of reduction and dissection. A scientist cannot lead a "natural life" as a scientist. But a scientist can live a natural life as a woman or a man.

(This post originally appeared in May, 2007.)

Friday, March 04, 2011


And back there, on the sunset side of the island, it’s a different story.

Here, in the east, we face a deep tongue of the ocean. Just a half-mile off shore, beyond the fringing reef, turquoise water gives way to deep blue and plunges deep. The prevailing wind -- those balmy zephyrs -- in our face. On the west side of the island the Bahama Bank, a hundred miles of water almost shallow enough to walk across from one side to the other. At low tide one can wade far enough from shore to feel like you've left the solid ground behind. Water the color of sunlight, sea and sand. With hardly a ripple to lap your knees.

And here, following behind me on a retreating tide, a mangrove marching on spindly legs, its green bonnet soaking up sun. Legs just long enough to keep its head above water when the tide returns.

Ah, life. That imperative of living protoplasm to occupy every available niche. To fill to overflowing. No easy trick for a land plant to survive in salt water, in anaerobic "soil". Natural selection had some work to do. But lots of time.

That imperative to occupy every niche. Human have it too. And mangroves, unfortunately, here in the Bahamas, as elsewhere, occupy the same touristic niche developers want to occupy. The little guy in the pic above better keep moving. The bulldozers are not far behind.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The problem of evil

In recent months I have read quite a few of the remarkable writers coming out of Caribbean-American culture, such as Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic), Michelle Cliff (Jamaica), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), Carlos Eire (Cuba), and, just now, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Dominican Republic). Let me comment on just one aspect of their work -- their often mind-numbing descriptions of life under dictators such as Cuba's Baptista, Haiti's Duvalier, and (with Diaz) The Dominican Republic's Trujillo, who ruled that country from 1930 to 1961 with ruthless brutality.

Of course, monstrously evil strongmen are not unique to the Greater Antilles, but I put down Diaz's book wondering how it is that anyone can be so gratuitously casual about human suffering. Yes, I can understand how natural selection might favor violent behavior in defense of the clan, but where does this taste for torture come from, this apparent satisfaction in seeing a fellow human subjected to excruciating agony far in excess of any defensive need? Out of what dark recess of human nature does such sadism spring?

Demonic possession? That age-old explanation doesn't fly anymore. And theodicy is a bankrupt game. We are on our own, wrestling with our own biological natures, trying to make the best of the cards nature and nurture have dealt us. Some of those cards are bloodthirst, power and greed. Others are kindness, humility and unselfishness. For every Trujillo there are Mirabal sisters. And I'll posit this: To the extent that empirical knowing and humanistic values have taken root in the world, the Toequemadas and Trujillos have been in retreat.

We can all aspire to the courage of the Mirabal sisters, and wonder what risks we might personally take to face down evil. We might also ponder to what extent we sublimate our own inner Trujillos in slasher movies and violent video games -- not to mention our very own national nook in the Greater Antilles where waterboarding had its day.

Science can study the genetic and cultural roots of violent and sadistic behaviors, but it is the writers -- the Alvarezes, Cliffs, Danticats, Eires and Diazes, for example -- who hold up the brightest mirrors to our faces. Great literature has always been on the side of the angels.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Death star

Every year Science Magazine and the National Science Foundation team up to run a competition to recognize the most effective and cutting-edge efforts at visualizing scientific data, principles, or ideas. Here is this year's winner, a cutaway computer model of the HIV virus (you can read about what you are seeing here) by Ivan Konstantinov, Yury Stefanov, Aleksander Kovalevsky, and Yegor Voronin.

I borrow here from my daughter's blog. She claims to see a resemblance to the Star Wars Death Star, and acknowledges a chill down the spine. I know the infernal colors are artificial, but I can't look at this image without thinking of Hieronymus Bosch's Hell. A bit more of a reach, I know, but there you have it.

A thousand of these viral particles could line up across the period at the end of this sentence. A shell of proteins and lipids. Inside, the genome, two copies of single-stranded RNA and the enzymes necessary for viral replication.

What human misery this virus has caused. What a wealth of creative talent cut short! What a slaughter of innocents! Bosch believed demons were afoot in the world, the Devil's minions. No, what is afoot -- these minute Death Stars -- is utterly amoral. RNA replication has perhaps been going on since before DNA replication appeared on the scene. Is a virus alive? It can only reproduce inside a host cell. It needs us as much as we need cows and potatoes. More. Its needs are more specific. It's a dog-eat-dog world we live in. Sometimes we are the eaters. Sometimes we are the eaten.

But we are not without resources, not least the science that can image and fight the virus. And moral consciousness.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The dark cloths of night

For years I taught a general studies astronomy course for liberal arts students. And often, when we reached the home galaxy, I asked, "How many of you have seen the Milky Way?" The answer was usually one or two at most out of a class of thirty.

Which is no surprise. I can't see the Milky Way from my neighborhood, which is about half-way between Boston, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. You'd have to live somewhere pretty far out in the country to see the Milky Way from the eastern United States.

We first came to this little island in the central Bahamas looking for dark skies. The movie Frankie Starlight paid for the house. We called it "Starlight House," and foreswore any outside lighting. The Milky Way draped itself gloriously across our sky, a luminous river of light. Even the zodiacal light was prominent, that post-sunset, pre-sunrise pillar of sunlight reflected into the night sky by dust in the plane of the solar system. The Beehive in Cancer, the Double Cluster in Perseus, the Andromeda Galaxy -- all visible to the naked eye. We never tired of the dark.

Then the government installed street lighting (of the most environmentally unfriendly sort) along the Queen's Highway. We managed to forestall a street light at the foot of our driveway, but our Bahamian neighbor down the lane welcomed the illumination, and who can blame her; she feels much safer. When the Four Seasons resort (now Sandals) arrived on the island, four miles from our house, it cast a pernicious glow on the northern horizon.

We watched the Milky Way last evening from the beach with grandchildren, but it was a pale imitation of what we saw fifteen years ago. I wonder if there will be any place in the world where my grandchildren's grandchildren will be able to go and see the galaxy in all of its undiminished splendor.

All praise to the International Dark-Sky Association for their good work, and to Fred Schaaf for his annual reports in Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar. Meanwhile, our sweet little planet lights up like a Christmas tree and the glorious universe of which we are a part fades inexorably from view.
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W. B. Yeats