Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Saturday reprise -- Silence

"Every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden is not true." Pascal, Pensees

"Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper." 1 Kings 19:11-12

I'm weary of words. Our national discourse has become loud and shrill. Everywhere we go, it seems, we are followed by the strident staccato of Wolf Blitzer urging us towards the edge of our seats. In doctors' offices, airport lounges, bars and restaurants, dozens of talking heads bombard us with opinions. Politics has become a warfare of words, verbal grenades lobbed back and forth, shattering our eardrums. The blogosphere gets ever more angry, metastasizing into a hundred million malignant cells.

I weary even of my own words, which have their own abrasive edge. More and more, I long for silence, most especially my own. I'm tired of my own voice, nattering on. That's simple, you say -- just shut up. Close the laptop and put it away.

Easier said than done. Thought and words are inseparable. Thoughts cry out for expression. All the philosophers tell us: Language defines our humanity. Seal your lips and you cease to be human.

Well, yes and no. Thoreau rejoiced in the hoot of the owl in the twilight woods. But he also took note of the interval between the hoots, a deepened silence that suggested "a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized." That's where I want to go, into the silent interval, deepened and made more alluring by the bracketing hoots.

The silence that Thoreau wrote about is not just an absence of sound; it is no less than the voice of the God Pascal speaks of in the epigraph to this essay, the Deus Absconditus of the mystics who eludes every spoken word, most especially, perhaps, the personal pronoun "who." The silence Thoreau speaks of is not separate from nature. It is the vast and unarticulated nature which lies beyond our present knowing.

So, yes, silence is more than mere absence of sound. Ladislaus Boros says that "silence opens up the finite world to the infinite." Note that "finite" and "infinite" are not synonyms for "natural" and "supernatural." The natural universe we inhabit may indeed be infinite, and in any case is effectively so. The finite is that which we presently understand and speak of reliably in language. The infinite is that which is yet unspoken. The infinite is the great silence in which we live and move and have our being.

In all of this, science is closer to the mystics than are many traditionally religious people. Scientists do not speak of what they do not know. Scientists as venerable as Joseph Priestly and Thomas Huxley spoke of knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. The island grows by our painstaking efforts; the sea remains. If the mystery speaks to us at all, it is a gentle whisper. The typical religious person, on the other hand, never ceases to talk of knowing God, even claiming a "personal relationship." The typical religious person fills the interval between the hoots with chants and prayers and theologies and apologetics and revelations -- a clamorous sea of language where language has no place.

But silence has its champions within all religious traditions. In the last century perhaps no one spoke so poetically of silence as the German Catholic philosopher Max Picard. His best known book is called The World of Silence:
It is a sign of the love of God that a mystery is always separated from man by a layer of silence. And that is a reminder that man should also keep a silence in which to approach the mystery. Today, when there is only noise in and around man, it is difficult to approach the mystery. When the layer of silence is missing, the extraordinary easily becomes connected with the ordinary, with the routine flow of things...What many preachers say about the Mystery of God is often lifeless and therefore ineffectual. What they say comes only from words jumbled up with many thousands of other words...But it is in silence that the first meeting between man and the Mystery of God is accomplished, and from silence the word also receives the power to become extraordinary as the Mystery of God is extraordinary.
One need not be a Christian, or even a theist, to grasp the truth in what Picard has to say. And again let me stress that "ordinary" and "extraordinary" are not synonyms for "natural" and supernatural; every ordinary thing is enveloped within the extraordinary as words are enveloped by silence.

We call the origin of the universe the Big Bang. But there was no "bang." There was energy, light, then matter, and -- and silence. The world came into being wrapped in silence. We speak, we write, we blog, we chatter, and all of that is what makes us human, but it's all idle when disconnected from the the great silence which is the universe. "Silence is God's first language," said John of the Cross. We make sacraments of owls -- audible signs of the silence between the hoots.

Max Picard linked silence to faith. The more important link is to humility. Silence is the great teacher that cautions us to hold our tongue in the face of what we do not know. On which note, I will shut up.

(This slightly modified post originally appeared in October 2008.)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Poem -- 2

Yesterday, I took eight brief lines of the poet William Carlos Williams and used them to make a point. Used, I hope not abused. Williams' poem takes its power by just standing there, on the page, as the red wheelbarrow stands in the yard. It doesn't have to mean anything. It just has to affect us in some powerful, mysterious way. A poem can affect us in the same way a sudden encounter in the street with a stunningly beautiful woman (or man) can make a smile erupt from ear to ear. In an instant, she is gone, but the smile lasts half the day.

And so it was, surely, that you took pleasure in William's poem even without the rhetorical context I built around it. The pleasure you took was undoubtedly conditioned by your love of language, by your capacity for surprise, by your openness to the new and unexpected. Images of red wheelbarrows fall on the retinas of countless eyes, but not everyone sees in a way on which so much depends.

Let me quote now another eight-line poem, by Charles Simic:

All they need
Is one little red dress
To start swaying
In that empty closet

For the rest of them
To nudge each other,
Clicking like knitting needles
Or disapproving tongues.
Wire coat hangers along a rail in an empty closet. What could be more prosaic? More commonplace? Why would a poet even take notice? Aren't poems supposed to be about lofty things? God? Love? Grecian urns?

What I like about poetry is not its capacity to lift us out of the ordinary, but to reveal the extraordinary in the commonplace. Wire hangers. And that little red dress -- in the poet's imagination -- shimmying saucily, and -- listen! -- the biddies with their knitting glancing at each other with raised eyebrows, tut-tutting. What joy to have the poet tickle our prejudices, make us smile, feel young again, and send us back into a world in which wire hangers will never be the same. Nothing is only what it seems, and revelation is everywhere.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


(Let me excerpt today a few paragraphs from When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy. I do so because I want tomorrow to begin here, and then go somewhere else. So if you've read the book, bear with me and be reminded. If you haven't read the book -- well, now's the chance to order it.)

Consider this well-known, much-loved eight-line poem by William Carlos Williams:
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
The poem has been discussed endlessly by critics, but the secret of its appeal remains elusive. Sixteen words. Nursery words. No capitalization. No punctuation. The simplicity of the poem belies its power. Certainly, simplicity is part of the poem's meaning. It affirms something that we all know, even if we cannot put our knowledge into words. Something that exists beyond words, beyond philosophy, beyond science. So much depends. So much depends upon something we can intuit -- in silent, jubilant beholding -- but not express, not as scientists, not as theologians. Something hidden deep in the exquisite complexity of the world. It is the thing that Thomas Merton draws our attention to in his discussion of prayer, and in particular what he calls "prayer of the heart." He writes: "In the 'prayer of the heart' we seek first of all the deepest ground of our identity in God. We do not reason about dogmas of faith, or 'the mysteries.' We seek rather to gain a direct existential grasp, a personal experience of the deepest truths of life and faith." We discern this truth in direct and simple attention to reality, he says.

We need not feel obliged to use the G-word to appreciate Merton's notion of prayer. Apprehension of a red wheel barrow glazed with rain can be the highest kind of prayer, if, as the poet suggests, we are aware that so much depends upon the apprehending. We are struck, rung like a bell, a shudder down the spine. Color, shape, texture, matter, animation: red, wheel, glazed, water, chicken. Not a mighty wind that shatters rocks or tumbles the walls of Jericho. Not Lazarus waking from the dead. Not a miraculous cure of a terrible disease. Rather, a red barrow glazed with rain. The prayer of the heart is not garrulous. It listens in silence, expectant. If, as so many of the mystics said, the creation is the primary revelation, then it is when we listen to what is that we hear the voice of God.

(More tomorrow.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The question is...

I was a little hesitant yesterday to use that phrase from Philip Larkin's Aubade to refer to the Roman Catholic Church -- "that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade." It seemed unnecessarily harsh. But there you have it, as my neighbors in Ireland say.

The Church I grew up in was indeed a vast, moth-eaten brocade. The music was sometimes grand, particularly the traditional canon -- Gregorian chant, Bach, Handel. The refrains of the Tantum Ergo and Dies Irae still echo pleasantly in my head.

Make no mistake: I have a great affection for the Church of my youth. I loved the whole physicality of the liturgy, the colored vestments, the candlelight, the incense, the bread and wine, the bells. I carried something of that sacramental theology into my secular life -- the stuff of the world as visible signs of invisible grace. Not supernatural grace, to be sure, but the grace implicit in a universe we will never fully understand.

Oh yes, I could still be a happy Catholic if it were all rite and ritual celebrating the ineffable mystery of existence and the life of the mortal man who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. I appreciate the ancient myths as part of our cultural heritage. I understand the importance in our lives of rites of passage and collective celebration. I honor contemporary saints like Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton and Thomas Berry. I have lauded here and elsewhere the many professed women who are trying to drag the Church kicking and screaming into the 21st century. But of all the rest -- the miracle-mongering, Jansenism, triumphalism, authoritarianism, paternalism, misogyny, homophobia, and a Creed that owes more to fourth-century politics and superstition than to a modern scientific understanding of the world -- all of that I can do without.

A vast, moth-eaten musical brocade? It is, but it need not be. It is a Church full of much goodness and the ingredients of a rich natural spirituality. But I don't expect to see it change any time soon. On Easter Monday, James Carroll, ex-RC priest and Boston Globe columnist, tried to give us a rational, 21st-century interpretation of Jesus' resurrection. I applaud him, but it was painful to watch someone I so much admire as a writer trying to have his supernaturalist cake and eat it too. I doubt that what he ended up with would satisfy most believers, and certainly no skeptics.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

You arrange, the thing is posed/ What in nature merely grows

Here is a poem by Wallace Stevens, written early in his career as poet (1916, age 37) and published posthumously. It's a simple poem, almost trite, but hints at the much deeper volume of work yet to come.

For what emperor
Was this bowl of Earth designed?
Here are more things
Than on any bowl of the Sungs,
Even the rarest--
Vines that take
The various obscurities of the moon,
Approaching rain
And leaves that would be loose upon the wind,
Pears on pointed trees,
The dresses of women,
I never tire
To think of this.
I suppose I was myself in my mid-thirties when I finally reached a confident and comfortable conviction that this bowl of Earth held quite enough of interest to occupy a lifetime of reflective living without the need for otherworldly chimeras. For fifteen years I had been paring away the religious accretions of my youth, bit by bit discarding that massive accumulation of miracle that was Roman Catholicism, "that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade/ created to pretend we never die" (to quote another poet). Finally, there was nothing otherworldly left to pare. I had reached the summit of the natural -- the moon, the rain, the pears on pointed trees, women's dresses. It was an exhilarating arrival.

And it unleashed for me a new world of creativity. No longer the rote repetitions of dogma. Now would begin the exploration of that scintillating territory between the idea of the thing and the thing itself -- the inexhaustibly mysterious stomping ground of science and art.

If nothing else, Stevens' poetry was consistent. Forty years after Bowl, in the last year of his life, he wrote:

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

(I discussed Stevens at greater length November 26-29, 2007. See archive. I will leave it to those with more of their own faith commitments invested in the matter to sort out Stevens' purported deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism. I have read the contradictory accounts. The issue strikes me as entirely uninteresting.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Going the distance

Here is a stunning Hubble Space Telescope photo that was the APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) last week. Two galaxies, collectively known as Arp 273, encountering each other so closely that gravity is distorting their spirals. Two galaxies engaged in a cosmic dance. Click to enlarge.

Let me say a bit more about what we are looking at than APOD provided.

Two galaxies, one neatly wrapped, one with out-flung arms. The one at the top is about the size of our own Milky Way galaxy, although more lop-sided due to the gravitational pull of its partner. Perhaps it contains a hundred billion stars, separated (as in the Milky Way) by light years. We are seeing in the photo only the relatively rare and exceptionally bright blue and red giants. If we were on a planet of a sun-like star in the upper galaxy, oh how magnificent would be the companion galaxy in our night sky!

The bright stars in the photograph with diffraction spikes are in our own Milky Way, very much in the foreground.

Imagine our Milky Way Galaxy -- a hundred thousand light-years wide -- as a dinner plate. We are on a planet of a star about two-thirds of the way out toward the edge. When we look at Arp 273 we are looking down and out of the dinner plate, at an angle to the plate and towards the edge. The Arp 273 galaxies would be a dinner plate and a salad plate about a kilometer away. (The nearest spiral galaxy to us, the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, would be a dinner plate just across the room.)

Arp 273 takes up about as much of the sky as would a pinhead held at arm's length. And look what else is in the photo. I count at least a few dozen other galaxies, vastly more distant -- all those little elongated blurs in the background. Every one of those galaxies contains hundreds of billions of stars. If you can wrap your head around all this and still think the Creator is attending to your prayers, you have a more robust imagination than me.

(I can hear my dear departed mother, the classical grammarian, saying, "Than I, Chet, than I.")

Sunday, April 24, 2011


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

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Saturday reprise -- Two Adams

The Jewish rabbi and teacher Joseph Soloveitchik addressed the tension between reason and faith in his wonderful little book The Lonely Man of Faith.

Soloveitchik's man of faith is fraught with conflicts and incongruities, caught between ecstasy in God's companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God. He is lonely because faith is inevitably a courageous and private act that springs from an individual's solitary apprehension of the mystery in the world.

Soloveitchik is aware that his faith has no possibility of empirical verification, and no utilitarian value; it is, in that sense, out of step with the times. He fully accepts the scientific story of the world, but reaches beyond to touch what he perceives to be a deeper, more abiding presence.

The first two chapters of the Judeo-Christian scriptures give us somewhat different characterizations of the chief protagonist, Adam. These do not represent different sources or traditions, says Soloveitchik, but rather two representations of the human soul, which he calls Adam I and Adam II, corresponding to the Adam of the first and second chapters of Genesis respectively.

Adam I is driven by curiosity. He wants to know how the cosmos works; he is less interested in the why. His practical destiny is to "fill the Earth and subdue it," which he pursues boldly and aggressively. He is creative and abstract, imitating in his mathematical theories the creative act of God Himself. His representative in the modern world is the scientist, mathematician, technologist, and secular philosopher.

Adam II is also intrigued by the cosmos, says Soloveitchik, but "looks for the image of God . . . in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of a starlit evening." He wants to know why there is something rather than nothing, and what is the purpose of things and events. His contemporary representative is the mystic, the poet, the ascetic, the person of faith.

Adam I is only interested in questions that can be answered empirically; Adam II is more introspective, more spiritual, trusting his intuition of the divine. Adam I seeks mastery over nature; Adam II wishes to be overpowered by nature.

Adam I asks, "How?" Adam II asks, "Who is He who trails me steadily, uninvited and unwanted, like an everlasting shadow, and vanishes into the recesses of transcendence the very instant I turn around to confront this numinous, awesome, and mysterious 'He'? "

Although Soloveitchik identifies himself with Adam II, he asserts that Adam I also follows God's command and achieves dignity through his work. The completion of creation requires the energies of both Adams, he says.

If we are to collectively reconcile science and faith, each of us must individually confront this tension in our lonely solitude. The person of faith can acknowledge the dignity and rational primacy of science, and the skeptical empiricist can open himself or herself to the abiding presence of the unanswered "Why?", who is simultaneously the deus revelatus (the god who is revealed) and deus absconditus (the god who hides).

(This post originally appeared in August 2006.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

The thing with feathers

Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights triptych has been the subject of musings here before, particularly between January 7 and 12, 2008 (see archive). The panels are so rich in imaginative detail that everyone can find some image that resonates with their personal life. The painting plumbs the human psyche, rummages among primeval archetypes, stirs up the murky depths of desolation and consolation. One could spend a lifetime grazing its lurid landscape.

And here, tucked into a corner of the orgiastic central panel, I find my personal avatar, sitting on a goldfinch, eyes closed, head in hands. (Click to enlarge.) Not unhappy. There is a certain dreamy softness to his repose, the hint of a smile. Bewildered, maybe. Bemused by the extravagance of it all, the sheer prodigousness of creation.

Consolation and desolation -- the two poles of Ignatian spirituality. Consolation (according to the saint) is that which leads us closer to God. Desolation turns us away. Which only means something, I suppose, if one already has a notion of transcendence. But here in the garden of earthly delights, where my avatar lives and works and has his being, the transcendent is not readily manifest. Two couples making love, or trying to, in the midst of dissonance. A conclave of birds with their glistening, indifferent eyes. The fleshy fruit, and the hungering flesh. An abundance of appetites -- satisfied, tasted, deferred, stifled.

And me -- I mean, my avatar -- on the goldfinch. Is he listening to some inner music, blocking out the roar of silence from all those closed beaks? Enjoying the bliss of solitude? Diving into the wreck? Not toward God but toward the inner quiet. Bemused and amazed that in this gorgeous, gratuitous garden of good and evil, of every realized possibility, one need only close one's eyes and stop one's ears to find the cool, still center of a centered self.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Addressing the Cloud

When son Dan visited us on the island a few weeks ago, he gave me a demo of the voice recognition capabilities of his Android phone. He would say, "Call home," and the phone dialed the number. He'd say "Science Musings," and this blog appeared on the screen. Virtually any request he voiced was instantly answered.

And this on a little island in the central Bahamas.

I expressed amazement that such sophisticated and apparently flawless voice-recognition software -- which must be massively coded -- could be contained in such a tiny, handheld device.

But, of course, it wasn't.

The software was in the cloud.

Dan spoke. His voice flew across thousands of miles to be analyzed by voice-recognition software in some colossal Google server in California. Software that has been trained to discern the subtleties of speech by listening to countless spoken communications, perhaps some of yours. The responses whizzed back. Instantly.

This stuff may be old hat to you, but to me it was a revelation.

Mobile phones are ubiquitous, even in the poorest countries. They will surely become more so. It is an easy extrapolation to imagine the entire planet with wireless capability, available at modest or no cost.

We whisper a request. The Cloud answers, almost invariably granting our wish. The genie in the bottle, but with more wishes than three. The closest yet to that thing most universally desired -- an omnipresent, omniscient being who hears and answers prayers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Of mollusks and ants

If a guy my age can have heroes, here are two of them. Give the guy on the right some mutton-chop whiskers and you have the guy on the left. Two brilliantly original, socially progressive, agnostic, contrarian biologists.

Thomas Huxley and E. O. Wilson.

I didn't say so in my post yesterday, but in the brewing controversy about kin selection, I wouldn't bet against Wilson. The leading lights of evolutionary biology may be arrayed against him, and I certainly don't have the expertise to evaluate the respective arguments, but all you have to do is look at that mischievous smile in the pic above and you know that in the game of life (and science) he's pretty confident he holds the winning cards. It may be a long shot, but he's is my sentimental favorite.

I like these guys -- Huxley and Wilson -- because of the breadth of their culture and interests. They are first-rate scientists, but they are also deeply concerned to interpret the scientific enterprise to the larger culture, and especially to draw out the philosophical implications of empirical knowing. Neither man hesitates to tip over sacred cows, but they do it with a gentlemanly wink and sly grin rather than dynamite.

In his biography of Huxley, Adrian Desmond says that in the increasingly specialized world of the late-19th century, his subject was "the last to view Art, Literature and Science as a whole." Well, maybe not. Ed Wilson does a pretty good job of seeing the whole in his book Consilience. Too bad the two men were not able to meet; I suspect they would have gotten on famously.

I spent some time with Wilson on one occasion -- a writers' gathering on Martha's Vineyard many years ago -- and was enamored of his modesty and charm. At my publisher's request, he subsequently provided an exceedingly generous blurb for the back cover of Skeptics and True Believers, for which I was grateful. Go, Ed.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A defensible nest

This past Sunday, a scientific controversy that has been simmering for months made it big time onto the front page of the "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe. And once again the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, now 81 years old, proves his ability to stir the pot.

Last August, Wilson published a paper in Nature, with Harvard mathematicians Martin Nowak and Cornia Tarnita, challenging the accepted theory for the origin of cooperative and altruistic behavior in animals.

For the last half-century the presiding idea has been "kin selection" -- cooperating with others who share your genetic material is a way of promoting one's own genes. Wilson was himself an early champion of "kin selection," aka "inclusive fitness theory."

In their new paper, Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson propose that "kin selection" is not only wrong, it is unnecessary. They argue that standard natural selection theory, in the context of precise models of population structure, is a simpler and more fruitful approach, allowing the evaluation of multiple competing hypotheses, and providing an exact framework for interpreting experimental observations. The key here is mathematical modeling; hence, Wilson's co-authors. Wilson's own vast knowledge of the social insects provides the team's empirical base.

But we are not just talking about ants and bees. At the end of their paper, Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson say: "We have not addressed the evolution of human social behavior here, but parallels with the scenarios of animal eusocial evolution exist, and they are, we believe, well worth examining."

A few weeks ago, Nature Online published five long letters, with collectively 153 authors, basically saying that Wilson and his co-authors don't know what they are talking about. Richard Dawkins was quoted in the Globe as saying that he "never met anybody apart from Wilson and Nowak who takes [their argument] seriously."

Well, we'll see. It's not the first time Wilson has been a contrarian. Back in the 70s, his ideas about sociobiology as applied to humans evoked a firestorm of controversy. They are now more or less conventional.

All of which brings to mind a work of another great Harvard biologist, Ernst Mayr's The Growth of Biological Thought, published when Mayr was 78, a magisterial summing up of biological history and philosophy. He writes: "All interpretations made by a scientist are hypotheses, and all hypotheses are tentative. They must forever be tested and they must be revised if found to be unsatisfactory. Hence, a change of mind in a scientist, and particularly in a great scientist, is not only not a sign of weakness but rather evidence for continuing attention to the respective problem and an ability to test the hypothesis again and again."

So now we wait, as the ideas of Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson are assimilated and tested, and eventually accepted or rejected. It is this capacity for self-criticism and correction, as Mayr points out, that distinguishes science from religion and other less adaptable ways of knowing.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Knowledge and power

Two paintings by the French neo-classicist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). The first is of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, the chemist, sometimes called "the Father of Modern Chemistry", who I blogged about on Friday, and his wife Marie-Anne. It was painted in 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution. The second, of course, is Napoleon, pictured crossing the Alps with his army, painted in 1800, not long after Napoleon took power in France. The paintings bracket a dozen of the most tumultuous years in French history. Click to enlarge.

They also represent two great human appetites -- for knowledge and for power. Each of us stakes a claim somewhere along the spectrum between the two images. The truly talented -- a Lavoisier or a Napoleon -- win fame and/or glory at one end or the other.

Lavoisier is shown with his laboratory equipment, much of which he designed himself for specific experiments. He holds a pen. Perhaps he is writing Elements of Chemistry, the hugely influential text that would be published the following year, establishing modern conventions of chemical nomenclature.

The painting is dominated by Lavoisier's wife, who became his amanuensis, translating texts, preparing drawings of physio-chemical apparatus (that is presumably a portfolio of her drawings at the left), and generally making herself useful. She looms over her husband, engaging the painter with her gaze, while Lavoisier seemingly shrinks under her luminous presence at the top of the compositional pyramid. The chemist was no shrinking violet; Madame Lavoisier's prominence in the portrait surely suggests her attractiveness to the portraitist. Together, Lavoisier and his wife are portrayed as exemplars of the fussily fastidious ancien regime.

Napoleon, who apparently crossed the Alps in 1800 on a led mule, is here rendered at Napoleon's request in manly glory on a fiery steed. His eyes, like Marie-Anne's, affix the painter. His emblem is not the pen, but the sword, the haft of which is the central pivot of the composition. The words on the foreground rocks associate Bonaparte's crossing of the Alps with Hannibal and Charlemagne. The painting is pure political idolatry.

Knowing and doing. Creating knowledge and creating empires. Service to empirical truth and the marshalling of "lesser lives" for personal glory.

Lavoisier was guillotined and tossed into a common grave. Napoleon reposes today within the most pretentious tomb I have ever seen. And David? He was agile enough to survive the compounding upheavals of the Revolution. A friend and ally of Robespierre and Marat, he did nothing to obstruct the execution of Lavoisier.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book 4

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

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Backyard naturalist -- a Saturday reprise

There are two kinds of naturalists.

There are the big picture naturalists, the generalists, who see the way it all hangs together. These are the folks who worry about global warming, declining species diversity, and acid rain. These are the naturalists who concern themselves with river systems, oceans, and rain forests. And God bless 'em. What would we do without them? Without them the whole shebang would soon go to hell in a handbasket.

I sometimes wish I were a big picture naturalist. And because I'm not, I feel a shawl of guilt upon my shoulders. But I am what I am, a little picture naturalist. I revel in particulars. This ice-pink morning. This frost etching upon the glass. These tappings of the nuthatch. This blood-red drop of color which is the berry of the Canada mayflower against the snow.

I've written books about the big picture. "Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian" is the subtitle of one book. The picture doesn't get much bigger than that. But I could only write that book one step at a time. This village in the chalky South Downs of England. This flinty stone picked up in a chalky dale. This cluttered room where Darwin sat to ponder how the flinty stones came to be dispersed in the chalk.

I am of course interested in the big picture, but mostly as a context for particulars. In his chapter on Henri Fabre in Green Laurels, Donald Culross Peattie writes, "Any life is all life, and the line of attack of the naturalist begins at the front door -- or better still, the back door." He's talking about the little picture naturalist. The backdoor naturalist. The naturalist in search of "the epic commonplace."

The general is the tuned string. The particular is the finger against the fret.

(This post originally appeared in December 2007.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Republics of virtue

Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794) was one of the greatest scientific lights of his time, the so-called "Father of Modern Chemistry," who, among many other things, made important contributions to the chemistry of life. He was very much a person of the Enlightenment, who believed in the scrupulous use of language, the primacy of reason over the emotions, and the empirical foundations of truth.

Of one of his theories he had this to say: "Perhaps I shall be obliged to make some modification in the doctrine that I have presented…I shall not hesitate to modify my opinions, even to reverse my steps, if new experiments force me to abandon the first course I have followed."

Lavoisier was also a public-spirited man who unfortunately got caught up in a tax scandal that was fiercely prosecuted by the revolutionary courts during the time of the Terror. It is said that he appealed to the judge against his death sentence by invoking the contributions he had yet to make to science. The judge is said to have responded, "The Republic has no need of scientists."

As far as I have been able to determine, the judge's remark is apocryphal. But like Galileo's equally famous apocryphal remark at the end of his trial -- "And yet it moves" -- the myth has the ring of truth.

Revolutionary France under the architects of the Terror was a "republic of virtue." That is to say, Robespierre and his ilk were so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that counter-opinions were seen as not just contrary but treasonous. Lavoisier's head ended up in a basket along with hundreds of other real and imagined enemies of revolutionary "virtue." The mathematician Lagrange said: "It took them only an instant to cut off his head, but France may not produce another such head in a century."

Republics of virtue -- where virtue is understood as a passionate, emotional, unwavering and righteous conviction of Truth -- have no use for science. As Arthur Donovan writes in his biography of Lavoisier: "Reason and methods for reliably connecting interpretation to reality counted for little in a world preoccupied with fear, anxiety, and a desire for retribution."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Chomping at the bits

An article by Martin Hilbert and Priscila Lopez in the April 1 issue of Science attempts to estimate "The World's Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information," from 1986 to 2007. For the moment, let's consider only the capacity to store information.

My own house might be a good representation of 1986. It was chuck full of stored info, almost all in analog form: books, magazines, vinyl LPs, 8-mm film, photographic slides, photo negatives and prints, audio cassettes, VHS cassettes. Digital storage? My Macintosh 512K and a few floppy disks.

Hilbert and Lopez estimate that about 1 percent of the world's stored information in 1986 was digital, which sounds about right for my house. No, I suppose 1 percent is too generous. My Mac and floppies contained less info than one volume of our Encyclopedia Britannica.

In 2007, according to Hilbert and Lopez, only about 4 percent of the world's stored information was analog, and that included all libraries.

In 1986, the amount of digitally stored information was less than one CD-ROM per person. In 2007, each of us could claim over 60 CD-ROMs. Piling up all of the 404 billion CD-ROMS from 2007 would create a stack that would reach from Earth to the Moon and then a quarter of that distance beyond!

That sounds like a humungous amount of digitally stored info, but consider this: It is still somewhat less than the roughly 10 (23) bits stored in the total DNA of a human adult. And the 6.4x10(18) instructions per second that humankind could carry out on all of its general-purpose computers in 2007 is in the same ballpark as the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second. Which is an illuminating way of thinking about just what a wondrous thing is a human being.

Anyway, back to my house. Which is an ever-growing monument to analog. Books are jammed into every available cranny. Once the kids moved out, their bedrooms became dumps for books and paper. File cabinets bulge at the seams. A glance around the house would suggest that the analysis of Hilbert and Lopez doesn't apply.

But there are more photos stored on my MacBook than in all of our albums. A single flash drive -- the size of a stick of gum -- could store the equivalent of every book in the house, with room left over for the file cabinets and piles of paper. Yes, all of this colossal analog mess could slip into my pocket. But, ah, would those invisible bits have the same power to evoke memories of a lifetime of reading and writing and being part of a wonderful family? I think not. I'll take my avalanche of analog -- visual, tactile evidence of the way that I went.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

American exceptionalism

Herewith a couple of self-explanatory graphs from a recent issue of the journal Nature. Click to enlarge.

Canadians, for example, spend half as much per capita -- public and private -- on health care as Americans and live on average three years longer. We are also informed by Nature that in such measures as infant mortality, obesity, cancer survival rates, length of patient stays in hospital and the discrepancy between the care of high- versus low-income groups, the U. S. fares middling to poor.

The problem is not the science. American medical science and technology leaves little to be desired. Almost half of all Nobel Prizes in Medicine (Physiology or Medicine) have been awarded to Americans.

The author of the Nature article focused on reorganizing the National Institutes of Health to better link primary research to patient outcomes. There are, of course, other players in our healthcare fiasco. Politicians. Healthcare providers. Insurance companies. Pharmaceutical companies. Lawyers. Oh yes, and patients. In my lifetime there has been only one serious attempt (by the Clintons) to bring all the players to the table. It crashed in a storm of recriminations and suspicion. An unworthy outcome for so great a nation.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

To the Moho -- or bust

The Earth is rather more like a partly boiled egg than it is like a billiard ball. It has a rigid crust (lithosphere) that is as thin (thinner!) compared to the Earth as the shell of the egg -- 30 to 60 kilometers thick at the continents, but as little as 6 kilometers thick under the oceans. Beneath the crust is the rocky mantle, hot, plastic, in convective motion, extending down to the metallic core -- the white and yolk of the egg. Between the crust and the mantle is a sharp discontinuity in the composition and physical properties of the rock, called the Mohorovicic discontinuity (or simply Moho) after its discoverer Andrija Mohorovicic, who in 1909 detected a significant change in the speed of earthquake waves at that depth.

It has long been a dream, of geologists to drill a hole to the Moho and sample the mantle of the Earth, an achievement comparable to bringing rocks back from the Moon. There was a failed attempt in the early 1960s to drill to the Moho in the ocean off Baja California. The technology and political will were not yet up to the task. So far, no one has drilled deeper than 2 kilometers into the ocean crust.

Now geologists believe the time is almost ripe for a new "journey" to the mantle of the Earth. The Japanese scientific drilling vessel Chikyu may be technologically up to the task. A proposed pace to drill is the Cocos Plate just off the western coast of Costa Rica. The crust was formed superfast at a nearby spreading center and is therefore relatively thin. Maybe within the next dozen years or so.

Beginning April 14, the research vessel JOIDES Resolution will drill there, hoping to extend an existing hole even closer to the Moho and retrieve the deepest rocks ever from the oceanic crust.

This is the expedition that will occupy the JOIDES Resolution before it makes its Panama Canal transit in early June. Mo and I will be joining the ship just as it completes this historic mission.

(On the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, here are some thoughts of my great-grandfather Theodore Raymo.)

Monday, April 11, 2011

A man, a plan, a canal. Panama

In early June I will traverse the Panama Canal aboard the JOIDES Resolution, the world's premier -- and history making -- scientific research vessel. I will be accompanied by my geologist daughter, Maureen, to whom I owe this wonderful opportunity.

I have had a longstanding dream to see the canal, ever since I read David McCullough's magisterial The Path Between the Seas in 1978. Now, in anticipation of the voyage, I've read the book again.

It is one of the wonders of geography that two great continents are connected by so slender a thread, the isthmus at Panama, a mere 45 miles wide, less than half the length of the canal at Suez. When the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps succeeded at Suez in 1869, international pressure to breach the Panama isthmus became irresistible.

But Panama was another kettle of fish from flat, barren, sandy Suez. A steaming jungle rife with malaria and yellow fever. A mountainous ridge separating the seas. And, most daunting of all, the Chagres River, twisting and turning along the obvious route of the canal, prone to torrential flooding in the wet season.

De Lesseps wanted a sea level canal without locks, as at Suez, but with no practical plan how to deal with the river or the ridge. Others proposed a massive viaduct to spring the river, or a tunnel to penetrate the ridge. At an international conference in Paris in 1879, de Lesseps carried the day by virtue of his personality and success at Suez -- and thus began an ill-fated French attempt at a sea-level canal that cost tens of thousands of lives and caused the financial ruin of countless investors.

At the Paris conference an engineer named Baron Godin de Lepinay proposed a radical idea: Instead of bridging or diverting the Chagres River, use it to advantage. Dam the Chagres near its exit to the Caribbean Sea, creating an artificial lake spanning more than half the isthmus. Another smaller lake would be created by damming the Rio Grande on the Pacific side of the ridge. The lakes would be reached by locks. The Chagres would be tamed. The rivers and the lakes would provide the water for the locks. The digging required for the canal would be drastically reduced. In the wide lakes ships could pass one another at ease. The infelicitous jungle would be submerged.

He was ignored.

It was, of course, the solution that ultimately succeeded.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book 3

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

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The dark angel -- a Saturday reprise

(My post yesterday prompts a reprise of this piece that appeared in 2008.)

The American Civil War claimed an estimated 620,000 lives, approximately the same number as in all of the nation's other wars put together. Compared to the size of the country's population, six times as many young men died between 1861 and 1865 as in World War II. Few American families, north or south, were unaffected.

Lincoln insisted at Gettysburg "that these dead shall not have died in vain." Drew Gilpin Faust, historian and President of Harvard University, has written a book that tries to measure the effect on the American psyche of the apocalyptic slaughter, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, an impressive and illuminating work that draws heavily on the letters and diaries of the millions of ordinary people, soldiers and their families, who struggled to cope with unprecedented loss.

There is a public, collective story here, of course: how the young nation and its government had to quickly invent or improvise ways to deal with and honor that vast number of bodies that piled up on the battlefields. More interesting is how the soldiers and their families made sense of the overwhelming shadow of the Angel of Death.

Faust takes note of the scientific background of the crisis. Mid-19th-century science was busy dismantling the literal underpinnings of biblical faith. Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, published in the early 1830s, challenged Genesis by asserting the great antiquity of the Earth. Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859, replaced divine benevolence with the heartless mechanisms of natural selection. "Humans had been moved into the realm of animals, and God threatened a distressing indifference to the fall of every sparrow," writes Faust. Finally, new ideas about the neurological basis of thought and consciousness called into question traditional notions of the immortal soul.

The stark question of how a loving God could allow the horrors of the battlefields led some Americans into doubt and apostasy. For the majority, it seems, only the promise of a heaven where loved ones would be reunited made the suffering bearable. The scale of human loss in the war demanded an explanation that satisfied hearts as well as minds, writes Faust. Doubters and believers alike exalted the notion of the Good Death -- a brave, unflinching death in service to a noble cause.

Certainly, it is true that the science of the last two centuries offers little solace in the face of death, and this alone might largely account for the ongoing tension between science and faith. Whether we die in the hundreds of thousands in a great war, or alone in bed with family, each of us confronts the darkness in our own way. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was one of those who as a young Civil War soldier facing death resolutely rejected the Christian promise of everlasting life. He too praised the Good Death. What the war taught him was that every person is "capable of miracle, able to lift himself by the might of his own soul."

Faust concludes of the Civil War carnage: "We still struggle to understand how to preserve our humanity and our selves within such a world. We still seek to use our deaths to create meaning where we are not sure any exists. The Civil War generation glimpsed the fear that still defines us -- the sense that death is the only end. We still work to live with the riddle that they -- the Civil War dead and their survivors alike -- had to solve long ago."

Friday, April 08, 2011

Sodden earth

I grew up with the Civil War, or at least with evidences of the war on every side, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Lookout Mountain loomed over the town. My house was on the back slopes of Missionary Ridge. We swam in Chickamauga Creek. We played in the Chattanooga National Cemetery (close by my grandmother's house) where 12,000 Union dead are buried, including raiders of "The Great Locomotive Chase." The locomotive The General was on display downtown in Union Station. Orchard Knob not far away. Monuments and memorial cannons were everywhere.

It was all rather romantic to a kid. The roar of cannons. The crackle and smoke of rifles and flash of bayonets. The Stars and Bars and Stars and Stripes flagging above the hubbub of battle. It wasn't until we read The Red Badge of Courage in high school that it began to dawn on us that all was not glory and grandeur.

I mention this because I have been watching re-runs of Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War, with its mind-numbing catalog of slaughter. Thirty-five thousand Union and Confederate casualties at Chickamauga, the second most terrible toll of the war. As many Americans died in battle and of war-related causes during the Civil War as in all of America's other wars put together -- two percent of the population (0.3 percent of the population for World War II).

I am reminded of Phyllis McGinley’s poem “The Conquerors," from the late-1950s:

It seems vainglorious and proud
Of Atom-man to boast so loud
His prowess homicidal,
When one remembers how for years,
With their rude stones and humble spears,
Our sires, at wiping out their peers,
Were almost never idle.

Despite his under-fissioned art
The Hittite made a splendid start
Toward smiting lesser nations;
While Tamerlane, it's widely known,
Without a bomb to call his own
Destroyed whole populations.

Nor did the ancient Persian need
Uranium to kill his Mede,
The Viking earl, his foeman.
The Greeks got excellent results
With swords and engined catapults.
A chariot served the Roman.

Mere cannon garnered quite a yield
On Waterloo's tempestuous field.
At Hastings and at Flodden
Stout countrymen, with just a bow
And arrow, laid their thousands low,
And Gettysburg was sodden.

Though doubtless now our shrewd machines
Can blow the world to smithereens
More tidily and so on,
Let's give our ancestors their due,
Their ways were coarse, their weapons few,
But ah! how wondrously they slew
With what they had to go on.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Oh, deer

As I approached the meadow from the woods this morning at sunrise four deer were grazing there. Their ears perked up at my footfalls, but they cautiously went back to their nibbling.

It was lovely to see them there, but they might as well have been horses or cattle. Nothing notably special, that is. Then, as I put down my backpack to fetch my camera, they decided it was time to bolt. Off they went towards the woods on the other side of the meadow, grand jetes across the grass, their vertical white tails flagging. Few living things, I thought, are so beautiful as a white-tail deer in flight. At least outside of the Bolshoi.

And this within a few hundred yards of my New England village.

Which reminds me of something I wrote for the Globe back in 1988, when the Humane Society of the United States was considering the use of contraception to address the growing problem of white-tail deer in urban and suburban environments. I mused about how Felix Salten's classic animal story might have been different had the author lived in our more technologically sophisticated time.


Old Stag: "Bambi, I think it's time we had a little talk."

Bambi: "Why, Old Stag? You've taught me all you know about the ways of the forest."

Old Stag: "Not quite, my son. It's time we talked about the birds and the bees."

Bambi: "The birds and bees? I often talk to Magpie, Jay, and Owl. They tell me lots of things. I know all about the birds and the bees."

Old Stag: "Hmm. That's not what I had in mind. It's -- uh -- how should I put it? Well, I've noticed that you don't play with Thumper the rabbit so much anymore. You seem to be a lot more interested in your little doe friend, Faline."

Bambi: (Blushing.) "Uh...I...uh. Faline's always been my friend."

Old Stag: "Yes, I know. But you see, Bambi, there comes a time when a boy deer and a girl deer get interested in each other in a different sort of way. And when a boy deer and a girl deer get interested in each other, then pretty soon there's going to be a little fawn or two."

Bambi: (Shifting restlessly.) "Gosh, Old Stag. Couldn't we talk about this at some other time?"

Old Stag: "No Bambi, it's important to talk now. There have been too many baby deer lately. In some places the herds are getting too big for the woods. In the last twenty years the number of deer in Massachusetts has increased from 6,000 to 40,000. And He -- you know who He is -- is concerned that we pose a danger to motorists. In some areas of the state the number of vehicle-deer collisions has doubled or tripled. And to health. Ticks that live on our bodies cause something called Lyme disease, which is getting to be a problem in certain coastal areas of New England. Not to mention the damage we cause to crops and gardens. One way He tries to keep our numbers down is to issue more licenses to hunters for the taking of deer."

Bambi: "What's a 'hunter,' Old Stag? Is that when we hear the terrible thunder and one of us dies?"

Old Stag: "That's right, Bambi. Your mother was killed by a hunter. And your little friend Gobo. Surely, you don't want Faline to be killed. Or yourself. So you have to think about responsible sex."

Bambi: "Responsible sex?"

Old Stag: "Yes. Contraception. It means being careful not to make a baby. It's easy. Just ask Faline to go see Him at the Deer Contraception Clinic. He will surgically implant a hormone capsule in her body. The hormone will suppress ovulation -- uh, keep Faline's body from making the eggs that become babies. The capsule is designed to release the hormone into her body over a period of several years. Or He might inject her with microcapsules of a fertility-suppressing substance."

Bambi: "Gee, it sounds expensive."

Old Stag: "Maybe so. But animal rights advocates will urge governments to pay for contraceptive programs. They point to growing public revulsion to the killing of deer for sport. Hunters will likely oppose such programs. They will emphasize the impracticality and expense of contraception. And many wildlife management experts agree. They say that hunting is the only efficient and cost effective way to regulate populations, and in the long run safest for humans and in the best interests of deer. There is also the worry about contraceptive substances making their way into the food chain.

Bambi: "But what if Faline wants a baby?"

Old Stag: "Then you had better be prepared to watch out for Him when He comes with his gun.

Bambi: "Golly, Old Stag. One way, Faline loses her chance to have a fawn. The other way, one of us loses life. What kind of a choice is that?"

Old Stag: (Rolling his eyes impatiently.) "Then just say 'No.'"

Bambi: "But that's not fair, either. I love Faline."

Old Stag: "No one said life was fair, Bambi. What you must never forget is that He is in control. Remember what Squirrel said when the oak tree in the meadow was chopped down: 'He can do anything. He's all-powerful.' We can only hope that He will consider our welfare. And in the meantime, we must learn to live and be cautious."

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

"Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will"

That was the title of an article in the March 18 issue of Science. What, I wondered, is experimental philosophy? If it's experimental -- that is, based on reproducible empirical data -- then it's science. And what new, pray, might philosophy -- experimental or otherwise -- have to say about free will?

I read eagerly.

The author begins by saying that most central philosophical problems concerning free will, morality and consciousness are notorious for their resilience, many of them stretching back to the earliest days of philosophy. In this he is certainly correct. In more than two thousand years, philosophy has contributed precisely nothing to the problem of free will, except to state the problem: Are our actions free or determined, and is freedom necessary for moral culpability?

So what might this new discipline -- experimental philosophy -- contribute?

I quote at random: "According to one hypothesis, the internal motoric signals that cause behavior also generate a prediction about imminent bodily movement, and this prediction is compared to the actual sensory information of bodily motion. If the predicted movement confirms to the sensory information, then one gets the feeling of agency; otherwise the movement is likely to feel involuntary."

Or: If I feel like an action was free, then I think it was free.

At least, I think that's what it means.

In general, this rather long article says virtually nothing about free will. Rather, it compiles data -- using the methods of the social sciences -- on what people think about freedom and moral responsibility. Whether you call this "experimental philosophy" or "experimental psychology" probably depends on which academic department you're employed by.

Anyway, back to the "problem". If I choose at this moment to kick the cat, is that action intrinsically free, or is it determined by some accumulative chain of cause and effect -- including prior mental states -- over which some hypothesized autonomous "self" has no control? And, if the latter, am I morally responsible for my action?

No one knows the answer to the first question. Whatever concantations of causality may determine my conscious actions is far too complex to be amenable -- at this point in time -- to experimental analysis. An outside observer cannot predict with certainty whether or not I will kick the cat, even if that action is in fact entirely determined. There are simply too many undetermined variables. Massively complex causal determination is not what philosophers traditionally meant by free will, but it is indistinguishable from what philosophers traditionally meant by free will. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then -- for all practical purposes -- it's a duck.

And the second question? Moral responsibility is a social construct, not a scientific hypothesis. Humans discovered long ago that living peaceably in groups required a notion of individual responsibility. Responsibility implies freedom, real or effective. Society negotiates responsibility.

If there is such a thing as "experimental philosophy," problems of free will, consciousness and morality are presently beyond its reach. Lots more groundwork will need to be done -- in neurobiology, artificial intelligence, and so on -- before these perennial problems are tractable to experimental solution.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

To sleep, perchance to dream

What is more gentle than a wind in summer?
What is more soothing than a pretty hummer
That stays one moment in an open flower,
And buzzes cheerily from bower to bower?
What is more tranquil than a musk-rose blowing
In a green island, far from all men's knowing?
More healthful than the leafiness of dales?
More secret than a nest of nightingales?
What indeed?

The poet Keats answers his own questions: Sleep. Soft closer of our eyes.

I've reached an age when I find myself occasionally nodding off in the middle of the day, an open book flopped on my chest. Also, more lying awake in the dark hours of the night, re-running the tapes of the day. And, in the fragile moments of nighttime unconsciousness, dreaming dreams that reach all the way back to my childhood.

I've read the books about sleep and dreaming. There has been lots of research, but not much consensus about why we sleep or dream. Sleep seems to be pretty universal among animals. Who knows whether animals dream. Do we sleep to restore the soma? To knit the raveled sleeve of care? Process memories? Find safety from predators? After 50 years of work, the sleep researcher William Dement opined: "As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy."

The Latin poet Martial supposed that sleep "makes darkness brief," a worry-free way to get through the scary hours of the night when wolves howl at the mouth of the cave (and goblins stir under the bed). That hardly explains my dropping off after lunch into a dreamless stupor that I neither desire nor welcome.
Low murmurer of tender lullabies!
Light hoverer around our happy pillows!
Wreather of poppy buds, and weeping willows!
Not quite! There are the nightmares too. The tossing and turning. The hoo-has.

But enough of this idle speculation. I'm getting sleepy.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Last child in the woods?

There was a time when I was younger -- in my thirties -- that I set out to collect, identify and press all of the wildflowers of Easton, my New England town. I tramped woods and meadows, swamps and roadside verges looking for specimens. Pressed them on special acid-free paper. Mounted them in what I took to be aesthetic arrangements, identified by common name. Framed many for display. My herbarium.

Now, decades later, I have no idea what happened to those hundreds of flowers.

Emily Dickinson made a much more rigorous, even scientific, collection of the flora in and around Amherst, Massachusetts, as schoolgirl between the ages of ten and fourteen. She was a botanist before she was a poet.

Her herbarium, in a leather bound volume containing more than four hundred plants identified by scientific binomial, is now in the archives of the Harvard University Library. A splendid, full-sized facsimile edition was published by Harvard University Press in 2006. See typical page above.

It is hard to imagine any pre-teen child today setting out on such a project. Certainly so ambitious an enterprise would never have crossed my mind at that age. Not that I wasn't out romping in woods and meadows, but plants were elements of play, not objects for scientific study. We smoked sweet-everlasting, but knew it only as "rabbit tobacco." We gathered goldenrod galls, but knew them only as "knockers" for rapping each other over the head. We stumbled through poison ivy without ever knowing what it was until we broke out in a rash.

But I suspect even those rambunctious schoolboy forays into woods, ditches and ponds planted the germs of ideas that would later incline me to more careful study, and to a lifelong interest in nature.
By Chivalries as tiny,
A Blossom, or a Book,
The seed of smiles are planted --
Which blossom in the dark.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Book 2

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

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Falling in love with Flash…

Ah yes, Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, the mad scientist, Captain Marvel's archenemy. Yesterday's reprised post brings back to mind the superheroes of my youth -- the 1940s -- and their nemeses.

Oh, it was a time of true archvillains. Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini. Their caricatured images were everywhere. And they had their secret weapons -- kamikazes, V-2s, buzz bombs. But strangely enough it was not the real-life villains that subtly shaped our view of the world, it was the Sivanas of the comics.

And the prototype for those of us who were born in the thirties was Flash Gordon, who rocketed about the universe encountering beautiful scantily-clad women, most notably Princess Aura, daughter of Ming the Merciless, emperor of the planet Mongo.

Nature or nurture? Aura initially seemed to possess her father's cruel designs. But then she fell in love with Flash, blonde Flash, with his rippling pecs and skimpy loincloth. And love conquers all. Even to the point of defying her father.

Meanwhile, Ming has his eye on Flash's lovely companion, Dale Arden. But first he must put her in the "dehumanizing machine". "Dale Arden, as you know, we on this planet have progressed far beyond you Earthlings. The reason for our success is that we possess none of the human traits of kindness, mercy or pity! We are coldly scientific and ruthless! You'll be one of us!" snarls Ming.

Not to worry. Dale's love for Flash thwarts Ming's lust. And his mad science.

Dr. Sivana has a daughter too, the beautiful Beautia. She too follows in her father's evil footsteps -- until she falls head-over-heels for Captain Marvel. She too is redeemed by love.

What did we learn from all of this? That, yes, there is evil afoot in the world, and that when evil has access to scientific knowledge we can expect the worse. And so we had A-bomb drills, cowering under our desks at school, waiting for Joe the Merciless to unleash the ultimate dehumanizing machines.

But beauty too. And love. The love of a beautiful -- and, perhaps, occasionally, scantily-clad -- woman could set everything right, make life worth living, foil the villain's most diabolic plan. It was not exactly great moral philosophy, but it served me well.

Friday, April 01, 2011

(A bit of April foolery this morning, a reprise from 2008. Back tomorrow with a fresh post.)

RAYMO: My guest this morning is Dr. Sivana, the Mad Scientist. Sivana is not really a mad scientist, but he plays one on TV...

SIVANA: When I can get the work.

RAYMO: ...when he can get the work. Tell me, Dr. Sivana, is it true there's not much call these days for an actor with your specialty?

SIVANA: When was the last time you saw a mad scientist in a film, or comic book, or on TV? The glory days of the mad scientist are past.

RAYMO: So, when were the glory days?

SIVANA: Well, of course, the tradition goes back to the granddaddy of all mad scientists, the Baron Frankenstein.

RAYMO: A solitary genius who tinkers with forces of nature that go wildly out of control.

SIVANA: That's right. Frankenstein established the theme that defines the genre. But things didn't really get going until the mid-20th century. The glory days of my career were the 1950s. Think of such classic Hollywood mad scientists as Dr. Carrington in The Thing and Andre in The Fly.

RAYMO: Andre, of course, had the best of intentions. He hoped that his invention -- a matter transporter -- would solve the world's problems. Move surplus food instantly from place to place, that sort of thing.

SIVANA: Not all mad scientists are evil. In fact, some of the best riffs on the genre are geniuses who hope to do good, but bring the house down on their heads instead.

RAYMO: I remember what Andre's pretty wife said when her husband proposed to test his transporter on himself: "I get so scared sometimes. The suddenness of our age. Electronics. Rockets. Earth satellites. Supersonic flight. And now this."

SIVANA: And you remember what Andre said after he failed to notice the fly in his transporter box and inadvertently turned himself into an insect: "There are things a man should never experiment with."

RAYMO: Too late.

SIVANA: Too late, indeed.

RAYMO: You'd think that with genetic engineering so much in the news -- with all of the possibilities of mischief -- there'd be lots of calls from Hollywood for a actor who can play a mad scientist.

SIVANA: You'd think so, yes. But it seems that people don't want fantasy. They want documentaries. It has something to do with a change in public attitudes. Back in the 1950s, scientists were generally admired: Think of Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson and James Watson. The mad scientist stood out as a thrilling aberration. Today, no one thinks highly of scientists. There are no scientist heroes. Carl Sagan was the last.

RAYMO: Are you suggesting that since all scientists are now perceived as somewhat mad, the mad scientist is irrelevant?

SIVANA: Exactly. The reality has caught up with the fantasy. Who needs a mad scientist when you have thousands of white-coats in university and industry laboratories grafting human ears onto the backs of mice and putting luminescence genes from jellyfish into baby monkeys, making them glow in the dark. I read somewhere about the creation of mutant fruit flies that grow legs in place of eyes.

RAYMO: And what about the physicists? They are about to crank up the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, the most powerful accelerating machine ever. Some folks think it might inadvertently produce a tiny black hole that then would slowly suck the whole Earth into it. Sounds like a movie plot.

SIVANA: In fact, we've been shopping that one around Hollywood, but no one will touch it. Banal, said one producer. That was his exact word.

RAYMO: We've come to a pretty pass when the end of the world is banal.

SIVANA: Faceless labcoats with staggering power, often doing experiments for no other reason than that they can be done. It seems to me it's time for a new genre -- the sane scientist -- the scientist who stops and asks, "Why are we doing this?" "What sorts of work will best advance the public good?"

RAYMO: You seem to have a low opinion of scientists. It's my impression that almost all scientists are well-meaning, even altruistic. Certainly, the ones I know are much admired.

SIVANA: Hey, don't blame me if scientists have an image problem. I would love to see science again held in high esteem. Then maybe there'd be a call for a few mad scientists. I need the work.