Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Man, A Plan, A Canal

Chet and daughter Mo have arrived safely in Panama. Chet informs me that he doesn't anticipate posting here until later this week at the earliest. In the meantime, you can follow along their journey at Mo's blog!


Sunday, May 29, 2011


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

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Saturday reprise -- The surface of things

(This post from Ireland originally appeared in August, 2007.)

"Facts! What else is there? What else do we need?" growled Edward Abbey, nature writer and cantankerous champion of the American West . We know where he was coming from. He was tired to the death of idle speculation -- philosophy, theology, government reports. He would have preferred to find a rattlesnake under his bed than a shelf full of Thomas Aquinas, or a cold beer in a crossroads bar with a couple of grizzly desert rats like himself than dinner in the Harvard faculty club with a brace of metaphysicians. Facts! "There is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in the simple fact," he wrote.

The other day I spent six hours in the company of Bernie Goggin and Isabel Bennett visiting some of the more interesting natural and archeological sites of West Kerry. Bernie is our most knowledgeable local naturalist; Isabel is a co-author of the monumental archeological survey of the Dingle Peninsula. Between the two of them they carry around in their heads an astonishing accumulation of facts. Every plant, every stone, every seashell crumbling out of a seaside sandbank had a story to tell. I stumbled along behind as Bernie and Isabel painted the landscape with facts. No idle speculations. No pathways to heaven. Just names, dates, relationships, dimensions. "How do you remember all this stuff?" I asked Bernie. He just smiled from behind his Edward Abbey beard. I had the feeling he wouldn't mind finding a rattlesnake under his bed if it meant he could add one more nugget to his storehouse of facts.

Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian. Shell middens, ring barrows, holy wells, bullauns. Stonecrop, crowfoot, nettle, and spurrey. There is indeed a kind of poetry in the names of things, and more, much more, than "a kind of truth." If truth means anything, it takes its meat and merit from its nearness to simple facts. I came home with wet boots and grass-stained jeans and felt I had been closer to truth than I had ever been in a church or classroom.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Second book

In the preface to his second book, way back in 1997, Michael Pollan, the food guy, expresses his theory that a writer's second book is the most difficult to write and the most revealing to read. The first book, he says, is like a point in the infinite space of possibility; "it can be about anything and lead nowhere in particular." A writer's second book, by placing a second point in the space of possibility, establishes a line, a path that often sets the course of the writer's career.

So how does this theory apply to my own trajectory, now that it is winding down?

Pretty good, I think, with one modification.

My first three books (four, actually) were pretty much straight science, deriving almost directly from my teaching: Interstate 80, 365 Starry Nights, The Crust of the Earth, and Biography of a Planet. They were basically a twenty-year core dump in words and drawings of pedagogies I had developed in the classroom, wake-up stories for those 8:30 AM classes in earth science and astronomy when students stumbled in groggy-eyed and inert. The books didn't reveal much of my personal intellectual interests, which I kept out of the classroom.

The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage was my first real book -- personal, poetic, idiosyncratic -- the first dart hurled into the space of unlimited possibility. (It might never have been published if it hadn't been for the success of 365 Starry Nights and the publishing contacts I had made with the earlier books.)

My "second" book was Honey From Stone: A Naturalist's Search for God. Another dart tossed into the space of possibility, a second point, and a line defined. A line on the shore between the firm ground of scientific knowledge and the infinite sea of mystery. Everything that followed -- fiction and non-fiction -- has been a walk on that shore.

The danger, of course, as Michael Pollan acknowledges, is repeating oneself, and perhaps I have reached the point in my career where I have said it all before. "I suspect that every writer has [a] set of ultimate questions, and if you read their work long enough you will find the path of their narrative…inevitably winding its way back to the Mother Issue," writes Pollan. The Mother Issue. Walking the shore between knowledge and mystery -- wide-eyed, drop-jawed, a tingle in the spine.

There was one exception to what I have written above, one book that was decidedly off-path, the rollicking comic novel Chattanooga, published in France quite some time ago to gratifying acclaim, but not heretofore available in English, for personal reasons. That is now changing, thanks to son Dan. Stay tuned.

(Early Monday morning I fly to Panama. A few days later I will join the JOIDES Resolution for a transit of the canal and on to Curacao. The ship will be coming off an attempt to drill closer to the Earth's mantle than ever before. I hope to be blogging from Panama and the ship, but we'll have to wait and see what sorts of internet connections I have access to. I'll be back with you as soon as I can. Meanwhile, a reprise tomorrow and Anne on Sunday.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Supernatural and metanatural -- Part 2

"It is not easy to live in that continuous awareness of things which alone is true living," wrote the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch in The Voice of the Desert.

The nail. The iron nail. Vermeer is committed to exact observation and description of the natural world, no detail too small to be overlooked. There is no obvious metaphorical meaning here. The painting does not direct our attention to another reality. It celebrates this reality, the one in which we live and breathe and have our being. Vermeer's life overlapped Galileo's and Newton's. He may have known Leeuwenhoek. He is immersed in the spirit of the Scientific Revolution.

But the nail. How can the experience of a nail be -- dare I say it? -- numinous? Not numinous in the sense of the dictionary's first definition -- of or relating to the supernatural -- but of the second -- spiritually elevating, sublime.

Experience is not passive. It is a conflation of an external object and the experiencer's knowledge and imagination. A numinous experience is one that ignites a firestorm in the brain, a thrill, a rush of pleasure, a sense of the mysterious, of beauty, of overflowing fullness.

I hold an iron nail in my hand, cold and hard. There is first of all the tactile pleasure, purely sensual. But there is more, much more, that knowledge brings to the experience. What I hold in my hand is both a human artifact, rich in history -- an object that pierces wood and plaster -- and an element that is unusually common in the universe for a reason that points us to the deepest mystery of what is.

The Earth's core is mostly iron. There is iron in the crust, too, but iron has a propensity to form alliances with other elements and therefore hides in combination. The solar system swarms with iron meteorites. Iron drops onto the Earth from the sky.

All of which takes us into the cores of stars, where the heavy elements are forged from the primeval hydrogen and helium of the big bang.

Without going into detail, here is a graph familiar to any physicist, the nuclear binding energy curve for the elements. (Click to enlarge.) On the vertical axis, the energy required to break apart the nucleus of an atom into its constituent protons and neutrons. On the horizontal axis, the elements, from hydrogen to the heaviest elements. And there, at the very top of the curve, is iron (Fe), mass number 56, 26 protons and 30 neutrons, the most stable of elements.

If a star were to burn to its end, it would become a ball of iron. But before that happens other forces intervene, which can cause a star to explode and hurl its freshly forged elements into space, ultimately to become part of my body, my brain, and the iron nail in my hand.

The key to numinosity is to perceive the commonplace as part of a cosmic drama we only faintly understand, churning with powers that are perhaps beyond our capacity to know, to feel that drama unfolding in every jot and tittle of the ordinary, to be aware of being swept along on a unfolding tide of being, stars seeding the universe with the elements of life and mind -- bread, milk, wicker, brass, cloth, ceramic, wood, plaster, skin.

A nail. A hole in plaster. As Krutch said, it is not easy to live with a continuous awareness of things. We are grateful for the all too infrequent moments of numinous insight.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Supernatural and metanatural -- Part 1

I first wrote about Jan Vermeer's The Milkmaid back in the late-summer of 2009, when the painting was the star of a show at New York's Met. I was so enchanted with the painting that I made it the desktop on one of my laptops, where it has remained ever since. I wrote about it again here and here.

What I like about the painting is the way it celebrates the commonplace, especially the way it illuminates simple material things -- bread, milk, wicker, brass, cloth, ceramic, wood, plaster, skin. We see these things as they are, but also -- though the artist's genius -- as part of a transforming radiance that shines in even the most ordinary things, what in one of those earlier posts I called "the isness of things that overflows our knowing."

Well, here I go again. The Milkmaid is still on my desktop, and for the last day or so I have been fixated on two tiny details -- a nail and a nail hole in the plaster wall. Click image to enlarge. And here is the full painting.

Our first reaction might be surprise that the artist would register such homely details, but that is the charm of the painting -- the re-enchantment of the everyday.

And that, after all, is the challenge of religious naturalism: to experience the mysterium fascinans and mysterium tremendum -- the fascinating and awe-inspiring mystery -- in every aspect of the natural world.

I am, of course, borrowing these terms from Rudolf Otto, the German Lutheran theologian of the first half of the last century. Otto sought to ground the religious experience in the ordinary physical experience of things, a numinous grasp of something awesome and exhilarating behind the surface. For Otto, that something was "wholly other," a glimpse of the transcendent divine.

Mircea Eliade took up where Otto let off, and spoke of the sacred and profane. He too emphasized the experience of the transcendent in the ordinary, "the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural "profane" world."

Both Otto and Eliade had a huge influence on my generation of seekers, especially in their insistence that religion be grounded in the experience of natural things. All of this meshed well with the Roman Catholic sacramental tradition in which I was raised. But Otto, Eliade and Catholicism saw the numinous experience pointing beyond nature. Eliade wrote: "We cannot speak of naturalism or of natural religion in the sense that the nineteenth century gave to those terms; for it is 'supernature' that the religious man apprehends through the natural aspects of the world."

For the religious naturalist, the intuition of a "wholly other" is a step too far, not just beyond the physiological and psychological experience, but into a kind of anthropomorphic idolatry. What then is it that gives the experience its numinous quality, what I called in one of those earlier posts "metanatural," as opposed to "supernatural"? Tomorrow I will try to answer this question -- by reference to that iron nail in the milkmaid's wall.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

East of Eden

The house I grew up in had lots of books, mostly my mother's Book-of-the-Month Club selections from the late 1930s and early 1940s. There must have been a Bible in the house, although I don't recall it. Certainly the Bible played no role in our family life, which was pretty typical of Catholics. We were more into the Family Rosary Crusade. So my first acquaintance with the Land of Nod was with Robert Louis Stevenson, not Genesis.
From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay,
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.

All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do--
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.

The strangest things are there for me,
Both things to eat and things to see,
And many frightening sights abroad
Till morning in the land of Nod.

Try as I like to find the way,
I never can get back by day,
Nor can remember plain and clear
The curious music that I hear.
My Land of Nod was Dreamland, that mysterious territory where everything is familiar and nothing is familiar. Eugene Field's poem Wynken, Blynken and Nod confirmed the dreamy adventure of nodding off. I was quite prepared as a child to sail away in a wooden shoe and fish among the stars.

I still am. As I indicated yesterday, my dreams are vivid, often frightening, sometimes delicious. I've read everything in the college library about the science and psychology of dreams, but there's little agreement and much left to learn. I'd love to interrogate those three little Dutchmen who reside down there in the cellar of the brain, stitching tenuous memories into crazy-quilt counterpanes.

Brainstem activity during sleep somehow stirs up a jumble of remembered images, emotions and desires, which the cerebral cortex tries to shape into a story, or so says philosopher/neurobiologist Owen Flanagan. Although that doesn't tell us much, it suggests something both deeply biological and cultural. The animal and the angel.

Which brings us to Genesis.

It wasn't until my graduate school days that I started reading the Bible. And there in Genesis 4 was Nod: "And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden." The impetuous fratricide was condemned to endlessly wander for his crime, in a strange and frightening land beyond the familiar, while bearing the baggage of his cultural self. Not a bad metaphor for the dream. If Abel is our generally reliable conscious self, Cain is our dreaming avatar: "A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth."

(The image of Cain wandering in Nod is by the French painter Fernand Cormon (1845-1924), whose subjects generally have the spooky, psychosexual feeling of having been dredged up from the primitive brainstem and pieced together in the cerebral cortex. Click to enlarge.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Perchance to dream

I believe I mentioned here a year or two ago how so many of my current dreams are set in the house and city I grew up in -- 4106 Anderson Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Never in any of the other places I have lived, including this house in New England in which I have spent the great majority of my adult life. No. Always the white colonial on Anderson Avenue and a distorted but recognizable Chattanooga.

These dreams are becoming more common. So much so that I wonder to what extent this phenomenon is shared by others in my age cohort, and what it might mean?

Why are my deepest, earliest memories surfacing now in my dreams?

Have the memories that have been maintained the longest burned themselves most tenaciously into my neural circuits?

Or is it the opposite? Do these dreams represent the oldest and most fragile memories popping out of existence, like bubbles from champagne?

If these childhood memories do in fact dominate my unconsciousness, to what extent have they provided an unsuspected armature for my conscious thinking over the years? Maybe the way we view and understand the world is subtly constrained by the space-time structures that first impressed themselves on our developing brains.

I'm sure there must be some relevant literature out there, and maybe some of you can guide me to it. There is Piaget, of course. Perhaps more interesting is Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space.

Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) was a French philosopher of eclectic interests. Like most French philosophers of his generation his prose is difficult (although not as opaque as the post-moderns who followed him). Although trained in the philosophy of science, he gave most of his attention to "reveries." Science and poetry were necessary and irreducible complements in his understanding of the world, the yang and yin, the animus and anima, of the knowing self. His thought has a certain playfulness, a "shifting character," a willingness to bounce around gleefully, as opposed to stern adherence to dogma.

In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard emphasizes the importance of the house we were born in, and the psychological significance of cellar and attic, nooks and corners, stairways up and stairways down, drawers and wardrobes. "The house we were born in is physically inscribed in us," he writes.
It is a group of organic habits. After twenty years, in spite of all the other anonymous stairways, we would recapture the reflexes of the "first stairway," we would not stumble on that rather high step. The house's entire being would open up, faithful to our own being. We would push the door that creaks with the same gesture, we would find our way in the dark to the distant attic. The feel of the tiniest latch has remained in our hands.
It is space, not time, that imposes itself most forcefully upon our imaginations, says Bachelard. Memories are motionless, like fossils fixed in stone. Localization -- those first spaces of our childhood -- is more lasting than duration.

I'm not sure what to make of all this, but it has a ring of truth. If it's true, it must have a neurological basis. It seems to be a field ripe for research, both scientific and literary.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reading light

Anne tells me this series of Sunday pics is inspired by her fascination with the Voynich Manuscript. Click, and then again, to enlarge.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Saturday reprise -- Into the deep

(While you are waiting for the Rapture, here is a re-post from October 2009.)

Recently, I mentioned Monet's "Water Lilies" on the same day the APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) was a spectacular panorama of the region of the constellation Orion between the belt and the scabbard. It occurred to me to juxtapose the two images. (Click to enlarge.)

The one, on a scale of meters. The other, on a scale of tens of light-years. A difference of 17 orders of magnitude.

Monet said of his work: "Everyone discusses [my art] and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love."

He shortchanges understanding.

The first question of the old catechism asks: "Why did God make me?" The answer: "To know, to love, to serve." Understanding is a prerequisite to love, and love is an invitation to greater understanding. The two are inseparable. The naturalist John Burroughs, who was Monet's almost exact contemporary (and late-life look-alike), said, "To know is not all, it is only half. To love is the other half."

The painting of the pond at Giverny and the Orion photograph invite us into the depths of nature, there to encounter as through a glass darkly the source (or sources) of our wonderment. Anyone who looks at Monet's water lily paintings (of which there are many) or the Hubble photographs of the universe, say, and is not stuck dumb with love is simply not paying attention. But to love without understanding is only half. Art and science are our left foot and our right foot as we go praising through the world.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Once when Bertrand Russell and [the biologist] Julian Huxley were dining together, Sir Julian described the habits of an obscure amphibian. Lord Russell, so great a mathematician-philosopher, listened with humble absorption and at the end said, "It's nice to know things."
I take this delightful anecdote from Sally Carrighar, a nature writer not nearly as well known as she should be. She relates the anecdote at the beginning of the chapter in her autobiography, Home To the Wilderness, that recounts her going away to Wellesley College in the fall of 1918.

Wellesley was one of those places where a young woman of Carrighar's generation could get an education that assumed a woman's intellect was equal to a man's. Science was very much a part of the curriculum. Her course in zoology opened her eyes to the fact that "it's nice to know things." Her courses in composition planted the seed that later turned knowing into art.

I discovered Sally Carrighar in the late 1970s when I started presiding over a course called The Naturalist -- reading, nature study, journal keeping, writing. I read the books that brought her success in the 1940s -- One Day on Beetle Rock and One Day at Teton Marsh -- was impressed, and added them to our reading last. Here was a woman living alone in the wilderness and developing remarkable relationships with the wild creatures around her, whose lives she describes as if from inside their own being. Her influences were not other nature writers, but the scientists to whom she went to "know." Lots of nature writers have lived alone in the woods, from Thoreau to Annie Dillard, but no one else I know of has been able to enter quite so completely the hearts and minds of the animals she wrote about.

All of this was a bit of a mystery until I read her autobiography, a book I'd recommend to anyone. (Apparently not still in print.) It begins with a birth that was exceedingly traumatic for mother and child. Sally's beautiful and vivacious mother never seems to have put the trauma behind her. She henceforth treated Sally with humiliating disdain, refusing even to listen to her voice, even suggesting to the sickly young girl that she might kill herself (something Carrighar attempted to do in her mid-thirties). Even when Sally was an adult, her mother couldn't bear to be with her.

Home To the Wilderness is the story of a brave and sensitive girl and woman climbing out of a hell not of her own making. As resources she had a kindly, although often absent father. Music. An uncanny rapport with animals. And knowledge. Reliable, scientific knowledge of the natural world that she used to enter silently and attentively into its innermost workings. She died in 1985 at age eighty-seven.

When I first read Sally Carrighar those many years ago, I came away with the one thing that still keeps me busy in my golden years. It's nice to know things.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

And speaking of books…

Here is a photo of the new Musashino Art University Library in Japan, which has been the subject of admiring reports in the architecture magazines (I follow Architectural Record when I'm encamped in the college library). The architects are Sou Fujimoto Architects of Tokyo. Click to enlarge. You can view more pics here.

Floor to ceiling bookshelves inside and out. Or what look like bookshelves. The library has the appearance of almost infinite capacity waiting to be filled with books. But that is an illusion. Most of the shelves have no means of access, and are not structurally designed to support books anyway.

I happen to like this building, but to me it doesn't so much evoke shelves waiting to be filled as the redundancy of shelves in the digital age. Books have arisen and gone to heaven. You are looking at the empty tomb.

Which prompts a re-reprise of a Boston Globe column from March 1995, on the occasion of the publication of Nicholas Negroponte's manifesto, Being Digital. So for those with more time to read, here is a little fantasy that was supposedly taking place in the year 2015. And now we are almost there. I wasn't far off the mark.


I knew the moment I touched the doorbell that this interview was going to be different.

I was expecting an electronic voice welcoming me to the house. What I heard instead was a ding-dong ringing somewhere inside, such as you might have heard back in the 20th century.

It wasn't long before Anna Log appeared -- an attractive gray-haired woman in a flowing dress. Astonishingly, she seemed completely disconnected from the Net.

I introduced myself. "I write a column for the Globe called Science Musings. Do you know it?"

She replied: "I stopped reading the Globe when it stopped printing on paper."

I should have guessed. After all, that's why I was there.

Anna Log is president of Friends of Books, a small but fanatical group of people who collect and read paper books.

"Please come in," she said.

I spoke briefly to my Wrist PDA. At my instruction, it began recording my conversation with Anna and transmitting a transcript via satellite to my computer at home.

"I thought my readers might like to hear about your organization."

I glanced about the room. The walls were lined with shelves stuffed with books. No flat-panel video displays. No modems. No faxes. No electronic devices of any kind.

I took a book from a shelf: Being Digital, by Nicholas Negroponte.

"I remember this book," I said, flipping it open. "Yes, it was published in 1995 by a professor at the MIT Media Lab."

"Only 20 years ago," said Anna, "but it seems like another age."

"Ironic, isn't it, that a manifesto on the digital future should have been published as a paper book?"

"And a handsome book at that," she said. She took the volume from me and glanced at the publisher's logo on the spine. "Alfred Knopf. They did quality stuff. Unfortunately, they were swallowed up in the late-90's by Microsoft Multimedia."

"Funny that you should have a copy," I said. I let my finger run along the spines of other books on her shelves -- Austen, Dickens, Steinbeck, Morrison. . .

She replied: "Oh, it's quite a charming book, actually. Sprightly, witty, fun to read."

My Wrist PDA interrupted with an audio prompt. I downloaded a message, glanced at the display, then returned to the conversation.

"As I recall, Negroponte predicted that the digitization of culture would usher in a golden age of world harmony."

"Hmmm --," mused Anna.

I took the book from her hands, turned to the last page, and read: "While the politicians struggle with the baggage of history, a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices. These kids are released from the limitation of geographic proximity as the sole basis of friendship, collaboration, play and neighborhood…"

Anna gently interrupted: "We Friends of Books believe the 'baggage of history' is not all bad. We value things you can't find on the Net. Solitude. Eccentricity. Vernaculars. Poetry."

My Powerbelt beeped, indicating I was running on reserve power. If I lost my satellite link, I would have to take notes with pen and paper, neither of which I had.

"But surely Negroponte was right," I protested. "The Net has harmonized the world. A common language has emerged, common hopes, common expectations. . ."

"Dead common," said Anna, with a wry smile.

"Not true," I said. "The triumph of digitization is freedom -- freedom to watch precisely the entertainment, news or sports that I want, when and where I want it. My toaster knows just how I like my toast; my word processor anticipates every quirk of my personal style. I can look out the electronic 'window' of my house and see any landscape on Earth -- the Alps, the rain forest -- as I choose. It's like Negroponte said: 'Being digital is the triumph of the individual.' "

I must have been getting excited. The health monitor function of my Wrist PDA buzzed, indicating a rise in blood pressure.

"Being digital is the illusion of freedom," said Anna, quietly. She took a book from a shelf. "Freedom is being disconnected from the Net. Freedom is the privilege of burning my toast, or of using an unexpected turn of phrase. Freedom is being able to curl up in bed with Thoreau's Walden" -- she tapped the volume in her hands -- "or any other piece of the 'baggage of history.' "

My Powerbelt beeped furiously, indicating an imminent loss of power. I hunched over almost double so that the Flexidish antenna woven into my shirt was pointed more directly at the invisible satellite out there in space. "How many members are there in your organization?" I urgently asked.

"Not many," replied Anna.

"And where do you manage to find books, real paper books?" I swiveled, hoping for a stronger signal.

"Attics. Basements. We trade around. The last actual book was published in 2006."

I beeped. I buzzed. I furiously tapped my Powerbelt.

Anna glanced at her watch, a lovely antique thing with hands and a circular dial. "I'll be saying goodbye," she said sweetly as she guided me gently toward the door. "I'm getting a bit of a headache from all the beeping and buzzing. I think I'll curl up by the fire with a good book."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


My spouse got a Kindle for Mother's Day. To give it a whirl, she downloaded a few of the Agatha Christies she hasn't read. Her first report: Easy to read, handy for travel.

The device was a gift from son Dan, who is a big reader and swears by his Kindle. I can foresee nicking my spouse's Kindle when I'm on the island, say, with no access to bookstores or Amazon. There's a tiny library on the island, but I've pretty much read my way through it, and the only books are donations so one is unlikely to find the latest things I'd want to read. We'll see.

It appears that e-books are fast overtaking paper volumes, if they have not done so already. Dan says the Kindle can store thousands of volumes -- an entire library in the palm of one's hand. But I can't imagine a house without books. Bookshelves on every wall. Books spilling from desks and tables. Books piled helter-skelter in the spare bedroom. I'm consoled by their presence. I'm buttressed by their bulk. I'm warmed by their R-value on cold winter nights.

A Kindle is a genie in a bottle. I like my spirits free and roaming, shelf to shelf, room to room. I like my house to be like Caliban's island
... full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
I like it when while looking for last year's best-seller I find it snuggled up with the anthology of Greek drama I read at university. I like the way a march of spines recapitulates my intellectual life over sixty years, the evocative detritus of the past, yellowing, dog-eared, annotated.

Look! Here is my original paperback Walden, from junior year at university, with every word I didn't know underlined in red, to be looked up. Tantivy. Tantara. As I type them now they are highlighted by my spell checker. My word processor doesn't recognize them, but Thoreau knew what they mean and so do I, thanks to Thoreau. I used them once to good effect in something I wrote -- I can't remember what or where. But whatever it was, it is here somewhere, somewhere on these spilling shelves, and someday these paper clouds will open and those riches and more will drop upon me, sounds, sweet airs, a thousand twangling pages. A tantivy of inky syllables. Tantara!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Yesterday I mentioned my undergraduate course in apologetics at the University of Notre Dame in the 1950s. I can't remember the name of the priest who taught the course, but I remember him telling us in the first class that someday we would find ourselves sitting next to a Protestant minister on the train and everything we learned in apologetics would suddenly come into play. In the ensuing conversation we would either win another soul for the True Faith, or -- horrors! -- we might lose our own ticket to eternal life.

Fifty-five years later, I have yet to find myself sitting next to a Protestant minister on a train. Or bus. Or plane. Or next to a rabbi, an imam, or the Dalai Lama, either. Oh, I've known ministers of various faiths, but by the time we met I had not the least interest in saving their souls, and -- as far as I could tell -- the feeling was mutual.

Which raises the question: Couldn't this blog be seen as an attempt to proselytize for religious naturalism?

I don't think so.

A lively public exchange of views on matters of religion -- or politics, or anything else -- is a good thing. I am grateful for the chance to read works by Catholic theologians such as the always interesting John Haught or the late departed Thomas Berry. Cheers too for the Richard Dawkinses and Daniel Dennetts. I'll take a pass on those works by evangelicals that currently crowd the best-seller lists, but more power to them. This blog would soon come to a grinding halt if it didn't have provocative ideas from every field to feed on, pro and con.

So I float my religious naturalism into the world. But I don't go knocking on anyone's door. I accept everyone where they are and hope they will allow me the same courtesy.

Proselytism is a corollary of certainty. My university apologetics teacher urged us to brook no doubt. My science teachers inculcated a healthy skepticism.

(And as for my university apologetics text, Frank Sheed's Theology and Sanity -- you are Catholic or you are nuts -- my spouse informs me that it is still in print, and ranking higher on Amazon than any book of mine.)

Monday, May 16, 2011


As a two-time graduate of the University of Notre Dame, I get occasional mailings from the university, including their excellent quarterly alumni magazine, which is surely one of the most handsome and engaging alumni magazines in the country.

Yesterday, for some reason, I received the spring newsletter of the university's new Center for Philosophy of Religion.

An interesting read. Fellows at the center include Catholics, mainstream Protestants, evangelical Christians, and at least one acknowledged agnostic. All getting along swell and learning from each other. Sam Harris, the arch-atheist, was a recent guest. What a difference from the 1950s, when everyone but RCs were assumed to be on the highway to hell. I believe I have mentioned here before that my undergraduate apologetics text was Frank Sheed's Theology and Sanity, the premise of which was if you don't accept Catholic orthodoxy you are insane.

The Center is now in its second year addressing the problem of evil: Why does undeserved suffering exist in a world that is created and sustained by a loving and all-powerful God? A lively topic, to be sure, and more power to them. The newsletter gives no indication of a solution.

The problem has been around at least since the beginning of Christianity. As far as I can see, there have been only two proposed solutions that can hold water:

1) A loving, all-powerful God does not exist; or

2) God's ways are inscrutable to humans, including theologians and philosophers of religion.

There is a third "solution," that of Aquinas: Any suffering of the just on Earth is outweighed by blissful union with God in the afterlife. Which more or less assumes what one is trying to prove.

I don’t see much in the newsletter that moves the discussion beyond Aquinas and Leibniz, which suggests that philosophy may not have much new to offer in resolving the age-old conundrum. As for myself, I'll stick with Ockham's Razor, which suggests a healthy agnosticism. I have no proof that the principle of parsimony is valid, but it has served science well, and led us into the world of the galaxies and DNA, big bang and quarks, cosmic space and geologic time. Meanwhile, the problem of theodicy squats on square one.

Ockham's Razor suggests that love, justice and evil are human concepts, having nothing to do with tsetse flies and tsunamis. If bad things happen to good people, well, maybe that's just the way things are and a loving, all-powerful God has nothing to do with it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Words & Things

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

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Saturday reprise -- Then to the elements be free

This year marking the 400th anniversary of the first production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, I reprise a post from several years ago.

Many years ago, in my sprightly and more foolish youth, I played Ariel in a faculty production of The Tempest. It's hard to imagine now that I was ever young enough or foolish enough to don white tights and tunic and flit about the stage at Prospero's bidding, singing "Where the bee sucks, there suck I." But such was the case. For three nights, on a spot-lit stage, I joined the elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves, whose pastime is to make midnight mushrumps. And on the third night, when Prospero, as promised, spoke the liberating words -- "My Ariel, chick, to the elements be free, and fare thou well!" -- I leapt into the wings, rolled up my tights, and spent the next forty years, charms o'erthrown, with what faint strength I had my own.

Whenever, during those post-sprite years, I required some heavenly music -- as even now I do -- to work my ends, I harken back to my brief fling as Prospero's tricksy spirit, and wonder what became of Ariel when his master set him free. I've even thought of writing a novel on the theme.

I suspect that Ariel relished his freedom -- for a week or two. Then I wonder if he might have pined for his former servitude to a stern but fair master, freedom being a burden he found oppressive. It would seem, from the almost universal popularity of institutional religion, that servitude to the precepts of a divine Prospero and his holy book are -- for the great majority of people -- preferred to taking on responsibility for one's own life.

Would Ariel have been up to the burden of freedom? Would he have been resourceful enough to fill his life with useful activity, without Prospero's assigned tasks to fulfill?

As you may recall, Ariel came into Prospero's service when the great magician freed him from a cloven pine in which he had been imprisoned by the hag-witch Sycorax -- imprisoned because his airy spirit was too good and delicate to do the witch's foul bidding. After Sycorax, Prospero must have seemed a better master -- just, reasonably benevolent, modest in his requests, in other words rather like the father God so many people choose for voluntary servitude.

And so, dear Ariel, where are you now? Napping happily in some cowslip's bell, free as a bird and content with your freedom? Or are you darting disconsolately about that enchanted isle, alone and uncommanded in a world of daunting possibilities, looking vainly for Prospero (who is long gone) to volunteer your tricksy spirit?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Heavenly harmony

Enlarge the above image by clicking. If that doesn't fill your screen, go here. Make sure the horizontal scroll is all the way open.

Better, drag the image onto your desktop, open it up, and have it filling the background as you continue to read.

You are looking at a corner of a rich star-forming region called the Lagoon Nebula. The entire nebula can be seen here. It is a large object, in the constellation Sagittarius, somewhat larger in apparent size than the full Moon, and barely visible to the naked eye under ideal conditions. It is about 5000 light-years away, in our own Milky Way Galaxy, about a sixth of the way toward the center.

Now let's take a trip backwards in our time machine to the time of Shakespeare and Galileo, 400 years ago, just as Galileo was making his first telescopic discoveries. What sort of world do we find ourselves living in?

A world created only a few thousand years ago, specifically for us. The Earth at its center. The stars just up there beyond the planets on an all-enclosing celestial sphere. Beyond -- the realm of God and the angels, who had little on their minds but us.

A Great Chain of Being reaches from the foot of God's throne down through hierarchies of angels to humans, then on through ordered ranks of animals, plants, and inorganic matter to the dregs of the cosmos at Earth's center. The human body is the microcosm, a little image of the larger universe, linked to the greater cosmos by a vast system of correspondences. Each of the seven holes in the head, for example, corresponds to one of the seven known heavenly bodies. Stars, planets, human life: All are engaged in a cosmic dance, orchestrated by the Creator.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay
And could not heave her head,
That tuneful voice was heard from high:
Arise, ye more than dead.
Then cold and hot and moist and dry
In order to their stations leap
And music's power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universe began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man.
An elaborate and beautiful construction that makes sense of every aspect of human life. (To appreciate it in its fullest, read E. M. W. Tillyard's classic little book, The Elizabethean World Picture.) Beautiful and satisfying, yes, but fragile. Precariously vulnerable to empirical refutation. "Take but degree away, untune that string/ And hark, what discord follow."

Our task, as scientifically literate citizens of the 21st century, is to look at the image above squarely and unafraid, to see it for what it is, and for what it means about our place in the universe. We must embrace new correspondences -- physical and chemical -- in a new and disorienting kind of cosmic space and time. We must listen for a new kind of music, inaudible, humming at the very heart of creation, in every star, every nebula, every cell of our bodies. We must learn to think of ourselves as valuable, not because we are central or because we are the point of it all, but because in us the jarring atoms have contrived a way to bring the yawning, indifferent nebulas down to earth.

A shade, gay circles of anemones

During these first few weeks of May I wouldn't be anywhere else but in my beloved New England woods. Oh, I know, the coming of spring is marvelous no matter where you are. But one loves what one knows, and I know my New England woods.

Especially the wildflowers. Small and white. Blooming in the woods even before the meadow flowers bloom. Carpeting the woodland floor in the shade of oaks and pines.

Something so elfin, so enchanting, requires more than your standard prosaic identification guide. I have a long acquaintance with these flowers, but still I return again to the very first popular wildflower guide, Mrs. William Starr Dana's How To Know the Wild Flowers, originally published by Scribner in 1893.

I have a beautiful reprint published by Houghton Mifflin in 1989, but it now seems to be out of print. I see on Amazon another more recent scanned version, from Nabu Press (whatever that is), with an inexplicable jacket illustration and a hybrid author's name (her own Christian names and the last name of her second husband).

I'll call the author by the name she called herself, at a time when women deferred to their husbands in such matters. Today, no doubt, she would write under her birth name, Frances Theodora Smith. But today, also, something of that lovely late-19th-century gentility that marks her writing would be replaced by a more workmanlike prose. We are talking here about early spring wildflowers that seem more at home in a Victorian fairyland than in a world of chemical lawns and asphalt acres.

First, the wood anemones, clinging to the verges of the paths. Mrs. Dana quotes Whittier: :"-- wind-flowers sway/ Against the throbbing heart of May." Flowers that sprang, according to myth, from the lamenting tears of Venus over the body of slain Adonis. For the science of the flower, I turn as usual to the
modern guide of Donald and Lillian Stokes
. For the poetry I'll stick with Mrs. Dana, who claims to see the flower hold "the very essence of spring and purity in its quivering cup."

The wild oats and their near cousins the bellworts, with "lily-like blossoms which droop modestly beneath the curving stems."

The Canada mayflower, or wild-lily-of-the-valley, "a familiar and pretty little plant, long without any homely English name." As Mrs. Dana says, it grows in Canada and blooms in May, but it abounds as far south as North Carolina.

And my favorite, the delicate starflower, "the whole effect of plant, leaf, and snow-white blossom is starry and pointed."

"At our very feet lie wonders for whose elucidation a lifetime would be far too short," writes Mrs. Dana, who as much as anyone can be called the inventor of the popular nature guide. It is nice to know that her book is still in print in one form or another. And of course nature reprints itself every spring, with (I quote Shakespeare now) "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An Olmstedian ethic -- Part 2

"He who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man." Emerson
Earth as a human artifact? It seems profoundly counterintuitive to suggest that the best way to ensure the survival of nature's "sweets and virtues" is by human design. That glorious swatch of relative wildness that is Central Park in New York City was an uninspiring wasteland before Frederick Law Olmsted used it as a canvas for creating woods, meadows and ponds -- a sea of spirit-enhancing green in a city of wall-to-wall brick, concrete and steel. The park is no less artificial than the rest of Manhattan Island; it is also a world apart, the heart and lungs of the city.

(Yes, that "uninspiring wasteland" was once, at an earlier time, untrammeled wilderness, but hankering for what cannot be retrieved is a fool's errand.)

If my environmental ethic is Olmstedian, it is certainly at least partly because my path back and forth to work each day for 47 years has taken me through a landscape designed by Olmsted as an estate for a wealthy local family, now in the care of the Natural Resources Trust of Easton. Not wilderness. Not nature untouched by human hand, but woods, brook, ponds, water meadow, and greenswards, designed with an eye to beauty, and populated by birds, wildflowers, and animals. I can say with Emerson: "It seemed as if the day was not wholly profane, in which we have given heed to some natural object."

The Olmstedian ethic entered my consciousness through the soles of my feet.

It is an foolish conceit that we can let nature alone. There is not a square foot of the planet's surface that has not already been influenced in some way by human activity. So let' s get on with it -- making the planet a work of art. Pocket parks on street corners. Vast tracts of protected wilderness where it still exists. Not just for the condors and the cougars, the bluebirds and the butterflies, but for us, because our best natures feed on organic beauty -- and without application of our best natures we all go down together.

In the last years of the 19th century and first years of the 20th a generation of far-sighted men and women followed Olmsted in applying his ethic to the environs of Boston. First came Olmsted's own Emerald Necklace of urban parks. Then Charles Eliot and friends acquired and developed the splendid reservations -- Middlesex Fells and Blue Hills -- that bracket the city to north and south. Other parkways and open spaces followed, in Boston and around the country. A national park system was established. It was a glorious -- and as yet unrepeated -- flowering of visionary design.

It could happen again, on a global scale. The deterrents are greed -- get mine and to hell with the public good -- and, ironically, an environmental ethic that sees humans as the unnatural enemy of the natural world.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An Olmstedian ethic -- Part 1

I keep my traveling to a minimum these days, but for many years I attended occasional gatherings of "nature writers." I was often the odd-man-out.

Our conversations were usually posed as humans vs. nature. We are the ravisher, nature the ravished victim. To hear my colleagues talk, it was almost as if humans had arrived on an unspoiled planet from outer space, and set about dismantleling it for our exclusive -- and selfish --benefit.

My position was that we are as much a part of nature as condors and cougars, that our technological prowess is as much a product of natural evolution as talons and teeth.

Not that our aspirations for nature were all that different -- we all valued wildness and biodiversity. But it seems to me that the best way of achieving whatever is achievable is to start by recognizing the biological imperative of human dominion.

Dominion does not necessarily mean domination. Let us begin with a few moral principles that are entirely of human invention, validated by collective assent:

1) All creatures share to one degree or another the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Ascertaining the "degree" and doling it out is per force a human responsibility. Presumably, no one would object to the extinction of the smallpox virus or tsetse fly. Condors and cougars, bluebirds and butterflies, have greater claims on our forbearance.

2) Human happiness and spiritual growth is enhanced by the experience of wildness and biological diversity.

Then, of course, there is the central ecological fact that our physical well-being -- the food we eat, the air we breathe, etc. -- depend upon a balance of nature that has evolved over millennia and is disrupted at our peril.

So, what to do?

Recognize that human dominion is inevitable. Draw upon our highest ethical and artistic instincts to make of planet Earth a human artifact that is beautiful, graceful and spiritually fulfilling. Make our cities clean and green. Protect wild rivers and forest preserves, especially those near population centers. Enact environmental regulations that assume the common good sometimes trumps individual freedom.

My writing colleagues generally blanched at the idea of Earth as a human artifact. But in fact it already is. And will continue to be so. The only question is what kind of artifact we want. And the place to begin is by recognizing that we are nature and whatever we make is natural.

As Emerson said in 1844: "Nature, who made the mason, made the house."

(More tomorrow.

Monday, May 09, 2011


I almost missed the cultural revolution of the 1960s and early-1970s. I was just married, starting a family, up to my ears in the study of physics, then starting a new job as a teacher. For me, it was Maxwell's Equations rather than marijuana, up late with a colicky child rather than the Summer of Love. But like almost everyone else of a certain age, I managed to read Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, the hippie scripture of the Flower Generation.

The book was published in the U. S. in a New Directions paperback, which I think I still have around the house somewhere. Right now I'm looking at a copy off the shelf here in the college library.

Did it guide me on the path to enlightenment? I don't think so. But as I flip through the pages it all comes back to me.

Who did not want to identify with the young Siddhartha, "strong, handsome, supple-limbed"? The girls all swooned when he walked through the street. Everybody loved Siddhartha. He made everybody happy.

But Siddhartha was not happy. His soul was not at peace. Like those of us who came of age in America in the 1950s, the circumstances of Siddhartha's life in ancient India, in the lingering aura of the Buddha, seemed -- well -- comfortable but hollow. And so off he went in pursuit of a deeper, more satisfying way of living.

And didn't we all. For me, though, the path didn't lead East but West. For enlightenment I looked to Francis of Assisi and Henry Thoreau, Meister Eckhart and Sigrid Undset, Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Mann. Meanwhile I shored up reliable, scientific knowledge of the world, building a sure foundation from which to launch my personal quest. It wasn't Om that would be my tool, but Ockham's Razor.

And where did it all lead?

Siddhartha tried it all. Asceticism. Commerce. Sex. And ended up by the river. Listening to the river. The unceasing murmur of what is. What did he learn? That words and thoughts and the teachings of the gurus were superfluous. What mattered were things. Every wind, cloud, bird and beetle is equally divine.

At the end of his journey, Siddhartha says to his oldest friend: "I can love a stone, Govinda, and a tree or a piece of bark. These are things and one can love things. But one cannot love words. Therefore teachings are of no use to me; they have no hardness, no softness, nor colors, no corners, no smell, no taste -- they have nothing but words."

And curiously, traveling West rather than East I ended up in pretty much the same place. Oh, I love words or I wouldn't have become a writer. I love books -- novels, poetry, history, biography. But of the words of those who profess the truth -- the preachers, the bloviators, the writers of encyclicals and how-to-be-happy books, the bloggers (me included) and twitterers, even Jesus and the Buddha -- well, I'll stop up my ears and go for a walk in the woods. A river, stone, a piece of bark are divinity enough.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Mother's dress

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

A Saturday reprise

The current issue of Science has an obituary for Thomas Eisner, the eminent entomologist and Cornell professor who spent his entire life --- from childhood to his death in late-March at age 81 -- studying bugs. Which prompts a reprise here of my final column for the Boston Globe in December 2003, after 20 years and a thousand essays.


Several weeks ago, The New York Times asked in the headline of its Tuesday science section - "Does Science Matter?" - then spent 16 pages suggesting an answer: Indeed it does, more than ever.

But the Times also noted that this conclusion is not necessarily that of the American public. The prestige of scientists is declining. Religious fundamentalism and belief in the paranormal is on the rise. Reflecting this national mood, the government provides fewer dollars for scientific research.

Apparently people want pat answers to the big questions of life, and science doesn't provide them. Nor can it. The driving force of science is curiosity about the unknown. Science thrives on mystery.

The 20th century was America's century not least because of the preeminence of American science. For this same reason, the 21st century might belong to Asia, and especially China, as America retreats into dogma and superstition.

What can be done? Probably nothing. If people want pat answers, they will have them.

For 20 years, I have shared in this column my admiration for those men and women of past and present who hold their knowledge of the world against the refining fire of empirical experience. They are part of a glorious transcultural tradition that has led us into the heart of living cells and to the distant galaxies.

Of course, science also can slip into smug self-centeredness. Scientists are not immune to the cozy security of dogma. But of all the ways humans have devised to obtain reliable public knowledge of the world, it is my conviction that science is the least susceptible to accidents of birth, personal prejudice, the coercions of authority, and the straitjackets of tradition.

Yet science alone is an incomplete basis for a life. We need our Jane Austens, Igor Stravinskys and Albert Schweitzers as much as we need our Charles Darwins, Marie Curies and Albert Einsteins. What poets, artists, saints and scientists share is a capacity to be astonished.

This column is the last of Science Musings. It has been a long, joyful ride, not least because of the always thoughtful responses of readers. Your willingness to share your knowledge and life experiences has been an important part of my education, and I am grateful to you.

As a parting token of my gratitude, let me share with you my pleasure in a book I have just finished reading: For the Love of Insects, by Thomas Eisner (Harvard University Press, 2003).

Eisner is professor of chemical ecology at Cornell University, and one of America's preeminent entomologists. He has spent a lifetime figuring out the chemical language of insects. He has published hundreds of scientific papers. His new book is a personal memoir of a lifetime in science, engagingly written and stunningly illustrated with photographs of insects doing astonishing things.

Eisner's bugs squirt, secrete, ooze, defecate, and regurgitate a whole vocabulary of chemicals, to mark, repel, attract, and entangle. Eisner "listens" and "translates" this chemical language with experiments that are enchanting in their simplicity.

What makes Eisner a world-class entomologist is not access to million-dollar scientific instruments, but a mind that never stops asking "Why?" And this within a life that is filled with the joys of family, travel, music, and literature.

There is no danger of running out of mysteries. As Eisner points out, the 1.5 million species of organic life that have so far been described by science are only a fraction of the number that exist. Most creatures on this planet await discovery, and even the most familiar have secrets to reveal.

There are no great philosophical conclusions in Eisner's book, no pat answers to the big questions of life; just one man's unremitting curiosity about the natural world.

One comes away from For the Love of Insects with a suspicion that unremitting curiosity in the face of inexhaustible mystery might just be an answer to the biggest question of all: What makes a human life worth living?

Friday, May 06, 2011

A modest proposal

I'll give to you a paper of pins
And that's the way our love begins
If you will marry me, me, me
If you will marry me.
I was a junior in college when the Four Lads sang their version of the traditional folksong Paper of Pins, head-over-heels in love with a pretty Saint Mary's girl, and thinking vaguely that I might like to marry her someday. "Someday" happened soon enough, even without a paper of pins from me. My young bride brought her own paper of pins into our marriage, along with a portable sewing machine she got for her seventeenth birthday. In the long years since, she's gone through several papers of pins.

A paper of pins. I wonder if my grandchildren even know what that is? Do they still sell papers of pins? I took a quick look at four or five sewing supply sites on the internet. Lots of plastic boxes of pins with spherical plastic tops and old fashioned flat-head pins in plastic boxes. But no papers of pins that I could find. I trust you can still get them somewhere. Papers of pins have been a staple of civilization since the Industrial Revolution, and certainly since Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, which famously begins with papers of pins:
To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.
And so the humble common pin, which is one of the oldest artifacts of homo sapiens, having its origin perhaps in a thorn or fishbone, becomes an exemplar for the division of labor, and a way of organizing life in which laborers and artifacts become interchangeable parts.

But more was to come. In the 1830s, John Ireland Howe invented a pin-making machine, and his company was soon turning out 70,000 pins a day. Someone still had to crimp the paper packaging and insert the pins by hand. By 1843 Howe had figured out how to do even that mechanically. The rest, as they say, is history. Agrarian life and cottage industry vanished in a whirr of spinning cogs and pulleys, and a paper of pins became cheap enough and useful enough to become a hopeful lover's token of endearment.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The radiance of what is

In the summer of 1936, as I nestled snug in my mother's womb, Fortune magazine sent the young writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans to rural Alabama to report on how the Great Depression was affecting the poorest of the poor. For eight weeks they lived with three impoverished sharecropper families. (Pictured above is the family of Bud Fields. Click to enlarge.)

Their combined work never appeared in Fortune, but it was published as a book -- Let Us Now Praise Famous Men -- in 1941. The book was not an immediate success, but decades later, after Agee won a posthumous Pulitzer for A Death in the Family, it found a new audience and eventually a place in the American canon of literary and photographic masterpieces.

The book has a strange, difficult and self-lacerating Preamble in which Agee tries to understand what it is that he and Evans have done. Does art report or create? Have the two artists exploited the families they reported on? How do we discern the truth when we are burdened with so many limitations, preconceptions and personal agendas? How do we make ourselves neutral channels for what is and not for what we wish it to be? Is it possible to be "neutral"? Is it desirable?

These are questions that science and art struggle with perennially, each in its own way. These are questions that each of us should ask about our own constructions of reality. Agee writes:
For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without dissection into science or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself like a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revised, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.
Agee professes his desire to suspend imagination, so that "there opens before consciousness, and within it, a universe luminous, spacious, incalculably rich and wonderful in each detail, as relaxed and natural to the human swimmer, and as full of glory, as his breathing."

A marvelous aspiration. But impossible, of course. Science strives mightily for "objectivity." The artist too wants to reveal something real and wonderful, a cruel radiance. And always there, between our eyes and the world, is the imagination. And why not? It is the imagination that defines our humanity, the channel by which the world becomes conscious of itself. We read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or look at Evans' photographs, and we see what is and what should be, creation roaring in the heart of itself and in our hearts too.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Molecular origami

Take a look at the objects on the cover of this recent issue of Science. They might be exquisite baubles from a pharaoh's tomb, or golden treasures wrested from the Great Inca by Pizarro. Not quite. These are computer representations of actual objects made by folding strands of DNA into two- and three-dimensional shapes. The more obvious DNA strand threading the two flat objects is for illustration only; it is not to the same scale as the other objects but gives a better indication of what the wire-like structure of those objects consist of on a molecular scale.

Lest you think I'm pulling your leg, here are transmission electron microscope images of the flask.

This remarkable object is 40 nanometers in diameter and 70 nanometers tall. The claw of an ant is about ten thousand times larger than the flask. Ten thousand flasks could line up across the period at the end of this sentence. The flask is ten times smaller than the smallest bacterium.

The flask speaks to two things: First, the amazing potentialities of the DNA molecule; second, the equally amazing ability of scientists to manipulate nature on such an incredibly small scale. The folks who devised these objects are at the Biodesign Institute of Arizona State University.

So what's a nanoflask good for? I haven't a clue. What's the DNA-folding technology good for? When God invented (I speak metaphorically) the first self-replicating DNA molecule, I wonder if there were angels standing around wondering what it might be good for?

(Final composite photo from nationalgeographic.com. Click to enlarge.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The opposite shore

A month or two ago I took note here of the number of books on the bestseller list purporting to give accounts of visits to heaven.

Heaven Is For Real, "a father's account of his 3-year-old son's encounter with Jesus and the angels during an emergency appendectomy" is still number one. The father, by the way, is an evangelical pastor.

90 Minutes in Heaven, "a minister's otherworldly experience after an accident," is still near the top.

The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven
, by an evangelical Christian therapist, is going strong.

Apparently, many of us want to live forever and we'll take any evidence we can get that the great by-and-by is not just a figment of our imagination. Never mind that these books offer accounts of heaven that are just what you'd expect if imagination were all one had to work with. I'd be more impressed if someone came back from heaven with a report I couldn't have imagined.

Many of my colleagues here at the college profess belief in an afterlife, but they are hard pressed to say what heaven or hell might be like. Does heavenly Jesus have a horse, as the 3-year-old boy observed? "Don't be silly." Are there angels with wings? "Oh, come on, give me some credit." What then? "Uh, well, uh…"

I know I'm sounding like a snarky smarty-pants, but the choice seems to be either Jesus with a horse or "uh", depending on whether you are a 3-year-old boy or an academic theologian.

And now all the buzz is about another book by an evangelical pastor, Rob Bell's
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
. Bell upends evangelical doctrine by suggesting that one does not have to be a born-again Christian to get to heaven, and that hell might be superfluous. God gets what he wants and he wants us all on his porch. Gandhi. Socrates. Even a snarky smarty-pants like me!

But will I get past the security screeners with my Ockham's razor?

(Daughter Mo is on our island with a friend. Check out the action here.)

Monday, May 02, 2011

A little treatise on biology

In the year 1885, nineteen-year-old Beatrix Potter visited Grosvenor House in London, home of the Duke of Westminster with an extensive art collection. She wrote in her journal: "There is one picture at the Grosvenor that puzzles me exceedingly, the Blue Boy is so exceedingly different and superior to all other pictures of its class. The colour is rich and full, the manner careful and broad without the scratchiness and the figure stands with the grace and firmness of a Van Dyck -- it was painted in 1770. Why did Gainsborough never paint any more to equal it?"

Why indeed? Clearly the life-sized painting impressed the young Miss Potter. It has been suggested that when she created Peter Rabbit seventeen years later Gainsborough's Blue Boy was her inspiration for Peter's blue jacket. I have written here about Beatrix Potter as a scientist; right now I like to imagine her standing in Grosvenor House transfixed by the young man who stares out at her -- yes, directly her> -- from the canvas. (Click pic, and again, to enlarge.)

She was not alone. The Blue Boy is arguably the most popular British painting ever, one of the most instantly recognizable images from the world of art. I'm not a fan of Gainsborough; I find his work fussy, over-blown and sentimental -- all those frilly women with their wedding-cake wigs and bonnets! Even his more austere work, such as his self-portrait and portrait of Bach, have a kind of muddy stiffness about them. But like almost everyone else, I like Blue Boy. And I've been trying to figure out why.

In dress and style, The Blue Boy is a clear homage to Van Dyck, who Gainsborough much admired, and therefore a throwback to an earlier era in art and taste. But Van Dyck's 1635 portrait of the young George Villiers (son of the George Villiers, favorite of James I), while clearly Gainsborough's inspiration, doesn't exert the same tug on our heartstrings.

I will wager that the 43-year-old Gainsborough was smitten with his young model, presumably Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy hardware merchant, though there is every reason to believe that the painter was heartily heterosexual and in love with the very idea of woman.

Innocence, beauty, the first flush of manhood. The silky costume against that somewhat forbidding background. The play-acting. The posture. The unabashed eye contact. Who wouldn't be smitten? I can imagine why Beatrix Potter was blown away. I can understand why for more than two centuries viewers of both sexes and of all ages have had a bit of a crush on Jonathan Buttall. Art at its best is not just pretty pictures. Art at its best has a way of stirring those universal wishes and desires that reach down into the twisted tangles of our DNA.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Book 7

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