Thursday, June 30, 2011

Migration 2

And so, at age eighteen, I made my own migration to South Bend, Indiana, putting behind me whatever I might have became had I followed Plan A and gone off to Georgia Tech.

And my sibs, who followed -- what might have become of their lives had they remained in the South?

At any one of a thousand moments a slightly different roll of the dice and everything would have been different. Had I not gone to Notre Dame I would not have met my wife, and that particular ensuing stream of children and grandchildren would not have happened. Had I not been standing in a particular corner of the Lafortune Student Center for that freshman mixer…

All of us live with an innate conviction of the inevitability of our lives. We often fiercely defend the racial, cultural, political and religious views we were born into, nurtured in, forgetting how dicey is our very existence.

We can't change our genes. Nor is it easy to unwire those circuits in our brain that were connected synapse-to-synapse by the culture we were brought up in. But we can occasionally stop to clear a space, ask ourselves why it is -- for example -- that I'm a political liberal, a religious agnostic, a long-married man.

We are what we are, but we are not prisoners of what we are. I was raised in the racially-charged South of the 1940s, when a black person moving in next door was reason enough to burn a cross or move deeper into the suburbs. Today I have black next-door neighbors in all three places where I live (yes, including here in the west of Ireland) and until now I have not given it a thought. How did that happen? How did I escape the contagion of time and place? I don't know. Maybe it was in my genes. Maybe because I was standing in that particular corner of the Lafortune Student Center at a freshman mixer and met a girl from Brooklyn…

The chanciness of life, if recognized, is the enemy of true belief.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I have just finished reading Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, an account of the exodus of six million blacks from the mostly rural South to the cities of the North and West between the First World War and the 1970s. It is the rarest of books -- a historical narrative of impressive scholarship with the literary merit of a great novel.

Wilkerson is herself a product of the Great Migration; her parents journeyed from Georgia and southern Virginia to Washington, DC, where she was born and raised. She is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist who is currently Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University.

The book is particularly compelling for me. I grew up in the Jim Crow South that Wilkerson so graphically describes. The worst of the caste system lurked only in my peripheral vision. I was a child of a middle-class, college-educated family, living in an all-white suburb of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I don't recall hearing anyone in my family use the word "nigger"; in fact, I hardly heard race mentioned at all. Whites and blacks were so rigorously separated that I might as well have been living on an all-white planet. The rules were plain enough: We sat at the front of the bus, the blacks sat at the back. We walked in the sidewalk; they stepped into the street. A white man was "sir"; a black man was "boy."

For a few years we had a black maid, a young woman who came to our house once a week to do the washing and ironing for what I suppose was a few dollars and bus fare. That was about the extent of my interaction with blacks until my high-school summer job at the Chattanooga Public Library, when I chose to eat my brown-bag lunch with the black janitorial staff on the back steps, rather than in the white staff lunch room with the librarians. The company was more congenial. Why the blacks indulged my adolescent presence I can only attribute to their grace and generous spirit.

But Jim Crow was always there, in the background. Klan gatherings with white sheets and burning crosses often made the local news. A cross was burned on a lawn in our neighborhood one night, at the home of a white judge, who, as I recall, had ruled in favor of a black man in a dispute with a white.

I was lucky enough to escape the segregated South, by winning a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, my own "great migration" of sorts. My five siblings would follow. Ironically, the scholarship was designated by its benefactor for "a white boy from Tennessee."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Where's Wally?

Last week in Dublin, 3,872 people turned out in red-and-white-striped sweaters and stocking caps to set a world record for the most people in Where's Wally costumes in one place (that's Where's Waldo in the US and Canada). They filled a full two-page photographic spread in the Irish Times. Lovely, I think, that with all the economic strife in this country right now, thousands of folks can get a jolly by dressing up as Wally in a sea of candy-stripe duds.

And speaking of Where's Wally.

I was sitting on the window sill of Jim Long's shop in the village the other day, eating my ice-cream, when the Google Street-View car rolled by. It's been here before, even down our one-lane road above the village, as I've noted on this blog. But now I'm waiting to see if I have achieved my own Where's Wally fame by having a place in the massive Street View archive.

This could be the kind of immortality I've been looking for. Not the Empyrean Fields. Not streets of gold. Not white gowns and harps and the Beatific Vision. No. But up there in the Google cloud, eating an ice lolly. "Look, Mom! I found Grandpa on Street View!"

Monday, June 27, 2011


In her book The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, science writer Natalie Angier says: "I like science I trust it. It makes me feel optimistic. It adds rigor to my life."

That about says it.

One doesn't have to be a science nerd to like science. Science, for me, is like a house -- four walls, a roof, windows, warmth, protection from the elements, a firm foundation from the wind. But a house Is not a home. A home is what one makes in a house. A home involves human relationships. Books. Art. Music. Food and drink. A home involves what you do in bed, see out the windows, cook up in the kitchen, read with your coffee on Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, science is there. A broad consensus of reliable knowledge tested in the refining fire of experiment. A space cleared in the babble of tribal superstition. An affirmation that the world is not chaotic, that the sun will come up tomorrow, that gods and demons do not carry our fates in their whimsical hands.

People have sometimes said to me, "I don't like science. It takes all the mystery out of life." Nothing could be farther from the truth.

If by mystery one means UFOs, crop circles, astrology, spoon bending, pyramid power, water into wine, Lazarus rising from the dead, then, yes, I suppose science takes the mystery out of life.

But if mystery is what one feels when confronted with the whirligig dance of the DNA in every one of the trillions of cells in my body, with the eye-popping prospect of a hundred billion pinwheeling galaxies, with the epic saga of life unfolding in geologic time -- well, then that's a mystery I can say "yes" to without embarrassment, a mystery that spills its affirming power into every nook and corner of my house-become-home.

I like science. I trust it. It makes me feel optimistic. It adds rigor to my life.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


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

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Saturday reprise

Anne sent me this pic the other day, bacteriophages attacking a bacterium. It was recently featured as an APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day). Not quite sure what bateriophages have to do with astronomy, although they do look a bit like lunar landers setting down on a tiny moon.

They are viruses, of course. Like other viruses, they lack the resources to make their own energy or proteins. They can only reproduce and build their shells by hijacking the chemical apparatus of an invaded cell. Phage viruses are parasitical on bacteria. They sit on the surface and inject their genetic material (RNA or DNA) into the bacterium, commandeering the host's reproductive machinery to make more phages, in the process often killing the host.

Where did they come from? Some scientists believe viruses are degenerate life-forms that have lost every animating function except the minimum genes essential to their parasitic way of life. Other scientists suspect viruses evolved inside cells, as organelles, and subsequently escaped to take up their vagabond existence. Then again, maybe they evolved on a parallel track to cellular life.

This electron micrograph of bacteriophages reminded Anne of angels dancing on the head of a pin. And when you think about it, they are no less improbable than a company of angels. They may even turn out to be angelic allies in out fight against bacterial human pathogens. In the meantime, there they dance, little APOD pods on their spidery legs, and millions could gaily cavort on the head of a pin. Holy and terrible. Beautiful and scary.

(This post originally appeared in May, 2008.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

A word for agnosticism

Dublin hosted a World Atheist convention not long before I arrived in Ireland. Apparently, arch-atheist Richard Dawkins featured prominently. The newspapers still reverberate with reaction, pro and con.

Dublin was not an unreasonable venue for the conference, given Catholic Ireland's spectacular recent fall from grace. The economic boom (and bust), and the ongoing scandal of child abuse (the Magdelene laundries are still much in the news) have put paid to the Church's stultifying grip on the hearts and minds of the people.

The faith is still very much alive, however, although more nuanced than when I first came here four decades ago. GL, writing in the "Knowing God" column of the Irish Times, insists that the God Dawkins rails against is a straw man, a childlike fiction of the dark ages that no serious Christian believes in any more. He quotes the fourth-century writer Evagrius of Pontus: "God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God."

Well, yes. But this comes just after our columnist has extolled God's "compassion," "generosity," "understanding" and "love," all of which are concepts easily grasped by the mind. He further insists that the universe is rational and intelligible, qualities that necessitate, he says, the existence of God. But if God is the source of the universe's "intelligibility," he is also graspable, and therefore, according to Evagrius, he is not God.

Oh, dear. How we want to have our "dark-age" cake and eat it too. If God is just a name for the mysterious defining force of the universe, then I suspect Prof. Dawkins would not seriously demur. But God is invariably more than that for believers. For example, for GL he is also incarnated in the God-man Jesus, in whom we are "given a glimpse of God in action."

I happen to greatly admire Richard Dawkins; he is an exemplary science explicator. But I know far too many theists I also admire to follow Dawkins, or anyone else, to a World Atheist convention. Sounds too much like another dogmatic gathering to me, with the genial Oxford don as high priest. The important distinction, it seems to me, is not between atheists and theists, but between agnostics and true believers. If there is anything in the world worthy of the august title "God," surely the appropriate response is silence. The monk in his cell, the naturalist in her wood, alone, rapt, and full of awe, is more to my taste than assembled drum-beating atheists or bible-thumping theists practicing their certainty.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Augmented reality

THE WORLD WLL NEVER LOOK THE SAME AGAIN, shouts the headline in the Tech & Net section of the London Sunday Times. Then, slightly more subdued: "Augmented reality glasses take what you see and add what you want to see. Mark Harris has an exclusive trial -- and can't believe his eyes."

Apparently, these nifty new sunglasses have beamsplitters in the lenses that superimpose whatever you want on what you are seeing -- Facebook info, tweets, shopping and dining options, GPS navigation, and so on. You can even engage in murderous gunplay with monsters that leap right out of your familiar neighborhood environment.

Augmented reality! And I'm still learning to see the plain old unaugmented reality that's right in front of my eyes.

Annie Dillard suggested that nature is like one of those line drawings of a tree that are puzzles for children: Can you find hidden in the leaves a duck, a house, a boy, a bucket, a zebra, and a boot? I've always liked that image. I'm 74 years old and I'm still looking for the bucket and the boot. And lots more. Just walking down the lane here in Ireland is a challenge for my eyes. The black beetle. The slug. The tiny blossoms of the herb Robert. The kestrel away up there on the hill. I don't need augmented reality gasses. I just need knowledge and love. I just need to pay attention.

I'm still trying to see the shape of the Earth. I mean really see it, the great curving globe. I walk on Ventry Strand and see the island of Skellig Michael poking its nose up out of the Atlantic and I remember that the nose is a little bit longer when viewed from my house on the hill. I almost can feel the Earth arcing away from me down toward the Azores.

I'm still trying to see the shape of night, that skinny cone of darkness pointing away from the Sun. "I spin beneath my pyramid of night," speaks the Earth in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. Shelley saw the shape of night, saw it in his mind's eye. I've barely glimpsed it during lunar eclipses when the Earth's round shadow slips across the Moon's bright face.

Augmented reality! Lordy, yes. I'd love to have augmented perception. But it won't come by being flashed on my beamsplitted visual field by some electronic gizmo in my pocket. It will come -- if I'm lucky -- with all the stealth of a wren in the hedge. It will come when I see the evening Sun break the clouds over Croughmaurin and turn around to find a rainbow arching from Caherard hill to Ventry Harbor. The 19th-century ornithologist Frank Chapman wrote of the plover: "One may ride over a prairie upon which, at first glance, not a plover is visible, and find, after careful scrutiny, that dozens of birds are scattered about." That's the kind of augmented reality I'm looking for.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A momentary stay

This from a review of Paul Muldoon's new book of poetry, Maggot, by Nick Laird, in the June 23 New York Review of Books. It seems Muldoon was heckled by an audience member who claimed that what he was reading wasn't poetry. Muldoon replied:
It doesn't come naturally to me to defend these things as poems. As a concept, I see it like this: the word "poetry," as you know, means "making," so these are constructs in the world…One is trying to construct something that will help us to make sense of things, and a construct, or building even, let's say a space, a clearing, a momentary stay against confusion (from Robert Frost's phrase), which when we enter, we have some clarification, however slight, and when we leave it, something, however slight, has been clarified. We have been helped in some way to make sense of the world.

So that is what poetry means to me. I need to be provoked by it. I can't quite accept what seems to be a fairly conventional notion of poetry as that which bolsters us up in what we already know. I am less interested in that than in poetry that puts us in a difficult position and makes us think again about how things are, and that is almost an article of faith.

Another article of faith…has to do with unknowing, and that, I think, connects it to many experiences that could be described as "spiritual" experiences…where one has a sense of giving oneself over to something beyond oneself, something one doesn't quite understand; and only in a spirit of humility is there half a chance that one will come out the other side knowing anything at all in some minor way.
First, notice that Muldoon's claims for poetry are hedged about with qualifiers -- "momentary," "some," "however slight," "almost," "could be," "doesn't quite," "half a chance," "in some minor way." How refreshing the lack of dogmatism.

But those qualifiers are badges of the poet's sense that knowing is hard come by, wrested in fragments from nature, and that the first part of knowing is unknowing, clearing a space in the thicket of what we already think we know.

The medieval mystic John of the Cross spoke of "the knowing that unknows," a chastening glimpse into a world beyond oneself that is infinite (or effectively so) in breadth and complexity, an insight that is the daughter and mother of humility. It has been suggested by others wiser than me that the greatest discovery of 20th-century science was ignorance -- recognizing the extent of what we do not know. The knowing that unknows. The knowing that edges open a door that might, if we are lucky, allow the light of the infinite, however slight, to shine through.

To be fair to the heckler, Muldoon's poetry is increasingly obscure, but I think the poet is suggesting that the world is obscure, and that if we are lucky we will come out the other side of the poem knowing more in a minor way than when we entered.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mortal soul -- Part 2

Even in the age of machines, "soul" remains a viable concept.

In fact, back in 1981 Tracy Kidder published a book called The Soul of a New Machine, an account of the genesis of the Data General Eclipse computer.

Whether a computer can be said to have a soul is, well, iffy, although the MacBook Air comes pretty close, given not only its technological wizardry and aesthetic purity, but also its apparent ability to send its owners into a state of rapture.

I had no compunctions about calling one of my books The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage, and subtitling another Essays in Search of the Soul of Science. The night and science are entities whose essences escape any descriptions we might formulate. Both night and science are complex and elusive, their souls the object of pilgrimage and search.

And don't forget soul music, soul food, and soul brother or sister.

Or this.

Soul is the measure of a thing whose borders are hard to define in space or time.

My MacBook is pretty well backed up, and if it dies I should be able to fill another machine with the photographic and verbal record of my life that is stored in its hard drive. Those photos, e-mails, books and essays are part of my soul. I don't expect them to endure forever, but surely some part of them will survive my death. My living essence will have leaked into the future, just as it has stained the past.

Increasingly, our souls are transmogrified or appropriated onto the internet, a thing that might fairly be called the world soul. Perhaps it is the world soul -- the collective human soul -- that will be immortal, as Teilhard de Chardin imagined. Already some part of the world soul has leaked into space, as radio waves a hundred light-years away, and as spacecraft that are exiting the solar system.

Meanwhile, I cultivate my own soul, whatever it is that makes me uniquely me, as a gardener might tend a favorite plant, watering it with whatever love I can garner from family and friends, fertilizing it with the works and wisdom of others, exposing it to the sunshine of those of you who kindly visit this blog.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mortal soul

This from a review in the TLS of Beryl Bainbridge's new novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. The reviewer mentions an earlier Bainbridge novel in which a girl views the dead body of a member of her adopted family:
Myrtle reflects: "Now, if proof were required that the soul flees the body, I might have pointed the finger at him; there was no mistaking his emptiness". This case for the existence of the soul is repeated in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, when Rose remembers seeing her dead mother: "'The good thing it did for me,' she persisted, 'was to make me believe that there's something beyond death. Her body was there but her soul wasn't'"
It is easy to understand the origin of the idea of an immortal soul, a personal essence that leaves the body at death and continues to exist in another guise or dimension. The idea apparently had its origin early in human history, perhaps contemporaneous with the dawn of self-consciousness. Articulate awareness of self is the defining essence of our species. It provided our ancestors with their first universal metaphor. Animism was the original philosophy.

Just as the perceiving individual was aware of a self that somehow seemed to reside in her body, so she endowed every part of her environment with selfhood, not just other humans, but also animals, plants, rocks, pools, mountains, Sun and Moon. Everything had an animating spirit. Piaget showed us that animism is the default organizing concept of very young children. Crayoning a smiley face on a flower or the Sun is a way of endowing the environment with the thing we recognize so fiercely in ourselves

The immortal soul is a primal meme. In a world where everything is assumed to be alive, death is an aberration, an unnatural event, explained away by being denied.

We live in a very different world today. Since the 17th century, the machine has become the predominant scientific metaphor for understanding the world. Pick up any issue of Science or Nature and you will encounter explicit references to the machinery of life. In the new dispensation, the body is as much a machine as my MacBook Pro or a Boeing Dreamliner. And when my Mac stops working or the Dreamliner crashes, we don't go looking for its spirit in some other place. We accept the inevitable. Finished. Kaput. The animating principle was the machinery itself -- while in working order.

We can now imagine personal mortality because we have an intellectual framework in which functionality is finite.

Which is not to say that very many of us are prepared to abandon the primal meme. The idea of personal immortality is so deeply entrenched in our culture that it is hard to let it go, even though not a shred of empirical evidence can be educed to support its existence. The immortal soul is a notion we clutch to our breast with a jealous tenacity.

Can soul be saved, stripped of immortality? More tomorrow.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


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

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Saturday reprise

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows/ flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay gangs/ they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash,/ wherever an elm arches,
Shrivelights and shadowtackle in long/ lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous/ ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest's creases;/ in pool and rutpeel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed/ dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squandroned masks and manmarks/ treadmire toil there
Footfreted in it. Million-fueled/ nature's bonfire burns on.
This is the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins out of control, his sprung verse springing about like a jackrabbit, his soul burning, burning in the apprehension of a roiling skyscape -- tumbling clouds, light and shadow. He is near the end of his short life; he died in 1889, aged 45, of typhoid fever, weakened by several years of poor health. And although we might conclude that in this late poem -- That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire -- he has let language run amok, it is probably also true that his perception of the natural world had become so acute -- so soul-searing -- that he struggled to find a way for language to contain it.

Hopkins was certainly aware of the glittering successes of Victorian science, but he understood too the Heraclitean maxim "Nature loves to hide." He did not have intellectual access to the mind-blowing beauty of Maxwell's equations, or the many-arching grandeur of Darwin's view of life. For him the Heraclitean fire was both an exhilaration and an agony. Only the possibility of resurrection in Christ (as the rest of the poem makes clear) gave meaning to his life, or so he believed. Otherwise, he was just one more part of the many-fueled fire that burns in an enormous dark, a "jack, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood." Though apparently racked with existential doubt, his faith consoled him to the end. His last words were "I am so happy. I am so happy."

Charles Darwin, the tormented agnostic, and Hopkins, the tormented believer, were not so far apart. They both burned in the Heraclitean fire, they both wanted to see beyond nature's veil. Neither man was satisfied with the commonplace world of immediate perception. Nor did either man pretend that he had seen nature stripped of its veil. What marks them as brothers is that they were both creatures of the portal -- the flaming soul-exciting, soul-consuming doorway between the particular and the universal where the questing human spirit defines itself and endures.

(This post originally appeared in December 2006.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dribs and drabs

Here is a detail, one little corner, of the much larger Carina Nebula in the southern sky. This dazzling mountain of gas and dust is about 4 light-years tall, about the distance between the Sun and the nearest other star. It is about 8000 light-years away, part of our own Milky Way Galaxy. (Click to enlarge.)

This is the sort of place where stars are born, as gravity pulls knots of gas into ever denser globs.

Like most of the universe, the nebula is about 99 percent hydrogen and helium, the two lightest elements, and the only elements (with a little lithium) created in the Big Bang. But there is a percent or so of other stuff present, atoms of oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, iron and so on, and even some molecules. These heavier elements were forged by stars that lived and died in earlier stages of the galaxy's history.

It was in a nebula like this that our Earth was born 4.5 billion years ago.

But the Earth has a very different composition than the nebula out of which it was born. The Earth is about 30 percent iron (mostly at the core), 30 percent oxygen (most common element in the crust), 15 percent silicon, 15 percent magnesium, and a percent or so of sulfur, nickel, calcium, aluminum, and so on.

Why the difference?

OK, start with a cloud of hydrogen, helium, and smidgens of everything else. Squeeze it down it with gravity. Whatever rotational motion the cloud had will speed up, for the same reason an ice skater spins faster when he draws in his arms. The whirling glob spins out a disk -- like the dough in the hand of a pizza maker. Most of the gas and dust is pulled to the center to form a star. The whirling disk will become the planets.

When the temperature at the squeezed-down core of the proto-star reaches 10 million degrees, fusion begins, producing energy and halting the collapse. The star turns on, emitting a wind of energy that blows out through the surrounding disk -- the disk that, like the star, is mostly hydrogen and helium and dribs and drabs of everything else.

In close to the new star -- the Sun, say -- the light hydrogen and helium in the protoplanetary disk is mostly blown away when the star turns on, into the outer solar system where it became part of giant outer gassy planets, leaving behind the one percent or so of iron, oxygen, and so on. Which gravity eventually collects into small rocky and metallic inner planets.

Our Earth, our bodies -- we are the smidgens of heavy elements that billions of years ago were scattered in a vast, beautiful, glowing nebula like the one above.

In transit to Ireland tomorrow. As usual, I won't know what I have for internet until I get there. Hope to be back by Monday at the latest.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


A friend recommended that I read an essay by Donna Haraway, the acclaimed post-modern feminist,: A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. I've read some Haraway before, and I'm smart enough to recognize that she's a widely respected thinker, but apparently I'm not sharp enough to bushwhack my way through her prose. Like the writings of most post-modernists, what she has to say goes right over my head. Why, in heaven's name, must post-modernists use 1000 words to say what might be better said in 10.

I'll jab my finger at a random paragraph:
The third distinction is a subset of the second; the boundary between physical and non-physical in very imprecise for us. Pop physics books on the consequences of quantum theory and the indeterminacy principle are a kind of popular scientific equivalent to Harlequin romances as a marker of radical change in American white heterosexuality; they get it wrong, but they are on the right subject. Modern machines are quintessentially microelectronic devices; they are everywhere and they are invisible. Modern machinery is an irreverent upstart god, mocking the Father's ubiquity and spirituality. The silicon chip is a surface for writing; it is etched in molecular scales disturbed only by atomic noise, the ultimate interference for nuclear scores…(etc.)
I'm sure this means something to Haraway, and may mean something to the many people who applaud her work, but to my simple, scientifically-trained mind it sounds like an Alan Sokal spoof.

I'm perfectly willing to concede that my bafflement results from my own intellectual shortcomings. Maybe I'm just not practiced enough in the language of post-modernism. So I'll stick with the two languages I undertsand: 1) that of simple, direct description of empirical observations; and 2) poetry. Let the post-modernists have their opaque prose. I'll stick with luminous language of Prospero:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A matter of scale

Remember that "sweet little story" I told back on June 4 about how Mo uses the ratio of oxygen isotopes O16 and O18 in microscopic fossil organisms from ocean cores as a proxy for the Earth's average temperature? I was thinking about that again as we sailed across the Caribbean Sea to Curacao.

Water, water everywhere, as far as the eye can see, in every direction. Three-quarters of the planet's surface covered in water three or four kilometers deep. A seemingly endless vastness of water. H2O.

Most of those water molecules have an O16 oxygen atom, because those are the kind most commonly cooked up in stars. About one water molecule out of 400 has an O18 atom with two extra neutrons.

Now pause here and go back and read again that "sweet little story."

OK, here's what I was thinking about, and a little back-of-the-envelope calculation.

How many water molecules in a thimbleful of water? Well, it's a big number, but here's a way to think about it. There are roughly as many water molecules in a thimbleful of water as there are thimblefuls of water in all of the oceans of the Earth.

Molecules are almost unimaginably tiny, oceans almost inconceivably large. Standing on the deck of the JOIDES Resolution I tried to imagine the unimaginable number of thimblefuls of water that reached to the far horizons and beyond. And the delicacy of parsing the atomic constituents of microfossils.

What a difference in scale!

A mass spectrometer counts the O16s and O18s in a vaporized microfossil retrieved from ocean sediments, a ratio that is pretty much the same for all of the Earth's oceans at the same moment of geologic time. A ratio that stands as a satisfying proxy for the average temperature of the Earth.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ask your doctor about…

Back in 1949 or 1950, as a 14-year-old or thereabouts, I spent a lot of time in my room at night listening on my little Silvertone Midget radio to country and gospel music on WCKY out of Cincinnati, Ohio. The commercials, as I recall, were mostly for chewing tobacco, baby chicks, and a bottled medicine called Hadacol, guaranteed to cure your every ill.

Wikipedia has this to say: "Hadacol was a patent medicine marketed as a vitamin supplement. Its principal attraction, however, was that it contained 12 percent alcohol (listed on the tonic bottle's label as a 'preservative'), which made it quite popular in the dry counties of the southern United States. It was the product of four-term Louisiana state Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc (1894–1971), a Democrat from Abbeville in Vermilion Parish. He was not a medical doctor, nor a registered pharmacist, but had a strong talent for self-promotion. Time magazine once described him as 'a stem-winding salesman who knows every razzle-dazzle switch in the pitchman's trade'."

Hadacol comes to mind because I have just finished reading Pope Brock's rollicking Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, the story of "Doctor" John R. Brinkley, who in the 1920s and 1930s was the country's most successful purveyor of quack cures, most famously transplanting goat testicles into men who were willing to pay big for restored vigor. Brinkley also harnessed the new technology of radio to his enterprise, setting up a super-powerful transmitter just across the border in Mexico and blasting out country music and snake oil come-ons to suckers across the nation.

It's a hair-raising story of the human capacity for self-delusion, only modestly tamped down when Roosevelt signed into law beefed-up powers for the Food and Drug Administration in 1938.

Of course, we are still in the thrall of the flim-flam artists, the hawkers of homeopathic remedies, dietary supplements, and, perhaps most egregiously, a wide array of powerful drugs that are FDA approved and might actually work.

Modern drugs can be life-saving. The pharmaceutical industry has made invaluable contributions to public health. I take several of their products myself. But, lordy, when it come to selling their wares on television they far outshine the Brinkleys and LeBlancs of the past. Hard selling of prescription drugs directly to the public should, in this patient's humble opinion, be illegal, as is the case in every other country except New Zealand. It would lower the price of useful drugs, lessen their unnecessary prescription, and make health care more affordable for all.

Not likely to happen, however. The "don't-let-the-government-tell-me-what-to-do" spirit of Doctor Brinkley is fixed deep in the American soul.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Light boat

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

Friday, June 10, 2011

Going home

The JOIDES Resolution is the finest oceanographic research vessel in the world. It replaces the famous Glomar Challenger, in the history books for helping to revolutionize geology -- a true revolution, from a static Earth to one where continents drift and oceans are born over hundreds of millions of years of geologic time, the theory of plate tectonics. If the US were England, the Glomar Challenger might be anchored in the Thames with other historic vessels. As it is, it was broken up for scrap.

The JR is a more serious vessel, with state-of-the-art drilling equipment and laboratories. I asked, "After so many holes, is the science getting stale." The crew just laughed. Every hole, it seems brings new surprises, new questions, new refinements of Earth history. Theories are confirmed, theories are modified, theories are discarded.

Over the last week, I have been detailing just one of the many threads the JR follows -- that of understanding how and why the Earth's past climate has changed, which helps us understand and plan for possible futures. Human-induced climate change has of course become a political football, with commentators taking one side of the issue or the other primarily based on their political persuasion. I detected none of that on the JR. No one seemed to care about anything except the refinement of the facts. Let the chips fall as they may.

For us non-scientists, the stakes are huge. Even a modest rise in Earth temperature can have catastrophic impact on human civilization, which occupies merely the last slip of geologic time, too thin to be discernable at the left edge of those O18 and CO2 graphs. Is the information the JR retrieves from the seafloor useful in assessing our role as a geologic factor? That is for each of us to decide, hopefully on the basis of the best evidence we can gather. It should be clear by now that from what I have learned here, my feeling is an emphatic yes. Supporting this ship is chump change compared to, for example, the cost of protecting our coastal cities from rising seas.

But Washington doesn't necessarily see it that way, especially when no-tax, no-government, and anti-science are in the ascendancy. During the coming year, the JR will be tied up in port half of the time, and the program is threatened. Who needs to know about the millions of years when the Earth is 6,000 years old and the Rapture is at hand? Meanwhile, Japan has put her own research vessel to sea, and China and India are making major investments in oceanographic science. America's long ascendancy in telling the planet's story may be waning. Basic science drives technology. Technology is the engine of a vigorous economy. Curiosity about the world we live in is the badge of a confident, forward-looking, can-do people.

More pics on Mo's blog.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Aboard the JR

Yesterday we toured the shipboard laboratories where the cores from the sea floor are exhaustively examined even as they come out of the hole. The labs would do a university proud. I am astonished at the amount of information that can be gleaned from what amounts to a column of muck -- muck that records the history of the planet.

The pic shows a core in its plastic sleeve. Click to enlarge.

Oh, and of course the ship can drill into hard rock too, the solid crust of the Earth beneath the sediments.

Microbiology, microphotography, radioactivity, magnetism, fossils, and, later, isotopic analysis -- here is the real Book of Genesis, the Earth telling its own story, a story that requires human ingenuity to recover and read.

The running story of paleoclimatology I have been telling is just one facet of the fundamental science the ship provides. Another chapter follows below.

Wanting to know

As we saw from the O18 graph of several days ago, the Earth's average temperature has been cooling for the last 5 million years -- along with astronomically-driven cycles of more modest warming and cooling. In fact, the O18 data from cores show that the Earth has been slowly cooling for the past 40 million years. Why?

One of the most promising theories is the "uplift-weathering hypothesis", which you may have seen described in a British-produced NOVA program some years ago.

Here's the deal.

About 50 million years ago, India, having broken away from the southern supercontinent of Pangea, drifted north and began to collide with Asia, gradually forcing up the massive Himalayas and Tibetan plateau. This has been well-documented by land geologists.

Up go the mountains, drenched on their southern face by Indian Ocean monsoons which have been intensified by the uplifting plateau.

As the mountains rise, mechanical erosion (steep slopes and running water) and chemical weathering cut them down.

Here's the equation for chemical weathering (again, I should use subscripts, but I won't):

CaSiO3 + CO2 >>> CaCO3 + SiO2

Silicate rocks (CaSiO3) combine with carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere -- which has dissolved in rainwater making a dilute acid-- to yield calcite (CaCO3) and silica (SiO2). These dissolved chemicals are carried to the sea by rivers…

…where planktonic organisms incorporate them into their microscopic skeletons -- forams and coccoliths thrive on the carbonate, and diatoms and radiolaria flourish on the silica.

The organisms die, fall to the bottom of the sea, and are buried in the ever-deepening layers of sediment.

The net result is that CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere and buried in the sea floor, on a much more massive scale than would occur without the uplift.

And...the planet cools as the "greenhouse effect" is diminished. Voila! Ice ages.

The JR cores into the sediments near the rivers' mouths and in the deep ocean to provide the data that tells the story.

Human curiosity, telling the story of the Earth that is buried in seafloor sediments -- a story of drifting continents, mountain building and destruction, living organisms "feeding" on the detritus of mountains, declining CO2, cooling climate, ice advancing and retreating, all taking place over tens of millions of years.

Human curiosity discovering the story of the planet's past, piecing together a thousand clues from land and sea. Let BP look for oil and money beneath the sea floor. The vessel I'm sailing on, the JOIDES Resolution, is an exquisite instrument of pure curiosity, an investment by you and me in the questioning spirit that makes us human.

Here is a partial map showing sites were the JR has sampled the planet's past -- and illuminated possible futures. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

On the ocean blue

No drilling on this quick trip. The ship is making its way via Panama from a two-month expedition in the Pacific to dock in Curacao for maintenance. That's why I am here, with a cabin. Most of the non-permanent scientists disembarked at Panama, and the ship is in a quiet mode.

That means we get to see things we would never see if on a active research leg: the engines rooms, the generators, the water distillers, the giant electric motors that drive the screws, the propeller shafts themselves, the drill floor, the "moon pool", even the bridge. Mo has spent 4 months altogether on this vessel as a working scientist, and never saw most of what we saw yesterday.

Another science bit below. Back to regular eclectic blogging in a few days

Why the cooling?

(This series of geology stories, explaining some of what the JOIDES Resolution contributes to human knowledge, begins on June 3. If you are a new visitor, scroll down and read from the beginning.)

So why has the Earth's average climate been cooling for the past 3 million years?

Three things determine the Earth's average temperature:

1) How much sunlight falls on the planet. This is determined by those subtle variations in the Earth's orbit, and they are generally well understood. They mostly account for the wiggles in the light blue line yesterday, but have no net long-term effects over millions of years. It could be that the Sun's output varies over the time scale of our graph, but there is no evidence that this is so.

2) The Earth's average albedo -- the degree to which the Earth's surface reflects sunlight back into space. This depends on cloud cover, sea ice, land ice, deserts, etc. For example, as the Earth cools, more ice forms, reflecting more sunlight back into space, cooling the Earth further -- positive feedback. This doesn't help much solving our riddle.

3) "Greenhouse" gases. Gases in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane trap the sun's heat, like glass in a greenhouse. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important.

Which brings us to the graph below, which should be compared to yesterday's. Click to enlarge.

The graph represents the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere over the same 5 million year period, determined, or estimated, by various methods. For the past 800,000 years this is known directly from bubbles of past atmosphere trapped deep in the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica. The other colors on the graph are based on less direct observations, such as the ratios of carbon isotopes in organic matter recovered from sea cores. The width of the color bands indicates the degree of uncertainty in the data.

What is clear is that the general trend of atmospheric CO2 parallels the temperature curve of yesterday. Here then is a strong correlation between greenhouse CO2 and climate, but we have to be careful about which is the cause and which the effect.

Now look at the two horizontal black lines, representing atmospheric CO2 in 1830 and today. This is the warning bell that has climatologists concerned about human-induced global warming. Yesterday I said "all else being equal." All else is not equal. We are pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, more CO2 today than at almost any time in the past 5 million years!

In yesterday's graph, instead of the expected drop in temperature in the next thousands of years -- if CO2 is the controlling factor -- the curve will climb toward the greater warmth of 3 to 5 million years ago. And relatively quickly.

There is still the question of why CO2 started dropping 3 million years ago. Can the JR resolve that question?

Still more tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


For pics of our progress, go to Mo's website, here. New sci post below.

More on the JR cores from the bottom of the sea

Remember the O16-O18 story of several days ago. As one drills down into the ocean sediments -- and therefore into the past -- the ratio of the isotopes changes. More heavy O18 is in the sea when more of the lighter O16 is stored on land in glacial ice. So more O18 in core fossils is a proxy for a colder Earth, and less O18 indicates a warmer Earth.

The O18 record in any one core is not always the best it could be. In 2005, Mo and her colleague Lorraine Lisiecki combined the data from 57 of the best core records from drill holes worldwide into one data set that goes back 5 million years (horizontal scale on graph below). It is called the Lisiecki-Raymo stack, and is the gold standard of climate change. The oscillating light blue line represents actual changes in temperature. The dark blue line is an average. Click to enlarge.

The black horizontal line is the O18 concentration today, so you can see that we are relatively warmer than at any time in the past 3 million years. The last 3 million years are the so-called Ice Ages, with the ice advancing and retreating with the rising and falling temperature indicated by the light blue lines, with roughly a dozen ice ages every million years. We are sitting at the warm top of one of those temperature oscillations, and one might reasonably expect -- all else being equal -- that as more thousands of years pass temperatures will drop and the glaciers will advance again across the northern continents, sweeping our great cities and all else before advancing ice.

All else being equal.

The apparently wild oscillations in global temperature (light blue) can be attributed to well understood and precisely calculable wobbles in the Earth's orbit that affect how much sunlight falls on the Earth. For example, you will observe a major oscillation approximately every 100,000 years, which is assumed to be related to a well-known 100,000 year variation in the eccentricity of the Earth's orbit, a so-called Milankovitch cycle. These astronomical effects are totally independent of anything that happens on Earth, and is something over which we have no control. It's the dark blue line, the average temperature, that concerns us.

What astronomy can't explain is the steady cooling of the Earth over the past 3 million years, from a time when the average temperature of the planet was much warmer than today.

More on why this might have happened tomorrow, and why it is important to each of us, and especially to our great-grandchildren.

Monday, June 06, 2011

More fun

A bit more on that diagram from yesterday, showing the magnetic polarity reversals over the past 5 million years (the record can be extended hundreds of millions of years into the past).

Sea-floor sediments are not the only way the planet's magnetic reversals can be observed. Lava that pours out of land volcanoes contains iron-based mineral grains that, while the lava is liquid, align themselves like tiny compass needles to the Earth's magnetic field. When the lava cools, these little "compass needles" are frozen into place, recording the direction and polarity of the Earth's magnetic poles at the time the lava is extruded.

By looking at the frozen magnetism of volcanic rocks geologists can tell where the magnetic poles were in the past with respect to continental volcanoes. As it turns out, the magnetic poles move about a bit, even in historic times, but presumably stay close to the north and south geographic poles -- the axis of the Earth's rotation. The frozen "compass needles" of many volcanoes, taken together, show that the continents -- with their volcanic rocks as passengers -- have drifted across the face of the Earth over the millions of years. Continental drift!

And here's the important thing. Volcanic rocks can be dated in real time by using the half-life decay rates of radioactive isotopes, such as the decay of uranium to lead. When the polarity of volcanic rocks from around the world and their ages are determined, they show the same unique pattern or reversals that we observed yesterday in the ocean sediments. Voila! Now we have a real time calendar for the sediment cores.

By the way, at ocean spreading centers, were volcanic crust is being continuously extruded from below, as for example near Iceland in the mid-Atlantic, the same pattern of reversals can be observed as in the ocean sediment cores -- on both sides of the spreading crust. The Earth's magnetic reversal history is recorded in stereo in the rocks of the oceanic crust!

There is always some uncertainty in using radioactive "clocks" for dating. But in fact, there are many ways of dating the geologic past, including everything from counting tree rings to using the different decay rates of various radioactive elements. Confidence in the geologic time scale comes from comparing the many different "clocks" against each other from as many sites as possible. The geologic timescale is constantly refined as more data is gathered and new dating methods and technologies are evolved. Here on the JR, sediment cores are dated as they come out of the hole.

Mo can pretty much tell the age of a core slice by looking at the microscopic fossil organisms that are her specialty (foraminifera, which of course have evolved new and delightful forms over the millions of years).

So, putting these three posts together, we have a record of changes in the Earth's climate in real time -- ice ages and warm spells over tens or hundreds of millions of years. What causes the changes? Ah, now if we knew that we'd be in a better position to judge the potential impact of human activities on climate. More to come.

(I hope you don't mind these little geology "lessons." It's hard to think about other things while aboard the vessel that has been so instrumental in unraveling past climate history.)

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Under the bridge

Everyone who wasn't functionally engaged, from kitchen boy to chief scientist, was on the top deck as we entered the canal under the Bridge of the Americas. It's hard to tell from my photo, but to all our eyes it looked like inches to spare. If you had been standing on the derrick, you'd have been cut off at the waist. We are tied up at Balboa, just at the start of the canal, and will make the traverse tomorrow.

You can see much better pics on Mo's blog

Time cloak

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday musing, which somehow seems appropriate to the day. Then, a new science story below.

Didn't go under the bridge last night. The ship had not finished topping off fuel. Can't clear the bridge unless we are low in the water. Word is now for noon today.

Another neat science story

Remember all those plankton organisms in the seafloor sediments. Well, they are not the only things in the muck. There are also mineral grains that are washed into the sea from the land or fall from the atmosphere. Some of those mineral grains are iron-based and therefore magnetic -- like microscopic compass needles.

As the grains drift down to the ocean floor, they align themselves with the Earth's magnetic field. Once they settle into the muck, they are stuck, with each little grain pointing like a compass needle to the Earth's magnetic poles.

Wonderfully, and (still basically) mysteriously, the Earth's magnetic field changes polarity at more or less random intervals; that is, north and south poles reverse. This presumably has to do with complex electric currents in the Earth's metallic core. This happens on average a few times every million years. (A reversal takes several thousands of years to complete.) No reversal has happened in historic times. If a reversal occurred, our compass needles would swing around and point in the opposite direction.

Now back to the cores. The magnetic grains in a sediment core record these reversals, pointing now one way, now the other, as you go down the core into the past, like compass needles frozen in time. The pattern of reversals is the same worldwide, since a reversal affects the entire planet. The magnetic field of those few magnetic minerals in the sediments is of course is very weak, but the JOIDES Resolution has the lab facility to measure the polarity. This strikes me as a remarkable achievement in a steel ship. The first labs designed to do these measurements decades ago were constructed entirely of non-magnetic materials.

Once the pattern of reversals has been determined and calibrated in time (see diagram), the cores are like calendars of Earth history. And, as per the previous post, we are on the way to understanding the ice ages and, hopefully, the causes of climate change.

How is the reversal pattern calibrated in time? That is, in the diagram below (which just shows the past 5 million years), how do we know the times of the reversals? More to come.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Domestic arrangements aboard the JOIDES Resolution

Mo and I have simple but attractive adjoining cabins -- bunk, sink, storage, shared shower and toilet between cabins. Wireless access in cabins. Meals served in galley 5-7 AM, 11AM-1PM, 5-7PM, 11PM-1AM (for night shifts). Lots of choices, cafeteria style. There is a small gym with treadmills, etc., but I'm getting more than enough exercise up and down stairs to various decks and opening the heavy, safelike doors to outside. Weather continues good. Word is that the harbor pilot will come aboard at 10:30 to take us under the bridge at midnight low tide, with literally inches to spare!

Another science post in the morning.


Refueling the JOIDES Resolution in Panama Harbor. With its tall mid-ship drill rig, the vessel needs to ride full and deep to make it under the Bridge of the Americas at low tide into the canal.

A sweet little story of science at its best

How can one tell anything about the Earth's past climate from the compacted muck of the ocean floor?

Here’s one way.

Oxygen atoms come in basically two kinds -- isotopes -- oxygen 16, with 8 protons and 8 neutrons, and oxygen 18, with 8 protons and 10 neutrons. About 99.7 percent of naturally occurring oxygen is O16 (I should use superscripts for the 16 and 18, but I won't).

O16 is lighter than O18, by a bit more than 10 percent.

Water, H2O, is a molecule with one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. A water molecule with an O16 atom is lighter than a water molecule with an O18 atom.

The water vapor in the atmosphere comes mostly from the sea, by evaporation. In effect, the energy of sunlight lifts molecules out of the sea into the air, the same way water in an open pan evaporates in a warm room.

O16 based molecules, being lighter, evaporate a bit easier, and are less likely to fall immediately back into the sea. So the ratio of O16 to O18 molecules in the air is slightly more in favor of O16 than in the water, where the heavier molecules are more likely to be left behind.

The water in the air eventually falls as rain or snow onto sea or land. If on land, it flows in rivers back to the sea. So the original mix of O16 to O18 in the sea is maintained.

But! If the snow that falls on the land doesn't melt, because the climate is colder, and compacts into ice -- glaciers -- it doesn't make its way back to the sea and instead piles up on the continent. Which means the prevalence of the heavier isotope O18 in the sea increases slightly but measurably.

Planktonic organisms in the sea build their skeletons out of the atoms in the sea, so the ratio of O16 to O18 in their bodies is the same as in the sea at the time they are alive. They die and their skeletons fall to the sea floor, eventually, over tens of millions of years, building up hundreds of meters of sediment.

The JOIDES Resolution drills into these deep compacted sediments and brings up long "cores," representing millions of years of Earth history. Paleoclimatologists (like Mo her grad students), painstakingly "pick" the microscopic skeletons out of the columns of sediment and use an instrument called a mass spectrometer to vaporize the fossil skeletons and separate their atoms by weight -- including O16 and O18, the ratio of which reflects the volume of continental ice at the time the creatures lived. An exquisite continuous record of ice ages of the past!

But how does one determine the age of the sediments? Ah, now that's another story. More later on.

Here is a pic of the ship's superbly equipped core lab.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Into the deep

My daughter Mo was recently quoted in the journal Nature saying: " (Just about) everything we know about (Earth's) climate older than a million years we know from the ocean drilling program." She should know. Since 1985 the premier scientific drilling vessel has been the JOIDES (Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling) Resolution. In 1986, Mo sailed with ship as a graduate student in paleoclimatology. In 1995, she was scientific co-chief on one leg of the Resolution's endless peregrinations though the world's seas. For the past two years, she has chaired of the 24-nation Integrated Ocean Drilling Program's main science evaluation committee. Now, I get the opportunity to join her on a brief five-day hop of this extraordinary vessel as it makes a transit from the Pacific to Atlantic Oceans. As I mentioned before, the ship is just coming off an attempt to drill closer to the Earth's mantle than ever before.

We joined the ship this morning (the 3rd) in Panama, by launch, as it waited in queue for its turn through the canal, a transit that will fulfill my lifelong wish to see this stupendous work of engineering. Looks like we will not make the transit til tomorrow morning.

For hundreds of millions of years, sediments have built up on the ocean floor, mostly the skeletons of microscopic organisms that live in the sea. The chemistry, evolution and distributions of these creatures are acutely sensitive to climate, in ways I will subsequently describe. Drilling into the sediments and bringing up a "core" (a long column of compacted sediment, photo coming) is like having access to a history book of the geologic past. An ocean core is as important to a geologist, and especially to a paleoclimatologist, as the discovery of a pharaoh's tomb would be to an Egyptian archeologist.

More in coming days.