Sunday, July 31, 2011

Prayer to Picasso

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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Kid lit -- a Saturday reprise

We live in an age of information. Too much information can swamp the boat of wonder, especially for a child.

From a science book we might learn that a flying bat might snap up 15 insects per minute, or that the frequency of its squeal can range as high as 50,000 cycles per second. Useful information, yes.

But consider the information in this poem from Randall Jarrell's "The Bat Poet":
A bat is born
Naked and blind and pale.
His mother makes a pocket of her tail
And catches him. He clings to her long fur
By his thumbs and toes and teeth.
And then the mother dances through the night
Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting--
Her baby hangs on underneath.
What wondrous information! Even the rhythm of the poem ("naked and blind and pale"; "thumbs and toes and teeth") mimics the flight of mother and child, doubling and looping in the night.

The mother eats the moths and gnats she catches
In full flight; in full flight
The mother drinks the water of the pond
She skims across. Her baby hangs on tight.
That wonderful line -- "In full flight; in full flight" -- conveys the single most important fact about bats: their extraordinary aviator skills. Jarrell's repeated phrase conveys useful facts about chiropteran dining; it also lets the child feel in her bones what it is to be a bat. This is information that enhances wonder.

In Jarrell's book, the Bat-Poet recites his poem about bats to a chipmunk. Afterwards, he asks, "Did you like the poem?" The chipmunk replies, "Oh, of course. Except I forgot it was a poem. I just kept thinking how queer it must be to be a bat." The Bat-Poet says, "No, it's not queer. It's wonderful."

(This post originally appeared in June 2006.)

Friday, July 29, 2011

In praise of the local

This past weekend was the Ventry Regatta, the big event of the year for our little village at the end of the Dingle Peninsula. Two days of running, biking, traditional Irish dancing, horseshoes, sand-castle building, races for kids on the beach, poetry writing, and pints at the pub. But the centerpiece of the affair is the naomhog racing on Sunday afternoon, when teams from all over the peninsula gather to race traditional boats in Ventry Harbor.

Naomhogs, or curraghs, have been the traditional craft of the west of Ireland from time immemorial. They are constructed of thin wooden laths, tacked together in a resilient frame, then covered with tarred canvas. As you can see from the photo of an uncovered skeleton, these boats look fragile, but they are surprisingly supple and strong. They are propelled in the races by teams of two or four with the traditional bladeless oars.

This is the sort of craft in which Saint Brendan supposedly sailed to America centuries before the Vikings or Columbus. It is the kind of boat in which Tim Severin and his crew repeated Brendan's feat in the mid-1970s, departing from Brandon Creek just over the hill from here and successfully crossing the wild North Atlantic.

It is the rare naomhog these days that is put to a practical use. Fiberglass and steel are better suited to modern pursuits. But naomhogs are lovingly built and cared for, as art and sport.

There was a period in the latter part of the last century when traditional crafts like stonework and boat-building seemed heading for extinction. Here, as elsewhere in the world, vernaculars were being erased by globalization. Who needs the skills of traditional stonework when you can have a lorry load of concrete blocks dropped off at your doorstep? Who needs to go all that trouble building a naomhog when you can buy a fiberglass skiff in Tralee? Be quick. Be modern. Catch up with the world.

But the extinction didn’t happen. The concrete blocks are still here, but increasingly they are covered with a facing of traditional stone. Why? Because stone is beautiful. Because of pride in traditional forms. Fiberglass boats ride at anchor in the harbor, but more and more young people are seeing to it that the boats of lath and canvas remain a viable part of local culture.

Globalization is everywhere to be seen. Kids here look and dress like kids everywhere else, talk on the same mobile phones, listen to the same music, idolize the same pop stars. But among my neighbors there are potters, poets, artists, weavers, woodworkers, stonemasons, musicians and boat builders who seek to preserve the traditional forms. Globalization is the necessary instrument of prosperity. But even in prosperity, and perhaps because of it, we resist homogenization.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


We've had our fair share of soft days this summer, when a fine cool mist hangs in the air. Not days for lolling on the beach or walking in the hills, but perfect for spider watching.

The meadow behind the house is chock-a-block with silken tents, like a bedouin encampment. And along the lane to the village every gorse bush in the hedge has its porch bedecked with dew, a glistening amorphous web the size of a handkerchief folded over the prickly leaves, each silken hankie gathering to a thumb-thick tunnel of more robust white webbing, and in each tunnel the architect waits licking his chops.

This is the gorse-web spider, Agelena labyrinthica, and he (or she) is ubiquitous. Every gorse bush has its apartments with glittering balconies. During the mating season the sexes live together, producing a silky egg cocoon in July. Now they wait in their tubular hiding places for whatever prey might stumble into the web.

In dry weather you'd never know they were there, so fine is the silk, so carefully hidden is the cavern. Presumably the gorse-web spider chooses gorse because it is drier than other plants. But in the mist everything is revealed, a stunning array of the builder's art, a practice honed over the eons. Fossil spiders with spinnerets (silk glands) on their abdomens are known from the Devonian and Carboniferous periods of Earth history, 300 to 400 million years ago. As I walk home from the village I stop at every web and try to tease the homeowner out of his lair, tossing bits of grass onto the web. But no, he is not to be fooled. There he lurks down that silvery tunnel, waiting for the real thing. I probe with a long stalk of grass; he retreats deeper into his bower.

"What refinement of art for a mess of flies!" exclaimed the great entomologist J. Henri Fabre, in his The Life of the Spider. "Nowhere, in the whole animal kingdom, has the need to eat inspired a more cunning industry."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Because I dread the loss of heaven and the fires of hell"

The fun thing about the Irish Times is that opinion pieces spill over onto the letters page and sometimes the discussions go on for weeks. We are still getting reaction to the World Atheist convention that was held in Dublin shortly before our arrival in June. Richard Dawkins was the most prominent participant.

In an opinion piece this past week, the eminent theologian James Mackey took Dawkins, et. al. implicitly to task for proffering evolution as a basis for morality. "The favored ones propagate and survive, while the unfavored and weaker go to the wall; giving the natural rule for limitless success in life is that of survival of the fittest," says Mackey of natural selection.

Of Dawkins he adds: "That is then the rule that human beings should adopt as their moral principle; with a codicil that helping the weak ones is wrong, since such senseless bonhomie serves only to dilute the fitness of the race by helping he unfit."

What a sorry old canard this is. We hear it all the time in the States from Bible Belt televangelists: There is no morality without a God who reveals instructions, with the implication that atheist evolutionists wander in a selfishly amoral wilderness. But to get it from a professor of theology at Trinity College Dublin and the University of Edinburgh is rather disappointing.

Never mind that Dawkins has on many occasions explicitly rejected natural selection as a basis for human morality. At the beginning of The Selfish Gene he writes: "I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live."

Yesterday I found a wallet fat with cash on the ground outside the village post office (true!). I also managed to find the owner so I could return it. I didn't return the wallet because a "morality-friendly divinity" (Mackey's phrase) told me to do so, or because I feared the fires of hell. I returned the wallet because I knew that if someone found my wallet I'd want him or her to do the same. It's called the Golden Rule, and it is pretty much universal amongst humans of all religions and none, so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if natural selection hasn't tipped us in that direction. I'd be just as happy for Richard Dawkins to find my wallet as for it to be picked up by Professor Mackey.

So let's lay to rest the stale notion that evolutionists offer "nature red in tooth and claw" as a basis for human relationships. I don't personally know a single evolutionist who believes any such thing, and the theists -- red-neck preachers or learned dons -- who keep banging that dreary old drum are just being mischievous or misinformed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The green fuse

"There is a higher mystery," wrote D. H. Lawrence, " that doesn't let even the crocus be blown out."

A higher mystery? Or should we call it a lower mystery? A mystery in soil, in water, in air, in sun. A mystery that lies curled up in the seed, a tangled mass of DNA. A mystery that unzips and gathers, unzips and gathers. Spins out proteins. Burgeons. Blossoms.

It's that time of the year again, when the window sill here in my hobbit hole is burgeoning with green -- lettuces, tomatoes, peppers. And -- what's that! What's that in the pot with the pepper plant? Big rough leaves. A squash? A pumpkin? Where did it come from?

I'll transplant it to the garden and see what develops.

Not a higher mystery. A lower mystery. Tiny seeds the size of a grain of salt have become in these few short weeks a curtain of green. The first tomato is tinged with red. The lettuce leaves are fat and lolling. Soon we'll be eating the first harvest.

But I don't grow these plants for food. They are here to remind me that mystery is everywhere. The windowsill is an altar, a Holy of Holies. Here is the gift of transubstantiation: dirt, water, air and sun into succulence. The earth teems and roils. On the window sill that old magician -- life -- has some green silks up his sleeve.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Oh what a tangled Webb

I wrote here recently about the Square Kilometer Array, a giant internationally-sponsored radio telescope that seems to have a fair chance of actually being built. More problematic is the James Webb Space Telescope, an infrared-optimized space telescope that is designed to be America's successor to the aging Hubble. If it gets off the ground, the Webb will have a mirror 6.5 meters in diameter, three times the diameter of the Hubble's. It will be best adapted for exploring the very dawn of the universe, when the first stars and galaxies were forming.

Unfortunately, the initial cost estimate of $1.6 billion has ballooned to more than $6.5 billion -- and counting -- soaking up dollars that would have supported other astronomical research. The journal Nature called the Webb "the telescope that ate astronomy." Not surprisingly, the cost-conscious, Republican-dominated House has an ax aimed at the project.

Here's the tricky thing.

The Hubble orbits several hundred miles above the Earth, where it could be serviced by Shuttle-borne astronauts, something that turned out to be essential when the original optics were found to be faulty. The Webb will hover a million miles from the Earth, at one of the so-called Lagrangian points, a place where it can maintain a fixed relationship with the Earth and Sun. Like the Earth, it will orbit the Sun once each year, although a million miles farther out into space. This will make it possible to shield the scope from heat radiation of Earth, Moon and Sun. The scope must also be cooled so that its own heat doesn't interfere with its operation.

No astronauts will be available to fix any problems that arise. It has to work right the first time. The Webb is a hugely complex instrument. It must be "dropped on a dime" at its Lagrangian destination and its mirror and heat-shield must be deployed in space -- nail-biting tasks for an instrument that may end up costing $10 billion.

Will the Webb telescope survive? Is a glimpse at the origins of the universe worth rolling the dice on a $10 billion pot? Should the U.S. turn the whole thing over to the Chinese and be done with it? Are the glory days of American space exploration behind us?

Just how important is a look 13 billion years back in time to the nearly half of Americans who believe the universe is less that 10,000 years old?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The end

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

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Makers -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in November 2008.)

On a shelf in the room where I keep my laptop at the college: The Horizon Book of Makers of Modern Thought, published in 1972 by American Heritage. Thirty-six short biographies. One woman. One non-European.
Leonardo da Vinci. Niccolo Machiavelli. Desiderius Erasmus. Nicolaus Copernicus. Martin Luther. John Calvin. Francis Bacon. Thomas Hobbes. Rene Descartes. Blaise Pascal. John Locke. Isaac Newton. Voltaire. Jean Jacques Rousseau. Adam Smith. Immanuel Kant. Jeremy Bentham. Mary Wollstonecraft. Thomas Robert Malthus. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Robert Owen. Karl Maria von Clausewitz. George Perkins Marsh. Charles Robert Darwin. Karl Marx. Michael Bakunin. William James. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. James George Frazer. Sigmund Freud. Mahandas Karamchand Gandhi. Albert Einstein. John Maynard Keynes. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch (who share an essay).
Obviously, any such list is idiosyncratic and to some extent arbitrary. Why Pavlov, for example, and not Pasteur? Why Pascal and not Spinoza? Why Descartes and not Galileo? Why Bakunin and not Jefferson? Why Hobbes and not Hume? Why Marsh and not Thoreau? Why Wiener/McCulloch and not Shannon/von Neumann? Of course, any list today would be more inclusive by ethnicity and gender.

Less arbitrary would be a list of Makers of Your Thought, or Makers of My Thought. Who among the list above were most influential in creating the intellectual world I personally inhabit?

Erasmus for humanism and tolerance.

Francis Bacon for empiricism.

John Locke for understanding the limits of knowing.

George Perkins Marsh for ecology.

Charles Darwin for naturalism -- and "grandeur in this view of life."

William James for natural religion.

Mahandas Gandhi for nonviolence.

Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch for the embodiment of mind.

Friday, July 22, 2011

An historic moment

I had no intention of adding to my posts of Monday and Tuesday about the Cloyne Report on sexual abuse of children in Ireland and its cover up by Church authorities. But then something happened on Wednesday of an unprecedented nature that provokes comment.

The Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, in an almost empty Dail (Parliament), without prior announcement and with quiet determination, delivered a short speech that made banner headlines in the Thursday Irish press. In short, it was a declaration of independence from Rome.

It was striking for it forthrightness.

The Cloyne Report was crucial, said Kenny, "because for the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic -- as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so, the Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism -- the narcissism -- that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation."

Kenny's language is unsparing, and this from a practicing Catholic who loves his church.

Ireland is not Rome, said Kenny. "Nor is it industrial school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish Catholic world."

Kenny called out the Pope by name. In his concluding remarks, he quoted Cardinal Josef Ratzinger [the current Pope Benedict}: 'Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the church.' Then Kenny continued: "As the Holy See prepares its considered response to the Cloynes Report, as Taoiseach, I am making it absolutely clear, that when it comes to the protection of children of this State, the standards of conduct which the church deems appropriate to itself, cannot and will not, be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic. Not purely, or simply, or otherwise."

Kenny's speech seems to be applauded by the great majority of Irish Catholics. It is deemed a watershed.

It took 400 years for Ireland to throw off British political rule. It took another century to rid itself of spiritually stultifying rule from Rome.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


An article in the (London) Sunday Times Magazine about wind farms, the currently fashionable form of "green" energy.

In particular, the article referenced the farm at Whitelee in Scotland, near Glasgow, 140 colossal turbines turning slowly in the wind, supplying energy for up to 180,000 families, the largest on-shore wind farm in Europe, so big that it is a tourist attraction. Is this what we want our countryside to look like? asks author Matt Rudd, a conservationist with ambivalent feelings about the gigantic machines.

For the time being, at least, wind isn't cheap. And the turbines only work when the wind blows. "Stop trashing the Highlands," read the protestors' signs. Opponents point out that the blades chop up birds, the installations require huge amounts of concrete and steel, the generator magnets are made of neodymium alloys from Inner Mongolia that are mined in an environmentally unfriendly process, and the generators are connected to the grid with unsightly lines of pylons that compound the visual degradation of the landscape.

Whatever. More, many more, are on the way. There are more than three thousand wind turbines currently cranking out electricity in the UK, and more than six thousand in the pipeline. It's a case of green versus green -- those who want to break our climate-warming addiction to fossil fuel against those who rue the visual despoliation of our last remaining wild places.

I've mentioned here before my own ambivalent feelings. As we travel back and forth from Shannon airport to Dingle we pass several wind farms on the surrounding hills. To me they have a kind of majestic beauty, like a race of giants marching across the landscape, doing our human bidding. I was less entranced when a few years ago I came upon a clutch of turbines in a remote mountain valley that had taken half-a-day to reach on foot. That's the thing about wind farms; they are most economical where the land is wild, windy and cheap.

Is wildness obsolete? Does our appetite for energy trump our appetite for natural beauty?

Or might photovoltaics yet have their day. I have this fantasy of every house and commercial building in America with a photovoltaic roof. Not panels, but an integrated roofing system. Mandatory. No doubt this has a dark underside too -- more resources mined in Mongolia with toxic waste, perhaps. Not to mention the extra expense, clouds, snow, and Tea Party protestors bewailing governmental restrictions on our freedom to roof our houses any way we please.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is it warm in here, or is it only me?

I read recently that leading Australian climate scientists have been moved from place to place to protect them against threats on their lives, so deep is the wrath of climate change deniers.

This sort of extremism always puzzles me, like those opponents of animal research in science who are willing to kill the researchers.

The rights and wrongs of animal research is at least a legitimate moral question, about which reasonable people, including scientists, can disagree. But that's not quite the same thing as the issue of human-induced global warming, which is ultimately a matter of gathering and interpreting data, a process that in the best of all possible worlds can be conducted in an objective manner. Global warming is not a moral issue; it's either happening or it's not.

But don't tell that to the deniers. They are not interested in data. Their bias is anti-science to start with. Indeed, in their view, climate scientists are perpetrating a colossal hoax. Rush Limbaugh says climate-change scientists should be "named and fired, drawn and quartered."

It is reasonable, I suppose, to be a climate change skeptic. Climate is a stupendously complex system, and we surely don't yet fully understand all the ways the Earth has of regulating its average temperature. The human body, for example, has fits of chills and fever, and can bring itself back into equilibrium; why not the Earth?

But we are not talking skepticism, we are talking denial, often by the same people who deny -- against all evidence -- that the universe is more than 10,000 years old or that humans have descended from other species over millions of years.

Why? Partly, I think, it is knee-jerk anti-science, fed by the likes of Limbaugh and his ilk. Partly it is the influence of right-wing think tanks that are ideologically disposed to resist any restraint on free enterprise. Partly it is Tea-Partyish resentment of any institution that would restrict an individual's right to do whatever he damn well pleases. Partly it is the biasing effect of money from the oil companies and other vested interests. Partly it is a natural resistance to be preached at by do-gooders. And partly it is a manifestation of a longstanding antipathy between "tree huggers" and "exploiters."

I have an inside glimpse of the issue. My daughter Maureen is a climatologist who has made important contributions to understanding climate change. I detect no hint of conspiracy or hoax, no cabal, no vested interest. She gathers her data and follows it wherever it leads (I described some of this in posts June3-10). And, as near as I can see, the data leads to conclusions that at the very least should prompt a calm, rational discussion of the wisest political response.

The evidence for human-induced global warming is compelling for the overwhelming majority of scientists. What, pray, do they have to gain one way or the other? Well, never mind. Nature bats last.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The curse of Eve

A few more thoughts on the recent release of the Cloyne Report in Ireland.

So damning is the revealed connivance of the Irish hierarchy and Rome in the cover-up of child abuse that some members of the government here are talking about expelling the Papal Nuncio from the country and closing the Irish embassy to the Vatican in Rome. A generation ago such ideas would have been unthinkable.

As I was growing up, Ireland was presented to us by Irish priests and nuns of the Irish diaspora as God's favorite place on Earth, a land of blissfully happy Catholic families kneeling by the turf fire reciting the rosary - praying together, staying together -- an aura of sanctity enveloping father, mother and the half-dozen kids. Yes, many were poor, and, yes, many had to emigrate to less Godly lands, but those who stayed behind rested sublimely in the bosom of Holy Mother Church, watched over with particular solicitation by the Holy Father in Rome.

As it turned out, as the Cloyne Report was released last week, I was reading Diarmaid Ferriter's Occasions of Sin: Sex & Society in Modern Ireland, a big jumble of a book that documents what was really going on in Ireland when I was a kid. In particular, there was a collusion of church hierarchy and government to keep the Irish free from any taint of sexual sin, an enterprise that seems only to have exacerbated what it was meant to control. What comes across strongly in the book is the degree to which women bore the brunt of blame for any lapses from chastity.

In case after case where unlawful sexual relations came before the courts or to the attention of the Church, it was the woman who was assumed to have led the man astray -- the occasion of sin. Into an asylum or Magdalen laundry went the (often pregnant) girl; the male as often as not walked free. Ferriter quotes the regard of the courts "for the reputation of innocent men."

The virtuous woman was the emblem of Irish specialiness; the wanton woman was the cause of whatever was amiss. None of this, of course, was unique to Ireland, nor has it yet been expunged from Catholicism. Might I suggest that the proximate origin of the Church's perverse concept of the feminine can be deduced with a glance at the photograph in yesterday's post.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Cloyne Report

Here we go again. This time it’s the release of the Cloyne Report, the latest in a series of official reports delineating the scope of the child abuse scandal in Ireland, its perpetration over decades by priests, brothers and nuns, and its cover up by bishops and the Vatican. The revelations go on and on as Ireland wakes from a long dark sleep.

This is not to suggest that there were not during that time many good men and women within the professed orders working unselfishly on behalf of the faithful while pursuing their own spirituality. But there was something rotten at the core of the Church in Ireland -- and in Rome -- that undercut all the good.

What darkened the Irish Church for so long was the power of an entrenched theocracy, as represented, for example, by the reactionary archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who ruled Catholic Ireland with an iron fist from 1940 to 1971. For McQuaid and others in the Irish hierarchy, the only source of truth was Holy Mother Church. Scientific humanism, secular democracy and feminism were archevils of the modern world. Better for the faithful to be poor, ignorant and endlessly pregnant than burn in hell. And woe betide any Irish Catholic, lay or religious, who got out of line; the hammer of orthodoxy came down with swift force.

A paternalistic, misogynistic, and homophobic hierarchy, obsessed with sex as sin. Addicted, too, to pomp and power, the dressing up as Renaissance princes and the kissing of rings.

The Irish economic boom of recent decades and the devastating child abuse revelations have put paid to all that. When the dam of religious oppression broke it was as if centuries of suppressed joy, creativity and spirituality were released. The hierarchy of the Irish Church are now in bunker mode, and science and technology are in the ascendancy.

With intellectual freedom and prosperity came a cultural renaissance too. The arts and literature flourish as never before. I watched it all happen. When I first visited Dublin nearly forty years ago, it was a grey, gloomy, littered city. Today it is colorful, joyous and smart. This country, for all its current economic difficulties, is a showcase for the virtues of secular, scientific multiculturalism.

(In the 1960 photo above: Dr. Charles Heerey, Mgr. Alfred O'Rahilly, Cardinal D'Alton, President of Ireland Eamon de Valera, Dr. John Charles McQuaid, and Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary.)

Sunday, July 17, 2011


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

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The improbable effectiveness of mathematics -- a Saturday reprise

(Following the posts of the last two days, here is a Saturday reprise from April 2009.)

It dawned on me like a hammer blow to the head, at about chapter ten of my high school physics book. For weeks we had been solving problems. The problems involved frictionless pulleys, massless strings, perfectly smooth inclined planes, and other idealizations of the real world. And I thought: Physics isn't about the real world at all; physics is about a world that exists only in the physics text. So why were we studying this imaginary world?

It was because only in that idealized world were there problems that could be solved with high-school mathematics. And solving the problems was fun. I loved solving the problems. I loved doing my physics homework.

And I loved that imaginary world of the physics text that seemed to be built out of pure mathematics -- number, algebra, geometry, trig.

Years passed. College physics. Grad-school physics. The pulleys acquired friction, the strings acquired weight. The problems became ever more difficult to solve, but solving them was still fun. More and more fun, actually. I especially loved solving problems involving electromagnetic fields around charged objects.

But the world we were playing with was still an imaginary world. When I put down the pencil and turned away from the text, it was a very different world that attracted my attention. My real body was bathed, no doubt, in real electromagnetic fields, but there was no way I could describe them with the analytical elegance of the fields in the text. The text world had a simple beauty that appealed to my esthetic sense. The real world was messy.

What is the connection between the mathematically elegant world of the physics text and the real world? Why is physics, which is an exercise of the mind, so fabulously successful in practical application? Einstein once said: "I am convinced that we can discover by means of purely mathematical constructions...the key to understanding natural phenomena. Experience may suggest the appropriate mathematical concepts, but they most certainly cannot be deduced from it. The creative principle lies in mathematics."

We are in the face here of one of the deepest mysteries of philosophy -- the uncanny resonance of mind and world. And all these years later I can still remember the precise moment when this mystery of mysteries leapt off the page of the high-school physics text.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mind over matter?

Musing about the Oxford maths kit yesterday brings to mind an age-old question: Are those mathematical instruments a product of philosophy or empirical science?

That is to say: Do we invent mathematics, or do we discover it in nature?

The question came up in a book I've been reading, Rachel Hewitt's Map of a Nation, a history of the early days of the Ordnance Survey, the British mapping agency.

In the 1820s, the Survey came to Ireland, then a British colony, to map the country on the unprecedented scale of six-inches to the mile. The first step was triangulation -- fixing the exact position of dozens of "trig points" by throwing a web of sight-line triangles across the land, beginning with a carefully measured base line. Then the so-called "interior surveyors" would fill in the details.

The surveyors were generally imbued with the conviction of many Enlightenment philosophes that the empirical study of nature was the proper source of all reliable knowledge. Lines, circles, triangles were nature's language, to be discovered by interrogating the external world.

The great Anglo-Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton became much interested in the survey. He believed, however, that geometry was a branch of the philosophy of mind, "a product of the extraordinary powers of independent creation that were possessed by the intellect and which operated quite separately from the world of materiality and causation" (I quote Hewitt). He imagined when the first triangle was invented, like a light flashing on in the mind of an early philosopher. In this he followed Kant's suggestion that geometry was an image of the internal, not the external landscape.

One can imagine stimulating discussions between the mathematician Hamilton and the practical-minded leaders of the survey, Thomas Colby and Thomas Larcom.

Of course, the successful completion of the survey did not depend upon resolving the philosophical question, which continues to be debated today. For myself, it seems rather a chicken and egg sort of question, given that the human mind is itself a product of nature. What is truly interesting, and still deeply mysterious, is the power of the mind to abstract the general from particulars.

Those instruments in the student maths kit represent abstractions, only approximately discerned in nature -- as the heroic labors of the Ordnance surveyors to achieve perfect accuracy made abundantly clear.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tinned ecstasy

Let me sing a few words of praise for a British institution that never quite made it to the U.S. -- the Helix Oxford set of mathematical instruments.

Oh, when I was in school we had "pencil boxes," as likely as not made of cardboard and decorated with Disney characters. And maybe they contained a ruler, a compass, and a protractor. But they were birthday toys, cheap gimcracks, used once and soon forgotten. So when I took my young family to Britain for a year in 1968-69, I was unprepared for the Oxford tin-boxed set of instruments that was seemingly the property of every school child.

Nothing Mickey Mouse about this set of instruments. Even the design of the tin box spoke of seriousness -- those Oxford spires! A ruler marked in millimeters. A compass and dividers. A protractor. Two triangles, 45-45 degrees and 30-60 degrees. Maybe a lettering template too.

I wanted one of my own!

Helix has been making these kits for well over a century. The British Empire carried them around the world, to all those countries colored pink on the map I grew up with. Even today you will find them in school bags in Hong Kong and Mumbai. You can even buy them in the market on our little ex-British Bahamian island of Exuma (that's it in yesterday's APOD). I suppose they are part of Canadian tradition too, but they never made significant inroads into American education.

More's the pity.

I was a sucker for these kits. For one thing, my father, the mechanical engineer, owned a real leather-bound set of drawing instruments that I much admired, and later took with me to university for my course in mechanical drawing. But also I had just enough of an introduction to geometry in primary school to catch a Euclidean fever. Once I had seen the beauty of using a compass and straight-edge to bisect an angle, I was hooked. I spent countless hours trying to find a way to trisect an angle; it never occurred to me that I might not succeed where the greatest mathematical minds of the past had failed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Gorillas in the missed

Polar bears made a bit of a splash in the Irish papers lately. It seems an international team of scientists sequenced the DNA of more than 240 bears, living and long dead, including bones from the National Museum of Ireland of a bear that lived more than ten thousand years ago at the height of the last ice age. The conclusion: All polar bears alive today are descended from a common female ancestor, a now extinct Irish brown bear.

Hard times. Ireland mostly covered with ice. An ice shelf extending 30 or 40 kilometers into the sea. And the great migration began. Into the icy white wastes of the north. An Irish diaspora.

Natural selection began its refining task. More body fat. Thicker, whiter fur. Adaption to the arctic environment.

I remember when I saw my first polar bear, a single individual in the Attleboro Zoo, in the town of Attleboro, Massachusetts, more than 40 years ago. I stood thunderstruck before the bear's enclosure. Such magnificence. Such power. Then, the heartbreaking sadness. That splendid creature, so perfectly adapted to a white wilderness of ice, confined to a narrow concrete platform and pool of tepid water.

Zoos have come a long way since I was a kid. Gone are the prisonlike bars, the bare concrete walls and floors. Zoos no longer collect animals merely for display. Their agendas emphasize education, breeding, and conservation. No contemporary zoo of any stature will display a rare or vulnerable animal unless it intends to promote an increase in that species' population.

And who would want to deny children a chance to see a real live polar bear or a family of marmosets?

And yet, and yet…

I recall visiting the Boston Zoo's new, state-or-the-art gorilla house some years ago. The beautifully-cared-for animals resided in a lovely, naturalistic enclosure behind thick glass. As I stood there watching, a gorilla was patiently picking rubbery caulk out of the glass frames and eating it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Setting a compass

You've met John Holstead before, here and here and here. Part of the pleasure of coming to Ireland each summer is seeing what John has been up to since my previous visit.

I first met John nearly 40 years ago, during his and my first visits to Ventry, when he was on holiday as a young marine engineer plying the world's oceans aboard oil tankers. We both fell in love with the place. I eventually made it my habit to return each summer; John became a permanent resident. Even as a marine engineer there was an artist in John struggling to get out. The artist has been loosed, and the engineer now lurks inside.

As you will have read in previous posts, John reminds me of a demiurge making worlds. In recent years he has taken on projects that can only be described as cosmic. This time it is a piece that would have made the pre-Socratics happy, a cosmic egg, a self-contained universe, but with the convex Earth turned inside out, and local.

From the outside, an egg, with the top cracked off like a breakfast entree. Inside, folded onto the surface of the shell, a three-dimensional representation of Ventry, with its mountain heaths and patchwork of ancient fields. Click to enlarge.

John started with a Google Earth image of the parish, then added, on his computer, elevation data from Ordnance Survey maps. The hard part: finding the mathematical formula that would project the map onto the inside of the egg. Next, again on his computer, generating the templates for the dozens of separate laminations that would stack up to make the egg -- glued together, finished by hand, polished, painted.

All this as part of a multi-artist book/exhibit celebration of place, this place, this fold of land and sea on the western margin of Europe, deep in history, rich in lore.

Art, yes, but more than art. I think of Blake's The Ancient of Days "when he set a compass upon the face of the earth" (Proverbs, viii 25), a fusion of art and science, except with John's Apple Mac computer taking the place of the demiurge's compass.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Intelligent life in the universe

"Hi, honey. The plane just touched down. I'll call you again when I get to the parking lot."

"Hi, honey. I'm in the car. Had to wait for my bag. I'm setting out now."

Hi, hon. I'm on the freeway. I should be home in about forty minutes."

Hi, honey. I'm stopping at the Wine Basket for a bottle or merlot. See ya in about ten minutes."

Hi, hon. I'm turning into the driveway. Be there in a sec."

The Earth hums with useless info. Twitters with inanity. IMs with imbecility.

Our planet glows like a radio star, luminous with lunacy.

I opine thusly (he said archly) because I have been reading about the Square-Kilometer Array (SKA), a gigantic radio telescope that has been on the astronomers' wish list for years and now seems to have a real chance of being built.

The SKA will use 3,000 dish antennas, each about 15 meters wide, plus other antennas. The antennas will be arranged in five spiral arms extending out from a dense central core to distances of 3,000 km. It will cost several billion dollars and will be built in the wide-open spaces of central Australia or South Africa.

And here's the deal. According to its promoters, the SKA will potentially be able to detect the equivalent of a mobile phone system within 50 light-years of Earth. If ET is out there, we are about to listen in on his chat.

Which will be interesting, I suppose. More to the point is this: If we can listen in on him, then within less than 50 years he will be listening in on us.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


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

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- a Saturday reprise

Each day at college, as I go to collect my laptop, I pass the Art Department's bulletin board. And, in recent weeks, I have been drawn up short by an announcement for a gallery show by the New England artist Janet Rickus, with this illustration of one of her works.

Why? What is it that so attracts me to the painting? A collection of ceramics and a fat vegetable arrayed on crisp cloths. The original painting, I understand from the internet, is life size. I also see from the internet that this is typical of Rickus' work.

Technical proficiency? The artist is indeed stunningly adept at portraying objects realistically. But that alone cannot account for the emotional reaction to her work.

The subject? There is a certain intellectual appeal to the juxtaposition of the organic and inorganic, but surely there is more to it than that. After all, these are commonplace objects, stark in their simplicity.

Maybe it is the stark simplicity of the objects that is their appeal -- shape, color, natural light, shadow. Then too we recognize the intentionality of the artist, her careful selection of the objects, their arrangement, their likenesses and contrasts.

And, yes, now we are getting at it. It is not so much the paintings themselves that grasp our attention, as it is a certain way of seeing the world. A certain way of making the world that we see.

Simple elements. Artfully arranged. Elegantly expressed. These are the same qualities we look for in a scientific theory. When Einstein proposed his General Theory of Relativity, physicists knew immediately they were in the presence of truth, even though -- initially -- not a single experiment confirmed the theory. The mathematics of general relativity was just too beautiful not to express reality. Beauty is the resonance of a pattern of flickering neurons in the brain with patterns of order in the world. And that is why beauty is nature's signature of truth.

"Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us," writes my friend Scott Russell Sanders. "It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature."

(This post originally appeared in May 2009.)

Friday, July 08, 2011

No other light

When I went to University of Notre Dame in the 1950s, Thomas Aquinas ruled the roost. Our required philosophy and theology courses, of which there were many, were solidly Thomistic, earthquake-resistant brick buildings of logical disquisition. Oh, we had proofs of the existence of God, proofs laid out like mathematical theorems -- axioms, corollaries, QEDs. The Angelic Doctor had written voluminously on every aspect of the divine, and our teachers poured his bookish wisdom into our empty heads like syrup onto pancakes. God was as familiar to us, and as intimidating, as the professor in black cassock at the front of the class.

Except that I didn't buy any of it. I was busy with my own religious adventure, which was darker, sexier, less cerebral, more visceral. It wasn't in the musty pages of the Summa Theologica that I went looking for the divine, but in the dark night, the wind and stars, and the feminine light of the moon.

It was another Catholic tradition that called to me across the ages, that of the medieval mystics -- Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle -- and if you have read Honey From Stone you will know that their influence lingered long after I had left every shred of Catholic orthodoxy behind.

"What is God?" asked Richard Rolle. "I say that you shall never have an answer to this question. I have not known; angels know not; archangels have not heard. Wherefore how would you know what is unknown and also unteachable."

Take that Aquinas!

At the age of fourteen Rolle was sent up to Oxford, hub of learning and disquisition. He wasn't happy there. Metaphysics seemed empty and remote from real experience. He gave it up, and at the age of eighteen or nineteen returned to Yorkshire, made himself a gown of rough cloth, and set out across the moors. The rest of his life was spent in solitude and contemplation, a strange and inscrutable figure to all who encountered him. The dry theological ponderings of the university had no attraction for him. "I would be like a little bird," he said.

Rolle was by all accounts a bit of a weirdo, prone to ecstasies and hallucinations no doubt induced by fatigue, poor diet and mortifications of the flesh. But when I was young and impressionable, Rolle and the others of his kind seemed more in touch than were my Thomist professors with whatever it is in nature that stirs a response of wonder, awe, reverence, and gratitude. The knowledge of God the mystics sought was what John of the Cross called "the knowing that unknows."
…no sign for me to mark,
no other light, no guide
except for my heart -- the fire,
the fire inside.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Religious naturalism

"I consider it a sign of human weakness," wrote the Roman natural historian Caius Plinius Secundus, "to inquire into the figure and the form of God. For whatever God be, and wherever he exists, he is all sense, all sight, all hearing, all life, all mind, and all within himself."


What Pliny describes is a robust pantheism, but more than pantheism. Call him, if you will a religious naturalist.

He was careful not to circumscribe God's attributes. Everything that exists was the subject of his study; everything enhanced his sense of wonder. Not one of his senses was neglected. The sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and tactile sensations of this world were each a partial and equally precious revelation of whatever was worthy of being called divine. Of these trifles Pliny constructed a natural history in thirty-seven volumes. No sand-encompassed oasis, no fish that swam in a faraway sea, no cave, no spring, no pebble or rock, was beyond his interest.

Pliny's song to the Earth is one of the most beautiful passages in his Natural History. "She receives us at our birth, nourishes us when we are born, and ever afterward supports us; lastly embracing us in her bosom when we are rejected by the rest of nature, she then covers us with a special tenderness."

Much of the contention between science and faith could be avoided if we listened to Pliny. God is not to be found in science, or disproved by science. The big bang or Darwinian natural selection is a foolish basis for a theology or for atheism. All science is tentative. Gaps get filled. What stays are sight, sound, taste, smell and tactile sensation. What resides is the mystery, the wonder, the beauty and the terror. We walk the shoreline between knowledge and mystery drop-jawed and grateful, rejecting all faiths and creeds that seek to lodge the divine in any human guise, in any patchwork of the miraculous. Whatever God be, and wherever he exists, he is not a "he." He is all life, all mind, unknowable, unnamable, ineffable, elusive. "The earth, kind, mild, and indulgent as she is," says Pliny, "always ministers to the wants of mortals."

Wednesday, July 06, 2011


I mentioned yesterday my friend the artist Maria Simonds-Gooding, who presently has a wonderful retrospective at the Blasket Interpretive Centre in Dunquin. Maria arrived here on the Dingle Peninsula a few years before our first visit in 1972 and quickly made it her permanent home. What most immediately grasped her imagination were the field patterns in the spare landscape, some of them reaching back thousands of years into the past, mere hints of former cultivation. Her interest was not political; nothing of the tumultuous history of Ireland. Rather, what concerned her was the age-old negotiation of humans with their environment. Huddled habitations. Fields scratched from rocky soil. Animal enclosures.

Her early works were representational, in the sense that one recognized the subjects. But they were also infused with a spiritual energy that took them beyond "realism."

As the years passed, her work evolved toward greater "simplicity." Fields and habitations were gestured by a few lines and irregular geometrical shapes. Even pigment faded away as she began working with large "canvases" of white and off-white plaster. Without titles, a viewer might not know the subject. For myself, I began to look at the landscape in a new way, seeing what Maria saw. Seeing the feeble human touch on the land that represents the tentative beginnings of cultivation -- and civilization. Not minimalism, but essentialism. Here is a print that I own, called "Inner Boundary."

Maria's works now reside in major collections worldwide.

Where will she go from here? She has begun working on large sheets of polished aluminum, scratching and etching -- a few lines, a patch of stippling. These works are powerful in their tendency toward silence, which is, after all, the only proper response to a powerfully felt presence in nature that in its almost religious intensity overwhelms shape, color, texture, line.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011


The Great Blasket Island lies just off the end of the Dingle Peninsula in western Ireland. For generations it was home to a few dozen families who lived in a huddled village of rude stone houses, out of the wind. During the first half of the last century, that little community may have been unique in all of the world. It produced three books in Irish that became world classics, translated into many languages, and published in English by Oxford University Press: The Islandman by Tomas O'Crohan, An Old Woman's Reflections by Peig Sayers, and Twenty Years A'growing by Maurice O'Sullivan. And more. The list of books that came out of the island, or were inspired by it, is as long as your arm.

And there they are today, those few huddled houses, now in ruins, visible across the Blasket Sound from the Blasket Interpretative Centre, a handsome museum dedicated to celebrating the life of the islanders and their descendants, now scattered around the world, most to central Massachusetts.

I was out there yesterday with Tom and Jodi to see a retrospective exhibit of the works of the artist Maria Simonds-Gooding, who lives nearby and whose work is a kind of spiritual continuation of the Blasket literary heritage. We wandered again through the permanent exhibits, and I was struck as usual by the beauty of the instruments crafted by the islanders to support their simple lives. Baskets for turf and fish. Rakes for seaweed. Spades for cutting turf. Sickles for the harvest. A long pole with a noose for retrieving sheep from cliff ledges. Spindles, carders and looms for the wool. And, of course, the amazing curragh, the all-purpose boat made of thin laths covered with tarred canvas.

Did I say "simple lives"? Hardly simple. Rich is more like it. Rich in poetry and song. In charity among neighbors. In natural beauty. In the satisfaction of a life wrested from adversity with the products of one's own hands. A barefoot life, almost Neolithic, and doomed in the face of "progress." In the 1950s the few remaining islanders were removed to the mainland by the government. Today their beautiful implements of wood and wool and wicker are on display for the likes of me and mine, who arrive by automobile, with fancy cameras, and take a meal in the café whose ingredients may have come from Chile or China by air express and a bottle of Fiji water to wash it down.

In the closing chapters of Twenty Years A-growing, young Maurice O'Sullivan prepares to leave the Blasket to make his way in the world. His options? America or Dublin, both of which seem about equally distant. He writes:
I looked west at the edge of the sky where America should be lying, and I skipped back on the paths of thought. It seemed to me now that the New Island [America] was before me with its fine streets and great high houses, some of them so tall that they scratched the sky; gold and silver out on the ditches and nothing to do but to gather it. I see the boys and girls who were once my companions walking the street, laughing brightly and well contented. I see my brother Shaun and my sisters Maura and Eileen walking along with them and they talking together of me. The tears were rising in my eyes but I did not shed them. As the old saying goes, "bitter the tears that fall but more bitter the tears that fall not."
Maurice's friend George chides him:
If you want the history of America look at the Yank who comes home; think of his appearance. Not a drop of blood in his body but he has left it beyond. Look at the girl who goes over with her fine comely face! When she comes home she is pale and the skin is furrowed on her brow. If you noticed that, Maurice, you would never go to that place.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Crow's foot

In 1824, the British Parliament authorized the mapping of all of Ireland at a scale of six inches to one mile, an unprecedented undertaking. At this scale, every field, every building would be rendered in its exact shape and dimensions. If Britain could not reduce Ireland to passivity in life, then it would do it on paper.

Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, the standard elevation (bench) mark for surveyors in Ireland was the "crow's foot," a horizontal line with three radiating marks below, chiseled by masons into stone buildings, bridge abutments, piers and walls. Here is one from the wall in front of the primary school in our village. Click to enlarge.

The crow's foot became part of the folklore of Ireland, mysterious, enigmatic, a kind of magical talisman. They could pop up anywhere. We used to see one on a flat boulder on the old green military road up the side of Mount Brandon, out in the middle of nowhere. For some years now it seems to have disappeared, perhaps tumbled away in a flash flood.

In this day of aerial and satellite imagery and GPS, the marks are no longer used or maintained by the Irish mapping agency, and with development, the widening of roads, and the replacement of bridges and outbuildings, the crows' feet are fast disappearing. I know of several in our village that have vanished. Here is one in a wall just down the road that is about to disappear beneath brush and moss.

A great cultural loss, I think, equivalent to the gradual eradication of cross-inscribed stones, ring forts and holy wells from an even earlier era. Those archeological artifacts are, of course, catalogued and more-or-less protected. I'm rather surprised that some informal web-based community hasn't organized to map the locations of remaining crows' feet and track their slow extinction -- or at least I didn't find such a group on the web.

I'll do my bit. I'll take my strimmer down the road and whack out the one pictured above from encroaching nature. I like seeing it there on my walks, a reminder that once long ago a team of surveyors came this way, with their levels, theodolites, chains, and field books, bringing exact scientific description to a landscape permeated with fairy spirit.

Sunday, July 03, 2011


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

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Who's Willard?

(Yesterday's post reminds me of one I posted back in 2005. Here's a Saturday reprise.)

Who is the greatest American scientist?

Here's my choice: Josiah Willard Gibbs.

Years ago, as a graduate student in physics, I kept coming across Gibbs' name -- Gibbs' phase rule, Gibbs' paradox, Gibbs free energy, the Gibbs-Helmoltz equation, Gibbs functions, Gibbs ensembles, and so on. The name popped up in texts on chemistry, mathematics, theoretical mechanics, optics, and thermodynamics. Sometimes the latter subject seemed entirely a Gibbsian invention. Almost every branch of technology benefited from his work, especially the chemical industry. Alloys, explosives, fuels, and medicines were all touched by his genius.

Gibbs (1839-1903) lived all of his life in New Haven, Connecticut, a bachelor in his sister's house. He seldom traveled. Even his fellow professors at Yale University considered him something of a recluse.

As his work became known, universities in America and abroad bestowed upon him honorary degrees. He was recipient of the Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Sciences and the Copley Medal of London's Royal Society, the highest honor open to a scientist until the founding of the Nobel Prize. So modestly did Gibbs absorb these accolades that even his friends were unaware of the honors until they read of them in his obituary.

Gibbs' physics was the one great cornerstone of 19th century science that survived unscathed the relativity and quantum revolutions of the 20th century. Einstein and Max Planck, the architects of those revolutions, were late to discover Gibbs' work and were forced to reinvent many of the same results independently -- and with difficulty.

Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein was asked who he considered the most powerful thinker he had ever met. He answered without hesitation, "Lorentz" -- referring to Hendrick A. Lorentz, the mathematical physicist, and then added -- "I never met Willard Gibbs; perhaps had I done so, I might have placed him beside Lorentz."

Friday, July 01, 2011

Who was the most important scientist of all time?

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the seven honored nominees. Charles Darwin. Louis Pasteur. Marie Curie. Thomas Alva Edison. Alexander Graham Bell. Galileo Galilei. Albert Einstein.

The nominating committee? Years ago, when I was involved as an Overseer with the Boston Museum of Science, these were the scientists the museum chose to represent different levels of contribution to their annual fund-raising campaign. I won't give the museum's ranking. Instead, I'll offer my own.

May I have the envelopes please.

In 7th place: Alexander Graham Bell. An exceedingly clever man, not a scientist by training, best known for inventing the telephone and making his name synonymous with voice communication. He was surely selected by the museum on the basis of name recognition by Americans. We are a practical people, more given to recognizing Yankee ingenuity than theoretical genius. Everyone has heard of Bell, but who has heard of Joseph Henry, the superb theoretical scientist who inspired and encouraged both Bell and Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph?

In 6th place: Marie Curie. Inevitable on any list, for her gender as for her remarkable achievements. A scientist of prodigious determination, she chemically isolated from tons of ore a tiny amount of a new element, radium, that glowed with its own mysterious light. That light would grow to fill the predawn desert sky over Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, and the sky above Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later in her life, Curie suffered the cruel agony of radiation poisoning, a first but not last victim of a discovery that seemed, in the first glow of success, to offer only promise.

In 5th place: Albert Einstein. The person above all others whose name means "scientist," an intellect of towering proportions, perhaps equaled only by Isaac Newton (conspicuously missing from our list). Three papers published by Einstein in the single year 1905 revolutionized physics. Later, he unraveled the equivalence of matter and energy, thereby making his own contribution to the dark miracle of Alamogordo. Still, for all of his contributions to our understanding of the universe, his direct influence on the way we live our lives and understand ourselves is minimal.

In 4th place: Louis Pasteur. A person of deep religious and philosophical convictions, who nevertheless considered experimentation the only reliable arbiter of truth. We know him for pasteurization, vaccination, and other contributions to public health. But most significant was his demonstration that all living things are biochemically related and that life invariably comes from life. In this sense, he demystified life and opened vital processes to scientific inquiry.

In 3rd place: Thomas Alva Edison. Like Bell, he is deified by our bent for the practical. Edison's more than 1,000 patented inventions include the incandescent bulb that turned night into day, but also many of the behind-the-scenes apparatus that makes our electrified civilization possible. As much as any person, Edison can stand in for Bell, Morse, Eli Whitney, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, and other inspired tinkerers who tinkered America to greatness.

In 2nd place: Galileo Galilei. The true father of modern science. Of all persons nominated, Galileo is the most completely original. It is hard to imagine anyone else of his time marshaling the same resources -- intellectual, moral, physical -- to single-handedly make obsolete a system of natural philosophy that for a millennia had held human knowledge hostage to Greek and Scriptural authority. He challenged an entrenched intellectual establishment by performing simple experiments and describing what he saw with audacious courage. His legacy: The Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics.

And, in 1st place, in a stunning upset, turning the museum's ranking on its ear: Charles Darwin. He did not invent or discover evolution. The idea was in the air. Alfred Russel Wallace proposed a theory of biological evolution by natural selection simultaneously with Darwin. However, Darwin not only stated a theory, he marshaled an irresistible display of evidence in its favor, gathered by decades of patient observation, and in so doing established the legitimacy of historical sciences. No other scientific idea has so radically altered our understanding of ourselves. This is the great Darwinian truth: We are not lords of the universe, plunked down into a garden established for our benefit, to be used or despoiled at our pleasure. We are flowers of the garden, inextricably part of the seamless web of life.