Monday, October 31, 2011

Angels and devils -- Part 1

I was on a panel once with Steven Pinker. I learned two things from the experience. He has more hair than I do. And he's smarter.

Which is why I try to read whatever he writes. Even at my venerable age I figure I can learn something from the brainy youngsters.

So I've been waiting for his new book to arrive at the library: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes. In the meantime, last week's Nature (Ocober 20) has Pinker's three-page summary of the book, which stands nicely alone as a presentation of his thesis -- and as an affirmation of liberal, secular, forward-looking, Enlightenment values. I would put it up there in my list of required political readings with George McGovern's 2002 essay The Case for Liberalism: A Defense of the Future Against the Past..

But this is not a political blog, so we won't go there. Still, let me point out one liberal value implicit in Pinker's essay that relates directly to science.

Pinker has obviously done an exhaustive survey of the social and psychological literature in search of data that supports (or refutes) his thesis. He is well aware that with such a complex, multivariate topic the data can only be suggestive, not definitive. Thus, in the essay we encounter again and again words like "seems," "might," "likely," and "perhaps," words that are conspicuously absent in so much of today's illiberal political discourse, but which are essential to the scientific process.

Another of Pinker's points that is relevant here: He points out that "morality," as traditionally understood, has nothing to do with the ascendancy of our better angels." "No society defines virtue solely by the avoidance of harm," writes Pinker. "Indeed," he says, "because morality furnishes people with motives for violent acts that bring no tangible benefit, it is more often the problem rather than the solution."

I think of all those times I went to confession as a kid, listing "sins" that had nothing to do with the advancement or impediment of human empathy: ate meat on Friday, broke my fast before Communion, had "impure" dreams. None of my piddling "sins" made any difference in the great scheme of things, but they are in the same category of victimless "immoralities" mentioned by Pinker -- such as homosexuality, blasphemy, heresy, and desecration of sacred symbols -- which have so often led to violent punishment, even judicial murder.

If divinely-decreed moral precepts are not our better angel, what is? More tomorrow.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Skeleton moon

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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Kristin Lavransdatter -- a Saturday reprise

(This rather longish post originally appeared on Sunday, January 8, 2006.)

For the past few weeks I have lived in 14th-century Norway, sharing the life of Kristin Lavransdatter, the eponymous heroine of Sigrid Undset's Nobel-prizewinning, 1200-page saga. I first read the novel in my 20s, nearly half-a-century ago, and was deeply moved by it. Now I am older than was Kristin when she died of the Black Death. Like Kristin, I have children, grandchildren and a long marriage. When I first read the novel, as youth man, it all seemed a thrilling fantasy. Now, it rings with the truth of a life lived.

Surely, part of the reason I so enjoyed the novel then and now is that it is intensely Roman Catholic. Norway in the early 14th century was Catholic, having been brought into the pan-European fold by sainted King Olav in the 11th century. In Kristin's time, the country's former paganism was not far beneath the surface of Christianity. At times of great distress, Kristin's contemporaries (and at least once Kristin herself) turn first to God, His Holy Mother and the saints, then, when all else fails, to the magic of the former pagan deities who were still thought to reside in forest glens and mountain halls.

Only a few years after publishing the novel in 1920 -- to instant acclaim -- Undset became herself a convert to the Roman Catholic faith.

What is it that distinguishes Catholic from Protestant Christianity?

If I may generalize:

Catholicism is a faith of hermits and solitary pilgrims. The archetypal Catholic saint lies prostrate in silent solitude and candlelight before the crucifix, the symbol of a God-man who suffered and died alone. The Catholic drama of sin and salvation plays out in the privacy of one's own soul; every seeker walks alone through the valley of darkness, hoping to find the light.

Catholicism remains even today deeply medieval -- even pagan -- in its rites, arts, and institutions. Catholic liturgy is intimately connected to the annual and diurnal solar cycles, or at least it was when I was a child. The monastic cloister with its fixed round of prayer and rule of obedience to proper authority is the paradigm of Catholic faith.

By contrast, Protestant Christianity is a faith of the new 16th-century European middle-class. It is a religion of collective worship, of daylight and urban clatter, of the entrepreneurial spirit. The Protestant's journey toward salvation is played out in the marketplace; virtue and sin are a matter for God's ledger book. The paradigmatic virtues of Protestantism are thrift, industry, tidiness, and collective attention to numbered hymnals and the Book of Common Prayer. The only proper authority is God Himself, as he speaks through Scriptures.

So yes, Kristin Lavransdatter is a Catholic novel, as I am Catholic to the soles of my feet, although I have long since lapsed theologically from that faith (and every institutional faith) into a robust agnosticism. Never mind: I still walk the walk with Kristin. I share her love of the natural world, her sense that the world is shot through with powers we don't begin to understand. When Kristin struggles with her Latin prayers in a dark recess of the cathedral at Nidaros, barely knowing what the formulaic words signify, only that they are a kind of magical incantation, I am with her, because I know, as she knows, that for all the learning, honor, law, and material prosperity that makes our lives tolerable, we live in a world that is deep beyond our knowing, and profoundly worthy of our reverence and awe.

And I will say this too, controversially I'm sure. Although everlasting life is an article of Catholic faith, immortality looms much less large in the Catholic sensibility than in Protestantism. We Catholics are dreadfully attached to this world of water, wax, bread and wine, flesh and blood, incense, chrism, light and darkness -- in short, all those things the Reformists dismissed as idolatrous. Hence the doctrine of the resurrection of the body; for the Catholic, everlasting life will only be tolerable if we can feel the thump of blood and the pangs of carnality. When Kristin dies, Ulf Haldorsson, who like so many other men loved her, regrets that he had not been more forthright in acting on his desire, even though to do so might have cost him his immortal soul. The priest Sira Eiliv says to him: "So it's futile to regret a good deed, Ulf, for the good you have done cannot be taken back; even if all the mountains should fall, it would still stand." And that is immortality enough for the Catholic.

So I share much with Kristin, by virtue of my early religious training. But there is much that is different too between Kristin and me -- not least of which is the security that has come with empirical science.

Kristin lived at a time when 50 was a fine old age. Death for mother or infant at childbirth was common; no modern woman would want to endure the agony that Kristin suffers with her first birthing. Vagaries of weather meant hunger or full bellies. A nick from a knife could mean sepsis and death. Men went about armed, and a fatal blow of an ax or sword might be occasioned by minor slight. The Black Death, when it came, was an all-consuming holocaust.

Make no mistake, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment may not have changed human nature, but they utterly transformed the circumstances of our lives. Perhaps the most telling difference between Kristin's world and our own is this: For Kristin, every event is the handiwork of a personal God. Of the Black Death, she thinks: "This was the plague -- God's punishment for the secret hardheartedness of every human being, which only God the Almighty could see." Every soul is corrupted by sin, even though only God can see it.

We who embrace Enlightenment values believe that human nature has been shaped by billions of years of evolution, that we are each of us capable of virtue and evil, that physical and mental illness have natural causes, and that collectively and as individuals we are able to order our lives as we see fit. Nature might still smite us with apparently arbitrary tribulations, but innocence or guilt have nothing to do with it. No personal deity sits on high sending thunderbolts or blessings our way. If we choose to be good, we do so not because we anticipate everlasting bliss or fear hellfire, but because altruistic genes and common sense compel us to do so.

Blades play an important role in Undset's novel; a lot of hacking goes on. But the blade that separates the modern secular humanist from Kristin's world is Ockham's Razor. With it we have pared away a vast overlay of spirits and demons, elf maidens and mountain kings, miracles and supernatural manifestations of every sort. We have replaced those arbitrary forces with genes, germs, and natural law -- and perhaps a dose of quantum indeterminacy -- all very much a part of this world of beauty, mystery, joy and sorrow. In such a world we make our pilgrimage, out of darkness into light, never forgetting that our faith too -- like Kristin's -- must be judged ultimately not by pope, bishops, priests or councils, not by holy books or ancient traditions, but by the greater happiness of humankind.

Near the beginning of the novel, a holy man, Brother Edvin, says to Kristin: "There is no one, Kristin, who does not love and fear God. But it is because our hearts are divided between love for God and fear of the Devil, and love for this world and this flesh, that we are miserable in life and death. For if a man knew no yearning for God and God's being, then he would thrive in Hell, and we alone would not understand that he had found his heart's desire. Then the fire would not burn him if he did not long for coolness, and he would not feel the pain of the serpent's bite if he did not long for peace." All of the material accouterments of modernity do not necessarily make us happier than people of Kristin Lavransdatter's time, but they do make it easier to live in this world and this flesh. What we share with Kristin and Brother Edvin is a longing, always, for coolness and peace.

(This time, I read Kristin Lavransdatter in the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition paperback, translated by Tina Nunnally. I originally read the book in Charles Archer's translation from the 1920s. I much prefer the new one. Archer tried to evoke something of a medieval way of expression; Nunnally opts for a sparer, less archiac style.

Archer: "This snow will scarce lie,' Ulf said. "No, 'twill melt, belike, before evening," answered the priest.

Nunnally: "This snow won't last," said Ulf. "No, it will melt away before evening," replied the priest.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Going deep

Doris Lessing's dedication for her science-fiction trilogy Canopus In Argos: Archives: "For my father, who used to sit, hour after hour, night after night, outside our house in Africa, watching the stars. 'Well,' he would say, 'if we blow ourselves up, there's plenty more where we cam from!'"

And he didn't know the half of it.

He didn't know the billionth of it.

Here we go again, one of the epic documents of our time, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UDF) photograph, the deepest look into space ever (click to enlarge). A random part of the sky, so small it could be covered by a pinhead held at arm's length. A part of the sky -- as NASA says -- that you'd see looking through an eight-foot-long soda straw. A photo exposed over 400 orbits of the Hubble, a total exposure of 11.3 days. The telescope pointing precisely to the same point in space even as it whizzes around the Earth.

Here's another way to think of it. The image on your computer screen is about 10x10 centimeters. Imagine the image as a tile of that size. A survey of the whole sky -- the whole visible universe from Earth -- would encompass 12.7 million tiles, enough to cover 18 footfall fields!

And each tile shows something like 10,000 galaxies. (You can fly into the field of galaxies here.)

A typical galaxy contains as many stars as there are grains of salt in 10,000 one-pound boxes of salt. We are potentially seeing the light of more than 1,000,000,000,000,000 stars. Most, or all, of which have planets.

We've been over this before, but it's worth coming back to. It's not easy to get one's head around. Surely, discovering the scale of the universe is the greatest intellectual achievement in human history, and one of the least appreciated. We live in a universe of at least 10 billion galaxies -- maybe an infinite number -- and we go on worshiping the gods of our cave-dwelling ancestors. Gods with human faces, human qualities, human actions.

Perfectly natural to do so. The familiar is always more consoling than the unfamiliar. As for myself, I stare into those vast and almost unimaginable depths of space and I'm humbled into silence. Stunned. Ecstatic. Curious. Proud of what we have discovered. Knowing that future generations will consider our knowledge fragmentary and naive.

Yes, there's plenty more where we came from. And we haven't the foggiest notion of what's yet to come.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Ah, look what I found on the web, an old photo of Lulu Falls on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Click to enlarge.)

I spent many hours there in my teenage years, some fun, some terrifying. The place was usually deserted, so it was a good spot to take a girlfriend. And now, reading this, my wife will know that she wasn't the first and only. Oh well, that warm sunny day when we set on a cliff-top looking out over Chattanooga Valley was certainly the best.

I loved the power of the falls, spilling from a great height, inexorably taking down the mountain, grain by grain, eon by eon. All that water, lifted onto the mountain by the Sun, pulled down by gravity, a huge solar engine grinding away -- incorporating at some point all four of the fundamental forces of nature.

I wasn't thinking of any of that at the time -- I had other things on my mind. But I'm sure it impressed itself on my consciousness in a subliminal sort of way. Why else would I look at this photograph today, half-a-century later, and hear the roar, taste the mist, and feel the cool wet rock underfoot. Even then, nature was whispering her seductions in my ear.

Why did I go looking for a picture of Lulu Falls on the web? Because I saw this image on APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day).

A "waterfall" of glowing gas in the vast molecular clouds of the constellation Orion. Nothing else quite like it that I know of, and its origin is a mystery. Of course, it only looks like a waterfall if you view it in one orientation -- there's no up or down in the greater universe. And the scale? Ten light-years from "top" to "bottom," about the distance from the Sun to Sirius. No roar, no mist, no solid strata. But powered by the same four forces of nature -- the squeeze of gravity, fusion reactions that involve the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetic radiation.

It's all of a piece. The universe is infinitely complex and stunningly simple. On a planet of a distant star there are undoubtedly waterfalls -- same forces, same elements, same molecular bonds. And what about the boy and the girl, sitting side by side, holding hands, falling in love? In a sense, utterly unique. But then again,
just one more way the universe churns with endless cycles of matter and energy.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A walk in the woods

This past weekend I went for a walk in the deep woods west of Boston with sons Tom and Dan and spouses. The highlight of the day was coming across this beaver dam (click to enlarge).

We were bowled over by the size and engineering sophistication of the dam, as impressive in its own way as Hoover Dam on the Colorado. Constructed by rats.

OK, not rats, but rodents. A huge undertaking of felled trees, rocks and mud, ingeniously placed at the perfect spot along a tiny stream, as if planned by a human engineer. "OK," the engineer might have said to the assembled beavers. "Here's the blueprints. Go to work."

I stand to be corrected, but I think biologists are of the opinion that dam and canal building by beavers is primarily innate. Which means dam building is encoded in beaver DNA -- a four-letter code for assembling proteins that somehow self-construct the beaver's cerebral hardware. And the hardware comes loaded with engineering software.


All this in a package a hundred times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.

One could think about this all day and never get tired of the wonder of it.

My favorite example of innate behavior is the flight of the red knot, which I mentioned in Skeptics and True Believers. For details of the story I am indebted to Brian Harrington's The Flight of the Red Knot.

The red knot is a small shore bird that each year wings its way more than 18,000 miles, from the southern tip of South America to the arctic islands of northern Canada and back again.

From October to February, the birds live and feed on the beaches and mud flats of Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost land on Earth, excluding Antarctica. Then, they lift off in flocks of hundreds or thousands for the journey to islands of the Canadian archipelago north of Hudson Bay.

Here, in the northern summer, they mate and breed, each female laying four speckled eggs which she and her mate incubate in turns. By mid-July, the female adult birds head south again, and male adults follow a few weeks later. The juveniles fend for themselves until late August, when they too take to the air for the 9,000-mile journey to Tierra del Fuego.

These young birds in their thousands, without adult guides, find their way along an ancient migration route, down across New England's Atlantic beaches, across the Atlantic to Guyana and Surinam, then down along the east coast of South America, arriving at precisely those places along the way where they are sure to find food, eventually joining the flocks that include their parents.

A map of their journey and the knowledge they need for navigation are part of their genetic inheritance. When you consider that they started their lives, like the rest of us, as a single information-packed fertilized cell, their migratory feat stands as one of the great wonders of the natural world. That single cell contains the biological equivalent of a set of charts, a compass, a sextant and maybe something equivalent to a satellite navigation system.


DNA. Proteins. Evo-devo. We understand a lot of what's happening, but my guess is there's still a key discovery to fall into place before our understanding of complex instinctual behaviors is complete, maybe something as revolutionary as the insights of Darwin and Watson and Crick.

Meanwhile, biologists are beavering away.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

God's silence like the sun

I came across the painting above, "Sleeper," by the Belgian artist Michael Borremans, in the current issue of the TLS (Times Literary Supplement). Not part of any exposition; just offered for our delectation, as the TLS is inclined to do. Click to enlarge.

I had previously seen this painting as the jacket illustration for Franz Wright's latest book of poems, Kindertotenwald. You have met Franz Wright here before. I have not read his new book, but on the basis of previous volumes I can guess that it was he, not his publisher's designer, who chose the image.

It would be fun to hazard a few guesses about the painting. Was Borremans working from a photograph? Did he finish the child's head and recognize the power of leaving the rest of the canvas unpainted? Or did he fill the canvas and then paint out all but the head? Maybe these questions are answered somewhere on the web, but I haven't gone looking.

In any case, it is the white silence surrounding the sleeper that gives the painting its strange power. It was perhaps this same silence that appealed to the poet. One of his earlier volumes is titled God's Silence. It is a theme that runs through Wright's work: Our agonizing discomfort in a universe that seems to ask disquieting questions, without providing answers.

It's all very Rilke-esque. Asking, questing, shouting our longing into the silent darkness. Seeking the courage to live without ultimate answers. "The long silences need to be loved, perhaps,/ more than the words/ which arrive/ to describe them/ in time," writes the sometimes tormented Wright, in a moment of consolation.

Living with the silence. "We speak of Heaven who have not yet accomplished/ even this, this holiness of things/ precisely as they are, and never will," says Wright, struggling to live fully in the given particulars. And again: "The forgiveness! I know it/ will be freely offered/ or it won't, and that is all--/ and no one may bestow it/ on himself./ If it is to come/ it will come of itself like a separate/ being,/ a mystery, working/ unseen as a wind causes still/ leaves or water to move once again."

The stillness, the silence. The longed-for peace in the absence of an ultimate context.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reading and writing

It was way back in 1987 when my second "personal" book, Honey From Stone, was sold to the venerable publishing house of Dodd, Mead. (I don't count three earlier illustrated books of rather impersonal popular science.) I was thrilled. Dodd, Mead was one of the oldest, most respected publishers in the United States. I would join the illustrious ranks of authors such as Agatha Christie, Ross MacDonald, Anthony Trollope, Robert Service, Edward Abbey and Winston Churchill.

I was invited to New York by my acquiring editor, who met me in a windowless library at the company's offices. Jumbled shelves of books lined the walls. We set at what appeared to be an ancient oak table. I would not have been surprised to see editors in green eyeshades working with quill pens at high roll-top desks. I can't remember what we talked about, but I thought: Gee, this is what publishing is all about.

I could not have been more wrong.

Within a year of publishing Honey From Stone, Dodd-Mead was out of business, a victim of the mergers, take-overs, and asset-guttings that were wracking the publishing industry. Fortunately, Honey found a paperback refuge with Viking, and has managed to find friendly adoptive homes ever since, but it has been a fitful existence.

I eventually found another friendly publisher with Walker & Co., a small New York house that reassured me about what publishing might be -- a publisher who knew me by name, an editor who became a friend. Until, that is, Walker was acquired by a larger firm. My books did not find the same intimate support in the new corporate environment. I felt as bad for my friends at Walker as I did for myself.

Meanwhile, as publishing endured a period of corporate volatiility, along came Jeff Bezos and a revolution that would transform book publishing and selling. Today, Amazon is contracting directly with authors, cutting out traditional publishers altogether. Computer robots are "writing" books without the assistance of human authors, by compiling internet info in the public domain. Publish-on-demand and Amazon make it possible for anyone to publish a book, rendering even the vanity press redundant.

It's a new world out there, and mid-list authors such as myself are struggling to figure it out. This much is sure, there'll be no more heart-warming experiences like the one I had in the musty offices of Dodd, Mead.

What comes next? My son Dan is looking to explore the new technologies. You'll be seeing the first fruits of his efforts soon. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


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

Saturday, October 22, 2011

In the morning of the world -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in October 2005.)

We knew the morning was special when we saw the blue meadow.

Oh, yes, we knew -- Bailey, Greg and I -- that the grass in the meadow beyond the trees was green, but on that particular morning, with sunlight streaming aslant through honey-colored leaves, the meadow was indisputably, undeniably, stop-in-your-tracks-and-take-a-deep--breath blue. And in some corner of our minds -- as happens to all who attend the world and write -- we scribbled mental notes: morning light, honey dew, blue meadow.

I've introduced Greg and Bailey on this site before, two exceptional young people, seniors at the college, who love to write, and who asked last spring if they might join me in a semester-long exploration of the natural world. The implicit deal was this: I might bring to them something of my long experience putting words to paper, and they would share with me youth, enthusiasm, and senses not yet dulled by what the writer Virginia Woolf called the gray, nondescript "cotton wool" of everyday life.

So there we were, after a week of dull rain and cloudiness, walking the early morning trails of Borderlands State Park, watching the sun breathe color into fall foliage. At that early hour we had the place mostly to ourselves, except for an artist who had set up her easel by the side of the path to catch on canvas a world transformed by morning tricks of radiance. We followed the artist's gaze, along the split rail fence, past fields so green they were blue, to the old caretaker's house half hidden in a pool of light. "It's an Andrew Weyth sort of morning," said Bailey, and we looked again and saw that she was right.

Each of us, as we walked, daubed onto the canvases of our imaginations the things we saw: sunlight cascading through the trees, casting zebra stripes of gold across the path; the red berries of the matrimony bush hanging like tiny lanterns beneath the locust tree; the trickling murmur of the brook growing louder as we made our way across the dam that holds back its flow; the great beech tree and glacial boulder -- things that manage to stand alone.

In an essay published after her death, Virginia Woolf wrote about the special "moments of being" that sometimes interrupt the cotton wool of everyday life. One of those moments occurred as she was looking at a flower in a garden at St. Ives, in England. It was an ordinary plant with a spread of green leaves. She looked at the flower and said, "That is the whole." It had suddenly occurred to her that the flower was part of the earth, part of everything else that was. The realization came, she said, as a hammer blow, and from it emerged a philosophy: Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern. The whole world is a work of art and we are part of it.

It would be easy to dismiss this revelation as so much sentimentality, but Virginia Woolf was anything but sentimental. Many of her moments of being brought with them a peculiar horror and physical collapse. For her, the recognition that we are at one with the world could be a source of both exhilaration and despair.

Which is why it was so important for me to be there with Greg and Bailey, two young people in the morning of the world. It's not that they don't understand as well as I that every dawn contains a shadow of those hours of darkest night when we lay awake and sift through shades and specters -- the grim scaffolding of sorrow and death that nature uses to construct all that is beautiful and good. But for them the shadows are as insubstantial as the wind that whispers in the trees, or so it seems to me. Which is why I latch onto their optimism, their joy, their conviction with Thoreau that "only that day dawns to which we are awake."

Virginia Woolf's interest in the connectedness of things was not that of a mystic, but of a writer. "We are the words," she wrote, describing the experience of the flower. "We are the music; we are the thing itself." And that was what we sought, three writers walking there in that Weyth sort of morning -- the music, the thing itself, the connectedness. We live in a world that sometimes seems shattered into isolated parts, a shrapnel of incoherence. We seek wholeness. We thrive on those moments of being when the cotton wool melts away and we sense the completeness of things. Wholeness, wrote Woolf, means that the world has lost its power to hurt.

(In this essay I have drawn upon words, phrases and insights from Greg's and Bailey's notes, made shortly after our walk, which they were kind enough to share with me. It is a collaborative effort.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011


In last week's NYT Book Review's back page Essay, writer Steven Johnson tells of his mid-1980s undergraduate years in Brown University's semiotics program. This is from a student paper he wrote at the time:
The predicament of any tropological analysis of narrative always lies in its own effaced and circuitous recourse to a metaphoric mode of apprehending its object; the rigidity and insistence of its taxonomies and the facility with which it relegates each vagabond utterance to a strict regimen of possible enunciative formations testifies to a constitutive faith that its own interpretive meta-language will approximate or comply with the linguistic form it examines.
Yeah, that sounds familiar. I was a physical science prof in the mid-1980s, but we were a smallish faculty and semiotics/post-modernism swirled all around us. Since many of my colleagues were all atwitter, I gave it my best crack, reading Foucault, Derrida, and as many of the rest as I could stomach. I figured I must lack some mental facility since so much of it seemed gibberish to me. Meanwhile, I was trying to catch up on a background that was seriously deficient in literature. Thank god for poets.

In his essay, Johnson confesses to moving away from the post-modern paradigm. "I now spend more time learning from the insights of science than deconstructing its truth claims," he writes. And with his new interest in science came a corresponding clarity of prose. Or maybe it was the other way around.

A lot of ink was spilt in the '80s and '90s deconstructing the truth claims of science. I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, if that's the way one gets one's jollies, but it takes all the fun out of being a science spectator, and did nothing to slow down the dazzling progress of science and science-based technology. Science could always counter the deconstructors with the old Rheingold beer slogan: "We must be doing something right."

Take a look at the cover of the October 7 issue of Science. What is it? A scanning electron microscope image of the jagged end of a strand of human hair. Not just any human hair, but a strand from a lock donated a century ago by an Aboriginal Australian. Moreover, as described in a report inside the magazine, DNA from the hair was sequenced and used to show that Aboriginal Australians are descendents of an early human dispersal into eastern Asia about 62,000 to 75,000 years ago, a dispersal that was separate from the one that gave rise to modern Asians 25,000 to 38,000 years ago. Aboriginal Australians are one of the oldest continuous populations outside of Africa. All this from a 100-year-old strand of hair.

Deconstruct that! Must be doing something right, indeed.

(I'll be away tomorrow. Back Saturday.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My miracles, your miracles

Yesterday, in a NYT op-ed, Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens took fundamentalist evangelicals to task for their "rejection of reason." Giberson and Stephens are evangelicals themselves, respectively a former physics professor and a historian at Eastern Nazerene College in Massachusetts. They call for a more enlightened Christian faith that is willing to engage with modern thought, including the embrace of evolution and (apparently) gay marriage. They approvingly quote the evangelical historian Mark A. Noll: "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

Well yes, one can only applaud, especially given the powerful influence evangelical fundamentalism presently exerts on American politics.

Karl Giberson has been kind to me in the past, so I am hesitant to take issue, but the kind of thinking expressed in his op-ed strikes me as evasive.

I am assuming that Giberson and Stephens believe that Jesus was literally and truly God, the creator of the universe, and that he rose from the dead, two central tenets of orthodox Christianity. To my way of thinking, these beliefs are no more "reasonable" than the story of Noah's ark or a 10,000-year-old Earth. I would not want to take issue with Giberson's and Stephen's faith -- lord knows I used to believe some pretty bizarre stuff myself, and maybe still do -- but it seems to me once you let God into the door of the intellect you're going to have a hard time "reasonably" getting him out of the house.

Of course, it's possible to be a "Christian" and not believe in miracles, in the same way one can be a Jeffersonian democrat or a Keynesian economist, but I don't think that's where our authors are coming from.

There is either a personal God who intervenes in creation -- to redeem humankind or answer prayers, for instance -- or there isn't. If yes, then one has the hopeless task of deciding which events are miracles and which are not. If there is a central thread to the "modern thought" that Giberson and Stephens ask evangelicals to embrace, it is that miracles don't happen -- the underlying assumption of science since science was invented.

Picking and choosing one's miracles seems to me a fool's game. I'd guess that if Giberson or Stephens had been born in Qom, Iran, he would embrace a different set of foundational miracles. The alternative to picking and choosing is not necessarily a Dawkinsesque atheism, but a silent awe and reverence for the perhaps ultimately impenetrable mystery of creation that scientists -- and poets -- are working hard to understand.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Anne has been urging me to say something here about the somewhat counter-intuitive idea of "falsifiability": That scientific theory is truest that offers the most opportunities of being proved false.

Take, for example, string theory, the latest love affair of high-energy physicists and cosmologists. It's beautiful (I'll take the theorists word for it), and it offers the best hope yet of uniting the four known forces of nature, including gravitation. However, it makes no unique predictions that can be tested, at least not presently, and therefore no way of being invalidated. By the test of falsifiability, string theory doesn't qualify as science.

On the on the other hand, consider Einstein's 1915 theory of general relativity, which among other things uniquely predicted the deflection of starlight by the Sun, something tested by Eddington during the total solar eclipse of 1919. The observed deflection was exactly as predicted. According to the "falsification" criteria, the theory was good not because it was beautiful or because it had passed a dramatic test with flying colors, but because it had not muffed a prediction.

The falsification criteria was made almost a dogma of the philosophy of science by Karl Popper, in his 1934 book Logik der Forschung, published in English in 1959 as The Logic of Scientific Discovery. When my own interest in the history and philosophy of science began in the mid-1960s, Popper was all the rage. Making my way through Logic of Scientific Discoverywas one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life.

At the end, I suppose I had some illusion of understanding, but by the 1970s I was aware of a severe disconnect between what I was reading in the philosophy of science and what I was reading in the history of science. The former was invariably tidy; the latter, messy. Just now, as I'm writing, I went to the Q175s here in the college library and saw the shelves of books on the "logic" of scientific discovery that I had ordered and read as a young prof. It is, to be sure, a formidable bank of cogitation, but I wonder today what it has to do with how science works.

Lots of things go into a "successful" scientific theory -- including, perhaps, things that should be irrelevant, such as the prestige and personality of a theory's principle proponents. In the end, of course, nature bats last, and that's what gives us confidence in the process.

Still, if I had to pick a single philosophical criteria as most important in the actual practice of science, I'd say: That theory is best that explains the most in terms of the least. God shaves with Ockham's razor.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The sea grows old in it

The poet, like the electric [lightning] rod, must reach from a point nearer to the sky than all surrounding objects down to the earth, and down to the dark wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures, his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen, and smelled and handled.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ah, Mr. Emerson. This seems about as good a description of poetry as one is likely to find. I love the image. Not a hand reaching up to grasp the hand of Zeus, the hurler of bolts, but merely a pointed rod that reaches higher than any surrounding objects. A pen-point, scratching the firmament. Not a conductor reaching down to the earth, but deeper, into the wet inkpot of the soul.

Not lofty thoughts, airy philosophies, gnostic arcana. Rather, ideas that come wrapped in the stuff of the senses. Ideas that must be unwrapped the way you'd peel an orange, pry open an oyster, stir up from the bottom of a bowl of soup.

The electric fire of the heavens captured and stored in the Leyden jar of physical self.

Take, for example, Marianne Moore's The Fish, a poem that has been endlessly analyzed without ever giving up its secrets. Anyone who stands on that rocky shore with the poet, looking into the wave-washed chasm -- the sea as fluid as breath, as hard as a chisel -- takes away a lesson as profound as any one might learn in school, perhaps without being able to articulate exactly what the lesson is. The experience is simply there, to be seen, smelled, handled, in the weave and wave of animal bodies, in the intricate rhyme and syllabication of the poem. Truth -- crow-blue, ink-bespattered, hatcheted, defiant.

I'd go further.

I'd say that Emerson's description of poetry can be equally applied to science, or to any human attempt to attract the spark of Zeus. One must lift one's rod beyond the scratch and tumble of the everyday, while keeping its foot buried in the dark wet soil of lived experience.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

My Meninas

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

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The view from Alpha Centauri -- a Saturday reprise

Here's an illustration I made for an early book, now out of print.

I have placed an ET at the mouth of a cave on a planet of a star in the system Alpha Centauri. Let us imagine that evolution on this Centaurian planet has brought my ET to the threshold of intelligence and wonder -- to the point, say, our human ancestors were at 100,000 years ago. Both Centaurian suns have set, the yellow sun and the orange sun. The Milky Way sweeps across the sky like a sash of feeble light. The W-shaped group of five stars known on Earth as Cassiopeia blaze at lower right. At upper left is the dazzling yellow star Earthlings call Capella. Between Cassiopeia and Capella, almost centered in the view from the mouth of the cave, is another yellow star, almost a twin of Capella. It is a star that has never been seen in the nighttime sky of Earth, just one of the hundreds of billions of stars in our spiral galaxy, floating serenely in the stream of the Milky Way. It is, of course, our Sun.

As ET contemplates the immensity of the night, perhaps it wonders if it alone endows the universe with consciousness and life.

(This post appeared way back in May 2005.)

Friday, October 14, 2011


My pal Brian Doyle has another of his terrific essays in the current Notre Dame Magazine, recounting a moment back in 1974 when, as an ND undergraduate, he bumped into the famed Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

"I read some of your stories the other day and they were pretty good," said the smug young Doyle, and added that he had in mind becoming a writer himself.

The unflappably courteous Borges responded with a few words of advice: "Get as close to the truth as you can."

Thanks, BD, for passing on the great man's words, although at this point in my life I suspect I'm about as close to the truth as I'm going to get.

In fact, I'd say that my career as a teacher and writer has been one of moving away from the truth -- or at least away from Truth with a capital T.

I was at Notre Dame two decades before Brian, and it was the professed mission of that institution to supply me with the Truth. I was ready. I lapped it up. I steeped in it. By the time I graduated I was so armored with Truth that you could kick me in the shins and I wouldn't fall over.

It was an exhilarating feeling, being in possession of the Truth.

Smug. Self-satisfied.

Trouble is, it didn't stick. My bride was less enamored with Truth than I was. As were my new secular friends at UCLA. And then there was science.

Science offered a new kind of truth -- tentative, evolving, but manifestly reliable. Truth with a lower-case t. One doesn't wear science like armor. One wears science like a pair of warm socks.

Truth? I'll settle for authenticity. Respect for the thing itself, the thingness of a thing. Juice dripping down the chin when one bites into an orange. A brushstroke of comet in the pre-dawn sky. A snuggle with a loved one in the middle of the night.

Not something as grandiose as capital T, but a myriad of little t's that can pop up anywhere, promising nothing more than a momentary tingle in the spine. Real. Authentic.

As a matter of fact, that's what I like about Brian Doyle's writing -- the way a collection of authentically felt particulars adds up to more than the sum of the parts, something one would almost be willing to call -- carefully, tentatively, asymptotically -- truth.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ask the doctor what's right for you

The always interesting Jerome Groopman, Harvard Med School oncologist, is at it again, with a new book, Your Medical Mind: How To Decide What Is Right For You, co-authored by endrocrinologist Pamela Hartzband.

I know of Groopman through his New Yorker essays -- literate, incisive, balanced, wise.

In this new book, Groopman and Hartzband describe two sets of biases that affect patient decisions. The New York Times Book Review describes them this way:
We can be minimalists, preferring to do as little as possible, or maximalists who aggressively pursue treatment. We can be technology enthusiasts, seeking the newest drugs or procedures, or naturalists who believe the body can cure itself, perhaps with the aid of spiritual or plant-based remedies.
I would describe myself as a minimalist/technology enthusiast. For example, I'm not at all fond of the drugs I'm taking for cholesterol and blood pressure, especially since my readings are only marginally high. On the other hand, if push came to shove, I'd want access to the best modern medicine has to offer. I'll leave the spiritual and plant-based remedies to Anne.

In general -- like most of us, I suspect -- I trust my doctor more than I trust my own instincts, and meekly follow his leads. After all, he has the medical degree and a lifetime of patient experience. I'm confident he has my best interests at heart. At the same time, I've read enough articles in the New York Review by Marcia Angel and her like to have a deep distrust of Big Pharm and their pill-pushing prowess. And who knows how Medicare, the insurance industry, and procedure providers are skewing treatment?

I suppose I'll read Groopman's new book, with his counsel on how to know what's right for me, and then I'll go right on following my doctor's recommendations. I've been with him long enough to like and respect him. I mean, what's a guy to do? Spend hours on the internet second-guessing his doctor's advice? No thanks.

All his is brought to mind by the current controversy over PSA screening for prostate cancer, a disease that killed my father at age 64 because he missed early detection. So far, my doctor has advised screening. Will he follow the new no-test guidelines when I have my annual physical in a few weeks? And what will I decide -- a 75-year-old minimalist/technology enthusiast -- is best for me?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The dim and the dark

My spouse found this photo yesterday, at the bottom of some drawer or other. It dates from nearly half-a-century ago, one of my first years as a young prof at Stonehill College. That's me on the left, setting out the plastic cups. The fellow with the dark shades, popping the bubbly, is my cool friend from the English Department, Professor Peter Lucchesi. Of the students, I can name only one, the dark-haired girl who looks more serious than the occasion warrants.

We are dedicating the college's first observatory, a terribly modest affair, a 2x4-and-plywood shed with a roll-back roof, sitting in a dark field that these days is filled with an impressive array of sports facilities.

The scope is -- if I remember right -- a Criterion RV-6 Dynascope 6-inch Newtonian reflector. I think I once called it a Celestron here; that was a mistake. I forget what we paid for it; probably something like $500. This was back when good amateur scopes with apertures of six inches or more were first coming on the market. Whatever the cost, it was a major investment for the college, for which I was grateful, and it served us well for a couple of decades until a new science building came along with two proper observatory domes.

Many a cold night we clustered in that tiny enclosure and searched out wonders of the universe. This was before the Vikings gave us spectacular close-ups of the outer planets, and a glimpse through the telescope of Saturn's rings might be the thrill of a lifetime.

The skies were dark and our imaginations fertile. The Ring Nebula in Lyra was a barely visible smoke ring; we supplied the colossal star destruction with our imaginations. The Double Cluster in Perseus, the galaxy M81 in Ursa Major, the Crab in Taurus -- mere smudges of light out of which we contrived a cosmos of mind-popping dimension and splendor.

How things have changed! The roll-top shed is long gone, and the field -- the campus! -- is flooded with artificial light. Five hundred dollars is a drop in the bucket of today's college's budget. And I suspect those faint blurs that so excited us back in 1966 would not do much to fire the imaginations of a generation of young people who can tour the universe without leaving their dorm room.

Today's students are getting a different sort of education -- opportunities for real scientific research with an impressive faculty and a $34-million state-of-the-art science facility. We had none of that in 1966, only frosty toes and the challenge of making a life out of darkness, passion, and dreams.
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread upon my dreams.

--W. B. Yeats

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Surfing through some back issues of Nature, I came upon this diagram of a virus -- bacteriophage T4 -- injecting its DNA into an E. coli bacterium (click to enlarge). Nothing new here; this is familiar stuff. And yet, I sat there for a minute or two and said, "Wow!"

The Greek phagein means "to eat." In this case, the virus "eats" an E. coli bacterium, a common denizen of the human gut.

When a sensor on a "leg" of the virus comes into contact with an appropriate site on a bacterium, the virus binds to the surface of the bacterial cell, as on the left side of the diagram. A syringe-like mechanism then punctures the cell wall and injects viral DNA.

The viral DNA commandeers the replication machinery of the bacterium and makes a hundred or more copies of the virus -- something it can't do on its own -- causing the bacterium cell to burst open with its teeming load of cloned invaders.

Again, nothing new about this. It's a story we’ve heard before. But what struck me as I looked at the diagram was scale.

An E. coli bacterium is sausage shaped. One hundred could line up end-to-end across the period at the end of this sentence.

And along comes T4, like a spacecraft visiting an asteroid. Ten times smaller than the bacterium. An exquisite little machine. With specialized proteins adapted to penetrating the cell wall. The injector is lowered. Then -- squirt -- the deadly alien DNA.

Dog-eat-dog, on a scale so small that it boggles the imagination that such refined machinery could exist at all. There it is, in the diagram above, the name of the game.

It's all about nucleic acids making copies of themselves. In a sense, that's all we are -- you and I -- big macroscopic machines that allow a particular brand of DNA a better chance to copy itself.

And -- oh, my goodness -- we are doing a good job of it. With our emergent qualities of self-awareness, intelligence, speech, science, technology, and dogs-don't-eat-dogs morality, we are not just bursting a bacterial cell, we are bursting the planet.

It's important to know where we came from. And where we are going.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A port in air

My musing on The Tempest last Friday reminds me of a story by D. H. Lawrence about a man who buys an island in order to escape the pandemonium of city life.

The island has a manor house, cottages, tenants, animals and gardens. Maintenance and improvements begin to deplete the man's fortune. Even so small a society makes emotional demands. At last, the man sells his island and moves to a smaller one with only a modest house and a few servants.

He soon becomes snared in the small pandemoniums of his reduced circumstances. Again, life becomes more complicated than he can bear. Seeking still greater simplicity, he moves to a craggy rock in the sea, with only a hut, a few sheep and a cat.

He sells the sheep. The cat wanders off. Winter comes and snow blankets the tiny island in featureless white. Alone, neither happy nor unhappy, the man at last achieves the perfect simplicity of -- death.

I read this story as a young man, and it resonated with something in my spirit -- a vague longing for monastic simplicity, a hankering for the great silence. It had nothing to do with a death wish -- at that age death never entered my mind. Nor was the hankering intense enough to distract me from sex, love, marriage, parenthood. But it was always there, nibbling away at my socialization into the company of my fellows.

Twice, with my wife, I sought a "smaller island." First, to a remote and wonderfully quiet village in the west of Ireland. Then, later, to an undeveloped island in the central Bahamas that was connected to the world only by an eight-seater plane. Both places were soon enough drawn into the busy embrace of civilization.

It's too late now to go looking again for a yet another island, if such places still exist. That rocky crag to which Lawrence's protagonist at last repaired can only be found in some sort of interior isolation. My good wife, quite reasonably, does not share my retreat; she wants more socialization than is provided by my metaphorical crag.

A death wish? Or is it simply a longing for a final simplicity, a collapsing of all those years of busy experience and study into a few sturdy vessels. A jar, perhaps. Wallace Stevens' jar, placed on a hill in Tennessee, that makes the slovenly wilderness of a life rise up around it, no longer wild.

Sell the sheep. Let the cat wander off. All of a life -- the science, the history, the literature, the art, the millions of words -- what does it amount to? Distilled to its essence? Refined to its essential core? A jar, grey and bare, that does not give of bird or bush like nothing else in Tennessee.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

My Avery

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

The perfect Christmas gift for that special person, a matched set of The Soul of the Night and Honey From Stone.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The raw and the cooked -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in June 2007.)

There are not a lot of things that separate us from other species. Nightingales sing. Chimps use tools. Ants domesticate animals (aphids). Bower birds do home decorating. But only humans cook their food.

Harvard University primatologist Richard Wrangham thinks cooking may be the reason for our big brains. No kidding. Brains use a lot of energy. A human brain uses 25 percent of an adult's energy supply, whereas a chimp's brain sucks up only 8 percent of available energy. Where did humans get the extra energy to support their large brains?

By cooking their food, says Wrangham (Science, June 15, 2007). Cooking is a kind of predigestion. Less energy to the gut, more to that knot of nerves on the top of the spine. We are Homo sapiens because first we were Homo juliachild.

Not everyone agrees. There is a problem of timing. The brains of our hominid ancestors started ballooning about 1.9 million years ago. The first solid archeological evidence for the controlled use of fire comes much later, about 250,000 years ago. Wrangham is not dissuaded. The evidence for fire is elusive. He sticks with the image of hairy ancestors sitting around a campfire gnawing on a roast leg of wildebeest, perhaps with a side of steamy manioc. And all those soft, yummy calories puffing up the brain.

Well, maybe so, maybe not. But I was thinking about this the other evening when our house guests -- my nephew and his girlfriend -- were cooking dinner. And quite the cooks they are. Lots of fresh ingredients direct from the market. The flash of stainless steel as the knife went chippetty-chop. Pepper and salt mills whirling. A pinch of this, a pinch of that. Hands kneading dough whipped up from pure white flour. In such young people, it was a joy to behold.

A fire in the fireplace. Some Motown on the stereo. An open bottle of good wine. And those two talented youngsters at the stove, whipping up a meal that looked as good as it tasted. Whether cooking made the brain bigger, or whether our bigger brains make cooking such an intellectual delight, I will leave to the archeologists. I offer a photo here as proof that we live in the age of Homo delicious.

Friday, October 07, 2011

This island's mine

No man is an island, wrote John Donne, famously in a meditation.

Oh, I don't know. I rather like thinking of myself as an island. Part of an archipelago, to be sure, and not far off the continental shore, but an island nevertheless.

I like the possibility of solitude. Of not having to smile all the time. Just long walks in the woods. Alone. An hour by the pond.

Is that a bell tolling in he distance? Never mind. Listen! Just there, across the pond. A chickadee.

Sure, an island. I'd like to be an island. And I have a particular island in mind. Shakespeare's island for The Tempest. Before the shipwreck that brought intruders. Yes, that island. Full of strange sounds and sweet melodies that make you feel good and don't hurt anyone. Chickadees. Nuthatches. Crickets.

Who am I? Prospero? Miranda? Ariel? Caliban? All of them. All of them at once.

Prospero. The duke without a dukedom. Magus. Spirits to enforce, arts to enchant. Master of a full poor cell, surrounded by my books. Mediating between the superego and the id. Temperate. Deft.

Miranda. My anima. The archetypal feminine. Eve, Helen, Mary, Sophia. By her own assertion, plain and holy innocence. Unbesmirched wonder. How beauteous mankind is. Oh brave new world.

Ariel. Tricksy spirit. Fly, swim, dive into the fire, ride on the curled clouds, tread the ooze of the salty deep. Longing to be free of earthy service, afraid of freedom.

Caliban. The brain stem, all wound with adders who with cloven tongues do hiss me into madness. The animal within, the unchecked primal drive that would, were it not for the controlling ego -- language, books -- have populated the isle with Calibans.

And then the storm. The tolling bell. The wrack of the other. The despoliation of solitude. Come, Miranda. Come, Ariel, my chick. Come Caliban, too. Matter/spirit, body/soul, masculine/feminine -- enisled, inseparable.

No man is an island. The roar of the wind, the creak of the timbers. Now are my charms o'erthrown, what strength I have's mine own. Bury my staff. Drown my books. Gentle readers, your breath my sails must fill or else my project fails.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

On a thread of slime

This week's New York Times science section did a cover story on slime molds, with color photographs of nine species of these intriguing creatures. Slime molds have long been a favored organism for biological research, and now the genomists, with their new gene sequencing prowess, are getting in on the act.

The story pushed two buttons for me.

First, it reminded me of the time some years ago when I sent away for a vial full of the slime mold Dictyostelium discoideum and spent several delightful weeks following its life cycle under the dissecting microscope. No particular reason; just idle curiosity.

The cycle begins with individual amoebas grazing on bacteria, like cows in a meadow. A chemical communication keeps them evenly spread out on a surface, so that each single-celled organism has maximum access to nourishment.

As the food supply is depleted, a new signal goes out. The microscopic amoebas start making for a central collection point, coalescing into streams, then visible rivers, then one big pool. The pool shapes itself into a slug-like creature, about the size of this letter i, with a nose and a tail, and crawls away -- on a trail of slime -- to what it decides is an appropriate spot. A part of the slug anchors itself to the surface, another sacrifices itself to make a flowerlike stalk, lifting a globe of newly-contrived spores into the air, which are dispersed on the wind to start new colonies.

Sometimes the spores take along intact bacteria to seed a new farm.

Is D. discoideum a single-celled organism? Multicelled? Both? What one has here is a stunning example of cells coming together and specializing for a greater purpose, perhaps recapitulating that epic moment in Earth's history when multicellularity began. All happening on the stage of my microscope.

The other button was John Tyler Bonner.

Bonner is one of the grand old men of American biology, 91 years old, and, as far as I know, still on the faculty of Princeton. I know him through his books, especially his charming autobiography Lives of a Biologist and his endlessly instructive - and beautifully illustrated -- The Evolution of Culture in Animals. In his autobiography, he tells how he serendipitously came to study slime molds -- especially D. discoideum -- as a student, and ended up engaged with them for the rest of his life. D. discoideum makes it into his books on animal culture, development of embryos, and evolution of multicellularity. So humble a creature, so prolific a teacher.

You can meet Professor Bonner's very own slime molds here.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Human understanding

This year marks the 300th anniversary of David Hume's birth.

I suppose I should have offered my appreciation back in April, on his actual birthday, but better late than never.

Cheers for David, a founding father of naturalism. Cheers for his skeptical empiricism, his respect for science. Cheers for keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground of experiential common sense.

Oh, he had to weave and dodge a bit to keep from running too far afoul of his Scots Protestant neighbors, who as it was accused him of impiety and atheism. But he had a roaring good time of it, and emerged as a hero of the Enlightenment.

At the heart of Hume -- my Hume -- is his essay on miracles, Chapter Ten of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. "A wise man proportions his belief to he evidence," he wrote, and he made it clear that there was little, if any, evidence for miracles.

My early life was about as un-Humean as it can get. As a 1940-50s Catholic, I was raised in a bubbling stew of miracles. They were all around us: In the daily miracles of transubstantiation, the forgiveness of sins, and answered prayers. The miracles of the saints were quoted incessantly, with the stories of Bernadette at Lourdes and the children at Fatima -- all those divine affirmations of the correctness of our One True Catholic faith. Which of course was itself irrefutably evidenced by the founding miracles: the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Assumption. Not to mention Cana, the loaves and fishes, Lazarus, the calming of the waters, and all the other Gospel miracles.

I wasn't exposed to much science in parochial school; if the laws of nature don't constrain the Creator; why should they matter to us? We were destined for our own ultimate miracles: life everlasting and the resurrection of the body.

Hume was inspired to his ideas on miracles while residing in France, in Anjou, in the same town as a famous Jesuit college. Some years later he described the circumstances of his inspiration in a letter to a congenial clergyman.

A Jesuit was describing to Hume a miracle that had occurred in the local convent. Hume expressed his skepticism, citing the lack of reliable evidence, the experienced consistency of natural law, and so on. The Jesuit responded by saying that Hume's argument could not possibly be persuasive, because it would apply equally against the Gospel miracles, which, of course, everyone, Catholics and Protestants, knew to be true. At which point, it dawned upon Hume, "Well, yes."

Admit one miracle, you might as well admit them all. The evidence for Mohammad's night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, or Joseph Smith's discovery of golden tablets on a hill in New York, is no more or less substantial than the evidence for Christ's resurrection. Hume writes:
The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind.
Well, yes. Happy birthday, Mr. Hume.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


It was my father's lifelong mantra: With a little ingenuity, anything is possible.

The mantra of a professional mechanical engineer. And of the domestic handyman.

A broken toaster. Rabbits in the garden. A carburetor that needs tuning. A dab of solder. Some chicken wire. A twiddle with a screwdriver.

Sure, now and then things get out of whack, but most problems are solvable. A little tinkering is all it takes. A little jerryrigging.

No problem is too large or too small that it cannot be solved with a little cleverness. A smoky furnace. A world at war. A rocky marriage. Analyze the problem. Find the variable that has gone askew. Jigger it back into line. The world goes swimmingly.

That was his mantra.

A handyman's faith. An assertion of optimism. A belief that by-and-large the world is a well-engineered machine, with a lifetime guarantee. Whatever goes wrong can be easily fixed. It was built to last.

I was reading again yesterday the journals he kept in his final days, as he lay dying of cancer, confined to a hospital bed. The doctors and the priests come and go. Family and friends attend. And still the current of optimism flows through the pages, that handyman's faith that with a little ingenuity anything can be fixed. The doses and times. The ups and downs of the energy cycle. Nausea. Morphine. Mylanta. Milk. Bleeding. Oxygen. IV. Antibiotics. A hodgepodge of hopeful notes, as if he were rooting around in the junk drawers of the big black cabinet in his basement workshop for just the right gizmo to set the mechanism right.

At the end, in his journals, he seems a little bit baffled that things seemed to be going unfixably wrong, that the graphs and calculations with which he filled his journals failed to reveal an engineer's solution to the malfunction of his body. With a little ingenuity, anything is possible: The mantra had served him well all his life. He wanted desperately to fix his body now, to repair what was broken, to mend the frayed tatters of flesh. He hadn't counted on what the Great Engineer had meant by "lifetime guarantee."

Monday, October 03, 2011

Shining hope

No one is surprised when a person makes an unselfish sacrifice on behalf of close family or kin. Evolutionary psychologists offer compelling reasons why natural selection might have favored kin-group altruism.

Nor are we terribly surprised by acts of courage or generosity on behalf of a sports teammate or fellow soldier. Culture, too, surely reinforces altruistic behavior among people who are allied toward a common goal.

But what defines an "ally"?

In a recent "Ideas" section of the Boston Sunday Globe, psychologist David DeSteno of Northeastern University described some experiments on altruistic behavior done with co-researcher Piercarlo Valdesolo. They found that such subtle bonds of alliance as wearing the same color wristbands were enough to trigger feelings of moral affinity. The researchers' subjects need not even be aware of the variables affecting their actions. It was enough that they consciously or unconsciously registered the "likeness" of the other.

So much for the notion that justice is blind. But no big surprise either. We tend to be more generous and forgiving to people like ourselves: same race, same religion, same political party -- same wristbands.

I suppose there is something hopeful about the wristband experiments. Sometimes it seems that everyone in the world today is wearing the same things -- baseball caps, tee shirts, flip-flops -- listening to the same music, networking on the same social media, talking on the same cell phones. Vernaculars are vanishing. Global commerce is erasing unique identities. Religions are losing their withering claims to possess God's special favor. Will the wristband effect usher in a golden age of global affinity? Will the biological tribe finally expand to embrace the planet?

I was deeply moved the other day by this photograph that accompanied a NYT column by Nicholas Kristof. Two kids who could not be more unalike in cultural background, education, race, gender and who knows what else. Bonding to do good. No religious agenda. No political agenda. Only a human agenda.

And the spark of romance.

Maybe its time we all wore one wristband, one color, worldwide. One cause. One humanity.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

My Homer

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

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The thing with feathers -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in May 2009.)

This week's Nature has three essays marking the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow's influential lecture on The Two Cultures. Snow argued that the sciences and the humanities had little to say to each other, to the detriment of society. He urged more interaction.

The gist of the Nature essays: Not much has changed in 50 years.

Science writer Georgina Ferry suggests, however, that the divide is not so much between scientific and literary intellectuals, as between optimists and pessimists. She references writers such as Ian McEwan and Philip Pullman who ally themselves with science, and with the optimistic view that science expands the possibilities of human happiness. And she takes note of pessimistic scientists such as the astronomer Martin Rees, who gives human civilization a 50-50 chance of surviving the century.

By and large, literary intellectuals tend to be a gloomy lot, with little but scorn for science and technology as engines of human happiness. By contrast, science is impossible without hope; it is inherently forward-looking. As Ian McEwan says: "You can't be curious and depressed."

So the two cultures are not based so much on the academic disciplines themselves as on basic temperaments, says Ferry. One is either an optimist or a pessimist about the direction of human civilization; science and technology are leading us to a brighter future, or to hell in a handbasket. Ferry doesn't mention the possibility, hinted at by several scientific studies, that we might be genetically predisposed to optimism or pessimism, in which case it is unlikely that the two cultures will ever see eye to eye.

Ferry concludes: "We are left with two choices. We can either regret the massive social and global changes that have accompanied the shift to a largely technologically driven society, and predict humanity's decline; or we can use the skills we have -- including science but also politics, art and literature -- to try to mitigate the worst evils."

This much is sure: Science and technology may contain the seeds of their own destruction, as Martin Rees and the pessimists suggest, but handwringing will not stop human curiosity or technological innovation. So let us hope that the optimists carry the day. Hope is a virtue, says Philip Pullman: "A virtue is something that you have to work at, something you have to do. And we can try to think and act as if it's possible to survive and to make things better, because hope is a great energizer, a comforter, an inspirer."