Wednesday, November 30, 2011


I have a soft spot in my heart for monarch butterflies. As I described in The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe, I once had the opportunity to visit the forests in central Mexico where the monarchs of eastern North America retire for the winter, after flying thousands of miles from, say, my neighborhood here in New England to a particular patch of fir trees they have never visited before.

Reaching the butterflies' winter refuge required a harrowing bus ride from Mexico City over narrow mountain roads, then a hike along trails billowing with fine volcanic dust. At last we stood in silent awe among trees festooned with millions of monarchs, butterflies as dense as leaves. When the sun broke through the clouds, the monarchs took to the air, filling the sky with their glorious wings.

The visit to the Mexican monarch refuge was one of the two most thrilling natural adventures of my life, along with a total solar eclipse seen from the middle of the Black Sea.

The monarchs that fly from New England to Mexico are at least two generations removed from any butterflies that have previously made the journey. How do they do it? How do they find that patch of trees? Those fragile slips of chitin with pin-point brains? The clock, the map, the navigational skills must be genetically embedded in the monarch's DNA, that twisty helix of "four-letter" code.

Now the monarch's genome has been sequenced by neurobiologists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Two-hundred-seventy-three million base pairs. Nearly 17,000 protein-coding genes, including many that are likely to be instrumental in the seasonal migration. But identifying genes and proteins is still a long way from knowing how the insects perform their awesome feat of navigation, particularly as they start their journey from places hundreds of miles apart, and end up, so to speak, on a dime.

This is one of those things -- like consciousness -- that becomes more apparently miraculous the more we illuminate the essence of the miracle. The supernatural pales in comparison to the natural. Who needs the paranormal when the normal is so astonishing?

We have a tiny patch of milkweed -- the monarch's sole food plant -- near the compost bin in the backyard. I've never seen a monarch there, but I preserve the milkweed as a kind of shrine to the mundane. The mundane is shot through with wonder.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The multiverse -- Part 2

(This continues a discussion from last Friday.)

Philosophers, theologians, and even some scientists have made much of the fact that the universe has exactly the properties that make possible life and intelligence as we know it. For example, if the nuclear force were slightly stronger all the hydrogen nuclei in the early universe would have fused into helium and there would be no water to nurture life. If the force were slightly weaker, then heavier atoms like oxygen and carbon would not hold together. Other examples of apparent fine-tuning abound. This gives rise to the "anthropic principle": the universe must have exactly the properties it has because we are here to observe it.

Or, as theologians are wont to say, the universe is apparently designed just for us.

Or as I would say, we are here because the universe we live in allows our existence. The fuss about the anthropic principle always seemed to me to be a tempest in a teapot.

In any case, as Alan Lightman points out in his Harper's essay, the multiverse idea -- if it's true -- renders the intelligent-design implications of the anthropic principle moot. We're here because among the supposed gazillions of universe that exist, one of them just happens to have the parameters that allow our existence. We are a cosmic accident.

All of this makes great cocktail party fodder, but it leaves me cold. Drawing grand philosophical or theological conclusions from whatever is the hottest current cosmology seems to me a fool's game. I like my speculations to have an empirical handle. The big bang? OK. We have lots of evidence for that. What came before the big bang? Your guess is as good as mine. The multiverse? Give me a call when you have some observational data.

I don't think physics is having a crisis of faith, as Lightman's subtitle suggests. Physicists will go on doing what they have always done, refining the physical laws of the universe in light of empirical observations. In the course of that search, they will come up with highly speculative ideas, like string theory and multiverses, but such ideas rise and fall on the basis of observation.

One can't have a crisis of faith unless one has a faith to begin with. Faced with choice between an intelligent designer and 10-to-the-500th-power accidental universes, I'll stick with a healthy agnosticism. For the time being.

Monday, November 28, 2011


I want to take a break here to note the passing of Lynn Margulis, biologist, last week at age 73.

Margulis was married to Carl Sagan for something less than a decade back in the late-1950s and early-1960s. Sagan was and remains a superstar of science. Margulis is less well-known.

Too bad, because she was probably the more influential scientist and an equally prolific popularizer of science.

When I published Biography of a Planet in 1984 her theory of cellular evolution by symbiosis was still controversial. I wrote: "Her theory is a story of hard times and cooperation. According to Margulis, eukaryotic [multi-compartmented] cells arose by symbiotic combinations of single-cell prokaryotes, a partnership for mutual benefit." I illustrated her idea with the full-page drawing reproduced above. (Click to enlarge.)

An idea that was initially scorned by many biologists -- perhaps partly because of Margulis's gender -- eventually became orthodoxy. Natural selection, said Margulis, is not all about competition. Cooperation can also give organisms an edge. She developed this idea extensively in many publications.

I had a brief encounter with Margulis as a result of Biography of a Planet. I had previously published 365 Starry Nights and The Crust of the Earth, books I wrote and illustrated. She was about to begin her own adventure as a popularizer of science and got in touch seeking advice on working with mass-market publishers. I gave what I could.

But Lynn didn't need help from me. Her subsequent books far surpassed mine in their quality and production, and of course in the breadth and depth of her scientific knowledge. She was my teacher.

She'll be missed.

(The promised second part of the reflection on Lightman's essay will be here tomorrow.)

Sunday, November 27, 2011


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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Of pumpkins and velvet cushions -- a Saturday reprise

"Art is I; science is We," said the great French physician Claude Bernard.

Which says a lot in six words.

Science is consensus, and because of that it is pretty much confined to the simple. It is no accident that science had its origin in astronomy, describing the motions of mere dots of light across the sky. It took rather longer to bring the experimental method to bear on the human body, say; Bernard was himself a founder of modern experimental medicine. Above all else, science is a way of finding a compelling We. Everyone on the planet is bound together in that We -- though medicine and technology -- even if some of us scorn science or don't know a molecule from a mastodon.

The We is there to put constraints on the I, to rein in megalomania, to short-circuit the divine rights of kings and the infallibility of popes. The We is there because we cannot live in an anarchy of I's.

But every individual life is -- or can be -- a work of art. The I carries us beyond the simplicities of science. Is it not the We that walks the boundary between knowledge and mystery, but the I. Science takes us to the limits of consensus, but only the I can step through the door into infinity.

I pondered these matters the other day after spending a hour-and-a-half outdoors with Professor Mooney and seven students from her environmental ethics class. We did some We-ing. We talked about Frederick Law Olmsted under the curious gaze of tree swallows. We ran our hands across glacial striae and looked at glacial erratic boulders. For an hour-and-a-half we were a We.

But we were also nine I's. On Whale Rock in the deep woods, with sunlight streaming through the trees, we read fragments from Thoreau, who taught us as much as anyone about finding a balance between We and I. He left the woods for as good a reason as he went there, he tells us. He urged us to build castles in the air -- and then take care to give them proper foundations.

(This post originally appeared in the spring of 2007.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

The multiverse

Alan Lightman, another Tennessee boy (now at MIT) who works on the interface of science and the humanities, has an essay in the current Harper's called "The Accidental Universe: Science's Crisis of Faith" that explores the implications of recent developments in theoretical cosmology.

I am such a big fan of Alan that I am reluctant to take issue, but let me gently demur from some of what he has to say.

Early in the essay he says: "The history of science can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles. One can add to the list of the fully explained: the hue of the sky…", etc.

Before the advent of science, the default explanation was not "accident." Whatever happened was the will of the gods. "A fine soft day, thanks be to God," say my neighbors in Ireland, and that, I think, pretty much sums up the universal attitude across cultures. When I was a kid I was told that the sky is blue because that is Mary's color. The hue was no accident.

Science began when divine whim gave way to necessary consequences of "fundamental causes and principles." A small distinction, perhaps -- unpredictable divinity and accident are in practice indistinguishable -- but important to the development of Lightman's thesis, and important to how we live our lives.

As Lightman suggests, it has long been the hope of physicists that if fundamental laws can be discovered, then the universe we live in will turn out to be a necessary consequence of those laws. Even our own presence in such a universe would be no accident. Reduction, determinism, and materialism have been pillars of the philosophy of science.

Now, says Lightman, dramatic developments in cosmological thought -- namely, eternal inflation and string theory -- "have led some of the world's premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties" that follow essentially at random from the fundamental principles. There is no way physicists can uniquely derive the characteristics of our universe from first principles; thus, the "accidental universe" of Lightman's title. Also, since there is no way to experimentally observe any other universe than our own, the "multiverse" must be taken as a matter faith; thus, the "crisis" of the subtitle.

This has particular relevance, says Lightman, to the so-called "anthropic principle" -- the apparent fact that our universe seems fine-tuned for the possibility of human existence, something made much of by advocates of intelligent design. More on this Monday.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


For those of you in other parts of the world, today is the American holiday known as Thanksgiving, which is mostly about spending time with family over (if you are so blessed) a sumptuous dinner. This afternoon we will gather at son Dan's house, with kids and grandkids, and the family of Dan's spouse. All except paleoclimatologist daughter Mo, who is spending three months in residence at the oceanographic institute in Goa, India.

Before she moved west many years ago, sister Anne used to join us for Thanksgiving. Today she sends her Thanksgiving blessing above (click, and then again, to enlarge).

She and I (and webkeeper Tom) thank you all for visiting this site and for your thoughtful comments. Our family has much to be thankful for, and you are a part of it.

We live only about 30 kilometers from the place where the Pilgrims stepped ashore at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, and where they celebrated the first Thanksgiving the following year, having survived a cruel winter. Americans cultivate a highly romanticized version of those first colonists, as exemplified by this picture, the sort of thing we were all brought up on as kids. Of course, what you are looking at is a prelude to genocide. After much blood was spilt on both sides, the native Americans of New England were essentially exterminated. You see two of the agents of extermination in the painting -- guns and steel; the third -- germs -- are present but invisible.

As pious Christians, the colonists looked to the Bible for justification for taking the land and its bounty. Psalms 2:8: "Ask of me and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession." And Romans 13.2: "Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. The scriptures are a wonderfully versatile document; something can be found therein to justify any sort of mischief.

But enough of that. This is a day for blessings, for gratitude, and for gobs of potatoes, turkey and gravy. Dig in. Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


I mentioned here before that the novel Chattanooga was on the way, thanks to son Dan who has rescued it from exile, and added his own touches. This is the novel that was enthusiastically received in France some years ago -- my wife and I were flown to Paris and treated royally -- but which I never published in the States for personal reasons. Those reasons have now receded.

Chattanooga is the tragic-comic story of a wildly dysfunctional multi-generational family, fraught with marital, sexual and racial tensions, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the summer of 1944.

The book is now available in paperback and as an e-book for the Kindle.

This is a rather different endeavor from my other books, certainly a far cry from the contemplative tone of Soul and Honey.

The novel is narrated in a half-dozen voices, one of whom is Roger, the bird-watching husband of Wanda. Roger is an engineer at the Volunteer Ordnance Works, just outside of Chattanooga, contriving explosives for the war. Here is a snippet: Roger is late for work, having stopped along the way to watch a pair of painted buntings.
What I missed at work were the first ten minutes of a bombing-run damage-assessment film of a night raid on Hamburg, the Brits dropping our 500-pounders from Lancasters. You could see a thousand cotton puffs springing up across the city as if by magic, until the entire field of view of the camera is tufted with cotton like a North Georgia bedspread. The guys in the screening room are shouting "Yahoo!" with each successive wave of detonations. And I'll admit there was a kind of beauty about the images on the film, as if the city were being blown kisses, smothered in kisses. The bombs fell from the belly of the plane into – well, like into another world, like there's no people down there, and all the time our slide rules were clicking in the dark screening room as we refined, one more time, the precise mix of high explosives and incendiaries that will cause maximum destruction to the German cities. Cotton puffs raced across the industrial districts, the dockyards, the old quarter, the suburbs. "Yahoo, yahoo!" the guys shouted. I was sick. I guess I kept thinking about what was happening under the cotton wool – the firestorm with temperatures of eighteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit, the asphalt of the streets ablaze, trees uprooted and flung through the air, automobiles whirled skyward. In tunnels beneath the city, tens of thousands of men, women, and children are suffocated as the air is sucked out of their refuges, then incinerated as superheated air rushes in to replace what has been drawn out. I know all of this, everyone in the room knows it, but we put it out of our minds. Or we try to put it out of our minds. There's a war to be won. The Nazis must be stopped. The world must be "made safe for democracy” and all that rubbish. Strangely, I found myself thinking of the birds – the birds down there in Hamburg's parks and suburbs. When the bombs fell I imagined thousands of birds going puff in the air like Chinese firecrackers – tiny explosions of flesh, little starbursts of singed feathers.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


The first ten summers we spent in our Irish cottage we had no electricity. It would have taken five poles to bring the wires to our house, and the electric company charged $1000 a pole, beyond our means at the time.

But this was the 1970s. We were younger. Clothes got washed in the kitchen sink, and dried with a hand wringer and line. Kerosene lamps provided light. I typed my books on a manual typewriter. We cooked and heated hot water with bottled gas. It was, in retrospect, romantic. But it was summer, with long hours of daylight. And, as I said, we were young.

I can't imagine doing it today. Surely there is no technology that has changed our lives more than the electricity that comes into our homes on a wire. Lighting, cooling, heating, ironing, cooking, and entertainment at the flick of a switch. Cheap, silent, invisible energy at our beck and call, flowing though a wire.

Magic. Wonderful.

One of my scientific heroes is Michael Faraday -- gentle, brilliant, infused with wonder. No one did more to wrest electricity from the gods and make it do our bidding than he. For most people of his time, electricity was a curious novelty, a parlor game. Faraday understood it another way:
Electricity is often called wonderful, beautiful; but…The beauty of electricity or of any other force is not that the power is mysterious, and unexpected, touching every sense unawares in turn, but that it is under law, and that the taught intellect can govern it largely.
There you have it, as perfect a statement of the scientific spirit as you are likely to find.

Everyone who flicks a switch to turn on the light and at the same time espouses a belief in miracles is embracing a kind of cognitive dissonance. The lightning bolt that jags across the sky is not the whim of a willful Zeus -- or as we might say, an act of God -- it is lawful. Behind all of the apparent randomness of nature, law prevails. And the taught intellect can govern it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mind the gap

A recent cover of the journal Science. What is it?

A "conceptual illustration of information, in the form of electrical impulses, flowing through neuronal processes in the brain."

An estimated 100 billion neurons in the human brain. Each neuron reaching out with spidery arms to touch thousands of others. Or almost touch, at connections called synapses. Each synapse in any one of about ten levels of excitation.

Something like 100 trillion synapses, spidery fingertips almost touching.

I like to think of those synaptic gaps as physical embodiments of the famous gap between the finger of Adam and the finger of God in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting. The fingertips don't quite touch. But one can feel -- sense -- the energy flowing across the gap.

One hundred trillion synapses, in different levels of excitation. That is me, that spider web, that softball-sized glob of spider-web meat. One hundred billion neurons, and an equal number of glial cells , physically supporting the neurons, protecting them from pathogens, feeding them with nutrients and oxygen. My conscious life. My self-awareness. My dreams. My lifetime of memories.

For no other organ of the human body is the relationship between structure and function so poorly understood as for the brain. Finding out how those flickering neurons give rise to a conscious self will be the premier problem of biology in the 21st century.

For the time being, I'll continue to think of those 100 trillion synapses as 100 trillion almost-touching fingertips of God and Adam, where my soma plays roles both human and divine -- the spark of selfhood spontaneously arising from the enormous complexity of the organ.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

No escape

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A wreck of a world -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared on July 21, 2009. At the time, Jack drew our attention to a geology book that mentioned Franklin's prescient notion.)

The tip of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula is the westernmost point of Europe. There was a time, some 200 million years ago, when I could have walked home from here without getting my feet wet. As everyone now knows, the ocean that separates Europe and North America is a relatively recent artifact of the slip and slide of the Earth's crustal plates.

But here's something I bet you didn't know.

In July 1747, Ben Franklin wrote to Jared Eliot, a Connecticut clergyman: "The great Appalachian Mountains, which run from York River back of these Colonies to the Bay of Mexico, show in many Places near the highest Parts of them, Strata of Sea Shells, in some Places the Marks of them are in the solid Rocks. 'Tis certainly the Wreck of a World we live on!"

And what caused this "wreck" that heaved the floors of oceans high into the air, lifting sea shells to mountain peaks? Franklin found other clues during his travels in Britain. In a coal mine at Whitehaven in northern England he observed the leaves and branches of ferns impressed upon slates which formed the natural roof of the mine, deep beneath the present surface of the Earth. Elsewhere in England he found oyster shells mixed with the rocks of a mountain top. Evidently, surface marshes had been depressed and the ocean floor thrust upwards.

Franklin wrote: "Such changes in the superficial parts of the globe seemed to me unlikely to happen, if the earth were solid to the centre. I therefore imagined, that the internal parts might be a fluid more dense, and of greater specific gravity than any of the solids we are acquainted with, which therefore might swim in or upon that fluid. Thus the surface of the globe would be a shell, capable of being broken and disordered by the violent movements of the fluid on which it rested."

This strikes me as a pretty accurate description of the fundamental notion of plate tectonics, written a generation before James Hutton founded the modern science of geology with his "Theory of the Earth" in 1785, and more than two hundred years before the theory of plate tectonics changed our way of thinking about the Earth.

I came across this info in Ronald Clark's biography of Franklin, but I don't recall ever seeing it mentioned in the scientific literature. Does anyone know of a geology text that gives the great man credit?

Friday, November 18, 2011

The tao of Steve

So now that he is gone, what do we make of Steve Jobs?

Give him this. When he knew death might be in the offing, he asked Walter Isaacson to write his biography. He gave full access and many interviews, and placed no restrictions on what Isaacson might say. It is a brilliant biography, which paints an honest portrait of the subject, warts and all. No, "warts" is not strong enough. Jobs -- in his own word and in Isaacson's -- could be an "asshole."

The reviewer of a book on Ernest Hemingway in last week's NYTBR, said "Hemingway was not an absolute swine to absolutely everyone absolutely all of the time, but it was a close thing…Also, he liked to fish." You might say the same thing about Jobs, but add "Also, he liked to give us gorgeous, easy-to-use products that we had no idea we wanted."

Everything -- and everyone -- was either "shit" or "insanely good." Intemperate and charismatic. Whatever his personality defects, he was able to inspire loyalty and affection.

He may not have been the smartest cookie in the jar, but he was indisputably a genius, a man who lived at the intersection of art and science and imagined a kind of technology that pushed the buttons of our esthetic centers even as it transformed our lives. And maybe "pushed the buttons" is the wrong metaphor. Jobs hated buttons, even on-off switches. He wanted his products to be so simple that buttons were redundant.

I confess to being an Apple junkie, ever since I bought one of the first Macintosh 128s in 1984. I'm writing this post on an iBook, probably my sixth or seventh Mac. I don't use a cell phone, but if I did it would be an iPhone. My next laptop will be a MacAir.

Isaacson smartly captures the whole roller-coaster ride of Apple Inc., from its inception in the Jobs family garage with Steve Wozniak to its place today as the most valuable company in the world. Apple was more than Jobs, of course. Jony Ive, the designer, and Tim Cook, the organizer, among others, were crucial to the company's success, but Jobs was responsible for hiring them and driving them to the edge of perfection. It will be interesting to see if one of Job's kids has the DNA -- the drive, the perfectionism, the imagination -- to step into his or her father's shoes, perhaps Eve, the youngest.

Having read Isaacson, I can say definitely that I wouldn't want to be stranded on a desert island with Steve Jobs. But I wouldn't want to be there without my Apple Mac.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is knowledge unitary?

On the New York Times website last week, philosophers Alex Rosenberg and William Egginton continued their debates about the relationship between the humanities and the sciences. At particular issue in the exchange: Do advances in neuroscience render redundant the kind of knowledge provided by the humanities.

The humanities provide feelings, not knowledge, says Rosenberg, and feelings are the subject of neuroscience -- synapses firing, and all that. "Eventually we will have to choose between the narrative self-understanding and science’s explanations of human affairs," he writes. Story-telling and interpretation, the stock in trade of the humanities, does not after all really explain much of anything at all, he says. "What science can’t accept is some “off-limits” sign at the boundary of the interpretative disciplines."

The human mind is the new frontier of scientific investigation, says Rosenberg. Our thoughts and feelings -- as important as they are -- are destined to fall before the unstoppable advance of reductive science.

Egginton will have none of it.

Science is itself grounded in a historical, interpretive milieu, he insists. What can neuroscience add to the very debate he is having with Rosenberg? "That our respective pleasure centers light up as we each strike blows for our preferred position? That might well be of interest, but it hardly bears on the issue at hand, namely, the evaluation of evidence -- historical or experimental -- underlying a claim about knowledge. That evaluation must be interpretative. The only way to dispense with interpretation is to dispense with evidence, and with it knowledge altogether."

It's an old debate. The two cultures banging away at each other. Fun to watch, but ultimately futile. The advance of science has not rendered the humanities redundant. We don't stop reading poetry because we identify a poetry center in the brain. And science need not feel that any part of human experience, including the neurological response to poetry, is off-limits.

Science is the most effective methodology yet devised for providing reliable consensus knowledge of the world. A reductive kind of knowledge to which all of us can give assent. The humanities provide a different kind of knowledge -- synthetic, non-reductive, a multifaceted mirror in which each of us can gather the elements we need for constructing a unique self. It's hard to imagine living without one or the other.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The world is beautiful


That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.

That savage of fire,
That seed,
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

-----Wallace Stevens
I'll have it both ways.

I'll have that strange flower. I'll have that ball of seething hydrogen, the magnetic storms, the arching flares.

I'll have that tuft of jungle feathers.

I'll have that thermonuclear furnace, a temperature of 10 million degrees, protons fusing, mass converted into energy, energy roiling to the surface.

Just as I say.

I'll have that animal eye, Henri Rousseau's red savage of fire. I'll have that savage colossus. Look! I've added a white dot to the photo at top, in the upper left-hand corner. The size of the Earth.

I'll have it that way.

I'll have that seed, that primeval force, that green fuse. I'll have that radiant tether, eight light-minutes long. I'll have that flood of solar neutrinos coursing through my body. The heat on my skin. The sunrise. The sunset. The aurora.

Yes, that way. Both ways.

Beautiful. Glad.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Quiet desperation

As I type this, I am sipping a cup of Green Mountain Vermont Country Blend Decaf and nibbling an Entenmann's Ultimate Cinnamon Pastry Twister. Just thought you'd want to know.

Do you also want know where I am? What I'm wearing? I would tell you, but by the time you read this I will surely be somewhere else, and wearing something different. And you want to know the circumstances of my life in real time, don't you?

Of course you do.

What I need is a wi-fi enabled coffee cup that will post what I'm drinking on Twitter or Facebook, even as I drink. I need clothing that will keep you apprised minute-by-minute exactly what I'm wearing, with built-in GPS so you will know where I am -- without me having to key in the info.

I know you want to know these things. I mean, doesn't everyone?

And, by the way, a report in a recent issue of Science suggests that folks with the largest social networks have more gray matter in the temporal cortex of the brain. Cause or effect? In the same issue, an experiment with monkeys kept in different size groups suggests that greater social interaction leads to more gray matter (although the experiment sounds less than convincing to me). Can Twittering and Facebook grow the brain?

Just after I posted yesterday's musing on the connected generation, I read an article in the New York Times about Google's secret research lab where they are envisioning our future, and apparently they are working on products like those I imagined above. If Google has their way, we will not only be instantly connected to each other all the time, but we will also be networked with our appliances, our furniture, even our light bulbs. My spouse will remember the days when we'd set off to visit family members in other states, and invariably wondered when we were fifty miles from home whether we shut off the oven. Well, not to worry. Soon the oven will be in touch, asking if it should turn itself off.

Yes, yes, I appreciate the irony of using Google Blogger to rant about Google. The ironies abound. I'm almost finished reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, and enjoying every minute of it, even as I play here a crotchety electronic Luddite. I take my pocket Walden for a walk in the woods, sans phone or iPod, smugly reveling in disconnected solitude, all the while harboring a secret lust for a MacBook Air.

The hermit of Walden was no hermit, but neither did he pine for constant intercourse with his neighbors. He had three chairs in his cabin, he said; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. That sounds about right to me, gray matter be damned.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Goodbye, Mr. Zip

A year or two ago I mentioned that every other student I passed on campus had a phone to their ear. Well, that's no longer true. Now it's EVERY student. If not to the ear, then in the hand, with the thumb skittering the keys. And in the library? Every computer terminal is occupied. Scholarly research? Not on your life. Facebook. Twitter. E-mail.

On line, all the time. The ether aquiver with blather. A tsunami of logorrhea.

That's what I called it in a Boston Globe column in 1995. I thought I had made up the word, a play on diarrhea. But no. The word had a long provenance by the time I acquired it.

What inspired my rant, way back then? My editor had asked me if I wanted my e-mail address appended to my column. Good lord, no, I said. I'll stick with P-mail. Snail mail. Mr. Zip.

There's such a thing as being too hip, too on-line, too immediately responsive, I wrote. Give me opinion that has been marinated, basted, cooked on simmer.

A contagion of twaddle is sweeping the nation, I fumed, in my finest curmudgeonly fashion. Television talk shows. Call-in radio. Electronic bulletin boards. A Chernobyl meltdown of civil discourse. A vast finger-down-the-throat regurgitation of content-less palaver. Yakkety-yak in binary bits.

That was 1995, remember, pre-Google, pre-Wiki. I predicted that within a decade we'd all be on line, in instant communication with everyone else in the world -- an information superhighway jammed to a standstill with bumper-to-bumper extemporaneous gab. The Internet can't have it both ways, I wrote; it can't be an effective tool for serious information interchange, and an infinite soapbox for personal chaff.

Well, I didn't know the half of it, or that I'd be adding my daily contribution to the rhea of words. And the internet, which we thought back then was about to crash under the weight of burgeoning bits and bytes, has been astonishingly resilient, stretching to accommodate both commerce, useful information, and the in-touch-all-the-time obsessions of the Facebook generation.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

No time

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

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Renaissance man -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared on July 30, 2008.)

In the year 1482, young Leonardo da Vinci sent Lodovico Sforza, duke of Milan, a letter in which he offered his services as inventor and engineer.

"Most illustrious Lord," he wrote. "I am emboldened to put myself in communication with Your Excellency, in order to acquaint you with my secrets, thereafter offering myself at your pleasure effectually to demonstrate at any convenient time all those matters which are in part briefly recorded below."

The document is well known, but a hitherto missing page of the letter has come to my attention, and I make it public here for the first time. I have rendered some terms both in the original Italian and English.

Leonardo writes: "It will behoove Your Excellency to note that all of the aforementioned instruments and devices can be categorized as mercanzia dura (hardware). However, I am also able to provide mercanzia soffice (software) of diverse and sundry sorts. I foresee the day when the control of informazione will be more important to Your Excellency's wealth and power than all machines, fortresses and palaces."

"Presente! (Don't miss the boat!)," writes Leonardo.

He professes to know how to construct macchini personale per cacolare, which, as best as I can understand his meaning, would be similar to modern computers. However, he informs Lodovico that these machines can best be made by others, while he will confine himself to the sviluppo (development) of the corresponding mercanzia soffice.

"There are molta moneta (big bucks) to be made in prodotti d'informazione (information products)," he predicts confidently.

One long passage in the new document refers to something Leonardo has invented called Finestre (Windows). It is difficult to make out exactly what he has in mind, but Finestre seems somehow related to making his machines easier to use. "As easy as watching a pomo (apple) fall from a tree," he writes.

Another invention, which Leonardo refers to as la rete (the net), is presumably a way of connecting many macchini personale per cacolare into a single larger entity. While the details of this idea are not clear, he tells Lodovico that success in this endeavor will mean molta, molta, molta moneta.

Certainly the most extraordinary idea to be found anywhere in Leonardo's writings is his proposal to put hundreds of piccole lune (little moons) into orbit around the Earth, which would be used to reflect la rete from place to place. He assures Lodovico that if this is accomplished, Milan will become the world's luogo caldo per informazione (data hot spot) and the duke will achieve a lucrative presa strangolare (monopoly) in the business of communications.

Leonardo concludes: "All of these things can be readily accomplished at the request of Your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility."

Friday, November 11, 2011

A few more words about art and nature

I first drove Connecticut's Merritt Parkway in the mid-1960s. It was a revelation. A concrete ribbon through gracious woodlands, naturally screened from less felicitous environs. And the bridges! Dozens of bridges, each one different, each one designed and decorated with an eye for beauty. It was like driving through a museum.

The Merritt was one of the first limited-access divided highways in the United States. It was built during the years 1938-1940, a time of economic hardship. It provided employment, infrastructure, and esthetics. The bridges were designed by architect George L. Dunkelberger in various styles, including Art Deco, Gothic and Rustic. Some of the bridges were built by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) I mentioned yesterday.

The Merritt Parkway has been rendered obsolete by speed. Even in the 1960s it was dangerous; we were too anxious to get from A to B to take the time for art or nature. The bridges went by in a blur. I was in a hurry too. We are all in a hurry, although I can't imagine why. We need our superhighways so we can hurry to our strip malls. Speed and ugliness.

In the autumn of 1728, Samuel Johnson, 19 years old, rode with his father from his birthplace at Lichfield in the English Midlands to the university town of Oxford. His biographer, John Wain, describes the countryside that young Sam passed through: "It was a place in which ugliness was very rare; indeed, with the important exception of the ugliness that disease and disfigurement produce in human beings and animals, ugliness was unknown."

Wain continues: "In [Johnson's] day there was probably no such thing as an ugly house, table, stool or chair in the whole kingdom." This was about to change. By the end of the century the Industrial Revolution was in full bloom. "Industrialism, by moving people away from the natural rhythms of hand and eye, and also from the materials which occur naturally in their region and to which they are attuned by habit and tradition, cannot help fostering ugliness at the same time as it fosters cheapness and convenience," writes Wain.

It's all of a piece, of course. Speed, industrialization, ugliness, yes, but also longevity, good health, clean water, and universal education. Can we have the latter and nature and beauty too? Last year, the Merritt Parkway was named one of America's Most Endangered Historic Places.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

When stones fly

Oh ho, what's this? A tree outside the building where I hang my hat invaded by some sort of fungus. In delicious colors. What was yesterday a nondescript maple has morphed into something that stops me in my tracks.

Closer inspection reveals dozens of stuffed fabric sacks, installed -- it turns out -- by artist Jodi Colella, as part of an exhibition at the gallery inside called "Stitched: Nature Constructed." Three artists, working in fabric, at the interface of art and nature.

Here is a detail of another work by Colella, a piece of found driftwood colonized by felted wool "puff balls." Hard to tell, really, where nature leaves off and artifice begins.

I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, a child of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and an aficionado of Andy Goldsworthy. My fantasy world would be richly natural, but transformed by the artist's touch into something fanciful and intellectually provocative -- a sort of Middle Earth in which magic blossoms on every tree.

Here's another piece from the show, by Seberah Malik, what appears at first glance to be beach cobbles, but which are in fact stiffened translucent fabric -- light, airy and empty. We have entered a world where stones fly.

J. R. R. Tolkien, the Master of Middle Earth, suggested that the world of magic is only another view of adjectives. The mind that thought of "light," "heavy," "gray," "yellow," "still," and "swift" also conceived of the magic that let heavy things fly and turned lead into gold and earth into running water. By contrast, the world of the 21st century is by and large a world of nouns and verbs -- things and motions defined solely by their monetary value. What you see is what you get.

In my fantasy universe, artists would touch everything we construct with their transforming magic, enriching our imaginative and conceptual lives in the process. I suppose the closest we have come to this in my lifetime was WPA support of artists and writers in the late-1930s. At the very least, those depression era projects recognized that artists contribute as much to our national well-being as do hedge fund managers and plumbers.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Salt and nerves

I like to think that every day offers at least one unique revelation, some one thing seen or experienced that has not been seen or experienced before, at least not in the same emotional state, in the same context, in the same slant of light. So I walk wary, as the poet Sylvia Plath says, "ignorant/ Of whatever angel may choose to flare/ Suddenly at my elbow." Nature seldom disappoints.

Let me introduce you to another poet, my colleague here at the college, Anna Ross. In the particular poem I want to share she is walking with a companion and comes upon the bleached skeleton of an elk, its upturned ribcage "picked white as crocus tips in the long grass."

An animal skeleton, in a place where such an encounter is not unexpected.

But this skeleton, "skull nosing/ the green suggestion of water/ in the run-off ditch" brings the walkers up short. They see their house in the distance, and the weather coming east, "skinning the gray jaw-lines of the ridges." The poet's language holds the elk in a context of earth and sky: "skinning," "jaw-lines."

The angel flares.

"Do we find these things," asks the poet, "or are they in us like salt and nerves?"

This of course is the fundamental question of philosophy: Do we perceive reality objectively, or do we create reality?

The scientist and the poet stake out their claims somewhere along a spectrum of objectivity/subjectivity, and hone their tools accordingy. Anna Ross asks the question -- do we find these things or are they in us? -- and lets it hang there, unanswered, in the pregnant air, as she and her companion turn back toward home, encountering, as they do, a grouse in the path, "a frenzy of dust and wing-beat," and chicks that rise, "hang uncertain," and veer away.

The question goes unanswered, but the title of the poem tells us all we need to know: "Evidence."

Those elk bones, the weather, the gray jaw-lines of the ridges, the grouse and her chicks -- mute evidences of the only thing that matters, the angel, the revelation, the sudden gift of grace that comes unexpectedly -- I quote Plath again -- "thus hallowing an interval/ Otherwise inconsequent/ By bestowing largesse, honor/ One might say love."

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Unaided eye

In Comments the other day, Kara requested recommendations for a telescope and astronomy book for her 5-year-old daughter. It's a question I'm often asked. Perhaps my response is of general interest.

As for the telescope -- don't.

I've heard of an occasional kid who got a telescope for Christmas and was turned on to a lifetime of stargazing. But for the vast majority of children (or adults), the effect is just the opposite.

Even in the best of circumstances -- you have dark skies and know where to look -- the typical kid's $100 telescope will offer up not much more than the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn. That can be exciting, to be sure, but quickly pales. A more expensive scope -- say, $500-1000 -- can give a lifetime of service, but unless you know what to look for and how to find it the scope is useless. Most holiday telescopes end up at the back of a closet a few weeks after the New Year.

Kara strikes me as someone who is willing to invest her own time in helping her daughter develop her interest in astronomy. So I would say this: Put off the scope and spend a few years learning the naked-eye sky together. Follow the Sun and Moon, and understand the Moon's phases. Learn the major constellations and stars, and know how they change position with the hour of the night and the season of the year. Follow the motions of the five naked-eye planets, and make the connection with their orbital motions.

With this as an orientation, a world of excitement opens up, even without a telescope. Morning and evening stars. Young and old Moons. Eclipses. Conjunctions and occultations. Meteor showers. The occasional comet.

And best of all, when a good quality telescope comes your way you will know what to look for and where to find it. Moon. Planets. Binary stars. Star clusters. Nebulas. Galaxies.

How to get the info? There are lots of excellent sources. For those things that change from year to year, I would get Guy Ottewell's annual Astronomical Calendar. For the rest, I will of course recommend 365 Starry Nights and An Intimate Look At the Night Sky. These are all books for a parent and child to use together.

Your goal: To know your way around the night sky as intimately as your own backyard.

Monday, November 07, 2011


"I don't think literature would be possible in a determined world," wrote Flannery O'Connor to young Alfred Corn. "We might go through the motions but the heart would be out of it."

She seems to be suggesting that literature derives its power by finding and exploiting holes in the fabric of creation that give onto eternity. Scientific determinism leaves no room for holes; the fabric of creation is seamless, the reign of law abiding. If God does not act in the world, if grace does not exist, if the transcendent does not illuminate the immanent, then literature is a waste of time.

Or so says Flannery O'Connor.

I would, of course, take issue. One need not go looking for holes in creation to encounter the animating force of literature. The world may or may not be determined in every particular by natural law, but the complexity of things is such that life is shot through with freedom, real or effective. Grace fills creation as water fills a rag. Literature wrings it out, here and there, in spates or dribbles.

Alfred Corn's spiritual trajectory, insofar as I have discovered it, has been an adventure of self-discovery, in and out and in the faith, with an important awakening along the way. I am not a fan of Corn's poetry; it doesn't touch me in ear or heart, which is surely my limitation, not that of the poems. But there is a book edited (and contributed to) by Corn that I can heartily recommend: Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament..

Corn marshaled twenty-three American writers to each address one of the books of the New Testament, including such luminaries as John Updike, Annie Dillard, Mary Gordon, Anthony Hecht, Amy Clampitt, Robert Hass, Grace Schulman and John Hersey, a group that although mainly Christian in background or practice, includes writers of other faiths and none. Their mandate was to draw upon their personal life experience and literary sensitivity to explicate the texts.

What results is variable and engaging, drawing upon the latest biblical scholarship, but following the texts into unexpected places, places that reveal as much about the writers as about the texts.

This is what the scriptures should be: Not a source of doctrinal certitude, or infallible divine word, but a shared cultural mirror, of supreme importance in the Western tradition, in which we can each hope to find glimmers of our true selves.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Luminal research

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

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Fairy tale -- a Saturday reprise

(Last week we visited the new American wing of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. This huge painting by Sargent is back and now occupies the most prominent space in the wing. This post originally appeared in Apri 2010.)

The American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a superb draftsman. He also veered successfully towards impressionism. He could be pompously formal, or endearingly sentimental. But here is the painting that seems to have evoked more comment and analysis than any other, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, painted in Paris in 1882 (click to enlarge). It normally resides in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, but it is currently on display at the Prado in Madrid, paired with Velazquez's Las Meninas (1651).

Las Meninas, although widely considered a masterpiece, has never been my cup of tea; a bit of a clutter, in my untutored opinion. But like many other folks, I have stood in front of Sargent's Daughters strangely moved, and not quite knowing why.

Four girls, ages four, eight, twelve and fourteen, receding from the illuminated foreground into an ominous dusk. There have been any number of interpretations, compositional and psychological, and I've read them all. But...

Rudolf Arnheim, the art theorist, begins his little book on Entropy and Art with this observation:
Order is a necessary condition for anything the human mind is to understand. Arrangements such as the layout of a city or building, a set of tools, a display of merchandise, the verbal exposition of facts or ideas, or a painting or piece of music are called orderly when an observer or listener can grasp their overall structure and the ramification of the structure in some detail. Order makes it possible to focus on what is alike and what is different, what belongs together and what is segregated. When nothing superfluous is included and nothing indispensable left out, one can understand the interrelation of the whole and its parts, as well as the hierarchic scale of importance and power by which some structural features are dominant, others subordinate.
Well, that's all well and good, but what does it mean? Entropy is a physical concept, a tendency of the universe towards disorder. But clearly this is opposed by ordering principles in nature, or else we wouldn't be here. Entropy may grind everything to dust in the end, but in the meantime nature -- and art -- builds islands of order at the expense of a greater diminishment of order elsewhere.

As Arnheim suggests, understanding requires order, and science thrives best where order is most manifest. But perfect order is not the natural habitat of the human mind. Utopias and heaven smack of boredom, says Arnheim, and he is surely right. Our aesthetic sense seems to require some encroachment of entropy, some hint of degradation. And our aesthetic sense is best fulfilled when -- in art, or music, or the layout of a city -- we have an ordered focus that invites repose and a mildly threatening ambience of adventure.

Little four-year-old Julia fixes us with her innocent gaze. Her eight year-old sister Mary Louisa is slightly more abstracted. Twelve year-old Jane illuminates the shadow. Fourteen year-old Florence has turned away from us; she stands like a caryatid at the porch of darkness.

I would propose that Sargent's Daughters transfixes us with the same attraction as a Grimm fairy tale -- Snow-White and Rose-Red, for example -- that same exquisite balance of invitation and menace, order and entropy, that is the natural playground of the human mind.

Friday, November 04, 2011

In the society of ducks

"Mystery isn't something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge."

A quote from Flannery O'Connor I came across years ago. It could stand as the epigraph of this blog. I never used it in anything I wrote, however, because I never got around to sourcing it.

As it happens, I recently stumbled on the origin.

In the spring of 1961, O'Connor gave a talk to an English class at Emory University in Atlanta. In the audience was a freshman named Alfred Corn who was wrestling with matters of faith and doubt. He was too shy to approach O'Connor after the talk, but later wrote her at home, agonizing over falling away from the biblical faith of his family. O'Connor was then 37 years old and the orthodox Catholic she would be for the rest of her life.

She responded at some length. Authentic faith must be grounded on doubt, she affirms: "Where you have absolute solutions…you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge."

Several more letters followed, including the one with the remark about mystery,

Nineteen-sixty-two is about the time I was having the same crisis of faith as Alfred Corn, although I was somewhat older. I had already experienced in university and graduate school a passionate immersion in the murky spiritual depths of European literary Catholicism with all of its psycho-sexual drama. Gulping my way to the surface, I then latched onto some of the same writers O'Connor recommended to Corn -- Gerard Manley Hopkins, Teilhard de Chardin -- doubt and faith tugging in opposite directions, held together by the fraying threads of a poetic mysticism.

But there was science too, and as I studied more of its history and philosophy mystery did indeed seem to evaporate. I loved the clarity of science, the systematized skepticism, the search for tentative answers. It would be more years before I grasped the gist of the O'Connor quote -- that mystery grows along with knowledge.

But O'Connor was not to be my guide. She tells Corn of her willingness to accept the Church as her infallible teacher in matters of faith and morals. Left to herself, she says, she wouldn't know what is true or false, right or wrong. In this, I could not follow. It seemed an abdication of everything that makes us uniquely human, and to contradict what she told Corn about the importance of doubt.

Faith is not what you have in the absence of knowledge. Mystery is what you have, and curiosity.

Alfred Corn the anguished freshman, became Alfred Corn the poet. More of that on Monday.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Snakes alive

Last week, a couple of days before the big snow storm, I came across this snake in the path. I gave it a few jabs with my finger, to hustle it to a safer place, but it refused to move. Just weaved its head and gave me the glassy eye. It was a sunny day, which may have enticed the creature out for a last slither, but it was chilly. Too cold for the snake. So I picked it up and moved it to a sunnier and safer spot, figuring it would warm up and head home.

As it curled around my wrist, I had a flashback that always occurs when I pick up a snake.

When I got to the college library I looked to see if Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain was in the collection, a book I read years ago about the snake handling religious cult of the rural Southern Appalachians. Yes, it was there, and I read it again.

When I was 17 or 18 years old, I and a couple of pals visited a snake handling service in the shadow of Sand Mountain in northern Alabama. We sat in the back row of the tiny wood-frame church on a dirt road and watched as the congregation -- men on one side, women on the other -- worked themselves into an orgiastic frenzy. As the Holy Ghost descended the snakes came out -- rattlers and copperheads -- and were passed about.

For Roman Catholic boys from Chattanooga, it was quite a show, and left a lasting impression. No one got bit that night, as I recall, although snakebite deaths among religious handlers were not uncommon. Whatever spirit was moving among the faithful that evening was affecting the snakes too.

Of believers the Bible says: "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." The handlers take this literally. They take up serpents and they drink strychnine. And they believe, fiercely and passionately that they witness the truth.

Dennis Covington is not unsympathetic. Even as a reporter he became close to the handlers. He participated in their services. And, at least once, he took up a rattler. He says of his own religious convictions: "Feeling after God is dangerous business. And Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not be Christianity at all."

Culturally, snakes have loomed large in Dionysian ecstasies, as a symbol of Satan, as emblems of power, and in the arts of healing. They seem to embody a bit of all of this among the handlers. "The more faith you expend, the more power is released," writes Covington; "It's an inexhaustible, eternally renewable resource. It's the only power some of these people have."

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Powerful fine

Oh, to be a ten-year-old boy again.

1946. The war is over. No more cardboard toys. Instead, a fantastic new Shelby bike for Christmas, with light, horn, the works. Old enough to be out and about in the neighborhood on one's own. Too young to be worrying about girls.


That was the year of The Yearling. The Hollywood adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' 1938 Pulitzer-prizewinning novel. A novel I had perused on my mother's bookshelf. Memorized the "decorations" by Edward Shenton. Got the drift of the story without actually reading the book. Actually, I think I did read some of the book, the part where the boy runs away from home, drifts down the river in a leaky dugout.

Then came the movie. Gregory Peck as Penny Baxter. Jane Wyman as Orry Baxter. Pa and Ma. And Claude Jarman Jr. as twelve-year-old Jody, the boy who adopts an orphaned fawn. The fawn that becomes a troublesome yearling and has to be put down.

I watched the movie again last weekend. Sentimental. Over-acted. Over long. But for 129 minutes I was ten again.

What stuck when I watched the movie in 1947?

When Jody comes home after running away -- and his brush with hunger and death -- Pa ushers him into maturity: "You seed how things goes in the world o' men. You've knowed men to be low-down and mean. You've seed ol' Death at his tricks. You've messed around with ol' Starvation. Ever' man wants life to be a fine thing, and a easy. 'Tis fine, boy, powerful fine, but 'tain't easy."

Is that what I took away? Naw. What ten-year-old boy with a shiny new Shelby bike wants to hear that message? Life was fine. Life was easy. And I was the luckiest boy in the world.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Angels and Devils -- Part 2

If Steven Pinker is right about a historical decline of violence among state societies -- and I believe he is -- then what is the cause? He is almost certainly correct that divinely-prescribed moral codes have little to do with it. His answer: "The most important psychological contributor to the decline of violence over the long term may instead be reason: the cognitive faculties, honed by the exchange of ideas through language, that allow us to understand the world and negotiate social arrangements."

Reason allows one to make the connection between "It's bad for you to hurt me" and "It's bad for me to hurt you," says Pinker.

And why an enhancement of reason? "The most likely causes are increases in the duration and quality of schooling, the spread of symbol-manipulation into work and leisure, and the trickling down of scientific and analytical reasoning into everyday life."

That all sounds good to me.

I would guess that we are programmed by natural selection for altruism toward "us" and violence -- especially by males -- toward "them."

Originally, the "them" were those with whom we did not share a close genetic affinity.

With the evolution of human culture, the separation of "us" and "them" was reinforced by language, religion, and shared histories, with a gradual widening of the circle of those we do not kill.

To be sure, Pinker says as much, and believes that reason helps us debunk the myths by which we define the "us" and demonize the "them."

There is still the matter of empathy. Why in the educated developed nations do we now refrain from drawing-and-quartering murderers and chopping the hands off thieves? The popularity of slasher movies and violent video games suggests we have not altogether lost our taste for gore. How, then, to explain the growing revulsion to cruel and unusual punishment? Why our increasing reluctance to inflict pain even on laboratory animals and the creatures we harvest for food? Without the possibility of reciprocity, the Golden Rule doesn't apply.

Pinker doesn't say much about this in the Nature essay; maybe more in the book. Could it be an entirely cultural meme, reinforced by liberal Enlightenment values? Another example of a culturally defined "us" versus "them"?

We are superior, better, more "civilized" than them when we are not inflicting pain.