Monday, December 31, 2012

When no one is looking?

Here is a short passage from Rachel Joyce's sweet little novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Harold, a retired, henpecked, sixty-something couch-potato, for a reason we need not describe, is walking, absurdly ill-equipped, 500 miles across England. Footsore, discouraged and forlorn, he steps into a cathedral: "When no one was looking, Harold slipped to his knees and asked for the safety of the people he had left behind, and those who were ahead. He asked for the will to keep going. He also apologized for not believing."

Whence this compulsion to address God for mercies even in our unbelief?

I am sure I am not the only professed agnostic who occasionally in moments of stress does not whisper to the empty sky, "Oh God, please let…"

This in spite of the fact that in 76 years on the planet I have never encountered other than anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of petitionary prayer. I know too that every empirical attempt to examine the efficacy of prayer has been negative. (I go into this in some detail in When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy.) There are few things I am more sure of than the fact that my pleas go unheard.

Is the tendency to address a transcendent power in moments of need a residue of a religious upbringing? Is it conditioned by our childhood dependence on a parent? Is it innate?

Is the tendency universal? Are there hard-nosed atheists among you who have never spontaneously addressed a plea for help to some transcendent and effectively personal spirit?

Harold is strengthened by his prayer, even in his unbelief. It is easy to assume an evolutionary origin for the feeling that we are not helpless and alone in the cosmos, more difficult to prove. So we soldier on, confident of our cosmic solitude, yet nevertheless desirous to be part of something bigger, something social and personal. With or without belief, we wish well for those we have left behind and those ahead, and hope for the will to keep going.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Peace on Earth

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The engineer's way of death -- a Saturday reprise

My father died of cancer at age 64 in 1974. I have recently obtained from my sister Peg the journals he kept during the last 12 weeks of his life, as he lay dying in the hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As I have mentioned before, Dad was a mechanical engineer by training, and worked most of his life as a quality control engineer for a company that made ceramic insulators and mechanical parts. He was something of a pioneer in the field of maintaining production quality by random testing and statistical analysis. The secret to quality, be believed, is lots of data. Patterns that are not obvious in small batches, become apparent with the statistical force of large numbers.

He brought this faith to bear on his disease. As he lay almost totally paralyzed on his hospital bed, he kept exhaustive data, minute by minute, day and night. He had us supply him with a yard stick, a six-inch rule, a protractor, a thermometer, even a barometer, and of course blank journals and a supply of sharp pencils. He measured, or had us measure, his cycles of medication, radiation treatments, blood transfusions, minutes or hours of waking and sleeping, his position on the bed, the positions of the adjustable bed, food, drink, the frequency and success of bowel movements, urination, and flatulence, the temperature and pressure of the room. Nothing was overlooked. Even in the dark of the night, as his wife or one of his kids lay sleeping on a nearby cot, he kept his notes, by the light of a penlight flashlight he had ingeniously rigged up over the bed.

From his data he extracted what he called "the cycle of energy," which he plotted over and over, refining its characteristics, and a theory involving what he called "currents." On the evidence of the journal, he was convinced that somewhere in these pages of numbers, graphs, and diagrams he would find the solution to his misfortune.

Of course, it was not to be. Cancer cells are less amenable to statistical control than ceramic widgets. He tried to make his doctors see the importance of what he was doing -- not only to himself, but to medical science -- and, indeed, his voluminous journals may be one of the most complete quantitative records of a dying ever compiled by a patient. The doctors in their kindness humored him, and went on with their various therapies, which in the end did no more good than "the cycle of energy" and "currents." It was simply too late.

What is actually manifest in his data is the inexorable multiplication of cancer cells out of control, finally in every part of his body. The journals may not have contained a hidden cure for cancer, but they certainly were a cure for despair, and for the horrible boredom of incessant pain -- the exercise of an active mind in a body wasted by disease. In the final volume he writes: "It is very difficult to wake up in the morning and face "nothing" to do. Writing this diary has been a "life" saver to me. If I live long enough and manage to develop a degree of "balance", I think all the important, valuable, impressions, and sensations that I have experienced can be made available to the public -- if I can't do it maybe Chet will be good enough to do it for me."

Not until the very last pages does he seem to recognize the futility of his data and the inevitability of death.

(Click on the image to enlarge. This post originally appeared in May 2010.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sticks and knobs

"Has Lego sold out?" ask Matt Richtel and Jesse McKinley in the New York Times. They are distraught that Lego is no longer marketed as a box of assorted bricks that stimulate a kid's imagination to build his or her heart's desire. Rather, Legos now come in individual kits for constructing specific toys, with step-by-step instructions. Worse, according to our authors, the toys are tie-ins to billion-dollar franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, with theme-related books, video games, and even a TV spin-off.

The end of creativity? Corporate directed play?

The name "Lego" comes from the Danish leg godt, "play well." Should the new name be købe godt, "buy well?"

Not to worry. Construction sets will always be with us, for the kids that want them.

I'm from the pre-Lego generation. My first construction set was Tinkertoys, in their characteristic cylindrical container, followed by Lincoln Logs, and a cardboard construction set during the Second World War that lasted about a month. At some point, I remember an AC Gilbert Erector Set, but it may have been my uncle Leonard's (he was two years older than me). All these toys had booklets or sheets with suggested constructions. Creative imagination? Not so much.

Later, we bought our kids a European Meccano set, which like the Erector Set came with lots of tiny nuts and bolts, time-consuming to put together and a pain to take apart. Then came Legos and finally –- my favorite –- K'NEX.

The lesson of these toys? With a few carefully designed sticks and knobs, in sufficient numbers, you can build almost anything.

Including a universe.
(If you don't recognize these guys, wiki "Watson and Crick".)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thinking fast and thinking slow

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writing in the New York Times on the evolutionary origins of religion:
To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form. A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow. The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained
I was thinking along these lines last week when I was reading Cheryl Strayed's Lost, a first-person account of an attractive young woman's three-month solo hike along California and Oregon's Pacific Crest Trail. It is a woman's book. Not in the sense that it is romantic or soft or sentimental. It is, in fact, tough, brave and unsentimental, tougher and braver than I could ever be. It's a woman's book because only a woman could have written it. And, I suspect, only a woman can appreciate it fully.

But any man who reads the book will profit, by being forced to reflect upon his maleness.

As you might expect, it is mostly males that Strayed encountered along the trail. A few were harmless horndogs. Two were sexually-aggressive louts. Most related to Strayed with helpful kindliness and respect.

Sinners and saints. Egotists and altruists. There is probably some of both in all of us, to one degree or another. Strayed encountered guys who think fast and guys who think slow, and by and large it was slow-thinking men who made it possible for this young woman to safely complete her journey. Of course, it is slow-thinkers who are most likely to put themselves through the ordeal of long-distance hiking. The two potential rapists Strayed met on the trail were hunters, not hikers.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The original storybook

Winter is the best time of year for story-telling. If your storybook is the stars.

The night sky is full of stories, but the best story of all is Andromeda's. All of the characters are on stage.

Brielfy, in one version of the story, Cassiopeia, Queen of Ethiopia, wife of Cepheus, bragged that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than the sea nymphs. Poseidon (off stage) was naturally offended, and sent a sea monster, Cetus, to ravage the coast of the kingdom. Cepheus, the king, sought advice of an oracle who said the only way to appease Poseidon's wrath was to sacrifice his daughter. Accordingly, Andromeda was stripped naked and chained to a rock at the shore where she would be devoured by Cetus.

Meanwhile, Perseus was returning on his flying horse Pegasus from have slain the snaky-haired gorgon Medusa, who was so ugly that the sight of her turned the viewer to stone. (Perseus had slain her by looking at her reflection in his shiny shield.) Now he carried her decapitated head in a bag. Looking down, he saw Cetus approaching beautiful Andromeda. He whipped Medusa's head out of the bag, taking care to avoid looking at her himself. Cetus looked, turned to stone, and sank beneath the waves. Perseus and Andromeda lived happily ever after.

Not exactly the version you see above in the painting by Edward Burne-Jones, but, my goodness, all the drama is there, and where in all of story or art have you seen a more magnificent monster. (Click to enlarge.)

And there they are, in tonight's sky, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Andromeda, Cetus, Perseus, Pegasus, and even the gorgon's head in the bag (the star Algol, "the ghoul," in Perseus). Many a time I told the story under a starry sky, to kids and adults of all ages.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas... all who celebrate this season, from Chet, Anne and Tom, with a reprise from Anne (click to enlarge).

Monday, December 24, 2012

"…and with ah! bright wings"

All neck and shoulders. Feathers streaming off her back like water. She descends along the garden path like a bride at her nuptials -– step, pause, step, pause.

And then. And then. Those wings! She spreads those bedsheet wings, flaps them once or twice as if to shake them out, then leaps into the air -- push, push -- improbably ascending, long legs dangling behind like ribbons.

To tell the truth, I have no idea if it’s a she, but I can't bring myself to call her an it. "It" sounds so inanimate. Our great white egret is animation personified.

She seems to have taken up residence on our property, at least for the time being. Some folks have BMWs or Rolex watches. I have a great white egret.

That crook in her neck. Like an arm cocked to throw a spear. And what a spear! A beak like an assassin's dagger. Her nuptial gown is a ruse. She is an Amazon princess, fierce and ready.

Where has she gone? Now, just now, she passed the window, her muscular shoulders sculling the air. Leonardo would have been flabbergasted. He would have made himself wings of white silk and leapt off the roof of a Milanese palace. He would have imagined angels.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

His dark materials -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in December 2007).)

The thought police are at it again. This time it is the new fantasy film The Golden Compass, based on the first volume of Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. Hollywood and Mr. Pullman are accused of trying to turn our good Christian children into -- gasp! -- atheists. I haven't seen the film, but I read the book and it is indeed subversive. It comes down against any institution that seeks to impose doctrine and root out heretics. Be brave, be curious, and think for yourself, the book suggests. No wonder the Possessors of Truth are hot and bothered.

Why all this adult interest in the fantasy literature that engages children? The Narnia Chronicles get a pass because C. S. Lewis was a Christian. The Lord of the Rings barely slips under the wire with a Catholic author. I don't know what J. K. Rowling's religion is, but the Harry Potter books and movies ruffle feathers because they supposedly traffic with the Evil One himself. Philip Pullman is a self-confessed atheist; oh, dear, we must keep him out of the neighborhood.

Back off, grownups. Expose your kids to a variety of ideas that elevate the human spirit and let them find their own way in the world. His Dark Materials has shades of Milton's Paradise Lost and William Blake. Shall we chop those classics from the curriculum too? I'd be proud if my 11-year old child or grandchild had the pluck and cunning of Lyra, the heroine of The Golden Compass.

Nullius in verba. Take no one's word. That was the motto of the Royal Society and the beginning of modern science as we know it, just sixty years after Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for thinking unorthodox thoughts, and twenty-seven years after Galileo was made to kneel before the assembled princes of the Church and renounce his belief that the Earth goes around the Sun.

And now the self-appointed guardians of faith and morals are at it again, urging parents to keep their kids away from an author who dares to affirm nullius in verba. Kick ass, Lyra. Go, girl.

Friday, December 21, 2012


My wife is sitting across the room with her iPad wirelessly connected to the internet. She's watching Rachel Maddow. On this little island.

She will extol her WiFi iPad as a miracle of modern ingenuity. Let me extol another great gift of modern technology, without which we couldn't be on this island.

Duct tape.

Not a day goes by that I don't use duct tape to keep this place from falling apart. Tough, sticky, waterproof. Robinson Crusoe should have been so lucky.

Not just me. Our connection to the island's electrical grid is secured with duct tape installed by BEC (Bahamas Electric Corporation). Our telephone connection is held together with duct tape supplied by Batelco (Bahamas Telecommunications Corporation).

Move to the ragged edge of civilization and you meet silverization.

In her book Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed recounts using duct tape as a substitute for blistered skin and for makeshift shoes when her boot irretrievably falls over a cliff.

And we all remember how Apollo 13 made it safely back to Earth because of duct tape. By the light of the silvery moon.

Anyway, I know I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said before. Just adding my own little nod to the invention that keeps all the other inventions working.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Surrender to facts

I'm currently reading two books. One I found in the house when I arrived, presumably left by a previous visitor: Cheryl Strayed's Wild, a young woman's attempt to sort out her messed-up life and grief for her mother's death by hiking alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, many hundreds of miles along the ridges of California's Sierra Nevada and Oregon's Cascades mountains. The other, my friend Douglas Christie'sThe Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, grounded in Doug's extensive knowledge of the Christian monastic tradition.

Two ways thoughtful people over the ages have sought inner peace: rigorous outer pilgrimage and quiet inward turning.

Blisters, aching muscles, raw skin, fear, exhaustion.

Silence. Immobility. Staying put.

What do they have in common? Solitude. Simplicity. Surrender.

I've been drawn in both directions in my life, but never with sufficient gumption to seriously exploit the possibilities of self-transformation. As a young man, especially, I was drawn to a Thomas Merton sort of monasticism, but was foiled by falling in love and the itch of sex. I have done my share of mountain climbing and long-distance walking, but generally with a soft bed and bottle of wine at the end of the day. No blistered feet in my life. No fasts. No waking up to pray in the middle of the night.

And yet, and yet… I've tried to learn to pay attention. To resist the noise of life. To step aside from the race to the top, which always seemed to me not much different than the bottom. And in all of this -- my easy, middle way -- science has been my walking stick and my psalter.

There is a simplicity in facts, in the isness of things, in taking things just as we find them without the need for theologies or ideologies. Things. Ordinary things. Of which I am one, blessed by evolution with the capacity to enjoy and celebrate the others.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


A Howard Nemerov poem might be twelve pages long or twelve words long. He was equally adept at the epic and the aphorism. He could be serious or fun. Sometimes both at the same time.

Consider the following poem, called "A Life," which I quote in its entirety. (How does "fair use" apply to something so short?)
In a sense.
In no sense!

Was that it?
Was that it?
Was that it?

That was it.
Now I hear my spouse's voice whispering in my ear: What's all this musing about death lately? Why all this late-life pessimism? Your blog is becoming morbid.

Morbid? Not really. I don't yet feel the Grim Reaper's cold breath on my neck. But surely it's that time of life to begin a summing up. I don't want to expire mid-sentence, with an unfinished thought...

So, was it innocent? In a sin? In a sense. Not Original Sin, perhaps, but plenty of my own devising. No sin? Nonsense.

It. What?

That. Why?

Was. When?

A matter of emphasis. In phases. In phrases. That was it. That was it. That was it.

Wasn't it?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


OK, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing.

Here is the cover for the November 30 issue of Science (click to enlarge). Eighty curious, colorful shapes that look more or less like units of type from an old-style printing press where the text was assembled letter by letter. In fact, if you look closely, you will find the alphabet and numerical digits.

Or a super-complicated LEGO set.

What is it? I you had asked me to guess, I would have been at a loss.

As it turns out, these are computer-generated schematic representations of 3-D shapes built from a "LEGO" set of short strands of DNA, each strand consisting of 32 nucleotides. These little helix-based "bricks," provided in the right mix, self-assemble into prescribed shapes. Ten thousand of these objects could line up across the period at the end of this sentence. (The grey column represents objects with internal cavities.)

I don't pretend to fully understand how this is done, but I'm dazzled beyond measure by the facility with which researchers can now play with DNA. If you want to call it play. You can also call it nano-engineering. The researchers are exploiting the same elegantly simple double-helix chemistry that over 3.5 billion years filled the Earth with its wonderful abundance of life.

A self-assembling LEGO set? You and I are self-assembled LEGO creations. So is the hummingbird. So is the great blue whale and the great white shark. And the bacterium. …ATTGCGGTACCG… T with A. C with G. Weaving, spinning. Every cell a factory churning out proteins.

The cover of Science is neat. It's more than neat; it's dazzling. But it's a piece of cake compared to what's going on -- inexorably, invisibly, inevitably -- wherever on this blooming, burgeoning, life-blessed planet I cast my gaze.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Carry moonbeams home in a jar

Well, here we are on our quiet little island. I don't know if I've mentioned before why (or how) we are here. The answer: Frankie Starlight, the film made from my novel The Dork of Cork, which dropped into our laps more $$$ than we had seen before or hoped to see. Bought three-quarters of an acre of land on a long, pristine, mostly deserted beach and built a pretty little house open to the elements, away from the cold and snow. My main reason for coming here, however, was the sky –- open on every side, mostly free of clouds, and DARK. We called it Starlight House.

That was eighteen years ago. Even with the movie, we couldn't afford it now. Our seaside lot is probably now worth five or ten times what we paid for it. The beach is still mostly deserted, but the island has begun to light up. The zodiacal light has been obliterated by new illumination at our little airport. The northern horizon fades in the glow of the new Sandals resort. Still, Starlight House promises to keep us connected to the universe for the few more years we are able to enjoy it.

We were welcomed to the island by a thin crescent Moon, Jupiter resplendent in Taurus, and Venus blazing in the dawn. Haven't seen the green flash yet, but I'm on the lookout every sunrise. January promises a basket of celestial beauties, including a spectacular conjunction of the Moon and Jupiter on the 21st, which is during Tom's brief first visit. Just for you, Tom!

Meanwhile, the world lights up, and the universe vanishes behind a murky veil of our own making. Where it can still be seen, Saturn, in Libra, tips its hat, giving telescopic observers a view of its rings that will continue to improve for a few more years. My telescopic days are past, but on the terrace in the gathering dawn I know the planet is tipping its hat just for me and I nod in silent appreciation.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Happy Holidays

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Civilization -- a Sadurday reprise

(This post appeared in March 2011.)

I must have some rare genetic mutation. Why am I the only person in America who doesn't want a gun?

OK, maybe not the only one. But sometimes it seems like it. Last week's New York Time Magazine had a one-page display of "purse pistols," small, deadly handguns specifically designed to appeal to the ladies. How about a cute little Taurus 738 TCP? It comes in pink and black. Or a Charter Arms Cougar Undercover Lite, also in pink and black, with a rubber grip to ease recoil, made to "complete your self-defense wardrobe"? Or the Casull's Improvement Freedom Arms .22, a tiny five-shot elegantly engraved by jeweler Paul Lantuch? Or the adorable North American Mini .22, with a sky-blue grip?

Kill in self-defense if you must. But do you have to do it with a fashion accessory?

The NRA tells us that "when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." Sounds to me like the recipe for a civilized society. I would rather live in a society where only outlaws (and the police) have guns than in a society where every purse, briefcase and bookbag conceals a weapon.

The murder rate in the pistol-packing U. S. is three times higher than Canada, four times higher than Ireland, and eight time higher than Norway. My guess is that the "outlaws" don't do as much of the killing as loony ordinary folks who can purchase a 33-round Glock with hardly a hitch. With a little ingenuity I can pretty much stay out of the way of hardened criminals, but steering clear of the aggrieved teenager who can find a gun in the drawer next to his parents' bed is more problematic.

What does this have to do with science? Not much, really, I'm just venting. But I think it may have something to do with genes -- nature red in tooth and claw and all that. Nevermind. I'll be back in Ireland soon and feeling much safer.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


At 6:12 AM EST on December 21 the Sun reaches its southernmost point in the sky, where it almost is already, and where it will linger. Meanwhile, here in the northern hemisphere it has been getting colder, and will get colder yet as summer's residual heat dissipates. Which means, my friends, that it is time for us old snow birds to wing our way south to our hideaway on the Tropic of Cancer. There will be no post tomorrow. And I can't promise when you'll see the next one. Apparently our phone and DSL are still down from Hurricane Sandy, mainly because I have not been there to sort things out. Ah, well, at least we'll be warm.

Ours is a sunrise house, on the sea facing east. On the 21st, the Sun will rise as far south as it ever gets, almost exactly over the highest point of Stocking Island. Then, morning by morning it will rise a little later, creeping north at first, then hurrying along, until the day we return to New England, March 21, the spring equinox, when it rises due east.

Which is where it would rise every morning if the Earth didn't have a tilt to its axis. Twenty-three-and-a-half degrees, which, when you think about it, is just about what we would have asked for if we had a say. Enough of a tilt to give us significant seasons, with their wonderful variety, but not so much tilt that the seasons are extreme.

Tom is coming for a visit this year, for the first time. He's not a sun and sea sort of guy, but feels, I suppose, a need after all these years to check out the place that the other three kids and grandkids love to visit. I do think he is going to like the sense of being at one with the universe -- Sun, Moon, planets, stars, risings and settings, Milky Way, nebulosities -- things one has to make an effort to see in closed-in, light-polluted New England, but which on the island are always with you. I gave Tom Guy Ottewell's 2013 Astronomical Calendar for Christmas. I couldn't do without it on the island. Like a program for a never-ending show.

Don't go away. I'll be with you next as soon as I can.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

O holy night

Here's an image for this season of lights: the star-forming nebula NGC 6357, lit from within by new stars, and above it the young star cluster PISMIS 24, with at its center one of the most massive stars known, PIMIS-1, actually a triple star system, with each component perhaps 100 times as massive as our Sun. Such massive stars don't live long, compared, say, to the Sun. They burn fast and hot, turning hydrogen and helium into heavy elements, then blast their bounty into space. The nebula and the cluster lie about 8000 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Scorpius, part of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The images spans a few tens of light-years from top to bottom. Click to enlarge.

Allow me to quote myself, from The Soul of the Night:
Stars build as they burn. In the workshops that are the cores of stars, gravity squeezes heavy elements into being. Here is work that would be envied by Cellini, more ravishing than Fabergé creations for a czar. Oxygen, sparkling with its six valence electrons, promiscuous in its rage for union, burning, rusting, rotting, building, no element on Earth is more common. Carbon, the wizard, now the black rider, now the diamond throne, the backbone of the butterfly, nylon, gasoline, shoe polish, dynamite, and DDT. Iron, industrious, core of the Earth, night flyer; Eskimos made tools of iron that fell from the sky. Palladium, zirconium, dysprosium, gadolinium, praseodymium, rare travelers, made in traces in supernovas and scattered to the Galaxy like bank notes tossed from a king's carriage.
Over the top? Did I really write that? That was almost thirty years ago, long before the Hubble Space Telescope began to make breathtaking images like the one above as common as dishrags. I was in thrall to the heavens, attached to my telescope, agog with the glory of a universe that is mostly hidden from our unaided view. I wrote The Soul of the Night on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 computer, with a tiny LCD screen that showed just a few lines of type. My fingers flew. They could hardly keep up with my ardor. I was in love. With words. With the stars, nebulas, galaxies.

Maybe a little abashed now with the 1980s gush of my prose, but still carrying a torch for a universe in which stardust flows like a Heraclitean river, never to be touched or stepped in twice. The book is still in print, an extended footnote to a universe that has never exhausted it power to astonish and surprise.

Monday, December 10, 2012


I believe I have mentioned before that many years ago, before I started writing for the Boston Globe, I had a column in the college newspaper called "Under a Skeptical Star." The phrase came from a line of the Scots poet/scholar William MacNeile Dixon: "If there be a skeptical star I was born under it, yet I have lived all my days in complete astonishment."

That was nearly half-a-century ago. I'm still astonished.

Easily astonished. I don't require magnificent vistas, frozen waterfalls, spectacular sunsets. I don't need the Red Sea parted or Lazarus raised from the dead. I've been astonished by comets and eclipses, but I don't need a comet or eclipse. A leaf will do. A snowflake. The tip-tip-tip of a nuthatch heard but not seen in a piney wood. A lop-sided spider web wet with dew.

Don't tell me about answered prayers. Premonitions that came to pass. The paranormal and preternatural. That's when my skeptical star kicks in, the one I was born under. That's when an irrepressible voice in the back of my head whispers: "There's nothing less astonishing than the apparently miraculous."

I'll settle for the commonplace. The ordinary. The quotidian. The flower in the crannied wall. The universe in a grain of sand. A single silicon dioxide molecule is astonishment enough to set my chin agog. How many silicon dioxide molecules in a grain of sand? About a trillion billion by my rough calculation. That's a lot of astonishment.

A lop-sided spider web wet with dew. Even the words are astonishing.

Sunday, December 09, 2012


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Beyond the porch-light of language -- a Saturday reprise

The title of this post is another phrase from the poet Pat Boran. It struck me, I suppose, because of the way readers sometimes refer to this blog as "the porch." (I forget who first suggested the image; was it you, Theresa? Lyra?) A lovely image, evoking friends in rocking chairs sipping ice tea or gin-and-tonics on a drowsy summer night. Out there in the darkness lightnin' bugs flash their sleepy semaphores. Somewhere afar off heat lightnin' illuminates the horizon. Our language drifts into the dark. We have words too for stars, for black holes and quasars, for the cosmic microwave background radiation. Our words leak off the porch into the summer darkness, bringing some small part of the darkness into our circle of light. And so we sit and sip and talk, and our language eases back the darkness, hallows an interval, makes "a dwelling in the evening air,/ In which being there together is enough."

We sit and we sip and we are content to let the darkness embrace us. No, we are more than content. The darkness is a positive presence, a soft and fragrant backdrop for our conversations. Without the darkness there would be no lightnin' bugs, no heat lightnin', no stars. We rock and sip and the darkness enfolds us like a shawl.

There are a those who are less comfortable with the darkness. They want language to light up the darkness to the farthest horizon, to the beginning and end of space and time, turn night to day. They shout into the dark -- "God," "Father," "Person," "Friend." The miracle of language becomes the language of miracles. "I am the Light of the World, I expel the dark."

Well, fair enough. But here on the porch, in our circle of friendship and faint light, we rock and sip and talk. And the lightnin' bugs flash, and the stars come on one by one, and now and then, afar off, the horizon shimmers with a soundless light. And we talk, with measured voices. And our words drift off into the darkness. And sometimes they never come back.

(This post appeared in July 2008.)

Friday, December 07, 2012

Method or madness

Consider some of the great scientific advances of the last half-millennium: heliocentric astronomy, universal gravitation, atomic and molecular chemistry, evolution by natural selection, electromagnetic radiation, the germ theory of disease, anesthetics, general relativity and the equivalence of mass/energy, quantum theory, galactic astronomy, big bang cosmology, plate tectonics, DNA -- for starters.

Where did this stuff come from? Invention or discovery? Dredged up out of the bowels of nature, or cast like a mental net over unruly reality?

Here in the college library there are shelves of books debating the issue. This much seems certain: the so-called "scientific method" we were taught in school -- a mechanical truth-generating process that even a high-school sophomore could execute -- is a myth.

Good science is a mix of brains, energy, insight, courage, luck, competitiveness, money (or the lack of it), quality of instruments, being at the right place at the right time, and an index full of other factors. Perhaps it is impossible to define science in sentence, or a paragraph. But we know it when we see it, and it is nothing like the automatic "method" attributed by our teachers to Francis Bacon. As the biologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, Bacon clearly understood that science is (in Gould's words) "a quintessential human activity, inevitably emerging from the guts of our mental habits and social practices, and inexorably intertwined with foibles of human nature and contingencies of human history."

Which is not to say, as Gould reminded us, that science is an arbitrary social artifact. In Bacon's own words, scientific understanding "is extracted…not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature" All great science springs from a creative tension between mind and nature.

The writer John Steinbeck was also something of a scientist. A young boy once asked Steinbeck what he was searching for as he and his friend Ed Ricketts waded though a tide pool looking for small marine creatures. "We search for something that will seem like truth to us; we search for understanding; we search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life; we search for the relations of things, one to another," answered Steinbeck.

Which pretty well summarizes what scientists do. It also summarizes what writers do. The difference? Science is a communal enterprise that demands consensus. Writing is a private venture that the artist pursues alone. Science is we. Art is I.

(I lifted the Steinbeck anecdote from my friend the writer Brian Doyle, as I waded around in one of the teeming tide pools of his prose. I made a more extended reference to Steinbeck here.)

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Mimetic deities

Those of you who have been on the porch for a while will know that my favorite Caravaggio is "The Rest On the Flight Into Egypt". I love the way it captures the yin and yang of existence -- the feminine and the masculine, the dark and the light, the soft and the hard, the wet and the dry, the tender and the fraught. Each quality depends upon the other. The painting is all about balance, moderation, humility. Resignation. Acceptance. Grace.
Here is another Caravaggio, "Narcissus," a depiction of the story from Ovid of the beautiful youth who falls in love with his own reflection in the still water of a pool. (Click to enlarge.) So transfixed is he by his beauty -- look! his lips are poised to kiss -- he lingers and dies.

Not a painting I like. No yin and yang this. A bleak narcissism. Cold, dark, stasis.

Where are the apples and the pomegranates? The cedar and the myrrh? This young man is not in love with the world, but with himself. He has created a god in his own image. He worships that god with a fixed attention that frustrates growth and development. His arms and those of his image form a circle that turns round and round upon itself, enclosing nothing. Not a leaf or blade of grass, not a pebble or ripple.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The refining fire of experience

During the academic year 1968-69 I was studying the history of science at the Imperial College in London. In a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead I found a book I had never heard of, Robert Small's An Account of the Astronomical Discoveries of Kepler, published in 1804. I paid a few pound for it, and took it home to read. It inspired an epic engagement with the mathematical theories of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler that I described in Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian. I applied the theories of all four astronomers to the motion of Mars in that year of 1968-69. I'm sure someone, somewhere has done something similar, but if so I don't know about it. Here, for example, is the diagram representing my calculations for Ptolemy's theory. Click to enlarge.
I'll not repeat the story here. Small's book fell off the shelf into my hands the other day and it all came rushing back, those joyous weeks of plowing though the ancient texts and matching the results to the motion of the planet in the 20th-century sky.

Small makes a big claim for Kepler: "[His work] exhibited, even prior to the publication of Bacon's Novum Organum, a more perfect example, than perhaps ever was given, of legitimate connection between theory and experiment; of experiments suggested by theory, and of theory submitted without prejudice to the test and decision of experiments." Small's book is bound with all of the figures and diagrams collected at the back. I have scanned two of the 11 pages of figures, enough to give you a visual sense of what when into Kepler's achievement.

Having followed Kepler, with Small, down every blind alley, every minute deviation of calculation from observed positions of Mars, every agonizing surrender of accepted practice, I had nothing but admiration for a man who set the stage more than any other for the Newtonian Revolution, all while afflicted with illness, weak eyesight, religious persecution, and interminable financial and family problems, including an almost endless struggle to keep his quarrelsome mother from being burned as a witch.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

There have been so many books lately proffering "proof of heaven" one could almost call it a fad. Seems like everyone and his brother has had a near death experience that gave them a short sojourn in paradise. And a book contract.

Am I being cynical? I suppose so. I do wonder though why no one ever has a near death experience of the other place. A book called Hell Is For Real. Who's going to buy that?

The latest contender is different. Dr. Eben Alexander came to the heavenly feast with credentials as a neurosurgeon. His book, Proof of Heaven, describes (say reviews) his out-of-body experiences during a period when his neo-cortex was apparently shut down during a life-threatening medical emergency. He was met on the other side by a beautiful blue-eyed woman who took him for a ride on butterflies. He saw a shining orb he understood to be a loving God.

I don't doubt Dr. Alexander's sincerity, but I would take issue with what seems to be his central "proof," according to the press: There is no way science can explain his experience.

There are lots of things that science can't (yet) explain, but that doesn't mean Dr. Alexander's soul went to heaven. Science can't explain much about the brain, not least what happens in crisis mode. I would let Ockham's Razor attribute the beautiful blue-eyed woman and butterflies to Dr. Alexander's brain before I'd invoke the journey of an immaterial soul to an afterlife and back -- and on to the best-seller list, a Newsweek cover, and an Oprah special.

And while I'm on the subject, let me mention a novel I just read by my friend Michael Wilt, The Holy Family. The protagonist of Wilt's story doesn't experience proof of heaven. Rather, he makes a journey in the opposite direction, from devout Catholic to cautious atheist. It's a gentle journey, without rancor or rebuke. At the heart of the story is a tragedy that might send a less courageous person running for the comfort of Dr. Alexander's book, but Wilt's protagonist and his spouse find consolation for their loss in the miracle of life itself.

I could wish for Michael bestsellerdom and an Oprah special, but I have the feeling that his novel is too full of doubt and searching and pain and tenderness -- all of the things that define the human adventure in the absence of True Belief. No ultimate answers, no "proof" of everlasting life, only the ties of human love that in this best of all available worlds bind us to one another.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Reading the book of nature

Click on the portrait above for a larger view. Now I ask you, have you ever seen a man of more serene disposition? Kindly demeanor? Integral character? Not to mention handsome.

I won't tell you who he is. At least not yet. The apparatus on the table might give a hint. And the apparent serenity of the portrait did not always describe the man's life.

He was widely acknowledged in his time as a popular public speaker. Here is a description by a person who attended his lectures:
He was completely master of the situation; he had his audience at his command, as he had himself and all his belongings; he had nothing to fret him, and he could give his eloquence full sway. It was an irresistible eloquence, which compelled attention and insisted on sympathy. It waked the young from their visions and the old from their dreams. There was a gleaming in his eyes which no painter could copy and which no poet could describe. Their radiance seemed to send a strange light into the very heart of his congregation; and when he spoke, it was felt that the stir of his voice and the fervor of his words could belong only to the owner of those kindling eyes...His enthusiasm sometimes carried him to the point of ecstasy when he expatiated on the beauty of nature, and when he lifted the veil from her deep mysteries.
One gets the sense that he could have been a prodigious sermonizer, the proprietor of a megachurch, an Elmer Gantry of his time. And indeed he was a deeply religious man. But he was too humble to presume to speak directly for the Creator, too modest to claim to know the Creator's will. He was content to let the Creator's works speak for themselves. He was unsurpassed at reading the book of nature, that public scripture laid open for all to see. It was for him a book of wonders, revealed incontestably by the apparatus on the table -- the voltaic cells, the coils, the electrical machine, magnets and glass retorts.
His body then took motion from his mind; his hair streamed out from his head, his hands were full of nervous action, his lithe body seemed to quiver with eager life. His audience took fire with him, and every face was flushed. Whatever might be the after-thought or the after-pursuit, each hearer for the time shared his zeal and his delight; and with some listeners the impression made was so deep as to lead them into the laborious paths of philosophy, in spite of all the obstacles which the daily life of society opposes to such undertakings.
Nothing, said Michael Faraday, is too wonderful to be true.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Shedding light

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

(An early) Merry Xmas -- a Saturday reprise

Extravagant X. Most excellent X. Tricksy spirit of the alphabet.

Or should I say, trixsy spirit. Pixie spirit. Ariel, yes. Caliban, too. (Noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight.) Feet apart, arms upraised. Jumping jax.

Give me an X, right here on my lips. X marks the spot. A sexy kiss. An X-rated kiss. Knock my sox off.

Make your mark. The mysterious Mister X. X-Files. X-men. Tic-tac-toe. Xanadu.

What would science do without its X?

Roman numeral, number ten.


X the unknown. Was it Mr. Descartes who used it first? La Geometrie, 1637.

X-axis. Y-axis. Analytical geometry.

Mr. Roentgen and his mysterious radiation. Black hole Cygnus X-1, spewing X-rays.

Xe for xenon, noble gas, atomic number 54.

X chromosome. Sex chromosome. XX=female. XY=male.

Planet X?

What other letter has such an exotic history? Happily Greek, but not much heavy lifting in basic English. Xylophones on children's blocks.

We love X in math and science, maybe because it loves us, greedy for meaning, bearing on its broad shoulders everything we hope to understand but cannot yet say.

(This post originally appeared in December 2009.)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Packing light

I sit here in my comfy chair in the college library with my laptop on my lap and I look busy although I'm really not, mostly I'm just daydreaming, or, to put a finer gloss on it, thinking, although that may be putting too fine a gloss on the froth of half-baked thoughts that pop up in my mind and then burst like bubbles. The occasional colleague will walk by and assuming something more substantial is going on will ask, "What are you working on?", expecting another book, perhaps, and deciding I'm just being coy when I shrug and say "Nuthin'."

Twenty books, a thousand Boston Globe essays, a hundred magazine or journal essays and book reviews, and it's all over. I've squeezed the last crafty words out of my brain, or at least the last that anyone is willing to pay for. It was a good ride, but it required more energy and discipline than I'm now able to muster. "What are you writin'?" "Nuthin'."

The older I get the more I become enamored of "nuthin'." A ripping good yarn may take a thousand pages, but that's too heavy a load to carry these last few miles. If I can't say it in 300 words it's probably not worth saying. I notice there's a new book out on the best seller list called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. I haven't read the book, but its title could have been borrowed from an old post here. Brevity is the wit of soul.

And that, my word counter says, is 300 words. Enough for a nod to Mary Oliver. Weeds in a vacant lot, a few small stones. Just pay attention.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Whatever happened to the Sunday stroll through the park? The saunter? The ramble? The traipse down the primrose path? Who goes shank's mare anymore? Who takes the hobnail express?

Not many, as far as I can see.

Kids are driven to school, soccer practice, gymnastic lessons, birthday parties. Mom and Pop take the car to the market down the block.

And in the woods -- the roar of internal combustion. All-terrain vehicles. Snowmobiles. Wanna experience the great outdoors? Get a Yamaha Raptor 700R: "The reigning king of all terrain continues its conquering ways with the help of a fuel-injected 686cc powerplant, fully adjustable suspension, steel and aluminum hybrid frame, and more."

There was a time when the young John Muir, age 29, put his feet in his boots and walked solo from Indiana to the Georgia coast. Put one foot in front of the other and didn't stop walking until the foot out front met salt water. A couple of million steps, I calculate.

"My plan," he said, "was simply to push on in a southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least-trodden way I could find." In his sack -- a change of underwear, his journal, a bar of soap, comb and brush, a botany textbook, the New Testament, Milton's Paradise Lost, and the poems of Robert Burns.

That's walking for you.

"You must be born into the family of Walkers," wrote Thoreau. He was thinking, no doubt, of his Concord neighbors, who even then got about mostly by horse-drawn gig and the Fitchburg Railroad. But truth be told, we are all born walkers. It is a birthright I am loathe to surrender.

If wheels are so great, why didn't God invent them? The closest nature comes to endorsing the wheel is a small marine crustacean, Nannosquilla decemspinosa, that lives on the coast of Panama. Washed up on a sandy beach, it regains the sea by doing back flips, then using its curled-up body to roll like a hoop.

No hoops for me. Where two roads diverge in a yellow wood I'll take the quieter path, the one tracked only by shoe or boot, the one that allows the mind to stop, attend, consider. No helmet necessary. No Day-Glo jumpsuit zipping me in, head to toe. The breeze on my cheek. The tip-tip of the nuthatch in my ear. One foot in front of the other. As naked of technology as God made me.

By the wildest, leafiest and least trodden way.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


When I was a graduate student studying physics at U.C.L.A. during the late 1950s, two godlike figures dominated our imaginations: Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann. Both physicists worked across town at CalTech, and now and then we'd slip over to Pasadena and sit in on a lecture. Feynman was the older of the two and better known, as much for his wry wit as for his work on quantum electrodynamics. Who was smarter, Feynman or Gell-Mann? Among us grad students, the question was up for grabs.

Some folks are just a whole lot smarter than the rest of us, and Feynman and Gell-Mann were about as smart as you can get. The very existence of such towering geniuses just down the road had a mixed effect on us students. Some were inspired to compete with the greats; others were resigned to mediocrity. If nothing else, it was an exciting time to be entering an exciting field, and the two CalTech paragons were a big part of the excitement.

Feynman knew everything there was to know about physics and not much of anything else; when he wasn't doing physics, he played the bongos and hung out in bars. Gell-Mann seemed to know everything there was to know about everything, and during "off" hours he was likely to be bird-watching in some exotic venue, collecting archeological artifacts, or picking up one more foreign language. When the two rivals got together, sparks would fly, igniting lots of good physics. Both men would eventually win Nobel Prizes.

As they worked together at CalTech, Feynman and Gell-Mann delighted in "twisting the tail of the cosmos," as they called it. In his Nobel address in Sweden, Gell-Mann described the physicist's work this way: "We are driven by the insatiable curiosity of the scientist, and our work is a delightful game. I am frequently astonished that it so often results in correct predictions of experimental results."

The work of Feynman and Gell-Mann took us further and further away from everyday experience toward the crystalline symmetries that apparently prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the big bang. As the universe cooled, symmetries were broken, and we eventually find ourselves living in a messy world of bongos, bars, birds of paradise and prehistoric pots. Not to mention consciousness and free will. How did we get from there to here? Not even Feynman and Gell-Mann were smart enough to figure that out. (Although Gell-Mann is happily still with us at age 83; perhaps we shouldn't give up on him yet.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Monkey business

Do men have mid-life crises? You betcha.

I'd be hard pressed to think of a male among my acquaintances who didn't run off the rails, or almost run off the rails, in his late 40s, not excluding myself. Millions of words have been written about the male mid-life crisis. A crisis of failed expectations? Diminished sexual potency? Physical vanity -- flab, pot, baldness? Boredom? Regret for the road not taken? And the reaction? A younger girlfriend? An affair? A motorcycle? A fast car? Drink? Crotchetiness?

But it passes. The cloud lifts. Fifty to seventy are generally years of rising contentedness.

Nature or nurture?

Now Andrew Oswald, a British professor of economics, reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a study of 508 great apes in zoos and research centers around the world. And guess what? They go through the same mid-life crises as humans, adjusted, of course, for their shorter life spans. Confined to their cages, they presumably have few ways to act out their disenchantment, other than sulking.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The cross and the megaliths

Let's spend a few minutes with William Holman Hunt's "A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids," 1849-50. Click to enlarge.

Hunt was one of the founders, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of British artists and craftsmen prominent during the second half of the 19th century.

The title describes the scene. In the background, visible through gaps in the fisherman's shanty, we see a Druid priest exciting a crowd of pagan Britons to violence against Christian missionaries. One chasuble-clad Christian is pursued and caught at the right of the background, presumably to be martyred by the angry mob. Another Christian missionary has found refuge with a converted Christian family.

It is, altogether, a tidy scene, rife with symbolism. It is my understanding that the painting preceded Hunt's own religious awakening; he was apparently at this time not yet a believer. The painting is not so much about the religious conversion of pagans, as it is about Christianity bringing civilization to barbarians.

In this we have an unintentional foreshadowing of Western Christian colonialism -- Spain, Britain, and other powers bringing "enlightened religion" and "civilized values" to benighted heathens and savages. Never mind that the heathens and savages were often hideously exploited and sometimes exterminated in the process. Of the original inhabitants of the Bahamas (to which I will soon repair) not a single one was left alive twenty-five years after Columbus brought them the gift of true religion and civilization.

That druid hell-raiser in the background could equally be Pope Urban preaching the First Crusade, or a 21st-century mullah urging jihad. Or, for that matter, an Irish protestant preacher ranting against papists. Or a U.S. politician wanting to bring democracy, by force if necessary, to folks unlucky enough not to live in the most enlightened nation on earth.

Well, enough ranting of my own. Whenever I look at Hunt's painting, my eye is always drawn to the boy huddled on the earthen floor at right foreground, his face in shadow. His family's situation is precarious. Is he listening for footsteps he knows will come? The innocent are always victims of True Belief.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Another act for the Circus McGurkus -- a Saturday reprise

(I have already reprised my take on Dr. Seuss' If I Ran the Circus, from October 2008. Have another look. The following was a next day follow-up.)

Surprises in nature? Let's say you are a microscopic fungus growing on dung -- cow pats, say. To propagate your species you must have your spores ingested by other cows, and thus make your way into other cow pats. But most grazing animals won't feed near their excrement. So you gotta distribute your spores at some distance from your pat. Relying on a breeze might do it, but why not evolve your own spore disperser -- a powerful squirt gun.

That's just what fungi of the species Pilobolus kleinii have done. Go here to see high-speed flicks of the fun -- microscopic fungi squirting their spores a distance of two meters at speeds of 25 meters per second, the fastest flights in nature. The movies were made by mycologist Nik Money and colleagues.

This way! Step right in! Ladies and gents!
My Side Show starts here in the first of my tents
With the Fungal Cannonball, Pilobolus Kleinii,
Who as everyone knows is smaller than teenie
And faster than lightning. Just look at him zoop!
As he flings himself far from his patty of poop.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Is consciousness incomprehensible?

There are reasonable arguments for the incomprehensibility of human consciousness, and some of them were given here the other day in Comments. Let me offer arguments for the contrary.

First, one very important feature of consciousness has already been comprehended. We can say with a high degree of confidence that there is no ghost in the machine, that consciousness is an emergent physio-chemical property of the material brain. Whether consciousness is deterministic or involves some measure of quantum uncertainty remains to be seen, but I find Roger Penrose's argument for quantum uncertainty unconvincing. For the moment, Ockham's Razor rules.

Second, we can study emergent consciousness by observing other organisms, from sea snails to chimpanzees. That is, in principle, we can build up an understanding of human consciousness incrementally. This assumes, of course, that human consciousness differs from that of other organisms only in complexity, not kind. Again, for the moment, the Razor rules.

Third, as I mentioned here once before, a project is underway to fully map the neuronal structure of the human brain, at which point it should be possible to construct an operational electronic analog of the brain. Will such machines be conscious? Google "artificial consciousness" and you'll find arguments for both sides. At the very least we will pare away some of the incomprehensibility.

Fourth, we may already have created a "conscious" machine: the internet, which approaches the human brain in its degree of interconnected complexity. It is continuously "aware," sensitive to millions of sensory inputs -- touch, vision, hearing, smell, and for all I know even taste. I can ask a question in human language or tap an icon and instantly have a response from the internet's vast memory. The internet and its myriad of input/output devices mimic enough of the aspects of human consciousness for us to be increasingly confident that consciousness is not intrinsically beyond in principle understanding.

And isn't in principle understanding all we ask of science?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving on the porch

To all of you who visit here, a hearty THANK YOU from Chet, Anne and Tom. Some of you who regularly comment -- none of whom I know personally -- have been here pretty much from the beginning. The same may be true, for all I know, of the hundreds of silent visitors each day from around the world, who are equally welcome on the porch. You are a remarkably civil and courteous gathering, and I have learned from you, even as you have debated among yourselves.

Most of our family will be gathering at the home of son Dan and his wife Patty, with her family too, for a raucous day of feasting and fun. We have been greatly blessed and have much to be thankful for.

May each and every one of you, whether you celebrate this day or not, enjoy peace, kindness and a full tummy.

Click to enlarge Anne's pic, called "Bridge."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

New philosophy – 3

(I wrote these three posts on Monday. Much of what I have to say has been anticipated in Comments.)

How to explain the (at least partial) comprehensibility of the universe? Must we throw up our hands and declare with Einstein that comprehensibility is incomprehensible?

Maybe not. Humans may not have been created in the image of God, but we were created in the image of the universe.

Our senses, our nervous systems, and our brains were shaped by billions of years of natural selection to cope with the world as we find it. It has been a long time since I did the reading -- Jean Piaget and T. G. R. Bower, for example -- about the conceptual world of human infants, but we apparently come hard-wired with a remarkable repertoire of instinctive understandings of space, time, causality, and so on.

I remember an article in Scientific American back in the 1960s about infants and "the visual cliff." The experimenters placed infants on a glass table. Directly under half of the glass was a solid checkerboard pattern. The checkerboard pattern was well below the other half of the glass, creating the visual perception of a "cliff," even though one did not actually exist. Infants were able to perceive the risk of going over the "cliff" as soon as they were able to move about. Kittens too.

That is to say, spatial concepts are part of the way we are wired.

I don't want to make too much of this, but we were made by the world to comprehend the world. That's why we're here.

Why the world is what it is remains, of course, a profound mystery.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New philosophy -- 2

Koyré's From the Closed World To the Infinite Universe was published in 1957. When I started teaching college in 1964, the required reading for my general studies science course included two articles by two prominent physicists published in Scientific American at about the same time as Koyré's book. George Gamow, a principal architect of the big bang theory, made the case for a universe that began billions of years ago as an explosion from an infinitely dense and infinitely small seed of energy. Fred Hoyle, stalwart champion of the steady state theory, took the stand for an infinite universe with no beginning and no end, in which matter is continuously created in the space between the galaxies.

Both theories had strengths and weaknesses. For example, the big bang successfully accounted for the known abundances of hydrogen and helium in the universe but posited an embarrassing beginning that could not be explained. The steady state theory avoided the stumbling block of a universe that seemed to come from nowhere but replaced it with many little unexplained beginnings (those particles of matter appearing continuously from nothing). Yet the big bang theory made one prediction that was testable: if the universe began in a blaze of luminosity, a degraded remnant of that radiation should still permeate the cosmos, and the precise spectral distribution of this microwave-frequency background could be calculated.

Then, that very year I started teaching, the cosmic microwave background radiation was serendipitously discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, with precisely the predicted spectrum, a triumph of comprehensibility. The universe -- space and time -- had an apparent beginning! For some people, this extraordinary development re-opened the door to a creator God, whose intelligence is the source for the intelligibility of the world. Koyré may have anticipated this. In his final paragraph he wrote:
The infinite Universe of the New Cosmology, infinite in Duration as well as in Extension, in which eternal matter in accordance with external and necessary laws moves endlessly and aimlessly in eternal space, inherited all the ontological attributes of Divinity. Yet only those -- all the others the departed God took away with Him.
What others? Personhood. Love. Justice. And intelligence. Intelligence that is the source of the intelligibility of the world.

But for Einstein, and many of us here, the mathematical singularity which is the big bang is an opaque barrier. To say the universe is created by God conveys no more information than to say it is created by X. We learned to live without Koyré's Dieu fainéant, the lazybones God who had nothing to do, and see no reason to bring him out of retirement.

So why is the universe comprehensible? A few more thoughts tomorrow.

(P.S. Responding to Paul's cogent remarks yesterday about the incomprehensibility of consciousness is above my pay scale. But I am not as pessimistic (optimistic?) as he. I'll say why on Friday.)

Monday, November 19, 2012

New philosophy -- 1

It is one of Albert Einstein's most-often quoted quotes: "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible."

Is the world comprehensible? Apparently at least partially so. Consider the NASA solar eclipse atlas I referenced the other day. It is possible to calculate the precise locations and times for solar eclipses thousands of years into the future and past. That's comprehensibility for you.

Of course, there are still things we do not comprehend, such as consciousness or the development of organisms, but there is no good reason to suppose those things are intrinsically beyond human understanding.

The whole of modern technological civilization and medicine is a monument to comprehensibility.

Why? Why this strange consonance between the world and the human mind?

For centuries the answer was simple. God created a world of space and time, a finite mirror, so to speak, of his own intelligence. He created humans in his own likeness. Human intelligence partook of the intelligibility of God. Everything in the closed, human-centered cosmos was ordered in his likeness. The world was comprehensible because it was made that way -- for us to comprehend.

Then, in the 16th and 17th centuries, came the great disruption, which Alexandre Koryé described in his seminal 1957 book From the Closed World To the Infinite Universe. Daring thinkers resurrected the Greek idea that the universe might be infinite in extent and eternal in duration -- no boundaries in space, no beginning or end in time. It was a radical thought, heretical really, but it meshed well with what the astronomers and physicists were learning about the world we live in. As the poet John Donne wrote:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th' earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation.
Of course, it wasn't as bad as all that. Galileo and Newton provided a new coherence. The physical world itself took on two characteristics of the Godhead -- omnipresence and everlasting life. Everything unfolded not in accordance with the divine will, but according to eternal and immutable laws of nature. The Divine Artifex, master craftsman, in Koyré's words, was replaced by the Dieu fainéant, a lazybones God with nothing to do. And the comprehensibility of the world became -- well, as Einstein said -- incomprehensible.

But...things were about to get more complicated. More tomorrow.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pilgrims progress

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Examination of conscience -- a Saturday reprise

I have been reading Stephanie Smallwood's Saltwater Slavery, a close examination of the trade in human beings between the coast of West Africa and the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is a sobering read, but if there is one thing I came away with, it was this: We have an enormous capacity to rationalize the most horrendous crimes.

Everyone involved in the slave trade -- the European owners of the ships, the masters of the trading companies, the ship captains and crews, the plantation owners in the West Indies and the Chesapeake, the African tribal chiefs who captured and sold their neighbors to the European merchants -- must have known in some part of their souls that what they were doing was wrong. All of them -- good Christians among them, pillars of their communities -- found ways to rationalize their participation.

Who among us is immune to self deceit? To what extent am I implicated in the horrendous tragedies that are Darfur and Iraq? What do I owe to the global environment? Is there such a thing as innocence when we are so intimately connected that people in Fiji and Japan will read these words only moments after I write them?

What about science, the favored subject of this blog? Here is Smallwood:
The littoral [of the West African coast]...was more than a site of economic exchange and incarceration. The violence exercised in the service of human commodification relied upon a scientific empiricism always seeking to find the limits of human capacity for suffering, that point where material and social poverty threatened to consume entirely the lives it was meant to garner for sale in the Americas.
Even science, like religion and democratic politics, can be pressed into the service of evil.

We are all of us to some extent in the grip of economic forces as powerful and sometimes as pernicious as those that drove the saltwater slave trade. Few of us are required to personally face the direst evils. We are saved from moral anguish only by the fact that our acts of commission and omission ripple outward until their consequences are diluted and lost in the general happiness or unhappiness of humankind.

(This post originally appeared in April 2007. I choose these Saturday reprises by throwing a (figurative) dart at the archive.)

Friday, November 16, 2012


To my mind, there is no more spiritually fulfilling experience than lying on one's back under a crystal clear late-summer sky unpolluted by artificial light and seeing the Milky Way arching across the dome of night from Sagittarius in the south to Cassiopeia in the north. Those of you who live in the southern hemisphere will have a different perspective, including a loftier view of the brilliant luminosity near the galactic center in Sagittarius, but you know what I mean. One has a sense of falling into infinity, of becoming a born-again child of cosmic space and time.

Knowledge lifts the experience above the purely sensual or aesthetic. Knowing what one is looking at -- a galaxy of hundreds of billons of stars, most too distant to be visible to the unaided eye other than by their accumulated light -- lifts us up and out of the limitations of our senses and gives soaring flight to our imagination.

In The Soul of the Night I trace the long persistent in myth of the monster in the whirlpool, from Homer's Charybdis to the Nordic Great Kraken to Herman Melville's whale-induced whirlpool that drags the Pequod and all her sailors but one to a watery oblivion.

The Milky Way is a whirlpool, a colossal spiral one-hundred-thousand light-years wide, turning on its axis once every few hundred million years, imperceptibly slowly on the human time scale, but in a time-lapse movie of the universe's history it spins like a toy pinwheel in a stiff wind. The last time we were more or less where we are today, dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

And at its core -- a monster.
Here is an X-ray image (a recent APOD) of the galactic center, undergoing a sudden flare-up in brightness. Astronomers have confirmed the existence at the center of this region of a black hole with a mass of millions of Suns. There it sits, calmly feeding on surrounding stars and gas, occasionally gulping down a flare-inducing, cheek-stuffing mouthful. It is not the black hole itself we are seeing in these images, but the energy emitted as stars and gas make their fatal fall. The black hole itself is a region of space smaller that the size of the Earth's orbit for which the gravitational pull of the hole's mass is too great for even light to escape. The mass inside -- those millions of gobbled stars -- is squeezed down, down, down to the size of the Earth, to the size of a baseball, to the size of a pinhead, to…

Born again, into a universe of almost incomprehensible dimension, awash in wonder and mystery. Children of the Milky Way.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


We had a little preview of winter last week, plunging temperatures and a few inches of snow. Didn't last long, but reminded me why we'll be heading south in December.

Wasn't always like this. I used to love the winter. A tramp in the woods after a snowfall was my idea of heaven.

During all the time I was raising a family, there was a special place I retreated to when the hubbub at home got to be too much -- a wooded bluff overlooking a pond not far from my house. And no better time to be there than a cold, clear winter night when the pond was frozen and the ground covered with fresh snow.

There was something about a winter night that cleared the cobwebs and focused the mind. Overhead red Betelgeuse and blue Rigel teased with their hints of color. The Pleiades beckoned with faint lights; on the clearest, darkest nights I might see nine stars in the cluster, instead of the six that can usually be seen with the unaided eye. The Milky Way draped at Orion's back, not nearly as bright as the starry sash of summer, but all the prettier for it. "One secret of observing nature is capacity to take a hint," wrote the naturalist John Burroughs. Winter was all hints, and that's why I loved it.

I would sit on the snowy bluff and listen to the unearthly sounds of the pond, as plunging temperatures caused the ice to stretch and groan. The rumble of the ice was muffled by the snow-covered evergreens. The sounds of the village were quieted too, the occasional traffic on Main Street drowned out by the silence of soft surfaces. I would lie back in the foot-deep snow and almost hear -- or imagine I could almost hear -- the songs of the stars in their courses. Winter was a time for solitude and silence, when nature whispered whatever lessons she had to teach, and the slightest distraction was enough to keep one from hearing.

That was then, this is now. The dark skies have been nearly erased by light pollution. Traffic on Main Street is an unceasing roar. The bluff is still there, and the pond occasionally freezes, but the magic is gone. The slush in the driveway needs to be shoveled. Driving on icy roads is a nuisance. The cold aches in the bones.

So off we will go, to our tropic isle, where on a winter night I can lie half-naked on the terrace and count the stars in the Pleiades. But make no mistake; since we came to the island light pollution and ambient noise has increased. There may or may not be places left in the world where a sharp-eyed observer can see more than six Pleiads and nature's whispers can still be heard, but we're too old to find them. Soon enough, I suppose, we'll have to withdraw to permanent residence in New England. If nature still has lessons to teach me, she will have to shout.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Darkness at noon

Report from Australia: The gals saw some of the partial phases, but totality was obscured by cloud. Sigh!

The Moon's conical shadow is as long and thin as a rapier, and by coincidence it is just about as long as the slightly variable distance between the Moon and Earth. Sometimes when the Moon gets between the Sun and Earth the tip of the shadow doesn't quite reach to the surface of the Earth and we have an annular eclipse (a thin ring of sunlight surrounds the Moon); these are the red bands on Monday's map. But the really spectacular events are totality, when the tip of the shadow-rapier slices into the body of the Earth. The "gash" is the path of totality, the blue bands on the map. If you want to see a total solar eclipse you must be standing somewhere in this band, preferably near the centerline. With a clear sky.

If the Moon were a bit smaller or a bit farther away, we wouldn't have total solar eclipses at all. If the Moon were bigger or closer, eclipses would be more common. As it is, the sizes and distances are such that these mind-blowing events are deliciously rare. As you look at the 20-year map, you can guess that the chance of having a total eclipse at the place where you live during your lifetime is small. An average wait is about 400 years.

How long would it take for the entire map of the Earth to be "painted blue"? That is, what is the longest time any particular place on Earth would have to wait for a total solar eclipse? The answer: 4,500 years. Unless you want to travel, don't hold your breath. Some folks now alive in Arkansas (2024/2045) or southern Illinois (2017/2024) will experience two total solar eclipses in their lifetime without leaving home.
But you can see from Monday's map how rare it is that two blue bands cross. Has any spot on Earth experienced three total solar eclipses in a lifetime? I would guess so, but I don't have the patience to churn through the NASA atlas.

I do notice, however, that our place in Exuma in almost dead centerline for the eclipse of 2045. Oh how I'd like to be sitting on my own terrace (the black dot) and watch that event. Six minutes of totality! Compared to two minutes for the Cairns eclipse and not far off the maximum. Alas, I'll be long gone. Maybe the house will still be in the family and aged children (Tom, our youngest, will be 75) or grandchildren will be there.
If rising seas haven't washed the house away.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Let us begin…

…by clearing up the old confusion between the man who loves learning and the man who loves reading, and point out that there is no connection whatsoever between the two. A learned man is a sedentary, concentrated solitary enthusiast, who searches through books to discover some particular grain of truth upon which he has set his heart. If the passion for reading conquers him, his gains dwindle and vanish between his fingers. A reader, on the other hand, must check the desire for learning at the onset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading.
So Virginia Woolf begins an essay published in the TLS in 1916, called "Hours in a Library." I stumbled upon it during my hours in the library, which is pretty much how I spend my time these days. My reading is serendipitous. I graze the stacks like a bovine in a meadow. I sip and savor. Or curl up in a comfy chair with some more substantial tuft of meadow grass. I have no learned goal in sight; I'm too old to aspire to career or authority. If something sticks, well and good, but I have no desire for accumulation. I want the pleasure of the moment. An essay of Virginia Woolf's, perhaps.

She goes on to say that the "great season for reading" is between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. Not for me, I'm afraid. I was too busy falling in love and starting a family. And solving endless problem sets in physics. If you had asked me then what was the last book I read, I might say Landau and Lifshitz's Mechanics or Slater's Quantum Theory of Matter, man-of-learning stuff, not man-of-reading.

Nevertheless, a few "reading" books did fall into my hands, and Woolf is right about this: eighteen to twenty-four is the season when books can set their mark on one's soul.

Two books stand out. Thoreau's Walden and Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain. Both books were subversive, at odds with the outward circumstances of my life, espousing virtues of solitude and contemplation as I dove into public engagement and learning.

But the seeds were set. The worm was in the bud, and I would feel it squirming somewhere deep inside all of my adult life. There was never a time that I wouldn't rather -- with Thoreau -- sit on a pumpkin than a velvet cushion. And there was never a time that I wasn't ready to celebrate -- with Merton -- the "gratuity and meaninglessness of rain."

Monday, November 12, 2012

A hole in the heavens

After a week of travel in New Zealand and Australia, my daughter Maureen and daughter-in-law Patricia are in Cairns, Australia, to rendezvous with the Sun and Moon. It will be Tuesday evening here, but already Wednesday morning there, when the Sun rises over a Pacific horizon at 5:35 AM. Ten minutes later, the Moon begins to move between Cairns and the Sun, nibbling a bite of the Sun's disk at the 11-o'clock position. For the next hour, the Moon hides more and more of the Sun, as the Sun ascends the sky. Then, at 6:38, the last of the Sun's bright disk is covered.

The sight is one of the great glories of nature, heart-stoppingly beautiful, weird, magnificent, unlike anything one might expect. (I've watched two total solar eclipses, one on the Black Sea, another in southern Turkey.) For two minutes, the Australian dawn will return to night, and the Moon-covered Sun will look like an infinitely-deep black hole in the sky.


Clouds. This time of year the chances of early morning clouds in Cairns are about 50/50. Current AccuWeather prediction looks dicey too. Let's cross our fingers for Patty and Mo.

The area in which totality can be viewed at any instant is an oval less than 100 miles wide, a moving dot on the Earth's surface, like the tracing of a marker pen on a household globe. As totality ends in Cairns, the magic dot moves out across the Pacific, not to touch land again.
A curious fact: The eclipse begins in Australia on Wednesday, and ends just west of the coast of South America on Tuesday.

Here's a map showing paths of totality (in blue} for the next eight years. I hope to be somewhere in that blue sweep across the US in 2017. If you can manage it, and have never seen a total solar eclipse before, start planning now to be there.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Unified field

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Walking stick -- a Saturday reprise

(This post appeared in December 2008. A walking stick from our yard in Exuma.)

Gabriel: Your Divine Excellency, you may remember a fellow who showed up here seventeen years ago by the name of Theodor Geisel. Calls himself Dr. Seuss.

God: Well, of course I remember him. I remember everyone, in all 100 billion galaxies. I'm omniscient, you know.

Gabriel: Yes, Sir. Of course. Anyway, this guy Geisel has some artistic talent so we assigned him to Earth Design, Animalia, in the Arthropoda department.

God: I love that department! I have a particular fondness for beetles. Have this Geisel fellow design me some beetles.

Gabriel: I suggested beetles, Sir, but he has come up with something so phantasmagorical I decided I better run it past you. Have a look. (He opens a box.)

God: A stick? I though you said Animalia, not Plantae.

Gabriel: Not a stick, Sir. It's an insect.

God: No kidding, let me have a closer look. (He peers.) This fellow Geisel has a sense of humor, doesn't he? I doubt if even I could have come up with this.

Gabriel: It has certain advantages, Sir. For the insect, I mean. It is virtually invisible when perched on a bush. Invisible to predators.

God: But I love seeing my creatures eat one another. Tooth and claw, and all that.

Gabriel: Yes, I know, Sir. But this adds a bit of fun to the chase. Or so says Geisel.

God: And look. The "stem" is brown and the "twigs" are green. How cunning!

Gabriel: Just like a real bush.

God: What does he propose to call it?

Gabriel: A walking stick. (Chuckles.) But I think something like Phasmatodea is rather more dignified.

God: I like it, I like it. One of the more intelligent designs we've seen from that department. I think it's a keeper.