Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Saturday, at six o'clock

Let's journey back in time. Not so very far, really. Say to the year 4004 B.C.E. A Saturday evening, around 6 PM. The evening before the autumn equinox. A pleasant evening to be sure. The trees in bloom and covered with fruit. A balmy breeze. Maybe a first sniff of winter in the air. Folks looking forward to a nice Sunday on the morrow.

Except there were only two folks.

And at five minutes to six o'clock there were no trees or breezes.

At five minutes to six o'clock there was no five minutes to six o'clock. No time. No Earth. No Sun, Moon or stars.

At five minutes to six o'clock there was nothing.

So deduced James Ussher, 17th-century Anglican bishop, through a painstaking and scholarly study of the Bible.

The universe had a beginning. At a particular moment in time.

Nothing intrinsically absurd about this idea. Contemporary scientific cosmology suggests something similar, although with a rather longer pedigree (13.7 billion years) and not quite such a degree of precision.

But there is nothing intrinsically absurd about other ideas, either -- that the universe is eternal, or cyclical, or that there are multiple universes, or that the universe is branching and fragmenting into an infinity of universes all the time.

Ussher's idea of a unique beginning was, of course, theologically based: Christ's redeeming act was a unique, pivotal event in a story that has a beginning and an end. Ussher never looked at a rock or pondered geological evidence of any kind.

The big bang theory, on the other hand, was forced on initially reluctant physicists by observations of the universe -- the recession of the galaxies, the abundance of the elements, quasars, and the cosmic background radiation. Will the theory stand the test of time? Time will tell.

For the time being, many folks grab onto the big bang as confirmation of the Christian story, like Ussher letting theology be their guide. With, I would argue, as little reason and as much risk.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Divine rights

A photograph on the front page of a recent NYTimes showed Pope Benedict XVI conferring the accoutrements of cardinal on Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, one of 22 new cardinals created by the pope. Dolan, dressed in scarlet regalia, kneels at the foot of Benedict's lavish throne, surrounded by acolytes, some kneeling like adoring angels in a Renaissance painting, all male.

Yes, special occasions invite dressing up and ceremony. But this scene struck me as strikingly out of temper with the 21st century. Or the 19th or 20th, for that matter. One would have to go back to the Sun King, Louis XIV, for such monarchical trappings and obsequiousness, or to one of the palaces of a megalomaniacal dictator like Saddam Hussein.

Oh, there you go again, Raymo, carping on about Catholicism, a disgruntled former altar boy. Let it go.

It's not about being disgruntled. I long ago lapsed from any sort of supernaturalist theology, but I have spent most of my life in a Catholic milieu and have nothing but affection for the Church. I don't begrudge her the supernaturalism; if it weren't for the supernaturalist doctrines of the faith -- incarnation, resurrection, immortality, etc.. -- there would be no Church. But a Church that pomps itself out with ring kissing and golden thrones makes me cringe with embarrassment. Never mind the sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and triumphalism.

So I toddle on toward oblivion, bearing the unerasable marks of a sacramental faith, born and steeped in mystery, Catholic to the toes of my fleshy feet, wedded to the world in all of its material grandeur -- bread and wine, light and dark, fire and water. The fierce, fine grace of what is.

But, please, leave the ruby slippers to Dorothy.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Drafty halls

Those faster-than-light neutrinos that made such a big splash last year
may not have been so speedy after all
. Turns out the surprising result might be attributed to a loose wire. So Einstein was apparently right after all. Nothing travels faster than light.

Big surprise (he said facetiously). I don't know of anyone who took the original experiment at face value. Such a revolutionary result requires a high standard of independent confirmation.

But it made good press. Take that, Mr. Einstein!

Which is not to say that I wasn't thrilled with the original reports. Not because the neutrinos made the journey from CERN on the French-Swiss border to the underground lab at Gran Sasso in Italy slightly quicker than expected, but rather that they made the journey at all.

Think about it. The accelerator at CERN shoots a beam of neutrinos under the Alps and the spine of the Apennines, through 700 kilometers of solid rock. The vast majority are unimpeded in their flight. Of those that reach Gran Sasso, only the rare particle is caught and recorded. The rest continue on their way, eventually exiting the Earth somewhere to the south, and on across the universe.

That's the real story. That scientists have discovered the existence of such elusive particles, can shoot beams of them through the Earth, and snag a few in a deep underground chamber.

And while I'm thinking about it, 100 trillion neutrinos from the center of the Sun are passing through my body every second as I write.
Neutrinos, they are very small.

They have no charge and have no mass

And do not interact at all.

The earth is just a silly ball

To them, through which they simply pass,

Like dustmaids through a drafty hall

Or photons through a sheet of glass.

They snub the most exquisite gas,

Ignore the most substantial wall,

Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,

Insult the stallion in his stall,

And scorning barriers of class,

Infiltrate you and me! Like tall

And painless guillotines, they fall

Down through our heads into the grass.

At night, they enter at Nepal

And pierce the lover and his lass

From underneath the bed-you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.

Cosmic Gall, by John Updike.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


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

Saturday, February 25, 2012

When God Is Gone -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in June 2008.)

Having seen the announcement for my new book, When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy, my friend the theologian Greg Shaw shared with me some remarks of his addressed to the question "Is God a Projection of the Human Mind?"

He first considers the answers of the early Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa, who explicitly recognized the dangers of projection. Clement says: "Most people are enclosed in their mortal bodies like a snail in its shell, curled up in their obsessions after the manner of hedgehogs. They form their notion of God's blessedness taking themselves for a model." And Gregory: "Every concept formed by the intellect in an attempt to comprehend the divine nature can succeed only in fashioning an idol, not in making God known." The Fathers were theists, but their God resides in mystery.

For the Platonists of antiquity, even this was too much. For them, God is not a supreme being, but the One that precedes being. We understand the One by seeking the unity within ourselves.

Greg summarizes: "Is God a projection?"
Yes, in two ways. First, there is the God that we invent to satisfy our need for security and with whom we set up a commercial exchange: we give him obedience and prayers, and we give money to his representatives, and in return we receive a sense of righteousness and a guarantee of eternal life. This is the invented God projected by the mind, the idol described by Gregory of Nyssa that reflects our shallowness and insecurity. The other God is also a projection, but it arises from a mysterious depth within us and is an expression of our deepest longing. The manifestations of this "god" change as we change, its imagery deepens as we deepen. This latter god is not an entity or a being of any kind and its "appearances" allow us to enter the mystery of our deepest yearning, moving us back and forth between positive and negative ways of experiencing god.
The scientific skeptic might reasonably ask if even this second Platonic notion of God is a step too far. The G-word -- upper or lower case -- carries so much anthropomorphic baggage it might seem best to avoid it altogether.

But still, I think, Greg's second notion of projection deserves respect, and certainly not the scorn heaped upon any idea of God by the "new atheists." It is something close to this second notion that I am reaching for in When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy. I would not look for divinity only within the self, but in the self in interaction with the world. The more we learn about the universe of the galaxies and the DNA, the more we become aware of the depth of our ignorance. We face the universe in silent awe, refusing to give any name to the source of our awe. Knowledge -- reliable scientific knowledge of the world -- is a portal through which we enter "the mystery of our deepest yearning."

Friday, February 24, 2012

Swimming in the Milky Way

I apologize for yesterday's post that somehow got a day out of sync with the sky. Thanks to Scavone for sorting me out. The Moon last evening was two days old, not one.

But what an evening still! Mercury winking in the fading light. The whisper-thin crescent Moon. Venus. Jupiter. Suspended vertically in a cloudless sky. Even the grandchildren joined us on the front steps to admire the view.

There was a time early in our love affair with this island when Venus and Jupiter would have been accompanied this time of the year by the zodiacal light, a diffuse glow reaching up from the western horizon, light reflected off of meteoric dust in the plane of the solar system. That was when the island was still inky dark and we thought we were truly living in the cosmos.

Then came the new airport over the hill. Street lights along the Queen's Highway. And the Sandals resort. The zodiacal light vanished. The Milky Way faded. Slowly, inexorably, we become prisoners of the Earth.

Oh, I'm exaggerating, I suppose. Skywatching is still vastly more rewarding here than at our home near Boston. But the island has winked on in those photographs of the nighttime Earth from space, a tiny dot of artificial light.

Scavone mentioned using Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar as his source. You will know that I have often recommended Ottewell's Calendar here. It is hard for me to imagine living without it. Two full-page spreads are devoted to young and old Moons.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Tonight we will watch, drinks in hand, on the sunset porch as the Sun goes down. If the western horizon is clear, as it promises to be, we have a chance to see a 24-hour-old Moon, about as slim a new Moon as one can hope to see, and then the "old Moon in the new Moon's arms," Selene demur in Earthshine.

Mercury will be there too, but lower yet, closer to the horizon and probably unattainable. But Venus and Jupiter will chase the Moon to its due-west setting, blazing away in the fading dusk with no stars as competition.

I mentioned John Updike yesterday. I remember something he wrote long ago in an anthology called The Meaning of Life, published by Life Magazine: "Ancient religion and modern science agree: We are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention."

So this evening I will attend, watching for a slip of Moon as thin as an eyelash, and, seeing it (I hope), give praise, nod hallelujah, breathe a silent Te Deum of the secular spirit.

That's another reason I've always liked Updike. Some other modern authors salt their prose with science, usually with reference to things like entropy or the uncertainty principle, things with vague, half-understood metaphorical possibilities. Updike could tease a metaphor from something as basic as inertia, elasticity, or the curvature of the Earth, -- or Earthshine on a crescent Moon. He understood the spirit of science -- its catlike curiosity, its metaphorical legerdemain, its dumbstruck awe -- better than many scientists.

When Updike says that science is praise, I concur. When he says that science means paying attention, I nod in agreement. When he suggests that we are here to praise (which supposes paying attention) he has stated a truth that both scientists and religious folks might comfortably share.

So this evening, I will fill my wine glass, take up my position on the sunset porch, and sing with the Psalmist: "When I behold the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you set in place, what is man that you should be mindful of him?"

What, indeed?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


At the end of one of his short stories, John Updike's protagonist Hank, a typical Updike alter-ego (we presume), observes: "Plato was wrong; what is is absolute. Ideas pale."

Updike being Updike you can guess that Hank has this epiphany while observing a potential lover (his ex-wife's twin sister) in her splendid nakedness.

Updike was pretty much the scribe of my generation of American males, born in the 30s into a conventional Christian faith, who came of age in the utterly conventional 50s, and who spent the next decades negotiation the shoals and tidal rips of matrimony and child-rearing.

Our generation was bracketed on both sides by ideas. Our parents lives were more or less ruled by traditional faith. Our children embraced big political ideas -- feminism, environmentalism, sexual liberation, pacifism. And there we were, the transitional generation, having shed the chasuble of faith and not at all comfortable in the tie-dyed duds of flower children, naked of ideas, so to speak, breathlessly discovering the is.

The isness of things has stayed with me. Most of what I've written over the years celebrates the is. One can't live without ideas, of course. They swim about in our heads whether we welcome them or not. But I've never trusted ideas -- those pale flighty things. They are tricksters, deceivers, shapeshifters. But the is is absolute. The is is right there in front of one's nose. One can see it shiver. Caress it with one's eyes. Sniff it. Touch it with one's finger and feel the adamantine hardness or yielding give.

The who and what and why are things we can debate, but the is is. It's something we can trust. And the older I get the more I value it, live with it, lay it up like treasure. The is is always with us.

Until it isn't.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Science and technology

In my last post I spoke of how "science and scientifically-based technology" have changed the world. I had originally written "science and its corollary technology," which seems to suggest that all technology flows from a scientific understanding of the world. This is not true. Technology preceded science. The stone tools of our hominid ancestors were based on trial and error, not on any knowledge of the crystal structure of stone.

Fire-making, cooking, metal working, glass and pottery, agriculture, the domestication of animals, the wheel: none of these epic steps in human social evolution were based on the systematic investigation of nature's laws that we call science. The building of dams, canals, temples, fortifications and tombs advanced by rude experience. It is true that science had its tentative beginnings in antiquity -- think if Archimedes, Galen, Eratosthenes, and others, but their impact on technology was minimal. The Romans, who were less adept at science, far outstripped the more theoretical Greeks in mastering the practical arts.

Science firmly established itself as a way of knowing in the 17th century, but it wasn't until the 19th century that an unstoppable flow of technological innovation began to flow from scientifically-acquired knowledge of the world. The work of Lavoisier, Priestly and others blazed the way for a burgeoning chemical industry. Faraday, Maxwell and Hertz sparked the massive influence of electrical technology on our lives. The germ theory of disease revolutionized public health. And so on.

It is not quite fair to say that science and technology are now the same thing, or that technology is a corollary of science, but the two activities have become so entangled that it is hard to think of one without the other. Strip away all of contemporary technology that is not science-based and we would indeed be back in Charles Dickens' London.

Give this to Havel and friends: Science has also given us gas chambers, nuclear weapons, global warming, overpopulation, and massive destruction of natural environments. Knowledge is morally neutral. The use of knowledge requires human wisdom, something that, alas, has perhaps not changed much since the time of Dickens -- or Archimedes.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Land of lost content?

I am sure that sometime in the last eight years I have reproduced here the famous quote from a 1987 article of the Czech poet/playwright/politician Vaclav Havel: "Modern science…abolishes as mere fiction the innermost foundations of our natural world; it kills God and takes his place on the vacant throne so henceforth it would be science that would hold the order of being in its hand as its sole legitimate guardian and so be the legitimate arbiter of all relevant truth…People thought they could explain and conquer nature -- yet the outcome is that they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it."

He goes on to elaborate: "[Ours is] an epoch which denies the binding importance of personal experience -- including the experience of mystery and of the absolute -- and displaces the personally experienced absolute as the measure of the world with a new, man-made absolute, devoid of mystery…the absolute of so-called objectivity."

One comes across some version the Havel quote all over the place, especially in the writings of the far relativist left and the far religious right. It seems people who agree on nothing else use him as a cudgel. Havel, after all, was almost universally respected. His anti-science screed is the perfect preface for anyone who harbors a grudge against the ideal of objective, human-derived knowledge.

What we can all agree on is that science and scientifically-based technology have changed the world. The question is whether the world we live in today is better or worse that the one we have left behind.

I was thinking about this the oher day as I was reading an article in the NYT Magazine about a Charles Dickens theme park in England, which purports to recreate the London of Dickens' time. The author writes: "And even if it were possible to create a lavish simulacrum of 1850s London -- with its typhus and cholera and clouds of toxic corpse gas, its sewage pouring into the Thames, its average life span of 27 years -- why would anyone want to visit?"

Why indeed?

And don't forget the choking smoke from coal fires, the debtor's prisons, the rotting teeth, the backyard privies, the neighborhood water pump, the rats, the maggots, the famine across the Irish sea, the coffin ships. Ah, yes, those were the days, of mystery and the absolute. That is the land of lost content,
/ I see it shining plain,/ 
The happy highways where I went
/ And cannot come again.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Valentine -- 2

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

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Very, very, very, very, very... -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in October, 2007.)

In a short story that was published posthumously in the New Yorker earlier this year, the inestimable Primo Levi meditated on the limits of language. The story was called The Tranquil Star.

He writes "The star was very big and very hot, and its weight was enormous," and realizes immediately that the adjectives have failed him:
For a discussion of stars our language is inadequate and seems laughable, as if someone were trying to plow with a feather. It's a language that was born with us, suitable for describing objects more or less as large and long-lasting as we are; it has our dimensions, it's human. It doesn't go beyond what our senses tell us.
Until fairly recently in human history, there was nothing smaller than a scabies mite, writes Levi, and therefore no adjective to describe it. Nothing bigger than the sea or sky. Nothing hotter than fire. We can add modifiers: very big, very small, very hot. Or use adjectives of dubious superlativeness: enormous, colossal, extraordinary. But, really, these feeble stretchings of language don't take us very far in grasping the very, very, very extraordinarily diminutive or spectacularly colossal dimensions of atomic matter or cosmic space and time. We can overcome the limitations of language, Levi say, "only with a violent effort of the imagination."

I spent more than forty years trying to find ways to violently stretch the imaginations of my students (and myself) to accommodate the dimensions of the universe revealed by science. I would project onto a huge screen a photograph of a firestorm on the Sun, then superimpose a scale-sized Earth, which fit comfortably inside a loop of solar fire. I would take the class into the College Quad here near Boston, where I had set up a basketball to represent the Sun, then gathered 100 feet away with a pinhead Earth; we walked together with our pin in the great annual journey of the Earth, and looked through a telescope at the marble-sized Jupiter than I had previously installed at the other end of the long Quad (the next closest star system would have been a couple of basketballs in Hawaii). We walked geologic timelines that took us from one end of the campus to the other.

In one of my Globe essays I used this analogy:
Imagine the human DNA as a strand of sewing thread. On this scale, the DNA in the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a typical human cell would be about 150 miles long, with about 600 nucleotide pairs per inch. That is, the DNA in a single cell is equivalent to 1000 spools of sewing thread, representing two copies of the genetic code. Take all that thread -- the 1000 spools worth -- and crumple it into 46 wads (the chromosomes). Stuff the wads into a shoe box (the cell nucleus) along with -- oh, say enough chicken soup to fill the box. Toss the shoe box into a steamer trunk (the cell), and fill the rest of the trunk with more soup. Take the steamer trunk with its contents and shrink it down to an invisibly small object, smaller than the point of a pin. Multiply that tiny object by a trillion and you have the trillion cells of the human body, each with its full complement of DNA.
Or this description from Waking Zero:
The track of the Prime Meridian across England from Peace Haven in the south to the mouth of the River Humber in the north is nearly 200 miles. If that distance is taken to represent the 13.7 billion year history of the universe, as we understand it today, then all of recorded human history is less than a single step. The entire story I have told in this book, from the Alexandrian astronomers and geographers to the present-day astronomers who launch telescopes into space, would fit neatly into a single footprint. If the 200 miles of the meridian track is taken to represent the distance to the most distant objects we observe with our telescopes, then a couple of steps would take us across the Milky Way Galaxy. A mote of dust from my shoe is large enough to contain not only our own solar system but many neighboring stars.
But as hard as one tries, the scale of these things escape us. If one could truly comprehend what we are seeing when we look, say, at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo, which I have done my best to convey to myself and others in a dozen ways, it would surely shake to the core some of our most cherished beliefs. Just as our language is contrived on a human scale, so too are our gods.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Tuning in

I have mentioned here before my friend and neighbor Dwight, he of the preternatural powers of observation. To walk with Dwight is to realize that I go through life half blind, missing half of what there is to see. It's like living in one of those picture puzzles we enjoyed as children, an ordinary scene that hides images of puppies, pumpkins and tin drums. He teaches me lots of other stuff too, like how to change brake pads.

In return I share some of my knowledge, such as it is, like when and where to look for a young new moon and what makes the Sun burn.

Yesterday on our walk along the beach he asked about cell phones: How is it that someone's recognizable voice comes right out of the air?

It's a good question, and I did my best to answer it.

As I finished, I began to think again about something that always boggles my mind when I think about it: As we walked along the beach, we were walking through a sea of electromagnetic radiation modulated with information.

We were walking through dozens of telephone conversations. The weather and news from around the world. Pop music. Classical symphonies. Ship to shore communications. Ham radio. GPS. We were plowing like ocean liners through swells of human commerce, socialization, war making, entertainment. Unawares, unsensing, oblivious.

It passes though our bodies, through the walls of the house. Some of it from not so far away; some from halfway around the world. The planet hums in it. Glimmers in it. The planet glows in it, a soft, invisible glow. The astronauts on the Moon tuned in with their radios. And we on Earth, no matter where we were, walking along the beach even, could have twiddled a dial and sucked it out of the ether: "One small step…"

I wonder if Heinrich Hertz could have imagined in 1886, when he first broadcast and received an electromagnetic signal across his lab, with instruments made of brass wood, wire, string and sealing wax, that he was initiating an era in which we would move, eat, make love and have our being in a vast shimmering imperceptible ocean of radiant communication.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Natural law -- 2

Paul VI proclaimed the encyclical Humanae Vitae banning artificial contraception in 1968. He did not issue any other encyclicals in the following ten years of his pontificate. It was as if he knew that what he had "infallibly" asserted was considered by the vast majority of Catholics to be manifestly fallible.

"For man cannot attain that true happiness for which he yearns with all the strength of his spirit, unless he keeps the laws which the Most High God has engraved in his very nature," wrote Paul VI.

By interpreting our God-engraved human nature as intrinsically heterosexual and procreative, the Church certainly did not increase the store of human happiness.

Where do we discover the God-engraved plan? In revelation. In the teaching authority of the Church.

But what about science, the most successful way humans have yet devised to discern the "laws of nature"? Paul VI had a role for science too.

Scientists can serve marriage and the family and also their own peace of conscience by pooling their efforts to elucidate more thoroughly the conditions favorable to "a proper regulation of births." In other words: I got rhythm. Who could ask for anything more?

All of this would be irrelevant if it were not for the fact that official Church policy has unfortunate consequences in places like Africa where sexually transmitted diseases are endemic. Even in the United States, as we have seen in recent weeks, bishops who are hopelessly out of sync with their flocks inject natural law into the political process, and a major presidential candidate invokes Catholic natural law tradition to support ultra-conservative social policies.

But back to Humanae Vitae. Paul VI writes: "The most remarkable development of all is to be seen in man's stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life -- over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life."

In this, of course, he is surely correct. The stupendous progress of which he spoke has flowed from an understanding of natural laws determined empirically, not from revelation or tradition. The powers we now have over our bodies, minds and social lives are indeed awesome. Exercising those powers wisely is our collective challenge -- liberals, conservatives, religious and secular. In this the Church might pay more attention to the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful), and less to the pre-scientific speculations of 13th century philosophers and theologians.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Natural law -- 1

I suppose I learned about the Roman Catholic "natural law" tradition in a philosophy or theology class as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame in the 1950s, but I don't remember much (anything?) about it. As I look now at the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on "natural law," I think I can understand why not much of it sank in way back then. It strikes me as so much gobbledygook.

I quote: "According to St. Thomas, the natural law is 'nothing else than the rational creature's participation in the eternal law.' The eternal law is God's wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action."

So natural law is not a law in any sense like, say, Newton's laws of motion or Boyle's law of gases. It is rather a natural creature's free obedience to God-given supernatural laws. Or something.

My first significant encounter with "natural law" came as a graduate student at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) when my newly-married spouse and I went to a "round-table discussion" at the Newman Club (a club for Catholic students) on contraception. Well, it wasn't much of a round table at all, but rather the palsy-walsy chaplain instructing us on the fine points of natural law. The bottom line: Any form of contraception but the rhythm method is against the natural law. And sinful.

As it turned out, this wasn't a problem because my wife and I were eager to start a family, and by the time we were finished having children, we were finished with the Church's magisterium too.

In the meantime, I was studying real natural law, in the physics building across the campus, and then (again) at Notre Dame. Here was natural law of a different sort. One didn't choose to obey or disobey the law of gravity, say. If one stepped out of a fourth floor window, one accelerated at 9.8 meters-per-second-squared until one smacked into the sidewalk. The law of gravity carried no moral implications. It was eternal (presumably). If it was God's wisdom, we can thank Newton's apple for the revelation.

This was about the time when young Catholics were assertively questioning the Church's authority on such matters, and progressive theologians were not far behind. In 1968, Pope Paul VI tried to put a cap on discussion with the encyclical Humanae Vitae, overruling the majority report of a pontifical commission on the matter. The encyclical affirmed "laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman."

Paul wrote: "The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life."

And so the encyclical stands yet, unrevised, a deeply immoral (in my estimation) reaffirmation of a "natural law" that is neither natural nor law, that 98 percent of sexually-active Catholics with ready access to artificial contraception have the good sense to ignore, and that has caused untold human misery.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Flashing ahead of creation

When the sugar water in the feeder goes sour, the hummingbirds let us know. They dip their long beaks into the tiny holes, ever so briefly, then -- am I imagining it? -- cast us a disapproving glance.

So we mix more sugar water, refill the feeder, and as soon as we retreat inside the screened porch they are back, jealously one at a time, to gleefully dip and suck.
I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.
Lines from a poem by D. H. Lawrence, called Humming-bird.

They have the highest metabolic rates of any animals, a dozen times higher than a pigeon and a hundred times higher than an elephant. In hovering flight a Bahamian woodstar's wings beat at an incredible -- and invisible -- 80 times per second. Its heart beats 10 times faster than a human's. To maintain these rates, a hummingbird must consume nearly its weight in nectar daily, which requires visits to hundreds or even thousands of flowers. That's roughly equivalent to a human chug-a-lugging a bottle of Gatorade every five minutes of his waking hours.
Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.
As small as my pinkie finger, held aloft on a blur of motion, shimmering like jewelry, its powerful flight muscles jam-packed with mitochondria, the minute compartments in every cell that squeeze energy from sugar. Solar powered. An active hummingbird is never more than a few hours from starving to death.
I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.
How is it possible? Eighty beats per second! In the time it takes me to say "eighty," their wing muscles have expanded and contracted eighty times, too fast for the eye to follow. Those shivering airfoils, those racing hearts. Dipping their beaks into the fresh liquid. Backing off. Winking -- do I imagine it? -- hanging there, animated ornaments. Then darting, bullet-like, into the hedge.
Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbering, terrifying monster.
We look at him through he wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The loom of life

The nature writer Jill Sisson Quinn said it at the end of one of her essays: "We've had it backwards all along: the body is immortal -- it is the soul that dies."

Which says something very big in very few words.

Which brings me to our compost bin.

All our food waste goes in. When we come back next winter we'll have a bin full of rich soil. Right now I have peppers and tomatoes growing in last year's table scrapings.

New food. Same atoms. Some of them at least.

What the peppers, tomatoes and me have in common is carbon chemistry. So, too, the hummingbirds, geckoes, sea grape, and barracudas.

All life on Earth is a flourish on the theme of carbon. If life on Earth can be thought of as music, it is a rhapsody in C.

Chains, trees and rings of carbon atoms are the skeletons of all living matter. The molecules that account for the muscles of the heart, the stink of a skunk, the color of carrots, the hormones of sex, the taste of vanilla, the pungency of peppers, have backbones of carbon.

Every carbon atom on Earth was cooked up in a dying star before the Earth was born, then spewed into space.

To flow.

To come and go.

We take our atoms from spewed-off star-stuff. Even during our lifetimes our atoms are temporary, flowing in and out of our bodies like a slow breath, in constant replacement. Atoms blow in and out like a wind, orchestrated by that exquisite score called life.

Our selves -- our souls --are unique tapestries of atoms, tapestries of information, in the DNA, in the neural networks of the brain. When we die, that unique information eventually disperses. The self disperses.

The atoms flow. Endlessly recycled. From table scrap, to compost bin, to pepper, to table. In and out of the air with each breath. Carbon atoms forming alliances with hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen phosphorus, sulfur, as only carbon atoms do with such facility, such fluent grace. Carbon is the immortal frame upon which life weaves the woof and warp of mortal souls.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


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

Saturday, February 11, 2012

First snowfall -- a Saturday reprise

(No snow here, and apparently not much back in New England either. This post appeared in November 2005.)

One fat flake. Then two. Then dozens dancing in the air. One lands on the sleeve of my jacket -- a perfect hexagon, an icon of some great ordering principle in nature. Hold out my arm. Another, and another. Each with an invisible heart of stone, a microscopic grain of atmospheric dust about which water molecules crystallized high in the storm. Now my sleeve is covered with flakes, patterns of flawless loveliness and infinite variability. The flakes seem static, the essence of rigidity, but I know that the molecules are impressed into their symmetries by atomic vibrations of exquisite sensitivity, molecular resonances, a kind of cold, wet cosmic music.

"The snowflake eternally obeys its one and only law: Be thou six-pointed," wrote the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch. The story of the snow was finished the day the universe was born, but the story of life is still in the telling. Life is "rebellious and anarchical," said Krutch. "It may hope and it may try."

And so we hope and try, living in a world of our own imagining, struggling to escape the blind inevitably of nature's laws, trying on new futures: six points? five? seven? ten? As Krutch reminded us, no living thing can be as icily beautiful as the snowflake, but no snowflake can know what beauty is.

Friday, February 10, 2012

To know the world

A few more words about N. C. Wyeth.

He was, as I said, a complex, difficult, demanding man, whom his children stood in awe of and idolized. He lived through and for them.

He was for them a "mentor in general awareness."

As his biographer David Michaelis says, he rarely talked about aesthetics or technique, instead urging his children to know the world. He might suddenly drag them all outside to observe a particular tree or slant of light on a field. The house was full of reference books and reproductions of art by the masters. All great artists studied the world intensely, he told his kids. "A thing done right," he said, "is done with the authority of knowledge."

I think of my own father. He was no N. C. Wyeth, but he lived through and for his children. To me, as a child, he seemed to know everything. Certainly, he spoke with what seemed to be the authority of knowledge. I recognized later that some of his knowledge was half-baked, and some of what I learned from him had to be straightened out. But what stayed unrectified was his sense of curiosity, his sense that more knowledge was to be gleaned from observing the world than from the works of philosophers and theologians. Even as he lay dying of cancer at age 64, he was gathering data, filling notebooks with an engineer's accumulation of numbers, graphs and diagrams. His world had perforce been reduced to his own body, but he observed it in every particular, confident to the end that attention -- general awareness -- was key to the knowledge that would bring him back from the brink of oblivion.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The fusion of past and present

While on the subject of books and youth, let me mention that I have just read David Michaelis' big biography of N. C. Wyeth, the famed illustrator of the early 20th century, father of Andrew (and four other talented children).

Why? I mentioned N, C. Wyeth here a few months ago (and posted an illustration) when I was writing about Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. I called Wyeth's illustrations for Treasure Island "luminous, muscular, bristling with menace."

I remember each of those illustrations, and the illustrations of other books decorated by Wyeth -- Kidnapped, Last of the Mohicans, Robin Hood, and so on. Romantic, manly, psychologically complex, yes, but also color, line and composition implanted in my mind a way to see the world. I cannot stand on my terrace here looking at one of these tropical skies and not feel the long ago influence of Wyeth heaping and tumbling the clouds in yellows, pinks, colbalt and violets.

Michaelis writes about the influence of Wyeth on his own children:
Under their father they learned how to be literal and romantic at the same time…He taught them how to feel emotion for things and to enter into the essence of an object. He taught them to empathize with an object "for its own sake, not because it is picturesque, or odd, or striking, but simply because it is an object of form and substance revealed by the wonder of light that represents a phase of the great cosmic order of things." He also taught them to allow past and present to coexist.
If any of that sounds vaguely familiar to the spirit of this blog, you can credit N. C. Wyeth and those illustrations that so impressed me in my youth.

For Wyeth, past and present were one. His present was infused with an almost pathological nostalgia for his past, for the home he grew up in, for his home town (Needham, Massachusetts), and, especially, for his mother -- as a mature man he maintained a crippling bond to her apron strings. And the past, as represented in illustrations of olden times, must, he taught his students, be contemporary.

The future terrified him. He forcefully resisted change, modernity, new technologies. And he created for his children a family atmosphere which had a fairy-tale quality, a world of make believe, where past and present fused in the imagination.

A big, difficult man -- luminous, muscular, bristling with menace. One of the greatest illustrators of all time who was never satisfied with his work, who longed instead to be a "real" artist, a "painter," not just a dabbler of pretty pictures.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


As you might have guessed from yesterday's post, I have just finished reading Black Boy, Richard Wright's heartbreaking memoir of growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s.

I see from the Introduction to the 1998 HarperPerennial edition that the best-selling book was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection in 1945. Wright's novel Native Son was a main selection in 1940. Why, I wondered, weren't these books on the shelves of the house I grew up in, among all those other books from the BOMC.

I grew up in racially segregated Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Black Boy was not well received in the South. A devastating critique of Southern culture, it was roundly condemned in the Southern press and banned from libraries.

But I'm guessing that's not why it wasn't on my family's bookshelves. Certainly, overt racism was not a part of my upbringing. No, I would guess that my mother -- for it was she who mostly read the books -- simply found an alternate selection more to her liking, such as James Thurber's The Thurber Carnival.

As for Native Son in 1940, Mom appears to have preferred Van Wyck Brooks' New England: Indian Summer.

In any case, superb books entered our house from the BOMC. Among classics from the early 1940s: Bernard de Voto, The Year of Decision: 1946; Louise Dickinson Rich, We Took To the Woods; Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In; Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek; Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington; and so on.

Listing these remembered authors and titles says something about my mother's tastes -- and the tastes of the BOMC -- tastes that seeped into my consciousness by osmosis. I ended up reading all of these books as an adult, a kind of delayed gratification. A few BOMC selections were probably my father's choices: Bill Maudlin, Up Front; Ted W. Lawson, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. It was mostly Dad's choices that I read as a child.

As I was pondering this post, I googled to see what had become of the BOMC. It was taken over by Doubleday Direct in 2000, a company partly owned by Bertelsmann, absorbed completely by Bertelsmann in 2007, and sold to a private equity firm in 2008. And, lordy, look what has happened to the venerable BOMC of my family's bookshelves.

Thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks, BOMC of the 1940s.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

There was

Richard Wright's classic 1945 memoir Black Boy recounts his childhood in the racially charged South of the 1920s. It is a heartbreaking tale of poverty, hunger, prejudice -- and triumph against all odds.

Several times in the book, Wright breaks the traditional narrative to list, litany-like, remembered epiphanies:
There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.

There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.

There was the tantalizing melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood.

There was the languor I felt when I heard the green leaves rustling with a rainlike sound.
I am selecting at random.
There was the thirst I had when watched clear, sweet juice trickle from sugar cane being crushed.

There was the saliva that formed in my mouth whenever I smelt clay dust potted with fresh rain.

There was the breathlessly anxious fun of chasing and catching flitting fireflies on drowsy summer nights.

There was the feeling of impersonal plenty when I saw a boll of cotton whose cup had split over and straggled its white fleece toward the earth.

There was the relish of eating my first fried fish sandwich, nibbling at it slowly and hoping that I would never eat it up.
And so on, for several pages at a time, these apparently slight but memorable impressions, what Virginia Woolf called "moments of being."

I have reached that age -- seventy-five -- when Wright's litanies seem altogether appropriate and meaningful, when the traditional narrative of one's life begins to seem less important than the accumulated "moments of being." Wealth doesn't matter. Fame and acclaim are hollow. Possessions are just so much stuff. Instead, one lives from day to day waiting for the light to break through the grey cotton-wool of everyday life (Woolf again), and reveling in those remembered moments from one's early childhood forward that glitter in retrospect as the real amassed treasure of a life.

There was…

There was…

There was…

There was

Richard Wright's classic 1945 memoir Black Boy recounts his childhood in the racially charged South of the 1920s. It is a heartbreaking tale of poverty, hunger, prejudice -- and triumph against all odds.

Several times in the book, Wright breaks the traditional narrative to list, litany-like, remembered epiphanies:
There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.

There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.

There was the tantalizing melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood.

There was the languor I felt when I heard the green leaves rustling with a rainlike sound.
I am selecting at random.
There was the thirst I had when watched clear, sweet juice trickle from sugar cane being crushed.

There was the saliva that formed in my mouth whenever I smelt clay dust potted with fresh rain.

There was the breathlessly anxious fun of chasing and catching flitting fireflies on drowsy summer nights.

There was the feeling of impersonal plenty when I saw a boll of cotton whose cup had split over and straggled its white fleece toward the earth.

There was the relish of eating my first fried fish sandwich, nibbling at it slowly and hoping that I would never eat it up.
And so on, for several pages at a time, these apparently slight but memorable impressions, what Virginia Woolf called "moments of being."

I have reached that age -- seventy-five -- when Wright's litanies seem altogether appropriate and meaningful, when the traditional narrative of one's life begins to seem less important than the accumulated "moments of being." Wealth doesn't matter. Fame and acclaim are hollow. Possessions are just so much stuff. Instead, one lives from day to day waiting for the light to break through the grey cotton-wool of everyday life (Woolf again), and reveling in those remembered moments from one's early childhood forward that glitter in retrospect as the real amassed treasure of a life.

There was…

There was…

There was…

Monday, February 06, 2012


Carmen cautioned me on my supposition that the apparent male propensity for intraspecies and interspecies violence has a genetic component. This hypothesis, and others like it, she says, don't meet the two hallmarks of the scientific method: Ockham's Razor and refutability.

As for Ockham's razor: The very resilience and vigor of the nature/nurture controversies would seem to suggest that the razor does not cut decisively either way. If anything, when it comes to male violence, I would opt for the parsimony of genes.

As for refutability: It is true that the hypothesis is for the time being "thinly sourced" (I love her journalistic phrase). There are, however, many studies of nature/nurture based on behavioral characteristics of identical and fraternal twins, which, taken together, seem (to me) to give genes a boost. As scientists delve ever deeper into the genome they will surely be in a better position to empirically resolve the debates.

In other species, examples of manifestly genetic complex behaviors abound, for example, the spectacular unguided flight of juvenile red knots from northern Canada to Tierra del Fuego, or the migration of monarch butterflies. I would be surprised if some human behaviors did not have a genetic basis.

But I agree completely with Carmen that weak scientific claims of genetically-based behaviors, let loose in the world, are fodder for mischief, especially in matters of gender, race, sexual orientation, and so on. All of us of a certain age remember the uproar that met E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology, and the impassioned rows between the Gould and Wilson camps. So, yes, let's be cautious. I hope that whenever I have opined on these matters I have used qualified language.

In any case, we are not prisoners of our genes. Complex cultures are the hallmark of our species. Are males more inclined by nature than females to shoot and kill? I don't know. I do believe we can pass laws to protect birds. Are females less "analytical" by nature than males? I don't know. I do know my daughter is a more successful analytical scientist than I could have ever been -- and I have some wizard granddaughters too.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Awake in dark matter

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

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Personal computing -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in July 2007. RIP, John.)

I'm always running a book or two behind with John Updike, so it is only now that I'm getting to Villages, his 2004 novel. It's more of the same, of course. Owen Mackenzie, the protagonist of Villages, is Rabbit redux, and his Middle Falls,Connecticut, is the Tarbox of Couples. But we read, because Updike is such a fine stylist and endlessly inventive master of metaphor.

Owen might as easily have been a used-car salesman or a minister, but this time around he is a computer nerd, an MIT electrical engineering grad who in the late-1950s launches his skiff of a career on the rising tide of digital computation, so the novel is not only a compendium of his sexual peccadilloes (and more weighty, skiff-sinking transgressions), it is also a neat half-century history of computers.

It would have been fun if Updike had turned his sly wit to a nonfiction meditation on the parallels between computing and sex that he hints at in the novel. For those of us who embarked on these activities in the 1950s, programming was a prerequisite and there was lots of down time. DO LOOPs, GO TOs, IF-THENs: Everything was in code and one needed to know a bit from a byte. There were no Undos. Then came the Sexual Revolution with its Graphical User Interface, and everything got rather GUI, both more and less complicated. Drop down menus. Point and click. Cut and paste. No need to know what went on inside the box.

And now, for the younger generation, it seems that sex and computing have merged. Facebook, MySpace, IM, Second Life, chat rooms: it's hard to know where the real world ends and the virtual world begins. A tectonic shift has taken place, from hardware to software. Me, I still have a sneaking nostalgia for those bulky soldered circuits in their agitated ANDs, ORs, and NOTs, those racks of magnetic cores threaded with fine wires remembering data with the same tactile finesse as tingly skin, the chill of holding a thick deck of punch cards in your hands and the fear that if you dropped them you'd never get them back in order again, and, of course, the thrill of taking the back panel off the cabinet and seeing all those vacuum tubes glowing red hot.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Morning prayer

Twice in the past week I have seen the green flash.

The flash is a brief (blink and you'll miss it) ray of emerald green light that can sometimes be seen just at the top of the Sun's disk as the Sun sinks below the western horizon or rises in the east. It is caused by a combination of refraction and scattering in the Earth's atmosphere. To see it one needs a clear, flat horizon and atmospheric conditions have to be just right.

I started looking for the flash when I read an article about it in a 1965 issue of Scientific American, with a photo on the cover. For decades I pursued it, on three continents, at sunrise and sunset, fruitlessly. I told the story of the long search in Globe columns and Honey From Stone.

I might have been forgiven for thinking the flash was mythical, but, no, readers kept sending me photographs from all over the world, even inviting me to visit exotic locations where "we see the green flash all the time." (Today, photos and videos are all over the web.)

Then we came to Exuma, with a splendid sunrise horizon. I now see the green flash several times each winter. I never miss a sunrise.

Having spent so much of my life in a vain pursuit of the flash, it has become a kind of benediction -- if I may use a sacred term for a natural phenomenon -- a communication between whatever is deepest and most mysterious in the world and -- and me.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, I would often go late at night to the replica of the Lourdes grotto to pray. I would focus my vision intently on just one random votive candle in the racks of flickering lights and whisper, "God, if you exist, let this candle go out now."

No candle was extinguished, but nevertheless my faith tottered on for some years more. Soon enough, as a student of the experimental method, I learned to distinguish coincidence from causality -- a confusion that is seemingly endemic in the human psyche.

I know the physical causes of the green flash, but it is rare and extraordinary enough to be the answer to a prayer: "God, if you exist, let the Sun rise in a blaze of green." And it is an answer to a kind of prayer, if prayer consists of silent attention to whatever is most beautiful and ephemeral in the world.

Thursday, February 02, 2012


An article in the NYT Business section last Sunday on the potential fate of Barnes & Noble, the county's only remaining big paper-inventory bookseller. B&N's main rival, Borders, went down the tube last year, a victim, like Dalton, Crown and the other mall chains, of the tech revolution in how we read. Not to mention the small independents that have fallen by the wayside, a fifth of them in the last decade.

Of course, B&N has tried to grab its own share of the e-book business, by quickly developing the Nook e-reader and taking about a third of the market from Kindle. The question is: Will the big B&N stores survive? CEO William Lynch says "Yes." I'll bet no.

It's not just e-books. It's how we buy books. Even if you want paper, it's easy to order online from Amazon or B&N. It's not at all clear to me how the megastores will make it.

You'll still see paper books for sell in airports and Walmarts, but the books on offer will be only mass-market blockbusters, the trendiest bestsellers, and young adult genres.

And here is my prediction: The small independent, community bookstores will have a rebound. When B&N bookstores go under, with their huge selection of titles and espresso cafes, resourceful independents will reappear, especially in places like New England, the Northeast Corridor, the Northwest, and the Bay Area with sizable serious reading audiences. It will be a niche market, as it always was, places for book aficionados to buy and sell. Places where you can "talk books."

Paper backlists will pretty much disappear, except for the classics, which means you won't find my books on the shelves, but the stores will have capability for print-on-demand -- that big machine sitting in the corner. Ask for Honey From Stone, say, and in ten minutes you'll have a bound paperback in your hand.

If a publisher does not keep a book available in e-format, there will be plenty of entrepreneurs who will make a book e-ready at the request of an author, requests that will be driven (like the vanity presses now) more by ego than economics.

All of which is irrelevant to me. I enjoyed the last of the glory days -- the book tours, the readings, the autograph sessions -- even a mid-list author like me got some modest attention from the publishers. All that's gone now, and son Dan has stepped into the breach to see about negotiating the new landscape. I'll do whatever I can to help, and I wish him well.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Mr. Bingley's birds

A memory of my walk around Malta.

I was walking a cliff path on the back side of the island (away from Valletta), which for a short way ran by the side of a road. A man driving a 4x4 ahead of me screeched to a stop, jumped out with his gun, and blasted away at a flying bird I took to be a swallow. The bird fell into the sea where it was irretrievable. The man jumped back in his vehicle and sped away.

I sat down at the pathside and wept. Not for the bird. Or for myself. But for the human species. If a swallow can be killed with such conscienceless nonchalance, what other atrocities are we capable of?

Well, we know the answer to that.

No, Carmen, I have no proof that this fellow's satisfaction at shooting the bird out of the sky has a genetic component, and you are right to be agnostic. But is it an unreasonable supposition?

European songbirds are born with the instinct to fly over Malta on their annual migrations to and from Northern Africa, a rather remarkable navigational feat when you think about it, something they probably "learned" long before the Maltese acquired firearms (or the island acquired Maltese). And humans, who spent most of our species' history and protohistory hunting and gathering -- might not we carry some of that as a genetic residue?

Then there's the whole psychosexual thing, the gun as phallus. Now I'm really on speculative ground. Genetic? Cultural? Mr. Bingley? Perhaps Jane Austen, or you, could help us out here.

When I was in Malta, there was still talk of an incident that occurred earlier that year. Hunters in a speedboat -- all male of course -- in front of horrified onlookers, killed eight out of 10 mute swans that were swimming in the island's St. Thomas Bay.