Saturday, March 31, 2012

Diving -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in May 2009.)

For my own part, I am pleased enough with surfaces -- in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child's hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl's thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind -- What else is there? What else do we need?
I quote Edward Abbey, that cranky secular saint of the American West, from Desert Solitaire. I love reading Abbey. Love his gruff humor, his six-pack passion for nature, his take-no-prisoners conservation ethic. And when he praises surfaces -- well, I know where he's coming from. I love surfaces too, the matte, semi-gloss and gloss of things, the taut and texture and paint-chip colors. The cool and the warmth. The touch of lips on skin. One could spend a lifetime surfing the surface of the world, skimming the lap and ebb of things, without ever giving a fig for what lies beneath the waves.

But that's not me. I want to know. I want to know what makes the world tick. I want to see in my mind's eye the dance of the DNA, the winding and unwinding, the spinning of proteins. I want to visit the fiery inferno at the center of the Sun where protons fuse and photons flash into existence. I want to imagine the bacteria propellering through my blood, dinosaurs tromping Jurassic soil, and black holes at the centers of galaxies gobbling stars. Is that too much to ask? To have the surfaces and innards too?

Surfaces are arbitrary. They are defined by our senses, those narrow windows through which we view the world. The fox's surfaces are different from my own. The ant lives in a world of scent I'll never experience. Curiosity pries open the windows, knocks down the doors. What else is there? Everything. What else do we need? We need it all.

Friday, March 30, 2012


The brain is flesh. A softball-sized clump of meat. Blood and burger.

But, oh, what meat!

An estimated 100 billion neurons. Each neuron reaching out with spidery arms to touch thousands of others. Or almost touch, at connections called synapses. Each synapse in any one of about ten levels of excitation. One hundred trillion or so synapses, spidery tendrils almost touching.

The mind, we'll agree, is inseparable from the brain. Or perhaps we should say that the mind is inseparable from the body, with its various instruments of perception. Or better: The mind is inseparable from the brain in interaction with the world.

In any case, we won't understand the mind -- consciousness, self-awareness, memory, reflective thought -- until we understand the brain.

Brain researchers are generating 60,000 papers a year, according to a report in the 23 February issue of Nature. Most focus on some small aspect of the brain -- this region, that molecule, these synapses, and so on. Henry Markram, a south-African-born electrophysiologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, wants to build a supercomputer that integrates everything known about the brain, something he calls the Human Brain Project (HBP). His project is one of six finalists vying to win 1 billion euros as one of the European Union's two new decade-long "Flagship initiatives."

A billion euros to build a box as complicated as the human brain.

The computer power required to run such a complex model would be roughly an exaflop, or 10 to the 18th operations per second. This technological milestone will probably be met by the 2020s. In the meantime, Markram wants to get started. He has put together an international team of investigators. They hope to have achieved a functional model of a rat's brain by 2014.

This is like the human genome project writ large.

Will a machine that mimics the hundred trillion synaptic connections of the human brain be conscious? Self-aware? Formulate language? Have "moments of being"? Or is there something at work in consciousness that eludes fundamental science as we understand it today? These are big, big questions, perhaps the biggest questions the human mind can ask and potentially answer.

Not all brain researchers are as cheerfully optimistic as Markram, and worry that HBP will suck money out of other, more promising research. Markram sees HBP as a way of integrating research that presently proceeds in relative isolation.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Leapin' lizards

A gecko got into our house just before we left the Bahamas. It made itself elusive, so I was not able to chase it out. But never mind. We don't mind living in the company of geckoes. They are cute and friendly. They keep to themselves. And they help keep the house free of ants, mosquitoes, termites and spiders. I like to imagine that right now our green-tailed lizard is scooting about the closed-up house hovering up vermin.

The gecko was about 6 inches long.

Which brings me to two stories in recent issues of Nature.

The smallest known lizard, dubbed Brookesia micra (Nature, 23 March), has been discovered in the forests of northern Madagascar. You can judge its size from the photo here of the lizard perched on a match stick.

Then this. Fossil fleas from China (Nature, 8 March). Giant fleas! Fleas the size of the Madagascar lizards. Fleas bigger than your fingernail.

It's putting the two stories together that I find delightful. A giant flea on the back of a diminutive lizard. A flea and a lizard locked in mortal embrace.
So naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller lizards that on him prey,
And they have greater fleas that bite 'em,
Tit for tat, ad infinitum.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Walking wary

Virginia Woolf called them "moments of being," those unanticipated encounters with something in nature (including, of course, human nature) that sets one back on one's heels, drops the jaw, sends chills up the spine. I use clichés, but the experiences are anything but clichés. What makes them special is the way they break through and illuminate what Woolf calls "the grey cotton wool" of everyday experience.

Sylvia Plath describes these rare and precious encounters in her poem Black Rook in Rainy Weather. "Spasmodic tricks of radiance," she calls them. A "celestial burning" that takes possession of an ordinary object, setting the sight on fire. A wet black rook, arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain: Something utterly ordinary that suddenly flares out as miraculous.

We are not talking about rooks alone, of course. We are talking about the self in interaction with the world. The flare flows both ways. The rook is illuminated by mind. The mind is set afire by rook. Don't go to psychologists or neurologists to explain what is happening; they are a long way yet from understanding. Go to the poets and mystics, who can't explain but do describe.

"Hallowing an interval otherwise inconsequent," says Plath.

And so it is that we walk blind and deaf through a world that by and large seems commonplace, inconsequent, and mute, whereas in fact even the most ordinary thing -- a leaf, a cloud, a face -- is miracle enough to exhaust our analytic powers, waiting, hoping, for the touch of grace, the breaking through.

I am aware that the two writers I have quoted, Woolf and Plath, were ultimately overwhelmed by the "dull, ruinous landscape." A particular sensitivity to the contrast being light and dark was surely part of their genius; it would seem that their savage gods demanded the ultimate sacrifice as the price of their Promethean gifts. As for the rest of us, we live without their depths of darkness, but also with the minor lights, those treasured moments of being when we are gifted with the understanding that the apparently ordinary is blindingly special.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Back in January, writing about Montaigne, I mentioned a column I wrote for the college newspaper nearly fifty years ago, called "Under a Skeptical Star." I took the title from a quote 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." All these years later, that quote could be the epigram for this blog.

I wrote in January: Skepticism and astonishment. Doubt everything. Marvel at everything. Go through life drop-jawed. Pay attention to things that seem ostensibly insignificant. Run like hell from anyone who wants to sell you the meaning of life.

Last evening I was reading -- for the second time -- Andrea Barrett's collection of stories, all with a science theme, called Ship Fever. In a story called "Rare Bird," the character Catherine says: "Nothing can satisfy but what confounds. Nothing but what astonishes is true."

Which has echoes of the quote from Dixon.

This time I picked up Barrett's hint that Catherine is quoting. So off to Google.

And yes, the lines (minus a couple of commas) are from the 18th century poet Edward Young, a long melancholy poem called "Night Thoughts," which I will admit never having heard of, in spite of the fact that the poem was apparently extremely popular in its time. And, of course, like everything else, it is available on the net, the collective memory of our race.

Anyway, it is always lovely to find those two emotions juxtaposed: skepticism and astonishment. They have served me well for fifty years.

Monday, March 26, 2012


In a recent NYT Book Review, conservative NYT columnist David Brooks reviewed Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. I haven't read de Botton's book, so I'll not comment on it. I will say a few words about Brook's review.

Brook's mentions a few of de Botton's ideas with approval, such as that "colleges should definitely teach courses on such practical issues as how to pick a marriage partner, bringing together the resources of literature, psychology and neuroscience." However, says Brooks, "many of [de Botton's] ideas seem silly."

I would say that the course on how to pick a marriage partner is silly.

Well, wait. A good course in literature light help, as long as it weren't prescriptive.

As a senior at the University of Notre Dame in the late 1950s, I was required to sit through a number of lectures on marriage (called a Cana Conference). One lecture was by a married couple who advised us to set aside one evening every week -- a Tuesday, say -- to exchange with our future partner whatever about her we found annoying, and vice versa, of course. Sounded to me like a surefire recipe for divorce. Later, as a young married at Stonehill, my wife and I were invited to address a Cana Conference. We declined. Anyone who thinks they can engineer someone else's happy marriage is whistling Dixie. Can you imagine teaching a course on the subject?

Anyway, David Brook's tries in his usual way to say nice things about de Botton, but in general he dislikes the book. If one is a young person looking to have a rich inner life, stay away from the hollow atheists, he advises. Instead, read C. S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy or Augustine's Confessions: "You'll find a dramatic education process involving intricate, unexpected stages of resistance, surrender, loathing God, loving God, leaps of faith and the most rigorous intellectual scrutiny."

Well, yes. Lewis and Augustine are worthy reads. But so is the extensive canon of secular literature. To have undergone the search and the struggle, and the rigorous intellectual scrutiny, to end up in the arms of God is not the only authentic outcome. "Many of us would rather live frustrated in the company of believers than fulfilled in this flatland of the atheists," concludes Brooks. So what's our choice? Rick Warren or Primo Levi? Talk about silly.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Multi verses

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

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The dark night -- a Saturday reprise

(This post appeared in October, 2008.)

I first read Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling at about the same age as Kierkegaard was when he wrote it -- thirty. The young philosopher was wrestling with his dark demons, including the death of his father, a sternly religious man who demanded absolute obedience from his son. He was torn between the opposing demands of faith and reason, certainity and doubt. In the opening pages of the book, he takes us with Abraham and Isaac on that terrible journey to Mount Moriah where God puts Abraham to a terrifying test of his faith.

What gives meaning to a life? Kierkegaard opted for belief. He wrote:
If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all -- what then would life be but despair?
This is the fear that caused Abraham to raise the knife over his beloved son. This is the valley of shadow that drove Kierkegaard to choose heaven over earth, the unseen over the seen. This is the dread of a mindless oblivion that causes so many to choose faith over reason, certainity over doubt.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says that "faith begins where thinking leaves off." At the same age, Kierkegaard's almost exact contemporary, another solitary philosopher with a fierce moral sensitivity, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in his journal:
I have just heard the flicker among the oaks on the hillside ushering in a new dynasty...Eternity could not begin with more security and momentousness than the spring. The summer's eternity is reestablished by this note. All sights and sounds are seen and heard both in time and eternity. And when the eternity of any sight or sound strikes the eye or ear, they are intoxicated with delight.
Some of us live our lives with our attention fixed on the hereafter. Others listen for the flicker's note in the distant oaks. No less than traditional theists, religious naturalists need to believe that we are not poised above a bottomless void. If we are lucky, we understand that love and loyalty are blessings that well up out of the dark night in mysterious ways. We feel no need to make the terrible journey to Mount Moriah when every element of creation, great and small, here and now, is filled with redeeming grace.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Tomorrow and the next day I will be in transit to New England.
What will I miss most? That's easy. The sky.

The dark, star-spangled night. The Milky Way. Young and old moons, whisper thin. The dance of planets.

Rainbows, morning and evening. Billowing cloud towers. Lightning at dusk, far out on the horizon.

But especially, dawns and sunsets.

Mine was perhaps the last generation that grew up with the illustrations of Maxfield Parrish and N. C. Wyeth. I expected skies to look like that in the Parrish painting above (Ecstasy, click to enlarge), golden clouds on cobalt blue, suffused with ethereal light.

Of course, it never looked like that at my home in Chattanooga, surrounded as we were by tall, shadowy pines. Nor in any other place I lived, boxed in by buildings and artificial light. The sky should be half of our visual field; I never had more than keyhole glances. A Maxfield Parrish sky was as much of a fairy tale as Snow White and Rose Red.

Until I came here. Now, on almost any morning, I can stand on the terrace in my skivvies, rather like the girl in the painting here, and welcome sunrise in all its Parrish/Wyeth splendor.

This morning the Sun came up a squeak to the north of due east. Yesterday was the equinox. The Sun's going north, and so must I. Back with you on the weekend.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Try to remember…

In a sleepless hour of the night, I was trying to remember the last name of a person I have known well for more than forty years. When my spouse stirred in her sleep, I asked her. She couldn't remember either.

One again I started mentally through the alphabet. "I think it starts with B," I said. Ten minutes later she rolled over and said, "The next letter is R."

Bingo! The name popped into my head.

Or I should say, "popped out of my head." Because it was in there somewhere, recorded in a tangle of neurons as materially as if it were written on a piece of paper.

There was a time, back when I was a young man, when some scientists thought memory might be molecular -- stored as proteins or RNA molecules that have somehow been modified by experience. The molecule theory of memory rested on experiments with worms (I remember the cover illustration on Scientific American). The worms were taught to navigate a simple maze. Then they were ground up and fed to untrained worms, which seemed to navigate the maze without training. Only molecules, it was thought, could have survived the transfer.

Those experiments have been discredited. Scientists now overwhelmingly believe that memories are stored as webs of connections between spider-shaped brain cells called neurons. Each neuron is connected through electrochemical connections to thousands of others. According to the current view, experience fine-tunes the connections, strengthening some, weakening others, creating a different "trace" of interconnected cells for each memory.

But truth be told, memory is still deeply mysterious. How exactly are a lifetime of memories stored and retrieved at will? We know how it works for computers, but how for the human brain? What is self-consciousness? What are dreams? This is the primary scientific agenda for the 21st century.

In the middle of the night I go fishing, in that sea of potentiated synapses that are the human soul, for a name that becomes ever more difficult to extract as I get older. I troll the alphabet: A, B, C, D… The name is in there, along with a face and more that forty years of interactions.

The Nobel Prizes are waiting.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Look what the tide washed in

The winter winds to a close. In a few days, back to New England to catch the spring, which apparently has already arrived. No more daily walks on the beach.

There are lovely reefs just off shore, and strange stuff gets washed up on the sand. So off I go to Paul Humann's beautifully photographed Reef Creature Identification, one of three indispensible volumes (also Corals and Reef Fishes)for anyone living by the sea in Florida, the Bahamas or the Caribbean, kindly provided by daughter Mo. There to discover that the mysterious green blob pulsing in the tide pool is a sea hare, phylum Mollusca, class Gastropoda, a shell-less snail.

And now I'm stuck for an hour, turning pages, enthralled and astonished (once again) by the variety of living creatures, the shapes, the colors. What is it about the tropics that evokes such extravagances, such gaudy show-offerery? Oh wait, not everyone is so dashingly adorned; here is the donkey-dung sea cucumber which looks like…

One of those washed up on our beach once. It must have been an off day in the Holothuroidea department of Intelligent Design.

A nudibranch named Caribbean Spanish Dancer. An urchin named Magnificent. Stinker Sponge. Christmas Tree Hydroid. Sea Thimble. Light Bulb Anemone. Venus' Girdle. Splendid Flatworm. Social Feather Duster. Polkadotted Hermit Crab.

Sponges, jellyfish, anemones, bryozoans, urchins, snails, slugs, starfish, chitons, sand dollars, tunicates, corals, fish: What do they have in common? A mouth and an anus (sometimes the same). Eat and be eaten. Make more of same.

And in every cell, unsuspected even a generation ago, the double helix, those same sugar-phosphate handrails, the same paired nucleotide treads. All of us, including me in my goggles and flippers, woven out of starstuff on the same dazzlingly simple chemical loom.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


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

Saturday, March 17, 2012

If I ran the circus -- a Saturday reprise

A news brief from a recent issue of Nature (October 9):
Of the animals that understand other species' vocalizations, almost all are social creatures with complex calls of their own. But ecologists have identified an eavesdropper that is neither social nor particularly vocal: the dik-dik.

Daniel Blumstein and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, suspected that Gunther's dik-dik (Madoqua guentheri), a heavily predated miniature antelope, could benefit from eavesdropping. To find out whether it does, the researchers played alarm calls of the white-bellied go-away bird (Corythaixoides leucogaster) and non-alarmist calls from the slate-coloured boubou (Laniarius funebris) to a group of dik-diks at the Mpala Research Centre in Laikaipia, Kenya.

The dik-diks in the study decreased their foraging and increased their head-turning only in response to the alarm calls.
"In all the whole town, the most wonderful spot
Is behind Sneelock's Store in the big vacant lot.
It's just the right spot for my wonderful plans,"
Said young Morris McGurk, "...if I clean up the cans.
I will put up the tents for my fantastic circus.
I think I will call it the Circus McGurkus.
I'll hoist up the curtains! The crowds will crowd in!
And my Circus McGurkus will promptly begin
With the loudest TA-TA that you ever have heard
As I welcome the white-bellied go-away bird.
What! Oh, where is he? Out chasing a hen?
The go-away bird has absconded again!
Never mind! Step right in! You don't want to be late
To yoo-hoo the boubou, the color of slate.
But where is our boubou? No cause for alarm.
He's not an alarmist, that's part of his charm.
And here! on Stage One! from Laikaipia!
The one who invented onomatopoeia,
The unsocial dik-dik whose voice is the same
As his simple, soft-spoken, antelopean name.
Oh dear, now our dik-dik has startled again,
Just as our show is about to begin.
He stands on the threshold turning his head.
The go-away bird always fills him with dread.
Ei! Ei! What a circus! My Circus McGurkus!
My headlining showstoppers all want to shirk us.
But Nature is full of zooific surprises.
You'd never see half if you had forty eyses!"

(With apologies to Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Circus.)

(This post originally appeared in October 2008.)

Friday, March 16, 2012

While I'm thinking about Benjamin Franklin...

Most American's know Franklin as a genial grandfather sort of guy, who invented bifocals, flew a kite, and wrote quaint adages ("Early to bed, early to rise…").

During his lifetime, as today, he was best known to Europeans as the author of Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1751), in which, as much as anyone, he transformed a parlor curiosity into a science. It was Franklin who coined such terms as positive and negative charge, conductor, condenser, and so on.

Parlor curiosity? The court electrician of Louis XV of France once sent an electric shock through 180 soldiers holding hands in a chain, causing them to jump in unison, to the delight of the king. And, as if that were not entertainment enough, he then did the same thing with 700 monks, to the king's amusement. Or so says Gordon Wood in his biography of Franklin. Fun!

It would be a half-century before Faraday, Ampere, and others turned electricity to practical use, and another century before one could flick a switch in an ordinary home and have the mysterious monk-jumping force at one's beck and call.

Surely, few discoveries and inventions of humankind have had more effect on the social order than the harnessing of electricity. No more royal courts with the lavish power to make hundreds of soldiers and monks jump in unison. No more upstairs/downstairs. The flick of a switch gave every domicile a staff of invisible servants, to trim and light the lamps, lay and tend the fires, warm the bath, wash the clothes.

Electricity was the great leveler. Thanks, Ben.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Do unto others

If there is not a divinely prescribed code of morality, reinforced by reward or punishment in the afterlife, then why be good? Why not do any damn thing one pleases?

We hear this argument a lot, particularly in this politically-charged season when religious fundamentalism appears to wield an inordinate amount of influence, at least on one side of the political divide.

What about reason? Can reason prescribe good and bad?

Well, lots has been written on the natural foundations of morality, by people more qualified than me, but let me mention something Benjamin Franklin said in his autobiography: "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do."

Bingo! One for the revelationists.

Not quite. Ben Franklin was not one for revelation. Nor was he a champion of metaphysical reasoning. The basis for morality, he believed, is utility. In Poor Richard's Almanack he wrote: "Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful…Nor is a Duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded because it is beneficial."

Which seems to me a pretty good explanation why the Golden Rule is so universal across cultures, even among those peoples who weren't privy to the tablets from the mount, or indeed any revelation whatsoever.

(I hear my grammarian mother whisper from beyond the grave: "Than I, Chet, than I.")

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


So, we watched for the last few weeks as Venus and Jupiter drew closer together in the evening sky. Who needs television when such beauty is there for the taking? Last night they made their closest approach.

But, of course, their conjunction was only apparent, along the same line of sight. In real space they were actually moving farther apart as Venus, swinging around the Sun, ran away from Jupiter and toward the Earth.

Who first conceived the third dimension of the night sky? Who first punctured the celestial sphere, blasted open the dome of night, sent the planets racing on their own orbits? By the 3rd century B.C.E. the Alexandrians had inflated the cosmos sufficiently to give the Sun, Moon and planets space to perform their respective dances.

And now Venus races towards Earth (it will overtake us in May). Jupiter plods way out there (as seen from Earth, it will dawdle in Taurus for most of the year).

And the show goes on. On March 25 a thin crescent Moon will join Jupiter. The next night it will pass Venus, with the Pleiades not far away. Alas, I will be back in New England by then, without my glorious, unimpeded tropical horizon.

Here is yesterday's APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day), a glimpse into the third dimension that the Alexandrian astronomers could never have imagined. The streak of an artificial satellite in Earth's atmosphere. Myriad stars of the Milky Way. And winking beyond, millions of light-years away, a cluster of galaxies.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Kristin Lavransdatter, the novel, unfolds in 14th-century Norway. It has been several centuries since Norway was converted to Christianity, but the ancient pagan ways still run side by side with the new faith. The priests may build churches and perform the newfangled rites, but the elf-maiden still haunts the forest pool and the mountain king presides in his subterranean hall. Mediterranean Christianity is like a cleared, sunlit glade in a dark, encroaching northern wood. Me, I've always felt a hankering for the woods.

This is part of the novel's appeal: the contrast between a faith based (however superstitiously) on the mysterious and omnipresent forces of nature, in conflict with a faith that encourages people to lift their eyes out of this world of animals, plants, Sun, Moon, sex and death, to a parallel supernatural world of incorruptible spirit.

Kristin is caught between these two worlds. She is one of the great heroines of literature, passionate and headstrong as a girl, steady and resilient as a wife and mother, brave and compassionate in her old age, always struggling to balance the fraught demands of body and soul.

This is a novel of impetuous desire, love, adultery, childbirth, family, honor, violence. The elf-haunted forest pool and the Catholic shrine at Trondheim each owns part of Kristin's soul. Her heart is torn between the impulsive, unreliable, but charismatic Erlend, and steady, ever-faithful, adoring Simon.

Over the years I have given copies of Kristin to favorite students. It is as adequate a guidebook to the rewards and perils of life as I can imagine, laying out all the paths and obstacles, without ever suggesting with smug approval which way we should go.

(If anyone is inspired by these musings to read the novel, make sure to get the new translation by Tina Nunnally.)

Monday, March 12, 2012

What is the greatest novel ever written?

Never mind. Silly question. One could take a poll, perhaps; ask 1000 people their favorite and tally the results. Such lists exist on the internet. But of course your favorite novel will not be the same as mine.

It's like asking, "What is your favorite food?" Different novels nourish us in different ways. We require different nourishment at different times in our lives. And favorite novels will vary from culture to culture, like cuisines.

Important novels in my own life?

Start with James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the first great novel I read at an age when I was mature enough to realize what I was reading, a young man emerging from a smothering Catholic culture, awakening to sex as something more than an itch in the pants. Forget Ulysses and Finnegans Wake which I read much later; Portrait was the book that set my 19-year-old soul afire.

A few more, in no particular order.

Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. A dense, very grown-up book that made me feel at age 30 that maybe I had grown up. Great art, like a great life, can be made out of the leavings of an ordinary day.

Virginia Woolf's The Waves. Not the Woolf novel that makes most lists, but certainly the one that most profoundly resonated with my own life. A plum pudding of a book that might have been written on half-sheets of note paper. Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Louis, Rhoda. And me.

Vladimir Nabokov's Ada. No, not Lolita. Big, brimming Ada overwhelmed me with its lush romance, its flowering word-play, its lepidopteran fragility and resilience.

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, of course. So glad I waited until late in life to read it.

And, perhaps my favorite book of all, Sigrid Undset's epic Kristin Lavransdatter, which I read three times, once as a passionate young man in love, once in the crushing turmoil of middle age, and again (in Tina Nunnally's brilliant new translation) in the quietude of retirement, a book that embraces and informs every stage of life. Nature and supernature, love and lust, fidelity and unfaithfulness, peace and violence.

A few more words about Kristin tomorrow.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Space, time and strings

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

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Yet -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in February 2010.)

I mentioned here several times recently Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature. I just noticed a line in the book that I underlined when I first read it a dozen years ago: "It's all very complicated."

It's in the chapter on Sexuality, and we all know that sex is complicated. However, the same sentence might have been in any other chapter of the book -- Origins of Life, say, or Awareness, or Emotions and Meaning, or Multicellularity and Death. It's all very complicated, and the more we learn about it all, the more complicated it gets. And anyone who tells you otherwise is whistling up the wind.

Which is why I'm always baffled by those folks who think they have it figured out. Who believe everything they need to know has already been written down in a book -- the Bible, say, or the Koran. Or who just trudge through life without an ounce of curiosity about what's underfoot, or overhead, or inside. "Oh, that's just a ladybug," they'll say. As if a ladybug weren't a little six-legged package of mystery we could ponder for a lifetime without getting to the bottom of it. And, of course, some people do ponder it for a lifetime -- ladybugologists we'll call them.

Which brings me, as usual, to religious naturalism. Which is a kind of agnosticism. A willingness to say "I don't know, it's all very complicated." Where did the universe come from? "I don't know, it's all very complicated." Why are the laws of nature what they are? "I don't know, it's all very complicated." How did life begin? "I don't know, it's all very complicated." What is self-awareness? "I don't know, it's all very complicated." What is the meaning of it all? "I don't know, it's all very complicated."

We are naturalists in that we don't populate the picture with imaginary anthropomorphic spirits who intervene at will in the course of events. We are religious in that we respond to the world with awe, reverence, and gratitude. To whom or what are we grateful? "I don't know, it's all very complicated."

Friday, March 09, 2012

The tape

James Hutton's Theory of the Earth was a revolutionary book, establishing the ideas of uniformitarianism and deep geologic time. It was, however, written in impenetrable prose. Even readers who might have been receptive to his ideas were generally baffled.

Fortunately his younger friend John Playfair wrote up a more lucid account of Hutton's ideas and observations. And in 1830 Charles Lyell carried Hutton's ideas into the mainstream with the first volume of his masterwork, Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface by Causes Now in Operation. The next year young Charles Darwin received a copy of Lyell's Principles as he set out on his 3-year voyage aboard HMS Beagle, and the rest is history.

Observe the world before your eyes.

Discover how it works.

Run the tape backwards, even as far as the (apparent) singularity.

And see if one encounters any event that causes the tape to break.

So far, it doesn't.

There are no supernatural interventions.

Except those we invent or adopt to suit our a priori purposes.

Trust the tape.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Natural philosophy

What is the most important scientific idea of all time?

Obviously, the answer to so rich a question is up for grabs, but let me opt for uniformitarianism, the idea that the present is the key to the past and future.

Uniformitarianism assumes that the same laws and processes we see operating in the world today were at work also in the past. If we want to understand the history of the universe, the Earth, or of life, we create our explanations using the world as we find it today. No unique causalities. No miracles. No changing laws of nature.

You run the tape backwards from the present. Or, if you wish, into the future. You follow the tape wherever it leads, even, perhaps, to the big bang itself.

Maybe I shouldn't call this a scientific idea, but rather a philosophical principle. It is not something we can prove, not having direct access to the past or future. But the application of the uniformitarian idea was fundamental to modern geology, evolutionary biology and cosmology. It was the door that opened onto the grand vistas of modern science. The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.

The idea has a long pedigree, but it is usually credited to James Hutton, the 18th century Scot sometime gentleman farmer and sometime Edinburgh bon vivant. Fiercely resisted at the time, for both scientific and religious reasons, it triumphed -- in Lyell's geology, Darwin's biology, and Hubble's cosmology -- by the sheer grandeur of its explanatory power.

It is not an exaggeration to say that we have yet to encounter reliable evidence of any past event that cannot be explained -- at least in principle-- by natural processes acting in the world today.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

A new Creation

The famous C-major fortissimo chord of Haydn's The Creation oratorio, the glorious sunburst of sound that comes in response to the whispered words, "And there was light," is an apt evocation of the modern astronomer's big bang.

Still, we have learned a lot since Herschel's time about the universe's beginning and probable end. Maybe it's time for a musical update.

For example, Haydn's triumphant C-major chord comes five minutes into the oratorio, after a prelude of shadowy notes representing the unformed flux out of which God created the world. We are nudged by whispered voices to the edge of our seats. Then, and only then, a universe blazes into existence.

But modern cosmologists don't have a clue what went before the big bang. Their equations start at time t=0. Words like "darkness," "chaos," or "unformed flux" have no meaning. The fortissimo chord in any new composition will have to come right at the beginning.

Not a terribly satisfying way to begin -- musically, dramatically, or even scientifically. The question will always be "What went before?" But, for the time being, we must resign ourselves to ignorance. We sit down in the concert hall, open our programs, and -- BOOM -- we are knocked out of our seats.

At the first instant, the universe is infinitely hot, infinitely bright. Not somewhere, like a firecracker in a dark room, but everywhere. Not like an alarm going off on a clock that's been ticking all night; the clock starts running as the universe begins. Space and time swell from nothing. The first matter, hydrogen and helium, with traces of lithium, condenses from pure energy. The universe expands and cools. The music, which began in thunder, commences a slow decline toward silence, diminuendo.

We ease back into our chairs. After about a half-million years, the temperature of the expanding universe falls below 3,000 degrees Kelvin, and the blaze of creation has weakened and shifted into the infrared, invisible to a human eye. The young, gassy universe becomes completely dark.

But the music doesn't lapse into total silence, for the universe is not empty, nor has time stopped. In the darkness, gravity gathers the cooling gases into clumps and streamers. The music suggests this thickening of matter. Legato becomes staccato, although barely audible.

Knots of matter, with masses many times greater than the Sun, are squeezed by gravity. When the temperature at the cores of these protostars reaches 10 million degrees, nuclear fusion begins, matter is transformed into energy, and the first stars are born. The music blazes out again, not in a single fortissimo chord, but in thrust after thrust of forte brilliance.

These massive first-generation stars burn fast and furiously, living for but a few million years before blowing themselves apart in colossal supernova explosions, seeding the universe with heavy elements. Galaxies form, and millions of stars, dust and gas coalesce to form massive black holes at their centers. The music representing the universe at this tender age of a billion years is wild and lively, booming timpani, soaring violins.

Now things slow down, become less violent. Star birth and star death continues, but at a more stately pace, moderato. A tender theme is heard in the background, in the flutes, perhaps, as carbon and oxygen, created in violence, unite with hydrogen to make the first organic molecules.

Over billions of years, these grow in complexity, eventually becoming alive. The organic theme is taken up by woodwinds, until, as the music draws to its climax, life and intelligence come to the fore. The music becomes more melodic, thrusting notes give way to dance, and . . .

And? Well, the best available evidence suggests that the universe will expand forever, using up all available energy, until eventually, hundreds of billions of years from now, light, life and intelligence are extinguished. The music winds slowly down into inaudibility. I suppose the lights in the concert hall should dim, too, so that the new "The Creation" ends with a few thoughtful moments of utter silence and darkness.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012


Remember the experience with Haydn's The Creation oratorio I reprised Saturday. I suggested it first in a Boston Globe column way back when, then in An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, and finally as a post on this blog in 2006. I'm reminded that it had one more incarnation.

I was invited to give a talk at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, New Hampshire, sometime in the 90s I suppose it was. After a brief introduction with the lights on, in which I told the audience what they were going to hear, I asked them to lean back in their reclined seats and close their eyes. "Don't peak," I instructed, "just listen. You will know when to open your eyes."

On my instructions, the operator in the control room put Haydn's oratorio on the sound system. Out of the silence, a faint C-minor chord, a premonition, out of nowhere. Scattered fragments of music, delicate, as if God were gathering his thoughts -- clarinet, oboe, a trumpet note. Then, a hushed silence. The first voice, the archangel Raphael: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form an void, and darkness was on the face of the deep." The chorus, barely audible: "And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters; and God said, 'Let there be light.'" The voices whispering: "And there was light."

A blazing, room-rattling C-major chord! A big bang of sound. Every eye popped open in the darkened planetarium to a dome now brilliant with stars and the summer Milky Way. Troppo! Perfection!

I told the story of how when in England, in 1782, Haydn visited the astronomer William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, at his observatory near Slough, and possibly had a look through the great man's telescope. He surely heard Herschel expound on how gravity condensed the stars and planets out of chaos and darkness. Herschel was himself a musician, and Haydn had a keen interest in astronomy. I imagine the two men grooved on each other. The visit may have been an inspiration for the oratorio, one of the great works of western music.

If you don't know The Creation, get a copy and have a listen. Seldom have art and science so beautifully complemented each other. Bravo, maestro! Bravo!

Monday, March 05, 2012


As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame in the 1950s I took a course in epistemology, the study of knowledge as knowledge: How do we know what we know? To what extent can we be confident in what we know? I can't say that I remember the details of the course, but by the time I graduated I had been exposed to knowledge derived in at least five ways -- intuition, pure reason, empiricism, tradition, and revelation -- offering, purportedly, varying degrees of certainty. The rest of my life has been a matter of testing these instruments against the light of experience.

Each of us will no doubt value these five ways to knowledge with differing degrees of confidence. Some hold most firmly to what they take to be direct revelation from a divinely infallible source. Some will value the traditional knowledge inherited from our ancestors. In the hands of certain geniuses like Einstein pure reason carries the day -- although in science reason must ultimately bow to empirical evidence. Intuition is manifestly unreliable, but all of us use it.

Personally, I've dispensed with revelation; I've seen too much mischief follow from that kind of certainty. Tradition, too, except in very practical matters (hot stoves burn), strikes me as notoriously susceptible to accidents of birth. I value my intuitions, but wouldn't stake my life on them, or seek to impose them on anyone else. Reason and empiricism measure up best, especially when linked in the communal, consensus-building activity we call science.

In general, at age 75, I stand on the shore between knowledge and mystery with one foot on the sand and one foot in the water. Ask me what I think of X and I'll answer with one of four responses, depending on the question:

I don't know.



Exceedingly likely.

Sunday, March 04, 2012


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

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Celebrating what is -- a Saturday reprise

(This post -- a familiar theme -- originally appeared in February 2006.)

For those of you who haven't read An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, here is a way (from the book) to come as close as you will ever get to the first moment of Creation.
Take yourself as far as possible from city lights, to a place where the night is inky black and thick with stars. If you can, turn off all local lights. Make sure the Moon is not in the sky, or at least no more than a slender crescent. A winter or summer night is best, when the Milky Way arches high overhead and the sky is posted with brilliant stars. Two other requirements: solitude and silence. You'll also want an audio CD player and a recording of Joseph Haydn's The Creation oratorio. Lie back comfortably on a deck chair or a blanket, facing up to the stars. Place your finger on the "Play" button, and close your eyes. Wait a few moments until you are perfectly relaxed, then, with your eyes still closed, push "Play."

Silence. A C-minor chord, somber, out of nowhere. Followed by fragments of music. Clarinet. Oboe. A trumpet note. A stroke of timpani. A prelude of shadowy notes and thrusting chords, by which Haydn meant to represent the Darkness and Chaos that preceded the creation of the world. Listen now, eyes closed, as the music descends into hushed silence. Hear the voice of the archangel Raphael: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep." The chorus, subdued, barely audible, sings: "And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters; and God said: Let there be light!" Then, the voices whispering, once and only once: "And there was light." Open your eyes! A brilliant fortissimo C-major chord! A sunburst of sound. Radiant. Dispelling darkness. A universe blazes into existence, arching from horizon to horizon. Stars. Planets. The luminous river of the Milky Way. As you open your eyes to Haydn's fortissimo chord and to the (almost) forgotten glory of a truly dark starry night, you will feel that you have been a witness to the big bang.

But was the big bang truly creation ex nihilo, or was it only a singular moment in an endlessly oscillating universe? Was it unique? Maybe our universe is just one in a vast number of universes that pop into and out of existence like champagne bubbles in a greater, and perhaps eternal, metaverse. Who knows? It seems to me that to use the big bang as an argument for a divine personal Creator is a bit of a stretch. Better to just glory in what we know -- as in the Haydn experience above -- and leave the theology for those who like to wander the echoing corridors of non-empirical speculation.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Augmented reality?

We could watch for hours, transfixed. In Catholic theology, one must be disposed to grace to receive it. We are disposed.

We sit in our beach chairs as if watching some grand production at La Scala as the osprey (they call it fish hawk here) patrols the shore, watching the bird as intently as it watches the breaking waves for that flash of silver that is dinner.

The long glide, for a hundred yards along the pulsing tide, sailing the wind, not a wingbeat, now and then, perhaps, a slight tip of feathers, a faint navigational nudge. And now! The brake! The great wings move, scull the air in fierce, quick strokes. The bird backs and banks. And dives. Apparently as heavy as a stone.

A fish? Not this time. The osprey resumes its weightless flight. To the end of the beach and back again. We have the sense that it is aware of its audience, appreciates our appreciation, stitches our sky with its luminous embroidery with the same mutuality as Placido Domingo might regale his opera fans.

No augmentation necessary. An act so pure, so artful, such a fine-honed balance of wing and wind that one whispers a heartfelt word of gratitude. Grace. Grace is everywhere.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Google goggles

At the dinner table the other evening, my son-in-law was telling his 10 and 12-year-old daughters (my granddaughters) about augmented reality, specifically about goggles that superimpose computer generated imagery on views of the real world. You might play video games, for example, fighting off monsters, in your own house and neighborhood.

I'm thinking: I don't want augmented reality. I'm thinking: I'm trying to simplify reality, strip it to essentials, lay it bare. The winter Milky Way arching across the sky from Cassiopeia to Canis Major. The osprey. The hummingbird. Earth, air, fire and water. The quick, pure apprehension of what is.

But the granddaughters are young and curious and a target audience for augmentation. When my generation was 10 or 12 years old, we also looked forward to augmented reality. It was called adolescence.