Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bless me Father, for I have sinned…

I don’t watch many movies, but I viewed two this week, on DVD: The Magdalene Sisters, and Agora.

The first is about the so-called Magdalene laundries in Catholic Ireland, into which thousands of girls and young women were involuntarily placed during the middle of the last century, often by their families, for the unforgivable scandal of getting pregnant outside of marriage, or for what was deemed promiscuous behavior. These institutions were run and staffed by often sadistic nuns. The workdays were long and hard, with no pay. Degradation was constant. When a pregnant girl gave birth, her baby was taken away from her and placed for adoption or into an orphanage. The movie was harrowing, as was the Channel 4 (Britain) documentary on which the film was based.
Agora is a highly fictionalized story of the philosopher Hypatia, who lived and worked in 4th-century Roman Alexandria. Little is known of her life with certainty, other than that she was regarded as a talented mathematician and astronomer in a man’s world. History also records that she was murdered by a Christian mob for presumed witchcraft and impiety. The movie is an unabashed screed against religion (the great library of Alexandria is ransacked and destroyed by Christian fanatics). It portrays Hypatia as a rational skeptic in a world of dogmatic superstition. I enjoyed the movie best for its impressive computer-generated representations of ancient Alexandria.

Movie-wise, it was not a great week for religion.

Of the two films, The Magdalene Sisters was of greater interest to me because it overlapped so much with my own childhood. Of course, in the United States the Church did not have the unquestioned authority it had in Ireland, a country that was held up to us as a Catholic paragon of national virtue. Still, we were taught that priests and nuns were not to be questioned, that their authority derived from God. We were also taught that our bodies were sinful, and in need of mortification.

In Ireland, where until relatively recently the secular authorities deferred to the Church in matters of education and morality, we now know the system led to horrific abuses, of which the Magdalene laundries were just one example. When the whole ugly edifice came tumbling down during the last decades of the 20th century, it crumbled to dust. "Catholic" Ireland is now about as secular as a nation can get.

The last laundry closed in 1996.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

D'ou Venons Nous/ Que Sommes Nous/ Ou Allons Nous

I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the heart of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Chickamauga Dam and Chickamauga Lake were constants in my childhood, One summer as a college student I worked for the TVA. But it wasn't until after I had settled in New England, in the 1970s, that the TVA built its Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage Plant.

Customers use more electricity during the day than at night, yet most generators produce power at a constant rate. What is needed is a way to store power during periods of slack use and recover it during times of high demand. One solution: Pump water to the top of a mountain during off-peak hours, and let it fall back down during peak times, driving generators.

And the perfect place: Wild, virtually unpopulated Raccoon Mountain, less than ten miles from downtown Chattanooga.

It's something to see, for my money (free) more worth a visit than those perennial Chattanooga tourist attractions Rock City and Ruby Falls.

At Ruby Falls, visitors take an elevator from high on the side of Lookout Mountain down into the heart of the mountain, then walk though a beautiful cavern to a huge natural underground chamber with a waterfall pouring from ceiling to floor. Yes, it's impressive, but...

At Raccoon Mountain, there's a big artificial lake. At the Visitor Center, one enters an elevator and descends a thousand feet into the root of the mountain. A walk through a long tunnel opens onto a balcony overlooking a vast artificial cavern, as big as a football pitch, containing four huge pump/generators, along with other assorted technology, all painted in bright primary colors. The scale of the thing took my breath away.

I mention this, because I just came across this time-lapse video on the TVA web site (scroll down for video). Watching the video, what came to mind? Curiously, E. O. Wilson's controversial new book The Social Conquest of Earth.

Wilson, as you know, is an expert on the social insects (particularly the ants), and in his new book he lays out a theory of how we became human that draws on the evolution of sociality among invertebrates and vertebrates; we are what we are, with all of our lofty, virtuous qualities, because natural selection has favored social behaviors.

(Which is not to say that natural selection does not also work with individual selection.)

Watching the video, I couldn't help but feel I was watching a teeming, scurrying colony of ants deep in the earth. Of course, what I was watching was a highly organized choreography of managers, engineers, heavy equipment operators, mechanics, and workmen, a social division of labor that manages to accomplish monumental tasks -- the hollowing out of a mountain and filling it with hugely complex machines -- that benefit the larger social community.

According to Wilson, sociality (or eusociality), not competition between individuals, or even between closely related kin groups, accounts for where we have come from, what we are, and -- in the most optimistic scenario -- where we are going. Whether he's right or not, time will tell. But watching the scurrying ant/humans in the TVA video, I knew I was watching the social conquest of Earth.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Like the flowers, I will seek the light

Books are spilling from the shelves. Fifty years of books. Seems no matter how many we get rid of, more accumulate.

And it’s that time of life to start tidying up. Dump the detritus. Simplify.

So we take loads of books to the Historical Society’s book sale.

But isn’t easy to part with books. So many evoke memories. So many have sentimental value.

My college Walden, with all the words I didn’t know underlined in red.

My big two volume edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, a 25th anniversary present from my wife.

And dozens -– hundreds –- more.

Here's a little book I could never throw out, perhaps the most beautiful book in the house. A French missal. Missel de Frere Yves. The prayers of the Roman Catholic mass for young people. Given to me more than half-a-century ago by Anne, in the hope, I suppose, of elevating my taste in visual beauty.

A typical pair of pages, for Maundy Thursday. The Last Supper. I'm not quite sure why there are only eleven apostles. (Click to enlarge.)

And here a double-page spread of the liturgical year.

This is what I loved about Catholicism, what I still love. The way the rituals mesh with the annual and diurnal cycles of the Sun. The materiality: bread, wine, wax, oil, water, fire. The colors of the vestments. It's all so lusciously pagan.

I could still get into this stuff if it weren't for the requirement of believing the miracle stories are literally true. I can imagine a Church structured with the same childlike simplicity as the Missel de Frere Yves, inspired by the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, and with liturgies that celebrate the goodness of the natural world. I could even take the stories you see in the cycle here, as long as they were understood as myths that embody the history of human longing.

But of course that would be a very different Church than the one I left behind. So I'll do my own cycle of the seasons with Thoreau and Audubon. And pass down my Missel de Frere Yves to whichever of my grandchildren -- if any -- professes a sympathy for the core intuitions of natural religion.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Making peace

A recent issue of Science (May 18) was devoted to human conflict. If I can summarize 60 pages of discussion: It's US versus THEM.

It seems our long evolutionary history has favored group solidarity. Empathy and cooperation within the group; distrust and aggression toward those outside.

The first groups were those of kin, tribes, and then ethnicity. As societies grew, groups identified themselves in more complex ways. Some researches would suggest that religions evolved as group adhesives.

WE are moral, beautiful, enlightened, favored by God. THEY are wicked, ugly, ignorant, blighted by Providence.

Red state and blue state. The 99% and the 1%. Black and white. Christian and Muslim.

I mean, admit it. WE are the best. It’s commonsense.

Meaning, common sense.

In the final comments of his lectures on literature, delivered at Wellesley and Cornell in the 1940s-50s, Vladimir Nabokov had some things to say about common sense and human conflict:
It is instructive to think that there is not a single person in this room [he told his students], or for that matter in any room in the world, who, at some nicely chosen point in historical space-time would not be put to death there and then, here and now, by a commonsensical majority in righteous rage. The color of one's creed, neckties, eyes, thoughts, manners, speech, is sure to meet somewhere in time or space with a fatal objection from a mob that hates that particular tone. And the more brilliant, the more unusual the man, the nearer he is to the stake. Stranger always rhymes with danger.
Nabokov, who had first fled Russia from the Bolsheviks, then Germany from the Nazis, was urging his students to eschew any form of group self-righteousness, and to cultivate instead imagination, memory and an artistic sense. The best temperament for resisting the siren call of the group, he said, is a combination of artistic and scientific.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

In accord

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

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Six things -- a Saturday reprise

(This post appeared in May 2006.)

My mother was part of the last generation of Americans who were welded into a national cohesiveness by the classroom memorization of poems by English language poets -- Longfellow, Whittier, Riley, Lowell, Field, and all the rest. All her life, lines of verse were on her lips...

"All at once, and nothing first,/ Just as bubbles do when they burst." (The One Hoss Shay, Oliver Wendell Holmes)

"Each morning sees some task begin,/ Each evening sees it close;/ Something attempted, something done,/ Has earned a night's repose." (The Village Blacksmith, Longfellow)

"The more we listened, the more our wonder grew/ how his small head could contain all he knew." (The Village Schoolmaster, Oliver Goldsmith)

"My candle burns at both ends;/It will not last the night;/ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--/ It gives a lovely light! (First Fig, Edna St. Vincent Millay)

...and so on.

Memorized poems provided young scholars of her generation with a common language that defined a national consciousness and expressed respectful continuity with the past. Not mere rote. It was called "learning by heart," and heart was very much at work.

Is there a common canon of scientific knowledge that global citizens of the 21st century should have at heart? Here are six bits of knowledge that might constitute minimum scientific literacy for every grade-school graduate:

1. The world is big. With our best telescopes we observe a universe of tens of billions of galaxies. Each galaxy consists of hundreds of billions of stars. Most of those stars probably have planet systems. Our Earth is a typical planet of a typical star in a typical corner of a typical galaxy.

2. The world is old. Human time is not cosmic time. If a year is represented by the thickness of a playing card, all of recorded human history would be a pile of cards about 10 feet high. The age of the universe is about 14 billion years; lay this pile of cards on its side and it would reach from New York to San Francisco.

3. The world is made of atoms. Nature's construction set is astonishingly simple: protons, neutrons, electrons. Of these, nature makes 92 kinds of atoms, and these combine into molecules. Out of simplicity comes complexity -- the clear liquidity of water, the smell of bananas, the blue of the sky. A molecule called DNA determines my species, my gender, the color of my eyes.

4. The world evolves. The history of the universe is an unfolding of matter and form from a seed of pure energy. Stars, planets and life have histories, determined by law and contingency. Everything alive on the planet Earth today is related by common descent from primordial ancestors.

5. Everything is connected. Our bodies are made of stardust -- atoms forged in earlier generations of stars as they lived and died. Stars, planets, plants, animals, rocks, soil, sea, and atmosphere are interrelated in a fabric of wondrous refinement and resilience. We disrupt the fabric at our peril.

6. The world is wonderful. The more we learn about the form and function of the world, the more we realize the depth of our ignorance, and the more we appreciate the creation as a source of wonder, awe, reverence, praise -- or, if you prefer, as revelation of a power worthy of our wonder, awe, reverence, praise.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A golden Opportunity

Wow! After a winter's sleep, the Martian rover Opportunity is awake and on the move, ready to do science for another season.

With its now defunct sister rover, Spirit, Opportunity bounced down on the Martian surface (on opposite sides of the planet) in January 2004. The goal before landing was for each rover to travel about 1 kilometer. Opportunity has now cruised around for more than 34 kilometers, doing geology as it goes and beaming photos back to Earth. It is about the size of a dining room table.

We have lived with space exploration for so long that we tend to take this stuff for granted. Which is why I pinch myself now and then and remind myself just what a spectacular accomplishment this is.

Imagine the Earth as a grape and Mars as a cranberry. At their closest (both planets lined up on one side of the Sun) they are about as far apart as the length of a football field. But of course they are not always so close together; the planets orbit the Sun at different speeds. Opportunity's long journey looping out to the Red Planet took half a year. And landed on a dime.

We all remember when the rover got stuck in Martian sand, and had to painstakingly claw its way out. We held our breath, and crossed our finger for its chances. The little engine that could, could.

All those marvelous pictures of Martian landscapes, and close-ups of Martian rocks. And the folks at NASA nursing their child along, whispering in its ear across tens of millions of miles -- when to stop, when to go, when to do a bit of science.

Breathtaking stuff, this. Go Opportunity. Go.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Gathering treasure

My sister Anne, who graces this blog with her Sunday illuminations, lives in a sweet adobe house on a New Mexican mesa. She was blessed with clear skies for Sunday’s annular eclipse of the Sun.

A “ring of fire” eclipse. The Moon, being near its farthest distance from the Earth, did not quite cover the Sun’s disk. The sky did not go nighttime dark, as during a total eclipse. The stars did not come out. The corona was not visible. But seeing the Sun as a thin ring of light was surely a thrill of a lifetime. I wish I had been there.

The eclipse began in southeast China, at dawn, and swept across much of Japan. Then a long arc across the northern Pacific, to touch land in northern California. Down across Nevada and northern New Mexico.

For Anne, the eclipse was visible on the northwest horizon just before sunset.

As you can see from the photo above (click to enlarge), the Sun and Moon showered her house with golden rings.

What made the rings? A cedar tree provided hundreds of tiny apertures; in effect, hundreds of pinhole cameras projected the eclipse onto the wall of her porch.

Who needs the wealth of the 1% when nature is so generous with its scattered treasure? I expect we might see Anne’s photo in one of her cyber transformations.

In November, daughter Mo and daughter-in-law Patty will be in northeast Australia for a total eclipse of the Sun. If they are lucky, they will catch the beginning of the eclipse just after sunrise in one of the few places where the path of totality touches land. This is another oceanic affair, which will end just off the coast of South America. Unfortunately, where they will be has about a 50-50 chance clouds that time of year. Let’s wish them luck.

This won’t be Mo’s first total eclipse; she was with us in Turkey in 2006. My blogging of that event began on March 23.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Of human life

I was proud of my alma mater, Notre Dame University, when in 2009 it stood up to protestors and did not rescind its graduation speaker invitation to President Obama. At issue were Obama's stands on abortion and stem-cell research, which were deemed contrary to Catholic teaching. Any democratically elected president of either party deserves a respectful hearing by all Americans, even if we do not agree with his or her policies.

So it was with a bit of disappointment that I read this week that the University has joined other Catholic institutions in a suit against Obama for that part of the health mandate that requires employers to provide contraceptive services under their insurance plans. The Department of Health and Human Services adopted the rule at least in part because it promotes maternal and child health by allowing women to space their pregnancies.

The University contends that the rule infringes on the religious freedom of the institution.

It is not Notre Dame standing up for religious freedom that disappoints me. The school has every right to affirm its religious beliefs. No, it the fact that it takes its stand on contraception that I find depressing.

The Church, of course, teaches that contraception violates the "natural law." If a condom or birth-control pill violates the natural law, then so does the Popemobile and antibiotics. The funny thing is, I haven’t heard anything about Viagra being against the natural law.

An overwhelming majority of sexually-active Catholic women use contraceptives where they are readily available. If the Church is, as the theologians say, the "people of God," then the Church has decided that there is nothing intrinsically immoral about artificial contraception. Rather, many Catholics believe the ban on contraception is itself immoral, leading to unwanted pregnancies, poverty, infant mortality, deaths from childbirth and disease (especially in places like Africa), and population growth that hurts everyone.

There is something in Catholic teaching called the sensus fidelium, "sense of the faithful," which refers to truths sensed or recognized by the whole body of the Church. In the matter of contraception, the sensus fidelium is clear.

Clear, that is, to everyone but the all-male hierarchy, who apparently feel the need to adhere to papal teaching on the matter. And so it seems that Notre Dame chooses to side not with the "people of God," and with women in particular, but with the bishops and the papacy, who lately have distinguished themselves with increasingly retrogressive actions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Head in the cloud

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had some things to say the other day about the way the internet is empowering individuals "to publish your own book, start your own company and chase your own dream." He was visiting with's founder Jeff Bezos, and grooving with the young entrepreneur's vision of the future.

"I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere,” Bezos says. For a nominal fee, everyone has access to the most powerful computing and storage facilities on Amazon's "cloud." Start-ups can even send their inventory to Amazon, and it will handle orders and shipping.

"Sixteen of the top 100 best-sellers on Kindle today were self-published," gushes Bezos, and Friedman gushes in return.

Way back in 1998, I wrote in the Boston Globe about a world without gatekeepers. Amazon was a baby back then, and e-books were, if anything, a fuzzy dream, but it was clear which way the wind was blowing. My column was picked up and re-published by the American Society of Newspaper editors on their own website.

I wrote: "The Internet is like a vast marketplace of ideas where every purveyor has the same size stall. Some stalls are decked out with neon lights; others are shabby and drab. Some stall keepers promise the world; others offer only modest helpings of 'fact.' Where does one shop?"

"Does it matter?" I asked. "Yes. A vigorous marketplace of ideas is healthy, but society needs a certain degree of shared faith if it is not to disintegrate into anarchy. If all ideas in the marketplace are equal, then no ideas will truly matter."

And now the future is here. Editors, librarians, school teachers and other traditional gatekeepers have been made redundant. Everyone, everywhere has access to everything. Everyone blogs. Everyone tweets. Everyone has a stall on Facebook. Everyone can publish a book for pennies and Amazon will sell it.

There is something marvelous about this, something empowering and democratic. Something disquieting too.

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Remember that famous New Yorker cartoon? We're all dogs now. And every idea, no matter how brilliant, no matter how loony, has equal access to our ear.

Monday, May 21, 2012


I went to a retirement party the other evening for my good friend Dick Grant. Dick is a passionate birder and carver of bird sculptures, and he made a few remarks about birding. Of binoculars he said: "They not only let you see things better; they let you see things you didn't even know were there."

What a tiny little window it is we have on the world with our unaided senses. Natural selection endowed us with just enough perceptual apparatus as was appropriate to our size and needs. The needs for our survival as animals in the wild.

But Dick is not an animal in the wild. He has self-awareness, curiosity, and a keen sense of beauty. Binoculars extend his senses, open wider the window of the senses. He sees things that the rest of us don't even know are there.

Our eyes evolved to make use of available light, which was basically that part of the radiation of a yellow star that makes it through the Earth's atmosphere. But now we have climbed above the atmosphere, with instruments sensitive to parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes are blind to. We not only see better, we see things we never knew were there.

Consider the image above, of the Cygnus X star-forming region in the constellation Cygnus, made with the European Space Agency's Herschel Infrared Space Observatory (click, and again, to enlarge). A 3.5-meter reflecting telescope and instruments cooled to near absolute zero (so it won't be observing its own heat). A two-month journey to a gravitationally stable station around the second Lagrange point in the Earth-Sun system (far enough away from Earth not to be sensitive to Earth's own heat).

This is binoculars to the nth power.

How big a part of the sky? A dozen full Moons could line up across the image. A great window of the night through which we see with our unaided eyes only a sprinkling a stars.

The colors in the image, though beautiful, are false. What you are seeing here is heat from cool gases. Gases roiling and streaming as stars and planetary systems are born. 4500 light-years away in the arms of the Milky Way Galaxy. 500 light-years wide; the Sun and our nearest neighboring star Alpha Centauri are as far apart as those little pairs of bright spots on the right.

What a universe! In the heart of the Swan.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


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

A Saturday reprise -- My father's sliderule…

...was a Keuffel & Esser log-log-duplex-decitrig slide from the 1940's, with twenty-one white plastic scales bonded to teak and a glass hairline indicator, neatly cozied in a stiff leather case.

My father took his slipstick seriously.

He used it all day long, every day. While tinkering in his basement workshop, or while preparing a speech for the local chapter of the American Association of Mechanical Engineers.

He lived in a world of three significant figures. That was the accuracy of the calculations he performed on his slide rule. It was enough for a life of service to his profession and his community.

Even on his deathbed he was slipping his slipstick, plotting the cycles of medication and pain.

With a slide rule, the structure of thinking is visible and tactile. He liked that. He could see and feel the numbers add, multiply, divide. Today, processing takes place invisibly in a microchip forever sealed away from human inspection.

More is going on here than an advance in technology. The change from slide rules to electronic calculators was different, say, than the change from oil lamps to electric bulbs, or from horses and buggies to automobiles. The passing of the slide rule represented a change in how we understand the world.

It is a change from nuts-and-bolts materialism to digital formalism, from a world imagined as hardware to a world imagined as software. The dance of digits inside a computer's silicon chip is destined to become the 21st century's metaphor for reality.

(This post originally appeared in March 2006. The sliderule is now in Tom's possession.)

Friday, May 18, 2012


It's that time of year when the meadows and ditches turn sunshine yellow, and kids go loping through the grass collecting buttercups. Put a bossom against a playmate's chin: Do you like butter?

Such an intense yellow! Petals, sepals, pistils, stamens. Buttercups are not specialists. They have evolved no special passages or traps to insure that insects encounter pollen-giving or pollen-receiving devices. They have no exclusive relationship with any particular insect. They spread their bounty to one and all -- bees, flies, wasps, even beetles. Here it is, gang. A picnic spread on a yellow cloth. Dig in.

And so many varieties. I long ago gave up trying to learn the different species. Buttercup is designation enough. The blossoms all look the same.

Still, I love to read the litanies of names that the flower has gathered in different places and different times. Gold-cup. King's-cup. Yellow-weed. Butter-daisy. Queen's-button. Cuckoo-buds. Pissabed. Pilewort. Chicken-pepper. Crowfoot. Blister-wort. Butter-rose. Golden-knobs. Frogwort. Saint-Anthony's-turnip.

I guess us old Catholics have a thing for litanies. Remember that long list of names we had for the Virgin Mary. Mystical rose. Tower of ivory. House of gold. Ark of the covenant, Gate of heaven. Morning star. Oh, how piously we rattled off those appellations. Then we left the church and went running through the meadows. Butter-daisy. King's-cup. Pissabed.

"Cuckoo-buds of yellow hue do paint the meadows with delight," wrote Shakespeare in Love's Labour's Lost. Chicken-pepper. Crowfoot. Butter-rose. Amen.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

O what black hours

A follow-up to yesterday's post.

In his literary biography of Hopkins, Norman White writes:
Even before he became a Roman Catholic, Hopkins frequently looked on beauty as a forbidden sweet, rather than as an essential of life. On 6 November 1865, for instance [the year before his conversion], he resolved "to give up all beauty until I had His leave for it." He acknowledged its low place in the Christian moral hierarchy, but he did not overcome his susceptibilities; wherever Hopkins mentions beauty in his poetry he cannot help being excited by it, in human and in non-human nature. With human beauty he knows he has to exercise extreme care; he is aware of danger when he sees it. It inflames; more distantly and composedly, it is dear and sweet; there is a sadness about it because it passes away.
How heartbreaking! How sad! To be almost painfully sensitive to beauty, yet unable to embrace it. It seems this was not so much the influence of Roman Catholicism, as it was that Roman Catholicism meshed with some brokenness of Hopkins' spirit. Neurological? Nurture? An inability to deal with his homoerotic impulses? Who knows? In any case, the Jansenistic regimen of the Jesuit order nourished his affliction.

Still, he felt, like all of us, the need to be grateful for beauty and to praise its source. His joyful early poems stand in evidence. It is completely human when feeling gratitude to expect reciprocity of the gift-giver, and when praising to desire awareness of the praise. And so it is that a personal God "fathers-forth" out of our imaginations.

But the universe is silent. The silence is a dark glass, and the hidden God a fickle lover. In his lonely Dublin exile, Hopkins wrestled with the paradox of a God who creates beauty and frustrates its enjoyment. Out of this bleak cloud of unknowing come Hopkins' so-called "terrible sonnets":
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights yoou, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
Rule 8 in Ignatius's spiritual exercises for Jesuits prescribes an antidote for desolation: patience, "Let him think that he will shortly be consoled," says the rule, if not on this side of the grave, then surely on the other. Patience, according to Ignatius, is God's substitute for peace. Hopkins was patient, but never peaceful.

This pied, dappled, rose-moled universe contains both beauty and hurt, and answers our prayers with silence. Beauty is the gift, yes, but we need not know the giver -- or so would say the religious naturalist. And if we do not endow the source of beauty with a human face, then nothing is asked in return, neither patience nor abnegation.

One wants to take Hopkins by the scruff of the neck and rub his nose in beauty. Say: "It's yours, Gerard, yours to enjoy. That lower-case "dearest him who lives alas! away" is not that dearest Him of your earlier poems; it is -- who? -- might it be Digby Dolben, with whom you were once in love, and with whom in a different time and place you might have found happiness? Beauty has the highest place in the human moral hierarchy. It is dear and sweet, and, yes, there is a sadness in that it passes away.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Who knows how?

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote the poem Pied Beauty in the summer of 1877. He had finished his third year of theological studies at the Jesuit seminary of St, Beuno's in North Wales, and was awaiting the exam that would determine his further advancement in the order. Ordination would follow in September. I imagine him standing on a hillside looking out over the valley of the river Elwy, overwhelmed by the beauty and diversity of the landscape. He was 33 years old, a convert to Roman Catholicism -- received into that faith by John Henry Newman, to the dismay of his parents -- and now anticipating life as a Jesuit priest.
Glory be to God for dappled things,
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced -- fold, fallow, and plough;
       And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
       With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
                   Praise him.
It is a strange little poem, reflective of the warring instincts in Hopkins himself, an exhilarating embrace of the sensuous and changeable wonder of nature, bracketed by an heartfelt alliegence to a distant and immutable God.

The -les ripple through the poem like the purling water of the Elwy -- dapple, couple, stipple, tackle, fickle, freckle. This is the poet, the lover, the mystic, the naturalist. Then there is that other Hopkins too, who distrusts his body, distrusts his passions, who can make a bonfire of his poems out of a sense that their sensuality offends God.

No wonder his parents felt their gentle, artistic son was throwing his life away. His superiors at St. Beuno's read the parents' letters to the son before they were delivered. God demanded severe obedience.

Hopkins flunked the exam, or at least did not do well enough to continue his theological studies, a prerequisite for advancement to the higher offices of the Jesuit order. He would spend the rest of his too short life as a clerical foot-soldier, going wherever he was assigned to do the order's bidding.

Hopkins was as much a riddle to his Jesuit superiors as he was to his family and friends. He beheld nature -- all things that are counter, original, spare and strange -- and, like all of us who love nature, felt an innate human urge to give thanks and praise. Who to thank? Who to praise? That, of course, is the wrong question -- who? -- and the answer led him down a blind alley. But he made the best of a conflicted life, and although lonely and miserable in an Irish assignment -- an exile of sorts -- his last words, before he died at age 45 of typhoid, were apparently "I am so happy. I am so happy."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The sixth day

Anthropologists pretty much agree that all modern humans had their ancestral origins in Africa, and spread from there to the other continents in a great exodus beginning about 60,000 years ago.

Which is not to say that there were not already other members of the human family in Europe, Asia, and in what is now the island of Indonesia, the descendants, presumably, of earlier migrants from Africa. The origin of these pre-modern humans -- Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo erectus, and Homo floresiensis -- is hazy, but it now seems certain that our species (or subspecies) -- Homo sapiens -- interacted with the older residents, eventually driving them to extinction. But not, it seems, without some interbreeding. It turns out we carry snatches of Neanderthal DNA in our modern genome.

Writing in Scientific American, Michael Shermer notes: "I always suspected that Neandertals and anatomically modern humans interbred, based on a simple observation: humans are the most sexual of all the primates, willing and able to do it just about anywhere, anytime, with anyone (and even with other species if the Kinsey report is to be believed)."

In any case, it's a grand adventure story, taking Homo sapiens out of Africa, eventually to Australia and across the Bering Strait to the southern tip of South America. It is a story closely tied to climate change and the rise and fall of sea level during the most recent Ice Age.

I'd love to be around 100 years from now when we know the story in more detail. Piecing it together requires shrewd detective work, relying on bits of bone, flakes of stone, and the occasional artifact. And -- evidence that we couldn't have imagined even a generation ago -- DNA. The whole winding adventure is recorded in our genome.

This much is clear: We are the ultimate invasive species. We have entered every pristine environment on Earth, displacing native species, even alien members of our own species. We are unstoppable, prodigious, voracious, the quintessential weed. Like it or not, there is now a single habitat -- ours -- that we share with bacteria and great blue whales. A pale blue dot. Entrusted, by happenstance, to our care.

Monday, May 14, 2012


"In our house on Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks." So begins Eudora Welty's memoir One Writer's Beginning.

A slim little book. An inspiring place for any aspiring writer to begin. It was one of the two books that squared me on the path to a writerly life. The other was equally slim: Strunk and White's Elements of Style. I think I paid about 15 cents for each of them as used paperbacks.

Welty's book has three parts, the titles of which suggest key steps in becoming a writer: "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice."

"Listening" requires neither learning nor finding. You either grow up with the striking of clocks (metaphorically speaking), or you don't. Of course, clocks strike everywhere, but they are not always heard. By "listening," Welty means a certain innate awareness of the world, an inborn sensitivity to sights, sounds, tastes, touches, smells. You either have it or you don't. If you have it in spades you have the chance to become a Joyce or a Proust. If you don't have it at all, then becoming a writer is not an option. I had just enough to make the mid-lists.

Then, in "Learning to See," this, from an early trip to a grandparents farm in the mountains of West Virginia:
It took the mountain top, it seems to me now, to give me the sensation of independence. It was as if I'd discovered something I'd never tasted before in my short life. Or rediscovered it -- for I associated it with the taste of the water that came out of the well, accompanied with the ring of that long metal sleeve against the sides of the living mountain, as from deep down it was wound up to view brimming and streaming long drops behind it like bright stars on a ribbon. It thrilled me to drink from the common dipper. The coldness, the far, unseen, unheard springs of what was in my mouth now, the iron strength of its flavor that drew my cheeks in, its fern-laced smell, all said mountain mountain mountain as I swallowed.
Here is something that has to be learned, from parents, teachers, books, or personal adventure, a way of connecting and extrapolating one's sense experiences, of recognizing the inexhaustible possibilities of metaphor -- that is, of tasting the mountain in a sip of cold spring water.

And now the hardest part of all: "finding a voice." This section of Welty's book begins: "I had the window seat. Beside me, my father checked the progress of our train by moving his finger down the timetable and springing open his pocket watch." From so slight a sample -- two sentences -- one recognizes the writer's voice, the spare style for which Welty is known, the sturdy nouns, the vigorous verbs. Only the one adjective matters -- "window" -- which says everything we need to know about the child.

I can vividly remember, after years of false starts, the moment I discovered a way of writing that fit me as comfortably as a favorite pair of jeans. It was when I typed the first sentence of The Soul of the Night: "Yesterday on Boston Common I saw a young man on a skateboard collide with a child." I knew at that instant the paragraphs that would follow, detailing the child's long flight across the galaxy. Science would be part of that voice, and the human drama too. One foot on the shore of fact, one foot in mystery.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


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

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Out and about -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in September 2005.)

On Dec. 27, 1835, in the fifth year of his round-the-world voyage as naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin posted a letter to his sister, Caroline, from New Zealand.

"My last letter was written from the Galapagos," he began, "since which time I have had no opportunity of sending another."

The letter to Caroline from the Galapagos has not been found. I tried to imagine what Darwin might have written, had he the prescience to foresee the future:

My dear Caroline,

We have lately arrived in this land of volcanic Craters, having crossed from the coast of Ecuador. A Whaling Ship lies at rest not far from our present anchorage, and will presently sail for the Atlantic. I take this opportunity of telling you how we are getting on. If this were the third year of the voyage, rather than the commencement of the fifth, I dare say I would be in better spirits. I am sustained by the thought that in 10 months time I will be sitting with you by your hearth in Shrewsbury.

These islands are a little world within themselves, only recently having arisen from the sea. The exceedingly strange creatures we find here, including giant tortoises and lizards, seem to have come up from the bowels of the Earth with the lavas themselves. It will be most interesting to find from future comparison to what mainland district the beings of this archipelago are attached.

From island to island, the animals show distinct differences. Local residents can tell with certainty from which island any tortoise or mocking-thrush was brought. It is puzzling that islands lying within sight of one another should be so differently tenanted. We seem to have been brought near to that great fact -- that mystery of mysteries -- the first appearance of new things on this Earth.

Everything here speaks of isolation. The human presence in the archipelago is sparse, only several hundred hardy souls. Although complaining of poverty, they live a not uncomfortable life, subsisting upon sweet potatoes and bananas, supplemented by the flesh of giant tortoises. These latter carapaced beasts are a singular resource of the islands.

The numbers of tortoises, of course, have been greatly reduced. The crews of whaling ships and bucaniers have for many years relied upon these animals for fresh meat. It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as 700, and that the ship's company of a frigate once harvested 200 tortoises in a single day. One wonders how long these primeval beasts can endure such deprecations before they are extinguished from the islands.

The melancholy fate of the giant tortoises raises the broader spectre of ruin for the native flora and fauna of the islands and the waters 'round about. As I have said, the Galapagos by virtue of their recent volcanic genesis are a kind of antediluvian paradise, perhaps holding on their several shores answers to the questions posed by Lyell in his recent Principles: How do new lands become clothed and tenanted with living organisms, and how are the uniqueness of these species to be explained?

The islands are thus of great interest to the philosophical naturalist, but these same primordial qualities will inevitably attract hoards of less attentive visitors. Is it too much to imagine that in some future time people will seek out this place of origins as now they flock to visit the antiquities of Athens and Rome? And how will the creatures of these islands, so long protected by isolation from the rapacious hand of man, survive his deprecations?

But do not let me trouble your mind with the fate of these islands. In two weeks time, we sail for Tahiti, which will bring me closer to home. Give my affectionate love to my father, Erasmus, and all of you. Goodbye, my dear Caroline.


C. Darwin

Friday, May 11, 2012

Final Exam: Philosophy 101

Among the collected aphorisms of the poet Wallace Stevens is this: "The thing seen becomes the thing unseen. The opposite is, or seems to be, impossible." Discuss.

The first question to ask is whether this aphorism, or any of Mr. Stevens aphorisms, means anything at all. Stevens is known for his tricky opacity, his oblique glance, his wry twists. All of this sometimes makes him seem profound, and fine fodder for the critic, but one has to ask: Does it really add up to a hill of beans?

And the answer, I think, is: Yes. It does add up to a hill of beans. In fact, it is not hard to imagine Stevens writing a poem about a hill of beans. It might begin, for example:
A hill of beans in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon he ground.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
I parody, of course, his poem Anecdote of the Jar. But you see what I mean. A hill of beans is the thing seen. It takes dominion, as aptly as a jar, or ice cream, or a cockatoo. It organizes. It becomes the thing unseen, the suddenly unslovenly wilderness. The poet has taken the commonplace and found in it a satisfying abstraction. Made the ordinary magical.

And hasn't that been the essential human project since time immemorial, inventing the unseen out of the seen? Our gods and demons, for example, are projections of ourselves. Light is sometimes a particle, sometimes a wave. Creativity, for the myth-maker, the poet, and the scientist, means putting one's shoulder to the wheel of metaphor. How could it be otherwise?

Can it be otherwise? Might the poet's aphorism be wrong? Can the unseen intrude itself into reality? Take dominion among things seen? The great majority of humans would answer in the affirmative. Incarnations. Miracles. Revelations. The voice in the burning bush. But when all is said and done, it is only the seen that we have in evidence. The jar. The ice cream. The green freedom of the cockatoo. The hill of beans.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The anger of the Lord

In July of 1656, a 23-year-old Jewish young man in the Dutch Republic incurred the wrath of his congregation. The governing board, in consultation with the rabbis, issued a proclamation of excommunication. It read in part:
By decree of the angels and by command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse, and damn {him], with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls…Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man...and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.
The young man's transgressions were in the realm of ideas, and it would not be the first time those ideas would get him or his friends in trouble, not only with Jews, but with reformed Protestants and the civil authorities. His writings, of course, made the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books.

And what were those scurrilous ideas? That God is identical with the infinite and eternal universe. That miracles are impossible. That the Bible and other holy books are not the words of God, but literary works of men. That the major religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, are nothing more than organized superstition, grounded in hope and fear. That souls are not immortal. That the goal of life is to be happy, and that happiness consists of living a virtuous life, governed by reason. That all people should enjoy freedom of ideas and speech. That church and state should be separate. That governments should be tolerant and democratic.

Baruch Spinoza has been called the first secular Jew. He may not have been the first, but he can play that role. He was certainly a secularist, and a forerunner of the Enlightenment. I have no qualms calling him a religious naturalist. He was savvy about science, a correspondent and confidant with Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of London's Royal Society. He made his living as a lens grinder, and lived modestly and without pretensions.

Those of us who live in tolerant, democratic republics, with the freedom to believe or not to believe, owe a debt of gratitude to the gentle Jew of Amsterdam. He was cautious enough to avoid the harsher fates of some of his friends, and he seems to have been unperturbed by the curse quoted above.

As for the curse, all these centuries later we are not free of those who claim to speak with "the consent of God." And as for the Lord blotting out Spinoza's name from under heaven, well, his name endures -- blessed be he -- while those "holy men" who cursed him are long forgotten.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Second law

Cartoon in last week's New Yorker: Kid in his incredibly messy bedroom says to his frowning mother at the door, "I blame entropy."

Well, yes. The universe is a mess, and destined to get messier all the time. That's what happens in isolated systems. Like a universe. Like a kid's room.

But here and there we buck the trend. We take advantage of not being in an isolated system. We take advantage of the fact that the Sun is getting messy big time to build pockets of order here on Earth. Sistine Chapels. Sewage systems. School houses.

Sun: debit. Earth: credit. Entropy enjoys the edge.

You want to know what life is? Life is a clever way nature has devised to go against the flow. To make messy rooms neat.

6CO2 + 6H2O + sunlight = C6H12O6 + 6O2       (photosynthesis)

C6H12O6 + 6CO2 = 6CO2 + 6H2O + Sistine Chapel       (respiration)

This paragraph bucks the trend. Instead of reading tghjsmnvsuishgrwq, you read this. A nice little grammatical sentence. Thanks, Sun.

But it's only temporary. The bits and bytes stored on my computer and Goggle's servers will eventually evaporate, get stirred back into randomness. Can you tell THIS -- 01010100 01001000 01001001 01010011 -- from this -- 0100100011 1100101 00110 10011101001? The first is ASCII code, the second is a messy room.

The Sun will burn out. The Earth will die. Before that happens I will be reduced to dust. Ashes to ashes. Mess to mess. I blame entropy.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

If music be the food of love, play on

Tiziano Vecelli, who we know as Titian, was in his early twenties when he painted Three Ages of Man. Could he already be thinking about old age and death? I don't think so, but more of that in a minute.

What he was surely thinking about was -- well, check out the young woman on the left of the painting (click to enlarge) and you'll get the picture.

But he no doubt wanted a lofty theme, and give him this: His three ages of a "man" included women too.

Three ages, three triangles.

On the right, in a sweet pyramid, two infants sleep, watched over by Cupid, the god of love. The gender of the infants is indeterminate, but we can safely say we have a little girl cuddling on top of a boy -- the lovers on the left as babies. Already, Cupid is prodding them into amorous activity. Age of man number one.

In the near background, an old geezer -- Father Time? -- slumped into his own triangle, contemplates two skulls, which again must be those of our pastoral pair. Memento mori. Dust to dust. Age of man number three.

Titian would live into his mid-eighties, a grand old life for someone in the 16th century. When he painted this picture, in 1551-12 or so, death was probably far from the young artist's mind; it was more likely his unknown patron who needed to be reminded of our ultimate fate. Or me, at age seventy-five.

But who among us forgets age of man number two, the first flush of adulthood, vigor, beauty, the thrill of sex? We have caught our young lovers in a post-coital moment. They have made love and music. He, the shepherd, exhausted, fading into shadows. She, a shepherdess, in radiant deshabille, is ready for another go, her myrtle wreath a symbol of everlasting love. Her left hand on the phallic flute is about as naughty a metaphor as you are likely to find in Renaissance art. One thinks, for example, of Botticelli's similar but incongruously more chaste Venus and Mars.

Who, I ask you, would not fall in love with Titian's shepherdess? The luminous skin, the rosy cheeks, the expression both innocent and eager? She is not Madonna, Magdalen, or classical goddess, the tropes of the age, but only herself, the girl next door.

And who, at age seventy-five, does not remember the apex of the arc of life?

Monday, May 07, 2012


All over the news and weather this past weekend. Big story! A Supermoon! Big! Big! Pictures of an orange disk dwarfing the Lincoln Memorial. Dwarfing the Empire State Building. From all the hype, you'd have thought it was the Second Coming.

Now to be fair, the Moon was closer to Earth than usual. Although the Moon's orbit is pretty much circular, it is not centered on the Earth. At its closest -- perigee -- the Moon is about 56 Earth-radii away. At its farthest -- apogee -- about 64 Earth-radii. At midnight Saturday night the Moon was 56 Earth-radii distant, about the same distance it will be on, say, November 13 and December 13. Nothing unusual about that.

What made this somewhat unusual is that perigee coincided with a full Moon; that is, the Moon was opposite the Sun as it reached its nearest point to Earth. Which makes it appear as big and as bright as it gets.

Big deal. The full Moon was almost as close on April 6. Ditto for June 4. I guarantee that without making a careful quantitative measurement you'd never notice the difference.

And those photos of the Moon dwarfing the Lincoln Memorial? You could take a picture like that any month. It's all a matter of perspective.

Well, never mind. If all the hoopla got folks out watching a full Moon rise -- any full Moon rise -- that's no small thing. A full Moon on the horizon, shining through the Earth's atmosphere, always appears golden, even orange or red. And the "Moon illusion" -- seeing the Moon in visual proximity to familiar objects -- tricks the mind into thinking it enormous.

So it was a fun moonrise to watch. It'll be just as much fun -- and almost as "super" -- next month. But you won't hear a thing about it.

Sunday, May 06, 2012


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

Saturday, May 05, 2012

In place of belief -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in March 2008.)

A lightning storm the other night, slipping down from Florida. For an hour we sat on the terrace and watched the northern sky blaze with pyrotechnics, the best we'd ever seen, almost continuous rivers of electricity streaming between the clouds, clouds heaped like mountains and lit from within. After some particularly sky-filling explosions we could not resist applause. From horizon to horizon, from Andros to San Salvador the streamers ran, trailing their rumbles of far-off thunder. So much energy! Energy entirely beyond the human capacity to control, beyond the human capacity to comprehend.

There is a delicacy in nature -- the hummingbird at the feeder, the gecko's flicking tongue, the textured sand after a shower. There is a power too -- awesome and ominous, booming and cascading across the night. I think of lines from a poem of Grace Schulman, a poem called In Place of Belief:
               ...I would eavesdrop, spy,
and keep watch on the chance, however slight,
that the unseen might dazzle into sight.

Friday, May 04, 2012

True belief

Imagine this: Elementary school children being taught that their teachers possess the truth, the only truth. Education means memorizing the rules, and learning to marginalize anyone outside of the favored circle. Periodically, the children line up and are required to confess their sins. They invent sins that they believe will satisfy their confessor without provoking excessive punishment. They are taught that they are by inherited nature sinful, and only suffering can repair their fallen nature.

This may sound familiar to those of us who were brought up Roman Catholic a generation or more ago.

But we were not the children I have in mind. I have just read Blaine Harden's Escape from Camp 14, his chilling account of a young man's escape to the West from one of North Korea's infamous gulags. Shin Dong-hyuk was born in Camp 14, to parents who were selected by the guards and allowed to "breed" as a reward for good behavior. Shin was educated in the camp, if you want to call a smattering of literacy and arithmetic "education." Most instruction was indoctrination and abasement, accompanied by constant hunger and brutal corporeal punishment. I won't detail the horrendous things that happened to Shin in Camp 14, but at age 23 he managed to escape -- as far as Harden knows, uniquely -- and to experience a world beyond the wire that until recently he did not know existed. He was in his 20s before he learned -- from another prisoner -- that Pyongyang existed or that the world was round.

But back to that first paragraph.

I am not suggesting equivalence. As a child, Shin never experienced human kindness, not even from his parents; I was loved by parents and teachers. Shin was savagely beaten as penance for his "sins"; I was once or twice whacked on the palm with a ruler or assigned five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys. When I left elementary school I hadn't read any poet but the Catholics Joyce Kilmer and Alfred Noyes, but I knew that the world was round. Shin's childhood was hell; mine was happy. My teachers, mostly nuns, were dedicated and caring. And the Church of my youth did not have torture chambers, at least not in recent centuries.

Yet, as I read Shin's account of life in the camp I was struck by parallels, and if you've read Bruce Arnold's account of the Catholic industrial schools of Ireland during the same period as my childhood -- The Irish Gulag: How the State Betrayed Its Innocent Children -- the echoes are more striking. In the case of Ireland, the state betrayed its children by turning their education over to an authoritarian institution that operated on an assumption of Original Sin and without Enlightenment-based oversight.

If there are parallels, they are no doubt common to all authoritarian regimes that claim infallible possession of the truth. The Vatican's recent attempt to bring American nuns into line with the official "party line" is another faint echo from North Korea.

Again, I am not suggesting equivalence, but it would do the patriarchal establishment of the Church no harm to read Blaine Harden's account of Camp 14, and ask themselves if they hear echoes too, no matter how faint and far away.

(It is part of the miracle of Google Earth that you and I can look right down on Camp 14. Given the info in the book, it took me only a few minutes to find it. Click to enlarge.)

Thursday, May 03, 2012


There are a couple of book on the shelf at home by the illustrator Istvan Banyai that I enjoy looking at now and then, ostensibly children's books, but really engaging for all ages (or maybe I'm just a child at heart), called Zoom and Re-Zoom. Not a word of text, just exquisite, colorful drawings on the recto pages, facing all-black versos.

The idea of both books is the same. Begin with a small detail, almost anything at random, and zoom out. The detail becomes part of a larger picture, which then becomes part of a still broader view, and so on. A scene of riders on an Indian elephant, for example, when we zoom out, is seen to be painted on the side of a Southeast Asian trunk on a small water craft, which turns out to be a toy boat on a French pond, and so on. We end up on the page of a boy's book in a New York subway train.

That is to say, nothing is as it first seems as we move trough space and time. In a sense, all space and time exists simultaneously; what we experience is a matter of perspective. Take up a posture in the middle of the book -- as a passenger on that Indian elephant, for instance -- and you can travel either way, down to smaller and smaller scales, or outward to ever more comprehensive vistas. (You can visit a few pages of either book on Amazon).

Banyai's books, it seems to me, are philosophically refreshing in that they remind us that the conceptual worlds we live in might look very different to someone in a different time, place or culture; that is to say, they are bracing cautions against dogmatism of any sort. It seldom occurs to passionately-committed American Christians, for example, that they would almost certainly be equally passionately-committed Muslims had they been born in Qom, Iran, say. Or vice versa.

And while we are at it, let's not omit science.

I am thinking of the Powers of Ten book by Philip and Phylis Morrison, based on a film by Charles and Ray Eames, which in turn was based on an earlier book by Kees Boeke. As we have instrumentally expanded our perceptions to larger and smaller scales, we have come to understand that we don't live on the back of that elephant after all -- in a human-centered world created on a human scale of space and time. Our science has had to adjust accordingly to be ever more comprehensive.

And does anyone but me wonder why it is that the Powers of Ten book extends about the same number of orders of magnitude into the very small and very large, with us somewhere near the middle. Is that, too, a matter of limited perspective? With tongue only partly in cheek, I wonder if our universe of galaxies might be just a Banyai glimpse into a vastly larger multiverse, and quarks might be to us what galaxies are to some more comprehensive reality.

Remember when we were children we used to wonder if our solar system was a mere atom in some greater creature's body (I seem to remember a comic book on that theme). We were being whimsical, of course, but if the galaxies and the quarks have taught us anything it is the same message as Banyai's books: The world will always turn out to be more expansive and various that we imagined.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012


A whimsical observation by the poet Howard Nemerov: "God loves the liberal thrice better than the conservative, for at the beginning he gave the liberal the three realms of water, air, and fire, while to the conservative he gave only the earth."

And old liberal like me might take a certain smug satisfaction from this epigram. I mean, who would not like to see himself as the apple of God's eye, even if God is only being evoked (as here) figuratively. And it is certainly true that I tend to drift with things impermanent -- the purling water in the stream, the "dapple-dawn drawn" falcon on rushing wing, the falling "blue-bleak embers" of the turf fire. The liberal is not unsatisfied with the ephemeral, with flux and finesse, with the smooth unfolding of a fluid future.

Water, air and fire figure often in Nemerov's work, as in the poem I wrote about here . "Things and ideas ripple together" he says in another poem, and that's what liberals prefer -- the rippling, the stirring, the brewing and the making. "Study this rhythm," the poet says, "not this thing."

But of course Heraclitus cannot exist without Democritus. I pick up a polished pebble from the path and turn it in my hand, taking reassurance from its solidity, its apparent permanence, its earthy isness. One might not be able to step into the same river twice, but the river bed endures. Nemerov says as much in the essay I quoted from above:
In this brief account I have stressed the liberal virtues and neglected the conservative ones, scorning the solids of this world to praise its liquids. That is not the whole truth, for how could you tell the stream but by its rocky bed, the rocks directing the water how to flow, the water -- much more slowly -- shaping the rocks according to its flow: But maybe I put the accent where I do against this world which so consistently in politics, religion, even in art, even in science, worships the rocky monument achieved and scorns the spring, the rain cloud, and the spark fallen among the leaves.
It is not, I suppose, an accident that we speak of the "liberal" arts. Every museum has a conservator, and rightly so, but without the arts there would be nothing to conserve. Creativity is a fluid thing. Flood, wind and flame are the creator's tools.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

On the shore

The illustration above is from an article in the 12 April issue of Nature called “Structure of the mitotic checkpoint complex,” by a research group at the Institute of Cancer Research in London. It is typical of diagrams one sees with increasing frequency in the scientific journals.

I have only a foggy idea of what’s being represented. Here is the abstract of the article:
In mitosis, the spindle assembly checkpoint (SAC) ensures genome stability by delaying chromosome segregation until all sister chromatids have achieved bipolar attachment to the mitotic spindle. The SAC is imposed by the mitotic checkpoint complex (MCC), whose assembly is catalysed by unattached chromosomes and which binds and inhibits the anaphase-promoting complex/cyclosome (APC/C), the E3 ubiquitin ligase that initiates chromosome segregation. Here, using the crystal structure of Schizosaccharomyces pombe MCC (a complex of mitotic spindle assembly checkpoint proteins Mad2, Mad3 and APC/C co-activator protein Cdc20), we reveal the molecular basis of MCC-mediated APC/C inhibition and the regulation of MCC assembly. The MCC inhibits the APC/C by obstructing degron recognition sites on Cdc20 (the substrate recruitment subunit of the APC/C) and displacing Cdc20 to disrupt formation of a bipartite D-box receptor with the APC/C subunit Apc10. Mad2, in the closed conformation (C-Mad2), stabilizes the complex by optimally positioning the Mad3 KEN-box degron to bind Cdc20. Mad3 and p31comet (also known as MAD2L1-binding protein) compete for the same C-Mad2 interface, which explains how p31comet disrupts MCC assembly to antagonize the SAC. This study shows how APC/C inhibition is coupled to degron recognition by co-activators.
Yeah, OK.

In that long paragraph I basically recognize one word: mitosis, the separation of the chromosomes in a eukaryotic cell into two identical sets in preparation for cell division, one of the most fundamental processes of life. The diagram above shows in schematic form some of the exquisite molecular machinery that makes this happen.

Back when I was teaching general studies science, I occasionally encountered students who protested, “Science takes all the mystery out of life.” It is, in fact, a fairly common assertion from people who take a perverse pride in not knowing any science.

I look at a diagram like the one above –- and there are dozens in almost any issue of Science or Nature –- and my jaw drops. First, that we have learned enough to describe in such detail processes that are taking place on a scale too small to observe with the naked eye –- all of this is going on in the nucleus of a cell that is 100 times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. And second, that this astonishing chemical dance happens every time a eukaryotic cell divides. It is happening now, in countless cells of my body, as I type.

If that’s not mystery enough for you, I don’t know what is.

It’s the old image I’ve used before. Knowledge is an island in a sea of mystery. The growth of the island does not diminish the sea, which is effectively (if not actually) infinite. What it does is extend the shoreline where we encounter mystery. Each week I peruse the diagrams in the science journals. I may not understand most of what is being described, but I know when I’m in the presence of something that deserves my attention, awe, respect and praise.