Saturday, June 30, 2012

Prie-dieu -- a Saturday reprise

Winter or summer, as other creatures come and go, lichens endure, in their rainbow colors, their multiplicity of forms, their prodigious capacity to thrive in the least hospitable environments. They colonize gravelly ground, bare rock, concrete walls, tombstones -- the nooks and crannies of the planet snubbed by every other creature. Lichens are nature's graffiti artists, painting every exposed surface with swaths of color.

Some of the most engaging lichens in our area require getting down on hands and knees. To look for lichens is to "go gnawing the rails and rocks," wrote Thoreau.

And so -- I was creeping about with Greg and Bailey the other day at the old quarry behind the town wells. Greg had been there with me before; we wanted to show Bailey the hard, broken earth with its prodigious covering of lichens. Reindeer lichen in thick cushiony billows. British soldiers in prim red coats, and their cousins, the pink earth lichen, all bubble gum and whimsy. And pixie cups, those pale green goblets set out for a fairy bacchanal. Little stuff, close to the ground. I remembered a Calvin and Hobbes strip in which Calvin says: "If your knees aren't green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life."

(This post originally appeared in November 2005.)

Friday, June 29, 2012

The sound and fury

Not so long ago, I mentioned here Himmler and Heydrich, two of Hitler's most terrible henchmen. A friend said to me: "If there's no afterlife, no heaven or hell, then those two diabolical creatures got away with it. Their fate was no different than that of any one of their victims, an innocent child perhaps."

And, yes, if there is no God who dispenses final justice, then we are left with an aching feeling of irresolution, of virtue unrewarded, of vice unpunished. Heydrich was gunned down by partisan assassins, and Himmler committed suicide a few hours before his inevitable capture, both fates arguably less tragic than that of their victims. How much more satisfying to think that the two mass murderers will spend an eternity in hell, while their victims find bliss.

This may not be a logically consistent argument for the existence of God, but it is certainly compelling. My friend says: "If there's no afterlife, then it's all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Of course, this emotive argument for the existence of God is balanced by another argument against his existence -– the problem of evil: How can a just and loving God allow the existence of a Himmler or Heydrich in the first place. Here the argument is not just emotional, but consists of a thorny contradiction.

It comes down, essentially, to head vs. heart –- what we would like to be true with all of our heart, vs. what our head tells us is an unresolvable conundrum.

So each of us decides: To follow our hearts and make the blind leap of faith, or to follow our heads and learn to live with the sound and the fury.

For those of us who choose the second alternative, the relevant words are that distressing coda, "signifying nothing." Our task is one of signification, of finding a satisfying meaning this side of the grave.

For many of us, that means finding our place in the great cosmic unfolding, and of recognizing that our lives are not inconsequential, that by being here we jigger the trajectory of the universe in some way, no matter how small, and preferably for the good and just.

Yes, we make a leap of faith too, I suppose –- that love, justice, and creativity are virtues worth living for -- but at least it is a leap of faith that is not into the unknown, does not embody logical contradiction, and is consistent with what we know to be true, or at least as true as we can make it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Salad days

You'd be reaching for the sunlight too.

These little lettuce seedlings reach toward the glass like two supplicant hands. And no wonder. Another day of Irish mist and rain. Another day of synthesis with very little photo.

My studio is built into the hill, earth-covered like a hobbit house. But the south-facing front is all sloping glass, like a greenhouse, and here on the long sill I have my plants to keep me company. Tomatoes, peppers, spinach, lettuce. They will barely have a chance to reach maturity in the three months I'll be here, but it's not so much for food I grow them as for inspiration. They are like little counselors whispering in my ear: See, see, it is as Augustine said, there is no miracle but one, and that miracle is the creation.

The endless, on-going, omnipresent creation. The burgeoning. The blossoming. The fierce green fuse that drives the shoot. The ceaseless, carefree, winding dance of the DNA.

See, see, there is no end to it. You have the privilege of watching, but never, ever take us for granted, never, ever become complacent, never think us anything but a wonder that should rock your socks.

Those tiny seeds asleep in their paper packets, as small as –- well, as small as the literal and biblically metaphorical mustard seed. Biding their time. Waiting for the caress of moist soil.

Then, wake, wake, fire up the molecular engines, toot the whistles at each cellular factory. Sunlight, water, air and earth into Little Gem Lettuce. The miracle begins.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Conservative vs.liberal

Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Review of Books, has a go at defining "conservative" and "liberal."

"Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights. Conservatives have also been inclined to assume, along with [Edmund] Burke, that this inheritance is best passed on implicitly through slow changes in custom and tradition, not through explicit political action."

"Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, in contrast to conservatives, give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds. They assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action. This assumption…is what makes liberals suspicious of appeals to custom or tradition, given that they have so often been used to justify privilege and injustice…Principles are the only legitimate constraints on our freedom."

Lilla goes on to distinguish classical conservatism and liberalism from more extreme forms of reaction and revolution. He is, as you might guess, engaged in a discussion of contemporary U. S. politics, which for many of us seems to have lost its moderate middle, at least in its rhetoric. We will see what the electorate does in November, but for the moment the debate seems to be driven by extreme voices of right and left.

I am, as you have surely guessed by now, politically liberal, whether by birth, upbringing, or philosophical reflection I do not know. In any case, it is irrelevant here. I would not, however, dismiss the idea that science has had an influence on my politics.

Science, it seems to me, has found the sweet spot between philosophical conservatism and liberalism. It is firmly grounded in tradition. Careful citation of previous work is mandatory. Peer review within the existing paradigm is rigorous. Every idea is measured against the received consensus. Generally, progress is incremental. But progress is universally welcomed and expected, as the gift of human curiosity and creativity, and traditional paradigms are overthrown when necessary. I have previously defined the situation thus: Science is radically open to marginal change and marginally open to radical change.

If in the marketplace of ideas all ideas are equal, then none are worth fighting for. But no idea should be codified as dogma. If I have learned anything from a lifetime in and around science, it is this: Respect the best of the past; be open to a better future.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The fuzzy fringe

Freeman Dyson is one of the grand old men of physics, who at the age of 88 continues to instruct us with his occasional essays in the New York Review of Books. (I've been catching up on back issues I missed while on the island.)

In a spring issue, Dyson addresses the question of real science versus fringe science. What is it, for example, that distinguishes Einstein's theory of general relativity from Immanuel's Velikovsky's World's In Collision? Both theories sprang from the heads of bright fellows, with only modest observational foundations. Both theories caught the public imagination.

As it turns out, Dyson knew and admired Velikovsky, and of course he was well-familiar with general relativity. And he is not unsympathetic to Velikovsky's wild conjectures about colliding planets. "We gain knowledge of our place in the universe not only from science but also from history, art, and literature," he says, and counts Velikovsky as something of an artist and poet, rather along the lines of William Blake. Fringe science, like that of Velikovsky, is "what happens when imagination loses touch with observation," writes Dyson. And adds: "Imagination by itself can still enlarge our vision when observation fails.

In this, I think Dyson is being too generous to Velikovsky. whose far-fetched –- and immensely popular -- theories seem to me more in line with, say, the Left Behind books of LaHaye and Jenkins. We are not talking about losing touch with observation, but of never having touched it at all.

A more interesting question might be: What distinguishes string theory from, say, the morphological resonances of Rupert Sheldrake. Neither theory has much -– anything? – in the way of observational support, but string theory gets a passes as real science, while Sheldrake is written off by the establishment as a crackpot. Here, I think, Dyson could have been more helpful. "The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove," he writes, which might apply as much to Sheldrake as to the string theorists.

The relevant distinction, I think, is this: Although string theory reaches out into the far-fetched unknown, it maintains mathematical roots in the soil of observational science.

Still, as Dyson observes: "The fringe of physics is not a sharp boundary with truth on one side and fantasy on the other." Ultimately, only quantitative observation will distinguish science from pseudoscience.

Someone once quoted Shakespeare to the philosopher W. V. O. Quine: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy." To which Quine allegedly replied: "Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than there are in heaven and earth."

Monday, June 25, 2012

In the hedgerows

It's that time of the year, as spring blends into high summer -– such as it is in Ireland –- when the hedgerows go riotously pink with foxglove. Here is a particularly vivid patch along our road (and, yes, that is a castle in the background, a tower house of the Knight of Kerry, partly destroyed by Cromwell's army; click to enlarge).

Whence the name? Another name for the plant is fairy gloves, and that's easy enough to understand. Kids of every age and place have plucked the tube-shaped flowers and fitted them over their fingertips, a little glove on each digit. The point where the flower was attached to the stalk is a kind of hook, which means you can make a set of claws with a blossom on each finger.

It has been suggested that "fox" is a contraction of "folk's," referring to the fairy folk. Not so, says Richard Maybe in his magnificent Flora Britannica. "Fox" it is, says he, with roots in Old English. "Perhaps it is because it grows in foxy places: amongst the bracken at the edges of heaths, on steep banks above rabbit-fields, by tracks up rough hill-pastures, in glades in acid woods." There is a fox that sometimes walks along my window sill, here in my "hobbit-house" studio, but it does not wear gloves.

The plant is toxic, but was nevertheless widely used in folk medicine, sometimes effectively, sometimes fatally. Foxglove played an important role in the transformation of folk medicine into modern pharmacology. In the late 18th century, the botanist/physician William Withering investigated many cases of dropsy and its treatment with foxglove leaves, and reported his findings in a classic book, An Account of the Floxglove.

Withering recognized that the principle action of the plant was on the heart, and his studies subsequently led to the isolation of the active agent, digitalis, which is still used as a heart stimulant.

Anyway, we forego eating the leaves, and confine ourselves to finger puppets. Once the foxglove has its day, the hedgerows will explode with summer's fullness – fuchsia, montbretia, loosestrife, meadowsweet, bramble, bell-flower, yellow flags. High summer -- and maybe, just maybe, some sun.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

What thinks

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

Saturday, June 23, 2012

FlyNap - a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in August 2005.)

I can't seem to get fruit flies off my mind.

Some years ago, a colleague came to my office at the college to ask about something or other. She carried a box filled with small glass bottles.

"What's that?" I asked. Fourteen bottles full of fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, the "black-bellied dew lover," newly purchased for student experiments. Plastic foam stoppers kept the flies in the bottles, which were otherwise open to the air. A nutrient broth covered the inside bottom of the bottles. In each bottle several dozen flies crawled ceaselessly over a web of nylon fibers.

I lifted out the bottles and read the labels. "White." "Yellow." "Wild." "Vestigial." "Ebony." "Dumpy."

"Wild," I knew, would be the red-eyed, black-bellied fruit fly found in nature. The others were mutants, created in the laboratory, cultivated in great numbers, and used for breeding experiments in genetics and embryology.

Here was a chance to get to know a famous experimental animal. "Can I borrow them?" I asked. And so it was that six bottles full of fruit flies became my companions for a few days of close observation.

Drosophila mutants have Seven-Dwarfs sorts of names, generally derived from the appearance of the mutant under a microscope (anesthetized with a substance called FlyNap). Who can resist little animals called Dumpy, Curly, Stubble, Spineless, Wrinkled, Bristle, and Scarlet? The mutants in my bottles seemed happy enough; indeed, as happy as their wild cousins. I observed them with a magnifier as they went about their usual fruit-fly activities, blissfully oblivious to their aberrant eye colors and oddly shaped wings.

(And I think of them again this week as we dig into our fly-teeming compost bin.)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Angels and devils –- part 2

Ah, yes, I ended on a self-congratulatory note yesterday, my better angels in ascendancy. Then no sooner did I pat myself on the back than I read something in the New York Review of Books that gave me pause.

Not pause enough to evoke a retraction of what I had just written, but pause enough to trouble my smug composure.

I was reading a review by Max Hastings of two books on Hitler's "most terrible creatures," Heinrich Himmler and his chief deputy Reinhard Heydrich.

Both men came from respectable middle-class Catholic backgrounds. Both men were by any objective standard mediocrities. The books under review raise the question: How could such banal personalities rise to such positions of awful power, organizing a system of mass murder spanning all of Europe?

How indeed? And how too to explain the many thousands of otherwise ordinary people who Himmler and Heydrich made willing accomplices in their unspeakable crimes? Seventy years after the fact, that question hangs in the air, troubling the conscience of humanity.

It was a statement Hastings made toward the end of his long review that gave me pause:
There was nothing uniquely German about such people. It is not difficult to persuade a substantial minority of mankind, and even of its educated elements, to commit mass murder, as long as such a course is legitimized and successfully put into practice by the authority of somebody at the top.
Could I, the son of a middle-class Catholic family, have gone down that same path? Could you?

Of course, the question need not be posed in terms of mass murder or sadistic excess. We might be talking about something as common as white-collar crime, or as quietly private as child molestation. What is it that keeps in check the devil on the left shoulder, the inclination toward evil that to one degree or another seems part of human nature? Civilization? Germany was famously "civilized." Religion? Apparently not.

What then? Conscience? That whisper from within, the angel at the right ear that also seems to be, to one degree or another, part of human nature. How then to civilly organize our better angels to give them cultural prominence? Democracy is surely part of it --insuring that too much power does not reside "at the top." But I am also inclined to agree with Steven Pinker that secular philosophy and science have enhanced our ability to appreciate "the interchangeability of perspectives, the nonspecialness of our parochial vantage point."

Empathy is a gift of non-sectarian reason to be collectively cherished and culturally nourished.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Angels and devils

I've taken note here before of Steven Pinker's newest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that human violence has historically declined, and purports to give the reasons why.

Many reviewers have taken issue with Pinker's optimistic view of things. Generally they quote the 60 million deaths during World War II, and other 20th-century mass atrocities, and ask, "How can anyone say things are getting better?"

Of course, Pinker is not talking absolute numbers, but percentages. An average person has a better chance of dying a natural death today than at any time in the past, he contends, even taking into account the killing fields of Cambodia and the ovens of Auschwitz. How consoled you are by this point of view surely depends on when and where you live. In the mid-20th century, it was better to have been a Quaker in Kansas than a Jew in Warsaw.

Other reviewers take issue with Pinker's explanation of why the relative level of violence has diminished, as for example when he writes: "Modern sensitivities have increasingly conceived moral worth in terms of consciousness, particularly the ability to suffer and flourish, and have identified consciousness with the activity of the brain. The change is part of the turning away from religion and custom and toward science and secular philosophy as a source of moral illumination."

Well, yes, one can see how that might ruffle some feathers.

I must say, however, that I am sympathetic to Pinker's thesis. I have often argued here –- without Pinker's supporting scholarship -– that the present is a better time to live than at any time in the past, at least in those places most influenced by Enlightenment values, the Holocaust and Hiroshima notwithstanding.

Consider this tiny observation, which I just came across, from the diary of someone visiting the races at Derby, in England, in the early years of the last century, at which one of the chief entertainments was "tossing a pin at a live Negro. He sticks his head through a hole and for a penny anyone who wishes can throw a ball at his skull; who hits the target gets a prize."

This is a far cry from Stalin's Gulags or King Leopold's Congo, but the fact that on reading it I cringe in pained embarrassment suggests to me that the better angel of my nature has tipped the other fellow from my left shoulder. And this from a boy who grew up in the rabidly racist and solidly Christian southern USA of the 1940s. I credit the Enlightenment values implicit in "science and secular philosophy."

But is that angel on my right shoulder secure in its ascendency? Is the trajectory of history –- both human and personal -– inevitably toward compassion and inclusiveness? More tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

John x 2 + 50

There was no better time than fifty years ago to have been an American and a Catholic. (I was only nominally Catholic by then.) We had our two Johns -- John Kennedy as president and John XXIII as pope.

Whatever our politics, John Kennedy and his beautiful family projected optimism, idealism, and can-do confidence. It was a time to shoot for the moon. We now know there was a seamy underside to Camelot, but for the moment we basked in a rosy exhilaration that came to a heartbreaking end the following year in Texas.

And in Rome, a man of untypical humility and simplicity had been elevated to the papacy. No pope in my lifetime was more unreservedly loved.

We remember him best for the Second Vatican Council, and "throwing open the windows of the Church." We remember too the encyclical Pacem in Terris, Peace on Earth, which asserted the universal rights of humankind, for the Church a stunning embrace of Enlightenment values. There was, for a few brief years, a euphoric feeling that the Church was about to embrace the modern world.

On his deathbed he said:
Today more than ever we are called to serve mankind as such, and not merely Catholics; to defend above all and everywhere the rights of the human person, and not merely those of the Catholic Church. Today's world, the needs made plain in the last fifty years, and a deeper understanding of doctrine, have brought us to a new situation…It is not that the Gospel has changed; it is that we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived as long as I have…were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions, and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and look far ahead.
It was a dream, or course, that we were living. The forces of reaction merely bided their time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On the boulevard of broken dreams

I seem to remember that it was Lawrence Durrell, somewhere in the Alexandrian Quartet, who said: "Science is the poetry of the intellect, and poetry is the science of the heart.” Or something to that effect.

That line has stuck in my head for thirty or forty years, without ever quite knowing what to make of it. Maybe it's time to wonder if it's saying anything meaningful.

Certainly, science is the work of the intellect. One can feel a heartfelt passion while doing science, and one can experience a throb or two when observing science, but the intellect is in the driver's seat. There is no place for soulful sentiment in a science journal or textbook.

But is science poetry? Not in any sense that would satisfy the Literature Department. But, yes, in the way we might use the phrase "poetry in motion." Or Sidney's "sweet food of sweetly uttered knowledge." How many times have we heard said of a scientific theory: "It is so beautiful, it must be true." If there can be poetry in motion, there can also be poetry in a mathematical equation. Or in the exquisite pas de deux of the unwinding double helix of the DNA. The intellect is in the driver's seat, but poetry goes along for the ride.

And what about "poetry is the science of the heart"? Can that mean anything at all?

We know what we mean by heart -- that rush of inchoate feeling that sweeps us off our feet. Poetry takes the unspeakable and speaks it, in rhyme and meter, in sound and syntax. Only love can break a heart and only love can mend it, but poetry can supply the lyrics. And in that it is like science, wrestling chaos into cadence.

And with those inchoate thoughts, we'll lay Mr. Durrell to rest.

Monday, June 18, 2012


This was not one of the more spectacular of the APODs (Astronomy Pictures of the Day), but it caught my attention (click to enlarge). Two spiral galaxies, with rich dust lanes, one more tightly bound than the other, more or less twins of our own Milky Way Galaxy. M65, at upper left, and M66 at lower right, two of the 110 fuzzy blurs in Charles Messier's 1784 catalog of fuzzy telescopic blurs.

Messier was a comet hunter –- that is, a seeker of blurs. He compiled his list of stationary blurs so as not to mistake them for comets. Comets are part of our solar system, and move across the sky from night to night. The objects in Messier's catalog are far beyond the solar system – gassy nebulas or star clusters in the Milky Way Galaxy, globular clusters of stars near the Milky Way, or other galaxies. Messier knew none of this. A blur was a blur.

M65 and M66 are galaxies, about 35 million light-years away. We see them in the constellation Leo, located just below what would be the hind haunches of the reclining Lion. In my old telescopic days, I went looking for them. Of course, they didn't look anything like what you see in the photographs -– just two blurs against a black sky.

The scattered stars you see in the photograph are very much in the foreground, part of our own galaxy. Think of the Milky Way as the galaxy at upper left. Our Sun is about two-thirds of the way out from the center, just on the inside of a spiral arm, in about the middle of the disk. When we are looking toward Leo, we are looking straight up out of the disk, through a thousand light-years of Milky Way stars. Then, empty space until we get to M65 and M66.

If the Milky Way Galaxy were a dinner plate, M65 and M66 would be two other dinner plates about as far away as the length of a football field. The foreground stars are in our dinner plate, then a vast emptiness between us and the two other "island universes."

None of what you see in the photograph is visible to the unaided eye – neither the foreground stars, nor the galaxies.

It is just possible to imagine that humans might someday visit one of the nearest stars in the Milky Way, with -– presumably –- its own family of planets. The other hundreds of billions of dinner plates with their myriad of worlds are forever beyond our visitation. Giordano Bruno went to the stake for imagining (among other heresies) a plurality of worlds. His executioners didn't know the half of it. Or the other hundred-billionth of it.

Anyone who grasps the significance of the photo above and claims to have a "personal relationship" with the creator is either staggeringly delusional or luckier than me.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sky writer

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

Saturday, June 16, 2012

If the shoe fits -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in May 2005. Ladyslipper time in New England.)

Lady's slipper. Moccasin flower. Squirrel shoes. The scientific name is Cypripedium, which is Greek for "slipper of Venus." Doesn't look much like a shoe to me, but the pink lady's slipper is certainly the most spectacular wildflower of New England, and this is its season.

The blossom fairly forces cross-pollination: that is, pollination by a plant other than itself, which may yield hardier stock. There are two ways for an insect to enter the flower: through the long, inward-curving slit at the front of the big, pink sac, or through two little holes at the top of the sac that are hidden by petals. Attracted by color or scent, the insect invariably enters at the front, and soon discovers it has passed through a one-way door into a voluminous chamber, lush with nectar but with no obvious exit.

If the insect persists in its explorations, it will find its way toward the two escape holes at the top of the sac. Forcing its way upward through a narrow passage toward freedom, the insect must first encounter the female part of the plant, the stigma, which is equipped with tiny bristles, like a lint-brush. The brush removes from the body of the insect whatever pollen it has carried from another lady's slipper.

But escape is not yet complete. The insect struggles on toward one of the small round exits, where a male part of the plant, an anther, almost blocks its way. Forcing passage, the insect becomes covered with pollen. Free at last, it is ready to pollinate whatever plant it visits next, although one wonders why, after so much trouble, it has not learned to leave well enough alone.

Friday, June 15, 2012

An overwhelming sanity

In the preface to his book of poems Darwin's Ark, Philip Appleman, who grew up in Indiana in the 1930s-40s, wrote:
I am sure it is difficult for anyone reared in a more enlightened time and place to imagine the sense of exhilaration in a young person schooled in Midwestern fundamentalism, reading Darwin and understanding evolution for the very first time. But I recall that experience vividly: the overwhelming sanity that emerged from Darwin's clearly thought out and clearly written propositions; the relief at being finally released from a constrained allegiance to the incredible creation myths of Genesis; the profound satisfaction in knowing that one is truly and altogether a part of nature.
Appleman, who is now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Indiana University, went off to the Merchant Marine in 1948, at age 22, with a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species -- the same age as Darwin was when he boarded the Beagle. He read the book with ever-growing wonder and appreciation. It was a life changing experience.

I also grew up without hearing much about Darwin or evolution, this in spite of the fact that my childhood home was only 40 miles from Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the famous Scope's "monkey trial." I certainly didn't grow up in a fundamentalist family, but evolution was an iffy subject in Catholic schools and biology instruction was not a strong suit. I was well into my twenties when I read Voyage of the Beagle, a thrilling eye-opener that led me straight-away to Origin.

The book, of course, is a founding document of modern biology, and arguably the most important book ever published for its effect on how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. It is also a model of scientific thinking and exposition.

Darwin begins by laying out his assumptions: heredity, variation, competition, selection. Each step is closely argued and vigorously illustrated. Then Darwin addresses the "most apparent and gravest difficulties" of his hypotheses. The final chapters apply his ideas to the real world in space and time. He ends with a succinct recapitulation.

It is, as he says, "one long argument," stunning in its cohesiveness. Darwin is never reluctant to recognize difficulties. He does not, as do his present day religious critics, cherry pick his facts. In successive editions of the Origin, he shows himself willing to retreat from earlier opinions when faced with reasonable objections, as in the case of hybrid sterility arising from natural selection.

There is a grandeur in this view of life, Darwin famously says in his concluding passage. He is referring, of course, to evolution by natural selection. There is also a grandeur in the man himself, in the amazing scope and depth of his researches. Most of all, there is a grandeur in his way of thinking, willing at every juncture to let dispassionate observation be his guide.

For me, like for Philip Appleman, reading Darwin opened windows of the soul.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Just before I left New England the Boston Globe published its annual listing, with photographs and personal data, of the valedictorians of Boston's high schools. Thirty-nine scholars.

And again, I am struck by this picture of America.

Eighteen of the students were born outside of the United States, including natives of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Columbia, Nigeria, Vietnam, Malaysia, Morocco, Albania, Puerto Rico, and India.

On the evidence of the photographs and names, it would appear that at least another nine of the valedictorians are of a non-Caucasian ethnicity.

Twenty-nine of the 39 students are women.

How different this must be from the situation when I moved to New England nearly 50 years ago.

That page of photographs of brilliant and successful young people of all races and ethnicities is a microcosm of what the world might be if we could only recognize and accept one of the greatest scientific discoveries -- we are all the same under the skin.

The same biology, the same chemistry, the same physics.

Oh, part of our common biology, I suppose, is an innate tendency toward animosity for "the other." The beautiful promise of the page of photographs is that someday we'll recognize that on this small blue planet there is only "we."

Monday, June 11, 2012


Library vs. internet. Someone said: The internet is great for finding what you know; a library is for finding what you don't know.

And that's pretty much the way I see it. My favorite chair here in the college library is on the third floor, with a beautiful view out over the campus, between the stacks for literature and science. I spend much of my day minding my Ps and Qs.

When I get restless, I wander, grazing like an indolent bovine in a grassy meadow. In fact, I'm restless now. Back in a few minutes.


Well, I've been away for more than a few minutes. In fact, it's been rather more than a hour. You see, I met an Irish poet along the way, about halfway down the lane between PR 6039 and PR 8851. A cosy little lane, full of the Irish.

We shared a pint, he and I. In the cafeteria of the National Gallery of Ireland. A congenial place to kick back with a poet. He insisted on taking me there. "We'll look at pictures," he said.

His name is Paul Durcan. As I said, a poet. He took me around the gallery declaiming on the paintings. His own interpretation, his own wry twist. The gist of his remarks, if I understood them rightly, is that the themes of all great art are universal in space and time. It was a jolly hour.

Take this picture, for instance: Bishop Robert Clayton and His Wife Katherine, by James Latham, painted in the 1730s (click to enlarge). Had I not been with Durcan I would hardly had given it a glance. But sure enough, there we paused, as before so many others, and Durcan -- Irish poet that he is -- gave a lusty disquisition on what seemed to me a scene most admirably chaste. He caught something in the bishop's eye that I had missed, a glance fixed...
  …upon my wife Katherine in her unique chair
With its splat in the shape of a love-heart;
Upon her d├ęcolletage
In whose umbrageous rocks divinity dwells.
He could dream, the bishop, having finished his evening prayers, of "the small rowboat of my member/ Bobbing on the waters of her lough."

And so it went, as we strolled up and down the galleries, Durcan dragging those venerable works of art into the 21st century with his finely-crafted wit and verve.

(The book is Crazy About Women: Poems by Paul Durcan, published by the National Gallery of Ireland, 1991. Off to Ireland tomorrow, and, as usual, will not know what I will have by way of an internet connection until I get there. Hoping I can arrange some sort of WiFi in the house, so that M. can use her iPad. I'll be back here as soon as I can.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


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

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Half sick of shadows -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in September 2010.)

Who is this woman? Her name is on the prow of her boat: The Lady of Shalott. (Click to enlarge.)

Yes, it's Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, from the poem of 1842, here illustrated by John William Waterhouse in 1888. By some unspecified curse this lovely maiden was confined to a tower…
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
…near Camelot, where, forbidden to look out the window, she observed the world in a mirror and wove what she saw into a tapestry.

So what is she doing in the boat, with her hand-stitched creation?

One day, Sir Lancelot rode by her tower alone. She saw him in the mirror and -- "half sick of shadows" -- couldn't resist turning to see him unreflected.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow'd
His coal-black curls as on he rode…
The mirror cracked. She left her loom, descended from the tower, found a boat, inscribed her name on the prow, and…
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right --
The leaves upon her falling light --
Thro' the noises of the night
…cast off to drift downstream to Camelot ---and to Lancelot.

But curses are not to be foiled.
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
We are all of us in a way the Lady of Shalott, all of us who seek to create an image of the world, artists, poets, scientists. We perceive the world through the filter of our limited senses, our biologically evolved brains, our nurtured preconceptions. We weave our tapestries, knowing that our creations are a reflection removed from reality. Our "curse" is to be in love with the real, yet never able to embrace it except in the cold glass of conceptualization. Our legacy? To be found in a boat lodged among the reeds, our tapestry draped across the thwart, with Camelot yet somewhere further down the stream, glistening, beckoning, inescapably out of reach.

But, ah, there's that gorgeous tapestry.

There is another curse, self made, and that is to mistake the mirrorworld for the world outside the window, to fail to recognize the contingency of our conceptualizations, to forego an honest seeking for the falsely found, and -- most ominously -- to want to impose our own mirrorworld on others.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Salt of the earth

As creatures that came from the sea, it's no surprise we need salt in our diet. The question is: How much?

Before I get to the medical debate, let me say that I have a vested interest in the outcome.

You may recall from previous posts that I am an anosmiac. Someone who suffers from anosmia. No sense of smell.

Born that way. A dead nose. When it comes to food and drink, the only sensations I have are those on the tongue: sweet, sour, bitter, salty.

Salt! Love it. My idea of the perfect food is a bacon and anchovy pizza. With a bag of sea-salt potato chips on the side.

Trouble is, I have tinnitus in one ear, and salt exacerbates the condition. So I settle for the anchovies without the bacon. And I read Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History, which can be read, if you are a sentimentalist like me, as a nostalgic longing for our oceanic origins. In any case, Kurlansky does a pretty good job of making salt a major player in civilization. The chemist Pierre Laszlo also has another good book on salt and civilization.

Salt was the first thing I tasted after mothers milk. In the Catholic rite of baptism, sacred salt, properly blessed and exorcised, is placed on the infant's tongue, in preparation for the Eucharistic meal to come.

So how much salt is good for us?

You don't want to be stranded in a lifeboat with nothing to drink but seawater. And if you run a marathon on a hot, humid day you may need a salt supplement.

Not too much and not too little.

Exactly how much salt is good for us seems to be a rather contentious issue, which is odd for something so universal in the human diet. In a recent New York Times article, science writer Gary Taubes wades into the issue and…well, pretty much comes to the conclusion that the experts aren't all that sure just how much salt is good for us. Certainly sodium plays a vital role in the proper functioning of the body, including the nervous system.

Which leaves me up the creek. Is the tremor my right hand related to a deficiency of sodium caused by my restriction of salt because of my tinnitus? Who knows?

But here's something I do know. There are about 10 million grains of salt in a one pound box of Morton's salt. Once, years ago when I was writing The Soul of the Night, I counted out one hundred grains and weighed them on a microbalance. Why? Because it was my habit in those days to push back the desks and use of box of salt to make a model of the Milky Way Galaxy on the classroom floor. One box makes an impressive galaxy, but it's not numerically accurate. How many stars in the Milky Way Galaxy? As many stars as there are grains in 10,000 one-pound boxes of salt!

Just enough. Not too many, not too few.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Seal of approval

What you see above is one of James Thurber's most famous drawings. (He called them drawings, not cartoons.) Why so famous? It's not exactly a knee-slapper. It appeals rather, I suppose, to something in us that is sardonic, oblique.

It clearly fits in with Thurber's body of work on the taut relations between men and women. This poor fellow who hears (or thinks he hears) a seal bark is your typical Thurberesque milquetoast, Mr. Mitty harassed by Mrs. Mitty. The drawing is a comment on the mysteries of matrimony by someone who never quite figured out what women want.

But the cartoon raises some philosophical questions (if you will allow me to be sardonic and oblique):

1. Did he hear a seal bark?

2. Did he imagine it?

3. If he did hear a seal bark, why didn't she?

4. Is there a seal?

But of course there's a seal, I hear you say; it's right there over the bed. Well, maybe yes, maybe no. The fact that the seal looks a little bit like the fellow who heard it bark strikes me as suspicious. What we imagine to be true usually looks a bit like what we are already familiar with.

I believe I mentioned here once before a paper by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the September 27, 1974, issue of Science on the cognitive pitfalls of human thinking. The authors studied three kinds of bias:

1. "Anchoring," where a person overvalues the first data he or she encounters;

2. "Availability," where recent or dramatic cases come to mind and so skew one's thinking;

3. "Attribution," where stereotypes prejudice thinking so conclusions arise not from data but from preconceptions.

The current political debates in the U.S., for example, are not debates at all. Data never enters into it. We talk past each other. Neither side can grasp what could possibly motivate the other side to believe what they do. If women come from Venus and men come from Mars (as Thurber might concur), then Democrats come from Mercury and Republicans come from Pluto.

I espouse opinions here. The internet is chock-a-block with opinions. Everyone, it seems, has heard a seal bark.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012


M. moved her chair on the porch in the morning. By early afternoon a spider had attached the chair to the wall and spun its web. I watched the finishing touches, such as they were, and applauded the spider's work. All over the porch, and in the shrubs beyond, others of its species had built similar snares, employing the same technology. There was just enough humidity in the air to make their labors visible.

Jean-Henri Fabre, the late-19th-century French entomologist, in hisThe Life of the Spider writes of the web-spinners: "There are no masters nor apprentices in their guild; all know their craft from the moment that the first thread is laid."

And nothing can be more wonderful than that.

Each species of spider is born knowing its craft -- in the case of the orb-spinners, how to fling the frame, lay the radials, wind the spiral. The spider's architectural skill is programmed in its DNA, in the same "four-letter" code used by all of earthly life to achieve its wondrous variety. How is that possible? I have no idea, but it is manifestly true.

Fabre, of course, knew nothing of DNA, and so he was as much in the dark as we are. "What refinement of art for a mess of flies!" he exulted. "Nowhere in the whole animal kingdom has the need to eat inspired a more cunning industry."

And I would say that in spite of all we have learned in the almost century since Fabre's death the mystery of the spider's cunning is unresolved. If anything, it has been deepened.

Sometimes I wonder about all those folks who go chasing after astrologers, spoon-benders, mind-readers, UFOs, faith-healers, ghost-hunters, weeping statues, and images of Jesus on the damp walls of churches, seeking the miraculous, when the greatest wonders of all are right there, tucked behind the chair, in the corner of the porch.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012


A. Science is the most reliable way of knowing that humankind has yet devised.

It relies as much as possible on the experimental method, quantitative data, peer review, reproducibility, and the firm application of Ockham's Razor.

Scientific knowledge is consensus knowledge. In seeking consensus, it makes no reference to nationality, race, ethnicity, politics, religion or gender. Textbook science is universal.

Scientific knowledge is tentative and evolving. It chooses reliability over certainty. Science is radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Modern civilization is by and large the technological and economic offspring of science.

B. In those areas of knowing where a scientific consensus is difficult to obtain, such as history, economics and politics, the wise person adopts a cautious skepticism and in so far as possible seeks reliable quantitative evidence on which to base opinions, keeping in mind that one is prone to believe what one wishes to be true.

C. All claims of the miraculous are dubious, if not fraudulent. Science has yet to encounter any phenomenon that manifestly violates natural law, and many former claims of the miraculous -- such as the appearance of comets or visitations of disease -- have been shown to be natural events. It is a common human attribute to mistake coincidence for causality.

D. Huge realms of human experience are not amenable to scientific analysis, at least for the present, including perhaps the most important aspects of our lives. Nevertheless, scientific knowledge of the world enhances and broadens even those experiences that elude scientific description.

E. Our ignorance will always be greater than our knowledge. True knowledge comes in knowing what we do not know.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Peacocks and zebrafish

Ah, now there's an unlikely combination. Peacocks and zebrafish. Why am I rolling them out this morning?

Because they are two players in the 24 May issue of Nature.

First, peacocks. The undisputed masters of ostentation. The poster boys for male foppery. The over-the-top excess of alpha showoffery you get when sexual selection runs crazily amok.

There seems to be no dispute that peahens go for the flamboyant tails. But at what cost to the peacock? That fabulous fan of feathers requires energy to produce, energy that might reasonably be put to more effective use, such as beefing up to battle competitors. And imagine trying to escape a predator with that billowing sail to slow you down.

So what's the deal? The question has exacerbated biologists since Darwin. As described in a new edition of Davies, Krebs and West's classic text on behavior ecology (reviewed in Nature), the peacock's tail may signal genetic resistance against the prevalent disease that infects the species, on the grounds that sick individuals would not have the resources to produce such frippery.

Love my feathers, love my genes. The peacock holds its place as the iconic emblem of sexual selection.

And zebrafish?

Well, actually it's larval zebrafish I have in mind, with two characteristics that endear them to neurologists: they have small brains, and they are transparent.

Now I don't pretend to understand the article on "Brain-wide neuronal dynamics during motor adaptation in zebrafish." I can only make a wild guess of what is meant by "vestibular, proprioceptive and somatosensory feedback," for example. But I get the drift.

Our researchers paralyzed larval zebrafish and put them into a virtual dynamic environment where they could react to sensory input. The fish were genetically modified to produce a fluorescent chemical indicator that lights up active brain cells.

And here they are in the pages of Nature, their full brains responding to changes in their fictive environments. Says Nature of the research: "In no other vertebrate animal model is it possible to accomplish cellular-level-resolution imaging of the entire brain."

I wish I knew enough about this stuff to say something sensible. I only know something important is going on, a vestibular inching in on the century of the brain. And I love those little transparent fish brains, glowing gorgeously as the fish navigate their virtual "video-game" world.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Waves and particles

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

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Crack-up -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in October 2006.)

Here is a sight near my Path I haven't shared before (click to enlarge). Every time I see it I stop involuntarily in my tracks and stare, as if I were a schoolboy standing beside his desk, fixed in the teacher's stern accusing glare. I know this glacial erratic boulder and white pine are trying to tell me something, but maybe I'm just too dumb too learn.

So I say: Hey, Teach. In one of his essays, The Colloid and the Crystal, nature writer Joseph Wood Krutch wrote about opposing forces in nature. "Order and obedience are the primary characteristics of that which is not alive," he wrote. "Life is rebellious and anarchical."

Teacher doesn't bat an eye. So I think: Perhaps Krutch was wrong to identify obedience with non-life and rebellion with life. We know, for example, that the inanimate six-pointed snowflake, so apparently lawful and static, is shivering with molecular vibrations. And we know too that life would not be possible unless nature had contrived elaborate molecular machinery to detect and repair any rebellious deviation of an organism's genetic code. The inanimate and the animate are equally products of law and chaos.

Still, the teacher's accusing glare. Well, I say, Krutch also said that "the ultimate All is not one thing but two."

Teacher sighs. Too neat. Too pat. She's right, of course. What is that damn tree doing? Surely it could have found an easier route to the sun.

Because we are willful creatures we are inclined to see purpose and intention where there is none. So maybe there is no lesson here at all, maybe what I see is just a car wreck of chance, a juxtaposition of improbabilities. Maybe Teach is just waiting for me to figure out that things don't have to mean, just be.

But I make a last ditch effort, quoting Krutch again: "I need, so I am told, a faith, something outside myself to which I can be loyal...and I know, though vaguely, what I think that is. Wordsworth's God had his dwelling in the light of setting suns. But the God who dwells there seems to me most probably the God of the atom, the star, and the crystal. Mine, if I have one, reveals Himself in another class of phenomena. He makes the grass green and the blood red."

Or maybe it's all of it, Teach. The star and the grass, the atom and the blood, the glacial erratic boulder and the pumping capillaries of the pine tree, sunlight, soil, quartz and feldspar, the straining, muscular force of sap -- and the crazy, exhilarating, life-affirming car wreck of chance.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Loose concupiscence

New England is smothered in pine pollen. Every outdoor surface is yellow. Automobiles are sticky with the stuff. Decks and patios are a mustardy mess. Son Dan lives in a pine grove; his house is nearly unlivable.

Something about the season has caused an explosion of pollen. A horrid, ubiquitous, jaundiced scum.

But wait! Look at one of those tiny pollen grains under a microscope. That little bundle of sperm in a package with air-filled Mickey Mouse ears. The pine trees are not just on an idle "paint-the-town-yellow" binge. The are doing what they were born to do. What most plants and animals were born to do.

Having sex.

It was the great 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who formalized the theory of sexual reproduction in plants. Apparently, it came as something of a shock to some of his contemporaries that plants "did it."

Early in the next century the aged poet/botanist Johann Goethe welcomed a new theory purporting to show that plant reproduction had nothing to do with sex. He wrote: "For the instruction of young persons and ladies this new pollination theory will be extremely welcome and suitable. In the past the teacher of botany has been placed in a most embarrassing position, and when innocent young souls took text book in hand to advance their studies in private, they were unable to conceal their outraged moral feelings. Eternal nuptials going on and on, with the monogamy basic to our morals, laws, and religion disintegrating into loose concupiscence -- these must remain forever intolerable to the pure-minded."

Well, it turned out that the new theory was wrong and Linnaeus was right. Plants do it. Our moral feelings may no longer be outraged, but we'd still like the pines to keep their voluptuous nuptials private. Or at least off the patio.

If you have access to a top-notch library, look for a book called Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers, a magnificent coffee-table collaboration between a professional botanist at Kew Gardens, Madeline Harley, and an artist micro-photographer, Rob Kesseler. Such a wondrous variety of pollen grains, breathtakingly photographed in all of their jewel-like shapes and colors.

By contrast, pine pollen grains are rather pedestrian, unlike so many of their Faberge cousins. And, lord knows, this season their sexuality is anything but hidden.