Friday, November 30, 2012

Packing light

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2012


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

Not many, as far as I can see.

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

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

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

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

That's walking for you.

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

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

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

By the wildest, leafiest and least trodden way.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Monkey business

Do men have mid-life crises? You betcha.

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

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

Nature or nurture?

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

Monday, November 26, 2012

The cross and the megaliths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Another act for the Circus McGurkus -- a Saturday reprise

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 23, 2012

Is consciousness incomprehensible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving on the porch

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

New philosophy – 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New philosophy -- 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2012

New philosophy -- 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pilgrims progress

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Examination of conscience -- a Saturday reprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Darkness at noon

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Let us begin…

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 12, 2012

A hole in the heavens

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

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


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

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

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

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Unified field

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Walking stick -- a Saturday reprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel: Just like a real bush.

God: What does he propose to call it?

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

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

Friday, November 09, 2012

On beauty

I frequently muse about works of art in these postings. These have ranged from the highly abstract to the ultra-realistic, from the Middle Ages to the present. Often they have been paintings that I used for a while as a desktop on my computer, such as the work above, "The Cornish Coast," by the early-20th-century British impressionist Laura Knight (click to enlarge). I pick these desktop images on a whim -- Vermeer's "Milkmaid," Homer's "Cracking the Whip,' or Caravaggio's "Rest on the Flight Into Egypt," for example -- and then slowly come to understand what it was that attracted me in the first place.

I saw Knight's "Cornish Coast" in a journal and a spark was struck. Easy enough to find a reproduction on the web, so onto the desktop, where I have lived with it now for a couple of weeks (cropped to fit the aspect ratio of my screen). I have fallen a little in love with these two women, the one rather prim in posture and dress, the other more fashionable and hands-on-hips saucy.
The standing woman has her face turned away, which of course only heightens her air of mystery, her desirability. I wonder, too, whose shoes those are half hidden in the grass, since it would appear that both women are shod. And the dog -- to which woman does it give its loyalty?

But infatuation is not enough to explain my attraction to the painting. There is also the matter of a sensual response to composition and color. The painting hovers on the brink of abstraction -- those blocks of red, black and teal -- yet there is a human tension too. Whatever it is, something lights up in the orbitofrontal region of the prefrontal cortex of my brain. And the brain calls it "beauty".

Does beauty reside in the work of art itself, waiting there to be perceived, or does beauty lie in the eye (and orbitofrontal region of the prefrontal cortex) of the beholder? It is an ancient question in philosophy, perhaps no closer to a solution now than at any time in the past. I have suggested here before that beauty is a resonance of flickering neurons in the brain with patterns of order in the world, nature's signature of truth, but even as I write that now the explanation seems lame.

"Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us," writes my erstwhile friend Scott Sanders. "It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature."

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Teacher in America

It all seems so long ago and far away, the first time I stepped into a classroom of my very own and greeted a dozen inquisitive students armed with #2 pencils and wire-bound notebooks. I smiled and introduced myself; they smiled and tipped their pencils to their pads.

In fact, it was only a short walk across the campus from where I sit now. I believe the subject of that first class was Intermediate Mechanics, and I was determined to succeed. I told them where we would begin, where we were going, and how we would get there. I wrote the first equations on the board. I was an EDUCATOR.

Except I wasn't an educator. That's something I soon learned from the scholar/critic Jacques Barzun, who died last week at age 104. Many young college profs of my generation read Barzun's Teacher In America, eager to learn from a master what education was all about. What we learned, on page 4, may have been the most important lesson of our professional lives: the difference between education and teaching.

The business of the teacher, wrote Barzun, is not education, but teaching. Teaching is something that can be good or bad, brilliant or stupid, plentiful or scarce. It can be provided for, changed, or stopped. Education is something else entirely. It can only happen within; it is a person's own doing, sometimes because of teaching, sometimes in spite of it. You can teach a puppy; you cannot educate a puppy. Computers can teach a child (we might say today); they cannot educate.

The best teachers are those who create the motivation for education, which will or will not continue long after the teacher has left the classroom. It has nothing to do with the equations of intermediate mechanics, say, as important as those might be, but with conveying, explicitly or tacitly, the ways education can enhance a life and ennoble a civilization.

We hear lots of talk about how to reform education. Of course, there is nothing politicians can do to educate a populace. What we can do is support great teaching and education will take care of itself. These days, we tend to demonize teachers, make them scapegoats, instead of honoring and rewarding those who successfully convey the value of the thing that can't be taught -- an education.

In a footnote near the end of his book, Barzun recounts this exchange with a former student who was now a commodiously educated man: "Do you know what changed my whole attitude to study?" :No" [replies Barzun]. "Well, when I was a freshman you assigned some readings in Samuel Butler, and when I came back to report, I began telling you what I had learned. But you broke in and said 'Yes, yes. What I want to know first is, Was it fun?'"

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Tower of Ivory, House of Gold

I'm not a big sports fan. I might watch game seven if the Red Sox were in the World Series. Mostly because of my wife ( St. Mary's gal), I'll watch Notre Dame footfall if it's an afternoon game. Last Saturday's game against Pitt was an edge-of-your-seater, only decided in the third overtime.

At the end of each ND game, the team, students and fans gather at the end of the field and sway and sing as the band plays the alma mater:
Notre Dame, our Mother
Tender, strong and true
Proudly in the heavens,
Gleams thy gold and blue.
Glory's mantle cloaks thee
Golden is thy fame,
And our hearts forever,
Praise thee Notre Dame.
There is, I suppose, a bit of ambiguity about whether the lyrics refer to Mary, the mother of God, or to the institution, whose most recognizable symbol is the golden dome of the old Administration Building topped with a gilded statue of Mary. Either way, I think it is lovely that a hard-fought macho slam-bam contest ends on such a gentle, feminine note. It's neat to see those big lug linesmen holding hands with tears running down their cheeks.

When I was a student at Notre Dame, I spent my share of time at the replica of the Lourdes grotto praying to the Virgin. A dozen years later and it all seemed rather silly. Not the quiet times of contemplation, but the beliefs that went along with them. The Immaculate Conception. The Virgin Birth. The Assumption.

It’s an article of Catholic faith, an infallible doctrine, that the mother of Jesus was taken up into heaven bodily, uncorrupted, and presumably exists somewhere today pretty much as she was on earth. On the face of it, that's not any more far-fetched than other articles of faith, and for those who believe, more power to them. For myself, I have never been able to summon enough cognitive dissonance to take the Assumption seriously. And once one miracle falls by the wayside, pretty soon the whole miraculous structure comes tumbling down.

But if you are going to have a religion, then Catholicism has the Blessed Virgin going for it. She has served as an almost goddess, a feminine counterpart to the Father and Son, and is often worshiped with greater devotion. It is not Jesus up there on the Golden Dome, but a female quasi-deity. And that, I think, is all to the good. Any religion that can foster the gentler, less macho, nurturing side of the human spirit is Ok by me. I'll take the Mother Goddess any day.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Zoom -- 2

A distrust of "the other" seems bred in our bones. It is natural to see ourselves as superior to those around us. A lion may be physically stronger than a man, but a man can use his superior intellect and social skills to devise tools and traps to outfox the lion. Or for that matter, outfox the fox.

Even on the human rungs of the ladder we are -- whoever we are -- the top rung, the chosen people, the shining city on the hill, superior in nationality, race or religion to all others. The great chain flatters our egos, gives us dominion, excuses our transgressions against everyone and everything on a lower rung. (I am mixing my metaphors, the ladder and the chain, but it is really the same metaphor.)

And then there is the matter of immortality, that primal longing that seems to be a corollary of consciousness and dreams. From the top of the earthly chain of being it is only a short leap into eternity and the company of angels.

So the persistence of the great chain of being as a metaphor for existence is no surprise.

But look at the message on the Homo sapiens leaf of yesterday's tree of life, the one green leaf among the "apes and humans": "Conservation status: Least concern. Population increasing." As humans threaten to overrun the planet and exhaust its resources, the great chain of being is a recipe for internecine strife and fatal exploitation. The metaphor suggests a desperate scramble up the ladder, with every created thing pulling and scratching at the creature above.

And then there is the alternate metaphor of the tree of life, a flowering of prodigious proportions, every leaf with its own dignity, no leaf closer to heaven. That leaf there, on the next twig, is my sister, whatever her nationhood, race or religion. We exalt together in the fullness of foliage, a fullness contrived by billions of years of evolution. We are all equidistant from the soil, with equal access to the sun.

This is not to minimize the problems humanity will face on an increasingly crowded planet, but those problems will only be exacerbated by clinging to an outworn metaphor that has no basis in empirical science.

OneZoom. One tree. One future.

Monday, November 05, 2012


One doesn't hear much about "the history of ideas" any more, but back when I was a young man it was all the rage. Credit for establishing that busy new discipline is usually given to the American scholar Arthur O. Lovejoy and his 1936 book The Great Chain of Being. In a dense and (for me) almost unreadable book, he limned a scheme for understanding the world that served Western civilization from the time of Plato into the 19th century.

The great chain stretched from the foot of God's throne to the dregs of inanimate matter at the center of the Earth. The chain had no gaps. Every created thing in their almost infinite plenitude had a place in the chain, more worthy than the creature below, less worthy than the creature above. The lion was king of the beasts, the eagle the prince of birds. Mammals were higher on the ladder than birds, birds higher than plants. The oak was the lord of trees. And so on.

Every link in the chain was allowed to excel in some way. A stone lacks sensation and consciousness, but it bests animals in endurance. A gazelle might lack an immortal soul, but it excels humans in fleet of foot.

And humans? We stand on the top rung of material beings, possessing the immaterial, immortal souls that place us just below the angels, a "little world made cunningly of elements and an angelic sprite." A flattering place to be, above all worldly things, only a shade below the heavenly spirits.

There has perhaps been no more shattering disjunction of human thought than the replacement of the great chain by the tree of life, on which our species is a fluttering leaf among a myriad canopy of leaves. The rupture came not from philosophers or theologians, but from biology. If you want to pick a moment for the idea's genesis as a force powerful enough to change history, why not this drawing from Darwin's notebooks.
And if you want to have fun with the tree of life, go to, the beginning of a project to create an interactive tree of life containing all known organisms. Without watching the tutorial first, see how long it takes you to find Homo Sapiens among the mammals.

The tree, of course, has long since replaced the chain in the sciences, but not yet in the minds of the majority of people on he planet. The implications of the transformation are enormous, but by and large they have not been faced. Tomorrow, I will ponder why so many of us cling to the chain, and the importance of transferring our collective allegiance to the tree.

Sunday, November 04, 2012


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

And speaking of Audubon -- a Saturday reprise

Each morning for the past few days as I approached the plank bridge over Queset Brook I've seen a flash of blue in the willows. Just a flash and my heart leaps. The bluebird of happiness.

A long way from its box, up there in the meadow. Why here? Why not? The plank bridge is a good spot for birds and people. A spreading pond. A purling stream. Orioles. Redwings. Herons. And just once, forty-five years ago, a kingfisher -- a single kingfisher, and never again.

A bluebird is enough. "A man's interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town," said Thoreau, who carried a complete list of flora and fauna in his head. "The bluebird carries the sky on his back," he said.

An oriole makes me grin. A heron makes me gasp. A bluebird almost lifts my feet off the planks of the bridge.

Listen to Audubon: "The song of the Blue-bird is a soft agreeable warble, often repeated during the love-season, when it seldom sings without a gentle quivering of the wings." That's why we love the bluebird. Because it is so like us it cannot pitch its woo without a quiver of its wings.

(This post originally appeared in April 2010.)

Friday, November 02, 2012

Red, white and blue

I have avoided politics on this blog. I have nothing to say about economics, social issues or foreign policy (although I do of course have opinions). But I will share my thinking about science policy, which you can take or leave.

To Mr. Romney's credit, as governor of Massachusetts he opposed teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools. He is on record saying that he has no problem with God using evolution to form the human "body." He does have the problem that a substantial part of his base, presumably a majority, rejects evolution and believes the world is less than 10,000 years old. I suspect the battle over evolution will continue to be with local school committees and state legislatures, with Romney twitching whichever way the political wind is blowing. Mr. Obama has signaled acceptance and support of evolutionary science. I am cautiously optimistic that he would resist any attempt by a Republican House to squeeze creationism -- and an anti-science bias -- into the schools.

Climate change got no mention in the debates, for which I fault Obama. The President has gone on record calling climate change one of the biggest issues of our time, but he has not done much to back up his words with action. Romney has indicated a woosy acceptance of anthropogenic climate change, but opposes any and all climate regulations.

Obama and Romney have tried to outdo each other over who supports fossil fuels the most. Obama, however, has been a so-so advocate of the development of green energy sources, to the occasional ridicule of Republicans.

Obama is willing to use government resources to stimulate basic science research and innovation, and has done so. Romney would leave that to the private sector.

Both candidates mouth all the right words about space. I wouldn't expect much difference here, although I can imagine Obama being more personally attuned to the magic of cosmic exploration.

Obama is a strong supporter of stem cell research, and repealed limits on federal funding. Romney has expressed reservations based on religious or ethical considerations.

Obama banners his desire to "hire another hundred thousand new math and science teachers," and beef up science education. Romney encourages school choice and voucher programs.

Science policy is only one component of the choice we must all make, and for most Americans it is probably not the decisive factor, although it indirectly bears on the economy, social issues and foreign policy. For myself, I will vote for the candidate I believe would be most comfortable in a rocking chair here on our porch at Science Musings.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The first weatherman

We were been keenly following the path of Hurricane Sandy. For the second year in a row, a hurricane has hit our Bahamas hideaway dead on, then plowed up the Atlantic to whop us in New England.

The folks at NOAA get better every year at forecasting the paths of storms. Satellites, automated weather stations and ocean buoys, patrolling airplanes, super powerful computer models: Never again will be caught unawares as were New Englanders during the devastating Great Hurricane of 1938.

So let's give a nod to the first weatherman, Captain Robert Fitzroy, remembered to history almost entirely as commander of H.M.S. Beagle, the vessel that carried young Charles Darwin around the world on his famous voyage of discovery.

The seasoned seaman and the brash young naturalist seem to have got on well enough aboard ship, although Darwin's growing sense of the geological depths of time clashed with Fitzroy's biblical creationism. Both men were in their twenties, and eager to establish themselves in their respective careers. As Fitzroy mapped the coast, Darwin observed clues to the Earth's deep past.

For his contributions to marine cartography, Fitzroy was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographic Society and elected to the Royal Society, Britain's foremost scientific institution. But it is Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle that has come down to us as a classic of the history of science, while Fitzroy's narrative has sunk into obscurity.

In 1854 Fitzroy was appointed as statistician to the newly-formed meteorological department of the Board of Trade, and it was here that he was to make his most significant contribution to science. He was not content to merely compile weather data; he wanted to warn sailors and coastal communities of approaching gales. He supplied cheap barometers to sea-going fishermen with the understanding that they maintain records, and established a series of coastal stations that telegraphed weather data to the Meteorological Office in London. Within this mass of data he looked for patterns, and soon was drawing weather charts and issuing forecasts. When the Times of London began printing daily weather forecasts in 1860, it was on the basis of Fitzroy's work. Many of his meteorological innovations remain today a familiar part of British culture.

In the summer of 1860 Fitzroy came to the annual meeting of the British Association at Oxford to deliver a paper on "British Storms." He was in the audience at a later session of the meeting for the famous debate on evolution between Thomas Huxley, Darwin's young protégé, and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. In the ensuing uproar Fitzroy leapt to his feet in a rage, waving a copy of the Scriptures. "Here is truth," he cried, "nowhere else." He was shouted down. Once again the day went to Darwin.

Meanwhile, back at the Meteorological Office, more trouble was brewing. When Fitzroy's weather forecasts failed, as they often did, he was severely criticized by the public. His scientific colleagues were even more vehement. He had been hired to compile data, they said, not use it. All his life Fitzroy was subject to bouts of depression. This latest controversy was too much to bear. On Sunday morning, April 3rd, 1865, at 59 years of age, he slit his own throat with a razor.