Monday, December 31, 2012

When no one is looking?

Here is a short passage from Rachel Joyce's sweet little novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Harold, a retired, henpecked, sixty-something couch-potato, for a reason we need not describe, is walking, absurdly ill-equipped, 500 miles across England. Footsore, discouraged and forlorn, he steps into a cathedral: "When no one was looking, Harold slipped to his knees and asked for the safety of the people he had left behind, and those who were ahead. He asked for the will to keep going. He also apologized for not believing."

Whence this compulsion to address God for mercies even in our unbelief?

I am sure I am not the only professed agnostic who occasionally in moments of stress does not whisper to the empty sky, "Oh God, please let…"

This in spite of the fact that in 76 years on the planet I have never encountered other than anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of petitionary prayer. I know too that every empirical attempt to examine the efficacy of prayer has been negative. (I go into this in some detail in When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy.) There are few things I am more sure of than the fact that my pleas go unheard.

Is the tendency to address a transcendent power in moments of need a residue of a religious upbringing? Is it conditioned by our childhood dependence on a parent? Is it innate?

Is the tendency universal? Are there hard-nosed atheists among you who have never spontaneously addressed a plea for help to some transcendent and effectively personal spirit?

Harold is strengthened by his prayer, even in his unbelief. It is easy to assume an evolutionary origin for the feeling that we are not helpless and alone in the cosmos, more difficult to prove. So we soldier on, confident of our cosmic solitude, yet nevertheless desirous to be part of something bigger, something social and personal. With or without belief, we wish well for those we have left behind and those ahead, and hope for the will to keep going.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Peace on Earth

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The engineer's way of death -- a Saturday reprise

My father died of cancer at age 64 in 1974. I have recently obtained from my sister Peg the journals he kept during the last 12 weeks of his life, as he lay dying in the hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As I have mentioned before, Dad was a mechanical engineer by training, and worked most of his life as a quality control engineer for a company that made ceramic insulators and mechanical parts. He was something of a pioneer in the field of maintaining production quality by random testing and statistical analysis. The secret to quality, be believed, is lots of data. Patterns that are not obvious in small batches, become apparent with the statistical force of large numbers.

He brought this faith to bear on his disease. As he lay almost totally paralyzed on his hospital bed, he kept exhaustive data, minute by minute, day and night. He had us supply him with a yard stick, a six-inch rule, a protractor, a thermometer, even a barometer, and of course blank journals and a supply of sharp pencils. He measured, or had us measure, his cycles of medication, radiation treatments, blood transfusions, minutes or hours of waking and sleeping, his position on the bed, the positions of the adjustable bed, food, drink, the frequency and success of bowel movements, urination, and flatulence, the temperature and pressure of the room. Nothing was overlooked. Even in the dark of the night, as his wife or one of his kids lay sleeping on a nearby cot, he kept his notes, by the light of a penlight flashlight he had ingeniously rigged up over the bed.

From his data he extracted what he called "the cycle of energy," which he plotted over and over, refining its characteristics, and a theory involving what he called "currents." On the evidence of the journal, he was convinced that somewhere in these pages of numbers, graphs, and diagrams he would find the solution to his misfortune.

Of course, it was not to be. Cancer cells are less amenable to statistical control than ceramic widgets. He tried to make his doctors see the importance of what he was doing -- not only to himself, but to medical science -- and, indeed, his voluminous journals may be one of the most complete quantitative records of a dying ever compiled by a patient. The doctors in their kindness humored him, and went on with their various therapies, which in the end did no more good than "the cycle of energy" and "currents." It was simply too late.

What is actually manifest in his data is the inexorable multiplication of cancer cells out of control, finally in every part of his body. The journals may not have contained a hidden cure for cancer, but they certainly were a cure for despair, and for the horrible boredom of incessant pain -- the exercise of an active mind in a body wasted by disease. In the final volume he writes: "It is very difficult to wake up in the morning and face "nothing" to do. Writing this diary has been a "life" saver to me. If I live long enough and manage to develop a degree of "balance", I think all the important, valuable, impressions, and sensations that I have experienced can be made available to the public -- if I can't do it maybe Chet will be good enough to do it for me."

Not until the very last pages does he seem to recognize the futility of his data and the inevitability of death.

(Click on the image to enlarge. This post originally appeared in May 2010.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sticks and knobs

"Has Lego sold out?" ask Matt Richtel and Jesse McKinley in the New York Times. They are distraught that Lego is no longer marketed as a box of assorted bricks that stimulate a kid's imagination to build his or her heart's desire. Rather, Legos now come in individual kits for constructing specific toys, with step-by-step instructions. Worse, according to our authors, the toys are tie-ins to billion-dollar franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, with theme-related books, video games, and even a TV spin-off.

The end of creativity? Corporate directed play?

The name "Lego" comes from the Danish leg godt, "play well." Should the new name be købe godt, "buy well?"

Not to worry. Construction sets will always be with us, for the kids that want them.

I'm from the pre-Lego generation. My first construction set was Tinkertoys, in their characteristic cylindrical container, followed by Lincoln Logs, and a cardboard construction set during the Second World War that lasted about a month. At some point, I remember an AC Gilbert Erector Set, but it may have been my uncle Leonard's (he was two years older than me). All these toys had booklets or sheets with suggested constructions. Creative imagination? Not so much.

Later, we bought our kids a European Meccano set, which like the Erector Set came with lots of tiny nuts and bolts, time-consuming to put together and a pain to take apart. Then came Legos and finally –- my favorite –- K'NEX.

The lesson of these toys? With a few carefully designed sticks and knobs, in sufficient numbers, you can build almost anything.

Including a universe.
(If you don't recognize these guys, wiki "Watson and Crick".)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thinking fast and thinking slow

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writing in the New York Times on the evolutionary origins of religion:
To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form. A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow. The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained
I was thinking along these lines last week when I was reading Cheryl Strayed's Lost, a first-person account of an attractive young woman's three-month solo hike along California and Oregon's Pacific Crest Trail. It is a woman's book. Not in the sense that it is romantic or soft or sentimental. It is, in fact, tough, brave and unsentimental, tougher and braver than I could ever be. It's a woman's book because only a woman could have written it. And, I suspect, only a woman can appreciate it fully.

But any man who reads the book will profit, by being forced to reflect upon his maleness.

As you might expect, it is mostly males that Strayed encountered along the trail. A few were harmless horndogs. Two were sexually-aggressive louts. Most related to Strayed with helpful kindliness and respect.

Sinners and saints. Egotists and altruists. There is probably some of both in all of us, to one degree or another. Strayed encountered guys who think fast and guys who think slow, and by and large it was slow-thinking men who made it possible for this young woman to safely complete her journey. Of course, it is slow-thinkers who are most likely to put themselves through the ordeal of long-distance hiking. The two potential rapists Strayed met on the trail were hunters, not hikers.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The original storybook

Winter is the best time of year for story-telling. If your storybook is the stars.

The night sky is full of stories, but the best story of all is Andromeda's. All of the characters are on stage.

Brielfy, in one version of the story, Cassiopeia, Queen of Ethiopia, wife of Cepheus, bragged that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than the sea nymphs. Poseidon (off stage) was naturally offended, and sent a sea monster, Cetus, to ravage the coast of the kingdom. Cepheus, the king, sought advice of an oracle who said the only way to appease Poseidon's wrath was to sacrifice his daughter. Accordingly, Andromeda was stripped naked and chained to a rock at the shore where she would be devoured by Cetus.

Meanwhile, Perseus was returning on his flying horse Pegasus from have slain the snaky-haired gorgon Medusa, who was so ugly that the sight of her turned the viewer to stone. (Perseus had slain her by looking at her reflection in his shiny shield.) Now he carried her decapitated head in a bag. Looking down, he saw Cetus approaching beautiful Andromeda. He whipped Medusa's head out of the bag, taking care to avoid looking at her himself. Cetus looked, turned to stone, and sank beneath the waves. Perseus and Andromeda lived happily ever after.

Not exactly the version you see above in the painting by Edward Burne-Jones, but, my goodness, all the drama is there, and where in all of story or art have you seen a more magnificent monster. (Click to enlarge.)

And there they are, in tonight's sky, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Andromeda, Cetus, Perseus, Pegasus, and even the gorgon's head in the bag (the star Algol, "the ghoul," in Perseus). Many a time I told the story under a starry sky, to kids and adults of all ages.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas... all who celebrate this season, from Chet, Anne and Tom, with a reprise from Anne (click to enlarge).

Monday, December 24, 2012

"…and with ah! bright wings"

All neck and shoulders. Feathers streaming off her back like water. She descends along the garden path like a bride at her nuptials -– step, pause, step, pause.

And then. And then. Those wings! She spreads those bedsheet wings, flaps them once or twice as if to shake them out, then leaps into the air -- push, push -- improbably ascending, long legs dangling behind like ribbons.

To tell the truth, I have no idea if it’s a she, but I can't bring myself to call her an it. "It" sounds so inanimate. Our great white egret is animation personified.

She seems to have taken up residence on our property, at least for the time being. Some folks have BMWs or Rolex watches. I have a great white egret.

That crook in her neck. Like an arm cocked to throw a spear. And what a spear! A beak like an assassin's dagger. Her nuptial gown is a ruse. She is an Amazon princess, fierce and ready.

Where has she gone? Now, just now, she passed the window, her muscular shoulders sculling the air. Leonardo would have been flabbergasted. He would have made himself wings of white silk and leapt off the roof of a Milanese palace. He would have imagined angels.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

His dark materials -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in December 2007).)

The thought police are at it again. This time it is the new fantasy film The Golden Compass, based on the first volume of Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. Hollywood and Mr. Pullman are accused of trying to turn our good Christian children into -- gasp! -- atheists. I haven't seen the film, but I read the book and it is indeed subversive. It comes down against any institution that seeks to impose doctrine and root out heretics. Be brave, be curious, and think for yourself, the book suggests. No wonder the Possessors of Truth are hot and bothered.

Why all this adult interest in the fantasy literature that engages children? The Narnia Chronicles get a pass because C. S. Lewis was a Christian. The Lord of the Rings barely slips under the wire with a Catholic author. I don't know what J. K. Rowling's religion is, but the Harry Potter books and movies ruffle feathers because they supposedly traffic with the Evil One himself. Philip Pullman is a self-confessed atheist; oh, dear, we must keep him out of the neighborhood.

Back off, grownups. Expose your kids to a variety of ideas that elevate the human spirit and let them find their own way in the world. His Dark Materials has shades of Milton's Paradise Lost and William Blake. Shall we chop those classics from the curriculum too? I'd be proud if my 11-year old child or grandchild had the pluck and cunning of Lyra, the heroine of The Golden Compass.

Nullius in verba. Take no one's word. That was the motto of the Royal Society and the beginning of modern science as we know it, just sixty years after Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for thinking unorthodox thoughts, and twenty-seven years after Galileo was made to kneel before the assembled princes of the Church and renounce his belief that the Earth goes around the Sun.

And now the self-appointed guardians of faith and morals are at it again, urging parents to keep their kids away from an author who dares to affirm nullius in verba. Kick ass, Lyra. Go, girl.

Friday, December 21, 2012


My wife is sitting across the room with her iPad wirelessly connected to the internet. She's watching Rachel Maddow. On this little island.

She will extol her WiFi iPad as a miracle of modern ingenuity. Let me extol another great gift of modern technology, without which we couldn't be on this island.

Duct tape.

Not a day goes by that I don't use duct tape to keep this place from falling apart. Tough, sticky, waterproof. Robinson Crusoe should have been so lucky.

Not just me. Our connection to the island's electrical grid is secured with duct tape installed by BEC (Bahamas Electric Corporation). Our telephone connection is held together with duct tape supplied by Batelco (Bahamas Telecommunications Corporation).

Move to the ragged edge of civilization and you meet silverization.

In her book Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed recounts using duct tape as a substitute for blistered skin and for makeshift shoes when her boot irretrievably falls over a cliff.

And we all remember how Apollo 13 made it safely back to Earth because of duct tape. By the light of the silvery moon.

Anyway, I know I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said before. Just adding my own little nod to the invention that keeps all the other inventions working.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Surrender to facts

I'm currently reading two books. One I found in the house when I arrived, presumably left by a previous visitor: Cheryl Strayed's Wild, a young woman's attempt to sort out her messed-up life and grief for her mother's death by hiking alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, many hundreds of miles along the ridges of California's Sierra Nevada and Oregon's Cascades mountains. The other, my friend Douglas Christie'sThe Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, grounded in Doug's extensive knowledge of the Christian monastic tradition.

Two ways thoughtful people over the ages have sought inner peace: rigorous outer pilgrimage and quiet inward turning.

Blisters, aching muscles, raw skin, fear, exhaustion.

Silence. Immobility. Staying put.

What do they have in common? Solitude. Simplicity. Surrender.

I've been drawn in both directions in my life, but never with sufficient gumption to seriously exploit the possibilities of self-transformation. As a young man, especially, I was drawn to a Thomas Merton sort of monasticism, but was foiled by falling in love and the itch of sex. I have done my share of mountain climbing and long-distance walking, but generally with a soft bed and bottle of wine at the end of the day. No blistered feet in my life. No fasts. No waking up to pray in the middle of the night.

And yet, and yet… I've tried to learn to pay attention. To resist the noise of life. To step aside from the race to the top, which always seemed to me not much different than the bottom. And in all of this -- my easy, middle way -- science has been my walking stick and my psalter.

There is a simplicity in facts, in the isness of things, in taking things just as we find them without the need for theologies or ideologies. Things. Ordinary things. Of which I am one, blessed by evolution with the capacity to enjoy and celebrate the others.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


A Howard Nemerov poem might be twelve pages long or twelve words long. He was equally adept at the epic and the aphorism. He could be serious or fun. Sometimes both at the same time.

Consider the following poem, called "A Life," which I quote in its entirety. (How does "fair use" apply to something so short?)
In a sense.
In no sense!

Was that it?
Was that it?
Was that it?

That was it.
Now I hear my spouse's voice whispering in my ear: What's all this musing about death lately? Why all this late-life pessimism? Your blog is becoming morbid.

Morbid? Not really. I don't yet feel the Grim Reaper's cold breath on my neck. But surely it's that time of life to begin a summing up. I don't want to expire mid-sentence, with an unfinished thought...

So, was it innocent? In a sin? In a sense. Not Original Sin, perhaps, but plenty of my own devising. No sin? Nonsense.

It. What?

That. Why?

Was. When?

A matter of emphasis. In phases. In phrases. That was it. That was it. That was it.

Wasn't it?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


OK, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing.

Here is the cover for the November 30 issue of Science (click to enlarge). Eighty curious, colorful shapes that look more or less like units of type from an old-style printing press where the text was assembled letter by letter. In fact, if you look closely, you will find the alphabet and numerical digits.

Or a super-complicated LEGO set.

What is it? I you had asked me to guess, I would have been at a loss.

As it turns out, these are computer-generated schematic representations of 3-D shapes built from a "LEGO" set of short strands of DNA, each strand consisting of 32 nucleotides. These little helix-based "bricks," provided in the right mix, self-assemble into prescribed shapes. Ten thousand of these objects could line up across the period at the end of this sentence. (The grey column represents objects with internal cavities.)

I don't pretend to fully understand how this is done, but I'm dazzled beyond measure by the facility with which researchers can now play with DNA. If you want to call it play. You can also call it nano-engineering. The researchers are exploiting the same elegantly simple double-helix chemistry that over 3.5 billion years filled the Earth with its wonderful abundance of life.

A self-assembling LEGO set? You and I are self-assembled LEGO creations. So is the hummingbird. So is the great blue whale and the great white shark. And the bacterium. …ATTGCGGTACCG… T with A. C with G. Weaving, spinning. Every cell a factory churning out proteins.

The cover of Science is neat. It's more than neat; it's dazzling. But it's a piece of cake compared to what's going on -- inexorably, invisibly, inevitably -- wherever on this blooming, burgeoning, life-blessed planet I cast my gaze.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Carry moonbeams home in a jar

Well, here we are on our quiet little island. I don't know if I've mentioned before why (or how) we are here. The answer: Frankie Starlight, the film made from my novel The Dork of Cork, which dropped into our laps more $$$ than we had seen before or hoped to see. Bought three-quarters of an acre of land on a long, pristine, mostly deserted beach and built a pretty little house open to the elements, away from the cold and snow. My main reason for coming here, however, was the sky –- open on every side, mostly free of clouds, and DARK. We called it Starlight House.

That was eighteen years ago. Even with the movie, we couldn't afford it now. Our seaside lot is probably now worth five or ten times what we paid for it. The beach is still mostly deserted, but the island has begun to light up. The zodiacal light has been obliterated by new illumination at our little airport. The northern horizon fades in the glow of the new Sandals resort. Still, Starlight House promises to keep us connected to the universe for the few more years we are able to enjoy it.

We were welcomed to the island by a thin crescent Moon, Jupiter resplendent in Taurus, and Venus blazing in the dawn. Haven't seen the green flash yet, but I'm on the lookout every sunrise. January promises a basket of celestial beauties, including a spectacular conjunction of the Moon and Jupiter on the 21st, which is during Tom's brief first visit. Just for you, Tom!

Meanwhile, the world lights up, and the universe vanishes behind a murky veil of our own making. Where it can still be seen, Saturn, in Libra, tips its hat, giving telescopic observers a view of its rings that will continue to improve for a few more years. My telescopic days are past, but on the terrace in the gathering dawn I know the planet is tipping its hat just for me and I nod in silent appreciation.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Happy Holidays

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Civilization -- a Sadurday reprise

(This post appeared in March 2011.)

I must have some rare genetic mutation. Why am I the only person in America who doesn't want a gun?

OK, maybe not the only one. But sometimes it seems like it. Last week's New York Time Magazine had a one-page display of "purse pistols," small, deadly handguns specifically designed to appeal to the ladies. How about a cute little Taurus 738 TCP? It comes in pink and black. Or a Charter Arms Cougar Undercover Lite, also in pink and black, with a rubber grip to ease recoil, made to "complete your self-defense wardrobe"? Or the Casull's Improvement Freedom Arms .22, a tiny five-shot elegantly engraved by jeweler Paul Lantuch? Or the adorable North American Mini .22, with a sky-blue grip?

Kill in self-defense if you must. But do you have to do it with a fashion accessory?

The NRA tells us that "when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." Sounds to me like the recipe for a civilized society. I would rather live in a society where only outlaws (and the police) have guns than in a society where every purse, briefcase and bookbag conceals a weapon.

The murder rate in the pistol-packing U. S. is three times higher than Canada, four times higher than Ireland, and eight time higher than Norway. My guess is that the "outlaws" don't do as much of the killing as loony ordinary folks who can purchase a 33-round Glock with hardly a hitch. With a little ingenuity I can pretty much stay out of the way of hardened criminals, but steering clear of the aggrieved teenager who can find a gun in the drawer next to his parents' bed is more problematic.

What does this have to do with science? Not much, really, I'm just venting. But I think it may have something to do with genes -- nature red in tooth and claw and all that. Nevermind. I'll be back in Ireland soon and feeling much safer.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


At 6:12 AM EST on December 21 the Sun reaches its southernmost point in the sky, where it almost is already, and where it will linger. Meanwhile, here in the northern hemisphere it has been getting colder, and will get colder yet as summer's residual heat dissipates. Which means, my friends, that it is time for us old snow birds to wing our way south to our hideaway on the Tropic of Cancer. There will be no post tomorrow. And I can't promise when you'll see the next one. Apparently our phone and DSL are still down from Hurricane Sandy, mainly because I have not been there to sort things out. Ah, well, at least we'll be warm.

Ours is a sunrise house, on the sea facing east. On the 21st, the Sun will rise as far south as it ever gets, almost exactly over the highest point of Stocking Island. Then, morning by morning it will rise a little later, creeping north at first, then hurrying along, until the day we return to New England, March 21, the spring equinox, when it rises due east.

Which is where it would rise every morning if the Earth didn't have a tilt to its axis. Twenty-three-and-a-half degrees, which, when you think about it, is just about what we would have asked for if we had a say. Enough of a tilt to give us significant seasons, with their wonderful variety, but not so much tilt that the seasons are extreme.

Tom is coming for a visit this year, for the first time. He's not a sun and sea sort of guy, but feels, I suppose, a need after all these years to check out the place that the other three kids and grandkids love to visit. I do think he is going to like the sense of being at one with the universe -- Sun, Moon, planets, stars, risings and settings, Milky Way, nebulosities -- things one has to make an effort to see in closed-in, light-polluted New England, but which on the island are always with you. I gave Tom Guy Ottewell's 2013 Astronomical Calendar for Christmas. I couldn't do without it on the island. Like a program for a never-ending show.

Don't go away. I'll be with you next as soon as I can.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

O holy night

Here's an image for this season of lights: the star-forming nebula NGC 6357, lit from within by new stars, and above it the young star cluster PISMIS 24, with at its center one of the most massive stars known, PIMIS-1, actually a triple star system, with each component perhaps 100 times as massive as our Sun. Such massive stars don't live long, compared, say, to the Sun. They burn fast and hot, turning hydrogen and helium into heavy elements, then blast their bounty into space. The nebula and the cluster lie about 8000 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Scorpius, part of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The images spans a few tens of light-years from top to bottom. Click to enlarge.

Allow me to quote myself, from The Soul of the Night:
Stars build as they burn. In the workshops that are the cores of stars, gravity squeezes heavy elements into being. Here is work that would be envied by Cellini, more ravishing than Fabergé creations for a czar. Oxygen, sparkling with its six valence electrons, promiscuous in its rage for union, burning, rusting, rotting, building, no element on Earth is more common. Carbon, the wizard, now the black rider, now the diamond throne, the backbone of the butterfly, nylon, gasoline, shoe polish, dynamite, and DDT. Iron, industrious, core of the Earth, night flyer; Eskimos made tools of iron that fell from the sky. Palladium, zirconium, dysprosium, gadolinium, praseodymium, rare travelers, made in traces in supernovas and scattered to the Galaxy like bank notes tossed from a king's carriage.
Over the top? Did I really write that? That was almost thirty years ago, long before the Hubble Space Telescope began to make breathtaking images like the one above as common as dishrags. I was in thrall to the heavens, attached to my telescope, agog with the glory of a universe that is mostly hidden from our unaided view. I wrote The Soul of the Night on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 computer, with a tiny LCD screen that showed just a few lines of type. My fingers flew. They could hardly keep up with my ardor. I was in love. With words. With the stars, nebulas, galaxies.

Maybe a little abashed now with the 1980s gush of my prose, but still carrying a torch for a universe in which stardust flows like a Heraclitean river, never to be touched or stepped in twice. The book is still in print, an extended footnote to a universe that has never exhausted it power to astonish and surprise.

Monday, December 10, 2012


I believe I have mentioned before that many years ago, before I started writing for the Boston Globe, I had a column in the college newspaper called "Under a Skeptical Star." The phrase came from a line of the Scots poet/scholar William MacNeile Dixon: "If there be a skeptical star I was born under it, yet I have lived all my days in complete astonishment."

That was nearly half-a-century ago. I'm still astonished.

Easily astonished. I don't require magnificent vistas, frozen waterfalls, spectacular sunsets. I don't need the Red Sea parted or Lazarus raised from the dead. I've been astonished by comets and eclipses, but I don't need a comet or eclipse. A leaf will do. A snowflake. The tip-tip-tip of a nuthatch heard but not seen in a piney wood. A lop-sided spider web wet with dew.

Don't tell me about answered prayers. Premonitions that came to pass. The paranormal and preternatural. That's when my skeptical star kicks in, the one I was born under. That's when an irrepressible voice in the back of my head whispers: "There's nothing less astonishing than the apparently miraculous."

I'll settle for the commonplace. The ordinary. The quotidian. The flower in the crannied wall. The universe in a grain of sand. A single silicon dioxide molecule is astonishment enough to set my chin agog. How many silicon dioxide molecules in a grain of sand? About a trillion billion by my rough calculation. That's a lot of astonishment.

A lop-sided spider web wet with dew. Even the words are astonishing.

Sunday, December 09, 2012


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Beyond the porch-light of language -- a Saturday reprise

The title of this post is another phrase from the poet Pat Boran. It struck me, I suppose, because of the way readers sometimes refer to this blog as "the porch." (I forget who first suggested the image; was it you, Theresa? Lyra?) A lovely image, evoking friends in rocking chairs sipping ice tea or gin-and-tonics on a drowsy summer night. Out there in the darkness lightnin' bugs flash their sleepy semaphores. Somewhere afar off heat lightnin' illuminates the horizon. Our language drifts into the dark. We have words too for stars, for black holes and quasars, for the cosmic microwave background radiation. Our words leak off the porch into the summer darkness, bringing some small part of the darkness into our circle of light. And so we sit and sip and talk, and our language eases back the darkness, hallows an interval, makes "a dwelling in the evening air,/ In which being there together is enough."

We sit and we sip and we are content to let the darkness embrace us. No, we are more than content. The darkness is a positive presence, a soft and fragrant backdrop for our conversations. Without the darkness there would be no lightnin' bugs, no heat lightnin', no stars. We rock and sip and the darkness enfolds us like a shawl.

There are a those who are less comfortable with the darkness. They want language to light up the darkness to the farthest horizon, to the beginning and end of space and time, turn night to day. They shout into the dark -- "God," "Father," "Person," "Friend." The miracle of language becomes the language of miracles. "I am the Light of the World, I expel the dark."

Well, fair enough. But here on the porch, in our circle of friendship and faint light, we rock and sip and talk. And the lightnin' bugs flash, and the stars come on one by one, and now and then, afar off, the horizon shimmers with a soundless light. And we talk, with measured voices. And our words drift off into the darkness. And sometimes they never come back.

(This post appeared in July 2008.)

Friday, December 07, 2012

Method or madness

Consider some of the great scientific advances of the last half-millennium: heliocentric astronomy, universal gravitation, atomic and molecular chemistry, evolution by natural selection, electromagnetic radiation, the germ theory of disease, anesthetics, general relativity and the equivalence of mass/energy, quantum theory, galactic astronomy, big bang cosmology, plate tectonics, DNA -- for starters.

Where did this stuff come from? Invention or discovery? Dredged up out of the bowels of nature, or cast like a mental net over unruly reality?

Here in the college library there are shelves of books debating the issue. This much seems certain: the so-called "scientific method" we were taught in school -- a mechanical truth-generating process that even a high-school sophomore could execute -- is a myth.

Good science is a mix of brains, energy, insight, courage, luck, competitiveness, money (or the lack of it), quality of instruments, being at the right place at the right time, and an index full of other factors. Perhaps it is impossible to define science in sentence, or a paragraph. But we know it when we see it, and it is nothing like the automatic "method" attributed by our teachers to Francis Bacon. As the biologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, Bacon clearly understood that science is (in Gould's words) "a quintessential human activity, inevitably emerging from the guts of our mental habits and social practices, and inexorably intertwined with foibles of human nature and contingencies of human history."

Which is not to say, as Gould reminded us, that science is an arbitrary social artifact. In Bacon's own words, scientific understanding "is extracted…not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature" All great science springs from a creative tension between mind and nature.

The writer John Steinbeck was also something of a scientist. A young boy once asked Steinbeck what he was searching for as he and his friend Ed Ricketts waded though a tide pool looking for small marine creatures. "We search for something that will seem like truth to us; we search for understanding; we search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life; we search for the relations of things, one to another," answered Steinbeck.

Which pretty well summarizes what scientists do. It also summarizes what writers do. The difference? Science is a communal enterprise that demands consensus. Writing is a private venture that the artist pursues alone. Science is we. Art is I.

(I lifted the Steinbeck anecdote from my friend the writer Brian Doyle, as I waded around in one of the teeming tide pools of his prose. I made a more extended reference to Steinbeck here.)

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Mimetic deities

Those of you who have been on the porch for a while will know that my favorite Caravaggio is "The Rest On the Flight Into Egypt". I love the way it captures the yin and yang of existence -- the feminine and the masculine, the dark and the light, the soft and the hard, the wet and the dry, the tender and the fraught. Each quality depends upon the other. The painting is all about balance, moderation, humility. Resignation. Acceptance. Grace.
Here is another Caravaggio, "Narcissus," a depiction of the story from Ovid of the beautiful youth who falls in love with his own reflection in the still water of a pool. (Click to enlarge.) So transfixed is he by his beauty -- look! his lips are poised to kiss -- he lingers and dies.

Not a painting I like. No yin and yang this. A bleak narcissism. Cold, dark, stasis.

Where are the apples and the pomegranates? The cedar and the myrrh? This young man is not in love with the world, but with himself. He has created a god in his own image. He worships that god with a fixed attention that frustrates growth and development. His arms and those of his image form a circle that turns round and round upon itself, enclosing nothing. Not a leaf or blade of grass, not a pebble or ripple.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The refining fire of experience

During the academic year 1968-69 I was studying the history of science at the Imperial College in London. In a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead I found a book I had never heard of, Robert Small's An Account of the Astronomical Discoveries of Kepler, published in 1804. I paid a few pound for it, and took it home to read. It inspired an epic engagement with the mathematical theories of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler that I described in Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian. I applied the theories of all four astronomers to the motion of Mars in that year of 1968-69. I'm sure someone, somewhere has done something similar, but if so I don't know about it. Here, for example, is the diagram representing my calculations for Ptolemy's theory. Click to enlarge.
I'll not repeat the story here. Small's book fell off the shelf into my hands the other day and it all came rushing back, those joyous weeks of plowing though the ancient texts and matching the results to the motion of the planet in the 20th-century sky.

Small makes a big claim for Kepler: "[His work] exhibited, even prior to the publication of Bacon's Novum Organum, a more perfect example, than perhaps ever was given, of legitimate connection between theory and experiment; of experiments suggested by theory, and of theory submitted without prejudice to the test and decision of experiments." Small's book is bound with all of the figures and diagrams collected at the back. I have scanned two of the 11 pages of figures, enough to give you a visual sense of what when into Kepler's achievement.

Having followed Kepler, with Small, down every blind alley, every minute deviation of calculation from observed positions of Mars, every agonizing surrender of accepted practice, I had nothing but admiration for a man who set the stage more than any other for the Newtonian Revolution, all while afflicted with illness, weak eyesight, religious persecution, and interminable financial and family problems, including an almost endless struggle to keep his quarrelsome mother from being burned as a witch.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

There have been so many books lately proffering "proof of heaven" one could almost call it a fad. Seems like everyone and his brother has had a near death experience that gave them a short sojourn in paradise. And a book contract.

Am I being cynical? I suppose so. I do wonder though why no one ever has a near death experience of the other place. A book called Hell Is For Real. Who's going to buy that?

The latest contender is different. Dr. Eben Alexander came to the heavenly feast with credentials as a neurosurgeon. His book, Proof of Heaven, describes (say reviews) his out-of-body experiences during a period when his neo-cortex was apparently shut down during a life-threatening medical emergency. He was met on the other side by a beautiful blue-eyed woman who took him for a ride on butterflies. He saw a shining orb he understood to be a loving God.

I don't doubt Dr. Alexander's sincerity, but I would take issue with what seems to be his central "proof," according to the press: There is no way science can explain his experience.

There are lots of things that science can't (yet) explain, but that doesn't mean Dr. Alexander's soul went to heaven. Science can't explain much about the brain, not least what happens in crisis mode. I would let Ockham's Razor attribute the beautiful blue-eyed woman and butterflies to Dr. Alexander's brain before I'd invoke the journey of an immaterial soul to an afterlife and back -- and on to the best-seller list, a Newsweek cover, and an Oprah special.

And while I'm on the subject, let me mention a novel I just read by my friend Michael Wilt, The Holy Family. The protagonist of Wilt's story doesn't experience proof of heaven. Rather, he makes a journey in the opposite direction, from devout Catholic to cautious atheist. It's a gentle journey, without rancor or rebuke. At the heart of the story is a tragedy that might send a less courageous person running for the comfort of Dr. Alexander's book, but Wilt's protagonist and his spouse find consolation for their loss in the miracle of life itself.

I could wish for Michael bestsellerdom and an Oprah special, but I have the feeling that his novel is too full of doubt and searching and pain and tenderness -- all of the things that define the human adventure in the absence of True Belief. No ultimate answers, no "proof" of everlasting life, only the ties of human love that in this best of all available worlds bind us to one another.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Reading the book of nature

Click on the portrait above for a larger view. Now I ask you, have you ever seen a man of more serene disposition? Kindly demeanor? Integral character? Not to mention handsome.

I won't tell you who he is. At least not yet. The apparatus on the table might give a hint. And the apparent serenity of the portrait did not always describe the man's life.

He was widely acknowledged in his time as a popular public speaker. Here is a description by a person who attended his lectures:
He was completely master of the situation; he had his audience at his command, as he had himself and all his belongings; he had nothing to fret him, and he could give his eloquence full sway. It was an irresistible eloquence, which compelled attention and insisted on sympathy. It waked the young from their visions and the old from their dreams. There was a gleaming in his eyes which no painter could copy and which no poet could describe. Their radiance seemed to send a strange light into the very heart of his congregation; and when he spoke, it was felt that the stir of his voice and the fervor of his words could belong only to the owner of those kindling eyes...His enthusiasm sometimes carried him to the point of ecstasy when he expatiated on the beauty of nature, and when he lifted the veil from her deep mysteries.
One gets the sense that he could have been a prodigious sermonizer, the proprietor of a megachurch, an Elmer Gantry of his time. And indeed he was a deeply religious man. But he was too humble to presume to speak directly for the Creator, too modest to claim to know the Creator's will. He was content to let the Creator's works speak for themselves. He was unsurpassed at reading the book of nature, that public scripture laid open for all to see. It was for him a book of wonders, revealed incontestably by the apparatus on the table -- the voltaic cells, the coils, the electrical machine, magnets and glass retorts.
His body then took motion from his mind; his hair streamed out from his head, his hands were full of nervous action, his lithe body seemed to quiver with eager life. His audience took fire with him, and every face was flushed. Whatever might be the after-thought or the after-pursuit, each hearer for the time shared his zeal and his delight; and with some listeners the impression made was so deep as to lead them into the laborious paths of philosophy, in spite of all the obstacles which the daily life of society opposes to such undertakings.
Nothing, said Michael Faraday, is too wonderful to be true.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Shedding light

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

(An early) Merry Xmas -- a Saturday reprise

Extravagant X. Most excellent X. Tricksy spirit of the alphabet.

Or should I say, trixsy spirit. Pixie spirit. Ariel, yes. Caliban, too. (Noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight.) Feet apart, arms upraised. Jumping jax.

Give me an X, right here on my lips. X marks the spot. A sexy kiss. An X-rated kiss. Knock my sox off.

Make your mark. The mysterious Mister X. X-Files. X-men. Tic-tac-toe. Xanadu.

What would science do without its X?

Roman numeral, number ten.


X the unknown. Was it Mr. Descartes who used it first? La Geometrie, 1637.

X-axis. Y-axis. Analytical geometry.

Mr. Roentgen and his mysterious radiation. Black hole Cygnus X-1, spewing X-rays.

Xe for xenon, noble gas, atomic number 54.

X chromosome. Sex chromosome. XX=female. XY=male.

Planet X?

What other letter has such an exotic history? Happily Greek, but not much heavy lifting in basic English. Xylophones on children's blocks.

We love X in math and science, maybe because it loves us, greedy for meaning, bearing on its broad shoulders everything we hope to understand but cannot yet say.

(This post originally appeared in December 2009.)