Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Danio rerio

What you see here on the cover of the 12 October issue of Science is obviously an embryo, at a rather advanced stage of development but still smaller than this letter o. But of what creature? A non-expert would be hard pressed to identify the species, or even the order. It is, in fact, a zebrafish, one of those model organisms researchers use to study the "miracle" of development.

How many cells? I don't know, but a rough calculation suggests about 10,000. A fertilized egg. Two. Four. Eight. Sixteen. Segments, cavities, appendages, folds. What will it be? A zebrafish? A hummingbird? A human?

I think of lines from a heartbreaking poem by my colleague Anna Ross, from her collection Hawk Weather. She describes, tenderly, lovingly, her own miscarried embryo: "Little yolk, fly-speck, web/ unworked, detail without name,/ unlatch yourself from me, go."

The special section in Science addresses what we know about the "forces" in development, but truth be told we don't know much about how information in that first fertilized cell, in interaction with the environment, signals the unfolding of an animal of a specific species. Segments, cavities, appendages, folds.

Fly-speck, zebrafish, you know your destiny. Two. Four. Eight. Sixteen. You will swim in the scientist's aquarium, flashing your blue stripes, glittering translucent. The researchers love you for the easy view of your glassy interior. They'll feed you food flakes and watch as you lay your hundreds of eggs every few days, so profligate you are, so extravagant with progeny, you swim with your sisters in a sea of embryos. They scoop up your offspring and watch, watch, as the flyspeck becomes a darting fish.

Will unraveling the mystery of development require a Newtonian Revolution in biology? Or is it only a matter of scrutinizing the unfolding embryo in ever more intimate detail, the "physico-genetic determinants"? Or both? Fly-speck, pinhead, peppercorn, pea. Segments, cavities, appendages, folds. Time will tell. "Go, almost thing,/ the sundews have opened/ their sticky pink mitts to catch/ your brothers…"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Counting out -- 4

Piaget suggested that children's games evolve through three stages. The first is that of the practice game, as when a child leaps back and forth over a stream for the sheer joy of doing so. In the field of intellectual behavior, this might correspond to sitting night after night on a hillside wondering about the stars.

The second stage is the symbolic game, which involves the representation symbolically of an absent object, as when a child pushes a box and imagines it is a car. The box is clearly not an actual car, but it does share characteristics of a car (a movable container) which are precisely the aspects of a car that are important for the game. Science proceeds in an analogous way. If we imagine the Earth to be a perfect sphere of uniform density for the purpose of calculating the gravitational force at its surface, we are symbolically representing the Earth in a way that showcases certain fundamental aspects of the "real" world. We ignore (for the moment) more detailed features of the Earth in the same way the child ignores the fact that her box lacks headlights or a steering wheel.

The third kind of games occurring in a child's development are games with rules. "Unlike symbols, rules necessarily imply social or inter-individual relationships," says Piaget. The rules of science are related to the fact that science is a community activity. In science, as in all games, the requirement of functioning within a given set of rules adds both a pleasurable challenge (an alternative to the frustrating confusion of the Red Queen's chaotic croguet ground in Wonderland) and the stimulation of group play.

Major transformations of the rules by which science is played are infrequent and usually spring from the innovative genius of a mind with a "feel for the game" (Kepler = Knute Rockne). More generally the rules remain unbroken and the occasional spoil-sport is drummed out of the game.

If the rules of science are so rigid how can science, except at times of "scientific revolution," advance at all? Which brings us back to counting rhymes. Kenneth Goldstein, who we met before, observed that while a majority of children hold the counting-out process to be a rigid system controlled by chance, there is still room within the rules for a clever counter to make things bend to his advantage.

I don't want to make too much of these reflections on science and play. But all too often we overlook the fundamental human instincts that drive the scientific enterprise. Play is one of the most basic instincts, to each of us as individuals and to our species. It is not altogether frivolous, I think, to consider even our loftiest intellectual activities as germinating from nursery rhymes and games.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Counting out -- 3

Science, like the games of children, is a form of make-believe. The physicist Bruce Lindsay puts it bluntly: "Science is a game in which we pretend that things are not wholly what they seem in order that we may make sense out of them in terms of mental processes peculiar to us as human beings…Science strives to understand by the construction of theories, which are imaginative pictures of things as they might be, and, if they were, they would lead logically to that which we find in actual experience."

The physics student who spends hours working problems involving frictionless pulleys and weightless strings is well aware that she plays "let's pretend." The world of scientific theory is an imaginative one whose forms reflect the forms of the real world, but only in an imperfect and somewhat arbitrary way. They satisfy, however, those same deep-seated instincts for order, pattern and escape from the "ordinary" that were first satisfied with nursery rhymes on the parent's knee.

The French philosopher Roger Caillois says of play: "The structure of play and reality are often identical (dolls, toy soldiers, Monopoly, etc.), but the respective activities that they subsume are not reducible to each other in time or place. They always take place in domains that are incompatible." The child who hears the nursery rhyme is at one level aware that no real dish will run away with a spoon, just as the physics student must suspend belief to work with weightless strings. But the world depicted in the illustrations of the child's Mother Goose is not altogether removed from the child's "real world." The child psychologist Jean Piaget (another of those authors on our required reading list half-a-century ago) showed us, for example, how artificialism (the moon is for jumping over) and animism (spoons that run) are common characteristics of the young child's view of reality (as they were for our pre-scientific ancestors).

In the nursery rhyme or the playground game the world is abstracted and in a make-believe way that mimics aspects of the "real" world and creates a momentary and arbitrary order. The rhyme and the rules are paramount. Similarly in science it was by making believe, for example, that the planets move on some combination of circles that Ptolemy and Copernicus were able to make the planets "play by the rules."

Kepler came along and broke the rule. By tossing the circles and introducing the ellipse he both complicated the rules and simplified the game. His "playground" innovation set the stage for Newton's theory of universal gravitation, one of the most successful "make-believe" stories of all time.

I have more to say on this theme. Forgive my pedantry. I promise to wrap this up tomorrow. Unless Hurricane Sandy pulls the plug.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Boo

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

In the house of intellect -- a Saturday reprise

Jacques Barzun has died at age 104. A few years ago I wrote an appreciation, which I reprise here. I will have a few more words to say next week..

I was surprised to read the other day that Jacques Barzun is still alive, at age 102, with a birthday coming up soon.

For those of us who embarked upon the academic life in the 1950s-60s, Barzun was a presiding inspiration. His books Teacher in America and The House of Intellect were eagerly devoured guides to our new life, and Science: The Glorious Entertainment rattled the sureties of those of us who had chosen science for a career.

Intellectually, Barzun was all over the place, a polymath, a gadfly, with an opinion about everything, some of which made sense to me, others of which seemed merely petulant. The main thing I learned from his books is that science and the arts are mutually diminished by isolation. Every human activity is best understood when considered in the richest possible context. The house of intellect has many rooms but one foundation, and one roof covers them all.

Unfortunately, this was not a recipe for success as a physicist, which required -- at least for the average intellect -- going narrow and deep. Which pretty much explains why I had no sooner garnered my Ph.D. in physics than I began to drift to the broad and shallow end of the pool. I was interested in connections, and connections inevitably draw one to writing. I think it was Susan Sontag who said the great thing about being a writer is that nothing is irrelevant.

The thousand essays I published in the Boston Globe (the original "Science Musings") were all about dragging science kicking and screaming into the house of intellect, and introducing the reluctant newcomer to the sometimes unwelcoming inmates. That is to say, the essays were all about taking what was happening in science and weaving it into culture at large.

What science learns about the world enhances our understanding of who we are, where we came from, and why we are here, and the scientific way of knowing holds in check our inclination to mistake wishful thinking for reality. In the house of intellect science is the gal or guy who takes out the garbage, fixes the leaky sink, and mows the lawn.

But who wants to be a drudge, chasing the squirrels out of the eaves, never having fun? The arts provide the beer and pizza, bang out jolly tunes on the upright piano, make sure there's always something interesting to read in the basket next to the loo, and stand ready to fall in love with whoever needs a snuggle. The arts remind us of why we do science and art -- why we choose to live in the house of intellect.

That's what Barzun has spent his life doing, in dozens of books and hundreds of essays: Reminding us of the value of the examined life. He spent the latter part of his 80s on his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, a sprawling, idiosyncratic rumble through history that has something to please and annoy almost everyone. For all of the grim realities of the present, I believe we are better off than he gives us credit for, but I have nothing but admiration for a guy who can command such resources at so advanced an age.

Happy 103th Birthday, Jacques, and may you have many happy returns.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Counting out -- 2

There is a wonderful book about play that was on every intellectual's reading list when I was a young man: Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens (playful man). Huizinga writes:
Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: It creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it "spoils the game," robs it of its character and makes it worthless…Play casts a spell over us, it is "enchanting," "captivating." It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony.
The first playground is the parent's lap and the first game is the nursery rhyme. The rhyme is a special activity, marked off from ordinary discourse, structured by rhyme, rhythm and alliteration. The child reacts with pleasure to "rhythm and harmony," is consoled by a feeling of familiarity and order. The least deviation from the rhyme is put right: "That's not the way it goes."

These same needs and emotions led early cultures to impose images of familiar figures on the otherwise chaotic scattering of stars in the night sky -- swans, bears, human heroes, etc.. The constellations provided the pleasure of recognition ("Look! Orion!") The stories that accompanied the figures were not as important as the figures themselves, which gave a sense of necessity, rightness. The constellations were "enchanting," "captivating." They created order.

But there were deviations from the patterns. A few stars, the so-called "wandering stars" (the planets), had the annoying habit of moving about, breaking the rules. A more general "rhyme" had to be invented that made these stars once again part of a pattern. It was not an easy task, and required more than a mythological figure or story, but the basic human need was there -- the need satisfied on the parent's lap or in the playground -- for rhythm and harmony, for order. It was precisely here, in the problem of finding a "rhyme" that encompassed the motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets, that science as we know it was born.

Nursery rhymes and the eccentrics, equants and epicycles of Ptolemy have this in common: repetition and alteration. It only makes sense to see them springing from the same emotional needs. Huizinga writes: "In the faculty of repetition lies one of the most essential qualities of play. It holds good not only of play as a whole but also of its inner structure. In nearly all the higher forms of play the elements of repetition and alteration are like the warp and woof of a fabric."

More Monday. I note that Jacques Barzun has died at age 104. I'll reprise an appreciation tomorrow.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Counting out

Remember "counting out"? Do kids still "count out"?

Consider a count among six children:

(1)Einie (2)meenie (3)meinie (4)mo, (5)catch (6)a feller (1) by the (2)toe, (3)if he (4)hollers (5)let him (6)go, (1)einie (2)meenie (3)meinie (4)mo. Number 4 is "out."

Back in the early 70s, Kenneth Goldstein published an ethnographic study of counting out rhymes. By extending the rhyme, a clever counter could count out a child other than number 4:

(5)My (6)mother (1)says (2)that (3)you (4)are (5)it.

Or further:

(6)But (1)I (2)say (3)that (4)you (5)are (6)out.

Alternately, the counter can secure advantage by selecting among "allowable" rhymes, depending on the number of children:

Andy/ Mandy/ sugar/ candy/ out/ goes/ you. Seven counts.

Inka/ bink/ a bottle/ of ink/ I/ say/ you/ stink. Eight counts.

According to Goldstein, these and other strategies require a certain amount of insight by the counter, and are considered legitimate and clever by the other children. The most common form of manipulation by the counter, however, is simply to skip a beat. This is frowned upon by the other children as "dishonest" and "against the rules."

Within the game of counting out there is, for any group of children, an accepted repertoire of rhymes, a traditionally established number of beats, and established ways of setting up the count, says Goldstein. The system is sufficiently rigid to give most children a sense that "all is fair." Still, within the rigidity of the system there is room for a clever counter to achieve a desired outcome.

What, pray, does this have to do with science, or anything else for that matter? More tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Deus absconditus

OK, we live in a universe of 100 billion galaxies, at least, and that fact -- as facty as these things get -- should smack us down when we start spouting off about the meaning of it all. And don't overlook the facty fact that we don’t even know what 96 percent of the universe is made of. Dark matter. Dark energy. Dark glass (as in "through a").

All I have to do is flip through any weekly issue of Science or Nature to be reminded of what I don't know, a sea of ignorance so wide and so deep I’ll never swim across, a glass so dark I’ll never see through.

Take this illustration from a research paper in the 11 October issue of Nature, called "Molecular machines governing exocytosis of synaptic vesicles." All I can tell you is this is a proposed scenario for what goes on at synaptic connections between nerve axons, a little schematic slide show of proteins and calcium ions docking the ammunition, priming the gun, and pulling the trigger -- bang, the neuron fires.

I love it! My nervous system is a web of myriad synaptic connections, all those infinitesimal fingers of God and Adam almost touching, and the signals leaping like lightning across the gaps, my whole body a storm of neuronal activity, my thoughts, my fingers moving on the keyboard, the tremor in my hand, the little scenario above played out over and over and over with no conscious participation on my part -- no, no, of course I am consciously directing my fingers to move -- but those proteins, those calcium ions, what do I have to do with that?

The more we learn, the deeper and more profound becomes our ignorance. I revel in my ignorance, the cloud of unknowing, the ever-darkening glass, the ever-more-distant absconded god. Depressing? Not at all. What is depressing is certainty, knowing all the answers, living in a world of dogmatic Sundays. I'm a weekday sort of guy, every day, every object, every synapse, a well of mystery. Bring it on! More and more knowledge! More and more revelations of what we do not know.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The sacred depths of nature

NASA has released the latest and deepest look into space ever, revealing galaxies as they were 13.2 billion years ago, only 500 million years after the big bang. You will remember the Hubble Deep Field and the Ultra Deep Field. This new compilation of all the previous data is called the XDF, the Extreme Deep Field.

Do this. Go to the Hubble XDF web site, download the highest resolution version and fill your screen with it. And while you're there, look at the little video showing the tiny part of the sky imaged by the XDF. I see only one star of our own galaxy in the image, the object with diffraction spikes.

Now do this. Go outside at night and hold two crossed sewing pins at arm's length again the dome of night. The intersection of those pins covers the area of the XDF. Presumably, the view in any other direction would be similar -- except where our own galaxy gets in the way.

Hundreds of billion of potentially visible galaxies, each galaxy (we are seeing only the brightest) with hundreds of billions of stars, every star potentially with planets. Any religion that doesn't accommodate these incredible revelations can hardly be qualified as adequate.

Which reminds me of something I found while cleaning out the archives last week: A 1996 letter from Kent Hovind, the founder of Creation Science Evangelism and (formerly) one of nation's busiest and most celebrated opponents of evolutionary science. I won't say anything about Mr. Hovind; he has his problems and I wish him well. But I will quote from his letter, which is not untypical of missives I received from Christian creationists while I was writing for the Boston Globe.

"Satan has used your pride to blind you to the obvious," he writes. Hovind claims a "personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe," and suggests that "if you [meaning me] continue to refuse and respect Him you will face Him as your judge when you die."

I never took any of this stuff seriously. To each his own, I say, even if the sentiments don't sound very Christian. But it does strike me as astonishing that anyone can look at the XDF, for example, understand what one is looking at, and still claim a "personal relationship" with the Creator. For myself, I don't suppose that Mr. Hovind's Satan, with a possibly infinite number of galaxies to attend to, has time or motive to worry about my views on evolution.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The New Year's Eve we did the town, the day we tore the goalpost down...


There are lots of advantages about still being with the woman I married 54 years ago. One of them is supplementary memory.

Of our long time together, she remembers some things, and I remember others. A psychologist could probably have a jolly good time sussing out the reasons why some things stick and others slip away. Do men and women remember different things? Do A and B type personalities squirrel away different snippets from the past (me A, she B)? Do visual and aural types remember past events differently? There has probably been research on some of these topics, but I can't be bothered to look it up.

Some smidgy little detail that M. will remember from half-a-century ago strikes me as a stunning waste of neurons. When I pull up some mischievous scrap of the past she will roll her eyes and say, "You would remember that." Together, for better or worse, we've cached away a lot more of our common history than either one of us could manage alone.

Ah, memory. In wakefulness and dream. The slow accumulation of a self. More than any other creature, we are what we have been. Our souls are a gossamer of spidery neurons. And no one knows how.

Yet.

I turned with anticipation to an article in the October 5 issue of Science: "How Are Memories Retrieved." The neuroscience of memory is "complex and contentious," the author quickly concedes, and then goes on to survey research on rats and some human subjects that has begun to identify those parts of the brain involved in the storage and retrieval of memories. But how? For the moment, it all seems rather miraculous.

But there is no need to invoke an immaterial soul, or a miracle in a supernatural sense. I can type "Chet Raymo" into Google and instantly (.39 seconds) bring up stuff from my own past that I had long since forgotten, out of the Google servers -- those vast, cavernous warehouses of electronics -- the collective memory of our race. My brain has 100 billion neurons, each one reaching out with spidery arms to thousands or other spidery arms, one hundred trillion or so synapses, each synapse in any one of ten or so levels of excitation. My own little 3-pound server farm. Go on, M., prompt something from our past. See what comes up.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Still life

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Eve -- a Saturday reprise


A remarkable carving, long a favorite of mine, usually called "The Temptation of Eve" (click to enlarge). It resides in the Musee Rolin near the 12th-century Cathedral of Saint Lazare at Autun, France, of which it was once a part. The sculptor did many of the wonderful decorations of the cathedral. On the west tympanum are carved the words Gislebertus hoc fecit, "Gislebertus made this," traditionally assumed to be the sculptor's claim to authorship at a time when religious art was almost universally anonymous.

Whatever the sculptor's name, there is something hauntingly original about his work -- especially Eve. Lithe and sensuous, she seemingly swims through the garden, delectably naked, She is about to pluck the forbidden fruit, and her hand is at her blushing cheek as if she knows she is doing something naughty. She could be any young woman about to embark upon her first misadventure, her very own original sin.

This Eve is a part of nature, her body as sinuous as the twining plants. The stem is about to snap. The luscious fruit will be eaten, and Eve -- lovely Eve -- will bear the burden of innocence lost. And look! Look at her expression. She doesn't know we are watching. But we are watching. And we recognize what's going on. Who has not shared this delicious moment, the first post-adolescent sin?

Science has long since rendered unliteral the story of Genesis. It has given us instead Mitochondrial Eve, the matrilineal most recent common ancestor, who apparently lived in East Africa about 140,000 years ago, and who contributed her mitochondrial DNA to every human now alive. She was not alone with a single partner in whatever passed for her garden. She was part of a population of other human ancestors, one twig of a family tree with a long ancestry of her own. Can we assume she already bore within her evolutionary heritage some mix of the emotions we see in Gislebertus' Eve -- the anxious stirrings of the flesh, the will to be wayward, the headstrong disobedience? And, yes, maybe guilt too.

The new story, like the old one, grounds much of human nature in an ancestral past. The difference is this: In the new story there is no prelapsarian Eden, no world without the pain of childbirth, without thorns and thistles, without the sweat of the brow. We are and always have been like Gislebertus' Eve entwined in a living web. What we are seeing in the Autun sculpture is the dawning of moral consciousness, a moment of singular significance for each of us individually and for our species.

(This post originally appeared in March 2008.)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Thingiverse

Remember those first dot-matrix printers that an ordinary Joe could afford? We were thrilled. A new way of writing and communicating. Gone were the pencils and yellow legal pads, the two-finger typing, and the bottles of white-out; now we wrote and revised on screen and printed a finished product. Most writers felt their creativity enhanced.

That was just the beginning. Ink-jet and laser printers soon followed, along with ever more sophisticated compositional and formatting software. Today a writer can self-publish books. One can debate whether this has been good or bad for writing and publishing, but it cannot be denied that we have lived through a revolution.

We are about to live through another. Enter 3-D printers.

They've been around for a few years, although expensive. They can print in plastic, metal, or ceramic any object (of a limited size) you can describe with digital software. (Watch the video on the Wiki site.) Many science labs are now using 3-D printers to fabricate experimental equipment, more cheaply than can be done by traditional machine shops.

In recent years, science journals have been printing 3-D stereo images, typically of biomolecules, to be viewed with colored glasses. Soon, if not already, they will offer links to software for printing 3-D models.

I notice on the internet that 3-D printers are now available at home hobbyist prices. Sites like Thingiverse offer thousands of free digital designs for printable objects. This strikes me as more or less the dot-matrix stage of 2-D printing.

But here's the thing that interests me. Some 3-D printers can print many of their own parts. Is this a step on the way to self-reproducing machines? Don't laugh. I remember when we thought Pong was a hotshot computer game.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Silva of North America -- continued

The naturalist John Muir wrote of Sargent: "While all his surroundings were drawing him toward a life a fine pleasure and the cultivation of the family fortune, he chose to live laborious days in God's forests, studying, cultivating, the whole continent as his garden." The effusiveness of Muir's language is very un-Sargent, very un-Yankee, but the sentiment is exact.

If Sargent is more or less forgotten today, his illustrator Charles Faxon is doubly forgotten. And what a shame. His exquisite renderings of every leave and seed that Sargent described were a momentous contribution to 19th-century descriptive botany.

Faxon's illustrations inspired me to make dozens of whimsical drawings, now exhumed half-a-century later from the detritus of the past, each incorporating some fragment of Faxon's originals, Can't say that I know what this was all about, but it must have seemed an urgent compulsion at the time. Here are five chosen at random. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Silva of North America

When I was cleaning out the archives last week, I came across chapters from my life I had long since forgotten, including a collection of…

But wait, first some background.

When we moved to North Easton, Massachusetts, 48 years ago, I discovered in our local library fourteen huge volumes that were among that institution's first acquisitions, and still, after almost a hundred years, the largest volumes in the collection: Charles Sprague Sargent's Silva of North America, magnificently illustrated by Charles Faxon.

A silva is a description of the trees of a certain area. Sargent undertook to describe all of the trees of our continent. His massive compendium is one of the great works of 19th-century science. It is a book that is as Yankee as cod and as Boston as baked beans.

Charles Sprague Sargent was born into one of the great Yankee families. The Sargent genealogy includes famous New England names like Saltonstall, Brooks, Winthrop, Everett, Gray, Ward, and Hunnewell. The family is perhaps best known for the painter John Singer Sargent, but many other Sargents have distinguished themselves in business, public service, or the arts.

Charles' father was a prominent businessman. When Charles was born the family lived on Joy Street on Beacon Hill. Soon they moved permanently to their summer estate in Brookline, called Holm Lea, 130 acres of handsome parkland and gardens. It was the largest personal estate so close to Boston.

The future botanist had a classic Yankee education -- private school, then Harvard. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War and traveled in Europe. When he re turned to Boston in 1868 his record as a scholar, soldier, and traveler gave no hint of future distinction. He was twenty-seven years old and disinclined to enter the family business. He took up the management of his father's estate and fell willy-nilly into horticulture. An interest in horticulture and the design of gracious garden estates was one of the common enthusiasms of moneyed gentlemen in Sargent's social class.

In 1872, to everyone's surprise, President Charles Eliot of Harvard named Sargent Professor of Horticulture. The next year Sargent was given responsibility for Harvard's Botanic Garden in Cambridge and the new Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. His qualifications? According to Sargent's biographer, S. B. Sutton, he was "little more than a glorified gardener." Of course, it helped to have the right connections, at a time and in a city where connections were everything.

Sargent was the archetypal Yankee: aristocratic, aloof, taciturn, reserved. On the outside he was a bit of a cold fish. But like many Yankees, once fired with an inner passion his energy was unflagging. He built the Arnold Arboretum into the magnificent institution it is today. He was an early champion in the cause of conservation and the creation of the National Forests. And he made himself master of his particular branch of knowledge. His great multi-volumed book was a monument of its time.

To leaf through the fourteen volumes of Sargent's remarkable work is like a journey back in time. The Silva gives a Victorian rush to the senses. The hefty weight of the volumes, the big bold print, the lush Latin names, the anecdotal footnotes, the magisterial text, and above all the finely-rendered art of Charles Faxon appeal as much to the hand and the eye as to the intellect. As a young science teacher, I was smitten.

But now I have gone on too long. I'll wait until tomorrow to share what I found in the archival bedroom.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

SETI

I've been reading Junot Diaz' fiction and gravitated to his introduction to the new Library of America edition of Edgar Rice Borroughs' A Princess of Mars." I found the book only a few steps from where I hang out in the library, and ended up reading snatches of the novel too.

Burroughs' Mars and Tarzan books were a little before my time, But of course I grew up on Tarzan movies, and sci-fi movies and comics with lots of extraterrestrial princesses inspired by Burroughs. If memory serves me right, my first true love was Princess Aura, daughter of Ming the Merciless of the planet Mongo. Aura had a thing for Flash Gordon, and pointy-nosed Ming was besmitten with Flash's girl companion Dale. I can't remember how these attractions worked out, but we can be sure they had chaste conclusions after titillating preliminaries -- and with less nudity than in the ancestral novel, where I now discover almost everyone, including our impossibly handsome hero John Carter, runs around starkers.

And the Roaring Twenties hadn't even begun.

It was from Flash's adventures on Mongo that I hypothesize the First Law of Alien Life: All women on other planets are young, beautiful and scantily clad; all resident males are beastly, misshapen or otherwise unattractive. The First Law has a Corollary: If we ever make contact with extraterrestrials, even a halfway decent-looking human male will be much in demand. To put it bluntly, Mongo girls are easy.

No wonder, then, that we older guys have so much interest in the search for other planets. If you've grown up with Princess Aura, Queen Undina (of Mongo's undersea kingdom), and Queen Fria (of Mongo's ice kingdom), all utterly alien and utterly delectable, then -- well, worlds beyond Pluto start looking pretty good.

Which brings us to my Second Law of Alien Life: The dominant creatures on other planets will always be at a stage of evolution just slightly in advance of our own. This makes it possible, for example, for Flash Gordon to be on the same psycho-sexual wavelength as Queen Azura of Mongo, from whom Earthlings acquired the idea of the string bikini.

And finally, my Third Law of Alien Life is also worth considering: All intelligent extraterrestrials speak English. This makes it possible for Ming the Merciless to say things like this to lovely Dale, which stands as one of the great pick-up lines in history: "The reason for our success is that we possess none of the human traits of kindness, mercy or pity! We are coldly scientific and ruthless! You'll be one of us."

Give this to Burroughs, when John Carter lands on Mars he has a communication problem; the residents don't speak English. But Carter is no slouch. Quicker than a wink he has mastered the local tongues, and well on his way to bedding -- yes, bedding! -- the beautiful egg-laying Princess Dejah Thoris.

Monday, October 15, 2012

…that thou art dust

Years ago, I spent a weekend at a gathering of nature writers on Martha's Vineyard with Bernd Heinrich, currently emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont. He struck me then as an extraordinarily interesting and talented man, an impression subsequently confirmed by his many books. These range from the technical to the lyrical. I don't think I have read any other writer who lives in closer communion with the natural world.

I bring up Heinrich because I have reached an age when it is incumbent upon me to leave instructions for the disposal of my body. I have no desire to be pumped full of toxic formaldehyde and put in the ground in a non-compostable box. The alternative is cremation and scattering of ashes in some sentimental place.

Well, ok. But then along comes Heinrich's newest book, Life Everlasting, about the myriad ways animals and plants recycle the nutrients of the dead. As always, Heinrich draws on his own close observations, at home and abroad. From the porch of his cabin in the Maine woods he watches the recycling of carcasses as small as a mouse and as big as a moose, by ravens, maggots, beetles and bacteria. If that sounds morbid, be assured that Heinrich finds occasion for lyricism and love.

Life from life is his theme. Life everlasting.

There are places in the world where human bodies are left outside, above ground, for carrion birds. But that's not an option here. I suspect it's even illegal to put an unembalmed body in shallow ground wrapped in a decomposable sheet, say, which would at least give burrowing rodents and insects, plant roots, fungi and bacteria a go at recycling. Which means that my demise will not be life to life -- like all other creatures -- but life to dust.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Still Life

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The mysterious shift -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in March, 2009.)

This from Colm Toibin's NYTBR review of a new biography of the writer Donald Barthelme:
By early 1963 he had enough stories for a book. He also had an aesthetic vision. In the second issue of [the arts magazine] Location he took part in a debate about the future of fiction in which Saul Bellow argued that the modern novel was "predominantly realistic" because "realism is based upon our common life." Barthelme countered that a "mysterious shift...takes place as soon as one says that art is not about something but is something," when the literary text "becomes an object in the world rather than a commentary upon the world."
One could chew on this paragraph for a long time. What exactly is the relationship of a work of art to the world? A Mark Rothko or Franz Kline, say, might seem to satisfy Barthelme's notion of "an object in the world rather than a commentary upon the world" -- pure abstraction, nothing "realistic" to get one's teeth into. But then what is the source of the power of these works to move us deeply? Surely they draw that power from the world, if nothing else from human psychology which is part of the world. It is hard to imagine a work of visual art or literature -- or music, even -- that does not in some direct or indirect way make commentary upon the world. What gives a work of art its power is the energy that flows back and forth between the representation of a thing and the thing itself. When we look at a Mark Rothko we are looking at an object that is as realistic as a tree; we are also looking in a mirror at our own deepest selves.

Where does science fit in this discussion? Bellow's realism might seem to be the obvious answer. Science is a matter of consensus knowledge "based upon our common life." But a scientific theory also "is something," rather than being just "about something." Einstein said that we discover the deep truths of nature only by "free inventions of the mind." The equations of quantum electrodynamics, for example, sprang as much from a search for pure aesthetic symmetry as from any empirical imperative. They predict that the electron should have a magnetic strength of 1.00115965214; the measured value is 1.00115965219. The "mysterious shift" of which Barthelme spoke flows both ways, from theory to world and back again, like a spark leaping between two poles.

This is a subject that would require a book to properly explore, or at least a long summer night on the porch.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Nebula

The APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) on Columbus Day was the planetary nebula known as Abell 39, an almost perfectly spherical shell of gas blown off by a Sun-like star in the final throes of its life. The name, planetary nebula, has nothing to do with planets per se. The name derives from a time –- late 18th century -- when these frequently disk-shaped objects, seen with less resolution than today, appeared planet-like in a telescope.

You can find dozens of images of planetary nebulae on the APOD or Hubble web sites, but few are as beautifully symmetric as Abell 39, a lovely soap bubble in space. This "soap bubble" is 5 light-years across. If that were the dying Sun at the center of the nebula, the shell of gas would reach half-way to our nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri. The bubble is 7,000 light years away, in our own Milky Way Galaxy.

This will be the fate of our own star in 5 billion years or so -– outer layers blown off into space, then collapse into a white dwarf, a burned-out star with the remaining mass crushed by gravity to the sixe of the Earth (you can think of it roughly as atom-against-atom). Then a slow extinction, leaving a bubble behind that will slowly disperse into the interstellar medium.

Anyway, it was a fitting image. I spent the holiday blowing off my own late-life excess of exhausted matter.

A back bedroom upstairs filled to overflowing with the accumulated artifacts of a lifetime. Personal journals. Book manuscripts, including embarrassingly bad books I wrote before I had any idea how to write. Dozens of magazines and journals in which I had an essay or book review. Reviews of my own books. Movie scripts. Out-take tapes from Frankie Starlight. Thousands of xeroxed Globe columns. A hundred floppy disks. Obsolete software disks and manuals. Defunct laptops, going back to the first Mac laptop that appeared on the market. A dot-matrix printer. Photographs. Drawing tools. Tons of correspondence from the days when correspondence was on paper. Stuff I do not even remember. It was like an archeological dig.

What to save? What to throw in the dumpster?

Bag after bag went out in the trash, my blown-off bubble, the planetary nebula of my life. Saved whatever I presumptuously thought the kids or grandkids might someday find nostalgic, my white dwarf core, a bedroom full of one man's life squeezed into a tiny closet.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Little lesson -- part 3

One could introduce here any number of Wallace Stevens poems that explore the ground between imagination and reality -- invention and discovery -- but let me offer just one more late poem, titled "The Planet On The Table":
Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.
This could be the credo of the scientist: that our theories of the world share some congruence, however imperfectly perceived, of the world of which they are a part.

The entire apparatus of science -- reproducible experimentation, mathematical description, the exclusion of cultural references from scientific communication, peer review, and so on -- has evolved to ensure that the makings of ourselves are no less makings of the world, a world that is assumed to exist in the absence of human perception.

Doctor Johnson presumed to refute Bishop Berkeley, who argued that "reality" exists only in the mind, by kicking a stone. The best scientific refutation of a Berkeleyian idealism is the fact that science works, astonishingly well. Consider, for example, the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift; interferometry using the radiation of quasars billions of light-years away received at widely separated radio telescopes on Earth confirms a drift over time (inches per year) that the theory had previously supposed. One could multiply such examples ad infinatum.

Indeed, the whole of modern technology and medicine stiffens our confidence that science is successful at discovering some aspects of the real. The planet on the table, if you will. Anyone who thinks the germ theory of disease is an invention, for example, and not a discovery, can forego the use of antibiotics. I think not.

This is, of course, an endlessly interesting question, which is why I've taken the unusual tack of using the poems of Wallace Stevens to address it. We are all in it together, scientists and poets. It is not important that a scientific theory is fixed and immutable; what is important is that our theories embody "Some lineament or character,/ Some affluence, if only half-perceived,/ In the poverty of their words,/ Of the planet of which they were part."

(I'll be away tomorrow. Back Friday.)

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Little lesson -- part 2

Wallace Stevens' poems dance across the spectrum between discover and invent, sometimes becoming so recklessly inventive as to be obscure. But he never loses sight -- if barely a glimpse -- of the world outside, as it is presumed to exist by the scientist, a world independent of our understanding -- the two pears, for example, there on the green cloth, waiting to be discovered when the poet enters the room. Call it, if you will, a naïve realism, but it is central to the scientific enterprise.

Science is invented, but it is all about discovery. Maxwell and Hertz invented the theory of electromagnetic radiation, but when my short-wave radio picks up a broadcast from Russia, halfway across the globe, who will deny that the invention captures some essence of a discovered reality? For that matter, is the Earth's sphericity an invention or a discovery? I think all but the most obstinate Berkeleyian would call it a discovery.

But back to Mr. Stevens.

The very last poem in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, written shortly before the poet's death, is titled "Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself." After three decades laboring in the workshop of invention, Stevens still hankers to touch the world unmediated by mind.
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché...
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry -- It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.
Yes, the world is necessarily mediated by mind, but we always return to a simple longing for what is, for a confident repose in the real. We want to know that the pears are there when we close our eyes, that the sun is indeed outside when the window brightens on a late-winter morning. Give Stevens his scrawny cry, that scrap of perception he can savor as real, a discovery, if you will, a bird's cry that is more than merely an echoing in his mind.

But surely we want more of reality than a scrawny cry. We want the full flush of discovery, nature laid bare, not just the c but the whole choir. Tomorrow I will suggest that science is our best hope of escape from the "vast ventriloquism" of invention. And yes, we'll see more of Mr. Stevens.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Little lesson -- part 1

My colleague, theologian Greg Shaw, asked me the other day "Do scientists discover reality, or invent reality?" It is, of course, the ultimate question. Knowing Greg, I was sure he would come down on the invent side of the dichotomy.

After a lifetime of reading and reflecting on the subject, I would imagine the answer lies somewhere between the poles, but leaning optimistically toward discover.

As a start, I offer Greg this poem of Wallace Stevens, called "Study of Two Pears." Stevens wrestled long with the distinction between imagination and reality, as I have often discussed in this blog. In general, his poems are tricked out with the froufrou of invention. In "Study," untypically, he strives for what might be called scientific objectivity.
I
Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

II
They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

III
They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

IV
In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

V
The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

VI
The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.
I would translate that first line loosely as "a little lesson." A little lesson on seeing and describing the world objectively, not "as the observer wills."

The poet's usual métier is metaphor -- pears as nudes, viols, or bottles, for example -- but in this poem Stevens rejects that route. He strives to see the thing itself, unmediated by imagination. Does he succeed? Three metaphors. "Flowering." And (arguably) "touched" and "modelled."

"Citron" and "orange" as color names, of course, already imply likenesses.

So let us admit at once that to describe reality at all we must use language that evolved out of the collective social, psychological and historical experience of our species. Language is an invention, even the mathematical language of the physicist. Reality, then, mediated by language, must necessarily be an invention.

Or so it would seem. What then of discover? I'll have more to say tomorrow, on behalf of discover, again with the help of the poet.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Biography

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

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The (end of the) Age of Helvetica? -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in February 2009.)

Here is a little ad box on the Slate website. I dare say that almost anyone on the planet with access to a computer will recognize the reference to Facebook, Google and Apple.

A single letter of the alphabet is all it takes to evoke Facebook and Google. In the case of Google, it is not even the first letter of their logo.

The Google "g" is a typeface called Catull, designed by Gustav Jaeger in 1982 for the Berthold typeface foundry. The Facebook "f" is apparently based on a font from FontShop. The Apple apple takes us somewhere else, but few corporations have made such effective use of typefaces as Apple. Think of "Apple Computer Inc." (Motter Tektura), "Think different" (Apple Garamond), and "iPod" (Myriad).

Such is the magic of typefaces, that twenty-six letters can be recognizably rendered in so many ways. And such is the magic of computers that each of us has access to a virtually unlimited variety of fonts.

I love the crisp typeface (Trebuchet; or is it "tres beau, Chet"?) that Tom used for the posts on this website, black on white. No nonsense, easy to read. And his choice of typefaces for the header is smart: The "Science" font (Euclid) evokes the familiar logo of the journal Science. The "Musings" font (Bradley Hand Bold) -- well, it has a musing sort of feel, rather more private and idiosyncratic.

For my own writing I once preferred Palatino, then American Typewriter. These days I compose in Lucida Grande. I suspect the fonts trace an evolution in my relationship with my work, or perhaps in my attitude towards life. Surely by now someone has written a book analyzing a person's character and personality according to the typeface(s) and size(s) they use on their personal computer. A Palatino guy is a different person from a Lucida Grande guy. Exactly what the difference is, I will let you decide.

It would be interesting if the comments here showed up in the font of your choice. Could we recognize the usual suspects from the typeface they use to communicate?

Friday, October 05, 2012

Sounding the deep

I see by reviews that there is a just-published biography of Marie Tharp.

Marie Tharp is the Rosalind Franklin of geology.

Rosalind Franklin was the X-ray crystallographer who supplied crucial data that enabled Watson and Crick to deduce the double-helix structure of DNA. She died before the award of the Nobel Prize to Watson and Crick, and was therefore ineligible for sharing (the prize is not awarded posthumously). But I doubt if she would have been included if she had lived. Science in those days was a man's world.

Marie Tharp was recruited into oceanography by the formidable Maurice "Doc" Ewing, founder of Columbia University's Lamont Geological Observatory. In 1952 she began working with Ewing's protégé Bruce Heezen, with whom she established a close professional and personal relationship. Together they began mapping the floor of the world's oceans. Their discovery of the globe-spanning mid-ocean ridges, and especially Tharp's recognition of the rift valleys that cleave the ridge, were crucial data that led to Harry Hess's revolutionary theory of sea-floor spreading and plate tectonics in 1962.

Lordy, what a decade! The double helix in 1953. Sea-floor spreading in 1962. Cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964. OK, a decade plus one. Three sciences transformed utterly. It was thrilling to have lived through.

You can read Tharp's own account of her story here. Alas, as a woman, she lived in the shadow of Ewing and Heezen.

For me, Marie Tharp is best remembered for her big wall-sized map of the world's ocean floors, published in 1977, painted by Heinrich Berann (click to enlarge), based on thousands of soundings by various research vessels, and a smaller version of the map with earthquake epicenters and magnitudes superimposed. For several decades, I taught two one-semester general studies courses called The Earth and The Universe. Tharp's maps were in constant use when I was teaching The Earth. I reduced several sets to rags. I still have a relatively intact set upstairs somewhere.

I notice Marie Tharp's Wikipedia page is astonishingly brief. The new biography is welcome. Have things changed for women? My daughter is now director of the Core Repository at what is now the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. If you live near Palisades, NY, the Observatory's open house is tomorrow, October 6, from 10 AM to 4 PM.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The facts of life

On February 23, 1860, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal: "A fact barely stated is dry. It must be the vehicle of some humanity in order to interest us. It is like giving a man a stone when he asks you for bread…[A fact] must be warm, moist, incarnated, -- have been breathed on at least."

Thoreau's journal entries of late February 1860, near the end of his all too brief life, are, as always, full of facts -- cloud patterns, the disposition of ice on ponds, animal tracks in snow. He is writing, ostensibly, only for himself, yet the facts live and breathe on the page. We are never without a sense of the man himself, the breath in his lungs, the warmth of his blood, the moistness of the melting snowflakes on his brow. It is his passion and particularity that imbue the facts with humanity.

Thoreau never experienced a dry fact in his life. "A man has not seen a thing until he has felt it," he continues in the passage quoted above. For Thoreau, seeing and feeling were one. That's a fact that leaps, warm and moist, from every page of his journal.

I spent my young adulthood browsing Thoreau's journals, in the big, two-volume, Dover facsimile edition, four pages of a 1904 edition on every page. I was teaching physics, fresh out of graduate school, in love with rigor, in love with facts. I had spent six years being trained to see without feeling, objectively, dispassionately. And then Thoreau came tripping into my life, a long-dead mentor. Suddenly, facts became windows into feeling. Facts lost none of their importance; rather, stones became bread for the spirit.

My career took a new turn. From then on I would try to see with feeling, and communicate as best I could the dry facts of science as portals into a world of inexhaustible wonder. And always, I felt Henry at my side.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

It has not escaped our notice…

It was short and sweet, taking up no more than one page in the journal Nature. It was surely the most important scientific communications of the second half of the 20th century, the most important communication in biology since Darwin. The paper had the unprepossessing title "A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid." The authors were J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick. The date of publication: April 25, 1953.

I took high school biology in 1951-52. DNA was not mentioned. Within a decade, every respectable biology text or course had DNA front and center. The molecule of life.

You can read the Watson and Crick paper in an annotated version here. You can see that it is fairly technical. It proposes a double helix structure for the DNA molecule: sugar-phosphate railings and paired organic bases stair-treads. Only four bases: adenine, which uniquely pairs with thymine, and guanine, which uniquely pairs with cytosine. A-T. G-C.

Who, glancing at the paper, could have guessed?

Watson and Crick guessed. The colossal importance of the paper is hidden in the last sentence: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

Well, it's all history now. But mysteries remain. There's an arm's length of DNA in almost every cell of our bodies. Every time a cell reproduces, the DNA is copied. Kenneth Johnson in a recent Nature says: "However, the structural and energetic differences between the canonical Watson-Crick base pairs and mismatched base pairs are so subtle that one is left wondering how cellular machinery can catalyse DNA replication with sufficient speed and accuracy to sustain life." Add to this the infernal tangle of DNA within a cell and one wonders how life is possible at all.

But that is sure to change. In the July 12 issue of Nature, a group of researchers from the U. S., Japan, and China managed to observe a DNA repair enzyme in the act of replicating DNA. They stopped the reaction at various stages by cooling, then observed the interrupted process with X-ray crystallography.

Here is an illustration from the paper, showing the molecular machinery at work at various stages (click to enlarge). This, remember, on a scale a hundred thousand times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.

We don't have to understand the details of what's going on -- the replication, the quality control, the repair. The miracle is that it's going on at all, all the time, in every cell of every living creature on Earth. And that humans have devised the exacting skills to lay it out for our delectation.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Going flat

My wife tells me we have enough credit points on our credit card to get a free TV.

"Why do we need a new TV?" I ask.

"Because we can, I suppose."

And there it sits, sulking like an ignored child. Fifteen years old. Nineteen-inch screen. Cathode-ray tube.

Do they even make cathode-ray tube televisions any more? Do we have the last operating CRT in existence? Gee, it works swell. Not exactly high-definition, but then our eyes aren't exactly hi-def either.

I'd hate to replace our CRT with a flat screen. I know how the CRT works. I can imagine in my mind's eye the stream of electrons aimed straight at me, boiled off the cathode, nudged this way and that by voltages on horizontal and vertical deflecting plates. Smashing into the phosphor. Painting a picture one screen at a time.

In the physics lab we had a CRT with the tube exposed. We cranked up the electron gun and saw the spot in the center of the screen. We couldn't of course see the beam itself, but it was easy to know it was there. We could wave a magnet near the glass tube and see the spot dance on the screen.

That electron beam was a magic wand. With oscillators applied to the deflecting plates we could make it do whatever we wanted. Draw an oval. Lissajous.

I couldn't tell you what goes on in a flat-screen TV. All happening on a chip.

Same thing happened to cars, of course. The old days when you could twiddle with the carburetor, make the engine purr to your individual delight, are gone. Gone the cold beer and oily rag that went with cleaning the distributor points. Now, some little chip does all the tuning and distribution.

OK, I know the new is better than the old. More reliable. Sharper, faster. We'd probably be delighted with a bigger, high-def, flat-scren TV. Unfortunately, the chips don't control the content, which is increasingly banal. We hardly ever watch the damn thing, anyway.

Monday, October 01, 2012

I loaf and invite my soul…

Here I sit, in my comfy chair on the 3rd floor of the college library. I have nothing to do, really. After a lifetime of working from dawn to shut-eye, teaching, writing, I wake every morning with nothing to do, or at least nothing that needs to be done at the moment. I walk the beloved Path to college in the sweetness of dawn, have coffee and a croissant in the quiet Commons (only a few students up at this hour), then to the library.

What a joy! To be surrounded with so many books and journals. I loaf and invite my soul, to quote Walt Whitman. I dawdle. I dally. I loiter and linger. After a lifetime of teaching I have the leisure to learn.

I have nothing to do but begin my studies.
Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
An "inscription" from Whitman's Leaves of Grass, that most remarkable of documents. Anyone who does not find some part of herself or himself in Leaves of Grass has not looked deeply enough. It was Whitman's desire to "engirth" all of humanity, from our hightest spiritual aspirations right down to our nipples and navels, our gods and our gonads. But it is as a beginner of studies that I quote him here, as I drop my bag and settle into my chair. Another day with nothing to do, and a universe to help me do it,

The mere fact of consciousness could keep me all day reading. A spider! Shall I watch it until lunchtime? The colors that dance before my eyes (vision! the eye, the brain! what does the spider see?). And love. Irrepressible, uncontainable, spiritual and carnal, bursting -- gushing! -- out of this Library of America edition of Whitman's poetry and prose. I am large, I contain multitudes. What is here to attend is inexhaustible.

So much time. So little time. So much to learn. I stop, I loiter. I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.