Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The organic and inorganic

Back in the blissful, healthful, snow-and-ice-free tropics, and, as usual, everything artificial, technological, modern and convenient has borne the assault (and salt) of moisture, sun, rust, mildew and termites. It's not as bad as I make it sound, but it remains a fact that technology and the tropics are incompatible.

Only one thing has prospered in our absence: the organic. The sea lettuce, sea grape, love vine, and coco plum have burgeoned, threatening to overwhelm the property.

Jared Diamond, the Durants, Michael Adas, and others have written books trying to explain why technological civilization developed in temperate climates. Well, duh…

They should start with the first, pre-human revolution, one that occurred in the tropics where sunshine is most plentiful. Green plants! Green plants took billions of years to perfect their mastery of solar energy, creeping only reluctantly, one might suppose, north and south into more sun-starved temperate realms.

When the Industrial Revolution occurred in the north, it was powered by all that stored up solar energy –- as coal -– buried in the ground when northern continents were in more clement zones.

Meanwhile, why so little technological innovation in the tropics? Live here and you'll know. Why invent electronics when the humidity and salty air provides built-in obsolescence? Why invent something as simple as a hinge, for God's sake, when it's only going to rust?

Sure, the sunshine, warmth and balmy breezes feel good on my 77-year-old bones, but they don't do much to feed my innovative get-up-and-go. Who needs modern civilization when you're lolling under a shady palm, pace Jared Diamond? But it would be nice to have a cold beer, and right now I'm dealing with a fridge that's on the blink. That may be another reason technological civilization didn't develop in the tropics: Nothing inorganic lasts long enough to make the effort worthwhile.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Pumpkins and velvet cushions

Last evening, just at sunset, the sky in the east, over the sea, was filled with a towering cumulous cloud of Maxfield Parrish rose and gold, struck through with a short arc of vivid rainbow. We stood on the terrace, transfixed, wondering what we had done to deserve so rich a gift.

Thoreau famously wrote: "The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it." This cloud castle, this spectral palace, was free. Not only did we not exchange life for it, our store of life was augmented.

Thoreau is someone to admire, but a hard prophet to follow. Not many of us are willing to live alone in the woods, sponging off the neighbors. Like Thoreau, I would rather sit on a pumpkin than a velvet cushion, but I'd rather sit on a cotton cushion than a pumpkin.

Life has been a negotiation between things and –- well, life. Lots of cotton cushions, but never at the expense of selling my happiness for velvet. I've got my Timex and never wanted a Rolex. Thoreau, no doubt, told the time by the shadows of the pines.

I'm not poor-mouthing. I have far more things than most people in the world, far more than necessary, so many in fact that as I get older they are becoming increasingly burdensome. But I don't recall ever exchanging what Thoreau called life for what I have. Good luck, I suppose. And to top it all off, the eternal physical laws of reflection and refraction contrive for our benefit an evening sky of such cottony magnificence not to be exchanged for all the velvet in the world.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The indirect object

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Vital dust -- a Saturday reprise

That's what Nobel Prize-winning biologist Christian de Duve titled his book on the origin and evolution of life: Vital Dust His title reminds us that we live in a sea of invisible spores swimming on the wind. We breathe these seeds of life in and out with every breath. Rusts. Smuts. Molds. Mildews. Mosses. Mushrooms. Ferns.

Given the quantity and variety of airborne reproductive germs, it might seem likely that our lungs would become gardens of foreign organisms -- the invasion of the body snatchers. But that's not quite the way it works. Most airborne spores must alight in a highly specific environment if they are to bear fruit.

Consider, for example, the cedar-apple rust. Here is a photograph I took yesterday of a mysterious apparition on a cedar tree along my Path -- the tentacled fruiting bodies of cedar apple rust, caused by the fungus Gymnosporangium jumiperi-virginianae.

The life cycle of this curious organism "starts" in the springtime, on an apple tree. Small yellow dots develop on the underside of the leaves shortly after the tree comes into bloom. The yellow spots gradually enlarge and become orange. In late summer, small tubes grow on the lower leaf surface near the orange spots, and brown spots may develop on fruit.

The orange spots release spores that are distributed by the wind. If -- and only if! -- they land on a cedar tree, they germinate and put out tubes that penetrate the tiny leaves. By some chemical magic, these tubes cause the growth of fleshy, reddish-brown galls, called cedar apples, about the size of a grape. The development of the galls and the maturing of the fungus within them require nearly two years from the time of infection.

Then, during wet weather in May, the galls put out the long orange tentacles, slimy and gelatinous, that you see in my photograph. These release spores of a different sort, which make their way by random breezes back to an apple tree. The cedar and the apple are necessary alternate hosts to the fungal parasite. All those spores, at different stages of the fungus's life cycle, wafting back and forth on the wind, utterly dependent upon making a lucky landing on a specific plant.

You'd have to see a cedar tree full of these otherworldly orange-tentacled galls to dream that such a thing could exist. After I had taken my photograph, I stood there on the path shaking my head in astonishment. Vital dust, indeed!

(This post originally appeared in May 2007.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Sailing to the Moon

It's like fishing in the dark.
Our thoughts are the hooks,
Our hearts the new bait.
And so, China has soft-landed a rover on the Moon. A splendid achievement of which that nation must be very proud. I'm proud too, for humankind.

I think of what Thomas Merton wrote in Thoughts in Solitude, at a time when some far-seeing rocket scientists were considering the real possibility of going to our sister satellite: "What can we gain by sailing to the moon, if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves."

I've read much of what Merton wrote, and at least one biography. Did he succeed in crossing his personal abyss. You tell me.

Certainly he seems to have achieved a degree of self-knowledge that I have not obtained. At seventy-seven I lay awake at night contemplating the abyss, the dark wood, the chasm. What I wouldn't give for the sleep of the just, without the futile worries, the wearisome self-doubt, the hoo-has.

I wonder if the abyss of which Merton speaks in in fact uncrossable. Certainly, consciousness is a mystery yet to be unraveled, and that must include self-consciousness. Are there dimensions of ourselves that are intrinsically beyond our grasp, stirring down there in the opaque pool of the subconscious? Are the dark woods part of our being? Does the abyss rive our very hearts?

Maybe the secret to sleeping the sleep of the just is not to bridge the abyss, but to accept it.
The hook left dangling
In the abyss.

(The quoted lines are from a poem of Charles Simic, "Mystic Life".)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Binding energy

A week or two ago I wrote about rust. Iron oxide. OK. It's a nuisance where we find it; it can be beautiful on the microscale.

But iron. Let me say a few words about iron, an element so ubiquitous it is inconspicuous, hiding in plain sight.

It's the element that brought us out of the Stone Age (after a brief fling with copper). We are still in the Iron Age. Or should we call it the Steel Age? It's hard to imagine a modern technological world without iron.

The grey eminence. The stalwart foot-soldier. Mister Make-it.

If you take the whole Earth, core and all, iron is the most abundant element. It is the fourth most abundant element in the Earth's crust (after oxygen, silicon and aluminum). Why so much iron in a universe that is mostly hydrogen and helium? Why does Mister 26 stand out?

There's a reason. Iron is the heaviest stable element created by fusion in very large, very hot stars. Remember my diagram not long ago showing how hydrogen is fused into helium in the cores of stars. As the process continues, helium nuclei are fused into ever heavier elements, generating yet more energy. Up to iron. After iron, the game goes the other way; instead of getting energy out, you gotta put energy in.

Here is the detailed explanation from Wikipedia. Read it just for the joy of it.
The process starts with the second largest stable nucleus created by silicon burning, which is calcium. One stable nucleus of calcium fuses with one helium nucleus, creating unstable titanium. Before the titanium decays, it can fuse with another helium nucleus, creating unstable chromium. Before the chromium decays, it can fuse with another helium nucleus, creating unstable iron. Before the iron decays, it can fuse with another helium nucleus, creating unstable nickel-56. Any further fusion of nickel-56 consumes energy instead of producing energy, so after the production of nickel-56, the star does not produce the energy necessary to keep the core from collapsing. Eventually, the nickel-56 decays to unstable cobalt-56, which in turn decays to stable iron-56. When the core of the star collapses, it creates a supernova.
Kablooie!! A big star blows itself apart and feeds iron into the interstellar medium. Out of which new stars are born. Eventually our Sun and its attendant planets.

Oh, there's more to the story; for example, why the inner planets lost most of their hydrogen and helium. But we'll leave that for another place or another time. Meanwhile, we beat our iron into swords, and plowshares, and automobiles, and skyscrapers. Every one of those atoms churned out in the cores of giant short-lived stars that lived and died in a younger universe before the Earth was born.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

We meet in the air

Click to enlarge Anne's Christmas illumination.

And very best holiday wishes to all who visit here.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Turning woe to weal

I've been sitting on the porch reading Mary Sharratt's novel of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century German mystic/polymath, perhaps the most famous woman in Europe at the time. She is still widely known today. Her writings have been especially embraced by feminists, New Agers, and even environmentalists. Religious naturalists, too, for her pantheistic tendencies.

Perhaps as early as the age of eight. Hildegard was sealed into a cell-like enclosure attached to the abbey church at Disibodenberg, as a companion to the willing anchorite Jutta. A living death as the bride of Christ. For decades, she never moved beyond the confines of that grim tomb, she who as a girl so loved the natural world.

I'll not recount here the story of her escape and long life as a holy woman who spoke truth to authority.

I can, however, relate to her story (quite aside from the fact that her feast day is my birthday). The theology of bodily mortification, fasting, and surrender was still very much alive in the Church of my youth. For a few terrible years I embraced it with a vengeance. And then, like Hildegard, I emerged into the light.

Now I sit here on the porch watching the hummingbird at the feeder. Sip. Swallow. Sip. Swallow. Its wings a whirring canticle of delight. Hildegard would have looked on with fascination too. She was, of course, a theist, as one would expect for someone of her time and place. But her Feminine Divine beat her wings in the hummingbird's tiny frame.
For she is terrible with the terror of the avenging lightning, and gentle with the goodness of the bright sun; and both her terror and her gentleness are incomprehensible to humans…But she is with every one and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them in inscrutable mercy.
Sip. Swallow. Sip. Swallow. That racing metabolism. That insatiable thirst for sugar, for that miniscule furnace of respiration.
You cannot look at her face or her garments for the splendor with which she shines.

Monday, December 23, 2013

"In a dark time, the eye begins to see"

Back to clear dark skies. Not as clear or as dark as when we came here 19 years ago, built Starlight House, and settled in for golden years of sky-watching. The airport got lights for nighttime operation. The Queen's Highway got street lights (of the worst kind for light pollution). And the new Four Seasons/Sandals resort, five miles north of our house, is all lit up so their customers couldn't see a star if they wanted to. But by comparison to our home near Boston, our little island is still an oasis of darkness.

Here's a recent APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) showing one of the most familiar star configurations in the sky -- Orion's Belt. Three hot blue stars, each vastly more massive than the Sun. That's them running diagonally across the photograph from upper left to lower right (click to enlarge). Nothing else in the photo is visible to the unaided eye.

What a mess of stars! And nebulae where even now stars are being born. There's the famous Horsehead Nebula standing out against the pink glow of hydrogen at lower right. How many stars? Go ahead. Count.

No, just kidding. If you started counting with a magnifying glass you'd be at it all day. And this is just a wee corner of our galaxy.

I'm sure I've mentioned here before that when I used to teach a course called The Universe to general studies students one of my set pieces was to push back the desks and use a one-pound box of salt to make a model of our spiral galaxy on the floor. The students were always dazzled at the number of stars. Then came the kicker. Let's figure out how many boxes of salt we'd need to have the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way. I'd guide the students to a few judicious estimates, averaged for the class. Ten thousand boxes of salt! Sprinkled in a vast spiral as big as the orbit of the Moon. (If a salt grain were proportional to the actual size of a typical star, the grains should be thousands of feet apart.)

As often as I did that demonstration, I was as awe-struck as the students. And now, I lie on the terrace and gaze up into a warm, clear, dark sky, Orion climbing the inky dark in the East, and with a lifetime of practice I fill in the blank spaces with those myriads of stars we see in the APOD photo.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Young stars

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The stages of prayer -- a Saturday reprise

I try not to repeat myself too often here, but some repetition is inevitable. Having published millions of words in books, articles, newspaper columns and blog, I sometimes wonder if I have anything at all left to say. Perhaps now, on the sixth anniversary of this blog, it's time to just shut up.

Previously, here and in When God Is Gone, I quoted the "five stages of prayer" that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge jotted down in his journal:

First stage -- the pressure of immediate calamities without earthly aidence makes us cry out to the Invisible.

Second stage -- the dreariness of visible things to a mind beginning to be contemplative -- horrible Solitude.

Third stage -- Repentance & Regret -- & self-inquietude.

Fourth stage -- The celestial delectation that follows ardent prayer.

Fifth stage -- Self-annihilation -- the Soul enters the Holy of Holies.

Which I translated like this:

First stage -- Help!

Second stage -- Here I am!

Third stage -- Oh my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee...

Fourth stage -- Gee! -- followed by -- Wow!

Fifth stage -- silent attention.

Which pretty much summarizes my own religious evolution.

I should by now have reached the fifth, silent stage. The essayist Pico Iyer says: "Silence is the tribute that we pay to holiness; we slip off words when we enter a scared place, just as we slip off shoes." But perhaps I'm not there yet. I find myself still saying "Gee!" and "Wow!", which is pretty much all I do on this blog. So I might as well keep doing it for a while longer -- until I find the Holy of Holies.

(This post originally appeared in 2010.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Take a card. Any card.

I've been blogging here for almost ten years. Imagine each post written on an ordinary playing card. The pile would be nearly a meter tall.

If the thickness of a card represents one day, my life so far would be a stack as tall as the top of the chimney on my two-story house.

All of recorded history? A stack of cards as tall as the tallest man-made structure on Earth, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

A stack of cards the age of the Earth would reach to the Moon.

The age of the universe would wrap around the Earth thirty times.

Hold a playing card between your thumb and forefinger: a day in your life. Now think about a pile of cards that would wrap around the Earth thirty times. That's the difference between human time and cosmic time. We're each allotted a deck of cards, each one a tick of cosmic time. We play our cards.

I just played a card. It hardly rippled the cosmos. The trick is to believe it matters locally.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Putting things in bottles -- a Saturday reprise

Summer nights in Tennessee in the 1940s. We kids ran up and down the sloping front lawn chasing fireflies. Lightnin' bugs, we called them. They flickered in the darkness like fluid constellations. We caught them up in our hands and put them in bottles, sometimes two or three dozen to the jar. We thought to make lanterns. Heaven knows what amatory anguish our glass prisons caused the fireflies, all those males -- I assume they were males -- blinking away in close confines, horny as hell in a bioluminescent way. Eventually, of course, we let them go, once we realized their light was useless.

Other creatures, other bottles.

Homemade ant farms. A Mason jar filled with sandy loam scooped up from anthills, ants and all. I don't recall any memorable arthropodal architectural, just a bunch of ants milling about waiting for release. Not so much a farm as a frenzied formicary of frustration.

But -- ah! -- the luna moths. The size of our hands. Plucked from the garage wall and dropped into wide-mouthed jars. Drop-dead gorgeous. Mysteriously sensual. Even a six-year-old knew there was something lush and lascivious about these unwilling prisoners. We kept them in the jars for a day or two -- waiting for what? Something magical and forbidden. Our parents usually talked us into letting them go.

Walking sticks. Chrysalises. Daddy-longlegs. Ladybugs. Newts. Each took their turn in our transparent slammers. I wonder what, if anything, we learned? Maybe a little natural history. Maybe something about biological diversity. Maybe something about freedom, confinement, and the milk of human kindness.

(This post originally appeared in October 2009.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Happy as kings

In a few days I will make the transition to Exuma, our island in the sun. As usual, I'll be anxious to see what damage we've sustained from the two banes of island existence –- termites and rust.

Who can love termites or rust?

Oh, wait. Have you ever seen a termite up close? I mean, really close? As with a scanning electron microscope (SEM)? Take a look at the creepy-crawlies here. How can one not love even the most insidious insect when you see the astounding complexity of a fly's eye, or a termite's chewing mouth parts. The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings. (Who said that? Give me a minute; it'll come to me.)

OK, OK, a termite up close is a thing of beauty. But rust? Rust is rust. A shiny piece of metal –- a handle on the stove, a hinge on the door, the wheels on the terrace loungers - – goes all ugly. More work to do, things to replace.

And just when the sanding and painting and replacing begin to haunt my anticipations, along comes this cover of Science:

Guess what we are looking at? Rust! Iron oxide on painted metal. Up close. SEM close. A patch of surface smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. (Click to enlarge.)

Like an invisibly small rose garden. Those tiny platelets as delicate as petals. Its own astonishing complexity. Its own rare and exquisite beauty.

We stumble around in this world like galoots with other whole universes –- the very big, the very small –- unseen around us. Give the scientific way of knowing this: It has revealed worlds unseen, worlds in which we swim all unawares..

Oh, yeah. Robert Lewis Stevenson. He got that one right.

(I'll be in transition early next week. Back as soon as I can.)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pillars of the faith -- Part 2

Let me turn briefly to another essay in Pillar, by John Cavadini, a professor of theology at Notre Dame, the gist of which is that old canard: Science (or "scientific fundamentalism") takes all the mystery out of the world.

He quotes Stephen Hawking's recent book, The Grand Design, to the effect that the true miracle is the power of the human brain to predict and describe the universe we see. In other words, says Cavadini, "once the universe has been disenchanted of illusions, the only thing left to wonder at is the theory that explained them all…[T]he wonder is transferred, as prestige, to the scientists as a cultural elite who can explain everything without ever looking beyond the doors of the College of Science."

This doesn't describe the science I spent my life studying and teaching, or the scientists I have known.

Certainly, science has disenchanted illusions. We no longer believe that comets are signs from God, or that pathogenic diseases are targeted divine scourges, or that fossils on mountaintops are the result of the Flood of Noah, etc. etc. I would hope that my students took a certain amount of pride in the power of the human brain to disenchant illusions, and that some of them carried a healthy skepticism and respect for science into their adult lives.

And mystery? I have often suggested here that the greatest discovery of modern science is the discovery of ignorance, of how little we know -- a thought, by the way, that is hardly unique to me. Scientific knowledge is like an island in an inexhaustible sea of mystery; the larger the island grows, the greater is the shoreline where we encounter mystery. I never discussed religion in my science courses, but I do hope I communicated a sense of reverence and awe in the presence of the astounding wonderfulness of nature.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Pillars of the faith

I've spent most of my adult life in the company of men of the Congregation of Holy Cross, a Roman Catholic community of priests and brothers with missions in education and service to the world's poorest. It has been a rewarding association. By my experience, the CSCs are an extraordinary group of men, and I've profited greatly from my friendships.

The congregation puts out a periodic in-house magazine/newsletter called Pillars, and the current issue is devoted to the relationship between religion and science. I can't resist comment.

The theme-setting essay begins, as usual, with reference to the "unfortunate" Galileo affair, then turns to Darwin and evolution (with the mandatory mention of the Catholic monk Gregor Mendel). The Church, we are told, has come to terms with heliocentrism and common descent. Church teaching does not require us to believe in any sort of supernatural suspension of the laws of nature or intrusion into natural processes, argues the author of the essay. God does not act in competition with natural processes, but "in hidden unseen ways within them." What is essential to retain is "our fundamental religious conviction and experience that God is the ultimate source of all things."

Well, fine. One can't argue with that. If that's all there is to it then there can't be much of a conflict between science and faith. I could come home to the Church with only a modest silencing of doubt. But that's not all there is to it. As usual, the author steers clear of real conflicts that are not so easily waved away with the glib assertion that science and religion focus on different aspects of reality.

The Creed, for example, is chockablock with conflicts.

Consider just one aspect of the Creed that would seem to be so fundamental to traditional religion that it's hard to see what is the point without it: personal immortality, with its attendant eternal reward or punishment. Here science and religion are clearly addressing the same aspect of reality, and science has discovered a huge amount about what makes a personal self. If science accounts for anything with even a modest degree of certainty, it is the inseparability of self and the living material body.

And what's the response of the believer? There can be no conflict if immortality is "properly understood," they say, but we are never told what that proper understanding might be. We are also told that God acts in mysterious ways available only to the eyes of faith, which seems to contradict the idea that God only acts through natural processes, not in contradiction to them.

I have no problem with those who chose to believe in personal immortality against all evidence; I'd like to believe it myself. And I'll be the first to admit that science is amendable and doesn't know everything. But let's not pretend there's no conflict. We either ignore the conflict or we don't.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Part II - Philosophy

Take another look at yesterday's diagram (from my Biography of a Planet). It's hard to imagine another half-page of notebook paper that could tell you more about the universe that's worth knowing. So blow it up to poster size and put it on the classroom wall. This is what makes stars burn. This is why the universe is not dark and dead. This is the source of your corn flakes. This is the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

And you ask: How do we know what's going on at the center of the Sun, 93 million miles away and half-a-million miles down inside that roiling sphere?

1) If not this, then we don't know what.

2) We know this works. This is what happens when a hydrogen bomb explodes. Physicists are working hard to create a controlled version on Earth.

3) The numbers all work out.


5) And the kicker. Back to the diagram. See those two neutrinos I didn't mention before. What happens to them? They have no charge. Hardly any mass. They rarely interact with more ordinary matter. In their staggering (but calculable) numbers they fly up and out of the Sun in every direction, barely impeded by a half-million miles of hydrogen and helium. Eight minutes after their creation, a hurricane of neutrinos intercepts the Earth -- and flies right through. Tillions per second penetrate your body. Nothing stops them. Well, almost nothing. Colossal neutrino detectors deep underground snag a few. A calculable few. A direct "look" at the very heart of the Sun.

And so we know. A collective of human brains has figured it out. Meat against mystery. Neurons versus neutrinos. Synapses versus sunshine. Men and women of every faith, politics and ethnicity have pooled their intelligence to understand whence the grain of sand and the flower in the crannied wall.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Part I -- Physics

The Sun is mostly a big ball of hydrogen, a million miles in diameter, held together by gravity.

A hydrogen atom is a positively charged proton and a negatively charged electron, held together by electrical attraction. The proton (the nucleus of the hydrogen atom) is 2000 times more massive than the electron.

It is so hot at the center of he Sun -- that huge weight crushing down -- that the atomic electrons and protons can't hang together. So instead of atoms, there is a furious sea of electrons and protons careening about.

Two protons approach each other, and what happens? They swerve apart. Particles of the same electrical charge repel. But the hotter it is, the faster they move, and the closer they get before they are repelled. If they get close enough, something dramatic happens.

There is another force in nature, called the strong nuclear force, that holds protons and neutrons together. It is stronger than the electrical force, but has a very short range. If two protons get close enough, instead of being mutually repelled, they are clamped together. This happens at the center of a star where the temperature reaches 10 million degrees.

When two protons bind, one throws off its positive charge as a positron -- an anti-electron -- and becomes a neutron. The positron soon meets its anti-matter partner, an electron, and the two annihilate each other in a flash of energy.

Meanwhile, the proton-neutron pair meets another proton and the strong nuclear force welds them together -- two protons and a neutron. This entity meets another of the same, sheds two protons, and becomes a helium nucleus -- two protons and two neutrons.

Hydrogen into helium. Here is the diagram (from Biography of a Planet).

Now let's do the bookkeeping. Weigh the six protons and two electrons that go into the process. Weigh the helium nucleus and two protons coming out. The latter weigh slightly less than the former. Mass has vanished from the universe. In its place: energy. A lot of energy. E=mc2, where c is the speed of light.

Every second, at its hot core, the Sun converts 657 million tons of hydrogen into 653 million tons of helium, by nuclear fusion. The missing 4 million tons of mass are converted into energy. How much: 4 million tons times the speed of light squared. The energy makes its way to the Sun's surface where it is hurled into space as heat and light. The Earth intercepts about one two-billionth of this energy, or about four pounds worth of the Sun's vanished matter every second. The Sun never misses so slight a fraction of its huge bulk, but for the Earth it is the difference between day and night. And winter and spring.

More tomorrow.

Sunday, December 08, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Musing in retirement -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in November 2009.)

I'm often asked if I miss teaching, which after more than forty years in the classroom is a reasonable question. The answer, generally, is no. Now that the pension checks appear in the bank each month, I'm happy to spend my time learning rather than teaching. The next question, I suppose, is why learning? Why bother stuffing more stuff into the head when...when it's all going to evaporate soon? Well, because I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing.

But back to teaching: Do I miss it? Only occasionally. Like yesterday morning when the image above was the APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day): a view of Earth from the third flyby of the European Rosetta spacecraft on its ten-year journey to a rendezvous with Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014.

A breathtaking picture. And, as they say, a teachable moment.

I'd love to project this image onto a huge screen in a darkened classroom, and then spend an hour talking about it. Not lecturing. Just asking questions.

For example, the APOD text says we are looking at "a bright crescent phase [of the Earth] featuring the South Pole to the passing rocket ship." Presumably they mean the white mass at the bottom center of the crescent is Antarctica. Can that be right?

Time to get out the 16-inch globe. Where is the Sun? A spotlight will serve. Now let's reproduce the crescent. The flyby was in mid-November; what was the orientation of the Earth relative to the Sun? Can we find the image's time of day on the ESA (European Space Agency) website? Let's sort out exactly what we are looking at.

Here's a closer look at the crescent (click to enlarge the pics). Notice the illuminated cloud tops in the shadow at bottom right. How high are they? Can we work it out? Sure. All we need to know is the diameter of the Earth. A few measurements off the screen and a big sketch on the blackboard will do the trick. This is how Galileo estimated the height of mountains on the Moon.

Etc. Etc.

Some years ago, Eric Hirsch published a A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Our Children Need to Know, a compendium of core knowledge that he believes kids should acquire by the time they enter junior high school. The chapters on science list 442 terms, from acid to x-ray. It's a good list, but, as Hirsch would surely be the first to acknowledge, a vocabulary is not a sufficient basis for scientific literacy. What is required is a gut feeling for how the world works and our place in it. And a sense of wonder.

That's what I miss about teaching. Give me an image of the crescent Earth looming -- breathtakingly -- in a darkened classroom and I'll do my very best to send a student's imagination hurtling through space into a universe that is deep and vast beyond our present knowing. Once you've caught the virus of wanting to know, the 442 vocabulary terms will come along in their own good time.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Paring the paranormal

The physicists and cosmologists tell us that the universe consists of 5% ordinary matter (the kind of stuff your chair is made of), 27% dark matter (massy stuff of a yet undetermined nature), and 68% dark energy (also yet unidentified). Dark matter and dark energy are hypothesized to exist because of their apparent effects on luminous objects -- stars and galaxies.

Which is to say, most of what is is invisible.

It's sort of like hypothesizing the existence of poltergeists to account for moving candlesticks.

With a difference. Weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) and axions -- the two strongest contenders for dark matter -- will only be admitted to the realm of the real if they can be empirically detected. In both cases, this requires a rather heroic experiment. You can be sure that physicists are doing their best to make the supposed culprits reveal themselves. There are reports on the current state of affairs in the 1 November issue of Science.

Some folks would say that the difference between WIMPs and poltergeists are not as great as I make them out to be. OK, the candle moved, but what about the neighbor who reported hearing a spooky sound the same evening, or the "ghost-buster" (reasonable fee) who claims to have captured an aura on his infrared camera?

Do WIMPs and poltergeists then have equal claim on reality? Not quite. Every claim for detection of a WIMP or axion will (has been) subjected to repeated scrutiny. Every claim must be reproducible by believers and skeptics alike. Consensus is the goal. When the WIMP champions concede to the axioners, or vise versa, then we begin to say that nature is revealing the real.

Tentatively. For the time being. And in the meantime, scientists will work to make the bonds that hold experiment and theory together as resilient as possible.

These are constraints that poltergeists have never met.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Minding my Ps and Qs

Thanks to my friend Bob Goulet for putting me onto two articles in the New Republic by Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the NR. They are well worth reading, here and here.

It is an old battle, between the sciences and the humanities, here fought by two lefties who are equally smart and articulate.

"The worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science," writes Pinker, and one can feel the hair rise on the humanist's neck.

Pinker suggests (among other things) that science is characterized by a commitment to two ideals: the world is intelligible, and the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The first principle is essential for science; less so for the humanities. The second principle is sure to drive any humanist up the wall. No wonder Wieseltier comes out swinging.

"Some scientists and some scientizers feel prickly and self-pitying about the humanistic insistence that there is more to the world than science can disclose," growls Wieseltier; "It is not enough for them that the humanities recognize and respect the sciences; they need the humanities to submit to the sciences, and be subsumed by them."

"Sophocles and Tacitus and Augustine and Milton and Gibbon and Keats and Tocqueville and Emerson and Mill and Dickens and Mann and Stevens and Auerbach and Camus and Panofsky and Miłosz" are not made redundant by scientific progress, says Wieseltier. "There are moments when there is nothing more urgent than the defense of what has already been accomplished," he writes.

Ah, this scrap could go on forever. It is probably clear to readers of this blog which contender in the slugfest I lean towards. But I think the best indication of my view is where I sit just now, as I type these words, in my comfy chair in the college library, halfway between the Ps and Qs. Dante and Einstein are equally at hand. I am blissfully unaware of any tension between the sciences and the humanities, and I trust that my posts here have drawn equally from both wells.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Who's tops? Whose tops?

Who were the greatest scientists of all time? I've tackled this question before (I'll get to that in a minute), but for the moment let's consider a new book by Steven Skiena and Charles Ward, Who's Bigger: Where Historical Figures Really Rank, as discussed at length in the 1 December Boston Globe.

Skiena and Ward used Wikipedia as their criteria: the length of a person's entry, how often it's viewed, how often edited, and the number of links to that page from the pages of others of significance. That is to say: Who from the past is garnering the most attention at the present?

No. 1: Jesus. No. 2:Napoleon. No. 3: Mohammed. The first scientist pops in at No. 12: Charles Darwin, possibly helped along by being the bugbear of the religious right. Einstein enters at No. 19. And Newton at 21. That does it for scientists in the top 25. Not too shabby.

A few years ago I ranked here seven scientists initially chosen by Boston's Museum of Science. Unlike the Museum, I put Darwin in top place. I wrote:
And, in 1st place, in a stunning upset, turning the museum's ranking on its ear: Charles Darwin. He did not invent or discover evolution. The idea was in the air. Alfred Russell Wallace proposed a theory of biological evolution by natural selection simultaneously with Darwin. However, Darwin not only stated a theory, he marshaled an irresistible display of evidence in its favor, gathered by decades of patient observation, and in so doing established the legitimacy of historical sciences. No other scientific idea has so radically altered our understanding of ourselves. This is the great Darwinian truth: We are not lords of the universe, plunked down into a garden established for our benefit, to be used or despoiled at our pleasure. We are flowers of the garden, inextricably part of the seamless web of life.
Newton wasn't among the Museum's seven, but I was happy to accept Galileo in his place. Einstein made the Museum's list, and didn’t do too bad on mine, although the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world was not dramatically changed by his work.

Earlier, I had hazarded a guess for the greatest American-born scientist. I wonder if Willard Gibbs showed up at all in Skiena and Ward's book? They used both "celebrity" and "gravitas" as criteria. Gibbs was/is all gravitas and no celebrity.

(I'll be away tomorrow.)

Monday, December 02, 2013


It was certainly one of the saddest episodes in our nation's history; the sacking of Washington by the British in 1814. Most public buildings went up in smoke, including the Capitol and President's House. The north wing of the Capitol housed the Library of Congress, three thousand volumes of history, law and classics meant to help Congress govern wisely and well. Fuel for the conflagration.

The largest personal library in America was Thomas Jefferson's, at Monticello: six thousand volumes. The 71-year-old Jefferson had intended to give the nation his library upon his death. Shocked by the burning of Washington (and in need of cash), he now offered Congress nearly his entire collection for $23,950. Ten wagonloads of books made their way to Washington.

Not everyone in Congress was happy, and not only about the cost. Too many books in foreign languages. Too much philosophy. Too many books of objectionable content, including the works of Voltaire. And who needed all that science that Mister Jefferson had so assiduously collected?

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Outside in

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Silence and speech -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in October 2010.)

The poet Jane Hirshfield was last evening's guest of the college. As I read her work in anticipation of the visit, I found myself thinking of Rainer Maria Rilke, and in particular of the Duino Elegies, among my favorite poems.

"Does a poem enlarge the world,/ or only our idea of the world?" asks Hirshfield in one of her poems. She wrestles with the central paradox of artistic creation, a paradox that also concerned Rilke.

I recall reading somewhere that the painter Wassily Kandinsky could be transfixed, enraptured, by the sight of a collar button in the gutter. It is the nature of the artistic temperament to be acutely sensitive to the isness of things, what the photographer Edward Weston called "the thing itself." Hirshfield has a poem about a button ("It is its own story, completed," she writes). A button, a spoon, a blue mug. Tapioca, peaches, toast. The enrapturing insistence of the thing that exists independently of the artist who perceives it, even though we know that a thing cannot even be known to exist except in its perception. Still, the painter must paint and the poet must write because that too is part of the artistic temperament, but always there is an awareness of the unbridgeable distance between the thing and the expression of the thing.

"Why is it so difficult to speak simply?" asks Hirshfield in a poem. And in the very next poem she lets another artist answer:
"If you wish to move your reader,"
Chekhov wrote, "you must write more coldly."
Hirshfield continues:
And so at the center of many great works
is found a preserving dispassion,
like the vanishing point of quattrocentro perspective,
or the tiny packets of desiccant enclosed
in a box of new shoes or seeds."
One cannot, however, so easily escape the paradox:
But still the vanishing point
is not the painting,
the silica is not the blossoming plant.
"Only when I am quiet for a long time," writes Hirshfield, "and do not speak/ do the objects of my life draw near." Near, yes, but always that irreducible gap, that disquieting lacuna inviting the pronoun I.

Of course, what Hirshfield is dealing with here is not just the problem of artistic creation, but really the central problem of philosophy. How do we know? And how do we know that we know? What is the relation of the perceived particular -- in all of its redolent, enrapturing isness -- to the abstract general? How can we grasp the thing itself without the intrusion of the transformational I?

Silence and speech: These are the mutually annihilating qualities that define our humanness.

"Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate?" asks Rilke in the Ninth Duino Elegy. And Hirshfield:
I look at my unhandy hand,
Shaped as the hands of others are shaped.
Even the pen it holds is a mystery, really.

Rawhide, it writes,
and chair, and marble.
That is to say, to say. But Rilke adds: "But for saying, remember, oh, for such saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be."
Praise the world to the Angel, not the untellable; you
can't impress him with the splendor you've felt; in the cosmos
where he more feelingly feels you're only a novice. So show him some simple thing, refashioned by age after age, till it lives in our hands and eyes as a part of ourselves.
Tell him things.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A close shave?

Newton said: "Nature spurns the pomp of the superfluous."

It is a concise summation of Ockham's razor, and if anyone wielded the razor to good effect it was Newton. In one broad swipe he united planets, comets, tides, cannon shots, and apples falling from trees. A few sweet, spare equations. No feathers, no frills. No pomp and circumstance.

I can't remember the name of the professor who taught my graduate course in classical mechanics. But I remember the course vividly. Like a textbook on the blackboard. 1.0, 1.01, 1.02, 2.0, 2.01, 2.02, 2.03, 2.031… Exquisitely organized. Not a superfluous mark of chalk. As spare and essentially furnished as a monk's cell.

As I started teaching, I emulated my professor. I wanted my students to appreciate the way nature could accomplish her manifest ends with a minimum of tools. And so my courses unfolded with an admirable economy, and the students transcribed the notes from the blackboard with the same unblinking fidelity with which I had done so in graduate school. I spurned the superfluous.

They were beautiful courses, if I don't say so myself.

But meanwhile I was changing. I was beginning to doubt Newton's dictum. Nature seemed to love the pomp of the superfluous. Everywhere I looked there was excess, baroque frills -- feathers, finery, variety. Out of sparseness, nature contrives inexhaustible pomp. Where sparrows would do, she adds herons, and nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers, and a rainforest full of species I have never heard of. Her innovations are prodigious.

And slowly my understanding of myself as a teacher began to change. More in line with Booker T. Washington: "Without pay or little thought of it, I taught anyone who wanted to learn anything I could teach him." Classical mechanics, yes. But nuthatches too. Stars and sand. Dark matter and zodiacal light. Spider silk and silken words. Always trying to stay a few steps ahead of my students, saying: "Look, look, look."

Should I have spurned the superfluous? Or was I right to embrace the pomp? My life was richer because of the latter, but my appreciation of nature's fecundity was stiffened by beginning with the former. How my students' lives were affected is for them to say.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


On this Thanksgiving Day, thanks to Anne, for her weekly gifts of art (click to enlarge). And Tom, for inspiring this online journal ten years ago, and making it work.

And especially, thanks to all of you on the porch -- for your wisdom, intelligence, civility and sense of fun.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Criteria for truth

The physicists and cosmologists tell us that the universe consists of 5% ordinary matter (the kind of stuff your chair is made of), 27% dark matter (massy stuff of a yet undetermined nature), and 68% dark energy (also yet unidentified). Dark matter and dark energy are hypothesized to exist because of their apparent effects on luminous objects -- stars and galaxies.

Which is to say, most of what is is invisible.

It's sort of like hypothesizing the existence of poltergeists to account for moving candlesticks.

With a difference. Weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) and axions -- the two strongest contenders for dark matter -- will only be admitted to the realm of the real if they can be empirically detected. In both cases, this requires a rather heroic experiment. You can be sure that physicists are doing their best to make the supposed culprits reveal themselves. There are reports on the current state of affairs in the 1 November issue of Science.

Some folks would say that the difference between WIMPs or axions and poltergeists are not as great as I make them out to be. OK, the candlestick moved, but what about the neighbor who reported hearing a spooky sound the same evening, or the "ghost-buster" (reasonable fees) who claims to have captured an aura on his infrared camera? Doesn't that count as empirical verification?

Not quite. Every claim for detection of a WIMP or axion will (or has been) subjected to repeated scrutiny. Every claim must be reproducible by believers and skeptics alike. Consensus is the goal. When the WIMP champions concede to the axioners, or vise versa, then we'll begin to say that nature is revealing the real.

Tentatively. And in the meantime, physicists and cosmologists work to make the bonds that hold experiment and theory together as resilient as possible.

These are constraints that poltergeists – or UFOs, or astrology, or ESP, or petitionary prayer -- have yet to meet.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Memento mori

I read in the paper this morning that a Body Worlds exhibit is opening for the holiday season at Boston's Quincy Market, ground zero for family shopping and tree lighting ceremonies, This is one of those exhibits of flayed and displayed real human cadavers, in lifelike poses, showing muscles, tendons, blood vessels, nerves, organs, bones, and so on, all preserved in infused plastic. Real human corpses. It all seems a little incongruous, with sleighbells ringing and children singing and Santas going Ho, Ho, Ho. Plasticized cadavers and body parts have previously been exhibited at The Museum of Science, which seems a more appropriate venue, but what do I know.

All of which reminds me of an essay in the most recent New York Review of Book on "Man vs. Corpse" by the author Zadie Smith. Smith tries to imagine herself as a corpse and admits failure. "Death is what happens to everyone else..." Oh, we read about mountains of corpses every day: typhoons, tsunamis, collapsing facories in Bangladesh, car bombs in Baghdad, poison gas in Syria. That's them, not me, says Zadie. Even when death strikes closer to home, we tend to shun the corpse and speak of "the dearly departed." Smith has a hard time imaging herself either as a slab of rotting meat or dearly departed for some more permanent shore.

At one point in her essay, Smith make reference to this 1542 portrait by Titian of twelve-year-old Ranuccio Farnese, scion of a famous Italian family (click to enlarge). She writes:
To look into the tender, unformed face…and see a boy whose destiny it was to become a corpse! And this despite his red doublet's intricate embroidery, the adult sword hung about his narrow hips, the heavy weight of inheritance suggested by that cloak his father surely insisted he wear…All the signs of indelible individuality are here, yet none sufficient to stop the inevitable.
Ah, yes. A twelve-year-old boy. Those were the days. Still supported by parents but with the freedom to roam. Feeling the incipient stirrings of sexuality, but not yet faced with any of the complications. And nary a thought of mortality. Who can imagine this boy's sweet, confident face putrefying in the grave?

As it happened, Runuccio died at the young age of 35, which was not unusual for his time. He was created a Cardinal at age 15, a Prince of the Church. I can't speak for his virtues or vices. But inevitable "corpsification," as Smith calls it, can focus a mind on how to live a life "worthy of an adult," as Smith would have it: more present, more mindful of ourselves, and of others.

Monday, November 25, 2013

In search of the sacred

Forty-four years ago, I was camping with my young family (wife, three kids, Tom not with us yet) in our VW camper with the pop-up roof at the base of a solitary mountain in Finland, somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. The mountain was described in the guidebook as "the sacred mountain of the Lapps."

Even then, I was searching for the scared, for some whiff of the transcendent. How could I resist the "sacred mountain of the Lapps." Leaving the family snug in the VW, I set off up the mountain in a cold mist. It wasn't a high mountain and didn't take long to reach the top. As I recall, there was a big cairn at the summit, and what appeared to be an alignment of stones, enough to satisfy my sense of having discovered something holy. I sat there until my fingers and toes went numb with cold, then brimming with pantheistic conceits, turned back down the track.

Half-way to the base, I met a family of Lapps -- a middle-aged couple and their pre-teen child -- climbing the mountain in Sunday clothes and dress shoes. They wore no sign of traditional dress except for a multicolored woven ribbon in the child's cap. They were up from Helsinki, the man told me, for a visit to the ancestral homeland. We chatted for a few minutes. The couple spoke perfect English.

"How much farther to the top?" asked the gentleman.

"You're only half-way up," I replied.

Tottering in her high heels on the loose stones, the woman gave her husband of look of perfect pain. "Oh, shit," she said. "I told you we should have gone to the Riviera."

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thank goodness

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours -- a Saturday reprise

I have often written here before about the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. How could I not be drawn into his orbit? A very Catholic poet. Catholic in temperament, in his sacramental attachment to nature, in his intuition of "inscape." It was this that no doubt drew him to the Church.

His God showed himself everywhere, flashing out of a leaf or hill or starscape "like shining from shook foil." But his was a silent God, who revealed himself teasingly in shimmers of radiance, then retreated into a cold aloofness. Oh, how Hopkins wanted assurance, to put his hand into the wound, to be relieved of his aching existential loneliness.

He needed a lover, God or man.
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
Who has ever written a more heartrending evocation of the night terrors that come to everyone who seeks the unseekable, who loves the elusive, who longs for the unapproachable lover's touch?

I will leave it to others more knowledgeable than me to decide if Hopkins was clinically bipolar. I think he was just a lonely introspective genius with an abiding sense of the mystery of things, who was prevented by his own scrupulosities (and British law) from acting on his homoerotic impulses. He gambled that God would provide a solace for his loneliness, only to discover that the Creator of the Universe makes an unresponsive bedfellow.

Like John Donne before him, Hopkins plowed the ground between the sacred and the profane. He was not as successful as Donne at keeping those two balls in the air at the same time. Donne, at least, had no reluctance to act on his erotic inclinations.

The tragedy of Hopkins is that his deepest intuitions were that the sacred and profane are one, but he was never able to reconcile them in his own mind, no doubt because of the fierce strain of philosophical dualism in Catholic Christianity -- natural/supernatural, matter/spirit, body/soul -- a bipolar theology that tore his soul apart.

Hopkins was a religious naturalist caught in a transcendent deity's terrifying grip. "God's most deep decree/ Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me."

(This post originally appeared in November 2010.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Who could be against solar energy? I mean, it's the original story. Green plants have been doing it since time immemorial. All life on Earth uses solar energy (or almost all).

Here we are on a nice little planet near a big, hot, raging furnace, so let's suck up some of that energy, directly, sunlight to electricity. Solar energy is clean. Getting cheaper. No noise. No smoke. No greenhouse gases. Bring it on!

What’s not to like? ? (We will ignore for the moment the environmental costs of manufacturing and installation.)

Uh oh. What's that going on in the big open field on the west side of the campus, across the highway and behind Facilities Management? That beautiful open space I often walked on my way to and from the campus? A glorious meadow has given way to a sea of pedestals. Photoelectric panels will be coming soon. Acres fenced off.

The meadowlarks are long gone. The monarchs are passing too. Now one more patch of green space is given over to technology. From a nature lover's point of view, one might as well have paved the field with asphalt.

I can't help but feel a twinge of sadness.

But I bite my lip and accept. One can't be for clean energy and wish it all in someone else's field. One can't enjoy a long hot shower every morning and ignore where the energy is coming from. If we want automobiles and airplanes and air conditioning and plastics, we are inevitably forced to choose among energy options, none of which is attractive.

And so my "one mile walk through the universe" now embraces another cosmic story. Nuclear fusion at the core of the Sun and long hot showers for a few thousand college students.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Speaking of mathematics

My father spent his adult life as a mechanical engineer. Here is a picture (thanks Tom) of Dad graduating with an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The young woman with him is his sweetheart from across the street in Chattanooga, soon to be his bride, later my mother.

For most of his engineering career, Dad did quality control for the American Lava Corporation, makers of electrical insulators, making of himself something of a pioneer in his field. Retiring at age 60, he took a job at Chattanooga's Notre Dame High School as plant manager and teacher of geometry. This last was dear to his heart.

I have enough of his genes and nurture to know why. Geometry -- yes, high-school geometry -- is a beautiful subject. "Beauty bare," Edna St. Vincent Millay called it. Begin with the obvious and unwrap the wonderful. The subject, of course, began with Euclid, whose book on geometry is still worth reading. Only a century ago Euclid's text was still used in schools. As an adult, I once worked my way through Book I of The Elements, which begins with ten presumably self-evident Postulates and Common Notions (e.g. "If equals are added to equals the wholes are equal."), and ends with Proposition 47, the mystically amazing and not-at-all-obvious Pythagorean Theorem.

Dad wanted to write a plane geometry textbook for high school students. He started with the definition of a point. That was as far as he got. Cancer had a point to make, and the point was final.

His life was Euclidean, in a way. It began with certain givens, axioms and common notions, nature and nurture (the sorts of things apparent in the photographs from Aunt Charlotte that Tom has digitized), then unfolded with a kind of mathematical inevitably. Each event followed from the ones before. He never went off the rails. He never rolled the dice.
         Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once and only then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Surfaces and depths

After reading the comments yesterday, I e-mailed John and asked if he would like to contribute a few words of explication. He replied:
I first became aware of Costa's Minimal Surface when it was mentioned in a book I was reading by Shing-Tung Yau, a past winner of the Fields medal [an international prize for outstanding discoveries in mathematics]. I didn’t understand much of the book. My family give me these tomes to read knowing they’ll keep me quiet for a long time. However, I did know enough to know that his mention of ‘a new embedded surface’ sounded like subject matter for me. This set me on a long journey trying to understand what was happening to this stretching of a torus about three puncture holes. At first glance, the description of what was happening seemed simple enough, though the math was way above my head. I spent the next twelve months or more mentally pulling, pushing, and twisting this doughnut until finally I was able to construct a 3D drawing on my Mac. I gave it some artistic interpretation. I had to. Costa threw the puncture holes out to infinity and infinity tends to use up a lot of costly material and is difficult to get out of the studio door. Anyway, it’s now just about done. Let’s see what my family give me to read this coming Christmas.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


I have introduced you before to my friend the sculptor John Holstead, a Yorkshireman transplanted to Kerry. You will know by now that he is fascinated by the idea of representing abstract mathematical and scientific ideas as three-dimensional sculptures. These hugely complex pieces he conceives and designs on the computer, then builds from lamina, hand-shaped and polished -- a hugely labor intensive task.

You have seen his work here, here, and here.

John has just sent me a photo of his latest work as it nears completion, a piece inspired by a mathematical discovery known as Costa's minimal surface. I had never heard of Costa's minimal surface (you can look it up on Wikipedia), and have no idea how John came to know about it, but it's clearly right down his alley.

As I've suggested before, when I see John rasping away in his workshop, I figure that's about as close an image as I'll ever get to the biblical Creator or the Platonic demiurge crafting a universe based on mathematical laws that he understands and leaves for the rest of us to discover.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Finders and seekers

Religious persons can be divided into two categories: finders and seekers.

Finders are focused on dogma, scriptures, revelation. Finders emphasize belonging to a community of like-minded believers. Finders are institutional and hierarchical. Finders are evangelical.

Seekers search inward, as well as outward. Seekers are eclectic in their associations and value diversity. Seekers are loners and levelers. Seekers are less interested in the destination than the journey. Seekers are silent.

The God of finders hears and answers prayers. He is knowable and approachable.

The god of seekers is hidden, revealing himself/herself/itself in fleeting glimpses, out of a pregnant darkness.

Finders are comforted by certainty.

Seekers are ravished by mystery.

The attitude of a finder to her God is obedience.

The attitude of a seeker to her god is awe.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

On the seashore

Instead of the usual Saturday reprise, I'll share with you this morning some real science, by daughter Maureen.


Friday, November 15, 2013

L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle

The poem I shared the other day, "First Frost," employed the rhyme scheme known as terza rima, first used by Dante in The Divine Comedy (ABA, BCB, CDC, etc.). Imagine keeping to so rigorous a design for so long a poem! Easier, I suppose, in Italian, with all those lines ending in -i or -o, than in English. The only English translation I'm familiar with that tries to conform to the original scheme is Robert Pinsky's Inferno; a stunning achievement, even through Pinksy's consonantal rhymes are not as exact as Dante's.

What brings me to Dante this morning? This photograph of a trio of galaxies in the constellation Draco (click to enlarge). It has been on my desktop for a few weeks, begging for comment.

What are we looking at? An edge-on galaxy, an elliptical galaxy, and a face-on spiral, all about 100 million light-years away. Each galaxy contains tens or hundreds of billions of stars. Nothing of what you see in the photo is visible to the naked eye. The photo covers a part of the sky that would be easily covered by the Moon. Most of the objects in the frame are stars in our own galaxy, foreground stars, hot blue stars and cooler red ones. But if you look closely, some of the dots -- the blurrier or elongated ones -- are other galaxies, far beyond the trio.

Three galaxies, three depths of field. A deep, deep pool of night that only the telescope lets us see. The telescope is our Beatrice, out guide to the celestial realms, our Paradiso. What Dante was for his 13th-century contemporaries, giant instruments on Earth and in space do for us.

But who pays attention? Who thinks deeply or long about what these celestial visions mean? Dante gave expression to a world view that encompassed heaven and hell and everything in between. Where is our Dante who will embrace the galaxies, seamlessly with the human heart? Where is the poet who will make us feel at home among the myriads of worlds?

Perhaps it's not possible. Perhaps the source of our ennui is the impossibility of feeling at home in the universe of the galaxies. I choose to think it is possible. Or at least that we have a moral obligation to try. Dante too balked at the challenge of describing what he had seen in the heavens:
O how scant is speech, too weak to frame my thoughts.
Compared to what I recall my words are faint --
to call them little is to praise them much.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Knowing and praising

Before I leave Margaret Atwood and her latest volume of poetry, let me take note of a poem called "Reindeer Moss On Granite." She is observing a cluster of lichen on an outcrop of rock, and writes:
They send up their little mouths
on stems, red-lipped and round,

each one pronouncing the same syllable,
o, o, o, like the dumbfounded
eyes of minnows.
A single sentence plucked from the poem. Even if one has no idea what she is talking about, the lilt of the sentence pleases, which is what poetry is supposed to do. Every word takes note of every other. The poet is praising, in lyrical language, and we are always grateful for praise.

But what is she praising? This is where knowing matters.

Many years ago as a young prof, I set myself the task of teaching myself each semester one aspect of the natural history of our 800-acre campus: birds, trees, wildflowers, fungi, geology, and so on. Perhaps my favorite semester was devoted to lichens, and among the lichens, none were more engaging than the ground lichens: British soldiers, pink earth lichen (I call it bubble-gum lichen), pixie cups, and reindeer lichen (sometimes called reindeer moss). Tiny, faerie-like, one might tramp right over them without noticing, but get down on one's knees and one enters a pixie kingdom. You can see a couple of nice photos here.

And now you know, if you didn't already, about those little mouths, red-lipped and round, and those bubbled syllables o, o, o.

Between knowing and praising there need be no seam. Between science and poetry there need be no seam. Knowing is always the best springboard for praise.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The god of hinges

OK, I suppose this is poetry week. I'm reading the prolific novelist/poet Margaret Atwood's most recent volume of verse, The Door.

Atwood is almost my age, and I resonate with these poems. The door of the title could be any one of several doors that come with our age. The door of memory that opens and closes on the past. The door of insight that in its opening and closing provides glimmers of retrospective understanding. Or, yes, the door of death that opens and shuts to take one by one our friends and lovers.
The door swings open,
you look in:
why does this keep happening now?
Is there a secret?
The door swings closed.
There was a time, of course, when the door swung wide and gave unimpeded vistas on the future. One hardly noticed there was a door at all. Only ten years ago, when I began this on-line journal, the doors were all still permanently ajar. A stanza from another of Atwood's poems:
It must have been an endless
breathing in: between
the wish to know and the need to praise
there was no seam.
Now, ten years on, the wish to know has diminished. Science is no longer as prominent a theme here as it was then. The need to praise, however, has grown stronger. I sit in a storehouse of reliable knowledge, accumulated over a lifetime, and I am not so interested in those pallets of adamantine facts as in nuance, ephemera, gossamer. It's the fragile threads that seem important now, the gauzy web of relationships that holds a life together. A door opens, a door shuts. A whiff of nostalgia, a hint of understanding.
The door swings open:
O god of hinges,
god of long voyages,
you have kept faith.
It's dark in there.
You confide yourself to the darkness.
You step in.
The door swings shut.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Metrical poetry is about: breath. Breath as an intake and a flow. Breath as a pattern. Breath as an indicator, perhaps the most vital one, of mood. Breath as our own personal tie with all the rhythms of the natural world, of which we are a part, from which we can never break apart while we live. Breath as our first language.
The first paragraph from Mary Oliver's Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. I didn't read those words until recently, but I think I've known all along something about what Oliver is saying. My mother was a great fan of metrical verse. She was inclined to recite by heart long snatches of poetry, mostly from schoolbook American poets like Whittier, Riley, Longfellow, Holmes, Dickinson, and Millay. Rhyme for her was as natural as breath. Even as her final breaths were rationed, at age 92, she could be counted on to remember a line of verse.

So I suppose it was natural that when I discovered modern poetry in my thirties, I would be drawn to metrical verse, to poets like Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anthony Hecht and Marianne Moore, and especially to poems like Plath's Pheasant or Moore's The Fish that set themselves exact patterns of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and syllablization that chimed with the rhythms of the natural world. I knew nothing of iambs, trochees, dactyls and anapests, but I was learning to be a naturalist, learning to match my breath to the cadences and pulse of the planet, and was astonished to discover that poets had been doing it all along.

In imitation, for a few years I tried my own hand at it:
First Frost

This morning the radio said to expect
the first frost. Today we will set out
teepees of newspaper to protect

the last tomatoes and the one stout
watermelon still on the vine;
we have no reason to doubt

the weatherman. On the clothesline
a pair of starlings shiver
in white-flecked winter skin,

with scarves of yellow pinfeathers
flared at their necks. The sun,
trailing a dustcloud of grey weather,

rolls south, stuck to the horizon;
we have finished our second cup of tea
and have the breakfast dishes done

by the time it bounces free.
The starlings follow the sun up
to their midday perch in the big tree

on Harlow's hill, each in a wrap
of fall weather, like a melon
rolled up in a cone of newspaper.

Tomorrow there will be frost on the lawn.
We will drink our tea in a slant
of winter light. The starlings will be gone.
Never got past the imitative stage, but, now, many decades on, I continue to learn from poets about breath as "our personal tie with all the rhythms of the natural world." Maxine Kumin, Amy Clampitt, Howard Nemerov, Pattiann Rogers … oh, forget it, there are too many to thank. For every natural science book on my shelves there is a poet.

Monday, November 11, 2013

That astonishing biographer, memory, contrives a life

On one of those perfect Sundays afternoons that characterize the New England autumn he went for a ride in the country on his son's bike. The 10-speed machine was as light as a feather and moved like the wind, unlike the bulky red-and-white Shelby with horn and bell and luggage rack and 3-inch balloon tires that had been his as a boy.

There were fewer hills here than where he had grown up. Still, the years between his son and himself rolled themselves up into knots at the backs of his knees. His shirt was wet with sweat. He thought of turning toward home. Then, as if by a compensating grace, the wind moved to his back and the bicycle seemed to move by itself.

He saw monarch butterflies and monarch-colored meadows pinned against the roadsides by spikes of tall mullein. He saw goldenrods and asters, and walls of pink granite boulders piled high by Yankee farmers when the land was cleared. At the top of a long, gentle slope he stopped to watch a white-fanned mourning dove beat its way up to the branch of an oak. It made a swoosh-swoosh sort of sound that may have come from the bird's throat or from the thrust of its wings as it shoveled the thick air.

He waited until his heart was still. Then he pushed off and plunged on the graphite slide of his son's bike toward the gathering dusk at the foot of the hill. Pebbles leaped into the ditches, trees did handsprings over his head, the ball-bearings spun in their oiled races.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Painting speech

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

"Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will" -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in November 2006.)

That was the title of an article in the March 18 issue of Science. What, I wondered, is experimental philosophy? If it's experimental -- that is, based on reproducible empirical data -- then it's science. And what new, pray, might philosophy -- experimental or otherwise -- have to say about free will?

I read eagerly.

The author begins by saying that most central philosophical problems concerning free will, morality and consciousness are notorious for their resilience, many of them stretching back to the earliest days of philosophy. In this he is certainly correct. In more than two thousand years, philosophy has contributed precisely nothing to the problem of free will, except to state the problem: Are our actions free or determined, and is freedom necessary for moral culpability?

So what might this new discipline -- experimental philosophy -- contribute?

I quote at random: "According to one hypothesis, the internal motoric signals that cause behavior also generate a prediction about imminent bodily movement, and this prediction is compared to the actual sensory information of bodily motion. If the predicted movement confirms to the sensory information, then one gets the feeling of agency; otherwise the movement is likely to feel involuntary."

Or: If I feel like an action was free, then I think it was free.

At least, I think that's what it means.

In general, this rather long article says virtually nothing about free will. Rather, it compiles data -- using the methods of the social sciences -- on what people think about freedom and moral responsibility. Whether you call this "experimental philosophy" or "experimental psychology" probably depends on which academic department you're employed by.

Anyway, back to the "problem". If I choose at this moment to kick the cat, is that action intrinsically free, or is it determined by some accumulative chain of cause and effect -- including prior mental states -- over which some hypothesized autonomous "self" has no control? And, if the latter, am I morally responsible for my action?

No one knows the answer to the first question. Whatever concantations of causality may determine my conscious actions is far too complex to be amenable -- at this point in time -- to experimental analysis. An outside observer cannot predict with certainty whether or not I will kick the cat, even if that action is in fact entirely determined. There are simply too many undetermined variables. Massively complex causal determination is not what philosophers traditionally meant by free will, but it is indistinguishable from what philosophers traditionally meant by free will. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then -- for all practical purposes -- it's a duck.

And the second question? Moral responsibility is a social construct, not a scientific hypothesis. Humans discovered long ago that living peaceably in groups required a notion of individual responsibility. Responsibility implies freedom, real or effective. Society negotiates responsibility.

If there is such a thing as "experimental philosophy," problems of free will, consciousness and morality are presently beyond its reach. Lots more groundwork will need to be done -- in neurobiology, artificial intelligence, and so on -- before these perennial problems are tractable to experimental solution.

Friday, November 08, 2013

The delicious toy

Found this drawing by Jean Cocteau folded into an old journal. The title, as I recall, is Le Jouet Délicieux, "The Delicious Toy." I can't recall why I saved it. It was a long time ago. From the date of the journal, it would have been at a time in my life when I was discovering the magic of language. I suppose the "toy" might represent creativity of any sort. The gift of fantasy. Of making the imagined real.

The toy is invaluable in science and in art. An apple falls from a tree, the moon is in the sky; Isaac Newton puts his toy to his lips and speaks the Principia. Van Gogh perceives a field of golden wheat; he lifts his toy and speaks a fluttering of terrible black crows. Cocteau breaths into his toy a fluttering of lovers.

Every 14-year-old wants one, or at least they did in my generation. Perhaps in this generation too, although it sometimes seems that all they want is a smart-phone. Will the young social media junkies, obsessively attached to their electronic toys, turn dreams into science and art, fantasies into passion?

Thursday, November 07, 2013

November bloomer

A spray of gold against a grey November sky! It's the witch hazel, that most untypical tree, bursting riotously into bloom when everything else is closing down, thumbing its nose at impending winter.

None of my botanical handbooks explain why the witch hazel blooms in October and November, even as its leaves are falling to the ground. Where are the insects that will pollinate the blossoms? Donald Stokes, who has written a wonderful book on wild shrubs and vines, tells of watching witch hazel in bloom and seeing no visitors but ants. Thoreau records in his journal the visit of a bee to one of these late-blooming trees. Perhaps the witch hazel is nature's "all-night cafe," where the few insects of early winter can find a bite to eat when the regular establishments are closed. The tree has these late-season customers all to itself.

In any other season witch hazel would be inconspicuous. "Witch" in the tree's name may derive from the Old English wych, meaning "weak." The tree is not much more than a sprawling shrub and its blossoms are unkempt tangles of scraggly ribbons. But even this anemic display of color is welcome. Stubbornly out of step with the seasons, the witch hazel is a touch of spring in cruel November, a touch of birth in death. Thoreau, with customary transcendence, called the witch hazel thicket "a faery place . . . a part of the immortality of the soul."

The Halloween-blooming witch hazel is certainly a bewitching tree. Its sorcery cheered my spirits when I saw that yellow thicket at the edge of the woods. Any tree that puts on such a springlike show on the cusp of winter deserves the admiration of all of us who have entered the autumn of our lives.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The ultimate citadel of humanism

Here I go again. It seems lately that these posts drift more and more toward memoir, toward summing up, toward drawing together the raveled treads of a life. What started almost ten years ago as a continuation of my 20 years of science essays in the Boston Globe -- essays that aspired toward a spritely objectivity -- has become willy-nilly an exercise in self-indulgence. That so many of you have stayed for the ride suggests, I hope, that we share certain life-experiences, and that together we articulate a Tao, a way, a common aspiration to "ironic tenderness."

Here is another kind of summing up, one of Rembrandt's many self-portraits, this one painted in 1660, at age 53, towards the end of the artist's life. Its permanent home is Kenwood House in London. (Click to enlarge.)

I could say something here about silence and ironic tenderness. The painting embodies silence, yet speaks volumes about the inextricable tangles of the human condition. But I don't need to say anything. It has already been said by the writer John Fowles on the last page of his own summing-up novel, Daniel Martin, in a passage I copied into my journal sometime back in the late 1970s.

Daniel Martin, the novel's protagonist, has wandered into Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath and finds himself transfixed by the Rembrandt self-portrait:
He could see only one consolation in those remorseless and aloof Dutch eyes. It is not finally a matter of skill, of knowledge, of intellect; of good luck or bad; but of choosing and learning to feel. Dan began at last to detect it behind the surface of the painting; behind the sternness lay the declaration of the one true marriage in the mind mankind is allowed, the ultimate citadel of humanism. No true compassion without will, no true will without compassion.
After a lifetime of relationships, Dan is about to reunite with Jane, the one true love of his life. It is interesting that Fowles uses the word "compassion" rather than "love." It is, of course, what one sees in Rembrandt's face: compassion. Something that springs from somewhere deeper within than love. One can love ice cream; one does not feel compassion for ice cream. Love makes a Hollywood blockbuster; compassion makes a life.

So that, it seems, is what it was all about -- the years, the inextricable tangle. Not skill, knowledge, or intellect, such as they were, but the quiet resolution we see in those soulful Rembrandt eyes. Love happens. Compassion is willed.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Tenderness and silence

It's been a long, long time since I read Justine, the first volume in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandrian Quartet, but one phrase sticks in my mind. As I recall, Justine, the woman with whom the narrator is having an affair, is questioning him as to why he doesn't take seriously their friends' philosophical conversations. You always sit there smiling, she chides, or something to that effect. He tells her that anyone who takes really seriously the inextricable tangle of human thought can only respond with "ironic tenderness and silence."

What she took as condescension or disinterest was actually bemused detachment.

The more passionately the friends debated politics, religion, human relationships, the meaning of it all, the more they became attached to fragments of the whole. The more they saw clarity, the more they missed nuance. The more they corralled truth into mutually exclusive categories, the more the oneness of things escaped their grasp.

I didn't sufficiently appreciate this thought when I was a young man. Perhaps I still don't. The fact that I am writing these posts is an offense against silence, but hopefully they embrace a certain ironic tenderness.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Eyes on ISON

About this time last year the excitement was building that a comet discovered in September 2012 might grow in brightness to become "the Comet of the Century." It was dubbed Comet ISON because it was discovered with a telescope belonging to the International Scientific Optical Network, in Russia. At the time of discovery, it was out beyond the orbit of Jupiter, diving towards the inner Solar System, scheduled for a close approach to the Sun on November 28 of this year.

A month ago, on its inward dive, it passed very close to the orbit of Mars, and Mars just happened to be at that very place in its orbit. Lucky Martians. This past weekend ISON skimmed very close to the Earth's orbit, but we were a quarter of our orbit away. ISON continues to fall Sunward, gathering speed, to zip around the Sun on November 28. If ISON is going to put on a spectacular show, it will be in the week or two that follows.

Alas, I won't be arriving on my dark, mostly cloudless island, with its unimpeded view of the horizons, until December 16. And a full Moon on the 17th.

After its Sun-grazing perihelion, Comet ISON will begin its climb back into the cold, dark attic of the Solar System, making its closest approach to Earth on December 26 (although 40 million miles away), and no doubt fading fast. It will then be high in the northern sky, in the constellation Draco.

Comet of the Century, or a dud? And why, oh why, will I not be at Starlight House, sitting on the warm, dark terrace, as ISON does its screaming roller-coaster loop around the Sun?

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Serve happiness

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Discorruption -- a Saturday reprise

The great foundational poem of religious naturalism is Walt Whitman's I Sing the Body Electric. Not for the first time, of course, but for the first time with a modern voice, a poet sings of the material soul. How long we labored in the Judeo-Christian West with a distrust of the body, seeing in it something verminous and corruptible. How long we dreamed of flying free of the blood and visera and foul excretions -- the immaterial soul like a whiff of luminous vapor, ascending.
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws and jaw hinges...
All those centuries that we lived in cloaks of flesh that dissolved with disease into oozing pustules and suppurating sores. Limbs thinned and belly bloated with hunger. Eyes that ran dark with effluents. Diarrhea.
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean...
Bleeding, leeching, trepanation. The mortal danger of childbirth. The paralyzing pain of cancer. Toothache, nearly continuous. Who would choose to go back to the days before the advent of modern medical science, when the only thing that made physical existence bearable was the dream of leaving bone and sinew behind?
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you and me...
The gifts of modern medicine, sanitation engineering, agronomy. And with them, for the first time in history, the body rises up and claims its own, dispels the phantasm of the immaterial soul -- and sings.
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

(This post originally appeared in August 2007.)