Thursday, February 28, 2013

Table-talk -- 1

After a long wine-lubricated dinner the other evening, daughter Margaret got after me again for what she perceives as this blog's preoccupation with religion. "Get over it, Dad. You've been there, done that. It's finished. Kaput. It's not worth going on about."

In this, she is at one with the rest of my family, including my wife, who think religion is a benevolent fiction at best, and a dangerous delusion at most. "What’s this 'religious naturalism' stuff?" asks Margaret. "Stick with 'naturalism.' Why hang on to all that God talk?"

"I challenge you to show me a single place in my blog where I admit miracles or supernaturalism of any sort," I said.

"You're still hung up on Catholicism," she replied. "All this talk about 'sacraments' and 'grace.' Face it. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck. 'Religion' means 'God.' You muddy the waters. You feed the beast."

"I'm constructing the narrative of my journey," I said. "Where I came from and where I've been is a part of the narrative. We are what we are."

"We are what we choose to be," she replied. "You're living in the past. All this talk about being a 'religious naturalist.' It's an oxymoron. You're either a naturalist or you're not."

So. So. What is a religious naturalist, which for want of a better term I have taken to calling myself? Is it an oxymoron? Am I wasting creative energy living in the past, dragging superstition into the present? What exactly am I trying to live that my family sees as a Neolithic conceit? Can I justify the tone and substance of this blog?

OK, Margaret, I'll give you "religion" as a noun, commonly understood. Can "religious" still have usefulness as an adjective? We'll see. I'll spend the next few days responding to your challenge.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Harry Potter's "spider"

Ah, the wonders of diversity. Billions of years of evolution, the tree of life branching, branching, branching. Countless branches becoming extinct, but others flourishing, sending out new shoots, filling very conceivable habitat.

And always surprises.

Herewith, another creature, a first for us on this little island. An amblypygid. Also called a whip-spider. Or tailless whip scorpion. Although not exactly a spider or a scorpion, of which we have plenty.

Amblypygid means "blunt rump."

Remember the bat cave and the boa. Here is Mr. Blunt Rump (or is it Mrs.?), found on the same expedition, in the same cave, clinging to a damp wall. In the dark. As big as one's hand. A scary looking thing. No idea what it was until we got home to the internet.

Feeling around in the dark with its front legs. Having sex in a yet another ingenious way. Occasionally molting.

Why am I boring you with this menagerie of creatures?

The story here is not the creatures. The story is nature's inexhaustible capacity to surprise. The prodigiousness of life. The teeming sea of creaturedom in which we swim. Gape. Gasp. The fullness! The fullness!
Doot doo doo doo
Wondrous apparition provided by magician
Doot doot doot lookin' out my back door

(Photo by son-in-law Mark West.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Holy cow!

And while we are on the subject of notable creatures, let me mention the manatee.

What should come cruising by our beach the other day but a manatee, or "sea cow." Huge, the size of a small whale. Languorous. Unafraid. So close to shore that our neighbor's son-in-law, who happened to be on the beach with a camera, was able to snap some pics (click to enlarge).

An historic sighting for us, a first during our twenty years on the island. According to the internet, manatees are rare enough in the Bahamas that some of them have names and are tracked by scientists. Be that as it may, it was a visitation that juiced up the week.

We're used to sharing our patch of sea with rays, sea turtles, barracudas and the occasional shark, even dolphins on rare occasions. But a sea cow! Was it Gina, or Harold, or Rita, or Crusoe? Stop. Stay a while. What's the hurry? Where are you going?

A mammal. A herbivore. No bother to anyone. And we are its most dangerous enemy.

(Photo by Phil Martelly.)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bats, boas and iPhones

Long time readers will have been with me before on a visit to the bat caves, two Tom Sawyer-ish caverns in the bush on the unpopulated backside of the island with colonies of bats. I was there yesterday with my daughter, son-in-law, and their two girls, eleven and thirteen. Apparently, no one had been there since my last visit several years ago; the trail I cut and marked then was overgrown and hard to follow.

(You might ask how I came to know about these caves. Good question. Sixteen years ago, a friend who was a friend of a batologist (OK, chiroptologist) shared her secret knowledge.)

Anyway, down on one's hands and knees through the small entrance. Inside, the caves open up into substantial, many-chambered grottos. My daughter and two granddaughters led the way.

Suddenly, a shriek of fright. Three shrieks, actually. Curled on the cave floor at their feet -– a Bahamian boa, six feet long and as thick as a child's arm, its black and silvery skin shining in the gleam of their flashlights.

The girls' startled surprise quickly subsided. The boa was as startled as they. It began looking for a place to hide as my granddaughters whipped out their iPhones to take pictures. The boa had no place to go except to stick its head into crevices among loose rocks, which gave the girls a chance to touch the snake.

The bats were an anti-climax after the boa.

I've encountered boas before. What was most exotic for me was the girls and their new iPhones, which seemed to be prosthetic extensions of their senses. When they got back to the house, and WiFi-ed, they uploaded pics of the boa to Instagram. Within minutes, they had dozens of "likes." Within the hour, hundreds. With comments. From her phone, Kate emailed me the pic you see above (click to enlarge).

The iPhone was not only an extension of their senses, it was an extension of their social lives, connecting this small island to their coterie of friends and who knows else. All a bit of a wonder for grandpa, who lives with bats and boas but knows nothing about Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Tumbir.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

White place

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sky high -- a Saturday reprise

As upright primates, the sky is half of our visual field, but we give it only a tiny fraction of our attention. Food, drink, sex and shelter are all to be found close to the ground. What goes on above our heads is mostly irrelevant.

Here in Ireland the sky is much more than half our visual field; we couldn't ignore it if we wanted to. Our cottage is perched on a hill above Dingle Bay, and beyond the garden wall the land slopes to the sea, as if trying to get out of the way, surrendering the view to -- air. Insistent, in-your-face, not-to-be-ignored nitrogen, oxygen and water vapor. A big floor-to-ceiling canvas on which wind, water and light create an ever-changing spectacle -- gaudy gobs and brushstrokes of color, atmospherics managed by Maxfield Parrish.

It's the water, of course, that makes our skies what they are -- the billowing cumulous clouds that pile up over the bay, the dense white blanket that lies on the mountain like sugar frosting or flows down from Mam na Gaoithe (the Windy Pass) like a slow, soft glacier, the rain that buckets against the slates, the rainbows -- sometimes two or three a day -- all that moisture sucked up into the air out there over the anomalously warm North Atlantic, then pushed in front of our pop-eyed view.

We don't have a television. But last evening we lay in bed and watched rainbows and pink castles come and go. Commercial free.

(This post originally appeared in July 2007.)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Into the unknown – Part 2

Having expelled Father Zahm from the expedition, Roosevelt and crew plunged down the River of Doubt, woefully unprepared for what lay ahead. That breathtaking story is breathlessly (perhaps too breathlessly) told by Candice Millard. But it is Zahm I am interested in, and his reported insistence that Indians were meant to carry priests.

Let me say at once that I have known men of Father Zahm's congregation who have devoted their lives unselfishly to the poor people of South America. They would scoff at the idea of riding in a sedan chair carried by the people they serve. It is through no fault of their own that they belong to an institution -– the Roman Catholic Church -– that is hierarchical in structure, and replete with sedan chairs, real and metaphorical.

Garry Wills asks in his newest book Why Priests?. He is questioning the whole top-down notion of God's grace being administered through a collective hierarchy of celibate men who uniquely have the power to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He longs for a bottom-up notion of the Church, with the people encountering God directly through a communal meal of fellowship.

Some of what Wills asks for was accomplished at Vatican II -– turning the altar and priest around to join the congregation, replacing a language only the priest understood with the language of the people -– but the spirit of Vatican II has not been much in evidence during recent papacies. Now a gathering of sedan-chair cardinals, appointed to office from above, is about to elect a new pope, setting the Church off on another expedition on the River of Doubt.

Teddy Roosevelt may have been the most famous person in the world when he explored the Brazilian rainforest. He did not ask for a sedan chair, even when he could barely walk. He shared the nitty-gritty and dangerous work of the lowest man on the expedition's totem pole, while maintaining, of course, the measure of authority the expedition required. Oh, he carried a big ego and a big stick, but when the straits got dire he knew it was one for all and all for one.

Will we get another sedan-chair pope, ensconced in his (his!) Renaissance palace, claiming infallibility and monarchical power? Probably. Maybe dogmatic religions claiming to be the One True Faith can only function with a top-down authoritarian structure. But who knows? John XXIII came seemingly out of nowhere, and gave a brief, hopeful glimpse of something new. Grace, said Bernanos's country priest, is everywhere.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Into the unknown

When I was a freshman at Notre Dame I resided in Zahm Hall, named for John Augustine Zahm (1851-1921), a member of the Roman Catholic order of priests (Congregation of Holy Cross) who founded and run the university. He taught physics and chemistry, and spoke and wrote forcefully on what he believed to be an unnecessary tension between Catholic doctrine and evolutionary science. He was in that respect part of the so-called Modernist movement, which sought to drag the Church kicking and screaming into the 20th century. The Vatican told him to desist in 1898. He desisted.

Not so long go, I was invited to give the annual Zahm Lecture at the University of Portland, another Holy Cross school. On that occasion I did a bit of reading about Zahm, mostly Holy Cross hagiography. He seemed a remarkable man. Prominent among his acclaimed accomplishments was a personal friendship with Teddy Roosevelt, to who he suggested a post-presidential journey of exploration in the Amazon, a proposition Roosevelt not only embraced, but amplified in scope and daring.

Now, I have just read Candice Millard's 2005 account of that expedition, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, during which Roosevelt sought to follow an unnamed and unexplored river from its headwaters in the Brazilian uplands to its presumed eventual confluence with the Amazon or one of its known tributaries. In Millard's account of the expedition, Zahm, comes off a racist and obnoxious self-promoter. Even before the exploring party –- which was now co-led by the experienced Brazilian explorer Cándido Rondon -– had completed their months-long overland trek to the point of embarkation on the river, Zahm was sent packing. Apparently, no one in the party, Americans or Brazilians, leaders or porters could stand him.

The decisive moment came (according to Millard's source) when Zahm suggested that he be carried in a sedan chair by four porters, while everyone else, Roosevelt and Rondon included, walked. "Indians are meant to carry priests," Zahm reportedly said to his friend Roosevelt, which seems to have dampened the friendship.

Whether that incident occurred as reported, I have no way of knowing. But it brings us to Garry Wills' newest book, Why Priests?, and to the significant events about to take place in Rome. More tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Pharmacogenetic activation

Here is the abstract for an article in the January 31 issue of Nature titled "Genetic identification of C fibres that detect massage-like stroking of hairy skin in vivo", by Sophia Vrontou et al. Give it a quick scan:
Stroking of the skin produces pleasant sensations that can occur during social interactions with conspecifics, such as grooming. Despite numerous physiological studies, molecularly defined sensory neurons that detect pleasant stroking of hairy skin in vivo have not been reported. Previously, we identified a rare population of unmyelinated sensory neurons in mice that express the G-protein-coupled receptor MRGPRB4. These neurons exclusively innervate hairy skin with large terminal arborizations that resemble the receptive fields of C-tactile (CT) afferents in humans. Unlike other molecularly defined mechanosensory C-fibre subtypes, MRGPRB4+ neurons could not be detectably activated by sensory stimulation of the skin ex vivo. Therefore, we developed a preparation for calcium imaging in the spinal projections of these neurons during stimulation of the periphery in intact mice. Here we show that MRGPRB4+ neurons are activated by massage-like stroking of hairy skin, but not by noxious punctate mechanical stimulation. By contrast, a different population of C fibres expressing MRGPRD was activated by pinching but not by stroking, consistent with previous physiological and behavioural data. Pharmacogenetic activation of Mrgprb4-expressing neurons in freely behaving mice promoted conditioned place preference, indicating that such activation is positively reinforcing and/or anxiolytic. These data open the way to understanding the function of MRGPRB4 neurons during natural behaviours, and provide a general approach to the functional characterization of genetically identified subsets of somatosensory neurons in vivo.
Now, you knew that, didn't you.

Puppies like to be stroked. Cat's like stroking. Primates do it. Humans too. Our skin may not be as hairy, but we love petting, or a good massage. Setting those MRGPRB4+ neurons on fire.

Baby, ignite my MRGPRB4s.

This is why I peruse Nature and Science every week. I no longer need to do it for teaching or science journalism. But I love to be reminded that for all the inexplicable nuance of our intellectual and emotional lives -– for all of our hopeful dreams of immaterial transcendence -- we are at root just fabulously complex biological machines.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Thinking like a tortoise

The average lifespan in a hunter-gatherer society is 32 years. If you think you'd like the simplicity and ecological integrity of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, be sure to take your mobile phone and not wander too far away from a hospital.

Culture, medical and biological science in particular, changed things dramatically. A century-and-a-half ago life expectancy at birth was 50 years, with child mortality being the most significant limiting factor.

By the time I was born, life expectancy at birth was pushing 70 years, with the age-range 14-65 accounting for most mortality.

These days it's the fact that us old folks are living longer that accounts for the ever-increasing life expectancy. A US citizen who makes it to 60 can reasonably expect to live another 25 years.

The survival curve is becoming, as they say, more rectangular. More and more people survive childhood and middle age, then we all fall of the mortality cliff together.

Which brings us, I suppose, to the "fiscal cliff." More of us are on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Young workers pay to keep us oldsters ticking. By the time they reach our age, they can probably expect to live to 100. Or forever. How will we deal with that as a society?

Our species spent most of its evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers, ready victims of natural predators, pathogens and each other. Natural selection presumably optimized our biology for a quick, risky rise to sexual maturity followed by an early demise. Now it's decades of science versus millions of years of tooth and claw. I invite you all to my 85th birthday party, eight-and-a half years hence. BYOE. (Bring your own Ensure.)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Staying awake

The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feeling of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration….To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again.
It is an iconic passage, written on February 29, 1832, by young Charles Darwin, near the beginning of his history-making circumnavigation, recounted in The Voyage of the Beagle. This episode in the rain forest was reproduced stirringly in I think it was Episode 2 of the brilliant 1978 BBC miniseries "The Voyage of Charles Darwin." Can someone find it on the internet?

I first read The Voyage of the Beagle in about 1965, as I started out as a teacher. It was an inspiring read. I had no illusions that I possessed Darwin's intellect or strength of character, but I did hope to cultivate something of that sense of awakening that happened to him in the forest, that sense of suddenly being alive to the world. Perhaps I would never made it to Brazil (Panama is as close as I got); my domesticated Path would be my rainforest. The key was to stay awake.

And if I could stay awake, maybe I could share my wakefulness with my students, and they in turn would stimulate my wakefulness, helping me to stay awake for the decades that were to come.
In my last walk, I stopped again and again to gaze on these beauties, and endeavored to fix in my mind for ever, an impression which at the time I knew sooner or later must fail…they will leave, like a tale heard in childhood, a picture full of indistinct, but most beautiful figures. (August 1836)

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The darkness without and the darkness within -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in July 2007.)

The two great themes of John Updike's fiction are sex and religion. For his male protagonists, religion functions mostly as a fence -- not to constrain their carnal hankerings, but to make the "grass" looks greener on the other side.

Toward the end of Villages, almost as a throwaway, Updike offers three "evidential arguments" for the truths of Christianity.

The first is our wish to live forever, "however tedious the actual experience of eternal consciousness might be." Updike is remarkably well informed about science (more so than any other major novelist I am aware of), so he knows that an innate longing for immortality is a natural Darwinian response to the fear of death. In any case, it is hard to see what is specifically Christian about wanting to live forever.

Second, there is our sensation that "something is amiss," that things are not quite what they should be. I can go along with him on this, and there's no need to bring natural selection into it. Once nature has endowed us with consciousness, intelligence, and self-reflection -- presumably for good Darwinian reasons -- it is inevitable that we will wonder if there's not more to the world than meets the eye. But again, there is nothing specifically Christian about this; what we are talking about here is part of any religious response to the world, including that of the religious naturalist.

Third, Updike notes that belief benefits the health: "An anxiety-relieving faith conduces to worldly efficiency and success." He's on solid ground here; many scientific studies indicate that believers tend to be healthier and more at peace with themselves than nonbelievers. This applies not only to Christians, but to New Age navel-gazers, Jews on kibbutzim, and Tibetan monks. Even Updike's nominally Christian protagonist, Owen Mackenzie, knows that marginally better health is a shabby reason to believe. He wakes at three in the morning churning with the same anxieties as those of us who live our lives without the benefit of faith.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The social conquest of the Earth

Regular readers will know that our life on the island has been a constant battle against termites, which seems to be pretty much standard in the tropics. The termites consider our house a repast spread for their delectation.

Here's a pic of one of their own domiciles, which my granddaughter and I came across in the bush (click to enlarge). A lot of work went into constructing this social metropolis. I must admit that the thought passed through my mind: "Ah, now's my time for revenge." A big stick or a few large rocks and I could do to their house what they try to do to mine.

But, of course, I didn't. The termites chewing away in my door jambs have no sense of moral responsibility and therefore no guilt. They would be acquitted in a human court of law. Whereas my destruction of their nest would be purely spiteful, an act of environmental vandalism. Which brings us, willy-nilly, to a topic we have been reading about a lot lately –- the origins of morality.

Evolutionists evoke some version of group selection to account for human morality: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Religious fundamentalists maintain that if God had not directly communicated moral commandments, with eternal reward or punishment to back them up, we would all act like animals. Well, I don't believe in heaven or hell and I still didn't knock over the termite nest. Every survey I've come across suggests that atheists and agnostics are in general as moral as anyone else. Which suggests a natural origin for morality rather than divine nurture.

So why? With all my cause for revenge, why did I leave the termite nest intact? E. O. Wilson calls it "biophilia," a love of life, all life, and proposes an evolutionary origin. Interspecies altruism is harder to explain by the group selection dynamic, so I'll leave the evolutionary arguments to the evolutionists. All I can say is I admire whatever instinct instructs tiny insects to construct such complex edifices, and I have no desire to gratuitously kill any living thing.

Except when I catch them eating my house.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Be mine, Valentine

As a Valentine's service for our readers, Musings offers personal ads from science and technology professionals. Herewith, cries from the hearts of the white-coated lovelorn (a reprise from 2008):

Attractive blond primatologist, 36, featured on own National Geographic special, seeks alpha male to share gorilla stakeouts in the African rain forest. Please, well-groomed vegetarians only.

Livewire electrical engineer, SBF, 38, tired of blown fuses, looking for a man who knows a volt from an ohm, with 50-amp breakers and kilowatts of pep. I know you're out there. Let's make sparks.

Consulting psychologist, 48, thrice divorced but still believes in true love. Looking for tall, shapely, full-busted, childless, non-garrulous, city-loving, sexually-adventurous, agnostic, athletic, hygienic, non-smoking, tidy, blue-eyed blonde, 25-35, with no hang-ups. Good legs a must.

Stars in your eyes? Out-of-this-world, DWF astronomer, stellar personality, supernova smile, light years ahead of the competition, looking for a down-to-earth guy with his feet on the ground. It will help if you are free in the afternoons.

Handsome techno junkie, GWM, 28, loves gadgets, but tired of virtual reality. I'll bring the computers, cell phones, personal organizers, cable modems, scanners, digital cameras, Internet service provider, and subscription to Wired magazine. You supply the wine, music, romance. Is it possible?

Let's splice. Fit, attractive, healthy geneticist at prestigious university, SWF, 37, biological clock ticking, seeks fit, attractive, healthy, intelligent SWM, 25-45, for . . . who knows? Let's see what happens. Photo and chromosome scan appreciated.

Gentle, generous, loving, attractive and lonely WM herpetologist seeks woman who will love me and my collection of snakes. I have boas, vipers, kraits, mambas, and a gentle, generous, loving, attractive and lonely nine-foot reticulated python that will love you too. Please respond. Please.

Harvard-educated PhD linguist, fiftyish, seeks special lady for quiet walks on beaches, maybe more. Are you adorable, beautiful, a cutie full of charms? Delightful, exciting, a feather in my arms? Words cannot express my longing.

Tall, dark and handsome parapsychologist, DBM, 48, specializing in ESP, knows what he is looking for and feels your vibes. Do you feel mine too? You know where to find me. Please call.

Please thaw my icy heart. Attractive SJF climatologist, 37, has been out in the cold too long. Time for a little global warming. If you fit the bill, you are a chain-smoking rain forest lumberjack, 35-45, who loves the sound of internal combustion. Baby, let's set the world on fire.

38-24-36. Drop-dead gorgeous SWF theoretical physicist, specialist in hyperdimensional relativistic quantum cosmology, is tired of being considered just another brain. Looking for a sweet nonintellectual hunk who will love me for my physical qualities. Photo required.

Fabulously attractive SWF ornithologist, PhD, with life list of 457 species, seeks SWM who knows where to find the Black-bellied tree duck. Willing to relocate.

Lady of color, fortysomething, with 50 megawatt free electron laser, seeks nuclear physicist, non-smoker, darkly handsome, for fusion experiments. You bring the wine. I'll bring wit, passion and generous DOE funding.

Bearded PhD anthropologist, 65, professor at prestigious university and prolific field worker with experience in ancient Near Eastern civilizations, would like to meet woman with BS or MS in anthropology or related field for personal and professional collaboration. Must be able to handle shovel and cook.

I felt the earth move. Tenure track, hard rock geologist, GM, 29+, list of refereed publications as long as your arm, seeks sensual older (fortyish) soft rock geologist with established credentials who can generate seismic waves. Send resume.

Dream man. If you are a SJF biology professional who wouldn't mind finding an occasional cell culture in the fridge next to the OJ, this twice-divorced embryologist, 34, with warm personality is looking for you.

Pretty, honey-blonde SWF biochemist, with knockout figure, a passionate nature, and a flair for fun seeks seriously sexy scientist, any age, any field. Please, don't disappoint me again.

Microchip designer, SWM, 30, seeks petite beauty.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sour sop for insomnia

I bumped into Christine Rolle the other day. I met Christine when I first came to the island more than twenty years ago. The island has changed a lot since then. Christine looks pretty much the same.

She was one of the two bush doctors on the island, back in the days when bush medicine still had some popularity. The other was my neighbor Joe Romer, now departed from this world. Joe used to brew up a concoction I called Kickapoo Joy Juice that he swore cured anything from toothache to erectile dysfunction. I tried a few sips to please Joe, but could never bring myself to quaff the generous slugs he offered.

Christine's remedies were more specifically targeted. Deal tea for constipation. Cough vine for cough. Fever bush for fever. Gale of mint for stomach ache. And so on. She drove taxi/bus 25 in those days, giving tours of the island and lessons in bush medicine. The island had only a couple of tiny government clinics, and the hospitals of Nassau were a long way off. If you had a pain in the back, horse bush was the remedy.

And now, just in time for my physical decline, the government is building what looks to be an impressive "mini-hospital." Looks more like a real hospital to me, certainly a massive improvement on the tiny crowded clinic. It remains to be seen what the staffing will be -– if it's ever finished -– but it promises to be open 24-7 and stocked with modern drugs and diagnostic tools. Bush medicine will die with Christine.

Christine's mother had twenty or more children, which was not unusual in those days. Only five survived childhood, which was also not unusual. If the idea of bush medicine sounds romantic, keep in mind that life without scientific medicine was no bed of roses. One hears a lot of talk here from the old people about "the good ole days," but nobody wants to go back.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


By now everyone knows that Earth is getting buzzed on Friday by a gym-sized asteroid. According to NASA, it will miss the Earth's surface by a bit over two Earth-diameters, which is closer than some Earth-orbiting satellites. I mean, this is REALLY close. Thirteen times closer than the Moon.

If this thing smacked down into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, I would not want to be sitting where I am right now.

As a matter of fact, you wouldn't want to be sitting anywhere. We're talking 2.4 megatons of energy, Almost 200 times the energy released at Hiroshima.

Which brings to mind a story in the January 10 issue of Nature describing natural events that would cause catastrophe on Earth. Monstrous volcanic eruptions -- Yellowstone blowing its top, for example. Viruses or fungi out of control. Massive underwater landslides triggering tsunamis. Gamma-ray bursts from nearby star systems. And, of course, asteroid or comet impacts.

Says Nature: "A giant solar flare could kill hundreds of millions and set us back 150 years.

It's enough to keep one up at night.

Except it doesn't. We have a way of putting disaster out of our minds. And besides, we don't need a gym-sized asteroid wiping out millions of people. We can do a pretty good job whittling away on our own. As we are doing in dozens of places around the globe.

Apparently, almost half of American households own a gun (most of which will kill someone in the family if they kill anyone at all). It's as if we are arming for a great shootout, with bullets whizzing about by design or accident. Which, to tell the truth, worries me more than Asteroid 2012 DA14, which will whistle past our ears on Friday. For the time being, we seem to be the biggest threat to life on Earth.

Monday, February 11, 2013

"Idle and blessed…"

What was my first prayer? As far as I can remember, it was this, taught (I must suppose) by a parent:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
A funny sort of prayer to teach a child, a bogeyman sort of prayer, suffused with the ominous possibility of death, and perhaps worse.

It was the first of many formulaic prayers I would learn from parents or teachers. There was a brief period, as I recall, when, under the influence of Father Patrick Peyton and his Family Rosary Crusade, Dad and Mom and me and Anne knelt in our parents' bedroom each evening and recited the Rosary. (Anne, am I remembering correctly?) I don't recall that this episode of family piety lasted long -– the Rosary is a terribly tedious prayer and my father was an antsy man -– but it established a pattern of life on one's knees mumbling words that meant nothing other than that they were supposed to please God.

My teenage years were a history of ejaculations (of the brief rote prayer kind) and Acts of Contrition, all supposing that a Deity was listening who was pleased and appeased by mumbled, essentially meaningless words.

Then, at age 19, Thomas Merton fell into my life, first his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, then, as time passed, his other works, such as Thoughts In Solitude:
When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer. My whole silence is full of prayer. The world of silence in which I am immersed contributes to my prayer…Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.
What a revelation! That God didn't speak English. That he wasn't up there somewhere listening to make sure that I got the words right. That whatever grand and glorious mystery infused the world with grace was here, now, all around me. That prayer was not paying formulaic obeisance, but paying attention.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Credo -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared on August 31, 2007.)

My last few posts took the institutional Roman Catholic Church to task for perceived failings. Lest I come across as too unforgiving, let me repeat here from previous posts what I value in my own Roman Catholic upbringing, education and life experience.

For all of my agnosticism, I am quite willing to call myself a Catholic. Not because I can recite the Creed (I can't), or because I practice that particular faith (I don't), but because the substance of Catholicism went into my system like mother's milk. None of us can be free entirely from the cultural influences that shaped our ways of thinking and experiencing the world. Nor would I want to if I could. I cosset in my heart an unquenchable affection for Catholic tradition.

I am repelled, of course, by the triumphalism, paternalism and authoritarianism of the Church, its Jansenism, supernaturalism, miracle-mongering, and misogyny. But the sacramental tradition is a treasured part of my being. A sacrament is a "visible sign of invisible grace," according to the Church, and "invisible" need not imply "supernatural." I experience every aspect of the natural world as the "visible" manifestation of an "inscape" that is deep and mysterious beyond my knowing. A hundred years ago, who could have imagined the dervish dance of the DNA or the ripples in the energy of the big bang that gave rise to galaxies. Who today can imagine what we will know a hundred years hence. The world is shot through with a grandeur that now and again flames out "like shining from shook foil." In Catholic tradition, one must be predisposed to grace to receive it. I wait, alert. Always. For the shining.

I love Catholic liturgical tradition -- the wax, water, fire, chrism, candlelight, bread, wine, palm fronds, colors, chants, bells -- the whole sensual celebration of the material world. I love the Campbellesque, sun-centered cycle of the liturgical year, and the canonical hours of the day. I love the monastic tradition of life lived with a balance of physical labor, intellectual study, and prayer, the last of which I would define -- with Thomas Merton -- as a quiet listening of the heart, or, more simply, attention. I love the tradition of creation spirituality, heretical to be sure, but in love with the world and suspicious of dualities -- Columbanus, John Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich, Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Teilhard de Chardin, and all the rest. I love the whole smoky, sexy physicality of Catholicism that inspired the art of Gislebertus, Bernini, and Undset, that sent Heloise and Abelard careening into mad abandon and smote Clare and Francis. I love the quintessentially Catholic dark night of the soul as much as I love the luminous Easter symbolism that goes with a planet tipped cockeyed on its axis.

Can I have all of that and still eschew the shabby panoply of miracles and the supernatural? This is my Credo. I am an atheist, if by God one means a transcendent Person who acts willfully within the creation. I am an agnostic in that I believe our knowledge of "what is" is partial and tentative -- a tiny flickering flame in the overwhelming shadows of our ignorance. I am a pantheist in that I believe empirical knowledge of the sensate world is the surest revelation of whatever is worthy of being called divine. I am a Catholic by accident of birth.

Friday, February 08, 2013

A grandeur in this view of life?

We have finally defeated the termites in the kitchen, or at least they are temporarily on the run. It meant ripping out and replacing most of the cabinetry, but –- hey -– this is the tropics and they were here first. Still, murder is the word of the day and it's us versus them. As far as the termites are concerned, I built the house to supply them with food. I'm prepared to defend it, even if it turns me into a cold-blooded killer. I'm consoled knowing that nature invented intraspecies warfare and I'm following a script written in the fabric of the world itself.

Then there's the ants.

We have ants in the kitchen too, but they aren't eating me out of house and home. Mostly they scavenge crumbs we inadvertently leave lying about the counter top. In fact, I rather like watching a teeming crowd of them collectively trying to transport a crumb a hundred times bigger than any one of them to a hole in the window screen that the crumb will never fit through. It's like watching an early chapter of a book called "The Evolution of Intelligence."

But murder is still in the air. These ants are tiny, not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. Tiny and brown, like grains of powdery beach sand. To my eye, only their scampering betrays their animation. But under the x10 magnifier, they are complex little animals, with all the requisite equipment -– eyes, antennae, legs, mouths, articulated bodies. No creation of Fabergé or Cellini could be more exquisitely contrived.

And there they go for the sugar bowl!

And so, and so, I squash them. Mush those exquisite little machines. No, not machines. Living organisms. Cousins (though many times removed). It's possible to imagine a planet on which they are the most successful form of life. Maybe this is that planet.

There they go, marching in a line……………..And I wipe them up, sometimes in their hundreds, with my wet sponge, my weapon of mass destruction.

But not without remorse. I try not to think about all those tiny mouths and eyes, the twitching antennae and scampering feet, the olfactory equipment that is more sensitive than mine, the instinct for cooperation, the innate loyalty to a tribe, the beating pulse of life. It's all preordained by evolution –- me versus them, the food chain, dog-eat-dog, tooth and claw. Necessary even.



Thursday, February 07, 2013

In the beginning

Here is a recent Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), a detail of the Great Orion Nebula, a magnificent star-birthing region in the sword of Orion. You can see a huge mosaic of the nebula here.

These winter evenings, Orion is well placed for viewing, and the nebula is visible to the unaided eye as what appears to be the fuzzy middle star of the Hunter's sword. A good amateur telescope reveals four tiny stars in a cloud of greenish gas (I always imagined four eggs in a nest), the brightest core of the far most extensive nebula.

But, ah, what the largest telescopes reveal! The black-and-white sky explodes into color -– the pinks of hydrogen, the greens of oxygen –- a glorious, mind-numbing extravaganza of creation. Lord knows I have written about it often enough, in a dozen venues, and did my best to evoke its grandeur while standing in cold winter nights with students. The Orion Nebula is our nebula, one of the grandest and closest -- our galaxy, our spiral arm -- our best and most accessible glimpse of our own beginning, page zero-minus-one of the Book of Genesis.

"What can we gain by sailing to the moon," asked Thomas Merton (in Thoughts in Solitude), "if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves." Yes, of course, we know what he meant, but we will not fully know ourselves unless we cross (in our knowledge and imagination) the abyss that separates us from those churning furnaces –- light-years wide -- in which stars are born, and in their burning create the elements of which conscious life is made.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Fiddling on the roof

Our house in New England is boxed in on all sides by other houses; no views of the horizon. The cottage in Ireland has mountains to the east and west. Here on this skinny, low-lying island, sunrises and sunsets are defining moments of the day.
Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly flow the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze
Of, course, lots of things rise and set besides the Sun. A whole universe rises and sets as the Earth turns on its axis. But it’s the Sun that keeps human time; or rather, humans keep Sun time.

It may have been Aristarchus who first imagined that it was the Earth spinning on its axis and not the universe turning around us, surely one of the biggest ideas of all time and one that ultimately severed our communications with the gods. I stand on the morning sunrise terrace or the evening sunset porch and try to feel myself whistling along in a circle at a thousand miles per hour, toward the Sun just there over the eastern horizon, or away from the Sun in the west. It's good practice, learning that the universe doesn't revolve around us.

I have a friend and colleague with whom I used to teach astronomy. We would sometimes meet with students in a dark, open part of the campus waiting for something or other -- the Moon, a planet, a comet –- to rise. Mike would stand on his tip-toes to point to the object, just there, over the horizon, as if those extra few inches would bring the object into view. He had the roundness of the spinning Earth fixed firmly in his head,

We all reflexively stood on tippy-toes too, following his lead, flying along in Aristarchus' space at supersonic speed, learning to become children of the universe.
Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

What's in a name?

This blog came into existence in 2004 as my twenty years of essays in the Boston Globe's weekly science section came to an end. That column was called Science Musings, a title bestowed by the editor who gave me the job. The columns ranged widely, but they all had something to do with science, a thousand essays in all.

Since my column in the Globe had a built-in audience, it seemed only natural to carry the title over to the blog, and indeed the earliest posts here were almost exclusively scientific in their content. But the blog has evolved, and a newcomer might wonder if the name is appropriate. Certainly, what you read here has become more personal, less explicitly scientific.

But everything you read is informed by science. Empirical knowledge has been the bedrock of my life, my touchstone. Even my most lyrical musings are pared with Ockham's Razor and sauced with skepticism.

A character in one of Nabokov's stories says: "Were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one's personal truth." That personal truth, in my sunset case, was forged in a lifetime of scientific study and scientific journalism. Over the years I have scraped away whatever excrescences did not meet the test of consensus public knowledge –- reliable, reproducible, economical.

But the heart! The heart I allow imagination, and affairs of the heart seem to be intruding themselves into nooks and crannies of the blog, sometimes exploding out of containment to splatter the screen with what is surely excess if not excrescence. Well, so be it. The heart has its imperatives, and you, the reader, will stay or go depending upon your own constraints of head and heart.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Speak, memory

There is no mystery in science more baffling than memory -– the way a melon-sized ball of meat can store a lifetime of recollections and recall them at will without erasing. To think about it is almost to doubt the materialist paradigm.

Almost, but not quite. We have computers to remind us that it is in principle possible. This little box I am writing on contains every Science Musing post of the past eight years and the images that went with them.

Still, I stand in awe of someone like Gabriel García Márquez, who seems to have remembered every detail of his past, or, sublimely, that master of memory, Vladimir Nabokov.

Here is Nabokov on the French governess who was imported into Russia by his family to care for the Nabokov children:
A large woman, a very stout woman, Mademoiselle rolled into our existence in 1905 when I was six and my brother was five. There she is. I see so plainly her abundant dark hair, brushed up high and covertly graying; the three wrinkles on her austere forehead; her beetling brows; the steely eyes behind the black-rimmed pince-nez; that vestigial mustache; that blotchy complexion, which in moments of wrath develops an additional flush in the region of the third, and amplest, chin so regally spread over the frilled mountain of her blouse. And now she sits down, or rather she tackles the job of sitting down, the jelly of her jowl quaking, her prodigious posterior, with the three buttons on the side, lowering herself warily; then, at the last second, she surrenders her bulk to the wicker armchair, which out of sheer fright bursts into a salvo of crackling.
Could he really remember, decades latter, such detail from age six? That triad of threes: wrinkles, chins, buttons? At age six, or thereabouts, my family employed a domestic helper one day a week to assist with the ironing. I remember her race (naturally) and her name, which was unusual, but virtually nothing else about her –- was she youngish and thin? -– even though I spent many days in her presence. I do remember, however, in vivid detail, the ironing board, the iron, and the water-filled Coke bottle with the metal sprinkler corked to the top with which she dampened the clothes before pressing.

Right-brained, left-brained? Were the details that my six-year-old brain squirreled away for the future related to a mechanical aptitude that would later nudge my visits to the science lab storeroom, and then to the study of engineering and physics. If a sum of memories is a person's soul, am I the tin man on the Yellow Brick Road? And now we know too why García Márquez, Proust and Nabokov are elevated to the loftiest heights of literature. Three wrinkles, three chins, three buttons.

Sunday, February 03, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Picnic in the park -- a Saturday reprise

Here's the photo that is the starting point of the Eames movie Powers of Ten and the Morrison book of the same title (a classic of popular science): A couple picnicking in the park opposite the Field Museum of Natural History and Soldier's Field on the Chicago lake shore. Click to enlarge.

When was the photo taken?

The movie is dated 1977. It was based on an earlier 1968 film called A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with Powers of Ten. Was the photo part of the earlier film, which I have never seen?

I recognize the book with the clock face by the man's hand; it is the volume called Time in the Time-Life Books Science Series, to which my new and growing family subscribed in the 1960s. This volume was published in 1966. The other book, The Voices of Time, I don't recognize, but easy to track down on Amazon. It's the book edited by J. T. Fraser and subtitled "A comprehensive survey of man's views of time as understood and described by the sciences and the humanities," also published in 1966. The date is consistent with the earlier film.

But wait. We also have copies of Science and Scientific American at the man's shoulder. The title header on Science is too modern for the 1960s. And the photograph on the cover is powerfully suggestive of the surface of Mars. The Viking 1 Lander reached the Martian surface on June 19, 1976. Viking 2 touched down on September 3 of the same year.

The picnic photo has north at the top, so from the shadows we are near mid-day. An estimate of the angle of the shadow (I used the fellow's head), together with Chicago's latitude (42 degrees), indicates the photo was taken late-August-ish. So, to the on-line archive of Science. We are looking at the issue for 22 August 1976, showing on the cover stereographic images of Mars' surface made with the two lander cameras. That issue of Science was packed with Viking science. I remember it well. It was a thrilling time.

Easy now to track down the issue of Scientific American: September 1976, a special issue on food and agriculture. The cover image is a Landstat 2 photo of the Imperial Valley on the border of California and Mexico, made from an altitude of 570 miles. The first Landstat satellite was launched in 1972. Landstat 2 was launched in January 1975 and operated until 1981. Ah, those were glory days of space science. And the glory days of Scientific American too, with Martin Gardner conducting his feature on Mathematical Games and the book reviews in the always engaging hands of Philip Morrison.

So our picnic is late August 1976. America has just celebrated its Bicentennial. Gerald Ford is President and edges out Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. Jimmy Carter has been nominated by the Democrats. The Summer Olympics in Montreal are concluded. The Viking Landers are looking for life on Mars.

And I have just wasted an hour of a lovely afternoon.

This post appeared in November 2010.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Living to tell the tale

There has been a lot of remembering in this blog lately. Dredging up the past from the deepest recesses of the brain. Yesterday I dragged into the light of day the storeroom in my high-school science lab. Which set in train other memories of that dark, somewhat spooky building on 8th Street in Chattanooga. The study hall, where we pasted up the high-school newspaper, the Marion, and the big closet off the study hall that served as the library stacks, which we scoured for anything remotely salacious; even the ribald bits of the Canterbury Tales qualified as a 15-year-old's erotica. The revelations of the boys' shower room. The dark skirts and white blouses of the girls, who sat together on the other side of the classroom, as if the mixing of the sexes by seats or rows was an occasion for sin.

How is it that all that stuff is still in there, like a vast film archive, waiting to be re-spooled in old age? Whoever I am today is the sum of those memories, utterly unique to me, at least in their nuance and totality. Any individual memory may be shared with others who were there, then, like a piece of a jig-saw puzzle, but its only when all the pieces are fitted together that a picture emerges, and every picture is different. Every picture is a human soul.

Gabriel García Márquez's penultimate book was a memoir, Living To Tell the Tale, the first of a projected trilogy, published when García Márquez was about my age. It is a formidable retelling, lush in detail, steeped in sounds and tastes and scents, the most lyrical and exhaustive portrait of a soul I have come across. A kind of immortality.

Some persons' memories, such as García Márquez's, are extraordinarily capacious. By comparison, my store of recollections is paltry, but no less precious, and now at age 76 I find myself spending more and more time curating what remains. Roaming the halls of the old high school -- the bells, the crucifixes, the peeling beige paint, the nuns in their penguin habits, and -- the Periodic Table of the Elements on the wall of the science lab, the one splash of vivid color in that otherwise drab building, beckoning me to another place.

Are my memories accurate? Doesn't matter. They are not required as evidence in a court of law. They are me.