Friday, May 31, 2013

The better rodents of our nature

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine had a cover story on potential new drugs to address waning sexual desire in women in long-term relationships. Be that as it may, there was one paragraph that drew me up short. The author was talking about the technical difficulty of studying live brain reactions in women undergoing sexual stimulation:
So we rely on rats. And one of the world's masters of rat lust is Jim Pfaus, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Concordia University in Montreal, who wears hoop earrings and used to sing in a punk band called Mold. The various drug companies…regularly consult with him. A few floors below his office, hundreds of rats court and mate in stacks of Plexiglas cages. Pfaus and his grad students inject the rodents with this or that compound to block one aspect of desire's biochemistry and isolate another. Or they kill the rats right after a moment of craving or copulation. The brain is then extracted, frozen and shaved into wafers, microns thin, by a device resembling a miniature cold-cut slicer. Pfaus peers at these specimens under a microscope to figure out which clusters of neural cells went into metabolic overdrive while the rodent was in a sexual frenzy.
There is much in this paragraph that invites an emotional response -– intrigue, curiosity, revulsion, dismay. Primarily, I suppose, there is the assumed consonance between the psychological states of humans and rats. Then there is the always contentious question of using animals in biological research, especially research that is not potentially life-saving. And why, pray tell, did we need to know about the hoop earrings and punk band?

My first impulse was to concoct a reaction involving humor, a parody perhaps on The Rats of NIMH. Then I remembered a Boston Globe column of twenty years ago in which I poked fun at some published research on adder sex, which involved some curious voyeurism in the boudoirs of serpents. I had a rebuke from Stephen Jay Gould, who considered my snickering inappropriate for well-meaning research. Stephen had been a kind supporter of my writing, so his rebuke hit home.

I'll leave Professor Pfaus and his rats to you. Humans certainly have more in common with rats than with angels. And angels, presumably don't have sex, at least none that I ever heard about in school.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

This view of life, with its several powers

Somewhere in his "lost" notebooks Loren Eiseley writes of the pleasure of exploding a puffball in a woodland clearing, or shaking seeds out of their pods. As I recall, he takes a gleeful satisfaction in messing with evolution, in hurrying the process along.

I remember identifying with that sentiment when I read it. I like exploding puffballs too. Dropping insects into spider webs. Picking up turtles that are half-way across a road and placing them in a ditch on the other side.

Most of all I like breaking off the stalks of ripe milkweeds and shaking them gloriously in a meadow on a breezy day. Love that snowstorm of fecund parachutes blowing hither and yon. Love the idea that I am helping the monarch butterflies that feed and breed exclusively on milkweed.

Yes, I know, in the great scheme of things my random intrusions into the grinding engine of evolution won't make an iota's worth of difference. The problems besetting monarch butterflies won't be significantly alleviated by one more milkweed plant. And that turtle I put in the ditch may just turn around and head back across the road.

Still, I take a childish pleasure in mixing it up. Of helping the natural in natural selection. Of kicking up a little dust on the tangled bank.

We live in a creative universe, Eiseley said. Let's be creative.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Speak, Earth

There is a passage toward the end of Vladimir Nabokov' memoir Speak, Memory where he compares the writing of a novel to "the zest of a deity building a live world from the most unlikely ingredients—rocks, and carbon, and blind throbbings."

This is the season in New England when we watch the deity in action, when the cold, rocky foundation suddenly seeps and oozes the fluids of life, the blood and tears and intestinal juices and sticky protoplasm. The first rays of summer filter to the woodland floor and wild lilies-of-the-valley, bell flowers and star flowers spring up underfoot. Where the Queset Brook gathers and purls beneath the plank bridge the striders and whirligigs and mayflies skitter and flit. It's all a bit of a miracle, really--rocks, carbon and blind throbbings. Who could have guessed?

Of course the real miracle is not the annual resurgence of life but the original flicker of animation, the appearance of that first self-reproducing organism in a world that truly was just rock and carbon and blind throbbing. The crackle of lightning. The heat of volcanism. The tickling stimulus of radiation. We don't know how it happened. Or where. Or when. For the moment we must assume it happened here, on Earth, three or four billion years ago, but maybe the Earth was seeded from elsewhere, maybe the galaxy teems with life, maybe rock and carbon has an inevitable urge to seep and ooze, to throb.

There's so much we don't know that it behooves us to walk warily, to speak with discretion, to avoid dogmas of any kind. To remember the first sentence of Nabokov's Speak, Memory:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Catching change

Sometime about the second or third week of every university calculus course, the student is introduced to the concept of a limit. In my textbook, the definition was as follows. I quote it in full, perversely, knowing that I risk losing my readers:
DEFINITION: Let ƒ(x,∆x) be defined for some fixed value of x and for all values of ∆x (different from zero) in some interval -h < ∆x < +h, that is, for -h < ∆x < 0 and for 0 < ∆x <+h. Let there be a number L(x) (which may depend upon x), such that to any positive number ε, there corresponds a positive number δ, 0 < δ < h, having the property that ƒ(x, ∆x) differs from L(x) by less than ε when |∆x| is different from zero and is less than δ. That is, if 0 < |∆x| < δ, then |ƒ(x,∆x) - L(x)| < ε.
This passage was the most incomprehensible thing I had hitherto encountered in my life. It was appended to the statement "These preliminary remarks should now enable us to understand. . ."

Of course, I did not understand. I doubt if any first-year calculus student reaches this point in the course with understanding (although maybe these days textbooks take a more intuitive approach).

Still, I was smart enough to know that if I sidestepped this initial hurdle I would never grasp what followed. So I beat my head against it for a week until the light bulb finally went on. I figured out the definition of a limit.

The rest, as they say, was a piece of cake. The study of calculus became pure bliss. No kidding. Maybe I was weird or something, but I remember calculus as being the neatest thing I encountered in college (excluding my life partner). And looking back on it today, I'd say the idea embodied in that definition above is one of the greatest innovations of our species: A way of applying the logical rigor of mathematics to continuous change. That is to say, to the world we live in.

Flow. Flux. One cannot step in the same river twice. The hawk soars on an infinitely variable wind. The buttercups bend in the breeze. I breathe in, I breathe out. The blood ebbs and flows in my veins. The universe's clock doesn't stop for geometry; it only yields to that mysterious thing called a limit, a way of confidently treating the infinite and the infinitesimal.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The small and the great

I've done some scientific tourism in my day, including my 100 mile solo walk along the prime meridian in England that took me, among other places, to Darwin's home in Kent, Newton's quarters at Cambridge, and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. I've looked at Galileo's finger in Florence and spent several happy hours at Linnaeus's charming country house at Hammarby in Sweden. Among these and many other places, I must say my favorite was the home of the naturalist Gilbert White in Selborne, England.

It would be hard to find a more charming English village than Selborne, its idyllic quiet disturbed only by nature tourists such as me. Thatched roof cottages, two pubs, peaceful walks in woods and meadows, a parish church with a wonderful stained-glass window of Saint Francis preaching to the birds, every species mentioned in White's classic The Natural History of Selborne.

White is generally considered to be the first naturalist, as we would understand that term today. He kept a keen eye on every aspect of his village: birds, beasts, insects, plants, geology, weather. There is little that escaped his attention. His book has been in print for two centuries. I know it from the pocket-sized Oxford World Classic series. I see from Amazon that there are now several new editions, including one for Kindle.

Almost better than the Natural History are White's journals, which he kept religiously from 1768 till his death in 1793. I own the 1970 reprint by MIT Press of the first published English edition. Amazon lists several editions of the journals, including MIT's, but none seems to be in print. A shame.

This post was prompted by a tour I just took around Selborne using Google Steeet View. Go to Selborne in Google Maps and move the little yellow guy around the village. Not much seems to have changed since I was there 40 years ago.

I've written here before about Gilbert White and a search of the archives will add more to his story ( "gilbert white"). I would add only this, an epigraph to the MIT Journals, from a poem about White by A. C. Benson"
This was thy daily task, to learn that man
Is small, and not forget that man is great.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Instead of seeing forms

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Adorned with all the riches of the Earth -- a Saturday reprise

You had need of me in order to grow; and I was waiting for you in order to be made holy.
I have written often here of Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest, mystic, anthropologist, and an intellectual hero of my youth. I am no longer as taken with his Christocentric theology, but I still stand in awe of what he was trying to do -- to drag the Church kicking and screaming into the 20th century. For his trouble he was silenced and exiled, protesting in a letter, "If only Rome would start to doubt herself at last, a little!"

His greatest legacy, it seems to me, was his attempt to redeem matter from the contempt in which it was held by official theology, which -- caught up in an unnatural philosophical dualism -- placed matter over and against the divine. Matter/spirit, natural/supernatural, body/soul: Has ever a philosophical concept led to such strife and mischief?

Near the end of his life, Teilhard wrote: "How is it possible that I am so incapable of passing on to others...the vision of the marvelous unity in which I find myself immersed?"

One of the most moving of Teilhard's essays is "The Spiritual Power of Matter" in The Hymn of the Universe. Those who denigrate science for its supposed commitment to "Godless materialism" -- and they are many -- could do well to read these allegorical pages, in which Teilhard envisions the evolving universe of matter lit up from within by a redeeming power that is not be be separated from its corporeal embodiment. It is matter -- for Teilhard, divine matter -- who speaks the line with which I began this post.

When Teilhard spoke the words of consecration, "This is my body," he was not invoking a magical transubstantiation, but rather acknowledging liturgically "the beauty of spirit as it rises up adorned with all the riches of the earth." We are flesh and blood, through and through, in our most profound essence, says Teilhard; without matter we do not exist. And, he adds, it is our responsibility as religious creatures to make matter holy.

(This post originally appeared in November 2007.)

Friday, May 24, 2013

Going viral

The cover of the May 10 issue of Science (click to enlarge). It caught my eye immediately. It would catch anyone's eye. What is it? The caption reads:
Model of a candidate HIV vaccine prime immunogen (center) engaging germline B cell receptors (bottom) to initiate an antibody immune response. The immunogen is a virus-like nanoparticle, ~30 nanometers in diameter, displaying 60 copies of an HIV gp120 outer domain protein engineered to bind germline precursors of specific broadly neutralizing antibodies. This work has promising implications for HIV vaccine research.
The caption I can grasp. The accompanying report in the journal by researchers at the Scripps Research Institute and elsewhere flies over my head. This is very much a specialist's game. But that doesn't make the computer-generated, false-colored model on the cover of Science any less impressive.

The two terms in the caption to focus on are "30 nanometers" and "engineered."

This "engineered" object is ten thousand times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Back tomorrow

Spring break.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


In a review in the New york Times Book Review, Daniel Handler writes:
And strange? Well, let's get this straight: All great books are strange. Every lasting work of literature since the very weird "Beowulf" has been strange, not only because it grapples with the strangeness around us, but also because the effect of originality is startling, making even the oldest books feel like brand new stories.
Strange: Out-of-the-ordinary, unusual, curious. "The strangeness around us," says Handler. There is a paradox here. What could be less strange than the world around us? It is the same world that was here yesterday, and the day before that. More to the point: It is a world ruled by law. Inviolable causal bonds. That's what makes science possible.

And yet, and yet. I walk wary. Strangeness lurks on ever side. Strangeness leaps out of every pebble in the path, every wildflower, every spider web flung between weedy stalks. In the midst of the utterly ordinary the extraordinary abounds. Nothing is so commonplace as to be common.

The strangeness of the world, as in literature, has its source in the head, in the convoluted interaction of mind with world. Strange, that we should be here, strangers in a strange land, pilgrims on our own yellow brick roads where nothing is ordinary because everything is perceived through the filter of a unique consciousness.

And strange? Well, let's get this straight. I hope never to loose the capacity to see the strangeness in the familiar, the curious in the everyday, the exception in the unexceptional. "I do not expect a miracle/ or an accident/ to set the sight on fire," wrote Silvia Plath. Just being here is enough. Just being here is surpassing strange.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Planet Bruno

In the year 1600, Giordano Bruno went up in smoke in the Campo de' Fiori in Rome, the Field of Flowers. Among his many theological transgressions was the heretical belief that the stars were other Suns with other inhabited planets. How strongly the latter belief figured in his condemnation is a matter of controversy, but certainly it was part of the unorthodox stew Bruno held in his head.

Today, a statue of Bruno stands, dark and brooding, on a pedestal in what is now a busy market square, erected by Freethinkers in the 19th century. Not far away is Saint Peter's Square, which remains an epicenter of orthodoxy. The Church doesn't burn heretics anymore, but it doesn't tolerate dissent lightly. Just ask the American Catholic nuns who have lately run afoul of the Vatican.

Many years ago, I visited the Campo de' Fiori and made my nod to the man who entertained one of the most daring ideas of all time: a myriad of Suns, a multitude of inhabited worlds. Today you can visit with Google Street View without leaving your easy chair.

Meanwhile, astronomers are busy putting Bruno's ideas to the test of empirical verification. They have long since determined that the stars are indeed other Suns, or rather that the Sun is a typical star. Now they are engaged in a pell-mell search for extrasolar planets. Upwards of a thousand planets around other stars have been verified, and hundreds more are discovered every year. It now seems likely that most, if not all, stars have planetary systems. And a few of these are in the so-called habitable zone, defined as "the annulus around a star where a rocky planet with a CO2-H2O-N2 atmosphere and sufficiently large water content can host liquid water on its solid surface."

Next comes detection of a planet with the chemical signature of life. The May 3 issue of Science has a special section on how this might be done, and in the not so distant future. If and when it happens, an obvious name is waiting for the planet.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The parts and poems of the body

As I was walking to college this morning I heard, as usual, the "whistle" (horn) of the Boston train, five miles away in Stoughton. And suddenly a song popped into my head, perhaps the first song I ever learned.
Choo-choo-choo is an iron horse
And he has an iron wheel.
Choo-choo-choo eats wood and coal
and seems to like it still.
I'm a merry choo-choo-choo.
I'm a merry choo-choo-choo.
As far as I can recall, those lyrics haven't passed through my conscious mind since I learned them at the age of three. They were in there, in that tangle of neurons, tucked away intact. Here in the college library there are dozens of books on memory, and not one of them can tell me how or where choo-choo was stored.

The body balks account, says Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass. Balks account indeed! A lifetime of experience imprinted on a softball-sized glob of meat. The hoot of a locomotive and neurons fire in response. I sing aloud the lyrics -- choo-choo-choo -- as I walk along. I sing the body electric. "In this head the all-baffling brain," says Whitman.

On April 2, President Obama announced the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. "There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked," he said, "and the BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember. And that knowledge could be -- will be -- transformative."

Transformative! Listen again to Whitman:
O I say, these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the Soul.
O I say now these are the Soul!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Learn by heart

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

True worship -- a Saturday reprise

Be a gardener
Dig and ditch
Toil and sweat,
And turn the earth upside down
And seek the deepness
And water the plants in time.
Continue this work
And make sweet floods to run
And noble and abundant fruits
To spring.
Take this food and drink
And carry it to God
As your true worship.
A few lines from Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century mystic, who in a time of horrendous suffering and grief wrote lovingly of the goodness of God. With the Black Death stalking the land, she praised the tiny plant. From her anchorite cell, she extolled gardens.

Gardens. Each morning I walk through the community gardens on land of the Easton Natural Resources Trust. And now, just now, in this second week of May, the first shoots and tendrils are showing forth, the fruits of dig and ditch, toil and sweat. Well, not so much toil and sweat. The folks who garden here do so at an easy pace. They turn and till with an apparently effortless languor. They woo and coax the plants from the soil.

The Earth does not need us to fructify. If there were no humans, she would burgeon each spring with new growth; her green fuse is lit with no attention from us. But we are here, and we are the dominant organism, and the surface of the Earth will be -- is! -- a human artifact whether we like it or not. Let it be then a garden, a place where the hand touches lightly, where human cunning insinuates itself ever so gently into the rhythms of life. As I walk through the community gardens I silently thank the gardeners. Every shoot and tendril is a prayer they carry to God.

(This post originally appeared in May 2009.)

Friday, May 17, 2013

When the morning stars sing together

A Chinese proverb: A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.

Which might be an acceptable epigraph for this blog. I can't imagine anyone coming here looking for answers. Certainly, providing answers is the last thing on my mind. I would like to think you come for song.

We are, I think, by and large, a community who distrusts answers, at least answers that are vehemently held. We are made uncomfortable by stridency. By dogma. By the desire to proselytize. We wear our truths lightly, gaily, as a song bird wears its feathers.

We are grateful to those who push back the clouds of ignorance and hold the reins of passion (click to enlarge). With Blake, we sing their praises, a song we have spent a lifetime learning.

We sing to celebrate.

We sing because we have a song.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Blind faith

Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus. Indeed. But where are they to be found? If you believe E. O. Wilson, we are genetically programmed for conflict, universally, across all cultures. In The Social Conquest of the Earth he writes: "Our bloody nature, it can now be argued in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group was a principle driving force that made us what we are."

Us versus other.

Religions too have a biological origin, says Wilson. They are a way of reinforcing the "us," of creating cohesiveness. Every religious group believes it is the one true faith and all the others are wrong. Us versus them.

Blessed are the peacemakers? The Romans legions went into battle with the cry Nobiscum Deus. Deus lo volt! shouted Christian crusaders as they turned the streets of Aleppo and Damascus into rivers of blood. The belt buckles of the Wehrmacht proclaimed Gott Mit Uns. Allahu Akbar!, assert Muslim suicide bombers: There is no God but God!

Tribe, nation, ethnicity, religion. What would be do without the "other." War is humanity's curse, says Wilson, and it's hard to find reasons not to agree. (Unless you want to say war is male humanity's curse: violence is pretty much a boy's game.)

Oh, wait. Let’s skip to the end of the book. Perhaps the situation is not as grim as Wilson paints it in the earlier chapters. In the penultimate paragraph he writes:
So, now I will confess my own blind faith. Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least to the strong beginnings of one. We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay.
It all comes down, I guess, to "what we truly are." Genetically programed for conflict, or simply decent and unrelentingly reasonable?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


In the final chapter of The Social Conquest of the Earth, E. O. Wilson doesn't have much good to say about organized religions. He calls them "stultifying and divisive." This from a good ole ex-Baptist boy from Southern Alabama. In particular, he says bluntly: "The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religions is irreconcilable."

In so saying, he stands in opposition to his long-time nemesis and fellow Harvard professor, the late Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote of science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria," each with its own domain of knowing and instruments of discovery and discourse.

Are science and religion irreconcilable? It depends on what one means by "science" and "religion."

If by science one means that body of knowledge of reality that has been or can be empirically verified, then it's hard to see how science can rule out such supposed supernatural interventions as the Virgin Birth or Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. There's no form of time travel that would let us go back to the time in question and perform the medical examinations necessary to confirm or refute the supposed miracles. If someone chooses to believe these things, as many millions do, there is no way science can prove them wrong.

In this sense, Gould is right. What we have are two non-overlapping ways of knowing: revelation vs. empiricism, tradition vs. skepticism, one-off miracles vs. reproducibility. Can one hold to both ways of knowing at once? Well, yes, I suppose so, and many do, even a few highly successful scientists. But it surely must take some measure of cognitive dissonance.

No miracle has ever been confirmed empirically to the satisfaction of unbiased observers. The supposed miracles of organized religions are as various as the religions themselves, and the vast majority of believers accept the miracles of the religion they were born into and reject the rest. And let us not forget the fact that, for better or worse, modern civilization -- democracy, equality, technology, medicine, Enlightenment philosophical principles -- all followed from the application of the scientific way of knowing.

Not to mention the apparent hubris of those who claim access to the mind of the creator of billions of galaxies.

All of which suggests that Wilson is right too: If simplicity, consistency, and humility of mind are the criteria, science and traditional religions are indeed irreconcilable.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ed's ants, Beth's bees

I've finally got around to reading E. O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of the Earth. Not much that is new, but a nice tying together of themes he has developed from Sociobiology to Consilience and beyond. I have nothing but admiration for the man; he is 83 years old and still prodigiously productive.

He is, of course, perhaps the world's leading authority on the social insects, especially ants. He is not afraid to assert similarities between eusocial insects and human societies, and looks for the origin of both in the dynamic of natural selection.

As it happens, as I read Wilson, I am getting daily reports on my friend Beth's new bee hive, her first. The hive is not just a buzzing confusion. It is a highly organized society, in which every individual has an specialized role to play. My curiosity piqued, I just spent a few hours browsing Mark Winston's The Biology of the Honey Bee, and I'm sitting here shaking my head and thinking: "Ain't nature wonderful," and "Ain't science wonderful."

But let me quote now, more or less at random, from a less scientific source, Susan Brind Morrow's more literary Wolves & Honey:
When we open the hive we rarely see the queen. She lives where the young are hatched and reared, in the middle of the lower combs, surrounded by pollen. The queen wanders through her territory all day long, slowly, regally, surrounded by her changing court of worker bees, which protect and wash her, brushing back her hair, bringing her food, carrying away her excrement. They touch her all the while with their antennae.

As they lick and touch the queen the workers pick up substances secreted by her body. The workers constantly touch one another, and in doing so spread her pheromones throughout the hive, signally that the queen is alive and well.

The workers create a thin layer of larger cells on the edge of the comb for unfertilized eggs, which he queen lays at will. The unfertilized eggs develop into male bees, drones larger than the worker bees, even burly. The drones do no work. They wander through the hive as they wish, taking pollen and honey, and making messes wherever they go.
And so on, page after page of astonishing social behaviors. Courtship. Sex. The rearing of young. Communication. Food preparation and storage. Grooming. Housekeeping. Defense.

E. O. Wilson with his overarching theories of social evolution (of which more tomorrow), and Beth with her bees. The halls of Harvard, and the meadows of Plainville. They go nicely together. Hard to tell who has the greater enthusiasm.

Monday, May 13, 2013


I don't know much about the painter Henri Rousseau. When I was a young man I recall a period when I was fascinated by his "jungle" pictures, all that promiscuous tropical vegetation with their heart of darkness, especially "Virgin Forest With Setting Sun" (click to enlarge). There was something fiercely sensual about those paintings. The scarlet disk of the sun. The jaguar and its shadow locked in combat. The bed of cacti, daubed with blood. The gargantuan pink and yellow blossoms like a Greek chorus, wailing warning.

Does that sound over the top? Hyperbolic? Well, I guess you had to be there, in that 1950-60s stew of burgeoning nature and Catholic guilt, passion and restraint.

Those paintings don't particularly interest me now. Rather, I'm drawn toward another of Rousseau's works, "Carnival Evening."

Everything here is in perfect opposition to "Virgin Forest." The human figures, male and female, in cool repose, celebratory but demur. The summer house, dark and empty. The scrim of bare trees, faintly misted with the palest shade of red. A backdrop of cloud and stars. The moon, distant and circumspect. One black cloud, perhaps, but every life must have a hint of discontent.

Yes. This suits me now. I know; it looks like a Christmas card, but I like it. This universe of blue and gray, of backlit clouds and the faintest promise of passion. A cosmos, saturated from the first day of creation with inevitability. All the world's a stage and our little life is rounded with a sleep.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day -- a reprise

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

In the smithy of the Sun -- a Saturday reprise

It is one of the wonders of science that we can tell exactly what distant galaxies, stars and nebulas are made of by a spectral analysis of their light. And the unsurprising answer is that they are made of exactly the same elements as the Earth.

I say "unsurprising," but that is only from our modern perspective. For most of human history it was assumed that the heavens were made of other stuff, less mundane, more ethereal. But no. It's hydrogen, helium, carbon, oxygen, and all the other familiar atoms that make up our terrestrial environment.

But not in uniform abundances. There is about ten times more of the heavier elements -- carbon and oxygen, say -- relative to hydrogen and helium in the shell of an exploded star (such as the Cat's Eye Nebula above) than in the surrounding gaseous medium. That's because heavy elements are forged in stars as they burn, fused from hydrogen and helium, and when a star dies explosively it sheds these elements to space -- to perhaps become in the fullness of time other stars and planets.

In the beginning, in the wake of the big bang, there was only hydrogen and helium. Stars, yes. Galaxies of stars. And big gassy planets like Jupiter. But no solid planets like Earth with cores of iron, shells of silicon and oxygen, and biospheres of carbon-based life. Many stars had to live and die in the arms of the Milky Way Galaxy to make the stuff of Earth and life. Starlight is the product. We are the ash.

There are about 1027 carbon atoms in a human body. That's 1000000000000000000000000000 carbon atoms, and every one was fused in a star that lived and died before the Sun and Earth were born. These atoms are passed around. I got mine from food, ultimately from the air and soil. I'm only using them temporarily. I'll give them back. Maybe some of my carbon atoms once resided in the body of Archimedes. Maybe some will eventually end up in my great-great-great-great-grandchildren's shoe polish or cucumbers.

You can never step in the same river twice, said Heraclitus. Everything flows. We are a river of atoms -- we coalesce, we effervesce, we disperse. A human soul is an eddy in a whirlwind. Enjoy it while you can.

(This post originally appeared in May 2009.)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Trying on voices

One last reflection on writing.

In a recent New York Times Book Review last-page essay, the always interesting Pico Iyer praises writers who try different voices in their fiction. He recounts the ways our voice changes depending on who we are addressing, something that becomes especially acute in an increasingly globalized world where many different voices contend for attention.

Iyer acknowledges various novelists who have consistently adopted different voices based on their experience of cultural diversity -- Mohsin Hamid and Zadie Smith, for example. He writes: "What they are telling us is that for an increasing number of people worldwide, it's only by remaining constantly mobile, keeping you voice as fluid and versatile as the world around you, that you can begin to be true to who you really are.

My own life experience has been distressingly homogeneous, and I suppose because of that my voice has been dully consistent. I remember the first time I felt I had found my voice, after many years of struggling to become a writer. It was when I wrote the first sentence of The Soul of the Night: "Yesterday on Boston Common I saw a young man on a skateboard collide with a child." The child flew a few feet across the Common; I saw her fly across the galaxy. The rest of the book was an easy riff on that theme. And the next book, Honey from Stone, followed in the same comfortable voice.

I was off and running. Twenty-years of non-fiction, following that little girl's cosmic trajectory.

But fiction. Fiction is different. Fiction demands different voices, lest every character be the same. And not just the same, but atavars of the author. So now began a second challenge -- finding my way out of a voice that had served so well.

I suppose that writing in different voices was more challenging than finding my own, and consequently my fiction has been less successful than my non-fiction. But it has been personally gratifying. In Chattanooga, for example, I tried to tell the story in a half-dozen different voices. In the first draft, they all sounded rather alike. So then came the work of distinction: old, young, male, female, sexist, feminist. Only the reader will know whether I (and Dan) succeeded, but this I do know: In reaching for distinctive voices I discovered -- as Iyer suggests -- some hitherto unexpressed things about myself.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

"Blown by all the winds that pass and wet with all the showers"

Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing become a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in his blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up.
A passage from E. B. White's contribution to Strunk and White. As someone with no fondness for guns or hunting, I can't say that I like his metaphor. At the same time, it has a certain relevance.

During my thirty-five years as a professional writer, I suppose I had several motives. Creativity: to make something instructive or beautiful. Ego: to accumulate some measure of acclaim. Money: to supplement my salary as a classroom teacher. I never stopped to think much about how I might be changing, what I might be learning, where I might be going. The ideas were coming faster than I could write them down. No waiting in the blind. No roaming the countryside. Bam! Bam! One wing shot after the other.

It was exhilarating. It was exhausting.

That's all over now. The pace is calmer. Ego and money have receded. Creativity is no longer an end in itself. It is gratifying to have some hundreds of people visit here every day, and for that I am grateful, but that's not why I write. Now, in retirement, writing is a tool, an instrument, like the mini-binoculars and X10 magnifier I carry in my backpack. Writing helps me see. Helps me understand. I write for the same reason I eat, for nourishment. That I have such a perceptive audience keeps me on my toes.

Sometimes I sit in my blind, this comfy chair on the third floor of the college library, in the midst of the Ps, Qs and Ns (literature, science, art). Sometimes I roam the countryside hoping to scare something up. Not as something to write about and sell, but as something to learn. Writing is a way of putting what I find on the stage of a microscope, of examining closely. Writing is a way of fitting novelty into an almost finished life.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013


After some fifteen years writing weekly for the Boston Globe, and dozens of essays and reviews for other journals, the college Communication Department tapped me to teach a course called "Non-fiction Writing for the Print Media." I didn't feel all that confident "teaching" writing. After all, I had acquired whatever skills I had by years of trying and failing. What I could offer the students, I thought, was inspiration and honest critique.

I did suggest, however, that they spend a few bucks on Strunk and White.

I refer to that slim little classic The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.

The Strunk part goes back to the beginning of the last century, a self-published pamphlet Professor Strunk prepared for his students on proper English usage and effective composition. In the 1950s, the publisher Macmillan asked White to revise and edit the pamphlet for publication. White was a well-known contributor to the New Yorker and author of the popular children's books Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. To Strunk's concise advice he added his own tips on effective writing.

In the first draft of the previous paragraph I wrote "a little self-published pamphlet" and "his own brief tips." But pamphlets are by definition little, and tips are brief. Strunk's Rule 13: "Omit needless words." Chop, chop was probably the best advice I gave my students. Good Strunk and White advice.

Omit needless words. Be concise. Advice that in my case might lead to extinction. The magazine articles I used to write ran to 3000 words. My Globe columns started out at about 1000 words, then slimmed down to 800. Then 700. Now I'm blogging at 300 words a day. The trend is clear.

Omit needless words. My last will be my epitaph:
Here lies Raymo,
Mute, serene,
True at last
To Rule 13.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Method or madness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over the next few days, I will be musing about writing.

(I lifted the Steinbeck anecdote from my friend the writer Brian Doyle, as I waded around in one of the teeming tide pools of his prose.)

Monday, May 06, 2013

The I and the we

Everyone who has heard of the poet William Carlos Williams will know his poem "The Red Wheelbarrow". It is so well known that I don't think I will violate copyright to quote it here in its brief entirety:
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
It is as succinct as a haiku. For those who know Williams only through this poem, one might lump him in with E. E. Cummings -- sentimental, lower case, nonstandard English. But Williams' work is more complex than that, as Williams himself was a complex and conflicted man -- a conventional family man, a physician, living all his life in his birthplace, Rutherford, New Jersey, in conflict with an unconventional poet, a potentially promiscuous rebel, friend of fast-living bohemian artists in Manhattan. He seems never to have resolved the conflict.

Williams' medical training, I would assume, developed his talent for direct, prescriptive observation. "The Red Wheelbarrow" is as cool and collected as, say, the examination of a child with swollen tonsils. It was, by the way, one of Williams' own favorite poems, based on his observation of just such a juxtaposition of objects in the yard of a neighbor's house.

His scientific training might also have served to anchor him to a conventional lifestyle. We expect and forgive artists their dissolution, and think of scientists as stogy and square. Williams apparently had his Manhattan flings, but not without guilt and remorse.

I'm not a particular fan of Williams' poetry, but I identify, in a lurking way, with his conflict, and enjoy his poetry for that. As when he writes:
You know there's not much
that I desire, a few chrysanthemums
half lying on the grass, yellow
and brown and white, the
talk of a few people, the trees,
an expanse of dry leaves perhaps
with ditches among them.

But there comes…
Ah, yes, the "but there comes…" You can guess the rest.

The great French physician Claude Bernard said, "Art is I, science is we." Willliams struggled between the I and we. The struggle is documented in his poetry. And that, for me, is his interest.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Nothing is sacred

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Yellow journalism -- a Saturday reprise

Some of you in my generation may remember National Geographic's "Everyday Life in Ancient Times" series of articles in the 40s and early 50s. How we poured over those full-page paintings! The legions of Lagash, led by King Eannatum in a golden chariot, cut down the armies of Umma; the battlefield littered with arrow-pierced bodies. A haughty visitor to the slave markets of Babylonia in the 18th century B.C. makes her choice from among nubile young women. Na'r, King of Upper Egypt smashes the heads of his enemies with a mace of ivory and gold. Scantily-clad boys and girls of Crete do handsprings between the horns of a charging bull. The courtesan Phryne poses nude for the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. Alexander, in golden helmet fashioned in the form of a lion, defeats Darius at the battle of Issus; his spear transfixes a hapless Persian.

This was heady stuff for kids of the 40s and 50s, about as rich a diet of sex and violence as one could find in those days. It had the advantage of conveying a healthy dose of history along with the titillation. Scattered among scenes of nakedness and carnage were others that illustrated the origins of agriculture, writing, mathematics, music, coinage, civil engineering, law, medicine, and democracy.

All of this information had been dug up out of the ground by the archaeologists of the preceding century, many of whom themselves lived lives of Homeric scale.

Among the giants of early archaeology were Heinrich Schliemann, who as a boy read stories of Homer's heroes, Paris and Helen, Achilles and Hector, and of mighty Troy, burned and leveled by the Greeks, and after a lifetime of dreaming found the fabled city on the Anatolian plain, and in it "Piram's Treasure"; Arthur Evans, who unearthed at Knossos in Crete the fabulous palace of Minos, the legendary king, and the labyrinth of the minotaur; Howard Carter, who opened the tomb of Tutankhamen, filled with priceless treasure, only to be haunted by "the curse of the Pharaohs"; Leonard Wooley, who excavated the royal tombs of the kings of Ur, where richly attired queens were laid to rest with murdered ladies of the court.

Somewhere along the way from Schliemann's excavations of the 1870s to Wooley's Babylonian adventures of the 1920s, archaeology changed from a treasure-hunt into a science. Archaeological expeditions are still called campaigns, in the style of Napoleon's monument-snatching adventure in Egypt, but sensitivity to local cultures has replaced the imperialist attitude that the past belongs only to the privileged museums of Paris, London, and New York. The goal of archaeology has become exact description and cautious interpretation. The computer and the mass spectrometer now supplement the shovel and the pick.

National Geographic changed too. When I got married and started a family, one of the first things we did was subscribe to the magazine. By the time our kids were grown and we canceled our subscription, we had a closet full of yellow spines. The articles are no longer quite as titillating as they were in my youth, but the magazine remains one of the great instruments of family education.

(This post originally appeared in April 2009.)

Friday, May 03, 2013


In late February, the red-wing blackbird cracks winter's drear with the flash of its gaudy epaulets. Reliably, by the 27th or 28th, the red-wings stake out territories in the water meadow and announce their arrival with their raspy call. I've missed that seasonal ritual since I started spending the winters in the Bahamas.

I get back to New England in time for my own flashes of color.

The metallic blue of the tree swallows. The sky blue of the blue birds. And, most diagnostic of all, the incandescent orange of the Baltimore oriole.

As I stepped onto the plank bridge over Queset Brook on May Day morning, I stopped in my tracks. You know how it is when you have a sudden intuition that someone -- or something -- is watching. I looked up and there he was, ablaze on the topmost branch of a tree, the paraclete, the tongue of flame, anointing the new season.

The early-20th-century naturalist Neltje Blanchan called the Baltimore oriole a "feathered meteor." Well, yes, when he moves. But now he sits, surveying the territory, waiting for the arrival of the females, who are making a more leisurely journey north. Thoreau in his journals consistently refers to the bird as the "gold robin," which must have been common in his time, but which seems inappropriate to me. It's the difference between a feathered meteor and a grounded boulder.

I had always thought the Baltimore family, who founded the colony of Maryland, incorporated the colors of the bird into their family's coat of arms (and subsequently into the flag of the state of Maryland). I read as much in Mabel Osgood Wright's Birdcraft (1936). Now I discover that it was the other way round; the bird got its name from the colors of the Baltimore family crest.

Be that as it may, the new arrival at the top of the tree by the brook may have winged his way from as far afield as Central America. And now he waits, as he must, for a mate. Her colors are less flaggy than his, but she's the one with the architectural skills to build that marvelous oriole nest.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Where in the world?

As I have mentioned here before, son Tom (our webmaster) and I are both mapheads, i.e. geography nuts, and like to tease each other with snapshots from Google Earth: Where in the world is this? The teaser has some clue, no matter how obscure, starts as a close-up, then moves to wider and wider views (if necessary) until the "guesser" gets it.

For example, last week I got this (you can click on the image for enlargement):

Hopeless! North is at top, of course, and the geology is clearly sedimentary. The breakwater and curious depressions in the ground are interesting, but I got nowhere.

After several days and several "blow-ups," he gave me this to go on:

Very interesting now, but still damnably difficult! I will leave it as a puzzle for you. By the way, those blackish grids on the larger island are rows of houses (as now I know).

And here is this week's. So full of clues it took me five minutes tops to find it on Google Earth.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Our full hearts are swelling, our glad voices telling

This goofy lifestyle I have fallen into -- warm and sunny in winter, cool and rainy in summer -- has the advantage of being able to dispense with heating and air-conditioning, which cancels my carbon footprint for four air flights a year. As for spring and fall, there's no place I would rather be than a place like New England, where I can watch the grand spectacles of nature stirring into animation and closing down.

Plants and animals in non-tropic climates have devised strategies for dealing with winter -- hibernation, migration, annual life cycles. Humans invented clothing, and jazzed it up with fashion. North Face jackets and Ugg boots are our way of staying in place and awake through the cold.

And now it's May Day. (Please click link, especially the Catholics and ex-Catholics among you.)

The garden and woodland and hillside and vale along the Path are waking. Goldfinches and bluebirds in the community gardens, an oriole at the brook. Spring peepers in the water meadow. Wood anemones and bell flowers and mayflowers in the woods and along the verges.

The planet leans into its curve, tips its hat to its star. Its juices flow northward. Creatures stir in their burrows. Blood stirs in the veins. And I remember pretty Betty D., in her tiara of May-Day blossoms, chosen by the nuns to crown the statue of the Virgin, my heart thumping madly as the girls in white dresses process down the aisle, bouquets in hand.