Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Happy thought

Our recent long stretch of hot, sunny weather was welcomed by more than the pale, sun-deprived Irish people. It was a blessing too for the honeybees. A dreary, cold winter so weakened the colonies that beekeepers were worried their hives wouldn't survive. But three weeks of blazing sun got the surviving queens into action. The air was abuzz with nuptial flights. Apparently, hives are flourishing.

Our young friends Rachel and Jindra have added beekeeping to their list of agricultural endeavors. Rachel gave me a piece of comb on her last visit, dripping with honey. The honey was deelish, but it was the comb that won me over. All those perfectly architected hexagonal cells. Like something punched out by an industrial die.

Johannes Kepler considered the comb in his wonderful little book The Six-Cornered Snowflake. Why, he asks, do snowflakes fall with hexagonal symmetry? He never quite arrives at an answer, but along the way he does figure out why honeycombs are hexagonal: Hexagonal cells maximize volume with a minimum of wax. The bees are mathematicians.

Well, not exactly. But it is the built-in genius of natural selection that it can solve complex problems by trial and error-- and build the solutions into the genes of bees. Computer algorithms can do the same thing, so we know it's not magic. Time, inheritance, chance, and survival. Voila! Thousands of bees working in unison to construct a stunning warehouse of wax.

Bees are born with a knowledge human mathematicians must learn. GTCCATTGCTA. Spider orb-webs, bowerbird bowers, beaver dams: So much wonder from so simple a code! I hold the comb in my hand and I can't help but think of a rhyme from Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses that my mother used to recite as if it were the wisdom she most dearly wanted to impart:

The world is so full of a number of things
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Robert Frost has a poem about mowing a field with a scythe. It is a warm, still day. There is no sound but the almost inaudible swish, swish of the blade as it lays the grass in rows. "What was it it whispered?" he asked of the scythe. Not the gift of idle hours or riches, he decides, but the sweetness of honest labor.

When we first came here 41 years ago, our neighbors still cut hay with a scythe, raked it with hand-made wooden rakes, piked it into cocks. Many a hot summer day I helped, although I never mastered the scythe. To lay the grass in long clean rows with a whispering swish, swish is an art one doesn't master in a day, or a summer. Perhaps one has to be born with it.

Nor was I let to hone the glistening blade, another art that's passed perhaps from father to son. Plying the rake was about the only chore they let me do, and even then my piles of hay didn't measure up to snuff. Honest work, it was, but for me the scythe whispered a defiant hiss, hiss.

I was thinking of Frost's scythe today as I mowed my own rough field. Mowed? Is that the word for what my petrol-powered strimmer was doing as it chewed noisily through the grass? It didn't whisper; it howled. And I was bundled up in harness, safety goggles and ear muffs, insulated from grass and sun and breeze. I never broke a sweat.

The sweetness of honest labor? A roaring abomination is more like it, adding my own contribution to noise pollution and global warming. But there really isn't an alternative if I'm to keep the field in trim. Too late to learn the art of the scythe. And who would teach me? In the fields below where I used to help my neighbors make summer cocks -– stopping occasionally for a cup of tea in the shade of a hedge -- big contracted machines now cut the grass and wrap it up in cylindrical bales of black plastic. No more "the earnest love that laid the swale in rows." No more the whispering steel

Monday, July 29, 2013


Is the loss of vernaculars a good thing or a bad thing?

When we first came here 41 years ago there were few tourists. Fewer cars. No coaches. Certainly almost no Irish on holiday. It took some ingenuity to get here at all.

But tourists made it, in ones and two. Biking. Hitchhiking. Taking the now-and-then bus to Dingle and hoofing it the rest of the way. And, invariably, stopping are Quinn's pub for a drink on his sunny benches overlooking the sea.

Where, as likely as not, we might be sitting.

It was easy to guess the place of origin of the visitors, even without hearing them speak. Americans. French. English. Italians. Germans. Spaniards. Each nationality had their distinctive dress and mannerisms.

That's all changed now. Tourists pour through the village on their way to Slea Head, on bikes, in cars, in big continental coaches. On summer evenings the pub bustles. And everyone looks the same. Same clothes. Same mannerisms. Athens or Beijing: same iPhones, same tee shirts, same gestures.

Even linguistic differences are being swept away as Globish (internet English) becomes universally spoken and understood.

I miss especially those insouciant Frenchies with their silky scarves twirled casually about their necks, and the young Canadians trying desperately to distinguish themselves from Americans with the maple-leaf flags stitched to their backpacks, and the boisterous Italians flailing their arms while their sexy wives demurely sipped whatever was that mysterious liquid they were drinking.

Now we have Koreans in UCLA sweat shirts. Moroccans in stylishly threadbare jeans. Girls from Dublin and Dubuque in black tights and short shorts. And everyone wearing the same flip-flops made in Indonesia.

A good thing, or bad? A step toward global harmony, or a boring homogenization?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Reading light

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

One big happy family -- a Saturday reprise

Summertime! The season of family reunions. And this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to the first-ever Primate Family get-together, as representative of the Homo sapiens branch of the family.

The turn-out was better than anyone might have expected, with at least one member present from all 250 primate species -- our closest cousins on the family tree of life.

There were lorises, pottos, bush babies, lemurs, aye-ayes, tarsiers, monkeys and apes. The latter category, of course, included myself, as my name tag made clear.

I took my wife along, and we were a source of great merriment as the only folks at the gathering who consistently walked erect and lacked a full covering of body hair. A couple of white-cheeked gibbons asked me to remove my shoes and socks so they could see my non-opposable big toe. When I did so, their impolite hoots of derision caused quite a sensation.

Early in the afternoon we fell in with a nice chimpanzee couple from Cameroon, our nearest relations at the party. To tell the truth, we did not have as much in common as you'd might expect, considering that we share 98.4 percent of our genes.

The chimps showed great interest in photographs of our children and grandchildren, but annoyed my wife by nibbling the photos around the edges. My wife was also rather put off by the heaping plate of termite grubs that the male chimp insisted on sharing.

I must say, though, that we found the chimps' company more congenial than that of mandrill couple who roamed the reunion looking for others from Cameroon. They crashed our table and started making an awful racket, flashing their colorful body parts and otherwise being offensive.

I mean, we're talking brain weight here. The mandrills were nearly as big as our chimpanzee friends -- and proved it by jumping up and down on the table -- but behind their plug-ugly baboon snouts were brains not half the size of a chimp's.

Of course, human brains are three times bigger than the brains of chimpanzees, but we discreetly left that fact unsaid.

Eventually, we excused ourselves from the chimps' table and mingled with the crowd, determined to make acquaintance with all our relations.

As carnivores, we made our way to the barbecue area, but found it rather sparsely populated. An owl-faced monkey and its mate were happily sinking their teeth into roasted rodents. I complimented the male monkey on his handsome white nose stripe and earned an ear-rattling roar for my trouble. So much for trying to be polite.

The veggie buffet, on the other hand, with its heaping bowls of leaves, bark, fruits, nuts and seeds, was packed with takers, as was the insect buffet. A red-faced bald uacari dashed back and forth between the two tables, wolfing down alternate handfuls of seeds and ants.

A pygmy mouse lemur from Madagascar, the smallest primate at the reunion, had seated itself in a large bowl of berry snacks, to the embarrassed consternation of its more discreet lemur cousins. It would have made a nice snack for some larger opportunistic carnivore had my wife not plucked it from the bowl and kept it curled in the palm of her hand.

As the afternoon wore on and more beer was consumed, things started getting rather out-of-hand. There was lots of indiscriminate heinie-flashing by female baboons. Male vervets, drills and red-shanked douc langurs got into an indelicate competition concerning who had the most colorful -- ah, you know. I mean, I've been to some rowdy office parties, but this took the cake.

I will admit that the glorious bushy posterior appendages of the ring-tailed lemur and her mate made me a little jealous that my wife and I were among the few dozen folks at the party without tails; only apes lacked this adornment.

It was particularly gratifying to observe the presence at the reunion of a hairy-eared dwarf lemur from Madagascar and a tonkin snub-nosed monkey from Vietnam, both of whom represented wild populations whose total numbers are in the dozens. Another half-dozen of the gang are on also the "critically endangered" list, but they put up a good front, knocking back brewskies with the rest of us.

Toward the end of the day, a call went out for everyone who qualified as a "critically endangered" or "endangered" species to gather at the volleyball court for a group photo. I was astonished when nearly half of the species at the reunion answered the call. Every lemur was there, as were our closest relatives -- the orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees.

My wife and I faded rather sheepishly into the background, knowing that it was the phenomenal success of our own species that tipped the scales so precariously against so many of our cousins. As the camera snapped, we decided it was time to take our leave, wondering how many of the species in the photograph would be with us at the next primate family reunion in ten years time.

Friday, July 26, 2013


Tom is here for a visit. He and his wife first spent a few days in Amsterdam where they visited the Rijksmuseum. The hit of that visit was the four Vermeers, including The Milkmaid, which I have blogged here on several occasions.

Also in Amsterdam is The Little Street, another of my favorites (click to enlarge). It is unlike the other Vermeers I have blogged –- The Milkmaid, Woman Weighing Gold, The Geographer -– all closely observed interior scenes with a single human figure dominating the composition. Here the humans have been reduced to doll-like figures, faces averted -– a woman scrubbing, a woman sewing, two urchins playing on the stoop. What we do have is another exercise in close observation and quiet domesticity, the two things for which Vermeer is universally loved.

As I have said on previous occasions, I admire Vermeer for his Catholic attention to the materiality of the world, the is-ness of things. Whatever is transcendental in his paintings is sacramentally mediated through stuff. Surely, his stuff is there to be accumulated, as one might expect from a citizen of practical, acquisitive, Protestant Holland. But Vermeer sees through the surface of things to the mystery that lies within.

The Little Street is at first glance little more than a pile of bricks, but the bricks speak of an inner life. They bleed their lime. They crumble. They surrender at street level to a calligraphy of whitewash. The lines of perspective converge on a vanishing point deep inside those two dark windows, somewhere below the surface of the painting. The alley, too, hints of interiority.

Vermeer did not choose this scene because it was pretty; it has to the eye untouched by grace a proletarian dreariness about it. Rather, he takes ordinary matter –- brick, mortar, wood, lime, cloth –- and consecrates it with attention, this is my body, this is my blood. To the attentive eye, stuff speaks of its own transcendence, its infinite interiority. A pile of bricks is the journeywork of stars.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Speaking of water…

How many water molecules -- H2O -- are there in the world's oceans?

This is the kind of time-wasting calculation I love doing, but I will leave it as an exercise for one of you.

Look up the mass of a proton in grams. A water molecule has essentially the mass of 18 protons (hydrogen=1, oxygen=8 protons + 8 neutrons; remember, this is an order of magnitude calculation). A cubic centimeter of water has (by definition) a mass of one gram. Divide for the number of water molecules in a cubic centimeter of water.

How many cubic centimeters in the oceans?

Look up the radius of the Earth (in centimeters). The area of a sphere is 4πr2, and about three-quarters of the Earth's surface is ocean. The average depth is about 4 kilometers, or 4x105 centimeters. You're home free.

Make it easy. Use powers of ten and round off generously.

And what did you get? A very big number indeed. A number so big it is essentially meaningless. Its meaning is its meaninglessness. Its meaning is the almost incomprehensible gulf between the world of our senses and the world of atoms. Between what we are and what we are made of.

Why even do such a calculation? Only to show that the human brain can frolic in the world of atoms and molecules with a pencil on the back of an envelope. Go for it. Have fun.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

And speaking of magic…

Holy Water.

We had lots of Holy Water when I was growing up. I was baptized in in. I blessed myself with it every time I entered a church. I was sprinkled with it at the Asperges me. Guaranteed conducive to the well-being of body and soul.


No conceivable laboratory test could distinguish between Holy Water and tap water. The ameliorating qualities of Holy Water were the result of an incantation. The speaking of a ritual formula.


No wait. Perhaps we could prove a difference. Anoint a hundred hospital patients with Holy Water, and another hundred with the same unblessed water. Double blind. Measure outcomes. I doubt if the experiment has been done, but we can guess the result.

In a sense the experiment has been done, inadvertently. I recall reading some years ago about doctors in a Dublin hospital trying to track down the source of bacterial infections. It turned out the culprit was unsterile Holy Water brought to patients by family members who were trying to be helpful.

It was the rare Catholic family in those days that did not have a vial or bottle of Holy Water around the house, for emergencies.


Of course, Catholicism is not the only religion that uses water in sacred rituals. And no wonder. Water is essential to life. As I write here in Ireland on the early morning of the 24th, it is pouring cats and dogs outside. After three weeks of hot dry weather my garden is soaking it up. Aquifers of being replenished. Plants, animals and humans are refreshed. A blessing falls from the sky.

When magic is gone, all water is holy.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Speaking of the papacy...

I've been reading a biography of Lucrezia Borgia, by Sarah Bradford. Any biography of Lucrezia is by force also a biography of her father Rodrigo Borgia and her brother Cesare, both of who may or may not have had incestuous relations with Lucrezia. Rodrigo satisfied a lifelong ambition by becoming Pope Alexander VI, in 1492. He was (according to popular reports, including those of his enemies) avaricious, unscrupulous, murderous, power-mad, and licentious. During his papacy, the Vatican was reportedly a hotbed of plots, poison and prostitution. Bradford gives the reports credence.

True or not, a far cry from the present pope, Francis, who took his name not from a conquering hero, but from the humble saint of Assisi. By all accounts, he has given up he sable robes, red shoes, and Renaissance apartments. We can safely assume the poison and prostitutes, nepotism and simony, are gone too.

But other than the new pope's habits of humility, not much else has changed. The theology on offer is pretty much the same as in Alexander's time. When Alexander died, in 1503, twenty-five-year-old Copernicus was studying in Lucrezia's city of Ferrara, after periods in Bologna, Padua and Rome. The Scientific Revolution was in the air. Tradition and revelation would soon give way to empiricism as the royal road to truth. Since then, we have had six hundred years of scientific discovery, yet the Church clings to a magical view of the world that was already hoary in Alexander's time.

It is inconceivable that a Borgia could be elevated to the papacy today. Pope Francis personally eschews the pomp of the Renaissance Vatican, and for that he is much to be admired. It remains to be seen if he will sweep away even a bit of the pre-scientific myth and magic. Perhaps with the myth and magic gone there would be nothing left to support the pomp.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Lumen Fidei

The light of Faith. The subject (and title) of Pope Francis' first encyclical. Drafted by his predecessor Benedict XVI, as the completion of his series of encyclicals on Faith, Hope and Charity, added to and edited by Francis. Since it is impossible to know who wrote what, I'll refer to "the popes" as authors.

It is about what one expected, breaking no new ground, providing no new insight into the modern conflict between faith and reason.

Certainly, the popes are cognizant of the conflict. In the second paragraph they note of "the objections of many of our contemporaries." In particular they refer to the critique of faith by Nietzsche. "If you want peace of soul and happiness, then believe," Nietzsche wrote to his sister, "if you want to be a follower of truth, then seek." Faith, for Nietzsche, is an illusion of light, an illusion that blocks the path of a liberated humanity to its future.

But only the light of faith can illuminate "every aspect of human existence," say the popes. "A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it comes from God."

And there you pretty much have it: seeking vs. assertion. For the rest of the encyclical, the popes buttress their case in the necessity and legitimacy of faith by quoting the Bible, which is (for them) the revealed word of God, forgetting, as always, that to believe in scripture as revelation itself requires a leap of faith. Have faith in the Bible, say the popes in effect, and you will see why faith trumps reason. "Unless you believe, you will not understand" (Isaiah 7:9): quoting the Bible to show that the Bible is true.

The popes go on at some length to convince us that faith leads to truth. Faith without truth does not save, they say; it may be a beautiful story that makes us happy to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves, but unless the repository of faith is Truth, then faith is in vain.

"In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how," write Benedict and Francis dismissively. "it is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. Nowadays this appears as the only truth that is certain, the only truth that can be shared, the only truth that can serve as a basis for discussion or for common undertakings."

Aside from conflating science and technology, which may be fair, and calling scientific truth "certain," which no scientist believes, we have here a pretty good summary of the issue: truth is "what works" vs. truth is what the Church says it is. So we are where we started, with an essential conflict that is not readily resolved because we don't have a common basis for discussion or for common undertakings.

For people of faith, the encyclical states self-evident truths. For the rest of us, we follow young Nietzsche's advice to his sister: take risks and tread new paths "with all the uncertainty of one who must find one's own way."

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Acting lesson

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Glorious, glorious sunshine -- a Saturday reprise

(The Ventry Regatta this weekend. A long stretch of hot, sunny weather, the first since I posted this in July 2006.)

A regular part of our life here in the west of Ireland is the six o'clock shipping forecast on the BBC, a daily litany of weather reports from stations around these islands -- Malin Head, Shannon, Valentia, Fastnet, etc. -- which my wife religiously listens to, although I never quite understood why. One of two reports will suffice for most of the time. "Wet almost everywhere with sunny intervals." or "Mostly dry with occasional showers."

It's all that warm water out there in the North Atlantic. The air moves across it from the west, soaking up moisture like a paper towel moving across a wet kitchen counter, to wring itself out on Ireland's west coast.

Geochemist Wally Broecker imagines a globe-spanning oceanic conveyor belt with its northern terminus near Iceland. Cold winds from Canada blow across the water there, cooling it. The cold, dense water sinks, and flows as a deep bottom current southward around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian and Pacific oceans. There it rises, warms, and as a shallower current returns to the Atlantic and flows northwards.

Near Iceland, this water from a tropic sea finds its way to the surface where its heat is stolen away by Canadian winds. These are the balmy, moisture-drenched westerlies that warm and wet Ireland.

So, if Broecker is right, Ireland's green damp has its origin in palm-fringed oceans on the other side of the world.

But occasionally, every tenth summer or so, a high pressure ridge drifts up from the Azores and sits for weeks upon Ireland like a sunny crown. We are having a brilliant streak of grand weather now -- perfect for yesterday's Ventry Regatta.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The uses of enchantment

There was a time when every wood, every tree, was thought to be inhabited by spirits called dryads, every pool and stream by naiads. Even not so long ago, our road here in Ireland was called "the fairies' road." The world, we say, was enchanted -- every stone and plant infused with an animate spirit.

Science put paid to all that, chased the spirits from their woods and pools, drove the fairies from their hills. Disenchanted the landscape.

Well, maybe not. It depends on how you define enchantment.

Remember those spider webs I wrote about the other day, made visible by dew? Once the sun burned away the mist and the dew evaporated, the webs became invisible. But of course they are still there, a thousand silken snares, each with its resident spider. As I walked down the drive today I sensed their presence—the field alive with invisible spirits, a thousand arachnoid dryads crouching in their bowers.

The key to enchantment is to be aware of what can't be seen. The spiders in their webs. The spinnerets extruding gossamer. The DNA zipping and unzipping in each cell of the spiders' bodies, the amino acids, A and T, G and C, grasping hands in their dervish dance. The atoms in their resonant vibrations.

"What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well," wrote Antoine De Saint-Exupery. The key to enchantment is to never stop thinking about the well.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


On impulse, I take down a book from the shelves over my desk, an anthology called Soul, compiled by Phil Cousineau. I haven't looked at it for years, if ever. I have a vague memory of why I have it. A freebie from the publisher, in acknowledgment of a contribution.

As I might expect, my contribution is a selection from The Soul of the Night, although I'm not at all sure what this particular passage, from the first chapter of the book, has to do with soul. It is about silence. About drifting in my canoe through a New England marsh during those few quiet weeks in November between the dins of trail bikes and snowmobiles. I mention Thoreau at Walden Pond, whose silence was only interrupted by the whistle of the Fitchburg railroad and the hoot of owls. Thoreau rejoiced in owls. Their hoot was a sound well suited to swamps and twilight woods, he said. The interval between their hoots was a deepened silence, suggesting "a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized."

I guess it was something of that "vast and undeveloped nature" that I was looking for as I drifted alone through the marsh, something immanent, yet transcendent. Something -- well, maybe, soulish. Something ensouling. I wrote:
I drift in my canoe down the Queset Brook and I listen, ears alert, like an animal that sniffs a meal or a threat on the wind, I am not sure what it is that I want to hear out of all this silence, out of this palpable absence of sound. A scrawny cry, perhaps, to use a phrase of the poet Wallace Stevens: "A scrawny cry from outside…a chorister whose c preceded the choir…still far away." Is that too much to hope for? I don't ask for the full ringing of the bell. I don't ask for a clap a thunder that would rend the veil in the temple. A scrawny cry will do, from far off there among the willows and the cattails, from far off there among the galaxies.
That was almost thirty years ago. I'm still listening, for the whisper in the silence. For the ineffable intimation. For that lower-case c, for that hint in the ellipsis. Hoot…hoot.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Silk dawn

A magical morning. Warm and still. The hillside is cloaked in a fine, soft mist that will burn away by ten.

I walk down the drive to open the gate. The field is carpeted with silk. Silk made visible by dew. (Click to enlarge.)

The spiders were there all along, of course. Their webs too. Everyday as I walked through the grass, they were there, unseen. Unknowingly, I crushed them with my footfalls. A field full of snares, each silken net flung across the grass, each net with its tunnel lair where the predator waits, patiently, for dinner.

And now they are made visible in all their arachnoid glory, each grass tuft slung with Chinese silk, each furze bush as finely draped in silk as a pasha's palace.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Consider these words or phrases from yesterday's post: "maybe," "I think," "this is not to say," "apparently," "may very well," "likely," "perhaps."

All this in 350 words. What have we here? A tissue of equivocation? Wishy-washy opinion? Refusal to take a stand?

Well, maybe. Perhaps.

When I read over the first draft of the post I noticed I'd written, "It is no doubt a human characteristic…", and "Institutional religions are undoubtedly so universally embraced…", and my distrust of absolute assertions kicked in. So out went the "no doubt" and "undoubtedly" and in with two more qualifiers.

Very un-bloggy, I know. The blogosphere is a monument to unqualified assertion. More or less.

So why the equivocation?

I didn't spend a lifetime wresting myself free of one set of infallible dogmas to embrace another.

Which is not to say that I don't believe the statements I qualify. I do. This blog is a testament. A credo. But I want belief to be softened with tolerance, humility, self-examination. I want to make space for dissent. I want that extra chair on the porch where a Barry can feel comfortable joining the conversation.

Monday, July 15, 2013


In her book, The Case for God, which I have previously blogged at length (July 16-19, 2009), Karen Armstrong proposes to tell us "What Religion Really Means." And she does, at length, at least by her lights. In her penultimate paragraph she writes:
From almost the very beginning, men and women…evolved mythologies, rituals and ethical disciplines that brought them intimations of holiness that seemed in some indescribable way to enhance and fulfill their humanity…The point of religion was to live intensely and richly in the here and now. Religious people are ambitious. They want lives overflowing with significance…Instead of being crushed and embittered by the sorrow of life, they sought to retain their peace and serenity in the midst of their pain. They yearned for the courage to overcome their terror of mortality; instead of being grasping and mean-spirited, they aspired to live generously, large-hearted and justly and to inhabit every single part of their humanity.
Well, maybe. In Armstrong's big book we hear little or nothing about religious wars, inquisitions, pogroms, jihads. One can be forgiven, I think, for asking Armstrong, "Do you read the newspapers?" Almost everywhere in the world today racked by violence, religion is implicated. In the States, religious fundamentalism is often associated with mean-spiritedness and intolerance. This is not to say that many religious people do not strive to live as Armstrong describes, only that she picks and chooses a rosy picture that has a tenuous connection to reality.

It is apparently a human characteristic to want stories, rituals and ethical disciplines that give a sense of meaning and purpose to life. And this may very well be what gave rise to the various institutional religions. Institutional religions are likely so universally embraced because they offer "off-the-shelf" stories, rituals and ethical disciplines that are readily passed down from generation to generation and bear the authority of tradition. They obviate the need to invent stories, rituals and ethical disciplines of one's own.

Perhaps the most significant result of the Scientific Revolution and subsequent Enlightenment was the freedom they gave us to pursue our own life enhancements. Henceforth, in those places where Enlightenment principles held sway, heresy was no longer a crime.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Shanks mare -- a Saturday reprise

The naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger, who tramped all over Ireland early in the last century and recounted what he saw in The Way That I Went, says in his introduction that even a bicycle was too fast for careful observation. Too fast for thinking, too. One of the chapters in Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking is called "The Mind at Three Miles an Hour." That's about the pace at which the brain works, no doubt because for most of our evolutionary history the brain was foot-powered. The Greek philosophers were not called peripatetics for nothing. No one ever had a great thought while ripping down the freeway at sixty miles an hour. Rousseau tells us in the Confessions that his mind only works with his legs: "When I stop walking, I cease to think."

Walking is the one thing that connects us to the deep past. Food, drink, clothing, shelter, sex, childbirth have all been transformed by technology, mostly for the better. But when we walk, we might as well be on the savannas of East Africa two million years ago. Wait, what am I saying? Of course walking has been transformed by technology. Most of the people I pass when I'm walking have on ear phones. They might as well be on a treadmill at home. In fact, I would guess that most of the walking Americans do is on treadmills. Curious, since service on treadmills has long been a form of indentured servitude. We enslave ourselves to our machines.

I'd rather think of walking as a spiritual activity. It has nothing to do with keeping the body fit, although that may be a convenient side effect. Walking is a time for the natural rhythms of the organism to assert themselves -- limbs, breath, heartbeat, thought -- a smoothly functioning unity honed by natural selection at a time when we were still a part of the natural world, not masters of it.

(This post originally appeared in September 2007.)

Friday, July 12, 2013


I can't remember what we did with our trash when we first came here to live for a year, in 1972. Certainly, there was no trash pick-up by the county council, at least not here in what was then the back of the beyond. I suppose we had very little disposable trash, anyway. Our milk came from a neighbor's cow in a reusable tin. Our eggs from another neighbor's hens. Paper got burned in the fireplace. Very little came into the house that had to go out again.

Some of our neighbors who lived near the sea tossed their trash over the cliff. Ravines collected their fair share of refuse. Near the schoolhouse, the verges of the roads glistened with discarded Tayto packets. The scenery was spectacularly beautiful, but up close it could be distressingly messy.

That's all changed now. The sea coves and gullies are pristine. The roadsides are impressively unlittered. Once a week a gigantic garbage truck rolls through the parish, picking up trash from big plastic bins. Not for us, however; not on our little by-road. Two or three times each summer we load up the car and make a trip to the transfer station on the other side of Dingle.

What a place! If a supermarket represents conspicuous consumption, the transfer station represents conspicuous non-consumption. There are containers or bays for metal, wood, paint, cardboard, plastic, newspapers, electronics, appliances. Spic and span. Supermarket clean. I have no idea where all this stuff goes; some of it, I hope, is recycled.

I'm writing this now, because I have just come back from the transfer station. In a way, I am elated, to see what used to go over the cliff or into the ditch gathered into such tidy piles, to be buried, I suppose, in some out-of-the-way landfill. But depressed, too, to see how much of what we consume goes unconsumed. You can't go home again, I know. The past is gone. A new affluence prevails. But I can't help feel a twinge of nostalgia for what we came here for in the first place: milk from a cow, eggs from a hen, and veggies that had just been pulled from the soil.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

You are my sunshine

A week of very untypical weather, brilliant sunshine, temperatures near 80 degrees F, almost enough to make you believe that an Irish summer is possible after all. We sit in the garden, watching the contrails high in a deep blue sky as jet liners streak toward America. And the Sun! That strange flower, that tuft of jungle feathers, that animal eye, that savage of fire.

That globe of hydrogen.

Well, mostly hydrogen. A lot of helium too. For every 100 atoms of hydrogen, a few of helium. And that's pretty much it.

Actually there's dribs and drabs of almost everything else. Carbon and oxygen make a pretty good showing, although about a 100 times less abundant than helium, ten thousand times less abundant that hydrogen. Then other familiar stuff: nitrogen, silicon, sulfur, iron. You could collect enough of the heavy elements from the Sun's atmosphere to make an Earth.

Osmium and iridium? Gold and mercury? Yes, that too. But in barely detectable amounts.

Detectable? In the Sun? How? Ah, the wonders of nature. The wonders of science. Every atomic element has a unique fingerprint of wavelengths of light (colors) it emits when in a hot gaseous state or absorbs when cool. The atoms in the Sun's cooler atmosphere absorb light from the continuous spectrum of the hot surface. Those dark "lines" in the rainbow reveal what's there. Voila!

We sit in the garden, squinting at the Sun, that strange flower, that tuft of jungle feathers, that animal eye, that savage of fire (I'm stealing metaphors from Wallace Stevens). That globe of hydrogen and helium, salted with carbon and oxygen and osmium and ytterbium and gadolinium and other stuff you've never heard of.

That million-mile-wide, voluptuous party balloon, celebrating a brief Irish summer.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

It’s elementary

Oliver Sacks, neurologist/psychologist/best-selling author, had an essay in the New York Times the other day about turning 80. He had a bit to say about age and elements of the same atomic number. At 79, he is gold. At 80, he will be mercury. He's looking forward to it, he says. Being 80, that is. Sounds like a slippery slope to me.

I looked to see what element's atomic number was my age, 76. Osmium. No gold or mercury for me. Just boring old osmium that no one has ever heard of. The name osmium comes from the Greek for "smell," because of the smoky aroma of one of its oxides. A bit of irony, since I have no sense of smell. Osmium also has the dubious distinction of being the densest naturally-occurring element. Dense and stinky. It is also the rarest element in the Earth's crust, presumably because it mostly sank towards the core when the Earth was molten. Dense and stinky and hard-to-find.

Anyway, I have only a few more weeks with osmium. Then I turn iridium. Another rare metal of even less distinction than osmium. No, wait! We have heard of iridium. Iridium is rare in the Earth's crust (it is the second densest element), but it is more common in meteorites. And it is also more common in the thin layer of global sediment that marks the boundary between rocks of Cretaceous age and rocks of Tertiary age. Which happens to be when the dinosaurs became extinct. Bam! Big meteorite hits Earth, kicking up a worldwide cloud on iridium-rich dust. Now that's a story I can live with for a year.

From then on it's up-hill element-wise –- platinum, gold, scintillating mercury –- but downhill age-wise, Oliver Sack's optimism notwithstanding.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The spark of life

In my post last Friday, I quoted Teilhard de Chardin referring to the discovery of electromagnetic waves as a "prodigious biological event." A biological event? What could he mean?

The universe was awash with electromagnetic waves long before life appeared on Earth, or anywhere else in the universe. The cosmic microwave background radiation –- the residue of the big bang –- is electromagnetic. Starlight is an electromagnetic wave. You can "discover" electromagnetic waves by opening your eyes.

Of course, what Teilhard referred to was the conscious control of electromagnetic radiation by sentient biological creatures. Electromagnetic waves were predicted theoretically by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1864, as he played with equations describing electric and magnetic fields. Then, twenty-two years later, electromagnetic waves were experimentally demonstrated by Heinrich Hertz, who in effect made the first radio broadcast and reception. At Hertz's transmitter a spark jumped back and forth between two metal spheres 50 million times a second. Across the room a similar spark was instantly produced at the receiver. Invisible electrical energy had passed through space at the speed of light.

A spark dancing between two spheres –- an unpretentious beginning for the age of radio, television, mobile phones and wireless internet. That first transmitter and receiver had a basement-workshop simplicity about them. Hertz demonstrated the nature of electromagnetic waves with constructions of wood, brass and sealing wax.

Wood, brass, sealing wax and conscious intelligence. Here on Earth –- perhaps throughout the universe -- stardust gave rise to living slime. The slime complexified, became conscious. Invented mathematics, experimental science. Caused sparks to jump between metal spheres. Sent the signature of biological activity across a room. Across a planet. Across the universe.


Monday, July 08, 2013

Hymn of the universe

Ah, yes. Teilhard de Chardin. I dragged out my copy of The Phenomenon of Man for Friday's post, and ended up perusing all the underlinings and marginal notes I made back in the 1960s when I had a big intellectual crush on the lanky Jesuit. I was at that point in my life enthralled by both science and French Catholicism, and Teilhard fit the bill nicely. Matter, energy, consciousness, evolution: These were the elements of his religious vision -- a universe of "stuff", born in fire, blowing into a complexified future. What was not to like?

Well, Rome didn't like it. He was forbidden to publish, and banished from his beloved Paris to the gulag of New York. Seminaries and universities were warned not to let Teilhard's unorthodox ideas infect the minds of the impressionable young. I had already been infected. The antibodies instilled by my university courses in theology and apologetics were not sufficient to ward off a full-blown case of Teilharditis.

But the fever burned itself out. As I settled down and sobered up, Teilhard's vision came to seem over the top, mystified, full of theogush and hocus pocus. As I got deeper into science, I became ever more wary of rash extrapolations. Teilhard de Chardin seemed increasingly superfluous.

But here he is -- that Harper Torchbook paperback embellished with my 50-year-old scribbles -- and I can't help but feel a bit of heartbreak for a lost first love. In the more than half-a-century since Teilhard died no one has come close to equaling what he so daringly attempted, a smushing together of the natural and supernatural, a theology that springs out of matter and races like a wildfire towards consciousness and cosmic unity. He was the Meister Eckhart of our time, the heretic who might have saved the Church from an irrelevant dualism. Less and less, he said near the end of his life, did he see the difference between scientific research and adoration.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Still now

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

November paradise -- a Saturday reprise

A few lines from a poem, "Ode to Entropy", by John Updike:
Death exists nowhere in nature, not
in the minds of birds or the consciousness of flowers,
not even in the numb brain of the wildebeest calf
gone under to the grinning crocodile, nowhere
in the mesh of woods or the tons of the sea, only
in our forebodings...
As far as we know, no other creature, animal or plant, has an awareness of self-mortality. Only in human consciousness is death anticipated, as a dark foreboding, or promise of release. So much is carried along in the baggage of anticipation. Courage. Fear. Virtue. Sin.

In the R.C. theology of my youth only humans had immortal souls. In the Heaven of our imaginations there were no animals or plants. Or, for that matter, no Sun, Moon, stars or weather. No dawns or dusks. No seasons. As a kid, I pictured Heaven as a hospital sort of place, all stainless steel and pale green gowns and white paint and angels with push-carts and mops going around swabbing up all the invisible microbes that managed to slip in on our resurrected feet, and some little device going ping-ping-ping over the intercom counting off the seconds of eternity.

Not a terribly attractive prospect.

The funny thing is, nothing more attractive has come along to take its place; that is to say, as hard as I try I cannot conjure up any notion of immortality that meets the loosest criterion of plausibility.

But a morning last week came close. It had rained all night, stopping just before I set out for the college at sunrise. The leaves that carpeted the floor of the woods glistened wet. A summery golden light filtered through the mist -- this in late November -- transmuting every surface with a Midas touch. Soft. And silent, except for the tap-tap-tap of a downy woodpecker. And for about a microsecond I might have imagined...

No, never mind. Ray Kurzweil, age 61, wants to live long enough to live forever; that is, to hang in until science solves the riddle of aging and gives us immortality on Earth, assuming, of course, that we don't get knocked down in the street by a bus or blow ourselves up in some intrahuman squabble. Not me. I'll settle a few more of those microseconds when the here and now seems more desirable than the aseptic, creatureless hospital-in-the-sky or the long, drawn-out forebodings of a Kurzweilian future.

(This post originally appeared in November 2009.)

Friday, July 05, 2013

The incredible potential of unexpectedness

The Jesuit scientist/mystic Teilhard de Chardin imagined what he called a "noosphere" (from the Greek word for "mind") as the next stage of terrestrial evolution –- an envelope of pure human thought embracing the planet. This would be the inevitable result of human progress on a spherical Earth of finite surface area. We rub up against each other. We are stimulated by proximity. Railroads and airplanes extend the range of our interaction. Better still (he wrote), "thanks to the prodigious biological event represented by the discovery of electro-magnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously present, over land and sea, in every corner of the earth."

In The Phenomenon of Man, posthumously published in 1955, he wrote: "No one would dare to picture to himself what the noosphere will be like in its final guise, no one, that is, who has glimpsed however faintly the incredible potential of unexpectedness accumulated in the spirit of the earth."

I was thinking of Teilhard and his noosphere today as I watched my spouse curled up in her chair with her iPad, here in Ireland, reading the newspapers in New England and the Bahamas. No wires. No railroads or airplanes or Atlantic cables. Just sitting there in a sea of radiation, a universal envelope of shimmering electromagnetic fields instantaneously weaving her into an invisible envelope of information that encloses the material planet and leaks into space, an expanding bubble of pure thought racing outward into the cosmos at the speed of light.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Stretching the imagination

It was an epic discovery. In the late 1920s, Edwin Hubble, working at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, observed that the other galaxies were moving away from us. Moreover, there was a direct proportionality between the distance of the galaxy and its speed of recession. The universe is expanding!

There is a neat way to demonstrate this that I used in class.

Get a long piece of rubber. A snipped rubber band with do if it's long enough and wide enough. Lay it out against the blackboard and have a student hold each end. With a marker, place a big dot at even intervals, say every inch. These are the galaxies.

Pick any dot at random to be our own galaxy. Hold it in place with one's finger. Now have the students slowly stretch the rubber band and watch what happens to the dots. When the next galaxy over from us, originally one inch away, has moved an inch, the galaxy that was originally two inches away will have moved two inches. Twice as far – relative to us -- in the same time. Twice the velocity. A galaxy originally three inches away will have moved three inches in the same time interval. And so on.

It doesn't matter which dot we pick to be us, or how long the rubber band is. You will observe Hubble' law from any galaxy, even if the rubber band is infinitely long.

This is rather harder to demonstrate, but imagine the rubber band shrinking rather than stretching, that is, running the clock in reverse. The dots get closer together, everywhere! Eventually the distance between the dots goes to zero –- the Big Bang. Not somewhere. Everywhere!

So here we are, riding the rubber band on our Milky Way sleigh. It was originally assumed that the stretching was slowing down, as the mutual gravity of the galaxies resisted the initial impetus. Like a ball tossed up into the air, the velocity of recession would eventually go to zero, and expansion would surrender to contraction The universe would end as it began, in a blaze of glory.

Now it seems that the expansion is accelerating, driven by something called dark energy. If so, then the universe will end in infinite dispersal, cold, dark and dead.

Or something.

It is good to remember that all of human history is but a blink of an eye in cosmic time, near a random star in a random dot. To speculate on those aspects of cosmic history that we can observe and measure requires a certain amount of hubris, as I was always aware as we stretched the rubber band. To speculate on the larger questions of where it all came from and why we are here may be a hubris too far.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Make straight his paths

Last Saturday I reprised an earlier post about the Presentation sisters of Dingle, Ireland, who taught my daughters for a year, forty-one years ago –- and who now lie in the convent cemetery under the spreading copper beech.

I remember particularly Sister Gregory, who recognized a scientific aptitude in my daughter Mo, and encouraged her interest. These were good women, who seemed happy and dedicated to God and the education of girls.

They are gone now. The kids of Dingle go to a co-ed, secular comprehensive school. The nuns' convent has been recycled to another use. The chapel, however, is open to the public. And a magical space it is, lit by stained glass windows by the inimitable Harry Clarke. I like to imagine the nuns standing in their stalls to each side of the central aisle, chanting the call and response of the Holy Office, antiphonally, one side to the other, then turning to the altar for the Gloria Patri.

You can take the boy out of the Catholic, but you can't take the Catholic out of the boy. The beauty of the stained glass and Gregorian chant, the sweetness of celebration –- just thinking about it is almost enough to have me go running back to the fold. But the fold's not there anymore. Perhaps it was never there. Perhaps there was always a worm in the bud.

Two stories in the paper that dim the nostalgia.

One, about government compensation of Irish women who as young girls were incarcerated in the infamous Magdalen laundries, run by orders of nuns, for imagined sins against "purity." (Whatever young men were complicit in their sins went unpunished.)

Is all that gone now? In Catholic Ireland, yes. In Islamic Pakistan, no. Another story, of two girls who "sullied the family honor" by making a cell-phone video of themselves, fully garbed in traditional clothes and headscarves, playing joyfully in the rain outside their bungalow. For this, they were killed by the girls' step-brother and accomplices, after local men watched the video.

Thank you, Sister Gregory, for encouraging my daughter's interest in science.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Speaking of my father

I was a Depression baby, born in 1936. My parents started their adult lives at the worst possible time, economically speaking, although their circumstances were better than many of their contemporaries. Their honeymoon photograph shows a handsome smiling couple. They went off from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Schenectady, New York, where my father, a mechanical engineer fresh from the University of Tennessee, took a job as an X-ray technician with General Electric. He was most proud, he later told me, of inventing a new kind of versatile mechanical mount for the X-ray machine. Their stay in New York did not last long. Was it the cold weather or homesickness that send the newlyweds scurrying south? I suspect it was the latter, on my mother's part.

The best record I have of this part of their lives is a little account book kept by Dad's mother. On the inside cover is written: "Chester, As you know, our rule was, one family fund for all income and all expenses, until each child reached his or her 21st birthday. Here you will find a strict account of all loans made to you, and all credits due you, from your 21st birthday to date. I have kept a similar account for Arthur, Roger and Charlotte. Love, Mum." Most of the early entries are outgoing expenses to my father, mostly "Cash for school" and small regular amounts for life insurance. There's $25 for Tau Beta Phi, the engineering honor society at UT, and other advances for suits, shirts and shoe repair. In December 1932 his mother writes, "Finished school, Thank God!" Still, there follow four months of advances while my father was out of work due to the Great Depression. In June, 1933, he starts working again for American Lava Corporation in Chattanooga and regular monthly payments of $5 or $10 start flowing back into the family account.

Then, more advances as the wedding approaches in September of 1935, including $25 to Father Sullivan of Saint Peter's and Paul's Catholic Church for performing the ceremony. The ledger is blank for the next three years, as the young married couple struggles to survive on their own, but in 1938, two years after I was born, Dad's "Mum" is still paying her son's laundry bills and advancing 50 cents for a blue shirt and $1.53 for a lost library book. Fifty cents for a shirt, borrowed from Mum! And a baby to clothe and feed. And another on the way.

The Second World War and the industrial needs of the military at last conferred financial independence on my engineer father. No more loans from Mum after Pearl Harbor. The account book records that he was advanced $960.19 more than he paid back.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Colored pencils

As I was growing up on Anderson Avenue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, there was a big wooden chest under the basement stairs full of "stuff" of my father's, including lab reports he had prepared for his courses in mechanical engineering at the University of Tennessee. I was fascinated. The reports were works of technical art, beautifully executed in my father's precise hand, filled with exquisite colored graphs. I didn't know what the reports were all about, but I knew they were something my father was proud of, and I was proud of him.

Proud enough to emulate him. When I was studying electrical engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, I modeled my lab reports on what I remembered of his. I wasn't the brightest student in those classes, but my lab reports were grade-A models of display and analysis. I didn't save them. As I graduated, I tossed them into the dormitory trash.

Two years later, I returned to the university as a graduate student in physics, and inevitably became a physics lab instructor for engineering undergrads. And discovered that I was famous.

Two years earlier, someone had rescued my lab reports from the trash, and they were now the common heritage of the current generation of students, on which they modeled their own reports. I won't take credit for so exalted (and dubious) an honor. My father gets the credit. I was just the boy sitting in the dust under the basement stairs wide-eyed with wonder that his dad could make things of such arcane delight.