Friday, January 31, 2014

Beauty bare

In the bookcase by my desk is what is almost certainly the heftiest book in my possession here on the island: Sears and Zemansky's University Physics. Sixth edition, circa 1981, with co-author Hugh Young. I must have lugged the book here back when I was still writing for the Boston Globe. A handy reference in the days before the Internet.

A classic! How many thousands of students were instructed in physics using this text, beginning in the middle of the last century. Sear and Zemansky are both long departed but their text goes on, now in the 10th edition, with new co-authors. Few college texts, I suspect, can claim such endurance.

I used Sears' textbooks in university. I taught from Sears and Zemansky. And now I have just pulled that two-inch-thick doorstop off the shelf for the first time in 15 years (at least) and it's like opening a family Bible. On this scripture Barry and I will probably agree.

I remember something my colleague Mike Horne used to tell his students: "If it's not simple, it's not physics." They must have wondered what he meant as they worked their laborious way though the theory of incompressible, non-viscous fluids. But of course the answer is in those words "incompressible" and "non-viscous." Like "frictionless pulley" and "weightless string," Sears and Zemansky is a stick-figure sketch of the world, a mathematical rendering of the armature on which the world is made, an armature we never experience directly, but which is simple, elegant, and immutable. Two or three semesters with Sears and Zemansky is a look behind the curtain of the world's irreducible complexity, a glance at the eternal beauty that Euclid looked on bare.

(The answers to the odd-numbered problems were in the back of the book. Some enterprising students of every generation managed to get their hands on the booklet of even-numbered answers available to instructors only. I grew accustomed to knowing only half of the answers; good preparation for an agnostic. Nowadays, I would guess that all the answers and worked-out solutions are available on the Internet. There goes all the fun.)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

About time

You may have read about the hugely rich venture capitalist who caused something of a storm last week by suggesting on TV that the "progressive war on the 1% " was the equivalent of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. A "kristallnacht" was in the offing he said.

He went on to show off his watch, which apparently cost something over $300,000. Worth a "six-pack of Rolexes," he crowed.

To each his own.

Yesterday I suggested here that life is made of shivers, of tingles in the spine. Here's what gave me shivers yesterday.

A manta ray that has for several days now taken up residence along our beach. We've had mantas swim by before, but they never lingered. This fellow seems to like us as much as we like him and every time his wing-tips soar out the water a chill runs up my spine.
And the gecko.

I had left a bucket of water in the yard in which I had washed paint brushes and rollers. I happened to glance in yesterday and saw a gecko clinging to the side, its head barely out of the gooey water, glued in place with latex. Alive, dead? No way to know how long it had been there in its slowly hardening captivity. I'll spare you the rescue, which involved a thorough bath and slow recovery from trauma. Tingle!

Now that I think of it, I wasn't wearing my watch all day. But here I am showing off my own shivers of time.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


I'm writing this on Tuesday morning (yesterday). The morning dawned crystal clear, after a week or so of rather cloudy weather. I stood on the terrace waiting for sunrise, my green flash vigil. Venus blazed in the southeast. The waning Moon, a fist-length above. And closing.

The Moon moves across the sky about 13 degrees a day, or about the width of a fat fist held at arm's length. That means that sometime between now and tomorrow morning (Wednesday) the Moon and Venus will make a sweet rendezvous.

Ah, the anticipation! Does that sound extreme? All day long the Moon will creep forward, almost invisible in the daylight sky, toward its hidden partner. Moon and planet will sink into the west before the Sun, having closed unseen most of the distance between them. Then they will rise before the Sun, a lovely pair in the morning sky, the Moon now closer to the Sun.

Will I see them? Will the sky in the southeast be clear?

I know it sounds silly, but the anticipation of so simple (yet so beautiful) a celestial event adds a frission to the day. Of such shivers is a life made.

Will the sky be clear? I think of lines from Robert Frost:
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud--
I'll let you know in the morning.

(Wednesday AM. A glorious and cloudless dawn, Venus rivaling the Moon in brightness! Of such shivers a life is made.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The passionate muse

A few more words about the book I mentioned yesterday, Claudia Roth Pierpont's Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, a collection of biographical/critical essays that originally appeared in The New Yorker. Let me say at once that Pierpont is exceedingly smart and has her own literary gifts. These are incisive and insightful essays.

It is an eclectic collection of women she writes about: Olive Schreiner, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, and Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. One suspects the choices were decided more by the random requirements of The New Yorker than any foreordained common theme.

Mae West and Ayn Rand? Eudora Welty and Anaïs Nin? Gertrude Stein and Margaret Mitchell? Well, OK, passionate minds, but what else?

A passion for writing. And a passion for sex. Even physically plain Eudora Welty, who for all I know was a lifelong virgin, fell madly in love; alas, with a gay man who could not return her ardor.

The two passions are no doubt related. As Pierpont says of Mary McCarthy, "It is easy to draw from her novels the idea that good sex requires some of the same gifts as good imaginative writing, and that the critically withholding self can't perform either very well." That is about as close to a common theme as one can find in Pierpont's feminine pantheon.

Monday, January 27, 2014

On one's knees

A phrase from a collection of essays I am reading: "It reduced and assuaged the powerful desire to kneel."

I want to address that powerful desire. But first, what is the source of the phrase? I won't say. But –- and this is the miracle of the internet –- you can Google the exact phrase (in quotes) and find the source in the whole semi-infinite world of published words.

Yes, OK. We are talking about Claudia Roth Pierpont's essay on the South African writer Olive Schreiner, daughter of Christian missionaries who was herself agnostic, originally published in New Yorker, and subsequently collected in a book called Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World.

I'm not interested here in Schreiner. It's that "powerful desire to kneel" that interests me. What is it? Where does it come from? Is it something we need reduce and assuage?

That it exists is undeniable. The vast majority of people in the world spend a significant part of their lives on their knees. I spent a goodly part of my own young life on my knees. Perhaps you did too. Some sort of urge to say "Gee," "Wow," "Thanks" seems part of the human condition.

And no need to deny it. I think of the poet Mary Oliver:
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into he grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed…
The problem comes, I think, when kneeling become subservience. When attention surrenders to obedience. When thankfulness becomes apology.

To kneel before wonder is human. To grovel is perhaps human too, but we need not embrace every urge with which nature has endowed us.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A sense of place -- a Saturday reprise

(I may have reprised this before, but I'm reading Welty and…

It would be hard to find two writers more different than Eudora Welty and Edward Abbey. Welty was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of stories and novels who lived all her life in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house in which she was born, the beloved spinster aunt of American letters. Abbey was a hard-drinking, butt-kicking nature writer and conservationist best known for his books on the American Southwest. Both writers are favorites of mine. Both were great champions of place. I always wondered what it would have been like if they got together.

As far as I know, that never happened. But let's imagine a conversation. I have taken extracts from Welty's essay "Some Notes on River Country" (1944) and from Abbey's essay "The Great American Desert (1977) and interleaved them. This post originally appeared in June 2006.)

"This little chain of lost towns between Vicksburg and Natchez."

"This desert, all deserts, any deserts."

"On the shady stream banks hang lady's eardrops, fruits and flowers dangling pale jade. The passionflower puts its tendrils where it can, its strange flowers of lilac rays with their little white towers shining out, or its fruit, the maypop, hanging."

""Oily growths like the poison ivy -- oh yes, indeed -- that flourish in sinister profusion on the dank walls above the quicksand down those corridors of gloom and labyrinthine monotony that men call canyons."

"All creepers with trumpets and panicles of scarlet and yellow cling to the treetops. There is a vine that grows to great heights, with heart-shaped leaves as big and soft as summer hats."

""Everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks. You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry and fierce as the animals."

"Too pretty for any harsh fate, with its great mossy trees and old camellias."

""Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity."

"The clatter of hoofs and the bellow of boats have gone. The Old Natchez Trace has sunk out of use. The river has gone away and left the landings. But life does not forsake any place."

""In the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix will get you if the sun, snakes, bugs, and arthropods don't. In the Mojave Desert, it's Las Vegas. Up north in the Great Basin Desert, your heart will break, seeing the strip mines open up and the power plants rise..."

"The Negro Baptist church, weathered black with a snow-white door, has red hens in the yard. The old galleried stores are boarded up. The missing houses were burned -- they were empty, and the little row of Negro inhabitants have carried them off for firewood."

""...the highway builders, land developers, weapons testers, power producers, clear cutters, oil drillers, dam beavers, subdividers."

"Eventually you see people, of course. Women have little errands, and the old men play checkers at a table in the front of the one open store. And the people's faces are good."


"To go there, you start west from Port Gibson. Postmen would arrive here blowing their horns like Gabriel, after riding three hundred wilderness miles from Tennessee."

""Why go into the desert? Really, why do it? That sun, roaring at you all day long. The fetid, tepid, vapid little water holes full of cannibal beetles, spotted toads, horsehair worms, liver flukes. Why go there?"

"I have felt many times there is a sense of place as powerful as if it were visible and walking and could touch me. A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out. Sometimes it gives out glory, sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen."

""Why the desert, when you could be camping by a stream of pure Rocky Mountain spring water. We have centipedes, millipedes, tarantulas, black widows, brown recluses, Gila monsters, the deadly poisonous coral snakes, and the giant hairy desert scorpions. Plus an immense variety of near-infinite number of ants, midges, gnats, bloodsucking flies, and blood-guzzling mosquitoes."

"Much beauty has gone, many little things of life. To light up the night there are no mansions, no celebrations. Wild birds fly now at the level where people on boat deck once were strolling and talking."

""In the American Southwest, only the wilderness is worth saving."

"There is a sense of place there, to keep life from being extinguished, like a cup of the hands to hold a flame."

""A friend and I took a walk up beyond Coconino County, Arizona. I found an arrow sign, pointed to the north. Nothing of any unusual interest that I could see -- only the familiar sun-blasted sandstone, a few scrubby clumps of blackbush and prickly pear, a few acres of nothing where only a lizard could graze. I studied the scene with care. But there was nothing out there. Nothing at all. Nothing but the desert. Nothing but the silent world."

"Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure."

""In my case, it was love at first sight. The kind of love that makes a man selfish, possessive, irritable..."

"New life will be built upon these things."

"" unrequited and excessive love."

"It is this."

""That's why."

Friday, January 24, 2014

In a dark time...

I've quoted a few of these lines before, from a poem by Charles Simic:
It's like fishing in the dark.
Our thoughts are the hooks,
Our heart the raw bait.

We cast the line past all believing
Into the night sky
Until it's lost to sight.
In a sense, that's the story of my life: a long love affair with the night sky. My first book of popular science was 365 Starry Nights. My first book of personal prose was The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage. An Intimate Look at the Night Sky followed much later, but every book in between, fiction and non-fiction, cast a line into the night sky.

What is it about the starry night that gives rise so effectively to what might be called the "religious instinct"?

The dark, precisely. The unplumbable depth. The hiddenness. The silence.

The infinity. The abyss of time. I can calculate the number of thimblefuls of water in the sea, but I have no way of knowing how many galaxies there are in the universe, or whether the universe is finite or infinite, or even how many universes might exist. Or where the universe came from. Or where it's going.

I stand barefoot on the terrace in the dark of night, and looking is a kind of prayer. A prayer without words. Without supplication. A silent acknowledgement of ignorance. Heartfelt ignorance. An ignorance that is a receptacle aching to be filled.

My heart the bait.

The dark night of the soul. The starlit valley of shadow. The knowing that unknows. There, just there, hanging between Cassiopeia and Perseus, the barely visible blur of the double cluster, the rent veil of the temple.
The line's long unraveling
Rising in our throats like a sigh.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Back of the envelope

The other day my pal Dwight and I were sitting on the "treehouse" deck at Houseman's bar, nursing cold Kaliks and looking out at the sea. I launched into some explanation or other about water molecules.

"How big is a water molecule?" asked Dwight.

How to answer?

I remembered a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation I did here back in June 2011, during the Panama voyage. "There are about as many molecules in a thimbleful of water as there are thimblefuls of water in all the oceans of the Earth," I said.

I didn't tell Dwight that I had done the calculation; he just supposed it was something an ex-physicist might know. I love doing this sort of order-of-magnitude calculation. I used to occasionally assign them to my students. You'll need to look up the mass of a proton, the radius of the Earth, and the average depth of the oceans, all readily available with Google. The rest is just high-school math and chem. Those of you with some science/math background can try it.

Anyway, you must admit, it's a fairly mind-blowing comparison. As we sat there looking out at the sea stretching away to the far horizon and imagining all the thimblefuls of water, suddenly the teeming world of molecules came into better perspective.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


That's the tag line in Kindle's recent ad in the NYT Review of Books: JUST LIKE A LIBRARY.

A photo of a pretty girl holding her Kindle: "Crystal loves that she can browse and read millions of books."

I'm sure there are millions of folks who share Crystal's sentiment. And there's no doubt that having access to millions of books is a technological miracle. I occasionally use my wife's Kindle, especially on the island.


A library is not just a collection of words. It is first of all a physical space defined by books. A three-dimensional physical space, silent, expectant, with tables and chairs for study and reflection. A physical space separate from living and recreational spaces. It is not so much the books themselves that define the space, as the aura of accumulated wisdom, discovery, and creativity that pervades the space the way food odors pervade a kitchen.

A holy space, like the nave of a church or the shade of the Bo tree.

A library is a step outside of the present into history. Pages yellow, turn brittle, become dog-eared and stained with ink and coffee. Time presses its mark. Generations rub shoulders. Browsing the stacks of a library is like entering a time machine, visiting other times, other ages, a Connecticut yankee in King Arthur's court with the dust to prove it.

Ironically, a public library is a personal place, untouched by intrusive commercialism, where one can indulge one's fancies fancy free. No one is tracking one's browsing. One can avail of the "data" without becoming part of the data.

JUST LIKE A LIBRARY? Not in my book.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Once again a great white heron has taken up residence in our yard. It's as if an angel, Gabriel say, has come to visit.

My camera is on the fritz, so I can't share a photo. You will have to rely on my words.

Crowned and gowned in nuptial white. She moves along the dune at a bride's pace -- step, pause, step, pause -– her gaze fixed, bride-like, straight ahead. Her long yellow legs so thin and insubstantial her body seems to float like a tethered balloon. Daintily, she lifts a foot, offers it forward, places it ever so precisely. Pause.

The neck, with the improbable crook. Like swallowing a fish through a twisted straw. But then, she extends her head, and the neck unfurls. Her head rises like a periscope, that lance-like beak, that gleaming eye.

"Thou," I whisper. "Thou."

Martin Buber's most famous work -- I and Thou -- was first published in English in the 1930's, but a second English edition was brought forward by Scribner in 1958, just as I was beginning a struggle to reconcile my scientific training with my childhood faith. Buber offered me, and others like me, a useful vocabulary for understanding what we felt -- a naming of two kinds of experiences, what he called the I-It and the I-Thou.

Ordinary day-to day experience -- the scientific experiment, for example, or how I feel just now as I stare at the screen of my word processor -- belongs to the realm of the I-It. Such experience is necessary for living in the world. We put on our shoes, go to the bank, and change the oil in the car in the realm of I-It. "Without It man cannot live," says Buber. And he adds: "But he who lives with It alone is not a man." There is a different kind of experience that is relational, mutual and transcending that Buber calls I-Thou. It is an experience we feel most commonly in interaction with another human being -- a partner, a parent, a child, a friend. But it can also be experienced with other living beings, a bride-white heron say, pacing with a nuptial grace across the dune. A grace that for a moment lifts me out of myself and into –- dare I say it? -- the infinite.

"Thou," I whisper. "Thou."

Monday, January 20, 2014


"It would be well, perhaps, if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a roof, or the saint dwell there so long."

Good advice, Mr. Thoreau.

I came here to this island for its unobstructed sky. Built a house called Starlight House. I'm no poet or saint, but I settled in to nurse what slender gifts I have.

The sky has not disappointed.

Except occasionally.

We have just come off a rare four-day string of cloudy days, and the celestial bodies have been sorely missed, especially full-moon rises over the sea. Rare enough to make one wonder what history would have been like had the Earth been permanently shrouded in cloud.

What of poetry? What of sanctity?

What of science?

But, you say, we have lifted ourselves above the clouds. By now we would have seen the stars. And been as astonished by what we saw as stout Cortez and all his men on that peak in Darien.

Not yet, I think. The origins of science and math are so intimately linked with observations of celestial bodies that I think it entirely reasonable to suppose that the advent of space exploration would have been delayed on a cloud-covered Earth, by at least a century, likely longer.

We would still be waiting, in ignorance, for that greatest of all revelations.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Wakeful world

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

An epic confrontation -- a Saturday reprise

On one side is Augustine, champion of Mediterranean gnosticism, faithful son of Roman authority. On the other side, Pelagius, a Celt from Britain, earthy, sensual, rebellious. Augustine's God is a transcendent spirit who stands in opposition to base matter. Pelagius's God is in and of the earth, immanent in wind, sea, sky, plants and animals. Augustine understands the world dualistically: body/soul, matter/spirit, natural/supernatural. Pelagius takes everything as one. Augustine is misogynistic; he chastises Pelagius for his associations with women and for learning from them. Pelagius is at home in his sexual identity and comfortable in the presence of women. Salvation for Augustine is by divine grace, which alone can redeem us from Adam's sin. Salvation for Pelagius is through individual responsibility, simplicity, laughter and joy; there is no Original Sin.

Here were two great defining spirits of Western spirituality, in contest for the soul of the Church. We know how the contest turned out. Augustine prevailed and the Church has ever since been primarily defined by paternalism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and contempt for fallen nature. But the Pelagian Celtic tradition survived as a kind of underground river, now and then coming to the surface -- John Scotus Erigena, Meister Eckhart, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Francis of Assisi, to mention only a few -- only to be batted back down.

If there is today in the West an inordinate tension between science and religion, it because we are heirs to an Augustinian faith tradition that stands in opposition to the very things that make science possible: a unitary view of nature, respect for the world of the senses, and a healthy skepticism for authority.

(This post originally appeared in December 2006.)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Birthday girl

Today is Anne's birthday, a significant one, although I'll not mention her age.

I was the oldest of six children; Anne came second. Early on, I chose science; Anne chose art. This made for some lively tussles when we were young adults. Our world views diverged. I grounded myself in the reliable empirical knowledge of science and chose a steady, conventional path though life. Anne struck out on a more creative, bohemian track. When our paths converged, sparks often flew.

It has become something of a cliché to say that science is we and art is I. Like many clichés, the sentiment is largely true. Science is about consensus and reproducibility. Reproducibility in art is called forgery or plagiarism. If Einstein had not discovered relativity, someone else would have done so, and probably soon. If Picasso had not painted his works of art, no one else would have done so. I opted for we; Anne for I.

But there was an I lurking in my we, and Anne helped me discover it. Her I was (still is) inspiring, and rubbing against it, some of it rubbed off on me. My pursuit of the I took me into a different genre, but it's hard to imagine what my life would have been without creative writing.

For that I owe Anne thanks; she led the way and inspired me to follow. Happy birthday, Sis.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Life, strife?

Is the average experience of humankind less violent today than at any time in the past, as Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature? Your opinion may depend on whether you're the sort of person who sees the glass half empty or half full. As for me, I think Pinker's glass is full, as I have suggested in the last two posts.

As for those who take issue with Pinker, I think the best response is to ask them if they would prefer to have lived 100, or 200, or 500 years ago, or anytime in the past. They may say "yes," but I bet they'd hesitate when you invite them to step into the time machine.

There's no doubt that we have a talent for killing each other. While we are debating the issue, here is an animated graph that my son Dan put me onto. I can't vouch for the data, but I have no reason to doubt it either. I do like the self-confirming illusion that things are getting better. Hit play and enjoy.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The last days of Pompey

This little island -– Exuma in the Bahamas -– is a peaceful place, with an indigenous population, mostly black, not wealthy, but by all appearances healthy and happy. Certainly they are among the finest people it has been my pleasure to know.

The back story is not nearly so sunny.

When the Spanish arrived in the Bahamas in 1492, these islands were inhabited by a people called Lucayans, with a population density not so different from that of the Out Islands today. Within 25 years the Bahamas were empty, every Lucayan dead from violence, European disease, or being shipped off to fatal servitude in the Spanish mines and pearl fisheries further south. It is a story of gruesome inhumanity.

For a time, the islands were the depopulated haunt of adventurers and pirates. Then, at the time of the American Revolution, Loyalist planters came with their African slaves from the Carolinas and Florida, and attempted to establish cotton culture on this sandy soil. It was only marginally possible until Britain abolished slavery in all its territories, at which point the slave owners of Exuma departed for the mother country, leaving the ex-slaves to shift for themselves. The people of the Bahamas are for the most part descendants of slavery, that horrific chapter of human history.

I'm with Steven Pinker on this one: Humanity is on the whole less violent and rapacious today than at any time in the past. Here on Exuma, a few yards away from a golden statue commemorating a fellow named Pompey, who led a slave rebellion in 1830, there is a government clinic, offering affordable health care to all Exumians (and blow-ins like us). In this little corner of the world, at least, the better angels of our nature are ascendant.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


In February 1510, Roman Catholic Christianity seemed to be at an apex. Powerful Pope Julius II sat on the throne of Peter. Bramante was building the grandest basilica in Christendom. Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Raphael was embellishing the papal library with The School of Athens, that monumental tribute to human reason. Venice's claims on papal territories had been crushed decisively.

Roman carnival that year was exuberant:
All the familiar entertainments were on show. Bulls were released into the crowds and slain by men on horseback armed with lances. Convicted criminals were executed in the Piazza del Popolo by a hangman dressed as a harlequin. South of the piazza, races along Via del Corso included a competition between prostitutes. An even more popular attraction was the "racing of the Jews," a contest in which Jews of all ages were forced to don bizarre costumes and then sprint down the street to insults from the crowd and sharp prods from the spears of the soldiers galloping behind…There were even races between hunchbacks and cripples.
A jolly good time was had by all.

Well, not all. Not if you were the butt of the joke. One cringes to imagine that the speaker of the Sermon on the Mount were witness to these gross obscenities.

Martin Luther was 27 years old. More to the point, in exactly a century Galileo would turn his newly-fashioned telescope to the sky and the Scientific Revolution would have its own moment of triumph. Empiricism would eclipse revelation. The Enlightenment would push back against cruel excess.

(The quote above is from Ross King's Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling.)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Truth and consequences

From a review in the NYTBR of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's The Time Regulation Institute, which puts Tanpinar's novel in the tradition of Menippean satire: "What such otherwise dissimilar books have in common is a delight in exposing the limits of human reason, with particular scorn for any intellectual system that attempts to comprehensively explain the world."

I will admit to never having heard the term Menippean satire, but I can sympathize with the sentiment. Good advice, I'd say: Don't trust any intellectual system that claims to explain the world. Christianity. Marxism. Tea party politics. Nihilism. You name it. The world is too multifarious and full of surprises to fit into any intellectual straitjacket.

Does that include science? Absolutely.

But science has one characteristic that distinguishes it from every other comprehensive scheme I know of: Institutionalized skepticism.

Peer review. Mathematical rigor. Empirical reproducibility. Fluid consensus. There is hardly an issue of Science or Nature (the two journals I read regularly) that does not contain a retraction or correction of a previous paper that did not meet the standards of rigorous review and reproducibility.

Of course, any truth system needs stability if it is to be a useful guide to the world. I have suggested here before that science aspires to be radically open to marginal change and marginally open to radical change.

Other truth systems do occasionally make course corrections; think Protestant Reformation or the contemporary Chinese economy. But these changes are forced by circumstances and fiercely resisted by established powers. In science, it is the established gatekeepers that insist on applied doubt.

All of which means we can give science a measure of confidence that other systems lack. Not obeisance, but cautious confidence.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The actual world -- a Saturday reprise

Books about Thoreau have become something of a cottage industry in recent years. Now comes David Robinson's Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism. Robinson, a Professor of English at Oregon State University, does not add a lot that we didn't already know about the so-called hermit of Walden, but he puts a twist on the story that reminds us just why this guy with the Abe Lincoln beard and melancholy gaze continues to intrigue us these many years on.

Well, I can't speak for others, but I keep returning to Thoreau because he was the first to teach me that one can have religion without the supernatural and science without scientism. And this is exactly what Robinson's title is all about.

Upon his return from his week-long boating trip on the Concord River with brother John, Thoreau resolved to change the way he lived. He wrote: "Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. Man would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him. He needs not only to be spiritualized but naturalized, on the soil of the earth."

In seeking a "natural life," Thoreau meant to live as part of an organic whole, not separate from nature, not clinging to the divine like a helpless child, but as the sturdy elm about which the vine clings. He shunned talk of immaterial souls, and, like Whitman, stood in awe of the body. "Talk of mysteries! -- Think of our life in nature, -- daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, -- rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact!"

The actual world! The world of common sense and the common senses. The world he could touch, and taste, and see, and hear, and smell. This is where he would encounter the divine -- in the wind on his cheek.

He took scientists to task too. He did not reject science; he read and approved of Darwin's great book, for example. But he feared that in their experimental rigor scientists would lose sight of the organicity of nature. He was not a romantic in the mold of Wordsworth or Goethe; he relished knowing the secret inner workings of nature that science reveals. But the natural life he sought would not be found on the lab bench, or under the dissector's knife, but in silence, solitude, and reverie.

Thoreau was smart enough to know that science cannot be done while sauntering in moonlight, his own favorite activity. By definition, science is a matter of reduction and dissection. A scientist cannot lead a "natural life" as a scientist. But a scientist can live a natural life as a woman or a man.

(This post originally appeared in May 2007.)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Natural selection

I have blogged a walking stick insect once before. Here's one that made the mistake of climbing up our screen door, foregoing its usual camouflage. "Look at me!" it seems to shout. Maybe it got bored with invisibility. I mean, who wouldn't?

The two great imperatives of natural selection are sex and death (just ask Woody Allen). Have more of the former. Avoid the latter. As for sex, females of many species prefer a flamboyant suitor -- the gaily-feathered bird, the technicolored fish. Here I am, look at me, advertises the male, all gussied up in conspicuous duds, fit as a fiddle. Other creatures seem to prefer staying alive as a reproductive strategy. Hide from predators, catch sex on the fly. Like our insect here. Don't know if it's male or female, sexual, bisexual or parthenogenic. But put in on the buttonwood tree and it disappears into the environment. How it finds a mate I'll never know.

Humans seem to adopt either strategy –- peacocks or walking sticks. Here on the island I go for walking stick invisibility, blending in, snuggling with my sweet spouse of fifty-five years. But I have a fire-engine red Hawaiian shirt for those few times we go out and about. There are pretty tourists about who bring out my Darwinian peacock.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

As ample as the earth, as deep as time

Before I abandoned my office at the college, along with a load of books, I owned a multi-volume set of the essays of the naturalist John Burroughs, published early in the last century. Most of the essays were about nature, but some were about Walt Whitman and some were about God. Burroughs had great admiration for the poet; less for the divinity.

I remember being a little surprised to discover that Burroughs championed Whitman at a time when many Americans were baffled (or scandalized) by Whitman's poetry, and hardly recognized him as a poet. Burroughs, after all, was the sort of fellow contented to sit alone in the woods listening to chickadees. Whitman enjoyed the hustle-bustle of the city where he could rub shoulders with his fellow men. An apparently unlikely alliance.

Both men had generous beards and unconventional religious beliefs. Burroughs was a firm agnostic; Whitman professed to admire all religions equally, but had a rather nebulous idea of God. No doubt each recognized in the other a kindred spirit. And both men recognized in Darwin one of the great minds of the century. Whitman told Burroughs that Darwin was "the first to open the door into Nature's secret senate chambers. His theory…is as ample as the earth, and as deep as time."

Pure poetry, thought Whitman.

Burroughs, too, was moved by Darwin's revelation: "Think of the beings that lived -– the savage lower forms -– that [man] might move here, a reasonable being!...a million years of unreason for his moment of reason! A million years of gross selfishness, that he might have a benevolent throb."

We can forgive the poet and the naturalist their hyperbole. They were keen enough to know that Darwin had provided a scientific underpinning for their unconventional religious views.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

A memory

It is 1987 (or thereabouts). Dodd, Mead, one of the oldest and most respected publishing houses in New York, has decided to publish my book Honey From Stone. I go to New York to visit my editor. We meet in the Dodd, Mead conference room, which is lined with books by well-known authors and doesn't appear to have changed much in a century. I am in a place where books are valued and authors respected, a shrine to literary values.

This was before, before e-books. But the writing was on the wall. The industry was changing. Within a few years Dodd, Mead would go out of business. Within a decade, publishing would be changed forever. Pity the aspiring mid-list author today. Meagre advances. No book tours. No visits to New York. Pathetic royalty statements. I was in the last cohort of authors who didn't work for Jeff Bezos. Today it's only blockbusters and the rabble. The mid-list doesn't exist.

I was fortunate that just before Dodd, Mead dissolved Honey From Stone was sold in paperback to Penguin, and after Penguin let it lapse it was picked up by several wonderful small houses (Hungry Mind/Ruminator and Crowley), both of which eventually found the new market environment unsustainable. Fortunately, Honey still has a home at Rowman and Littlefield, but I know many authors who have not been so lucky.

There are, to be sure, certain advantages to readers and authors in the new environment, and I'll not dispute with those who love their Kindle. But I'm glad I'm not writing books any more. You can have the Amazon mega-warehouse; I remember with fondness that musty, book-filled room at Dodd, Mead, and was proud at the time that my book would join the distinguished works on the shelves. Little did I know, that a tsunami of change was about to sweep it all away.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Nicene Creed

Well, it's official. Books "proving" the existence of heaven have had one more year near the top of the charts. I mention this because I just came across a tongue-in-cheek poem I wrote as a young man -- the fledgling agnostic trying his wings. With some misgivings, I share it here.
The Resurrection of the Body

On that Last Day we'll rise up
the way the mushrooms came up

last night, all at once, after the
long rain. This is what we'll be:

a thread of spittle coughed up
by the grave, a jowl of skin,

a manikin for a suit of pink
wrinkled flesh, a pouch of bones.

It will be enough. If the body must
last forever, let it be without

the spirit, that sticky chlorophyll
called conscience, that candy-man.

Prick and cunny, palm and tongue,
we’ll spring up overnight like

phantoms, unbutton pocketsful
of chicken parts, shake out the

soft bones, jitterbug in zoot suits
of empty skin, strut and preen.

Monday, January 06, 2014


Oh, God. Not again. Woke this morning to an infestation of mosquitoes in the house, especially the bathroom. Dozens of them. The occasional mosquito buzzing about our ear at night is not unusual, but…

It happened once before, years ago, when a relation and a friend were using the house. A thousand miles away, we had no idea what was going on. Now we are here, and still don't know where the mosquitoes are coming from.

No standing water. No holes in the screens. They seemed to materialize out of thin air.

Male mosquitos have just two things on their minds: sex and nectar. And only enough nectar to have the energy for sex. It's the females that want our blood, human protein to nourish their offspring. On her antennae are oderant detectors exquisitely tuned for human odor emissions -- indole, phenol, methtlphenols, and other aromatic compounds. She senses them from the other side of the house and follows them up-gradient to where we sleep unawares. If we manage to slap her in the morning, she is engorged with our blood.

Look at the lovely photo here, by Hugh Sturrock of the University of Edinburgh, published some years ago in the journal Nature. Little aviator. Blood sucker with wings. An exquisite contrivance of natural selection, millions of years of patient perfection. And this morning I was murdering them by the dozens.

Oh, well. They've murdered enough of us, abetting deadly pathogens. We're all bound up in this web of life together, eat or be eaten, everyone out for himself. Presumably, we are the only species that can look at a picture of the enemy and say, "Isn't she beautiful."


Sunday, January 05, 2014

What made you?

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Sleeping giants --- a Saturday reprise

Readers of Honey From Stone will recognize this place from Bob O'Cathail's linocut for the chapter Lauds. It is an Early Bronze Age wedge grave on Caherard Hill above the village, on a grand site looking out over Dingle Bay. One long narrow chamber that was once mounded over with earth. The earth, of course, has long since eroded away. The stones have tumbled somewhat. Leaba an Fhir Mhuimhnuigh, "the bed of the Munsterman," it is called locally. Or more simply, the Giant's Bed.

I've been up there many times, including the equinoctial sunrise I wrote about in Honey. Recently I was there with the archeologist Isabel Bennett, who knows as much as anyone about these relics of a mostly forgotten time. There are ten wedge tombs on the Dingle Peninsula (along with countless other megalithic monuments). Isabel has visited all of them, and they are described in detail in the Archeological Survey of the Dingle Peninsula, of which she is a co-author.

From the time I was a child I have had romantic notions of archeologists and their recovery of vanished civilizations. I suppose I was influenced by the National Geographic series of articles, "Everyday Life in Ancient Times," from 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, cutting 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 making her choice from among nubile young women. Na'r, King of Upper Egypt smashing the heads of his enemies with a mace of ivory and gold. Scantily-clad boys and girls of Crete doing hand-springs between the horns of a charging bull. The courtesan Phryne posing nude for the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. Alexander, in golden helmet fashioned in the form of a lion, routing 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 -- and a lingering respect for archeologists such as Isabel, who standing on Caherard Hill made even this tumbled pile of stones come alive under her expert eye.

(This post originally appeared in August 2007.)

Friday, January 03, 2014

On being good

Whew! Just finished reading Mark Helprin's 700-page novel In Sunlight and In Shadow, set mostly in New York and environs in the years immediately following World War II. A cross between Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Mann -- New York sophistication and Teutonic exhaustive (and exhausting) attention to detail. A slog at the beginning, but I was sucked into the story, and stayed till the end.

Really more of a fairy tale than a novel. All the women are heart-stoppingly beautiful, all the men are brave and virtuous, all the villains are ogreish and irredeemably evil. A moral tale, certainly, but without moral ambiguity.

And therein lies the flaw.

I was raised in a moral culture of black and white. One walked a narrow path with sin welling up on either side. The rules were all written down -– where? Rome? Heaven? -– and the consequences of breaking them were eternal. Conscience was a matter of measuring oneself against a given template, and usually finding oneself wanting.

Then, in literature, I discovered a world of nuanced choice, of solitary human selves parsing virtue. Gatsby and Karenina. Ahab and Aschenbach. Queeg and Quasimodo. A world of ambiguity, of imperfect humanity. And having experienced that lesson, morality became something other than fitting into a template; it became a lifetime of sometimes ambiguous choices for which, for better or worse, I alone am responsible. No ledger in Rome or Heaven keeping track; the ledger is in the lives of those for whom my actions have consequences.

There is a great debate going on now between traditional philosophical ethicists and evolutionary psychologists about the roots of morality. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom'sJust Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil is only the latest work to look to natural selection for innate morality. Nurture or nature? How the debate will resolve itself remains to be seen. In the meantime, we have as much to learn about how to live from literature as from the psychology lab. Especially from literature that rises above the level of fairy tales.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Pelican…belly can

For years we have had an osprey patrolling our long deserted beach, keen-eyed and elegant, he glides high above with hardly a wingbeat, watching for that flash of silver in the surf that promises dinner. We are hugely grateful for his presence, his appetite, his angelic grace.

Last year for the first time he acquired a rival, still around this year, a brown pelican, staking claim to the same long stretch of surf. An ungainly bird, not nearly as elegant as the osprey, nor as keen-eyed either, apparently. He flies closer to the water, his Stuka wings flopping –- beat, gli-i-i-ide, beat, gl-i-i-ide -- neck curled back, his pouch-like beak dragging him forward.

Audubon painted him perched on a mangrove branch, big-headed, russet-crested, gimlet-eyed, paddle-footed. You wouldn't imagine he could fly. But fly he does, a lumbering 747 to the osprey's sleek Dreamliner. We sense him first when his magnificent shadow sweeps over us, like a visitor from Mordor. "Look! Look! The pelican."

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Happy New Year

Click to enlarge Anne's New Year's illumination.