Friday, February 28, 2014

Global warming?

When we arrived here in mid-December, the sun rose over the cairn on Stocking Island, about as far to the south as it ever gets. Morning by morning, it has been creeping north along the horizon, not fast enough to be obvious day by day, but easily noticeable week by week as the smaller cays slip under its rolling wheel.

In three weeks it will rise due east, the first day of spring, and time to return to New England.

Return to what? Snow? Cold? All winter we have been reading on the internet about the brutal weather in the north, and counting our blessings. All right, I'm willing to put shoes on, but boots and wooly socks? Please, say it won't be so.

Meanwhile, our family climatologist has arrived for a week, to explain why global warming can drive that pesky polar vortex down across North America. Seems counterintuitive, but I trust her explanation. Here's another just-announced accolade to go with the Wollaston.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The invisible

The first three stanzas of a poem of Charles Simic called "The Invisible":
It was always here.
Its vast terrors concealed
By this costume party
Of flowers and birds
And children playing in the garden.

Only the leaves tell the truth.
They rustle darkly,
Then fall silent as if listening
To a dragonfly
Who may know a lot more of the invisible,

Or why else would its wings be
So translucent in the light,
So swift to take flight,
One barely notices
It's been here and gone.
I've spent a lifetime a-tuning myself to the invisible, trying as best I can to stay aware to the unseen, the thing that hides behind the costume of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. Not the unseen gods that the Athenians imagined looking down from Olympus or the cornices of their temples, but the unseen thing that Thales and Democritus sensed behind the visible, that Plato guessed at in his Timaeus.

The rustling leaves, the dragonfly –- I want to be aware of what's below the surface, the unceasing turmoil of the proteins, the dervish dance of the DNA, and deeper, the resonances and entanglements of the subatomic particles, an eternal cosmological music fixed in the foundations of the world.

Yesterday, as we set on the beach, the osprey and its mate swooped and dived above our heads, their wings, it seemed, as broad as my outstretched arms. I wanted to see into the chambers of their hearts, the blood coursing through their veins, the neurons firing in brains exquisitely contrived for snatching silver fish from the surf.

The invisible hawk.

To be aware, but not so aware as to be overwhelmed. Not so aware that I forget the silver surf, and the fish, and the children playing in the sand.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


After yesterday's post, one might reasonably ask: If Martin Gardner believes in a personal God and the afterlife, with admittedly no evidence, because it makes him feel good, by what right does he scorn people who without evidence believe in astrology or homeopathy, say, for the same reason?

In Gardner's defense, the situations are not the same.

Astrology and homeopathy both presuppose observable effects in the world of phenomena. Supposedly, people's personal characteristics are manifestly determined by their birth signs, and homeopathic solutions sensibly alleviate afflictions. These are correlations that can be observed and tested, even aside from their theoretical improbability (even absurdity). Suffice it to say that every blind test of astrology and homeopathy has shown no statistically reliable correlations.

If Martin Gardner believed his personal God acted in the world, by answering prayers, say, or performing miracles, then his belief would indeed be equivalent to that of the astrologers and homeopaths. Double-blind tests of the efficacy of petitionary prayer have shown no positive correlations, and I know of no unambiguous or non-anecdotal evidence of miracles.

Gardner's faith is not even like belief in Russell's teapot, which does or does not exist in the world of searchable phenomena. As far as I can tell on the evidence of his autobiography, which includes discussion of such things, Gardner makes no claim that his God acts in the world in any perceivably miraculous way, nor does he believe the membrane between death and the afterlife is other than one-way permeable."

That is to say, he believes in things for which evidence has not been adduced in favor, and cannot be adduced against.

I'd say, "What's the point?" But since there is nothing we can logically argue over, to each his own. Martin, if you're in Heaven, send back a few new mathematical games. We'll recognize your inimitable touch.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Undiluted Hocus-Pocus

Reading Martin Gardner's autobiography is like spending a pleasant afternoon in the company of a 95-year-old man with sharp memories and a twinkle in his eye. Oh wait, that's what it is.

Gardner comes across as a straight-arrow sort of guy who likes his poetry rhymed and his art realistic. I get the impression that he liked keeping busy and sniffed at pretention and idle chit-chat. Certainly, with 25 years of the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American and dozens of books, he must have kept his squeaky-clean nose to the grindstone.

And good for the rest of us. I derived so much pleasure from his Mathematical Games columns that just reading about how they happened makes me want to go back and read them all again. Alas, at some point in my crowded life I tossed the collected magazines. Let's hope the college library doesn't do the same.

I enjoyed Gardner's reminiscences of his time at the University of Chicago during the reign of Hutchins and Adler, and his doggerel verse:
Hutchins and Adler
Had careers of great promise
Before both were shot down
By the books of St. Thomas.
I had my own take on Hutchins and Adler here.

Gardner, of course, was a great debunker of pseudoscience of every sort, most famously, perhaps, in his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, the spirit of which inspired many a Globe column. In Hocus-Pocus, he quotes Carl Sagan approvingly: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Then he ends the book with of sturdy confession of faith in a personal God and the afterlife. One can almost hear the collective sigh of his many skeptical friends.

Give this to Gardner: He concedes all the best arguments to the skeptics, and admits that he has no proofs for his beliefs. He believes for emotional reasons, he says; it makes him feel good. I'll give him that. His life and work certainly made me feel good.

(More on this tomorrow.)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Curiosity and fun

In November 1959 I received in the mail my first issue of Scientific American. I was a graduate student in physics at the time and my new spouse had given me a subscription to the magazine for my birthday. I remained a subscriber for more than 40 years, saving every issue.

During that time, geology was revolutionized by the theory of plate tectonics, the "big bang" theory for the origin of the universe was substantially verified, spectacular progress was made in understanding the molecular basis of life, computers permeated every aspect of science and society, humans left footprints (and tire tracks) on the moon and sent probes to the outer reaches of the solar system -- to mention just a few things that transpired in science. Throughout it all, Scientific American kept me (and thousands like me, both scientists and non-scientists) authoritatively informed.

The authoritativeness of Scientific American stems from the fact that the articles are written by the experts who did the work. Scientific specialists are not usually noted for the lucidity of their prose, so it is something of a miracle that the magazine works at all. It worked during the years of my subscription for two reasons: the editors insured that the words that reached the pages were plain English; and the magazine's graphics were lucid and beautiful.

And let's not forget two luminous features of the magazine of that era; Philip Morrison's sparkling book reviews (later joined by spouse Phylis), and Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games.

It was once the pleasure of my wife and I to be entertained for an evening by Philip and Phylis Morrison at their home in Cambridge. The place was jammed to the gills with science books and science toys, a veritable playground for two insatiably curious and fun-loving minds. I can think of no higher honor I have received as a writer than Philip's appreciation of my Globe column.

And Martin Gardner? Another insatiably curious and fun-loving mind. I wish I could say I met him, but I read his column and books religiously, and now I have read his just-published autobiography Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, written at age 95 in a one-room assisted-living facility in Oklahoma, still curious and still having fun. He died in 2010, soon after finishing the book.

More on Martin tomorrow.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The last valentine

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The radiance of what is -- a Saturday reprise

In the summer of 1936, as I nestled snug in my mother's womb, Fortune magazine sent the young writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans to rural Alabama to report on how the Great Depression was affecting the poorest of the poor. For eight weeks they lived with three impoverished sharecropper families. (Pictured above is the family of Bud Fields. Click to enlarge.)

Their combined work never appeared in Fortune, but it was published as a book -- Let Us Now Praise Famous Men -- in 1941. The book was not an immediate success, but decades later, after Agee won a posthumous Pulitzer for A Death in the Family, it found a new audience and eventually a place in the American canon of literary and photographic masterpieces.

The book has a strange, difficult and self-lacerating Preamble in which Agee tries to understand what it is that he and Evans have done. Does art report or create? Have the two artists exploited the families they reported on? How do we discern the truth when we are burdened with so many limitations, preconceptions and personal agendas? How do we make ourselves neutral channels for what is and not for what we wish it to be? Is it possible to be "neutral"? Is it desirable?

These are questions that science and art struggle with perennially, each in its own way. These are questions that each of us should ask about our own constructions of reality. Agee writes:
For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without dissection into science or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself like a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revised, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.
Agee professes his desire to suspend imagination, so that "there opens before consciousness, and within it, a universe luminous, spacious, incalculably rich and wonderful in each detail, as relaxed and natural to the human swimmer, and as full of glory, as his breathing."

A marvelous aspiration. But impossible, of course. Science strives mightily for "objectivity." The artist too wants to reveal something real and wonderful, a cruel radiance. And always there, between our eyes and the world, is the imagination. And why not? It is the imagination that defines our humanity, the channel by which the world becomes conscious of itself. We read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or look at Evans' photographs, and we see what is and what should be, creation roaring in the heart of itself and in our hearts too.

(This post originally appeared in May 2011.)

Friday, February 21, 2014

What works wins?

How many ways are there to "know"? That is, to obtain knowledge of the world?

1. Intuition.

2. Tradition.

3. Supernatural revelation.

4. Gurus.

5. Science.

Am I missing something?

All of these no doubt at least occasionally hit upon "the truth," and all of them at least occasionally get something wrong.

But are they equally reliable?

Only one way of knowing has self-correcting mechanisms built into the process. Organized doubt.

In the current New Yorker, staff writer Adam Gopnick has an interesting and balanced essay on declining faith in God in developed countries. He speaks of theists and atheists, Super-Naturalists and Self-Makers, or simply the yeses and noes. And he says this about the latter:
And here we arrive at what the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident. What works wins.
Implicit in this statement is a close correlation between secularism and science. For two reasons:

1. Reliable knowledge of how the world works leaves less for a God or gods to do. If comets follow predictable gravitational paths, we don't read them as supernatural signs.

2. Reliable knowledge of how the world works leads to life enhancing technologies. People without constant toothache, enough to eat, and a low incidence of death in childbirth, have less need of a God or gods to alleviate their suffering.

By their fruits you will know them. The fruits of science are manifest. I sometimes hold to things for intuitive reasons when science is silent. Same for tradition. I see no evidence for supernatural revelation, and I've yet to encounter a guru who didn't strike me as a charlatan.

Science occasionally gets things wrong, but overwhelmingly it works. Even the charlatans like to wrap themselves in its mantle.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Religious naturalist?

As usual, when my daughter Margaret and son-in-law Mark are with us, and an appropriate amount of wine has been consumed with dinner, they needle me about what they discern as a creeping religiosity in this blog. To hear them tell it, an aura of iffy supernaturalism hangs about me like a noxious case of B. O.

Cite a case of supernaturalism, I say. Tell me where you detect a whiff of divinity.

"Oh, Dad. You've never gotten over your R. C. indoctrination. You even call yourself religious."

True on both counts.

I readily confess that that my childhood experience of bread and wine, chrism and wax, incense and bells, Latin and Gregorian chant left an impression on my soul -- a sensitivity to the "isness" of things and the mystery that resides therein. I see no reason to put that early experience aside, even as I reject the supernatural premise behind it. As Popeye says, "I yam what I yam."

And as for "religious"? To me, "religious" means living in a constant awareness of the wonderfulness of what we know (scientifically) and the voluminousness of what we don't know.

Which runs rather counter, I confess, on both counts, to what characterizes most people who call themselves religious.

Pass the bottle. I'll have another glass of wine.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

At last!

I have been under clear dark skies for a month-and-a-half without my Guy Ottewell's 2014 Astronomical Calendar!

It arrived at my home in New England only hours after I boarded the plane for Exuma. No point in having my son mail it; mail of that sort could take months to get here. Instead, he sent it to daughter Margaret, who has just now arrived on the island with her family. Glad to see the granddaughters. Glad to see the calendar too.

Guy's Calendar is indispensible for a dedicated skywatcher, and I have often recommended it here. This year's Calendar is bigger than ever and with an entirely new format. At first browse, I like it. It will be interesting to see how the new arrangement of information goes over with Guy's long-time fans.

As many of you will know, we came to the island twenty years ago in search of dark skies and wide horizons. Not even a street light to dim the stars. The zodiacal light as bright as the Milky Way. We built a house on the beach with money from the movie, Frankie Starlight, and called it Starlight House. And became citizens of the cosmos.

Well, that has changed somewhat. The airport over the hill has night illumination now. There are street lamps along the Queen's Highway, and more outdoor domestic lighting. The new Sandals resort offers their guests everything but stars. Still, we live in the sky, and Guy is our guide.

And another plus. The electricity on the island goes off with a cheering regularity, plunging us all into darkness. Happened last evening as we were finishing dinner with Margaret, Mark and the girls. We all repaired to the terrace for some "Ohhh!" and "Wow!!!"

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pleasing the gods

One last nod to The Parthenon Enigma.

Connelly's book is centered around her interpretation of the frieze that girds the temple high inside the porch, at a place almost impossible to see by people on the ground. Connelly suggests that the sculptures were meant to be viewed by the gods, to remind them of the divine origin of the city. If so, even the gods would need x-ray eyes.

Another example of the cognitive dissonance of the sort we share with the Athenians?

Here is a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema titled "Phidias Shows the Frieze of the Parthenon to His Friends" (1868). Phidias is the famed Athenian sculptor and architect. Among his many works was the gigantic statue of Athena that adorned the Parthenon. He is using a scaffold to give his friends an eye-level view.

Alma-Tadema was among the first to accept what scientific research has confirmed: the Parthenon sculptures, including the Elgin marbles now in the British Museum, were painted. Not only painted, but decorated with attached metal bridles, weapons and crowns. Quite a show for the gods once the scaffold was taken down.

Painting marble! That was hard to accept. Try to imagine Michelangelo's David or Pieta painted. Kitschy, we might say.

And speaking of kitsch, what about Alma-Tadema's art. The same sort of kitsch as those National Geographic paintings of classical times I loved as a kid. A step too far over the Pre-Raphaelite line, I'd say.

But what do I know. According to Connelly, in 2010 an Alma-Tadema sold at Sotheby's in New York for $35,922,500. Some kitsch!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Of arms and the man

I'm of the generation who learned their Athenian history from Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way. As I recall, we were required to read the book in a course called "Junior Seminar" designed to give engineering students a smattering of liberal education. It was impossible to avoid the Greeks.

We heard about their wars, of course. Marathon and Thermopylae were as familiar to us as Gettysburg and Iwo Jima. Our sympathies were with the poor put-upon Athenians. Just trying to live their lives as enlightened paragons of culture, and harassed by those militaristic Persians and Spartans.

Not according to Joan Breton Connelly. She writes: "If the Athenians are relatively unrecognized for the obsessively religious folk they were, their martial character is likewise under-remarked in the familiar litany of attributes." Peace was the exception, not the rule. Athens was at war for two out of every three years for most of the 5th century. Every young man was raised for battle. Even the Parthenon, that exquisite temple, was used mostly as a place to store the booty of warfare and celebrate success on the battlefield.

Athenian militarism and Athenian religion went hand in hand, says Connelly, inseparable from each other and from the Athenian character. And I suppose we always knew that, but chose to ignore it, thinking of ourselves as peace-loving descendants of white-gowned Athenians who danced, played pipes, declaimed poetry, and engaged in healthful athletics.

Connelly's The Parthenon Enigma is perhaps excessively reductionistic and a bit repetitious, but it's a bracing anecdote to our tendency to idealize Periclean Athens. For, of course, when we idealize the Greeks we are idealizing ourselves. That replica of the Parthenon in Nashville I visited as a child was not built to honor the Athenians, but to assert our claim to Athenian virtue.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Heart's direction

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

What the other half want -- a Saturday reprise

Ah, women. What do they want?" The question has been on male minds at least since Valentine's Day, 1,000,000 B.C.

Women pretty much know what men want, but they are no happier for it.

Pleasing one's Valentine while at the same time pleasing one's self has always presented something of a conundrum. The selective pressure of evolution has generally worked to ensure the survival of an individual's genes. According to biologists, males and females have perfected their reproductive strategies separately. Mutual bliss never had much to do with it.

Still, one turns to the natural history books for lessons in love. As Cole Porter said, birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it; surely we can learn from each other. Alas, evolution has not thrown up many examples of creatures less romantically befuddled than ourselves.

Male wattled bell birds of Costa Rica attract females to their perch in a tree with a voluminous call that has been described as a "metallic clanging bong." It is apparently effective. However, when a female settles down beside a male, her feathers aquiver and ready for love, she is treated to a final "bong" so loud that she is literally blown off the limb. She must surely wonder, "What do guys want?"

One thing human females seem to want is more languorous lovemaking. The male's preference for the quickie has been a perennial source of complaint by women. But there can be a downside to protracted copulation. The male Swedish seed bug hangs on to his partner for 24 hours. The purpose, apparently, is to keep other males from mating with her until her eggs have been fertilized by his sperm.

For much the same reason, Atelopus frogs remain clamped in copula for six months. The poor male, besotted with possessiveness, meanwhile wastes away. It's no bed of roses for the female either, but a quickie it's not.

Woman's magazines sometime talk about the "third-date" rule. Apparently, taking a woman out three times is now considered an adequate prelude to sex (back when I was dating we lived by a "third-year" rule). Women, according to the mags, are inclined to be more patient than guys, but the third-date rule seems to be some sort of compromise between his "right now" and her "sooner-or-later."

In nature, right now appears to be closer to the rule. The female hangingfly is considered coy by entomologists because she makes her suitor wait a full five minutes. The male hangingfly initiates the courtship by presenting his sweetheart with a gift of food, the insect equivalent of the Valentine's box of chocolates. She makes him wait while she nibbles, presumably smiling sweetly while he shuffles uncomfortably on all six of his feet.

Women complain too that men aren't sufficiently monogamous. Would they envy then the thoroughly monogamous male angler fish, a species that lives in the ocean depths? A female angler fish attracts a male that bites her, permanently, never letting go. She swims and eats and goes about her business with her clamp-jawed paramour attached. Gradually, their circulation systems join and he takes all his food and oxygen from her. When she ejects her eggs into the water, he is reliably there to spew them with sperm. By this time, she has grown several thousand times larger than he -- a tiny, utterly faithful appendage.

You might think hermaphroditic creatures have found the answer to mutual bliss between the sexes. Hermaphrodites have both male and female reproductive apparatus, a sure-fire way, presumably, to understand what the other half wants. Normally, hermaphrodites reciprocate when mating: I'll fertilize your eggs, you fertilize mine. Sounds very amiable. But hermaphroditic land snails come equipped with wicked daggers on their foot, called "love darts," with which they engage in vicious foreplay. Bliss it's not.

If hermaphrodites don't know what the other half wants, then what hope for the rest of us? Just look at the magazine covers on the newsstand: "What makes men tick?" "Why are women so angry?" "Can guys and gals really get along?" You'd think after a few million years we'd have figured some of this out.

For all our overlay of consciousness and culture, we still carry around a mess of male and female genes that have evolved out of pure self-interest -- and which we try to keep in check with Valentine's offerings. After 47 years, my spouse says she still doesn't know what I want. I'm not sure I know myself. In any case, we are no worse off than the birds, bees and educated fleas. They don't know either.

(This post originally appeared for Valentine's 2006.)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Take my arm

I'm sure I have referenced here before the poems of Grace Schulman, she who in inhabits that sweet melancholy place between "the necessity and impossibility of belief." Between, too, the necessity and impossibility of love.

Belief and love. They have so much in common, yet are as distinct as self and other.

How strange that two people can hitch their lives together, on a whim, say, or wild intuition, knowing little if nothing about the other's hiddenness, about things that even the other does not fully understand and couldn’t articulate even if he did. Blind, deaf, dumb, they leap into the future, hoping to fly, and, for a moment, soaring, like Icarus, sunward.

The necessity of wax. The impossibility of wax.

We "fall" in love, they say.

Schulman: "We tramp the road/ of possibility. Give me your arm."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A beaming Dad

I'll take a break from the usual post today to be the proud parent.

Daughter Maureen (here and here) is the 2014 winner of the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London, arguably the most prestigious international prize in the Earth sciences. The award was established in 1831. Previous winners include such giants of geology as Willliam Smith, Gideon Mantell, Louis Agassiz, Richard Owen, Adam Sedgwick, Henri De la Beche, Charles Darwin, Roderick Murchison, Charles Lyell and Thomas Huxley, all of whom I have written about in my various books. (Maureen is the first woman to win the medal.) We are proud of you, Mo.

More on Connelly and the Greeks next week. A date sensitive post tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A fear of freedom?

It is almost a cliché to say that Western civilization was created by the Greeks. Our government, law, art, music, architecture, literature, drama, historiography, science, and mathematics are largely Greek inventions. The sublime refinement and sophistication of the Parthenon have been widely taken as reflecting qualities of the Athenians citizens who built the temple and adorned it with sculptures.

No doubt something remarkable happened in the Greek world of the 6th to 3rd centuries B.C.E., with its epicenter first at Athens, then at Alexandria. But Connelly reminds us of the lingering hold of the mythological past on the Greek psyche.

In his book The Greeks and the Irrational, the scholar E. R. Dodds was thinking of Greek culture when he wrote: "Despite its lack of political freedom, the society of the third century B.C. was in many ways the nearest approach to an 'open' society that the world had yet seen, and nearer than any that would be seen again until modern times." It was a society confident of its powers, says Dodds. Aristotle had asked his fellow citizens to recognize a divine spark within themselves: the intellect. Men and women who exercise reason can live like gods, he said. For Zeno, the human intellect was not merely akin to God, it is God, a portion of the divine substance. Temples are superfluous, Zeno said; God's true temple is the human intellect.

But the seeds of irrationality were also there, embedded in popular culture, or perhaps embedded in human nature. Soon enough supernaturalism returned. Astrology and magical healing replaced astronomy and medicine. Cults flourished, rationalists were scapegoated, and the scientific culture perfected at Alexandria began to decline. The old dualisms -- mind and matter, gods and mortals, soul and body -- which the rationalists had striven to overcome, reasserted themselves with fresh vigor.

Dodds calls it "the return of the irrational," and speaks of a "fear of freedom -- the unconscious flight from the heavy burden of individual choice which an open society lays upon its members." Connelly might be inclined to say that the irrational never went away, and that for all their innovative gifts, the Greeks never learned to stand on their own without the support of the gods, clinging to the foundational myths that exalted them above "the others."

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

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


The heart of Connelly's Parthenon book is her fresh interpretation of the sculptural frieze that runs right around the building high near the ceiling under the columned porch. Rather than depicting a historical civic ceremony from the time the Parthenon was built, as widely believed, Connelly reads a saga of the city's founding by the gods and earliest kings in the mythological past, including human sacrifice.

Whether she is right is for classical scholars to decide. Of more interest to me are Connelly's insights into the Athenian mind at the time of the so-called Golden Age of classical culture, the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E., a time of astonishing innovation in philosophy, science, politics, art, and literature.

The beginning of the modern world? An emergence from darkness and superstition into the light of rationality? Was it but a short step from the Acropolis of Pericles to the Monticello of Jefferson? Well, yes and no, according to Connelly.

The picture she paints is of a people obsessed with the gods and events of a mythological past. Religion provided a political cohesiveness, a sense of being a chosen people, and a claim to the land grounded in divine assignment. One can almost feel the tension between two parts of their brains pulling in opposite directions -- toward reason and the future, and toward blind faith and the past. I would call it cultural cognitive dissonance.

If this sounds familiar, perhaps it is. America today is a leader in science, technology, democratic institutions, art and architecture. We have had -– are having? -– our own Periclean Golden Age of cultural dominance. And yet, like Connelly's Athenians, the majority of Americans are obsessed with a mythological past, a past full of miracles and divine interventions, presumably for some of the same reasons the Athenians clung so tenaciously to their founding myths.

We split the atom and believe some of the same cosmological myths as did contemporaries of Democritus. We fly to the Moon and welcome angels to the Earth. Afflicted with pain, we try medicine and prayer. Can a culture sustain such dissonance? This brings us to another scholar of ancient Greece who you have met here before: E. R. Dodds. More tomorrow.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Upwardly mobile?

Ever since the European Enlightenment, 5th-century Periclean Athens, with its iconic Parthenon, has been widely taken as exemplar of rational humanism, secularism, art, literature and democracy. Joan Breton Connelly takes issue with this interpretation, in her new book The Parthenon Enigma. She refers to the Athenians as a "supremely deisidaimoniacal people."

There's a word for you. But before we get to that, let me throw out a whimsical connection of my own.

There's no question that Athens had a Golden Age, of which the Parthenon is a sublime symbol. The question is: Why?

Two weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times had an article by Yale law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld (excerpted from their new book) purporting to explain why some groups of people are at various times more successful and upwardly-mobile than others. Think, for example, of Asian-Americans now, or Jews almost anytime. Chua and Rubenfeld offer three mutually necessary qualities that together correlate with success: 1) A sense of one's superiority as a group; 2) Paradoxically, a sense that even with one's superior qualities, one can never measure up to expectations; and 3) a willingness to defer gratification, i.e. to forego immediate satisfaction for long-term gain.

Without agreeing or disagreeing with their thesis, let me ask: What of 5th-century B.C.E. Athenians?

Connelly offers ample evidence that they met the first two requirements. She writes: "Theirs was a spirit-saturated, anxious world dominated by an egocentric sense of themselves and an overwhelming urgency to keep things right with the gods."

And what of a capacity for delayed gratification? This stopped me for a bit, and then the penny dropped.

Early in the mythological history of Athens, the gods Poseidon and Athena competed to see who would have the honor of being the city's divine patron. Poseidon struck the Acropolis with his trident and water gushed forth, an ample, immediate flood. Athena touched the rock with her spear and brought forth an olive seedling, which she planted.

We know who won the competition.

Sunday, February 09, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Hedy Lamarr? -- a Saturday reprise

Sure, I remember Hedy Lamarr. I was a 13-year-old boy in 1949 when Hedy played the starring role in Cecile B. DeMille's costume blockbuster Samson and Delilah. What 13-year-old boy is going to forget Hedy Lamarr?

By that time, she had been dubbed "the most beautiful woman in the world." In 1945, Time Magazine proclaimed Hedy Lamarr as the American soldier's favorite pin-up. There was an especially sexy aura attached to Lamarr, dating from the mid-1930s, when at age seventeen she stared, with brief nudity, in a scandalous Czech film called Ecstasy.

Now, in Hedy's Folly, Richard Rhodes tells us about another side of Hedy Lamarr, which I must admit comes as a complete surprise. Hedy was a talented inventor! She came home from her days on the Hollywood set to bury herself in the inventor's room of her super-star's mansion, complete with technical books and drafting table. Among her inventions, in collaboration with the musical composer George Antheil, was a radio guidance system for jam-proof torpedoes that incorporated an idea called "frequency hopping," which in its more modern manifestation as spread-spectrum technology is the basis for everything from cell phones to GPS.

Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler, in Vienna, Austria, in 1913, the only child of a well-to-do family of assimilated Jews. From an early age she dreamed of becoming a movie star, but she also had an insatiable curiosity. Her handsome, vigorous father read her books and took her on long walks, during which he would explain how everything worked, "from printing presses to streetcars," she later explained.

At age 19, stunningly beautiful and infamous for her role in Ecstasy, she married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy, Vienna-based arms manufacture who was apparently willing to sell weapons to whoever would buy. It was a fraught, doomed marriage -- a rebellious, independent woman and a dominating, possessive man (Mandl tried to buy up every extant copy of the infamous film). But in Mandl's company she learned about armaments inside and out. "He [Mandl] had the most amazing brain," wrote Hedy later; "There was nothing he did not know."

But Hedwig Kiesler Mandl was not content to be a trophy wife. In 1937, she gathered her jewels and furs and, disguised as her maid, escaped to Paris, and eventually to Hollywood, where she was transformed by MGM into Hedy Lamarr and splashed all over the silver screen. Her inventive talents also now came to the fore. By day, she dazzled in Busby Berkeley's Ziegfeld Girl; by night, she worked on frequency-hopping. "Any girl can be glamorous," Lamarr famously said; "All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."

It took a while for the idea of frequency-hopping to mature, and not many people were aware of Lamarr's inventive accomplishments. But good things come to those who wait; in 1996, at age 82, Lamarr was awarded the Sixth Annual Pioneer Award of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

(This is an abbreviated version of my review in the Toronto Globe & Mail. It was originally posted here in December 2011.)

Friday, February 07, 2014


As I look back over my posts for the week, I realize that I appear to be obsessed with geckoes and hummingbirds. For those of you who visit here it must be a bit of a bore.

What's my excuse?

Partly, I suppose, it is the place. Not my cozy nook in the college library with diverse intellectual stimulation on every side, with Nature and Science arriving in my mailbox every week. Here I'm pretty much "reduced" to the Book of Nature, and although there remain therein enough unread pages to keep me occupied, I fear my posts are becoming repetitious. It has been ten years and millions of words and I wonder if I have anything left to say.

Is the end in sight?

I suspect so, but not quite yet.

I'm reading (on my wife's Kindle) Joan Breton Connelly's The Parthenon Enigma, a fresh interpretation of Athenian culture as realized in that most iconic of structures, and I shall be having much to say about it. The unfortunate title of the book suggests something like The Da Vinci Code, but this is a scholarly tome by an archaeologist and professor of classics at New York University. It bears more than mere notice.

Connelly begins with the physical setting, and so let's get to that first.

When I was an early teen I visited the full-scale replica of the Athenian Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, built in 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. It sits in a rather dull, flat park and, although impressive, would hardly move one to tears. It wasn't until late middle age that I experienced the original, in its breath-taking site atop the Acropolis. The approach up that celestial ramp, the heavenly experience of the temple floating above the city, the rock of the Acropolis itself, an altar seemingly prepared by the gods as a place for votive worship!

A haunting geography of airy bluffs, grottos, springs, groves. A place that seems to call forth –- what? The gods? Rationalism? Mysticism? Science? Theocracy? Democracy? Something dramatic (literally and figuratively) happened here, but what? And why? These are questions Connelly addresses.

I saw the Parthenon first from the rooftop terrace of my hotel, a mile away across the city. I thought: Geography is destiny.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Hidden wells

Imagine a bird that builds a nest the size of a bottle cap and therein lays its eggs. A bird no bigger than a bumble bee. The smallest bird in the world.

Imagine a snake the size of a few matchsticks laid end to end. As thin as a string. Could curl up on a penny.

A Lilliputian fauna.

The first is the bee hummingbird, a native of Cuba. As far as I know, they are not resident in the Bahamas. I saw one here, on my second visit to the island, at least I'm pretty sure I saw one. We're not so far from Cuba, so perhaps it was a blow-in, although it's hard to imagine that such a tiny energy-gulper could manage such a crossing, even with a furious tailwind. Anyway, I claim to have seen one. Just once.

And the blind worm snake. It’s a Bahamian resident, but I've only seen one. By the path to the beach. At first, in my ignorance, I thought it was an earthworm. A big surprise when I recognized a snake. Probably driven out of the ground by the rain. That was 19 years ago.

Here and rare. Seen once and never since. But not forgotten. Something to look for. As enticing a goal as once was the green flash, that ray of emerald light that sometimes blazes from the top limb of the Sun as it rises or sets over a flat horizon. If you've read my books you will know that I looked for it for decades, all around the world, unsuccessfully. Wrote about my fruitless search it in the Globe. People sent me photographs, tauntingly. And now, since coming to this sweet place with an unobstructed morning horizon, I've seen it dozens of times.

I need a new Holy Grail. Everyone needs a Holy Grail. So I've got my eye out for another vagrant bee hummingbird. Or another worm snake. What was it the Little Prince told his Pilot? "What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well."

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

A mouse is miracle enough

I believe a leaf of sea lettuce is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the sea-grape is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the hummingbird,
And the free-toed frog is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the wings of the bat moth would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the gecko inflating its dewlap with raised head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
If that sounds familiar, it's because it is the famous passage in Walt Whitman's Song of Myself with substitutions from my plot of sandy island. Like Whitman, I feel no need to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca or Mother Ganges. There are as many miracles in the puddle of rain water outside my door as in the holy fonts at Lourdes. I read Whitman to keep myself awake to the uncommon commonplace.

The biologist Francis Collins (of the human genome project) tells us in his book The Language of God how he came upon a beautiful waterfall that so struck him with wonder that he fell to his knees and embraced Jesus as his Savior. The response puzzles me. Confronted with the journey-work of the stars, he turns to the human, to the anthropomorphic. From "the parlors of heaven" to literal parlors of heaven. Perhaps I have not been blessed with Collins' gift of grace, but when I consider the narrowest hinge in my hand I am struck with inarticulate wonder. With silence. My response is not belief in a personal God who may after all be only a projection of myself, but in the god of organic hinges -– whatever that might be. Anything else seems to lessen the experience, to substitute the part for the whole.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

In wildness is the preservation of the world?

In earlier times, when I was still teaching, it was my habit to occasionally take a wildflower, or piece of rotten bark, or pinch of oil into a biology lab where I had access to a high-quality dissecting microscope. I'd put my sample on the stage of the scope and go exploring. A hawkweed blossom, say, became the concise equivalent of a tropical jungle, teeming with wildlife.

We bemoan the loss of wilderness, and rightly so I suppose. But there are vast tracks of wilderness that we do not despoil, on a scale too small for annihilation by our marauding hand. Elephants and gorillas may be in danger of extinction, but the ants are doing just fine.

In fact, they seem to find my kitchen countertops entirely to their liking. A paradise of crumbs. An Eden of spilled nutrition. Just look at them, armies of them, as small as the period at the end of this sentence, scampering in gleeful forays.

To my eye they are only featureless specks. But I know that they have legs, antennae, mouth and anus. Sense organs. Reproductive strategies. In other words, we have a lot in common, the ants and me, including common ancestry. It's all a matter of scale. For me the wilderness is mostly gone. For the ants, it's just changing form.

In The Creation, E. O. Wilson writes: "Ants alone, of which there may be 10 thousand trillion, weigh roughly as much as all 6.5 billion human beings." In the kitchen, I still outweigh the interlopers, but take the whole island and I suppose they might outweigh me. In any case, they don't seem to be aware of a loss of wilderness.

And while we are on the subject of scale, consider the nematodes, mostly tiny, threadlike worms whose millions of species make up four-fifths of all animals on Earth. A handful of loam might contain a thousand. They live virtually everywhere -- soil, water, desert sand, arctic ice, hot springs, and as parasites of plants and animals, including humans. Pinworms and hookworms are nematodes. For the nematodes, we are part of the wilderness.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Codfish, frog, alligator, goose, cat, human

I mentioned here the other day the gecko that fell into my paint wash-up bucket. I had no way of knowing how long it had been trapped when I found it clinging to the side of the bucket -– glued, really, with latex -– with only its head out of the gooey water. Alive or dead? It was hard to say.

I lifted it out, peeled away bits of latex, gave it a bath. Alive, but barely so. I wondered if in its thirst it had drunk the water, and its internal organs were as gummed up at its body. And what was it "thinking," as I swished it gently in fresh water? "Ah, my rescuer!" Or was it the fear-and-flight instinct that kicked in. It seemed more like the latter.

The gecko has finely honed instincts for finding food and mates, for avoiding predators, for sensing safe and secure environments. Natural selection has provided it with channels of awareness that are in some ways more acute than mine. But a bucket of latex-infused water was a threat it was not prepared to recognize, and what -– pray-tell – did it make of my fingers and scrubbing?

There's a full-page illustration in Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature showing comparatively-labeled brains of a codfish, frog, alligator, goose, cat, and human. They all possess the same bits and pieces, the same bulbs and bumps. The differences are in the size of the brain and the relative sizes of the parts. In the human brain the most conspicuous development is the massively folding cerebrum. The gecko's brain, I would suppose, is more or less on a par with the frog's.

All these creatures are aware. Even worms, with identical hardwired brains, are aware. As one moves from worm to codfish to gecko to cat to human, the process of brain development becomes more malleable, more dependent upon environmental experiences. At what point does awareness become self-awareness? At what point does an animal acquire an awareness of its own portending mortality? The answers to those questions are not yet clear.

I can still feel the gecko's soft body between my fingers, and enjoy the satisfaction of having saved its life. In that sense, the episode has re-wired my brain. And the gecko? Any lingering memory of salvation? Seems unlikely. Neither anger for my having left out the bucket, nor gratitude for the rescue.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

After Picasso

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Listen! -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in November 2010.)

I passed a kid on the campus yesterday with a tee shirt that said: "If it's too loud, you're too old."

Well, there you have it.

Yes, it's too loud. The television. The traffic. The neighbor's leaf blower. The music. The national discourse.

And I'm too old. Tending towards silence. OK, maybe Elvis singing Love Me Tender just loud enough to dance to in the kitchen. Maybe a Chopin nocturne late at night, pianissimo.

The range of audibility of the human ear can be represented as a graph of sound intensity versus frequency. The lower boundary of the range is the threshold of hearing: for example, at a frequency of 256 vibrations per second (middle-C on the musical scale), a sound must have a intensity level of about 20 decibels (the loudness of rustling leaves) to be heard at all. The upper limit of the range of audibility is the threshold of pain. At the frequency of middle-C the limit of pain has an intensity level of about 130 decibels, slightly less than the sound of a leaf blower at close range.

I like to think of the graph of human audibility as a blank canvas upon which the world paints with sound. For example, the shrill double-note of the blue jay (three-tiered in frequency, at 3000, 2000, and 1000 vibrations per second, repeated twice) and the cacophonous caw of the crow (between 1000 and 2000 vibrations per second) add dollops of color to the canvas in the mid-decibel range. The chickadee's call is more sharply defined in frequency (at about 2800 vibrations per second), but can range widely in loudness depending on the distance of the bird. The nuthatch fills in the low-decibel part of the graph with its tap-tap-tap and a loudness in a conifer forest just above the threshold of hearing. There are other natural sounds that can only be heard in the complete absence of noise: the papery shiver of beech leaves on their branches, the ethereal whir of mourning doves rising from the ground, the rattle of the seedpods of wild indigo when stirred by the wind.

A blank canvas, waiting for the delicate brushstrokes.