Monday, March 31, 2014

Quick, Henry, the Flit

Yeah, just what we need, "termite-inspired robots." As if termites were not bad enough.

You have often read here about my battle against the termites on our tropical island. Without constant vigilance they would reduce my house to dust. Voracious. Driven.

They don't only devour, of course. They also build. Here is a typical nest, not far from the house. Quite a structure for insects so tiny you can hardly see them. Neighbors came back from a long absence to find one of these nests inside their house!

Science asks: "How can such tiny insects less than 1 cm in size and equipped only with a simple brain, construct air-conditioned buildings up to 500 times their size?" They don't use a master plan, as humans do. Each insect follows a simple set of local rules governing the interactions among the workers and the interaction of each worker with the environment. This is what the Harvard University researchers reporting in Science sought to mimic.

The cute little robots fashioned by the researchers are about the size of a few decks of cards. They can move forward or in reverse, turn in place, climb a step, pick up and carry a standardized brick that attaches to other bricks magnetically. They can build staircases of bricks to reach higher levels. They can sense and respond only to other robots and bricks in their immediate vicinity. Programmed with the appropriate on-board algorithms, they can build elaborate user-defined structures.

It's fun to watch the movies of actual and simulated robots available on the Science website.

Cute, but where's it going? Swarming gangs of little electro-mechanical robots building skyscrapers? Or how about a troop of termite-microrobots patrolling my house, looking out for the real thing, exterminating, repairing. Now that would be worth wishing for.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Mind over matter -- a Saturday reprise

Cleaning out my office here at the college, I came upon a box of graph paper. That wonderful tissue-thin, orange-printed Keuffel & Esser graph paper. Linear. Semi-logarithmic. Log-log. One, two, three, four cycles. Polar. And suddenly I was back before the days of computers. Before the days of scientific calculators. Back to the time when a slide rule, a razor sharp pencil, and a sheet of the appropriate K&E paper was the way to analyze one's data, discover patterns, find the law.

When I used this paper in my work and studies, it was just a tool, rather like the graphical computer programs we use today. Now, as I look at these pristine sheets of paper, the experience is rather more philosophical. Without a mark on them, they suggest the fabric of the universe itself, which is mathematical in a way beyond our knowing. Why are the laws of physics power laws? Do we invent mathematics, or discover it in nature? We plot our data on the paper. We draw error bars on our data points. The world we experience is an approximation. An invention. Subject to ever greater precision. The pristine paper is like an immaterial thought upon which the world is hung.

(This post originally appeared in September 2007.)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hope for the future or naïve optimism

What are we to make of the 18th-century European Enlightenment? In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, the scholar Keith Thomas writes:
Supporters [of the Enlightenment] hail it as the source of everything that is progressive about the modern world. For them, it stands for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future. By contrast, its enemies accuse it of "shallow" rationalism, naïve optimism, unrealistic universalism, and moral darkness.
Readers of this blog will know that I stand among the "supporters," this in spite of the moral wreckage of the French Revolution and the various human tragedies of industrialization, plantation slavery, imperialism, occultism, and two world wars. Lord knows, the human race was not perfected by the likes of Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Diderot and Kant. I am no "naïve" optimist, but I would still maintain that the ideals of the Enlightenment, as enumerated above by Thomas' "supporters," are humankind's best hope for a future free of the grossest malevolencies of the past.

As I understand the Enlightenment, it was an attempt to work out the religious, political and economic implications of the wildly successful Scientific Revolution of the previous century, and the person who launched the project was an ex-communicated Jew of Amsterdam, Baruch Spinoza, most prominently in his 1670 book Theological-Political Treatise.

That the Scientific Revolution was successful at its own project -- mathematical reasoning, empiricism, systematized doubt, naturalism -- can hardly be doubted; we live in a world that has flowed inevitably from that success. Spinoza embraced the paradigm and expanded it. There are no miracles, he wrote, nor divine providence. No immortality of souls. The Bible is not the word of God but a work of human literature. Religion has nothing to do with theology or sectarian dogma. Religious authorities have no place in government. Tolerance for diversity, freethinking, and democracy should be the foundations of a modern state.

Well, we can guess how the book was received, even in relatively liberal Amsterdam. Steven Nadler has traced the reaction in his very readable A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age. It can be debated, of course, whether Spinoza's secularism defined an age, then or now, but it was reinforced by the philosophes of the 18th century and continues to undergird the rights even of those who reject Spinoza's premises. I would argue that "the book forged in hell" is a foundational document for what little post-Enlightenment heaven we find in the world today.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Early in Claire Messud's new novel, The Woman Upstairs, the narrator asks herself and others whether they would rather be able to fly or be invisible. I suspect most who visit this blog would prefer to fly. Me too. Until lately.

More on that later. For now I want to ask a less frivolous question, one more likely to split down the middle: Do you prefer, as a matter of personal taste, Romanesque or Gothic?

Gothic aspires, Romanesque inspires. Gothic soars. Romanesque hunkers. Gothic seeks to let go of the earth. Romanesque grips like a barnacle. Gothic favors light over matter. Romanesque uses matter to contain light. Gothic flys, heavenward in spires and ribs and buttresses. Romanesque makes the world beyond the walls invisible.

I have visited the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, admired their beauty, and stood astonished at their engineering. But it is the Romanesque abbeys and monastic houses, such as the Cistercian Abbey of Le Thoronnet in Provence, that most deeply stir my soul.

It is an architecture of inward turning, of silence, of rest. Of the subtle play of light on stone. Of firmness. Rootedness. An architecture of the circle, diurnal and annual, where every prayer is a whisper, and every whisper echoes infinitely along a corridor or vault.

There, I've had my say. Let the Gothicists among you have yours.

To fly or be invisible? My days of flying, or wanting to fly, are over. Now, at age 77, I would choose to be invisible. To watch unseen. To walk like a specter in a Romanesque cloister, listening to the wind and the voices of the monks leaking from the abbey choir. To feel the coolness of rough-hewn stone against my invisible palm, to trace shadows that I do not cast myself. To discard the cloak of my skin, to dissolve my bones in the moted air, to become as insubstantial and surrendering as a Te Deum chanted at Matins end.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Go fetch

Michio Kaku is a string theorist turned popular science writer who has given us a string of books exploring the outer reaches of physics. Worm holes and hyperspace are his bread and butter. In a sense, that stuff is passé, so 20th-century. Now Kaku has turned to the topic of the day, the topic everyone is writing about and no one understands.


I haven't read his latest book -- The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind -- but according to reviews he has a Kurzweilian optimism that the brain is just a meat computer and we're on track to understanding how mind emerges from the meat.

Well, we'll see. I'll have to read the book, although it's in a big pile of still unread books purporting to explain consciousness.

Key to much of the newfound optimism is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of brain activity as subjects are subjected to different stimuli, from poems to math problems -- a kind of mapping of awareness.

Which raises the question in my mind: Just how unique are the maps?

I saw a news segment not long ago -– I think it was on 60 Minutes -– about warehousing at Amazon. Apparently, in those vast storage facilities, goods are not stored in fixed locations -– books here, electronics there, shoes somewhere else –- and certainly not by specific item. Rather, when an item arrives at the warehouse it is stuck in any convenient empty location, which is kept track of by computer. The latest novel may be stored next to a certain model of GPS device. The computer sends the fetcher to the right cubby.

If this works for Amazon, perhaps the brain makes use of similar flexibility, which will only complicate the interpretation of fMRI scans.

I'm one of those who believes the mind is what the brain does, simply because I'm an Ockhamist. But I suspect reductionists like Kurzweil and Kaku are overly optimistic about the chances of an early solution to the riddle of consciousness. Especially if the brain is an Amazon warehouse.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hours and seasons

I have this peripatetic lifestyle that takes me between three different places of residence with the solstices and equinoxes. And so it is that I'm back in New England for the beginning of spring. My training in physics accustomed me to a Newtonian notion of time –- a linear progression that moves equably from a distant past to an undefined future, every instant indistinguishable from any other. Works great for physics, but doesn't correspond to how I live my life.

My personal time is circular, corresponding to the diurnal and annual cycles of Earth and Sun. Almost inevitably, I suppose, for one who lives close to nature. But also surely reinforced by my early exposure to the liturgical cycles of Roman Catholicism. Anyone who has read my books will have caught echoes of the canonical hours of the day and the ritual seasons of the year. So attractive do I find these things that if it weren't for the smothering overlay of archaic dogma and exclusionary triumphalism I could happily come home to the Church.

But wait. Isn't the Christian notion of time linear? From a unique Genesis to a unique Incarnation to a Final Judgment? Yes. The cyclical liturgies of Roman Christianity are borrowed from paganism: Campbell's myth of the eternal return. So, yes, I suppose what I like about Catholicism is pagan rather than Christian.

But what I really want to say here is that the linearity of time is increasingly impressing itself on my consciousness. Each diurnal and annual cycle does not return to the same place. The body degrades, vitality wanes. The circles are imposed on a helix. We spin with the Earth and Sun on a spiraling path that takes us from nothingness to oblivion. All the more reason to celebrate the circular rather than the linear, the Eternal Return, cosmic regeneration, the glory of spring. We endure as a species, not as individuals, and our lives, if we live well, adorn the cycles.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cocking a snook

I promised I'd get back to you on The Ginger Man, J. P. Donleavy's cult favorite of my youth. Sebastian Dangerfield, the rakish bounder, with a penchant for poetry, the pint, and seducing Irish lasses not his wife. Does the novel hold up a half-century later?


I zipped through it on my wife's Kindle. It's smart and smart-alecky, a brash middle-finger to the world. I can see why I might have liked it in those heady late-Sixties, and I know it still has its champions, but it doesn't make my shelf of books that influenced my life. It certainly doesn't rate a place next to Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man."

I guess I settled down pretty fast, married with kids, lots of responsibilities, the very antithesis of Sebastian Dangerfield. A few other naughty books popped up now and then; I suppose my name is still in the back of the college library's copies of Anais Nin's erotica. But by and large I had moved on to the likes of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, Nabokov's Ada, and Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, books that left a permanent scratch on my soul.

Are there Kindle's in heaven? I'll read them all again.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Going and coming -- a Saturday reprise

Anyone who was raised a Roman Catholic, especially in my generation or earlier, will be familiar with the image on the left, Bartolome Murillo's La Inmaculada de Soult, painted in 1678, now in the Prado in Madrid (click to enlarge). What we have here is the immaculately conceived Virgin being assumed body and soul into heaven. The doctrine of the Assumption was formally declared an infallible dogma of the Church by Pius X II in 1950. This means that to be a faithful Catholic one has to believe that the atoms of Mary's body are not part of the dust of the Earth, but somewhere else. It is a charming story, especially if the sinless virgin's departure was attended by a bevy of cherubs as depicted by Murillo.

Then, sometime in high school, I came across the image on the right, La Naissance de Venus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, painted in 1879. It was of course familiar -- the same languorous pose, the same assembly of cherubs, the crescent moon replaced by the scallop -- but, oh my goodness, something very different is going on, something that was rather more engaging for an adolescent boy.

In the one case, a mortal woman is going off to become a goddess of sorts. In the other case, a goddess is arriving among mortals. Two lovely stories, two lovely women, one modestly wrapped for eternity, the other nakedly personifying earthly beauty. The biggest difference was that I was required to believe the first story literally true under pain of sin; the second I could accept as poetic without risking my soul to hell fire.

I'm not trying to be smug or dismissive. It was dealing with real contrasts like this that eventually led me into agnosticism. The choice was between a fallen nature only redeemed in a supernatural hereafter, and a nature that is -- or can be -- intrinsically beautiful, redeemed by human love. I'm not sure how my Catholic friends in academia resolve the conflict. Most, I would guess, doubt the literal doctrine of the Assumption, picking and choosing their miracles. I am rather more inclined to embrace both images -- left and right -- for what they are -- delightful stories from a less scientifically informed time, chapters in the long human struggle to make sense of the world.

(This post originally appeared in October 2008.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


When I was invited to write a weekly column for the Boston Globe (the original Science Musings) those many years ago, I thought it took at least a thousand words to say anything that anyone would want to read. A gripping lead. Statement of theme. Development of theme. Recapitulation of theme and catchy exit. A thousand words were about right. I was paid by the column, not the word count.

As the years passed, I learned that brevity is the soul of wit, and the column slowly shrank. 900 words. 800. After all, he who coined the phrase stands as the greatest wit of all:
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad.
So away with those outward flourishes. 700. 600? After twenty years and a thousand essays, the Globe column was in danger of shrinking away to nothing.

Then to the internet, where the pressure toward brevity is relentless. tl;dr. "Too long; didn't read."
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will limit myself to 140 characters.
Thank you, Lord Polonious. We need not nuance, nor context. My noble son is mad. I get it.

Let me retweet that. #progeny. My noble son is mad.

So what is the ideal length for a post in the blogosphere? Nuance and context vs. tl;dr? I seem to have settled in at around 300-400 words, somewhere between prolixity and a tweet.

(In transition the next few days, to snowy New England. Back here Saturday.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick's Day

An article in the New York Times Style Magazine about the writer J. P. Donleavy, with a page-and-a-half photo of the man himself standing in front of his stately pile of a house in Mullingar, Ireland. Who would have guessed? Haven't heard of Donleavy for years. Assumed he was dead.

But no, there he is, at age 87, looking rather down-at-heels, but in a genteel, eccentric, country-farmer sort of way, as you'd expect. More power to him.

Folks of my generation -- mostly males, I would suppose -– will remember him as the author of that naughty book The Ginger Man, which we read with sly delight, at about the same time and for much the same reason as we read Siddhartha and On the Road. It was just one of those books we were supposed to read. In my case, it was a warm-up for James Joyce's Ulysses, and once I'd been down the joycean road I never looked back.

It would be fun to line up all the books I've read in the order in which I read them. It would be an autobiography of sorts. Siddhatha and The Ginger Man -- boy, there's a combination for you. The idealism and raging hormones of youth.

The funny thing is, I can't remember what it was that made The Ginger Man ostensibly salacious, but I remember vividly Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist watching the barefoot girl on Dollymount Strand hike up her skirts in the surf.

What was banned for obscenity in the Fifties would be pretty tame reading today. The world has turned and me with it. It occurs to me that I should read The Ginger Man again (45 million copies, still in print). I'm sure it's available with my wife's Kindle. Give me a few days. I'll get back to you.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Particles that interact without touching

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Remembering Lewis Thomas -- a Saturday reprise

I've been reading again after many years Lewis Thomas' Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The guy really was one of the best stylists and insightful thinkers to ever write about science.

He is best known, of course, for The Lives of a Cell. The great irony is that he died of Waldenstrom's disease -- an abnormal proliferation of the white blood cells. It is as if Audubon had died of bird flu, or Thoreau had drowned in Walden Pond.

My taste in late night music is rather different, my brain too tired for Mahler. Something less demanding, more appropriate to the hour, such as Chopin's nocturnes.

But I imagine Thomas as a man who best dealt with complexity in darkness. In his view, all of life is a blur of collaboration, accommodation, exchange, barter, compromise, doubt. He was not without hope for humanity, or for a kind of immortality. He once told a reporter: "For one thing, our individual coming to an end may have some connection with the continuity of the species. It may be as important for us to die as it is for plant life to die. So we die and live in our successors."

What he wanted from life was to be useful: "The thing we're really good at as a species is usefulness. If we paid more attention to this biological attribute, we'd get a satisfaction that cannot be attained by goods or knowledge."

Certainly, Thomas was useful. In contributing as a physician to the health and well-being of his fellow men and women. In writing essays of a hopeful -- though sometimes melancholy -- humanism. In being one of the most effective philosophers trying to heal our fractured culture: scientific six days of the week, religious on Sunday.

The dichotomy made no sense to Thomas. Deep in the minutia of his science he discovered a sustaining source of awe and wonder. Because he had the courage to accept the blurriness of his selfhood, he was rewarded with mystic's view of the wholeness of creation.

(This post originally appeared in April 2007.)

Friday, March 14, 2014


Nature loves gimmickry,
especially the art of mimicry.
Millions of years to look like a leaf,
then lands on plaster, inviting grief.
A salutary lesson to one and all,
If you evolved in the grass stay off of the wall.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A little bird told me

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is unquestionably a tour de force -- bordering on showing off -– but I can't say that I liked it. Tartt is a powerful writer, and I wish her all the success she will undoubtedly have, but I closed the book at the end feeling sullied and dispirited. The novel is as drug-addled as many of her characters, few of whom are likable. The protagonist/narrator, in particular, has few (any?) admirable qualities, and although he finds redemption of a sort in the end, I resented being lectured in the final pages on the meaning of life by someone I had reluctantly endured for 771 pages.

The meaning of life? "Better never born, than born into this cesspool…No way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death." Thanks, Theo.

OK, so there's a lot of nastiness in the world, and even sleezebags have redeeming qualities; I learned that from the Russian novelists. The Russians in The Goldfinch are thugs, creatures of the gutter. I looked unsuccessfully for hints of Tolstoyvian grace.

But that's just me. You may love the book.

And what of "The Goldfinch," that exquisite little real-life painting, around which the novel is cleverly constructed? Beautiful! The novel may not be filled with beautiful people, but it is jammed to the gills with beautiful things. "And isn't the whole point of things -– beautiful things -– that they connect you to some larger beauty?" asks Hobie, one of the few likable characters in the book. And that is a thought worth coming away with.

Can we be redeemed by art? Can the beauty of a little bird chained to its feed box lift us out of the "cesspool" into something ennobling and worth living for? Perhaps. But let's not forget that the Nazi overlords stole beautiful art to adorn their homes, and crusades and jihads were preached in exquisite cathedrals and mosques. Beauty is not in itself a tonic for morality.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The goldfinch

I've been reading Donna Tartt's new novel The Goldfinch, in which the painting reproduced above (click to enlarge) figures prominently: "The Goldfinch" by the 17th-century Dutch master Carel Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt and likely influence on Vermeer. It's a small painting, a life-size household pet bird chained to its perch.

When I was growing up, there were four framed Audubon bird prints on the wall above the living room couch. As far as I can remember (help me, Anne), these were the only artworks in the house. The only other "art" I was exposed to, at school or church, were religiously-themed, mostly schmaltzy, some reproductions of famous paintings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, art meant to take our attention away from this world and focus it on the next.

Meanwhile, there sat Fabritius' goldfinch, in a Dutch museum, smartly perched on his feed box, rebuking our otherworldliness.

A revolutionary painting in its own way. The bird roughly rendered with bold brushstrokes, hardly more detailed than its shadow. The two bent-wood perching bars glistening with light from the window (anticipating Vermeer). The tethering chain and slip-ring as delicate as fine jewelry. Against a whitewashed wall with its imperfections and blemishes.

This-worldly. Utterly commonplace. The sort of thing one might find in any Dutch household. The painting draws attention to nothing but itself.

No accident that Fabritius's bird is a contemporary of Huygens and Leeuwenhoek, those two great Dutch founders of the Scientific Revolution. The simple goldfinch, chained to his perch, could be the cusp on which the world turned between supernaturalism and naturalism, theocracy and secularism, transcendence and immanence.

And are we now -- the spiritual heirs of Fabritius and Vermeer, Huygens and Leewenhoek -- chained to the perch of materialism? In a way, I suppose the answer is yes. But unlike the goldfinch, the chains -- of reason and doubt -- are of our own making.

We are not angels who will soar into infinity. We have surrendered an imaginary otherworld for the security of a well-kept Dutch household and a box full of grain. We are birds of a feather, ordinary and commonplace, who live in quiet celebration of the here and now

As for the novel –- something on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The limits of your language are the limits of your world

Here is a recent APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day). The title on the APOD site is "Globules in the Running Chicken Nebula."

Something about the incongruity of the prosaic "Why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road?" title and the awesomeness of the image rendered me speechless. Talk about bringing heaven down to earth!

The Running Chicken Nebula takes its name from its perceived shape (although I don't see it). The nebula spans dozens of light-years in the Milky Way Galaxy, about 6000 light-years from the Solar System. The dark globules floating at the center of the image might be other star systems in the making.

Language is not adequate to describe the universe visible to our telescopes. Awesome? These days a selfie is "awesome." Mind-blowing? Last weekend's movie was "mind-blowing."

No, really. You can search the dictionary and not find sufficiently capacious language to describe what we see. Which means we cannot fully intellectually grasp what we are looking at.

Make the image of the Running Chicken Nebula as large as you can. Fill your screen with it. Then, unless you are a Dante Alighieri, be silent.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A verbal selfie

In a NTYBR review of the diaries of famed diplomat George Kennan, I read this quoted extract from December 1927:
I cannot help but regret that I did not live 50 or 100 years sooner. Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them…too many friends to have any real friendships, too many books to know any of them well, and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception, gone before we have time to consider them.
If life seemed that hyper 87 years ago, what would poor George make of life today? How many Twitter followers would he have? How many Facebook friends? How many books on his Kindle?

I dare say if George Kennan had lived 50 or 100 years earlier –- or 200, or 400 -– he would have found cause for the same complaint. There are those who go rushing into the future like ducks to water, and those who instinctively cling to an idealized past. Kennan was clearly in the latter category. So, I suppose, am I.

No Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram. I don't scorn these things, I just don't see the point. Every week I get a message from Facebook saying that 60 or 70 folks want to be friends, mostly names I don't recognize. I appreciate the interest, but what I'm looking forward to right now is a walk alone on the beach. I have made myself a nest on the blogosphere, and I am instructed and gratified by those who visit, but the main reason for being here is the selfish opportunity to leisurely consider "those kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off [my] field of perception," such as a provocative paragraph in a NYTBR review. Coffee, a quiet chair, my MacBook Air –- solitude and silence.

Oh, I scoot about, as you know, among three beautiful places, but when I get there I hunker down, like the naturalist John Burroughs, and wait (as Burroughs said) for the turning seasons to bring everything by my door. I hope I'm not as cranky as Kennan, but I'm not rushing into the future, either.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Imagination man

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Selene and Endymion -- a Saturday reprise

"I am sensual in order to be spiritual," writes Mary Oliver, in her little book of miscellany, Winter Hours. I was thinking about her remark the other evening as we watched a huge tangerine moon rise above the silver sea. It was one of those moments so perfect in its confluence of attributes that nothing needed to be said, a moment when even a writer recognizes that the most articulate expression is silence. The moon bubbled up out of Exuma Sound and all the phantoms and false gods fell away. "Praise this world to the Angel," says the poet Rilke. "Do not tell him the untellable...Show him some simple thing, refashioned by age after age, till it lives in our hands and eyes as a part of ourselves. Tell him things. He'll stand more astonished."

(This post originally appeared in February 2007.)

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Deep and dusty

Which is best for a beach bonfire? Full moon? Or moonless night?

There's something magical about moonlight on the sea. Something that invites a swim. And romance.

But then –- there's the myriad of stars and the Milky Way you can see on a moonless night. "What's that?" a neighbor asks, pointing to the Pleiades, shining with a special brightness.

"How many stars do you see?" I ask. They are called 'the Seven Sisters.""

"Six." "And I tell the story of the missing Pleiad, snatched away by one of the seven brothers of Ursa Major.

"There are actually more than a thousand stars in the cluster, only six of which are bright enough to be reliably seen with the naked eye. The most I have seen without optical aid is nine, when my eyes were younger and sharper, under a sky of exceptional darkness and clarity.

"Where is the missing Pleiad now?" "Just rising." I show her the Big Dipper standing on its handle in the northeast, with brother Mizar and little kidnapee Alcor.

What I can't show her is the dust cloud that is passing through he Pleiades, being pushed into wisps and streamers by the pressure of starlight.

(I won't be here tomorrow. Electrical work on house. Internet down.)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

I and You

I first read Martin Buber's I and Thou in the Scribner's Library paperback edition of Ronald Gregor Smith's 1937 translation, which I still own. It came out, I believe, about the time I graduated from university, deep in the throes of a religious search. The book had a profound effect on me at the time, with its straight-forward emphasis on mutuality of relationships and definition of God as "eternal Thou." It was a refreshing change from the hopelessly legalistic R.C. theology of my youth.

The book maintained a nostalgic hold on me into adulthood; I referred to it at length in the last chapter my Skeptics and True Believers.

A few weeks ago I came across a newer translation of I and Thou in our tiny island library and nostalgia got the best of me. The 1970 translation is by Walter Kaufmann, and I hadn't come across it before. I took it home and had a look.

The most striking departure is Kaufmann's decision to translate Buber's Ich und Du as "I and You." Thou is archaic, says Kaufmann, and you is closer to the German du. Only the title of the Kaufmann edition is unchanged.

The funny thing is, reading Buber with "I and You" is an altogether different experience. It was something of the biblical "Thou" with its hint of transcendence that lifted -– or seemed to lift –- the book above the level of grandfatherly advice. There was also an Amish simplicity about the word, a horse-and-buggy theology to replace the clunking, Rube-Goldbergish mechanical omnibus of Catholic dogma.

Reading the new edition made me wonder what attracted me in the first place. There is less there than met the young man's eye: Treat the other as you would have the other treat you, as a person worthy of love. But then, maybe that's enough.

And God? The eternal You? Doesn't quite work, does it?

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Such stuff as dreams are made on

This is one of those uncommon months with two new Moons—on March 1 and March 30. There were two in January also, and none in February.

This is of no more than idle interest, unless like me here on the island, with these wonderful horizons, one is a dedicated seeker of very young and very old Moons. I have recruited my friend Dwight into the hobby. As the Moon approached the Sun on the morning of February 26, he thrilled to the exquisite conjunction of Venus and the lunar crescent. "Just inches apart," he said.

This past Sunday, the Moon was 34 hours old, as thin as an eyelash, as thin as the paring of a nail. We watched, atwitter.

What's the point?

There is no point.

That's the point.

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Hermit crab

Collecting seashells Charlotte saw
Just in time the nutcracker of pink claw
Sticking out. She held the creature in her hand,
Then placed it gently in the sand.
To go on living as quiet as a mouse
In the curlicue hall of a borrowed house.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Earth & Moon from Mars

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Like shining from shook foil -- a Saturday reprise

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man's smudge & shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast & with ah! bright wings.
Poor Gerard Manley Hopkins. Caught agonizingly between God's immanence and God's transcendence. From the time he was a child he was drawn to the natural world: plants, animals, hills, dales, streams, slants of light, the forms of frost, starry nights, comets, stones, bells, the aurora borealis, human faces. He was attuned to these things with a special sensitivity. It was almost as if he could see into them, to what he called their inscape, "the deepest freshness deep down things," a grandeur inherent in materiality that he perceived as divine.

But Hopkins could not rid himself of the notion that by attending to the material world of particular things he was being drawn away from the spiritual and universal. The Jesuits, to whom he gave his short life, believed the senses were the enemy of sanctity, that beauty was the Devil's share. The young men at the Jesuit novitiate -- eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, at the peak of their sexual and sensual awakening -- were kept occupied every waking hour of the day lest their idle senses become an occasion of sin. They were even given "modesty powder" for their bath to make the water opaque; God forbid that they might be aroused to lascivious thoughts by the sight of their own genitals. Hopkins seems to have borne such training gracefully, and it must be said the Jesuit regimen was not at odds with his own ascetic inclinations. He often practiced what his religious superiors called "custody of the eyes," forcing himself to walk though the world with his vision fixed at his feet.

It is all terribly Roman Catholic, this perplexed attraction and revulsion to materiality -- heaven knows I was there myself as a young man. Hopkins seems to have resolved the conflict only in his late sonnets, such as God's Grandeur. It was an almost pantheistic formula he contrived, and it was looked upon with suspicion by the Jesuits. But as we read the poems we sense a man who has looked deeply into himself and caught there a sense of something both material and spiritual, not as opposites, but as complementary manifestations of the same "bright wings."