Friday, May 30, 2014
At the end of an essay on poetry in the Times Literary Supplement (16 May, 2014), author and critic Clive James writes: "I still make plans to live forever; there are too many critical questions still to be raised. Most of them can never be settled, which is the best reason for raising them.
Well, yes. The questions and opinions that have been the meat and potatoes of the Science Musings blog are far from settled, and I could go on exploring them for another lifetime. But I don't have another lifetime, and my interests have turned from the questions themselves -- which are ultimately unanswerable in any universally definitive way -- to the origin of the questions. For me, that means exploring the dusty chambers of memory, and most especially memories of my parents, who laid down the outline of the person I am today. The influence of parents is universal, for better or worse, so maybe -- just maybe -- the turning which I propose to make here will be of interest to some of you.
Clive James is three years younger than me, terminally ill and very much aware of the narrowing margin to his life. He wonders if time devoted to literary criticism (such as his TLS essay) is squandered. "Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved," he concludes, "and to realize what they have in common: the life you soon must lose."
Of the thousands of posts on the Science Musings blog, a goodly number evoked memories of my father. I have been excavating and collating those posts into the evocation of a life, my father's life specifically, but also the life of the kind of man -- technical, scientific, skeptical -- who inspired the life I have lived in this blog for the past ten years and in other venues for decades. To paraphrase James, I propose to put aside the critical questions about which I have little or nothing more original to say, and instead compile "poems" of memory -- all the "poems" of my father I have ever loved.
For a title, I have chosen Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman's Way of Living (and Dying). The memoir will unfold weekly, on Saturday, a "chapter" at a time. Tom and Anne have volunteered to contribute their unique competencies, archival and artistic. The totality will be a cyber book -- for my extended family, but for anyone else who cares to drop in. Since much of what you will read will be drawn from the blog, the memories have already been winnowed for themes of general interest. Inevitably, because of who he was and who I am, religious naturalism will play like an almost inaudible background music.
I know this temporary re-purposing of the blog will not please everyone who has been a regular visitor on the Science Musings porch, but it's where I must go while I still can. I'll begin a week from tomorrow.
Thursday, May 29, 2014
(This post originally appeared in April 2009.)
Well, I'm back in my corner of the library surrounded by more books than I could read in a lifetime, and that's just the ones that arrived while I was away. And the first one of those I sought was Bert Holldoblet and E. O. Wilson's The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. Like its bigger, more expensive daddy, The Ants, it is a hefty read, and not cheap, but it is a different sort of read, less encyclopedic, more "Wow!" It is the kind of book one keeps beside the easy chair and devours in snatches with quiet delight. Like its subjects, it is beautiful, elegant and strange.
Ants are endlessly interesting, with their queens and kings, their castes, their farmers and herders, their armies, their construction workers, their languages of pheromones, strokings, wags and wiggles. Even after a first quick perusal, I sat in my chair for twenty minutes just shaking my head with wonder. Like the social insects and the book, the world is beautiful, elegant and -- breathtakingly strange.
Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder's eye (and brain) is a product of the world and evolved to maximize the fitness of the organism to its environment. Elegance? The physicist knows what that is; a criteria by which she evaluates the fitness of theories. And strange? Ah, now we come to the crux of the religious naturalist's faith -- the overwhelming sense that there is something afoot in the commonplace that eludes, perhaps, forever, our most intense study. Something beyond beauty, beyond elegance, beyond description, unspoken and unspeakable -- a "business more than nature was ever conduct of." That strangeness exudes itself from every page of Holldober and Wilson's book.
Ed Wilson is one of the greatest thinkers and science popularizers of our time. He is also a kind and gentle man who, like his predecessor Thomas Huxley, evolved a reverent agnosticism and never ceases to delight in the beauty, elegance and strangeness of the world. Late in life Huxley wrote: "The cosmos remains always beautiful and profoundly interesting in every corner -- and if I had as many lives as a cat I would leave no corner unexplored." Wilson, I think, would agree.
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
(This post originally appeared in April 2009.)
I have often quoted here the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, mostly from the Duino Elegies or The Sonnets of Orpheus. We now have a new translation of Rilke's earlier The Book of Hours, by Susan Ranson, which I have been reading, and on this eve of Easter I offer a short poem from the First Book: The Book of Monkish Life.
I find your trace in all these things, in allThe poems of The Book of Hours, written when Rilke was in his mid-twenties, are as the title suggests addressed to God, but his is a strange and unfamiliar sort of deity. Not quite the transcendent God of the theist, who lives outside of the creation. Nor is he quite the immanent God of the pantheist who is manifest in all things. Rather, Rilke's God is concealed within the creation, within the poems even. The point of the poems, says Ben Hutchinson in an Introduction to Ranson's translations, is to create a "lattice-work" of rhymes and rythms through which the poet encourages God to grow. Rilke's God resides in the interstices of things. The poet -- the poem -- is "your pitcher," writes Rilke, addressing God. If the pitcher shatters that which might quench the thirst is dispersed.
that like a brother I am careful for;
you sun yourself, a seed, within the small
and in the great give yourself the more.
This the mysterious play of forces, then,
that serve in things, over and under ground:
that rise in roots, narrow into the stem,
and in the crown like resurrection stand.
A curious God, this God of Rilke. I'm not sure if there is a name for his sort of religion. In a sense, it is an egotistical theology, making God's existence dependent upon the poet's apprehension. But it is also an enobling sort of theology, emphasizing our responsibility to nurture divinity -- to divinize the world.
Anyway, the little poem above strkes me as an appropriate Easter meditation for a religious naturalist. On this equinoctial occasion, we praise the things -- call them divine if you wish -- "that rise in roots, narrow into the stem, and in the crown like resurrection stand."
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
(Tom has been away hiking in the Swiss Alps. He's back now and we'll soon be talking about the future of the blog. In the meantime, a few reprises, this from April 2009.
If I had to choose another life in another time, perhaps it would be as a country parson in Anglican England, Gilbert White, say, in the late-18th-century village of Selborne, or -- why not? -- George Herbert in little Saint Andrew Bemerton a century earlier. Herbert was not quite the naturalist White was, but he was keenly attuned to the natural world, as evidenced by this sonnet, called Prayer:
Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise, church bells heard at night, the land of spices, gladness of the best, these are the soul's blood. Herbert celebrated the divine in ordinary things -- the plough, the clod, the milkmaid's pail, the dance on the village green, the spangled dome of night -- a kind of tune that all things hear, the heart in pilgrimage.
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almightie, sinner's towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Friday, May 23, 2014
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Thursday, May 15, 2014
For those who are still looking in on the porch: I'm about 95% back to pre-crisis, getting stronger, and heavier, every day. I've had dozens of suggestions for tremor and PD, from brain implants to Irish oatmeal to yet another Big Pharm concoction. For the time being I'll live with the tremor and see what develops. I'm off all drugs (except wine with dinner; for a month I had not the slightest interest in alcohol, so that may be a good sign). Cholesterol and blood pressure fine. There, that's more than you wanted to know.
Reading about the new South Pole discovery in Science -- microwave picture of the universe when it was 10-38 seconds old -- got my blogger itch going. How can anyone not want to meditate for a while on a universe so young and full, and smaller than a proton? But no, the time has come. I always had in mind stopping at ten years and the recent episode was my brain's way of staying "get out while you're ahead." And I'm so weary of dealing with tremulous typos.
Don't know who has been around the longest? Maybe Barry, our resident theist? Any other claimants?
Meanwhile, the frame of mind we have called religious naturalism has advanced considerably. My friend Ursula Goodenough and her r/n friends have something up their sleeve. I'll let you know what develops. Science Musings may have an afterlife, at least as part of an archive. BTW, the SM archive can be searched thru Google: site:www.sciencemusings.com "search term"
Again, thanks to all. Look in for Anne. You may also occasionally hear from Tom. Or me.
Sunday, May 11, 2014
Wednesday, May 07, 2014
We've all seen the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph, the deepest we have ever looked into space. It covers a part of the sky you could cover with the intersection of crossed sewing pins held at arm's length. And within that miniscule frame, we can see 10,000 galaxies. Across the entire sky, hundreds of billions of galaxies are visible, each with hundreds of billions of stars and planet systems.
It's a big, big universe we live in.
And now the cosmologists tell us it all began as a speck smaller than a proton. It inflated in size every tenth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, until the universe was about the size of a marble. Then it just took its sweet time evolving into the familiar place we know today.
Do you believe that? A pinprick becoming a multiverse? Admit it. You have to put a lot of faith in the cosmologists.
Thirty years ago when we bought our acre overlooking Dingle Bay in Ireland, our neighbor warned us to watch out for the fairies who lived under the hill. I gently pooh-poohed her credulity. Some years later, I was describing the Ice Age glaciers that once covered the mountain. She said: "It’s easier to believe in fairies under the hill than ice on top.
Back when I was in the classroom, I thought I made a pretty good pitch for the Big Bang. There's just no other way to explain the observational evidence (so far, at least). But there were always a few students in the back of the classroom who rolled their eyes with disbelief. I was not unsympathetic. It is, after all, "easier" to believe in fairies than in inflationary universes. But Faraday's words are worth keeping in mind: "Nothing is too wonderful to be true."
Tuesday, May 06, 2014
Ah, as the Porch winds down, and a lifetime of memories dribbles out in a stuttering stream of typos, it occurs to me that there is one secret that hasn't crossed my mind in 70 years.
I grew up in a house in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that my parents built in 1941. It was a fine two-story house, on a suburban street, with acres of woods and ponds and streams behind to play in. But it's indoors I'm thinking of now. A door off the closet in my bedroom led to an unfinished attic storage space under the roof. From there a tiny pitch black crawl space led under a dormer into another unlit attic space accessible only to a skinny seven or eight year old. And there, unknown to anyone but me, I had a shrine to Betty D., my first love. Nothing more, really, than a couple of Brownie snapshots lit by the votive glow of a flashlight, but worthy of secret worship in their own adored way.
The house was sold long ago. I wonder if the shrine is still intact. Perhaps one of my brave little sisters discovered it after I left home, and dismantled it, but I doubt they would have slithered into that dark space. The house is still there, according to Google Street View. And perhaps Betty D. is still there too, as cute as a button, her photos faded, but somehow enveloped with more pre-adolescent affection than any Instagram, and more enduring too.
Sunday, May 04, 2014
Saturday, May 03, 2014
An update. Some time ago I mentioned here that I had developed a tremor in my right hand, originally diagnosed as essential tremor, but now possibly onset of Parkinson's. It has progressed to the point where it is tedious to type. I spend most of my time correcting typos. My doctors have tried a succession of drugs, to no avail. It was a reaction to a drug that wiped me out two weeks ago, and I'm still recovering. Tom has been great at keeping the porch open, but it may be time to close up for good. We'll see what the next few weeks brings.
It's been ten years, millions of words, and fun all the way. You have been wonderful visitors and commenters, wise, courteous and kind. I count myself lucky to have shared with you and learned from you. Thank you, thank you for your friendship.
I would hate to deprive you of Anne's lovely contributions. The site will remain open, and access to Anne assured. Keep checking. We'll see what happens.
P. S. Here's another reprise from Tom.
[This musing first appeared in The Boston Globe, May 3, 1999.—Tom.]
A few weeks ago, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope said they discovered the most distant object yet observed in the universe—a galaxy 13 billion light-years from Earth.
Because the galaxy—dubbed “Sharon” after the sister of one of its discoverers—is so far away, and because light takes time to travel the distance between us, we see it as it existed when the universe was only 5 percent of its present age, not long after the first galaxies and stars condensed from the primeval gas.
Detection of such galaxies is a considerable technical achievement, not only because they are so faint and far away. Because distant galaxies share in the universe’s expansion, their light is stretched into parts of the spectrum that are absorbed by interstellar nebulae that lie along our line of sight and by the Earth’s atmosphere. Only with a telescope above the atmosphere is detection possible at all.
What do we learn from such faraway galaxies?
So far, not much. These galaxies appear as mere dots of light, and little can be deduced about their structure or composition.
But astronomers have theoretical ideas about what these early galaxies might be like.
For one thing, theories of the Big Bang suggest that only hydrogen and helium atoms condensed from the hot radiation of the Big Bang. No carbon, no oxygen, no nitrogen, no silicon, no iron.
Therefore, the first galaxies and stars were made of hydrogen and helium exclusively. The stars may have had planets, but only big gassy planets like Jupiter or Saturn. Without heavy elements there could have been no Earthlike planets, no rocky moons, no asteroids.
And, of course, no carbon based life.
If we could visit the Sharon Galaxy in the era in which we observe it, it would be a lively place, roiling with primeval energy, exploding with the violent deaths of hot massive stars. But nowhere among the worlds of that galaxy would we find sperm, egg, wing, flower, feather. Not only were the elements of life unavailable, but not enough time had elapsed for complex life forms to evolve.
The Sharon Galaxy presumably still exists somewhere in the universe today, 13 billion years older than it appears in the Hubble photograph. And what a different sort of galaxy it must be now.
Countless generation of massive stars have lived and died in the galaxy during the ensuing eons. As stars burn they fuse heavy elements from hydrogen and helium. When stars die explosively they make still more heavy elements and spew those atoms into the interstellar nebulae out of which new generations of stars will be born.
As time passed in the Sharon Galaxy, more and more heavy elements enriched the primeval gas mixture, until the most recent stars presumably contain a few percent of atoms like carbon, oxygen and iron, and shepherd small planets made of rock, metal, water and air.
Perhaps on one of those planets intelligent life has evolved and is looking our way. What would they see?
They would see our Milky Way Galaxy as a dot of light on the threshold of time, 13 billion years in the past—a galaxy without Earthlike planets, without life, without intelligence. They would see our galaxy in its infancy, hot and lively, stewing up the atoms that will someday compose the Sun, the Earth, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the bodies of the men and women who use the scope to explore cosmic history.
In other words, our galaxy would appear to Sharonites—if such exist—more or less as their galaxy appears to us.
Can we observe the Sharon Galaxy as it exists today?
Impossible. No conceivable information can pass back and forth between us. We can see that other galaxy in our space, but not in our time. We are sequestered in our present by the finite velocity of light.
However, we have reason to believe that the laws of nature are the same throughout the cosmos. So, in a sense, that dot of light 13 billion light-years away is “us”—or a galaxy very much like what our galaxy might have been like then.
The Hubble Space Telescope is humankind’s most effective time machine, an instrument that lets us see into what Shakespeare’s Prospero calls “the dark backward and abyss of time.”
As a species we are infinitely curious about our past, which is why we invest billions of dollars in a magnificent instrument that orbits 350 miles above the Earth and peers deeply into time.
That dot of light observed by the Hubble at the beginning of material creation is a faint glimpse of the cosmic forge in which our very atoms were created.
Friday, May 02, 2014
[This musing first appeared in The Boston Globe, May 2, 1988.—Tom.]
On the floor of New England’s oak woodlands, the Canada Mayflower (Wild Lily-of-the-valley) is making its play for the sun. Like two greedy hands, the paired green leaves of that ubiquitous little plant are reaching for sunlight, softening the winter woods and teasing us toward summer.
Forget the skunk cabbage and the robin as signs of spring. I’ve seen skunk cabbages frozen in ice. I’ve seen robins making tracks in snow. But when you see the leaves of the Canada Mayflower pushing up through last season’s leaf litter, you know its time to take down the storm windows and put away the down comforter.
As I walked in the woods this morning I thought of a well-known line from a poem of Dylan Thomas: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” My thoughts followed the green fuse of the mayflower upward, out of the warming earth, through the still-bare branches of the oaks, through twenty miles or so of blue air and 93 million miles of space to the sun. There, deep at the heart of our planet’s star, is the source of the force that drives the flower.
It’s hot at the center of the sun. About 15 million centigrade degrees hot. What causes the high temperature? Basically, the core of the sun, like the rest of its huge bulk, is gas. Hydrogen, mostly. And a lot of helium. The hydrogen and helium at the core of the sun are under enormous pressure. Half-a-million miles of overlying gas is pressing down. Squeeze a gas and its temperature goes up. The hydrogen at the center of the sun is in the big squeeze.
At 15 million degrees something remarkable happens. Hydrogen nuclei, which carry positive charges, are able to overcome their mutual repulsion and fuse together to form helium. Fuse. That word again! The green fuse. Dylan Thomas was more right than he knew. Fusion is the force that drives the flower. It is fusion at the sun’s core that makes the sun shine.
Every second the sun converts roughly 700 million tons of hydrogen into helium. And as if by some kind of cosmic magic the helium weighs less than the original hydrogen. Five million tons less. Matter has disappeared. Matter has been turned into pure energy. The old Einstein equation—energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Every second the sun turns five million tons of its own substance into radiant energy.
Five million tons a second. Sounds like a lot. But the sun never misses so tiny a fraction of its bulk. The sun has been shining steadily for more than four billion years, every second turning five million tons of matter into energy, and in all of that time it has used up less than a thousandth of its substance.
The fuse is lit. Now the force that drives the flower begins its journey up and out of the sun. It percolates through the sun’s seething interior, absorbed and reradiated again and again. As the energy approaches the surface, it is carried along by the sun’s churning bulk, in huge convecting loops of hot gas. At last, at the furiously roiling surface, the energy is hurled into space as heat and light.
Several million years are required for the energy to make its way from the center of the sun to the surface, but once disgorged, it travels at the speed of light, outward in every direction. Eight minutes later one two-billionth of the sun’s radiant energy is intercepted by the Earth. That’s five pounds worth of the sun’s vanished mass every second, five pounds worth of sun-stuff turned into pure energy.
In summer, about a millionth of an ounce of the sun’s depleted mass falls each second onto the college campus where I teach. In winter less than half as much. A fraction of a millionth of an ounce of matter is all it takes to tip the balance of the season from winter toward summer. A fraction of a millionth of an ounce of fused hydrogen is all it takes to ignite the roots of trees and rocket the Canada Mayflower out of the ground.
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/Is my destroyer.” Dylan Thomas was a poet. Einstein was the scientist who unraveled the mystery of fusion in the sun. Thomas’ poetry and Einstein’s science have the same roots. The two men were contemporaries. They died within a few years of each other in the mid-fifties. They both perceived the essential unity of matter and energy. They both recognized in nature a physical force that drives all things, a force that is both creative and destructive, holy and terrible.
Dylan Thomas often identified with the destructive side of the force, as in the “green fuse” poem; Einstein’s optimism usually embraced the creative side. The writings of both men chronicle the painful progress of all of nature from darkness toward light.
Thursday, May 01, 2014
[This musing first appeared in The Boston Globe, May 1, 2001.—Tom.]
Like all kids, my 18-month-old grandchild, Kate, is a fine taxonomist (one who classifies organisms into categories that reflect natural relationships).
Canada geese, mallards and Beatrice Potter’s Jemima Puddle-duck are all “quack-quacks.” Scotties, Dalmatians and Great Danes are manifestly “bow-wows.” Two or three stuffed animals, Potter’s Tabitha Twitchit, and half the neighborhood pets are “kitties.”
Even a toddler who can barely talk recognizes that creatures have family relationships.
Kate probably would disagree with professional taxonomists, however, on some categories. She would surely lump eels with snakes, rather than fish. A bat looks more like a birdie than a puppy, although bats and puppies are more closely related, according to biologists. Chimps and orangutans are “monkeys” to Kate, but it would never occur to her to put Mommy and Daddy—or even Grandpa—in the same category (primates, hominoidea). For the professional taxonomist, neither chimps nor orangutans are true monkeys; humans, chimps and orangutans are apes.
Everyone agrees with Kate that creatures can be grouped into natural patterns, but not even professionals agree what the patterns are. The inventory of living species currently stands somewhere near 2 million. There are almost certainly at least 10 times as many species that have not yet been described and named. The true number of species may be more than 100 million. Finding the “natural” patterns of relationship is a problem of surprising complexity.
Still, biological taxonomists do their best, as they have been trying to do at least since Aristotle. The two biggest breakthroughs are associated with the Swedish biologist Carl von Linne, better known by his Latinized name Linnaeus, and the Englishman Charles Darwin.
Linnaeus proposed a hierarchical system of classification, with small categories, “species,” nesting within larger categories, “genera,” each represented by a Latin name. Since Linnaeus’s day, taxonomists have added more ranks to the hierarchy: species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, domain. Life’s diversity can be pictured as a tree, with domains as the major trunks and species as the twigs.
Darwin suggested that the “tree of life” represents descent from a common ancestor. Taxonomy, then, is genealogy. If we can get the creatures grouped correctly, including fossil species, we will have a history of life on Earth.
But it’s not easy. A biologist can spend an entire career working out the relationships within a single genus. For example, there are only four living species of hyenas, but about 70 species are known from the fossil record. How are they related? What was their common ancestor? There are around 65,000 species of weevils, just one family within the beetle order. Who has the audacity to sort the weevils into genera?
Classifying the entirety of life takes a brave taxonomist, indeed.
University of Massachusetts biologist Lynn Margulis and co-author Karlene Schwartz tried it in 1982, in the delightful “Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth,” still going strong in its third edition [and as of 2014, now in revised fourth edition.—Ed.]. And now British science journalist Colin Tudge has done it again in a book called “The Variety of Life: A Surveyand a Celebration of All The Creatures That Have Ever Lived” (Oxford University Press).
Tudge gives us the great pageant of life, microscopic and macroscopic, living and extinct, unfolding across the pages of his book from the hypothetical bacterial ancestor that mothered us all. The pre-Darwinian view of life as a steady progress from primitive to complex, a “great chain of being” rising ultimately to—you guessed it—us, gives way in Tudge’s account to a magnificent and richly proliferating tree of which humans are a single twig.
Of course, we are an untypical twig. The dazzlingly complex brains that sit atop our spines have changed forever the dynamic of life on Earth. Few other large animals number in the millions, much less billions. We are 6 billion strong and rising, usurping more and more of the planet’s resources for ourselves. There is no way our numbers can continue to increase without ensuring the extinction of many of the marvelous creatures cataloged in Tudge’s book.
Taxonomy is not just an idle exercise. It is an indispensable tool for thinking. One cannot browse Tudge’s book without rethinking what it means to be human, and without thinking more deeply about the importance of caring for the world we have inherited. The Book of Job had it long ago: “Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee.”
My granddaughter, Kate, and the professional biologists might not see eye to eye on the details of taxonomy. After all, Kate has her primary categories from the cuddly creaturedom of Beatrix Potter. But Potter, who was herself a fine natural scientist and a specialist on fungi, would have delighted in Tudge’s book, and I hope that someday Kate will, too.