Saturday, June 30, 2007

On being confident (sort of)

posted by Chet at 6:16 AM UTC

In the early 1970s, I conducted an interdisciplinary seminar with a colleague from the English Department. One day Professor R. brought in a few dozen scholarly articles, half from science journals, half from philosophy and theology journals. First, he gently elicited from us our expectations about which articles were more likely to be matter of fact and which speculative. Then he passed them around and asked us to count qualified statements -- "probably,"`"maybe," "it seems that," that sort of thing. To our surprise, the science articles were full of qualifications; the philosophy and theology articles contained hardly a one. It seemed that the less evidence the authors had for a thing, the more confidently they asserted it.

I was remind of this experiment as I finished Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, his account of the evolution of life on Earth.

Dawkins is often charged as a scientific dogmatist by his critics, especially by those on the religious right who are offended by his robust atheism. But do the experiment. Open the book to any random page and count qualifiers. I was constantly struck as I read the book by the author's cautious assertions of fact, by his willingness to say "I don't know," even by his friendly explication of scientific ideas he does not personally agree with. If this is dogmatism, it is dogmatism of curious sort. The Ancestor's Tale is chockablock with the kinds of solid evidence that should let one speak with a certain magisterial authority. How refreshing, then, to hear the voice of someone who recognizes the limits of reliable knowing, and who refuses to cover his ignorance with blind faith.

More on this topic in my essay tomorrow.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The unending pilgrimage

posted by Chet at 6:17 AM UTC

As I mentioned the other day, I have been reading Richard Dawkins' fat and always interesting history of life on Earth, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. And what a grand story it is. It so happens that I also recently took an internet tour of the new Creation Museum in Kentucky, which seems by comparison a drab and paltry account of origins.

On the one hand, we have a saga that sweeps like a mighty river of creation across 4 billion years, culminating (for the moment) in a creature that uses its remarkable powers of discernment and reason to discover and tell the story.

On the other hand, we have a...

Well, never mind, we've gone down that road many times before. I only know that if I were the God who wrote the first chapters of Genesis, I would be supremely jealous of any God who could invent the story recounted by Dawkins. As our author says: "If it's amazement you want, the real world has it all."

The typical Middle-eastern, prescientific creation story told as fact in Kentucky surely cheapens any response to the world that can properly be called religious. The creation tales of our Neolithic ancestors "miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world," writes Dawkins. "They represent a narrowing-down from reality, an impoverishment of what the real world has to offer."

This is not something I choose to debate with anyone. It is simply to state a fact that the 14-billion-year story of creation being painstakingly compiled by science leaves me more breathless with awe than any fairy tale I learned as a child. It is to the God of this grander creation -- who is not a person, who is not this and is not that, whose name we cannot speak and whose nature we do not know -- to whom I pray in the metaphorical language of the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin: "Radiant Word, blazing Power, you who mould the manifold so as to breath your life into it; I pray you, lay on us your hands -- powerful, considerate, omnipresent, those hands which do not (like our human hands) touch now here, now there, but which plunge into the depths and the totality, present and past, of things so as to reach us simultaneously through all that is most immense and most inward within us and around us." Amen.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

While I'm on the subject of trees...

posted by Chet at 6:10 AM UTC

...I can't resist sharing one of my favorites, this magnificent copper beech that overspreads the nun's cemetery in the grounds of the Presentation Sisters convent in Dingle, Ireland.

The convent now stands empty, and no one knows quite what to do with it. The chapel is magnificent, lit by gorgeous Harry Clarke stained-glass windows that take one's breath away. But no more sisters. In one memorable year decades ago, my two daughters were taught here by nuns, and splendid women they were too. Today, girls in the Dingle primary and secondary schools are taught by lay people. Generations of Presentation sisters lay sleeping among the roots of the beech, and few young women are enlisting to take their places.

But back to the tree -- which seems to have adapted its form to shade the sleeping nuns -- a cultivated ornamental variety of the common beech, Fagus sylvatica. If oaks are the rugged masculine icons of the forest, the beeches, with their elegance and smooth skin, have something decidedly feminine about them. Not the spritely femininity of a young girl, but the stately solemnity of a Queen Mother. Just as when one enters a medieval cathedral one senses the predominant spirit of the Virgin, rather than her God-Son, so when one enters a beech grove one feels the spirit of the ancient Mother-goddess of European forests, here in Ireland called Mor-Rioghna, the earthy feminine counterpart of the Sun-deity.

Yes, I'm anthropomorphizing, but why not? Metaphor is one of the ways we bind the world together, solidify our kinship with other creatures. Without some overlay of metaphor this copper beech in the convent garden is just another pretty tree. But as Mor-Rioghna she spreads her purple-green mantle over her sleeping acolytes, women who gave their lives to the teaching of girls, including -- gratefully -- briefly, my daughters.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

In the greenwood

posted by Chet at 6:11 AM UTC

When, twenty-five years ago, we bought our plot on a hillside in the West of Ireland the land was "rough grazing." Not much to protect our cottage from the wind. In 1990, we planted 200 very young trees -- willows, hazelnuts, rowans, alders, larches, sycamores, and birches. Some lived. Some died. All struggled against the stunting wind. It was as if we had rediscovered the art of bonsai.

Today we have a nicely buffered garden, and one copse of willows and alders that is starting to looks like a suitable grove for druidic rites.

Ireland was once heavily wooded, but population pressures in recent centuries, especially, have denuded the landscape. Today, Ireland is one of the least wooded countries in Europe. Only around the estates of former landlords are there extensive stands of stately trees. Ash must be imported from Scandinavia for making hurleys!

The relative absence of trees makes for grand vistas and excellent hillwalking, but something has gone missing from the soul of the landscape, something that only a grove of brooding trees can provide. As Sir James Fraser told us in The Golden Bough, northern Europeans came from the forests, imbibed their myths and deities from trees. Trees figure strongly in early Irish law, and many characters in the earliest Irish alphabet -- ogham -- took their names from trees. Every species of tree is a repository of a wealth of lore.

Tolkien knew what he was up to when he made men and trees allies in the battle against the dark forces. Saruman's orcs start felling trees for furnaces, and end up felling trees for fun. "The enemies of woods are always the enemies of culture and humanity," says British writer Roger Deakin in a just published book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees. Trees are "the subconscious of the landscape," he writes.

We are billions of years away from our common ancestor with trees. Plants and animals share the planet, trading physical resources. They photosynthesize, we respire. One can't live without the other. But there is a psychological aspect to our relationship, too, and nowhere more so than with trees. Perhaps no plant can be said to have more "personality," more "character," than an ancient hardwood. It takes only a modicum of invention to turn an imposing gnarled oak into an Ent.

This year, for the first time, we are able to walk into the sun-dappled shadows of our own wee forest -- just about big enough for a teddy-bears' picnic. And just for a moment, I feel something primal there, free, feral and green, a harkening back to a time when the unsubdued wildwood was the womb and cradle of human imagination.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Off-line, and trying (unsuccessfully) to love it

posted by Chet at 6:01 AM UTC

Can one live without broadband? Yes, it's barely possible. On my hill here in the west of Ireland I am reduced to dial-up. It's oh, so painfully slow. Forget video clips from CNN. Forget YouTube repeats from the Daily Show or Colbert Report. Forget Google Earth.

On the other hand, I find that my life has slowed down along with my streaming bits. I check my e-mail twice a day, not twenty. I find I am more likely to be out walking than sitting in front of my laptop screen. I'm reading more.

Reading the Economist, say, which is still a substantial magazine, rather than the dumbed-down, byte-sized Newsweek or Time. And what do I read in the Economist? Well, here in the June 9th-15th issue, are articles on: the opening up of on-line virtual universes, such as Second Life, so that one can click from one world to another as easily as one moves from page to page of hypertext; the transformation of the web from a document collection to a data commons; a company called Joost that will stream television onto your screen at 350 megabytes per hour; three dimensional holographic data storage; and speech recognition software. In other words, the world of broadband.

I could get broadband here if I were willing to sign an expensive 12-month contract with Vodafone. A friend sat in our cottage the other evening and pulled up this website on the crisp little screen of his cell phone. The challenge for me is not how to get broadband, but how to stay off-line. How to stay connected to the plants in my window. How to curl up in front of the fire with that novel I never found time to read at home. How to listen to the rain on the roof.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A paring of Adam's nail

posted by Chet at 6:01 AM UTC

Darwin convinced us that all life on Earth is related by common descent. It was a stunning overturning of the convention wisdom of simultaneous creation.

The task then was to discern the familial relationships of all species of life on Earth, including the many extinct organisms known through the fossil record. Biologists did this on the basis of morphological similarities. A zebra is presumably more closely related to a horse than to a elephant, and so on. By the middle of the last century a family tree of life on Earth had been established to almost everyone's satisfaction.

Then came the most astonishing surprise. In every cell of our bodies we carry a history of our species' past, written in the four-letter genomic code. Forget looking at the morphology of zebras, horses and elephants. Send their DNA unlabeled to the sequencing lab and the genes will tell which creatures are more closely related, and (with a bit of calibrating against the fossil record) how long ago any two species shared a common ancestor.

This is now being done with ever increasing rapidity, and -- voila! -- the tree of life revealed by the DNA is identical to a satisfying extent with the tree established by the generations of zoologists and botanists who followed Darwin. I share almost all of my genes with chimps, and some genes with bacteria. A fleck of my spittle contains the four-billion-year history of Homo sapiens.

This sort of thing sends shivers up my spine, and renews my spirit of relationship with the birds at the window feeder and the peas in my garden. I swat a fly and I'm smushing some of my own genes, genes for making haemoglobin, say -- or near enough to my own to indicate a common ancestor some hundreds of millions of years ago. Our cells sing the unity of creaturedom.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A wing and a prayer?

posted by Chet at 6:29 AM UTC

Millions of Hindus pray for sons, yet the ratio of boy babies to girl babies is the same in India as everywhere else. Millions of Christians pray for the good health of bishops, popes and kings, yet those people demonstratively live no longer than the average person. There is not the slightest non-anecdotal evidence that prayer evokes divine intervention, yet the great majority of people in the world go right on praying, and nothing I will say in this week's Musing will dissuade them from assuming God's ear. Nor would I wish to dissuade them.

Meanwhile, Anne's weekly offerings are another kind of prayer, prayers of celebration. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The raw and the cooked

posted by Chet at 6:43 AM UTC

There are not a lot of things that separate us from other species. Nightingales sing. Chimps use tools. Ants domesticate animals (aphids). Bower birds do home decorating. But only humans cook their food.

Harvard University primatologist Richard Wrangham thinks cooking may be the reason for our big brains. No kidding. Brains use a lot of energy. A human brain uses 25 percent of an adult's energy supply, whereas a chimp's brain sucks up only 8 percent of available energy. Where did humans get the extra energy to support their large brains?

By cooking their food, says Wrangham (see Science, June 15, 2007). Cooking is a kind of predigestion. Less energy to the gut, more to that knot of nerves on the top of the spine. We are Homo sapiens because first we were Homo juliachild.

Not everyone agrees. There is a problem of timing. The brains of our hominid ancestors started ballooning about 1.9 million years ago. The first solid archeological evidence for the controlled use of fire comes much later, about 250,000 years ago. Wrangham is not dissuaded. The evidence for fire is elusive. He sticks with the image of hairy ancestors sitting around a campfire gnawing on a roast leg of wildebeest, perhaps with a side of steamy manioc. And all those soft, yummy calories puffing up the brain.

Well, maybe so, maybe not. But I was thinking about this the other evening when our house guests -- my nephew and his girlfriend -- were cooking dinner. And quite the cooks they are. Lots of fresh ingredients direct from the market. The flash of stainless steel as the knife went chippetty-chop. Pepper and salt mills whirling. A pinch of this, a pinch of that. Hands kneading dough whipped up from pure white flour. In such young people, it was a joy to behold.

A fire in the fireplace. Some Motown on the stereo. An open bottle of good wine. And those two talented youngsters at the stove, whipping up a meal that looked as good as it tasted. Whether cooking made the brain bigger, or whether our bigger brains make cooking such an intellectual delight, I will leave to the archeologists. I offer a picture here of proof that we live in the age of Homo delicious.

Friday, June 22, 2007

River out of Eden

posted by Chet at 6:11 AM UTC

My son Dan designs and maintains websites for businesses. His company is called Platypus Multimedia. I'm not sure why Dan chose the platypus as his icon, but I suspect he was trying to suggest innovation and originality. He may have got it partly wrong.

In Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Time, we meet the platypus in our backwards journey at 180 million years before the present. We are marching into the past in search of ancestors, and by the time we meet the platypus we have joined up with all of our other mammalian cousins, placentals and marsupials. We are deep into the Age of Reptiles, and what ancestors we meet are tiny shrewlike nocturnal creatures, doing their best to stay out of the mouths of dinosaurs. And now, along comes another almost solitary pilgrim from the present, the duckbill platypus, that most unlikely of animals -- like something God put together out of leftover parts on the eighth day of creation. A couple of echidnas are tagging along. This ragtag group are known as monotremes, which means "single hole" in Greek; like reptiles and birds -- but not other mammals -- their anus, urinary tract and reproductive tract share a single opening. Even more reptilian, the monotremes lay eggs.

The duckbill platypus would appear to be a not-so-missing link between the Age of Reptiles and the Age of Mammals. Of course, it will not be the duckbill itself we find slithering around 180 million years ago, but the duckbill's (and our) ancestor. Nevertheless, the platypus seems to have retained more ancestral characteristics than have other mammals. That is to say, in a fundamental way, the platypus may be the least innovative of our mammalian cousins.

But not to worry, Dan. The platypus has innovations of its own. That supersensitive bill, for one thing. It is one of the most magnificent sense organs in creaturedom, able to pick up subtle electrical emanations from prey. Then there's the stinging back feet; another innovation unique among animals. And let's face it; we also love the duckbill platypus for its sweetly goofy look and name.

While I've been writing this, I have been watching a crane fly at my window, another lovably goofy creature, with its improbably threadlike legs. Having joined up with the platypus, we have a long way to go on our pilgrimage before we meet our common ancestor with the crane fly -- at least another 400 million years.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The cuckoo's lament

posted by Chet at 5:39 AM UTC

Bushbabies, tarsiers, lemurs, pottos, aye-ayes, orangutans, gorillas, chimps: The human cousins we met at the family reunion in yesterday's footnote are in danger of being pushed into oblivion by the explosive and voracious expansion of our own species. I sit here on my hill in the west of Ireland and rue the fact, but feel impotent to do anything about it.

Readers of Honey From Stone will remember my encounter with a hedgehog while walking home from Dingle late at night along a dark country lane. That was twenty-five years ago, when our little cottage was just about the only holiday house in this lovely part of the Dingle Peninsula. Ours was an exclusively farming community then, and hedgehogs were not uncommon. And badgers. Many a time I was given a scare by a badger that suddenly appeared in the dark lane as I made my way home from the pub. And many a time too I looked up from the desk in my writing studio to see a fox striding along the window sill. Rabbits and hares frolicking with the lambs in the field below the house. A stoat dashing along the ditch. A corncrake? A cuckoo?

Gone now, all gone.

Within a decade, Ireland went from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest in the world. Our narrow lane -- "the fairies' road" -- has been tarmacked, and our tiny cottage now stands at the head of a string of rather posh holiday houses. No haycocks in the fields below, but lots of empty nitrate bags, and where they still cut the grass for fodder, it is done mechanically by big machines that wrap the hay in black plastic bales for silage.

Nothing unusual about this transformation; it has happened many places -- a century of development packed into a dozen years. I don't begrudge my Irish neighbors their newfound prosperity, but I grieve that no one -- here or anywhere -- has yet figured out how to take the hedgehogs, badgers, foxes, hares and stoats with us into our prosperous but increasingly solitary future.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What's so natural about natural selection?

posted by Chet at 6:21 AM UTC

Sometime back about 25 million years ago, our ancestors among the primates lost their tails. Not quite sure what caused this turn of events. Did it have to do with coming down out of the trees? Gibbons have no tails and they are wonderfully arboreal. Many ground-living animals sport posterior appendages. Whatever the reason, I think it a great loss. I would love a bushy tail, maybe something as attractive as that of the ring-tailed lemur, but I suppose that having lost most of our body hair we would be more likely to have a rat-like tail, not nearly as nice.

And what about body color? Primates have excellent color vision, and more than any other animals use color for sexual displays. Mandrills, vervets, drills and langurs have great fun flashing their gaily-decorated "private" parts. My goodness, humans are a pallid species. How about a nice electric blue penis? Or a pink and green striped heinie? When it came to color, we surely got shortchanged.

If tarsiers and bushbabies are any indication, it seems that 60 million years ago our common ancestor may have had great big eyes, terrific for seeing in the dark, but also terribly cutesy in a Keane sort of way. Just look at the bushbaby here; what a sweetie! I'd take those big saucers any day over our squinty little human eyes.

There are good reasons, presumably, why natural selection gave us the features we have, but there is obviously also a lot of arbitrariness in evolution. Put a slightly different spin on things and I might have ended up with a sleek honey-golden pelt, a fuzzy tail, a penis as green as a Brazilian flag, and big, big, bushbaby eyes with curly lashes. Now wouldn't that be nice.

(Newcomers to Science Musings are welcome to visit a primate family reunion we held a couple of years ago.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A few more words on dogma

posted by Chet at 6:11 AM UTC

Critics often complain that science is a closed shop, blindly committed to defending established dogmas, and unwilling to entertain ideas -- such as intelligent design, ESP or homeopathy -- that fall outside accepted paradigms. Scientists circle the wagons around accepted theories, say the critics, and dismiss unorthodox ideas out-of-hand.

Are the complaints valid?

Within my lifetime several firmly-held theories have been tossed overboard on the basis of new evidence. When I was in college, the so-called Steady-state universe held sway among the majority of cosmologists. Ten years later the Big Bang had swept the field. Likewise for the rigidity of the Earth's crust. In 1950, the only crustal movements geologists were prepared to admit were (more or less) up and down. Twenty years later the lateral drift of continents was de rigueur. In both cases, new reproducible data overwhelmed resistance.

Reproducibility is the gold standard of science. Believers and doubters alike should be able to make the same observations or perform the same experiments and achieve the same results.

Writing some years ago in Nature, Paul Grant, then a science fellow at the Electric Power Research Institute in California, said of a current controversy: "If you've got an exciting result that may send you to Stockholm, the next thing to do, after you've established publication and patent priority, is to get your worse competitor to reproduce it."

One does not throw out a successful paradigm on the basis of anecdotal evidence or someone's assertion of personal incredulity. Yes, science is conservative, but it is not a closed shop. Let proponents of an unconventional theory come up with consistently reproducible, quantitative evidence and you can be sure that the "establishment" will give even the wildest notion a fair hearing.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Comet, maybe

posted by Chet at 5:58 AM UTC

I am finally getting around to reading Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, his big account of the evolution of life on Earth. Much of what he writes about I already know, but Dawkins is fun (and illuminating!) to read no matter what his subject.

Early in his backwards pilgrimage to the origins of life he has a few words for those who romanticize pre-industrial and pre-agricultural societies:
It has lately become fashionable to regard hunter-gatherers and primitive agricultural societies as more "in balance" with nature than us. This is probably a mistake. They may well have had greater knowledge of the wild, simply because they lived and survived in it. But, like us, they seemed to have used their knowledge to exploit (and often overexploit) the environment to the best of their abilities at the time...Far from being in balance with nature, pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers were probably responsible for widespread extinctions of many large animals around the globe. Just prior to the Agricultural Revolution, the colonization of remote areas by hunter-gatherer peoples is suspiciously often followed in the archeological record by the wiping out of many large (and presumably palatable) birds and mammals.
First, note in this short paragraph the words "probably," "may," "seemed," "probably," and "presumably." Dawkins is often lashed by the antievolutionists as a "dogmatic" scientist. But like any good scientist, he is generous in his expositions with qualifiers, when qualifiers are called for.

Were humans responsible for the large bird and animal extinctions at the end of the last Ice Age? There is also the matter of climate change as the northern continents emerged from under the ice. The debate has been vigorous and the jury is still out. You may have read recently about new evidence for the explosion of a massive comet over southern Canada about 13,000 years ago. The energy released by such an event would have sent a shock wave across the continent that would have knocked woolly mammoths off their feet and ignited fires in anything that could burn: One more candidate for cause of the Late Pleistocene megafauna extinctions. Maybe our human ancestors were not as deeply implicated in the demise of the big beasts as Dawkins suggests.

Maybe. Possibly. Presumably. Patience!! It's a lovely detective story. The geologists, paleontologists and archeologists will continue gathering evidence. At some point the weight of evidence will be sufficient to convict -- or let the accused walk free. As always in science, it will be evidence, not dogma, that will decide.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Expanding space

posted by Chet at 6:19 AM UTC

The cosmologists are still trying to figure out the shape of the universe, which is no small problem when you are thinking in four dimensions, and possibly more. Meanwhile, I have an artist friend who has his own ideas. See this week's Musing.

Anne offers a gift for Father's Day. She was at the wedding of our nephew recently. I suspect that's the bride and her father sweeping across our screens. Or is it the top of the cake? You can click on the image to enlarge.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Lost in cyberspace

posted by Chet at 6:39 AM UTC

There was a time when I was on the cutting edge of computer technology. I ran my first programs, written in an assembly-like language, on an IBM 1620. By the time I finished graduate school, Notre Dame had built a computer center to house its mammoth Univac. We fed it Fortran punch cards -- when it worked. My mobile phone now has more computing power than was housed in that building.

But we knew how the damn thing worked. Program counters, accumulators, ALUs, ANDS, ORS, NOTS, flip-flops, front-edge triggering, back-edge triggering, machine language, assemblers, compilers.

Then along came my Mac 128 and the guts of computers began to disappear behind a user-friendly interface. Still, we did a lot of our own programming, in BASIC.

Progress was breathtaking, with hardware and software advancing together at a speed that finally made what goes on inside the box irrelevant. And my brain got older. Computers got easier and easier to use, but there were more and more things I couldn't remember. And more and more of my life was evaporating into digital bits. I have piles and piles of floppy disks around the house, years of writing, now virtually unreadable. In the past three years I have written 156 Sunday essays on this blog, and a thousand daily posts. I know they exist out there somewhere, because we have access to them, but I haven't a clue where.

Meanwhile, without Tom of the young and nimble brain to keep me up and running I might as well return to pencil and the old black-bound journals I kept for years that have been read by no one but myself. They are sitting on the shelf and will be there when I die. God knows what will happen to all my words that exist only in ASCII code.

Friday, June 15, 2007


posted by Chet at 6:13 AM UTC

A second life? I can barely cope with this one.

I'm referring to the increasingly popular virtual world Second Life, available to online gamers. One enters Second LIfe by creating a three-dimensional, animated avatar that is one's virtual self. Then one can do just about anything in the Second Life world that is possible to do in real life, including, one presumes, things one would not do in real life. By all accounts, the Second Life universe is booming, to the extent that real-world businesses are setting up virtual franchises in a place that exists only in the belly of a computer. There is a buoyant economy in Second Life, with a virtual currency known as Lindens that are convertible to real dollars.

Now the Swedes and Chinese are coming on with an alternate virtual universe called Entropia that promises to give Second Life a run for its Lindens.

Ah, the idea of creating an avatar Chet who is thirty years younger with a thick head of curly black hair is enticing, but my two computer savvy sons, who are way ahead of me in these matters, say "Pop, don't bother." And I suppose they are right. My life as a writer has been a celebration of the natural world, the real world. In my book The Path, I suggested that any one-mile walk contains enough wonders to occupy a person for a lifetime. What do I need with alternative universes?

How about immortality?

My sister Anne sends me a story about a project to take avatars to a whole new level, endowing them not only with 3-D animation, but with intelligence, will and emotions. For the present, a real person at a computer guides an avatar in cyberspace. But it is possible to imagine avatars of the not so distant future that carry into virtual worlds a person's very soul. There he goes, into the vast universe of some future Entropia, a virtual Chet, who exists only as binary bits in cyberspace, but who bears the real Chet's lifetime of experiences, personality quirks, desires, loves and phobias. Once there, he will act on his own, without me dictating his action from my computer. And since he need not age or die, he will continue his virtual "second life" after I'm dead and gone. I doubt if he will find a one-mile path in cyberspace that is interesting enough to occupy him for eternity. But -- what the heck -- while I'm at it, I'll give him that head of curly black hair.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Faces of excellence

posted by Chet at 5:32 AM UTC

The day before I left for Ireland, the Boston Globe ran their annual page of photographs of the year's valedictorians of Boston's 41 public high schools. As usual, it was an eye-opener.

Two-thirds of the top students are women.

Twenty-one are foreign born, including Haiti, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, China, and Uganda. Vietnam gave us four valedictorians. Albania also contributed four, which must qualify that little country as the smartest place on Earth.

As best I could judge by names and faces, there are nine East Asians, ten Blacks, and twelve Hispanics. There appears to be only one American-born white -- and this in Boston!

I don't know about you, but all of this makes me very proud to be an American, at a time when we have a lot not to be proud of. I look at these 41 faces smiling out from the page and the optimist in me sees a world of the future, where people of all races and places live together and strive for excellence.

What does this have to do with science? Nothing, really. But since science is the one human activity that is universal across cultures and ethnicities, companionable diversity and science can only prosper together.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Symphonie vegetal

posted by Chet at 6:05 AM UTC

The garden's in and the first shoots appear. And now begins the battle against the birds, the slugs, and the rabbits. It's a losing battle. I know it's lost before I begin. But I don't plant my seeds to feed myself, any more than I write these posts to make a living. I plant my seeds to watch the miracle of growth. Plant a radish, get a radish, never any doubt. Those tiny packages of DNA in the Burpee envelopes. Soil, sunshine, water and -- voila! -- twisty strings of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs sing their vegetable songs. Taking atoms from earth and air and humming them together into delicious melodies. Peas. Beans. Cukes. Onions.

I have a dear friend here, Rachel Holstead, whom I have know since she was born, and who is now a brilliant young composer whose works are performed in the finest concert halls of Ireland. She goes out into the world with microphone and recorder and collects sounds -- the wind in the trees, the waves on the shore, the creaking of an oar in an oarlock -- and stitches them together with instruments and voices into marvelous music. I've seen her scores. They are not unlike transcriptions of DNA. They are the instructions for building a symphony out of atoms of sound.

There is a difference. Rachel's work is the conscious creation of an artist. The DNA of the sugar-snap pea is the result of millions of years of trial and error. It would be as if Rachel started with a million random notes, had the composition performed hundreds of millions of times, making essentially random modifications to the score each time and observing the response of the audience. The changes that evoke favor are incorporated into the score. The changes that put the audience to sleep are discarded. Slowly, ever so slowly, the piece approaches a thunderous ovation.

I stand by my garden watching a performance four billion years in the making. I roar my approval.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The dark side of Leonardo

posted by Chet at 5:43 AM UTC

Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne all record in their journals a moment when the shrill whistle of the Fitchburg Railroad intruded upon the tranquility of Concord village. The track of that railroad passed very close to Walden Pond, and Thoreau especially took note of the way the smoke-belching locomotive disrupted his reveries.

Meanwhile, nearby, American entrepreneurs were building yet more railroads and canals, water mills, factories, and ingenious machines for weaving cloth and forging iron. Even as Thoreau hoed his bean field, the Industrial Revolution was under way, and by the end of the 19th century Americans had made themselves the internationally-acknowledged masters of machines.

The writers of Concord and the mill-masters of Lowell are two sides of the American character. Since our beginning as a nation, we have had a love/hate relationship with machines. We have unabashedly flung a web of machinery across the land (and into space), and at the same time we long nostalgically for a simple life in unspoiled nature.

Perhaps it is this ambivalence toward machines that lets us find so much to admire in the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci. His mechanical inventions were centuries ahead of his time. His drawings of flowers and cloudscapes are suffused with tranquility. In Leonardo's work, the lion of technology seems to lie down peaceably with the lamb of nature.

The Chester Beatty Library here in Ireland is now enjoying a Leonardo exhibit, the centerpiece of which is the Codex Leicester, on loan from Bill and Melinda Gates, seventy-two pages of drawings and notes showing the master at his polymath best, everything from hydraulics to astronomy. Here is the "Renaissance man" who seems to live in harmony with technology and nature.

But there is another Leonardo, a Leonardo who stands apart from the public image. For every graceful wildflower among his drawings there are sketches of violent storms, explosions, and turbulence. For every sweet-faced cherub there is a face distorted by anger or fear. For every madonna and child there are men and animals locked in mortal combat. And weapons of war! Spinning scythes surrounded by dismembered bodies, bombards raining fire, and shells exploding in star-bursts of shrapnel.

Leonardo's vision of nature and machines was not as harmonious as it sometimes seems. Yes, he bought caged birds in the shops so that he might set them free. And, yes, among his technical sketches are many machines designed to increase human well-being and alleviate drudgery. But he also saw a dark conflict between nature and technology that resisted resolution.

Leonardo wanted to learn from nature a more humane way of living, with machines as willing servants. But what he discovered in nature was not always pretty, and where his studies led him was not always a technological utopia. There is a grim and terrible underside to Leonardo's genius. His experience offers little hope of resolving our own love/hate affair with machines.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The summerhouse of peace

posted by Chet at 5:40 AM UTC

Just over the hill from here at the end of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, the Blasket Islands reach out toward America like stepping stones. Until the middle of the last century, a remarkable community of people lived on the Great Blasket, hardy, self-sufficient, and -- as evidenced by the body of literature in Irish that they gave us -- deeply spiritual, in a way that owed more to ancient Celtic tradition than to Christianity.

Here is Peig Sayers, in a typical passage from her book, An Old Woman's Reflections (1962):
I was up very early because I had a good lot of work to do. When I put my head to the door, it would be a good person the delight of that hour wouldn't lift the mist from his heart. The sea was smooth and slippery, and the dew heavy on the grass and this sun beating over the back of Eagle Mountain and red as a piece of old gold. If I had pen and ink then wouldn't I describe well the delight of that morning. Many a nice color I had to be seen with the rising of the sun -- the gulls on the beach, the lark above me singing his pure gentle song, and more, if I mention them.
Life on the island was not easy. A spell of bad weather might cut off the islanders from the mainland for weeks on end. Peig married into the Blasket, and made the best of it.
The golden mountains of Ireland are without mist before me. The sea is pouring itself against the rock and running up in dark ravines and caves where the seals live. We are not disturbed by the uproar and noise of the city. Here is a fine hedge around us and we are inside the Summerhouse of Peace.
The writer John O Riordain says that Celtic spirituality is characterized by a sense of the unity and harmony of the natural world -- sky, earth, the pounding sea, the phases of the moon, the changing seasons, the bird on the bush, sunrise and sunset -- woven into a timeless tradition that speaks continuously of the glory of the Creator. The Celts, by all accounts, had a hunger for wonder; they lived to be astonished. I suppose there is nothing particularly unique in that. We all have a need to be jolted out of the ordinary. For most of us in the developed world the required jolts become ever more artificial, ever more contrived. We need our natural catastrophes, our Anna Nicole Smiths and Paris Hiltons, our schoolroom massacres, our shock and awe. Reading Peig Sayers one has the sense of a person who has not lost the capacity to be astonished by the commonplace, who wakes each morning with a sense of gift, who stands in awe of a flower in a cut away bog. Peig's spirituality makes a sacrament of the ordinary; a sun as red as old gold can be (as the Church defines it) a visible sign of an invisible grace. She never loses sight of the miracle of the everyday. Her formal religion -- Catholic Christianity -- is rather an accident of where and when she was born. The religion that sustains her day by day on her wild, wet island is older and deeper than the formal trappings of any church.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Three years on the porch

posted by Chet at 5:41 AM UTC

With today's whimsical Musing I mark the third anniversary of the Science Musings website. If those who contribute here are typical of the much greater number of visitors who come and go without comment, then I am honored indeed to have so many thoughtful readers. Thank you.

It would appear we are a community of mostly like-minded people, who respect the scientific way of knowing, and exalt in the beauty and mystery of the world. We love questions more than answers, and distrust dogma wherever we find it, including, of course, in science. Our purpose is not to proselytize, but to celebrate. We don't agree on everything, but we disagree with respect and learn from our disagreements.

And we all thank my sister Anne for her weekly gifts of cyber beauty. You can click to enlarge.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


posted by Chet at 5:43 AM UTC

The new Creation Museum in Kentucky has made the news here in Ireland. The Irish Times gave a page to the story, complete with a sexy color pic of Adam and Eve having a chat, presumably about what's for dinner. And a handsome couple they are. Wasn't God a clever fellow to take his inspiration from the pages of People magazine (since past and future are available to him, no trouble with that).

Europeans don't quite know what to make of the fact that nearly half of Americans believe the world is 6000 years old. They wonder how a people who have for a century led the world in science and technology can imagine dinosaurs on the Ark. Well yes, it is difficult to explain, so generally I don't bother trying. To each his own, I say.

But let me make a riff today on the remark that closes the Irish Times article, a quote from a visitor to the Creation Museum, an evangelical pastor. "I'm just a simple person," he says, " but I could never believe we came from goo."

Me, I love the goo story. A few weeks ago, at the edge of a water meadow in New England, I was scooping up frog spawn in my hand. The gooiest of goo. And each little spheroid of goo will become a frog. I started out as goo myself: a gush of jism, a slimy egg. A speck of goo too small for the eye to see. A few weeks later, I looked liked a tadpole. Now I have four kids and six grandkids. The glory of goo!

I couldn't tell you how it all got started. Maybe it happened uniquely here on Earth 4 billion years ago. Maybe the first terrestrial goo came from somewhere else; it's a big, big universe out there. Maybe the universe is full of goo.

But no goo in the Garden. I know, because there was a color photograph in the Irish Times. Adam and Eve playing handsie. The lion laying down with the lamb. Ferns and palms. And dinosaurs. Cheerful prelapsarian dinosaurs. But no goo. No protoplasm. None of that great and glorious life force that the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin talked about on the first page of The Phenomenon of Man: "To push everything back into the past is equivalent to reducing it to its simplest elements. Traced as far as possible in the direction of their origins, the last fibers of the human aggregate are lost to view and are merged in our eyes with the very stuff of the universe." The stuff of the universe! But not just billiard-ball atoms bumping in the void. Rather, Teilhard's stuff is pregnant with emergent possibilities, ready to be carried along by the swelling river of evolution from the Alpha of creation to the Omega of cosmic completion. The primal goo!

Let the folks in Kentucky have their People magazine version of creation. I'll pray with Teilhard the scientist: "Shatter, my God, through the daring of your revelation the childishly timid outlook that can conceive of nothing greater or more vital in the world than the pitiable perfection of our human organism. On the road to a bolder comprehension of the universe the children of this world day by day outdistance the masters of Israel."

(And with this, we'll let creationism rest for a while.)

Friday, June 08, 2007

Takes a licking and keeps on ticking

posted by Chet at 6:32 AM UTC

Still coping with jet lag. Below is a diagram, with caption, of the mammalian circadian (circa-dian, almost daily) clock from a recent issue of Science. This is the protein-based chemical reaction in hypothalamic neurons and peripheral cells that ticks away in a 24-hour cycle. My clock is still keeping New England time even though I have translated my body across five time zones. One doesn't have to understand the science to appreciate the diagram and caption, I don't know which is more drop-jaw amazing -- the clock, or the fact that biologists have figured it out. (You can click to enlarge.)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

On faith and tenure

posted by Chet at 5:42 AM UTC

And then there is the unfortunate case of the astronomer at Iowa State University who claims he was denied tenure because of his belief in "intelligent design."

Guillermo Gonzalez has apparently published a number of well-received peer-reviewed research papers on planet systems near heavy-metal stars. He is also an evangelical Christian who has co-authored a book called The Privileged Planet that makes the argument for our purposeful placement in the cosmos. This latter fact, he claims, was crucial in the tenure decision.

Tenure review is a private process, and one would like to think that the denial of tenure to Gonzalez was based entirely upon the quality of his published research and teaching. What he does on Sunday or with his private writing is, to a first approximation, irrelevant.

According to a story in Science, Gonzalez believes that the Earth's place in the universe -- just so far from just such a star in just such a neighborhood of the Galaxy -- is perfectly contrived for life, and therefore evidence of an intelligent designer. But of course, the opposite conclusion is equally tenable: Life exists on Earth because it is just so far from just such a star, etc. Make no mistake: Until someone can show how intelligent design can be the basis of a program of empirical research, it is religion, not science, and a person's religion is his own business. If Gonzalez is teaching intelligent design in the classroom, or invoking design in his published papers, then that is another matter.

Anyone reading a scientific research paper should not have a clue about the religion of the author. I taught science for 40 years, and any student of mine would have been hard pressed to say at the end of a semester what were my religion or politics. That is why science is a reliable way of knowing, and why scientists are so concerned about keeping religion out of the public schools. Tenure review committees can rightfully consider whether a person's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) undermine the objectivity of her science, but beyond that religion should be kept out of it. I would like to think that a highly-qualified atheist scientist who keeps her disbelief out of the classroom would have no trouble getting tenure at my own Roman Catholic college. And vice versa for Iowa State.

You can be sure that advocates of intelligent design are using the Gonzalez case as evidence that science is a closed shop.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Science education in Baghdad

posted by Chet at 6:04 AM UTC

I have a friend, Dan K., who taught for two years at the Jesuit-run secondary school in Baghdad in the mid-1960. The country was then ruled by Colonel Abdul Salam Arif, one of a series of strong men who held power between the fall of the Hashemite monarchy and the rise of Saddam Hussein. This is the same school later taken over by the Baathists and attended (notoriously) by Saddam's sons.

Dan showed me two yearbooks from his time at the college, and, except for the names of the boys and some Arabic script, this could really have been "BC-on-the-Tigris," referring to the famous Jesuit-run Boston College High School in Boston. Handsome buildings set among luxurious palms. Classes of happy smiling boys, Sunnis and Shites, Muslims and Catholics. School buses rolling in from all over the city. Classes in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and geography, in addition to the liberal arts. Everybody getting happily along.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Starting at square one -- Part 2

posted by Chet at 6:02 AM UTC

Yesterday I took note of a review article in Science called "Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science," by Yale psychologists Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg. Bloom, by the way, is the author of the exceedingly interesting book Descartes Baby. (I will have more to say about this book in the future.)

In addition to the "naive physics" and "naive psychology" of children, the authors offer another reason for adult resistance to science: the authority that people ascribe to sources of information.

Certain invisible entities are believed in explicitly, in the absence of personal evidence, because they are "common knowledge." Examples are germs and electricity. There is no conflict of authority. Other things are believed on the perceived superior authority of parents, teachers, church leaders, scientists, etc. Examples include the origin of human beings, the existence of ghosts, or the effectiveness of an unorthodox medical treatment. When authorities come into conflict, it is only natural that people will conform with those who lives are more intimately connected with their own. For example, the factor that most overwhelmingly determines a person's religious beliefs is the accident of birth.

It is in this regard that an Institute of Creation Research and an International Journal of Creation Research are important. They attach a phony imprimatur of science to what is not at all scientific, buttressing the authority of parents, teachers or co-religionists.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Starting at square one -- Part 1

posted by Chet at 12:57 PM UTC

Two articles in the May 18, 2007 issue of Science.

One briefly notes the establishment of a new "peer-reviewed" International Journal for Creation Research by the Institute for Creation Research in California. The purpose of the journal is to offer scientific evidence for the literal Genesis story of the creation and Flood. The nearly half of Americans who accept young Earth creationism will now have one more reason to assume that such views are scientifically respectable.

A review article in the same issue summarizes research on why children and many adults often resist scientific accounts of the world.

For example, it has long been recognized by psychologists that infants have intuitive (innate?) ideas about the physical world, such as the ideas that objects are solid and persist even when hidden, that unsupported objects will fall, that objects will not move unless acted upon, and so on. These primary beliefs cause children (and adults) to resist or misunderstand some scientific ideas -- a spherical Earth or inertia, for example.

Likewise, children believe that everything has a purpose (clouds are "for raining"), that natural things are made artificially for a purpose, and that the mind is distinct and separate from the brain, all of which runs counter to what we have learned about the world in the past few thousand years.

The history of science has been a struggle away from the intuitive or innate notions of children. What psychologists call the "naive physics" and "naive psychology" of infants (and of our prescientific ancestors) go a long way toward explaining the attraction of so many adults to "creation science" and body/soul dualism.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Parsing nature

posted by Chet at 11:04 AM UTC

Carmen, if you are still out there, this Sunday's Musing was inspired by your comments. Thanks.

I'm off to Ireland today, for the summer. I don't know what I will find there for an internet connection. I will leave a few posts with Tom, and hope that within a day or two I'll be up and running.

Click to enlarge Anne's Mermaid.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Thinking and Seeing

posted by Chet at 10:22 AM UTC

Sitting in one of my quiet nooks in the college library I notice opposite me five shelves of thick red books. Curious, I look to see what they are. The collected works of the Victorian critic John Ruskin.

Now I must admit that what I've read of Ruskin, long ago, would fit in a quarter of just one of these volumes, little snatches of Modern Painters. It was in Modern Painters that I came across the following statement, which I wrote down in my journal and have quoted several times in my writing: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way."

With the help of Google, I track the quote to its lair, Volume V, page 333. Ruskin is musing on the painter J. M. W. Turner and the novelist Walter Scott. Among artists and writers Ruskin discerned two kinds: Thinkers and Seers. Of these, he deemed the latter the "greater race."

Our first instinct is to value thinkers more than those who simply see and describe. But I think I agree with Ruskin. Thinking is idle unless it is based on careful observation of what is. That's why science is a source of reliable knowledge. Behind every Kepler there's a Tycho Brahe. Behind every Maxwell there's a Faraday. Behind every Darwin there's a -- a Darwin.

I love ideas that are transparent, ideas that you can see through to the things behind. Metaphysics bores me. Theology is pie in the sky. Give me anytime the poet, the artist or the scientist who has grass stains on her knees, who has been there, kneeling in the grass, observing the world up close and dirty. Give me the poet, the artist or the scientist who knows how to see. Seeing clearly, said Ruskin, is poetry, prophecy and religion rolled into one.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The plank bridge

posted by Chet at 10:48 AM UTC

I go to Ireland soon, for the summer. While I'm away the "plank bridge" along my Path will be replaced with something sturdier -- or so I am told.

The bridge has been an important part of my life for 43 years, a place to watch and reflect. Readers of The Path will know that it is where I imbibed the Arcadian values of Frederick Law Olmsted -- the dream of a place somewhere between the the Urban and the Rural, between Technopolis and Wilderness, a natural place without tyrannies of government or religion.

When my kids were young they played Pooh-sticks on this bridge, dropping in sticks simultaneously upstream, then rushing across the bridge to the downstream side to see whose stick emerged first. A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh and the game of Pooh-sticks, was an Arcadian himself, a champion of the blended values of city and countryside, artifice and nature. Pooh and his friends live in just such a world, which no doubt accounts for the enduring popularity of the books.

My walk across England along the Prime Meridian took me within five miles of Cotchford Farm, where Milne wrote the Pooh books in the 1920s. Pooh-sticks Bridge is still there, on a public footpath, and it is a great sorrow to me that I somehow missed it on my walk. Not quite sure how I would have linked it to the discovery of cosmic space and time, but I'm sure I would have found a way. Ah, well, a reason to go back, maybe this time to walk the Weald Way, a long-distance footpath that passes even closer to Cotchford Farm than does the Prime Meridian.