Sunday, August 06, 2006

Walking the line

(The following is an interview I did several months ago for Powell's bookstore in Portland, for my new book.)

So what is Walking Zero all about?

--In the fall of 2003, I walked the prime meridian -- the line of zero longitude -- across southeastern England, visiting along the way such shrines of science as Darwin's home at Downe, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and Newton's college at Cambridge. In my book I use the walk as a hook for telling the story of how humans made their way from a universe scarcely larger and older than ourselves into the universe of the galaxies and geological eons.

Why the prime meridian?

--The meridian is the standard for all the world's maps and clocks, and it lies close to a surprising number of sites of scientific interest. But the real reason is this: For years, I taught an Earth Science course to liberal arts students, and one thing I did was take them on an imaginary walk across a geological map of southeastern England, observing the rocks "under our feet." They then had to figure out the geological history of the region. I did the walk so many times in my imagination, that I finally decided to do it in reality.

How long a walk is it?

--The meridian runs about 200 miles from the English Channel to the North Sea, the greater part of which I tramped. If those 200 miles represent the 13.7 billion-year history of the universe as we understand it today, then all of recorded human history would be spanned by a single step. The story I tell in Walking Zero, from the Alexandrian geographers and astronomers to the Hubble Space Telescope, would fit in a footprint. If those 200 miles represent the distance to the most distant objects we see with our telescopes, then a fleck of dust from my shoe is big enough to contain not only the solar system but many neighboring stars.

Surely you didn't walk exactly along the meridian? You'd be walking through people's flower gardens and bedrooms.

--No. But the English countryside is so laced with public footpaths that I never had to depart far from the line, and seldom had to put my foot on asphalt.

You began at the English Channel?

--In the village of Peacehaven, near Brighton, where a monument marks the prime. Up over the chalky South Downs to the town of Lewes where -- blessing! -- a fine English pub stands exactly on the line, the Meridian Pub. A day later, in the village of Piltdown, I stopped for another pint at the Piltdown Man pub. Piltdown Man was the infamous "missing link" fossil, a purported man-chimp. The place where the fraudulent fossil was found is near to the line.

Sounds like your book might be subtitled "A Pub Crawl Through Cosmic Space and Time."

Oh, it gets better. As the meridian goes north from Greenwich it follows the course of the River Lee, which in the 19th century was made navigable by the addition of locks. At each lock was a pub where boatmen took their pleasure while waiting their turn through the lock. The ye olde pubs are still there. A charming walk, indeed.

Tell us about your own journey into cosmic space and time.

--Like all of us, I was born at the center of a world -- the child of white, Roman Catholic parents in Tennessee, USA. My race was the most favored, my religion was the truest, my country the greatest, my region the fairest. I now count myself today part of a universe that contains more stars than there are cells in my body -- a typical creature on a typical planet near a typical star in a typical corner of a typical galaxy.

Sounds deflating.

--Not at all. We carry the universe of cosmic space and time in our heads, which makes us pretty significant. In the book I honor the brave men and women who had the spunk to buck reigning orthodoxies to take us out of the self-centered worlds into which we are born: Aristarchus, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Mary Anning, Charles Darwin, and many others. They blazed the way.

What helped you make the personal journey into cosmic space and time?

--My father was an intensely curious man, and he shared his curiosity with his children. My mother belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club, and every month when I was young another terrific book came into our house. My parents sparked in me a willingness to look beyond the given.

Any special book of your own?

--The first book I have a memory of was a picture-book of Christopher Columbus. To this day I remember the illustration of Columbus standing before Queen Isabella with an apple in his hand, explaining that the world was round and that he could reach the East by sailing west. Not historically accurate -- the monarch needed no convincing of the sphericity of the Earth -- but it made a suitable impression on me.


--I had a couple of wonderful teachers in high school, Dominican nuns, who recognized my curiosity and nurtured it, a math/science teacher and an English teacher. They nudged me out of the tight orbit of my birth.

So Walking Zero is really three journeys -- on foot along the prime meridian, humankind's journey into cosmic space and time, and your personal journey into the universe of the galaxies.

--That's right. My own intellectual journey is interesting only in that it is a journey each of us can make if we choose to do so. The path has been blazed by the courageous men and women whose stories I tell. But, of course, many of us choose not to make the journey, to remain all our lives in the comfortable, cozy world of our birth, a world centered upon ourselves.

What inspires you to sit down and write?

--I am retired from teaching now, so I have more time to write. I still walk to college each day, where I have an office near the library. My morning walk through woods and meadows never fails to inspire.

We notice you have a blog --

--For 20 years I wrote a weekly column for the Boston Globe, called Science Musings. When that came to an end my son suggested taking it on line, which I did; the idea was that it might sell a few books. The weekly essay I post every Sunday is complemented by daily ruminations. The site gives structure and discipline to my writerly life.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?

--Walk. I'd like my MacBook to follow me around like a puppy, always ready to play.

Describe the best science museum you've ever visited and what made it great.

--During the academic year 1968-69 I lived in London directly across the street from the Natural History Museum complex in South Kensington. I loved those museums. I knew every nook and corner. The collections make more than one appearance in Walking Zero.

Did you have family with you then?

--We had three young children at the time. On Saturday mornings we all went to the Natural History Museum, where for the deposit of a big brown English penny the kids received a canvas stool, a clipboard, drawing paper and colored pencils. Off they scampered among the stuffed beasts and dinosaur bones. My daughter, a geologist, is now featured in a video exhibit in the geological section of the museum.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of science and technological advancement?

--Well, at age 70, that does not allow a lot of time. I am clearly not going to "live long enough to live forever," to borrow Ray Kurzweil's phrase. I would like to live long enough to see all of us become citizens of cosmic space and time, and stop killing one another because we belong to different religions, ethnicities, or political persuasions. That's the bright hope of Walking Zero. Science is a way of knowing that makes no reference to religion, nationality, ethnicity, race, or gender. Read any paper in any scientific journal and you will know nothing of the particularities or prejudices of the authors' births. The scientific way of knowing has walked us into the universe of the galaxies and the geologic eons. In such a universe, the things that divide us seem petty indeed.

What comes next for you?

--Well, after three books based on walks I think I'll ponder a book set in a hammock on a tropic beach, with my MacBook puppy curled in my lap.

Further Reading

A click here will bring Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian winging to your door.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.