Friday, July 31, 2009

A vanishing world

posted by Chet at 5:53 AM UTC

A dead hedgehog in the lane in front of the house, Erinaceus europaeus. A bit of a surprise. Haven't seen a hedgehog hereabouts for twenty years. Thirty years ago they were common. Readers of Honey From Stone may recall my midnight encounter with a hedgehog on the high road from Dingle:
It comes scuttling out of the ditch, a small, tottering shadow, and stops dead just at my feet...I snap on my flashlight and get down upon my knees. The hedgehog, sensing my attention, curls up into a ball. It is the size of my closed fist, more like a sea urchin than a mammal. I examine it it in my light...using my flashlight as a prod. It rolls onto its spines, as ridge as a cradle, the moist snout snugly pressed against the fleshy belly. The soft pads of the paws are as bright as opals. The hedgehogs eyes are closed...I know that if the eyes open they well be overbrimming with terror, spilling over with an inarticulate prayer...The hedgehog lives all its life in a crown of thorns.
So where did they go? The hedgehog's natural predators are the badger and the fox. We still see a very occasional fox, but the badgers are gone. I suspect the automobile is now the hedgehog's chief enemy; the number of cars in West Kerry has increased by a hundredfold in the past twenty years. A more likely cause of the hedgehog's decline is the scarity of its own prey -- insects, slugs, earthworms, snails. The hedgehogs began disappearing at about the time local farmers turned to monoculture, grubbing out hedgerows, leaving no fields fallow, soaking the ground with nitrates. The wild food chain collapsed from the bottom up.

We caught the former way of life just at the end. Thirty years ago, our lane was a dirt track, with a rare automobile. Farmers rotated crops and animals from field to field, and harvested hay with a scythe and pike, fueled with a flask of hot tea in the shade of a hedgerow. We listened for the sound of the corncrake and the cuckoo. Stoats darted from ditch to ditch and badgers scared us out of our wits when they suddenly appeared in the dark bothareen as we trudged up the hill from the pub at night. The road and the garden teemed with slugs and snails. Foxes were sometimes bold enough to stare in the window. And hedgehogs, shuffling and snuffing in the midnight lanes. Gone now, mostly gone. Which is why that poor smushed creature in the road gave a sort of melancholy joy.

(The hedgehog linocut is by my friend Bob O'Cathail.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Blackberry summer

posted by Chet at 5:48 AM UTC

Strange summer this. The rest of Ireland complaining about the rain, but here on the end of the Dingle Peninsula, jutting out into the wet, gray Atlantic, we have had more than our share of sunshine. Heaps of clouds drift benignly in from the sea, holding their watery burden for the folks to the east. Still, I don't go for my walk without my fannypack raingear. Sunglasses, yes; anorak too.

And, sure enough, out of nowhere, a sprinkle.

When it happens, I find myself singing:
Asperges me. Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.
Which translates:
Sprinkle me. Sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop and I shall be clean
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Funny how I remember the words -- from the 51st Psalm -- across more than half a century. (OK, I looked them up just now to get the spelling and translation right.) Sixty-something years ago, I piously shuffled along at the side of the priest, in my black cassock and white surplice, holding the shiny brass pot of holy water, while the priest dipped his sprinkler device -- what was it called? -- and anointed the congregants with a gentle rain while we all sang the psalm. At the time, I wouldn't have had a clue what the Latin words meant, except for the "sprinkle," or where they came from, or what hyssop was anyway. Didn't matter. It was a lovely ritual. Loved it then, love it now, along with all the rest of that elemental Catholicism -- the earth, air, fire and water, the bread and wine, the chrism and incense and wax and silky fabrics, the colors that changed with the season, the bells, the chant. Great stuff, that. I miss it, the whole earthy is-ness of it. If only it didn't come packaged with pre-scientific superstition and anthropomorphic theology, not to mention a truckload of triumphalism, paternalism, misogyny, and homophobia.

So I walk bothareens of Ireland, the ditches burgeoning with fuchsia and montbretia and meadowsweet and loosestrife, the sky heaped with clouds in a hundred shades of blue and white, the sea a silver paten, and out of nowhere the raindrops fall on my head. Sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The fire in the head

posted by Chet at 6:00 AM UTC

You read it in Honey From Stone, and again in Climbing Brandon. I believe I may have quoted it here some years ago. It is commonly called The Song of Amergin, and it is reputed to be the first poem composed in Ireland, by one of the "Milesian princes" who colonized the island several hundred years before the birth of Christ.
I am the wind on the sea.
I am the ocean wave.
I am the sound of the billows.
I am the seven-horned stag.
I am the hawk on the cliff.
I am the dewdrop in sunlight.
I am the fairest of flowers.
I am the raging boar.
I am the salmon in the deep pool.
I am the lake on the plain.
I am the meaning of the poem.
I am the point of the spear.
I am the god that makes fire in the head.
Who levels the mountain?
Who speaks the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?
All is conjecture, of course. The origins of the poem are lost in the mists of time. We must assume it is a divinity speaking, announcing himself as immanent in the creation -- flower and spear, dewdrop and raging bull. He raises and lowers the mountains, feeds the mighty rivers from a thousand trickling springs, beats the waves upon the shore.

I use the pronouns "himself" and "he," but the voice of the poem has no gender. "I am who am." Even "I" and "am" must be taken as metaphorical placeholders for a mystery that has no name.

I look out my window. Montbretia and bramble rose. Willow and rowan. Green fields and hedgerows thick with birdsong and fuchsia. The harbor glistening in the sun and out there in the Atlantic a mist of rain. I am the god that makes fire in the head. The never-ceasing amazement, the longing and uncertainty, the badgering whispers that come in the dark of the night. Terror and beauty. Despair and hope. Loneliness and love.

I am the meaning of the poem. Wave, billow, hawk stag. Dewdrop, flower, salmon, boar. And we, unique among all the creatures of this planet -- burning, burning in our wonderment.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Desecration or beauty?

posted by Chet at 5:43 AM UTC

A few weeks ago I was walking with my friend Maurice in the mountains of West Cork. As we dropped down along a ridge we were stopped in our tracks by what we saw in the remote valley before us. A rough road had been gouged along the valley wall, and strung out along the road were a half-dozen gigantic wind turbines, catching the Atlantic wind as it funneled up the valley.

It took me a while to sort out my feelings. Well, no, actually I never quite sorted them out. On the one hand, I was dismayed to see this wild place desecrated by technology. On the other, there was something majestic about the turbines, tall and graceful as they turned slowly in the wind, producing clean electricity.

Wind farms are springing up all over the west of Ireland, and the east too for all I know. Hilltops are covered with the sleek silver turbines. Whenever I see them, I am conflicted. Desecration or beauty?

Some places must be preserved, of course. One would not want to see wind farms in Yosemite Valley, on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or along the Cliffs of Moher. Or in the magical valley of Gouganebarra on the other side of the ridge we were walking. But it is also true that those places will only be preserved by human design. The entire face of the planet will inevitably be -- if it is not already -- a human artifact

We might want to agree with Henry David Thoreau, that "In wildness is the preservation of the world," but it is really the other way around. In civilization is the preservation of the wild. In civilization too is the hope or doom of the planet. Out great-grandchildren will live to see the face of the Earth turned into a giant machine for extracting energy from wind, wave and sun -- hilltops covered with turbines, deserts carpeted with photovoltaics and mirrors, seas afloat with generators powered by wave or tide.

"We have built a greenhouse, a human creation, where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden," lamented conservationist Bill McKibben in The End of Nature. A greenhouse may not be a bad thing if its built with self-restraint and an eye for beauty. The decisions to be made are social and political, pitching a civilized conservation ethic against wild self-interest, scientific ecology versus consumerist greed, hope versus handwringing. We may need a new aesthetic, too -- an aesthetic that sees beauty in windmills turning majestically in a formerly wild valley.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tough luck

posted by Chet at 5:50 AM UTC

You're a crab. An ordinary crab, going about your business, frolicking in the surf, causing no one any harm except what little scuzzy creatures you hoover up to round out your diet. We all eat someone else. Down the hatch. It's over in a flash.

By chance, purely by chance, a female larva of a certain species of barnacle lands on your back and attaches herself. Unlucky for you, she has found a soft spot in your armor. She stabs through with a hollow needle that is part of her anatomy. Discarding unnecessary bits and pieces of her body, she injects her internal cell mass, hypolike, and, having accomplished her purpose, the rest of her body falls away. The injected cells -- her essential self -- find their way to your abdomen and grow a web of tendrils that soon invade every part of your own anatomy, like a fungus that feeds on rotting wood, except that you are very much alive. You are now eating for two, yourself and your uninvited guest.

But this was a female barnacle, remember, who in her new incarnation lives inside. She needs a mate. She opens a hole to the outside world and waits for a male larva of the same species to happen by. He enters, then seals the hole to keep out other males. (How preciously we hoard our paternity.) In the trysting bower of your body he fertilizes his mate's eggs, or rather he is absorbed by his mate, and she, using him, does the fertilizing herself. She disgorges thousands of larvae, male and female.

You are doomed. Your good old days are finished. No more molting, no more sex, no more crabby fun. From now on everything you do is devoted to the jostling crowd of barnacles that teem inside. Even your own reproductive apparatus has been hijacked. Now, when you should be releasing your own progeny into the sea, it is barnacle larvae that you expel and send on their way.

I know, I know. It isn't fair. A barnacle, for heaven's sake! A barnacle that doesn't even look like a barnacle. Or behave like a barnacle. Selfish genes for whom a nice crustacean like you is just an opportunity. You never had a chance.

It is a stretch to imagine how all of this might have evolved by natural selection. If ever there was an argument for Design, this might be it. But before you jump to that conclusion, dear little crab, you might ask yourself why a Loving Designer so cruelly excluded you from his benevolence.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Description is revelation, attention is prayer

posted by Chet at 6:05 AM UTC


Stand at the mountain pass between Dunquin and Ventry on the Dingle Peninsula in the west of Ireland and you can see essentially what young Maurice O'Sullivan saw nearly a century ago when he came to the mainland from the Blasket Island, and described in the Irish folk classic Twenty Years A-Growing:
We had a brilliant view before our eyes, southwards over the parish of Ventry and the parish of Maurhan and north to the parish of Kill, green fields covered in flowers on either side of us, a lonely house here and there away at the foot of the mountain, Ventry harbour to the southeast, lying still, three or four sailing-boats at anchor, and a curragh or two creeping like beetles across the water, the mountains beyond nodding their heads one above the other.
It is extraordinary that this view -- including the curraghs, traditional fishing boats -- has survived pretty much unchanged. And there it is, outside my window, the beetle boats, the nodding peaks.

There is a line in a poem of Seamus Heaney that quotes the writer Michael McLaverty: "Description is revelation." Young Maurice O'Sullivan stood in the mountain pass and described what he saw; he had all the revelation he needed. No voice from a burning bush or sacred scripture could have offered him more to sustain a life than that view from the mountain pass of the broad green expanse of Ireland.

Twenty Years A-Growing has remained in print all these years as an Oxford Classic not because O'Sullivan was a great literary man in the tradition of a James Joyce or Seamus Heaney, but because of the purity of his description. The 19th-century critic John Ruskin said: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way."

(Click to enlarge Anne's pic.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Updike 1932-2009

posted by Chet at 6:11 AM UTC

"Ancient religion and modern science agree: We are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention."

I am quoting John Updike, who probably understood science better than any other major literary figure. He had an oarsman's grip on religion, too. Add women -- their unaging beauty, their desirability -- and you have the Holy Trinity of his work.

I don't believe I took note here of Updike's passing earlier this year, at age 77. I should have. We were near enough contemporaries. We shared foibles, frailties and preoccupations. Our geographic trajectories were not dissimilar. I could not, of course, hope to equal his huge talent, but I followed along behind as he bounded rabbity ahead.

I have just read his posthumous collection of stories, My Father's Tears. The names change, as usual, but the protagonists are the same, that is to say, some transmogrification of Updike himself. And, as usual, in these final stories science, religion and women figure strongly, but now shadowed by the encroachments of old age and death.
Why should it bother Martin Fairchild? In his long, literate lifetime he had read of many revisions of cosmic theory. Edwin Hubble's discovery of a pervasive galactic red shift and therefore universal expansion had occurred a few years before he was born; by the time of his young manhood, the theory of the Big Bang, with its overtones of Christian Creation by fiat -- "Let there be light" -- had prevailed over the rather more Buddhist steady-state theory claiming that space itself produced, out of nothingness, one hydrogen atom at a time...Ever stronger telescopes, including one suspended in space and named after Hubble, revealed a swarm of fuzzy ovals, each a Milky Way. Such revelations -- stupefying for those who tried truly to conceive of the distances and time spans, the titanic amounts of brute matter accumulating, exploding, and dispersing throughout a not quite infinite vacancy seething with virtual particles -- had held for Fairchild the far-fetched hope of a last turn: a culminating piece in the great skyey puzzle would vindicate Mankind's sensation of central importance and disclose an attentive mercy lurking behind the heavenly arrangements.
Alas, Fairchild's far-fetched hope is not to be. As he drifts toward the end of life, astronomers discover that the universe of the galaxies -- under the influence of a dark energy -- is apparently drifting towards an infinite dispersal, a cold, dark nothingness. In the face of this colossal cosmic erasure -- and, metaphorically, a crashing collapse of his own past that I will leave to the reader -- Fairchild experiences a split second of redeeming mercy from somewhere deep within himself. It is all typical Updike: the science, the religion, the addled protagonist stumbling through a life that is complicated beyond his understanding, always wanting to have his cake and eat it too, hoping for an Attentive Mercy, settling instead, reluctantly, inevitably, for a sprinkling of tender happenstance.

Giving praise. Paying attention. Updike did that in spades. I can't remember where, but in some much earlier work, perhaps the same essay from which I gleaned the initial quote, he said this: "What we certainly have is our instinctual intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our delight and wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Into the dark

posted by Chet at 5:24 AM UTC


My eclipse map of two days ago shows the next total solar eclipse, of July 11, 2010, wasting itself over the Pacific Ocean, with only a final stab at the mainland of South America. Tom points out to me that the path of totality crosses Easter Island (or Rapa Nui), one of the most remote and mysterious places on Earth. "How's that for a nice place to watch an eclipse," he e-mails. Do I detect a hankering to make the journey? It would not be his first total solar eclipse; he caught the 1999 event through a hole in the clouds in Europe.

If he wants to go to Easter Island, he will need a lot of money and resilience. Getting there even in the age of air travel will be a challenge. Which raises the familiar question: How did the original settlers get there? They presumably came by boat from inhabited islands to the west, but the nearest would have been at least 2000 kilometers away. Did they just set out into the unknown in the hope that sooner or later they'd find another island? What sort of boat would have carried enough people, animals (chickens) and plants to found a self-sustaining colony? And once they were there, was there any attempt to maintain contact with the people they left behind?

All the rest is mystery too -- the hundreds of giant statues, the ecological collapse to which Jared Diamond has given attention, the internecine warfare among the islanders, the cult of ancestor worship, the strange undeciphered written language (if that's what it is). What we do know a lot about is what happened once Europeans and Chileans of European descent appeared on the scene -- the same old story of guns, germs and steel that has also been recorded by Jared Diamond. Many of the islanders were shipped off as slaves; others died of smallpox. Apparently, the first Christian missionary to arrive on Easter Island, in mid-19th century, brought along tuberculosis, which killed off a quarter of the already decimated native population.

I agree with Tom that it would be a fun place to visit, and especially to stand with those great goggle-eyed Polynesian gods gazing up at that black hole in the sky. I suppose the Rapanui people who still live there would welcome our infusion of Yankee dollars.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Birds do it, bees do it...

posted by Chet at 5:40 AM UTC

...even educated fleas do it.

What do they do? They cheat on their mates.

Presidents do it, preachers do it, even -- oh dear! -- teachers do it.

Democrats do it. Republicans pompously preach against it, but they do it too.

All those philandering politicians in the American news lately may be following a script written in their DNA. Natural selection, it would seem, favors the male who spreads his genes by fathering as many progeny as possible, and favors the female who picks the best possible genes for her offspring. Advantages can accrue to both males and females who cheat on a mate. In the animal kingdom, fidelity is the exception rather than the rule. Only about ten percent of apparently monogamous birds and mammals are faithful to their partners. Even among those traditional paragons of marital virtue, the bluebirds, females sometimes slip away for a brief fling.

Among our closest animal kin, the primates, infidelity is the rule. Males tend to look for liaisons with lots of young, nubile partners. Females are generally less promiscuous, but when they do have affairs they go for partners with power, access to resources, or prestige. Only females already paired with powerful males tend to be faithful.

All of which sounds terribly familiar.

If natural selection favors adultery, and if it is the nature of human males (and sometimes females) to cheat, then where did our monogamous ideal come from? This is one of those questions that evolutionary biologists love to answer. Most make a case for a maximum selective advantage for those individuals who combine a stable partnership with a little something on the side. Such individuals get the best of both worlds -- genetically speaking.

I like to think our ideal of monogamous fidelity springs not from our genes but from the same cultural tendencies as the Sermon on the Mount and Jeffersonian democracy: The notion that in the best society, everyone -- not just the most powerful males and most nubile females -- have equal access to life, liberty and a warm body in bed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Painting the map blue

posted by Chet at 5:16 AM UTC


Today, the 22nd of July, is eclipse day. Or is it? Depends on where you are. In New England, mid-eclipse (visible over the western Pacific Ocean) occurred at 10:34 PM EDT on the 21st. Here in Ireland, it happened in the wee morning hours of the 22nd. The eclipse began in India on the 22nd, local time, and ended about four hours later in mid-Pacific on the 21st. Got that?

If you were watching the eclipse from the Moon, you'd have seen a dark spot about 150 miles wide sweep across the sunlit face of the Earth, including in its path four of China's ten largest cities. You can see the path on the map above, showing in blue the paths of totality 2001-2020 (click to enlarge). During this period, Argentina is apparently the place to be, although two of their three eclipses will be near horizon events. Europe is out of luck; it will not have a total solar eclipse until 2027, and then only Gibraltar will be touched (the rock may sink under the weight of the people who pile in). The United States will be graced from west to east in 2017. I caught the 2006 eclipse in Turkey, under cloudless skies. Here is grandson Dan with partial eclipses on his chest (click to see crescents); as we waited for totality, I pricked his name in pinholes in a piece of paper. I wonder will he ever see another?

Notice how unlikely it is that a total solar eclipse will come to you. If you sit tight, the longest you will have to wait is 4,500 years. That is to say, every 4,500 years the dot of the Moon's shadow paints the entire map blue!


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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Stumped

posted by Chet at 5:52 AM UTC

There was a bit of a flap in the Irish press last week when an image of the Virgin Mary showed up on a tree stump in Rathkeale, County Limerick. It seems workmen removed some aging trees in the parish churchyard, and someone noticed that one of the stumps bore a vague likeness to the mother of Jesus -- as if anyone knows what the mother of Jesus looked like. Soon people were flocking from miles around to hold vigils and pray, this in spite of the protests of the parish priest who insisted "Catholics don't worship tree stumps," or something to that effect. He was ignored.

One would think this sort of thing would be on the wane in post-Ryan-Report Ireland. Some commentators blamed the tanking economy for a resurgence of superstition.

Oh well, nothing new here. People have a tendency to see religious images in grilled cheese sandwiches, water-stained walls, and cosmic nebulae. In fact, any old accidental likeness that bears a resemblance to a human face will attract attention. Face recognition undoubtedly evolved early in the game. In a dog-eat-dog world, telling friend from foe would be a crucial skill.

The American artist Matthew Day Jackson currently has an exhibit in Dublin's Douglas Hyde Gallery that "uses icons from pop culture and from nature to explore our quest for the miraculous, in particular our tendency to see faces in the most improbable places." (I quote a review by Gerry McCarthy in the Sunday Times.) Jackson suggests that we are creatures in search of meaning and are quick to mistake coincidence for purpose.

Seeing the Virgin Mary in a tree stump is only a somewhat sillier version of projecting a human face onto the gods. Zeus had a gray beard, and so did Michaelangelo's Christian God. Most believers these days properly scorn the notion of God as a wise old man, but they still project. "Person," "love," "graciousness" and "justice" are no less human qualities than eyes, nose, ears and a gray beard.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Gloom and glory

posted by Chet at 5:29 AM UTC

Mount Eagle rises a mile or two away just outside my window. It is not the highest mountain hereabouts, but its location gives it a particular grandeur -- the westernmost mountain of Europe, at the very end of the Dingle Peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water. From its summit on a clear day the eye goes tripping out across the Blasket Islands into the wide Atlantic.

And Thursday was a clear day, spectacularly clear for this part of the world. So off we went, friend Philip and I, up the long turf track to the summit, then down along the ridge toward Slea Head. The sun was warm. There was a spring in our step that exalted in the grand panorama of earth, air, fire and water.

Literary critic Marjorie Hope Nicholson has shown how mountains were long shunned by Europeans as "tumors," "wens," and "blisters" on the landscape, wretched disfigurements of nature that marred the beauty of the Earth. The idea that one might go to the mountains for pleasure was simply not entertained. Some medieval writers even suggested that mountains were not part of the original creation, but were a consequence of the Original Sin, or of Cain's transgression, or (since mountains are not mentioned in the Bible before the story of Noah) part of God's plan to punish the Earth by flood.

Then, according to Nicholson, within a few generations near the end of the 18th century, "mountain gloom" gave way to "mountain glory." Poets and philosophers began celebrating high peaks as places of grandeur. Climbers attempted summits in search of the esthetic sublime. No longer feared, mountains now inspired reverence and exhilaration. Danger, yes, but reward too. Summiting a high peak evoked feelings of pride and satisfaction. Mountaineering was born as a sport and pastime. Wordsworth walked the high ridges of the Lake District "awed, delighted, and amazed," and Byron referred to the Alps as "palaces of Nature" -- gathered round their icy summits he discerned "all that expands the spirit, yet appalls."

What happened, of course, was the Enlightenment, with its affirmation of the efficacy of human reason, and the beginning of geology as a science. A new way of experiential knowing replaced scriptures and tradition as sources of truth. The mountains didn't change; what occurred was a shift of focus from the supernatural to the natural, from ignorant fear to insatiable curiosity, from a world ruled by divine whim to a world that might be understood by the human mind. Now the mountains drew pilgrims for the same reason Mount Eagle so often draws us to its summit --exhilaration in the is-ness of creation.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The case for God -- Part 4

posted by Chet at 6:05 AM UTC

Karen Armstrong may not make a case for God, but she makes a pretty good case for agnosticism. Again and again she takes moderns to task for "belief." She urges instead "unknowing," an awareness of the limitations of knowing that just happens to be embraced by many contemporary scientists, theologians and philosophers, including, of course, herself.

"Real" religion is not belief, says Armstrong, but a deep-felt response to what we do not know. Attention and interpretation, rather than creed and dogma. Whatever we say God is, he is not that. He is less and he is more.

So why use the G-word at all? Why drag into the future a name that is almost irretrievably burdened with millennia of objectification (notice how I said "He is less and he is more."). The New Atheists say, simply, "Don't!" In their view, the very word "God" is an anchor that holds us in the past, or a great stone that we, like Sisyphus, must forever push up a hill into the future. For Armstrong, on the other hand, the word is like a scared scripture which defines itself by constant reinterpretation. She might agree with the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis:
We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence. But we have named it God because only this name, for primordial reasons, can stir the heart profoundly. And this deeply felt emotion is indispensable if we are to touch, body with body, the dread essence beyond logic.
I have quoted this passage from Kazantzakis's Spiritual Exercises in blog and books. It seems to aptly express the deus absconditus of the mystics, the thing seen through a glass darkly, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the numinous flame that burns in every atom, every flower, every grain of sand, every star. But lately I have begun to wonder if "God" is precisely the wrong word for the "dread essence beyond logic," at least at this point in our cultural evolution. In spite of the case Armstrong makes for a God of Unknowing, the word almost inevitably evokes our Baal, our idol -- a divine Person seen in a mirror brightly.

I will leave it to others more qualified than me to sort out the biological and cultural origins of religion. A sense of the sacred seems to be part of our biological heritage. I suspect that the Ultimate X will defy our comprehension for a while longer, maybe forever. In the meantime, in my most attentive moments, I hear Kazantzakis speak as if to me alone: "We are one. From the blind worm in the depths of the ocean to the endless arena of the Galaxy, only one person struggles and is imperiled: You. And within your small and earthen breast only one thing struggles and is imperiled: the Universe."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The case for God -- Part 3

posted by Chet at 6:05 AM UTC

The title of Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God" should more accurately be "The Case for Religion"; her God recedes into a cloud of unknowing, where of course it belongs. I would guess that the title was chosen by author or publisher to capitalize on the popularity of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, although Dawkins occupies only a few pages of Armstrong's book. The subtitle too is unfortunate; "What Religion Really Means" suggests a degree of dogmatic certainty that one doesn't find in the book. The book itself is exemplary -- a history of religious thought that is humane, generous, and congenial to religious naturalism.

The religious naturalist puts more stock in science than does Armstrong, not as Truth, but as reliable truth, tentative and evolving. Yes, science is based on an act of faith -- that an objective material reality exists outside of the mind that can be at least partially known. The "proof" of the pudding is in the eating: the astonishing practical success of the scientific way of knowing. For the religious naturalist, scientific knowledge of the world is the most reliable platform on which to build a life.

But science cannot tell us what sort of life to build. Logos alone cannot give meaning to a life. For that, as Armstrong suggests, we need a mythos, a program of action, a way of acting out our relationship to what we do not understand. Humans by nature seem compelled to ask questions that science cannot answer: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the source of the Mystery I intuitively feel in interaction with the world? This, in Armstrong's account, is the "real meaning" of religion.

It is no accident that religious feeling has given us some of the greatest art -- literature, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance -- that the world has known. Art is to mythos what science is to logos. The two are not opposed, as Armstrong sometimes seems to suggest, but complementary. In science we built a solid platform to approach the Mystery, ever higher, ever closer; in art we leap into the unknown.

The problem arises when a scientific logos or religious mythos is accorded an objectivity that it does not and cannot have. Few scientists any longer think of scientific knowledge as absolute, although Dawkins and company sometimes drift dangerously in that direction. Religious people all too often objectify what by definition is beyond objectification. It is this latter tendency that both Dawkins and Armstrong resist, in their very different ways.

(A few last thoughts tomorrow.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

The case for God -- Part 2

posted by Chet at 6:07 AM UTC

In their blanket condemnation of religion, the New Atheists -- Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al. -- set up a straw God and then knock him down, suggests Armstrong. But the God of "real" religion is not the God of the fundamentalists, nor the divinity of the modern Deists, nor any other God that can be known by reason or revelation, she says, and certainly not a God who encourages crusade, jihad, pogrom or inquisition. Rather, the gist of Armstrong's history of religion is to acknowledge another tradition, an apophatic tradition, ancient and universal, that asserts God's unknowability.

Not a via positiva, but a via negativa -- God is not this, and he is not that. Armstrong characterizes the tradition as mythos vs.logos, feeling vs. belief, practice vs. discourse, love vs. doctrine. Unfortunately, her history of religion gives only nodding mention to the long record of violence, imposed orthodoxies, inquisitions, and intolerances that have so often drowned out whatever voices were raised on behalf of God's unknowability.

The apophatic tradition was popular in premodern times, says Armstrong, but in the 17th century, under the influence of science, it began to give way to more literal notions of God as a knowable supreme being. It is this latter God, she says, that the New Atheists disparage -- missing, she avers, "what religion really means."

What Armstrong does not do is show that the apophatic tradition was ever a majority view, or even a popular one. In fact, many of the people she quotes in evidence were condemned as heretics or sidelined as dissenters. So rather than successfully rebut the New Atheists, Armstrong introduces a straw tradition of her own. Yes, the apophatic tradition exists, and, yes, it has often been evoked favorably in the posts and comments of this blog, but I am not convinced it has ever been more than a minority position.

In fact, I would suggest that the apophatic tradition, in its modern guise of scientific agnosticism, is more widely accepted today than at any time in the past, and certainly religious intolerance is least prevalent today in those places most affected by the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. If the apophatic tradition expresses, as Armstrong insists, the "real" meaning of religion, then she should applaud the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment for creating a spirit of institutionalized doubt, universal education and individual freedom in which her "real" religion can prosper.

Armstrong's book does not so much refute the New Atheists as describe a meaningful alternative to the literalist creeds they discredit. In this, she makes a valuable and thoughtful contribution to the current debate.

(More to come.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The case for God -- part 1

posted by Chet at 5:42 AM UTC

I have now read Karen Armstrong's The Case for God: What Religion Really Means, her response to the so-called New Atheists, and, with your indulgence, will spend a few days commenting. I have already made a few remarks based on a review of the book.

As always, Armstrong's scholarship is impressive. One stands in awe of the range of materials which she has at her command. Her book is about as comprehensive a summary of the history of religious inquiry as you are likely to find. And -- she is on the side of the angels (religious naturalists will not find much to object to). What she offers may not be "what religion really means," but is it certainly what religion could mean, if only we all listened to our better selves.

But let me take gentle issue with a few things that apply to her critique of the New Atheists, which, by the way, explicitly occupies only a few late pages of the book.

First, I would question her many claims to read the minds of ancient peoples, all the way back to the artists of Lascaux. Her account is full of phrases like "most people did not realize...", "this was not the intention of...", "they were less interested in...", "they would have expected...", "if you had asked them...", and so on, all of which, it seems to me, goes beyond the textual evidence she quotes, especially since she make these claims on the part of whole peoples rather than just the authors of the texts. In every case, her suppositions of what people believed or felt are meant to support the general thesis of her book, namely, that pre-moderns understood religious stories symbolically or metaphorically, whereas post-17th-century moderns tend to take things literally.

It seems rather more likely to me that the vast majority of peoples at all times, and especially in the pre-modern era, were and are religious literalists. I know of no evidence, nor does Armstrong present any, that the great majority of pre-modern people did not take their stories of gods, angels, devils, creation, prophets, special revelations, etc. objectively. Certainly, my teachers took their Catholic dogmas literally, and I don't think that started with the rise of modernism.

The texts Armstrong quotes in support of her view are inevitably drawn from the intellectual elites whose words have come down to us. All they prove is that intellectuals have always been more skeptical of literalist religion than the less educated masses, and, of course, that remains true today. Armstrong and Dawkins are equally cases in point.

The New Atheists have no quarrel with Armstrong, who speaks of God as the Unspeakable, nor with the naturalists and skeptics of yesteryear. Their quarrel is with those who give literal credence to prescientific cosmologies, supernaturalisms, miracles, divine revelations, and the like, and this includes, I submit, most people from time immemorial to the present day, including many who call themselves "religious liberals."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Braking news

posted by Chet at 5:23 AM UTC

Talk about the fountain of youth! Ponce de Leon was looking in all the wrong places. Easter Island is where he should have been searching. And don't drink the water. Eat dirt.

The research report appears in the current Nature online: "Rapamycin fed late in life extends lifespan in genetically heterogeneous mice."
Inhibition of the TOR signalling pathway by genetic or pharmacological intervention extends lifespan in invertebrates, including yeast, nematodes and fruitflies; however, whether inhibition of mTOR signalling can extend lifespan in a mammalian species was unknown. Here we report that rapamycin, an inhibitor of the mTOR pathway, extends median and maximal lifespan of both male and female mice when fed beginning at 600 days of age. On the basis of age at 90% mortality, rapamycin led to an increase of 14% for females and 9% for males. Etc.
Rapamycin is produced by a bacterium that lives in the soil of Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, hence the name of the drug. It has been used as an immunosuppressor for transplants and in treating certain cancers. Discovering that it extends the lifetimes of mice came as something of an accident.

This is not the first drug that lets mice live longer, but it is the first that works on different strains of mice, male and female, and the first that works even if the drug is administered late in life (a 600 day-old mouse is equivalent to a 60 year-old human). The researchers don't know yet whether rapamycin puts the brakes on senescence, or just suppresses certain kinds of tumors.

By the way, note that the drug -- like most drugs -- is just carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, the usual stuff from the Tinker Toy set of life. It's all in the way the pieces are put together. Shape is the name of the game -- what latches onto what, lock and key. The diagram here is flat, but the molecule is three-dimensional and fits like a bug in a rug on the surface of a protein.

I can presently expect to live another five years, going by average male lifetimes. If I start sprinkling my cornflakes with Rapa Nui dirt maybe I can get another ten or twenty. But -- whoops! -- even if rapamycin works on humans, which it may or may not, it will be at least a dozen years before we see FDA approval, by which time I will be in the dirt myself. And if rapamycin works as an immunosuppressor, then -- well, it doesn't bear thinking about.

In the meantime, I will stick with resveratrol, an ingredient in red wine that may or may not give a modest bump in longevity. Even if I don't live longer, I will slip into oblivion with a silly inebriated smile.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Chasing totality

posted by Chet at 5:47 AM UTC

It is one of the more interesting cosmic coincidences that the Sun and the Moon have almost exactly the same apparent size in the sky -- about half the width of your little finger held at arm's length. The Sun is 400 times bigger than the Moon; it is also 400 times further away.

This means that the tip of the Moon's shadow -- a long, thin wizard's cap of darkness -- just barely reaches to the Earth. In fact, since the distances to Sun and Moon are not constant, sometimes the Moon's shadow reaches the Earth's surface and sometimes it doesn't.

In January of this year, when the Moon slipped directly in front of the Sun, the tip of its shadow swept high above the Indian Ocean. If you had been in a boat somewhere beneath the shadow tip, you would have seen an annular eclipse of the Sun -- the Moon not quite covering the Sun's face. The Sun appeared as a thin ring of light, inspiring to look at, but not quite as spectacular as a total eclipse.

On July 22 the situation will be rather different. The Moon is about as close to the Earth as it ever gets -- about 56 Earth radii -- and as it passes in front of the Sun its shadow slices deep into the Earth, like the tip of a fencer's rapier into an opponent's cheek (ouch!). If you are in the path of the shadow, you will see a total solar eclipse, one of the longest ever -- depending on where you are, more than six minutes of darkness.

And where you should be is China, unless you have managed a boat in the western Pacific. The shadow will sweep across China, from southwest to northeast, including the city of Shanghai, population 14 million, the sixth largest city in the world. As Guy Ottewell has noted, more people will experience a total solar eclipse at one moment than ever before in history.

I made it to the Black Sea for the total solar eclipse of 1999, and to southern Turkey for the total solar eclipse of 2006, with cloudless skies both times. China seemed rather more dicey -- a long way to go for an overcast sky. I suppose the next total solar eclipse I will chase will be the one that sweeps across the United States in 2017, just missing my old home town of Chattanooga, assuming, of course, I haven't reached totality myself.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Twiners and pixels

posted by Chet at 6:21 AM UTC


It is a rainy day here in Ireland, and the post below is depressing, so how about a burst of color from Anne to brighten the day. Click to enlarge.

An unholy marriage of dogma and power

posted by Chet at 5:47 AM UTC

There was some mention here earlier this summer of the recently-released Ryan Report on the physical and sexual abuse of children in Irish "industrial schools" during the mid-decades of the last century. I have now finished reading Bruce Arnold's The Irish Gulag: How the State Betrayed Its Innocent Children, which gives background to the Report.

It makes chilling reading.

Arnold is a respected journalist who spent ten years investigating and writing about the Irish industrial schools for the Irish Independent newspaper. The book is a compilation of his newspaper journalism. The picture he paints is almost too painful to read.

For half-a-century, from the founding of the Irish Republic into the 1970s, tens of thousands of totally innocent children between the ages of two and sixteen were taken from families that were deemed dysfunctional in one way or another -- destitution, alcoholism, the mother "living in sin", etc. -- and placed in institutions that were essentially prisons, run by various orders of Roman Catholic priests, brothers and nuns. The conditions many of the children endured (as Arnold's title suggests) bears comparison to the Soviet gulags. The kids were ill-clothed, ill-fed, denied access to the outside world and any contact with the opposite sex, provided with only the most rudimentary medical and dental care, housed in dreary, poorly-heated buildings, forced to participate in meaningless religious exercises, psychologically humiliated, beaten mercilessly for minor offenses, and sometimes sexually abused. The children were supposed to be receiving an academic and vocational education that would prepare them to be useful and productive adult citizens; in fact, they were provided with only the most basic instruction and used as child slaves for the benefit of the institutions.

The Irish Church and the religious orders have a lot to answer for, but Arnold more forcefully indicts the Irish state -- the government (in particular the Department of Education which had ultimate responsibility for the industrial schools), the judiciary, and the police. All deferred to the Church. All participated in the incarceration of the innocents.

I have spent my entire life in the company of Roman Catholic priests, brothers and nuns, as a student, teacher, colleague and friend. They include some of the most exemplary people I have ever known, and I never encountered anything other than charity and kindness. So how did things in Ireland go so horribly wrong?

The sorry saga of the Irish industrial schools (and Magdelan laundries, etc.) is a story of theocracy run amok -- soulless, unjoyous, sex-obsessed religion in cahoots with spineless, ring-kissing politicians and bureaucrats. It all came crashing down when Ireland applied for, and eventually received, admission into the European Economic Community, which brought with it not only affluence, but also Enlightenment values, including a healthy dose of empirical skepticism and (at least the beginning of) separation of Church and state.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A few more thoughts on twiners

posted by Chet at 5:46 AM UTC

Among the twining plants, some climb clockwise (bindweed), some climb anti-clockwise (honeysuckle). A single mutation in the genes of certain plants can cause a normally straight stem to spiral, by changing the shape of a crucial protein. The direction of spiraling is all there in the first cell that becomes the plant.

So ponder this. Every living thing begins life as a single cell, one-hundred times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. And within that invisibly small space is the information that will determine whether the cell becomes a gnat or an elephant, a morning-glory or a sequoia, a right-twiner or a left-twiner. The more you think on this, the more miraculous it seems. I have written about it dozens of times and still I am astounded. It seems, quite frankly, impossible.

There are four kinds of nucleotides along the DNA double helix: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. Adenine always pairs with thymine, and guanine always pairs with cytosine: A-T, T-A, G-C and C-G. Four possibilities. The instructions for making a living creature -- any living creature -- is written in a chemical code of just four letters. Print out the human genome in 12-point type and you'd need a warehouse to store all the books. Somewhere in that mass of text is the difference that makes the brown-eyed you different from your blue-eyed daughter.

A warehouse of information in a space a hundred times smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence!

I've done the calculation. You'll find it in Skeptics and True Believers, and no doubt somewhere in the archives of this blog. It all works out. There is no magic. No miracle. Every day we edge a little bit closer to figuring out the details of how the genes express themselves in the development of an organism. Maybe there is some big new thing we have yet to learn, maybe not.

Here's an analogy I worked out some years ago: Imagine the human DNA as strands of ordinary sewing thread. On this scale, the DNA in the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a typical human cell would be about 150 miles long, with about 600 nucleotide pairs per inch. That is, the DNA in a single cell is equivalent to 1000 spools of sewing thread! This represents two copies of the genetic code.

Take all that thread -- the 1000 spools worth -- and crumple it into 46 wads (the chromosomes). Stuff the wads into a shoe box (the cell nucleus) along with -- oh, say enough chicken-noodle soup to fill the box. Toss the shoe box into a steamer trunk (the cell), and fill the trunk with more soup.

Take the steamer trunk with its contents and shrink it down to an invisibly small object, one hundred times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Multiply that tiny object by a trillion and you have the trillion soma cells of the human body, each with its full complement of DNA.

Right-twiners, left twiners. Brown eyes, blue eyes. Gnat or elephant. Morning-glory or sequoia. Take a deep breath. As the writer/cartographer Tim Robinson suggested, miracles are explainable, it's the explanations that are miraculous.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Getting to the top

posted by Chet at 6:45 AM UTC

There is a scraggily plant that grows along New England streams that occasionally, in a fit of mischief, I have invited a companion to pull from the ground. OUCH! Along the stems of the plant are a zillion tiny downward-pointing barbs. The name of the plant: tearthumb.

Obviously, the barbs did not evolve for human mischief. They are there to help the plant scramble upwards on the backs of more upright neighbors. It's all about getting on top, up there in the sunlight. Thicker stems might have helped, but tearthumb opted for promiscuous sprawl and grappling hooks.

Here on my window sill my morning glory plants are winding their way up their pole, counterclockwise. They too have opted for help from their more rigid neighbors. In this case, I have provided a convenient neighbor in the form of a bamboo stick.

So up they go. As seedlings, they simply wave their uppermost tendril around in a lazy counterclockwise circle, like a cowboy spinning his lasso. If the tendril touches an upright, it twines around with a gentle embrace. No more flop and sprawl. The morning glory plant now has a backbone and grows towards the sun.

Watching all of this, it would seem that the plant has a mind of its own, a kind of foresight and willfulness. But it's all in the genes. Asymmetrical proteins. Differential growth that is exquisitely sensitive to touch. Charles Darwin knew nothing of DNA, but he was endlessly interested in twining plants. He produced two books on the subject: The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (1875), and The Power of Movement in Plants (1880). He wrote that it always pleased him "to exalt members of the botanical world in the scale of organized beings." Tearthumb, morning glories, and Darwin's hops and peas are no dummies.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Memories are made of this

posted by Chet at 5:33 AM UTC


It is about four inches square. A better photograph would show it to be a grid of hundreds of tiny ferromagnetic ceramic donuts, each one strung through with four thin wires (see inset from web). It's been laying around my house since the early days of computers.

Each of the tiny donuts can be magnetized one of two ways -- clockwise or counterclockwise -- depending on the direction of the current that is sent through the wires. Each donut then can store a one or a zero, and the direction of magnetization can be read and rewritten by sending an appropriate current through the wires. Six-hundred or so bits of computer memory. Core memory, it was called.

Compare this early example of computer memory to the little postage-stamp-sized card in your digital camera that stores 4 gigabytes of data. Fifty-million times more data in a fraction of the space.

Each bit of the earliest magnetic core memory cost about a buck. At that rate, your camera card would cost $32 billion.

Or what about that flash drive you stick in the USB port, with its 64 gigabytes of memory.

Soon, the hard drive in your computer will be replaced by flash memory, if it hasn't been already.

Always smaller, denser, cheaper -- inevitably approaching the density and capacity of the human brain.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Spelunking

posted by Chet at 5:44 AM UTC

Yesterday I mentioned Gunter Grass' memoir, Peeling the Onion, published in English translation two years ago, which I have just finished reading. The story ends in 1959, at age 32, with the publication of The Tin Drum, the book that lifted Grass out of obscurity and made him famous.

Peeling the Onion is more than memoir; it is also a philosophical reflection on memory -- that huge and as yet unfathomed mystery of how a lifetime of experiences can be stored in a softball-sized mass of tissue with varying degrees of retrievability.
Memory rests on memories, which themselves go back to memories. In that, memory resembles the onion, which, as each skin peels away, reveals something long forgotten, all the way down to the milk teeth of early childhood. Then comes the knife and fulfills another function; chopping the skins, it provokes tears that cloud the sight.
There may be as many as 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain, and each one is connected to thousands of others. Memories are stored as electrical and chemical changes at the synapses where cell communicates with cell. A scribble. A lifetime of experiences scribbled into flesh.

A huge part of who we are -- the soul, if you will -- is what we remember. Or what we can remember! As one ages, memories become more elusive, buried ever deeper in the onion, slipping beyond retrieval. The soul evaporates.

Is biological memory volatile; that is, do the synaptic modifications recording memories leak away? Or is it that the memories are there but no longer accessible, like all those data-filled floppy disks in my closet?

The soul evaporates! No wonder when one reaches my age -- seventy-two -- rummaging around in the deep past becomes an ever more attractive occupation. You've often seen it here -- in yesterday's post, for example -- as I troll my childhood.

And here's a mystery. For the last several months, my dreams have almost exclusively have had for their setting the house I grew up in in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1941- 1954. The dreams are populated by people from every era of my life, including my kids and grandkids, but the venue is the same. It is as if my subconscious has stirred up dust from that part of the brain where is stored the house on Anderson Avenue, including bits and pieces of memorabilia that have not been part of my conscious awareness for sixty years.

At one point in his memoir, recalling people he has known in the past, Gunter Grass calls memory "a crowded prison from which no one is released." Maybe it's all still there, some of it in dungeons so deep and inaccessible that only dreams have the key.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Standards of truth

posted by Chet at 5:39 AM UTC

I've been reading Gunter Grass' memoir of growing up in Germany just before and during the Second World War. At one point, he recalls the songs the Hitler Youth kids sang in school: "Onward, onward! Trumpets are blaring their fanfare! Onward, onward! Youth knows nothing of danger! Etc."

Claiming "They seduced us!" does not excuse the youths who sang the songs, says Grass -- they seduced, he let himself be seduced. Grass' remorse is commendable, but he may be overstating a child's capacity to resist indoctrination.

Now, without making too much of the parallels, as I read the passage I could not help but recall standing at attention beside my desk in parochial school in the late 1940s and singing lustily with my schoolmates:
An army of youth flying standards of truth
We're fighting for Christ, the Lord.
Heads lifted high, Catholic Action our cry,
And the cross our only sword!
On Earth's battlefield
Never a vantage we'll yield
As dauntlessly on we swing.
Comrades true, dare and do,
'Neath the Queen's white and blue,
For our flag, for our Faith, for Christ the King.
We were not, of course, any danger to society -- pink-cheeked scampers in white shirts and scuffed shoes. No sooner had we sat down than we had forgotten what Catholic Action was all about, if we ever knew. But six decades later I remember the words of the song and the martial tune. I could sing it for you now. Which just goes to show that if you want to seduce children -- or adults, for that matter -- into the TRUTH, a jaunty marching song is just the ticket.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A tempest in Russell's teapot

posted by Chet at 5:45 AM UTC

I see from the London Sunday Times book reviews that Karen Armstrong has entered the lists against the New Atheists -- Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc. -- with a new book, The Case for God: What Religion Really Means. I suspect I will like what the always interesting Armstrong has to say. For the moment, however, let me address one argument that shows up in the review.

The New Atheists, Armstrong says, "are not theologically literate," and "their polemic...lacks intellectual depth." It is a theme we have heard from others who have taken Dawkins et al. to task: the New Atheists are theologically naive, they set up a straw God -- an old man with a beard on a golden throne -- then knock him down. But no contemporary theologian of any stature believes in such a God, say the rebutters. God is something more than that.

Well, let's consider the argument.

First, the fact that Dawkins, et al. are not trained theologians is hardly relevant. After all, it only took a child to notice that the emperor had no clothes. The polemics of the New Atheists are not directed against a handful of sophisticated theologians who have a refined notion of divinity, but against the vast majority of believers, whose notions of God are not all that far away from the old man on the throne.

God is "love," say the rebutters, or God is "the graciousness of the universe." But love and graciousness are as much human attributes as gray beards and thrones. Tell the tse-tse fly and the tidal wave that the universe is graciousness and love.

Then how about "ultimate mystery," or "the ground of all being"? If that is all people meant by God then the Dawkinsists would never have taken up pen. According to the Sunday Times review, Armstrong speaks of God as, by definition, infinitely beyond human language, not as "an object of thought or speculation, but as an existential demand." But then why accuse the New Atheists of theological naivete? If God is unknowable, then there is no such thing as "theo-logy," God-knowledge.

If you believe in a God who is a person, who has a chosen people, who was born of a virgin and rose from the dead, who selected Mohammed as his prophet, who hears and answers prayers, or otherwise meddles in his creation and communicates his will to humans, then Dawkins et al. want your attention. If, with Armstrong, you believe you can ultimately say nothing about God, since God is no thing -- not a being, but Being -- then really there's no need to write a book refuting the New Atheists because there is nothing to refute.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The mountain and Mohammed

posted by Chet at 5:50 AM UTC

We all enjoy the links that brome grass -- our resident surf master, thanks bg -- and others provide. Alas, the videos are beyond reach of my infinitely slow dial-up connection here in the west of Ireland.

Three years ago a company called ilDana hooked me up with an antenna to access broadband from a line-of-sight WiFi mast they erected at Cuan across the harbor. It worked great -- for a week. This was at the end of the summer. By the time I returned the next June the company had gone bust, along with my 200 euro connection fee and the monthly payments I had made while I wasn't here.

A local fellow, Hans, took over. He put his WiFi mast on the ridge between Mount Eagle and Crough Maurin, which serviced most of our parish, but also parts of Dunquin on the other side of the mountains. Unfortunately, the hill behind the Murphy's farm hid the mast from my view, just barely. No signal.

Time passes, Hans dies. A new company, Kerry Broadband, arrives on the scene. They put their mast on the roof of Paudi O'Se's pub, right out there a mile or so directly in front of my window. A few days ago a nice young man showed up and fixed me with an antenna. A signal? Yes. But too weak to be usable. The gable of the parish church, which is next to the pub, just covers the mast.

So here I sit, with a view that is breathtakingly vast and deep, and the one thing I can't see is a six-foot pole with a box on the roof of Paudi O'Se's pub.

I'll cheer myself up with a pic from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Spuds

posted by Chet at 6:14 AM UTC

I'm not much of a cook, but I like messing about in the kitchen, slicing, dicing, piling one thing on another. Here in Ireland my favorite cookbook is devoted entirely to potatoes. Potato, spinach and pine nut gratin. Gratin dauphinois. Potato and courgette tortilla. Hash browns. Pan haggerty. Bubble and squeak. The Great Famine be damned, the Irish still love their potatoes. At our village shop you can get local spuds right out of the ground. Nothin' better than day-old new potatoes slathered in Kerry butter.

The problem, as noted yesterday, is that insidious pest, Phytophthora infestans.

The potato blight and the potato have long been locked in an evolutionary battle to infest and to resist infestation. Nothing conscious about this arms race -- mutation and selection, trial and error, the potato trying to stay one step ahead of the parasite, the parasite trying to keep up. The game changed significantly when biologists and chemists entered the fight on the side of the potato.

Fungicides are still the main line of defense. Selective breeding and genetic jiggering for blight-resistance are other strategies. Is the world ready for GM taters? We'll see.

Meanwhile, the fungus is not sitting idly by.

Phytophthora reproduces asexually and sexually. There are two mating types, called A1 and A2. For sexual reproduction to occur, both mating types must participate. Until recently, the A2 mating type was restricted to Mexico, the fungus' place of origin. Now A2 has spread through the United States and Europe, and landed on Irish shores. Biologists worry that the sexually-reproducing fungus will be quicker to develop resistance to fungicides, through a greater reassortment of genes. Apparently, in Mexico, where the A2 mating type is common, many new and virulent strains of blight have appeared.

It's all in the hands of the scientists. Can human intelligence outrun fungal sex? Will my neighbors keep putting firm, white, unblemished spuds on my plate? Will the Irish love affair with the potato continue to blossom? And will my darling spouse keep making her irresistible potato and leek soup, with that dollop of Irish cream and sprinkling of her very own chives?

And while you're here, does anyone have a suggestion for a nontoxic way to keep insects from eating my young spinachs, collards and lettuces?

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Getting connected

posted by Chet at 6:17 AM UTC

This summer, as every summer, my neighbors do battle with Phytophthora infestans, the potato blight fungus. I see them walking their ridges, a tank of fungicide on their backs, sprayers in hand. It's touch-and-go as to who will win -- the gardener or the invisible invader.

In the 19th century, Phytophthora infestans directly or indirectly caused the death of a million Irish people and sent millions more on a great diaspora to Britain, Australia, New Zealand and America. How did it happen?

The potato originated in the Andes highlands of South America, and was introduced into Ireland by the English. It flourished in the cool, moist Irish air, and adapted readily to the poor soils of Western Ireland where a large part of the native population had been driven by English colonizers. The potato required no more than a spade for its cultivation and a pot for its consumption, and was therefore eminently suitable for a people rendered abjectly poor by British conquest and perfidy.

The fungus that caused the Great Irish Famine, like the potato itself, was a New World import. It is believed to have originated in Mexico, and somehow made its way to the United States, where it found an ideal host -- the domesticated potato. It crossed the Atlantic in a ship's stores, arriving in June 1845 in southern Britain. By August, blight had destroyed crops in every European country.

The effects of the fungus were more severe in parts of Ireland than elsewhere because of the almost exclusive dependence upon the potato as food, and because crowding and impoverishment made Irish people easy victims of cholera, typhus, and other diseases that followed in the wake of famine.

It was not until the 1920s that the invention of effective fungicides finally brought Phytophthora infestans under control. So why did massive famine not recur in Ireland during the long decades between the mid-1800s and the invention of fungicides?

Part of the answer is visible from my window, out there across Dingle Bay. In 1858, the first Atlantic telegraph cable was brought ashore at Valentia Island, and suddenly the world became a smaller place. News crossed the oceans in seconds, not weeks, and the consequences of British policy in Ireland would henceforth be monitored by the world, and particularly by the increasingly influential Irish diaspora. The situation was not unlike the way FaceBook and YouTube changed the dynamic of the recent upheavals in Iran.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Free lunch

posted by Chet at 7:43 AM UTC

I have a friend here in Ireland who is commendably committed to the environment. He is professionally involved in such things as energy-efficient houses and pollution-free waste management. He powers his car with recycled cooking oil. And he chases the oldest dream of humankind -- perpetual motion.

Well, perhaps it's not the oldest dream, but it is certainly durable. At least since the Renaissance there has been an endless stream of proposed gizmos that put out more energy than they take in. My friend has been keen on two current projects, one in Australia and one here in Ireland. As is often the case, the machines use magnets in one way or another. I can't tell you exactly how, because -- well, those are trade secrets.

The Irish company is Steorn Ltd., their device is called Orbo, and to hear them tell it, Orbo is the answer to our energy woes. When scientists scoffed, the company convened an international panel of experts to vet their claim. More than two years have passed and the verdict is in: Orbo is a pipedream.

Will that stop Steorn? Not if my friend's unflagging enthusiasm is any indication. The dream lives on, the ratchets click, the magnets spin, and all of Orbo's big and little brothers huff and wheeze and try to squeeze free energy out of thin air.

It is probably useful here to distinguish between scientific eccentrics and scientific cranks. Scientific eccentrics, like my Irish friend, are a cheerful lot, who don't give a hoot about prevailing views. They are convinced that no law of physics is carved in stone. The right tension on the spring, the right frequency on the oscillator and -- voila! -- our energy problems are solved! Scientific cranks, on the other hand, are gloomy sorts who feel put upon by the world, and who are convinced that the only thing standing between themselves and revolutionary success is the close- mindedness of the scientific establishment.

Scientific cranks we can do without. Scientific eccentrics may not do much to advance scientific learning, but they are having fun and they are motivated by a selfless humanitarianism -- qualities that a healthy society can hardly do without.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

A new Creation oratorio -- Part two

posted by Chet at 5:18 AM UTC

Knots of matter, with masses many times greater than the sun, are squeezed by gravity. When the temperature at the cores of the protostars reaches 10 million degrees, nuclear fusion begins, matter is transformed into energy, and the first stars are born. The music blazes out again, not in a single fortissimo chord, but in thrust after thrust of forte brilliance.

These massive first-generation stars burn fast and furiously, living for but a few million years before blowing themselves apart in colossal supernova explosions, seeding the universe with heavy elements. Galaxies form, and millions of stars, dust and gas coalesce to form massive black holes at their centers. The music representing the universe at this tender age of a billion years is wild and lively, booming timpani, soaring violins.

Now things slow down, become less violent. Star birth and star death continues, but at a more stately pace, moderato. A tender theme is heard in the background, in the flutes, perhaps, as carbon and oxygen, created in violence, unite with hydrogen to make the first organic molecules.

Over billions of years, these grow in complexity, eventually becoming alive. The organic theme is taken up by woodwinds, until, as the music draws to its climax, life and intelligence come to the fore. The music becomes more melodic, thrusting notes give way to a lively dance, and...

And? Well, the best available evidence suggests that the universe will expand forever, using up all available energy, until eventually, hundreds of billions of years from now, light, life and intelligence are extinguished. The music winds slowly down into inaudibility. I suppose the lights in the concert hall should be extinguished too, so that the new "The Creation" ends with a long coda of utter silence and darkness.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A new Creation oratorio -- Part one

posted by Chet at 5:27 AM UTC

Two centuries have elapsed since Joseph Haydn composed his magnificent "The Creation" oratorio. In all that time, no other musician has given us a better evocation of how the universe began.

The famous C-major fortissimo chord of Haydn's oratorio -- the glorious sunburst of sound that comes in response to the whispered words, "And there was light" -- is an apt evocation of the modern astronomer's Big Bang.

Still, we have learned a lot since Herschel's time about the universe's beginning and probable end. Maybe it's time for a musical update.

For example, Haydn's triumphant C-major chord comes five minutes into the oratorio, after a prelude of shadowy notes representing the unformed flux out of which God created the world. We are nudged by whispered voices to the edge of our seats. Then, and only then, a universe blazes into existence. Troppo! Perfection!

But modern cosmologists don't have a clue what went before the Big Bang. Their equations start at time t=0. Words like "darkness," "chaos," or "unformed flux" have no meaning. The fortissimo chord in any new composition will have to come right at the beginning.

Not a terribly satisfying way to begin -- musically, dramatically, or even scientifically. The question will always be "What went before?" But, for the time being, we must resign ourselves to ignorance. We sit down in the concert hall, open our programs, and BOOM, we are knocked out of our seats.

At the first instant, the universe is infinitely hot, infinitely bright. The Big Bang doesn't happen somewhere, like a firecracker in a dark room, but everywhere. Not like an alarm going off on a clock that's been ticking all night; the clock starts running as the universe begins. Space and time swell from nothing. The first matter -- hydrogen and helium, with traces of lithium -- condenses from pure energy. The universe expands and cools. The music, which began in thunder, begins a slow decline toward silence, diminuendo.

We ease back into our chairs. After about a half-million years, the temperature of the expanding universe falls below 3,000 degrees Kelvin, and the blaze of creation has weakened and shifted into the infrared, invisible to a human eye. The young, gassy universe becomes completely dark.

But the music doesn't lapse into total silence, for the universe is not empty, nor has time stopped. In the darkness, gravity gathers the cooling gases into clumps and streamers. The music suggests this thickening of matter. Legato becomes staccato, although barely audible. And in the darkness, on those lingering notes, we wait.

(Intermission.)