Friday, February 27, 2009

One More Big Piece of News

The Trustees voted last night, and now I have tenure. So now I'm "The" Biochemist at SPU, they're stuck with me for a while!

Book Review: 2 Corinthians

Ok, it's not like I'm padding my book review list by counting books of the Bible as books now, but I did just finish the NT Wright Paul for Everyone commentary on 2 Corinthians, so I thought I'd make a blog post to record my finishing it, and to put down a few impressions. It's strange how 2 Corinthians seems patchwork in tone, up one second, down the next, reconciling one second, and berating the next, but the commentary pointed out some important clues I had never seen before: Titus visits Paul at about halfway through the letter, and the tone shifts, then shifts again as Paul's visit becomes imminent. The letter was not written all at once, although it was probably read all at once. This finally makes sense to me. One other big observation is how the entire thrust of the letter is that the Christian life isn't supposed to be perfect -- it's supposed to be a sacrifice.* Paul is arguing against a strain of triumphalist, proto-prosperity gospel that hasn't gone away. One particular challenge to me is how "rough" Paul is. As someone who likes the flourishes of rhetoric and a well-turned argument, it seems he's turning to me and pointing the finger when he reminds us, the power of the gospel is that it needs none of that. This theme comes up in both 1 and 2 Corinthians. I guess I'm a Corinthian at heart. Well, at least it means Paul would've loved me ... even when I exasperated him.

* Yes, that is a reference to the recent happenings on Lost, at least as much as they relate back to the original Christian story ...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book Review: Nothing to be Frightened Of

Basic parameters: 250-page stream of meditations on death, God, memory, the fear of death, family, philosophy, writing, and death again.

Great first line: "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him."

Times I laughed out loud: 5 (a high mark).

Most prominent quoted writer I knew nothing about previously: Renard, a French journal-writer from the early 20th century.

Scientific anecdotes: Too many to count on one hand.

Scientific worldview of the author: Skeptical of the church, but just about as skeptical of the militant atheists. Therefore, claims to be agnostic but constantly writes from a standpoint of "brave practical atheism," as in, "We all know it's meaningless ..."

Ability of the author to question the validity of the scientific anecdotes forming the basis of his musings: Minimal.

Times the author came right up to Jesus and then said "Well, we all know that's not true" or "Obviously the Gospels were written as fiction": Too many to count on one hand.

Time it took to read the book: 3 days (zoom, I must be making up for lost time).

Most poignant passage: Where the author tries to envision just how much meaning it would give to art if he would just be able to believe some part of the religious meaning behind it. I'm rooting, "You can do it! Read N.T. Wright! Read John Haught! Your countrymen! They speak your language!!" But no, it's just wistful conjecture that all too soon segues into another topic.

Blogging about U2

Here's a very nice collection of bloggers writing about U2:

My U2 fandom is more focused on Achtung Baby, when the band went "dark" but also gained Technicolor sound. I was most excited in U2 3D when for the encore the unique guitar chords of "The Fly" started up and the video screens erupted in a thousand colors. You may gather from this that I'm one of those people who actually really like Pop, warts and all. Even Zooropa has its moments for me. So "Medieval U2" is my U2 of choice ... but I'm still excited about a new record coming out, believe me.

Favorite underappreciated U2 song: the B-side "Slow Dancing."

Favorite underappreciated U2 song on an actual album: "For the First Time." (This depends on whether you consider Zooropa an "actual album" or not.)

Favorite band that out-U2's U2: The Violet Burning, specifically on Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic. This is a classic album that shamelessly rips off and mixes up the sound and feel of both Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby, making it simultaneously familar and new. I think they're better than U2 -- for those who wish U2 had kept in the Achtung Baby phase (anyone? anyone?), this should satisfy.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Plant Intelligence

Consider how the sunflower turns to the sun. It detects light and adjusts its structure to maximise how much energy it catches. This is an example of plant intelligence. Ok, it should still be an insult to call someone as dumb as a stump. But that stump has (or, more precisely, the living tree before had) some hidden, slow intelligence that, though it may not be obvious, is intelligence nonetheless.

The question that reveals the sense in which plants can be considered intelligent is pretty simple: How do plants choose where they grow? They don't just blindly put down roots and hope for the best. Different plants do this in different ways, but there are clearly some computations going on when a plant decides which way to send roots, stems, leaves, so that resource acquisition is maximized. In doing so the plant computes pros and cons and "decides" which way to go, and it's right in its calculations in surprisingly sophisticated ways. Plants know how to find light, water, and the kind of soil they need.

This is the gist of one of the essays in the recently reviewed book The Deep Structure of Biology. And I'm not sure about the term "intelligence" really. "Computation," sure. But intelligence seems a higher standard. Yet, which gardener among us hasn't felt outsmarted by weeds?

At the very least, talking about plant intelligence should help us define what intelligence is not. If plants have a rudimentary intelligence, it is built around resources (light, water, soil) and not around communication. So don't talk to your plant. Unless it makes you feel better. But do water it.

Without really taking a stand on the prospects for a full-blown "plant intelligence," I'd like to jump to conclusions and draw a heedless parallel or two. I'm reminded of 2 Kings, when Elisha and his servant are in a city under siege by the Samarian Army. The servant is understandbly worried. Elisha tells him to look up, and the servant suddenly sees an army of angels all around, filling the hillside. You can take this story in two wrong ways: you can run with it to try and figure out how angelic armies work, or you can allegorize it and try to explain what it means, even though you believe the angels weren't really there, they just symbolized something. Both of those strategies undermine the passage, but I'm interested in what it says. It says there are unseen intelligences hidden around us. The intelligence of plants is one way (and ONLY one way) in which intelligence might be hidden around us. Clearly, plants are not angels, and if we start eliding the two we're gonna drift into animism. But both are represented as creations, with different levels of intelligence, put here by a creator. I'll have to think a while to unpack what that means. It implies a rich and responsive creation, I'll tell you that.

Maybe an image of what it means would be better than a proposition. Think of the end of Prince Caspian, when the trees come alive and march onto the battlefield. Or the March of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings. I think the writings of Lewis and Tolkien about nature may actually accord somehow with research into plant intelligence. IF and only if it turns out to hold water scientifically. I am no judge of that, having never taken a botany course.

There's nothing conclusive here. It could be that plants are unintelligent, that an apple tree is no more intelligent than an Apple II computer. If so, we're left with the wonder of watching a sunflower turn its face toward the sun, how at the very least that's a wonderful and beautiful process. I'm OK with that too -- the world is rich and responsive as we understand it now. If there's something to be gained from scratching the surface of plants and peering into their inner workings, let's take a look and see.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Book Review: The Deep Structure of Biology

This is an anthology of essays, edited by Simon Conway Morris, evolutionary paleontologist and (dare I put it this way) natural theologian. Its first half/two-thirds is mostly review articles of biology studies that, put together, may argue that there are significant constraints on how evolution can proceed, that it's not quite as mindless of purposeless as others make it out to be. The last third is more philosophical and theological, talking about the compatibility of Darwin's theories with purpose in the universe. There is a significant biological slant overall, and some interesting findings that, not being a biologist, I'm not in much of a position to critique intelligently. There's essays about evolving flasks of bacteria in a lab, the shapes of trees (both big real trees and the evolutionary tree-of-life constructs), plant intelligence, ant intelligence, crow intelligence, and whale intelligence. The idea that the world is alive with intelligence and, well, not quite consciousness but complicated networks of self/non-self discrimination ... I want to hear more about it and so I'll keep an eye out for these subjects. And don't worry, I'll blog more about plant intelligence soon, so you don't think I've completely gone off the deep end. Yet.

Overall, it's a bit uneven but I think it's to be expected with the diversity of authors and subjects. When I started on the essay by Michael Ruse it was like stepping into the sunlight from the dank stodginess of the previous essay. There's definitely better essays than others. I recommend those by Conway Morris, Ruse, and Haught (quickly becoming a John Haught fan the more I read of his stuff). In fact, I'm going to have three follow-up posts full of ideas suggested by this book over future days.

Another overall observation is that some of the scientists seem to be dragged into writing essays against a part of their will. After a very interesting essay on ant intelligence, one scientist felt compelled to tack on a one-page disclaimer about how any seeming intelligence was only an illusion. Well, that's the question, isn't it? Such dogmatic assertions don't really fit in the context of this book. Haught and others implicitly deal with these struggles in the final chapters, so I can give the book a thumbs-up for overall organization, and in fact, I would have liked to see more cross-pollination of ideas from author to author. I just want a greater rate of diffusion for the ideas, so the good ones survive and the bad ones go extinct!

Having a baby definitely means I took longer than usual to read this book, but don't take that as a critique. It's really a step in the right direction. I'll be looking for more to see if there's anything to this crow intelligence stuff (so that time that one crow kept attacking me as I walked near Green Lake was personal???).

More to come on specific subjects.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Microsoft + Music = ?

Microsoft is working on Songsmith, a program that will take the tune you sing and make music to fit it.

The following demonstration of the technology needs no explanation:

The videos where people have fed classic tunes into Songsmith and recorded the results are just as "good." I like "Roxanne" and "Hotel California" myself.

In the words of Darth Vader, "Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed."


(You know, I actually could imagine using this for a kind of musical notetaking ... but not for making an ad ...)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Belated Valentine's Day Post: Choice Can Make You Unhappy

I just have to link to this post from Dan Ariely's blog:

The best part is an ingenious experiment with photographs that shows that people are happier with the photograph they produce (in a darkroom) if they can only choose one, early on. Those who are told to choose two and "think about it" and then decide which one? They end up being less happy with the photograph they chose.

It's a bit of a jump from that to marriage, but I do think it shows that the faithfulness and "locked-in choice" required by the institution of marriage will actually make you happier than "playing the field," even if you're not "optimizing your choices." There's such a thing as too much choice: Dan Ariely's social economics research has shown this repeatedly.

Boy, even if economics has romantic implications, the language of the field sure does scour the romance out of everything ... So, however that all sounded, it was meant well, and here's to faithfulness and our 10th Valentine's Day together, Laurie!

Another Reading About the Economic Crisis

Here's a prediction from The Atlantic about how the economic crisis will reshape America:

I don't agree with this article in several places, but at least it's the kind of broad discussion that I think is actually useful. I've gotta like anything that compares cities to organisms, each with a distinctive "metabolism"! Part of posting it here is to remind myself to come back to it in a few years and think about what it got right and what it got wrong.

Near the end it brings out a contested point: we should remove home ownership from the center of our economic model. I really don't go along with that. Obviously the idea of home ownership was associated with unsustainable growth economics in the 2004-2007 range of years. But don't tell me "studies show renters and owners are just as happy and have similar levels of stress" and use that to justify something as complex as homeownership -- that argument's only useful for deciding between Pepsi and Coke.

I do think that have someone be "tied down" to a region because they can't get rid of their house is a problem. But the "rootedness" of home ownership is an important intangible. The stress of moving, and then moving again, can't really be underestimated in my book. We aren't little robots that move around the country like game pieces. If the first part of the article is right, that place is still important and will continue to be, then rootedness in a place should be important as well.

In any case, this is the kind of article that gives me something to chew on, as I disagree with many of its points and solutions (one other thing: if we're moving toward an idea-based economy, then who's making all the stuff we eat and drive and live in? And are they happy about that?). I'll be thinking about this as the day goes on ... so I'll let you try it too.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Indie Rock ABCs

From the good people at Paste Magazine, an ABC book made entirely of indie rock musicians. (One of my favorite bands is on the "O" page!!):

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Note on Darwin Day

I prefer to think of today as President Lincoln's birthday, but it does also happen to be the 200th birthday of a visionary scientist, Charles Darwin himself. To maintain my "science blog" credentials I'm advised to post on the occasion.

The science history tidbit I'd like to report is from a list Charles Darwin wrote down enumerating his father's objections to Charles' plan to jump on the H.M.S. Beagle and sail around the world as the ship's naturalist. In hindsight, we know Darwin's close observations of nature on islands around the world led to his biological insights into descent with modification. What parent wouldn't want their kid to write a book that's still read (and still insightful) a century and a half later? But Darwin's dad objected. Charles was 22 years old, about like a college graduate, and it seems Dad wanted him to settle down into the life of a clergyman (the most intellectual common career available). So when Charles floated his little "study abroad" idea to Dad, several objections were raised. Here's the list:

1.) Disreputable to my character as a Clergyman hereafter.

2.) A wild scheme.

3.) That they must have offered to many others before me the place of Naturalist.

4.) And from its not being accepted there must be some serious objection to the vessel or expedition.

5.) That I should never settle down to a steady life hereafter.

6.) That my accomodations would be most uncomfortable.

7.) That you should consider it as again changing my profession.

8.) That it would be a useless undertaking.

Number 1 is particularly ironic, given the "science vs. faith" dichotomy that Darwin's work set up in some quarters for the years thereafter. Darwin would indeed go on to pretty much renounce faith, at least as associated with organized religion. But here's the thing: Dad wasn't against science, he was against what he saw as a frivolous junket at a time when most young men should be settling down. I'm sure many 22-year-olds hear this today; how much more so in 1831?

I can be sure this wasn't "doing science" vs. "serving God" because at the time the largest class of people, those who ran the most experiments and thought the most about science, were actually clergymen. Sure, there were university faculty, but they were outnumbered by the amateur scientists running around classifying things ... and it turns out that only clergymen really had the time (and I would argue the inclination) to run around classifying, measuring, and sorting the natural world. Case in point: William Buckland, the first scientist to describe a dinosaur, and Anglican priest. He was not that unusual for the time. The set of "clergymen" and "scientists" had considerable overlap.

Think about it -- there were no federal funding agencies or venture capital start-ups. The church was the largest institution that gave its employees enough free time to take on something like science. And, if they believed that thinking about and analyzing creation could bring glory to the Creator, then you could say the church provided motivation for scientific study as well.

So Darwin's Dad was indeed a prophet of sorts, but it's only in hindsight that his comment becomes particularly fitting. Perhaps if Darwin had stayed home he would have become a clergyman -- and then still gathered his detailed observations of nature into a ground-breaking mechanism that would change the world. I wonder how different things would be for faith and science if that had happened.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Today's Headline: Truth Takes Effort

I was a bit worried this morning. I thought for a minute that according to the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, I shouldn't exist.

The article that reports this is titled "Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations." Allow me to quote the abstract: "Science and religion have come into conflict repeatedly throughout history, and one simple reason for this is the two offer competing explanations for many of the same phenomena. We present evidence that the conflict between these two concepts can occur automatically, such that increasing the perceived value of one decreases the automatic evaluation of the other. ... Religion and science both have the potential to be ultimate explanations, and these findings suggest that this competition for explanatory space can create an automatic opposition in evaluations."

This study looked at how people evaluate explanations. If the scientific explanation was described with confidence, the subjects' confidence that God did it dropped. If the scientific explanation was described as poor, shot through with holes, and contradictory, the subjects' confidence that God did it raised. In short, He must increase, it must decrease ... or one cannot serve two masters, both God and Athena.

Well, not always. It just takes a bit of work, and I can indeed exist (whew). From the conclusions: "This is not to suggest that science and religion must always conflict, nor that one system of belief must necessarily be chosen over the other. But it may be that such reconciliations are only possible following mental effort exerted to overcome this initial opposition."

I'm fine with that, although that angle is not really reported when the study is described. This is mostly a "whatcha-gonna-do?" study that confirms what all of us already know: it takes effort to think about God and science (or to read one of my way-too-long posts on it!).

So maybe the God-science conflict can be associated with natural, carnal man? Something that the world conforms us to. Something that the spirit helps us to remodel when it transforms us.

Why is it surprising to anyone that finding the truth requires effort?

From what I can tell, this study did not ask its subjects to participate in evaluating the scientific data; it merely used science as an authority and told the people whether it was "good science" or "bad science." But science is not accepting authority (and neither really is listening to God, at least it's not listening to a researcher's authority!). Science, and listening to God, is a complex, iterative, and participatory process. And yes, it's hard. But the miracle is it's not too hard, not when we live and work together, listen to each other and listen to God, things start to come into focus.

"Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."

This is one of the reasons why life is worthwhile.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

He's Got His Mother's Lymph

It's obvious that mother and baby share a lot in common. On the immune system level, the sharing is extremely deep. You may have heard that mothers will share their antibodies with their babies: there's even a receptor in the baby's gut that will grab the antibodies from milk and pull them into the bloodstream. And that immune cells called natural killer cells that normally destroy invading organisms play a major role in carving channels through the placenta so the fetus and mother can be connected.

The new finding in this vein is that Mom actually donates T cells to the baby. You can detect maternal T cells (called Tregs for "regulatory") in the baby's lymph nodes. It seems a regiment of maternal Tregs marches across into the baby because those cells have already been trained to find "bad cells" and leave "good cells" alone. Rather than have the baby learn all this anew, the mother's cells serve as teachers that can regulate the baby's immune system.

On a philosophical level I find the fluidity of identity between mother and son fascinating. Not only do all his mitochondria come from his mother, so do some of his early Tregs. There is actually a little bit of her crawling around in him, teaching him ... although his body is clearly fully his!

On a theological level this resonates with Paul's theology, because he too presupposes that our identities are fluid. According to Paul, we are all part of each other, sharing on a deeper level than we know in the church, bearing one another's burdens, because we are one in Christ. (Think of how Laurie's family suffered, and how we went to a memorial service to suffer with them.) Those 5 words "we are one in Christ" are quick to say but contain depths of meaning. We are a body with Jesus as the head. We have died in Christ, we live in Christ. What he did is given to us, and his spirit powers our life and teaches us day to day on what to do and what not to do. Paul seems to have no problem with Jesus doing something and it applying to us, or with Jesus living inside us -- that's fluid identity. Jesus in my heart, momma in my lymph nodes.

There's a lot here that I'm still unpacking, but the fundamental image -- bits of the mother intergrated into the son, teaching him and protecting him -- is the important thing right now. That and how "Christ in you" is dependent on the same kind of fluid identity.

Does this bring anything to mind for you? Other situations or metaphors or verses? Or does it not work? What are the limits to this analogy?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Small Casket

I just returned from a memorial service up north for a member of Laurie's extended family. Two days before her eighth birthday, Rachel Anne Vekved died when the family minivan hit a patch of invisible ice on a bridge and swerved into the oncoming traffic. Her mother and little sister were also in the car, but Rachel was taken and those two were left. No one was speeding, and there was no warning or time to say goodbye.
I didn't know her that well personally, but we did see her from time to time, and I remember visiting her parents, Laurie's cousin Tim and his wife Nancy, in summer 2001 when Rachel was a baby and we were just beginning to think it might be time for one of our own. What I remember best is how quiet and peaceful the house was. I also have a short video of me pulling her little sister around, along with Sam and Aidan, in the back of a wagon when Aidan was 1 and Sam was 2 1/2. So we were at the graveyard literally blocks from Rachel's grandparents' house (where I pulled that wagon around) and watched that little-sister-turned-only-sister put a teddy bear on that casket, the one that seemed wrong, too small to be a casket. It should be too small to be a casket, but there it sat.
The night before Laurie and I were watching TV and I got angry at the TV. Not just yelling-at-the-refs angry but ready-to-throw-the-thing-out angry. We were watching a taped show and when she pressed stop the TV channel came in as PBS, some guy looking a bit like Terry Bradshaw was standing on a stage with a Fibonnacci spiral behind him (and you can bet your down payment that guy didn't really know the first thing about fractals, and thought it looked cool). He was talking about something about how nothing bad really happens, you have to tune in to the universe, the typical "Secret" Gnostic crap. Usually I can watch those to laugh at them and mock them a bit. But this time I couldn't even handle the sight of that faux-spiritual garbage and couldn't turn it off fast enough. My mouth actually tasted bad after that.
Seeing (and tasting) that made me understand John's writings in the New Testament a little better. It's jarring how he veers from love to radical exclusion of evil, especially to people like me who want to tolerate everyone. But John had friends who had been mashed up by the gears of evil, in this case, the Roman Empire or the local religious institutions (or both). And people were going around like this Terry Bradshaw wannabe telling people if they'd just get their mind set right they'd rise above their problems, like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix movies. That's not just laughable -- it's evil, although get me straight, it's evil that should be dealt with the way Jesus dealt with it.
I also noticed that during the memorial service, the pastor gave one of the deepest, most real homilies I've ever heard, but in one little case I wanted him to go farther. He read Psalm 13, where David is in anguish and asking why-why-why? He skipped a few verses, all of those asking God why he lets David's enemy triumph over him. I understand him doing that, but reading that now, after studying Paul, I suddenly see that the ultimate enemy behind all other enemies is Death himself. In fact, most evil enemy types are those who are in league with death, who will use it to intimidate and get their way. Once a tyrant kills a dissident, that dissident is gone, or so the tyrant hopes. The reversal of Jesus's resurrection shows that the ultimate enemy of all, Death himself, is going to be crushed and reversed and wiped away. So keep those verses in your reading of the Psalms, reading "enemy" not as one of death's inconsequential henchmen in David's life, but "enemy" as Death, however he shows up. And in every echo of the enemy hear Paul's victory celebration in 1 Corinthians 15: Death is toothless and defeated, and we only have to wait worship and work until God brings all enemies under Jesus' feet.
Death will be the last to go. Obviously Death is still very much here. By faith we hope that in God's future, when Jesus is king, Death will be destroyed as surely as David's enemies were.
And I'll look forward to getting to know Rachel Anne a little better, and seeing Scott Becker again (and asking him to play Rainbow Connection for Sam), and my grandmother and grandfather and all those who have gone before in Christ.
Till then, there's time to reach a new normal, and to give your kids a little more grace today. And try to avoid PBS when that guy's on.