Thursday, August 26, 2010

Book Review: A Distant Mirror

This was a new experience: listening to a 600-page (small-type!) book about the 14th century in Europe (authored by Barbara W. Tuchman) as an audiobook for, oh, about 30 hours total. France was dominant during that century, and I must be too English at a biological level, because something about the French proper names in every other sentence just slides by my ears. Even with this minor aural impediment this book is a classic example of what history should do; it should show us another time and let us see ourselves in it.

The thing is, the fourteenth century may qualify for the "Worst. Century. Ever." award. The Black Death hit in the middle of the century, the Hundred Years' War was going on, and a whole bunch of kings were in power that quite frankly didn't know what they were doing. The Church was no help, having long since ossified into just another power structure in most places, and splitting into two rival "universal" churches in the Great Schism, each with its own pope. As a Christian I find this history unsettling but also very important -- if the Church made those mistakes then, how do we keep from repeating them?

Tuchman is an expert's expert and one of the best teachers I've come across. If this were a complete review I could go on for paragraphs about what she did right in this book. All the glowing comments made online about this book are true and I can't add much to them. But I'm going to talk about the one thing she missed. In the middle of the book she describes in detail a story related by a 14th-century writer named La Tour Landry about a husband whose wife was mistreated and killed by strangers, and the husband cuts up her body into twelve pieces and sends them to his friends to call them to come and attack the strangers. Tuchman uses this story to typify the 14th century -- and she is right that it tells us a lot about the 14th century -- but the story doesn't come from the 14th century. Its details (down to the twelve pieces) are taken from the story of the Levite's concubine at the end of the book of Judges, and the 14th century author must have derived them from that text, which apparently he knew better than us (I only know it thanks to Frank Spina's Weter lecture about that story a few years back!). The story is wholly appropriate to the societal breakdown and rampant evil in the 14th century -- but it was also appropriate to the time of ancient Israel before the kings, when "every man did what was right in his own eyes." Tuchman doesn't show any sign of recognizing this obscure and violent story as originally scriptural. I just wonder what happens if we realize that the 14th century is a distant mirror of the time of Israel's judges as well as our own time. It actually makes the story of the Levite's concubine make more sense to me, if there are times, awful times, in history when society really gets to that point, and if the 14th century was not entirely unique.

It's not that this book is lacking in those kind of connections, because there simply isn't room for them. This book is an incredible example of how to write history and it's the reader's job to make connections with other centuries. But this story and this type of century was already old when Jesus walked the earth, and I have to think that his life can offer us solution and salvation to even the darkest centuries that humans can devise. So in the end, this gruesome story, because it is retold in the 14th century, paradoxically gives me hope, hope that the horrible things that happen are not new under the sun, and that God is not surprised by man's depravity -- and that somehow these old, old stories and sayings can reshape us into a people who are shaped by that same God and called out from the messes we keep getting into on our own.

The book review is: excellent work of history, and the connection I made to the book of Judges is only possible because Tuchman did such a good job.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Review: Pulpit Science Fiction

I got this book straight from the author at the ASA meeting. George L. Murphy is a frequent author and speaker at ASA, and he mentioned he wrote a book of science fiction sermons so I bought it from him (no middleman). More than just science fiction, these are quick stories, only about 5 pages each, but each with a kernel of an interesting idea. My favorite ones involve common cliches enlivened by the thrilling possibility that God might be real. De facto atheism is such a common sci-fi assumption that the genre is enlivened by even the hint of theology. My favorite may be the one where the space aliens read Ephesians ... but I won't ruin it. Thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking as well.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Book Review: The Book Nobody Read


The first clue that this book would be better than expected is the opening scene. The Book Nobody Read is a story about an academic's work compiling a census of all first and second editions of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus, the book that proposed that it's the earth that moves around the sun despite appearances and scriptures to the contrary. Unexpectedly, it opens in trial like a Law and Order episode in which Gingerich must testify about whether a copy of De Revolutionibus was stolen or not. The epilogue ends the book with a visit from the FBI, also about stolen books. Gingerich is a professor of the history of science, and here he tells the story of compiling his census from the early 70s to the turn of the century. His several visits behind the Iron Curtain add a bit of Cold War history to the 16th-century history of the census and its annotations. Who knew that marginal notes could be so illuminating? From time to time the book veers into the realm of too much detail for someone outside of the field, but on the whole Gingerish expertly weaves the narrative of history with the narrative of the academic's search for truth. More scientists should write books like this, because behind every bit of science or history there is a story of how that science or history was found out. This book is exhibit A in my contention that the best way to teach science is through story. Recommended.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tattoos and College Professors

Perceptions of a tattooed college instructor.

Wiseman DB.Psychol Rep. 2010 Jun;106(3):845-50.


128 undergraduates' perceptions of tattoos on a model described as a college instructor were assessed. They viewed one of four photographs of a tattooed or nontattooed female model. Students rated her on nine teaching-related characteristics. Analyses indicated that the presence of tattoos was associated with some positive changes in ratings: students' motivation, being imaginative about assignments, and how likely students were to recommend her as an instructor.

Apparently I should get a tattoo to bolster my student evaluations.

I got the story from:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Correction Bee and the Correction Lemur

The Saint John's Bible is a new, hand-written illustrated manuscript finishing up production now. Because every page is hand-inked, mistakes happen, such as whole lines being left out here and there. So what to do when you've finished a beautiful page and realize later you left out a verse? Do what the monks did: add a correction in the margin. Just putting in a carat and a line to the correct insertion is boring. Rather, the illuminators of the Saint John's Bible put in little animals "pulling" the missing verses to the right places. Below is a lemur and a bee shown in the act of such corrections. I could even pull some significance out of this but I'll let a picture be a thousand words here:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book Review: The Complete Maus

Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-prize-winning graphic novel (the term may have been invented for this book) is a retelling of his relationship with his father, who survived the worst of the Holocaust, with anthromorphized animals as the characters. Jews are mice, Germans are cats, etc. (still trying to figure out who the fish are). I read this in high school and now returned to it thanks to it costing a dollar at the library book sale. If anything, it's more powerful now, because 1.) I'm now a parent and the scenes with family are familiar from the other side and 2.) I've visited Europe and know it's real, that this nightmare really happened. It's like the Good Will Hunting line when Robin Williams tells Matt Damon that to be in the Sistene Chapel is different than knowing about the Sistene Chapel. Spiegelman's graphic novel is harrowing and unsentimental, and it's a necessary part of the literary edifice to bring this down to our kids and let them know, this really happened and never again.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Book Review: Galileo's Finger

In Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins tries to write for a general audience. Atkins has authored a large majority of the physical chemistry textbooks in existence, so that most chemistry majors had an encounter with Atkins in their senior year, and I'll leave it up to them to decide if it was a pleasant one. Here the subject is promising -- ten scientific ideas that changed the world -- but ultimately it doesn't live up to the blurb on the back from Richard Dawkins suggesting that the Nobel Prize in Literature (!) be given to Atkins. Every time you pick up the book that blurb is staring back at you in large type from the back cover, and it's an unfortunate case of the oversell.

Ignoring that hyperbole, how good is the book? Atkins's perspective as a physical chemist is unique, and when he's called upon to explain thermodynamics or other chemical subjects he does an admirable job as should be expected. He also throws in the occasional lapidary vocabulary word to remind the reader that he is A Writer of Great Renown (in case you forgot the blurb), and more often than not you can find a well-turned phrase that works in context on each page. It is well written. The problem with this book is in its organization. It starts with evolution and works backward to mathematics. Clearly Atkins wants to avoid the typical "unfolding of the universe" ordering of the book and there are advantages to his arrangement, but it ultimately doesn't make sense to the reader because ... I'm not sure why he has the chapters in that particular order, and often he has to foreshadow that "we'll talk about that in a later chapter." Without an overarching narrative it seems a collection of essays, or textbook chapters, and not the kind of thing the general reader would stick with. Also, much of the explanation is too dense and not lively enough for the general reader. As a teacher of physical chemistry I got several ideas and examples (and noticed several repeated from his textbook!), but I don't see how a general reader could plow through the complicated molecular biology as explained by a chemist in the first chapter. Often the technically accurate term would be used when what the reader needs is a metaphor.

Another aspect underlying the book is Atkins's general philosophy of materialism and naturalism, a faith which he shares with Dawkins. Thankfully he's more about the science than the "scientific" moralizing, and so there's only a few preachy passages, but in my opinion Atkins is a better writer and clearer thinker than Dawkins, so his critiques of any attitude other than scientific materialism are more on-point. Not that I think he's right or that he surprised me out of my theism with any of his asides, in fact, when he comes to the fine-tuning of the universe and the inadequacy of the multiverse to explain it, he comes right up to the point of acknowledging the limits of his philosophy and then changes the subject.

I can see why this book (published in 2003) hasn't seemed to enter the popular lexicon when a more focused, better organized, more entertaining book like Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe is better known. Sometimes the sales figures (and the Nobel Prize award patterns) actually do reflect reality.

Book Review: The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple

This is a collection of Richard Bauckham's essays on the gospel of John. At times it is tendentious, but overall it adds up to point out some very provocative details that always tugged on the corner of this reader's consciousness but never really gelled till Bauckham pointed them out. I'm not certain I buy his identification of the author of the gospel as John the Elder rather than John of Zebedee, but he points out that along with the famous seven "I am _____" statements and the famous seven signs in the gospel, there's also seven "I am" statements without a subject that stand out because they're rather difficult to translate. The other "groups of seven" are clearly there, and I can get behind the idea of there being a third group, because John is clearly a highly structured and ordered gospel. Some of the historical ideas are plausible: that Nicodemus was part of a rich Jerusalem family found in Josephus and other sources. Some of the historical ideas are built on what seems sketchy evidence, but I'd prefer to hear arguments that take risks like Bauckham's than to sit through another even sketchier reconstruction of the "Johannine community." The irony is, as sketchy as Bauckham's ideas sometimes are, they're most often firmer than a lot of the speculative reconstructions of the ancient communities. I'm intrigued by the possibility that John was written for a broad/Gentile audience, because that is the way it works today, and also that it may be the one that took cares to get the historiography right, with its specific dates, places, and names. Overall, this book makes me want to return to John in detail and think about what it has to say, because the historical Jesus field focuses so much on the Synoptics that I have the feeling there's a lot in this other "mountain range" (to use N.T. Wright's term) that's being missed.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Book Review: The Call of Stories

This is a book from the late 80s/early 90s about a psychiatrist who uses novels and short stories to teach medical students, and argues that ethics are best taught this way. True to its central argument, much of the book relates other people's stories, whether pages of block quotes from students or long plot summaries from Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy or John Cheever. On one level, it's a very simple book, and any professor could do this for any well-taught class. I can see how the author, Robert Coles, can write so many books if this is what he does! But there is value to taking what is normal in a discussion of 10-20 students and putting it into book form so anyone can read it anytime. It's worth a diversion, and it's a rather fast read. I got some ideas for teaching from it, although not quite so many as I expected. The unexpected part was around the middle-end, when Coles presses home his point about the moral aspect of stories, and touches on the subject of pride and doctor-worship and the fact that many of those who teach morals aren't all that moral. It was a well-timed read for me at least, because I was going from one conference to another, and it's so easy to put on airs with people you only meet for a few minutes and want to impress. Coles punctured that at least a bit, and for that I'm grateful. A good reminder that we are all only human, after all.

Footprints of Nonsentient Design?

This past May the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science published "Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome" by John C. Avise, consisting of a long list of genetic-based diseases and suffering, inelegant designs, in the words of the author, "gross imperfection." The article ends with a suggestion that evolutionary theory corresponds more closely with theology on this account because it allows one to blame evolution for the suffering and imperfections, rather than some Designer of it all. On both scientific and theological grounds this article falls short. The argument is the evil twin of Dr. Pangloss: that things are so bad we must be living in one of the worst of all possible worlds. How this arugment can be reconciled with the orthodox theology that this is a "good" creation is not thought through, and so it can be easily deflected by those prone to deflect.

There are two possible audiences for this article: preaching to the choir of fellow scientists convinced of the evolutionary mechanism, and convincing those who may be open to intelligent design and faith (two different things, mind you!). The science is not strong enough to convince someone who's open to an intelligent designer. On this count, Francis Collins's example of how the vitamin-C-making enzyme is messed up in the human genome is much more convincing than a laundry list of maladies caused by genetic mistakes. Avise's argument often seems to be "things aren't perfect and therefore they can't have been designed." But theology has always known that the world isn't perfectly functional, and any design must have been messed up at some point. In fact, you can't get through the third chapter in Genesis without finding some hint of this. Any ID proponent would just lay the blame for imperfection at some other point, probably the Fall. Imperfection is not an argument against design, because "only God is perfect."

Occasionally there's an interesting bit of data buried in the irrelevant catalog of disease, especially in the citation of a paper showing that as human gene complexity (measured as number of introns) goes up, likelihood of that gene causing a disease also goes up. This is the dark side of Behe's "black box": complexity has a cost. How much, where, how? This is the point to emphasize, not the fact that disease can happen. Everyone knows disease can happen, but saying disease MUST happen because of complexity, that's an interesting point.

One of the other points that follows is that cancer may be a direct consequence of complexity. After all, slime molds don't get tumors, and as complexity builds, so does cancer. (By the way, sharks do get cancer, so don't go for all those shark anti-cancer claims; but I wonder if they get cancer less than humans, and if so, if cancer susceptibility may be correlated with biological complexity. Just a thought.) If biological complexity causes imperfection then that fact should be talked about in light of theological doctrines like the Fall.

The underlying point of this article is subjective, and ID proponents will be all over that subjectivity. It's not that there are flaws, according to Avise, it's that there are "so many" flaws. Yet there's few enough flaws that humans continue to survive, live, love, etc. How many is "so many"? Is the genomic glass half-empty or half-full? "Approximately 0.1% of humans who survive to birth carry a duplicon-related disability," writes Avise, but that doesn't sound like a debilitating, unexplainable imperfection. It sounds like common experience, or actually a bit better than common experience.

The similarity of bacteria to mitochondria is hit upon late in the article. I think that's a much stronger point but it's submerged beneath the easily deflected points. That point gets its strength from the fact that God is not deceptive, and that's an excellent point to make. It convinces me. The main point Avise makes is much weaker: that God made some things that aren't perfect, and, well, that should be kind of obvious to anyone and therefore it will not change anyone's mind.

The big underlying problem with this article is its definition of health. Apparently any disease, suffering, or imperfection is an argument against God, and wouldn't it be nice if we could blame evolution instead? This is the modern cop-out; instead of "the devil made me do it," it's "I'm a victim of chance." Christians who worship a God who came to Earth in order to suffer in this imperfect world have a ready-made defense for this, that imperfect is solved not only by us "fixing" it to make it perfect, but also, even moreso, by compassion, with its root of "passion"/pain, feeling the pain with the other, not eliminating imperfection but somehow participating in it as you're praying against it. Sickness is evil and when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away, but in the meantime, we're in a clearly imperfect world. Avise offers to solve that imperfection by pushing God out of the system, replacing Him with a cosmic casino of blind chance, and that will not fly with either Christians or ID proponents (again, not necessarily one and the same!).

The article ends with a proposal to "return religion to its rightful realm," just another in a long string of "get off my lawn!" comments by scientists who claim to be accommodating faith while arguing that it doesn't really matter. Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria live.

To be clear, I am intrigued by the hints of new scientific arguments in this article. If it can be shown that complexity necessarily correlates with disease (especially a horrible disease like cancer), then that has a real contribution to make to this discussion. But such strong points are too submerged beneath an exterior that appears conciliatory but is actually theologically unsophisticated and a case of deism in sheep's clothing. Come on, fellow scientists, we've got to do better than this.