Monday, December 31, 2012

C.S. Lewis and the Courage to be a Craftsman

Taking stock of the last year and planning for the next, it's easy to keep the same old evaluation system when deciding what worked and what didn't. But sometimes the evaluation system itself needs fixing. I had never read the essay titled "The Inner Ring" by C.S. Lewis before, but it hit me at just the right time, because it speaks to this question of what are you doing and why. Here is the essay/speech itself, it's a fast read with a high value-to-word ratio:

The idea of constantly striving for the next inner ring reminds me of the answer to the question "How much money does a person need?": "Just one more dollar." Just one more inner ring, and then I'll be set. One more step into the onion. Here Lewis turns the onion to transparent glass (all John Lennon references aside).

This especially echoes with the state of Lewis's life in 1944. It was a good time for his "output," roughly contemporaneous with the Mere Christianity lectures and The Great Divorce, 5 years before the publication of the Chronicles of Narnia and 10 years before he would move to Cambridge after repeatedly failing to enter the academic inner ring in his department at Oxford. Lewis never reached that inner ring, probably because he was true to his own words here and realized that it wasn't worth what it seemed to be worth. Instead, he focused on his craft, finished the Space Trilogy and after it didn't go as well as he hoped -- read Planet Narnia for more on this -- he turned to Narnia, which would be his true hallmark work. (Is this an act of literary kenosis?)

If C.S. Lewis had focused on the inner ring rather than his craft, he may have stayed at Oxford, but would we have Narnia today? Academics is political and those politics have probably prevented some great works from being written as academics work more to impress their fellow academics than to create something lasting. Today I don't know who was in that Oxfordian inner ring, but I do know Lewis's words. That's lasting.

Thanks to this essay, I resolve to begin the new year wary of reaching for the inner ring when instead I should be looking to the work I've been given. It will take time and care to carve out the right words for the right time and the right student. Inner rings can wait -- I resolve this year to create value, carefully, the best I can, with focus and labor.

(PS: Looking back on this I can see how my thoughts are also colored by all this talk of the politics of the fiscal cliff, too!)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Jupiter Rising Over the Moon on Christmas Day

In Brazil on Christmas Day, there was an occultation. Lest you think this is the beginning to a sub-par Edgar Allan Poe story, let me note that Jupiter was occulted -- covered -- by the moon. An astronomer named Rafael Defavari caught the following video with a 20-cm telescope. It's a beautifully inverted echo of a sunset and sunrise. Consider this another belated Christmas gift.

(found on the Bad Astronomy blog)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: Faith Seeking Understanding (Essays in Memory of Paul Brand and Ralph Winter)

I can only review 16/17 of this book in good conscience, because, after all, I wrote 1/17 of it (Chapter 16, "Trees of Life", to be precise). It was edited and assembled by David Marshall. And you probably won't believe anything I say about it after all. I'm not sure if you should, it's like reviewing your own book on Amazon. If this book was on Amazon. But I digress! If you can get past my own selfish-gene-like involvement here, I'd say this is a good collection of essays. Of course, I personally don't agree with everything here, but I agree with a lot of it, and the combination of viewpoints is synergistic. Like the Church itself. Overall it works.

These other 16 chapters are written by names I recognize: Philip Yancey, Earl Palmer, Rodney Stark, Alvin Plantinga, and Don Richardson. The names I didn't recognize are just as interesting. For example, I found the essay by Yuan Zhiming about faith in China to be fascinating. Historians, missionaries, scientists, and a philosopher, all sharing the perspective of faith and honoring the memory of Brand, Winter, and Anselm.

I would have liked there to be some more conversation among the authors, but I don't know how you do that in book form. I would like to press some of the comments others made about Islam that I think are too harsh, for example. And some more back and forth on the topic of evolution would have been interesting -- it's clear there's some disagreement there but I hope it's obvious that I consider there to be substantial agreement as well.

Because the focus of the conversation could be Anselm, Paul Brand, or Ralph Winter, there's a wide diversity of topics, but David Marshall's arrangement into four sections is helpful. Just realize that this is an anthology album, not a concept album (or a rock opera).

And my favorite part is that Philip Jenkins and Nicholas Wolterstorff -- two scholars whom I admire -- provided complementary blurbs for the back of the book. So I'll let their quotes be the review, and provide the obligatory link to buy the book straight from the publisher for the curious.

“What makes the collection especially fascinating tha valuable is the individuality and particularity of the stories–a concrete testimony to the fact that the Christian intellectual life takes many forms.” — Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University and senior research fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia
“David Marshall has gathered a really distinguished array of contributors, who have all thought deeply about faith in its global context, and the different essays work wonderfully together. The book makes a splendid memorial to two truly great individuals Paul Brand and Ralph Winter.” — Philip Jenkins, Emeritus Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities, Pennsylvania State University

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Last "Real" Chemistry Kit?

The New York Times had a nice set of articles yesterday about a chemistry sets: that is, Chemistry Kits for kids. What's nice about this is that the set of articles covers all the bases: one recognizes the Harry-Potter-ish origin of the sets, another shows how the old experiments inspired today's scientists, a third explains why they can't explode so much anymore (and yet also describes the current sets' advantages), and at last there's a slideshow of old sets so you can see what's changed.

I agree that there's a bit of a sepia-tinged nostalgia about how dangerous the old sets used to be, but I agree even more that most of the sets sold today are not worth buying because they can be recreated with stuff you already have on hand. Why spend ten bucks when you can spend two? (For example: the typical red-blue acid-base indicator can be easily extracted from red cabbage for pennies on the dollar.) But recently I did find a set worth buying: the Thames and Kosmos CHEM C1000 and related sets.

The Thames and Kosmos sets have real chemicals, some of which are actually slightly dangerous, and real equipment like what I'd use in the lab. Although the reactions aren't too exothermic (i.e., no explosions) they do teach chemistry and safety with colorful, quick experiments. And if you really need explosions there's some gas-expanding experiments that come close. There's some little points of ingenuity, such as the way the chemical vials are opened, which is simple yet child-safe enough that it took this Ph.D. chemist an embarrassingly long time to figure out how to do it. So it's ingenious, real, and safe. If you're going to spend money on a chemistry set, I'd recommend this one. And Merry Christmas everyone!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

There should be more books like this one. I used to listen to The Tolkien Professor's podcasts on iTunesU -- in fact, it's where I got the idea for the Day of Common Learning Lecture that turned into the "Trees of Life" book chapter on J.R.R. Tolkien and Paul Brand. In Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Corey Olsen (AKA The Tolkien Professor) recapitulates his Hobbit podcasts in book form.

Olsen's focus is on the character of Bilbo Baggins, on the nature of luck in Tolkien's writing, and on what we can get from the frequent songs and poems. It gave me a new appreciation for the quiet faith of Tolkien: in his writing, luck is never just luck and the wind is also spirit, just like in the ancient Greek. Also, Olsen points out the teasing of the elves and the natural beauty of the Arkenstone. Tolkien's pure joy in the natural world is something we all share, and one of the reasons everyone can relate to these books. Although the elves are too somber in Jackson's movies, the natural beauty of New Zealand does provide this element. In Olsen's book, I would have liked more connections to Old English literature and to The Silmarillion (there's a really nice one comparing Gollum's riddle to Sauron's old speeches that left me wanting more). That can be the next book.

This book's unique strength is that it is written for the ordinary person interested in The Hobbit, and as such, it's a very nice gateway drug into the land of scholarship. In fact, I was able to give this book to my 10-year-old son Sam and he finished it before I did. That is as valuable as the Arkenstone to me. So while the writing at times felt a bit baggy and redundant to me, I've got to say there's enough scholarly articles out there for me as it is. Fellow profs, let's write more things like this for my boy ... and who knows what he'll be some day?

The Book-O-Matic

I remember that it seemed like every time I walked into Waldenbooks during middle school that Piers Anthony would have a new novel out, whether Xanth or sci-fi or whatever else he wrote. My friend Adam theorized that Piers Anthony was actually a computer that would churn out these things on a monthly basis by combining words, adjectives, and made-up geographies Mad-Libs style.

Looks like Adam was ahead of his time. Here's a story about a professor who has written a computer program that compiles books for niche markets, sold on Amazon, working kind of like Adam's theory. The process is designed to mimic a writer's process of determining the best things to write about and how they should go together. And it's patented. (Say Piers Anthony really was a computer: Can two computers sue each other for patent infringement?)

So what exactly is a book anymore? If you buy one of these it comes in book form, but it's essentially a well-crafted search engine result. This will probably work well as a super-Google but I suppose it can only enhance, not replace, true thought.

But now I'm worried ... will I some day find out that Stephen King has been a robot all along? Or, in a twist ending, M. Night Shyamalan is actually an old iMac? In the words of Keanu Reeves, whoa.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Looking Back at Saturn

This beautiful picture was pieced together from many images taken by Cassini as it went "behind" Saturn, with the sun serving as the flashbulb. That's for your eyes. For your ears, Holst has a soundtrack. Actually, I know that my Dad worked on Cassini before it was launched and it's nice to know that in a way he helped take this picture.

PS: Try clicking on the "art and science" label link to see more incredible astronomy pics -- many are showing up on year-end best-of lists even now ...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Book Review: Evolution's Destiny

Yesterday, Stephen King. Today, RJP Williams. What other blog gives you this?

I have written (and spoken) about the idea of Williams before and as for his ideas, I summarize many of them in my Survey of Physical Chemistry course (last I checked, the only Survey of Physical Chemistry course on iTunesU). If Owen Barfield's right and all authors write the same book repeatedly, then Williams definitely stays true to that statement and to his own character in this one. Evolution's Destiny: Co-evolving Chemistry of the Environment and Life is another facet of the same ideas, and the ideas are fascinating enough that it's worth reading them again.

Perhaps it's because I'm reading Return of the King aloud to the boys as I went through this book, but the essential Britishness of Williams's and Tolkien's writing really stands out to me. Even the sentence construction and the drawing of the graphs (or maps) is understated. Reading Williams is not like reading science writing, it's reading real science -- after all, it's a scientist emeritus putting together inorganic chemistry with evolution. Those are kind of big subjects, and this is kind of a big-idea book of the sort that we need more of.

This new book of Williams's finds him with a new co-author, R.E.M. Rickaby (those with a mere two initials need not apply), who is a geologist. As a result, in the first third of the book, geochemistry takes precedence over geobiochemistry, and there's some interesting passages about the chemistry of rocks and the like. If there's something I wanted to change about Williams's writing before, it's that I wanted more references and evidence along the way rather than sweeping (yet still scientific) generalizations. Rickaby's geological chops make it clear that this book is more substantial in that regard from the beginning.

The really nice thing is that the second two-thirds of the book, when Williams recapitulates his to-me-familiar scheme of biogeochemistry driven by oxidation, the references and evidences (mostly) keep up. I was already familiar with the work of Dupont, Alm, and others published since 2006, and how it supported Williams's earlier hypothesis with genetic analysis, but it's awful fun to see Williams incorporate their findings into his work. Bottom line: Williams was right. And for those who don't have the patience to read a chemist for a whole book, I'll work on translating Williams for the masses. Stay tuned.

Another thing about Williams is that after several books he has come out with the most evidence to go along with his most provocative title. Evolution's Destiny is determined by chemistry. I'm enjoying this meta-story and I enjoyed this latest installment. May there be more ...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars is another collection of short stories by Stephen King. You may be wondering why I'm spending time on America's best-known horror writer. Not much science here, but I continue to find that elements of faith are there for those with ears to hear. Nothing organized but something universal. Has horror become the place to write about sin? Because this is Stephen King, the stories are not truly short (at least one is longer than the last novel I reviewed here ...) , and they come with moments of shock and grossness that are nearly unbearable, but that is the point. King's universe is not devoid of love or even justice, although they can be hard to find. They are that much better when found.

Two of the stories are really "ghost" stories but not in the campfire sense, more in the G.K. Chesterton sense. The first, "1922," is far and away the best. If you have time for one ghost-ish story, read this one. King's attention to detail in historical fiction and his ability to put it together into a suspenseful sequence that rings true is remarkable. This story is good like his recent novel about the Kennedy assassination was good.

He's writing several female characters in this, and I don't find them entirely convincing, but it's nothing that gets in the way of the story by any means.

I continue to find a substrate of goodness, or at least yearning for goodness, in all of King's stories (even in the shorter, "quick" one). With all the repellant detail they remind me of Old Testament stories in parts. In "A Good Marriage" I believe he acknowledges this. In the Afterword, King says (I listened to the audiobook after all): "If you're going into a very dark place ... then you should take a bright light and shine it on everything." I think C.S. Lewis even said something kind of like that. As King has matured as a writer, he's focused more and more not on the obviously supernatural -- the vampires, the mists of monsters, the telekinesis -- and more on the not-so-obviously supernatural, that is, the dark recesses of the human mind. I really can't take more than one or two of these a year, but in that kind of dose his writing is bracing, and I would argue worthwhile.

(One more word: listening to the audiobook adds an element of suspense to the mix because you don't know when the story ends. I may prefer King this way.)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Is It Networks All the Way Down?

Quick: What do the brain, the Internet, and the universe have in common?

The chemist in me wants to say that electrons are very important to each, just at different scales, but that's not really a unique relationship. Rather, there may be a deep commonality among them, in that they can all be described with the same laws of network structure. This is the conclusion of a paper titled "Network Cosmology" out of the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA), based at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego.

It's almost funny to see how much science bloggers have to bend over backwards to point out that THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THE UNIVERSE IS A BRAIN. Please, please don't think that. It's not, nor is it a computer -- at least, if it is, I doubt we would be able to understand that it is anyway.

What it does mean is that when you graph out how these three complex networks are organized, that there are structural similarities at a surprisingly deep level. The physical forces organize the universe; the demands of life organize the brain; the demands of information flow organize the Internet. There must be structures and laws that work well for network organization, and it's very possible we haven't found the deepest, best formulations of those laws yet.

I'm fascinated by a quick observation near the end of the paper that this may have something to do with dark energy, which structures the universe. Does that mean that dark energy is a manifestion of this organization in some way? But I'm way over my head here so I'll leave that to the physicists.

One of the most beautiful things in science is the ability to see the same ordered patterns (fractals?) at multiple levels, such that the patterns fit together simply and satisfyingly. This "Network Cosmology" fits the brain, the Internet, and the universe together just so, like a major chord of three notes, and this paper feels like a major chord to me at first glance.

Now let's let wide peer review continue to do its job and see if it lasts the test of time, or if it's just a one-hit wonder.

The Thinking Brain's Music

This is what a brain sounds like. With a little help from math and science, that is. In a recent issue of PLoS ONE, researchers used math to turn brain waves into music. The result sounds to me a bit like some of the music James Horner put into the most recent Spider-Man movie when Gwen was hiding from the lizard in the tower -- in other words, it actually almost sounds like music! (That was one of my favorite moments of the movie, by the way.) For those of us who can't read that music above in our heads ... um, for all of us ... the music itself is can be heard from where it's embedded on the left side of this Wired article.

The upshot of all this is that if brain waves can be turned into sound waves this easily, perhaps there's something to the idea that music is fundamental to consciousness. Your neurons are all singing together in concert as the waves of chemotransmitters and sodium/potassium fluxes rock to and fro inside your head.

Or, in fewer words, life is music.

Considering that tomorrow is the Christmas concert that my whole family* has been preparing for, for months now, it gives me hope that all those hours of prep for an hour or so of sounds might be worthwhile and real.

* Baby Ben and Brendan have been helping out by keeping us in shape running after them so that our stamina is up for the concert. Sam and Aidan will be in it!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Largest Work of Art is Under Your Feet

Speaking of the value of nuance, here are some incredibly nuanced NASA satellite photos of the Earth, which are particularly beautiful and diverse. A lot more complexity here than simply dirt, ice, and water. The whole gallery is found here at Popular Science. Enjoy! (In order, the landscapes I chose are from Iran, Iceland, Mongolia and the Mississippi.)

News Flash: Both Science and Faith Require Nuance, Reason, and Logic

A week ago Nicholas Wade, New York Times science writer, published an op-ed on science and religion, and a week ago the blogosphere lit up. There's a lot to write about in just that, because the atheist reaction to Wade's "accommodationism" surprised me. I merely found Wade's op-ed boring, occasionally wrong, and historically inaccurate, but ultimately inoffensive: on some fronts at least he was trying. Kind of like E.O. Wilson at times. I just didn't see it as something for people to get worked up about. But worked up people did get, leading to a long letters to the editor section in yesterday's Times, reproduced on the Why Evolution is True blog as "A bunch of us go after Nicholas Wade" (what do you call a witch hunt for people who don't believe in witches?).

Jerry Coyne was the first to "go after Nicholas Wade" by pointing out BioLogos:

"Organizations like BioLogos, founded by National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, have spent many years and much money trying to turn Christian creationists toward evolution by “respecting their faith”. It hasn’t worked."

Never mind that BioLogos has only existed for half a decade or so now. People haven't changed their minds on a complex issue that rarely directly impacts them after five years of an organization's existence (BioLogos is just running their first big RFE now, in fact!). Time to throw in the towel on dialogue, then.

But it was really this sentence of Coyne's that caught my eye, pithily put but problematic:

"Teaching that the book of Genesis is a metaphor, as Wade suggests, is anathema to fundamentalists since it implies that Jesus died for a metaphor—the original sin of a nonexistent Adam and Eve."

Coyne is certainly right in that some unreflective fundamentalists say this. But repeating it (unreflectively) as applicable to all Christians, even all fundamentalists, is the strawiest of straw men. It's the "Lowest Common Denominator" argument: scrub away all nuance from the argument and then attack the others for believing something without nuance. It's the mirror image of the fundamentalist attacking the evolutionist because single nucleotide changes can't add up to make a flagellum. The evolutionist might even agree with that way of putting it, but it's the other ways of changing DNA that might be true. (In this case, changes larger than single nucleotide changes, for example.)

If Coyne wants fundamentalists to adopt nuance beyond the arguments of intelligent design then he himself needs to adopt nuance toward theology. But I don't blame him for this lack of nuance, because the church itself has slipped into a materialist interpretation of original sin, a medieval-style thought in which something must physically soil the atoms passed down from father to son. Then Jesus' redemption would be some kind of physical actions that scrubbed the soul-atom clean, some kind of cleansing enzyme (in his blood?). If you think about it enough it doesn't totally make sense, whether you're fundamentalist or atheist.

There's also the matter of history. There's no evidence that Jesus would have thought of original sin this way. Paul has some verses that were interpreted by Augustine a certain too-material way, perhaps, which blossomed into the medieval-substance way of looking at sin. The church needs to do a lot of thinking about what this means, and has done too much "coasting" on what Augustine thought, with subtle tweaks that have degenerated the doctrine of original sin through the years into the medieval-substance way of looking at it that Coyne thinks is our only option.

It comes down to what Jesus died for. If we reduce it to some sort of heavenly transaction that reverses Adam and Eve's bad choice, only, then maybe Coyne has a point. But nothing in Christianity is heavenly only. Jesus died to show us how to make choices now that will affect the future, not just to reverse some event in the distant past. If Jesus' death means anything, it means that change and redemption can come now. If Jesus can change people now and put together a community that is different from the world in a qualitative way, we must start from that, and then we can worry about exactly what Adam and Eve were and what the nature of Original Sin is.

Of course, that paragraph itself is without nuance. We're never going to perfect the present, and it's fine to think about the past. But this one-track-mind-focus on Adam and Eve is clearly missing the point of what Jesus did and continues to do. I'm just frustrated with the lack of nuance. The intricacies of theology are just as fascinating (and as dependent on logic) as the intricacies of science, and I'm tired of people selling one or the other short. I'm as fascinated by the question of "What is original sin?" as I am by the question of "How was life formed?". We need nuance all around. (Isn't that what the Beatles sang -- "all you need is nuance"? No?)

Coyne closes with "Reconciliation doesn’t change minds; reason and logic do." For the record, I disagree that reconciliation is useless -- in fact, reconciliation is one of those Things That Jesus Died For, possible more than original sin, if you read all of Paul. But beyond that, I'm agreeing with the second half of the statement and am asking for reason and logic. I'm just asking that the reason and logic be applied theologically to the doctrine of original sin as well, by the church first and then by its critics.

Whatever the answers are, I can tell you that they'll be complex enough that it will take more than five years for an originization like BioLogos to even raise them, much less answer them. Let's leave Nicholas Wade alone for daring to propose something, even wrong-headed as it may be, because talking this out is the only way we're going to get anywhere.