Friday, June 29, 2007

The "collective unconscious" gets conscious

kw: book reviews, fantasy, mentalism

I've grown rather fond of the Archonate series by Matt Hughes. Although fantasy through and through, the strong "problem-solving" element, usually coupled with a mystery (murder, theft, whatever) to solve, makes the books uncommonly me. I first reviewed Black Brillion a year ago, then The Gist Hunter & Other Stories ten days later, and finally his two Fools books another week after that.

The author's newest book, The Commons, traces the career of Guth Bandar from his earliest days as a member of the Institute of Historical Inquiry to the world-threatening events recorded in Black Brillion, from Bandar's point of view. Much of this picaresque tale is rewritten from The Gist Hunter collection, strung together into a story of Guth Bandar becoming an agent, albeit unwillingly, of the noösphere, "the Commons", the collective unconscious that becomes conscious and sets out to rescue humanity.

The Archonate itself, set in a far-future time of the sun's last gasp on the Main Sequence, and the Commons, the unconscious realm of dreams, daydreams...and "lucid dreaming" by inveterate noönauts such as Bandar, offer free scope for as fantastic a plot as one is willing to imagine. The technology of the Archonate is sufficiently advanced to appear magical, and bears a glancing resemblance to both "Star Trek" and "Star Wars", with floating vehicles and a useful array of laser- or phaser-like weapons. The Commons has rules of its own, requires perfect pitch to navigate safely (musical "thrans" are the noönaut's primary tools), and has dangers aplenty.

Actually, I'd expect technology five billion years from now to be a dozen steps beyond unrecognizable: why hold a gun in your hand when it probably resides next to your aiming eye; why ride a floating vehicle when one of your shirt buttons (or some analog thereof) provides propulsive and environmental support?

Actually, I wonder what "people" will be like five billion years from now. A recent ear infection makes me wonder if the eustacian tubes are being eliminated or re-routed by evolution; back troubles remind me that we are a long way from having a hip-to-back-to-neck structure that properly suits upright posture; in ten or a hundred generations only a few throwbacks (like me) will have more than 28 teeth, and nearly nobody will need "wisdom teeth" removed; the alimentary canal will shorten further, reducing the incidence of colon cancer, but making salads harder to digest...but nobody will eat salad anyway!; altruism must increase, unless today's religious wars result in a drastic reduction of population; AIDS could also cut population and result in humans of the year 2200 who are nearly all immune to HIV.

I don't expect we'll ever develop telepathy, not by evolution anyway. We may come close with brain-silicon (or brain-something) interconnection technologies. Hughes's Commons provides a way to have telepathy for specially trained people. He seems almost of two minds about it. On the one hand, its powerful archetypes can swallow up an unwary "traveler" (who is physically asleep, after all), and one must not spend too long there, lest the body be neglected. Yet The Commons ends on a note that some part the Commons is malleable—perhaps it was made so as a thank-you to Bandar's help—and can be make into an environment of one's choosing. Would one wish to return to a finite body in a finite Archonate? Perhaps Hughes has something in mind...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

More ID debunking, 10 shots across the bow

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, evolutionary debate

I must be getting saturated. For the first time, I've read a book that had nearly nothing new for me. This is not to fault the authors; it is a sign to me to reduce my attention to the creation-evolution debate.

Cameron M. Smith and charles Sullivan, both professors, both popular science writers, both of whom write for Skeptical Enquirer, collaborated on ten essays under the title The Top Ten Myths about Evolution. I can summarize the ten chapters thus (in my own words):
  • Survival of the Fittest — As Solomon said, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong"...and a wag added, probably Ambrose Bierce: "...but that's the way to bet." The common understanding of "the fittest", taken to an extreme, would result in a planet with a very simple ecology: Lots of some plant, probably a grass, lots of some grazer, and a single hermaphroditic predator who gets to have it all to Urself. The 10-20 million visible-sized species that inhabit this planet show that there are many ways to define "fit". My favorite example: the common blacksnake is a more efficient predator than any rattlesnake species in a ranch setting, which is why rattlesnakes are seldom found near dwellings.
  • It's Just a Theory — So is every single scientific principle, but we bet our lives on the Germ Theory of Disease, and on Antibiotic Theory, all the time (except Christian Scientists); the Engineering principles used to design the bridge you just drove across are based on either the Theory of Trusses, or on Finite-Element Theory of Stress (if it looks like a trestle, it is the former). A theory is a model of the way something works, which has been tested by a lot of scientists who'd just love to get a Nobel Prize by proving it is a bad, incomplete, or inadequate model...but so far they can't do so. The "theory of Evolution" is actually "descent with modification" (Darwin's first term for it) or "natural selection" (his second). These are proposed mechanisms to explain why life changes...and it has been shown to change. Evolution is a fact, or actually, a collection of millions of facts; it is Natural Selection that is the theory used to explain the facts.
  • The Ladder of Progress — Where are all the Trilobites? The last one died out a quarter-billion years ago, and every ecological niche that once supported a Trilobite now supports a Crab, a Lobster, or some similar critter with a lot of legs and a hard exterior. Where are the Neandertals? There are three choices: our ancestors ate them or slaughtered them (depends on taste); or ate everything they could eat (sort of like the blacksnakes and rattlesnakes above); or interbred with them but swamped their characteristics by outbreeding the mixed descendants. When Cro-Magnon came on the scene, it was one of at least four hominid species running around; the others gradually vanished, like all other apes are vanishing today. Cro-Magnon went through a few significant changes in social behavior and tool use to become "modern humans". But is this some kind of directed progress? No, rerun the scene, perhaps with a slight delay in C-M development, and today Neandertals might be running the show (see relevant Geico ads for a cute take on their abilities).
  • The Missing Link — There are a few sedimentary sequences that show a set of species changing through time. In one case I've seen, the clams near the bottom of the layer have lots of ridges on their shells, perhaps 25 or so, but the number varies from 20 to nearly 40. Midway through, there are fewer ridges, and they are a little thicker and more pronounced. The range is about 15 to almost 30. Some clams at this level look nearly identical to some deeper ones. At the top, the number of ridges ranges from 12 to at most 20, and they are much heavier. Some of the "top" clams with 20 ridges look a lot like the "bottom" clams with 20 ridges, except for having thicker shells. Such a sequence is called a Cline. Over less than a million years, the environment gradually changed to one with heavier surf (steeper coastline?), and the clams changed to accommodate. OK, now. You are given a heavy-shelled 15-ridged shell and a thinner-shelled 28-ridged shell, and told only that the second one is a million years older than the other. Are they members of the same species? Suppose you are then shown a shell identical to the 28-ridged one, taken from a layer the same age as the younger one, but several miles away, where the environment didn't get as rough. Is this clam a different species from the 15-ridged clam of the same age? Answer questions like that first, then consider where on some "ladder" of progress these clams fit. There is no ladder.
  • Evolution is Random — When energy flows, things tend to self-organize. Life has been defined as a self-replicating, evolving phenomenon that is powered by energy flows in environments that are far from equilibrium. Nearly all life on Earth is powered by sunlight, and less than 2% of the sunlight that hits the planet, at that. Photosynthesis is only 1-2% efficient, and nearly all life depends on green plants and other photosynthetic things (like purple seaweed, which isn't a plant, strictly speaking). Get water spinning in a bucket, then drop in some sand in as random a way as you like; all the sand will wind up in a pile in the middle of the bucket. Sand can't reproduce, nor can whirlpools. But living creatures can. Natural Selection has three elements: reproduction, variation, and selection. Reproduction isn't random (except for promiscuous adulterers). Asexual species produce near-perfect copies of themselves. Sexual species produce offspring that are "half like mom, half like dad, but with grandma's nose". If a couple had twenty babies (it has happened), then statistically 99.9999% of both Mom's and Dad's genes are represented in those twenty offspring...but it's a tossup as to which genes went where. Since both Mom and Dad have some 30,000 genes, it is a pretty sure bet that every gene of both parents is out there in at least one child. However, minor changes to the genes occurs with sufficient frequency that every child has 50-100 differences scattered along his or her DNA, that are not present in either parent...or weren't when they were born, anyway. Since only 2% of our DNA is used for making proteins or regulating their production, it is likely only one or two genes are actually affected. Most such mutations make no difference. Some are bad (a very few kill), some are helpful (better digestion, or eyesight, or strength). These variations are truly random. OK that is reproduction and variation. Now, how about selection? Put a child out into the world, provide education and training, and what do you get? You hope to get grandchildren. Maybe you don't. If not, whatever genetic inheritance that child had was selected against. An elm tree produces billions of seeds every year. Only one or two seeds, of all the seeds in a 150-year lifetime, is likely to become a mature tree. For elms, selection is a huge factor. It is not random, by any means. The environment destroys 99.99999999% of all elm seeds; only a very lucky few go on to produce grand-"children" for the old elm. Were selection less intense, an aged elm would not grow eighty feet tall, would produce just a few seeds, would not need much strength to withstand wind or rain or herbivores. It would look more like a moss, which is adapted to a much less "selective" environment. If there is a direction to evolution, selection provides it.
  • People Come from Monkeys — It is more accurate to say that people come from apes, but it is most accurate to say that people are apes. Humans aren't the largest apes, gorillas are; they aren't the strongest apes for their size, orangs and chimps are neck-and-neck for that distinction; humans aren't the fastest apes, gibbons are (when swinging through the trees in a way Tarzan could only envy). Humans have these special characteristics: upright stance, which helps them see farther without climbing and frees the hands for carrying or working while walking; nearly no hair, so they can befriend fire safely; high intelligence so their social skills are unsurpassed; memory (including for thousands of the noisy symbols we call words) that enhances both social and technical skills; the most efficient hand among apes and good hand-eye coordination; and great endurance so they can run down everything except the dog and the horse. The sense of smell is less acute, a benefit in crowded social conditions, but the other senses are the same as the other apes: good color vision, binocular vision, keen hearing, taste and touch. Every ape species is seen to be much more like humans than any monkey species.
  • Nature's Perfect Balance — Give any environment a few millennia of stability, and it will develop a well-balanced ecology. Ever hear of ecological succession? After a forest fire or landslide, the disturbed area goes through several stages; one common sequence is shrubs-birch/poplar-oak/maple. At any point in the sequence, it may look like a balanced, stable ecology over a period of a decade or two. But over a longer period, it is seen to be an ecology in transition. Old growth forest appears stable, and it is, until the climate changes, or a wildfire clears some hillsides. A rising water table will force conversion of a temperate hardwood forest into a willow/birch stand, then cypress swamp. Nothing is static, including the purported "perfect balance" of nature at any one spot.
  • Creationism Disproves Evolution — Creationism requires a supernatural element. Evolution seeks to explain with no supernatural element. Therefore, they cannot be compared, and neither one can disprove the other. However, no explanation that partakes of supernatural elements can be called a science, because science by definition appeals only to natural phenomena. There is no scientific explanation for a miracle. There is no need to do so. Those who have given their lives to "disproof" have wasted them.
  • Intelligent Design is Science — Intelligent design is negative in emphasis, not positive. ID proposes no natural explanation for the existence of any living beings, and no mechanism other than supernatural intervention for the production of any species now living that did not exist in the past. This reliance on supernatural agents or agencies places ID firmly outside science. This is why ID supporters try instead to show problems with evolution, claiming to be the only alternative. ID is but one of a number of alternatives; the scientific ones have already been disproven, and the nonscientific ones—including ID—aren't in the scientific arena.
  • Evolution is Immoral — Evolution is like the weather. It just is. Whether someone believes in God or Allah or Alien Gene Designers can make no difference. The dinosaurs and trilobites are just as extinct. Life has changed over time. The modern TB bacterium is quite different from the one that existed in the 1800s; antibiotic use has been a selection pressure that resulted in resistant germs that did not exist 200 years ago. The Anopheles mosquito has changed; certain species are DDT resistant, and these didn't exist 100 years ago as they are now; it seems they are new species. Evolution proceeds rather quickly when a new selection pressure emerges. Evolution, or Nature with a capital N, also provides no guidelines for deciding moral questions. The lion that eats a baby gazelle is not immoral. The "natural" is neither good nor bad; the lion must eat to live, and is equipped to eat gazelles and gnus. Murder is a human invention. When a chimp kills another chimp, that is not murder, though it looks uncomfortably similar. However, chimps do have an emotional response to such events, which are similar to our emotional response to murder. Thus, chimps avoid a chimp-killer just as humans avoid or shun a murderer (if we don't imprison him or her). But, this one thing I learned from the book: Plato proved that "God Says So" is not a proper foundation for morality. This seems surprising, but follow the logic. Is God's command the only thing we can rely on to determine that killing another person is immoral? If so, then before God spoke, killing was not immoral and there was no such thing as murder. But if we say instead that killing is immoral, and God has prohibited it for that reason, then we don't need God's order to say that it is immoral; it is immoral whether God says so or not. Some say that great harm has been done because of evolutionary ideas. No doubt this is true. Equally great harm has been done because of religious ideas (do I hear "crusades", the great tragedy of medieval times?). I said evolution, like weather, just is. The persistent, tragic failure of Russian central planning of agriculture for seventy years showed that great evils can be promulgated even by misusing the weather. Morality is about relationships, and our emotional response to them. One fellow was orating about how prostitution ought to be legal; a heckler said, "OK, send me your daughter tomorrow."
That's my take, told my way. The authors go into more detail (in 160+ pages).

Monday, June 25, 2007

Epicycles or a Cyclic Epic

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, cosmology, inflation, cyclic universe

I've been waiting six years since the "Ekpyrotic Universe" proposal of Paul Steinhardt, Neil Turok and others, for a popular treatment of the theory to be published. I am simply not enough of a mathematician to follow the discussion in the monographs. Steinhardt and Turok's new book Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang fulfills my expectations and then some.

I was bothered by "inflation" from the beginning, even more than I've been bothered by the most-invoked explanation of the cosmological red shift. Alan Guth's initial hypothesis seemed to solve a number of problems with the older single-phase Hot Big Bang model. Yet it created others, and continued experimentation since the 1981 proposal have tended to confirm some aspects, yet requiring added complications to it. The current situation is quite messy, and resembles a Ptolemaic Epicycle scheme.

Note that Copernicus's heliocentric model also required epicycles because he continued to "believe" in circular orbits. It took Kepler and Newton to eliminate epicycles. It will take something equally revolutionary, and I suspect, equally unforeseen, to de-complicate cosmology.

The Cyclic Universe that these authors propose may just open the way for a new cosmology. The model is quite simple in concept, if one accepts a single non-testable proposition:
that the universe is contained in one 3-dimensional "brane" (an extension of the meaning of "membrane"), which is coupled to a second brane, the separation between these branes cycling over a very short distance along a dimension we cannot sense or measure (yet?!?)
The cyclic motion, with a period of (very) roughly a trillion years, causes the branes to collide, producing a Bang each time, during which (10-30 seconds or so) a universe of new matter is produced. The rest of the cycle is taken up with forming galaxies and clusters thereof, stars, planets, probably life, while dark energy expands the branes in their 3 dimensions, but doesn't affect the extra dimension along which they cycle.

The "flatness" problem that Inflation was produced to solve is dealt with by the dark energy expansion of the branes, which spreads them out to extreme flatness during each trillion-year cycle. Thus an inflation phase is unneeded, ans the extra dollop of inflation-dark energy that only exists for 10-30 seconds is unneeded.

By the way, the branes are imagined as colliding and bouncing off one another. It seems more logical to me that they pass through instead.

In the past 25 years, increasingly precise experiments, culminating with the WMAP spacecraft, have provided support for five characteristics predicted by both inflation and cyclic models. There is a sixth characteristic that must be tested, which can distinguish between them, related to detecting gravity waves, or at least some of their effects. It'll probably take another twenty years or so.

In the meantime, I hope somebody discovers new information in a few areas of interest to me:
  • Concerning the cosmological red shift, currently interpreted to mean the universe is expanding according to the Hubble "contant": What is the real ratio of red shift due to expansion and red shift due to gravitational potential caused by dark matter and dark energy, over the billions of parsecs light crosses to reach us?
  • Concerning the measurement of accelerated expansion by distant Type Ia supernovae: Is the brightness of a Type Ia supernova really the same across all values of metallicity? In particular, in the very early universe, Z was less than 1/10,000th the current value for Population I stars (it actually began as zero, but the first stars were H-giants that quickly blew up, creating a whiff of the oldest metallic elements). It seems incredible to me that the UV-absorbing metallic content of more recent supernovae could allow the brightness to rise to the same level. I expect a slight difference in maximum brightness and time scale up and down the brightness curve. Acceleration might then disappear.
  • Concerning the "nearly scale-free" spectrum of anisotropy found by WMAP, particularly its "red tilt": At what point does the "slight" decrease of amplitude with decreasing size turn into a pink noise (1/f) spectrum? It has to at some time, or the implied energy is infinite per finite volume. White noise and "pinkish" noise imply infinity, while a pink spectrum, or one between pink (1/f) and brown (1/f2) is needed for a finite energy density.
The engaging tone and humble presentation make the book a refreshing alternative to the take-it-or-leave-it arrogance of many "popular" science books. The authors make it clear that the theory they espouse is by no means proven yet, nor has the competing theory been disproved. The evidence is leaning in their favor, just enough that it seems a viable idea.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Does infinity paralyze motion?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics

", does Achilles ever catch up to the tortoise?" you hear young Zeno ask. Questioning a bystander at the agora you find the visitor is in the midst of discussing his second paradox already. The first was this:
"How did you come here this morning? First you came halfway, perhaps as far as the temple on yon corner. Then you had to come halfway between the temple and this spot. But you were not here yet. You had to come half of the remaining distance, and so forth...then half of that. How many such intervals did you cross? An infinite number? If so, why are you here? How could you cross an infinite number of intervals?"
The tortoise question is more subtle. Achilles can run ten times as fast as the tortoise, so he gives the tortoise a 10-stadia head start. Once he has run ten stadia, the tortoise has gone another stadion. So he has to run another stadion, only to find the tortoise is still ahead, by one-tenth. Will he ever catch the tortoise?

You see the slower overpass the faster every time a race is run. So why is this stranger's reasoning causing such a sensation? But wait! He has two more conundrums yet to pose...

As reported by Joseph Mazur in The Motion Paradox: The 2,500-Year-Old Puzzle Behind the Mysteries of Time and Space, the four known paradoxes of Zeno of Elea (not Zeno the philosopher) are still mysterious, forcing us to think about the continuity—or not—of time and space. The third paradox, the Flying Arrow, attacks time directly:
It is impossible for a thing to be moving during a period of time, because it is impossible for it to be moving in an indivisible instant.
Zeno called the first two paradoxes Dichotomy and Achilles. The fourth, Stadium, is a subtler version of Flying Arrow:
Half a given period of time is equal to the whole of it; because equal motions must occupy equal times, and yet the time occupied in passing the same number of equal objects varies according as the objects are moving or stationary.
Let us pick apart the last thus. It is an unbalanced syllogism. The first statement assumes constant velocity, as we would say today (velocity was not defined for centuries after Zeno). Well and good. Let us consider three objects, in addition to ourselves, the observers. One is stationary, one moves to the right, and the other moves to the left. Each is a long scale, say a meter stick (or yardstick). Just by watching the marks on the sticks, we can see that the end of one moving stick passes the marks on the other moving stick faster than it passes the marks on the stationary stick. Their relative motions differ. Zeno's language implies that the relative motion between any pair of moving objects is the same, which is a fallacy.

This then exposes the fallacy of the Flying Arrow. If time is continuous, there is no "indivisible instant", so the proposition is without meaning. If I am walking at a steady five km/hr (about three mi/hr), then in one hour I cover five km; in a tenth of an hour I cover five-tenths of a km. The ratio between distance covered and time spent is the same. A similar analysis disposes of the Dichotomy.

Why is this so simple for us, but so hard for the 4th Century BCE Athenians? They would not consider dividing space by time, or time by space, because they are different in kind. As we would say, to the Athenian mind, one cannot divide apples by oranges. Pythagorean mathematics was intensely rooted in pure number, and all other calculations were intensely rooted in the quality of the objects counted. Five sheep plus five goats didn't give you "ten livestock" because they didn't think that way. They could only say "five sheep and five goats". And you couldn't consider dividing the flock in half in any way but by separating the sheep from the goats...and that wasn't really "half" anyway. Ratios of sheep to goats were unthinkable.

In The Motion Paradox Dr. Mazur takes us through the history of mathematics with a particular focus on the handling of motion through the 24 centuries since Zeno. When you get right down to it, mathematics is all about motion, either physical motion in space or conceptual motions of various kinds. For without motion, nothing happens; nothing is worth calculating.

In every case, as our mathematical tools have increased in power and subtlety, we have found ways of handling—or sidestepping—Zeno's paradoxes. Yet the author claims we haven't tackled them head-on. Calculus, now three-plus centuries grown, uses the concept of a limit to define such things as velocity or acceleration at a given point in time. If we think about it at all, that "point in time" is not Zeno's "indivisible instant", for we have no interest in dividing it anyway. It is a defined item with numbers attached.

Time is not a thing. It is a convention. Time cannot be defined in isolation, but in terms of changes in some quantity of interest. It is a measure of process. First we decided that certain processes have a constant rate—within some criterion of precision that satisfies us for the nonce—then we compare other processes to these "standard processes". Today's standard process is a certain vibration of a Cesium atom near the top of a parabolic arc in free fall, at a specific ambient temperature and near-zero pressure. Thus time itself is not defined at all, ...or it is defined circularly if you prefer. Suppose, if there is hidden somewhere in the Universe a truly steady, constant "standard process", an Ur-process, and our best "standard process" is wildly unsteady as measured by the Ur-process: We have no way of knowing.

Even the coupling of time with space in Special Relativity does not alleviate the problem. It also couples space with time, so that spatial measurements are as circularly defined as temporal ones.

I find it passing strange that the author didn't mention the one mathematician who gave us a clue to what is going on: Kurt Gödel, Einstein's best friend. His "Incompleteness Theorem" states that every self-contained mathematical system can be used to generate statements that cannot be proven true or false within that system. Zeno's first two paradoxes are the earliest statements known of propositions that could not be tested for truth within the mathematical system in which they were stated. Indeed, some say that we still don't have a sufficiently robust mathematics, that Calculus simply sidesteps the issue.

The author also states that much of modern mathematics lacks rigor when compared to Euclid's system. Rigor requires axioms as a basis, and not all Euclid's axioms are applicable to Calculus, in particular the non-Euclidean geometries and non-mensurable Topologies needed for much of today's work. New math requires new axioms. In my opinion, Calculus does not sidestep Zeno, it defines the Limit and the Tangent that are required to perform its operations, which results in rather simple concepts that make Zeno's paradoxes into fallacies. Based upon the appropriate axioms, we have rigor aplenty.

The biggest mathematical/physics conundrum we presently face is a new Dichotomy, between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. One requires continuous space and time, the other requires that space at least be discontinuous, and implies that time also might be discontinuous. For example according to QM, the shape of the P-orbital in a neutral atom in isolation (true isolation is unachievable in practice in a material Universe, but we can come as close as we like and can afford)...I say, the P-orbital has two lobes separated by a plane. The probability of an electron being in that plane is zero. Effectively, it cannot cross the plane. Yet, electrons cross from lobe to lobe millions of times per second, which gives rise to certain hyperfine spectroscopic lines is low-density, hot gases.

The "tunneling" phenomenon on which Scanning Tunneling Microscopy is based requires an electron to jump about a nanometer in exactly zero time. Millions do so every second while the scientist operating the instrument is recording a STM image. This is impossible in General Relativity, but commonplace in Quantum Mechanics.

Once a consistent system is produced that encompasses the phenomena of both GR and QM—I don't say it will encompass both systems, that may be impossible; but it would encompass all the phenomena of each—we may have a language that allows us to speak of motion in a completely unambiguous way.

PS: I don't think "string theory" will get us anywhere. To me it smacks of the Epicycles of Ptolemy, an elegant but effectively useless complication to paper over problems, but not solve them.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

SF: thin on the ground; F: going gangbusters

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, anthologies, story reviews

The first volume of the newest "Best SF" collection: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume One edited by Jonathan Strahan. We are in the midst of a trend such as occurred in the 1960s, in which fantasy offerings overwhelmed genuine science fiction. These are the 24 stories in this volume; the notation [SF] indicates the ones I consider actual science fiction. In an instance or two, I explain why an apparent sci-fi story really isn't:

  • How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman: Two guys crash a party; nearly all girls; all lovely; they speak, however, of strange things, and have names reminiscent of constellations and galaxies.
  • El Regalo by Peter S. Beagle: Little brother is a witch, and gets into big trouble; big sister, long annoyed with him, comes to his defense; almost accidental mastery of time allows them to defeat a jealous wizard.
  • I, Row-Boat [SF] by Cory Doctorow: This is SF if I, Robot is SF. A cute spoof on "Robbie", with a better-than-spoofy impact.
  • In the House of the Seven Librarians by Ellen Klages: Just how will a baby girl raised by feral librarians (the author's term), in a library that has slipped out of time, fare once admitted to a university? Lyrical and lovely.
  • Another Word for Map is Faith [dystopic SF] by Christopher Rowe: A pure anti-religion rant. Maps have become scripture. The physical landscape must be made to conform.
  • Under Hell, Over Heaven by Margo Lanagan: A large step beyond Dante (if much shorter) in its evocation of Thomist dogma taken literally.
  • Incarnation Day [SF, but barely] by Walter Jon Williams: Some of Williams's writing is even more sadistic than Ian Fleming's. Fortunately, this is not. A coming-of-age-as-a-software, mixed with a bit of Mark Twain's child-rearing advice ("Put the baby in a barrel, feed him through the bung. When he's 21, if he didn't turn out all right, drive in the bung"—my paraphrase).
  • The Night Whiskey by Jeffrey Ford: A unique liquor, distilled from berries that grow from corpses, allows visions of one's beloved dead...and sometimes a bit more.
  • A Siege of Cranes by Benjamin Rosenbaum: Defeat of a Kali-like monster by the most purely ad hoc magical melange I've ever read.
  • Halfway House by Frances Hardinge: On most levels this story makes no sense at all. On a purely emotional level, it seems a metaphor of depression and recovery.
  • The Bible Repairman by Tim Powers: To "repair" the Bible, the tinker burns out passages that offend or condemn its owner with a wood-burning iron. There's also quite a bit of blood magic. An ugly story.
  • Yellow Card Man [neither F nor SF] by Paolo Bacigalupi: Even uglier. I couldn't finish it. No sex or particular violence, just ugliness.
  • Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy) by Geoff Ryman: A sort of coming-of-age story, but for a spoiled rich girl.
  • The American Dead [genreless] by Jay Lake: More ugliness, and no discernable point.
  • The Cartesian Theater [SF] by Robert Charles Wilson: Can a simulated person have a soul?
  • Journey Into the Kingdom by M. Rickert: An odd little ghost story, but sometimes it's hard to tell who is the ghost.
  • Eight Episodes [SF] by Robert Reed: Deliberately ambiguous. Is a particularly bad TV series the product of deranged geniuses or a clever ploy by aliens from the deep past?
  • The Wizards of Perfil by Kelly Link: Coming of age, from several viewpoints, of several youths.
  • The Saffron Gatherers [SF] by Elizabeth Hand: The emotional fallout for one person who sees but survives when "The Big One" hits San Francisco.
  • D.A. [SF] by Connie Willis: This girl is a cross between Card's "Ender" and one of the pre-"Starship Trooper" protagonists of Heinlein.
  • Femaville 29 by Paul Di Filippo: An odd tale of refugees magically rescued by their children.
  • Sob in the Silence [Horror] by Gene Wolfe: You just wish pedophiles would get their just deserts this harshly. The girl still dies.
  • The House Beyond Your Sky by Benjamin Rosenbaum: The editor's blurb calls it SF, but it is a cosmological fantasy that uses terms from the edge of astrophysical speculation (e.g. quintessence), whose coiners don't yet know what they mean.
  • The Djinn's Wife [SF] by Ian McDonald: Though the story is told using the tropes of fantasy writing, the Djinn in question is a subjective avatar of a machine intelligence (which may turn out to be fantasy after all). In this and other McDonald "Cyberabad" stories, the term "aeai" meaning "A.I." evokes the Hindi speaker's inability to pronounce the article "a" without making it into the word "yay" or "yeah".
By my count, eight [SF] out of twenty-four, or one-third. Set aside a couple of non-SF, non-F items, and nearly 60% are Fantasy.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

High-class Neandertals from outer space

kw: book reviews, science fiction, aliens

Carol Emshwiller, who gets my vote for creativity, has the latest take on the "aliens among us" theme. These aren't quite the harmless, helpless aliens of some stories, nor the secretive villains of others, nor even "People" type aliens with special powers. The aliens of The Secret City are, visibly and perhaps biochemically, Neandertals, with plenty of extra bodily strength, but only one "special power": a freezing look, like the look with which some snakes immobilize prey.

The handful of aliens we meet are the children of tourists, stranded here by the failure of others to return for them. Because of the xenophobia of the parents, the youngsters, now grown, have little knowledge of earthly ways, nor much in the way of acculturation to their parents' ways, who seem to have mooned about, wishing for rescue, as they died off one after another.

Some found a refuge in the mountains (the Sierras I suppose), and built there a poor simulacrum of their faraway homes. Only a few remain, and only one of the older generation. The main character Lorpas is seeking this place, and eventually finds it. But when they are found by rescuers, none is sure that returning to an unknown "home" is what they want.

This is a story of immigration and assimilation, one we see going on all around us. I know many, many immigrant families, and so I know many aging and ancient parents or grandparents who still speak nearly no English, don't care for Western food, and while away their days remembering golden times they really never lived.

I am glad I learned young the trick of uprooting and re-planting, making new friends, and shedding the past like a molted crabshell that is now too small.

Ignorance on trial in PA

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, creationism, intelligent design, evolutionary debate

The 21st Century "Monkey Trial" took place in Dover, PA, just a couple years ago. Many folks I knew were incredulous that there could still be such an anti-science bias in a whole school board. After all, Pennsylvania is a politically, socially, and religiously liberal state, the home of "Outcome-Based Education", so hated by conservatives in "flyover country" like Oklahoma or Kentucky (Anti-OBE activism was the particular hobby horse of several good friends when we lived in the Bible Belt). Let's not forget that, if you take away Philadelphia and a couple of elite neighborhoods near CMU in Pittsburgh, you have a state filled with staunch conservatives, regardless of their registered political party.

Matthew Chapman, a confirmed liberal and Bush-hater (clearly expressed in several asides), and an apparently born atheist, went to Dover to cover the trial, firmly believing that creationism has no place in the classroom. He came away believing every kind of creationism should be presented to the children, but not for any reason you might guess.

I simply must show the jacket photo of the author. Looking like he's ready to counter-punch the photographer, he plays host, either to some three dozen ants attracted to sugar drippings on his white shirt, or to a bunch of stickers artfully arranged. I vote for the former.

In Forty Days and Forty Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin®, and other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, author Chapman presents a running summary of the events that preceded and eventually caused the lawsuit and trial, the trial itself, and the aftermath of a divided small town. Along the way, we get glimpses of most of the protagonists—and there were many—from his interviews and observations.

Most of these are likeable folks. Chapman liked them, almost all. A few, particularly Bill Buckingham, who started it all, and a hell-fire preacher who watched proceedings as an interested party, went out of their way to be jerks. Nearly all are Christians, though of widely differing traditions. One couple, who were among those who sued the Dover school board to have Intelligent Design (ID) dropped from the curriculum, left a lasting impression; he came away thinking, "If I were a Christian, these were the kinds of Christians I would want to be like." They lived their faith, and it showed.

How sad, that the Bill Buckinghams of the world are so spiritually insecure they find every little thing a threat, and cannot feel safe unless they ram their narrow vision of what the Bible "must" mean down everyone's throat. As Chapman mentions more than once, it seemed paradoxical that people expecting the bliss of heaven should be the angriest and most bitter. He also exposed the willful ignorance of many, who didn't bother to read or study material from either side of the debate, trusting what others told them, to the point that Bill Buckingham, asked to define ID, gave a pretty good definition of Natural Selection! Jesus did say we ought to be "harmless as doves", but preceded that with "wise as serpents." The pro-ID people are seen to be wise as doves and as "harmless" as serpents.

Of the articles and longer pieces I've read on this trial, this book is by far the best treatment. And why does he want creationism taught? When children have been taught to understand the scientific method and the power of evidence-based reason, you can show them forty kinds of "creation science" and they'll clearly see it isn't science at all.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Behind the struggles of struggling writers

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, collections, writing

One thing at least, besides being a published writer, these 66 writers have in common:
Eric Chase Anderson, Jake Arnott, Tash Aw, David Baddiel, Nicholson Baker, Melissa Bank, Caren Beilin, Ronan Bennett, Anthony Bourdain, Alain de Botton, Arthur Bradford, A. S. Byatt, John Byrne, Tim Carvell, Douglas Coupland, Marie Darrieussecq, Jill Dawson, Janine Di Giovanni, Tony D'Souza, Geoff Dyer, Michel Faber, William Fiennes, Tibor Fischer, James Flint, Jonathan Franzen, David Guterson, Peter Hobbs, Alan Hollinghurst, A. M. Homes, Siri Hustvedt, A. L. Kennedy, Chip Kidd, Nicole Krauss, Hanif Kureishi, Neil LaBute, Nick Laird, JT LeRoy, Jonathan Lethem, Javier Marias, Benjamin Markovits, Claire Messud, Jay McInerney, Rick Moody, Narasha Mostert, Audrey Niffenegger, Joyce Carol Oates, Gina Ochsner, ZZ Packer, DBC Pierre, Ian Rankin, Dan Rhodes, Tom Robbins, Bruce Robinson, Luis J. Rodriguez, Nar Segnit, Will Self, Elif Shafak, Lionel Shriver, Iain Sinclair, Jane Smiley, Ahdaf Soueif, Adam Thirlwell, Matt Thorne, Vendela Vida, Willy Vlautin, Louisa & Isabel Adomakoh Young
Of the 66, I previously knew of only six, and only of two have I read more than a paragraph. Of those two, only one am I likely to read from again. I guess my taste is even more restrictive than Sturgeon's Law: "Ninety percent of everything is junk." So anyway, what do they have in common?

They all contributed a paragraph or three to How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe...with Philip Ottermann, in very small type. Many authors were asked what they needed—a special toy, room, ambience, whatever—to keep the words flowing. These contributed photos and short essays. For one, it is a tiny toy wind-up horse named Clippity; for another, a fifteen-foot-long built-in desk; for another, a few thousand sticky notes; and yet another, chain-smoking, but only during writing time.

If these self-revelations are any guide, I haven't lost much by not reading most of them. Theirs is a specialized audience, or indeed, sixty or more niche audiences. I found it interesting to compare the list of authors mentioned by the editors in their preface, and their quirks:
Agatha Christie, Gore Vidal, Lewis Carroll, Anthony Burgess, William Faulkner, G. K. Chesterton, Dan Brown, Honoré de Balzac, Anthony Trollope, James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, Henrik Ibsen, Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Philip Roth, Thomas Wolfe, Bruno Schulz, Oscar Wilde, P. G. Wodehouse, Vladimir Nabokov
Of these twenty, the only one I hadn't heard of is Bruno Schulz, and I've read from all the others. Their quirks were of a similar range: several require plenty of alcohol fuel; others coffee or tea; some a special ring, or mittens, or slippers; one wrote only in a rocker. A few on the former list, and many on the latter, "classic" list, wrote only by hand, eschewing typewriters or other automated helps.

The book is almost coffee-table size, yet the total text is no more than 20,000 words. Of course, there are the pictures nearly every author sent, but also tons of other artwork, graphics fantasies and typographic gingerbread. Without all that, the book would be the size of the "slim volume of poems" that encompasses many an author's first hardcover output.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A new vehicle for hard SF stories

kw: book reviews, science fiction, story reviews, anthologies

The collection is Fast Forward 1, edited by Lou Anders, author of one Star Trek genre novel, hundreds of articles, and editor of several well-known anthologies. The expected series features hard SF, and the story ideas cover quite a range of imagined futures. Nearly all the stories launch upon the synergy of two or more significant elements of those futures.

  • "YFL-500" by Robert Charles Wilson — Almost everyone is on the dole, paid unemployed because machines do all work, including most intellectual work; art made from data is a unique medium in which AIs cannot work.
  • "The Girl Hero's Mirror Says He's Not the One" by Justina Robson — The brain can be upgraded as simply as the automatic upgrades for MS Windows that appear almost daily; the world is at war between defenders and meme authors, including well-trained assassins.
  • "Small Offerings" by Paolo Bacigalupi — Pollution is rampant, and nearly all first pregnancies are too damaged to live, but a fetus is known to take everything it can from the mother, including most of her stored pollutants...
  • "They Came from the Future" by Robyn Hitchcock — Time travel turns out not to be worth the bother.
  • "Plotters and Shooters" by Kage Baker — A balls-to-the-wall riff on "Revenge of the nerds" fantasies.
  • "Aristotle OS" by Tony Ballantyne — Did you ever think of a computer's (actually an Operating System's) model of the world as a Platonic model (shadows on the wall)?
  • "The Something-Dreaming Game" by Elizabeth Bear — For some kids, the strangle game may really connect to another dimension. I sure hope no youngsters ever read this story; it could be literally fatal!
  • "No More Stories" by Stephen Baxter — Solipsism turned on its head.
  • "Time of the Snake" by A. M. Dellamonica — An alien invasion and collaboration story with more than one ending twist.
  • "The Terror Bard" by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper — Five billion years hence, the sun is dying; million-year-old humans and a mysterious alien ship collaborate to save what can be saved. A hymn of love, betrayal and forgiveness.
  • "p dolce" by Louise Marley — Time travel imagined as "insertion" into the more than one way. p dolce means, "soft & sweet", literally, but what did Brahms mean by it, so frequently?
  • "Jesus Christ, Reanimator" by Ken MacLeod — The Second Coming as a banal re-sacrifice of Jesus. It's been done before, and better, but this version has an interesting take.
  • "Solomon's Choice" by Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress — Give us a few thousand years and interstellar travel: How many human species will there be, and how divergent will they become?
  • "Sanjeev and Robotwallah" by Ian McDonald — A well-told tale of survival in a war-torn future India. Many Hindi words are simply thrown in, and must be guessed from context. After a while, I figured that "wallah" is pidgin for "warrior", but I am not totally sure.
  • "A Smaller Government" by Pamela Sargent — Physical size is but one characteristic that could be coupled to character more literally. This story just opens that door.
  • "Pride" by Mary A. Turzillo — Another take on a Jurassic Park resuscitation program.
  • "I Caught Intelligence" by Robyn Hitchcock — A poem that takes more work o parse than I was willing to employ. I love poetry, but have yet to see much SF poetry that I can enjoy.
  • "Settlements" by George Zebrowski — Almost a time travel story; descendants of our ancestors of the mid-Pleistocene, living among aliens who visited, return to supervise our survival.
  • "The Hour of the Sheep" by Gene Wolfe — So when can a warrior let down his guard?
  • "Sideways from Now" by John Meaney — Quantum entanglement-mediated telepathy and telempathy lead to a parallel-universe scenario.
  • "Wikiworld" by Paul Di Filippo — Today a Wiki is a collaborative web site, just about as democratic an enterprise as is possible (with a bit of oversight to avert total anarchy). In the future, the principle extends to businesses, government, family structure...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Throwing out the bathwater, the baby, and finally the Father

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, evolution

One consequence of reviewing Evolution for Everyone by David Sloane Wilson was meeting Michael Dowd, at least over the phone and by Email. Michael has sent me an advance proof of his book Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. The book will be out in October, and I recommend that interested parties read it. It is a stellar example of someone going just a wee bit too far (Hmmm, what is the antonym for "hyperbole"? "Understatement" is much too weak here).

I have been looking for a solid treatment of just where evolution and faith might meet. I had hopes this might be it. The trouble is, if I understand Michael's writing—and he writes very well, but I find the concepts, in their new-age vocabulary, rather hard to parse—, the religion he proposes is either syncretistic or eclectic. Married to an atheist, who co-preaches with him, he has produced a new term, Creatheism. In the emphasis we find the meaning: he claims he is a CREA-theist, and his wife is a CRE-atheist. It seems he could include anyone of any religion, theist, deist, eclectic, or whatever, as a Creatheist. In appealing to members of every religion, it seems almost as though Michael has "solved" the world's religious differences by simply baptizing everyone by proxy...without a Mormon's decency to wait until they are dead!

I could multiply quotes and support or rebuke them one by one, but I wish to avoid being tiresome. I'll just use a few. Firstly, he defines Theism thus:
THEISM: a concept generally thought to mean belief in an interventionist God. Theists tend to imagine nature as a machine-like thing, an artifact made by a Supreme Being residing off the planet and outside the Universe.
The first sentence is accurate. The second is a straw man set up so he can shoot it down with his definition of Creatheism:
CREATHEISM: a concept introduced in the early 21st century, grounded in an empirical understanding of the nested emergent nature of divine creativity. For creatheists "God" is a holy name for Ultimate Reality—the all-encompassing Wholeness—that which includes yet transcends all other realities. Creatheism regards Nature as a revelation or expression of the divine, particularly in its emergent creativity. Createism understands humanity as a self-reflective aspect of Creation that allows the Wholeness of Reality, seen and unseen, manifest and unmanifest—i.e., God—to be honored in conscious awareness and to guide our own deliberate manifestations of that divine creativity. (Emphasis is Dowd's)
To touch the last point first, I happen to like the statement by one of the Plymouth Brethren, "God is in everything, but everything is not God."

A biblical theism sees God as existing before creation, then creating the Universe; as being outside of time but submitting to time to gain many people to form a Body of Christ; as transcending creation yet instilling himself into creation by gaining first an earthly people (Israel) among whom he would dwell, then a spiritual people (Christians) within whom he dwells, individually and corporately; finally building up his expression, symbolized as the New Jerusalem, which is not heaven, nor in heaven, but on the earth, on the New Earth after the old earth has been melted away, as his eternal kingdom. All these elements and more are contained in seed form in Genesis, reiterated a little more distinctly in Deuteronomy, praised a bit here and a bit there in the Psalms and Prophets, and revealed more distinctly yet, but still in rather mysterious ways, in the Gospels, Epistles, and Apocalypse.

Theists in general believe in Emmanuel, God among his people, who also transcends all. "We are in Christ, and Christ in us."

The last quote I'll use relates to the rôle of scripture:
"Scripture is divine communication in any form that supports us in honoring and serving the Whole (the Holy One). For me, scripture is everything that inspires and encourages me to grow in evolutionary integrity. If a poem, chapter in a book, website, or movie helps me grow in Christ-like humility, authenticity, responsibility, and service to others—then for me, it is scripture. Writings and other artifacts that do not support me in this process I do not consider scripture, even if they appear on a page of the Bible." (Emphasis is Dowd's)
Nothing could be more plain. Michael Dowd has set himself up (and everyone else, of course) as the authority to decide what is and is not scripture. The soul that wishes to be free will naturally abhor absolutism, but if there is no absolute standard, then there is no standard.

He allies himself with liberal "christians" of all stripes by protesting of the abhorrent nature God seems to display in the Bible. Liberal denominations discarded the Bible's authority decades ago on the same grounds. In all cases, it is due to laziness; they don't know what is really in there, and don't dig deep enough to find out why God would command such things as the destruction of, for example, the seven tribes of Canaan.

I'll touch on the last one briefly: There was a minor problem of where they were, but the kind of dispossession practiced by the Assyrians and Babylonians a millennium later would have taken care of that. The bigger problem was who they were. Caleb, Joshua, and the other ten spies reported they saw "Nephilim" there. The presence of Nephilim (translated wrongly "giants" in KJV; it means "fallen") is also the stated reason for the flood; Noah's family was the only one that wasn't intermarried with them.

Genesis 6 gives the origin of the Nephilim: "The sons of God saw the daughters of men" and, to be short about it, married them and had "renowned" (or "awesome") offspring. There's plenty of debate about it, but it seems clear to me that these "sons of God" were some kind of angel, members of an earlier creation. Jude is probably speaking of them when he writes of angels who "left their first estate" and are therefore reserved for extra-special punishment. So we have here a prehistoric case of alien invasion and interbreeding, producing a hybrid race. God extinguished them with the Flood. Some later cropped up in Canaan, and had by then polluted these seven tribes; some, "sons of Anak", had little of the human remaining. It is these, and these only, that God required to be extinguished. The job was not completed until Goliath and his four brothers, apparently the last living Nephelim, were finally killed by David and his mighty men, over a 20 year span.

With the death of the last Nephilim, the Philistines became much more peaceable, and David's son Solomon enjoyed a reign of relative quiet (that's not to say he wasn't without significant faults of his own...). But if you think that God is too harsh in some cases, consider that he is greater than you, his love is infinitely greater than yours, and so is his anger. Does he have a right to anger? Do not say no! When God is loving, he is very loving. When God is severe, he is very severe.

Another old quote comes to mind, I hope I have this somewhat faithfully: "We ought to be gratified when scientists find Hittites or other 'unknown' peoples that the Bible mentions, and the headlines hail, 'New Dig Proves Bible'. But we do not accept the judgment of history's flickering candle on the Bible. Rather, we shine the clear light of the Bible on history, and judge it thereby."

Only the Bible is timeless. Paul wrote in 1Cor 12 that
12Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, 13which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
That is, Paul here claims verbal inspiration, not just some general idea which he had to find words for. He received the right words from the Spirit of God.

Many years ago, I read the book Your God is Too Small by J. B. Phillips. His complaints then resonate today, with many over-literalizing the Bible, making a "box" of doctrine at a much too early stage of study, and trying to confine God to it. Those who would discard the Bible because some aspects of God's nature offend them, also make their God too small.

As always, I distinguish sharply between faith and religion. Religion is a mixture of emotion with rules; for many who don't like rules, their religion is pure sentimentality. From such sentimentalists we hear the quisling, "Oh, God would never do that!" But as written to the Hebrews,
11:1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith has to do with things of which science can never treat. Faith does not deny the material world, nor should it refuse the findings of those who seek the world's secrets. But faith is involved with a holy relationship with a holy God among a holy people. I hope scientists try to study faith of people who know both their human spirit and the Holy Spirit; I expect they will find a realm that is not amenable to the double-blind clinical trial, to the psychological statistical method.

I believe the physical body of Jesus, dead at least 36 hours, was raised out of death and He, after visiting with His closest followers for nearly six weeks, ascended bodily to His Father and our Father. I believe that, thereafter, as the Holy Spirit, He poured Himself out upon first 120 of His members, then on thousands and then millions of others, in whom He dwells, living in and guiding His people first to know Him, then to follow Him, then to express His life on earth, which no method, no teaching, could ever accomplish, only the indwelling Spirit. The only real Christian is Jesus! These people are being formed into a Body, the Body of Christ, as His members (not "cells"; cells by the millions die in your body every day, but members persist throughout your life. The members of Christ do not die). His return will usher in the Manifestation of the Sons of God (i.e. His members, not the angelic 'sons of God'), and the releasing of all creation from the bondage of corruption. In the Kingdom of God predicted by the Bible, which will be on the New Earth, not in the New Heaven, there will be no more death, except that of the Lake of Fire, the Second Death.

The first two sentences above express the common Christian faith. The rest express a few precious truths found in Scripture and experienced by many of the followers of Jesus. I find nothing in Michael Dowd's book that leads me to believe he has any of this. Michael, your God is too small.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Mistress of Metamorphosis

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, naturalists, artists

In Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, Kim Todd revives a nearly-forgotten hero of the Renaissance, someone whose amazing work did much to dispel the old notion of spontaneous generation. I obtained this illustration of a butterfly whose larva feeds only on Amaryllis from the Hippeastrum page of a French horticulture website. They obviously have more interest in the flower than the insect, as it isn't mentioned.
But generations of printers have reprinted, revised, edited, and frequently nearly destroyed, the work of Maria Merian, who published six lavishly illustrated books of the natural history of caterpillars in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Three books are based on her work in Surinam in 1699-1701. The earlier three were of European species.

The biography chronicles her life as a gifted artist and printer's daughter, who grew up illustrating flower books and others of a genre we'd call "coffee table" today. But from age 13, when she first watched a moth emerge from its cocoon, her lifelong love was caterpillars, the eggs they hatched from, the pupae they formed—cocooned or not—, the butterflies or moths that they produced, and the plants both larva and adult fed on.

She, more than any other of her generation, patiently gathered the evidence to show that a particular caterpillar always produced a particular adult, even though certain caterpillars have several color phases and certain adult insects have color variations of their own. She struggled with the red-herring depredations of parasitoids that confused the evidence by causing many pupae to emit clouds of flies or wasps rather than the expected insect.

Author Todd traces her life, and the career of her work over the three centuries following her death. Merian was an extraordinary woman in an extraordinary time, a great among greats. Simply being able to work in her chosen field at a time that Galileo was forced to recant that "the Earth moves", and that Newton felt compelled to write more of alchemy and theology then of science, is a marvel in itself. We are all richer for her vision, diligence, and passion.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

VIPs on the moon

kw: book reviews, science fiction, lunar development

Moongate recently came out in paperback. I'd given it a pass five years ago, so I thought I'd take a look. William Proctor, sometimes called a "Christian Tom Clancy", and David J. Weldon, an MD and congressman from Florida, wrote a space-politics opera about energy development and wormhole research carried out on the Moon.

Aside from the wildly optimistic timeline—well-developed space tourism with space hotels, 100-passenger shuttles modeled after the current "fleet", transfer stations, and a 130-person contingent of lunar residents, all by 2017; construction of a laser-implosion-driven fusion power plant in something less than two months—the scientific setting is sufficiently scoped and scripted to be plausible.

The political setting is a mixture of plausible (a weak U.S. President dominated by a ruthless Russian leader: shades of Nixon and Brezhnev) and speculative (Russian politics dominated by their Mafia, particularly "Pika", from slang for "knife", a supposed team of assassins. If Pika exists, it's news to the CIA).

So a team goes to the Moon to build a fusion power plant there, fueled by Deuterium and Helium-3 (called "molecules" several times; Helium does not form molecules; these are Isotopes). A Russian scientist is substituted at the last minute for the American scientist, who has died in an 'accident'. The Russian scientist has a secondary task, to use the high energy density of the fusion plant to produce a wormhole. In what seems a side note, but becomes central, the Russian scientist is a closet Christian, who gets spiritual guidance from an American evangelist and combat veteran.

To cut to the chase, the fusion plant succeeds, as does the wormhole experiment. What do you do with a wormhole, that may be connected with just about anywhere in the Univese? Of course, you drop in a "nanodisk" containing the human genome and a good part of all human literature. Like that Voyager disk that shows wandering aliens just how to find us (yes, I am paranoid. Power corrupts, and "wandering aliens" are by definition more powerful than we are). A bigger wormhole soon erupts in its place, and out pops a collection of similar disks, a seeming gift from the folks at the other end of the wormhole.

Clearly, the authors are thinking Trojan horse here, while the politicos they have created are vying to use the "gift" to their advantage. The story ends on an ambiguous note in several ways. The American evangelist and a miraculously-healed cripple stymie the Pika's attempt to kill everyone, the agnostic congressman at the center of the story begins to believe but doesn't just yet, and the copied alien data is stored in a locker somewhere. Do I hear "sequel"?

As it happens, this book is a sequel, to The Last Star, an earlier book by Proctor. Scenes from that book litter this one, and the evangelist is its hero, and presumably the hero of the next book to come. As Christian science fiction goes, it is better than most.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The three "Peoples of the Book"

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, judaism, christianity, islam, manuscripts

F. E. Peters, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, has recently published The Voice, the Word, the Books: The Sacred Scripture of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, a survey of the development of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran.

This relatively recent illuminated manuscript of Psalms in Hebrew shows how the decorative styles of manuscript production had developed even among the image-averse Jews, by Renaissance times. This is a late subject in Dr. Peters's work. He begins with a comparative history of the three collections. The Hebrew Bible—which he consistently calls "the Bible", reserving that term for the Book of the Jews—came first, its earliest sections dating before the first millennium BCE. The contention of "higher critics" who late-date the books to periods long after the events they record, are given the lie by fragments from the book of Numbers and others dating prior to 700 BCE. The familiar prayer, "The LORD bless thee and keep thee" is one of these.

The Hebrew Bible, as distinguished from the Christian Old Testament—they are substantially different—was gathered together in stages covering at least a thousand years. Ezra is traditionally considered to have fixed it in text and form, as its last significant editor.

Editors, ah, the neglected conservers of Scripture, for all three Books. Every "book" and chapter in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Testament, and the Quran, show clear signs of editing, to the point that some writers have called them "a pastiche".

To a believer, of course, it makes little difference whether Samuel wrote the chapters containing his life and experiences, in the form we see them today, or if an Isaiah or Ezra edited the work; editors can be just as inspired as authors. I happen to believe that Genesis, in particular, was stitched together by Moses, partly from family records and journals of the patriarchs, and perhaps pre-Flood generations, and partly from sagas and poems. He would then be the first Bible editor.

That Moses's work has been further edited is shown by such things as the "camels" in Genesis 24; in the times of Abraham and Moses, they would have been asses. A later writer translated the work for a people whose language and culture had changed over centuries. I care little if the Hebrew of Moses no longer exists, being replaced by a later tongue, the Hebrew still learned by Jewish children. God knows how to take care of His message.

This image, from the Bodmer manuscript known as P66, was written in the 2d Century CE, probably shortly after 150AD. It is in the Greek of the time, often called "koine", which a Greek friend tells me is synonymous with "street", as in "street talk".

Though the New Testament was produced over less than a century, it is similarly a collection, and it may be that Matthew in particular was edited from two or more older Gospels, now lost (unless one of them was Mark, which is likely). It may be that other NT books were similarly produced, and perhaps the last section of Mark is an addendum. Again, this doesn't matter to a believer; God knows how to transmit what He wants us to know.

This illuminated Quran sheet (suras 1-3) is also from a later time, when decoration of the page had become common. Muslims are much more image-averse than Jews, so while they may decorate with plants and birds, no mammal images, and of course no human figures, are used. To play it safe, geometric figures are the norm.

The Quran, meaning "recitation", is also a collection, but from a single person, covering a known span of 22 years. The suras were initially memorized, and the production of a written Quran was instigated by the observation that large numbers of those who had memorized the whole were dying, mainly by warfare. A written or printed Quran has the suras in order by length, except for an opening short prayer/poem. (Note that most books of the New Testament are also roughly in length order, longest first.) The only indication of relative age is the indication Mecca or Medina, as the place of first speaking.

A lot of scholarship has gone into ordering the suras chronologically, and to producing a biography of Muhammad that is more than a legendary epic. Unlike the other two Books, the Quran entirely obscures its reciter, consisting of instruction, liturgy, and devotional poetry.

These surveys of the books' historical development go in parallel in The Voice, the Word, the Books. The author dwells on the creative tension between oral and literate cultures, noting in particular the weakening of memory that results from reliance on writing! Whereas most today quail at memorizing just one Psalm or chapter of Matthew, thousands of Muslims in the generations following that of Muhammad memorized the entire Quran, which is about half the size of the New Testament (78,000 words versus 138,000).

Once a shift had occurred from an oral to a literate society, societal changes followed. Now a student could line up Kings and Chronicles, or the four Gospels, and compare them. The mandate at the end of Deuteronomy, that all Israelites essentially wallpaper their houses with Scripture, and read from it daily, was closer to fulfillment, though phylacteries and mezuzahs are a poor substitute. But God essentially mandated 100% literacy upon a people largely illiterate, and the change took centuries (I think this mandate largely underlies the Jews' excellence in education).

There is a charming section near the end of the book about oral use of Scripture, such as lectio divina of the Catholic tradition and devotional reading of some christian groups (and pray-reading among my people). The point is well made that much prayer, historically, consisted of reciting God's words back to God, particularly those containing promises one hoped God would rapidly fulfill.

It seems to me Dr. Peters strives to show the similarities among the three "Peoples of the Book". However, their great differences stand out. The Hebrews were given the Law, initially at Mount Sinai, then further stipulations later on. Later prophets, such as Jeremiah, hinted at a law to be "written on the heart" that would supersede the Levitical Law. The Christians claimed this in the teachings of Jesus, and the book of Hebrews is the fullest development.

Though the Quran gives minimal lip service to the older two Books, Muslims claim that Jews and Christians have "misused" their Scriptures, even to the point of editing out references to Muhammad that they claim were originally there.

The reference I see to Muhammad's people is in the ambiguous "blessing" on Ishmael, of whose descendants the LORD God said, "[they] shall live in defiance of all his brethren." We see this in spades today! Yet multitudes of Muslims live in peace with their neighbors; only a radical few genuinely believe they are called to take over the world. With such no peace is possible.

As I have written before, not only Judaism and Christianity went through jingoistic periods of military conquest (the invasion of Canaan, the Crusades), so did Buddhism and Hinduism. They all settled down about the time they reached an age of 2,000 years. This seems to be the time it takes a religion to mature. Islam, being but 1,300 years old, has a way to go. The clearly insane ferocity of some indicates definitely how insecure they are in their own faith. They are in mortal terror that their children...or some of them!...will be converted to another faith. Like any cornered animal, they fight. We have a long road ahead.