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June 2008

Evolution at Work


clipped from arstechnica.com

Ars covered the research earlier this month, when a paper reporting it was first published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. Richard Lenski and his colleagues have been conducting a long-term experiment in bacterial evolution, one that has encompassed over 30,000 generations of bacteria going back over 20 years. Many of the bacteria have evolved the ability to better utilize the sugar available in their cultures, but one strain underwent at least three distinct changes (at generation 27,000, 31,000 and 33,000) that enabled them to access citrate present in the medium—something their parents were incapable of. Lenski saved samples of every culture at intervals of 500 generations, and his paper suggested his lab was going back and sequencing the genomes of the intermediaries to try to find out the genetic basis for the evolution of this new trait.

  blog it

This is a fascinating bit of scientific research. The beauty of using bacteria to study evolution is that their generations turn over so quickly. It's like watching more complex species over millions of years; in addition you can control the conditions so the experiment is more elegant than what's seen in evolution in the wild. And sequencing the genome to find out where those changes occur will give us a better understanding of how such changes do occur in the wild. It's hard to look at this and ignore the fact that these bacteria are evolving.

Equally fascinating is the reaction of certain conservatives to its publication. Conservapedia, a wiki formed in reaction to the free-for-all atmosphere of Wikipedia editorial meetings, has decided this whole experiment is a hoax. Ars Technica has a whole run-down of the ridiculous drama involved, which includes not actually reading the openly published data and demanding the data behind the data, which is okay, if you have a clue about how to crunch it yourself. That's actually what science is all about: duplicating results to verify hypotheses. Non-duplicable results are extremely suspect (see the brouhaha over cold fusion), but somehow I don't see Conservapedia's people being able to carry off either that argument or the experiment itself. Crying hoax in this case is just an attempt to discredit the researcher—a cheap shot, to say the least, and the sure sign of a sore loser.

One of my friends recounted a conversation she had with her conservative, creationist parents about the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a problem they were very concerned about. When she pointed out that the bacteria have evolved this resistance over time, they were nonplussed. How could that be, if evolution were untrue? On the other hand, if they didn't evolve that resistance, how had it happened?

Occam's razor says . . . evolution. It's a generally elegant paradigm, even if the fine details are somewhat sketchy. And that's what makes the bacteria research so interesting: genome sequencing will show without a doubt that beneficial genomic changes—mutations—do happen and perhaps at a greater rate than we may have suspected.

But True Believer's don't have much use for Occam's razor, and evolution upsets their notions of divine creation. I see this as a failure of imagination, if not of intellect. Evolution: it's here; get used to it.

[Tip o' the hat to Shakesville]

Saving the Suicide Hotline

Peacegirl This is a favorite cause of mine, not because I've lost anyone to suicide, but because I've felt low enough myself to not really care whether I lived or died. Even if you aren't actively seeking to end your life, that point where you don't care is a bad enough place to be; I can't imagine going that one step further and because I couldn't, I got myself into therapy and stopped walking into traffic without looking. But not everyone is always this rational. I know it's important for people in this state of mind to have a safe place to find help, a place that's confidential, that won't treat them like criminals (or potential suicide bombers), that won't penalize them or make them feel worse than they already do. In a country where you cannot make a phone call or send an e-mail message without an assured right to privacy, this issue is not a trivial matter. Keeping your records confidential is not something the government, especially the current one, is very good at. And this kind of problem requires empathy, not bureaucracy. So if you can, give a few bucks to keep this service private and independent.


Radicalmoi Jen's hubby Sean the Cosmologist has started an interesting discussion over on Cosmic Variance about "why so many academics are hostile to some religions rather than others." For me, this is a very interesting twist on the opposite question, why so many (particularly American) religions are hostile to learning and education. According to a recent study (PDF) by The Institute of Jewish and Community Research, "Faculty feel most unfavorably about Evangelical Christians." Big surprise. Having grown up in a religion that considered going to college about equivalent to choosing to live in a combination brothel and crack house, I find the question of why academics are more hostile to evangelicals not at all puzzling. It's a mutual hostility club caused not just by opposing world views, but opposing value systems.

Some of the things that academics value most are freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech. By contrast, evangelicals value unquestioning faith. Each intellectual challenge to that faith is seen as a test in loyalty and one's ability to bear the burden of ridicule for the sake of one's faith. The dogma of faith is unchanging—except when revealed by God—while, thanks to the spirit of inquiry, secular knowledge, with the exception of basic laws of nature, changes all the time. Even those basic laws are often refined, the way Newtonian physics was refined (or surpassed) by quantum mechanics. Evangelicals often view the effort to understand the wonders of our universe, both macro and micro, as a quest for forbidden knowledge. There are some things that we were just not meant to know, they often assert, usually in stentorian voices with much Bible thumping.

I've never understood that, though I do often despair of the way in which the knowledge we gain is used, e.g. splitting the atom. I think this is one reason science needs the counterbalance of some kind of spirituality. But not one that puts actual restrictions on what we're "supposed" to know. If you believe in some kind of creative deity, why would that deity not just freeze the brain power of its creation instead of giving it the capacity to become more intelligent, and understand more of the universe? Deities can do that, right?

No, that's because it's a test, the faithful say. But it's one the intelligent are going to fail. Intelligent people by nature can't stop questioning without real effort. And making that effort kills a part of them, their essential nature. That's some sacrifice.

What this claim of mystery means usually means, unfortunately, is that you, the little people, are not supposed to know these things. It's okay for the priesthood (literal or political) to know them, but not you. Because knowledge is power. That's one of the reasons that early education should be compulsory and advanced education should be free, for as far as you want to go. Otherwise, you are crippling your populace, and leaving them open to the manipulation of superstitious or just plain power-hungry nutcases. Jim Jones, anyone? Of course, it's far easier to control people who aren't that well-informed. Marking off certain areas as forbidden knowledge is one way to cement that control. The real problem with this, of course, is that if you don't understand your world, you can't make smart decisions about how to live your life. And if only a certain group understand the world, they get to make the decisions. As a rule, academics are in the business of spreading knowledge around to anyone who wants it. That can be a subversive activity in some cases.

It's no wonder academics are hostile right back to people who are hostile to their entire reason for being.

Like so many other prejudices, anti-intellectualism has its origin in fear, mostly of having your entire worldview dismantled, and the more petty but no less real fear of being made to look foolish. I can attest to the fact that it's a little scary to not have any sense of sureness about what the future will bring, either while you're living or dead. It was a relief to know we'd never have an all-out nuclear war because God would never let us totally destroy the earth. On the other hand, it's a little exhilarating, too, a bit like skydiving, I suspect.

But that fear is very real. My mother, not an ignorant or anti-intellectual woman by any means, found the idea of alternate dimensions really frightening. The idea that there might be someone else just like her somewhere else who had made different choices than she had was I think what she found so scary. Somehow, that would invalidate her life in her mind, though it did no such thing. The concept of alternate universes is a little more complex than that, but it does raise interesting "road not taken" possibilities. By contrast, I love the idea that our lives fork and branch at every moment, at ever choice we make, perhaps at every breath, not just for us but for every event. The number of universes is mind-boggling, but that may only attest to our lack of brain capacity to comprehend it. It's not by any means fully accepted in the physics community, but it raises some very interesting questions.

And that's what it's all about, isn't it: the questions.

George Carlin, 1937-2008 RIP

Georgecarlinrh04_2 George Carlin, one of my heroes, has died at the age of 71—way too young for such a free spirit and incisive observer of the absurdities of life and language. Fitting that he was recently honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor; I can't think of anyone's style that reminds me so much of Twain: irreverent, sarcastic, disrespectful, and fearless. One routine he'll go down in history for was the Seven Words You Can't Say on TV:

"The original seven words were, shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the ones that will curve your spine, grow hair on your hands and (laughter) maybe, even bring us, God help us, peace without honor (laughter) um, and a bourbon."

New York radio station WBAI let him say them on the air in the early 70's and in 1978, the obscenity case went to the Supreme Court, where the censuring and censoring was upheld, perpetuating stupidity like the fines for the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction." Carlin was particularly good at pointing out societal hypocrisy, which is probably one of the reasons I loved him so: "The word shit, uh, is an interesting kind of word in that the middle class has never really accepted it and approved it. They use it like, crazy but it's not really okay. It's still a rude, dirty, old kind of gushy word. (laughter) They don't like that, but they say it, like, they say it like, a lady now in a middle-class home, you'll hear most of the time she says it as an expletive, you know, it's out of her mouth before she knows. She says, Oh shit oh shit, (laughter) oh shit. If she drops something, Oh, the shit hurt the broccoli. Shit."

I also loved his language consciousness. He did an entire routine on what he called "soft language" that's worthy of George Orwell's 1984 (see sidebar). You can see it here. He's so un-PC that it's wonderful, fearlessly pointing out that those nice comfortable words like "pre-owned" have simpler meanings, like "used": "It's getting so bad now that any day I expect to hear a rape victim referred to as an 'unwilling sperm recipient.'" Language like this doesn't just distort truth, it's us bullshitting ourselves. Carlin had the same horror of  of euphemism that I do. In this routine, in fact, he rails against the use of the terms "pass away" and "expire" ("like a magazine subscription") for "died."

And now that he has, the language police have won a little victory.

[Cross posted at Spawn of Blogorrhea]

Signs and Wonders

Going_to_church_moi_2A couple of years ago, I met a very pretty blonde woman from Russia in Barnes & Noble. When I first saw her, she was sitting on the floor with a very familiar little book in her hands, trying to explain it in very fractured, almost non-existent English to a young Asian-American woman. The little book was one I owned myself, and I daresay everyone in my religion owned one too. It was a teaching aid for proselytizing in foreign countries, should you happen to travel abroad, with the same text on each page, written in a vast number of different languages: just a simple introduction to the Good News. As a marketing tool, it's truly brilliant.  (Sadly, that's what I often felt I was doing when I proselytized: selling my religion.) I walked on by, leaving her to it.

A little while later, she cornered me in the music section. After several attempts, I managed to explain to her that we were sisters in the same faith. Since my Russian is non-existent and her English was about the same, I'm not that sure how successful I was, but I gave her one of my cards. I had to admire her zeal, making the effort in a country where she didn't speak the language.

A couple of days ago, she actually called me, and I couldn't understand her any better now than I could when we first met. Her English hasn't improved much and neither has my Russian, so without the benefit of seeing her, it took a couple of phone calls for her to make clear to me who she was. In her still very-broken English, she asked me if I went to church. When I blurted "Oh. No," her response was to say goodbye and hang up.

When you've been weaned on the signs and portents of prophecy, it's very hard to stop seeing them as such. Even though I see fellow co-religionists from the local congregation nearly every day on the street in my neighborhood, this phone call kinda spooked me. Not for any rational reason, but just because it came so out of the blue, and because I'd been thinking about increasing food prices, the faltering economy and the number of natural disasters in the news lately—all apocalyptic signs of the End Times (note capitals).

I remember being out proselytizing one day and having some fed-up person say, "Of course all those things will seem more numerous! There's more people now for them to happen to and more people to hear about them!" I couldn't get around that logic then, and I can't get around it now. Earth is a geologically active planet with a complex ecosystem that includes some technologically savvy but short-sighted components and weather that's barely understood and impossible to control, at this point. With six billion of us scattered fairly densely throughout nearly ever habitable (and more sparsely through the uninhabitable) land masses, we've been able to make for more observations and gather way more data than ever before. When there were only a few million of us, widely scattered in tiny populations that didn't travel, Earth must have seemed a very stable, unchanging place with a few odd occurrences with no visible causes thrown in: comets, tsunami, tornadoes, crop failures, drought, disease. And yet, we were always looking for causes, asking why.

Carl Sagan, great popularizer of science and author and host of PBS's Cosmos, named his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (see sidebar) in part after

a courageous, largely Biblically based, book by Thomas Ady, published in London in 1656, attacking the witch hunts then in progress as a scam "to delude the people" Any illness or storm, anything out of the ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft. Witches must exist, Ady quoted the "witchmongers" as arguing—"else how should these things be, or come to pass?" For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable changers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. . . . (p. 26)

It's very difficult, if not impossible to draw the line between faith and superstition. Statistics account for so much of what we see as eerie coincidence because people know so little of how statistics work, but also because that's how our minds work: they gather data and correlate, which is as useful a skill in science as it is in foment superstition. It just depends on your world-view and whether you've learned to be a critical thinker or not. Obviously, Thomas Ady had learned to be a critical thinker in a time when that was an uphill battle.

It's still an uphill battle. Superstition is so much easier, and humans are basically lazy, especially about thinking. One thing I observed in my years in the land of evangelicals is that people follow because they like to be relieved of the responsibility of thinking for themselves about the hard Big Questions. I very much admire the Buddhists for that: everybody, to reach enlightenment, must do their own thinking. You can only do so much following as a Buddhist before you realize you must make your own way through the Dark Wood.

Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Life in the Fat Lane

SupermoiThere's a great blog called Shapely Prose that I read with faithful regularity. I only started reading it about a year ago, led there from Shakesville, another great feminist/liberal blog. I fell instantly in love with the hostess Kate Harding and her fellow bloggers, Fillyjonk and Sweet Machine, who all have attitude to spare and take no prisoners. And their issue is not just feminism, but one* of the last acceptable prejudices: fat people. If you think this isn't an issue, trying gaining 20 pounds. This is especially true of women, whose duty it is to be attractive to the male gaze. So yeah, fat is a feminist issue. Being fat and female is just asking for rude catcalls, like being a lone female at night is asking for rape.

This is why I love Joy Nash, too. Here's the latest of what she calls her "Fat Rants" courtesy of Shapely Prose:

All those rude remarks and nosy conversations and catcalls in her video? She's not just making those up. I've had nearly every single one of them said to me at one time or another. I've heard the catcalls and mean remarks from stranger so often that I now, like Joy, have a handy response memorized: "I can always get liposuction, but you will always be a moron."

MebeforeafterNow, lest you, the complete stranger get some crazy ass idea about what I look like, here's evidence. On the left is me in 1981, on my way to Europe for the first time, schlepping a 40 lb. backpack, which did not get any lighter over 6 weeks, let me tell you. I weighed about 135 then, and 125 when I came back. At that time, I kept hearing how if I would just lose ten pounds, I would look great. When I did lose it, did anybody notice or congratulate me? No. But I was strong, fit, muscular and healthy. And I had schlepped way too much shit all over England for six weeks. What doesn't kill you makes you strong. Literally stronger, in this case.

On the right is me in LA before Jen's wedding last year, where I weigh about 190. I'm still strong (I move my own furniture when I paint), not quite as fit, still pretty muscular, and healthy. And last year, when I went to Barcelona for two weeks, I didn't have any more trouble walking around there than I had twenty-six years before, with or without the backpack. The only reason I have any trouble keeping up with people is that I'm five feet tall and everyone's stride is longer than mine.

So yeah, I'm fat. I put on those extra pounds mostly during my last year of college, from having an ulcer that only stopped hurting when I ate. I refuse to diet now because they don't work, and they make me a bitch on wheels (not that anybody else notices), so my weight has stayed constant within 10 lbs for the last 25 years. I eat what I want, when I want, until I'm full, and I love good food. I used to eat a lot of junk food—ironically before I gained weight—but since I got fat, I've learned to eat healthy, and I don't mean just salads. I eat organic, home-cooked, and with healthy fats: olive and sesame oil, butter for flavor (there are some things that cannot be made with anything but butter and you're better off with a naturally occurring lipid than some chemical fake). I've gotten so used to what real food tastes like now that junk food mostly repels me. I don't have a car, so I walk everywhere. If I weren't too chicken to, I'd bike as well, like I used to. But exercise for its own sake? Nyet. Tried that. Bored me shitless. Here's the kind of shape I'm still in: When the first AIDS Dance-a-thon was held, I danced for four solid hours with the rest of the club kids. I did not take a breather or sit anything out. I think I sweated about five pounds off, and I felt great the next day. Not too shabby for a fat chick, huh?

Love_your_body_2So I refuse to apologize for my size. I'm not embarrassed about it. Studies are starting to reveal that a lot of what's involved in what we weigh has to do with genetics, anyway, something I long suspected. My people in my family are all stocky peasants, on both sides; I knew I was never going to be Twiggy, or even as thin as my best friend. But why am I going on about this here, on this blog? Because this is part of who I am, too, and part of my feminism. The one thing that makes me sad about being fat is seeing how much women oppress each other about it. That insidious comment, "if only you would lose X pounds, you'd be so pretty," is possibly one of the cruelest things we say to each other. Fat ≠ Ugly. The next cruelest is the bad habit that truly naturally thin women have of saying "I'm so fat" in front of other women who aren't. Will you cut that passive-aggressive crap out, ladies? Either get your shrink to work on your self-image with you, or STFU. At least around me. Don't go spreading that hate around. Why do the patriarchy's work for them?

*(Note that I said "one" because there are others: LGBT, disability [fat is sometimes seen as a subset of this one; more on that later], mental illness, etc. And there are plenty that are no longer acceptable that have just gone [somewhat] subtle, like racism and misogyny. But where people will publicly shun you for yelling "Nigger" in the street, if you're a a white person, and rightly so, don't look for disapproval if you yell "Fatass!" Okay, enough qualifiers. This will piss somebody off, no matter what I say. Fuck it. It's my blog. Free speech for everybody, even if you don't agree with me. But don't expect me to allow flames.)

Water + Clay = Music

PeacegirlI'm not sure what it is about Tomoko Miyata's music that moves me so. It makes my hair stand up at the same time it soothes me. The drones remind me of a lot of early music pieces, and the later percussive bits are sort of tabla-like. I like that it's such a simple instrument: ceramic bowls of different sizes, holding water, similar to glass marimba music, but with its own distinct sound. I'd never heard of using bowls this way, but apparently it was not uncommon throughout Asia. The visual on the video is crap, but the sound is pretty good. What you can't see on this one is that she not only hits the bowls, but stirs the water to get reverb. You can see that in a rehearsal video with Scottish musician Momus for a performance at Vienna University called "Into the City". Momus provided some of the drone and back up and sang chemical formulae over the bowl chiming. Wish I'd seen this. The rehearsal video is better miked and the bowls sound bell-like. Amazing stuff. She doesn't seem to have a CD out yet, and is not to be confused with a Japanese jazz singer of the same name. If anybody knows where to get a recording or MP3, let me know, will you?

Thanks to The Affected Provincial's Almanack for the heads up.

UPDATE: I got a very nice note from Tomoko about this post. It seems she's better known as Tomoko Sauvage, and she has a website.  She tells me she's in the process of making a solo album and that her album with Gilles Aubrey will be coming out on a Russian label, which might make it hard to find over here. But at I've got a link to keep track now! I keep listening to the YouTube clips over and over. There are more samples on her site, too.

Teach the Controversy

TeachermoiI mentioned on my other blog that I've gotten back into teaching after a 10-year hiatus, and I'm loving every minute of it. At the moment, I'm teaching a class on journal writing at the College of New Rochelle's South Bronx campus, and though I haven't taught this class before in any shape or form (which makes it a lot of prep work) I'm having a great time with it. I haven't had a group of people in a class that I've enjoyed so much since I taught honors science writing at MSU, one of my alma maters. My students absolutely rock; they're bright, motivated, funny, not afraid to talk back and challenge me. And they are so eager that they teach each other (and me) as much as I teach them. I'm high after every class, just from their energy.

Devil_2 But I digress. In the years since I've been away, especially from teaching science writing, the Creationists have started using a new tactic to get their bogus "science" taught in place of evolution which they call "Teach the Controversy." This is so wrong on so many levels, the main one being that there is no controversy. Evolutionary biology, while termed a theory (which is what scientists, in their caution, call a fully developed and tested set of ideas; and what else would you call that?), as an overarching paradigm is fact. Details are still being worked out, and disagreements about those details break out, but that doesn't mean there's any question about the theory's validity or truth. That's how science works; it's based on argument. There is something like a marketplace of ideas: the more testable facts, the better the argument, the more firmly it becomes an accepted part of the body of scientific knowledge. Intelligent Design, which is the latest thinly disguised Christian evangelical conversion tool, does not hold water, not even in the courts.

I'm not entirely opposed to the idea that there is a Creator out there somewhere. "How" S/He made it happen is less important to me than "if." I think evolution is a completely workable tool for developing life. Just because the human metaphor for making things involves factories and exacting, get-it-right-the-first-time craftsmanship doesn't mean it's the only way to accomplish that goal, especially when it comes to life. Evolution may, in fact, be the most efficient way of producing intelligent life. What looks entirely random and without structure to us, from inside the system, may actually be just be so extremely complex that we can't, at present, fathom it. It may be one of those things that we have to wait until the Post-Human to really grok.

GeocentricWhat's all this leading to? T-shirts. I was highly amused to run across Wear Science's Teach the Controversy designs on one of my favorite science blogs, Deep Sea News. I was so amused, in fact, that I bought myself a sun-yellow messenger bag with this design on it in blue. The one above, with a devil burying all those dinosaur bones, refers to the age of the earth problem and those pesky fossils of creatures that no longer exist that keep turning up. Young Earth creationists have been known to claim that God put them there as fossils when he created the earth. As I've said before, I think that's a pretty cruel and petty God to go obfuscating himself like that. Evolution is so much neater. But we all know the sun revolves around the earth. Right?

Holy Days vs. holidays

Bluegirlofhappiness_2 So, today is father's day, and coincidentally, my birthday. In part because of religious reasons and in part (I suspect) because my mother was not a warm, mushy person, we never celebrated either holidays or birthdays in my house. I can't say I actually felt deprived because for years, I got gifts throughout the year, when I wasn't expecting them, and being an only child, I got most of what I wanted. When I was a kid, I would often wake up to something Dad had bought me while working the night shift. After a while though, when I had grown up and moved out, both my parents used to "sneak" me stuff for my birthday, and I would "sneak" them stuff on Mother's and Father's Day. And we would always call each other on those days, and their birthdays, just to say hello and acknowledge that there was something special about it.

And there is. I don't think it takes anything away from God to acknowledge that one of His creatures came into the world on a particular day and that we're glad about it. Our brains are limited enough that we can't imagine anything without a beginning or an end; our lives are bounded and finite, as far as we know. There should be as much joy and celebration in them as possible. That's really what holidays are an excuse for: a break from how hard life can be, an acknowledgment of simple pleasures, and gratitude to God for having them. The beginnings of anything are always exciting, full of hope and promise and potential. What better reason to celebrate them?

There's also something to that notion that it's better to celebrate a person's life and accomplishments when it's over than to celebrate only the potential, too, but I think birthdays are as much about love and encouragement as they are about celebration, at least when we're kids. Without that sense of being valued, there's often nothing to celebrate at the end of a life. But I actually think my parents' method of surprising me is just as effective, if not better. A set date implies obligation, but spontaneity means far more, I think. I still try to practice that with my own friends; if I see something I know one of them would like, I pick it up, or make it. It's a surprise for them, and a devious delight for me.

Happy_birthday_small_myspace That said, I'm still not much inclined to celebrate my own birthday. It's an old habit and they don't mean much to me, but I've stopped feeling guilty when I buy someone a birthday card, or a present, or dinner, or go to someone's party. (Very amusingly, I just had an email exchange with MG, in which she forgot my birthday, and I forgot hers.) It's always seemed an odd loyalty test to me. I understand eschewing the other holidays because they do, so many of them, have non-Christian origins, and those were sacred, holy days to gods that weren't Christian, even though they've now been co-opted and adapted by Christianity. But everybody has a birthday, regardless of faith or religious profession, and calling it "their" day still means they share it with hundreds of millions of other people across the world. Not a very exclusive holiday, when you come right down to it.

So I'm meeting Gretl for gelato today, then probably taking myself out to dinner, and doing something I love doing: walking around the city and celebrating my fellow humans.



From the hilarious xkcd: "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language." Extremely nerdy and geeky yet very funny. One of my faves.

The concept of "purity" is something of an inside joke in science, and I've never quite understood it. Mostly it refers to the difference between fundamental concepts or knowledge and research for its own sake, and practical, applicable science that solves problems. Both are necessary, though pure science often gets a bum rap from non-scientists for being "ivory tower" precisely because it doesn't immediately solve a pressing problem. What many non-scientists don't understand is that the fundamental explanations have to be there first, e.g., you can't make a successful lighter than air craft until you know what substances are lighter than air.

But purity also refers to the degree of solid factuality in your data: how big the margins of error are, how elegant the experiment, how tidy the solution, how much it stands aloof from whether or not it fits with your preconceived notions, how much it just is. The idea originally arose from the Enlightenment's desire to free itself from superstition and magic in the nascent development of the scientific method, particularly the separation of alchemy from chemistry. I suspect that what it really springs from is the rational mind's horror of baser human qualities like greed, ambition, and the desire for praise and respect, as well as skepticism about the supernatural. The more rational your data, i.e., the less tainted by the messy unpredictability of human emotions, needs, or desires, the more pure the science, supposedly.

Sociology is the poor cousin in the crowd precisely because it studies human behavior and tries to quantify it, with varying levels of success. Sociology's main problem is that it taints the data just through observation; by definition, it's really hard to solve a problem when you are part of the subset being studied, e.g., humanity. But even physicists and mathematicians who deal with the most rational and rarefied of realms, pure mathematical theory, are influenced by their emotions, whether they like it or not. There wouldn't be as much rancor and infighting as there is, otherwise. Sure, desire for money to fund one's projects is a noble motive, but still, the competition can get amazingly cut-throat and sometimes downright nasty. James Watson's The Double Helix about the race to discover DNA, is a classic example of how emotions drive science. Not to mention the rampant misogyny in many scientific disciplines. Whether they like it or not, science is a human endeavor and will always be affected by human behavior, however pure the data.

(An amusing aside, apropos of nothing: if you Google "string theory," your browser tab will read "g string theory" with the "g" logo of Google in front of your search subject. And how lovely that Randal Munroe's mathematician in this comic is female.)

Where to Begin: Books

LibrarymoiFor me, everything begins with books. It always has. I always loved to read, like both my parents, and the believers I grew up with took their Bible study very seriously, churning out numerous aids in the shape of books and magazines used in the five meetings per week, most of which were "classes" with the exception of one public lecture a week. I still have my gigantic library of reference and study aids, some of it now on CD; the Bible encyclopedias they published were particularly useful. But only a few of their study aids moved me or seemed, after I learned what good scholarship was, meaty enough. And, of course, there was no mention of controversies or disagreements among scholars. We were all in accord, though the worlds of relgious and Biblical scholarship are pretty contentious. The arguments about the Dead Sea Scrolls alone have filled multiple volumes.

I spent much of my twenties reading feminist theory as it came out (no women's studies departments in my day), some of which had to do with women and organized religion, especially medieval monasticism. In my thirties, I started reading more and more outside the prescribed literature of my own faith, reading church history both feminist and mainstream, reading about other people's searches for a spiritual path, and other spiritual paths in general, especially Buddhism. I've long been fascinated by Zen and meditation in general, so a lot of my recent reading is in that direction. Likewise, I've always been interested in Christian church history, as a former medievalist, and fascinated by monasticism, church architecture and sacred music. Many of Bach's church organ compositions are my favorite pieces of music and the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers has been known to make me weep. But I digress. As powerful as music is, it's only ever an adjunct to knowledge for me, and that comes from the written word. Exegesis is in my blood.

Some of the books I've been reading recently are over in the sidebar, but others I read in the past were more scholarly tomes. I thought I'd list some of them here. This is by no means an exhaustive list and it's very idiosyncratic and somewhat dated in places. I'll be the first to admit I haven't kept up on the scholarship, A few people in the field I can highly recommend: Elaine Pagels (read everything she's written), Peter Brown, and Kathleen Norris. It's been a while since I did an annotated bibliography, so bear with me. It won't be standard MLA or CMS style and these are in no particular order, not even alphabetical. Thanks to the magic of hyperlinks, it doesn't really need to be. Please, if you've got other recommendations, add 'em in the comments! I'm always interested to see what other people are reading.

  1. Holy Anorexia, by Rudolph M. Bell.  This was one of the first I read about women in the Church and it was a fascinating study of women exerting control and exercising the only power they had in the medieval church, control over their own bodies, as a way of connecting to God. Sheds some interesting light on contemporary eating disorders too.
  2. Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, by Elaine Pagels. Pagels is one of the foremost experts on the early church, especially what the mainstream now thinks of as its heretical elements like Gnosticism. She's made something of a specialty of lost texts, from the Gospel of Thomas to the Gospel of Judas. This, by contrast, is a study of how the mainstream church came to find sexual desire and activity sinful in its early centuries.
  3. Eunuchs For the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church, by Uta Ranke-Heinemann covers similar ground but follows it into the present. A little heavy going, but definitely worth the read.
  4. On a similar theme, but much more controversial was Yale scholar John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. That and his Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe are landmark studies.
  5. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman, is a great study of the copyists and translators of the Bible and their political and religious agendas throughout the centuries. Ehrman, Chair of the Dept. of Religious Studies at Chapel Hill, is not well liked by the fundamentalists, needless to say. There are a slew of books contradicting him too, but I haven't read those. I find his research and arguments pretty convincing.
  6. Alistair McGrath's In the Beginning: The story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture provide a great example of what Ehrman is talking about, and dovetails nicely with his book.
  7. Heavier going but worth the effort is James L. Kugel's The Bible As It Was, which is similar to Misquoting Jesus, but with the emphasis on the Old Testament and not the New this time.
  8. I'm always drawn to those limnal spaces where one thing becomes another, so I particularly liked Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians: Religious and the Religious Life from the Second to the Fourth Century AD, when the Gods of Olympus Lost Their Dominion and Christianity, with the Conversion of Constantine, Triumphed in the Mediterranean World. That subtitle sort of says it all. You'll be surprised where many of those saints and festivals and traditions in the Church came from.
  9. Ditto in Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. Appalling how many of those symbols and holidays are not really all that Christian. Like, oh, Christmas? Easter?

I also read a lot of books about spiritual journeys of one sort or another, not all of which were particularly interesting or relevant. In addition to Eat Pray Love and Escape over in the sidebar, there are these three that moved me.

  1. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. Written by a Presbyterian with a fascination for monastic life that mirrors my own, this is as much a meditation on community and faith as it is on monasticism. Really moving in places and very smart, as well as beautifully written.
  2. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong. She's considered kind of an outsider scholar, one whose work is less rigorous than academics usually are, but that's part of her virtue. This book is more personal, but no less important. Armstrong spent many unhappy years in a convent and this chronicles her return or embrace of the secular world. Smart, sad, and fascinating.
  3. Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, by Martha Beck. In a completely different way, this is just as harrowing as Escape (see sidebar), though this is mainstream Mormonism and not the fundamentalist, polygamist type. This makes clear the literal second-class citizenship of Mormon women in their own church and how demoralizing it is wherever it's practiced.

And there are a few books about the intersections of science and religion that I think are worth considering too:

  1. The Dalai Lama's The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, which is mostly about quantum physics but also touches on neuroscience and how similar the explanations of relevant theories in those fields parallel the philosophies of Buddhism. Hmmmmm. . . I like the Dalai Lama's easy acceptance of "what is" and lack of desire to make it fit what ought to be according to his own belief structure.
  2. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Gould got more than the usual flack for this book, but like most of his writing, I find it pretty balanced. It manages to avoid the "There can be only one" mindset and contempt that so many religion-hating scientists and science-hating religious have for each other. He also offers, I think, the only logical solution to the problem.
  3. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, by Ken Wilbur, who alternately irritates and impresses me. Sometimes he's a little too flaky for my taste (unlike pie crust, which can never be too flaky), sometimes he seems right on the money. Sometimes he's also a little too full of himself; but then, aren't we all at times? Definitely worth the read, especially on this subject.

I'll probably be working my way through this subject area for a while yet, so I'll keep you posted in the sidebar.

There were also magazines like Shambala Sun, Tricycle, and Buddahdharma. I've been doing a lot of reading about Buddhisms, lately and it's as instructive to read the letters to the editor as it is the main articles and book reviews. Each one definitely has a different focus and is more and less geared for the non-practitioner. Start with Shambala Sun, if you're a newbie like me. If you're interested in myth and religion, Parabola is also pretty cool. I don't read it that often, but I'm never sorry when I do.

Please keep in mind that these are just books I've read on my own journey. You many not find them either interesting or relevant.

The Truth Will Set You Free

WhamoiThis move has been in the making for years, perhaps decades, and now that I've finally made it, all the thoughts and ideas and accumulating evidence that have been percolating in my head are bubbling to the surface, jostling for position. Now that the dam has burst, I literally don't know where to start. I'm generally an orderly sort of person, especially in my writing, so this chaos in my head is disturbing and irritating. Until I realize what it really is:

It's freedom.

Now that I've publicly stepped away from such a closed, restrictive community I feel I can be more authentically myself. I don't have to worry about hiding my heretical opinions, my doubts, my disagreements, my hobbies, my personal beliefs. For someone who values free thought and free speech this is a huge relief. Plus, I'm a lousy liar.

I was always told I wasn't missing anything in "the world," and that was true to a large extent. The things that make most people leave—sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll—were never issues for me. My temptation was knowledge and the need to think for myself. The more I had of education, the more dangerous I realized it was, especially the good liberal arts kind I acquired. I'd already been taught at home to question everything (my family were great debaters) so it was only natural that college would hone those skills.

While knowledge isn't at all incompatible with faith, it is incompatible with dogma. (Remember that bumper sticker: "My karma just ran over your dogma"? I loved that.) Dogma doesn't stand up well to the two-year-old's interrogation, "But why?" Dogma, by nature, just is. Every discipline has its own dogma, its own unexplained given that must always be taken at face value and factored into any situation—in other words, taken on faith. (The definition of religious faith is "the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld." [Hebrews 11:1] It applies equally well to other kinds of faith.). In physics, gravity is the unexplained given. In litcrit, it's the existence of the text as an artificial construct. In biology, it's evolution. In religion, fundamentalist ones especially, it's primarily the infallibility of the Bible.

One thing I came to love about science is that it's always asking questions. And that even the cranks and crackheads get taken seriously with enough evidence. I remember looking at a globe in first grade and thinking that, "gee, the coasts of South America and Africa look like puzzle pieces." In the 1960's, when I was in grade school, that was a heretical idea in science, though it had been around as long as since the late 19th century. I remember very clearly when I first learned about plate tectonics and continental drift. It literally rocked my world.

It was exciting because I'd had the same thought, independently, and it turned out not to be stupid or childish after all. It opened up vast possibilities of history and biology. And it contradicted what I'd been taught in church: that the earth was immutable, unchanging, created as it was today. The theory of evolution did much the same thing.

When I was a kid, the endpapers of my Bible had maps of the Holy Land with people and dinosaurs on it. Like most kids I went through a period when I was obsessed with dinosaurs: I knew what they were, when they lived, and that they hadn't been alive at the same time as humans, at least from a scientific point of view. How to reconcile that with 6,000 years of the creation story? That was my first dilemma. As you can imagine, it only got more complicated from there. What made it so difficult was that I was still a kid, asking these questions. Eight years old and already a heretic.

Hexagonaria203One fellow believer I corresponded with for a while sent me a beautiful piece of rose gypsum when she moved out west because I'd said I was interested in science and natural history.  In return, I sent her a petoskey stone (right), Michigan's state stone, which is a fossil of ancient coral reefs that covered the shallow sea bottom that's now Michigan. Each rough polygon is the fossil of an individual coral animal skeleton. I explained its origin when I sent it to her and she was confused that Michigan had been sea bottom. How could that be, in 6,000 years?


Some creationists (not the ones I know) think that God created all those fossils too, but that seems like another cruel trick by a cruel god. How much simpler if the creation story were a metaphor for the development, the evolution, of consciousness or civilization. The great time spans of geologic and astronomical history make sense then, and don't really matter except in their existence. But dogma doesn't suffer facts well. Hence all the illogical twisting and bending.

The Bible isn't a science book, and doesn't purport to be one, though some of its most fanatical thumpers insist it's the only book you'll ever need to read.  Then why, I ask, did God give us these big brains, the opposable thumbs, the creative instinct, the capacity for rational thought, if all He wanted was blind obedience? Does switching off your brain constitute the proper worship of God?

The question, I guess, is not how to encompass the contradictions of dogma and science—to hold two contradictory, impossible ideas in your head at once—but to sift out the dogma and leave the love of God. Easier said than done.

Here we go . . .

PeacegirlThe longest journey starts with one step.

Now what?

That's the question, isn't it? Once you've stepped away from the path you've known best, how do you find a new one to follow? For me, I guess the first step is to define what didn't work. This is a fundamentally negative thing to do by its very nature, but it makes points of comparison for later use. Here's what wasn't working for me:

  1. The rigid gender roles.
  2. The condemnation of gays.
  3. The exclusivity.
  4. The conformity.
  5. The stressing of the letter of the law over its spirit.

Eeek. That makes it sound like I was in a cult, and the religion I left wasn't that. You'll notice I haven't named it and this was a purposeful decision because I still have friends (or think I do) who are still affiliated and I respect their choices, and because there are a number of things it got absolutely right. That same sticking to the letter of the law makes them pacifists who will go to jail before they go to war. That's a stance I have a great deal of respect for. They are also some of the most honest people you'll find around, and that's rare in any walk of life. In many ways, they walk the talk better than most, and they really know their textbook. Though they are not by nature scholars, and are suspicious of "worldly" knowledge (except where it supports them), everyone, young and old, men and women, make an in-depth study of the Bible all their lives. By the time I went to college, I'd already learned how to be a good student, and not just from going to public school. I'd grown up doing what was, in essence, literary criticism and explication, in the same way that Jews study the Torah.

The major problem, for me, was the lack of love, compassion, and mercy. That was one of Christ's major messages: Love your neighbor as yourself. Have mercy on other people's failings: You without sin, cast the first stone. Have compassion for one another: feeding and clothing and taking care of the least of our brothers is equivalent to taking care of Christ himself.

It was that definition of "brothers" that hung me up. In this case, it was limited to my fellow believers, which made us a very inward-looking group. Friends who weren't believers were frowned on, considered dangerously "worldly" and corrupting influences. In disasters around the world, we saw to our own first, not those who needed it most. If there was a surplus, that went to non-believers, but only then. There are no charitable works in my faith: no soup kitchens, no schools, no hospitals. The only work is teaching people to interpret the Bible the way they do. Sometimes that involves actually teaching people to read, but only with that goal in mind. That's all our missionaries do: preach.

Because of that sense of separateness and a total neutrality, there's also a sense that we're not responsible for trying to fix anything in the world. It's a futile effort and only God can fix the problems we've made for ourselves—another reason not to spend time on charitable works. That got harder and harder to swallow as I got older. It's hard to make converts of hungry, homeless, poverty-stricken people. As Gandhi said, to a hungry man, food is God.

Because I grew up in such an isolated area, the prohibition against "worldly" friend didn't really work with me. As an only child, I would have had no friends at all in school aside from the one other boy in my grade who was the same religion. His brothers and he were the only others in my school system who shared the same religion. So I learned quite early that not all "worldly" people are bad influences. My best and oldest friend, Melanie, is one of the most honest, moral, principled, truly righteous people I know. Those are the kinds of people I tend to gravitate toward, I've discovered, so my friends are, generally, good, kind, honest, compassionate people.

But let's be honest: I had some doctrinal problems too. As I grew older, it became harder and harder to believe that God would destroy everyone who wasn't a fellow believer. I mean, there's only a few million of them, and there are whole countries or regions where there are none at all (China, Kashmir, several Islamic countries). Moving to New York, traveling, and meeting people from everywhere, I found myself rethinking that idea. It grew to seem appalling. Apocalyptism is often an excuse to do nothing; God will take care of it. Many of my friends and their parents spent their lives just waiting for God to fix everything, rather than being responsible for their own lives, for their neighbors, for their world. This is odd for a religion that teaches death has no afterlife. Except it does: instead of heaven, there will be paradise and we'll be perfect. Why try to be a better person now when God will do it for you in the blink of an eye?

When the AIDS crisis started, and so many people saw it as a consequence of breaking God's laws, rather than the happenstance of epidemiology and evolution, that went a long way toward breaking the camel's back. It certainly wasn't an excuse for not having compassion for people with it, whether they were gay or straight.

And as more of my friends came out, people I had known and loved for years before I (or sometimes they) knew they were gay, the Biblical injunction against homosexuality seemed more and more a holdover from an archaic civilization. If sexual orientation is genetically based, as seems more and more likely, then it's a cruel god who ostracizes people for being made the way they are.

What hurt the most though, was the constant personal rejection. I was a smart, artistically talented kid, and that wasn't valued because I was female. There was no position to which I could aspire but wife and mother and perhaps full-time evangelist. There was no room for my talents or abilities, no use to which they could be put to serve the group. I couldn't teach in church. There is no clergy and laity division in this faith, but there is a strict division of authority; women have none, especially wives. This is one reason they have such a hard time with single women; we're under no one's authority, answerable to no "head" but Christ (all very Miltonian, I know). So as an intelligent single woman, I was considered something of a dangerous rogue. Especially since I went off to college and got an advanced degree, something that was frowned on at the time.

My artistic sensibility didn't help either. I was the first to get my ears pierced, then I did it twice! I wore bright colors, preferred pants to dresses and skirts, wrote stories and poetry, worked on my high school yearbooks. I read books for fun! A true weirdo. I wasn't demure, silent, or submissive. I wasn't planning to get married right out of high school and have a pile of kids. I wanted to learn and to work and write. Dangerous, indeed.

In a fundamentalist, conservative group, I stuck out like a tarantula on an angel food cake. I had, basically, two choices: bend myself, twist myself, break myself to fit their mold, or leave. I tried for years to conform as much as I could: go to church, preach, study. I figured if I fulfilled all the requirements, if I was passionate about what I believed, that would make up for being who I was. None of it felt authentic to me. Not because I didn't want it to. I wanted to have a relationship with God, but I wasn't sure I liked this small-minded one very much.

My mom remained very dedicated to the faith, but increasingly unhappy with its treatment of women. As I've heard a number of Mormon (not my faith) women remark, she was tired of being a second class citizen. Even at her funeral she was treated as one. And I know for a fact she wasn't the only one with that complaint. Again, it made God seem cruel to make some of us smarter than the people who were supposedly our betters, our heads and then deny us the opportunity to serve Him directly.

Too many contradictions slowly built into an edifice impossible to sustain by faith alone.

So here I am, not precisely adrift, but wandering like Dante in the dark wood, or St. John of the Cross in the dark night of the soul. Oddly, the woods and the night don't seem very dark or dangerous, but full of possibility, of chaos in its mathematical sense: complexity and beauty. Where I saw one narrow road, I now see a broad avenue joined by many narrow roads at their very end, leading not to destruction but to God, to enlightenment, to freedom from samsara, to paradise both real and metaphorical.

what this is all about

Going_to_church_moiA lot of things have changed in my life in the last couple of years: my parents both died within 8 months of each other, leaving me, their only child, the sole heir and an orphan; not long after I settled their estate, which wasn't large, by any means, I left my job and started freelancing again, and began making artists books and writing again in earnest; I moved to a new, larger apartment; I made some new friends and reconnected with some old ones. In a week or so, I turn 48. I'm still single and childless, a state I'm perfectly happy with, but which seems to bother the culture I live in a lot—especially the religious culture I grew up in.

That was another thing that changed too: my religious affiliation. I finally realized, after years of trying hard to be who I was "supposed" to be according to the religious subculture I grew up in, that I couldn't do it any more. No matter how hard I tried, I was not the person who was going to be acceptable to this group of people. Not because I violated their moral code, not because I didn't follow the requirements, but simply because I wasn't like them. That zeal for this particular religion was never in my heart. It doesn't work for me, and I can't make it, no matter how hard I try. I'm not and never have been a joiner of groups because I dislike the herd mentality and the pressure to conform that they all exert. I have a tendency to ask uncomfortable questions, and badger people for the answers before I commit to something. I balk at letting other people define me, and the older I get, the more that is true. We all become more ourselves with age. Leaving my childhood faith, quietly and without fanfare, is part of me becoming more myself, since it could not accept me the way I am.

I'll be the first to admit that the misogyny rampant in organized religions—Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam inclusive—had a fair amount to do with my decision. My own studies in feminism and church history have led me to believe that women were systematically cut out of their roles in the early Christian church, and like women throughout history, left out of both its past and present, too. This, despite the assurance in Genesis that men AND women are made in God's image. But like all male-dominated areas, men in organized religions most often see women's differences as inferiority, not simply unlikeness. I'd had enough of that, too. I know God does not see any of his creation as inferior to other parts of it, and neither do His greatest followers.

So what's with the patriarchal pronoun? When English develops a usable, non-silly sounding ungendered pronoun, I'll hop right on that. So far, I find none of them satisfying. But the God I believe in is neither male nor female, but all-encompassing of all creation.

My studies in science were another grating edge of conflict between me and my religion. Unlike a lot of Christians, I grew up not just reading the Bible, but actually studying it. I continued that study in college from different points of view: as literature, as history, as a collection of texts by various authors, translated, edited and revised numerous times. I had always known it as a moral guidebook and answer to the question of why things are the way they are. What I discovered is that it didn't have all the answers, and that it wasn't quite all that I'd thought it was. There are places where it should probably be read as metaphor, allegory, or theoretical example, not in a literal way. It's that literal reading I can't reconcile with the facts of science. Evolution was a big sticking point. As a process, it's going on all around us constantly, most obviously in the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria. Where did all those hominid fossils come from and what are they, if not ancestors and relatives of humans?

See what I mean about asking uncomfortable questions?

This is not to say that I've replaced faith in God with faith in Science; I don't think it has all the answers, either, and would be better off if its practitioners would stop acting as though they do. But so would the representatives of faith. Though we know something of what the evolutionary tree looks like, in its multifarious branches, the fundamental questions of how life arose, indeed how the universe arose, are still unanswered. I'm not sure science will ever answer them. I'm not sure science knows the right questions to ask.

So what do I believe in now? I'm not sure. I think the Bible can be an excellent moral guidebook and explanation for why life is so often fucked up: because we do it to ourselves. I think I'm probably a dyed-in-the-wool monotheist; I do believe in something beyond material nature itself. What that is, I don't yet know. Hence this blog.

This blog. I was over at my friend Roz's house the other night, gabbing with her and Eva. Roz grew up Roman Catholic, Eva Jewish. Eva still goes to synagogue on the high holidays but practices a more ecumenical sort of faith, as does Roz. In fact, an awful lot of my friends are pretty ecumenical and varied in their professed faiths: Buddhists, Christians, Pagans, Wiccans and several self-defined versions of spirituality in between (Roz tells me she actually professes to be Christian, C&E: Christmas and Easter). I'd been inactive in my church for a long time and every now and then they'd check to see what I was calling myself these days. When I finally made the break, I don't think any of them were surprised, but they've been very supportive. Roz, in fact, said, "You know, you should chronicle your search. Write about it." And though we're both writers and writing instructors, it had never even crossed my mind to do so.

I have other blogs: one for my fan writing (which I'm not going to link to), one for book arts, and for a while I was blogging about the perfidious Bush administration. I also posted my 9/11 journals, and add to them once a year on the anniversary, or when something relevant strikes me. I think it never occurred to me to write about this journey because it wasn't relevant to anything else I write about and it seemed like a very private thing. But I spent a good deal of my life proselytizing in public, so how private, really is my faith? Well, that's a question, too, and maybe it should be explored.

I've kept journals for years, but the blog has taken their place in many ways. I think it might be time to keep a journal just for me again, not as a marketing tool, or a way of publicizing my writing, though it will probably do that, but as a way to work out what's going on in my head with this particular issue. It's a complex one and sorting through it is going to take some time and make some interesting reading, I think. I've moved a few older posts over from my other blog just to get some content in here, and because they're really more relevant to this blog than the other.

It's going to be an interesting journey. Come along if you like. I'll be writing about science, philosophy, religion, morality, spirituality, dogma, karma, doctrine, history and more, probably. Comments (but not flames or conversion attempts) welcome.

Oh, and the name of this blog?  That comes from a kind of pivotal poem I wrote a while back:


I was ten, twelve,
in the subtle manifestations of evil
children and the faithful
hold true and hold to.
Two disciples, we
walked fearlessly into a field,
my mother and I, to preach
to the old man dowsing there,
protected by youth and belief.
It was midsummer in a rolling meadow,
sun high and hot for up north,
in a rank of sandy hills
punctuated with artesian springs.
Tall grass whished against
our bare knees and skirt hems, buzzing
with cicadas and ‘hoppers, all creation
busy, even the water
flowing somewhere below us.

I don’t remember what we said,
confronted with such superstition
—only the object:
the thick and quivering end
of the y-forked branch
in the old man’s hands,
the smell of sap still on it,
and his smile when he said
“touch it,” amazement
in his own voice. I did.
It dipped and bucked
hard though he held it loosely,
hands unmoving,
something more inexplicable in it
than thirst or the Devil.

As we turned our backs to him,
walking away, I wondered:
Is it the rod that seeks the water
or the water that draws the rod?

Years later, I recognize in that question
the crumbling of foundations
undermined by reaching water below
and the vibrating bow of wood above.

Since then, I’ve done
my own divining:
hands held out trembling
like that young sapling,
heartwood calling to deep waters, or
water to wood, whichever it is,
but finding only
an answering stillness.

Water finds its own level
unless the rock is struck.

© Lee Kottner 2003

Bourne and the Brain


Cross Posted at Cocktail Party Physcis.

Lee Kottner here, on assignment from Jennifer to cover at least one of the offerings the World Science Festival held in NYC last weekend. Before I get started on the one event I actually got to, let me say how hard it was to narrow it down. So many cool offerings! So little time! It was just like being presented with with a really juicy conference program and having to pick between overlapping sessions: a nerd's paradise, with the bonus that there was also a street fair, movies, and art. Definitely more fun than your average conference (unless it's the Kalamazoo Mediaevalists). This is the World Science Festival's first year, so it's a little rough around the edges yet organizationally, but the line-up is absolutely stellar, and the intersections of art and science couldn't have been more intriguing. Theatre, dance, music, and film were all represented, along with the history of science and the fields of math (or maths, for you Brits out there), physics and astronomy, evolutionary biology, environmental science, epidemiology, genetics, botany, computer science, engineering, and neuroscience. The topics ranged from creativity, space-time, longevity, climate change, and astrophysics to the science of sports, of illusions, of green building and of Disney Imagineering, and plays and films about Einstein, Richard Feynman, Hugh Everett (of the parallel worlds theory) and . . . Jason Bourne.

And yes, that's where I come in, shallow fan of action flicks that I am. But it's the neuroscience offerings as a whole that got me excited about the festival. One of my favorite science writers, neurologist Oliver Sacks, had not one but two presentations, the first on visual perception and the brain, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the second on music and the brain, in conjunction with the Abyssinian Baptist Church choir. I've read most of Sacks's books for the general reader, so normally I'd jump at the chance to hear him speak. But I couldn't resist "The Brain and Bourne" (nothing like Pinky and the Brain, I assure you) with producer/director Doug Liman, psychiatrist/neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, and producer/screenwriter (oh, the multitasking!) James Schamus. (Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't seen the movie. And, like, what's taking you so long? There are two more already!)

Bourneidentityr2pic1The movie opens with an unconscious figure in a wetsuit (Matt Damon) floating face-up in a stormy Mediterranean Sea. Hauled aboard a passing fishing vessel, Wetsuit Man is discovered (1) to be still alive, though (2) shot twice in the back and (3) to be carrying a stainless steel capsule embedded under the skin of his hip. The capsule contains a laser which projects the number of a blind Swiss bank account. Huh? Wetsuit Man comes to, understandably upset at having objects removed from his body without his consent (or anesthesia), even if they are bullets and weird implants, and discovers he doesn't know who he is. He can walk, talk, play chess, shuffle cards, do pull-ups, tie complicated knots, speak several languages and function on a day-to-day level, but he has no idea who he is or was, or where he's been for the last twenty-some years of his life. For all he knows, he's sprung from the sea like Venus on the half shell. Classic amnesia.

Or at least the Hollywood version. Amnesia of just about any type is actually pretty rare, though you'd never know it from watching soap operas or reading Gothic murder mysteries. But there are several different types of amnesia and a number of causes. The two main types are anteretrograde amnesia, the inability learn and remember new information since the time the amnesia began, and the kind our hero experiences: retrograde amnesia, which involves a lack of memory of the past preceding the time one becomes conscious again. One of the symptoms of dementia is memory problems, but unlike those suffering from, say, Alzheimer's, victims of amnesia retain their cognitive powers and intelligence. They lack only their former memories, or, in the case of anteretrograde amnesia, the ability to make new memories. Guy Pearce's character suffers from this type of amnesia in the 2000 movie Memento, and must constantly write himself notes and take Polaroid pictures to tell himself what he's been doing for the past fifteen or so minutes.

Amnesia can encompass varying stretches of memory—from all of your previous life (global amnesia, usually transient) to just the five minutes before you knocked yourself out in a bike accident—and last for varying periods of time. Its causes include stroke, inflammation (from infections like encephalitis), tumors, oxygen deprivation (from a heart attack or CO poisoning), long-term alcohol abuse, and the classic Hollywood cause: pressure from bleeding between the brain and skull, i.e., a knock on the head. It takes a fairly serious head injury, however, one likely involving a long coma and months of rehab, to induce anything but transient global amnesia.

Bourneidentityr2pic2Wetsuit Man, who eventually decides his name is Jason Bourne on the strength of the evidence he finds in his lockbox at the Swiss bank, also discovers along the way that some of the things he knows how to do are downright scary. In one very subtle scene before Bourne visits his lockbox, he tries to catch some sleep on a park bench but is rousted by the Swiss cops. One pokes him with a nightstick, which Bourne grabs reflexively. If you watch carefully, you'll see him pause and in that pause is the moment when Bourne says to himself, much like Neo in The Matrix, "Hey! I know Jujitsu!" Bourne then handily disarms and disables the cops and runs away, to live to lay movie-fu on other attackers another day. Okay, he doesn't know who he is, but he can take out two trained cops in less than 30 seconds? Wait, it gets weirder!   

As the movie progresses, it's clear that Bourne is not just a martial artist with lightning reflexes (and that he fights dirty as hell), but he knows all about surveillance techniques, weapons, and being followed. Sitting in a truck stop on the way to Paris, he says to his new accomplice, Marie, "I can tell you the license plate numbers of all three cars out front. I can tell you that the waitress is left-handed and the guy at the counter weighs two-hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know that the best, first place to look for a gun is the cab of that grey truck outside.  I know that at this altitude I can run flat out for half a mile before I lose my edge. I knew that you were my first, best option out of Zurich.  How do I know all that?  How can I know all that and not know who I am?  How is that possible?"

Excellent question, Mr. Bourne. Is this just another example of Hollywood mangling scientific truth? Well, no, it's not for a change, though I wouldn't have known it without going to this talk. James Schamus started it off by asking Dr. Tononi if this kind of amnesia was actually possible. Surprisingly, the answer is yes, but it is more likely if it has a specific cause. In Robert Ludlum's original book, it's the classic blow on the head that gives Bourne his case of amnesia. Liman, in his research before making the movie, discovered this was unlikely to cause the kind of amnesia Bourne suffered from. Liman twisted the plot a bit and, though Bourne does suffer a break of consciousness after he's shot and falls (is tossed?) overboard with two bullets in his back, his amnesia is purely psychological in nature, arising from an internal conflict.

Brian_diagram_1 Psychogenic amnesia, it turns out, acts just like physically induced amnesia in many ways, but without the trauma. Dr. Tononi studies consciousness and its disorders, so this is right up his alley. True to the nature of the talk, he came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation, the first slide of which showed two PET scans of amnesiacs, one caused by encephalitis, one psychogenic. In both, the right temporal lobe (the yellow bit in the diagram at right) is inactive in almost exactly the same areas, though one brain is completely uninjured. Unsurprisingly, this is the part of the brain that is most closely involved with memory, mostly the storing (the hippocampus is thought to be mostly closely involved with making memory). Recent studies in brain mapping and neuroscience have shown that our brains generally parcel tasks into regions. Our memories are concentrated in one area; our skills, some of which involve muscle memory (proprioception) in another; our pattern recognition in another, and so on. Knowledge and personal memory are not the same thing, either. Our knowledge about a subject is static and factual, while personal memory tends to encompass a linear sense of time and other sensory impressions. Memory, like dreams and oddly like the movies, as Schamus pointed out, is a limnal state: ambiguous and untrustworthy as cops and prosecutors well know.

Hippocampus We tend to think of our memories as fixed and visual. The research of Dr. Tononi and others has shown that consciousness is a process, not just a location, and that our memories are not representational but rely more on reconstruction than recall. There's no rewind or replay button in your head, in other words. When we ask ourselves "Who am I?" or "What happened?" we're not going to get a picture, but a narrative, a story. This story includes not just our memories, but who we tell ourselves we are—our interpretation of those memories. If there's a clash between who we think we are and our memory, guess what loses? Then we become our own unreliable narrator.

In the case of Jason Bourne, as the other two sequels to this movie show, the internal conflict is between the kind of person Bourne thinks he is (one of the good guys who doesn't just randomly kill people) and the things his memory tells him he has done (not-so-randomly kill people). What sparks the conflict is a mission to assassinate a dictator in exile and finding him on his boat with his children in the same room. Bourne can't bring himself to shoot the man while he's holding his daughter and his other children are asleep in chairs around him. Instead of a blow to the head, guilt is the trauma, and Bourne conveniently forgets what he does for a living when he wakes up. It's too awful to contemplate otherwise.

In effect, Bourne becomes the person he thinks he is. Tononi pointed out that people with dissociative disorders, including multiple personalities, don't share the memories, even on a PET scan, that their "others" have. People in dissociative fugues can suddenly forget who they are (usually because of some emotional trauma) and wander off. But unlike Bourne, they generally don't know they've lost something, and will assume another identity, not try to find their old one. This separation can also occur in sleep states, such as the infamous case of Kenneth Parks, who killed his mother-in-law and seriously injured his father-in-law when he was sleepwalking, but had no memory of it. Bourne is in the process of writing a new story for himself, reconciling what he did with who he is now, and in doing so, recovers the memories of who he was. Like Kenneth Parks, until he regains his full memory, Bourne is conscious but not self-conscious.

Originally, this was a big problem for Liman, as a director. Usually, when characters are introduced in a story, the audience is cued on how to relate to them by seeing them in the context of their life: with friends, relatives, their dog, their boss. Bourne has no one and nothing to cue his audience. He's a blank slate. It's only in his journey, in the reconstruction of a new personality, that he becomes interesting and fully aware.

Now, imagine not only having your past be a blank slate, but not being able to imagine a future. Tononi also mentioned the case of Clive Wearing, a British musicologist who developed total amnesia after a viral infection. Although he still knows how to play the piano and conduct music, he has no other personal memories and cannot form new ones, like the character in Memento. Only Wearing's memory is of even shorter duration than Guy Pearce's character. Wearing has none. Most of his waking time is spent "rebooting" his consciousness from moment to moment. His diary consists of the consecutive statements "I am alive! I'm awake now. I am alive!" If that's the entirety of one's self-consciousness, is there a self? Bourne, at least, does manage to find or make a new one, as well as recover his past. But not everyone does.

Cue The Who. Oh wait. That's CSI. I forgot.