An Agnostic Manifesto

From Slate:

Atheist Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of “multiverses” and “vacuums filled with quantum potentialities,” none of which strikes me as persuasive. (For a review of the centrality, and insolubility so far, of the something-from-nothing question, I recommend this podcast interview with Jim Holt, who is writing a book on the subject.)

Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship, being lectured to by believers and nonbelievers, I found myself feeling more than anything unconvinced by certainties on either side. And feeling the need for solidarity and identity with other doubters. Thus my call for a revivified agnosticism. Our T-shirt will read: I just don't know.

More here.

Not a Day Over Infinity

Abraham Verghese in The New York Times:

Vergese-popup In his remarkable Pulitzer Prize-­winning book, “The Beak of the Finch,” Jonathan Weiner followed Peter and Rosemary Grant, biologists who had spent years studying birds in the Galápagos Islands. Their work showed that finches evolve rapidly in response to changes in the food supply, a discovery that ran counter to Darwin’s idea that natural selection operates only very slowly. Weiner’s portrait of this scientific couple worked well as a narrative portal to that story of evolutionary biology.

In his new book, “Long for This World,” Weiner makes similar use of another brilliant theoretical scientist, the English gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, a tireless proselytizer for radical life extension. But unlike the Grants, de Grey emerges on the page as someone who can be taken only in small doses. “Medievally thin and pale,” as Weiner puts it, with a luxuriant beard that recalls “Father Time before his hair turned gray” or “Timothy Leary unbound,” he is given to provocative statements that can turn into sermons. Nevertheless, with de Grey as his main character, Weiner explores the fractured, fuzzy science and pseudoscience of immortality.

“This is a good time to be a mortal,” Weiner writes, noting that life expectancy in the developed world is about 80 years, and improving. Yet evolution has equipped us with bodies and instincts designed only to get us to a reproductive age and not beyond. “We get old because our ancestors died young,” Weiner writes. “We get old because old age had so little weight in the scales of evolution; because there were never enough Old Ones around to count for much in the scales.” The first half of life is orderly, a miracle of “detailed harmonious unfolding” beginning with the embryo. What comes after our reproductive years is “more like the random crumpling of what had been neatly folded origami, or the erosion of stone. The withering of the roses in the bowl is as drunken and disorderly as their blossoming was regular and precise.”

More here.

Saturday Poem

The Map

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador's yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
–the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves' own conformation:
and Norway's hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
–What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North's as near as West.
More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors.

by Elizabeth Bishop

a gastro-structuralist’s dream


There’s not much I won’t or can’t eat. I’ve eaten crocodile in Holland; barbied kangaroo at Uluru and mountain oysters in Wyoming. But tongue has always tested my gag reflex. Lambs’ tongues are a particular problem because, since they are pretty much the same size as our own, one stands a fair chance of biting the former rather than the latter. Given that tongues are dense with cell receptors (50 to 100 for each so-called bud), the experience can be acutely painful and bloody. But there’s another telling aspect to my lingophobia, which is to do with the separate, but connected, functions of the tongue that precludes the possibility of consumption. Biting one’s tongue is an act expressing pre-emptive remorse in the mouth. It’s the threat of damaging or mutilating that multi-tasking organ, the instrument of utterance and consumption, that is at the root (not to pun) of my tongue anxiety, I suppose. Do any of us really want to eat our own words? La langue, the word and the idea, is, of course, a gastro-structuralist’s dream, especially when allied to the palate; though the connection between language and eating seems not to have occurred to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the founding father of modern linguistics who first posited a distinction between la langue (a system of language) and la parole (speech or individual utterances). Saussure never seems to have reflected on the fact that it is the elemental experience of taste, registered on the tongue’s cell receptors, which gives rise in the infant to sound communication; and that, further evolved, is the defining characteristic of what distinguishes humans from dumb beasts.

more from Simon Schama at the FT here.

bottomless belly button II


“There are many types of genres,” declares the busy spine of Dash Shaw’s monumental 2008 graphic novel, “Bottomless Belly Button” (Fantagraphics: 720 pp., $29.99) “This is: family comedy/drama/horror/mystery/romance.” It’s as much taxonomical cheat sheet as it is a boast: in being so reductive, Shaw also broadcasts his ambition. Formally inventive and emotionally acute, “Bottomless Belly Button” indeed proves to be all those things: as fascinating and affecting a depiction of family ties as Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” or Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Set at a beachside house, the story is centered on a couple’s decision to divorce, after four decades of marriage. Their three grown children (including one who sees himself, and whom we see, as a frog) visit to spend a final week together. But Shaw doesn’t jump right into the thick of the drama, comedy and the rest. “Bottomless Belly Button” begins with deconstructions and instructions. The book is “not for children”; it consists of three parts, and we are advised to “take breaks from reading between them.” A primer of draftsman’s terms shows us stippling, hatching and three-point perspective. “There are many types of sand,” states an omniscient narrator. “The cloud of sand when it’s poured out of a shoe. Spotty sand stuck to a naked back. Hard sand. Cracked sand when you apply pressure with your heel. Pee on sand: it suddenly goes dark. Sand sifted out of a bathing suit. Mud sand.” Each type is illustrated, a single panel per page; later Shaw will do a similar introduction to the types of water. Shaw calls attention to his artistry right as we are about to forget it, swept up in the story that follows.

more from Ed Park at the LAT here.

let there be artificial light


One dark and electrically stormy night, the lights blinked out in our rented Maine cabin. Lacking candles or a flashlight, my mother knew just what to do: she poured the hamburger grease from a frying pan into a teacup, then tore a few dangling strands of cotton from the open knee of my bell-bottom jeans. She set the wick in the fat and struck a match. A teenager at the time, I’d never been quite so impressed with parental competence. The lights eventually came back on, and I forgot about the burger lamp until reading Jane Brox’s “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light,” which takes us from fat to fluorescence and on into the future (beyond the bulb, that is). The book starts off promisingly, in the dim past. Forty thousand years ago, by the caves of Lascaux, our ancestors made lamps of animal fat puddled in hollowed-out stone. Wicks were twisted lichen or moss. In ­other places at other times, humans lighted their way with corralled fireflies, torches of burning pine knots, or dried salmon on a stick. When Shetland Islanders needed a lamp, Brox writes, “they’d affix a petrel carcass to a base of clay, thread a wick down its throat, and set it alight.” These early flames were not brilliant; they smoked, gave off foul odors and required constant tending. No wonder folks went to bed as soon as their work was done. Millenniums passed. Improvements — in wicks, vessels, fuels and ways to ignite them — came slowly, though somewhat less so for some: “The wealthy and powerful have always been the first to acquire new kinds of light and have always had more of it than others,” Brox writes.

more from Elizabeth Royte at the NYT here.

Down to the Last Cream Puff

41fwYQvDYxL._SL500_AA300_ Steven Shapin reviews Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine by Michael Steinberger in the LRB:

Alice B. Toklas wrote her Cookbook, she said, ‘for America’, partly to explain the ‘delicacy and poignancy’, the perfect balance, of French cooking. (Alice’s recipe for boeuf bourguignon doesn’t have Julia’s rigour, but then Julia doesn’t have Alice’s recipe for hash brownies.) For another American Alice, a year in France in the 1960s was transformative. A single dinner in a Brittany restaurant changed everything for her, and, through her, for much of America: ‘I’ve remembered this dinner a thousand times … I learned everything in France.’ When she got back to Berkeley, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse as a homage to French cuisine and last year France returned the favour when she joined Julia Child in the Légion d’honneur.

And so France has a unique power to let Americans down. One of the first and most influential of the disappointed was Adam Gopnik. Writing in the New Yorker in 1997, Gopnik asked whether there was ‘a crisis in French cooking’. The question was rhetorical. ‘The muse of cooking’ had abandoned France and, shockingly, ‘migrated across the ocean to a spot in Berkeley, with occasional trips to New York and, of all places, Great Britain’. What good was a mother who had to take cooking lessons from her own daughters? In 2003, coinciding with American outrage over France not joining the Iraq invasion (remember the wonderfully rechristened ‘Freedom fries’?), the New York Times Magazine announced the stunning news that ‘Barcelona, not Paris, is now the vanguard capital of Europe, not least because of its wildly experimental cooking … Something happened in France – they ran out of gas.’ The excellent American food and wine writer Michael Steinberger now follows Gopnik and the New York Times, concerned that haute cuisine has gone to pot. The disappointment is clear; its cause is not so clear. Is the problem that French cooking is not what it was, or that it is? In Casablanca, Bogie reminded Ingrid Bergman that ‘We’ll always have Paris.’ Now, it’s not so certain we will.

The basic cause of France’s falling behind is a failure to innovate. For Gopnik, ‘one of the principles of high French cooking’ is a commitment not just to intensity but to innovation, making things ‘far more original than anyone can imagine’. Combinations, preparations, tastes which are not just very good but very new – things to eat that expand your vocabulary of tastes. That’s why high cooking is supposed to be an art, like a painting that shows you a horse in a way you’ve never thought to look at a horse before and changes your subsequent perceptions of horses. And French haute cuisine was long supposed to be like the winner of a horse race, not to be the fastest, but to be the most innovative.

That’s pretty much Steinberger’s position too.

Phytoplankton Population Drops 40 Percent Since 1950

Phytoplankton-population_1 Lauren Morello and ClimateWire in Scientific American:

The microscopic plants that form the foundation of the ocean’s food web are declining, reports a study published July 29 in Nature.

The tiny organisms, known as phytoplankton, also gobble up carbon dioxide to produce half the world’s oxygen output—equaling that of trees and plants on land.

But their numbers have dwindled since the dawn of the 20th century, with unknown consequences for ocean ecosystems and the planet’s carbon cycle.

Researchers at Canada’s Dalhousie University say the global population of phytoplankton has fallen about 40 percent since 1950. That translates to an annual drop of about 1 percent of the average plankton population between 1899 and 2008.

The scientists believe that rising sea surface temperatures are to blame.

“It’s very disturbing to think about the potential implications of a century-long decline of the base of the food chain,” said lead author Daniel Boyce, a marine ecologist.

They include disruption to the marine food web and effects on the world’s carbon cycle. In addition to consuming CO2, phytoplankton can influence how much heat is absorbed by the world’s oceans, and some species emit sulfate molecules that promote cloud formation.

A Normal Man in a Not So Normal World

Amitava Kumar in The Caravan:

ScreenHunter_02 Jul. 30 20.42 On a warm July morning, I boarded the London Tube to Boston Manor station. The southbound Piccadilly Line, represented by a Navy Blue line on my map, would terminate at Heathrow airport. My stop came a few stations before the line ended.

The people I had come to meet were waiting outside in a car, and after introductions had been made, we drove to a store to buy meat and beer for lunch. The man who was driving was in his early 30s. He wore a stylish shirt and dark glasses. His name was Aryian Singh, but he later told me that this wasn’t what he had been named at birth. He had changed his name after he had come out of prison. When I questioned him about his job, he said he was working on a couple of film projects but didn’t provide details. I noticed that there were small scars on his face. I later learned that a couple of them were from injuries inflicted by his mother when he was a kid—once, his mother had smashed his face with a milk bottle.

The man whose face I was now watching in the rearview mirror interested me. His name change and the reason for it wasn’t what one has come to expect as a staple of Indian fiction about diasporic lives—Samiullah changing to Sam or a Madhu becoming Maddy, one pining for the neem tree outside his ancestral home and the other for her mother’s cardamom-scented fish curry. In those stories, particularly those written in the US, the only crime a human seems capable of is forgetting to write a letter home. Or if there are transgressions they seem to have blossomed out of a fantasy spun out in a garden called a creative writing MFA programme. But Aryian Singh’s story appeared to be different.

More here.

The Burqa and the Body Electric

Feisal G. Mohamed in the New York Times:

Burqaface2th In her post of July 11, “Veiled Threats?” and her subsequent response to readers, Martha Nussbaum considers the controversy over the legal status of the burqa — which continues to flare across Europe — making a case for freedom of religious expression. In these writings, Professor Nussbaum applies the argument of her 2008 book “Liberty of Conscience,” which praises the American approach to religious liberty of which Roger Williams, one of the founders of Rhode Island Colony, is an early champion.

Williams is an inspiring figure, indeed. Feeling firsthand the constraint of religious conformism in England and in Massachusetts Bay, he developed a uniquely broad position on religious toleration, one encompassing not only Protestants of all stripes, but Roman Catholics, Jews and Muslims. The state, in his view, can legitimately enforce only the second tablet of the Decalogue — those final five commandments covering murder, theft, and the like. All matters of worship covered by the first tablet must be left to the individual conscience.

Straightforward enough. But in the early years of Rhode Island, Williams faced quite a relevant challenge.

More here.

Monogamy unnatural for our sexy species

Christopher Ryan at CNN:

Sex%20and%20the%20city Couples who turn to a therapist for guidance through the inevitable minefields of marriage are likely to receive the confusing message that long-term pair bonding comes naturally to our species, but marriage is still a lot of work.

Few mainstream therapists would contemplate trying to persuade a gay man or lesbian to “grow up, get real, and stop being gay.” But most insist that long-term sexual monogamy is “normal,” while the curiosity and novelty-seeking inherent in human sexuality are signs of pathology. Thus, couples are led to believe that waning sexual passion in enduring marriages or sexual interest in anyone but their partner portend a failed relationship, when in reality these things often signify nothing more than that we are Homo sapiens.

This is a problem because there is no reason to believe monogamy comes naturally to human beings. In fact, for millions of years, evolutionary forces have cultivated human libido to the point where ours is arguably the most sexual species on Earth.

More here.

What you bump into when you stand back from a photograph


In the historical process by which scupture is no longer a thing you have made somewhere else, but is instead a gesture you make before the camera, a curious upstairs-downstairs, gentlemen and players game of class is enacted – a coda to the paragone debates (Leonardo versus Michelangelo) of the high renaissance. Now that the sculptor no longer “gets dirty” – from sculpture that is; he or she gets more than dirty, as Dine and Kusama and Gilbert and George and Cindy Sherman all demonstrate, in their performances – the dematerialization of the art object elevates the sculptor to a higher class, the class of thinking (rather than making) artist, to be rewarded with attributed authorship of works (photographs) they didn’t make. And to earn that honor they had to stop making works in their own medium. Everything started so amicably in this show, with albumen virtually caressing marble, that the divorce half way through of photography and sculpture, with no joint custody, is all the more brutal. Dropped from the narrative are non-celebrity photographers who actually enriched their medium at the service of sculpture: I’m thinking of John Riddy’s work for Anthony Caro for instance or Aurelio Amendola’s on Michelangelo. (Incidentally, why are there no Henry Moore photographs of Henry Moore?)

more from David Cohen at artcritical here.

death and saramago


In September 2008, on assignment for this newspaper, I traveled to the Canary Islands to interview the man whom, until June 18 of this year, I regarded as the world’s greatest living writer: José Saramago. For nearly two years, I had been courting the Portuguese Nobel laureate through his American publisher and British publicist before finally winning his consent, just prior to the U.S. publication of Death With Interruptions, a magnificently wry fable about the unforeseen complications that arise when the Grim Reaper treats herself to an extended holiday (and ends up falling in love with a cello player). It was, one might suggest, an unsurprising subject for a writer who, then 85, had recently survived a near-fatal bout of pneumonia. Except that death and Saramago were bedfellows as far back as his second novel, The Manual of Painting and Caligraphy, written when he was nearly 60. Death, too, is everywhere in Blindness, the 1995 international best-seller in which an unexplained epidemic of sightlessness reduces the human race to a primitive, animalistic state; and in his masterpiece, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which observes the final months in the life of an exiled doctor returning to his native Lisbon.

more from Scott Foundas at The LA Weekly here.

thoughts on stoves


The Magic Stove and the soup kitchens of London and Ireland could be seen as preparatory phases of Soyer’s most lasting contribution to fuel economy and mass cooking: his field stove. Its origin makes interesting historic material. From 1853 to 1856, a relatively small but disproportionately disastrous war was fought on the Crimean peninsula between the Russian army and an allied force consisting of Turkish, French, and British troops. Due to a complete lack of information, military incompetence, and a deplorable state of organization in the field, thousands of men died unnecessarily. Supply lines hardly existed and casualties, once placed in hospitals, were certain to die of hunger and infectious diseases. It was through the reports of the correspondent Lord William Russell, who wrote from the battlefield for the Times, that the British public learned of the abominable situation on the Turkish coast and the Crimean peninsula.14 It was Russell’s, and consequently Florence Nightingale’s, conviction that the staggering number of casualties was not the result of combat, but of fatally bad management.

more from Thomas A. P. Van Leeuwen at Cabinet here.

Feted British authors are limited, arrogant and self-satisfied, says leading academic

From The Guardian:

Salman-Rushdie-001 Their mantelpieces might creak under the collective weight of literary gongs but, according to one leading academic, leading contemporary British authors such as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes are unworthy of the accolades they receive. In an outspoken attack, Gabriel Josipovici, the former Weidenfeld professor of comparative literature at Oxford University, condemned the work of the giants of the modern English novel as hollow. He said they were like “prep-school boys showing off” and virtually indistinguishable from one another in scope and ambition. The fact that such writers had won so many awards was “a mystery”, Josipovici told the Guardian. He added: “It's an ill-educated public being fed by the media – 'This is what great art is' – and they lap it up.” It is a view apparently now shared by at least some others, given that the latest offerings by Martin Amis, McEwan and Rushdie were among the more prominent omissions from this year's Man Booker longlist, revealed earlier this week.

“We are in a very fallow period,” Josipovici said, calling the contemporary English novel “profoundly disappointing – a poor relation of its ground-breaking modernist forebears”. He said: “Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world. “I wonder, though, where it came from, this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock.” Such faults were less generally evident in Irish, American, or continental European writing, he added.

More here.

How to feed a hungry world

From Nature:

Cover_nature With the world's population expected to grow from 6.8 billion today to 9.1 billion by 2050, a certain Malthusian alarmism has set in: how will all these extra mouths be fed? The world's population more than doubled from 3 billion between 1961 and 2007, yet agricultural output kept pace — and current projections (see page 546) suggest it will continue to do so. Admittedly, climate change adds a large degree of uncertainty to projections of agricultural output, but that just underlines the importance of monitoring and research to refine those predictions. That aside, in the words of one official at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the task of feeding the world's population in 2050 in itself seems “easily possible”. Easy, that is, if the world brings into play swathes of extra land, spreads still more fertilizers and pesticides, and further depletes already scarce groundwater supplies. But clearing hundreds of millions of hectares of wildlands — most of the land that would be brought into use is in Latin America and Africa — while increasing today's brand of resource-intensive, environmentally destructive agriculture is a poor option. Therein lies the real challenge in the coming decades: how to expand agricultural output massively without increasing by much the amount of land used.

What is needed is a second green revolution — an approach that Britain's Royal Society aptly describes as the “sustainable intensification of global agriculture”. Such a revolution will require a wholesale realignment of priorities in agricultural research. There is an urgent need for new crop varieties that offer higher yields but use less water, fertilizers or other inputs — created, for example, through long-neglected research on modifying roots (see page 552) — and for crops that are more resistant to drought, heat, submersion and pests. Equally crucial is lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste. (Between one-quarter and one-third of the food produced worldwide is lost or spoiled.)

More here.