Teddy Roosevelt, Thwarted Scientist

From Candice Millard’s River of Doubt:roosevelt

Roosevelt’s dream of becoming a naturalist burned brightly until he began his studies at Harvard. He entered college “devoted to out-of-doors natural history,” dreaming of following in the footsteps of men like the world-renowned ornithologist John James Audubon, but he quickly became disgusted with the university’s curriculum for aspiring naturalists, which focused on laboratory experiments to the exclusion of, and disregard for, fieldwork. “In the entirely proper desire to be thorough and to avoid slipshod methods, the tendency was to treat as not serious, as unscientific, any kind of work that was not carried on with laborious minuteness in the laboratory,” he wrote. “My taste was specialized in a totally different direction, and I had no more desire or ability to be a microscopist and section-cutter than to be a mathematician. Accordingly, I abandoned all thought of becoming a scientist.”

An Observation on Cats and Kids

The fat cat on the mat
may seem to dream
of nice mice that suffice
for him, or cream;
but he free, maybe,
walks in thought
unbowed, proud, where loud
roared and fought
his kin, lean and slim,
or deep in den
in the East feasted on beasts
and tender men.




Last night, before bed, my daughter found a handful of Q-tips and used them to “spell” out her name on the floor (she’s three, so her spelling was approximate). She asked us not to touch them. In the morning, she was angry when she found the Q-tips scattered across the floor, thinking we had done it. My wife explained that it had been our cats, playing in the night, who had messed up my daughter’s spelling. She accepted this latter explanation with equanimity. Even three-year-olds, it seems, have a developing natural sense of moral agency, that people are responsible for their behavior in a way that cats aren’t. It takes more sophistication, I suppose, to come to the modern adult conclusions that distinctions between animals and men are illusory, as are free will and moral responsibility.

Then again, Tolkien did once opine that cats were “creatures of Mordor”, and being a dog person, I’m not inclined to dispute.



Image: Pauline Baynes

Hobby Lobby & Science

New Scientist charges that the Supreme Court has “ignored science” in handing down its ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, and casts the decision as a bad one. Phil Lawler, supporting the decision, interestingly makes a similar-sounding charge:

“Regrettably, the Supreme Court decision itself contains a statement that ignores scientific realities. Justice Alito, in his majority opinion, writes that ‘the Hahns and Greens have a sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.’ At best that statement is awkward; at worst it is nonsense.

The Hahns and Greens (the families that control the corporations involved in the Hobby Lobby case) have sincere religious beliefs. And life begins at conception. These are two true statements. But they don’t belong together.”

Whether or not life begins at conception is a question of science and reason, not one of revealed religion. Therefore, the decision errs in treating the question of an individual human life’s point of origin as a question of subjective fancy rather than one that can be reasonably concluded by evaluating the appropriate evidence.


Hobby Lobby objected to just four of twenty forms of contraception the government wanted them to offer, on the grounds that those four were not only contraceptive (preventing fertilization) but abortifacient (preventing implantation of an embryo). This is where New Scientist’s charge comes in, as they argue, with the FDA as their authority, that the four actually primarily work by preventing fertilization, not implantation. But these claims are based on science that is presented by interested parties in just as charged an atmosphere as other political debates, and there is substantial clinical evidence that these contraceptives do, in fact, act as abortifacients in many cases.


Ultimately, though, the distinction is irrelevant. Perhaps the operators of Hobby Lobby do not object to contraceptives that only prevent fertilization, but there are many others who do, and to require them to provide those contraceptives violates their consciences just as much as abortifacients violate the consciences of Hobby Lobby’s owners. In this case, there is no dispute about the science. To object to contraceptives is not to dispute how they work in a scientific, chemical, medical, or physiological sense, it is just to dispute whether it is right to use them. Moreover, in the case of applying the HHS mandate, the question is even more distantly removed from any science: it isn’t really a question of how certain contraceptives work, or whether it is right to use them, but whether or not one group of people should be required to pay for their use by another group of people. Whatever you think the answer may be, whether or not some people should pay for things for other people seems to me to be quite a nonscientific question indeed.

Not being a legal expert, I cannot comment on all the implications of the Hobby Lobby ruling in this regard, but there are at least two points that need to be clearly kept in mind as these events continue to unfold: first, the identification of a human life is a scientific question, one of science and reason, not one of subjective religious dogma, and thus it is just and right to enact public laws that protect such life; and second, objections to contraception beyond abortifacients are not particularly scientific questions, since the science of how they work is not in dispute, just the morality and policy surrounding their use and provision. In any case, the ability of those who object to contraceptives even beyond abortifacients to live according to their conscience needs to continue to be respected.

Pope Francis Condemns Curiosity?

My latest article is now up at Crisis, discussing the charge that Pope Francis has denigrated curiosity:

Jerry Coyne, the evolutionary biologist and atheism advocate, has done just this on his blog, Why Evolution Is True. Coyne presents a quote from a homily Pope Francis delivered last year, in which the pontiff said, “The spirit of curiosity is not a good spirit. It is the spirit of dispersion, of distancing oneself from God, the spirit of talking too much. And Jesus also tells us something interesting: this spirit of curiosity, which is worldly, leads us to confusion.” Coyne comments, “The denigration of reason in favor of obedience and faith is, of course, a constant strain in Christianity, both Catholic and otherwise.”

Read here.

Chesterton, Belloc, & the Telescope

From Chesterton’s autobiography:

Among the memories that are blown back to me, as by a wind over the Downs, is that of the winter day when Belloc dragged us through Sussex to find the source of the Arun. The company included his wife and mine; none of us had been long married, and perhaps we knew less than we do now of the diversity of human temperaments, not to say temperatures. He and I were fond of cold weather; my wife and his wife, who was a very charming Californian, were not. We did find the place where the Arun rose in the hills; and it was indeed, of all the sights I have seen, one of the most beautiful; I might almost say the most classical. For it rose in a (partly frozen) pool in a small grove of slender trees, silver with the frost, that looked somehow like the pale and delicate pillars of a temple. But I think the ladies, though both of them sensitive to scenery, looked on that cold paradise with something of a cold eye. When this began to be discovered, Belloc instantly proposed the remedy of hot rum, in large tumblers at an adjoining inn; and we were puzzled by the fact that the remedy was regarded with almost as much distaste as the disease. However, we ourselves, who did not feel the cold, heartily consumed the rum; and Belloc, who has always had a trick of repeating scraps of recently discovered verse, which happened to please him, would volley out at intervals the lines of Miss Coleridge:

We were young, we were merry, we were very very wise
And the doors stood open at our feast;
When there passed us a woman with the west in her eyes
And a man with his back to the east.

There is no doubt, so far as we were concerned, that we were young and were merry; but I have sometimes doubted since whether we were very, very wise.

We then returned to Belloc’s house; where he rather neutralised the effects of the restoring warmth, by continually flinging open the door and rushing out to a telescope in the garden (it was already a frosty starlight) and loudly hallooing to the ladies to come and see God making energy. His wife declined, in terms of not a little humour; to which he retorted cheerfully:

We were young, we were merry, we were very very wise
And the doors stood open at our feast;
When there passed us a woman with the west in her eyes
And a man with his back to the east.

It’s a Star, in Another Star

I think we should call them “matryoshka stars”. Phys.org reports:

Speaking at this year’s American Astronomical Society meeting, Hubble Fellow, Emily Levesque reported that she and her colleagues at the University of Colorado have discovered a star that just might qualify as a Thorne-Zytkow object. The object has not been named as yet, however, as the team has not yet published its results.

A Thorne-Zytkow object, Kip Throne and Anna Zytkow theorized back in 1975, could come to exist when a dying red giant star swallows an orbiting neutron star. The result would be, the researchers suggested, a star with another smaller star embedded in its core and which would overall resemble other known types of stars but would emit a different and unique chemical signature. Since that time, many space scientists have scoured the heavens looking for such an object—many candidates have been found, but thus far none have been confirmed. In this latest effort, the found object appears to closely resemble what Thorne and Zytkow predicted.

Read here.

Ringed Asteroid

Scientific theories receive their greatest support when they account for not just one specific set of observations, but when they can unify a number of disparate observations with a single explanation. An interesting example happened just recently: the detection of what is apparently the first known asteroid with a ring system. On June 3rd of last year, the asteroid 10199 Chariklo occulted (passed in front of) a bright star. Occultations of stars are useful to astronomers, because they can infer details about the occulting object—in this case, the asteroid Chariklo—from the way the star’s light dims as the object passes in front of it. Ordinarily, the star dims as the asteroid passes in front and brightens again once the asteroid passes. By timing the dimming as observed from numerous locations, astronomers can calculate things such as the size and shape of the asteroid.

In this case of Chariko, though, they foundChariklo_Data_341 something more. Just before the asteroid passed in front the star, and again just afterwards, were two unexpected, brief dips in light. Astronomer Felipe Braga-Ribas and his team concluded that the best explanation for these dips is that Chariklo is orbited by a thin set of double rings. As the asteroid moved in front of the star, the light was dimmed first by the rings, then by the asteroid itself, and then by the rings again as the asteroid moved away. They calculate that the rings lie about 265 km from Chariklo’s surface and are about 7 km wide for the first set, and 3 km for the second set.

What’s really interesting, though, is that this proposal also explains another set of observations made in 2008. That year, Chariklo unexpectedly dipped in brightness by half, and the spectroscopic signal of water that had been characteristic of the asteroid vanished. If the system has ice-rich rings, this observation makes sense: Chariklo must have moved to a point in its orbit from which its rings appeared edge-on, and too thin to detect, as seen from Earth. Without the rings presenting a broad reflective surface, the asteroid appeared darker, and the water signal from the icy rings was invisible.

Thus we see that a new observation, and a new explanation for it, sheds light on earlier, unexplained observations. A theory that explains more gathers more confidence than one that explains just a little.

More at Sky & Telescope.

F. Braga-Ribas et al. Nature, March 2014.

Image & video: F. Braga-Ribas et al./ESO


Despite my ambivalence about the medium, I have begun updating this site’s Twitter feed, @TheDeepsofTime, more regularly. It does seem an appropriate and more efficient way to share quick links to the most recent news. You can now see the feed to the right, and if you use Twitter, following would be appreciated. Otherwise, check back here for longer & more substantial material.

Antheraea polyphemus

A. polyphemus moth

Antheraea polyphemus

We found this fellow outside, andmoth-2 my children wasted no time settling him into their “butterfly house”. Close enough… We were especially impressed with his size. The children wanted to know what to feed him, but were interested to learn that the adults do not feed, surviving solely on energy obtained during the larval stage; the adult stage eschews feeding altogether and simply pursues reproduction, living only about a week.

More on Angels & Aliens


Are angels like aliens? In a recent essay, Fr. Dwight Longenecker responds to recent comments from Bill Clinton regarding the search for extraterrestrial life. Fr. Longenecker writes:

‘Once we open our minds to the possibility of non-physical dimensions of reality, the Catholic faith definitely affirms the existence of what might be termed extra terrestrial intelligence. These alien beings are exist outside the boundaries of our physical perception while having the power to interact with physicality. Traditionally these alien intelligences have been called angels. The angels that have fallen into evil and are opposed to God are called demons. Down through history, mystics, visionaries and those with psychic gifts have recounted their encounters with these non-human intelligent beings.

The Catholic answer to Mr. Clinton is therefore, “We’re searching the heavens with the tools of science, but we’re already aware that aliens have been with us from the beginning. They’re called angels and demons, and not only are they here, but they’re involved in human affairs, and furthermore– it matters which ones you side with.”’

Which is all fine, as far as it goes. Nothing Fr. Longenecker writes here is really incorrect, and he rightly points out that we have to look beyond the merely physical world in order to get a complete picture of reality. It is good to be reminded that the search for distant physical things that may or may not exist can sometimes distract us from more important realities closer to home.

Still, this sort of language potentially obscures some important metaphysical distinctions. As I’ve written in this space before, I’ve read one too many science fiction stories in which, following contact with aliens either malicious or benevolent, the Church is portrayed as accepting the extraterrestrial beings as divine, embracing them either as angels or as God himself. The word “angel” comes from the Greek meaning “messenger”; angels have a functional role in the economy of salvation as just that: messengers who intermediate between God and man. We do often see aliens taking on angelic roles in science fiction, as superior exemplars or teachers of humanity, and insofar as the search for extraterrestrial life is sometimes motivated by a fundamental religious impulse to find something greater and ground human existence in a wider universal picture, aliens can take the place for the modern imagination that angels once held.

But I nevertheless find this element of those stories unbelievable; the Church would not, in the end, confuse beings that are clearly part of the universe for the Creator of the universe, or mistake beings that are physical (even in the Star Trek–style sense of “energy beings”) as immaterial angels.

Unlike (hypothetically) aliens, angels are not physical beings; in the context of science, this point cannot be overemphasized. They do not exist in realms of matter, or even in “other dimensions” of space and time or in realms of “energy”, as sci-fi would have it. They are purely immaterial intelligences. They exist not as products of matter, even secondarily (like us); they arise entirely from the mind of God. Angels do thus share a similarity with humans and with any extraterrestrial aliens we may suppose to exist in that they are creatures, made by God and finite. However, insofar as they are entirely immaterial beings, angels are radically different than humans or Klingons or Little Green Men, because the latter exist not only as intellects, but also as physical creatures. In fact, for humans, the existence of their intellects depends on their existence as physical creatures. There is no such thing as a human mind utterly without a human body (even though the human intellect persists after death; this is because of its original arising from a physical human body.)

Therefore, if the search for alien life is scientific, in the modern sense of science, it is because it is at least a search for physical beings. Angels, on the other hand, cannot be discovered by natural science, but must be known by revelation; for us to know they exist, they must either reveal themselves or be revealed by God.

Should extraterrestrial alien creatures ever be found by science, as finite, created beings they will not be the saviors they are often imagined or desired to be, even if they turn out to be wiser (cf. the conclusion to Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos). Rather, both they and we will stand, shoulder to—whatever their equivalent of shoulders might be—as equally dependent physical creatures of God. Even though it is the angels that might know us more intimately, we would in fact find that by nature aliens would be more like us, and less like them.