Monday, November 30, 2009

Great Moments in Science

The Royal Society, entering its 350th anniversary year, is celebrating with a new website of 60 groundbreaking science articles. (Naturally, they published them all in the first place.) The first few articles may seem ridiculously obvious to the modern reader; the fact that dogs need air to breathe comes as no shock to us. But then, we've had the benefit of 350 years of science, instead of more than a thousand years of appealing to theology or ancient philosophers for explanations of the natural world.

The Royal Society was formed in 1660, just after the accession of Charles II. He became the society's official patron, and his backing offered them powerful protection. In those days the scientific method of experimentation was not widely accepted. Instead, physicians and scientists appealed to authority. If Aristotle said something, it must be true, even if it was demonstrably false. His claim that males have more teeth than females could have been readily disproven merely by looking into a few mouths.

But opening a mouth requires an open mind, and the few people possessing those found them dangerous. Only a few years earlier Galileo had been tried by the Inquisition for spreading the heretical idea that the earth was not the center of the solar system. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest. He was lucky not to suffer the fate of Giordano Bruno, a scientist who was burned at the stake in 1600 for heresy.

Over the decades and centuries, the Royal Society published papers on every branch of science, from physics to medicine to astronomy. Some of the papers on the web site include Isaac Newton on the physics of white light, discussions of inoculation against smallpox, and an inquiry into whether the youthful Mozart was a true prodigy or a short adult. (Prodigy.) Every article is represented by a red dot placed on a timeline that also shows other important events in western history. Mouse over the red dots to get a brief commentary and images. The silver dots show contemporary events.

The final article linked on the site has an ironic ring. It's James Lovelock's paper on fighting global warming--a scourge resulting from heedless use of advances in science. There is no question that scientists have been incredibly wrong at times; a glance into the history of medicine makes that instantly clear. Yet if there is hope for humanity, it lies in science and the willingness to keep thinking, testing, experimenting, finding new ways to do things.

It might conceivably be possible to care about science without revering the Royal Society, just as a baseball fan may not care about Cooperstown, but it's unlikely. I take my hat off to the men and women of the Royal Society and to the merry monarch, Charles II, who could so easily have driven it underground. May the Royal Society continue to flourish for centuries more.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from schoolteachers.
St. Bernard

How do you convey the essence of a redwood tree? No words, no pictures, can capture the experience of walking through a grove of them.

Redwoods lack the graceful stance of elms, the glorious color of sugar maples in autumn, the picturesquely twisted branches of oak trees. They don't even have the shapeliness of a blue spruce or a Douglas fir. In fact, they resemble extremely tall bottle-brushes.

Moreover, a hiker can see the whole only from a distance. Up close, you don't see much of the branches; they start above eye level. What you see is the reddish bark, the vast trunk, perhaps a few needles dipping low enough for your notice. They stand, calm and strong, alone or in great goosepens or in ranks on steep ridges. They carpet the woods with their shredding bark and their rusty, fragrant needles. But the simplicity of the great trunks has grace, and the fibrous bark -- the color of tea in sunlight -- has a subtle auburn glow.

And they are huge. The vast specimens in Muir Woods are among the greatest of the Coast Redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, which aren't even the most massive of the redwood family. The Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron gigantea, are thicker-trunked. But even a comparatively adolescent Coast Redwood tree can be magnificent long before it reaches its full growth of 350+ feet in height and as much as 26 feet in diameter. (Not circumference. Diameter.) They're big enough to camp out in when hollowed by fire or age. They grow taller than the Statue of Liberty on her pedestal. And they have a natural lifespan of as much as 2,000 years. Trees of 600 or 700 years old are common -- well, common in places where they haven't been clear-cut.

Walking among them is like walking in a great cathedral, or Stonehenge. They carry a sense of holiness, of calm contemplation. It's more than the effect of great size; I've been in buildings where humans were puny without feeling the upwelling of joy these forests give me.

Words can't do it. Pictures fail. But maybe this video will help. It shows the making of this large-scale photograph.