It’s mostly insubstantial

This morning, on friend and author Amy Rogers’ website,, I found the link to a great article by New York Times bestselling author James Rollins.  Rollins writes science thrillers, and the article, Turning Science Into Fiction, details a tour he took of Fermilab, near Chicago, the conversations he had with physicists there, and how he turns such information into riveting stories like his most recent novel, The Eye of God.

The Eye of God

The article holds points of interest for writers of all sorts.  When Rollins sat down with a group of Fermilab physicists, his question was, “Tell me what scares you about your research, what keeps you up at night?”  Not only did the answers become central to The Eye of God, but they hold great interest to me as a student of Eastern thought.

All religions hold that the world we perceive with our senses hides much of what is really real, but according to Rollins, his conversation with these scientists centered on “the insubstantiality of the physical world.”  He gives this quote he discovered after his visit:

“If you remove all the space within the atoms making up the human body, every person that’s ever lived would fit inside a baseball.” – Brian Greene, physicist

Beyond such ultimate pondering, Rollins’ article is full of details on his research which should be of interest to any novelist who wonders how much one needs to learn of an esoteric topic to be able to tell a convincing story.

I highly recommend this article, and for more of the same,, which you will find in the link above and on my blogroll.

Nights of shooting stars

I wasn’t even thinking of the Perseid meteor showers when I posted my review of Stardust, a movie in which a shooting star is central to the story.  Since then I’vs spotted news articles which reminded me that the annual peak time to see shooting stars is upon us!

Nasa photo: public domain

Every August for the last 2000 years, we have been treated to meteor showers as the earth passes by remnants of the Swift-Tuttle comet.  This year, because light from the waning crescent moon will be dim, the celestial light show should be especially dramatic.

The meteors will be visible from now through August 24, peaking this weekend, on the 11th and 12th.  NASA estimates we could see as many as 80-100 shooting stars per hour on those nights.  Best viewing will naturally be in places away from city lights, but in past years, I’ve seen the Perseids from the back yard, where there is plenty of ambient light.

This is really worth checking out if you get the chance.  No matter how many other distractions we face, celestial events like this can stop us in our tracks, open our eyes of wonder, and remind us again of the things that really matter. art to save the sea

Meet Lidia the Seal. She stands as tall as I can reach, in a vacant lot in Bandon, Oregon, the creation of artists and volunteers of the Washed Ashore Project.


The group’s goal is to turn plastic and other ocean garbage into art that illustrates the harm to marine life and the entire food chain resulting from careless dumping.  So far, 1000 volunteers have collected three and a half tons of marine debris along 20 miles of coastline and used it to create 18 giant sculptures.

Detail of Henry the Fish, showing the kinds of objects used to make the sculptures.  Henry is 15'x9'x8'

Detail of Henry the Fish, showing the kinds of objects used to make the sculptures. Henry is 15’x9’x8′

Plaques beside the sculptures explain a little about the dangers of the degrading petrochemicals in plastics in the ocean, as well as the process of collecting, washing, sorting, and recycling what the volunteers collect.

One of the plaques affirms that, “Every action you make in your life has an impact.  Even small actions make a positive difference.  People working together CAN create results.  This project proves it!”

I wish you could have been there to share the delight of rounding a corner to find Lidia and Henry, but for the next best thing, please visit the project website: There are many more photos and descriptions illustrating the process of turning these castoff items into art, as well as information on exhibits in other locations.

Maybe one day soon, one of these washed ashore creatures will visit a spot near you!  Meanwhile, enjoy these, and perhaps, as one of the plaques says, you will be moved to see art where others see garbage, right where you are today!

Huh, what? Oh yeah, I remember

Until the 20th century, most people in the western world believed in objective memory, that what we remember is an accurate mirror of events that actually happened.

With the birth of psychoanalysis and concepts of the Id and unconscious mind, that began to change. Modern brain research confirms that not only do memory and imagination overlap, but that memories can be deliberately changed or altered.  Such manipulation is a core element of The Cloud by Matt Richtel, a page turning thriller I started to read after seeing this interview with the author on

The Persistence of Memory by Salvadore Dali, 1931

Freud was ambivalent about the accuracy of his patients’ memories. At the start of his career, he attributed several several cases of hysteria to real childhood sexual abuse that his methods uncovered.  Later he said that such episodes were patient “phantasies.”

The issue surfaced again at the end of the 20th century, with “recovered memory” therapy causing tremors in the field, to say nothing of lives disrupted by allegations of sexual abuse, in what is now widely viewed as abuse by helping professionals who implanted memories in the course of trying to treat patients.  “False memory syndrome” still evokes passionate disagreement in the field.  The AMA and the American Psychiatric Association, as well as the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Britain have condemned recovered memory therapy, and in the late 90’s, a number of patients who once believed they’d been victims of childhood abuse successfully sued the therapists who had led them to that belief.

Since the turn of the century, the “hard science” of biology has confirmed what most therapists since Freud have known – that memory is always mixed with imagination.  The area of the brain that perceives an object overlaps the part of the brain that imagines the same object.  In 2009, scientists implanted memories (involving smells) in flies by using light signals to trigger “genetically encoded switches.”

The day after I started reading The Cloud, I heard “Sure, I remember that,” on Marketplace, in which the work of Elizabeth Loftus was highlighted. Loftus, of UC Irvine, is one of the key researchers who have demonstrated how easy it is to implant memories, in this case using altered photographs.  I invite you to listen to this timely piece, which is only five and a half minutes long.

Yep.  We now something new to worry about – hacking at the cellular level!  I’ll have to remember to worry about it later, though.  Right now I have to get back to my novel…

Ancient Roman greenhouse gasses

Before the industrial revolution, humans did not pollute the atmosphere, right?  That is what most scientists thought until a study of greenhouse gasses trapped in ice revealed that human activity has generated significant traces of methane dating back at least 2000 years.

In “Classical Gas,” an article in the Feb., 2013 issue of Smithsonian, Joseph Stromberg reports that a team of 15 scientists took samples from Greenland’s mile and a half thick sheet of ice, which dates back 115,000 years.  The researchers looked at the concentration of methane in microscopic air bubbles in the ice.  They expected to find that historical methane traces increased during warm-weather periods.  Instead they found that it varied with human activity, most notably, large-scale agriculture and metallurgy.  Methane began to spike around 100 B.C.  At this period, the Romans kept large numbers of methane-producing cows, sheep, and goats.

Orpheus surrounded by animals. Ancient Roman floor mosaic. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto. CC-by-SA

At the same time, the Han dynasty in China increased its rice production, which is associated with methane-producing bacteria.  Both empires burned large amounts of wood to produce metal for weapons.

Roman relief of blacksmith. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber. CC-by-SA-3.0

Results of the Greenland ice study showed that between 100 B.C. and 1600 A.D., world methane production rose by 31 million tons per year – which sounds like a lot until you realize that US methane production alone is 36 million tons per year, and that isn’t the only greenhouse gas. The discovery that humans have had a measurable impact on the atmosphere for 2000 years does not mean ancient cultures affected climate the way we do. It does mean researchers have to redefine baseline levels of methane – what we define as “natural.”

We tend to project a certain environmental wisdom onto older cultures, assuming they were better stewards of nature than we are in our mechanized world.  Yet I know of at least two other cultures, whose worldview included a reverence for nature, that got into trouble when populations grew too large for a given territory.  Ironically we may have a better chance, using the lens of science, of recognizing and correcting our impact on the environment than people who viewed aspects of nature as divine.

Some bloggers might be tempted to end this post with a fart joke, but that would be immature.

Photo by Alexander Herrmann, CC-by-NC-ND-2.0

Photo by Alexander Herrmann, CC-by-NC-ND-2.0

Thich Nhat Hanh on climate change

On monday, in his inaugural speech, President Obama said that ignoring climate change amounts to betrayal of our children and future generations.

Also on monday, Justin Gillis, a New York Times writer, published the findings of geologists whose study of the location of fossil deposits adds some real numbers to the threat of rising oceans.  With a rise of “only a couple of degrees Fahrenheit, enough polar ice melts, over time, to raise the global sea level by about 25 to 30 feet.  But in the coming century, the Earth is expected to warm…perhaps 4 to 5 degrees, because of human emissions of greenhouse gasses.”

And again, on Monday, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master who Martin Luther King nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, was quoted in an article in The Guardian speaking of climate as the great crisis facing civilization over the next century.

“The 86-year-old Vietnamese monk, who has hundreds of thousands of followers around the world, believes the reason most people are not responding to the threat of global warming, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, is that they are unable to save themselves from their own personal suffering, never mind worry about the plight of Mother Earth.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Hanh, who is known by the nickname, Thay, has been a proponent of “engaged Buddhism” since the 60’s, when he came to this country to speak out against the Vietnam war.  Now he refuses to sidestep the seriousness of our environmental crisis.  Noting that people with vested interest in the status quo are unlikely to change, he says we need the kind of grassroots movement Gandhi organized, but insists it will only work if “activists first deal with their own anger and fears, rather than projecting them onto those they see at fault.”

Thich Nhat Hanh has written more than 100 books, the most popular being The Miracle of Mindfulness.

His writing often seems deceptively simple, but it’s a hard won simplicity, forged in daily meditation over the seventy years since his ordination. His concepts are born of realization rather than doctrine “By recognising the inter-connectedness of all life, we can move beyond the idea that we are separate selves and expand our compassion and love in such a way that we take action to protect the Earth.”

What are the alternatives?  This is an important article and an important issue to face, since the potential cost of ignoring it continues to rise.

The 2012 Ig Nobel Prizes

There’s still time to get tickets for the September 20 Ig Nobel Prize award ceremony at Harvard, where ten researchers will receive recognition for unusual discoveries.  The prizes are the brainchild of Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of “The Annals of Improbable Research” and author of a new book, This is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens and Other WTF Research.

The ten Ig Nobel winners, whose identity has not been revealed, will receive their certificates from “real” Nobel laureates.  According to Abrahams, some dedicated scientists hold awards in both categories.  He cites Andre Geim  and Michael Berry, two UK physicists, who won an Ig Nobel in 2000 for using magnets to levitate a frog.  Ten years later, Geim and a student won a Nobel prize for producing graphene (two-dimensional carbon) in sufficient quantities to study.

Dr. Elena Bodnar, with her Ig Nobel prize winning bra that quickly converts to a protective face mask.

Past Ig Nobel winners who plan to attend this years ceremony include Dr. Bodnar, pictured above, as well as:

  • L. Mahadevan, a Harvard professor, for a “mathematico-physics analysis of how sheets get wrinkled.”
  • Dr. Richard Gustafson for research: “The failure of self-administered automobile-engine-supplied-electric-shock treatment for rattlesnake envenomation resulting from patient’s pet rattlesnake biting the patient on the lip.
  • Dr. Francis Fesmire, for an article in The Annals of Emergency Medicine entitled, “Digital rectal massage as a cure for intractable hiccups.”

Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch won a 2006 Ig Nobel for research on why spaghetti, when broken, often splits into more than two pieces.

  • Dan Mayer for an article on the medical effects of sword swallowing.
  • John Perry of Stanford for his “Theory of Structured Procrastination.”
  • Don Featherstone, creator of the pink plastic flamenco.
  • Glenda Browne of Blaxland, Australia, for her study of the word “the” and the problems it creates for people who try to alphabetize things.

Marc Abrahams

Marc Abrahams says the Ig Nobel committee is looking for research and inventions that make people laugh and then make them think.  “We also hope to spur people’s curiosity, and to raise the question: How do you decide what’s important and what’s not, and what’s real and what’s not — in science and everywhere else?”

A very good question! To learn more about this year’s prizes, check here:

Man on the moon

Neil Armstrong on the Moon. (NASA photo, public domain)

There are moments we always remember.  Sadly, most of them are bad, like Pearl Harbor for my parents’ generation and September 11 for us.  Sometimes, however, the news is good, even fantastic.  Those of us who remember July 20, 1969 will never forget the thrill, the surge of optimism when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.

I was driving home from the bay area yesterday afternoon when the radio said he had died at the age of 82.  In an instant, memory carried me back  back to a restaurant in Yosemite 43 years ago.  I was  up there for the summer, working to earn money to buy my first car.  It was slow at 4:30 that afternoon – the dinner crowd wouldn’t arrive for another hour.  The whole crew gathered in the kitchen where someone had placed a portable black and white TV with rabbit ears.

Later that evening, a friend and I lay on the ground near the river, gazing up at the summer moon, which was full that night, trying to wrap our imaginations around it.  The night was warm.  We lay there, not saying very much, until it was late.

Neil Armstrong. Photo by NASA, Public Domain

Several people who knew Neil Armstrong spoke on the radio.  A friend of his noted of the irony of a man who stood in the world spotlight but was one of the shyest and most retiring people she ever knew.  Everyone mentioned his patriotism and courage, as a combat pilot, a test pilot, and finally as a man who went where no one had gone before.

There are times in adolescence when we think we can do anything, like get a job in the mountains and earn enough money to buy a car.  There are times when nations believe they can do anything, like put a man on the moon.  The webs of cause and effect are far too complex to sort out, but both individual and collective achievements begin with strong intentions.  Even when we set out to find X and discover Z instead, some determination got us moving.

Neil Armstong seems to have been a decent and courageous man.  Now he is even more than that.  His smile from space will always remind us of how barriers can fall and new frontiers can be gained when we are motivated by deep and unswerving intention.