Eternal vigilance is the price of engineering

There are some great lines in this classic poem by Rudyard Kipling, in praise of the often undervalued work done by engineers and associated construction workers. The central metaphor draws on the Bible story told in Luke 10:38–42.

The Sons of Martha (1907)

The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.

It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

They say to mountains “Be ye removèd.” They say to the lesser floods “Be dry.”
Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd – they are not afraid of that which is high.

Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit – then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

They finger Death at their gloves’ end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.

Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.

To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden – under the earthline their altars are –
The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city’s drouth.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not preach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they damn-well choose.

As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren’s ways may be long in the land.

Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with the blood some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.

And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd – they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet – they hear the Word – they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and – the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons!

“THEY DIED TO MAKE THE DESERT BLOOM” – memorial at the Hoover Dam
(photo: ‘NortyNort’)


Evolution as a Religion: a book review

Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears by Mary Midgley (1985, revised edition 2002)

I recently read the classic Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears by English philosopher Mary Midgley. In the introduction to the revised (2002) edition, Midgley explains the motivation for the book as follows: “I had been struck for some time by certain remarkable prophetic and metaphysical passages that appeared suddenly in scientific books about evolution, often in their last chapters. Though these passages were detached from the official reasoning of the books, they seemed still to be presented as science. But they made startling suggestions about vast themes such as immortality, human destiny and the meaning of life.” (p. viii). As an example, she quotes the molecular biologist William Day: “He [man] will splinter into types of humans with differing mental faculties that will lead to diversification and separate species. From among these types, a new species, Omega man, will emerge … as much beyond our imagination as our world was to the emerging eucaryotes.” (p. 36).

Mary Midgley

Such “prophetic and metaphysical passages” are also familiar from the fictional works of Olaf Stapledon and H. G. Wells. Midgley argues that they represent bad science, twisted to have characteristics of a religion, such as assigning meaning to life (pp. 15, 71). The myth of the “Evolutionary Escalator,” extrapolated to some glorious imaginary future, is one example. Nothing in evolutionary science justifies this view, comforting though it may seem (p. 38). Furthermore, past attempts to accelerate the process by breeding an “Übermensch” have not ended at all well (p. 9), and more recent proposals are also disturbing (pp. 48–49).

The “Evolutionary Escalator” or “March of Progress”

Midgley claims that prophecies based on the “Evolutionary Escalator” myth “are quite simply exaltations of particular ideals within human life at their own epoch, projected on to the screen of a vague and vast ‘future’ – a term which, since Nietzsche and Wells, is not a name for what is particularly likely to happen, but for a fantasy realm devoted to the staging of visionary dramas. In their content, these dramas plainly depend on the moral convictions of their author and of his age, not on scientific theories of any kind.” (pp. 81–82).

In contrast, Midgley quotes a more pessimistic perspective from the physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desk for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” (pp. 86–87). This perspective is very different from that of the evolutionary optimists, but it does share a certain scientist-centric bias.

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravin, shriek’d against his creed, –

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.’

(from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., LIV and LV)

Midgley is particularly negative about the “red in tooth and claw” view of evolution, which emphasises competition as against cooperation. She sees the “selfish gene” concept popularised by Richard Dawkins as an example of this. In a 2007 interview with The Independent, she claimed “The ideology Dawkins is selling is the worship of competition. It is projecting a Thatcherite take on economics on to evolution. It’s not an impartial scientific view; it’s a political drama.

Honeybees are great cooperators (photo: Todd Huffman), and symbiosis is common in nature

Indeed, when an organism succeeds by occupying a new ecological niche (as, for example, urban coyotes do), there need not be any competition at all (at least, not initially).

A coyote in an urban niche (photo: Dru Bloomfield)

Extreme forms of sociobiology comes in for particular criticism from Midgley. They produce, she claims, bad science: “Environmental causes are neglected without any justification being given, and so are causes which flow from an individual itself during its lifetime … In human affairs, both these areas are of course of the first importance, since they cover the whole range of culture and individual action.” (p. 151). She is far from being the only scholar to make such criticisms.

Less common is the way in which she blames the growth of creationism on the rhetoric of sociobiologists themselves: “The project of treating the time scale of the Genesis story literally, as a piece of history, is an amazing one, which serious biblical scholars at least as far back as Origen (AD 200) have seen to be unworkable and unnecessary. The reason why people turn to it now seems to be that the only obvious alternative story – evolution – has become linked with a view of human psychology which they rightly think both false and immoral.” (p. 172).

See also this talk by Midgley, related to a more recent book on a similar topic:

In essence, Mary Midgley strongly supports scientists when they do science, but does not always accept the results of scientists doing philosophy (and especially moral philosophy). This little book sounds a helpful note of caution for those scientists who have become interested in philosophical speculation.

* * * *
Evolution as a Religion, by Mary Midgley: 4 stars

A glimpse of home

This superb NASA/JPL/SSI photograph from 19 July, taken by the hard-working Cassini spacecraft, looks back 1,440,000,000 km to our home planet – the blue dot below Saturn’s rings. Click on the photograph for details, and for larger versions of the image.

I pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave me birth;
Let me rest my eyes on the fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.
” – Robert A. Heinlein

Mosquitoes: a poem with bite

First came the scouts who felt our sweat in the air
and understood our need to make a sacrifice.

We were so large and burdened with all we had carried,
our blood too rich for our own good. They understood

that we could give what they needed and never miss it.
Then came the throng encircling our heads like acoustic haloes

droning with the me-me-me of appetite. We understood
their pleasure to find such hairless beasts so easy to open and drink.

We understood their female ardor to breed and how little
they had to go on considering the protein required to make

their million-fold eggs. Vibrant, available, and hot,
we gave our flesh in selfless service to their future.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of Rope, Genius Loci, and other collections of poems; via American Scientist’s poetry on the bookshelf (have you got poetry on your bookshelf?)

Theatres of Glass: a book review

Theatres of Glass by Rebecca Stott (2003)

I recently read Theatres of Glass: The Woman who Brought the Sea to the City by Rebecca Stott. The book tells the story of Anna Thynne, wife of the Reverend Lord John Thynne, who was Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey from 1831 to 1881.

Anna with her daughters Selina and Emily

Beginning in 1846, when she took her children on a holiday to Devonshire, Anna Thynne developed the marine aquarium (realising that constant aeration of the water was required) and studied stony corals such as Caryophyllia smithii, publishing an article with the deeply religious zoologist Philip Gosse.

The Devonshire Cup Coral, Caryophyllia smithii (photo: National Museums Northern Ireland)

Stott quotes Tennyson’s The Princess as an indication of the Victorian mania for collection:

And me that morning Walter showed the house,
Greek, set with busts: from vases in the hall
Flowers of all heavens, and lovelier than their names,
Grew side by side; and on the pavement lay
Carved stones of the Abbey-ruin in the park,
Huge Ammonites, and the first bones of Time;
And on the tables every clime and age
Jumbled together; celts and calumets,
Claymore and snowshoe, toys in lava, fans
Of sandal, amber, ancient rosaries,
Laborious orient ivory sphere in sphere,
The cursed Malayan crease, and battle-clubs
From the isles of palm: and higher on the walls,
Betwixt the monstrous horns of elk and deer,
His own forefathers’ arms and armour hung.

Indeed, as Stott explains, Anna Thynne’s work (together with the book The Aquarium: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea by Gosse) helped extend that mania to aquaria as well. My understanding of the chronology is this:

1806: Anna born (April 1)
1824: Anna marries Lord John Thynne (age 17, almost 18)
1841: Ward experiments with freshwater aquaria
1846: Anna begins her marine aquarium (age 40)
1849: Anna moves to Tenby in Pembrokeshire
1850: Anna conducts detailed investigations of the “Madrepores” in her aquarium
1850: Warrington experiments with freshwater aquaria
1852: Anna abandons her aquarium and moves to Hawnes Park, Bedfordshire
1852: Warrington experiments with marine aquaria; the London Zoo establishes an aquarium
1854: Gosse publishes The Aquarium
1856: Second edition of The Aquarium
1859: Anna (age 53) and Gosse publish “On the increase of Madrepores” in The Annals and Magazine of Natural History
1866: Anna dies (age 60)

An illustration from Gosse’s book, which appears on the dust cover of Stott’s

Overall, a very enjoyable book, about a forgotten heroine of science. I didn’t quite feel I’d gotten inside Anna’s head, but that is probably because the limited range of source material often forces Stott to speculate. Anna’s role is weakened a little by the fact that Gosse was unaware of her when he wrote his book in 1854, although he lists her as one of three pioneers in the second edition (and quotes the sentence “The individual to whom is due the merit of having introduced marine vivaria into London is Mrs. Thynne,” which justifies the carefully chosen subtitle of Stott’s book).

Also, I was perhaps subconsciously expecting some of the flavour of Barchester Towers, in a book about the wife of a Sub-Dean. No doubt that is the wrong way to think about Anna Thynne, but Stott does not give a strong alternative. I can’t help wish that more source material existed. I would have liked some colour plates in the book too.

Theatres of Glass by Rebecca Stott: 3.5 stars


The study of shells leads to many wonderful images. This one, by H. Zell, is part of a gallery of shells on Wikimedia Commons. Udo Schmidt also has a great collection online.

…Building their beauty in three dimensions
Over which the world recedes away from us,
And in the fourth, that takes away ourselves
From moment to moment and from year to year
From first to last they remain in their continuous present.
The helix revolves like a timeless thought,
Instantaneous from apex to rim
Like a dance whose figure is limpet or murex,
cowrie or golden winkle…
” – Kathleen Jessie Raine

Science in Dante’s “Paradiso”

In his Paradiso, which completes the trilogy begun with the Inferno, Dante travels through the (Ptolemaic) heavens, which look like this:

While most of Dante’s astronomy has been rendered obsolete by discoveries that began with Copernicus, Dante did understand the nature of the Milky Way. The Paradiso, it is true, expresses a degree of doubt regarding this:

As, graced with lesser and with larger lights
between the poles of the world, the Galaxy
gleams so that even sages are perplexed;
” — Paradiso, XIV, 97–99, tr. Mandelbaum

However, Dante’s Convivio provides the correct explanation:

In the Old Translation [Aristotle] says that the Galaxy is nothing but a multitude of fixed stars in that region, so small that we are unable to distinguish them from here below, though from them originates the appearance of that brightness which we call the Galaxy … Avicenna and Ptolemy seem to share this opinion with Aristotle.” — Convivio, II, 14, tr. Lansing

Milky Way; photo by “”

In the Paradiso, Dante discusses more than just theology and astronomy. He somehow manages to work in Thales’ theorem, for example (Paradiso, XIII, 101–102). What’s more, having told us in the Purgatorio (XV, 16–21) that “the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection,” Dante now proposes an actual experiment in optics (no, it wasn’t Galileo who invented the experimental method!):

Yet an experiment, were you to try it,
could free you from your cavil – and the source
of your arts’ course springs from experiment
Taking three mirrors, place a pair of them
at equal distance from you; set the third
midway between those two, but farther back.
Then, turning toward them, at your back have placed
a light that kindles those three mirrors and
returns to you, reflected by them all.
Although the image in the farthest glass
will be of lesser size, there you will see
that it must match the brightness of the rest.
” — Paradiso, II, 94–105, tr. Mandelbaum

The image above (click to zoom) is the result of replicating Dante’s proposed experiment with the Persistence of Vision Raytracer. The unnecessary third mirror tells us that Dante is here also speaking allegorically about the reflection of Divine light, and that – hinting at 1 Corinthians 13:12 – he is looking forward to his final vision of the Trinity, in what is after all a theological poem:

That light supreme, within its fathomless
Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare
Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;
The first mirrored the next, as though it were
Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame
Breathed equally from each of the first pair.
” — Paradiso, XXXIII, 115–120, tr. Sayers

See also science in the Inferno and in the Purgatotorio.