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Why would John Milton, a supposedly devout Christian writing at a time that to be otherwise risked not just outrage but in fact the bonfire, make of Satan such a spirited and, in fact, sympathetic character? C.S. Lewis had this answer in his own preface to the poem:

To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago, the Becky Sharp, within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives.

which only convinces me that Lewis was not a careful reader of Shakespeare.

Following the lead of Harold Bloom in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human I decided to read Othello along with Paradise Lost to appreciate just how much Milton’s Satan owed to Shakespeare’s Iago.

It’s not even close.

Iago is far more articulate, cunning, intelligent – far more evil, in fact, than Satan. In addition, Iago faces a more formidable foe in Othello than Satan faces in the vanilla pudding Eve. Eve’s single substantive contribution to the poem is to commit the slasher movie blunder – after hearing of a demon on the loose in the garden, she convinces the equally milquetoast Adam that they should split up for the day. Good move, Eve!

I’ll have more to say about Satan and Paradise Lost in another entry, but here I want to focus on the exquisitely painful play by Shakespeare.

Othello is Iago’s play, and the character of Iago gives lie to the Lewis quote I began with. To imagine that Iago is simply any one of us with our conscience cut away is to fundamentally misunderstand Iago’s evil genius. In the way Iago twists Othello’s mind, at first gently urging Othello away from jealousy, next exploiting Othello’s own feelings of other-ness, and finally preying upon Othello’s confused notion of proof, (and this synopsis – in fact any synopsis – is a wholly inadequate recounting of Iago’s genius). Iago displays an understanding of human nature that is astonishing in its revelation.

I’m interested in the question, “would I (or anyone else but Othello) have been trapped by Iago as Othello was?” Then I realize it’s the wrong question. Iago’s genius lay not in his particular actions, but in the way he reads his victims, first the ridiculous Roderigo, then the hapless Cassio, and on to the proud Moor. Even Desdemona herself Iago understands will champion Cassio to Othello in just the right way to heat Othello’s growing suspicions. If the characters had been different, so would have Iago. What poison, I wonder, might Iago have poured into my ear?

Lawrence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branaugh as Iago

Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago

The only characters Iago doesn’t understand are his own wife Emilia and, ultimately, himself. It is his failure to appreciate Emilia’s sense of justice and loyalty that leads to Iago’s final undoing, but more interesting, I think, is Iago’s failure to understand his own motivation for evil. Iago’s utter clarity of understanding regarding others’ consciousness combined with this self-blindness are perhaps the most interesting parts of his character.

Was Shakespeare merely letting himself be evil through Iago? No. Iago is not Hamlet. His lack of self-knowledge, combined with his utter clarity regarding the minds of others, make Iago something frighteningly unique. C.S. Lewis is wrong.

Before leaving this play, I want to mention its relation not to Paradise Lost, but to the book I finished just prior to opening Othello, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. There are striking similarities regarding the attitudes toward women that the two works explore. Tess, as I wrote earlier, was condemned by an immoral society. Desdemona, too, was judged and found guilty of that which only an immoral society could find criminal. But while Hardy shone quite a negative light on Tess’s tormentor husband Angel, Shakespeare shows Othello as villainous only because he is wrong.

What if Desdemona had been guilty of adultery? Shakespeare’s audience would, presumably, not in that case have seen so much tragedy in her murder. What about us? Would we be prepared. if not to exonerate Desdemona entirely, at least to spare her life?

Even Othello admits that adultery, if not discovered, is essentially a victimless crime:

What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harm’d not me:
I slept the next night well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips:
He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stol’n,
Let him not know’t, and he’s not robb’d at all.

In our modern enlightened world, while adultery may hurt you in divorce proceedings, it won’t land you jail time, much less execution. And yet it’s Desdemona’s very innocence of the deed that makes her death such a tragedy. Isn’t it? Would we be nearly so horrified had Othello killed a guilty wife?

Irene Jacob's Desdemona with Iago

Irene Jacob’s Desdemona with Iago

Here I think we run into the very thing that makes Shakespeare both dated and timely. We find antiquated ideas in Shakespeare all the time, such as the gender-based double standards in Measure for Measure and the fear of “the other” in The Merchant of Venice. Yet somehow Shakespeare remains relevant, because we recognize his characters as human, very much like us.

We can’t escape human nature. Yet to act on the impulses of our nature – impulses for sex, for power, for revenge – results in chaos, as we see again and again in Shakespeare’s best works.

It remains true today. Our rules have changed, but the fundamental question remains. How do we reconcile a society of individuals with a biology and a psychology that pushes us to sometimes view fellow humans as means to an end? We still don’t have an answer. I suspect we never will. And that’s why Shakespeare still matters.

I took my first beach walk of the season this morning, spotted:

– squid and jellyfish washed up on the beach

– two deceased horseshoe crabs

– dolphins feeding in the surf

– loads of pelicans

– and of course the gorgeous sunrise

20150614_06172820150614_06180820150614_061902  20150614_062101

Spoiler Alert: Before you read this you should go see Jurassic World – and you should go see it.

In the original Jurassic Park, the message was that cloning dinosaurs from fossilized DNA was

1) possible

2) a really bad idea

Everybody forgot about #2 five minutes after they left the theater and focused on #1, which is right and true and good. Cloning dinosaurs would be awesome if we could ever figure out how to do it.

Jurassic World is, by my best count, the fourth movie in the franchise but it essentially ignores installments 2 and 3 to focus on paying homage to the first movie and (for a regrettably short time) the first point above. As Jurassic World opens, we see John Hammond’s dream fulfilled. Amazed tourists ride aboard monorails, buses, even self-driven hamster balls through herds of herbivores as the enormous beasts serenely glide across verdant plains. Thrilled guests get splashed by an enormous mosasaur in the coolest moving theater anyone’s ever seen (eat your heart out, Carousel of Progress). The little ones even get to take dinosaur “pony” rides.


Combine these amazing attractions with high-tech touch screen storytelling and even a Jimmy Fallon tour guide bit (“spared no expense”) and Jurassic World looks like just about the coolest vacation spot anyone’s ever imagined.

And then, naturally, things go wrong. Blah, blah, dinosaurs eat people, blah, blah, damsel in distress, blah blah, hero must show his manhood. Whatever.

The whole Jurassic Park franchise is such an enigma. Every single movie, even the really awful 2nd and 3rd movies, are dedicated to the idea that when people meddle with nature, bad things happen. And yet no one goes to the movie to see those hubristic humans get their comeuppance. No, we all go to see what wonders Henry Wu and his colleagues can cook up next in that lab of theirs. We want to watch the babies hatch. We want to see the velociraptors hunt pigs (and maybe even bigger prey), we want to see what happens when we blend the size of a t-rex with the brainpower of a cuttlefish. Oops, hope I didn’t give away too much.

On the surface, Jurassic World – like its predecessors – is all about moralistic finger-wagging about the dangers of science gone too far. And yet, underneath, the entire time it’s winking at us knowingly. Nobody ever made a movie about the guy who said, “No, I better not.”

If (when?) Jurassic World opens its doors, I’ll be right there in line with all the other dinosaur freaks out there. You’re too frightened to attend? Good, more hamster ball rides for me.

hamster ball

I never realized how amazing Columbus is until last summer when I tried to see Shakespeare in the Park in Cincinnati.

Nothing against Cincinnati; I’m sure their Shakespeare in the Park program is good in its own way. When I and my family went to Cincinnati last summer to see Macbeth, we were disappointed to learn that

1) it was an all teenage cast

2) It would be performed entirely in a tiny pavilion with no stage and limited scenery.

3) It ended up getting canceled, anyway, due to lightning in the area.

We were disappointed that we didn’t get to see the play, but honestly we’d been spoiled by Columbus’ amazing Shakespeare in the Park program at Schiller, and I suspect that the Cincinnati version would have disappointed. That same summer (last summer) Actors’ Theatre did Hamlet and the Merry Wives of Windsor. Two really, really different plays, but we loved them both.

This Saturday we’re going to see Captain Blood – not Shakespeare, but it’s got pirates! And we’ll be going to Katzinger’s for our traditional Schiller Park picnic before the play. And we know we’ll see a great show in a beautiful park on a massive stage. Later in the summer they’ll be doing Richard III. If you’ve never been – or even if you have – you should check it out. Plays at Schiller are one of the things that make Columbus, well, pretty great.

Schiller Park provides the theater setting for a performance by Actorsí Theater of Columbus of Beaux' Stratagem Thursday, Aug. 22. The play will run Thursdays through Sundays through Sept. 1. Joshua A. Bickel/ThisWeekNEWS The audience watches during the Actors' Theater of Columbus' performance of "Beaux' Strategem" Aug. 22, 2013 at Schiller Park in Columbus, Ohio. The play will run Thursdays through Sundays until Sept. 1.

Life is a symphony.

I’ve changed the name of my blog because I love the idea of a symphony, a harmonious blending of different elements to create something beautiful.

I started this blog as a celebration of science, sea turtles, and a sense of wonder. I still celebrate all those, but I want to write about so much more. I want to write about Shakespeare, and music, and art, and poetry, and love, and people. Amazing, amazing people.

I once wrote here that I hate fiction. Now I realize that it wasn’t fiction I hated at all. It was bad fiction. I felt like I didn’t have a way to argue against bad fiction. But of course that was never true. The argument against bad fiction is to celebrate good fiction. I’m reading more fiction than ever before. Shakespeare, yes. But also Faulkner, and Hemingway, and Pynchon, and Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and . . . and I’ll write about them here.

I’ll still write about science, too. I’m still in love with science, because it’s one of the things people do. Amazing, amazing people. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. So I will.

This weekend I watched and read along with Sir Ian McKellan’s version of King Lear.

This is a big play. Not just a long play (it is listed here as the seventh longest of Shakespeare’s plays – Macbeth, by contrast, is seventh shortest), but a big play. I feel overwhelmed by all that happens.

As usual, Asimov gives me context and Harold Bloom gives me direction in gathering my thoughts on this play, and they both have much to say. And yet after reading them, and many other thoughts and reviews, I still feel that I don’t know this play. Is it just too big?

Love. Love is a central theme of this play, which seems a crazy statement for a play containing so much misery, so much betrayal, and in the end so much, and so “untimely”, as one character says , death. But it is love that makes the betrayal and the misery so painful to watch.

In the famous opening scene (“nothing will come of nothing” which would have made a good subtitle for this play – more on that later), Lear demands public pronouncements of love from his three daughters. Cordelia, the youngest and up until now Lear’s clear favorite, loves her father too much to lie to him as her older sisters have done. In telling the truth, that she loves Lear as a daughter should love a father, “nor more nor less,” she draws Lear’s wrath – and indirectly causes all the disaster that is about to befall the characters of the play.

lear and cordelia

Love also pervades the other plot in this big play. Edmund is the bastard son of Gloucester. In the McKellan play, the pain Edmund feels when his father talks quite inappropriately about Edmund’s origin (“there was good sport in his making”) is almost physical. It’s clear that what Edmund really wants is love, the sort of love his older and legitimate brother Edgar has always received from their father. In fact, the pain and humiliation that Edmund unfairly experiences in this first scene makes it difficult to view Edmund as a true villain, even after Edmund’s betrayal of his father leads to the horrible blinding Gloucester is given by the truly evil Cornwall. In fact, Cornwall pointedly removes Edmund from this scene, and one wonders whether Edmund, supposedly so cold-blooded and cruel, could have stood by and watched this torture.

king lear edmund

After Cornwall is killed by a servant – I think this is Shakespeare giving voice to every audience member who wants to destroy this eye-gouging monster the way you want to smash a bug with your boot – his wife Regan tries tempting Edmund with her love. At the same time Regan’s older sister Goneril (could Shakespeare have chosen a less attractive name?), wife of the “milk-livered” Albany, decides that she, too, loves Edmund. This, and not any dispute over land or power, sets the two sisters against one another, eventually leading to both their deaths.

When Edmund, mortally wounded by his brother, sees how powerful love can be, he has an amazing, and yet convincing, change of heart and tries to save Lear and Cordelia from the death that he has ordered for them. He dies without knowing that this reversal has failed; Cordelia is killed and Lear dies soon after.

In some ways one feels that Edgar, essentially the only survivor in the play, is the unluckiest character of all – left to clean up the mess of all this death and destruction. What good is all this love if all it leads to is death after death and misery upon misery? My only answer is the beautiful scene from Act Four, the scene where Lear and Cordelia are reconciled. Both Bloom and Asimov wrote that it is the most beautiful scene in all Shakespeare, and therefore in all the English language. With the possible exception of Huck Finn choosing to go to Hell, so far I agree. Though  I knew it was coming, the scene brought tears to my eyes. It was played marvelously by McKellan and Romola Garai, and the original words that Shakespeare chose are so incredibly understated that it almost doesn’t feel like Shakespeare. Yet it so, so works:

lear cordelia reconciled



as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

And so I am, I am.

Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

No cause, no cause.

It still makes me cry to read it now. All the death and misery of this play is worth this one moment. And maybe that’s the point.

But back to Edmund, and to nothing. Nothing will come of nothing. I can’t help but think, when I hear and read Lear’s line to Cordelia as she refuses to give him the false love he demands, of Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe From Nothing. And that makes me think about atheism and the moment many years ago when I first read these lines from Edmund:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing.

And of course I was hooked. And then Edmund turned out to be the villain of the play. Pretty strong indictment of atheism there, right? Maybe, but maybe not. What I’m struck by in the play is the failure of any sort of real justice. Yes, Cornwall is killed by the “everyman”, but that everyman is then easily dispatched by Regan, and Cornwall’s death actually seems to fit in just fine to Regan’s plans. Gloucester was “blind” to his mistreatment of Edmund, but surely his own blinding was anything but justified by this, and of course neither Edgar nor Cordelia deserved any of the misery they received. Lear, it’s true, gets his comeuppance for his foolish treatment of his daughters, but it doesn’t ever feel like justice so much as the natural and predictable result of a foolish old man’s foolish choices. Is it justice to be burned by a fire when you stick your own hand in? Nothing would have come of nothing, but disaster comes of foolishness.

Lear realizes this in the storm. I looked hard in the storm scene for parallels to my favorite scene in Moby-Dick, but didn’t really find them. Here I see Lear not so much defying the gods as begging them to do him in, to end the pain and humiliation. But as usual the gods aren’t listening. Lear will have to make his own path. And, unlike Ahab, who fails to live up to the promise he shows in the storm, in the end Lear does find his way. And it truly is his way, his and Cordelia’s.

After he is blinded, Gloucester delivers as strong a renunciation of the gods as one is likely to find anywhere in Shakespeare:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.

I suspect that Shakespeare saved this line for a play that is pointedly pre-Christian, feeling he could get away with it in that context but perhaps no other. But notice how well this sentiment fits with Macbeth, with Romeo and Juliet, even with Hamlet. There is no supernatural help to be found in Shakespeare – nothing will come of nothing. The only redemption that is ever found is that built, created, invented between thinking, feeling, wise and foolish humans. Nothing will come of nothing, but something – something real, something valuable, something that, for at least a little while, can hold back the howling storm – can come from us.

I was in college when I first saw Robin Williams’ Dead Poets’ Society. I was struggling with my future. Did I really want to become a teacher? Why would someone who so hated high school willingly return – not just for four years, but for life? What was a teacher, anyway?

John Keating awoke something deep inside me. “When you read don’t just consider what the author thinks. Consider what you think.” I knew immediately what kind of a teacher I wanted to be.

Later I discovered John Dewey. Lev Vygotsky. Jean Piaget. Teaching would never again be about the passive transmission of knowledge. Teaching would forever after be about creation, discovery, significance. It wouldn’t always be easy. It wouldn’t often fit into the standard curriculum. But it would be what mattered. It would be what they would remember.

Not filling a bucket, but lighting a candle. Inspiration – the power that comes not from following an algorithm, but instead finding your own way, making your own discoveries, coming to your own understanding. Building castles in your mind.

We lost Robin Williams today. John Keating was not Robin Williams. He was a character in a movie. But he made a difference to me. I will miss him.

“Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”





You never know what you’ll find here.

I’m a fan of revisionist stories. Paradise Lost isn’t supposed to be one (probably), but Milton created such a winning character in Satan that you almost can’t help yourself. Grendel is a brilliant book telling the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view. While I detested Wicked the novel, the Broadway play is fun, and if you’re not moved by “Defying Gravity” then I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

defying gravity

I would love to understand the history of these revisionist stories. I remember fondly the Fractured Fairy Tales segments of Rocky and Bulwinkle. Sesame Street often did this, too, with Kermit the Frog winning the race with the Tortoise and the Hare in one segment, and the princess turning into a sexy lady frog after kissing Kermit in another. So the genre has been around for at least a little while. Are there earlier examples?

My younger daughter Caroline and I just saw Maleficent, Disney’s latest updating of one of their more traditional fairy tales. I loved it. Lots of critics didn’t. Too bad for them.

In this version of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is a fairy with amazing, body-length wings with which she soars through the skies of the fairy world like a falcon. Stefan is a human boy who falls in love with her. When Stefan learns that touching any iron causes fairies unbearable pain, he throws away an iron ring on his finger. This act of kindness moves Maleficent’s heart, and they kiss. Maleficent believes it is true love.

But Stefan is weak and greedy, and is pulled into a power struggle for the throne. To become the next king, Stefan must betray Maleficent. When it comes, the betrayal is powerful – though this is a Disney movie, meant for families, the allusion to rape is palpable. Though Stefan can’t bring himself to kill Maleficent, what he takes from her leaves her shattered and incomplete. Her grief leaps from the screen. it’s almost worse than death.

Maleficent’s revenge is to curse the new king’s infant daughter, Aurora. But in fact it’s clear that the curse isn’t what does the true damage to Stefan – rather it’s the public humiliation Maleficent forces upon the king that drives him over the edge. He dedicates himself to destroying Maleficent and her fairy world.

Just as in the original, Maleficent curses Aurora to prick her finger on her 16th birthday, causing Aurora to fall into a death-like sleep that will last forever. To further punish Stefan, Maleficent puts one condition on the curse – it can be broken only by the kiss of true love. Based on her experience with Stefan, Maleficent believes that such love doesn’t exist.

Stefan exiles Aurora into hiding – one gets the distinct feeling this is less for the infant girl’s protection than to clear the way for his own obsessive revenge. Maleficent – perhaps still feeling something for the young boy who stole her heart – keeps a close watch over the child she has cursed. Anyone who has ever loved a child will appreciate what comes next.

maleficent aurora

I won’t give away any more. While the ending is perhaps no surprise, it is quite satisfying and, like Disney’s recent movie Frozen, turns the traditional Fairy Tale gender power structure on its head. About time, too.

Anyway, I’m writing about Maleficent not so much as a movie review as a segue into a more general subject. Why is it now in our history that revisionist fiction has become so popular? I suggest it’s another result of the Flynn effect described by Steven Pinker in Better Angels of Our Nature. We as a society are smarter now than we’ve ever been in our history. Simple tales of good and evil no longer work for us. We want to see things from multiple points of view. We want to understand the motivations of both heroes and villains, and we want to judge these motivations for ourselves. Most of all, we want and expect to make choices that make sense to us, and damned be the author who forces her own choices on her audience.

We want to participate in stories, not just have them force-fed to us again and again. How do we participate? By changing the rules of engagement. By taking a fresh look at old assumptions. By recreating the characters anew. We demand and expect to play a creative, thoughtful, active role in storytelling.


Shakespeare is one arena into which revisionism treads only with the greatest of difficulty. The words are sacrosanct. And yet the most interesting parts of most Shakespeare performances are those unique interpretations of the stage directions, the casting, even the pauses within the unchanging text (see my thoughts on Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth, for instance). Why? Because we want to discover our own unique meanings in these ancient stories. We want them to matter to us.

The difference between Shakespeare’s contemporary audience and ourselves is not primarily a difference in genes – the timespan separating us from our Elizabethan pregenitors is too short for much genetic evolution. No, the difference is essentially cultural. We are more moral than audiences of Shakespeare’s time. (When was the last time you went to a cat burning?) We are less violent, as well, with a homicide rate far below Shakespeare’s and still falling. We are far more exposed to science, to technology, to logic, even to great literature. And, as Flynn’s studies of IQ scores clearly show, we are better able to reason.

You may or may not enjoy Maleficent. You may or may not be a fan of Broadway musicals like Wicked. You may or may not even see the value in re-examining stories like the Garden of Eden or Abraham and Isaac with a more modern, even revisionist, eye. But, less because of your genes than because of the culture in which you are immersed, you are better equipped than any of the myriad humans who came before you to take a fresh look at the literature, the root metaphors, the formative mythology, and the social assumptions of our culture – and to make them ever better. What a great time to be alive!

“When you’re in love, you want to tell the world” – Carl Sagan

It’s time to write about science.

I did a Google search for the phrase “loveliest science story” and found no hits. This astounded me. If Carl Sagan was right, and I believe he was, then we write about science because we love its intricacies, its hidden connections, its poetry. What I’m about to tell you may not be the loveliest science story ever told, but at least now Google will have something to return.

Something less than one million years ago, while our human ancestors in Africa were only just beginning to raise their curious faces to the sky in wonder, a female green sea turtle, heavy with eggs, was blown off course by a prodigious storm. She washed up, quite by accident, on a dark, deserted, volcanic beach, lost and disoriented. Even so, a deep instinct stirred within her. The turtle crawled up the gentle slope of the beach, the ocean waves lapping at her domed shell and powerful flippers. She grunted and strained with the effort of moving her heavy body through the sand. Up until this moment, virtually her entire life she had been buoyed by ocean water in a world without weight. Finally, as she passed the high tide mark, the turtle chose a spot.


Those same flippers, which had demonstrated such power and fortitude in propelling the turtle up the beach, now became supple and delicate digging tools. The turtle deftly moved those flippers in and out of the sand to build a perfect nest, centered by a compacted, pear-shaped egg chamber just large enough to hold her clutch of around one hundred eggs. Soon those eggs came, soft and white, about the size and shape of ping pong balls. They passed from her body and into the nest, one after another, building slow layers below the sand.

As she worked, the mother turtle’s eyes filedl with salty tears. Her salt glands, hard at work protecting her from the salt of the sea, on the beach served a second purpose, keeping the turtle’s eyes clear of the stinging, abrasive sand that flew all around her as she worked. Covering her nest with that same sand, the sand that was once her own surrogate mother and now will cradle the babies she herself will never see, the mother turtle finally crawled back down the beach and disappeared into the surf, into the ocean of space and time that forever separates us from her.

turtle grass

Return to today. Off the coast of Brazil, on the shallow coastal banks covered in the green ocean grass that turtles so love to munch, a female green turtle pauses from her feeding. She swims upward the short distance to the surface, pokes her head above the warm, blue-green water, and takes a deep, filling breath. A scent in the air, the angle of the Sun, the taste of the water, all these things tell her that the time has come for her to return to the beach of her birth. It is time to return to Ascension.

For this turtle is a far-distant descendant of our million-year-old mother; her genes were among those ensconced in those ping-pong-sized eggs on a deserted beach so many generations ago. Like all members of her species, this female feels an inescapable urge to return to her home, to build her own nest, to perform her part in the powerful play to come. She begins swimming east.

Now flash back to four and a half billion years ago. Our planet is a hellish world, partially-molten rocks tortured by radioactive decay and pummeled by hurtling projectiles from the detritus of the newly-formed Solar System. The planet is so hot that solids cannot crystallize; the elements within the remain free to move and migrate, buffeted by chemistry and their own inherent mass. These heavy elements had all been born in the inner turmoil of enormous, dying stars and blown into this galactic backwater by explosions that had lit up the entire galaxy. Now they are about to play a role in a still more amazing story.


The iron and nickel, the most common of the truly dense elements, slowly sink into the young planet’s interior. There, spinning with their own internal motion, stirred by the internal heat of collapse and radioactive decay, ripped and rubbed into positive and negative electrical regions, over long stretches of time in processes that are still but poorly understood, our planet’s core forms a magnetic field that saturates our world to the surface and beyond.

A magnetic field is an extraordinary thing. The result of moving electric charge, it is in fact a manifestation of just how fast, and just how small, the atomic world can be. Any two charged particles feel either an attraction or a repulsion for one another. But when those charged particles move, an additional force arises – a force that comes directly out of Einstein’s special relativity. Electric charges moving relative to one another change time, change space, and result in a “new” force that shows up in our everyday world as magnetism. Every time you hang a note on the refrigerator with a magnet, you are making use of Special Relativity!

turtle magnet

But magnets aren’t useful only on refrigerators. They also give creatures like sea turtles a sense that we humans lack. Lying within the head of our female green sea turtle are a few tiny flakes of magnetite, elemental iron in which the charged particles are aligned with one another, and with the ancient magnetic field of the Earth. This built-in compass will help our female turtle make one of the most amazing migrations in the animal world.

Ascension island lies in the center of the Atlantic Ocean, almost 1500 miles east of the Brazilian coast. It bubbled up just over a million years ago from the Mid-Ocean Ridge, the seam along the Earth’s crust where new ocean floor, and the occasional island, are born. Ascension’s very existence, at just over a million years still one of the youngest spots on Earth, shows how dynamic, how energetic, our planet remains even after four and a half billion years. Radioactive decay continues to keep our planet hot, active, churning just below a deceptively placid surface. We humans and turtles live on a young, vibrant, ever-changing world.

Ascension Island Location

Using the cues of ocean currents, the Earth’s invisible magnetic field, and perhaps other clues we still don’t understand, both male and female green sea turtles make their yearly trek from their Brazilian feeding grounds to this tiny spot of land amid miles and miles of empty ocean. Once there, far from any food source or familiar landscape, they mate. The females, who make this trip perhaps once every three or four years, but build five or six nests with each journey, then repeat the drama played out by their distant ancestor, that first mother turtle, heavy with eggs, who crawled up this lonely beach to found a new green sea turtle society.

Blanketed under the nurturing sand, the young turtles grow and change. Everything the turtles need is provided for them within the egg – everything but the air that slowly passes back and forth through the thin, porous, but tough eggshell. As long as the nest remains dry and covered in sand, in about 8 weeks the babies will cut their way out of their shells with a special “tooth” (no turtles have true teeth – this projection is quickly reabsorbed after the babies hatch). For a few days the turtles gather under the sand; then, through some signal known only to the babies, the turtles break from the nest as a group in an event called a “boil.” Down the beach the babies go, doing their best to avoid divebombing gulls and ghost crabs waiting in ambuscade. Finally they reach the surf and the ocean that will be their home.

green-turtle-hatchlings-emerging (1)

Many more dangers await; predatory fish, flipper-slashing sharks, and human fishing lines and nets all take their toll. Perhaps one in a thousand will survive to adulthood. The babies that survive the initial onslaught make their way to a unique ecosystem in the center of the North Atlantic Gyre, just north of Ascension.

There the young turtles hide in the seaweed of the Sargasso Sea, eating the tiny crabs and fish they find there. They grow. They learn. They begin to feel the tug of the western Atlantic. When they are large enough, these same turtles will leave their open ocean home and head for the coast of Brazil. There they find acres and acres of shallow water, the perfect environment for turtle grass, that green carpet that covers the ocean floor off Brazil’s north and east coasts. Here the greens take up their adult vegetarian lifestyle, essentially harvesting sunlight from the shallow ocean floor. Living and eating side-by-side with other Atlantic green turtles, these Ascension turtles remain a distinct population by breeding only in the waters surrounding their home island.

And then, when the time is right, these marvels of evolution feel the tug once more and begin their trek to faraway Ascension. It is an island that marks the time, formed by a restless Earth that through its interal churnings creates and maintains that very magnetic field by which the turtles accomplish their astounding migration.

I’m anticipating the final episode of the new Cosmos tonight. As I watch and think about the various political reactions this new Cosmos has inspired, I’m remembering a quote from Jacob Bronowski in the short book of his I recently finished called Science and Human Values:

“Dream or nightmare, we have to live our experience as it is, and we have to live it awake. We live in a world which is penetrated through and through by science and which is both whole and real. We cannot turn it into a game simply by taking sides.”

From Bronowski to Sagan to Tyson.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
April 2017
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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