In 2011, Steven Pinker wrote the world-changing book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In that book, Pinker described the myriad ways in which we humans have become kinder, gentler, smarter, and more accepting of one another. All these trends were clear via many different aspects of our society, from crime statistics to song lyrics, from how states interact to the state of mass entertainment. Pinker discusses much of this change in terms of the Flynn Effect – the puzzling (and surprising, to those who don’t work with brilliant young people every day) fact that average IQ scores are on the rise.

Prophetically, Pinker pointed out there was one area that seemed immune to the trend – in fact, seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. That was the state of national politics. Careful analysis of the words of the candidates showed that the level of discourse in debates was in steady decline.

I quote from page 797:

“In one arena, however, politicians really do seem to be swimming against the Flynn Effect: American presidential debates . . . Ironically, the decrease in sophistication in presidential debates may be the product of an increase in the sophistication of political strategists. Televised debates in the waning weeks of a campaign are aimed at a sliver of undecided voters who are among the least informed and least engaged sectors of the electorate. They are apt to make their choice based on sound bites and one-liners, so the strategists advise the candidates to aim low.”

“Aim low” is an apt description of where we find ourselves today. Yesterday I, like everyone else, read with fascination former FBI Director James Comey’s account of his conversations with our president. Whether Comey’s account shows that the president is guilty of a crime, I’ll leave to more practiced legal minds than my own. More interesting to me was the picture Comey’s descriptions painted of our 45th president.

What I gleaned from Comey’s account was a portrait of a man (Trump, not Comey) obsessed with himself and his own inner circle. Unconcerned with whether or not a foreign power had gained a foothold in the American election process, President Trump’s interest focused on the denial of a personal relationship with “hookers and Russia.” Unconcerned with whether or not his former National Security Advisor had been compromised by those same Russians, President Trump’s interest centered on letting Flynn go because “he is a good guy.” Unconcerned with whether or not his FBI Director would faithfully execute his sworn duties, President Trump told Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”

If this was just a slam piece from a disgruntled former employee, we might dismiss the indictment of President Trump’s character, but it is far from isolated. A Washington Post article in July (quoted here)

reported Trump as saying that he does not read extensively because he is able to come to correct decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

A report on the website Politico indicates the lack of depth in Trump’s decision-making process:

White House aides have figured out that it’s best not to present Trump with too many competing options when it comes to matters of policy or strategy. Instead, the way to win Trump over, they say, is to present him a single preferred course of action and then walk him through what the outcome could be – and especially how it will play in the press.

And then, of course, there’s Trump’s famous line after the Nevada primary, “I love the poorly educated.”

Pinker warned us in 2011 that our presidential politics (unlike, thankfully, most aspects of our lives) were in a race to the bottom. Our only hope is that we’ve found that bottom in Donald J. Trump.

OK, that’s all depressing. Now read this, an interview with Pinker in December in which he gives us reason to hope. I was especially moved by his statement that “(a) modern liberal democracy is a precious achievement.” Indeed. Too bad Pinker is Canadian; he might make a good anti-anti-intellectual candidate.

Later this summer, Actors Summer Theatre is performing The Tempest, and so I re-read it in preparation. I also watched the Julie Taymor/Helen Mirren 2010 movie of the play, as well as Christopher Plummer’s version performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival also in 2010. Mirren/Taymor is beautiful and compelling, but I was so emotionally moved by Christopher Plummer’s movie/play that I found myself in tears and applauding along with the audience at its end.

The Tempest’s big problem I wrote about before is still there – how are we to understand Prospero’s relationship with Caliban? But what I want to write about this time is Prospero’s emotional surrender of his power – his magic – at the end of the play. I agree with so many readers that Shakespeare was creating in Prospero’s magic a metaphor for his own magic, his ability to create plays.

None of us are Shakespeare, but we all are, in some sense, magicians, creators in our own lives. My magic, my creation, is teaching. I love to craft a lesson, to practice it, to consider how to use my tools – group discovery, inductive reasoning, storytelling, physical demonstration, discrepant events – to build the edifice of the lesson, to weave the pieces together into a coherent whole. Four years ago, when I left my position at COSI, I lost that outlet for my art, and I realize now that this was a kind of ending for me. Now that I have awoken from that sleep, now that I am teaching again, I realize how important my art is to me.

In Act I, Scene II, Prospero calls his magic cloak “my art.” After creating a magical show for Miranda and her new fiance Ferdinand, Prospero compares his creation to actors on a stage. Later, just before he abandons his magic, he calls it his “so potent art.” And yet he gives up his art, his magic, at the play’s end. Why?

Prospero thinks a great deal about death. He says that when he returns to Naples, “every third thought shall be my grave.” And of course his most famous speech, which I referenced above, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Shakespeare died soon after writing The Tempest, but I don’t think he was foreshadowing his own death here. Instead, I think surrendering his magic, his art, for Shakespeare seemed like a kind of rest, a “sleep.” The death was not of Shakespeare, but of his drive to create.

For my own part, I know now that I want no such rest. I’m late to the classroom, and don’t have that many years to spend there. But I will never stop teaching. Even now, in writing these blogs, I’m trying, hoping, to teach, maybe to awaken in someone out there a love of Shakespeare, or a love of science, or even a love of teaching. When my classroom days are over, I’ll still be teaching, somehow, somewhere. Teaching isnot what I do; it’s who I am.

I hope Prospero finds happiness – freedom, as he says in the final words of the play – in his retirement in Milan. But Shakespeare, I suspect, could not escape his muse – neither master nor slave, but finally, like a sea turtle’s shell, like the shore of the sea, like (let’s say it) his own soul, a part of himself.



And now for something much happier. This is the golden age of exploration. Once, we humans could explore the universe through only one channel – light we could see with our eyes. Telescopes bent that light and let us see more, but it was still only one kind of light. Then Karl Jansky discovered, quite by accident, that we could detect another kind of light – radio waves – from the stars. We could now study the universe in a new way – and the discoveries came fast and amazing: quasars, pulsars, and radio galaxies were all identified, described, and, at least partially, understood.

Next other kinds of light – X-rays, infrared rays, ultraviolet, and gamma rays – were collected and studied by astronomers. Each one revealed new secrets. Microwaves, those bits of light so good at popping corn and warming chocolate – revealed the origin of the universe itself. X-rays showed us black holes in death struggles with other stars and ticking away in the centers of galaxies. Gamma rays revealed the most energetic events in the universe – and we still don’t know what those events are.

Here are some of the ways we use the electromagnetic spectrum to study the universe.

But all of these tools are still light, still electromagnetic waves created by jiggling electric charge. Electromagnetism is only one of the four fundamental forces in the universe (OK, five now that we know of the Higgs field). What of the others?

My favorite particle, the neutrino, is revealing the universe in another way, through the weak nuclear force. Neutrinos fill the universe – they’re incredibly easy to make and practically impossible to destroy. But their indestructibility makes them also almost impossible to detect. Almost. Neutrino telescopes all over the world – in Japan, in Canada, even in the South Pole – are revealing otherwise hidden truths of the universe.

Here’s a description of neutrino astronomy by the scientists at IceCube.

But the most exciting development in non-light astronomy was in the news again today. Scientists at LIGO (the laser interferometer gravitational observatory) announced they’ve detected a third gravitational wave event. Gravitational waves are produced whenever bodies with mass interact – in other words, all the time. But gravity is so weak (think about it, you can overcome the gravity of the entire Earth, if only for a moment, just by jumping; a small magnet can pull harder on a paperclip than the entire planet) that in order to detect these gravitational waves, we need big events.

The first indirect detection of gravitational waves happened at the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. Imagine two neutron stars, revolving about one another. As they move, they create gravitational waves, carrying away some of their energy. This causes them to draw closer together, and as they do, their radio signals change. It’s much like a coin in a vortex – the kind you’ll see in museums as fund raisers. The coin starts at the top of the vortex, rolling around the edge. The sound you hear as it rolls indicates that it’s losing some energy, and sure enough, that lost energy causes the coin to drop deeper and deeper into the vortex, finally falling into the hole in the center.

In the same way, two neutron stars sending out gravitational waves have to lose energy. And observations showed the energy lost match theory (Einstein’s General Relativity Theory, in this case) precisely.

But that observation, using radio waves, was indirect evidence of gravitational waves. Now we have direct proof that these waves exist, courtesy of LIGO.

LIGO (two identical facilities in Louisiana and Washington) is shaped like a baseball diamond. Down each baseline (first and third) lasers travel precisely the same distance, bounce of mirrors, and return home. When the beams are recombined, they interfere. But if a gravitational wave passes through either baseline, the precisely-measured distance changes; the changing interference pattern is recorded, and wonders are revealed.

What has LIGO seen? Black holes, crashing together. But the surprise is that these black holes are not relatively small, like Cygnus X-1, revealed by x-ray astronomy, maybe a few times the size of the Sun. Nor are they enormous, like the million solar mass black holes we’ve found at the centers of galaxies. Instead, these black holes are of intermediate size, some tens of solar masses. Where did they come from? How did they form? How common are they in the universe? These are all questions that LIGO and other observatories can help us discover.

One last moment of wonder: the latest discovery was of two black holes of mass 19.4 solar masses and 31.2 solar masses. They merged to form a black hole of 48.7 solar masses.

Go ahead and do the math. I’ll wait.

Yes, there are 1.9 solar masses missing! Where did they go? Into gravitational waves! Just like the sound of the rolling coin signaled the loss of energy, the “sound” of the gravitational waves detected by LIGO indicates that almost two Suns worth of matter simply vanished, turned into gravitational wave energy in this astounding collision. Almost two Suns! And we got to detect it!

So, the next time you get down about politics or the state of the world, remember that this is the Golden Age of Discovery. We, right now, today, are learning things that our ancestors never could. We are exploring the universe with technologies they never even dreamed of. And we are finding wonders!

black hole merger

Artist’s impression of two black holes merging (Aurore Simonnet / LIGO)


“What if you’re wrong?”

That was the question a young lady asked Richard Dawkins when he spoke at Liberty University over a decade ago. The question, asked many times in many different ways, implies that belief in one world view carries with it great danger, while another is more or less safe.

Dawkins answered with his famous, “What if you’re wrong about the great JuJu at the bottom of the ocean?” quote. That makes a fun sound byte, but I think the question deserves a more serious answer. World views matter. And in reality, no world view is safe. Safety is an illusion.

Somewhere in space, at this very moment, is an enormous asteroid that is destined to strike the Earth. We don’t know where it is; we don’t know when it will hit. But such a strike is inevitable in the course of time. When it hits, that asteroid will cause death and destruction to dwarf 9/11, to dwarf the 2004 tsunami, to dwarf even World War II. That is, if some other catastrophe, such as a supervolcano, a global pandemic, or a coronal mass ejection from the Sun hasn’t wiped us out first.

These threats are real; giggling them off or relegating them to the world of speculative fiction won’t make them go away. If you, like I, believe that humanity is both worth saving and also responsible for its own salvation, then you must recognize an awesome and sobering fact: the only thing standing between us and extinction is the growth of human knowledge.

If your world view does not permit such a reality, if you believe market forces or some unseen deity or the law of averages will protect us, I ask you, what if you’re wrong?

Why do I bring up such gloomy thoughts on a beautiful spring day? Because today a man with no training in science, no apparent respect for the depth of human knowledge, and no articulated vision for our shared future decided to pull the United States from the most comprehensive international cooperative pact in history. The Paris Climate Accord will not protect our planet from the catastrophes I’ve described. And yet climate change, while not a threat to the planet itself, is a threat to our global economy and our building international community. By ignoring it, we doom millions, maybe billions, to futures as environmental refugees.

But more than that, the United States’ departure from the Paris accord signals that we are no longer serious about dealing with global problems on the global stage. “America First” didn’t work after World War I, and it doesn’t work now. The world is getting smaller, and ignoring worldwide problems only makes them worse. The Paris accord should have been the first tentative step toward a global problem-solving body that could have, eventually, tackled issues like ocean acidification, fishery collapse, continent-wide drought, pandemic disease, and even in time the mitigation of natural disasters from the Earth and from space. Maybe the accord still will be that first step – but for now the United States has selfishly and short-sightedly decided to take our resources and go home.

How did we get here? How did the world’s great beacon of knowledge turn itself into a global naysayer? When one looks at who voted for the monstrosity currently in the White House, you see it was predominantly older voters – voters my age. We were supposed to be the grown-ups. Our great teachers – Carl Sagan, Joseph Campbell, Maya Angelou, Steven Pinker, and yes, Barack Obama, showed us that we all are one, a young and promising species on an ancient bit of rock, striving to understand ourselves and our world. Instead of taking on this invitation to know, to grow, to survive, we’ve turned our backs on the future – on our planet, on our selves, on the generations to come who needed us to be wiser than we are.

Yet I am an optimist. I believe the human future to be unlimited. I believe we can – if we choose to – survive this time, survive all times, stretch out our arms and reach the stars, the galaxies, and all that might lie beyond. There is nothing stopping us but our own lack of knowledge. If we choose to, we can obtain that knowledge, we can learn to solve our problems, we can avoid the many disasters that might strike – including those that we’ve not yet even imagined. But it will not happen by accident. We need to decide on this future, we need to make it happen. Hiding behind slogans, ignoring the knowledge we’ve already gained, pretending it’s all a game with winners and losers tallied by electoral counts, will not get us there.

So if you say we don’t need these international treaties, we don’t need to work with the rest of the world, we only need America First, I ask you, what if you’re wrong?







“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

“What does God need with a starship?” – James T. Kirk

“I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you. The universe is not so badly designed.” – Jean Luc Picard (speaking to the omnipotent alien Q)

I’d intended to write about Othello and Paradise Lost together, but after the stunning character of Iago, quite frankly Satan was a disappointment. I read the two works together based on Harold Bloom’s claim that Milton borrowed much from Shakespeare’s Iago in creating his own anti-hero. While I see some general resemblance, in all honesty Satan stands out only because every other character in the poem (God, Christ, Eve, Adam, the various angels) is so ponderous.

Perhaps Milton would have done better if he’d had better material with which to work.

Harold Bloom and others have called Paradise Lost an early work of science fiction. True or not, let’s examine it from just such a standpoint. I started this post with three quotes which I think will help frame the discussion about the subject matter of Paradise Lost.

First, let’s do away with the notion of the supernatural. Why? Because I don’t understand it. I don’t know the rules; I don’t know how to make moral judgments about things which don’t obey the laws of our universe. As Clarke points out, though, if the technology is advanced enough, it looks just like magic.

So let’s consider God, Christ, Satan, and all the other angels (fallen or not) as incredibly advanced aliens living in the universe. These aliens are not quite immortal, but might as well be, as their technology gives them the power to heal, regenerate, even back up their own personalities and reboot in case of trauma. God isn’t quite omniscient, but has a huge supply of information with which to predict future events. Worlds are created, not through magic, but through the application of enormously powerful technology, including the ability to create artificial intelligences (angels and, finally, humans)

Given this framework the story of Paradise Lost becomes this: A powerful leader named God rules over other powerful entities – the angels. Satan/Lucifer is one of these entities. One day God decides he needs a right-hand man, so raises up another entity, Christ, to rule at his side. Lucifer is disappointed that Christ has been given this promotion and not him, so he gathers his followers and rebels against God.

Unfortunately for Lucifer, Christ proves to be far more powerful than he, and Lucifer (now Satan) and his minions are cast out of heaven. Satan rallies his troops and convinces them that all is not lost.

Around this same time, God creates a new world containing two adorable little morons known as Adam and Eve, living in a paradise known as Eden. Feeling the sting of the angels’ rebellion, God needs something new to occupy himself with. He wants Adam and Eve to adore and worship him, but he knows that such adoration would be meaningless without an alternative. So he proposes a little test. Into Eden God places a tree, which he cleverly names the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He puts only one proscription on Adam and Eve. They may not eat the fruit of that tree, or else they will die.

This is where things start to get weird (!). God, with his enormous information supply, deduces that of course Adam and Eve will fail his test. He seems rather melancholy about this, so Christ steps in and offers himself as a sacrifice to atone for Adam and Eve’s misbehavior.

This of course makes no sense at all, but more on the morality of it later.

Poor Satan, lacking apparently God’s near-omniscient knowledge, tempts Eve quite easily and causes her to do the one thing forbidden her. God, feigning anger (since, of course, he knew this was coming), reveals that when he said Adam and Eve would die from eating the fruit, what he actually meant was he would kill them by removing them from Eden and preventing them from eating of the Tree of Life – apparently the only thing protecting the two fragile humans from the cold, cold world.

When seen as a science fiction story, there’s so much wrong with this. First, why did God not create Adam and Eve with knowledge of Good and Evil? It can’t be because such knowledge would make them imperfect; apparently God himself, and Christ, too, possess such knowledge. If Adam and Eve had possessed such knowledge, maybe they could have resisted Satan’s tricks. Second, why, once Adam and Eve had obtained such knowledge, did God withdraw the Tree of Life? Third, what’s this crazy Christ story? Why would Christ’s death somehow nullify Adam and Eve’s misbehavior? It makes no sense, but hearkens back to the idea of scapegoating, literally blaming a goat or some other animal for your troubles and killing it. Again, what’s the mechanism? It makes no sense.

And what does it mean for Christ to die and then come back to life? Didn’t we establish that these entities are essentially immortal? If he’s got a regeneration card in his deck, then what did the death even mean?

But the biggest problem isn’t with the plot. The gaping chasm in the whole story is the morality of it. So God created Adam and Eve. Big deal. That doesn’t give God the right to rule them, any more than parents have the right to rule their children (and make no mistake, created artificial intelligences, which is what we have to consider Adam and Eve in the story, are exactly like created children). A parent who wants forever to shield his children from knowedge of the world, knowledge that the parent apparently already possesses, is abusive. In this view, Satan did us a favor by helping us to break free of this eternal prison.

Of course the story (both the original in Genesis and Milton’s poem) is metaphor. Let’s instead look at what really happened in the history of humanity. Slowly evolving from forest apes, our early ancestors experienced a life of constant fear, pain, and death. Natural selection had equipped us only poorly for a harsh environment, giving us few natural assets. But we did have a brain.

Using our brains, we slowly gathered information, and learned to pass it on to our children. Soon humans were living outside of our genes; unlike animals that could survive only in those environments for which they’d been adapted, humans could take their environment with them. We learned to make clothes to keep us warm. We learned to build tools to act as the sharp teeth and claws our bodies lacked. We learned to tame fire. Far from causing our fall, knowledge of the world is the only thing that saved us.

Many cultures have believed in a fall from grace and have longed to return us to that nearly-forgotten golden age. In fact, there was no Eden, there was no perfect, trouble-free time. We are our only hope, and it is only through gathering knowledge, via every tree we can find, that we have any hope of surviving.

Now that would be a poem worth reading.

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.

We’re better now.

Yes, we’re far from perfect.

And in some parts of the world we’re even worse.

But the progress we’ve made since the Enlightenment is remarkable.

In my effort to broaden myself beyond just science and Shakespeare, I read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a book that drives home for me just how far we’ve come, how far we still have to go, and how writers like Hardy, in fits and starts, and maybe despite what they think they’re doing, help us get there.

Briefly, Tess Durbeyfield is a young peasant girl in late 19th century England. Her parents are poor, as are her prospects. Through some convoluted storytelling Tess finds herself involved with one Alec d’Urberville, who proceeds to harrass, bully, and finally rape our heroine.

OK, there’s some controversy, purposely engendered by Hardy, about whether Tess was truly raped. Hardy’s Victorian prose is so fastidiously non-sexual that you’re never quite sure what happened between Tess and her assailant – only that Tess got away from Alec as quickly as she could afterwards, and that their time together resulted in a pregnancy.

Tess never communicates her news to Alec, and soon after the baby is born he dies. Yet that isn’t close to the most tragic event of the book.

All the later tragedy spews forth from one Angel Clare, a non-believing son of a minister. Angel falls in love with Tess and, despite her protestations that she’s not good enough for him, essentially browbeats her into finally marrying him. Then, on their wedding night (after Angel divulges his own checkered sexual past) in a fit of conscience Tess reveals all. Angel is repulsed, declaring that Tess isn’t who he thought she was, and immediately runs off to Brazil. Really.

The rest of the story doesn’t bear repeating, though I have to say the final chapters surprised me as much as if our protagonists had been abducted by space aliens and whisked across the Milky Way (that’s not what happens, but almost as crazy).


Here’s Tess, with that pathetic excuse for an athiest Angel behind her. And yes, that’s Stonehenge. You have to read to find out. (Actually that’s Gemma Arterton in the BBC miniseries. Another gift of the Enlightment – the BBC!

Here’s my point. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a book about an immoral society. I’m not talking about a society that allows rape. In fact, for my argument it doesn’t even matter if Tess was actually raped or not (by the way, she was. So stop arguing).

No, I’m talking about a society that condemns Tess for losing her virginity and giving birth to a baby out of wedlock. Of course, many people through history, and sadly even some today, remain confused about what morality is. They think morality is all about controlling behavior based on some ancient book or set of norms. That’s not morality. As Steven Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature:

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me . . . I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special because I’m me and you’re not.

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives . . .

If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it.

TBAoON, pp 230-231

Through the skill of the storyteller, we can all see ourselves as Tess. We can see how we can be thrust by circumstances into unhappy situations, how we can struggle with conflicting pressures, emotions, loyalties, and desires. We can develop empathy. And we can, via this empathy and via our own ability to reason, see that a society that punishes young women so harshly and so unfairly is by its very nature immoral.

Well, any lunkhead can see that. (Though, as Pinker points out, plenty of lunkheads in the past didn’t see it. And as my links above show, plenty of lunkheads who are not children of the Enlightenment still don’t see it today.)

What I find more interesting are the contradictions we see in Hardy’s book – contradictions that bring us closer to the question I’m most interested in – how did we get better?

First, let’s consider Angel Clare. It’s saying something that most readers of Tess of the d’Urbervilles hate Angel, mild-mannered and (mostly) peaceful suitor of Tess, at least as much as they hate the rapist Alec. Angel, the child of a preacher and his devout and devoted wife, is probably about as close to an atheist as Hardy could get away with writing in late 19th century Victorian England. While it’s never clear that Angel’s lack of belief is the cause of his immoral treatment of Tess, Hardy makes the point that Angel’s parents, because of their faith-based willingness to forgive sinners, would have advocated for Tess if only they’d known the truth.

I don’t know much about Hardy’s views on religion, though his references to pagan and natural spirituality throughout Tess are suggestive. But I think here Hardy is falling back on old fear and superstition. As religion gradually fell out of favor (a fall that continues to this day), many feared the consequences. I think Hardy is writing Angel’s character as a cautionary tale – without our religious mercy, we are in danger of becoming cold to the messiness of real life. Angel’s lack of belief doesn’t free him – rather, it traps him in a worldview devoid of forgiveness.

(Not that Tess needed forgiven; she was raped! Also, even if she wasn’t, Angel, you just admitted his own infidelity, you hypocrite – so get over yourself! OK, rant over.)

This is hogwash. One of the primary tenets of Enlightenment humanism is that people are fallible. No knowledge is absolute, and therefore no person’s actions are perfect. We all need to forgive one another because we’re all capable of error (again, not that Tess made an error!) If Angel didn’t absorb this lesson, it’s in spite of Enlightenment values, not because of them.

Second, consider the world Tess inhabited. It’s pretty clear that Hardy has strong views about the “old” ways and the “new” ones. Reading about Tess’s experience as a humble milkmaid on a simple dairy farm, one hears the word “bucolic” echoing around as if a thesaurus threw up all over the page. It’s ideal. It’s simple. It’s non-mechanistic. It’s human.

On the other hand, when Tess is forced by Angel’s rejection to take work on a mechanized farm, the images Hardy paints are straight from Hell – fiery furnaces, dangerous, dehumanizing, and exhausting tasks that seem never to end, a heartless supervisor who cares only for profits.

Well, fine. While I suspect that pre-industrial farm life was hardly a walk in the park (the word bucolic always makes me think of catching horrible diseases from animal poop, so maybe I’m biased), there’s no doubt that modernization pressed many workers into harsh and dangerous employment. But what else did it bring?

Pinker again:

One technology that did show a precocious increase in productivity before the Industrial Revolution was book production.

-TBAoON, page 219

Pinker then goes on to describe how increased availability of books, due to mechanical and industrial methods of production, let to greater literacy, which in turn led to greater demand for books, which led to more and more reading. And what were we reading? Novels! Novels that put us in the minds of people different from us. Aristocrats read about the lives of the peasants they’d never known. Whites read about the experiences of black slaves. And men found out what it might be like to be a teenage girl in a society that would shame her for being raped and condemn her for bearing the child of her rapist.

Hardy seems to be saying that our modern world, dehumanizing and merciless, is making us less and less moral. I say he’s got it exactly backwards. We were always immoral – judgmental, short on empathy, more interested in codes and obedience than in rights and freedom. It was the values of the Enlightenment, and the advances in wealth and prosperity that it brought, that allowed us our first tentative escapes from the immoral world of our ancestors. No, that world is not perfect. Yes, modernization can feel dehumanizing. But we can make that better. We can reason with our bosses, and with the government, that better working conditions make for more efficient workers. We can argue that, because you = me, we all deserve safe factories, safe food, better health care, universal education, and free public libraries full of books that expand our reason and our empathy. We are getting better, and it’s because of the Enlightenment and the values it engendered, not in spite of them.

I also say that Tess of the d’Urbervilles would have been better with some space aliens.

Next I’ll be reading Shakespeare’s Othello, another tale about the complications of female purity. That will lead me on to a re-visiting of Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem I faked my way through some 30 years ago. This time, for real.

I read a book not too long ago called The Science of Shakespeare by Dan Falk. It was a lot of fun, delving into both Hamlet and some of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, as well as the accelerating pace of science before, during, and after Shakespeare’s time. Truth be told, however, the actual links between Shakespeare and the science of his time are pretty thin. While Shakespeare of course had an amazing intellect and a deep curiosity, I think the most reasonable assessment has to be that Shakespeare wasn’t particularly interested in science.

But the beauty of Symphony is that I’m not limited to only one kind of music. I can love Shakespeare and science – and I do. Today I’m going to tell a story – certainly not worthy of the Bard, but I hope you like it, anyway – about how we got to now.

Now, in case you haven’t been watching, is the time when we humans will complete the initial reconnaissance of our Solar System by visiting tiny Pluto. Planet or not, Pluto is among the last of the major objects in the Sun’s family to receive a visitor from Earth.

As we watch these close-up pictures of Pluto fill our computer screens, let’s think about how we got here.

Long ago, people noticed the stars. No one knew what the stars could be, but that didn’t prevent us from making up stories. The stars were holes in a blanket, revealing a fire behind. They were milk, squirted from the breast of Hera. They (according to Jim and Huck) were eggs, laid by the Moon across the sky just as a frog might lay her own eggs in the river. Clever as they were, none of the stories came anywhere near the massive truth that stars were enormous nuclear furnaces in whose chaotic centers the elements of our very own bodies are forged. Science got us that story, and lots more besides.

Before science, people noticed that the stars moved across the sky in familiar patterns. Certain stars always returned to the same spot in the sky at the same time each season. The bright stars of Orion always appeared in the Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere for instance


But there were other objects, too. They looked something like stars, although they seemed not to twinkle the way stars did. More unusually, though, these objects wandered across the sky separate from the unchanging stars. They were named “planets” a word that meant “wanderers.”

People named the planets after their gods. The lovely morning and evening stars were, once they were found to be the same object, named after the goddess of love. The bright and stately planet that moved over the full sky was the king of the gods. The reddish world was the god of war.

But what were they, really? In 1609 Galileo pointed a new device toward the heavens and saw that the planets were more than just lights in the sky. Venus, not just the goddess of love, was also a world that, like our own Moon, passed through phases of light and dark. Warlike Mars didn’t show phases, but unlike the stars it formed a disk in Galileo’s telescope. And Jupiter, the god king, was not a single world but five, with the four smaller ones circling round and round the central disk (this, incidentally, was a discovery so momentous that even Shakespeare may have referenced it in his play Cymbeline – a work I look forward to reading soon).

Next came the discoveries of Kepler, who found that the orbits of the planets followed strict mathematical rules, and Newton, who explained those rules with an elegantly simple law. Every time an apple falls from a tree it follows the same law that keeps all the worlds of the Solar System in orbit around the Sun.

Later we were able to use those same laws of motion to discover planets and other worlds we couldn’t even see with our eyes! Uranus was revealed due to its invisible influence on Saturn. Neptune showed up when it pulled on Uranus (ok, stop giggling).

The story would be perfect if only Pluto had also shown up due to its gravitational tug on Neptune. Sadly, Pluto’s discovery was actually an accident. Mathematical errors in the calculations of Uranus’ and Neptune’s orbits led scientists to expect another large planet in Pluto’s place. Instead, and mostly by accident, tiny Pluto happened to be in the right place at the right time, showing that even scientists need a little bit of good luck sometimes.

For thousands of years, people wondered about the planets. But the discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, Newton and their followers let us not only learn what the planets are, but actually travel there. In less than 24 hours, New Horizons will zip along its Newtonian trajectory, flying past a world that Newton’s genius (and a few math errors) helped us know.


William Shakespeare died 399 years ago. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever have another new Shakespeare play to read, view, and enjoy.

And yet each of us can discover Shakespeare’s plays, and then re-discover them, for ourselves. Most amazing to me is Shakespeare’s utter refusal to be pinned down by a moral, a philosophy, or even (as George Bernard Shaw points out) a conscience. Nothing is ever simple in Shakespeare – villains like Macbeth and Iago are delicious and deep, while even the purest of heroes, Henry V and Edgar, are deeply ambiguous.

My discovery over the past week has been a play I knew essentially nothing of until I started reading it – the extraordinary Measure for Measure.

In this play, no one is likeable. Yet a great many characters are deeply memorable. The morality of the play is not our own, but neither is it the “official” morality of Shakespeare’s time. Rather, it is very human – bawdy, hypocritical, struggling to be rational and as a result becoming all the more irrational. It is a deeply sexual play, a violent play in which virtually no violence is actually shown, a play with an ending that is so awkward and unsatisfying that you feel as though you’ve been somehow duped and yet, in a certain sad sense, deeply enlightened.

The most intriguing character in the play is certainly Isabella, sister to the condemned Claudio. When Claudio’s fiancee Juliet becomes pregnant, Claudio is sentenced to death to serve as an example and rein in the rampant immorality found in the city. Isabella goes to Angelo, the acting ruler of the city, to beg for her brother’s life, only to be told that she herself must surrender her body to Angelo or see her brother not only killed but tortured, as well.

The most interesting, and disturbing, struggle in the play becomes how Isabella chooses to deal with this turn of events. Cold and virtuous, Isabella is irresistible to the men she encounters, and in the end this leads to what I see as her personal tragedy. Or maybe not. Or maybe the tragedy is within her all along. Or not.

It is a fascinating play, and has instantly become one of my favorites. It’s a pleasure to live on a planet where I can still discover a Measure for Measure.

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

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.
August 2017
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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