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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Excerpts from Orthodoxy, by Gilbert K. Chesterton, 36

The following propositions have been urged: First, that some faith in our life is required even to improve it; second, that some dissatisfaction with things as they are is necessary even in order to be satisfied; third, that to have this necessary content and necessary discontent it is not sufficient to have the obvious equilibrium of the Stoic. For mere resignation has neither the gigantic levity of pleasure nor the superb intolerance of pain. There is a vital objection to the advice merely to grin and bear it. The objection is that if you merely bear it, you do not grin. Greek heroes do not grin: but gargoyles do—because they are Christian. And when a Christian is pleased, he is (in the most exact sense) frightfully pleased; his pleasure is frightful. Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs) objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Under the impulse of His spirit arose like a clamorous chorus the façades of the medieval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out.

If these things be conceded, though only for argument, we may take up where we left it the thread of the thought of the natural man, called by the Scotch (with regrettable familiarity), “The Old Man.” We can ask the next question so obviously in front of us. Some satisfaction is needed even to make things better. But what do we mean by making things better? Most modern talk on this matter is a mere argument in a circle—that circle which we have already made the symbol of madness and of mere rationalism. Evolution is only good if it produces good; good is only good if it helps evolution. The elephant stands on the tortoise, and the tortoise on the elephant.

Obviously, it will not do to take our ideal from the principle in nature; for the simple reason that (except for some human or divine theory), there is no principle in nature. For instance, the cheap anti-democrat of today will tell you solemnly that there is no equality in nature. He is right, but he does not see the logical addendum. There is no equality in nature; also there is no inequality in nature. Inequality, as much as equality, implies a standard of value. To read aristocracy into the anarchy of animals is just as sentimental as to read democracy into it. Both aristocracy and democracy are human ideals: the one saying that all men are valuable, the other that some men are more valuable. But nature does not say that cats are more valuable than mice; nature makes no remark on the subject. She does not even say that the cat is enviable or the mouse pitiable. We think the cat superior because we have (or most of us have) a particular philosophy to the effect that life is better than death. But if the mouse were a German pessimist mouse, he might not think that the cat had beaten him at all. He might think he had beaten the cat by getting to the grave first. Or he might feel that he had actually inflicted frightful punishment on the cat by keeping him alive. Just as a microbe might feel proud of spreading a pestilence, so the pessimistic mouse might exult to think that he was renewing in the cat the torture of conscious existence. It all depends on the philosophy of the mouse. You cannot even say that there is victory or superiority in nature unless you have some doctrine about what things are superior. You cannot even say that the cat scores unless there is a system of scoring. You cannot even say that the cat gets the best of it unless there is some best to be got. We cannot, then, get the idea itself from nature, and as we follow here the first and natural speculation, we will leave out (for the present) the idea of getting it from God. We must have our own vision. But the attempts of most moderns to express it are highly vague.

Orthodoxy, first published in 1908, by G. K. Chesterton, is in the public domain, and available from Project Gutenberg. The previous post in this series is here. Thanks for reading! Read Chesterton.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sunspots 535

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Christianity: Relevant tells us that private communion shouldn't be a chore, and makes some suggestions to make it more interesting. They suggest communion through food, among other things.

Stephen L. Corey points out that God created, or at least allowed, people who are not exactly male or female.

Computing: Gizmo's Freeware on privacy (or not -- some leaks can be fixed) in Windows 10.

Education: National Public Radio reports on how public schools in the US are neglecting the smartest kids.

Science: National Public Radio reports on research linking our leanness, or lack thereof, to our gut bacteria.

NPR also reports on very low-frequency communication sounds made by elephants.

Wired reports that Pluto's atmosphere seems to be being renewed. Its gravity is too weak to hold it as well as the earth holds ours.

Wired also explains why water gets stale when left out overnight.

Wired also reports on an on-line database of mathematical sequences, and the man who has maintained this database for 50 years. (Examples: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 . . ., the Fibonacci sequence, or 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29 . . ., the prime numbers.) There are many, many more of these sequences in the database.

Image source (public domain)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Excerpts from Orthodoxy, by Gilbert K. Chesterson, 35

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any war-horse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

Orthodoxy, first published in 1908, by G. K. Chesterton, is in the public domain, and available from Project Gutenberg. The previous post in this series is here. Thanks for reading! Read Chesterton.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

On the implementation of penicillin - Howard Florey, Edward Abraham, Ernst Chain, Norman Heatley and others

I recently read The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The story of the Penicillin Miracle, by Eric Lax.

The book was a thorough study of the history of the discovery and implementation of penicillin, with World War II as a significant part of the historical background. The title comes from the idea of some of the scientists involved, that, if Britain were about to be conquered by the Germans, they could rub spores from the mold in their coats, and go to the U. S. to continue their work. It never came to that.

Penicillin is, or was, an important antibiotic. It was the first one used on a systematic basis, to treat infections. Although not used so much now, because bacteria have become resistant to it, and some people have developed allergies to it, derivatives of penicillin are still in use. One of my family members is currently taking amoxicillin.

There are several features of the book, and the story it tells, that are more broadly applicable.

1) Lax points out that many of the most important scientific developments of the 20th century were done on very small budgets, often as a sort of hobby by the person doing the work. That was true of the isolation and production of penicillin. Leeuwenhoek, the builder of the first microscope, was, of course, not a professional microscopist -- there were no such people.

2) The account of scientific discoveries (or other notable events) that is transmitted is often seriously distorted. That is, according to Lax, true of the original discovery of the mold that produced the first usable penicillin, by Alexander Fleming. I have often heard that Fleming discovered the bacteria-killing properties of the mold by accident. Lax indicates that that isn't exactly true. He was investigating. Fleming stopped working on penicillin, and Howard Florey, and others, took it up, but Fleming got much of the credit for the development of the drug. Florey and his group, with little or no help from Fleming, did that.

Eventually, Fleming, Florey, and Ernst Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on penicillin. Edward Abraham and Norman Heatley also made significant contributions, but they were not so honored. Eventually, they were honored in other ways. There were no female heads of laboratories, and they didn't make any ground-breaking contributions, but there were many women workers, some of whom worked at considerable risk, breathing in dangerous materials, and working long hours.

3) Scientific discoveries are often not made freely available to others. There's a lot in the book about patents, and it is clear that the British scientists involved, and, eventually, others, believed that penicillin should be treated as a military secret, and they would have been horrified if it had been made available to the Germans.

Thanks for reading. I hope you don't need to take an antibiotic.

Sunspots 534

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else: 

The Arts: Relevant has some questions for us to ask ourselves before we watch an R-rated show.

Computing: Gizmo's Freeware has an annotated list of the best free Windows apps, in several categories.

Gizmo's also tells you how to hide the live tiles in Windows 10. The article also tells about a program that restores the Windows 7 interface to Windows 10.

Gizmo's has begun to rate for-pay items. They have rated the best Virtual Private Network (VPN) services. In case you haven't heard of VPNs, you should have. They shield you from, say, someone hacking into your motel's network (or the one at your home or business).

From Windows Secrets: How to make the lithium-ion batteries in most modern information appliances last for years (and how not to!)

Humor: (Sort of) FiveThirtyEight examines people's behavior when they split a check for a meal. Interesting.

Science: Wired reports on a giant starfish that can catch fish.
In a photo, Wired also demonstrates that crystallized DNA is beautiful.

National Public Radio reports on why different animals have different pupil shapes.

Image source (public domain)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Biologos visits Answers in Genesis's Creation Museum

I've never been to the Creation Museum, and I probably won't ever go. But the idea is interesting, and the museum is, too.

In case you didn't know it, Ken Ham is the guiding light behind the museum, and behind Answers in Genesis. Ham debated Bill Nye, "the Science Guy" at the museum, a few months ago.

A pair of scientists, from the BioLogos Forum, visited the Creation museum recently. I found their remarks enlightening. Perhaps you will, too.

Thanks for reading. Read the article.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Sunspots 533

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Christianity: Ken Schenck tells us that the primary duty of the church is to worship God.
Computing: (or Fashion) Wired reports on a woman who printed her own clothes with a 3-D printer.

Wired reviews Windows 10 -- quite positively, but don't install it quite yet, yourself -- let Microsoft get out whatever bugs there may be.

Some artificial intelligence scientists are saying that we need a world-wide ban on the production of robots which are designed to kill people, using their own artificial intelligence. Some of them already exist.

Politics: (or business) National Public Radio tells us that human trafficking is widespread in agriculture and fisheries, around the world, with some in the US.

OpenSecrets is a non-partisan web site that keeps track of money and politics.

Science: Wired reports on "Kick 'em Jenny," which is the name of a dormant volcano, (I am not making this up!) which may be about to erupt.

NPR reports on transporting, as done in Star Trek. One atom at a time. Sort of.

Congratulations to Nancy Lieberman, who has been hired as an assistant coach in the National Basketball Association. (She's not the first woman hired -- Becky Hammon had that honor.)
And Christianity Today (!) reports that a National Football League team has, for the first time, hired a female coach. 

Image source (public domain)

Monday, August 03, 2015

Parasite Rex

Carl Zimmer is an important communicator of science, perhaps the most important such communicating in English, at the present time. I have read a few dozen of his articles and blogs, but had never read one of his books. Now I have. That book is Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures. Here is the book's Amazon page, Kindle version.

Quick summary: Most animals, at least the vertebrates, arthropods, and molluscs, are parasitized by several other animals. (The book also considers plants a little. It says very little about fungal parasites. Zimmer couldn't cover everything.) Most biologists don't consider the effect of this massive amount of debilitating interaction nearly enough. Parasites are hard to study. They usually are hidden, and often pass through more than one host animal during their lifetime. Humans, until recently, were as prone to parasites as other animals. Some humans, in primitive conditions, still are. Even though parasites harm their hosts, they seldom kill them, at least not until they have had offspring with a good chance of reaching another host. If they did kill immediately, they would be destroying their own chances of survival.

Some interesting ideas:
There are probably more parasitic species than free-living ones.

Parasites have seldom been found as fossils, mostly because they are almost all soft-bodied.

The discovery of parasites caused some theological concerns:

Parasites seemed to arise by spontaneous generation. If God created everything in the first six days, then all organisms living now should be descendants of those first organisms, not just appearing suddenly, as it were, from nowhere. Eventually, it was shown that parasites came from previous organisms, often from their eggs.

It seemed that parasites were a dead end -- they just got into a host and died there. But a scientist named Friedrich Küchenmeister doubted that that was the full story, and found that those parasites, in at least some cases, were not dead ends. If the host was eaten, they went into a new stage of development.

"[Darwin] found that parasitic wasps are a particularly good antidote to sentimental ideas about God. The way that the larvae devoured their host from the inside was so awful that Darwin once wrote of them, 'I cannot persuade myself that a beneficient and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [one group of parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.'"

I have posted on questions related to whether germs, and by extension, parasites, were present before the Fall.

Some parasites can control the gene activity of their hosts, or control the behavior of their hosts, in bizarre ways, generally to the benefit of the parasite, usually somehow helping the parasite to reach another host animal. To put it another way, they create zombies.

Parasites may be responsible for the development of sex and mating. (It is, of course, possible for many animals to reproduce without sex, although most vertebrates require some sort of fertilization to reproduce.) Often, animals display to attract females. Parasite-ridden animals usually aren't as colorful, or as active, and observing these males allows females to select the more healthy and less parasite-ridden, mates, who, usually, have better genes, perhaps genes that give resistance to parasites, or genes which cause behavior which is less likely to lead to being parasitized.

 IgE, an immunoglobulin that our own bodies produce, and that causes allergies and other problems, isn't just a nuisance. For most of human history, and in many places on earth, IgE helped to repel parasites. Some experiments indicate that ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease (an intestinal problem) can be cured by introducing parasites into the people that have these problems.

There are other fascinating ideas, and many descriptions of how parasites live, and of the scientists who have made discoveries about them, and how these discoveries came about. A fine book!

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Excerpts from Orthodoxy, by Gilbert K. Chesterton, 34

This is what I have called guessing the hidden eccentricities of life. This is knowing that a man’s heart is to the left and not in the middle. This is knowing not only that the earth is round, but knowing exactly where it is flat. Christian doctrine detected the oddities of life. It not only discovered the law, but it foresaw the exceptions. Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; any one might discover mercy. In fact every one did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe—that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one. Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor quite happy. But to find out how far one may be quite miserable without making it impossible to be quite happy—that was a discovery in psychology.

Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.

Orthodoxy, first published in 1908, by G. K. Chesterton, is in the public domain, and available from Project Gutenberg. The previous post in this series is here. Thanks for reading! Read Chesterton.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Relevant on why Christianity and science should be friends.

Here's a brief essay from Relevant, entitled "5 Reasons the Church should Embrace Science."

There are other reasons, such as that scientific findings can help us to be better stewards of God's creation, but the five given are good.

Thanks for reading.