Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Housekeeper and the Professor

I’ve strayed a bit from paleontology in my postings before, but this time I’m on a path that is unlikely to lead back home. The attraction is a small novel entitled The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa. The book, recently published in an English translation from the original Japanese, is delicate, precise, and disarmingly moving.

The plot line is based on a simple conceit – a housekeeper comes to work for a much older, former mathematics professor who, as a result of a car accident 17 years ago, is unable to retain any new memory for more than 80 minutes. His long term memory stops in 1975.  During the course of the novel’s 11 chapters (11 – “an especially beautiful prime among primes,” according to the professor), connections established among the professor, the housekeeper, and her son are repeatedly threatened. In fact, due to his disability, the professor has to reestablish his relationship to the housekeeper, her son, and the immediate world every day, sometimes more than once. He wears little scraps of paper on his suit with notes reminding him of what he needs to know to make it through the day, including one telling him his memory lasts for only 80 minutes.  What does endure is his memory of mathematics and his ability to navigate in that realm.

With this challenge, the housekeeper struggles to maintain the “family” she’s created with the professor and her son, an effort motivated by her own experiences as the daughter of a single mother, and now as a single mother herself. The moments of domesticity are comforting to her and to the reader.

The novel explores the question of what endures, and it’s not human relationships. None of the main characters is given a proper name, suggesting how ephemeral people are. The housekeeper's son goes by the nickname Root because the top of his head is flat, reminding the professor of the square root sign. Poignantly, the professor long ago wrote a dedication on the cover of a proof – “ For N, with my eternal love. Never forget.” Though he remembers N since she dates from his pre-1975 world, does his love endure? There is love at the root of this story, but are we to believe love is eternal? Hardly, unless memories exist forever. “Never forget.” Yet, we do and are forgotten.

The only proper names we encounter are those of actual people – renowned mathematicians, a couple of political figures, many Japanese baseball players, and one or two U.S. ballplayers. With exception of the politicians, the others with proper names are individuals imbued with mathematics – the mathematicians naturally, and the baseball players because the essence of their sport, more so than all others, can be captured mathematically.

To the professor, mathematics endures; it is mathematics that is a source of eternal truth. “There were numbers before human beings – before the world itself was formed,” he says. Of his past work in mathematics, he tells the housekeeper,
I uncovered propositions that existed out there long before we were born. It’s like copying truth from God’s notebook, though we aren’t always sure where to find this notebook or when it will be open.
In the course of the novel, the professor gently teaches, at times with formulas and diagrams, some of what he has uncovered in that notebook. The housekeeper comes to understand why she can learn from the professor – parenthetically, I have to note that her understanding is one that has been lost to the U.S. educational system. It is not just the professor’s enthusiasm and his knowledge, and not just his ability to guide. Ironically, his teaching is aided by his disability which enables the housekeeper to learn at her own pace.
But the things the Professor taught me seemed to find their way effortlessly into my brain – not because I was an employee anxious to please her employer but because he was such a gifted teacher. There was something profound in his love for math. And it helped that he forgot what he’d taught me before, so I was free to repeat the same question until I understood. Things that most people would get the first time around might take me five, or even ten times, but I could go on asking the Professor to explain until I finally got it.
She also recognizes that his ability to admit what he does not know rests at the center of his ability to teach.

A very special book.

[Note:  This posting was edited long after it was first put up.  A second reading of a book will do that to your ideas which mutate and sometimes don't endure.]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fossils in Songs, The Closing of the American Mind, and Evolution

I’ve been mulling over references to fossils in songs. A while ago, ReBecca K. Hunt-Foster on her Dinochick blog highlighted a new song about fossils. When she asked for suggestions of other songs with fossil references, she garnered an interesting set of responses, touching on music that ranged from rock to classical.

For reasons that are the subject of this post, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind came to my mind (probably a mostly closed one, I'll admit). The book, subtitled How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, was published in 1987 and had an implausible rise to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, staying there for 10 weeks that summer.

Bloom’s book is a conservative diatribe (sign of my closed mind) against recent generations of college students who he concluded were “unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality.” (p. 25) This relativism was essentially the death of standards, as far as Bloom was concerned. In the quest for “openness” fostered by academia, students’ minds were closing because they believed in no absolute truths, just many relative truths.

I don’t want to debate his main points again (my blood pressure is high enough as it is). Rather, it was his condemnation of rock music that I remembered as I rummaged through the rock song collection that clutters my mental filing cabinets, in search of songs with fossil references. Bloom had only disdain for the music college students listened to, concluding,
[R]ock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire – not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. (p. 73)

The music itself and the lyrics, according to Bloom, all were focused on unbridled sex.

If he were right, then the quest for fossil songs in the rock catalog had to be futile, no matter how much one “loves” fossils. But, he wasn’t right; at best, he was only partly right. There are examples that refute his gross and angry generalizations. A song, such as “King of Pain,” released in 1983 by The Police, doesn’t fit Bloom’s blanket condemnation. And it’s in my fossil song taxon, having the line:
There’s a fossil that’s trapped in a high cliff wall (That’s my soul up there).

Hardly the sex that Bloom was railing against. Actually, the college students he was complaining about were listening to more than Mick Jagger (nastily skewered by Bloom). There was, oh, to pick a group at random, say, Midnight Oil, at its peak in 1987 (e.g., “Beds are Burning” on the album Diesel and Dust). This Australian group was singing, not about sex and lust, but about the rights of indigenous peoples and the despoiling of the environment . . . oh, wait, I guess those topics probably would have offended Bloom almost as much as sex – more cultural relativism, I suppose. And, yes, Midnight Oil’s songs had that forbidden pulse to them.

In my look back, it was hard not to offer some support to Bloom’s thesis, particularly after I included in my fossil song taxon anything by the group T. Rex (led by the late great Marc Bolan). Bloom must have loved a song like “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” with the erudite lyrics of “Get it on, bang a gong, get it on.” (In all candor, I do love this song.)

Still, there are many sensitive and intelligent rock songs about things other than sex that help make my case. My favorite of those among fossil songs is “Badlands Flashback” by Bruce Cockburn, appearing on the album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (originally released in 1979). Because the song is in French, I had to read a translation of the lyrics before I tumbled to its relevance, with its invocation of the mystical way in which a fossil links its finder to a different time, almost a different world:
mon corps se pence,
ma main s'entends,
prends du gravier
un morcean blanc de coquille.

pour un instant
un mugissement;
l'antique mer
rempli cet espace qui a ete le mien.


the body stoops,
the hand goes out,
picks up from the gravel
a fragment of white seashell

for a moment
a roaring;
the ancient sea
fills the space that just now was mine

[Link to web source of the lyrics]

Parenthetically, Cockburn’s a wonderful performer from Canada who has never received the attention he deserves here in the States. And, okay, I’ll have to admit he probably wasn’t being played much, if at all, by University of Chicago freshmen on their Walkmen in the mid 1980s as Bloom drafted his book.

Anyway, there’s a reason I was primed to think about Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind. I recently read biologist Kenneth R. Miller’s book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (2008). Don’t be misled by the title, this is an exquisitely written and argued treatise on the fatal flaws in Intelligent Design and a clear warning about the very real danger its supporters pose, not only to the biology curriculum, but to the entire enterprise of science as well. Miller was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Dover (Pa.) case on Intelligent Design in the public schools (see links below for more information).

In his book, Miller writes about The Closing of the American Mind, noting that, whatever Bloom’s concerns about the health of academia in the mid 1980s, he (Bloom) thought the natural sciences were doing just fine, uninfected by the relativism plague. Ironically, in the two decades since, Miller asserts, the conservative anti-evolutionary camp has launched a campaign that seeks to do to the natural sciences exactly what Bloom warned had happened to the rest of academia, that is, to
introduc[e] a new relativism into the practice of science. Once evolution is accepted as nothing more than the product of the ideology of "methodological naturalism," it will be easy to introduce another, theistic ideology in which intelligent design will qualify as equally valid science. (p. 189)

Ultimately, the battle to beat back non-scientific alternatives to evolution raises key questions that we must answer in the affirmative. As Miller poses them:
Are we willing to allow science to work? Do we have the strength and the wisdom to allow science to discard the ideas that don’t work, and to search for genuine truth in the natural world? (p. 221)

Natural truth for a natural world, a world in which evolution is at work and fossils are there to find, learn from, understand, and sing about.

Dover Case Links

U.S. District Court opinion

NOVA episode on the case

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Romance of Labeling

The American Museum of Natural History makes it clear, in no uncertain terms:

The importance of having a catalog number on the specimen cannot be stressed enough. If a specimen becomes detached from its number, it has lost most of its scientific significance.

Others have said a label is the difference between a fossil and a pretty rock. It’s understood that the identity of a fossil is inherent in where it was found and the be-all and end-all is the permanent label ensuring that the fossil never loses that identity. Severing a fossil from its identity is as simple as separating it from its catalog number, or, indeed, never giving it a number in the first place.

The experts tell me that India ink is the marking ink of choice. India ink . . . the name exudes history, though, as any student of history knows, things are seldom as they seem. India ink is a carbon-based permanent ink that actually originated in China, only later coming to Europe by way of India. The French call it Chinese ink, how perverse. Special pens are recommended. India ink and special pens – thrilling. These are items that require a visit to an art store.

I love art stores. As long as I don’t open my mouth, I delude myself into believing that everyone in the store will take me for an artist as I cast what I hope passes for a knowing eye on the tubes of oil paint or the sketch pads. I get the same rush walking into a store that sells musical instruments, particularly electric guitars and drum sets and the like. Yes, I really do know that I’m easily labeled a poseur just from my body language and absence of body art.

Several purchases and some experimenting later, I have grown frustrated by the volatility of India ink. It seems to spread faster when spilled than any ink I’ve ever seen. The finicky nature of the pen doesn’t help. I want this process to work, so, I have done some more reading on the process and monitored some online discussions. Done right, this is more complicated than it seemed at first. Since my collection is primarily shark teeth, I turned to one of the bibles on shark teeth collecting in the mid-Atlantic area (my home terrain) – Bretton W. Kent’s Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region (1994):

Specimens can be labelled in several ways. For shark fossils the easiest method is to simply write the catalog number on the specimen with permanent black ink. The number should be placed on a smooth, inconspicuous area of the specimen. The crown is an ideal place on teeth, because the smooth, nonporous surface allows the number to be small in size, but still readily legible. However, the enameloid is so smooth that an inked number, even when dry, can still be easily worn off by handling. To prevent this, cover the dried ink with a rectangular patch of clear enamel . . . that is only slightly larger than the number. (p. 126)

It’s beginning to seem like real work. My usual solution in such a situation is to search for a different opinion, one more to my liking. Jasper Burns, author of Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States (1991), comes through for me, sort of:

But what about sharks’ teeth, whose back sides look as good as their fronts, or tiny fossils? If you decide to keep each specimen in a small, separate tray, there is no problem: number the tray or label it with all collecting information. This is the customary way to store and display fossils. I prefer to arrange the specimens together on a felt surface, segregated by locality . . . – and hope I don’t spill the drawer. (p.37)

No writing on teeth. I like that. But, hope I don’t spill the drawer?

As much as it pains me to forego the India ink, at this stage I will keep on with my old system for my teeth which offers somewhat more assurance that specimens wont lose their identity in my hands. All of my finds or acquisitions are associated with a location and a date. I catalog only the best of the lot in an electronic catalog (backed up on a separate hard disk and periodically printed out). Each cataloged specimen has a number affixed to it with a little white sticky (no, I know it’s not permanent) and is housed, typically, in its own small hard plastic box with a lid that snaps shut. Each is resting on a small piece of foam rubber in the box. A paper label printed from my electronic catalog is stored inside box, giving the catalog number, genus and species, and location where found. As a result, if the sticky number comes off while the specimen is in its box, no problem. Spills aren’t an issue either. Sure, care has to be taken if more than one of these specimens is outside of its box. Oh, there’s further protection, nearly every cataloged specimen is photographed, labial and lingual side shots with a catalog number in the picture.

For the myriad other teeth that I have yet to catalog or which are sufficiently redundant as to not merit cataloging, ziplock plastic baggies in various sizes come to the rescue. Labels are affixed to the baggies with the date and location of discovery. Trying to remove sloppy labels from the plastic bags has shown that these are unlikely to come off inadvertently (they hardly come off deliberately). But, even if they do, the beta nature of these specimens leads to a shrug of the shoulders.

Okay, that’s the teeth. Looking back over what I’ve written, I recognize there’s a lot of work just in my half-baked process. And, what about the rest of the small but growing number of non-tooth specimens now resting in drawers and boxes? Sigh, maybe, just maybe, I’ll try India ink again.

In the final analysis, why am I in search of permanent identification? My small collection holds the key to nothing. Who am I kidding as I envision my specimens with small, elegant, perfectly legible black alphanumerics inconspicuously inked on them?

Here's why. Beyond the intellectual satisfaction of doing science, even if in my fumbling, amateurish fashion, there’s the emotional satisfaction, a succumbing to the romance of the hand-inked identification numbers and letters gracing specimens. They are a vicarious tie to history and the great naturalists whose collections of fossils and everything else (including finches, mockingbirds, and, even, pigeons) helped establish so much that is important in science. They wrote on their specimens, wrote identifying information such as that on these bones of a red runt pigeon. The writer in this instance . . . Charles Darwin.

Portion of photograph by Robert Clark accompanying the article “Was Darwin Wrong?”, National Geographic, November, 2004

Sunday, February 8, 2009


There is a moment when I wonder at the serendipity of it all, the sheer improbability of being at the right place at the right time in a chain of events that stretches over millions of years, and, at one level, begins with the death of a living creature some part of which is fossilized. As impressive as the very long odds against that fossilization occurring in the first place might be, what I find most striking that I am the one who first lays eyes on that fossil as it is unveiled as the shale is split or as it tumbles into the surf from the crumbling cliff side. What an amazing coming together of a vast string of probabilities (or, better, improbabilities).

I was reminded of this by an article, “The Work in Darwin’s Shadow,” that ran in today’s Washington Post (Sunday, February 08, 2009). It describes the rosewood cabinet purchased in 1979 by Robert Heggestad who was so taken by the appearance of the cabinet that he expressed no interest in what its 26 slender drawers contained. As beautiful as the cabinet is today, its contents take one’s breath away. Each drawer (one for each letter of the alphabet) is filled with insects, shells, and other specimens; over 1,500 insect specimens reside here. All of these specimens were collected and curated in this cabinet by the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who, independent of Charles Darwin, saw in natural selection the powerful engine of speciation. Amazingly, Heggestad cared for the cabinet and its contents for three decades, though, for much of that time, he had no idea of the treasure he was shepherding. That intersection of man and cabinet 30 years ago – so fortuitous, how easily these contents could have been lost.

I hope that in our rush to celebrate Darwin’s dual anniversaries this year, we don’t lose sight of Wallace’s genius. In 1858, Wallace sent his paper “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type” to Darwin who was staggered to discover someone else had had the scientific insights that he had been working on for years but had yet to publish. It moved him and his friends to act. As Loren Eiseley wrote in Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists, “If it had not been for the mere chance that Alfred Russel Wallace chose to dispatch the account of his discovery to Darwin, we might today be acclaiming him [Wallace] as the founder of modern biology.” (p. 14)


A couple of relevant websites:

* The Alfred Russel Wallace Page

* 30 Days Of Evolution Blogging In Honor Of Darwin Day

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Poetry of Fossils -- First Thoughts

There is a beauty in fossils that is surprising. Often the beauty flashes from a dull and drab environment, such as when the gleaming crown of a tooth catches your eye in the gray winter surf. And it need not just be all flash, since the tooth may be the creation of myriad sweeping curves, as in this tooth from a Hemipristis serra. The common name of this shark – snaggletooth – belies the attraction of the individual teeth. (This specimen is from the mid-Miocene epoch, perhaps 10 million years ago, and is a bit more than one inch tall on the slant.)

There is, of course, a more fundamental contradiction, something oxymoronic, in ascribing beauty to the teeth of a merciless predator.

Hard to imagine that one of the ear bones from a cetacean would be so graceful as to inspire poetry, but it is. The fossilized tympanic bulla shown below (somewhat damaged by the years) is from a toothed cetacean, possibly a river dolphin. (This specimen is also from the mid-Miocene and is one and half inches long.)

Of the cetacean tympanic bullae, the artist and author Jasper Burns was moved to describe them in a poem as “like a frozen wave” shaped by “the swirling sea.” (untitled poem in Fossil Dreams (2007))
Nature Blog Network