Tuesday, March 31, 2009


For my 100th post, a treat: Caltech is pranked. Fool me once, shame on you....

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Father, forgive them...

A recent article on Religion Dispatches regarding torture and the closing of the Guantanamo Bay facility strikes visciously and deep. We cannot deny torture, Sarah Sentilles claims, without feeding it and giving it life. Denial is what causes torture to thrive. Denial is what makes torture possible.

In an excerpt from the article, we read:
In Genesis, we find the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham’s faith that he is doing what God demands blinds him. Seeing only his duty to God, he cannot see his son. By turning violence into God’s will, Abraham denies Isaac’s pain. So he takes Isaac to the top of the mountain. He binds him. He lays him on top of the wood. He raises the knife. And in that moment, with a deadly weapon raised above his child, he sees Isaac and imagines a different ending. And only when he sees Isaac, can he put the knife down. God did not need Abraham’s faith; Isaac did.

But this isn't what we learn the story means in Sunday school, right? We're taught that Abraham was tested by God to see if he would really do what God asked him to do: "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you" (Genesis 22:2). There are similar stories in the Old Testament which speak of God's requests (nay, demands) for death and destruction, even in light of the constant calls of God's true prophets for "justice and mercy."

The point Sarah is making is an excellent one. We can read back into history whatever purpose we desire - the colorful and sometimes violent history of the Jewish people, or the Catholic Church, for instance, can be viewed in light of being "God's chosen people" or "the army of God." In those instances, the violent acts are justified (by those looking on) if they resulted in successes, and condemned if the consequences were dire instead. We posthumously assign the "will of God" to our actions. The writer of this portion of Genesis may well have "read back into" the story of Abraham the current zeitgeist for violence as God's will: we destroyed the Amalekites in battle, so surely it was God's will that we destroy the Amalekites; so surely also we must also assume it was God's will to test Abraham via a violent act, because what else would truly test Abraham's faith in the will of God? In these instances, too, of "selective" historical recording, we see denial - denial of other peoples (cultures, nations, etc) as human beings. In saying "one nation under God," we imply that other nations may not be; depending on our penchant for our religion, therefore, we may see those nations not "under God" immediately as less worthy.

In the end, the call is for action: action is necessary to end denial, to end selective remembrance of history, to end torture and end our disgusting justification of violence against other human beings. Whether it be secular or spiritual, the call is the same, and the end result is that we find ourselves that much closer to the kingdom of heaven.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Please go read the BBC story. Those of us who believe that God is something larger than just what we can see or touch, who believe that science answers only those specific questions posed to it, who believe that one need not give up one's spirituality in the name of the truths of the material world - we are not alone.
Those who would use science to explicitly deny the existence of something more (that something more being "the ground of things," as d'Espagnat says, the "Divine Ground" of Huxley, the God of those of use who have chosen to search beyond just one religion or holy book) they are wrong. Those who would use science to prove the existence of something more (those who espouse intelligent design or the anthropic principle) are also wrong. But throughout the history of mankind, there have been those few who understand that life need not be one extreme or the other, and it is those who rejoice at the awarding of the Templeton Prize.
And, in case you're interested, the Templeton Prize is worth more money than a Nobel.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

St. Paddy

Several of us went out last night, ending up at Mulligan's off of Ebenezer. The place was filled with carousing young souls, inebriated already and up to their eyeballs in gaudy green paraphernalia. I suppose the saddest part is that we were all there for the same reason - it was a "legitimate" excuse to drink yourself silly on a Tuesday.
But how did Saint Patrick become a token of alcoholism? The History Channel points out this important note:
Up until the mid-nineteenth century, most Irish immigrants in America were members of the Protestant middle class. When the Great Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, close to a million poor, uneducated, Catholic Irish began to pour into America to escape starvation. Despised for their religious beliefs and funny accents by the American Protestant majority, the immigrants had trouble finding even menial jobs. When Irish Americans in the country's cities took to the streets on St. Patrick's Day to celebrate their heritage, newspapers portrayed them in cartoons as drunk, violent monkeys.
However, the Irish soon began to realize that their great numbers endowed them with a political power that had yet to be exploited. They started to organize, and their voting block, known as the "green machine," became an important swing vote for political hopefuls. Suddenly, annual St. Patrick's Day parades became a show of strength for Irish Americans, as well as a must-attend event for a slew of political candidates. In 1948, President Truman attended New York City 's St. Patrick's Day parade, a proud moment for the many Irish whose ancestors had to fight stereotypes and racial prejudice to find acceptance in America.
So why on earth would the Irish allow their celebration to be usurped by non-Irish people, who behave precisely the way that causes the stigma the Irish were fighting to remove? When did it become "legitimate" to behave like "drunk, violent monkeys" in order to celebrate a Christian holiday and important part of Irish heritage? We drink green beer and horrendous "shamrocktinis" which - I kid you not - had the flavor, texture and medicinal aftertaste of Nyquil, yell like a bunch of drunks at a fraternity party and wake the next morning to tell our tales of debauchery around a shared aspirin bottle. And all the while, we forget who Saint Patrick was, what it means to have a feast day for a saint, and how difficult it is to overcome racial and cultural stereotypes.
I think next year, I'll stay home.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


I woke groggy this morning, my mind fuzzy from lack of sleep. It was 6:30, earlier than I ever wake, but I had a shift. For a short while after snoozing my alarm, all was silent. Then one bird took up the call. And the call was Beethoven.
I thought I was hearing things at first. Could some warbler outside my apartment really be singing the opening notes of Beethoven's 5th? Was it possible that the fauna of east Tennessee was as cultured as the human residents? The bird repeated his call: dah dah dah drrraaaaaaaaaah, dah dah. The long note was trilled, and those famous thirds, modulated just as if the sheet music was in the bird's nest, were repeated. I didn't move, laying in stunned silence. Dah dah dah drraaaaaaaaaahhh, it sang. Silence. Dah dah dah drraaaah.
Soon, another bird took up its call, something cackled like the voice of an old woman who has smoked for fifty years. Something of the corvus family. Then another, this time a sparrow. Another warbler. By the time I stepped out of the shower, a cacophony of birdsong. Almost an hour passed before the sounds of human stirring interjected into the symphonic natural.
As I left the apartment and headed for the car, the sunlight still soft and muted by the night's remaining moisture, the woods were shouting with life. A veritable seige army had descended upon this little piece of land, taking up the war cry to end all war cries. Good God, were mornings always like this, everything alive and calling out to remind the world of its life?
The clouds, high and frosted, clothed the sun in a fleece blanket. Fog, thin and chilly, still filled Bethel Valley. Despite the latent moisture, colors were deeper than they have been all winter; greens and yellows and purples budding in the growing warmth. As I drove, something stirred in my soul, something which has been dormant for a long while. It didn't disappear even as I contemplated it - only when I tried to hold it, did it slip through my fingers.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The plight of the postdoc

I know, it's a bit melodramatic. This is the kind of problem you want to have. But still.
There is an old idiom that goes, when it rains, it pours. I have a job. It's a good job. But in the world of science, one needs to move around a bit, get a feel for what you enjoy doing. That's what postdocs are for, to test different subfields (you may find you enjoy something much more than you did your thesis research - and perhaps you have an aptitude for it). You make the decision when to stay, and when to move on to something new. Perhaps it's a better career move one way or the other. So I have a job, but I know it's time to try something else, so I started applying for other jobs. It's a difficult job market (even regardless of the overall economy), so I wasn't anticipating much. Just "putting out a few feelers," as my Mom would say. Yet somehow, the response was overwhelming. And overwhelmingly positive. When it rains, it pours.
My current boss offered to pay me more to keep me here. I got an immediate job offer from one group, an invitation to interview with another, and an invitation to be written into someone else's grant. I had an offer of a visiting researcher position, and an offer of personal assistance applying for my own fellowship. Those with open calls for applications asked me to apply, and those without passed along information on other openings.
So now, all of a sudden, I find myself in a strange position. Do I take the job that has already been offered? Do I keep the job I have now, demanding more pay or benefits? Do I risk each of these choices for an opportunity to interview and do something totally different (research-wise)? Do I give up all of the money and the "glamor" of the postdoctoral life for a visiting researcher position, which would move me to somewhere I'd rather be but deprive me of the opportunity to really make a name for myself? Or perhaps I move on to something completely different, like the "private sector," or maybe even seminary, or writing novels. I do not know. To complicate the matter, however, I have very little time to decide. Very little.
And so I am pondering. Contemplating. We're running an experiment at the moment, and I've taken a quiet shift over the weekend so that I can have time to be alone and think. Wish me luck, I suppose.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I desire

To live somewhere civilized, where you can walk or take public transportation, and owning a car is a treat, not a requirement, and all the radio stations are like NPR.

To be with my soulmate, if not in body, then in spirit.

To be paid to have good ideas.

To travel by train anywhere I need to go.

To spend as much time in the sunshine as possible, and not a hazy, diffuse sunshine like you get in humid places, but a piercing, painful sunshine like you get at high altitude when there's very little air between you and the Sun.

To get some sleep.

To see more of my family.

To own a computer that wasn't made incompatible with everything merely in order to be compatible with Windows Vista (the worst operating system ever).

To be intellectually challenged.

To be spiritually challenged.

To see my name in print... it's my one "pride," if you will.

To play with an orchestra again.

To be.