Category Archives: science

Joanna and the sleeping bees.

It felt very coastal this morning with high fog and chill breeze. Along the front walk where I have allowed a volunteer sunflower to grow in the middle of the germander, one flower was close enough for me to notice the cluster of bees.

How did they happen to all bed down for the night on that one flower? Were they even alive? A half-hour later on my way to the car to drive to church I stopped by again; one or two had left, and the others had shifted position, but were quite motionless. About noon, not one remained. [Update: the next morning they were back, and after watching them off and on for an hour, I think they are not bees, but hoverflies. I’ve mistaken them for bees before.] [UPDATE No. 2: I was right the first time. They are bees. They fold their wings over each other, but flies leave theirs splayed out. I think I’ve learned this more than once, on a site such as Beekeeping Like a Girl. And other differences…]

Today was the day we celebrated St. Joanna, and it was also the meeting of our parish women’s book group — in my garden! The weather was as perfect as could be for that. Our group of six included several gardeners who didn’t sit down until we’d discussed borage and the borage flowers hanging into the pathway. The bees draw your attention to them! I quickly dug up a few of the many little borage volunteers for a couple of women to take home later.

It just so happened I had made two trays of borage ice cubes and it was time for me to add them to the lemonade so we could start talking about Frankenstein.

The table where we sat is near my garden icon stand with the stone icon of Christ’s mother; for the day’s commemoration I nestled a TV tray under the olive tree to hold a few more icons. You can read here why I included St. John the Baptist among them.

Early in our talk about Frankenstein I showed the group this adaptation of the novel that had been given to me, and it got passed around the table so that everyone could take a look at the illustrations.

We had a lively discussion about elements of the story, and also concerning ethical questions about the uses of science that are still pertinent in our day. I read only a few lines to the group from this article in the current issue of The New Atlantis about recent questionable experiments.

Various of the readers in our group knew more than I about the historical and philosophical context in which Frankenstein was written, which made it a pleasure to be with them and muse about much more than what had impressed me personally. I think we all were glad to have read the book, especially those who before had only known the movies, but no one exactly loved it.

It didn’t have a satisfying ending, in that, as our moderator said, she had hoped for redemption and there was none. We all agreed it was too long and repetitive. Several women said they definitely wanted to read something “lighter” next time. What constitutes a light novel? Here are the (not necessarily light) possibilities we had brought with us. As we went around the table making our suggestions, it seemed to me that the enthusiasm mounted with each one.

  1. A Long Walk with Mary by Brandi Schreiber
  2. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne De Maurier
  3. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  4. Shades of Milk and Honey
  5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  6. The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge

My Cousin Rachel and The Giver were deemed too heavy. Milk and Honey didn’t engender any discussion, and I was personally torn between Potato Peel Society and Scent. Several had already read Potato Peel so they were leaning toward Scent; I was the only one who had read it, and I told them what I loved about Goudge’s books generally. A Long Walk with Mary seemed like a good one to read during our Orthodox Dormtion Fast.

So, we voted in a very informal way, and decided that in six weeks we will meet again and discuss two books: The Scent of Water and A Long Walk with Mary.

Before everyone went home, we toured the other side of my garden, and I told them about acanthus and why I used to not like it, but now I do. The acanthus is more beautiful than ever, its spires taller, and in their prime right now. My 24 lavender bushes are at the height of bloom, too. We got to hear from our sheep farmer lady how she made lavender simple syrup to use in cool summer drinks.

How sweet it was to have these friends to be with me for my name day. After they were gone, there was still lemonade left in the pitcher, and floating among the melting ice cubes, the lemon-bleached borage blossoms.

We drink and breathe in Mumbai.

Nine of us sat down one day in a very popular restaurant where everything looked clean and spiffy, even the classy uniforms of these waiters who were in abundance to meet our needs. Kate’s (American) Indian friend who was visiting from Saudi Arabia brought us to this place because they had the wonderful South Indian food, different from the Punjabi fare you typically get in the U.S., they say.

While we began to look at the menus, glasses of water arrived on our tables — but were sent back to the kitchen immediately by our host with instructions to bring us bottled water. The glasses were removed, and a couple of liter bottles were brought. The same glasses came back, having been emptied but with drops of water clinging to the insides.

So all our party without comment grabbed paper napkins and began drying the glasses thoroughly, after which we filled them with the good water. Maybe the restaurant water was good, too, but who knows? Water quality is one of the things critical to health that is not reliable in India.

In this household we have a large distiller with a tap from which we take all of our water that is used for cooking, drinking, and teeth brushing. For a month I have been practicing not doing the thing I’ve done once or twice a day my whole life through, to the point where I don’t think about it at all: Turn on the faucet in the bathroom and wet my toothbrush. Now I have to think about it with all my power, and be methodical and slow. So far I don’t think I’ve forgotten, in the bathroom. Then there is the kitchen. Even though the distiller is right there, I have once or twice begun to rinse vegetables in tap water at the sink.

Talking about washing things, we do wash dishes in the sink with that common water, and use them again when they are dry. The kitchen here has one of those handy drying cupboards above the sink.

Breathing is a human activity even more fundamental than drinking, and I have always had a generally healthy respiratory system, and have not stopped breathing without thinking, or comfortably. But if you have asthma, it would be best not to live in Mumbai or Delhi.

For most of my stay the air quality has been typical for wintertime when there are no monsoons to wash the air — that is, the worst. My first week here we took a little trip to the Bandra Fort area where you can look across Mahim Bay to see South Mumbai on the other side of the causeway. Sometimes, but not that day. Tom found an old photo to show the contrast with last June.

Tom and AQI contrast

I got my own view of South Mumbai across the bay last week, and it was middling.

I’d guess the air pollution is the worst thing about living in Mumbai. Heat and humidity are forces to be dealt with, but they are not unhealthy in themselves. The particulates in the air cause respiratory illness and worse. Most days when I see it the Air Quality Index is between 100-200, but a few times it’s been under 100. This site www.aqicn.org starts you in India, but has a search tab that makes it possible to compare various cities of the world that use that particular formula and guide. Here is one of the pages pertaining to Mumbai showing real time information this afternoon when I am writing.

If you haven’t had to be aware of the AQI where you live, you can be thankful! Many Indians who live in Mumbai have their head in the sand about the situation and call the white skies “fog” — because what can they do? In Delhi, where children have been seen throwing up out of school bus windows and schools must close on the worst days, they can’t so easily ignore the realities. I haven’t seen anyone wear a mask, and I haven’t worn the cute one that Kate provided for me as a good expat host must do here. But then, I am not out and about for more than a few hours at a time. When I am, I notice my eyes burning.

In the apartment we have several air purifiers, so we don’t suffer while we’re home. Air conditioners keep the temperature down, and dehumidifiers reduce the moisture  in the air that would cause everything to get moldy during the monsoon especially. Even in this dry season, the one in my bedroom sometimes collects a gallon of water in less than a week. These helpful machines collectively emit plenty of white noise, which people living in cities usually count a good thing.

The difficulties of air and water were some of the stresses I was anticipating coming here, but I have suffered little, for which I am very thankful. Water and air — what simple and delicious blessings they are!

What method can do and is not.

Quoting again from David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. Hart spends a good while comparing what he calls the naturalistic vs. the theistic pictures of the world, so that he can eventually get on with describing the theistic, as in the title of the book.

…we should not let ourselves forget precisely what method is and what it is not. A method, at least in the sciences, is a systematic set of limitations and constraints voluntarily assumed by a researcher in order to concentrate his or her investigations upon a strictly defined aspect of or approach to a clearly delineated object. As such, it allows one to see further and more perspicuously in one particular instance and in one particular way, but only because one has first consented to confine oneself to a narrow portion of the visible spectrum, so to speak. Moreover, while a given method may grant one a glimpse of truths that would remain otherwise obscure, that method is not itself a truth. This is crucial to understand. A method, considered in itself, may even in some ultimate sense be “false” as an explanation of things and yet still be probative as an instrument of investigation; some things are more easily seen through a red filter, but to go through life wearing rose-colored spectacles is not to see things as they truly are.Rosecolored-glasses

The Hungry Soul – How Science Disappoints

Previous posts on this book:

In the Introduction to his book, Leon Kass writes of his purposes: “I hope to provide evidence that the modern corporealists — those who deprecate or deny the soul — and their modern rationalist or humanist opponents –those who deprecate or deny the body — are both mistaken, both about living nature and about man. I seek such evidence in an examination of eating.”

Here the author conveys an understanding of reality that is more in line with orthodox Christianity than that of many who profess Christ, for he sees that we are unified creatures; our bodies are essential to who we are, not just shells that we hope to escape. He even goes further than what I would assent to, stating that his meaning of “soul” is “primarily not a theological but a biological notion!” (Yes, he put that exclamation point there himself.)

“You should know at the outset, however, that I use the term [soul] advisedly and without apology, even though I know that it will cause most scientists to snicker and many others knowingly to smile. These skeptics need to learn that it is only because they in fact have a soul that they are able to find such (or any) speech intelligible, amusing, or absurd. Indeed, only the ensouled — the animate, the animal — can even experience hunger, can know appetite, desire, longing.”

It is not, then, only the scientists who are giving us only part of the picture, but also the teachers of humanities (I don’t want to call them humanists, as their vision is too stunted), whom Kass and his wife would call colleagues, as they both are themselves university professors in the humanities.

“…the humanities have long been in retreat from the pursuit of wisdom. Analytical clarity, logical consistency, demystification, and refutation; source criticism, philology, and the explication of thinkers solely in terms of their historical and cultural contexts; and the devotion to theoretical dogmas – formerly romanticism and historicism, nowadays Marxism, deconstructionism, multiculturalism, feminism, and many other “isms” – all these preoccupations keep humanists busy with everything but the pursuit of wisdom about our own humanity.”

James Le Fanu

While I was in the middle of thinking about Kass’s book, I heard another writer on scientific topics interviewed on Mars Hill Audio. James Le Fanu is a physician and author whose book The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine won the Los Angeles Prize Book Award in 2001. He was speaking in the interview about his recent book Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.

Le Fanu is also concerned about the reductionist and unsatisfying science that purports to tell us all there is to know. Before the notion of science appeared in the early 19th century the idea of the metaphysical was part of the common sense of mankind. Galileo and Newton and Kepler had an instinctive recognition that whatever science couldn’t explain, there was “something beyond.” Their study of Natural Philosophy was encompassed in the larger whole of the love of wisdom.

Nowadays, says Le Fanu, science is boring, and “to be a career scientist is to be in a very small hole,” as they are so specialized in their work, and in their education there is nothing like the older biology textbooks that were “full of awe and wonder and astonishment.” Le Fanu said that in the scientific journals he reads and in his talks with scientists, he has not noticed that any individual scientists are fully appreciating the mystery and glory of the human being.

But we assume that at least some of those scientists leave their holes each night and go home to prune the roses, eat a tasty dinner and play with their children, showing what Kass calls “the disquieting disjunction between the vibrant living world we live in and enjoy as human beings and the limited, artificial, lifeless, objectified, representation of that world we learn about from modern biology.”

As Kass is seeing the non-material aspects of our humanity demonstrated through the very material and natural activity of eating, so Le Fanu sees them revealed ever more obviously by the recent discoveries of science. Everything we learn seems to show how amazingly complex and unknowable by scientific study is “the most important part of the human experience…the nonmaterial thoughts and ideas and feelings and relationships..all the sorts of things we do the whole time….”

I loved listening to someone who is knowledgeable about the latest breakthroughs in the world of science talk about the “five cardinal mysteries” of the human experience. I ordered his book and have been relishing it on every level. Here is another man whose own soul is well-rounded and developed enough that he is a good writer, a practicing physician, and a person who can wonder at the Creation.

If we had a few more men like Kass and Le Fanu, true Natural Philosophers who don’t reduce life and reality to systems and ideologies, but who are willing to be open to that Something Beyond, the world would be a better place. Perhaps some of the upcoming homeschoolers who are getting a foundation in the kind of Poetic Knowledge that Charlotte Mason and James S. Taylor teach will have the ability to benefit from their scientific studies and to find them not boring but joyful.