Saturday, March 18, 2017

Prophecies of Jules Verne

My coming-of-age experience in literature and science was when, in sixth grade, I read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers), in English of course. Soon I hope to read it in French. (I already notice that the French title was “under the seas,” not sea.)

Jules Verne is considered to be the father of science fiction. In addition, one biographer called Verne “the man who invented the future.” It would seem that Verne was ready to embrace a scientific and technological future for the human species. What a surprise it was, therefore, for me to read Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century (Paris au vingtième siècle), in which he created a nightmare future that was ruled by science and technology. As someone said, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” This quote has been attributed to everyone from Niels Bohr to Yogi Berra. So far, no one has attributed it to Verne. But, at any rate, Verne got it wrong, though not completely.

Apparently the manuscript of this novel was found in 1994 in the proverbial locked drawer of a desk which Verne’s grandson had inherited. Verne’s publisher rejected the manuscript in 1863. And for good reason. It is a structurally flawed novel with two-dimensional characters. And it was overwhelmingly depressing. At least Twenty Thousand Leagues had an uplifting ending (see below), while this book (I will spoil it since you probably won’t read it) the protagonist falls into the snow and freezes to death.

Rather than to attempt a summary of it myself, I quote extensively from the Wikipedia summary, in bold italics below, but I add some of my own comments, not in italics.

Paris in the Twentieth Century (French: Paris au XXe siècle) is a science fiction novel by Jules Verne. The book presents Paris in August 1960, 97 years in Verne's future, where society places value only on business and technology. Written in 1863 but first published 131 years later (1994), the novel follows a young man who struggles unsuccessfully to live in a technologically advanced, but culturally backwards world. Often referred to as Verne's "lost novel", the work paints a grim, dystopian view of a technological future civilization.

The novel's main character is 16-year-old Michel Dufrénoy, who graduates with a major in literature and the classics, but finds they have been forgotten in a futuristic world where only business and technology are valued. Michel, whose father was a musician, is a poet born too late. In fact, the opening of the novel was of Michel getting an award for writing Latin poetry. The science and technology professors of the big university scoffed at the arts and humanities, “spouting like a steam engine.”

Michel had been living with his respectable uncle, Monsieur Stanislas Boutardin, and his family. The day after graduation, Boutardin tells Michel that he is to start working at a banking company. Boutardin doubts Michel can do anything in the business world.

The rest of that day, Michel searches for literature by classic 19th century writers, such as Hugo and Balzac. Nothing but books about technology are available in bookstores. In fact, the bookstores did have books of poetry, but the poetry was all in praise of mathematics and technology, such as Harmonies Ėlectriques and Méditations sur l’Oxygène. One of the poems began, “Le charbon porte alors sa flamme incendiaire Dans les tubes ardents de l’énorme chaudière...” Yes, it is as bad in French as it sounds (“Horreur, s’écria Michel”).

Michel's last resort is the Imperial Library. The librarian turns out to be his long-hidden uncle, Monsieur Huguenin. Huguenin, still working in the arts, is considered a "disgrace" to the rest of the family, and so was barred from attending Michel's birthdays, graduations, and other family events, though he has followed Michel's life—from a distance. This is the first time they meet in person. Huguenin tells Michel that his father was “un musicien de grand talent, né pour un siècle meilleur,” a great musician born for a better century. In fact, he refers to our present age as “notre âge crapuleux,” which I thought meant “our crappy age” but crapuleux actually means totally motivated by money. Chapter 10 consists of a tour of Uncle Huguenin’s library crammed with non-scientific books that could be found nowhere else.

At his new job, Michel fails at each task with Casmodage and Co. Bank until he is assigned to The Ledger, where Michel dictates the accounts for bookkeeper Monsieur Quinsonnas. Quinsonnas, a kindred spirit of 30, writes the bookkeeping information on The Ledger. Quinsonnas tells Michel that this is a job he can do in order to eat, have an apartment, and support himself while he continues working on a mysterious musical project that will bring him fame and fortune. Michel's fear of not fitting in is resolved; he can be a reader and still work on his own writing after work. In fact, Quinsonnas’s apartment is almost completely filled by a giant piano.

The pair visit Uncle Huguenin and are joined by other visitors, Michel's former teacher Monsieur Richelot and Richelot's granddaughter, Mademoiselle Lucy. Quinsonnas and Michel both dream of being soldiers, but this is impossible, because warfare has become so scientific that there is really no need for soldiers anymore—only chemists and mechanics are able to work the killing machines. But this profession is denied to even them, because "the engines of war" have become so efficient that war is inconceivable and all countries are at a perpetual stalemate. Verne said that fighting lifted the spirit (Se battre élève l’âme) and seemed to mourn the end of war. Verne’s character also missed the old days when there were courtroom battles and convictions instead of just financial settlements out of court.

Before long, Michel and Lucy are in love. Michel discusses women with Quinsonnas, who sadly explains that there are no such things as women anymore; from mindless, repetitive factory work and careful attention to finance and science, most women have become cynical, ugly, neurotic career women. Verne depicts twentieth-century women as downright ugly: long, skinny, and dry. Their waists were flattened, their faces austere, their joints stiffened (La taille s’aplatit, le regard s’austérifia, les jointures s’ankylosèrent). Their noses stuck down below their lips (un nez dur et rigide s’abaissa sur des lèvres), and they were nothing but acute angles (de la ligne drote et des angles aigus). In fury, Quinsonnas spills ink on The Ledger, and he and Michel are fired on the spot; Quinsonnas leaves for Germany. Of course, the misogynous Quinsonnas blamed Eve for the fact that he lost his temper.

In a society without war, or musical and artistic progress, there is no news, so Michel can't even become a journalist. He ends up living in Quinsonnas' empty apartment while writing superb poetry, but lives in such poverty that he has to eat synthetic foods derived from coal. He eventually writes a book of poetry entitled Hopes which is rejected by every publisher in Paris.

Michel briefly has a job at the Great Drama Warehouse, where popular entertainment is churned out quickly and sloppily. Each play was required to have “soixante-quinze mille calembous” (75 thousand puns). Michel, who loved serious literature, quit this job, saying “plutôt mourir de faim,” better to starve to death.

As the year 1961 draws to a close, all of Europe enters a winter of unprecedented ferocity. All agriculture is compromised and food supplies are destroyed, resulting in mass famine. The temperature drops to thirty degrees below, and every river in Europe freezes solid. In despair, Michel spends his last bit of money on violets for Lucy, but finds that she has disappeared from her apartment, evicted when her grandfather lost his job as the university's last teacher of rhetoric. He is unable to locate her amongst the thousands of starving people in Paris. He spends the entire evening stumbling around Paris in a delirious state. Michel becomes convinced that he is being hunted by the Demon of Electricity, but no matter where he goes, he is unable to escape its presence. He wanders into a morgue, with “les cadavres rigides, verdâtres, et boursouflés, étendus sur les tables de marbre,” stiff, greenish, swollen corpses extended upon marble tables, but even here there is bright electrical illumination. As Michel wanders, he finds the tomb of Heloïse and Abélard fallen into ruin, the glorious past forgotten. Is this depressing or what?

In the climax of the story, the heartbroken Michel, bereft of friends and loved ones, wanders through the frozen, mechanized, electrical wonders of Paris. The subjective narrative becomes steadily more surreal as the dying artist, in a final paroxysm of despair, unconsciously circles an old cemetery and finally collapses comatose in the snow. You will never guess what his last word was. If you guessed “Lucy,” you are right. “Oh! Lucy, murmura-t-il, en tombant évanoui sur la neige.”

The book's description of the technology of 1960 was in some ways remarkably close to actual 1960s technology. The book described in detail advances such as cars powered by internal combustion engines ("gas-cabs") together with the necessary supporting infrastructure such as gas stations and paved asphalt roads, elevated and underground passenger train systems and high-speed trains powered by magnetism and compressed air, skyscrapers, electric lights that illuminate entire cities at night, fax machines ("picture-telegraphs"), elevators, primitive computers which can send messages to each other as part of a network somewhat resembling the Internet (described as sophisticated electrically powered mechanical calculators which can send information to each other across vast distances), the utilization of wind power, automated security systems, the electric chair, and remotely-controlled weapons systems, as well as weapons destructive enough to make war unthinkable.

The book also predicts the growth of suburbs and mass-produced higher education (the opening scene has Dufrénoy attending a mass graduation of 250,000 students), department stores, and massive hotels. Verne depicts a giant canal that connects Paris with the ocean, and gigantic ships big enough to be floating gardens. A version of feminism has also arisen in society, with women moving into the workplace and a rise in illegitimate births. It also makes accurate predictions of 20th-century music, predicting the rise of electronic music, and describes a musical instrument similar to a synthesizer, and the replacement of classical music performances with a recorded music industry. Verne’s example of the degeneration of modern music was none other than Richard Wagner projected into the next century. Verne said Wagner’s four-hour operas were not so much to taste as to swallow. His music, Verne thought, sounded like someone sitting on a keyboard. Ah, if Verne could only have imagined what twentieth-century music, with its dissonances, actually did sound like! Whether it was melodic and expressive like Stravinsky or like a gray mixture of dissonance as in Webern, it makes Wagner’s music seem very tame. In addition, [Verne] predicts that the entertainment industry would be dominated by lewd stage plays, often involving nudity and sexually explicit scenes. Verne’s example of this from the nineteenth century was Jacques Offenbach, whose female “jumpers” wore swimsuits “showing them as nature made them.” In another place, Verne writes “le flambeau de l’hymen ne sert plus comme autrefois à faire bouillir la marmite,” which I think means “the flame of the hymen does not serve, as in the old days, to make the stew boil.” I’m not sure what this means, but it can’t be good.

In some ways, the modern world is worse than Verne could have imagined, but in some ways it is better. The modern publisher, on the last page, told how many grams of carbon dioxide equivalent were produced by publishing each book. Verne did not imagine global warming; and he could not have imagined science helping us to prevent global warming.

How could a writer who loved science so much imagine that science would create a nightmare future? I can suggest an answer to this question. In Verne’s twentieth-century Paris, all of science was in the service of making money, whereas the science that M. Arronax viewed from Captain Nemo’s underwater drawing-room was a view of the wonders of the ocean. Twenty Thousand Leagues ends with (I quote from memory), “The writer of Ecclesiastes said, millennia ago, That which is far off and exceedingly deep, who can find it out? Of all men now living only two can answer in the affirmative: CAPTAIN NEMO AND MYSELF (his caps).” Science can liberate our minds to understand the world, or it can enslave us. To Verne, either future was possible. Unfortunately, the real twentieth and twenty-first centuries more closely resembles Captain Nemo’s acts of terrorism than his exploration of the sea.

The main message I get from Verne’s forgotten novel is that science and education are whatever we make them to be. They can be used to open our eyes to beauty or to enslave us to Mammon.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Fear of the Lord

Most conservative Christians believe the Biblical statement, which I am in too much of a hurry to look up right now, that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Most agnostics and humanists would vigorously reject this statement. But maybe it is, in a way, true. If so, how?

Conservative Christians really do mean “fear.” And by fear of the Lord, they mean that we should be afraid, very afraid, that if we question so much as the tiniest point of doctrine that they assert about the Lord we will go to Hell. The fear of disagreeing with any of the self-appointed spokespeople of God is supposed to be the basis of all wisdom.

But they have it wrong in two ways. First, I think they misunderstand “fear,” giving it a modern English interpretation. They think it means that we should be very, very afraid of asking questions such as “How do you know that thing that you assert?” But instead I believe that “fear” means awe and wonder. One can have a great deal of technical knowledge about the natural world, but unless one feels awe and wonder then the natural world is not God’s creation but is just a pile of resources for rich Republicans to make money off of. Most scientists I know—and I know a lot of them—feel awe and wonder at the cosmos that we are privileged to investigate. It is we, the scientists and anyone else who feels awe and wonder, are the ones who truly fear the Lord.

Second, the Biblical statement says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the entirety of it or the end of it. Conservative Christians think that your unthinking acceptance of their assertions about the Lord is the entirety and the end of wisdom.

Although I do not assert many of the traditional doctrines, I do have the fear of the Lord as the beginning of my wisdom: I feel awe at the universe, and I use that as my starting point for learning more about it, from my own research and investigations by others.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Balanced Pathogenicity in Shangri-La

When I first learned about balanced pathogenicity back in the 1980s, it made me feel good about the world. This is the process in which germs evolve into milder forms over time. Natural selection favors the milder strains of germs because they can spread more readily. Any germ that kills its host is at a disadvantage. There are many examples in which diseases used to be very virulent, but today they are milder even without vaccination or medication. Examples include smallpox, which in Europe and North America evolved into a mild disease; leprosy, which today is a slow skin disease but used to kill people quickly. There are even diseases such as the “sweating sickness” that had major outbreaks in Europe in past centuries but appears to have evolved itself out of existence (it persists only in very mild forms): there are no diseases today that have exactly those symptoms. Balanced pathogenicity was part of the balance of nature in a blessed world.

Or so I thought. That’s what I wanted to believe.

Then I started learning about the exceptions. Waterborne diseases such as cholera do not evolve into milder forms. Insect-borne diseases may evolve into even worse forms. So I had to change what I taught and wrote: balanced pathogenicity applies to diseases that spread to a new host by close proximity to the victim. My main example was ebola, which, I thought, will evolve into a milder form since the worst forms of it keep healthy people from coming in close proximity to the victims.

But it turns out that even ebola can evolve into a worse form, as explained in this article by Carl Zimmer. I suppose that this evolution of worse forms of ebola is a temporary reversal of the overall trend of balanced pathogenicity. But I am now having to make so many “exceptions to the rule” that I am beginning to wonder how much of a pattern balanced pathogenicity really is.

My original feeling about balanced pathogenicity came about because I wanted to believe that there was a fundamental goodness to the world. Bad things happen, but within them is the seed of a better world. This was partly because I got my optimism from the same source that I got my original information: Rene Dubos. I learned about balanced pathogenicity by reading his Man Adapting and Celebrations of Life. He was a scientist and informal philosopher in the same mold as Lewis Thomas. A great thinker. But his “gospel” was that evolution ultimately produces a better world. I wanted very badly to believe that evolution was a good process that God incorporated into a good world. But the world in which evolution works for the Greater Good is more of a Shangri-La than a real world.

Balanced pathogenicity happens, except when it doesn’t. Evolution makes the world better, except when it doesn’t. Creationists look for scientific reasons to believe God is good. Theistic evolutionists look for scientific reasons to believe that evolution produces goodness that God intended. In this particular sense, I am not sure that theistic evolution is much of an improvement over creationism.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Senator Lankford vs. the American Burying Beetle

In an email to his Oklahoma constituents, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford (Republican; are you surprised?) boasted of how honored he was to work with such a morally dignified president as Donald Trump. Then he trotted out a litany of horror stories about Obamacare, which he said Republicans would repeal and replace. The criticisms he made were valid, but at the present time the Republican Health Care Plan is for poor people to go under the bridge and die. Now maybe later they will come up with a plan, and it might even be better than Obamacare, but if you trust them to do this, you will be waiting (perhaps under the bridge) for a long long long time.

And then he railed against all the federal money being spent to save the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus), an endangered species in Oklahoma. (I prefer the French term, menaced species, l’espèce menacé over endangered species.) Burying beetles bury animals and lay their eggs in them.

Lankford seems to think that, if we would just quit trying to save the American burying beetle, our economy would blossom into prosperity for all—at least, for all of the people who are important to Republican Senators. He wants to launch an investigation against all those evil scientists who do not simply adore every word that comes from Trump’s mouth. Of course, the investigation would cost more than the entire American burying beetle program. But he thinks it is worth doing, in order to put those scientists, the very ones who refuse to worship Donald Trump, in our places.

But maybe the beetles will win in the long run. I can just imagine Senator Lankford laying out in a pasture, looking up into Republican heaven, and then falling into a deep sleep, only to awake and find himself, too late, buried in mud (it would take a thousand beetles to do this, but this is all in my imagination anyway) and with beetle grubs devouring him.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Botany in Congress

Now more than ever before in our history it is incongruous to see a botany bill in Congress (intentional pun). But here it is: a bill that promotes botany, botany education, and plant conservation! The Botanical Sciences and Native PlantMaterials Research, Restoration, and Promotion Act has a Democratic and a Republican sponsor. See here for a summary of the main points of the bill.

Right now, at the university where I teach, I have two students who are beginning research projects with an endangered tree species the bark of which has antibacterial properties. One of them already develops and sells botanical skin care products and wants to develop one that incorporates extracts from this species (without knowing anything about the active ingredient/s). The other is a chemistry major who knows how to conduct research on the active ingredient/s. Despite the depressing overall political climate, I am encouraged by the (what appears to me sudden) interest in botany and conservation among some of my students. This bill, in the unlikely event that it passes, will come too late to help my botany majors with their student loans etc.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

My Public Apology to the Neanderthals

I have also posted a YouTube video on this subject here.

If there are any Neanderthals reading this blog, I must ask, can you possibly forgive me? I had you all wrong. My voice joined in with the scientific establishment, led by such great scholars as Chris Stringer, in claiming that Neanderthals had no culture. This is very much the image that I presented in my Encyclopedia of Evolution. Apparently we were wrong.

Of course, my dear Neanderthals, I could not believe that a hominin with a brain as large as yours could be stupid. I never said you were stupid—put down that club, I’m trying to explain myself here—but just that you used your intelligence for something other than culture. Like maybe figuring out better ways of hitting each other over the head with clubs—oops, I think I went a little too far right then. But I wrote a novel manuscript (as yet unpublished) in which the heroine was an intelligent Neanderthal woman who lived in Minnesota in the late twentieth century. I can prove that I wrote this! I have a notarized copy of the manuscript from [date]. I’ve been defending your dignity, after a fashion, for many years now. But, you gotta admit, Neanderthals left no cave paintings or artifacts that might suggest art and religion, in stark contrast to the thousands of artifacts and massive painted caves of the Cro-Magnon modern humans.

But the accuracy of the non-cultural view of Neanderthals depends to a large extent on the interpretation of a set of artifacts that are not exactly part of American discourse, not even of intellectual snobs like me—the Châtelperronian artifacts. These artifacts, found in France, date to about forty thousand years ago, right about the time that dark modern humans came up from Africa and encountered the light-skinned, red-haired Neanderthals. The artifacts were found in a deposit that appeared to be of Neanderthal origin. They included some really well-made stone tools and, most fascinating, various bones and shells with holes drilled in them, which were apparently used in necklaces. Most of us scientists preferred to believe that such decorations could not possibly be Neanderthal. We wanted to think that the deposit was actually of modern Homo sapiens origin. Or, if the deposit was from Homo neanderthalensis, we speculated that you Neanderthals stole them from modern humans, or if you made them you were just imitating modern humans.

If we could get DNA from the human bones at this site, we could maybe settle the question. Svante Pääbo has elucidated the Neanderthal genome. But apparently thirty thousand years is about the limit to get DNA from old bones. To get enough DNA from the Châtelperronian bones, it would be necessary to almost completely destroy them. But it turns out that collagen (the protein in cartilage) does not decompose as readily. It was collagen that Mary Higby Schweitzer found in 70-million-year-old T. rex bones. Geneticists Matthew Collins and Frido Welker were able to get enough collagen from the Châtelperronian bones to analyze (Science, 23 September 2016, page 1350). Previous studies have shown that human collagen is rich in the amino acid aspartate, while Neanderthal collagen is rich in asparagine. The Châtelperronian bones had asparagine-rich collagen, identifying them as Neanderthal.

Of course, errors are possible in the reasoning used above. But the most straightforward interpretation, according to Jean-Jacques Hublin, Collins’s and Welker’s collaborator, is to say that Neanderthals made the artifacts.

Please forward a link to this essay to any Neanderthals you know.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Heeeeeeere's Connie!

Note: I have also posted a YouTube video about this.

When software changes the spelling of names, sometimes it’s a hoot, and sometimes noot.

Let me introduce you to Connie Maculatum, the poison hemlock plant.

Actually, the name is Conium maculatum, but apparently certain Microsoft programs automatically change scientific names into words that the programs think should be there. One of the best-selling books of the Christmas 2016 season, and one which I received as a present, contained this error. I doubt that the authors or editors intended the text to read “Connie.” But apparently, even after the correct name is written, Microsoft changes it from scientific accuracy to one of its standard, approved list of words. This might happen even after an author reverses the change.

It gets personal sometimes. One of my lab students last fall had the last name Cotten. In case your software changed it, the name ends with an -en. I had to write this twice in order to get Word to accept this spelling. But when we recorded her grades in Excel, it kept changing the spelling to Cotton no matter how many times we tried to correct it. We apologized to the student. She, however, has had this experience so many times that she hardly reacted. Her birth certificate, the IRS, and the university might have her name with the correct spelling but, dammit, Microsoft is determined to change her name to Cotton.

Science magazine reported that twenty percent of genetics articles that have been published online contain incorrect names of genes because Excel automatically changed them—and refused to unchanged them. One example is the gene septin-2, abbreviated SEPT2, which Excel changed to September 2. This happens even in the top journals. Notice: twenty percent of papers.

Technology is supposed to be our servant, but it determines the framework of reality. You have no choice but to enter information into Microsoft software in a prescribed format and to accept whatever form it comes out.

For centuries, people have had to accept occasional and embarrassing misspellings. The nineteenth-century report that Edgar Allan Pee had published a new book is probably apocryphal; in fact, I might have made it up. But at least newspaper and book publishers had the option of spelling it correctly.

I studied, and am now trying to rescue, an endangered plant species: the seaside alder, Alnus maritima. If I see this plant referred to on websites as Alnus maritime one more time, I think I am going to scream.

I don’t mind Microsoft underlining words that it “thinks” are misspelled, so long as I have the option of overriding its “decision.” It’s the automatic, silent, and unstoppable changes that I hoot.