Sunday, July 31, 2016

Horrors of War, Pleasures of Peace

France, Part 2.

On July 13, my wife and I visited the Musée Historique de Strasbourg. On July 15, we were back in Old Strasbourg at the Place Kléber (Kleber Plaza) and the Cathedral. What I saw at those times was immensely moving and significant and may have been my most memorable experience in France.

The museum documented a thousand years of history in which Strasbourg, on the Rhine River, was nearly always consumed in war between places that are now part of France and now part of Germany. Throughout this time, Strasbourg thought of itself as Alsacian rather than strictly French or strictly German. And why not? Whichever side it took, it would be conquered by the other side within a century or two anyway. And while it was fun to dress up in simulated medieval armor (see photo), there is no avoiding the fact that this constant state of warfare was gruesome and entailed unmeasurable amounts of suffering.

Most striking of all were the centuries of religious intolerance and slaughter. Throughout most of the history of Strasbourg, as in all other European cities, the Jews were forced to live in ghettos; near the museum you can still walk on the Rue des Juifs, which is very narrow just as it was in ghetto days, only it is now clean and free.

Then there was the Reformation, when Alsace was divided up into little enclaves: Territoires passés a la Réforme (territories becoming Protestant at the Reformation), Territories restés catholiques (territories remaining Catholic), Zones où la Réforme a été combattue (combat zones), and (the smallest of all) Territoires où les deux confessions ont été tolerées (zones where both “confessions” were tolerated) (see photo).

Inevitably, toward the end of the tour of the museum, we saw the photos and artifacts of Nazi occupation in World War II. The French did not simply surrender; they had a heavily fortified Maginot Line right in Alsace, ready to defend France from a German invasion across the Rhine. But the Germans invaded Belgium and took over France from the north, making the Maginot Line useless. In the museum we saw a photo of Hitler standing at the base of Strasbourg Cathedral, and of big Nazi military displays in the Place Kléber, which they renamed Karl Roos Platz. There was even a display about brutal Nazi experimentation on living humans. When liberation came, under General Leclerc, the Nazi influence was swept away with great enthusiasm (see the photos).

Here is the part that meant the most to me. A couple of days later, on July 15, when my wife and I happened by the Cathedral—there very Cathedral where Jews were oppressed for centuries, and where Hitler walked—we saw a klezmer band making some of the most joyous Jewish music you ever heard. Everybody loved this Jewish music and its talented performers. Take that, Hitler! And take that, you priests who oppressed the Jews for millennia! Right at that moment, while the lead musician (who played my old instrument the euphonium) was when I felt, more than ever before in my life, the joy of international peace, the brotherhood and sisterhood of the human species.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Bursting Out of the Cathedral

I now begin a short series of essays about my trip to France. This is why my blog has been silent for a while. Nobody wants to read about “my trip to France” so I am writing essays about science-related themes for which I found dramatic examples in France.

One thing France does better than America is cathedrals. Of course, they’ve had centuries to get ahead of us (the Notre Dame cathedral in Strasbourg just celebrated the 1,001st anniversary of the beginning of its construction), and also the great era of cathedral-building, anywhere in the world, is over. Yes, I am going to post some pretty pictures of cathedrals, but for a very specific purpose.

Note: This is the Notre Dame cathedral in Strasbourg, not in Paris.

At the time the Notre Dame Cathedral in Strasbourg was built, it encapsulated the entire world view of the people. The lofty ceiling reached to heaven, and the windows were stained glass, which were brilliant in the photons of sunlight but which totally blocked any photons of information from the outside world. When the peasants were inside the cathedral, they could see nothing of the poverty or injustice forced upon them by their society, nor could they see the beauty of trees or skies. And when the rich people were inside the cathedral, everything they saw around them made them think that they were chosen by God to dominate the vast majority of people. To both rich and poor, the world of the cathedral represented all that there was to know, or that was worth knowing. All they needed to know was Biblical history presented in stained glass pictures, such as the story of Jesus asleep in the boat, visible in one of the windows in this photo:

Meanwhile, high in the mountains of the Muenster Valley just southeast of Strasbourg there is a little parish chapel. Instead of stained glass, it has windows with full views of the beautiful mountains and green fields and trees. The priest of that parish does not enforce a view of the world, but lets the reality of the world shine in, and praises God for it.

The Strasbourg cathedral might, during the summer, have been the only cool place in town, to which people retreated from the stress, dust, and heat of everyday life. You could sit, or kneel, and feel at here, at this place, all was right in the world.

And the cosmos too. The Earth was the center of the universe, and everything in all of Creation revolved around us. Not only was all right in the world, but in the cosmos as well. The Strasbourg cathedral had an Horloge Astronomique, an astronomical clock, that celebrated what we now call the Ptolemaic (earth-centered) view: the first clock was built in the 14th century, the second in the 16th century.

This calm assurance changed toward the end of the middle ages. Polish astronomer Mikolaj Koppernigk (Nicolaus Copernicus) showed that astronomical observations could be neatly explained, without miracles or special effects, by putting the sun in the center of what we now call the solar system. The idea that the Earth was not the center of all of reality was a very disturbing thought to late medieval people, and probably no ordinary person in the cathedral had heard about it. But eventually everyone knew Copernicus was right. While many Catholic astronomers merely admitted the fact, at least a few others embraced it with enthusiasm. In 1843 the church hierarchy modified the Horloge Astronomique, making it in effect a little shrine to Copernicus and the new view of the universe!

The centerpiece of the 1843 clock is a sort of astrolabe, showing the planets known at the time and their circular (unfortunately not elliptical, it appears) orbits. Complicated gears keep the planets in their correct relative locations. Off to the side is a painting of Copernicus. At the top is a mechanical clock in which, every quarter hour, a death’s-head figure strikes chimes and a figure representing somebody from every corner of society advances across the front and disappear into the maw of mortality. (Every day at 12:30 tourists can purchase tickets to see the clock go through all of its movements at once, but you can stand around and watch some of them at any time during your free visit.)

This clock represents a major advance, all too rare in religion, in which new discoveries about the universe are incorporated nearly as doctrine and treated as if they had always been obvious. Too bad they don’t yet have a shrine to Darwin. I’d be glad to send them some ideas for such a shrine if they would like. Amoebas at the base, a panoply of dinosaurs in the middle, and each hour a disc rotates with flying monkeys. A portrait of Darwin off to the side, not at the top. On the top would be a line of humans, not the old and incorrect progression of monkey to white man that you can still find in lots of books and websites, but a range of equal humans, standing side by side, all races and genders, looking confidently at the world, arms interlocked in peace.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

As Interesting as Watching Grass Grow

“As interesting as watching grass grow” is a cliché. It is also indicative of the ignorance that most people have of the fascinating world of plants.

Granted, it is not very interesting to watch plants grow in real time. But if their growth is compressed into the time span of human perception, as in the superlative films of Sir David Attenborough, or if you measure their growth over time, you can discover some very interesting things about them. While plants do not have intelligence, they adjust their growth to their environments in ways that look intelligent to us. Plants have to make a living, like everyone else, and their growth patterns allow them to do this. As a seedling grows, its stem may actually do a little circular dance (circumnutation) in search of light. As its leaves expand, their anatomical structure adjusts to the amount of light: thinner leaves with more chlorophyll in shade, thicker leaves with less chlorophyll in bright sun. Meanwhile the roots penetrate the soil and proliferate their growth in patches that are rich in nutrients. Plants have a limited amount of food stored in their cells, and they invest this food in growth that is appropriate to their conditions: they invest more in roots if the soil is dry, and more in leaves if the soil is moist. Plants also prepare for the future, producing next spring’s buds the previous autumn. When the leaves burst open from buds in the spring, you are seeing merely the expansion of tissues that were built the previous year.

Perhaps watching grass grow in real time is not very interesting, but to envision its growth over the course of days and weeks in the real and complex world can be astonishing.

Originally published on in March, 2008.