Archive for January, 2012

Poem-A-Day: Jake Adam Young’s “Letter Already Broadcast into Space”

January 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Letter Already Broadcast into Space
by Jake Adam York

                        —To Sun Ra, from Earth

You are not here,

you are not here 
in Birmingham,
        where they keep your name,

not in Elmwood’s famous plots
                or the monuments
of bronze or steel or the strew

        of change in the fountain
where the firehoses sprayed.

                In the furnaces,
in the interchange sprawl
        that covers Tuxedo Junction,

in the shopping malls, I think,
                they’ve forgotten you,

the broadcast towers, the barbecues, 

        the statue of the Roman god,
spiculum blotting out
                part of the stars.

To get it dark enough,
        I have to fold back 
into the hills, into the trees

                where my parents 
planted me, where the TV
        barely reaches and I drift

with my hand on the dial
                of my father’s radio,

spinning, too, the tall antenna
        he raised above the pines.

I have to stand at the base

                of the galvanized
pole I can use as an azimuth
        and plot you in.

The hunter’s belt is slung again,
                and you are there

in the pulse, in the light of
        Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka,

all your different names,

                you are there
in all the rearrangements
        of the stars.

                        Come down now,
come down again,

                like the late fall light
into the mounds along the creek,

        light that soaks like a flood
to show the Cherokee sitting upright
                underground, light 

like the fire they imply.

        Come down now 
into the crease the freight train
                hits like a piano’s hammer

and make the granite hum

                        Come down now

as my hand slips from the dial,
                tired again of looking
for the sound of another way

        to say everything.

Come down now with your diction
                and your dictionary.

Come down, Uncle, come down
        and help me rise.

I have forgot my wings.


I like the mixing of things. The shift between evident direct address and riffs on the theme introduced, like a real letter. The juxtaposition of the natural (pines, stars), social (Birmingham, the sprawls, Tuxedo Junction), and technological (hi-tech things, the freight train), and the easy relations between the three (humming granite). (E.g., the TV far away from the place “where my parents planted me,” the antenna jutting out, searching, from the pines, the idea of “drifting” while (dreamily? purposedly?) tuning the dial on the radio, looking for God.) I like the apposition of several standard-ish images that we rarely find in one poem: the still Cherokee, the humming granite of the train, the late fall light, the city references, the pines, the tired human hand using technology as a search beacon for truth.

I like how the speaker uses a “galvanized pole” to search out what he’s looking for (a star? God?): no rejection of technology wholesale, but the influx of an important energy into the technology that makes it alive where the sought one is involved, making the granite hum or galvanizing the pole. The sought one is there “in the rearrangements of the stars,” a moving force, but also an Uncle, also a familiar, Uncle the one name of his that is treated as special. There’s a generational presence: maybe the speaker’s father would’ve written a letter like this too, as he too used a radio for this search. The insertion of the poetic imagination: “tired of searching for another way to say everything” – to whom? In the broadcast into space? To fellow humans?

It has the feeling of a prayer.

[These are just preliminary thoughts…I’ve decided to write more about poems and worry about depth of analysis less constantly.]

Categories: Uncategorized

Oliver Sacks: A Leg to Stand On

January 8, 2012 Leave a comment

I love Sacks’ project, following Luria, of a “romantic science,” what we might now call “humanistic medicine.” His and Luria’s essays are some of my favorite and most memorable reading, ever. But there’s something that’s always puzzled and unsettled me about Sacks: I’m always left with the suspicion that he doesn’t have a lot of empathy for his patients. Now, I have no sense of Sacks as a clinician (I’ve never read a single thing he’s written for medical circles), and I’m not among those who criticize him for “exploiting” his patients as interesting stories to sell books with. Still, he uses a language of virility and health-as-virtue that doesn’t sit easily with his “romantic science” project for me.

The first hint of this for me is in “A Leg to Stand On,” with the curious disjunction between his articulateness in describing his own experiences and his compete unfamiliarity with the feeling of unexpected helplessness that comes with being a patient (“I wanted to pursue the point, but there was something in their tone and manner that made me desist. I felt curiously helpless…and I thought, ‘Is this what being a patient means?'” — pg. 47) Can he really be so surprised by this feeling after 15 years of working with patients? As a patient, I remember thinking that kind of thought before I was ten years old…surely one who puts such emphasis on the human side of medicine should understand this basic thing?

Yet he does understand something of the human side of medicine–the soul, the spirit, the whirling thoughts, the demotion of the reasoning faculty even in one such as him. When he’s narrating his stream of consciousness, it’s poignant, like in: “Secretly, half-skeptically, hesitantly, yearningly, I addressed myself to this unimaginable ‘Thou’ [of the Psalms].” (p. 115) I enjoy his meditations on Leibniz and Nietzsche and the Metaphysicals on the nature of the soul, and I even think those were the thoughts that were swirling in a learned head like his. And maybe Sacks has exaggerated his breezy sense of virility when he opines on things like, “I forged ahead, keeping up a brisk pace despite the gradient, blessing my energy and stamina…Strong quads, strong body, good wind, good stamina–I was grateful to Nature for endowing me well.” (p. 19) But he pulls these moves repeatedly: seeming to like his witty patients better (he talks in “The Man who Mistook…” about how he dreaded working with patients with MR), calling people simpletons in what doesn’t seem like just the normal language of the time, describing his own world in epic terms and relating his case histories with some of the air of a freak show, or at least an “interesting phenomenon” that offers a chance for Sacks to indulge in grandiose reflection. Sometimes I like those wildly speculative moves–but the ego behind them can drive me  a little crazy. And the condescension he gets away with by applying it to himself too (his former self, his sick self, not the “real” one): He takes the healthy idea of a place to have a peaceful interlude before entering harsh reality again and makes it into something distasteful: “If we could not face the world, the world could not face us, with our lineaments, our habiliments, of sickness and affliction. We inspired horror and fear…and for the world’s sake, no less than our own, could not be let out.”

But there are little sympathetic moments. His description of the Convalescent Home is rich and profound in its new understanding of the community of patients, and he puts better than I many themes that I see recur in my own writing on patienthood. There’s his recollection of “the summer of 1938, [when] I discovered that the whorled florets were multiples of prime numbers, and I had such a vision of the order and beauty of the world as was to be a prototype of every scientific wonder and joy I was later to experience.” (p. 34) Or when he describes having the distinct feeling that the little tiny village church below was playing the Mozart Requiem as he thought he was dying, or when he ecstatically speculates, “I felt…that life was itself music, or consubstantial with music; that our living moving flesh, itself, was ‘solid’ music…was music, I wondered, the very score of life–the key, the promise, of renewed action and life?” (119)

The flights of intellect are dazzling–but only as character-pieces. A lot of the science is outdated, and the philosophy wrong: Hume doesn’t treat the self as nothing but a bundle of momentary impressions. We recognize many mental illnesses among the seemingly well now. No, in a sober state, we can’t say music is the key to health, though it makes some strong claims to centrality. Some of it is outdated through no fault of Sacks’: we have a much better neurological understanding of “free will” and ideomotor responses now. And for all the self-congratulation, there’s the childish sense of wonder, adventure and delight that lets us excuse it, brush it off as not posturing: when he hears back from Luria, we share his excitement and don’t notice the hubris: “If such a thing happens it can only be understood, and used. Perhaps it was your destiny to have the experience; certainly it is your duty now to understand and explore…Really you are opening and discovering a new field.” (197)

And finally, the beginnings of his journey towards a “romantic [neuro]science” is thrilling. Reading Head on the train and noticing the dual language of neurology and poetry (sequence/series/complex procedures vs. wholeness/completeness/ perfection/melody), Sacks’ memory of his father saying of Head “He was the most rigorous of scientists, but he was a poet too. He felt the music of movement and speech, but as a neurologist he could not explain it.” The conflicting passions for theory and life.

I don’t agree with the cult of experience (“you can only know what you’ve experienced,”) but if it made Sacks a better doctor, so much the better. The book ends with the beginning of a humbling and exciting journey for Sacks, back to the case studies of Weir Mitchell and around the margins of the neurological literature in search of the descriptions that are “known to hundreds of thousands of patients, but entirely unknown in the medical literature,” the “early days” that are unspoiled by concepts.

Sacks asks doctors to forget their neurological studies and terms for a moment, to pay attention to the singularity of patients’ descriptions in their own words. I love him for that. He is a little too quick to draw shaky metaphysical implications from his case studies; maybe he bends the stick too far; but his project is a sympathetic one, and it’s easy to cut him slack. I wouldn’t take this as good science–but it’s a good vision.

And there’s further reading in neuropsychology to be had in this vein. Noting that Luria and Head both were themselves the humanizing forces in their new neuropsychology (and their texts are still of the “mechanical” sort), Sacks goes further with the idea (as much Leontev’s and Zaporozhets’ as Luria’s) of the “science of doing,” observation in natural environments and the study of the whole system.

Sacks is disenchanted with a Hume he invents, one who sees nothing of the self or soul behind the perceptions. But this nonetheless leads him in wonderful directions, pursuing a “neurology of the soul” that takes on the existential questions too. I’ll get to his success in an empirical way later when I discuss the case histories in “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”–but for now, let’s leave with the exchange of “music is the solution!” between Sacks and Auden, and the universal image of a transformative ecstatic experience, having discovered new vistas, while stepping off the train with two bulky volumes under arm. We all have to find our ways to come back from that land of transformation and art to the quotidian of the living.

But for now, I’m off to discover Darwin the father in his Biography of an Infant and brush up on Kant and Hume to see how Sacks’ philosophy checks out. Might make a stop by Weir Mitchell too, and see what I can dig up on Auden and Sacks. Can always count on Sacks for an inspiring reading list.

Joan Roughgarden – Evolution’s Rainbow

January 8, 2012 Leave a comment

I learned many things from this book, on the biology side. Roughgarden’s case studies of varied gender expression and sexuality in animals are fascinating, and she is careful to take you through what they might “mean”–the function of third (and further) genders, the failures of “deceit theory” to account for the presence of “effeminate males” (since birds can verifiably tell the difference between females and female-looking males), the usefulness of cooperation as a valid concept in evolutionary theory. Colorful examples abound: fishes (wrasses) that change sex based on environment (open sea or reef), plants that change sex based on time of day (with the excellent name “flexistyly”). I’m willing to allow the possibility that, to use her example, different species of Idaho squirrel have different mating habits during their 20-minute mating window (with the male inserting a sperm plug or not) according as which the female prefers, or is more pleasured by.

There are other interesting ideas to perhaps add to our thinking on mate choice: how can we study whether animals in a population acquire a “reputation”? It’s certainly true that courtship behavior and parental care is frequently carried out in full view of others in the group. The idea of a population’s reproductive skew as partially determined by the level of distributional inequity in reproductive opportunity is appealing, especially as an alternative to the pure selfish rhetoric in traditional literature: “stealing” mates, “wasting” resources on others, etc. Family structure does seem to be fluid in the animal world, and behavior towards other animals partially governed by the best strategy for getting others to help. There are detailed discussions of “extended families” in tamarins, African hunting dogs, birds, and several other groups: the tamarins in particular exemplify how polyandry can be necessary to raising young in a cooperative setting–matings take place in view of other males with no sign of aggression, and males cooperate to take care of the young. And maybe it couldn’t be another way: mothers usually birth twins, and they are each 50% of her weight by the time they can walk or climb on their own–a monogamous couple isn’t enough to raise them.

The point is also well taken that the words we use to describe animal behavior reflect entrenched beliefs, so that males can be described as “cuckolded” in peer-reviewed publications in respectable journals, and everyone deceives each other. This was partly affirmation of my confusion over the so-called “problem of cooperation” and why it’s a problem at all. I do find it hard to subscribe to Dawkins’ “genes are the fundamental unit of selection” selfish-gene model. There’s just too much going on in the environment, and I want a theory that imputes meaning to our time on Earth…

To me personally, the book was most disappointing in its discussion of homosexuality in humans–just because that’s what I was most looking forward to in it, I think. She’s unwilling to speculate much there (despite wild speculation re: trans issues), and her belief that there’ll never be a biological theory of homosexuality seems to run counter to the call for more study of homosexuality in other animals and for more nuanced studies in the social sciences.

But there was a lot to make up for that. The stories of animal homosexuality were delightful and convincing (even excluding “homosexual, heterogendered” courtship between individuals of the same sex and different genders). I don’t believe cohabitation and the alternating assumption of the “male” role in courtship qualifies certain asexual anolis species to be called “lesbian lizards” (too much human/social baggage there), but it’s fascinating of itself. And it’s nice to see the doubters get hit where it hurts: she points out that even geese marriages, the poster children for lifelong stable, monogamous couplings, are 15% male-male. (And they love each other, too: the male shows despondent grief after his partner dies, just as in straight couples.)

On the function of feminine males, I’m not sure I think Roughgarden’s theories are totally plausible, but they seem to be a good counterbalance to the deceit theorists. And at least they make nice stories (not, of course, a criterion for a good scientific theory): Consider the red-sided garter snake that makes Manitoba’s interlake region a hotbed of snake-watching. (There’s even a monument to garter snakes in the town!) Thousands of garter snakes live in a single den in the winter, then emerge, mate and disperse; mating occurs in “mating balls” with one snake courted by many others. At the den entrances, the ratio of males to females is 10:1. It turns out all males secrete feminine hormones: Roughgarden’s theory is that male garter snakes just emerging from the den want to roll around in the sun and “wake up,” so they can signal with female hormones–and males watching  this would rather welcome this new guy than attack him, with so many others around who could jump on you. (Notable here is the lack of deceit theory–the males know the feminine male is indeed a male).

Part 2 of the book goes into development, where I think the treatment is a little weaker (it’s farther from Roughgarden’s area of expertise, which is ecology.) The most interesting thing I got from this was a BIOLOGICAL definition of gender: I’m used to thinking of “sex = biological characteristics, gender = how you feel.” Roughgarden takes the female to be the one with the larger gamete size, and that’s it. She then traces how sex (how a gamete matures) is influenced by gender (what type of tissue the gonad it lands in has) and vice-versa, and the complicated role of SRY in gender determination. She also solved a big mystery for me: how males and females can be so different while having only about 60 genes on their sex chromosomes (and about 4x that between two people on nonsex chromosomes). Two main culprits–evolution on the Y chromosome, and the extent of X inactivation–if there’s not much, the females have most of another chromosome to work with to effect these differences.

Continuing the theme of biological gender differences, the discussion of birds had a lot to offer: e.g. in speciese where males sing and females don’t, there’s a marked difference in the size of nerve cell clusters for learning and making song. Moreover, hormones control the size of these nerve cell clusters, varying with both age and time in the breeding season; they also control aspects of personality, often in very simple ways. Overall, the development section made me appreciate transgenderism as a biologically-based phenomenon, and not just something about “how you feel inside.”

The last thing of note for me was perhaps the “gay gene” discussion–basically, most biologists agree that homosexuality has some genetic basis, and the search for one gene is kind of pointless for a complex trait like this–we’ve only found things that sometimes make tiny differences.

Ultimately, though, despite all the things I learned about the biology, this book drove me a little crazy. Roughgarden has a clear axe to grind, and I think it weakens her book.  What could’ve been a solid, scientifically-based, well-researched book of half the size on a coherent chunk of material became a bloated thing that’s half science and half poorly-defended manifesto. Sure, it’s good to challenge the social sciences to take a broader view of sex and gender, and to point out biases in the literature. But Roughgarden pulls some stunts that really weaken her credibility for me: for example, calling theories “diversity-repressing” as if that were the end of their credibility, bringing in the Bible, arbitrarily focusing on the T in LGBT, and laying out a trans agenda. When she does these things, suddenly the copious footnotes vanish. I’d rather she have done more with the science and less explicitly with a “feminist critique,” or that she publish the political implications as she sees them separately.

As it is, I can recommend the scientific insights, but not much of  the editorializing woven in. And ultimately I’m not convinced that Darwinian sexual selection theory needs to be wholly overthrown: to me, its strongest point is that reproductive success can be selected for independently of survival probability, and we should look for reproductive explanations when a trait seems like it wouldn’t be naturally selected for. Yes, Darwin speaks of universal gender types; but he spoke of blending inheritance too, and the Modern Synthesis simply updated him with our new understanding of genetics; we could do the same with our understanding of sex and sexuality.


My favorite factoid: gay people’s otoacoustic emissions (little sounds emitted from our ears) are different than straight peoples’. Hello, gaydar! 😉


Categories: Books, Evolution

Tidbits of Math in Culture

January 4, 2012 Leave a comment

You learn funny things from the Mathematica Room at the Hall of Science. Silly biographical details (Galois wasn’t the only idiot). The unfolding of various fields writ in miniature (calculus; probability; algebraic topology). That there were three different (related) Bernoullis who were mathematicians (how did I never figure this out?! Well, can’t say I pay much attention to first names, nor do, apparently, the people who put names to theorems in textbooks.) Two that caught my eye today:

(1) Chaucer apparently published a book on alchemy and was a well-known alchemist in his day. I would’ve realized that if I’d gotten around to the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale. See here: “Genre: a nouvelle or short story, infused with alchemical instruction and told in the manner of a thief’s confession rather like the ‘Pardoner’s Prologue.'”

(2) The scientific preoccupations of the Romantic poets are well-documented (see, for example, Richard Holmses’ The Age of Wonder, or consider that Coleridge coined the word “scientist” as a pejorative term at one of the first Royal Society meetings, or consider Wordsworth on Newton). I’m reminded now that I need to circle back to the Metaphysical poets and see more of the land there, particularly what they’re doing with Platonic geometric forms. The ending of Donne’s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning comes to mind:

Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

(This does poor justice to the use of circularity in the poem: lovers set as linked weights pulling each other along, never too far, tension and release woven throughout.) But these lines from Marvell (the beginning of “Upon the Hill and Grove at Billborow”) started off this chain of reminiscences:

See how the arched earth does here

Rise in a perfect hemisphere!

The stiffest compass could not strike

A line more circular and like,

Nor softest pencil draw a brow

So equal as this hill does bow;

It seems as for a model laid,

And that the world by it was made.

I really like the compass/soft pencil apposition. Breezily encompasses (har–sorry) the organic and the geometrical in the landscape of Creation.

But my favorite part of today at the museum was mulling over the Nikon Small World contest winners–showcasing the wonders of light microscopy (plus some polarizers and dyes). Here’s my favorite:

Sand at 4x. Yep. That's right. Sand, motherfuckers.

Categories: Poetry, Popular Science