Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Telescope, a Church, an Earthworm, a Revolution --

By Paul K. Haeder

He refined the device he obtained from the Netherlands, and his eight-power telescope proved Copernicus correct (the earth and planets revolved around the Sun) and he saw the moon was pock-marked, not smooth, and that Jupiter has moons.

It’s been a heck of a year, with the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth 200 years ago, his book, On the Origin of the Species published 150 years ago, and Galileo’s telescope’s birthday Aug. 25, 1609.

Galileo spent the last 10 years of his life under house arrest, as the Catholic Church took his findings to be more than hierarchal. It was in 1992 when the Catholic Church softened its stance on Galileo. Reading Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Ghost shows the true nature of Galileo’s struggle to prove his worth, his value to science and his struggle with the isolation of his genius. His daughter Celeste wrote 120 letters from the convent her father put her into. Her life and his were entwined in the complications of his time, a father's guilt for giving up his three illegitimate daughters, and his own doubts. Sobel’s book’s subtitle says a lot about his time 400 years ago, and our own with the misinformation and so-called astroturfing by the American Petroleum Institute denying the very science that got them the geology to exploit fossil fuel in the first place: a memoir of science, faith, and love. Add superstition to the list for Galileo's time and our own now as we try and center discussion and thought on climate change.




So, hats off to Galileo’s Venetian telescope and findings. Four hundred years ago the force of discovery changed the course of math, philosophy, technology. We’ll cover more of Galileo and Darwin, whose explanation of natural selection as a mechanism that made evolution plausibly able to explain the origin of species -- without reference to a creator -- set a new path toward the science and technology we have today. No snapping fingers. No intelligent design. We are a world that is based on humanity’s skills to figure out how some of the world works. Darwin set the stage for all scientific work. According to the eminent late evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, "Eliminating God from science made room for strictly scientific explanations of all natural phenomena; it gave rise to positivism; it produced a powerful intellectual and spiritual revolution, the effects of which have lasted to this day."

Galileo faced being burned at the stake for his intellect, his findings. The current Pope has attempted to appreciate the value of Galileo, but, alas, revisionism is what propels Benedict to proclaim Galileo great.


Until the post on Darwin’s importance to science, here are books on Chuck –
Steve Jones’ Darwin’s Ghost

One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought
Mayr, Ernst. Harvard University Press, Reprint Edition (2005).

Charles Darwin, Geologist
Herbert, Sandra. Cornell University Press, (2005).

Inside the Beagle with Charles Darwin
Macdonald, Fiona. Enchanted Lion Books, (2005).

From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books
Wilson, Edward O. (Editor). W. W. Norton, (2005).

Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society
Wilson, David. University Of Chicago Press, (2003).

Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life
Eldredge, Niles. W. W. Norton, (2005).

The Tree of Life
By Peter Sís
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003

It might seem surprising to begin a column on books about Charles Darwin with a children's title (age 8 and up), but this delightful volume is a superior introduction for all readers to the great naturalist. The delicate drawings and diagrams -- displaying animals, plants, instruments, portraits, maps -- lend to the book the flavor of a gorgeously illuminated medieval manuscript. Peter Sís's images, like Darwin's own writings, invite the reader to observe carefully and make connections. The emphasis on detail comes across best in a cross-section of the Beagle, the ship that took Darwin around the world. This is a book to think with and an ideal way to escape the mindless polemics (and hero worship) that will inevitably crop up during the 2009 bicentenary of Darwin's birth on Feb. 12. Give it to your kids, if you can stop looking at it long enough yourself.

The Beak of the Finch
By Jonathan Weiner
Knopf, 1994

The theory of evolution, for all its generality, is founded on the observation of tiny differences in plants and animals. The classic instance involves "Darwin's finches" from the Galápagos Islands. These exceptionally variable birds range in type from the bark-stripping vegetarian to the blood-drinking vampiric (preying on another Galápagos bird, the booby). It is often assumed that the finches provided Darwin with on-the-spot evidence that clinched the case for evolution. But this is a myth. To watch "evolution in action" among the finches, as the biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant began to do in the 1970s, has taken almost unimaginable patience. In "The Beak of the Finch," a classic of science writing, Jonathan Weiner brings to life the scientific process as practiced both in Darwin's era and among modern Galápagos researchers. We watch as the Grants measure barely perceptible differences in the lengths of beaks, gather tiny drops of blood for DNA sequencing and trace birds over many generations. There is no better way to understand the character of Darwinian science.

The Politics of Evolution
By Adrian Desmond
University of Chicago, 1989

London in 1837, where Darwin moved soon after the Beagle voyage, was a modern Babylon: dirty, noisy and dangerous. It was in this bustling metropolis, not on a tropical island or in the rural isolation of his later home in Kent, that he forged the theory of evolution. Adrian Desmond's "The Politics of Evolution" shows why it matters that Darwin began his speculations in London during a turbulent era of political and religious reform. Forget polite academic discussions and salon conversations about divine design; the ideas Darwin was contemplating in the 1830s were threatening and divisive. When "On the Origin of Species" was finally published in 1859, it came into a very different scene, causing little of the uproar it would have prompted two decades earlier.

Charles Darwin
By Janet Browne
Knopf, 1995, 2002 (two vols.)

There are several fine biographies of Darwin, but Janet Browne's two-volume work is the best at capturing the genteel and peculiarly English tone of Darwin's life. The early chapters might almost be taken from an undiscovered Jane Austen novel: We watch an aimless young man emerge as a leading naturalist and daringly speculative theorist. Browne draws on the comprehensive edition of Darwin's correspondence, which is being prepared by an international team at the University of Cambridge. The biography's second volume, which opens with the publication of "On the Origin of Species," traces Darwin's ability to turn fame to account in spreading his ideas. Few long biographies are so successful at maintaining interest and energy right to the end.

Darwin Loves You
By George Levine
Princeton, 2006

Does Darwinism strip the world of meaning, reducing life to cutthroat competition and cold calculation? Fundamentalist atheists and evangelical Christians generally agree that it does, but such a perspective is far too narrow. In this highly personal book, the literary historian George Levine argues that Darwin's work, with its generous language that invites interpretation, has the potential to create aesthetic and moral value. Darwin writes of flying squirrels, pouting pigeons, peacocks' tails and the instincts of ants. But he also encourages wonder at small things, gradual forces and the power of individual action in a world of life and possibility.

Book blurbs by James A. . Secord, the editor of Darwin's Evolutionary Writings (Oxford, 2008), the director of the Darwin Correspondence Project and professor of the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is a book for everyone who has ever wondered about who this man was and what he said. Drawing from Darwin's secret "transmutation" notebooks and his personal letters, David Quammen has sketched a vivid life portrait of the man whose work never ceases to be controversial.

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