Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Winter Solstice
Half Moon Bay

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Do Scientists Believe?

I attended an extremely interesting discussion last night, sponsored by the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) group within AAAS, entitled "What Do Scientists Believe?" The discussion was led by Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University, author of the recent book "Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think," and Barbara Bradley Hagerty of NPR, author of last year's NYT's bestseller, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," which I reviewed last year.

Ecklund, a sociologist, presented the results of her recent study of the spiritual and religious beliefs of scientists. The complete results can be found in her book, published earlier this year by Oxford University Press, but she shared with us some of her very interesting data. The study ran from 2005-2008 and she surveyed 2200 US university scientists at what she referred to as "leading" universities (such as Harvard, Stanford, etc.) Her survey produced an astonishing 75% return rate for her questionnaires and she followed up with 275 in-depth interviews.

The basic results show that an astounding 70% of those surveyed considered themselves either religious (50%) or spiritual (20%) while only 30% of these scientists consider themselves secularists. This latter group includes atheists, agnostics and a large number of scientists who say they know nothing about religion and don't think about it much.

Ecklund used diverse indicators for religious and spiritual beliefs and activities and surveyed both religious and non-religious scientists. She believes the group who self-identify as "spiritual" is an interesting new demographic, often finding their spiritual experience to be centered in nature rather than an abstract concept of God.

Her book contains more complete data and analysis (and I have it on order already!) but here are a few tidbits I scribbled into my notebook as she talked:
  * Among the 30% of scientists who call themselves secularists, many say they felt religion had "let them down" as young people when they asked hard questions, so they felt they had to leave in order to pursue the truth.
  * 13% of these secularists were raised in households where religious activity was not important; Ecklund found that scientists are three times more likely to be raised in homes where religion did not play a large role.
  * Only 2% of scientists in the 50% "religious" group say they are evangelical Christians; this contrasts starkly with the rate in the general US population, where 28% self-identify as evangelicals.
  * Similar disparities are found for Catholics: only 9% of scientists say they are Catholic vs. 27% of the general population.
  * The percentage of religious scientists who identify with mainline protestant views is almost identical to the percentage in the general population.
  * The Jewish faith is well-represented among scientists: 16% of those surveyed say they practice the Jewish faith, whereas only 2% of the general population does.

There were many more interesting results, but things really got going when Hagerty joined in the discussion and the floor was opened up for questions. We learned, among other things, that the percentage of religious journalists is almost identical to that of scientists, so the two groups are a lot alike. Hagerty pointed out that her profession of journalism may be largely responsible for the perception that science and religion are "at war" since journalists love a story with controversy and help inflame this war by focusing on statements of the four leading atheist writers, who she amusingly kept referring to as "The Four Horsemen."

The results from Ecklund's in-depth interviews were especially poignant. She found that scientists who are members of religious communities almost never discuss science in those communities. They have difficult experiences struggling with certain tenets of their faiths and often practice a "secret science," as she referred to it. Hagerty and Ecklund both agreed that this produces a perception that there are no religious scientists, a perception that this new data obviously refutes.

A common sentiment voiced by those interviewed was "To say I am religious might mean other scientists will question my work." There are, though, a few scientists that Ecklund has dubbed "Boundary Pioneers" who are open about their beliefs; Francis Collins was widely cited as one of these "boundary pioneer" scientists who is admired by both non-religious scientists and those who are religious and/or spiritual.

Collins is open enough, in fact, that we know he is an evangelical Christian and, therefore, in a small minority group (2%) of religious scientists. I wonder what it would be like if some thought leaders among scientists who are more like their peers were to begin speaking out about their beliefs.

I'm still processing my own feelings about this data, but the overarching one I walked away with was one of extreme excitement that I was actually much more ordinary than I had ever thought. For years and years I assumed I was the only scientist among all my colleagues who had a deeply-satisfying religious and spiritual life and I still, to this day, find it extremely difficult to say, out loud, specifically what I believe. For one thing, what I believe seems to be constantly changing, and my identification with and participation in religious activities also shifts over time. I have, in short, been looking for a spiritual home--but maybe, now that I've heard these data, I'm finding that I've always been home, among my own kind, and never even knew it since most of us scientists never talk with each other about our beliefs.

Years ago, I attended a life-changing workshop session at a faculty retreat entitled something like "On Becoming Whole in the Academy." The session was led by my now very-dear friend, Holly Stocking, who I did not know at the time. Holly, at the time a professor of journalism, skillfully led us into an intimate discussion and we were soon sharing with each other truths about our lives that we felt we had not been able to reveal to any of our colleagues.

I will never forget the story shared by one group member, a woman who, like me, was a Chemistry professor at one of the regional campuses in our large university system. She was also, it turned out, a nun and had been a live-in member of a religious community, in other words a convent, for all the decades she'd been a faculty member--and yet none of her colleagues knew this.

Her story was devastating to many of us. How awful it must have been for her to hide such a hugely significant aspect of her life. How awful it must be for all those scientists, that huge 70% majority of us, who think we are the only ones who have a religious or spiritual life. How awful it is for the world that so many scientists don't share their faith and passion, in all its manifestations, with others.

And how wonderful it is, thanks to science itself through Ecklund's sociological research, many of us will now know that we are not alone. We have each other and, as it turns out, there are lots and lots of us.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

"The heavens proclaim the glory of God,
And the vault of the sky reveals God's handiwork."
Psalm 19

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Thankfully Reading

I'm participating in the "Thankfully Reading Weekend" this holiday weekend and our first challenge question is to write a post about the book we are most thankful for, whether it's just been published or has been out for decades.

It's hard to pick just one, but there is a book that had a huge influence on me. In addition, it's a really great story!

When I was eight years old, my mother (herself an enthusiastic reader) handed me a copy of Madeleine L'Engle's recently published book, "A Wrinkle in Time," and said that there was a little girl in it who reminded her of me. That little girl, Meg, is thrust into an adventure involving her scientist father who has disappeared doing secret government work. In trying to find her father, Meg gets caught up in some space-time travel and finds that she has to use her brain as well as lots of science and math. I still remember how confused I was trying to visualize a tesseract, but I totally believed that Meg understood it.

My mother was right: it really is a good book and won the Newbery Medal later that year. The reason this book makes the cut for the one book that I am most thankful for, is that my mother's comment and Meg's example  proved to be quite important to me personally. As my mother suggested, Meg and I were a lot alike and she inspired me. 

After reading Wrinkle I moved on from the fairy tales that had been my previous favorite reads to devouring any science fiction book I could find. I immersed myself in Bradbury, Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and on and on. This obsession with scifi continued until well into college when I discovered that actual science (minus the fiction) was the really good stuff. 

So, my mother was right: that little girl Meg, who was basically the first scientist I had ever read about, was a lot like me. Or, rather, the me I was about to become.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Beautyberries are beautiful!

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thankful for Books

I just signed up for the "Thankfully Reading" Event over at Jenn's Bookshelves. This is an informal, no-pressure event designed to encourage folks who love books (like me!) to read. To participate, all you have to do is spend some time this Thanksgiving weekend doing one thing you love: reading. 

Participants will cheer each other on, and basically have some fun doing something we don't really have to do, but want to do. What could be better?

If you want to join in, head on over to Jenn's site and sign up. I just did.

Thanks to Beth Fish for tweeting about this fun event. If she hadn't, I never would have heard about it.

Now...I wonder what I'll read first? Hmmmm.......  :)

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Networks Simplified

In less than four minutes, Eric Berlow explains how a complex systems view can lead to simplicity. This is truly complexity simplified! Check it out:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

RIP Benoit Mandelbrot

A portion of the Mandelbrot Set
The world lost a major scientific figure this week. Benoit Mandelbrot, who recognized that the geometry of nature is fractal, died on Thursday at the age of 85. The New York Times published a nice obituary, describing his life and work and recounting his story of how he got started on the research that led to the fractal concept.

This has always been one of my favorite stories about Mandelbrot, and I often told it to the students in my classes on nonlinear dynamics and complexity science, since it also provides a great illustration of what a fractal is.

The story begins when Mandelbrot tried to measure the length of the coastline of Britain and soon realized that the answer varied depending on the resolution of the map or photograph he was measuring. At a high altitude, say from the vantage of a satellite, the coastline appeared to be a certain length, but as the camera zoomed in, more bays and estuaries were revealed and the coastline length increased.

Mandelbrot knew that this could not continue indefinitely, because, if it did, the length of the coastline of Britain would be infinite and this was, obviously, impossible. He eventually hit upon a way out of this puzzling paradox, and the solution was a very clever idea: the coastline is best thought of, he realized, not as a one-dimensional curve with a length but as an object with a dimension somewhere between one and two.

Romanesco broccoli
A two-dimensional object would be a filled-in area, such as the land mass of Britain itself, so what Mandelbrot was suggesting is that the coastline is neither one-dimensional, like a curve or straight line, nor two-dimensional, like the entire island, but a "fuzzy" object with a fractional dimension. 

He called this type of object a fractal and soon found that nature is filled with fractals. Coastlines are definitely fractal, but so are trees, mountain ranges, the network of blood vessels in our bodies and even vegetables. One of my favorite examples is the Romanesco broccoli, which I wrote about in one of my earliest posts on this blog.

The BBC has published a beautiful photo essay of Mandelbrot and the fractals he discovered, including the beautiful one which bears his name: the Mandelbrot set, a tiny portion of which is shown at the beginning of this post.

Rest in Peace, Benoit. You will be deeply missed.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Importance of Water

I'm working on a novel that is set in the western US and one of the main sources of conflict and tension in the story is the struggle over water: who owns it, who is entitled to manage it, what people do when there is not enough of it. When one of the major characters in my novel, Helen, discovers that her well has run dry and then (as if this is not bad enough) that the water management board will not allow her to divert or use any water from the spring on her own property, she becomes very worried.

A few of my writer friends have read early drafts of this story, providing me with lots of comments that have already improved my manuscript, but one particular comment left me a little unsure of how to proceed. "This dry well doesn't seem like a particularly big problem," the comment said. "Maybe Helen should be facing something really scary, like cancer or some other dire disease."

Maybe one has to have grown up in an arid environment, like I did, to understand that lack of water is really scary. When a person grows up with clean water literally available at the touch of a button, or turn of the tap, they may not fully appreciate just how frightening a prospect it might be to find that water is suddenly not available. 

Millions of people around the world face this sort of reality every day, and today's Blog Action Day has been undertaken to raise awareness of just how important water is to our survival.

Two years ago, I helped organize a workshop on "Applications of Complexity Science for Public Policy" for the Global Science Forum, part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). One of our participants, John Finnigan, the Director of the Center for Complex Systems Science at Australia's national science agency, the CSIRO, said that his agency is investigating the likelihood that the earth, and humanity, may be approaching a "tipping point" in which massive water shortages will occur.

Tipping points are those key transition points, like bifurcation points, where a tiny change can result in a huge effect. Finnigan spoke about the human-earth system as a complex entity that was nearing a tipping point largely because of social and economic factors. His agency has undertaken a number of research projects to develop smarter ways to address the complex problem of water management.

I don't find it surprising that this pioneering work is being carried out in Australia, a country that, for the most part, is as arid (or more so) than the western United States. If all of the US was as arid as Australia, perhaps our country would be one of the ones taking the lead on this most pressing of problems facing humanity.

Please help spread the word about how important it is to ensure a supply of clean water around the globe. Visit the Blog Action Day main website, where you can learn more about how you can help.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Yellowstone: After the Fire

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Blog Action Day: October 15

I wanted to let you know about an important online event I'm taking part in on October 15th, called Blog Action Day. 

Each year bloggers from more than 100 countries come together and blog about a single important issue. This year's topic is clean water.

The event includes thousands of blogs - including the White House blog and The Official Google Blog. The organizers are looking for as many blogs to participate as possible, regardless of their size and focus.

I hope you'll think about joining me for this event. If you want more information, check out the Blog Action Day site at

Hope to see your post on the 15th!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone
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Monday, September 13, 2010

Rest in Peace, Mabelle Irene

My grandmother, Mabelle Irene Luthy Larter, died in her sleep last night just before midnight, a little over a week after her 99th birthday. Born in 1911, she was truly a member of what people are now calling the "greatest generation." 

Flapper Girl
She lived through a time of tremendous change in our world. Just three years before she was born, the first Model T automobile was produced and true radio broadcasting did not yet exist. She watched as human flight was developed, spaceflight was achieved and mass communication using telephone, television and eventually the Internet all came into existence.

"Acting Up" - Mabelle, far right

Throughout all of this, she lived a remarkable personal life that included periods as frontier gal, flapper girl, ranch wife, mother, grandmother to me, my sisters and our cousins, and eventually even great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother to our various offspring.
Mabelle with her grandpa Thomas Bean

I saw her for the last time about six weeks ago and she greeted me as she always has: "Well, for goodness gracious! Look who's here!" I will miss you, grandma...your smile, your infectious laugh, your hugs. Rest in peace.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Bifurcated Blogs

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I've started a new blog, Yoga Emergence. My attention has, thus, been somewhat diverted from this blog as my blogging persona has bifurcated again. Please check out my new blog if you have not yet done so.

One reason I chose the name Yoga Emergence for my new blog was to try to capture the way in which yoga has emerged as the central spiritual practice of my life, and continues to emerge in ways that surprise me every day. 

I also chose this name because I think that the concept of Emergence as used by Phyllis Tickle in her book, "The Great Emergence," is necessary if we wish to understand how it is that so many people now say they are "spiritual but not religious," not to mention understanding those of us whose spiritual practices transcend boundaries that used to separate major faiths. I will have a bit more to say about that on my new blog, so keep an eye open there for more on this topic.

I reviewed Tickle's book last year, but was initially drawn to it by her use of the word "Emergence," one I had previously been familiar with in complexity science. There, it refers to a phenomenon or behavior that exists only at the system level, but one which cannot exist at the level of the parts of which the system is made. So, for example, we say that "wetness" emerges from a large collection of water molecules, since we know that one water molecule cannot be "wet." 

Tickle makes brief mention, in her book, of the emergence concept as it is used in science circles, but not enough to satisfy a complexity scientist like me. Her short discussion did make me wonder, though, if what she has identified is the emergence of an entirely new religious landscape--one that comes about through interactions of different religious groups, and which cannot exist in one isolated group. If so, this would, in fact, be the type of emergence we talk about when we say that a drop of water is wet, but a molecule of water is not.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Journey in Two Parts

This week, two major changes took place in my life, and I am thrilled to announce that I will soon be embarking on an exciting new journey with two parts. The first change involved my acceptance into the yoga teacher training program at Sun and Moon Yoga Studio in northern Virginia. The second change was my decision to resign from my job in order to pursue a career as a full-time writer--and, eventually, a part-time yoga teacher.

I have been with my current employer, a federal agency of the US government, for over seven years and before that was a university professor and researcher for twenty-three years. If I'm adding correctly, that means I've been working and drawing a paycheck for thirty years, a figure that is very hard to wrap my mind around. How can anybody (especially me) stick with something for as long as thirty years? 

Embarking on my own as a freelance writer is scary, given my long history as an employee of one or another large organization, but it is also very freeing and very exciting. My last day at work is around the middle of September, so I am beginning to clean my office and organize my files, a process that is bringing up a lot of old memories, not to mention dust.

Many of my blog readers know that I am a writer, so it may not be all that surprising to hear I'm branching out into full-time writing. The other part of my news involving a yoga training program, may, thus, be more newsworthy. I have actually been practicing yoga for a very long time, nearly twenty years, and have harbored a secret fantasy to teach it for probably the last four years. 

For quite a few of those years, yoga teaching was only a fantasy, not something I seriously considered. It didn't seem possible for somebody like me--a former professor whose interests and demonstrated skills seemed to be more aligned with math than the physical or athletic--but I gradually came to realize that yoga had become the center of my spiritual life, and I wanted to share it with others. I'll be writing a bit more, next week, about how this dramatic change occurred. Watch for my post on the Virtual Abbey blog.

I am very excited about being accepted into Sun and Moon's teacher training program, and eagerly look forward to our first session in late September. I know I'm going to have a lot to say about this new part of my life, so have decided to launch a new blog, Yoga Emergence, that will chronicle my year as a teacher-in-training. Follow along as I pursue my new adventure, a journey into yoga!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Purple Mountains Majesty

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Saturday, July 31, 2010

On Vacation

I'm on vacation and heading out to Wyoming and Idaho to visit family and do some tromping around in the hills. Here's a photo I took last year when we were in the same place. It shows the remains of what we referred to as "the bunkhouse" at my grandparent's old ranch.

It did, at one time, serve as a bunkhouse for the cowboys who worked on the ranch at branding time but was actually the original house built when my grandfather homesteaded this area with his brothers and fathers. Very much looking forward to seeing the old place!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Comment Policy Question

I have tried to keep an open forum on Complexity Simplified, to not discourage the free-flow of discussion, and for the most part I have not had any problem with allowing comments even from anonymous users. There has been a small amount of spam, mostly from those selling things that may or may not be legal, but nothing too overwhelming, so I have allowed anonymous users to keep on posting comments.

Unfortunately, though, I have noticed an increasing number of comments from anonymous users who I would like to engage in conversation, but who do not identify themselves. It seems that if you have a very specific point to make about my blog post, especially one that is based on a misperception or incorrect assumptions, you should identify yourself instead of lobbing unsubstantiated charges and statements from behind a wall of anonymity. After all, I sign my posts with my name, so why shouldn't those who comment have to do so as well?

So, to encourage people to sign their names, or at least their user handles, when they comment on my posts, I've now changed the settings to allow comments only from registered users. Okay, you're right: "encourage" is not the right word here. What I am doing is now "requiring" people to sign their names--and making this change has raised a lot of questions in my mind about what a blog's comment policy should be.

My question for more experienced bloggers: how do you handle comments on your blog? Do you moderate each comment? Do you allow free and open commenting? Or do you choose a middle ground, and, if so, how have you chosen that midpoint?

In this age of free-flowing information, when people anywhere in the world can post anything they want, including leaked classified information as was recently done by
WikiLeaks, the comment policy of my little blog may seem a minor issue. But, of course, it's important to me, so I'm curious about how other bloggers handle this. Please add your advice below! And, yes, you have to be a registered user now to do so...sorry about that, but see above for my reasoning.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

My Garden Runneth Over...Contemplating Canning

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Announcing a New Partnership

I am thrilled to announce that I recently signed an agreement with literary agent Loretta Barrett to represent me as I pursue publication of my forthcoming book on spirituality and the science of complex systems. Loretta represents a long list of accomplished authors in both the fiction and non-fiction areas and I am honored and excited to be included in such an esteemed group.

Loretta is the former Editor-in-Chief of Anchor Books and was Vice President and Executive Editor at Doubleday & Company before starting her literary agency twenty years ago. She has extensive contacts in the publishing world and her experience and long list of accomplishments were more than enough to persuade me that she was the right agent for me.

I couldn't be happier with our new partnership and I look forward to announcing more exciting news as we move forward with our efforts to seek a publisher for this book.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Peace Be With You

Last year around this time I made a conscious choice to be more consistent and regular about meditating. I had been involved in meditation off and on for almost twenty years, but had not had much success with sitting still for any length of time. Even more difficult than quieting my body was quieting my mind.

And, yet, I kept getting drawn to the cushion and I wanted to be more consistent in my practice. I had just read Barbara Bradley Hagerty's book, Fingerprints of God (which I reviewed here last year) and was excited by the evidence she reported in this book of the positive effects of meditation.

In just one example from this excellent survey of the latest scientific evidence about the effects of meditation on the brain, she reports about a study carried out by Jon Kabat-Zinn and others on inexperienced meditators. The results were remarkable and showed that the regular practice of meditation shifted brain-wave activity toward what Hagerty calls a "happier" state.

I had already wanted to be more consistent about my meditation, but it was the scientific evidence presented in Hagerty's book that helped convince me to try a bit harder to establish a regular meditation practice.

I knew that it takes a good 30 to 40 days of regular repetition of any activity before it becomes part of our regular ritual, so the "trick" I used to start my meditation practice was simple: I gave myself a gold star on the calendar for each day I sat on my cushion at the appointed time.

I had a few setbacks, missed a day here and there, but within a couple of months I realized I no longer needed those gold stars to convince me to sit down and light a candle. Now, a year later, I simply want to do it and I miss the moments with myself if I don't get them.

At first, most of the changes I noticed in my life occurred during those hours between the times I meditated, not during the meditation itself. The effects of the meditation made themselves known in every aspect of my life, as I became more centered, more relaxed and much, much more in touch with what I really thought and felt.

Oh, and about that study that Kabat-Zinn carried out that showed that meditator's brains shifted to a happier state? I can personally confirm that this is, indeed, true.

Peace be with you!

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Chatty Lives of Bacteria

Did you know that bacteria actually talk to one another? They do, using a chemical language that was discovered by Princeton University's Bonnie Bassler. I first discovered Bonnie through her fabulous TED talk on the social lives of bacteria. Watch it here.

This photo shows a petri dish from her lab that has been swabbed with marine bacteria that glow in the dark. The bacteria glow only when enough of them are present to create a bright light. The chemical language they use to communicate and "take roll" makes all this possible.

The process these bacteria use to produce this self-organized collective action is itself an example of complexity in action. The chemicals that the bacteria give off to signal "I am here!" are called auto-inducers.

This means that the presence of the signal molecule induces more of it to be produced. This leads to a kind of "chemical amplification" of the signal, boosting its intensity as more cells enter the region.

I've recently been invited to write occasional posts for and my first article, on this very topic, went up today. Read it here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What Price For A Wetlands?

I was watching the news the other day, and there in the middle of yet another agonizing and depressing report about the catastrophic Gulf oil spill appeared a person whose name I didn't catch. All I noticed was that he was identified as "oil economist."

Here is a paraphrase of what he said: "The revenue that can be generated from the oil produced by these deep wells is much greater than the cost to the environment of one spill. It would take hundreds of oil spills like this to produce any measurable economic impact on the environment."

The reporter didn't question him or follow up on this outrageous statement. How in the world did this "oil economist" calculate the monetary worth of an entire ecosystem? I admit I'm not an economist and don't understand the arcane formulas he might have used to measure the value of intangibles, but something tells me this fellow is either being paid to say these things by somebody who will financially benefit from the sale of this oil, or he is living his life in a sealed-up ivory tower.

We are witnesses to one of the greatest ecological catastrophes of all time, and it should be obvious to all who are watching or directly experiencing this tragedy that the coast, the wetlands and the oceans themselves are valuable in ways that defy a simplistic cost-benefit analysis.

It's offensive for "oil economists" to presume to know how to calculate the value of something as vast as an ocean or as fragile and important as a wetlands. This complex system--of which we, oil producers and consumers alike, are integral components--is showing us everyday what it is like to be part of an integrated whole whose parts cannot be separated or valued separately.

How much would you pay for one clean wetlands area? How about a flock of brown pelicans? How about one healthy turtle? What is a fair price for a clean, working ecological system on which we, and the world we are a part of, depends?

There has been a lot of finger-pointing and blame-making during this incident, but I am looking in the mirror, and I urge you to do the same. How much do you spend on gas each week? How much oil do you and your family consume? Are you willing to change your lifestyle to find ways to lessen or even eliminate our dependence on a petroleum-based economy?

Several years ago, my husband and I moved to a new neighborhood. One of the reasons we chose this location is that it allowed each of us to walk or bike to work. A Metro station is a mile away (a bit of a brisk walk, but it's good exercise) and the bus line runs right outside our door. We put our cars away and often they sit, unused, for days at a time. I still use my too-large Buick to go to the grocery story and run errands, and I would like to trade it in for a hybrid, but nothing (yet) has tipped me past the point of dithering about whether or when to buy a new, more fuel-efficient car.

I've done a lot to lessen my use of petroleum, but I think I can do more. All I have to do is look at any newspaper to see another picture of the devastation wrought by this oil spill to know that I need--soon--to find an answer to this question: what price am I willing to pay for a pristine wetlands or a clean ocean?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cellular Flash Mobs

I'm fascinated by flash mobs, those seemingly spontaneous group behaviors that certain groups of humans have begun to develop lately. Consider this example, in which people agree to meet in Grand Central Station only to freeze in place, producing much confusion and delight among bystanders.

You might think that flash mobs were invented by homo sapiens and I would agree that our species has certainly perfected the art form. However, the ability to come together as a collective and carry out a pre-determined set of steps, has been going on for a long time among the lowliest of creatures: the slime mold.

Flash mobs are a form of self-organization, a spontaneous collective behavior that arises due to interactions between the parts of which a group is made. These parts can be individual cells, individual humans, or anything, really. Either way, the result can be quite wonderful.

Here is a strangely moving film, produced using old movies from the lab of Princeton University's John Bonner, showing slime mold cells (or Dictyostelium discoideum, as they are more properly know) coming together into a sort of "cellular flash mob" after sending each other sets of chemical signals. The result is extraordinary and, dare I say, inspiring:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Heart as Wide as the World

Tomorrow I head off for a weekend retreat devoted to Kirtan, or devotional chant, with Krishna Das. Here is a sample of what awaits us...

I can't listen to the line "All I want is to sing to you" without crying, so I'm taking lots of tissue.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Meditation on Psalm 46

Be Still*

Be Still
And know that I am here

Pay Attention
And know that I see you
As surely as you see Me

Be Still
See my Eyes light up the Sky
Feel my Breath in the Breeze on your face
Hear my Voice in the Thunder
Touch my Hand in the Painted Clouds
Streaked with gold, rose, azure
Smell my Memory of you in Fields of Lavender
And Hedges of Lilac

Use all your senses
And know that I am using all of Mine

Pay Attention
For Attention is the First Requirement

Your inattenion will destroy the Sacred Day
It will slip away
Unseen, Unheard, Unfelt
The Sun will set never having known
Being Known
And that will be the end of Time

Be Still
And know that I Am

And then you will know
That you Are

*I wrote this poem about five years ago, and recently unearthed it from a pile of old photos. It seemed appropriate for this Day of Pentecost...enjoy.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Fractal Fern

A friend is reading the rough draft of my book and when she got to the part about fractals and read my explanation of this basic geometry of nature, she said, "I need to see a picture!" And, then, there I was, walking through the woods and I saw this: a perfect fractal fern.

Notice how the shape of the entire fern leaf is repeated in each leaflet along its spine.
Then notice how along each of those leaflets, many small copies of this same shape are lined up along the leaflet's spine.
The self-similarity of this particular specimen is striking, down to the way the tip of the fern is still curled up a little, evoking its recent days as what's known as a fiddlehead (which, I hear, taste very good when fried in butter...but, then, most things do.)

I also like this photo because it expresses what I am feeling after a week of devotional chanting. It is very hard to put this feeling in words, but it is sort of like this: an uncurling within me, a new life that is uncoiling and extending into a larger form, one more spiritually evolved and fully developed than who I thought I was.
And, yet, still the same somehow.

That's about all I can say in words for now. Maybe more will come later, but for now I wanted to share with you this picture of the universe. Because, you see, what I found somewhere during one of those chants, is that we are all, all of us, deep down, essentially the same as the Whole of which we are a tiny part. We are one of those little leaflets on the great magnificent fern which is, in turn, slowly unfurling around us.

Monday, April 12, 2010


I've been away from Complexity Simplified for quite some time now, except for posting a few photos now and then, and the reason is that I've been busy writing someth
ing else. I've been reluctant to post much about it, though, since I suppose I was afraid I might jinx the process by admitting in public what I was doing.

But, today, all that reluctance went away when I finished the dra
ft of my book and immediately wanted to post something saying, basically: Hallelujah!

And, boy, am I tired.

I've been working on this book, all told, for over fifteen years, but the
last 3.5-month push has been the most difficult. Still much to do, including finding an agent and/or publisher, but I am celebrating tonight.

The working title of my book is "God the Great Attractor: Spiritual Wisdom from the New Science." In it, I show how I arrived at spiritual insights from the science of complex systems through a seven-year series of events that were initiated when the attractor that governed my life went through a bifurcation. There were other insights involving self-organizing systems, the fundamental importance of cycles in life, fractals, chaos and emergence.

I have written about some of these topics here and hope to write a few more
posts on the other topics. And I also hope that, someday, all of you will be able to read my actual book!

And, now, I think I'm going to go put my feet up and have a glass of wine. Cheers!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Love is Come Again

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain
Wheat that in dark earth many days had lain
Love lives again, that with the dead has been
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.*

*J. M. Campbell Crum (1872-1958)
Hymnal 1982

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.*

*from the Ash Wednesday Liturgy, Book of Common Prayer.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Circle of Time

Our intellects insist that time marches forward in a straight line, but our hearts know otherwise: time goes in a circle.

You can hear it in the way we speak: "I've come full circle," we say when the wisdom of our heart breaks through to our minds, and we know that the way things are working out is good and right.

And, of course, time does run in circles--actually layers upon layers of interconnected cycles. We find these at all levels in the physical world: the seasonal cycle, which comes from the cycle of our world around the sun, the lunar cycle that governs the tides, even multi-year cycles in the climate, such as the el Nino and la Nina oscillations in ocean temperatures.

But there are inner cycles as well, cycles in our bodies and cycles in our souls, and this deep truth is reflected in all of our religions. On Wednesday this week, Christians will enter a new phase of their own annual cycle and begin Lent, the forty-day period preceding Easter.

Lent is a penitential season and one way that liturgical churches observe this is by "putting the alleluias away" during the season. The word itself is dropped from the prayers and from the music, and unless somebody makes a mistake and bursts out in a spontaneous "Hallelujah!" it won't be heard again until Easter.

Since we will soon be putting away the alleluias and the hallelujahs, I thought I would share with you my current favorite version of this one-word hymn of praise. Many of you probably saw KD Lang perform Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" at the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

The lyrics begin like this:

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
that David played and it pleased the Lord,
but you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this:
the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah! Hallelujah, Hallelujah!

Here is an earlier rendition by KD Lang, which, with its passionate and keening quality, seems perfect for one last Hallelujah before Lent.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Most Remarkable Sound

I've been hearing an incredible sound in the last several days. I'd not heard it in all the time we've lived here, nearly seven years now.

It's the most remarkable sound in the world:
the sound of silence.

No traffic, no planes, no buses, no trains. Nothing but an occasional gust of wind, or the muffled patter of falling snow.

Silence. Nothing at all but silence.

During the day, things liven up a bit and I might hear scraping noises, as people shovel their drives and dig out their cars, or even voices as they laugh and joke with their neighbors.

But once darkness falls, and the last few souls who ventured out go back in, the silence returns.

As everybody by now has heard, Washington DC has received a tremendous amount of snow. Here in my hometown of Arlington, a close-in DC suburb, we've had 50" in the last week and a half alone.

The end of this sequence of strange storms appears to be arriving soon. Within a few hours, the storm system will move on, and the city and its people will slowly begin to recover.

Roads will be cleared, cars will be started, buses and trains will run again, and the airport will open. The silence will, slowly and surely, be replaced with the more normal sounds of this city I have come to call home.

I am already working on carefully putting away the memory of the remarkable sound I heard this past week. I'm filing that memory away in the place where I store my reserves for days that are not so silent, days that are likely to be loud and boisterous and stressful.

Those days are sure to come, and when they do, I plan to go to my reserves and find that place, the one where I've tucked away my memory of the world's most remarkable sound.

And I will listen to it again.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lessons From Haiti: What About God?

Two weeks ago today I posted a short piece about the disaster in Haiti, pointing out that this catastrophic event is not a "natural" disaster but, rather, a man-made one. In the intervening weeks, many blog posts and newspaper articles have been written about this ongoing catastrophe. Maybe it's just me, or perhaps indicative of what I choose to read, but I have been struck by how many of these posts and articles ask: what does this disaster tell us about God?

is it about the tragic events in Haiti that has generated such heated argument and debate over the nature of God? Is all this discussion traceable to one outrageous statement by a thoughtless televangelist, or is there something more about this particular disaster that has generated such agonizing and soul-searching and theologizing? Are we finally waking up to the truth? I ask this with some degree of trepidation, because I truly hope that we are.

Most of the posts and articles I've read have pointed out the obvious: the earth quaked "because" two tectonic plates rubbed up against one another and got momentarily stuck. The implication, or even the direct statement, is that nature is "morally neutral," as if we know this for a scientific fact, and that God had nothing to do with it.

But this isn't a scientific fact. We really don't know whether nature acts outside the influence of a deity, or if nature is a manifestation of the divine. To say that nature is morally neutral is to make a statement of belief.

This point can be nuanced, however, to satisfy folks on both sides of the atheist/theist divide. Richard Dawkins writes about the force of nature that led to Haiti's earthquake as "sin-free and indifferent to sin, unpremeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery." I don't know how he, a fellow scientist,
knows this. There is no scientific evidence that proves the forces of nature are "supremely unconcerned" with me or my misery.

Dawkin's statement is one of belief, not a statement of scientific fact. It is not even supported by any particular theories of science. Dawkins believes in a religion (and atheism
is a religion) and has made an entire career out of trying to get people to believe that science supports his beliefs. I fully defend his right to believe whatever he chooses, but using false characterizations of scientific fact to "prove" those beliefs puts him in good company with all our creationist brethren.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro makes essentially the same point as Dawkins, but notice how different his language choice is: "...the universe exists according to some unbreakable rules. On earth one of these rules has to do with plate tectonics: when plates shift earthquakes and tsunamis happen. There is nothing conscious or deliberate about this. It is not a punishment, a precursor to some greater blessing, or a sign of just how awesome God can be."

The Rabbi goes on to explain his own theology that God is Reality itself, manifesting in many ways: "My God is the God of Job, the whirlwind that needs no protecting, and whose revelation is always in the form of haunting questions rather than comforting answers." Although we may not agree with the Rabbi's theology, we know when he is making a statement about science, and when he is making one about his beliefs.

So, in trying to draw lessons from the ongoing disaster that continues to plague the people of Haiti, I return to the point I made two weeks ago: this earthquake became a disaster not because the earth moved, but because of Haiti's enormous social and economic problems, including a lack of modern building standards. The real lessons from this disaster are not about God, but about us.

The truth is that humankind has not applied the lessons we should have learned from the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed over 200,000 people who were caught unawares due to the lack of a tsunami warning system, the 2008 earthquake in China that killed 80,000, also largely due to poor building construction methods, the disaster associated with Hurricane Katrina that is also mostly attributable to social and economic factors, and many other disasters in so-called "undeveloped" areas of the world that most people in the US and Europe paid little attention to.

This was a man-made disaster, not a natural one. We seem to be spending a lot of time arguing about something not much different from how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while the winds continue to blow and beneath the surface, the plates continue to move, geological forces continue to build, and we move toward another situation where more people will die. Another earthquake or tornado or hurricane
will happen, but how will we respond?

God is waiting for our answer. And, yes, this is a statement of belief.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Meeting God at the Coffee Shop

I saw him at the coffee shop. I'd just placed my order and was waiting, when I turned and there he was, sitting at a table, staring out the window at the buses on the gray, rain-splattered street.

He was dressed like many of the street people in the neighborhood: a tattered shirt and jacket piled on in rumpled layers, gloves full of holes, a slouchy hat. He sat quietly, one arm resting on the table, a cup of coffee near his elbow.

I couldn't see his face, as his back was turned to me, but I was mesmerized by the unhurried sense broadcast by his slouched shoulders. His posture communicated a clear message: he had nowhere to go and nothing much to do, in sharp contrast to the other people in the shop, bustling office workers in search of their morning coffee.

I wondered about his family, whether his parents or siblings knew he was sitting there, alone and apparently homeless. I thought about my own children, both young adults and, at that moment, both unemployed and facing uncertain futures. It was December, 2008, and all over the world the economy had left lives and businesses in tatters. I wondered if my own children would, one day, be sitting at a table in a bleak coffee shop, a cold cup at their elbow, with no work and no home.

My thoughts were rather desperate: I would have to intervene, I needed to go to them, now, save them from the possibility of a life on the streets. I was overwhelmed at the magnitude of the troubles in the world, but I knew my compassion was not enough. I didn't really know how to protect my children from all the dangers in the world, and I certainly didn't know how to help the man sitting at that table.

The unease stirred up by this cascade of despair aroused something else, and the truth hit me so hard I momentarily forgot who I was. I was flooded with a strange and sudden insight, a sense of knowledge deeper than any I've ever received from a book or lecture: this man whose face I could not see, was, indeed, somebody's child. And he was loved.

In that moment, I knew this man was loved as surely as I know that I love my own children. I had heard, for years, people saying, "God loves you," and I'd nodded along, perhaps because I wanted it to be true - but until that moment, I never really knew it. The kind of faith I achieved that day in the coffee shop was not the result of a decision on my part - I had been grasped by truth, accosted by it, actually, and the source of my sudden and intense faith was the homeless man at the table.

I can now say with the kind of faith that Paul Tillich describes when he writes: "Faith is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern," that we -- all of us -- are intensely loved by God.

In that moment of deep vision, I knew that this man had been launched into his life by a source that had never intended the pain and suffering which had marked the man's short life. The only intention had been to give him the pleasure of experiencing
life, and the source of this man's life loved the man the way I love my own children - as adults, capable of making choices and deserving of my trust in their abilities, but always and forever loved, simply because they are my children.

I think a lot these days of our brothers and sisters in Haiti, and others around the world, who suffer and are in despair and I remember that man in the coffee shop. Sometimes terrible things happen, and sometimes those terrible things are the result of poor choices, our own or other people's -- but at other times they happen for no reason at all. This does not mean that we are not loved, nor does it mean that the one who gave us life does not suffer along with us in our despair.

Like the man in the coffee shop, we were all given, at our birth, the ultimate gift of life and part of that gift includes the chance to experience all the pain and suffering that is part of being alive. The man in the coffee shop showed me, just by sitting at his table, what it means to be a child of God. And what I learned was this: nothing is required of us, not even that we accept or know this truth. The love is always there, even, or especially, in those moments when we cannot feel it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti: NOT a Natural Disaster

Scientists who study disasters would agree that this week's earthquake in Haiti was not a natural disaster but, rather, a man-made one. While the initiating event was "natural," the factors that have turned this 7.0-magnitude geological event into a catastrophe are entirely human, and can be reduced to one word: poverty.

In 1983, less than 5 miles from my parent's home, an earthquake of nearly the same magnitude, a 6.9, struck beneath the peak of Mount Borah in Idaho. It was, and still is, the largest earthquake in Idaho in recorded history, but I doubt many of my readers have heard of it. The population there is small and spread-out, but property damage, even in this sparsely-populated region was over $12.5 million. There were deaths: two children, killed by falling debris as they walked to school in the nearby town of Challis.

The event was truly major, lifting the peak of Mount Borah by at least 7 feet and opening up a huge crack, nearly 300 feet wide in places, that extended the length of the entire valley. And, yet, this earthquake is not considered a major disaster because the loss of life and property was limited. We speak of the severity of disasters using a social scale, because it is really social factors that determine how bad a disaster will be.

In Haiti we are seeing, as we did with Hurricane Katrina, the profound importance of social factors in so-called "natural" disasters. Scientists have known, for years now, the role that poverty plays in creating vulnerabilities to natural hazards. In his book "Disasters by Design," well-known disaster researcher Dennis Mileti summarizes the findings of disaster research and lays out suggestions for using these insights in future planning. It is not at all clear that any of this sound scientific advice is being implemented.

Poverty, associated with poor building construction and a population's ability to withstand conditions after the extreme event, can be considered the main predictor of a disaster's severity. Susan Cutter, an expert on the influence of social factors in disasters, writes persuasively about this in an article analyzing Hurricane Katrina:

"Disasters will happen. To lessen their impacts in the future, we need to reduce our social vulnerability and increase disaster resilience with improvements in the social conditions and living standards in our cities. We need to build (and rebuild) damaged housing and infrastructure in harmony with nature and design cities to be resilient to environmental threats even if it means smaller, more livable places, and fewer profits for land and urban developers and a smaller tax base for the city."

We would do well to heed the wisdom of these disaster-research experts as we think about why the catastrophe in Haiti happened. Those who would point the finger at God as somehow "causing" this, or even those who mockingly ask "Where is your God now?" would do well to consider the central role that humanity itself has played in creating the conditions that made this catastrophe inevitable. And entirely preventable.