Friday, July 25, 2003

Putting Lessons

Golf is supposed to be a cruel game, but it is also capriciously merciful. No matter how badly you play, some of your shots will go in the hole because the idiot optimism of your club selection and the mere stupidity of your course management will sometimes combine in one golden moment with a feeble swing and geriatric nerves to produce a brilliant result. This occurs surprisingly often. If you both misread and miss hit all your putts, for example, half of them will go wildly off line but half will move in the general direction of the target because the errors counteract one another. An analogue of this mechanism operates in the occasional cases in which journalists get something right. The universal corruption of our Press is sometimes moderated by an incompetence that is equally chronic but much more erratic in its effects. Thus, as Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler website ( points out, the pundits routinely get the facts wrong when they report on the current WMD scandal. They rightly attack a deeply dishonest regime but with misunderstood particulars. Unfortunately, the golf analogy quickly breaks down, because even the worst golfer really is trying to get the ball in the hole, whereas telling the truth about the public world is not the object of the sport of journalism.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

A Memorable Fancy or Phylum and Forget ‘Em

I used to have a recurrent dream that recast the Oedipus legend in modern dress, rather in the style of the Brazilian movie about Orpheus. The only scene I remember with some clarity involved the encounter with the Sphinx, who in this version is a very cool but somewhat sinister jazz pianist, a demonic Ray Charles. The sphinx/hipster registers my approach somehow and, flashing the exaggerated grin of a blind man, lays the riddle on me, “Say, babe, at what temperature does meat keep best?” I answer instantly, “98.6°!” and win, though only for the time being.

Meat can keep for quite a while, several billion years in my case, though temperature isn’t necessarily the most critical parameter, some of my ancestors having been pretty cold fish long before they were really cool cats. The fundamental thing is the unbroken maintenance of a definable chemical tension between what is inside and what is outside. Thus life persists only so long as cells contain a lot more adenosine triphosphate than adenosine diphosphate—8 to 10 times more, I’m told. Since ATP spontaneously breaks down into ADP, only the perpetual uphill synthesis of ATP keeps everybody going. The treadmill must never be allowed to stop. It’s like the children’s pastime of seeing how long you can bounce a ball on a paddle. “A zillion and one. A zillion and two. A zillion and three. Oops!” Life also depends on a continuity of genetic information, of course; but the thermodynamic imperative is even more despotic since it rules every moment of every life.

Physicists describe the motion of things as world lines in space-time. The careers of living things form world tubes, cylinders enclosing small regions rich in energetic molecules. If we could view the Earth and its history from a fifth dimension, we would see trillions and trillions of these mostly microscopic tubes emerging from what was, presumably, a single primal mass. Many of the tubes ramify; but the overwhelming majority dead end almost immediately; and, in all probability, all the tubes end eventually. If you look very closely, you can just make out exceedingly thin tubes branching out from the rare thicker sections. A tiny fraction of these very tiny tubes connect with other tiny tubes and themselves grow into thick tubes. Despite these rare instances of joining, the overall shape of life is, as Darwin recognized, a rather bushy shrub. Topologically, the whole assembly appears to be a single volume in space-time but, because of sex, is actually multiply connected when you look at it closely.