Monday, July 7, 2014


July 7 is Robert Heinlein's birthday. Mine too, but I only got two of the 7s --Heinlein got the full boat: 7/7/07.

I don't believe the trip-7 birth date played any part in the great successes and frequent bits of luck Heinlein enjoyed throughout his life, but I don't deny how lucky -- as well as skilled, and prepared to take advantage of luck when it raised its head  -- a man Heinlein was. That luck now includes, quarter century after Heinlein's death, his biographer,

Unfortunately, William H. Patterson's luck was not so good, nor his life so long as his subject's: Patterson died on April 22, barely six weeks before the publication of the concluding volume of his authorized biography of Heinlein. The irony that this honorable, earnest man who devoted decades (literally) of his life  to documenting Heinlein's, didn't live to see his work appear in print is beyond bitter.

Patterson's two-volume (two long volumes) biography is undoubtedly the most exhaustive examination of a science fiction writer's life we are likely to see. (At that, it's still shorter -- far! -- than Isaac Asimov's autobiographies, but those are a different matter). It's hard to think of another SF writer whose influence on both the SF field and the larger culture -- including political culture -- would justify an undertaking of this sort. Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke -- who along with Heinlein made up the "Big Three" of science fiction for most of the second half of the Twentieth Century, and who each exerted large and influential effects on the culture, didn't have the effect on science fiction that Heinlein had, nor did their millions of readers become followers in the way that so many of Heinlein's did. Patterson's thousand pages is likely to hold the heavyweight crown for SF writer biographies for a good while, if not forever.

That's a quantitative crown of course -- girth alone does not a great biography make, and Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century is not a great biography. It is a good one -- within certain limits that become obvious fairly early in the first volume  -- but falls well short of greatness as a result of both its lack of selectivity and Patterson's inflexible devotion to his subject's greatness.The very occasional -- one could accurately say rare, and almost accurately say insignificant -- examples of Heinlein displaying feet of clay, or flaws of character are swept away in the cascade (upon cascade) of Patterson pointing out that others' pointing out of his subject's literary flaws are invariably cases of the critics' failure to understand Heinlein's art.

This isn't an uncommon response from Heinlein fans. Heinlein's great gifts as a writer included an  ability to craft (sic) an authoritative narrative voice that said this is the way the world works, and here are the ways in which you can work with it, through it, or around it, all while telling compellingly, even compulsively, readable stories. For many readers Heinlein became teacher, mentor, prophet, guru -- roles which Heinlein himself disliked and made no claim to, but which to which Patterson seems to subscribe.

While the effect of Patterson's condescension -- and in some places bitch-in-the-manger snarling -- toward legitimate critics and criticisms of his subject is unfortunate throughout the biography, and becomes a major flaw in the chapters covering the final decades -- and period of greatest cultural influence -- of Heinlein's life. Those decades -- 1958 to 1988 -- saw the publication of Heinlein's great trilogy (in a loose sense) of ideas: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, as well as some of his weakest and most controversial books, including Farnham's Freehold, I Will Fear No Evil, The Number of the Beast, and his final novel, to Sail Beyond the Sunset. Each novel from Mistress on displayed a gathering (sic) diminution of powers and narrative control, which Patterson cites as artistic ambition misunderstood by the critics (and some fans).

Certainly Heinlein was a far more conscious and experimental artist than his aw-shucks corn pone public posture of "I'm just a paid clown" would imply.  Patterson is good on Heinlein's commitment to extending his art and craft, but typically goes too far in places. Comparing Heinlein's concerns in the deeply flawed I Will Fear No Evil to Nabokov's in the masterful (and contemporaneous) Ada strikes me as justification/apology raised to about as absurd a level as possible.

Setting such flaws aside, Patterson's ability -- and willingness -- to track down facts, anecdotes, observations (many of them from Heinlein's voluminous correspondence, but many not) is nothing less than astonishing, and the result is a storehouse of chronology and incident and documentation that will serve both future scholars and Heinlein fans well for, well, ever. Like Carlos Baker's biography of Ernest Hemingway, Patterson's book is strongest in its cataloging and organization of the facts of Heinlein's life and career. The footnotes, which occupy more than 100 pages at the close of the first volume, more than 150 at the back end of the second, make fascinating and illuminating reading.There is much to be learned from these books about Heinlein's career and accomplishments; less to be learned about the fully-rounded man. The biography of that man is the biography I would most love to read.

But the biography I would most love to read is not the biography William H. Patterson set out to write. And the biography he wrote is, approached as chronology and catalog, not interpretation or analysis, is an impressive achievement. Patterson is to be commended (if not in a literary sense) for his devotion to detail and scrupulousness of fact-gathering. Tor is to be commended for publishing the books so handsomely (although Patterson's biographical squib in the  Kindle edition shows him as living; surely this could easily be corrected.) Reading between the lines of Patterson's blogs and forum comments, editor David Hartwell is to be commended for handling an evidently very prickly biographer with grace and firmness, and helping Patterson find and carve out the two massive volumes that we have.

Robert Heinlein was, and remains, a significant American writer, vital and central to science fiction, and whose influence and reach extended far beyond the boundaries of the field. He was an artist of no little ability, although less than Patterson thinks, and remained to the end of his life passionately interested in the world's cultures and their evolution/devolution.

Heinlein is still read today -- including by me; I have admired his work and enjoyed his books (including some of the awful ones) since I was a child, and have no doubt that I will continue to reread his work -- and learn from it -- for the rest of my life. His accomplishments are vast and important. His late literary failures remain readable and, indeed, introduced his work -- and by extension science fiction -- to audiences far larger than the field's core fans.

Is it a life worthy of a two-volume biography? Hard to say, at least for me. I find Heinlein fascinating, and say the same about this biography. There's too much of it, of course, and at that, the biography was substantially cut, according to comments Patterson made in his blog. At one point, there was some discussion between David G. Hartwell, the biography's editor, and Patterson about splitting the second volume and making it a three-volume biography.

I think the right decision was made.

I would say the same, caveats noted, about the choice, made by Heinlein's widow,  of Heinlein's first biographer.

William H. Patterson -- rest in the peace. The job you chose to do is a job well done.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


One of the state's mammoth problems, anyway.

This is one of those stories where a plucky, smart elementary school student -- in this case an eight-year-old third grader named Olivia McConnell -- gets caught up in the sheer excitement of science that she writes a letter to a public figure, seeking to enlist official aid in celebrating and sharing the joy of learning.

Good for Olivia! We have always had smart and fearless children among us, but we've never had enough of them, and we never can.

In Olivia's case, the cause was getting her state, South Carolina, to designate a state fossil, something that more than three dozen other states have done. (Not, oddly enough -- or maybe not -- North Carolina, the state where I was born and lived for much of my life. The state fossil for Virginia, where I live now, is a fossil scallop.

Olivia's fascination with -- and obvious study of -- paleontology led her to nominate theo fill the role of South Carolina State Fossil. As she pointed out in her letter to her representatives in both the South Carolina House and Senate, mammoth teeth found by slaves in a South Carolina swamp in 1725 were the first vertebrate fossils found in North America.

Impressed with the letter -- which closed:"your friend, Olivia" -- the representatives filed bills in their respective chambers, legislation which would designate the Columbian mammoth (a less hirsute species than the more familiar woolly mammoth) as the official state fossil.

Early this year, as the bills worked their way through committee, Olivia was reported to be both pleased with the results her initiative was producing, and tracking the progress of the bills through the legislative progress, adding knowledge of the workings of government to her knowledge of the workings of the past. You can't stop a kid like Olivia from learning, and who would want to?

Some members of the South Carolina legislature, evidently.

Over the course of the last few weeks she's been able to add lessons about another kind of fossil -- fossilized beliefs and the walking fossils who promote them and seek to inflict them on their constituencies (and everyone else)-- to her her arsenal of knowledge.  

The simple and straightforward official fossil bill ran into unexpected -- although probably it shouldn't have been a surprise -- resistance from one of those proponents of fossilized beliefs, State Senator Kevin Bryant insisted that the following words be added to the bill:

"And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, the cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good."

As I said, probably should have seen this coming.

While the bulk of the biblical verse was ultimate removed, the senator did manage to have the bill amended so that each mention of the word "mammoth" included the phrase, "as created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field." The amended version passed the Senate, and is now, evidently, back in committee for reconciliation with the House bill, which passed without language referencing a creator.

Among the many distressing things about this story and its implications is the thought that Kevin Bryant is hardly alone in feeling it appropriate for legislation to include biblical explanations for scientific facts. One wonders what his response would be to the facts, as paleontology knows them,  of the Columbian mammoths' extinction, some 7,800 years ago. The youngest known fossil of the species is 7,800 years or so old, and was found in Tennessee (a state that does have an official fossil -- a Cretaceous bivalve -- and evidently managed to designate it as such with recourse to biblical justification).

Deeply held beliefs and the faiths upon which they rest can be lovely things. But to inject those personal beliefs, and their creation myths, into legislation is not only inappropriate, it's wrong, and it's dangerous.

Choosing to believe in a creator who worked wonders in six days is one thing -- insisting that that creator be credited in a state law is something else altogether. It represents the same sort of thinking that leads some legislators and other officials -- some of them in South Carolina for sure, but plenty of them throughout the rest of the country, too -- to insist on teaching evolution as unproven, or as an insufficient explanation for how life developed.

Wearing only slightly less fundamentalist clothing is the Intelligent Design nonsense, which some seek to have taught as science, proving that they either bend the nature of science to suit their own personal beliefs (and the faiths on which those beliefs rest)-- or their inability to cope with or to comprehend real evolutionary science.

This sort of thinking -- that beliefs should be taught not only alongside knowledge, but also as knowledge and, frankly, in opposition to real knowledge -- is becoming all too common, and risks becoming a, you will pardon the expression, mammoth threat to science education, not to mention the role and posture of science as reflected in legislation.

I have no idea what Olivia McConnell believes about the origins of life and their development, nor is it any of my business. But I do believe that her earnest, polite, and well-reasoned  attempt to recognize and officially acknowledge a real fossil deserved better than to run into, and possibly be run over by, legislators who think that their beliefs are the only beliefs, that their faith and their religious text is absolute truth.

Too bad it's the mammoth, a noble creature, that's extinct, and not the anti-scientific attitudes of some decidedly less than noble legislators.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


Most of the buzz generated over the last few days by the latest National Science Foundation study of the state of science understanding in America has, predictably and regrettably, split along party lines.

One side is breathlessly letting everyone know that a sizable percentage of the other side (from their perspective) doesn't know that the earth revolves around the sun.

The other side has been pretty silent about this new study, although there continues to be plenty of rattling on, as there has been for a long while, about how large a portion of the other side (from their perspective) doesn't believe in evolution.

The sheer vindictive, triumphant glee expressed in pointing out just how stupid the other side is, how ignorant, how ill-informed, threatens to drown out the vastly more important point.

But if you listen carefully, that sound you hear is the sound of both sides missing the point.

It's the sound of American Crazy! and it can be heard over the cant and invective and  name-calling, but you have to work at it.

Neither side, as nearly as I can tell, is talking about what's really going on here. Which is, simply, that far too many Americans aren't in possession of some of the most basic knowledge of science our species possesses. There's no excuse for this, and plenty of blame to cover both sides of the political divide.

Just goes to show that American Crazy! has no respect for party lines.

Nor should it. Foolish is foolish, whatever lever gets pulled in the voting booth.

But in a country where a noticeable portion of what passes for major network news broadcasts have focused on the Academy Awards the last few days, we probably shouldn't be surprised.

It would be nice to see a spot survey take right now, posing the same questions about science, but adding an equal number of questions about the Oscars. Bet you can guess which half of the survey would have the higher percentage of correct answers.

Even better:  Let's have the NSF present the same survey to members of Congress, as well as the Judicial and Executive branches of the government! (Then again, maybe not -- those results might well be even worse!)

To be fair, the study, taken in 2012, points out that the levels of incorrect answers about basic science have remained fairly constant over the past quarter century.  

(The article linked to immediate above also points out that the survey posed very general questions about beliefs rather than knowledge, something I'll have much more to say about in upcoming posts.)

Not that any of this should offer any comfort, and it doesn't.

But American crazy! is about a lot of things. Among them the unwillingness to give up confidence in the power of reason, the benefits of education, the virtues of realism, and the eventual ability of all of the above, along with a healthy leavening of skepticism and commonsense, to overcome foolishness and ignorance, not to mention blinders (whatever party is wearing them).

So: The sun will come up tomorrow (as a result, believe it or not, of one more day's worth of distance traveled around around it) and we have evolved (no matter what some people think) to the point where we can start rectifying the gaps and the levels of, to be blunt, if self-promoting, American Crazy! that this survey puts on display.

Can't we?

Thursday, February 13, 2014


So: Are the deaths of Shirley Temple and Sid Caesar the second and third -- with Phlip Seymour Hoffman holding down first place --in the latest  "celebrity deaths travel in threes" sweepstakes (or curse!)  that some people believe in?

Or, Shirley Temple having shuffled off more than a week after Hoffman, are she and Sid the kickoff for new trio, with third-base player yet to be designated?

Depends on how you look at the "comes (or, more precisely, 'goes') in threes" craziness. I've always heard that for the triad of Big Name Deaths to be official, the deaths have to occur within a week. (Never have heard, by the way, just who it is who decides on whether or not a dead star belongs to a ghostly trio.)

In a good look at this silliness,  taken by Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon a few years ago, Williams took the position that the "deaths should come within a close time span." In which case put three mourning bands on your sleeve: one each for Hoffman, Temple, and Caesar.

But if the one-week rule time-span applies, the Hoffman died alone, and Temple and Caesar are awaiting the arrival of the final member of their threesome.

This particular variety of American Crazy has it roots, according to Williams and others, in the deaths in a plane crash, on Feb.,3, 1959, of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the "Big Bopper" (aka J.P. Richardson). That would seem to set both a tragic and also pretty high bar for celebrity death proximity. Hard to imagine "a close time span" getting much closer than theirs.

But while you can make a list, and a fairly long one, of musicians killed in plane crashes, that sort of thing doesn't have a lot of appeal for the numerology crowd who count fallen stars by threes. The pattern there has a lot more to do with the planes than the fact that the passengers included musicians.

For this sort of thing is all about pattern-finding. And then superimposing something /mystical/supernatural/conspiratorial/inexplicable/choose-your-own-description to "explain" the perceived congruence.

I'm far from the first to make this point -- Williams makes it well in her article, and countless others have been saying similar things for as long as people have detected patterns where there really are none.Not that those explanations every seen to take hold.

What does take hold, to a powerful degree, is the role of celebrity in our culture, and the amount of media attention given to celebrity deaths. When those deaths involve big names -- and in their times there were none bigger than Shirley Temple and Sid Caesar -- the media attention skyrockets. Add a tragic element and relatively young age, as with Philip Seymour Hoffmanm, and the attention not only skyrockets, but also lingers. News shows and sites were still talking about Hoffman's death, when Temple's, and the Caesar's, times came.

It';s all just coincidence, of course, no pattern at all. One wishes for Sid Caesar's professor character to come back, if only for a moment or two, to explain it all:

Und for ze true nature of ze pattern to be revealed, you musht be zertain to understood zat ze zelebrities deaths must first and foremost come at ze END of zeir lives!

 Caesar would do it better than that -- far!.

But of course, if he did come back for that last curtain call, his presence on the stage would kick off a far larger, and more important, discussion than the lack of patterns in the deaths of celebrities.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


A procative, thoughtful essay on the late John Mack appeared recently on aeon, and is a fine reminder of this curious and in some ways troubled man, and the curious and in many ways troubled nature of his most famous -- and infamous -- work.

Dr. Mack (he was an M.D.) does not seem to be widely remembered today, but there was time in the early 1990s when he attracted quite  a bit of attention for what he insisted was a serious scientific investigation of the alien abduction phenomenon.

Dr. Mack's  bona fides were about as good as they get: He won a  Pulitzer Prize for his biography of T. E. Lawrence, was a psychiatrist and member of the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, the author of dozens of peer-reviewed papers, a recognized expert on childhood identity formation..

And he was fascinated by matters that people possessing such respected credentials and academic positions aren't supposed to be fascinated by.

As Alexa Clay points out in her essay, Mack paid a heavy price for approaching abductees -- experiencers -- with absolute seriousness and a fairly high level of scientific rigor. At least in public; Clay relates that in private Dr. Mack was far more credulous when discussing the possibility that the experiencers he interviewed had actually been abducted by actual aliens.

But public circumspection only goes so far, particularly when one's investigations include hypnotic regressions of abductees, just the sort of thing that attracts a lot of often lurid  media attention. Dr. Mack was investigated by a committee convened by the dean of the medical school.

I'll let Clay tell you the whole story via the aeon essay which I link to again here  -- her piece is quite good and also quite touching. But the points she makes about Dr. Mack's insistence that we investigate phenomena, that we open our minds to possibilities of perception, are good ones, whether one agrees with Mack or not.

It's no news to anyone who knows me that I don't believe in the presence of extraterrestrials among us. When OMNI launched its intensive investigation of the UFO phenomenon, and did so with an overtly skeptical, but willing to be be proved wrong, perspective, we caught it from both sides. The UFO believers thought we were stacking the deck against them, and the scientific community thought that it was sign that I'd gone over to the "dark side."

In fact, it was neither. What we were trying to do over the course of several issues, was to bring journalistic and investigative tools to bear on a phenomenon that deserved to treated seriously, if only because so many people do believe it.

I still don't believe that we have been visited, that the greys have walked among us and, in some cases, probed within us. But I continue to be fascinated by the phenomenon, and by all of the unexplained phenomena, unusual occurrences, and, outré and, well, outright weird belief systems and explanations of the universe that continue to thrive and even proliferate in a world more than well-equipped with the tools of science and rationalism.

Those tools, I believe, not only can be brought to bear on unexplained or paranormal or supernatural experiences and incidents, they should be, and more often than they are.

I am confident enough in the ability of those tools of rational, evidence and verification and reproducibility-based --  inquiry,which are the most effective tools our species has ever developed, and which get better all the time, o find the reality at the heart of the so-called mysteries that I would like to see more investigations, not fewer.

That's why I'm so glad that Alexandra Clay shared her memories of Dr. John E. Mack, investigator.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


The twenty minutes (if that) of media attention paid to last month's crop circle stunt is a reminder that enthusiasm for "unexplained" phenomena that once fascinated and even captivated large numbers of people can pass.

While there remains a substantial shelf of books purporting to explain the circles and their generally extra-terrestrial or otherworldly creators, and a vocal if not large audience for such books and related materials, the circles seem to have faded from the general public's sphere of interest.

From my perspective this is of course a good thing. The less interest the public has in swallowing the easily explained so-called mysterious phenomena that, uh, crop up from time to time the better.

Yet I felt a certain, if somewhat cynical, wistfulness when the circle near Chualar, California provoked little more than yawns when the story of its "discovery" broke in early January.

Of all the unexplained -- at least to those who don't understand them -- phenomena that have flared and faded over the past half-century, crop circles were my favorite.

For one thing, the crop circles, most of them long-since admitted to be hoaxes by the hoaxers themselves, were lovely, some of them strikingly so.One writer went so far as to identify them as "An Art of our Time." 

For another, they were more benevolent -- other than to the crops their creation crushed -- than most supposed extraterrestrial or otherworldly visitations. No abductions, no bodily probes -- just complex patterns in the wheat and corn fields.

Sure, some people interpreted them as dire warnings from beyond our world, but mostly the circles were enigmatic, open to aesthetic appreciation as well plenty of pretty nutty speculation.

While circles have become blasé in the general press -- the stories I saw were off the front page and well below the fold in newspapers, and metaphorically about the same on the TV news -- there's still a fairly frothy crop circle culture out there, ready to point out that the Nvidia hoax was:

  • a part of the larger conspiracy to make crop circles blasé and thus hide their true purpose from humanity 
  • could not have possibly been created by humans in the first place 
  • was plowed under almost immediately in order to hide confirmation of one of the above
  • you get the picture

But most of the posts and comments and threads I've seen regarding the Chualar cricle were desultory at best, and verged on (or beyond) parody at worst.

The time of the crop circle as focal point for public attention, not to mention vast energies from beyond this our world, would seem to be past.

Nvidia's PR-prompted crop circle was a clever idea that would probably have gotten more attention than it did if it had just come along fifteen or twenty years sooner.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


So tonight Bill Nye, the Science Guy (and a good guy he is) will be debating Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum. The topic: Evolution versus Creation.


For reasoning people, the matter is beyond debate. Evolution over time -- and the understanding that the  theory itself is constantly refined and thus more clearly understood over time as a result of scientific investigation -- is a fact. It is, in fact, the central fact of life on earth. I am confident that we will discover when (and if) we ever find any, that evolution is the central fact of life elsewhere in the universe. In the scientific community, and among the scientifically educated populace, when it comes to the validitry of evolution, there is no debate.

So, again why have one?

I think that Bill Nye, whom I admire, and whom I met a few times when I was editing OMNI, holds a deep and serious concern for the state oif scientific education and scientific literacy in this country. And he is right -- this is, after all, the country that is home to the Creation Museum, which uses all of the tools of museum display and presentation to show its quarter of a million annual visitors the "truth" of Biblical Creation.

The Science Guy's chances of persuading any believers in that fundamentalist "truth" of the facts of evolution as it is understood it are small to nonexistent. Biblical fundamentalism does not welcome, and often does not permit, debate. Believers in absolute truths are limited by the nature of their beliefs -- rational argument does not apply to them, because their beliefs do not rest upon anything like the rational system of thought that is the fundament of real science.  

But Bill Nye is a showman -- and a good one -- as well as a champion of science education, and I suspect he thinks that tonight's debate will be a good show.

I fear that he is going to be proved wrong, no matter how clearly and effectively he sets out his evidence and makes his points.

The debate is taking place at Ham's facility, which Ham calls a museum, as if it were one, and at Ham's invitation.

By giving this palace of foolishness whatever credibility as a venue for rational discussion his presence confers, Nye risks accomplishing the opposite of what he is setting out to do.

The investment, the architecture, the technology, the care with which the crazinesses of this so-called, self-titled, museum are presented in the same manner as real science museums present their own real, and actually evidence-based, exhibits all serve to paint creationism, and belief in the Biblical account of creation as a scientifically legitimate exploration of our past.

Children, one can easily imagine, would love the place, and come away convinced that the nonsense it contains is a valid explanation of the world which they will inherit.

And because the trappings and the cosmetics and the stagecraft of the place are effective with the gullible, and because as much as a third of our population is gullible, the prospect of Bill Nye failing to make points with the facility's founder on the founder's stage is not pleasant.

But one wishes Nye well. He is fighting the good fight for the cause of science and rationalism, of evidence and investigation and the fact of evolution.

He's just fighting it on the wrong stage tonight.


NOTE: The debate will be streamed live tonight, but I am not providing a link. In order to view the stream you have to give your email address, and it';s unclear who is collecting those addresses, and what will be done with them. The link is easy enough to find on your own, of course.

If you do visit the signup page for the live stream, don't miss the DVDs and other capture of the debate being shilled across the bottom of the page. Some money is going to be made from tonight's event, and I hope that, at least, Bill Nye gets some of it.