the ancients believed that the earth was the back of an elephant that stood on a tortoise that swam in a bottomless sea. Of course, what held up the sea was another question. They did not know the answer.

The belief of the ancients was the result of imagination. It was a poetic and beautiful idea. Look at the way we see it today. Is that a dull idea? The world is a spinning ball, and people are held on it on all sides, some of them upside down. And we turn like a spit in front of a great fire. We whirl around the sun. That is more romantic, more exciting. And what holds us? The force of gravitation, which is not only a thing of the earth but is the thing that makes the earth round in the first place, holds the sun together and keeps us running around the sun in our perpetual attempt to stay away. This gravity holds its sway not only on the stars but between the stars; it holds them in the great galaxies for miles and miles in all directions.

This universe has been described by many, but it just goes on, with its edge as unknown as the bottom of the bottomless sea of the other idea–just as mysterious, just as awe-inspiring, and just as incomplete as the poetic pictures that came before.

But see that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. No one who did not have some inkling of this through observations could ever have imagined such a marvel as nature is.

Or the earth and time. Have you read anywhere, by any poet, anything about time that compares with real time, with the long, slow process of evolution? Nay, I went too quickly. First, there was the earth without anything alive on it. For billions of years this ball was spinning with its sunsets and its waves and the sea and the noises, and there was no thing alive to appreciate it. Can you conceive, can you appreciate or fit into your ideas what can be the meaning of a world without a living thing on it? We are so used to looking at the world from the point of view of living things that we cannot understand what it means not to be alive, and yet most of the time the world had nothing alive on it. And in most places in the universe today there probably is nothing alive.

Or life itself. The internal machinery of life, the chemistry of the parts, is something beautiful. And it turns out that all life is interconnected with all other life. There is a part of chlorophyll, an important chemical in the oxygen processes in plants, that has a kind of square pattern; it is a rather pretty ring called a benzine ring. And far removed from the plants are animals like ourselves, and in our oxygen-containing systems, in the blood, the hemoglobin, there are the same interesting and peculiar square rings. There is iron in the center of them instead of magnesium, so they are not green but red, but they are the same rings.

The proteins of bacteria and the proteins of humans are the same. In fact it has recently been found that the protein-making machinery in the bacteria can be given orders from material from the red cells to produce red cell proteins. So close is life to life. The universality of the deep chemistry of living things is indeed a fantastic and beautiful thing. And all the time we human beings have been too proud even to recognize our kinship with the animals.

Or there are the atoms. Beautiful–mile upon mile of one ball after another ball in some repeating pattern in a crystal. Things that look quiet and still, like a glass of water with a covered top that has been sitting for several days, are active all the time; the atoms are leaving the surface, bouncing around inside, and coming back. What looks still to our crude eyes is a wild and dynamic dance.

And, again, it has been discovered that all the world is made of the same atoms, that the stars are of the same stuff as ourselves. It then becomes a question of where our stuff came from. Not just where did life come from, or where did the earth come from, but where did the stuff of life and of the earth come from? It looks as if it was belched from some exploding star, much as some of the stars are exploding now. So this piece of dirt waits four and a half billion years and evolves and changes, and now a strange creature stands here with instruments and talks to the strange creatures in the audience. What a wonderful world!

Or take the physiology of human beings. It makes no difference what I talk about. If you look closely enough at anything, you will see that there is nothing more exciting than the truth, the pay dirt of the scientist, discovered by his painstaking efforts.

In physiology you can think of pumping blood, the exciting movements of a girl jumping a jump rope. What goes on inside? The blood pumping, the interconnecting nerves–how quickly the influences of the muscle nerves feed right back to the brain to say, “Now we have touched the ground, now increase the tension so I do not hurt the heels.” And as the girl dances up and down, there is another set of muscles that is fed from another set of nerves that says, “One, two, three, O’Leary, one, two, …” And while she does that, perhaps she smiles at the professor of physiology who is watching her. That is involved, too!

And then electricity. The forces of attraction, of plus and minus, are so strong that in any normal substance all the plusses and minuses are carefully balanced out, everything pulled together with everything else. For a long time no one even noticed the phenomenon of electricity, except once in a while when they rubbed a piece of amber and it attracted a piece of paper. And yet today we find, by playing with these things, that we have a tremendous amount of machinery inside. Yet science is still not thoroughly appreciated.


The tree is up and the lights are on and it’s beautiful. Vince Guaraldi Trio’s back in the CD player. I’ve been boiling some orange peel and nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves with a little oil and the house smells fantastic. The star from last year made it through storage more-or-less unscathed, which is good, because my ambitious plans to recreate it in tin or copper have fallen by the wayside as the year has begun to slip away from us.

I love thinking about the way the smell of orange peel works, the way the little organic molecules attach themselves to oil or to water vapor and find themselves excited by the heat and kicked up into the air, wandering around at random until some of them end up in my nose, where they lock into my cilia and trigger my neurons and I smell orange and nutmeg and the surges of electricity that course through my brain set off chain reactions that release hormones and access memories and it’s amazing, how boiling water can fill you with emotion, how you can turn a dial on a stove and it’s connected, physically, to your brain’s storehouse of nostalgia.

It didn’t even occur to me that putting out Christmas stuff would be different this year–I mean, Violet was here last year. She was fascinated by the ornaments. “Ball” is one of her favorite words, so she was loving the plain ones, and I have three little Nerf guns that I bring out at Christmas (sort of a long story), and she thought those were pretty great, too.

There’s nothing quite like sitting on the floor with your kid, unpacking Christmas ornaments. Love to you all.