Earth or 'the earth': What's in a Name?

Earth from Space

The observation that "language structures reality" has been made by linguists and psychologists as well as anthropologists and cultural historians for several decades. Our experience of the world—what we see or don't see, what is understood as ultimately real—is shaped by the language we use. Those of us who have only one word for "white precipitation in winter" (i.e., "snow") experience this phenomenon differently from those who have many names for it, depending upon its nature and context, such as the Inuit (Eskimos) of Alaska. Our language both reveals our worldview and reinforces certain attitudes toward life, as feminist writers have repeatedly shown. Centuries of common use notwithstanding, for many the word "man," used to refer to our species as a whole, is not experienced as inclusive of fully half of humanity.

Because language structures reality, how we refer to "the third planet out from the Sun" can make a world of difference, literally, regarding our perception and experience of it. Each of the other planets of our solar system has a proper name: Mercury, Venus, Mars, and so on. So does Earth. We do not hear people talking about "the jupiter," "the mars," or "the saturn." Why, then, do we speak of "the earth"? Here is the historical answer, in a nutshell...

Integrity Watch: Tiger Woods, Person of the Year

Dead crabs in a row

Those concerned with, interested in, or even just curious about the Big Integrity movement, Global Integrity, national integrity, political integrity, corporate integrity, family integrity, individual integrity, or any other form of "coming into, and remaining, in right relationship with reality," should read The New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Frank Rich's excellent December 19th column, titled, "Tiger Woods, Person of the Year". The evolution-oriented, integrity-minded, and anyone hoping for a healthy future should consider it essential reading.

You Want a Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral


The following, written by NPR commentator Aaron Freeman, is a gem!

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him/her that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let him/her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her/his eyes, that those photons created within her/him constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly.


Dec 1 Cancer Update: Hit by a Truck


[Dec 21 update: Blood test a few days ago revealed that I'm recovering at a really good rate. It will still takes weeks, maybe months, to get back to full strength. (I feel like an 80-85 year-old man physically, though emotionally and intellectually I'm doing fine.) But it seems that my chances of being alive in a year or longer are pretty good. My doctor is encouraged, as Connie and I are. On January 12 I go in for both a CAT scan and PET scan to determine if the cancer is gone or if radiation or surgery is still needed. I'll meet with my oncologist, Dr. Damian Green, to discuss the results of these scans and what he recommends on Thursday, January 14.] 

I've been getting in touch with my inner slug. Chemotherapy in September and October was a cakewalk. November ran over me like a truck. I’ve discovered that what they say about chemo is true, and that I am not Superman after all.

I've been in bed with a fever for most of the last month. I was admitted to the hospital a few nights ago, spent Thanksgiving receiving intravenous antibiotics, and was sent home that evening with ten days of oral antibiotics. Most days all I have energy for is laying in bed and thinking. I rarely have the energy to read or even turn on my computer (my inbox is utterly hopeless!). Given how energetic I've been my whole life, it's humbling (in a really good way) to have a month where I feel like I've got the motivation of a slug. It reminds me of a weeklong meditation retreat in 1994 with Thich Nhat Hanh.  Lots of conscious breathing and just being—paying attention at the speed of life.

Emotionally and relationally, Connie and I couldn’t be doing better. Lots of love, tenderness, touch, and Connie has been getting some major long-term projects done. You can see the results of her recent creativity HERE (items #1, "Great Story Beads", #3 "Tree Talks About Death", #4 "River of Life" curricula, and #7 "Music Videos for Church Services").

She’s amazing!

I'm scheduled for my 6th and final R-CHOP chemotherapy infusion Thursday, December 3rd.

Those of you who have recently become a “Friend of Michael and Connie”, thank you!! I promise to communicate with you personally when I have the energy to do so; hopefully soon.

Wishing everyone a joyous holiday season!

Nov 19 Cancer Update: 2 Weeks of Fever

Clouds hovering over Puget Sound

Humility is a good thing in my book and boy have I been humbled these past two weeks!  Since my last (rather rosey) update I've mostly been in bed with a fever that fluxuates between 100.0 and 101.4.  Only the last three days have i been relatively fever free. My oncologist wisely choose to move my 5th chemotherapy infusion from last Thursday, November 12, to today, November 19 (my 50th birthday).  This was wise because Dr. Green said that knocking down my immune system with chemo while my body was fighting something (flu? infection?) could be a potentially lethal combination.  If I were to develop a serious bacterial infection, I could go from feeling fine to dead in less than 48 hours.  (Certainly didn't sound like fun to me. :-)

In any event, I'm feeling really great today, and am undergoing chemotherapy as I type. 

That's all for now.  Will post again in another week or two.

October 31 Cancer Update: Tumor Shrank 60%

grand canyon arms upraised

I'm a little more than half-way through a 6-cycle R-CHOP chemotherapy regimen (I had my 4th infusion on Thursday, October 29). The CT scan that was done last Monday, October 26, showed that the tumor in my spleen has shrunk 60% since I began chemo in mid-September—and there seems to be no sign of cancer anywhere else in my body. My oncologist, Dr. Green, with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, says he still thinks I may need radiation or surgery in December or January, but the fact that the tumor has been so responsive is really good news. Also, I've had almost no negative reaction to the chemo (most days I feel wonderful), for which Connie and I are, of course, hugely grateful.

Thanks for all your continued good thoughts in our direction! 

If you've not already done so, please consider becoming a "Friend of Michael and Connie"Every little bit helps.


In trust and gratitude for all life's gifts, the excruciating and the exquisite,

~ Michael

email: Michael(AT)

5246 Mutinay Bay Rd.Freeland, WA 98249

Good and Bad Reasons for Believing, by Richard Dawkins

Connie's image of seaweed smaller

"Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever." —SAM HARRIS

NOTE: The following letter was written by Richard Dawkins, one of the world's most respected scientists. It is addressed to his daughter Juliet, who was ten years old at the time. The letter originally appeared as the last chapter of his 2003 book, A Devil's Chaplain. It is reprinted as an appendix in my book, Thank God for Evolution, by permission of the author. I included it for three reasons. First, it powerfully distinguishes the relative value today of, what I like to call, private and public revelation. Second, it provides an invaluable critique of traditional, flat-earth faith, while offering sound guidance for an evidence-based, naturalized faith. Third, it shows why scientific, historical, and cross-cultural evidence provide a far more accurate and useful map of reality than do tradition and authority.

"Good and Bad Reasons for Believing" — by Richard Dawkins

Dear Juliet,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun?

The answer to these questions is "evidence." Sometimes evidence means actually seeing (or hearing, feeling, smelling...) that something is true. Astronauts have traveled far enough from the Earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The "evening star" looks like a bright twinkle in the sky, but with a telescope you can see that it is a beautiful ball -- the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling...) is called an observation.

New Music Video Celebrates Science—and tops the charts

Symphony of Science

On October 15, "A Glorious Dawn" music video hit the 1 million view threshold on YouTube and thereby launched Carl Sagan's new singing career. Yes, SINGING career. New software (Auto-tune) made this possible, and now the younger generations are experiencing Carl as electronica music star. As evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson comments on this phenomenon, this video "shows how science can become more potent when fused with the arts."

As of October 19, "A Glorious Dawn" has become the #1 Top Rated (All Time) Music Video on YouTube, and it is the #2 Top Rated Video of any genre. That same day, musician/video-artist John Boswell launched his encore, "We Are All Connected", which features astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson singing the title line, the late Richard Feynman grooving on drums, Bill Nye the Science Guy rapping for the universe, while Carl weaves in and out of the video, his resonant voice singling him out as lead singer for this four-man band, deftly served by the back-up musicians of John Boswell, John Boswell, and John Boswell.

 PREDICTION: Within a few months, this newest emergent novelty in evolution, which John Boswell calls "Symphony of Science" (and which is, in fact, the symbiotic union of science with the arts) will be seen as doing more for turning young people onto science than all the textbooks ever published. More, it feeds their souls. As one YouTube commenter wrote, "No matter how bad things ever get for me, this video makes it all good."

UPDATE: Oct 22 Connie and I posted a new half-hour podcast on this phenomenon, titled, "Symphony of Science."

After you watch the videos (if you can pull yourself away from that activity; many people report becoming addicted to watching or listening to them), do check out the blog my wife, Connie Barlow, wrote on this phenomenon, titled "Sacred Science Music Videos: Symphony of Science". She's been communicating with the artist for the past several weeks, and he has appreciated her suggestions for more scientists to recruit into the music industry. As he told her, "I'm looking for lyrical passages by excited scientists."Connie has also been sifting through the some 5,000 posted comments on YouTube as they emerged, and has used her blog to share about a hundred of these, sorted into five categories: (1) OMG, (2) Canonizing Carl, (3) Shifting Musical Tastes, (4) Opening to Science, (5) Hope. Here are a half dozen comments on that first video:

Sacred Science Music Videos: "The Symphony of Science"

Carl Sagan

Guest post by Connie Barlow, 17 October 2009

UPDATE (Oct 19): New website by musician and videoartist JOHN BOSWELL: "The Symphony of Science", with two amazing "sacred science music videos"! BIG NEWS: Boswell's music video that features CARL SAGAN is now YouTube's "#1 TOP-RATED MUSIC VIDEO of all time!

Two days ago I watched my (to-date) all-time favorite music video hit the 1 million view mark on YouTube -- in less than a month. New software, juxtaposed with the brilliant musical artistry of someone who last month was just one of a million humans with musical aspirations, has changed the world of possibilities: possibilities for what young people will choose to listen to in the way of music, for the way science is taught and appreciated, for the prospect of millions of people finally seeing that science itself, artfully presented, can bring one to a sense of mystical oneness with the Universe/God and transform one's outlook forever. If ever any artistic work could help our species take a quantum leap toward more peaceful relations with Earth and with one another, this is it!

Okay, so here is John Boswell's brilliant remix of 3.5 minutes of Carl Sagan's classic Cosmos series, with a pinch of Hawking added to the brew.

UPDATE: Oct 22 Michael Dowd and I posted a new half-hour podcast on this phenomenon, titled "Symphony of Science." 

And if you can pull yourself away from viewing it over and over, just loop it for listening, or download the mp3 into your I-Tunes and then leisurely scroll through the comments on that video page. Wow!

Below are some of my favorite comments that viewers have posted on this video. But first, let me summarize: viewers write that they were brought to tears watching it -- indeed that they can't stop watching it ("addiction" is even mentioned). They also say that it gives them hope for the world, that it makes them want to learn more science, watch Cosmos, read more Sagan. For the young, it offers a shift in musical taste toward more uplifting themes. So here we go, Connie's picks of comments, grouped by category:

Fixing the Gallup Poll on Human Origins

Stephans Quintet galaxies 2

In the Appendix of The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, which I reviewed here, Richard Dawkins talks about a notorious Gallup poll, conducted in America periodically since 1982, on the question of human origins. I say "notorious" because whenever this poll is discussed, complaints invariably arise. You see, by confusing mythic with measurable language, the questions force people into camps which do not, in fact, reflect the views of many—perhaps most—Americans on the subject. I propose to fix to this problem by offering a fourth question.

Currently, the sample of national opinion on the question of our origins is worded this way (with the 2008 percentages of the American population supposedly holding each position represented in parentheses after the question):

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?

1.  Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the process. (36%)

2.  Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in the process. (14%)

3.  God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so. (44%)

All of the above confuse mythic-meaningful religious language with factual-measurable scientific language (in my book I call this crucial distinction night language and day language; see links below). By distinguishing rather than collapsing these two ways of speaking, the following question would, I believe, much more accurately reflect what many Americans and others around the world hold to be true:

4.  Human beings emerged naturally from a long process of physical and biological creativity that can be spoken of religiously as "God's creation" or scientifically as "evolution". 

I predict that when Gallup or any other reputable polling organization incorporates a question like #4 into their survey of opinions about human origins, the national and international news media will see it as a story worthy of wide and prominent coverage. Why? Because the results will not only evidence a radical shift in the creation vs. evolution debate in America, but the reporting of such will also stimulate fresh conversation on the subject of science and religion around the world.

Here's an analogy some may find helpful...

Poseidan is widely known in Greek mythology as "the god of the seas". What is less known, however, is that for perhaps millions of people Poseidon was a powerful, meaningful (i.e., mythic) personification of the seas. He was not merely some trivial, unnatural entity who managed or ruled the oceans from on-high or down-below.

But over time, as stories of Poseidon's adventures proliferated and were passed from generation to generation, and as people confused night language for day language by taking the poetry literally, they forgot Poseidon was a personification and began thinking of him as objectively real, rather than subjectively real. That's when this god began to die—that is, lose influence. Why? Because these "sacred stories" were no longer aligned with reality—either objective reality or subjective reality!

So, given this little bit of "Theology 101" as background...

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of squid.

  • 1.  Squid came into being over millions of years from less advanced forms of marine life, but Poseidan guided the process.
  • 2.  Squid came into being over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but Poseidon had no part in the process.
  • 3.  Poseidon created squid pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.
  • 4.  Squid emerged naturally from a long process of physical and biological creativity that can be spoken of mythically as "Poseidon's creation" or scientifically as "evolution".

ALSO SEE (or hear):

Preface to the paperback edition of Thank God for Evolution
God is a Personification, Not a Person
Reality: God's Secular Name
Are God and Satan Real? 
God as a Personification of Undeniable Reality
Podcast: The New Atheists as God's Prophets