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The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe Hardcover – March 1, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Raymo (An Intimate Look at the Night Sky), a physicist at Stonehill College, agrees with Walt Whitman that "there is a sense in which the least thing contains the all." The least things in Raymo's universe occur on a one-mile path he has walked every day for 37 years between his home and his office in North Easton, Mass. Along this path that he knows so well, he writes, "every pebble and wildflower has a story to tell"-geological stories, environmental stories, human stories. Raymo uses each ecologically distinct portion of his path as a starting point for one of those tales. He is at his best when he relates the tale of the path itself, how it was constructed by the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted as part of an estate for the great-grandson of shovel magnate Oliver Ames. The beginning of the path at the end of a suburban street provides the opportunity to discuss the origin of the village of North Easton at the close of the 18th century: the small Queset Brook supplying the power needed to run the factory that would dominate the village for a century and a half. As the path meanders from woods to open fields, from gardens to water meadow, Raymo discusses ecological relationships, the nature of DNA, basic geology and contemporary environmental concerns. Although always interesting , Raymo's stories are less compelling and more superficial the further afield he goes. But this slim, lovingly written volume helps readers become more observant of the natural portions of their world. 8 b&w illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Scientific American
"For thirty-seven years I have walked the same path back and forth each day from my home in the village of North Easton, Massachusetts, to my place of work, Stonehill College. The path takes me along a street of century-old houses, through woods and fields, across a stream, along a water meadow, and through an old orchard and community gardens." Raymo, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College and a science writer at the Boston Globe, walks with an observant eye and a ruminative mind. The stream, which in the 19th century powered the machines of the Ames Shovel Company, leads him into a discussion of gravity. Similarly prompted by what he sees, Raymo discusses engagingly such topics as photosynthesis, geology and evolution. The path so intimately familiar to him runs for barely more than a mile, "but the territory it traverses is as big as the universe."
Editors of Scientific American
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And from Raymo's musings, we see the history of the Stonehill region come to life and how it has shaped the lives of generations of people, the flora/fauna and the "natural" landscape with special attention to the early entrepreneurs who most influenced the region, their motivations of nation building, personal wealth and the current display of their legacies.
We get an over-view of geologic transformations, biological processes, and the building blocks of all physical manifestations through the coding of DNA strands. The interconnectedness of all life and our tinkering with nature resulting in such side-effects and backlashes as global warming and broken down natural resource distribution cycles.
From the wintertime stroll, we get observations of: "The tiny six-pointed snowflake is, on a deeper level, a buzzing hive of molecular vibrations. And so, too, the lush diversity of life in the water meadow, examined more closely, resolves itself into a fandango of dancing molecules. The seen is a mask for the unseen. Our eyes open at birth to a flood of photons, but we must learn to see." (p. 146)
The careful observations of nature in action through all four seasons from a stroll on this path creates a summation of our evolving human relation to life on the planet in such thoughts as: "Knowledge once gained cannot be unlearned, and knowledge is power. For better or worse, the future of the planet has been handed to us, not by a deity but by fate. Stewardship of other creature is in our hands." "...an understanding of the ecological wholeness of the Earth suggest that our altruism should extend to other creatures, too: plants, animals, even microbes." And, "Environmental conservation-clean water and air, a steady climate- is in the interest of our species." (p. 171)
This is a beautiful melding of the thoughts and observations of such greats as the sociobiologist, E. O. Wilson, "The Future of Life", Thomas Berry, "The Dream of the Earth", et al. who are all in unison with the profound need for humanity to seriously embrace an ethic of life stewardship for the survival of our beautiful blue planet Earth. Thank you again, Prof. Chet Raymo!
nature and science you'll like this very much.
And he is broad in these ruminations:
"Although bluebirds are again thriving at Sheep Pasture, malaria continues to be the world's biggest killer of children. Since the withdrawal of DDT for malaria control in South Africa, cases of the disease have quadrupled. Many public health officials now call for renewed use of DDT in certain malaria-ridden parts of the globe, at least until a vaccine or genetic fix comes along. Did Silent Spring save songbirds in New England and put babies at risk in Mozambique. Our technological interventions in nature usually involve a muddy moral arithmetic" (p. 128).
"A tiny fraction of the Sun's energy falls upon the Earth's oceans and evaporates water molecules into the air. It takes about 1,000 calories of energy for the Sun to evaporate a thimbleful of water from the sea; each thimbleful of water in the atmosphere represents 1,000 calories of stored solar energy. The Sun does the heavy lifting on Earth, heaving tens of thousands of cubic miles of water up out of the seas and into the atmosphere each year. Most of this water precipitates back into the oceans, but some of it falls on land as rain or snow, from whence it makes its way downhill to the sea in a great recirculation called the water cycle" (p. 15). And this is the source of the water flowing down North Easton's Queset Brook, which powered the Ames shovel manufacturing shops, which modified the local communities and allowed people to modify their habitats.
I had a couple of disagreements with Raymo. In discussing evolution, he wrote, "Let's say that every time a monkey types by chance a string of 'A's I give it a banana. And I give the other  monkeys a boot in the behind. Pretty soon we'd have lots of monkeys hitting the 'A' key incessantly. And no one would call it random. Selection has been at work. If I had supervision of a thousand monkeys not for a thousand years but, say, for a million generations, a sufficient supply of bananas, and a durable boot (the well-fed, unbooted monkeys being the most successful at procreation), sooner or later I would almost certainly witness a creature who sat at his or her machine and typed: 'Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,who is already sick and pale with grief that thou her maid art far more fair than she.' And the same dynamic applies exactly to the evolution of organisms, where competition for scare resources provides the bananas or boot" (p. 85). I'll bet you could train monkeys a lot faster than this. This is learning, not evolution. What is the genetic basis here for selection to act upon?
And Raymo also writes, "Computer chips are not as sentient as human brains..." (p. 89). "Sentience" is commonly defined as awareness or consciousness. I'd assert that computer chips are not sentient at all. Has AI advanced further than I am aware?
I wonder if a reader has to be aware of New England habitats and history to get the most out of this book. Being from the West but growing up in the East, I felt somewhat familiar with the plants he notes, and the effects of glaciers on the landscape. But I was oblivious to the stories behind many of the names he mentions. That did detract me from his message, I think. I wonder if a reader from the East would have similar problems with a western author, such as Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire.
Still, I'm glad I had the opportunity to read this book. Raymo always links and stitches the universe together in unique ways; that is the talent of his writing.