Posted tagged ‘religion’

The incredible talking date

June 13, 2008

Yesterday I got to write about one of the coolest science stories I’ve ever seen: Methuselah, the 2,000-year-old tree! Well, not exactly. The tree, an ancestor of the modern date palm, is only three and a half. But researchers in Israel and Switzerland confirmed this week that they grew it from a 2,000-year-old seed. The story appeared at National Geographic News today and you can read it here:

There are a bunch of startling facts: the seed was left behind by Jewish zealots who committed suicide in mountains above the Dead Sea — rather than succumb to the rule of the Romans. Sarah Sallon, the lead researcher who is also a trained physician, in Jerusalem, told me the zealots left their food stores behind so there would be no lingering idea that they died of starvation rather than on purpose, and researchers knew where to look for those stores because of painstaking records written nearly 2,000 years ago. The BBC reported today that the seeds were found in ancient human waste. Whatever the details, the seeds were so well preserved that researchers got one of them to sprout in 2005. 

As soon as I learned that much, I began to imagine that there must be a caretaker for the tree, which they’ve named Methuselah. And I had to wonder if that person talked to the tree — asked it questions or even appealed to it for the wisdom of the ancients. The answer to that question fell outside the scope of a National Geographic News story, but I’ll put it here. To me, only a truly amazing phenomenon will prompt a rigorous scientist to behave like a deeply feeling human being — and be willing to admit it!

The remarkable seedling – which won’t reveal its gender for another few years – has the potential to inform medicines and an understanding of the genetic relationships between ancient and modern date palms.

 If Methuselah is female, it might support species-restoration efforts.

But Sallon has found inspiration beyond the tree’s scientific promise. She’s written a children’s book from the seedling’s perspective – and she points out that in the Jewish faith, the date palm is the “Tree of Life,” which holds the promise of peace.

 “I was very prompted … to ask that date questions,” she said. “I wrote a story for children. I called it ‘The Date’s Tale.’”

Sallon is now hunting for a publisher for her book, which recounts the moment the Romans entered Masada to find all the people who had committed suicide – and how the date felt to be “woken up” after 2,000 years.

“I’ve been writing it over the years as I’ve been watching the date grow,” Sallon said. “I’ve sort of put words into its little mouth. I really got into the date’s little mindset.”

My first question had gotten such a good, emotive response that I came back around to the non-scientific facts later in the interview. I asked Sallon if she and her colleagues had placed bets on Methuselah’s gender — and whether they knew exactly what they would do to celebrate if Methuselah bears fruit. They won’t know about the gender until about 2012.

But at those questions, Sallon bristled. And I got a strong reminder about how different our lives are, in the West and the Middle East.

“We will celebrate when there is peace,” she said. “We will celebrate when all people in this region can plant these trees together, and share any medicinal benefits it brings.”





May 20, 2008

Welcome to the Behind the Science blog, which is meant to peer behind the scenes of some of the science stories I write for various media outlets, most often National Geographic News ( Let there be no implication that these media outlets have endorsed the content of these entries; in most cases, they haven’t. The point is to provide insight and commentary that goes a bit beyond the scope of the stories that are appropriate for the original outlet—for reasons of space, most often, and occasionally just plain focus.


My first entry is a perfect example, and in fact it helped fuel my desire to start the Behind the Science blog.


On April 18, 2008, I wrote a story the National Geographic News called Pope’s Views on Science Invoke Spirited Debate. I’ll put the link on the right, in case that text doesn’t stay linked to the story. Usually, I write about single, quantifiable points of discovery: the finding of a new exoplanet or supernova remnant, for example. I love those stories, but this one really got my blood flowing. It was a perfect opportunity to delve not only into science, but also into a bigger question about the role of science in the world at large, or at least one of its major religions. Plus, I was raised Catholic, but haven’t practiced it in years—and this research would be a chance to catch up on some of the Church’s recent thinking.


The basic question was: Is Pope Benedict science-friendly? I won’t summarize my findings here. My hope is they’re clear in the story! But something happened during the reporting of that story that I didn’t expect. And despite the fact that my editor gave me extra stretching room on this one, there was simply no space to include what was for me a very satisfying intellectual epiphany. You see, I didn’t imagine that by reporting this story, I’d be led to a peaceful solution, even just in my own mind, for the horribly polarized and, too often, mean-spirited debate between ardent proponents of creationism and evolution … ism.


The catalyst for this delightful understanding was a phone interview I conducted with Father Christopher Corbally, vice director at the Catholic Church’s Vatican Observatory. He’s a priest and an astronomer; you have to know that was a fascinating talk. But the best part for me, on a personal level, was when he indulged my question about his own views on evolution.


Background: I had decided years ago that the best way to stay out of arguments with scientific colleagues and religious friends was to suggest that God got the ball rolling, and evolution took over from there. But it never sat quite right with me. Father Corbally articulated a solution that acted like a salve to my long-dissatisfied mind when he spoke of “God-inspired evolution – not just inspired, but God present with the development.”


Corbally believes the potential for evolution is made real by the possibility of randomness, and that very potential comes from God. 


And the process of evolution is also God, he thinks: “God’s power. That’s the most powerful thing is to let things be, and to develop in ways that are natural to themselves. It’s the balance between guiding and letting be … the gift of a parent.”


Thanks, Christopher Corbally!