31 December 2014


Now the sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence never.
from The Silence of the Sirens by Franz Kafka, quoted by Marina Warner in an essay for Myth and Landscape by David Parker (2014)

Image: Siren XXXV by David Parker

30 December 2014

Both strange and beautiful

I find [synchrony] beautiful and strange in a way that can only be described as religious. And I know I’m not alone in that reaction. When I read the old accounts by sixteenth century voyagers to Malaysia and Thailand, the first Westerners to witness the astonishing spectacle of fireflies flashing in unison for miles along the riverbanks, I hear in them that same sense of rapture... 
For reasons I wish I understood, the spectacle of synch strikes a chord in us, somewhere deep in our souls. It’s a wonderful and terrifying thing. [Seeing] it touches people at a primal level. Maybe we instinctively understand that if we ever find the source of spontaneous order, we will have discovered the secret of the universe.
from Sync by Steven Strogatz (2003)

29 December 2014

Who is the singer and who the listener?

If you want to go deep down you do not need to travel far.
Culture and Value by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1946)

The title of this post from Nguyễn Công Trứ as quoted by Thích Nhất Hạnh (1975)

Image: Iceberg without a name NASA

28 December 2014

Different light and different silence

In the Ondariva gardens the branches spread out like the tentacles of extraordinary animals, and the plants on the ground opened up stars of fretted leaves like the skins of reptiles, and waved feathery yellow bamboos with a rustle like paper. From the highest tree Cosimo, in his yearning to enjoy to the utmost the unusual greens of this exotic flora and its different light and different silence, would let his head drop upside down, so that the garden became a forest, a forest not of this earth but a new world in itself.
— from The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino (1959)

23 December 2014

Baby laughter

At this stage, it is too early to make grand conclusions. But we can say with certainty that [baby] laughter is a central component in early development and it is likely that our sense of humour starts to form far earlier than most theories of humour currently admit. Furthermore, there appears to be greater variety and subtlety in the sources and purposes of laughter than was previously thought...Babies can laugh long before they can talk or communicate in other ways. Smiles and laughter are not only the welcome relief that help parents (and babies) cope with the tears and confusion. They are also a shared celebration of all the triumphs and achievements in an infants’ life. 
This also highlights the importance for parents and children of staying happy and positive throughout the wild ride that is parenting in the early years. Not only is shared laughter the quickest way to connect two people but perhaps the secret to happiness is retaining a childlike ability to laugh at the world. We think the shortest answer to the question why do babies laugh is ‘because they are happy’.
— from The Science of Baby Laughter by Caspar Addyman and Ishbel Addyman (2013)

22 December 2014

"I recall only wonder"

     Pure Beauty, benediction: you are all I gathered
     From a life that was bitter and confused,
     In which I learned about evil, my own and not my own.
     Wonder kept seizing me, and I recall only wonder,
     Risings of the sun over endless green, a universe
     Of grasses, and flowers opening to the first light,
     Blue outlines of the mountains and a hosanna shout.
     I asked, how many times, is this the truth of the earth?
     How can laments and curses be turned into hymns?
     What makes you need to pretend, when you know better?
     But the lips praised on their own, on their own the feet ran;
     The heart beat strongly; and the tongue proclaimed its adoration.
     — Czesław Miłosz

Image: Oak tree in winter by Henry Fox Talbot (1842/3)

20 December 2014

There never was more inception than there is now

Emergent phenomena remain elusive  exceedingly difficult to predict from observations of earlier stages. Given hydrogen atoms, a tremendous conceptual leap is required to predict the brilliance of stars or the variety of planets. Given planets, no theoretician alive could predict the emergence of cellular life in all its diversity — nor, given cellular life, could anyone foresee the emergence of consciousness and self-awareness...
We are left, then, to ponder the possible existence of higher orders of emergence  stages of complexity that our brains can no more comprehend than a single neuron can comprehend the collective state of consciousness. Does the universe hold levels of emergence beyond individual consciousness, beyond the collective accomplishment of human societies? Might the cooperative awareness of billions of humans ultimately give rise to new collective phenomena as yet unimagined?
— from Genesis: the Scientific Quest for Life's Origins by Robert Hazen (2005)

The title of the post from Song of Myself  by Walt Whitman (1855)

Image: Two pyramidal neurons by Gregory Dunn (2009). See also works by Ramón y Cajal such as this (1899)

19 December 2014

Awe-full lines

I found myself lying on the bank of a cart-road in the sand, with no prospect whatever but that small aspen tree against the blue sky. Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced—without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they “composed” themselves, by finer laws than any known of men. At last, the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere.
from Praeterita by John Ruskin (1885, recalling 1842). Ruskin writes elsewhere:
Try always, whenever you look at a form, to see the lines in it which have had power over its past fate and will have power over its futurity. Those are its awful lines; see that you seize on those, whatever else you miss.
Image of European aspen by Willow

18 December 2014


He has made a picture with real rain, behind which is real sunshine, and you expect a rainbow every minute. Meanwhile, there comes a train down at you, really moving at the rate of fifty miles an hour, and which the reader had best make haste to see, lest it should dash out of the picture, and be away up Charing Cross through the wall opposite. All these wonders are performed with means not less wonderful than the effects are. The rain … is composed of dabs of dirty putty slapped on to the canvas with a trowel; the sunshine scintillates out of very thick, smeary lumps of chrome yellow. The shadows are produced by cool tones of crimson lake and quiet glazings of vermilion. Although the fire in the steam engine looks as if it were red, I am not prepared to say that it is not painted with cobalt and pea-green. And as for the manner in which the ‘Speed’ is done, of that the less said the better – only it is a positive fact that there is a steamcoach going fifty miles an hour. The world has never seen anything like this picture.
William Thackeray on Rain, Steam, Speed by J.M.W.Turner (1844), quoted by John Barrell

17 December 2014

Getting used to it

If we had to face up to how much we’re destroying the environment and our bodies every day, it would just be too much.
City resident quoted in Inside Beijing's Airpocalypse


The birth of a symetriad comes like a sudden eruption. About an hour beforehand, an area of tens of square miles of ocean vitrifies and begins to shine. It remains fluid, and there is no alteration to the rhythm of the waves...The gleaming sheath of ocean heaves upwards to form a vast ball that reflects sky, sun, clouds and the entire horizon in a medley of changing variegated images. Diffracted light creates a kaleidoscopic play of colour.
— from Solaris by Stanisław Lem (1961)

Image: Evgeni Arbugaeva

16 December 2014


...the Wangarr created through their activities the present features of the landscape and seascape such as rivers, rocks, sandhills, trees and islands, and left the land and waters imbued with their spiritual essence.

They also ‘sang’ the names of everything they created or interacted with, making certain species sacred to the clan on whose land or in whose waters the naming took place. 
Additionally, although the Wangarr were manifested in human form during their creative travels and activities, many, though not all, are also considered to have had the attributes of a particular species, such as crocodile or shark... 
As well as the landscape they had created, the Wangarr also left behind for the clan sacred objects, designs and names that were manifestations of themselves, imbued like the land and water with their spiritual essence and power.
— from an introduction to Yolngu culture

Image from joobili.com

12 December 2014

Nature, the Sublime, Wonder and Deep Freedom

An earlier post on this blog noted, and questioned, the claim that nature could no longer supply a feeling of the sublime.

Sublime is a big word. What about wonder? The two are related but they are not the same. Also, both are historically and culturally contingent. [1]

I agree with George Monbiot that unplanned or re-wilded places can arouse a sense of wonder.  I also agree that there are dangers in dreams about space exploration when they lead people to devalue what we have on earth and deny or ignore the challenges, especially for the poor and oppressed, right in front of us. [2]

In Nature in its Place, Roberto Unger writes:
At first, we needed nature so much that we worshipped it. Now we need it less and less...As a result of [our] growth in power, our experience of nature has fallen...into four pieces, each marked by a distinctive attitude toward the natural world and a...contest of aspirations. [3]
The four phases, says Unger, are: the delight of the gardener   we treat nature as a setting for escape from strife and striving into aesthetic freedom; the responsibility of the steward   we view ourselves as managers of a sinking fund of non-renewable resources in trust for future generations; the infirmity of the mortal  we work to cure the illnesses that waste us, and dream of undying life; and the ambivalence of the titan   a conflict we cannot hope to settle, only to endure, to understand, and to direct.

Our experience of nature, he says, is torn into these four shreds.  Resolution, if there is to be one, will come from the capacity to remain open to alternative futures:
We are unquiet in nature because the mind concentrates and focuses a quality diffuse in nature: the [human] mind is inexhaustible and therefore irreducible and uncontainable. No limited setting, of nature, society, or culture, can accommodate all we  we the species, we as individuals   can think, feel, and do. Our drivenness, including our drive to assert power over nature, follows from our inexhaustibility. We should not, and to a large extent we cannot, suppress, in the name of delight, stewardship, or reverence, the initiatives by which we strengthen our command over nature. 
We nevertheless have reason to stay our hands from time to time and gradually to extend the areas of the planet and the parts of each human life that we set aside for activities free from the tyranny of the will and the dictates of society. By dividing our time between restless conquest of nature and artless reencounter with it...we can guard against brutalizing ourselves.


[1] See, e.g., Daston and Park (1998):
Boyle and many of his contemporaries saw wonder as a goad to inquiry and wonders as prime objects of investigation. Descartes called wonder the first of the passions...Bacon included “a history of marvels” in his program for reforming natural philosophy. Their focus on wonder and wonders in the study of nature marked a unique moment in the history of European [science].  But before and after, wonder and wonders hovered at the edges of scientific enquiry. Indeed, they defined those edges...Wonders as objects marked the outermost limits of the natural. Wonder as a passion registered the [frontier] between the known and unknown...A history of wonders is therefore also a history of the orders of nature.
[2] Fascination with the possibilities of space does not, of course, have to result in indifference to life on Earth. Indeed, the opposite can be true. Many who reflect on the prospects for life in the universe turns back towards Earth with a heightened sense of how marvelous life on this planet is, and how worthy of attention and care.

[3] This appears as a digression, or appendix, to The Self Awakened (2007). Here is an excerpt from Unger's The Religion of the Future (2013)

Image: Selk'nam, early 1900s.

11 December 2014

Photon buckets

Caleb Scharf celebrates the go-ahead for the European Extremely Large Telescope:
Equipped with adaptive optics E-ELT should.... be able to routinely study Jupiter down to scales of about 20 kilometers – by comparison the Great Red Spot is at present about 20,000 kilometers across. Mars can be imaged to roughly 5 kilometer resolution (depending of course on the relative separation of Earth). In other words, on a nightly basis we will be able to monitor the worlds in our solar system with a fidelity comparable to fly-by missions of yore. [1]
Images like this (but not this) might become commonplace.

I guess the adaptive optics resemble those at the Keck observatory in Hawaii, where lasers are beamed into the night sky to create artificial stars. The false stars become reference points because astronomers know what the laser should look like in the heavens were there no atmospheric distortion. That, at least, is part of how Steven Johnson describes them in How We Got to Now.

Johnson's reference to Keck is brief as his book explores a range of innovations that make the modern world.  None of those innovations are more important than those that transform the way humans extract energy from their surroundings, and in this regard the book highlights research at the US National Ignition Facility, which seeks "to create an artificial sun on Earth."  In Johnson's analysis this is looks likely to be a, if not the, great hope for meeting the energy challenge. [2]

But could solar technologies such as those being developed by the physicist and astronomer Roger Angel be a significant part of the way forward?   The technologies are, as Lee Billings puts it in this article, essentially clever ways of maximising efficiency in collecting, concentrating, channelling, or diverting the energy radiating from an already existing star. That could, I think, be rather wonderful. [3]


[1] I reviewed Scharf's book here. He has kindly said that my Book of Barely Imagined Beings contains "some fantastic ideas and insights to the nature of life."

[2] Brian Cox comes to the same conclusion in the last episode of his recent TV series The Human Universe.  A website for Johnson's TV series identifies some solar projects as sources for hope on a small scale.  Thanks to TH for loan of a copy of Johnson's book.

[3] On some environmental impacts of solar concentrators, and other technologies, see Rebecca Solnit.

Image: the site for the future E-ELT looks almost like Mars...if you ignore the blue sky, the snow on the peak and the extensive tracks.

10 December 2014

As a man is so he sees

Fritz Hardenberg had spoken to him of a fable, which he had found…in the work of the Dutch philosopher Franz Hemsterhuis — it had been about the problem of universal language, a time when plants, stars and stones talked on equal terms with animals and with man. For example, the sun communicates with the stone as it warms it. Once we knew the words of this language and we shall do so again, since history always repeats itself… 
[Fritz's father] replied that his son would not need a different language than German to conduct his duties as a future salt mine inspector.
— from The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (1995)

Image: Vyacheslav Korotki photographed by Evgenia Arbugaeva. "He doesn’t have a sense of self the way most people do. It’s as if he were the wind, or the weather itself."

9 December 2014

A miracle for those with eyes to see

Acacia nilotica — known as thorn mimosa, scented thorn, Vachellia nilotica, or prickly acacia…is a super plant. It can grow up to 65 feet tall, with a crown as wide. It thrives in poor, dry, and saline soils, adding three-quarters of an inch in diameter each year. It needs little rain. It is resistant to fire. By its fifth year it can produce up to 175,000 seeds annually, and although most of its seeds do not sprout when the pods drop, they still can germinate 15 years later. The seeds are rich in protein. Of all the acacias, the nilotica has one of the deepest rooting systems, up to nine feet, which means it can tap into relatively deep ground water. The horizontal spread of its lateral roots is 1.6 times greater than the umbrella span of its crown. Prickly acacias may stand two dozen feet apart but underground they clasp the soil together in a tight, resilient web. Along a river they create an indigenous natural revetment. 
Africans use prickly acacia’s seeds as food flavoring and dye, its glabrous bark for tea, its leaves as fodder and antibiotic, its sap to bind pigment to colored fabric, its twigs as toothbrushes, its thorns as awls, its inner bark and pods to tan leather. It is a nitrogen fixer, so grain yields are richer in its shade.
— from The Men Who Planted Trees by Anna Badkhen.

Image: Inland Niger Delta.

Wonder on our doorsteps

...I realised at that moment that I had been suffering from a drought of sensation that I had come to accept as a condition of middle age, like the loss of the upper reaches of hearing. 
...We can recharge the world with wonder, reverse much of the terrible harm we have done to it. 
...In [rewilded] places we can leave our linearity and confinement behind, surrender to the unplanned and emergent world of nature, be surprised once more by joy... We can rediscover those buried emotions that otherwise remain unexercised. Why should we not have such places on our doorsteps, to escape into when we feel the need?
— from Back to Nature by George Monbiot.   What is necessary today, writes Anna Badkhen:
is a type of ecological restoration in which humans are everyday participants, immediately invested in nature because they understand themselves to be a part of it. We all should be planting back the bush—in our homes, communities, cities, parks.
Image: Llyfnant by Nigel Brown, geograph.org.uk via wikipedia

8 December 2014

"Capable of...conscious wandering"

[The product of] a mind no longer tethered solely to the here and now, but capable of a uniquely abstract form of conscious 'wandering' 
— David Edelman on patterns on a shell thought to have been etched by Homo erectus about 500,000 years ago.

Image by Wim Lustenhouwer/VU University Amsterdam, via CBC

6 December 2014

Green thought

There is a kind of brain chauvinism. We think that a brain is something that is absolutely needed to have intelligence. Not so... 
[Darwin] was right...If we need to find an integrative processing part of the plant, we need to look at the roots.
Stefano Mancuso quoted in Root intelligence: Plants can think, feel and learn, an article by Anil Ananthaswamy who also quotes Michael Marder:
Our task is to think about... concepts of attention, consciousness and intelligence in a way that becomes somehow decoupled from the figure of the human. I want [us] to rethink the concept of intelligence in such a way that human intelligence, plant intelligence and animal intelligence are different sub-species of [a] broader concept.
See also these posts from the blog of Barely Imagined Beings, The Intelligent Plant by Michael Pollan and The Mental Life of Plants and Worms... by Oliver Sacks

Image: MoonShadow-DarkRaven

5 December 2014

Invisible Island

Invisible Island. 54°1′S 37°19′W.  A small, tussock-covered island lying in the Bay of Isles, South Georgia.

Image: Lichten Hansen

The most wondrous thing

What is the most wondrous thing? 
The most wondrous thing is that although everyday innumerable humans die, a man still thinks he is immortal.
— from The Book of the Forest
You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.
— from On the Shortness of Life by Seneca.
Between prison and the place of execution does any man sleep? But we sleep all the way. From the womb to the grave, we are never thoroughly awake.
— from Sermons of John Donne, quoted by Jonathan Glover

Image The Ninth Wave by Cai Guo-Qiang. Power Station of Art via ArtNet

4 December 2014

All possible paths simultaneously

Below you lies just one of the trillions of photosynthetic machines that manufacture the world's biomass [some 16,000 tonnes every second]. From your vantage point you can see that...although there are plenty of billiard-ball like turbulent molecular collisions going on, there is also an impressive degree of order. The membranous surfaces of the thylakoid is studded with craggy green islands forested with tree-like structures terminating in antennae-like pentagonal plates. These...are light harvesting molecules call chromophores, of which chlorophyl is the most famous example.
from Life on the Edge: the Coming Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden (2014)
The very best photovoltaic cells...convert sunlight to electrical energy with an efficiency of around 35%; for more affordable cells the figure is closer to 20%. Plants accomplish the same process with about 90% efficiency during the first stage of photosynthesis. 
Efficiently converting light into electricity requires preserving the energy of an exciton [an electron-ion pair] as it travels deep within reaction centre of the leaf [and] the key to [this] lies in way it travels to the reaction centre. Researchers discovered to their great surprise in 2007 that plants use a [trick] from the realm of quantum physics to help excitons find their way. Rather than bumping randomly through a forest of chlorophyll molecules until they happen to reach their destination...each exciton spreads out over all possible paths simultaneously, and then funnels down through the most efficient route.
from How plants exploit sunlight so efficiently, The Economist.

Image from synechocystis.asu.edu

2 December 2014

"Every particle of dust breathes forth its joy"

In a reflection on William Blake, Philip Pullman writes:
Is [the world] twofold, consisting of matter and spirit, or is it all one thing? Is dualism wrong, and if so, how do we account for consciousness?…Blake recounts how he says to a fairy “Tell me, what is the material world, and is it dead?” In response the fairy promises to “shew you all alive / The world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.” This is close to the philosophical position known as panpsychism, or the belief that everything is conscious, which has been argued back and forth for thousands of years. Unless we deny that consciousness exists at all, it seems that we have to believe either in a thing called “spirit” that does the consciousness, or that consciousness somehow emerges when matter reaches the sort of complexity we find in the human brain. Another possibility, which is what Blake’s fairy is describing here, is that matter is conscious itself. 
But why shouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t consciousness be a normal property of matter, like mass? Let every particle of dust breathe forth its joy. I don’t argue this, I perceive it.
Whatever the larger truth [1], it is a capability of the human mind to perceive and feel the world as if it were conscious. The sensation is well conveyed by Barry Lopez:
One must wait for the moment when the thing — the hill, the tarn, the lunette, the kiss tank, the caliche flat, the bajada — ceases to be a thing and become something that knows we are there. [2]
The astounding properties of the brain that make such a state of mind possible should be both studied and celebrated. The comparison of the diversity and multiplicity of a single human brain to the entire Amazon rainforest made by neuroscientist Christoph Koch may be a good one, but it does not account for the brain's interconnectedness (facilitating about one hundred trillion operations per second) nor its highly dynamic nature and the effectively infinite number of unique networks that are possible. [3]

It is sometimes pointed out that on an uninhabited planet there would continue to be sun and rain, stars, and snow, but there would be no rainbows and no horizon. [4] Perhaps consciousness is a little like a rainbow or an horizon: an interaction of mind and place.

P.S. a few weeks after I wrote this post I took part in a roundtable on Blake with Philip Pullman and Iain Sinclair.  Notes for my introductory remarks can be found here.


[1]  People clearly do experience mental states besides logical reasoning (Blake's "single vision and Newton's sleep") — notably, ecstatic or mystical bliss, poetic inspiration, and complex association and ambiguity so well described by Pullman in his piece. But whether consciousness could actually be a normal property of matter — as distinct from a normal property of how some humans sometimes perceive matter —  remains an open question. Christoph Koch (with reference to Leibniz?) is among those who think that it could.  The philosopher Evan Thompson thinks it is unlikely that consciousness exists independently of a brain.

[2] This is, presumably, from Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape (2013) edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. The passage is quoted in Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane (forthcoming), which also cites, inter alia, Wisdom Sits in Places by Keith Basso (1996). In the Zen tradition, Dōgen said that "fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles" are also "mind" (心,shin).  Maurice Merleau-Ponty records the painter Andre Marchand as saying:
In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me.... I was there listening.... I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it.

[3] Henry Marsh (2014) puts it something like this: To understand the mind as the product of electrochemistry is not to downgrade the soul but to upgrade our sense of matter and better appreciate how little we understand about it.  Lee Smolin (2013) writes:
The problem of consciousness is an aspect of the question of what the world really is. We don’t know what a rock is, or an atom, or an electron. We can only observe how they interact with other things and thereby describe their relational properties.

[4] see Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experience by Philip Fisher (1999)

Image: Douglas Griffin

1 December 2014

The tune without the words

Image of Hen Harrier via Wild Scotland

Updated 13 and 21 January 2015: Patrick Barkham on England's missing hen harriers and Bowland Beth, a poem by David Harsent (the title of this post is a poem by Emily Dickinson).

30 November 2014

Winter warbler

Winter warbler
Long ago in Wang Wei's
hedge also
On his deathbed Yosa Buson, version by Robert Haas

Image of Japanese Bush Warbler by Robin Newlin

28 November 2014

"The more I listened...the more each note seemed sweeter than before"

No matter what I learn and how little I know, I will never give up the chance to make music together with the birds. To wing it, so to speak, and wait for what will cheep in return. Like all art, bird song works best when we let it play on. Like science, it is built on the music of endless previous generations, still evolving into new sounds, The music made the questions begin, but no answer will erase the gift of the song, some simple offering from human to animal and back.
from Why Birds Sing by David Rothenberg (2005)

Birds in Warped Time II by Somei Sato.

The title of the post is from The Progress of Rhyme by John Clare

27 November 2014


Mimis are fairy-like beings of Arnhem Land in the folklore of the Indigenous Australians of northern Australia. They are described as having extremely thin and elongated bodies, so thin as to be in danger of breaking in case of a high wind. To avoid this, they usually spend most of their time living in rock crevices. 

21st century sublime

In a post on Rationally Speaking last year, Steve Neumann asked what can be sublime in the 21st century?

He argued that nature could no longer supply it, and "our feeling for the sublime, if it is to happen at all, will have to come more and more from culture." His chosen example was the music of...Led Zeppelin, and specifically their live performances.

But can the likes of Pagey, Percy, Jonsey and Bonso be the only trigger?

Turn back for a moment to Burke's 1757 treatise.  As an admirably concise video reminds us,  a feeling of the sublime is something that affects us viscerally despite the danger.  The sublime moves us deeply because it is tied to the possibility of pain. [1] When we experience the sublime we exercise the nerves that could save our lives in a genuinely threatening situation.

We may need those nerves when facing manmade effects in nature such as rapid climate change. For that reason, I'd say this sequence from Chasing Ice can arouse feelings of the sublime, as well as being scary.

Note [1] (added 4 December) "The physiology of fear and attraction [can be] so similar that we sometimes cannot tell them apart," writes Sy Montgomery.

26 November 2014

"A world in which everything matters"

I noticed something about Angelico’s paintings that I hadn’t before. It had to do with the way his figures used their hands. His is a vision of the world as it might appear through the eyes of a compassionate God: a world in which everything has existential value and nothing is without meaning. What makes his paintings so moving is that the people in them share that vision. You see this in the way they reach out for one other, and touch everything gently, with infinite care, as though it were priceless. With every touch they seem to affirm the sacredness of the world. Henry James had understood this from the start: ‘No later painter,’ he wrote in Italian Hours, ‘learned to render with deeper force than Fra Angelico the one state of the spirit he could conceive – a passionate pious tenderness … his conception of human life was a perpetual sense of sacredly loving and being loved.’ 
...It struck me that this is what faith is – not a set of propositions you hold to be true, or a set of rules you follow, but an atmosphere you live in, that changes your experience of the world, your sense of what and how things are.
—  Pelagia Horgan

Image: detail of Fra Angelico's The Last Judgement (1425-30)

25 November 2014

The tree of song

Once there were seven Gond brothers who wanted to give away their property and mingle with the common folk. The Great God appeared in the youngest brother's dream and told him that their calling was to sit under the Saja tree and play music in praise of him. Now the Saja tree is the tree of song.
— from The Night Life of Trees (2006)

23 November 2014

Notes on consciousness

There’s no way to step outside consciousness and measure it against something else. Science always moves within the field of what consciousness reveals; it can enlarge this field and open up new vistas, but it can never get beyond the horizon set by consciousness. [And] since consciousness has this kind of primacy, it makes no sense to try and reductively explain consciousness in terms of something that’s conceived to be essentially non-experiential, like fundamental physical phenomena. Rather, understanding how consciousness is a natural phenomenon is going to require rethinking our scientific concepts of nature and physical being. 
According to the yogic traditions of Indian philosophy, consciousness is that which is luminous and has the capacity for knowing... Luminous means having the power to reveal, like a light. Without the sun, our world would be veiled in darkness. But without consciousness, nothing could appear. Consciousness is fundamentally that which reveals or makes manifest because it is the crucial precondition for appearance. Nothing, strictly speaking appears unless it appears to some consciousness. Without consciousness, the world can’t appear to perception, the past can't appear to memory, and the future can’t appear to hope or anticipation. The point extends to science: without consciousness, there’s no appearance of the microscopic world through electron microscopes, no appearance of distant starts through telescopes, and no appearance of the brain through magnetic resonance imaging scanners. Simply put, without consciousness there’s no observation and without observation there are no data.
From the introduction and chapter 1 of Waking, Dreaming, Being by Evan Thompson (2014)

Added after 30 December 2014:  Alva Noë has this note on the book

Image: Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh  (1889) via WikiArt

21 November 2014

Luminous consciousness, pure awareness…

[In Tibetan Buddhist belief] “subtle consciousness” …isn’t an individual consciousness: it’s not an ordinary “me” or “I” consciousness. It’s a sheer luminous and knowing awareness beyond any sensory or mental content. It’s rarely seen by the ordinary mind, except occasionally in special dreams, intense meditation, and at the very moment of death, when one’s ordinary “I” or “me” consciousness fall apart. It’s the foundation for every other type of consciousness, and it’s believed to be independent of the brain. [Western] neuroscience can’t conceive of such a possibility, while for Tibetan Buddhists it’s unthinkable to dismiss their accumulated experience testifying to the reality of this primary consciousness.
— from Waking, Dreaming Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy by Evan Thompson (2014)

Image: dead oaks (detail). Blenheim estate, Oxfordshire, November 2014 by author

On Light, 2

Like nothing else in our ordinary [experience], light exists simultaneously as waves and particles... 
[Alone] among all the elementary particles, photons are the only ones to which humans directly and regularly respond...
from Empire of Light by Sidney Perkowitz (1996)

Later in the book Perkowitz writes:
We create and carry fields of order through an enigmatic cosmos. If we do not yet understand light, our minds [nevertheless] know how to assemble its wave particles into comprehension.

Image: Light-Toned Deposits in Noctis Labyrinthus, Mars. HIRISE

20 November 2014

On Light, 1

When the universe was only a fraction of a nanosecond old, photons formed, along with other elementary particles such as quarks. According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, energy and matter can change into each other, so when photons collided they turned into elementary particles with mass: for instance, electrons, and their anti-matter partners, positrons. This may seem surprising, for we perceive light as something pure and ethereal, beautiful in its intangibility. Yet even weighty materials, even dense metals such as lead and gold, can ultimately trace their origins back to light.
– from Slow Light by Sidney Perkowitz (2011)

Image: The standard model of particle physics recognizes four kinds of gauge bosons: of which photons are one

19 November 2014

On Maps, 2

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings: a universe was scrawled over the sides, along all dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference: the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.
— from Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino (1965)

Image: The Sloan Great Wall. W. Schaap et al. (2007) via APOD

On Maps, 1

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
"They are merely conventional signs!

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best--
A perfect and absolute blank!"
— from The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll (1876)

18 November 2014

One quarter of the blood goes to the brain

Two of the theatre nurses, bent over with the effort, slowly push the heavy microscope up to the table and I climb into the operating chair behind it - a specially adjustable chair with arm rests. This moment still fills me with awe. I have not yet lost the naive enthusiasm with which I watched my first aneurysm operation thirty years ago…The view down the microscope into the patient’s brain is indeed a little magical — clearer, sharper, and more brilliant than the world outside, the world of dull hospital corridors and committees and management and paperwork and protocols. There is an extraordinary sense of depth and clarity produced by the microscope’s hugely expensive optics… 
I choose one of the retractors — a thin strip of flexible steel with a rounded end like an ice-cream stick and place it under the frontal lobe of the woman’s brain. I start to pull the brain upwards from the floor of the skull — elevation is the proper surgical word — cautious millimetre by cautious millimetre, creating a narrow space beneath the brain along which I can now crawl towards the aneurysm. After so many years of operating with the microscope it has become an extension of my own body. When I use it it feels as though I am actually climbing down the microscope into the patient’s head, and the tips of my microscopic instruments feel like the tips of my own fingers. 
I point out the carotid artery to Jeff and ask Irwin for the microscopic scissors. I carefully cut the gossamer veil of the arachnoid around the great artery that keeps half the brain alive. The arachnoid, a fine layer of the meninges, is named after the Greek word for spider, as it looks as though it was made from the strands of the finest spider’s web… 
Armed now with retractors I start to prise apart the frontal and temporal lobes, held together by the arachnoid. Cerebral-spinal fluid…as clear as liquid crystal, circulating through the strands of the arachnoid, flashes and glistens like silver in the microscope’s light. Through it I can see the smooth yellow surface of the brain itself, etched with minute red blood vessels — arteriols — which form beautiful branches like a river’s tributaries seen from space. Glistening, dark purple veins run between the two lobes leading down toward the middle cerebral artery and, ultimately, to where I will find the aneurysm.
— from Do No Harm by Henry Marsh (2014)

Image: Surgeon Conducting a Trephination in Guy of Pavia’s Anatomia. Unknown artist circa 1345. Musée Condé, Château de Chantilly, Chantilly (Ms. 334) via wtfarthistory

17 November 2014

The light backward

When we see images of distant stars and galaxies we look far back in time.  It is an extraordinary and rather wonderful fact, but also alien from normal experience.

Looking at this image of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is different.  Because light reflected off the comet takes only about half an hour to reach the Earth we are seeing it almost as it is in real time – that is, in the time of actual lived experience.

We see a degree of detail so far unrealised for such a distant object – albeit one that is of course vastly closer than any star.

We see a strange mini-world with terrain imaginable for human feet.

Image: ESA

15 November 2014

Not nature itself

Contemporary thought is endangered by the picture of nature drawn by physics. This danger lies in the fact that the picture is now regarded as an exhaustive account of nature itself, so that science forgets that in its study of nature it is merely studying its own picture.
What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.
— Werner Heisenberg.

The first observation is quoted by Michael Benson in Cosmigraphics (2014) via a citation in Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation by Dalibor Vesely (2004). Apparently, it comes from The Idea of Nature in Contemporary Physics (1954). The second is from Physics and Philosophy (1958).  In the latter, Heisenberg writes:
Existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite.
In Time Reborn (2013), Lee Smolin writes:
Quantum mechanics, too, is likely an approximation to a more fundamental theory. One sign of this is the fact that its equations are linear — meaning that they effects are always directly proportional to their causes. In every other example in which a linear equation is used in physics, the theory is known to arise as an approximation to a more fundamental (but still effective) theory that is non-linear (in the sense that the effects may be proportional to a higher power of the cause), and the best bet is that this will turn out to be true of quantum mechanics as well.

Image: Russell Savory via Guardian

14 November 2014

"Dreams are extraordinarily strange..."

Dreams are extraordinarily strange. One thing appears with terrifying clarity, with the details finely set like jewels, while you leap over another, as though you did not notice it at all — space and time, for instance. It seems that dreams are the work not of mind but of desire, not of the head but of the heart… In a dream things quite incomprehensible come to pass. For instance, my brother died five years ago. Sometimes I see him in a dream: he takes part in my affairs, and we are very excited, while I, all the time my dream goes on, know and remember perfectly that my brother is dead and buried. Why am I not surprised that he, though dead, is still near me and busied about me? Why does my mind allow all that?
-- Fyodor Dostoyevsky

13 November 2014

"Haloes of magnetic fields ripple from our brains..."

In the sixteenth century, writes Gavin Francis:
it was believed that magnets had souls, that swallowing them would give you eloquence, and that their property of “action at a distance” was related to the attraction of love. Now we know that eloquence and love, as they are expressed in the brain, do create magnetic fields: each neuron, as it fires, generates a minuscule magnetic field around the axis of its impulse. Imagine these fields as the ripples on a pond after throwing a stone, then imagine the undulating surface sheen of the water stripped off and wrapped around your head. Haloes of magnetic fields ripple from our brains as we talk, think, experience the world.
An introductory note on Magnetoencephalography (MEG) from the York NeuroImaging Centre puts the magnetic fields generated by the brain in context:
The magnitude of magnetic fields outside the head generated by the electrical activity of the brain is of the order of femtotesla (10-15T)...tiny in comparison to the magnetic fields that we are exposed to in everyday life which are of the order of tens of microtesla (10-6). Our hearts generate a field in the order of tens of nanotesla (10-9) and a car moving will generate a magnetic field that is still of the order of femtotesla when the field is recorded one mile away from the car.

Image of electroencephalographs (EEG) by Srivas Chennu/University of Cambridge

12 November 2014

A protoplanetary disk

HL Tauri is no more than a million years old, yet already its disc appears to be full of forming planets.
— Catherine Vlahakis quoted in ESO press release, 6 November 2014.  HL Tauri is about four hundred and fifty light-years away.

Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NSF

11 November 2014

"At around 200 milliseconds conscious awareness begins..."

Magnetoencephalography scanners pinpoint [the] almost impossibly small magnetic fields [inside our brains] with amazing accuracy. They have shown us that only fifteen milliseconds after hearing a sound an impulse has reached the brainstem, and only a few milliseconds later it’s in the cortex. But the computation involved in understanding sounds is much slower: it takes sixty to one hundred milliseconds before large assemblies in the auditory cortex are activated, essentially “looking up” each sound. If the sound is familiar this process is quicker and generates less of a ripple, because the brain does less work to comprehend it. At around two hundred milliseconds conscious awareness begins, but isn’t lexically understood until after more like three or four hundred milliseconds. When we consider languages worldwide, we find that syllables last between 150 and 200 milliseconds—a constant that appears related to the physiology of the brain. It takes us almost six hundred milliseconds—over half a second—to recognize unexpected words, discordant tones in music, or make the looping connections necessary to make sense of discourse.
— from a review by Gavin Francis of I Can Hear You Whisper by Lydia Denworth.

Francis writes that when he took a degree in neuroscience in the the mid-1990s, the neuronal plasticity responsible for learning was thought to occur at the level of the synapse. As technology improved so did the resolution of discoveries. It is now suspected that learning occurs at the level of dendritic spines—tiny portions on the receiver tendrils on each neuron.

Image: howwemontesorri.com

10 November 2014

A dark Illimitable ocean, without bound, without dimension

Among many extraordinary images in Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson (2014) is a seldom-reproduced depiction of the black void before the light of creation from Utriusque comsi... by Robert Fludd. [1]

Benson notes a similarity to Kazimir Malevich's Black Square on a White Ground (1915) [2]

Anselm Kiefer pays homage to Fludd in works such as The Secret Life of Plants (1987-2014). Equally striking, to me at least, is Kiefer's For Ingeborg Bachmann: the Renewed Orders of the Night. [3]  In this work, hundreds (perhaps) of small diamonds embedded in a large sheet of textured lead shine like stars as one approaches, and like rainbows as one gets even closer.  It seems like something that could emerge out of Fludd's primal black.


[1] A selection of more frequently reproduced images at Public Domain Review

[2] As Julian Bell notes, Malevich declared:
I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things...
I have released all the birds from the eternal cage...
I have untied the knots of wisdom and set free the consciousness of colour!...
I have overcome the impossible...
[3] I can't at present find a reproduction of this image.

8 November 2014

Into this wild Abyss, the womb of Nature

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft captured these sounds of interstellar space. Voyager 1's plasma wave instrument detected the vibrations of dense interstellar plasma, or ionized gas, from October to November 2012 and April to May 2013.

7 November 2014

"The xapiri float down through the air from their mirrors to come protect us"

The xapiri float down through the air from their mirrors to come protect us…. Their mirrors arrive from the sky’s chest, slowly preceding them. They suddenly stop in the air and remain suspended…. When they arrive, their songs name the distant lands they came from and traveled through. They evoke the places where they drank the waters of a sweet river, the disease-free forests where they ate unknown foods, the edges of the sky where, without night, one never sleeps.
from The Sky is Falling by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert (2013), quoted by Glenn H Shepard in the NYRB, and from which this blog quoted in June.

Later in the book Kopenawa warns of industrialisation:
The sky…is getting as sick as we do! If all this continues, its image will become riddled with holes from the heat of the mineral fumes. Then it will slowly melt, like a plastic bag thrown in the fire…. If the sky catches fire, it will fall again. Then we will all be burned, and we will be hurled into the underworld like the first people in the beginning of time.

Image of fallstreak by David Barton via ABC

5 November 2014

The two-headed-cow question

Instead of looking at all of space-time, [Raphael Bousso] homes in on a finite patch of the multiverse called a “causal diamond,” representing the largest swath accessible to a single observer traveling from the beginning of time to the end of time. The finite boundaries of a causal diamond are formed by the intersection of two cones of light, like the dispersing rays from a pair of flashlights pointed toward each other in the dark. One cone points outward from the moment matter was created after a Big Bang — the earliest conceivable birth of an observer — and the other aims backward from the farthest reach of our future horizon, the moment when the causal diamond becomes an empty, timeless void and the observer can no longer access information linking cause to effect.
from The Multiverse's Measure Problem by Natalie Wolchover and Peter Byrne

3 November 2014

"The arms of the mind open wide to the broad sky"

The grass sways and fans the reposing mind; the leaves sway and stroke it, till it can feel beyond itself and with them, using each grass blade, each leaf, to abstract life from earth and ether. These then become new organs, fresh nerves and veins running afar out into the field, along the winding brook, up through the leaves, bringing a larger existence. The arms of the mind open wide to the broad sky.
  from The Sun and the Brook by Richard Jefferies quoted in A Blackbird's Year by Miles Richardson.

Image: Elliðaey. Christopher Lynn via The Island Review

29 October 2014


I was on a boat off Baja, Mexico. It was July, but about ten minutes before totality the air started to get noticeably colder, seemingly every second, as the Moon blocked off more and more sunlight. The Sun visibly became a crescent, and the optical effects were overwhelming. Everything seemed to be swimming, the shadows were all distorted into little crescents, and the light was becoming very sharp and angular. I looked up and saw shadow bands flowing overhead as the light [shone] through convection cells in the upper atmosphere. I looked down and saw the eclipse's shadow sweeping across the ocean towards me at breathtaking speed. Then the Moon slid into place, and sunlight shining through its mountains and valleys drew a diamond ring in the sky. The Sun's corona popped out, white and glowing and wavering. I could see the planets all stretched out along the elliptic -- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter. The whole solar system was right in front of my eyes. Everyone was hooting and hollering and yelling. It was pure primal joy, like that feeling right after a big football touchdown. The eclipse itself lasted something like seven minutes, but it went by in a flash.
 – Greg Laughlin quoted by Lee Billings in Five Billion Years of Solitude

Image: Ben Cooper via APOD

28 October 2014

"The urge to be at home everywhere"

The inability to remember is itself perhaps a memory. One lived with the experience of namelessness: there were certain elemental forces — heat, cold, pain, sweetness — which were recognisable. Also, a few persons. But there were no verbs and no nouns. Even the first pronoun was a growing conviction rather than a fact, and because of this fact, memories (as distinct from certain functions of memory) did not exist.
Once, we lived in a seamless experience of wordlessness. Wordlessness means that everything is continuous. The later dream of an ideal language, a language which says all simultaneously, perhaps begins with the memory of this state without memories.
— from and our faces, my heart, brief as photos by John Berger (1984), and read by Simon McBurney here.

Here is Vincent Deary in How We Are (2014):
...scientists trying to [descry] how much the baby knows, how much of the world is already folded up within us, waiting to unfurl, talk in terms of face recognition, object constancy, language recognition; still in terms of parts and forces, bits and pieces, with no idea of their binding, of what it's like to be the incoherent mass of stuff we all once were. Looking back, we don't see ourselves begin there, for we seem to start much later. Our first memories are of things out there, world happenings taking place in a world of circumstance, to this 'I' here, to this little self. Our real beginnings are veiled in darkness. Below the coherent order of the rational world, before the light or reason and reasonableness which illumines the world wherever we care to glance, beneath this familiar world lies what?

The title of this post is from Novalis, also quoted by Berger:
Philosophy is really homesickness; it is the urge to be at home everywhere.

Image: Douglas Griffin

27 October 2014

The rotary mechanism of mitochondrial ATP synthase

It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.

Click here for animation.

Image credit: MRC MBU

21 October 2014

Seeking and finding

The mind, full of curiosity and analysis, disassembles a landscape then reassembles the pieces — the nod of a flower, the colour of the night sky, the murmur of an animal — trying to fathom its geography. At the same time the mind is trying to find its place within the land, to discover a way to dispel its own sense of estrangement.
— from Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez  (1986)

with thanks to Miriam Darlington

Our perception depends in large measure on stored visual experiences in our memory
— Arvid Herwig

Image: Samovar Hills and Malaspina Glacier via Ground Truth Trekking

20 October 2014

The echo of strange noises

The past has flown away,
the coming month and year do not exist;
Ours only is the present’s tiny point. 
Time is but a fancied dot ever moving on
which you have called a flowing river stream.  
I am alone in a wide desert,
listening to the echo of strange noises. 
Mahmud Shabistari (1317)

Image: Abandoned Mining Town, Namibia by Marsel van Oosten

19 October 2014

Living on nuts and berries

[On the testimony of the poems] the variety of the plants and animals found in the countryside and eaten by the early Irish...is quite astonishing to a twentieth-century town-dweller, to whom "living on berries and nuts" seems such an improbable kind of existence. [Poem] No. V mentions apples, yew-berries, rowan-berries, sloes, whortleberries, crowberries, strawberries, haws, hazel-nuts, mast, acorns, pignuts, water-cress, herbs, wild marjoram, onions, leeks, eggs, honey, salmon, trout, water, milk and beer. No. XVI speaks of deer, swine, mast, hazel-nuts, blaeberries, blackberries, sloes, trout. No. XV has cress, brooklime, mast, trout, fish, wild swine, stags, fawns. In no. XIX are blaeberries, blackberries, apples, sloes, strawberries, acorns, nuts, pig fat, porpoise steak, birds, venison, badger fat, fawns, salmon, fish. No. XVII mentions blackberries, haws, hazel-nuts, bramble shoots, "smooth shoots", garlic, cress, meadhbhán, dilisk, birds, martens, woodcocks, otters, salmon, eels, fish. Suibhne Geilt gives his "nightly sustenance" as blaeberries, apples, berries, blackberries, raspberries, haws, cress, watercress, brooklime, saxifrage, seaweed, herbs, sorrel, wood-sorrel, garlic, wild onions and acorns ... The diet is then one of flesh of animals and birds, fruit, berries, nuts, herbs, shoots, and waterplants, eggs, honey and fish, an impressive and intriguing menu.
from Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry by Kenneth Jackson (1935), quoted by Andrew Ray in Some Landscapes

Image: Douglas Griffin

17 October 2014

Stones of the Sky

The nearest anyone has come to explaining the origins of the remarkable rocks of the Meteora – meaning suspended in air in Greek – is the German geologist Alfred Philippson. In 1897, he suggested that a river once ran into an ancient lake that covered what is now the plain of Thessaly, depositing in the same place where the Meteora have risen its rippling debris of silt, gravel, mud and water-smoothed pebbles and stones. Some 60 million years ago the river’s estuary was an alluvial fan that opened and spread from its point of entry into the lake. Over the course of thousands of years the layers of the fan deepened, eventually being compressed by the immense forces of water and earth into conglomerate – a type of sedimentary rock composed of the pre-existing stones that the river had washed into the lake – that was concreted together by hardened sandstone. 
When a massive earthquake emptied the Thessalian lake by cleaving open a channel to the Aegean Sea, the deltaic cone at the end of the river was raised from the lake bed into the sky. Loose sandstone was rinsed away by rain and the stone pillars were further worn into their present sinuous forms, riddled and pocked with caves and fault lines, by wind, weather and subsequent movements of the earth.
– from Notes from Near and Far by Julian Hoffman

15 October 2014

"Consciousness takes place in time"

The problem of consciousness is an aspect of the question of what the world really is. We don’t know what a rock is, or an atom, or an electron. We can only observe how they interact with other things and thereby describe their relational properties... 
While [the future of science] is unpredictable…the only certainty is that we will know more in future. For on every scale, from an atom’s quantum state to the cosmos, and at every level of complexity, from a photon made in the early universe and winging its way towards us to human personalities and societies, the key is time and the future is open.
from Time Reborn by Lee Smolin (2013)

Image: The White Fence by Paul Strand (c1917) via wikipedia