28 August 2014


Self-organisation is so mysterious. We still can’t explain why the cells come together to make an eye. There must be more principles that we still don’t understand yet. It’s something that makes me completely in awe of life.
Yoshiki Sasai, quoted by Mo Costandi in an article titled The man who grew eyes

Image: Human embryonic stem cells organise themselves into embryonic eyes when grown in 3D culture. From Nakano, et al. (2012). Yoshiki Sasai/ RIKEN CDB

26 August 2014

Darkness invisible

The tenth cosmic myth, according to Marcus Chown [1], is that the stuff that science has been studying for 350 years is the important stuff.  Because only 4.9% of the universe is made of atoms:
About six times as much - that is, 26.8 per cent - is invisible, or "dark" matter [which] reveals itself by tugging with its gravity on the visible stars and galaxies.  No one knows what the dark matter is made of, though speculation ranges from hitherto undiscovered subatomic particles to fridge-sized black holes the mass of Jupiter.
But even the dark matter is trumped by the final component of the universe. About 68.3 per cent is dark energy. It is invisible, it fills all of space and it has repulsive gravity [which] is speeding up the expansion of the universe...
What all this tell us is that the stuff science has been studying for the past 350 years is not the most important stuff. In fact it is but a minor component of the universe...
But proportion is not necessarily the same as importance. Iron, for example, constitutes just 0.00067 per cent of the elemental composition of the human body yet it is essential to life.  Further, the existence of dark matter and dark energy are still disputed. All the same, Chown's point is worth attention. [2] As Paul Broks put it:
We may, as a species, be suffering the cosmic equivalent of Anton’s syndrome, the neurological condition in which patients rendered totally blind by damage to the visual cortex believe they can see perfectly well. 
Sometimes, an overlooked absence contains clues to something amazing.  In 1814 Joseph Fraunhofer discovered that the apparent continuity of a rainbow is an illusion:
There are tiny gaps, dim or black arcs of missing colors, too narrow for us to see in the glare of natural rainbows...Fraunhofer eventually cataloged 576 of these gaps, or "absorption lines"...Today tens of thousands are known. [3]
Analysis of the "gaps" in the light from stars has taught us what they are made of, and that star-stuff is the same as Earth-stuff.

Image: the Trifid nebula, or nothing very much at all really, by R. Jay GaBany via Cosmotography


[1]  Autumn 2014 edition of New Humanist on the occasion of the publication of the paperback of What a Wonderful World
[2] "Our worldview has at times been trapped in a rut because some of the most important clues are buried in the details of what we see around us." Caleb Scharf, The Copernicus Complex (2014).
[3] Longing for the Harmonies, Frank Wilczek and Betsy Devine (1987)

22 August 2014

"As if you were among Angels"

Yesterday I went to Hereford to study the Mappa Mundi and other materials relevant to research for the book. I made an early start so that I could walk over wooded hills to the west in the morning light.

Pockets of ancient semi-natural woodland at Credenhill Park Wood include numerous old yews. Ash trees edge the embankment around a clearing at the top of hill where more than 2000 years ago was a great fort. There are views from here to a great distance.  Thomas Traherne wrote:
Your enjoyment never is right, till every morning you wake in Heaven, see yourself in your Father's palace, and look upon the Skies, the Earth, the Air as Celestial Joys, having such Reverend Esteem of all, as if you were among Angels.

Speaking on Today this morning in connection with the Living Symphonies project, Richard Mabey noted that some 20 different senses have been identified in the plant kingdom.   Walking in Badnage Wood yesterday brought to mind this from Italo Calvino:
seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Images taken with a mobile phone. Hence the poor quality

19 August 2014

The whole

this life of yours...is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is, in a certain sense, the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance...
The scientific picture of the real world...is very deficient. It gives me a lot of factual information, puts all our experiences in a magnificently consistent order, but it is...silent about all and sundry that is really dear to our heart, that really matters to us.
-- Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) in Quantum Questions ed. Ken Wilbur (1984) and cited in The Conscious Universe by Menas Kafatos and Robert Nadeau (1990)

Image: Orbital positions of multiple-planet systems discovered by Kepler. NASA Ames/Dan Fabrycky, University of California, Santa Cruz

18 August 2014

Wonder, astonishment

“Wonder,” Descartes wrote, “is a sudden surprise of the soul,” reserved for what is rare and extraordinary. In his classification, it is the first of the passions, the only one unaccompanied by fluttering pulse or pounding heart. Disinterested but not indifferent, wonder is a cool passion that fixes on objects for what they are, instead of what they are for us. The wonder of wonder consists in the paradox of a cognitive passion: it has all the force of other passions like love or hate, but it helps rather than hinders reason. It is the passion aroused by anomalies, and the anomaly among the passions. [1]

Descartes [struck a balance] between just enough wonder and too much wonder. He recognized the utility of wonder “in making us learn and hold in memory things we have previously been ignorant of.” But this serviceable ‘wonder’ (admiration) was to be distinguished from stupefying ‘astonishment’ (estonnement), which makes the whole body remain immobile like a statue, such that one cannot perceive any more of the object beyond the first face presented and therefore cannot acquire any more particular knowledge. Astonishment differed only in degree from wonder - “astonishment is an excess of wonder” - but their cognitive effects were diametrically opposed...Wonder stimulated attentive inquiry, astonishment inhibited it. [2]
Note: [1] is from a review of Lorraine Daston of Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences by Philip Fisher (1999).  [2] is from Wonder and the Orders of Nature by Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park (1998). The quotations from Descartes are from Les Passions de l'âme (1649)

Image: Star trails over Indonesia by HuChieh via APOD 

15 August 2014

No mornings and no evenings

“Paradise may be beautiful but it is not interesting.”
-- The Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky (2009)

Image: wikimedia commons via The King of the Islands of Refreshment by Benjamin Breen.

See also A Pacific Odyssey (illustrated version via here)

14 August 2014

"So simple that it frightens me"

Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself. 
from The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (1944)

Image by Frogwell, via walkhighlands.co.uk

13 August 2014

"Life took me by the shoulder..."

One afternoon soon after her death, I entered her empty room, into which the good evening sun was shining, gladdening it with rose-bright, gay and soft colors. There I saw on the bed the things which the poor lady had till recently worn, her dress, her hat, her sunshade, and her umbrella, and, on the floor, her small delicate boots. The strange sight of them made me unspeakably sad, and my peculiar state of mind made it seem to me almost that I had died myself…. For a long time I looked at Frau Wilke’s possessions, which now had lost their mistress and lost all purpose, and at the golden room, glorified by the smile of the evening sun….

Yet, after standing there dumbly for a time, I was gratified and grew calm. Life took me by the shoulder and its wonderful gaze rested on mine. The world was as living as ever and beautiful as at the most beautiful time. I quietly left the room and went out into the street.
from Frau Wilke by Robert Walser, extracted here.

Matter, a photograph by August Sander (1925), here.

11 August 2014

Zodiacal Light

There is something else [besides planets, asteroids, comets etc] that fills the interstices of our solar system every so slightly, a component of interplanetary dust. Tiny grains of silicates and carbon-rich material are spread in an enormous and tenuous haze that blankets the inner planets. Distributed in the form of a puffed-up disk, this cloud reaches from around the orbit of Jupiter to within that of Mercury.

At their largest these grains are only a tenth of a millimetre across...and they number no more than one in every cubic kilometer. But...the solar system is a very big place, and a colossal number of these particles spread across local space can scatter and reflect light just as if they were motes glimmering in a sunbeam as they float across a room.

...Ancient Islamic astronomers called this glow in the heavens the “false dawn,” since it can...appear in the east an hour or so before the sun rises – as if time itself disappears and the Sun returns early to light up the world again. In fact it's not so much the world that's being illuminated, but the framework of the solar system, a dusty impression of the alignment of the planets in their huge disk of orbital paths, and of all the other objects sharing this same space...
–  from The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf (2014)

Image: Jack Fusco via APOD

8 August 2014

A space of possibility

Parmenides argued that, contrary to outward appearances (and to Heraclitus), existence is uniform and timeless, and change impossible. The objective world, Hermann Weyl added, simply is; it does not happen:
Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling upward along the world-line of my body, does a section of the world come to life as a fleeting image in space which continuously changes in time.
Compare/contrast Nan Shepard on Coire an Lochan:
[The] changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one's sense of outer reality. Then static things may be caught in the very act of becoming.
Parmenides, writes Raymond Tallis [1], “overlooks the space of possibility that is the world we collectively create and in which we live lives steeped in the presence of the past and anticipation of the future”:
...[But] notwithstanding the invalidity of his conclusion, there is, at the heart of his vision, a fundamental truth: namely, that the object of knowledge (captured in a name, a thought, a proposition) is static compared with our experiences.

Note [1] In Defence of Wonder and Other Philosophical Reflections (2012)

Image: Melencolia (1514) by Albrecht Dürer (Wikipedia). Carl Galle argues the picture may be about overcoming melancholy, an optimistic parable on the struggle for knowledge.

5 August 2014

Crazier and more of it than we think

In De rerum varietate (On the variety of things) of 1557, Girolamo Cardano provides a taxonomy of wonders: 'wonder of the earth', 'wonders of water.'   As Philip Ball notes in Curiosity (2012):
He argues that while some things are truly wonderful (and perhaps beyond rational explanation), others are 'worthy of wonder, but not great wonder', and some are simply not marvelous at all. In the first of these classes he places the 'blue clouds' said to be sighted in the Straights of Magellan off the tip of the South America, and in the second, the foot jugglers of Mexico.'
A contemporary catalogue of wonders might contain different examples from the ones chosen by Cardono yet be much the same in spirit. 

Still, what we find wonderful is also historically contingent. Our maps are vastly more extensive and detailed than those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to the physicist George Ellis our view at the largest and smallest scales "is approaching what will ever be possible."  But, he says, "complexity is almost unbounded." So it's likely that many of the greatest future wonders will be 'inward' ones relating to the complexities of life and mind.  See Snow by Louis MacNeice.

Image:  A Line Made by Walking, Richard Long