30 September 2014

Other music

Research suggests that half of the world's wildlife [1] have been eliminated in the last forty years. The news must be a dark cloud over almost anyone with a capacity for wonder [2].

I find myself turning to Aldo Leopold (1949):
This song of the waters is audible to every ear, but there is other music in these hills, by no means audible to all. To hear even a few notes of it you must first live here for a long time, and you must know the speech of hills and rivers. Then on a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks, sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then you may hear it—a vast pulsing harmony—its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries. 


[1] (Added 14 October 2014) The 11 October 2014 edition of More or Less on the BBC World Service unpacks the detail behind that headline, and slightly misleading, figure.

[2] though that doesn't stop it being a source for humour

Image: rear end of Soviet jet train via EnglishRussia. Update 3 Oct: See also the work of Cai Guo-Qiang.

29 September 2014

"She tosses her creatures out of nothingness..."

Research into the origin of life benefits from thinking about whole planets, says Andy Knoll:
Planetary history is the context for thinking about the history of life on a planet. When we explore Mars, it's our experience on Earth that informs that exploration. When Dimitar Sasselov, Dave Charbonneau and Dave Latham give us a sense of planetary atmospheres from Kepler, it will be our understanding of relationships between life and environment that will inform our interpretation of those atmospheres. It's hard for me to imagine efforts to understand either the origin of life on this planet or the distribution of life through the universe that don't revolve around the nature of planets.
as well as specific conditions on those planets:
Life was probably born in a small pond or lake, Jack Szostak believes...Rain-fed pools provide a fresh water environment, compatible with the delicate cell membranes formed from simple fatty acids, which would be destroyed instantly in the salty oceans. Some such pond was the place where crucial elements were mixed, heated and cooled in the right sequence to become life. Inanimate molecules, congregated together inside a fatty skin, somehow became capable of replication, and of evolution: the definition of life, as Szostak sees it. 
Very likely, Szostak says, life began near a hydrothermal vent: an underwater spout of hot water, flowing into the cold water of an icy lake, much like modern Yellowstone Lake in winter. This, he believes, was the oven and freezer where the ingredients of life were cooked, cooled, thawed in the order required for nucleic acids to go through cycles of replication, and for fatty acid membranes to allow nutrients to enter into the cell.

The quote at the top of the post is from one of Goethe's aphorisms on nature as cited by T. H. Huxley.

Image: Baobab trees on a mushroom island in Bay of Moramba, Madagascar, by Sebastião Salgado

28 September 2014

"Every moment would be like the one that is imminent"

They are in a big, abandoned, derelict, dark damp room with what look like the remains of a chemistry set floating in the puddle in the middle, as if the Zone resulted from an ill-conceived experiment that went horribly wrong. Off to the right, through a large hole in the wall, is a light source that they all look towards. For a long while no one speaks. The air is full of the chirpy cheep cheep of bird song. It's the opposite of those places where the sedge has withered from the lake and no birds sing. The birds are whistling and chirruping like mad. Stalker tells Writer and Professor – tells us – that we are now at the very threshold of the Room. This is the most important moment in your life, he says. Your innermost wish will be made true here. And we believe him. This is the purpose of the journey, to make us the believe the literal truth of what Stalker says at this point. Ideally, one would live one's whole life as though at this threshold; every moment would be like the one that is imminent.
from Zona by Geoff Dyer (2012)

26 September 2014

You are a strange loop

Genes are...essential to self-organisation at all the scales of life – just not in a deterministic way. Rather, the genes are needed to make the machines that mediate feedback-driven self-organisation: the self-organisation is a high-level property that emerges from the underlying network, not a feature of any of the individual components.
from The Closed Loop by Jamie A. Davis

Image: Henri Cartier-Bresson

24 September 2014

Explorers on the farthest edge

If imagination helps children find the truth, finding the truth also increases the power of the imagination. Very young children can use their causal maps of the world – their theories – to imagine different ways that the world might be. They can think about counterfactual possibilities. As those theories change, as children learn and their ideas about the world become more and more accurate, the counterfactuals they can produce and the possibilities they can envision become richer and richer. These counterfactuals let children create different worlds and they underpin the great flowering of pretend play in early childhood. Eventually, they enable even adults to imagine alternative ways the world could be and make those alternatives real.
...So imagination depends on knowledge, but it also depends on love and care. Just as children can learn so freely because they are protected by adults, they can imagine freely because they are loved. More, counterfactual thinking necessarily has a normative element – imagining the future also means evaluating which futures you should bring about. From the time they are very young children root these decisions in moral responses. They try to do good and avoid harm. And those responses are themselves rooted in the deeply empathic, intimate, and...selfless interactions between babies and caregivers.
from The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik (2009)

Image via electronicintifada.net

23 September 2014

Lysergic radiance, sneaky narcissism and the worldie

The genre is characterized by point of view, by brevity and by incident. The ones that go viral contain something extraordinary, be it unimaginable risk, uncharted beauty, unlikely encounter or unexpected twist. The categories bleed.
So writes Nick Paumgarten of GoPro videos.  GoPro technology can certainly capture extremes and  make available things that may be “worthy of wonder” if not necessarily “great wonder” according to Girolamo Cardano's classification of 1557; but it can also leverage self-obsession and instrumentality. Paumgarten suggests that, like Google Glass, GoPro has the insidious effect of making the pervasiveness of cameras seem benign when it may one day be anything but.

An example without human self-regard here.

19 September 2014

An old map of wonders

At the peripheries of the Mappa Mundi in Hereford (c 1300) are many strange creatures and peoples.  The lynx sees through walls and produces a valuable carbuncle in its secret parts. The Manticore, in India, has a triple row of teeth in a man's face, a lion's body, a scorpion's tale and the voice of a Siren. Semi-humans such as the Phanesii, a bat-like people with enormous drooping ears, live in Asia, as do the Spopodes, who have horses's feet. The Agriophani Ethiopes eat only the flesh of panthers and lions; their king has one eye in his forehead. The Gangines of India live on the scent of apples of the forest and die instantly if they perceive any other smell. The Arimaspians fight with griffins for diamonds. Fully human but utterly foreign, and terrifying, are the Scythians: they love war, drink the blood of enemies from their gushing wounds, and make cups from their skulls. The Hyperboreans, by contrast, are the happiest race of men. They live without quarrelling and without sickness for as long as they like. Only when they are tired of living do they throw themselves from a prominent rock into the sea.

18 September 2014

"How dark is the foundation on which our lives rest!"

To me the converging objects of the Universe perpetually flow
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
– from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman (1855)

In Whitman's world there is much sunlight and few shadows. But sometimes what seem like signs and symbols can lead towards darkness:
...As for those hieroglyphics that gave him no moment's peace, they were to be found on the shell of a medium-sized conch from New Caledonia, set in pale reddish-brown against an off-white background.  The characters, as if drawn with a blush, blending into purely decorative lines toward the edge, but over large sections of the curved surface, their meticulous complexity gave every appearance of intending to communicate something. As I recall, they displayed a strong resemblance to early Oriental script, much like the strokes of Old Aramaic...
– Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (1947)

Image: Harpago chiragra juvenile; Phillipines. Guido Poppe via stromboidea.de

The quote at the top of this post is Gustav Mahler speaking to Bruno Walter, as reported by Richard Powers in Orfeo (2014)

16 September 2014

The clock at Brekkukot

   ...if there were anything happening in the room you never heard the clock at all, no more than if it did not exist; but when all was quiet and the visitors had gone and the table had been cleared up and the door shut, then it would start up again, as steady as ever; and if you listened hard enough you could sometimes make out a singing note in its workings, or something very like an echo.
   How did it ever come about, I wonder, that I got the notion that in this clock there lived a strange creature, which was Eternity? Somehow it just occurred to me one day the that the word it said when it ticked, a four syllable word with the emphasis on alternate syllables, was et-ERN-it-Y, et-ERN-it-Y. Did I know the word, then?
   It was odd that I should discover eternity in this way, long before I knew what eternity was, and even before I had learned the proposition that all men are mortal – yes, while I was actually living in eternity myself. It was as if a fish were suddenly to discover the water it swam in. I mentioned this once to my grandfather one day when we happened to be alone in the living-room.
   “Do you understand the clock, grandfather?” I asked.
   “Here in Brekkukot we know this clock only very slightly,” he replied.
   “We only know that it tells the days and the hours right down to second. But your grandmother's great-uncle, who owned this clock for sixty-five years, told me that the previous owner had said that it once told the phases of the moon – before some watchmaker got at it. Old folk farther back in your grandmother's family used to maintain that this clock could foretell marriages and deaths; but I don't take that too seriously, my boy.”
– from The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness (1957)

 Image via Reddit

15 September 2014

Ice spires, double sunrises, methane seas

...the ice spires of Callisto; Verona Rupes a great cliff on Miranda, a tiny moon of Uranus; the weird sunrises and sunsets of Mercury; the equatorial mountain range on Iapetus; the asteroid Hektor; Herschel Crater on Mimas; the methane seas of Titan; and, of course, the fabulous geysers of Enceladus.
– phenomena nominated as candidates for sixth and seventh place in a list of wonders of the solar system.
And so they tell us that Anaxagoras answered a man who was...asking why one should choose rather to be born than not – “for the sake of viewing the heavens and the whole order of the universe.”
– from the Eudemian Ethics of Aristotle, quoted by Jonathan Glover.

Image: geysers on Enceladus. NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute via wikimedia.

13 September 2014

A small but crucial part of everywhere

     Three movements of Symphony 41 pass by...And then the finale, its four modest notes. Do, re, fa, mi: half a jumbled scale. Too simple to be called invented. But the thing spills out into the world like one of those African antelopes that fall from the womb, still wet with afterbirth but already running.
     Young Peter props up on his elbows, ambushed by a memory from the future. The shuffled half scale gathers mass; it sucks up other melodies into its gravity. Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag. At two minutes, a trapdoor opens underneath the boy. The first floor of the house dissolves above a gaping hole. Boy, stereo, speaker boxes, the love seat he sits on: all hang in place, floating on the gusher of sonority pouring into the room.
      Five viral strands propagate, infecting the air with runaway joy. At three and a half minutes, a hand scoops  Peter up and lifts him high above the blocked vantage of his days...
      At six minutes into the amazement, the give galloping melodies align in a quintuple fugue. Lines echo and overlap, revealing where the music has been heading from the opening Do. They plait together too tightly for Peter's ear to make out everything that happens inside the five-way weave. The sound surrounds him, and Peter is immanent, inside it all, a small but crucial part of everywhere...

-- from Orfeo by Richard Powers (2014)

9 September 2014

Dream maps

Aboriginal paintings are maps of land. It is necessary, however, to define precisely what is meant by a 'map' in this context. The danger is in transferring too literally a Western concept of topographical map on to Aboriginal cultural forms and making them into something they are not. Paintings are often discussed as if they were bird's-eye views of particular areas of land, as though reflecting an Aboriginal tradition of aerial photography. Seeing Aboriginal paintings from this perspective is superficially inviting because it provides a way in which people from another culture can find meaning in Aboriginal art. It is possible to relate nearly all Aboriginal art to landscape. But taken too far the analogy between Aboriginal art and maps can mislead because it oversimplifies and gives the wrong emphasis.

From an Aboriginal perspective the land itself is a sign system. The Dreamtime ancestors existed before the landscape took form; indeed, it is they who conceived it and gave it meaning. Rather than being topographical representations of landforms, Aboriginal paintings are conceptual representations which influence the way in which landscape in understood. When Aboriginal paintings do represent features of the landscape, they depict them not in their topographical relations to one another but in relation to their mythological significance.
-- from Aborginal Art by Howard Morphy (1998)

Image: Warlugulong (1976) by Clifford Possum and Tim Leura via NGV.

P.S. A comment from 2007 by Andrew Ray on the work of Rover Thomas.

8 September 2014

Wondrous strange

In Hamlet the appearance of the ghost of the dead king leads Horatio to say, “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange.” The unexpected he calls by both its names: wondrous and strange...Hamlet answers him with a remarkable line that picks up Horatio's phrase “wondrous strange.” He says, “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.” The moment of wonder or the appearance of a stranger is the classic opportunity for fear. Yet just as hospitality makes the stranger welcome and testifies to the empirical experience that on the whole this has not proved disastrous, so too the experience of wonder welcomes the strange as a stranger is welcomed. 
from Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences by Philip Fisher (1998)

Image: Brocken spectre with a glory. Σ64 via wikimedia

6 September 2014

"Surfing for the sublime"

Volunteers for Isis are surfing for the sublime and all that is lacking in the jaded, tired world of democratic liberalism, especially on the margins where Europe’s immigrants mostly live. Many are just “vacationers” for jihad, going to Syria over school breaks or holidays for the thrill of adventure and a semblance of glory. The beheadings are doing what the images of the collapsing twin towers did for al-Qaida, turning terror into a display of triumph over and through death and destruction. In Burke’s sense, a display of the sublime. As philosopher Javier Gomá Lanzón recently mused: is this sense of the sublime part of Isis’s attraction? Is the west’s failing its cynicism about a visceral rather than purely intellectual quest for meaning?
-- from Jihad's Fatal Attraction by Scott Atran

Update 15 Jan 2015: interview with Atran in Nature.

5 September 2014

The Lady of the Cold

They went out on to the landing-stage and sniffed towards the sea, The evening sky was green all over, and all the world seemed to be made of thin glass. All was silent, nothing stirred, and slender stars were shining everywhere and twinkling in the ice. It was terribly cold.

Yes, she's on her way, said Too-ticky. “We'd better get inside.”...

Far out on the ice came the Lady of the Cold, She was pure white, like the candles, but if one looked at her through the right pane she became red, and seen through the left one she was pale green.

Suddenly Moomintroll felt the pane become so cold that it hurt, and he drew back his snout in rather a fright.

They sat down by the stove and waited.

“Don't look,” said Too-ticky...

The Lady of the Cold was walking past the bathing-house. Perhaps she did cast an eye through the window, because an icy draught suddenly swept through the room and darkened the red-hot stove for a moment. Then it was over...

The Lady of the Cold was standing by the reeds. Her back was turned, and she was bending down over the snow.

“It's the squirrel.” said Too-ticky. “He's forgotten to keep at home.”

The Lady of the Cold turned her beautiful face towards the squirrel and distractedly scratched him behind one ear. Bewitched, he stared back at her, straight into her cold blue eyes. The Lady of the Cold smiled and continued on her way.

But she left the foolish little squirrel lying stiff and numb with all his paws in the air...

“He's quite dead,” said Little My matter-of-factly...

“At least he saw something beautiful before he died,” said Moomintroll in a trembling voice...

“This squirrel will become earth all in his time” [said Too-ticky kindly]. “And still later on there'll grow trees from him, with new squirrels skipping about in them...”
-- from Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson (1957)

3 September 2014

Das Nichts etwast

Quantum Field Theory, writes Alan Lightman, explains how all of space is filled up with 'energy fields,' usually called just 'fields' by physicists:
There is a field for gravity and a field for electricity and magnetism, and so on. What we regard as physical 'matter' is the excitation of the underlying fields. A key point is that according to the laws of quantum physics, all of these fields are constantly jittering a bit—it is an impossibility for a field to be completely dormant—and the jittering causes subatomic particles like electrons and their antiparticles, called positrons, to appear for a brief moment and then disappear again, even when there is no persistent matter. Physicists call a region of space with the lowest possible amount of energy in it the 'vacuum.' But the vacuum cannot be free of fields. The fields necessarily permeate all space. And because they are constantly jittering, they are constantly producing matter and energy, at least for brief periods of time. Thus the 'vacuum' in modern physics is not the void of the ancient Greeks. The void does not exist. Every cubic centimeter of space in the universe, no matter how empty it seems, is actually a chaotic circus of fluctuating fields and particles flickering in and out of existence on the subatomic scale. Thus, at the material level, there is no such thing as Nothingness.

Remarkably, the active nature of the 'vacuum' has been observed in the lab. The principal example lies in the energies of electrons in hydrogen atoms, which can be measured to high accuracy by the light they emit. According to quantum mechanics, the electric and magnetic field of the vacuum is constantly producing short-lived pairs of electrons and positrons. These ghostlike particles pop out of the vacuum into being, enjoy their lives for about one-billionth of one-billionth of a second, and then disappear again.

Image: Shiki 1 by Azuma Makoto via Smithsonian

2 September 2014

A fragile project of making sense

The feeling of intelligibility is like an ocean surrounding the small island of things we truly know
...We are engaged in an ongoing fragile project of making sense

from Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experience by Philip Fisher (1998)

Image: clouds and shadows from the International Space Station. Image by Alexander Gerst via Colossal