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

The Science of Awe

Scientifically speaking, the storm brought me into a state of awe, an emotion that, psychologists are coming to understand, can have profoundly positive effects on people. It happens when people encounter a vast and unexpected stimulus, something that makes them feel small and forces them to revise their mental models of what’s possible in the world. In its wake, people act more generously and ethically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli, like arguments or advertisements, and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general. Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else. And about three-quarters of the time, it’s elicited by nature.
from The Science of Awe by Jake Abrahamson (h/t: FJ)

Image:  Running the Teacups at Dry Meadow Creek, Sierra Nevada, California. Wallpapercavern via lovethesepics.com

10 October 2014

A headlong rush

The sense of a permanent power of transcendence over all limits — of openness to the infinite — is…inseparable from the experience of consciousness. However, this sense is countered by two other circumstances that work together to shape our experience: the anticipation of death and the impenetrability of existence…immeasurably increase each other’s terrors, closing every exit to escape or solace. Together, they impart to our lives the character of a headlong rush, from one enigma to another, seemingly endless and open at the start, then startlingly brief when reviewed in memory toward the end. Everything in this combination of mortality and impenetrability underlies our imprisonment within the all too finite particulars of the decaying body and of our accidental place in society and in history.
— from The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound by Roberto Unger (2007)

Excerpts from Unger's Religion of the Future (2014) were published by openDemocracy here.

Photo via EnglishRussia

9 October 2014

Beyond the rings of Saturn

The hexagon on Saturn is a six-sided hurricane sixty miles deep [and with a circumference that could accommodate] four Earths. It’s ringed by winds of ammonia and hydrogen blowing at 220mph. The storm was seen by the Voyager spacecraft when they passed by in the early 80s. That was the last time until recently that sunlight graced the north pole of Saturn, which takes 30 of our years to make one circuit of the Sun. Soon after the Voyagers departed winter descended. Saturn’s rings tipped away from us, plunging the north pole into fifteen years of darkness. Without sunlight, astronomers were limited to infrared images. They showed the hexagon was still there. But what is it? 
The hexagon is a narrow jet stream that circles the north pole. Researchers think that friction with the clouds on either side of it creates eddies — mini-storms — that push the jet stream into a wave-like shape as it spins around. By spinning water columns at different speeds, scientists have been able to reproduce the six-sided pattern in the lab. In January 2009 the sun began its slow rise in Saturn’s north. Summer was coming. The Cassini spacecraft was there to see it [and passed] right over the storm for a closer look.
— from Storm chasing on Saturn by Dennis Overbye et al.
Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travellers, maps of the celestial bodies.
— from a letter by Johannes Kepler to Galileo Galileo written in 1610, cited by Ross Andersen.

Image: NASA

7 October 2014


I am still new to the neighbourhood of salmon, cedar and raven, and I won’t claim any insight into [the world of wild animals] more profound that this: I feel their absence when I leave, and it’s their presence that always draws me back again.
— from False Idyll by J.B.MacKinnon (2012). In Nature Pixelated (2014) Diane Ackerman relishes technology’s scope, reach, novelty, and remedies, but is concerned that, entranced by the internet and other technologies, the human brain:
has lost touch with the body, lost the intimacy of the senses, lost a visceral sense of being one life form among many on a delicately balanced [sic] planet. A big challenge for us in the Anthropocene will be reclaiming that sense of presence. Not to forgo high-speed digital life, but balance it with slow hours of just being outside, surrounded by nature, and watching what happens next. 
Because something wonderful always happens. When a sense of presence steals up the bones, one enters a mental state where needling worries soften, careers slow their cantering, and the imaginary line between us and the rest of nature dissolves. Then for whole moments one may see nothing but snow, gathering thick and wet along the limbs of an old magnolia. Or, indoors, one may watch how a vase full of tulips, whose genes have traveled eons and silk roads, arch their spumoni-colored ruffles and nod gently when the furnace gusts. On the periodic table of the heart, somewhere between wonderon and unattainium, lies presence, which one doesn’t so much take as steep in, like a romance, and without which one can live just fine, but not thrive. Those sensory bridges need to stay sharp, not just for our physical survival, but so we feel fully engaged and alive.

Image: Fjallabak Nature Reserve, Iceland via airpano.com

6 October 2014

"The birds are the opposite of time"

The lecture ends, the musicians raise their instruments, and the crystal liturgy begins. Two birds start a predawn song they’ve sung since long before human time. The clarinet channels a blackbird; the violin, a nightingale. The cello skates about in a fifteen-note loop of ghostly harmonics, while the piano cycles through a rhythm of seventeen values, divided into a pattern of twenty-nine chords. This whirling solar system would take four hours to unfold its complete circuit of nested revolutions. But the movement lasts a mere two minutes — a sliver between two infinities.
— from a description of Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen (1941) in Orfeo by Richard Powers (2014)
Landscape is the culture that contains all human culture
— Barry Lopez as quoted by John Luther Adams.

Image: Sunset in winter over Yellowstone Lake, Frank Walker, 1978, via NPS

2 October 2014

"Wonder is a horizon-effect of the known, the unknown and the unknowable"

Wonder is a feature of the middle distance of explanation, outside the ordinary, short of the irrational or unsolvable. What falls into the far distance of the irrational, the unsolvable and the unthinkable, can, in time, move into the horizon of wonder or even into the core of the ordinary. Wonder is both personally and historically a movable line between what is so well known that it seems commonplace and what is too far out in the sea of truth even to have been sighted except as something unmentionable. This moving line, as it changes from period to period, lights up our interest and passion for explanation. It attracts us to itself. It is the horizon of the ordinary and the everyday which is constantly changing its location. The feeling of wonder, when and where it surprises us, notifies us of just where the boundary is at the moment. This we could call the part played by wonder in drawing us to the zone of unsolved but solvable questions.  
from Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences by Philip Fisher (1998). See also here.

Image: OCEANA/Carlos Minguell