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