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).