30 December 2015

a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours

This part of Rebecca Gigg's reflection on the death of a whale is a strong taste of the anti-wonder that humans can create:
I read that estuarine beluga in Canada had been found to be so noxious that their carcasses were classified as toxic waste for disposal. Tissue sampling of sperm whales around the world revealed quantities of cadmium that would kill living cells in a lab. (Cadmium, a compound found in paint and industrial manufacturing, and a by-product of burning fossil fuels, causes metal fume fever, fluid in the lungs, kidney disease and cancer in humans.) The most polluted animals on the face of the earth were thought to be American killer whales in Puget Sound, a place where the starfish had been observed actually melting. The data supported a highly improbable hypothesis, even given the levels of contaminants in the area: that the whales had been chewing batteries or drinking flame retardant to supplement their marine dinners.

Additional note, 14 Jan 2016: UK's last resident killer whales 'doomed to extinction'

27 December 2015

The gift of time

One of the most important characteristics distinguishing man from all other forms of nature is his knowledge of transitoriness, of beginning and end, and therefore of the gift of time. In man, transitory life attains its peak of animation, of soul power, so to speak. This does not mean man alone would have a soul. Soul quality pervades all beings. But man’s soul is most awake in his knowledge of the inter-changeability of the terms “existence” and “transitoriness.”
Thomas Mann

Image: In the Orchard by James Guthrie

21 December 2015

Wonders of the Anthropocene

Certainly, the Anthropocene is rich with new sources of wonder...This autumn I went down the Boulby potash mine, on the north-east coast of England. There immense tunnel networks – or “drift”, in the lexis of mining – extend both inland and offshore. They run up to 1350 metres in depth, and up to 8 kilometres out under the North Sea, following the potash and rock-salt seams laid down during the evaporation of the Zechstein Sea some 200 million years ago.  
The mining is done by £3.2 million machines, which – at least to my zoomorphic eye – resemble Komodo dragons, low-slung and sharp-toothed...Years later, when a machine has been exhausted by the demands of its labour,... it is driven into a worked-out tunnel of rock salt, and abandoned. Slowly, the pressure of depth squeezes the tunnel, and translucent salt flows around the machine, encasing it. Thus we lay down a future fossil of the Anthropocene: a machine-relic in a halite cocoon.
Desecration phrasebook Robert Macfarlane

10 December 2015

This is water

...what if space — perhaps at something like the Planck scale — is just a plain old network, with no explicit quantum amplitudes or anything? It doesn’t sound so impressive or mysterious — but it certainly takes a lot less information to specify such a network: you just have to say which nodes are connected to which other ones. 
But how could this be what space is made of? First of all, how could the apparent continuity of space on larger scales emerge? Actually, that’s not very difficult: it can just be a consequence of having lots of nodes and connections. It’s a bit like what happens in a fluid, like water. On a small scale, there are a bunch of discrete molecules bouncing around. But the large-scale effect of all these molecules is to produce what seems to us like a continuous fluid.
What is space-time really? Stephen Wolfram

Harlequin ghost pipefish from underseaimages

7 December 2015

‘Death needs to be in the air for us to be fully alive.’

Hunting is often a charged and divisive topic in Britain. In Being a Beast, Charles Foster writes bravely and with honesty about what he has experienced as its attractions:
A man with a gun sees, hears, smells and intuits much more than the same man with a bird book and a pair of binoculars. Death needs to be in the air for us to be fully alive. Perhaps this is because many hunts, before we started to go with high velocity weapons after harmless herbivores, carried a serious risk of the hunter dying, and every neuron had to be strained to keep the hunter physically alive. Perhaps it is because death is the one thing that, without any caveats, we will share with the animals; perhaps the first, exhilarating fruit of that perfect reciprocity is an ability to sense the world as the prey does: it sometimes feels as if you’ve got two nervous systems running ecstatically in parallel — yours and the stalked elk’s.
Speculating on the psychological impact of the transformation in the distant past of humans from prey animal to predator, Yuval Noah Harari may light on something true:
Most top predators on the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.

3 December 2015

'Existentially primary'

Neurological and informatic models of subjectivity will no doubt have their uses and values, as did mechanistic models of the world before them. Yet, like their mechanistic forebears, these theories are grounded in an insistence that subjectivity is a secondary phenomenon whose explanation resides in something prior. Chalmers wants to insist, along with Descartes and Locke before him, on the primacy of subjective experience or, as the philosopher Bitbol puts it, ‘that consciousness is existentially primary’. Rather than being something that can be ‘described by us in the third person as if we were separated from it’, Bitbol argues that consciousness ‘is what we dwell in and what we live through in the first person’. This feels reminiscent of what the German philosopher Edmund Husserl in 1936 called the ‘life-world’ of conscious experience, and I suspect that it is where we must look to locate the source of our selves. But I also expect that philosophers and scientists will be arguing the point for centuries to come.
I feel therefore I am Margaret Wertheim

See also Is quantum physics behind your brain’s ability to think?

Photo: Europa and Jupiter's Great Spot, Voyager 1, March 3, 1979. NASA

Sort sol

The switch in recognition is eerie: I go from seeing rushing patterns in the sky to the realization that they are made of thousands of beating hearts and eyes and fragile frames of feather and bone. I watch the cranes scratching their beaks with their toes and think of how the starling flocks that pour into reed beds like grain turn all of a sudden into birds perching on bowed stems, bright-eyed, their feathers spangled with white spots that glow like small stars. I marvel at how confusion can be resolved by focusing on the things from which it is made. The magic of the flocks is this simple switch between geometry and family.
The Human Flock Helen MacDonald

1 December 2015

Shadows of the sky

Thinking about neutrinos, I also came across this:
This light tells us much, but I think in the course of time still more delicate and subtle mediums will be found to exist, and through these we shall see into the shadows of the sky. 
Photo NSF / B. Gudbjartsson via APOD

29 November 2015

'Such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before'

Re-reading Philip Fisher — Wonder is a horizon-effect of the known, the unknown and the unknowable — I was turning it over in contrast with a well-known passage from Walking by Henry David Thoreau:
My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence...
Reading on, I came again to a passage which I hadn't thought about in a while:
We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold grey day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest brightest morning sun-light fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon, and on the leaves of the shrub-oaks on the hill-side, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.
On this November day, however, there has been no break in the grey, cold and wind.

27 November 2015

A natural compass

Chinese scientists say that they have found a biological compass needle — a rod-shaped complex of proteins that can align with Earth’s weak magnetic field — in the cells of fruit flies. 
The biocompass — whose constituent proteins exist in related forms in other species — could explain a long-standing puzzle: how animals such as birds and insects sense magnetism.
Image: Qin et al. Nature Mater. (2015)

25 November 2015

'Attentiveness can rival the most powerful magnifying lens'

You can look at mosses the same way you can listen deeply to water running over rocks…  
Having words for the forms [of the moss] makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal you can see more clearly… 
I find the language of microscopic description compelling in its clarity. The edge of a leaf is not simply uneven; there is a glossary of specific words for the appearance of a leaf margin: dentate for large, coarse teeth, serrate for a sawblade edge, serrulate if the teeth are fine and even, ciliate for a fringe along the edge. A leaf folded by accordion pleats is plicate, complanate when flattened as if squashed between two pages of a book.
Gathering Moss, Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2003

Image of Barbula fallax via here

23 November 2015

Surfing uncertainty

Visual information goes to the visual cortex, so there are a huge number of connections going from the thalamus into the visual cortex. But here’s the surprise: there are ten times as many going in the opposite direction.
David Eagleman
A skilled surfer stays ‘in the pocket’; close to, yet just ahead of the place where the wave is breaking. This provides power and, when the waves breaks, it does not catch her. The brain’s task is not dissimilar. By constantly attempting to predict the incoming sensory signal we become able…to learn about the world around us and to engage that world in thought and action. Successful, world-engaging prediction is not easy. It depends crucially upon simultaneously estimating the state of the word and our own sensory uncertainty. But get that right, and active agents can both know and behaviourally engage their worlds, safely riding wave upon wave of sensory stimulation.
Andy Clark

Image: moillusions.com

20 November 2015


When an observer doesn't immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language, into the vocabulary and syntactical framework we all employ when trying to define our experiences, there's a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen the meaning of an experience...
The first lesson in learning how to see more deeply into a landscape was to be continuously attentive, and to stifle the urge to stand outside the event, to instead stay within the event, leaving its significance to be resolved later; the second lesson, for me, was to notice how often I asked my body to defer to the dictates of my mind, how my body's extraordinary ability to discern textures and perfumes, to discriminate among tones and colours in the world outside itself, was dismissed by the rational mind.
The Invitation, Barry Lopez, Granta 133, Autumn 2015
The crossing from nature to culture and vice versa has always stood wide open. It leads across an easily accessible bridge: the practising life.
Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life, 2013

Photo by author

16 November 2015

Still in movement, stopped and going

Today, driving north next to green fields and blackthorn blossom for mile after mile, I thought that, if I could, I would like to travel through the whole season [of spring] like this. Caught up in time but at ease with it, in step and moving through the morning of the world, as it makes free room for half of every year in the northern hemisphere. To be out and about with the spring as it does its world-work. Wouldn't you do that if you could? Haven't we always wanted to lean towards the sun? And, better still, to feel spring coming, its arrival, and its passage onwards not by standing in one place as we mostly do in our settled ways, but for one year to travel with it, sometimes ahead of its green gears, sometimes behind, but to be most often with the season as it breaks over everything so that all might live beneath it...
Tim Dee in Archipelago 10

11 November 2015

'A temporary form created out of wind and ocean and moon'

The view that consciousness gets is a very partial, and in some ways inaccurate, reflection of all the activity that is going on ‘below stairs’...What consciousness sees is not what’s there, but a useful, plausible guess about what’s probably there – which in this case is wrong. Out of the swirl, the body-brain constructs a semi-stable image, our ‘World’, which isn’t an accurate representation of ‘what’s out there’, but a tissue of useful but fallible predictions about how things would change if I did various things like moved my eyeballs, or reached out my hand, or smiled. I actually see the world in terms not of what it is, so much, as what I expect to be able to do about it.
Effing the ineffable Guy Claxton

6 November 2015


A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa—to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, through pines and nuthatches and mushrooms. This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around.
'The Grammar of Animacy' in Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2015

Puhpowee is the Potawatomi word for “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight” — a word for rising, for emergence.

See also Tongues in trees, books in running brooks

5 November 2015

'I wandered...till I got out of my knowledge'

Earlier this year I posted a short passage from John Clare that has become quite well known (thanks in large part to Iain Sinclair). Here is a longer section of the text from which it is taken, in Clare's own spelling:
I loved this solitary disposition from a boy and felt a curosity to wander about spots where I had never been before I remember one incident of this feeling when I was very young it cost my parents some anxiety it was in summer and I started off in the morning to get rotten sticks from the woods but I had a feeling to wander about the fields and I indulgd it I had often seen the large heath calld Emmonsales stretching its yellow furze from my eye into unknown solitudes when I went with the mere openers and my curosity urgd me to steal an oppertunity to explore it that morning I had imagind that the worlds end was at the edge of the orison and that a days journey was able to find it so I went on with my heart full of hopes pleasures and discoverys expecting when I got to the brink of the world that I could look down like looking into a large pit and see into its secrets the same as I believd I could see heaven by looking into the water  So I eagerly wanderd on and rambled among the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers and birds seemd to forget me and I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one and shining in a different quarter of the sky still I felt no fear  my wonder seeking happiness had no room for it  I was finding new wonders every minute and was walking in a new world often wondering to my self that I had not found the end of the old one...

1 November 2015

'Stay close to the cold stream'

Dawn lights up the room. I close my book and sleep
dreaming of Bell Mountain and full of tenderness 
How do you grow old living with failure and disgrace?
Stay close to the cascading [stream]: cold, shimmering. 
Chant by Wang An-shih translated by David Hinton

Photo by Rob Pedley

26 October 2015

'So many voices proclaiming to us...'

The beasts of the forest retire to the thickets; the birds hide themselves beneath the foliage of the trees, or in the crevices of the rocks. Yet, amid this apparent silence, when we lend an attentive ear to the most feeble sounds transmitted by the air, we hear a dull vibration, a continual murmur, a hum of insects, that fill…the lower strata of the air. Nothing is better fitted to make man feel the extent and power of organic life. Myriad insects creep upon the soil, and flutter round the plants parched by the ardour of the Sun. A confused noise issues from every bush, from the decayed trunks of trees, from the clefts of the rock, and from the ground undermined by lizards, millipedes and [caecilians]. There are so many voices proclaiming to us, that all nature breathes; and that, under a thousand different forms, life is diffused throughout the cracked and dusty soil, as well as in the bosom of the waters, and in the air that circulates around us.
from the Personal Narrative of Alexander von Humboldt, published 1819-29.

In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf links this to the final paragraph of Darwin's Origin

A short account of Humboldt's influence on Darwin and an online edition of the Narrative are here.

Picture via here

23 October 2015


"If you don't believe me," says the stone
"just ask the leaf, it will tell you the same.
Ask a drop of water, it will say what the leaf has said.
And, finally, ask a hair from your own head.
I am bursting with laughter, yes, laughter, vast laughter,
although I don't know how to laugh."
from Conversation with a Stone by Wisława Szymborska

22 October 2015


The Copernican principle states that, on the large scale, the universe is homogenous and is nowhere special.  But it is reported that at least three phenomena call that into question:
A void almost 2 billion light years wide called the CMB coldspot. 
A structure strung out over 4 billion light years containing 73 quasars known as the Huge Large Quasar Group. 
A group of gamma-ray burst emitting galaxies that form a ring 5.6 billion light years across – 6% of the size of the entire visible universe.
Some physicists argue that these phenomena may be evidence for brane theory  the idea that what we perceive as our universe is a single four dimensional membrane floating in a sea of similar (mem)branes spanning multiple extra dimensions.

Image via Daily Galaxy

18 October 2015

Deep song

Whale song has artistic elements beyond simple communication of information. For example, since each whale theme ends with consistent final sounds, the phrases can be said to “rhyme” in a way akin to human poetry. Is such ornamental courtship behavior just an illustration of the “male quality” valued by hard-line evolutionists? Or does it show that evolution, over thousands of years, is able to produce art if there are no serious predators around?
Edward Sapir quoted by David Rothenberg in Whales synchorize their songs across oceans...

Image by Mike Deal

17 October 2015

Bee Orchid

At 10x [magnification] the body shape of the flower was still just about legible. I could make out a covering of fine hairs. Whatever surface they were growing from looked papular and spongy. But I was drawn to the dark inverted triangle at the top, which looked as pubic as anything in a Palaeolithic fertility figure. Against my will I was already sexualising the flower, caught up in the orchid family’s famously sensual aura. At 50x the blooms were transformed into spangled landscapes. The individual hairs were clearly visible now, and tipped with iridescence, as if they carried tiny globules of dew. The whole surface of the plant had the glister of organza. And when I shifted to the dark patch, which now filled my whole field of view, I spotted two glowing crescents on either edge. They were made up of individual spots of blue, like tiny LED lights. I wondered if the light from the microscope lamp was producing these effects, but they were still there when I turned it off. A few minutes later, with the lamp back on, I noticed an extraordinary aroma rising from the blooms – musky, sweaty, meaty. I am sure this was the allomone – a chemical evolved in the plant to exactly mimic the female wasp’s sexual pheromone, and made perceptible to the human nose by the heat of the lamp.
excerpt from Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey

See also posts about plants including Led by the Nose on the blog of barely imagined beings. And here's a brief profile I wrote of Mabey last year.

Photo by Hectonichus

15 October 2015


It is the strangest of all places, and there is everything in the world to learn about it. It can keep us awake and jubilant with questions for millennia ahead if we learn not to meddle and not to destroy. Our great hope is in being such a young species, thinking in language only a short while, still learning, still growing up.
Seven Wonders by Lewis Thomas, before 1983

Weorold, the Old English for 'world', is a compound of wer, 'man', and eld, 'age'.  Thomas suggests the modern world itself as the first of his seven wonders, and notes that 'world' is derived from the Indo-European root wiros, which meant 'man' (apparently, the correct spelling is wiHrós).

Image: map of space debris orbiting Earth via Reddit

14 October 2015

'Engaging fully with the world, within time'

[In O nata lux] Lauridsen has masterfully balanced numerous different tendencies in the listener so that no single instance of melody springs univocally into the foreground.  The melody is effortlessly recognisable, but it also functions as overtones to other phrases, and as echoes of other phrases. It is part of the larger flow, and that whole flow is indicating possibilities of tones beyond itself. We find ourselves releasing our usual constraining focus of attention, our agenda-driving volition, our control over our attention in order to absorb the nuances that we cannot consciously trace out. As we do, the everyday gestalt structure of our perception is subtly but radically altered: the musical foreground and background blend together, and as they do, the distinction between listener and music as well seems to dissipate. The perceptual field temporarily suffuses what Merleau-Ponty called the "second background" of one's body. Then, when the flow of music holds back, we are brought with it into a momentary stillness of rare tranquility and openness to our surroundings, with an attitude of wonder — at least temporarily. The experience is precisely not escaping the changing natural world into an eternity beyond it. It is engaging fully with the world, within time.
'Tempos of Eternity' by Barbara C. Goodrich in Art, Aesthetics and the Brain (2015)

Photo by author

13 October 2015

Life from geometry

One of the things always fascinated me about Escher’s work is his representation of infinity. Infinity plays a big role in many things I do such as in cosmology, and here [Development II] we have a picture in which he has a pattern of hexagons which recedes, or gets small and smaller, until infinity is represented by the infinite crowing at the central point. There’s another feature here where you have this very geometrical structure in the middle...and as you work you way out in the picture out these hexagons become living creatures. Something Escher was always playing with — this life coming out of inanimate geometry if you like.
Roger Penrose The Art of The Impossible: M C Escher and Me

Thanks to LC

12 October 2015

Integrative experience

Carl Jung and many before him would call the integrative experience my soul, but not wanting to claim too much or depend on a word worn smooth with use, I prefer to call it my poem-self. The fusion of my three ordinary states of being heightens each one of them, and produces an excitement frequently so intense that I can’t bear it for too long at a stretch, but must get up and run outside for rests from it, then come back for some more. The poem I write during this experience will contain the experience, the more strongly the better the poem is, and will continue to contain it after the trance has left me. What I create, really, is a new body made of words and the potent arrangement of words, in which my soul as it was at a particular moment will go on existing.
A Defence of Poetry by Les Murray (1998).

In Murray's account, the three states of being are the waking consciousness mind, the occult mind of dreams, and the body.

Image: Wright Brothers' Glider Test, 1902 via NASA

11 October 2015

A perfit description of the Coelestiall Orbes

This orbe of starres fixed infinitely up extendeth hit self in altitude sphericallye, and therefore immovable the palace of foelicitye garnished with perpetuall shininge glorious lights innumerable farr excelling our sonne both in quantitye and quality the very court of coelestiall angelles devoide of griefe and replenished with perfite endless ioye the habitacle for the elect.
legend by Thomas Digges from his 1576 translation of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus.

Digges, writes David Wootton in The Invention of Science, was the first competent astronomer to explicitly propose an infinite universe (Nicholas of Cusa had argued that an omnipotent God would make an infinite universe, but this was a philosophical, not an astronomical argument).

10 October 2015

Like rain it sounded

...It loosened acres, lifted seas
The sites of Centres stirred
Then like Elijah rode away
Upon a Wheel of Cloud.
Like rain it sounded till it curved Emily Dickinson

Thanks to DK

Image: NASA/ISS 16

9 October 2015

A new idea of reality

Richard Feynman once suggested that nature is like an infinite onion. With each new experiment, we peel another layer of reality; because the onion is infinite, new layers will continue to be discovered forever. Another possibility is that we’ll get to the core. Perhaps physics will end someday, with the discovery of a “theory of everything” that describes nature on all scales, no matter how large or small. We don’t know which future we will live in. But the observation of neutrino masses tells us that the adventure of discovery in which we are currently involved will not end here. There are still fundamental mysteries to be resolved.
What Neutrinos Reveal Lawrence Krauss

Photo of Wolfgang Pauli via flickr

2 October 2015


The pecan groves give, again and again, Such generosity might seem incompatible with the process of evolution, which involves the imperative of individual survival. But we make a grave error if we try to separate individual wellbeing from the health of the whole. The gift of abundance from pecans is a gift to themselves. By sating squirrels and people, the trees are ensuring their own survival.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

30 September 2015


Murray Shanahan finishes his book The Technological Singularity like this:
As I watch a wren through the kitchen window, clinging to a hawthorn bush, I hope that we never lose sight of the things we already have that still matter, whatever the future holds.
This sends me back to Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, who quote Max Nicholson:
The wren cannot adequately be described as a bird of woodlands, gardens, field, moors, marshes, cliffs or wastelands — although it is all of these — but must be looked at rather as a bird of cervices and crannies, of stems and twigs and branches, of woodpiles and fallen trees, of hedge-bottoms and banks, walls and boulders, wherever these may occur. Wrens cut across, or rather scramble under, the imaginary boundaries we are accustomed to draw between different types of country.
Cocker and Mabey also quote Jeremy Mynott on the St Kilda wren:
The bird is surely the wild spirit of the place. After all it has been there some 5000 years, whereas human occupation is thought to have lasted a 1000 years. Its piercing song can already be heard from among the rocks as you first approach the islands by boat, even above the noise of crashing waves and the cries of a million seabirds. The wren seems elemental — a tiny persistent life in these desolate landscapes governed by the huge impersonal forces of wind, tide and weather.
Image: RSPB

29 September 2015

'On the edge of what we know...'

The heat of black holes is a quantum effect upon an object, the black hole, which is gravitational in nature. It is the individual quanta of space, the elementary grains of space, the vibrating 'molecules' that heat the surface of black holes and generate black hole heat. This phenomenon involves three sides of the problem: quantum mechanics, general relativity and thermal science. The heat of black holes is like the Rosetta Stone of physics, written in a combination of three languages — Quantum, Gravitational and Thermodynamic — still awaiting decipherment in order to reveal the true nature of time.
Carlo Rovelli

Image via wikipedia

27 September 2015

An augmented future

I think [genetic] augmentation will actually increase diversity. 
Some of it will be driven by need or ambition. People who want to go to space may want super-strong bones to protect them from osteoporosis in low gravity, while people who go to live at the bottom of the ocean will want a different set of modifications. And people who want to be super bankers are probably going to want a different set than the people who want to be super athletes. There isn’t a best kind of human, just like there isn’t a best kind of car. 
If you’re going to worry – which I do all the time – I would worry about adult augmentation, because it will spread fast. If I were to augment a child, an embryo, it will take 20 years before they have any significant impact on society.
George Church

Image via pinterest

25 September 2015

Miracle enough

My wife and I spend summers on a small island in Maine, far from any town. At night, the skies are quite dark. Sometimes, when there is no wind blowing and the tidal flow is small and the ocean is very still, I can see the reflection of the stars in the water near our dock. At such moments, the water looks like a dark carpet with a million tiny sparkles of light, which gently bob and ripple with each passing wave. Even though I know all the science, I am totally mesmerized and awed. For me, that is miracle enough.
Splitting the Moon Alan Lightman

23 September 2015

Varieties of Wonder

I recently took part in a panel discussion titled Varieties of Wonder. The script for my opening comments is here.

Image of Balinese masks by Gunawan Kartapranata

21 September 2015

'A vacuum is never really empty'

In... quantum field theory, a vacuum is never really empty... It is an arena in which quantum fluctuations produce evanescent energies and elementary particles. 
These short-lived phenomena might seem to be a ghostly form of reality. But they do have measurable effects, including electromagnetic ones. That’s because these fleeting excitations of the quantum vacuum appear as pairs of particles and antiparticles with equal and opposite electric charge, such as electrons and positrons. An electric field applied to the vacuum distorts these pairs to produce an electric response, and a magnetic field affects them to create a magnetic response. This behaviour gives us a way to calculate, not just measure, the electromagnetic properties of the quantum vacuum and, from them, to derive the value of c.
Why is light so fast? Sydney Perkowitz

Black Square by Kazimir Malevitch. Tate

20 September 2015

'Multifarious descriptions of many things'

We don’t need an answer to the question of life’s meaning, just as we don’t need a theory of everything. What we need are multifarious descriptions of many things, further descriptions of phenomena that change the aspect under which they are seen, that light them up and let us see them anew. 
There is no theory of everything Simon Critchley

Image: Seascape study with raincloud by John Constable

18 September 2015

Not death

This image of Pluto from the New Horizons mission brings the following to mind:
The whole landscape, as far as the eye can reach, is a realisation of a fearful dream of desolation and lifelessness — not a dream of death, for that implies evidence of pre-existing life, but a vision of a world upon which the light of life has never dawned.
The words are from The Moon Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite by James Nasmyth and James Carpenter, 1874

Image: NASA

15 September 2015

A rope over an abyss

The largest, and most provocative sense in which a technological singularity might be an existential opportunity can only be grasped by stepping outside the human perspective altogether and adopting a more cosmological point of view. It is surely the height of anthropocentric thinking to suppose that the story of matter in this corner of the universe climaxes with human society and the myriad living brains [sic] embedded in it, marvellous as they are.  Perhaps matter still has a long way to go on the scale of complexity. Perhaps there are forms of consciousness yet to arise that are, in some sense, superior to our own. Should we recoil from this prospect, or rejoice in it? Can we ever make sense of such an idea?
The Technological Singularity Murray Shanahan (2015)

Image: recreation of figure from Triadic Ballet via pinterest

13 September 2015

Awumbuk, Basorexia, and a cognitive passion

Judging by this extract, The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt-Smith looks like a lot of fun. Whose does not feel better for learning about Awumbuk is the feeling of emptiness after guests depart and Basorexia is the sudden urge to kiss someone? But the section on wonder seems off kilter. Watt-Smitth writes:
With its bewilderment, fear and dazed submission, wonder was thought such an important human experience for God-fearing scholars that when René Descartes made his inventory of the six “primitive passions” in 1649, he gave wonder top billing.
For Descartes, however, wonder was not about bewilderment, fear or dazed submission.  See this by Lorraine Daston:
“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.
Watt-Smith continues:
In the centuries that followed people have tried to reinvest wonder with the cultural authority it once had...But for most today, curiosity, with its urgent need to discover and explain, has eclipsed slack-jawed wonder as an appropriate emotion.
I'd don't doubt the value of curiosity, but I don't think wonder has lost its 'cultural authority.' Here's John Herschel:
Accustomed to trace the operation of general causes, and the exemplification of general laws, in circumstances where the uninformed and uninquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, [the scientist] walks in the midst of wonders: every object which falls in his way elucidates some principle, affords some instruction, and impresses him with a sense of harmony and order.

12 September 2015

'The fixing of the universal light into luminous bodies'

Dining at Mr. Pepys's, Dr. Slayer showed us an experiment of a wonderful nature, pouring first a very cold liquor into a glass, and superfusing on it another, to appearance cold and clear liquor also; it first produced a white cloud, then boiling, divers coruscations and actual flames of fire mingled with the liquor, which being a little shaken together, fixed divers suns and stars of real fire, perfectly globular, on the sides of the glass, and which there stuck like so many constellations, burning most vehemently, and resembling stars and heavenly bodies, and that for a long space. It seemed to exhibit a theory of the eduction of light out of the chaos, and the fixing or gathering of the universal light into luminous bodies. This matter, or phosphorus, was made out of human blood and urine, elucidating the vital flame, or heat in animal bodies. A very noble experiment!
Diary of John Evelyn, December 13, 1685

10 September 2015

'Not solely areas for human invention'

We tend to think of places like the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Gobi, the Sahara, the Mojave, as primitive but there are in fact no primitive or even primeval landscapes. Neither are there permanent landscapes. And nowhere is the land empty or underdeveloped. It cannot be improved upon with technological assistance. The land, an animal that contains other animals, is vigorous and alive. The challenge to us, when we address the land, is to join with cosmologists in their ideas of continuous creation, and with physicist with their ideas of spatial and temporal paradox, to see the subtle grace and mutability of landscapes. They are crucibles of mystery, precisely like the smaller ones that they contain -- the arctic fox, the dwarf birch, the pi-meson; and larger ones that contain them, side by side with such seemingly immutable objects as the Horsehead Nebula in Orion. They are not solely areas for human invention. 
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (1986)

Photo: Residual Bitumen, Suncor South Tailings Pond, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.  From Beautiful Destruction by Louis Helbig.

7 September 2015

'Carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself'

If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.
Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800), quoted in Pandaemonium by Humphrey Jennings

Image: blueprint for the Analytical Engine (1838)

5 September 2015

4 September 2015

'Love is a kind of giving of attention'

We think now that love is a kind of giving of attention. It is usually attention given to some other consciousness but not always. The attention can be to something unconscious even inanimate. But the attention seems often to be called out by a fellow consciousness. Something about it compels attention and rewards attention. That attention is what we call love. Affection, esteem, a passionate caring. At that point the consciousness that is feeling the love has the universe organised for it as if by a kind of polarisation. Then the giving is the getting. The feeling of attentiveness itself is an immediate reward. One gives.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)

1 September 2015

In time of permawar

So you are a reader, a writer, in this, the time of the permawar, searching, among other things, for empathy, for transcendence, for encounters that need not divide us into clans, for stories that can be told around a campfire generous enough for 7 billion, stories that transcend divisions, question the self and the boundaries of groups, stories that are a shared endeavour not at the level of the tribe, but of the human, that remind us we are not adversaries, we are in it together, the great mass murderer, Death, has us all in its sights, and we would do well not to allow ourselves willingly to be its instruments, but instead to recognise one another with compassion, not as predatory cannibals, but as meals for the same shark, each with a limited, precious time to abide, a time that deserves our respect and our wonder, a time that is a story, each of us a story, each of them a story, and each of these other stories, quite possibly, just as unique, just as frightened, as tiny, as vast, as made up as our own.
Mohsin Hamid

Image via here

31 August 2015

Randomly different initial conditions

Modern cosmology involves the idea of quantum genesis — tracing back the cosmic expansion to an origin in a singularity where the space that now contains 100 billion galaxies was smaller than an atom. The inflationary scenario is an adjustment of standard big bang to include an extremely early phase of exponential expansion. The idea was developed to explain why the universe now is very smooth and geometrically flat. Inflation has tentative support from the nature of small temperature variations in cosmic background radiation. If inflation is correct, the universe began as quantum fluctuation. The precursor state would have been an ensemble of quantum fluctuations, perhaps infinite in number, each with randomly different initial conditions. Some of them inflated into large space-times like our own. Others were still born. This process can be timeless and eternal.
Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey (2015)

29 August 2015


There to the east, the sky now glowed. Though it was still dark where they were, indigo filled much of the eastern sky. Then the infusion of gold in the indigo strengthened in intensity, and the whole eastern sky turned a dark bronze, then a dark green; then it brightened, until a blackish green was shot with gold, and brightened again until it was infused with greenish black, or rather a mix or mesh of gold and black, shimmering like cloth of gold seen by twilight. An uncanny sight, clearly, as many of them cried out at it. 
Then the burden off on the eastern horizon lit up as if set on fire, and their cries grew louder than ever. It looked as if the great plateau were burning. This strange fiery dawn swept in vertically, like a gold curtain of light approaching from the east.  Overhead the charcoal circle of E winked on its westernmost point, a brilliant wink of fire that quickly spilled up and down the outer curve of the black circle. And so Tau Ceti reemerged, again very slowly, taking a bit over two hours...Gradually the sky turned the usual royal blue of Aurora's day...
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)

28 August 2015


One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard (1958) quoted in The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton (2015)

Photo by author

27 August 2015


The portal is one of the oldest literary motifs, a staple of metaphysical narratives for thousands of years: the gateway through which a hero passes into another world. I have come to believe that portals are mythic representations of these perceptual openings, fissures that allow us to see, though briefly and darkly, the ancient soul of humankind. To me, this ancient soul is the psychological equipment, abandoned but not absent, with which we once navigated a world where we were both hunters and hunted. To judge by my own fleeting experiences, the land beyond the portal is an enchanting, electrifying place, in which senses and sensations are tightened and stretched, tuned as at no other time to the inner and the outer life.
George Monbiot

Photo by author

26 August 2015

'The map is real...'

Suppose you have a city map. It’s definitely useful. Without it, you might never reach your goal. Is the map a perfect rendering of the city? No. There is no such thing as a two-dimensional, black-and-white city filled with perfectly straight paths and neat angles. But the city itself is real, the map is real, the information in it is mostly valid if simplified, and so the map is unquestionably of practical use. Knowing all this, you probably won’t suffer an existential crisis over the reality of the city or dismiss the contents or the existence of the map as an illusion. The truth is much simpler: your model of the city is helpful but not perfectly accurate.
Build a Brain - Is consciousness and engineering problem? Michael Graziano

Image: Eric Fisher

25 August 2015

'Even the light was different...'

Today I tried something. I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like out here before the change began, what the forest was like when there were still birds, so I called up a simulation in my overlays and walked out among the trees to listen. The noise was incredible. Birds shrieking and singing, things moving in the undergrowth. Even the light was different, thicker somehow, full of smoke and colour.
  Clade by James Bradley
Whooping, Nam throws his arms up in the air and twirls around, his street clothes disappearing, replaced in her overlays by one of his virtual creations, gorgeous feathered wings sprouting from his back, ribbons of light trailing from his hands and feet.

 Image via here

24 August 2015

Strange planets

Methuselah, an exoplanet 12,400 light years away, is three times older than the Earth. Since it was formed within a billion years of the big bang, it's surprising that stars had made enough heavy elements and 'grit' to form a planet. The star 55 Cancri has a super-Earth so hot and dense that a third of the surface is made of carbon crushed into a diamond-like state...GJ 504b is a Jupiter that's farther from its star than Neptune is from the Sun. Even though it's in the deep freeze, it glows a ruddy pink colour because it's shrinking due to gravity. At the other extreme, there's a planet that orbits in darkness around a pulsar, whipping around the stellar corpse every two hours. TrES-2B is a mysteriously dark planet, blacker than coal or ink, and it's not known what chemicals in its atmosphere cause it to absorb 99 per cent of the light falling on it. GJ 1214b is a water world that's completely swaddled in ocean ten times deeper than those on Earth.  Wasp 18b is falling onto its star as its orbit degrades. It will enter the final death spiral in just a million years.
Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey (2015)

Image: NASA

Inner ear

...Lemur and tree-shrew linger in the spine
becoming steps; a track worn in the grass; 
a moment’s pause
before the rain moves in.
from The Inner Ear by John Burnside

Image by author

20 August 2015

Constellations of ingenious machines

Earlier this month Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted the English names of some constellations in the skies of the southern hemisphere. They are 'geeky', having been formally named during the Industrial Revolution. They include:
Antlia, The Air Pump,
Telescopium, The Telescope
Pyxis, The Compass
Microscopium, The Microscope
Fornax, The Lab Furnace
Horologium, The Pendulum Clock

Octans, The Octant
Sextans,The Sextant
Reticulum, The Eyepiece Crosshairs

'Being wrong can be a wonderful thing'

Spiritual bravery is the willingness to go beyond what is traditionally perceived as “right| or “wrong” so as to discern the correct action at each moment…It means to live each moment by balancing head, heart and hand not by the day-to-day dogma that keeps you “in the right’, but being wiling to take the risk with each step that you may be wrong. Being wrong can be a wonderful thing. It’s learning. It’s growth. It is the kind of vulnerability that opens up the space of solidarity. It’s connection
Gehan Macleod of GalGael quoted by Alastair McIntosh and Matt Carmichael in Spiritual Activism

19 August 2015

Cloud city

If you [go] all the way to the top of Venus’s [hostile] atmosphere, you’re rewarded with — shockingly — pleasant, livable conditions. Randomly, at the top of Venus’s clouds is a layer where the temperature and pressure are similar to those on Earth, and because oxygen and nitrogen both rise in Venus’s dense atmosphere (like helium does on Earth), the air in that layer might actually be close to breathable. That’s led some scientists to actually discuss human colonization of Venus’s high atmosphere, building “cities designed to float at about fifty kilometer altitude in the atmosphere of Venus.”
Wait by Why Tim Urban
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia's inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will only last so long.
Invisible Cities Italo Calvino

Image NASA

18 August 2015

First snow

When she reached the top of the saddle between the two mountains it began to snow. Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning. One came to perch on her eyelashes; it looked like a stack of crosses or the map of a palace, a solid and intricate marvel at any rate, and when it dissolved a few seconds later she wondered how it was that some things in the world — some countries, some people — could seem eternal when everything was actually like that miniature ice place: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

17 August 2015

'Matter with curiosity'

     For instance, I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves...mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business...trillions apart...yet forming white surf in unison.
     Ages on ages...before any eye could see...year after year...thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what?...on a dead plant, with no life to entertain.
     Never at rest...tortured by energy...wasted prodigiously by the sun...poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.
     Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another until complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves...and a new dance starts.
     Growing in size and complexity...living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein...dancing a pattern ever more intricate.
     Out of the cradle onto dry land...here it is standing...atoms with consciousness...matter with curiosity.
     Stands at the sea...wonders at wondering...I...a universe of atoms...an atom in the universe.
from ‘The Value of Science’ in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman

Photo by author

14 August 2015

Light passes through light...

Light passes freely through light. Were that not true, the visual messages we receive from the world would be scrambled by scattering, and much more complicated to interpret. In QED, that basic fact makes good sense: photons respond to electric charge, but photons themselves are electrically neutral.
A Beautiful Question by Frank Wilczek (2015)

Photo by author

12 August 2015

'Multiple states of human consciousness'

Research suggests there are states of arousal that fall between conventionally categorized states such as sleep and waking, supporting [John Lilly's] intuition that there are multiple states of human consciousness we have yet to fully explore. In the 1990s, the discovery of the Default Mode Network, an interconnected archipelago of brain areas whose activity decreases when we are focused on a task and increases when we stop focusing, complicated the notion that brain areas are either “on” or “off,” in use or on hold.
from Postcards From the Edge of Consciousness by Meehan Crist

Photo by author

'Aspects of reality we cannot detect'

While researchers strive to figure out why vast data sets used to train algorithms do not reflect the reality they expected, others think the strange rules dreamed up by algorithms might be teaching us about aspects of reality that we can’t detect ourselves. 
After all...a flower will look good to both a human and a bee, but that doesn’t mean both creatures see the same thing. “When we look at that flower in the spectrum that its pollinator can see in, the pattern is totally different”...Even though a bee would find our color perception weird, and vice versa, neither species’ view is an illusion. Perhaps the strangeness of neural-net cognition will teach us something. Perhaps it will even delight us.
from Artificial Intelligence is already weirdly inhuman by David Berreby

Image from here. See also photographyoftheinvisibleworld

11 August 2015

A form of dawning horror

At the most we gaze...in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.
Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

Image: Dresden, February 1945.  Via this.  See also these.

10 August 2015

Mind at Large

To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness -- to be aware of it and yet to remain in a condition to survive as an animal and feel as a human being, to resort whenever expedient to systematic reasoning.
The Doors of Perception Aldous Huxley (1954)

Photo of shore of Loch Nevis by author