29 January 2015

Stories across 400 generations

Australian Australians have passed memories of life before, and during, post-glacial shoreline inundations that happened 10,000 years ago or more. Some can still point to islands that no longer exist, and provide their original names.
In one of the stories of the Ngarrindjeri people, the ancestral being Ngurunderi chased his wives until they sought refuge by fleeing to Kangaroo Island—which they could do mostly by foot. Ngurunderi angrily rose the seas, turning the women into rocks that now jut out of the water between the island and the mainland. Assuming this tale is based on true geographical changes, it originated at a time when seas were about 100 feet lower than they are today, which would date the story at 9,800 to 10,650 years ago. 
A story told by the Tiwi people describes the mythological creation of Bathurst and Melville islands off Australia’s northern coastline, where they live. An old woman is said to have crawled between the islands, followed by a flow of water. The story is interpreted as the settling of what now are islands, followed by subsequent flooding around them, which the researchers calculate would have occurred 8,200 to 9,650 years ago. 
An early European settler described Aboriginal stories telling how Rottnest, Carnac and Garden Islands, which can still be viewed from the shores of Perth or Fremantle, “once formed part of the mainland, and that the intervening ground was thickly covered with trees.” According to at least one story, the trees caught fire, burning “with such intensity that the ground split asunder with a great noise, and the sea rushed in between, cutting off these islands from the mainland.” Based on the region’s bathymetry, the researchers dated the story back 7,500 to 8,900 years. 
Stories by the original residents of Australia’s northeastern coastline tell of a time when the shoreline stretched so far out that it abuted the Great Barrier Reef. A river entered the sea at what is now Fitzroy Island. The great gulf between today’s shoreline and the reef suggests that the stories tell of a time when seas were more than 200 feet lower than they are today, placing the story’s roots at as many as 12,600 years ago.
— via Scientific American

Image: Tiwi Islanders by Heide Smith

28 January 2015

Internal difference, where the meanings are

The retina is covered in light-sensitive cells which alter the voltage on their membranes according to the brightness that impinges on them. The light-sensitive cells are connected to neurons in their immediate vicinity that perform some local processing before passing them on to the brain. The processing cells each send out an axon that travels directly into the brain. Many go to an area near the back of the head called the superior colliculus in mammals. The axons of the retinal ganglion cells all run parallel to each other as a thick cable — the optic nerve — but when they reach the superior colliculus they disperse and connect to it in a quite remarkable manner; the place to which each one connects to the colliculus depends, in a precise way, on each ganglion cell’s place in the retina. In effect the exact layout of the ganglion cells on the retina is replicated on the colliculus so that it has a fully laid-out image, in electrical activity, of the optical image that is present at the back of the eye.
— from Life Unfolding by Jamie A. Davies (2014)

Image: Wei Li, National Eye Institute, NIH, via Zeiss

27 January 2015

Acorn, adder, ash...

acorn    adder    ash
beech    blackberry    bluebell    bramble    brook    buttercup
catkin    clover    conker    cowslip    cygnet
fern    fungus
hazel    hazelnut    heather    heron    holly    horse chestnut
magpie     minnow
pansy    pasture    poppy    porpoise    primrose
starling    stoat    stork    sycamore
weasel    willow    wren
— words removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in 2007 - via Dominick Tyler

See also Light, half-light

26 January 2015

Living colour

Our eyes can distinguish between wavelengths that differ by just one nanometer, but only in the green section of the colour palette: human vision can simultaneously detect about fifty different shades of green

The daytime sky is actually violet but our retinas are so insensitive to this hue...that we instead see the next most prevalent color, blue.
— from The Sun's Heartbeat by Bob Berman (2011)

Image: 7 and 12 colour circles from Traité de la peinture en mignature by Claude Boutet (1708) via Wiki

25 January 2015

Blazing heart

The fact that fusion can occur in [stars] is in many ways astounding. Fusion is not simply a union of two nuclei. In most stars, hydrogen nuclei can’t get close enough to fuse. The closer a pair of hydrogen nuclei get, the more strongly their positive charges push them apart. But because nuclei are quantum objects, they don’t need to be close enough to fuse, just to be in the same ballpark. From there an effect known as quantum tunneling can do the rest. One moment the two nuclei are almost close enough to fuse, and the next moment they suddenly find themselves bonded together. It is as if the nuclei don’t have enough energy to open the door and walk through, but they occasionally will teleport through walls. 
But even this bit of quantum magic isn’t enough for a star to succeed. Not only does fusion have to occur, it has to produce something stable. When two protons fuse to become helium-2 (containing two protons and no neutrons), it is extremely unstable and usually splits right back into two separate protons. But there is a 1 in 10,000 chance that one of the protons will instead transform into a neutron, and the atom then becomes deuterium, a stable isotope of hydrogen. Deuterium and hydrogen can fuse to make a stable helium, releasing a huge amount of energy and opening up the amazing creative potential of stars.
— from How the universe made the stuff that made us by Brian Koberlein

Image: anonymous portrait of young Romanian girl (via Jane Long)

24 January 2015

Machines that think

There are 186 responses to the 2015 Edge question, What do you think about machines that think?

Daniel Dennett says:
The real danger is not machines that are more intelligent than we are usurping our role as captains of our destinies. The real danger is basically clueless machines being ceded authority far beyond their competence.
Daniel Everett writes:
The mind is never more than a placeholder for things we do not understand about how we think. The more we use the solitary term "mind" to refer to human thinking, the more we underscore our lack of understanding. The idea that comes up in discussions about Artificial Intelligence that we should fear that machines will control us is but a continuation of the idea of the religious "soul," cloaked in scientific jargon. It detracts from real understanding.
Ursula Martin asks:
What kind of a thinking machine might find its own place in slow conversations over the centuries, mediated by land and water? What qualities would such a machine need to have? Or what if the thinking machine was not replacing any individual entity, but was used as a concept to help understand the combination of human, natural and technological activities that create the sea’s margin, and our response to it? The term "social machine" is currently used to describe endeavours that are purposeful interaction of people and machines — Wikipedia and the like — so the "landscape machine" perhaps.
Mark Pagel says:
It is not thinking machines or AI per se that we should worry about but people.
Frank Wilczek says:
Without careful restraint and tact, researchers could wake up to discover they've enabled the creation of armies of powerful, clever, vicious paranoiacs.

Image: Sundog, Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) via Wiki

23 January 2015

"Such music I never dreamed of"

Breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly. He saw tears on his comrade's cheeks, and bowed his head and understood. For a space they hung there, brushed by the purple loosestrife that fringed the bank; then the clear imperious summons that marched hand-in-hand with the intoxicating melody imposed its will on Mole, and mechanically he bent his oars again. And the light grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvellously still.
— from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

Image: Ancient Trees by Samuel Palmer (1828) via wikimedia

22 January 2015

"...the exquisite astuteness of proteins..."

The wind forms blades in the sea like lines on a page; the current traces its passage along the talweg and the glacier in a valley; the axle projects on the sundial the exact latitude of the place; the stylus scars the wax and the tip of the diamond inscribes its trace on the glass. Let us not pretend that we alone write. Oil and water do not mix; bodies choose their partners in combination while excluding other elements; crystals characterised by impurities straighten the course of certain flows. It is not just we who are concerned with acts of choosing. Islands, cliffs, radioactive bodies engrave memories. Let us not pretend that only we remember. In short, things themselves, inert as well as organic, exchange elements, energy and information, conserving, diffusing and selecting this last. Let us not pretend that only we are given to acts of exchange. This inscription, these decisions, these mnemotechnics, these codings, along with many other examples, give to objects quasi-cognitive properties. There is an ‘it thinks’, in the sense of ‘it rains’ as well as an ‘I think’ or ‘we think.’
  from L'Incandescent by Michel Serres (2003), quoted by Steven Connor

Image: Mouth of the Matanuska Glacier by Sbork

21 January 2015

Not some other world, but this world

The immortality that we crave is a phenomenal immortality  it is the continuation of this present way of life.
— from The Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno (1913) quoted in Self-Consciousness by John Updike (1989)

Image: Titan Cave, Derbyshire

20 January 2015


In general relativity, bodies always follow straight lines in four-dimensional space-time, but they nevertheless appear to us to move along curved paths in our three-dimensional space. This is rather like watching an aeroplane flying over hilly ground. Although it follows a straight line in three-dimensional space, its shadow follows a curved path on the two-dimensional ground.
— from A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)

Image: The Chocolate Hills, Bohol by P99

19 January 2015

A taxonomy of transcendence

Russell Brand [has] moved... from the downward ego-transcendence of drug addiction, to the false transcendence of celebrity, to the perennialist transcendence of Transcendental Meditation, and now to a sort of spiritual version of historical materialist transcendence. 
A young Jihadist, by contrast, may move from traditional religious transcendence towards the downward transcendence of extreme violence, mixed with the millenarial utopianism of historical materialist transcendence.
from The Varieties of Transcendent Experience by Jules Evans

Image: Gesture dance by Oskar Schlemmer (1922)

17 January 2015

A Speck upon a Ball

I saw no Way — The Heavens were stitched —
I felt the Columns close —
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres —
I touched the Universe — 
And back it slid — and I alone
A Speck upon a Ball —
Went out upon Circumference —
Beyond the Dip of Bell
Emily Dickinson, c. 1862

Image: NASA

15 January 2015

Cartography without limits

Technological progress has always brought novel ways of seeing the natural world and thus new ways of mapping it. The telescope was what allowed Galileo to sketch...a first map of Jupiter’s largest moons. The invention of the microscope...led to Robert Hooke’s famous depiction of a flea...as well as the discovery of the cell. Today the pace of invention and the raw power of technology are shocking: A Nobel Prize was awarded last fall for the creation of a microscope with a resolution so extreme that it seems to defy the physical constraints of light itself.

What has made the early 21st century a particularly giddy moment for scientific mapmakers, though, is the precipitous rise of information technology. Advances in computers have provided a cheap means to collect and analyze huge volumes of data, and Moore’s Law, which predicts regular doublings in computing power, has shown little sign of flagging. Just as important is the fact that machines can now do the grunt work of research automatically, handling samples, measuring and recording data. Set up a robotic system, feed the data to the cloud and the map will practically draw itself. It’s easy to forget Borges’s caution: The question is not whether a map can be made, but what insights it will bring.
— from Sebastian Seung’s Quest to Map the Human Brain by Gareth Cook.

Update 16 Jan: a short report on expansion microscopy and Alva Noe argues that a map of the brain may not actually tell us very much about how it works. Also The 30,000 Futures of the Brain.

Image: Jupiter's Moons, adapted from The Starry Messenger (1610)

14 January 2015

Light, half-light

blunter     dazzle, but with a particular sense of cold dazzle; winter stars or ice splinters catching low midwinter sun   Scotland

fireflacht     lightning without thunder; a flash of light which is seen in the sky, near the horizon, on autumn nights   Shetland

grimlins     night hours around midsummer when dusk blends into dawn and it is hard to say if day is ending or beginning   Orkney

plathadh-grèine     sudden temporary glimpse of the sun between passing clouds   Gaelic

hjalta dance, simmer ree, simmermal ton, titbow dance     different names for the peculiar dancing appearance of light on the horizon, along the top of the hills, which is seen in sunny summer weather   Shetland
— words connected with dusk, dawn, night and light from Landmarks (2015) by Robert Macfarlane

12 January 2015

The dimension of the present moment

Apparently, the present moment — our sense of "now" — lasts about three seconds. [1]  It is part of an illusion created by the brain and sits in a hierarchy of processes between the functional moment, which is the brain's response time to stimuli (typically in thousandths of a second [2]) and a sense of mental presence, which operates over a timespan of about thirty seconds and gives us a sense of continuity. [3]

In a collection of essays published in 1990, Mirsolav Holub noted that the dimension of the present moment, at about three seconds, is roughly the same amount of time as it takes to speak a line of poetry. And language, of course, plays an important role in our ability to place ourselves in much longer stretches of time. [4]


[1] see Laura Spinney The time illusion: how your brain creates now, drawing on Moments in Time by Marc Wittman.

[2] The auditory system can distinguish sounds that are two milliseconds apart. The visual system requires tens of milliseconds. Two events must be at least 50 milliseconds apart before you can tell which came first. But the computation in the brain involved in understanding sounds is much slower (see this). 

[3] Thirty seconds being the amount of time that experienced moments are held together in short-term, or working memory.

[4] Brief overviews of the science of time: this by Sean Carroll and this by Jim Holt.

Image:  Étienne-Jules Marey

11 January 2015

A bowl used in the tinting of the birds

The shape of the [rainbow] caused primitive (sic) peoples of Nias to fear it as a huge net spread by a powerful spirit to catch their shadows or souls. Among Finns and Lapps it was the sickle or bow of the Thunder God, a skilful archer whose arrow is the lightning. Some held it to be the god's crossbow and said that ancient stone weapons found in the ground are the bolts which he had used to kill the Forest Spirit hiding among the trees. In middle and northern Asia it is related that the rainbow is a camel with three persons on its back: the first beats a drum (thunder); a second waves a scarf (lightning); and the third draws reins causing water (rain) to run from the camel's mouth. The Blackfoot Indian called the rainbow "Rain's Hat" or "the Old Man's Fishing Line," or "The Lariat."  Among Germanic myths is one which looks on the rainbow as the bowl which God used at the time of the creation in the tinting of the birds. To the Greenlander the rainbow has been the hem of god's garment, to the ancient Welsh, the chair of the goddess Ceridwen.
— from The Rainbow, from Myth to Mathematics by Carl Boyer (1959)

Image: Studio portrait of two Nias men, via Wikimedia.

9 January 2015

Once you've got the meaning you can forget the words

The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've got the fish, you can forget the trap...Words exist because of meaning; once you've got the meaning you can forget the words
— attributed to Lao Tse

Image: from Genesis by Sebastião Salgado, via Art Days

7 January 2015

Dune worlds

Domes, Barchan, Barchanoid Ridge, Transverse Ridge, Linear or Longitudinal, Reversing, Star
Sheet, Streak, Shadow, Climbing (and Falling), Echo (Reflection), Lunette, Nebka, Parabolic, Blowout, Compound and Complex
Booming or Singing
— from the contents page of Dune Worlds: How Windblown Sand Shapes Planetary Landscapes by Ralph D. Lorenz, James R. Zimbelman (2014)

Image: Barchan dunes, Hellespontus region of Mars from HiRise. The dunes are about 60 metres across (left to right) and resolution is about 1.5 metres. (Image of whole region here)

6 January 2015

Land of silence and darkness

When I was a child, before I was like this, I watched a ski-jumping competition. And one thing keeps coming back: those men going through the air. I looked at their faces. I wish you could see that. 
from Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit by Werner Herzog (1971)

Image: Henri Cartier-Bresson

5 January 2015

A world in flames

In all the years I have spent standing or sitting on the banks of [the Mackenzie river], I have learned this: the more knowledge I have, the greater becomes the mystery of what holds that knowledge together, this reticulated miracle called an ecosystem. The longer I watch the river, the more amazed I become (afraid, actually, sometimes) at the confidence of those people who after a few summer seasons here are ready to tell the county commissioners, emphatically, what the river is, to scribe its meaning for the outlander. 
Firsthand knowledge is enormously time consuming to acquire; with its dallying and lack of end points, it is also out of phase with the short-term demands of modern life. It teaches humility and fallibility, and so represents an antithesis to progress. It makes a stance of awe in the witness of natural process seem appropriate, and attempts at summary knowledge naive.
  Barry Lopez

Image: Jsayre64 via wikimedia

4 January 2015


It is only in the desert that we can pay a visit to death and afterwards return to the land of the living.
from an essay by Ibrahim al-Koni for Myth and Landscape by David Parker (2014).

The desert is not a place, writes al Koni:
A place has preconditions, and one of the preconditions is water, and the lack of water in the desert makes it impossible to settle there, so the desert becomes a place of absence, a place that is the shadow of another place...

Image: New Desert Myths I (detail) by David Parker.

Here is a view on Mars, January 2015

3 January 2015

No underneath, no above

Here was the centre of the world, the sun swung round us; we rode at night straight away into the space of the stars. On a dry summer night, when there was no dew, I used to lie down on my back at full length (looking to the east), on the grass footpath by the orchard, and gaze up into the sky. This is the only way to get at it and feel the stars: while you stand upright, the eye, and through the eye, the mind, is biased by the usual aspect of things: the house there, the trees yonder; it is difficult to forget the mere appearance of rising and setting. Looking straight up like this, from the path to the stars, it was clear and evident that I was really riding among them; they were not above, nor all round, but I was in the midst of them. There was no underneath, no above: everything was on a level with me; the sense of measurement and distance disappeared. As one walks in a wood, with trees all about, so then by day (when the light only hid them) I walked amongst the stars. I had not got then to leave this world to enter space: I was already there.
— from The Old House at Coate by Richard Jefferies, quoted by Rebecca Welshman
I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.
Henry David Thoreau

"We rarely recall our sense of being in the stars," says Charles Ross. His sculpture Star Axis is meant to offer "a place for that remembering."

Image: part of Eagle Nebula seen in infrared. NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team via Ethan Siegel.

2 January 2015


It struck me all of this biological diversity, all of these wonderful and amazing and alien things that other species can do, is like an extension of our own brains. There is so much imagination out there that we simply could not come up with on our own. We can think of [nature] as a pool of imagination and creativity from which we as humans are able to draw. And when we [drain] that pool we deeply impoverish ourselves: we are doing harm to our own ability to think and to dream.
J B MacKinnon on RadioLab (here at 19'20")

Barry Lopez writes:
A politics with no biology...is a vision of the gates of Hell.

Image: Tiger Cowry by Susan Middleton via NYRB