28 February 2015

The cosmos seen as a bubble

Moving through this crowded space, the pilgrim enters into the underlying “emptiness” — really a kind of infinite spaciousness—that is the stuff of Tibetan Buddhist reality. It may be strange to think that a universe so densely populated is actually, in some profound sense, empty. Judging by the literary sources we have available, to take this spaciousness into oneself, momentarily clearing heart and mind of the detritus that normally clogs our perceptions, provides a sense of vast psychic relief. The seemingly empty space is, however, a highly active arena within which our minds weave the web that we take to be the world—a world filled with objects such as Maitreya’s towers and manifold creatures and, of course, these same Buddhas and Bodhisattvas continuously emerging out of empty space and dissolving back into it.
David Shulman

The description in the Gaṇḍa-vyūha of Sudhana's vision of the towers of Maitreya could almost be from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities:
He saw the tower immensely vast and wide, hundreds of thousands of leagues wide, as measureless as the sky, as vast as all of space, adorned with countless attributes; countless canopies, banners, pennants, jewels, garlands of pearls and gems, moons and half-moons, censers giving off fragrant fumes, showers of gold dust….Also, inside the great tower he saw hundreds of thousands of other towers similarly arrayed; he saw those towers as infinitely vast as space, evenly arrayed in all directions, yet these towers were not mixed up with one another, being each mutually distinct, while appearing reflected in each and every object of all the other towers.

View of the Tabo monastery by Christian Luczanits

27 February 2015


Leonardo sketched it.

Galileo explained it as he sought to show the earth was not excluded from "the dance of stars." 
Recent research shows that the brightness of the earthshine varies as the Earth rotates because of the greater reflection from the mirror-like oceans compared to the continents. 
Earthshine is most often experienced in still and gentle conditions.

Photo Kevin Bourque via APOD

26 February 2015

SDSS J0100+2802

The black hole at the centre of our galaxy has a mass about three million times that of our sun. 
The black hole at the centre of the ultra luminous quasar SDSS J0100+2802 is twelve billion times more massive than the sun. 
The luminosity of this quasar is 420 trillion times greater than that of our sun.
  — sci-news.com
The winds blasting out of the quasar PDS 456 carry more energy every second than is emitted by more than a trillion suns. 

Image is artist's impression of ULAS J1120+0641. Credit: ESO/M.Kornmesser.

25 February 2015

"There is no us and them"

Our adaptive immune system, the branch of our immune system that develops long-lasting immunity, is thought to have been borrowed its essential technology from the DNA of a virus. Some of our white blood cells recombine their genetic material like random number generators, shuffling genetic material like random number generators, shuffling their sequences to create an immense variety of cells capable of recognizing an immense variety of pathogens. This technology was viral technology before it was ours. Of humans and viruses, Carl Zimmer observes, "There is no us and them."
from On Immunity by Eula Biss (2015)

24 February 2015

The bowl of heaven

It's an unsettling experience, projecting an image of someone's inner eye so neatly into your own, retina examining retina through the intermediary of a lens. It can be disorientating too: gazing down the axis of the beam is like looking up into the night sky with an eyeglass. If the central retinal vein is blocked, the resultant scarlet haemorrhages are described in the textbooks as 'stormy sunset appearance.' I sometimes see pale retinal spots caused by diabetes, and they're reminiscent of cumulus clouds. In patients with high blood pressure the branching, silvered shine on the retinal arteries resembles jagged forks of lightning. The first time I looked into the curved vault of a patient's eyeball I was reminded of those medieval diagrams that showed the heavens as an upturned bowl.
from Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis (2015)

Image from Utriusque Cosmi by Robert Fludd (1617)

23 February 2015


At a talk for non-specialists on 21 February, David Tong outlined three big problems in physics [1], which I oversimplify/misrepresent as follows:
Dark energy.  We've known for nearly a hundred years that the universe is expanding. It as if there is an antigravity force causing everything to repel everything else. We have no idea what it is. It’s 70% of the energy of the universe, it’s increasing all the time and we don’t understand it. Our best calculations are wrong by a factor of 1060 .

Black holes.  Information that goes into a black hole is lost forever. It does not reappear in Hawking radiation. But this cannot be.

Holography. It may be that our three dimensional world is actually a mirage. The correct description will be one in which the laws of physics are written on a two dimensional surface, and the laws of physics we can see in the universe are encoded on this surface in the same way that a hologram encodes a three dimensional surface.
So, Tong concluded, there is a lot in the fundamental physics that we simply don’t understand, and that it seems unlikely we’re going to get guidance from experiment. Looking to history, however, it is precisely when there is a crisis that physics has thrived. He is optimistic about progress.

Note [1]: Some people say there are three great mysteries in science as a whole: the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the origin of consciousness.

Image: Douglas Griffin

The ash tree just is

Kayaking fast downstream
Late winter sun
The ash tree just is

21 February 2015

Slightly out of tune

Although the chlorophyll molecules in the special pair are identical, they are embedded in different environments in the protein scaffold, which makes them vibrate at slight different frequencies: they are slightly out of tune...This structure provides photosynthetic reaction centres with the precise molecular architecture needed for them to work as quantum heat engines...Chlorophyll's special pair appears to be tuned to exploit quantum interference to inhibit inefficient wasteful energy routes and thereby deliver energy to the acceptor molecule with an efficiency that exceeds the...Carnot limit by...18 [to] 27 percent.
from Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden (2014), citing Photosynthetic reaction center as a quantum heat engine.

Image: NHM

19 February 2015

A New World

At the beginning of A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542), Bartolomé de las Casas writes "the marvelous discovery of the Americas...silence[s] all talk of other wonders." Then he reports on one of the worst genocides in recorded history.

About 150 years later, English explorers in North America begin many of their reports with rapturous descriptions of what they find. Andro Linklater writes in Owning the Earth (2014):
The extravagant fertility can be sensed in the language..."the millionous multitudes" of seabird, the "huge flights of wild Turkies," "such infinite Herds of Deare," "innumerable of Pines, tall and good for boards and masts," and forests of oaks with "great Bodies tall and streight from 60 to 80 foot before there be any Boughs in height," all of it fed by soil that was "like to manure" so that "we cannot sett down a foot but tread on Strawberries, raspers, fallen mulberry vines, acchorns, walnutts, saxafras etc."
The waters, too, were wondrous. In The Unnatural History of the Sea (2007), Callum Roberts notes:
Like the rivers in early medieval Europe, those of the New World ran pure and clear through thickly wooded valleys and flood plains that protected the soil from erosion. This newfound clarity must have dazzled people of the seventeenth century used to rivers like the Thames whose refuse-thickened waters slopped London's bridges and embankments.
In some places, according to an account of a 1608 reconnaissance of the Chesapeake tributaries (cited by Roberts), the fish were:
lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets...we attempted to capture them with a frying pan... 
We spied many of them lurking amongst the weeds on the sands, our captain sporting himself to catch them by nailing them to the ground with his sword, set us all fish in in that manner, by this devise, we took more in an hours than we all could eat.

Image: Map of Virginia by John White, 1585

18 February 2015

Lines of life

Celebrate - yes, but what? 
— Friedrich Hölderlin

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Image: Evgenia Arbugaeva

17 February 2015

Bright light

A human being has about the same power rating as one incandescent light bulb.

photo by author

16 February 2015

An infinite storm

The force that drives life at the smallest scale is not a mysterious, supernatural force, but it is a surprising one nevertheless. The force that drives life is chaos. 
At room temperature, air molecules reach speeds in excess of the fastest jet aeroplane. If we were reduced to the size of molecule, we would be bombarded by a molecular storm so fierce it would make a hurricane look like a breeze. 
To make the molecular storm a useful force for life...it is tamed by molecular machines.
— from Life's Ratchet by Peter M. Hoffman (2012)

Image: The Giantess by Leonora Carrington (1947) via Apollo Magazine.

The phrase 'an infinite storm' is from Travels in Alaska by John Muir (1910).

13 February 2015

Fragile and vast

I felt genuine dismay that we had to leave. But it was not a place where people could stay for more than fleeting visits. We had gained a glimpse into a whole other wild world that seemed both fragile and vast; beyond us but also at our mercy. Decisions being made by politicians and petroleum industry geologists will, in the coming months, decide the long-term future of Bremer Bay’s killer whale aggregation. 
 report from Bremer Canyon by James Woodford

Image: Alamy

12 February 2015


One study...found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.
— from The Trip Treatment by Michael Pollan

Image: Kairouan (III) by August Macke (1914)

11 February 2015

Hole stone

Tolmens are the result of a combination of natural forces. Obstacles in fast flowing rivers can create vortices in currents called 'kolks', which can generate enough force to move rocks weighing many tons. On a small scale they gather up gravel and stone and, as they spin and orbit these, can bore holes called 'rock-cut basins' in bigger stones. A basin formed on an overhanging slab, as it might under a waterfall or cascade, can be expend by freeze-thaw erosion that eventually cuts right through, leaving a neat circular hole. These holed rocks are called 'tolmen' from the Cornish for hole ('toll') and stone ('men').
— from Uncommon Ground by Dominick Tyler (2015). More here.

Image: Dominick Tyler

10 February 2015

"A great part of our dignity"

Surely this is a great part of our dignity . . . that we can know, and that through us matter can know itself; that beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space, we can begin to understand; that organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water, the sunlight — all, having become us, can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be.
— George Wald (1964)
The more we learn, the more we are — or ought to be — dumbfounded.
— Lewis Thomas (1983)

Image: Plant cells with visible chloroplasts from a moss Plagiomnium affine, Kristian Peters. There can be around 50 chloroplasts in a typical plant cell. A square millimetre of leaf may contain 450,000 to 800,000 chloroplasts.

6 February 2015

Slow light

Not the kind explored here by Radiolab but the 'normal' kind:

Remember, however, that from the point of view of a photon, whether from the Sun or the Andromeda galaxy, what we perceive as the distance to any object is traversed instantaneously. As Jim Al Khalili puts it:
For a particle of light, time stands still, such that the past, the present and future all collapse into one eternal moment.

Our body is a cup, floating on the ocean

          The mind is an ocean... and so many worlds
          are rolling there, mysterious, dimly seen!
          And our bodies? Our body is a cup, floating
          on the ocean; soon it will fill, and sink...
          Not even one bubble will show where it went down.

          The spirit is so near that you can't see it!
          But reach for it... don't be a jar
          Full of water, whose rim is always dry.
          Don't be the rider who gallops all night
          And never sees the horse that is beneath him.
             The jar with a dry rim by Rumi, translated by Robert Bly

or, as Brian Koberlein puts it:
We borrow our existence from the cosmos. We flow on until, like spirals of water, we fade back into the calm.

Image: Two Years At Sea

5 February 2015

Kraken mare

At 400,000 km², Kraken Mare is believed to be the largest sea in Titan's north polar region. The maximum depth appears to be 160 meters. Shallow capillary waves 1.5 centimeters high moving at 0.7 meters per second have been detected.

4 February 2015

"Childhood is a branch of cartography"

It was clear that the children perceived a drastically different landscape from [the adults] Deb and Caroline. They travelled simultaneously in physical, imagined and wholly speculative worlds. With the children as her guides, Deb began to see the park as a 'place of possibility', in which 'the ordinary and the fantastic' — immiscible to adult eyes — melded into a single alloy. No longer constituted by municipal zonings and boundaries, it was instead a limitless universe, wormholes and Möbian, constantly replenished in its novelty. No map of it could ever be complete for new stories seethed up from its soil, and its surfaces could dive way at any moment. The hollows of its trees were routes to other planets, its sub terrane flowed with streams of silver, and its woods were threaded through with filaments of magical force. Within it children could shape-shift into bird, leaf, fish or water.
— from Childish in Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane (2015).

"Childhood is a branch of cartography" comes from Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood by Michael Chabon

Image: NicolayR

3 February 2015

On First Looking into J1407b

The ring system of J1407b is nearly 120 million kilometres in diameter, or more than two hundred times as large as the rings of Saturn (report).

Images: Matthew Kenworthy/Leiden and Ron Miller.

How would the rings look in UV?

"We are all alike in our infinite ignorance"

There is nothing infallible about “direct experience”...Indeed, experience is never direct. It is a sort of virtual reality, created by our brains using sketchy and flawed sensory clues, given substance only by fallible expectations, explanations, and interpretations.
from Why it's good to be wrong David Deutsch.

See also Deutsch on Why wondering is vital.

Image: detail of Monkey orchid by David Evans

2 February 2015

Hearing things

The cochlea is a biological system that effectively decomposes a sound into its constituent frequency components. It converts instantaneous changes in air pressure into components that stimulate the hair-like filaments along the inner ear’s basilar membrane, which aids in translating sound vibrations into electrical signals. The activated filaments produce electrochemical signals that are transmitted to the auditory cortex. The individual components of an individual sound are re-integrated and perceived as a singular event—in part by nature of their harmonicity (that is, their constituent components are related in integer ratios), and, in part, by their temporal synchronicity, which integrates many components into a perceived individual event.
from Jonathan Berger on the necessity of musical hallucinations

Image from here

1 February 2015

The chief thing

“Wonder?” said R F Langley...“Yes. Oh yes. it’s the chief thing, isn’t it? The thing I value. Joy, Wordsworth might have called it.” He goes on to paraphrase a section from Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good. “You’re wrapped up in your own affairs, you’re screwed up by your own subjective feelings, and you know that you’re colouring the world with your own thoughts and resentments, and you see a kestrel outside the window, hovering and … ‘The world becomes all kestrel’ … it takes your selfishness away, removes your self. And that’s really what this wonder might be.” It’s a truism that the stories we tell about nature are stories about ourselves, but still those stories are full of singular moments out in the world, when wild things look at us and we look back, mute and astonished.
Helen Macdonald, who says:
It took me half a lifetime to understand that each encounter with the natural world pleats together all the things you’ve read and heard, and adds to them, making something more of the bird or leaf or landscape in front of you, so that the older you get the more meaningful these things become.