31 March 2015

Consciousness is not a thing

Consciousness itself is not a thing, and it is not localizable in the brain. Rather, it’s simply the name we put to ideas and perceptions that enter the awareness of our central executive, a system of very limited capacity that can generally attend to a maximum of four or five things at a time.
-- The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin (2014)

Image: Shadow of a Martian Robot. NASA via APOD

30 March 2015

Your lungs, a tree

If you were to stretch flat all the membranes of an adult [human]'s lungs they would occupy over a thousand square feet [or 93 square metres]; equivalent to the leaf coverage of a fifteen to twenty-year-old oak.
from Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis (2015)

If all of the capillaries that surround the alveoli were unwound and laid end to end, they would extend for about 992 kilometres (616 miles).

Image: Leonardo da Vinci

27 March 2015

An invisible sun within us

We use about 2 milliwatts of energy per gram - some 130 watts for an average person weighing 65kg, a bit more than a standard 100 watt light bulb. That may not sound like a lot, but per gram it is a factor of 10,000 more than the Sun (only a tiny fraction of which, at any one moment, is undergoing nuclear fusion). Life is not much like a candle; more of a rocket launcher.
from The Vital Question by Nick Lane (2015)

Image of ATP synthase by David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute via PDSB

26 March 2015

A garden of storms

Jupiter's Great Red Spot probably began in one of two ways: It could have been a large, upward plume that hit the stratosphere and rolled up to produce a vortex. If a rising plume can reach upward to a part of the atmosphere that’s really stable, it will spread outward horizontally, and when it starts to spread out, if it’s in a really rapidly rotating system like Jupiter, the spreading out produces a vortex. The other possibility is that a jet stream went unstable and started a wavy oscillation, and when the amplitude of the wave became big enough, it broke, making vortices that then merged together.
Philip Marcus

Image: NASA via It's Okay to be Smart

25 March 2015

An unceasing flux

You share some of your genes with the tree through the window, but you and that tree parted company very early in eukaryotic evolution, 1.5 billion years ago, each following a different course permitted by different genes, the product of mutations, recombination and natural selection. You run around, and I hope still climb trees occasionally; they bend gently in the breeze and convert the air into more trees, the magic trick to end them all. All those differences are written in the genes, genes that derive from your common ancestor but have now mostly diverged beyond recognition... 
But that tree has mitochondria too, which work in much the same way as its chloroplasts, endlessly transferring electrons down its trillions upon trillions of respiratory chains, pumping protons across membranes as they always did. As you always did. These same shuttling electrons and protons have sustained you from the womb: you pump 1021  protons per second, every second, without pause.
from The Vital Question by Nick Lane (2015)

Image: Magus6 via wikicommons

24 March 2015

"Humour and wonder can be a double act"

Man’s a phenomenon, one knows not what,
And wonderful beyond all wondrous measure. 
[Byron's] knowingly unknowing way of seeing things is not really—or not only—felt as a predicament, but also as an energising pleasure, something akin to Camus’s sense of the absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus, born of the confrontation between a human need to understand things and the recalcitrance of the world to human understanding. ‘Living’, Camus notes, ‘is keeping the absurd alive.’ Indeed, the absurd is a commitment to a certain style of life; ‘one does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.’ Should the manual ever be written, what its author might be tempted to say is that wonder, like its close relation the absurd, acknowledges the maze inside amazement, but without implying that a removal from the maze would always be desirable. Part of what feels funny (sometimes darkly, sometimes lightly funny) about wonder is the feeling that puzzlement may sponsor plenitude.
  from The Funny Thing About Trees by Matthew Bevis

Image: Apollo and Daphne by Antonio del Pollaiolo, circa 1470 (Wikipedia). Bevis quotes Tom Lubbock: ‘the picture gives no impression of gradual, graceful, organic transformation. The fleeing nymph raises her arms in alarm and appeal, and they just go whom! ...tree!   with a flourish like a conjurer's bouquet.’

23 March 2015

Sounds of wonder

Early yesterday morning I was at RSPB Snettisham to watch thousands of knots, oystercatchers and other birds fly to the onshore lagoons as a spring high tide raced over the mudflats where they usually feed. Lovers of wildlife and the outdoors celebrate the beauty of a flight of knots (can we call it a ‘murmuration’ or is that only for starlings?) in winter plumage. The shifting shape made by thousands of these creatures, wheeling and turning in unison as if they were one enormous sky organism, appears to flash on and off, in and out of existence, as the light alternately reflects off their lighter feathers and is swallowed by their darker ones. [1]

Philip Fisher argues that wonder is “a relation to the visible world” and “an outcome of the fact that we see the world” [because] “only the visual is instantaneous, the entire object and all its details present at once.” [2]

I only agree in part. Yes — of course! — vision is a dominant sense for human beings, and plays a central role in many experiences of wonder. But there are other channels too. One of the things that seized me most strongly and unexpectedly yesterday was the sound of the knots as hundreds and thousands of them flew very fast just a few feet above my head. I cannot, at present, find the words to say exactly what this sound was like. It was not completely unlike the roar of an aeroplane propeller absent the noise of the engine driving the propeller. And it was not completely unlike some kinds of bullroarer — aerophones with sacred associations in some ancient cultures. But it was not very like them either. It was like nothing except itself.

I am starting on a section of the book about sounds, and dug up a couple of paragraphs from my review of Sonic Wonderland by Trevor Cox:
…for those with ears or other means to hear, the universe is full of, if not exactly sounds and sweet airs that give delight, then certainly hums, thuds, moans and much besides. Black holes project the B flat 56 octaves below middle C across the intergalactic cloud. Sound waves reverberate through loops in the Sun's outer atmosphere. A keen wind shuffles rock grains through the thin air on Mars. There is a roar on the other side of silence. 
Our own planet never stops making noises. Microphones placed by the Dutch artist Lotte Geven almost six miles deep in Bavaria's KTB borehole reveal a rich audioscape of echoes and crunches. Sand dunes near Al-Askharah in Oman sing notes of every frequency from 90 to 150 hertz, or F-sharp to D. Across the world's oceans, rumbles, cracks and echoes of eruptions, rockslides and tectonic movements carry for thousands of miles. For billions of years green-blue algae have produced tiny bubbles of oxygen that click and pop as they rise to the surface...

P.S.  It turns out that this week the wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson has a series on BBC Radio 4: Soundstage. Today it's the Kalahari, barking geckos and all.  On 25 March he is presenting sounds from The Wash.


[1] See this description by Robert Macfarlane

[2] This is from Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (1998). Much of the time I find myself alternately agreeing and disagreeing with Fisher. “The object of wonder must be unexpectedly, instantaneously seen for the first time.” Well, yes; but wonder can also deepen with greater understanding, or with return after absence. “For wonder there must be no element of memory in the experience.” But experience only exists within a theatre of consciousness where memories of various kinds are heavily involved in humping the stage machinery into place. “Wonder in its first moment stands outside will.” Yes

Image: Bogbumper via wikimedia

21 March 2015

An unreliable map

Leeuwenhoek observed an astonishing proliferation of tiny animals "incredibly small; nay, so small, in my sight, that I judged that even if 100 of these very wee animals lay stretched out one against another, they could not reach the length of a grain of course sand; and if this be true, then ten hundred thousand of these living creatures could scarce equal the bulk of a course grain of sand."

...We have at best an unreliable map of the land that enchanted Leeuwenhoek. We should rejoice and explore.
from The unseen world: reflections on Leeuwenhoek (1677) by Nick Lane

Image is a tree of life by Bill Martin, 1998

20 March 2015

From what causes do I derive my existence?

Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty. 
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
from A Treatise on Human Nature by David Hume (1738)

One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. 
from The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1942)

Image: William Allen et al

19 March 2015

Unafraid of the empty wastes

Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travellers, maps of the celestial bodies.
from a letter by Johannes Kepler to Galileo Galileo written in 1610, cited here

Image from Francis Godwin (1638)

17 March 2015

The landscape-color of heart-mind

To feel [in classical Chinese] is constructed of the character for “heart-mind” and the one for “the blue-green color of landscape”, a remarkable concept of color that includes both the green of plants and trees and nearby mountains, and the blue of distant mountains and sky. Hence, the “heart-mind in the presence of landscape-color” or “the landscape-color of heart-mind.”
from Hunger Mountain by David Hinton

Image: Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains Wikimedia

16 March 2015

Not unimaginably small

Typical human cells are about 10┬Ám in length. This is roughly 1,000 times smaller than the last joint in your finger.  A 1,000-fold difference in size is not difficult to visualise: a grain of rice is about 1,000 times smaller in length than the room you are sitting in. Imagine your room filled with grains of rice. That will give you an idea of the billion or so cells that make up your finger tip. 
Another 1,000 times reduction takes us to the world of molecules...An average protein, taken from any cell, contains about 5,000 atoms and is about one-thousandth the length of a typical cell, or about one-millionth the width of your fingertip. Again, to get of the idea of these sizes, think of a room filled with rice grains. This will give an idea of the size of the proteins that are packed into each of your cells.
— from The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell (2009)

Image: macrophage and bacterium by David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute

14 March 2015


Photograph fail to convey the grandeur of icebergs. They also fail to convey how mutable they are. An iceberg that looks like a mesa in the distance as you approach transforms into something architectural, with melt-carved towers and wind-sculpted outcroppings suggestive of angels — as European explorers noted — or birds. Explorers, in their journals, grasping for comparisons with which to familiarise the strange, likens icebergs to cathedrals as well as angels. But icebergs lack the symmetries and patterns of a church. They exhibit form, but organic form, form sculpted by the subtle force of the coincident, form very on the chaotic. Every change in angle is a revelation. The light drapes differently. The shapes shift. The colours turn from white to turquoise to blue. In some there were grottos or canyons or isthmuses terminating in a peak that seemed about to great off. From the big one, cataracts of meltwater rushed into the sea. It occurred to me, admiring those waterfalls, that the before my eyes past was dissolving into the present.
— from Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn (2011)

13 March 2015

The Very Large Mistake

The Very Large Mistake is to think we know enough about the nature of reality to have any good reason to think that consciousness can’t be physical.
Galen Strawson

Image: nautical chart of Semisopochnoi (Wikimedia)

12 March 2015


The collision of a 500km diameter body with the Earth results in a cataclysm almost unimaginable. Huge regions of the Earth's rocky surface would have been vaporised, creating a cloud of super-heated 'rock-gas', or vapors several thousand degrees in temperature. It is this vapor, in the atmosphere, which causes the entire ocean to evaporate into steam, boiling away to leave a [layer] of molten salt on the seafloor. Cooling by radiation into space would take place, but a new ocean would not rain out for at least several thousand years after the event. Such large, Texas-sized asteroids or comets could evaporate a ten thousand foot deep ocean, sterilising the surface of the Earth in the process.
from A New History of Life by Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink (2015)

Image via Daily Galaxy

10 March 2015

A whole other land

Exploring, discovering and mapping a land is a fascinating process. We might think of maps as constructed, drawn, or laid over the land. But with these children it's as if they seep up like water through the ground. When Cody said he was going to find secret water did we really believe him? Did we think it existed beyond his imagination? And yet here it is making itself visible -- making us realise that the land we are exploring and narrating sits on top of a whole other land, subterranean, that shares with ours a single, continuous, touchable surface.
from Ways into Hinchingbrooke Country Park by Deb Wilenski and Caroline Wending of Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination.

Image: Revolving House by Paul Klee (1921)

3 March 2015

Unpredictable violence

The Eskimo distinguish at least two different kinds of fear, writes Barry Lopez: ilira, which is the fear that accompanies awe, and kappa, which is the fear in the face of unpredictable violence.

Images: Vladimir Pushkarev/Russian Centre of Arctic Exploration and Marya Zulinova/Yamal government press service via Ecowatch 1 and 2.

2 March 2015

A baroque dance

What we know of [the immune system] is staggering. It begins at the skin, a barrier capable of synthesising biochemicals that inhibit the growth of certain bacteria and containing, in its deepest layers, cells that can induce inflammation and ingest pathogens. Then there are the membranes of the digestive, respiratory and urogenital systems with their pathogen-ensnaring mucous ad they pathogen-expelling cilia and their high concentrations of cells equipped to produce the antibodies responsible for lasting immunity. Beyond those barriers, the circulatory system transports pathogens in the blood to the spleen, where the blood is filtered and antibodies are generated, and the lymphatic systems flushes pathogens from body tissues to the lymph nodes, where the same process ensues… 
Deep in the body, the bone marrow and the thymus generate a dizzying arrange of cells specialised for immunity. These include cells that can destroy infected cells, cells that swallow pathogens and then display pieces of them for other cells to see, cells that monitor other cells for signs of cancer or infection, cells that make antibodies, and cells that carry antibodies. All of these cells, falling into an intricate arrangement of types and subtypes, interact in a series of baroque dances, their communication depending in part on the action of free-floating molecules. Chemical signals travel through the blood from sites of injury or infection, activated cells release substances to trigger inflammation, and helpful molecules poke holes in the membranes of microbes that deflate them.
from On Immunity by Eula Biss (2014)

Image: model of Immunoglobulin G from here.

1 March 2015

"Art is not a mirror..."

Art is not a mirror. Art is a translation of that which you do not know.
— Marlene Dumas

Chromatic typewriter by Tyree Callahan