30 April 2015

A question

The meaning of my existence is that life has addressed a question to me. Or, conversely, I myself am a question which is addressed to the world, and I must communicate an answer, for otherwise I am dependent upon the world’s answer.
Carl Jung, quoted by Alberto Manguel in Curiosity (2015)

Image: hmnh

29 April 2015

Long cell

If a pyramidal cell of the cerebral cortex were magnified so that its cell body became the size of a human body, its axon, equally magnified, would become a cable a few centimeters in diameter, extending more than a kilometre.
from Neuronal circuits of the neocortex by R J Douglas and K A Martin via wikipedia

Image: a motor cortex pyramidal cell by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

28 April 2015

In praise of curiosity

To set beside this contrasting pair, Samuel Johnson (via Tyler Cowen):
Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.… He who easily comprehends all that is before him, and soon exhausts any single subject, is always eager for new enquiries; and in proportion as the intellectual eye takes in a wider prospect, it must be gratified with variety by more rapid flights, and bolder excursions.

Image: Árbol de Piedra by El Guanche, via wikipedia

25 April 2015


I was reminded, again, today of the role of forgetfulness in the generation of wonder.

I have lived through several dozen springs but I had forgotten, again, how intensely bright can be the green of leaves on a tree in their first days of emergence.

'Dazzle' is from Ronald Johnson's What the Leaf Told Me.

P.S. In Calmly We Walk through this April's Day Delmore Schwartz writes :
...May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day...

24 April 2015

All you touch, all you see

All sensory stimuli enter the brain in more of less undifferentiated form as streams of electrical pulses created by neurons firing, domino-fashion, along a certain route. This is all that happens. There is no reverse transformer at some stage that turns this electrical activity back into light waves or molecules. What makes one stream into vision and another into smell depends, rather, on which neurons are stimulated.
Rita Carter

Image: Skellig Michael by Jibi44 via wikimedia

20 April 2015

below — above

I'd imagined that the world's end was as the edge of the orison, and that a day's journey was able to find it, so I went on with my heart full of hopes, pleasures and discoveries, 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 believed I could see heaven by looking into the water.
John Clare

Photo by author

16 April 2015

Stupendous contrivances

Nature does not only work mechanically, but by such excellent and most compendious as well as stupendous contrivances, that it were impossible for all the reason in the world to find out any contrivance to the same that should have more convenient properties. 
from Micrographia by Robert Hooke (1665)

Take a ride down into one of your cells, let’s say a heart muscle cell. Its rhythmic contractions are powered by ATP, which is flooding out from the any large mitochondria…Shrink yourself down to the size of an ATP molecule, and zoom in through a large protein pore in the external membrane of a mitochondrion. We find ourselves in a confined space, like the engine room of a boat, packed with overheating protein machinery, stretching as far as the eye can see. The ground is bubbling with what look like little balls, which shoot out from the machines, appearing and disappearing in milliseconds. Protons! The whole space is dancing with the fleeting apparition of protons , the positively charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms. No wonder you can barely see them! Sneak through one of those monstrous protein machines into the inner bastion, the matrix, and an extraordinary sight greets you. You are in a cavernous space, a dizzying vortex where fluid walls sweep past you in all directions, all jammed with gigantic clanking and spinning machines. What your head! These vast protein complexes are sunk deepening into the walls, and move around sluggishly as if submerged in the sea. But their parts move at amazing speed. Some sweep back and forth, too fast for the eye to see, like the pistons of a steam engine. Others spin on their axis threatening to detach and fly off at any moment, driven by pirouetting crankshafts. Tens of thousands of these crazy perpetual motion machines stretch off in all directions, whirring away, all sound and fury, signifying…what? 
You are at the thermodynamic epicentre of the cell, the site of cellular respiration...
from The Vital Question by Nick Lane (2015)

Image: complex 1 of the respiratory chain in a bacteria by David Goodsell via RCSB.  For image of complex 1 from mammalian cell see here (from Baradaran et al)

13 April 2015

Mind and matter

Nobody has yet properly defined mind and no one has explained properly how so-called ethereal thought can change so-called material structure.   The whole subject is filled with wonder.
Norman Doidge.   But for Michael Graziano, there is no hard problem:
There is only the question of how the brain, an information processing device, concludes and insists it has consciousness.

Image: Roden Crater, James Turrell

12 April 2015

In the desert

The more I tried to listen, the more I realised that my ears were accustomed to ignoring and blocking out sounds, and that they rang faintly all the time when it was quiet. I assumed it was damage from loud music and cities. Then I went out into the desert, at Chuck’s suggestion, and spent five days there on foot. After three days in that immense austere silence, broken only by the occasional owl hoot, coyote yip, gust of wind hissing through cactus needles, crunch of hiking boot, the ringing in my ears was gone. On the fourth day, lying there in the shade of a stunted palo verde tree, waiting out the afternoon heat, with the air perfectly still, and all the birds and animals motionless in the shade, I became aware of a very faint rushing sound coming from my body, similar to what you hear in a seashell. As far as I can determine, it was the sound of my blood circulating. 
After three days in the desert, all the senses start to blossom into life, and the most dramatic change takes place in the eyes.
from an essay by Richard Grant about Charles Bowden

Image: by Wars via wikipedia

So delicately traced

Nature gave us an innate curiosity and, aware of its own art and beauty, created us in order to be the audience of the wonderful spectacle of the world; because it would have toiled in vain if things so great, so brilliant, so delicately traced, so splendid and variously beautiful, were displayed to an empty house.
— from On Leisure by Seneca (circa 62 AD), quoted by Alberto Manguel in Curiosity (2015)
The universe to the eye of the human understanding is framed like a labyrinth, presenting as it does on every side so many ambiguities of way, deceitful resemblances of objects and signs, natures too irregular in their lines and so knotted and entangled. And then the way is still said to be made by the uncertain light of sense, sometimes shining out, sometimes clouded over, through the woods of experience and particulars...
— from The Great Instauration by Francis Bacon (1620), quoted by Philip Ball in Curiosity (2012)

Photo by author

11 April 2015


Even here on earth, with our senses seemingly full to the brim, we see almost nothing of what matters. Molecules, microbes, cells, germs, genes, viruses, the interior of the planet, the depths of the ocean: none of that is visible to the naked eye. And, as David Hume noted, none of the causes controlling our world are visible under any conditions; we can see a fragment of the what of things, but nothing at all of the why. Gravity, electricity, magnetism, economic forces, the processes that sustain life as well as those that eventually end it—all this is invisible. We cannot even see the most important parts of our own selves: our thoughts, feelings, personalities, psyches, morals, minds, souls.
from a review by Kathryn Schulz of Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen by Philip Ball.

At the beginning of the book Ball quotes from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad:
And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all the truth, and all sincerity are compressed into the inappreciable moment in time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible.

Image: Georges Seurat

9 April 2015

1 googol AD

Today, the average density of matter in the visible Universe is a few hydrogen atoms per cubic metre; by 1 googol AD, that figure will have fallen to one electron or positron in a volume far, far bigger than today’s visible Universe.
via Michael Hanlon

Image: Abel 39 by Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona via wikimedia

7 April 2015

Seas that are open again

Gratitude pours forth continually, as if the unexpected had just happened—the gratitude of a convalescent—for convalescence was unexpected…. The rejoicing of strength that is returning, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, of a sudden sense and anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of seas that are open again.
Friedrich Nietzsche quoted by Oliver Sacks

Photo by author: Lyme Bay, 6 April 2014

2 April 2015

Through which we see

The light from this image is being focused in your eyes by a concentrated solution of crystallin proteins. The lenses in your eyes are built of long cells that, early in their development, filled themselves with crystallins and then made the major sacrifice, ejecting their nuclei and mitochondria and leaving only a smooth, transparent solution of protein. We then rely on these proteins to see for the rest of our lives.

Image by David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute

1 April 2015

A shimmering succession

If [my] head were to try to encapsulate in a few words everything that is most amazing about itself, those few words would be: it has a world
-- The Kingdom of Infinite Space by Raymond Tallis (2008)

Map by Orlando Ferguson, 1893 via wikipedia