30 June 2015

Dancing at the edge of fire

What is wonder? How far back does it go? Do non-human beings experience it?

There’s a well-known video (well-known, at least, to those of us who are interested in this sort of thing) in which the primatologist Jane Goodall suggests that our closest living cousins, the chimpanzees, experience awe and wonder. She says:
 I can’t help feeling that this waterfall display, or dance, is perhaps triggered by feelings of awe and wonder. The chimpanzee brain is similar to ours. They have emotions that are clearly similar to those that we call happiness and sadness and fear and despair and so forth. So why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind at spirituality? Which is, really, being amazed at things outside yourself... I think chimpanzees are as spiritual as we are, but they can’t analyze it. You get the feeling that it’s all locked up inside them, and the only way they can express it is through this fantastic rhythmic dance. 
In a fine post for Nautilus, Brandom Keim notes that (unsurprisingly) there have been plenty of sceptical responses to Goodall.  That said, some sceptics do accept that chimpanzees and other animals can have rich and complex emotional lives. (See note [1].)

Keim reports that Mary Lee Jensvold, also primatologist, sees “something deeper” going on than an automatic response to loud stimuli such as a waterfall. For Jensvold, it can be seen in the chimps “sitting quietly and staring at the waterfall afterwards.”

And, writes Keim, there are several of non-primate species with comparable mental potential:
Quite a few cetaceans, for example, including orcas with their remarkable tribal greeting ceremonies. Ditto elephants and their burial rites. Again: we can’t know what they’re thinking, but it’s unscientific not to consider the possibility.  “Perhaps numerous animals engage in these rituals,”  writes ethologist Marc Bekoff in The Emotional Lives of Animals, “but we haven’t been lucky enough to see them.”
What else might be going on with chimpanzees? asks Keim:
One particular report, published several years ago in the American Journal of Physical Anthroplogy, catches my imagination. In it researchers describe a group of chimps living at Fongoli, Senegal, in a savanna reminiscent of settings where the earliest humans evolved. The chimps, wrote the researchers, often dance at the edge of fires.

Note [1] In The Book of Barely Imagined Beings I quoted James Rachels
Plainly, the proper way to avoid anthropomorphism is not to forswear the use of 'human' psychological descriptions altogether, but to exercise caution in their application...If anthropomorphism is a sin, we should also be wary of the companion sin: the similarities between ourselves and other animals may too easily be underestimated.


Ecstasy comes from the Greek 'ekstasis', meaning 'to step outside oneself' like the medieval mystics did to experience faith and truth in an ecstatic, visionary form. Ecstasy in this context is something you would know about if you had ever been a ski jumper. You can see it on the flyers' faces as they sweep past the camera, mouth agape, with their extraordinary expressions. 
Ski flying is just an athletic pursuit: it's also spiritual, a question of how to master a fear or death. ...There is a profound solitude in what these men do. These are lonely people who train for ten years to prepare themselves for a few seconds in the air, when they step outside all we are as human beings...
from Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (2014)

29 June 2015

Songs of green wonder

Groovy tracks from the 1100s

O Nobilissima Viridatas by Hildegard of Bingen (listen here)  translates from Latin as follows:
O most noble greening power,
rooted in the sun,
who shine in dazzling serenity in a sphere
that no earthly excellence can comprehend.
You are enclosed
in the embrace of divine mysteries.
You blush like the dawn,
and burn like a flame of the sun.
Shen Khar Venakhi by Demetrius I (listen here) translates from the Georgian as follows:
You are a vineyard newly blossomed
Young, beautiful, growing in Eden,
(A fragrant poplar sapling in Paradise.)
(May God adorn you. No one is more worthy of praise.)
You yourself are the sun, shining brilliantly.

Image via wiki

25 June 2015

Crystals as big as cities

Some believe that the boundary between the inner and the outer core [of the Earth] is undulating and mushy, with the iron crystals growing dendritically; reaching out like giant iron trees with a kind of iron mush between them. Others believe the topmost few hundred kilometres of the inner core consist of small crystals of iron, but inside the inner core they may merge, losing their individual identity as they become giant crystals aligned with the Earth’s overall magnetic field. 
These crystals are marvels, unseen wonders of the solar system. If you could sail past them they might remind you of a geological structure similar to the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, though thousands of times longer and wider. Single iron crystals the width of a city, stretching the distance from London to Birmingham! 
But the biggest mystery is that the inner core is a newcomer. The latest calculations indicate it only appeared between 500 and 1,000 million years ago, having grown steadily from a single crystal of iron. It continues to grow at half a millimetre a year and in a billion years it may even switch off the Earth’s magnetic field.
What would you see on a journey to the centre of the Earth? by David Whitehouse

P.S.  Some strange crystals near the Earth's surface here.

Image from Mundus Subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher (1664)

24 June 2015

Star compass

Navigation is about understanding and watching nature. Everything you need to guide you is in the ocean, but you need to be skilled enough to see it. It took many years to learn the ocean's many faces, to sense subtle cues - the slight differences in ocean swells, in the colors of the ocean, the shapes of the clouds and in the winds.
Nainoa Thompson talking to Sam Low

Image: Polynesian Voyaging Society

'We dream, and wake, and have a body'

All other mental faculties — imagination, conscience, intuition, the unconscious mind — are theoretical and inferred, and may be differently divided up in different cultures, but all can agree that we dream, and wake, and have a body.
Defence of Poetry by Les Murray (1998)

Image: Mike Salway via APOD

19 June 2015


What I described in Another Life — about being on the hill and feeling the sort of dissolution that happened — is a frequent experience in a younger writer. I felt this sweetness of melancholy, of a sense of mortality, or rather of immortality, a sense of gratitude both for what you feel is a gift and for the beauty of the earth, the beauty of life around us. When that’s forceful in a young writer, it can make you cry. It’s just clear tears; it’s not grimacing or being contorted, it’s just a flow that happens. The body feels it is melting into what it has seen...Ultimately, it’s what Yeats says: “Such a sweetness flows into the breast that we laugh at everything and everything we look upon is blessed.” That’s always there. It’s a benediction, a transference. It’s gratitude...
Derek Walcott, Paris Review 1985

Photograph by author of shed on a much-loved orchard/allotment

18 June 2015

Beyond a beach of shapes

     ...And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
     Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
     Of shapes and shingle.
     Here is unfenced existence:
     Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.
from Here by Philip Larkin

Image from thecoastalpath.net

17 June 2015

A million bombs all the time

The glory of the sun is violent and uninflected; its features are all flames and its sounds are all explosions. The Sun is so loud, like a million bombs all the time, that fine-spun sounds cannot be heard, like birds wading or figs tumbling or the muttering of mathematicians.
Things That Are by Amy Leach (2012)

But the energy density of life is greater by a factor of 10,000.

Image from Mundus subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher (1665)

15 June 2015

River nymphs

Glico the running streames in sweetnesse still that keepes,
And Clymene which rules, when they surround their deepes.
Spio, in hollow bankes, the waters that doth hide:
With Opis that doth beare them backward with the tyde.
Semaia that for sights doth keepe the water cleare;
Zanthe their yellow sands, that maketh to appeare,
Then Drymo for the okes that shadow every banke,
Phylodice, the boughs for garlands fresh and ranke.
Which the clear Naiades make them anadems with all,
They are cauld to daunse in Neptunes mightie hall.
Then Lifeo, which maintaines the birds harmonious layes,
Which sing on river banks amongst the slender sprayes,
With Rhodida, which for them doth nurse the roseat sets,
Iodia, which preserves the azure violets.
from the Poly-Olbion by Michael Drayton (1612, 1622)

Image: detail from a map by William Hole for the Poly-Olbion

13 June 2015

As personal as death, as unfathomable as the world

The sublime is that which, by calling to mind the overwhelming, shows the observer the possibility of their engulfment by the oversized — which, however, is suspended until further notice. The sublime whose tip points to me is as personal as death and as unfathomable as the world.
You Must Change Your Life by Peter Sloterdijk (2009)

12 June 2015

Howls and sweet airs

The ambiguities of wonder experienced by European adventurers in the New World, writes Stephen Greenblatt [1], are shown in a passage from History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil by Jean de Léry. During his stay among the Tupinambá in 1557, de Léry witnessed a solemn religious ceremony which frightened and amazed him:
While we have our breakfast, with no idea as yet of what they intended to do, we began to hear in the men’s house…a very low murmur, like the muttering of someone reciting his hours. Upon hearing this, the women (about two hundred of them) all stood up and clustered together, listening intently. The men little by little raised their voices and were distinctly heard singing all together and repeating this syllable of exhortation, Heu, heu, heu, heu; the women, to our amazement, answered them from their side, and with a trembling voice; reiterating that same interjection, Heu, heu, heu, heu, let out such cries for more than a quarter of an hour, that as we watched them we were utterly disconcerted. Not only did they howl, but also, leaping violently into the air, they made their breasts shake and they foamed at the mouth — in fact, some, like those who have the falling-sickness over here, fell in a dead faint; I can only believe that the devil entered their bodies and that they fell into a fit of madness...
But then the mood shifts:
However, after these chaotic noises and howls had ended and the men had taken a short pause (the women and children were no silent), we heard them once again singing and making their voices resound in a harmony so marvellous [of] sweet and gracious sounds… At the beginning of this witches’ sabbath…I had been somewhat afraid; now I received in recompense such joy, hearing the measured harmonies of such a multitude, and especially in the cadence and refrain of the song, when at every verse all of them would let their voices trail, saying Heu, heuare, heura, heurare, heura, heara, oueh — I stood there transported with delight [tout ravi]. Whenever I remember it, my heart trembles, and it seems their voices are still in my ears.

[1] Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Stephen Greenblatt (1988)

11 June 2015

Mass ends in B flat

In 2003, [astronomers] discovered the longest, oldest, lowest note in the universe — a black hole’s song... Although it is too low and deep for humans to hear, the B flat note, 57 octaves below middle C, appeared as sound waves that moved out from explosive events at the edge of a supermassive black hole in the galaxy NGC 1275. 
The notes stayed in the galaxy and never reached us, but we couldn’t have heard them anyway. The lowest note the human ear can detect has an oscillation period of one-twentieth of a second. This B flat’s period was 10 million years.
Joanna Klein An Earthling's guide to black holes
Supermassive black holes — a million to a billion times more massive than our sun — exist only in the center of a galaxy. At the center of the Milky Way, 26,000 light-years from Earth, scientists are hoping to make an image of Sagittarius A*, which is believed to be our own supermassive black hole, with the mass of four million suns.

Image from Utriusque Cosmi by Robert Fludd (1622)

10 June 2015

'On the materiality of colour'

Here are some images relating to Materiality of Colour: from Neolithic Earth Colours to Contemporary Interference Pigments, a seminar convened by Antoni Malinowski.

This is pigment timeline discussed by Jo Volley and colleagues from UCL (see note [1])

Here is an image that uses Indian Yellow, one of the pigments discussed by Ruth Siddall. Traditionally, this was made from the boiled urine of cattle fed exclusively on mango tree leaves.

This is the colour library in Venice, described by Malinowski as one of his favourite places

And this is from a Color-coordinate system from a 13th-century account of rainbows by Hannah Smithson et al. [2]


[1] I have turned the image upside down so that the present time is at the top and the lower down you go the further back in time you go. This is to reflect an idea, expressed at the seminar, that the pigments 'arise from the earth'

[2]  Historical European models of the spectrum can be found here or here

9 June 2015

Threads of Light

When San shamans enter the spirit realm, a particular kind of vision closely parallels the painted line. They report seeing bright and iridescent sinuous lines along which they can walk or simply glide. They also treat these lines as ropes that they can grasp and climb as they ascend to the spirit realm in the sky. The lines they see can thus be both paths and cords. Researchers call them ‘threads of light’. Before going up to the sky, some San shamans say they enter a hole in the ground, travel underground for some distance and then emerge in another part of the country before they climb up to God’s house in the sky. There they plead for the sick and entreat God to assist them in their hunts.
San Rock Art by David Lewis-Williams (2011)

8 June 2015

A terra incognita of wonders

In his account of his first discovery of Devonian fishes in The Old Red Sandstone, Hugh Miller describes how he split open a calcareous nodule and found inside 'finely enamelled' fish scales. 'I wrought on each with the eagerness of a discoverer entering for the first time a terra incognita of wonders, Almost every fragment of clay, every splinter of limestone nodule contained its organism - scales, plates, bones, entire fish...I wrought on until the advancing tide came splashing over the nodules and a powerful August sun had risen towards the middle of the sky; and were I to sum up all my happier hours, the hour would not be forgotten in which I had sat down on a rounded boulder of granite by the edge of the sea, and spread out on the beach before me the spoils of the morning.'
A Land  Jacquetta Hawkes (1951)

The photograph of Hugh Miller was taken in 1843. The day he describes in this passage was in the summer of 1830.

7 June 2015

Pattern, process and change

In creating [a mathematics of flowing quantities and rates of change] Newton embraced a paradox. He believed in a discrete universe. He believed in atoms, small but ultimately indivisible - not infinitesimal. Yet he built a mathematical frameworks that was not discrete but continuous, based on a geometry of lines and smoothly changing curves... 
Here at Woolsthorpe the night was strewn with stars, the moon cast its light through the apple trees, and the day's sun and shadows carved their familiar pathways across the wall.  Newton understood now: the projection of curves onto flat planes; the angles in three dimensions, changing slightly each day. He saw an orderly landscape. Its inhabitants were not static objects; they were patterns, process and change.
Isaac Newton by James Gleick (2004)

Newton's early papers here.

6 June 2015

Other sculptors, other statues from the same stone

We may, if we like, by our reasonings unwind things back to that black and jointless continuity of space and moving clouds of swarming atoms which science calls the only real world. But all the while the world we feel and live in will be that which our ancestors and we, by slowly cumulative strokes of choice, have extricated out of this, like sculptors, by simply removing portions of the given stuff. Other sculptors, other statues from the same stone! Other minds, other worlds from the same monotonous and inexpressive chaos! My world is but one in a million alike embedded, alike real to those who may abstract them.
William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890)

In the same chapter James coined the phrase 'stream of consciousness.'  Some recent research casts doubt on that   see, for example, Gregory Hickok quote here. Earlier in the same passage (quoted in a longer extract by Cosma Rohilla Shalizi) James describes the mind as 'at every state at every stage a theatre of simultaneous possibilities...'
Consciousness consists in the comparison of these with each other, the selection of some, and the suppression of the rest by the reinforcing and inhibiting agency of attention.

5 June 2015

Wind words

aigrish, blae, flan, twitchy, ultaichean, whiffle
a few of the words from around Britain and Ireland, gathered by Robert Macfarlane, describing different kinds of wind, breeze and associated phenomena. There is great subtlety and distinction in some of these words. I particularly like
defined as 'a slight breeze, just enough to stir the hair' (gaelic) [1]

Note [1] An Irish-English dictionary of 1904 (pdf) defines ciabhar as 'hair or locks collectively' but does not mention a use in connection with breeze.  In what may be a coincidence, ciabhach can mean either 'foggy, misty, hazy, dark' or 'hairy, bushy, having long hair.'

Image: Fay Godwin

A map of colours

The courses of the strata, or the length and breadth of surface occupied by each, as they rise successively from the level of the sea, on the eastern to the western side of the Island, are represented by colours. 
The edges of the strata, which may all be crossed in journey from east to west, are called their outcrops; and the under-edge of every stratum, being the top of the next, and that being generally the best defined, is represented by the fullest part of each colour…. 
The colours, though brighter than those they represent, are in some degree assimulated to the colour of each stratum, except the chalk, which being colourless seems best represented by green, as strong colours are necessary, and there being no stratum of equal extent which required that colour....In this mode of representing the strata by colours, various insular, or detached parts of the same colour may be observed.
William Smith, 1815

Images: wikipedia and NASA

4 June 2015

936 genders

Cyathus stercoreus, the "dung-loving bird's nest", has 39 different possible MAT-A's, and 24 MAT-B's. This means that there are a total of 936 (39×24) different genders, and an arbitrary fungus will be able to mate with 874 (38×23) of them. 
John Kellden

Image: University of Guelph

h/t: FJ

3 June 2015

The man pulling radishes

     The man pulling radishes
Pointed my way
     With a radish.  
Can you imagine the situation? the narrator of the poem is hiking along a road. He stops to ask for directions. And the fellow working in the field waves his radish — it’s a daikon, one of those long skinny Japanese radishes — and says, “Oh, it’s about four miles down the road on the left”…  
One of the pleasures of this poem [by Kobayashi Issa] is that it is written from the point of view of the traveler. And it is in the past tense. So...we are in the mind of the traveler after he has received directions from the farmer. One imagines a slight smile on his face as he records to himself his own observation of the farmer’s small, revelatory gesture. It is the smile the poem gives us. And, as readers, we are in a position to notice that the traveler is doing what travelers do, noticing and telling afterwards. It is famously, one of the reasons for travel: to be given the fresh pair of eyes that an uprooting from our normal routine gives us. That is, the traveler in the poem is behaving exactly like a traveler in the same way that the farmer is behaving exactly like a farmer. Everyone, the poem observes, is subsumed to his element, and metaphorical contexts of this observation are rootedness and uprootedness and also the seeking out of direction 
on teaching poetry Robert Hass

2 June 2015

Landscapes of Titan

Titan’s lacustrine depressions develop in relatively flat areas. They lie between 300 and 800 meters above the level of the northern seas. They are typically rounded or lobate in shape and some of them seem to be interconnected. Their widths vary from a few tens of kilometes, such as for most of Titan’s lacunae, up to a few hundred kilometres, such as Ontario Lacus or Jingpo Lacus. Their depths have been tentatively estimated to range from a few meters to 100 - 300 meters, with “steep”-sided walls. The liquid-covered depressions would lie 250 meters below the floor of the empty depressions, which could be indicative of the presence of an alkanofer in the sub-surface, analog to terrestrial aquifers, filling or not the depressions depending on their base level. The depressions sometimes possess a raised rim, ranging from a few hundred meters up to 600 meters in height.
Dissolution on Titan and on Earth: Towards the age of Titan’s karstic landscapes (pdf)

h/t LB

Images: Lakes of Titan, Sikun Labyrinthus. NASA

1 June 2015

'A story is like the wind'

/Han#kass’o, //Kabbo's son-in-law, told Lloyd that it was at Haarfontein that //Kabbo’s son, Smoke’s Man “saw the wind”. He was in the employ of a white farmer, watching sheep, when he threw a stone at a bird, presumably hunting it. In /Xam mythology the elements were able to take different forms. The bird was the wind, the stone-throwing provoked a violent storm that terrified Smoke’s Man, until it disappeared into a hole in the mountain.
The Storyteller's Map by Kevin Davie
The hot, flat landscape means that wind is a feature. Dia!kwain said the /Xam people each own their own wind, that this wind blows when we die, blowing away the spoor we leave while still alive. 

Image: Mike Rossi


Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.
Julian Jaynes
The “stream” of consciousness is an illusion. We actually perceive the world in rhythmic pulses rather than as a continuous flow.
Gregory Hickok

Image: Cueva de las Manos by Mariano via wikipedia