18 July 2015

Musica universalis

The equations for atoms and light are, almost literally, the same equations that govern musical instruments and sound.
Frank Wilczek, A Beautiful Question (2015)

16 July 2015

Wonder tracks

I am about to spend a few days off-grid on a small island, writing.  Here are ten pieces of human music linked to wonder [see footnote] that I could imagine taking with me:
1. Pygmy polyphony. People may have probably been singing like this for tens of thousands of years and perhaps much longer. They want the forest to be happy.

2. Shen Khar Venakhi from 11th century Georgia. The last line translates as "You yourself are the sun, shining brilliantly."

3. Miserere Nostri, Domine by Thomas Tallis. 
4. J.S. Bach  pretty much passim but let's say the Gigue from 4th Partita.
5. For a bit of OTT, the Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem conducted by Riccardo Muti 
6. Even more OTT, Das Lied von der Erde by Gustav Mahler. Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.   
7. The final scene of The Firebird by Igor Stravinksy.  
8. Once in a Lifetime from Remain in Light by Talking Heads. There is water at the bottom of the ocean. 
9. Become Ocean by John Luther Adams. Alex Ross has called it "the loveliest apocalypse in musical history."
10. For my family, What a wonderful world sung by Louis Armstrong.  
What would you take?


Any experience of wonder is, of course, historically situated and constrained in all sorts of ways. My list probably does little more than highlight my prejudice and ignorance. But all of us are, inevitably, situated — albeit in different places!  I'll go with a definition of wonder by the philosopher Martyn Evans:
an attitude of altered, compellingly-intensified attention towards something that we immediately acknowledge as somehow important – something whose appearance engages our imagination before our understanding but which we will probably want to understand more fully with time.
Tracks that didn't quite make my cut include music for Japanese flute, the fourth movement from Mozart's 41st Symphony, Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven's 24th variation on a theme by Diabelli, A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan and Um Tom by Caetano Veloso.  As a restorative after the Dies Irae, try Tutto nel mondo è burla.  My favourite Armstrong track is West End Blues (with Earl Hines), and the song my eight-year-old would like is Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

15 July 2015

More possibilities than we imagine

We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that consequently we have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.
from Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (2011)

Image from Mundus Subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher (1665)

14 July 2015

The intimate Pleiades

Imagination completed what mere sight could not achieve. Looking down, I seemed to see through a transparent planet, through heather and solid rock, through the buried graveyards of vanished species, down through the molten flow of basalt, and on into the Earth’s core of iron; then on again, still seemingly downwards, through the southern strata to the southern ocean and lands, past the roots of gum trees and the feet of the inverted antipodeans, through their blue, sun-pierced dawning of day, and out into the eternal night, where sun and stars are together. For there, dizzyingly far below me, like fishes in the depth of a lake, lay the nether constellations. The two domes of the sky were fused into one hollow sphere, star-peopled, black, even beside the blinding sun. The young moon was a curve of incandescent wire. The completed hoop of the Milky Way encircled the universe.
Star Maker by Olaf Stapleton (1937)

Image: ESA

13 July 2015

Clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low & horridly cruel

What a book a Devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature! 
Letter from Charles Darwin to Joseph Hooker , 13 July 1856

Image: Alexander Wild

12 July 2015

Narrow chinks

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.
At Breaking Convention 2015David Nutt mentions evidence that psilocybin opens up the brain.

11 July 2015

Any-angled light

A photon at the centre of the Sun may collide with atoms between about 49 billion trillion and 49 trillion trillion times before it reaches the surface. Even moving at the speed of light between collisions that will take from around five thousand to half a million years.
Sunshine's Crazy Sloppy Path to You by Robert Krulwich

9 July 2015

Flowing waters and blowing winds

God...showed me a hundred thousand many coloured flowers. Then He open up the parts of the flowers and showed me a hundred thousand green herbs and flowing waters and blowing winds, and He opened up the winds and showed me a hundred thousand freshnesses.
Baha Walad, quoted in Sufism: A Short Introduction by William Chittick (2000)

Image: Fay Godwin

A philosophy of pure ressentiment

Cioran accepts his aggressive-depressive disposition as the atmospheric fact of his existence. He accepts that he is fated to experience the world primarily in dystonic timbres; weariness, boredom, meaninglessness, tastelessness, and rebellious anger towards everything that is the case. He frankly affirms Nietzsche’s diagnosis that the ideals of metaphysics should be viewed as the intellectual products of physical and psychosocial illness…Thinking does not mean thanking, as Heidegger suggests; it means taking revenge.
You Must Change Your Life by Peter Sloterdijk (2012)

Image via TuttoCioran

8 July 2015

Ars Nova

It will be fruitful, and great fun, to use modern resources of signal processing and computer graphics to translate the beautiful concepts and equations of physics into new forms of art. Then, physicists will be able to bring their visual cortices fully to bear on them, and people in general will be able to admire and enjoy them. In the future, artists and scientists will work together more together, and create new works of extraordinary beauty... 
Artificial intelligence...offers strange new possibilities for the life of mind. An entity capable of accurately recording its state could purposefully enter loops to relive especially enjoyable episodes, for example. A quantum mind could experience the superposition of “mutually contradictory” states or allow different parts of its wave function to explore vastly different scenarios in parallel. Being based on reversible computation, such a mind could revisit the past at will and could be equipped to superpose past and present.
How Physics Will Change—and Change the World—in 100 Years by Frank Wilczek

In a longer version of the article (pdf), Wilczek adds:
I have described a future in which people know much more about, and have vastly greater power over, the physical world than we do today. Paradoxically, perhaps, I think that this will make them more sensitive to gaps in their knowledge, and ambitious to accomplish more...Such emergent humility reflects not so much modesty, as largeness of vision.

Image via APOD

7 July 2015

Space soufflé

Outer space...is a vast slow cooker. The densest interstellar gas may contain 10,000 hydrogen atoms in a cubic centimeter, and three or four carbon atoms. This is a thousand trillionth of the density of the air we breathe. An atom in deep space may travel 100,000 kilometers before bumping into a partner. 
But... a long underappreciated bevy of three protons and two electrons called protonated molecular hydrogen, or H3+, catalyzes a great network of reactions as elements collide, or stick to the surface of star-produced microscopic silicate and carbon dust grains. Over many millions of years, compounds as complex as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are manufactured, with dozens of carbon atoms in arrays of benzene rings. Other structures are precursors to amino acids...
Goodbye Copernicus, Hello Universe by Caleb Scharf.

See also Deep Space, Branching Molecules, and Life’s Origins?

Image: Ben McCall

6 July 2015

Exquisitely fine

...there are those things which are little less wonderful within a Plant than within an Animal; that a Plant, like an Animal hath Organical parts, some whereof may be called its Bowels; that every Plant hath Bowels of divers kinds, containing divers liquors; that even a Plant lives partly upon Air, for the reception whereof it hath peculiar Organs. Again, that all the said Organs, Bowels, or other parts are as artificially [sic] made, and as punctually for place and number composed together as all the Mathematical Lines of a flower or Face; that the Staple of the Stuff is so exquisitely fine, that no Silkworm is able to draw so small a thred; that by all these means the ascent of the Sap, the Distribution of the Air, the Confection of several sorts of Liquors, as Lymphus, Milks, Oyls, Balsoms, with other acts of Vegetation, are all contrived and brought about in a Mechanical way.
Nehemiah Grew, Philosophical Transactions, 1675 (via PDR).

Image from here

3 July 2015

Wonders Wornowiidical

Eyes are meant to be animal inventions. They’re supposed to comprise many cells. They are icons of biological complexity. And yet, here’s a non-animal that packs similar components into its single cell. Is the ocelloid actually an eye? Can it sense light? What does a warnowiid use it for? These questions are still mysteries, but in trying to answer them, Gregory Gavelis...has discovered something about the ocelloid that’s even weirder. At least two of its components—the “retina” and the “cornea”—seem to be made from domesticated bacteria.
Phenomena Ed Yong

wild Abyss

Amy Leach writes
A star will not shine until it has assembled enough self [and] once it has enough self it cannot help but shine; once it starts to shine it cannot help but burn the self up and blow the self away upon the stellar winds.
The star system PSR J0348+0432 consists of a white dwarf and neutron star 830,000 kilometres apart --about twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon. They orbit around each other once every 2 hours and 27 minutes. at a velocity of about 2 million kilometres per hour. The neutron star is about 26 kilometres in diameter and has mass is twice that of the Sun. It spins on its axis about 25 times a second.  Gravity here is over a hundred billion times its value on Earth.

General Relativity predicts, and measurements confirm, that the two stars will spiral in towards each other, emitting gravitational waves.

A white dwarf that is not caught in such a system may continue to exist almost indefinitely – or at least 1032 years. Eventually, it may turn into a black dwarf. None of these exist yet because their precursors would have to be older than the universe.

Image: ESO/L. Calçada

2 July 2015

At dawn they grow fingers

When the light vanishes, the fingers retract
 Plankton Chronicles video by Christian Sardet et al.

Image: MARPLAN/John Dolan

1 July 2015

Goes Boink

Scientific progress...is often triggered by rather innocuous discoveries or simple realisations. There is a terrible cliché about scientists exhibiting a ‘childlike’ fascination with nature, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it. The sense in which the cliché rings true is that children are occasionally in the habit of focusing on a very small thing and continuing to ask the question ‘Why?’ until they get an answer that satisfies their curiosity. Adults don’t seem to do this as much. Good scientists do, however, and if I have a thesis...it is as follows: by focusing on tiny but interesting things with honesty and clarity, great and profound discoveries are made, often by flawed human beings who don’t initially realise the consequences of their investigations.
The Human Universe by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (2014)