26 October 2015

'So many voices proclaiming to us...'

The beasts of the forest retire to the thickets; the birds hide themselves beneath the foliage of the trees, or in the crevices of the rocks. Yet, amid this apparent silence, when we lend an attentive ear to the most feeble sounds transmitted by the air, we hear a dull vibration, a continual murmur, a hum of insects, that fill…the lower strata of the air. Nothing is better fitted to make man feel the extent and power of organic life. Myriad insects creep upon the soil, and flutter round the plants parched by the ardour of the Sun. A confused noise issues from every bush, from the decayed trunks of trees, from the clefts of the rock, and from the ground undermined by lizards, millipedes and [caecilians]. There are so many voices proclaiming to us, that all nature breathes; and that, under a thousand different forms, life is diffused throughout the cracked and dusty soil, as well as in the bosom of the waters, and in the air that circulates around us.
from the Personal Narrative of Alexander von Humboldt, published 1819-29.

In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf links this to the final paragraph of Darwin's Origin

A short account of Humboldt's influence on Darwin and an online edition of the Narrative are here.

Picture via here

23 October 2015


"If you don't believe me," says the stone
"just ask the leaf, it will tell you the same.
Ask a drop of water, it will say what the leaf has said.
And, finally, ask a hair from your own head.
I am bursting with laughter, yes, laughter, vast laughter,
although I don't know how to laugh."
from Conversation with a Stone by Wisława Szymborska

22 October 2015


The Copernican principle states that, on the large scale, the universe is homogenous and is nowhere special.  But it is reported that at least three phenomena call that into question:
A void almost 2 billion light years wide called the CMB coldspot. 
A structure strung out over 4 billion light years containing 73 quasars known as the Huge Large Quasar Group. 
A group of gamma-ray burst emitting galaxies that form a ring 5.6 billion light years across – 6% of the size of the entire visible universe.
Some physicists argue that these phenomena may be evidence for brane theory  the idea that what we perceive as our universe is a single four dimensional membrane floating in a sea of similar (mem)branes spanning multiple extra dimensions.

Image via Daily Galaxy

18 October 2015

Deep song

Whale song has artistic elements beyond simple communication of information. For example, since each whale theme ends with consistent final sounds, the phrases can be said to “rhyme” in a way akin to human poetry. Is such ornamental courtship behavior just an illustration of the “male quality” valued by hard-line evolutionists? Or does it show that evolution, over thousands of years, is able to produce art if there are no serious predators around?
Edward Sapir quoted by David Rothenberg in Whales synchorize their songs across oceans...

Image by Mike Deal

17 October 2015

Bee Orchid

At 10x [magnification] the body shape of the flower was still just about legible. I could make out a covering of fine hairs. Whatever surface they were growing from looked papular and spongy. But I was drawn to the dark inverted triangle at the top, which looked as pubic as anything in a Palaeolithic fertility figure. Against my will I was already sexualising the flower, caught up in the orchid family’s famously sensual aura. At 50x the blooms were transformed into spangled landscapes. The individual hairs were clearly visible now, and tipped with iridescence, as if they carried tiny globules of dew. The whole surface of the plant had the glister of organza. And when I shifted to the dark patch, which now filled my whole field of view, I spotted two glowing crescents on either edge. They were made up of individual spots of blue, like tiny LED lights. I wondered if the light from the microscope lamp was producing these effects, but they were still there when I turned it off. A few minutes later, with the lamp back on, I noticed an extraordinary aroma rising from the blooms – musky, sweaty, meaty. I am sure this was the allomone – a chemical evolved in the plant to exactly mimic the female wasp’s sexual pheromone, and made perceptible to the human nose by the heat of the lamp.
excerpt from Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey

See also posts about plants including Led by the Nose on the blog of barely imagined beings. And here's a brief profile I wrote of Mabey last year.

Photo by Hectonichus

15 October 2015


It is the strangest of all places, and there is everything in the world to learn about it. It can keep us awake and jubilant with questions for millennia ahead if we learn not to meddle and not to destroy. Our great hope is in being such a young species, thinking in language only a short while, still learning, still growing up.
Seven Wonders by Lewis Thomas, before 1983

Weorold, the Old English for 'world', is a compound of wer, 'man', and eld, 'age'.  Thomas suggests the modern world itself as the first of his seven wonders, and notes that 'world' is derived from the Indo-European root wiros, which meant 'man' (apparently, the correct spelling is wiHrós).

Image: map of space debris orbiting Earth via Reddit

14 October 2015

'Engaging fully with the world, within time'

[In O nata lux] Lauridsen has masterfully balanced numerous different tendencies in the listener so that no single instance of melody springs univocally into the foreground.  The melody is effortlessly recognisable, but it also functions as overtones to other phrases, and as echoes of other phrases. It is part of the larger flow, and that whole flow is indicating possibilities of tones beyond itself. We find ourselves releasing our usual constraining focus of attention, our agenda-driving volition, our control over our attention in order to absorb the nuances that we cannot consciously trace out. As we do, the everyday gestalt structure of our perception is subtly but radically altered: the musical foreground and background blend together, and as they do, the distinction between listener and music as well seems to dissipate. The perceptual field temporarily suffuses what Merleau-Ponty called the "second background" of one's body. Then, when the flow of music holds back, we are brought with it into a momentary stillness of rare tranquility and openness to our surroundings, with an attitude of wonder — at least temporarily. The experience is precisely not escaping the changing natural world into an eternity beyond it. It is engaging fully with the world, within time.
'Tempos of Eternity' by Barbara C. Goodrich in Art, Aesthetics and the Brain (2015)

Photo by author

13 October 2015

Life from geometry

One of the things always fascinated me about Escher’s work is his representation of infinity. Infinity plays a big role in many things I do such as in cosmology, and here [Development II] we have a picture in which he has a pattern of hexagons which recedes, or gets small and smaller, until infinity is represented by the infinite crowing at the central point. There’s another feature here where you have this very geometrical structure in the middle...and as you work you way out in the picture out these hexagons become living creatures. Something Escher was always playing with — this life coming out of inanimate geometry if you like.
Roger Penrose The Art of The Impossible: M C Escher and Me

Thanks to LC

12 October 2015

Integrative experience

Carl Jung and many before him would call the integrative experience my soul, but not wanting to claim too much or depend on a word worn smooth with use, I prefer to call it my poem-self. The fusion of my three ordinary states of being heightens each one of them, and produces an excitement frequently so intense that I can’t bear it for too long at a stretch, but must get up and run outside for rests from it, then come back for some more. The poem I write during this experience will contain the experience, the more strongly the better the poem is, and will continue to contain it after the trance has left me. What I create, really, is a new body made of words and the potent arrangement of words, in which my soul as it was at a particular moment will go on existing.
A Defence of Poetry by Les Murray (1998).

In Murray's account, the three states of being are the waking consciousness mind, the occult mind of dreams, and the body.

Image: Wright Brothers' Glider Test, 1902 via NASA

11 October 2015

A perfit description of the Coelestiall Orbes

This orbe of starres fixed infinitely up extendeth hit self in altitude sphericallye, and therefore immovable the palace of foelicitye garnished with perpetuall shininge glorious lights innumerable farr excelling our sonne both in quantitye and quality the very court of coelestiall angelles devoide of griefe and replenished with perfite endless ioye the habitacle for the elect.
legend by Thomas Digges from his 1576 translation of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus.

Digges, writes David Wootton in The Invention of Science, was the first competent astronomer to explicitly propose an infinite universe (Nicholas of Cusa had argued that an omnipotent God would make an infinite universe, but this was a philosophical, not an astronomical argument).

10 October 2015

Like rain it sounded

...It loosened acres, lifted seas
The sites of Centres stirred
Then like Elijah rode away
Upon a Wheel of Cloud.
Like rain it sounded till it curved Emily Dickinson

Thanks to DK

Image: NASA/ISS 16

9 October 2015

A new idea of reality

Richard Feynman once suggested that nature is like an infinite onion. With each new experiment, we peel another layer of reality; because the onion is infinite, new layers will continue to be discovered forever. Another possibility is that we’ll get to the core. Perhaps physics will end someday, with the discovery of a “theory of everything” that describes nature on all scales, no matter how large or small. We don’t know which future we will live in. But the observation of neutrino masses tells us that the adventure of discovery in which we are currently involved will not end here. There are still fundamental mysteries to be resolved.
What Neutrinos Reveal Lawrence Krauss

Photo of Wolfgang Pauli via flickr

2 October 2015


The pecan groves give, again and again, Such generosity might seem incompatible with the process of evolution, which involves the imperative of individual survival. But we make a grave error if we try to separate individual wellbeing from the health of the whole. The gift of abundance from pecans is a gift to themselves. By sating squirrels and people, the trees are ensuring their own survival.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer