14 December 2016

Update

It has been a while since I have posted on the blog.  This is mainly because I have been busy. The manuscript of A New Map of Wonders is just about done, and the book will be published in 2017.

Here are two among many passing wonders from the last few weeks. There is no particular connection between them apart from the fact that they both expand our sense of reality.
  • Plants may ‘see’ underground by channelling light to their roots. Their stems may act like a fibre-optic cables, conducting light down to receptors in the roots known as phytochromes. These may trigger the production of a protein which promotes healthy root growth.
  • Weather systems have been observed on an exoplanet for the first time. Massive storms move across the surface of HAT-P-7b, a thousand light years away. The clouds in its atmosphere are likely made of corundum, the mineral which forms rubies and sapphires.

25 October 2016

Not a human move

[AlphaGo] doesn’t perceive the world or move within it, and the totality of its behaviour is manifest through the moves it makes on the Go board. Nevertheless, the intentional stance is sometimes useful to describe its behaviour.

...Commentating on the match, the European Go champion Fan Hui remarked: ‘It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move. So beautiful.’ According to AlphaGo’s own estimate, there was a one-in-10,000 chance that a human would have used the same tactic, and it went against centuries of received wisdom. Yet this move was pivotal in giving it victory.
from What other kinds of minds might be out there? by Murray Shanahan

12 October 2016

"Dance all night on the shore of another world"


One legend of the Yurok people says that, far out in the Pacific Ocean but not farther than a canoe can paddle, the rim of the sky makes waves by beating on the surface of the water. On every twelfth upswing, the sky moves a little more slowly, so that a skilled navigator has enough time to slip beneath its rim, reach the outer ocean, and dance all night on the shore of another world.
from The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

Image via California Slaughter, See also a Yurok house here

28 September 2016

First sight

When people received the digital images from the Hubble telescope, those first few eyes who are getting it on their screens   I guess it has to be something very similar to that. When I look inside our own anatomy at the time where nobody knows if we even exist it’s the same as looking at dimensions that we never imagined we would ever see because we didn’t know they existed.
Ali H. Brivanlou to Radio Lab: The Primitive Streak.


Image: Day12 human embryo in vitro. Gist Croft, Cecilia Pelligrini, Ali H. Brivanlou, The Rockefeller University.

23 August 2016

Where we got our music


After about half an hour, the wind began to funnel down from the high southern pass, gaining force with each passing moment. A Venturi effect caused the gusts passing upstream through the narrow gorge to compress into a vigorous breeze that swept past our crouched bodies, the combined temperature and windchill now making us decidedly uncomfortable. Then it happened. Sounds that seemed to come from a giant pipe organ suddenly engulfed us. The effect wasn't a chord exactly, but rather a combination of tones, sighs, and midrange groans that played off each other, sometimes setting strange beats into resonance as they nearly matched one another in pitch. At the same time they created complex harmonic overtones, augmented by reverberations coming off the lake and the surrounding mountains. At those moments the tone clusters, becoming quite loud, grew strangely dissonant and overwhelmed every other sensation... 
[Our guide Angus Wilson, a Nez Perce Indian] took us a cluster of different length reeds that had been broken off by the force of wind and weather over the course of seasons. As the air flowed past the reeds, those with open holes at the top were excited into oscillation, which created a great sound -- a cross between a church organ and colossal pan flute... 
Seeing recognition in our faces, Angus then took a knife from the sheath at his belt and...selected and cut a length of reed from the patch, bored some holes and a notch into it and began to play...[Then] he turned to us and, in a measured voice, said: "Now you know where we got our music. And that's where you got yours, too."
from The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause

Thanks, Andrew Ray, for the reminder of this.

Photo by Edward S. Curtis 1911, wikipedia

20 August 2016

Behemoth

So much human sacrifice and environmental devastation have gone to create a false heaven. 
— from a review of Behemoth by Zhao Liang
Once we sang in the sunshine and blithe, sweet air. But now I grieve upon the shattered Earth
 a trailer for the film


 Image: Zhao Liang

The line between night and day

The Station goes around the world in an hour and a half, which means it flies through fifty minutes of day, followed by fifty minutes of night, endlessly repeating. This means that during a seven-hour spacewalk, you may see four sunrises and sunsets. I remember holding onto a handrail on the outside of the Station, which was flying silently up the Atlantic, from south to north, and as we moved toward Europe I could see the terminator—the line between night and day—rolling up over the horizon ahead of us. The white sun sank quickly behind us in a showy flurry of orange, pink, and red horizon bands, and then we were suddenly in twilight, floating into the dark half of the world. The terminator flicked over us, and, in the deeper darkness ahead and below us, I could see a huge lit-up city, glued to the curved Earth, sliding up over the rim of the world to meet me. I could see the structure of the city, with its glowing heart, its network of roads and its halo of suburban lights fading into the dark countryside. The city was Cairo, looking beautiful and radiant. Down there, millions of people were trying to make a living, find or keep a job, provide for themselves and their families, and worrying about the future. I could cover all of them with one outstretched hand. Cairo slid under and then behind me, and more cities rolled into view over the horizon, all tacked to the outside curve of the planet surface, and all seemingly moving toward us, rather than us toward them.
— Piers Sellers

Image via APOD

28 July 2016

A roar on the other side of silence

You only have to imagine being in a desert to realise the variety of sounds a microphone on the surface of Mars could record – and how they can be interpreted. First of all, the wind, whistling across the planetary landscape – how fast is it travelling? How often does it vary in speed or direction? What does a dust devil sound like? Or a dust storm? What about the crack of thunder associated with a lightning bolt? Or the variation in pressure during an electric storm? Once the wind drops, the gentle sounds that break the silence can be heard: the settling of dust grains disturbed by the wind.
– from What does the solar system sound like? by Monica Grady.

I find the soundscapes (actually conversions of electromagnetic vibrations) in this NASA video both disturbing and beautiful. Among them, those of the rings of Uranus (the planet was named after the god of the sky) are the most serene; the upper atmosphere of the Earth the most wondrous.

In a review of Trevor Cox's delightful Sonic Wonderland, I invited meditation on: the sound from black holes (B flat 56 octaves below middle C); reverberations through loops in the Sun's outer atmosphere; and a wind shuffling rock grains through the Martian air.

Sound waves from the great storm that is the red spot on Jupiter may be the cause of heating in its upper atmosphere.

Added 30 July: The NASA recordings linked above are of 'sounds' caused by the interaction of the solar wind with the ionosphere and magnetosphere of planets and moons, but of course a much older idea is the 'music of the spheres.'  Among creative interpretations of this old idea, which I have come across thanks to Stephon Alexander's The Jazz of Physics is an interpretation of Johannes Kepler's The Harmony of the World by Willie Ruff and John Rogers.


Image via APOD


6 July 2016

"I must dream of a future that is different from the past"

I must dream of a future that is different from the past. A future that has in it everything my people need.
My ancestors and my fathers have dreamed of this future, and I have tried in my life, in my times, to bring it to reality. But I will not see it all, and I will not see the reality, only the dream.
Now when I am at Dhanaya, my most special place, I see the future running above the water, down the blue skyline and through the horizon, as if it were on a projector screen revealing to me a portrait of the future. At other times I see a beautiful painting, created by the hands of masters, now broken into a thousand pieces. Those pieces are split up and thrown about, and I am seeking always to put them back together, to refit the pieces, to re-create the picture as it should be and then to hang it again on the wall – a beautiful picture for all to see.
In these moments I tune myself up so high that sometimes I can’t even hear myself think. I wonder, then, who understands me, who could understand?
Galarrwuy Yunupingu

Image: Planet Elto

28 June 2016

Aliens and angels

We have only just begun to live with smart machines. While we worry today about killer robots, the challenges to come may be turn out to be much stranger. One day, we may find ourselves living alongside aliens and angels.
from Forget killer robots: This is the future of supersmart machines by Sumit Paul-Choudhury

Image adapted from Murray Shanahan

2 June 2016

Two seconds of revelation

For generations most things people could see in the heavens never changed shape. The Moon and some comets were obvious exceptions.  Only recently has it been possible to see, with the aid of technology, the dynamism of the Sun's atmosphere, or movement in the clouds of Jupiter.

But images of change at larger scales — such as animations of galaxy evolution and distribution here and here — remain artefacts of reason, imagination and ingenuity rather than direct observation.

Our experience of stars, nebulae and supernovae is still mediated through static though often spectacular photographs.  Given how slowly the stars seem to change during a human lifetime this seems almost inevitable.

In this context, a clip showing fifteen years' expansion of the Tycho Brache Supernova remnant feels like something particularly remarkable, at least to me. At two seconds (blink and you'll miss it), it is the same length as the 1888 Roundhay Garden Scene, and no less momentous.

27 May 2016

Slowth


Elizabeth Bishop had, and Annie Dillard has time for lichen.

In The Shampoo, Bishop writes
The still explosions on the rocks
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.
Dillard, echoes the extraterrestrial leap, noting in The Eclipse that photographs of the Crab Nebula taken fifteen years ago seem identical to photos of it taken yesterday, even though it is expanding at seventy million miles a day. Botanists, she continues, have measured some ordinary lichens twice, at fifty year intervals, without detecting any growth.

Here, from a profile of the lichenologist Kerry Knudsen, is a scrap of ground-truthing with regard to lichen:
Lichens grow very slowly and certain species have extraordinarily long lifespans. Samples of Rhizocarpus geographicum, a lichen that grows in the arctic, were determined to be over 8,000 years old.
But lichens are not always slow. When it rains on individuals of genera Acarosporaceae,  hydraulic pressure is applied to the ascus, a cylindrical structure containing spores,  launching them into the air  at 250 miles per hour. Many spores land nearby but others drift up into the stratosphere and may float for hundreds of miles.

(Added 30 July:  recent analysis has revealed a third symbiotic organism in lichen, hiding in plain sight alongside the familiar two, that has eluded scientists for decades.)


Photo Willie 'Curry'

27 April 2016

Hidden

Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be.
Donald Hoffman

Moonbow photo courtesy Calvin Bradshaw via wikimedia

21 April 2016

One display to rule them all


In which human dreams are swallowed, or expanded, without limit:
With a VR platform we will create a Wikipedia of experiences, potentially available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Travel experiences—terror at the edge of an erupting volcano, wonder at a walking tour of the pyramids—once the luxury of the rich (like books in the old days), will be accessible to anyone with a VR rig. Or experiences to be shared: marching with protesters in Iran; dancing with revellers in Malawi; how about switching genders? Experiences that no humans have had: exploring Mars; living as a lobster; experiencing a close-up of your own beating heart, live.
from The Untold Story of Magic Leap

Humpback: Zorankovacevic via wikimedia

13 April 2016

Consolations of the desert

After watching Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light, I read a little about the Atacama desert, and came across this picture of penitentes on the Chajnantor plateau.


The is from a  helpful description by the photographer, or the ESO:
The precise details of the mechanism that forms the penitentes are still not completely understood. For many years, people of the Andes believed [them] to be the result of strong winds prevalent in the mountains. However, the strong winds have only a limited role in shaping these icy pinnacles. Nowadays, it is believed that they are the product of a combination of physical phenomena. 
The process begins with sunlight shining on the surface of the snow. Due to the very dry conditions in these desert regions, the ice sublimes rather than melts — it goes from solid to gas without melting and passing through a liquid water phase. Surface depressions in the snow trap reflected light, leading to more sublimation and deeper troughs. Within these troughs, increased temperature and humidity means that melting can occur. This positive feedback accelerates the growth of the characteristic structure of the penitentes.
The name penitentes comes from a culture with a heavy emphasis on guilt and punishment.  This seems out of keeping with a place so remote from humans. It would be nice to have another name and, while I don't believe in angels either except as figments of the human imagination, I'd rather call them angels.  They remind me little of Paul Klee's In Engleshut, where the several overlapping forms suggest a variety of possibilities, not all of them bad (and not, perhaps, as destructive as Walter Benjamin's vision of the Angelus Novus).

Image: ESO/B. Tafreshi

9 April 2016

"...so unexpected a truce, so unilateral a peace"

When breakthroughs happen, they don't come as confirmation of what we already know. They come as something unexpected, hard to fathom, something producing puzzlement, demanding new explanations. They come as things many people dismiss or scorn. Until they turn out to be true. So while I am wary of believing, I’m also wary of dismissing.  The many stories have pushed me into the “I just don't know” category. And it’s pretty hard to get me there. 
When someone has spent decades devoted to observing certain creatures, their observations are not to be taken lightly. Dolphins solemnly accompanied a boat with a dead man about, other dolphins left their food to surround a suicidal woman at sea. Exactly what that means, that’s more difficult for humans to understand. 
How do we explain the facts of so unexpected a truce, so unilateral a peace?  It seems to me that it is, yes, a big leap to go from the fact of no aggression to the idea that killer whales have chose to be a benevolent presence and occasional protectors of lost humans But what do the whales think? How is it that all the world’s free-living killer whales have settled upon this one way relationship of peacefulness with us?  Before I encountered these stories I was dismissive. Now I am shaken out of certainty. I’ve suspended disbelief. It’s an expected feeling for me. The stories have forces open doors I had shut, doors to the greatest of all mental feats: the simple sense of wonder, and of feeling open to the possibility of being changed.
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina (2015)

Image: Robert Pittman, NOAA via wikipedia

3 April 2016

A hyperobject in the head


We sometimes hear (and know-next-to-nothings like me sometimes repeat) that the human brain is the most complex known object in the universe after the universe itself. The statement is so easy to make that its enormity can easily be overlooked.  But every now and then a detail comes up that helps to drive it home.

There are, as is well known, about a quadrillion that is, 1,000,000,000,000,000  synaptic connections in a human brain. Recently a team created an image that reveals a little about the large-scale organisation of proteins that regulate neurotransmitter release in a single synapse. It took them the best part of a year. Mo Costandi reports:
The process of neurotransmitter release is tightly orchestrated. Ready vesicles are ‘docked’ in the ‘active zone’ lying beneath the cell membrane, and are depleted when they fuse with the membrane, only to be replenished from a reservoir of pre-prepared vesicles located further inside the cell. Spent vesicles are quickly pulled back out of the membrane, reformed, refilled with neurotransmitter molecules, and then returned to the reservoir, so that they can be shuttled into the active zone when needed. An individual nerve cell may use up hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of vesicles every second, and so this recycling process occurs continuously to maintain the signalling between nerve cells.

The nerve terminal contains more than 400 different proteins, which together form the exquisite molecular machinery that regulates the fusion, recycling, and movements of synaptic vesicles between the reservoir pool, active zone and cell membrane. Although modern molecular methods have revealed a great deal about the identity and function of many of these proteins, we still know very little about how they are organised at the nerve terminal, because the structures they form are extremely fragile, and researchers lacked appropriate ways of studying them.
I was reminded yesterday (by this) of the term ‘hyperobject.’  It was coined for things that are so massively distributed in time, space and dimensionality that they defy our perception, let alone our comprehension. The creator of the term, Timothy Morton, had in mind the likes of climate change, mass extinction and radioactive plutonium.  The brain of a human or  another complex animal is a few pounds of jelly-like goo, but in its relation to time, space and dimensionality it also defies our perception.


Note: A quadrillion is, apparently, about the same as the total number of ants on Earth alive at any one time, their biomass being approximately equal to the total biomass of the human race.

23 March 2016

Seen and unseen

We never see the world as our retina sees it. In fact, it would be a pretty horrible sight: a highly distorted set of light and dark pixels, blown up toward the centre of the retina, masked by blood vessels, with a massive hole at the location of the 'blind spot' where cables leave for the brain; the image would constantly blur and change as our gaze moved around. What we see, instead, is a three-dimensional scene, corrected for retinal defects, mended at the blind spot, stabilised for our eye and head movement, and massively reinterpreted based on our previous experience of similar visual scenes.  All these operations unfold unconsciously  although many of them are so complicated that they resist computer modelling. 
Consciousness and the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene, 2014

Image: Sinbad the Sailor by Paul Klee, 1928

15 March 2016

"I felt as if I were standing on the top of a mountain"

A landscape opened up before me. I felt as if I were standing on the top of a mountain, gazing out over a plain, covered by long, meandering rivers. On the horizon, more mountains rose up, between them there were valleys and one of the valleys was covered by an enormous white glacier. Everything gleamed and glittered. It was as if I had been transported to another world, another part of the universe. One river was purple, the others were dark red, and the landscape they coursed through was full of unfamiliar colours. But it was the glacier that held my gaze the longest. It lay like a plateau above the valley, sharply white, like mountain snow on a sunny day. Suddenly a wave of red rose up and washed across the white surface. I had never seen anything quite as beautiful, and when I straightened up and moved aside to make room for the doctor, for a moment my eyes were glazed with tears.
Karl Ove Knausgaard


Image: Sustina Glacier, Alaska. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Adventures in Geology

26 February 2016

'True philosophy entails learning to see the world anew...'

We witness, at each moment, the marvel that is the connection of experiences, and no one know how it is accomplished better than we do, since we are this very knot of relations. The world and reason are not problems; and though we might call them mysterious, this mystery is essential to them, there can be no question of dissolving it through some 'solution,' it is beneath the level of solutions. True philosophy entails learning to see the world anew and in this sense, an historical account might signify the world with as much 'depth' as a philosophical treatise. We take our fate into our own hands and through reflection we become responsible for our own history...
Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1945

In Angel's Care, Paul Klee, 1931

11 February 2016

Water

Ask yourself unlikely questions about water, come at it from every angle. What lives in it — beneath its surface? Why is water like our own minds? There are thoughts that flit about on its surface, but the real world of the mind all goes on beneath, in the depths of the unconscious mind, which are like the depths of the ocean. That's the part of us that dreams.
Fragments Roger Deakin


Photo by author

1 February 2016

Unfenced existence

Every way one turned, the tundra was laid out like a green sea, sedgy and subtle and glinting with secret melt pools and waterways. It was land relishing its brief summer, open and free to breathe. To west, south and north the land seemed unbounded, but eastward, inland, there rose range after range of low, grey-blue mountains, the source of the river, with shadows in their glens and cores. Above all, the sky. Every hue of sky was present at once, here a shower, there rays of sunshine filtering through, there openings of blue, and every white and grey of cloud. The shadows of clouds drifted over the land. It was a dream vision, a mythic view of land before farms, before towns and roads, unparcelled, unprivatised, whole.
From Upriver by Kathleen Jamie

31 January 2016

Not saying


Isaac Asimov famously wrote that the most exciting phrase to hear in science is not 'Eureka' but 'That’s funny.'

He meant funny peculiar. But funny ha ha is also sometimes present in a state of wonder that may (or may not) lead to systematic enquiry. And at such moments wonder can resemble a joke that we don't quite get. Sigmund Freud quoted Theodor Lipps:
a joke says what it has to say… in too few words… It may even actually say what it has to say by not saying it.

Image from kleinbottle.com

13 January 2016

In the cave

The most fascinating [question]...is whether we do live in a virtual reality all the time anyway, in some sort of virtual ambiguity... 
The only time I [felt] I was not caught in a virtual reality is when I travelled on foot.
Werner Herzog
Las certidumbres sólo se alcanzan con los pies. (Certainties are arrived at only on foot). 
Antonio Porchia

2 January 2016

The sea

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
from ‘At the Fishhouses’ by Elizabeth Bishop

Image: Earth 100 million years from now