27 April 2016


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.