(Roughly) Daily

“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science”*…

 

Caleb Scharf wants to take you on an epic tour. His latest book, The Zoomable Universe, starts from the ends of the observable universe, exploring its biggest structures, like groups of galaxies, and goes all the way down to the Planck length—less than a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a meter. It is a breathtaking synthesis of the large and small. Readers journeying through the book are treated to pictures, diagrams, and illustrations all accompanied by Scharf’s lucid, conversational prose. These visual aids give vital depth and perspective to the phenomena that he points out like a cosmic safari guide. Did you know, he offers, that all the Milky Way’s stars can fit inside the volume of our solar system?

Scharf, the director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, is a suitably engaging guide. He’s the author of the 2012 book Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Universe, and last year he speculated in Nautilus about whether alien life could be so advanced as to be indistinguishable from physics.

In The Zoomable Universe, Scharf puts the notion of scale—in biology and physics—center-stage. “The start of your journey through this book and through all known scales of reality is at that edge between known and unknown,” he writes…

Another entry in a collection that long-time readers know your correspondent cultivates, visualizations of relative scale (inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten—see, e.g., here, here, here, and here): “This Will Help You Grasp the Sizes of Things in the Universe.”

* Edwin Powell Hubble

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As we keep things in perspective, we might spare a thought for Paolo Frisi; he died on this date in 1784.  A mathematician, astronomer, and physicist who worked in hydraulics (he designed a canal between Milan and Pavia) and introduced the lightning conductor into Italy, he is probably best remembered for his compilation, interpretation, and dissemination of the work of other scientists, especially Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton.

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Your correspondent is headed into the Thanksgiving Holiday– and so into a brief hiatus in posting.  Regular service will resume on Sunday the 26th… or when the tryptophan haze clears, whichever comes first.

Written by LW

November 22, 2017 at 1:01 am

“All profound distraction opens certain doors”*…

 

We are used to hearing that attention is good for us, and that bad things happen when we are inattentive. On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Rebecca Solnit wrote of a hypercapitalist culture 
that had helped to create a “pandemic attention deficit disorder.” But the culture’s vocabularies for attentiveness are not exactly uncapitalist (we pay or invest attention, spend time, take stock). In The Attention Economy, Thomas Davenport and John Beck sought to counteract “organizational ADD” in corporations, and it seems reasonable to assume that the $100,000 advertising campaign that drew attention to their book was, as it were, “good for business.” This particular economy shows no signs of shrinking; last year MIT Press published The Distracted Mind, in which the coauthors (a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist) offered strategies for changing our behavior so that we might function more successfully “in our personal lives, on the road, in classrooms, and” — last but not least — “in the workplace.” The book concluded with the hope that “a neuro cross-fit training” program might soon be developed to minimize distractions.

People have been in training for attention for some time. “Attend upon the Lord without distraction,” Paul advised in Corinthians. Darwin would later stress the importance of attendances less spiritual and altogether more adaptive. “Hardly any faculty is more important for the intellectual progress of man than the power of Attention,” he observed in The Descent of Man, “animals clearly manifest this power, as when a cat watches by a hole and prepares to spring on its prey.” This watchfulness is certainly useful, but it may need to be watched; Darwin adds that “wild animals sometimes become so absorbed when thus engaged, that they may be easily approached.” So perhaps it’s hazardous for me to pay too much attention; as an easily-approached attender, I may myself become prey. And there still appears to be some confusion about what kind of attention is the right kind; computer games have often been seen as lamentable distractions, and as contributing factors to poor attention levels, but that was before researchers began lauding the superior attentional capacity of those who played them.

These complications notwithstanding, distraction has tended to
 get bad press…

Matthew Bevis on the rewards of the tangential, the digressive, and the dreamy: “In Search of Distraction.”

* Julio Cortázar, Around the Day in Eighty Worlds

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As we let our minds wander, we might recall that it was on this date in 1855 that Ivan Tugenev and Leo Tolstoy first met.  Earlier that year, Turgenev had written to Tolstoy, who had already published Childhood and Boyhood, but was at the time fighting at the front in the Crimean War: “Enough! There’s a limit to everything!  You have proved that you are no coward, but your instrument is the pen and not the sabre!”

Tolstoy, who admired Turgenev immensely, took those words to heart.  On this day 162 years ago, he appeared on Turgenev’s doorstep in Saint Petersburg.  The writers embraced each other in Russian style and Tolstoy stayed for a month… the beginning of a tempestuous but loyal friendship that lasted until Turgenev’s death in 1883. [source]

left to right (seated), Goncharov, Turgenev, Druzhinin, Ostrovsky; standing, Tolstoy, Grigorovich (1856)

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Written by LW

November 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Energy is liberated matter, matter is energy waiting to happen”*…

 

We’ve certainly come a long way since the ancient Greek atomists speculated about the nature of material substance, 2,500 years ago. But for much of this time we’ve held to the conviction that matter is a fundamental part of our physical universe. We’ve been convinced that it is matter that has energy. And, although matter may be reducible to microscopic constituents, for a long time we believed that these would still be recognizable as matter—they would still possess the primary quality of mass.

Modern physics teaches us something rather different, and deeply counter-intuitive. As we worked our way ever inward—matter into atoms, atoms into sub-atomic particles, sub-atomic particles into quantum fields and forces—we lost sight of matter completely. Matter lost its tangibility. It lost its primacy as mass became a secondary quality, the result of interactions between intangible quantum fields. What we recognize as mass is a behavior of these quantum fields; it is not a property that belongs or is necessarily intrinsic to them.

Despite the fact that our physical world is filled with hard and heavy things, it is instead the energy of quantum fields that reigns supreme. Mass becomes simply a physical manifestation of that energy, rather than the other way around…

Modern physics has taught us that mass is not an intrinsic property: “Physics Has Demoted Mass.”

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

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As we watch all that is solid melt into air, we might spare a jaundiced thought for Trofim Denisovich Lysenko; he died on this date in 1976.  A Soviet biologist and agronomist, he believed the Mendelian theory of heredity to be wrong, and developed his own, allowing for “soft inheritance”– the heretability of learned behavior. (He believed that in one generation of a hybridized crop, the desired individual could be selected and mated again and continue to produce the same desired product, without worrying about separation/segregation in future breeds.–he assumed that after a lifetime of developing (acquiring) the best set of traits to survive, those must be passed down to the next generation.)

In many way Lysenko’s theories recall Lamarck’s “organic evolution” and its concept of “soft evolution” (the passage of learned traits), though Lysenko denied any connection. He followed I. V. Michurin’s fanciful idea that plants could be forced to adapt to any environmental conditions, for example converting summer wheat to winter wheat by storing the seeds in ice.  With Stalin’s support for two decades, he actively obstructed the course of Soviet biology and caused the imprisonment and death of many of the country’s eminent biologists who disagreed with him.

Interestingly, some current research suggests that heritable learning– or a semblance of it– may in fact be happening, by virtue of epigenetics… though nothing vaguely resembling Lysenko’s theory.

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Written by LW

November 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

“History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy”*…

 

Representation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier that same year. His depiction includes the “eye of providence” and also the red Phrygian cap, two symbols associated with freemasonry.

At the beginning of 1797, John Robison was a man with a solid and long-established reputation in the British scientific establishment. He had been Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University for over twenty years, an authority on mathematics and optics; he had recently been appointed senior scientific contributor on the third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, to which he would contribute over a thousand pages of articles. Yet by the end of the year his professional reputation had been eclipsed by a sensational book that vastly outsold anything he had previously written, and whose shockwaves would continue to reverberate long after his scientific work had been forgotten. Its title was Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, and it launched on the English-speaking public the enduring theory that a vast conspiracy, masterminded by a covert Masonic cell known as the Illuminati, was in the process of subverting all the cherished institutions of the civilised world into instruments of its secret and godless plan: the tyranny of the masses under the invisible control of unknown superiors, and a new era of ‘darkness over all’.

The first edition of Proofs of a Conspiracy sold out within days, and within a year it had been republished many times, not only in Edinburgh but in London, Dublin and New York. Robison had hit a nerve by offering an answer to the great questions of the day: what had caused the French Revolution, and what had driven its bloody and tumultuous progress? From his vantage point in Edinburgh he had, along with millions of others, followed with horror the reports of France dismembering its monarchy, dispossessing its church and transforming its downtrodden and brutalised population into the most ruthless fighting force Europe had ever seen – and now, under the rising star of the young general Napoleon Bonaparte, attempting to export the carnage and destruction to its surrounding monarchies, not least Britain itself. But Robison believed that he alone had identified the hidden hand responsible for the apparently senseless eruption of terror and war that now appeared to be consuming the world…

Conspiracy theories of a secretive power elite seeking global domination have long held a place in the modern imagination. Mike Jay explores the idea’s beginnings in the writings of John Robison, a Scottish scientist who maintained that the French revolution was the work of a covert Masonic cell known as the Illuminati: “Darkness Over All: John Robison and the Birth of the Illuminati Conspiracy.”

* Zbigniew Brzeziński

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As we agree with Alan Moore that “the truth is much more frightening, nobody is in control,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1795 that the The Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, commonly known as the Jay Treaty, was signed; it was ratified the following year.  An entent between the United States and Great Britain, it averted war, resolved issues remaining since the Treaty of Paris of 1783 (which ended the American Revolutionary War), and facilitated ten years of peaceful trade between the United States and Britain in the midst of the French Revolutionary Wars.

The treaty was designed by Alexander Hamilton, supported by George Washington, and negotiated by John Jay.  Jefferson and his followers bitterly opposed the pact, believing closer economic or political ties with Great Britain would strengthen Hamilton’s Federalist Party, promote aristocracy, and undercut republicanism.  Hamilton prevailed, but the fight led to the emergence of two political parties in each state,  Federalist and Republicans–the “First Party System,” with the Federalists favoring the British and the Jeffersonian republicans favoring France.

The treaty had a duration of ten years.  Efforts failed to agree on a replacement treaty in 1806 when Jefferson rejected the Monroe–Pinkney Treaty, as tensions escalated toward the War of 1812.

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Written by LW

November 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”*…

 

It is often observed that the French Revolution was a revolution of scientists. Nourished by airy abstractions and heartfelt cries to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, its leaders sought a society grounded, not in God or tradition, but in what Edmund Burke decried as “the conquering empire of light and reason”. To be sure, if we tallied the professional affiliations of the members of the first National Assembly, we would find it overwhelmingly populated by lawyers. But the revolution’s symbols and motifs were not derived from legal practices and traditions, and it was not as men of law that Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat called for the death of their king and the creation of a democratic republic. Rather, they did so as scientists—middle class intellectuals who saw in government a field ripe for experimentation, innovation, and improvement.

Nowhere was this as clear as their approach to “the will of the people”. Of the many puzzles to which revolutionaries applied themselves as scientists, few seemed so pressing and so intractable. It is obvious what a king’s will looks like, or so we like to think. Kings are individuals, they have bodies, and they can tell us what to do. However they choose to communicate their will — through voice, a gesture, a written pronouncement — it is relatively clear when such acts belong to them. But “the people” enjoy no such obvious body and no evident means of self-expression. What does the will of the people actually look like? And how do we hear their voice if they don’t have a mouth with which to speak? As French revolutionaries enthroned the will of the people, they stepped into uncharted terrain. Democratic revolution, it turned out, required men capable of visualizing the invisible and making appear what escaped our immediate senses. Indeed, it seemed to require the labor of scientific inquiry applied to the people themselves. Like the invisible composition of air, the secret patterns of a magnetic field, or the stratifications of the earth’s soil, democratic politics was governed by a hidden law which the scientist-statesman had to uncover…

Kevin Duong explores how leading French revolutionaries, in need of an image to represent the all important “will of the people”, turned to the thunderbolt — a natural symbol of power and illumination that also signaled the scientific ideals so key to their project: “Flash Mob: Revolution, Lightning, and the People’s Will.”

* John F. Kennedy

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As we agree with Ursula LeGuin that “You cannot buy the revolution; you cannot make the revolution; you can only be the revolution,” we might send provocative birthday greetings to poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor, and environmental activist  Margaret Eleanor Atwood; she was born on this date in 1939.  Currently enjoying wide celebrity via the television adaptations of her novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, her wide body of work has earned her the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Prince of Asturias Award for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade; she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Canadian Governor General’s Award several times, winning twice.  In addition to her fourteen novels, she has published she has also published fifteen books of poetry, ten non-fiction books, seven children’s books, four collections of stories, three collections of unclassifiable short prose works, three opera libretti, and a graphic novel.

Atwood is also the inventor and developer of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents, for which she holds several patents.

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Written by LW

November 18, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death and death will have his day”*…

 

Grossinger’s outdoor pool, olympic sized, built in 1949 at a cost of $400,000 (about $5 million in today’s market.) Long gone are the private cabanas, changing room and lounges that used to surround it.

Not long ago an old matchbook laying on photographer Pablo Iglesias Maurer‘s desk caught his eye. Or rather, it was the postcard-like picture on it, of a resort complex built in the 1960s. It got Pablo wondering how the place looked now, and the answer has led him to make an amazing photo series called Abandoned States.

The picture came with the title How to Run A Successful Golf Course, but when Maurer got to the place, it was clear the owner of Penn Hills Resort didn’t follow that advice. He pointed the camera at the decaying building at roughly the same spot and did a ‘5-decades-after’ shot of the place.

Ever since then, Pablo was hooked. He ordered more 60s postcards from eBay and started going around the country capturing these once beautiful buildings that now stand abandoned only as faint memories of what once was…

* Shakespeare, Richard II

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As we contemplate continuity, we might send never-ending birthday greetings to August Ferdinand Möbius; he was born on this date in 1790.  A German mathematician and theoretical astronomer, he is best remembered as a topologist, more specifically for his discovery of the Möbius strip (a two-dimensional surface with only one side… or more precisely, a non-orientable two-dimensional surface with only one side when embedded in three-dimensional Euclidean space).

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Written by LW

November 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by”*…

 

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Most people don’t believe me when I tell them I write 100,000 words every day of my life. If I’m being totally honest, 100,000 is probably just a baseline number. Some days I exceed a half million words. It’s just what I do. I’m a professional writer. So, if you want to know how you might achieve a similar output as me, here you go…

Pick up the pace at “How To Write 100,000 Words Per Day, Every Day.”

* Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

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As we show our contempt for contemplation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1959 that Jack Kerouac appeared on the Steve Allen Show; the kinescope recording that survives is the only known interview footage of him.  Kerouac and Allen had collaborated on a recording, Poetry for the Beat Generation, released that same year.

After the show, Kerouac dined with actress Mamie Van Doren, who starred in the film The Beat Generation, which had been released earlier that year.

 

Written by LW

November 16, 2017 at 1:01 am

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