Archive for the ‘Art and science’ category

Eclipses Make People Crazy, Daniel Defoe Edition

August 6, 2017

So:  some folks choked on Annie Dillard’s perhaps overly magniloquent response to her eclipse, so here’s something quite different for the more Augustan among us.

For reasons not relevant to this post, I am this morning nosing around Daniel Defoe’s writing from the late 1710s, and just a few minutes ago I stumbled upon this hoot of a passage from the second volume of The Family Instructor:

It happen’d once, that a Discourse began between the Father and Mother about the Eclipse of the Sun, which fell out in April 22. 1715.

The Eclipse of the Sun was the Subject of all Con|versation at that time, having been, as is well known, so Total, and the Darkness so great, as that the like had not been known in that Age, or some hundreds of Years before.

The Wife had enquired of her Husband, what the Nature of the Thing was, and he was describing it to her and the Children in a familiar way; and, as I said, that a kind of Reflection upon one another was the usual Issue of their common Discourse, so it was there; the Husband tells her, that the Moon was like a cross Wife, that when she was out of Humour, could Thwart and Eclipse her Husband whenever she pleased; and that if an ill Wife stood in the Way, the brightest Husband could not shine.

She flew in a Passion at this, and being of a sharp Wit, you do well, says she, to carry your Emblem to a suitable height; I warrant, you think a Wife, like the Moon, has no Light but what she borrows from her Husband, and that we can only shine by Reflecti|on; it is necessary then you should know, she can Eclipse him when she pleases.

Ay, ay, says the Husband, but you see when she does, she darkens the whole House, she can give no Light without him.

Ʋpon this she came closer to him.

I suppose you think you have been Eclips’d lately, we don’t see the House is the darker for it.


That’s because of your own Darkness; I think the House has been much the darker.


None of the Family are made sensible of it, we don’t miss your Light.


It’s strange if they don’t, for I see no Light you give in the room of it.


We are but as dark as we were before; for we were none of us the better for all your Hypocri|tical Shining.


Well, I have done shining, you see; the Darkness be at your Door.

It’s evident that both meant here, his having left off Family-Worship; and it is apparent, both were come to a dreadful Extremity in their Quarrel.

At my Door! am I the Master of the Fami|ly! don’t lay your Sins to my Charge.


No, no; but your own I may; It is the Retrograde Motion of the Moon that causes an E|clipse.


Where all was dark before, there can be no Eclipse.


Your Sin is, that my Light is your Darkness.


That won’t excuse you, if you think it a Sin; can you not do what you please without me?

My advice to the husband? Don’t throw shade when your own wit is so poorly lit.

Image: Edmund Halley, A Description of the Passage of the Shadow of the Moon over England In the Total Eclipse of the SUN on the Day of April 1715 in the morning.

Start The Week With The Lord God Bird

September 8, 2014


A nice start to what might be a tolerable week* comes in the form of a message from Harvard’s rare books collection, the Houghton Library.  Its collection of 114 early J.J. Audubon drawings is now online in high resolution.  Among the treats, a depiction of two Ivory Billed Woodpeckers, the “lord god bird,” having their way with a tree.

According to the announcement, these early drawings are rare/of heightened interest because of Audubon’s practice of destroying sketches and alternate versions after selecting what he saw as the best of any subject.  The earliest images in this collection date back to when Audubon was 18, and, says Harvard, they probably survived Audubon’s rolling erasure of his tracks in the hands of one of his patrons.  In any event, the images are gorgeous, and there for the gazing.

That said, the image above is a later Audubon not from the Houghton collection, as Harvard requires permission from the curator before reusing their images. I’m asking for same; if I get it, I’ll add one from this trove.

*Hah! Who am I kidding.  There are still Republicans with actual power!

Image:  John James Audubon, Plate 66 of Birds of America, depiction of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, 1838.

My Kindergartener Could Solve Differential Equations Better Than That

August 25, 2011

Man, I so need a break from politics now.  Given that the Party of Lincoln has decisively transformed itself into that of — oh who the hell knows…say Tomato Hookworm-Space Aliens, and we can’t seem to build asylums fast enough to cage the crazy, I just hit the wall.

I know that I haven’t been posting much lately  —  the consequence of a summer deconstructed by the there-and-back-again frenzy of trips to surreal cities (Shanghai, Qatar) and the blessed internet-free cloister of the mountains.  But truly, my (unaccustomed) silence is born of the sense that the fools and knaves really have managed to gut the American, and perhaps the human experiment for good and all — or at least for that foreseeable future that includes my son’s maturity.

I don’t actually think that’s necessarily true, for a lot of reasons, including this one.  But still and all, it is good to read some stuff that had nothing to do with dominion and the amount of creativity some people can bring to bear on screwing the most vulnerable among us.

Like this, for example:

At a glance, a painting by Jackson Pollock can look deceptively accidental: just a quick flick of color on a canvas.

A quantitative analysis of Pollock’s streams, drips, and coils by Harvard mathematician L. Mahadevan and collaborators at Boston College reveals, however, that the artist had to be slow — he had to be deliberate — to exploit fluid dynamics in the way that he did.

The linked article at the Harvard Gazette is a bit of bait and switch.  Pollack wasn’t a physicist, of course, except in the sense that one of the qualities that distinguishes a great center fielder, for example, is the ability to solve the equation describing the curve traveled by a batted ball swiftly (and subconsciously) enough to make the most astounding catches seem …routine (almost).

But even if there is a difference between living physics and thinking  about it, there is a crucial overlap as well:

“My own interest,” said [mathematician/physicist] L. Mahadevan, “is in the tension between the medium — the dynamics of the fluid, and the way it is applied [written, brushed, poured …] — and the message. While the latter will eventually transcend the former, the medium can be sometimes limiting and sometimes liberating.”

Pollock’s signature style involved laying canvas on the floor and pouring paint onto it in continuous, curving streams. Rather than pouring straight from the can, he applied paint from a stick or a trowel, waving his hand back and forth above the canvas and adjusting the height and angle of the trowel to make the stream wider or thinner.

Simultaneously restricted and inspired by the laws of nature, Pollock took on the role of experimentalist, ceding some control to physics to create aesthetic effects.

The hunt for a deep connection between science and art is an old preoccupation of practitioners of both of those creative crafts.  I’ve written about instances of this cross-cutting desire in a couple of my books — Bach’s joining of the “society of musical sciences” in 1747; Einstein’s invocation of aesthetics, (calling Bohr’s 1913 theory of the atom an instance of “the highest form of musicality in the sphere of thought)” and so on.

Einstein’s quote captures what I think of as the nexus of the art-science connection:  a shared sense of both method and motivation.  For motivation:  artists and scientists don’t always find it easy to articulate why they do what they do — but when they reflect out loud on such questions, they regularly do in language that sounds strikingly similar.  Both guilds celebrate the pleasure of a rich problem, the joys of working things out, the sense of seeking deep truths and so on.

And by method, I mean not specific technique or intellectual apparatus: no one suggests that Pollack was actually solving the equations of fluid dynamics to derive the correct physical gestures he would need to produce the effects he wanted.  Rather this is a thought about process — about the combined impact of experimentation and seemingly spontaeneous imagination on both artistic and scientific investigations.  Here’s Mahadevan again:

The artist, of course, must have discovered the effects he could create through experimenting with various motions and types of paint, and perhaps some intuition and luck. But that, said Mahadevan, is the essence of science.

“We are all students of nature, and so was Pollock,” he explained. “Often, artists and artisans are far ahead, as they push boundaries in ways that are quite similar to, and yet different from, how scientists and engineers do the same.”

That’s a bit of a waffle, I’ll admit:  artists and scientists work the same way — except when they don’t.

But still, I get the point imperfectly made in that quote:  artful people across a wide range of domains share some crucial qualities of mind.  Here, Mahadevan calls out the two I think of as vital:  a delight in empiricism, and that sense of wonder in the face of material existence that sparks in the imagination glimpses of solvable problems.

That’s about all I would want to say on this, so I’ll sign off, with just this one last, probably unnecessary swerve back to my immediate political neuroses.  There are lots of ways to parse the catastrophic state of the Republican Party now — and by catastrophic, I mean for the nation, in that I don’t care if the GOP goes the way of the Whigs, but I’d rather they didn’t do so by partying as if it were 1861.

You can see that party’s debacle as rooted in class warfare, with uber-wealthy elites bankrolling a faux-populist insurgency.  You can, as Dennis G. does here, powerfully and accurately, trace the roots of the current fiasco in anxiety (and worse)n in the face of demographic (and, I’d add, technological and geo-political) transformation.  You can see strains of the millenia-long urban/rural battle. (In that context, I’ve long thought that Jane Jacobs late and less well known book Systems of Survival had a lot to say.  And if anyone were to suggest that there was pleasure as well as insight to be had in digging up the Mumford classic, The City in History, I’d not disagree.)

But to all of that I’d add this:  what’s been striking in the know-nothing ascendency in the GOP — the Rick Perry phenomenon and all the rest — is not so much that a grifter-Texan would have a pitch-perfect feel for every neurosis of the Republican primary electorate.  It’s that people who actually really do know better — I’m looking at you Mitt Romney — are trying to toe the same line, parroting the orthodoxy that empirical knowledge matters not in the face of certain revealed truths, and that active human agency (government!) cannot solve problems.

Artists, they are not.  Scientists neither.  In power they should not be.

Images: Jackson Pollack at work in his East Hampton studio, before 1956.

Willy Mays’ game-saving catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series.

Why You Should Want To Be An Astronomer…

March 27, 2010

You get the chance to make images like this one:

This is the Owl Nebula — a planetary nebula* visible in the Northern Hemisphere in the constellation Ursa Major.  It gets its name from the two dark “eyes” visible more or less along the center line of the image, which to the poetic soul that lives in skywatchers, gives it the look of an owl’s face.  It was made at the Gemini North telescope, an eight-meter class monolith at what is perhaps the best single observing site for optical astronomy in the world, the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The image was produced for the observing program of an atypical user of a major telescope:  Émilie Storer, a student at Collège Charlemagne, Pierrefonds, Quebec.  Storer was this year’s winner of an annual competition sponsored by the Gemini Observatory, asking high schoolers to write an essay about their favorite object in the sky, and why one of  the Gemini telescopes should observe it.

In this case, Storer’s choice prompted Gemini’s scientists to create the best available large-telescope data set on this planetary nebula, and thus reveal significant structure within what had previously been thought to be a quite simple ball. Details in the Gemini Observatory press release.

I’ve long been a fan of planetary nebulae — you can see a couple in the opening sequence to a film I made, and, as of this writing, 204 more in the archives (search for “planetary nebula) of the invaluable Astronomy Picture of the Day archive.  They are beautiful to look at, and, the more you know about them, poignant too — a terribly short lived passage in the life of a star, an eruption of splendor, swiftly to be eclipsed by a dwindling of the light.

And I’ve long been a fan of big telescopes on big mountains, and anything that gets people to know and love them.  I’ve made a couple of films centering on large ‘scopes, and have spent a lot of time trying to remain sufficiently oxygenated to remember when to turn the camera on and when to call “cut.”  I have a particular affection for Gemini North, as it happens, because I had the enormous good fortune to go to the Corning factory in upstate New York as they were finishing and shipping the eight meter mirror blank off to France for polishing.

What I saw was twenty ton contact lens, slumped into the rudiments of its curved shape, and through the generosity of both Corning and the Gemini team, I and my collaborator Larry Klein were able to make one of the most spectacular purely visual scenes we’ve ever shot — images of the giant blank, lit blue from below, being gently swept by a pair of moon-bootied men, to be followed by the amazing slow dance of lifting the mirror up and into its crate.  Doesn’t sound like much on the page, and that film “Cathedrals of the Sky,” is almost unobtainable now, but trust me, it was great.

But I digress.  This is just a post for a weekend to give kudos to Ms. Storer and to the Gemini Observatory — and to enjoy a break from the craziness that has overtaken this blog and our country.  Here, after all, is a glimpse of genuinely beauty that could not be less implicated in any trouble and strife here on the mote of dust we call home.

*Planetary nebulae, despite the name, are the products of a late phase in the life cycle of certain stars.  Larger stars — above 8 times the mass of the sun — tend to blow up in spectacular events called supernovae.  Lighter stars at the end of their lives don’t undergo the cataclysmic collapse and explosion of their massive  cousins (as long as they are not part of a distinct class of stars below 1.38 solar masses that under very specific conditions produce what are known as type 1A supernovae).  Instead, as such stars begin run out of hydrogen as fuel for fusion reactions and begin to burn helium (while remaining hydrogen stocks continue to fuse).  As the stars core heats up as the more intense helium fusion reactions take over, it becomes less stable (the actual dynamics are ferociously more complicated than this cartoon) and the star begins to blow off its outer atmosphere in a series of concentric shells.  Those expanding spheres of gas form the beautiful shapes and colors we detect as planetary nebulae.

My Workplace Is Cooler Than Yours: Fun With Light And Bullets Edition

October 22, 2009

So, a couple of days ago I post some distressingly entrancing video of bullets punching holes in various things.  That attracted the attention of the most excellent Jim Bales, Assistant Director of MIT’s Edgerton Center, which is one of the real jewels of the undergraduate experience here, and the heir and monument to one of the Institute’s patron deities, Doc Edgerton himself.  (Some sample images here, a few of the iconic ones here.)

Jim extended hospitality, in an exchange of emails that evoked one line I never expected to hear within the academic cloister.  As a result, yesterday morning, I made my way up to the eyrie on the top floor of MIT’s central campus to witness a little of the sweet, stop-motion Edgerton magic in action.  And today, I received the product of the work done whilst I marvelled.

I bet this has never happened to your business card:


And just in case that’s not cool enough, how about this:*

three crayons bullett

So what did you do at work yesterday?

*Instructions given before the shot:  “When shooting crayons (or eggs), keep your mouth shut.”

Good advice.

Images:  “Sic Semper BFOs”  (BFO=Business Fetish Object)

“But Is It Art? (AKA Garfunkel’s Blues)”

Both photos presented here courtesy of the photographers:  Jasmin Baek, Elizabeth deRegt, Eric Fernandez, and Brandon Pung, none of whom are to blame for my titling whimsy.

Look below the fold for a bonus photo.


A Bit More Two Cultures Stuff: Arthur Waley/Heian Japan edition.

May 11, 2009

This is clearly the year for anniversaries.  There’s the Darwin stuff — his own bicentennial, and  The Origin’s 150th.  Then there is the telescope, being celebrated for its 400th anniversary in use as an astronomical tool.*  And then there is the one we just celebrated, the fiftieth anniversary of C.P. Snow’s Rede Lecture, titled “The Two Cultures,” delivered May 7, 1959.

I’ve been thinking about this one since I was asked to join a panel on “Science and/in Culture” at  Harvard’s “Common Cultures” meeting over May 7-8.  My talk was (mis)titled “Icons and Mentors,” and what I found as I put it together was a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the whole construct.  Snow himself provoked me with his famous disdain for those at a cocktail party who could not stump up the correct answer to his asking if they knew the second law of thermodynamics. **   But I think that there is more than irritation goading me; 25 years in the popularization of science business have sensitized me to “you ought to know this” approach to the problem.

Finally, doing some 3:00 a.m. insomnia reading a week or so ago, I came across a passage in an on-reflection-not-that-unlikely a source which captured some of my discomfort both with Snow’s formulation of his problem, and of its subsequent appropriation by those fighting all kinds of battles loosely construed as pitting a scientific worldview with a presumed un or anti-scientific one.   A most unlikely (seeming) source gave me comfort that my belief that icons — symbols, images — do indeed have great effect.

The work in question is Arthur Waley’s translation of and commentary on The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. By way of background Waley is perhaps a type specimen of the kind of literary mandarin that so worried Snow.  A student of classic Chinese and Japanese literature,  he was the premier translator to bring many of the major works in both languages into English versions intended to reach lay as well as specialist audiences.  His translations have gone out of style — he emphasized literary style over strict fidelity on most but not all projects — but they are powerful, and they were enormously influential from the twenties to the sixties.  He was by an odd coincidence a cousin of mine, though I never met him and was just eight when he died. (though that fact explains why I have a pretty good collection of his works ready to be reached for in the evil corners of a white night.)

The passage that caught my eye was one in which Waley was trying to give his audience — more literary mandarin types, presumably — some sense of the habits of mind in Sei Shonagon’s society.  He emphasized that tenth century Japan was a place, at least in its elite corners, concerned with surface appearance, expression.  But if the reader detected too close a resemblence to elite conversation in post World War I England, he or she would be mistaken:

The other aspects of their intellectual passivity – the absence of mathematics, science , philosophy (even such amateur speculation as amused the Romans was entirely unknown) – may not seem at first sight to constitute an important difference [from Waley’s Britain].  Scientists and philosophers, it is true, exist in modern Europe.  But to most of us their pronouncements are as unintelligible as the incantations of a Lama; we are mere drones, slumbering amid the clastter of thoughts and contrivances that we do not understand and could still less ever have created. If the existence of contemporary research had no influence on those capable of understanding it, we should indeed be in much the same position as the people of Heian.  But, strangely enough, something straggles through; ideas which we do not completely understand modify our perceptions and hence refashion our thoughts to such an extend that the society lady who said ‘Einstein means so much to me’ was expressing  a profound truth.

A profound truth that Waley, as unthermodynamical a character as ever lived, had no hesitation acknowledging.  This quote provided me with the start of a train of thought with which I’m not yet done.  On Friday, I talked of my growing sense of the importance of the making of icons of science.  Einstein is one, certainly.   And his significance in Waley’s time and to a great extent still is that even thought the physical sciences have too abstract, too complicated, too mathematical for lay audiences at least since the time of James Clerk Maxwell, Einstein exists as a constant talisman that this branch of science has in fact transformed our (one, popular) culture’s understanding of the power of science to make sense of the world.

Some of this in Einstein’s case is specifically a matter of timing, with his emergence right after the devastation of World War I.  Some of it, obviously lies with the acknowledged cosmic importance of is discoveries (a new theory of gravity, the first since Newton’s).  Some is down to the strangeness of his findings (the NY Times’s famous headline:  “Stars not where they’re supposed to be”), and the evocative, seemingly intelligible language in which his ideas were expressed (curved space, warped time, light has mass, there is a fourth dimension).  Some of it may be due simply to his camera-friendly looks, wild hair, benign smile and all.  But for all the particular reasons that Einstein became the public face of science when a Curie or a Bohr did not, the fact remains that an unbelievably potent cultural icon exists, the personification of human potential, of our capacity to penetrate deep mysteries.  It made science important, even if its specific practices and outcomes remained impenetrable.

There are obviously downsides to such enshrinement, and Einstein himself was clear on that point.  But from where I sit, or at least spoke a few days ago, it seems to me that I and many others and perhaps even C.P. Snow himself have been sweating a bit too hard over the culture wars.

Science does permeate popular culture, not always in ways that we love, but there it is still.  More important:  the enemies of reason, and they certainly exist, seem to me to have already surrendered at the moment they argue their cases in our language.  When ID’ers make claims of scientific legitimacy, e.g., they’ve already acknowledged the primacy of scientific argument as the arbiter of success or failure.  On that battleground, science wins.

And in that context, it may well be that the creation and renewal of icons of science — not limited to people, by any means — are as important a transformative agent in culture as any number of natural laws memorized for use at Oxbridge evening parties.

*It’s a bit of a tricky date, as the telescope was actually invented no later than 1608. Galileo certainly started to use his telescope to examine the night skies in 1609, but I don’t know that anyone is certain no one else had preceded him.  The real significant date, in my view, is 1610, when Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius, his account of his observations, including the nights of work that yielded the visual proof that Jupiter is attended by “planets” of its own — the four Galilean moons whose existence provided powerful support for the Copernican world view.  In science, an unpublished observation may as well not exist, so to my mind, telescopic astronomy begins at the moment Galileo announces its first compelling results to a wide audience.

**You can’t break even.  Or formally, “the entropy of an isolated system which is not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium.”

Images:  Jeff Hester/P. Scowen, “Pillars of Creation” detail of the Eagle Nebula, Hubble Space Telescope, 1995

drawing by Kikuchi Yosai, “Sei Shonagon” 19th c.

The Uses Of Opera: Why We Love High Speed Photography/Disgusting Video Dept.

April 24, 2009

It’s Friday, and that means we need some fun stuff, right?

Try this (h/t Sullivan):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Sneezing In Ultra Slow Motion Video“, posted with vodpod

On the theme of this blog (and of my writing over a long time) — this gets to one of the real drivers of scientific advance that scientists understand intimately, but that the broader audience may not.  And that is the role of instruments, of the tools of the trade, not just in working out ideas investigators may have already had, but in catalyzing new thoughts.

High speed and stop motion photography have provided a world of examples of this, as I should konw, being at Doc Edgerton’s home institution.  But the story goes much deeper than the obvious rewards of recent high technology.  I once wrote a book that argued that instruments are a great way to understand the history of science, because the tools we build make material the questions we want to answer with them — and yet, seemingly always, in doing so create new question and new perspectives.

For example, the telescope, it first seemed, was a device that could make what we already do — look for distant objects, say warships approaching Venice, at greater distances.  Same job, more power.  But then the same man who presented the new instrument to the leaders of the Venetian Republic pointed it in a different direction, and discovered these.

And from thence, much else flowed.  So it may be with the sneeze.  Though I would not, if I may say so, hold my breath.

Image:  Eadward Muybridge, “The Horse in Motion,” animated image made from photographs like these.