Archive for the ‘rare sincerity’ category

Darkness At Noon (Well, A Little After 10 a.m. From Where I’ll Be Standing)

August 5, 2017

This is a follow up to what I’ve been hearing from some folks about how they plan to take in the eclipse of 2017.  My family’s headed out for Oregon in a couple of weeks, basing ourselves with relatives in Portland before heading a little south and east in the very wee hours of the 21st.

We’re putting ourselves in the hands of the cloud-cover forecast as to how far east we go (or try to), and in those of our cousins for local knowledge of roads and routes. There Will Be Traffic, which is why my hunch is that we’ll be en route not much after midnight.

That’s my plan.  What follows is for those of you in or near the path of the partial eclipse, and plan to stay there.

I’ve got just one thing to say to y’all:

Reconsider.

A total eclipse is a completely different beast from a partial one.  Partial eclipses are weird and cool.

Something comes along and takes a bite out of the soon, and the sheer wrongness of that is emotionally powerful, and produces its own truly odd visual effects:

 

BUT…

Totality is a completely different beast.

Here’s Annie Dillard, testifying:

I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it….

The sky’s blue was deepening, but there was no darkness. The sun was a wide crescent, like a segment of tangerine. The wind freshened and blew steadily over the hill. The eastern hill across the highway grew dusky and sharp. The towns and orchards in the valley to the south were dissolving into the blue light. Only the thin river held a trickle of sun.

Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountain tops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day…

From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth rolled down. Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over.

      — Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse”, from Teaching a Stone to Talk

My own experience was similarly uncanny, impossible to anticipate.  The first film that was really mine, the first on which I had sole producer and writer credit, was an episode of NOVA broadcast in 1992 called “Eclipse of the Century.”  It documented the 1991 eclipse whose a path of totality tracked directly over the Big Island of Hawaii — and hence over the deep-space telescopes placed atop Mauna Kea.

It was a hell of a first film to attempt — we ended up with a crew of over 20, 12 cameras, insurance from Lloyds of London against the possibility that clouds would doom the film — something like $5,000 against $250,000 on four minutes or so of clear skies — and so on.

I had a ton of help, of course:  a supervising producer, a proper director, a great assistant, and above all, wonderful camera people and their crews, in many ways a who’s-who of the top documentary shooters of the day.  Without them the whole farrago would have collapsed in hideous ignominy.

As it turned out, nature gave us great drama — clouds rising, threatening to cover the sun minutes before totality and then…

Well, take a look at this clip.*

For myself — I was with the crew that was filming the adventures within the control room of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.  That was headed by Jon Else, for those of you who follow documentary stuff, and though I was nominally his director, Jon needed no guidance from a rookie to do his usual brilliant work. About 90 seconds into totality he turned his head and told me to get onto the catwalk to see the matter for myself.

I did.

I’m not going to tell you what I felt.  As the Dillard passage above suggest, it seems to me, words can carry something of the emotional intensity of the moment, but the experience itself is unsayable.  Mimesis ain’t in it here; there’s no representation that captures the reality anyone other than the writer would perceive.

In purely descriptive terms, the shift in colors that Dillard describes is the overture, the phenomenon that alerts you to the strangeness under way.  But when the moon’s disc fully covers the sun you get something else altogether, a darkness that isn’t quite the darkness of night (especially if you’re high up, with a truly distant horizon, because you can then detect a kind of lightening all around you at the edges of your viewable frame).

And most of all, you get the corona, the solar atmosphere. The human eye can see it out to a distance of at least 10 solar diameters, maybe more.  But because the brightness falls off so sharply from near the limb of the sun to hte diffuse, outer corona, most  most photographs, and certainly in the video linked above, don’t begin to do justice to what you’ll see for yourselves.

Luc Viatour / https://Lucnix.be

All of which is (a) to prove the point that words are poor guides to what happens during totality and (b) if you have a chance, check it out.

*I can’t find the whole film on the web anywhere.  That’s no surprise — in 1992 we weren’t clearing rights for an internet that wouldn’t properly exist for years to come.  One cool thing about that eclipse that you’ll see if you do look at the clip were those two giant solar prominences.  Don’t see that every time.

Images: George Stubbs, Eclipse at Newmarket with Groombefore 1789.

Photos of a partial eclipse of the sun taken in Yunnan province, China, 1999

Luc Viatour, Total Solar Eclipse, 1999

Advertisements

What’s All That Wet Stuff In My Eyes?

February 13, 2017

I just watched this, and I can’t quite explain why my vision went all damp and blurry for a moment there:

This one rings across so many of the changes being played right now.  I won’t rabbit on about them; I think the film speaks for itself far better than any commentary could.

But I will say that it made me feel moved, sad, redeemed, and reminded of what’s worth fighting for in the here and now.

And with that…over to y’all.

January 12, 2017

Our wonderful President just pulled a fast one on the Veep he calls his brother.  Class honoring class:

If you want to cut to the chase, go here:

I’m so going to miss both these guys. Or rather, come January 21, they can each take, oh, say, two weeks. Then I’m gonna need them back, full steam ahead.

A Hard Rain

December 12, 2016

I’m reading M Train right now — my way to push back on the news by diving into someone else’s struggle to live in the act of making work that cuts.  Just now, with the luck of the ‘net, my YouTube bot popped this into my recommend list:

I am much moved by Smith’s break on stage and more so by her return.

The song is obviously on point, the setting is surreal, and Smith herself is a walking, talking, ain’t-bragging-if-you-can-do-it lesson on turning a life into its own artform — as that same life spins its art into the world through all the moil and misery (and those flashes of joy!) that go into walking this earth.

It’s not all Trump and evil out there. I strain to remember that every day, and some days are harder than others. (Yesterday!  Worse than the chicken at Tresky’s.)

But it’s true, and I thank Patti Smith for the reminder.

Top of the evening to all here — with a thick layer of improbable acts with oxidized farm implements to our enemies!

Lunacy

November 12, 2016

I’ve got some brewing thoughts about what comes next, in line with and in some cases following on from what others, made of stronger stuff and able to drag words out rage and despair more quickly than I, have already written.

But we do not live by politics alone, however much we may have to over the next months and years. So here’s advance warning of a little bit of wonder, ours for the having:

But this month’s Supermoon is special. The eccentricity above is calculated based upon the Earth-Moon system, but other celestial bodies also influence the Moon’s orbit through gravity. The Sun plays the largest role, but so too does Jupiter and even some of the smaller planets. When factoring in these other influences, the eccentricity of the Moon’s orbit can actually vary by as little as 0.026 and as much as 0.077.

A more eccentric lunar orbit brings the perigee [its closest approach] nearer the Earth, and when this perigee occurs during a full Moon, we get an extra-Supermoon. That is what will happen on Nov. 14, when the Moon will come to within just 356,509km of Earth, which is the Moon’s closest approach since Jan. 26, 1948. The Solar System won’t line up this well again for a lunar approach until Nov. 25, 2034.

joseph_wright_of_derby_-_a_view_of_vesuvius_from_posillipo_naples_-_google_art_project

That sucker is going to be big, really big –a “normal” Supermoon is 14 % larger and 30% brighter than a full moon at apogee — the point on an elliptical orbit farthest away the focal body.  It’s actually hard to perceive the effect as a casual observer, but it is naked-eye detectable.  The absolute peak of the phenomenon comes at 8:25 a.m. ET this coming Monday, but if you’re up early and/or catch the rising moon Monday evening, you’ll get a fine approximation.  As they say:  check local listings.

One of the consolations/delights I take from nature is the sense of connection to something larger than myself. That’s the same feeling I get from the acts we take to make the world better, from the kindness we show to one person at a time to the actions we’re stumbling to figure out right now, here on this blog and at every turn.

I’m going to stare at that moon Monday (sky permitting) and think of the world I want the next time this particular geometry rolls around, twenty eight years from now.  My son will be thirty four then.  If I’m fortunate enough to be here with him, I’ll be seventy six.  It will be a better world then, if we make it so.

And if it makes me a lunatic to think so, I’ll take that label gladly. Beats the alternative.

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, A view of Vesuvius from Posillipo, Naplesbetween 1788 and 1790.

Happy Newtonmas

December 25, 2015

Let us raise a toast to a fatherless child, born on this day (sort of — given that Julian-Gregorian kerfluffle) who would one day bring a new revelation into the world.

Isaac Newton Kneller portrait 1689

Happy birthday, my man Izzy!

Top of the day to everyone here, in every mode of celebration.

Image: Sir Godfrey Kneller, Isaac Newton, 1689. (This one is likely a copy)

A 21st Century Mother-and-Child

December 24, 2015

Thought I’d try one post this year without politics or snark, and this is it.

A couple of weeks ago I put this up at The Boston Globe‘s site — and it is, I believe, behind a pay wall.  The Globe is kind enough to release the material back to me to post after a bit, as long as I credit and link back to the original posting (see what I did there) — so here it is.  If the image has any resonance this time of year for you….good.  And if what its maker has to say about the multiplication of possibilities it embodies adds a little joy to the picture?  So much the better.

_________________________

A mother cradling her infant child.

If the better angels of human nature were to prevail, this picture could become one of those pictures — a single frame that captures an essential piece of the 21st century.

Two human beings, stripped way past bare: two brains, connected in a universal human pose, a mother cradling her infant child.

SaxeTakahashi_MRI_April2015

Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscientist (and my colleague) at MIT, is a maestro of the camera that can make such images, the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI. To create an fMRI portrait, a subject must lie still inside a narrow cylinder, the inside of a giant electromagnet. The artful manipulation of electromagnetic fields catches the brain in the act — not quite the act of thinking, but of working, nerve cells grabbing oxygen to power the action that ultimately adds up to an idea, a gesture, a feeling.

Making a functional magnetic resonance image demands a lot of its subjects. In a return to the earliest days of photography, you have to lie still for minutes to allow the fMRI machine to complete its tour of your skull. “Moving just a millimeter leaves a blur on the screen,” as Saxe writes at Smithsonian.com. “The mother and baby must hold their pose, as if for a daguerreotype.”

Saxe’s work centers on a fundamental question: How people grapple with the realization that other people have thoughts inside their heads — an area of research called “theory of mind.”

Becoming aware of the fact that people around you are thinking and learning to analyze what those thoughts might be, is a capacity that human beings develop over time — which has led Saxe to attempt to make fMRI images of ever younger children. That allows her to track how growing brains, growing people, form the ability to imagine the reality of other’s minds.

There’s no science in Saxe’s picture of herself with her son — or rather, there’s no data to be used in any formal extension of her theory of mind research. Instead, one reading of the image is simply as a marker, a measure of the current state of a scientific project. Saxe writes that the juxtaposition of her mature brain with the just-getting-started one of her son is the “depiction of one of the hardest problems in neuroscience: How will changes in that specific little organ accomplish the unfolding of a whole human mind?”

That is: This picture captures a key step in the process of discovery — the moment when a human invention extends the reach of human senses into realms that were until then not just unexplored but unreachable. New instruments don’t just reveal more of something, more detail, better precision, or what have you. Often, as here, they open windows onto whole new vistas. We’re a very long way yet from answering Saxe’s question, but in the sight of her and her son’s brains we can recognize that an answer is possible.

That’s reason enough to borrow an afternoon of scanner time — but that’s not the whole story behind this picture. Saxe says she and her colleagues made this particular fMRI image “because we wanted to see it.” She reads in it a specific story, an argument. Mother and Child is an old, old trope, in art and in human experience, and as Saxe writes, there is a reflex to elevate “the maternal values, and the women who embody them” to the exclusion of the possibility (or propriety) of those same women exercising their smarts in any out-of-the-home role.

Mary_Cassat_-_Mothers_Kiss_-_NGC_29879

Saxe with her son, depicted and depicting — as she writes, neuroscientist and mother — collude in the same single frame. That was the goal, to create “an old image made new.” And there it is, in the traditional gesture of a mother kissing her child, and the utterly new view of that caress from the inside out.

To me, for all that Saxe’s gloss is so clearly readable in her picture, there’s a yet broader idea expressed. There’s a lot of loose talk around the so-called two cultures of the humanities and sciences, often presented as two sharply distinct ways of making sense of the world. Saxe’s picture gives the lie to that simplistic framing. Art does many things, but certainly one of them is to give us images that confront us with shards of the strange experience of being human. Science, an artful craft, can do the same — as it does here.

_______________________

Back to regularly scheduled rage, weariness, snark, schadenfreude, celebrations of the discomfiture of our adversaries and random brain bubbles after this.  Happy Saturnalia, all.

Image:  Mary Cassatt, Mother’s Kissbetween 1890 and 1891.