Category Archives: Science

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RSA Animates with Manuel Lima

RSA Animates with Manuel Lima

This wonderfully drawn slide from one of the splendid animations by RSA  Animates demonstrates how wonderfully similar the patterns of very different life mechanisms can be – it reminded me how powerfully I felt the implications of that similarity when I compared the visuals from different ends of the telescope in the ‘Powers of Ten ‘video, which is well worth visiting here:  http://www.eamesoffice.com/education/powers-of-ten-2/

What I viewed as I turned the pages of the vintage book was the astonishing similarity between the patterns from the telescope when it was viewing the universe at the scale of 10  to the power of 10 positive, compared with the patterns of the view when under the microscope the make up of the atoms viewed at the scale of 10 the to power of 10 negative. Totally bizarre.

It seems implausible that the patterns from such vastly different scales of what we experience as life can almost replicate each other – there is poetry in it , a mystery of import which mankind has not yet fathomed. It excites me to find that sort of synchronicity which perplexes and offers the possibility of discovering more exciting knowledge, more depth of human understanding exists beyond current comprehension.  It suggests that the route of interconnectedness may be the one to follow, and even more so today after reading about the ‘wood wide web’. (many biologists have started using the term “wood wide web” to describe the communications services that fungi provide to plants and other organisms.)

Eastern philosophy, poets and Science seem to be united in their preoccupation with the interconnectedness of life’s machinery, and as D.H .Lawrence wrote

     ‘I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me.  That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea.’

Show me more examples of pattern synchronicity – those occurrences that make you shudder with possible delight and expectation. I am deeply interested in knowing more.!

The RSA animates video I referred to in the top image can be found here rsa animates and in this particular one Manuel Lima discusses the power on networks in a complex world.

Kepler and the cosmos

Keplers Space mission focuses on a narrow spectrum of the universe, searching for exoplanets.
Cluster of Stars in Kepler's SightI have just finished producing another project, and it has been so stimulating finding out about how modern space missions have a history that goes back to the discoveries in the 1600’s by one very determined Johannes Kepler.

If you spin back into the times that he was alive in, imagine the determination he needed to pursue an intellectual curiosity in how the universe REALLY worked.  By observation and very clever calculation he came up with theorems that threatened the  dogma instructed by the Church, and ultimately the states of the time.  This was a time of upheaval and power clashes between European leaders, a time when the idea of liberal thought was centuries away. Not only was he under the intellectual pressure from determining how he could present his ideas to contemporaries, but under real threat of exclusion or worse.

Pursuing his aim to explain the movement of the stars, Kepler discovered what we now refer to as Kepler’s Laws, on which Newton was to build upon and explain how gravity works.  It is with Kepler’s explanation that man came to understand Earth’s position in the universe, leading to the growth of modern scientific thought.  Before his time, men looked to the heaven’s and believed in astrological explanations for life and death, catastrophe and fate.  Astrologers were keepers of portentous knowledge used by kings and leaders in decision making. The new scientific discoveries would blow apart the rationales behind that sort of thinking. Kepler himself could not have known the trajectory of exploration which his studies triggered.  Although he had dreamed of a man standing on the moon and looking at the earth, he would never know of todays space mission named after him , which is discovering exoplanets in habitable space.

His thinking nevertheless did not preclude the mystery and incomprehsibility of Life, he referred to God as being ‘in the numbers’, understanding geometry and God to be the same force.  The scientific thinkers such as Einstein, Carl Sagan and Neil de Grasse Tyson retain a humility and open minded approach to the marvel of the Universe. Their awe is directed to the manisfestation that is the  Universe, and it with the examination by such beacons that mankind can pursue hope toward the future.

Carl Sagan described Kepler as “the first astrophysicist and the last scientific astrologer.”, while Kepler himself said

” the ways by which men arrive at knowledge of the celestial things are hardly less wonderful than the nature of these things themselves”concordance cover Anne Corr

Concordance  Anne Corr Researching Johannes Kepler and listening to my son’s interest in space mission provoked me to explore my thoughts about scientific enquiry alongside the wisdom of other thinkers throughout history.  As I learn more, I see patterns in thought, how we expand our own horizons by entering the realms of thinkers from different cultures, different times.  I named my project ‘Concordance’  to reference the harmonies Kepler perceived in the geometric principles , and the understanding of artists, scientists and philosophers that human kind benefits from discovering harmonies between science and nature, between disparate cultures, and between the body and the mind.

A tale of a tailor’s son and Louis XIV’s precious globes.

 

 

 

 

boatsThis is a story of how a son of a tailor made the King of France a very proud man indeed.  Louis XIV was already enjoying the glory attached to ruling France in a time of massive growth and enrichment.  What better present to further please your monarch than a stunning pair of globes reflecting the mastery over the earthly and heavenly spheres.  At least, that is what Cardinal d’Estrees had thought on witnessing the globes that the Duke of Parma had.

 

The Duke had commissioned  a set of terrestrial and celestial globes and so impressed with the  results, he made the man in charge of the commission his theologian.  That’s where the son of a tailor enters, as he was the man in question, one Vincenzo Coronelli, born in 1650 , the fifth child of a tailor.  He was accepted as a young man into the Conventual Franciscans, studying theology and excelling in  astronomy and Euclid.  While he was working as a geographer, the commission came in from the Duke, and the rest as they say, is history.  So the Duke of Parma’s marvellous globes now had to be surpassed in their wow factor, since the Cardinal was currying favour with the King, and no-one wants to let a king look anything less than, well, the best.

 

And they were; technically astounding, the terrestrial globe and the celestial globe weighed in at about 2.3 tons each, measuring 3.87 diameter, so quite a handful.  Coronelli put a hatch in the back which allowed thirty men to be in the globe at any one time.

 

Coronelli went on to have success in his academic career as well as building a successful company supplying globes throughout Europe, and died at the age of 68.  Quite a stretch for the son of a common tailor. The application of hard work married to a strong intellect will always astound , and I am continually in awe of how far men can go.  He did however fall out with the pope over some overspending issues. Oh well, can’t be all plain sailing.

 

We are left with the lovely globes, which are on display at the Bibliotheque nationale de France. The globes are not only a remarkable achievement from a scientific viewpoint, at the time, but also as an artistic interpretion of the world, and of the stars.  In fact, even then the scientists would have been biting their tongue at the level of scientific understanding, but as a work of art they are gorgeous objects. I have chosen some images taken from them and available from the online exhibition at the National Library of France.

 

 

terrestial globe terrestial globe 2 terrestial globe 3 celestial globe celestial globe3 celestial globe 2 celestial globe 4

Who are you? You think you know?

map in cover2x  Anne CorrLots of things are whizzing around my brain at the moment, all trying to interconnect and make some fabulous pattern, as you might see on a snowflake up close and personal, but instead it feels more like one of those bumper ride cars at the fair, where the idea is to miss rather than to collide, but everyone bumps each other and much mayhem proceeds. So where to start the unravelling tonight?

Microbes. Microbes make up so much of us, that without them we just wouldn’t be. For every human cell , there are  about ten times as many microbial cells, mainly bacteria. Spooky.  This was revealed to me on a brilliant radio programme http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rvpkb

Within the programme there were fascinating details about the parallel worlds of colonies of bacteria, fungi,eukaryotes, viruses etc that make up the human microbiome.  Our human cells and the microbial cells are symbiotic,  they rely on each other to exist.  We are playing host to their worlds, in a similar way that the Earth is playing host to us.  It is thus scientifically expressed how interdependent the living organism of the universe is. We are beginning to shed yet more light on explaining the connections that tie us to the air, to the earth, to the fabric of existence.

Since man started to use language , we have tried to explain life, it’s abundance, it’s range, it’s mechanisms.  We have used our senses to feel the interconnectedness, and our intellectual capacities to express it through art, music , language, dance.  The sense of ‘individual self’ has been questioned by religions, philosophies and poets since the dawn of language; now science is illuminating how erroneous a rigid sense of individual ‘self’ is.  O f course we live our individual lives within a sense of a body separate to other physical entities, but separate is different from being in isolation from.  John Donne’s poem ‘ No man is an island’ comes to mind, as does the Buddhist understanding that we are all One.

Perhaps this exciting development in studying the human microbiome will lead us to develop further understanding into our place in the universe, no longer the pinnacle of evolution, master of all we survey.  Perhaps we can start acting more like guests at the party, remembering our manners.

Walt Whitman says it here, in the spirit of others before and after him.

page 5

 

 

Reading   http://io9.com/5920874/10-ways-the-human-microbiome-project-could-change-the-future-of-science-and-medicine

Brave New World – You’re in it!

digital illustration Anne CorrIt needs to be said; I am scared. Very scared. The more I read, the more I am made even more anxious about the world that I have introduced new life to. Do I have a burden of guilt for giving birth to two wonderful sons, now 17 and 19?  I have to say I do, because my nervousness is for them, about them, I am parochial in my state of anxiety. There is a selfishness in the human condition and this is mine, I am far more exercised on behalf of my immediate family than I am on the behalf of humanity as a whole. I lack the humanity of Einstein and Sir Martin Rees and the like, who spend their lifetimes battling with the difficulties of the unknown in the hope that humanity is served. Still they scare me these icons, after listening to a TED lecture given my Sir Martin Rees, I am convinced that our paltry intelligence is at its infancy, and that the future of humankind depends on how that intelligence evolves. I was young once, and in that once we lived in a different universe, one that was explained with alternative pictures and language than the one the scientists describe today. I am still getting my head around the fact that there are as many universes as there are grains of sand, (or is that galaxies? I don’t even know my terms of reference). Then there is the fact that there exists as we speak (as I write) , a website dedicated to the ‘Reducing Long-Term Catastrophic Risks from Artificial Intelligence ‘ called the Singularity Institute. ( For an explanation of what they are and do, read an article from the Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/revenge-of-the-nerds-should-we-listen-to-futurists-or-are-they-leading-us-towards-lsquonerdocalypsersquo-2073910.html)  Suffice to say that these are not fantasists, they are serious scientists looking into the likelihood of seeing the time when technological advance leads to a transformation of the human existence, whether that be by cryogenics or AI. We are moving toward a time when to be human will be substantially different than from any other time in history, because our curiosity led extraordinary examples of our species to find new explanations that have led to new weapons, new power sources, new scientific possibilities to further food production, new methods of communication. Brave New World, you’re in it.

And I cannot piece these fascinating facets of the world I live in with the everyday experience of the world I live in. My world is aeons away from theirs, I am still thinking what to have for tea and how much the car service is going to be on Thursday, remembering the documentary I watched last night where 17 year olds were living alone on less than £10 a day, and having babies. I felt guilty about that too, and happy that my sons lived a different life from theirs, although as a student, not by much. (joke – he is aware of his privilege in having a home to come back to.)

And because I cannot reconcile these two truths, these variants on what life is through the singularity of my own existence, I once again return to the poets, the philosophers. They bring me some sort of solace, that through their wrestling with these weighty questions, I can return to the wisdom of Heraclitus, and to the beauty of art as meaning. Thus I can bring to the table this thought, science and art do go together, one and the other, deciphering meaning in dissimilar ways, but learning about the same craziness of life.

Bryan Appleyard commented on AI here,http://www.bryanappleyard.com/i-extinct-you-robot/

‘In the second machine age, the challenge to the human world is mental rather than physical. As the gadgets become more intimate and the scanners more powerful, it is our inner worlds that are being transformed. Perhaps they are even being destroyed. The perpetual connection and distraction of our lives now are the opposite of Stevens’ solitary thinking time or Dickinson’s isolation in her room. Connectivity is replacing creativity on Facebook and Twitter.’

Henry Miller had this to say and although he was writing much before the advent of our latest technogical wizardry, he had the sense of it,

“The cultural era of Europe, and that includes America, is finished. The next era belongs to the technician; the day of the mind machine is dawning. God pity us!”

“Art is as deep and high and wide as the universe. There is nothing but art, if you look at it properly. It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis……..

………As for that constantly vanishing point called the present, that fulcrum which melts simultaneously into past and future, only those who deal with the eternal know and live in it, acknowledging it to be all.”

( from The Henry Miller Reader)

Henry Miller recalls Heraclitus when he points us to the idea of constant flux, and this is a recurrent preoccupation of poets and artists. It may be a primal response to flux that is engaged when we look at the stars, or feel the pull of the sea, the shifting of the sand. Who can know what is inexplicable? But we don’t stop looking for explanation, demonstration, and now we don’t stop at attempts at creation. Here is one of those poets expressing the constant drive for incessant thought.

The Place of the Solitaires by Wallace Stevens

Let the place of the solitaires

Be a place of perpetual undulation.

Whether it be in mid-sea

On the dark, green water-wheel,

Or on the beaches,

There must be no cessation

Of motion, or of the noise of motion,

The renewal of noise

And manifold continuation

And, most, of the motion of thought

And its restless iteration,

In the place of the solitaires,

Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.

Flux Anne   Corr

Bots can’t quine a Qualia. Quan you?

So just how clever are we?  Watching Skyfall last night, I was enthralled by the escapades of the villain, the extent to which he was prepared to go to exercise his will, his purpose.  It occurred to me that I was watching a fictional character display the pathological traits of a person who lacked any humanity.  It was like watching a film of a videogame where it didn’t matter about the carnage or the destruction.  Skyfall is just another Bond film where we can sit back and be entertained  but it provoked some thought in me.  Are we changing our experience of being human to such an extent that it will become less surprising when socio-paths wreak havoc and unleash their dogs of war?

Of course history can attest the existence of human terrorists , human dictators and brutality is as old as the hills.  What is more concerning to me, is the manner in which our ordinary experience of being human is changing.  Over the progression of time we have seen civilizations appear, and disappear and the overall direction of human knowledge has tended to be progressive, building on what has gone before, adapting our behaviours and our environments to generally benefit humankind.  That is a very simplistic statement, but since homo sapiens has been around, its ability to adapt has secured its future.  Is the next adaptation to include the introduction of Artificial Intelligence?  Brian Christian reminds us that’

‘We forget how impressive we are. Computers are reminding us.’

 

What Brian Christian explains to me in his article , is that it is the minutiae of life, the absurdities of being human that separate us from Artificial Intelligence, and it is the marvel of human experience that we need to maintain our connection with to withstand the onslaught of an automated environment separating us from it.  We have to reconnect with the ability to make special, as Ellen Dissonayake expresses the creative impulse.  We need to produce in order to fully live, wherever and however that impulse takes us.  We need to sculpt, compose, paint, build a garden, build a boat, sketch , photograph,  we need to engage our senses with our environment in order to feel our lives are full and valuable.  One of the downsides I see of the last couple of generations is the way that we have celebrated excellence in lots of fields, and removed ourselves from the possibility of doing things for the sake of it.  So now we listen to artists play music , knowing they are far more easy on the ear than ourselves. It is the same in all walks of life.  In celebrating excellence we often refuse to partake ourselves, believing the pursuit to be worthless because it will never resemble the professionals work.  I don’t want to turn back time and not enjoy the brilliance of Radiohead or Mozart playing over my headphones, but I do want to allow my impulse some expression too.

 

I have included some of Brian Christians article here, because it is so interesting. And scary. And hopeful. Can we embrace some of the neglected thinking that is generated by the part of the brain engaged with emotion, rather than logic? Will this more sophisticated understanding of intelligence lead our species to a future that celebrates connection, ritual, and expression as much as acquisitiveness?  We can but hope.

‘Indeed, it’s entirely possible that we’ve seen the high-water mark of our left-hemisphere bias. I think the return of a more balanced view of the brain and mind—and of human identity—is a good thing, one that brings with it a changing perspective on the sophistication of various tasks.’


Brian Christian
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2011/03/mind-vs-machine/308386/

The computation theorist Hava Siegelmann once described intelligence as “a kind of sensitivity to things.” These Turing Test programs that hold forth may produce interesting output, but they’re rigid and inflexible. They are, in other words, insensitive—occasionally fascinating talkers that cannot listen.
Who would have imagined that the computer’s earliest achievements would be in the domain of logical analysis, a capacity once held to be what made us most different from everything else on the planet? That it could fly a plane and guide a missile before it could ride a bike? That it could create plausible preludes in the style of Bach before it could make plausible small talk? That it could translate before it could paraphrase? That it could spin half-discernible essays on postmodern theory before it could be shown a chair and say, as most toddlers can, “chair”?
As computers have mastered rarefied domains once thought to be uniquely human, they simultaneously have failed to master the ground-floor basics of the human experience—spatial orientation, object recognition, natural language, adaptive goal-setting—and in so doing, have shown us how impressive, computationally and otherwise, such minute-to-minute fundamentals truly are.

Here’s a poem from one of my favourites, expressing the ineffable mysteries of ordinary , extraordinary life.

A Note
Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;

to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;

to tell pain
from everything it’s not;

to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes.

An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held
with the lamp switched off;

and if only once
to stumble upon a stone,
end up soaked in one downpour or another,

mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
and to keep on not knowing
something important.
— Wislawa Szymborska

 

Joining the dots, astrophysics meets metaphysics.

 

 

 

 

Lawrence knew this without knowing the how, because when he lived we didn’t have the knowledge of the universe we have now.  These are some of the words from one of the best astrophysicists from today, Neil deGrasse Tyson;

“there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand in all the world,

more stars in the universe than all the sounds and all the words ever uttered by all the humans that have ever lived………..
it would be inexcusably egocentric to suggest we are alone in the cosmos, the chemistry is too rich, the universe too vast ….

……….life may be an ineveitable consequence of complex chemistry.

What Neil deGrasse Tyson does is more than educate, he enthuses and excites and instead of him feeling small and inconsequential in an expanding universe , he feels connected to that universe. By using his extraordinary intellect he participates in the same stream of life that we are all swimming in. He’s a deep sea diver in that river, me, I’m waving, trying not to drown.

Here are two videos of him talking masterfully .

http://youtu.be/rDRXn96HrtY

http://youtu.be/9RExQFZzHXQ