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{Sunday, October 12, 2003}

delving with mammalian spacecraft

Alpha and Omega: Mysteries of the Cosmos
"The past decade has been a golden era for observational cosmology. After a century of trying, we have finally pinned down many of the fundamental dimensions of cosmology that seemed impenetrable even 20 years ago. We have determined, with reasonable precision, the age of the universe, and even its geometry. We have discovered that space, which Einstein's general relativity theory tells us can be curved into interesting geometries in the presence of matter, is flat on the largest scales we can observe. In the midst of these significant developments, one discovery is truly revolutionary: the expansion of the universe appears to be speeding up, not slowing down, as gravity should cause a universe full of stars and galaxies to do."
Lawrence M. Krauss reviews Alpha and Omega by Charles Seife

Jon Turney - The stuff of the world

"One by one Mendeleyev began writing on the blank white surfaces of the cards. First he printed the chemical symbol of an element, then its atomic weight and finally a short list of its characteristic properties. When he had filled sixty-three cards he spread them out face upwards over the desk.
He began staring at the cards, ruminatively combing his fingers through the ends of his beard. One long moment stretched into minutes on end as he concentrated on the sea of cards before him, his mind following trails of thought and half-thought, lost to the world. But still he could discern no overall pattern.
An hour or so later he decided to try a different tack. He gathered up the cards and began laying them out in groups. Another timeless hour; his eyelids were beginning to flutter now with exhaustion. Finally, in despair, he decided to try the obvious course, laying out the cards in ascending order of their atomic weights. But this couldn't possibly lead to anything. Everyone else had tried it. And besides, weight was just a physical property. What he was looking for was a pattern which linked the chemical properties. By now his head was beginning to nod, falling forward over the cards as he checked himself, on the brink of sleep. It seems he became aware of the horse-drawn sleigh waiting outside the window. Was it still there? Or had it come back? Already? Was it time to catch the afternoon train? That was the last one, he couldn't possibly miss it.
As Mendeleyev's eyes ran once more along the line of ascending atomic weights, he suddenly noticed something that quickened his pulse. Certain similar properties seemed to repeat in the elements, at what appeared to be regular numerical intervals. Here was something! But what? A few of the intervals began with a certain regularity, but then the pattern just seemed to peter out. Despite this, Mendeleyev soon became convinced that he was on the brink of a major breakthrough. There was a definite pattern there somewhere, but he just couldn't quite grasp it ... Momentarily overcome by exhaustion, Mendeleyev leaned forward, resting his shaggy head on his arms. Almost immediately he fell asleep, and had a dream."
Paul Strathern - Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements
(Penguin, 2001, pages 6-7)

Q & A
Gerald E. Stearn: Will there ever be silence?
Marshall McLuhan: Objects are unobservable. Only relationships among objects are observable.

The indivisible man - Andrew Anthony reviews The Music of the Primes by Marcus du Sautoy
"Gottfried Leibniz, Newton's contemporary and competitor, observed that 'music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting'. And du Sautoy, a trombonist and pianist, seeks to help us tune our ears to a rhythm that, if we could only hear it, hums with cosmic truth.
Ever since the ancient Greeks, mathematicians have laboured to understand the apparently chaotic distribution of the primes (2,3,5,7,11,13,17...). There is, it seems, no discernible rhyme or reason to when or where they crop up. And in maths, which is all about symmetry, elegance and beautiful patterns, the randomness of the primes, what the great Cambridge don G.H. Hardy called their 'diabolical malice', has caused no end of head-scratching, sleep loss and, in some cases, mental breakdown."


"Vico was astonishingly modern, even post-modern ... He argued that the human mind gives shape to the material world, and it is this shape, or coherence, that allows people to understand and relate to the world in effective ways. The world is shaped by, and in the shape of, the human mind, despite the fact that people see the world as 'natural' or 'given'. In performing this task of shaping the world, humanity created itself. This being so, there must be a universal 'language of the mind', common to all communities. Structuring, making something coherent out of the chaos of the natural world, is the essence of being human." David Lewis-Williams - The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art
(Thames & Hudson, 2002, page 51)

The Noise
The title of Marcel Duchamp's little Readymade sculpture, put together in 1916 with the collaboration of Walter Arensberg, contains a total of three words, whether the name is called in English or in French: With Hidden Noise, A Bruit Secret. Duchamp himself gave us a clue about the logic of the piece in a famous note to Arturo Schwarz, referring to it as an "exercise in comparative orthography."

Edward A. Shanken - The House That Jack Built: Jack Burnham's Concept of Software as a Metaphor for Art
"The computer's most profound aesthetic implication is that we are being forced to dismiss the classical view of art and reality which insists that man stand outside of reality in order to observe it, and, in art, requires the presence of the picture frame and the sculpture pedestal. The notion that art can be separated from its everyday environment is a cultural fixation [in other words, a mythic structure] as is the ideal of objectivity in science. It may be that the computer will negate the need for such an illusion by fusing both observer and observed, "inside" and "outside." It has already been observed that the everyday world is rapidly assuming identity with the condition of art."
Jack Burnham - The Aesthetics of Intelligent Systems (1969)
In E. F. Fry [ed] On the Future of Art - Viking Press, New York, 1970, page 103

Peter Weibel - The Intelligent Image
"... we may say that if 1895 was the birthday of the cinema, then the 19th century was pregnant for nearly a hundred years, before it was able to give birth to this machine. This hundred-year pregnancy started, in fact, in 1824, when a doctor of medicine, Mr. Roget, discovered the persistency of vision. The persistency of vision discovered by Roget, who is the same person who later gave us the famous thesaurus, made possible the development of a specific kind of machinery which produced optical illusions. Therefore, the cinematic machine was above all a machine of vision. One of the great Polish filmmakers, Wojciech Bruszewski, started also with machines of vision, but now is making a dictionary of phraseology, a machine which creates texts, because there is always a link between automatic machines of vision and automatic machines of letters. Roget not only discovered the persistency of vision, but also gave us the first great dictionary, the famous 'Thesaurus.' Upon the discovery of what we call today the after-image, or after-effect produced by the laziness of the retina, another scientist, Michael Faraday, built his first machine in 1830, the so-called Faraday-disc, an optical disk for optical illusions. Following the path of Roget and Faraday, we will make a kind of parallel listing."

Music is Math - Is the universe flat?

"The elementes turned in to themselues, like as whan one tune is chaunged vpon an instrument of musick."
Coverdale Bible, Wisdom, xix, 18

Music for Matisse
"For Alfred Appel Jr, the flying forms and colours of late Matisse define a subgenre he terms "jazz modernism". Embracing the gritty energy of modern life, jazz modernist works are "accessible" and "tonic", irreverent and playful, uninhibited by the divisions of high and low. Their creators, Appel claims, are "rag pickers", turning trash into artistic gold; Picasso's 1912 collage "Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass" serves as Exhibit A. "Rag pickers", of course, is a pun by which Appel connects Picasso's rebus-like assemblage of newpaper and sheet music clippings with the African-American music that first appeared as ragtime, but exploded into jazz during the First World War. "Rhythm saved the World", Appel claims, echoing the title of a 1936 number by Louis Armstrong; when art aspires to the condition of jazz, it jitterbugs between the ordinary and the extraordinary."
David Schiff

FAQS - Marshall McLuhan

"The Eddas are not entities in themselves, but more like magazines, or anthologies of history, poetry, myths, proverbs and even statements of the complex rules of poetry itself. At the beginning of the thirteenth century the acknowledged master, Snorri Sturluson, wrote the most memorable contributions to the genre."
Ted Edwards - Fight the Wild Island: A Solo Walk Across Iceland
(Salem House, 1987, page 162)

"The thunderclaps of Finnegans Wake have, from the first, been embedded in as much obscurity as the relation of the work to the five parts of rhetoric. Perhaps this difficulty can be clarified by a note on the magazine wall. The mystery of the magazine is revealed in Emerson's words: "The human body is the magazine of inventions ... All the tools and engines on earth are only extensions of its limbs and senses." With each extension of man, each new invention, Joyce's 'magazine wall' rocks and rumbles. At the outset of the Wake, the fragmentation and visual specialism represented by the bricks themselves was enough to end the integrity of the Sphairos - the integral and 'mystical sphere' of Empedocles.
Thunderclap 1, quite naturally, enacts the resonant effects of the first inventions/extensions of man, which propel him from the palaeolithic Garden into the neolithic age, from primal integral hunting and food gathering to the specialisms of the Willingdone Museyroom of weaponry. As the first 'act' of the first five-part 'play' the mode is inventio, the first division of rhetoric. As part of the unified logos (which was rendered by the Romans by the phrase ratio et oratio) or the all-resonant word, each division of rhetoric assumes and resumes the other divisions, just to the degree that any moment of consciousness simultaneously includes as its complements all aspects of mental activity."
Eric McLuhan - The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake
(University of Toronto Press, 1997, pages 261-262)

Greeks 'borrowed Egyptian numbers'
"The astronomers, physicists and mathematicians of ancient Greece were true innovators. But one thing it seems the ancient Greeks did not invent was the counting system on which many of their greatest thinkers based their pioneering calculations. New research suggests the Greeks borrowed their system known as alphabetic numerals from the Egyptians ..."
Paul Rincon

Nordic Salt Legends
"There are several related Fenno-Scandian myths dealing with how the ocean became salt, the tale of the Sampo from Finland and the tale of the Grotti from Scandinavia. These salt legends all are based around a central concept, that of a hand-mill being used to grind salt, grain, or ore.
The hand-mill used in Viking Age Scandinavia consisted of a flat, stationary stone with another on top, the top stone being turned by a handle fixed at the edge and pierced through in the middle where the raw material to be ground was introduced. Turning such a mill was heavy, laborious work, and almost always reserved for thralls or slaves. It is no wonder that in areas where such mills were used that legends would arise of a magical mill that would turn of itself, and from there it is only a short leap to an even more magical mill that will produce wondrous things from nothing. [Salty Tales From Hagar the Horrible]
Interestingly enough, the tale of the magic salt mill, grinding away on the sea floor, is actually truer than one might suspect. Scientists began discovering hydrothermal vents in the 1970s and have found that many minerals, including salt, make their way into the sea through these vents: in other words, the hydrothermal vents act like the Fenno-Scandic "magic salt mill" at the bottom of the sea."

The Joy of Bricks - Anthony Lane from Nobody's Perfect (Picador, 2002, page 596)
"Lego" is a contraction of the Danish "leg godt," or "play well" and it's one of those blessed names, like Coke or Kodak, that get their hooks in the auditory imagination and never let go. Rivals have failed to devise anything that can boast a fraction of this universal snappiness: Lego headquarters, in Billund, sports a fabulous display of Lego ripoffs, including Bildo, Blocko, Loko, Moto, Klip, Polly Plus, Hobby Land, Playgo, LocBlocs, OK, NA, and the tragically unambitious Toy. There is even one product called Ego, which is presumably all stud and no hole.

Joel Spolsky - Unicode and Character Sets
Ever wonder about that mysterious Content-Type tag? You know, the one you're supposed to put in HTML and you never quite know what it should be?
Did you ever get an email from your friends in Bulgaria with the subject line "???? ?????? ??? ????"?

For the World's A B C's, He Makes 1's and 0's
"Michael Everson, a 40-year-old typographer who lives in Dublin, considers himself blessed because he has found his life's work: to be an alphabetician to all the peoples of the world. Mr. Everson's largest project to date - a contribution to a new version of Unicode 4.0 [...]
Most people don't even realize Unicode is at work. "Unicode is like plumbing," said Rick McGowan, the vice president of the Unicode Consortium. "Yet it's the most far-reaching and ambitious multilingual project in history."
[...] As vast as Version 4.0 seems, it is still not complete, and nearly 100 writing systems remain to be encoded ..."

Unicode and multilingual support in HTML, fonts, Web browsers and other applications

"This post-Euclidean finite but unbounded space ..."
F. M. Cornford - The Invention of Space

Hints of a finite universe
Scientists have announced tantalising hints that the Universe is actually relatively small, with a hall-of-mirrors illusion tricking us into thinking that space stretches on forever.

The Universe could be football-shaped - John Whitfield
"A journey of 60 billion light years across a dodecahedral Universe would bring you right back to Earth. Like a circumnavigation of the globe, it would be a seamless ride: there would be no obvious point at which one 're-entered' the Universe."

Notes and numbers - Graham Farmelo on Marcus du Sautoy's The Music of the Primes
"Scientists have often found that the universe dances to the most beautiful mathematical tunes, but it was initially a surprise to find that the spacings of the energy values of some atomic nuclei look pretty much identical to those of the prime numbers. Later, the leading Bristol physicist Sir Michael Berry (coiner of the phrase "music of the primes") showed that the same spacing also occurs in quantum billiards ..."

The Mill of Time
Pythagorean Tuning and Medieval Polyphony
Musical Theory and Ancient Cosmology

Harmony of the Spheres
The astronomy of the Pythagoreans marked an important advance in ancient scientific thought, for they were the first to consider the earth as a globe revolving with the other planets around a central fire. They explained the harmonious arrangement of things as that of bodies in a single, all-inclusive sphere of reality, moving according to a numerical scheme. Because the Pythagoreans thought that the heavenly bodies are separated from one another by intervals corresponding to the harmonic lengths of strings, they held that the movement of the spheres gives rise to a musical sound - the "harmony of the spheres."
Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000

The World Outside the Web - by Paul Boutin
"[Neal] Stephenson's new book, Quicksilver ... is but the first of a three-book series dubbed the Baroque Cycle due to be published at 6-month intervals over the coming year. Based around the life of Isaac Newton, the series isn't just Stephenson's withdrawal from cyberpunk ..."

Neal Stephenson Rewrites History
"Neal Stephenson has always been fascinated by history. Cryptonomicon explored the science of secrets during World War II, and The Diamond Age riffed on Victorian sensibilities. Now he's looking backward even further. He spent the last seven years immersed in the 17th century, working on a three-book series set during the scientific revolution. Certainly, The Baroque Cycle has scope ..."

Art Mirrors Physics Mirrors Art
"The French mathematician Henri Poincar� provided inspiration for both Einstein and Picasso. Einstein read Poincar�'s Science and Hypothesis (French edition 1902, German translation 1904) and discussed it with his friends in Bern. He might also have read Poincar�'s 1898 article on the measurement of time, in which the synchronization of clocks was discussed -- a topic of professional interest to Einstein as a patent examiner. Picasso learned about Science and Hypothesis indirectly through Maurice Princet, an insurance actuary who explained the new geometry to Picasso and his friends in Paris."
Stephen G. Brush reviews Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc by Arthur I. Miller

Werner K�nzel - Raymundus Lullus and His Invention [via Tesugen]
"When, in about 1275, Raymundus Lullus invented his logical machine, the Mediterranean Sea was a kind of interface for three expanded cultural streams ...
[...] An archaeology of our own century of electronic communication reveals its tracks and traces in the Baroque era. There we find, with the experience and the background of the Thirty Years' War, a new beginning of a formalised logic of combination connected with a theory of communication, which is now based on artificial languages."

The Atlantic - September 2003 - E.T. and God - Paul Davies
"Some scientists believe that life on Earth is a freak accident of chemistry, and as such must be unique. Because even the simplest known microbe is breathtakingly complex, they argue, the chances that one formed by blind molecular shuffling are infinitesimal; the probability that the process would occur twice, in separate locations, is virtually negligible. The French biochemist and Nobel laureate Jacques Monod was a firm believer in this view. "Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance," he wrote in 1971. He used this bleak assessment as a springboard to argue for atheism and the absurdity and pointlessness of existence. As Monod saw it, we are merely chemical extras in a majestic but impersonal cosmic drama -- an irrelevant, unintended sideshow.
But suppose that's not what happened ..."

Daniel Pinchbeck - Ten years of therapy in one night
"Iboga is the sacred essence of the religion of the Bwiti tribe of Gabon and Cameroon. Most members of the tribe ingest it just once in their lives, during an initiation ceremony in which massive amounts of the powdered bark are consumed. Through this ritual, they become a baanzi, one who has seen the other world. "Iboga brings about the visual, tactile and auditory certainty of the irrefutable existence of the beyond," wrote the French chemist Robert Goutarel, who studied the Bwiti. The iboga bark's visionary power is produced by a complicated cocktail of alkaloids that seems to affect many of the known neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. Its complex molecular key may lock into the addiction receptors in a way that resets patterns and blocks the feedback loops that reinforce dependency."

Life Seems To Be Inevitable Consequence Of Existence
Is life a highly improbable event, or is it just the inevitable consequence of a rich chemical soup available everywhere in the cosmos?
Scientists have recently found new evidence that amino acids, the "building-blocks" of life, can form not only in comets and asteroids, but also in the interstellar space.
This result is consistent with (although of course does not prove) the theory that the main ingredients for life came from outer space, and therefore that chemical processes leading to life are likely to have occurred elsewhere.
This focuses attention on an already "hot" research field, astrochemistry.

Theory Challenges Darwin Doctrine Of Common Descent
"Cellular evolution, [Carl] Woese argues, began in a communal environment in which the loosely organized cells took shape through extensive horizontal gene transfer.
Such a transfer previously had been recognized as having a minor role in evolution, but the arrival of microbial genomics, Woese says, is shedding a more accurate light. Horizontal gene transfer, he argues, has the capacity to rework entire genomes. With simple primitive entities, this process can "completely erase an organismal genealogical trace."
His theory challenges the longstanding Darwinian assumption known as the Doctrine of Common Descent -- that all life on Earth has descended from one original primordial form."

Customised humans - Prospect Magazine - September 2003
"The distinctively human story began several million years ago when, for a variety of reasons (discussed in my book The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being), people started parting company from the other beasts. From then on, what was absent in most animals and only fleeting in higher primates became increasingly central in humans: self-consciousness stabilising into selfhood; instinctive behaviour evolving into agency, regulated by often quite abstract customs and rules; tools sustaining a network of culture in which partially collectivised experience forms the basis for the creation of a world of signs, symbols and artefacts distant from nature; sentience becoming objectivised and pooled as knowledge; uncertainty becoming the basis of institutionalised inquiry, and so forth. Even sophisticated "biologistic" accounts of humans sideline this, and tend to see humans as organisms, rather than as people whose behaviour is primarily governed by considerations for which there is no equivalent in the animal kingdom. They will, therefore, like their environmentalist or geneticist predecessors, be several million years out of date, overlooking the thousands of generations of cultural development, the self-transformation of humanity, made possible by the second-order awareness that first arose in that remote past when hominids set out on their lonely path."
Raymond Tallis

posted by Andrew 10/12/2003 06:11:00 PM