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04 OCTOBER, 2012

The Surprising Science of Why It’s Dark at Night, Animated

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The glowing edge of space, or how the expansion of the universe is affecting the visible spectrum.

We’ve already seen how mankind conquered the night, but why is the sky dark after nightfall in the first place? The real reason, like most of science, is far less obvious than it seems, and far more expansive. Count on the fine folks of MinutePhysics — who have previously explained why the color pink doesn’t exist and why the past is different from the future — and their signature hand-drawn animation to illuminate the answer. And if Richard Feynman didn’t give you enough pause in demonstrating that the fire in your fireplace is actually the light and heat of the sun, how about knowing that the glow of the sky you see today isn’t starlight but leftover light from the Big Bang? Now that’s a moment of cosmic awe.

All of our evidence seems to indicate that space has no edge, but the universe itself does — not a spatial edge, but a temporal one.

For a less scientific but no less delightful take on the subject, see Edward Gorey’s characteristically irreverent and altogether fantastic Why We Have Day and Night.

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04 OCTOBER, 2012

Susan Sontag on Life, Death, Art, and Freedom

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“Oh, where is the out-going freedom, the instrumental freedom from, freedom that is not this enormous possession of one’s own heart which is death?”

The first installment of Susan Sontag’s published diaries, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), has already given us the celebrated thinker’s list of “rules + duties for being 24″ and her 10 rules for raising a child. On February 13, 1951, shortly after Sontag’s 18th birthday, she jotted down some fragmented notes on her current reading — War and Peace, Caudewll, a biography of Dostoyevsky — then turned the existential lens inwards, as one inevitably, and often reluctantly, does around personal milestones, adding to other cultural icons’ meditations on the meaning of life:

From Rilke:

… the great question-dynasty: … if we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision, + impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist?’

Yet we do exist, + affirm that. We affirm the life of lust. Yet there is more. One flees not from one’s real nature which is animal, id, to a self-torturing externally imposed conscience, super-ego, as Freud would have it– but the reverse, as Kierkegaard says. Our ethical sensitivity is what is natural to man + we flee from it to the beast; which is merely to say that I reject weak, manipulative, despairing lust, I am not a beast, I will not to be a futilitarian. I believe in more than the personal epic with the hero-thread, in more than my own life: above multiple spuriousness + despair, there is freedom + transcendence. One can know worlds one has not experienced, choose a response to life that has never been offered, create an inwardness utterly strong + fruitful.  

But how, when one can, to instrument the fact of wholeness + love? One must attempt more than the surety of reflexive nurturing. If ‘life is a hollow form, a negative mold, all the grooves + indentations of which are agony, disconsolations + the most painful insights, then the casting from this … is happiness, assent– most perfect + most certain bliss.’ But how protected + resolved one would have to be! And this leads one outside art to the dying, the madness– oh, where is the out-going freedom, the instrumental freedom from, freedom that is not this enormous possession of one’s own heart which is death?

More of Sontag’s meditations on life — including her thoughts on love, writing, censorship, and aphorisms — are collected in the second volume of her diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.

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03 OCTOBER, 2012

The Architect Says: A Compendium of Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom from Iconic Architects

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Gehry, Eames, Le Corbusier, Fuller, Hadid, and more.

There’s something inescapably alluring about pocket-sized compendiums of quotes by great architects and designers — take, for instance, those of Charles Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright. Fittingly, The Architect Says: Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom (public library) gathers timeless wisdom on design and architecture from more than 100 of history’s most vocal — and often dissenting — minds. What emerges, besides the fascinating tapas bar of ideas about the art and science of building, is the subtle but essential reminder that what lies at the heart of creative legacy aren’t universal formulas and unrelenting tents but perspective, conviction, and personality.

Frank Gehry (1929–) speaks to the power of ignorance and insecurity in the creative process, and echoing Orson Welles:

For me, every day is a new thing. I approach each project with a new insecurity, almost like the first project I ever did, and I get the sweats, I go in and start working, I’m not sure where I’m going — if I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t do it.

Hannes Meyer (1889–1954) offers a list of “the only requirements to be considered when building a house”:

  1. sex life
  2. sleeping habits
  3. pets
  4. gardening
  5. personal hygiene
  6. protection against weather
  7. hygiene in the home
  8. car maintenance
  9. cooking
  10. heating
  11. insolation
  12. service

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) reminds us of the joy of the analog:

Is anything more pleasurable to the mind than unsullied paper? The studious comparisons and selections of ‘stock’ in textures and colors of cards and paper?

Tom Kundig (1954–) stresses the importance of cross-pollinating perspectives:

I learn more from creative people in other disciplines than I do even from other architects because I think they have a way of looking at the world that is really important.

Thom Mayne (1944 — ) explores the relationship between simplicity and complexity:

Architecture is a discipline that takes time and patience. If one spends enough years writing complex novels one might be able, someday, to construct a respectable haiku.

Glenn Murcutt (1936–) voices something George Lois has since echoed:

We do not create the work. I believe we, in fact, are discoverers.

Le Corbusier (1887–1965) stands for the honesty of drawing:

I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies.

Jan Kaplicky (1937–2009) on creativity as subtraction:

It’s not a sign of creativity to have sixty-five ideas for one problem. It’s just a waste of energy.

Then there are the contradictions:

Some of them, of course, are but a caricature of the infamous architect arrogance. From Louis Kahn (1901–1974):

The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.

Really? (At least he didn’t say “my building.”)

The Architect Says comes, unsurprisingly, from Princeton Architectural Press.

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