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Posts Tagged ‘science’

13 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Fluid Dynamics of “The Starry Night”: How Vincent Van Gogh’s Masterpiece Explains the Scientific Mysteries of Movement and Light

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“In a period of intense suffering, Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind.”

In 1889, inspired by a famous astronomical drawing that had been circulating in Europe for four decades, Vincent van Gogh painted his iconic masterpiece “The Starry Night,” one of the most recognized and reproduced images in the history of art. At the peak of his lifelong struggle with mental illness, he created the legendary painting while staying at the mental asylum into which he had voluntarily checked himself after mutilating his own ear.

But more than a masterwork of art, Van Gogh’s painting turns out to hold astounding clues to understanding some of the most mysterious workings of science.

This fascinating short animation from TED-Ed and Natalya St. Clair, author of The Art of Mental Calculation, explores how “The Starry Night” sheds light on the concept of turbulent flow in fluid dynamics, one of the most complex ideas to explain mathematically and among the hardest for the human mind to grasp. From why the brain’s perception of light and motion makes us see Impressionist works as flickering, to how a Russian mathematician’s theory explains Jupiter’s bright red spot, to what the Hubble Space Telescope has to do with Van Gogh’s psychotic episodes, this mind-bending tour de force ties art, science, and mental health together through the astonishing interplay between physical and psychic turbulence.

Van Gogh and other Impressionists represented light in a different way than their predecessors, seeming to capture its motion, for instance, across sun-dappled waters, or here in star light that twinkles and melts through milky waves of blue night sky.

The effect is caused my luminance, the intensity of the light in the colors on the canvas. The more primitive part of our visual cortex — which sees light contrast and motion, but not color — will blend two differently colored areas together if they have the same luminance. But our brains primate subdivision will see the contrasting colors without blending. With these two interpretations happening at once, the light in many Impressionist works seems to pulse, flicker and radiate oddly.

That’s how this and other Impressionist works use quickly executed prominent brushstrokes to capture something strikingly real about how light moves.

Sixty years later, Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov furthered our mathematical understanding of turbulence when he proposed that energy in a turbulent fluid at length R varies in proportion to the five-thirds power of R. Experimental measurements show Kolmogorov was remarkably close to the way turbulent flow works, although a complete description of turbulence remains one of the unsolved problems in physics.

A turbulent flow is self-similar if there is an energy cascade — in other words, big eddies transfer their energy to smaller eddies, which do likewise at other scales. Examples of this include Jupiter’s great red spot, cloud formations and interstellar dust particles.

In 2004, using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists saw the eddies of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star, and it reminded them of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” This motivated scientists from Mexico, Spain, and England to study the luminance in Van Gogh’s paintings in detail. They discovered that there is a distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures close to Kolmogorov’s equation hidden in many of Van Gogh’s paintings.

The researchers digitized the paintings, and measured how brightness varies between any two pixels. From the curves measured for pixel separations, they concluded that paintings from Van Gogh’s period of psychotic agitation behave remarkably similar to fluid turbulence. His self-portrait with a pipe, from a calmer period in Van Gogh’s life, showed no sign of this correspondence. And neither did other artists’ work that seemed equally turbulent at first glance, like Munch’s ‘The Scream.”

While it’s too easy to say Van Gogh’s turbulent genius enabled him to depict turbulence, it’s also far too difficult to accurately express the rousing beauty of the fact that in a period of intense suffering, Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind, and to unite his unique mind’s eye with the deepest mysteries of movement, fluid and light.

Complement with Van Gogh on art and the power of love and a peek inside his never-before-revealed sketchbooks.

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06 NOVEMBER, 2014

Bill Nye Reads a Brilliant, Creationism-Busting Passage from His New Book on Evolution

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An intelligent antidote to propaganda’s chronic line of unreasonable reasoning.

“Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much,” Carl Sagan wrote in his now-legendary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking. Since 1993, former mechanical engineer turned actor Bill Nye “The Science Guy” — for who Sagan was a personal hero — has been testing and demonstrating the pillars of science, from the everyday to the existential, for kids and grownups alike as a television host, comedian, writer, and one of the most important science educators of our time. In Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (public library | IndieBound), Nye sets out to undo the immeasurable cultural damage done by anti-science propaganda by exploring why evolution is not only one of the most important ideas in the history of science but also the most meaningful creation story humanity has ever known.

Nye writes in the opening chapter:

Once you become aware — once you see how evolution works — so many familiar aspects of the world take on new significance. The affectionate nuzzling of a dog, the annoying bite of a mosquito, the annual flu shot: All are direct consequences of evolution. As you read this book, I hope you will also come away with a deeper appreciation for the universe and our place within it. We are the results of billions of years of cosmic events that led to the cozy, habitable planet we live on.

But the capacity for such appreciation in science requires the same thing that Oscar Wilde believed was necessary for appreciating art — a “temperament of receptivity.” Nothing stifles that capacity, especially in a young mind only beginning to learn the tools of understanding, more surely than dogma. In one particularly punchy passage, which he read on a recent episode of The New York Times’ Science Times podcast in his characteristic animated style, Nye addresses the creationist reader directly with equal parts humor and intellectual rigor:

But for certain people who hold a creationist point of view, life’s common chemistry paints a completely different picture. They claim it indicates that we are all the product of a designer who made everything according to the same plan, all at once.

That line of reasoning also leads to questions — but they’re the exasperating kind. If there was a designer, why did he or she or it create all those fossils of things that aren’t living anymore? Why did the designer put all these chemical substitutions of radioactive elements in with nonradioactive elements? Why did a designer program in this continual change that we observe in the fossil record, if he or she assembled the whole system at once? In short, why mess around with all this messiness? If you’re a creationist reading this, and you want to remark something like, “Well, that’s the way he did it,” I’ll tell you right back, that is just not reasonable, nor is it satisfactory. If we were playing on a team right now, I’d say, “Get your head in the game.”

Illustration from ‘Evolution: A Coloring Book’ by Annu Kilpeläinen. Click image for more. 

 

In the book itself, he goes on to write:

Another thing: If there were a designer, I’d expect some better results. I’d expect no common cold viruses, for example. Or, if viruses are an unavoidable or accidental consequence of a designer designing with DNA molecules, I would hope that we’d be immune to those accidental viruses. If the argument is, “Well, that was all part of the plan,” then I have to ask: How can you take the lack of evidence of a plan as evidence of a plan? That makes no sense.

Undeniable is a cultural necessity. Complement it with Neil deGrasse Tyson on why intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance and Baba Brinkman’s rap guide to evolution, then treat your (inner) child to this wonderful coloring book about evolution.

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05 NOVEMBER, 2014

Richard Dawkins on The Science of Why You Are Lucky to Be Alive

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What Yeats’s epitaph has to do with the infinitesimal odds of winning the DNA lottery.

“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence,” Montaigne wrote in his fantastic 16th-century meditation on death and the art of living, “is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Half a millennium later, Richard Dawkins — who coined the term “meme” — enlists evolutionary biology in substantiating that strangely assuring philosophical idea. In the altogether fantastic Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (public library), Dawkins writes:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Right around the time that DNA was being discovered, the wise Alan Watts intuited the same idea in his spectacular meditation on the ego and the universe, where he wrote: “Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified.” But, biologically speaking, the existential roulette that landed on you out of the infinite not-you alternatives is set into motion well before your actual birth. Dawkins writes:

The instant at which a particular spermatozoon penetrated a particular egg was, in your private hindsight, a moment of dizzying singularity. It was then that the odds against your becoming a person dropped from astronomical to single figures.

The lottery starts before we are conceived. Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to where it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Illustration from 'The Baby Tree' by Sophie Blackall. Click image for more.

In fact, that lottery extends beyond your lineage and stretches back in time into the origin of the universe itself:

This is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, ‘the present century’. Interestingly, some physicists don’t like the idea of a ‘moving present’, regarding it as a subjective phenomenon for which they find no house room in their equations. But it is a subjective argument I am making. How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.

In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive. People whom the spotlight has already passed over, and people whom the spotlight has not reached, are in no position to read a book… What I see as I write is that I am lucky to be alive and so are you.

Painting by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Dawkins later explores this interplay of life and death from another angle as he turns to his favorite poet, Yeats. (The irony of the choice, given Yeats’s dismissal of science as “the opium of the suburbs” — a play on Marx’s dismissal of religion as “the opium of the masses” — doesn’t evade Dawkins as he writes: “I am almost reluctant to admit that my favorite of all poets is that confused Irish mystic William Butler Yeats.”) Yeats’s epitaph, Dawkins points out, “would make fine last words for a scientist”:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horsemen, pass by!

Extracting from those seemingly morbid notions a wonderfully vitalizing perspective, Dawkins echoes Alexander Flexner’s 1939 masterpiece on the usefulness of useless knowledge and offers “the best answer to those petty-minded scrooges who are always asking what is the use of science”:

In one of those mythic remarks of uncertain authorship, Michael Faraday is alleged to have been asked what was the use of science. ‘Sir,’ Faraday replied. ‘Of what use is a new-born child?’ The obvious thing for Faraday (or Benjamin Franklin, or whoever it was) to have meant was that a baby might be no use for anything at present, but it has great potential for the future. I now like to think that he meant something else, too: What is the use of bringing a baby into the world if the only thing it does with its life is just work to go on living? If everything is judged by how ‘useful’ it is — useful for staying alive, that is — we are left facing a futile circularity. There must be some added value. At least a part of life should be devoted to living that life, not just working to stop it ending. This is how we rightly justify spending taxpayers’ money on the arts. It is one of the justifications properly offered for conserving rare species and beautiful buildings. It is how we answer those barbarians who think that wild elephants and historic houses should be preserved only if they ‘pay their way.’ And science is the same. Of course science pays its way; of course it is useful. But that is not all it is.

Complement Unweaving the Rainbow, which is magnificent in its entirety, with Alan Lightman on why the fact that we are a cosmic accident is cause for celebration, then revisit Dawkins’s children’s book about the wonders of science and his letter to his own young daughter about the importance of evidence in science, love, and life.

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