Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

06 JUNE, 2014

Amusingly Cryptic Warning Signs from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Autotuned

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A serendipitous adventure in science communication.

When artist, designer, and educator David Delgado first arrived at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to work with the artist-in-residence there, he was immediately struck by the strange signs around the space, often cryptic and seemingly nonsensical. He found himself captivated by the disconnect between the dry, mundane language of these cautions and the immensely interesting processes, materials, and operations they were trying to describe. A solitary keyhole, almost alien in its arbitrary placement, bears the label “lazer bypass” — something partway between Alice in Wonderland and Alice in Quantumland, or the set of a science fiction movie.

When his friend Lee Overtree, Artistic Director of the wonderful arts education nonprofit Story Pirates, came to visit, he too took amused notice of the signs. Using Delgado’s photographs, he decided to compose a song using the app Songify to autotune his reading of the warning text from the various signs.

I recently bumped into Delgado at the World Science Festival, where he told me the story of their sign-turned-song, as an aside to an unrelated conversation about Ray Bradbury’s conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. I was instantly smitten with this geeky labor of love. So, with high permission all the way up from NASA’s Media Office, here is the end result for our shared delight:

More of Delgado’s original photographs of the signs below:

Complement with NASA’s formal Art Program, featuring Serious Art by such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, and Norman Rockwell, then take a tour of JPL’s predecessors with these gorgeous vintage photos of NASA facilities.

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02 JUNE, 2014

William Shakespeare, Astronomer: How Galileo Influenced the Bard

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A stanzaic vision for Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings.

William Shakespeare — to the extent that he existed at all — lived during a remarkable period in human history. Born the same year as Galileo, a founding father of the Scientific Revolution, and shortly before Montaigne, the Bard witnessed an unprecedented intersection of science and philosophy as humanity sought to make sense of its existence. One of the era’s most compelling sensemaking mechanisms was the burgeoning field of astronomy, which brought to the ancient quest to order the heavens a new spirit of scientific ambition.

In The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe (public library | IndieBound), science journalist Dan Falk explores the curious connection between the legendary playwright and the spirit of the Scientific Revolution, arguing that the Bard was significantly influenced by science, especially by observational astronomy.

'A Comet Lands in Brooklyn,’ an installation designed by StudioKCA and David Delgado of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the 2014 World Science Festival

Of particular interest is what Falk calls “one of the most intriguing plays (and one of the most overlooked works) in the entire canon” — the romantic tragedy Cymbeline. Pointing to a strange and highly symbolic scene in the play’s final act, where the hero sees in a dream the ghosts of his four dead family members circling around him as he sleeps, Falk writes:

Shakespeare’s plays cover a lot of ground, and employ many theatrical tricks — but as for gods descending from the heavens, this episode is unique; there is nothing else like it in the entire canon. Martin Butler calls the Jupiter scene the play’s “spectacular high point,” as it surely is. But the scene is also bizarre, unexpected, and extravagant — so much so that some have wondered if it represents Shakespeare’s own work.

[…]

If anything in Shakespeare’s late plays points to Galileo, this is it: Jupiter, so often invoked by characters in so many of the plays, never actually makes a personal appearance — until this point in Cymbeline. And of course Jupiter is not alone in the scene: Just below him, we see four ghosts moving in a circle. . . . Could the four ghosts represent the four moons of Jupiter, newly discovered by Galileo?

The timeline, Falk points out, is right — Cymbeline is believed to have been written in the summer or fall of 1610, mere months after the publication of Galileo’s short but seminal treatise on his initial telescopic observations, Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger). Falk finds more evidence in an earlier scene, where Jachimo meets the married Imogen, having been introduced by her husband, Posthumus, who has dared Jachimo in a wager to try seducing Imogen — a feat Posthumus deems unattainable. Mesmerized by her beauty, Jachimo decides to win the wager by convincing Imogen that Posthumus had been unfaithful to her on his travels, implying that her best recourse of revenge would be to be unfaithful in turn — of course, by sleeping with Jachimo himself. Lo and behold, his ploy backfires — Imogen is infuriated. To salvage the situation, Jachimo makes a U-turn, claiming to have made everything up as a way of testing her and extolling Posthumus’s virtues. And yet, even though Imogen forgives him, Jachimo is struck by the sketchiness of his own story. Falk cites the following passage spoken by Jachimo:

Thanks, fairest lady.
What, are men mad? Hath Nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ’twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon th’unnumbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
’Twixt fair and foul?

First atlas of the moon, 1647, from 'Ordering the Heavens.' Click image for more.

Falk writes:

The passage seems to allude, at least in part, to the sights one might see in the heavens; at the very least, it has something to do with distinguishing different kinds of objects (including, it would seem, stars) from one another. But the context is crucial: The first line is spoken to Imogen; the remaining lines are clearly an aside, spoken only to the audience. He seems to be saying, My story is unbelievable; why would Posthumus stoop so low, when his own wife is so beautiful? After all, he reasons, the eye gives one the power to tell the stars apart, and even to distinguish one stone on the beach from another; can’t Posthumus see the difference between his wife and a common whore? [Penn State University astronomer Peter] Usher passes over the sexual aspect of these lines, however, and focuses on the astronomical: The “vaulted arch” is surely the sky; the “fiery orbs above” must be the stars. Could the precious “spectacles” be a reference to a telescope-like device?

In the remainder of The Science of Shakespeare, a wonderfully dimensional read in its entirety, Falk goes on to explore a number of other allusions to astronomy throughout the play, from Imogen’s oblique wink at the English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Digges to Shakespeare’s potential reference to the structure of Saturn’s rings. At the heart of his argument is an ambitious effort to offer empirical assurance for what we all intuit — that art and science need each other, inform and inspire one another, and are branches from the same tree of the human longing in a universe that is more like a mirror of meaning than a window of understanding, beaming back at us whatever imagination we imbue it with.

How right pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell was when, two and a half centuries later, she marveled at the shared sensibility of science and poetry:

We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.

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29 MAY, 2014

A Brief History of the Toilet

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How the most appropriately named inventor in history saved humanity from a centuries-long crisis.

“Civilized man has always been outraged by what he sees, or else there would be no civilization,” Norman Mailer once wrote. And, in fact, among the greatest feats of civilization is a technology that has enabled us to get one of humanity’s most primal yet most outrageous sights as far away from us, and as quickly, as possible: the modern toilet.

From Bill Bryson’s wonderfully edifying At Home: A Short History of Private Life (public library) comes the curious history of how this staple of civilization came to be — a story not for the faint of heart or gut, but one brilliantly emblematic of how scientific innovation unfolds, with all its desperation-driven revolutions, cumulative advances, and dormant breakthroughs.

Bryson begins by tracing the colorful etymological history of the word itself:

Perhaps no word in English has undergone more transformations in its lifetime than toilet. Originally, in about 1540, it was a kind of cloth, a diminutive form of ‘toile’, a word still used to describe a type of linen. Then it became a cloth for use on dressing tables. Then it became the items on the dressing table (whence toiletries). Then it became the dressing table itself, then the act of dressing, then the act of receiving visitors while dressing, then the dressing room itself, then any kind of private room near a bedroom, then a room used lavatorially, and finally the lavatory itself. Which explains why toilet water in English can describe something you would gladly daub on your face or, simultaneously and more basically, water in a toilet.

Meanwhile, the fate of the actual toilet water — at what is referred to by that term today — was far less polished. As recently as the beginning of the 18th century, most sewage still went into cesspools, which were frequently neglected to a point of spilling into adjoining water supplies or overflowing into the streets. Bryson cites one man’s diary record of such an incident spurred by his neighbor’s neglected cesspit:

Going down into my cellar… I put my foot into a great heap of turds … by which I found that Mr. Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me.

And just when one feels things couldn’t get any more nauseating, Bryson introduces the people who cleaned the cesspits, semi-euphemistically known as “nightsoil men.” Their duties put in perspective any present-day complaints about the struggle to find fulfilling work:

They worked in teams of three or four. One man — the most junior, we may assume — was lowered into the pit itself to scoop waste into buckets. A second stood by the pit to raise and lower the buckets, and the third and fourth carried the buckets to a waiting cart. Nightsoil work was dangerous as well as disagreeable. Workers ran the risk of asphyxiation and even of explosions, since they worked by the light of a lantern in powerfully gaseous environments.

Given this was unfolding during the heyday of Adam Smith, it is perhaps unsurprising that nightsoil workers made up for the extreme disagreeableness of the job and the skewed supply-demand ratio by charging formidable fees. This presented another problem: Poorer districts, often in the overcrowded inner city, couldn’t afford their services, which caused their cesspits to overflow regularly. Given the extreme population density — in London’s most compressed districts, 54,000 people were packed into a few blocks and one one report claimed that 11,000 lived in 27 houses on a single alley — this was a problem.

A new word crept into the vernacular to describe such neighborhoods: slums. Though its exact origin remains unknown, Charles Dickens was among the first to use it, in a letter penned in 1851.

A solution to the cesspit crisis was desperately needed. But when a successful one finally arrived, it wasn’t the result of a eureka! moment for groundbreaking technology — it was a concept that had been around since the end of the 16th century but, as is the case with many scientific and technological breakthroughs ahead of their time, had stopped short of perfecting the prototype enough to gain commercial traction.

That solution was the flush toilet, which John Harington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, had built for the Queen in 1597. Delight by his invention, she promptly installed it in Richmond Palace, but it never expanded beyond the royal dwellings. Bryson writes:

Almost 200 years passed before Joseph Bramah, a cabinet maker and locksmith, patented the first modern flush toilet in 1778. It caught on in a modest way. Many others followed… But early toilets often didn’t work well. Sometimes they backfired, filling the room with even more of what the horrified owner had very much hoped to be rid of. Until the development of the U-bend and water trap — which create that little reservoir of water that returns to the bottom of the bowl after each flush — every toilet bowl acted as a conduit to the smells of cesspit and sewer. The backwaft of odors, particularly in hot weather, could be unbearable.

The final link in this chain of problem-solving came from an inventor with perhaps the most brilliantly appropriate name in history: Thomas Crapper. Bryson ties the loose ends of the story:

[Crapper] was born into a poor family in Yorkshire and reputedly walked to London at the age of 11. There he became an apprentice plumber in Chelsea. Crapper invented the classic and still familiar toilet with an elevated cistern activated by the pull of a chain. Called the Marlboro Silent Water Waste Preventer, it was clean, leak-proof, odor-free and wonderfully reliable, and their manufacture made Crapper very rich and so famous that it is often assumed that he gave his name to the slang term crap and its many derivatives. In fact, crap in the lavatorial sense is very ancient, and crapper for a toilet is an Americanism not recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary before 1922. Crapper’s name, it seems, was just a happy accident.

In the rest of At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bryson goes on to explore with equal parts wit and scientific rigor the everyday miracles in each room of the house and the colorful backstories behind those modern comforts we’ve come to take for granted, from pipes to pillows.

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22 MAY, 2014

Alan Lightman on Our Yearning for Immortality and Why We Long for Permanence in a Universe of Constant Change

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A heartening perspective on mortality by way of the physics of the cosmos and the poetics of the night-blooming cereus cactus.

“We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms,” Alan Watts wrote in contemplating how our ego keeps us separate from the universe. “It is almost banal to say so,” Henry Miller observed, “yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.” But banal as it may be, it is also intolerably discomfiting to accept, which is why we retreat into our hallucination — we resist change, we long for immortality, and we cling to the notion of the self, despite its ever-changing essence, as anxious assurance of our own permanence in an impermanent universe.

Alan Lightman, a cosmic poet of the ages — something at least partially attested to by his position as MIT’s first professor to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities — explores this despairing paradox in “The Temporary Universe,” the third essay in his altogether mind-expanding collection The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library | IndieBound), which also gave us Lightman on science and spirituality and how dark energy sheds light on why we exist.

Alan Lightman (Photograph courtesy of MIT)

Lightman begins with the bittersweet beauty of a deeply human rite of passage: As he walked his eldest daughter down the aisle, “radiant in her white dress, a white dahlia in her hair,” she asked to hold his hand and something else, something heavy yet inescapable, gripped Lightman’s heart. He writes:

It was a perfect picture of utter joy, and utter tragedy. Because I wanted my daughter back as she was at age ten, or twenty. As we moved together toward that lovely arch that would swallow us all, other scenes flashed through my mind: my daughter in first grade holding a starfish as big as herself, her smile missing a tooth; my daughter on the back of my bicycle as we rode to a river to drop stones in the water; my daughter telling me the day after she had her first period. Now she was thirty. I could see lines in her face.

Aware of both the absurdity and the humanity of his feelings in that moment, Lightman considers the root of that wistfully familiar existential unease:

I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?

Nature, he argues, is unambiguous in her message — from the mayflies that “drop by the billions within twenty-four hours of birth” to the glaciers that “slowly but surely grind down the land” to our own flesh, just as slowly and surely sagging into agedness, order, with all its comforting familiarity, steadily descends into chaos. It is, after all, one of the laws of the universe:

Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself toward a condition of maximum disorder. It is a question of probabilities. You start from a situation of improbable order, like a deck of cards all arranged according to number and suit, or like a solar system with several planets orbiting nicely about a central star. Then you drop the deck of cards on the floor over and over again… Order has yielded to disorder. Repeated patterns to change. In the end, you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.

The Cat's Eye Nebula, one of the first planetary nebulae discovered, from 'Hubble: Imaging Space and Time.' Click image for more.

Lightman offers an example elemental to our embodied existence — our skeletal muscles:

With age, muscles slacken and grow loose, lose mass and strength, can barely support our weight as we toddle across the room. And why must we suffer such indignities? Because our muscles, like all living tissue, must be repaired from time to time due to normal wear and tear. These repairs are made by the mechano growth factor hormone, which in turn is regulated by the IGF1 gene. When that gene inevitably loses some tines … Muscle to flab. Vigor to decrepitude. Dust to dust.

And yet something about the human experience — the human condition, with its implied pathology of consciousness — causes us to tense against this natural progression with anguishing anxiety rather than resting into it with calm acceptance:

We continue to strive for youth and immortality, we continue to cling to the old photographs, we continue to wish that our grown daughters were children again.

This resistance to change, which takes on the proportions of agonizing aversion, isn’t reserved just for our physical bodies — we loathe the redesign of our favorite sites, the reorganization of our companies, the disposal of our childhood toys. This is also, perhaps, why a gobsmacking percentage of people refuse to believe Earth is more than 6,000 years old — something about the notion of all that has been and no longer is feels unbearable in its implicit testament to our own impending non-existence. And yet change is in the fundamental building block of Earth’s DNA. Lightman traces this back to the stars:

Over its 4.5-billion-year history, our own planet has gone through continuous upheavals and change. The primitive Earth had no oxygen in its atmosphere. Due to its molten interior, our planet was much hotter than it is now, and volcanoes spewed forth in large numbers. Driven by heat flow from the core of the Earth, the terrestrial crust shifted and moved. Huge landmasses splintered and glided about on deep tectonic plates. Then plants and photosynthesis leaked oxygen into the atmosphere. At certain periods, the changing gases in the air caused the planet to cool, ice covered the Earth, entire oceans may have frozen. Today, the Earth continues to change. Something like ten billion tons of carbon are cycled through plants and the atmosphere every few years — first absorbed by plants from the air in the form of carbon dioxide, then converted into sugars by photosynthesis, then released again into soil or air when the plant dies or is eaten. Wait around a hundred million years or so, and carbon atoms are recycled through rocks, soil, and oceans as well as plants.

[…]

At some point in the future, new stars will cease being born. Slowly but surely, the stars of our universe are winking out. A day will come when the night sky will be totally black, and the day sky will be totally black as well. Solar systems will become planets orbiting dead stars. According to astrophysical calculations, in about a million billion years, plus or minus, even those dead solar systems will be disrupted from chance gravitational encounters with other stars. In about ten billion billion years, even galaxies will be disrupted, the cold spheres that were once stars flung out to coast solo through empty space.

In his characteristically elegant trapeze act of swinging between science and the humanities, Lightman turns to the Buddhist notion of anicca to make sense of our paradoxical predicament in the face of such cosmic evidence:

In Buddhism, anicca is one of the three signs of existence, the others being dukkha, or suffering, and anatta, or non-selfhood. According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, when the Buddha passed away, the king deity Sakka uttered the following: “Impermanent are all component things. They arise and cease, that is their nature: They come into being and pass away.” We should not “attach” to things in this world, say the Buddhists, because all things are temporary and will soon pass away. All suffering, say the Buddhists, arises from attachment.

Wryly adding that if he could “detach” from his daughter, he might feel better, Lightman considers the uncomfortably palpitating heart of the matter — the choice each of us has to make in contemplating change and eternity:

To my mind, it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us. I certainly have such a longing. Either I am delusional, or nature is incomplete. Either I am being emotional and vain in my wish for eternal life for myself and my daughter (and my wingtips), or there is some realm of immortality that exists outside nature.

The first option only offers one possible course of action — come to terms with it, and move on. It’s an unfair proposition, no doubt, but not a particularly difficult one — for, as Lightman puts it, “the human mind has a famous ability to create its own reality.” The second — the idea of nature’s incompleteness, perhaps even negligence — is the hotbed of many religious explanations. Lightman, who explored the tension between science and spirituality with unparalleled grace in another essay, writes:

Despite all the richness of the physical world — the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies — nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. Such exquisite stuff could not be made from matter, because all matter is slave to the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space. Perhaps it is God. Perhaps it is what made the universe.

Of these two alternatives, I am inclined to the first. I cannot believe that nature could be so amiss. Although there is much that we do not understand about nature, the possibility that it is hiding a condition or substance so magnificent and utterly unlike everything else seems too preposterous for me to believe. So I am delusional. In my continual cravings for eternal youth and constancy, I am being sentimental. Perhaps with the proper training of my unruly mind and emotions, I could refrain from wanting things that cannot be. Perhaps I could accept the fact that in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished, my “I-ness” dissolved in an infinite cavern of nothingness. But I cannot accept that fate even though I believe it to be true. I cannot force my mind to go to that dark place. “A man can do what he wants,” said Schopenhauer, “but not want what he wants.

'The Night-Blowing Cereus' by Robert John Thornton, 1799

To alleviate the weight of this insurmountable impossibility, Lightman proposes that we should reframe the question rather than lament the answer:

If against our wishes and hopes, we are stuck with mortality, does mortality grant a beauty and grandeur all its own? Even though we struggle and howl against the brief flash of our lives, might we find something majestic in that brevity? Could there be a preciousness and value to existence stemming from the very fact of its temporary duration? And I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer its flower opens to reveal silky white petals, which encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shriveled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.

The Accidental Universe is absolutely spectacular in its entirety, each essay its own poetic whirlwind of physics and philosophy. Complement it with another Alan — Watts — on our illusory reality.

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