Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

22 JULY, 2014

The Science of Dust, Picasso’s Favorite Phenomenon

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“With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future…”

It takes more than three centuries for a one-foot layer of dust to accumulate. The entirety of the Roman Empire is buried nine feet underground — that is, under nine feet of tightly compacted dust. This household nuisance is indeed one of nature’s most humbling phenomena and Earth’s most steadfast preserver. Picasso was fascinated by it. In a passage from Hungarian photographer Brassaï’s 1964 gem Conversations with Picasso (public library) — which also gave us the iconic artist on success and not compromising and intuition and where ideas come from — Picasso marvels the news of an excavation in which archeologists preserved a cross-section more than ten feet high, containing multiple layers built over the millennia. When Brassaï notes how moving it is that “in a glance, you can take in thousands of years of history,” Picasso responds enthusiastically:

And you know what’s responsible? It’s dust! The earth doesn’t have a housekeeper to do the dusting. And the dust that falls on it every day remains there. Everything that’s come down to us from the past has been conserved by dust. Right here, look at these piles, in a few weeks a thick layer of dust has formed. On rue La Boétie, in some of my rooms … my things were already beginning to disappear, buried in dust. You know what? I always forbade everyone to clean my studios, dust them, not only for fear they would disturb my things, but especially because I always counted on the protection of dust. It’s my ally. I always let it settle where it likes. It’s like a layer of protection. When there’s dust missing here or there, it’s because someone has touched my things. I see immediately someone has been there. And it’s because I live constantly with dust, in dust, that I prefer to wear gray suits, the only color on which it leaves no trace.

Portrait of Picasso, in one of his gray dust-proof suits, by Brassaï

So what is dust, really? And what makes it so special? Count on Joe Hanson to put some science behind the legendary artist’s muse:

We’re constantly moving dust from one place to another, only to have it replaced by more dust — entropy always wins.

[...]

A piece of space-dust falls on your head once every day… With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future, the smells and stories of the world around us, even the seeds of life.

Lest we forget, as Carl Sagan memorably put it, we are but “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

For more of Hanson’s illuminating science videos, see the science of why we kiss, why there was no first human, the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate, the universe in a glass of wine, and why sci-fi writers are so good at predicting the future.

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18 JULY, 2014

July 18, 1992: The First Photo Uploaded to the Web, of CERN’s All-Girl Science Rock Band

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Love and science set to song, from quarks to colliders.

In 1990, shortly before a CERN physicist subverted gender and science stereotypes by adapting Alice in Wonderland as an allegory in quantum mechanics, a different type of delightful subversion was afoot at the famed European Organization for Nuclear Research, now home to the Large Hadron Collider: Michele Muller, a former British model and actor working as a 3D graphic designer for a virtual reality project at CERN, was dating CERN computer scientist Silvano de Gennaro and found herself frustrated with her boyfriend’s seemingly unending shifts. Rather than fight over it, the two decided to have some fun with the relationship sticking point — Michele set her frustrations to song, asking Silvano to write some music that she would perform at the CERN Hardronic Festival. The song “Collider” was born — a humorous homage to the lonely nights and perpetual perils of a scientist’s lover that went a little something like, “I gave you a golden ring to show you my love / You went to stick it in a printed circuit / To fix a voltage leak in your collector / You plug my feelings into your detector.” The song was a hit, which led Muller to recruit a couple of her girlfriends and form Les Horribles Cernettes — a parody doo-wop band that dubbed itself “the one and only High Energy Rock Band” and sang love songs about colliders, quarks, liquid nitrogen, microwaves, and antimatter in ’60s-inspired outfits.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founding father of the World Wide Web, was working at CERN at the time and had taken a liking to Les Horribles Cernettes’ irreverent odes to science. According to De Genarro, Berners-Lee asked him for a few scanned photos of the band to put on “some sort of information system he had just invented, called the ‘World Wide Web.’”

On July 18, 1992, this photograph of the band — comprised, at that point, of Michele Muller, Colette Marx-Nielsen, Angela Higney, and Lynn Veronneau — became the very first image uploaded to the web.

Oh, and they were actually very, very good. After a dogged dig through various corners of CERN’s web archives, which seem charmingly unchanged since the ’90s, I excavated a few of Les Horribles Cernettes’ songs — please enjoy:

COLLIDER

You say you love me but you never beep me
You always promise but you never date me
I try to fax but it’s busy, always
I try the network but you crash the gateways
You never spend your nights with me
You don’t go out with other girls either
You only love your collider

I fill your screen with hearts and roses
I fill your mail file with lovely phrases
They all come back: “invalid user”
You never let me into your computer
You never spend your nights with me
You don’t go out with other girls either
You prefer your collider

I gave you a golden ring to show you my love
You went to stick it in a printed circuit
To fix a voltage leak in your collector
You plug my feelings into your detector
You never spend your nights with me
You don’t go out with other girls either
You prefer your collider
You only love your collider
Your collider

STRONG INTERACTION

You quark me up
You quark me down
You quark me top
You quark me bottom

You quark me up (yeah yeah, I feel your charm)
You quark me down (tau tau, I feel so strange)
You quark me top (go go on hypercharge)
You quark me bottom (shoot shoot on isospin)

You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
I feel your attraction
It’s a strong interaction

DADDY’S LAB

My daddy has a lab in the Confederation
He told me “come around for your summer vacation”
Now I know lots of guys go there to study matter
I’m gonna find that sweet one
And teach him more
Much more than daddy knows

I’m gonna have some fun (in daddy’s lab)
pushing all the buttons (in daddy’s lab)
I’m gonna be a star (in daddy’s lab)
breaking all the hearts (in daddy’s lab)
I’m gonna go to play at hunting zed-zeros
mess around with the quarks
scatter protons all over
and hide with you behind the racks

Don’t wanna visit Rome, don’t wanna die in Venice
Don’t care for Wimbledon, and all the stars of tennis
I only like those guys who live to study matter
I’m gonna find my sweet one
And teach him more
Much more than daddy knows

I’m gonna have some fun…

LIQUID NITROGEN

You poured liquid nitrogen down my spine
as you told me you didn’t love me anymore
and run off with the girl next door
You poured liquid nitrogen in my heart
and you told me it wouldn’t hurt, what a liar
You promised you’d always be true

You said you’d be mine 12 months a year, 24 hours a day
You said I’d be yours each week my dear, until the end of time
But then you found her and you left me here
To cry and to run of tears
And now here I wait 12 months a year
But I’m hoping one day you’ll come back and stay

You poured…

You said you’d be mine forever and ever, 5040 minutes a week
Except Christmas Day ’cause you go see your mother
(That’s) 2800 less divided by 2
You said I’d be yours 30,240,000 seconds a year
Including leap years, which means 86,400 extra every four

You poured…

You said you’d be mine 3600 seconds an hour every day
Which in milliseconds that’s 43,200 times 10 to the 3rd
You said I’d be yours 24 hours a day,
integrating until the end of time.
Now in nanoseconds that’s just the square root
of 2670 billion times 10 to 90 divided by two

ANTIWORLD

He was sitting there, floating in the air
Alone on a cloud, sparkling all around
He went “pop” when he saw me
With those magnetic eyes
My heart stopped when I saw him
I just couldn’t breathe any more

He stood up and he walked on the air
And sparkling away headed up to me
With a smile on his face he said “come on hon”
Then we jumped in hyperspace
And inversed my polarity

Said I’m an anti-man
Live in an anti-world
I’ve got an anti-dog
Would you be, would you be my anti-girl

He took me back to his anti-car
And drove me home, I mean anti-home
Then he kissed me so sweetly all night long
And he took me completely
To a different world

Then he kissed me so sweetly all night long
And he took me completely
To a different world

He was an anti-man
Lived in an anti-world
He had an anti-dog
Would I be, would I be his anti-girl

I said yes, yes, yes, oh really yes!
Yeah yeah yeah, I mean anti-yes!
Now I walk ever so smoothly
Floating in the air
And I look ever so sparkly
Sitting alone on my cloud

Because I’m an anti-girl
Live in an anti-world
I’ve got an anti-cat
And I love, and I love my anti-man

Oh yes I’m an anti-girl
Live in an anti-world
I’ve got an anti-cat
And I love, and I love my anti-man

’Cause I’m an anti-girl
Live in an anti-world
I love my anti-man
yes I’m an anti-girl
I love my anti-man

And if there were any doubt as to whether this love story was a winner from the get-go, it’s worth noting that Michele Muller is now Michele de Genarro.

Thanks, Paola

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17 JULY, 2014

The Book of Trees: 800 Years of Visualizing Science, Religion, and Knowledge in Symbolic Diagrams

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How the humble tree became our most powerful visual metaphor for organizing information and distilling our understanding of the world.

Why is it that when we behold the oldest living trees in the world, primeval awe runs down our spine? We are entwined with trees in an elemental embrace, both biological and symbolic, depending on them for the very air we breathe as well as for our deepest metaphors, millennia in the making. They permeate our mythology and our understanding of evolution. They enchant our greatest poets and rivet our greatest scientists. Even our language reflects that relationship — it’s an idea that has taken “root” in nearly every “branch” of knowledge.

How and why this came to be is what designer and information visualization scholar Manuel Lima explores in The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge (public library) — a magnificent 800-year history of the tree diagram, from Descartes to data visualization, medieval manuscripts to modern information design, and the follow-up to Lima’s excellent Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth from Encyclopédie (1780)

A remarkable tree featured as a foldout frontispiece in a later 1780 edition of the French Encyclopédie by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, first published in 1751. The book was a bastion of the French Enlightenment and one of the largest encyclopedias produced at that time. This tree depicts the genealogical structure of knowledge, with its three prominent branches following the classification set forth by Francis Bacon in 'The Advancement of Learning' in 1605: memory and history (left), reason and philosophy (center), and imagination and poetry (right). The tree bears fruit in the form of roundels of varying sizes, representing the domains of science known to man and featured in the encyclopedia.

'Notabilia' by Mortiz Stefaner, Dario Taraborelli, and Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia (2011)

A visualization of the 100 longest online discussions on Wikipedia articles up for deletion, part of the collaborative editing process that defines the encyclopedia of our time. These discussions last for at least seven days, until consensus is reached on which of a series of proposed actions (such as keep, merge, rename, or delete) should be performed on a page. Starting from a common root, this visualization maps each of the 100 articles as an individual branch, with color segments and shape determined by the sequence of 'keep' (green) and 'delete' (purple) votes. The final arch of each branch indicates the voting results, bending toward either left (keep) or to the right (delete).

'Tree of virtues' by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250

Palm tree illustration from the 'Liber floridus (Book of flowers),' one of the oldest, most beautiful, and best-known encyclopedias of the Middle Ages. Compiled between the years 1090 and 1120 by Lambert, a canon of the Church of Our Lady in Saint-Omer, the work gathers extracts from 192 different texts and manuscripts to portray a universal history or chronological record of the most significant events up to the year 1119. This mystical palm tree, also known as the 'palm of the church,' depicts a set of virtues (fronds) sprouting from a central bulb. The palm tree was a popular early Christian motif, rich in moral and symbolic associations, often used to represent the heavens or paradise.

'Plan of Organization of New York and Erie Railroad' by Daniel Craig McCallum (1855)

Diagram viewed by economists as one of the first organizational charts. The plan represents the division of administrative duties and the number and class of employees engaged in each department of the New York and Erie Railroad. Developed by the railroad's manager, the engineer Daniel Craig McCallum, and his associates, the scheme features a total of 4,715 employees distributed among its five main branches (operating divisions) and remaining boughs (passenger and freight departments). At the roots of the imposing tree, in a circular layout, are the president and the board of directors.

Lima writes in the introduction:

In a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities, surrounded on a daily basis by asphalt, cement, iron, and glass, it’s hard to conceive of a time when trees were of immense and tangible significance to our existence. But for thousands and thousands of years, trees have provided us with not only shelter, protection, and food, but also seemingly limitless resources for medicine, fire, energy, weaponry, tool building, and construction. It’s only normal that human beings, observing their intricate branching schemas and the seasonal withering and revival of their foliage, would see trees as powerful images of growth, decay, and resurrection. In fact, trees have had such an immense significance to humans that there’s hardly any culture that hasn’t invested them with lofty symbolism and, in many cases, with celestial and religious power. The veneration of trees, known as dendrolatry, is tied to ideas of fertility, immortality, and rebirth and often is expressed by the axis mundi (world axis), world tree, or arbor vitae (tree of life). These motifs, common in mythology and folklore from around the globe, have held cultural and religious significance for social groups throughout history — and indeed still do.

[...]

The omnipresence of these symbols reveals an inherently human connection and fascination with trees that traverse time and space and go well beyond religious devotion. This fascination has seized philosophers, scientists, and artists, who were drawn equally by the tree’s inscrutabilities and its raw, forthright, and resilient beauty. Trees have a remarkably evocative and expressive quality that makes them conducive to all types of depiction. They are easily drawn by children and beginning painters, but they also have been the main subjects of renowned artists throughout the ages.

'The Tree of Life' by Gustav Klimt (1901), one of the most reproduced oil paintings in human history

Among the legions of artists captivated by trees was the great Leonardo da Vinci. Shortly before his death, in one of his voluminous notebooks, Da Vinci worked out a mathematical formula for the relationship between the size of a tree’s trunk and that of its branches — he found that as a tree grows, the total cross-sectional area of all new branches is roughly equal to the area of the mother trunk or branch, no matter the height of the tree. Centuries later, scientific tests using computer-generated models of trees have not only found Leonardo’s formula to hold up across nearly every tree species, but also to explain trees’ remarkable resilience to wind and other external forces.

'Tree Branching' by Leonardo da Vinci (ca. 1515)

Study of a tree branching. Leonardo's rule is fairly simple, stating that 'Every year when the boughs of a tree have made an end of maturing their growth, they will have made, when put together, a thickness equal to that of the main stem.'

Indeed, Leonardo’s formula touched on the very thing that makes the tree such a powerful metaphor for organizing knowledge — its natural function not merely as a static object, but also as a system of relational dynamics. Lima writes:

Our primordial, symbolic relationship with the tree can elucidate why its branched schema has provided not only an important iconographic motif for art and religion, but also an important metaphor for knowledge-classification systems. Throughout human history the tree structure has been used to explain almost every facet of life: from consanguinity ties to cardinal virtues, systems of laws to domains of science, biological association to database systems. It has been such a successful model for graphically displaying relationships because it pragmatically expresses the materialization of multiplicity (represented by its succession of boughs, branches, twigs, and leaves) out of unity (its central foundational trunk, which is in turn connected to a common root, source, or origin.)

Anonymous, 'Yggdrasil tree' (ca. 1680)

A depiction of the world tree or cosmic ash tree, from an Icelandic manuscript containing several illustrations from Norse mythology. Yggdrasil is drawn surrounded by various animals, which live in and on it. Of particular relevance is Ratatoskr, a green squirrel on the bottom left, who, according to Norse mythology, runs up and down Yggdrasil to carry messages between the eagle, shown at the top, and the dragon, Niohöggr, who gnaws at the roots.

Kabbalistic tree of life from 'Oedipus AEgyptiaus' (1652)

Illustration by the Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher. Kabbalah is a Jewish mystical tradition; the term translates as 'received,' in reference to teachings passed through generations or directly from God. A pivotal element of the Kabbalah wisdom is the tree of life, an image composed of a diagram of ten circles, symbolizing ten pulses, or emanations, of divine energy.

'Vortices' by René Descartes, from Principia Philosophiae (1644)

A model of the universe that was widely accepted in the 17th century, based on the Cartesian system of vortices: large whirlpools of tenuous or ethereal matter that were thought to move the planets and their satellites by contact.

'Voronoi treemap' by Michael Balzer, (2005)

A pioneering alternative to conventional rectangular treemaps that relied on Voronoi tessellation to map hierarchies. In contrast to layout algorithms based on rectangular subdivisions, the Voronoi treemap layout algorithm was the first to generate flexible polygonal subdivisions, eliminating analogous shapes and aspect ratios, while also producing extremely alluring organic layouts.

I was delighted to see a longtime favorite among the selections — Stefanie Posavec’s brilliant Writing Without Words project, a hand-drawn visualization of the “literary organism” in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, depicting the sentences, words, and rhythm structures in the book.

'Writing Without Words' by Stefanie Posavec, (2008)

The Book of Trees is a treasure trove of visual literacy, symbolic history, and cultural insight. Complement it with this visual history of tree diagrams explaining evolution and these glorious drawings of trees from Indian mythology, then revisit Rachel Sussman’s gorgeous photographs of Earth’s oldest living trees.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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