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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


“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 by 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


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


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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04 NOVEMBER, 2014

E.O. Wilson on How We Give Meaning to Life


“The most successful scientist thinks like a poet … and works like a bookkeeper.”

Just as the fracturing of our inner wholeness ruptures the soul, a similar fissure rips society asunder and has been for centuries — that between science and the humanities. The former explores how we became human and the latter what it means to be human — a difference at once subtle and monumental, polarizing enough to hinder the answering of both questions. That’s what legendary naturalist, sociobiologist, and Pulitzer-winning writer E.O. Wilson explores with great eloquence and intellectual elegance in The Meaning of Human Existence (public library | IndieBound).

Three decades after Carl Sagan asserted that “if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed,” Wilson — a longtime proponent of bridging the artificial divide between science and the humanities — counters that “we’ve learned enough about the Universe and ourselves to ask these questions in an answerable, testable form.”

And that elusive answer, he argues, has to do with precisely that notion of meaning:

In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention, intention implies design, and design implies a designer. Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer. This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories. Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose. Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth. Both humanity and individuals have meaning.

There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used and a very different worldview implied. It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning. There is no advance design, but instead overlapping networks of physical cause and effect. The unfolding of history is obedient only to the general laws of the Universe. Each event is random yet alters the probability of later events. During organic evolution, for example, the origin of one adaptation by natural selection makes the origin of certain other adaptations more likely. This concept of meaning, insofar as it illuminates humanity and the rest of life, is the worldview of science.

Whether in the cosmos or in the human condition, the second, more inclusive meaning exists in the evolution of present-day reality amid countless other possible realities.

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilmore. Click image for more.

The idea that we are a cosmic accident is far from new and, to the unexamined existential reflex, far from comforting. And yet, Wilson suggests, there is something enormously gladdening about the notion that out of all possible scenarios, out of the myriad other combinations that would have resulted in not-us, we emerged and made life meaningful. He illustrates this sense of “meaning” with the particular evolutionary miracle of the human brain, the expansion of which was among the most rapid bursts of complex tissue evolution in the known history of the universe:

A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly. That is the meaning of the web. The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web. Every decision made by a human being has meaning in the first, intentional sense. But the capacity to decide, and how and why the capacity came into being, and the consequences that followed, are the broader, science-based meaning of human existence.

Premier among the consequences is the capacity to imagine possible futures, and to plan and choose among them. How wisely we use this uniquely human ability depends on the accuracy of our self-understanding. The question of greatest relevant interest is how and why we are the way we are and, from that, the meaning of our many competing visions of the future.

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

Perched on the precipice of an era when the very question of what it means to be human is continually challenged, we stand to gain that much more from the fruitful cross-pollination of science and the humanities in planting the seeds for the best such possible futures. Like an Emerson of our technoscientific era, Wilson champions the ennobling self-reliance embedded in this proposition:

Humanity … arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution. We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.

That self-understanding, he cautions, necessarily requires both science and the humanities:

This task of understanding humanity is too important and too daunting to leave exclusively to the humanities. Their many branches, from philosophy to law to history and the creative arts, have described the particularities of human nature back and forth in endless permutations, albeit laced with genius and in exquisite detail. But they have not explained why we possess our special nature and not some other, out of a vast number of conceivable natures. In that sense, the humanities have not achieved nor will they ever achieve a full understanding of the meaning of our species’ existence.

The key to the great mystery of just what we are, Wilson argues, lies in “the circumstance and process that created our species,” which span millions of years of evolutionary history, long transcending the timeline of human civilization and “culture” — the substance of the humanities. Indeed, the very forces of natural selection that shaped our evolution are now gradually being replaced by a kind of “volitional selection” — directly, as we set out to redesign our biology and mold human nature to our wishes, and indirectly, by the biosociologically homogenizing effects of such forces as the global flux of emigration (I imported my own Eastern European genes into the American population pool) and the rise in interracial marriages (my best friend’s daughters are the glorious fusion of her own Korean heritage and her husband’s Irish-French-Lebanese genetic ancestry). Wilson writes:

The human condition is a product of history — not just the six millennia of civilization but very much further back, across hundreds of millennia. The whole of it, biological and cultural evolution, must be explored in seamless unity for a complete answer to the mystery.


The time has come to consider what science might give to the humanities and the humanities to science in a common search for a more solidly grounded answer than before to the great riddle of our existence.

Illustration from 'You Are Stardust' by writer Elin Kelsey and artist Soyeon Kim. Click image for more.

One of Wilson’s most intriguing forays into the riddle has to do with the notion of good and evil in human nature, the perennial question at the heart of Tolstoy and Gandhi’s little-known correspondence and Richard Feynman’s contemplation. Wilson writes:

Are human beings intrinsically good but corruptible by the forces of evil, or the reverse, innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good?


We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites — not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.

He illustrates our dual natures with a wonderfully vulnerable and self-aware personal anecdote:

When Carl Sagan won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1978, I dismissed it as a minor achievement for a scientist, scarcely worth listing. When I won the same prize the following year, it wondrously became a major literary award of which scientists should take special note.

Much of that duality, Wilson argues, is rooted in the eternal conflict between the two facets of the evolutionary force that shaped us — the individual and group levels of natural selection. He examines our “overpowering instinctual urge to belong to groups” and how it relates to our profound unease with solitude:

To be kept forcibly in solitude is to be kept in pain, and put on the road to madness. A person’s membership in his group — his tribe — is a large part of his identity. It also confers upon him to some degree or other a sense of superiority. When psychologists selected teams at random from a population of volunteers to compete in simple games, members of each team soon came to think of members of other teams as less able and trustworthy, even when the participants knew they had been selected at random.

The dark underbelly of this tendency is at the root of most bigotry — our tendency to judge and reject those who don’t fit the parameters of some tribe we feel we belong to. (Wilson, who grew up in the deeply racist Deep South in the 1930s and began his professional career during the sexist 1950s, brings to these scientific insights his profoundly human experience of having witnessed such group-selection-driven injustices in action.) Understanding the various levels on which natural selection operates, Wilson argues, is the key to understanding ourselves as a species and as individual moral agents:

Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue. So it came to pass that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of multilevel selection. They are suspended in unstable and constantly changing positions between the two extreme forces that created us. We are unlikely to yield completely to either force as the ideal solution to our social and political turmoil. To give in completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would be to dissolve society. At the opposite extreme, to surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots — the outsized equivalents of ants.

More than a century after Nietzsche’s case for the creative value of turmoil and decades after Anaïs Nin’s memorable assertion that “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions,” Wilson argues that “a large part of human creativity is generated by the inevitable and necessary conflict between the individual and group levels of natural selection” and returns to the chance-nature of our nature:

The eternal conflict is not God’s test of humanity. It is not a machination of Satan. It is just the way things worked out. The conflict might be the only way in the entire Universe that human-level intelligence and social organization can evolve. We will find a way eventually to live with our inborn turmoil, and perhaps find pleasure in viewing it as the primary source of our creativity.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth, 1780, from 'The Book of Trees' by Manuel Lima. Click image for more.

That pleasure, Wilson suggests, is to be found in reconciling science and the humanities — two branches of knowledge that, despite their differences, “have risen from the same wellspring of creative thought.” Reflecting on the Enlightenment’s legacy, he considers the vitalizing value of reviving the quest for unification of science and the humanities and argues that it must begin with how we design education:

Studying the relation between science and the humanities should be at the heart of liberal education everywhere, for students of science and the humanities alike.

And yet the great enemy of that unification, specialization — something the quintessential polymath-generalist Buckminster Fuller vehemently opposed — is still king in how the education system structures its priorities. Wilson, a longtime Harvard professor, points to the revered university’s policy of seeking out faculty with “preeminence or the promise of preeminence in a specialty” and wryly laments the illusion that “the assembly of a sufficient number of such world-class specialists would somehow coalesce into an intellectual superorganism attractive to both students and financial backers.” With this, Wilson arrives at the crux of the matter:

The early stages of a creative thought, the ones that count, do not arise from jigsaw puzzles of specialization. The most successful scientist thinks like a poet — wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical — and works like a bookkeeper. It is the latter role that the world sees. When writing a report for a technical journal or speaking at a conference of fellow specialists, the scientist avoids metaphor. He is careful never to be accused of rhetoric or poetry… The language of the author must at all times be restrained and obedient to logic based on demonstrable fact.

The exact opposite is the case in poetry and the other creative arts. There metaphor is everything. The creative writer, composer, or visual artist conveys, often obliquely by abstraction or deliberate distortion, his own perceptions and the feelings he hopes to evoke — about something, about anything, real or imagined. He seeks to bring forth in an original way some truth or other about the human experience. He tries to pass what he creates directly along the channel of human experience, from his mind to your mind. His work is judged by the power and beauty of its metaphors. He obeys a dictum ascribed to Picasso: art is the lie that shows us the truth.

For all his timeless wisdom and unassailable genius, Wilson’s only point of datedness shows in his use of pronouns, an inherited linguistic tick burdened by a previous era’s bigotry — must the scientist or the poet always be a “he”? Somewhere, Leonard Shlain is smiling wistfully. But Wilson’s essential quest remains a noble one — to bridge our two most potent sensemaking mechanisms, science and the humanities, and fuse them into a more intelligent and inspired understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, and our best possible future.

In the remainder of The Meaning of Human Existence, he goes on to explore such facets of the quest as the power of instinct, the role of religion, the drivers of social evolution, and why microbes rule the world. Complement it with Dorion Sagan on why science and philosophy need each other and Manuel Lima’s visual history of mapping science and the humanities.

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