You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Opinion’ category.
Another year is passing and, as in years past, we pause to recall some of the important people who passed away this year. Numerous World War II heroes died as the greatest generation fades into a glorious Technicolor sunset. We will not see their like again. All sorts of celebrities, criminals, titans, sports stars, and pioneers also passed on as the great parade of human life continues. Here are some of the scientists, space pioneers, artists, writers, and leaders who deserve a last shout out before 2014 begins with its possibilities, anxieties, and hopes.
Noted animator Frederick Back died on December 24, 2013. He was known for his profoundly moving short animations.
Dr. Janet Rowley demonstrated that chromosomal translocation was the underlying cause for leukemia (and other cancers). By establishing the genetic underpinnings of many cancers, she vastly furthered cancer research and treatment. ABC news reported “She is a recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.” She was still publishing papers and researching at the University of Chicago (where she graduated from high school, college, and Medical School and spent most of her professional life) ight up until her death on December 17, 2013.
Peter O’Toole one of the foremost thespians of our era died on December 14, 2013. The quality of his movies varied wildly, but the quality of his acting was always the very highest. I remember watching him on a late night chat show and being impressed by his vivacity and intelligence. He finished the segment aby reminding the audience that this isn’t a dress rehearsal (a sentiment which bears repeating).
Harry Rosenthal an AP reporter who “covered America’s golden age of space exploration” died on Dec. 12, 2013. I hope a new reporter appears on the scene to cover a newer and more glorious era of space exploration (but a lot needs to go right for that to happen).
Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, died on December 5, 2013. Too often, brutal civil wars have swept African nations which won independence. It did not happen in South Africa thanks to largely to Nelson Mandela who reached out to his former oppressors in order to build a unified society.
Fred F. Scherer a painter and sculptor responsible for crafting some of the amazing wildlife dioramas for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, died Nov. 25, 2013.
Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize laureate and author of harrowing science fiction dystopias (some of which were based on her childhood in colonial Africa) died on November 17, 2013.
Legendary rock-and-roll musician Lou Reed died on October 27, 2013.
Legendary Irish punk/rock/traditional musician Philip Chevron died on October 8, 2013.
Harold Melvin Agnew, an American physicist and nuclear pioneer died on September 29, 2013. He was best known for working on the first nuclear reactor (Chicago pile 1) taking part on the Hiroshima bombing mission as scientific observer, and (eventually) acting as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013. Ebert was a screen writer, an essayist, and above all a movie critic. I did not always agree with his reviews, but I usually liked reading them more than I enjoyed watching the films.
It is time to congratulate the Chinese space agency for landing a probe and rover on the moon. The landing was the first “soft landing” (where no equipment is damaged) on the lunar surface in 37 years—so I am also happy that humankind is back on its nearest neighbor. The Chang’e lunar lander touched down on the Bay of Rainbows on Saturday Morning, December 14th (at least in EST). The Jade Rabbit rover successfully drove out onto the arid dust of the flat “bay” a few hours later. Hopefully the Chinese mission will continue to go successfully and the Chinese Space Agency will continue to launch ambitious space missions. With a command economy and authoritarian government, the People’s Republic could pour money into aerospace science and quickly push space exploration forward–much in the way that the Soviet Union did back in the glory days of the space race. Such a challenge would be good for international science, and it would be good to remind our worthless legislators here in the United States to work together to properly fund science, research, and development.
Chang’e is named after the goddess of the moon in classical Chinese myth, but her story is sad and ambiguous. It is a tale open to several different interpretations (which I will write about, but not now). The moon rabbit, also known as the jade rabbit was originally a pet of the lonely moon goddess, however because his story is far less tragic than hers (and because he is a lovable trickster-rabbit), he has become a figure of immense popularity. According to myth he is an apothecary who grinds medicines, spells, and immortality elixirs on behalf of the gods (and for himself–because what trickster doesn’t skim a little?).
The jade rabbit shows up everywhere in Chinese myth and culture. He even pops in for cameos in some of the great works of Chinese literature (for example, he is the final antagonist in “Journey to the West” wherein the heroes discover him masquerading as the princess of India!). More importantly, in East Asia, it is believed that the stains of the moon are the image of the jade rabbit. Although I have never been able to see the “man on the moon”, the jade rabbit is always there on a bright full moon. I am glad the Chinese space agency named their space probe after this master apothecary and superb trickster!
The green crab (Carcinus maenas) is a tiny brownish green crab native to the European shore line along the north-east Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea. Although it measures only 90 millimetres (3.5 in) across, it is voracious omnivore which feeds on all sorts of small mollusks, tiny arthropods, and worms (not to mention whatever dead flesh it happens across). Green crabs are great and all, but this blog is not about crustaceans…Why is this little crab showing up here?
It turns out that the green crab is one of the most invasive species of our time. Like the fiendish zebra mussel, the green crab is capable of traveling by boat (either among barnacles or in ballast). As far back as the age of discovery they were hitching rides around the world on the hulls of wooden ships. The little crabs seem to have piggy backed into temperate climes along with the British Empire and they have set up ranges in Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and both coasts of North America. So far this has not been a big problem: for hundreds of years, cold waters and big hungry fish have kept the little crabs from proliferating. However as humankind moves forward with its dastardly plans to kill off every fish in the ocean (and as ocean temperatures rise) the crabs are beginning to flourish in places where they were once barely holding on by their claws.
Green crabs eat clams and juvenile oysters—so their success is causing hardship for mollusk fishers (while simultaneously removing filter feeders from the ocean). Along the Mid Atlantic coast of North America, the native blue crab has proven effective at out-competing (or just straight-up eating) the invasive green crabs. Similarly the rock crabs and Dungeness crabs of the Pacific northwest can hold their own against the invaders, but humans are overfishing these native crabs and allowing the invaders to proliferate (and seafood enthusiasts in America have not developed a taste for the tiny green crabs).
Will the warming of the oceans cause blue crabs to spread northward to defeat the invaders? Will humankind stop killing every fish in the ocean so that the green crabs are eaten by sea bass? Will we introduce a new species which preys on the green crabs (but brings its own problems)? Only time will tell, but already coastal Maine is being swept by a tide of little green claws (and delicious east coast oysters are becoming more expensive and more rare).
The astronomical symbol for the planet Venus, a circle with an attached dorsal cross, is the same symbol which is used in biology to represent the female gender. With the exception of Mother Earth (which understandably goes by many names), Venus is the only planet in this solar system named after a goddess. Even in other languages and cultures, Venus is often imagined as feminine: to the Persians she was Anahita; the Babylonians called her Ishtar or Inanna; and the Australian Aborigines called her Barnumbirr (we will say nothing about the Theosophists because everything is much better that way).
Considering the long association between Venus and goddesses, it is appropriate that international astronomic convention asserts that surface features of Venus should be named after women (or mythological women). Only a handful of features on the planet have male names (most notably the Maxwell Montes which are named after James Clerk Maxwell) and these masculine oddballs were grandfathered (grandmothered?) in before the female naming convention was adopted. Hopefully the future floating cities of Venus will also sport lovely female names as well…
Yesterday I cooked a savory chicken pie using an ancient recipe and it came out really well. Although it has carrots, cream, mushroom, potato, boiled chicken, caramelized onion, and peas, the dominant taste is a subtle flavor which is simultaneously sweet, medicinal, and delicately evocative of some eastern paradise. The secret ingredient is one of the strangest and most important commodities in human history—nutmeg, the ground nut from the fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans.
In the middle ages, nutmeg was a rare and precious ingredient. Only a small cadre of Muslim traders knew where the spice was actually from and, after laboriously carrying it across or around the Indian Ocean, they sold it to the Venetians for substantial sums (whereupon the Venetians sold it to everyone else for exorbitant sums). The European age of exploration was ostensibly launched in order to find the mysterious “Spice Islands” where nutmeg was from (a pursuit which had long ranging side effects, such as the European rediscovery of the Americas and the rush towards global colonial empires).
Even though the search for nutmeg kicked off an age of exploration, it was not until 1512 that the Spanish finally discovered where all the world’s nutmeg was coming from: the Banda Islands located East of Sulawesi in the middle of the Banda Sea. The Islands were thereafter contested by traders until the Dutch gained an upper hand in the 17th century. The Dutch used this monopoly to bolster their brief ascendancy to global superpower. During the height of Dutch power, nutmeg was taken to Holland and stored in a giant warehouse in order to keep the price artificially high.
As the English began to command mastery of the seas, they inevitably fought the Dutch for control of world trade. The Second Dutch-English war, a battle for global maritime supremacy, was fought in the Caribbean, the North Sea, at the mouth of the Thames (and, on all the oceans of the world, via privateering). The war was fought over the global trade in slaves, fur, tobacco, and, above all, spices. Although English privateers scored initial successes, the war became a disaster for the English when the Dutch raided their home port of Medway at the mouth of the Thames and burned their war fleet (an event which is still regarded as the worst disaster in the history of the English navy).
In the treaty of Breda, which ended the war, the English received the colony of New Amsterdam—thereafter named New York, whereas the Dutch claimed the greatest prize: exclusive control of the Banda Islands (and the sugar plantations of Suriname). Thereafter the Dutch crushed hints of sedition on the Banda Islands by means of brutal executions and they led war raids on nearby territories to extirpate any nutmeg trees which had been grown or transplanted elsewhere in Indonesia.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the English used their naval supremacy to take over the Banda Islands and break the Dutch monopoly. They exported trees to numerous tropical colonies (which is why Kerala and Granada are now famous for nutmeg production). Colonial America was hardly exempt from the nutmeg craze, but because of colonial antagonisms, nutmeg was not always available at affordable prices. The state of Connecticut became famous for unscrupulous tradesmen who would carve nutmeg seeds out of similarly colored wood and thereby earned its nickname “The Nutmeg State” (i.e. a haven for fraud) which seems appropriate given the number of wealthy financiers who live there.
So much for the history of nutmeg production and distribution—what about the demand? What was the reason for all of this desperate search and strife? Nutmeg was popular as a spice and tonic since ancient times when it was used by Greeks and Romans (if they could get it). During the era after the crusades it became de rigueur among aristocrats and its status only grew during the age of exploration. Wealthy gentlemen would carry nutmeg grinders on them, and hand grind nutmeg into alcoholic punches and hot drinks. Nutmeg was baked into the fanciest pastries, pies, and cakes. The red avril covering the nutmeg seed was ground into a separate spice named mace which is used in more delicate dishes. As well as being used in desserts and drinks, nutmeg was used in Indian curries, eastern medicine, and at the apothecary. The fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans held a druglike sway over the wealthy classes around the globe.
It turns out that nutmeg contains myristicin, a powerful psychoactive substance which acts as a Monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI). MAOIs prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters, a mysterious class of neurotransmitters which play an unknown but critical role in emotion, arousal, and cognition (indeed pharmaceutical MAOIs are one of the more useful classes of antidepressants). In tiny doses myristicin is harmless or tonic to humans (although even in small doses it is deadly to many animals including some of our best beloved domestic friends) yet upping the dosage quickly causes nausea, seizures, splitting headaches and powerful weird hallucinations. Every generation, the press rediscovers nutmeg as a drug and creates a moral panic, although all but the most reckless drug users are put off by nutmeg’s bitter taste in large doses—or by the ghastly descriptions of nutmeg’s physical effects.
Indeed, the modern world has found more potent flavors (and better psychoactive powders). Nutmeg has been relegated to grandma’s spice rack and it really only comes out during the holidays as a critical flavor in eggnog, pumpkin pie, mulled wine, and gingerbread. This is a shame because, in small quantities nutmeg is delicious in savory dishes (like my pot pie and my favorite lasagna). The flavor has a strange power—an intoxicating deliciousness which invades the brain and gives nutmeg dishes an irresistible quality. Believe me, because as I finish writing this, I am also finishing off that addictive pot pie (and I believe I am also starting to feel more chipper)…
Every once in a while, things go right for artists: Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) lived a long prosperous life and found international success as a still life painter in an era when there were few women in the arts. Her father, Frederik Ruysch, was a famous professor of anatomy and botany who was renowned for his highly informative yet artistic anatomy displays (somewhat in the manner of famous contemporary body displays by the anatomist Gunther von Hagens). Professor Ruysch built strange and delicate landscapes out of preserved human organs and dissected bodies—particularly those of infants. He was renowned for his skill with various preservative regents and his secret liquor balsamicum was one of the wonders of the day—as were the novel human specimens he preserved within this embalming fluid. Rachel was expected to help by creating lace for the pieces and then arranging the bodies, limbs, appendages, and organs in an artistic fashion along with seashells and flowers (you’ll have to look that stuff up on your own, because it is the stuff of nightmares).
Because she worked closely with her father, interacted with famous artists of Holland’s golden age, and drew and organized the objects in her family’s famous curiosity cabinet, Rachel was well positioned to launch her own art career. She usually painted in the “dark background” still life style of de Heem and Willem Kalf, however many of her works demonstrated her background in the natural sciences. For example in “Flowers on a Tree Trunk” she boldly moves her composition from the parlor to the forest. A highly artificial flower bouquet of cabbage-roses, lilies, and irises dominates the composition—however, since this flower arrangement is located on the ground floor of a forest, the meaning is extremely different from more conventional vase paintings. Surrounded by wild creatures the bouquet invites the viewer to contrast the artificial beauty of flower arranging (or indeed of cultivated flowers themselves) with the chaotic beauty of a wild ecosystem of snakes, lizards, snails and butterflies.
Happy Birthday NASA! The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began operations on October 1, 1958 barely two months after the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act (which congress approved on July 29, 1958). Since then the space agency has encountered myriad astonishing successes from landing humans on the moon, to leaving the solar system, to building the only working space planes, to exploring the planets and sun with robots (and doing so much else). In order to accomplish these astonishing missions, NASA has spearheaded countless breakthroughs in science. During its 55 year history, the space agency has caused revolutions in fundamental astronomy, physics, aerospace engineering, materials sciences, ecology (and many, many other fields). NASA is a resounding success—it is one of the greatest human institutions for exploring, learning, and innovation.
It is somewhat ironic that today is the space agency’s anniversary because the shutdown of the American government has is deeply hurting the agency. Of NASA’s 18,000 employees, 97% are on unpaid furlough. All projects other than active missions are temporarily suspended. This is serious business, because space projects, like cakes in the oven, do not deal with suspension very well. The more time spacecraft spend here on Earth being shuttled in and out of storage, the greater the likelihood of something going wrong. Also, the universe did not shut down because of funding trouble—so missions with orbital based schedules will potentially have to be held up for years.
For anyone reading this in the far future or from a cave deep beneath the Earth, this is all a by-product of a failure of America’s split legislative houses to pass a budget due to political feuding. Extreme right wing legislators who do not wish for Americans to be able to afford health care (and believe that if the government is defunded it will advance the wealthy business leaders whom they serve) are holding the national budget hostage in the hopes that they can disassemble the Affordable Care Medical Act. Congressional districts in America are laughably gerrymandered (i.e. designed to be perfectly safe for incumbents) so it will be some time before the majority of voters can remove these dangerous and incompetent politicians from office.
Even before the government shutdown, NASA has been having political and funding trouble. The anti-government right-wing caucus in the House of Representatives has been trying to bleed away more and more of its funding (many of the so-called tea party caucus are also religious fundamentalists, so science makes them nervous and unhappy anyway). All of this strikes me as appallingly short-sighted. The legislators who believe the market to be the supreme arbiter of human affairs are clearly being paid to espouse such a short-sighted objective. While, the market is quite good at selling everyone plastic rubbish, crooked equities, and hair loss pills, by itself the system is fundamentally incapable of the sort of research which moves humankind forward. Blue sky research into the unknown is not a job for abusive oligarchs and fat corrupt businessmen. The exploration of the universe and of cutting edge science is a task for the brilliant men and women of NASA–but at present they are at home worrying about their bills and looking at the employment section for less important (but better paying) jobs.
I’m sorry to post two duck posts in a row, but events in the art world (and beyond) necessitate such a step. On September 27th (2013), Pittsburgh , PA became the first U.S. city to host Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant floating rubber duck statue. Actually the rubber duck now in Pittsburgh is only one of several giant ducks designed by Hofman for his worldwide show “Spreading Joy Around the World,” which launched in his native Amsterdam. The largest of the ducks, which measured 26×20×32 metres (85×66×105 ft) and weighed over 600 kg (1,300 lb) was launched in Saint Nazaire in Western France.
Hofman’s statues are meant to be fun and playful. His website describes the purpose of the giant duck project simply, “The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn’t discriminate people and doesn’t have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them.”
A list of his sculptural projects reveals that he has the generous and delighted soul of a toymaker. A few example are instructive: he erected a large plywood statue of a discarded plush rabbit named “Sunbathing Hare” in St. Petersburg, a concrete “party aardvark” in Arnhem (Holland), 2 immense slugs made of discarded shopping bags in France (they are crawling up a hill towards a towering gothic church and their inevitable death), and many other playful animal theme pieces.
Not only do Hofman’s works address fundamental Ferrebeekeeper themes like mollusks, art, mammals, and waterfowl, his work hints at the global nature of trade, and human cultural taste in our times. With his industrially crafted giant sculptures and his emphasis on ports around the world, Hofman’s huge toys speak directly to humankind’s delight with inexpensive mass-market products (as well as a faint tickle of horror at the oppressive gigantism of even our most frivolous pursuits).
If you wander through the beautiful landscape of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, you will encounter many lovely sights: vistas of pastoral splendor will open before you filled with fields, trees, forests, streams, and lakes. There are stately statues, Victorian villas, gazebos, and landscaped gardens aplenty in the huge park–but there oddities too. Beside the Beaux Arts boathouse which floats above the lake like a huge elegant wedding cake, you will come upon a strange sight. Completely bounded within a gothic ironwork fence, a horribly twisted and mutated tree is held together with bolts, crutches, and wire. Although the tree’s trunk and limbs are monstrous, it is only 4 meters (twelve feet) tall and it is covered with lovely deep green hand-sized leaves in summer.
The tree is a Camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) a bizarre mutant elm brought as a graft from the old world. It was planted in 1872–the year that Ulysses S. Grant was reelected president (and also the first year that Arbor Day was celebrated). This particular tree has survived Dutch Elm disease, which wiped away America’s splendid elm-lined avenues, and the wizened tree somehow stayed alive during the urban decay of the 1960s-1990s (indeed its limbs are carved with obscure yet strangely familiar graffiti). The wires, crutches, and supports are the work of gifted tree surgeons, brought in by the Prospect Park Alliance to keep the ancient tree alive. It remains bonsai-like in its own little yard, a testament to the vigor of trees.
The story of how the weeping elm was discovered is likewise a strange trip into the past. Between 1835 and 1840 David Taylor, who was the forester for the Earl of Camperdown, discovered a bizarre mutant branch of what seemed like an elm tree growing along the floor of the forest outside the Earl’s huge Greek revival manor house in Scotland. The forester grafted the branch onto a normal Wych Elm and discovered that the resultant tree was a twisted weeping mutant.
During the Victorian age, there was a trend towards interesting and bizarre specimen plants in aristocratic gardens and arboretums (the perplexingly self-referential name of the aesthetic movement emphasizing such specimens was “gardenesque”). Prospect Park’s Camperdown elm tree rode this movement across the ocean to Brooklyn where Olmstead and Vaux were putting the finishing touches on their masterpiece park.