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I would like to interrupt the parade of anteaters, crowns, demons, and obscure colors for a brief but important political polemic. It seems likely that the Federal budget sequester will take place tonight and that is very bad news.
As almost everyone now knows, this artificial crisis was created as an attempt to make America’s hostile and antithetical political parties work together to cut spending and balance the budget. Unsurprisingly creating (another) arbitrary deadline failed miserably to accomplish this task–so unstructured cuts will hit big parts of the Federal budget. Defense spending is slated to be cut by 13% and the rest of domestic spending will be trimmed by 9%. The sequester will not touch entitlements like Medicare and Social Security (which make up the majority of the budget), because doing so would be political suicide for national politicians.
Some people are ok with this, and argue that the Federal budget is out of control and needs to be reined in by some means. Nine percent and thirteen percent are not big numbers. The American military is still the largest in the world…etc…etc… This is the wrong way to think. As this article outlines, many of the budget cuts insidiously strike at our research budget which will direly impact the future not just of the United States but also of the other nations (and maybe the ecosystems) of the entire world.
The sequester will hurt basic science research. Greedy Wall Street moguls will be just fine and (most likely) people at the bottom of the economic scale will be ok too, but, in twenty years humankind won’t have nanotechnology, space elevators, immortality potions, or whatever incredible thing today’s research was meant to foster.
Private companies, the Chinese, James Bond villain billionaires…all other entities capable of fundamental research are small potatoes (other than universities—which receive much of their science money from the government). The US Government is the world’s largest source of funding of basic research money…by a lot.
Fundamental research is the one thing America is good at (well maybe we can still make pizzas, scammy software, and dumb action movies, but we can talk about that another day) and that’s okay because research is the most important thing. Nations do not become superpowers because of indomitable spirit or cool national symbols, but because of engineering, science, and innovation. Research is the critical underpinning of economic, military, and cultural greatness. It is also fundamental to humankind’s quest to understand and manipulate the universe (before it kills us and everything we care about). Social security does nothing to further that objective!
The sequester cuts resemble a farm plan which leaves out the seed corn. And what is the point of even running a farm then? So, politicians, go ahead and make cuts to the budget. Raise taxes even. National leaders, do what you have to do, but please don’t cut the most important part of the budget because it is most abstract and lacks special interest lobbyists. That is stupid…and it is what we are doing by default.
One of life’s disappointments is the dearth of fine art concerning outer space. Outer space is vast beyond imagining: it contains everything known. Indeed, we live in space (albeit on a little blue planet hurtling around an obscure yellow star)–but cosmic wonders do not seem to have called out to the greatest artists of the past as much as religious or earthly subjects. There are of course many commercial illustrations featuring the elements of science fiction: starships, ringed planets, exploding suns, and tentacled aliens (all of which I like) and there are also didactic scientific illustrations, which attempt to show binary stars, ring galaxies, quasars and other celestial subjects. Yet only rarely does a fine artist turn his eyes towards the heavens, and it is even less frequent that such a work captures the magnificence and enormity of astronomy.
Fortunately the Dutch artist MC Escher was such an artist. His space-themed engravings utilize religious, architectural, and biological elements in order to give a sense of scale and mystery. The familiar architecture and subjects are transcended and eclipsed by the enormity of the cosmic subjects. Here are two of his woodcuts which directly concern outer space.
The first print is a wood engraving entitled The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) shows a fallen bishop stretched on a catafalque as a huge otherworldly praying mantis stands on his chest (the whole work is a sort of pun on the mantis’ taxonomical name Mantis religiosa “the religious mantis”. The buildings arround the bishop and the bug are dissipating to reveal the wonders of the night sky. The bishop’s world of religious mysteries and social control are vanishing in the face of his death. Greater mysteries are coming to life and beckoning the anxious viewer.
The colored woodcut “Other World” shows a simurgh standing above, below and in front of the viewer in a spatially impossible gazebo on an alien world. The simurgh is a mythical animal from ancient Persian literature and art which combines human and avian elements. Sufi mystics sometimes utilize the simurgh as a metaphor for the unknowable nature of divinity. Yet here the simurgh is dwarfed by the craters beneath him and by the planetary rings filling up the sky above. A strange horn hangs above, below, and to the side of the viewer. Perhaps it is a shofar from ancient Judea or a cornucopia from the great goat Amalthea. Whatever the case, the viewer has become unfixed in mathematical space and is simultaneously looking at the world from many different vantage points. A galaxy hangs in the sky above as a reminder of the viewer’s insignificance.
Above all it is Escher’s manipulation of spatial constructs within his art that makes the viewer realize the mathematical mysteries which we are daily enmeshed in. The multidimensional geometric oddities rendered by Escher’s steady hand in two dimensions characterize a universe which contains both order and mystery. Giant bugs and bird/human hybrids are only symbols of our quest to learn the underpinnings of the firmament. Escher’s art is one of the few places where science and art go together hand in hand as partners. This synthesis gives a lasting greatness to his artwork, which are undiminished by popularity and mass reproduction.
Humankind is always fixating on the Moon and Mars as the most likely spots for the first space colonies, but there is another crazy possibility. Aside from the Sun and the Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky. Earth’s closest planetary neighbor, Venus is a veritable sister planet with extremely similar mass and volume. Because of its size and position in the solar system, a great deal of early science fiction concentrated around Venus. Dreamers and fabulists posited that beneath its ominously uniform cloud cover was a lush tropical rainforest filled with lizard people and pulchritudinous scantily clad women (the fact that the planet’s Greco-Roman name is synonymous with the goddess of love and beauty seems to have influenced many generations of male space enthusiasts).
Alas, the space age quickly dispensed with mankind’s sweaty-palmed fantasies about life on Venus. In 1970 the Soviet space probe, Venera 7, was the first spacecraft to successfully land on another planet (after a long series of earlier space probes were melted or crushed by atmospheric pressure). In the 23 minute window before the probe’s instruments failed, the craft recorded hellish extremes of temperature and pressure. The temperature on Venus’ surface averages around 500 °C (932 °F), (higher than the melting point of lead) and the pressure on the ground is equal to the pressure beneath a kilometer of earth’s ocean. The planet’s surface is a gloomy desertlike shell of slabs interspersed with weird volcanic features not found elsewhere in the solar system (which have strange names like “farra”,” novae”, and “arachnoids”). Additionally the broiling surface is scarred by huge impact craters, and intersected by immense volcanic mountains (the tallest of which looms 2 kilometers above Everest). The tops of these mountains are covered with a metallic snow made of elemental tellurium or lead sulfide (probably).
The atmosphere of Venus is a hellish fug of carbon dioxide which traps the sun’s energy in a self replicating greenhouse gone wrong. Above the dense clouds of CO2, the upper atmosphere is dominated by sulfur dioxide and corrosive sulfuric acid. Once Venus may have had water oceans and more earth-like conditions, but rampant greenhouse heating caused a feedback loop which caused the planet to become superheated billions of years ago. Without an magnetosphere, solar winds stripped Venus of its molecular hydrogen (yikes!).
Thus Venus does not initially present a very appealing picture for colonization! Yet the planet’s mass is similar to Earth (and humans’ long term viability in low gravity is far from certain). The planet is closer than Mars and windows of opportunity for travel are more frequent. Fifty kilometers (30 miles) above the surface of Venus, the temperature is stable between 0 and 50 degrees Celsius (32 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit). Light crafts filled with oxygen and nitrogen would float above the dense carbon dioxide. Today’s visionaries and dreamers therefore have stopped thinking of tropical jungles and envision instead a world of Aerostats and floating cities. Although the rotation of Venus is too slow to craft a space elevator, the flying colonists of Venus probably could build some sort of skyhook with existing or near future technology. Such a hook could be used to lift raw materials from the surface to manufacturing facilities in the skies. As more aerostat habitats were built, the colony would gain manufacturing strength, safety, and a greater ability to alter the barren world below (increasingly overshadowed by flying cities and hovering countries).
Imagine then a world like that of the Jetsons where the surface was unseen and not thought about (except by scientists and industrialists). Floating forests and croplands could be assembled to mimic earth habitats and provide resources for a bourgeoning population of Venusian humans. Skyships would cruise between the flying city states dotted jewel-like in the glowing heavens. Over time these flying habitats could be used to alter the planetary temperature and shield the desolate lands below. Humankind and whatever friends and stowaways came with us would finally have a second home in easy shouting distance of Earth. How long would it be then before we took steps to take Earth life even farther into the universe?
Since 2006, beekeepers in Europe and North America have been reporting mysterious mass die-offs of honeybees. Although this has been a problem which has sometimes affected beekeepers in the past, the worldwide scale of beehive failures subsequent after 2006 was unprecedented. Worldwide bee populations crashed. Since bees are directly responsible for pollinating a huge variety of domestic crops–particularly fruits and nuts—the threat to our food supply and agricultural base extended far beyond the honey production which people associate with bees. An entire community of free-wheeling apiarists came into the limelight. For generations these mavericks would load up their trucks with hives of bees and drive to orchards in bloom. For the right…honorarium…they would release the bees to pollinate the almonds, broccoli, onions, apples, cherries, avocados, citrus, melons, etcetera etcetera which form the non-cereal base of the produce aisle (as an aside, I find it fascinating that there is a cadre of people paid to help plants reproduce by means of huge clouds of social insects—if you tried to explain all this to an extraterrestrial, they would shake their heads and mutter about what perverts earthlings are).
As bees have declined, honey has naturally become more expensive, but so too have a great many other agricultural staples. Not only has the great dying hurt farmers and food shoppers it has also affected entire ecosystems—perhaps altering them for many years to come. “Pollinator Conservation” (an article from the Renewable Resources Journal) opines that “Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive.”
Scientists have been rushing to get to the bottom of this worldwide problem, pointing fingers at varroa mites (invasive parasitic vampire mites from China), pesticides, global warming, transgenic crops, cell phone towers, habitat destruction, and goodness knows what else. The lunatic fringe has leaped into the fray with theories about super bears, aliens, and Atlantis (although I could add that sentence to virtually any topic). So far no theory has proven conclusive: exasperated entomologists have been throwing up their hands and saying maybe it’s a combination of everything.
Yesterday (March 29th, 2012) two studies released in “Science” magazine made a more explicit link between colony collapse and neonicotinoid insecticides. The first study suggested that hives exposed to imidacloprid (one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) produced 85% fewer queen bees than the control hives. The second study tracked individual bees with radio chips (!) to discover that bees dosed with thiamethoxam were twice as likely to suffer homing failure and not return to the hive. Suspicion has focused on neonicotinoid poisons as a culprit in hive collapse disorder for years (the compounds were hastened into use in the nineties because they were so benign to vertebrates), however the rigorously reviewed & carefully controlled studies in “Science” bring an entirely new level of evidence to the problem. Unfortunately this also brings a new variety of problems to the problem, since neonicotinoids are tremendously important to agriculture in their own right (sorry Mother Earth) and since they are such handy poisons for, you know, not killing us and our pets and farm animals.
As mentioned previously, I am a toymaker who crafts the Zoomorphs mix-and-match animal toys (you can check them out here). I always try to make the characters whimsical but with a strong basis in reality–which means color is one of the hardest things to figure out. If the animals’ colors are too realistic and drab, children (and other toy aficionados) will not gravitate towards the toys, but if the colors are too bright the animals become surreal.
Fortunately I have always been helped out by our magnificent extinct friends, the dinosaurs. Paleontologists have ideas about what color dinosaurs were (based on the coloration of living reptiles and birds), but the scientists still haven’t found any conclusive answers—which means I can paint my dinosaur characters with all of the gaudy 80s colors I can find in the Pantone book!
Or at least that was true until now. On Thursday, the scientific journal, um, Science reported that an international team of Chinese and American scientists have discovered the color of microraptor, a small feathered dinosaur about the size of a crow which lived 130 million years ago. By studying the patterns of pigment-containing cell fragments known as melanosomes which were present in an exceptional microraptor fossil, the scientists determined that the ancient animal was black with an iridescent shimmer—a common pattern for many of today’s birds. Microraptor apparently also had two long streamer feathers on its tail. The little dinosaur likely used its iridescence and ornate tail feathers for social signaling with other microraptors over important concerns like territory and mating.
Many of the articles I have read about the microraptor’s coloration have playfully noted that the small predator hews to the fashion adage of wearing basic black with accents. The articles also compare the tiny dinosaur (which had two pairs of wings—on both its legs and arms) to crows, grackles, starlings and the like. However it is important to remember that microraptor was not yet a bird—it had sharp claws on nimble little hands and a mouthful of cruel teeth (so the fashion metaphor may be even more appropriate than the bird analogy).
As we have seen, the gothic aesthetic is reborn every generation with a different dark twist. Today’s art world is no exception: there is a contemporary art movement calling itself “New Gothic Art” dedicated to creating works which emphasizes darkness and horror. Many of the artists involved are weak (particularly the self-obsessed photographers and the hackneyed photo-collagists) and the movement does not always live up to the harrowing tradition started by medieval painters–however I do admire the bio-apocalyptic future visions of Alexis Rockwell. Rockwell collaborates with scientists and ecologists to imagine a near future world where climate change and genetic engineering have radically reshaped the planet. To paint these visions of the post-anthropocene world he relies on bravura photo-realistic painting. His inspiration comes from the remarkable paintings of former geological eras gracing natural history museums. Indeed, Rockman’s work is evocative of the great natural history muralists Heinrich Harder, Charles Knight, and Bob Hynes. Like those science-inspired artists, Rockwell strives to paint organisms as a part of a total ecosystem. In doing so he produces immense and operatic landscape artworks. His 8-by-24-foot oil-on-wood mural, “Manifest Destiny” shows Brooklyn in 5004 AD, long after the ocean has reclaimed it. Familiar landmarks are subsumed by marine ecosystems. Catfish, triggerfish, and cormorants sweep through a landscape rich with life but lacking humans. His agricultural-themed painting “The Farm” shows a left to right progression of animals transforming from wild ancestors to today’s selectively bred farm animals to tomorrow’s transgenic mutants.
Rockman could easily be called a science fiction artist (if the art world did not look upon that term as a pejorative). Indeed if his work were not so preachy some of it could slip into the campy risibility of the comic book store! However Rockman does think big: he avoids the facile political demagoguery of most ecological art by painting with skill, passion, and above all, with ambiguity. There is something horrifying about the future farm animals but there is something beguiling too. The genetically modified creatures might be meant as a warning against future dystopia, but I personally am looking forward to the human organs grown from that transgenic pig! The picture isn’t a simple nay-saying parable. It captures some of the promise and excitement of biotech as well as the danger.
That same duality is found in Rockman’s paintings of current ecosystems. The tension between humankind and the natural world is as surely reflected in the dramatic catfish-centric perspective of the painting “Fishing” as it is in a vision of the post-human future such as “Manifest Destiny”. Likewise the lugubrious boat wrecks surrounded by sealife in “Hudson Estuary” speak to human society’s strange mixture of strength and weakness. Humankind is a strange problematic part of the natural world, but we are still part of it.
Is Rockman’s art gothic? I believe so—in the same way that Ray Bradbury or George Orwell are gothic. When he is at his best Alexis Rockman manages to convey a palpable sense of the sadness of living systems which burgeon and then ineluctably fail. There is a similarity between the catfish contemplating the hook and the farmer contemplating biotech. I notice that a catfish nearly identical to the beleaguered specimen from “Fishing” is lingering in the future underworld of “Manifest Destiny”. Life endures and adapts even as the world changes. Perhaps humankind’s tragic grandeur is not incompatible with nature, but we will need to grow quickly!
The seventeenth century polymath Robert Hooke was immensely influential in popularizing science. His seminal work Micrographia, published in 1665 was the first scientific book to become a best seller. In the volume, Hooke described various plants, animals, and manufactured objects as seen through his hand crafted microscope. Crucially, the book contained vivid and detailed engravings which allowed the public to see what Hooke had seen. Many of the illustrations folded out to become larger than the book thus further emphasizing the nature of microscopy. Hooke was the first to coin the word “cell” because he thought that the constituent components of plant tissues resembled monk’s cells. By changing the way that people apprehended the world Micrographia laid the foundation for the amazing microbiological discoveries of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. In addition to biological specimens, Hooke included illustrations of objects like the sharpened ends of needles and pins (which looked blunt under his microscope’s magnified lenses). This helped the general public to comprehend how truly different the microscope’s vantage point is from that of the naked eye.
Micrographia also contains Hooke’s speculations concerning combustion, which he (correctly) believed involved combining a substance with air. Hooke further posited that respiration involved some key ingredient of air–and he was thus well on the way towards discovering oxygen. Unfortunately these ideas were not well understood by the seventeenth century scientific community. Hooke’s contemporaries were also challenged by his assertion that fossils (such as petrified wood and ammonites) were the remains of living creatures which had become mineralized. Hooke reached this conclusion based on microscopic study of fossil specimens and he believed that such fossils afforded clues about the history of life on the planet—including the history of species which had died out. Needless to say such concepts were challenging to the theological community of the time.
I am writing about Hooke because I saw an original copy of Micrographia at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (I wrote about their exquisite gardens in the last post). The book was part of a remarkable collection of original scientific books and documents, which was itself a part of a larger repository of rare books, handwritten letters and original manuscripts. The Huntington holdings include a Guttenberg bible, a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, and innumerable original printings, correspondences, and manuscripts. I chose to highlight Hooke’s work because I have always been fascinated by how different the world looks through a microscope (above is Hooke’s engraving of a flea’s features–which can be compared with an earlier post about contemporary electron microscopes) however the real epiphany I took from viewing the collection was a larger one. Even before the internet came to act as a sort of hive mind for humankind, we had a collective memory and source of communication—the printed word. In addition to its magnificent gardens, the Huntington reminded me of how that worldwide shared network of ideas slowly developed. Viewing the bibliophile’s treasure trove at the Huntington library demonstrated the continuing purpose of libraries as museums and places of thought and discovery– even in a world where the entire text of a rare book like Micrographia can be found online.
At the end of the year it is common to list the important people who died during that year along with a list of their honors and accomplishments. Looking at some of these lists for 2010 frustrated me because most of the obituaries were for actors, musicians, hyper-rich maniacs, and politicians rather than for people whom I actually admire. I have therefore compiled the obituaries of various eminent people whose deaths did not necessarily make a big splash on CNN or similar mass media news outlets. You may never have heard of some of these people until now, but their lives and works were moving to me (and in some cases, such as those of Mandelbrot, Nirenberg, and Black—truly important to a great many people). I only wrote a very brief biography for each but I included Wikipedia links if you want more information.
Farewell to the following souls. May they rest in peace and may their ideas live on:
January 11 – Éric Rohmer was the last French new wave director. His flirtatious movies combined knowledge of our secret longings with everyday cheerfulness (always expressed in a very Gallic fashion). His last work Romance of Astree and Celadon was a screen adaptation of 17th century pastoral play by Honoré d’Urfé.
January 15 – Marshall Warren Nirenberg was a biologist who won the Nobel Prize (and many other scientific prizes) for ascertaining how genetic instructions are translated from nucleic acids into protein synthesis.
March 22 – Sir James Whyte Black was a Scottish doctor and pharmacologist who developed a beta blocker used for the treatment of heart disease. The Texas Journal of Cardiology described this innovation as “one of the most important contributions to clinical medicine and pharmacology of the 20th century.”
May 10 – Frank Frazetta was a groundbreaking commercial illustrator whose work has influenced the genres of fantasy and science fiction.
June 18 – José Saramago was a Portuguese novelist. A communist, atheist, and pessimist Saramago wrote metaphorical novels about the human condition in an increasingly crowded & mechanized world. His most successful work is Blindness a novel about a plague of blindness sweeping through modern society. The novel is simultaneously a soaring literary allegory and a harrowing horror story.
August 23 – Satoshi Kon was a director of visionary animated movies. Although his films didn’t always soar to the emotional heights reached by his countryman Miazaki, they were awesomely innovative and greatly forwarded the medium (which in Japan has been moving from children’s entertainment towards literature and art).
October 14 – Benoît Mandelbrot was a Franco-American mathematician (born in Poland) who is best known as the father of fractal geometry. His intuition and imagination allowed him to perceive self-similar mathematical underpinnings behind all manner of natural structures. From galaxies, to coastlines, to blood vessals , to biorhythms–the entire universe is increasingly recognizable as interlocking fractals thanks to his insights.
October 28 – Akiko Hoshino was a gifted pastel artist who I knew from the Art Students’ League. She was just beginning to make progress in the art world with her luminous realistic pastel drawings when she was struck and killed by a careless driver who was driving backwards.
November 28 – Leslie Nielsen was a hilarious comic straight man whose deadpan acting carried the great parody films Airplane and The Naked Gun (as well as innumerable derivative spoofs). As an enduring testament to his greatness, my friends are still stealing his jokes. Surely he was one of a kind.
The Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (colloquially known as the Electorate of Hanover) was a principality within the Holy Roman Empire. In the mid eighteenth century, the region was ruled by the Prince Elector, Georg II. A series of religious wars and a strange quirk of fate had made the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg the heirs to the British throne. Prince Elector Georg II was therefore better known to his English subjects and to history as King George II. In 1755, George II ordered his Hanoverian Guards Regiment to England. The Hanover Military band went with the Guards. One of the oboists of the band was named Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel. Friedrich was something of a musical prodigy: he also played the violin, the cello, the harpsichord and the organ. When the guards came to England, he liked the country and he left the band to move there permanently. He accepted the position as first violin and soloist for the Newcastle orchestra and later became the organist of the Octagon Chapel in Bath (a chapel attached to a very fashionable spa). Throughout his career Frederick William Herschel (for he had anglicized his name) composed a great many musical works including 24 symphonies, numerous concertos, and a large canon of church music.
Frederick’s music is forgotten today, but later in his life he found his true calling. As his musical career progressed, he became more and more deeply fascinated by lenses and mathematics. At the age of 35, he met the Reverend Dr. Nevil Maskelyne who was Astronomer Royal and Director of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Herschel began making mirror telescopes for Maskelyne, personally grinding the lenses and mirrors for up to 16 hours a day. He also looked at the universe through the telescopes he had made and reported his discoveries. What he found made him one of the preeminent scientists in history (he also became extremely wealthy and was granted a knighthood).
Herschel is most famous for discovering Uranus, the first planet to be found since the depths of antiquity. His other discoveries and ideas are perhaps even more remarkable. He was first to find out that the solar system is moving through space. He coined the word “asteroid” as a name for such objects. By observing Mars he determined its axial tilt and found that the Martian ice caps fluctuate in size. His attempts to determine if there was a link between solar activity and the terrestrial climate were unsuccessful (because of a lack of data), but formed the basis for successful work concerning both climatology and stellar physics. Astonishingly, Herschel discovered infrared radiation, the first non-visible electromagnetic radiation to be known. He accomplished this by passing sunlight through a prism and holding a thermometer just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. He found two new moons of Saturn and two moons of Uranus. He correctly concluded that the Milky Way is a disk. He debunked the notion that double stars were optical doubles and showed that they are truly binary stars (thus demonstrating that Newton’s laws extend beyond the solar system).
In honor of his amazing career, numerous objects, devices, institutes and features around the solar system and beyond are named after Herschel (including the giant crater on Saturn’s moon Mimas). Few people have contributed so greatly to science or changed the conception of everything as much as this gifted Saxon oboist!