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A day ago an international team of stellar physicists announced that the sun’s surface is covered with thousands of searing hot plasma super tornadoes each of which is the size of a large continent on Earth.  Using a combination of a space telescope and a ground telescope, researchers discovered that each of these plasma vortexes spins at velocities up to 14,500 kilometers (9,000 miles) an hour.

(CREDIT: Wedemeyer-Böhm: Parts of the image produced with VAPOR)

The mystery of why the corona of the sun is 300 times hotter than the star’s surface has long vexed scientists.  The surface of the sun is a balmy 5,526 degrees Celsius (9,980 Fahrenheit), while temperatures in the corona peaks 2 million degrees Celsius (3.5 million Fahrenheit). The discovery of these giant fast-moving storms provides a new mechanism by which heat is transferred through the sun’s atmosphere and ejected into the corona. Energy locked in the powerful magnetic vortexes is effectively self-insulated and does not heat the solar photosphere and chromosphere as much as the corona (where the storms widen and dissipate).

The Sun photographed by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA 304) of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

Sven Wedemeyer-Böhm, a Norwegian scientist working on the team was quick to stress that the tornadoes are likely one of several complicated energy transfer mechanisms by which heat reaches the solar corona. However it seems that there are more than 11,000 of these huge plasma tornadoes on the solar surface at any given time.

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 Dream (Mantis Religiosa) (M.C. Escher, 1935, wood engraving)

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.

Another World (M. C. Escher, 1947, colored woodcut)

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.

The Mountains of Antarctica as seen from the Southern Ocean

The great Southern Ocean which swirls in a clockwise circle around Antarctica is home to many of the Earth’s largest animals.  Blue whales come here to gorge on vast schools of krill. Among the icebergs and the towering waves, southern elephant seals (the largest member of the order Carnivora) fight duels to build their harems, and highly intelligent killer whales hunt together in pods.  There are populations of sperm whales living in the Southern ocean as well and these leviathans dive to the cold floor of the world hunting for the world’s largest mollusk, a huge cephalopod which can only be found in the Southern Ocean.  In fact this bizarre creature, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) is also the world’s largest invertebrate.  Also known as the Antarctic squid or the giant cranch squid, the colossal squid lives in the abyssal depths.  Unlike other squid, the colossal squid does not have tentacles–its powerful arms are studded with sharp hooks (much like the long-extinct belemnites).  Some of these hooks swivel while others have three barbs in the manner of a fish spear.

The Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni)

The measurements of the colossal squid are staggering.  Its eye alone (the largest of any known creature) measures 27 centimetres (11 in).  A fully grown adult squid is estimated to be 12–15 metres (39–49ft) long.  Although giant squid have longer tentacles, the colossal squid a long stout mantles and are thus much more massive. Their upper weight limits are unknown but are well over 500 kg (+1000 lbs).

The colossal squid is believed to be an ambush predator, which lurks in the depths waiting for chaetognatha, other squid, and benthic fish (such as the Patagonian toothfish) to pounce upon.  It is hypothesized that they have a slow metabolism and do no need great reserves of food (unlike the energetic endothermic sperm whales which prey on them).  The colossal squid are believed to be sexually dimorphic—the females become much larger than the males.

A rare specimen of colossal squid

There is a reason that so much of this article is couched in ambivalent language such as “estimated”, “believed” and “probably”:  colossal squid live in an environment where humankind can barely venture.  The colossal squid are fast enough and clever enough to usually evade our nets, lines, and traps (although fishermen trying to catch Patagonian toothfish hooked a 450 kg (990 lb) specimen which was about 39 feet (13 m) long).  Additionally our submarines and submersible robots are too slow and noticeable too stalk the squid in the abyssal depths.  Other ocean creatures do not suffer from the same problem.  Juvenile colossal squid are eaten by beaked whales, elephant seals, sharks, toothfish, and even albatrosses, however the adult squid are so large that only massive sleeper sharks and giant sperm whales can threaten them.  Sperm whales are often covered with scars from their battles with the giants but the whales easily have the upper hand.  Sperm whale stomachs have been found filled with hooks and beaks (which coincidentally were much larger than those found on the largest squid specimens recovered by humans to date).

Ningishzida (middle figure) bringing Adapa of Eridu to Anu (on throne at right)

Ningishzida was a Mesopotamian deity, worshiped in the city of Gishbanda which lay near Ur in the orchards of the Fertile Crescent.  It seems that he was originally a tree god (the name Ningishzida means “lord of the sacred/giving tree” in Sumerian, the first known written language), but he became associated with fertility, the underworld, and the healing force of nature. I wish I could tell you more about Ningishzida, but, remember how I mentioned Sumerian was the first known language?  Surviving texts concerning Ningishzida are ancient.  The texts were baked into clay tablets and these have become smashed and broken.  When translated they look like this (roll over the links along the left side for source identification and click any of the “GI” links for English translations). There is beauty, nature, the underworld, and magic.  There are serpents and lions and glowing portals, but the meaning is unclear (to say the least).

The “libation vase of Gudea”, dedicated to Ningishzida (21st century BC). the double helix depicts the deity.

Yet if the combination of fertility, a magical tree, the Fertile Crescent, and a serpent do not seem immediately familiar to you, perhaps you should peruse the book which comes free with the hotel room (you don’t even have to read very far).  Scholarly tradition asserts that the Pentateuch was written before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century. The author/authors seem to have used Mesopotamian sources for the portions which deal with creation and primeval history.

The Caduceus

Ningishzida is portrayed as either a serpent with the head of a man, or, more frequently, as a double-headed serpent coiled into a double helix.  It is believed that the Greeks also made use of this symbolism in their myth of the caduceus, the wand of Hermes/Mercury which is associates with theft, deception, and death (for Mercury was a psychopomp who led souls to the underworld with his staff).  Of course contemporary people are familiar with the double helix as well.  We know that DNA, the fundamental blueprint of life is latticed together on a double helix.  It is strange that the first use of this symbol is a mysterious Sumerian tree/snake god who apparently also appealed to Jewish scholars during the Babylonian captivity.

One of the Aspredinidae (banjo catfish) species, Bunocephalus amaurus, from Guyana

Banjo catfish are a family (Aspredinidae) of tiny South American catfish which live in the major tropical river systems of the continent.  Most species of banjo catfish have round flat heads and long skinny tails—hence their distinctive name.  Although various sorts of banjo catfish live in many different river habitats (from quick flowing channels, to murky stagnant backwaters, to brackish tidal basins) they generally utilize the same strategy of keeping still and allowing their camouflage to protect them.  Although like all catfish, they lack scales, the Aspredinidae make up for this absence with rows of horny keratin tubercles which break up their profile and leave them well disguised.  Additionally they can shed their skins! As omnivores they hunt tiny invertebrates as well as feeding on whatever they can scavenge.  Members of the Amaralia genera of Banjo catfish are especially fond of the eggs of other species of catfish, which they actively seek out and vacuum up.

Another species of Banjo catfish (Bunocephalus coracoideus)

Perhaps because they are so partial to eating the eggs of other catfish, some banjo catfish have evolved special strategies to protect their own eggs.  Female catfish in the subfamily Aspredininae wait until their eggs are fertilized and then attach the developing eggs to their belly.  Three species of Aspredininae develop specialized fleshy stalks called cotylephores specifically for the purpose of exchanging nutrients and oxygen between the mother and the eggs.

More banjo catfish (Amaralia hypsiura)

Snake weather vane, maker unidentified, ca. 1825-1850.

More than usual the future seems uncertain.  The most cunning augurs and oracles can not see whether economic turmoil in Europe and turmoil in the Middle East will capsize the world economy.  The Pax Americana still holds but China’s rise promises a less stable, less happy balance of world power. The world’s climate is changing.  Technology is evolving in unknown directions.

To mark this uncertainty, I am dedicating today’s post to the quintessential symbol of all things shifting and mercurial–the weathervane (a choice which seems even more appropriate in the year when Mitt Romney is running for president).  A weathervane is an instrument dedicated to determining the direction the wind is blowing from.  As the wind changes, an arrow attached to a metal sail shifts to point in the direction the breeze originates.  These devices had a very practical function in the days before up-to-the-minute worldwide meteorological observations and projections were available: they continue to be popular as architectural flourishes.

Sea serpent weathervane (c. 1850) Paint on wood with iron

Sometimes I fantasize about what sort of weathervane I would put on the cupola of my imaginary mansion or at the apex of the folly tower of my non-existent formal garden.  A quick search of the internet reveals that many of my favorite topics are favorite subjects of weathervanes.  Catfish, turkeys, snakes, crowns, and mollusks are favorite subjects for metal sculptors to work in iron or copper.  So are mammals (represented here by whales and deer), farm creatures (goats and turkeys), and trees. Even gods of the underworld make an appearance–in the form of the devil who points to the wind with his pitchfork

A turkey gobbler weathervane from Blackforge weathervanes

Wild turkey with gilded wings weathervane by West Coast Weathervanes

A wild turkey weathervane and a curious wild turkey (amazing photo by Glen Ivey)

An antique copper goat weathervane from last century

Blue Devil weathervane from Duke campus

Magnificent snail weathervane by West Coast Weathervanes

Squid weathervane!

Oyster shell weathervane by Edwin B. Waskiewicz

Two themes at once–a weathervane portraying banana slugs holding up a crown

Pine tree weathervane from Mailbox Shoppe

A catfish weathervane by Copper Top Weathervanes & Cuppolas

A catfish weathervane by Weathervanes of Maine

A catfish weathervane at the National Metal Museum

For the sake of space I left out all sorts of beautiful marlins, swordfish, dolphins, capricorns, poseidons, sea horses, sharks, and clipper ships, however I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t end with a few buxom mermaids and sirens (and with the reminder to all fellow New Yorkers that the 30th annual mermaid parade is happening tomorrow at Coney Island.  Why not take a break from the vagaries of watching the weather and worrying about the uncertain future by participating in a festival in honor of Poseidon and the world’s oceans!

Mermaid weathervane by Barry Norling

Mermaid weathervane by Lakeside Ornamental

Last year I wrote about generational cohorts: the idea that America’s current population can be roughly divided and characterized by age.  The essay provoked a philosophical backlash from my contrarian friend Mike, who was opposed to the idea that large groups of people can be broadly characterized in such a manner (or “stereotyped” would be the pejorative way of saying it).  I still firmly believe that groups of people do fit in to larger categories—that is why we have nations and tribes and professions and classes.  It is why history is a meaningful discipline rather than an incoherent babble of individual voices. Characterizing what those categories are and what they mean is the goal of the social sciences and the humanities.  However, my friend raised some legitimate points too.  To defend his side of the argument–at least as I imagine it–I am going to write about a wholly unsatisfactory (albeit immensely entertaining) interpretation of generational cohorts, the Strauss-Howe generational theory, which is a ridiculous magical prophecy pretending to be a historical interpretation of seceding generations.

The Strauss-Howe Generational Theory (Artist’s Conception)

The Strauss-Howe generational theory is a bizarre amalgamation of historical perspective, Jungian archetypes, and craziness.  The “theory” categorizes generational cohorts into four repeating archetypes: hero, artist, prophet, and nomad.  Each generation has one of these characteristics (for example the World War II generation–the “Greatest” generation–was a “hero” generation).  According to Strauss-Howe, the pattern sequentially repeats, and has done so throughout Western history! The World War II generation was made up of heroes who came of age as pragmatic civic-minded optimists during a period of crisis.  They were able to work together as a team to overcome the disasters of their time. The Silent Generation grew up in a crisis and afterwards were overprotected and controlled.  In middle-life they synthesized the values of the previous generation into an institutionalized canon of ideas and philosophies. The Baby-Boom generation was a counter-cultural revolutionary generation who eschewed the heavy handed group-think of the previous two generations.  Generation X is a nomad generation, forever adrift, lost, and worthless.  The Millennial Generation is a group of pragmatic civic-minded optimists growing up in an era of crisis. They are destined to work together as a team to overcome the disasters of their time…and so on.

They are destined to return?

Strauss and Howe flesh out their theories in their book “Generations: The History of America’s Future” which adds a longer historical context to the paradigm.   Each generation must contend with a historical progression of “Unraveling”, “Crisis”,“High”, and “Awakening”.  For example: the Great Depression & World War II provided the crisis; the Great Power era marked a high; the culture clash and protests of the youth movement were an awakening;  the culture wars and 9/11 represent an age of unraveling.  Then the pattern begins anew: the Global Financial Crisis we are now living through is another full-blown crisis (until the Millennials come of age and fix it).  The generational cohorts repeat this cycle again and again (with one exception below).

Here is a list of each generational cohort by birth year and archetypical temperament:

Enlightenment Generation (1674-1700): Artist

Awakening Generation (1701-1723): Prophet

Liberty Generation (1724-1741): Nomad

Republican Generation (1742-1766): Hero

Compromise Generation (1767-1791): Artist

Transcendental Generation (1792-1821): Prophet

Gilded Generation (1822-1842): Nomad

Progressive Generation (1843-1859): Artist

Missionary Generation (1860-1882): Prophet

Lost Generation (1883-1900): Nomad

Greatest Generation (1901-1924): Hero

Silent Generation (1925-1945): Artist

Baby Boom (1946-1960): Prophet

Generation X (1961-1981): Nomad

Millennial Generation (1982-2004): Hero

“Homeland” Generation (2005-?): Artist

I have only included the familiar American Generations.  Hilariously, Strauss & Howe continued back through the English Civil War, the Reformation, the War of the Roses…all the way to the Hundred Years War.  Coincidentally, sharp-eyed observers will note the absence of a heroic generation around the time of the Civil War.  The authors of “Generations” believed that the Transcendental Generation and the Gilded Generation were so debased, fractious, and incompetent that the war came about ten years too early.  The Progressive generation was broken and disabused rather than ennobled. It became a bitter generation of introspective artists rather than battle-scarred heroes (although of course they did, you know, fight the Civil War).  The lack of Civil War heroes however is the only break in the 500 year long continuum of the 4 part cycle–according to Strauss & Howe.

Pictured: Artists (apparently)

Anyway, I think that provides you with enough of an overview of the Strauss & Howe theory.  If you are interested, there is more information out there (the Wikipedia page lays everything out nicely in tables). The book, coincidentally, was a best-seller. It particularly appealed to marketers and politicians of the Baby Boomer generation—both Al Gore and Newt Gingrich cite it as fundamental to their beliefs.

Clap if you love Pseudohistory!

And so we come back to my friend’s point: that the behavioral characteristics of generational cohorts are arbitrary categories made up by academics (or frauds) in order to aggrandize themselves. The Strauss-Howe theory does indeed seem to be such a model.  The cohort breakdown presented above might have some merit, but the four repeating archetypes do not.  If we took out all of Strauss & Howe’s terminology and replaced it with random animal names (and then attributed selected characteristics of those animals to each era) we would have an equally valid paradigm.  In fact astrologers have done exactly that for millennia. We can project Strauss and Howe’s model forward and learn…what? That there will be a crisis in the near future and that the current generation will solve it to the best of their abilities (presuming they aren’t screw-ups like the Civil War generation).  That doesn’t seem very profound or useful.  Macrohistory is a treacherous window.  It is so large that a well-meaning scholar can find anything in it.  I haven’t given up on differentiating groups of people by age, but seeing how silly such a game can quickly become provides a salutary lesson to proceed through the ages with care.

George Washington (1732 – 1799) “Nomad”

Antarctica Seen from Space

Imagine standing high above planet Earth and looking down at the blue and white band of seas surrounding Antarctica.  You are looking at one of the most important features of the Earth’s surface.  The turning of the planet and strong westerly winds drive the cold deep waters of the Southern Ocean into the planet’s largest and most powerful current system, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC).  The clockwise current isolates the frozen continent into its own self-replicating climate. Since there are no great land masses lying in the ring of open water at these latitudes, the ACC also forces waters from the ocean depths up to the surface.  This upwelling brings rich nutrients from the depths and causes immense blooms of phytoplankton (which in turn nurture life throughout all the world-ocean).  Additionally the current stirs the circulation of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

The ACC has been known to sailors for centuries.  A sailing ship can travel west along the current with great speed (if the sailors have the bravery and stamina to confront the fierce winds of “the roaring forties”).   The “clipper route” was the fastest sailing route around the world, but it was dangerous.  The three great capes (Cape Horn, the Cape of Good Hope, and Cape Leeuwin) all claimed innumerable lives as did wind, ice, and storm.  Today the clipper route has been abandoned as self-powered ships bring their cargoes of plastic junk straight across the ocean from China (and then cut across the Panama Canal) but sailing enthusiasts still recognize the fastest way to ride the wind around the planet.  The major circumnavigation sailboat races all travel the clipper route.

“Roaring Forties” (Gordon Frickers, oil on canvas)

The true history and significance of the ACC vastly exceeds the paltry recent concerns of navigation and world trade.  Geologists estimate that the ACC current began spinning around 34 million years ago at the end of the Eocene epoch as Antarctica split from Australia and drifted further south.  Back when Antarctica and Australia were still connected, the great amalgamated continent was a place where cold southern water and chill weather mixed together with tropical warmth—thus causing the whole planet to warm up.  However when Antarctica broke away and drifted south, it started a series of climate feedback loops.  The oceans around the continent began to freeze and ice started to build up on the mountains.  An entire continental ecosystem began to change in the cold.  The tropical forests (which had been filled with strange marsupials) began to die and become tundra.  As the Oligocene progressed and Drake’s Passage widened, the rivers–once filled with catfish–turned to ice.  The landmasses of Antarctica became crushed down under immense glaciers.  Antarctica died in the cold.  By 15 million years ago it became as it is now–home to only tardigrades, lichen, and a handful of visiting birds and seals.

The Transantarctic Mountains (photo by John Goodge)

Even now the Antarctic Circumpolar Current still isolates the continent from the warmth of the rest of the world.  Yet through upwelling of iron and other nutrients, the current bolsters an immense fecundity of phytoplankton–the great primary producer of the ocean.  Masses of copepods and krill feed on the algae and the diatoms and they in turn are eaten by fish, mollusks, mammals, birds, filter feeders…everything.  The great southern oceans are among the most diverse and strange habitats for living things.  It is there that the largest mollusk on the planet is found—which is the subject of an upcoming post.

The Green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta)

The green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) looks so ridiculously wicked and serpentine that it almost doesn’t look like an actual l snake but instead resembles an animated snake from a lurid 80’s cartoon.  Ahaetulla nasuta is mildly toxic and feeds on lizards and tree frogs which it catches by means of stealth and camouflage.  Native to most of southern India, the snakes are diurnal and arboreal.  Their great specialization is imitating tangled green vines, a feat which they pull off so successfully that most people never notice them, however, when startled they are capable of changing their color from bright green (which blends with the jungle) to a checkered black and white warning pattern.  In duress they also gape open wicked smiles to threaten off potential predators.  The snakes are viviparous and have astonished zookeepers by giving birth after being alone for years. It remains a matter of herpetological dispute as to whether the female snake is able to delay fertilization within her body for extremely long periods of time or whether she is capable of parthenogenesis (a rare but not unheard of trait among snakes).

The Green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) displaying a threat posture. Photo bySandilya Theuerkauf

The Magic Circus is a bizarre contemporary gothic painting created in 2001 by Mark Ryden, the king of the pop surrealist painters.  Ryden was born in the Pacific Northwest and grew up in Southern California.  At the beginning of his career, he was a commercial artist who created magazine illustrations, book covers, and album covers, but due to the outlandish visionary intensity of his work, he has successfully broken into the rarified top echelon of contemporary painters.  His works have sold very successfully for over a decade (although he is regarded as a bizarre outsider by the unofficial “academy” of curators and critics).

The Magic Circus is an eye popping juxtaposition of cartoonlike hybrid animal/toy characters, science book illustrations, and delicate vulnerable children.  The upbeat but sinister pastel circus landscape has been rendered with the precise and exacting realism of the finest illustration.  As with 16th century Flemish art, dark horrors lurk among the details. Looking past the dazzling crown and jewel-like bees and cheery dancing octopus, the viewer notices a striped winged demon with a shrunken head drinking a chalice of blood.   Jesus and Abraham Lincoln are rendered as toys and lifeless sculptures while a plush stuffed animal capers in the foreground with lively malice.

Many of Ryden’s works involve the idea that our icons and consumer goods are springing to malevolent life and taking over.   The Magic Circus has the visceral appeal of a child’s nightmare.  The toys are coming to life and putting on a show, but there is a dark and horrible side to the carnival. Within the interlocking “rings” of childlike delight, scientific materialism, and commercial exploitation, Ryden includes symbols and themes which he reuses again and again in his paintings.

Detail of “The Magic Circus”

Pop Surrealism takes kitsch elements from everyday life and arranges them in a way to maximize the emotional, sentimental, and psychological aspects of everyday symbols.  The narrative focus, realistic technique, and psychological intensity of this diffuse school have all been disparaged by “high-brow” art schools and abstract/conceptual artists for the past few decades.  Yet as the visual language of the internet becomes more pervasive (and as mainstream art languishes in a conceptual rut), Pop Surrealism has been finding broader acceptance

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