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Primates evolved in a forest habitat of many complex colors and shapes where a failure to properly judge depth perception meant painful injury or death.  Vision is therefore a paramount sense for monkeys, apes, tarsiers, lemurs, and lorises.  Primates are social animals.  After evolving highly acute sight and keen color vision, they then evolved to be the most colorful order of mammals.  As with cuttlefish and birds of paradise, primate colors carry all sorts of social cues.

 

We will talk about all of this more (although, to be frank, we have always been talking about it), but today we are concentrating on the color red, which is of enormous importance to most primates because it is involved in status relations and thus in mating. Red is an important color for primates!  For example, among mandrills, red coloration of the face correlates directly with a male’s alpha status: the redder the face the more exalted the mandrill.  Primatologists have found this pattern vividly true in many species of monkey (and to other very different creatures like octopuses and cardinals, where red holds similar dominance significance).  To quote a particularly eye-opening line from Wikipedia, “Red can also affect the perception of dominance by others, leading to significant differences in mortality, reproductive success and parental investment between individuals displaying red and those not.”

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Humans beings are primates.  I suspect that it is not news to you that red is heavily involved in our own status and sexual selection preferences (for the sake of chivalric euphemism I will hereafter say “romantic” preferences).  Although this is readily evident in the red dresses of supermodels, the flashy Ferraris of celebrities, and the power ties of senators, the subconscious sway it holds over our lives is more pervasive than you might realize.

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In studies where men rated the general attractiveness of photographs of women, the women wearing red were rated as more desirable, even when the experimenters stacked the deck with pictures of the same women in different colors.  The same sort so f experiments revealed similar preferences among women looking at pictures of men.  It might be speculated that this has something to do with blushing, blood flow and suchlike visible markers of fertility/interest (although when asked, men said that women in red were more attractive, and women said that men in red were more “dominant”).

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Wearing red uniforms has been linked with increased performance in competitions (particularly physical competitions such as sports). Controlled tests revealed that red conferred no physical advantage during non-competitive exercise, so the effect is purely one of perception among opponents, teammates, and referees. Referees and judges seemed to be a particular focus of the psychological effects we are discussing here, rating red-garbed performers much more highly/favorably than similar peers in other outfits.

One needs to pause and think of how much more frequently the hateful Boston Red Sox and the despicable Atlanta Falcons would be justly drubbed if they wore dun uniforms.

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All of this might seem like bad news for people without a great deal of red in their wardrobe or in their clubhouse lockers, but there is a counterposing effect too.  In studies which involved paying attention and focusing on achievement-type events like the SATs or IQ tests (or essay questions about the Byzantine empire), red proved to be a nuisance and a hindrance.  Exposure to red decreased performance during such events (although my source does not say what this constitutes…maybe the experimenters had a huge red flashing light or a ringing red phone or some such gimmick that would unequivocally mess up one’s GREs).

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If all of this sounds wrong or suspicious to you, I guess it is the middle of the 2018 World Cup.  According to primatologists, Russia, England, Belgium, and Serbia should all win in the quarterfinals (so as long as they are not wearing their white or yellow “beta” uniforms).  If that test seems too nonsensical for you, you could always put on a British naval uniform and walk down to the local bar.  I would be very curious to learn how your experiment goes, and I will tally up the results as soon as I finish ordering a few new shirts…

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I am still working away at my flatfish project.  Here are four recent drawings/mixed media works which I made.  The flounder above is a cosmic flounder and represents humankind’s aspirations for the stars.  The mathematicians and engineers (here represented as ancient Egyptians) do their best with the tools and calculations they have available, but the universe is so vast.  The flounder represents all Earth life waiting to be lifted to the heavens.  As they struggle, insouciant aliens fly by waving.  The combination of ancient and modern elements make one think of the biblical ark (which is represented in the next picture. The flounder is, of course, a watery beast and is unmoved by divine wrath, although it does look a bit appalled at the inundation.

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Next is a picture of a crude and vigorous flatfish made out of thick lines.  The fish swims by a Viking long hall as seabirds wheel about in the sky, but thanks to some trick of the world (or perhaps the artist’s whimsy) a coati is raiding the pumpkins and fruiting vines. Is this scene unfolding in the old world or the new?

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Finally, there is a scene of a medieval styleeremitic  brother who has forgotten his scriptures and is now contemplating the life-giving sun.   A saintly duck and a far-flying swallow look kindly on his devotions, but the monk’s cat seems unmoved by his devotion.  Crystals hint that religious fervor is becoming convoluted by the vagaries and appetites of the modern world, which can be witnessed all around the verdant turbot.  Yet the fish and its inhabitants maintain a solemn and studious otherworldliness.  Whatever this mysterious devotion is, it is represented in each of these 4 fish, but the viewer will have to devote some time and thought of their own in order to elucidate the subject of this devout zeal. 

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One of the great mysteries of neurobiology is how memories are stored.  We have a few tantalizing clues, but the precise biological mechanism for how memories are created and where they are stored in cells is still unknown.  All of your lost loves and childhood dreams, your family’s birthdays and preferences, your own name and darkest secret…nobody knows where they are in your head.  And, um, we still don’t know…however, thanks to research on sea snails, we have some new clues.

Scientists have long believed that memories are stored within the structure and connective patterns between the synapses which connect neurons.  The new experiment suggests that this may prove to be a misconception.

Scientists trained a particular sort of sea snail (which have “small” brains with only 20,000 neurons) to respond in certain unusual ways to electrical shocks.  Then the team removed ribonucleic acid (RNA), from nerve tissue of the trained snails and injected it into the circulatory system of untrained snails.  Other “control” snails which were untampered with responded to electrical shocks naturally, however the snails which were treated with RNA from snails taught to curl their tails for prolonged periods immediately demonstrated this unusual behavior.

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The findings suggest that our conjecture about where memories are stored may be quite wrong…or at least disturbingly incomplete.  The snail research indicates that, at some fundamental level, memories are stored in the nuclei of neurons.  Now scientists will try to replicate the results in other animals to test this hypothesis.  Everything in this sort of research ends of being more complicated and interlinked than initially thought, so don’t forget about those synapses just yet.  We are still at the beginning of this tantalizing scientific quest.

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Do you ever miss the 70s?  That time will never return (although stagflation and oil crunches might make an unexpected comeback from the weird devil’s brew of bad economic and geopolitical policies which we are experimenting with) however there is a more positive reminder of the age of disco in the very heavens themselves.  At present, there are three disco balls in orbit around Earth.  The first and most significant is actually a 70s artifact: LAGEOS (Laser Geodynamics Satellite) was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 4th 1976.  The 408 kilogram (900 pound) satellite has no electronic components ore even moving parts: it is a brass sphere studded with 426 jewel-like retroreflectors. 422 of these retroreflectors are made from fused silica glass (to reflect visible light), however the remaining 4 are germanium, for infrared experiments.

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Orbiting the entire planet every 225.70 minutes, LAGEOSl is a pretty stupendous piece of space art in its own right, however it was designed for a serious scientific purpose.  Lageos provides an orbiting laser ranging benchmark.  To quote space.com:

Over the past 40 years, NASA has used LAGEOS to measure the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates, detect irregularities in the rotation of the planet, weigh the Earth and track small shifts in its center of mass via tiny changes in the satellite’s orbit and distance from Earth.

Measurements made using LAGEOS have also been used to confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity, since measurements made on this scale demonstrate a measurable “frame dragging effect” (which you are going to have to figure out with some help from your favorite physicist).  The satellite also illustrates the Yarkovsky effect, which explains how an object is heated by photons on one side will later emit that heat in a way which slows the object.  This latter effect will eventually cause LAGEOS’ orbit to deteriorate and bring it tumbling to Earth.  Scientists estimate this will happen 8.4 million years from now, so there is still time to contemplate this sphere.  Also there is a small time capsule on board to capture certain scientific truths and human ephemera for the long ages.

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LAGEOS was so useful and proved to be such a success that NASA launched an identical sister craft in 1992 (how did I miss all of these interesting events?).  This still leaves one disco ball satellite unaccounted for.  The final craft is “The Humanity Star” which serves no purpose other than being art.   Launched on January 21st of this year (2018), the humanity star is a regular polygonal solid with 65 triangular sides.  It is made of carbon fiber embedded with enormously reflective panels and is meant to be seen twinkling in the night sky to make humankind collectively reflect on our shared home, the Earth.  The Humanity Star orbits much lower than the LAGEOS satellites.  They are  5,900 kilometres (3,700 miles) from Earth’s surface, whereas the humanity star is only 283.4 kilometers (176.1 miles) away from the planet at its perigree.  It whips around the Earth every 90 minutes on a circumpolar orbit (which means it is visible from everywhere at some point.  You could look up where it is online and go out and find it with fieldglasses.  The object glimmers and shimmers in unusual ways, sometimes appearing as bright as Sirius (the brightest star save for the sun), but usually twinkling like barely visible stars.  The Humanity Star won’t last long—it is scheduled to fall into Earth’s gravity well and burn up in fall of this year, so check it out before it is gone.  The craft was controversial: some serious aerospace mavens objected to launching an object into orbit to serve no purpose other than art, yet, as an artist I am happy to know it is out there.  Maybe go look at it and let me know if it inspires you.

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Ferrebeekeeper has written about nanosatellites—tiny swarms of lightweight & (relatively) inexpensive satellites which mimic the functionality of big pricey birds.  That article was enthusiastic about the tiny spacecraft, however the FCC (which reviews communications satellites and approves/denies satellite launches) has some reasonable reservations about the idea, particularly considering all the of space junk which is already whipping through near-earth orbit at 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,500 miles per hour).  Last year Swarm Technologies, a mysterious and shadowy start-up founded in 2016 and based in Los Altos, California applied to the FCC to launch 4 little satellites called BEEs (which, in the inane blather of forced acronyms, stands for “Basic Electronic Elements”).  The FCC turned down the request, concluding that the functionality of the satellites (which are maybe for some sort of network?) did not make up for the safety risk they posed.  Yet Swarm Technologies launched them into orbit anyway in mid-January, in a rocket which blasted off from India.  Each Bee is 10 centimeters in length and width, and 2.8 centimeters in height.

National security agencies (which have substantial technologies for monitoring Earth orbit), are able to track the “bees” but it is an open question whether they are fully dark or whether they are producing little pings and chirps for their well-heeled private masters here on Earth.

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This is an unprecedented first for the FCC and other space agencies which have never been so blatantly flouted by a scofflaw corporation (although given the brazen, lawless, and dangerous conduct of America’s highhanded corporations and lordly oligarchs, it will probably not be the last).   The satellites lack propulsion systems and they will probably fall back into Earth’s gravity well within 10 years and burn up (I suspect an astrophysicist could tell you something less approximate, but this timeframe should serve for general purposes).

If Swarm could have held their horses a bit, they may have been able to reapply: Lockheed Martin is currently building a much more sophisticated radar system to monitor small objects in orbit.  I wonder if this is a glimpse of the privatized future of space which everyone is always touting.  If so it is not a particularly compelling picture.

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 Portrait of the Hon. Mrs Ernest Guinness (Frank Dicksee, 1912) oil on canvas

Of all the colors in my paintbox I am most dissatisfied with blue.  There are a lot of strong greens and there are vivid cadmium yellows, oranges, and reds.  There is ivory black which as dark as the depths of the void and dioxazine violet which is a great purple, but blue is a difficult color.  The brightest blues of the sky are from sunlight which has been scattered by the atmosphere.  The blues of bird feathers and butterfly wings are from careful refraction of light from reflective structures in the wings: if you ground peacock feathers fine enough there is no more blue….

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The main blue pigments in the painter’s palette are cobalt blue (which is ancient and robust but a trifle subdued) ultramarine blue (a sulfur-containing sodium-silicate) which inclines toward purple, and cerulean blue a sky blue cobalt stannate which is painfully expensive.  Oh! there is a manganese blue out there in the paint stores, but I never used it until I bought a little tube a month ago,  so we’ll see how it turns out: it is sort of a tropical powder blue.  They are each beautiful but they each have their problems and none is the pure royal blue in the center of the spectrum which is bright, non-toxic, and lightfast (although the poisonous cobalts and…ultramarine too… last through the long ages).  This is why I was excited when my old painter friend Brendan (a raven painting specialist) sent me a link to an article about a new blue pigment.

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The new blue is called YInMn blue.  Discovered a couple of years ago by Robin Young, the new blue is lightfast, stable, and seemingly nontoxic (although sometimes in the past problems have taken a while to become evident).  The new blue is made of yttrium oxide, indium oxide, and manganese oxide.  It seems to be extremely lasting, and best of all it is very very blue.  Unfortunately, right now it is expensive (and the paint companies are still testing it out), but I have a feeling it might hit the market soon, and whatever its faults it can’t be worse for one’s health than carcinogenic cobalt.

Kudos to Robin Young for the new color.  I can’t wait to get a tube and paint some truly blue flounders…speaking of which, i better head back to the easel.

 

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I have been watching NASA with great consternation lately.  The space agency has maintained its budget (which is good, in today’s world of brutal trench-warfare politics), however for 15 months NASA has had no leader and it seemed to be stuck in a holding pattern, unable to move forward on missions.  Finally, in April, the President’s candidate for the position of head administrator was confirmed, Jim Bridenstine a fundamentalist congressman from Oklahoma who does not believe in global warming and opposes LGBTQ rights.  He is the first non-scientist chief administrator in the agency’s history.

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Bridenstein does however have a background as a Navy officer which is promising.  It is possible he can put his more recent background as a divisive political agitator and an ignoramus behind him.  His first major speech was somewhat encouraging:  he reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to send missions to both Mars and the Moon in the not-enormously distant future.  The historic first moon landing was 49 years ago and the last manned mission to the moon took place in 1972 (three years before Bridenstein was born).  The new administrator compared these missions to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and went on to say it is time for NASA and private aerospace ventures to work on building a transcontinental railroad to space in the current era.  That is a fine metaphor (although I don’t trust private aerospace ventures any more than people of the 19th century trusted crooked railroad monopolies).  Bridenstein needs to back up his elegant words with real plans for NASA.  Currently, the USA can’t even put a human in space, much less send one to the moon or another planet.  Bridenstein needs to act quickly and decisively to show that he is not an agency head like Scott Pruitt, Ben Carson, or Jeff Sessions (which is to say a leader who embodies the opposite & antithetical values from the agency they were sent to run).

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I liked your railroad metaphor, Jim, but you need to appoint a lot of smart people to organize a meaningful and coherent schedule for America’s favorite agency.

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Hey, remember the super-massive black hole at the center of the galaxy?  Well, scientists have been thinking about it too, and they concluded that other black holes should sink into the middle of the galaxy near to the central monster.  To find out if this holds true, they utilized the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (an x-ray telescope located on a satellite in orbit around Earth) to observe stars near to the center of the galaxy.  Black holes can’t be detected on their own, but if they interact with nearby stars they produce esoteric x-rays which can be detected (so long as the x-ray telescope is outside of a planetary atmosphere, which absorbs x-rays, thank goodness).  Within the tiny (er, relatively tiny) three light year area which they scrutinized, the astronomers discovered dozens of black holes.  Extrapolating this data leads them to conclude there are more than 10,000 black holes at the center of our galaxy.  I wish I could contextualize this for you, but I just can’t… the concept of 10,000 super-dense gravity wells flattening and tearing all of the spacetime in the center of the galaxy into Swiss cheese is to disturbing for me to deal with (in any other way than blurting it out in a midnight blog).  I’m not sure this universe is safe at all. I am going to go lie down.

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So, the super massive ulti-mega-omnibus funding bill passed today (despite a last-minute executive tantrum) and the bill is…good?  This goes against all of the doom-and-gloom scenarios which dominate the news (and this blog), and it is unpalatable to praise any product from the 115th Congress of the United States of America, but, despite the president’s recommendation for massive cuts to fundamental scientific inquiry, Congress coughed up a LOT of new money for science.

I know you are all smart, so let’s get straight to the numbers. For its annual budget, the NIH received 3 billion dollars more than last year (an 8.7 % increase). The National Science Foundation got a $295 million budget raise (3.9 % increase).  The USGS received a $63 million budget (6%) expansion, while Congress increased the budget of the NOAA by $234 million (4%) to $5.9 billion.  The Department of Energy received a whopping 16 percent raise of $868 million dollars: their annual budget is now $6.26 billion (obvs. we need shiny new nuclear weapons…but maybe there is some money for fundamental nuclear research in there too). Even the EPA kept the same budget as last year and experienced no cuts.

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Best of all NASA gets a much-needed lift.  To quote The Atlantic (which was the source of these numbers):

Nasa will receive $20.7 billion, $1.1 billion more than the previous year. The space agency’s science programs will increase by about 8 percent to $6.2 billion and its planetary-science program, in particular, by 21 percent, to $2.2 billion.

Of course, the biggest slice of the pie goes to the military, however a lot of Defense Department money ends up going to research too… although I would be happier if, instead of building manned aircraft appropriate for the Cold War, they spent more money on blue sky research and moonshot scifi stuff like wormholes, grasers, super robots, and railguns.  But that research (and more) is in there too…somewhere…so hooray!

I have been marching around with a pitchfork and a torch demanding that Congress be defenestrated…but this budget unexpectedly satisfies my most cherished demands.  Maybe if there were more blueprints like this I could swallow some more tax give-aways and religious idiocy and what not.  When I am having political arguments, I always say I will support any stupidity as long as there is more money for fundamental scientific research.  This government has really pushed just how far such a bargain extends…and yet they came through in the end.

Of course, there may be some people who cry out that all of those millions and billions could be given to impoverished communities (Democrats) or to needy multi-billionaire plutocrats (Republicans), but ensuring scientific research and keeping Visigoth hordes from swimming the ocean and sacking our cities are the two things the government MUST do to ensure there is a future….and they have done that.  The future generations who will have to pay this leviathan $1.3 trillion tab, might actually get something for their money: a yet-unknown equivalent of the internet, the capacitor, the moon landing, or the wonder vaccines of yesteryear. At least the government is trying to fulfill humankind’s most fundamental aspiration—to know more about the universe and how it works so we don’t destroy ourselves (sadly, this great quest, as construed by the powers-that-be, involves building tons of super-weapons with which to destroy ourselves, but nobody said life was easy).

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Of course it is a tumultuous time and I may be saying a very different thing next week, but for the present the seed corn for the crops of the future has been stowed away.  I am pleasantly surprised to say “Good job!” to our elected officials.

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