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Posts Tagged ‘science’

Airship: Photos from Guyana

June 24, 2016 | by

All photos by Lena Herzog, Blue Ship, 2004.

Lena Herzog, Blue Ship, 2004.

“Airship,” by Lena Herzog and Graham Dorrington, appeared in our Spring 2008 issueRead More »

Me and My Monkey

May 19, 2016 | by

Frank Buckland wanted to save—and eat—as many animals as possible.

Buckland with his pet monkeys.

This is the first entry in Edward White’s The Lives of Others, a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history. He has previously written for the Daily on Carl Van Vechten and rugby.

Every now and then, even Charles Darwin was dumbfounded by the mysteries of the natural world. On those occasions, he reached out for enlightenment to a repertory cast of scientific correspondents, one of whom was Francis Trevelyan Buckland, a raffish, tousle-haired star of the natural-history craze that befell Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. The two made for unlikely pen pals: if Darwin was the dour, sincere prophet who transformed humanity’s appreciation of its place in the universe, Buckland was a professional eccentric, as much showman as scientist. Although he did groundbreaking work in pisciculture (the breeding of fish), Buckland was perhaps best known as a lecturer, beguiling huge audiences with his left-field takes on botany, zoology, and human anatomy. As a general rule, the weirder the subject, the more likely Buckland was to have something to say about it: the fighting behavior of newts, the cannibalistic propensities of rats, the best method for killing a boa constrictor, gigantism, walking fish, flea circuses, conjoined twins (he was a good friend of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins), the uses of human hair as manure, and pagan burial rites. Tellingly, it was Buckland to whom Darwin turned to verify a claim that a dog and a lion had successfully bred in rural Russia. Read More »

The Pleasures of the Moth Hunter, and Other News

May 5, 2016 | by

Vincent van Gogh, Emperor Moth (detail), 1889.

  • Guess which living luminary has a new essay out? Hint one: it involves California, the seventies, and a certain inimitable brand of world weariness. Hint two: the author is an anagram of “Dad Join Ion.” “I see now that the life I was raised to admire was infinitely romantic,” she writes. “The clothes chosen for me had a strong element of the Pre-Raphaelite, the medieval. Muted greens and ivories. Dusty roses. (Other people wore powder blue, red, white, navy, forest green, and Black Watch plaid. I thought of them as ‘conventional,’ but I envied them secretly. I was doomed to unconventionality.) Our houses were also darker than other people’s, and we favored, as a definite preference, copper and brass that had darkened and greened. We also let our silver darken carefully in all the engraved places, to ‘bring out the pattern.’ To this day I am disturbed by highly polished silver. It looks ‘too new.’ ”
  • Remember that golden toilet I told you about a few weeks ago, the one that’s being installed at the Guggenheim? Well—there’s no easy way to say this—there’s been a problem. And now the toilet is delayed indefinitely. I share in your outrage because I, like you, can’t really “produce” on any toilet without at least a little gold in it. But remember, it’s not everyday that a foundry is called upon to cast a solid-gold throne. You can’t rush quality. A spokeswoman said of the wait: “It’s not days, but I can’t be more specific than that right now … The foundry encountered technical difficulties which they are working to resolve … To the museum’s knowledge, this kind of casting process has never been done before.”
  • Today in boundaries and demarcations: Give up. They don’t exist. Felice Frankel, a science photographer, has used her images to seek edges, the point where one thing definitively becomes another. “If you really, really get down to things,” she says, “what looks like a clean separation from one place to another, when you investigate it microscopically or macroscopically, is not as perfect as it appears … I believe strongly that we need to have a conversation; or part of the display, the depiction, has to be some sort of description about how the picture was made. We have to create standards, not only in the making of the pictures, but in understanding what the pictures are saying—and to really be aware of image manipulation, for example. My concern is that all scientific images are clumped together in one big happy family of honest representations, and that’s not necessarily the case.”
  • Of the twentieth century’s many extinctions, the moths—sixty-two species of which have disappeared in the UK alone—have perhaps not been properly mourned. Cue John Burnside: “Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations … Even the names are cause for delight. ‘Garden tiger’ and ‘snout’ are self-explanatory, but who came up with ‘Brighton wainscot’ for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or ‘Clifden nonpareil’ for that astonishing specimen whose underwing—a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe—is actually a defense mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected color?”
  • If American popular culture from Roseanne to Beyoncé has taught us one thing, it is this: don’t be a Becky. “The quintessential Becky character we know and loathe today was thrust into the mainstream cultural lexicon in 1992 when she appeared in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s booty-shaking anthem, ‘Baby Got Back.’ In the song’s intro, a white woman gossips to her friend about a black woman’s behind. ‘Oh my god, Becky, look at her butt. It is so big. She looks like one of those rap guy’s girlfriends’ … Throughout movies and television of the 1990s and 2000s, Becky is often characterized not only as promiscuous, but also as image-obsessed. She appears frequently as a pageant queen, a vapid shopaholic, or an irresponsible teenager … Over the last decade, some of the most detested characters on television have all had one thing in common: they are in high school, and their names are Becky.”

Plimpton Worldwide, and Other News

April 28, 2016 | by

George Plimpton (left) with cat (right).

  • Jenny Diski has died at sixty-eight. Blake Morrison told the Guardian: “What I liked was her abrasiveness—she was tough, not least on herself. Whatever subject she took on—rape, depression, the sixties, Antarctica—she had something new and surprising to say … Some of the diaries and reviews she published in the London Review of Books were small masterpieces.” You can read those diaries here. “It’s as simple as pushing a button, and I’m lost in no man’s land,” she wrote in the last entry. “The insoluble grief. Not that there’s anything to be done about any of it.”
  • Prince’s early webmaster remembers helping him with the NPG Music Club, a crucial forerunner for social media, digital music, and artist-run distribution: “If he built his own online record label, his own online radio station, and his own online music store, he had just as much access to his audience as the traditional channels did. He finally had a way to skip all the barriers and go direct … This direct connection between the fans and an artist on Prince’s level didn’t exist before the NPG Music Club. There was no Twitter, Facebook, or even YouTube. At the time, he saw direct Internet distribution as a model for all artists. He would tell me, if you could build your own music club, why would you need to pay anyone else a share and give away all your fans’ information? Why not do it all yourself—downloads, concert tickets, streaming concert events, and even a hub for emerging artists? He was leading the way to a new artist-owned music business … For a moment in time, we had something special no one had ever seen before—and something prescient, that predicted some of the questions about online distribution and artist agency that would come later.”
  • Today in reality: Is it real? Do our sense perceptions offer anything more than impotent glimpses of the world outside our heads? “We’ve been shaped to have perceptions that keep us alive, so we have to take them seriously. If I see something that I think of as a snake, I don’t pick it up. If I see a train, I don’t step in front of it. I’ve evolved these symbols to keep me alive, so I have to take them seriously. But it’s a logical flaw to think that if we have to take it seriously, we also have to take it literally … I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind.”
  • When George Plimpton wasn’t editing The Paris Review, he was doing … almost literally everything else. “Plimpton was an omnipresence for much of American cultural life—both high and low—in the last third of the twentieth century. He appeared in commercials for Oldsmobile and Intellivision, and appeared in the movies The Bonfire of the Vanities and Good Will Hunting and on TV’s Married with Children. He was present when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, helping to tackle Sirhan Sirhan. He turned up as a character on The Simpsons. In a New Yorker cartoon from 1967, a man about to undergo surgery looks up at the doctor wearing a mask and asks, ‘Wait a minute! How do I know you’re not George Plimpton?’ That Zelig-like identity rested largely on a series of seven books in which the New York–born, Harvard-educated Plimpton threw himself both physically and intellectually into the professional sporting life. Decades before the onset of reality TV and the Twittersphere, Plimpton starred in his own Everyman story.”
  • As I write this, Moscow is teeming with horrendous art. So what, you may say—so’s New York. At least in Moscow’s case there’s a festival to blame: the Moscow Spring Festival, with a three-million-dollar price tag. “By Friday, the entire center of the city was covered with sculptures and installations, most of them far larger than life size. These included a plastic reproduction of the classic Russian painting Bogatyrs (featuring three Russian-superhero horsemen), the size of a two-story house; the head of a woman—also roughly the size of a house—in faux topiary, with a twisted hand growing out of the ground next to it; and a cartoon Soviet policeman, which was the height of a small apartment building. It was as if the city had been invaded by a horde of aliens with flamboyantly bad taste. The Moscow intelligentsia recoiled in horror.”

The Glories of Word Processing, and Other News

April 15, 2016 | by

From an ad for the Xerox 860.

  • Our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, on David Foster Wallace’s tennis writing: “David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis because life gave it to him … He wrote about it in fiction, essays, journalism, and reviews; it may be his most consistent theme at the surface level. Wallace himself drew attention, consciously or not, to both his love for the game and its relevance to how he saw the world … For me, the cumulative effect of Wallace’s tennis-themed nonfiction is a bit like being presented with a mirror, one of those segmented mirrors they build and position in space, only this one is pointed at a writer’s mind. The game he writes about is one that, like language, emphasizes the closed system, makes a fetish of it (‘Out!’). He seems both to exult and to be trapped in its rules, its cruelties. He loves the game but yearns to transcend it.”
  • Everyone likes to shit on Microsoft Word now, but Dylan Hicks, reviewing Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, reminds us that the genesis of word processors was an exciting time to be a writer—and that word processing offered a glimpse of perfection: “Culling from specialized publications, mainstream journalism, and author interviews, Kirschenbaum recaptures the excitement and optimism writers often felt in the face of this magical new technology. To many, word processing seemed to promise a new possibility for aesthetic perfection. ‘Perfect’ was the leading marketing keyword, found in ad copy and in product names such as WordPerfect, Letter Perfect, and Perfect Writer, and more than a few novelists greeted the mantra as something more than hype. If, in one traditional view, literary perfection was either illusory or the province of poems and other short works, now, it seemed, even a long novel could be refined to an apotheosis of unalterable integrity. The modularity of word-processed text made major structural reorganization a matter of a few clicks (well, you’d probably need to switch back and forth between several floppy disks). You could tinker endlessly with sentences: transposing phrases, deleting a comma, replacing an adjective, restoring the comma. You could search out and decimate pet words and phrases. Hannah Sullivan, a scholar quoted by Kirschenbaum, wrote in 2013 that, with word processing, “the cost of revision” had ‘fallen almost to zero.’ Kirschenbaum quotes a 1988 interview with Anne Rice in which she held that, with word processing, ‘there’s really no excuse for not writing the perfect book.’ ”
  • The main problem with using enormous mirrors to communicate with extraterrestrials is that it’s too expensive. Yes, it sounds like a surefire way to make contact—you just rig up a heliotrope and beam a lot of light to the moon, where all aliens live—but when Victorian-era inventors tried to make good on this idea, they realized that mirrors aren’t cheap. Sarah Laskow explains: “In 1874, Charles Cros, a French inventor with a flair for poetry (or, perhaps, a poet with a flair for invention), floated the idea of focusing electric light on Mars or Venus using parabolic mirrors. The next year, in 1875, Edvard Engelbert Neovius came up with a scheme involving 22,500 electric lamps. Then, an astronomer writing under the name A. Mercier proposed putting a series of reflectors on the Eiffel Tower, which would capture light at sunset and redirect it towards Mars … In 1909, William Pickering, the American astronomer who ... proposed the existence of a Planet O, gave some idea why. He calculated that a system of mirrors that could reach across the distance from Earth to Mars would cost about $10 million to construct.”
  • Eileen Myles on living in Marfa: “I went to Marfa on a Lannan residency in March of 2015 & fell in love with the place. I had been hearing about Marfa forever and grumpily thinking why can’t I get invited there though most of my friends who had been there are visual artists but I wanted in. I think I even told the Lannan people about my deep frustration as I was accepting the invitation. Everyone loves Marfa though some people love to laugh at it because it’s the most delightful combination of rough and twee. Things are falling down but there’s always someone there to catch it for a year and put a sign on it and make it cool. It sees itself and yet the land is always hovering … But driving that stretch which is bordered by mountains is my real vista. I like to listen to music and drive along that road and sometimes the train passes. That’s heaven to me.”
  • It’s Friday, people. Get out there and befriend a pelican. The dean of a Czech medical school did it, so you can, too: “Vladimír Komárek, the dean of the Second Faculty of Medicine at Charles University in Prague, met his college’s adopted pelican and immediately had a bond with it … In an interview posted on the university’s website, the dean said the faculty had adopted a pelican at Prague Zoo, but he had never personally visited it … He scooped up his new feathered friend in his arms and posed for the cameras. Many commenters lightheartedly suggested that the duo shared the same haircut, and said this was why they appeared to get on so well. The bird seemed calm in his arms, despite the fact he was a human stranger.”

Hoops and the Abstract Truth

March 1, 2016 | by

Curry after his game-winning shot.

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” Einstein wrote in The World As I See It. “It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

Thus far, the NBA has been far from that cradle this season. There’s not a lot of mystery when you have two superior teams—when the best players in the game are playing like the best players in the game. The results have, for the most part, certified reasonable assumptions as truths. Read More »