Monday, December 19, 2011

Senses of Science

Four months ago I wrote a post about wonder in an attempt to sketch out the aspirational mood of this blog (or at least my sense of it). In six week increments since I’ve metaphorically returned to that mood and tried to make its implications more concrete by mapping out the actual directions that thinking about wonder and new lines of disciplinary mingling have led my own research: first, into the domain of science film, and second, into postulations about this genre within a critical category I called ‘the impossible image.’

So come December, I’ve decided to take the opportunity for reflection provided by the end of a calendar year and circle back to wonder, backlit by a sense of some things I’ve learned from this multi-directional conversation thus far. The hero of this post is an out-and-out iconoclast: the scientist and Surrealist filmmaker Jean Painlevé, whose six-decade career was devoted to the intertwining of science and art on every level. A biologist trained in the Laboratoire d’Anatomie et d’Histologie Comparée at the Sorbonne, Painlevé was an avant-garde photographer and filmmaker who penned countless texts, reviews, polemics, and manifestos; was politically active during and beyond the Second World War; and initiated a scientific film institute dedicated to supporting and disseminating science film well before the nexus of art and science was comprehended as a serious topic.

underwater bricolage: Jean Painlevé with his diving gear
"Everything is the center of the world. I'm forced to be multicentric."
Best of all, Painlevé is a humorist. His mesmerizing films and delicate photographs, chatty texts and sparking interviews give us a way to concretize a subtle quality of the aesthetics of wonder—the significance of pleasure in the strangeness and surprising beauty of the natural world. The mood of his contribution to the history of our topic seems to me perfectly encapsulated in Foucault's riff on discovery and the affects of wonder:
Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity is seen as futility. However, I like the word; it suggests something quite different to me. It evokes "care"; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bacteria being naughty


This is nothing more than a pre-weekend, "isn't that interesting", eye-candy, filler post. It is a video I saw about a month ago that shows flashing bacteria.

Basically it shows bacteria that spontaneously flash (hence why they're being naughty... oh nevermind). Here is an article that explains what they're doing in more depth.  When on their own, this flashing is mostly random. In fact, even when they are in small bunches they appear to flash randomly. However, when in large packs they all flash in unison.

I suppose it is somewhat aesthetically pleasing just on its own, but the thing that drew my attention was how fascinating it was that the individual bacteria behaved differently when a part of a large collection as opposed to when on their own. It appears groupthink exists even at the microscopic level of life.

Monday, December 5, 2011

What does the sound of the Big Bang look like?

Six weeks ago I wrote a post where I tried to explain how we know that the Big Bang definitely happened. There are of course other reasons why we know the Big Bang happened, but I decided to focus on one, relatively easily explained piece of evidence, which is the existence and frequency spectrum of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).

Quickly summarising: The CMB is very cold radiation that permeates the entire universe. It was created when the expanding and cooling universe cooled to a point where it was cold enough for hydrogen atoms to form. Before this point, the electrons and protons in hydrogen had enough energy to be free from each other to form an opaque plasma. Once neutral hydrogen formed the universe became transparent and the CMB was formed and travelled (almost) freely forever after. We have detected and measured this CMB and its intensity as a function of its frequency (effectively, the brightness of each colour) is exactly what the Big Bang predicted. If there was no Big Bang there would be no reason to expect a CMB to exist, let alone for it to have this particular property. For more details please read my previous post and the links within.

When writing that post I had intended to say quite a bit more about the CMB and the Big Bang than I ended up having space for. It is not quite true that the mere existence (and spectrum) of the CMB is enough to conclusively determine that the Big Bang must have happened. However the existence of the CMB did build the metaphorical equivalent of a thousand big, bold and bright neon signs that all pointed aggressively towards the Big Bang being true.

When I began writing that earlier post and claimed that the CMB does conclusively prove that the Big Bang happened I had in my mind what I actually discuss in this post. This is the fact that we can see in the CMB the effects of sound waves that existed in the primordial hydrogen plasma. It is these sound waves and our measurements of them that puts the final nail in the coffin of all things not the Big Bang. They also represent what I claimed in that earlier post to be “jaw-droppingly stunning pieces of detective work”.

The glorious Planck satellite, measurer of all things CMB

Thursday, December 1, 2011


This is something I saw on the internet that was kind of nice. It seems that the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh is haunted by a mysterious artist. The artist takes books (not library books, thankfully!), turns them into sculptures and then surreptitiously places them in the library. A more thorough story on the sculptor is here (though not the identity).

Chris Scott/flickr

The library itself named the first work, a poetree... so don't blame me for the title of the post. The image above is a movie theatre with the characters leaping out of the screen and challenging the audience (a different angle below).

Chris Scott/flickr

There are lots of other equally nice sculptures, such as the original poetree, as well as a pleasant detective mystery to go with the missing identity of the surreptitious sculpture. All can be seen at the news article, so why not go read it?