Saturday, July 30, 2016

Grand Harmonies

Mathematician Henri Poincaré believed we study science and natural phenomena because we take pleasure in it. We take pleasure in natural phenomena because they're beautiful. On the motivation behind scientific inquiry Poincaré wrote:

"If nature were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and life would not be worth living."
Henri Poincaré

Lavender and Green
Arthur Wesley Dow

Poincaré delineated between the beauty of appearances and the beauty of intellectual abstractions like the mathematics undergirding science.
I am not speaking, of course, of the beauty which strikes the senses, of the beauty of qualities and appearances. I am far from despising this, but it has nothing to do with science. What I mean is that more intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp.
Henri Poincaré
Drawing these distinctions was Poincaré's preference. At some level, these distinctions becomes immaterial. Perception is subjective whether born from sensual input from natural phenomena or from the symbolic abstractions crafted to model the behavior of some natural phenomena. Sublimity is sublimity. Beauty is beauty.

Geologist and early expedition leader in the American west John Wesley Powell wrote of the harmony of form, color, and sound he experienced after he explored the Grand Canyon:
The glories and the beauties of form, color, and sound unite in the Grand Canyon - forms unrivaled even by the mountains, colors that vie with sunsets, and sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountain.
John Wesley Powell
The Destroyer
Arthur Wesley Dow
circa 1911-13
American artist Arthur Wesley Dow argued against the shallow pursuit of painting imitative likenesses of nature. Rather he advocated for composition: the harmonious use of line, color, and shading.
Composition, building up of harmony, is the fundamental process in all the fine arts. I hold that art should be approached through composition rather than through imitative drawing.
Arthur Wesley Dow
The Destroyer, a curvilinear composition of the Grand Canyon is an exquisite example of Dow's use of line, color, and shading.

Dow's painting evokes a sensual experience of the Grand Canyon that arguably would've been absent in a representational painting.

Dow was influenced by Japanese art. He was taken by the compositional freedom that encouraged off-center subject matter. He was inspired by the use of flat areas of strong color, simplified shapes, and patterns of darks and lights — elements that also influenced the arts and crafts movement.

August Moon
Arthur Wesley Dow
circa 1905

Simplicity is revealed by complexity. Harmony emerges from discord. Both await our discovery.
Three Rules of Work:
Out of clutter find simplicity.
From discord find harmony.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
Albert Einstein


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Vagaries of Habitat

Egyptian peasant farmers
The transition from human subsistence on foraging and hunting to crop farming communities began around 10,000 B.C.

Humans have been moving, tilling, diverting, mining, burning, fabricating, fouling and laying waste unabated ever since.

The agricultural revolution was born from an aspiration to exercise sufficient control over our habitat to ensure a predictable supply of food.

Human impact on the biosphere is often ignored, downplayed, or denied, but that doesn't comport with the evidence. Humans have a knack for engineering and adapting the natural environment to changing needs and desires.

In Plans for Altering the River, poet Richard Hugo writes of the human propensity to engineer habitat. Hugo explores the vagaries and absurdities of altering a river.
Plans for Altering the River
by Richard Hugo

Those who favor our plans to alter the river
raise your hand. Thank you for your vote.
Last week, you'll recall, I spoke about how water
never complains. How it runs where you tell it,
seemingly at home, flooding grain or pinched
by geometric banks like those in this graphic
depiction of our plan. We ask for power:
a river boils or falls to turn our turbines.
The river approves our plans to alter the river.

Due to a shipwreck downstream, I'm sad to report
our project is not on schedule. The boat
was carrying cement for our concrete rip rap
balustrade that will force the river to run
east of the factory site through the state-owned
grove of cedar. Then, the uncooperative
carpenters union went on strike. When we get
that settled, and the concrete, given good weather
we can go ahead with our plan to alter the river.

We have the injunction. We silenced the opposition.
The workers are back. The materials arrived
and everything's humming. I thank you
for this award, this handsome plaque I'll keep
forever above my mantle, and I'll read
the inscription often aloud to remind me
how with your courageous backing I fought
our battle and won. I'll always remember
this banquet this day we started to alter the river.

Flowers on the bank? A park on Forgotten Island?
Return of cedar and salmon? Who are these men?
These Johnnys-come-lately with plans to alter the river?
What's this wild festival in May
celebrating the runoff, display floats on fire
at night and a forest dance under the stars?
Children sing through my locked door, 'Old stranger,
we're going to alter, to alter, alter the river.'
Just when the water was settled and at home.

Hugo personifies water, writing water never complains and it runs where you tell it. The natural world seems to comply to the whims of the plan.

Los Angeles Aqueduct
by Jet Lowe

Despite our inclination to control, our most careful plans are subject to the unforeseen like a shipwreck downstream or uncooperative carpenters. Eventually it seems we must alter what's already been altered, "Just when the water was settled and at home".


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Birds in Flight

Sooty Tern in Flight
by Duncan Wright
Many species of bird travel north and south along flyways between seasonal breeding and wintering grounds. Bird migration was recorded by Homer and Aristotle 3,000 years ago.

Seasonal migration is driven by the availability of food and by the suitability of nesting sites.

Arctic Terns makes the longest yearly journey, flying from Arctic breeding grounds to the Antarctic.

The Southern Royal Albatross circles the Earth over the southern oceans. The Sooty Tern spends months at sea before returning to land to breed.

Migration is often arduous and carries the existential threats of predation and mortality.

In Flight
by Jennifer K. Sweeney

The Himalayan legend says
there are beautiful white birds
that live completely in flight.
They are born in the air,

must learn to fly before falling
and die also in their flying.
Maybe you have been born
into such a life

with the bottom dropping out.
Maybe gravity is claiming you
and you feel

For the one who lives inside the fall,
the sky beneath the sky of all.

by L. Shyamal


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Life's Glow

This time of year in temperate regions, many harken the arrival of firefly mating. Their chemically produced light appears like tiny lanterns floating over the landscape.

Hotaria parvula of Kurayoshi
by hm777

In their mating ritual, fireflies emit bioluminescent light from their abdomens during twilight.

Mating is a curiosity. In a summary account of more than a billion years of an evolutionary life force, Carl Sagan and his spouse Ann Druyan, explore the ever-elusive purpose of life:

“Fireflies out on a warm summer's night, seeing the urgent, flashing, yellow-white phosphorescence below them, go crazy with desire; moths cast to the winds an enchantment potion that draws the opposite sex, wings beating hurriedly, from kilometers away; peacocks display a devastating corona of blue and green and the peahens are all aflutter; competing pollen grains extrude tiny tubes that race each other down the female flower's orifice to the waiting egg below; luminescent squid present rhapsodic light shows, altering the pattern, brightness and color radiated from their heads, tentacles, and eyeballs; a tapeworm diligently lays a hundred thousand fertilized eggs in a single day; a great whale rumbles through the ocean depths uttering plaintive cries that are understood hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, where another lonely behemoth is attentively listening; bacteria sidle up to one another and merge; cicadas chorus in a collective serenade of love; honeybee couples soar on matrimonial flights from which only one partner returns; male fish spray their spunk over a slimy clutch of eggs laid by God-knows-who; dogs, out cruising, sniff each other's nether parts, seeking erotic stimuli; flowers exude sultry perfumes and decorate their petals with garish ultraviolet advertisements for passing insects, birds, and bats; and men and women sing, dance, dress, adorn, paint, posture, self-mutilate, demand, coerce, dissemble, plead, succumb, and risk their lives.

To say that love makes the world go around is to go too far. The Earth spins because it did so as it was formed and there has been nothing to stop it since. But the nearly maniacal devotion to sex and love by most of the plants, animals, and microbes with which we are familiar is a pervasive and striking aspect of life on Earth. It cries out for explanation. What is all this in aid of? What is the torrent of passion and obsession about? Why will organisms go without sleep, without food, gladly put themselves in mortal danger for sex? ... For more than half the history of life on Earth organisms seem to have done perfectly well without it. What good is sex?... Through 4 billion years of natural selection, instructions have been honed and fine-tuned...sequences of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts, manuals written out in the alphabet of life in competition with other similar manuals published by other firms. The organisms become the means through which the instructions flow and copy themselves, by which new instructions are tried out, on which selection operates.

'The hen,' said Samuel Butler, 'is the egg's way of making another egg.' It is on this level that we must understand what sex is for. ... The sockeye salmon exhaust themselves swimming up the mighty Columbia River to spawn, heroically hurdling cataracts, in a single-minded effort that works to propagate their DNA sequences into future generation. The moment their work is done, they fall to pieces. Scales flake off, fins drop, and soon--often within hours of spawning--they are dead and becoming distinctly aromatic.

They've served their purpose.

Nature is unsentimental.

Death is built in.”

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

Male fireflies emit light to attract a female mate. When a female detects a male emitting a recognized and favorable wavelength, she'll respond with her own light to signal her receptiveness to a reproductive liaison.

Summer Night
by Yasushi Kikuchi

Nature is unsentimental, but poetic. Still, "death is built in". Fireflies live for about 10 days.
"Well, what I don't get is why do we exist? I don't mean how, but why.' I watched the fireflies of his thoughts orbit his head. He said, 'we exist because we exist. . .we could imagine all sorts of universes like this one, but this is the one that happened."
Jonathan Safran Foer


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Marking Time

The word planet is derived from the ancient Greek πλανήτης (planētēs) meaning nomad or wanderer. Nomad and wanderer are fitting metaphors for Earthborn observers on a life raft orbiting the Sun.

Points to Eastern Horizon
archival pigmented print

The construct of time, the narrative element of marking time, and the construct of orientation are traceable to the human experience of a random and arbitrary astronomical phenomenon: The elliptical circuit Earth travels around the Sun.

A 365° elliptical circuit of the Sun is the astronomical metronome that provides the clicks and markers for perhaps the most persistent human narratives which are the marking of time and a sense of direction.

Years are marked by a lap around the Sun. A year is segmented into seasons. Earth proceeds counter-clockwise through eight spatial milestones marking the beginning, midpoint and end of each season. The eight positions are visualized as spokes on what is considered the Wheel of the Year by modern Pagans.

Last month, Earth traveled through its Summer Solstice. Next month Earth passes through the cross-quarter called Lughnasadh, corresponding to a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest. September brings the Autumnal Equinox, followed by the cross-quarter Samhain, corresponding to a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest.

December harkens the arrival of Winter Solstice, followed by the cross-quarter Imbolc in February, corresponding to a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring. March brings the Vernal Equinox, followed by the cross-quarter Beltane, corresponding to a Gaelic May day festival. Completing the circuit brings us back to the Summer Solstice.

A rising and setting Sun is a predictable orientational prop. The force of gravity plays the principal role in our orientational fiction for up and down.

Earth's orbit of the Sun provides an additional framework for directional orientation. In native American cultures, notably the Hopis, direction is derived from observable phenomena rather than intellectual abstraction.
The four cardinal directions of Hopi cosmology, and apparently those of many other American Indian cosmologies, are not the four directions which the European tradition derives from an abstract geometrization of space. Rather their cardinal directions are empirically observable ones defined by observations of sunrise and sunset at the winter and summer solstices. The four solstitial directions not only provide a stable empirical framework within which astronomical observations are made, but they also provide a general cosmological framework which draws apparently unrelated natural phenomena into an organic unity.
Stephen C. McCluskey
Ancient humans gazed up at the night sky to observe sparkling bodies overhead seemingly stationary, but to the patient observer, moving. Our ancient ancestors would have noticed the phases of the Moon because of the opportunities and threats an illuminated Moon might have posed to them.

Antares over Moonhouse
archival pigmented print

With unaided eye, our ancient ancestors would have also noticed faster moving bodies in the sky which we now know were the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. They likely would have noted sunlight and shadow aligning, striking, and passing across targets aligned with equinox, solstice, and cross-quarter sunrises and sunsets.
We are all one child spinning through Mother Sky.
Shawnee proverb
To ancient civilizations awed by cyclical astronomical phenomena, the ability to predict and mark such events was prized and sacred knowledge.