End of the World

Spiral Jetty is Robert Smithton’s Monument to Catastrophe, in Utah, and was featured in the New York Times on July 7th by H. Julavits.09spiral1-superJumbo-v3.jpg

(For scale, above, in the middle you see two people standing.)

It comprises more than 6,000 tons of black basalt rocks extending 1,500 feet into the Great Salt Lake. It is in the shape of a counterclockwise vortex, designed by Robert Smithson in the 1970s.

It is called the ‘Spiral Jetty’ though some prefer ‘The End of the World’ and gives a feeling of aloneness, in a place that is unsafe and somehow devilish.

During some winters the rock is covered by water. To reach the Monument you have to drive along 16 miles of unpaved road that is often flooded.09mag-09spiral.t_CA1-superJumbo.jpg

If you must visit, it’s best to go at this time of the year.

More than Meets the Eye

Milton’s Paradise Lost is 350 years old this month.

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William Blake, a most brilliant interpreter of Milton, wrote of how “the Eye of Imagination” saw beyond the narrow confines of “single vision”, creating works that outlasted “mortal vegetated Eyes”.

In more than 10,000 lines of blank verse, the poem tells the story of the war for heaven and of man’s expulsion from Eden. a meditation on challenging and longing.

Milton is shown dictating Paradise Lost

The almost blind Milton dictates Paradise Lost to his daughters in an engraving after a painting by M. Munkacsy (Credit: Alamy)

In Paradise Lost, Milton conjures the spirits of blind prophets. He invokes Homer, author of the first great epics in Western literature, and Tiresias, the oracle of Thebes who sees in his mind’s eye what the physical eye cannot. As the philosopher Descartes wrote during Milton’s lifetime, “it is the soul which sees, and not the eye”.

Now, there are many ways to see through blindness. One is by scanning tunnelling microscopy which can give images on an atomic scale.

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Necessary Ambiguity

1930 was a good year for ambiguity. The artist from Iowa, Grant Wood, painted American Gothic and the Bloomsbury critic William Empson published Seven Types of Ambiguity.

 

p04cm1xz.jpg  Conventional wisdom sees Wood’s picture describing the puritan life-style of the American mid-west – dour rigidity about hard work and sexuality. But there are questions that the sceptical scientist will ask. Are the couple brother and sister or husband and wife?  Are their frowns normal or is there a recent tragedy? Why does the man hold the fork when they wear their Sunday clothes?

Even more sceptical scientific scrutiny reveals further ambiguity. Below the woman’s right ear there is a serpentine-shaped tress that’s fallen loose from the tied-back hair of the prim, apron-clad woman. Is her falling hair evidence of a recent ravishing?

She also wears a Persephone brooch, invoking the mythological story of that goddess’s rape by Hades. The man’s hayfork echoes Hades’ signature two-pronged weapon. Does this suggest a modern rehearsal of that brutal myth?

Can a scientist devise an experiment to resolve these matters? But that would remove our interest in the picture.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Today is William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.

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Most days, we quote his words:

1. “With bated breath” – The Merchant Of Venice

2. “The be all and end all” – Macbeth

3. “Break the ice” – The Taming Of The Shrew

4. “Dead as a doornail” – Henry VI, Part II

5. “Faint-hearted” – Henry VI, Part I

6. “Wild-goose chase” – Romeo And Juliet

7. “Laugh yourself into stitches (in stitches)” – Twelfth Night

8. “Zany” – Love’s Labour’s Lost

9. “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve” – Othello

10. “What’s done, is done” – Macbeth

11. “At one fell swoop” – Macbeth

12. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it (There’s method in my madness)” – Hamlet

13. “Spotless reputation” – Richard II

14. “Laughing-stock” – The Merry Wives Of Windsor

15. “Eaten out of house and home” – Henry IV, Part 2

16. “Fair play” – The Tempest/King John/Troilus And Cressida

17. “In a pickle” – The Tempest

18. “Send him packing” – Henry IV, Part 1

19. “Too much of a good thing” – As You Like It

 

Entanglement

You can think of Space as being built from Entanglement.

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In it, the Crab Nebula is one great big collection of particles.

Quantum-Entanglement

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Quantum Entanglement suggests that information is exchanged faster than the speed of light between these particles. The idea was deemed impossible by Einstein in his Theory of Relativity but is now receiving much attention by quantum physicists. Even when the space between them is empty, quantum fields in the two regions are entangled with one another.

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These ideas may even connect to other kinds of patterns and theories, chaos theory and fractals.

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This image is a theoretical nebula with particles entangled yet separate.

See Nature 527, 290-293, November 19 2015.

Water Flower

The extinct flowering plant, Montsechia vidalii, once grew abundantly in freshwater lakes in what are now mountainous regions in Spain. Fossils of the plant (below left) were first discovered more than 100 years ago in the limestone deposits of the Iberian Range in central Spain and in the Montsec Range of the Pyrenees, near the country’s border with France. The fossils are dated as being about 125 million years old and are re-interpreted by the palaeontologist David Dilcher in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Dilcher has also described another of the earliest flowers as Archaefructus, also an aquatic plant, and found only as fossil in China:220px-Archaefructus_liaoningensis

Montsechia was contemporaneous or more ancient than Archaefructus. It had no petals or  nectar-producing structures for attracting insects, and lived out its entire life cycle under water. The most likely modern equivalent to Montsechia is Ceratophyllum, or hornwort, familiar in modern aquariums and artificial ponds:

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In the absence of DNA in the fossils, or any other definitive evidence that can be measured accurately, comparisons of the fossil and this modern species are crude and subjective. It means there is still art as well as science involved in these latest interpretations.

A New Science, A New Art

Complex networks are created by social media on the World Wide Web.

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They hinge on the spread of information from very small nodes to the whole network when activated. This is what can happen when you tweet.

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The studies of how activation happens, what it means to be such an ‘influencer’ and whether similar interactions happen in nature, are rapidly establishing new science and art forms.

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Just one recent study is by F Morone & HA Makse, Nature 524, 65-68, August 6 2015.