Smell of Rain

Petrichor is the earthy fragrance produced when rain falls on soil or stone after a long period of warm, dry weather. It comes from the Greek “petra” meaning stone, and “ichor”, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.

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Petrichor was named by Australian researchers in 1964, who described it as a combination of plant oils and the chemical compound geosmin which are released from the soil when it rains. Geosmin is a bicyclic alcohol with the formula C12H22O, a derivative of decalin.

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It was also romanticised by Shakespeare in a sonnet:

Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,
But Lust’s effect is tempest after sun.
Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain;
Lust’s winter comes ere summer half be done.
Love surfeits not, Lust like a glutton dies;
Love is all truth, Lust full of forged lies.

In 2015, scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, used high-speed cameras to show how the smell of rain gets into the air. Raindrops trap tiny air bubbles as they hit the ground. The bubbles then shoot upwards through the raindrop and erupt into a fizz, producing extremely fine liquid droplets that stay suspended in the air as aerosols of scent.

 

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The smell of rain is strongest when light rain falls on sandy or clay soils. The speed of the raindrops during heavy rain makes it harder to trap the air bubbles that produce petrichor. Some scientists believe that humans developed a liking for the smell of rain as our ancestors depended on rainy weather for survival.

The MIT high-speed cameras, below, show raindrops landing and the emergence of petrichor aerosols as tiny white flecks.

Petrichor animation. Video by Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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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Shock leads to Myths

The popular support for Trump and Brexit may be explained in an unexpected space in Chichester, The Pallant House Gallery (22 October – 15 February).

Painted after the trauma of the First World War, Morning is by D Proctor (1929) and shows a girl alone, at the brink of waking.

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The exhibition compares this to a classical statue of Ariadne in Phrygian marble. The curator’s thesis is that the artists exhibited are engaged in a project that has some kind of parallel with Ulysses.  They are using myth, or classicism more generally, to give a shape to the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” of the postwar world. And it is science that is ultimately  responsible for this trauma of the modern catastrophe.

 

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Titian’s Danae is compared to M Frampton’s portrait of Marguerite Kelsey.

3237.jpgThis way of co-opting the classics is through clean lines and ordered compositions. After catastrophe there is order, after war the people are cold and tired.

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

 

Nabakov’s butterflies

Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabakov’s Scientific Art is published this month by Yale UP – written by SH Blackwell & K Johnson.

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Best known as a novelist, Nabakov was also a curator of Lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The  new biography features 154 of his drawings of ‘blues’ from the group Polyommatini.

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In Nabokov’s best-known novel, Lolita, the town Leppingville is his corruption of lepping (American for chasing butterflies) and Elphinstone is named after the subgenus Elphinstonia. Both in his novels and his entomology Nabokov gave great attention to such detail. He enjoyed the beauty of scientific accuracy and precision.

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In this scene from the film of that book, Humbert plays chess with Lolita’s mother as Lolita kisses Humbert goodnight. His line in the scene is “I take your Queen” suggestive of his designs on her daughter. Chess is a recurring motif in the novels of Nabokov and a favorite pastime of director Stanley Kubrick.

Queue

R Larson, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains the human behaviour of queueing as some kind of regional adaptation. He finds it significant that in the London riots of 2011, looters adhered to the principle of ‘first come, first serve’. They queued to loot.

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Queues of humans can move or stay still. Queues of other animals, ants and penguins, for example, always move.zeile-der-ameisen-7134297 th-1

Uncle Oliver

The novelist and neurologist Oliver Sacks died this week (1933 – August 30 2015).

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Oliver Sacks worked on the medical effects of neurotransmitters such as  L- Dopa. This can be synthesised and added to biochemical pathways in human nerve cells. The pathway shown here is involved with Parkinson’s Disease.

Recently Sacks wrote: “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

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