Recalibrate Your Breathing: Three Excursions

Timothy Don writes in The Old Town Review:

Sometimes it is nice to go and look at a thing in the freedom of an afternoon. This is one of the supreme pleasures of being alive in New York City—wandering around on subways and in neighborhoods, rambling through parks, along beaches, sidewalks and so forth. This wandering has an inadvertent aim, inadvertent in that it always comes as a surprise, aimful in that one seeks that surprise. Sometimes, through a willful inattentiveness, we encounter art. This is what it means to be civilized. How remarkable to live in a time and in a city in which it is possible, if we so choose, to spend an afternoon contemplating a 12th Century etching (of an ascetic, a maiden and a goose), a color field painting by Mark Rothko, or a single page from one of da Vinci’s notebooks. We are the fortunate ones.

There are few activities in the engagement of which human beings appear so foolish and bloated as when they are looking at a piece of art. Taking it seriously. Encountering it. It’s even worse when they open their mouths and begin to remark on it. There is a lot of bad breath in museums, galleries and at happenings. But the reason for this halitosis swirling around art is that the appreciation of it occurs in public. Aesthetic experiences, as Peter de Bolla has noted, operate at a low frequency. They are private; each one wants to produce a sacred solitude in its attendant, and the objects that provoke them would like nothing so much as to be looked at, closely, for up to an hour, through each eye.

Needless to say, it is difficult to look at objects suchwise in public, but even an oblique consideration of a sublime work on a crowded Sunday in the stuffiest of museums can, like Sylvia Plath’s black rook in rainy weather, still “seize my senses, haul my eyelids up, and grant a brief respite from fear of total neutrality.” Whatever it is in an art object that has this effect, we find it valuable because it makes us deliberately alive, and since we have to be alive anyway (being alive one condition of being human), we might as well enjoy it.

Art is selfish, it is not kind, it puts on airs. It is proud. Art hogs up space, demands attention and oozes self-importance. It needs to be displayed. There is indeed something very silly in art, and worse. As I write this there are corpses drying in the desert, families extinguished with the flick of a finger. A major power is at war; the geopolitical sphere shudders; the smallness of the globe and the pettiness of our desires are revealed. History is a bloody thing and time is traversed with gory feet. This time at least, we are dragging the rag of democracy along behind us—but in the face of our current situation art seems not much more than an indulgent and irrelevant luxury.

Read more here.

‘Saturday’: One Day in the Life

Zoe Heller writes in the New York  Times:             

Mcewan164b When British journalists complain — as they often do — about the ”elitism” of contemporary British literature, the honorable exception they often cite is the fiction of Ian McEwan. The distinctive achievement of McEwan’s work has been to marry literary seriousness and ambition with a pace and momentum more commonly associated with genre fiction. He is the master clockmaker of novelists, piecing together the cogs and wheels of his plots with unerring meticulousness. Even as the menacing, predatory mood of his novels tends to engender anxiety, the reliability of their craftsmanship — the relentlessness of their forward motion — instills confidence. The result, for the reader, is a sort of serene tension. That ticktock resonating through the paragraphs is the countdown to some horrible disaster, certainly, but also the sound of a perfectly calibrated machine working just as it should.

In ”Saturday,” McEwan’s new novel, these characteristic virtues of structural elegance and coherence are on prominent display — not least in the Aristotelian discipline with which he has confined the temporal span of his story to a single day. The day in question, bookended by two symmetrical episodes of lovemaking, belongs to a British neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne. Perowne is a fortunate man. In addition to his worthy, fulfilling job and the panoply of upper-middle-class privileges it pays for, he is blessed with a joyous domestic life. He has two successful, attractive children — 23-year-old Daisy, who is about to publish her first collection of poetry, and 18-year-old Theo, a prodigiously talented blues musician. He also has a lovely, capable wife, Rosalind, with whom, after nearly a quarter-century of marriage, he remains deeply in love.

This multitude of blessings, coupled with his confidence in the certainty of scientific progress, gives rise to a contentment that verges perilously on complacency. In another time and place, Perowne would almost certainly be a smug man. But it is his fate to live in the early 21st century — in the ”baffled and fearful” days following 9/11 and leading up to the current war in Iraq — and neither his embarrassment of riches, nor his general inclination to optimism, can protect him from the darkness of his times.

Read more here.

Aceh–Andaman earthquake: What happened and what’s next?

Kerry Sieh writes in Nature:

As the human drama of the Aceh–Andaman earthquake and tsunami unfolded in the last days of 2004, laymen and scientists began scrambling to understand what had caused these gigantic disturbances of Earth’s crust and seas. One of the earliest clues was the delineation, within just hours of the mainshock, of a band of large aftershocks arcing 1,300 km from northern Sumatra almost as far as Myanmar (Burma). This seemed to signal that about 25% of the Sunda megathrust, the great tectonic boundary along which the Australian and Indian plates begin their descent beneath Southeast Asia, had ruptured. In less than a day, however, analyses of seismic ‘body’ waves were indicating that the length of the rupture was only about 400 km.

This early controversy about the length of the megathrust rupture created a gnawing ambiguity about future dangers to populations around the Bay of Bengal. If only 400 km of the great fault had ruptured, large unfailed sections might be poised to deliver another tsunami. If, on the other hand, most of the submarine fault had broken, then the chances of such a disaster were much smaller.

It is sobering to realize that big earthquakes sometimes occur in clusters (for example, seven of the ten giant earthquakes of the twentieth century occurred between 1950 and 1965, and five of these occurred around the northern Pacific margin). Because many of the giant faults in the Aceh–Andaman neighbourhood have been dormant for a very long time, it is quite plausible that the recent giant earthquake and tsunami may not be the only disastrous twenty-first-century manifestation of the Indian plate’s unsteady tectonic journey northward.

Read more here.

Dambudzo Marechera

Brian Chikwava in The Guardian:

Marachera128As Zimbabweans go to the polls, one writer and poet they may do well to remember is the late Dambudzo Marechera. Marechera, who died in 1987 at only 35, was one of African literature’s most fascinating and unorthodox figures. He is, on a sunny afternoon, one of Africa’s first products of the post-modern condition; and on a damp morning, Africa’s first intellectual aberration. Such is the ambivalent nature of his work. After being expelled from Oxford University for his anarchist tendencies in 1976 and spending years on the streets with his rucksack and typewriter, Marechera returned to independent Zimbabwe in 1982 where he continued with his street life. His encounter with independent Zimbabwe was not a wholly comfortable experience for him. “I have been an outsider in my own biography, in my country’s history, in the world’s terrifying possibilities,” he once said.

More here.

In Lab’s High-Speed Collisions, Things Just Vanish

Kenneth Chang in the New York Times:

29blacThe bits and pieces flying out from the high-speed collisions of gold nuclei at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island have not been behaving quite as physicists had expected.

According to one theoretical physicist, the collisions have even been creating a sort of tiny, short-lived black hole – very, very tiny and very, very short-lived. It lasts less than one-10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th of a second.

And it’s not even really a black hole.

The black holes known to astronomers form when a star (or something larger) collapses and the gravitational pull grows so powerful that nothing can escape, not even light.

The Brookhaven mini-black hole, if it existed, would have nothing to do with gravity. Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, RHIC (pronounced rick) for short, accelerates gold nuclei – atoms stripped of their surrounding clouds of electrons – to 99.995 percent of the speed of light and then slams them together, head-on.

More here.

The Human Cancer Genome Project

From The Boston Globe:

The proposed Human Cancer Genome Project would be greater in scale than the Human Genome Project, which has already mapped the blueprint of the human genetic structure. Its goal woudl be to determine the DNA sequence of thousands of tumor samples, the Times reported, Researchers would look for mutations that give rise to cancer or sustain it.

The project’s proponents say a data bank of mutations would be freely available to researchers.

More here.

The Bookshelf talks with Richard Dawkins

Cristopher R. Brodie in American Scientist:

Dawkins_2Richard Dawkins is the first holder of the newly endowed Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. He is best known for his award-winning popular science books, beginning with the best-selling The Selfish Gene in 1976 and including The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996) and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998). An outspoken atheist, Dawkins is also a frequent participant in public discussions of science and religion. His latest book, The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, is a backward journey through four billion years of evolutionary history to the origin of life, drawing insights from the “tales” of 40 creatures met along the way.

Associate Editor Christopher Brodie spoke with Dawkins by telephone in December 2004.

I want to talk with you a bit about The Ancestor’s Tale. What made you want to write a book that was more general than your other works, that encompassed ground that you’ve previously covered?

It doesn’t really cover previous ground. I’ve never written about the actual detailed facts of evolutionary history before. My previous books have all been attempts to make evolution easier to understand, to make theory easier to understand. This is the first book that really lays out the detailed facts of evolutionary history.

More here.

Robert Creeley, 78, Groundbreaking Poet, Dies

Dinitia Smith in the New York Times:

01creeley184Robert Creeley, who helped transform postwar American poetry by making it more conversational and emotionally direct, died on Wednesday in Odessa, Tex. He was 78 and had been in residence at a writers’ retreat maintained by the Lannan Foundation in Marfa, Tex.

The cause was complications from lung disease, his wife, Penelope, said.

“Visible truth,” Mr. Creeley once wrote, quoting Melville, is “the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things.” That was the goal of his own work – emotion compressed in short, sparse sentences and an emphasis on feeling.

Mr. Creeley wrote, edited or was a major contributor to more than 60 books, including fiction, essays and drama. He belonged to a group of poets – beginning with Modernists like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and continuing through the Beats and the Black Mountain poets like Charles Olson – who tried to escape from what they considered the academic style of American poetry, with its European influences and strict rhyme and metric schemes.

The critic Marjorie Perloff called Mr. Creeley an heir to Williams.

More here.  And here’s Creeley’s poem, “I Know a Man”:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, – John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

QED: Just what does it mean to prove something?

From The Economist:

QUOD erat demonstrandum. These three words of Latin, meaning, “which was to be shown”, traditionally mark the end of a mathematical proof. And, for centuries, a proof was exactly that: showing something by breaking it down into readily agreed-upon steps. Proving something was a matter of convincing one’s peers that it has indeed been shown—no more, and no less. The rhetorical flourish of a Latin epigram also has served to indicate that the notion of proof is well understood, and commonly agreed. But that notion is now in flux. The use of computers to prove mathematical theorems is forcing mathematicians to re-examine the foundations of their discipline.

More here.