beautiful art at the frontier of science

Jim Holt in The New York Times:

On seeing the Alps for the first time, Dorothy Parker is reputed to have said, “They’re beautiful, but they’re dumb.” Near the foot of Mont Blanc, the greatest of the Alpine peaks, another sizable object is taking shape, also quite beautiful in its way, yet not at all dumb. In fact, its pristine geometries may be instrumental in revealing what have hitherto been some of nature’s deepest secrets.


Photographs by Simon Norfolk.

More here.

letters of e.b. white


“I’m the father of two robins,” E. B. White writes to his stepson in 1964 from his farm in Maine. The baby birds had been orphaned, “and without really thinking about what I was doing I casually dropped a couple of marinated worms into their throats as I walked by. … This did it. They took me on with open hearts and open mouths, and my schedule became extremely tight.” He has fed these robins a formula of “hamburg, chicken mash, kibbled worm and orange juice” for several days from a “yellow bamboo stick, split at one end, like a robin’s bill.” And now the birds “come streaming at me from bush and tree, trying for a landing on shoulder or cap, usually overshooting me in the fog and bringing up against a wall. This exhausts them and me.” Next, says White, he will have to “hop about on the lawn with my head cocked to one side, to show them how to get their own living.” That’s pretty good. It’s not twee or just whimsical, is it? No, it’s pretty good.

more from the NY Times here.

Bye-bye Hay Wain, hello the Somme


How do you like your contemporary art? A quick hit of juicy mischief, a larky take on mortality, binful of bluebottles, pocketful of glitter, everything you never wanted to know and more about the artist’s entrails? Right then, give Anselm Kiefer a very wide berth – because, as the show about to open at White Cube, London, will confirm, he doesn’t do droll, he does the big embarrassing stuff, the stuff that matters: the epic slaughters of the world, the incineration of the planet, apocalypse then, apocalypse often; the fragile endurance of the sacred amid the cauterised ruins of the earth.

more from The Guardian here.

Psycho Analyst: The Life of Masud Khan

From The New York Times:Masud_1

If I were a snob, a liar, a drunk, a philanderer, an anti-Semite, a violent bully, a poseur and a menace to the vulnerable, I would want Linda Hopkins to write my biography.

Masud Khan, an Anglo-Pakistani psychoanalyst notable in the 1960s and ’70s, was all of those things. Hopkins, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, has written the story of his life with the kind of generous forgiveness, insistent evenhandedness, patient understanding and restrained judgment one might hope for in a very good analyst of a certain kind, or a wise, exceptionally forbearing and insightful mother. She sees his life as a tragedy, lived “on a scale grand enough to match … his favorite characters: Shakespeare’s King Lear and Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin.” Khan also identified with Dostoyevsky himself and was particularly pleased when one of his later girlfriends showed signs (briefly) of living up to the high benchmark of Anna Dostoyevsky’s devotion (“so robust and militant in her loving regard for her husband’s nobility of soul,” as he put it).

Hopkins describes Khan’s Dostoyevsky delusion as she does his lies about being a Pakistani prince; his drunken rages; his sleeping with patients, with patients’ wives and with the daughters of friends — always more in sorrow than in anger, and with the reminder that Khan may well have suffered from a bipolar disorder.

More here.

The science of pedestrian motion meets the annual Hajj in Mecca

From Nature:Mecca

The annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, known as the Hajj, has on occasion been marred by deaths from trampling in the huge crowds that gather for the rituals. But scientists studying how pedestrians move around think they have made such crowd disasters much less likely.

In 2006, 362 people died in the crush that developed in the town of Mina, where pilgrims gather to perform a ritual stoning of pillars representing the devil as part of the Hajj. This year’s ritual, which happened in late December and early January, went off without incident. Although there have been plenty of other accident-free years, this time the reason owes more to sound planning than to luck, says Dirk Helbing of the Dresden University of Technology in Germany. Hebling and his coworkers used the science of crowd dynamics to introduce a raft of new crowd-control measures.

“This Hajj, in contrast to many previous ones, was very safe, without any panics or incidents, even though it was expected to be the most critical ever and there were about 800,000 more pilgrims than the expected 3 million,” he says. “This great success was due to a completely different organization of pilgrim flows.”

More here.

hybrid architecture

Mairi Beautyman in Interior Design:

Steven Holl Architects Wins AIA Honor Award
The University of Iowa School of Art & Art History building opened in September 2006.

Holl … The design team needed to incorporate an existing 1937 brick building and weave new construction with the area’s limestone bluffs, river, and lagoon.

Holl, the jury praised, “fought for the site and created something that has become a grounding point for the university.”

In September 2006, the building opened to international acclaim. According to architecture critic Blair Kamin, “Holl hasn’t just made a knock-your-eyes-out building…He’s made a real place, one that painters carting around their canvases actually seem to like.”

Among Holl’s additional arts projects are the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (Helsinki, Finland) and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, slated to open in June.

More here and here.

alphabet soup


Simon Garfield in The Observer:

More than 100 years after ‘word blindness’ was first discovered, thousands of children with great potential are still marginalised by an education system unable to cope with a common but silent disorder. Simon Garfield investigates the symptoms, treatment and prognosis of dyslexia

In a small room at the physiology department of the University of Oxford a man is being tested for dyslexia. This is an elaborate, detailed and standardised process, and the tests get harder as the session unfolds. There are words to read: box, water, babies, cough, curiosity, tyrannical and catastrophe. There are words to spell, read aloud by the assessor: light, advice, anxiety, camouflage and acquiesce. There are red and white plastic cubes to be arranged in the same pattern as a diagram. There are dancing dots on a computer screen to be distinguished from dots that move in a different pattern. And then there is the Verbal Similarities test, which also begins simply. What do the following three things have in common? Shirt, socks, coat. Then this: clock, thermometer, ruler. And finally: uncertainly, hesitantly, irregularly.

More here.

Of brylcreem and a Triumph roadster

Julian Barnes in The New Yorker:

What Mother would have wanted.

Barnesohlbaum I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put. I once asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: “Soppy.”

The person to begin with is my maternal grandmother, Nellie Louisa Scoltock, née Machin, who was a schoolteacher in Shropshire until she married my grandfather Bert Scoltock. Not Bertram, not Albert, just Bert: so christened, so called, so buried. He was a headmaster with a certain mechanical dash to him: a motorcycle-and-sidecar man, then the owner of a Lanchester, then, in retirement, the driver of a rather pompously sportif Triumph Roadster, with a three-person bench seat in front and two bucket seats when the top was down. By the time I knew my grandparents, they had retired and come south to be near their daughter. My grandmother went to the Women’s Institute: she pickled and bottled; she plucked and roasted the chickens and geese my grandfather raised. She was petite, outwardly unopinionated, with the thickened knuckles of old age; she needed soap to get her wedding ring off. Their wardrobe was full of home-knitted cardigans, Grandpa’s tending to feature more masculine cable-stitch. They were of that generation advised by dentists to have all their teeth out in one go. This was a normal rite of passage then: from being rickety-gnashered to fully porcelained in one leap, to all that buccal sliding and clacking, to social embarrassment and the foaming glass on the bedside table.

More here.

Neurobiologist Eric Kandel searches for memory, cell by cell

Samir S. Patel in Columbia Magazine:

Kandel1I 1955, Eric Kandel, a New York University medical student training as a psychiatrist, told Columbia University neurophysiologist Harry Grundfest, with whom he was taking a course, that he wanted to find where the id, ego, and superego live in the gelatinous folds of the brain. In Kandel’s recent book, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (W.W. Norton, 2006), he recounts Grundfest’s patient response. “He explained that my hope of understanding the biological basis of Freud’s structural theory was far beyond the grasp of contemporary brain science,” Kandel writes. “Rather, he told me, to understand the mind we needed to look at the brain one cell at a time.”

More here.

The Beauty in Politics

In the Economist:

NAMED last week as his party’s candidate for the French presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy faces an opponent, Ségolène Royal, who has the press drooling. “Dazzling” and “radiant”, she has been likened to a work of art (“Mona Lisa”) and a mythological figure (a “siren”).

Perhaps Mr Sarkozy should pay a visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The city’s former mayor, Bob Corker, faced a similar problem in his Senate race last November. He prevailed against a congressman, Harold Ford junior, who was once counted among the 50 “most beautiful” people on Washington’s Capitol Hill. In response, Mr Corker hurled one of the strangest insults in campaign history. He accused Mr Ford of being “an attractive young man”.

“This is not a beauty pageant,” Ms Royal’s detractors are fond of saying. But what makes them so sure? The days are gone when a person would “vote for a pig if his party put one up,” as one British voter put it in the 1950s. Today, politicians must be well-groomed animals, selling their personalities not their parties. Looks can have an especially powerful influence on the minority of floating voters who determine election results, says Linda Bilmes, a professor of government at America’s Harvard University.

squalid despair amid the horrors of unlimited war


“From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth,” Goethe claimed to have told a group of Prussian soldiers after they were routed by France’s revolutionary forces at Valmy on September 20, 1792, and his pronouncement duly features in David Bell’s The First Total War. But Bell does not swoon, as plenty have, at the poet’s clairvoyance. Instead he notes calmly that Goethe wrote his account of Valmy decades later and with some borrowing from the testimonials of others. Nevertheless, there was insight in Goethe’s histrionics; in 1792 the London Times had reported, “The army marching from Paris exhibits a very motley group. There are almost as many women as men, many without arms, and very little provision.” Here was “a people’s war,” with the new French Republic rising to defend itself any which way it could. Bell’s book is an impressively steady, poetically unembellished, evocation of the nativity that awed Goethe.

more from The Nation here.

unlucky (or just awfully honest) in love


In 1912, when he was 72, Thomas Hardy began to write a series of love poems about his wife, Emma. The poems were unlikely for several reasons. First, for years he and Emma had been estranged, and she had retreated to sleep alone in the attic, where she wrote letters to friends about his unkindness. By this point, Hardy was a literary celebrity, and had maintained flirtations with more than one woman. His reputation was based largely on his fiction; his controversial later novels, among them Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, had cemented his stature as a portraitist of country life and thwarted small-town aspirations. Second, Hardy was famous for his indictment of marriage—a bishop publicly burned his copy of Jude, and a Victorian newspaper, shocked by it, labeled it “Jude the Obscene.” What no one, including Hardy himself, would have guessed was that Emma would prove to be, as Claire Tomalin claims in her brisk new biography of the author, “his best inspiration.” That fall, Emma suddenly fell ill, and she died before Hardy got a chance to say goodbye to her. In the months after her death, numerous poems in her memory poured out of him—love lyrics of acute regret in which one of his recurrent themes was distilled in its most distinctive form. That theme could be said to be our failure to perceive the shadowy outlines of our own experience; life, in Hardy’s view, was nothing but a strangely prismed window onto the peculiar workings of time.

more from Slate here.

they denied fancy nothing


If you want to know what God thinks of money,” said Dorothy Parker, “just look at the people he gave it to.” Well, God’s still on the job. The wealthy of our period are a great disappointment. Narcissism, greed, pride, self-indulgence, vulgarity, hypocrisy, and arrogance are not the problem; those come with the bank account. The problem is that today’s rich are doing too little with their narcissism, greed, pride, self-indulgence, vulgarity, hypocrisy, and arrogance. A great fortune provides its holder with that rarest of luxuries, a chance to bring outlandish dreams to life. To astonish.

The failure of the contemporary rich to bedazzle—to open, for a moment, a window on paradise—came home with special force at the Louis Comfort Tiffany and Josef Hoffmann shows now at, respectively, the Met and the Neue Galerie.

more from New York Magazine here.

The bard of Dollis Hill

From The Guardian:

Daljit1 Nagra is that rare thing: an unknown poet whose debut collection is being published by Faber, Britain’s leading poetry house. The bright cover of his debut collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, matches the ebullience of his word play, which stirs English, Punjabi and Punjabi-accented English into a series of funny and poignant poems that defy easy categorisation. Racism, belonging, alienation and assimilation are ever present themes but Nagra is too witty to file under worthy. And while he cites the influence of Milton, Browning and Blake, there is also a slice of Ray Davies or Jam-era Paul Weller in some of his clever character sketches.

“You either do it quietly and describe the Indian community in half a dozen poems or you think sod it, and go all out. The most Indian way I could think of was to do monologues and voices,” says Nagra in his flat overlooking the park at Dollis Hill. So there is the new husband of Darling & Me! whose “Darling is so pirouettey with us”; the mum of In a White Town, who “No one ever looked without looking again/ at the pink kameez and balloon’d bottoms”; and the effervescence of the careless shopkeeper in Singh Song! above whom “high heel tap di ground/ as my vife on di web is playing wid di mouse”.

Much of it begs to be read aloud and, while slight and sotto voce in person, Nagra is already making a name for himself with accented performances of his work.

More here.

The Universe’s Invisible Hand

From Scientific American:

Hands What took us so long? Only in 1998 did astronomers discover we had been missing nearly three quarters of the contents of the universe, the so-called dark energy–an unknown form of energy that surrounds each of us, tugging at us ever so slightly, holding the fate of the cosmos in its grip, but to which we are almost totally blind. Some researchers, to be sure, had anticipated that such energy existed, but even they will tell you that its detection ranks among the most revolutionary discoveries in 20th-century cosmology. Not only does dark energy appear to make up the bulk of the universe, but its existence, if it stands the test of time, will probably require the development of new theories of physics.

Scientists are just starting the long process of figuring out what dark energy is and what its implications are. One realization has already sunk in: although dark energy betrayed its existence through its effect on the universe as a whole, it may also shape the evolution of the universe’s inhabitants–stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters. Astronomers may have been staring at its handiwork for decades without realizing it.

More here.

Sundance Film Festival: Pushing the boundaries

Liam Lacey in the Globe and Mail:

A sworn enemy of Hollywood formulas, the Sundance Film Festival, in its 13th year, seems to have worked out its own recipe for getting attention: If you want to get people worked up, you can’t beat the combination of incendiary politics and twisted sex.

First, the politics. Chicago 10, a movie about one of the more inflammatory trials in American history, the 1968 conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven, will open the 13th Sundance Film Festival tonight. Created by Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture), the film uses music, animation, contemporary actors and archival footage to look back at the anti-war protesters accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the Democratic Party convention.

The film marks just the second time the festival has opened with a documentary. Festival director Geoff Gilmore describes Chicago 10 as a film that “pushes the boundaries of many of the traditional aspects of documentary filmmaking” in recalling a significant moment in the American counterculture.

The festival will also be pushing boundaries in another way, with sexually transgressive films that seem bound to raise protests…

More here.

Steven Weinberg on Richard Dawkins

Physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg in the Times Literary Supplement:

WeinbergMuch of the weakening of religious certitude in the Christian West can be laid at the door of science; even people whose religion might incline them to hostility to the pretensions of science generally understand that they have to rely on science rather than religion to get things done. But this has not happened to anything like the same extent in the world of Islam. One finds in Islamic countries not only religious opposition to specific scientific theories, as occasionally in the West, but a widespread religious hostility to science itself. My late friend, the distinguished Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, tried to convince the rulers of the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf to invest in scientific education and research, but he found that though they were enthusiastic about technology, they felt that pure science presented too great a challenge to faith. In 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt called for an end to scientific education. In the areas of science I know best, though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading. This is despite the fact that in the ninth century, when science barely existed in Europe, the greatest centre of scientific research in the world was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.

Alas, Islam turned against science in the twelfth century. The most influential figure was the philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, who argued in The Incoherence of the Philosophers against the very idea of laws of nature, on the ground that any such laws would put God’s hands in chains. According to al-Ghazzali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smoulder because of the heat, but because God wants it to darken and smoulder. After al-Ghazzali, there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries.

More here.

narod bezmolvstvuet


Once installed in the presidency, Putin has cultivated two attributes that have given him an aura capable of outlasting it. The first is the image of firm, where necessary ruthless authority. Historically, the brutal imposition of order has been more often admired than feared in Russia. Rather than his portrait suffering from the shadow of the KGB, Putin has converted it into a halo of austere discipline. In what remains in many ways a macho society, toughness – prowess in judo and drops into criminal slang are part of Putin’s kit – continues to be valued, and not only by men: polls report that Putin’s most enthusiastic fans are often women. But there is another, less obvious side to his charisma. Part of his chilly magnetism is cultural. He is widely admired for his command of the language. Here, too, contrast is everything. Lenin was the last ruler of the country who could speak an educated Russian. Stalin’s Georgian accent was so thick he rarely risked speaking in public. Khrushchev’s vocabulary was crude and his grammar barbaric. Brezhnev could scarcely put two sentences together. Gorbachev spoke with a provincial southern accent. The less said of Yeltsin’s slurred diction the better. To hear a leader of the country capable once again of expressing himself with clarity, accuracy and fluency, in a more or less correct idiom, comes as music to many Russians.

more from Perry Anderson at the LRB here.

Spielbergization and Its Discontents


Certain directors—the practiced self-promoters Oliver Stone and Spike Lee come to mind—see themselves as political commentators. Recently, they have been joined by a few producers, on both the secular left, eBay founder Jeff Skoll, and the Christian right, Bush fundraiser Philip Anschutz. But the embodiment of responsible, socially aware moviemaking is that repository of the industry’s institutional memory known as Steven Spielberg.

No one since Reagan has so demonstrated a belief in the redemptive nature of Hollywood entertainment. Such faith is not without a material basis. Spielberg’s status as a moneymaker peaked a dozen years ago, when his two greatest hits, E.T. and Jurassic Park, were first and third on the list of all-time Hollywood box-office attractions, with Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark still inhabiting the top ten. But even today, Spielberg is credited with nine of Hollywood’s hundred highest-grossing movies—more than those directed by his nearest rivals, George Lucas and Peter Jackson, combined.

more from VQR here.

The Numbers Game: Brains That Prefer Numbers to Words

From Scientific American:Numbers

Since the mid-1990s scientists have floated the idea that representations of numeric quantities, whether expressed as digits or as written words, are codified by the parietal cortex, a higher-processing region in the brain located just above the forehead. The notion is supported by calculation deficits observed in patients with damage to that brain region and in low birth weight children who exhibit reduced gray matter in adulthood.

Still, it is unknown whether the parietal cortex—specifically its left hemisphere—processes numeric value independent of notation. New research indicates that the brain region may prefer symbolic notation to other numeric representations—a finding that could open the door to helping kids plagued by dyscalculia, a learning disability characterized by severely impaired mathematical ability.

More here.