Relevant and resonant extracts from art, science and life and the place where patterns begin to emerge. 

Entries in text (9)


Joyas Volardores

WordTheatre introduced me to this beautiful essay.

By Brian Doyle

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas volardores, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them whirring and zooming and nectaring in hummer time zones nine times removed from ours, their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear if we pressed our elephantine ears to their infinitesimal chests.

Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be. Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmet-crests and booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant’s fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.

Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles—anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.

The biggest heart in the world is inside the blue whale. It weighs more than seven tons. It’s as big as a room. It is a room, with four chambers. A child could walk around it, head high, bending only to step through the valves. The valves are as big as the swinging doors in a saloon. This house of a heart drives a creature a hundred feet long. When this creature is born it is twenty feet long and weighs four tons. It is waaaaay bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day, and when it is seven or eight years old it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs and arts of the blue whale. There are perhaps ten thousand blue whales in the world, living in every ocean on earth, and of the largest animal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries, their piercing yearning tongue, can be heard underwater for miles and miles.

Mammals and birds have hearts with four chambers. Reptiles and turtles have hearts with three chambers. Fish have hearts with two chambers. Insects and mollusks have hearts with one chamber. Worms have hearts with one chamber, although they may have as many as eleven single-chambered hearts. Unicellular bacteria have no hearts at all; but even they have fluid eternally in motion, washing from one side of the cell to the other, swirling and whirling. No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.


Looking at Life with the Eyes of a Child

Creation is the artist’s true function; where there is no creation there is no art. But it would be a mistake to ascribe this creative power to an inborn talent. In art, the genuine creator is not just a gifted being, but a man who has succeeded in arranging for their appointed end a complex of activities, of which the work of art is the outcome.

Thus, for the artist creation begins with vision. To see is itself a creative operation, requiring an effort. Everything that we see in our daily life is more or less distorted by acquired habits, and this is perhaps more evident in an age like ours when the cinema posters and magazines present us every day with a flood of ready-made images which are to the eye what the prejudices are to the mind.

The effort needed to see things without distortion takes something very like courage; and this courage is essential to the artist, who has to look at everything as though he saw it for the first time: he has to look at life as he did when he was a child and, if he loses that faculty, he cannot express himself in an original, that is, a personal way.

To take an example: Nothing, I think, is more difficult for a true painter than to paint a rose because, before he can do so, he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted. I have often asked visitors who came to see me at Vence whether they had noticed the thistles by the side of the road. Nobody had seen them; they would all have recognised the leaf of an acanthus on a Corinthian capital, but the memory of the capital prevented them from seeing the thistle in nature. The first step towards creation is to see everything as it really is, and that demands a constant effort. To create is to express what we have within ourselves. Every creative effort comes from within. We have also to nourish our feeling, and we can do so only with materials derived from the world about us. This is the process whereby the artist incorporates and gradually assimilates the external world within himself, until the object of his drawing has become like a part of his being, until he has it within him and can project it on to the canvas as his own creation.

When I paint a portrait, I come back again and again to my sketch, and every time it is a new portrait that I am painting: not one that I am improving, but a quite different one that I am beginning over again; and every time I extract from the same person a different being. In order to make my study more complete I have often had recourse to photographs of the same person at different ages; the final portrait may show that person younger or under a different aspect from that which he or she presents at the time of sitting, and the reason is that that is the aspect which seemed to me the truest, the one which revealed most of the sitter’s real personality.

Thus a work of art is the climax of a long work of preparation. The artist takes from his surroundings everything that can nourish his internal vision, either directly, when the object he is drawing is to appear in his composition, or by analogy. In this way he puts himself into a position where he can create. He enriches himself internally with all the forms he has mastered and which he will one day set to a new rhythm.

It is in the expression of this rhythm that the artist’s work becomes really creative. To achieve it, he will have to sift rather than accumulate details, selecting, for example, from all possible combinations, the line that expresses most and gives life to the drawing; he will have to seek the equivalent terms by which the facts of nature are transposed into art.

In my Still Life with Magnolia, I painted a green marble table red; in another place I had to use black to suggest the reflection of the sun on the sea; all these transpositions were not in the least matters of chance or whim, but were the result of a series of investigations, following which these colours seemed to me to be necessary, because of their relation to the rest of the composition, in order to give the impression I wanted. Colours and lines are forces, and the secret of creation lies in the play and balance of those forces.

In the chapel at Vence, which is the outcome of earlier researches of mine, I have tried to achieve that balance of forces; the blues, greens and yellows of the windows compose a light within the chapel, which is not strictly any of the colours used, but is the living product of their mutual blending; this light made up of colours is intended to play upon the white and black-stencilled surface of the wall facing the windows, on which the lines are purposely set wide apart. The contrast allows me to give the light its maximum vitalising value, to make it the essential element, colouring, warming and animating the whole structure, to which it is desired to give an impression of boundless space despite its small dimensions. Throughout the chapel every line and every detail contributes to that impression.

That is the sense, so it seems to me, in which art may be said to imitate nature, namely, by the life that the creative worker infuses into the work of art. The work will then appear as fertile and as possessed of the same power to thrill, the same resplendent beauty as we find in works of nature.

Great love is needed to achieve this effect, a love capable of inspiring and sustaining that patient striving towards truth, that glowing warmth and that analytic profundity that accompany the birth of any work of art. But is not love the origin of all creation?

Henri Matisse

February 1954 Art News and Review


Prospects in the Arts and Sciences, J. R Oppenheimer.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967)

In the following essay, which was delivered as an address at the international symposium honoring Columbia University's Bicentennial in 1954, JRO explores the paths which connect the different "villages" where man's work in art and science is quietly carried on. And he argues persuasively for a cultivation of these intimate paths, as an antidote to the superhighways of the mass media which are creating all around us "a great, open, windy world." Resonant paras picked out in italics.

Prospects in the Arts and Sciences

An essay by J. Robert Oppenheimer

The words "prospects in the arts and sciences" mean two quite different things to me. One is prophecy: What will the scientists discover and the painters paint, what new forms will alter music, what parts of experience will newly yield to objective description? The other meaning is that of a view: What do we see when we look at the world today and compare it with the past? I am not a prophet; and I cannot very well speak to the first subject, though in many ways I should like to. I shall try to speak to the second, because there are some features of this view which seem to me so remarkable, so new and so arresting, that it may be worth turning our eyes to them; it may even help us to create and shape the future better, though we cannot foretell it.

In the arts and in the sciences, it would be good to be a prophet. It would be a delight to know the future. I had thought for a while of my own field of physics and of those nearest to it in the natural sciences. It would not be too hard to outline the questions which natural scientists today are asking themselves and trying to answer. What, we ask in physics, is matter, what is it made of, how does it behave when it is more and more violently atomized, when we try to pound out of the stuff around us the ingredients which only violence creates and makes manifest? What, the chemists ask, are those special features of nucleic acids and proteins which make life possible and give it its characteristic endurance and mutability? What subtle chemistry, what arrangements, what reactions and controls make the cells of living organisms differentiate so that they may perform functions as oddly diverse as transmitting information throughout our nervous systems or covering our heads with hair? What happens in the brain to make a record of the past, to hide it from consciousness, to make it accessible to recall? What are the physical features which make consciousness possible?

All history teaches us that these questions that we think the pressing ones will be transmuted before they are answered, that they will be replaced by others, and that the very process of, discovery will shatter the concepts that we today use to describe our puzzlement.

It is true that there are some who profess to see in matters of culture, in matters precisely of the arts and sciences, a certain macrohistorical pattern, a grand system of laws which determines the course of civilization and gives a kind of inevitable quality to the unfolding of the future. They would, for instance, see the radical, formal experimentation which characterized the music of the last half century as an inevitable consequence of the immense flowering and enrichment of natural science; they would see a necessary order in the fact that innovation in music precedes that in painting and that in turn in poetry, and point to this sequence in older cultures They would attribute the formal experimentation of the arts to the dissolution, in an industrial and technical society, of authority, of secular, political authority, and of the Catholic authority of the church. They are thus armed to predict the future. But this, I fear, is not my dish.

If a prospect is not a prophecy, it is a view. What does the world of the arts and sciences look like? There are two ways of looking at it: One is the view of the traveler, going by horse or foot, from village to village to town, staying in each to talk with those who live there and to gather something of the quality of its life. This is the intimate view, partial, somewhat accidental, limited by the limited life and strength and curiosity of the traveler, but intimate and human, in a human compass. The other is the vast view, showing the earth with its fields and towns and valleys as they appear to a camera carried in a high altitude rocket. In one sense this prospect will be more complete; one will see all branches of knowledge, one will see all the arts, one will see them as part of the vastness and complication of the whole of human life on earth. But one will miss a great deal; the beauty and warmth of human life will largely be gone from that prospect.

It is in this vast high altitude survey that one sees the general surprising quantitative features that distinguish our time. This is where the listings of science and endowments and laboratories and books published show up; this is where we learn that more people are engaged in scientific research today than ever before, that the Soviet world and the free world are running neck and neck in the training of scientists, that more books are published per capita in England than in the United States, that the social sciences are pursued actively in America, Scandinavia, and England, that there are more people who hear the great music of the past, and more music composed and more paintings painted. This is where we learn that the arts and sciences are flourishing. This great map, showing the world from afar and almost as to a stranger, would show more: It would show the immense diversity of culture and life, diversity in place and tradition for the first time clearly manifest on a world-wide scale, diversity in technique and language, separating science from science and art from art, and all of one from all of the other. This great map, world-wide, culture-wide, remote, has some odd features. There are innumerable villages. Between the villages there appear to be almost no paths discernible from this high altitude. Here and there passing near a village, sometimes through its heart, there will be a superhighway, along which windy traffic moves at enormous speed. The superhighways seem to have little connection with villages, starting anywhere, ending anywhere, and sometimes appearing almost by design to disrupt the quiet of the village. This view gives us no sense of order or of unity. To find these we must visit the villages, the quiet, busy places, the laboratories and studies and studios. We must see the paths that are barely discernible; we must understand the superhighways, and their dangers.

In the natural sciences these are and have been and are likely to continue to be heroic days. Discovery follows discovery, each both raising and answering questions, each ending a long search, and each providing the new instruments for a new search. There are radical ways of thinking unfamiliar to common sense and connected with it by decades or centuries of increasingly specialized and unfamiliar experience. There are lessons of how limited, for all its variety, the common experience of man has been with regard to natural phenomena, and hints and analogies as to how limited may be his experience with man. Every new finding is a part of the instrument kit of the sciences for further investigation and for penetrating into new fields. Discoveries of knowledge fructify technology and the practical arts, and these in turn pay back refined techniques, new possibilities of observation and experiment.

In any science there is harmony between practitioners. A man may work as an individual, learning of what his colleagues do through reading or conversation; he may be working as a member of a group on problems whose technical equipment is too massive for individual effort. But whether he is a part of a team or solitary in his own study, he, as a professional, is a member of a community. His colleagues in his own branch of science will be grateful to him for the inventive or creative thoughts he has, will welcome his criticism. His world and work will be objectively communicable; and he will be quite sure that if there is error in it, that error will not long be undetected. In his own line of work he lives in a community where common understanding combines with common purpose and interest to bind men together both in freedom and in cooperation.

This experience will make him acutely aware of how limited, how inadequate, how precious is this condition of his life; for in his relations with a wider society, there will be neither the sense of community nor of objective understanding. He will sometimes find, in returning to practical undertakings, some sense of community with men who are not expert in his science, with other scientists whose work is remote from his, and with men of action and men of art. The frontiers of science are separated now by long years of study, by specialized vocabularies, arts, techniques, and knowledge from the common heritage even of a most civilized society; and anyone working at the frontier of such science is in that sense a very long way from home, a long way too from the practical arts that were its matrix and origin, as indeed they were of what we today call art.

The specialization of science is an inevitable accompaniment of progress; yet it is full of dangers, and it is cruelly wasteful, since so much that is beautiful and enlightening is cut off from most of the world. Thus it is proper to the role of the scientist that he not merely find new truth and communicate it to his fellows, but that he teach, that he try to bring the most honest ,and intelligible account of new knowledge to all who will try to learn. This is one reason - it is the decisive organic reason - why scientists belong in universities. It is one reason why the patronage of science by and through universities is its most proper form; for it is here, in teaching, in the association of scholars, and in the friendships of teachers and taught, of men who by profession must themselves be both teachers and taught, that the narrowness of scientific life can best be moderated, and that the analogies, insights, and harmonies of scientific discovery can find their way into the wider life of man.

In the situation of the artist today there are both analogies to and differences from that of the scientist; but it is the differences which are the most striking, and which raise the problems that touch most on the evil of our day. For the artist it is not enough that he communicate with others who are expert in his own art. Their fellowship, their understanding, and their appreciation may encourage him; but that is not the end of his work, nor its nature. The artist depends on a common sensibility and culture, on a common meaning of symbols, on a community of experience and common ways of describing and interpreting it. He need not write for everyone or paint or play for everyone. But his audience must be man; it must be man, and not a specialized set of experts among his fellows. Today that is very difficult. Often the artist has an aching sense of great loneliness, for the community to which he addresses himself is largely not there; the traditions and the culture, the symbols and the history, the myths and the common experience, which it is his function to illuminate, to harmonize, and to portray, have been dissolved in a changing world.

There is, it is true, an artificial audience maintained to moderate between the artist and the world for which he works: the audience of the professional critics, popularizers, and advertisers of art. But though, as does the popularizer and promoter of science, the critic fulfills a necessary present function and introduces some order and some communication between the artist and the world, he cannot add to the intimacy and the directness and the depth with which the artist addresses his fellow men.

To the artist's loneliness there is a complementary great and terrible barrenness in the lives of men. They are deprived of the illumination, the light and tenderness and insight of an intelligible interpretation, in contemporary terms, of the sorrows and wonders and gaieties and follies of man's life. This may be in part offset, and is, by the great growth of technical means for making the art of the past available. But these provide a record of past intimacies between art and life; even when they are applied to the writing and painting and composing of the day, they do not bridge the gulf between a society, too vast and too disordered, and the artist trying to give meaning and beauty to its parts.

In an important sense this world of ours is a new world, in which the unity of knowledge, the nature of human communities, the order of society, the order of ideas, the very notions of society and culture have changed and will not return to what they have been in the past. What is new is new not because it has never been there before, but because it has changed in quality. One thing that is new is the prevalence of newness, the changing scale and scope of change itself, so that the world alters as we walk in it, so that the years of man's life measure not some small growth or rearrangement or moderation of what he learned in childhood, but a great upheaval. What is new is that in one generation our knowledge of the natural world engulfs, upsets, and complements all knowledge of the natural world before. The techniques, among and by which we live, multiply and ramify, so that the whole world is bound together by communication, blocked here and there by the immense synapses of political tyranny.

The global quality of the world is new; our knowledge of and sympathy with remote and diverse peoples, or involvement with them in practical terms, and our commitment to them in terms of brotherhood. What is new in the world is the massive character of the dissolution and corruption of authority, in belief, in ritual, and in temporal order. Yet this is the world that we have come to live in. The very difficulties which it presents derive from growth in understanding, in skill, in power. To assail the changes that have unmoored us from the past is futile, and in a deep sense, I think, it is wicked. We need to recognize the change and learn what resources we have.

Again I will turn to the schools and, as their end and as their center, the universities. For the problem of the scientist is in this respect not different from that of the artist or of the historian. He needs to be a part of the community, and the community can only with loss and peril be without him. Thus it is with a sense of interest and hope that we see a growing recognition that the creative artist is a proper charge on the university, and the university a proper home for him; that a composer or a poet or a playwright or painter needs the toleration, understanding, the rather local and parochial patronage that a university can give; and that this will protect him from the tyranny of man's communication and professional promotion. For here there is an honest chance that what the artist has of insight and of beauty will take root in the community, and that some intimacy and some human bonds can mark his relations with his patrons. For a university rightly and inherently is a place where the individual man can form new syntheses, where the accidents of friendship and association can open a man's eyes to a part of science or art which he had not known before, where parts of human life, remote and perhaps superficially incompatible, can find in men their harmony and their synthesis.

These then, in rough and far too general words, are some of the things we see as we walk through the villages of the arts ,and of the sciences and notice bow thin are the paths that lead from one to another, and how little in terms of human understanding and pleasure the work of the villages comes to be shared outside.

The superhighways do not help. They are the mass media - from the loud speakers in the deserts of Asia Minor and the cities of Communist China to the organized professional theater of Broadway. They are the purveyors of art and science and culture for the millions upon millions - the promoters who represent the arts and sciences to humanity and who represent humanity to the arts and sciences; they are the means by which we are reminded of the famine in remote places or of war or trouble or change; they are the means by which this great earth and its peoples have become one to one another, the means by which the news of discovery or honor and the stories and songs of today travel and resound throughout the world. But they are also the means by which the true human community, the man knowing man, the neighbor understanding neighbor, the school boy learning a poem, the woman dancing, the individual curiosity, the individual sense of beauty are being blown dry and issueless, the means by which the passivity of the disengaged spectator presents to the man of art and science the bleak face of inhumanity.

For the truth is that this is indeed, inevitably and increasingly, an open and, inevitably and increasingly, an eclectic world. We know too much for one man to know much, we live too variously to live as one. Our histories and traditions - the very means of interpreting life - are both bonds and barriers among us. Our knowledge separates us as well as it unites; our orders disintegrate as well as bind; our art brings us together and sets us apart. The artist's loneliness, the scholar despairing, because no one will any longer trouble to learn what he can teach, the narrowness of the scientist - these are not unnatural insignia in this great time of change.

For what is asked of us is not easy. The openness of this world derives its character from the irreversibility of learning; what is once learned is part of human life. We cannot close our minds to discovery. We cannot stop our ears so that the voices of far-off and strange people can no longer reach them. The great cultures of the East cannot be walled off from ours by impassable seas and defects of understanding based on ignorance and unfamiliarity. Neither our integrity as men of learning nor our humanity allows that. In this open world, what is there any man may try to learn.

This is no new problem. There has always been more to know than one man could know; there have always been modes of feeling that could not move the same heart; there have always been deeply held beliefs that could not be composed into a synthetic union. Yet never before today has the diversity, the complexity, the richness so clearly defied hierarchical order and simplification, never before have we had to understand the complementary, mutually not compatible ways of life and recognize choice between them as the only course of freedom. Never' before today has' the integrity of the intimate, the detailed, the true art, the integrity of craftsmanship and the preservation of the familiar, of the humorous and the beautiful stood in more massive contrast to the vastness of life, the greatness of the globe, the otherness of people, the otherness of ways, and the all-encompassing dark.

This is a world in which each of us, knowing his limitations, knowing the evils of superficiality and the terrors of fatigue, will have to cling to what is close to him, to what he knows, to what he can do, to his friends and his tradition and his love, lest he be dissolved in a universal confusion and know nothing and love nothing. It is at the same time a world in which none of us can find hieratic prescription or general sanction for any ignorance, any insensitivity, and indifference When a friend tells us of a new discovery we may not understand, we may not be able to listen without jeopardizing the work that is ours and closer to us; but we cannot find in a book or canon - and we should not seek - grounds for hallowing our ignorance. If a man tells us that he sees differently than we or that he finds beautiful what we find ugly, we may have to leave the room, from fatigue or trouble; but that is our weakness and our default. If we must live with a perpetual sense that the world and the men in it are greater than we and too much for us, let it be the measure of our virtue that we know this and seek no comfort. Above all let us not proclaim that the limits of our powers correspond to some special wisdom in our choice of life, of learning, or of beauty.

This balance, this perpetual, precarious, impossible balance between the infinitely open and the intimate, this time - our twentieth century - has been long in coming; but it has come. It is, I think, for us and our children, our only way.

This is for all men. For the artist and for the scientist there is a special problem and a special hope, for in their extraordinarily different ways, in their lives that have increasingly divergent character, there is still a sensed bond, a sensed analogy. Both the man of science and the man of art live always at the edge of mystery, surrounded by it; both always, as the measure of their creation, have had to do with the harmonization of what is new with what is familiar, with the balance between novelty and synthesis, with the struggle to make partial order in total chaos. They can, in their work and in their lives, help themselves, help one another, and help all men. They can make the paths that connect the villages of arts and sciences with each other and with the world at large the multiple, varied, precious bonds of a true and world-wide community.

This cannot be an easy life. We shall have a rugged time of it to keep our minds open and to keep them deep, to keep our sense of beauty and our ability to make it, and our occasional ability to see it in places remote and strange and unfamiliar; we shall have a rugged time of it, all of us in keeping these gardens in our villages, in keeping open the manifold, intricate, casual paths, to keep these flourishing in a great, open, windy world; but this, as I see it, is the condition of man; and in this condition we can help, because we can love, one another.


'In praise of particle physics', The Economist, 17 December 2011

In this week of economic turbulence in Europe and the glimmer of the prospect of discovering the Higgs particle, this quite beautifully written leader article in The Economist voiced my thoughts...
Higgs ahoy!
The elusive boson has probably been found.  That is a triumph for the predictive power of physics.

IN PHYSICS, the trick is often to ask a question so obvious no one else would have thought of posing it. Apples have fallen to the ground since time immemorial. It took the genius of Sir Isaac Newton to ask why. Of course, it helps if you have the mental clout to work out the answer. Fortunately, Newton did.
It was in this spirit, almost 50 years ago, that a few insightful physicists asked themselves where mass comes from. Like the tendency of apples to fall to the ground, the existence of mass is so quotidian that the idea it needs a formal explanation would never occur to most people. But it did occur to Peter Higgs, then a young researcher at Edinburgh University, and to five other scientists whom the quirks of celebrity have not treated so kindly. They, too, had the necessary mental clout. They got out their pencils and papers and scribbled down equations whose upshot was a prediction.
The reason that fundamental particles have mass, the researchers calculated, is their interaction with a previously unknown field that permeates space. This field came to be named (with no disrespect to the losers in the celebrity race) the Higgs field. Technically, it is needed to explain a phenomenon called electroweak symmetry breaking, which divides two of the fundamental forces of nature, electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. When that division happens, a bit of leftover mathematics manifests itself as a particle. This putative particle has become known as the Higgs boson, whose possible discovery was announced to the world on December 13th (see article).
Physicists demand a level of proof that would in any other human activity (including other scientific ones) be seen as ludicrously high—that a result has only one chance in 3.5m of being wrong. The new results—from experiments done at CERN, the world’s premier particle-physics laboratory, using its multi-billion-dollar Large Hadron Collider, the LHC—do not individually come close to that threshold. What has excited physicists, though, is that they have got essentially identical results from two experiments attached to the LHC, which work in completely different ways. This coincidence makes it much more likely that they have discovered the real deal.
If they have, it would be a wonderful thing, and not just for science. Though nations no longer tremble at the feet of particle physicists—the men, and a few women, who once delivered the destructive power of the atom bomb—physics still has the power to produce awe in another way, by revealing the basic truths that underpin reality.
Model behaviour
Finding the Higgs would mark the closing of one chapter in this story. The elusive boson rounds off what has become known as the Standard Model of physics—an explanation that relies on 17 fundamental particles and three physical forces (though it stubbornly refuses to accommodate a fourth force, gravity, which is separately explained by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity). Much more intriguingly, the Higgs also opens another chapter of physics.
The physicists’ plan is to use the Standard Model as the foundation of a larger and more beautiful edifice called Supersymmetry. This predicts a further set of particles, the heavier partners of those already found. How much heavier, though, depends on how heavy the Higgs itself is. The results just announced suggest it is light enough for some of the predicted supersymmetric particles to be made in the LHC too.
That is a great relief to those at CERN. If the Higgs had proved much heavier than this week’s announcement implies they might have found themselves with a lot of redundant kit on their hands. Now they can start looking for the bricks of Supersymmetry, to see if it, too, resembles the physicists’ predictions. In particular, in a crossover between particle physics and cosmology, they will be trying to find out if (as the maths suggest) the lightest of the supersymmetric partner particles are the stuff of the hitherto mysterious “dark matter” whose gravity holds galaxies together.
A critique of pure reason
One of the most extraordinary things about the universe is this predictability—that it is possible to write down equations which describe what is seen, and extrapolate from them to the unseen. Newton was able to go from the behaviour of bodies falling to Earth to the mechanism that holds planets in orbit. James Clerk Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, derived in the mid-19th century, predicted the existence of radio waves. The atom bomb began with Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, which was a result derived by asking how objects would behave when travelling near the speed of light. The search for antimatter, that staple of science fiction, was the consequence of an equation about electrons which has two sets of solutions, one positive and one negative.
Eugene Wigner, one of the physicists responsible for showing, in the 1920s, the importance of symmetry to the universe (and who was thus a progenitor of Supersymmetry), described this as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. Not all such predictions come true, of course. But the predictive power of mathematical physics—as opposed to the after-the-fact explanatory power of maths in other fields—is still extraordinary.
Some might see the hand of God in such predictability. The Higgs boson is, indeed, known to headline writers as the God particle (though the sobriquet was actually first given by a bowdlerising editor, who shortened an author’s reference to “that goddamn particle”). Others will prefer to stand in awe of a universe that they suspect began as a quantum fluctuation in pre-existing nothingness. And yes, there are calculations explaining how that could have happened, too.
Both sides, though, should be in awe not merely of the universe, but also of the men and women who have stripped, and continue to strip, that universe of its mystery—and do so without diminishing the wonder of it all. So, at a time when the future of human affairs seems particularly uncertain, a Christmas toast to the predictability of physics. 

Testing Einstein's Theory of General Relativity

Francis Everitt gave a fascinating talk yesterday at the departmental colloquium about the experimental mission - Gravity Probe B, which completed earlier this year, over forty years after its original conception. The aim of the mission was to verify Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, by investigating two extraordinary phenomena predicted by Einstein: the geodesic effect (warping of spacetime due to the Earth) and the frame dragging effect (the extent to which the earth drags its spacetime round with it). The project is a fantastic story of human vision, tenacity and imagination.

Visit the excellent project site.


Emmy Noether - Einstein's appreciation

Emmy Noether was a great woman mathematician.  She created one of the most beautiful and profound theories showing how our most fundamental conservation laws of energy, angular momentum, linear momentum and charge can be derived from corresponding symmetries.  Here is Einstein's memorable and thought provoking tribute, published in the New York Times.

Emmy Noether

Professor Einstein Writes in Appreciation of a Fellow-Mathematician.

To the Editor of The New York Times:

The efforts of most human-beings are consumed in the struggle for their daily bread, but most of those who are, either through fortune or some special gift, relieved of this struggle are largely absorbed in further improving their worldly lot. Beneath the effort directed toward the accumulation of worldly goods lies all too frequently the illusion that this is the most substantial and desirable end to be achieved; but there is, fortunately, a minority composed of those who recognize early in their lives that the most beautiful and satisfying experiences open to humankind are not derived from the outside, but are bound up with the development of the individual's own feeling, thinking and acting. The genuine artists, investigators and thinkers have always been persons of this kind. However inconspicuously the life of these individuals runs its course, none the less the fruits of their endeavors are the most valuable contributions which one generation can make to its successors.

Within the past few days a distinguished mathematician, Professor Emmy Noether, formerly connected with the University of Göttingen and for the past two years at Bryn Mawr College, died in her fifty-third year. In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians. Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas. One seeks the most general ideas of operation which will bring together in simple, logical and unified form the largest possible circle of formal relationships. In this effort toward logical beauty spiritual formulas are discovered necessary for the deeper penetration into the laws of nature.

Born in a Jewish family distinguished for the love of learning, Emmy Noether, who, in spite of the efforts of the great Göttingen mathematician, Hilbert, never reached the academic standing due her in her own country, none the less surrounded herself with a group of students and investigators at Göttingen, who have already become distinguished as teachers and investigators. Her unselfish, significant work over a period of many years was rewarded by the new rulers of Germany with a dismissal, which cost her the means of maintaining her simple life and the opportunity to carry on her mathematical studies. Farsighted friends of science in this country were fortunately able to make such arrangements at Bryn Mawr College and at Princeton that she found in America up to the day of her death not only colleagues who esteemed her friendship but grateful pupils whose enthusiasm made her last years the happiest and perhaps the most fruitful of her entire career.

Princeton University, May 1, 1935.

[New York Times May 5, 1935]

The New York Times printed a recent article reminding us of this forgotten mathematician. Click on the image to read (and press <skip ad>).


Butterfly Dream


Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly (or a butterfly dreaming of Zhuangzi)


An email from a theoretical physicist friend continued my thinking about butterflies... Chuang-tzu was a Taoist teacher and writer who lived in the fourth century BC.

"Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly" (莊周夢蝶 Zhuāng Zhōu mèng dié). 

Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)

Basho created this haiku in response.....

You are the butterfly
And I the dreaming heart
Of Chuang-tzu.

– Basho





Photographed in a house in Brixton - most probably a Morpho

Freeman Dyson, end. Chap 1, 'Infinite in all Directions'

"This quick tour of the universe will begin with superstrings and end with butterflies. There will be a couple of intermediate stops on the way. Like Dante on his tour of the Inferno, I find at each level some colorful characters to add human interest to an otherwise intimidating scene. I will not explain what butterflies and superstrings are. To explain butterflies is unnecessary because everyone has seen them. To explain superstrings is impossible because nobody has seen them. But please do not think I am trying to mystify you. Superstrings and butterflies are examples illustrating two different aspects of the universe and two different notions of beauty. Super-strings come at the beginning and butterflies at the end because they are extreme examples. Butterflies are at the extreme of concreteness, superstrings at the extreme of abstraction. They mark the extreme limits of the territory over which science claims jurisdiction. Both are, in their different ways, beautiful. Both are, from a scientific point of view, poorly understood. Scientifically speaking, a butterfly is at least as mysterious as a superstring. When something ceases to be mysterious it ceases to be of absorbing concern to scientists. Almost all the things scientists think and dream about are mysterious...................

The last stop on our tour of the universe brings us back to my home in Princeton. We have descended from sky to earth, from abstract and speculative theories to the world of everyday reality. My youngest daughter came back from a music camp in Massachusetts carrying some Monarch caterpillars in a jar. She found them feeding on milkweed near the camp. We also have milkweed growing in Princeton and so she was able to keep the caterpillars alive. After a few days they stopped feeding, hung themselves up by their tails and began to pupate. The process of pupation is delightful to watch. They squeeze themselves up into the skin of the pupa, like a fat boy wriggling into a sleeping bag that is three sizes too small for him. At the beginning you cannot believe that the caterpillar will ever fit inside, and at the end it turns out that the sleeping bag was exactly the right size.

Two or three weeks later the butterflies emerge. The emergence is even more spectacular than the pupation. Out of the sleeping bag crawls the bedraggled remnant of the caterpillar, much reduced in size and with wet black stubs for wings. Then, in a few minutes, the body dries, the legs and antennae stiffen and the wings unfurl. The bedraggled little creature springs to life as a shimmering beauty of orange and white and black. We set her free in a nearby field and she flies high over the trees, disappearing into the sky. We hope that the move from Massachusetts to Princeton will not have disrupted the pattern of her autumn migration. With luck she will find companions to share with her the long journey to the Southwest. She has a long way to go, most of it against the prevailing winds.

The world of biology is full of miracles, but nothing I have seen is as miraculous as this metamorphosis of the Monarch caterpillar. Her brain is a speck of neural tissue a few millimeters long, about a million times smaller than a human brain. With this almost microscopic clump of nerve cells she knows how to manage her new legs and wings, to walk and to fly, to find her way by some unknown means of navigation over thousands of miles from Massachusetts to Mexico. How can all this be done? How are her behavior patterns programmed first into the genes of the caterpillar and then translated into the neural pathways of the butterfly? These are mysteries which our biological colleagues are very far from having understood. And yet, we can be confident that we are on the way toward understanding. Progress is rapid in all the necessary disciplines: biochemistry, genetics, embryology, cytology and neurophysiology. Within twenty or fifty years, we will probably be able to read the message that is written in the DNA of the caterpillar. Then we will see in detail how this message is able to direct the formation of a pupa, of legs and wings, and of a brain capable of long-range navigation. Before long, all these marvels of biochemical technology will be within our grasp. And we shall then be able, if we so choose, to apply the technology of the butterfly to our own purposes.

That is the end of our tour. I have given you brief glimpses of four pieces of the universe with which I have to deal as a scientist. First, the superstrings, our latest attempt to impose a deep mathematical unity on the laws of physics. Second, the black holes, the conceptual laboratories in which we play with the structure of space and time. Third, the Oort Cloud, and the comet showers which we imagine guiding the evolution of life on our planet. Fourth, the Monarch butterfly, which flies up into the summer sky, over the trees and far away, a symbol of evanescent beauty and a living proof that nature's imagination is richer than our own."


Vladimir and Vera Nabokov and a drawing by Nabokov  

The lepidopterist and writer, Vladimir Nabokov said of the gap between science and art:

'a mere dimple of a ditch that a small frog could straddle'.

 A fleeting 45 second film: 'butterflies are like ideas'.  One touch and they are gone.


Manifesto for drawing

Source: De Waals - 'The Hare with the Amber Eyes'