Category Archives: Science

Machineries of Gioia: A Poet Laureate on Ray Bradbury

Look at The Martian Chronicles. At the height of American optimism, Bradbury wrote a bittersweet novel about the failures of science, technology, and progress. Humanity makes it to Mars, but the triumph is illusory. Mars becomes a landscape of ghost towns. The novel was an extraordinarily fertile moment in American imagination. He suggested the notion of unlimited positive progress was an illusion. His wasn’t the dystopian vision of Orwell or Zamyatin but something gentler and more elegiac. H. G. Wells could write about the end of civilization from a global perspective. Bradbury made the vision personal and lyric.
Dana Gioia on Ray Bradbury

I’ve read a lot of Bradbury recently, that is to the extent that I can focus long enough to read much of anything. The Illustrated Man was better than the The Illustrated Woman contained in the uniformly depressing Machineries of Joy which I am struggling to finish. There can be no question though that The Martian Chronicles deserves the accolades and adaptations.

I struggle with Bradbury’s categorization as a science fiction writer. Chronicles aside, he is a breed apart from Asimov and Clarke who briskly get down to business peddling a bright future for one and all enabled by the latest in vacuum tubes and servomotors. Bradbury doesn’t fit that mold and through his thick glasses he saw a grimy  future broken by the ones who people it. He is lyrical, almost to excess in fact, and it takes a special frame of mind to deal with his unusual rhythms and devices. His observations on technology are profoundly gloomy.   Not for him the boundless optimism and things coming out well in the wash. Long before Sputnik, Gagarin, or their American counterparts, he saw that a future world, a spacefaring one, would eventually have to send the worst of the species after the best had paved the way. The Chronicles are full of careerists, louts, and brutes going not to explore but to exploit.

In recognition of the Bradbury centennial,  Hawthorne expat and recent state Poet Laureate Dana Gioia speaks to Bradbury’s wide and ongoing cultural impact in dialogue with his biographer. The discussion does locate Bradbury firmly as a Los Angeles writer, a thing that still surprises many as that which does not, can not, or at least ought not to exist in the heart of the entertainment industry.  Gioia acknowledges that “major mainstream journals published [Bradbury’s] fiction, and producers adapted his work for movies, radio, and TV.” He leaves out the stage apart from a brief mention in another list and more’s the pity. The lyricism, the elegiac odes to humanity’s perpetual folly  is what allowed the Pandemonium Theatre Company to bring so many of those stories to life with humans speaking to humans and not through effects in post-production.   Pandemonium was another Bradbury creation nurtured by others until its demise in the early 2000s. The Falcon hosted an uneven Fahrenheit 451 in 2002 with other, more successful productions at Theatre West and the lovely yet now defunct Court Theatre. He often appeared in the audience and, when asked, would say a few words before curtain to an appreciative audience sufficiently steeped in LA etiquette to applaud yet keep a respectful distance.

It is trivial to hang present day realities on deceased authors but there is no doubt that it is the pessimistic futures Bradbury foresaw decades ago that have played out and not those of his compatriots. We don’t have energy too cheap to meter, we aren’t in control of our robots, and ubiquitous telecommunications has served to narrow, divide, and power the slide into darkness.  We are the same desperate creatures that came out of the caves only with flashier and deadlier toys.

Here are two sobering stories adapted in 1950 for the Dimension X radio series.

Youtube Channel: Old Time Radio Researchers

 

An Impey Trifecta: Dark matter, strange correlations, and observing time

The online astronomy office hours from the UofA continue apace.  Every week  Prof. Chris Impey answers  ex tempore a mix of questions from planetary science to the fate of the universe from a thirsty audience across the globe.  A large Indian contingent stays up until the wee small hours of their morning to join in.   Part of the fun is pausing the video and trying to figure out the answer  from basic considerations before resuming.  It is fun to be right but more  instructive to be wrong.  I’ve been moved to send in three questions over the past couple of sessions and all have been answered.

  1. When in relation to the Big Bang did dark matter originate?
  2. There is a surprising correlation between supermassive galactic black hole size and the population of old stars in a galaxy. Can telescopes now resolve individual stars in distant galaxies well enough to distinguish old from new to establish this connection?
  3. Observational results come from the successful.  How do astronomers get precious telescope time?

Youtube Channel: Astronomy State of the Art

 

Backyard history: Southern California’s impact on astronomy

Silicon Valley has reshaped the earth, Hollywood has driven our perceptions of it, and not always for the better.  Less well known is the outsized role California has played in understanding our universe.   Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar, and their astronomers have had a Copernican impact on where we stand in the grand scheme of things.  The word ‘vision’ gets bandied about a lot these days but George Ellery Hale had it in spades.  Here’s how the two observatories that housed Hubble, Humason, ShapleyZwicky, Baade, Rubin, and Schmidt came to be.

The third video from Corning’s Museum of Glass shows that the path to science is not always smooth and that learning from mistakes is the norm.  The original 200 inch pyrex disk for the Palomar primary did not go according to plan and had to be recast.  The second attempt succeeded and even so, it took ten years of painstaking grinding and polishing at Caltech before it was ready for use.

Youtube Channel: Palomar Observatory

Youtube Channel: Irish Astronomy

Youtube Channel: Corning Museum of Glass

 

Fella of the Royal Society: Q&A with Keith Moore

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library
— J.L. Borges

No, I haven’t read any Borges but this is one of those quotes that is very popular with my ilk.  But, libraries are indeed wonderful things and I remember hanging out a lot – and later volunteering – at the old Albany (California) Public Library on Solano Avenue in the late 1970s.  Don’t look for it there now, it is a youth center affiliated with the YMCA.  I spent as much time at the Doe and Bancroft as any science major at Cal could.  The specialty books and journals were in Hildebrand Hall but the atmosphere in the general purpose stacks was unbeatable.  The Internet has obliterated what little attention span I once had so sitting down and reading a physical book is next to impossible and yet the lure, the promise, and the perfume of endless shelves of books is still strong.

“Objectivity” is one of Brady Haran‘s strongest and most addicting channels.  Most of the episodes are filmed at the Royal Society‘s Library in London and feature Keith Moore, the hypnotic and wildly popular head librarian who pulls from a bottomless collection of manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, and  instruments from Newton to the present.  The Brits were pieces of work for several hundred years but there can be no denying that they made a few positive contributions to somewhat offset their spherical bastardy.

Visiting the Society’s collections may just be sufficient to deal with the rigors of travel in whatever a post-COVID landscape may look like as well as London’s notoriously high prices.

Enjoy the long-requested Q&A with The Man which includes a very candid answer to a probing viewer question.  Be sure to check out the rest of the channel – some selections below.

Youtube Channel: Objectivity

Nick on ‘brick: Another look at 2001

/tap /tap

Is this thing still on?

Apparently.

I’ve posted previously of CinemaTyler’s excellent but breathless exploration of 2001: A Space OdysseyParallaxNick takes a more leisurely and historical look at the same film. It is less about the filmmaking process and more on its origins, development, context, and implications.  Nick’s videos about astronomy are well worth the watch.

Youtube Channel: ParallaxNick

The time is out of joint: Chris Impey on the tick-tick-tock of the stately clock

Steven Weinberg wrote a famous book, “The First Three Minutes” on the early stages of the universe.  The same universe became transparent to light some 370,000 years later.  There are other landmarks in post-Big Bang time going down to bewildering fractions of a second.

But the early universe was very hot, very dense, and gravitationally very different from the comfortable-to-us 1 g we experience today on the surface of the earth.  Einstein has convincingly shown that spacetime is accordingly divorced from that human experience.   Clocks, for example, are affected by gravity and satnav constellations have to take this into account.  Did the first three minutes flow the same way three minutes flow in the here and now?  I sent that question to Chris Impey’s online office hour and he kindly answered.  It is a tantalizing response and one that will require substantial further study to fully appreciate – perhaps finally diving into the guts of GR.   It makes me wonder even more intensely why we anthropomorphize those intervals the way we do.

Youtube Channel: Astronomy State of the Art

Composer Toru Takemitsu has set the general idea to music.

Youtube Channel: Orquesta Sinfónica de Xalapa

 

COVID’s Metamorphoses: RCSB Coronavirus resources

The CDC and WHO are giving us good advice on what do in this Plague Year.  The Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics (RCSB) is showing us the molecule causing the havoc.  Check out the structures of the various flavors of Coronavirus at The Protein Database (PDB).  Click on the images, most of which will go to detailed pages including 3D models that can be spun in the browser.  Knowledge will be power in dealing with this beast and let’s offer thanks to the research groups who took the lead in characterizing it which must have come at considerable risk to themselves.  When it mutates, and it will, they and others will undoubtedly don their capes and do the measurements again.

It is damnably, horrifyingly beautiful in David Goodsell’s artistic rendering of it infecting a lung:

Acknowledgement: Illustration by David S. Goodsell, RCSB Protein Data Bank; doi: 10.2210/rcsb_pdb/goodsell-gallery-019

 

License: CC-BY-4.0
Image used unmodified and there is no endorsement from or by the artist

Fascinatin’ rhythm: Four Brits on Gödel

I’ve got only a superficial understanding of the revolutionary incompleteness theorems that Gödel brought forth while a preternaturally gifted young man.  It will be the work of a remaining lifetime to learn it in any detail but it stimulates periodic revisits.  This podcast from the BBC’s In Our Time series smacked my gob when I came across it:  A very well-prepared moderator and three distinguished scientists discuss its impact.  It starts with a punch and soars from then on.  Yes, it is true that the posh accents predispose to trust but beyond that it is 40 minutes of serious yet freewheeling fluffless conversation that compels the listener to pay attention in the now and do homework afterward.  The presumption on the listener to be prepared, attentive, and engaged is exhilarating.  I can’t imagine such an exchange prepared for broadcast in the modern United States even by the remaining cultural outposts like NPR.

Youtube Channel: Philosophy Overdose

Spectral response: The science and emotion of color

The web’s archive of older industrial films is a recurring delight.  Jam Handy, Coronet, and other firms crafted these with an attention to detail, calm explanation, and rigorous science that is harder(*) to find today when most equivalents are about sales rather than fundamentals.  Jeff Quitney has uploaded a wonderful 1954 cleaned-up film to his Vimeo page on color theory and practice by the Interchemical Corporation.  It begins with the importance of color to society – especially in packaging goods and people – and then gives a marvelous account of the optics involved.   I’ve worked in the field for years but I learned to see things (pun intended) differently thanks to it.

The second film from 2016 looks at color in packaging through its emotional impact and its influence on design and designers.  ‘Color In Sight’  resembles like Hustwit’s ‘Helvetica.’  A number of prominent designers talk about how they use and think about color in order to evoke a response, surface a memory, or reveal a part of the spectrum to the color-blind.   I have no idea what I’d say to a nail-polish maker but Suzi Weiss-Fischmann (8m18s in) comes off  as a fun seatmate on a long plane trip.  I had a similar feeling about  Helvetica’s Paula Scher.   Interestingly, it is produced by TeaLeaves, a Canadian company specializing in very high-end teas for hotels.  Judging by their Youtube page, they must spend a fortune on short films – many of which have little outward bearing on their products.  I’ve never understood the appeal of tea but the videos are well worth a look.

(*) But not impossible by any means.

Vimeo Channel: Jeff Quitney

 

Youtube Channel: TeaLeaves