MondayPoem: Adam’s Curse

By Robert Pinsky for Slate:

Poetry can resemble incantation, but sometimes it also resembles conversation. Certain poems combine the two—the cadences of speech intertwined with the forms of song in a varying way that heightens the feeling. As in a screenplay or in fiction, the things that people in a poem say can seem natural, even spontaneous, yet also work to propel the emotional action along its arc.

The casual surface of speech and the inward energy of art have a clear relation in “Adam’s Curse” by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). A couple and their friend are together at the end of a summer day. In the poem, two of them speak, first about poetry and then about love. All of the poem’s distinct narrative parts—the setting, the dialogue, the stunning and unspoken conclusion—are conveyed in the strict form of rhymed couplets throughout. I have read the poem many times, for many years, and every time, something in me is hypnotized by the dance of sentence and rhyme. Always, in a certain way, the conclusion startles me. How can the familiar be somehow surprising? It seems to be a principle of art; and in this case, the masterful, unshowy rhyming seems to be a part of it. The couplet rhyme profoundly drives and tempers the gradually gathering emotional force of the poem in ways beyond analysis.

Yeats’ dialogue creates many nuances of tone. It is even a little funny at times: The poet’s self-conscious self-pity about how hard he works (he does most of the talking) is exaggerated with a smile, and his categories for the nonpoet or nonmartyr “world” have a similar, mildly absurd sweeping quality: bankers, schoolmasters, clergymen … This is not wit, exactly, but the slightly comical tone friends might use sitting together on a summer evening. I hear the same lightness of touch when the woman says, “Although they do not talk of it at school.” The smile comes closest to laughter when the poet in effect mocks himself gently, speaking of those lovers who “sigh and quote with learned looks/ Precedents out of beautiful old books.” The plain monosyllables of “old books” are droll in the context of these lovers. (Yeats may feel that he has been such a lover in his day.)

The plainest, most straightforward language in the poem, in some ways, comes at the very end—final words, not uttered in the conversation, are more private and more urgent than what has come before. After the almost florid, almost conventionally poetic description of the sunset, the courtly hint of a love triangle falls away. The descriptive language of the summer twilight falls away. The dialogue itself falls away—all yielding to the idea that this concluding thought is “only for your ears.” That closing passage of interior thoughts, what in fiction might be called “omniscient narration,” makes the poem feel, to me, as though not simply heard but overheard.

“Adam’s Curse”

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”

And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, “To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.”
I said, “It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

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Will Our Universe Collide With a Neighboring One?

From Discover:

Relaxing on an idyllic beach on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean, Anthony Aguirre vividly describes the worst natural disaster he can imagine. It is, in fact, probably the worst natural disaster that anyone could imagine. An asteroid impact would be small potatoes compared with this kind of event: a catastrophic encounter with an entire other universe.

As an alien cosmos came crashing into ours, its outer boundary would look like a wall racing forward at nearly the speed of light; behind that wall would lie a set of physical laws totally different from ours that would wreck everything they touched in our universe. “If we could see things in ultraslow motion, we’d see a big mirror in the sky rushing toward us because light would be reflected by the wall,” says Aguirre, a youthful physicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “After that we wouldn’t see anything—because we’d all be dead.”

There is a sober purpose behind this apocalyptic glee. Aguirre is one of a growing cadre of cosmologists who theorize that our universe is just one of many in a “multiverse” of universes. In their effort to grasp the implications of this idea, they have been calculating the odds that universes could interact with their neighbors or even smash into each other. While investigating what kind of gruesome end might result, they have stumbled upon a few surprises. There are tantalizing hints that our universe has already survived such a collision—and bears the scars to prove it.

Aguirre has organized a conference on Grand Cayman to address just such mind-boggling matters. The conversations here venture into multiverse mishaps and other matters of cosmological genesis and destruction. At first blush the setting seems incongruous: The tropical sun beats down dreamily, the smell of broken coconuts drifts from beneath the palm trees, and the ocean roars rhythmically in the background. But the locale is perhaps fitting. The winds are strong for this time of year, reminding the locals of hurricane Ivan, which devastated the capital city of George Town in 2004, lifting whole apartment blocks and transporting buildings across streets. In nature, peace and violence are never far from each other.

Much of today’s interest in multiple universes stems from concepts developed in the early 1980s by the pioneering cosmologists Alan Guth at MIT and Andrei Linde, then at the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow. Guth proposed that our universe went through an incredibly rapid growth spurt, known as inflation, in the first 10-30 second or so after the Big Bang. Such extreme expansion, driven by a powerful repulsive energy that quickly dissipated as the universe cooled, would solve many mysteries. Most notably, inflation could explain why the cosmos as we see it today is amazingly uniform in all directions. If space was stretched mightily during those first instants of existence, any extreme lumpiness or hot and cold spots would have immediately been smoothed out. This theory was modified by Linde, who had hit on a similar idea independently. Inflation made so much sense that it quickly became a part of the mainstream model of cosmology.

Soon after, Linde and Alex Vilenkin at Tufts University came to the startling realization that inflation may not have been a onetime event. If it could happen once, it could—and indeed should—happen again and again for eternity. Stranger still, every eruption of inflation would create a new bubble of space and energy. The result: an infinite progression of new universes, each bursting forth with its own laws of physics.

In such a bubbling multiverse of universes, it seems inevitable that universes would sometimes collide. But for decades cosmologists neglected this possibility, reckoning that the odds were small and that if it happened, the results would be irrelevant because anyone and anything near the collision would be annihilated.

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I Didn’t Sin—It Was My Brain

From Discover:

Why does being bad feel so good? Pride, envy, greed, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth: It might sound like just one more episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, but this enduring formulation of the worst of human failures has inspired great art for thousands of years. In the 14th century Dante depicted ghoulish evildoers suffering for eternity in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. Medieval muralists put the fear of God into churchgoers with lurid scenarios of demons and devils. More recently George Balanchine choreographed their dance.

Today these transgressions are inspiring great science, too. New research is explaining where these behaviors come from and helping us understand why we continue to engage in them—and often celebrate them—even as we declare them to be evil. Techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which highlights metabolically active areas of the brain, now allow neuroscientists to probe the biology behind bad intentions.

The most enjoyable sins engage the brain’s reward circuitry, including evolutionarily ancient regions such as the nucleus accumbens and hypothalamus; located deep in the brain, they provide us such fundamental feelings as pain, pleasure, reward, and punishment. More disagreeable forms of sin such as wrath and envy enlist the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC). This area, buried in the front of the brain, is often called the brain’s “conflict detector,” coming online when you are confronted with contradictory information, or even simply when you feel pain. The more social sins (pride, envy, lust, wrath) recruit the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), brain terrain just behind the forehead, which helps shape the awareness of self.

No understanding of temptation is complete without considering restraint, and neuroscience has begun to illuminate this process as well. As we struggle to resist, inhibitory cognitive control networks involving the front of the brain activate to squelch the impulse by tempering its appeal. Meanwhile, research suggests that regions such as the caudate—partly responsible for body movement and coordination—suppress the physical impulse. It seems to be the same whether you feel a spark of lechery, a surge of jealousy, or the sudden desire to pop somebody in the mouth: The two sides battle it out, the devilish reward system versus the angelic brain regions that hold us in check.

It might be too strong to claim that evolution has wired us for sin, but excessive indulgence in lust or greed could certainly put you ahead of your competitors. “Many of these sins you could think of as virtues taken to the extreme,” says Adam Safron, a research consultant at Northwestern University whose neuroimaging studies focus on sexual behavior. “From the perspective of natural selection, you want the organism to eat, to procreate, so you make them rewarding. But there’s a potential for that process to go beyond the bounds.”

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Stephen Hawking Is Making His Comeback

From Discover:

As an undergraduate at Oxford University, Stephen William Hawking was a wise guy, a provocateur. He was popular, a lively coxswain for the crew team. Physics came easy. He slept through lectures, seldom studied, and criticized his professors. That all changed when he started graduate school at Cambridge in 1962 and subsequently learned that he had only a few years to live.

The symptoms first appeared while Hawking was still at Oxford. He could not row a scull as easily as he once had; he took a few bad, clumsy falls. A college doctor told him not to drink so much beer. By 1963 his condition had gotten bad enough that his mother brought him to a hospital in London, where he received the devastating diagnosis: motor neuron disease, as ALS is called in the United Kingdom. The prognosis was grim and final: rapid wasting of nerves and muscles, near-total paralysis, and death from respiratory failure in three to five years.

Not surprisingly, Hawking grew depressed, seeking solace in the music of Wagner (contrary to some media reports, however, he says he did not go on a drinking binge). And yet he did not disengage from life. Later in 1963 he met Jane Wilde, a student of medieval poetry at the University of London. They fell in love and resolved to make the most of what they both assumed would be a tragically short relationship. In 1965 they married, and Hawking returned to physics with newfound energy.

Also that year, Hawking had an encounter that led to his first major contribution to his field. The occasion was a talk at Kings College in London given by Roger Penrose, an eminent mathematician then at Birkbeck College. Penrose had just proved something remarkable and, for physicists, disturbing: Black holes, the light-trapping chasms in space-time that form in the aftermath of the collapse of massive stars, must all contain singularities—points where space, time, and the very laws of physics fall apart.

Before Penrose’s work, many physicists had regarded singularities as mere curiosities, permitted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity but unlikely to exist. The standard assumption was that a singularity could form only if a perfectly spherical star collapsed with perfect symmetry, the kind of ideal conditions that never occur in the real world. Penrose proved otherwise. He found that any star massive enough to form a black hole upon its death must create a singularity. This realization meant that the laws of physics could not be used to describe everything in the universe; the singularity was a cosmic abyss.

At a subsequent lecture, Hawking grilled Penrose on his ideas. “He asked some awkward questions,” Penrose says. “He was very much on the ball. I had probably been a bit vague in one of my statements, and he was sharpening it up a bit. I was a little alarmed that he noticed something that I had glossed over, and that he was able to spot it so quickly.”

Hawking had just renewed his search for a subject for his Ph.D. thesis, a project he had abandoned after receiving the ALS diagnosis. His condition had stabilized somewhat, and his future no longer looked completely bleak. Now he had his subject: He wanted to apply Penrose’s approach to the cosmos at large.

Physicists have known since 1929 that the universe is expanding. Hawking reasoned that if the history of the universe could be run backward, so that the universe was shrinking instead of expanding, it would behave (mathematically at least) like a collapsing star, the same sort of phenomenon Penrose had analyzed. Hawking’s work was timely. In 1965, physicists working at Bell Labs in New Jersey discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, the first direct evidence that the universe began with the Big Bang. But was the Big Bang a singularity, or was it a concentrated, hot ball of energy—awesome and mind-bending, but still describable by the laws of physics?

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How Much of Your Memory Is True?

From Discover:

Rita Magil was driving down a Montreal boulevard one sunny morning in 2002 when a car came blasting through a red light straight toward her. “I slammed the brakes, but I knew it was too late,” she says. “I thought I was going to die.” The oncoming car smashed into hers, pushing her off the road and into a building with large cement pillars in front. A pillar tore through the car, stopping only about a foot from her face. She was trapped in the crumpled vehicle, but to her shock, she was still alive.

The accident left Magil with two broken ribs and a broken collarbone. It also left her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a desperate wish to forget. Long after her bones healed, Magil was plagued by the memory of the cement barriers looming toward her. “I would be doing regular things—cooking something, shopping, whatever—and the image would just come into my mind from nowhere,” she says. Her heart would pound; she would start to sweat and feel jumpy all over. It felt visceral and real, like something that was happening at that very moment.

Most people who survive accidents or attacks never develop PTSD. But for some, the event forges a memory that is pathologically potent, erupting into consciousness again and again. “PTSD really can be characterized as a disorder of memory,” says McGill University psychologist Alain Brunet, who studies and treats psychological trauma. “It’s about what you wish to forget and what you cannot forget.” This kind of memory is not misty and water­colored. It is relentless.

More than a year after her accident, Magil saw Brunet’s ad for an experimental treatment for PTSD, and she volunteered. She took a low dose of a common blood-pressure drug, propranolol, that reduces activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotions. Then she listened to a taped re-creation of her car accident. She had relived that day in her mind a thousand times. The difference this time was that the drug broke the link between her factual memory and her emotional memory. Propranolol blocks the action of adrenaline, so it prevented her from tensing up and getting anxious. By having Magil think about the accident while the drug was in her body, Brunet hoped to permanently change how she remembered the crash. It worked. She did not forget the accident but was actively able to reshape her memory of the event, stripping away the terror while leaving the facts behind.

Brunet’s experiment emerges from one of the most exciting and controversial recent findings in neuroscience: that we alter our memories just by remembering them. Karim Nader of McGill—the scientist who made this discovery—hopes it means that people with PTSD can cure themselves by editing their memories. Altering remembered thoughts might also liberate people imprisoned by anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, even addiction. “There is no such thing as a pharmacological cure in psychiatry,” Brunet says. “But we may be on the verge of changing that.”

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Building an Interstate Highway System for Energy

From Discover:

President Obama plans to spend billions building it. General Electric is already running slick ads touting the technology behind it. And Greenpeace declares that it is a great idea. But what exactly is a “smart grid”? According to one big-picture description, it is much of what today’s power grid is not, and more of what it must become if the United States is to replace carbon-belching, coal-fired power with renewable energy generated from sun and wind.

Today’s power grids are designed for local delivery, linking customers in a given city or region to power plants relatively nearby. But local grids are ill-suited to distributing energy from the alternative sources of tomorrow. North America’s strongest winds, most intense sunlight, and hottest geothermal springs are largely concentrated in remote regions hundreds or thousands of miles from the big cities that need electricity most. “Half of the population in the United States lives within 100 miles of the coasts, but most of the wind resources lie between North Dakota and West Texas,” says Michael Heyeck, senior vice president for transmission at the utility giant American Electric Power. Worse, those winds constantly ebb and flow, creating a variable supply.

Power engineers are already sketching the outlines of the next-generation electrical grid that will keep our homes and factories humming with clean—but fluctuating—renewable energy. The idea is to expand the grid from the top down by adding thousands of miles of robust new transmission lines, while enhancing communication from the bottom up with electronics enabling millions of homes and businesses to optimize their energy use.

The Grid We Have
When electricity leaves a power plant today, it is shuttled from place to place over high-voltage lines, those cables on steel pylons that cut across landscapes and run virtually contiguously from coast to coast. Before it reaches your home or office, the voltage is reduced incrementally by passing through one or more intermediate points, called substations. The substations process the power until it can flow to outlets in homes and businesses at the safe level of 110 volts.

The vast network of power lines delivering the juice may be interconnected, but pushing electricity all the way from one coast to the other is unthinkable with the present technology. That is because the network is an agglomeration of local systems patched together to exchange relatively modest quantities of surplus power. In fact, these systems form three distinct grids in the United States: the Eastern, Western, and Texas interconnects. Only a handful of transfer stations can move power between the different grids.

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A Scientist’s Guide to Finding Alien Life: Where, When, and in What Universe

From Discover:

Things were not looking so good for alien life in 1976, after the Viking I spacecraft landed on Mars, stretched out its robotic arm, and gathered up a fist-size pile of red dirt for chemical testing. Results from the probe’s built-in lab were anything but encouraging. There were no clear signs of biological activity, and the pictures Viking beamed back showed a bleak, frozen desert world, backing up that grim assessment. It appeared that our best hope for finding life on another planet had blown away like dust in a Martian windstorm.

What a difference 33 years makes. Back then, Mars seemed the only remotely plausible place beyond Earth where biology could have taken root. Today our conception of life in the universe is being turned on its head as scientists are finding a whole lot of inviting real estate out there. As a result, they are beginning to think not in terms of single places to look for life but in terms of “habitable zones”—maps of the myriad places where living things could conceivably thrive beyond Earth. Such abodes of life may lie on other planets and moons throughout our galaxy, throughout the universe, and even beyond.

The pace of progress is staggering. Just last November new studies of Saturn’s moon Enceladus strengthened the case for a reservoir of warm water buried beneath its craggy surface. Nobody had ever thought of this roughly 300-mile-wide icy satellite as anything special—until the Cassini spacecraft witnessed geysers of water vapor blowing out from its surface. Now Enceladus joins Jupiter’s moon Europa on the growing list of unlikely solar system locales that seem to harbor liquid water and, in principle, the ingredients for life.

Astronomers are also closing in on a possibly huge number of Earth-like worlds around other stars. Since the mid-1990s they have already identified roughly 340 extrasolar planets. Most of these are massive gaseous bodies, but the latest searches are turning up ever-smaller worlds. Two months ago the European satellite Corot spotted an extrasolar planet less than twice the diameter of Earth (see “The Inspiring Boom in Super-Earths”), and NASA’s new Kepler probe is poised to start searching for genuine analogues of Earth later this year. Meanwhile, recent discoveries show that microorganisms are much hardier than we thought, meaning that even planets that are not terribly Earth-like might still be suited to biology.

Together, these findings indicate that Mars was only the first step of the search, not the last. The habitable zones of the cosmos are vast, it seems, and they may be teeming with life.

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The Biocentric Universe Theory: Life Creates Time, Space, and the Cosmos Itself

From Discover:

The farther we peer into space, the more we realize that the nature of the universe cannot be understood fully by inspecting spiral galaxies or watching distant supernovas. It lies deeper. It involves our very selves.

This insight snapped into focus one day while one of us (Lanza) was walking through the woods. Looking up, he saw a huge golden orb web spider tethered to the overhead boughs. There the creature sat on a single thread, reaching out across its web to detect the vibrations of a trapped insect struggling to escape. The spider surveyed its universe, but everything beyond that gossamer pinwheel was incomprehensible. The human observer seemed as far-off to the spider as telescopic objects seem to us. Yet there was something kindred: We humans, too, lie at the heart of a great web of space and time whose threads are connected according to laws that dwell in our minds.

Is the web possible without the spider? Are space and time physical objects that would continue to exist even if living creatures were removed from the scene?

Figuring out the nature of the real world has obsessed scientists and philosophers for millennia. Three hundred years ago, the Irish empiricist George Berkeley contributed a particularly prescient observation: The only thing we can perceive are our perceptions. In other words, consciousness is the matrix upon which the cosmos is apprehended. Color, sound, temperature, and the like exist only as perceptions in our head, not as absolute essences. In the broadest sense, we cannot be sure of an outside universe at all.

For centuries, scientists regarded Berkeley’s argument as a philosophical sideshow and continued to build physical models based on the assumption of a separate universe “out there” into which we have each individually arrived. These models presume the existence of one essential reality that prevails with us or without us. Yet since the 1920s, quantum physics experiments have routinely shown the opposite: Results do depend on whether anyone is observing. This is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the famous two-slit experiment. When someone watches a subatomic particle or a bit of light pass through the slits, the particle behaves like a bullet, passing through one hole or the other. But if no one observes the particle, it exhibits the behavior of a wave that can inhabit all possibilities—including somehow passing through both holes at the same time.

Some of the greatest physicists have described these results as so confounding they are impossible to comprehend fully, beyond the reach of metaphor, visualization, and language itself. But there is another interpretation that makes them sensible. Instead of assuming a reality that predates life and even creates it, we propose a biocentric picture of reality. From this point of view, life—particularly consciousness—creates the universe, and the universe could not exist without us.

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L’Aquila: The other casualty

18th-century Church of Santa Maria del Suffragio. Image courtesy of The New York Times.The earthquake in central Italy last week zeroed in on the beautiful medieval hill town of L’Aquila. It claimed the lives of 294 young and old, injured several thousand more, and made tens of thousands homeless. This is a heart-wrenching human tragedy. It’s also a cultural one. The quake razed centuries of L’Aquila’s historical buildings, broke the foundations of many of the town’s churches and public spaces, destroyed countless cultural artifacts, and forever buried much of the town’s irreplaceable art under tons of twisted iron and fractured stone.

Like many small and lesser known towns in Italy, L?Aquila did not boast a roster of works by ?a-list? artists on its walls, ceilings and piazzas; no Michelangelos or Da Vincis here, no works by Giotto or Raphael. And yet, the cultural loss is no less significant, for the quake destroyed much of the common art that the citizens of L?Aquila shared as a social bond. It?s the everyday art that they passed on their way to home or school or work; the fountains in the piazzas, the ornate porticos, the painted building facades, the hand-carved doors, the marble statues on street corners, the frescoes and paintings by local artists hanging on the ordinary walls. It?s this everyday art – the art that surrounded and nourished the citizens of L?Aquila – that is gone.

New York Times columnist, Michael Kimmelman put it this way in his April 11, 2009 article:

Italy is not like America. Art isn?t reduced here to a litany of obscene auction prices or lamentations over the bursting bubble of shameless excess. It?s a matter of daily life, linking home and history. Italians don?t visit museums much, truth be told, because they already live in them and can?t live without them. The art world might retrieve a useful lesson from the rubble.

I don’t fully agree with Mr.Kimmelman. There’s plenty of excess and pretentiousness in the salons of Paris, London and even Beijing and Mumbai, not just the serious art houses of New York. And yet, he has accurately observed the plight of L’Aquila. How often have you seen people confronted with the aftermath of a natural (or manmade) tragedy sifting through the remains, looking for a precious artifact – a sentimental photo, a memorable painting, a meaningful gift. These tragic situations often make people realize what is truly precious (aside from life and family and friends), and it’s not the plasma TV.
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The Strange Forests that Drink—and Eat—Fog

From Discover:

On the rugged roadway approaching Fray Jorge National Park in north-central Chile, you are surrounded by desert. This area receives less than six inches of rain a year, and the dry terrain is more suggestive of the badlands of the American Southwest than of the lush landscapes of the Amazon. Yet as the road climbs, there is an improbable shift. Perched atop the coastal mountains here, some 1,500 to 2,000 feet above the level of the nearby Pacific Ocean, are patches of vibrant rain forest covering up to 30 acres apiece. Trees stretch as much as 100 feet into the sky, with ferns, mosses, and bromeliads adorning their canopies. Then comes a second twist: As you leave your car and follow a rising path from the shrub into the forest, it suddenly starts to rain. This is not rain from clouds in the sky above, but fog dripping from the tree canopy. These trees are so efficient at snatching moisture out of the air that the fog provides them with three-quarters of all the water they need.

Understanding these pocket rain forests and how they sustain themselves in the middle of a rugged desert has become the life’s work of a small cadre of scientists who are only now beginning to fully appreciate Fray Jorge’s third and deepest surprise: The trees that grow here do more than just drink the fog. They eat it too.

Fray Jorge lies at the north end of a vast rain forest belt that stretches southward some 600 miles to the tip of Chile. In the more southerly regions of this zone, the forest is wetter, thicker, and more contiguous, but it still depends on fog to survive dry summer conditions. Kathleen C. Weathers, an ecosystem scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, has been studying the effects of fog on forest ecosystems for 25 years, and she still cannot quite believe how it works. “One step inside a fog forest and it’s clear that you’ve entered a remarkable ecosystem,” she says. “The ways in which trees, leaves, mosses, and bromeliads have adapted to harvest tiny droplets of water that hang in the atmosphere is unparalleled.”

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Image courtesy of Juan J. Armesto/Foundation Senda Darwin Archive

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CERN celebrates 20th anniversary of World Wide Web

theDiagonal doesn’t normally post “newsy” items. So, we are making an exception in this case for two reasons: first, the “web” wasn’t around in 1989 so we wouldn’t have been able to post a news release on our blog announcing its birth; second, in 1989 Tim Berners-Lee’s then manager waved off his proposal with a “Vague, but exciting” annotation, so without the benefit of the hindsight we now have and lacking in foresight that we so desire, we may just have dismissed it. The rest, as they say “is history”.

From Interactions.org:

Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee today returned to the birthplace of his brainchild, 20 years after submitting his paper ‘Information Management: A Proposal’ to his manager Mike Sendall in March 1989. By writing the words ‘Vague, but exciting’ on the document’s cover, and giving Berners-Lee the go-ahead to continue, Sendall signed into existence the information revolution of our time: the World Wide Web. In September the following year, Berners-Lee took delivery of a computer called a NeXT cube, and by December 1990 the Web was up and running, albeit between just a couple of computers at CERN*.

Today’s event takes a look back at some of the early history, and pre-history, of the World Wide Web at CERN, includes a keynote speech from Tim Berners-Lee, and concludes with a series of talks from some of today’s Web pioneers.

“It’s a pleasure to be back at CERN today,” said Berners-Lee. “CERN has come a long way since 1989, and so has the Web, but its roots will always be here.”

The World Wide Web is undoubtedly the most well known spin-off from CERN, but it’s not the only one. Technologies developed at CERN have found applications in domains as varied as solar energy collection and medical imaging.

“When CERN scientists find a technological hurdle in the way of their ambitions, they have a tendency to solve it,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer. “I’m pleased to say that the spirit of innovation that allowed Tim Berners-Lee to invent the Web at CERN, and allowed CERN to nurture it, is alive and well today.”

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Evolution by Intelligent Design

From Discover:

“There are no shortcuts in evolution,” famed Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said. He might have reconsidered those words if he could have foreseen the coming revolution in biotechnology, including the ability to alter genes and manipulate stem cells. These breakthroughs could bring on an age of directed reproduction and evolution in which humans will bypass the incremental process of natural selection and set off on a high-speed genetic course of their own. Here are some of the latest and greatest advances.

Embryos From the Palm of Your Hand
In as little as five years, scientists may be able to create sperm and egg cells from any cell in the body, enabling infertile couples, gay couples, or sterile people to reproduce. The technique could also enable one person to provide both sperm and egg for an offspring—an act of “ultimate incest,” according to a report from the Hinxton Group, an international consortium of scientists and bioethicists whose members include such heavyweights as Ruth Faden, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, and Peter J. Donovan, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California at Irvine.

The Hinxton Group’s prediction comes in the wake of recent news that scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Kyoto University in Japan have transformed adult human skin cells into pluripotent stem cells, the powerhouse cells that can self-replicate (perhaps indefinitely) and develop into almost any kind of cell in the body. In evolutionary terms, the ability to change one type of cell into others—including a sperm or egg cell, or even an embryo—means that humans can now wrest control of reproduction away from nature, notes Robert Lanza, a scientist at Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts. “With this breakthrough we now have a working technology whereby anyone can pass on their genes to a child by using just a few skin cells,” he says.

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Is Quantum Mechanics Controlling Your Thoughts?

From Discover:

Graham Fleming sits down at an L-shaped lab bench, occupying a footprint about the size of two parking spaces. Alongside him, a couple of off-the-shelf lasers spit out pulses of light just millionths of a billionth of a second long. After snaking through a jagged path of mirrors and lenses, these minus­cule flashes disappear into a smoky black box containing proteins from green sulfur bacteria, which ordinarily obtain their energy and nourishment from the sun. Inside the black box, optics manufactured to billionths-of-a-meter precision detect something extraordinary: Within the bacterial proteins, dancing electrons make seemingly impossible leaps and appear to inhabit multiple places at once.

Peering deep into these proteins, Fleming and his colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley and at Washington University in St. Louis have discovered the driving engine of a key step in photosynthesis, the process by which plants and some microorganisms convert water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight into oxygen and carbohydrates. More efficient by far in its ability to convert energy than any operation devised by man, this cascade helps drive almost all life on earth. Remarkably, photosynthesis appears to derive its ferocious efficiency not from the familiar physical laws that govern the visible world but from the seemingly exotic rules of quantum mechanics, the physics of the subatomic world. Somehow, in every green plant or photosynthetic bacterium, the two disparate realms of physics not only meet but mesh harmoniously. Welcome to the strange new world of quantum biology.

On the face of things, quantum mechanics and the biological sciences do not mix. Biology focuses on larger-scale processes, from molecular interactions between proteins and DNA up to the behavior of organisms as a whole; quantum mechanics describes the often-strange nature of electrons, protons, muons, and quarks—the smallest of the small. Many events in biology are considered straightforward, with one reaction begetting another in a linear, predictable way. By contrast, quantum mechanics is fuzzy because when the world is observed at the subatomic scale, it is apparent that particles are also waves: A dancing electron is both a tangible nugget and an oscillation of energy. (Larger objects also exist in particle and wave form, but the effect is not noticeable in the macroscopic world.)

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Image courtesy of Dylan Burnette/Olympus Bioscapes Imaging Competition.

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Invisibility Becomes More than Just a Fantasy

From Discover:

Two years ago a team of engineers amazed the world (Harry Potter fans in particular) by developing the technology needed to make an invisibility cloak. Now researchers are creating laboratory-engineered wonder materials that can conceal objects from almost anything that travels as a wave. That includes light and sound and—at the subatomic level—matter itself. And lest you think that cloaking applies only to the intangible world, 2008 even brought a plan for using cloaking techniques to protect shorelines from giant incoming waves.

Engineer Xiang Zhang, whose University of California at Berkeley lab is behind much of this work, says, “We can design materials that have properties that never exist in nature.”

These engineered substances, known as metamaterials, get their unusual properties from their size and shape, not their chemistry. Because of the way they are composed, they can shuffle waves—be they of light, sound, or water—away from an object. To cloak something, concentric rings of the metamaterial are placed around the object to be concealed. Tiny structures—like loops or cylinders—within the rings divert the incoming waves around the object, preventing both reflection and absorption. The waves meet up again on the other side, appearing just as they would if nothing were there.

The first invisibility cloak, designed by engineers at Duke University and Imperial College London, worked for only a narrow band of microwaves. Xiang and his colleagues created metamaterials that can bend visible light backward—a much greater challenge because visible light waves are so small, under 700 nanometers wide. That meant the engineers had to devise cloaking components only tens of nanometers apart.

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Why I Blog

By Andrew Sullivan for the Altantic

The word blog is a conflation of two words: Web and log. It contains in its four letters a concise and accurate self-description: it is a log of thoughts and writing posted publicly on the World Wide Web. In the monosyllabic vernacular of the Internet, Web log soon became the word blog.

This form of instant and global self-publishing, made possible by technology widely available only for the past decade or so, allows for no retroactive editing (apart from fixing minor typos or small glitches) and removes from the act of writing any considered or lengthy review. It is the spontaneous expression of instant thought—impermanent beyond even the ephemera of daily journalism. It is accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers and other bloggers, and linked via hypertext to continuously multiplying references and sources. Unlike any single piece of print journalism, its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory. The consequences of this for the act of writing are still sinking in.

A ship’s log owes its name to a small wooden board, often weighted with lead, that was for centuries attached to a line and thrown over the stern. The weight of the log would keep it in the same place in the water, like a provisional anchor, while the ship moved away. By measuring the length of line used up in a set period of time, mariners could calculate the speed of their journey (the rope itself was marked by equidistant “knots” for easy measurement). As a ship’s voyage progressed, the course came to be marked down in a book that was called a log.

In journeys at sea that took place before radio or radar or satellites or sonar, these logs were an indispensable source for recording what actually happened. They helped navigators surmise where they were and how far they had traveled and how much longer they had to stay at sea. They provided accountability to a ship’s owners and traders. They were designed to be as immune to faking as possible. Away from land, there was usually no reliable corroboration of events apart from the crew’s own account in the middle of an expanse of blue and gray and green; and in long journeys, memories always blur and facts disperse. A log provided as accurate an account as could be gleaned in real time.

As you read a log, you have the curious sense of moving backward in time as you move forward in pages—the opposite of a book. As you piece together a narrative that was never intended as one, it seems—and is—more truthful. Logs, in this sense, were a form of human self-correction. They amended for hindsight, for the ways in which human beings order and tidy and construct the story of their lives as they look back on them. Logs require a letting-go of narrative because they do not allow for a knowledge of the ending. So they have plot as well as dramatic irony—the reader will know the ending before the writer did.

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The LHC Begins Its Search for the “God Particle

From Discover:

The most astonishing thing about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the ring-shaped particle accelerator that revved up for the first time on September 10 in a tunnel near Geneva, is that it ever got built. Twenty-six nations pitched in more than $8 billion to fund the project. Then CERN—the European Organization for Nuclear Research—enlisted the help of 5,000 scientists and engineers to construct a machine of unprecedented size, complexity, and ambition.

Measuring almost 17 miles in circumference, the LHC uses 9,300 superconducting magnets, cooled by liquid helium to 1.9 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero (–271.3º C.), to accelerate two streams of protons in opposite directions. It has detectors as big as apartment buildings to find out what happens when these protons cross paths and collide at 99.999999 percent of the speed of light. Yet roughly the same percentage of the human race has no idea what the LHC’s purpose is. Might it destroy the earth by spawning tiny, ravenous black holes? (Not a chance, physicists say. Collisions more energetic than the ones at the LHC happen naturally all the time, and we are still here.)

In fact, the goal of the LHC is at once simple and grandiose: It was created to discover new particles. One of the most sought of these is the Higgs boson, also known as the God particle because, according to current theory, it endowed all other particles with mass. Or perhaps the LHC will find “supersymmetric” particles, exotic partners to known particles like electrons and quarks. Such a discovery would be a big step toward developing a unified description of the four fundamental forces—the “theory of everything” that would explain all the basic interactions in the universe. As a bonus, some of those supersymmetric particles might turn out to be dark matter, the unseen stuff that seems to hold galaxies together.

More from theSource here.

Image courtesy of Maximillien Brice/CERN.

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What is art? The answer, from a little bird?

I’ve been pondering a concrete answer to this question, and others like it for some time. I do wonder “what is art?” and “what is great art?” and “what distinguishes fine art from its non-fine cousins?” and “what makes some art better than other art?”

In formulating my answers to these questions I’ve been looking inward and searching outward. I’ve been digesting the musings of our great philosophers and eminent scholars and authors. I’m close to penning some blog-worthy articles that crystallize my current thinking on the subject, but I’m not quite ready. Not yet. So, in the meantime you and I will have to make do with deep thoughts on the subject of art from some of my friends…

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