EssentialstheDiagonal is a personal blog by Mike Gerra, skeptic, technologist, psychologist, artist, humanist, collector of grand, eclectic ideas.theDiagonal blog connects the dots across multiple disciplines for inquisitive, objective and critical thinkers, exploring the vertices of big science, disruptive innovation, global sustainability, illuminating literature and leftfield art. It is on this diagonal that creativity thrives, big ideas take flight and reason triumphs.
Author Archives: Mike Gerra
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
A recent study by Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki from University College London places the seat of our sense of beauty in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC). Not very romantic of course, but thoroughly reasonable that this compound emotion would be found in an area of the brain linked with reward and pleasure.
The results are described over at Not Exactly Rocket Science / Discover:
Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki from University College London watched the brains of 21 volunteers as they looked at 30 paintings and listened to 30 musical excerpts. All the while, they were lying inside an fMRI scanner, a machine that measures blood flow to different parts of the brain and shows which are most active. The recruits rated each piece as “beautiful”, “indifferent” or “ugly”.
The scans showed that one part of their brains lit up more strongly when they experienced beautiful images or music than when they experienced ugly or indifferent ones – the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC....read more
Monday, August 22, 2011
Ushering in this week’s focus on the brain and the cognitive sciences is an Emily Dickinson poem.
Born is Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830, Emily Dickinson is often characterized as having lead a very private and eccentric life. While few of her poems were published during her lifetime, Emily Dickinson is now regarded as a major American poet for her innovative, pre-modernist poetry.
By Emily Dickinson:
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —
The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —
The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
More on Emily Dickinson from the Poetry Foundation....read more
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Monday, August 8, 2011
In early 1990 at CERN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau published a formal proposal to build a “Hypertext project” called “WorldWideWeb” as a “web” of “hypertext documents” to be viewed by “browsers”.
Following development work the pair introduced the proposal to a wider audience in December, and on August 6, 1991, 20 years ago, the World Wide Web officially opened for business on the internet. On that day Berners-Lee posted the first web page — a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup....read more
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
A fascinating and disturbing series of still photographs from Andris Feldmanis shows us what the television “sees” as its viewers glare seemingly mindlessly at the box. As Feldmanis describes,
An average person in Estonia spends several hours a day watching the television. This is the situation reversed, the people portrayed here are posing for their television sets. It is not a critique of mass media and its influence, it is a fictional document of what the TV sees.
Makes one wonder what the viewers were watching. Or does it even matter? More of the series courtesy of Art Fag City, here. All the images show the one-sidedness of the human-television relationship.
Image courtesy of Andris Feldmanis.
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More precisely NASA’s Dawn spacecraft entered into orbit around the asteroid Vesta on July 15, 2011. Vesta is the second largest of our solar system’s asteroids and is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Now that Dawn is safely in orbit, the spacecraft will circle about 10,000 miles above Vesta’s surface for a year and use two different cameras, a gamma-ray detector and a neutron detector, to study the asteroid.
Then in July 2012, Dawn will depart for a visit to Vesta’s close neighbor and largest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres.
The image of Vesta above was taken from a distance of about 9,500 miles (15,000 kilometers) away.
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.
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Tuesday, August 2, 2011
The Seven Sisters star cluster, also known as the Pleiades, consists of many, young, bright and hot stars. While the cluster contains hundreds of stars it is so named because only seven are typically visible to the naked eye. The Seven Sisters is visible from the northern hemisphere, and resides in the constellation Taurus.
Image and supporting text courtesy of Davide De Martin over at Skyfactory.
This image is a composite from black and white images taken with the Palomar Observatory’s 48-inch (1.2-meter) Samuel Oschin Telescope as a part of the second National Geographic Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS II). The images were recorded on two type of glass photographic plates – one sensitive to red light and the other to blue and later they were digitized. Credit: Caltech, Palomar Observatory, Digitized Sky Survey....read more
Monday, August 1, 2011
Monday’s poem authored by William Meredith, was selected for it is in keeping with our cosmology theme this week.
William Meredith was born in New York City in 1919. He studied English at Princeton University where he graduated Magna Cum Laude. His senior thesis focused on the poetry of Robert Frost, a major influence for Meredith throughout his career.
By William Meredith, courtesy of Poets.org:
Going abruptly into a starry night
It is ignorance we blink from, dark, unhoused;
There is a gaze of animal delight
Before the human vision. Then, aroused
To nebulous danger, we may look for easy stars,
Orion and the Dipper; but they are not ours,
These learned fields. Dark and ignorant,
Unable to see here what our forebears saw,
We keep some fear of random firmament
Vestigial in us. And we think, Ah,
If I had lived then, when these stories were made up, I
Could have found more likely pictures in haphazard sky.
A new psychological study upends our understanding of the benefits of direct and precise information as a motivational tool. Results from the study by Himanshu Mishra and Baba Shiv describe the cognitive benefits of vague and inarticulate feedback over precise information. At first glance this seems to be counter-intuitive. After all, fuzzy math, blurred reasoning and unclear directives would seem to be the banes of current societal norms that value data in as a precise a form as possible. We measure, calibrate, verify and re-measure and report information to the nth degree.
Want to lose weight in 2011? You’ve got a better chance of pulling it off if you tell yourself, “I’d like to slim down and maybe lose somewhere between 5 and 15 pounds this year” instead of, “I’d like to lose 12 pounds by July 4.”...read more
Sunday, July 31, 2011
Some people claim that morality is dependent upon religion, that atheists cannot possibly be moral since god and morality are intertwined (well, in their minds). Unfortunately, this is one way that religious people dehumanise atheists who have a logical way of thinking about what constitutes moral social behaviour. More than simply being a (incorrect) definition in the Oxford dictionary, morality is actually the main subject of many philosophers’ intellectual lives. This video, the first of a multi-part series, begins this discussion by defining morality and then moving on to look at six hypothetical cultures’ and their beliefs.
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Saturday, July 30, 2011
The future of global innovation is the Brazilian favela, the Mumbai slum and the Nairobi shanty-town. At a time when countries across the world, from Latin America to Africa to Asia, are producing new mega-slums on an epic scale, when emerging mega-cities in China are pushing the limits of urban infrastructure by adding millions of new inhabitants each year, it is becoming increasingly likely that the lowly favela, slum or ghetto may hold the key to the future of human development....read more
Friday, July 29, 2011
Another day, another particle, courtesy of scientists at Fermilab. The CDF group working with data from Fermilab’s Tevatron particle collider announced the finding of a new, neutron-like particle last week. The particle known as a neutral Xi-sub-b is a heavy relative of the neutron and is made up of a strange quark, an up quark and a bottom quark, hence the “s-u-b” moniker.
Here’s more from Symmetry Breaking:
While its existence was predicted by the Standard Model, the observation of the neutral Xi-sub-b is significant because it strengthens our understanding of how quarks form matter. Fermilab physicist Pat Lukens, a member of the CDF collaboration, presented the discovery at Fermilab on Wednesday, July 20....read more
By Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking:
A recent paper on the evolutionary psychology of reasoning has made mainstream news, with extensive coverage by the New York Times, among others. Too bad the “research” is badly flawed, and the lesson drawn by Patricia Cohen’s commentary in the Times is precisely the wrong one....read more
Thursday, July 28, 2011
From Ars Technica:
Since the 1970s, chemists have worked on storing solar energy in molecules that change state in response to light. These photoactive molecules could be the ideal solar fuel, as the right material should be transportable, affordable, and rechargeable. Unfortunately, scientists haven’t had much success.
One of the best examples in recent years, tetracarbonly-diruthenium fulvalene, requires the use of ruthenium, which is rare and expensive. Furthermore, the ruthenium compound has a volumetric energy density (watt-hours per liter) that is several times smaller than that of a standard lithium-ion battery.
Alexie Kolpak and Jeffrey Grossman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology propose a new type of solar thermal fuel that would be affordable, rechargeable, thermally stable, and more energy-dense than lithium-ion batteries. Their proposed design combines an organic photoactive molecule, azobenzene, with the ever-popular carbon nanotube.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Remember the lowly tourist postcard? Undoubtedly, you will have sent one or two “Wish you where here!” missives to your parents or work colleagues while vacationing in the Caribbean or hiking in Austria. Or, you may still have some in a desk drawer. Remember, those that you never mailed because you had neither time or local currency to purchase a stamp. If not, someone in your extended family surely has a collection of old postcards with strangely saturated and slightly off-kilter colors, chronicling family travels to interesting and not-so-interesting places.
Then, there are postcards of a different kind, sent from places that wouldn’t normally spring to mind as departure points for a quick and trivial dispatch. Tom Vanderbilt over at Slate introduces us to a new book, Atomic Postcards:...read more
From the New York Times:
“WHEN people don’t answer my e-mails, I always think maybe something tragic happened,” said John Leguizamo, the writer and performer, whose first marriage ended when his wife asked him by e-mail for a divorce. “Like maybe they got hit by a meteorite.”
Betsy Rapoport, an editor and life coach, said: “I don’t believe I have ever received an answer from any e-mail I’ve ever sent my children, now 21 and 18. Unless you count ‘idk’ as a response.”
The British linguist David Crystal said that his wife recently got a reply to an e-mail she sent in 2006. “It was like getting a postcard from the Second World War,” he said.
The roaring silence. The pause that does not refresh. The world is full of examples of how the anonymity and remove of the Internet cause us to write and post things that we later regret. But what of the way that anonymity and remove sometimes leave us dangling like a cartoon character that has run off a cliff?...read more
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Social scientists may have already examined the cross-cultural regrets of those nearing end of life. If not, it would make fascinating reading to explore the differences and similarities. However, despite the many traits and beliefs that divide humanity, it’s likely that many of these are common.
By Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking:
Bronnie Ware is the author (a bit too much on the mystical-touchy-feely side for my taste) of the blog “Inspiration and Chai” (QED). But she has also worked for years in palliative care, thereby having the life-altering experience of sharing people’s last few weeks and listening to what they regretted the most about their now about to end lives. The result is this list of “top five” things people wished they had done differently:...read more
Monday, July 25, 2011
In keeping with our atoms and all things atomic theme this week, Monday’s poem is authored by Sankichi Toge, Japanese poet and peace activist.
Twenty-four-year-old Sankichi Toge was in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped on his city. Sankichi Toge began writing poems as a teenager; his first collection of poetry entitled, “Genbaku shishu“ (“Poems of the Atomic Bomb”) was published in 1951. He died at the age of 36 in Hiroshima.
His poem August 6th is named for the day in August 1945 on which the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
August 6th...read more
Sunday, July 24, 2011
By George Blecher for Eurozine:
Before I learned how to learn, I was full of bullshit. I exaggerate. But like any bright student, I spent a lot of time faking it, pretending to know things about which I had only vague generalizations and a fund of catch-words. Why do bright students need to fake it? I guess because if they’re considered “bright”, they’re caught in a tautology: bright students are supposed to know, so if they risk not knowing, they must not be bright.
In any case, I faked it. I faked it so well that even my teachers were afraid to contradict me. I faked it so well that I convinced myself that I wasn’t faking it. In the darkest corners of the bright student’s mind, the borders between real and fake knowledge are blurred, and he puts so much effort into faking it that he may not even recognize when he actually knows something....read more
Saturday, July 23, 2011
The lives of 2 technological marvels came to a close this week. First, NASA officially concluded the space shuttle program with the final flight of Atlantis.
Then, France Telecom announced the imminent demise of Minitel. Sacre Bleu! What next? Will the United Kingdom phase out afternoon tea and the Royal Family?...read more
From the Physics arXiv for Technology Review:
Physicists have created a “hole in time” using the temporal equivalent of an invisibility cloak.
Invisibility cloaks are the result of physicists’ newfound ability to distort electromagnetic fields in extreme ways. The idea is steer light around a volume of space so that anything inside this region is essentially invisible.
The effect has generated huge interest. The first invisibility cloaks worked only at microwave frequencies but in only a few years, physicists have found ways to create cloaks that work for visible light, for sound and for ocean waves. They’ve even designed illusion cloaks that can make one object look like another.
Today, Moti Fridman and buddies, at Cornell University in Ithaca, go a step further. These guys have designed and built a cloak that hides events in time....read more
Friday, July 22, 2011
From Scientific American:
Everybody knows that the passage of time is not constant. Moments of terror or elation can stretch a clock tick to what seems like a life time. Yet, we do not know how the brain “constructs” the experience of subjective time. Would it not be important to know so we can find ways to make moments last, or pass by, more quickly?...read more
From the Guardian:
Lucian Freud, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest, most influential and yet most controversial British painters of his era, has died at his London home.
News of his death, at the age of 88, was released by his New York art dealer, William Acquavella. The realist painter, who was a grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, had watched his works soar in value over recent years and, in 2008, his portrayal of a large, naked woman on a couch – Benefit Supervisor Sleeping – sold at auction for £2.6m, a record price for the work of a living artist.
Born in Berlin, Freud came to Britain in 1933 with his family when he was 10 years old and developed his passion for drawing. After studying at art school, he had a self-portrait accepted for Horizon magazine and, by the age of 21, his talent had been recognised in a solo show. He returned to Britain after the war years to teach at the Slade School of Art in London....read more
Thursday, July 21, 2011
If you’ve traveled or lived in the UK then you may well have been filmed and recorded by one of Britain’s 4.2 million security cameras (and that’s the count as of 2009). That’s one per every 14 people.
While it’s encouraging that the United States and other nations have not followed a similar dubious path, there are reports that facial recognition systems will soon be mobile, and in the hands of police departments across the nation.
From the New York Times:
The last space shuttle flight rolled to a stop just before 6 a.m. on Thursday, closing an era of the nation’s space program.
“Mission complete, Houston,” said Capt. Christopher J. Ferguson of the Navy, commander of the shuttle Atlantis for the last flight. “After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history, and it’s come to a final stop.”
It was the 19th night landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to end the 135th space shuttle mission. For Atlantis, the final tally of its 26-year career is 33 missions, accumulating just short of 126 million miles during 307 days in space, circumnavigating the Earth 4,848 times.
A permanent marker will be placed on the runway to indicate the final resting spot of the space shuttle program....read more
Classic dystopian novels from the likes of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Margaret Atwood appeal for their fantastic narrative journeys. More so they resonate for it often seems that contemporary society is precariously close to this fictional chaos, dysfunction and destruction; one small step in the wrong direction and over the precipice we go. America Pacifica continues this tradition.
From The Barnes & Noble Review:
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Einstein knew what he was talking about with that relativity stuff. For proof, just look at your GPS. The global positioning system relies on 24 satellites that transmit time-stamped information on where they are. Your GPS unit registers the exact time at which it receives that information from each satellite and then calculates how long it took for the individual signals to arrive. By multiplying the elapsed time by the speed of light, it can figure out how far it is from each satellite, compare those distances, and calculate its own position.
For accuracy to within a few meters, the satellites’ atomic clocks have to be extremely precise—plus or minus 10 nanoseconds. Here’s where things get weird: Those amazingly accurate clocks never seem to run quite right. One second as measured on the satellite never matches a second as measured on Earth—just as Einstein predicted....read more
The infamous Dead Parrot Sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus continues to resonate several generations removed from its creators. One of the most treasured exchanges, between a shady pet shop owner and prospective customer included two immortal comedic words, “Beautiful plumage”, followed by the equally impressive retort, “The plumage don’t enter into it. It’s stone dead.”
Though utterly silly this conversation does point towards a deeper and very ironic truth: that humans so eager to express their status among their peers do this by exploiting another species. Thus, the stunning white plumage of the Great White Egret proved to be its undoing, almost. So utterly sought after were the egrets’ feathers that both males and females were hunted close to extinction. And, in a final ironic twist, the near extinction of these great birds inspired the Audubon campaigns and drove legislation to curb the era of fancy feathers....read more