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The great northern thaw

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — okay, methane, yes, for starters — now add some radioactive waste and anthrax to the brew ]
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Two recent items that caught my eye:

Tablet DQ Thaw raindeer and radioactivity

Sources:

  • USA Today, Global warming could ‘unfreeze’ waste buried in old Greenland military base
  • The Atlantic, Siberia’s Deadly Anthrax Outbreak
  • **

    More generally, we non-expert interested folk have known for a while — assuming, say, we read the New York Times piece, As Permafrost Thaws, Scientists Study the Risks, back in 2011 — that loss of permafrost was hazardous to planetary health:

    Experts have long known that northern lands were a storehouse of frozen carbon, locked up in the form of leaves, roots and other organic matter trapped in icy soil — a mix that, when thawed, can produce methane and carbon dioxide, gases that trap heat and warm the planet. But they have been stunned in recent years to realize just how much organic debris is there.

    A recent estimate suggests that the perennially frozen ground known as permafrost, which underlies nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, contains twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere.

    Temperatures are warming across much of that region, primarily, scientists believe, because of the rapid human release of greenhouse gases. Permafrost is warming, too. Some has already thawed, and other signs are emerging that the frozen carbon may be becoming unstable. [ .. ]

    If a substantial amount of the carbon should enter the atmosphere, it would intensify the planetary warming. An especially worrisome possibility is that a significant proportion will emerge not as carbon dioxide, the gas that usually forms when organic material breaks down, but as methane, produced when the breakdown occurs in lakes or wetlands. Methane is especially potent at trapping the sun’s heat, and the potential for large new methane emissions in the Arctic is one of the biggest wild cards in climate science.

    **

    Okay, now we can also think about rotting reindeer carcases and radioactive waste.

    I can’t see Russia from my house, but it looks as though the Russians have the reindeer anthrax issue well in hand, and the “once top-secret subterranean U.S. nuclear base in northern Greenland” with its “radioactive coolant, PCBs, and raw sewage that the military originally believed would stay entombed for millennia” seems to pale in comparison with the possibilities of methane discharge — Cheryl Rofer could no doubt estimate the comparative risks far better than I — so this post is not intended as a scare-alert, but as yet another example of a category that interests me way more than most — which is why I’d like to direct it:

    Attn: Department of Blindspots and Unintended Consequences

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    Sunday reprise: of trees and books

    Monday, August 8th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a brief essay on the Umbertification of texts ]
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    There’s an engaging page in the Oxford Dictionaries site called When is a book a tree? which deals, among other things, with the question of whether the origins of the word book and beech are the same.

    In this post, I’d like to quote you a paragraph about books, and several about trees — specifically, in England’s Epping Forest — considering how what you learn about might interestingly relate to the other — trees to books and books to trees.

    **

    Of books:

    A paragraph from Rebecca Solnit‘s The Faraway Nearby via Maria Popova‘s Brain Pickings

    I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

    **

    Of woods:

    Selected paragraphs from The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web:

    In this way, individual plants are joined to one another by an underground hyphal network: a dazzlingly complex and collaborative structure that has become known as the Wood Wide Web.

    All of these trees will have mycorrhizal fungi growing into their roots. You could imagine the fungi themselves as forming a massive underground tree, or as a cobweb of fine filaments, acting as a sort of prosthesis to the trees, a further root system, extending outwards into the soil, acquiring nutrients and floating them back to the plants, as the plants fix carbon in their leaves and send sugar to their roots, and out into the fungi. And this is all happening right under our feet.

    The implications of the Wood Wide Web far exceed this basic exchange of goods between plant and fungi, however. The fungal network also allows plants to distribute resources—sugar, nitrogen, and phosphorus—between one another. A dying tree might divest itself of its resources to the benefit of the community, for example, or a young seedling in a heavily shaded understory might be supported with extra resources by its stronger neighbors.

    The revelation of the Wood Wide Web’s existence, and the increased understanding of its functions, raises big questions—about where species begin and end? about whether a forest might be better imagined as a single super-organism, rather than a grouping of independent individualistic ones? and about what trading, sharing, or even friendship might mean among plants.

    **

    Trees and books, libraries and forests — interleave them.

    Indistinguishable from magic?

    Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a primer on some undercurrents in mind ]
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    I’ve been thinking about Clarke’s Third Law:

    quote-clarke-s-third-law-any-sufficiently-advanced-technology-is-indistinguishable-from-magic-arthur-c-clarke-219641

    This may hold true if you mean by it that someone in possession of sufficiently advanced tech can generally persuade less “sophisticated” folk that the use of that tech amounts to “magic”, but no student or practitioner of an authentic magical tradition will easily credit such an idea — where’s the contagion? where’s the sympathy? — where’s the true name?

    **

    Concerning the nature of magic:

    Sir JG Frazer, The Golden Bough:

    Thus far we have been considering chiefly that branch of sympathetic magic which may be called homoeopathic or imitative. Its leading principle, as we have seen, is that like produces like, or, in other words, that an effect resembles its cause. The other great branch of sympathetic magic, which I have called Contagious Magic, proceeds upon the notion that things which have once been conjoined must remain ever afterwards, even when quite dissevered from each other, in such a sympathetic relation that whatever is done to the one must similarly affect the other.

    Ursula LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea:

    He saw that in this dusty and fathomless matter of learning the true name of every place, thing, and being, the power he wanted lay like a jewel at the bottom of a dry well. For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.

    and furthermore:

    Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.

    **

    A contemporary example, and an historical antecedent:

    Magic and Medicine from the Ozarks, 272: Nails:

    Nails have been used in Ozark folk healing and magic in a variety of ways. There’s a belief among Hillfolk that the object that hurt the individual was just as important to the healing process as the medicine put onto the wound. Knife blades, bullets, and nails were often treated with healing salves and plants alongside the puncture or cut itself. Rusty nails were added to tonics to prevent tetanus or to treat illnesses like tuberculosis. Water made from soaking new nails was seen as a sure treatment for anemia and iron deficiencies, and sometimes the sickness itself could be taken off the patient and nailed to a tree. Nails were driven into footprints to deal lethal blows to foes and witches alike. Coffin and gallows nails were carried by Hillfolk as an amulet to ward of certain venereal diseases.

    The Works of Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, Vol. 2, ed. Montague:

    It is constantly Received, and Avouched, that the Anointing of the Weapon, that maketh the Wound, wil heale the Wound it selfe. In this Experiment, upon the Relation of Men of Credit, (though my selfe, as yet, am not fully inclined to beleeve it,) you shal note the Points following; First, the Ointment .. is made of Divers ingredients; whereof the Strangest and Hardest to come by, are the Mosse upon the Skull of a dead Man, Vnburied; And the Fats of a Boare, and a Beare, killed in the Act of Generation. These Two last I could easily suspect to be prescribed as a Starting Hole; That if the Experiment proved not, it mought be pretended, that the Beasts were not killed in due Time; For as for the Mosse, it is certain there is great Quantity of it in Ireland, upon Slain Bodies, laid on Heaps, Vnburied. The other Ingredients are, the Bloud-Stone in Powder, and some other Things, which seeme to have a Vertue to Stanch Bloud; As also the Mosse hath…. Secondly, the same kind of Ointment, applied to the Hurt it selfe, worketh not the Effect; but onely applied to the Weapon..

    **

    Implications for analysts:

    For anyone interested in the analogical and contagious workings of the human mind, I cannot recommend too highly the Mountain Man Traditional Healing blog, which is both fascinating and instructive. So-called (and so disparaged) “magical thinking” may not occupy much space in the thought of secular analysts, but it is central to many and varied cultural traditions, some of which have real consequences in national Security and other “realistic” realms..

    Sunday’s second surprise — the Van Gogh DoubleQuote

    Sunday, July 17th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — Van Gogh, Rilke, El Greco, Von Kármán. Hokusai, Jakob — rich correspondences between singificant items in widely separate disciplines ]
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    My friend Steve Engel suggested this variant on my personal favorite DoubleQuote — the one pairing Van Gogh with Von Kármán — and as a lover of Rainer Maria Rilke I very much appreciate his suggestion, which bridges painting and poetry as my original DQ brdges arts and sciences:

    SPEC DQ Gogh Rilke Steve Engel

    **

    I’ve also featured that particular van Gogh painting in another DQ, this one showing the sky as painted by El Greco and Van Gogh:

    SPEC DQ greco gogh

    El Greco was first among my loves in painting, and I’ve long thought that the differences between how El Greco sees the sky and how Van Gogh sees it could stand in for the differences between religions — you don’t see Van Gokkites attacking El Grekkites in museums on account of the different visions of their preferred painters, and if we could view religions as visionary rather than prescriptive, taking from them what a poetic, metaphoric, non-literal, non-fundamentalist, non-reductionist reading would approve, we might be a little farther on our way towards interfaith harmony, and away from religiously-sanctionable violence.

    I’m thinking here of St Francis‘ meeting with the Sultan Malik al-Kamil, and more recently Thomas Merton‘s meetings with Buddhist contemplatives, Sufis and the like..

    **

    Here’s the Von Kármán / Van Gogh DQ, which I value in light of Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game as a clear bridge between one of the crucial dualities of recent centuries — the needless and fruitless schism between the arts and sciences, which has given rise not only the rantings of Christopher Hitchens and his less elegant disciple Bill Maher, but to such other matters as the Papal condemnation and “forgiveness” 359 years later of Galileo Galilei, Charles Babbage‘s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, Andrew White‘s A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in ChristendomW, and CP Snow‘s The Two Cultures:

    karman gogh

    **

    And finally, here’s an ugraded version of the other DQ of mine that seeks to bridge the arts and sciences — featuring Hokusai‘s celebrated woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (upper panel, below) and Jakob aka nikozy92‘s fractal wave, which I’ve flipped horizontally to make its parallel with the Hokusai clearer (lower panel) — Jakob‘s is a much improved version of a fractal wave compared with the one I’d been using until today:

    SPEC-DQ-Hokusai-fractal v 2.0 minikozy92

    Sunday surprise the second — the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God

    Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — wishing you all blessings on the Fourth ]
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    My eye was caught today by yet another disaster — which in turn reminded me of tomorrow, the Fourth of July. It’s just one example among many:

    — but it brings up again the question of whether we think in terms of “acts of God” or “laws of Nature” or — somehow — both. And that’s where thw roding of the Constitution comes in, with the phrase “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”:

    Nature and Nature's God DQ

    **

    If I used that phrasing — “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” — today, I might well be attempting to please or at least placate readers who variously:

  • believe in a God separate from and superior to Nature, and author of Nature’s laws
  • believe in a God essentially indistinguishable from Nature, wholly immanent, &
  • disbelieve in any kind of God, but recognize Nature as a catchall term for the Whole System.
  • I don’t suppose that would necessarily be the case in 1776, though, and wonder whether the phrase should be read as:

    the Laws — of Nature and of Nature’s God

    or:

    the Laws of Nature — and of Nature’s God

    and if the second, whether the and marks a distinction between Nature and nature’s God, or also covers the possibility of their being one and the same.

    And once we’ve cleared that up, and bearing in mind that John Donne could write “At the round earth’s imagin’d corners” — thus conflating the old, imaginative, square earth with the new, scientific, spherical one — how feasible do you think it is to hold simultaneously the idea that a given earthquake, hurricane, tsunami or volcanic eruption is an act of God and a natural disaster?

    A worldview paradox?

    **
    Sources:

  • July 4, 1776, The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
  • November 18, 2013, Room for Debate: Natural Disasters or ‘Acts of God’?

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