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Arts & Sciences, models & illustrations, Buddhas within mandalas

Friday, June 29th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — on the illustration, visualization and modeling of supposed reality — note: I am no scientist, no artist, in fact an aphantasic ]

A telling caption to an image in New Scientist gave rather more of the game away than was maybe intended.

The image:

The caption:

We have no pictures of the real thing, so enjoy this one instead. Oliver Burston/Alamy


It’s a nice image, and could be used to represent Lise Meitner‘s discovery of nuclear fission, or some new feature of Kepler’s Supernova, or even, Lord knows, to sell collectible gold coin or diamonds.. And it brings up in acute form an issue I’ve long had with science — in the context of education and the last century’s growing indifference to the arts and humanities.

How much of what passes for science in the pop science press is in fact art, and specifically photography? And as a sub-question, how much of the impact a particular piece of scientific work receives is dependent on the various qualities of the illustrations used to accompany and promote it — which all too often fit the description in the caption above:

We have no pictures of the real thing, so enjoy this one instead.

Or alternatively, shooting for something a little more frank, but not too terribly impolite:

We have no pictures of the real thing, so enjoy this bullshit instead.


We hardly ever have a picture of the real thing — which occurs at nano-scale, or outside the visible spectrum, or —

Well, some while back, we discussed (ignorantly, rest assured, De Docta Ignorantia, qv) a mathematical object of interest to physicists known as The Amplituhedron:

The Amplituhedron can alternatively be illustrated thus:

There’s a donut for anyone who can imagine what can possibly merit both illustrations!


On our way to an understanding of the Amplituhedron, we pass by diagrams such as this:

— immediately followed by these words:

Although it is hard to draw the complete four-dimensional polytope, its four three-dimensional faces each define square-pyramidal regions of G(2, 4)

— as, for instance, this:


Oh, c’mon, it’s not that hard, just visualize it!

Tibetan monks can visualize things like this 3-D palace replete with Vases, Wish-granting Trees, Bodhisattvas, Tathagatas and Shaktis, all surrounding the deity Kalachakra and his Consort, Vishvamata

And the vajrayanist Tibetan practitioners, yes, manage this just by PhD and postdoc level visualization practice, with diagrammatic assists like this:

— and a blueprint like this:

— always bearing in mind that, eh, “Kalachakra is a black skinned, four-faced god with twelve arms and twenty-four hands, in passionate embrace with his consort”:

Kalachakra and Vishvamata, from the Rubin Museum of Art


Ah, but that’s arts and humanities > comparative religion > Tibetan meditation, not sciences > physics > mathematical physics, eh?

In all this, I intend to defend both science, properly so understood, as practiced bt qualified practitioners within its various subdisciplines, and arts and humanities, properly so understood, as practiced bt qualified practitioners within their various subdisciplines — while making clear the overwhelmingly important distinction that illustrations are all too often not science but STEM-propaganda, glossy / shiny objects passing for science while in fact falling under the categories of illustration or photography.


This isn’t, for instance, in any scientific sense, the Horseshoe Nebula

It’s, as its title suggests, a reproduction of a compositie color image of the Horseshoe Nebula

— and to be honest, it may bear as much resemblance to a horse’s head as this reoroductionf of a color image of a seahorse does:


Just let’s keep the arts’ contribution to science illustration filed under arts (illustration), and math diagrams filed under math (diagrams) — I’ve included some of both above — and maybe the arts and humanities will get to siphon off some of the excitement and funding currently pouring into the coffers of (poor little) science.

Tibetan Buddhists FTW!



Art or science?

Gravitational lens RX J1131-1231 galaxy with the lens galaxy at the center and four lensed background quasars

That, at least, is what they tell me..

Time In all his tuneful turning (ii)

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — Dylan Thomas’ vision of time to set beside Stephen Hawking’s ]


I’m arguing here that Dylan Thomas is at least as great a thinker about time as Stephen Hawking, and his masterpiece, Fern Hill is my proof text to that effect.

I’ll borrow here from a piece I wrote called That HyperText is Linear: it’s the Northrop Frye applied to Dylan Thomas bit that’s of relevance here:


I get much of my thinking in this area from the literary critic, Northrop Frye, who says somewhere that you can (and should) read a poem through from beginning to end, and that this will give you what he calls the “diachronic” meaning — the sequential meaning “through time”: but when you have done this, you should also perceive what he calls the “synchronic” meaning — the meaning that comes from the poem as a whole, with all its parts simultaneously present and influencing one another, in a way that is impossible in a first sequential reading, but is possible in a meditative way afterwards…

Take Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Fern Hill”, for example. It’s an incredible tour-de-force, moving from the poet’s sense of wonder and praise at the natural world around him in childhood, to the moment when time takes him

Up to the swallow-thronged loft by the shadow of my hand

and he wakes

to the farm forever fled from the childless land…

— his “lamb white days” are over, and he realizes finally that

as I was young and tender in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying…

That is, so to speak, the throughline, the sense of the poem from start to finish — as I child I was young and easy under the apple boughs, I was green and carefree: and yet, all the while, my childhood was slipping away from me, for Time itself held me green and dying…

That’s the “diachronic” reading…

But the “synchronic” reading is quite different. It doesn’t depend in the same way on a process through time. Instead, it works by the piling up of similar phrases:

the sun that is young once only…
All the sun long…
the sun grew round that very day…
the sun born over and over…

These phrases, scattered throughout the poem, seem to build on one another, almost imperceptibly, in a very remarkable way. Suppose that it was life, rather than the sun, that was at issue here:

A phrase like “life that is young once only” would clearly emphasize the freshness of youth and the decay that age brings — and thus be very much in line with the diachronic meaning of the poem. But a phrase like “life long” would emphasize the enduring quality in life, maybe even its eternal quality (“eternal life” even), while “life born over and over” would capture the cyclical feeling that’s present in the rotation of the seasons (and in the idea of reincarnation) — and “the sun grew round that very day”, while it doesn’t make sense to read it as “life grew round that very day”, clearly means that each moment is itself the moment of sunlight, in a way that’s akin to the zen sense of living in the moment…

So it’s as though the poem moves from beginning to end along a track that emphasizes initial innocence and its eventual loss: but read in the wholistic, “synchronous” sense, it quietly suggests that time can be viewed as a slowly entropic and degenerative process, as an endless and unbroken wholeness, as always and only the instant, and as a cyclical recurrence…

To me, that’s mind-blowing. Thomas isn’t presenting one of these as “the truth” — to the extent that there’s a “main” way to view time in the poem, it’s certainly in terms of a slow and not so slow process of the loss of innocence — but as four complementary ways in which we can see it. Four major philosophies of time in one poem, phrased in terms of the sun, and thus slipping almost unnoticed into our consciousness while we’re busy following the “throughline” or “plain sense” of the poem… four major philosophies, not contradicting one another, but spoken together, as in a polyphony.

There are some similar phrases relating to the moon, too, and they need to be similarly weighed and considered if you want to go deeper into “Fern Hill” — but that’s another part of the story, for another day…


That’s from That HyperText is Linear, not currently available on the web.

Four major philosophies of time, each seen from a human perspectove, voiced together as a polyphony, and presented “subcutaneously” — beneath the surface of the poem, and of the reader’s conscious awareness.

That’s what I admire in Thomas’ poem, and what I would compare with Stephen Hawking’s analog of another great scientist’s “Single vision & Newton’s sleep!” — for the juxtaposition of Dylan Thomas vs Stephen Hawking is indeed an age-old one, finding its classic instantiation in William Blake‘s antipathy towards Isaac Newton.

William Blake, Isaac Newton, The Tate Gallery

I’ll let Alan Moore, he of the comics [Watchmen, eg], explain:

For Blake, the boundaries of Newton’s thought were the cold, stone parameters of an internal dungeon to which all humanity had been condemned without its comprehension or its knowledge. Despite the invigorating consequences Newton’s influence would have for a then-nascent industry, Blake would elsewhere describe this rigid and reductive pall as ‘Newton’s Sleep’, a drowse insensible to vision or to ethical restraint beneath which it appeared the world had fallen. Goya to the contrary, here the monstrosity was birthed not by the sleep of reason, but instead born from that sleep which reason represented. From our own industrially despoiled and bankrupted contemporary perspective, Blake’s view surely seems a product of extraordinary prescience rather than of the angel-addled madness which some of his less insightful critics have attributed.


Time In all his tuneful turning (i)

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — Stephen Hawking, RIP, and synchronicity? ]

Connsider these high-popularity responses to Stephen Hawking‘s death:


  • USA Today, Hawking’s death, Einstein’s birth, and Pi Day: what does it all mean?
  • Time, People Think It’s an Interesting Coincidence That Stephen Hawking Died on Pi Day
  • **”

    The Time article focused on the internet:

    Some people on the internet think Stephen Hawking couldn’t have calculated a better day to die.

    Calculated. Like it.

    The 76-year-old theoretical physicist, one of science’s most famous luminaries died on March 14, also known as National Pi Day — an annual day for scientists and mathematicians around the world to celebrate the value of pi that even includes deals on pizzas and actual pies. Suffice it to say that the noteworthy coincidence was not lost on the internet.

    The date of Hawking’s death — 3/14 — is significant because 3.14 are the first three digits of pi, a bedrock of geometry. Specifically, it’s the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Naturally, the fact that science’s big celebration overlapped with the day the life of the party left us is making people geek out about the details.

    As soon as news spread that Hawking died early Wednesday morning in London, people were quick to connect the dots.

    Connect the dots, eh?


    And here’s the complete USA Today article:

    So, is there some mystical theory explaining how noted astrophysicist Stephen Hawking died on the same day Albert Einstein was born, which also happens to be the day we honor the mathematical constant Pi?

    Nope. It’s just all one giant coincidence.

    Hawking died at 76, his family confirmed early Wednesday. He was considered one of the world’s foremost theoretical physicists, developing critical theories on black holes and writing A Brief History of Time to explain complex scientific concepts to the masses.

    That’s it. Nope, in a word. Nope. There is no “mystical theory explaining how noted astrophysicist Stephen Hawking died on the same day Albert Einstein was born, which also happens to be the day we honor the mathematical constant Pi”.

    That’s decided without consulting Pythagoras, Newton, Johann Valentin Andreae, Hermann Hesse‘s Joseph Knecht, or any of a dozen other worthies I might name..


    But note: Warren Leight adds another datapoint and brings the circuit to completion:

    Galileo, ooh.

    It seems worth recalling at this point that pi is an irrational number.


    Where do we go from here?

    First, note that Warren Leight posts that Hawking died on the 14th, in a tweet dated the 13th.

    One of Leight’s commenters challenges the whole coincidence chain:

    He died March 13th

    Leight’s response to that challenge could also serve as a response to mine:

    It depends on how and where you measure time

    Time is circular, date is relative..


    God save us, here’s a game ref:

    Is that Johann Sebastian Bach?



    May the extraordinarily, ceaselessly curious mind of Stephen Hawking rest at last in the balm of peace.


    And my title, Time in all its tuneful turning?

    It’s from Dylan Thomas, approximately. He wrote, in this masterpiece, Fern Hill:

    And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
    In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
    Before the children green and golden
    Follow him out of grace…

    I want to suggest that Dylan Thomas is at least as great a thinker about time as Stephen Hawking, and Fern Hill is my proof text to that effect. I’ll explain why in part ii of this post.

    Graph-types 2: towards a universal graphical mapping language

    Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — for background, see Graph-types 1: sample graphs and boards ]

    The world is full of all sorts of wondrous things, and we can map and model many if not all of them. Here are some examples of the kinds of maps I’d like to see integrated in the One Big One. For a fun first instance, here’s a dynamic model of the functioning of a washing machine:

    Washing machine 600

    If you’re figuring out how to map the world, of course, you may think first of economic stocks and flows in a Forrester-style model, like this diagram for a model of housing market cycles:

    :Housing development stocks and flows 600

    There are a whole lot of different modeling conventions of this sort. One of my own devsing has to do with choice — and in this instance, with the meanings that can be given to the words “let’s play”:

    ChoiceBach diagram

    There are PERT Charts, which allow one to plan the sequencing of various “streams” of actions to arrive optimally at a given end-point:

    PERT 600

    There are Markov chains for probabilistic inference:

    Marjov chain

    And then there are those subatomic Feynman diagrams I mentioned in a recent post. I believe this one is the first published Feynman diagram, and you can find it on an Edward Tufte page that’s worth taking a look at in its own right:


    For those of you who may be interested, I’m attaching here an earlier attempt to corral such things which I originally wrote as part of a 159-page documentation of my HipBone games for Amos Davidowitz of the Institute of World Affairs in DC:

    Variety of Concept Mapping diagrams


    The world-system in actuality “answers” in some way to each of the types of model I’ve illustrated above — and then some! — which leads me to believe that some sort of grand map or model should in principle be devisable which would incorporate them all — in principle, though not perhaps, or not yet, in practice.

    That’s my idea — I hope it will stimulate msome quirky thoughts, questions, insights..

    See, “node and edge” graphs are everywhere, and I’ve discussed several more of them in a series of posts titled On the felicities of graph-based game-board design which you may want to look at: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

    And hey — the human brain, too, is a node and edge affair, so it may not be too surprising that my casual reading roundup this morning pointed me to this image of a real-world object called a Stentrode:

    Stentrode 600

    That’s from a DARPA page titled Minimally Invasive “Stentrode” Shows Potential as Neural Interface for Brain, and it’s a device designed by a team in Melbourne that can be slipped into the brain via the blood-stream, providing “a brain-machine interface that taps into your motor cortex through a relatively simple operation” allowing a patient to “directly steer an exoskeleton or artificial limb through thoughts alone”.

    Like the brain that devised it, it is a physical edge and node graph — and so-o-o brautiful.

    I am in awe.

    Sceenius: Y2K and a universal graphical mapping language

    Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a mental long-jump, following Sceenius: the macro in micro, Nepal ]

    It’s a stretch, I know, and whether it will prove a useful leap or not I have no idea — but for the record, this detail from slide 8 of the Sceenius promo caught my eye, offering a graphical continuity between my own HipBone / Semble gameboards and Richard Feynman‘s celebrated particle diagrams:



    I have this almost Borgesian interest in what kind of map of the world we’d get if we had a universal language of graphs.

    When I was working on the potential social implications of the Y2K computer bug — which included the al-Qaida “Millennium Plot” and Albert Ressam‘s attempt to blow up the international terminal at LAX during the millennial roll-over — my friend and colleague Don Beck of the National Values Center / The Spiral Dynamics Group suggested in a private communication:

    Y2K is like a lightening bolt: when it strikes and lights up the sky, we will see the contours of our social systems.

    As it turned out, the lightning struck and failed to strike, a team from the Mitre Corporation produced a voluminous report on what the material and social connectivity of the world boded in case of significant Y2K computer failures, we did indeed get our first major glimpse of the world weave, and thankfully, very little of that weave was broken as the new millennium dawned.

    But as Thomas Barnett put it in his first book, The Pentagon’s New Map:

    Whether Y2K turned out to be nothing or a complete disaster was less important, research-wise, than the thinking we pursued as we tried to imagine -– in advance -– what a terrible shock to the system would do to the United States and the world in this day and age.

    Viewing the world as an integral, interconnected whole, illuminated by our various preparations for whatever eventualities might arise, stuck with me. And my take-away was the idea of a world-map that represented as widely and richly as possible the tugs and tensions, the causalities and probabilities, the chains of command and channels of distribution that are present in our world — a pragmatist’s equivalent, if you like, to the Buddhist Net of Indra.


    Our mandate [at The Arlington Institute] was to understand potential social fall-out of the Y2K computer event and related millennial events. Essentially, this was a dry run for failures in the intricately cross-connected world we now inhabit, and even thought Y2K was a “non-event” in terms of computer disruptions, it was an education for those of us who tracked it.

    In that spirit, a few years ago, I wrote:

    The world is woven of many different processes: causality and synchrony perhaps each play a role in determining the moment, qualitative and quantitaive, head and heart concerns all have their role, fear and hope impact stock prices, movement (e-motion) in the inner world triggering movement (motion) in the the outer, rumors of wars becoming blacks ops in the wars they mimic, with the Cartesian mind / matter barrier no less than the barriers between our disciplines falling… and in all this shuttling to and fro of the looms of the Moirae, humans find themselves making models and diagrams to understand and explain…

    My point is that that our systems diagrams, flow charts, maps, conceptual networks, semantic graphs, HipBone Games and so forth are not isolated entities but family members, and that at some point we may wish or need to be able to link one of the diagram types above with others into a master-diagram, for which we currently lack a graphical language. [ … ]

    I think we should at the very least be thinking about how these various diagrams intersect, overlap and breed offspring after their own kind..


    This project — an actual world-map of this kind — is hopelessly utopian, impossible, needed, encyclopedic like Wikipedia, a secular bead game in its own right, and in general probably best left as a Hilbert-like challenge for future generations to gnaw at..

    Next post: a few examples of examples of graph-types that should be included.

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