Out of this world: Titan, Dione, Pandora, and Pan

The only thing the New Year marks for sure is our place in the Solar System as we circle the Sun.

Here’s a reminder of how unfamiliar and other worldly this place in space, our home in the galaxy, our corner of the universe, really is: a view of four of Saturn’s moons in descending order of size — Titan in the background behind Dione, with Pandora over to the right, and Pan nothing more than a speck on the left nestled in the Encke Gap of the A ring.


(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Although frigidly cold, Titan has some Earth-like features — a climate with wind and rain, and surface features such as dunes, rivers, lakes and seas. For scale, this is how Titan would look if placed alongside the Moon and the Earth:



Random acts of secret generosity

Kate Murphy writes: If you place an order at the Chick-fil-A drive-through off Highway 46 in New Braunfels, Tex., it’s not unusual for the driver of the car in front of you to pay for your meal in the time it took you to holler into the intercom and pull around for pickup.

“The people ahead of you paid it forward,” the cashier will chirp as she passes your food through the window.

Confused, you look ahead at the car — it could be a mud-splashed monster truck, Mercedes or minivan — which at this point is turning onto the highway. The cashier giggles, you take your food and unless your heart is irreparably rotted from cynicism and snark, you feel touched.

You could chalk it up to Southern hospitality or small town charm. But it’s just as likely the preceding car will pick up your tab at a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through in Detroit or a McDonald’s drive-through in Fargo, N.D. Drive-through generosity is happening across America and parts of Canada, sometimes resulting in unbroken chains of hundreds of cars paying in turn for the person behind them.

This is taking place at a time when the nation’s legislators can’t speak a civil word unless reading from Dr. Seuss. “We really don’t know why it’s happening but if I had to guess, I’d say there is just a lot of stuff going on in the country that people find discouraging,” said Mark Moraitakis, director of hospitality at Chick-fil-A, which is based in Atlanta. “Paying it forward is a way to counteract that.” [Continue reading...]


Star Axis, a masterpiece forty years in the making


Ross Andersen writes: On a hot afternoon in late June, I pulled to the side of a two-lane desert highway in eastern New Mexico, next to a specific mile marker. An hour earlier, a woman had told me to wait for her there at three o’clock, ‘sharp’. I edged as far off the shoulder as I could, to avoid being seen by passing traffic, and parked facing the wilderness. A sprawling, high desert plateau was set out before me, its terrain a maze of raised mesas, sandstone survivors of differential erosion. Beyond the plateau, the landscape stretched for miles, before dissolving into a thin strip of desert shimmer. The blurry line marked the boundary between the land and one of the biggest, bluest skies I’d ever seen.

I had just switched off the ignition when I spotted a station wagon roaring toward me from the plateau, towing a dust cloud that looked like a miniature sandstorm. Its driver was Jill O’Bryan, the wife and gatekeeper of Charles Ross, the renowned sculptor. Ross got his start in the Bay Area art world of the mid‑1960s, before moving to New York, where he helped found one of SoHo’s first artist co-ops. In the early 1970s, he began spending a lot of time here in the New Mexico desert. He had acquired a remote patch of land, a mesa he was slowly transforming into a massive work of land art, a naked-eye observatory called Star Axis. Ross rarely gives interviews about Star Axis, but when he does he describes it as a ‘perceptual instrument’. He says it is meant to offer an ‘intimate experience’ of how ‘the Earth’s environment extends into the space of the stars’. He has been working on it for more than 40 years, but still isn’t finished.

I knew Star Axis was out there on the plateau somewhere, but I didn’t know where. Its location is a closely guarded secret. Ross intends to keep it that way until construction is complete, but now that he’s finally in the homestretch he has started letting in a trickle of visitors. I knew, going in, that a few Hollywood celebrities had been out to Star Axis, and that Ross had personally showed it to Stewart Brand. After a few months of emails, and some pleading on my part, he had agreed to let me stay overnight in it.

star-axis-daytimeOnce O’Bryan was satisfied that I was who I said I was, she told me to follow her, away from the highway and into the desert. I hopped back into my car, and we caravanned down a dirt road, bouncing and churning up dust until, 30 minutes in, O’Bryan suddenly slowed and stuck her arm out her driver’s side window. She pointed toward a peculiar looking mesa in the distance, one that stood higher than the others around it. Notched into the centre of its roof was a granite pyramid, a structure whose symbolic power is as old as history.

Twenty minutes later, O’Bryan and I were parked on top of the mesa, right at the foot of the pyramid and she was giving me instructions. ‘Don’t take pictures,’ she said, ‘and please be vague about the location in your story.’ She also told me not to use headlights on the mesa top at night, lest their glow tip off unwanted visitors. There are artistic reasons for these cloak-and-dagger rituals. Like any ambitious artist, Ross wants to polish and perfect his opus before unveiling it. But there are practical reasons, too. For while Star Axis itself is nearly built, its safety features are not, and at night the pitch black of this place can disorient you, sending you stumbling into one of its chasms. There is even an internet rumour — Ross wouldn’t confirm it — that the actress Charlize Theron nearly fell to her death here. [Continue reading...]


Video: The lives we pass by


Painting the way to the Moon

Wild River Review: Ed Belbruno doesn’t sit still easily. On a sunny, winter afternoon, he perches at the edge of his sofa talking about his latest book, Fly Me to the Moon (Princeton University Press), and about chaos. Specifically chaos theory. In his book, Belbruno tells the story of how he used chaos theory to get the world’s first spaceship (a Japanese spaceship named Hiten, which means “A Buddhist Angel that Dances in Heaven”) to the moon without using fuel. To illustrate a point, his hands move through the air, creating a sunlit swirl of fine dust particles.

Belbruno’s own paintings adorn the walls of his living room, one of which gave him the solution for Hiten. In the corner, tubes of oil paint lie on a drafting table next to an easel exhibiting his latest work, gorgeous splashes of color representing microwaves.

“Chaos is a way to describe the motion of an object where the motion appears to be very unpredictable,” he says. “Some things are not chaotic and some things are.”

“For example,” he continues. “If you look at a leaf falling to the ground on a windy day, it doesn’t fall like a piece of lead rocketing to the ground. It floats. And if the wind catches that leaf, it will dart around from place to place, and the resulting path is not something you know ahead of time. So from moment to moment, you cannot say where the leaf will go. Therefore, chaos has a sense of unpredictability to it. You could say, ’Well does it mean that I can’t really know where something is going?’ In a sense you can’t, because you have to know every little detail of the atmosphere of the earth, about how the wind varies from point to point, and we don’t. The same holds true for space and the orbit of the planets.”

Belbruno knows that out of seeming chaos, a path can be found between two points. [Continue reading...]


Celebrating life on Earth


The Mayan calendar did not predict the end of the world

A Mayan elder explains in more detail how the Mayan cyclical calendars worked.

It’s always worth being reminded that the real Americans inhabited this continent long before the Europeans arrived.

Tim Padgett writes: I once took a Classics professor friend of mine, a real Hellenophile, to the majestic Maya ruins of Palenque in southern Mexico. I wanted him to see why the Maya, thanks to their advanced astronomy, mathematics and cosmology, are considered the Greeks of the New World. As we entered the Palace there, my friend stopped, surprised, and said, “Corbel arches!” That’s the kind of precocious architecture you find at famous ancient Greek sites like Mycenae — and seeing it at Palenque made him acknowledge that maybe the Greeks could be considered the Maya of the Old World.

Today, Dec. 21, we’re all standing under those Corbel arches, celebrating one of civilization’s more sublime accomplishments, the Maya calendar. The 2012 winter solstice marks the end of a 5,125-year creation cycle and the hopeful start of another — and not the apocalyptic end that so many wing nuts rave about. (That comes next month, when our wing nuts in Washington send us over the fiscal cliff.) Understandably, this Maya milestone is a source of Latin American and especially Mexican pride. As teacher Jaime Escalante tells the Mexican-American kids he turns into calculus wizards in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver: “Did you know that neither the Greeks nor the Romans were capable of using the concept of zero? It was your ancestors, the Mayas, who first contemplated it…True story.”

But, unfortunately, most Americans ignore that record and focus on the doomsday nonsense that a crowd of pseudo-scholars has tied to the Maya calculations. It’s part and parcel of the western world’s condescending approach to pre-Columbian society—typified by the popular canard that if the Maya did rival the Greeks in any arena, then space aliens must have shown them how. It also reflects the maddening American disregard, if not disdain, for Mexico and Latin America, which persists even today as Escalante’s now grown-up Chicano students and the rest of the Latino community prove their political clout. So since today is all about new beginnings — and since Mexico itself is endeavoring a fresh start right now — we also ought to consider an overhaul of the tiresomely arrogant and indifferent way we look at the world south of the border. [Continue reading...]


Video: A story about knots and surgeons


In brain surgery, experience reveals the importance of luck

Henry Marsh writes: I often have to cut into the brain and it is something I hate doing. With a pair of short-wave diathermy forceps I coagulate a few millimetres of the brain’s surface, turning the living, glittering pia arachnoid – the transparent membrane that covers the brain – along with its minute and elegant blood vessels, into an ugly scab. With a pair of microscopic scissors I then cut the blood vessels and dig downwards with a fine sucker. I look down the operating microscope, feeling my way through the soft white substance of the brain, trying to find the tumour. The idea that I am cutting and pushing through thought itself, that memories, dreams and reflections should have the consistency of soft white jelly, is simply too strange to understand and all I can see in front of me is matter. Nevertheless, I know that if I stray into the wrong area, into what neurosurgeons call eloquent brain, I will be faced with a damaged and disabled patient afterwards. The brain does not come with helpful labels saying ‘Cut here’ or ‘Don’t cut there’. Eloquent brain looks no different from any other area of the brain, so when I go round to the Recovery Ward after the operation to see what I have achieved, I am always anxious.

There are various ways in which the risk of doing damage can be reduced. There is a form of GPS for brain surgery called Computer Navigation where, instead of satellites orbiting the Earth, there are infrared cameras around the patient’s head which show the surgeon on a computer screen where his instruments are on the patient’s brain scan. You can operate with the patient awake The idea that . . . memories, dreams and reflections should have the consistency of soft white jelly, is simply too strange to understand under local anaesthetic: the eloquent areas of the brain can then be identified by stimulating the brain with an electrode and by giving the patient simple tasks to perform so that one can see if one is causing any damage as the operation proceeds. And then there is skill and experience and knowing when to stop. Quite often one must decide that it is better not to start in the first place and declare the tumour inoperable. Despite these methods, however, much still depends on luck, both good and bad. As I become more and more experienced, it seems that luck becomes ever more important.

I had a patient who had a tumour of the pineal gland. The dualist philosopher Descartes, who argued that mind and brain are entirely separate entities, placed the human soul in the pineal gland. It was here, he said, that the material brain in some magical and mysterious way communicated with the mind and with the immaterial soul. I wonder what he would have said if he could have seen my patients looking at their own brains on a video monitor, as some of them do when I operate under local anaesthetic.

Pineal tumours are very rare. They can be benign and they can be malignant. The benign ones do not necessarily need treatment. The malignant ones are treated with radiotherapy and chemotherapy but can prove fatal nevertheless. In the past they were considered to be inoperable but with modern microscopic neurosurgery this is no longer the case: it is usually now considered necessary to operate at least to obtain a biopsy – to remove a small part of the tumour for a precise diagnosis of the type so that you can then decide how best to treat it. The biopsy result will tell you whether to remove all of the tumour or whether to leave most of it in place, and whether the patient needs radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Since the pineal is buried deep in the middle of the brain the operation is, as surgeons say, a technical challenge; neurosurgeons look with awe and excitement at brain scans showing pineal tumours, like mountaineers looking up at a great peak that they hope to climb. To make matters worse, this particular patient – a very fit and athletic man in his thirties who had developed severe headaches as the tumour obstructed the normal circulation of cerebro-spinal fluid around his brain – had found it very hard to accept that he had a life-threatening illness and that his life was now out of his control. I had had many anxious conversations and phone calls with him over the days before the operation. I explained that the risks of the surgery, which included death or a major stroke, were ultimately less than the risks of not operating. He laboriously typed everything I said into his smartphone, as if taking down the long words – obstructive hydrocephalus, endoscopic ventriculostomy, pineocytoma, pineoblastoma – would somehow put him back in charge and save him. Anxiety is contagious – it is one of the reasons surgeons must distance themselves from their patients – and his anxiety, combined with my feeling of profound failure about an operation I had carried out a week earlier meant that I faced the prospect of operating upon him with dread. I had seen him the night before the operation. When I see my patients the night before surgery I try not to dwell on the risks of the operation ahead, which I will already have discussed in detail at an earlier meeting. His wife was sitting beside him, looking quite sick with fear. [Continue reading...]


The optimism of accepting the inevitability of death


TED talks that should have been censored? Not if you want to know how to tie your shoes

“With all the fuss over TED’s self-censorship, we searched through hours of footage to find 10 talks the organizers really should have excised” writes Foreign Policy associate editor Joshua Keating.

Why? Just so that Foreign Policy readers could waste their time watching TED talks that in Keating’s view aren’t worth watching?

Curious to find out whether I happened to have already made the mistake of watching one of these scrappable talks I browsed the list. I had indeed watched the second one: Terry Moore’s presentation on how to tie your shoes.

Maybe Keating only wears loafers or maybe he happened to learn the strong knot when he first learned to tie laces, but for anyone like Moore or me who has gone fifty or more years with shoes laces that with irritating frequency have habit of coming loose, this lesson in shoe lace tying is of immense value. It also demonstrates how easy it is to move through life thinking you know something only to discover you were ignorant.


Video: Reuben Margolin — Sculpting waves in wood and time


In meditative mindfulness, Rep. Tim Ryan sees a cure for many American ills

The Washington Post reports: Rep. Tim Ryan (D) is a five-term incumbent from the heartland. His Ohio district includes Youngstown and Warren and part of Akron and smaller places. He’s 38, Catholic, single. He was a star quarterback in high school. He lives a few houses down from his childhood home in Niles. He’s won three of his five elections with about 75 percent of the vote.

So when he starts talking about his life-changing moment after the 2008 race, you’re not expecting him to lean forward at the lunch table and tell you, with great sincerity, that this little story of American politics is about (a) a raisin and (b) nothing else.

“You hold this one raisin right up to your mouth, but you don’t put it in, and after a moment your mouth starts to water,” he says, describing an exercise during a five-day retreat into the meditative technique of mindfulness, developed from centuries of Buddhist practice. “The teaching point is that your body responds to things outside of it, that there’s a mind-body connection. It links to how we take on situations and how this results in a great deal of stress.”

For Ryan, the raisin was the beginning of a transformation. The retreat, conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, led Ryan on a search into how the practice of mindfulness — sitting in silence, losing oneself in the present moment — could be a tonic for what ails the body politic.

In “A Mindful Nation,” published last week, Ryan details his travels across the country, to schools and companies and research facilities, documenting how mindfulness is relieving stress, improving performance and showing potential to reduce health-care costs. It is a prescription, he says, that can help the nation better deal with the constant barrage of information that the Internet age delivers.

“I think when you realize that U.S. Marines are using this that it’s already in the mainstream of our culture,” he says. “It’s a real technique that has real usefulness that has been scientifically documented. . . . Why wouldn’t we have this as part of our health-care program to prevent high levels of stress that cause heart disease and ulcers and Type 2 diabetes and everything else?”


Video: Learning from failure


Music: Michal Levy — One

Bashnia Tatlina Tower Bawher:


IBM smashes Moore’s Law, cuts bit size to 12 atoms

Computerworld reports: IBM announced Thursday that after five years of work, its researchers have been able to reduce from about one million to 12 the number of atoms required to create a bit of data.

The breakthrough may someday allow data storage hardware manufacturers to produce products with capacities that are orders of magnitude greater than today’s hard disk and flash drives.

“Looking at this conservatively … instead of 1TB on a device you’d have 100TB to 150TB. Instead of being able to store all your songs on a drive, you’d be able to have all your videos on the device,” said Andreas Heinrich, IBM Research Staff Member and lead investigator on this project.

Today, storage devices use ferromagnetic materials where the spin of atoms are aligned or in the same direction.

The IBM researchers used an unconventional form of magnetism called antiferromagnetism, where atoms spin in opposite directions, allowing scientists to create an experimental atomic-scale magnet memory that is at least 100 times denser than today’s hard disk drives and solid-state memory chips.


The Earth is one among a trillion planets in the Milky Way

PopSci reports: Each star in the Milky Way shines its light upon at least one companion planet, according to a new analysis that suddenly renders exoplanets commonplace, the rule rather than the exception. This means there are billions of worlds just in our corner of the cosmos. This is a major shift from just a few years ago, when many scientists thought planets were tricky to make, and therefore special things. Now we know they’re more common than stars themselves.

“Planets are like bunnies; you don’t just get one, you get a bunch,” said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute who was not involved in this research. “So really, the number of planets in the Milky Way is probably like five or 10 times the number of stars. That’s something like a trillion planets.”

Of course there’s no way to know, at least not yet, how many of these worlds could be hospitable to forms of life as we know it. But the odds alone are tantalizing, Shostak said.

“It’s not unreasonable at this point to say there are literally billions of habitable worlds in our galaxy, probably as a lower limit,” he said. “Maybe they’re all sterile as an autoclave, but it doesn’t seem very likely, does it? That would make us very odd.”


Attention to the unseen

Regular readers of War in Context might be perplexed about some of the items that have been popping up here lately — particularly those that appear under my generic and cryptic byline: Attention to the Unseen.

Here’s another one — but this isn’t just another seemingly “off-topic” post. It also illustrates one of the reasons I am picking out such items.

In Intelligent Life, Ian Leslie writes: One day in 1945, a man named Percy Spencer was touring one of the laboratories he managed at Raytheon in Waltham, Massachusetts, a supplier of radar technology to the Allied forces. He was standing by a magnetron, a vacuum tube which generates microwaves, to boost the sensitivity of radar, when he felt a strange sensation. Checking his pocket, he found his candy bar had melted. Surprised and intrigued, he sent for a bag of popcorn, and held it up to the magnetron. The popcorn popped. Within a year, Raytheon made a patent application for a microwave oven.

The history of scientific discovery is peppered with breakthroughs that came about by accident. The most momentous was Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928, prompted when he noticed how a mould that floated into his Petri dish killed off the surrounding bacteria. Spencer and Fleming didn’t just get lucky. Spencer had the nous and the knowledge to turn his observation into innovation; only an expert on bacteria would have been ready to see the significance of Fleming’s stray spore. As Louis Pasteur wrote, “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.”

The word that best describes this subtle blend of chance and agency is “serendipity”. It was coined by Horace Walpole, man of letters and aristocratic dilettante. Writing to a friend in 1754, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had just made by reference to a Persian fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip”. The princes, he told his correspondent, were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of…now do you understand Serendipity?” These days, we tend to associate serendipity with luck, and we neglect the sagacity. But some conditions are more conducive to accidental discovery than others.

Today’s world wide web has developed to organise, and make sense of, the exponential increase in information made available to everyone by the digital revolution, and it is amazingly good at doing so. If you are searching for something, you can find it online, and quickly. But a side-effect of this awesome efficiency may be a shrinking, rather than an expansion, of our horizons, because we are less likely to come across things we are not in quest of.

To some extent, War in Context reflects this web-wide narrowing of attention in its focus on Middle East politics. But now, in my own attempt to buck this wider trend and also reflect the fact that my own interests are not limited to the enduring political reverberations of 9/11, I am using “attention to the unseen” as an amorphous theme where I will call attention to gleanings from the web covering topics as diverse as endangered cultures and neuroscience, or the social organization of bees and avant-garde accordion music.