7 May 2006

The wisdom of the body is overrated.  It has been nature's mischief to design our bodies so that they function best under moderate stress.  Most of us will seek in vain for the instincts to support the kind of ascetic routine which is optimal for our bodies.  It takes an act of will, supported by intellectual understanding, to develop the disciplined habits that best serve our welfare in the long run.

Fortunately, good habits are self-reinforcing, and long-term health is a powerful incentive.

~Josh Mitteldorf

6 May 2006

When a star runs out of hydrogen to “burn”, it can no longer manage enough pressure to support itself. The gas may collapse down until it becomes a highly-compressed liquid, white hot with a density of about a ton per teaspoon. This is a “white dwarf” star, a dead, glowing ember (made of light elements like helium, carbon and oxygen).

In 1931, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar figured out that the electrons that keep the white dwarf stable have to obey Einstein's speed limit. If the star is too heavy, the pressure heats electrons at the center to nearly the speed of light. Since they can go no faster, they can support no more mass. A white dwarf star cannot be more than about 1.4 times as massive as our sun, the “Chandrasekhar limit”.

A thousand years ago, a white dwarf star in our neighborhood was using its powerful gravity to slowly steal gas from the atmosphere of a nearby companion star. Its mass passed Chandra's limit just 1,000 years ago this week, and the star imploded, creating a spectacle for terrified earthlings. A “new star” appeared in the sky, bright as the moon in a single point. Astrologers in Persia and China recorded enough information for modern astronomers to find the remnant of this explosion, which can now best be observed with an x-ray telescope from space, which is named aptly for Chandrasekhar.


5 May 2006

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of potentialfor the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints; possibility never.”

Soren Kierkegaard, born this day in 1813

4 May 2006

To what extent is our everyday experience shaped by cultural conditioning?  Are we capable of experiencing our world and ourselves in a radically different way?

If it’s hard to expand perspectives with abstract questions alone, perhaps an anthropological example will help.  The Piraha people live in small groups scattered through the Western Amazon jungle.  They don’t own anything individually.  Their language has no words for numbers, and when they are instructed in arithmetic, they don’t see any point or use for counting.  Time is not measured, so there are no words or concepts for “early” or “late”.   

Are there other words in the Piraha language that have no translation in Western languages?  What are we missing in our experience by not thinking like Pirahas?

You and I may discipline ourselves with Eastern spiritual practices, learning to let go of planning and abstraction, the better to ‘be here now’.  Piraha people may be so steeped in the here and now that they see no use in planning the future or remembering the past.

New Scientist article
Current Anthropology Article by Dan Everett, linguist at University of Manchester

3 May 2006

When your eyes are tired, the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone, no part of the world can find you.
Time to go where the night has eyes to recognize its own.
There you can be sure you are not beyond love.
The night will give you a horizon, further than you can see.
You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in.
Give up all other worlds except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of solitude to learn
Anything (or anyone) that does not bring you alive is too small for you.

~David Whyte

2 May 2006

If you think of honeybees as individual organisms, then the act of reproduction consists in a queen laying an egg. But if you think of a beehive as the unit of reproduction, then success arrives when the hive has prospered so well that there are too many bees for the current location, and a few thousand will colonize a new site.

A good site is a huge cavity with a small entrance hole at the bottom. Finding and choosing the site to colonize is a collective task for the entire swarm. For several days, a few hundred bee scouts go flying in search of candidates. They return and report their findings with the same kind of waggle-dance used to communicate directions to a field of pollen flowers. Other scout bees pick up on their signals, and follow them out to check out their recommendations.

The process culminates when a few dozen bees are able to agree. The group puts its faith in this quorum, and flies off en masse.

The bees' communication process and the sophistication of their interactions is a long-standing mystery in animals with such simple nervous systems.  

Of course, the big question we'd like to ask concerns their sociology:  Why is mob behavior in humans notoriously liable to manipulation, and how are simpler creatures subject to the same perils?  Do individual bees try to subvert the process for their own benefit?  How do they avoid politics and influence-peddling?  Do they detect and punish perpetrators of deliberate deception? 

“Madness is the exception in individuals but the rule in groups.”
~ Nietzsche

New York Times Science article
semi-popular article by the researchers in American Scientist

1 May 2006

One hundred twenty years ago today in Haymarket Square, Chicago, was the original May Day labor event, a strike against the McCormack Harvesting Machine Company, demanding an 8-hour work day.

Concerted action by workers has led to a more livable world, and a more prosperous economy for all.  Many opportunities for organizing remain.

“The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.”
A. Philip Randolph

"The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today."
August Spies