27 August 2006

Most of us have lives that are overscheduled, and we can sense it.  There is too much to do in too little time.  We get up before we are fully rested, rush through meals, curse the traffic, and try to fit one more task into each afternoon than we might reasonably expect can be accomplished.

The condition appears to be driven by economic necessity.  Is there any sense in which we can regard it as a choice?

I have known the overscheduled life, and I have also experienced an absence of structure, which makes me uncomfortable in a different way.  I once spent three hours in a sensory deprivation tank, and found myself paddling about just to feel something.  Sitting in a Buddhist retreat hour after hour, I came to regard with happy anticipation my chance to scrub the kitchen floor on hands and knees.  I spent a month camping alone beside a lake in Oregon:  The first three days, I was continuously anxious; the rest of the month was a time of rare peace and creative expression.  

In some global perspective, we have more freedom than we are comfortable with.  If we think of a lifetime ahead of us, without obligations, without imposed goals or the need for goal-oriented behavior – how many of us experience this as freedom, as opposed to discomfort, boredom or even an unbearable void?

Meanwhile, there are worlds to be discovered within our own minds, if we can bear the transitional period of anxiety, as the stimulation to which we have become accustomed (and which has desensitized us) is withdrawn.

~ Josh Mitteldorf

26 August 2006

Wood contains phlogiston, which is released as fire when it burns.  It is the loss of phlogiston that is responsible for the fact that ashes are smaller and lighter than the wood from which they were created.

It makes perfect sense.  Everyone has agreed on this for hundreds of years.  Yes, it is known that the exact weight of phlogiston seems hard to define, and may be different for different kinds of combustible materials.  It is a little mysterious that burning zinc produces an ash that is heavier than the zinc you started with.  But these are details that can be worked out by adding hypotheses to the theory.  There is nothing to be gained by questioning the basic premise.  It will only invite trouble to question what everyone knows is correct.

Antoine Lavoisier imagined that a more quantitative science of chemistry was possible.  He measured the mass of the gases that we now know as oxygen and carbon dioxide, and showed that the total mass of all combustion products is the same as the mass of the original ingredients.  He appropriated (without crediting him) the experiments of Priestley to demonstrate that oxygen is 1/5 of the air around us, and that it is the same oxygen that supports the combustion of tallow, mercury, and zinc.  He even measured the heat output when oil is burned, compared it to the heat produced by the body of a mouse consuming the same amount of oxygen, and thereby guessed that animals breathe so that they might burn fuel to generate energy.

The Ideal Gas Law provided a fortunate coincidence, implying that there are the same number of atoms in a liter of hydrogen and a liter of oxygen.  Lavoisier noted that 2 liters of hydrogen combined with 1 liter of oxygen to form water, without leaving any residue of either oxygen or hydrogen.  From this, he guessed the molecular formula H20, though he didn't believe in literal molecules, and in fact he rejected the idea of atoms, along with the mythical science of the ancient Greeks.  (It was John Dalton, a generation later, who reformulated the atomic theory, and integrated it with Lavoisier’s chemistry.) 

Lavoisier correctly distinguished chemical elements from compounds for the first time.  He recognized 33 chemical elements, from which he constructed the first periodic table.  He made a giant conceptual leap from the ancient notion of natural philosophy to create a modern experimental science of chemistry, based on quantitative measurements and reproducible experiments.

There was no way to make a living as a scientist, so Lavoisier supported himself as a tax collector.  It was for this, not his heretical scientific notions, that he was beheaded during the excesses of the French Revolution. Joseph Lagrange remarked, “It took them only an instant to cut off that head, but France may not produce another like it in a century.”

 Antoine Lavoisier was born this day in 1736.

25 August 2006

“Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has traveled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being? I cannot tell. Now that I feel nothing, it has stopped, has perhaps gone down again into its darkness, from which who can say whether it will ever rise? Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. And each time the natural laziness which deters us from every difficult enterprise, every work of importance, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of today and of my hopes for tomorrow, which let themselves be pondered over without effort or distress of mind. 

And suddenly the memory returns.” 

– from Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, translated by Charles Kenneth Scott-Moncrieff

24 August 2006

Five hundred million years ago, the differentiation and specialization of cell types made possible a great revolution in the diversity of life:  it was then possible to sense the environment, to move about, in flight from predators or pursuit of prey, to communicate, to attack and defend…

So I believed until this week.  I’ve learned that protozoans are capable of all these behaviors.   Within a single cell, there are directional sensors and locomotion functions.  Tiny hairs called cilia move in a coordinated way to enable cells to swim.

Some ciliates are able to prepare packets of cytoplasm enclosed in a separate membrane, and eject them like missiles; others shoot out tethered darts, like harpoons.   These extrusomes are used for attack and defense, and for communication with other microbes.

Review of extrusomes (academic)
Movie of Litonotus, which pursues its prey and hunts with darts.

23 August 2006

Are we not earth-born, formed of dust
Which seeks again its love and trust
In an old landscape, after change
In hearts grown weary, wrecked and strange?
What though we struggled to emerge
Dividual, footed for the urge
Of further self-discoveries, though
In the mid-years we cease to know,
Through disenchanted eyes, the spell
That clothed it like a miracle –
Yet at the last our steps return
Its deeper mysteries to learn.
It has been always us, it must
Clasp to itself our kindred dust.
We cannot free ourselves from it.
Near or afar we must submit
To what is in us, what was grown
Out of the landscape’s soil, the known
And unknown powers of soil and soul.
As bodies yield to the control
Of the earth's center, and so bend
In age, so hearts toward the end
Bend down with lips so long athirst
To waters which were known at first –
The little spring at Leese’s Grove
Was your first love, is your last love!

~from Toward the Gulf by Edgar Lee Masters, born this day in 1868 

22 August 2006

«L’art est le plus beau des mensonges. Et quoiqu’on essaie d’y incorporer la vie dans son décor quotidien, il faut désirer qu’il reste un mensonge sous peine de devenir aussi triste qu’une usine. Le peuple, aussi bien que l’élite, ne viennent-ils pas y chercher l’oubli, ce qui est encore, une autre forme de mensonge.»

Art is the most beautiful of all lies. And though may build on the trappings of daily life, we must hope that it will remain a deception, lest it become sad as a factory.  Common folk and intellectuals alike come for escape, which is just deception in another guise.

Claude Debussy, born this day in 1862
   Feux d’artifice from the 2d book of Preludes for piano, performed by Martin Sturfalt

21 August 2006

“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it... He who receives an idea from me, receives instructions himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should be spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature.”

Thomas Jefferson’s radical belief was that the free exchange of ideas and information was the future hope of mankind.  Complementing freedom of expression was to be empiricism: a new idea in the 18th century, which proclaimed that observation of reality was to be the final arbiter of truth.  Obvious?  Radical?  or both!  How much effort is demanded of us even today to keep our theories accountable to our eyes and ears! 

“The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory...It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong.”

Jefferson the Pacifist revolutionary:

“I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

...and Jefferson the wary libertarian:

“Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms [of government] those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny...If once the people become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions.”

After leaving the Presidency, Jefferson continued to be active in public affairs. He also became increasingly obsessed with founding a new institution of higher learning, specifically one free of church influences where students could specialize in many new areas not offered at other universities.
–from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.