19 November 2006

Morning Glory

While thine eyes are fringed with sand –
Dreams uncensored, day unplanned –
Hasten not to lift the blind
To leave thy sleepy thoughts behind.
Linger, hover – not quite waking –
Rush not, inner realm forsaking, 
To the day’s accomplishment;
Decode the missive heaven sent!
Thy soul lies open like a flower,
The source of all thy worldly power.
Veiled by misty atmosphere,
Discern the forms that vanquish fear.
Feel them settle on thy brow,
Exulting in eternal Now.

-Josh Mitteldorf

18 November 2006

1020 electron volts

If you’re an astrophysicist, then perhaps I’ve said enough already to inspire you.  But just in case you’re not, here’s some background:

Cosmic rays are particles, mostly protons, that seem to come from distant galaxies, arriving on earth at random intervals, from all directions.  An ‘electron volt’ is a unit of energy (or mass, since Einstein says that E=mc2) used by particle physicists when they talk about experiments with accelerators.  

When a proton reaches an energy of a billion electron volts, it’s traveling close to the speed of light.  The largest particle accelerators on earth are able to produce protons with energies a few thousand times greater – that’s a trillion electron volts, or 1012 ev.  These are ultra-relativistic particles, protons going so close to the speed of light that they behave like light itself.

But the highest-energy cosmic rays have energy 100 million times greater still.  These are single protons, each one of which carries macroscopic energy:  A single subatomic particle with about the same energy as a baseball crossing home plate.  The first such was observed above Utah in 1991, arousing skepticism in of many astronomers.  But many have been seen since that time.

Astrophysicists are used to imagining things with mind-boggling size, under conditions far from anything we can see or create on earth:  black holes and exploding supernovae and neutron stars with temperatures a million times hotter than the center of the sun.  But no one has yet imagined a theory to explain how a single proton gets an energy this enormous.  In fact, the energy is so high that these particles shouldn’t even be able to get far traveling through empty intergalactic space.  The tiny, wimpy microwaves from the big bang should be enough to scale them back to size.  

What can a theoretical astronomer do, but go about his business, as if such anomalies didn’t exist, blithely continuing to calculate things that he understands better?  But someday, someone will come along with more imagination that anyone around today, and tell us how these particles are possible – and more than likely, we’ll have to change the way we think about a lot of things.  Meanwhile, last week in Science Magazine some theoreticians are stretching their theories to the limit, propose an idea about how the largest clusters of galaxies might produce particles with energy 1/100 as big.

17 November 2006

David Cope is a composer and professor of music, who has created a computer program to analyze music of a particular style, and create new examples in that style.  The software is EMI, for Experiment in Musical Intelligence.

What does it mean if a simple computer algorithm can create art that moves us?  What does it do to our premise that art is a direct – some would say mystical – connection from soul to soul? 

To think and I have heard this suggested that we might soon be able to command a preprogrammed mass-produced mail-order twenty-dollar desk-model music box to bring forth from its sterile circuitry pieces which Chopin or Bach might have written had they lived longer is a grotesque and shameful misestimation of the depth of the human spirit.” 
- Douglas Hofstadter (1979)  

EMI Beethoven
EMI Bach
radio show interviewing David Cope, and featuring samples of his work, both original and computer-assisted

16 November 2006

One surprise from medical research in recent years is that growing cells have remarkable self-organizational ability.  The cell type is often sufficient to create a particular tissue type.  Bone cells will make a bone matrix when they develop, and liver cells will migrate through the bloodstream, find a functioning liver and settle there.  The potential for correcting the body's problems – perhaps for anti-aging interventions as well – is enormous.

read a popular account of the background
read Stem Cell Week news summaries
read Heart valves grown from stem cells


STEM cells have helped dogs with muscular dystrophy to walk again. Doctors hope a similar approach in humans could lead to more complete improvement than the other leading contender for a cure - an RNA-blocking drug now in clinical trials.
–  New Scientist article

15 November 2006

“The torch of doubt and chaos, this is what the sage steers by.”

~ Zhuang Tsu

14 November 2006

Autumn Quince
How sad they are,
the promises we never return to.
They stay in our mouths,
roughen the tongue, lead lives of their own.
Houses built and unwittingly lived in;
a succession of milk bottles brought to the door
every morning and taken inside.
And which one is real?
The music in the composer's ear
or the lapsed piece the orchestra plays?
The world is a blurred version of itself --
marred, lovely, and flawed.
It is enough.
~ Jane Hirshfield ~

from Of Gravity and Angels

13 November 2006

It was James Clerk Maxwell, born this day in 1831, who first put down in mathematical form the laws of electricity and magnetism.  Electric fields are produced not only by electric charge, but also by changing magnetic fields.  Magnetic fields are produced not only by electric currents, but also by changing electric fields.

Playing with his equations, Maxwell noticed the possibility of starting with one field, say the electric field, in empty space.  With nothing to support it, the electric field begins to collapse, but in changing so rapidly, it engenders a magnetic field in the perpendicular direction. But then, as the magnetic field begins to grow, it creates another electric field, in a direction opposite to the first.  He recognized that the electric and magnetic equations he had written down could be combined algebraically to derive one equation that describes the propagation of a wave.  The wave could be any shape or size, but had to travel at a particular speed to make the equations work out right, and that speed was determined by the relationships between electric and magnetic fields, which had earlier been measured by André-Marie Ampère.  


Maxwell fell off his chair when he calculated that speed, and it came out to be the (already known) velocity of light.  It was the first indication anyone had that light might be fundamentally described as a propagating, self-sustaining combination of crossed electric and magnetic fields.

Einstein built directly on Maxwell's work, when he created Special Relativity.  In fact, Maxwell's waves provided Einstein with the hint that the speed of light was a fundamental physical quantity; and the relationships between quantities measured by moving observers were derived as transformations under which Maxwell's Equations were invariant.

Maxwell was the first person to use B/W images taken with three colored filters to re-create a full color, projected image.  It was 78 years before Gone with the Wind.