28 October 2007

When first we discover that attaining our fondest desires does not bring us happiness, we may respond with frustration and recrimination.  But if we are open to learning from experience, eventually we are motivated to explore a path of introspection, personal growth or spiritual seeking.  With maturity, grace, and the patient help of our friends, we learn to manage our personal habits toward physical health, wellbeing and an openness to joy.  Eventually, we may become master of our own house, and learn to choose goals for ourselves in such a way that not the goal but the path toward that goal is rich with challenges, adventure and satisfaction.

— Josh Mitteldorf

27 October 2007

Looking for neutrinos – finding bioluminescence

In science fiction stories, there are parallel worlds superimposed on this one, right here where we are but made of different stuff. There are particles that interact with each other, but not with the stuff of our world, so that we never see them. Of course, there is always some exception, some leak that makes it possible to jump between the two, and that forms the basis for the story.

In real physics, there are neutrinos.  Discovered in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli, they could not be seen, but were necessary to explain a tiny bit of energy that disappeared during beta decay of a nucleus. Neutrinos have no electric charge and interact only via the force that is called the ‘weak nuclear force’. How weak is weak? Let’s just say that if you filled the space between the sun and the next closest star with a block of lead, a neutrino would have a good chance of passing through the entire block unscathed.

There are trillions of neutrinos passing through every square inch of your body in every second. Most come from the sun, and they pass right through you without causing radiation sickness or any other effect.

If you were designing an experiment to detect these neutrinos, here are two things you’d need: First, you’d want to monitor a huge volume of something to catch the rare flashes when a neutrino from space actually interacts. Second, you’d want it to be in a place heavily shielded from every other kind of radiation that otherwise might get confused with neutrino flashes.

The Antares neutrino telescope is an array of light detectors stretching over hundreds of meters at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, off the Côte d’Azur. ‘Neutrino telescopes’ of the past have been designed just to catch some neutrinos, to count them and detect that they’re real. But Antares can actually tell what part of the sky they came from, so we can actually look for astronomical sources of neutrinos (other than the sun). The light detectors work because when the rare neutrino actually interacts with the rocks underneath, particles are produced that travel upwards through the water and glow with a kind of ‘sonic boom’ of blue light along the way. (This is called Cherenkov radiation.)

The greatest discovery from Antares so far has had nothing to do with astronomy or neutrinos. It’s supposed to be pitch black at the bottom of the sea, but it turns out that animals that live down there have adapted to the dark by glowing like fireflies. Rather than evolve their own light bulbs, they have taken a shortcut and become host to symbiotic bacteria, bioluminescent bacteria that light up the deep.

New Scientist article

26 October 2007

Domenico Scarlatti lived out his first 66 years in the manner of many a talented musician of the eighteenth century:  He was choirmaster in Rome, and later resident musician in the royal courts of Portugal and Spain, where his job was to teach the King’s daughter and keep the royal family amused with musical offerings.  His compositions were varied and of uneven quality.  They are seldom performed today.

Then, in ‘retirement’ he hit his stride.  He had a flare for inventing musical ideas on the harpsichord, and developed a way of using the hands that opened a door to a whole new keyboard literature.  In his last six years, he completed 555 keyboard sonatas which are loved and cherished by pianists at all levels today, and which constitute his primary musical legacy.

Domenico Scarlatti was born this day in 1685, the year of Handel and Bach.

Listen to Sonata in d, K 141, performed by Mikhail Pletnev
Listen to Sonata in A, K 113, performed by Mikhail Pletnev
Listen to Stabat Mater - the best of Scarlatti’s early compositions for choir and orchestra

25 October 2007

One Laptop per Child

Nicholas Negroponte is a senior visionary who conceived the MIT Media Lab twenty years ago.  Today his passion is education as empowerment, and his project is the creation of a computer that will enable children in the jungles of Africa and the mountains of  South America to grow up as global citizens.

“Children are our most precious resource.  The solution to poverty, peace and the environment is education... 
“Learning does not necessarily involve teaching.  Children are learning machines, and learning takes place as they interact with the world.”

The computer will not break when it is thrown about, and the screen is visible in daylight.  It is designed to network automatically to others in a village, to run games and play music, display books and movies.  But more entertaining than entertainment is the prospect of controlling a microcosm, so standard software will include an intuitive programming language for tinkering and exploration.

The project is being run by a network of academic volunteers, and the funding will come from national governments, but also from ‘first world’ children in a buy ‘buy one, give one’ program.  Prototypes are being evaluated, and plans call for the first batch of 10 million to be distributed next year.

One Laptop per Child web site
Watch and listen to Nicholas Negroponte talking about the project.

24 October 2007

“This universe is just so incredible that we’re all spoiled, and it’s okay.”

Rumi’s poetry and Barks’s lifework express ecstasy with an openness, whimsy, and practicality that make the everyday resonate with the sacred.

“I wouldn’t say I was anything: I am everything! Why not a Hindu? I love the dancing Shiva. Surely St. Francis and Buddha Dharma would get along fine. They wouldn’t have an argument. They would laugh a lot, and laughter is pretty holy to me. I think it’s right at the core of where you lose your boundaries — and some absorption in work that you love.”

“Sometimes in April, when the sun was going down [with] that gold light, I would just lie on the floor and hug myself. I grew up in a family where that was okay, and anybody could break into song at any moment, or dance, or whatever, and that’s a great help to the ecstatic vision.”

– from an interview of Coleman Barks by Margaret Doyle.

Happy birthday, Jal Ad-in Rumi, 800 years old this fall.

23 October 2007

They that in play can do the thing they would,
Having an instinct throned in reason’s place,
– And every perfect action hath the grace
Of indolence or thoughtless hardihood –
These are the best: yet be there workmen good
Who lose in earnestness control of face,
Or reckon means, and rapt in effort base
Reach to their end by steps well understood.
Me whom thou sawest of late strive with the pains
Of one who spends his strength to rule his nerve,
– Even as a painter breathlessly who stains
His scarcely moving hand lest it should swerve –
Behold me, now that I have cast my chains,
Master of the art which for thy sake I serve.

~ Robert Seymour Bridges, born this day in 1844, from The Growth of Love

22 October 2007

Deine Zauber binden wieder was die Mode streng geteilt.
– Schiller

Within each of us is a latent sense of unity with other people and with nature. In the context of modern society, it is too dangerous to act from that stance, or even to acknowledge it most of the time. So deep connection is perceived as a rare mystical experience, wondrous and ephemeral, and we cherish it when we can find it.

Jennifer Anderson found her deep connection with a manta ray one day last summer, and writes about the experience here.  (Manta rays are huge, harmless cartilaginous fish, that bear their young alive and have a disposition friendly to humans and the largest brain of any fish.)