Notes about nature

June 24, 2011 permalink

Herman Melville on the Nature of Color

From Moby Dick, chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale”:

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues – every stately or lovely emblazoning – the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge – pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino Whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

June 23, 2011 permalink


Research continues on whether humans (and other animals) have the ability to perceive magnetic fields:

Many birds have a compass in their eyes. Their retinas are loaded with a protein called cryptochrome, which is sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic fields. It’s possible that the birds can literally see these fields, overlaid on top of their normal vision. This remarkable sense allows them to keep their bearings when no other landmarks are visible.

But cryptochrome isn’t unique to birds – it’s an ancient protein with versions in all branches of life. In most cases, these proteins control daily rhythms. Humans, for example, have two cryptochromes – CRY1 and CRY2 – which help to control our body clocks. But Lauren Foley from the University of Massachusetts Medical School has found that CRY2 can double as a magnetic sensor.

Vision is amazing, even more so when you take into account the myriad other things that animals and insects can detect beyond just our “visible” EMF spectrum. See also: box jellyfish with their surprisingly complex (and human-like) set of 24 eyes.

November 30, 2010 permalink

Mystery of the Red Bees

Could the tastiest nectar, even close by the hives, compete with the charms of a liquid so abundant, so vibrant and so cloyingly sweet? Perhaps the conundrum raises another disturbing question: If the bees cannot resist those three qualities, what hope do the rest of us have?

From the New York Times, The Mystery of the Red Bees of Red Hook: urban honeybees in Brooklyn are hitting up the local maraschino cherry factory, turning their bodies fluorescent and their honey into a cough syrup-like concoction.

September 4, 2010 permalink

Sensing Nature

From David Cyranoski’s review of the Sensing Nature exhibition at the Tokyo Mori Art Museum:

The merging of nature and human activity harks back to earlier Japanese tradition, according to art historian Toshio Watanabe of the University of the Arts in London, who is lecturing at the gallery. The famed woodblock landscapes of Japan usually depict human endeavour coexisting with nature — unlike Western art, in which nature is an awesome, sublime force that often excludes or overpowers humans. Even in Hokusai’s famous 1832 painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Watanabe explains, the people don’t look panicked and no boats are overturned: “The picture is as much about the energy of the boatmen as the waves.”

Above video from the show: Snow, an interactive installation of feathers created by Yoshioka Tokujin.

January 23, 2010 permalink

Artifical Auroras

There’s lots of conspiracy theory nutjobs talking about the HAARP research project lately (even Hugo Chavez is throwing his hat in), so the allegations of death-ray and mind control weapons tinges this science news a bit, but there’s something kind of beautiful about being able to generate your own version of the aurora borealis:

Artificial auroras can be created using an array of high-frequency transmitters. Researchers have previously done this by pumping a 3.6-megawatt beam of radio waves into the ionosphere, a region of the atmosphere a few hundred kilometres above Earth’s surface. The beam was powerful enough to break electrons free of their parent atoms, creating an artificial aurora similar to that of the Northern Lights.

It’s certainly an unusual way to leave your mark on the world, and I presume it’s harmless, given that we’re being constantly bombarded by the same kind of energy raining down from space (right?). Just so long as they aren’t cutting their way into heaven a la Lord Asriel in The Golden Compass, I guess…

(Found in Nature, which cites research in Geophysical Research Letters, but I can’t find the cited article anywhere. Maybe it was pulled? Aha, a conspiracy!)

August 29, 2009 permalink

Human uniqueness and the denial of death

[Geneticist Danny Brower] explained that with full self-awareness and inter-subjectivity would also come awareness of death and mortality. Thus, far from being useful, the resulting overwhelming fear would be a dead-end evolutionary barrier, curbing activities and cognitive functions necessary for survival and reproductive fitness. […] In his view, the only way these properties could become positively selected was if they emerged simultaneously with neural mechanisms for denying mortality.
If this logic is correct, many warm-blooded species may have previously achieved complete self-awareness and inter-subjectivity, but then failed to survive because of the extremely negative immediate consequences. Perhaps we should be looking for the mechanisms (or loss of mechanisms) that allow us to delude ourselves and others about reality, even while realizing that both we and others are capable of such delusions and false beliefs.

We humans are an odd lot.

From Nature’s Correspondance section, “Human uniqueness and the denial of death”, August 5, 2009. doi:10.1038/460684c;

August 8, 2009 permalink

Transformation optics as misdirection

From Nature, Optics: All Smoke and Metamaterials (subscription might be required, actual research publication available from the American Physical Society):

Seeing is believing — a naive assumption in the case of an illusion device proposed by Lai and colleagues at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and described1 in Physical Review Letters. The new device has the power to ‘act at a distance’ and therefore covertly alter an object’s appearance such that it has no apparent physical connection to the light scattered by the object — although this becomes increasingly difficult to achieve the farther the illusion device is from the object. Lai and colleagues1 outline a mathematical formalism proving that it is theoretically possible to grab the rays of light emitted by a given object and to reconstruct them so that they seem to come from a completely different object.

Using metamaterials with refractive indexes less than zero to disguise the origin or content of reflected light. Not sure that I entirely understand this idea, but it’s sort of like the fabled “cloaking device”, except that instead of rendering an object invisible it actually renders it as a different object. Things will be weird fifty years from now.