THE COMMON OBSERVER UNCOMMON OBSERVATIONS

Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities

Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities is a documentary series taking us through more than 3,000 years of spiraling history in Istanbul. This is a city which has been known by many names including Byzantium, Constantinople, and today of course as Istanbul. This modern name derives from the Greek phrase ‘meaning to the city’ because all roads really did lead here as it is the cross roads of East and West. Today Istanbul is a megalopolis of 15 million people. It straddles the mighty Bosphorus strait, it arcs over Islam and Christianity, and it tries to balance modernity and antiquity. I visited Istanbul earlier this year and I must say the history is staggering. This place is a crucible of culture.

 

 

Foraging Fungi

I recently went mushroom foraging. It was a curious and bountiful experience. These thoughts on foraging for fungi from Cal Flyn over at Aeon Magazine are worth considering…


Every few feet, we stumbled across a new, unidentified species. What about this? I called, waving him over. An Amanita excelsa, do you think? We squinted at the picture in the book, compared it to our specimen, side by side. It had the same soft white stalk, a felty skirt, pretty tan cap with pale scaly spots. Beside each entry in the book, there is a symbol: a smiling face or a skull and crossbones. Edible or poisonous? Next to ‘Amanita excelsa’ there was a smiley face. But, looking carefully, the colour didn’t seem an exact match for our toadstool. Different lighting? Natural variance? Or a wholly separate species?

 

‘Edible, mild taste; smell of turnip’ said the guide. Fine. But then, wait: ‘NB. Danger of confusing A. excelsa with A. pantherina and the very rare A. regalla.’ Hmmm. I leafed back through the book. A. pantherina did look similar, but it had the skull and crossbones. ‘Poison acts like A. phalloides but is stronger,’ it warned. I flicked back another few pages. ‘A. phalloides… causes the destruction of the liver and even small doses can be fatal. The poison is active for years and cannot be destroyed by cooking. 50g is fatal to a human being.’

 

We looked at each other, dropped the mushroom and walked on.

Read on over at Aeon Magazine…

The Jewel Box Sun

Sunday Haiku

bohemian bird

brilliant in character

waxes in cold sun
 

the coppiced woodland

desolate in my childhood

now home for waxwings
 

the sun whispers grow

to coppiced trees that listen

even in moonlight

Haiku contributed from Nite Rote.

Galaxy Formation in the Cosmic Web

The research group I work with, the University of Washington N-body shop, has made a fantastic poster about how galaxies form in the cosmic web and how we use computer simulations to understand such a complex process. We made the poster as a form of outreach and in particular for students who may be interested in astronomy research. Please feel free share or print the poster and if there is interest we may consider printing and sending out full size version of the poster for public displays. Here is the large pdf version of the poster “Galaxy formation in the Cosmic Web”.
GalaxyFormation_LrgPoster_PressReady

The universe doesn’t fit in a lab; therefore, astrophysicists use super computers to simulate its history and study the complex physics driving the evolution of the galaxies within it. This poster’s image of the ‘cosmic web’ is from such a simulation. It shows the evolving gas distribution within a large patch of the Universe in the so called Cold Dark Matter scenario. In this model Dark Matter and Dark energy contribute to 95% of the mass-energy density of the Universe. Only the remaining 5% (gas and stars) can actually be seen. Our research group, the ‘N-Body Shop’, makes predictions of what astronomers will observe and ties observations to the underlying distribution of dark matter.

  1. 1-001Gravity is an attractive force causing dark  matter and gas to flow along filaments and eventually form galaxies. Galaxies like our own Milky Way form at the intersection of the largest filaments of Dark Matter and gas in the so called ‘cosmic web’. This simulation achieves such a high resolution that we can predict how many stars will form inside individual galaxies.
  2. 2-001As clusters of stars form in collapsing gas clouds, the most massive stars evolve into Supernovae, unstable stars that explode and heat their surrounding gas. During the explosion, heavy atoms fused in the center of the star such as oxygen, iron and carbon are dispersed into space. The hot gas surrounding the explosion has been observed to expand at several hundred km/sec, forming large bubbles. This gas may eventually re-collapse to form a new generation of stars. Our own Solar System formed from material previously processed by Supernovae.
  3. 3-001Galaxies as we see them today formed over billions of years. Driven by mutual gravitational attraction, individual galaxies and their surrounding dark matter halos merge, forming more and more massive systems. The largest structures in this image contain galaxies as massive as our own Milky way. Due to a continuing build up of mass, the largest dark matter halos in the present Universe contain hundreds of massive galaxies.
  4. 4-001Regions of space that are significantly under dense are called ‘voids’. These are regions where the density of matter is only 10% of the average density of the Universe, or almost a million times less dense than the density inside galaxies like our own. Almost no galaxies form in the voids, and so no hot gas is observed.
  5. 5-001These small clouds of hot gas are associated with stars forming in the smallest known galaxies, often referred to as ‘dwarfs’. The smallest dwarf galaxies form only a few hundred thousand stars and consist mostly of Dark Matter. It would take the mass of more than a thousand dwarf galaxies to make a galaxy as big as the Milky Way. The Milky Way and its nearest massive neighbor the Andromeda galaxy are each surrounded by several dozen dwarfs galaxies. Some have only been discovered in the past few years and many remain to be found, too dim to see even with powerful telescopes.

The N-Body Shop research is funded in part by grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Seeking Transcendence in a Materialist World

Fausto Ribeiro at 3 Quarks Daily:

Diadumenos is an idealised Greek representation of a naturalistic male athlete. Image by flickr user ckorangeLet us imagine for a moment the following story: a man is sitting at the edge of a cliff, marveling at the immensity below and all of its beauty – a resplendent lake, enormous mountains, a vast field covered with trees, maybe a small village with a few lovely houses whose chimneys release a white, innocent smoke. There is a notebook on the man’s lap; in it, with a worn-out pencil, he registers in the form of poetry his impressions about that which he has the good fortune of witnessing. A beautiful woman then approaches from a nearby trail and sees him; upon realizing what this stranger is doing, she is immediately overcome with a great emotion, an expectation so ravishing that her hands start to tremble slightly: here is a man who writes poems about nature’s enchantment, about it’s mesmerizing beauty! Instantly the woman conceives in her mind a whole image of who this man is, of his values, of his rich inner universe. She passionately contemplates, above all, the possibility of a real connection between the two of them. Nervous, she walks slowly in his direction and touches him gently on the shoulder, in the hope of initiating a conversation that would confirm her expectations. When he turns to face her, however, she suffers a shocking disappointment: the man is ugly; his features clearly violate the universal principles of beauty neurologists affirm exist.

Read on…

Cars by Color

A wonderful video of San Diego afternoon traffic, reorganized by car color (via Gizmodo, Vimeo)

Sunday Haiku

morning fog is lost

to zephyrean beams of light

a mountain stands still
 

have you heard

the wind from a bird of prey

tell the story of wings

 

are the crows upset

with us because we forgot

the sky was theirs first

Haiku contributed from Nite Rote.

TwainBot: classical literature meets digital media

I’m excited to share with you all the public release of a new project I’ve been working on: Mock Twain! 

 

About a month ago I came up with the idea to tweet an entire book, and immediately using Twain as a source sprang to mind! It’s a simple enough idea, mixing a new-world digital medium with old-world art/content. Implementing it was also remarkably easy… and thus TwainBot was born! You can follow Mock Twain via Twitter:

Here is the executive summary:

  • TwainBot will tweet the entire text of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, running on python/tweepy
  • The “bot” (running on a RaspberryPi inside a hollowed out Mark Twain book) sends about 10 tweets a day, via python/tweepy
  • It will take about a year to tweet the entire book

The Power of Empathy

Empathy is a choice because in order to connect with someone’s feeling you have to connect with something in yourself that knows that feeling. When people are in a painful emotional space, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.