Category Archives: Science

The Incredible, 240 Year Old Writing Robot

This Programmable 6,000 Part Drawing Boy Automata is Arguably the First Computer and It Was Built 240 Years Ago history automata
The Writer was built in the 1770s using 6,000 moving parts by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot

Designed in the late 1770s this incredible little robot called simply The Writer, was designed and built by Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz with help from his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot. Jaquet-Droz was one of the greatest automata designers to ever live and The Writer is considered his pièce de résistance. On the outside the device is deceptively simple. A small, barefoot boy perched at a wooden desk holding a quill, easily mistaken for a toy doll. But crammed inside is an engineering marvel: 6,000 custom made components work in concert to create a fully self-contained programmable writing machine that some consider to be the oldest example of a computer.

In this clip from BBC Four’s documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams hosted by Professor Simon Schaffer, we go behind the scenes to learn just how this remarkably complex 240-year-old device was designed and constructed. The entire clip is well worth a watch, in fact here’s another bit about Merlin’s gorgeous silver swan automata:

In my youth the “automata” of choice was either a Tomy Omnibot or a demonic Teddy Ruxpin, cheaply manufactured plastic robots, both which played casette tapes and were destined to break within a few weeks (if you lost or broke the remote control to the Omnibot it was effectively useless). Not to suggest the machines above were mass-produced as children’s toys, but it’s amazing to think such incredibly crafted machines like the Writer and the Swan were built in the eighteenth century around the time of the American Revolutionary War, the age of James Cook, and the invention of the steam engine. (via Colossal Submissions)

Tagged , , ,

Controlling the Space-Time Continuum, With Art

Jonathan Keats

Ever since Andy Warhol, few American artists have dared to be full-service public intellectuals, offering a fresh and disconcerting outlook on their society through social as well as aesthetic experimentation. The partnership of the Russian-born artists Komar and Melamid (which ended in 2003) was a rare exception; in the 1970s they created a market in human souls, which they bought for a dollar each.

The U.S. now has a home-grown multimedia philosopher-prophet in Jonathon Keats, who makes fine art at the intersection of profound and frivolous. Two years ago at The Atlantic, I reported on his exhibition “Copernican Art,” a daring manifesto for mediocrity. His new exhibition, “Spacetime Industries, USA: General Relativity for Everyday Efficiency,” is his answer to the gurus of business time management. Instead of devising scheduling techniques, he proposes people become more efficient with the use of “Time Ingots,” devices that manipulate the space-time continuum. (Pay no attention to the fact that this is currently impossible.)

I interviewed him by email about his current project.

Tell me more about Spacetime Industries. What’s the company’s objective? Are you open to investors or do you plan to remain privately held?

Spacetime Industries is in the business of time management. In the past, time management has been a euphemism for discipline: Either your employer orders you to work faster or you convince yourself that you should increase your productivity by working harder. In other words, it’s psychological manipulation. In contrast, Spacetime Industries manages time itself. We do so by leveraging physics, specifically Einstein’s theory of relativity, which treats spacetime as a unified phenomenon. Einstein discovered that time is relative. For instance, time moves more slowly in the gravitational well of a massive object than in the vacuum of space. Spacetime Industries transforms Einstein’s abstruse insights into practical technologies, useful in business and personal life.

Taking into account the enormous amount of money already spent on time management books and consultancies, the growth potential for Spacetime Industries is vast, and the larger we become, the more people we can help to manage their time more effectively. So we are absolutely open to venture capital and to a future IPO. More important, we hope that large corporations and governments will be interested in our products, because the more people involved, the more efficient society can be. The potential for large-scale investment in time management can be seen by looking at our plans for time-managed cities, in which different neighborhoods are zoned to run at different clock rates (using spinning hubs to centripetally induce gravitation). Time in agricultural districts runs much faster than in residential districts, meaning that crops will grow faster while people live longer to enjoy the fruits of their labors. The more that we cooperate, the more meaningful time management becomes because time takes on meaning through our interactions. At the broadest scale, the objective of Spacetime Industries is to foster relationships, through the mechanism of time, for all civilization.

What is a Time Ingot and how do you recommend using it? For example in a business setting, for optimal effect how close should it be placed?

A time ingot is gravitational ballast for temporal micromanagement. In other words, it’s a one-pound lead bar that dilates time, much as time is dilated by a black hole or a neutron star. While the dilation is considerably less than would be achieved by a black hole or neutron star, since a time ingot is considerably less massive than either, it’s far more convenient: light enough to deliver by regular mail and compact enough to fit on your desktop.

In terms of use, proximity is key, especially since the effect is very subtle (perhaps less than a nanosecond in the time left before the universe succumbs to a big bounce or big rip or another cosmic cataclysm that renders time obsolete). I would suggest that you keep it safely stowed in a desk drawer until you’re waiting for results. At that stage, you should take it out so that the wait is minimized for you, since time will be moving faster for everyone else. (For instance, you might take out the ingot after delegating a task to an employee of after placing an investment.) Of course the time ingot can also be used surreptitiously to slow down the actions of a competitor if it’s suitably concealed in his or her office, though I cannot recommend this since it would be unethical.

How can your company’s time dilation products be used in the current government shutdown?

The American public is waiting for congress and the president to resolve their differences. Distributing a time ingot to every citizen would help to decrease the public impact, since time would then move faster for the politicians than for everyone else.

Naturally, implementing my plan for time-managed cities at a national scale would be a better approach, since Congress and the White House could simply be moved onto a hub where time moves faster than the hubs where the rest of us live. Also if we base the election cycle on the politicos’ frame of reference, the next election cycle would come much sooner from the perspective of voters. This might be a more general means of managing political gridlock.

Could Time Ingots become an alternative currency, like bitcoins?

To the extent that time is money, time ingots could serve as a good currency. Of course there’s a long history of economic value being expressed in terms of time. In the medieval age, an English acre was defined as the area that a plowman could work in a single day. More recently, there have been units of money, such as the Labour Notes of 19th century England or Ithaca Hours, introduced in Upstate New York in the 1990s.

Time ingots would be much more effective than any of these, since they would have a physical impact. But they couldn’t be represented on paper or electronically for easier handling. They would be the opposite of fiat currency.  Their most profound effect would be the opposite of the impact of bitcoins: By virtue of their massive bulk, they’d add ballast to the hyper-fast economy.

Do you think that artists can succeed in time management where the gurus have failed?

Time management is a problem that goes back to Benjamin Franklin, and Franklin’s false assumptions persist in the books of business gurus such as Tim Ferriss and the products sold by companies like FranklinCovey. The whole premise is wrong: You cannot control time by personal will. Someone who doesn’t come from a traditional business background—such as an artist or philosopher—can think about time in less individualistic terms, and can potentially guide society toward more collaborative approaches to making the most of the inevitable encroachment of entropy on everyone and everything in the universe.

Keats provided the captions below, which have been lightly edited.

Time ingots are one of several products offered by Spacetime Industries. The mass of each one-pound ingot dilates time locally. Due to the compact size, it can be used to manage time on a desktop or bedstand.

The time ingots are sold at Modernism Gallery—global headquarters for Spacetime Industries—for $19.99 apiece. Because they are made of lead, it is suggested that they be handled with care.

Time can also be managed by enlisting the mass of a planet, neutron star or black hole, any of which will dilate time significantly more than a lead ingot. Elevator House is designed to manage time at home by suspending each room on an independent elevator shaft. Space elevators are ideal. If Elevator House is built in orbit of a black hole, and if the elevator shafts are long enough to extend out into the vacuum of space, time in the basement will run nearly one-and-half times slower than at penthouse level.

While the architectural model for Elevator House is made of low-tech wood and steel, the actual house will be feasible only with materials that do not yet exist. Here the model is photographed with Jonathon Keats, who designed and built it for Spacetime Industries.

The most effective way in which to manage time is at the scale of an entire society. This blueprint for Metropolitan Time Machine No. 1 shows how relativity can be leveraged for a whole city. Hubs spinning at nearly the speed of light produce strong gravitation, dilating time significantly. By spinning different hubs at different speeds, districts can be coordinated to have optimal relative clock rates. For example, the residential district can clock slowly relative to the agricultural and industrial districts, providing residents with more goods over a longer lifespan.

Spacetime Industries can plan cities in myriad ways, to suit different cultures and populations. However it is recommended that the cities be situated in the vacuum of space in order to allow for maximum variation in time dilation and to decrease friction. A licensed contractor will be needed to realize these plans, as will multiple technologies that are currently unimaginable.

The most intimate time management product offered by Spacetime Industries is a time warp undershirt. A heavy patch of gravitational ballast locally warps time for a given organ. For instance, if the ballast is bolted over the wearer’s heart, the wearer will get a fractionally-longer life without being mentally slowed down: Your brain will clock at the usual terrestrial rate while your heart will be in a fractionally slower time zone.

Several different time warp undershirts are available for purchase. Another version places the gravitational patch over the ovaries to slightly slow down the biological clock, as many women today would like to wait longer to have children.

by Edward Tenner via the Atlantic

Tagged , ,

The cave so huge it has its own weather system

 Explorers discover a lost world with thick cloud and fogs trapped inside

Adventurers have stumbled across a cave so enormous that it has its own weather system, complete with wispy clouds and lingering fog inside vast caverns.

A team of expert cavers and photographers have been exploring the vast cave system in the
Chongquing province of China and have taken the first-ever photographs of the natural wonder.

They were amazed to discover the entrance to the hidden Er Wang Dong cave system and were stunned when they managed to climb inside to see a space so large that it can contain a cloud.

Scroll down for video

The view from a small window in the wall of the vast Niubizi Tian Keng in the Er Wang Dong cave systemThe view from a small window in the wall of the vast Niubizi Tian Keng in the Er Wang Dong cave system, where clouds form inside the huge spaces. Three tiny explorers can be seen negotiating the heavily vegetated floor
An intrepid cave explorer ascends a rope hanging from the Niubizi Tian Keng. This photograph is one of the first-ever images taken of one of a cave so large it has its own weather systemAn intrepid cave explorer ascends a rope hanging from the Niubizi Tian Keng. This photograph is one of the first-ever images taken of one of a cave so large it has its own weather system

Photographer and caver Robbie Shone, from Manchester, was part of a team of 15 explorers on a month-long expedition that discovered the hidden system.

‘A few of the caves had previously been used by nitrate miners, at the areas close to the entrance, but had never been properly explored before,’ he said.

‘All the major passageways were deep underground and had never seen light before.


Exploring Chinese caves so big that they have own weather

Explorer Duncan Collis (pictured) climbs a thin rope up to a small ledge Explorer Duncan Collis (pictured) climbs a thin rope up to a small ledge overlooking the vast floor surface of Niubizi Tian Keng in the Er Wang Dong cave system. A team of expert cavers have been exploring the caves in the Chongquing province of China
the tranquil rural village of Ranjiagou falls nearby the hidden natural wonder
A caver stands on the central ridge overlooking the cathedral-like Cloud Ladder Hall, towering up into the fog

The tranquil rural village of Ranjiagou falls nearby the hidden natural wonder is pictured left, while an intrepid caver stands on the central ridge overlooking the cathedral-like Cloud Ladder Hall, where fog conceals the roof hundreds of metres above (right)

American speleologist Erin Lynch struggles to pull her way across a raging torrent of white water, which is the main river in Quankou DongAmerican speleologist Erin Lynch struggles to pull her way across a raging torrent of white water, which is the main river in Quankou Dong. One of the explorers said they had to be aware of high water levels inside the caves, especially when it rained heavily on the surface

‘It is always very special, knowing that you are the first to step foot into a cave or somewhere where nobody had previously seen, not knowing what you might find and discover.

‘Where else on Earth can still hold secrets and mysteries of discovery? That’s what I love so much about exploring.

Mr Shones was particularly excited about the cave network’s interior weather system.

The spectacular beddings in the roof of QuankouThe spectacular beddings in the roof of Quankou. Photographer and caver Robbie Shone, from Manchester, was part of a team of 15 explorers on a month-long expedition who stumbled across the natural wonder
The underground camp in Sang Wang Dong is cosy and warm, according to the caversThe underground camp in Sang Wang Dong is cosy and warm, according to the cavers. Hot food and drink recharge weary and tired explorers who sleep in either suspended hammocks or on roll mats on the floor, before venturing out into the vast surroundings
American speleologist Erin Lynch peers down over her shoulder into a giant void of cloudAmerican speleologist Erin Lynch peers down over her shoulder into a giant void of cloud.The floor is over 240m below and although it cant be seen due to the thick cloud that lingers around her, the echo that reverberates several seconds later reminds her of the volume of empty space and her lofty location

‘I had never seen anything quite like the inside cloud ladder before,’ he said.

‘Thick cloud and fogs hangs in the upper half of the cave, where it gets trapped and unable to escape through the small passage in the roof, 250m above the ground.

‘It reminded me of being in an abandoned slate quarrying North Wales in bad weather.

The cave system discovered is not the only one with clouds inside, as humidity rises inside the caverns into colder air to form clouds inside the giant, enclosed spaces.

Large stalagmites at the foot of a giant ascending ramp to another level of developmentLarge stalagmites at the foot of a giant ascending ramp to another level of development in San Wang Dong create a spectacle mid-way through a section of cave called Crusty Duvets
A giant calcite stalactite boss, dwarfs team member Matt Ryan as he looks up at the giant geological featureA giant calcite stalactite boss, dwarfs team member Matt Ryan as he looks up at the giant geological feature

The network, includes ‘Cloud Ladder Hall’ which itself  measures around 51,000 metres squared, while there are rivers and vegetation on the floor of some of its huge caverns.

‘Most caves are either accessed by large walking entrance, some require a long deep swim, other may be very vertical in nature where you need ropes to abseil down the walls deep into the caves.

‘We had to be aware of high water levels inside the caves, especially when it rained heavily on the surface.

‘The drainage catchment to these caves is massive and soon the caves can be extremely dangerous and impassable,’ he added.

One team member said it reminded him of being in an abandoned slate quarrying North Wales in bad weatherDuncan Collis and Erin Lynch walk through a section of cave in San Wang Dong called The Sea of Tranquility. Here remains of old Nitrate mining cover the floor in forms of harths – pits and unwanted spoil. One team member said it reminded him of being in an abandoned slate quarrying North Wales in bad weather
An explorer scales the rope up a vertical section of cave known as a pit in Xinu AtticAn explorer scales the rope up a vertical section of cave known as a pit in Xinu Attic
Crystal clear pools and slow moving streams make it easier to explore Quankou DongsCrystal clear pools and slow moving streams make it easier to explore Quankou Dongs main river passage in the huge network of caves that have not welcomed visitors in years

Read more:

Tagged ,

The Lake That Petrifies Life

mg21929360.100-1_1200ACCORDING to Dante, the Styx is not just a river but a vast, deathly swamp filling the entire fifth circle of hell. Perhaps the staff of New Scientist will see it when our time comes but, until then, Lake Natron in northern Tanzania does a pretty good job of illustrating Dante’s vision.

Unless you are an alkaline tilapia (Alcolapia alcalica) – an extremophile fish adapted to the harsh conditions – it is not the best place to live. Temperatures in the lake can reach 60 °C, and its alkalinity is between pH 9 and pH 10.5.

The lake takes its name from natron, a naturally occurring compound made mainly of sodium carbonate, with a bit of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) thrown in. Here, this has come from volcanic ash, accumulated from the Great Rift valley. Animals that become immersed in the water die and are calcified.

Photographer Nick Brandt, who has a long association with east Africa – he directed the video for Michael Jackson’s Earth Song there in 1995 – took a detour from his usual work when he discovered perfectly preserved birds and bats on the shoreline. “I could not help but photograph them,” he says. “No one knows for certain exactly how they die, but it appears that the extreme reflective nature of the lake’s surface confuses them, and like birds crashing into plate glass windows, they crash into the lake.”

When salt islands form in the lake, lesser flamingos take the opportunity to nest – but it is a risky business, as this calcified bird (top) illustrates. The animals are all arranged in poses by the photographer. Above, on the right we have a sea eagle and on the left a dove, in what is surely the most horrific depiction of the “bird of peace” since Picasso’s Guernica.

Brandt’s new collection of photos featuring animals in east Africa, Across the Ravaged Land, is published by Abrams Books.

This article appeared in print under the headline “The lake that petrifies” via New Scientist

Tagged , , ,

Honeybees and Wasps: Up Close

The photos of native bees and wasps taken at the U.S. Geological Survey Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab are used for scientific purposes, but they are created with an eye for artistry.

“I tell the interns and techs that when they are taking these pictures, they are artists,” lab chief Sam Droege said via email. “We have powwows over the pictures after they are taken to discuss lighting, positioning, and the perennial problems of bad bee hair and dirty specimens.”

Droege’s team at the lab develops survey techniques, runs statistics, and creates monitoring programs to determine whether bee populations are declining. “There are likely species of bee much more threatened than honeybees. For most species we really don’t have any idea what the population status is, but for the relatively well studied bumblebees, we know that some species have crashed to the degree that we can no longer find them and may now be extinct,” Droege said.

The photos they take of bee specimens, as well as the plants and insects with which the bees interact, are used in identification guides and posters, presentations, and printed material. Their photographic techniques, based on those developed by the Army’s Institute of Public Health, require a camera with a large sensor area and a macro lens. They take multiple shots and stitch them together to make one photograph that’s entirely in focus.


Chrysidid Wasp, Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Halictus ligatus, female, Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Xylocopa mordax, female, Dominican Republic, March 2012
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Augochloropsis metallica, female, Laurel, Md.
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

According to Droege, there are approximately 4,000 bee species north of Mexico. About 400 of them have not even been given a name yet—a fact, Droege said, that puts the study of bees about 100 years behind that of more commonly studied vertebrates like birds. Droege collects some of the specimens himself, but the majority come from national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. He posts the photos on Flickr for the sake of convenience and makes them available in the public domain.

When he started posting them, Droege said he had no idea that there would be so much interest in the photos outside of those who study them for a living or the occasional hobbyist. He suspects that giving online audiences an up-close view of the bees allows them to see the same beauty that scientists observe through their microscopes.

“Would one appreciate things like horses, cows, and the beasts of the African veld if they were the size of ants? Probably not,” Droege said. “But now everyone gets it. There is equal beauty and fantastical detail and color in these insects (many of which I literally just walk outside my house or lab and pick up) equal to those of what we bug heads call the charismatic megafauna [such as cheetahs or pandas]. Now we can finally demonstrate there is an equally charismatic microfauna, and you don’t have to go to Madagascar to find it.”

Bembix americana, Female, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Leptochilus acolhuus, Key Biscayne National Park, Fla.
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Augochlora regina, female, Dominican Republic, March 2012
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Augochlorella aurata, female, Boonesboro, Md. It’s one of the most common bees in eastern North America.
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Lasioglossum puteulanum, male, Oahu, Hawaii, March 2012
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Ceratina dupla, female, Kings County, N.Y.
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Article:  Jordan Teicher via  Slate

Tagged ,

Cybernetic Fields: Simon Stålenhag’s incredible ‘Swedish Sci-Fi Suburbia’ paintings

Gallery Photo:

By Dante D’Orazio via the Verge

Welcome to rural Sweden, sometime in the late ’80s. Citizens go about their mundane lives and children explore the countryside. But something isn’t quite right. Robots and hovercrafts are commonplace, and decaying science facilities sprout from the harsh Scandinavian landscape. There’s even a rumor circulating that dinosaurs have returned from the dead after some failed experiment.

This is the world that exists in artist Simon Stålenhag’s mind, and it’s only accessible through his paintings. The alternate universe he’s created is inspired by the sci-fi movies he watched as a kid growing up in the rural areas around Stockholm. As he explains to The Verge, “The only difference in the world of my art and our world is that … ever since the early 20th century, attitudes and budgets were much more in favor of science and technology.” So boxy Volvos, Volkswagens, and Mercedes share the landscape with robots. But science has lost some of its luster. In Sweden, a massive government science facility (equipped with an underground particle collider, of course) is long past its glory days in the field of “experimental physics.” Despite developments in robotics and “anti-grav” technology, the difficulties of the modern human experience haven’t changed.

The artwork is impactful as a result of this juxtaposition between the harsh realities of life and the sci-fi technologies of our dreams. It’s reminiscent of worlds like the one so effectively portrayed in games likeHalf-Life 2, and like such great video games, the universe created by the artist seems to continue well beyond the edge of the canvas.

Simon Stålenhag used a Wacom tablet and pen to digitally paint the works below. More of his work, including prints and shots of some of the paintings below in detail, are at his website. All images used with permission, and copyright Simon Stålenhag.

Tagged , ,

The Tricky Science of Color Perception

Jude Stewart via Design Observer

Color is infinitely shifty. It’s unstable in the presence of nearby colors. It’s vulnerable to tricks of the light. It acts like it’s moving when it’s not. It can act like it’s there when it’s not.

Put another way, color is subject to a thousand kinds of distortion as it travels from an object, through light, through your eye to your (acculturated) brain. Yet the tricky, interwined science and art of color perception still goes under-appreciated.

In my new book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, I take readers on an irresistible tour of color’s contradictory “faces”, meanings and moods. Color perception’s contingent nature falls in this category of surprise. Three indefatigably curious amateurs — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Josef Albers, and Joris-Karl Huysmans — paved the way for the more rigorous science of color perception that followed. This post offers a lightning tour of what surprises they reveal about color along the way.


Trifles like writing the blockbuster myth Faust and schooling Darwin in plant morphology paled — in Goethe’s eyes, anyway — to publishing his baby, Theory of Colors (Farbenlehre), in 1810. It culminated over 30 years of Goethe’s increasingly systematic experiments with the factors influencing color perception.

Book cover redesign of Goethe’s Farbenlehre by Daniel Kövesházi

Intended as a corrective to the science underpinning Newton’s Opticks (1704), Goethe imagined darkness not just as absence of light but as its own active force; the battle of Light vs. Dark supposedly threw off observable sparks of color. This wrongheaded conviction led the inventor of Weltliteratur and the Italian tour to spend weekends breathing on glass panes, prodding chocolate-froth bubbles, and flapping his arms in daylight, then jotting down how colors changed in each observation.

soap bubble by Ralph Hockens on Flickr

It’s not exaggerating to say the original Mister Wizard invented the field of color perception using stuff you can buy at Home Depot. Take the simplest-seeming of factors influencing color’s appearance, light sources. Goethe liked the blue shadows cast by candles and how yellow candlelight shifts blues towards looking green and reds toward looking orange. Like a bewigged Max Headroom, he loved how everything looked red after taking green spectacles off. He kept a supply of “confusedly-coiled” steel wire and scratched silver surfaces to learn more about catoptrical colors: how colorless light reveals many colors — mainly red and green — when reflected on an irregular surface.

The chilly nimbus of “snowy vapors”, iridescent fish dying under mountain-clear streams, brilliantly garbed servant-girls approaching at dusk — Goethe observed how all of these shifted his perception of color, in breathless combinations of found poetry and drily notated prose.


Goethe refracted his own Enlightenment-era values into his study of color perception. His tail-waggingly enthusiastic take on the subject was only suitable for publication as “science” before that field’s professionalization. Goethe was succeeded by more rigorous explorations in color perception by Michel Eugène Chevreul, Hermann von Helmholtz, and Albert Henry Munsell.

Even as science diverged into its own discipline in the late 1900s, humanists continued to dredge up surprises in color’s finicky nature. Take the 1884 novel À Rebours (Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans. This Decadent novel follows an exhausted duke who retreats from his excessive youth to contemplate finer points of aesthetics, especially the shifting nature of color. (À Rebours later became a darling of the 1960s countercultural revolution. Marianne Faithfull summed up its influence in her autobiography: “You would ask your date, ‘Do you know Genet? Have you read À Rebours?’ and if he said yes you’d fuck.”)

Penguin Classic edition of Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans, via Flickr

In one episode, the Duc des Esseintes tackles a classic decorating quandary: What accessory will offset a brilliantly colored rug? At first he releases a live tortoise to crawl over it, but is unsatisfied with the resulting color-contrast:

“Alas! There was no doubt, the negro-head hue, the raw sienna tone of the shell dimmed the sheen of the carpet instead of bringing out the tints; the dominant gleams of silver now barely showed, clashing with the cold tones of scraped zinc along this hard, dull carapace …”

Any sensible Dubai oil-magnate knows the solution: dip the tortoise in gold, encrust its shell with gemstones, and drown the hell out of the rug’s colors by expensive contrast. Over several pages, our hero le Duc turns up his nose at emeralds and rubies (too like the red-and-green headlights on Parisian omnibuses) and amethysts (too beloved by fat butchers’ wives). Instead, le Duc nails the perfect combination with costlier jewels with weirder color-effects: ouvarovite, Ceylon’s cat’s eyes, cymophanes, sapphirines.

Tortoise by Travis Juntara on Flickr

Opal from Quilpie, Queensland, Australia via

Elated with the effect for maybe ten seconds, le Duc leaves the tortoise struggling across the rug to celebrate over buttered toast and tea. He marvels at the spattered stars against the night sky; he mulls a tooth he once had extracted, he plays with his “mouth organ”, a complicated device mixing alcoholic confections in his mouth like musical tones on a piano. Pages into this twee-ing about, le Duc nudges the tortoise and abruptly realizes: the tortoise is dead. (Le Duc concludes, battily but poetically, that the tortoise was crushed not by the actual weight of his hood ornaments, but by the unaccustomed beauty of bearing this scintillating rainbow.)

What does le Duc’s tortoise teach us about color perception? Lots of things. Sapphires lose their flash under artificial light. Opals and hydrophanes only sparkle when wet. Royal in-breeding can make aesthetes downright squirrelly. But most critically: color isn’t lying to us, we’re lying to us. You can change any object’s color by playing around with the light, putting other colors next to it, or adding movement. But color perception is transformed most profoundly, at times, inside our skulls.


“Color deceives continually,” wrote painter and design professor Josef Albers, 150 years after Goethe and 80 years after Huysmans. Explaining this idea in his 1963 bookInteraction of Color, Albers asked us to imagine 3 pots of water of different temperatures: hot, lukewarm and cold.

Plunge your hands first in the hot and cold, and you’ll feel 2 temperatures, one on each hand. Then stick both hands in the lukewarm pot, and you’ll again feel 2 temperatures, the opposite of what you felt before. Your left hand will feel cold after the hot water, and the right hand hot after cold water, but neither will feel the water’s true temperature: lukewarm.

Just as our sense of touch deceives, wrote Albers, “so optical illusions deceive. They lead us to ‘see’ and ‘read’ other colors than those with which we are confronted physically.”

Spreads from Interaction of Color, now available in 50th anniversary edition (Josef Albers with Nicholas Fox Weber)

Armed with a sheaf of colored paper squares, Albers created a series of color studies that showed how colors change each other’s effects just by proximity. To cite just one example, it’s amazing how much the same color, at center below, morphs against the different-colored backgrounds. “The true color of the 2 central squares,” wrote Albers, “therefore becomes unrecognizable, as it loses its identity.” Like a credulous teenager, color bends under peer pressure.

Is color a physical property, “stuff” like pigments or paint? Is it trembling in the light, vibrating in our eyes, or pinging like a champion pinball between our hopelessly separated brains? We’ve almost pinned down answers to all of these questions. As color perception evolved into true science, we’ve studied color-blindness, synesthesia, and other optical effects that influence how color looks to each of us. But intrepid fellows like Goethe, Huysmans and Albers got us all asking big questions about color in the first place.

Tagged , , ,

The Amplituhedron: Newly Discovered Math Object Means Space & Time May Be An Illusion

The discovery of the amplituhedron, “a newly discovered mathematical object resembling a multifaceted jewel in higher dimensions,” means that space and time may be illusions.

Artist’s rendering of the amplituhedron, a newly discovered mathematical object resembling a multifaceted jewel in higher dimensions. Encoded in its volume are the most basic features of reality that can be calculated — the probabilities of outcomes of particle interactions.

Locality is the notion that particles can interact only from adjoining positions in space and time. And unitarity holds that the probabilities of all possible outcomes of a quantum mechanical interaction must add up to one. The concepts are the central pillars of quantum field theory in its original form, but in certain situations involving gravity, both break down, suggesting neither is a fundamental aspect of nature.

In keeping with this idea, the new geometric approach to particle interactions removes locality and unitarity from its starting assumptions. The amplituhedron is not built out of space-time and probabilities; these properties merely arise as consequences of the jewel’s geometry. The usual picture of space and time, and particles moving around in them, is a construct.

“It’s a better formulation that makes you think about everything in a completely different way,” said David Skinner, a theoretical physicist at Cambridge University.

The amplituhedron itself does not describe gravity. But Arkani-Hamed and his collaborators think there might be a related geometric object that does. Its properties would make it clear why particles appear to exist, and why they appear to move in three dimensions of space and to change over time.


Tagged , , , , , ,

UW Researcher controls colleague’s motions in 1st human brain-to-brain interface

University of Washington researchers have performed what they believe is the first noninvasive human-to-human brain interface, with one researcher able to send a brain signal via the Internet to control the hand motions of a fellow researcher.

A photo showing both sides of the demonstration.

Using electrical brain recordings and a form of magnetic stimulation, Rajesh Rao sent a brain signal to Andrea Stocco on the other side of the UW campus, causing Stocco’s finger to move on a keyboard.

While researchers at Duke University have demonstrated brain-to-brain communication between two rats, and Harvard researchers have demonstrated it between a human and a rat, Rao and Stocco believe this is the first demonstration of human-to-human brain interfacing.

“The Internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains,” ….“We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain.”

-Andrea Stacco

The researchers captured the full demonstration on video recorded in both labs. The following version has been edited for length. This video and high-resolution photos also are available on the research website. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: