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Friday, November 28, 2014

Imaginings of the Cosmos Through the Ages

English: Artist's conception of the spiral str...
English: Artist's conception of the spiral structure of the Milky Way with two major stellar arms and a central bar. "Using infrared images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, scientists have discovered that the Milky Way's elegant spiral structure is dominated by just two arms wrapping off the ends of a central bar of stars. Previously, our galaxy was thought to possess four major arms." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Exterior of the Chora Church in Istanbul, toda...
Exterior of the Chora Church in Istanbul, today a museum. It is famous for it Byzantine mosaics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Nicolaus Copernicus Monument in Kraków, by Pro...
Nicolaus Copernicus Monument in Kraków, by Professor Cyprian Godebski. Esperanto: Monumento pri Koperniko ĉe la Malnova Universitato de Krakovo. Polski: Pomnik Mikołaja Kopernika w Krakowie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Four elegantly cloaked gentlemen in idiosyncratic caps peer through what seems to be a porthole at distant Earth – a planet as spiky with spires as to look machine-made.

The tenor of the scene – the brilliant sun above, a pale crescent moon below the terrestrial sphere – suggests that these are the great astronomers of history, engaged in discussions about the design of the universe. They’re positioned, however, on a weedy slope, which raises a question: Where are they, exactly?

The picture comes from a 15th-century French translation of the 1240 work “De Proprietatibus Rerum” (“On the Properties of Things”), by one Bartholomeus Anglicus, among the earliest forerunners of the modern encyclopedia.

The image, by an anonymous artist, was revelatory: at once enigmatic and precise, a 600-year-old proto-science-fiction rendering of the cosmos. It is one of about 300 in my new book, “Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time,” a survey of many in about 4,000 years of attempts to represent the universe in graphic form, whether in manuscripts, paintings, prints or books, all the way up to 21st-century supercomputer simulations of galaxy groups in flux and sunspots in bloom.

In “Laniakea Supercluster,” for example, the astronomer R. Brent Tully uses a supercomputer to visualize gravitational flow lines knitting together an echoing expanse of space-time more than 500 million light-years in diameter. In this, the image was the discovery.

Perhaps the most extraordinary set of pictures depicting space-time’s origins dates from 1573. Discovered in the mid-20th century in an obscure notebook in the National Library of Spain, it was painted by the Portuguese artist and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student and lifelong friend of Michelangelo.

In one image, a set of elongated triangles represents the holy trinity, with the Greek letters alpha and omega on top and “Fiat Lux” (“let there be light “) just below. Swathed in flames, they extend down to a kind of clay vessel. The images are startlingly modern.

On another page, the Creator, belted by stars, has assumed a material form, centered on a single planet. It has become the multiple nested crystalline spheres that for more than 15 centuries were thought to carry the planets, the sun and moon on their courses, with Earth at their nucleus. This cosmological design was first proposed by Aristotle, and later modified and expanded by Ptolemy in the second century A.D.

Finally, de Holanda depicts a geometry of turning forms set in motion by God’s luminescent command. A giant sun pinions tiny Earth in a shadow-casting ray. This work contains a remarkable insight: Although the sun nominally rotates around Earth, in fact it dominates the picture, suggesting that the artist has grasped that it is the true center of our planetary system.

The image is one of several medieval and Renaissance depictions of cosmic design that seem to exhibit a kind of precognitive intuition of what Nicolaus Copernicus proposed in 1543 – the revolutionary notion of a heliocentric planetary system. (While de Holanda painted 30 years after Copernicus’s death, heliocentrism didn’t become accepted for at least another century, and it’s unlikely the artist meant to advocate it, if he even knew of it.)

We have had a gradually dawning, forever incomplete situational awareness about the cosmos and our place within it, rising across millenniums.

Among the narrative threads are the 18th-century visual meditations on the possible design of the Milky Way – including the work of the English astronomer Thomas Wright, who in 1750 reasoned his way to the flattened-disk form of our galaxy. Wright also conceived of another revolutionary concept: a multigalaxy cosmos.

We now have our contemporary understanding of space-time, in which whirling star-spirals glint all the way to the fading edge of the visible. But while the center doesn’t hold in this vision, neither does anarchy: We’re left with a spongiform universe of galaxy clusters foaming along weblike filaments of dark matter. It all looks rather like a visualization of the Internet.

So where will it all end? Maybe a 14th-century vision of weightlessness provides a clue: A fresco on the ceiling of the Chora Church in Istanbul depicts a human figure (evidently wearing a supernatural kind of space helmet). It has become known as “The Angel of the Lord Rolling Up the Scroll of Heaven at the End of Time.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, November 1, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Taking Ride On Air Remains Elusive

English: A Hoverboard (or hover board) is a fi...
English: A Hoverboard (or hover board) is a fictional hovering board used for personal transportation Français : Le Hoverboard est un skateboard volant du futur (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: I drew this diagram using xfig. It's ...
English: I drew this diagram using xfig. It's a crude schematic of how to assemble my next hoverboard prototype. I do not have a version posted online. I release this image into the public domain. -- WillWare 18:26, 18 July 2006 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

LOS GATOS, California – A lot of things can hover. There are helicopters. There are hovercraft. But for the last three decades, a generation of engineers and movie fans have been waiting for something else: a hovering skateboard like the one in “Back to the Future Part II.”

The hoverboard is fiction, the vision of screenwriters who created the film about Marty McFly, a teenager who travels from 1985 to 2015, and uses a floating skateboard to flee a gang of bullies.

Ever since, various garage tinkerers and physics professors – and more recently, top engineers at Google – have tried to replicate it.

In California, Greg and Jill Henderson allowed a reporter to stand atop a magnetic skateboard that can float a couple of centimeters above a copper surface. The Hendersons have poured their life savings into the technology and are hoping to create industries based on this science.

Dustin Rubio, 39, an electrician who grew up skateboarding and saw “back to the Future Part II” when he was a teenager, is not thinking quite that big. This year, Mr. Rubio turned “a leaf blower, some plywood, some plastic and duct tape” into a small hovercraft that his daughters used to glide down the driveway at his home in Napa, California. “I was like I’m just gonna make something funny and see if it works,” he said.

But Mr. Rubio’s invention is not really a hoverboard. Bob Gale, who wrote the “Back to the Future” trilogy, said that in his imagination the hoverboard floats on a magnetic field similar to magnetic levitation trains.

This has been extremely difficult, mostly because of Earnshaw’s theorem, which states, more or less, that repelling magnets are tough to balance. One way is to use a track to hold the magnetic skateboard in place.

Last year, Rich DeVaul, a senior engineer at Google X, the company’s research division, and Dan Piponi, a Google mathematician, got as far as a fingernail-size piece of carbon that could hover above a lattice of small magnets.

They remain confident they could have built a board, but are less confident they could have found a use for it. “We weren’t sure exactly what big problem we were solving except for this global lack of hoverboard skate,” Mr.DeVaul said.

It turns out Mr.Henderson was working on this very thing. In the back of his office, there is a copper halfpipe that may be the first hoverboard skate park.

Mr. Henderson became enamored of hover technology in 1989 after the Loma Prieta earthquake, thinking that if you could make buildings float, you could build cities to better withstand earthquakes.

Two years ago, he started his company, Arx Pax, hoping to develop magnetic technologies and license patents. The Hendo hoverboard is not yet for sale. But the Hendersons have started a campaign to raise $250,000 on Kickstarter, the crowd-funding site.

Mr. Gale said that when he and Robert Zemeckis wrote “Back to the Future II,” they envisioned a future of pedestrian-friendly downtowns ad flying skateboards.

Mr. Zemeckis told an interviewer that the technology was real, prompting an avalanche of letters from boys like Dave Mertes.

Mr. Mertes, now a 36-year-old clothing designer in Seattle, said he was crushed when it turned out that Mr. Zemeckis was joking. “I was like, oh, the director just said it was real. How can I get one?”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, November 1, 2014

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Mystery Solved

Pablo Picasso 1962
Pablo Picasso 1962 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I must say that this article is a year late, and even more than a year actually. But the insight to the creativity - or rather - method, of the artist, is known only just now, after decades. His style? Maybe. And maybe just one of his many styles. Whatever, let this be a new discovery - for the good.

Prints offer insight into Picasso’s creative process

SINGAPORE – We tend to think of Pablo Picasso as a painter. The Singapore Tyler Print Institute’s latest show hopes to expand that.

Coming from archives of his son, Claude, the works have never been exhibited in Asia before and each series of prints offers some insight into Picasso’s creative process. In The Bull, he successively re-worked an image of a bull, starting from a fairly naturalistic treatment and gradually reducing it to a collection of sinuous lines. Two Nude Women, on the other hand, also begins naturalistically, but presents a more additive take on the process of abstraction. If anything, for those less familiar with abstract art, it’s an eye-opening look at how artists can abstract their subject.

The photographs of David Douglas Duncan, a close friend of Picasso’s, continue the overall theme of finding different perspectives of the artist and offer us a candid look at the man behind the art.

It’s not unusual for an aura of mystery to build up around a figure as significant as him. But in a welcome breath of fresh air, this show offers us a rare look behind the scenes, at intriguing, intimate, and engaging perspective on the life and work of Pablo Picasso.


Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, June 29, 2013