Something beautiful for a Friday evening.

This has been one of those weeks where work has threatened to completely consume my last shed of sanity, and my daughter, who only recently started school, has been sick again. In other words, it has been a week where I have been occupied and preoccupied to the point of near-numbness, and as the weekend approaches, I have decided to take a moment to stop and remember that not all is stress and worry.

I admit to having more than a mere passing interest in the work of Spanish street artist Sam3. His work, which I’ve featured in this blog here and here, has an uncanny ability to tug at something almost visceral, and fill me with that ineffable sense of wonder that I’ve so often talked about here, and that at times like this is so sorely needed. I wish I was better at expressing what his art communicates to me, but I can say that it is certainly poetic, always thought-provoking, and unfailingly beautiful.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cosmological Matryoshkas!

I saw these last night on Open Parachute, and immediately went on a hunt to find out how to acquire them. The bad news, they are not for purchase, but the story behind them is sweet. They were made as a gift, by a man whose girlfriend was studying astronomy, the best “just because” gift I have ever seen.

Darwin’s Birds

Another Darwin Week (yes, now it’s a week) post.

(edited)

Correction:

These illustrations were not drawn by Darwin:

“The accompanying illustrations, which are fifty in number, were taken from sketches made by Mr. Gould himself, and executed on stone by Mrs. Gould, with that admirable success, which has attended all her works.”

Source: http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=side&itemID=F8.3&pageseq=3

My apologies! And thank you to Michael Barton for letting me know!

A while back, I wrote a post about Ernst Haeckel and his beautiful illustrations, and it is only fitting that now, during our celebration of Darwin week, that his illustrations be featured, as well. Although Darwin was not quite the artist that Haeckel was, his illustrations, especially the birds he drew in his The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1839) have always seemed very beautiful to me, and the care with which he illustrated them is reflected later, in the way that he elegantly explained his theories in his Origin of Species.

I found these images here, where you can find more of his birds, as well as many of his other illustrations and publications.

Happy Darwin Day!

Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin!

Happy Darwin Day, everyone!

A global celebration of science and reason.

Today more than ever, when anti-science has become a veritable movement in America (think anti-evolution, global warming denial, anti-vaccination), it is important that we commemorate the lives of the people, like Charles Darwin, who changed the course of our history through the use of reason and my expanding our scientific understanding of the world around us.

In our own celebration of Darwin Day, and of science and reason, my daughter and I are taking a trip to our local science museum. If you’re interested in commemorating this man’s birthday, you can go to the International Darwin Day Foundation and see if there are any activities in your area, and I’ve included this video to help us all celebrate. It’s a TED talk by Dennis Dutton where he discusses a Darwinian theory of beauty. Not only is it a fascinating topic, but its animated by Andrew Park, of RSA Animate.

Enjoy! And Happy Darwin Day!

Ladder to the Moon

Although last night’s moon was nearly full, as I sat outside looking at it and how beautifully big and bright it appeared in the cloudy Miami sky, I was reminded of this painting, my favorite by Georgia O’Keeffe, Ladder to the Moon. It’s one of her later works, painted in 1958 when she was seventy-one.

In her biography of O’Keeffe, Roxanna Robinson describes this work as somewhat of a self-portrait of the artist in her later years, highlighting the transitory nature of the stage of life she was at when she painted it. She writes,

The images are all of transition: the ladder itself implies passage from one level to another; the moon is cut neatly in half by the bold slicing light, halfway between full and new; and the evening sky is in flux, still pale along the line of the horizon, shading into deep azure night at the top of the canvas.

I first saw this painting in while in high school, and then, as now, it represented something quite different to me. The theme of transition, although clearly there, was not what the painting communicated to me. It seemed then, and even more so now, to be a work about the impossibility of our desires; a painting about longing. The ladder seems to reach towards the moon, but in the process loses its footing. It is neither grounded nor reaching its destination. Yet even within that acknowledgement of the impossible, there is still a powerful beauty in this painting, from the inky darkness of the mountains and the brightness of the distant quarter moon, the work reminds me that longing and beauty are not mutually exclusive.

This painting also calls to mind the same theme of longing that is present in Italo Calvino’s short story from Cosmicomics, “The Distance from the Moon” )and it’s not simply the image of the ladder and the moon that makes me connect the two). In Calvino’s story, the love triangle (or square?) formed between Mrs. Vhd Vhd, Qfwfq, the “Deaf One,” and, of course, the moon, sets the background of a story of unrequited and impossible love and loss. In fact, the more I look at it this painting now that I have Calvino’s narrative in mind, it seems almost like an epilogue; the moon now too far for the ladder to reach, but the desire, the love, the longing, remaining. In much the same way that the “Deaf One” loses the moon, Mrs. Vhd Vhd gains the moon but loses the “Deaf One,” and Qfwfq accepts that Mrs. Vhd Vhd will never be his, this painting of the floating ladder in the endless sky reinforces the idea that some things, despite how much we want them, will never be ours.

Despite the theme of longing and impossibility that I have always read into this painting, it has never struck me as a sad work. As I said above, there is a powerful and quiet beauty to this painting that reminds us that unattainability can still bring with it an appreciation of the possibilities that do remain. Like the Rolling Stones said, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you’ll get what you need.”

The Illustrations of Ernst Haeckel, the Romantic Biologist

A while back, in a post about beautiful book covers, I mentioned that one of the books that I have left sitting on my coffee table for a few months now, simply because of the joy that I derive from looking at it, is Robert J. Richard’s book on Ernst Haeckel (1834 -1919), The Tragic Sense of Life. There is just something about Haeckel’s illustration that was used as the cover image that seems somewhat “otherworldly,” and looks simply beautiful.

Haeckel was a German biologist, naturalist, artist, and a strong popularizer of Darwinian evolutionary theory. His Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (The Natural History of Creation, 1868) has even been described as “the chief source of the world’s knowledge of Darwinism”. Richards book describes both his intellectual and personal lives in a beautiful and extraordinarily well-researched narrative, and although perhaps a bit too forgiving of Haeckel, he does manage to portray him in a manner that does not allow you forget his humanity. He also underscores the fact that Haeckel was very much a man of his time; a Romanticist who was deeply influenced by Kant, Schiller, and Goethe, among others.

We can see this pretty clearly in the epigraph, by Goethe, that he selected for his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (1866), an intensely powerful  and important work written after the tragic loss of his wife, Anna, that “spewed fire and ash over the enemies of progress and radically altered the intellectual terrain in German biological science.”

There is in nature an eternal life, becoming, and movement. She alters herself eternally, and is never still. She has no conception of stasis; and can only curse it. She is strong, and her step is measured, her laws unalterable. She has thought and constantly reflects but not as a human being, but as nature. She appears to everyone in a particular form. She hides herself in a thousand names and terms, and is always the same.

His love of nature is also evident in this letter to his parents, which  Richards’ included in his biography. Reading it made me think of Werther’s countless raptures about gardens and Linden trees in Goethe’s book, and Wordsworth’s reverie of nature in his “Tintern Abbey” poem. In it Haeckel writes,

I can’t tell you what joy the pleasure of nature provides me, whether nature be smiling beautifully or overcast and gloomy. I feel that all my troubles, which I suffer from during the day, are immediately lifted from me. It is as if the place of God and of Nature, which I otherwise so vainly seek, suddenly entered my heart. What the consideration of world history and the general fate of men is for you, dear Father, the general and special contemplation of nature, perhaps even more so, is for me.

The book, like its subject, has met with controversy; the main criticism levied against it that it’s too much an apology of Haeckel (he has often been cited as being a progenitor of many of the ideas used during the Nazi regime). And despite the perhaps the too lenient attitude towards the scientist taken by Richards, the book, I thought, successfully painted a picture of a man led as much by his intellectual curiosity as by his emotions (certainly after the death of his wife).

Whether creative genius or historical villain (or something in between), however, there is something that cannot be taken away from Haeckel, and that is his ability to translate the beauty of science and the wonder of nature through his illustrations. Ironically enough, It was not his science, however, but his art that was ultimately his downfall. In an excellent review of Richards’ book, P.D. Smith writes that

He [Haeckel] cited an illustration juxtaposing three embryos (dog, chicken and turtle) as evidence for Darwin’s theory, claiming the three images were indistinguishable. Indeed they were. As one eagle-eyed reviewer noted, the same woodcut had been printed three times. The error was corrected in subsequent editions, but the charge of fraud stuck and haunted Haeckel for the rest of his life. It was, says Richards, a grave “error of judgment”, even a “moral failure”, although he clears him of “gross fraud”. This mistake unleashed a torrent of abuse directed at Haeckel…

Be that as it may, his illustrations stand today as a thing of true beauty. Here are a few of my favorites…


Ashford, Emerson and Galileo

Emerson's essay "Experience," through the eyes of Will Ashford

Gladly we would anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand. This onward trick of nature is too strong for us: Pero si muove. When, at night, I look at the moon and stars, I seem stationary, and they to hurry. Our love of the real draws us to permanence, but health of body consists in circulation, and sanity of mind in variety or facility of association.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience” (1844)

Above is an image from Will Ashford’s series “Recycled Words.” In explanation of his process he writes,

When I find a good candidate I explore every page. Like an archeologist I hunt for the words that speak to me with new meaning. Intuitively, one word at a time, they turn into a kind of haiku or philosophical poetry that I can call my own.

At some unpredictable point along the way, in my mind, the images start to invent themselves. Using colored vellums, graphite and or India ink to highlight or obscure my words; I create the image of that invention. Though I strive to make each document visually engaging I find it is the words that I value most.

Go here to see the rest of his work. I absolutely love the manner in he takes which what was already art  and recreates and redefines it, making it wholly his own.

As a complete aside, I’ll confess that one of the reasons that I was so drawn to this particular page of his body of work was because it contained the line “peru si muove,” or more commonly written as eppur si muove (“and yet it moves”). Despite the fact that the phrase is nearly grayed out in the final work, my eyes instantly found it. According to myth, this phrase was spoken by Galileo at some point after his trial by the Roman Inquisition, after having had to recant his heliocentric theory. The accounts vary, claiming he said it either at the trial itself, while under house arrest, or later on his death-bed. It may very well be the case that he didn’t even say it at all, but as with Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake,” it hardly matters.

I don’t know what it is about this particular phrase, but it has always, to me at least, represented a kind of both sadness and strength that I find difficult to put into words. On the one hand, it expresses a sadness about the state of the world and the ignorance of the masses. The earth does and will move, despite what everyone wants to believe. I suppose many scientists must still feel that way when faced with the blind ignorance of people who refuse to acknowledge basic scientific fact in favor of some unsubstantiated, and in many cases clearly refuted, belief system. It’s also the sadness that I feel when confronted with homophobia, racism, or any other kind of social injustice. Those ideas are driven by the same kind of ignorance that placed Galileo under house arrest so many centuries ago.

On the other hand, the phrase also symbolic of the resolve to continue to proportion one’s belief to the evidence, as Hume would say. Even more than that, it speaks to the strength to believe in something despite its unpopularity, or even the danger that one may bring to oneself by believing it. It invariably reminds me of the Scopes monkey trial, or Giordano Bruno at the stake; it also calls to mind those that risked their lives in the Underground Railroad, or during the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

I’ve often responded to the many conversations I’ve had with fundamentalists or bigots with a low “and yet it moves” muttered under my breath. Granted, they may have no idea what I’m talking about, but at times like that, what else is there to say?