Performativizing Papyrocentricity #41

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Touring the TowerPhysics in Minutes: 200 key concepts explained in an instant, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2014)

Living with Rainbows – Miller’s Field Guide: Glass, Judith Miller (Octopus 2015)

Men on the Margins – Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Chivers 2011)

Sward and SorceryWatership Down, Richard Adams (1972) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Obscene ScreenNecro-Sluts from Satan’s Anus: Fifty Filthy Fester-Films to F*** You Up, Freak You Out and Feralize Your Fetidest Fantasies, Dr Joan Jay Jefferson (TransToxic Texts* 2015)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

(*TransToxic Texts is an infra-imprint of TransVisceral Books.)

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Thalassobiblion

Ocean The Definitive Visual GuideOcean: The Definitive Visual Guide, introduction by Fabien Cousteau (Dorling Kindersley 2014)

A big book for a big subject: the sea. But “guide” isn’t the mot juste. “Encyclopaedia” is better, because the book covers all aspects of oceanography and marine life, drawing on physics, chemistry and biology to describe everything inorganic from waves and icebergs to whirlpools and underwater volcanoes, everything organic from a beautiful flower like beach morning-glory, Ipomoea imperati, to a grotesque fish like the Pacific blackdragon, Idiacanthus antrostomus. The flower is on the shore, the fish is in the abyss, but both of them descend from a single ancestor.

And that ancestor may have evolved in the sea. It certainly moved there before it gave rise to flowers and fish. This big subject is also a very important one: the sea is central to the evolution and continued existence of life on earth. Only the sun matters as much, but some marine life could potentially survive the disappearance of the sun:

Hydrothermal vents are similar to hot springs on land. Located near ocean ridges and rifts, at an average depth of 2,100m (7,000ft), they spew out mineral-rich, superheated seawater. Some have tall chimneys, formed from dissolved minerals that precipitate when the hot vent water meets cold, deep-ocean water. The mix of heat and chemicals supports animal communities around the vents – the first life known to exist entirely without the energy of sunlight. (pg. 188, “The Open Ocean and Ocean Floor”)

The deep ocean is a fascinating and little-known place: much nearer than the other side of the earth, but much harder to get to. Like climbing mountains, plumbing the abyss is difficult and dangerous. It’s interesting that both endeavours have been dominated by a particular group of human being: both the highest and lowest points on the planet were first reached by white males. Fabien Cousteau, who introduces this book, continues the tradition. He’s the grandson of Jacques Cousteau (1910-97), who popularized diving and marine biology for millions of people. Jacques saw huge advances in marine technology and science and his son and grandson have seen more. But the discoveries are still coming: as Fabien points out, it’s estimated that “over 90 per cent of the world’s biodiversity resides in its oceans”.

Discomedesae by Ernst Haeckel

Discomedusae by Ernst Haeckel

Some of that biodiversity left the water for the land and evolved new forms. Some of those new forms went back to the water, like the ceteceans and sea-snakes. Like human beings, they’re descended from fish, the most varied of all vertebrate groups. But some marine life never left its cradle. Where else can you find the beauty and strangeness of groups like the jellyfish? Radial symmetry is a marine speciality and when H.P. Lovecraft was inventing his aliens, he looked to under-space as much as outer:

But to give it a name at this stage was mere folly. It looked like a radiate, but was clearly something more. It was partly vegetable, but had three-fourths of the essentials of animal structure. That it was marine in origin, its symmetrical contour and certain other attributes clearly indicated; yet one could not be exact as to the limit of its later adaptations. The wings, after all, held a persistent suggestion of the aerial. How it could have undergone its tremendously complex evolution on a new-born earth in time to leave prints in Archaean rocks was so far beyond conception as to make Lake whimsically recall the primal myths about Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth life as a joke or mistake; and the wild tales of cosmic hill things from outside told by a folklorist colleague in Miskatonic’s English department. (At the Mountains of Madness, 1931)

Lovecraft would have enjoyed Ocean as much as Jacques Cousteau. It closes with a detailed “Atlas of the Oceans”, with maps of the ocean floor all around the world. Before that, you can learn how the Corryvreckan whirlpool nearly killed George Orwell in 1947, where to find manganese nodules, why so many deep-sea creatures are red and what the narwhale’s horn really is. You can also feast your eyes on photography that records everything from microscopic plankton to swirling hurricanes hundreds of kilometres across. Big subject, big book. Beautiful subject and beautiful book too.

Material Whirled

When we are conscious of being conscious, what are we consciousness-conscious with? If consciousness is a process in the brain, the process has become aware of itself, but how does it do so? And what purpose does consciousness-of-consciousness serve? Is it an artefact or an instrument? Is it an illusion? A sight or sound or smell is consciousness of a thing-in-itself, but that doesn’t apply here. We aren’t conscious of the thing-in-itself: the brain and its electro-chemistry. We’re conscious of the glitter on the swinging sword, but not the sword or the swing.

We can also be conscious of being conscious of being conscious, but beyond that my head begins to spin. Which brings me to an interesting reminder of how long the puzzle of consciousness has existed in its present form: how do we get from matter to mind? As far as I can see, science understands the material substrate of consciousness – the brain – in greater and greater detail, but is utterly unable to explain how objective matter becomes subjective consciousness. We have not moved an inch towards understanding how quanta become qualia since this was published in 1871:

Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, “How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?” The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable.

Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the “Why?” would remain as unanswerable as before. — John Tyndall, Fragments of Science (1871), viâ Rational Buddhism.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Double Bubble
The Brain in Pain
The Brain in Train
This Mortal Doyle

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #19

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Book in BlackBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

Critical Math – A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos (Penguin 1996)

Rude BoysRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

K-9 KonundrumDog, Peter Sotos (TransVisceral Books 2014)

Ghosts in the CathedralThe Neutrino Hunters: The Chase for the Ghost Particle and the Secrets of the Universe, Ray Jayawardhana (Oneworld 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Ghosts in the Cathedral

Front cover of The Neutrino Hunters by Ray JayawardhanaThe Neutrino Hunters: The Chase for the Ghost Particle and the Secrets of the Universe, Ray Jayawardhana (Oneworld 2013)

An easy read on a difficult topic: Ray Jayawardhana takes some complicated ideas and makes them a pleasure to absorb. Humans have only recently discovered neutrinos, but neutrinos have always known us from the inside:

…about a hundred trillion neutrinos produced in the nuclear furnace at the Sun’s core pass through your body every second of the day and night, yet they do no harm and leave no trace. During your entire lifetime, perhaps one neutrino will interact with an atom in your body. Neutrinos travel right through the Earth unhindered, like bullets cutting through a fog. (ch. 1, “The Hunt Heats Up”, pg. 9)

In a way, “ghost particle” is a misnomer: to neutrinos, we are the ghosts, because they pass through all solid matter almost as though it’s not there:

Neutrinos are elementary particles, just like electrons that buzz around atomic nuclei or quarks that combine to make protons and neutrons. They are fundamental building blocks of matter, but they don’t remain trapped inside atoms. Also unlike their subatomic cousins, neutrinos carry no electric charge, have a tiny mass and hardly ever interact with other particles. A typical neutrino can travel through a light-year’s worth of lead without interacting with any atoms. (ch. 1, pg. 7)

That’s a lot of lead, but a little of neutrino. With a different ratio – a lot less matter and a lot more neutrino – it’s possible to detect them on earth. Because so many are passing through the earth at any moment, a large piece of matter watched for long enough will eventually catch a ghost. So neutrino-hunters sink optical sensors into the transparent ice of the Antarctic and fill huge tanks with carbon tetrachloride or water. Then they wait:

Every once in a while, a solar neutrino would collide with an electron in the water and propel it forward, like a billiard ball that’s hit head-on. The fast-moving electron would create an electromagnetic “wake”, or cone of light, along its path. The resulting pale blue radiation is called “Cherenkov radiation”, after the Russian physicist Pavel Cherenkov, who investigated the phenomenon. Phototubes lining the inside walls of the tank would register each light flash and reveal an electron’s interaction with a neutrino. The Kamiokande provided two extra bits of information to researchers: from the direction of the light cone scientists would infer the direction of the incoming neutrino and from its intensity they could determine the neutrino’s energy. (ch. 4, “Sun Underground”, pg. 95)

That’s a description of a neutrino-hunt in “3,000 tons of pure water” in a mine “150 miles west of Tokyo”: big brains around the world are obsessed with the “little neutral one”. That’s what “neutrino” means in Italian, because the particle was named by the physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-54) after the original proposal, “neutron”, was taken over by another, and much bigger, particle with no electric charge. Fermi was one of the greatest physicists of all time and oversaw the first “controlled nuclear chain reaction” at the University of Chicago in 1942. That is, he helped build the first nuclear reactor. Like the sun, reactors are rich sources of neutrinos and because neutrinos pass easily through any form of shielding, a reactor can’t be hidden from a neutrino-detector. Nor can a supernova: one of the most interesting sections of the book discusses the way exploding stars flood the universe with a lot of light and a lot more neutrinos:

Alex Friedland of the Los Alamos National Laboratory explained that a supernova is in essence a “neutrino bomb”, since the explosion releases a truly staggering number – some 10^58, or ten billion trillion trillion trillion trillion – of these particles. … In fact, the energy emitted in the form of neutrinos within a few seconds is several hundred times what the Sun emits in the form of photons over its entire lifetime of nearly 10 billion years. What’s more, during the supernova explosion, 99 percent of the precursor star’s gravitational binding energy goes into the neutrinos of all flavors, while barely half a percent appears as visible light. (ch. 6, “Exploding Star”, pg. 125)

That light is remarkably bright, but it can be blocked by interstellar dust. The neutrinos can’t, so they’re a way to detect supernovae that are otherwise invisible. However, Supernova 1987A was highly visible: a lot of photons were captured by a lot of telescopes when it flared in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Nearly four hours before that, a few neutrino-detectors had captured far fewer neutrinos:

Detecting a grand total of two dozen particles may not sound like much to crow about. But the significance of these two dozen neutrino events is underlined by the fact that they have been the subject of hundreds of scientific papers over the years. Supernova 1987A was the first time that we had observed neutrinos coming from an astronomical source other than the Sun. (ch. 6, pg. 124)

The timing of the two dozen was very important: it came before the visible explosion and “meant that astrophysicists like Bahcall and his colleagues were right about what happened during a supernova explosion” (pg. 123). That’s John Bahcall (1931-2005), an American who wanted to be a rabbi but ended up a physicist after taking a science course during his philosophy degree at Berkeley. He had predicted how many solar neutrinos his colleague Raymond Davis (1914-2006) should detect interacting with atoms in a giant tank of “dry-cleaning fluid”, as carbon tetrachloride is also known. But Davis found “only a third as many as Bahcall’s model calculation predicted” (ch. 4, pg. 90). Was Davis missing some? Was Bahcall’s model wrong? The answer would take decades to arrive, as Davis refined his apparatus and Bahcall re-checked his calculations. This book is about several kinds of interaction: between neutrinos and atoms, between theory and experiment, between mathematics and matter. Neutrinos were predicted with maths before they were detected in matter. The Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-58) produced the prediction; Davis and others did the detecting.

The Super-Kamiokande neutrino-cathedral

The Super-Kamiokande neutrino-cathedral (click for larger image)

Pauli was famously witty; another big brain in the book, the Englishman Paul Dirac (1902-84), was famously taciturn. Big brains are often strange ones too. That’s part of why they’re attracted to the very strange world of atomic physics. Jayawardhana also discusses the Italian physicist Ettore Majorana (1906-?1938), who disappeared at the age of thirty-two, and his colleague Bruno Pontecorvo (1913-93), who defected to the Soviet Union. Neutrinos are fascinating and so are the humans who have hunted for them. So is the history that surrounded them. Quantum physics was convulsing science at the same time as communism and Nazism were convulsing Europe. As the Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) said: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” Modern physicists have been called a new priesthood, devoted to lofty and remote ideas incomprehensible and irrelevant to ordinary people. But ordinary people fund the devices the priests build to pursue their ideas with. And some of the neutrino-detectors pictured here are as huge and awe-inspiring as cathedrals. Some might say they’re as futile as cathedrals too. But if understanding the universe isn’t enough in itself, there may be practical uses for neutrinos on the way. At present, we have to communicate over the earth’s surface; a beam of neutrinos can travel right through the earth.

The universe is also a dangerous place: some scientists theorized that the neutrino deficit in Ray Davis’s experiments meant the sun was about to go nova. It wasn’t, but neutrinos may help the human race spot other dangers and exploit new opportunities. We still know only a fraction of what’s out there and the ghost particle is a messenger from the heart not only of supernovae and the sun, but also of the earth itself. There’s radioactivity deep in the earth, so there are neutrinos streaming upward. As methods of detecting them get better, we’ll understand the interior of the earth better. But Jayawardhana doesn’t discuss another possibility: that we might even discover advanced life down there, living under huge pressures at very high temperatures, as Arthur C. Clarke suggested in his short-story “The Fires Within” (1949).

Clarke also suggested that life could exist inside the sun. There’s presently no way of testing his ideas, but neutrinos may carry even more secrets than standard science has guessed. Either way, I think Clarke would have enjoyed this book and perhaps Jayawardhana, who’s of Sri Lankan origin, was influenced by him. Jayawardhana’s writing certainly reminds me of Clarke’s writing. It’s clear, enthusiastic and a pleasure to read, wearing its learning lightly and carrying you easily over vast stretches of space and time. The Neutrino Hunters is an excellent introduction to the hunters, the hunted and the history, with a good glossary and index too.


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Think Ink – Review of 50 Quantum Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know

Think Ink

Front cover of 50 Quantum Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know by Joanne Baker50 Quantum Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know, Joanne Baker (Quercus 2013)

A very good introduction to a very difficult subject. A very superficial introduction too, because it doesn’t use proper mathematics. If it did, I’d be lost: like most people’s, my maths is far too weak for me to understand quantum physics. Here’s one of the side-quotes that help make this book such an interesting read: “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.”

That’s by the Jewish-Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962). It applies to quantum physics in general. Without the full maths, you’re peering through a frost-covered window into a sweetshop, you’re not inside sampling the wares. But even without the full maths, the concepts and ideas in this book are still difficult and challenging, from the early puzzles thrown up by the ultra-violet catastrophe to the ingenious experiments that have proved particle-wave duality and action at a distance.

But there’s a paradox here.

Continue reading: Think Ink

Stories and Stars

A story is stranger than a star. Stronger too. What do I mean? I mean that the story has more secrets than a star and holds its secrets more tightly. A full scientific description of a star is easier than a full scientific description of a story. Stars are much more primitive, much closer to the fundamentals of the universe. They’re huge and impressive, but they’re relatively simple things: giant spheres of flaming gas. Mathematically speaking, they’re more compressible: you have to put fewer numbers into fewer formulae to model their behaviour. A universe with just stars in it isn’t very complex, as you would expect from the evolution of our own universe. There were stars in it long before there were stories.

A universe with stories in it, by contrast, is definitely complex. This is because stories depend on language and language is the scientific mother-lode, the most difficult and important problem of all. Or rather, the human brain is. The human brain understands a lot about stars, despite their distance, but relatively little about itself, despite brains being right on the spot. Consciousness is a tough nut to crack, for example. Perhaps it’s uncrackable. Language looks easier, but linguistics is still more like stamp-collecting than science. We can describe the structure of language in detail – use labels like “pluperfect subjunctive”, “synecdoche”, “bilabial fricative” and so on – but we don’t know how that structure is instantiated in the brain or where language came from. How did it evolve? How is it coded in the human genome? How does meaning get into and out of sounds and shapes, into and out of speech and writing? These are big, important and very interesting questions, but we’ve barely begun to answer them.

Distribution of dental fricatives and the O blood-group in Europe (from David Crystal's )

Distribution of dental fricatives and the O blood-group in Europe (from David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language)

But certain things seem clear already. Language-genes must differ in important ways between different groups, influencing their linguistic skills and their preferences in phonetics and grammar. For example, there are some interesting correlations between blood-groups and use of dental fricatives in Europe. The invention of writing has exerted evolutionary pressures in Europe and Asia in ways it hasn’t in Africa, Australasia and the Americas. Glossogenetics, or the study of language and genes, will find important differences between races and within them, running parallel with differences in psychology and physiology. Language is a human universal, but that doesn’t mean one set of identical genes underlies the linguistic behaviour of all human groups. Skin, bones and blood are human universals too, but they differ between groups for genetic reasons.

Understanding the evolution and effects of these genetic differences is ultimately a mathematical exercise, and understanding language will be too. So will understanding the brain. For one thing, the brain must, at bottom, be a maths-engine or math-engine: a mechanism receiving, processing and sending information according to rules. But that’s a bit like saying fish are wet. Fish can’t escape water and human beings can’t escape mathematics. Nothing can: to exist is to stand in relation to other entities, to influence and be influenced by them, and mathematics is about that inter-play of entities. Or rather, that inter-play is Mathematics, with a big “M”, and nothing escapes it. Human beings have invented a way of modelling that fundamental micro- and macroscopic inter-play, which is mathematics with a small “m”. When they use this model, human beings can make mistakes. But when they do go wrong, they can do so in ways detectable to other human beings using the same model:

In 1853 William Shanks published his calculations of π to 707 decimal places. He used the same formula as [John] Machin and calculated in the process several logarithms to 137 decimal places, and the exact value of 2^721. A Victorian commentator asserted: “These tremendous stretches of calculation… prove more than the capacity of this or that computer for labor and accuracy; they show that there is in the community an increase in skill and courage…”

Augustus de Morgan thought he saw something else in Shanks’s labours. The digit 7 appeared suspiciously less often than the other digits, only 44 times against an average expected frequency of 61 for each digit. De Morgan calculated that the odds against such a low frequency were 45 to 1. De Morgan, or rather William Shanks, was wrong. In 1945, using a desk calculator, Ferguson found that Shanks had made an error; his calculation was wrong from place 528 onwards. Shanks, fortunately, was long dead. (The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, 1986, David Wells, entry for π, pg. 51)

Unlike theology or politics, mathematics is not merely self-correcting, but multiply so: there are different routes to the same truths and different ways of testing a result. Science too is self-correcting and can test its results by different means, partly because science is a mathematical activity and partly because it is studying a mathematical artifact: the gigantic structure of space, matter and energy known as the Universe. Some scientists and philosophers have puzzled over what the physicist Eugene Wigner (1902-95) called “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”. In his essay on the topic, Wigner tried to make two points:

The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it. Second, it is just this uncanny usefulness of mathematical concepts that raises the question of the uniqueness of our physical theories. (Op. cit., in Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. I, February 1960)

I disagree with Wigner: it is not mysterious or uncanny and there is a rational explanation for it. The “effectiveness” of small-m maths for scientists is just as reasonable as the effectiveness of fins for fish or of wings for birds. The sea is water and the sky is air. The universe contains both sea and sky: and the universe is maths. Fins and wings are mechanisms that allow fish and birds to operate effectively in their water- and air-filled environments. Maths is a mechanism that allows scientists to operate effectively in their maths-filled environment. Scientists have, in a sense, evolved towards using maths just as fish and birds have evolved towards using fins and wings. Men have always used language to model the universe, but language is not “unreasonably effective” for understanding the universe. It isn’t effective at all.

It is effective, however, in manipulating and controlling other human beings, which explains its importance in politics and theology. In politics, language is used to manipulate; in science, language is used to explain. That is why mathematics is so important in science and so carefully avoided in politics. And in certain academic disciplines. But the paradox is that physics is much more intellectually demanding than, say, literary theory because the raw stuff of physics is actually much simpler than literature. To understand the paradox, imagine that two kinds of boulder are strewn on a plain. One kind is huge and made of black granite. The other kind is relatively small and made of chalk. Two tribes of academic live on the plain, one devoted to studying the black granite boulders, the other devoted to studying the chalk boulders.

The granite academics, being unable to lift or cut into their boulders, will have no need of physical strength or tool-making ability. Instead, they will justify their existence by sitting on their boulders and telling stories about them or describing their bumps and contours in minute detail. The chalk academics, by contrast, will be lifting and cutting into their boulders and will know far more about them. So the chalk academics will need physical strength and tool-making ability. In other words, physics, being inherently simpler than literature, is within the grasp of a sufficiently powerful human intellect in a way literature is not. Appreciating literature depends on intuition rather than intellect. And so strong intellects are able to lift and cut into the problems of physics as they aren’t able to lift and cut into the problems of literature, because the problems of literature depend on consciousness and on the hugely complex mechanisms of language, society and psychology.

Intuition is extremely powerful, but isn’t under conscious control like intellect and isn’t transparent to consciousness in the same way. In the fullest sense, it includes the senses, but who can control his own vision and hearing or understand how they turn the raw stuff of the sense-organs into the magic tapestry of conscious experience? Flickering nerve impulses create a world of sight, sound, scent, taste and touch and human beings are able to turn that world into the symbols of language, then extract it again from the symbols. This linguifaction is a far more complex process than the ignifaction that drives a star. At present it’s beyond the grasp of our intellects, so the people who study it don’t need and don’t build intellectual muscle in the way that physicists do.

Or one could say that literature is at a higher level of physics. In theory, it is ultimately and entirely reducible to physics, but the mathematics governing its emergence from physics are complex and not well-understood. It’s like the difference between a caterpillar and a butterfly. They are two aspects of one creature, but it’s difficult to understand how one becomes the other, as a caterpillar dissolves into chemical soup inside a chrysalis and turns into something entirely different in appearance and behaviour. Modelling the behaviour of a caterpillar is simpler than modelling the behaviour of a butterfly. A caterpillar’s brain has less to cope with than a butterfly’s. Caterpillars crawl and butterflies fly. Caterpillars eat and butterflies mate. And so on.

Stars can be compared to caterpillars, stories to butterflies. It’s easier to explain stars than to explain stories. And one of the things we don’t understand about stories is how we understand stories.

2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2:2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 2:3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 2:5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 2:6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. 2:7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. 2:8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. 2:9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 2:10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 2:11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. – From The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

The Joy of Six

Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes, Kenneth Libbrecht (2006)

If you ask someone to draw up a list of inventions that have shaped the modern world, it’s likely that a very important one will get overlooked: the microscope. But where would medicine, science and technology be without it? It opened a door in the cellar of the universe just as the telescope opened a door in the attic. We stepped through each door into a new world of beauty and strangeness. The difference is that, so far, only one of these new worlds has proved to be inhabited: the microscopic one. But snowflakes remind you that the microcosmos can interest physicists and mathematicians as well as biologists and doctors. It should interest artists and aestheticians too: this book will delight the eye as well as challenge and enrich the mind. Snowflakes are among the most beautiful of all natural objects, reminiscent now of ice-stars, now of crystalline trees, now of stained glass, now of surreal swords. Their symmetry is part of their appeal, but I think it’s also important that their symmetry is never complete: snowflakes partake both of mathematical perfection and of biological imperfection. They’re individual not just because no two are identical but because no two arms of a single snowflake are identical either.

Cover of Ken Lebbrecht's Field Guide to Snowflakes

But any two arms can still be very similar, which is an astonishing fact when you consider that they’re laid down blindly by a purely chemico-physical process. How does one arm know what the others are doing? Well, it doesn’t: it’s subject to the same fluctuations of the same environment. As air-currents move a snow-crystal inside a cloud, the temperature and moisture of the air change constantly and so do the crystal’s patterns of growth: “…since no two snowflakes follow exactly the same path, no two are exactly alike.” But snowflakes can be much more unalike than the uninitiated might guess. Some aren’t actually stars, but bullets, needles, columns and “arrowhead twins”. There are also snowflakes with twelve rather than six arms, and snowflakes large enough to have arms on their arms on their arms on their arms. Kenneth Libbrecht, a professor of physics at Caltech, examines all this and more in a book that should appeal to every age, every level of intelligence, and every level of interest in science. You don’t have to read the text that accompanies the beautiful photographs, but if you do you’ll find your appreciation of the photos deepened and enriched.

Either way, spare a thought for the book’s co-author: the humble but hugely powerful microscope. Unlike bacteria and protozoa, snowflakes were known and admired long before the microscope was invented, but they were never known then in their full beauty and wonder. And you don’t have to confine yourself to books like this to experience that for yourself: Libbrecht has a section on “Observing Snowflakes” that demonstrates once again how some of the best things in life are free, or nearly free. For the price of a simple hand-lens you can find new beauty in winter; with a microscope, you can find even more.