Become a Patron!
The Circular Logic of the Universe
CIRCLING my way not long ago through the Vasily Kandinsky show now on display in the suitably spiral setting of the Guggenheim Museum, I came to one of the Russian master’s most illustrious, if misleadingly named, paintings: “Several Circles.”
Those “several” circles, I saw, were more like three dozen, and every one of them seemed to be rising from the canvas, buoyed by the shrewdly exuberant juxtapositioning of their different colors, sizes and apparent translucencies. I learned that, at around the time Kandinsky painted the work, in 1926, he had begun collecting scientific encyclopedias and journals; and as I stared at the canvas, a big, stupid smile plastered on my face, I thought of yeast cells budding, or a haloed blue sun and its candied satellite crew, or life itself escaping the careless primordial stew.
I also learned of Kandinsky’s growing love affair with the circle. The circle, he wrote, is “the most modest form, but asserts itself unconditionally.” It is “simultaneously stable and unstable,” “loud and soft,” “a single tension that carries countless tensions within it.” Kandinsky loved the circle so much that it finally supplanted in his visual imagination the primacy long claimed by an emblem of his Russian boyhood, the horse.
Quirkily enough, the artist’s life followed a circular form: He was born in December 1866, and he died the same month in 1944. This being December, I’d like to honor Kandinsky through his favorite geometry, by celebrating the circle and giving a cheer for the sphere. Life as we know it must be lived in the round, and the natural world abounds in circular objects at every scale we can scan. Let a heavenly body get big enough for gravity to weigh in, and you will have yourself a ball. Stars are giant, usually symmetrical balls of radiant gas, while the definition of both a planet like Jupiter and a plutoid like Pluto is a celestial object orbiting a star that is itself massive enough to be largely round.
On a more down-to-earth level, eyeballs live up to their name by being as round as marbles, and, like Jonathan Swift’s ditty about fleas upon fleas, those soulful orbs are inscribed with circular irises that in turn are pierced by circular pupils. Or think of the curved human breast and its bull’s-eye areola and nipple.
Our eggs and those of many other species are not egg-shaped at all but spherical, and when you see human eggs under a microscope they look like tranquil suns with Kandinsky coronas behind them. Raindrops start life in the clouds not with the pear-shaped contours of a cartoon teardrop, but as liquid globes, aggregates of water molecules that have condensed around specks of dust or salt and then mutually clung themselves into the rounded path of least resistance. Only as the raindrops fall do they lose their symmetry, their bottoms often flattening out while their tops stay rounded, a shape some have likened to a hamburger bun.
Sometimes roundness is purely a matter of physics. “The shape of any object represents the balance of two opposing forces,” explained Larry S. Liebovitch of the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences at Florida Atlantic University. “You get things that are round when those forces are isotropic, that is, felt equally in all directions.”
In a star, gravity is pulling the mass of gas inward toward a central point, while pressure is pushing the gas outward, and the two competing forces reach a dynamic détente — “simultaneously stable and unstable,” you might say — in the form of a sphere. For a planet like Earth, gravity tugs the mostly molten rock in toward the core, but the rocks and their hostile electrons push back with equal vehemence. Plutoids are also sufficiently massive for gravity to overcome the stubbornness of rock and smooth out their personal lumps, although they may not be the gravitationally dominant bodies in their neighborhood
In precipitating clouds, water droplets are exceptionally sticky, as the lightly positive end of one water molecule seeks the lightly negative end of another. But, again, mutually hostile electrons put a limit on molecular intimacy, and the compromise conformation is shaped like a ball. “A sphere is the most compact way for an object to form itself,” said Denis Dutton, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
A sphere is also tough. For a given surface area, it’s stronger than virtually any other shape. If you want to make a secure container using the least amount of material, Dr. Liebovitch said, make that container round. “That’s why, when you cook a frankfurter, it always splits in the long direction,” he said, rather than along its circumference. The curved part has the tensile strength of a sphere, the long axis that of a rectangle: no contest.
A Lost European Culture, Pulled From Obscurity
Before the glory that was Greece and Rome, even before the first cities of Mesopotamia or temples along the Nile, there lived in the Lower Danube Valley and the Balkan foothills people who were ahead of their time in art, technology and long-distance trade.
Rumyana Kostadinova Ivanova and Marius Amarie
LIVING SPACE Artifacts from the Lower Danube Valley and the Balkan foothills are presented in an exhibition, “The Lost World of Old Europe,” at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.
WOMEN IN SOCIETY A fired clay Cucuteni figurine, from 4050-3900 B.C.
For 1,500 years, starting earlier than 5000 B.C., they farmed and built sizable towns, a few with as many as 2,000 dwellings. They mastered large-scale copper smelting, the new technology of the age. Their graves held an impressive array of exquisite headdresses and necklaces and, in one cemetery, the earliest major assemblage of gold artifacts to be found anywhere in the world.
The striking designs of their pottery speak of the refinement of the culture’s visual language. Until recent discoveries, the most intriguing artifacts were the ubiquitous terracotta “goddess” figurines, originally interpreted as evidence of the spiritual and political power of women in society.
New research, archaeologists and historians say, has broadened understanding of this long overlooked culture, which seemed to have approached the threshold of “civilization” status. Writing had yet to be invented, and so no one knows what the people called themselves. To some scholars, the people and the region are simply Old Europe.
The little-known culture is being rescued from obscurity in an exhibition, “The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C.,” which opened last month at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. More than 250 artifacts from museums in Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania are on display for the first time in the United States. The show will run through April 25.
At its peak, around 4500 B.C., said David W. Anthony, the exhibition’s guest curator, “Old Europe was among the most sophisticated and technologically advanced places in the world” and was developing “many of the political, technological and ideological signs of civilization.”
Dr. Anthony is a professor of anthropology at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., and author of “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.” Historians suggest that the arrival in southeastern Europe of people from the steppes may have contributed to the collapse of the Old Europe culture by 3500 B.C.
At the exhibition preview, Roger S. Bagnall, director of the institute, confessed that until now “a great many archaeologists had not heard of these Old Europe cultures.” Admiring the colorful ceramics, Dr. Bagnall, a specialist in Egyptian archaeology, remarked that at the time “Egyptians were certainly not making pottery like this.”
A show catalog, published by Princeton University Press, is the first compendium in English of research on Old Europe discoveries. The book, edited by Dr. Anthony, with Jennifer Y. Chi, the institute’s associate director for exhibitions, includes essays by experts from Britain, France, Germany, the United States and the countries where the culture existed.
Dr. Chi said the exhibition reflected the institute’s interest in studying the relationships of well-known cultures and the “underappreciated ones.”
Although excavations over the last century uncovered traces of ancient settlements and the goddess figurines, it was not until local archaeologists in 1972 discovered a large fifth-millennium B.C. cemetery at Varna, Bulgaria, that they began to suspect these were not poor people living in unstructured egalitarian societies. Even then, confined in cold war isolation behind the Iron Curtain, Bulgarians and Romanians were unable to spread their knowledge to the West.
The story now emerging is of pioneer farmers after about 6200 B.C. moving north into Old Europe from Greece and Macedonia, bringing wheat and barley seeds and domesticated cattle and sheep. They established colonies along the Black Sea and in the river plains and hills, and these evolved into related but somewhat distinct cultures, archaeologists have learned. The settlements maintained close contact through networks of trade in copper and gold and also shared patterns of ceramics.
The Spondylus shell from the Aegean Sea was a special item of trade. Perhaps the shells, used in pendants and bracelets, were symbols of their Aegean ancestors. Other scholars view such long-distance acquisitions as being motivated in part by ideology in which goods are not commodities in the modern sense but rather “valuables,” symbols of status and recognition.
Noting the diffusion of these shells at this time, Michel Louis Seferiades, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, suspects “the objects were part of a halo of mysteries, an ensemble of beliefs and myths.”
MOMA Brings Tim Burton’s Outsider Art In
What will five months of feting by MOMAdo to Tim Burton‘s perversely blockbusting outsider art? Probably nothing. Intensely devoted to a scissorhandful of pop-surrealist obsessions, Burton has, with few exceptions, been making the same semi-autobiographical film for almost 30 years: Misunderstood loner waves his freak flag in wonderland. And so it should remain after the museum finishes exhibiting 17 of his features and shorts (through the end of the year), along with hundreds of little-seen artworks (through April 26) that—dating from his ’60s and ’70s childhood to the present—reveal admirably little in the way of range.
Water Found on Moon, Researchers Say
There is water on the Moon, scientists stated unequivocally on Friday.
Get Science News From The New York Times »
“Indeed yes, we found water,” Anthony Colaprete, the principal investigator for NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, said in a news conference. “And we didn’t find just a little bit. We found a significant amount.”
The confirmation of scientists’ suspicions is welcome news to explorers who might set up home on the lunar surface and to scientists who hope that the water, in the form of ice accumulated over billions of years, holds a record of the solar system’s history.
The satellite, known as Lcross (pronounced L-cross), crashed into a crater near the Moon’s south pole a month ago. The 5,600-miles-per-hour impact carved out a hole 60 to 100 feet wide and kicked up at least 26 gallons of water.
“We got more than just a whiff,” Peter H. Schultz, a professor of geological sciences atBrown University and a co-investigator of the mission, said in a telephone interview. “We practically tasted it with the impact.”
For more than a decade, planetary scientists have seen tantalizing hints of water ice at the bottom of these cold craters where the sun never shines. The Lcross mission, intended to look for water, was made up of two pieces — an empty rocket stage to slam into the floor of Cabeus, a crater 60 miles wide and 2 miles deep, and a small spacecraft to measure what was kicked up.
For space enthusiasts who stayed up, or woke up early, to watch the impact on Oct. 9, the event was anticlimactic, even disappointing, as they failed to see the anticipated debris plume. Even some high-powered telescopes on Earth like the Palomar Observatory in California did not see anything.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration later said that Lcross did indeed photograph a plume but that the live video stream was not properly attuned to pick out the details.
The water findings came through an analysis of the slight shifts in color after the impact, showing telltale signs of water molecules that had absorbed specific wavelengths of light. “We got good fits,” Dr. Colaprete said. “It was a unique fit.”
The scientists also saw colors of ultraviolet light associated with molecules of hydroxyl, consisting of one hydrogen and one oxygen, presumably water molecules that had been broken apart by the impact and then glowed like neon signs.
In addition, there were squiggles in the data that indicated other molecules, possibly carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, methane or more complex carbon-based molecules. “All of those are possibilities,” Dr. Colaprete said, “but we really need to do the work to see which ones work best.”
Remaining in perpetual darkness like other craters near the lunar poles, the bottom of Cabeus is a frigid minus 365 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough that anything at the bottom of such craters never leaves. These craters are “really like the dusty attic of the solar system,” said Michael Wargo, the chief lunar scientist at NASA headquarters.
The Moon was once thought to be dry. Then came hints of ice in the polar craters. In September, scientists reported an unexpected finding that most of the surface, not just the polar regions, might be covered with a thin veneer of water.
The Lcross scientists said it was not clear how all the different readings of water related to one another, if at all.
The deposits in the lunar craters may be as informative about the Moon as ice cores from Earth’s polar regions are about the planet’s past climates. Scientists want to know the source and history of whatever water they find. It could have come from the impacts of comets, for instance, or from within the Moon.
“Now that we know that water is there, thanks to Lcross, we can begin in earnest to go to this next set of questions,” said Gregory T. Delory of the University of California, Berkeley.
Dr. Delory said the findings of Lcross and other spacecraft were “painting a really surprising new picture of the Moon; rather than a dead and unchanging world, it could be in fact a very dynamic and interesting one.”
Lunar ice, if bountiful, not only gives future settlers something to drink, but could also be broken apart into oxygen and hydrogen. Both are valuable as rocket fuel, and the oxygen would also give astronauts air to breathe.
NASA’s current exploration plans call for a return of astronauts to the Moon by 2020, for the first visit since 1972. But a panel appointed in May recently concluded that trimmings of the agency’s budget made that goal impossible. One option presented to the Obama administration was to bypass Moon landings for now and focus on long-duration missions in deep space.
Even though the signs of water were clear and definitive, the Moon is far from wet. The Cabeus soil could still turn out to be drier than that in deserts on Earth. But Dr. Colaprete also said that he expected that the 26 gallons were a lower limit and that it was too early to estimate the concentration of water in the soil.
Peter Gabriel to Release Orchestral Covers Album
If you think of the ‘80s as an era of too much Aqua Net and metrosexual bands who wore puffy pirate shirts, you’d only be half right. One of the decade’s bright spots was the former frontman of Genesis, Peter Gabriel, who had several MTV art-house video hits with songs like “Sledgehammer” and “Shock the Monkey.” For his first release in seven years, Gabriel recorded with composer John Metcalfe, producer Bob Erzin (Lou Reed, Pink Floyd), at George Martin’s Air Lyndhurst studios in London, in the kind of grandiose undertaking we’d expect from the uncompromising musical pioneer.
Scratch My Back is described as a “song-swap” collaboration with some of the biggest names in music, including Radiohead, Arcade Fire, David Bowie and Bon Iver. In an article with The Guardian, Metcalfe said his role was “reinterpreting the music of the songs [Gabriel] has chosen to cover.” The album is acoustic, using only “orchestral instruments (no guitars, drums or world instruments) and range in size from sparse chamber music to a much fuller orchestral sound.” That said, don’t expect to hear these reditions in an elevator, although that would be cool.
NME has confirmed the track list, set for release Jan. 25. As this is the first in a planned series, presumably the tit-for-tat arrangement, with the featured artists covering Peter Gabriel songs, will come at a later date.
Scratch My Back:
1. Heroes (David Bowie)
2. The Boy in the Bubble (Paul Simon)
3. Mirrorball (Elbow)
4. Flume (Bon Iver)
5. Listening Wind (Talking Heads)
6. The Power of the Heart (Lou Reed)
7. My Baby is a Cage (Arcade Fire)
8. The Book of Love (Magnetic Fields)
9. I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (Randy Newman)
10. Après Moi (Regina Spector)
11. Philadelphia (Neil Young)
12. Street Spirit (Radiohead)