Saturday, June 17, 2006

Arctic wonders

Yesterday I had a day out at the Natural History Museum, including one of the most quietly thrilling exhibitions I've ever seen.

But I know better than to try to compete with Toast in the telling of a story.

Monday, June 12, 2006

On the millionth day of christmas

my true love gave to me
One million cows.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Songs of the Planets

If you haven't yet had the pleasure of hearing sounds from other planets - such as the dawn chorus on Jupiter - then have a listen here.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cube, Part the First

Today: something cubish. Bear with me on this one.

1D: If you have a little line, you can use it to represent any 'bipolar' situation, like the potential outcomes of tossing a coin. You could label the ends H and T, or, if you like a spot of binary, 0 and 1.

2D: If you have a square, the four corners could represent the possible outcomes of tossing two coins (HH, HT, TH, TT). You might label them 00, 01, 10, and 11.

3D: A cube has eight corners (000,001,010,011,100,101,110,111). Looked at in a certain way, it's a map of the eight possible states of a three-bit computer. You could use this computer to store the result of three coin tosses, or perhaps a letter from a to h. At any one time, your computer would inhabit one corner of the cube. The cube is its little world of potential: if you give it a different letter to store, or a different set of coin toss results, it moves to a different corner of its world.

4D: A 'hypercube', has 16 corners. (If you're curious about cubes in four dimensions, there's a lovely explanation here - scroll down to 'Analogies to Lower Dimensions' and enjoy.) A computer living here would have four bits - a semibyte.

The laptop I'm typing into has a modest 80GB of storage, which is about 687 billion bits. It lives in a 687 billion-dimensional cube, flitting from corner to corner like a fly in a box. Every stroke of the key sends it to another corner. Even when I stop, it flits through dimensions I'm not aware of. I can hear it. Flitting.

One can't help feeling pity for the poor thing...

And it was between such bouts of pity that I took to wondering what it might be like in 687 billion dimensions (invariably a good move if at any time you find yourself fed up of any form of compassionate state).

A spot of Pythagoras (or a quick sketch with a ruler) will tell you that the diagonal of a 1cm square is about 1.4cm long. The equivalent distance for a 1cm cube - in a straight line between opposite corners - just over 1.7cm.

If you're ever trapped inside a 1cm crouton, or a sugar cube, you'll always be able to stretch out to 1.7cm long if you need to.

Picture now a sugar cube in 687 billion dimensions, still just 1cm across. The distance between opposite corners? A little over 5 miles.

This exercise has helped me come to terms with the plight of my flitting friend; and maybe it can help you too. No more fly in a box visions for me. I see my sweet laptop soar on snow-white wings through miles of sparkling space, to liquid crystal heights and diaphanous digital depths, and I am at peace.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Life of an ageing star

Click picture for detail.
They have complex lives.

Sometimes I think I liked them better when they were just white dots and they all looked the same.

(Sometimes I think that about people too.)

Other times I marvel. And I do like a good marvel.

Here's the current extent of my understanding:
It starts at the bottom-left and follows the wiggly path. If it goes right, it's getting redder; if it goes left, it's getting bluer; if it goes up, it's getting brighter. When it gets to the top it goes boom.

From star evolution lectures.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Upon going to sleep

Made tired by the day now,
my passionate longing
shall welcome the starry night
like a tired child.

Hands, leave all your activity,
brow, forget all thought,
for all my senses
are about to go to sleep.

And my soul, unguarded,
will float freely
into the magic circle of the night -
deeply and a thousand times alive.

The third of Strauss's Four Last Songs: one of the most emotionally powerful - and yet peaceful - pieces of music I have ever heard. And I have heard it a lot of times. The poem ('Beim Schlafengehen') is by Herman Hesse. Strauss's setting is certainly not a numbing drift into sleep: nope, we're talking serious yearning and ecstatic flight of the soul treatment here.

This is my favourite translation - I'm afraid I don't know who it's by. I've adulterated it a little at the end (before I messed with it, the above translation ended in order to live in the magic circle of the night/ deep and a thousand fold.) because I wanted to accommodate a different version of the last, ecstatic line that thrilled me in a subtitled performance on the tv several years ago. Apologies to those with a better grasp of poetic coherence than me.