Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Rembrandt, Magic And Colors Beyond Words

Rembrandt’s restricted palette excludes several of the brightest pigments available in the seventeenth century. His blacks (charcoal and bone black) and browns (including Cologne earth, as it would have been called) are supplemented by most of the earth colors: ochers, siennas, and umbers. His red lakes were mainly madder and cochineal. Blues, too, he used with restraint—mainly smalt but sometimes azurite, as in Saskia in Arcadian Costume (1635). His principal yellow was lead-tin yellow, which was never the brightest of colors. Rembrandt used chalk as an extender, to add translucency to glazes (it is almost transparent in oils), and to give body to his medium. His thick impasto gained some notoriety, evident from Arnold Houbraken’s remark in 1718 that a portrait by Rembrandt had colors “so heavily loaded that you could lift it from the floor by its nose.”

But this limited palette had advantages, for it consisted largely of reliable, stable colors that have aged well. This was no mere good fortune: Rembrandt knew which materials would last and how to combine them safely. And that is just as well, for his mixtures attain an almost comical level of complexity. Lurking at the threshold of visibility amid his deep shadows are concoctions of truly baroque proportions. In An Elderly Man as St. Paul (c. 1659), the deep, warm brown of the dimly seen book cover is no mere umber but consists of a semiglaze of lakes, red and yellow earth, and bone black. In Portrait of Jacob Trip (c. 1661), a deep orange-brown is mixed from red and yellow lake with smalt. And for Portrait of Margaretha de Geer (c. 1661), the incidental dark gray-greenish wall in the background on the left has an unbelievable subtlety of pigmentation lavished on it. The lighter part is made up from a dark brown underpaint of red, orange and yellow earths mixed with bone black and a little lead white, which is then glazed with a mixture of smalt, red ocher, and probably a yellow lake. For the deeper shadow, a glaze of bone black with red lake and red ocher is used instead. Yet this wall is hardly distinguishable from black shadow!

One cannot help but wonder whether these elaborate mixtures were systematically blended or whether Rembrandt was merely making use of the random remnants daubed on his palette. In any event, they bring to mind Monet’s determination to mix even the murkiest of shadows from strong, pure colors. The consequence is that Rembrandt’s colors are often almost indescribable—beyond tertiaries, beyond words. What is the color of Hendrickje’s dress in Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (1654-1656), the woman who effectively became Rembrandt’s wife after the death of his beloved Saskia? Some might say a pale lilac. Yet once again, there is no blue on the canvas—if there is a violet tint, it comes from the slight blueness of the mixture of lead white and charcoal black, blended with a little red lake.

What better articulation of Rembrandtian color can we find than the Self-Portrait with Maulstick, Palette, and Brushes (c. 1663), painted some six years before his death? Convention focuses on the enormous expressivity of the artist’s careworn face. But what is there on the palette cradled in one arm? Nothing but a bare expanse of ruddy brown, so loosely sketched that the dark coat remains visible beneath. And one can almost believe that no more color than this, deftly lightened and darkened, was needed to convey all the introspection, the frankness, and the gravity that the portrait reveals.

Philip Ball

Monday, July 30, 2007

Rembrandt And Magic

My suspicion is that Rembrandt inspires talk of magic and wizardry more than any other painter in history. I’m going to talk about this all week.

Of course, since the Industrial Revolution, division of labor and production lines and the compartmentalization of society in general, today many people have never seen an artist at work, many people have never seen an oil painting in real life. It is almost understandable the average consumer of images in the modern world would look at many Rembrandt paintings and find the painter’s aesthetic sensibility and technical facility to be out-of-this-world. They are. However, one of the infinity of remarkable things about Rembrandt is that for hundreds of years even other painters have stood in front of Rembrandt images and marveled, resorted to rhetoric of magic.

Here is Van Gogh speaking of two Rembrandt paintings, “The Jewish Bride,” and, possibly, “Portrait of Saskia:”

The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild is perfect: it is one of the most beautiful Rembrandts; but The Hebrew Bride ... never has there been a painting so intimate, brimming with infinite understanding, painted d’une maire de feu. You see, in Syndics, Rembrandt is faithful to nature, although, even here, as always, he is soaring high, toward the highest summits and infinity; but Rembrandt knew how to do more ... when he was free to idealize, to be a poet, that is to say Creator. And this is what he is in The Hebrew Spouse. ... As for the paintings of Frans Hals—he will always remain mortal—to those, words can be addressed. Rembrandt is so full of mystery to say things that cannot be expressed in any language. Rembrandt is quite rightly defined a magician ...”

“Yesterday I saw a large photograph of a Rembrandt that I hadn’t known, and it struck me very deeply: it was the head of a woman, the light was falling on her bust, neck, head, on the point of her nose and on her jaw. He forehead and eyes were in shadow because of her large hat, with feathers most likely red. Perhaps there is also red in her low-necked jacket. A dark background. The expression is the same mysterious smile of Rembrandt found in his self-portrait in which he is seated with Saskia on his knees, and a glass of wine in his hand. These days my thoughts are continually turning to Rembrandt and Frans Hals, not only because I am seeing many of their pictures, but because among the people here I see many types that remind me of their time. I am still going often to those popular dances, to see the heads of women of the sailors and soldiers. ... I know that you are rather convinced of the importance of being realistic, so I can speak to you freely. If I paint farmers, I want them to be farmers; ... if I paint prostitutes, I want that they have a prostitute’s expression. It is for this that the head of one of Rembrandt’s prostitutes struck me so much. Because he grasped their mysterious smile in such a marvelous way, with an earnestness that only he, wizard among wizards, possessed.”

Van Gogh quoted in:

Rembrandt’s Wiki Page

Friday, July 27, 2007

Mischievous Girls: A Cautionary Tale

Once upon a time there was a Mischievous Girl named Joni. 1

Joni did all the things Mischievous Girls do.

She wrote songs (at the very least!) about using heroin. 2 She posed naked for the cover of one of her albums. 3 She stole away the famous boyfriend of a pop star who had a better voice, greater fame and more beauty than she did. 4

What happened to Mischievous Girl Joni?

Did she die in a tragic car accident? Did she pass out on her back and drown in her own vomit? Did her musician boyfriend stab her to death to silence her plaintive cries begging him to put her out of her misery?

No, no and, ummm, no—that last one was the romanticized [!] death of a different Mischievous Girl named Nancy. 5

What happened to Mischievous Girl Joni?

She lived happily ever after. Her new album comes out next month ... on the Starbucks label. 6

America drinks and goes home” — FZ 7

* * * * * * *

Notes on this tragic tale of woe:

1) Joni Mitchell is probably my favorite woman performer. To be honest, however, I’m a folk-jazz guy. After she became too hip for the folk part and became just a jazz performer, she left me behind.

2) “Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire” is one of my favorite songs. It’s on “For The Roses.”

Cold blue steel out of money
One eye for the beat police
Sweet fire calling,
“You can’t deny me
Now you know what you need”

Underneath the jungle gym
Looking for sweet fire
Shadow of lady release

“Come with me
I know the way,” she says
“It’s down, down, down the dark ladder.
Do you want to contact somebody first
Leave someone a letter
You can come now
Or you can come later...”

A wristwatch, a ring, a downstairs screamer
Edgy-black cracked sulphur sky
Fix this poor bad dreamer!
“Money,” cold shadows reply

Pawnshops criss-crossed and padlocked
Corridors spit on prayers and pleas
Sparks fly up from sweet fire
Black soot of lady release

“Come with me
I know the way,” she says
“It’s down, down, down the dark ladder
Do you want to contact somebody first
Does it really matter
If you come now
Or if you come on later?”
Red water in the bathroom sink
Fever in the scum brown bowl
Blue steel still begging
But it’s indistinct
Someone’s hi-fi drumming Jelly Roll

Concrete concentration camp
Bashing in veins for peace
Cold blue steel and sweet fire
Fall into lady release

“Come with me
I know the way,” she says
“It’s down, down, down the dark ladder
Do you want to contact somebody first
I mean what does it really matter
You’re going to come now
Or you’re going to come later...”

3) “For The Roses,” one of my favorite albums of all time. The naked pic is on the inside cover. It’s still there on the CD version, but everything is so small there’s nothing to be shocked about.

4) Joni got James Taylor away from Carly Simon. Carly has Joni beat hands down in almost every category, except the one that really counts: Joni writes great songs, and Carly goes the Tin Pan Alley route and buys great songs. Just about every women I’ve talked to about this says, in public, “Oh, poor Carly...” and then, in private, laughs maliciously and says, “Ha, ha, ha, beautiful Carly Simon lost her boyfriend to a horse-faced girl like Joni!” Apparently in the tradition of Harrison and Clapton, however, Joni and Carly remained friends, because when Carly had her infamous ‘fight’ with Chrissie Hynde it happened at a Joni Mitchell concert.

5) “Sid & Nancy” is a great movie, but apparently bad history.

6) Nobody, of course, wants Joni Mitchell to go back in time and arrange to die young so that she never becomes pathetic in her old age. However, nobody wants her to release albums on the Starbucks label, either...

7) from “Absolutely Free.” “America Drinks” and “America drinks and goes home” were Zappa sound collages, tributes to the vacuous ‘socializing’ America used to do in neighborhood bars and lounges. In those days, however, at least there was live music and the coffee didn’t cost ten bucks! It’s amazing and bizarre that a comment from more than a quarter century ago would be just as fitting (or more so!) today as back then.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mischievous Girls: A Paragraph Re-Write

One tricky part of blogging is that it is a day-to-day activity.

Although some of the stories and poems I put up are things I’d written a long time ago (indeed this blog itself, “Impossible Kisses,” takes its name and topic from the title and topic of an unpublished novel I wrote a decade ago), most of what I put up is material I write the day I put it up or the night before.

Little things, however, sometimes slip past my awareness. I don’t want to go back and change, edit, material that’s already up, so mostly I just live with a glitch here or there.

However yesterday’s post, “Mischievous Girls—Hard Times,” contains a ‘structural’ error that bugs me and caused me to not put in some interesting references I certainly should have included.

So today’s post is just a re-write of yesterday’s fourth paragraph.

Yesterday, in my mind I was mainly interested in the similarities and differences between Lindsay Lohan and Victorine Meurent.

I also mentioned the 60s as a comparable time to Meurent’s. The 60s were a time when women who liked music could hang out with musicians who were playing a very active role in shaping pop culture. However, instead of referencing specific examples of such women from the 60s, I simply brought up today’s examples of such women—Britney, Lindsay and Paris—and hot-linked to them.

That fourth paragraph from yesterday’s post should have looked something like this:

Two generations ago in America a Mischievous Girl who liked music—Pamela Des Barres, Cynthia Albritton, Linda Eastman, so many others!—could hang out with guys like Jim Morrison, Jimmy Page, Todd Rundgren, Frank Zappa or so many other energetic, talented guys from that sub-culture who were really contributing to the much larger pop culture around them.

That’s better.

I actually lost a little sleep last night, I was so annoyed I wrote that paragraph the way I did and wondering what I should do about it...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mischievous Girls—Hard Times

After my Monday post to the blogosphere, “Mischievous Girls Make The World Go Round,” I talked to some people in the REAL WORLD about how Jack Odell’s mischievous daughter sparked him to create Matchbox cars. I talked about how a Mischievous Girl often provides the spark, the passion, the magic that ushers in real fun, real art, real magic to the day-to-day world around us. Somebody laughed and brought up the quote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” from historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. That made someone else frown, and the frowning person brought up the fact that Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are mischievous but they’re making the kind of history nobody wants to see. That set me off on a monologue, the gist of which I’m turning into today’s post.

It must be hard, these days, to be a Mischievous Girl.

A hundred and fifty years ago in Europe, a Mischievous Girl who liked art—Victorine Meurent, Suzanne Valadon, so many others!—could hang out with guys like Édouard Manet, Auguste Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec or so many other energetic, talented guys from that sub-culture who were really contributing to the much larger pop culture around them.

Two generations ago in America a Mischievous Girl who liked music—Britney, Lindsay, Paris, so many others!—could hang out with guys like Jim Morrison, Jimmy Page, Todd Rundgren, Frank Zappa or so many other energetic, talented guys from that sub-culture who were really contributing to the much larger pop culture around them.

What these sub-cultures had in common is that individuals within them had an opportunity to contribute not just to the sub-culture, but also to the larger, encompassing culture. For the last two generations or so, it has been difficult to see if similar opportunities still exist for individuals.

Both pop culture at large and all its sub-cultures now are so defined by corporations that—typically—individuals only appear at all if they’re playing some corporate appointed, corporate anointed role.

I’m not sure any individual in any sub-culture can make significant contributions even to that sub-culture let alone the larger culture around us.

What place is there for the spark, the passion, the magic of a Mischievous Girl in a world not of individuals emergently shaping “the scene” around them, but a world defined, dominated and so very well defended by corporations, each with their own agenda?

Sharp-eyed folks saw this coming.

The writer Trevanian lamented the fate of the Mischievous Girl in the modern world twenty-five years ago in his novel “Shibumi,” seeing her as condemned to mating with merchants and giving birth to advertising executives,” condemned to a life of plans and possessions.”

In the last quarter century things have not gotten better.

It must be hard, these days, to be a Mischievous Girl.

* * * * * * *

I’ve touched on some of these topics before
(including one or two Mischievous Girls I’ve known)
Marianne Faithfull week:

Get Well Soon, Marianne Faithfull! #1: A Groupie Metaphysics

Get Well Soon, Marianne Faithfull! #2: Groupie Totems, A Brief Introduction

Get Well Soon, Marianne Faithfull! #3: The Architecture Of The Groupie Landscape

Get Well Soon, Marianne Faithfull! #4: The Twenty-Six Muscles Of The Human Face

Get Well Soon, Marianne Faithfull! #5: The Monkee And The Fox

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Mischievous Girls In The News—Lindsay!

My informal plans for this week were for me to talk about painting and image-making for a couple of days and then, Friday, return to the topic of Mischievous Girls for a final note. But yesterday out in the REAL WORLD a couple of people made some comments about yesterday’s title, Mischievous Girls Make The World Go Round, and this morning’s breaking news provided an underscore to one of the comments I heard yesterday. So, today I’m going to do another news post and tomorrow I’m going to revisit the Mischievous Girls topic for a kind of summing up.

Lindsay Lohan arrested again

From Jim Roope
CNN Radio Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Five days after being booked in connection with a May drunk driving charge, actress Lindsay Lohan was arrested early Tuesday morning on five charges -- including drunk driving and possession of a controlled substance, Santa Monica police told CNN.

Police spokeswoman Calisse Lindsey said police stopped Lohan as she tried to drive out of a parking facility around 1:30 a.m. as she was leaving a party.

The officers smelled alcohol and administered a field sobriety test, which Lohan failed, Lindsey said.

When taken to the police station, the 21-year-old actress registered 0.12 and 0.13 in another test for alcohol levels, the spokeswoman said.

Officers also found a white powdery substance in Lohan's possession which tested positive for opiates, Lindsey said.

Lohan, whose film "I Know Who Killed Me" releases Friday, was charged with two counts of driving under the influence, possession of a controlled substance, bringing a controlled substance into a jail facility, and driving on a suspended license, according to Lindsey.

As of Tuesday morning, she was still in the Santa Monica jail, waiting for her $25,000 bail to be paid, she said.

Last Thursday, Lohan was booked into the Beverly Hills jail on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and misdemeanor hit and run stemming from an incident in May.

Lohan's stay was only 45 minutes long. She posted a $30,000 bond and was released, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Web site.

The actress is scheduled to be back in the Beverly Hills Courthouse on August 24 to face her charges.

Early on the morning of May 25, Lohan lost control of her 2005 Mercedes Benz convertible and struck a curb. She received treatment for minor injuries at Century City Doctors hospital, where police cited and arrested her, but then released her on the misdemeanor charges.

Lohan checked out a Malibu rehab treatment center two weeks ago.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mischievous Girls Make The World Go Round

Jack Odell, 87, Designer of Matchbox Cars, Is Dead


Jack Odell, a self-trained engineer whose daughter’s mischievous habit of taking spiders to school in a matchbox prompted him to make her a tiny steamroller as a substitute — an invention that led to Matchbox Toys, maker of 3 billion Lilliputian vehicles in 12,000 models — died on July 7 in London. He was 87.

His son-in-law Josh Walsh, who announced the death, said Mr. Odell had had Parkinson’s disease.

The steamroller, made of brass and painted shiny red and green, satisfied Mr. Odell’s daughter, Anne, and so impressed her friends that Mr. Odell raced to meet their demand. It seemed a dandy toy: just right for a child’s hand but hard to swallow, no batteries, violence-free, quiet and costing just pennies to make.

By the next year, 1953, the steamroller and vehicles like it were rolling off a production line in a small factory that Mr. Odell and a pair of partners had set up in a former London pub, The Rifleman. After the steamroller came a Land Rover, a London bus, a bulldozer and a fire engine. In 1954, the 19th vehicle in the series was rolled out: a dainty MG TD roadster, the first Matchbox car. The toys quickly spread to the United States where they typically sold for 49 cents.

They were finely wrought things. Mr. Odell designed one machine to spray-paint tiny silver headlights on the models and another to mold interiors. All the dashboard dials were in precisely the right place. Some cars had more than 100 die-cast parts, including windshield wipers and ceiling hooks.

By 1962, he told The New York Times in an interview, Matchbox was knocking out a million toy automobiles a week, more than the number of real ones made by all the world’s major automakers combined.

“We produce more Rolls-Royces in a single day than the Rolls-Royce company has made in its entire history,” he said.

John William Odell was born into a poor family on March 19, 1920, in north London. He was expelled from school at 13, and later said he could not remember the reason.

“Let’s just say I was a bloody rebel,” he was quoted as saying by The Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper. He took a succession of jobs, including driving a van and selling real estate. Hired as a movie projectionist, he was fired after he put the film in backward. During World War II, he served with the Royal Army in Africa and Italy, working as a mechanic.

After the war, he found work at a small die-casting firm, sweeping the floors. Deeming the engineering work there mediocre, he figured he could do better, his son-in-law said, and decided to open his own shop.

His mother, however, refused to let him do so in her house, so he joined two war veterans at their shop. They were Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (unrelated). They had named their company Lesney Products by combining the first syllable of Leslie’s first name and the last one of Rodney’s.

Mr. Odell and Leslie Smith soon found themselves running the shop after Rodney Smith, seeing no future in it, left. They initially made small products for cars like door handles and dashboards. Their first toy was a toy gun.

Mr. Odell made his historic steamroller in 1952. It had to fit into a matchbox because of a school rule barring any bigger toy. (Spiders fit quite nicely.)

Vehicles kept coming, in both number and kind. A milestone came in 1953 when Mr. Odell designed a model of the coronation coach of Queen Elizabeth II. More than a million were sold.

Mr. Odell visited automakers throughout the world to copy their new designs. The automakers appreciated the free publicity the ubiquitous little vehicles represented. What many consider Mr. Odell’s triumph, his 1956 collection of turn-of-the-century classics, involved deep historical research.

At its peak in the late 1960s, when it released its Superfast line of toy autos to compete with Mattel Incorporated’s Hot Wheels cars, Lesney operated more than a dozen factories. In 1982, it fell into receivership and was sold to Universal Toys. It was later picked up by Tyco Toys, which was acquired by Mattel in 1997.

Mr. Odell is survived by his wife, the former Patricia Hilsdon, two daughters, three stepdaughters and a brother.

His passion for detail was suggested by an oft-told story of how he had swooped down on a young engineer working on a tiny Ford Model T to say that the driver’s seat, a centimeter wide at most, was not padded enough to be realistic.

“In my obituary,” Mr. Odell said in 1969 as quoted by The Daily Telegraph, “I want it said I was a damn good engineer.”

Matchbox Wiki Page

Friday, July 20, 2007

“How To Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion”

In this uncomfortably humorous survival guide, Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, reminds readers that "any machine could rebel, from a toaster to a Terminator," and though the forms our future robot enemies may take are manifold, they each have exploitable weaknesses that, fortuitously, match our natural human strengths. So, if a two-legged android gives chase, seek out a body of water, as "most robots will sink in water or mud and fall through ice." It also may be a good idea to carry around a pair of welder's goggles, as lasers will likely be robot attackers' weapons of choice, and even a weak laser can cause blindness. Options for fighting back are plentiful, though not everyone will be relieved to learn the standard kitchen microwave can be retrofitted into a radiation gun that can destroy electronics and "cook human flesh." (Instructions for such a project are not included.) Humorous and informative-Wilson drops robotics history trivia nuggets and includes brief descriptions of current robot research-this nifty little guide to surviving the inevitable robot apocalypse may have you reconsidering purchasing that "smart" (read: insidious) refrigerator.

Copyright © Reed Business Information

Official Robot Uprising Website

I learned about this book in an odd way.

One afternoon I was walking through my local library and I saw this book featured on a display shelf. I was a little surprised because I hadn’t seen the book on the new release shelf and I hadn’t seen the book in the robotics section of the non-fiction area. (Yep, I know where the robotics area is and I know it well enough to recall what’s in it and what’s not. [sigh])

So I flipped through “How To Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion,” thought it looked interesting and checked it out.

It is interesting.

It’s not only entertaining speculating about future troublesome robots and troublesome robotic devices, but it is very insightful about various kinds of high-tech tracking devices already in use today.

The odd thing happened a few weeks later.

I wanted to re-read some section of the book, so I went back to the feature shelf where I’d first seen it. The book was no longer on display. No problem, like I said, I know where the robotics section of the non-fiction area is. But the book wasn’t there, either. So, I buckled down and used the computerized card catalogue to look up the title.

It turned out our local library doesn’t even own the book. The book had been returned to our library by someone who had checked it out at a different location. Then, by mistake, someone had put the book onto the wrong cart and routed it to be re-shelved at our library. And someone else had decided that the book looked interesting enough to put on a display shelf. And then I had seen it and found a great new, entertaining, informative and thought-provoking book.

When I returned the book the title got trapped properly and delivered back to its home library.

But—too late!—I had already learned how to survive a robot uprising, and now you can, too!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Resurgence Of Things Wagner

There seems to be a resurgence of things Wagner lately. I saw an essay in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago that spoke, I thought surprisingly, approvingly of the music in general. And I’ve seen news stories popping up here and there as if there were something contemporary, something Britney Spears-like, about the music.

Recently I saw this piece, which brings the Britney Spears metaphor to life by linking the music with a hot, young blonde babe [!] —

High drama as Wagner family rides into battle

By Harry de Quetteville in Bayreuth
Last Updated: 2:58am BST 17/07/2007

In the darkened auditorium of an opera house almost as mythical as the themes set to music by her great-grandfather, Katharina Wagner stares intently at the action on stage. This is Bayreuth, touchstone of Wagnerian opera, and with it the German nation. Everything must be perfect.

Katharina Wagner is determined to become the director of the Bayreuth festival

But despite the flawless harmonies wafting from the boards and the orchestra pit sunk well below them, something is rotten in the house of Wagner.

In a family feud that could rival any operatic showdown, the prima donnas of the Wagner family are fighting for the right to be named Richard Wagner's artistic successor.

The keeper of the Wagner flame is the director of the month-long festival of Wagner operas at Bayreuth that began in 1876 and is due to get under way next week. The post has been filled since 1967 by 87-year-old Wolfgang Wagner. But his frailty has provoked a bitter battle to succeed him amongst the Valkyries of the Wagner line.

They are Wolfgang's niece, Nike Wagner, and his daughter by a first marriage, Eva - both 62.

The third candidate, and Wolfgang's reputed favourite, is his blonde-haired, denim jacket wearing 29-year-old daughter, Katharina. "It is a huge ambition for me," she said backstage at Bayreuth just days before the festival starts.

Laying down the gauntlet to her rivals, she added: "I've been working here at Bayreuth for a decade and I'm very well qualified."

Standing in her way, however, is the festival foundation's committee on which Wolfgang Wagner holds a single vote.

Despite his determination to see Katharina succeed him, the board could deem Nike more experienced. She runs the Weimar festival and has acidly criticised Wolfgang's Bayreuth as a musty institution.

The board has also identified Eva Wagner, who works at the Aix-en-Provence festival in France, as successor material.

At Bayreuth, Katharina has already been directing operas for three years, spicing up the 131-year-old festival with a controversial and innovative style.

"It's very traditional here," she said. "But you have to take risks to build something new. In Germany there is a problem that people always have tradition on their minds, like folk dress and lederhosen. Of course I break with that."

Katharina, whose husky voice betrays months of drilling singers in epic rehearsal sessions for this season's seven operas, including the complete Ring cycle, has the fearlessness of youth.

"You have to keep it out of your mind," she said of Bayreuth's world renown, and the expectations of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the rest of Germany's great and good, who are always in attendance.

For mere mortals, seats are near impossible to get hold of. This year 53,900 tickets, costing between £8 and £150, were issued despite 460,479 requests.

"I have friends who applied 10 years ago who are getting their first tickets this year," said Alexander Busche, a festival spokesman.

But just directing operas at Bayreuth is not enough for Katharina. She is determined to run the whole festival once her father steps aside.

Indeed, this year she is displaying her credentials for Bayreuth's top job with a production of Wagner's most controversial opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

More than any other work by Wagner, whose scores illuminated Germany in the 19th century just as it was being united by Bismarck, the opera was adopted by and associated with the Third Reich.

Hitler was a regular visitor to Bayreuth and with its nationalist themes, Die Meistersinger was the only work performed after all Germany's theatres closed down in 1943, mostly for soldiers on leave from the front.

In some productions, SS banners were unfurled on stage. But it is the opera's finale, in which the lead calls for German culture to be kept pure of foreign influences, which is particularly sensitive.

In rehearsals for Katharina's staging, to which The Daily Telegraph was given exclusive access, the nationalist themes are deliberately perverted. "Katharina's idea is that the stage is filled with statues of Germany's great thinkers Goethe and Schiller carved in a monumental Third Reich style," said Mr Busche.

"But during the finale they deform and collapse, symbols of what happens when thinkers are trapped in such an extreme ideological system." For the performers however, neither the opera's tarnished history nor the Wagner family feud has dimmed the magic of the festival.

"Katharina has gained all our respect," said Edward Randall, an American tenor who plays one of the Meistersingers. "She has a much older soul than a 29-year-old. We've worked on every detail, every glance and every movement, for weeks.

"This is the Olympics of opera," he added. "It's amazing."

Katharina Wagner is well aware of that. "I've been born with this name," she said. "I'm not like Britney Spears who went out to be a star. In Germany, if you're born with this name you can't escape it. You just have to get on with life."

I’m not much of a Wagner fan. And I’m suspicious of any media campaign that seems to be, so to speak, scattering seeds of Wagner onto global pop culture. Those seeds have been scattered before. And some pretty awful things sprouted up from them.

I never listen to more than about six minutes and fifty-two seconds of Wagner at a time. The only Wagner I recommend is Chuck Jones’ “What’s Opera, Doc?” It’s in the Looney Tunes - Golden Collection, Volume Two.

It’s about the best production of Wagner there ever could be.

Richard Wagner’s Wiki Page

“What’s Opera, Doc?” Wiki Page

“Chuck Jones' Wiki Page

Looney Tunes Wiki Page

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Nessie Monster Spotted In Chinese Lake

Legendary lake 'monster' is captured on camera

Nessie monster spotted in Chinese lake

By Sophie Freeman (Telegraph Media Group)
Last Updated: 1:00pm BST 18/07/2007

The Loch Ness monster has been the stuff of Scottish legend for centuries - and now China has its own version of the much-hunted Nessie.

A rare video, filmed by a tourist in remote Western China, has captured what appears to be several huge creatures swimming across Lake Kanasi.

State-run television station Chinese Central Television described the footage as the clearest yet seen of a legendary beast rumoured to live in the depths of the lake.

Two years ago, two 10 metre-long black creatures were spotted on the surface of the lake, swimming from the shore to the centre - but this is the first sighting since that time.

Chinese Central Television did not attempt to identify the animals seen in the video, simply saying: “This time a large number of unidentified creatures emerged, bringing more mystery to Lake Kanasi.”

Yuan Guoying of the Xinjiang Institute of Environmental Protection, has been on the trail of the unknown creatures since 1980 and experienced his first sighting in 1985.

He said: “They looked like reddish-brown tadpoles because I could only see their heads on the surface. They opened their mouths to breathe and their length was about 10 to 15 metres.”

Professor Yuan spotted the animals again on May 28, 2004 when he was standing looking down at the lake from a nearby hill.

“I thought there was a huge piece of black plastic in the lake and that someone had been polluting it. But then I released that it must be the back of a giant fish. I was shocked because they were just too big. Looking at them was like looking at submarines.”

Local residents have long believed that the sea animals have been responsible for missing sheep, cows and even horses, blaming them for dragging the livestock into the deep water to devour them.

The animals that roam Lake Kanasi live in an area about 24 kilometres by two kilometres and in depths of up to 188 metres.

But researchers in the 1980s dismissed the Chinese Nessie as a huge member of the salmon family.

Watch the Chinese Nessie on You Tube

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Is Bigfoot In Michigan?

Team Arrives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula to Begin Bigfoot Search

Thursday , July 12, 2007


Researchers hot on the trail of the fabled creature "Bigfoot" have arrived in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

About a dozen members of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization will be in the woods of Marquette County this week, with more extensive exploration planned for the weekend.

They plan to meet with witnesses Thursday near the Gitche Gumee Campground.

The members have brought with them high-tech gear like night vision goggles, thermal imaging cameras and digital audio recorders.

Search organizer Matt Moneymaker says The public can help in the search for "Sasquatch" by sharing the stories of their possible encounters, said Matthew Moneymaker, the search organizer.

Most experts consider the Bigfoot legend to be a combination of folklore and hoaxes, but some authors and researchers think the stories could be true.

In all but three of 30 expeditions in the United States and Canada, BFRO investigators claim to have either glimpsed Bigfoot or got close enough to hear the creature, Moneymaker said.

Dr. Grover Krantz, a scientist specializing in cryptozoology, believes Bigfoot is a "gigantopithecus," a branch of primitive man believed to have existed 3 million years ago.

But mainstream scientists tend to dismiss the study as pseudoscience because of unreliable eyewitness accounts and a lack of solid physical evidence.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Batteries And Bunnies And Bras—Oh My!

Energizer to buy Playtex for $1.2B

Deal builds battery maker's personal care product range to better compete with Procter & Gamble.

July 13 2007: 6:23 AM EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Battery and razor maker Energizer Holdings Inc. said Thursday it would buy Playtex Products Inc. in an all-cash deal worth about $1.2 billion to grow Energizer's personal care product range.

St Louis-based Energizer (Charts) will pay $18.30 a share - and assume the debt - for Playtex (Charts), which makes leading sun-screen products like Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic. Playtex also markets a range of other feminine care and infant care products.

The deal offers shareholders of Playtex a premium of 17.9 percent to Playtex's closing price of $15.52 on Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange. The deal value of $1.16 billion is based on 63.46 million shares outstanding as of April 30, according to a recent regulatory filing.

An Energizer and Playtex combination would create a more formidable opponent to the much larger Procter & Gamble Co. (Charts, Fortune 500), better able to compete in the battery, razor and feminine care product market.

Procter & Gamble owns Duracell and Gillette which compete against Energizer's namesake batteries and Schick razors. Procter & Gamble also own the tampon brand Tampax which competes against Playtex's namesake tampon brand.

Playtex trades at a multiple of about 29.6 times forward earnings while Procter & Gamble trades at about 18.1 times estimated earnings.

"We see Playtex as an exceptionally great fit with Energizer, with similar customers and distribution channels in the U.S. and Canada, and the opportunity for geographic expansion," Energizer Chief Executive Ward Klein said in a statement.

Energizer said the deal will boost its fiscal 2008 results and it expects to the deal to close in the fall of 2007. The company plans to finance the acquisition through cash and credit facilities.

But Energizer warned that the deal could dilute earnings in the first quarter and possibly the second quarter.

"There are significant integration and cost reduction opportunities for the combined businesses," said Klein.

The deal, which was approved unanimously by the boards of both companies, has an enterprise value of about $1.9 billion.

Banc of America Securities acted as advisers to Energizer, while Lehman Brothers acted as advisers to Playtex.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The End Of The Renaissance

Today I’m going to talk about two events that happened in Italy just as the Renaissance was drawing to a close.

The first thing is that the Catholic Church commissioned the fantastically talented and fantastically flawed painter Caravaggio to paint “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.” The second thing is that at the same time Caravaggio was wrestling with the composition of his painting, in fact, right around the corner from where Caravaggio was wrestling with the composition of his painting, the Catholic Church was making a martyr of an entirely different kind of a former priest named Giordano Bruno.

This is what happened with Caravaggio’s commission:

Church legend is that the apostle Matthew went to Ethiopia and converted the people and royals to Christianity. The king, however, eventually wanted to take his own niece as a second bride. When Matthew told him that such a thing was forbidden by Christianity the king had Matthew put to death. Caravaggio’s remarkable masterpiece—a kind of gay bath-house tribute to Saint Matthew—is typically read as having Christian converts in the foreground waiting to be baptized by Saint Matthew in Caravaggio’s invention of a pool under the altar, Saint Matthew himself knocked to the ground in the center about to be run through by the buff assassin, and just visible in the background the king of Ethiopia looking on at the carnage he has caused, perhaps shaken by the scene of his own making. Tellingly (of something) Caravaggio has painted the king as a self portrait.

This is what happened with Giordano Bruno:

In 1599 Bellarmino the Jesuit ideologue gave [Giordano Bruno] a final list of eight things to abjure. Bruno said no. It was a bad moment to say no.

Bruno told his interrogators about

infinite individual worlds similar to this earth ... they constitute the infinite universe in an infinite space ... I call nature the shadow and vestige of divinity ...

None of it, he insisted, touched on religious faith. It was just philosophy. It was an idea of an infinite universe that seized on the same Copernican astronomy that Galileo was developing as science. Bruno was no scientist—he’d rather sharply remarked that Copernicus’s fixed and finite sun centered universe wasn’t so new, whereas

we who look not at fantastical shadows but at things themselves, we who see an airy, ethereal, spiritual, liquid mass, a space containing movement and stillness ... we know it to be infinitely infinite.

He imagined the universe as infinitely many bodies in infinite space—it was tactile and visual, like his notion of the mind. In The Shadows Of Ideas he’d written that

nature doesn’t move from one extreme to another except through the mediation of shadows ... shadow makes the sight ready for light. Shadow tempers light ... shadows ... don’t dissolve but keep and protect the light in us, and lead us toward knowledge and memory.

Things themselves, shadow tempering light—[Caravaggio] was doing this in paint.

... In January the pope ordered Bruno’s death. In February they took him to piazza Navona. His sentence was read to the crowd and Bruno handed over to the governor of Rome for execution. His books were burnt in piazza San Pietro and put on the Index. Making fun of the pope was one of Bruno’s crimes—Clement had decided he was Circe’s pig in one of the satires, though the inquisitors got the book wrong. Another crime was maintaining the existence of innumerable and eternal worlds. Bruno glared at his inquisitors and said

you may be more afraid pronouncing the sentence against me than I feel receiving it.

He was probably right—taken at dawn to the campo de’ Fiori, he was stripped naked and tied to a stake and burnt to death

with his tongue in a clamp, on account of the very ugly words he used to speak.

Somebody waved a crucifix at him as he burnt, but Bruno averted his gaze.

Peter Robb

I started this week, this sequence of posts, with Robert Sungenis and his conspiracy theory, his belief that attacks on geocentricity were really attacks on the Catholic Church.

I don’t believe Sungenis needs to worry. (If in fact he does worry.)

I believe that any real conspiracy theory targeting the Catholic Church of necessity would have more to say about the simultaneity of these two episodes than it would about whether or not Cynthiae Figuras Aemulatur Mater Amorum.

Caravaggio’s Wiki Page

Giordano Bruno’s Wiki Page

Thursday, July 12, 2007

“One Of The Hardest-To-Imagine Tenets Of Ptolemaic Astronomy”

When I read stuff like this I always have to take a time out:

5. Whatever motion appears in the firmament arises not from any motion of the firmament, but from the earth’s motion. The earth together with its accompanying elements performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion, while the firmament and highest heaven abide unchanged.

This axiom, which marks what is usually called the rotation of the earth, dealt a coup de grâce to one of the hardest-to-imagine tenets of Ptolemaic astronomy: the claim that the entire immense stellar sphere makes a full revolution every twenty-four hours.

Dennis Danielson

If something is “hard to imagine” should we find it suspect? Should we seek to replace it with something that isn’t hard to imagine?

Is this a general principle?

If we accept this even as a working principle and use it to weed out kook-ish beliefs—like geocentricity—what happens when modern science itself is measured against it?
  • If I put my Sea Monkeys in a box and cover the box, is it easy to imagine the shrimp enter a state of quasi-existence, neither dead nor alive, until I lift the cover and look at them? Does any book about physics not try to ‘wow’ people with a discussion of Schrödinger’s Cat?

  • What about tunneling? Is it easy to imagine that a particle can be here and then—magically—be over there?

  • What about relativistic time dilation? Is it easy to imagine that a particle’s half-life correlated to higher energy levels is equivalent to time itself slowing down?

  • And entanglement? Is it easy to imagine that a photon three thousand miles away will become polarized if this photon in front of me passes through a filter?

  • Is there anything at all easy to imagine about arbitrary dimensions and branes and other string theory kinds of thoughts?
Kook-ish beliefs often involve one or two howlers, bizarre aspects which must be accepted on faith, but then they typically surround those bits of the bizarre with rigorously logical and acceptable, common-sense thinking. “Mainstream” science in the modern world, however, seems almost entirely composed of howlers, with none of that messy “common” sense to trouble it.

It’s interesting that the Establishment—whatever and whenever that is—always seems to create a fringe, a kind of conceptual Siberia, defined largely by appeals to common sense and the every day imagination of the hoi polloi. But at the same time that Establishment always expects everyone to clearly understand that its own activities, its own pronouncements, its own conclusions, must never be judged by common sense or the imagination of the masses or any other such bourgeois triviality ...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Has Science Proven That The Earth Is Stationary?

Maybe the most startling (and amusing) claim of the believers in a geocentric cosmos (geocentrics? geo-eccentrics?) is that “mainstream” science itself has already proven that the Earth doesn’t move. (For instance, at GEOCENTRICITY AND CREATION.)

They mean the Michelson-Morley experiment!

This experiment is so well-known that there is a Michelson-Morley Experiment Wiki Page, so I’m not going to review the details of the experiment here. But I do want to discuss some of that experiment’s assumptions because looking at the experiment backwards—the way geocentrics do!—is an example of the intriguing logic and creativity kooks employ to further their beliefs.

It’s not crazy, it’s just weird!

The designers of the Michelson-Morley experiment wanted to test for the existence of the “aether.”

In the 19th century scientists believed that throughout space and even permeating our atmosphere was a mysterious, ephemeral fluid-like substance called the “aether.”

Because this belief was built on a “common sense” metaphor, it has never really gone out of fashion with people who rebel from Establishment beliefs.

In a nutshell, the thinking goes like this: Ocean waves manifest in a medium called water. Sound waves manifest in a medium called air. Light waves, therefore, must manifest in a medium of their own since we know light waves travel through outer space and there is no air or water in outer space. Scientists called this proposed medium for light the “aether.”

The designers of the Michelson-Morley experiment accepted axiomatically the belief that the Earth moved around the Sun and attempted to use the Earth’s motion to prove or disprove the existence of the aether. They designed equipment to measure the compression and attenuation of the aether which would occur ahead of the Earth and behind the Earth as the Earth moved around the Sun.

The Michelson-Morley experiment didn’t find any compression or attenuation of the aether and that was pretty much the beginning of the end for belief in the aether. The motion of the Earth was the key factor in disproving the existence of the aether. Of course, disproving the aether has created the need for all manner of modern theories to explain how light propagates without a medium. Instead of common sense metaphors we now have relativity and the whole quantum mess and beyond...

Geocentrics reverse the logic of mainstream science and say, well, if you accept axiomatically (based on the buttoned-down logic of the metaphors of known wave propagation) the existence of the aether then since the Michelson-Morley experiment didn’t find any compression or attenuation of the aether, that proves the Earth is not moving! It also spares physicists from having to create convoluted and counter-intuitive mechanisms for the propagation of light since the aether is still accepted.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Windmills Of PHYSICS TODAY

It is very tempting to regard someone like Robert Sungenis as a kind of ersatz Don Quixote, a Don Quixote who not only sees imaginary monsters in windmills but whose imagination first conjures up imaginary windmills and then converts those fantasy windmills into imaginary phantoms. But the surprising truth is someone like Sungenis actually can find real windmills waiting to be transmogrified by a suspicious imagination.

Take, for instance, the current (July) issue of a science magazine called “Physics Today.”

If you look through this month’s issue of Physics Today you’ll see articles with titles like, “Whiskers Of Tantalum Trisulfide Twist In Response To An Electric Field.” That’s certainly the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a physics magazine. You’ll also see an essay titled, “The Case For Extra Dimensions,” describing how the new Large Hadron Collider will help string theory investigations. Again, the kind of thing you’d expect in a physics magazine. But in the book review section you’ll find a review of Dan Hooper’s, “Dark Cosmos: In Search Of Our Universe’s Missing Mass And Energy.” The review is written by Daniel Holz, an astrophysicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and contains the following passage:

“The study of cosmology has led to a steady diminution of humanity’s importance. We’re not at the center of the solar system. We’re not at the center of the galaxy, and our galaxy isn’t even unique. We’re not at the center of the universe, because there is no center. And now we’re even entertaining the possibility that our universe is only one of many—and a grossly atypical one at that. As if these indignities weren’t enough, cosmologists are now confident that everything we touch, see, or feel is a tiny fraction of what’s out there. All the stars and planets and people are just a minor frosting on the true elements of the universe: dark matter and dark energy.”

Now that’s a pretty weird thing to say.

I don’t live or work within the world of modern science, but when I was younger I often spoke with astronomers and I still, now and then, speak with physicists and other science professionals and I’ve never heard even one science professional speak of his or her emotional response to science as “diminution” of their importance, or of the results of some investigation as “indignities” visited upon them. Quite the opposite, if there is one commonality among the science professionals I’ve known it’s the sense that understanding the world around us is energizing, that figuring out how something works or why something is the way it is, is the coolest thing a person could do. In fact, the physicist who wrote the essay about the Large Hadron Collider in Physics Today (the physics babe Lisa Randall) once characterized her own emotional response to science this way: “As I learned more science, I grew to love it. ... Engaging with the unknown is irresistibly exciting. I found it thrilling to find connections between apparently disparate phenomena and to solve problems and predict surprising features of our world.” [from Warped Passages”]

Scientists, in general, in real life speak of science using words like ‘excitement’ and ‘fun’ and ‘thrilling,’ not words like ‘diminution’ and ‘indignities.’

However, in the media, in contexts defined by editors and publishers, this other rhetoric is actually not uncommon. Editors and publishers seek out the tiny minority of scientists who for psychological reasons of their own use such rhetoric or, more likely, are willing to use such rhetoric to fulfill the constant academic imperative of getting published.

People whose only experience of the world of science comes through the media—magazines and books—react to this media creation rather than to the real world of science. Media fashions, range-of-the-moment demographic appeals, convenient cliches—these kinds of things create an artificial reality and some people live immersed in the artifice. For people interested in science and religion, the unreality is every bit as unreal. It is almost understandable that people like Robert Sungenis might come to envision dark machineries of pernicious conspiracy theory ticking away behind the scenes.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Catholic Apologetics International

Right now, my absolute favorite tin-foil wacky fringe conspiracy theory is that of Robert Sungenis and his promotion of the geocentric belief, the belief that the Earth is essentially stationary at the center of the universe and everything in the heavens revolves around us. Sungenis also believes that when mainstream science promotes a more typical view of the heavens, that more accepted view is not so much science at work, but rather an attack on the Catholic faith.

Now, the internet is full of oddballs and oddball beliefs. But Sungenis is not some anonymous internet oddball who lives with his mother and gets on the internet using free computers at his local library. [coughs] Sungenis has a doctorate in theology, consults actively with scientists, and has published quite a few reasonably erudite books on Catholic doctrine. (However, it’s worth noting that in the grand tradition of internet oddballery, the “news feed” section of the website of Catholic Apologetics International features links to Lew Rockwell [!] and anti-Israel USS Liberty activists [!] and just about every anti-Jewish conspiracy theory that crosses any wire service, mainstream or otherwise.)

Is the Earth motionless at the center of the universe? Have three or four hundred years of mainstream science been a vast conspiracy theory against right-thinking Catholics?

I don’t think so.

But it’s fun to speculate about it and I’m going to devote a few days this week to this topic. Today is just the introduction.

Catholic Apologetics International Website

Galileo Was Wrong Website

Robert Sungenis Wiki Page

Modern Geocentrism Wiki Page

Friday, July 06, 2007

Signs And Symbols Of Jung

Jung believed that symbols are created spontaneously by the psyche. Our dreams are constituted entirely of symbols, which Jung differentiated from signs. Signs include names, emblems or images that point to something known. For instance, the name ‘wife’ is a sign that points to a known person, to this man’s marriage partner. But symbols operate on a different plane, and point to something as yet unknown. The ‘wife’ in a dream points to an interior, psychic reality that does not correspond with outer reality. For Jung, the same word can function as a sign or a symbol, depending on whether or not it is being used by the unconscious to point to internal realities.

A sign is obvious, manifest and can be understood by reason. A symbol, however, is mysterious and can only be discerned by intuition or poetic understanding. It is symbolic knowledge that Jung is concerned with, and he is attracted to what is deep, profound and obscure. The study of signs leads to semiotics, linguistics and discourse analysis. The study of symbols leads to mythology, religion and philosophy. For Jung, the unconscious is not speaking about the external social world, but about the internal psychic plane, which cannot be known directly. It is real in its own right, though not in the sense that we usually designate as real, and symbols are the nearest we can get to approaching this unknown realm.

David Tacey

Jung’s Wiki Page

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Overture! Curtains! Lights! Cue The Dog!

Every morning I go for a walk to get a newspaper and some exercise.

A house I sometimes walk past in the morning has a large back yard separated from the sidewalk by a waist-high chain-link fence. Yesterday a BIG German Shepherd was in the back yard. As I approached, the huge dog crouched low, snarled and began growling. As I walked along the sidewalk, the German Shepherd prowled alongside me on the other side of the fence. Its constant snarl kept its teeth visible. Its body was tense, all of its muscles hard. Its growl was throaty and loud.

In my mind’s eye, I could see the huge dog uncoiling and leaping over the low fence to sink its teeth into my neck.

At that moment, however, instead of leaping to attack, the German Shepherd straightened up, looked sharply away from me to its right, and yawned. The dog yawned deeply and long, stretching its long jaws wide. Finishing its yawn, the dog stood still for a moment and licked its muzzle. Finally, as if suddenly remembering me, the German Shepherd crouched back down into its prowling stance, snarled to bare its teeth and resumed its menacing growl.

I almost laughed out loud.

It was a real life moment lifted directly out of one of those old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons, where an animated dog (or wolf!) steps wildly out of character, engages in some slapstick and then jumps back into its role, its performance.

After watching the German Shepherd yawn, I no longer saw the dog as a scary guard dog looking for a victim, but rather as a tired old house pet putting on a guard dog performance. I continued walking. In my mind’s ear I heard music like this:

My whole reaction to the dog had changed so much that I almost felt like reaching over the chain-link fence and trying to pet the dog.


The German Shepherd might have been giving a performance, but he was taking his performance seriously. My part was just to walk past and I did.

But inspired by the dog’s performance, my steps were now much more animated.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Amateur Science--Strong Tradition, Bright Future

Contemporary science has its roots in the achievements of amateur scientists of centuries past. Although they lacked what we would define as formal scientific training, they deciphered the basic laws of physics and principles of chemistry. They invented instruments. And they discovered, documented, sketched, and painted planets, comets, fossils, and species.

An editorial in a leading science journal once proclaimed an end to amateur science: "Modern science can no longer be done by gifted amateurs with a magnifying glass, copper wires, and jars filled with alcohol" (1). I grinned as I read these words. For then as now there's a 10× magnifier in my pocket, spools of copper wire on my work bench, and a nearby jar of methanol for cleaning the ultraviolet filters in my homemade solar ultraviolet and ozone spectroradiometers. Yes, modern science uses considerably more sophisticated methods and instruments than in the past. And so do we amateurs. When we cannot afford the newest scientific instrument, we wait to buy it on the surplus market or we build our own. Sometimes the capabilities of our homemade instruments rival or even exceed those of their professional counterparts.

The term amateur can have a pejorative ring. But in science it retains the meaning of its French root amour, love, for amateurs do science because it's what they love to do. Without remuneration or reward, enthusiastic amateurs survey birds, tag butterflies, measure sunlight, and study transient solar eclipse phenomena. Others count sunspots, discover comets, monitor variable stars, and invent instruments.

Many amateurs have contributed observations and data that have been incorporated into papers and books. Some are accepted as colleagues by their professional counterparts. They present their findings at conferences and publish papers in peer-reviewed journals. For each of these, hundreds more devote their spare time to making observations, measurements, sketches, photographs, and reports without receiving direct recognition. Although some are retired, others are taxi drivers, photographers, civil servants, pilots, or missionaries, the latter group having an especially impressive record of achievement. And some, like my grandmother Leitha Mims, do not even think of themselves as amateur scientists. Yet through years of careful gardening she cultured a new variety of amaryllis.

Then there are the student scientists. Each year more than half a million science fair projects are prepared by students in the United States. Although most projects are required learning assignments, a surprising number of students do original work, and some even make discoveries. Many alumni of the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) and the Science Talent Search are now working scientists, and at least five are Nobel laureates.

Amateur scientists identify with student scientists, perhaps because we often don't realize that some of our experiments are not supposed to work. When my son Eric wanted to build a novel optical fiber seismometer, a professional seismologist said it would not succeed because our Texas house rests on soil and not bedrock. Eric proceeded anyway, and his supersensitive seismometer detected many earthquakes and two underground nuclear tests in Nevada, an achievement that won him college scholarships, science fair awards, and trips to the ISEF and the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. An atmospheric scientist said my daughter Vicki's attempt to detect solar x-ray flares with a Geiger counter would not work. Remembering Eric's experience, I excitedly told her this meant her project would succeed! And succeed it did, for Vicki detected six X-class x-ray flares. Her project won science fair awards and was recently published in a book.

The journal Science itself was begun by a famous amateur scientist and inventor. Although his methods were sometimes ridiculed by some scholarly scientists, their names are long forgotten. But everyone remembers Thomas Edison, who began Science as a private venture in 1880. Expelled from school at the age of seven for being "retarded," Edison was taught at home by his mother. His life changed forever when he found an old copy of Michael Faraday's Experimental Researches in Electricity and promptly built every project in the book. Thus the self-taught English amateur scientist, who was also schooled at home, passed the torch to the young American.

Astronomy has traditionally been among the most fertile fields for serious amateurs. Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto ranks among the best known of their comparatively recent achievements. In recent years, hundreds of other amateur astronomers have filled a wide range of niches left behind when many professionals graduated to fully automated observatories dedicated to a limited range of tasks. They discover new supernovae, comets, and time occultations; patiently count sunspots; photograph meteor trails; and measure the fluctuations of variable stars. More than 100 members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers have logged from 10,000 to more than 100,000 observations each. The record is held by South African Danie Overbeek, who has logged more than 188,000 variable stars in some 40 years of observing.

Many serious amateur astronomers have worked closely with professionals, even coauthoring books and papers with them. A paper on massive storms on Saturn that appeared in Science (2) was coauthored by Donald Parker, who discovered the storms and who is famous for his detailed planetary images. Although astronomy is his passion, Parker earns a living as an anesthesiologist for Mercy Hospital in Miami, Florida.

Although thousands of amateurs observe the solar system and beyond, many more thousands monitor Earth. More than 10,000 citizen volunteers make daily observations for the U.S. National Weather Service. Several years ago, the Weather Service honored Earl Stewart, who in 75 years provided nearly 28,000 daily readings from his station in Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Thousands of amateur naturalists participate in the Audubon Society's Christmas bird count, providing vital data for studies of bird migration and population trends. Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology has collaborated with thousands of amateurs to survey bird populations and identify food preferences.

Many other amateurs pursue science on their own. French taxi driver Pierre Morvan is a self-taught entomologist who for more than 20 years has spent his vacations collecting, drawing, and studying Asian ground beetles, especially those of the Himalayas.

Johan Gjefsen Reinhard used his own funds to finance a 2-year investigation of ancient ceremonial centers in the Andes, the highest archaeological ruins on Earth. An important aspect of Reinhard's work is diving in high-altitude lakes once viewed as significant by the Incas.

Roger Baker has contributed projects to "The Amateur Scientist" column in Scientific American and to the amateur science magazine Science Probe. He used one of these projects, a simple means of measuring ground-level ozone, to compare his results to those from a government instrument. Baker found that the latter was malfunctioning, a fact acknowledged by the responsible agency. Among his many scientific pursuits, Baker grinds lenses from window glass and has made instruments that measure the oxygen in water and the turbidity of what appear to be perfectly clear fluids.

Although many prizes, awards, and honors are given to student and professional scientists, there are only a few major prizes for which amateurs are eligible. Among these few is the Rolex Award for Enterprise, a prize that has been received by several amateur scientists, including beetle collector Morvan and Inca researcher Reinhard. Aside from occasional commendation letters, most amateur scientists are never recognized for their achievements.

For some amateur scientists, the most important recognition is the opportunity to work alongside their professional colleagues or to be sent by them on field assignments. NASA has sent my instruments and me on field trips to measure various atmospheric and ecological effects of smoke from biomass burning, twice to Brazil and three times to major forest fires in the western United States. Several publications have come from this work, which has been the most fulfilling of my experiences as an amateur scientist. Among the findings is that the survivability of nonpigmented, potentially pathogenic, airborne bacteria is enhanced during the burning season in Brazil, a phenomenon that is highly correlated with diminished ultraviolet B (UV-B) caused by thick smoke.

A few scientists refuse to take the work of their amateur counterparts seriously. In 1990, Jerry McDonald, who was working on a Ph.D. in sociology, found hundreds of beautifully preserved tracks of reptiles, amphibians, and insects in Permian sandstone in southern New Mexico. In 1 year alone, McDonald carried on his back more than 18,000 kilograms of footprint-bearing slabs on 240 trips along the 1-kilometer trail between the excavation and his jeep.

Professional paleontologists were unimpressed by McDonald's claims, because Permian trackways had never been found in southern New Mexico. Undaunted, McDonald drove some of his specimens to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The paleontologists at these museums were so impressed that they asked for samples to display. Nevertheless, some paleontologists continued to reject McDonald's find. "Scientist wins world acclaim but is snubbed in New Mexico," read a page-one headline in the El Paso Times (3). When New Mexico politicians learned that McDonald's trackways were being acquired by major museums back east, they came to his rescue. Soon thereafter the U.S. Congress authorized a study of McDonald's discoveries and how to protect them.

Fortunately McDonald's experience is unusual. In this era of big science, the most important lesson to be learned from his discovery and the achievements of countless other amateurs is that scientific observations and discoveries don't necessarily require giant government grants and huge teams of researchers with specialized degrees. Small science still works, and it often works during off hours, weekends, and holidays when professionals are generally at home or on vacation.

As we enter the next millennium, the future of amateur science has never looked better. Amateurs built some of the first home computers, and today many us own systems that far outclass what was available to our professional colleagues only a few years ago. It no longer matters that I can't do a nonlinear regression with a calculator, because economical software does it automatically, and an inexpensive printer then produces plots as crisp as any published in Science.

Computers have greatly expanded the capabilities of professionals and amateurs alike, but the Internet has become the great equalizer. Several years ago I measured record low ozone over central Texas. Thanks to e-mail, I quickly notified scientists at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency and then organized a quick paper for Eos with them as coauthors. No one asked if I had a degree in the field; all that mattered was the significance of the event and the quality of the data. When I measured large spikes in UV radiation caused by the scattering from cumulus clouds over Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory, I e-mailed the results to UV specialist John Frederick. I then incorporated Frederick's comments in a communication we jointly sent to Nature. Frederick, the editors at Nature, and the peer reviewers never asked to see my credentials. Instead, they judged the work on its merits.

I could write much more about amateur science, but the allowed space has run out. Besides, the data logger connected to the UV-B radiometer in the field outside my window is beeping to be downloaded. I always enjoy writing about science, but doing science is much more exciting. At noon, the ozone layer measured a thinner-than-normal 240 Dobson units. I wonder if today's hazy sky reduced the UV-B enough to balance the increase expected from the reduced ozone?


A. Sanchez-Lavega et al., Science 271, 631 (1996).
D. E. Koshland, ibid. 257, 1607 (1992).
El Paso Times, 12 March 1990, p. 1.

Forrest M. Mims III

Science 2 April 1999:
Vol. 284. no. 5411, pp. 55 - 56
DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5411.55

Forrest M. Mims III’s Website

Forrest M. Mims III’s Wiki Page

Monday, July 02, 2007

2007 2nd Quarter Index

June Archive

Friday, June 29, 2007 -- Wild Randomness

Thursday, June 28, 2007 -- A Real Hawk Scares A Fashion Swan

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 -- Venus In The Office At Night

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 -- No Croakers, No Nervous Lubbers

Monday, June 25, 2007 -- The Golfing Animal

Friday, June 22, 2007 -- The Leisure Class(es)

Thursday, June 21, 2007 -- Michael Lau: Freedom, Fun And Quality

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 -- What Is A Toy?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 -- Rise Of The Almost, Sort Of, Kinda Silver Surfer

Monday, June 18, 2007 -- The Beginning Of The End (Of Cicadas)

Friday, June 15, 2007 -- Inca Roads: Bassoon And Marimba

Thursday, June 14, 2007 -- Inca Roads (Introduction)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 -- “It’s More Fun If It’s A Monster”

Tuesday, June 12, 2007 -- Ugobe’s Pleo: A Re-Engineered Camarasaurus

Monday, June 11, 2007 -- New Species Of High Fashion Frog

Friday, June 08, 2007 -- Gender Terror And Reality Revisionism

Thursday, June 07, 2007 -- Star Trek And Reality Revisionism

Wednesday, June 06, 2007 -- Pirates And Reality Revisionism

Tuesday, June 05, 2007 -- Trickle Down Paris Hilton

Monday, June 04, 2007 -- A Paris Hilton Jailhouse Review

Friday, June 01, 2007 -- Card Players As An Occult Metaphor?

May Archive

Thursday, May 31, 2007 -- Chance And God

Wednesday, May 30, 2007 -- Gambling And Synchronized Oscillators

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 -- Roulette And The Magic Of Math

Friday, May 25, 2007 -- Dumpling Kaiser #5: Thinking About It Now

Thursday, May 24, 2007 -- Dumpling Kaiser #4: Clouds

Wednesday, May 23, 2007 -- Dumpling Kaiser #3: Jack And Jill

Tuesday, May 22, 2007 -- Dumpling Kaiser #2: Dumpling Rising

Monday, May 21, 2007 -- Dumpling Kaiser #1: Dumpling

Friday, May 18, 2007 -- Computers, Language And The Goblin Universe

Thursday, May 17, 2007 -- Do you need an operating system?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007 -- A Fourth Generation Computer Language

Tuesday, May 15, 2007 -- Design Of A [Computer] Language

Monday, May 14, 2007 -- Two Schools Of Thought About Computer Science

Friday, May 11, 2007 -- Britney Spears: Death By Dinosaur

Thursday, May 10, 2007 -- My Favorite Dinosaur Book

Wednesday, May 09, 2007 -- Dinosaurs And Low Gravity

Tuesday, May 08, 2007 -- Dino Rat

Monday, May 07, 2007 -- Loch Ness Toad

Friday, May 04, 2007 -- ‘Lost Horizon’ Versus ‘Camelot’ — #5: Shangri-La

Thursday, May 03, 2007 -- ‘Lost Horizon’ Versus ‘Camelot’ — #4: Fie On Goodness!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007 -- ‘Lost Horizon’ Versus ‘Camelot’ — #3: Two Different Worlds

Tuesday, May 01, 2007 -- ‘Lost Horizon’ Versus ‘Camelot’ — #2: It’s May!

April Archive

Monday, April 30, 2007 -- ‘Lost Horizon’ Versus ‘Camelot’ — #1

Friday, April 27, 2007 -- My Favorite Book About Freud

Thursday, April 26, 2007 -- Freud For Ten Bucks

Wednesday, April 25, 2007 -- Freud Through Ayn Rand Colored Glasses

Tuesday, April 24, 2007 -- Will Freud Finally Slip?

Monday, April 23, 2007 -- Freud And Cake

Friday, April 20, 2007 -- Columbine

Thursday, April 19, 2007 -- The Ax Ismail/Holden Caulfield Connection

Wednesday, April 18, 2007 -- The Videogame Contradiction

Tuesday, April 17, 2007 -- The Copycat Effect

Monday, April 16, 2007 -- Romance, Terror And The Word ‘Piss’

Friday, April 13, 2007 -- Peter Gave Himself Up For Lost

Thursday, April 12, 2007 -- God In “A New Kind Of Science”

Wednesday, April 11, 2007 -- Underwater This Is The Cathedral Sea

Tuesday, April 10, 2007 -- A Mainstream Sports Reporter Meets Evangelical Beliefs

Monday, April 09, 2007 -- My Little Cthulhu

Friday, April 06, 2007 -- Enchantment And Notan

Thursday, April 05, 2007 -- Distortion And Notan

Wednesday, April 04, 2007 -- The Solid And The Fluid In Notan

Tuesday, April 03, 2007 -- Notan

Monday, April 02, 2007 -- 2007 1st Quarter Index