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Physics giant Stephen Hawking dead at age 76

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2018

Lego Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, who uncovered the mysteries of black holes and with A Brief History of Time did more than anyone to popularize science since the late Carl Sagan, has died at his home in Cambridge at age 76. From an obituary in The Guardian:

Hawking once estimated he worked only 1,000 hours during his three undergraduate years at Oxford. In his finals, he came borderline between a first- and second-class degree. Convinced that he was seen as a difficult student, he told his viva examiners that if they gave him a first he would move to Cambridge to pursue his PhD. Award a second and he threatened to stay. They opted for a first.

Those who live in the shadow of death are often those who live most. For Hawking, the early diagnosis of his terminal disease, and witnessing the death from leukaemia of a boy he knew in hospital, ignited a fresh sense of purpose. “Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research,” he once said. Embarking on his career in earnest, he declared: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

From Dennis Overbye’s obit in the NY Times:

He went on to become his generation’s leader in exploring gravity and the properties of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits so deep and dense that not even light can escape them.

That work led to a turning point in modern physics, playing itself out in the closing months of 1973 on the walls of his brain when Dr. Hawking set out to apply quantum theory, the weird laws that govern subatomic reality, to black holes. In a long and daunting calculation, Dr. Hawking discovered to his befuddlement that black holes — those mythological avatars of cosmic doom — were not really black at all. In fact, he found, they would eventually fizzle, leaking radiation and particles, and finally explode and disappear over the eons.

Nobody, including Dr. Hawking, believed it at first — that particles could be coming out of a black hole. “I wasn’t looking for them at all,” he recalled in an interview in 1978. “I merely tripped over them. I was rather annoyed.”

That calculation, in a thesis published in 1974 in the journal Nature under the title “Black Hole Explosions?,” is hailed by scientists as the first great landmark in the struggle to find a single theory of nature — to connect gravity and quantum mechanics, those warring descriptions of the large and the small, to explain a universe that seems stranger than anybody had thought.

The discovery of Hawking radiation, as it is known, turned black holes upside down. It transformed them from destroyers to creators — or at least to recyclers — and wrenched the dream of a final theory in a strange, new direction.

“You can ask what will happen to someone who jumps into a black hole,” Dr. Hawking said in an interview in 1978. “I certainly don’t think he will survive it.

“On the other hand,” he added, “if we send someone off to jump into a black hole, neither he nor his constituent atoms will come back, but his mass energy will come back. Maybe that applies to the whole universe.”

Dennis W. Sciama, a cosmologist and Dr. Hawking’s thesis adviser at Cambridge, called Hawking’s thesis in Nature “the most beautiful paper in the history of physics.”

Roger Penrose, the eminent mathematician and physicist who collaborated with Hawking on discoveries related to black holes and the genesis of the universe, wrote a lengthy scientific obituary for Hawking in The Guardian.

Following his work in this area, Hawking established a number of important results about black holes, such as an argument for its event horizon (its bounding surface) having to have the topology of a sphere. In collaboration with Carter and James Bardeen, in work published in 1973, he established some remarkable analogies between the behaviour of black holes and the basic laws of thermodynamics, where the horizon’s surface area and its surface gravity were shown to be analogous, respectively, to the thermodynamic quantities of entropy and temperature. It would be fair to say that in his highly active period leading up to this work, Hawking’s research in classical general relativity was the best anywhere in the world at that time.

And then there was that time Hawking threw a party for time travellers but didn’t advertise it until after the party was over (to ensure only visitors from the future would show up).

Tonight is perhaps a good night to watch Errol Morris’ superb documentary on Hawking (with a wonderful Philip Glass soundtrack) or build a version of Hawking out of Lego.

Holy mountains haloed by drone light

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2018

Reuben Wu Halo

Reuben Wu Halo

Reuben Wu Halo

Oh, I love these photos by Reuben Wu. As part of his project Lux Noctis, Wu flies drones in circles around mountain peaks and takes long-exposure photos, creating these beautiful haloed landscapes. Wu spoke to Colossal about his interest in zero-trace land art:

Recently Wu has evolved his process of working with the drones to form light paths above topographical peaks in the mountainous terrain. “I see it as a kind of ‘zero trace’ version of land art where the environment remains untouched by the artist, and at the same time is presented in a sublime way which speaks to 19th century Romantic painting and science and fictional imagery,” said Wu to Colossal.

Broad Band, Claire Evans’ book about “The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2018

I’m looking forward to reading Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire Evans. Addie Wagenknecht recently did an interview with Evans about the book.

The easy thing is to say that Broad Band is a feminist history of the Internet. That’s what I’ve been telling people. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s a history of the Internet told through women’s stories: boots-on-the-ground accounts of where the women were, how they were feeling and working, at specific, formative moments in Internet history. It emphasizes users and those who design for use, while many popular tech histories tend to zero in on the box. I’ve always been fascinated with what happens after hardware hits the market; it’s what we do with it that counts.

When I first heard of the book, I thought immediately of Halt and Catch Fire, a connection that Adi Robertson picked up on as well.

Robertson: It’s funny how much this book reminded me of Halt and Catch Fire.

Evans: Yes! Oh my god. One of my great regrets about the timing of me writing this book is that Halt and Catch Fire is over now, and I can’t con my way into a consulting job on that show. It was so fun being deep in the process of researching arcana and internet history and then seeing these little nuggets appear in a more glamorous form on my favorite TV show. It kind of felt surreal. But definitely made me feel like I was headed in the right direction.

National Geographic: “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist.”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2018

As part of their issue on race, National Geographic asked historian John Edwin Mason to dive into their archives to examine the magazine’s past coverage of people of color, both in the US and abroad. What he found was not pretty.

What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers. Meanwhile it pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages — every type of cliché.

Unlike magazines such as Life, Mason said, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.

“Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures,” he said. “Segregation was the way it was. National Geographic wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority. National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism, and the world was divided into the colonizers and the colonized. That was a color line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”

Some of what you find in our archives leaves you speechless, like a 1916 story about Australia. Underneath photos of two Aboriginal people, the caption reads: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

A laudable move, particularly for a publication owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Puzzle twins

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2018

Puzzle Twins

Puzzle Twins

Puzzle Twins

For her project entitled Within 15 Minutes, artist Alma Haser made identical jigsaw puzzles out of portraits she’d taken of identical twins and then swapped every other piece when putting them together, creating these serendipitously fragmented portraits. She said of her first attempt last year:

So today for no apparent reason I thought I’d test out a crazy idea I had. For the project I have been switching just the faces of the identical twins, but today I decided to see what it would look like to swap every other pieces with reach other. Completely entwining the beautiful @being__her sisters. And wow, what an effect! It really make you double take at their faces, trying to decipher one for the other.

You can follow Haser’s work, including the twin puzzles, on Instagram.

I and You: a short appreciation of Martin Buber’s ‘Ich und Du’

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 12, 2018

When I was in college, I was crazy about Martin Buber. Well, really, I was crazy about Friedrich Nietzsche, and I was dating an evangelical Christian, provisionally going to her church, so I needed a way to put the two together. Buber’s book Ich und Du (I and Thou) was it.

It’s tricky to translate, in one of those “here are some basic differences between English and German” ways. German has two pronouns for you; “du” is the informal one, “sie” the plural or formal. “Sie” is also a third-person pronoun. But “du” is the way you address God, so it winds up turning into “thou.” Still, there’s nothing all that archaic about “du”; you’d call your pets “du.” Kind of like how Freud’s “ich” and “es” become “ego” and “id,” but are really just “I” and “it.” It’s a weird bit of business.

Anyways, Aeon has a new essay on Buber’s I and Thou by a grad student, MM Owen, that’s making me think of picking up Buber again. Here’s his breakdown of the basic insight.

Human existence is fundamentally interpersonal. Human beings are not isolated, free-floating objects, but subjects existing in perpetual, multiple, shifting relationships with other people, the world, and ultimately God. Life is defined by these myriad interactions ­- by the push and pull of intersubjectivity. This conception ties to Buber’s belief in the primacy of the spoken word. One of his life’s great projects was the 37-year process of producing an idiosyncratic German translation of the Bible wherein, to do justice to its oral roots, the text was divided into ‘breath measures’. For Buber, the act of speech embodied the deep-set interrelatedness of human beings. In speech, as in life, no ‘I’ is an island.

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook - typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche - as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’

A close reading of Miyazaki’s sound design in The Wind Rises

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 12, 2018

I recently rewatched a bunch of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, although “watched” is a bit of a misnomer. I was playing them in the background while I was working, or reading, or trying to sleep, so really I was re-listening to them, and not especially closely.

This almost feels like a sin for movies as beautiful as these, but it did help me notice something. Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind looks different from Princess Mononoke or The Wind Rises, sure; however, it sounds way different. The music, the foley effects, the subtler cues, the sheer sound density are completely different from one end of the career to another.

This made me wonder whether somebody had charted this transformation. I didn’t quite find that, but I did find an outstanding series of blog posts specifically on the sound design in The Wind Rises, which stands in nicely. It’s not well copyedited, but it’s attentive and insightful. A few samples:

Jiro enters his airplane, adjusts his aviator gloves and starts the artisanal machine. By now we have noticed the sound effects of the valves and exhaust pipes made of human mouth sounds and with vocalisations. The first engine starts and it’s clear that human voice is used to portray this activity. But once the propeller activates a low rumble sound effects is introduced, and a sound effect of a servo ascending is applied to the airplane rising, triggered by Jiro’s pulling the lever, and it’s in harmony with the music score. One occurrence with the sound that emphasises the oneiric dimension of this scene is the ‘dreamy’ quality of the reverb applied on the last blow of the machine lifting before it goes crossing the skies [00:02:03].

Here’s a clip a little later in the sequence — I’d never recognized that the dream engine sounds were being made by human mouths, but once you hear it, it’s perfect.

Or consider the earthquake, detail by detail:

It is now that we are in the presence of the horror lived in this earthquake and sound plays such a big role with all its brutality. Different to the traditional approach of western film, the main elements heard are a composition of :

  • horrified human screams on a higher-pitch range,
  • medium-low pitch throat growls and groans like coming from a big beast,
  • that moves upwards in pitch as the image from the houses undulates from a farther plane to a closer one.
  • an earthy impact stinger

These elements are introduced a couple of frames before we see the houses being ripped apart.

In the next scene the audience is shown, through close-ups, how the ground is animated in brutal waves breaking and disrupting the order of all man-made constructions. We no longer hear the horrifying screams and the sound designer paints the scene with sound of the ground disrupting, by utilising rumbles and earth debris. The sounds here are in the same universe as those indicated on Jiro’s first dream - choir-like sounds mimicking up and down movements, in which the upwards vocalisations are like rising stingers.

It really helped me appreciate these movies again, as sonic masterpieces.

What America looked like before the EPA, in photos

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 12, 2018

Popular Science has a series of photos taken by EPA staff in the early years of the agency after it was formed in the 1970s, that have since been digitized.

It’s pretty grim stuff: abandoned cars in Jamaica Bay, broken candy-glass unreturnable bottles everywhere, and one mill after another belching out smoke and dumping refuse in the rivers.

The Atlas Chemical Company, by Marc St. Gil

Oxford Paper Company, by Charles Steinhacker

Burning barge on the Ohio River, by William Strode

Mary Workman holds a jar of undrinkable water from her well, and has filed suit against the Hanna Coal Company - by Erik Calonius

Given that there’s been a renewed, serious push this year to dismantle or undermine the EPA, it’s worth revisiting just why we needed an agency to protect the environment to begin with.

Stevie Nicks sings “Wild Heart” on set

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 09, 2018

Thanks for following along this week while I filled in here! As my final post, it seems important to share the best YouTube video ever*.

Here you have songbird Stevie Nicks, every makeup artist’s worst nightmare, belting out an early version of her song “Wild Heart” during an Annie Leibowitz cover shoot for Rolling Stone in 1981. If this sends you down a rabbit hole of live versions of “Silver Springs” and corresponding levels of emotion between Buckingham and Nicks, I don’t blame you.

*Feel free to tell me otherwise or to keep in touch on Twitter.

“Stronger Shines the Light Inside”

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 09, 2018


Photographer Angie Smith spent over a year telling the stories of refugees resettled in Idaho, a state that (according to census data) is over 89% white. Her resulting work, Stronger Shines the Light Inside, focuses on the commonality on the human experience and the strength of community.


Smith’s work will be on view at an upcoming show in Los Angeles, opening April 11, at 1520 N. Cahuenga Boulevard from 6-9pm.

Remembering the Thomas Guide

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 09, 2018


For anyone who loves maps, history, or the history of maps, Airtalk did a segment this week on the beloved Thomas Guide.

During the year I spent in LA in 2004, I have distinct memories of frantically flipping from page to page in the Thomas Guide as co-pilot. You had to memorize the page numbers of the areas you frequented because they were not always in order (a north/south jump would sometimes take you thirty pages off). After a few months of this, we had pages fall out of the spiral-bound guide that we were always shoving back in the book. It was really the only way to navigate the maze of sprawl here other than printing out turn-by-turn directions from Mapquest (which we also did).

Like a (wo)man without a country

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 09, 2018

The animated short “Your Black Friend,” based on the comic series by Ben Passmore, is a humorous and heartbreaking look at a very real topic. The film was temporarily removed from Facebook due to alt-right trolls earlier this year.

A special hardcover collection of Passmore’s comics series is out soon. It’s a vivid look at life and race in the backdrop of New Orleans.

(thanks Pete)

The charisma of lovable weirdo Jeff Goldblum

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 09, 2018


Read this homage to Jeff Goldblum in its entirety (preferably out loud, with a close friend) and then re-watch The Big Chill.

Edward Norton (‘Grand Budapest Hotel,’ 2014; ‘Isle of Dogs,’ out in March): A friend of mine was on a flight and was seated next to Jeff. She was reading a book and became aware that Jeff seemed to be looking at what she was reading. She said hello, and he asked her if she was enjoying the book.

Jeff Goldblum: It was some good book she was reading! [It was ‘The Private Lives of the Impressionists.’]

Norton: Jeff said, “I don’t know if this would interest you—and if not, of course no problem—but I’m very good at reading books aloud, and if you’d like I’d be happy to read it to you.” She said, “Sure.” She had about 90 pages left, and Jeff read her the rest of it out loud. She said his reading was excellent.

Jeff Goldblum: We got out of the plane, and her boyfriend, Evan Goldberg, who writes with Judd Apatow, contacted me and said, “Look, I’m going to propose to that girl that you sat next to. I’ve written her a poem that’s kind of the proposal. And I want to drive her over to your house and have you read it to her. Can we come over at 7:30 in the morning tomorrow?” “Sure!”

Evan Goldberg: We drove up to the Hollywood Hills in a limo for the proposal haiku.

Jeff Goldblum: I’m in my robe. Ding-dong! Evan goes, “Here, darling, Jeff has something to read to you.” I read, “Dearest angel…would you be my wife?” And there you go. They’re married.

He keeps up with posts tagged #JeffGoldblum on Instagram, pours orange juice over his corn flakes, and smells good. Of course I love the Parker Posey anecdote: partying with Carrie Fisher in the 90s, movie night and a private piano concert with Goldblum and Rosario Dawson. A must read.

Still Processing on location

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 09, 2018


Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris take a field trip to see the new Obama portraits in DC in the latest episode of their stellar podcast Still Processing and it’s beautiful. Wortham and Morris address the controversy over Michelle’s portrait and delight in Barack’s and are brilliant as always.

A piece only a Vermonter could write

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 09, 2018

A guide to the proper usage of the word “dank.”

The protean adjective (or adverb if you want to slink dankly along) is now used for so much more than to merely describe things that are “unpleasantly moist.” In modern usage, dank can be used to pinpoint particular qualities in marijuana, beer, and internet humor, or as a general term of praise. If that sounds confusing, it can be.