These posts are either "jump pages" for my weblog or posts-in-process that will eventually appear there. For what it's worth, here's an archive of these random bits. The picture to the left is by a famous comic book artist.
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Even Einstein Had His Off Days
By SIMON SINGH
Published: January 2, 2005
WE have now entered what is being celebrated as the Einstein Year, marking the centenary of the physicist's annus mirabilis in 1905, when he published three landmark papers - those that proved the existence of the atom, showed the validity of quantum physics and, of course, introduced the world to his theory of special relativity. Not bad for a beginner.
"It's not that I'm so smart," Einstein once said, "It's just that I stay with problems longer." Whatever the reason for his greatness, there is no doubt that this determination allowed him to invent courageous new physics and explore realms that nobody else had dared to investigate.
What he was not, however, was a perfect genius. In fact, when it came to the biggest scientific issue of all - the origin of the universe - he was utterly wrong. And while we should certainly laud his achievements over the next 12 months, we may learn a more valuable lesson by investigating Einstein's greatest failure.
The story starts in the late 19th century, when the scientific establishment believed in an eternal and unchanging universe. This was a neat theory of cosmology, because a universe that had always existed did not raise any awkward questions, such as "When was the universe created?" and "What (or Who) created it?"
Einstein grew up in this era, and was similarly convinced that the universe had existed for an eternity. However, when he developed general relativity (his theory of gravity) in 1915, he became aware of a tricky problem. Gravity is an attractive force - it attracts coins to the ground and it attracts comets toward the sun. So why hadn't gravity caused the matter in the universe to collapse inward on itself?
Gravity seemed to be incompatible with an eternal, unchanging universe, and Einstein certainly had no sympathy for the alternative view of a collapsing universe, stating that: "To admit such a possibility seems senseless."
Isaac Newton had run into the same problem with his own theory of gravity some 250 years earlier. He too believed in an eternal universe, yet he knew that gravity would have to cause its collapse after a finite time. His solution was to propose that God was responsible for keeping apart all the celestial objects, adjusting their positions from time to time as part of his cosmic curatorial responsibilities.
Einstein was reluctant to invoke God, so his solution was to fiddle with his theory of general relativity, adding an antigravity force alongside familiar gravity. This repulsive force would counteract gravity over cosmic distances, thereby maintaining the overall stability of the universe. There was no evidence for this antigravity force, but Einstein assumed that it had to exist in order to provide a platform for eternity.
Although everything now seemed to make sense, there were some dissenters. A small band of renegade cosmologists suggested in the 1920's that the universe was not eternal but had been created at a finite moment in the past. They claimed it had exploded and expanded from a small, hot, dense state into what we see today. In particular, they argued that it had once been compacted into a primeval super atom, which had then ruptured and exploded. This model, which has since developed into the Big Bang theory, did not require any stabilizing antigravity because it proposed a dynamic, evolving universe.
The Big Bang model was initially ridiculed by the scientific establishment. For example, one of its pioneers, Georges Lemaître, was both a cosmologist and an ordained priest, so critics cited his theology as his motivation for advancing such a crackpot theory of creation. They suspected that the model was Lemaître's way of sneaking a Creator into science. While Einstein was not biased against Lemaître's religious background, he did call the priest's physics "abominable." It was enough to banish the Big Bang model to the hinterlands of cosmology.
However, in 1929 Einstein was forced to eat humble pie. Edwin Hubble, working at Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California, showed that all the distant galaxies in the universe were racing away from one another as though they were debris from a cosmic explosion. The Big Bang model seemed to be correct. And, while it would take several decades before the theory was accepted by the scientific establishment, Einstein, to his credit, did not fight on. "This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened," he said, and even called his repulsive force the biggest blunder of his career.
In 1931, Einstein paid a visit to Hubble at Mount Wilson, where he renounced his own static cosmology and endorsed the expanding universe model. His support was enough for The New York Times to embrace the mavericks, running an article with the headline "Lemaître Suggests One, Single, Great Atom, Embracing All Energy, Started The Universe." Hubble's hometown newspaper in Missouri, The Springfield Daily News, preferred to focus on its local hero: "Youth Who Left Ozark Mountains to Study Stars Causes Einstein to Change His Mind."
It might seem that Einstein emerges from this story as a flawed genius, one who was not perfect. In fact, there is a twist to the tale, one that implies he was perhaps better than perfect.
If gravity pulls everything together, then the expansion of the Big Bang should be slowing, because all the receding galaxies would be attracted to one another. In 1998, however, when astronomers tried to measure this deceleration, they were astonished to find that the universe is in fact accelerating. The galaxies are apparently moving apart faster and faster as time passes.
What is the best explanation scientists can come up with? The existence of an antigravity force. Theorists call this repulsive effect "dark energy," but it is exactly the sort of force that Einstein posited to maintain the stability of the universe. Antigravity is now back in fashion some seven decades after he abandoned it. It seems that even when Einstein thought he was wrong, he turned out to be right.
And, as we celebrate the Einstein Year, let's also bear in mind the fact that he was prepared to admit that he was wrong. Perhaps humility, more than anything, is the mark of true genius.
Simon Singh is the author of "Fermat's Enigma" and the forthcoming "Big Bang: The Origins of the Universe."
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Slate: Psst! Electronic Art
Will digital editions become the art world's new headache?
By Marc Spiegler
Posted Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2004, at 4:38 AM PT
Last month the Frieze Art Fair, held under a giant tent in Regent's Park, temporarily turned London into the art world's epicenter. On display were the usual array of photographs, paintings, and sculptures, generally sized at the "domestic" dimensions appropriate for most private collectors. Given this environment, fair-goers who wandered into a mini-disco designed by Eli Sudbrack, a Rio-born, New York-based artist also known as "Assume Vivid Astro Focus," could easily have mistaken the dance floor for a simple contribution to Frieze's hipster ambiance. What could be for sale there?
In fact, a minute's walk away, two galleries—Peres Projects of Los Angeles and John Connelly Presents of New York—were offering to sell the digitally printed wallpaper from the installation for $15,000. And the galleries planned to sell that wallpaper not once but thrice over, using an electronic-edition sales model that has left other art dealers perplexed and envious. In this model, buyers receive only a certificate of authenticity and a CD-ROM holding the giant Adobe Illustrator file used to produce the wallpaper's image. Despite the high price tag, getting the wallpaper physically fabricated remains the collector's problem—and an expensive one at that, easily running into thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars.
This approach has helped turn Sudbrack into one of the 2004 art market's breakthrough stars. A conservative estimate of his sales this year easily reaches seven figures. And anyone curious about the art world's future should understand the underpinnings of this ascension. Because no matter how many art-market insiders dismiss Sudbrack's success with electronic editions as freakish—the lucky combination of a particularly hot artist, represented by particularly aggressive dealers, selling to particularly fervent collectors—it is a model whose applicability will only grow and whose implications for the market are far-reaching.
Sudbrack vaulted to art stardom with his contribution to last spring's Whitney Biennial—a surreal full-room installation with a Brazilian-disco vibe that included images of drag queens, soft-core porn, and serial substance abuse. Traditionally, such installations are unique pieces. Those created by artists firmly inscribed in the artistic canon—such as Joseph Kosuth, Richard Long, or Mona Hatoum—might sell for $150,000 to $300,000. But Peres Projects broke the Whitney piece down into multiple units (somewhat like the suit, shirt, and shoes of an autumn ensemble in a Barneys window) and sold each individually. To reproduce the whole installation, a collector would have to buy one of each element, at a total cost of $150,000. The defining elements—the installation's floor, walls, and ceilings—were in an edition of three. But the five sculptures, priced at $5,000-$15,000, were in an edition of five while the $2,500 decals and $5,000 video were in an edition of 10. Thus, the total list price of products available from the Whitney show was $600,000, minimum. Such sums only matter, of course, if someone will pay them. But by the time Frieze opened barely seven months later, Peres Projects had sold every last item from the Whitney show.
Is this madness? That's debatable. But the sales model definitely reflects a fundamental change in how art can be produced and sold. Purely digital art—sold as software or access to online environments—has been creeping into the art market over the last decade, but it still remains very much marginalized. What sets Sudbrack apart is that his model is a hybrid, safely within the object-oriented paradigm of classical collecting yet exploiting digital production's advantages. (In the broadband age, the CD with the piece's image is really just a prop, after all.)
In some sense, the art world has long been moving in this direction. The candy sculptures of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, created based upon the Cuban artist's written instructions, are a prime example; collectors buy the right to install a work rather than the work itself. But those directives are publicly available—so you can make your own Gonzalez-Torres installation, no less legitimate in appearance than one installed by the collector who paid $666,000 for the piece at Christie's in 2001. At an abstract level, you could argue that almost all art collecting is more about ownership than about the object itself, which explains why so many major collectors have warehouses full of work they rarely see.
And the range of artworks to which Sudbrack's model could be applied is constantly growing. Another of the market's current darlings, Loretta Lux, produces her work by digitally altering images of children. So, collectors are buying a digital print, albeit framed like a photo and at prices comparable to major stars using classic darkroom methods, such as Candida Höfer. Sculpture is hardly exempt. Karin Sander took the art market by storm a few years ago with a system that allowed people to stand in a 3D scanner and then have their Sander sculpture "printed" out in a grainy green plaster.
From an art-market standpoint, the impact of electronic editions derives from the fact that the artist's direct involvement with the work terminates in a series of bits and bytes. That means each piece within an edition can potentially look different from the others. With Sudbrack's work, for example, the digital images are infinitely scaleable, so the collector can produce the works at any size. And though Sudbrack or one of his studio assistants must personally inspect each piece's production quality, that's hardly the same thing as every piece coming from the same foundry or photo lab.
When it comes to the handling of resale and loans to public exhibitions, electronic editions pose a new set of complexities. While collectors can produce unlimited versions of Sudbrack's installations for museum loans, they may create only one version for private use. And if they sell it, the collector is legally obligated to destroy his personal copy. Short of installing a Webcam in every room of all the collectors' homes, of course, these are hard provisions to enforce.
But the bigger issue involves the so-called "secondary market" for these pieces, i.e., everything after the original sale from the gallery. As Napster and KaZaA have taught us, once creative works have been digitized, controlling their distribution becomes problematic. In video art, for instance, there is a trading site with everything from Matthew Barney to Nam June Paik available for bartering. Once files start floating around in cyberspace, the certificate of authenticity becomes paramount. And what if that certificate gets lost? That's precisely what happened with a Dan Flavin neon-light piece recently offered at Christie's London. Estimated at roughly $83,000 to $117,000, it had to be withdrawn from the sale because the owner mislaid the certificate and Flavin's estate would not issue another.
Worse yet, after a few decades of electronic-edition works shuttling through the art market's notoriously opaque channels, faked certificates of authenticity will surely start circulate (just as they do today for Modiglianis and Maleviches). At which point, no expert will be able to distinguish market-legal pieces from their digital doppelgängers. Electronic editions have an allure, removing production hassles for artists, allowing collectors to customize works for their environment, and offering dealers a chance to reap massive financial rewards for simply uploading data files. But perhaps it's not coincidental that one of the model's architects, Javier Peres, was a lawyer before becoming an art dealer. Anyone who switches too glibly into this new art-market mode will discover a hornet's nest of potential litigation and provenance battles.
Marc Spiegler lives in Zurich and writes frequently about art and the art market.
The Year the Earth Fought Back
By SIMON WINCHESTER
London — LIKE two bookends of calamity, earthquakes at Bam in Iran and off Sumatra in Indonesia have delineated a year of unusual seismic ferocity - a year, one might say, of living dangerously. Twelve months, almost to the very hour, before Sunday's extraordinary release of stress at the India-Burma tectonic plate boundary, a similar jolt at the boundary of the Arabian and the Eurasian Plates devastated one of the most celebrated of Persian caravan cities. The televised images of Bam's collapsed citadel and the sight of thousands of bodies being carried from the desert ruins haunted the world then just as the images of the drowned around the shores of the Bay of Bengal do today.
But that has not been the half of it. True, these two disasters were, in terms of their numbers of casualties, by far the most lethal. But in the 12 months that separated them, there have been many other ruinous and seismically ominous events, occurring in places that seem at first blush to be entirely disconnected.
This year just ending - which the all-too-seismically-aware Chinese will remind us has been that of the Monkey, and so generally much prone to terrestrial mischief - has seen killer earthquakes in Morocco in February and Japan's main island of Honshu in October. The Japan temblor left us with one widely published image - of a bullet-train, derailed and lying on its side - that was, in its own way, an augury of a very considerable power: no such locomotive had ever been brought low before, and the Japanese were properly vexed by its melancholy symbolism.
In America, too, this year there have been some peculiar signs. Not only has Mount St. Helens been acting up in the most serious fashion since its devastating eruption of May 1980, but on one bright mid-autumn day in California this year the great San Andreas Fault, where the North American and Pacific Plates rub alongside one another, ruptured. It was on Sept. 28, early in the morning, near the town of Parkfield - where, by chance, a deep hole was being drilled directly down into the fault by geologists to try to discern the fault's inner mysteries.
The rupture produced a quake of magnitude 6.0 - and though it did not kill anyone, it frightened millions, not least the government scientists who have the fault in their care. They had expected this particular quake to have occurred years beforehand - and had thought a seismic event so unlikely at the time that most were at a conference in Chicago when it happened. They rushed home, fascinated to examine their instruments, but eager also to allay fears that their drilling had anything to do with the tremors.
As every American schoolchild knows, the most notorious rupture of this same fault occurred nearly a century ago, at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906 - an occurrence now known around the world as the great San Francisco Earthquake. An entire city, a monument to the hopes and dreams of America's westward expansion, was destroyed by a mere 40 seconds of shaking. It was an occurrence possessed of a historical significance that may well be matched by the tragedy now unfolding on the far side of the world.
But, curiously, it turns out that there were many other equally momentous seismic events taking place elsewhere in the world in 1906 as well. Ten weeks before the San Francisco quake there was one of magnitude 8.2 on the frontier between Colombia and Ecuador; then on Feb. 16 there was a violent rupture under the Caribbean island of St. Lucia;then on March 1, 200 people were killed by an earthquake on Formosa; and then, to pile Pelion upon Ossa, Mt. Vesuvius in Italy erupted, killing hundreds.
But even then it wasn't over. The grand finale of the year's seismic upheaval took place in Chile in August, a quake that all but destroyed the port of Valparaiso. Twenty thousand people were killed. Small wonder that the Chinese, who invented the seismograph and who tend to take the long view of all historical happenings, note in their writings that 1906 was a highly unusual Year of the Fire Horse, when devastating consequences are wont to abound, worldwide.
Given these cascades of disasters past and present, one can only wonder: might there be some kind of butterfly effect, latent and deadly, lying out in the seismic world? There is of course no hard scientific truth - no firm certainty that a rupture on a tectonic boundary in the western Pacific (in Honshu, say) can lead directly to a break in a boundary in the eastern Pacific (in Parkfield), or another in the eastern Indian ocean (off Sumatra, say). But anecdotally, as this year has so tragically shown, there is evidence aplenty.
Plate tectonics as a science is less than 40 years old. It is possible that common sense suggests what science has yet to confirm: that the movement among the world's tectonic plates may be one part of enormous dynamic system, with effects of one plate's shifting more likely than not to spread far, far away, quite possibly clear across the surface of the globe..
In recent decades, thanks largely to the controversial Gaia Theory developed by the British scientists James Lovelock, it has become ever more respectable to consider the planet as one immense and eternally interacting living system - the living planet, floating in space, every part of its great engine affecting every other, for good or for ill.
Mr. Lovelock's notion, which he named after the earth goddess of the Ancient Greeks, makes much of the delicacy of the balance that mankind's environmental carelessness increasingly threatens. But his theory also acknowledges the somber necessity of natural happenings, many of which seem in human terms so tragically unjust, as part of a vast system of checks and balances. The events that this week destroyed the shores of the Indian Ocean, and which leveled the city of Bam a year ago, were of unmitigated horror: but they may also serve some deeper planetary purpose, one quite hidden to our own beliefs.
It is worth noting that scientists have discovered that the geysers in Yellowstone National Park started to erupt much more frequently in the days immediately following a huge earthquake in central Alaska in 2002. There turned out to be a connection, one hitherto quite unrealized, that intimately linked places thousands of miles apart. Geologists are now looking for other possible links - sure in the knowledge that if real geological connections can be determined, then we may in due course be able to divine from events on one side of the planet indications that will allow us to warn people on the other - and so perhaps allow them to prepare, as those in today's Indian Ocean communities never were able, for the next time.
For one thing is certain, and comfortless: on earth, eternally restless and alive, there will, and without a scintilla of doubt, be a next time.
Simon Winchester is the author of "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883."
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