Memory Theater

I came across images of fallen logs painted with landscapes and images of the woods from which they might have come.

Fictional forest history painted on the remnants of real forests, a reminder of life on something no longer living, a singular specimen in its own cabinet of curiosity.

Trophy - Oil on fallen log (1998) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Trophy – Oil on fallen log (1998)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Renaissance cabinets of curiosity, those private collections of natural objects that have been described as ‘memory theater’ and which could include anything from antiquities and religious relics to insects and animal bones, were a way of organizing the natural world into human comprehension.

They were an era’s expression of scientific interest and exploration, and for many years, a marker of wealth and education. They were kept for the perusal of the few and the privileged.

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636 reveals the range of connoisseurship a Baroque-era virtuoso might evince. Source: Wikipedia

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636 reveals the range of connoisseurship a Baroque-era virtuoso might evince.
Source/caption: Wikipedia

Wolfgang von Goethe, for example, amassed a collection of minerals, fossils, plants, insects and other animal life, that he invited fellow writers and thinkers to examine and discuss in private at his Weimar home. A catalogue of this single collection, published in 1849, spans almost 300 pages of single-spaced entries.

The first public museum for natural history was established in 1793 in Paris, during the French Revolution. Building on a royal natural and botanical collection dating back to 1635, the object of the new Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle was to conduct scientific research as well as to instruct the populace – quite a departure from the earlier, prestige-based collections.

This seems to me a logical extension of the Enlightenment’s Encyclopédie traditions from earlier in the same century, which sought to bring knowledge to a wider public rather than keep it for a select few.

Collection shelf, Berlin Museum of Natural History Source: Erik Olsen/New York Times

Collection shelf, Berlin Museum of Natural History
Source: Erik Olsen/New York Times

Today, we take for granted many of the massive collections housed by the world’s natural history museums, large and small.

I know I spent many hours in semi-fascination tempered by the dusty boredom of looking at static animals posed in naturalistic attitudes against painted landscapes, birds stuffed in mid-flight, their plumage iridescent and stale, and helmeted beetles on pins.

I felt I was being educated, but to what end? There was usually little context, even with the painted jungles and savannahs of dioramas. I had no real sense of the animals or plants as a part of life.

Now, natural history museums are turning the tables, literally and figuratively. Many are publishing the vast encyclopedia of biodiversity found on their shelves online.

Several projects are well underway to scan the collections gathered over centuries, many of them originally private, digitize their images and information, and make them available to the public – not just to educate, but to be used in open research.

Through the Woods - Oil on 31 log sections (1996) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Through the Woods –
Oil on 31 log sections (1996)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu

At this point, many of these specimens aren’t just curiosities – they are a last line of existence for life that has become rare, or even extinct. They hold secrets that could only be conceived of in philosophical terms back when many of them were first collected – DNA, ecological webs, life habits, connections.

They can be used to trace industrial development, climate change, and human settlement.

A New York Times article quotes Katja Seltmann, a biologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as saying that each type specimen is “like the Mona Lisa. If an antenna or a leg breaks, all of a sudden, a really large part of information about that organism is gone.”

Like the fallen log creations, these specimens are each windows to an entire world, the world in which they lived.

Tall Sassafras Slice I (2001) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Tall Sassafras Slice I (2001)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Organized Curiosity

The CERN globe. Photo: PK Read

The CERN globe.
Photo: PK Read

Someone once described the work that goes on at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research that straddles the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, as a massive exercise in “organized curiosity”. CERN is the world’s largest particle accelerator laboratory, where international researchers have been collaborating to investigate the fundamental nature of the physical universe since the early 1950’s.

It’s where some of the largest scientific equipment ever built is used to peel back the layers on the smallest elements of what makes the cosmos.

Last night, we went to a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider. Thousands of people, an orchestra with a hundred-strong choir, and the Alan Parsons Live Project accompanied by the full orchestra and choir, took up residence out behind the CERN facility on the French side, in the middle of a large field.

The two official languages at CERN are French and English, but standing in the crowd, there was the likelihood of hearing Korean, Greek, Russian, Japanese and some I didn’t recognize, all spoken within arm’s length. At one point I was standing next to one of the senior scientists, and he said that one of the things he values most about his decades at CERN is the sense of collaboration and working towards a common goal on a global scale. Twenty member states support CERN, with numerous non-members participating in a variety of ways.

We often hear the question: Collaboration is nice, but what good does fundamental research do on a practical level? With all the money spent by various countries – tax money, public funds – what good does this kind of investigation really serve?

There is an objective and true response to this question. The exploration undertaken at CERN often requires equipment that doesn’t yet exist, leading to innovations in everything from computing to medical technologies to materials science and electronics.

But there is also another, more subjective and true response: This demonstrates us, as humans, at our most cooperative and inquisitive. 800px-CERN_international_relations_map.svg

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Drinking, Water and Sand

I’ve been looking at some recent and major water discoveries, here and elsewhere, and for me, they are all part of the same story.

When we talk about life, we talk about water.

Red Water

Pockets of water ice on the southern pole of Mars. Credit: ESA

Pockets of water ice on the southern pole of Mars.
Credit: ESA

The fine dust of the Martian planet surface, gathered, cooked and analyzed by Curiosity, has revealed itself to be “acting like a bit of a sponge and absorbing water from the atmosphere,” according to Laurie Leshin. Leshin is the lead author of a study showing that surface soil on Mars appears to contain approximately 1 liter (2 pints) of water in every 0.03 cubic meter (1 cubic foot). The Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM) aboard the spunky NASA rover, taken together with information from other robotic explorers previously sent to the planet, indicate that this soil is probably distributed across the planet in similar composition.

But before you put on your space boots and prepare for lift-off, it should be noted that the soil also seems to contain a fair amount of toxic substances such as perchlorate as well, a challenge that would have be overcome before humans could consider any form of manned mission or colonization.

More on Martian water, from the ice caps to why there is no visible surface water, here.

On a related note, to get an idea of what can live in one cubic foot on Earth, about one large shovelful of soil, it’s worth having a look at the fascinating A World in One Cubic Foot by David Liittschwager.

Deep Water


Lake Turkana, Kenya
Photo: Piotr Gatlik

Two deep underground aquifiers have been discovered beneath the Turkana and Lotikipi basins in northern Kenya using radar, satellite technology, and verified through UNESCO supported test drilling. Together, they are estimated to contain up to 250 billion cubic liters of water. The area, home to mainly nomadic people, has been subject to extreme water scarcity and drought, while Ethiopian dam projects on the other side of the border could potentially reduce the levels of Lake Turkana itself.

“This newly found wealth of water opens a door to a more prosperous future for the people of Turkana and the nation as a whole. We must now work to further explore these resources responsibly and safeguard them for future generations,” Judi Wakhungu, cabinet secretary in the Kenyan ministry of environment, water and natural resources said at the start of a water security conference in Nairobi.

Lake Turkana is located in the Kenyan Rift Valley and is the largest desert and alkaline lake in the world. Large numbers of primate fossils have been found in the area, and the lake is widely regarded by anthropologists to be the origin of the human race.

In other news, large oil reserves have been found in the same area.

Less Water

The water supply stress index (WaSSI) model considers regional trends in both water supply and demand.
Credit: K. Averyt et al via IOP Science

On the other side of the water discovery coin, there’s the United States, where most people might assume that access to clean, fresh water is a given in a country with a long history of water distribution. But according to a report by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, one in ten watersheds in North America are ‘stressed’, i.e. “demands for freshwater sources outstrip natural supplies”. The pressure on watersheds is likely to increase with the impact of climate change, according to CIRES.

“We hope research like this helps us understand challenges we might face in building a more resilient future,” said co-author James Meldrum.