Saturday, February 02, 2008

TLS January 11 2008

from Richard A. Fortey's review of Pascal Richet's A Natural History of Time, translated by John Venerella:

. . . in 1896 the physicist Gustave Le Bon actually announced to the Academy of Science in Paris the discovery of black light.

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Leonardo da Vinci had recorded in his notebooks observations of the time needed to form sediments and raise fossils above the present sea level that were, as always, astonishing prescient. . .

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Halley worked out how long it would take for the oceans to attain their saltiness from the input of salt from rivers, but he was--wisely, perhaps, given the implications--vague about his inferred long timescale. . . .

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Georges-Louis Leclerc, later Comte de Buffon, performed a series of experiments by heating up and then cooling steel balls of various sizes. He then scaled up the results to account for the conditions remaining on earth today, assuming a molten origin for the planet--and came up with an age for the earth of slightly less than 200, 000 years. The importance of the result lies not in its accuracy--it is wildly inaccurate--but in the application of reasoning and experiment to the problem, and the abandonment of the old methods of chronology. . . .

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. . . by the end of the eighteenth century . . . the utility of fossils in mapping rock strata soon became patent. William Smith's geological map can be inspected today by any interested visitor to the Geological Society's premises in Piccadilly in London.

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The production of energy from radioactive decay rewrote all the equations Lord Kelvin had used for his estimates. The earth was a boiler, not a cooling potato.

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The answer finally came fifty years ago, with the dating of meterorites that had formed at the same time as our nascent earth: creation was 4.55 billion years old. . . . The beginnings of bacteria were probably at about 3.5 billion years, so the start of life was calibrated, too.


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From Ronald Blythe's review of Will Cohu's Out of the Woods: The armchair guide to trees:

First you have to meet a tree head on, preferably an alder by the caff, the one you have parked under and never recognized, the one with the chip papers flapping against its tall, slender, beautiful trunk, a tree which should be down by the river by rights, sheltering boats, not cars. From this humble start Cohu guides us to Berkeley Square where the plane trees are "best" . . .

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Mungo McCosh's moody woodcuts accompany the text to perfection, catching its style, adding to its teachings. . . . He shows the London plane was "the greatest negotiator among the discordant spaces of cities". . . . Will Cohu and Mungo McCosh: one might call them a pair of knowing lads in the diaspora of the forest.


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From Jim Endersby's review of Steven Jones's Coral: A pessimist in paradise:

In 1868, T. H. Huxley rose to speak at the Brill Hall in Norwich, where the British Association for the Advancement of Science was meeting. His reputation as a speaker--and as a bishop-baiting Darwinian firebrand--ensured that a large crowd had gathered to hear him. At first sight, Professor Huxley's topic could hardly have been duller: he spent ninety minutes lecturing on the significance of "the bit of chalk which every carpenter carries around in his breeches-pocket". He kept his audience spell-bound; one of them rose at the end of the talk and declared that science had never before seemd to him "so vast and mere creeds so little".

Huxley used his piece of chalk to explain two of nineteenth century's most important scientific theories: Sir Charles Lyell's geological ideas and their immediate offspring; and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. . . .

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The accumulation of tiny changes over countless millions of years was the common feature of Lyell and Darwin's theories. Given enough time, purely natural forces could transform one species into another, just as microscopic corpses could accumulate into layers thick enough to define a landscape.

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Coral is not just a miner's canary, it is also a vital part of the globe's carbon cycle, because in the process of secreting calcium carbonate the polyps absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere--"at almost twice the rate of a rain forest".

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In a coral reef, for example, crabs will clean the surface of sea cucumbers, and are thus allowed to take refude from predators in the cucumber's anus.

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[Corals] were intriguing [to Darwin] for several reasons, not least because they seemed to blur the boundary between animal and plant, suggesting a deep link between life's diverse kingdoms.


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From Fiona Gruber's review of Sasha Grishin's John Wolseley: Land Marks II:

. . . the Wallace Line, a meandering path of evolutionary separation that runs in a north-easterly direction through the Java Sea, dividing Bali from its neighbor Lombok, and Borneo from Sulawesi, before skirting the Philippines to the south. To the north-west are the animals, birds and insects of Asia; to the south-east the distinctive zoology of Australia and its adjacent islands. In the middle where, to a limited extent, species overlap, is a area known to biogeographers as Wallacea.

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Even the paper Wolseley uses can be palimpsestic. In the early 1990s, he tore up a selection of his prints and put them into a papermaking vat along with fragments of his father's etchings. . . . As Wolseley wrote at the time:

I am hoping that there will be suspended within the paper a juxtaposition of different images as in a dream, and on the surface there might emerge a detail of an etching of a long forgotten European landscape, or part of some older text--or even a single word.

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John Wolseley puts it beast in notes written to accompany his 1991 exhibition, "Life in Mud and Sand":

Just as creatures of the natural world are "the canaries in the mine" so also I would like my bits of paper to be seen as Litmus papers. Litmus which absorbs the nuances of air, or water, or honey, or the tracks of hermit crabs.


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From Martin Schifino's review of Julien Gracq's Reading Writing, translated by Jeanine Herman, and The Narrow Waters, translated by Ingeborg M. Kohn:

[Gracq:] A book that has seduced me is like a woman who places me under her spell . . . .All I expect from your critical discussion is the right vocal inflection that will give me the sense that you are in love, in love the same way I am.

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Gracq puts it with commendable clarity: "On fairly extensive map, a distortion will appear in relation to reality. . . .There is no remedy for this, but there is a palliative; provided the depicted surface is very small . . . the distortion will be considered negligible". By the same token, in literary analysis "only the remarks that arise from an almost pinpoint observation are convincing in their immediate rightness."

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At their best, however, Gracq's aphorisms read like condensed arguments, and are worthy of Chamfort: "A history of literature, contrary to history plain and simple, should comprise only the names of the victorie, since the defeats are a victory for no one". It works in both directions; longer lines of reasoning may acquire aphoristic texture: "What controls the effectiveness of a writer's use of words is not a capacity to clasp meaning tightly, it is an almost tactile knowledge of the layout of their property lines, and even more, their litigations over common ownership. For the writer, almost everything in the word is a border, and almost nothing is contained."

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