30 Apr 2013, 3:26pm
Comments Off on Chris Impey on How it Began

Chris Impey on How it Began

Chris Impey, an astronomer from Tucson, Arizona was at Writers Fest giving an update on the universe as we can know it. His new book is How it Began, a guide to cosmology for the general public. The general public came out en masse to hear his skilled and entertaining talk.

Chris Impey
The beginning is to say I don’t know.

He said at the boundary between what you know and what you don’t know is where things are fun, interesting and science. When science is poorly taught in schools it is a box of what is known. When it is taught well, it is about exploring what we can know and how. He quoted from Richard Feynman to Lucretius.

One of his arguments is justly famous. He invites us to assume that the universe is finite and to consider what would happen if someone went to the very edge of it and threw a spear. One of two things would happen: either the spear would be stopped, in which case there must be matter ahead; or the spear would fly on, in which case there must be space ahead. In neither case has the boundary of the universe been reached.

What would it mean that the universe has an edge. An edge implies something outside it. Multiverses? Multidimensions but still an “in” implies an “out”. For that conundrum he points to Robert Frost who said “all metaphors are imperfect and that is the beauty of them”. So it is with science too. We mustn’t be pedantic in extending our metaphor, or overextending. It is a way of thinking but not the way it is.

The path of science has been on course since Pythagoras’ music of the spheres. We are trying to find an explanatory system that explains the data and is simple, complete and symmetrical. Not more complex or simple than it needs to be, a combined theory of gravity and electricity, of the motion of galaxies and of atoms. As it stands the theories can predict to within 1% of what is observed. But there’s that niggling error. As Richard Feynman said we’re trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible because that is how you make progress.

The more we can see of magnitudes of small and large, the more data we have. The more powerful instruments are, the deeper into space we can look, and the more space there is to see. In Hawaii there’s a plan to build a 30 meter telescope and in Chile a 22 meter one which has already broken ground. This extends the reach possible compared to Hubble. The fainter and father away the light is, the farther back in time we are looking. It is an older light. The light of Andromeda left there before humans even appeared. The sky in this way is a sort of time machine to be here and able to see back in history.

Because light takes time to travel, we see the moon as it was a second ago, the sun as it was 8 minutes ago, the star Sirius as it was 9 years ago and M31, the Andromeda Galaxy with its one trillion stars as it was 2.5 million years ago. If you take the image from a Hubble, its view of the sky is about the proportion of a syringe hole when held at arm’s length.

Chris Impey
Each refinement allows a revised estimate. From Herschel to Hubble the universe “expanded” a thousand fold over what we expected. How that we have this idea of dark energy that we can’t detect yet that may be a much larger canvas than we imagined before. Finding dark matter that is theorized to exist but can’t be detected is one of the chases underway.

Since some supernovae are not in the position that the models would predict, there’s a theory that something called dark energy pushed them there. It is a force that acts the opposite of gravity to propel the matter we can see. In the 80s neutrinos were detected and didn’t have the properties that it would have to have and so were ruled out as candidates.

Chris Impey Michael Leveille Q&A
He and Michael Leveille did a Q&A afterwards.

Now the figure is at 1080 atoms in the universe and a billion billion Earth-like planet, even under the narrow definition of what is life-supporting. That is thrown off when we consider the life that exists on ocean-bottom volcanic vents under immense pressure without access to sun.

He also has an upcoming book about a decade teaching math and science to the monks in Tibet. That’s coming out as a book Humble Before the Void.

Chris Impey
He also has Dreams of Other Worlds, a short story collection en route to paper.

What a wonderful resource to have experts in various fields come talk. The next science talks are at 6:30 and 8:30 pm at the Knox Presbyterian church near Sparks and Elgin.

Our world Tuesday, week 88.

Quote: “We can’t define anything precisely. If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers… one saying to the other: “you don’t know what you are talking about!”. The second one says: “what do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you? What do you mean by know?” ~ Richard Feynman

29 Apr 2013, 7:54pm
1 comment

Writers Fest, Spring 2013

the mic stands alone
The main spring season of Writers Fest is on for one more day. Or if you rush over to Knox Presbyterian, tonight’s event with Emmanuel Dongala,Kenneth Bonert
and Mia Couto, plus tomorrow’s.

books and brunch signup
A few more events are scattered over May and year round until the fall sessions, like the books and brunch on May 5th. A DNA genealogy chase, a political thriller and 50 most influential Canadians history book.

Chris Impey
We somehow managed to miss a day there. I expected to start on day 2 yet somehow it was day 3 before we toddled over. Good thing we didn’t miss Chris Impey and How it Began. He gave a remarkable talk, remarkable in that I felt I was watching it from a bouncy castle with the people around me jiggling with laughter at his turns in the presentation. The material was complex, covering everything we’ve learned about astronomy in brief since the 1940s but it was made accessible. And how wonderful a whole roomful of a couple hundred people or more would turn out to learn.

Chris Impey
He was talking about dark matter and dark energy, string theory, and the big bang. The big bang was originally meant as dismissive term by someone who backed another theory but it has a ring to it so it struck by proponent of the expanding universe.

I’ll probably write up my notes on that in more detail later.

The science lectures might be my favourite. One of the frequent streams of the fest is science/math. Others are terrorism/peace, food and environment, Canadian history, novels and poetry.

waiting for the next event
Whenever we’ve gone it’s been lineups and packed rooms.

Northern Scenes/Writers fest panel
CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld, Ivan E. Coyote and Taqralik Partridge on panel as part of a Northern Scenes/Writers Fest co-production had a super turnout. Both were rather emotionally intense, of navigating grief and loss with compassion and, in Coyote’s case, with characteristic humour. Something that sets her storytelling apart is a Vinyl-Café-like affection for the characters that populate the stories. There’s an insistence on well-being in the world that is rare, especially among writers.

book table
I missed Kushner and Etger Keret although his Kafkaesque short stories would fit a certain mood one day soon. I heard the talk was very good. Ah well, my stamina and recovery time from information being what it is, 2 hours out into lit events, is 1 day recovery; can’t do it all.

Food talk
The panel on food was one of a few along the lines of questioning our habits of food systems. The Community Food Centre has gardens, kitchens, a greenhouse, farmers’ markets and a mission to revolutionize our food system. We settle for sub-par at cafeterias and restaurants and store shelves. If consumers get in there, balk and bring up the game demanded, things have to shift.

Nick Saul, How to Fight for Good Food
There was a big lineup for Nick Saul (and Andrea Curtis, unpictured) signing How to Fight for Good Food.

That rack emptied out fast.

House of Anansi Poetry Bash: Adam Dickinson, Sara Peters and Michael Crummey
The House of Anansi Poetry Bash featured new poetry titles: Adam Dickinson’s The Polymers that I’d heard so much about, Sara Peters’ 1996 and Michael Crummey’s Under the Keel. The poets had a wonderful rapport with questions and answers circling among them as well. It was neat to see Dickinson’s poems. I should have grabbed a book then. I think they’ll be gone when I go back but I’ll hunt one up sometime. I’m pretty sure I saw Michael Crummey read before but from a novel. His poetry was as funny and charming as his manner but not standup, more weight than that.

I’ll probably put more about those readings over at pesbo sometime.

Noteable Quoteable: “No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.” ~ C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

The state of the garden

the ground grows brains
The garden is growing brains. How handy.

I expected to do a post on Thursday and I drew a blank.

Against all predictions both of the rhubarb plants are coming back. I was sure the one crowded out by nettles was a goner.

bleeding heart still not dead
And here’s another survivor. My bleeding heart. It seemed to die halfway through the summer and one of us thought it was an annual, or else dead and yanked it up last fall. Stuck back in the ground it actually came back.

the spruce has had it Speaking of bleeding hearts, the spruce is done for.

I feel kind of suckered for even trying to buy a full size potted Christmas tree. But to think of millions of people ceremonially killing a tree each year seems against the spirit of the holidays. It could have worked, but was such a long shot. The root system must have been slashed to fit in a pot. Even with all the straw bale bedding to insulate it from winter, over the last couple weeks it lost its top 1/3 of remaining needles. The neighbour’s garden gnome staring in it will have to wear a black ribbon around its arm now.

tulips up thru straw
Naturally under snow cover we lugged its pot over to somewhere where we thought we’d transplant it. As it happened that was to pile the pot and straw all over where the tulip bulbs were. Bless them and their can-do-it souls, they were growing halfway thought the thickness of the bales.

On the other hand we have a secret stash of snow, y’know, for reminiscence’s sake.

Hands in the dirt and face in the sun and the world seems to make more sensible balance. Whoops. Forgot to bring in one pot. There she blows…


Hello earthworm.

sage crocuses
The sage is headed up. I envisioned a huge number of crocuses as a sort of explosion of color to each side of the walkway. We have about half a dozen blooms. Either we planted fewer than I thought, or some were eaten, or both. But this wee pixie-sized bouquet is nice.

spring onions coming up
That may look like generic sprout but that’s coming out of our spring onions.

Noteable Quoteable: We make the world we live in and shape our own environment.” ~ Orison Swett Marden

23 Apr 2013, 11:32am

3 Snapshots

It’s income tax season.

sign, sin tax?
Well, someone had a punchy opinion. A new meaning for sin tax?

get back twice of what you supply
Even the plumbing system knows, you get back twice of what you supply but it may come from either direction.

We settled in for an evening of anti-scrabble.

Anti-scrabble? No blank tiles. Scoring optional. All words must be plausible but not existing English words, like unthage or starpend. Word challenge takes the form of asking for a daffynition. For example, Brian says torf is the fuzz of uneven lint that comes on an old tennis ball. Jata I say is an obsolete local currency worth about a centime, of a Malaysian island.

That’s our world Tuesday

Quote: “Saddest of all are the women who were brought up to believe that self-sacrifice is the highest female virtue. They made the sacrifice, often willingly, and they are still waiting for the blessing.” ~ Jeanette Winterson in Art & Lies

21 Apr 2013, 1:35pm
Arts Ottawa
Comments Off on Andrew King Gallery

Andrew King Gallery

before the opening
On Friday night the exhibit was hung but paper-covered before the grand opening of the temporary gallery of Andrew King Studio for District15.

We first came across his art in a gallery downtown a few years ago. He had a pop-up gallery in a house recently but we didn’t get around to that one. There’s something delightful, or rather many things delightful, about his images. His perspective is offbeat, whether the subjects of how they’re portrayed. The images are almost pixar simple visually, with a lot of flat bright colors with a figure confronted with an insurmountable darkly comic odds, whether depth of snowfall or size of encroaching building cranes. It’s the stories of the little guys. It’s an odd mix of social commentary bite and happy.

For example, in the Andrew King cosmos, a homeowner decides to take in-fill housing to the next level and digs a pit to build the house below grade. No prying eyes in his window and the long shadows of him looking down on his standard house and the long ladder to climb down into the human made sinkhole cum abode.

Figures are dwarfed by the built or natural landscape. In the world the colours are lush and the scene apocalyptic of churches and figures being carried off by windstorms or land being razed for development. It might be comparable in music to the Benzedrine Monks Of Santo Domonica doing the Gregorian chant version of Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?

The perspective is typically low to the ground, as if the viewer is submerged, so each house or church is a specimen against the sky. It is stylized and whimsical and yet taking things to nth degree it isn’t simple. For example something in a white church with red roof being blown off its foundations against a tranquil blue sky…and two figures falling midair one losing a bag while his scarf blows jaunty in the breeze, while the preacher is still in hunched focused invective at the pulpit oblivious to the loss of all parishioners and the structure itself around him. There’s often some odd twist in the image, such as Sunday Breeze where the clothes line is strung out with its bright tablecloths and an umbrella person. Unlike some artists who don’t want even a thumbnail of their art to be let loose online, he allows free downloads of his images. There’s more of “let’s play” and less of proprietary and yet the images sells well.

He’s one of half a dozen artists that I’d want to have a piece of to dialogue with. You can see some of the art at his site here. Here’s Peter Joynt’s pics of the paintings that struck him on opening night.

Ottawa Citizen article of the opening of District 15. The picture at the top a route to a slideshow. “District 15” — Wellington West, Westboro and Hintonburg — “where it’s been, and where it’s going.” Their link to his promo site for the Wellboro is broken. It should be this.

I missed that whole trailer thing of a satire condo development site. I’d seen the posters but the info was a scan-code thing. Check out the amenities, such as a common room for giving kids time out, nano-brewery and car detailing on site, and pet rental service. He was aiming for it to be almost credible but a touch of The Onion.

It was a full house and with more continually coming. Unlike some pretzel and red wine vernissages, there were beef croissant sandwiches, macaroons, mini wrapped peanut butter cups, and strawberries among other things. And it turned into a dance party later.

There was a lineup on opening and those fashionably slightly late by minutes soon had the room with 80 people or so. Before we’d walked around 1/4 of the room, being first in the door, there were already half a dozen red dots of sold. We were probably there an hour and the number of red dots going up around the room was pretty amazing.

There are 48 paintings and small studies of ink sketches. You can see where a study gets transposed and transformed into a full painting. Things ranged from a couple hundred dollars, apart from the t-shirts for twenty, to, I forget…

The show also has his Series 2 of t-shirts of past and classic still up business signs, like bowling lanes and biway. Remember biway? One of my few childhood memories is of there. Each week for it seems months but maybe it was only 2 or 3 weeks, I’d see the bag of dustball and bags of marbles under the shelving and one week I fished it out and pocketed it. Mom saw a lump in my coat not very far down the sidewalk and made me bring the “lost marbles” back to a clerk and made me apologize. (Ah bygone biway days.)

On the walls of the exhibit were Sketches of Our Past of buildings torn down or still up over the neighbourhood’s history and a blurb of their history. Fascinating little bits, like a house built by the only Canadian to work with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Amazing fertile mind.

The District15 exhibit gallery is at 1304 Wellington St.W. until April 30th. Hours are Wed-Fri 11-7pm, Sat 10-6 and Sun 11-5pm.

Noteable Quoteable: “The work of the individual still remains the spark that moves mankind forward.” ~ Igor Sikorsky

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