A Space in Time

A bookstore, a weblog, a magazine, all these things take on the personality of their proprietor, and if that personality resonates sufficiently with your own, you find yourself coming back again and again, chuckling that someone should be able so consistently to amuse you, sight unseen. So it is for me, I find, with The Atlantic magazine. I can’t say exactly how they keep choosing articles that interest and entertain me, but they do. I will read anything by William Langewiesche, and he’s written the cover story this month about “unbuilding” the World Trade Center. Actually, the web version is an extract, and the magazine version is only one part of what will become a book on the same subject.

In the same issue, and fully available on the web, is beautiful lyrical essay
(“A Space in Time”) by Michael Benson about imagery from NASA’s various space probes. It’s long for an onscreen read, but it’s worth the effort. Near the end, he uses a long quote from Carl Sagan that I will include here. Carl says


In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said—grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.

This echoes very much the teachings of Joseph Campbell, who pointed out that a healthy working mythology (religion) is one that puts you into accord with the universe as it is currently understood, not as it was understood by nomadic tribes in the Near East two thousand years ago. I’m with Carl. The religion we need is the one that lets us hug those improbable spacefaring robots from JPL. You go, God!

The BBC sez: Replace your

The BBC sez: Replace your mouse with your eye. It’s a premise with promise, but what do you think? Could you accurately move things around your screen with your flickering eye movements? It just might replace aching wrists with strained eyes. I can just imagine the cursor twitching back and forth across the screen until you go back to the closet and dig out the old mouse in disgust. But maybe I’m just closing my eyes to the march of progress.

I am interested in how

I am interested in how computers are used to extend our senses, such that algorithms effectively become eyes, seeing a picture that would not otherwise exist in the streams of ones and zeros returning from, say, an orbiter around Mars. So I was intrigued to hear that Mt. Everest was actually discovered by a computer. It was discovered (in the sense of being the tallest mountain in the world) in 1852, and “computer” is the title applied to a person in Dehra Dun, India who was given the task of grinding through the math associated with the Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India. Determining the tallest mountain means measuring them all against the same yardstick set against the same baseline. This is clearly a complex undertaking, so it perhaps comes as no surprise that Everest was officially observed in 1847, but it took five years to “see” that it was the tallest mountain in the survey (and by extension, the world). Here’s a nice summary with some good pictures: Peak XV. And here’s an oddball piece (written from the mountain’s point of view) from some sort of Nepal tourist office: An Autobiography of Sagarmatha’s Height.

This is the kind of

This is the kind of thing that makes staying up late and surfing the web so addictive. I was poking around peterme.com last night reading about information visualization. Several of the ideas mentioned there involved work that had been pioneered by Martin Wattenberg (of Map of the Market renown). So I reflected, web-like, I wonder what Martin has been getting up to lately? and a short trip to Google later I had my answer. THE SECRET LIVES OF NUMBERS is a piece he worked on with Golan Levin. It has an astonishingly elegant interface for understanding the relative popularity (in the sense of web hits à la Google) of all the numbers between 0 and 100,000. The sociology of numbers is interesting enough, but I could also play with it for a long time just for the experience of watching the interface react to my fiddling. It turns out that 415 is a surprisingly popular three digit number. Surprising, until you remember that 415 is a San Francisco area code. Similarly, you can unearth the postal geography of the United States just by looking for peaks and plateaus in the five digit numbers that correspond to zip codes. As they say in the Michelin guides “three stars; merits a special trip.”