Sunday, January 31, 2010

Science and Art ~ OK Go and “Before The Earth Was Round”

I intended to piece together a post exploring what I think is the anti-science stance staked out in the new song “Before The Earth Was Round” by the band OK Go. This is the group of four guys whose clever video for their song “Here It Goes Again” redefined the best use of treadmills.

“Before The Earth Was Round” appears on the group’s new album Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. The song describes two periods – a utopian period (before knowledge) and a post-knowledge period.

The utopian period:

Before the earth was round,
And there was no end to things,
And no one tried to measure what they knew,
Everything was warm and everyone would love
And every contradiction was true.
. . .
And the sky was still honestly blue.

Consequences of that knowledge:

And war became a job and love became a mystery.
And the heart and head were bent out of tune.
Fear and doubt began,
and God threw up his hands,
and the sky didn’t know what to do . . . .

At the outset, I took the song at face value. The message, as I hear it, is that scientific knowledge (the measuring of things) spells the end of harmony between mind and body, destroys love, brings war, renders God impotent, and, oh, yes, it robs the sky of its blue color. As for that last, apparently if you know something about the “how” of an aspect of the natural world, its beauty, its art, its color disappear. That’s where my thoughts were centering.

Then, again, maybe it’s all irony or a parody or a pose or just a song or . . . . Singer Damian Kulash described it in an interview as

a sort of absurdist allegory where the whole world goes and they figure out the Earth is round. And they have knowledge now, and everything goes wrong because of it. And you know, they sort of lose - they lose mystery and poetry.

~ interview on NPR’s Morning Edition

So, where do you stand on this “absurdist allegory,” Damian?

But, thankfully, I didn’t write an exegesis of the song because I am easily distracted.

First Distraction

The first flakes blew in during the midmorning yesterday, quickly covering the ground and weaving patterns across the roads. It snowed steadily throughout the day and the city slowed. A snow day . . . wasted on a Saturday.

Snowflakes are geometrically beautiful, often unrelentingly fractal. To Wilson A. Bentley, who photographed snowflakes for half a century, beginning in 1885, they were “dainty hieroglyphics.” (As quoted in Jack Williams, The Weather Book, 1997, p. 101) So, on a whim, I ventured out with camera, minitripod, and trilobite knit cap. Scattered throughout this post are images of a few of yesterday’s fallen that I captured moments before they melted away or blended into their comrades.

I know there is marvelous science and mathematics behind each snowflake. A dance of physics, geometry, meteorology, chance . . . . I dug out a notebook I filled several years ago in the meteorology course I took at the local community college. An energetically taught, compelling course. I also pulled Meteorology by Eric W. Danielson and friends, (1998) from a stack of books in the basement. In the quiet that descended on the house as the traffic faded and then stopped on my snow-covered street, I read about the formation of snowflakes.

The Bergeron process. Supercooled clouds with supersaturated air over water droplets and unsaturated air over the few ice crystals that begin to form in the clouds’ below freezing temperatures. Evaporation of water. The deposition of water vapor onto the ice. (Deposition is the direct transformation of a gas to a solid.) Growing ice crystals begin to fall. Myriad ways in which these crystals might be transformed . . . into snow pellets, sleet, freezing rain, hail, rain drops.

And maybe, just maybe, snowflakes.

The images that impress us the most and we typically call snowflakes are individual snow crystals. Forget, for purposes of this post, that snowflakes, technically, can be those single crystals or aggregations of crystals.

Physicist Kenneth G. Libbrecht has described their creation:

Under ideal conditions—for which the growth must be unperturbed by collisions with other ice or water particles—a snow crystal can grow into a rather elaborate, six-fold symmetric shape, . . . . (The Physics of Snow Crystals, Reports on Progress in Physics, March 2005, p. 862, emphasis added)

This is what the science delineates – intricate steps must occur in precisely the right way to create that flake that hits my little photographic platform (and melts before I can bring the camera into focus). This leaves me somewhat breathless at the improbability of that classic snowflake.

When Libbrecht, creator of a wonderful website on snowflakes and snow crystals, uses the word “ideal” I applaud. Yes, there are conditions that must prevail for the flake to appear, but, more importantly, these are the conditions we want to prevail. Why? He has said it best:

Snowflakes are remarkable examples of nature’s art. They are born within the grey winter clouds, where the simple act of freezing turns formless water vapor into spectacular crystalline ice sculptures. How amazing it is that these elaborate, symmetrical, and sometimes stunningly beautiful structures appear quite literally out of thin air! (The Art of the Snowflake: A Photographic Album, 2007, p. 11)

Second Distraction

My second distraction was a treat, a visit to the website of the Two Wall Gallery in Vashon, Washington. (A recent post by ReBecca Hunt-Foster on her blog Dinochick Blogs steered me in this direction.) Last year, the gallery hosted “Geo sapiens, Geology and Art,” an exhibit of works of art by 50 geologists, other earth scientists, and earth science students. A wonderful array of pictures of the art work has been posted on the gallery's website.

The art work by these scientists is stunning. Many of the pieces are alluring, rich in color and often seductive in the gracefulness they capture. Science deeply informs the art. The website states,

These works together illustrate the intimate connection these geoscientists have with the Earth and its mysteries.

Here are just a few pictures of these works of art, (reproduced here by permission of the gallery). From left to right, the first is a stone mosaic by Russell Ratcliff called Arroyo. The second is a linocut print (I think that's the medium) by Greg Wessel called Stratigraphic Lesson. The third is Cascade by Jeffrey Nelson (not sure of the precise medium).

These artists know the intricate science behind the images they have created. For these men and women who have practiced the earth sciences professionally, their knowledge clearly does not deprive them of a sense of the natural world's beauty.

As for my response to “Before The Earth Was Round,” I’m done.

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