Tag: Nature

Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: Creating a Holistic View of the World Through A Web of Interdisciplinary Knowledge

In his piece in 2014’s Edge collection This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress, dinosaur paleontologist Scott Sampson writes that science needs to “subjectify” nature. By “subjectify”, he essentially means to see ourselves connected with nature, and therefore care about it the same way we do the people with whom we are connected.

That's not the current approach. He argues: “One of the most prevalent ideas in science is that nature consists of objects. Of course, the very practice of science is grounded in objectivity. We objectify nature so that we can measure it, test it, and study it, with the ultimate goal of unraveling its secrets. Doing so typically requires reducing natural phenomena to their component parts.”

But this approach is ultimately failing us.

Why? Because much of our unsustainable behavior can be traced to a broken relationship with nature, a perspective that treats the nonhuman world as a realm of mindless, unfeeling objects. Sustainability will almost certainly depend upon developing mutually enhancing relations between humans and nonhuman nature.

This isn't a new plea, though. Over 200 years ago, the famous naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859) was facing the same challenges.

In her compelling book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World, Andrea Wulf explores Humboldt as the first person to publish works promoting a holistic view of nature, arguing that nature could only be understood in relation to the subjectivity of experiencing it.

Fascinated by scientific instruments, measurements and observations, he was driven by a sense of wonder as well. Of course nature had to be measured and analyzed, but he also believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and emotions.

Humboldt was a rock star scientist who ignored conventional boundaries in his exploration of nature. Humboldt's desire to know and understand the world led him to investigate discoveries in all scientific disciplines, and to see the interwoven patterns embedded in this knowledge — mental models anyone?

If nature was a web of life, he couldn’t look at it just as a botanist, a geologist or a zoologist. He required information about everything from everywhere.

Humboldt grew up in a world where science was dry, nature mechanical, and man an aloof and separate chronicler of what was before him. Not only did Humboldt have a new vision of what our understanding of nature could be, but he put humans in the middle of it.

Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants promoted an entirely different understanding of nature. Instead of only looking at an organism, … Humboldt now presented relationships between plants, climate and geography. Plants were grouped into zones and regions rather than taxonomic units. … He gave western science a new lens through which to view the natural world.

Revolutionary for his time, Humboldt rejected the Cartesian ideas of animals as mechanical objects. He also argued passionately against the growing approach in the sciences that put man atop and separate from the rest of the natural world. Promoting a concept of unity in nature, Humboldt saw nature as a “reflection of the whole … an organism in which the parts only worked in relation to each other.”

Furthermore, that “poetry was necessary to comprehend the mysteries of the natural world.”

Wulf paints one of Humboldt’s greatest achievements as his ability and desire to make science available to everyone. No one before him had “combined exact observation with a ‘painterly description of the landscape”.

By contrast, Humboldt took his readers into the crowded streets of Caracas, across the dusty plains of the Llanos and deep into the rainforest along the Orinoco. As he described a continent that few British had ever seen, Humboldt captured their imagination. His words were so evocative, the Edinburgh Review wrote, that ‘you partake in his dangers; you share his fears, his success and his disappointment.'

In a time when travel was precarious, expensive and unavailable to most people, Humboldt brought his experiences to anyone who could read or listen.

On 3 November 1827, … Humboldt began a series of sixty-one lectures at the university. These proved so popular that he added another sixteen at Berlin’s music hall from 6 December. For six months he delivered lectures several days a week. Hundreds of people attended each talk, which Humboldt presented without reading from his notes. It was lively, exhilarating and utterly new. By not charging any entry fee, Humboldt democratized science: his packed audiences ranged from the royal family to coachmen, from students to servants, from scholars to bricklayers – and half of those attending were women. Berlin had never seen anything like it.

The subjectification of nature is about seeing nature, experiencing it. Humboldt was a master of bringing people to worlds they couldn’t visit, allowing them to feel a part of it. In doing so, he wanted to force humanity to see itself in nature. If we were all part of the giant web, then we all had a responsibility to understand it.

When he listed the three ways in which the human species was affecting the climate, he named deforestation, ruthless irrigation and, perhaps most prophetically, the ‘great masses of steam and gas’ produced in the industrial centres. No one but Humboldt had looked at the relationship between humankind and nature like this before.

His final opus, a series of books called Cosmos, was the culmination of everything that Humboldt had learned and discovered.

Cosmos was unlike any previous book about nature. Humboldt took his readers on a journey from outer space to earth, and then from the surface of the planet into its inner core. He discussed comets, the Milky Way and the solar system as well as terrestrial magnetism, volcanoes and the snow line of mountains. He wrote about the migration of the human species, about plants and animals and the microscopic organisms that live in stagnant water or on the weathered surface of rocks. Where others insisted that nature was stripped of its magic as humankind penetrated into its deepest secrets, Humboldt believed exactly the opposite. How could this be, Humboldt asked, in a world in which the coloured rays of an aurora ‘unite in a quivering sea flame’, creating a sight so otherworldly ‘the splendour of which no description can reach’? Knowledge, he said, could never ‘kill the creative force of imagination’ – instead it brought excitement, astonishment and wondrousness.

This is the ultimate subjectivity of nature. Being inspired by its beauty to try and understand how it works. Humboldt had respect for nature, for the wonders it contained, but also as the system in which we ourselves are an inseparable part.

Wulf concludes at the end that Humboldt,

…was one of the last polymaths, and died at a time when scientific disciplines were hardening into tightly fenced and more specialized fields. Consequently his more holistic approach – a scientific method that included art, history, poetry and politics alongside hard data – has fallen out of favour.

Maybe this is where the subjectivity of nature has gone. But we can learn from Humboldt the value of bringing it back.

In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary.

A little imagination is all it takes.

The False Allure of a “Natural State” of Man

The heated debate about Sapiens' “natural way of life” is missing the point.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn't been a natural way of life for Sapiens.

— Yuval Noah Harari

A Natural State of Curiosity 

We modern humans have a fascination with trying to figure out our “natural” state. What do we eat — “naturally”? What sort of world are we “meant” to live in? What sort of family dynamic are we “meant” to have? Are we supposed to have sex with only the opposite gender, or is it perfectly “natural” to prefer your own? How much violence is natural and acceptable?

(The line of reasoning is a bit strange once we dig into it. Are modern humans not part of the natural world? Isn’t anything we do basically “natural”? At what point did we divert from “natural” to “unnatural”? We digress…)

One of the central conceits of the “man’s natural state” argument is that if we go back to some point in time, we’ll find it. We’ll finally come across the state of being where man lived totally in harmony with each other and with nature; eating the perfect diet for health, worshipping the correct gods, having sex in the natural and acceptable way. And besides studying religious texts, the tool that’s most frequently employed is the study of ancient, “pre-historic” man and woman. We hope that, by going back far enough, we’ll hit some arbitrary Point of Naturalness. That’s partially the approach used, for example, by the Paleo movement which has become such a popular force in nutrition. We evolved to eat bacon, right?


What Is Natural?

These types of “meant to be” questions presuppose that we existed in some homogenous state in the past, and that we should be striving to get back to that place; that nature has given us a sort of natural endowment that we are best to stick to. Not so, says Yuval Harari.

The value of a book like Harari’s Sapiens, with its broad sweep of human history, is that we learn that ever since our Cognitive Revolution, the point that what we call history diverges from what we call biology, human society has been consistently molded and remolded; changed to suit the temper of the moment. That’s what makes humanity so unique relative to other intelligent creatures. Culturally, we change rapidly and unpredictably. There are very few absolutes, there are very few arrangements we haven’t tried yet. What’s “natural” depends on which society you’re looking at and at which point in time you’re looking at it.

From Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

It stands to reason that the ethnic and cultural variety among ancient hunter-gatherers was equally impressive [as those found in Australia by European settlers], and that the 5 million to 8 million foragers who populated the world on the eve of the Agricultural Revolution were divided into thousands of separate tribes with thousands of different languages and cultures. This, after all, was one of the main legacies of the Cognitive Revolution. Thanks to the appearance of fiction, even people with the same genetic make-up who lived under similar ecological conditions were able to create very different imagined realities, which manifest themselves in different norms and values.

For example, there’s every reason to believe that a forager band that lived 30,000 years ago on the spot where Oxford University stands would have spoken a different language from one living where Cambridge is now situated. One band might have been belligerent and the other peaceful. Perhaps the Cambridge band was communal while the one at Oxford was based on nuclear families. The Cambridgians might have spent long hours carving wooden statues of their guardian spirits whereas the Oxonians may have worshipped through dance. The former perhaps believed in reincarnation, while the latter thought this was nonsense. In one society, homosexual relationships might have been accepted, while in the other they were taboo.

In other words, while anthropological observations of modern foragers can help us understand some of the possibilities available to ancient foragers, the ancient horizon of possibilities was much broader, and much of it is hidden from our view. The heated debates about Homo Sapiens’ “natural way of life” miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of [biological] possibilities.

Take the debate between monogamy and polygamy. Both have certainly been tried before and exist in some form in modern society, with each achieving various levels of success. It’s likely that most modern humans consider monogamy the most “natural” arrangement since it’s the most popular one, but we see the evidence of its failure all the time. Divorces are as common as death-do-us-part marriages, at least in most of Western civilization. We have a host of psychological problems tied to the constant trials of a long term one-to-one relationship. The proponents of polygamy would point to the failures of marriage as being due to the biological prison of monogamy, the unnaturalness of it all.

Wait, no no, say the monogamists. Our biology points the other way: We are meant to live in a tight-knit nuclear family with one spouse. This encourages caring and survival, and strong, unavoidable emotions like jealousy give us evidence that it’s probably right there in our genes. The prevalence of monogamy in modern society must be some evidence that it’s the real contender.

Who’s right? The truth is we don’t really know, and a study of the past is not as revealing as you might think. The Monogamy v. Polygamy debate also points to an even greater problem with our understanding of man in the period before he started writing things down, which is that our knowledge is dwarfed by our lack of knowledge.

Searching for Keys in the Light

Compared to the many things we do know about our past, there are many times more things we don’t know, and in fact can’t know. Our historical methods have deep limitations:

Unfortunately, there are few certainties regarding the lives of our forager ancestors. The debate between the ‘ancient commune’ and the ‘eternal monogamy’ schools is based on flimsy evidence. We obviously have no written records from the age of foragers, and the archaeological evidence consists mainly of fossilized bones and stone tools. Artifacts made of more perishable materials — such as wood, bamboo, or leather — survive only under unique conditions. The common impression that pre-agricultural humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on this archaeological bias. The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age, because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood.


Foragers moved house every month, every week, and sometimes even every day, toting whatever they had on their backs. There were no moving companies, wagons, or even pack animals to share the burden. They consequently had to make do with only the most essential possessions. It’s reasonable to presume, then, that the greater part of their mental, religious and emotional lives was conducted without the help of artifacts. An archaeologist working 100,000 years from now could piece together a reasonable picture of Muslim belief and practice from the myriad objects he unearthed in a ruined mosque. But we are largely at a loss in trying to comprehend the beliefs and rituals of ancient hunter-gatherers. It’s much the same dilemma that a future historian would face if he had to depict the social world of twenty-first century teenagers solely on the basis of their surviving snail mail — since no records will remain of their phone conversations, emails, blogs and text messages.

This archaeological bias, as Harari terms it, calls to mind the drunk looking under the streetlight for his keys because “That’s where the light is!” We study what is most study-able. The problem is that this bias leaves behind a whole bunch of interesting questions, a whole lot of interesting stuff that probably occurred.

Take the difference between understanding the diet of the ancient person and understanding how they actually felt about their food, and what that said about who they were:

The basics of the forager economy can be reconstructed with some confidence based on quantifiable and objective factors. For example, we can calculate how many calories per day a person needs in order to survive, how many calories were obtained from a pound of walnuts, and how many walnuts could be gathered from a square mile of forest. With this data, we can make an educated guess about the relative importance of walnuts in their diet.

But did they consider walnuts a delicacy or a humdrum staple? Did they believe that walnut trees were inhabited by spirits? Did they find walnut leaves pretty? If a forager boy wanted to take a forager girl to a romantic spot, did the share of a walnut tree suffice? [Ed: Did the concept of romance mean anything to them?]

That’s the thing: We don’t even really know how they felt about these things. They didn’t leave us any memoirs.

An Animated View of Religion

Some of the more interesting sets of questions surround religion. One thing we can reliably suppose is that man has been in an essentially constant state of religious belief.

Most scholars suppose that most ancient humans were animists, believing that all things contained a life-force, be it a rock, a tree, a squirrel, or a human. In addition, there were spirits, fairies, angels, and other mystical creatures that play a role in the world. Human beings, in this worldview, are just part of a larger system; there are no Gods puppeteering our outcomes or watching us with a particularly close eye. We’re not the center of the universe.

But even if we can reliably suppose that most forager humans were animists, and it’s up for debate how reliable that is, there were very likely to be hundreds or thousands of varieties within that framework. It’s really the same as the “theistic” view of the world, which has been shared by billions of modern humans in widely varying forms:

The generic rubric ‘theists’ covers Jewish rabbis from eighteenth-century Poland, witch-burning Puritans from seventeenth-century Massachusetts, Aztec priests from fifteenth-century Mexico, Sufi mystics from twelfth-century Iran, tenth-century Viking warriors, second-century Roman legionnaires, and first-century Chinese bureaucrats. Each of these view others’ beliefs and practices as weird and heretical. The differences between the beliefs of groups of ‘animistic’ foragers were probably just as big. Their religious experience may have been turbulent and filled with controversies, reforms, and revolutions.


We assume they were animists, but that’s not very informative. We don’t know which spirits they prayed to, which festivals they celebrated, or which taboos they observed. Most importantly, we don’t know what stories they told. It’s one of the biggest holes in our understand of human history.

The Original Conquistadors

Conquest is another fascinating aspect of history. It’s comparatively easy for us to study Columbus and Pizarro and understand why they sought to explore new worlds, and why their wealthy backers supported the cause. Much of it is recorded and has been analyzed, summarized, and synthesized for our modern study.

But what of the conquests of the vastly longer period of pre-recorded history, what of them? We know they happened: The fossil record tells us that we started out as a species in the African/Asian landmass, bounded by the sea, and clearly, we broke free. Our technology was likely to have been barely up to the task, but we went ahead anyway.

Following the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens acquired technology, the organizational skills, and perhaps even the vision necessary to break out of Afro-Asia and settled the Outer World. Their first achievement was the colonization of Australia some 45,000 years ago. Experts are hard-pressed to explain this feat. In order to reach Australia, humans had to cross a number of sea channels, some more than 60 miles wide , and upon arrival they had to adapt nearly overnight to a completely new ecosystem.


The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history, at least as important as Columbus’ journey to America or the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon. It was the first time any human had managed to leave the Afro-Asian ecological system — indeed, the first time any large terrestrial mammal had managed to cross from Afro-Asia to Australia.

Imagine what it must have been like arriving in Australia, with the entirety of human history having taken place on another continent with different animals, weather, plants, and geology. It makes the Moon landing seem kinda tame by comparison.

The Curtain of Silence

But the even more salient question is why? What would have motivated a band, or many bands of ancient human foragers to take a risky journey across the sea to new land? Were they trying to escape persecution? Were they curious conquerers? Were they trying to prove something? Were they guided by spirits? At current, we can’t know those answers, and thus our understanding of deep history has limits.

Harari calls this The Curtain of Silence.

This curtain of silence shrouds tens of thousands of years of history. These long millennia may well have witnessed wars and revolutions, ecstatic religious movements, profound philosophical theories, incomparable artistic masterpieces. The foragers may have had their all-conquering Napoleons, who ruled empires half the size of Luxembourg; gifted Beethovens who lacked symphony orchestras but brought people to tears with the sound of their bamboo flutes; and charismatic prophets who revealed the words of a local oak tree rather than those of a creator god. But these are all mere guesses. The curtain of silence is so thick that we cannot even be sure such things occurred — let alone describe them in detail.

In the end, though, our guesses make the study of history a fascinating adventure.

Still Interested? Read our previous post on Sapiens, the book itself, or read about some of the biological lessons of history.

Our Yearning for Immortality: Alan Lightman on one of the most Profound Contradictions of Human Existence

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.


“Be not deceived,” Epictetus writes in The Discourses, “every animal is attached to nothing so much as to its own interest.” Few things are more in our nature than our yearning for permanence. And yet all evidence argues against us.

This profound human contradiction is what physicist Alan Lightman — the first person to receive dual appointments in sciences and humanities at MIT — explores in one of the essays in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.

Alan Lightman (Photo via MIT)
Alan Lightman (Photo via MIT)

The Accidental Universe

In the foreword to The Accidental Universe, Lightman tells a story of attending a lecture given by the Dalai Lama at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among other things, the Dalai Lama spoke on the Buddhist concept of sunyata, which translates as “emptiness.” More specifically this doctrine means that objects in the physical universe are empty of inherent meaning — objects only receive meaning when we attach it to them with our thoughts and beliefs. This calls into question what is real.

As a scientist, I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real (even if mostly empty space) and exist independently of our minds. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand how distressed I become when I experience anger or jealousy or insult, all emotional states manufactured by my own mind. The mind is certainly its own cosmos.

As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “It [the mind] can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.”

In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.


Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.

We often think of the world as the totality of physical reality.

The word “universe” comes from the Latin unus, meaning “one,” combined with versus, which is the past participle of vertere, meaning “to turn.” Thus the original and literal meaning of “universe” was “everything turned into one.”

In the first essay “The Accidental Universe,” Lightman argues there is a possibility of multiple universes and multiple space-time continuums. But even if there is only a single universe, “there are many universes within our one universe, some visible and some not.” It all depends on your vantage point.

The challenge arises from explaining what we cannot see in a physical sense but can reason from deductions. We are like a pilot — relying our our incomplete mental instruments to guide us. We must believe what we cannot see and to a large extent we must believe what we cannot prove.

The Temporary Universe

In, The Temporary Universe, one of the best essays in the collection, Lightman sets out to explore our attachment to youth, immortality, and the familiar, despite their fleeting nature. The essay explores a profound contradiction of human existence — our longing for immortality.

I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?


Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself toward a condition of maximum disorder. It is a question of probabilities. You start from a situation of improbable order, like a deck of cards all arranged according to number and suit, or like a solar system with several planets orbiting nicely about a central star. Then you drop the deck of cards on the floor over and over again. You let other stars randomly whiz by your solar system, jostling it with their gravity. The cards become jumbled. The planets get picked off and go aimlessly wandering through space. Order has yielded to disorder. Repeated patterns to change. In the end, you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.


We can't live forever. Our lives are controlled by our genes in each cell. The raison d'être for most of these genes is to pass on instructions for how to build.

Some of these genes must be copied thousands of times; others are constantly subjected to random chemical storms and electrically unbalanced atoms, called free radicals, that disrupt other atoms. Disrupted atoms, with their electrons misplaced, cannot properly pull and tug on nearby atoms to form the intended bonds and architectural forms. In short, with time the genes get degraded. They become forks with missing tines. They cannot quite do their job. Muscles, for example. With age, muscles slacken and grow loose, lose mass and strength, can barely support our weight as we toddle across the room. And why must we suffer such indignities? Because our muscles, like all living tissue, must be repaired from time to time due to normal wear and tear. These repairs are made by the mechano growth factor hormone, which in turn is regulated by the IGF1 gene. When that gene inevitably loses some tines … Muscle to flab. Vigor to decrepitude. Dust to dust.

Most of our bodies are in a constant cycle of dying and being rebuilt to postpone the inevitable. The gut is perhaps the most fascinating example. As you can imagine it comes in contact with a lot of nasty stuff that damages tissues.

To stay healthy, the cells that line this organ are constantly being renewed. Cells just below the intestine’s surface divide every twelve to sixteen hours, and the whole intestine is refurbished every few days. I figure that by the time an unsuspecting person reaches the age of forty, the entire lining of her large intestine has been replaced several thousand times. Billions of cells have been shuffled each go-round. That makes trillions of cell divisions and whispered messages in the DNA to pass along to the next fellow in the chain. With such numbers, it would be nothing short of a miracle if no copying errors were made, no messages misheard, no foul-ups and instructions gone awry. Perhaps it would be better just to remain sitting and wait for the end. No, thank you.

Despite the preponderance of evidence against it, our culture strives for immortality and youth. We cling to a past that was but a moment in time in Heraclitus river— photographs, memories of our children, old wallets and shoes. And yet this yearning for youth and immortality, the “elixir of life,” connects us to every civilization that has graced the earth. But it's not only our physical bodies that we want to remain young. We struggle against change — big and small.

Companies dread structural reorganization, even when it may be for the best, and have instituted whole departments and directives devoted to “change management” and the coddling of employees through tempestuous times. Stock markets plunge during periods of flux and uncertainty. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Who among us clamors to replace the familiar and comfortable incandescent lightbulbs with the new, odd-looking, “energy-efficient” compact fluorescent lamps and light-emitting diodes? We resist throwing out our worn loafers, our thinning pullover sweaters, our childhood baseball gloves. A plumber friend of mine will not replace his twenty-year-old water pump pliers, even though they have been banged up and worn down over the years. Outdated monarchies are preserved all over the world. In the Catholic Church, the law of priestly celibacy has remained essentially unchanged since the Council of Trent in 1563.

I have a photograph of the coast near Pacifica, California. Due to irreversible erosion, California has been losing its coastline at the rate of eight inches per year. Not much, you say. But it adds up over time. Fifty years ago, a young woman in Pacifica could build her house a safe thirty feet from the edge of the bluff overlooking the ocean, with a beautiful maritime view. Five years went by. Ten years. No cause for concern. The edge of the bluff was still twenty-three feet away. And she loved her house. She couldn’t bear moving. Twenty years. Thirty. Forty. Now the bluff was only three feet away. Still she hoped that somehow, some way, the erosion would cease and she could remain in her home. She hoped that things would stay the same. In actual fact, she hoped for a repeal of the second law of thermodynamics, although she may not have described her desires that way. In the photograph I am looking at, a dozen houses on the coast of Pacifica perch right on the very edge of the cliff, like fragile matchboxes, with their undersides hanging over the precipice. In some, awnings and porches have already slid over the side and into the sea.

One constant over Earth's 4.5-billion-year history is upheaval and change.

The primitive Earth had no oxygen in its atmosphere. Due to its molten interior, our planet was much hotter than it is now, and volcanoes spewed forth in large numbers. Driven by heat flow from the core of the Earth, the terrestrial crust shifted and moved. Huge landmasses splintered and glided about on deep tectonic plates. Then plants and photosynthesis leaked oxygen into the atmosphere. At certain periods, the changing gases in the air caused the planet to cool, ice covered the Earth, entire oceans may have frozen. Today, the Earth continues to change. Something like ten billion tons of carbon are cycled through plants and the atmosphere every few years— first absorbed by plants from the air in the form of carbon dioxide, then converted into sugars by photosynthesis, then released again into soil or air when the plant dies or is eaten. Wait around a hundred million years or so, and carbon atoms are recycled through rocks, soil, and oceans as well as plants.

Eta Carinae
The Doomed Star, Eta Carinae, may be about to explode. But no one knows when – it may be next year, it may be one million years from now. Eta Carinae's mass – about 100 times greater than our Sun – makes it an excellent candidate for a full blown supernova. (Photo via NASA)

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar says to Cassius:

“But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.”

We can forgive his lack of knowledge on modern astrophysics or the second law of thermodynamics. The North Star, like all stars, including the sun, is slowing dying as they consume fuel. They too will eventually explode or fade into the universe. The only reminders of existence will be cold embers floating in space.

The Three Signs of Existence

Buddhists have long been aware of the evanescent nature of the world.

Anicca, or impermanence, they call it. In Buddhism, anicca is one of the three signs of existence, the others being dukkha, or suffering, and anatta, or non-selfhood. According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, when the Buddha passed away, the king deity Sakka uttered the following: “Impermanent are all component things. They arise and cease, that is their nature: They come into being and pass away.” We should not “attach” to things in this world, say the Buddhists, because all things are temporary and will soon pass away. All suffering, say the Buddhists, arises from attachment.

If only we could detach. “But,” Lightman argues, “even Buddhists believe in something akin to immortality. It is called Nirvana.”

A person reaches Nirvana after he or she has managed to leave behind all attachments and cravings, after countless trials and reincarnations, and finally achieved total enlightenment. The ultimate state of Nirvana is described by the Buddha as amaravati, meaning deathlessness. After a being has attained Nirvana, the reincarnations cease. Indeed, nearly every religion on Earth has celebrated the ideal of immortality. God is immortal. Our souls might be immortal.

Lightman argues that either we are delusional or nature is incomplete. “Either I am being emotional and vain in my wish for eternal life for myself …. or there is some realm of immortality that exists outside nature.”

If the first alternative is right, then I need to have a talk with myself and get over it. After all, there are other things I yearn for that are either not true or not good for my health. The human mind has a famous ability to create its own reality. If the second alternative is right, then it is nature that has been found wanting. Despite all the richness of the physical world— the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies— nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. Such exquisite stuff could not be made from matter, because all matter is slave to the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space. Perhaps it is God. Perhaps it is what made the universe.

Of these two alternatives, I am inclined to the first. I cannot believe that nature could be so amiss. Although there is much that we do not understand about nature, the possibility that it is hiding a condition or substance so magnificent and utterly unlike everything else seems too preposterous for me to believe. So I am delusional. In my continual cravings for eternal youth and constancy, I am being sentimental. Perhaps with the proper training of my unruly mind and emotions, I could refrain from wanting things that cannot be. Perhaps I could accept the fact that in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished, my “I-ness” dissolved in an infinite cavern of nothingness. But I cannot accept that fate even though I believe it to be true. I cannot force my mind to go to that dark place.

“A man can do what he wants,” said Schopenhauer, “but not want what he wants.”

If we are stuck with mortality can we find a beauty in this on its own? Is there something majestic in the brevity of life? Is there a value we can find from its fleeting and temporary duration?

I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer its flower opens to reveal silky white petals, which encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shriveled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.

The Accidental Universe is an amazing read, balancing the laws of nature and first principles with a philosophical exploration of the world around us.

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

“There certainly have been many new things
in the world of visualization; but unless
you know its history, everything might seem novel.”

— Michael Friendly


It’s tempting to consider information visualization a relatively new field that rose in response to the demands of the Internet generation. “But,” argues Manual Lima in The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge, “as with any domain of knowledge, visualizing is built on a prolonged succession of efforts and events.”

This book is absolutely gorgeous. I stared at it for hours.

While it’s tempting to look at the recent work, it’s critical we understand the long history. Lima’s stunning book helps, covering the fascinating 800-year history of the seemingly simple tree diagram.

Trees are some of the oldest living things in the world. The sequoias in Northern California, for example, can reach a height of nearly 400 feet, with a trunk diameter of 26 feet and live to more than 3,500 years. “These grandiose, mesmerizing lifeforms are a remarkable example of longevity and stability and, ultimately, are the crowning embodiment of the powerful qualities humans have always associated with trees.”

Such an important part of natural life on earth, tree metaphors have become deeply embedded in the English language, as in the “root” of the problem or “branches” of knowledge. In the Renaissance, the philosophers Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, for example, used tree diagrams to describe dense classification arrangements. As we shall see, trees really became popular as a method of communicating and changing minds with Charles Darwin.

The Kept

In the introduction Lima writes:

In a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities, surrounded on a daily basis by asphalt, cement, iron, and glass, it’s hard to conceive of a time when trees were of immense and tangible significance to our existence. But for thousands and thousands of years, trees have provided us with not only shelter, protection, and food, but also seemingly limitless resources for medicine, fire, energy, weaponry, tool building, and construction. It’s only normal that human beings, observing their intricate branching schemas and the seasonal withering and revival of their foliage, would see trees as powerful images of growth, decay, and resurrection. In fact, trees have had such an immense significance to humans that there’s hardly any culture that hasn’t invested them with lofty symbolism and, in many cases, with celestial and religious power. The veneration of trees, known as dendrolatry, is tied to ideas of fertility, immortality, and rebirth and often is expressed by the axis mundi (world axis), world tree, or arbor vitae (tree of life). These motifs, common in mythology and folklore from around the globe, have held cultural and religious significance for social groups throughout history — and indeed still do.


The omnipresence of these symbols reveals an inherently human connection and fascination with trees that traverse time and space and go well beyond religious devotion. This fascination has seized philosophers, scientists, and artists, who were drawn equally by the tree’s inscrutabilities and its raw, forthright, and resilient beauty. Trees have a remarkably evocative and expressive quality that makes them conducive to all types of depiction. They are easily drawn by children and beginning painters, but they also have been the main subjects of renowned artists throughout the ages.


Our relationship with trees is symbiotic and this helps explain why it permeates our language and thought.

As our knowledge of trees has grown through this and many other scientific breakthroughs, we have realized that they have a much greater responsibility than merely providing direct subsistence for the sheltered ecosystems they support. Trees perform a critical role in moderating ground temperature and preventing soil erosion. Most important, they are known as the lungs of our planet, taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. As a consequence, trees and humans are inexorably intertwined on our shared blue planet.

Our primordial, symbiotic relationship with the tree can elucidate why its branched schema has provided not only an important iconographic motif for art and religion, but also an important metaphor for knowledge-classification systems. Throughout human history the tree structure has been used to explain almost every facet of life: from consanguinity ties to cardinal virtues, systems of laws to domains of science, biological associations to database systems. It has been such a successful model for graphically displaying relationships because it pragmatically expresses the materialization of multiplicity (represented by its succession of boughs, branches, twigs, and leaves) out of unity (its central foundational trunk, which is in turn connected to a common root, source, or origin.)

While we can't go back in time it certainly appears like Charles Darwin changed the trajectory of the tree diagram forever when he used it to change minds about one of our most fundamental beliefs.

Darwin’s contribution to biology—and humanity—is of incalculable value. His ideas on evolution and natural selection still bear great significance in genetics, molecular biology, and many other disparate fields. However, his legacy of information mapping has not been highlighted frequently. During the twenty years that led to the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin considered various notions of how the tree could represent evolutionary relationships among specifics that share a common ancestor. He produced a series of drawings expanding on arboreal themes; the most famous was a rough sketch drawn in the midst of a few jotted notes in 1837. Years later, his idea would eventually materialize in the crucial diagram that he called the “tree of life” (below) and featured in the Origin of Species.

Darwin was cognizant of the significance of the tree figure as a central element in representing his theory. He took eight pages of the chapter “Natural Selection,” where the diagram is featured, to expand in considerable detail on the workings of the tree and its value in understanding the concept of common descent.


A few months before the publication of his book, Darwin wrote his publisher, John Murray: “Enclosed is the Diagram which I wish engraved on Copper on folding out Plate to face latter part of volume. — It is an odd looking affair, but is indispensable to show the nature of the very complex affinities of past & present animals. …”

The illustration was clearly a “crucial manifestation of his thinking,” and of central importance to Darwin’s argument.

As it turned out it was the tree diagram, accompanied by Darwin’s detailed explanations, that truly persuaded a rather reluctant and skeptical audience to accept his groundbreaking ideas.

Coming back to the metaphor, before we go on to explain and show some of the different types of tree diagrams, Lima argues that given the long-lasting nature of the tree and its penetration into our lives as a way to organize, describe, and understand we can use the tree as a prism to better understand our world.

As one of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting visual metaphors, the tree is an extraordinary prism through which we can observe the evolution of human consciousness, ideology, culture, and society. From its entrenched roots in religious exegesis to its contemporary secular digital expressions, the multiplicity of mapped subjects cover almost every significant aspect of life throughout the centuries. But this dominant symbol is not just a remarkable example of human ingenuity in mapping information; it is also the result of a strong human desire for order, balance, hierarchy, structure, and unity. When we look at an early twenty-first-century sunburst diagram, it appears to be a species entirely distinct from a fifteenth-century figurative tree illustration. However, if we trace its lineage back through numerous tweaks, shifts, experiments, failures, and successes, we will soon realize there’s a defined line of descent constantly punctuated by examples of human skill and inventiveness.

Types of Tree Diagrams

Figurative Trees
Figurative Trees

Trees have been not only important religious symbols for numerous cultures through the ages, but also significant metaphors for describing and organizing human knowledge. As one of the most ubiquitous visual classification systems, the tree diagram has through time embraced the most realistic and organic traits of its real, biological counterpart, using trunks, branches, and offshoots to represent connections among different entities, normally represented by leaves, fruits, or small shrubberies.

Even though tree diagrams have lost some of their lifelike features over the years, becoming ever more stylized and nonfigurative, many of their associated labels, such as roots, branches, and leaves, are still widely used. From family ties to systems of law, biological species to online discussions, their range of subjects is as expansive as their time span.


Tree-Eagle Joachim of Fiore

tree of consanguinity-compressed

the common law-compressed

Vertical Trees

vertical trees

The transition from realistic trees to more stylized, abstract constructs was a natural progression in the development of hierarchical representations, and a vertical scheme splitting from top or bottom was an obvious structural choice. … Of all visualization models, vertical trees are the ones that retain the strongest resemblance to figurative trees, due to their vertical layout and forking arrangement from a central trunk. In most cases they are inverted trees, with the root at the top, emphasizing the notion of descent and representing a more natural writing pattern from top to bottom. Although today they are largely constrained to small digital screens and displays, vertical trees in the past were often designed in larger formats such as long parchment scrolls and folding charts that could provide a great level of detail.

La Chronique Universelle-compressed

Horizontal Trees
horizonatal tree

With the adoption of a more schematic and abstract construct, deprived of realistic arboreal features, a tree diagram could sometimes be rotated along its axis and depicted horizontally, with its ranks arranged most frequently from left to right.

Horizontal trees probably emerged as an alternative to vertical trees to address spatial constraints and layout requirements, but they also provide unique advantages. The nesting arrangement of horizontal trees resembles the grammatical construct of a sentence, echoing a natural reading pattern that anyone can relate to. This alternative scheme was often deployed on facing pages of a manuscript, with the root of the tree at the very center, creating a type of mirroring effect that is still found in many digital and interactive executions. Horizontal trees have proved highly efficient for archetypal models such as classification trees, flow charts, mind maps, dendrograms, and, notably, in the display of files on several software applications and operating systems.


Web trigrams-compressed

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge goes on to explore multi-directional, radial, hyperbolic, rectangular, Voronoi, and circular tree maps as well as sunbursts and icicle trees.

Rachel Sussman: The Oldest Living Things in the World


Contemporary artist Rachel Sussman has photographed the world's oldest continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older. Braving some of the world's harshest climates spanning from Antarctica to Greenland, the Mojave Desert, and the Australian Outback, she's compiled her photographs and stories of her epic adventures into the beautiful new book The Oldest Living Things in the World. The book includes 124 photographs and 30 essays.

Here are some of the pictures.

Jōmon Sugi, Japanese Cedar (7,000 years old; Yakushima, Japan)
Jōmon Sugi, Japanese Cedar (7,000 years old; Yakushima, Japan)
Spruce Gran Picea (9550-years-old Fulufjället, Sweden)
Spruce Gran Picea (9550-years-old Fulufjället, Sweden)
Antarctic Moss (5,500 years old; Elephant Island, Antarctica)
Antarctic Moss (5,500 years old; Elephant Island, Antarctica)

Still curious? Sussman gave a 2010 TED talk on the project.

(photos from Colossal)

Reason is the Enemy of Greatness


“There can be no great genius without a touch of madness.”
— Seneca

This is a beautiful passage from Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone on the conflict between reason and nature.

Reason is the enemy of all greatness: reason is the enemy of nature: nature is great, reason is small. I mean that it will be more or less difficult for a man to be great the more he is governed by reason, that few can be great (and in art and poetry perhaps no one) unless they are governed by illusions.

Thus it happens that those things which we call great (an undertaking, for example) are generally out of the ordinary and consist of a certain disorder. Now, this disorder is condemned by reason. Example: Alexander's undertaking: all illusion. The extraordinary seems to us to be great. Whether it is actually greater than the ordinary, abstractly speaking, I am not sure: perhaps sometimes it will even measure quite a lot smaller on an abstract scale, and when this strange and famous man is strictly compared with another ordinary and unknown man, he will be found to be the lesser.

Nevertheless, because he is extraordinary he is called great: even smallness when it is extraordinary is believed to be, and is called, greatness. Reason does not allow any of this, and we are in the age of reason (if only because the world has aged and is more experienced and colder) and few can now be or are great, especially in the arts. Even someone who is truly great now knows how to weight and understand this greatness, how to dissect his character in cold blood, examine the merit of his actions, fortell how he may act, write meticulously with acute and detailed reflections about his life. Great enemies, terrible obstacles to greatness: even illusions are not clearly understood as such, and they are fostered with a certain self-satisfaction, in the full knowledge, however, of what they are. How is it possible, therefore, for such illusions, once discovered, to be sufficiently lasting and strong? And for them to inspire us to great things? And, without illusions, what greatness can exist or be hoped for?

(An example of when reason is in conflict with nature: a sick man is absolutely incurable and will certainly die in a few days. His relatives, in order to feed as his illness now requires, suffer real hardship in providing for him: they will sustain losses from doing so even after the sick man's death, and the sick man will obtain no benefits and may perhaps even be harmed because he will suffer longer. What does naked, dry reason suggest? You are mad if you feed him. What does nature say? You are barbarous and wicked if you do not do everything possible to feed him. It should be noted that religion sides with nature.) It is nature, therefore, that presses great men to great actions. But reason pulls them back: and so reason is the enemy of nature, and nature is great and reason is small. Another proof that reason is often the enemy of nature can be seen in the benefit of toil (as much for health as for everything else), which nature finds repugnant, and, in the same way, in the repugnance of nature to a hundred other things that are either necessary or highly beneficial and therefore encouraged by reason, and vice versa in the inclination of nature toward many other things that are harmful or useless or forbidden, unlawful, and condemned by reason: and with these appetites, nature often tends to harm and destroy herself.

Compliment with Divine Fury: A History of Genius.