What whale songs can tell us about art.

goofy whaleFrom a fantastic article on whale songs, this great quote (emphasis mine):

Whale song has artistic elements beyond simple communication of information. For example, since each whale theme ends with consistent final sounds, the phrases can be said to “rhyme” in a way akin to human poetry. Is such ornamental courtship behavior just an illustration of the “male quality” valued by hard-line evolutionists? Or does it show that evolution, over thousands of years, is able to produce art if there are no serious predators around?

Another interesting bit that describes graphing whale songs to find patterns by speeding up the music then assigning each tone matching colors and shapes:

Whale songs include a strange range of sounds, from the bowed bass beats of a giant sub-surface fiddle to the feedback squelches of an electric guitar. But we have trouble perceiving the structure by which the sounds are organized because the notes seem cast out in slow motion, with relatively long silences between each unit of sound. To better appreciate the patterns, we can speed a song up by ten times, allowing us to hear a compressed version… The set of shapes resembles the notation of Gregorian chants written in the tenth century.

Granted, I’m just about as likely to sit around listening to 10th Century Gegorian chants as I am to download an entire album of whale songs, but it’s still pretty freaking cool.

Image: A very goofy whale from Treasures of the Deep: a Descriptive Account of Great Fisheries and Their Products, published in London by Nelson and Sons in 1876. Found via the University of Washington Freshwater and Marine Image Bank (a great resource for lithographs and early American photographs).

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Butterfly names are surprisingly awesome.

Whistler_as_a_butterflyReal names of actual butterflies found in North America (many of which would also make pretty good assassin aliases):

  1. Sara Orangetip
  2. Ruddy Daggerwing
  3. Two-barred Flasher
  4. White Checkered Skipper
  5. California Dogface
  6. Theona Checkerspot
  7. Zebra Longwing

From now on, please call me Theona Checkerspot. Thanks!

(P.S. That image above? It’s a portrait of the artist James McNeill Whistler as a butterfly. I love Whistler, partially because he seems like kind of a jerk, but an “impish” and hilarious one, kind of like Oscar Wilde, another big believer in art for art’s sake.)

Star light, star bright, last star I see tonight (because light pollution is ruining everything)

To celebrate its 24th year in orbit, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has released this beautiful new image of part of NGC 2174, also known as the Monkey Head Nebula. NGC 2174 lies about 6400 light-years away in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter). Hubble previously viewed this part of the sky back in 2011 — the colourful region is filled with young stars embedded within bright wisps of cosmic gas and dust. This portion of the Monkey Head Nebula was imaged in the infrared using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.
These are the things I know about the night sky: I know where to find the Big Dipper. I know that the Big Dipper is also called “Ursa Major” because it is supposed to look like a large bear, though I can’t claim to ever have noticed a resemblance. I know that planets emit steady light while true stars flicker in and out (they twinkle, to use an infantile word I rather hate). I know how to find the North Star and how to spot Orion (it’s his belt, from which supposedly hangs a sword, though let’s be honest: dude’s probably not packing steel, ya hear me?).

I used to know more. I used to know the myths and legends and how to find the vain queen Cassiopeia. But that’s gone now, stuck somewhere in the weird and unreliable filing system of my memory.

I recently found myself staring at the stars and something funny happened: I got lost (or maybe more accurately: my ursine familiar was lost to me). I was camping in Canada, way up north on the coast of Cape Breton Island, in this beautiful place called Meat Cove, which seemed all the more lovely for its terrible name. In this remote place, few lights compete with the stars. There is no light pollution from cities, for there are no cities. There are few cars and fewer towns. When I looked up, I couldn’t find the Big Dipper. Orion seemed to have gone into hiding, shamed at being so easily overshadowed by the sheer wealth of stars. In many places in America, you can’t even see the Milky Way. Up there, you could see that pale, stagnant river of light. But it’s beauty was bland in comparison to the light show going on elsewhere. Night sky image “This sky makes me stupid,” I kept saying to my boyfriend. We would go for walks in the semi-dark, and I would trip over stones because my head was turned upwards. (This happens to me a lot, actually. Even city streets are more beautiful when you look at the tops of buildings and not the trash below.) One night, I sat on a rock and stared at the sky for over an hour, just looking. Just watching. Flicker, flicker, little stars.

It’s amazing to think that this experience is so rare—yet it used to be so common. A recent article in Nautilus (one of my favorite publications) profiles an astronomer named Tyler Nordgren who is working to reestablish dark spots in national parks. He wants to make it possible for everyone to get drunk on stars, to stare at the sky until they become lost in its splendor. A fellow astronomer describes the significance of Nordgren’s work in rather romantic—but wonderfully effective—terms: “It’s also one thing all of humanity has in common. It’s the same sky in the Sahara as it is over Philadelphia. It’s also the same sky as Native Americans gazed up at 10,000 years ago. People think of light pollution as an astronomer’s concern, but Tyler helps establish this broad value, that it matters to everyone.”Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 7.06.46 PM

Does it matter to everyone? Probably not. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t give too much thought to the stars until I found myself silenced by their brilliance. It took driving 15 hours away from home to a campground on the edge of an island for me to see why light pollution matters. It matters because there are so few things in the world that can truly induce awe (and so many things that induce aww but that’s a post for another time). I’m not very spiritual, but the closest thing I have to a religion comes from those strange moments of sublime wonderment, where I become very, very small and the world around me expands, like the universe is supposedly doing at all times, only at a far more rapid clip.

So, I do care. And maybe so should you.

(P.S. The image at the top of this post is from NASA. Taken by the Hubble Telescope, it shows a STAR FACTORY. Really, that’s what it’s called. How wonderful! Thousands of times better than “Meat Cove.”)

Speaking of plants, let’s drink some…

Drunken-Botanist-high-resI think plants are just on my mind this week, seeing as it’s early spring and all. I spotted my first crocuses today when I was at a meeting up in Wiscasset today and I gave a tiny shout. My co-worker thought I dropped my coffee, but I was really just excited about FINALLY seeing a little flora in Maine.

I’m rambling a bit, and it’s probably because I’ve had a few glasses of wine, and while that didn’t exactly inspire me to post about Amy Stewart’s very cool sounding book, it does seem fitting, right? As I type this, I’m sipping at my own glass of alcohol and contemplating the grapes that made it, and all the many fruits and leaves and grains that go into a truly fantastic cocktail. In The Drunken Botanist, Stewart chronicles the vast variety of plant life that has been transformed by our greedy hands into creative libations and delicious intoxications.

Oh, and because I can’t not mention this fact, it’s a beautiful book with truly awesome typography. I should probably buy it for my boyfriend, who could frequently be described as a drunken botanist (when he’s not busy being a “mad scientist”).

Learn more here.