Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Scientific humanists: Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

In the beginning, at least as far as explaining 'cosmic evolution, science and civilisation' to the layman goes, there was Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

40 years later in 2020, his widow, soul mate, co-writer and creative director of NASA's Voyager Interstellar Message Project, produced a sequel, Cosmos: Possible Worlds.

I haven't seen either TV series, but a quotation of one of Sagan's wisest sayings - absurdly, I forget now what it was, which is why I need books to mark such things in pencil = led me to the first volume. As a book, a masterpiece, all the more so because you feel you are in loving hands. In fact the chapter that moved me most, though others might have made me wonder and reel more, is the one he calls 'The Persistence of Memory'. First he explains the 'gene library' and the 'brain library', taking us from the basic biological functions of the brainstem to the 'R-complex' capping it - 'the seat of aggression, ritual, territoriality and social hierarchy'. to the cerebral cortex. It ' regulates our conscious lives. It is the distinction of our species, the seat of our humanity. Civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex'.

Explaining further distinctions, he moves back to figures: 'The equivalent of 20 million books is inside the heads of every one of us. The brain is a very big place in a very small space' (this after we've spent most of the book dealing with the immensities of the cosmos and its calendar). Then he talks about the miracles of actual libraries - how 'books can lie dormant for centuries and then flower in the most unpromising soil. The great libraries of the world...[contain] ten thousand times more information than in our genes, and about ten times more than in our brains'. And this is just beautiful writing:

The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. Public libraries depend on voluntary contributions [in America, I guess he means]. I think the health of our civiization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.

That, of course, was written in 1980, but I think it still holds true in essence, as do all the great ideas and emotions. And the world wisdom is illustrated not only by the quotations Sagan uses at the top of each chapter, but also by how much was known so long ago - and then ignored by centuries of religious intolerance and persecution. In the third century BC, polymath Eratosthenes used 'stick, eyes, feet and brain, plus a taste for experiment' to deduce not only that our little world was not the centre of the universe, but to work out its circumference. 1800 years before Copernicus, Aristarchus of Samos worked out that the Earth was a planet and revolved around the Sun. To accept all this takes humility, and scientists, who know that what they may discover could be overturned by their successors, are mostly humble people. As Druyan puts it in her preface:

The scientific approach to nature and my understanding of love are the same: love asks us to get beyond the infantile projections of our personal hopes and fears, to embrace the other's reality. This kind of unflinching love never stops daring to go deeper, to reach higher.

This is precisely the way that science loves nature. This lack of a final destination, an absolute truth, is what makes science such a worthy methodology for sacred searching...The vastness of the universe - and love, the thing that makes the vastness bearable - is out of reach to the arrogant...

I know a way to part the curtains of darkness that prevent us from having a complete experience of nature. Here it is, the basic rules of the road to science: test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. And question everything, including authority. Do these things and the cosmos is yours....[Scientists and mathematicians] live a commitment to a consensual democracy that puts ours to shame.

This all has immense importance to the wider picture of where we are now (in a bit of a mess, but wasn't that always the case, more or less, with most periods in history?) But the details in each book back it all up. How fascinating are the portraits Druyan adds to Sagan's, among them those of Victor Goldschmidt, who took physics, chermistry, geology, mathematics out of their boxes and joined the dots; of Nikolay Vavilov, whose concept of a world seed bank was realised and protected by his co-workers during the Leningrad siege and who came up against the disgusting opportunist Trofim Lysenko, with tragic results in the Stalin era - yet the institute lives on (above image, which appears in Druyan's book, by Mario Del Curto from Seeds of the Earth - The Vavilov Institute); of Angelo Mosso, who took pioneering steps in neuroscience: of Gerard Peter Kuiper, who posited the idea of trillions of possible worlds. and whose protege, when he held a post as 'the only planetary astronomer on the planet' at McDonald Observatory, was the 21-year old Carl Sagan. Pictured below: artist's impression of a Kuiper Belt object (KBO), located on the outer rim of our Solar System at a staggering distance of 6.5 billion kilometres from the Sun.

Yes, all these pioneers were men; only a few women get a look-in across both books, namely Hypatia of Alexandria, martyred as a representative of learning and science, and Marie Curie. And Druyan flies the flag for women's involvement in all this.

Perhaps the most moving connection of all is one that Druyan tells us about at the beginning of her fifth chaper, 'The Cosmic Connectome'. She begins, tensely, writing as she waits for the results of delicate, microscopic surgery on her son Sam's AVM (arteriovenous malformation). When the surgeon, interventional neuro-radiologist Dr Nestor Gonzalez, finds out Sam is Carl's youngest son, he tells him 'but that is why I am here!...When you grow up in a poor country like Colombia and someone inspires you to pursue a life in science, as seeing Carl Sagan on TV did for me, medicine is the only avenue open to you'. I find Druyan's observation also very emotional: 'It feels as if, in a completely unsupernatural way, Carl has reached across the decades to help save our son's life'. The operation is successful; Sam's brain has not been damaged. 'All my life I have been writing love letters to science and today Dr. Gonsalvez has justified my love'. 

The adventures to find out more about other planets, which started with Sagan's work on the Mariner, Viking and Voyager expeditions, continues. I don't follow Druyan's concluding optimism that we might settle on other planets, other stars, but she earns enough trust along the way to make the case.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

The week of opening up

 This (the destination for my second jab last Wednesday)

has, in essence, made possible this,

namely my first sight of an auditorium since December, and my first time within the main Royal Opera House since March 2020. Does the classical curia give a clue? It's Richard Jones's production of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, all of a piece with the superlative conducting of Mark Wigglesworth and a vibrant cast, half of whom I'd never heard of, but all of whom were classy indeed (just heard that Emily D'Angelo, the Canadian-Italian mezzo who sang Sesto, has a contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Seems that RJ wants the Vitellia, Nicole Chevallier, for Weill's Lady in the Dark, as she loves musicals and is a real stage animal). The Arts Desk review of first night is here. Later in a week of wonders, I filmed a Zoom interview with Richard for the fifth of my Zoom Opera in Depth classes on Clemenza this Monday. 

Mark W and Ian Page of the Mozartists, a generous presence throughout the classes, joined us live and we watched the first 22 minutes of the interview; I ran the rest in an extra half hour. Living with this incredible music, Mozart often as minimalist, has been like treading air while dealing with heavier stuff on the Russian Music course.

There was nothing heavy about Tuesday's London Symphony Orchestra concert back at the Barbican (queueing for a very well-organised entry pictured above). Simon Rattle actually prompted the tears that hadn't flowed in the excitement of the previous night in his opening speech (a one-off, he said). The music to excite 'that noise you make with your hands' was celebratory with a dash of wistfulness: Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, three numbers from Faure's incidental music to Pelleas et Melisande, Dvorak's first set of Slavonic Dances. Review here and photo below by Mark Allan.

After this, the first of the two LSO concerts, I had time before the 'finissage' of partner J's first exhibition for a year at the 12 Star Gallery, so I paused for a blissful coffee and caramel brownie outside Konditor in Waterloo. Then on to the show, where the select few (or rather more than a few) had temperatures taken before admission. Simone Bergmann's photos of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival - or rather of the happily naked attendees rather than the performers have created quite a stir, The exhibition finished on Friday, but this little film is still worth watching,

Our lovely friend Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte, head of the London Goethe Institute, who features in the film, also made a speech on Tuesday evening alongside head of the European Parliament representation in London Susanne Oberhauser. Would you believe it, this photo by the resident expert Jamie Smith was banned from Facebook because of the bottom in between them. And some attendees were irritated that other private parts weren't properly shown (though there are some distant willies). Anyway, this prudishness or prurience are both irrelevant - it's a joyous celebration, a symbol of what we're missing. And they're fab photos.

Susanne used some good lines, but didn't adopt J's 'Arsch for Art's Sake'. And that is probably Best Bottom, but what I particularly like is that the cool dude has round his neck what look like gun cartridges but turn out to be harmonicas.

We were allowed to take our masks off once seated at tables with a good distance between us. So good to be able to meet and talk to friends. I look a touch ernst here talking to Lucy Hannah (on the right) and her surgeon godson.

General shot, good as always from Jamie.

Probably the first time in ages I've been a bit hungover (from several glasses of wine). and there was no lingering on Wednesday morning as it was second jab time. J had booked his for 10.50, mine was at 10.30 so we overlapped and I was able to stroll around the Science Museum for a bit.

It was especially exciting to look a bit closer at the spare section, as I've just finished reading the two Cosmos books by Carl Sagan and his wife/widow Ann Druyan, scientific humanists both: more on those in a future post.

My vaccinator turned out to be opera singer Annabel(le?). We started chatting because she commended my EU mask, and I just happened to have one in my bag to gift her. She seemed very spirited but obviously disappointed because Savonlinna, where she was due to be covering Rosina, had just cancelled its operas for the year, The following week she was auditioning for English National Opera; I hope it went well for her. As I left I heard her calling after me: I'd left my precious vaccination card on the table. That at least meant I could take a shot of her in the main area.

There was a lively protest/bit of street theatre outside against the Science Museum's acceptance of Shell as a sponsor for an exhibition about the environment.

Then we went on to have coffee in the sun outside the South Ken Comptoir Libanais, and I cycled off through the parks to Wigmore Street, where it has another branch, to hear Sean Shibe's lunchtime recital at the Hall: haven't been parted from live concerts there for quite so long. The system for admittance is as admirably rigorous as ever.

The programme was a mesmerising winner; review here. And as, unusually, it wasn't livestreamed/broadcast on BBC Radio 3. I had to take a curtain-call shot of Sean in his ruff. 

Hmm. He can just about carry it off, as he did the reddy-pink boiler suit for his electric guitar shocker the last time I heard him at the Wigmore. Glad that most of the programme, plus magical Rosewood pieces by Irish composer David Fennessy (which he played in the quieter half of the previous Wigmore spectacular), has been captured in his recital for the delightful and enterprising Fiachra Garvey's West Wicklow Festival, also from London but sans ruff.

Here you get some enlightening chat (at 15m6s) before the recital at 28m50s. Love it that one of his earliest memories is his dad (potter Paul Tebble of a great Edinburgh institution, the Meadows Pottery, with Sean's mum Junko Shibe) singing him and his sister to sleep with 'anti-Thatcherite coalminer anthems'. Then there are some deliciously off-piste observations, which briefly fox even Fiachra.

Being in the vicinity of Regents Park, I cycled up there - haven't been for months - and was pleased to find St John's Garden open again. Still some wisteria at the gate,

irises flourishing against an early rose of sorts

 and a beautiful, post-rains light for general views across to the villa which once owned this garden.

Then on, eventually, to divobass Freund Peter Rose around the corner, where his usual mirthfulness was doubled with the presence of director Paul Curran. Photos I have of them aren't very good, unfortunately.

More garden scenes, but also rain again, for the opening of the Glyndebourne season: kudos to the Christies for agreeing to four productions, three new, a concert staging and quite a few concerts too. The decision was taken a year ago - very bold. As was Damiano Michieletto's production of Janáček's Káťa Kabanová, which is not to say I liked it or thought it served high musical values well. Here's why I didn't. If only the angels had stayed in shadowplay; this, among many images by Richard Hubert Smith, makes the production look better than it ultimately was, though focus was retained throughout.

Only wish I'd thought of David Thompson's thoughts when the Act 3 curtain for the storm rose, very predictably, on more gyrations: 'it's raining men'. 

It was raining cats and dogs when my friend Deborah and I emerged to take up our place on a bench at the head of the lake, so we moved our picnic stuff to the wonderful new covered area they've put up on the croquet lane. Gone are the exterior excrescences; this looks good (pictured later, when the rain had cleared away).

We did manage a good stroll before the performance, everything uncut looking lush after so much rain.

Deborah, who has been on a campaign near her home in Lacock to stop the National Trust cutting down bee orchids for a car park, was thrilled to see numerous specimens of the least exciting looking variety by the lake, the Common Twayblade (Neottia ovata; like the Dunnock, it may look ordinary but has a fascinating sex life, as Darwin pointed out). Couldn't decide which shot to choose, so take your pick.

Copper beech beyond the fence at the far end of the lake (quite a few of them in the vicinity) looking handsome

and even once the rains set in, there was a poetry (apart from these people, we had the lake to ourselves).

Windows of the Organ Room through budding mulberry (soon it will be too thick to see them).

Can't resist reproducing Deborah's cartoon in the card that arrived yesterday:

Just joyful to be there - especially as I have finally liberated myself from DJ conformity with my advance birthday present from J, a Nehru jacket - and clearly the staff felt the same; there was a wonderful energy about the peripheral circumstances, and great care too, though people WOULD keep taking off their masks once they were seated.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings were devoted to the white-heat-as-usual Ragged Music Festival of pianists and partners Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy. I've written myself out on the subject for The Arts Desk here, but again the peripherals are fun. Hadn't taken the canal path behind the row of buildings before. Usual suspects among birds, Canada Geese and coots, but their offspring were amusing, and Saturday afternoon was the first time I've ever been to the Ragged School Museum when it wasn't raining (it was on Friday and Sunday).

Irises had been planted in front of the graffiti-ed walls

and this was a novel approach (for me) to the building

After the renovation, it will have changed beyond recognition, and I wonder if the atmosphere Pavel and Samson love will have gone. Probably best, though, because there must be health hazards. There's beauty in peeling paint and general decay, though.

One last glimpse of the journey there on Sunday afternoon: geese contrasting with Canary Wharf skyline

and obstructing the towpath. You don't mess with protective parents. I and the cyclist heading for them had an amused chat about it while we waited for them to move.

This week has seen a necessary break from concerts and opera, and a return to more consistent nature here :the London Wetlands Centre, where the hides are now open again, and Chiswick House, where we saw the massive walled garden for the first time. But that's for another time.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

May Day dawn chorus jaunt

2 May is International Dawn Chorus Day, but three of us decided to steal a march by rising at 3.30am on the First and meeting at 4.50 by the Waterman's Arms Pub on the Thmes embankment at Barnes to progress to the fabulous Leg o' Mutton wetlands/nature reserve, open 24 hours.

Getting up to greet the dawn is a rare occurrence for me, but I'll never forget the previous occasions when I did so - for the Aldeburgh Festival's Messiaen bird day, with Pierre Laurent Aimard playing the Catalogue d'Oiseaux over four concerts in different locations from dawn to midnight, and for the Göttingen International Handel Festival's sunrise concert, a ghostly (because so quiet) clavichord recital in a room overlooking a lake.

I remember walking through the streets of Göttingen in the dark, the silence occasionally punctuated by a blackbird song. It was much the same when I got on my bike two Saturdays ago. The moon was still bright above the central gardens of home (if not quite in focus here - remember, it was 4am and I wasn't quite sharp myself), 

blackbirds and robins were up and about at any green spot I passed, and three foxes crossed various roads in front of me. At my favourite spot on the Thames, the eyot, there was the sleeping swan by the reflected patch of moonlight

who on my cycle back from Kew Gardens the previous afternoon, when I was detained by high tide at the same place, had come up to me and hung around while I waited for the waters to recede.

I'd collected Cally from her house in Chiswick, so she's pedalling along in front here

First signs of reddy-pink sky above the trees on the opposite side of the river

 and became more apparent as we took our bikes up and over the Barnes foot- and rail-bridge, moon on one side,

and pre-sunrise on the other.

We met friend Freddie as planned outside the Waterman's Arms, then walked with the already loud music of song and mistle thrushes to our right to the Leg o' Mutton. I wish the short films I made reproduced anything like the variety of sounds we heard; I won't put any of them up because, though a persistent wren is very entertaining close by, you can't hear the warblers among the reeds in the distance. Sedge and Reed Warblers' songs are unfamiliar to me, but I was happy to have it confirmed by Freddie that the four piercing short notes and a long I kept hearing around the Wetlands Centre were those of the Cetti's Warbler, now happily on the increase. We went down to the shore to get closer to them

and found a mallard of indeterminate colourings with four chicks waddling through the mud into the water.

A fox sat nonchalantly by a bench ahead of us and only ambled off when we got closer, while a Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard and then seen to our right. My shot isn't as focused as the ones from the Margravine and Old Brompton cemeteries, but it's ocular proof. 

The scene itself was perfectly beautiful, with the sounds an enrichment.

Then the first rays of the sun hit tree branches at the east end of the lake (time: 5.50am)

 and it rose as we rounded to the quieter, river side of the reserve.

The moon was still visible through light cloud opposite

and after further birdgazing

we decided to sit on a favourite bench, drink our coffee and eat our bananas. The sun's warming powers were remarkable and the inhabitants kept delivering. A Greenfinch flitted above, Long-tailed Tits below and on the stump behind a Chiffchaff sang. 

Freddie regaled us with an account of its extraordinary journey from the Sahel, where it overwinters. You might like a still of it too, turning demurely away.

Our twitcher, or birder, was especially excited to spot a Stock Dove some way ahead on the path. A more usual but nevertheless beautiful sight and sound was a swan swift-landing. This is merely a glide shot, background to young beech leaves.

The light was getting stronger on trees, reeds and water,

with a heron flying in and out

and opposite where we started, Reed Warblers were especially lively in three different spots. I even got a blurry shot of one, not easy as they're in constant flit.

At the exit, we took a look at the board of sightings over the past month 

and found they tallied pretty much with what Freddie reckoned. This is his record, covering everything.

Tufted Duck
'Manky' Mallard (parentage questionable...)
Canada Goose
Egyptian Goose
Mute Swan
Black-headed Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Dunnock (heard, not seen, but our regular back yard visitor is back)
Carrion Crow
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Long-tailed Tit
Goldfinch (also seen in the back yard, but the Niger seeds I've put out have not been touched)

Great Spotted Woodpecker
Feral Pigeon
Wood Pigeon
Stock Dove
Mistle Thrush
Song Thrush (heard but not seen) 
Sedge Warbler (heard but not seen)
Cetti's Warbler (heard and seen - albeit briefly)
Reed warbler

Freddie was especially chuffed because just as we were walking along the Thames embankment towards Barnes, a Common Sandpiper took off. Amazingly, we'd been at the reserve for four hours, so there would be breakfast options - happy to take the one at Gail's, where the croissants were still warm, and we sat on a bench by the pond as the bric-a-brac Saturday market was unloading. Nothing much to see there, but I was delighted with two purchases at the farmers' market over the road - an exquisite assortment of tomatoes from the Isle of Wight (hurrah for The Tomato Stall), and thyme-and-fir honey from a Cretan seller. One final note as we were leaving the pond: a seagull swooped and grabbed a duckling. That's nature for you.