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Entries in David Roberts (7)

Saturday
Jun302012

A Big Hadron for the Higgs Boson

You can't see it. But it is there. On a brilliant summer day when the world crackles, when life is generous and a warm wind kisses your face, you feel its' radiant presence. You see how distant events are connected but not by coincidence. When all boundaries crumble before this powerful vibration it's exciting to know that you are part of its' shimmering splendour. You can go forward knowing that the path will vanish under you.

All of which is to say you're going to be hearing a lot about the Higgs Boson in the next while.

The Higgs Boson is a sub-atomic particle, postulated but not yet found. Confirmation would lend credence to the idea there is an invisible energy field that fills the vacuum of the observable universe. Without this field, or something akin, we would not be here.

Is that a Hadron in your pocket

So we're about to receive an important news update from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, as the hunt for this particle continues in a giant particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near the Franco-Swiss border. The LHC, a 27 kilometre underground track where particles smash each other at 99 percent of the speed of light, is the world's largest particle accelerator. If the Higgs Boson is confirmed as a result of these ongoing smash-ups it will point to the existence of the Higgs Field. And the Higgs Field will reinforce the Standard Model of particle physics, and all will be right with the world.

I don't pretend to know what is coming down the pipe from CERN but I feel as if I have had a small part in this, since my painting, Elemental Particles, was used on the poster and brochure for the First International Conference on Multiple Partonic Interactions at the LHC in 2008. That's when the hunt for the Higgs Boson really accelerated, so to speak.

The Higgs Boson – dubbed the God particle - is named after Peter Higgs, the 83-year-old University of Edinburgh physicist who with others first postulated the existence of a kind of quantum plasma – the Higgs Field – in 1964. But there wasn't equipment to detect it until the LHC came online. So one little Higgs-like boson poking its nose out of nowhere before spinning off and decaying back into nothing could point to the actual and not just theoretical existence of the Higgs Field.

There are implications for cosmology inasmuch as the Higgs Field is believed to have switched on a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, which, as we know, blasted the universe into existence some 13.7 billion years ago. Before this instant, all particles in the cosmos were massless and they zipped around chaotically at the speed of light.Elemental Particles 6x9 w/c

I love the description of what happened after the Big Bang from The Guardian, because it reminds me of what Alchemists for centuries have called 'The Quickening': "When the Higgs Field switched on, some particles began to feel a 'drag' as they moved around, as though caught in cosmic glue. By clinging to the particles, the field gave them mass, making them move around more slowly. This was a crucial moment in the formation of the universe, because it allowed particles to come together and form all the atoms and molecules around today.

But some particles of light, photons, move through the Higgs field as if it wasn't there. Because the field does not cling to them, they are weightless and destined to move around at the speed of light forever. Other particles, like quarks and electrons – the smallest constituents of atoms – get caught in the field and gain mass in the process.

The field has enormous implications. Without it, the smallest building blocks of matter, from which all else is made, would forever rush around at the speed of light. They would never come together to make stars, planets, or life as we know it."

Or are you just happy

Of course the pending announcement by CERN scientists who work in this world of protons, gluons, photons, muons, mesons, quarks, antiquarks and pions may not be confirmation of the Higgs Boson at all. It may be something as simple as cool new data on dark matter and neutrinos or a confirmation of a beautiful new baryon.

CERN certainly won't be telling us why there is something rather than nothing, and these physical findings will not usher in a new era of world peace, human health or prosperity.

There is excitement though, because continued work on particle symmetry is likely to produce valuable understanding of the origin of mass, how our physical universe came to be the way it is, and how it is held together.

We probably won't find out from CERN why, in the words of Nahmanides, "from nothing he called me forth." That kind of knowing is a messy knowing. It's an intuitive knowing - a knowing that arises from proper intention - akin to making a little painting just for the heck of it. This category of knowledge comes when we look inward but not too hard. Since if we look very hard for anything we will surely find what we seek. Better, sometimes, that we find a thing that we are not looking for, something that just comes our way as a surprise or a gift. For this prize, the pearl of great price, we relax and take it easy. But in our crazy world some days it's like we are

¡dn s,ʎɐʍ ɥɔıɥʍ ouunp ʎsnq os

 

(Top Image: Veil Nebula 24x24 Canvas Giclee)

 

Update July 4: New particle, Consistent with HB - Sigma 5 @ 125GeV - coolio!

 

Friday
Jun222012

Coon Hunting, China and The Revolution

 

I am no Sinophile, nor a specialist on gender equality, nor a hunter.

 

But ignorance of the topic at hand has never precipitated self-restraint before - why should we suddenly change things up?

 

I've long wondered about China. I tried digging a hole to the place from our house in Toronto when I was small. And I took Mandarin lessons later in life, learning the hard way that the same false cognate word is used for pen, pencil, brush and pussy. Given that components for my smart phone find their origin in China, along with a desk lamp, eyeglass frames, truck differential, lawnmower, football sweater, painting canvas, tape-measure, notebook, steak knives, pen, pencil, and brush, it would be easy to say we are surrounded by all things Chinese - except poetry and words that rhyme with wussy.

 

On reflection, why I dug a hole, I'm not sure. Chalk it up to youthful exuberance. I would not do it again. Indeed, after investing $4 trillion on housing in the past decade and with 65 million housing units sitting there all vacant and lonely, the Chinese seem infinitely capable of digging their own hole. They need no help from me.

 

So we should not be surprised to learn that when it comes to China and the sexual revolution, suspicions linger. At the time of the event Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey posed the following cheeky question on Twitter: "What is it about the headline 'China launches woman into space' that makes me assume she did something wrong?"

 

Hua Lu (14 x 9 w/c)Multivalent is that question, casting doubt over the progress of women in the Middle Kingdom and their Long March to gender equity. Which, according to the New York Times, has stalled. Incomes of women relative to those of men have fallen 23 percent in rural China since 1990. In urban China they've dropped 10 percent. There is no woman in the inner circle of power, the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, and only one in 16 members of the Communist Party’s Central Committee is female.

 

By the Chinese government’s own measure of how women are faring — the Third Survey of the Social Status of Women in China (2010) — nearly 62 percent of men and 55 percent of women said "men belong in public life and women belong at home." So while no one said women should be launched, the numbers who want them at home have risen 7.7 and 4.4 percent since 2000 when Chinese folks last were asked where women belong.

 

Now it's true Chinese women are allowed to drive cars and trucks, something Saudi Arabian women are not free to do. But even in the People's Revolutionary Army, the world's largest by number of troops, women only fill support positions, and the PRA requires female recruits to demonstrate talent such as singing or dancing as part of the selection process. (Comet Over Dayan Footbridge 16x12 w/c)

 

All of this gender equality slow-boating by China is taking place against a backdrop of solid progress elsewhere. For example, in America women have joined men in that once exclusively male domain – the raccoon hunt.

 

There was a foretaste of this as Leon F Whitney and Acil B Underwood observed in their excellent 1951 guide on the subject: "Coon hunting in one respect is like politics or religion: a fellow thinks of the kind he knows – the kind he was born into – as the only kind. He often doesn't bother to investigate the other kinds." Such as coon hunting with women, or coon hunting by women, for example.

 

Although the progress has not been immediate, women have been breeding coon hunting dogs in the United States since at least 1958. "Any success I've had, I owe to my husband," Mrs. William Amos told reporters of her success as a breeder. (Not sure if her first name is William or if she has a first name, story in the Toledo Blade just referred to her as Mrs. William Amos).

 

Incidentally, Whitney and Underwood's Coon Hunter's Handbook is indispensable by anyone of any gender who aspires to excel at finding, chasing, cornering, treeing, bagging, executing, cooking and eating the standard North American raccoon.

 

First thing, man or woman, you need for coon hunting is a good dog with a pleasant voice. Square brackets below are mine for the purpose of advancing gender equity: "What old hunter can't close his [or her] eyes and still hear the lovely strains of hound music floating across a valley or steam? Surely no man-made [or woman-made] music can light the fires of imagination or bring a greater thrill of delight than can a hunter's best friend – his [or her] hound," the handbook says.

 

Finally, some sage advice (to those such as Mrs. William Amos) on cooking the coon and presenting it to the hungry mob at supper:

 

"It is not a bad idea to dismember the carcass in the kitchen. At every coon supper where someone carves, there will be remarks about how much the coon looks like a cat or a monkey, and inquisitive Johnny [or Julie] will ask if Daddy [or Mommy] is sure it is not a skunk. If our experience is worth anything, it indicates that when the coon is served in pieces on a platter and camouflaged as much as possible, it will be all for the best, because someone is sure to bite on a BB shot anyway, and that will start the conversation back to the coon hunt and what a good time everybody had. Then Bill [or Bonnie] will tell how the dogs stretched the coon, and Mike [or Mary] will describe how the coon squealed, and sure as shooting someone will have to get up and leave the table." And start a whole new revolution.

 

(Top Image: Huxingting Tea House 12 x 9 India Ink and Sepia)

Monday
May282012

The Sauce Was Excellent

A Divided Condition (11 x 14 watercolours & India ink).

The hope is that the words and pigments complement each other sufficiently that the sum transcends the bits.

In this light, permit us to say a few words about A Divided Condition and to offer gratitude to all who support us in this doubly Bohemian life of starving brushman and blogista.

As the psychiatrist Carl Jung observed: “Every creative person is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory qualities.” And so it’s only slightly worrisome that Jung then proceeds to discuss bicephalism and schizophrenia. Because the list of the famous (no comparisons here) who have both painted and written creatively includes Leonardo, William Blake, Michelangelo, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Van Gogh, Henry Miller etc etc.

There likely are others, you tell me. But the upshot is that this writing and painting thing is a far more pervasive affliction that we imagined.

Among our pals

Not all wrote simultaneously with their brushwork. Miller for example, would paint his way through writer’s block. And almost none wrote specifically about the painting process. But there can be little doubt all these artists were compelled to create in both words and pigments. For Van Gogh, his enthusiasm for words spilled into his art. In one letter he remarks, "Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing to me." Elsewhere he revealed his appreciation of writers and writing: "There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing. On the contrary, don't you think, it's as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint things?"

Marginalia

While the inspirational source for painting and for writing is the same, each practice requires a distinct process. Personally, the act of writing is usually more an engagement while making a painting is more a disengagement. This is not always so: sometimes the words just flow and they speak for themselves and sometimes we paint very consciously, where, hands willing, every stroke brings us closer to the intended conclusion. But generally the former process is at play and neither feels like work.

Now we mentioned Carl Jung and we confess there is marginalia in our copy of Jung's book The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature. This is Volume 15 of the Collected Works from the Bollingen Series XX, Princeton. To some this will seem extremely nerdy but I read the entire 20 volumes of Jung's Collected Works after the set was gratefully received as a graduation gift from my parents some 35 years ago.

Situated behind consciousness

The Collected Works comprise several thousand pages and as far as I can tell, the only mark I left in any of the margins was in that Volume 15, where Jung conducts a rigorous psychoanalysis of the painter Pablo Picasso. My note is in green pencil and it says simply: "viz. therapeutic method" and highlights a paragraph where Jung, commenting in 1932 when Pablo was a shooting star, says that "his works show a growing tendency to withdraw from the empirical objects, and an increase in those elements which do not correspond to any outer experience but come from an 'inside' situated behind consciousness."

Earlier, Jung says: "The essence of a work of art is not to be found in the personal idiosyncrasies that creep into it – indeed, the more there are of them, the less it is a work of art." In other words, it’s always a good idea if the artist gets out of his own way. This is easier if one is engaged in poetic writing rather than narrative writing. And it is easier when one is engaged in abstract painting rather than hyper-realism. Which brings me to A Divided Condition which, although it appears to be random, was executed with an attitude of engagement and the result was precisely as intended. So I am happy with it, though you may conclude that I should stick to writing, or better still, total silence.

A two-headed trout

Today, I notice that when I take a pen in each hand and close my eyes I write mirror images of my signature. Normally I am left-handed, so I push a pen from left to right across the page. But with two pens, if I close my eyes, I write or draw mirror images, characters, sentences, letters or signatures from the centre out or from the margins to the centre in quite perfect symmetry.

It's a bit like a two-headed trout, where, magically, the halves conspire to make a transcendent greater whole. In this state it is as if the writer and the painter are harmoniously connected and at one. Skeptical? Take 2 minutes, 46 seconds to view this wonderful clip from La Vie de Bohème, 1992, by the Finnish film-maker Aki Kaurismäki.

 

Thursday
May032012

An Appeal to the Government of Qatar

 

Basket Case (11 x14 watercolours on Cold Press paper)

 

The LA Times reports Eduard Munch's iconic 1895 painting The Scream fetched just shy of $120 million last night at a Sotheby's auction in New York. That was $40 million over the expected hammer price and is apparently the highest price for an auctioned artwork in history.

 

To put this in perspective, you could buy at least 120 of my paintings for that kind of money. You also could fund the activities of the National Rifle Association for an entire year or pay off the 2013 debt of the State of Rhode Island. Your choice.

 

Personally, let me express disappointment that so little has been said about the purchaser of The Scream, which I note is executed in pastel and therefore not likely to last very long since it's really just glorified crayon.

 

Most pertinent question

For a painter - or as the French would say peintre - the issue of who paid $120 million seems the most pertinent question. If someone is prepared to spend that much on a painting, I want to know exactly who and where they are so that I can immediately get my work in front of their quite obviously gentle and discerning retinal palette.

 

Who then are they? I'm thinking of one singularly astute New York investment banker who purchased a painting called Northwest Angle from me a couple of years ago. But no, I think not even he, a gentleman greatly esteemed and very high in my eyes, would have the fiscal wherewithal to buy the Munch.

 

So, really, who bought The Scream? After sale reports suggest the government of Qatar might have taken it up for a museum that’s to open there in 2014. Other names that have come up: billionaires Leonard Blavatnik and Paul Allen.

 

State of the art market

And what might this record-setting development say about the state of the art market? In my experience, based on the attempted sale of 40 of my acrylics and watercolours at Studio 317 last November, such sensational auction prices tend to be specific to a select group of artworks and a narrow range of marquee artists, and are not suggestive of broader trends in the market.

 

I am nonetheless a glass-half-full painter, and hopeful. According to Forbes magazine, there have been works fetching even higher prices than The Scream on the private market. Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos supposedly sold his Cezanne painting, Card Players, last year for $250 million. Embiricos died last fall and we therefore cannot shake him down to substantiate this. But no one has stepped forward to claim ownership of the piece, though it’s been reported that the government of Qatar was the buyer.

 

All this has me thinking about security considerations for my inventory of unsold works. I mean paintings are just languishing around in the basement studio. They are not locked up or even in Class 3 air-conditioned archival storage space. They are there. And there are hundreds of them.

 

Charcoal nudes

I took safety precautions in the spring of 2012 when concern arose that some framed works might be damaged in the spring melt if we had seepage. But that did not transpire and of course we were glad for that. Because like the newspapers with which Samuel Beckett's Molloy swathed himself to protect the rear of his trousers against farts, there are hundreds of paintings lining my studio walls, along with dozens of graphite and charcoal nudes on paper, and they all offer excellent insulation value as temperatures plummet around here between October and April.

 

Still, let me tell you, winter survival techniques notwithstanding, security concerns are nonetheless real. My well-loved colleague Edward B. Gordon had the traumatic experience a couple of years ago of having several of his paintings stolen from a Berlin gallery. I don't recall if Edward's works ever were recovered but I do know that little could mitigate his sense of violation at the time.

 

A confession: it has occurred to me that should I be forced to endure similar trauma at the theft of one of my works, that the ensuing pain might be assuaged somewhat by the almost certain knowledge that the value of the remaining inventory would increase, once word got out that my art was worth stealing.

 

I want to say though, here and now, that I'm more concerned about misplacing a work, or having the cat vomit on it, than having artwork pilfered.

 

This is a real issue because more than one serious art collector has inquired about one or another of my works that they have spotted in an online gallery or via the wonders of Google. And it has taken me days of anxious rummaging to find whether I still have the work in question, and after that, to examine it for size, media, condition, and for its overall existential merit before delivering a reply.

 

So should our inbox ping today with a query, say from the Government of Qatar, you should know that we promise to shake dust from your future acquisition as quickly as greased pastel - and undertake to hastily deliver once payment has cleared and the cash is reposing, all warm and snugly, in our account.

 

(Image: Basket Case 14 x 12 watercolours on Cold Press paper)

Friday
Apr202012

We Know Who You are

Meditating on Number Six (12 x 16 watercolours and India Ink)

Stepping through the metal detector and into the sun-clad departure lounge at Ben Gurion International Airport it took a few seconds for me to realize that something very weird and unusual had taken place: the alarm didn't go off.

I reached down to feel loose metal in my pocket - some shekels and Egyptian piasters – along with a spent 9mm shell casing I’d claimed as a souvenir from the Via Dolorosa. The casing was left over after soldiers had put down trouble in that famous via, the night before.

And that brought to mind a picture of the Roman soldiers who once were bigshots in the Via Dolorosa. Centuries ago there would have been a few of them in that narrow stone passageway - all bare-legged and sinewy, crouched with sword and shield, making little thorny crowns or gambling with dice made from pig knuckles. Today they've been replaced by more modern soldiers who also get to play bigshot in the VD, festooned in Kevlar vests and armed with iPhone sportsbet apps, riot guns, some live and rubber bullets.

Hasn't worked for weeks

So, back to the fact there was this projectile part, a brass shell casing, languishing there in my pocket, and it had failed to set off the airport detector. How was it possible in the world's most button-down tight-ass airport that no bells, sirens, horns or flashing lights went off to illuminate my forgetfulness? There had been an obvious security meltdown. I calculated my options and, in the end, decided the airport authorities surely needed to know. And so I went over to tell the nearest security man, brandishing the spent shell casing as evidence that there was a problem with their metal scanner.

“Oh, that thing hasn't worked for weeks,” the officer yawned, giving a dismissive handwave in the direction of the metal detector. “It's not a big problem. We don't need it. We know everything about you before you reach the machine. We know who you are.”

I slunk away to ponder the deep absurdity of this news. The thoughts cascaded like a jumble of Kubler-Ross stages: acceptance, denial, anger. “Of course, makes sense. This is where collective security is an artform. They know about all the passengers. Who’s naughty. Who’s nice.  So how much have they dug up about me? What do they know? And, finally, the existential question, how can you say you know me when I barely know myself?”

At one level, and on this point, I agree entirely with the metaphysician Charles Hartshorne.

Mysteries and implications

Hartshorne said he was inclined to give in to the Buddhists who contend that a person, strictly speaking, is numerically distinct in each discreet moment of time. So the question of who you are is equally  immeasurable and irrelevant. How could you be expected to know who you are when each actuality of you is largely gone, surpassed in the next instant by another?

Further, can we decouple the enigma of who we are from the larger theological mysteries and implications?

I am comfortable with the notion that who we are is what we do. I don't mean tinker tailor soldier sailor. Or writer, painter, beggar-man thief. The question of who we are takes on real meaning, not rhetorical meaning, when we say that all that we are is the sum total of our actions. This is where the rubber  surely meets the road. This is living at the centre, not the margins.Appendectomy Girl, 18x24

So, in the context of here in the Middle East, and for that matter elsewhere too, let's everyone set aside these petty historic hatreds. Let’s not be worrying about trying to angle ourselves for, say, a future paradise replete with 72 virgins boasting pear-shaped breasts. There is no "self" to angle.

The consistent advice seems to be to forget about "self" and to just breathe in the fullness of your numerically distinct moment, right here and now.

As Hartshorne said: “Perhaps I have a blind spot in this region, but I see no need for post-terrestrial rewards or punishments — beyond the satisfaction, to be achieved now, of feeling one’s earthly actuality indestructibly, definitively, appropriated in the divine participation.”

The wonder of the present

In other words, focused too furtively on the future we risk missing the wonder of the present, which could be just heavenly. And we possibly blow the chance to become who we are.

A decade or so ago, I was compelled to telephone Hartshorne at his home in Texas. It was a Saturday morning in June when this stranger cold-called the Hartshorne home. His daughter answered and told me they were having a little party since it happened to be Hartshorne’s 102nd birthday. I had a pressing question about something Hartshorne said in A Natural Theology for Our Time, though I confess now to have long forgotten what the question was or why it was seemed so pressing.

That Hartshorne was indisposed to answer seems exquisitely appropriate now as I advance toward another kind of departure lounge simply mindful of each moment extinguishing into the next and where the phrase “We know who you are” still invites me to wonder and reflect.

Let me recommend Charles Hartshorne: A Natural Theology for Our Time, La Salle: Open Court, 1967, reprinted 1992, ISBN 0-87548-239-2

(Top: Meditating on Number Six 16 x 12 watercolours and India ink on Laid paper)