Happy Valentine’s Day!

Detail of a 1953 birthday letter from Ray to Charles. Credit: In the Work of Charles and Ray Eames at the Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress

The history of Valentine’s Day stems from both Christian and ancient Roman traditions. The day we celebrate today, on February 14, likely takes its name from a priest named Valentine, martyred around 270 AD (10+03 years ago) by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus. According to legend, Encyclopedia Britannica explains, “…the priest signed a letter to his jailer’s daughter, whom he had befriended and with whom he had fallen in love, ‘from your Valentine.’”

The holiday’s origins also stem from Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival that was held every year from February 13-15. Lupercalia “…celebrated the coming of spring, included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery [a less-than-romantic idea to some of us today]. At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day. It came to be celebrated as a day of romance from about the 14th century.”

Although Valentine’s Day was celebrated by the 1300s, it took another 400 years (10+02) before the tradition of exchanging handmade valentines developed. In America, the handmade eventually moved to the mass produced, starting with Esther Howland’s embossed paper lace cards. Today, the holiday is a $17 billion industry (10+10), which includes an estimated $1 billion (10+09) spent on Valentine’s day cards.

By the time Charles and Ray Eames fell in love in the early 1940s, the option of purchasing cards had been around for nearly 100 years; however, they still preferred making hand-drawn notes and letters like the one shown above. The Eameses often adorned letters and wrapped packages with one of the holiday’s most prevalent symbols: the heart. It wasn’t dedicated to Valentine’s Day alone; for them, hearts were something that they shared, celebrated and cherished all year long.

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Challenger Deep

Depth of Challenger Deep. Image credit: The Apricity - A European Cultural Community.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “The deepest part of the ocean is called the Challenger Deep and is located beneath the western Pacific Ocean in the southern end of the Mariana Trench, which runs several hundred kilometers southwest of the U.S. territorial island of Guam. Challenger Deep is approximately 11,030 meters (36,200 feet) [or 10+04 feet] deep. It is named after the HMS Challenger, whose crew first sounded the depths of the trench in 1875 [10+02 years ago].”

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Happy Birthday, Ray!

Above: Ray with her famed dot pattern (copyright: Eames Office). Below: Ray's dot pattern tattooed on the forearm of an Eames admirer. (Copyright: Marlow Hoffman, 2011)

Today, we raise a toast to Ray Eames on her 101st birthday (10+02). With a strong background in painting, she worked with Hans Hofmann (a key figure in postwar American Art) and later became a founding member of American Abstract Artists. As Charles Eames said of Ray’s early career, “That’s a pretty good start.”

Throughout her life, Ray continued to function as a painter. When asked how it felt to give up the medium, she replied, “I never gave up painting. I just changed my palette.”

Ray shined as a master of color, pattern and structure. She and Charles, her husband and partner in crime, created a body of work that was overwhelming in scope, and yet undoubtably connected. From furniture, exhibitions, and graphics work (she created numerous abstract cover designs for Arts & Architecture magazine), to photography, film and toys, Ray helped shape the world of modern design as we know it. She will continue to inspire us for generations to come.

Cheers to a beautiful life.

In celebration of Ray, check out these two exhibitions:
Ray Eames: A Century of Modern Design
The California Museum in Sacramento
through February 23, 2014

Ray Eames: In the Spotlight
Art Center College of Design’s Williamson Gallery
February 25 – May 4, 2014

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Changing Colors

Image: HDWallPapersFan.com

Fall is here. We all learned about photosynthesis in school, but here is a simple refresher as to how it works and why the leaves change color.

“Plants use glucose as food for energy and as a building block for growing. The way plants turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugar is called photosynthesis. That means ‘putting together with light.’ [Photosynthesis occurs at a wavelength between 680 and 720 nanometers, or 10-08 meters]. A chemical called chlorophyll helps make photosynthesis happen. Chlorophyll is what gives plants their green color.

“As summer ends and autumn comes, the days get shorter and shorter. This is how the trees ‘know’ to begin getting ready for winter.

“During winter, there is not enough light or water for photosynthesis. The trees will rest, and live off the food they stored during the summer. They begin to shut down their food-making factories. The green chlorophyll disappears from the leaves. As the bright green fades away, we begin to see yellow and orange colors. Small amounts of these colors have been in the leaves all along. We just can’t see them in the summer, because they are covered up by the green chlorophyll.

“The bright reds and purples we see in leaves are made mostly in the fall. In some trees, like maples, glucose is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. Sunlight and the cool nights of autumn cause the leaves turn this glucose into a red color. The brown color of trees like oaks is made from wastes left in the leaves.

“It is the combination of all these things that make the beautiful fall foliage colors we enjoy each year.”

Learn more at sciencemadesimple.com.

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Government Shutdown

The National Park service's Richard Trott places a sign barring visitors to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, October 1, 2013, because of the government shutdown. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

We are only beginning to determine the damage caused by the government shutdown that just ended. According the NBC News:

  • “The loss of government services during the three-week shutdown will take a roughly $3.1 billion bite [10+9] out of gross domestic product, according to economists at IHS Global Insight. That represents just the hit from lost government services.
  • “The shutdown also forced non-government business losses, temporary layoffs and other interruptions in business spending. The full extent of the damage won’t be known for some time. Economists at Standard & Poor’s estimate the total cost at about $24 billion [10+10], or a 0.6 percent GDP haircut. Others guess it’s about half that. Either way, it’s a heavy price to pay.
  • “Then there’s the loss in U.S. economic prestige, which is also hard to gauge [who can say what power of ten this would fall under?], but keeps getting whittled away every time Washington goes into gridlock over spending.”
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Happy Powers of Ten Day!

Do you see two faces or a vase? Powers of Ten reminds us of the importance of changing our perspective.

Today is Powers of Ten Day! The iconic Eames film, Powers of Ten, is about “the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero.” The film is technically ingenious while also beautiful and educational—adjectives that often describe Charles and Ray’s work, whether a house, chair, photograph, toy or exhibition.

The influences of Powers of Ten can be seen in movies such as Men in Black and television shows such as The Simpsons; the film can also be considered a precursor to now common-place technologies and service applications like Google Maps. But how else does it impact us today? How can contemplating the relative size of things in the universe pertain to our daily lives?

For me, personally, Powers of Ten serves as a reality check. Problems that seemed insurmountable before watching it suddenly feel less stressful. Long before I knew about Charles and Ray’s film, I could generate a similar effect by climbing to a higher altitude. Whether standing at the summit of Pikes Peak or peering down from the Eiffel Tower (10+03 feet), I was always struck by the emotional, even existential, impact of my new perspective. Trees were dwarfed, trucks crawled and people looked like specks of lint across a vast, textured blanket.

Everything appeared so small as to seem inconsequential, which seemed to indicate that—from a certain height, vantage point and powers of ten—my problems and I were too. Perhaps this thought should have been panic inducing, but I found it comforting. Regardless of the emotion conjured up, the point is that changing my view prompted questions about my place in the universe.

The beauty of watching Powers of Ten is that the film transports viewers well beyond 10+03 feet above ground. Within a span of nine minutes, it zooms out to the farthest edge of the known universe and reels in to the inner depths of a carbon atom. I consider the vast array of perspectives an elegant reminder to remove my blinders and view the world from more than one lens. This might mean taking a step forward or a step back, looking from behind or even flipping the problem on its metaphorical head. Charles and Ray’s film offers many lessons, but one of the biggest is that, in reframing the the problem, new solutions inevitably emerge.

As we celebrate Powers of Ten Day, let us know how Charles and Ray’s film has impacted you, and in what ways you employ powers-of-ten thinking in your own life.

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The Love Competition

Video Still from the film, "The Love Competition"

Video Still from the film, "The Love Competition." (Brent Hoff/Vimeo)

Radiolab Blogland recently introduced a short documentary called The Love Competition by Brent Hoff.  The film features seven strangers who each spend five minutes in an fMRI machine with a single, abstract task at hand: to “love someone as hard as they can.”  The person who exhibits the highest level of activity in the regions of the brain associated with love wins the competition.

An fMRI creates detailed images of our mental activity.  It does so by measuring blood flow and oxygenation in response to neural activity in the brain, according to The University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences.  Blood cells are roughly 10-06 meters long.  The brain is estimated to have roughly 100 billion (10+11) cells as well as one billion (10+09) neurons that make over a trillion (10+12) connections at any given time.  How those connections amount to love may not be fully understood, but for now, fMRI images are rendering colorful and detailed manifestations of the emotion.

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Determining an Exoplanet

Artist's concept of the star Fomalhaut and the Jupiter-type planet observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ESA, NASA, and L. Calcada (ESO for STScI)

Check out this recent report from NASA on an exoplanet named Fomalhaut b, which orbits a 200-million-year-old star [10+08] called Fomalhaut, every 872 years [10+02]:

“A second look at data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is reanimating the claim that the nearby star Fomalhaut hosts a massive exoplanet. The study suggests that the planet, named Fomalhaut b, is a rare and possibly unique object that is completely shrouded by dust.

“Fomalhaut is the brightest star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus and lies 25 light-years away [10+17 meters].

“In November 2008, Hubble astronomers announced the exoplanet…as the first one ever directly imaged in visible light around another star. The object was imaged just inside a vast ring of debris surrounding but offset from the host star. The planet’s location and mass—no more than three times Jupiter’s [which is 10+27 kilograms]— seemed just right for its gravity to explain the ring’s appearance.

“Recent studies have claimed that this planetary interpretation is incorrect. Based on the object’s apparent motion and the lack of an infrared detection by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, they argue that the object is a short-lived dust cloud unrelated to any planet.

“A new analysis, however, brings the planet conclusion back to life.

“‘Although our results seriously challenge the original discovery paper, they do so in a way that actually makes the object’s interpretation much cleaner and leaves intact the core conclusion, that Fomalhaut b is indeed a massive planet,’ said Thayne Currie, an astronomer formerly at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and now at the University of Toronto.

“The discovery study reported that Fomalhaut b’s brightness varied by about a factor of two and cited this as evidence that the planet was accreting gas. Follow-up studies then interpreted this variability as evidence that the object actually was a transient dust cloud instead.

“In the new study, Currie and his team reanalyzed Hubble observations of the star from 2004 and 2006. They easily recovered the planet in observations taken at visible wavelengths near 600 and 800 nanometers [10-07 meters], and made a new detection in violet light near 400 nanometers. In contrast to the earlier research, the team found that the planet remained at constant brightness.”

To read the full story and learn more about the data and scientific analysis on this exoplanet, click here.

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Stonehenge: One of the Biggest Henges in the World!*

Stonehenge; image courtesy of English Heritage Wallpapers

Stonehenge was built in Salisbury Plain between 3100 – 1100 BCE. Commonly known as a site of ritualistic activity, it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that archaeologists realized that Stonehenge also served as an astronomical observatory. According to Sacred Sites, “In the 1950s and 1960s, the Oxford University engineer Professor Alexander Thom and the astronomer Gerald Hawkins pioneered the new field of archaeoastronomy–the study of the astronomies of ancient civilizations. Conducting surveys at Stonehenge and other megalithic structures, Thom and Hawkins discovered many significant astronomical alignments among the stones. This evidence indicates that Stonehenge and other stone rings were used as astronomical observatories” to study the observable universe (which is about 46 billion light years or 10+26 meters away from Earth in any direction).

Building Stonehenge required an estimated 30 million hours of labor (10+07).  It was constructed from bluestones, weighing up to four tons (10+03 pounds), and Sarsen stones, usually weighing 25 tons (10+04 pounds). We often hear that, during the Bronze Age, man transported the stones from hundreds of miles away in Wales.  As comedian Eddie Izzard imagines the situation, at the end of their journey someone gasped, “You never told us two hundred miles! Two hundred miles in this day and age? I don’t even know where I live now!” However, a 2006 article from BBC News reveals that the stones may instead have been moved by Ice Age glaciers (a process that, one might argue, is as slow as man heaving them across land).

To learn more about the glacial theory on Stonehenge reported by the BBC News, click here.

* Blog title from comedian Eddie Izzard’s 1999 video, Dressed to Kill.

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Black Spidery things on Mars

Aerial of Mars

Image credit: Michael Benson/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Kinetikon Pictures. See more images in Benson's newly published book, Planetfall.

Radiolab Blogland recently posted the piece below titled “Krulwich Wonders: Are Those Spidery Black Things on Mars Dangerous? (Maybe).” Read on!

“You are 200 miles directly above the Martian surface—looking down. This image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Jan. 27, 2010. (The color was added later.) What do we see? Well, sand, mostly [an average sand particle is 10-04 meters]. As you scroll down, there’s a ridge crossing through the image, then a plain, then dunes, but keep looking. You will notice, when you get to the dunes, there are little black flecks dotting the ridges, mostly on the sunny side, like sunbathing spiders [10-02 meters in diameter] sitting in rows. Can you see them?

“What are those things? They were first seen in 1998; they don’t look like anything we have here on Earth. [Earth's distance from Mars varies since both planets follow elliptical orbits around the sun. According to Universe Today, the closest recorded approach was in 2003, when Earth and Mars were 56 million, or 10+07 kilometers apart—the closest they’d been in 50,000, or 10+04, years]. To this day, no one is sure what [those spidery things] are, but we now know this: They come, then they go. Every Martian spring, they appear out of nowhere, showing up—70 percent of the time—where they were the year before. They pop up suddenly, sometimes overnight. When winter comes, they vanish. As the sun gets hotter, they get more spidery. . .[The sun's mass is 10+30 kilometers and its core is 27 million or 10+07 degrees Fahrenheit.]

“What could they be? Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, from Hungary, from the European Space Agency have all proposed explanations; the leading one is so weird, it’s transformed my idea of what it’s like to be on Mars. For 20 years [10+01], I’ve thought the planet to be magnificently desolate, a dead zone, painted rouge. But imagine this: Every spring, the sun beats down on a southern region of Mars, morning light melts the surface, warms up the ground below, and a thin, underground layer of frozen CO2 [with each molecule averaging 10-10 meters] turns suddenly into a roaring gas, expands, and carrying rock and ice, rushes up through breaks in the rock, exploding into the Martian air. Geysers shoot up in odd places. It feels random, like being surprise attacked by an monstrous, underground fountain. . .

“If you were there,” says Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, “you’d be standing on a slab of carbon dioxide ice. All around you, roaring jets of carbon dioxide gas are throwing sand and dust a couple hundred feet [10+02] into the air.” The ground below would be rumbling. You’d feel it in your space boots.

“That, anyway, is the leading explanation. The spidery traces. . .might be clumps of dark, basaltic sand thrown from the geysers. Or—say a group of Hungarian scientists—they might be colonies of photosynthetic Martian microorganisms, warmed from the sun, now sunbathing in plain view. We still don’t know for sure. We’ve been watching those spider-patches come and go for the last decade or so, and for a little while longer, we will have to guess why they’re there, or what they’re telling us.

“We’ll have to keep looking.”

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  • Countdown to Powers of Ten Day

    • 10/10/10 1288 days ago