Point Cloud, a kinetic sculpture by the designer James Leng, takes weather data from the Web and expresses it in the form of a moving, shifting wire “cloud,” powered by hundreds of super-tiny servos and connectors. Leng explains his inspiration in an artist’s statement: Even as the technology we use for predicting the weather has grown more and more complex, he writes, our means for displaying what we know have remained laughably simple (little cartoon pictures of the sun or a thundercloud). You can’t use Point Cloud to read the forecast—its undulating shape represents weather statistics in an abstract way—but it does capture, in a beautiful way, the fact that the weather is, as Leng puts it, “permanently variable.”
Will philosophize for cash!
We don’t normally think of philosophy as a money-intensive enterprise—all you need to philosophize, after all, are some books and a brain. And yet, as Nathan Schneider explains in a new essay, “The Templeton Effect,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, one of the most important developments in modern philosophy is the arrival of a huge pot of money.
Since it was founded in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation has been giving millions of dollars in grants and awards to philosophers, and all that money is changing the sorts of questions philosophers are asking. The foundation was created by the late Sir John Marks Templeton, an eccentric, self-made billionaire who became convinced as he grew older that people who think about big meaning-of-life questions could benefit from the kind of serious funding that scientists receive.
Today, his foundation lavishes support on philosophers, scientists, theologians, and other thinkers who are interested in the “Big Questions”—free will, spirituality, good and evil, and our place in the universe. One philosophy professor at the University of California at Riverside received $5 million to study the concept of immortality; another at Wake Forest University got $3.7 million to “promote significant progress in the scholarly investigation of character.” For comparison, a typical non-Templeton grant to a philosopher might be around $25,000.
The foundation is particularly interested in religion and spirituality: Some of the thinkers who receive Templeton grants are Christians, and many more have spiritual inclinations. The foundation is open about its belief that intellectual life has become too atheistic. (It’s now administered by Templeton’s son, John Jr., “a devoted neoconservative and evangelical Christian who finances Tea Party causes on his own dime.”) If the money were given out by a group of typical philosophy professors, it’s likely that it would go to fund far less spiritual inquiries. But, Schneider explains, philosophers who don’t share the foundation’s spiritual inclinations readily acknowledge that the Templeton philosophers are serious scholars making real contributions. The foundation, Schneider concludes, is approaching philosophy with an investor’s mindset: “Grants of a few million dollars are a drop in the bucket for the sciences...but in philosophy, where such sums are unheard of, they have the potential to transform the whole field.” As philosophers use their Templeton grants to establish research centers of their own, that transformation appears to be underway.
Eau de old book
We’re all familiar with that old-book smell: It’s what we associate with libraries, used book stores, and those old boxes full of comic books and photo albums in the attic. Now a team of chemists at University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage is finding ways to understand what information that smell, and others like it, might contain. Their “Heritage Smells!” project aims to make progress in the field of “material degradomics” by figuring out why old things smell the way they do.
In 2009, the UCL chemist Matija Strlic and his team published a paper on the smell of old books: The musty odor, they found, comes primarily from the paper’s acidity, but also from the presence of other chemical compounds. Armed with this knowledge, researchers can take a “nondestructive approach”—i.e., sniffing, sometimes aided by fancy equipment—to analyzing old books.
The “Heritage Smells!” researchers are now moving on to plastic objects (think of those boxes of old toys). They hope that their work will “lead the way towards [the] introduction of small portable sniffing devices into conservation and management practice” for “ethnographic” objects of all kinds.