Stanford sextant

While handling and inspecting this carefully preserved sextant on a table at the David Rumsey Map Center, it was easy to forget the bitter winds and rocking decks which confronted marine astronomers trying to use such instruments to take celestial measurements at sea. William Bayly’s logbook from 1772 to 1774 describes how

fantastical sights of icebergs, whales, dolphins, penguins, and the Aurora Australis alternated with horrendous weather, including violent storms and snow, waves breaking over the decks, and poor visibility … strong gales & squally with a hollow trembling Sea

But perhaps sitting from this privileged position is befitting, since this sextant appears never to have been used.

Jesse Ramsden’s dividing engine massively reduced the labour involved in the production of the precision navigation instruments. It marked a sociotechnical solution to the long-standing problem of determining longitude at sea. The Ramsden sextant’s wide arc, reflecting mirror, and accurately engraved scale were marvels of precision engineering, capable of measuring celestial distances down to a sixtieth of a degree. Since it could be produced without artisanal competence, the sextant was far cheaper than its more technically advanced rival – the marine chronometer. And the sextant was a kind of social technology in another sense, too. It conveyed authority on ship, to maintain the sense of hierarchy that prevented disorder or mutiny. Yet the luxurious nature and pristine condition of this sextant indicates it was never purchased for use in navigation or social coordination at sea. It seems rather to have been intended as a show piece, standing as it does for Britain’s rising coalition of commerce, industry, and genteel science, defenders and prime movers of the late eighteenth-century empire.

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Web

I took a Lyft to San Francisco International Airport. After we struggled to locate each other, the conversation with the driver started amicably – the mutual lament of technology. Then she took her serve. “Where are you going?” I was travelling home at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. She turned down the radio and proceeded to lay out an admirably intricate conspiracy theory about how the virus originated as a bioweapon at a PLA research facility in Wuhan. This, she clarified, was part of an ongoing scheme cooked up by the new bloods, a biological clique of corporations and politicians who promoted emasculating vegan and synthetic foods such as soy, signed iniquitous intercontinental trade treaties for their secret advantage, and directed the mainstream media to brainwash people into submitting like sheep to their plans for world domination. My driver was safe from coronavirus, for she was a free-thinking old blood, fortified by meat and organic foods such as grains and pulses. She made her own way in the world, poring over unsung scholarship on Neanderthal genetics.

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Human chemistry

Many concepts span a metaphorical plane across physical, social, and mental space, such as Lefebvre has interpreted space. Others are balance, order, and decay, which can purportedly be explained by another. Structure refers to the constitutive arrangement, relationships, and patterns between the objects, images, and devices present within in our physical, social, and mental space. The structure of molecules, the ways in which atoms are bonded together, can be represented by analytical chemists through molecular geometry, as in this model:

A profusion of molecular structures react. Bacteriologists and pharmacologists perceive in them an emergent structure – a biological organism, situated in a an ecology of interacting structures. The heuristic category of structure as a means to decode chemical, biological, and ecological space already seems capacious, before considering the structures of galaxies, stars, stellar remnants, interstellar gas, dust, and dark matter. But, despite its breadth, looking for ‘the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex’ is necessarily a phenomenologically restricted posture. The scientist measures, models, represents, and accords a level of unified coherence to their given conceptual object. The undifferentiated, acting human being on the other hand typically only determines to conceptualise an otherwise overwhelmingly subjective experience through the lens of structure when the encounter with a given phenomenal manifestation seems to necessitate the application of instrumental reason. Though chemical structure is perhaps the only way to think about a molecule, anatomy is just one way to think about an animal – which can also be seen as a cherished pet, a mortal threat, or (for carnivores) as meat. And there are many more ways than theoretical physics to think about the heavens. Just as solipsism can explain nothing, the higher apertures of the structural lens cannot capture the emotional and psychological immediacy of subjective experience. Chemistry contrives order only by deduction from sense, a slanted Faustian bargain – as if to climb the Apollonian tower of reason, without the journey of Dionysian transcendence. Humanism, however, must account for intersubjective modes of consciousness.

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