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kottke.org posts about light

What Is It Like To Turn On A Light?

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 15, 2019

So I am something of a philosophy nerd, with a particular affection for late 19th/early 20th century European philosophers, who had a lamentable habit of either turning out to be Nazis or becoming victims of the Nazis. One important strand of this Nazi/Nazi-victim movement in European thought is phenomenology, which tried to describe in painful detail and using all-original categories what the experience of everyday life for both persons and things was like. As it happened, the experience of everyday life was in deep flux at this time, so a lot of their categories/arguments/distinctions turn out to actually capture that historical moment particularly well, which is not at all what they thought they were trying to do.

If you want to try out a light version of phenomenology, applied to both that historical moment and our own, you could do a lot worse than reading Dan Hill’s essay “Let There Be Light Switches: From Dark Living Rooms To Dark Ecology.” Hill takes something extremely ordinary—the experience of looking for, finding, and flipping a light switch—and finds the philosophy in it:

Pallasmaa, in his The Eyes of the Skin, noted that touch is a key part of remembering and understanding, that “tactile sense connects us with time and tradition: through impressions of touch we shake the hands of countless generations”. Is this reach for the switch merely functional, then? A light switch can stick around for decades, as with the doorhandle. When you touch the switch, you are subconsciously sensing the presence of others who have done so before you, and all those yet to do so. You are also directly touching infrastructure, the network of cables twisting out from our houses, from the writhing wires under our fingertips to the thicker fibres of cables, like limbs wrapped around each other, out into the countryside, into the National Grid.

If we always replace touch with voice activation, or simply by our presence entering a room, we are barely thinking or understanding, placing things out of mind. While data about those interactions exist, it is elsewhere, perceptible only to the eyes of the algorithm. We lose another element of our physicality, leaving no mark, literally. No sense of patina develops, except in invisible lines of code, datapoints feeding imperceptible learning systems of unknown provenance. As is often the case with unthinking smart systems, it is a highly individualising interface, revealing no trace of others.

This is… not easy to read. But there’s a lot going on here! I particularly like the invocation of Martin “I Was, Like, Extra-Nazi” Heidegger’s useful distinction between “zuhanden” (to-hand? at-hand?) and “vorhanden” (something like “present-at-hand”? Oh, German is impossible!) to describe categories of objects.

Or, hey; how about this: when it’s “zuhanden,” it’s a thing, and when it’s “vorhanden,” it’s an object.

Heidegger’s word for how light switches seem to peer out at you like minor characters in an Expressionist painting is vorhanden, which means present-at-hand. Normally things kind of disappear as you concentrate on your tasks. The light switch is just part of your daily routine, you flick it on, you want to boil the kettle for some coffee—you are stumbling around, in other words, stumbling around your kitchen in the early morning light of truthiness. (From Being Ecological, Timothy Morton)

That thing when things “disappear” is zuhanden; they just kind of melt into the environment, and so do you, just a being among beings, all working together. The ultimate expression of zuhanden is “flow,” which Heidegger and Csikszentmihalyi both ripped off from Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, with Levin mowing the hay with his peasants:

He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of scythes, and saw before him Tit’s upright figure mowing away, the crescent-shaped curve of the cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the row, where would come the rest.

Suddenly, in the midst of his toil, without understanding what it was or whence it came, he felt a pleasant sensation of chill on his hot, moist shoulders. He glanced at the sky in the interval for whetting the scythes. A heavy, lowering storm cloud had blown up, and big raindrops were falling. Some of the peasants went to their coats and put them on; others—just like Levin himself—merely shrugged their shoulders, enjoying the pleasant coolness of it.

Another row, and yet another row, followed—long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all easy to him, and at those same moments his row was almost as smooth and well cut as Tit’s. But so soon as he recollected what he was doing, and began trying to do better, he was at once conscious of all the difficulty of his task, and the row was badly mown.

On finishing yet another row he would have gone back to the top of the meadow again to begin the next, but Tit stopped, and going up to the old man said something in a low voice to him. They both looked at the sun. “What are they talking about, and why doesn’t he go back?” thought Levin, not guessing that the peasants had been mowing no less than four hours without stopping, and it was time for their lunch.

“Lunch, sir,” said the old man.

So we’ve had light switches long enough that they pass into our ordinary, everyday zuhanden state (or its extraordinary flow variation), except when we stumble over them and have to think about them, like these newfangled smart lights and voice switches. This means these everyday things are becoming objects again, until we can incorporate them into a new paradigm.

The light switch when jetlagged is vorhanden — suddenly present-at-hand, “oppressively obvious” —where usually its everyday resilience means it is zuhanden, simply ready-at-hand, normalised, routine. When “stumbling around”, he notes that we don’t pay attention to the object itself — here, the irreducible thing that is the light switch —and so nor do we stand any chance of paying attention to the broader systems of living, of infrastructure, that it is connected to, and part of - and, for Morton, our understanding of mass extinction due to climate change. And given Pallasmaa’s fundamental emphasis on touch as understanding, in order to truly sense and interact, this deleterious situation is hardly likely to improve when the analogue light switch disappears, when the object becomes further detached, and so may we.

More prosaically, how dull rooms will become if they are always automatically bright upon entering, just as the over-lit streets of our towns are increasingly sanitised of their mystery. The cornerstone of most horror movies, vanished overnight. Fortunately, smart homes will not work any more effectively than smart cities do, and a different sub-genre of horror movies will emerge, domestic versions of Stephen King’s Christine or 2001’s HAL.

Maybe this is all thinking too hard about an ordinary experience that is changing, sure, but not in some fundamental way that changes our relationship to things as such. But at the same time, what if it’s not thinking too hard enough?

There isn’t much more basic to our experience of the world, in the 20th century or the 21st, than our use of artificial light to take back the night, transform our work and our play, indeed, change the fundamental nature of communication and experience itself. It’s worth marveling at the change of experience, the change in expectation that that was, precisely now when those experiences and expectations are on the verge of changing again, first by the thousands, and then by the millions.

How do we find the light? How do we see? What do we need to see? What do we know by doing? These are basic questions any philosophy of experience, and any technology of experience, has to answer. Well, our technology of experience is changing. Maybe our philosophy of experience needs to first go back before it can go forward to something new.

In a Race to the Edge of the Solar System, Which Star Trek Ship Would Win?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2019

These visualizations of the speed of light I posted last week somehow demonstrate both how fast light speed is and how slow it is compared the vastness of the galaxy & universe. Science fiction often bends the rules of physics as we currently understand them, with fictional spacecraft pushing beyond the speed of light. In Star Trek, the measure of a ship’s velocity is warp speed. Warp 1 is the speed of light, Warp 6 is 392 times the speed of light, etc. In this Warp Speed Comparison video, EC Henry compares the top speeds of various Star Trek vessels (the original Enterprise, Voyager, the Defiant), racing them from Earth to the edge of the solar system.

Once again, you get a real sense of how fast these ships would be if they actually existed but also of the vastness of space. It would take 10 seconds for the fastest ship to reach the edge of the solar system at maximum warp and just over 6 hours to get to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Wikipedia lists a few dozen stars that are within a day’s journey at full warp…a trip that takes light more than 16 years. The mighty speed of light is no match for the human imagination. (thx, jim)

Visualizing the Speed of Light

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2019

Light is fast! In a recent series of animations, planetary scientist James O’Donoghue demonstrates just how fast light is…and also how far away even our closest celestial neighbors are. Light, moving at 186,000 mi/sec, can circle the Earth 7.5 times per second and here’s what that looks like:

It can also travel from the surface of the Earth to the surface of the Moon in ~1.3 seconds, like so:

That seems both really fast and not that fast somehow. Now check out light traveling the 34 million miles to Mars in a pokey 3 minutes:

And Mars is close! If O’Donoghue made a real-time animation of light traveling to Pluto, the video would last over 5 hours. The animation for the closest undisputed galaxy, Seque 1, would last 75,000 years and 2.5 million years for the Andromeda galaxy animation. The farthest-known objects from Earth are more than 13 billion light years away. Light is slow!

See also The Leisurely Pace of Light Speed.

Personal light cones

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2008

When I was born 35.2 years ago, a light cone started expanding away from Earth out into the rest of the universe (Minkowski space-temporally speaking, of course). Thanks to updates from Matt Webb’s fancy RSS tool, I know that my personal light cone is about to envelop the Zeta Herculis binary star system, located 35.2 light years from Earth in the constellation Hercules.

With a mass some 50 percent greater than the Sun, however, and beginning its evolution toward gianthood (its core hydrogen fusion likely shut down), Zeta Her A is 6 times more luminous than the Sun with a radius 2.5 times as large. Nevertheless, the star gives a good idea of what the Sun would look like from a great distance, in Zeta Her’s case 35 light years. The companion (Zeta Her B), a cooler class G (G7) hydrogen-fusing dwarf with a luminosity only 65 percent that of the Sun and a mass about 85 percent solar, orbits with a period of 34.5 years at a mean distance of 15 Astronomical Units (over 50 percent farther than Saturn is from the Sun). A rather high eccentricity takes the two as far apart as 21 AU and as close as 8 AU.

Hercules is of course named for the Greek hero, Heracles. Next up is Delta Trianguli, another binary star system, in about two months.