Archive for April 2010

A damsel in distress!

20 April 2010

A damsel in distress!

An unusual damsel, extremely beautiful, touchy and unlike the normal variety – highly dangerous in reality. She was found wandering around behind the bachelor’s quarters. The bachelors were loth to keep her but feared her vicous temper.

Sadly, if any one other than Abhinav had spotted her first, it would have been her end! Serendipity ensured that there was a basket of the kind that snake-charmers use in a pile of odds and ends in the cubby hole under the stairs. Placing it on top of her and sliding a cardboard below, he deftly trapped her.

It was a young Indian Cobra – Naja naja.

Since she was kept for a few hours only, no attempt was made to feed her and the basket was kept in a quiet place away from disturbance.

In the words of the late Steve Irwin, "Ain't she a beauty!"

Then the experts were called in, or rather, my friend Christopher was called in and I accompanied him. We took her to the wild area of CME to release her. En route, Chris, who is an expert though cautious snake catcher, taught us the correct technique to catch her.

One has to take great care with young poisonous snakes – the head has to be held firmly from behind and above. Too much pressure and you could fatally injure the young creatures. Too little pressure, you risked the little creature getting free from your grip and biting you.

Svelte & sundar!

The cobra was released near a stream and she went and hid in a hole under water.

A note of caution – don’t try to bootstrap yourself into catching snakes. Learn from the experts and that too with non-poisonous snakes. There number of snake-experts and scientists who have died from snake-bite is very large. The only need to catch a poisonous snake is for its own welfare – when you need to rescue it from Man and take it to sanctuary.

On the road to precious freedom!


Since I am a reputed m.c.p., I refer to the young snake as a female. The truth is we do not know whether the snake was male or female. The technique of determining the sex of the snake can injure it if done by other than experts. Since our only requirement was take the creature to safety, this was not attempted.

An avuncular Christopher shows local kids that snakes are lovable creatures too.

Image Credits : Abhinav Chawla. Released by him under Creative Commons License 3.0 Share-alike (Unported).

P.S. Strangely between the writing of this post and its publishing,  I had to interrupt the dinner party I was hosting to rescue a Russel’s Viper. Unbelievable? Yet true!

The Good Mother (55 Fiction)

17 April 2010

The good mother!

The mother crouched over her eggs but the rocks and earth from the overhung crushed her and her progeny none the less. Capricious fortune! Her head only four inches from her eggs,  she was dubbed “Egg seizer” millenia later despite her supreme sacrifice. Seven decades of ignominy till her loving nature came to light.

This is the story of “Oviraptor “. Read more about it here.

A museum exhibit - Oviraptor guards her eggs.

This Azerbaijan stamp of 1994 reflects the previous view of Oviraptor as an egg thief.

Image credits. Click image to reach the source page.

Orbs of flame

15 April 2010

Off on a comet – Part II (Find Part I here)

Giovanni Battista Donati was an Italian astronomer who, on Aug. 5, 1864, was first to observe the spectrum of a comet (Comet 1864 II) now named after him. This observation indicated correctly that comet tails contain luminous gas and do not shine merely by reflected sunlight. Note the Big Dipper to the right. The bright star near the comet's head is Arcturus in the constellation Bootes.

", dry exhalations gathered and occasionally burst into flame..." - Aristotle

"..were hot, dry exhalations which gathered and occasionally burst into flame..." - Aristotle

Of all heavenly phenomena, none have fascinated man more than the appearance of comets in the sky. These objects behaved (to the ancients) so strangely and will fully that they were considered signs from Gods to mortals on Earth.

What were the gods trying to say? Some cultures read the message by the images that they saw upon looking at the comet. For example, the tail of the comet gave it the appearance of the head of a woman, with long flowing hair behind her. This sorrowful symbol of mourning was understood to mean the gods that had sent the comet to earth were displeased. There are many such myths which have emerged over the millenia in many cultures, both oriental and occidental.

However, till the advent of  the telescope and the “Thinking Man” of Renaissance times, mankind had no way to understand what exactly a comet was composed of.

Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, who studied under Plato and taught Alexander the Great, in his work “Meteorology“,  speaks across two millenia to us :

We know that the dry and warm exhalation is the outermost part of the terrestrial world which falls below the circular motion. It, and a great part of the air that is continuous with it below, is carried round the earth by the motion of the circular revolution. In the course of this motion it often ignites wherever it may happen to be of the right consistency, and this we maintain to be the cause of the ‘shooting’ of scattered ‘stars’.

We may say, then, that a comet is formed when the upper motion introduces into a gathering of this kind a fiery principle not of such excessive strength as to burn up much of the material quickly, nor so weak as soon to be extinguished, but stronger and capable of burning up much material, and when exhalation of the right consistency rises from below and meets it.

This was completely in harmony with Aristotle’s view of the “Geocentric Universe“, i.e. the stars and the Sun revolved around the Earth. He argued that they could not be heavenly bodies as they did not move across the sky with the stars. Hence, to suit his world-view, he postulated them as creatures of the atmosphere.

Types of cometary forms, illustrations from Johannes Hevelius' Cometographia (Danzig, 1668)

An ancient bust of Seneca the Younger in the Antikensammlung, Berlin.

Aristotle’s views were questioned even in antiquity. The Roman Stoic philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, more popularly known as Seneca the Younger, writes in “Natural Questions VII“, his only opus on Natural History, that :

Are they a concentration of flame as our
vision avers, and as the very light that streams from
them, 1 and the heat that descends from them suggest ?

6  Or are their orbs not of flame, but, as it were, solid
bodies of earth that glide through tracts of fire,
and having no light of their own draw thence
their brightness and heat ? That is an opinion that
has been held by great men who have believed
the stars to be compact of hard material, and to be
nourished by fire that is not their own. Flame

by itself, they argue, would be dissipated and would
have nothing to hold or to be held by. If it were
merely massed and not attached to a solid body,
the universe would assuredly long since have
scattered it in its impetuous whirl…

Seneca held that comets moved regularly through the sky and were undisturbed by the wind, behavior more typical of celestial than atmospheric phenomena. While he conceded that the other planets do not appear outside the Zodiac, he saw no reason that a planet-like object could not move through any part of the sky.

Aristotle’s views drowned out voices like Seneca’s and were pre-eminent through the mighty march of centuries till the dawn of the Renaissance.

This drawing of the comet of 1577 by a Turkish astronomer appeared in the book "Tarcuma-I Cifr al-Cami" by Mohammed b. Kamaladdin written in the 16th century. The yellow Moon, stars and comet are shown against a light blue sky.

In 1577, a bright comet was visible in the sky for several months. The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe used measurements of the comet’s position taken by himself and other, geographically separated, observers to determine that the comet had no measurable parallax. Within the precision of the measurements, this implied the comet must be at least four times more distant from the earth than the moon. This was the first proof that comets were extra-terrestrial creatures and not of the Earth itself. Hence they had to be “real’ bodies, not atmospheric apparitions as propounded by Aristotle.

A curious case. Halley's Comet and portrait on a Grenada stamp, but the drawing is by the great Tycho Brahe himself. The caption of the stamp and that of another stamp in the series have been exchanged. It should read: “Tycho Brahe’s notes and sketch—Comet of 1577."

The next person to comment on comets was none other than the great natural philosopher and mathematician, Isaac Newton himself. He described comets as compact and durable solid bodies moving in oblique orbits, and their tails as thin streams of vapor emitted by their nuclei, ignited or heated by the sun. Newton suspected that comets were the origin of the life-supporting component of air. Newton also believed that the vapors given off by comets might replenish the planets’ supplies of water (which was gradually being converted into soil by the growth and decay of plants), and the sun’s supply of fuel.

Newton was right in many ways. Comets were solid objects trailing vapour emitted by nuclei emitted because of solar heating. Comets are also considered to be a source of extra-terrestrial water in the Solar Sytem. However they did not add to the sun’s store of nuclear fuel.

Newton made another great contribution to cometary science with his treatise Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.  In book 3, “De mundi systemate” (On the system of the world) , he describes the celestial mechanics of cometary orbits.

Sir Isaac Newton's depiction of the orbit of the Comet of 1680, fit to a parabola. (From ''The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy''. London: Benjamin Motte, 1729. )

Newton was approached by Edmond Halley for guidance in the understanding of celestial mechanics. Newton sent him a document which, though untitled in reality, is today known under the name of “De motu corporum in gyrum (Latin: “On the motion of bodies in an orbit”). Using Newton’s mathematical principles, Edmond Halley deduced that the great comets of 1456, 1531, 1607, and 1682 were one and the same. In 1705,  Halley published “Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae”, in which he stated his belief that the comet sightings were of the same comet. He further predicted that it would return in 1758. Halley did not live to witness the comet’s return, but when it did, the comet became generally known as Halley’s Comet.

Immanuel Kant thought not just about reason but cometary science too.

In 1755, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is not very widely known for his astronomical studies, hypothesized that comets are composed of some volatile substance, whose vaporization gives rise to their brilliant displays near perihelion. In his work  “Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels” (English: Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven), Kant writes :

Their atmosphere and tail, which expand through the heat of their close approach to the sun, are only consequences of the eccentricity, although they have always served in times of ignorance as uncommon images of horror, announcing to the common folk imaginary destinies….

He was right as regards the nature of the atmosphere and tail – it is solar radiation that causes the volatile materials within a comet to vaporize and stream out of the nucleus, carrying dust away with them. This stream of dust and gas forms a huge, extremely tenuous atmosphere around the comet called the “coma”, and the force exerted on the coma by the Sun’s radiation pressure and solar wind cause an enormous “tail” to form, which points away from the sun.

The external parts of a comet

However Kant’s theory which would have required comets to comprise mainly of volatile material were overshadowed, not by another philosopher’s views but by events which drew another, partially correct explanation of the the nature of a comet’s substance.

In 1872, a major meteor shower occurred from the orbit of Comet Biela, which had been observed to split into two pieces during its visit in 1846, and was never seen again after 1852. Earlier, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli computed the orbit of the Perseid meteors over the period 1864–1866. Based on orbital similarities, he correctly hypothesized that the Perseid meteors were nothing but fragments of Comet Swift-Tuttle. This not only linked comets and meteor showers but also gave rise to the “gravel bank” model of comet structure, according to which comets consist of loose piles of small rocky objects, coated with an icy layer. That is, it is mostly hard matter but with some ice and other volatile material.

The annual Perseid meteor showers are created by the dust plumes of Comet Swift-Tuttle which visited Earth in 1992 and next comes in 2126.

By the middle of the twentieth century, this view of a comet’s composition suffered from a number of shortcomings. For example, how could a body, that contained only a little ice,  continue to put on a brilliant display of evaporating vapor after several perihelion passages around the Sun.

In 1950, Fred Lawrence Whipple proposed that rather than being rocky objects containing some ice, comets were icy objects containing some dust and rock. So matters stood till the turn of the Twentieth Century when, to answer these and other such questions, NASA began launching space missions to intercept comets and interact with them.

To learn about the trysts of spacecraft with comets, wait for “Of Deep Space and Stardust” (part III of “Off on a Comet”).

Sources :

  • “Meteorology” by Aristotle. (Read the English translation of Book 1 here.)
  • “Natural Questions” by Seneca the Younger. (Read the English translation of Book VII here.)
  • “Universal Natural History and Theory of the  Heavens” by Immanuel Kant (Read Part II, Section 3 here.)

Images : Click the image to reach the source.

  • Wikimedia Commons – Comet Donati (p.d.), Aristotle (cc sa 3.0), Seneca (cc sa 3.0),  Newton’s diagram (p.d.), Kant postage stamp (p.d.), Perseids meteor shower (cc sa 3.0),
  • Hevelius’ comets : NASA/JPL.
  • Blue Turkish Comet : copyright – Erol Pakin.
  • Cometary structure : copyright –
  • Brahe/Halley stamp : copyright: -Dan from

Quote – Thoreau on “Hunting”

6 April 2010

You seek the bird...

but get only the body!

A gun gives you the body, not the bird.

Henry David Thoreau

"The Hunters at rest" by Vasily Grigorevich Perov (1871)

Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Another image added to post “The Heart of the Andes”

4 April 2010

I came upon an enlargement of detail of this painting on and have added it to the main post on the subject. It is much easier now to examine the craftsmanship of Church.

The Heart of the Andes

4 April 2010

Frederic Edwin Church - painter of "The Heart of the Andes".

In 1859, the year that Charles Darwin published his magnum opus, a large painting, about 5 feet high and ten feet wide was unveiled in  New York’s Studio Building on West 10th Street. The event attracted an unprecedented turnout for a single-painting exhibition in the United States.

More than 12,000 people paid an admission fee of twenty-five cents to view the painting. Even on the final day of the showing, patrons waited in line for hours to enter the Exhibition Room.

The room was darkened. Carefully positioned lights focused the eye and the mind on the painting and excluded all else. Curtains were arranged around it to give the impression of a view through a window. Dried plants were arranged in the room to add to the atmosphere, probably alongwith artefacts brought back by the painter from his travels. Viewers sat on a bench for their allotted time and were provided opera glasses so as to examine the details closer.

The painting was “The Heart of the Andes“. The painter was Frederic Edwin Church (May 4, 1826 – April 7, 1900), an American landscape painter. Church travelled to South America twice in the 1850s. Inspired by the great Prussian naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, he painted a series of extremely fine landscapes.

Before  I say more, I include the picture below. Now, I would like you to do exactly as I say.

Have a look at the image below.

Then download the large 3.4 MB sized image from here or by clicking the image. Look at the full image in detail and appreciation. It helps if there are no distractions. For best results, turn the room dark, shut off all appliances (music, cell-phone etc), calm down, be at peace and then look at it.

Then look at each part of the painting in detail. (Yes, we want you to learn to appreciate art; not eat fast-food!)

Imagine you have paid your 25 cents way back that April day back in 1859 and you have momentarily been given leave to examine the painting all by yourself in the room.Take your time. Get the feel of it. Form your own impression of it.

Having done that. I’ll tell you more…

The Heart of the Andes

For a factual description of the work let Wikipedia do the talking :

“The Heart of the Andes” is a composite of the South American topography observed by Church during his travels. At the center right of the mountain landscape is a shimmering pool served by a waterfall. The snow-capped, majestic Mount Chimborazo of Ecuador appears in the distance; the viewer’s eye is led to it by the darker, closer slopes that decline from right to left. The evidence of human presence consists of a lightly worn path that fades away, a hamlet and church lying in the central plain, and closer to the foreground, two natives are seen before a cross. The church, a trademark detail in Church’s paintings, is Catholic and Spanish-colonial, and seemingly inaccessible from the viewer’s location. Church’s signature appears cut into the bark of the highlighted foreground tree at left. The play of light on his signature has been interpreted as the artist’s statement of man’s ability to tame nature—yet the tree appears in poor health compared to the vivid jungle surrounding it.

To understand Church’s work, we must begin with his main inspiration – Alexander von Humboldt,  Church’s intellectual guru as surely as he was Darwin‘s, Alfred Russel Wallace‘s and Louis Agassiz‘s. At that point of time, Humboldt was arguably the most influential intellectual in the world. Humboldt had explored South America at the turn of the eighteenth century. His travel narratives and his seminal work “Kosmos” were hugely influential and engrossing. Indeed, they formed part of Church’s library. Church, of course, was heavily influenced by Humboldtian Science.

Alexander von Humboldt - Church's guru and inspiration.

Humboldt believed that the highest ideal lay in the representation of the unity amidst the complexity of nature, a synthesis of Kantian views of unity of natural phenomena.

For Humboldt, “the unity of nature” meant that interrelation of all physical sciences – such as the conjoining between biology, meteorology, and geology that determined where specific plants grew – which the scientist unraveled by discovering myriad, painstakingly collecting data. In his opinion, Nature was not to be exalted with religious ideals but to be appreciated in another context. Both the accuracy and exactness of data and its aesthetic charactersitics were to be appreciated hand in hand.

Humboldt considered that the highest ideals of understanding unity amongst diversity in nature were the practice of three disciplines – nature poetry, growing exotic plants and landscape painting.

Church retraced Humboldt’s foot-steps in South America, even hiring the same  house that Humboldt had stayed in Quito. Church taking Humboldt’s philosophy as gospel, painted a dazzling series of canvases, of which the Heart of the Andes is most prominent.

In this vast portrayal of a notional South American landscape view – no place exists on Earth which provides such a view – Church drew each botanical, geological or meteorological fact to exact detail. The plants in his great work can be identified and compared. They grow exactly like Church painted them. And by including such finer aspects mentioned by Humboldt in his treatises as

“the thin vapour which, without changing the transparency of the air, renders its tints more harmonious and softens its effects…”,

Church paid true homage to Humboldt.

Detail from "The Heart of the Andes"

After the painting’s triumphant reception in America, Church took it to Europe. His desire was to

“to have the satisfaction of placing before Humboldt, a transcript of the scenery which delighted his eyes sixty years ago – and which he had pronounced to be the finest in the world.”

It was too late. Humboldt died before the painting reached Europe. Church’s wish remained unfulfilled but he went to paint many more beautiful landscapes.

Now it is time to look at the painting again but with new eyes.

Rather than end the post with this sombre note, let me recast Stephen Jay Gould’s conclusion in his brilliant essay on the Heart of the Andes.

“Picture that fellow admirer of Humboldt, Church’s contemporary, Charles Darwin as he stood in the Heart of the Andes drinking deeply from the vista with a spiritual reverence no less than that of Humboldt and Church. Yet he was to go on to demolish the romantic naturalism of Humbodt with a new vision of unfeeling, uncaring nature. He says :

It has been for me a glorious day, like giving to a blind man eyes, he is overwhelmed by what he sees and cannot justly comprehend it. Such are my feelings and such may they remain. ”


We rarely get to appreciate art in blog posts of today’s world. Appreciating art is like reading a good book or drinking a balloon glass of fine VSOP brandy or enjoying a great piece of classical music. The tempo of life needs to be suspended awhile.

I hope you enjoyed looking at this fine landscape. If you would like to learn more about appreciating art, this and this link can help you.


  • Images : Wikimedia Commons &
  • Information :
    • Wikipedia links.
    • Gould, Stephen Jay. (2002). “Art meets Science in The Heart of the Andes.” in  “I have Landed : the end of a beginning in natural history.” Harmony Books, (418 pages) ISBN 978060901433. Abstract.