Giorgione - Sleeping Venus

Giorgione – Sleeping Venus

I’m reading more frequently that our current tendency to be staring at screens and living in our unnatural always-lit environment is really messing up our internal circadian clocks. In a natural world, the human circadian cycle adapts to seasonal changes in the light-dark cycle. But staring at screens (TV, computer, phone), especially in the hours prior to trying to sleep, is harmful to our internal clock’s synchronization and the way our brain prepares for sleep. And sleeping in for an extra hour doesn’t really help.

You’re finally relaxing on a winter night after a tough day spent in artificial light when you barely made it outside. You walked to your car or the mass transit in early morning darkness. You left work and it was already getting dark. At home, you were bathed in a brightly lit home. You watch your big screen TV and have your tablet on your lap.

You’re really messing up your internal clock.

Can we reset our internal clock by avoiding artificial lights at night for a few days and turning off those screens? That is tough to do in most modern settings. No screens and no artificial lighting? You can’t even do that on most vacations.

Some people try using meditation or other techniques to control stress ot to “defrag” your brain. Scientists have known for quite a while now that light is the most powerful cue for shifting the phase or resetting the time of the circadian clock. They have been cautioning against using light-emitting devices before bedtime because they emit “short-wavelength-enriched” light – light with a higher concentration of blue light than natural light contains. Blue light affects levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin more than any other wavelength.

In a study published in Current Biology, the authors describe a series of experiments where people were sent out camping to reset their biological clocks. The paper is titled “Circadian Entrainment to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle across Seasons and the Weekend” but in simpler terms it tested campers who spent a week and some who spent a weekend in a tech-free and only natural lighting setting. This study compared them with a control group that stayed at home to live their normal life. The scientists tracked sleep and circadian rhythms by measuring their levels of the hormone melatonin, which regulates wakefulness and sleep.

Melatonin levels are key. We know that melatonin is present at low levels during the day, begins being released a few hours before bedtime, and peaking in the middle of the night. Those levels fall and then we wake up. Unfortunately, in our current living environment, melatonin levels don’t fall back down for  a few hours after we wake up. To your brain, you should still be sleeping for several hours. It’s like jet lag.

But that week-long camping trip seems to have reset the participants’ internal clock. Living in a world lit by light bulbs and screens is very different from one of sunlight and moonlight.

I try year round to get out to at least my backyard as soon as I make my morning coffee to get at least 15 minutes of sunlight. Of course, sometimes there is not much sunlight and in winter here it’s not as pleasant to step out in your pajamas when it’s 20 degrees and there’s snow on the deck. Natural light, particularly morning sunshine, which is enriched with blue light, has a very powerful influence on setting internal clocks to daytime and waking up.

Of course, a week of real camping (not a spa week or vacation at a resort) is not possible or even desirable to everyone. Can you create a natural light-dark cycle for a weekend? It means turning off the screens and turning off all of the artificial lights.

The study found that over 60% of the shift can happen over a weekend. Assuming the weekend is Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, that would give you a 20% recovery per night. Add 2 more nights to get 100% recovery? Five nights to reset your clock.

Of course, we’d like an easier path.

One alternate path reminds me of other “detox cures” that are quite popular. For example, I read an article on how to reverse some liver damage. In brief, it suggests that you avoid alcohol and processed foods, exercise more, lose 10% of your weight, take some milk thistle and maybe some Vitamin E. That sounds like good general health advice, but other than taking some supplements, it also sounds like a tough regimen for most of us to follow.

That is why a lot of people have decided to try taking melatonin supplements. It’s easy, and it sounds logical. You lack the melatonin to induce sleep, so you add some artificially. I tried resrtting my circadian rhythms using melatonin about a year ago. I read about what the levels are supposed to be. I made a schedule of when I would take the melatonin and when I would go to sleep. I adhered to the schedule – for two weeks.

The experiment did seem to work. I felt like I was falling asleep faster and staying asleep better. I didn’t do anything with light. I suspect that part of the improvement came from sticking to a regular sleep schedule. I was going to bed at 11 pm and waking up at 7 am for a solid 8 hours. But I just couldn’t keep to the schedule. I continued taking the melatonin until the bottle was empty, but I was going to bed at 1 or 2 am some nights and waking up at 6, 8 or even 9 am. That’s not how to do it.

People also try using artificial lights that mimic the spectrum and the intensity of natural light, but that can be costly. It is one of the therapies for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that hits people as the “winter blues.”

I’ll be taking a week away from the winter blues soon and I will try, as best I can, to break from the screens and live by the sunlight and moonlight.

camping-pixa

applejack

A Scotsman in New Jersey back in 1780 named William Laird established America’s first distillery. He made an aged apple brandy that was called Applejack. It is still sold (as Laird’s Applejack), and as a born and bred New Jerseyan, I feel it an obligation to always have a bottle on hand.

I grew up in a home where there wasn’t a lot of booze. We had some beer in the summer (the Pabst, Schaefer, Rheingold, Piels and Budweiser of the NJ of that time), the odd whiskey sours for an “occasion,” but there was always brandy and schnapps. Brandy is distilled from many fruits. The fancier stuff  – French Cognac, Armagnac, Peruvian Pisco – comes from grapes, but my parents liked blackberry or peach brandy.  Laird’s sells an apple brandy (100 proof), while the Applejack is 35% apple brandy and 65% neutral spirits.

Schnapps also refers to fruit brandies, herbal liqueurs, infusions, and “flavored liqueurs.”  They are made by adding fruit syrups, spices, or flavorings to neutral grain spirits. We always had some peppermint schnapps on hand for “medicinal” purposes. That was a tradition my mother’s Austrian family brought with them. I still  keep a bottle in the house, just in case. “Schnapps” comes from the German word “schnappen“, which refers to the fact that the spirit or liquor drink is usually consumed in a quick slug from a small shot glass.

I heard about Laird’s Applejack in an undergraduate history class at Rutgers and bought my first bottle soon after.

When the Lairds established America’s first commercial distillery in the tiny community of Scobeyville, NJ, they obtained License #1 for a distillery in the state. Back then, Applejack was also imbibed in an unaged form dubbed Jersey Lightning. Laird released an official unaged Jersey Lightning in 2014.

The family tradition is even older. In 1698 Alexander Laird, a County Fife Scotsman, emigrated from Scotland to America with his sons Thomas and William. William settled in Monmouth County, New Jersey. William probably was making scotch back in the old country, but here he turned his skills to using the abundant apples of the New World.

Robert Laird was a Revolutionary War soldier serving under George Washington, and the Laird family supplied the troops with Applejack. Historical records show that, prior to 1760, George Washington wrote to the Laird family requesting their recipe for producing Applejack. The family gave it to him and entries appear in Washington’s diary regarding his production of “cyder spirits.”

lincoln-saloon-menu

I didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln had a “saloon” in New Salem, Illinois. His menu of 1833 shows Apple Brandy sold at 12 cents a half-pint. A half-pint would get you pretty mellow, so a night’s lodging would cost another 12-1/2 cents, and a meal was a hefty 25 cents.

An article in New Jersey Monthly gave some modern apple brandy drinks (Born to Run, Lincoln Park Swizzle, Ol ’55), but I say they have too many fancy ingredients (Aquavit, Framboise, Falernum, Peychauds) to seem like a real Jersey drink that honors the spirit’s traditions.

I have been known to move a Manhattan across the river by using some Applejack, and my wife likes a Jumping Jack (1.5 oz. Laird’s AppleJack, 1 oz. chilled espresso and .5 oz. cinnamon syrup). But most of the time the Applejack or brandy is either straight up or on the rocks just as it comes from the bottle, or, in winter, used in the hot toddies my Aunt Millie taught me to make. After all, traditions are traditions. And, yes, since I had to take a photo of the bottle, I did have some Applejack while I was typing this.

dandelion

Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog predicted another 6 weeks of winter, but on that day I saw a lone dandelion already blooming at the neighborhood park.  Maybe it was being bold, or being stupid, to bloom so early. It was covered by snow the following week. But according to estimates by the National Phenology Network, spring has already arrived in much of the Southwest and Southeast. It was about 20 days early for the Southeast. They track Extended Spring Indices which are models that scientists have developed to predict the “start of spring” at a particular location.

This weekend in Paradelle, we are enjoying temperatures in the 50s and 60s after a windy week in the 20s and 30s. Such is this time of late winter and early spring.

I have written a few times about phenology which is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

They use historical observations of the timing of first leaf and first bloom of certain plants (for example, cloned lilacs and honeysuckles) and daily observations from weather stations.

Many deciduous plants in temperate systems put on their leaves as temperatures warm in late winter and early spring. Using the Extended Spring Index models, scientists can look at how much the start of spring has varied from one year to the next at a particular location, and whether recent years are dramatically different from the past or not. The models can also be used to forecast when selected plants might bloom or put on leaves in future years.

I have been keeping my own bloom records for my home turf for about 20 years. Though my property is certainly its own “micro-climate” with variations due to shade, soil etc., I have seen earlier springs over the years for certain plants that are my own little “control” group.

The USA National Phenology Network developed Nature’s Notebook, a project focused on collecting standardized ground observations of phenology by researchers, students and volunteers like me.

I think their mission should be everyone’s mission, even if you don’t get as official as doing phenology: Gain a better understanding through considered observation of the plant and animals that surround you and how they relate to your environment and broader environmental change.

Spring is officially still a month away for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t already observing signs of it in your little corner of the world.

 

venus-pacific

Venus reflected in the Pacific Ocean

On February 16, 2017, here in the Western Hemisphere, Venus will reach its greatest illuminated extent. Those of you in Australia, New Zealand, Asia will see this on February 17.

You shouldn’t need an “event” to look up at the night sky in wonder, but this might be a reason to look up tonight and know a bit more about what you are seeing.

Look for Venus in the west after sunset and you will also see Mars nearby to the left (south) and a bit higher. That “evening star” is at its most brilliant because its day/illuminated side is covering more square area of Earth’s sky than in its 9.6-month appearance in the evening sky.

If you looked through a telescope, you would see that Venus’ disk is just a bit more than one-quarter illuminated by sunshine, and the full Venus is always on the far side of the sun from us. So, we are seeing Venus as a crescent at its greatest illuminated extent – and still, it is spectacular.

einstein-text-pixa

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” ― Albert Einstein

Knowledge versus imagination. Einstein spent the latter part of his life pursuing a “single, all encompassing theory of the universe.”  He wanted to able to describe all of nature’s forces – to explain it all. He didn’t find it.

James Taylor sings in “Secret of Life

Now the thing about time
Is that time isn’t really real.
It’s just your point of view,
How does it feel for you?
Einstein said he
Could never understand it all.
Planets spinning through space,
The smile upon your face,
Welcome to the human race.

That Einstein quote at the top of this article continues “…for knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Imagination is often the pathway to increasing knowledge.

It is interesting that astronomy experiments now might test an idea of Einstein’s that he proposed almost exactly a century ago. It has been a longstanding question of why the Universe is expanding at an accelerated rate. Calculations in a new study could help to explain whether dark energy, as required by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, or a revised theory of gravity are responsible.

Einstein wasn’t a big fan of a lot of the physics that came at the end of his life, and would probably not be a fan of string theory.

Brian Greene is a professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University who is probably best-known to the public for his NOVA television specials. He is one of the best “explainers” of this deep science. He explains string theory and I can understand it – until he stops explaining it and I have to tell someone else what he meant. The idea of minuscule filaments of energy vibrating in eleven dimensions that make up the “fabric of space.. and create every particle and force in the universe” is not easy to understand or accept.

String theory fills in the gaps of Newtonian physics, especially regarding how gravity works, and Einstein’s Unification Theory depends on the existence of extra dimensions, which contain these filaments and some string theorists posit that there are at least eleven dimensions. For all of us used to living in four dimensions, that is tough to imagine.

James Gates is known for work on supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory. When he was asked about Einstein’s statement that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” he said“For a long time in my life, imagination was the world of play. It was reading about astronauts, and monsters, and traveling in galaxies, all of that kind of stuff, invaders from outer space on earth. That was all in the world of the imagination. On the other hand, reality is all about us. And it’s constraining, and it can be painful. But the knowledge we gain is critical for our species to survive.”

 


Brain Greene on string theory

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Wheatfield With Crows – 1890

Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa are both film directors with distinctive visual languages and ways of moving the camera. A  director will sometimes use storyboards and paintings to visualize a script.

Kurosawa had 60-year career that includes classic films like Rashomon, The Seven Samurai and Ran. He was a painter and you can see that in his films. One of his last films was Dreams (1990). It was the first of his films for which he alone wrote the screenplay.

It has eight vignettes, based on eight recurring dreams. The fifth episode is “Crows” in which Kurosawa used Martin Scorsese in the role of Vincent Van Gogh.

The film begins in a gallery with several Van Gogh paintings. An art student is studying the paintings and he enters the French countryside of the paintings.

The film is in brilliant van Gogh colors and brush strokes. The student meets Vincent. Although Dreams is in Japanese, this episode is not – the student speaks French to a group of women, and Vincent speaks regular Scorsese New York English. (The video below also has Spanish subtitles.)  I almost wish there was no dialogue, as the visuals are what are most interesting.

“CROWS”

Trailer for DREAMS

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Optimism Blue light. Sunset light. Rocks. Trees. Earth. Snow. Sky. Walking a rocky ridge. Feeling pretty jazzed this morning. Sunny warmer weather? Extra scoop in the French press? Meds kicking in? On the move 2 On the move 1
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