Sunday, February 28, 2010 essay by Gerrick D. Kennedy

"Philosophy prof uses 'Wonderland' to answer the big questions"


Gerrick D. Kennedy

February 27th, 2010

The Los Angeles Times

Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with their "Alice in Wonderland," a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor -- but is she, in fact, the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex, we're counting down to the film's March 5 release with daily coverage.

Should the Cheshire Cat's grin make us reconsider the nature of reality? Can Humpty Dumpty make words mean whatever he says they mean? Is Alice a feminist icon?

Those are a few of the questions in"Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser," a book by William Irvin, a philosophy professor at King’s College in Pennsylvania, who has made a specialty of using pop culture to frame his classroom approach.

He took the idea to the bookshelf with in 1999 as editor of "Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing" and then again, with bestselling results, with "The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh of Homer" in 2001. More books followed, using "The Matrix," Metallica and "The Terminator" as the lenses for examining philosophical topics. Books on “True Blood,” “Mad Men” and “30 Rock” will be released later this year, while the "Wonderland" collection just hit shelves timed to exploit the arrival of Tim Burton's cinematic trip down the rabbit hole .

“Philosophy seems kinda dry and dusty to people," Irvin said, "But everyone is interested in popular culture. We found a way to communicate that to students and the general public by meeting them halfway. For example, ‘The Simpsons’, is one of the most popular shows on college campuses for a long run. That would get students interested in a hurry.”

"Wonderland" is an especially good fit for the series because academics have been making references to Carroll's work for a century.

“Lewis Carroll himself was a sort of philosopher," Irwin said. "Even though he’s writing a children’s book, a lot of the things that are fun for children are philosophical -- nature, the difference of appearance vs. reality. “It’s really engaging in ‘Alice.’ It’s done in a very engaging and intellectually charged way and leads a nice logical puzzle in a way.”

Richard Brian Davis, an associate professor of philosophy at Tyndale University College and Seminary who co-edited the "Alice" book, said the heroine provides a lasting image of feminism.

“Alice does bend the rules on a number of levels, it’s still Victorian England," Davis said. "The role of women in society is still pretty limited. Lewis Carroll is really exploding that myth completely with Alice. We wanted to tap into that. We wanted to latch onto a figure, and we couldn’t think of anybody better. Alice is better than any Disney princess. You might think of a woman who competes on men’s terms so she’s not marginalized. I think Alice goes beyond that. The question is rather 'Can you out-think men.' All through that book, you will see her out think men on every level. I think she’s a much better role model than someone who exercises just sheer power, unlike the Queen of Hearts. This is the kind of woman that a philosophy professor would want his daughters to grow up like.”

Irwin said he hopes to release an “Avatar and Philosophy,” book in the series soon.

“It’s hugely popular and it raises philosophical questions," Irwin said. "It’s the kind of thing that after seeing it they talk about it, and want to keep talking about it. So we take it as the opportunity to want to talk about philosophy."

Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser


William Irwin

ISBN-10: 0470558369
ISBN-13: 978-0470558362

Ethical choice

This is an old philosophical problem involving an ethical issue.

It goes something like this...


1.) Car "A" with six occupants [not lawyers or politicians] has stalled on some railroad tracks.

2.) Car "B" with one occupant [not Obama] has stalled on another stretch of railroad track.

3.) A high speed train is heading directly towards car "A".

4.) The train must strike either car "A" or car "B".

5.) You have the ability to switch the train towards car "A" and thus averting the death of six people.

What is your decision and why?

To the moon and beyond

"Men will return to the moon, but they will likely speak Chinese."

This is a well-crafted article promoting political and cultural hype. It fosters the assumption that bias and non-cooperation would be the rule. Besides, where is it written that only English must be uttered in space. Space exploration will and must be mutually shared by all nations that participate. It is time for NASA to wake up and realize that their reign is over and they must be part of a scientific contingent.

"America: Lost In Space"

February 28th, 2010

Investor's Business Daily

Achievement: The nation that put the first man on the moon may have put its last as budget cuts slash NASA's plans to return. Men will return to the moon, but they will likely speak Chinese.

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced in front of a joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American to the moon by the end of that decade. It was a clarion call to the American spirit and technology to rise up and prove that America's best days were still ahead.

Forty-one years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, rather than continuing on to Mars and beyond, we will soon be hitching rides on Russian spacecraft to fix toilets and conduct science-fair-level experiments on the International Space Station. Our aging space shuttle fleet is about to be retired, and no money is around to replace it.

According to a report in the Orlando Sentinel, when the White House releases its official budget proposal on Monday, there will be no money for the Constellation program that was supposed to return Americans to the moon by 2020. The American-manned space program that galvanized a nation and made manned space flight a reality will be officially dead.

An administration that complains about the outsourcing of jobs and manufacturing capacity to foreign countries has decided to outsource manned space flight. NASA will buy rides for its astronauts, no longer pioneers but rather space tourists, from the Russians at $51 million a seat on their Soyuz space vehicles. Last May, NASA announced a new contract with the Russians allowing it to buy six seats on Soyuz craft in 2012 and 2013 at a cost of $306 million.

The massive Saturn V that sent American astronauts and their Apollo spacecraft to the lunar landscape is now a museum piece, as will be the space shuttle. NASA needs about $3 billion in additional funding each year for the next five years to keep the space station supplied and to create a new generation of spacecraft. It will not be getting it.

The loss of this funding and the retirement of the space shuttle will have "a huge negative impact on the economy, particularly aerospace," according to Bret Silcox, associate director of the National Space Society, a leading advocacy group. Silcox says Florida, where three shuttles will be retired, will lose 2,000 to 7,000 jobs. Apparently no stimulus money will be spent to save them.

The Constellation program included the Ares I rocket that was to replace the space shuttle, the Ares V cargo rocket that was to launch the fuel and supplies to take Americans back to the lunar surface, the Orion crew capsule and the Altair lunar lander. There will be no lunar landers and no moon bases now.

The White House wants NASA to redirect its mission to concentrate on Earth-science projects such as monitoring climate change from orbiting satellites and the International Space Station. Some funding for private companies such as Virgin Galactic will go to developing space taxis to carry people into near-earth orbit. But you can forget going back to the moon or Mars.

Those missions, apparently, will be left to the Chinese. In 2008, NASA scientists told the Bush White House that, with the technology available to the Chinese space program, that country's astronauts could be on the moon by 2017.

The Chinese plan to use four Long March V rockets, roughly equivalent to the Pentagon's Delta IV heavy-lift vehicles, to each lift 26-ton payloads, including a trans-lunar rocket, lunar module and lander, into earth orbit. From there, the Chinese will go to the moon.

During his visit to Beijing last November, President Obama talked about "cooperation" rather than competition in space. In a joint statement with Chinese President Hu Jintao, the two leaders called for "a dialogue on human space flight and space exploration."

John F. Kennedy once pledged: "We choose to go to the moon."

Now we are hoping the Chinese can give us a lift.

Thanks to POSP stringer Tim.

McDonald Observatory's newsletter

Here's an opportunity to catch up on current sky observation tips and information about the McDonald Observatory. They offer a free newsletter.

February 28th...

The Moon has two bright companions tonight. The star Regulus rises above it, with the planet Saturn about the same distance to its lower left. Regulus is blue-white, while slightly brighter Saturn is golden yellow.

March sky tips...

The warmer nights of spring bring a panoply of new stars and constellations for skywatchers to enjoy. Leo is in good view by nightfall, climbing straight up from the eastern horizon, led by his bright "heart," the star Regulus. Virgo follows the lion a couple of hours later. Boötes, the herdsman, is to the maiden's left, marked by yellow-orange Arcturus, one of the brightest stars in the night sky. The planet Venus begins its climb into the evening sky, where it will remain until about Halloween.

McDonald Observatory

Top climate panel faces an independent review board

Will this right the wrongs and re-establish good science? Maybe. There is already a backlash towards Al Gore and followers.

"Independent Board to Review Work of Top Climate Panel"

February 27th, 2010


An independent board of scientists will be appointed to review the workings of the world’s top climate science panel, which has faced recriminations over inaccuracies in a 2007 report, a United Nations environmental spokesman said Friday.

The board’s work will be part of a broader review of the body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, who spoke on the sidelines of an international meeting of environment ministers here.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been under fire since it was pointed out that the 2007 report included a prediction that Himalayan glaciers would vanish by 2035, although there is no scientific consensus to that effect.

That brief citation — drawn from a magazine interview with a glaciologist who says he was misquoted — and sporadic criticism of the panel’s leader have fueled skepticism in some quarters about the science underlying climate change. The climate panel’s assessments are a crucial source of guidance for policy makers addressing global warming.

But mainstream scientists and the United Nations have said repeatedly that the evidence that human activity is a major factor in global warming remains unshaken.

Mr. Nuttall said the review body would be made up of “senior scientific figures” who could perhaps produce a report by late summer for consideration at a meeting of the climate panel in October in South Korea.

He said that several countries had made clear at the meeting here in Bali that they would prefer that the review panel be appointed by an independent group of scientists rather than the climate panel. He said that plans for assembling the panel would be announced next week.

“I think we are bringing some level of closure to this issue,” Mr. Nuttall said.

One area to be examined is whether the panel should incorporate so-called gray literature, a term to describe nonpeer-reviewed science, in its reports.

Many scientists say that such material, ranging from reports by government agencies to respected research not published in scientific journals, is crucial to seeking a complete picture of the state of climate science.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, told reporters here this week that he did not support a ban on the use of gray literature and that the news media had overblown the climate panel’s missteps.

The 2007 report on climate change cites more than 10,000 scientific papers and is more than 3,000 pages long.

"Practical Astronomy" magazine--FREE

Practical Astronomy
March 2010

Including March there are six issues [back to October 2009]. All may be downloaded. All you have to do is become a member. Everything is "free" and you may cancel membership anytime.

Kevin Brown [Magazine Editor] writes...

“Practical Astronomy” is a new magazine, to be distributed for free by means of digital download from the internet.

The title “Practical Astronomy” just about sums-up my personal Astronomy ethos. So I thought, I really should help create this regular, downloadable magazine.

The objective (!) is to share practical astronomy techniques and news…

And also, encourage you to get outside and do some observing!

Practical Astronomy

Camille Flammarion books

Nicolas Camille Flammarion
February 26th, 1842 to June 3rd, 1925

Here are some works by Flammarion to read online or download. Also see the post on the Flammarion woodcut.


Omega: the last days of the world [La Fin du Monde (The End of the World)] [1893]

Stories of infinity: Lumen--History of a comet--In infinity [1873]

Uranie [1890]


Astronomy For Amateurs [1904]

Popular astronomy: a general description of the heavens [1907]

The atmosphere [1873]

Camille Flammarion [Wikipedia]

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Camille Flammarion/Flammarion woodcut

Yesterday marked the birthdate of Camille Flammarion [French astronomer]. Okay, who is Camille Flammarion? Flammarion published his first book in 1862, La pluralité des mondes habités [The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds] and he went on to become the mostly widely-read author of popular science books in the last half of the nineteenth century. Flammarion understood the importance of vivid and plentiful illustrations and his books are filled with attractive wood engravings that are still often reproduced. One of his illustrations has taken on a life of its own depicting in a Renaissance style a supposed medieval philosopher, poking his head through the sphere of stars to view the wheels and cogs that drive the heavens. It was used on the dust jacket of Daniel Boorstein's The Discoverers [1983] and on many other book covers often described as a Renaissance woodcut. In fact, it is a wood engraving, and it first appeared in Flammarion's 1888 book, L'atmosphére.

Flammarion woodcut

Predictability of humans...93%?

So what. I don't buy it. The 7% unpredictable can yield in violence or genius...and the rest is just statistics.

"Human behavior is 93 percent predictable, research shows"

February 23rd, 2010

Human behavior is 93 percent predictable, a group of leading Northeastern University network scientists recently found. Distinguished Professor of Physics Albert-László Barabási and his team studied the mobility patterns of anonymous cell-phone users and concluded that, despite the common perception that our actions are random and unpredictable, human mobility follows surprisingly regular patterns. The team’s research is published in the current issue of Science magazine.

“Spontaneous individuals are largely absent from the population. Despite the significant differences in travel patterns, we found that most people are equally predictable,” said Barabási, who is also director of Northeastern’s world-leading Center for Complex Network Research. “The predictability represents the probability we can foresee an individual's future whereabouts in the next hour based on his or her previous trajectory.”

Barabási and his team also discovered that regardless of the different distances people travel, the 93 percent predictability remains true both for those who travel far distances on a regular basis and for those who typically stay close to home.

“We tend to assume that it’s much easier to predict the movement of those who travel very little over those who regularly cover thousands of miles,” said Chaoming Song, PhD of the Center for Complex Network Research and lead author of the paper “Yet, we have found that despite our heterogeneity, we are all almost equally predictable.”

The researchers were also surprised to find that the regularity and predictability of individual movement did not differ significantly across demographic categories, including age, gender, language groups, population density, and urban versus rural locations.

In earlier research on human mobility patterns, published in a 2008 issue of Nature magazine, Barabási and his team studied the real-time trajectory of 100,000 anonymous cell-phone users (randomly selected from more than 6 million users) and found that, despite the diversity of their travel history, humans follow simple reproducible patterns.

“While most individuals travel only short distances and a few regularly move over hundreds of miles, they all follow a simple pattern regardless of time and distance, and they have a strong tendency to return to locations they visited before,” explained Barabási.

In this current project, the network scientists studied three months of anonymous cell-phone data capturing the mobility patterns of 50,000 users chosen randomly from a pool of 10 million.

“We now know that when it comes to processes driven by human mobility—such as epidemic modeling, urban planning, and traffic engineering—it is scientifically possible to predict people’s movement and positively impact how societies address public health and urban development,” added Song.

Additional coauthors on the paper, titled “Limits of Predictability in Human Mobility,” are Zehui Qu and Nicholas Blumm, both doctoral candidates in the Center for Complex Network Research.

Extrapolation went too far

Of course this is unanswerable but I suggest that the field be narrowed to our own universe...the laws of physics as we understand them may not be the same everywhere in the universe.

"Life beyond our universe: Physicists explore the possibility of life in universes with laws different from our own"

February 22nd, 2010

Whether life exists elsewhere in our universe is a longstanding mystery. But for some scientists, there?s another interesting question: could there be life in a universe significantly different from our own?

A definitive answer is impossible, since we have no way of directly studying other universes. But cosmologists speculate that a multitude of other universes exist, each with its own laws of physics. Recently physicists at MIT have shown that in theory, alternate universes could be quite congenial to life, even if their physical laws are very different from our own.

In work recently featured in a cover story in Scientific American, MIT physics professor Robert Jaffe, former MIT postdoc, Alejandro Jenkins, and recent MIT graduate Itamar Kimchi showed that universes quite different from ours still have elements similar to carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and could therefore evolve life forms quite similar to us. Even when the masses of the elementary particles are dramatically altered, life may find a way.

“You could change them by significant amounts without eliminating the possibility of organic chemistry in the universe,” says Jenkins.

Pocket universes

Modern cosmology theory holds that our universe may be just one in a vast collection of universes known as the multiverse. MIT physicist Alan Guth has suggested that new universes (known as “pocket universes”) are constantly being created, but they cannot be seen from our universe.

In this view, “nature gets a lot of tries — the universe is an experiment that’s repeated over and over again, each time with slightly different physical laws, or even vastly different physical laws,” says Jaffe.

Some of these universes would collapse instants after forming; in others, the forces between particles would be so weak they could not give rise to atoms or molecules. However, if conditions were suitable, matter would coalesce into galaxies and planets, and if the right elements were present in those worlds, intelligent life could evolve.

Some physicists have theorized that only universes in which the laws of physics are “just so” could support life, and that if things were even a little bit different from our world, intelligent life would be impossible. In that case, our physical laws might be explained “anthropically,” meaning that they are as they are because if they were otherwise, no one would be around to notice them.

Jaffe and his collaborators felt that this proposed anthropic explanation should be subjected to more careful scrutiny, and decided to explore whether universes with different physical laws could support life.

This is a daunting question to answer in general, so as a start they decided to specialize to universes with nuclear and electromagnetic forces similar enough to ours that atoms exist. Although bizarre life forms might exist in universes different from ours, Jaffe and his collaborators decided to focus on life based on carbon chemistry. They defined as “congenial to life” those universes in which stable forms of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen would exist.

“If you don’t have a stable entity with the chemistry of hydrogen, you’re not going to have hydrocarbons, or complex carbohydrates, and you’re not going to have life,” says Jaffe. “The same goes for carbon and oxygen. Beyond those three we felt the rest is detail."

They set out to see what might happen to those elements if they altered the masses of elementary particles called quarks. There are six types of quarks, which are the building blocks of protons, neutrons and electrons. The MIT team focused on “up”, “down” and “strange” quarks, the most common and lightest quarks, which join together to form protons and neutrons and closely related particles called “hyperons.”

In our universe, the down quark is about twice as heavy as the up quark, resulting in neutrons that are 0.1 percent heavier than protons. Jaffe and his colleagues modeled one family of universes in which the down quark was lighter than the up quark, and protons were up to a percent heavier than neutrons. In this scenario, hydrogen would no longer be stable, but its slightly heavier isotopes deuterium or tritium could be. An isotope of carbon known as carbon-14 would also be stable, as would a form of oxygen, so the organic reactions necessary for life would be possible.

The team found a few other congenial universes, including a family where the up and strange quarks have roughly the same mass (in our universe, strange quarks are much heavier and can only be produced in high-energy collisions), while the down quark would be much lighter. In such a universe, atomic nuclei would be made of neutrons and a hyperon called the “sigma minus,” which would replace protons. They published their findings in the journal Physical Review D last year.

Fundamental forces

Jaffe and his collaborators focused on quarks because they know enough about quark interactions to predict what will happen when their masses change. However, “any attempt to address the problem in a broader context is going to be very difficult,” says Jaffe, because physicists are limited in their ability to predict the consequences of changing most other physical laws and constants.

A group of researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has done related studies examining whether congenial universes could arise even while lacking one of the four fundamental forces of our universe — the weak nuclear force, which enables the reactions that turn neutrons into protons, and vice versa. The researchers showed that tweaking the other three fundamental forces could compensate for the missing weak nuclear force and still allow stable elements to be formed.

That study and the MIT work are different from most other studies in this area in that they examined more than one constant. “Usually people vary one constant and look at the results, which is different than if you vary multiple constants,” says Mark Wise, professor of physics at Caltech, who was not involved in the research. Varying only one constant usually produces an inhospitable universe, which can lead to the erroneous conclusion that any other congenial universes are impossible.

One physical parameter that does appear to be extremely finely tuned is the cosmological constant — a measure of the pressure exerted by empty space, which causes the universe to expand or contract. When the constant is positive, space expands, when negative, the universe collapses on itself. In our universe, the cosmological constant is positive but very small — any larger value would cause the universe to expand too rapidly for galaxies to form. However, Wise and his colleagues have shown that it is theoretically possible that changes in primordial cosmological density perturbations could compensate at least for small changes to the value of the cosmological constant.

In the end, there is no way to know for sure what other universes are out there, or what life they may hold. But that will likely not stop physicists from exploring the possibilities, and in the process learning more about our own universe.

AS Byatt on Alice, Carroll, and Burton

"There's something about Alice"


AS Byatt

February 27th, 2010

With its unforgettable creatures, games with language and logic and ever-curious hero, Lewis Carroll's Wonderland is not only vivid but thrillingly different from other imagined worlds. In the week Tim Burton's film is released, AS Byatt takes another trip down the rabbit hole to celebrate classics she first enjoyed as a child...

As a child, I think, I kept the Alice books in a different box in my brain from other books about imaginary children. I don't think they were read to me - there was "a war on". I think I puzzled them out when I was about seven or eight, younger than ­Alice Liddell was on the famous "golden afternoon" in 1862 when she and her two sisters rowed from Folly Bridge, Oxford, to Godstow with the 30-year-old Lewis Carroll and his clerical friend Robinson Duckworth, and were told the first version of the story. A child reader's imagination inhabits the world of a book in many different ways, depending on the book. She walks deep into imaginary forests; she saves desperate beasts; she flirts with brave boys. The Harvard academic Maria Tatar has observed wisely that children do not usually "identify" with fictional children - they stand a little apart inside the fictional world and intensely observe the people and the action. But Wonderland and the world through the Looking Glass were, I always knew, different from other imagined worlds. Nothing could be changed, although things in the story were always changing. There was, so to speak, nothing going on in the hinterland of the clearing with the Mad Hatter's tea party, or beyond the Red Queen's garden gate. Carroll moves his readers as he moves chess pieces and playing cards. This is not to say that the reader's experience of the world is not vivid, enthralling and ­entirely memorable. It is just different.

Spaces in these books succeed each other with the arbitrary reality of real dreams, from the long fall through the earth to the hall of locked doors to the pool of tears. There is no other book in which both sizes and distances are so problematic: Alice expands and diminishes; she has to learn to move backwards to go forwards when she is through the looking glass; progress in the looking-glass world is in mad rushes and jumps at inordinate speeds across the chessboard. Even as a child I sensed that this was not surreal nonsense - it was some other kind of order, like the wonderful orders we now see in the fractal geometries of chaos. Another thing which is odd about reading Alice is that the reader - even a reader aged seven or eight - can never stop thinking about the language. The texture of reading Alice is a series of linguistic puzzles, contradictions and jokes, of which Humpty Dumpty's assertions of his own arbitrary power over words (a word "means what I choose it to mean") are only the most striking. Alice is as much part of this linguistic tissue as the creatures she meets. As she falls through the earth she doesn't feel terror, she thinks, she talks to herself and analyses what is happening and may happen. She is prepared to give as good as she gets in arguments with pigeons, caterpillars, frog footmen, smiling cats and red and white queens. Her main emotion is trying to make sense against increasing odds.

The insistence on language in the experience of reading Alice is intensified by the wild poems. As a child I could sense that these were parodies of "real" respectable poems; Alice tells you so - she can feel "You are old, Father William" going remorselessly wrong as she recites it. "Jabberwocky" haunts the rhythms of the brain, but the nonsense words have meanings, which the reader is eventually told. Order and disorder are very close. The intellect offers more delight than the emotions - perhaps our first prolonged experience of intellectual excitement.

I store books in my head with half-visualised mnemonics. The Alice books sit apart as a kind of cubic cat's-cradle of brightly coloured threads - red, white, black, grass-green. I now also think of the impossible buildings and worlds in the drawings of MC Escher.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was written in 1862 and published in 1865. Through the Looking-Glass was published in 1871. The great children's books that shaped the imaginations of successive generations came later and many were written around the turn of the 20th century. Kipling's Jungle Books and Puck of Pook's Hill, E Nesbit's tales of children meeting psammeads and phoenixes and other opinionated beasts, George MacDonald's tales of Curdie the miner and his princess, L Frank Baum's tales of the land of Oz, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, Mrs Molesworth's The Cuckoo Clock, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and JM Barrie's Peter Pan, even Treasure Island, have children making their own lives and fates in strange worlds outside the daily experience of family and school. Children in these books have a kind of emotional and moral autonomy which is new in literature. The child reader feels their problems, decisions and dangers differently from those of either children in real fairy stories (Hansel and Gretel) or children in novels who will grow up - Pip in terror by his parents' gravestone, Oliver Twist in the orphanage, David Copperfield tormented by the Murdstones, Jane Eyre in the Red Room, or furious, sulky Maggie Tulliver.

Some great characters in children's books are orphans, or part orphans, or temporary orphans whose parents have gone away. Kipling, in his autobiographical story for adults, "Baa Baa Black Sheep", one of the greatest stories I've read, tells of children suddenly separated from parents for five years in India and sent to stay with a gloomy religious tyrant, who persecutes the boy and does not notice he is going blind. One of the most moving orphans is Mary in The Secret Garden. Mary is doubly isolated. She is born in India to a fashionable flibbertigibbet mother who neglects her and leaves her to the care of servants. Her mother is then killed by cholera, along with most of the household, and the uncomprehending child is discovered alone in the house of death. The fact that she does not quite understand what has happened arouses the reader's sympathy at the start. She is a disagreeable, self-centred child, sent to stay in the Yorkshire house of an invisible, absent uncle. My childish responses to Mary's attempts to make sense of the world were the opposite to my response to Alice. I felt protective towards her and, at the same time, I did see the world from inside her. I was embarrassed with and for her. Embarrassment is a great point of sympathy between reader and character. (Alice is never really embarrassed, although the people of Wonderland constantly try to drive her into that state.) Servants and ordinary people are kind to Mary and teach her kindness. Yet her own cussedness and capacity for tantrums turn out to be a strength when she meets the cosseted and neglected invalid Colin, another self-centred child - seen by the reader, I think, through Mary's eyes as she hectors him into ordinary life.

Another orphan in a strange world is Griselda in The Cuckoo Clock, who goes to live with two great aunts - the reader works out that this is after the death of her parents. In this old house the "stepmothers" are kind and gentle but the child is isolated and thoughtful - and again the child reader can sympathise with her isolation. She makes friends with a magical cuckoo in a cuckoo clock who takes her to strange worlds - not just "fairyland", as she hopes, but other places full of butterflies or nodding mandarins. She even visits the ballroom of the old house in the past and sees her beautiful, laughing young mother dancing. Both the real and the magical characters are ­anxious to show Griselda how to behave well, to do her lessons, not to sulk, not to rebel. Again the child reader sees the world from Griselda's point of view, learns as she learns, feels her pleasures and anxieties. Mrs Molesworth is a very present voice as a narrator: "For fairies, you know, children, however charming, are sometimes rather queer to have to do with. They don't like to be interfered with, or treated except with very great respect, and they have their own ideas about what is proper and what isn't, I can assure you." This is the voice of the Mother Goose storyteller, and does serve to distance Griselda - we do not feel her griefs or joys intensely as we feel those of Mary in The Secret Garden. We are being told a satisfactory tale. We know it must and will end well.

Two solitary children I thought of when searching for analogies with Alice are very different from her, and from each other. They are Mowgli in the Jungle Books and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is literally torn away from her already orphaned life with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in Kansas when a tornado carries her house away to the Land of Oz, where it lands on, and kills, the Wicked Witch of the East. As Dorothy travels through Oz, rescuing the heartless Tin Man, the brainless Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, she might be thought to resemble Alice travelling through the Looking-Glass world in the company of the White Knight, the Sheep and the mournful Gnat.

But in truth Dorothy does not have much character - less than her three companions who nevertheless provide no niche for the reader's imagination to hang on to. Oz, with its four compass directions, two Wicked Witches and two Good Witches, and the Emerald City of Oz in the centre, feels like a construction, not like a dream. It has been said to be an allegory of utopian socialism, and it has been said to be an allegorised tract against the commodification of America. It is certainly about America, in a quite different way from the way that the Mowgli tales, Puck of Pook's Hill, and Kim are about the British empire. Baum was both a great storyteller and a writer with designs on his audience. I have read a very convincing case for the idea that the Yellow Brick Road and the silver shoes Dorothy takes from the dead witch are an allegory of the 19th-century disputes about bimetallism and the gold standard. Even the name Oz would stand for an ounce of free silver on the golden path to a free coinage. (The shoes were changed to ruby in the 1939 film.) Jack Zipes has argued convincingly that Baum's 14 novels about the land of Oz are a criticism of the America of his time, its machines, its commodities, its politics. Oz, with its kind witches and female powers, is the utopia that stands against, not for, the United States.

The way the story is told confirms the idea that it is firmly controlled by beliefs and meanings. Baum said that he was dispensing with the old world of fairy tales. This is from his 1900 introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:

Yet the old-time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as "historical" in the children's library; for the time has come for a series of newer "wonder tales" in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents.

"Amerika, du hast es besser," Goethe wrote, comparing new, clean America to the old continent, with its decaying castles and grim tales. European readers may feel that there are things missing from Baum's imaginary world. He mediates this world to us in some ways similarly to the way in which Mrs Molesworth mediates the fairies and shadows of The Cuckoo Clock. As Zipes remarks, Baum's "own writing style and the governing style of [the good witches] Ozma and Glinda are strikingly similar: they are soothing, and attentive to the peculiar desires and needs of characters." Zipes sees the Oz books as examples of "psychological principles of object relations that are to guide parents in the nurturing of their children." Oddly, this does not lead to the invention of characters into whom the reader can insert his or her imagination. What is splendid about Oz is the detail of things - yellow bricks, emerald glasses, oilcans. Dorothy does good. ­Alice tries furiously to understand.

Mowgli and Kim, the lone children who inhabit Kip­ling's India are, on the other hand, sagacious, resourceful and brave. The worlds they inhabit are open to the imagination of the reader. I was amazed, on rereading the Jungle Books, just how much of the jungle and its people I had made up myself, events and places that were not to be found in the original tales. It was not exactly that I "was" Mowgli. I have a disproportionate resistance to the idea of "identifying" with anyone at all, ­fictive or real. Mowgli is alone in a world with its own strange laws and inhabitants, as Alice is alone. He needs to make sense of it, and fast, from the chattering Bandar-log to the swaying snakes. He is both self-sufficient and loved by creatures who are not his parents, or allegories of human family members, but talking beasts in a beasts' world. But as a reader one lives along with Mowgli - or for that matter with Rikki-Tikki-Tavi pursuing cobras through bathrooms. There is no one like Kipling for smells and sounds, and that peculiar placing of a clearing or a bungalow garden so that the reader knows that the world stretches away beyond what can be seen, equally full of interest, of excitement, of fear. I did not want Mowgli to go back to the humans. I cared as much and as little about his mother as he did, though he needed to save her from the nasty and stupid co-villagers. You are made to look out of Mowgli's eyes (though not exclusively); you cannot get inside Alice.

The other solitary boy I accompanied like a clinging shadow was Jim in Treasure Island. His is a first-person narrative, which is as often distancing as it is involving. But the smells, the fear, the effort, the attempt to read strange and dangerous faces, or deceptively mild ones, become part of one's own consciousness. The reader can walk in unexplored parts of Treasure Island, can imagine being marooned. Jim enters his story as his father dies and his world becomes precarious, like that of Mary in The Secret Garden. Jim's mother is there at the beginning, counting out no more than her due of gold coins from the dead pirate's hoard. The adventure story begins when Jim leaves home.

In British fairytales the human characters are often swept away to where the fairy folk live, down a tunnel, between the roots of trees. In George MacDonald's tales about Curdie, the princess and the goblins, Curdie is a miner, the goblins are under­ground and the princess makes a fearless journey to save Curdie. Alice goes down the rabbit hole, the Darling children find themselves in the Lost Boys' underground lair in Neverland. The other place where children between two kinds of reality tend to wander is along endless corridors of rooms with closed doors - Mary and Griselda do this, both looking for a way in. In Alice's adventures underground, as in The Cuckoo Clock, and, differently, in The Secret Garden, they find the way to places full of brightness and colour, into gardens. Where they come from is gloomily coloured, as they are themselves. Mary comes from India, which in Kipling's world is rich and bright, but in hers is desiccated and yellow - as she herself is sallow and yellow. Dorothy and her dog Toto are whirled from grey Kansas to the blue Munchkins, the yellow road, the emerald city (even if its brilliance is an illusion bestowed by emerald-coloured glasses). Mrs Molesworth writes of Griselda: "A little girl in a grey merino frock and grey beaver bonnet, grey tippet and grey gloves - all grey together, even to her eyes, all except her round rosy face and bright brown hair. Her name even was rather grey, for it was Griselda."

Alice peers through "a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole" into "the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head through the doorway."

Griselda, with the cuckoo, visits Butterfly Land, a garden world in which flowers of all imaginable and unimaginable colours are arranged in regular order, and where the butterflies are diligently collecting colours to paint the more shadowy flowers "down there" in Griselda's world. Mrs Molesworth steadily mixes the Protestant work ethic with the magical - the butterflies work to the point of exhaustion. In the real world of The Secret Garden Mary is shown the key to the walled garden, buried for 10 years, by a friendly robin, and restores the garden to life and colour as grey winter moves to spring, assisted by Dickon, a village boy like Puck or Pan, who has a following of wild creatures - squirrels, rook, rabbit. The "magic" in the garden also restores the imaginary invalid Colin to health and colour. I think the idea of what Morris called "a little garden-close / Set thick with lily and red rose" is a particularly English one. American children are made free by the prairie (or Central Park in magic forms) and Australian children discover the outback.

Imagined worlds are full of imaginary creatures. Real fairytales are full of talking beasts (horses, donkeys, pigs) and animal helpers (sturgeon, doves, foxes) who come and go as the plot needs them and then disappear. MacDonald's goblins are accompanied by all sorts of ugly and distorted beasts; Curdie in a later book has an army of them, including Lisa, a dog with elephant legs and shark's teeth, and the leg-serpent, who has a winged head, a long sinuous body, and four short legs near its tail. Gillian Beer has written about these in terms of Darwinian speculation about acquired characteristics. The creatures in the ­Alice books are talkative and argumentative. They have human characteristics but are not human. The White Rabbit is a rabbit in a waistcoat with a pocket watch, the Dormouse is a dormouse, the Monstrous Crow is a crow. Alice lumps both humans and animals together as "creatures" and thinks that they do go on talking so much. In The Wind in the Willows all the characters are creatures - badger, rat, mole, toad - and are simultaneously English bachelors who have not grown up, and boys seeing the countryside. Mole comes up from his own dark hole and sees the brilliance of the river bank and its ducks, or walks through the Wild Wood afraid of weasels and stoats. Most of all, in the Jungle Books, the creatures are characters and also creatures. The wolf pack hunts like a wolf pack, the snakes move like snakes.

Film productions of the Alice books, and much psychoanalytic commentary, tend to dwell on the frightening aspects of the incomprehensible creatures - the execution-obsessed Queen, the huge child in the tiny bedroom. Jan Švankmajer's surrealist 1988 film Alice takes place in a grim, dead house with peeling paint, menacing toothed beasts and threatening scissors and knives. It's a good film but it is not Alice who moves fearlessly through bright weather. Martin Gardner, editor of the splendid The Annotated Alice, notes that there are a series of jokes about death in the stories. The first is when Alice remarks "Why, I wouldn't say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!" and the narrator adds wryly "Which was very likely true". But Alice is not thinking about death and neither does her reader. She is not afraid in the wood where all things lose their names - she goes on puzzling things out. Both Gardner, and Jonathan Miller in his remarks about his 1966 television film Alice in Wonderland, reject the insistent Freudian interpretations which start with holes and keys. Miller very successfully cast all the creatures as humans - weird versions of the Oxford dons and college porters the real Alice would have known. He has a wonderful cast of virtuoso actors - Peter Sellers as the King of Hearts, Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter, Michael Redgrave as the Caterpillar and, best of all, John Gielgud and Malcolm Muggeridge, at the sea's edge, dancing the lobster quadrille. His Alice, like all the acted Alices I have seen, is the wrong side of puberty and can look sulky as opposed to annoyed.

Fear goes with evil ­beings, and with dangerous landscapes. Blind Pew, and smiling, treacherous Long John Silver taught me much about fear, about the possibility of real danger. Kipling's jungle, of which Grahame's Wild Wood was an innocent relation, also taught me fear - as indeed did Beatrix Potter's Tom Kitten, lost in the tunnels of the chimney, rolled in pastry by a terrible rat. We need, we enjoy fear. Kipling has a wonderful tale in The Jungle Book - "How Fear Came" - and a poem I used to chant, "The Song of the Little Hunter", with its refrain "It is fear, O little Hunter, it is fear." Kipling knew, as MacDonald and Stevenson knew, the thrill of human fear in a landscape which is larger than human, full of darkness and dangerous creatures. Rereading now what I read as a frightened child in wartime what I feel is grief, grief for the lost jungles, the overrun oceans, the diminished woods.

The opposite of fear, in the Victorian and Edwardian tale, is cloying sentiment. Oddly, this does not harm the tale of Little Lord Fauntleroy, a child with an American mother called "Dearest" whose generosity and goodwill towards all the world convert his wicked, cynical grandfather, who keeps his mother at a distance in a dower house. Burnett writes with total conviction about this kind child, and takes the reader with her. But what are we to make of that disastrous work by Lewis Carroll himself, Sylvie and Bruno? The narrator, a man, slips in and out of his real life into the fairyland world of the sweet children, Sylvie and Bruno, which is full of sickly baby talk and bad jokes. As a child, I tried so hard to read it. I gave it every benefit of the doubt - this was the master of storytelling and humour - and even as a child I was embarrassed for him. Barrie's sentimental tales are more sinister. "The Little White Bird" was the story in which Peter Pan made his first appearance. It tells of Kensington Park, where babies fall out of their prams and no one notices, and dead babies become fairies. Peter Pan is no more than seven days old. The crusty bachelor finally manages to fulfil his dream of spending the night with a young boy whom he is looking after, in his bed. It is all about sweet innocence - like Sylvie and Bruno - and makes the reader more uneasy and anxious than that heavy failure.

The creatures in the Pooh stories are animated stuffed toys, who are entirely adequately represented by EH Shepard's drawings. The reading child is wiser and cleverer than all of them, and also wiser and cleverer than Christopher Robin. This is a tame, enjoyable, circumscribed wood, and maybe for that reason I don't too much mind seeing the Disney representations of it, though I've never watched the film through. In the 1970s Alison Lurie was writing about the Disneyfication of the American (and consequently the British) imagination. The old fairy stories, their power and their mystery, were, she said, being killed by saccharine twinkling princesses and sweetly comical dragons. The first such Disney film I ever saw was Snow White, which added considerably to my experience of wonderful fear and terror, even though its heroine was a doll. This, I have been told, was because it was made by German refugees who had a sense of the darkness of the old stories. The film Bambi diminished the sense of real forests and creatures I had found in the book. The unbearable thing was the filming of the Jungle Books. Disney cartoons use the proportions of human baby faces - those wide eyes, those chubby cheeks we respond to automatically. The black hunting panther, the terrible strong snake, the wolf pack and its howl, the cringing tiger became dolls and toys like Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore, and some crucial imaginative space was irretrievably lost.

Tim Burton has wisely solved the problem of Alice, girl actors and puberty by making her 19. Alice is both lucky and resilient when made into films. So much of the original is recitations and performances, which great actors can, and do, make new and startling. The space of its world is in the head, and can be done with sets and visual trickery. The version in my memory remains intact.

Burton's "Alice"

"Alice in Wonderland"...Tim Burton style

Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland"

Friday, February 26, 2010

Burton's "Alice"

Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland is not a normal narrative or a simple story and I will be pleased to see how Burton "fills in the gaps".

"'Wonderland' looks curiouser, but Burton fills gaps in story"


Susan Wloszczyna

Februrary 26th, 2010


Alice in Wonderland's most perplexing riddle isn't the one posed by the Mad Hatter at the tea party: "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"

Instead, the real stumper is this: Given the enduring appeal of Lewis Carroll's Victorian-era literary masterwork, why hasn't there ever been a wholly satisfying film or TV adaptation based on Alice's fateful tumble down the rabbit hole?

There has been no lack of trying to transfer Wonderland's jumbled universe of bizarre inhabitants, such as a hookah-smoking caterpillar and grinning Cheshire cat, into other mediums. Silent-film versions. An all-star ensemble in 1933 with Cary Grant as a weepy Mock Turtle. A stripped-down 1966 British TV movie with Peter Sellers as the King of Hearts. Animated attempts, most famously the 1951 Disney classic. Even a 1976 porn musical took on the challenge.

But few come close to overcoming the fact that the tale has no plot to speak of, relies heavily on clever wordplay and features a mind-blowing menagerie that perhaps is best captured by a reader's imagination.

The latest stab at solving the puzzle, however, benefits from modern-day digital magic. And it's the fruit of a creative partnership between one of animation's ace storytellers, who once conjured the Maurice Chevalier of candelabras, and a visually astute Hollywood wizard known for his way with the odd and unusual — especially his frequent star, Johnny Depp.

As perfect pairings go, writer Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) and director Tim Burton aren't exactly Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But as collaborators, they hope to have cracked the conundrum that has plagued others when Disney's new 3-D Alice in Wonderland lands in theaters March 5.

"I knew more about these iconic characters from music and illustrators than from the stories," says the filmmaker, who has given the Burton treatment to such book-based works as Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. "The problem is, they're interesting, but there's not a lot of narrative drive. Every version I've seen falls into the same category: A precocious girl meets a bunch of weirdos. The Disney cartoon is probably the best known and least successful."

Burton agreed to direct the sumptuous fantasy — with a budget estimated at $250 million because of its blend of live action and computer animation — after hearing it was in 3-D and then reading Woolverton's script.

"Her whole point was to focus and frame it, to explore what Alice is about," he says. "It didn't need more bells and whistles. It needed grounding."

An active Alice

It was Woolverton who flashed on the idea of exploring a 19-year-old Alice, who, when she's feeling pressured into an unwanted engagement and grieving over the death of her father, again escapes to the whimsical land she once dreamed about when she was 6.

Says the writer, "At first, the question I was answering was, 'What if she went back?' Not how I would re-adapt the material." That came only after she pondered the problems inherent in the source material's structure: "It's an incredible book. The characters are remarkable and unforgettable. I fall to my knees before Lewis Carroll, but Alice is a girl who doesn't change. There is no real jeopardy. There is no emotion, really."

She relied on such time-tested tactics as mixing details found in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its 1872 sequel, Through the Looking Glass.

The less-bellicose Queen of Hearts and the belligerent Red Queen are merged into one royal pain: Helena Bonham Carter's big-headed brat of a ruler.

But Woolverton also added a splash of swordplay action and a sense of menace by borrowing from Carroll's nonsense poem, Jabberwocky. It gave the usually passive Alice a chance to not only save the day but also to determine her own destiny. The girl-powered underpinnings were not unlike those the writer gave to Belle, the bookworm heroine of Beauty and the Beast andliberator of future Disney fairy-tale females.

Similarly, Alice is no longer the curious flaxen-haired lass in the blue pinafore. Instead, she is on the brink of womanhood and sadly has lost her sense of self — or "muchness," as Woolverton calls it: "The death of her father took something from her." No coincidence that the writer lost her own father at age 19.

Dark amid the light

Wonderland — or, rather, Underland as it is now known — has also fallen on hard times. While lush fields of overgrown exotic foliage, giant topiary beasts and plump mushrooms greet her arrival, there also are patches of scorched ruins and signs of decay — the result of the Red Queen's aggressive campaign to snatch the throne from her younger sister, Anne Hathaway's slightly daft White Queen.

When Woolverton learned Burton was to direct, she says she did "that happy dance" — which in Underland means a "futterwacken," a sort of herky-jerky jig with a few hip-hop moves that she invented for the film.

"I have a limited visual imagination," she says. "(Burton) sees the world in a very unique way and then he sort of invites you in. I found that a great invitation."

Some of the more macabre touches in the PG-rated fantasy that feel authentically Burton-esque, however — such as those bobbing noggins afloat in a moat (the result of the Red Queen's oft-repeated command: "Off with their heads!") or when an attack by the ferocious Bandersnatch is halted when his eyeball is plucked — actually sprang from Woolverton's fertile brain.

Instead, the director concentrated both on helping the screenwriter further develop the characters so they were as dimensional as the surreal images that popped off the screen (who knew the Red Queen could almost be sympathetic if given a sibling-rivalry back story?) as well as overseeing the complex technical aspects behind the camera.

Seeing green

"This was really the opposite of the way I usually make a movie," Burton says; the post-production involved inserts of characters, props, sets and backdrops. "I shoot for six months or longer and cut it. This all materialized at the very end."

Though the live-action portions were filmed on location in England, the 2,500 or so shots that required computer-generated and manipulated images were done in a green-screen-filled environment at Culver City Studios in Los Angeles.

"I prefer being on sets," says Burton, who built Willy Wonka's entire candy empire on soundstages for 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. "And all that green screen makes you ill after a while. We all got green fever. The crew went nuts."

Of course, such disorientation is perfect for a trippy walkabout through Wonderland.

The filmmaker, who got his start in Disney's animation department, also made sure the characters, both real and computerized, were able to seamlessly share the same space. "We tried to avoid that big DreamWorks style and not over-animate the animal traits."

These days, no Burton film is complete without an indelible performance by Depp — this is their seventh film together — and there is more going on under his Hatter's chapeau than simply madness. Namely, a wild mop of red frizz. Whereas Depp's interpretation of Wonka was partly based on kid-show TV hosts like Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers, the flame-tressed Hatter was inspired by an orange-haired hall of fame that director and star slapped together.

"Their photos were all on a video monitor and I had to take them down, they were so disturbing," Burton says. "Bozo, Carrot Top, Mason Reese (a child actor who did TV ads in the '70s) and that guy from Room 222 who had the Afro." And don't forget Olympic snowboarder Shaun White, aka The Flying Tomato. The desired overall effect on Depp's Hatter? Says Burton, "I was going for a combination of Bozo and The Exorcist."

Mission apparently accomplished.

Theatrical release is March 5th.

"Alice in Wonderland"...Tim Burton style

Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" essay

International Year of Biodiversity

"Biodiversity Explained by Ignoring the Forest for the Trees"


Brandon Keim

February 25th, 2010


A painstaking, multidecade study of 33,000 individual trees may finally have uncovered the roots of biodiversity.

That biodiversity’s origin needs uncovering is surprising because the word seems to be everywhere. But scientists still don’t quite understand why one place has more species than another, or fewer.

The traditional explanation — every organism has its niche, competing not with other species but its own — sounds nice, but has holes. According to the tree study, that’s because ecologists haven’t looked for the right niches.

“We take this very complex, high-dimensional thing called the environment, and average out all the variation that organisms really require,” said Jim Clark, a Duke University biologist and author of the study, published Feb. 25 in Science. “Biodiversity is very much a niche response, but it’s just not evident at the species level.”

The central tenet of biodiversity science is that animals compete against their own kind, not against other species. Computer models of inter-species competition soon collapse, with rich diversity inevitably replaced by a few dominant species.

In the real world, that’s not what happens. Species seem to be sharing. So ecologists have developed a theory of niches: Every species has a particular specialty, a set of conditions for which it’s best suited. Some plants do well in shade, others in rocky soil, and so on.

This is true. However, it still doesn’t seem to explain biodiversity. Some ecosystems that are very poor in resources, and consequently don’t seem to have many niches, can still have a high species diversity.

“When you have thousands of species, it’s difficult to come up with ways to partition a limited set of resources or conditions,” said John Silander, a University of Connecticut ecologist who studies South Africa’s Cape Floristic region, a rocky scrubland with as much biodiversity as the Amazon rainforest. “People looking at niche differences always seem to come up short.”

Clark may have found the answer. He has spent the last 18 years studying trees in the southeastern United States and has assembled 22,000 detailed individual accounts, spanning 11 forests and three regions. For each tree, Clark has recorded its precise, on-the-ground (and in-the-ground and above-the-ground) exposure to moisture and nutrients and light, its response, and its proximity to other plants.

Ecologists usually aggregate this information, turning it into average. By going tree-by-tree, Clark found that there are, in fact, enough niches to go around. They’re filled when competition in a species drives individuals to fill them. Biodiversity — or, from another perspective, configurations of organisms that don’t need to compete against each other — is the result of this fierce race for resources.

The niches could only be seen at a fine-grained level, not in the coarse analyses typically used by ecologists. “We take environmental variation and project it down to a very small set of indices. Light becomes average light per year. Moisture becomes average moisture per year. It’s not just light and water and nitrogen — it’s variations of each of those things, in different dimensions,” said Clark.

“The approach he’s taken is marvelous. Nobody has looked at biodiversity in this fashion,” said Silander, who was not involved in the study. “He has the data needed to address the different hypotheses.”

Silander said the approach will likely be extended beyond the world of trees. Understanding the essential dynamics of biodiversity could improve ecosystem management, in applications from conservation to farming.

“It’s hard to find a place on Earth that doesn’t have some level of management going on,” said Silander. “We have to understand how species interact.”

“Ecologists spent a lot of time in the 20th century trying to find ways to reduce the complexity of natural systems so that we could understand them,” said Miles Silman, a Wake Forest University ecologist who was not involved in the study. “Clark has shown that the complexity that we were trying to reduce is very likely essential to understanding” biodiversity.