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Filmed on Wednesday November 28, 02012

Peter Warshall

Enchanted by the Sun: The CoEvolution of Light, Life, and Color on Earth

Trained at Harvard as a biological anthropologist, ecologist Warshall was the natural-systems editor for the Whole Earth Catalog and was the editor for Whole Earth Review for a decade. He was also the author of Septic Tank Practices.

For 3.8 billion years, life has lived in a bath of solar radiance. The Sun’s illumination outlines which objects are appealing, bland, or repellant. Its powers of desiccation, blistering, bleaching, and revelation govern a balance between beauty and danger. Its flood of photons shapes light-harvesters (“eyes”), pigments, and surfaces---stretching planetary aesthetics to include "invisible light" (ultraviolet, infrared, and polarized). From euglena to Matisse, all creatures dwell in a variety of luminance locales---dramas of biospheric brightness, color mixes, and rebellions against darkness (such as fireflies and luminescent fish). The most recent rebellion has been human-devised lamps that impact everything from the artistic-military complex (camouflage and mimicry) to the materials, techniques, and display of paintings, electronic imaging, and growing plants.

This 55-minute journey travels from unicells to octopi to op-art, with a dose of PR for “planetary color webs” and their influence on awareness, desire, self-direction, memory, contemplation, and curiosity.

Armed with a PhD in Biological Anthropology from Harvard, Peter Warshall has shaped watershed theory and practices, conservation biology, relations with Indian tribes in the Southwest, and refugee activities in Africa. For a decade he was the editor of the Whole Earth Review.

Light and beauty

“The naturalist’s task,” Warshall began, “is to observe without human-centered thoughts and human-centered agendas, to observe with a Gaian perspective and with the perspective of the organisms you’re watching. The naturalist considers all species in space/time as equally beautiful.” There’s a connection between art and science---between the poetic organization of thought and the pragmatic organization of thought. Light operates at a distance. That inspires anticipation, which becomes yearning, which becomes desire, which becomes hope, which generates transcendence. When an image becomes transcendent for you, it becomes part of how you perceive. “The Sun is the initiator of all sugars.”

Starting 250 million years ago, life rebelled and began generating its own light. There are 40 different kinds of bioluminescence, used for mate attraction, for baiting prey, for deceit. “Danger and beauty always go together. Deceit---not truth---is beauty. A term some art critics use is ‘abject beauty.’” Humans began the second light rebellion by harnessing fire a million years ago. Then came electric lights in the 1880s, and we transformed the light regime and hence behavior of many species. Artists like James Turrell shifted art from reflected light to emitted light, and that is increasingly the norm as we spend our days with screens radiating information into our eyes.

Our eyes are pockets of ocean that let us perceive only a portion of the Sun’s spectrum of light. Bees, with their crystal eyes, see in the ultraviolet. Snakes perceive infrared, and so do some insects that can detect the heat of a forest fire from 40 miles away.

Bowerbird males create elaborate art galleries, even devising forced perspective, to impress females. Young male bowerbirds watch the process for four years to learn the art. Throughout nature, watch for bold patterns of white, black, and red, which usually signal danger.

Every day there is a brief time without danger. At twilight---as daylight shifts to night---all life pauses. “That moment has a contemplative beauty that we cherish. It is a moment of Gaian aesthetic.”

Warshall’s talk, and his life, have been a convergence of art and science. Asked about how scientists could learn more about art, Warshall suggested they go to an art class and learn how to draw. As for how artists can learn more of science, he had two words:

“Outdoors. Look.”

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