Engineers Could Learn a lot from Dance When Designing Urban Transport

Foreword from Listen To The World

Dance and engineering – at first glance they don’t look like they have anything in common. But if one digs under the layers, there are plenty of similarities, more than what we have come to believe.

Dance enables human the freedom to express, yet mastering dance techniques meant mastering the way of moving around space (and with each other) with certain patterns within constraints – not only of the human body itself, but also the inherent traditions of each dance genre.

Engineering is the cornerstone of human evolution: applying science, empirical evidence, social and practical knowledge to improve, invent, re-invent, and innovate how humans live and interact, not only with each other but also with nature. Advancement of technology is aimed at making our lives “easier”, well, at least that was the initial goal.

Designing for human should be based on, well, human; what motivates us, what affects us, how we think, and how we feel. How we move through, in, and around space, and around each other. Since the ancient times, humans have had to navigate their way around space, structures, and each other – and in doing so have developed patterns within nature’s and man-made constraints.

Sound familiar?

The article below specifically discusses how the engineering of urban transport might benefit by applying the thinking and designing process used by choreographers in dance – but if we look at the bigger picture, most  modern disciplines (and everything else actually) are interconnected. If we take a look back, way back in history, we will see that what we have come to know as modern science and technology, started simply as an attempt to understand nature, and in the process, figuring out ways to live and coexist with it. It should be fitting then, that the application and study of these ‘modern’ disciplines, should always bear in mind human behavior, and how it has resulted and evolved from how humans respond to internal and external stimuli – including nature.

Perhaps it is time that we rethink how we learn, and how we view learning. Learning is a never-ending process in human life since we know so little in relation with what nature has to offer. In Sacred Bridge Foundation’s view, the keyword is not learning but rather the ability in learning how to learn. Innovations and inventions to come up with better ways to live can only result from our continuous attempt to understand how we interact with each other, and with nature. If we are not capable of learning how to learn, there’s no way we can do that.


Engineers Could Learn a lot from Dance When Designing Urban Transport

John Bingham-Hall, UCL

There is little more important for the sustainability of cities than the ways we move around them. With transportation estimated to account for 30% of energy consumption across the majority of the world’s most developed nations, reducing the necessity for energy-reliant vehicles is fundamental to addressing the environmental impact of mobility.

But as cities become the predominant habitat for most people in the world, it is important to think about other kinds of sustainability too. The ways we travel impact our physical and mental health, our social lives, our access to work and culture, and the air we breathe. Engineers are tasked with changing how we travel round cities through urban design, but the engineering industry still rests on the assumptions that led to the creation of the energy-consuming transport systems we have now: the emphasis placed solely on efficiency, speed, and quantitative data. We need new approaches in order to help engineers create the radical changes needed to make it healthier, more enjoyable, and less environmentally damaging to move around cities.

And my colleagues and I think that dance might hold some of the answers. That is not to suggest everyone should dance their way to work, however healthy and happy it might make us. But rather that the techniques used by choreographers to experiment with and design movement in dance could offer engineers with tools to stimulate new ideas in city-making. To test this out, a project led by Ellie Cosgrave at UCL is bringing planners and engineers designing systems for urban mobility together with choreographers to see how their practices could enrich one another.

Ellie Cosgrave with Scatter, The Place’s adult dance company. Hayley Madden, Author provided

From reality to blueprint

Sociological theory about the nature of work can help us to understand why choreography might help. Richard Sennett, an influential urbanist and sociologist who transformed ideas about the way cities are made, argues that urban design (including, we would argue, engineering and planning as much as it does architecture) has suffered from a severance between mind and body since the advent of the architectural blueprint.

Whereas the medieval builder improvised and adapted construction through their intimate knowledge of materials and embodied experience of the conditions in a site, building designs are now conceived and stored in media technologies that detach the designer from the physical and social realities they are creating. The “disembodied design practices” created by these technologies are essential for managing the technical complexity of the modern city. But they simplify reality in the process.

To illustrate, Sennett discusses the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, a development emblematic of the modernist approach to urban planning prevalent in the 1970s. Peachtree created a grid of streets and towers intended as a new pedestrian-friendly downtown for Atlanta. This, according to Sennett, failed because its designers had invested too much faith in computer aided design to tell them how it would operate.

Peachtree Center, Georgia. Connor.carey, CC BY-SA

They didn’t understand that purpose-built street cafes could not operate in the hot sun without the awnings common in older buildings, and would need energy-consuming air conditioning instead, or that its giant car park would feel so desolate as to put people off from getting out of their cars. What seems entirely predictable and controllable on screen has unexpected results when translated into reality.

The same is true in transport engineering, which uses models to predict and shape the way people move through the city. Again, these models are necessary, but they are built on specific worldviews in which certain assumed forms of efficiency and safety are privileged over other experiences of the city. Designs that seem logical in models appear counter-intuitive in the embodied experience of their users.

The guard rails that will be familiar to anyone having attempted to cross a British road, for example, were an engineering solution to pedestrian safety based on models that prioritise the smooth flow of traffic, guiding pedestrians to specific crossing points and slowing them down through staggered access points. In doing so they make crossings feel longer, introducing psychological barriers greatly impacting those that are the least mobile, and encouraging some others to make dangerous crossings to get around them. These barriers don’t just make it harder to cross the road, they sever communities and decrease opportunities for healthy transport. As a result, many are now being removed, causing disruption, cost, and waste.

If their designers had the tools to think with their bodies, and imagine how these barriers would feel, could there have been a better solution in the first place? We think so. In order to bring about fundamental changes to the ways we use our cities, engineering will need to develop a richer understanding of what motivates people to move in certain ways, and how it affects them.

Dancing through cities

Choreography may not seem an obvious choice for tackling this problem. Yet it shares the aim of designing patterns of movement within spatial constraints.

Dance notation. Wikimedia Commons

Choreography is an embodied art form developed almost entirely through instant feedback between improvisation of ideas with the body, and tactile feedback from those ideas. It uses models and forms of notation to plan movements that dancers will make, with qualitative as well as quantitative information. Choreographers have an extremely rich understanding of the psychological, aesthetic, and physical implications of different ways of moving.

Observing the choreographer Wayne McGregor, cognitive scientist David Kirsh described how he “thinks with the body”. Kirsh argues that by using the body to simulate outcomes, McGregor is able to imagine solutions that would not be possible using purely abstract thought. This kind of embodied knowledge is given great value in many realms of expertise, but currently has no place in formal engineering design processes.

The value of all this for engineering is currently hypothetical. But what if transport engineers were to improvise design solutions and get instant feedback about how they would work from their own embodied experience? What if they could model designs at full scale in the way choreographers experiment with groups of dancers? What if they designed for emotional as well as functional effects?

The ConversationBy comparing the techniques and worldviews of choreography and engineering, we aim to find out.

John Bingham-Hall, Researcher in Urban Design and Culture, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article


Sword to the Stomach: Seppuku and the Case of Altruistic Suicide

by Bramantyo Indirawan

If you ever watched a samurai film , you probably would have seen harakiri – a suicide act by thrusting a dagger or short sword to oneself for the purpose of retaining honor after a defeat or shameful doing. The earliest harakiri recorded in history took place in late 12th century, committed by Minamoto Tametomo, a samurai, and Minamoto Yorimasa, a poet. Although still practiced during World War II, harakiri was officially ended in the late 19th century in the Meiji Restoration period.

Samurai, Seppuku and the Bushido code

In Japanese samurai movies like “Harakiri” (1968), and the relatively popular Hollywood production called “The Last Samurai” (2003), we can see the depiction of a samurai taking their own lives by disembowelment. Spectators in a temple, house, or prison watch as blood gushing out of the swordsman who lives by the code of bushido.

In pain but pride, as the samurai perform this disembowelment, a man called kaishakunin swings his sharp edge blade from behind. In mere seconds the samurai is dead. It is important that the kaishakunin have to slash the samurai’s head without beheading it so that the attached head would make the samurai look bowing down. So precision is what makes the kill “delicate” as it is deadly.

This honorable act that the Japanese preferred to be called seppuku distinctly belongs to samurai, a warrior caste who lives by the sword. Honor itself is a lofty human value; this brutal yet elegant way of suicide is an attempt of a man who wants to uphold the honor for himself, his family, and his clan.

When committing seppuku, after stabbing the dagger into his abdomen the samurai then makes a left to right cut of roughly 25 centimeters wide; they believe that the spirit resides in that particular area. This privilege also shows bravery and he posthumously earns respect.

High ranking authorities from daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1582) to the War Minister Korechika Anami in World War II (1945) chose to end their own lives by belly ripping for atonement. To an extent, seppuku can be seen as a form of suicide, but “honor” as a part of cultural values is a determinant factor in this sacred act.

Although the samurai caste no longer exists and seppuku seemingly vanishes in modern Japan, there are cases indicating that this ritual (at least its spirit) is still practiced. One example, the Olympic medal winner judo athlete Isao Inokuma took his own life by the sword in 2001. Although the public views the event as an anomaly, his act certainly resembles seppuku.

As mentioned in my previous article The Freedom of Taking Your Own Life, there are specific reasons why someone ultimately decide to commit suicide. In this case, what are the basis of enacting seppuku in Japanese life?

Seppuku and Altruistic Suicide

Based on the altruistic suicide theory by Emile Durkheim, we can reason that seppuku happens because of strong social integration in the Japanese people, especially the samurai caste. In a book entitled “Le Suicide” (1897), the French sociologist said that when a person kills himself it is not because he assumes the right to do so but, on the contrary, because it is his duty.

If a man fails to fulfill his obligation, he is dishonored and also punished. In the case of seppuku, when a samurai enacts the infamous disembowelment, he actually protects not only the honor of himself, but also others’ such as family and society.

“Man has become detached from society, he encounters less resistance to suicide in himself, and he does so likewise when social integration is too strong,” said Durkheim. The individual personality has little value, a state he called altruism.

When a person has integrated himself to a society, community, or group, they will follow certain societal values. In this process the individual can cease to exist and become a part of something she or he chooses. But in social integration, other people often choose for us. A child born from a samurai clan is most likely to inherit and exercise the bushido values.

Modern time seppuku varies in its implementation, and in certain events seem unrelated to duty and honor. In the case of the Olympian Isao Inokuma, the reason behind his suicide remains unclear. The Olympic gold medalist turned businessman lived a relatively successful life with no visible problems; it would make no sense if he committed seppuku due to his failure. So when a powerful thrust of the sharp blade ripped his own stomach, perhaps it was neither tradition nor high integration in society that caused his action, but rather due to his own ego in a low level of social integration that may lead to depression or sense of meaninglessness as Durkheim put it.

It is a matter of perspective in seeing the modern times seppuku. Does Isao Inakuma feel defeated or ashamed of himself? No one knows what goes inside his head when making the ultimate choice to end his life.

Yes, the 100 year old theory that Durkheim proposes is limited to the relationship of men that seemingly dwarfs the existence of cultural manifestation. Although the majority of Japanese society has left some of the old ways, few people still think highly of them.

If we put culture as the basis of seeing this phenomenon, then we can see an individual with personal perspective in seeing cultural manifestation such as seppuku. No one can tell a person what to do, what is right or wrong. A combination of belief, values, customs, and traditions can push people to put a blade into his stomach may it be in the 20th or 21st century.

Seppuku throughout the years

As mentioned earlier, the samurai caste was abolished in 19th century by the government in the Meiji Restoration. One of the 5 main articles written in the Charter Oath that was issued in 7 April 1868 affirms the abolition by stating that base customs of the past shall be abandoned, and all actions shall conform to the principles of international justice.

With this new law, seppuku is automatically banned but apparently doesn’t stop it from happening. Nogi Maresuku, a general in Russo-Japanese War period, for example, still practiced this ritual even after Emperor Meiji passed away. Another example, at a much later time, was the seppuku committed by General Korechika Anami who felt dishonored after the defeat in World War II. Such sacred disembowelment strongly suggests the “strictness” of the social integration in the Japanese life.

If we look at samurai in the past as a warrior, we can also see the General as a warrior of the 20th century. Battling enemies with weapons different from a sword, his spirit as a warrior still lives inside him and others shown by the enactment of their ancestral and past customs.

The manifestation of a sacred ritual still exists even though it is different from the original form. In the case of Korechika, a kaishakunin wasn’t present, so a proper seppuku that was enacted by the samurai long before World War II was not met. There are more examples that practice different ways in retaining honor that prove seppuku is obsolete.

In 2011, Prime Minister Naoto Kan resigned after the events of earthquake and tsunami. The failed attempt to lead a nation resulted in dishonor, and immediately followed by his stepping down. It’s not uncommon for a Prime Minister to do this. In 2008 Yasuo Fukuda resigned after considering himself incapable of unlocking the deadlock in domestic politics. Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister, also once resigned from the same job in 2007.

Different from the above examples, a seppuku style was taken by a Japanese writer Yukio Mishima who committed suicide in 1970 after a failed attempt at taking over a military command post. He criticized the military and fading traditions in front of Japan Self-Defence Force (JSDF) but the coup was responded with angry troops who shouted at him.

Realizing the speech had failed he then went inside the General’s office and committed seppuku, just like a samurai would in protecting his honor after a defeat. While his intestine spew out of his stomach, one of his followers slashed his head, acting like the modern day kaishakunin.

It is said that seppuku in modern Japan only happens in Kabuki theater, but there are proofs showing that it exists in every day life. Seppuku is arguably still relevant to Japanese in this modern time as cases of belly ripping rituals are literally continued to be practiced. Bushido may have faced a new era, and may have taken different forms, but it retains its spirit in upholding duty and honor.

It is important, however, to differentiate the belly ripping and the culture of resigning in Japan. Those who commit seppuku are gone forever because they have gone to the afterlife. Stepping down or resigning from a duty, on the other hand, doesn’t transfer oneself to the world of the dead. Both actions are about honor and duty, but they are different in results when it comes to their lives.

Through the altruistic suicide viewpoint, cultural reasoning, or other means we can see that suicide is not limited to depression and the sense of meaningless. It can be a philosophical choice that concerns himself, family, and society that intertwine with culture.

Source: Emile Durkheim, Le Suicide (1897), Andrew Rankin, Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide (2011),,,,,

How Fashion Adapted to Climate Change – In the Little Ice Age

by Lane Eagles, University of Washington

One could say the consequences of the planet’s warming climate can be seen on fashion week runways and the shelves of Anthropologie and H&M. Silhouettes shrink as midriffs and backs open. Sheer fabrics, breathable textiles and flowy draping are in. And in response to climate change’s rapid pace, some corners of the fashion industry are moving toward implementing sustainable business practices and incorporating more flexibility within their designs.

Today people may see global warming as a modern phenomenon, but fashion has a long history of responding to worldwide climate change.

The only difference is that while we sweat, early modern Europeans froze. The Little Ice Age was an interval of erratic cooling that ravaged the Northern Hemisphere roughly between the 14th and 19th centuries. And like today’s designers, Renaissance fashion designers were forced to contend with shifting temperatures and strange weather.

A menacing chill settles on Europe

Scientists have yet to determine the primary cause of the Little Ice Age, and historians are still pinning down its exact chronological parameters. But voices from the era describe a rapidly cooling climate.

“At this time there was such a great cold that we almost froze to death in our quarters,” a soldier wrote in his diary while traveling through Germany in 1640. “And,” he continued, “on the road, three people did freeze to death: a cavalry-man, a woman, and a boy.”

The entry was from August.

Scholars do agree that the Little Ice Age impacted our shared global history in myriad traceable ways. Its unpredictable temperature fluctuations and sudden freezes devastated harvests, escalated civil unrest and left thousands to starve. It may have inspired the menacingly chilly settings of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Darkness and clouds haunt the skies of paintings created during the period.

And the Little Ice Age also altered the history of fashion. As the cold ramped up in the 16th century, fashion championed warmer styles: Heavy drapery, multiple layers and sleeves that trailed on the floor became more common across the visual and material record, while examples of the oldest surviving European gloves, hats, capes and coats from the era populate museum costume collections today.

“No one in Egypt used to know about wearing furs,” a Turkish man traveling through northern Africa wrote in 1670. “There was no winter. But now we have severe winters and we have started wearing furs because of the cold.”

Staying fashionably warm

This change can be observed by comparing medieval and Renaissance dress.

In one French medieval manuscript (illustrated between 1115 and 1125), the knight’s skirt is slit to the hip, and his squire’s hemline stops above the knee. There are no capes, fur or headgear; the garments are light and loose – especially compared to what men wore 400 years later, when the Little Ice Age was in full swing.

Take Hans Holbien’s iconic 1553 painting “The French Ambassadors,” which depicts two courtiers to King Henry VIII. The man on the left, wearing thick, dark velvets and a heavily fur-lined overcoat, is the French ambassador to England, Jean de Dinteville. Georges de Selve, the bishop of Lavaur, stands on the right.

Hans Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors.’ Wikimedia Commons
The cleric has donned a floor-length coat befitting his godly station. But it would have also been very effective against cold. Both men sport fashionable caps and undergarments. The laced collar of De Selve’s undershirt peaks above his robes, and those white slashes in de Dinteville shiny pink shirt show off his hidden layers.

As with all portraits from the era, these men dressed to impress for the sitting – meaning their fanciest clothes were possibly their warmest.

A c. 1545 portrait of Catherine Parr. Wikimedia Commons

Women’s clothing also had to sustain temperature fluctuations that tended to range colder during the Little Ice Age. In a 16th-century portrait of Katherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII, Parr wears a headdress and a multi-layered gown with billowing sleeves.

Several petticoats would have been required to sustain the bell shape of her skirts. If you look closely, you’ll see a thin, translucent layer of fabric that shields her exposed skin where the neckline ends. Meanwhile, a large fur mantle – at the time, an essential accessory – is draped over her arms.

A removed opulence

New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has a surviving collection of clothes from the late 16th century, some of which could point to the cold’s influence on Renaissance clothing.

For example, one Spanish dress is outfitted with a cape atop the thick fabrics that make up the bodice, skirt and stacked sleeves. Beneath this densely layered gown, the wearer would have also needed to don several tiers of skirts and undergarments.

A late 16th-century Spanish ensemble features thick fabrics. MoMA

A British lady’s jacket from around 1616 also may hint at cold weather. Tailored from linen, silk and metal, this tight bodice probably kept its wearer very warm. (Early modern clothing often featured cloth-of-gold thread, which was made from actual thin strips of gold metal and painstakingly wrapped around sewing thread.)

Portraits and preserved garments from the Little Ice Age tend to have one thing in common: They are all the pictures or products of elites who enjoyed the means to have a likeness made of themselves. Their wealth is evident in the very existence of these images and the expensive clothes they wear.

Knit wool caps are perfectly suitable for fending off freezing temperatures, but the wealthy women of the era instead opted for elaborate, pearl-lined headdresses that trailed yards of gauzy veils.

Their opulence ignores the various crises of the era. While countless peasants were displaced from their homes and died from starvation or rampant disease, the rich simply transitioned to sable-lined sleeves and mantels threaded with gold.

It’s dangerous to oversimplify historical narrative. But the parallels to our current situation are hard to ignore. Climate change is a looming threat, with deep social and political ramifications.

The ConversationYet for many, it remains a distant phenomenon, something that – beyond buying lighter, looser clothing – is easy to dismiss.

Lane Eagles, Ph.D. Candidate in Art History, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

In Search of a Meaningful Life

Popular MIT anthropology course offers contemplation and dialogue on life’s big questions.

by Meg Murphy | School of Engineering | MIT News

Zareen Choudhury and her friends have yet to pinpoint the meaning of life, but it’s not for lack of trying. Dorm study sessions often veer off into more abstract territory — and once they get going, hours go by, p-sets are forgotten, and nailing down answers to life’s persistent questions is all that matters.

“Many of us at MIT have these deep, late-night conversations about the grander purpose of our existences,” says Choudhury, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science. She never expected MIT to offer a classroom forum for those debates, but then she came across a new anthropology course. Course 21A.157 (The Meaning of Life), examines how a variety of cultural traditions approach the question of how to live a meaningful life. “It seemed fascinating to have a structured and guided discussion forum for that conversation,” she says.

The faculty who created the course, Graham Jones and Heather Paxson, say they recognized a widespread hunger for self-reflection and shared dialogue among students. Their course explores how people grapple with meaning in their daily lives and communities through various cultural traditions. By looking at different social and historical practices, students develop tools for thinking about moral concerns.

“I love the personal aspect. I don’t necessarily get that with my technical classes,” says Choudhury. “I compare my own experiences with case studies from class. It gives me new perspectives on questions I’ve always grappled with — and that enriches my life.”

What does a better world really look like?

One of the choreographers of the class, Paxson, who is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology and a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, remembers a recent discussion in 21A.157 around a unit on work and meaning. Students steered their attention toward MIT’s often-articulated mission to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.

“Students hear all the time that they’re going to change the world,” Paxson says. “They feel a lot of pressure. They want to explore what that really means. How do you change the world for the better? What does it mean to do that well?”

Jones, an associate professor of anthropology, nods enthusiastically. Earlier he and Paxson had led the class down the bustling Infinite Corridor and ducked into a light-filled room featuring a floor mural by modernist Sol LeWitt. “Let’s just spend a quiet moment here,” Jones had said. Now he and Paxson are watching the students earnestly trying to relax. “They are learning to carve out time for reflection,” he says.

The LeWitt visit marks the final minutes of a lively class that had centered on how the Western Apache Indians of Arizona learn moral lessons by reflecting on the landscape around them. “What does wisdom mean to the Apache?” Jones had asked. “How do they create meaning through stories about places? How do they use places to make sense of the world?” Students then volunteered examples from literature, art, and popular culture that resonate with their own pursuit of meaning. Now, it seems, the LeWitt gallery is resonating, too.

When asked for his take on the popularity of this class, which is so well-attended tardy students are often left standing in the back of the packed classroom, Jones tells a story. A few years ago, a student told him excitedly about a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) experience doing lab research on radically extending human life. Jones asked the student about the ethical implications of the work, and its potential effects on the meaning of life. The student was stunned. Until he was asked, he simply hadn’t considered those dimensions. He was swept up in the thrill of chasing his experimental results. Until that moment, science was all.

Matthew Ryback, an aeronautical and astronautical engineering senior currently enrolled in 21A.157, says MIT students need a push toward reflection. He says the exposure to ethnographies about people worldwide has changed the way he thinks. “You see how people derive meaning from their lives, and you reflect on your own life, potentially changing it for the better.”

Time out

Near the end of the semester, Jones invites students to visit the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, a monastery just down Memorial Drive from the MIT campus, with sprawling gardens, striking architecture, and clergy who spend much of their time in silent contemplation.

The students observe a service. For first-year student Loewen Cavill, the rhythm of the prayers, the ornate high ceilings, and the incense thick in the air get her thinking about religious services she attended with her family back home. When they chat with the brothers after the service, Cavill notes quietly, “I notice a difference in myself. I see that I’ve changed.”

In the broadest sense, of course, this is exactly what college is for: to make you unfamiliar to yourself, to open up new spaces of understanding through the introduction of knowledge of all kinds. What 21A.157 offers is both broad and personal enough to stand in some contrast to, say, thermodynamics. Students read cross-cultural studies of family, wealth, sexuality, community, and faith, seeing in them points of both familiarity and eye-opening difference.

Sometimes, as in Cavill’s case, new awareness happens in a moment, through an interaction with a place. She had studied the Apache practice of reflecting on morally significant places, but now she had experienced something like it herself — and on some level, the “meaning” of her life had just changed. She was not alone. A third-year electrical engineering and computer science student, Rachel Thornton, tells Brother David Vryhof: “All of this is very different than normal MIT life. We don’t have these scheduled moments to stop and think.”

“Now you know where we are,” says Vryhof, a soft-spoken man in long black robes. “This is a place that is quiet and peaceful, and you can come here and do that kind of thinking.”

“The Meaning of Life” is a course name that appears to promise a lot. But the professors are lighthearted about the wording — it serves to draw the attention of engineering and science students. “It’s not really the meaning of life. We’re not answering eternal questions. We’re thinking about how people around the world seek meaning,” says Paxson. “Students jump into these conversations. They want to make room for reflection.”

Reprinted with permission of MIT News

The Krakatoa Sunsets

Foreword from Listen To The World

[Jakarta, LTTW] Krakatoa was one of the super volcanoes of the world in the same line with other “giants”, The Yellowstone & the Long Valley caldera in US, The Aira caldera in southern Japan, The Taupo caldera in New Zealand and Glen Coe in Scotland. Super volcano is a volcanology term used to describe a bigger scale of volcano that has a significant amount of magma and potentially produces eruption larger than 1,000 km3 in volume.

Indonesia has three super-volcanoes, standing majestically among hundreds of volcanoes that span across Indonesian archipelago. The three super volcanoes are Toba caldera, Tambora and the Child of Krakatoa. Approximately 73000-75000 years ago, Mt. Toba exploded before it turned into a gigantic lake, known today as the Lake Toba. In 1815, Tambora erupted, spewing hundreds cubic kilometer of volcanic debris and its effect transformed the climate globally for years. Not only that, In 1883 similar explosion also happened on Indonesia’s Sunda Strait (Selat Sunda) on which Mount Krakatoa stood tall. The explosion of Krakatoa generated dark sky that reached as far as Europe and eventually changed the global climate. Mt Krakatoa explosion also gave birth to a new volcanic offspring called the Child of Krakatoa.

Although the presence of volcanoes on this earth are considered as a threat  by some of people, there are unexpected benefits that we gained from volcanoes. Mt. Krakatoa explosion, for example, brought about specialized field of study called volcanology, and it has been a muse for artists and writers to create their arts.  Departing from this point of view, LttW presents this article that shows a number of committed individuals, observing & spending their lives studying volcano impacts.


The Krakatoa Sunsets

“This article was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it please see:

When a volcano erupted on a small island in Indonesia in 1883, the evening skies of the world glowed for months with strange colours. Richard Hamblyn explores a little-known series of letters that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sent in to the journal Nature describing the phenomenon – letters that would constitute the majority of the small handful of writings published while he was alive.

During the winter of 1883 the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins descended into one of his periodic depressions, “a wretched state of weakness and weariness, I can’t tell why,” he wrote, “always drowsy and incapable of reading or thinking to any effect.” It was partly boredom: Hopkins was ungainfully employed at a Catholic boarding school in Lancashire, where much of his time was spent steering his pupils through their university entrance exams. The thought that he was wasting his time and talents weighed heavily upon him during the long, brooding walks he took through the “sweet landscape” of Ribblesdale, “thy lovely dale”, as he described it in one of the handful of poems he managed to compose that winter. He was about to turn forty and felt trapped.

Such was his state of mind when the Krakatoa sunsets began. The tiny volcanic island of Krakatoa (located halfway between Java and Sumatra) had staged a spectacular eruption at the end of August 1883, jettisoning billions of tonnes of ash and debris deep into the earth’’s upper atmosphere. Nearly 40,000 people had been killed by a series of mountainous waves thrown out by the force of the explosion: the Javan port of Anjer had been almost completely destroyed, along with more than a hundred coastal towns and villages. ““All gone. Plenty lives lost”, as a telegram sent from Serang reported, and for weeks afterwards the bodies of the drowned continued to wash up along the shoreline. Meanwhile, the vast volcanic ash-cloud had spread into a semi-opaque band that threaded slowly westward around the equator, forming memorable sunsets and afterglows across the earth’’s lower latitudes. A few weeks later, the stratospheric veil moved outwards from the tropics to the poles, and by late October 1883 most of the world, including Britain, was being subjected to lurid evening displays, caused by the scattering of incoming light by the meandering volcanic haze. Throughout November and December, the skies flared through virulent shades of green, blue, copper and magenta, “more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets,” wrote Hopkins; “the glow is intense; that is what strikes everyone; it has prolonged the daylight, and optically changed the season; it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1866, detail from a photo by Thomas C. Bayfield. National Portrait Gallery

In common with most other observers at the time, Hopkins had no idea what was causing the phenomenon, but he grew fascinated by the daily atmospheric displays, tracking their changing appearances over the course of that unsettled winter. At the end of December he collated his observations into a remarkable 2,000-word document, which he sent to the leading science journal, Nature. The article, published in January 1884, was a masterpiece of reportage, a heightened prose poem that mixed rhapsodic literary experimentation with a high degree of meteorological rigour:

Above the green in turn appeared a red glow, broader and burlier in make; it was softly brindled, and in the ribs or bars the colour was rosier, in the channels where the blue of the sky shone through it was a mallow colour. Above this was a vague lilac. The red was first noticed 45º above the horizon, and spokes or beams could be seen in it, compared by one beholder to a man’s open hand. By 4.45 the red had driven out the green, and, fusing with the remains of the orange, reached the horizon. By that time the east, which had a rose tinge, became of a duller red, compared to sand; according to my observation, the ground of the sky in the east was green or else tawny, and the crimson only in the clouds. A great sheet of heavy dark cloud, with a reefed or puckered make, drew off the west in the course of the pageant: the edge of this and the smaller pellets of cloud that filed across the bright field of the sundown caught a livid green. At 5 the red in the west was fainter, at 5.20 it became notably rosier and livelier; but it was never of a pure rose. A faint dusky blush was left as late as 5.30, or later. While these changes were going on in the sky, the landscape of Ribblesdale glowed with a frowning brown. (from G. M. Hopkins, “The Remarkable Sunsets”, Nature 29 (3 January 1884), pp. 222-23)

Hopkins was a gifted empirical observer with a near-forensic interest in the search for written equivalents to the complexity of the natural world. Such interest in the language of precision was shared by many scientists at the time, science, like poetry, being an inherently descriptive enterprise. Anyone who reads the official Royal Society report on the Krakatoa sunsets (published in 1888) will find flights of poetic prose to rival those of Hopkins, who described such language as “the current language heightened and unlike itself,” a dynamic written form that was particularly suited to the expression of what he called “inscape”: the distinctive unity of all natural phenomena that gives everything in nature its characterising beauty and uniqueness. The force of being that holds these dynamic identities together he termed “instress”, instress being the essential energy that enables an observer to recognise the inscape of another being. These post-Romantic notions formed a kind of personal poetic creed, a logocentric natural theology that was rooted in the work of Duns Scotus, the medieval Christian philosopher.

Photograph taken in 1928 of the destroyed Krakatoa island resurfacing, forming what is known now as ‘Anak Krakatau’, or ‘Child of Krakatoa’. Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).

For Hopkins, inscape and instress lay at the heart of his religious and poetic practice, as well as being vital means of apprehending the natural world. In a journal entry for 22 April 1871, for instance, he records “such a lovely damasking in the sky as today I never felt before. The blue was charged with simple instress, the higher, zenith sky earnest and frowning, lower more light and sweet.” Note that he felt the damasking as well as saw it, and note, too, his calibrated descriptions of the banded blues of the sky, the higher “earnest and frowning”, the lower “more light and sweet.” His journals are full of such poetic quantifications, which he used as notes towards a quintet of articles that he published in the journal Nature, all on meteorological subjects. The first two, published in November 1882 and November 1883, were letters describing anti-crepuscular rays (cloud-shadows that appear in the evening sky opposite the sun), while the following three were all on the subject of the Krakatoa sunsets, which had evidently furnished the melancholy Hopkins with a much-needed source of distraction.

He was not alone in his interest; all over the world, writers, artists and scientists responded to the drama of the volcanic skies. The poets Algernon Swinburne, Robert Bridges and Alfred Tennyson (then poet laureate), wrote lengthy descriptive strophes prompted by the unearthly twilights, although, as the historian Richard Altick pointed out, “the only good poetry that resulted from the celestial displays is found in Hopkins’ prose” (Richard D. Altick, “Four Victorian Poets and an Exploding Island”, Victorian Studies 3 (March 1960), p. 258). This is a fair assessment, though I do have a sneaking fondness for Tennyson’s blank-verse approximation of the cadences of Victorian popular science:

Had the fierce ashes of some fiery peak
Been hurl’d so high they ranged about the globe?
For day by day, thro’ many a blood-red eve . . .
The wrathful sunset glared . . . (“St. Telemachus”, pub. 1892)

Visual artists also found themselves extending their colour ranges in awed emulation of the skies. Painter William Ascroft spent many evenings making pastel sky-sketches from the banks of the Thames at Chelsea, noting his frustration that he “could only secure in a kind of chromatic shorthand the heart of the effect, as so much of the beauty of afterglow consisted in concentration.” He exhibited more than five hundred of these highly-coloured pastels in the galleries of the Science Museum, in the repository of which they remain to this day, little known and rarely seen.

Three of the hundreds of sketches carried out by William Ascroft in the winter of 1883/4 – used as the frontispiece of The Eruption of Krakatoa, and Subsequent Phenomena: Report of the Krakatoa committee of the Royal Society (1888), ed. by G.J. Simmons.

In Oslo, by contrast, the sunsets helped inspire one of the world’s best-known paintings: Edvard Munch was walking with some friends one evening as the sun descended through the haze: “it was as if a flaming sword of blood slashed open the vault of heaven,” he recalled; “the atmosphere turned to blood – with glaring tongues of fire – the hills became deep blue – the fjord shaded into cold blue – among the yellow and red colours – that garish blood-red – on the road – and the railing – my companions’ faces became yellow-white – I felt something like a great scream – and truly I heard a great scream.” His painting The Scream (1893), of which he made several versions, is an enduring (and much stolen) expressionist masterpiece, a vision of human desolation writhing beneath an apocalyptic sky, as “a great unending scream pierces through nature.” As it happens, the final eruption of Krakatoa on 27 August 1883 was the loudest sound ever recorded, travelling almost 5,000 km, and heard over nearly a tenth of the earth’s surface: a great scream indeed.

As for Hopkins, the publication of his Krakatoa essay coincided with the welcome offer of a professorship in classics at University College Dublin. He left Lancashire for Ireland in February 1884, relieved to have made his escape. It didn’t last. Homesick, lonely and overworked, Hopkins succumbed to his worst depression yet, his misery traced in the so-called “terrible” sonnets of 1885 (“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”). He died of typhoid fever in June 1889 (aged 44), and was buried in an unmarked grave. Only his close friend Robert Bridges was aware of his greatness as a poet, and the bulk of his work remained unpublished until 1918. In fact, apart from a handful of minor poems that had appeared in obscure periodicals, the five Nature articles were the only works that Hopkins published in his lifetime.

Richard Hamblyn’s books include The Invention of Clouds , which won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize; Terra: Tales of the Earth (2009), a study of natural disasters; and The Art of Science (2011), an anthology of readable science writing from the Babylonians to the Higgs Boson. He is a lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.

Links to Works

Letters by Gerard Manley Hopkins in Nature, Vol XXIX, November 1883 to April 1884.
“The Remarkable Sunsets”, p.222-3, Jan 3rd 1884
“Shadow-Beams in the East at Sunset”, p.55, Nov 17th 1883
“Green Sun”, p.7, Nov 1st 1883

Letter by Gerard Manley Hopkins in Nature, Vol XXVII, November 1882 to April 1883.
“A Curious Halo”, p.55, Nov 16th 1882

The Eruption of Krakatoa, and Subsequent Phenomena: Report of the Krakatoa committee of the Royal Society (1888), Ed. by G.J. Simmons.
Internet Archive link

Recommended Readings

The Art of Science: A Natural History of Ideas (2011), by Richard Hamblyn.
Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Victorian Visual World (2008), by Catherine Phillips.