The Search for the Fundamental

Motion of gas molecules Español: Animación mos...
Motion of gas molecules Español: Animación mostrando la agitación térmica de un gas. Cinco partículas han sido coloreadas de rojo para facilitar el seguimiento de sus movimientos. Русский: Хаотическое тепловое движение на плоскости частиц газа таких как атомы и молекулы (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When does it stop? This screen that I am looking at, the keyboard that I am typing on, the invisible air between my eyes and the screen, even my body, all are composed of atoms, I told and believe. Apart from atoms, all there is is radiation, of various sorts.

The ancient Greek philosophers didn’t know about atoms so proposed various theories, which today seem quaint, but eventually they came around to atomism, and abandoned the other theories. In particular the theory of the four classical elements, earth, fire, water and air was dropped.

The four classical elements, after Aristotle. ...
The four classical elements, after Aristotle. Чотири стихії (за Арістотелем) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I said, the theory now sounds quaint, but, given that the ancient Greek philosophers were not of an experimental frame of mind, the four classical elements could explain much of what could be observed. Everything could have been a mixture of these elements in various proportions.

After all, it appeared to work for colours – all colours that can be displayed on a computer screen can be specified in terms of the amount of the three primary colours of red, green and blue that a single pixel or dot on the screen emits. Why shouldn’t this scheme work for other things than light?

Barycentric RGB
Barycentric RGB (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However Greek philosophers (and of course, philosophers in other cultures) noticed that, while some things could be broken down into component parts – sugar could be melted and burned, water could be driven off to leave the salts behind, and more importantly alcohol could be evaporated off and collected to make spirits, some things could not be broken down.

Gold, sulphur and phosphorus stubbornly refused to separate into earth, air, water or fire. Of course such stubbornness could be explained by the classical element theory – after all some things are easier to break down than others, but the Greeks eventually dropped the theory in favour of atomism. (This and what follows is highly simplified and condensed).

(Click here for rotating model)
(Click here for rotating model) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the belief that everything is made up of small indivisible particles which differ from element to element. The lump of gold contains billions of gold atoms, while the sulphur block contains sulphur atoms.

From about the start of the scientific revolution, people started to work out the rules of chemistry, and the ‘why’ of chemical reactions. Why did carbon in coal burn away and leave an ash? We know that the carbon in the coal burns using the oxygen in the air and creates oxides of carbon which are gasses and not easily detectable, but the experiments which led to this knowledge were preformed in the era of the scientific revolution.

So, matter is composed of atoms. That seemed to be the end of the story, as the vast majority of chemical experiments could be explained in terms of atoms, but exactly why atom A reacts in fixed proportions with atom B, but won’t have a bar of atom C. These relationships were noted but not really explained.

By the middle of the 19th century scientists began to detect problems with the “atoms as billiard balls” model. Electrons were discovered and soon related to chemistry, answering the above question. The new model, “atoms as small planetary-like systems”, had a small positively charged, and solid nucleus surrounded by a swarm of negatively charged electrons, with the electrons taking a major role in determining the chemistry of the atom.

It was discovered that many elements behaved as if each atoms of the element weighed the same, but some elements broke this rule. The gas Chlorine for example has an atomic weight of 35.45. In other words each atom weighed about 35 and half times as much as a Hydrogen atom.

It was eventually discovered that not all Chlorine atoms weighed the same. Most had an atomic weight of 35 but some (about half) had a weight of 36. To cut a long story short it was discovered that the supposedly solid nucleus was composed of a collection of other particles called protons and neutrons.

English: Liquid Chlorine in flask for analysis.
English: Liquid Chlorine in flask for analysis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the number of protons and electrons determine the chemistry of an atom almost completely, the number of neutrons contribute mass to the atom and barely affect the chemistry.

While electrons appear to be truly fundamental particles and cannot be broken down further, the protons and neutrons are composed of particles called quarks. For reasons mentioned in the Wikipedia article quarks cannot be found in isolation, but are only found in other particles.

English: The quark structure of the proton. Th...
English: The quark structure of the proton. There are two up quarks in it and one down quark. The strong force is mediated by gluons (wavey). The strong force has three types of charges, the so-called red, green and the blue. Note that the choice of green for the down quark is arbitrary; the “color charge” is thought of as circulating among the three quarks. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to protons and neutrons, quarks make up other sub-atomic particles such as mesons. Scientists have discovered or postulated bosons which are particles that bind quarks and other fundamental particles together. From then on, things get complicated!

I haven’t mentioned the photon, which is bosonic, or the neutrino which is a fermion. All fundamental particles fit into one of these two families, and all sub-atomic interactions are the result of the rather incestuous exchange of these particles in their various groups and a strict set of rules. So far so good.

English: Enrico Fermi
English: Enrico Fermi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, there are still questions to be answered. Are these particles truly fundamental or do they have components, which may or may not be particles in the classical sense? What are the sizes of these particles, if such a concept is appropriate at this level? Have we found them all? What about dark matter?

Scientists have abandoned the first question. They don’t generally refer to particles as fundamental. They have seen a long list of fundamental particles turn out to be not so fundamental after all.

Sizes of the particles may not make sense at the particle level, but the various theories may indicate sizes for some of them. There are difficulties over the size of the electron for instance. If it were a point object rather than having something that equates to size, then that causes difficulties with some theories.

As for the third and fourth questions, it appears that scientists may have found all the particles that explain ordinary matter, but naturally cautious, they don’t rule out other forms of matter such as the so called “dark matter” and “dark energy“. Dark matter and dark energy apparently interact with gravity and (from the Wikipedia article) and the Weak Nuclear Interaction.

pie chart of dark matter and normal energy rat...
pie chart of dark matter and normal energy ratio taken from en.wikipedia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My original question was “When does it stop?” By this I meant, which particles are truly fundamental and which have components that determine their properties? This question remains open, but if you have followed through my exposition, you will probably see that this is a question without an easy answer.


Thus it was written….

1976 The beginning of flexible computing in pu...
1976 The beginning of flexible computing in public health. Auditorium A at CDC, converted to a war room for the Swine Flu crisis, is filled with epidemiologists and a Digital Equipment PDP 11 minicomputer the size of a refrigerator. A program called SOCRATES, written in FORTRAN by programmer Rick Curtis, allowed an epidemiologist to define questions, enter data, and summarize the results in tabular form without the aid of a programmer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever noticed that a computer program never does exactly what you want? Oh, it will process your data for you, and produce results that you can use, or it will move those files from here to here, but may move ones that you didn’t want moving or leave ones that you did want to move. But it won’t do exactly what you want, first time with no hassles.

Of course you can make it work for you, make it do what you want more accurately, but you have to work harder to make it do so, and programs are supposed to make things easier, right? Take this very editor that I am using to compose this post. I thought the bold words above as I wrote, but I needed to perform an action to make them come out bold and another to ensure that the text after the bold words didn’t also come out bold.

JWPce is a Japanese Word Processor, this softw...
JWPce is a Japanese Word Processor, this software is under GNU license. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course this is a very minor consideration and if I were to find a program that changed the font to bold for one word and then stopped, I’d probably find it irksome to bold two words in succession. Also, I’d bet the house that there would be something that the first program did automatically or easily that would be difficult to achieve using the second program.

Those who are not programmers seem to have an ambivalent attitude to programs. On the one hand, if they are using a program and they can’t get it to work, they blame themselves. “I must be doing something wrong!” comes the impassioned plea. So the technophile in the household has to interpret what helpful statement “It doesn’t work!” really means and what how the program expects in the way of input. Problem fixed. Until the next time.

Broken mirror
Broken mirror (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the other hand, the non-programmer will accept it without question when the hero/heroine of the film briefly types something at the computer and the world is saved! Hooray! The sentient virus destroying humanity is defeated! Hooray again!

However these issues with programs are not bugs. The program is not doing something wrong. The issue is with our expectations of how things ought to work. It may well be that the program is designed to do things differently to those expectations, either because the programmer assumes that the way that he codes it is the way that people will expect things to work.

If the programmer gets a lot of issues with a particular feature of his program, he may decide to change it to fit more closely with the expectations of the users, and then send out an update. It is likely that he will then get a lot of issues from those people who have been using the program for a while and have come to expect it to behave the old way. The programmer can never win.

I’ve done quite a bit of programming over the years, thankfully mostly for myself. Every program that is written these days usually fits into what might be called an ecosystem. There are programs to gather data, programs to crunch data, and programs to display the results, but there are many programs to perform each of these three tasks.

English: 2008 Computex: A panel of embedded sy...
English: 2008 Computex: A panel of embedded system by DM&P. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For example, the results may be printed on a printer, either as a table of data, or as graph or pie chart, or in these days of 3-D printing, a physical object, or it may be displayed on a screen, or in any other way where the recipient can interrelate with it.

Data input may typed in, drawn in on a graphical input device, or it may be collected by some means or other from sensors or other devices. Your heartbeat may be collected from a number of sensors on your skin, read by a machine and be printed off on a roll or paper, while at the same time being displayed on a local screen. It may also be sent off to some remote location where specialists may peruse it.

Fetal heart beat 200 bpm. Ultrasound scan. Pro...
Fetal heart beat 200 bpm. Ultrasound scan. Provided as-is. Please feel free to categorize, add description, crop or rename. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the middle, between input and output comes the processing or crunching of the data. This is what most people think of when they think of computer processing. Somewhat unfairly the input and output processes are relegated to only secondary interest. This is, however, what a program or system is written to do. Even so, input and output processes may be complex.

Data may be processed in several different ways in between input and output, and by several different programs. There are layers within layers. For example a program that takes advantage of a database uses many layers. The program which the programmer is writing will no doubt call programs (called APIs or interfaces) within the environment that he is working in which start the process of communicating with the database.

Read-copy-update (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The API puts the programmers request into a form that the database expects and sends it to another process, not usually part of the programmer’s chosen system, which exists only to connect the programmer’s program (and any other similar programs) to the database.

At the database end the receiving part of the database system receives the request and passes it to the main database program, which checks it and executes it. During the execution process the database program makes calls to system programs which perform any necessary retrieval or writing of the data to the system’s file system, via the system’s hardware interface with the storage system.

I’ve collapsed many layers in the explanation above. The main point is that the programmer’s program is the tip of the iceberg, and there are many layers which are called into action during the execution of the program. To complicate things further, the system that the programmer uses to perform his work is also a program and has its own layers on top of layers.

This explains why programs don’t ever do exactly what you want. The programmer has to use utility programs which, while flexible can’t do everything. The utility programs are also flexible, but are interfacing with other programs, which while flexible also can’t do everything. And so on.

English: TM-database
English: TM-database (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more flexible a program is, the bigger it is, as it has be programmed to enable the flexibility. So, this forces constraints on it, which impose constraints on the programmer, whose program therefore imposes constraints on the user of the program. And those constraints are why the program can’t do exactly what you want, but usually, it’s close enough that the program is useful to the end user. Most of the time.

Angry Penguin
Angry Penguin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Impact from a water drop causes an upward &quo...
Impact from a water drop causes an upward “rebound” jet surrounded by circular capillary waves. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The title of my post may look odd, but it represents one of the most important chemical compounds on earth. Without it, life would not exist and the search for evidence of the possible existence of life on other planets often comes down to looking for this molecule. It is of course, water.

If you still don’t understand my title, the formula for water is H2O, where the “2” should be subscript representing the fact that there are two Hydrogen atoms in water and one Oxygen atom. This could be misheard as “H to O”, hence my title.

The water molecule with its electric charges
The water molecule with its electric charges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water could be considered to be an oxide of hydrogen, or hydrogen oxide. There is a closely related compound called hydrogen peroxide (which has two oxygen atoms) which is sometimes used as a bleach and disinfectant. Surely everyone over a certain age has heard of “peroxide blondes“.

Water is sometimes referred to, usually jokingly, as dihydogen monoxide. This silly pseudo-scientific name in sometimes used to create fake polemics against water to trick gullible people, causing them to call for a ban on this noxious and toxic chemical!

The logo of, primary current residenc...
The logo of, primary current residence of the dihydrogen monoxide hoax (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We see water all around us, in all three normal states of matter, solid, liquid and gas. Well, ice and water can be nearly transparent, and water in the gaseous state is invisible – we can only see the water vapour that forms when water in the gaseous state condenses into small particles of liquid water suspended in the air.

Water molecules have a slight “V” shape which gives it some amazing properties. it has a minimum density at 4 degrees Centigrade. It freezes at 0 degrees Centigrade so ice is slightly less dense than liquid water and the ice floats. This results in icebergs and the inevitable reference to the Titanic, which as everyone knows hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage, and endless discussions on whether or not both Jack and Rose could have survived the disaster.

TITANIC life boats on way to CARPATHIA
TITANIC life boats on way to CARPATHIA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not only does ice keep our drinks cool, but it also forms a skin over ponds and puddles in winter which has the effect of protecting small plants and animals from the worst of winter. This is because the ice acts as an insulating layer and allows some warmth to remain in the waters of the pond.

Most animals can’t survive freezing but some really small ones, like certain frogs and toads and some spiders and insects survive being frozen solid. It is believed that this is because of some constituents of their blood acting as an anti-freeze agent, prevention the destructive formation of ice crystals in the cells and blood of the animal.

English: Frozen pond The water here has frozen...
English: Frozen pond The water here has frozen hard. It is believed to be excess field water not a natural pond. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gaseous water is found all around us. It is dissolved, as it were, in air. It’s the water in the air which gives it its humidity. Gaseous water is swept up by the air and boosted to high altitudes by air currents and condenses to clouds, which are masses of water vapour. Ultimately the water falls to earth as rain and runs off into the seas. This whole cycle is driven by heat energy from the sun which causes the evaporation.

On average a human being’s body contains approximately 60% water. It can be higher as in a new-born baby or lower as in obese persons. If a normal person refrains from drinking liquids he or she may become dehydrated, which can result in mental issues and physical ones (which usually go away if the person is rehydrated.

(From source) This cholera patient is drinking...
(From source) This cholera patient is drinking oral rehydration solution (ORS) in order to counteract his cholera-induced dehydration. The cholera patient should be encouraged to drink the Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS). Even patients who are vomiting can often be treated orally if they take small frequent sips. Their vomiting will subside when their acidosis is corrected. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A person loses water by sweating and by urinating. If he or she is in an arid environment, such as a desert, he or she will lose water faster than usual, and if it is not replaced, the dehydration could kill. In hot humid climates, sweating is less effective in controlling the person’s temperature and he or she may die of overheating.

Our planet is (mostly) blue from space mainly because the presence of the water that makes up the seas. However in small quantities and in very shallow depths the colour of water is often due more to the mineral content of the water than anything else. This leads to rivers being called “Blue Nile” (because of the black sediment carried by the river – the word for black is also used for blue in the local dialect) or “White Nile” (because of the light clay sediment carried by the river) for example.

The Earth seen from Apollo 17.
The Earth seen from Apollo 17. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Apart from making up most of our bodies, and being essential for the body’s proper functioning, water has a myriad of uses to humans. It forms a part of many industrial processes for example, and it often provides the power for them, by way of hydroelectric generation. It helps make our crops grow, and we use it and flavour it to provide our beverages.

We also use water for recreation. We swim in the seas and rivers, we sail on them and we dive under them. We hike many kilometres in some cases to view places where water flows over a drop, and we even explore the caves created by the action of water on some rocks.

A windsurfer with modern gear tilts the rig an...
A windsurfer with modern gear tilts the rig and carves the board to perform a planing jibe (downwind turn) close to shore in Maui, Hawaii, one of the popular destinations for windsurfing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The deep waters of the seas provide much of our food. Our fishermen haul great numbers of them from the seas with some difficulty and at some expense. There are people who believe that we are doing great damage to the planet by doing this, and that we are causing much marine life to become extinct, which seems to be a big risk to us in the future.

We look for water on other planets, to determine whether or not they will or have supported life. The reasoning behind this is that our way of life, and the way of life of all creatures on Earth depends on water. We cannot conceive of a life form that does not depend on water in some ways. That doesn’t mean, of course, that such life forms do not exist, but just that we can’t currently conceive of a way that such a life form could exist. As Mr Spock might say “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”.

40 Years

Plymouth Valiant 100 of some 40 years ago seen...
Plymouth Valiant 100 of some 40 years ago seen on street in New Orleans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Forty years, around 14,600 days, 350,400 hours, 21,024,000 minutes, or 1,261,440,000 seconds. In other words around 1.3 gigaseconds. That’s the amount of time that I have been married to my wife, Elizabeth, known to everyone as Matty. I don’t mean to imply that it seems a long time – it doesn’t! Far from it. But it has been a long time, and I am amazed. Firstly because it has been a long time and secondly because we have stuck together for that long.

In that time the earth has travelled 37,600 million kilometres, light from earth or the sun has travelled 40 light years, or 3.8 x 10^14 kilometres. There are around 2,000 known stars within 50 light years of earth, with 133 falling among the brightest 10%, and according to my calculations around half of them are less than 40 light years away. That means that there is little chance that any LGMs will have been blinded by the flash of the photographer’s camera.

Alien2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In that time a lot has happened. We have had three children and shortly after that, moved half way around the world. The kids have grown up and we now have three grandchildren, who are also growing up fast. The youngest has been at school for a year now, and it seem only recently that her mother was just starting school herself. Thankfully the kids have not dispersed too widely and they and the grandkids will be lunching with us tomorrow to celebrate.

Embed from Getty Images

I’ve been looking at the things that have happened and changed in that 40 years. Strangely I had thought that the moon landings had not finished when we got married, but in fact there was no overlap. The last moon landing (Apollo 17) happened in 1972, before we were married. (The first landing was in 1969). Weird!

While men have not been to the moon in the last 40 years, many man-made devices have been sent to other planets and even to comets, The Hubble space telescope has sent back amazing photographs of the depths of space and other such telescopes have followed suit.

Eta Carinae captured by the Hubble Space Teles...
Eta Carinae captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the biggest successes in exploration of the solar system has been the Mars Rover Opportunity which has operated on the surface of Mars since 2004. It’s original planned activity period was scheduled to be 90 sols or Martian days (slightly longer than an Earth day). However Opportunity is still functioning and sending back amazing photographs much more than 10 years since it landed.

Many of Opportunity’s photographs and panoramas can be found on the NASA web site, which also contains stunning photographs, both modern and historical, of rocket and shuttle launches. It also includes astronomical photographs taken by many different telescopes and photographs taken on the moon and from orbit. I highly recommend it.

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in space.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course many important happenings occurred in the last 40 years. One of the biggest was the rise of the Internet. The birth of the networks that formed the Internet happened in the 1970s, and the term “Internet” was used in a technical document in December 1974, four months before we got married!

Embed from Getty Images

Most people spend a lot of time on the Internet using a browser and viewing sites and that aspect of the Internet, originally called “the World Wide Web”, originated in CERN in the late 1980s. At some time a lot later than that I downloaded a copy of the NCSA web server and create a “Hello World” web page. I then pointed a browser at it (probably an early version of Internet Explorer) and up popped my “Hello World” page! At the time I was thrilled and delighted!

Of course not all things that have happened in the last 40 years are so great. According to the WWF the Earth has lost half its wildlife. 40 years ago global warming had not become a topic of concern, although it was first mentioned by Svante Arrhenius in 1896.

Arrhenius (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another notable event around 1975 was the first commercial flight of Concorde in 1976. It went out of service in 2003 having failed to become a commercial success. I worked for British Aerospace at one time, though not directly on anything to do with Concorde. I also worked for British Aerospace who made the Olympus engines for the Concordes.

In 1977 the Queen celebrated her celebrated her silver jubilee, and she is still going 40 years later! I don’t remember much of the celebrations but I do remember that it was a big thing at the time!

Embed from Getty Images

While searching around for links for this post I came across this useful link from the Sunday Telegraph which lists events from the last 50 years. It’s amazing how many seem to be fairly recent and at the same time a long time ago. The first case of AIDS was diagnosed in 1980, for example. The Vietnam war ended in 1975. The first test tube baby was born in 1978. Her son was conceived naturally and was born in 2006.

So much that we take for granted today was not around when we got married. No Internet as above. No cell phones. According to the Sunday Times list above, the first British mobile phone call was made by the comedian Ernie Wise to Vodafone. The first mobile phones were small bricks and had battery lives which were very short. They were also rare and expensive. Facebook, Twitter and all the other “Social Media” sites were well in the future and the multifunction devices that mobile phones have become were almost unimaginable.

Embed from Getty Images

So many things have changed that it is a wonder that anything has lasted. Our marriage has lasted, even though the concept of marriage itself has changed to include same-sex marriage, over the four decades. It seems that even same-sex marriage is becoming less popular, with couples often having children first and getting married later. That still seems odd to me, but it seems to work for many people.

We’ve made it through 40 years while all things have changed around us. I’m proud of that fact and hope that we can continue for many more. But we have a long way to go to beat my parents – they just recently celebrated 70 years of marriage.

Great Observatories' Unique Views of the Milky Way
Great Observatories’ Unique Views of the Milky Way (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Photographic Honesty

Category:Wikipedia requested photographs of ph...
Category:Wikipedia requested photographs of photography (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m going to do something that I’ve never done before, something a little risky. I’m going to write a piece about an article on someone else’s website, a piece which resonated with me. Of course, I may have totally missed the point of the other person’s article. I hope not, and I can only apologise in advance for any misconceptions that I have about the article.

Please note that the pictures in this article are mere decorations and do not and not intended to relate to Tony Bridge and his art. Think of them as free association based on the words that I type.

English: Photography forbidden. A nightmare......
English: Photography forbidden. A nightmare… Français : Un cauchemar… Deutsch: Fotografieren verboten. Ein Albtraum… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The writer of the piece is Tony Bridge ( and the piece is entitled “On honesty in photography“.

Firstly I urge you to visit Tony Bridge’s site and view the many amazing and attention grabbing photographs that Tony has assembled on his site. I am in awe of his skill, his technique, and particularly of his professional photographer’s eye. (Please remember that none of these images are his. I would not presume…)

English: A photographer between waves and mussels
English: A photographer between waves and mussels (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m no photographer. I take photographs, I try to ensure that the photographs are interesting, I try to “compose” them a little, I try to pay attention to the lighting of the subject versus the background and things like that, but these days I rarely stray from the automatic settings on my camera, which is a cheap FujiFilm one.

As for post-production, the removal of perceived mistakes in composition and specks of dust, changing hues and saturation and so on, well, I rarely do more than remove red-eye and shift the contrast. Tony’s article talks about a possible perceived over emphasis on the post-production of some modern photography. It is the main topic of Tony’s article.

Photoshop-work (Photo credit: Kjell Eson)

With tools like Photoshop anything in or about a picture can be manipulated, from simple removal of flaws to major changes to the image. Indeed there are numerous  photo manipulation “fails” to be found on the Internet, ranging from failed enhancements of “beauty” shots, to badly photoshopped propaganda photographs from the likes of North Korea.

Follow Me, Ladies
Follow Me, Ladies (Photo credit: Dοn)

Is this new? I think not. Apparently Henry VIII of England was deceived by a painted likeness of Anne of Cleves, complaining that “She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported.” To be sure this is not post production alteration of the image, but it is similar in kind. Henry could, probably justifiably, have called for more honesty in image production.

Painting of Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of the...
Painting of Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of the English King Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course there were movements in portraiture and other painting for more honesty in portrayal. Oliver Cromwell, is alleged to have required that his portrait be painted “warts and all”. However most painting tended to emphasise some aspects of the subject over others, the epitome being the painting of “The Monarch of the Glen” by Landseer, an over idealised painting of a stag. Nevertheless, a great painting.

sir Edwin Landseer, The Monarch of the Glen (1...
sir Edwin Landseer, The Monarch of the Glen (1851) in the Museum of Scotland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some painters realised the way that images were being enhanced and moved in another direction away from realism, leading to such schools of painting as impressionism, cubism, surrealism,  pop art, to name only a few. Again the paintings were, are amazing. I draw a parallel between non-realistic art with highly post-processed photography.

Photography, springing up in the early 20th century in the shadow of painting, at first had few tools to do other than report what the lens had seen. Photographers were still learning about the new medium, but soon techniques started to arise, such as vignetting (softening the corners of an image) to alter the image.

Untitled (Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution)

But the tools soon arrived. The standard model of camera has the image plane perpendicular to the lens axis with the lens axis at or near to the centre of the image plane. Later cameras allowed the lens to be shifted and twisted to allow various effects, such as better images of tall buildings and so on. No doubt the photographers of the time might argue for a more honest approach, though I’m pushing the analogy to breaking point.

In the darkroom similar effects could be performed by manipulating the chemical baths and the enlarger used for the printing process. Many of the image manipulation processes are over 100 years old according to Wikipedia. It was probably the advert of colour films and processing that severely reduced the amateur use of darkroom processes in photography, because of the extra complexity of processes. That’s a pity, as nothing beats the feeling you get when an image appears from nothing on a white piece of paper.

Student developing a map image. Photograph tak...
Student developing a map image. Photograph taken during the making of a BBC documentary. IMAGELIBRARY/166 Persistent URL:… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The digital revolution has put the power back in the hands of the amateur again. Anyone with a phone can take a photograph, process it through Instagram and the result has been …. a cascade of rubbish!

Against this unprecedented tide of rubbish, real photographers, amateur and professional struggle to promote their art. So is real photography the poorly lit, over exposed, blurry, shaky, hand-held phone stuff, or the highly processed, sharp as a tack, rigidly tripod mounted, Canon/Nikon/Hasselblad shot stuff, or the story board, lightly processed, possibly hand held stuff?

English: Hasselblad 503 CW with Zeiss F-Distag...
English: Hasselblad 503 CW with Zeiss F-Distagon 3,5/30 and digital back Ixpress V96C (16 megapixel sensor). Français : Appareil moyen format Hasselblad 503 CW avec optique Zeiss Distagon 3,5/30 et dos numérique Ixpress V96C (Résolution 16 MP). Nederlands: Middenformaatcamera Hasselblad 503 CW met Zeiss F-Distagon 3,5/30 en digitale achterwand Ixpress V96C (16 megapixel). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my opinion, it is an invalid question. Consider the famous “Monsoon Girl” photograph by Brian Brake. This is an awesome photograph and I don’t see why it should denigrated because it was a set up. Is it honest? It is honest to the story it told. It expresses perfectly the promise that the monsoon brings of growing things and plenty in the future. However it wasn’t a real photograph of a real girl in real monsoon rain.

Monsoon Girl
Monsoon Girl (Photo credit: colonos)

Similarly with the awesome images that can be created by Photoshop and other tools. One of my favourite site for images is the NASA site. Wonderful images! However many of them are “false colour” images, of the sun and other objects. It’s not Photoshop, (so far as I know) but it is highly manipulated images. Are they “honest”? In one sense they are in another they are not. Are they amazing photographs? Yes, of course.

English: Landsat 7 false colour image of the N...
English: Landsat 7 false colour image of the Nile Delta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I had a photo good enough to be used in a magazine or book or whatever, would I do whatever I could to make it as defect free as possible? Yes, I would and I would not consider that dishonest.

Tony Bridge questions whether or not we need the latest cameras, a longer lens, the next highest resolution or the next update of photo manipulation software. Of course we don’t. But if they help us get our message across, then they are useful. They are pretty nice toys, too! A long lens is great. An extremely long lens may enable things to be photographed that can’t otherwise be photographed, but only the photographer’s eye can make the picture shine.

Schematic of a catadioptric (mirror-lens) tele...
Schematic of a catadioptric (mirror-lens) telephoto camera lens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recall that I posted an image on Facebook of a stick insect shedding its skin. This event occurred practically right in front of my nose, just outside my front door. I really couldn’t have missed it. Brian Harmer, a photographer and blogger friend of mine congratulated me on my photo, and when I said that I couldn’t have missed it, he wisely said “Most of the genius in any image is what you point it at when you shoot. Your eye saw the image. the (camera) merely recorded it”.

Stick insect shedding skin
Stick insect shedding skin


My picture was no work of art, but I take his point. What makes a good photo or photo essay is the photographer’s eye and the photographer’s heart, and I believe that is something like what Tony Bridge means by “honesty”. Technique and tools can aid the photographer but they can’t make a mediocre picture into a great one. 

One last comment. Does the use of less post-processing in digital photography. and a reliance on more honest photography mean that digital photography is maturing? Again, I will sit on the fence. Yes, it shows maturity if it erases the distinction between prior photography (analog photography?) and digital photography. When a photograph is just a photograph, and digital or analog post processing is not relevant, then digital photography has matured.

A 1.5 bit Multiplying Digital to Analog Converter
A 1.5 bit Multiplying Digital to Analog Converter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I hope that is not totally true, as with maturity comes the danger of stagnation. I don’t believe that as technical a pastime or profession as photography can ever mature in that sense, fortunately. The technology will keep changing, opening new avenues for photographers, both amateur and professional, as its sisterly arts of painting and sculpture demonstrate.

Employees of Southern Bell & Telegraph Company...
Employees of Southern Bell & Telegraph Company at work: Miami, Florida (Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida)

Thank you Tony Bridge for providing your thought provoking article, which has been the inspiration of this post.

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