Ian McEwan Looks at Science Writing

On the 30th anniversary of The Selfish Gene, Ian McEwan considers science writing.

[A] literary tradition implies an active historical sense of the past, living in and shaping the present. And reciprocally, a work of literature produced now infinitesimally shifts our understanding of what has gone before. You cannot value a poet alone, TS Eliot argued in his famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, “you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” Eliot did not find it preposterous “that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” We might discern the ghost of Auden in the lines of a poem by James Fenton, or hear echoes of Wordsworth in Seamus Heaney, or Donne in Craig Raine. Ideally, having read our contemporaries, we return to re-read the dead poets with a fresh understanding. In a living artistic tradition, the dead never quite lie down.

Can science and science writing, a vast and half forgotten accumulation over the centuries, offer us a parallel living tradition? If it can, how do we begin to describe it? The problems of choice are equalled only by those of criteria. Literature does not improve; it simply changes. Science, on the other hand, as an intricate, self-correcting thought system, advances and refines its understanding of the thousands of objects of its study. This is how it derives it power and status. Science prefers to forget much of its past – it is constitutionally bound to a form of selective amnesia.

Is accuracy, being on the right track, or some approximation of it, the most important criterion for selection? Or is style the final arbiter? The writings of Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon or Robert Burton contain many fine passages that we now know to be factually wrong – but we would surely not wish to exclude them.

Exploring the Flann O’Brien Archives

In Context, Theodore McDermott on the Flann O’Brien Archives.

Specifically, I went to see a microfilmed copy of an early manuscript of At Swim-Two-Birds. References online and in O’Brien scholarship suggest that a draft much longer than the published one exists—it seemed likely that it would be the manuscript in Carbondale. There, in the special collections room, I sat at the microfilm machine looking at the doodles on the book’s first page. Don’t tell Terry Eagleton, but the name “Engels” was scrawled around the title—we wouldn’t want a Marxist reading to jeopardize O’Brien’s genius, to see the theme of three in At Swim as an example of dialectical materialism (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) at play. Maybe this Engels is other than Marx’s sidekick? A Gaelic figure? A friend? Who knows?

And there were, indeed, as I got past the first page, some differences between this early manuscript and the one published. Some different ordering (mostly at the beginning), some extra material—“Memoir of Dermot Trellis, his youth, being an extract from A Conspectus of the Arts and Natural Sciences on the subject of Dr. Beatty, now in heaven, by the reverend Alexander Dyce, but found on examination to be singularly referable to the life of Trellis. Serial volume in the Conspectus, the Thirty-seventh,” for example—and other slight variations (Finn having a conversation with Trellis, which might well be of note to the careful At Swim scholar) comprise the most notable changes from the un- to the published versions. On the whole, the manuscript seemed not to warrant what I hoped it might: publication. The differences simply aren’t substantive enough. In theory, there exists somewhere a manuscript that’s one-third longer than the published one—but this, unfortunately, wasn’t it. Best I could tell, it was a revision of something already sent once to the publisher. The substantively longer version was apparently given to a friend, then revised, and only then sent out.

With the rest of my time, I went through as much of the eleven boxes of O’Brien material as I could. I didn’t make it that far…

Responses to Mearsheimer and Walt

Predictably, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s very controversial piece has drawn responses in the LRB. (There have been many in the blogosphere.) Among them, Jeffrey Herf and Andrei Markovits’.

First, it is not true that the American relationship with Israel has been ‘the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy’. That centrepiece has been and remains access to oil for the United States and for the global economy. As it became apparent during the 1960s that Israel was not merely the only democracy in the region but also a supporter of the West in the Cold War, the American relationship intensified. At that point, support for Israel, which had been strongest among liberals who supported a Jewish state in the wake of the Holocaust, expanded to include the previously less than enthusiastic military and diplomatic foreign policy establishment, some of which was deeply hostile to Israel and suspicious of Jews, to put it mildly. This was not due to the efforts of the Jewish Lobby or the power of the five million Jews (in a country of almost 300 million). It was due to an assessment of American national interest made by an overwhelmingly non-Jewish political and military establishment long before Christian fundamentalism became a factor in the Republican Party. It coincided with increasingly close ties with the Saudi regime.

Making Chemistry More Interesting Through Video Games

An attempt to get more students interested in chemistry through video games, in nature.com.

You are deep underground in a lab that once housed some of the finest minds in chemistry. But robots directed by a crackbrained artificial intelligence have taken it over and plan to use its equipment to destroy the world! After freezing an evil robot with your handy wrist-mounted hot-and-cold gun, you reach the Haber-Bosch room. And now you must correctly synthesize ammonia or die.

“Your students are playing video games,” Gabriela Weaver told a group of chemistry teachers at the American Chemical Society meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, on 29 March. “They are playing them more and more hours a day. They are probably playing them in your class.”

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Weaver, an associate professor of chemistry at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, is building a computer game about the subject – she hopes her prototype will be as appealing to students as the blockbuster games coming out of companies like Electronic Arts (EA).

Two Epidemiologists Look at Class

In Harvard Magazine:

Two years ago the New England Journal of Medicine published a commentary titled “Class—The Ignored Determinant of the Nation’s Health.” Its authors, a policy analyst and an academic physician, wrote: “[P]eople in lower classes die younger and are less healthy than people in higher classes. They behave in ways that ultimately damage their health and that take their lives prematurely (by smoking more, having poorer eating habits, and exercising less). They also have less health insurance coverage, live in worse neighborhoods, and are exposed to more environmental hazards. Beyond that, however, there is something about lower socioeconomic status itself that increases the risk of premature death.”

For 20 years, that “something” about being poor and getting sick has preoccupied Nancy Krieger ’80, Ph.D., professor of society, human development, and health at the Harvard School of Public Health. It has also preoccupied her older brother, James Krieger ’78, M.D., chief of the epidemiology, planning, and evaluation unit at Public Health-Seattle and King County, his local public-health authority. Independent of each other, the Krieger siblings have transformed that fixation into the leading edge of public-health theory and practice. Nancy’s hypotheses and methods are called, by many colleagues, the most brilliant contributions to social epidemiology in a generation. Jim’s on-the-ground innovations are the envy of local health departments across the country. Sister and brother have set a standard for what public health can and should be in the United States; both are trying to steer the profession back to its roots in social justice. That few beyond their respective fields have heard of the Kriegers says as much about their modesty as about the battered profile of public health in America.

alex mcquilkin: still fucked


More and more, 26-year-old Brooklyn-based Alex McQuilkin has come to embody Sylvia Plath’s valediction in Lady Lazarus, one of her final poems: “Dying is an art like anything else/I do it well/I do it so it feels like hell/I do it so it feels real/I guess you could say I have a call.”

Unlike Plath, literally dying is not in fact what McQuilkin is about. But in Plath’s tradition, she does make moving art out of the idea of death. In her DVDs and C-print stills, McQuilkin exposes the raw, tender ties between death, sex, desire and youth. Her work evokes an uncomfortable, undeniable blend of contempt and empathy, as her teenage protagonists (played by her) desperately flaunt their sexual desire, their desirability and their romantic wish for death. With roots in feminist theory, 1990s cultural criticism and popular culture, McQuilkin manages to produce work which avoids jargon and evades any purely intellectual reaction. Like Valie Export, Carolee Schneemann, Paul McCarthy and Sue de Beer, McQuilkin makes art that is like the strongest, sharpest parts of punk rock nailed through layers and layers of solid intellectual foundation.

more from artnet here.

zizek: liberal communists the true enemy


Since 2001, Davos and Porto Alegre have been the twin cities of globalisation: Davos, the exclusive Swiss resort where the global elite of managers, statesmen and media personalities meets for the World Economic Forum under heavy police protection, trying to convince us (and themselves) that globalisation is its own best remedy; Porto Alegre, the subtropical Brazilian city where the counter-elite of the anti-globalisation movement meets, trying to convince us (and themselves) that capitalist globalisation is not our inevitable fate – that, as the official slogan puts it, ‘another world is possible.’ It seems, however, that the Porto Alegre reunions have somehow lost their impetus – we have heard less and less about them over the past couple of years. Where did the bright stars of Porto Alegre go?

Some of them, at least, moved to Davos. The tone of the Davos meetings is now predominantly set by the group of entrepreneurs who ironically refer to themselves as ‘liberal communists’ and who no longer accept the opposition between Davos and Porto Alegre: their claim is that we can have the global capitalist cake (thrive as entrepreneurs) and eat it (endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social responsibility, ecological concern etc). There is no need for Porto Alegre: instead, Davos can become Porto Davos.

more from ther LRB here.

planet stockhausen

In 1967, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s face appeared on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – between Lenny Bruce and W. C. Fields. In September 2001 he achieved a different kind of immortality when Die Zeit quoted (or, he claims, misquoted) him as saying that the destruction of the World Trade Center was the “greatest work of art there has been”. The remark convinced many that the once-famous composer had long since jumped off the deep end; it also seemed to signal the end of what might be termed da Vincian vangardism – the grandiose claim by a composer to be prophet, inventor, scientist, philosopher and spiritual guide. Other Planets, Robin Maconie’s latest book about Stockhausen, reads, appropriately enough, like a cross between conventional musical history and The Da Vinci Code. In addition to laying out the facts about every work in Stockhausen’s large oeuvre, Maconie promises to reveal how a “latent philosophical agenda” in the music addresses “the historic aspirations of German nationalism, and more specifically a defense of the role of post-Enlightenment European culture in the wider world” and, beyond that, to show how serialism is part of a “grander aesthetic and intellectual enterprise, beginning in the late eighteenth century, concerning the nature and evolution of language and its implications for post-revolutionary democracy”. In place of Dan Brown’s Last Supper, Maconie hinges his mad dash through cultural history on Jean-François Champollion’s decoding of the Rosetta Stone; Olivier Messiaen had once compared the young Stockhausen to the French decrypter. Where Brown pits the Catholic Church against the Knights of the Temple, Maconie fashions his catalogue raisonné around an esoteric battle between Saussurean “lettrists” and Goethean holists.

more from the TLS here.

Future imperfect

Kazuo Ishiguro on how a radio discussion helped fill in the missing pieces of Never Let Me Go in The Guardian:

Neverletmego_2 The setting for the first section of Never Let Me Go is a boarding school, but let me say I never went to boarding school myself. Of course, I drew on my own memories of what it felt like to be a child and an adolescent. And I suppose it’s inevitable the experience of being a parent would inform the way I think about children. But I can’t think of any one scene in that school section based, even partly, on an actual event that ever happened to me or anyone I know. When I write about children, I do much the same as when I write about elderly people, or any other character who’s different from me in culture or experience. I try my best to think and feel as they would, then see where that takes me. I’ve never found that children present any special demands for me as a novelist. In fact, I find it alarmingly easy to think like an adolescent.

More here.

As Luck Would Have It

Michael Shremer in Scientific American:

Luck Clearly, luck is a state of mind. Is it more than that? To explore this question scientifically, experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman created a “luck lab” at the University of Hertfordshire in England. Wiseman began by testing whether those who believe they are lucky are actually more likely to win the lottery. He recruited 700 subjects who had intended to purchase lottery tickets to complete his luck questionnaire, which is a self-report scale that measures whether people consider themselves to be lucky or unlucky. Although lucky people were twice as confident as the unlucky ones that they would win the lottery, there was no difference in winnings.

More here.

miller time


The British people find it hard to cherish their philosophers. In France, the recent centenary of Jean-Paul Sartre was virtually a state event, with newspaper pull-outs bearing his toad-face and endless adulations. In the United States – a country we like to jeer at as ignorant – most people at least learn some lines of Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s at school. But here, the bicentenary of the birth of perhaps our greatest philosopher – John Stuart Mill – is passing in the night.

This is tragic, because Mill is our contemporary and our guide in a way that is true of very few philosophers. If you read his Collected Works after reading the day’s newspapers, it is as if he is an unimaginably brilliant columnist, commenting on yesterday, today and tomorrow.

more from The Philosopher’s Magazine here.

wegman and the damned dogs


On weekends, William Wegman’s “Funney/Strange” at the Brooklyn Museum becomes a playground for parents and children, most of whom have a grand time laughing at the posed pooches. No other artist today can pull that kind of crowd. (Calder came close, but usually just for his child-friendly “Calder’s Circus.”) As the art world knows, Wegman has created a significant body of work apart from his portraits of Weimaraners, notably paintings and human-only videos. But his dogs inevitably steal the show. The question that beguiles me is why they engender more than a passing smile. What makes them more than doggy kitsch? Something more than a jokey greeting card?

more from New York Magazine here.

art, beauty, kara walker


With all due respect to the legions who argue otherwise, it is totally bogus to claim that art is about beauty or that the two are even connected. Goya’s stupendous Saturn Devouring His Children isn’t beautiful, nor is Duchamp’s bottle rack, or Thomas Hirschhorn’s recent blood-and-modernism installation. Over time these works may alter definitions of beauty, but it’s an oversimplification to say that art and beauty are innately bound. It’s as empty, dogmatic, patronizing, misleading, and limiting as saying art is about sincerity, wonderment, or any other absolute value.

Keats was wrong: Beauty isn’t truth, or truth beauty. Saying art is about beauty is like saying “I’m for children.” Everyone loves beauty; Nazis loved beauty; Osama loves beauty. As painter Allison Taylor recently wrote, “Reducing art to beauty hides vacant thoughts; it can be used as propaganda, to decorate mini-mansions, and crowd out art that is harder to deal with.”

more from Salz at The Village Voice here.

Cultural Determinism and Democracy

Via Normblog, Amartya Sen on democracy and cultural determinism, in the WSJ.com’s Opinion Journal.

The belief in the allegedly “Western” nature of democracy is often linked to the early practice of voting and elections in Greece, especially in Athens. Democracy involves more than balloting, but even in the history of voting there would be a classificatory arbitrariness in defining civilizations in largely racial terms. …[T]there is reluctance in taking note of the Greek intellectual links with other civilizations to the east or south of Greece, despite the greater interest that the Greeks themselves showed in talking to Iranians, or Indians, or Egyptians (rather than in chatting up the Ostrogoths).

Since traditions of public reasoning can be found in nearly all countries, modern democracy can build on the dialogic part of the common human inheritance… [T]he history of Muslims includes a variety of traditions, not all of which are just religious or “Islamic” in any obvious sense. The work of Arab and Iranian mathematicians, from the eighth century onward reflects a largely nonreligious tradition. Depending on politics, which varied between one Muslim ruler and another, there is also quite a history of tolerance and of public discussion, on which the pursuit of a modern democracy can draw. For example, the emperor Saladin, who fought valiantly for Islam in the Crusades in the 12th century, could offer, without any contradiction, an honored place in his Egyptian royal court to Maimonides, as that distinguished Jewish philosopher fled an intolerant Europe. When, at the turn of the 16th century, the heretic Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Campo dei Fiori in Rome, the Great Mughal emperor Akbar (who was born a Muslim and died a Muslim) had just finished, in Agra, his large project of legally codifying minority rights, including religious freedom for all, along with championing regular discussions between followers of Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and other beliefs (including atheism).

Cultural dynamics does not have to build something from absolutely nothing, nor need the future be rigidly tied to majoritarian beliefs today or the power of the contemporary orthodoxy. To see Iranian dissidents who want a fully democratic Iran not as Iranian advocates but as “ambassadors of Western values” would be to add insult to injury, aside from neglecting parts of Iranian history (including the practice of democracy in Susa or Shushan in southwest Iran 2,000 years ago). The diversity of the human past and the freedoms of the contemporary world give us much more choice than cultural determinists acknowledge.

Scramble for WWII ‘Enigma’ encoding machine

From CNN:

StoryenigmaBidders in an Internet auction are offering more than 13,000 euros ($15,600) for a wartime German encoding machine, similar to ones whose messages were cracked by British code breakers in World War II.

The portable Enigma encryption machine made in 1941 has a keyboard and a series of rotors designed to scramble messages. It is up for sale on Internet auction site, eBay.

More here.

Divine Madness

Tony O’Brien in Metapsychology:

Why are so many creative people apparently crazy? Is mental illness, for some people, a doorway to creativity, something that unlocks latent genius that would otherwise lie dormant? Jeffrey A Kottler attempts to answer this question in Divine Madness, Ten Stories of Creative Struggle. The book presents ten case studies of well-known artists, using the term in a broad sense. They are all people who have pushed their creative talents to the limits. In most cases they finally lost the struggle, and died at their own hand or as a consequence of drug abuse. Their lives pose questions about creativity, about suffering, and about art. Finding answers is very much harder.

The individuals Kottler chooses to study are a mixed group of writers, visual artists, and performing artists. Their names are familiar: Plath, Woolf, Munroe, Garland, Nikinsky, Hemingway and others, a roll call of the famously mad.

More here.

At MoMA: Islamic Show Sans Politics

Tyler Green in the New York Observer:

040306_article_greenAs an Iranian-American artist who was effectively exiled from her homeland, Shirin Neshat was happy to be included in an exhibition of artists from the Islamic world.  But when the opportunity came—Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking opened at the Museum of Modern Art on Feb. 26—Ms. Neshat was upset.

Without Boundary is the most important exhibit MoMA has launched in at least a decade, and it’s the first exhibition of contemporary art from the Islamic world in a major American museum since 9/11. The show features 14 artists from Islamic countries, an Indian born to Muslim parents, and two Americans (Mike Kelley and Bill Viola were added late in the show’s development). Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey and Pakistan are represented in the exhibition, though nearly all of the artists from those countries now primarily work in the West. The exhibition is a reminder of the difficulties that museums face when it comes to merging—or not—art and politics.

“My immediate reaction was, how could anyone today discuss art made by contemporary Muslim artists and not speak about the role the subjects of religion and contemporary politics play in the artists’ minds?” Ms. Neshat said. “For some of us, our art is interconnected to the development of our personal lives, which have been controlled and defined by politics and governments. Some artists, including Marjane Satrapi and myself, are ‘exiled’ from our country because of the problematic and controversial nature of our work.”

More here.  [Shirin Neshat in photo.]

How poor is poor?

John Cassidy in The New Yorker:

In the summer of 1963, Mollie Orshansky, a forty-eight-year-old statistician at the Social Security Administration, in Washington, D.C., published an article in the Social Security Bulletin entitled “Children of the Poor.” “The wonders of science and technology applied to a generous endowment of natural resources have wrought a way of life our grandfathers never knew,” she wrote. “Creature comforts once the hallmark of luxury have descended to the realm of the commonplace, and the marvels of modern industry find their way into the home of the American worker as well as that of his boss. Yet there is an underlying disquietude reflected in our current social literature, an uncomfortable realization that an expanding economy has not brought gains to all in equal measure. It is reflected in the preoccupation with counting the poor—do they number 30 million, 40 million, or 50 million?”

Orshansky’s timing was propitious. In December of 1962, President John F. Kennedy had asked Walter Heller, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, to gather statistics on poverty. In early 1963, Heller gave the President a copy of a review by Dwight Macdonald, in The New Yorker, of Michael Harrington’s “The Other America: Poverty in the United States,” in which Harrington claimed that as many as fifty million Americans were living in penury.

The federal government had never attempted to count the poor, and Orshansky’s paper proposed an ingenious and straightforward way of doing so.

More here.

Considering “Closure”

Sparked by Dahlia Lithwick’s piece on the death penalty, Lindsay Beyerstein considers “closure”.

I am deeply suspicious of the concept of closure. The general public and policy-makers take it as an article of faith that there is something called closure that the criminal justice system can help provide. Even Dalia Lithwick takes it more or less for granted that closure is real. She just questions whether executions are the best way to help survivors achieve it.

Intuitively, we all know more or less what closure is supposed to be. At first grief is overwhelming and all-consuming, but eventually it fades enough for the bereaved person to get on with life. Closure has something to do with that transition.

Upon closer examination, the concept of closure turns out to be much more elusive that we might have supposed.

Closure might refer the emotional shift from acute grief to emotional healing. Alternatively, might to describe some psychological or practical prerequisites that must be in place in order for a person to transcend acute grief (e.g., time, insight, restitution…).

Does Globalization Help or Hurt the World’s Poor?

From Scientific American:World

Globalization and the attendant concerns about poverty and inequality have become a focus of discussion in a way that few other topics, except for international terrorism or global warming, have. Yet the strength of people’s conviction is often in inverse proportion to the amount of robust factual evidence they have.

As is common in contentious public debates, different people mean different things by the same word. Some interpret “globalization” to mean the global reach of communications technology and capital movements, some think of the outsourcing by domestic companies in rich countries, and others see globalization as a byword for corporate capitalism or American cultural and economic hegemony. So it is best to be clear at the outset of this article that I shall primarily refer to economic globalization–the expansion of foreign trade and investment. How does this process affect the wages, incomes and access to resources for the poorest people in the world?

More here.