Semifinalists for the 3QD Science Prize 2009


The voting round of our prize (details here) is over. A total of 2,655 votes were cast for the 171 nominees (click here for full list of nominees). Thanks to the nominators and the voters for participating.

Carla Goller, a South Tyrolean graphic artist, has designed a “trophy” logo that our top twenty vote-getters may choose to display on their own blogs. So here they are, in descending order from the most voted-for:

  1. TOP-Quark1-160-gelb The Science Babe: The Physics of High Heels
  2. My Genes and Me: Journey to My Genes
  3. Southern Fried Science: The ecological disaster that is dolphin safe tuna
  4. In The Pipeline: Your Paper Is A Sack Of Raving Nonsense. Thank You.
  5. 3 Quarks Daily: Giambattista Della Porta of Naples: How to Turn a Woman Green
  6. Daylight Atheism: The Age of Wonder
  7. Dot Physics: Physics of Fantastic Contraption I
  8. Mauka to Makai: The Ocean's Big pHat Problem
  9. Cocktail Party Physics: The Universe Makes A Lotta Gas
  10. Unitary Flow: Smooth Quantum Mechanics
  11. The Primate Diaries: Male Chauvinist Chimps or the Meat Market of Public Opinion?
  12. Mauka to Makai: Baby-Making
  13. Tom Paine’s Ghost: Dr. Temple Grandin
  14. In The Pipeline: Things I Won’t Work With: Triazadienyl Fluoride
  15. The Intersection: Singled Out
  16. Expression Patterns: A Squishy Topic
  17. Observations of a Nerd: The End of the Age of Man?
  18. Tetrapod Zoology: Passerine birds fight dirty, a la Velociraptor
  19. Daylight Atheism: Bands of Iron
  20. Observations of a Nerd: A Marine Biologist’s Story

We'll announce the seven finalists on June 11.

Good luck!


In Obama’s Short Address to Iranians, A Smart Act of Foreign Policy

By Siavash Habibi

President Barack Obama's recent speech in Cairo attracted a lot of attention. But an earlier, much shorter message he delivered to Iranians also deserves serious consideration. On March 20, 2009, Mr. Obama congratulated the Iranian people on the Persian New Year with a video address, less than four minutes in length, that rapidly spread on the internet. The gesture represented a new policy spirit toward Iran — a spirit of diplomacy that has been widely expected of him since his campaign days. The Nowruz speech represented the unclenching of the American fist and a congratulation of the New Year, but it also indicated a less obvious policy strategy.

During his campaign, Mr. Obama emphasized the “worthwhile” benefits of diplomacy. Thus, he contrasted himself against President Bush's more aggressive approach to foreign policy. Mr. Obama's Nowruz speech demonstrated follow-through on his campaign promise and showed consistency in his approach of using diplomacy first.

This was important, because Mr. Obama not only established some credibility at home and abroad, but he also completed some of the hard preparation for potentially more aggressive actions against Iran in the future. For if Iran rejects the President's diplomatic gestures, then the United States will have cleared the way for more violent measures, perhaps with the backing of international allies. Military actions will appear more legitimate when President Obama already explored his diplomatic options and proceeded only after they failed.

But this begs the question: Why would the Iranian leaders reject President Obama's gestures?

Read more »

An Essay on an Essay on the Polish Soul

Krzysztof Kotarski

First, a note about me.

I am an outsider in the country of my birth.

I am too happy, too trusting, too Canadian. I walk into a shop and expect the shopkeeper to smile. I expect bureaucrats to help me when I seek official documents, and when presented with an idea, I think “why not?” instead of “why?”

For a long time, I chalked this up to personality. I tend to be excessively optimistic at times, and although I always laugh that “I am educated enough to be cynical,” I am cynical when confronting the realm of ideas, but naïve to a fault when confronting the realm of man.

My Polish family and acquaintances have always told me that my behaviour and worldview were deeply rooted in Canada, that although I could speak the language and read the books, I was too foreign in my temperament to fit in in my native Warsaw. After a while, I came to believe this. After all, in some matters, Canada and Poland sit on the opposite ends of the same axis, with Canada’s broad open spaces, easy smiles and obsessive deference to the law contrasting starkly with Poland’s confining apartments, sulking functionaries and a citizenry that dislikes and distrusts the state.

Yet, sometime over the past five years, I came to discover that things are not always so black and white. I began to notice a dark and cynical current that runs through Canada’s continuing struggles with collective identity, and I began to rethink my view of Poland as a place where cynicism triumphs en masse.

The 1980s, the decade of Solidarność, was my first in this world.
I was born in 1981, a few months before martial law was declared, so for as long as I can remember, everything around me was always on an upward trajectory.

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Tarnation (2003): Add it to your Netflix queue today

by Olivia Scheck

When Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell began casting his follow up film, Shortbus, members of the gay dramarati flocked. Hoping to set himself apart from the crowd, Jonathan Caouette supplemented his headshot and resume with a gritty montage of dramatic clips, including a drag impersonation of his mother (performed when he was only fifteen, inspired by Lindsay Wagner in The Bionic Woman) and naked footage of himself with boyfriend, David. While this unorthodox film reel did not land Caouette a role in Mitchell’s film, it did earn him several meetings with the director. “We both knew I wasn’t right for the part, but he kept calling me back to meet with him,” Caouette explained in a Q and A at Yale University in 2006. What caught Mitchell’s eye was Caouette’s unique style of editing – a whirlwind of picture and sound, oscillating between the serenity of suburban life and the cacophony of fucked up circumstances that underlie it. Moreover, Mitchell was amazed by the electronic archive that Caouette had compiled throughout his life – everything from B-horror films he made with friends at age 11 to super-8 footage of his delusional grandmother and old voicemail recordings. Unsure of what else to do with it, Mitchell began screening the reel obsessively to friends and colleagues.

Simultaneously, at his Brooklyn apartment, Caouette was busily collaging together recordings of his life to songs by Nick Drake. He was doing this at the prompting of friends who had seen the original montage and with the goal of submitting it to the MIX Film Festival for experimental films by gay directors. The hitch was that the deadline was only two weeks away, and his editing software was a copy of imovie that came with his computer. So, Caouette took leave from his night job as a doorman and embarked on a caffeine binge to compress his life and more than twenty years of footage into a feature film. It would end up taking only three and a half weeks.

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Monday Poem

Odder Still
Jim Culleny

As odd as it is that a moon comes up
behind the inelegant tree behind our house
over the dark mountain, grey-white
and silver-dollar like –a night eye
crying silver– it’s odder still to think
of a moon that never was

As odd as spring seems, fresh and green
as the crisp salad before the salmon fillet,
as odd as the salmon fillet itself seems,
pink upon my plate, it’s odder still
to think, no salmon, and spring
never was
As odd as I live and breathe this night air
cool as a cucumber into my lungs
with a vague taste of pine and
something else, maybe a wood fire
ablaze in a stove down the valley; as odd
as pine and burning wood seems, it’s
odder still to think otherwise, now,
standing upon two feet and good legs
and all the electricity I need to be
sparking, snapping, seeing
—that seems odder still to me

The Capitalist Manifesto — How to Modernize Capitalism from Feudalism to Democracy

by Evert Cilliers

There is a specter haunting the planet. It is the specter of the failure of Western capitalism.

All that is solid — jobs, homes, retirement savings — melts into air. Our cock-a-hoop capitalism is staring into a pesky abyss which is either Lacan's mirror or the funky Weltschmerz of its own rectum.

Yet far away in communist China, capitalism is alive and well — maybe because China is not a democracy.

In Western democracies, capitalism is in crisis — maybe because capitalism is not democratic.

The fact is that capitalism is a feudal system, which therefore works well in a feudal society like China.

But in modern, highly evolved democracies, capitalism is a handicap.

Why? Democracy has evolved, but capitalism hasn't. It's essentially unchanged from its 18th century origins. Capitalism is so feudal, it's almost medieval. It requires a subservience from its minions that hints at slavery, serfdom, or peonage. It grants its captains of industry the freedom to lord it over everyone else like banana-republic dictators or command-economy Kremlin bosses. It booms and busts with the fervor of a yo-yo being yanked by a spastic on steroids. Every so often it poops itself like a toddler sans toilet training, and sits there bawling in its own excreta until the state steps in to clean its unruly bottom.

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What’s Wrong with “Dixie”

Ice cream truck One day back when I was living in Minneapolis, an ice-cream truck came trolling down our tree-lined street. Despite the dearth of children in the neighborhood, the squat beige van came not infrequently, usually tooting something innocuous like “Pop Goes the Weasel” to rally a small crowd. One blistering afternoon it started whistling a different song, no less bouncy but with a tad darker history. Without my wanting it to, the whose first verse played in my memory.

My roommates went bounding down the steps when they heard the tune. They saw the look on my face. “Didn’t you hear the ice cream truck?” they asked.

“Yeah. Didn’t you?”

“What did you mean?”

“Didn’t you recognize the song they were playing?” I hummed. Nothing.

The incident sort of fell out of my mind until a few weeks ago, when two consecutive buses came roaring down the street in front of my DC apartment. After months of construction the street looks a little like some of the harder-hit patches of Dresden after World War II, and there are plenty of metal plates and potholes to crash into. With the buses’ squeaky brakes and clattering mufflers they raised quite a racket. A whole string of car alarms went off in the buses’ wake, like windows exploding. It was a too familiar happening around here, and I was seething over the five-movement symphony-alarm from the grey minivan with the Maryland plates (again!)—when suddenly, beneath it, came rising up the same tinny ice-cream truck song from a decade earlier. No words, just electric synth sound.


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Talkin’ Gibbon in the Hypercloud

Gibbon by David Schneider

If you're asked, “So, what are you reading these days?” do not under any circumstances reply The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Unless, of course, you intend to frighten off acquaintances, old friends, petrified Republicans, pie-eyed Democrats, overstaying guests, job interviewers, potential lovers– heck, just about anyone. Trust me. In this age of Life, Inc., in that mumbled admission you instantly brand yourself: prolix, patrician, and pessimistic. (Yeah, names don't hurt me, but ouch.)

Look, blame Battlestar Galactica for my parade of pedantry. You might remember–– a while back I was thinking about that sci-fi epic as “Romans: Remixed,” so – as part of my new venture, Reading Books So You Don't Have To, Unlimited – I decided to check out the original track recorded by Gibbon. (Decline and Fall must have sounded pretty interesting when it premiered, in London, in 1776.)

I regret to report that, as a literary work of art, it has a few significant defects.

Read more »

Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism

William Deresiewicz in The Nation:

The appeal of evolutionary psychology is easy to grasp. Just think of Annie Hall. The last few decades have left us so profoundly disoriented about the most urgent personal matters–gender roles, sexual norms, the possibility of creating lasting romantic relationships, not to mention absolutely everything to do with family structure–that it's no surprise to find people embracing a theory that promises to restore order. Once we had religion to tell us who we are. Then, for a while, we had Freud. Now we have evolutionary psychology, which, as an attempt to construct a science of human nature on Darwinian principles, marshals two of the most powerful ideas in contemporary culture: science, our most authoritative way of knowing, and nature, our highest ground of moral appeal. No wonder the field is catnip to journalists and armchair theorists alike. Equip yourself with a few basic concepts–natural selection, inclusive fitness, mating choice–and you, too, can explain the mysteries of human existence. That evolutionary psychology has no real intellectual credibility, that mainstream biology regards it as a house of sand, rarely seems to come up. EP is the Malcolm Gladwell of science: facile and glib, but so persuasive and charming that no one wants to ruin the fun.

To be fair, the problem lies less in the field's goals than in its claims. Much of its opposition is misguided and out-of-date. For a long time, evolutionary approaches to human behavior were discredited by the specter of Social Darwinism. More recently, the concept of a unitary human nature has been condemned as a form of bourgeois universalism–that is, of disguised ethnocentrism. But those who reject the notion of human psychology as a product of evolution (that is, of nature rather than culture) would undoubtedly recoil at the idea that human physiology is not a product of evolution. The only alternative is creationism. And if our bodies have evolved, then so have our minds, which a materialist philosophy (one that doesn't depend on supernatural entities like the Christian soul) must regard as products of our bodies–of our brains, nerves, sense organs and so forth. Surely no one would dispute that there is a universal bee nature or dog nature or chimpanzee nature. Why not then acknowledge, at least in principle, a universal human nature, however various its elaborations in culture?

kirn con


“Making money,” writes Kirn, “didn’t interest me. While my classmates signed up for on-campus ‘face-to-faces’ with Wall Street investment firms … I scanned the horizon for another test to take, another contest to compete in. … For me, wealth and power were trivial by-products in the great generational tournament of aptitude. The ranking itself was the essential prize.” Here, we see, the young Kirn was a romantic. But I doubt he was quite the deranged romantic the old Kirn makes him out to be. His telling of the tale of his cynicism is more cynical than the cynicism it describes. At Princeton, he was an approval-seeking, and approval-deprived poet and playwright who at times suffered a debilitating drug habit. He got laid, it seems to me, a fair amount. He read W. B. Yeats and John Berryman and wrote plays with titles like Soft White Kids in Leather (which, by the way, was later staged at the Edinburgh Festival). Though the son of a lawyer, he was too often a poor boy in a rich man’s house. A frank memoir about this experience, one undetermined by the publishing trends of the moment, might have been funny, even—when young Kirn hits bottom—moving. But this market-tuned book, fastened to a social problem about which its author has little of substance to say, and sweetened with just enough Hollywood-style titillation, seems destined to be made into one of those movies that nobody sees. No matter. Kirn has already cashed out. The con is complete.

more from Christian Lorentzen at n+1 here.

Abortion and the Architecture of Reality

Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance:

ScreenHunter_12 Jun. 07 14.08 If someone believes that abortion really is murder, talk of the reproductive freedom of the mother isn’t going to carry much weight — nobody has the right to murder another person. Supporters of abortion rights don’t say “No, this is one case where murder is completely justified.” Rather, they say “No, the fetus is not a person, so abortion is not murder.” The crucial question (I know, this is not exactly an astonishing new insight) is whether a fetus is really a person.

I have nothing original to add to the debate over when “personhood” begins. But there is something to say about how we decide questions like that. And it takes us directly back to the previous discussion about marriage and fundamental physics. The upshot of which is: how you think about the universe, how you conceptualize the natural world around us, obviously is going to have an enormous impact on how you decide questions like “When does personhood begin?”

In a pre-scientific world, life was — quite understandably — thought of as something intrinsically different from non-life. This view could be taken to different extremes; Plato gave voice to one popular tradition, by claiming that the human soul was a distinct, incorporeal entity that actually occupied a human body. These days we know a lot more than they did back then.

More here.

The Learjet repo man

Marc Weingarten in Salon:

ScreenHunter_11 Jun. 07 13.50 It was snowing hard when the bank called Nick Popovich. They needed to grab a Gulfstream in South Carolina now. Not tomorrow. Tonight.

All commercial and private planes were grounded, but Nick Popovich wasn't one to turn down a job. So he waited for the storm to clear long enough to charter a Hawker jet from Chicago into South Carolina. There was just one detail: No one had told Popovich about the heavily armed white supremacist militia that would be guarding the aircraft when he arrived.

But then again, no one had told the militia about Popovich, a brawny and intimidating man who has been jailed and shot at and has faced down more angry men than a prison warden. When Popovich and two of his colleagues arrived that evening at a South Carolina airfield, they were met by a bunch of nasty-looking thugs with cocked shotguns. “They had someone in the parking lot with binoculars,” Popovich says, recalling the incident. “When we went to grab the plane, one of them came out with his weapon drawn and tells us we better get out of there.” Undeterred, Popovich continued toward the plane until he felt a gun resting on his temple.

More here.

Sunday Poem

My Voice gets Black Quiet & I want to Fly
Jim Bell

I’m so tired
of these brown
over my
like buddha
with bumps
no more corn
no more pole
no more
irish eyes
at 1950’s

for a mother’s
face to touch
& love
& bring back

a father’s
to bottle
& send
to his mother’s
buried ground

& the sound
of your lovely
naked voice
me screaming
at the edge
of an ocean
I want to grow
old & die in

from: Crossing the Bar; poems by Jim Bell
Slate Roof Publishing, Northfield, MA ,2005

The day pain died

From The Boston Globe:

Paininside__1244303493_5974 The date of the first operation under anesthetic, Oct. 16, 1846, ranks among the most iconic in the history of medicine. It was the moment when Boston, and indeed the United States, first emerged as a world-class center of medical innovation. The room at the heart of Massachusetts General Hospital where the operation took place has been known ever since as the Ether Dome, and the word “anesthesia” itself was coined by the Boston physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes to denote the strange new state of suspended consciousness that the city's physicians had witnessed. The news from Boston swept around the world, and it was recognized within weeks as a moment that had changed medicine forever.

More here.

Telling the Tale

Paul Berman in The New York Times:

Cover-500 The single most thrilling event in Gabriel García Márquez’s life, judging from the biography by Gerald Martin, took place in February 1950, when the novelist, who was 22 and not yet a novelist, though he was already trying to be, accompanied his mother to the backwoods town where he had spent his early childhood. This was a place called Aracataca, in the “banana zone” of northern Colombia. His grandfather’s house was there, and his mother had decided to sell it.

García Márquez himself has described this trip in his autobiography, “Living to Tell the Tale.” But Martin supplies, as it were, the fact-checked version — a product of the 17 years of research that went into “Gabriel García Márquez: A Life,” together with the benedictions of the novelist himself, who has loftily observed, “Oh well, I suppose every self-respecting writer should have an English biographer.” In “Living to Tell the Tale,” García Márquez says that, upon arriving at Aracataca, he entered the house and inspected the rooms. The English biographer, by contrast, observes that García Márquez has also said he never entered. Either way, he saw the house. Childhood vistas presented themselves, and vistas prompted thoughts.

More here.

3 Quarks Daily 2009 Science Prize Voting Round Now Open

The Quark


Dear Reader,

In case you didn't see it the first time it was posted, you can click here to see the prize announcement which has all the details.

If you'd like to check out the final list of nominees (with links to the posts) for the prize, click here.

When you are ready to vote, click here. Remember, voting ends at midnight on June 8, 2009.

Thanks for participating in our contest, and best of luck to the nominees!