The Greek Engineer Who Invented the Steam Engine 2,000 Years Ago

500x_3717157543_4c4fb93c79_zAlasdair Wilkins in io9:

Hero, or Heron, of Alexandria, on the other hand, had the astonishing bad taste to be born around 10 CE, which made his inventions so far ahead of their time that they could be of little practical use and, in time, were forgotten. If he had been born in, say, 1710, his engineering prowess and incredible creativity might have made him the richest person in the world. As it is, he'll just have to settle for the posthumous reputation of being the greatest inventor in human history. Seriously, unless you invent a warp drive tomorrow, there's no way you're catching up to Hero.

We know precious little about where Hero came from, and it's only in the last century that we actually became certain which century he lived in. The best guess is that he was an ethnic Greek born in Egypt in the early decades of the first century CE, one of the many people whose ancestors had emigrated from Greece after the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Hero probably taught at the Musaeum at Alexandria, an institution founded by the Greek rulers of Egypt – you can see an artist's conception of it above. The Musaeum was unlike anywhere else in the ancient Mediterranean, a gathering place for scholars and the sciences that would remain unique until the rise of universities centuries later.

But still, Hero doesn't really need a lengthy biography to explain why he's important – his inventions and theories do that quite well. His most famous achievement was a primitive steam engine, which was known as the aeolipile. Others before Hero had mentioned aeolipiles, but he was the first to actually describe in any sort of detail how to make one, and it's unclear whether his predecessors had actually been talking about the same device anyway.

RIP Daniel Bell, 1919-2011

BELL-obit-articleInline Michael Kaufman in the NYT:

Mr. Bell’s output was prodigious and his range enormous. His major lines of inquiry included the failures of socialism in America, the exhaustion of modern culture and the transformation of capitalism from an industrial-based system to one built on consumerism.

But there was room in his mind for plenty of digressions. He wrote about the changing structure of organized crime and even the growing popularity of gangsta rap among white, middle-class, suburban youth.

Two of Mr. Bell’s books, “The End of Ideology” (1960) and the “Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” (1978), were ranked among the 100 most influential books since World War II by The Times Literary Supplement in London. In titling “The End of Ideology” and another work, “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society” (1973), Mr. Bell coined terms that have entered common usage.

In “The End of Ideology” he contended — nearly three decades before the collapse of Communism — that ideologies that had once driven global politics were losing force and thus providing openings for newer galvanizing beliefs to gain toeholds. In “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society,” he foresaw the global spread of service-based economies as generators of capital and employment, supplanting those dominated by manufacturing or agriculture.

In Mr. Bell’s view, Western capitalism had come to rely on mass consumerism, acquisitiveness and widespread indebtedness, undermining the old Protestant ethic of thrift and modesty that writers like Max Weber and R.H. Tawney had long credited as the reasons for capitalism’s success.

He also predicted the rising importance of science-based industries and of new technical elites. Indeed, in 1967, he predicted something like the Internet, writing: “We will probably see a national information-computer-utility system, with tens of thousands of terminals in homes and offices ‘hooked’ into giant central computers providing library and information services, retail ordering and billing services, and the like.”

The Book of Destruction: Gaza – One year After the 2009 War

From The Guardian:

Gaza-007 When The Book of Destruction, Kai Wiedenhöfer's exhibition of photographs documenting the consequences of Israel's war against Gaza, opened at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris late last year, two men wearing ski masks and motorcycle helmets tried to storm the building to damage the exhibits. An umbrella group of Jewish organisations in France accused him of “virulently anti-Israel views”. Others on the internet charged him with “fanning the flames of antisemitism”.

The award-winning Wiedenhöfer, whose exhibition moves to London this week, is not unaccustomed to such charges and finds them ridiculous. They first emerged in 2005 during discussions with Berlin's municipal authorities for a project – which never saw the light of day – involving affixing giant prints of Israel's West Bank separation wall on to what remains of the Berlin Wall. During talks, a local politician informed him that the panoramic images in his book, Wall, which were to be used for the project, were “antisemitic photography“. “I asked him to define antisemitic photography,” says Wiedenhöfer. “He replied that I had pictures in the book that showed Israeli soldiers being violent against Palestinians.” Sitting in his bare Berlin apartment, Wiedenhöfer is suddenly animated and goes to fetch a copy from his bookshelf. “I know every picture in this book. There is not a single image of an Israeli laying a thumb on a Palestinian. So I said, 'Show me!'” Wiedenhöfer flicks through the pages. “This is the only image of violence in the whole book – it's an Israeli soldier removing Israeli peace protesters.”

More here.

How words get the message across

From Nature:

Words Longer words tend to carry more information, according to research by a team of cognitive scientists. It's a suggestion that might sound intuitively obvious, until you start to think about it. Why, then, the difference in length between 'now' and 'immediately'? For many years, linguists have tended to believe that the length of a word was associated with how often it was used, and that short words are used more frequently than long ones. This association was first proposed in the 1930s by the Harvard linguist George Kingsley Zipf1.

Zipf believed that the relationship between word length and frequency of use stemmed from an impulse to minimize the time and effort needed for speaking and writing, as it means we use more short words than long ones. But Steven Piantadosi and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge say that, to convey a given amount of information, it is more efficient to shorten the least informative — and therefore the most predictable — words, rather than the most frequent ones. Zipf's original association is roughly correct, as implied by how much more often 'a', 'the' and 'is' are used in English than, say, 'extraordinarily'. And this relationship of length to use seems to hold up in many languages. Because written and spoken length are generally similar, it applies to both speech and text.

More here.

How birds (and bird-watchers) compute the behavior of a flock on the wing

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

20101231556588250-2011-01HayesFA A thousand starlings rose in unison from trees along a riverbank. The ascending cloud of birds took the form of a teardrop, then transformed itself into a butterfly, then a twisting vortex narrowing to a sinuous, quivering rope of birds stretched across the twilight sky. The flock had all the synchronized precision of a marching band, but none of the rigid, rank-and-file geometry. Instead the movements were smooth, fluid, organic, as if the flock were a single organism rather than a collection of individuals. The show went on for 10 minutes, then the birds swooped low over my head with a breathy rush of wing beats and returned to the same row of trees—only to rise again moments later for another performance.

The graceful aerial displays of starlings and other flocking birds have long inspired admiration and wonder. Lately they have also inspired serious work in mathematics, computer science, physics and biology. A theoretical framework for explaining the behavior of tightly clustered flocks emerged in the 1980s. The key idea, which came from computer simulations, is that purely local interactions between nearby birds are enough to hold the group together. Similar mechanisms are thought to operate in schools of fish, herds of grazing animals, swarms of insects and even crowds of people.

More here.

What, exactly, did the Tucson shootings have to do with September 11?

Rochelle Gurstein in The New Republic:

Flag_0 Among the many thoughts I've had about the shooting of those unfortunate people who went to a supermarket on a Saturday morning to meet with their congresswoman, I've been stuck by how hard people have tried to create meaning out of the mayhem. For some observers, things as seemingly insignificant as a birth date—in this case, the birth date of a nine-year-old girl—feel heavy with significance, if only we knew how to interpret them. I, for one, was moved, though I did not know exactly why, when President Obama, in his Tucson memorial speech, solemnly reminded us, that “Christina was given to us on September 11, 2001.” What followed was an invocation of hope, but I couldn't help wondering why the president had chosen the prophetically resonant phrase, a child is given to us. Did he believe that this particular girl was given to us (by God?) as a compensation for all those who were lost on that miserable day? Was he somehow intimating that the date of her birth had destined her to a particular saving future? All the machinery for providential interpretation was in place, but to no avail. The most that President Obama could do was to observe—and it was widely remarked in the media—that for a nine-year-old child, Christina was unusually civic-minded and had recently been elected to her student council. Although he did not draw any connection between her birth date and her destiny, her mother did explicitly though in a more quotidian manner when she told news organizations that “she was very interested in politics since she was a little girl. I think that being born on 9/11 had a lot to do with that.”

More here.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

Janet Maslin in the New York Times:

ArticleInline Of all the artists who shaped Ms. Smith’s persona, Mr. Dylan is arguably the one she worshiped most. She describes the 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud, another of her heroes, as looking like the 20th-century Mr. Dylan, rather than seeing things the other way around. So it makes perfect sense for her to use a memoirist’s sleight of hand, as Mr. Dylan did, to recapture an eager, fervent and wondrously malleable young spirit. It also makes sense for her to cast off all verbal affectation and write in a strong, true voice unencumbered by the polarizing mannerisms of her poetry. This Patti Smith, like the one in Steven Sebring’s haunting 2008 documentary “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” is a newly mesmerizing figure, not quite the one her die-hard fans used to know.

In “Just Kids” Ms. Smith writes of becoming pregnant at 19 (“I was humbled by nature”) in New Jersey, giving up her baby and heading to New York for a fresh start. Describing herself as “I, the country mouse,” she writes of heading to Brooklyn to visit friends and discovering that those friends had moved away.

In a back bedroom of their former apartment she encountered Mapplethorpe for the first time: “a sleeping youth cloaked in light,” a beautiful young man who resembled a hippie shepherd at a time when Ms. Smith had been contemptuously described as looking like “Dracula’s daughter.”

Thus fate introduced Ms. Smith and Mapplethorpe, who would become roommates, soul mates, friends, lovers and muses. Strictly speaking they were never starving artists in a garret, but the romanticism and mythmaking of “Just Kids,” and their tenancy in the tiniest room at the Chelsea Hotel, brings them pretty close to that ideal.

More here.

Sam Kean



Sam Kean grew up in South Dakota, which means more to him than it probably should. He went to college in Minnesota, studied physics, taught for a few years, tried to move to Spain (it didn’t take), and ended up in Washington, D.C. His book, The Disappearing Spoon: And other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements is available from Little, Brown in July 2010.

Email: samkean [at]

List of writings at 3QD, in reverse chronological order:

  • Blah blah…
  • Blah

Jen Paton



California born Jen Paton is currently studying Global Media and Post-national Communication at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She holds a BA in History from Yale University, where she wrote about representations of cannibalism during the first crusade. Her interests include historiography, political communication, and popular history – especially where the three intersect. She also volunteers for

Email: jenpaton [at]

List of writings at 3QD, in reverse chronological order:

  • Blah
  • Blah

The Don of Delhi

Article00 Karan Mahajan in Bookforum:

The writer William Dalrymple lives in a farmhouse on the outskirts of New Delhi with his wife, their three children, four incestuous goats, a cockatiel, and the usual entourage of servants that attends any successful man in India's capital city. The previous resident of the house, a British journalist, was driven from the country by death threats after he published an article in Time magazine outing the previous Indian prime minister's bladder problems and habit of nodding off during meetings. Dalrymple is also British—Scottish, to be exact—but his controversial statements are more likely to concern the country's Mughal or British past. He is today India's most famous narrative historian.

A number of modern British writers—including Geoff Dyer, Patrick French, and the late Bruce Chatwin—have been fascinated by the land that their ancestors once ruled, but Dalrymple is unique, in the past twenty years, for how rigorously he has pursued that fascination, writing one brilliant travel book (City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi), two vivid histories (White Mughals and The Last Mughal), and one anthology of acute journalism (The Age of Kali) about South Asia. He came to India before it had achieved its status as a frontier boomland for computer programmers and writers alike, and he has lived there, on and off, since 1989. As a result, at the age of forty-five, he has become something of a godfather to a generation of writers who are producing nonfiction about the country. The fact that Dalrymple looks like a sunnier version of the actor James Gandolfini and loves to party no doubt helps with this reputation.

Dalrymple is also an important example of what a foreigner can bring to the table at a time when more and more of the writing about India is being produced by Indians themselves—which is to say: an unabashed eye for the exotic. This is not backhanded praise. India's best nonfiction writers are understandably taken up with the messiness and seaminess of the present, while readers find themselves cut off from religious and ethnic traditions by the distractions of big cities. Dalrymple has stepped into this void and punched out riveting, accessible histories of the Mughal era and studies of disappearing mystical practices. His fluent and moving presentations of big subjects—India's first war of independence in The Last Mughal (2006), for example—sometimes irritate native historians who feel they have been scooped by a powerful foreign interest, but this is a little unfair: There is only one Dalrymple, and there are many Indians. Instead of capitalizing on their native credibility, Indian historians have either lost themselves in a thicket of doublespeak about subalterns or have taken one look at the publishing industry in India, which pays handsomely for Booker Prize–nominated novels and zilch for popular histories, and given up on trying to communicate with the general public (Ramachandra Guha and Gurcharan Das remain exceptions). Dalrymple's success has shown that there is a market for well-written history in India. This is itself an achievement.

Mugged by Reality? Or a Right Wing Lenin?

1295884968kristol_012411_380px Adam Kirsch on Irving Kristol in The Tablet:

It was a little disingenuous for Kristol to deny that there is such a thing as a neoconservative foreign policy. After all, one of the eight sections of The Neoconservative Persuasion is titled “Foreign Policy and Ideology.” All but one of the essays in that group, however, were written during the Cold War, and it is fair to say that if neoconservatism—or Kristol himself—had a diplomatic philosophy, it was one totally shaped by America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union, with only limited application to the post-Cold War world.

Essentially, Kristol believed that America’s struggle with the USSR was the criterion by which everything else had to be judged. Anything that could hurt the United States or benefit the USSR was wrong, no matter how right it might seem on the surface. Perhaps the most uncompromising essay in the book is “ ‘Human Rights’: The Hidden Agenda,” in which Kristol totally rejects the idea of making human rights an American foreign-policy priority, as Jimmy Carter had done. His reason is that, if regimes are judged by human rights standards alone, many American allies—he is thinking particularly of right-wing regimes in South America—would come out quite badly. Rather than pick our alliances based on moral purity, Kristol writes, America should look to the differences between “authoritarian governments” and “totalitarian regimes.” The first—like, say, Pinochet’s Chile—may eventually evolve into democracies, and they pose no threat to America. The latter, like the Soviet Union, are inherently dangerous and must be opposed at all costs.

It’s true, Kristol acknowledges, that a torture victim in Chile has suffered just as much as a torture victim in Russia. But, he writes, “the perspective of the victim, whether in war or peace, is the stuff of which poetry (or perhaps theology) is made, not politics, and certainly not foreign policy.” This is probably the single sentence in The Neoconservative Persuasion that best captures Kristol’s entire worldview. Concern for victims—of war, of torture, of poverty, and of racism—is all well and good, but finally Kristol regards it as sentimentality. What really matters is power, and it would be suicidal for Americans to give up power in the name of sentiment.

What Is a Good Life?

Dworkin_1-021011_jpg_470x392_q85 Ronald Dworkin in the NYRB:

Plato and Aristotle treated morality as a genre of interpretation. They tried to show the true character of each of the main moral and political virtues (such as honor, civic responsibility, and justice), first by relating each to the others, and then to the broad ethical ideals their translators summarize as personal “happiness.” Here I use the terms “ethical” and “moral” in what might seem a special way. Moral standards prescribe how we ought to treat others; ethical standards, how we ought to live ourselves. The happiness that Plato and Aristotle evoked was to be achieved by living ethically; and this meant living according to independent moral principles.

We can—many people do—use either “ethical” or “moral” or both in a broader sense that erases this distinction, so that morality includes what I call ethics, and vice versa. But we would then have to recognize the distinction I draw in some other form in order to ask whether our ethical desire to lead good lives for ourselves provides a justifying moral reason for our concern with what we owe to others. Any of these different forms of expression would allow us to pursue the interesting idea that moral principles should be interpreted so that being moral makes us happy in the sense Plato and Aristotle meant.

In my book Justice for Hedgehogs—from which this essay is adapted—I try to pursue that interpretive project. We aim to find some ethical standard—some conception of what it is to live well—that will guide us in our interpretation of moral concepts. But there is an apparent obstacle. This strategy seems to suppose that we should understand our moral responsibilities in whatever way is best for us, but that goal seems contrary to the spirit of morality, because morality should not depend on any benefit that being moral might bring. We might try to meet this objection through a familiar philosophical distinction: we might distinguish between the content of moral principles, which must be categorical, and the justification of those principles, which might consistently appeal to the long-term interests of people bound by those principles.

A British Muslim who would rather talk

From The Telegraph:

Britmuslims_1809608c The endless complaints about “Islamophobia” (a word which was invented in the 1990s to serve this end) are a way of shutting down a dialogue that needs to take place just as surely as are attacks by bigoted anti-Muslims. So I find it most interesting to hear the different tone of voice in which Atif Imtiaz speaks. He is a youngish community activist from Bradford, and now works as academic director at the Cambridge Muslim College. This book is a collection of his essays and short stories ordered round the question of what the author calls “the Muslim condition in the West”. It is not Imtiaz’s political views that are striking. He takes conventional, if moderately expressed, positions against the Iraq war, George Bush, Tony Blair and so on. What is different is his desire for genuine discussion – I first heard of him, indeed, when he emailed me, wanting to talk. British Muslims are bad at this, he says, partly because the most able ones tend to be trained in the sciences rather than the humanities. They become doctors or accountants, and do good service to British society in the process but “we [he includes himself in this] remain culturally delinquent and are unable to recognise the subtleties required for the art of persuasion”.

“We jump to condemnations,” writes Imtiaz, but “the English…like to be understated, and in many cases it is worse to be inappropriate than wrong”. That is well put. He also observes – which sounds contradictory, but isn’t – that there is “a tradition within the English culture of argumentation that seeks to offend – to see how the opposing person will respond. They may not mean what they say, they may simply be testing the robustness of our positions.” Muslims, he goes on, should learn these codes: “… those who are familiar… with poetry or literature such as Wordsworth or Dickens seem to me better able to understand the nuances and subtleties of polite conversation that lies at the heart of the British character”. Instead of speaking the “language of rights” all the time, it is better to find “a language of human sympathy”.

More here.

More to a Smile Than Lips and Teeth

Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:

Smile-popup In the middle of a phone call four years ago, Paula Niedenthal began to wonder what it really means to smile. The call came from a Russian reporter, who was interviewing Dr. Niedenthal about her research on facial expressions. “At the end he said, ‘So you are American?’ ” Dr. Niedenthal recalled. Indeed, she is, although she was then living in France, where she had taken a post at Blaise Pascal University. “So you know,” the Russian reporter informed her, “that American smiles are all false, and French smiles are all true.”

“Wow, it’s so interesting that you say that,” Dr. Niedenthal said diplomatically. Meanwhile, she was imagining what it would have been like to spend most of her life surrounded by fake smiles. “I suddenly became interested in how people make these kinds of errors,” Dr. Niedenthal said. But finding the source of the error would require knowing what smiles really are — where they come from and how people process them. And despite the fact that smiling is one of the most common things that we humans do, Dr. Niedenthal found science’s explanation for it to be weak. “I think it’s pretty messed up,” she said. “I think we don’t know very much, actually, and it’s something I want to take on.”

More here.

Tony Judt: The Distinctions

Thomas Nagel in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_02 Jan. 25 09.46 The title of The Memory Chalet refers to its method of composition. Locked inside a body made inert by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and faced with his shrinking future and approaching death, Tony Judt decided to revisit his past. Physically unable to write, but with a mind as sharp and active as ever, he plotted the twenty-five short essays that compose this book in his head, while he was alone at night, using a mnemonic device taken from accounts of the early modern “memory palace,” whereby elements of a narrative are associated with points in a visually remembered space; but instead of a palace, he used a small Swiss chalet that he had once stayed in on vacation as a boy, and that he could picture vividly and in detail. He was then able to dictate these feuilletons the next day from the resulting structure. All but four of them were originally published as separate pieces in The New York Review, but their impact is much enhanced as a single book, a book that is at once memoir, self-portrait, and credo.

Judt says that ALS is in both senses an incommunicable disease, yet his articulacy in describing the condition almost makes you think you can understand what it is like to be helpless in this way:

Having no use of my arms, I cannot scratch an itch, adjust my spectacles, remove food particles from my teeth, or anything else that—as a moment’s reflection will confirm—we all do dozens of times a day.

It is not as though you lose the desire to stretch, to bend, to stand or lie or run or even exercise. But when the urge comes over you there is nothing—nothing—that you can do except seek some tiny substitute or else find a way to suppress the thought and the accompanying muscle memory.

Ask yourself how often you move in the night. I don’t mean change location altogether…merely how often you shift a hand, a foot; how frequently you scratch assorted body parts before dropping off; how unselfconsciously you alter position very slightly to find the most comfortable one. Imagine for a moment that you had been obliged instead to lie absolutely motionless on your back…for seven unbroken hours and constrained to come up with ways to render this Calvary tolerable not just for one night but for the rest of your life.

But he believes that the deeper experience of isolation and imprisonment cannot be conveyed; he feels as out of reach of the imagination of others as Kafka’s Gregor Samsa.

More here.

Breathtaking Breakthroughs in the Theory of Partitions

Carol Clark at the Emory University blog eScienceCommons:

ScreenHunter_01 Jan. 25 09.40 On the surface, partition numbers seem like mathematical child’s play. A partition of a number is a sequence of positive integers that add up to that number. For example, 4 = 3+1 = 2+2 = 2+1+1 = 1+1+1+1. So we say there are 5 partitions of the number 4.

It sounds simple, and yet the partition numbers grow at an incredible rate. The amount of partitions for the number 10 is 42. For the number 100, the partitions explode to more than 190,000,000.

“Partition numbers are a crazy sequence of integers which race rapidly off to infinity,” Ono says. “This provocative sequence evokes wonder, and has long fascinated mathematicians.”

By definition, partition numbers are tantalizingly simple. But until the breakthroughs by Ono’s team, no one was unable to unlock the secret of the complex pattern underlying this rapid growth.

More here.