The Physics of Flamingos

Ethan Siegel in Starts With A Bang!:

ScreenHunter_350 Oct. 06 12.19The long legs and long necks work in tandem, and it’s easy to see why evolution would favor these traits in flamingos: the longer their legs and necks are, the deeper the waters they can reliably feed in. If shallow-water food becomes scarce, it’s the long-legged-and-necked flamingos that survive.

But what’s the deal with the standing on one leg? Flamingos spend a lot of their time in the water, and whenever they’re there and not actively feeding, you can find them standing on just one leg, something that they even sometimes do when they’re on dry land.

Why on Earth would it be advantageous for a flamingo to stand on one leg instead of two?

Because physics, that’s why!

And it’s physics that anyone who’s ever been in the pool on a hot summer’s day will understand all too well.

More here.

The U.S. government deployed nonhuman operatives: ravens, pigeons, even cats, to spy on cold war adversaries

Tom Vanderbilt in Smithsonian Magazine:

ScreenHunter_348 Oct. 06 12.07There would be a rustle of oily black feathers as a raven settled on the window ledge of a once-grand apartment building in some Eastern European capital. The bird would pace across the ledge a few times but quickly depart. In an apartment on the other side of the window, no one would shift his attention from the briefing papers or the chilled vodka set out on a table. Nor would anything seem amiss in the jagged piece of gray slate resting on the ledge, seemingly jetsam from the roof of an old and unloved building. Those in the apartment might be dismayed to learn, however, that the slate had come not from the roof but from a technical laboratory at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In a small cavity at the slate’s center was an electronic transmitter powerful enough to pick up their conversation. The raven that transported it to the ledge was no random city bird, but a U.S.-trained intelligence asset.

Half a world away from the murk of the cold war, it would be a typical day at the I.Q. Zoo, one of the touristic palaces that dotted the streets of Hot Springs, Arkansas, in the 1960s. With their vacationing parents inca tow, children would squeal as they watched chickens play baseball, macaws ride bicycles, ducks drumming and pigs pawing at pianos. You would find much the same in any number of mom-and-pop theme parks or on television variety shows of the era. But chances are that if an animal had been trained to do something whimsically human, the animal—or the technique—came from Hot Springs.

More here.

Haruki Murakami: How a Japanese writer conquered the world

Stephanie Hegarty in BBC News:

HarukiWhen Haruki Murakami's new book, 1Q84, was released in Japanese two years ago, most of the print-run sold out in just one day – the country's largest bookshop, Kinokuniya, sold more than one per minute. A million copies went in the first month. In France, publishers printed 70,000 copies in August but had to reprint within a week. The book is already on the top 20 list of online booksellers – hence the plans for midnight openings in the UK and across the US from New York to Seattle. “The last time we did this was for Harry Potter,” says Miriam Robinson of Foyles, just one of the bookshops in London opening at midnight for the launch. “It's hard to find a book that merits that kind of an event.” This is the kind of hype that usually surrounds serialised teen literature, says Paul Bogaards of Knopf, the book's US publishers. It is entirely unprecedented in the case of a work translated into English. The novel has been worked on by two English translators to speed up publication. At 1,600 pages, the book- which will come out in two parts in the UK – is not to be taken lightly. The book is set in an alternate 1984 – the title plays on the Japanese pronunciation of Q, which is the same as of the number nine. Its two main characters, a male novelist and a female serial killer, exist in parallel universes but are searching for each other as the novel winds its way between their worlds.

Classic Murakami themes are here in the new novel – love and loneliness, alternative and surreal worlds, enigmatic characters and people who seem impassive but are stirred by deep emotions. Not for the first time, questions are raised about free will and cult religion. “There really isn't anyone like him right now, he is completely different,” says Dan Pryce, a member of the sales staff at Waterstone's bookshop in central London, who has been reading the new book in spare moments, in the shop's basement. “I like the way he never really explains what is happening, he just presents storylines and just lets them flow. Also, there is no real resolution at the end of the book, which leaves you wanting more.

More here.

For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov

Pam Belluck in The New York Times:

SkillSay you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel. That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. “This is why I love science,” Louise Erdrich, whose novel “The Round House” was used in one of the experiments, wrote in an e-mail. The researchers, she said, “found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction.” “Thank God the research didn’t find that novels increased tooth decay or blocked up your arteries,” she added.

More here.


SzM.-íróasztalnál-1983caRainer J. Hanshe at The Quarterly Conversation:

Originally published in 1935 and republished in 1985, Towards the One and Only Metaphor, Szentkuthy’s second book, is comprised of 112 numbered sections ranging in length from one sentence to several pages. The seeding ground out of which much of Szentkuthy’s future work would come, it is a text that defies classification, yet is perhaps most accurately thought of as literature in Blanchot’s expansive sense of the term, that which ‘ruins’ distinctions and limits in its creation of a unique and amorphous hybrid beyond the distinctions of a particular genre. As Dezső Baróti described when reviewing the book in 1935, it is comprised of “unconventional journal-like passages expanded into short essays, plans for novels, poetic meditations that have the effect of free verse, and paradoxical aphorisms,” all of which reveal a moral philosophy, a politics, an erotics. “Its predominant motifs (insofar as one can succinctly describe it in a few words) are most especially nature, love, eroticism, sex. All that, however, is constantly painted over by the vibration of the unconcealed presence of a writer constantly in search of himself, and rife with beguiling, stimulating, and ever-renewed surprises.”[16] This accords with Szentkuthy’s grandiose if not quixotic goal of creating what he repeatedly called “a Catalogus Rerum, a listing of entities and phenomena, a Catalogue of everything in the Entire World.”

more here.

why watching “The Room” is like getting stabbed in the head

06BLACK-articleInlineMichael Ian Black at The New York Times:

If you have not already done so, please see “The Room.” Certain films elicit so much joy they cannot be recommended highly enough. “The Room” is such a film. Not because it is good. No. “The Room” is not a good film. It is bad. Some call it “the best bad movie ever made.” But “bad” does not do it justice. In fact, no adjective I know fully conveys the comprehensive artistic disaster that is “The Room.” Perhaps some Amazonian tribe has a word that means “something so terrible it achieves a certain kind of majesty,” but in English we do not.

What makes “The Room” so very wonderfully, hilariously horrendous? Everything — Every. Single. Thing. The script? Yes. The performances? Yes. The costumes, sets, lighting? Yes, yes, yes. It is the “Citizen Kane” of awful, with the writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau as its bizarro Orson Welles.

Self-financed by Wiseau in 2003 for an estimated $6 million, “The Room” grossed $1,800 in its initial two-week Los Angeles run, with one early review stating, “Watching this film is like getting stabbed in the head.”

more here.

The factors that plunged Europe into war in 1914

991503cc-2c89-11e3-8b20-00144feab7deTony Barber at the Financial Times:

Events in the decade before 1914 pushed Europe closer to war. After Britain and France settled their colonial disputes in the Entente Cordiale, Germany tried to exploit the first Moroccan crisis of 1905-06 to drive a wedge between them. Rivalry between Vienna and St Petersburg intensified thanks to diplomatic duplicity and incompetence on both sides over Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. Arguably, the second Moroccan crisis of 1911 and two Balkan wars in 1912-13 inured politicians, generals and the European public to the idea that war was becoming inevitable.

Yet why did Europe’s leaders, having prevented earlier crises from triggering a general war, fail to do so in 1914? McMeekin, a US historian based at Koç university in Istanbul, contended in The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011) that Russia bore far more responsibility than once thought because it aimed to break up the Ottoman Empire, conquer the Turkish straits and seize Constantinople. July 1914 plays down this argument. At times it adopts the more established view that a decisive moment came on July 5-6, when Germany gave Austria-Hungary its infamous “blank cheque”. This allowed Vienna to intimidate Serbia with an ultimatum in the knowledge that, if war came, Germany would fight at Austria’s side.

more here.

How to pick up women (with science)

Dean Burnett in The Guardian:

Two-girls-whispering-010It's a sad fact, but women lack free will. Although they appear as complex and individual as any male (often much more so), it seems women are slaves to inherent biological “programming” which means they will be physically intimate with any man who employs a specific set of behaviours and phrases. This claim may seem far-fetched, but it is a widely held belief. A Google search for “how to pick up women” produces725m results. In contrast, a Google search for “funny cats” produces179m results. Remember, this is the internet.

But the thing about these guides to picking up women is that, despite the vast number of them and the dedicated researchers, known as pickup artists, looking into them, very few utilise legitimate science. That's where I come in.

Men are always saying to me “Dean, you're married; how the hell did that happen?”, but I can read between the lines and see what they really mean. I understand; it can't be easy asking for relationship advice from someone as successful, handsome and self-aware as I am.

I've never been part of the dating game and have never attempted to chat up an unfamiliar woman, but being a straight white male with a media platform means I'm allowed to speak with authority about groups and communities I have no involvement with. So, based on established scientific principles, here are a few techniques (or “moves”) that men can use that are almost certain to effectively woo any woman.

More here.

Researchers Demonstrate ‘Accelerator on a Chip’

From the website of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory:

130927-2chip-finger-thumbIn an advance that could dramatically shrink particle accelerators for science and medicine, researchers used a laser to accelerate electrons at a rate 10 times higher than conventional technology in a nanostructured glass chip smaller than a grain of rice.

The achievement was reported today in Nature by a team including scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University.

“We still have a number of challenges before this technology becomes practical for real-world use, but eventually it would substantially reduce the size and cost of future high-energy particle colliders for exploring the world of fundamental particles and forces,” said Joel England, the SLAC physicist who led the experiments. “It could also help enable compact accelerators and X-ray devices for security scanning, medical therapy and imaging, and research in biology and materials science.”

Because it employs commercial lasers and low-cost, mass-production techniques, the researchers believe it will set the stage for new generations of “tabletop” accelerators.

At its full potential, the new “accelerator on a chip” could match the accelerating power of SLAC’s 2-mile-long linear accelerator in just 100 feet, and deliver a million more electron pulses per second.

This initial demonstration achieved an acceleration gradient, or amount of energy gained per length, of 300 million electronvolts per meter. That's roughly 10 times the acceleration provided by the current SLAC linear accelerator.

More here. [Thanks to Farrukh Azfar.]

Your Body, Their Property

Osagie K. Obasogie in the Boston Review:

Polio ravaged much of the United States during the 20th century, leaving thousands sick, paralyzed, and dead. Those who were not afflicted with the virus were constantly haunted by the terror that their loved ones—particularly children, who were most vulnerable—would awaken one morning unable to walk and destined to a life of leg braces and iron lungs. That is until 1953, when Jonas Salk created a vaccine. There were more than 45,000 total cases of polio in the United States in each of the two years before the vaccine became broadly available. By 1962 there were only 910. Salk’s invention was one of the greatest successes in the history of American public health.

Amidst the adulation and fame that came with saving untold numbers of lives, Salk did something that seems curious if not unwise by today’s standards: he refused to patent the vaccine. During a 1955 interview, Edward R. Murrow asked Salk who owned the patent, leading a seemingly bewildered Salk to respond, “The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

These days, amid a patent-driven biotech boom, it is difficult to imagine a researcher making a similar appeal to the commons. But this sensibility received a crucial endorsement in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. The Court held that Myriad, a biotech firm in Utah, could not patent naturally occurring objects such as the two cancer-related human genes in question.

The decision upended many aspects of American intellectual property law that emerged in the wake of Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980), when the Court held that living organisms—specifically, manmade crude–oil bacteria—are patentable subject matter. Chakrabartyinspired a rush to patent not just living things but also a growing array of biological materials, including human genes.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Funny How

Funny how the breeze on my skin does its ruffling thing
with my thoughts. Not quite affectionate. Funny how

staring at the rug I tattoo the floor, thinking if my hair
were thicker maybe I'd like convertibles and other

big wind. Tonight you're away and I'm happy filling the bed
with such teasing itinerant notions, easy to love and let go.

Until the sound: the flat click of the kitchen door
brings metal to my mouth. Something from the driveway

is in the house—looking for what? I have my voice at hand
and the body that wants to use it as a shield, an elephant

behind a sapling. Funny that all I am is lying here,
a sweating piece of meat. Where is the maxim to unlock

my throat, how can I throw the pillar-of-salt I'm made of
over my left shoulder? I'd like a wrap of music please. This

is the time for a small earthquake, an insomniac neighbor—
any old clatter to put intruder fear to flight. But if he's real,

if tonight is marked for crime, please let me wake tomorrow
simply to find a hole where the TV was, chops thrown

from the freezer. Honey come home. Don't leave me here
waiting for some gloved hand holding polaroids of my nakedness.

I'm stuck in a child self under stale cloth, an old dream breathing
down my neck: the man without a face, all skin beneath a gray hat.

I need to know what's on the other side of that door,
the baldest reading of terror, the only way home.

by Ellen Doré Watson
from We Live in Bodies
Alice James Books, 1997

in praise of adultery

Hanif Kureishi in The Guardian:

Hanif-Kureishi-010Marriage as a problem, and as a solution, has always been the central subject for drama, the novel and the cinema, just as it has been at the centre of our lives. Most of us have come from a marriage, and, probably, a divorce, of some sort. And the kind of questions that surround lengthy relationships – what is it to live with another person for a long time? What do we expect? What do we need? What do we want? What is the relation between safety and excitement, for each of us? – are the most important of our lives. Marriage brings together the most serious things: sex, love, children, betrayal, boredom, frustration, and property. Le Week-End is a film set in contemporary Paris that I developed alongside the director Roger Michell, with whom I've worked on a TV series, The Buddha of Suburbia, and two films, The Mother and Venus. The films were mostly concerned with a subject we believed was neglected in the cinema, the lives and passions of older people, whose anxieties and desires, we found, were as intense, if not more significant, than those of the young. Le Week-End concerns a late middle-aged couple, Nick and Meg, both teachers, who go to Paris to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. While there, they discuss the meaning and direction of their marriage now that their children have left home. Time and health are running out for them as they consider their impending old age and wonder what sort of future they might want, either together or apart. They think about how they might die; but this couple also need to talk about how they have lived: the way in which they have brought up their children, and how the family has worked, where it failed, and where there is regret, bitterness and even fury.

…Nick and Meg go to Paris because love is the most considerable business of all, and they need to know what sort of relationships make life worth living, and, if they have a future together, what it might be like. Do they suffer less together than they would apart? The decision they make at the end of the film can only be provisional, and the questions they ask have to be confronted repeatedly, since there isn't one answer that can satisfy them.

More here.

Sense and Superstition

Jane L. Risen and A. David Nussbaum in The New York Times:

SenseSUPERSTITIOUS people do all sorts of puzzling things. But it’s not just the superstitious who knock on wood. From time to time, we all rap our knuckles on a nearby table if we happen to let fate-tempting words slip out. “The cancer is in remission, knock on wood,” we might say. In fact, it’s so common we often don’t think about it. But it’s worth asking: why do people who do not believe that knocking on wood has an effect on the world often do it anyway? Because it works. No, knocking on wood won’t change what happens. The cancer is no more likely to stay in remission one way or the other. But knocking on wood does affect our beliefs, and that’s almost as important.

Research finds that people, superstitious or not, tend to believe that negative outcomes are more likely after they “jinx” themselves. Boast that you’ve been driving for 20 years without an accident, and your concern about your drive home that evening rises. The superstitious may tell you that your concern is well founded because the universe is bound to punish your hubris. Psychological research has a less magical explanation: boasting about being accident-free makes the thought of getting into an accident jump to mind and, once there, that thought makes you worry. That makes sense intuitively. What’s less intuitive is how a simple physical act, like knocking on wood, can alleviate that concern.

More here.

Scientists coax photons to bind into molecules for first time

Peter Reuell in the Harvard Gazette:

Scientists from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are challenging the conventional wisdom about light, and they didn’t need to go to a galaxy far, far away to do it.

Working with colleagues at the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms, a group led by Harvard Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin and MIT Professor of Physics Vladan Vuletic managed to coax photons into binding together to form molecules — a state of matter that until recently had been purely theoretical. The work is described in a Sept. 25 paper in Nature.

The discovery, Lukin said, runs contrary to decades of accepted wisdom about the nature of light. Photons have long been described as massless particles that don’t interact with each other. Shine two laser beams at each other, he said, and they simply pass through one another.

Photonic molecules, however, behave less like traditional lasers and more like something you might find in science fiction: the light saber.

More here.


Christopher Glazek in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_346 Oct. 05 13.25In November, 2010, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a three-year clinical trial, funded by the National Institutes of Health, announcing the arrival of a treatment that could reduce the risk of contracting H.I.V. by more than ninety per cent. The treatment involved a blue, oval pill containing emtricitabine and tenofovir. Marketed under the brand name Truvada, the pill was synthesized in 2004 by Gilead Sciences, the world’s largest producer of branded H.I.V. drugs, and has been used in combination with other antiretrovirals as a primary treatment for people living with AIDS. The N.I.H. team discovered that a daily dose of Truvada not only suppressed the virus in people who were already infected but also prevented healthy people from contracting H.I.V. in the first place. Following the N.I.H. study, which tracked gay men in Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, Thailand, and the United States, additional trials showed the drug to be effective for heterosexual men and women, as well as forinjection-drug users. Researchers called the treatment “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” or PrEP for short. Others have called it “the new condom.”

On the day the N.I.H. announced the results of the PrEP study, the research team received a congratulatory phone call from President Obama. Shortly thereafter, Time put PrEP in the first slot on its list of the year’s top medical innovations. Dr. Robert Grant, a professor at the University of California San Francisco and the N.I.H. study’s lead scientist, braced for a stampede. He told me, “The evening before we announced, we had meetings with the leadership of public health in California, and they were thinking, as we were, that there was going to be a rush, that everyone was going to descend on the clinics.” The Centers for Disease Control issued interim usage guidelines, despite the fact that the treatment was more than a year away from formal F.D.A. approval. The C.D.C. knew that some doctors were already prescribing Truvada for prevention off-label, and it expected more to follow suit.

But, in fact, adoption of the drug has been slow.

More here.