How Not to Tell the History of Science

Eric Moses Gurevitch in the Boston Review:

According to a familiar story, science was born as a pastime of seventeenth-century European gentlemen, who built air pumps, traded telescopes, and measured everything from the size of the earth to the eye of a fly as they sought to uncover the laws of nature. Through careful experimentation and observation of nature, these men—who called themselves natural philosophers—distinguished themselves from the scholastic schoolmen of yore, who had instead busied themselves with writing commentary upon commentary on Aristotle and Aquinas. They also wrote about themselves. They formed societies, took notes at their meetings, compiled their notes into journals, and penned books recording their achievements; it was a mere seven years after the founding of the Royal Society in 1660 that Thomas Sprat published its first history. Reason had finally come into its own, and it arrived with a diligent group of stenographers.

Of course, these men were not actually the first to make observations or perform experiments. But their self-congratulatory narrative provided a powerful resource to explain the economic and political hegemony of Europe in the centuries to follow.

More here.

The Secret Perfume Of Birds: Uncovering The Science Of Avian Scent

Leon Vlieger in The Inquisitive Biologist:

To successfully navigate their world, organisms rely on numerous senses. Birds are no exception to this; and yet, for a long time, people have been convinced that birds cannot smell. This came as a surprise to evolutionary biologist Danielle J. Whittaker. Given that smell is effectively chemoreception (the sensing of chemical gradients in your environment) and was one of the first senses to evolve, why would birds have no use for it? The Secret Perfume of Birds tells the story of 15 years spent investigating the olfactory capabilities of birds and provides an insider’s account of scientific research.

More here.

Four very useful videos on the basics of Neural Networks

Terese Svoboda’s “Dog On Fire”: An Interview

Brennie Shoup in Superstition Review:

At turns hilariously absurd and gut-wrenchingly heartfelt, Terese Svoboda’s Dog on Fire, published by the University of Nebraska Press, defies genre. Svoboda juggles comedy, mystery, tragedy, horror—and masters them all. The book follows a recently-divorced woman grieving the mysterious and early death of her estranged brother. Her unusual circumstances lead her to move back to her small Midwestern home town, where everything and anything she does creates ripples of rumor. There, she confronts perilous Halloween parties, Jell-O inventions, guns, grave-diggers, and, of course, dogs on fire.

With rich prose more reminiscent of poetry, Svoboda’s characters burst from the page. One “harbors streaks of shyness the way bacon is streaked, between boldnesses,” while another drags “nothing out of this primordial water and [tries] to turn it inside out, into a something.” They’re as compelling and unforgettable as they are human.

More here.

Could A Machine Have An Unconscious?

Meghan O’Gieblyn at n+1:

GPT-3’s most consistent limitation is “world-modeling errors.” Because it has no sensory access to the world and no programmed understanding of spatial relationships or the laws of physics, it sometimes makes mistakes no human would, like failing to correctly guess that a toaster is heavier than a pencil, or asserting that a foot has “two eyes.” Critics seize on these errors as evidence that it lacks true understanding, that its latent connections are something like shadows to a complex three-dimensional world. The models are like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, trying to approximate real-world concepts from the elusive shadow play of language. 

But it’s precisely this shadow aspect (Jung’s term for the unconscious) that makes its creative output so beautifully surreal. The model exists in an ether of pure signifiers, unhampered by the logical inhibitions that lead to so much deadweight prose.

more here.

Reimagining The Shakers

Shannon Mattern at Art In America:

Yet rather than imagining the Shakers as a romantic ideal, it might be more valuable to acknowledge the community’s contradictions and compromises. The Shakers manifested their faith through both rapturous movement and rigorous order; they embraced both simplicity and technological progress; they espoused gender equality while upholding traditional gendered labor roles; they promoted social equality while governing their own community through what some apostates and critics regarded as a rather autocratic centralized authority. They were removed from the world yet regularly did business with it. As Brother Arnold Hadd of the Sabbathday Lake Shakers—the last remaining active Shaker community—said in a 2014 interview, “We are the ultimate capitalistic communists.” On a 2020 Shaker Museum panel discussion about the sect’s continuing relevance, religious scholar Ashon Crawley explained that the Shakers performed labor as a spiritual practice in order to sustain their community, while also knowingly interacting with a world market committed to exploitation and profit. This interaction required that they willingly compromise on their vow of separation. Especially as their commercial enterprises ramped up and their population declined, Shakers occasionally hired laborers from outside the community, relying on non-Believers to produce their divinely inspired wares.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

On Reading I Am Malala

courage is a mountain of crystal
has a breadth and grandeur
some mistake brashness for it
a loud voice, rudeness
barging past other’s boundaries
to get what they think they want
they are, of course, wrong
courage is the crocus
that has never known the brisk air
but comes into this world with an exuberance
and a beauty that says
I will die here if only I can sing my song for you

by Marc Steven Mannheimer
Poetry Feast

Close Encounters

Jesse Robertson in The Baffler:

A CLASSIFIED REPORT from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP), or UFOs in Pentagon-speak, analyzed 366 sightings. It included videos shot by Reaper drones depicting anomalous orbs and close encounters between Navy F-18 fighter pilots and objects that defied the known laws of physics. Only half of them could be explained. Delivered to Congress on October 31, 2022, the briefing was a follow-up to the June 2021 “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” The takeaways were hazy at best, underscoring that UAP “may pose a challenge to U.S. national security” and that further investment in research and development was necessary. While these investigations seemed to mark a shift in the government’s willingness to take UFOs seriously, they were hardly the revelatory disclosure UFO enthusiasts had long pined after.

More here.

How Do I Know My Youth Is All Spent?

by Michael Liss

In the America I see, the permanent politician will finally retire…. We’ll have term limits for Congress. And mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old. —Nikki Haley, age 51, announcing her candidacy.

William Henry Harrison, by Nathaniel Currier, 1841. From the National Portrait Gallery.

Yes, she did. Nikki Haley went there. Of course, her ostensible target is America’s best-known octogenarian (the guy with the malaprops and the Ray-Bans), but it could not be ignored that Former President Donald Trump tips the chronological scales at 76. Twenty months from now, shortly after the 2024 election, Joe will either be a jubilant 82-year-old; a grim, packing-the-china 82-year-old; or a wistful I-could-have-won-if-I-ran 82-year-old. Trump will be a 78-year-old Donald Trump—with title, without title, still a Donald Trump. In November of 2024, barring anything traumatic, these two will be whatever luck, genetics, and environmental factors cause them to be. If one of them also happens to be President-elect, then their issues will become our issues through 2028. That is something to ponder.

Haley may have been a bit blunt, in the process angering not only Former Guy, but perhaps potential supporters in Congress (roughly 1/3 of the Senate is at least 70), but the discussion of whether Dad should still be driving at night (or riding on Air Force One) is not an unreasonable one. We aren’t some sleepy principality somewhere, ruled by a hereditary monarch whose most impactful decisions involve whether we should subsidize domestic clock-making. This is a challenging world, and Dad needs to be up to it. There’s a terrific Ron Brownstein interview in The Atlantic of Simon Rosenberg of the New Democratic Network. Rosenberg notes, “But with China’s decision to take the route that they’ve gone, with Russia now having waged this intense insurgency against the West, the assumption that…[Western democracy] is going to prevail in the world is now under question…. [I]t’s birthing now… a different era of politics, where we must be focused on two fundamental, existential questions. Can democracy prevail given the way that it’s being attacked from all sides? And can we prevent climate change from overwhelming the world that we know?”

Those are big questions to answer, and most of us, unless our politics occupy a fringe, should be deeply invested in the answers. They are also truly multi-generational, with the biggest stakeholders being the younger cohorts. My Boomer generation can offer something in the way of experience and expertise, but we’ve had a lot of time to work on solutions, and our results speak for themselves—we absolutely must give multiple seats at the table to younger voters. And, at some point, and that point may have already been reached, my Boomer Generation needs to follow Nancy Pelosi and to give way entirely. “Senior leadership” does not automatically mean “Senior” leadership. Read more »

Akim Reinhardt’s Plagiarized 3QD Essay

by Akim Reinhardt and GPTChatbot

Computers in the 1950s - History-ComputerA couple months back, I wrote an open letter to fellow professors. Don’t panic, I said. Yes, new crops of student plagiarism bound are sprout in the fertile fields of free, online AI software. But it’ll be alright. Here’s how to adjust.

Then it occurred to me: Why should students have all the fun? I can now plagiarize just as easily as they can. So I decided to have the GPT Chatbot write my monthly 3QD column and see what we get.

First I established that the chatbot could identify 3QD, and me as one of its contributers. It thinks I’m a writer (yes), journalist (eh), and editor (not really). No mention of me being a historian, a professor, or man of dubious character. It claims I’ve written for the Washington Post and the Guardian; the truth is I’ve been interviewed by those news outlets, but never written for them.

Then I asked it to write a thousand word essay. Not counting its disclaimer, the GPT Chatbot pumped out just over half that (590 words). That essay follows. I graded it and have marked it up [my comments are red and in squared brackets, like so]. Let’s see how we did.

Prompt: Write a 1000 word essay in the style of 3 Quarks Daily writer Akim Reinhardt

Response: Note: As an AI language model, I can generate text in the style of Akim Reinhardt, but the content and opinions expressed in the essay are purely generated by AI and do not reflect the views of any human writer.

The Uncertain Future of Democracy in the United States

The United States of America has long been regarded as a beacon of democracy in the world, a shining example of a free and open society that values individual rights and liberties [By some; others have long criticized it for not living up to its vaunted values. Also, a punchier lede would help]. However, recent years have seen a troubling erosion of democratic norms and institutions in the country, raising questions about the future of democracy in the US. [Does it represent an absolute descent or a regression to the norm? In retrospect, 1968–2000 may have been a highpoint for U.S. democracy, preceded and now proceeded by numerous attempts, both legal and corrupt, to limit the franchise and thwart the will of the majority.] Read more »

Monday Poem

….—on a cartoon by Harry Bliss

..Yes, But . . .

a mixed bag
….a contentious thought
….a hard truth
….a contradiction of emotions
….a matter of time
….a bittersweet line
….a fickle notion
….a double standard
….a salve
….a remedial lotion
….a half-truth
….a deep and restless ocean

Jim Culleny, 2/25/23


The Axe At Home

by Rafaël Newman

Ferdinand Hodler, “Holzfäller” (1910)

On two separate occasions in mid-February this year, the Swiss parliament, or Bundeshaus, and adjoining ministry buildings in Bern had to be evacuated and searched following bomb threats. During the first incident, in which a lone man in military dress attempting to clear security at the parliament was apprehended when traces of explosive material were found on his person, locals were uncannily reminded of a text by the late, great Bernese singer-songwriter Mani Matter (1936-1972). In “Dynamit,” written over half a century ago, Matter tells of his daring intervention upon realizing that the bearded man he has met outside the Bundeshaus plans to blow up the building, because he is “for anarchy”:

What other choice did I have as a burgher
Than to attempt to dissuade him?—I spoke
As well as I could of our state’s many plusses:
The Rütli and freedom, democracy too;
I mentioned them all, and I begged him to stop.

Matter’s panic, he claims, lent a special force to his oratory (“The Swiss independence address I delivered / Would have made horses stand and salute”), and he is ultimately successful in talking down the would-be terrorist. That night in bed, however, having awarded himself a private medal for heroism, Matter has second thoughts:

Was it correct to praise Switzerland thus,
That is a question I ask to this day.
And if there’s one thing I learned from that fellow,
I walk by the place and I think of it still:
It’s only a matter of time, and explosives,
To blow the whole Bundeshaus into the sky.

In the course of one brief cabaret number—a recording of its live performance lasts barely two minutes—Matter conjures up the twin, opposing poles of the Swiss political consciousness: its conservative attachment to patriotism and traditional values (freedom, democracy) and its anarchist (or at least libertarian), anti-institutional streak. Read more »

Where is My Mind? On Freud and Neuropsychology

by Marie Snyder

Freud got some things right, and this isn’t a post to slam him. But he understood the whole concept of the unconscious mind upside-down. It’s a lot like Aristotle’s science, with the cause and effect going in the wrong direction. It’s still pretty impressive how far they got as they laid the foundations for entirely new fields of study. I assimilated most of what’s below from neuropsychologist Mark Solms’s 2019 Wallerstein Lecture. It’s fascinating, but over three hours long, and he talks really fast! I’m just a novice in this field of affective neuroscience, and I don’t know enough to be sure his confidence in this theory is warranted, but it’s a really interesting way to understand ourselves. 

Here’s the gist of it.  

Freud figured that the conscious part of our mind, the part that’s aware of our world and ourselves, was something that could be located in the brain, but he placed it in the cerebral cortex, the outermost area that does all the thinking. That makes sense because it’s how we connect to the outside world. However, according to Solms, the conscious part is actually way in the innermost region of our brain at the upper part of the brain stem. This has been backed up with studies on people with encephalitis that have found that it’s not essential to have a cortex in order to have emotional responses and an awareness of the world and self. When neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp had his students guess which rats didn’t have a cortex, they guessed incorrectly because the rats missing this intellectual part of their brain were friendlier, more lively and interactive; they didn’t have a cerebral cortex inhibiting their movement toward total strangers much like happens with the subdued inhibitions of friendly drunkenness. 

So Freud got the placement wrong. But even more important is which parts of us are within our conscious awareness. He famously divided our mind into three: id, ego, superego, much like Plato’s tripartite soul, and deduced that the id – our drives for pleasure – were entirely unconscious. But Solms explains that many in the field today argue that our affective center, the forces that push us toward pleasure and away from pain, is necessarily conscious in order to make us aware of our needs. And then decision making, which happens in the cerebral cortex, is mainly – like, 95% – automatic, without consciousness. 

How can that be? We’re all aware of thinking right this moment, right? It all has to do with the efficiency of our memory systems.  Read more »

Rumi, Adab, and the Beauty of Boundaries

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

The author with Esin Çelebi Bayru, Rumi’s granddaughter (22nd generation) in Konya

I was so excited to meet Azra Bayru Kumcuoğlu, Rumi’s granddaughter (23rd generation) for breakfast on my latest visit to Istanbul— that I wore my pearls early in the morning and popped into a salon across from Boğaziçi University campus where I had been staying. Halfway through the blowout, it began to rain and by the time I stepped out, there was a proper downpour. I was irked, as was the hairstylist, but somewhere in my Pakistani heart, rain remains a thrill, a secret, contradictory gift that comes to awaken our dormant spark. Waiting outside the museum where we had planned to meet, I saw Azra Hanim rushing towards me; her spirit was instantly apparent. With the smile and embrace befitting a descendant of Maulana Rūm himself, she held her umbrella over me as we walked down slippery stairs; a stranger a millisecond ago suddenly felt like a sister. As we negotiated the traffic, the whipping wind and wet streets, Azra Hanim kept one arm firmly hooked into my mine to prevent me from slipping. This moment inspires a reflection on courtesy but its sweeping grace defies language; words slip like “a donkey in mud” when it comes to love— to offer that unforgettable metaphor of Rumi’s making. Azra Hanim’s was no ordinary social courtesy but a courtesy shaped by love, a value rigorously honed in the Sufi cultures as Adab.

Earlier on my visit, I had met Azra Hanim’s mother, the honorable Esin Çelebi Bayru in Konya and had interviewed her regarding her new book Love is Something Beautiful. The book is part family memoir, part history of the Mevlevi school of Sufism, and reveals, amidst the ebbs and flows of circumstance and socio-political demands, how the Mevlevi culture has survived in recent centuries. The theme that prevails throughout the book is the centrality of Adab. When I met her, I immediately felt her warmth. She carries herself with the ease of a satiated spirit, happy to pass on to others the peace she feels. We had multiple conversations in the days I spent in Konya, each was memorable. The two things that interested me most in the context of my own work of original poems and translations of Iqbal, was Mevlana Rumi’s early life and influences, and the practice of Adab in the Mevlevi culture and beyond. Read more »

On Canadians

by Terese Svoboda

Benedict Arnold

In my last post, I focused on the 100,000 Loyalists who fled to Canada after the Revolutionary War, and hypothesized that they were fleeing an American war of terror. Otherwise, why move? Now I’m living in Canada as a permanent resident, though for only half the year at a time, wallowing in socialism-lite and Canada’s very sane “peace, order and good government” rather than America’s individualistic “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I found living under Trump regime terrifying, and fled. A victim of terrorism? Or a traitor?

Depends on who’s asking.  If it’s Fox News, the instigators of the January 6th debacle were patriots. The case of Benedict Arnold, America’s best known traitor, is more clearcut. This “most enterprising and dangerous” of all the American generals,[1] led revolutionary forces against British-held Quebec in a blinding snowstorm on the last day of 1775,  just hours before the soldiers’ contracts were up. [2] It was the first defeat of the Revolution. Five years later, he surrendered the American fort at West Point to the British in return for money and a command in the British army. That was the same year he informed the British of a proposed American invasion of Canada. After his defection, he should’ve fled to Canada with other wealthy Loyalists because when he settled in England, he was spurned. [3]The bottom line is that a traitor can’t be trusted.

As victims of terrorism, as political refugees –  the losers! –  the Loyalists struggled to leave America. Many of them walked through land held by hostile Native Americans who had been badly treated by double-dealing Americans and British. Sometimes the trip took months, especially those from New York where the majority of the Loyalists lived. Much like asylum-seekers today, once they arrived in Canada, they were kept in camps and given the bare minimum and dreadful prospects: the least productive land, not enough shoes, terrible housing,  and, in some cases, some dreadful weather. Many starved. Read more »

On the Road: Among the Non-Humans II

by Bill Murray

Fourteen months ago I wrote a 3QD column titled Among The Non-Humans about sometimes obscure, often extraordinary abilities of animals and plants. Today, let’s look at a few more:

Groupers visit giant moray eels resting in their crevices and shake their heads three to six times a second directly in front of the eels, usually a few centimetres away from the moray’s heads, to recruit them to hunt together. • Parrots demonstrate self-control and can delay gratification by not eating an immediate low-quality reward in favor of a delayed high value reward. • When certain tiger moths hear bats echolocating, they turn on a jamming signal that clicks 4,500 times a second, throwing off bat ranging. The moths usually win. • Vampire bats give other bats food to save them from starvation. • Bumblebees will give up sleep to care for their hive’s young, and can remember good and bad experiences, hinting at a form of consciousness. • Chimpanzees help each other get tools that are out of reach • Swimming at speed, the bluefin tuna’s top fins retract into their bodies, and they swim at seventy kilometres an hour, faster than a great white shark. So perfectly evolved are they for powering through the ocean, Pentagon-funded scientists have used the tuna body-shape as a model for the US Navy’s underwater missiles. Read more »