Eric J. Chaisson reviews Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology, by W. Patrick McCray, at American Scientist Online:
As an arriving student at Harvard more than 30 years ago, I sought out some famous astronomers at a reception to welcome newcomers. As I approached them, planning to introduce myself, I couldn’t help overhearing the end of a conversation that shocked me: A visiting astronomer was telling the observatory director heatedly, “Your observatory is getting too damn big!” He glanced at me with disdain and walked away. Welcome, indeed, to the big leagues of astronomy.
The visitor that day was Jesse Greenstein of Caltech, a powerful champion of small, elite academic programs designed to serve only a few astronomers, giving them private access to the biggest telescopes. And the recipient of his ire was Leo Goldberg, whose Harvard College Observatory took a team approach to astronomy and space science; Goldberg often supported drives to build national telescopes for use by all astronomers.
Alan Hollinghurst writes about Wollheim’s “complex and beautiful memoir of childhood” in The Guardian:
The only time I met Richard Wollheim was at a dinner party given by one of his sons, who was an Oxford friend of mine. What I remember best about the occasion is the particular thing that had to be done before Wollheim arrived. Every scrap of newspaper had to be either thrown away or thoroughly concealed (not just tucked findably under a cushion): the mere sight of newsprint would make it impossible for him to eat his dinner. It sounded like an aversion formed in childhood that an adult would normally have overcome. But Wollheim, then in his 60s, a distinguished philosopher, professor at Berkeley, author of Art and Its Objects and On Art and the Mind, twice married, a father of three, had not overcome it. It was very striking that adult intellect and sensibility of such refinement should coexist with so unallayed a childhood horror. It must also, like the most exacting of allergies, have been a terrible nuisance. Life was so full of newspaper: how could he possibly avoid it?
William Dalrymple writes in the New York Review of Books:
It was a crucial but sometimes forgotten moment in the development of Western civilization: the revival of medieval European learning by a wholesale transfusion of scholarship from the Islamic world. It was probably through Islamic Spain that such basic facets of Western civilization as paper, ideas of courtly love, algebra, and the abacus passed into Europe. Meanwhile the pointed arch and Greco-Arab (or Unani, from the Arabic word for Greek/Ionian) medicine arrived in Christendom by way of Salerno and Sicily, where the Norman king Roger II—known as the “Baptized Sultan” —was commissioning the Tunisian scholar al-Idrisi to produce an encyclopedic work of geography.
Some scholars go further. Professor George Makdisi of Harvard has argued convincingly for a major Islamic contribution to the emergence of the first universities in the medieval West, showing how terms such as having “fellows” holding a “chair,” or students “reading” a subject and obtaining “degrees,” as well as practices such as inaugural lectures and academic robes, can all be traced back to Islamic concepts and practices. Indeed the idea of a university in the modern sense—a place of learning where students congregate to study a wide variety of subjects under a number of teachers—is generally regarded as an Arab innovation developed at the al-Azhar university in Cairo. As Makdisi has demonstrated, it was in cities bordering the Islamic world—Salerno, Naples, Bologna, Montpellier, and Paris—that first developed universities in Christendom, the idea spreading northward from there.
Dalrymple examines the following books in this essay:
The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation by Richard Fletcher
From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East by Bernard Lewis
In the Lands of the Christians: Arab Travel Writing in the Seventeenth Century, edited and translated by Nabil Matar
Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery by Nabil Matar
Islam in Britain, 1558–1685 by Nabil Matar
Tobin Harshaw reviews a bunch of books about food and spice, in the New York Times:
…the baton has been passed from satirists to traveler-historians like Jason Goodwin and particularly Mark Kurlansky, who rode such unlikely comestibles as cod and salt to the best-seller lists. This year they have plenty of rivals, most formidably Jack Turner, a young Oxford-educated Australian whose SPICE: The History of a Temptation is an erudite and engaging account of how foodstuffs can change the flow of history.
The task Turner has set for himself is relatively straightforward: to describe the cultural histories of pepper, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and to reveal the many misunderstandings about them that have been passed down over the ages. The most obvious, and easily disposed of, is the myth that medieval Europeans used spices for purely utilitarian reasons — that is, to cover the stench of rotting meat. Anyone who’s ever found those long-forgotten pork chops at the back of the Sub-Zero knows that not all the pepper in Malabar could make them edible.
Turner’s genius lies in his organization. Rather than trying to deal with his Asian delights individually or track their stories through a tidy timeline, he has divided his book into sections devoted to the effects these spices have had on the human body and psyche.
Edward Wyatt reviews The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, in The New York Times:
“The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini, a previously unknown son of an Afghan political refugee, has captivated reading groups across the country with its rich mix of familiar morality tale and timely world history. Without any significant national publicity – no recommendation by Oprah Winfrey or a morning television show, no superstar author backed by a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign – the book has steadily climbed the best-seller lists, rising as high as No. 5 on the paperback best-seller list of The New York Times and selling more than 500,000 copies in seven months, a significant achievement for a literary novel.
It has done so thanks to the word-of-mouth recommendations of librarians and book sellers and on the strength of local book clubs, like the one here in Palm Beach, as well as community reading programs, where one book is chosen by a city or region, like eastern Connecticut or the central California valley.
Darwin had demonstrated how order could be wrung from its antagonist—how randomness and chance, when harnessed by natural selection, could create forms of the most startling beauty. Just look at the finely wrought folds of an orchid, or the iridescence of a butterfly wing. The living world seems suffused with patterns.
Ever since Darwin, biology has operated under this delusion of orderliness. Atoms might be entities of randomness, but cells—the building blocks of life—are like Swiss clocks, machines designed in blatant defiance of chaos. In his influential 1944 treatise, What is Life?, Erwin Schrödinger said that living things “produce events which are a paragon of orderliness… The situation is unprecedented. It is unknown anywhere else except in living matter.” For Schrödinger, life’s stealing of neatness out of atomic disarray was its defining miracle; this was what made life living.
But biologists are now discovering that the appearance of order is an illusion. Our molecular world—life at its most basic level—is messy. Inside our cells, shards and scraps of protein float around aimlessly, waiting to interact. There is no guiding hand, no guarantee of exactness. Our atomic stochasticity percolates upward, infecting and influ-encing all aspects of life. Far from being an exemption from the second law of thermodynamics, we are actually its most intricate example. Randomness is writ into our fabric.
More here by Jonah Lehrer in Seed Magazine.
P.D. Smith reviews Leaps in the Dark: The Making of Scientific Reputations by John Waller, in The Guardian:
“Unhappy is the land that needs heroes,” says Galileo in Bertolt Brecht’s great play about the Italian physicist, and John Waller couldn’t agree more. In Fabulous Science (2002) Waller showed how science was a series of “powerful human dramas in which naked ambition has at least as big a role as technical virtuosity”. In his latest book he adopts an equally iconoclastic approach. Once again he takes aim at the heroes of science, firing a broadside at recent popular histories that follow a familiar formula: “The hero arrives at a new idea (Act I), suffers the wrath of jealousy, conservatism, and clerical bigotry (Act II), and is then triumphantly vindicated (Act III).”
According to Waller, scientific discovery is a “multi-participant event”, not a story of lone heroes. Another trusty cliché of popular science writing is the “eureka” moment. The falling apple that supposedly inspired the theory of gravitation was a myth. As Waller points out, the devious Newton probably used it as a ploy to avoid acknowledging any of his contemporaries. Such moments make a great story, but are bad history.
The Hitch reviews three books about the 60s and 70s in the New York Times Book Review:
In the summer of 1989 I was a speaker at a memorial for Abbie Hoffman. This was a rolling and unstructured all-day event, but at the closing moment the stage held the simultaneous presence of Bobby Seale, Norman Mailer, Amiri Baraka, William Kunstler, Terry Southern, Allen Ginsberg and one or two others whose names collectively spelled ”sixties.” Camera lights popped and there were many independent filmmakers squinting through lenses. I later wanted a photograph of myself in this lineup, but was told after exhaustive inquiries that none of the organizers or participants could lay hands on even one. Thus I rediscovered the metaphysical truth that if you claim to recall the decade you were not really there. (Also, if you lay any claim to have been commemorating the high points of the 60’s after a lapse of two further decades there is no proof that you were there, either.)
By any standard, it was a blow to contemporary literature when WG Sebald was taken from us prematurely three years ago at the age of 57.
But in Sebald’s case. there is a more acute tragedy in that he was the one living novelist who we wanted to read as he aged. No one thought more deeply or wrote more beautifully about memory.
No one dealt in more haunting ways with the terrible task of remembrance that faced Germany after WWII. Gunter Grass [can I get an umlaut on this frickin program?] is, of course, no slouch but for my money, Sebald is the writer who will be read long after the rest of us are dead. Which is fitting somehow.
Anway, a typically lyrical, uncanny, beautiful essay by Mr. Sebald can be found in the current New Yorker. It isn’t available online yet but is more than reason to buy the Fiction Issue. The final paragraph of the essay had this 3quarker in a rather choked up state for a minute there.
“So what is literature good for? Am I, Holderlin [umlaut] asked himself, to fare like the thousands who in their springtime days lived in both foreboding and love but were seized by the avenging Parcae on a drunken day, secretly and silently betrayed, to do penance in the dark of an all too sober realm where wild confusion prevails in the treacherous light, where they count slow time in frost and drought, and man still praises immortality in sighs alone? The synoptic view across the barrier of death presented by the poet in these lines is both overshadowed and illuminated, however, by the memory of those to whom the greatest injustice was done. There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship. A place that is at the service of such a task is therefore very appropriate in Stuttgart, and I wish it and the city that shelters it well in the future.”
Continuing the theme of new blogs, Left2Right, which boasts such contributors as Elizabeth Anderson, Joshua Cohen, Steven Shiffrin, Richard Rorty, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, has been covered extensively in the blogosphere. In its own words,
“[M]any of us have come to believe that the Left must learn how to speak more effectively to ears attuned to the Right. How can we better express our values? Can we learn from conservative critiques of those values? Are there conservative values that we should be more forthright about sharing? ‘Left2Right’ will be a discussion of these and related questions.”
I’ve been reading it regularly and watching the comments, which try hard not to veer into ad hominem attacks. But political dialogue and debate do appear to be a hard things these days, even for Left2Right, as this story (via politicaltheory.info) suggests.
“It’s a nice idea, but will the blog succeed? Let’s just say it’s a work in progress. On Nov. 28, for example, blogging in what was intended to be a compassionate tone about red-staters unwilling to enter into dialogue with thinkers like himself, Appiah opined, ‘It’s not that no-nothings [sic] are sure we’re wrong, it’s that they’re sure we’ll win the argument, because we’re better at arguing.’ An interlocutor with the screen-name Conservative replied, ‘If I’ve read this right, it sounds pretty contemptful [sic].’ Another visitor sneered, ‘You can’t even spell `know-nothings’ and you expect us to buy that . . . we feel inferior?'”
Lindsay Beyerstein’s take on it characteristically offers some food for thought.
One of my “beats” here is how science and politics intersect. A while ago, a post at Crooked Timber reported on a thorough critique of Ross McKitrick and Steven McIntyre’s (and a subsequent one by Ross McKitrick and Pat Michaels) “refutations” of climate change research. Now there’s RealClimate. Its goal:
“Many scientists participate in efforts to educate the public and to rebut or debunk rather fanciful claims or outright mis-representations by writing in popular magazines such as EOS and New Scientist or in the Comments section of journals. However, this takes time to put together, and by the time it’s out, mainstream attention has often moved elsewhere. Since these rebuttals appear in the peer-reviewed literature, these efforts (in the long run) are useful. However, a faster response would sometimes be helpful in ensuring that the context of breaking stories is more widely distributed at the time.
Journalists with deadlines and scant knowledge of the field quite often do not know where to go for this context on papers that are being pushed by some of the partisan think-tanks or other interested parties. This can lead to some quite mainstream outlets inadvertently publishing some very dubious and misleading ideas.
RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists. We aim to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary.
In order to limit the scope to those issues where we can claim some competence, the discussion here is restricted to scientific topics. Thus we will not get involved in political or economic issues that arise when discussing climate change. The validity of scientific information is completely independent of what society decides to do (or not) about that information. Constructive comments and questions are welcome, as are guest articles from other scientists who may choose to contribute on an occasional basis.”
Palle Yourgrau, professor of philosophy at Brandeis University, writes in an essay from his book, Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein (in The Chronicle of Higher Education):
Washed up onto America’s shores by the storm of Nazism that raged in Europe in the 1930s, the two men awakened to find themselves stranded in the same hushed academic retreat, the Institute for Advanced Study [at Princeton], the most exclusive intellectual club in the world, whose members had only one assigned duty: to think. But Gödel and Einstein already belonged to an even more exclusive club. Together with another German-speaking theorist, Werner Heisenberg, they were the authors of the three most fundamental scientific results of the century.
Each man’s discovery, moreover, established a profound and disturbing limitation. Einstein’s theory of relativity set a limit — the speed of light — to the flow of any information-bearing signal. And by defining time in terms of its measurement with clocks, he set a limit to time itself. It was no longer absolute but henceforth limited or relative to a frame of measurement. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics set a limit on our simultaneous knowledge of the position and momentum of the fundamental particles of matter. This was not just a restriction on what we can know: For Heisenberg it signified a limit to reality. Finally, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem — “the most significant mathematical truth of the century,” as it would soon be described in a ceremony at Harvard University — set a permanent limit on our knowledge of the basic truths of mathematics: The complete set of mathematical truths will never be captured by any finite or recursive list of axioms that is fully formal.
“A pioneering stem cell therapy designed to heal otherwise irreversible liver damage has started trials in Japan. A similar trial on people with cirrhosis is about to start in London, UK.
The need for new treatments is urgent. Cirrhosis kills 27,000 Americans each year, and one in 10 of the population – 25 million Americans – have liver-related diseases making it the seventh most common cause of death. For now, the only real hope for patients who suffer severe liver damage through heavy drinking or viral infections is a liver transplant from a matched donor. But waiting lists for livers are growing.”
More here. (This post dedicated to my friend, Rick Kolb.)
‘On Tuesday night, the Sci Fi Channel aired its final installment of Legend of Earthsea, the miniseries based—loosely, as it turns out—on my Earthsea books. The books, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, which were published more than 30 years ago, are about two young people finding out what their power, their freedom, and their responsibilities are. I don’t know what the film is about. It’s full of scenes from the story, arranged differently, in an entirely different plot, so that they make no sense. My protagonist is Ged, a boy with red-brown skin. In the film, he’s a petulant white kid. Readers who’ve been wondering why I “let them change the story” may find some answers here.’
More here at Slate.
“Public-health campaigns regularly plug exercise as a sure-fire way to avoid an early grave. But that message may be too simplistic. For an unhappy few, even quite strenuous exercise may have no effect on their fitness or their risk of developing diseases like diabetes…
Previous reports indicated that there are huge variations in ‘trainability’ between subjects. For example, the team found that training improved maximum oxygen consumption, a measure of a person’s ability to perform work, by 17% on average.
But the most trainable volunteers gained over 40%, and the least trainable showed no improvement at all. Similar patterns were seen with cardiac output, blood pressure, heart rate and other markers of fitness…
‘We need to recognise that although on average exercise may have clear benefits, it may not work for everyone,’ says Mark Hargreaves of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. ‘Some people may do better to change their diet.'”
More here at New Scientist.
From John Brockman’s introduction to the book:
At one point, Marc Hauser turned to Dan Dennett and asked, “Can you remember when you got started thinking about these issues? How old were you? When did you get passionate about ideas?” Dan replied that at the age of six an adult told him that since he was asking such interesting questions, he should become a philosopher. Doug Hofstadter said that from the first moment he could remember, he loved numbers and knew he wanted to do mathematics. For Marc, it wasn’t until college that he discovered his specific interests. But what they all shared as children was curiosity and a deep passion for learning, whether specific or general. As one of the other dinner guests mused, “It all started when we were kids.”
The following 27 scientists each contributed as essay telling the story of how he/she came to science:
Nicholas Humphrey • David M. Buss • Robert M. Sapolsky • Mihaly Csikszentmihaly • Murray Gell-Mann • Alison Gopnik • Paul C. W. Davies • Freeman Dyson • Lee Smolin • Steven Pinker • Mary Catherine Bateson • Lynn Margulis • Jaron Lanier • Richard Dawkins • Howard Gardner • Joseph LeDoux • Sherry Turkle • Marc D. Hauser • Ray Kurzweil • Janna Levin • Rodney Brooks • J. Doyne Farmer • Steven Strogatz • Tim White • V. S. Ramachandran • Daniel C. Dennett • Judith Rich Harris
More about the book (edited by John Brockman) here at the Edge.
Miriam Medina is a New Yorker and a geneologist. She has put together a fascinating website about the history of the Empire State, as well as of Gotham itself:
The history of the State of New York illustrates the history of the Nation in all of its stages. In some aspects the history of the State is coextensive with that of the Nation. The mingling of the peoples of the world; development from wilderness to metropolis; conflicts of politics; growth of corporations and the multiplication of new industries; achievement of cultural and self-expression.
In addition we must also include the internal improvements and revolutions in transportation and communication and the domination of finance and the spread of foreign commerce. In summary it is the Nation’s greatest financial, mercantile and cultural center fully justified by its title: The Empire State.
It is worth checking out, here. Thanks to Laura Claridge for bringing it to my attention.
Glyn Maxwell reviews Elected Friends: Robert Frost and Edward Thomas to One Another, edited and with an introduction by Matthew Spencer, in The New Republic:
For two poets, two facial expressions. One is simple enough: the blankness with which I, as a graduate student, and every one of the thousand or so graduate students I have taught, first received the words “Edward Thomas.” Since this is wrong, and dismaying, I try to have some fun with it. I tell them about a poet they need to know called Thomas, lyrical, fond of pubs, Welsh background, died too young, and I wait for the hands to shoot up like saplings and for the whole class to go not at all gently into that good night, via the Chelsea Hotel and the White Horse Tavern, at which point I say, “That’s right, Edward Thomas,” and watch the saplings dwindle and die. Then I get that look.
The other expression is more complex. The best way to grow it is to tell a group of bright postgraduates, up on Eliot, down with Derrida, already duking it out with Pound and Stevens and Olson and Ashbery, that we are going to learn some Robert Frost poems. And I get this polite smile, somewhere between amusement and bemusement, a smile that, as it becomes clear that I mean it, slowly hardens into a sort of half-grin, half-frown. It’s as if I’ve asked them to bring in some colored paper next week, so we can make flowers.
Perhaps a similar sequence of expressions would have been observed at Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday dinner in 1959. Many of the guests were veterans of his seventy-fifth and sixty-fifth birthday dinners, and several more besides. Friends and relations and disciples and rivals presumably fastened on that smile again, at least until Lionel Trilling rose and described Frost as “a terrifying poet,” an intervention that, at the time, seems to have puzzled or offended almost everyone present. And although many students–and indeed many poets–journey toward a full and serious appreciation of Frost’s splendor and gravity, still they meet him in childhood as that old-time uncle on his farm, making sailboats out of wood, full of proverbs, quoting himself. They have miles of rural book jackets to get through before they come face to face with the terror in the midst of the trees. Such is the fate of a “national” poet. By the time his ninety-fifth birthday dinner comes around, he is marble, engraved, frozen, claimed by the populace, readers, non-readers, untouchable, alone. But he had been that for years.
How contrasting, then, are their reputations, Frost the giant, Thomas the rumor, and yet how akin in isolation.
From the New York Times:
During the last year many Web logs, or blogs, have focused on the war in Iraq and the presidential campaign, and as these blogs gained a wider audience some publishers started paying attention to them. Sometimes publishers are interested in publishing elements of the blogs in book form; mostly they simply enjoy the blogger’s writing and want to publish a novel or nonfiction book by the blogger, usually on a topic unrelated to the blog.
One of the first to make the transition was Baghdad blogger known as Salam Pax, who wrote an online war diary from Iraq. Last year Grove Press published a collection of his work, “Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi.”
In June a former Senate aide, Jessica Cutler, whose blog documenting her sexual exploits with politicos dominated Capitol gossip in the spring, sold a Washington-focused novel to Hyperion for an advance well into six figures, said Kelly Notaras of Hyperion.
Meanwhile, a British call girl with the pseudonym Belle de Jour, who had created a sensation with a blog about her experiences, has signed a six-figure deal with Warner Books to publish a memoir, said Amy Einhorn, executive editor at Warner Books who bought the book…
In October Ana Marie Cox, editor of wonkette.com, a racy, often wry Washington-based blog, sold her first novel, “Dog Days,” a comic tale with a political context, to Riverhead Books. She said she received a $275,000 advance.
More here (via Laura Claridge).